The Market Owes You Nothing

Invest for long enough in the stock market and you’re destined to exclaim: “I didn’t expect that!” (Or, something to that effect: “I can’t believe it!”, “Wow!”, “Holy s**t!”) Probably many times.

You could be a longtime investor who was unphased by every bubble, bust and crash of the past 60 years. You can be Stoic philosopher Epictetus reincarnated in a day trader. It does not matter.

Eventually, the market will surprise you – and if you’re not careful, scare you.

Case in point: 2020. Let’s be honest. How many of us have had a hard time keeping up with the market this year amidst a global pandemic, political gridlock and social unrest?

As James B. Stewart, author of the classic Den of Thieves, wrote in the New York Times back in March: “I became a disciplined investor over 40 years. The virus broke me in 40 days.” The pandemic and subsequent market turmoil was enough to even give Warren Buffett pause, leading Josh Brown to wonder what version of Buffett this is.

You can have a finance degree, billions of dollars, the best technology, a team of advisors working for you. Those may increase your chances of success, or maybe not.

The market is deaf to the intentions of its buyers and sellers. Where it goes on any given day and the reasons why are essentially arbitrary. It’s part of the deal. As Morgan Housel has said, volatility is the price of admission.

Despite that, the stock market is our best option for growing money. That’s why we invest.

Just as long as you keep going.

To keep going often requires the right perspective to then lead you to the right action.

What’s that? Expect nothing.

Investing as a marathon

My very first marathon, in Detroit, was an unforgettable experience — and it was a failure. I made an ambitious goal to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which is notoriously difficult.  

For my age group, I would have had to finish around 2 hours and 55 minutes. I missed it by more than half an hour.

Even after dedicating myself to a rigorous training regimen, it didn’t matter. Because as marathoner Peter Bromka writes, “The marathon doesn’t owe you anything.”

The market works the same way. The market owes you nothing.

Perhaps the two most important qualities of a marathon runner are not strong legs or special shoes, but grace and humility. The world’s fastest marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge displayed such character after coming in a pedestrian (for him!) eighth place in the 2020 London Marathon, a race he has dominated. He said: “Sport is unpredictable, but you know what they say: If you want to enjoy sport then you accept the results. So I accept the result and congratulate all finishers.”

This week, steep daily drops returned to the market. It is also the week following what should have been my second run of the Detroit Marathon, which was canceled due to the pandemic. So I’ve been thinking about the similarities between investing and running a marathon.

Grace and humility are not two things conventionally linked to successful investors. But they can be extremely useful during the down times, which happen more frequently than many people think.

The average intra-year market decline since 1980 is 13.8%, according to JP Morgan.

Yet annual returns were positive for 30 of those 40 years. It is worthwhile then to humbly accept volatility as normal and gracefully keep investing.

Please don’t get me wrong. Talk of investor mentality and behavior can be overblown. Investors aren’t as fearful as we like to think, as evidenced by how many 401(k) investors stayed put back in February and March.

But when that moment comes that makes you question yourself, the right perspective helps you choose the right action, which is usually a decision between staying the course and making a huge mistake.

As I reached the mid-point of my first marathon and started to realize I wouldn’t achieve my goal, I kept running. I knew at least I could still proudly reach the finish line. The marathon didn’t owe me anything.

Short-term pain vs. long-term gain

A marathon is long – 26.2 miles. You are always at risk of your body unexpectedly breaking down. A marathon is outdoors. You are always at the mercy of the elements – rain, snow, heat.

Race day can go in one of a million directions. All you can control is how you train before the start and the faith you put in your plan during the race. The distance never changes, and the satisfaction of finishing is worth all the pain every time. No one finishes with regrets of having started.

That difference between short-term pain and long-term gain also applies to the market.

There will be highs, lows, bulls, bears. You can’t predict when they occur or for how long. But over time the direction has been the same. Up. As an investor then, it is worth it to commit to the historical uphill reward, even after the steepest falls.  

The market has rebounded from every decline of 15% or more, from 1929 through 2019. And the average return in the first year after each of these declines was 54%, according to Capital Group.

It is you who owes

What you get out of a marathon is what you put in. That is not a result of only my biology and my circumstances, but also my work ethic and attitude. It is what you owe to run a marathon.

You are the one who owes when building wealth. You owe it to your ideal future self.

You owe it to yourself to live below your means.

You owe it to yourself to save every month.

You owe it to yourself to never pay more in fees than necessary.

You owe it to yourself to stay the course.

You owe it to yourself to focus on your goals and your dreams – never the money itself.

Sure, it would be more exciting to sprint to wealth, with those double-, triple-digit returns we dream about. But you’re more likely to burn out. Even the people whose job it is outperform the market tend to come up short.

Just attempting to run a marathon is a feat, as is simply saving in a retirement account. Many don’t even get that far. The New York Federal Reserve found that more than a third of eligible workers were not participating in their 401(k) plans.

Luck surely helps. Grace and humility allows us to better take advantage of that luck. You don’t know more than the market. And the market owes you nothing.

As an investor you can feel content to keep going at a pace you’re comfortable with to stay solvent and reach your financial goals – your retirement, your vacation home, your child’s education..

The perspective is worthless on its own; what matters is the action, or inaction, that follows it.

For me, I still have dreams of reaching Boston. If I keep at it, I may get there. Even if I don’t, what do I lose? I will have enjoyed many miles and races that have greatly benefitted my physical and mental health, which is all enriching in itself.

Excuse me for mixing sports metaphors, but the market doesn’t owe you home runs. However, it is pretty generous with enough singles to get you around the bases, if you give it the time.

The market owes you nothing, which makes it all the more remarkable when it gives you everything.

Friday Five

Ben Carlson gracefully writes about the 5 things you can truly invest in

Who you spend your time with, what you spend your time on, and where you spend your time are some of the most important decisions you can make in life.

This is true if you have a lot of money or not.

The Accumulator gives us the facts of investing life

The basic facts are much easier to acquire for an amateur than superior skills. Knowledge is an all-you-can-eat buffet in the digital age. You can stuff your face with it via blogs and books.

The only question is what you choose to swallow.

Susan Orlean reveals all the tools you will ever need to become a writer

As for your writing surface, I’ve written on steno pads and legal pads and hotel stationery and boxtops and scratch pads and the inside of my wrist, but you can’t beat a reporter’s notebook.

