Author Archives: Jawad Mian

Ahsan

I’d like to tell you a story.

By 2006, it had been four years since I visited Pakistan. I was twenty-two and change and I had kept myself busy in Toronto with a work and study routine that had not allowed me to travel anywhere. But thankfully, my eldest brother was getting married there in August and I was really looking forward to going back. I had particularly wanted to spend time with my grandparents as they were aging quickly and I felt that I had so much to talk about with them. I wanted to hear stories about their childhood, the colonial and partition era, their views on religion, and learn what they felt to be some of the very basic lessons of life.

I still remember the March 18 night in Canada when I got a message from home that Dada Abu had passed away (urdu for my grandfather from my father’s side). I immediately broke down. All of a sudden, I felt so far away from all that really mattered. The news shook me very hard. I think somewhere deep inside this had been a fear of mine. I knew that Dada Abu was getting weaker but I did not like to imagine that life could end. Though I had not spent much time with him, I felt very attached, and in an instant I was filled with regret at not having gone back to Pakistan earlier and speaking with him the way I had wished. Now it was too late.

A couple of months later, my Nana Abu (my grandfather from my mother’s side) came to Canada for a visit and to live with his son for a brief while. I promised myself that I am going to make the most of this opportunity and spend as much time with him as possible. Nana Abu was used to praying in the mosque five times a day, a routine which was not possible during his time in Canada. So I decided with my uncle that I would pick them both up very early in the morning and we would then pray Fajr together in the mosque, pick up some breakfast from Tim Hortons, and then go for a walk by the lake before I make my way to work each day.

As we watched the sun rise, I would press my grandfather with questions about his past. It was on these lovely, long morning walks that Nana Abu opened up and first started sharing his stories. I was hooked. Almost every day I would return from work in the evening and head over to my uncle’s apartment to spend time with Nana Abu and hear more about his life. Little by little, it grew upon me that I don’t want to forget these amazing stories, and perhaps that others in the family may not have heard them before either. With that in mind, I began jotting down his thoughts and life experiences.

My grandfather had no clue of what I was up to. Slowly, my notes took the shape of short stories, and then I got the idea to turn it into a little book that I could distribute to the whole family (my mother has eight siblings). The whole process, from beginning to end, took a little over a month. The book was edited and printed just a few days before I was going to leave for Pakistan to attend my brother’s wedding.

To this date, giving that book to him has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I still vividly recollect his reaction. He had the most incredible smile on his face – he was beaming!

He said to me: “On the Day of Judgement, angels will hand us a book with a full list of our deeds in this world. You have given me that book right here, in this life, in this world.” He made me sit right next to him while he read the entire book from cover to cover. He laughed out loud, corroborated the stories told, and spent the evening entranced with joy. From that day onwards, the book would always be by his side. He would take it with him everywhere – like a prized possession – and never fail to tell people about it. Without doubt, it brought him a tremendous amount of happiness.

Almost five years later, on an April morning in 2011, my Nana Abu passed away in Faisalabad, Pakistan. My last meeting with him was less than two months prior in February when I was in Islamabad for a short visit.

One afternoon during that stay, he called me into the study room where he was engaged in a discussion with a friend. As I walked into the room, he raised his hand towards me and asked the gentleman if he knew who I was. The visitor hesitated to answer and then Nana Abu proceeded to say: “He is Nusrat’s son; he is the one who wrote that book about me.” I could sense that he was very proud.

The following morning I went over to Nana Abu’s room to say good-bye. I had lunch plans elsewhere and was not going to return. As soon as I spoke of my departure, he felt disturbed. He was not feeling his best and he grabbed me by the arm. It was Friday and he asked me to take him to Friday prayers, “I will feel stronger with you next to me.” I told him of my lunch plan and tried to excuse myself. I re-assured him that my young cousin would take him to prayer, like he always did, and that he will be just fine, there is nothing to worry about. He did not want to hear that, he asked again. Once more I tried to find a way out. But Nana Abu was adamant, he insisted yet again.

