Are Financial Bloggers “Suffering?” — Part-2

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In my previous article Are Financial Bloggers “Suffering?,” I wrote about the Monk and the Warrior.

The Monk lives a rich life not because he has plenty, but because he needs little. Years in the monastery has taught him not to ask for more but to crave for less. The Monk is strong in mind. He has the Strength to Suffer

The Warrior, on the other hand, sets out to conquer the world. Instead of wanting little, he needs more. The Warrior needs more recognition, more power and more money. To achieve that he needs to make bold decisions and go where no one else has gone before. The Warrior is also strong in mind. He has the Strength to do Bold Things

The article generated a fair amount of discussion. Many bloggers have thrown their hats into the ring. You can read about their different takes:

A lot of readers have also emailed us or left comments.

I would like to take this opportunity to clarify some issues and to tie up loose ends. If you have not read the original article yet, please do so before proceeding with the rest of this article.

Suffer vs Bold: Why Not Be Both… Can We? 

More than a handful of readers have replied that they can both Suffer and act Bold at the same time.

Here’s one from a good friend Eric Kong. Eric also happens to run Aggregate Asset Management, a 9-figure hedge fund.

And another good investor friend, Raymond Ng,

Before we examine if we can really Suffer and Be Bold at the same time, allow me to introduce a scale.

Defining The Ruler: Thoreau-Trump Scale, 0 – 10.

19th Century American historian philosopher Henry David Thoreau is best known for his book titled Walden. Thoreau wrote about a social experiment where he isolated himself by staying in a cabin in the woods and cutting off all forms of communication with the outside world. He was highly critical of the Government and wanted nothing to do with them. He also took a strong stand on taxes and refused to pay any, arguing that by staying off the grid, he was no longer a beneficiary of public goods the government provides.

Thoreau also recorded every single cent he spent building his cabin:

  • Boards: $8.03-1/2 (Mostly shanty boards)
  • Refuse shingles for roof sides: $4.00
  • Laths: $1.25
  • Two second-hand windows with glass: $2.43
  • One thousand old brick: $4.00
  • Two casks of lime: $2.40 (That was high)
  • Hair: $0.31 (More than I needed)
  • Mantle-tree iron: $0.15
  • Nails: $3.90
  • Hinges and screws: $0.14
  • Latch: $0.10
  • Chalk: $0.01
  • Transportation: $1.40 (I carried a good part on my back)
  • In all: $28.12-1/2

The end product is a cabin that looks quite cosy to me. Not yet Hilton standard but definitely not shabby at all.

Forcing himself to live in isolation and in a minimalistic way, Thoreau represents the epitome of voluntary Sufferance. On our scale, he ranks a proud Zero.

On the other end of the scale is none other than Donald Trump.

Trump is the perfect example of an egotistic alpha male. He is aggressive and argumentative and some of the things he said were so outrageous that whether or not you agree with him, you simply cannot ignore him.

He inherited his family’s fortune and continued to take more on risks despite being already rich. He expanded the family’s real estate empire and moved into TV and media with The Apprentice where he got to ‘fire’ staff in front of millions of people. He never stops short of doing Bold Things. The boldest move yet was to run for the U.S. Presidency. Despite being a dark horse, he came out ahead and became the oldest and wealthiest President in history.

On the scale, Trump is without a doubt a perfect ten.

Moving forward, David Thoreau and Donald Trump anchor our Sufferance-Boldness spectrum. They are at the extreme ends and they provide the breadth required. Most of us will not come close to the extremes. We hereby name our scale the Thoreau-Trump Scale. #youhearditherefirst 

It is impossible for someone to be both Thoreau and Trump. The mentality to do either are the exact opposites. I cannot imagine Thoreau planning to be a President or Trump turning into a minimalist and living in a remote cabin.

How About The Spartans?

‘I can suffer and do bold things at the same time!’

I wanted to look for disconfirming evidence. If I could find someone who exhibits both Sufferance and Boldness at the same time, my stand would not hold water. The closest I could think of were the Spartans.

I love the show, 300. It was gore-filled warrior story. The Spartans were known to be minimalists, wanting little material luxury in their lives. At the same time, they were proud of their warrior culture and every Spartan boy was expected to be a soldier.

So how would the Spartans score on the Thoreau-Trump Scale? I would score the Spartans at 2. Why would a tribe of brave war-fighters be closer to Thoreau than Trump? Let me explain.

Spartans were born into a war-torn era and location. Weaker states were devoured by the stronger ones. Everything they did was in the name of survival.