Jessica Easto serves as a guide for making the best cup of coffee

Coffee – what’s called ‘drip’ or ‘filter’ coffee, not espresso – can taste smooth and sweet like chocolate, or provide a zip on your tongue like a bright Champagne, or taste fruity, just like a blueberry. And when I say ‘chocolate’ or ‘blueberry’, I mean the coffee itself literally tastes like those things, without any added syrups or flavourings. The first time you drink coffee that tastes like more than coffee, you’ll never forget it.

Friday Fiction: Eloghosa Osunde

I’ve always had a problem with introductions. To me, they don’t matter. It’s either you know me or you don’t—you get? If you don’t, the main thing you need to know is that I am a hustler through and through. I’m that guy that gets shit done. Simple.

Financial Writing with Empathy

If you want your writing to be more engaging, answer one question: Who am I writing for?

Berkshire Hathaway has legions of devoted shareholders, some of whom are quite famous — LeBron James, George Lucas and Bill Gates, among them.

But when writing the annual shareholder letter, chairman and CEO Warren Buffett has only two people in mind: his sisters, Doris and Bertie.

As he said in an interview: “It’s ‘Dear Doris and Bertie’ at the start and then I take that off at the end.”

Why? Because Buffett knows that his two sisters are not particularly active in the business and investing. They’re not well versed on the workings and lingo of the industry. And he knows if he can connect with them, he can connect to anybody.

This targeted approach is a writing method Buffett uses to help refrain from using business jargon, and to make the letter more accessible and readable for wider audience of investors.

Most importantly, it is an act of empathy.

Empathy is the awareness of the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of other people. It is an understanding of what others are experiencing as if you were feeling it yourself.

When people think their feelings are being addressed in piece of content, they are more likely to engage. A study of advertising campaigns found that those with “purely emotional content performed twice as well as those with only rational content.”

Empathy is the key to connecting with readers on that emotional level. It’s the difference between speaking to someone and speaking with someone. It can help you and your writing stand out among the noise.

Considering how emotional financial decisions can be, empathy is a necessary feature of financial writing.

We all want to make rational financial decisions. What often gets in the way is our emotions. A financial blog or article can have all the right answers, but it will likely fall flat if it concentrates on the rational aspects — analysis, statistics, rules, etc. — while giving the emotional short shrift.

Mere information is rarely helpful unless it also directly relates to your life.

With empathy, your writing can show that you understand what the reader feels and thinks, that you share those feelings and that you want to help however you can.

How to make your financial writing more empathetic:

The good news is your desire to help other people make better financial decisions is proof you’re an empathetic person. And showing it in your writing doesn’t require special hacks. It’s all about writing plainly and sounding like a human who shares the same goals as the reader.

Here’s how to do it.

Humanize your language

Writing about things like balance sheets, taxes and investments can easily come off as stiff and academic. An easy step to humanize your language is to write in the first person. The personal and relatable touch of first person is more engaging than the formal tone of third person.

Let’s compare.

Here is a typical corporate tagline in third person: “Acme Financial is a wealth management firm that provides personalized, honest and expert financial planning services.”

Now, using the more friendly first person: “We’ll help care for your financial needs with personalized advice that you can trust.”

Don’t be afraid to use empathetic words and phrases like “I understand how you feel”, “You are in a tough spot” and “This must be really challenging for you”.

Above all else, simply write as if you were having a conversation. If that means breaking some grammatical rules… Well… So, what?

Simplify the complex

With all the different products, rules and regulations, finance is often overly complex. Add in the desire to sound like an expert, it can lead financial writers to use industry-speak with terms like “asset allocation” and “tax-loss harvesting”.

It can sound alien to average readers, leaving them confused or wanting.

So, show that you care by writing with short, simple and familiar words. And follow the Feynman technique: explain things in a way even a child could understand.

Further, emphasize what your readers really want.

You may be able to wax-poetic about a strategy for withdrawing 4% of a $1 million portfolio with a 99.9% probability of lasting for 30 years. But it may not resonate unless you explain how it will help retirees sleep at night and never fear running out of money.

Create your characters

Like Buffett, it helps to actively visualize the people you are writing to. If you don’t know real people that match your target profile, that’s okay. Make them up.

Research suggests that by mentally stepping into the shoes of fictional characters, we become more empathetic and socially-aware.

Create as much detail as you can — names, ages, interests, even stock pictures. Whatever helps you form a relationship to those you want to reach most. Then write to them every time you write.

You have a message that could help people. All they want from you is to speak with them. Hopefully, this will help you do that.

Friday Five

Author Garth Greenwell writes beautifully on the role of relevance in art

Maybe this is just a kind of cheap mysticism, like a secularized treasury of grace—the old theological idea that there are certain substances, such as God’s love, that as they are spent do not diminish but multiply. Maybe what I’m suggesting is pure fantasy, imagining that our attention could be like the loaves and fishes at the feeding of the five thousand. Maybe that’s true. But maybe it’s also true that there are certain indefensible positions we must hold because not to hold them would be an affront to the human dignity necessary for any world in which we should rightly wish to live.

Marketing genius Seth Godin on playing to the masses or following your own path

You can either turn your operation into a cross between McDonald’s and Disney, selling the regular kind, pandering to the middle, putting everything in exactly the category they hoped for and challenging no expectations…

Or you can do the incredibly hard work of transgressing genres, challenging expectations and seeking out the few people who want to experience something that matters, instead of something that’s merely safe.

Unparalleled financial writer and thinker Morgan Housel on the noise of tragedy and the inconspicuous progression of growth

Growth always fights against competition that slows its rise. New ideas fight for attention, business models fight incumbents, constructing a building fights gravity. There’s always a headwind. But everyone gets out of the way of decline. Insiders might try to stop it, but it doesn’t attract masses of outsiders who rush in to push back in the other direction like progress does.

WATCH Financial blogging OGs and industry trailblazers Josh Brown and Carl Richards talk about the intersection of money and art

Friday (non) Fiction: Poet Maggie Smith’s moving new book on grief and transformation

Keep Moving

How to Live Like You’re Already Retired

The late poet Mary Oliver never worked an interesting job in her life, just as she wanted it. Her fear was that it would take away valuable time and energy from her true passion — writing poetry.

As she explained in an interview:

I was very careful never to take an interesting job. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it… Believe me, if anybody has a job and starts at 9, there’s no reason why they can’t get up at 4:30 or five and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day – which is what I did.

