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Rule Breaker August Mailbag: What Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Can Teach Us About Investing

By Motley Fool Staff – Sep 5, 2018 at 5:47AM

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The 19th-century superstar poet still speaks to the modern mind -- and perhaps surprisingly, to modern finance.

After a month of chats with brilliant authors on Rule Breaker Investing, David Gardner gets back to talking with his favorite podcast conversation partners: the listeners. Yes, it's time again for the monthly mailbag episode.

In this segment, listener Kurt continues August's literary theme by sharing one of his favorite poems: "A Psalm of Life: What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was, in his era, enormously popular. And, it turns out, some of the insights in this poem speak to the strategies that make for a successful and happy investor.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Aug. 29, 2018.

David Gardner: Mailbag Item No. 4: Now, this was definitely a literary month, especially with Amor Towles on talking about A Gentleman in Moscow and so some of you were in a more literary frame of mind. I find myself in that same literary frame of mind this particular mailbag. Kurt Elia, you wrote in and you shared your favorite poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

I'm going to read that poem, but then I'm going to read Kurt's reflections on how it helps us think about investing. Anytime we're pulling things from outside the world of investing, and then we're gaining investing or business insights from it, well that's often where Rule Breaker Investing lives and breathes, and this particular month I think we're feeling a little bit more literary, so thank you, Kurt, for writing in. And here is A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

I should mention, by the way, that Longfellow, who lived from 1807 to 1882, is considered by many as one of America's earliest celebrities. His poetry was so popular that he was the most popular poet of his time and because poetry was a much bigger thing in the 19th century, I think it's fair to say that in the 21st century, Longfellow had a huge following and this particular poem Kurt will mention [in his note that I'll read after] why it's meaningful to him, but let's go through A Psalm of Life: What the Heart of The Young Man Said to the Psalmist. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It starts:

A Psalm of Life

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

Life is but an empty dream!

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world's broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act -- act in the living Present!

Heart within, and God o'erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o'er life's solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.

Again, that's The Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. So Kurt, thanks for the note, and here was your note. You said, "Dear David, as I was walking along the beach, here, in Topsail, North Carolina this morning on a family vacation, one of my favorite poems came to mind and as I recited it to the waves and the seagulls..." I love the imagery, Kurt. I can see you out there. And as a fellow Carolina Beach guy, I appreciate the geography.

Anyway, "It occurred to me," Kurt says, "that in addition to the timeless lessons it contains on life, a few of its passages are also strikingly meaningful from an investing perspective. Given your background as an English major and your Foolish tendency to apply literary wisdom to your investing philosophy, I thought you might enjoy examining this classic from this new point of view." So I've already given you, my dear listeners, the full text from Kurt, but here are a few passages that Kurt calls out as speaking to his inner investor.

No. 1 is "things are not what they seem," Kurt writes. "When stock prices rise or crash violently, it doesn't mean the companies they represent are really worth more or less than they were the day before. Stay focused on the business. Ditto the hyperbolic quotes; opinion and analysis offered by pundits on CNBC or Barron's or wherever. Ignore a lot of the noise."

No. 2 is, "Be not like dumb, driven cattle!" Yup, that one jumped out to me, as well, Kurt. "Be a hero in the strife!" Kurt says, "Don't follow the herd. Most people, including professional fund managers, lose to the market. Don't do what most people do or try to follow the conventional wisdom. Rather, break the rules and think for yourself." I appreciate that, Kurt.

No. 3. "Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!" Kurt says, "The big, comfortable, profitable companies of today will not exist in the future if they don't proactively change. The only certainty is that new, disruptive technologies and business models will make the future look different from today in ways we can't even imagine. The market is forward-looking. We must be, too." Amen, Kurt. Love it! Thank you!

Point No. 4 [by the way, you've got three more]. "Let the dead Past bury its dead!" You say, "Don't learn too well the lessons of your past investing failures and certainly don't dwell on them. Whatever a stock has done in the past, you need to let that go and focus on what it is going to do in the future."

No. 5 is "Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime." Kurt says, "There are so many heroes out there to inspire us. Not just remind us that it's possible to beat the market, but also to see the better world we can create for ourselves, our families, and the world with the resources that a lifetime of investing will put at our disposal." And again, amen, Brother.

And No. 6. You close with, "Learn to labor and to wait." And that was Longfellow's final line. Kurt says, "Work hard, save your money, invest in great companies and then be patient. Time is our greatest asset." Well, that line also jumped out to me, as well, because I think so often in life we think that we are going to be rewarded for efforts that we make, and rightly so.

In many contexts, the heart of the effort that we make, the more success we can drive and, yet, the great irony of investing is to learn to labor and with Longfellow to wait; and so many of the biggest mistakes we make as investors, especially if we look backwards, briefly, and count the money we could have made or when we sell too early. Great companies [Apple back in the '80s], let's say. Or if you sold Netflix during the Qwikster debacle of 2011. We make those mistakes when we realize, in retrospect, had we just waited how much better things might have been.

I wonder if that will be true of Tesla. Tesla hasn't had a great year. In fact, over the last 12 months Tesla's stock is below the market's return. It just kind of jumped up and jumped down, but it's been an uninspiring, although headline-filled last 12 months for Tesla, and its stock has performed right about where Ford has performed; Ford stock, as well. Tesla and Ford very similar, ironically, performances. But I wonder whether a lot of the overheated headlines about Elon taking his company private or not will, like other things, pass. This, too, might pass and maybe if you just wait you'll find that in time Tesla is your greatest asset. We shall see. I know where my money is.

To close, thanks again, Kurt. It was my pleasure to share both Longfellow's poem and your very Foolish reflections on what you can pull from that poem and remind each of us, as investors and fellow livers of life, how to do it better. You close by saying, "I hope these passages resonate with you as much as they did with me and, as always, I look forward to your next batch of investing wisdom and fun on the Rule Breakers podcast."

Well, thank you, Kurt! One of the things I love about mailbag is it's not my wisdom. It's so often yours, my fellow listeners, my fellow Fools. Getting to show that off once a month and make it clear that there is so much great insight among our community and I certainly, selfishly, benefit from that as much as anybody else.

David Gardner owns shares of AAPL, F, NFLX, and TSLA. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends AAPL, NFLX, and TSLA. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on AAPL and short January 2020 $155 calls on AAPL. The Motley Fool recommends F. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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