And then, at that moment, suddenly, I was overcome with an incredible sense of guilt. I couldn’t believe that I was being so selfish. Thinking about it now, I still can’t believe it took three attempts from him to ask me before I decided to finally change my mind. How ridiculous! In any case, a few hours later, we went together for Friday prayers along with my cousin. Nana Abu held my hand as we walked. We prayed and returned home right after. He thanked me and I felt extremely ashamed. I kissed him as he got into bed to rest and that was the last I saw of him.

Of course, I did not think that would be our last meeting. And now, imagine not having this memory of him. I would never have forgiven myself. I almost feel that Nana Abu purposefully exonerated me from the feeling of life-long guilt by insisting repeatedly that I accompany him to Friday prayers. There is something to be said about that. I should have been the one thanking him.

As I reflect on my relationship with Nana Abu, I have much to be thankful for. But for me, the one thing that stands out most – in terms of his contribution to my life – was learning what little I could of Allama Iqbal from him. Nana Abu was the first person to really properly introduce me to Iqbal’s works. He read me his poetry and beautifully explained the seminal piece Shikwa (Complaint to God) during which he would breakdown and weep.

As time rolled on, my own personal interest in Iqbal eclipsed the very basic introduction I received from him during his summer visit to Canada. Nana Abu would repeatedly say that we must strive to be Iqbal’s Shaheen (an Eagle). His avian symbol that carried a number of inspiring features: independence, self-respect, self-control, character and honor, courage, lofty thinking, spiritualism over materialism, constant struggle and endurance, perseverance, and purity of soul and passion. I did not understand the full-weight of what he meant at the time, I do now.

You ask me of the marks of a man of faith?
When death comes to him, he has a smile on his lips.
- Allama Iqbal

The Elegant Universe

Sonder
n. The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

We grow up thinking the universe revolves around us. Who can blame us? From the moment we open our eyes people start cooing over us. “Look how beautiful.” “She’s so special.” Friends and family hanging in our immediate orbit fight with each other to hold us for just a few seconds.

A sneeze, a cough, a stifled cry, and our poor parents drop everything and run to us in a heartbeat. We are their masters, wielding invincible power. We constantly keep them on the edge, making sure they don’t get enough sleep or leaving them with just enough guilt to make them doubt if they are doing a good job. But for all the trials and hardship, we give them plenty of love in return. We’re not inconsiderate, at least not yet…

For the first six months, the world, as we know it, is only as big as our mother’s embrace. We are always wrapped in her arms. It is only after we crawl out of the comfort of her bosom that we understand our place.

As we walk around to explore, we realize that there are restrictions to where we can go and what things we can pick up and put in our mouth. We are not free to do as we please. But the real shocker is to discover that we share our parents’ love with Pippen, the family dog. That’s an enormous blow to our ego.

When we turn five and our mother tells us that we’ll get a baby brother soon, we sense trouble. Our worst fears are confirmed when everyone seems excited even though he looks like a smurf when he is born. Slowly things begin to change around the house. We get kicked out of our parents’ bed and are forced to sleep alone in the dark. We notice we have to cry louder and longer to get their attention. And we are scolded for biting our younger brother to see if he is actually real.

Our universe starts to crumble before our eyes. How can we not be at the center of every experience?

Once we move into our teenage years, life gets even more complicated. We’re so full of it, full of ourselves that we struggle to reconcile with other people’s wants and desires. Personal wants reign supreme. So when we don’t get selected in the basketball team, or don’t get the girl of our dreams, our sense of entitlement feels bruised.

There comes a point when we stop believing what we know about the universe and its movement. We all, in one form or another, search for a new meaning. We are told our life’s purpose is waiting for us in the real world, at our places of work. So we morph into this high-tech race of cyborgs looking to leave an indelible mark on the universe—much like the message we carved on our classroom desk: “Jawad Was Here, 11/8/97”

Years go by. We lose ourselves in the din of time and routine, and become ghosts in shells—warding off boredom by scrolling through email, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Thanks to our damn phones jammed in our fists, we live increasingly virtual lives, too busy and absorbed in our tiny cocoons. All the while, there in the background, faint and out of focus, the elegant universe moves in ecstatic motion. Sonder.