I am not a full proponent of her idea. If you spend eight or more hours a day at a job, it helps to have at least some interest in what you do.

Still, Oliver makes a good point: There is no reason not to allocate more effort to the things that give us joy and less to the things that don’t.

It may sound trite. But honestly think about how well you do this?

I know I could do much better.

Recently, I struck up a conversation with the grandmother of a boy my sons were playing with at the park. She was a retired accountant who opened a mission for underprivileged children in one of Detroit’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

I thought to myself, I want to volunteer at a place like that… some day, when I have the time.

Most of us are guilty of waiting to do something until an ideal future arrives, which is never guaranteed to arrive.

In the financial industry, we mostly sell people on the idea of an ideal future that affords them total control over their time to do whatever they want. In other words, retirement. But why focus entirely on the future when we can live to some degree like that now?

There is a lot of research that shows what things unequivocally help retirees live a healthier, happier and more meaningful life (one of which is volunteering). Those same studies and surveys actually tell all of us how to live better lives right now. Because the benefits of those activities encompass all age groups. Essentially, if you want to lead a more fulfilling life, then do the things retirees are told to do to make the most of their remaining years.

As Oliver encourages: give yourself permission to put forth your best effort toward the things that provide happiness and meaning while half-assing the less important stuff in life.

It is something I certainly need to get better at, which is why I have begun to reframe life as if I were retired. That is, putting more intention behind the things I do, with less consideration of what other people and society thinks.

Here are the steps I am taking to try to do that.

Note: I understand that I speak from a place of privilege. When you have to work three jobs to put food on the table and don’t have healthcare, thinking about ways to make your time more meaningful is unhelpful. So, I recognize this is a parochial blog post, generally for those who have the luxury of mismanaging their work-life balance and for those who write to those same people.

Do the one thing known to make everyone happier: help others.

One of the top activities workers say they want to do in retirement is volunteer. For good reason. By helping others, you help yourself.

Of the 239 older adult volunteers surveyed by the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis: 79% said they feel better about themselves by volunteering; 95% said they have improved their lives; and 96% said they have been involved in meaningful activities.

There is no age requirement for generosity. As many people turn inward with materialistic and technological outlets for a sense of satisfaction, the real trick is to not think about yourself at all.

Keep learning.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from an intoxicated member of a country club where I valeted in college. I was asked to pick him up from a gentleman’s club and drive him home. During the ride, he told me to never stay at a job where you’re not learning anything.

Because of the higher risk of cognitive decline, mental health becomes more important as we age. Hence, the many brain games and other activities geared toward older adults. But you’re better off the earlier you start making mental acuity a priority, and the best preventive steps is to learn new skills.

Many psychological studies suggest the challenge of learning a new skill can enhance memory, strengthen the connections between parts of the brain and lower the risk of dementia. Learning a new language, for example, can help improve thinking skills and memory abilities regardless of what age you start.

If your job isn’t your passion, make your hobbies your identity.

Work provides many perks, including a place to socialize, a sense of purpose and, of course, money and benefits. But for many people, like Oliver, their job is not their identity. Therefore, hobbies should be treated more seriously in society, not just as a way to pass the time.

That is why retirement is often thought of as an opportunity to do all those interesting things we wish we had more time to do while working.

The benefits of hobbies go far beyond simple enjoyment. Hobbies are associated with a variety of physical and psychological benefits, such as lower blood pressure, better fitness and reduced stress. One study even suggests the outdoor exposure and physicality of gardening increases longevity.

Art in particular doubles as a form of therapy, leading to lower stress, improved memory and better overall mental health.

As author Neil Gaiman said during his inspiring commencement speech:

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art.”

Move around — a lot.

We all know exercise is important. Physical activity makes us physically and mentally healthier. Without the time constraints of a job, retirees often make exercising more of a priority, as it helps improve mobility and ward off health issues.

We could probably all move more each day. And that doesn’t mean two-hour gym sessions. The simple act of walking increases the supply of blood and oxygen to your muscles and organs, which helps you think and come up with new ideas. It explains why many famous writers were known as avid walkers.

Experience new places.

A common aesthetic of retirement marketing is of older adults traveling abroad — walking a cobblestone street, prancing on a white sandy beach, gazing over the railing of an ocean liner. Who doesn’t want to travel more?

Traveling somewhere new has been shown to boost emotional IQ, empathy and creativity in travelers. It doesn’t tough require a passport.

There are new places all around us to explore. Visit a new part of your city. Eat at a new restaurant. Hike a new trail.

Schedule consistent time with friends and relatives.

The majority of workers said they plan to spend more time with friends and family during their retirement years, according to an HSBC survey. Of course, distance along with work, kids, etc., are valid reasons why we don’t spend as much time with loved ones as much as we want.

But when you consider how essential socializing is in life, there is an incentive to find creative solutions for spending more time with friends and relatives.

Now that nearly all my friends have started families, we have adapted. Our time together is shorter but at greater frequency. Instead of a long night out, it is a half hour coffee break, a Sunday softball league, a quick run through a park.

Accept life’s hardships.

Nothing can insulate you from tragedy. It is a fact of life. The sooner you can accept it, the easier it is. It’s why older adults, having years of both good and bad experiences, tend to be happier.

As journalist John Leland writes in his book, Happiness Is a Choice You Make:

“Older people are more content, less anxious or fearful, less afraid of death, more likely to see the good side of things and accept the bad, than young adults.”

The happiness curve suggests that life hits its low point around age 50. Perhaps by aligning our mindsets to those in the later innings of life we can avoid that dip.

If you can go through the hard times with grace, then you can live a full life no matter how much time your money can buy.

Friday Five

New York Times’s Paul Brown on what to do when you have enough

One of the best in the biz provides a personal reflection on knowing when you have enough wealth.

The importance of thinking in a non-dualistic way

Few things in life are black and white, especially when it comes to investing and tackling our behavioral biases. Health researcher and author Brad Stulberg writes about training yourself to stop thinking “either-or” and starting thinking “both-and.”

What a simply facial feature can mean for a person of color

This is the best thing I’ve read all week. It is a powerful, well-written story about how a small thing can represent a much bigger world. Read and learn.

Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on how to be productive — even during a pandemic

I don’t know any geniuses that don’t also enjoy working hard. I don’t know that many geniuses, I guess. But I also don’t know many people that make stuff that inspires me that haven’t put in the work. If you have this thing you discovered that you love to do in your time on this planet, most people seem to understand that that’s something to be honored.

