I spent the last few weeks meeting with lots of investors, and was reminded that, one way or another, all of us are grieving. It’s impossible to read this report on biodiversity without grieving. It’s impossible to see a loved one die or to live through the end of a relationship without grieving. In all of life, in every season, there is some measure of loss.
Grief is rarely welcome, but like most unbidden things, it holds tremendous power that pops up in unexpected places. It’s grief that makes people say things like, “I don’t care how it’s gotten, I want to maximize returns.” It’s also grief that makes people say things like, “I want to do right by my grandchildren” or “surely there is a better way.” All of these intentions spring from the same root.
When we are grieving, when we feel like we might shatter into a million pieces, one option is to curl up into a ball, to sink inward, to build a shell of self-protection. Stuck in that shell, our burning grief has nowhere to go. It cools into fear, cousin of anger, cousin of greed. All of our energy is spent in holding those million pieces together, and there is room for nothing else. Me me me. Can’t you see that I am in pain?
The other option, much more daunting, is to let grief break us, at least a little. Maybe we still need a shell, but if we let just a few of those million pieces fall to the ground, there’s space for the air and light to enter. Our pain is might not lessen, but it has room to move around. Our burning grief can be linked back to its essence, the love that makes it hurt so much in the first place. And from that love, great things can sprout.
Here is the secret – grief does break us, no matter which path we choose. So when we build our shells, let’s leave just a little open space.
Our grief can lead to glory instead of greed, if we let a few pieces fall.
* An amazing book on these themes is Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser. I am honored to serve on the board of the Omega Institute with Elizabeth, the group’s co-founder, and am continuously buoyed-up by all that I learn from Elizabeth and from Omega.
* As many of your know, some of my own attempts to transform grief can be reflected in my investment work. We just released our first sustainability and impact report at Putnam, as we aim to reconnect investing with the world it is meant to serve. I’m proud of the progress, while recognizing there are also many wonderful miles ahead. https://www.putnam.com/literature/pdf/ESG004_RE-27db9d8b1d96d399da2f065195aa4605.pdf
Poet Sarah Kay, she of the brilliant If I Should Have a Daughter, recently opened the TED conference by reminding us of how much time we spend trying to invent wonder, while looking right past the wonders that are already all around us. For example, she noted the magic of starlings murmuring, and the enormity of the heart of a blue whale.
Last night I hosted a sleepover with my little niece and nephew and we were watching Blue Planet and amongst the crazy fish that uses tools to open clams and the squid that looks like a rock was the tremendous blue whale. The kids already knew all about it and we traded stories about the wonders of the world as we all fell asleep and there I was, thinking about Sarah Kay’s poem while inside of my own.
Dear friends, wherever this day finds you, may your poem be wonder-full.
Years ago I attended a seminar with the brilliant mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. I remember being so excited to hear what he had to say, and also a little worried that the discussion would be too technical for me to follow.
The first sentence he said was, “I study roughness.”
He explained that most of mathematics had been dedicated to explaining smoothness and straight-lined geometric forms, but when we look at the world around us, it’s much more interesting than that. It’s bumpy and swirled and nested and craggy, often in gloriously consistent ways.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the role of roughness and friction in our lives and in our systems. So much of our time is spent trying to smooth things out – strategizing on how to design an express lane, or get a complete gym workout in 20 minutes, or automate a portfolio construction process. And it’s true, I’m glad I don’t have to milk my own cow to make a latte, or keep my earnings models by hand on graph paper.
But the whole point of those efficiencies is to make room for something better. A hike in the woods is less efficient than a run on the treadmill, but it fills up my soul. A home cooked meal is less efficient than take-out, but it’s a different kind of nourishment. A one on one conversation with an entrepreneur is less efficient than reviewing their pitch book, but it allows for a connection beyond transaction.
Seamless is not always the goal. Seams hold things together. And they can be mended and adjusted, so that the garment can shift over time without tearing asunder. We need the rough, along with the smooth. We need the swirls and craggy bits along with the straight lines.
Dear friends, whether we are designing power grids or running errands, let’s flip our question around. Instead of asking where we can cut something out, let’s ask, what do I want to add back in?
Let’s dwell a little in the roughness, where there’s room to reflect and to learn and to work and to be a little bit still.
This weekend we celebrate Independent Bookstore Day, one of my favorite of the modern made-up holidays. It’s right up there with Ice Cream for Breakfast Day (February 2) and Meteor Day (June 30).
Of course the reason independent bookstores are so wonderful is that they are full of BOOKS. And every once in a while, there’s a passage in a book that takes my breath away.
Most recently this happened during a Good Society reading with Acumen, where we reviewed an excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath. Right in the middle of the description of the “owner men,” there it was:
All of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling.
I wanted to read on until Steinbeck made a different point, until there was another idea that did not pinch so personally, until it was time to stop reading and go on to something else.
Reading is a refuge for me, but this Steinbeck passage reminds us that there’s a fine line between refuge and escape. Much as I love spreadsheets, they are meant to reflect reality, not to replace it. Much as I love indie bookstores, the wisdom they contain is meant to supplement life, not substitute for it.
Dear friends, next time we feel a pinch, let’s practice letting the pinch sink in, even if it leaves a bruise. Let’s be sure our refuge is not retreat.
I was lucky to attend the TED conference this past week, where there are always some unexpected sources of wisdom and insight. If you had asked me to name the most likely source of connection and de-partisanship to be encountered during the gathering, I would not have guessed Frank Luntz, policial advisor and commentator. But there he was, talking about the gaps between what we say and what others hear, and offering specific advice for language that is less divisive and dismissive.
One of his notes was about the language of sustainability, so of course I was all ears. Sustainable business and investing endeavors have long been held back by our own language, by creating a jumble of competing terms, individually imperfect and collectively confusing. Just like many others, I prefer my own special quirky terms like resilience and regeneration — but our marketing team has dismissed these wonky and hard-to-say options – understandably so. They don’t yet have the zing of the “er’s” that Luntz suggested:
These are all more inspiring and connective terms than sustainable, he concludes – and we can see why. Who wants the status quo? Who wants “do no harm,” when our aspirations are so much higher than that? As he spoke I was reminded of a dear friend and mentor, who advised me years ago to avoid preaching sermons or pitching ideas, and instead to “throw a better party!” Do something so obviously awesome, she said, that everyone will want to join in. No words required.
So, dear friends, let’s think, what’s our “er”?
As many of us gather with friends and family this weekend,
Let’s speak in words that can be heard.
Let’s listen for what’s really being said.
* On a somewhat related note, I was hosted recently by Patrick O’Shaughnessey for his podcast, Invest Like the Best. Patrick is an unusual and generous interviewer, thoughtfully prepared and truly curious, and his podcast is consistently thought-provoking. You can find our conversation here: http://investorfieldguide.com/collins/