Seneca (4 BC – AD 65) was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and dramatist. His works include a dozen philosophical essays and over a hundred letters dealing with moral issues and tragedies.
Seneca’s writings helped build foundational themes in the Stoic philosophy. Messages such as the development of self-control and fortitude are conveyed in an attempt to be used as tools to overcome destructive emotions.
Endless takeaways are to be had from Seneca’s letters, which can be used in various ways: self-improvement, outlook on life, or building lasting relationships to name a few. What I am presently most interested in is how Seneca can make us better investors.
A constant struggle for any investor is filtering out the continuous wave of noise that is the media. If we were all to follow every “hot stock pick” and “5 companies to short now” headline that came across our computer we would be constantly stressed and fall into delirium. Seneca has a clear message to the investor that is capable of ignoring the media, and sticking with his core values when it comes to long-term conviction:
You do not tear from place to place and unsettle yourself with one move after another. Restlessness of that sort is symptomatic of a sick mind. Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.
This is of course not to say that we should ignore all voices that demand of our attention. Seneca frequently speaks to authorities on their subjects of expertise and the attention we should give to them.
You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere.
As wise investors we should be focusing the vast majority of our time reading the thought leaders that are tried and true - the Warren Buffets, Charlie Mungers, and Benjamin Grahams of the world -as well as the Nobel Prize winning Eugene Fama and Daniel Kahneman.
People who spend their whole life travelling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships. The same must needs be the case with people who never set about acquiring an intimate acquaintanceship with any one great writer, but skip from one to another, paying flying visits to them all. Food that is vomited up as soon as it is eaten is not assimilated into the body and does not do one any good.
Constantly glancing through tweets looking for answers, reading random blog posts speculating on the future of commodities, and Google searching how to hedge yourself against the threat of high-frequency trading does little to put things in your brain that will find a lasting place. These are nothing but a distraction from attempting to identify the true authorities, those that have produced lasting content and have the ability to provide you with objective council. False shortcuts exist all around us, as they did in Seneca’s time, it is in our nature to seek out the path of least resistance. This is one of the reasons his logic and messages are still applicable today.
And if you say, “But I feel like opening different books at different times,” my answer will be this: tasting one dish after another is the sign of a fussy stomach, and where the foods are dissimilar and diverse in range they lead to contamination of the system, not nutrition.
As human beings, we are all naturally at the whims of our emotions. However, recognizing this is a good first step to guiding them, and by doing so, we avoid chasing the one-off dopamine releases that accompany short-term addiction and gambling. As Seneca said, “There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living; there is nothing harder to learn.” Similarly, there is nothing the busy investor is less busied with than investing. Restlessness, impatience, and fussiness are a sure way to failure. Worse yet, they may create the illusion of productivity while actually working to one’s detriment. One can avoid this by looking to Seneca and stoicism for a guide. 2000 years later the lessons are still the same: listen to the thought-leaders that are tried and true, practice self-control and willpower, and filter the signal from the noise.