Friday Fiction: The fall classic, “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to get my hands on some fucking gourds and arrange them in a horn-shaped basket on my dining room table. That shit is going to look so seasonal. 

7 Habits of Successful Financial Writers That Will Improve Your Writing

A bottle of whisky within arm’s reach may make you a great writer. It is not what made Jack London a great writer.

London had a reputation for drinking heavily, as did many famous writers. But what allowed him to write classic books such as The Call of the Wild and White Fang was not alcohol-infused bursts of creativity. It was his habit of writing 1,000 words. Every. Single. Day.

Contrary to the tortured-genius myth, most famous writers were highly attentive to their productivity, using “tools” that we associate with athletes and business leaders. They set daily goals. They followed meticulous schedules. They ferociously shielded themselves from distraction. All to perform at their best.

In other words, writers – the good ones, at least – are creatures of habit.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.

WILL DURANT

Of course, this is not limited to the literary world. Most successful financial writers keep their own set of habits. One could argue habits are even more important for financial writers as they grapple with the added pressure to simplify complex topics and help people secure their futures.

Compiled from interviews and articles, here are seven habits of some of today’s best financial writers as told in their own words. There’s no guarantee these habits will make you a successful writer, but they can make you a better writer.

1. Write, write, write…

“I found that if you want to become a better writer there are two things you have to do. One is to read really good writing and most of us try to do that. But the second thing is to write a lot, and so I made the commitment… that I was going to write for an hour a day, every day for the rest of my life.” Barry Ritholtz

Writing is no different from any other discipline. It requires dedication. The more you do it, the better you do it. Consistency is the key to progress. You won’t write by waiting for inspiration to strike, any more than you will lose weight by waiting for the desire to workout. By writing every day you can make it feel as second nature as a morning cup of coffee, to the point you feel bad on the days you don’t write.

You may be blessed with all the writing talent in the world. But it won’t amount to much unless you dedicate yourself to the work.

Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.

JAMES BALDWIN

2. Read, learn and let ideas marinate

“If you want to become a better writer, the two biggest things you can do are to write more and read more.Jason Zweig

Ninety percent of my week is reading and going for walks, which is where I do most of my, quote-unquote, “writing.” It’s where all I’m… just thinking… piecing ideas together… and speaking with friends on the phone who are in kind of similar fields [but] have expertise about these things that I don’t… It’s just trying to piece together different ideas over time so that maybe once a week, one of them sticks enough that you can write a thousand words about it and publish it.”Morgan Housel

Reading is part and parcel of writing. Immersing yourself in the work of great writers translates into better writing.

What Housel illustrates is that writing is also a practice of thought, letting ideas sink in and then come together as you sketch out mentally what you want to write.

You read to learn how to do it. And you learn new things so as to connect ideas, whether they come from reading a 1,000-page novel, watching a documentary or listening to a podcast.

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.

STEPHEN KING

This includes criticism of your own work. Zweig framed criticism not as a personal sleight but as a learning opportunity when he wrote: “Every criticism is a chance for me to correct a mistake, improve my reporting, or to learn something.”

3. Schedule time to write

“When I’m in the process of writing a book, the 5:00 a.m. wake-up time can go on for months. It’s something I learned from my mother, who received her master’s degree in educational psychology when my brothers and I were in grade and middle school. She would get her work done before anyone in the house was awake. So, I get up. I let the dog out, make the coffee, let the dog back in, feed him, and then sit down at my computer and type.”Jean Chatzky

Time is not found; it is made. The simplest way to turn writing itself into a habit is to schedule it on your calendar. Make writing a daily appointment. Block off thirty minutes, one hour, two hours – whatever you can do. Use this time to do nothing but write with no distractions.

4. Never worry about what the “market” wants

“The funny thing is that the blogosphere, i.e the market, has its own opinion. Some of what I thought were my best posts generated little or no reaction. Some posts that I thought were simply clever observations, or short takes on topics, garnered a ton of hits. The point is that I have very little insight into what is going to work when push comes to shove.”Tadas Viskanta

When you first open a blank page, the goal isn’t to write a masterpiece. Just let the words flow, without judgment, until you have a first draft. Don’t worry if the words are good or not. You can perfect it later through editing and revising. And never worry about the possible reception of your work. Much like the stock market is to an investor, public opinion is something you cannot control. So, why let it influence what you write? Follow your own voice and style. Often, when you try to write in a way you think everyone will enjoy, you end up doing the opposite.

5. Allow yourself to be vulnerable

“Your audience will connect with you more when you become a human being with interests outside financial matters.”Josh Brown

I’ve said that writing is form of relationship building. Money is an emotionally fraught topic. People want advice from someone who understands. One of the best ways to relate is to show you are human. Let your interests and personality breathe in your writing. Tell us how your hopes, fears and experiences shaped the way you think about money. Write less like a textbook and more like a pen pal.

6. Create a reserve of writing

“A tip I read somewhere that I wish I would have followed: Have pre-written posts in place in case you run into a tight spot and have nothing to post.”Carolyn McClanahan

This habit pertains to those who write a financial blog or column. Especially, if you are just starting to write. Before you first publish, create a reserve of posts while you then work on what comes after. If you can stockpile posts, you don’t have to work under the pressure of a deadline, which can lead to mistakes and half-baked ideas. This gives you more time to think and the freedom to dedicate more time to your bigger ideas.

7. Leave some water in the well

“Life is all about variety; any job gets boring after a while. I love writing books, I love doing finance and writing about it; I also love my grandchildren and enjoy spending two or three months a year traveling. The trick is to do all the things you love — and don’t do too much of any of them.” –William Bernstein

William Bernstein’s sentiment echoes Ernest Hemingway’s famous concept of keeping the momentum by never letting ideas run dry. Hemingway stopped writing when he knew what would happen next in the story. As he explained elegantly in his memoir, A Moveable Feast:

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

Yes, write a lot. But remember moderation in all things. Writing will not fulfill every emotional or physical need. If your life is balanced with other things you love or inspire to do, you’ll come to your writing desk happier and more energized.

This is a subjective list. Each writer has inspired me personally in some way. I know there are many great financial writers out there who have their own interesting writing process. So, if you have a favorite habit that you learned from another financial writer, I would be grateful if you shared it in the comments section.

