• Email this to a Friend
• Format for Printing

Tuesday, September 14, 1999

The following article originally ran as a Fribble article on October 3, 1997.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon Fribble

By Selena Maranjian (TMF Selena)

A thousand years ago, a Japanese lady-in-waiting kept a journal. Incredibly, it's still with us. It's called The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, and in it she describes not only life in a tenth-century Japanese court, but also her personal thoughts and attitudes, many of which, remarkably, still ring true these many centuries later. While large chunks of the book detail goings-on in the court, other parts are composed of fascinating lists: Things that Give an Unclean Feeling, Adorable Things, Presumptuous Things, People Who Seem to Suffer, and so on. Below I review some of her lists, adding a little Foolish commentary. (In her book, each section is numbered, so I've kept the numbers here, in case you ever want to look some of these up.) 13. Depressing Things

  • Sei Shonagon lists, among other things, a dog howling in the daytime, an ox driver who hates his oxen, persistent rain on the last day of the year, and a scholar whose wife has one girl child after another.

  • To a Fool, depressing are the millions of people who have not yet really thought about investing on their own and who don't realize that with a little help, they can do it, succeed at it, and even enjoy it.
29. Elegant Things

  • Sei Shonagon includes a white coat worn over a violet waistcoat, duck eggs, plum blossoms covered with snow, and a pretty child eating strawberries. To these, this Fool adds:

  • The way an expected annual growth rate should equal a price-to-earnings ratio when a growing company's stock is fairly and fully valued (aka the Fool Ratio).

  • The way that Return on Equity can be neatly broken into profit margin, asset management, and leverage.
44. Things that Cannot be Compared

  • Sei Shonagon lists summer and winter, laughter and anger, rain and mist, and "the little indigo plant and the great philodendron." I would add:

  • Small, growing companies and huge, long-established companies. While you can use the Fool Ratio/PEG for the former, the YPEG is more suited to the latter.

  • The returns you earn if you invest via the time-tested Dow Dividend Approach or by Foolishly buying individual stocks, versus just forking over your cash to most professional advisors and mutual fund managers.

  • Warren Buffett and Wade Cook.
62. Annoying Things

  • Sei Shonagon mentions thinking of something to add to a letter after having already sent it and forgetting to knot a thread. A Fool might add:

  • Watching the conventional financial media persist in focusing on point values of market drops, rather than percentages, and calling every volatile day a "wild ride."
63. Embarrassing Things

  • Sei Shonagon includes having spoken about someone without noticing that he's within earshot ("even if it be a servant or some other completely insignificant person"), parents cooing over an ugly child, a man proudly reciting his poor poetry, and "lying awake at night, one says something to one's companion, who simply goes on sleeping." To these, a Fool might add:

  • When you buy a stock without researching it, and later discover that its exciting new product hasn't cleared any major hurdles yet.

  • When you hear people talking and laughing about a stock you bought and wish you hadn't.

  • When you look at the latest statement from your brokerage and see a lot of stocks trading for less than $5 each. Even worse, when you spy among them Bre-X, or Comparator Systems, or Systems of Excellence.
64. Surprising and Distressing Things

  • Sei Shonagon describes: "A carriage overturns. One would have imagined that such a solid, bulky object would remain forever on its wheels. It all seems like a dream -- astonishing and senseless." This rather accurately describes the reaction of people who are not yet Fools, when they see the market drop a lot or even crash. After watching the market advance for a good while, they forget that it might also retreat, and now they question it all. They don't understand that in the long run, stocks are most likely to continue offering average annual returns of 10.5%.

  • She adds, "A child or grown-up blurts out something that is bound to make people uncomfortable." I have witnessed this myself, when a Fool starts talking in the company of a group of people, some of whom are stockbrokers.
80. Things that Have Lost Their Power

  • Sei Shonagon lists "the retreating figure of a sumo wrestler who has been defeated in a match" and "a large boat which is high and dry in a creek at ebb-tide." One might also add:

  • The Wall Street establishment -- just a little, now that Fools are out and about, telling the truth about investing.

  • Full-service brokers, now that many Fools are spreading the word about discount brokers.
92. Things Without Merit

  • Here, Sei Shonagon includes "rice starch that has become mixed with water" and goes on to add, "I know that this is a very vulgar item and everyone will dislike my mentioning it." (Curious, I glanced at a footnote and learned that starch conjures up images of laundering, an activity that was far, far beneath her and her crowd.) Similar topics for Fools might be:

  • The study of stock price movement without consideration of a company's fundamental financial health, its competitive position, or its prospects.

  • Forgetting to enjoy and share your wealth. Fools aspire to be rich in many ways and try to always be generous with their time, knowledge, money, and spirit.
109. Things that are Distant Though Near

  • Sei Shonagon lists relations between family members who do not love each other and the zigzag path leading up to the temple at Kurama. This Fool adds:

  • The rewards of Foolish financial planning and investing. If you've been hanging out in Fooldom, soaking up the basics and nuances of investing and investing in stocks for the long run after diligently researching them, you've probably set yourself up for some fine rewards many years down the road. Your goal might seem distant when you count the years, but perhaps not when you consider how far you've come and how much understanding you've now got under your belt.
110. Things that are Near Though Distant

  • Sei Shonagon mentions relations between a man and a woman, the course of a boat, and paradise. (A deep thinker, she.) I would add to the list:

  • Fools. After all, most of us in this sizable and growing electronic community are quite spread out geographically from one another. Despite this, after hanging around awhile, we come to know some personalities well, and feel comfortable in this familiar place.
148. Pleasing Things

  • Sei Shonagon cites a bunch of examples, including: "Finding a large number of tales one has not read before or acquiring the second volume of a tale whose first volume one has enjoyed." "Someone has torn up a letter and thrown it away. Picking up the pieces, one finds that many of them can be fitted together." "I realize that it is very sinful of me, but I cannot help being pleased when someone I dislike has a bad experience." "I am more pleased when something nice happens to someone I love than when it happens to myself." In a moment of self-satisfaction, Fools would add:

  • The Motley Fool. For where else can you ask questions about investing and get answers quickly? Where else can you follow the progress of real-money portfolios nightly, sharing in the thinking of those who manage the money? Where else will you find people mixing Shakespeare with stocks, prices with puns, and lessons with laughs? Where else can you go to learn about investing and get to ponder the thoughts of a tenth-century Japanese woman, as well?


Read More of Selena's Fribbles

Best of the Fool Introduction