Will I ever have enough? This frantic, frightened question may have more of a bearing on our investing styles and temperaments than any of us realize. It also may have a negative impact on how we view investing -- and, ultimately, ourselves, regardless of what we have or achieve.
Beating Bernie Madoff
Last week, author Geneen Roth visited Fool HQ as part of our speaker series. Roth is a successful author who has long examined the meaning and motivation behind emotional issues with food. One of her many books, When Food Is Love, ranked No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list, and she has been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, among others.
However, Roth brought another interesting story to the Fool involving a particular life experience she documents in her recent book, Lost and Found: She and her husband were among the people who lost their life savings to Bernie Madoff.
Most of us would consider that a horrible turn of events. Roth discusses the horror of "The Call," when she was told Bernie Madoff was nothing more than a fraud and had taken everything. She also talks frankly about feeling panic, terror, self-blame, and rage.
However, in the midst of this terrifying experience, Roth discovered a revealing truth: She hadn't lost anything truly valuable in her life at all.
Desperately searching for "enough"
Roth explores the meaning we attach to money, as well as to food. She observed that some of the ways many of us tend to view these things have similar emotional attributes, most of which are illusory and often reflect addiction and compulsion.
There are good reasons for all of us to wonder what "enough" is and how we define it. Are we constantly challenging ourselves to feel that we don't have enough, may never have enough, and have to obtain more, when in fact we have plenty?
Roth is absolutely right: Exponentially more wealth doesn't make anybody exponentially happier. My Foolish colleague Dayana Yochim wrote about the scientific research here, too. Yet as Roth observed, so many of the ultra-wealthy continually raise the bar on what they "need," probably sacrificing many things, such as time spent with loved ones or simple enjoyment of the world around them during their limited time on this planet.
When more is much, much less
The obsession with acquiring some amorphous sense of financial "security," matched with the sense we never have enough, can lead to some ugly behavior and outcomes.
Some investors thought investing in companies like BP (NYSE: BP ) and Transocean (NYSE: RIG ) right after the Deepwater Horizon disaster was a great way to buy up some cheap shares and make a tidy profit, even as news headlines revealed loss of life and the threat to Gulf Coast livelihoods as the oil spill spread. Such investors were surely blinded by their need to make more money in whatever way possible, because somehow they didn't have enough.
Meanwhile, BP CEO Tony Hayward famously and callously said he'd "like his life back" in a litany of shameful responses to the disaster. Transocean tried to award "safety bonuses" to some executives following the disaster. In both cases, public outcry said loud and clear that not only did those folks have plenty, but enough was enough. Lost lives and livelihoods are far more costly than financial losses.
Seek out the good and go long term
On the other hand, those of us who want to take a kinder approach to investing can take stakes in companies that try to do more good than harm in the world, hold them for the long term, and stop pegging our sense of whether we have enough on tomorrow, next quarter, or next year.
Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) often gets demonized for its massive scale, but as Kim Fellner pointed out in her 2008 book, Wrestling with Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino, her on-the-ground experiences dealing with real coffee farmers revealed that many found Starbucks a much fairer partner than huge, multinational conglomerate coffee players like Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) .
Geneen Roth doesn't come from a financial background, but she dove into the core of the issues that can drive some poor decisions in personal finance and investing; take "loss aversion" as one of a laundry list of ways we investors can behave irrationally.
But Roth isn't the only one who has delved into the negative outcomes that can result from an obsession with never having enough.
In the introduction of his book Enough, investing legend and Vanguard founder John Bogle relays the following story: "At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, 'Yes, but I have something he will never have... enough.'" Bogle's book outlined the dangers of our marketplace's emphasis on excess.
The subtitle to Roth's book is "One woman's story of losing her money and finding her life." Once we all realize the many ways we do have "enough," we might become better, more patient investors, using our money to good ends, rather than trying to sate a desperate drive for more, right now. It's worth a shot at leading a far happier life.