Friday Five

Read Jason Zweig’s speech for his much-deserved Elliott V. Bell Award

I’ve heard other reporters say, “Oh, that’s just service journalism,” as if serving our readers by helping them make better financial decisions were somehow beneath the dignity of people who cover, say, professional sports…or Congress…or the White House.

As a master of connecting things, Tadas Viskanta writes on the virtue of incremental progress

All of this is to say that doing the important things adequately will serve you well. This is true whether it comes to avoiding the worst of the coronavirus pandemic or in your financial life. Too many people, spend too much time, searching for perfection when good will suffice.

Maria Konnikova on building resilience

Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates.

The ideal is to write in a flow state: but how do you reach flow state?

The challenge of the task slightly exceeds your skill set. You are pushed out of our comfort zone. The magic ratio is about 4% harder than you are comfortable with. You want to stretch yourself—not snap.

Friday Fiction: Newly minted Nobel laureate Louise Glück

Matins

You want to know how I spend my time?

I walk the front lawn, pretending

to be weeding. You ought to know

I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling

clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact

I’m looking for courage, for some evidence

my life will change, though

it takes forever, checking

each clump for the symbolic

leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already

the leaves turning, always the sick trees

going first, the dying turning

brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform

their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?

As empty now as at the first note.

Or was the point always

to continue without a sign?

Journaling for Financial Independence

I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.

THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK

The Financial Independence Retire Early movement may not be for everyone. But if there’s one thing it can teach all of us, it’s the art of journaling. Many FIRE bloggers write from a personal space, speaking openly about their hopes and fears and progress toward their financial goals.

Journaling can be a powerful tool for making better decisions, thinking creatively and building resilience. All of which can improve your chances for financial success. Which is why we should all do it.

AUSTIN KLEON: WHY I KEEP A DIARY

As with any dream, financial independence (or retirement, if you’d like) starts as an abstraction.

Abstract thinking is a beautiful feature of the human mind. We do it when we use our imaginations. It is the process of conceptualizing our most important desires. We use it to build connections between the present and the future. It helps us create, find meaning, plan, problem solve and imagine our feelings if we succeed or fail.

Through abstract thinking , we engage in the future while taking a deeper look at the present.

The business world is filled with stories of abstract thoughts becoming concrete realities. The thought, What if we didn’t have to rely on our own two legs or the health of a horse to get around, beget cars. And many more stories are being written today: What if we became an interplanetary species?

How can we turn our personal abstractions into concrete realities?

That is where journaling can serve an important role.

We so often make big decisions in life based on predictions of how we think we’ll feel in the future, or what we’ll want. Your past self is your best indicator of how you actually felt in similar situations. So it helps to have an accurate picture of your past.

DEREK SIVERS

Writing in a journal is a way to exercise our abstract thoughts.

A journal is where we can look at ourselves as an outside observer, as if turning ourselves into characters and guiding them to catharsis. We see ourselves from a distance, which allows us to see what really is rather than only what we want.

Psychologists call this psychological distance. This separation between ourselves and ours goal or challenges can make them more manageable. It helps us make decisions, think outside the box and control our emotions when things go wrong.

Through an abstract lens, we are less reactive and more insightful. We use our memories to make connections from past experiences to solve problems. This builds resiliency.

As it pertains to wealth and financial independence, journaling can be one of those illusive tools to combat our own cognitive biases. It is a way to stay focused and separate the signal from the noise.

A Dominican University of California study found that people were 33% more likely to achieve their goals when they wrote them down their goals and shared them and their progress with others.

As Henriette Anne Klauser, author of Write It Down, Make It Happen, writes: “Writing triggers the [reticular activating system], which in turn sends a signal to the cerebral cortex: ‘Wake up! Pay attention! Don’t miss this detail!’ Once you write down a goal, your brain will be working overtime to see you get it, and will alert you to the signs and signals that […] were there all along.”

Further research suggests handwriting improves learning, memory and idea generation.

So, if you want to achieve financial independence, you may want to start by grabbing a pen and a notebook.

Write about what financial independence means to you. Put down the steps you plan to take to get there. Openly write about your feelings — how you feel now and what you expect to feel in the future. Then keep updating your progress, both the wins and the fails.

Happy journaling!

Friday Five

The empty language of Silicon Valley

The concept of disruption is a way for companies, the press or simply individuals to think about questions of continuity and discontinuity – what lasts and what doesn’t, what is genuinely new and what is just the next version of something older. 

How design shapes the world

Often there’s more than one person in power, and it’s their capacity to collaborate that defines what’s possible.

Jonathan Clements on the simplicity of money — and how hard that is

Figuring out what we should do with our dollars is typically straightforward: We should save regularly, diversify broadly, rebalance occasionally and so on. Instead, the tough part is getting ourselves to do what we intellectually know is right.

Books survive thrive in the time of Netflix

If binge-reading hasn’t fully supplanted binge-watching Netflix shows quite yet, the trend is certainly making strides. In August 2020, year-over-year sales of print books in the U.S. were up 13%, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks book sales across the U.S.

Friday Fiction (or shameless plug): My latest published flash fiction story, 99 Lives

“Why all the cats?” he asked.

I shrugged. It was the question everyone asked. Ninety-nine cats in a single-story house with an old, solitary woman and then, for some time, no one knows for sure how long, a corpse.

Are We Suffering from TMS (Too Much Storytelling)?

This is the part where I’m supposed to regale you with an enlightening, insightful or thought-provoking tale about an ancient Stoic philosopher, or some little known World War II general, or an apocryphal business anecdote featuring Steve Jobs, or my own personal reflection of what I learned running my first marathon.

In other words, this is where I begin a story.

There’s a trend for bloggers and content marketers – especially in financial writing – to make large claims of how some event or phenomenon or another – war, sports, business, brewing beer – explains the human condition or duly deconstructs complex concepts – investing, tax codes, retirement – into intuitive parts.

This is storytelling. It works to great effect. Except when it doesn’t.

Many blogs now take us on a journey to a point rather than just a step. Meanwhile, the average reader spends less than 15 seconds on a page.

It’s hard not then to wonder if we’ve gone too far. Has the desire to tell a great story gotten in the way of delivering the message?

Have we hit peak storytelling?