I will assert that the Spartans became warriors not because they wanted to do Bold Things and conquer other lands. On the contrary, they need a strong fighting force to defend their tribe. Hence their ambition was far from Trump-like. They were defensive like Thoreau.

Furthermore, the Spartans had chosen to be minimalistic and to lead simple lives. So much so that the word ‘Spartan’ has become synonymous with austerity and lacking in comfort and luxury. Despite their valour and bravery on the battlegrounds, the Spartans are Sufferers at heart.

What About My Friend Eric Kong?

Eric is an interesting character and someone who I hold in high regards. He believes that he has Strength to Suffer as well as the Strength to do Bold Things. Unfortunately one cannot be at both ends of the scale at the same time. (Sorry bro, not on my scale).

On the one hand, Eric exhibits Thoreau traits. He denounces modern day societal conventions by staying in a shed on top of a hill occasionally. He has also home schooled his kids, eschewing the education system and choosing to impart the values he finds important. When he was younger, he lived frugally and saved all the extra money for his investment capital.

On the other hand, he is also Trumpian. It takes some Boldness to set up a hedge fund and grow the Assets Under Management (AUM) to nine figures! His firm Aggregate Asset Management also denounces the image of traditional finance, choosing to operate out of a shophouse in Joo Chiat.

Above a KTV lounge to be exact!

An adventurer at heart, I only realised he was away gallivanting in Papua New Guinea when he replied to my text after a couple of weeks. He would often suggest that we bring our investment graduates for outdoor adventures to beef up their courage because buying unfamiliar small cap. stocks require some degree of ‘Boldness.

One cannot fault him for thinking he is both.

To me, however, he is closer to Thoreau than Trump for a very simple reason. Eric Kong has no intention to dominate the fund management world. He started Aggregate to validate his investment thesis, not to be the richest or biggest kid on the block. Bold Things he has done, but if I really had to score him, he would be a 3. His Strength to Suffer is greater than his Strength to do Bold Things.

But that is just me. Eric can well disagree with me because no one else knows him better than he does.

There’s No Such A Thing As Both. Only Neither.

The greedier ones amongst us will continue to insist that they can be both Monk and Warrior.

We like to think of the Thoreau-Trump Scale as a measure of one’s character trait. Character is (almost) permanent. It forms the basis of how we feel, how we think and how we act. It feels comforting and natural. In times of stress, we default to our trait.

Of course, once in a while, we might do something out of the norm. The Warrior might decide to take a break from conquering the world and live sedentarily for a period of time. The Monk might feel the need to take a leap of faith and try his hands at entrepreneurship. We then enter a different state of mind, one that is not aligned with our norm.

Occasionally the change might awaken some deep and concealed yearnings. The Warrior might decide that he has had enough of fighting battles. The Monk might decide that life is a lot more exciting that way. When that happens, their trait morphs. The Warrior becomes the Monk and the Monk becomes the Warrior.

However, more often than not, after a brief dalliance with the new concept, people revert back to their original default trait. Then, because they have experienced both sides of the coin, they begin to believe that they can be both. This is flawed thinking.

You could have adopted both mindsets at different stages in life, over different time periods. But eventually, there will still be a predominant trait.

Why Suffering Is NOT Suffering.

I would like to bring up another common response to our original article. Quite a few people mentioned that their Thoreau-like lives were not at all suffering. They did not feel bad about it at all. They are right on all counts. Suffering in our context is not about feeling bad.

The words Suffer and Bold were derived from Machiavelli’s quote. They are meant for taxonomy, or basically for the ease of classification. They are not to be taken for their literal meaning. Thoreau did not suffer. Monks do not suffer. They just live life differently from Donald Trump,  and from the Warriors. It was deliberate that Suffering was spelt with a capital ‘S’. Let’s not argue on semantics.

10 Scenarios (Table): Strength to Suffer Vs Do Bold Things

Here are some scenarios to illustrate how people with Suffer and Bold mindsets operate. Again, these reactions are extreme and stereotypical. Not every person will react the same way. Life is not black or white; there are at least 50 shades of grey in between. That is the reason why Thoreau-Trump is a scale and not a matrix.

