The Importance of Patience
November 9, 2020
Wait, for now. Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they carried you everywhere, up to now?
~ Galway Kinnell
Of all the qualities of character that a true and successful investor needs to develop, patience is the one on which all others depend. That’s because no matter how much insight you have, or how much analytical prowess your brain whizzes on, if you don’t have patience, the market’s never-ending vicissitudes will eat you and your investments for lunch. The Fates are cruel and unforgiving to those who are easily swayed.
But what is patience and how do we get some?
The Chinese character for patience is a sword hovering right above a heart. How often in your investing experience have you felt fear and been scared out making a decision you intuited was correct? How often did you betray your inner wisdom? How often did you rush to cover your vulnerable heart?
Patience has a quality of meekness that hides its ferocity. As such, I prefer the term “forbearance” instead – because forbearance implies a capacity to “bear” difficulty. Or in our context, the “bearish” impulsivity of a grumpy, often irrational marketplace.
Forbearance therefore allows us to tolerate the most difficult aspects of investing. This includes:
- The impulsivity to do something, anything, as long as you’re not just sitting there. Forbearance teaches us: just sit there. Doing less is most of the time doing more. My decades of experience proves this is true.
- Reactivity is impulsivity’s child: when you act without thinking, you are a slave to your habitual mind, which is likely a slave to fear, a deep-down instinct all humans share. If you want to avoid getting hoodwinked by fear when it is widespread and overblown, you have to be able to feel it, see it, name it, and understand its genuine source. Lacking in patience, you will choose the noise over the spaciousness that genuine understanding of your investments requires.
- Mental insecurity is a dangerous way of second guessing yourself when the investing herd does something counter to your own experience and reasoned analysis. Buy low and sell high gets a lot harder to enact when the human market herd is buying high and selling low most of the time. Can you tolerate your own jitters and desire to do what lemmings do? Or can you focus on breathing, sitting still, and going outside for a walk instead while the lemmings jump off a cliff?
- You must be able to tolerate not knowing. Investing, as a human Game with a capital G, will always have unknowns. Even to (especially to?) CEOs of their own companies. At this stage in humanity’s evolution, there are innumerable variables, all interacting with each other, all changing from one moment to the next. You will never know all the facts, numbers and motivations of all the other players, both in terms of the businesses themselves and in terms of all kinds of market manipulations. How easily, in the words of John Keats, can you remain with this incomplete information, instead of “anxiously reaching for the shore, like a swimmer who can’t enjoy the water because she’s afraid of drowning?
- You must also be capable of tolerating the moment of action. This is important, so read that again. Just like a person who has trained in compassion and empathy wouldn’t stand by passively when a child is being abused, as an investor you must tolerate the discomfort that comes with the time to act. If you know it’s time to sell but focus instead on a strategy of hope that “things will get better… eventually” you are letting fantasy dominate reality. And when it’s time to buy because a company is growing and its optionality is raging, buying more, even though the price is higher than it was yesterday, or lower because the lemmings are selling, requires you to dismiss the habit of anchoring and dig deep into the piggy bank. In both cases, you must be able to follow your principles and your process, regardless of the fears about being wrong or how much time it will take before you see the fruits of your investing labor.
- Patience is not passive! It is active but in a state of relaxation. Upright, dignified and ready to act but not consumed by activity.
The writer Katie Anthony says: “You cannot let your pain consume you. You know how much knowledge will motivate you to stay angry, and how much knowledge will horrify you into withdrawal. Get the right amount of knowledge. Then turn off the news. You can’t pour from a shattered cup.”
Dale Wright, a Buddhist scholar writes in his book about The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character:
“Ksanti [Patience] means “unaffected by,” “able to bear,” “able to withstand,” and in that dimension indicates a strength of character, a composure, and a constancy of purpose that allow an [awake being] to continue pursuing universal enlightenment in spite of enormous difficulty…[Woken beings] who have trained in this virtue are imperturbable and well-composed, calm and focused in the midst of adversity. Through deliberate self-cultivation, they build the capacity to withstand danger, suffering, and injustice, to resist the onslaught of negative emotions, and to think clearly under the stress of turmoil. They attain an “admirable constancy” that, even in the face of opposition, equips them to move effectively when others have been overwhelmed.”
“ Buddhist texts counterpose this strength of character to a range of character weaknesses—the tendency to lose focus, to become fearful, to react in anger to abuses or slights that injure the ego or the body, as well as to yield to the temptations of surrender and despair.”
This is obviously a very important quality to cultivate as not just beings alive during a turbulent time, but as investors who see money as energy and the opportunity to control it skillfully rather than having it control us wildly and chaotically.