This week, Doug Boneparth – sharp thinker, good writer, coffee connoisseur, media personality, sartorial tastemaker, master of Twitter sarcasm, the lesser half of a talented podcast team and, oh yeah, president of his own firm Bone Fide Wealth – raised the issue with this tweet:

It’s funny cause it’s true; it’s equally hurtful cause it’s true.

As several people responded, I, too, am very guilty. A sinner of wrapping up the message in a long, overly detailed narrative.

Boneparth brings up a very good point. Why do we often obscure the message behind an at times irrelevant story when readers want specific answers to important finance questions?

Why we tell stories

Storytelling in blogging and content marketing is nothing new. It’s often at the top of every digital marketing best practice list. And storytelling as a means of persuasion goes back to even before the written word. It has arguably been a decisive part of all major historical events.

Consider Benjamin Franklin’s use of pseudonymous newspaper letters prior to the revolution to express his political views. When Franklin purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729… shit, sorry!

There are two primary reasons storytelling is an effective tool.

One, as we talked about, is that people gravitate toward stories. They create relationships between customer and business, client and advisor, author and reader, etc.

Brands aren’t logos. Brands are promises. If Nike opened a hotel … with your eyes closed you could figure out what it would be like. But if Hyatt came out with a brand of sneakers, no clue! Nike has a story.

SETH GODIN

The other is to serve the almighty god we call search engine optimization. Google ranks pages higher when they have a certain word count (the minimum is typically considered to be 300 words and the sweet spot between 800 – 1,200 words). Additionally, a story gives you more opportunity to input those all-important keywords.

It’s easy as the writer to read our work as the writer and forget to read it as the reader. Especially with financial writing, we can miss the forest for the trees and forget the purpose, which is to provide helpful information to help people make a decision.

Seemingly, too many of us have gravitated toward historical anecdotes to make us look smart.

Making storytelling work

I’m not advocating for the abandonment of this storytelling style. There are many writers that are great at it. The stories are enlightening and entertaining.

Plus, I would argue consistent content is more important than style. If writing in a storytelling style keeps you going, then don’t stop.

However, I do think we could all use a gentle reminder of how to use storytelling effectively.

The story weaved through your article should be in some obvious way relevant. If a reader must stop and ask what does this all mean, revise it.

Never let the story bury the message. This is where form comes in. Use short paragraphs and put the message in scannable way – bold, highlight, italics, big obnoxious arrow – so people can bypass the story as needed.

MOST IMPORTANT: Storytelling doesn’t mean you need a story. The point is to use the story structure to answer who, what, where, when, why and how. Do that consistently and with authenticity, you will tell a great story.

Make every blog three sentences or less to answer one specific question and you tell the story of how much you value other people’s time.

A story is as much about what you don’t say as it is about what you do say.

What do you think? Have we jumped the storytelling shark?

Your answer may decide what you write next.

Friday Five

Finance blog godfather Barry Ritholtz with 10 useless finance phrases

Study them. Never write them.

My favorite: “The stock market hates uncertainty.” This could be the 2020 phrase of the year. It is not merely wrong, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what drives markets.

Using today’s technology to go back in time and learn from the past

Farhad Manjoo shows how the audio and visual records of history available online can not only help us learn but experience the past as if in real time. You just might find a new story idea!

This is why it’s so hard to find dumbbells right now

An example from Alex Abad-Santos of how you can write about a problem you have that likely affects many other people, too.

RBG’s advice for living

What enabled me to take part in the effort to free our daughters and sons to achieve whatever their talents equipped them to accomplish, with no artificial barriers blocking their way? First, a mother who, by her example, made reading a delight and counseled me constantly to “be independent,” able to fend for myself, whatever fortune might have in store for me.

Friday fiction: Phil Klay reads an excerpt from his new novel, Missionaries

Writing Costs What It Costs

The fashion of creativity is sentimentally visualized as berets and professorial attire against the backdrop of a bar. For those creating, it is every earned bit of hard hats and stained overalls and calloused hands carrying the fragments of ideas.

Legend has it, Kafka invented the hard hat.

Writing is an act of endurance.

No wonder why so many people quit — or never start.

It is why I have a job. In my experience, the people who are most convinced content writing doesn’t work are those who tried it. But they didn’t commit to it. Scroll their blog or website and you find long gaps between posts or work that hasn’t been updated in years.

That isn’t a sign of the writing not working. Rather, it is a sign of a lack of consistency, of discipline, of commitment to work.

Writing — especially in marketing — is an act of commitment as much as a creative pursuit.

Some derive meaning out of the struggle. In effect, if the writing is hard then the idea must not be good, and vice versa. If you have a good idea, you will have no trouble committing to it.

But that is not true always. How many great works were easy?

While writing The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck kept a journal as a tool to stay focused and overcome self-doubt.

He writes:

In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I feel like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.

And he expresses his internal struggle:

My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.

But he also lays bare his commitment:

This must be a good book. It simply must. I haven’t any choice. It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted — slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges. And I can do it. I feel very strong to do it.

Those who succeed at writing and those who don’t all share the same fears. The difference is in who keeps going. Sometimes is takes an external motivation, like a journal, a deadline or loved one.

Consider how Morgan Housel describes to Barry Ritholtz on Masters in Business the writing process for his new (great!) book, The Psychology of Money. He didn’t write it in an initial burst of creativity but in a concentrated flow as the deadline approached:

…I gave myself one year to write it and after nine months, I think I had written one chapter. It was just so easy to procrastinate and delay and delay and delay.

And then my wife one day kind of gave me some crap about how little progress I was making. She kind of expressed that she was disappointed in how little progress I was making. So, then I cleared everything off my calendar and I wrote the majority of the book over about a four-week period last December.

Still, motivational tools are only as good as your commitment to them. Deadlines, for example, give people as much allowance to procrastinate as they do pressure to finish.

Ultimately, the writing is going to take as long as it needs to take.

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

DOUGLAS ADAMS

Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address over the following months after the battle, not quickly on the back of an envelope as mythologized.

It took J.D. Salinger a decade to finish Catcher in the Rye.

In one of his blog posts (which partly inspired this one), Ryan Holiday writes about the Stoic concept called the art of acquiescence.

As Holiday explains it:

Reality is indifferent to our preferences. There is no such thing as a fair price. Stuff—life—costs what it costs. You either pay it or you don’t

An excellent financial writing example comes from Jason Zweig recounting his time working with Daniel Kahneman on the pivotal book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Essentially, Kahneman had no reservations working through night destroying the day’s work and starting from scratch.

