ACTING: A few days ago a young subscriber asked me, “Russell, you’ve been dealing with the markets since the late-1940s. This is a strange question, but what is the most important lesson you’ve learned in all that time?”
I didn’t have to think too long. I told him, “The most important lesson I’ve learned comes from something Freud said. He said, ‘Thinking is rehearsing.’ What Freud meant was that thinking is no substitute for acting. In this world, in investing, in any field, there is no substitute for taking action.”
This brings up another story which illustrates that same theme. J.P. Morgan was “Master of the Universe” back in the 1920’s. Morgan belonged to many exclusive and expensive clubs. One day a young man came up to Morgan and said, “Mr. Morgan, I’m sorry to bother you, but I own some stocks that have been acting poorly, and I’m very anxious about these stocks. In fact worrying about those stocks is starting to ruin my health. Yet, I still like the stocks. It’s a terrible dilemma. What do you think I should do, sir?”
Without hesitating Morgan said, “Young man, sell to the sleeping point.”
The lesson is the same. There’s no substitute for acting. In the business of investing or in the business of life, thinking is not going to do it for you. Thinking is just rehearsing. You must learn to act.
That’s the single most important lesson that I’ve learned in this business.
Again, and I’ve written about this episode before, a very wealthy and successful investor once said to me, “Russell, do you know why stock brokers never become rich in this business?”
I confessed that I didn’t know. He explained, “They don’t get rich because they never believe their own bullshit.”
Again, it’s the same lesson. If you want to make money (or get rich) in a bull market, thinking and talking isn’t going to do it. You’ve got to buy stocks. Brokers never do that. Do you know one broker who has?
A painful lesson. Back in 1991 when we had a perfect opportunity, we could have ended Saddam Hussein’s career, and we could have done it with ease. But those in command, for political reasons, didn’t want to face the adverse publicity of taking additional US casualties. So we stopped short, and Saddam was home free. We were afraid to act. And now we’re dealing with that failure to act with another and messier war.
In my own life many of the mistakes I’ve made have come because I forgot or ignored the “acting lesson”. Thinking is rehearsing, and I was rehearsing instead of acting. Bad marriages, bad investments, lost opportunities, bad business decisions — all made worse because we fail for any number of reasons to act.
The reasons to act are almost always better than the reasons you can think up not to act. If you, my dear subscribers, can understand the meaning of what is expressed in this one sentence, then believe me, you’ve learned a most valuable lesson. It’s a lesson that has saved my life many times. And I mean, literally — it’s a lesson that has saved my life.
About Richard Russell:
Richard wrote for Dow Theory Letters almost every day of his adult life, mailing the letter out faithfully every ten days to three weeks beginning in 1958. In 1991 Dow Theory Letters began publishing online, which allowed Richard to write daily. This he did until about a week before his passing on Saturday, November 21 2015 well into his 90’s . Dow Theory Letters was the longest investment letter in the industry continuously written by the same person.