 Strength to Suffer (Thoreau)Strength to do Bold Things (Trump)
StrategyPlay not to losePlay to win
BIG FIVE Personality Traits- Low Openness (closed minded, do the same things repeatedly)
- Conscientious (stays on course and do the necessary to reach their goals)
- Introversion (just need to be self disciplined)
- Low Neuroticism (in their comfort zone)
- High Agreeableness (seeks harmony and avoid confrontation even if they disagree)
- High Openness (needs optionality)
- Conscientious (stays on course and do the necessary to reach their goals)
- Extraversion (able to influence others)
- Low Neuroticism (high neuroticism usually cannot succeed)
- Low Agreeableness (tends to voice out their disagreements)
Day-to-day LifePrefers routine and structure. Spends time to save money.Packed and dynamic schedule. Spends money to save time.
CareerDo your job. Do the right things. Follow the rules. Punished with more work by being able and reliable. Hates office politics.Thrives in office politics. Able to network and get things done. Thinks out of the box and always actively paving the way to achieve career goals.
BusinessHome business. One man show such as internet marketing. Self-employed like mom-and-pop stores.Tech startups. Business empires. Moonshots like SpaceX.
WealthSave money and invest the proceeds. Grow the nest egg and not worry about money eventually. Be contented with what one has. Thinks that wealth is meaningless after a certain point.Continuously find ways to increase his wealth. Never satisfied and keeps going. Wealth is meaningless after a certain point but the Warrior likes to keep score and not settle for less and end up living a meaningless life.
HealthDiet and exercise.Does not bother. Focus on that one bold thing that matters. So be it if he dies doing it.
ParentingYou need to study hard. Be good. Be obedient. Don't do this and don't do that. Follow the rules. Imposes a curfew. Negotiate with me. Go try it! You can do it! There is no need to ask for permission, ask for forgiveness instead.
HobbiesActivities within comfort zone.Activities outside comfort zone. Mingling and meeting new people. Open to spontaneous and outrageous things.
PeopleHenry Thoreau
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Jacob Lund Fisker
Hiroo Onoda
Dumpster divers
Donald Trump
Elon Musk
Pablo Escobar
Adolf Hitler

^Click here to download the table.

Wittgenstein’s Ruler: What You Use To Measure Can Also Be Used To Measure You

At this juncture, I would like to defer to Nassim Taleb. In his book Fooled by Randomness, he wrote about this interesting conundrum called the Wittgenstein’s Ruler.

“According to Wittgenstein’s ruler: Unless you have confidence in the ruler’s reliability, if you use a ruler to measure a table you may also be using the table to measure the ruler. The less you trust the ruler’s reliability, the more information you are getting about the ruler and the less about the table.”

Taleb is never easy to understand, so let us use a simple illustration. If you meet a stranger at a party and she tells you that Crazy Rich Asians is an awesome show and an absolute must watch, it could mean that the show is really very good. It could also mean that you have just met someone who is totally into chick flicks, and that any romantic comedy would be awesome to her.

Your new friend is like an uncalibrated ruler. Until you can determine that she is an established moviegoer who shares your taste in movies, what she says does not really mean very much.

Let us come back to the Thoreau-Trump Scale. Even though the ends are anchored, the spectrum is still very much user defined. I may view friend A as Bold and score him an 8. Another person who has done much bolder things may view A’s exploits as not so Bold in comparison and only score him a 6. We need to know how a ruler is calibrated before we can say for sure the score is reflective of the truth.

It Is How You Score Yourself That Is The Most Important. 

Wittgenstein’s Ruler also conveys a very important lesson.

We are constantly being judged by the people around us. Interestingly, what people say about us speaks more about themselves. If a friend tries to convince you that investing in stocks is a risky endeavour, it speaks about his worldview, his knowledge and his risk tolerance more than anything else.

In the previous article and this one, we have put forward a rather controversial position. We have asked some rather deep questions and we might even have ruffled a few feathers.

Whether you are a Monk or a Warrior is not for us or for any others to judge. It is a question for you and you alone to answer. There is no right or wrong, no better or worse position to be in. To achieve success, you need to be aware of your own strength, accept it and build on it.

If you are constantly forcing yourself to be something you are not, life would be a chore. It gets even more disturbing when people choose to live in denial and insist that they are something they are not.

There is no need to do so. You are your own Monk. You are your own Warrior.

I leave you with this quote from Richard Feynman, one of the great scientists and physicists of our time – The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. 


This article is co-authored by Alvin Chow and Jon Tan

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Co-Founder. Believer of the Factor-based Investing approach. Running a Multi-Factor Portfolio that taps on the Value, Size, Profitability and Momentum Factors. Quant at heart. Believe the financial industry can treat their customers better. Wants to change the world.
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