Zweig writes:

The first time this happened, I was thunderstruck.  How did he do that? How could anybody do that?  When I asked Danny how he could start again as if we had never written an earlier draft, he said the words I’ve never forgotten: “I have no sunk costs.”

I came to appreciate this price of admission to writing when my first short story was published. It took about half a year of late nights and 4 a.m. writing sessions before the baby woke.

That story was only 350 words.

There are no sunk costs in writing. In the end, it costs what it costs. You can accept the price or quit or move on.

Friday Five

Writing during quarantine

Let go or get dragged. It’s healthy and realistic to have a consistent practice but I’ve also learned that every piece of work has its own particular rhythms that you’d do well to honor.

Jesmyn Ward writing through grief

My loss was a tender second skin. I shrugged against it as I wrote, haltingly, about this woman who speaks to spirits and fights her way across rivers.

Jennifer Risher discusses her new book, We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth

“Wealth doesn’t look anything like what Hollywood is selling us,” Ms. Risher said. “I want to demystify wealth — an experience millions of people have but can’t talk about. There’s a normalcy to it when all your friends are similarly wealthy.”

Story in motion: Jim Walmsley’s Hardrock 100 attempt

Friday Fiction: Mary Oliver

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Financial Writing Rules: What Not to Do

Writing for the most part is a liberating exercise (editing is a whole different animal). Lessons come from making mistakes rather than obeying any set of rules. You learn rules to know when or when not to break them. But here are some financial writing blunders that I see often and suggest avoiding:

1. Overwriting

Storytelling does not mean flowery language. No one reads financial writing for its literary merit. Short, simple words in concise paragraphs is the key to effective writing.

2. Empty messages

Advisor blogs often resort to one worthless conclusion: this is complicated, so talk to a financial advisor. It is impossible to write to every reader’s personal financial situation. The best move someone could make may be to talk to a financial advisor. But don’t let the fear of giving away too much cause you to write too little. To help someone do or learn something is to build trust.

3. Clichés

All that glitters isn’t gold. Writing is hard. The pressure to fill space and sound like a good writer leads people to search for short cuts. Clichés are short cuts. No, they’re worse. Clichés are junk food for writers. They are cheap and full of empty calories. They may sound interesting but mean nothing.

4. Jargon or technical language

Finance has its own language. Obviously, your audience determines the vernacular. It’s important to remember though readers can have trouble with what we in the industry consider basic terms, like asset allocation, rebalancing and even equities and bonds. An easy solution is to create your own thesaurus of finance terms and use those self-made synonyms in every piece.

5. Trying too hard

Writing is a means to relate with others. As such, you can try too hard. How many articles have you read that attempt to cover every single pain point, or that provide a misguided interpretation of retirement? How about those heavy with pop culture references? Personal stories are great, but avoid getting too personal. Whatever you do, never force an analogy. Perhaps, those 10 Carrot Top props don’t really offer valuable investment lessons.

6. Lack of empathy

Financial success has as much to do with luck as it does with ability. Most people have debt and no savings not because they are irresponsible. They are not paid enough or have severe medical conditions or have hit a rough patch of misfortunes. Plus, we are all naturally wired to make mistakes. To berate those who do make financial mistakes, or to recommend that everyone follow a set of financial steps, is to demonstrate how much you don’t understand.

I can’t claim to have never broken any of these financial writing rules. Nor can I say I won’t in the future. So, one last rule is to never beat yourself up over breaking the rules. Sometimes it’s necessary. Acknowledge them, then move on and keep writing.

Friday Five

Seth Godin on fear and perseverance

Always a great example on how to say a lot with so little.

A hard, difficult road emotionally and financially

Ben Carlson writes with grace in this deeply personal story.

Remembering 9/11

Bob Seawright is a good writer, so the fact his posts are not short and sweet doesn’t matter.

The necessity of life transitions

If you can comfort and inspire people with your writing like Arthur Brooks, then you must be Arthur Brooks.

Friday Fiction: Lydia Davis h/t Deborah Landau

Transcendence in Money

Financial writing at its best helps you find or notice transcendent experiences, to do more than just make or save a dollar for the sake of money.

And for me, the transcendent experience, in a nutshell, is feeling that you are connected to something larger than yourself, that there’s some order in the universe.

ALAN LIGHTMAN

One night, the physicist and author Alan Lightman was in his boat off the coast of Maine. All alone, he decided to cut the engine and turn off the running lights, enveloping him in deep silence and utter darkness. Then he lay down in the boat and gazed up at the pinhole fires of the stars above.

As told to Sean Carroll on the Mindscape podcast: “I felt like I was falling into infinity. I felt like I had lost all sense of my body or time or space, and I was just part of the cosmos. I felt a connection to something much larger than myself, and I felt that the infinite expanse of time before I was born, and the infinite expanse of time after I will be dead, all of that seemed compressed to a dot.”

I bet most of us have had similar transcendent experiences, whether with the assistance of drugs or not.

I’ve felt it at times while running, when the world without and within seems to simultaneously expand and contract. I know my city more intimately — the wildlife, the trees, the neighbor’s garden — while at the same running longer distances expands the size of the city I know. Internally, I come closer to my spirit while understanding how large it can grow. All together, there is an indisputable feeling of oneness — an infinite world outside of me mirroring and infinite world within.

From these experiences we can derive new lessons, new ways of thinking. For me, it has been to accept pain and exertion and connecting to the wider world through motion. For Lightman, it is to better understand and appreciate the secrets of the universe.

The belief that you are connected to something larger than yourself can lead to a more satisfaction in all areas of life, including money. We can frame it as a shift from the materialistic norms of society to a greater sense self and purpose, which leads to more positive financial outcomes.

It is transcending superficiality — the need for a faster car, bigger house, etc. — to live with purpose. It is discarding the egotistic self (I) for a greater meaningful self (we). The competition between these two is often why people make mistakes.

There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular.

THOMAS MERTON

Instead of using money, you are cultivating it to support your values, that which is bigger than yourself.

That elevated feeling, the sublime, of a more lasting nature, is why research shows experiences bring more happiness to people than possessions.

Here are some financial experiences that can feel transcendent as we defined above:

To live with a sense of meaning every day.

The ability to actually enjoy the fruits of your labor, rather than want only more.

