"For I have known them all already, known them all --
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons."
-- T.S. Eliot
Do you ever feel this discouraged? Looking back at your life, do you sometimes see just an endless series of ... cups of coffee? Newspapers? Piles of laundry? Traffic jams? Small talk?
The poet Theodore Roethke also saw himself measuring time, but with members of the opposite sex, in his case. In "I Knew a Woman," he writes:
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways.
(I measure time by how a body sways.)
How do you measure your life? If you measure it in minute-by-minute upticks and downticks in the stocks you (briefly) own, then friend, you've got a problem. Investing should be only a single (albeit fun and rewarding) part of a good life. If you're anything like Billy Collins, the poet who wrote "Nostalgia," you might measure your life by dances and fashions and alphabets made of twigs.
Fear eats the soul
I'll admit that I haven't read much poetry since my college days. But when I revisited some of my favorite poems a while back, I found them even more meaningful than before. And familiar, like old friends. Take T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," excerpted at the top of this report. It's a painful account of an anxious man's thoughts and worries. "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?" He doesn't think much of himself at all, it seems:
...I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, and I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker, and in short, I was afraid.
This is probably how many of us think about ourselves when it comes to investing. We're afraid. Afraid someone will snicker if we ask what we think is a silly question. Well, don't be afraid. Ask your questions -- it's the only way you'll become a better investor, and it can help you make more (or lose less) money.
Fear can also hurt your portfolio if you tend to sell holdings at the drop of a hat. The more you know about a company and its prospects, the less likely you'll be to sell for a silly reason, such as temporary minor setback.
Another favorite poem of mine is the deliciously ridiculous "Marriage" by Gregory Corso (even if you're not a poetry fan, give this one a read -- it's very funny):
How nice it'd be to come home to her
and sit by the fireplace and she in the kitchen
aproned young and lovely wanting my baby
and so happy about me she burns the roast beef
and comes crying to me and I get up from my big papa chair
saying Christmas teeth! Radiant brains! Apple deaf!
God what a husband I'd make! Yes, I should get married!
This reminds me of how investing can sometimes be a little like marriage. When we Fools buy stock in companies, we usually aim to hang on for a long time -- ideally, decades. We anticipate growing wealthy together, as we get to know our companies more and more. When they stumble now and then, we are often right to hang in there, waiting for them to come to their senses and turn themselves around. And, of course, sadly, sometimes a future together seems too painful to imagine, so we part ways.
Beauty in balance sheets
What is it that makes a good poem work? Perhaps we should think of it as a distilled novel, or an autobiography that has been left on the stove bubbling, until there's a small, concentrated amount left. (Removed, of course, before it burns and sticks to the pan. Such might be the makings of bad poetry.)
Consider Richard Wilbur's "Transit." I used to read it almost every day when I commuted to and from work in Manhattan. Posted in city buses, it was part of a great reduce-the-despair-of-bus-riders initiative, called "Poetry in Motion." I used to marvel at how the poem had a rhythm of its own, like the bus that would lurch to and fro. It crystallizes a single moment in time, beginning with:
A woman I have never seen before
Steps from the darkness of her town-house door
At just that crux of time when she is made
So beautiful that she or time must fade.
In investing, balance sheets crystallize a single moment in time, too. And some of them can make a savvy investor weep. Look at BerkshireHathaway's
What would be the equivalent of the poem itself in the investing world? Perhaps a single portfolio and its transaction history. It would tell some tales of smart moves and regrettable moves. It would impart some insights and make us go "Ahhh..." A portfolio filled with some shares of Microsoft
So, how do we measure our lives? One way I aim to measure mine is by stocks and mutual funds I've held over various decades. And yes, I said mutual funds. I'd really rather read novels and poetry than scrutinize financial statements for hours and hours, so I'm leaving a large chunk of my nest egg in some carefully selected professional hands -- including some amazing funds I discovered via our Motley Fool Champion Funds newsletter. Take advantage of a free trial yourself, and see the long list of recommended winners. Champion Funds recommended Dodge & Cox International about two years ago, and it's up nearly 70%. I haven't owned it that long, but I'm happy to let its managers invest my money in the likes of News Corp.
I should probably draw my rambling to a close. But I'll leave you, especially newcomers to investing and those who might still be intimidated by the stock market, with these thoughts: You can do it. You can succeed in beating Wall Street at its own game. Just take your time and read up first. Get comfortable with the idea of putting your long-term savings into a vehicle that has grown at an average of 10% per year. You might even surpass that 10% handily, with a little more learning. If you're afraid, that's fine. That's understandable. Perhaps ol' Theodore Roethke said it best in "The Waking:"
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
This article was originally published in March of 1999. It has been updated.
Vodafone, Wal-Mart, and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. GlaxoSmithKline is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. Starbucks is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick.
Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian 's favorite discussion boards include Book Club, Eclectic Library, Television Banter, and Card & Board Games. She owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Wal-Mart, eBay, and Microsoft.For more about Selena, view her bio and her profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written: The Motley Fool Money Guide and The Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens . The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.