To do work that you want, not that you have to.

Never having to rely on anyone else.

Managing money as if it is not for you but for a greater cause.

Balance between happiness now and happiness later.

To humbly invest money, recognizing you cannot predict much less control the market.

An optimistic view of the future, that you are a vital part of something bigger — human progress — so you are eager to achieve your goals and help others.

Expressing gratitude for the things and life you have rather than tirelessly spending in an effort to change it.

Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get.

DALE CARNEGIE

Can financial writing lead to transcendence?

At its core, financial writing is meant to help people make better financial decisions. So, the question can seem a little too deep.

But when you think about how those financial decisions can determine our quality of life and how money can be focused on meaningful purposes, it’s worth asking. As a writer, you should guide people toward those ends.

No one is going to read a blog or article and feel fully transcended. Again, maybe if drugs are involved. But at its best, financial writing can show you the door. And that is not a small thing. All the reader has to do then is walk through, to make the decisions with the knowledge of what bigger, happier things are possible.

Friday Five

Five pieces of financial & non-financial writing and one reason why I recommend reading them.

Learning from experience

I admire Tony Isola for his dedication in helping teachers achieve the financial well-being they all deserve. I envy him for concise yet full writing style. Here, he gets personal with a list of his most valuable lessons in life. They are worth anybody to learn and live, too.

Philosophy in the time of COVID

From infection rates to economic and market trends, data has been top of mind during the pandemic. Eric Weiner, author of “The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers,” asks us to instead search for wisdom. He deftly shows us how we can take the ideas of famous philosophers to overcome the adversity of these trying times.

7 habits of highly effective runners

From a writing standpoint, this is a great example of repurposing a well-known work, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” But Mario Fraioli is a better writer than just that. This list is chock full of information and inspiration, which you can apply to other parts of your life.

Doing more with less stress

This article from Adam Grossman has good strategies for being productive but without all the stress that often comes with competing priorities. But what makes it great is that he backs it up with a lot of useful research. Take note!

Friday fiction: Etgar Keret

” ‘Write whatever comes into your head,’ she said. ‘Don’t think, just write.’ Aviad tried to stop thinking. It was very hard.”

Is a Writing Course Worth Your Time and Money?

No.

There is a price of admission to writing, but it is never tendered to anyone other than yourself.

He didn’t like the thought of them knowing he’d been scared. Didn’t like the thought of them knowing what a fool he’d been. Oh, to hell with that! Tell everyone! He’d done it! He’d been driven to do it and he’d done it and that was it. That was him. That was part of who he was.

George Saunders, Tenth of December

Instead of should I take a writing course, ask yourself What is stopping me from writing right now?

There are innumerable writing courses offered online. Indeed, some are taught by reputable writers. But most are the creation of people who have read The $100 Startup and now hope to make a buck on your dreams of becoming a successful, or just slightly better, writer.

These programs cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, and take place over a few hours to a few months.

A better use of your resources is to find and squash that kernel of resistance. What’s stopping you?

The fear of failure?

A lack of confidence?

That futile quest for permission?

I know these feelings well.

When not writing retirement articles or financial marketing content, I’ve been fortunate to publish short stories. Still, I didn’t think I was good enough to write fiction. I never had a writing mentor, and had never participated in a creative writing workshop.

Nagged by this feeling of self-doubt, I sent a letter to George Saunders on a whim. I asked what it takes for a writer to build the necessary skills to write with confidence. It was more of a therapy exercise for myself, as I had no expectations he would ever write me back.

But he did.

Here’s what he said:

To me, it’s been about finding a style that accommodates my particular view and gifts and problems and so on.  So, reading a lot of writers to find your crew, that’s one thing.  And then really learning to revise per your taste, and even micro-revise – tailoring on the phrase level.  Reading and absorbing the masters – that’s the big thing.  It’s all so intuitive, really.  Fill your head up with good examples and then recognize that your “true voice” might be one that you have to edit your way to – by cutting and choosing and rearranging text and so on. 

Mostly I think it’s all about time at the desk AND recognizing that you have levels of taste, way down, that you might not know you have – taste, opinions, preferences.  That’s what readers really value, I think.

What most people want is individualization, to write with their own style.

What is the probability a writing course is going to provide that?

Dean Smith coached a lot of kids. Only one of them became Michael Jordan.

To echo F. Scott Fitzgerald, if you have something to say, something nobody has ever said before, something you feel desperate to say, then what need do you have for someone else’s permission?

Write. Make mistakes. Accept criticism. Repeat.

The fact is, there is a wealth of writing tips, tricks, templates, etc., freely available online. If that’s what you’re looking for, don’t waste your money and time on the opinions of a self-declared “top writer.”

Don’t get me wrong. This sounds contradictory, and I don’t care that it does, but I am not saying that no one will ever find value in a writing course.

We all have personal triggers that help us accomplish what we didn’t think we could. A writing course may be yours. The financial and time commitment, the pressure, the criticism from peers. One or all may compel you to write seriously.

But, can you expect anything or anyone else to make you feel, when you’re stuck and the words are hard to come by, that writing is truly worth it?

No.

Friday Five

Five pieces of (mostly) financial writing and one reason why I recommend reading them.

An investigation of WFH’s impact on stocks

Margins is a terrific Substack newsletter. Ranjan Roy’s personal deep dive into topics are informative and entertaining.

Happiness is love. Full stop.

Brad Stulberg reads study after study and remarkably distills them into the essence of living a healthier, more fulfilling life. In this article, he writes of love as the source of happiness. Something that should take precedence in our financial lives, too. For what is money for, if not for that which we love?

Wealth has many definitions

Deep thoughts, expressed simply. Wonderful structure and form. It’s a Morgan Housel piece.

Writing about nature — or anything

Writing advice from one our living greats: Helen Macdonald.

Friday fiction: International Man Booker winner MARIEKE LUCAS RIJNEVELD

She must have seen Hanna’s shocked expression because she asks us if everything’s all right, if all the crushed bodies aren’t upsetting us. I lovingly wrap my arm around my little sister who has put on a sulky pout. I’m aware there’s a risk she could suddenly burst into tears, like this morning when Obbe flattened a grasshopper against the stable wall with his clog. I think it was mainly the sound that scared her,  but she stuck to her guns:  to her it was that little life, the wings folded in front of the grasshopper’s head like mini fly-screens. She saw life; Obbe and I saw death.