Fortunately, we are not journeying in the universe but with the universe. “Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all in a silent conversation,” writes Elif Shafak in The Forty Rules of Love, echoing the wisdom of Shams Tabriz. “Everything and everyone is interconnected through an invisible web of stories… Do no harm. Practice compassion. And do not gossip behind anyone’s back—not even a seemingly innocent remark! The words that come out of our mouth do not vanish but are perpetually stored in infinite space, and they will come back to us in due time. One man’s pain will hurt us all. One man’s joy will make everyone smile.”

It’s poignant, humbling, and thought provoking.

We are all engaged in a dance fully choreographed by God—our caring parents, that snarky Pippen, our annoying little brother who is actually better looking, the beautiful girl who broke our heart, the guy on the train who can’t stop staring, the Starbucks employee who is always smiling, our old fart boss we’re avoiding, the homeless man singing, that couple over there fighting, the wind that is blowing, the kids going to school in the morning, Salma Hayek, me writing here, and you.

The entire universe is one being. To quote Alan Watts “Each one of us is a very very delightfully undulation of the energy of the whole universe. Only by our process of miseducation, we’ve been deprived of the knowledge of that fact.”

When will we take notice?

Macro Mavens

All macro traders suffer.

In 1979, when hedge fund titan Paul Tudor Jones was still a broker, he lost over 60% of the equity in his clients’ accounts on a single cotton trade that went horribly wrong. Relating the episode to Jack Schwager, who interviewed him for his 1989 book Market Wizards, Jones revealed:

“I was totally demoralized. I said, “I am not cut out for this business; I don’t think I can hack it much longer.” That was when I first decided that I had to learn discipline and money management. It was a cathartic experience for me, in the sense that I went to the edge, questioned my very ability as a trader, and decided that I was not going to quit. I was determined to come back and fight.”

We all make mistakes, but it’s best to make trading mistakes as early as possible. As Richard Dennis used to say to new traders, “When you start, you ought to be as bad a trader as you are ever going to be.” This is because the money you risk will be small, and the lesson less expensive.

For Jones, this was only his fourth year in the business. He turned his tryst with failure into incredible fortitude, and not long after, produced virtually five consecutive triple-digit return years. Today, he is highly regarded among the most successful macro traders ever.

Louis Bacon, close friend to Jones and founder of Moore Capital, also faced early disappointments. When at college, Bacon decided to use his student loan money to try his hand at trading. He lost money for three straight semesters—on sugar, gold, and cotton—and had to ask his father for money to pay his living expenses. He didn’t turn a profit until his final year.

In 1985, Bacon joined Commodities Corp. as a junior trader. He was given $100,000 to manage and promptly lost a third of the capital. Bacon was so mortified that he returned the rest of the money back to the partners. It took a couple of years before he was coaxed into another try. He now has one of the best long-term track records in the industry.

What accounts for his phenomenal success? In Bacon’s own words, “Hard work, patience, knowing when to hold ‘em, fold ‘em, or go all in.” Bacon is among those rare investors who made money on the infamous Black Monday in October 1987, the tech crash in 2000, and the subprime crisis in 2007.

Of all the people in the business, Stanley Druckenmiller is simply the best. In February 1981, at age 28, Stan launched Duquesne Capital with $1 million under management. It was an easy decision because of a consulting arrangement on the side that provided $120,000 in revenues. His fund performed very well from the start, and by May 1982 its assets had swelled to $7 million.

When his consulting client went belly-up, he had an immediate problem. His 1% management fee only generated $70,000, with $180,000 per year of overhead. At the time, the firm had assets of just under $50,000. Worried about the firm’s survival, Stan decided to place a desperate bet. He was convinced that interest rates would fall. He took all of the firm’s capital and put it into T-bill futures. In four days, he lost everything. This was his first major setback.

To keep himself in business, Stan sold 25% of his company for $150,000. He never looked back. His consistency and annual returns of 30% are unmatched. Stan has not had a single losing year in over thirty years in the business.

When Paul Tudor Jones got his first trading job, his boss gave him Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefevre. He was told it was the most important book he could read. It chronicled the tale of Jesse Livermore, one of the greatest speculators of all time.

Jones fell in love with the book and called it a “textbook for speculation.” He hands a copy of it to every new trader that joins his firm. Jones wrote the foreword for a new annotated edition of the book published in 2009. I believe his words are as timeless as the book itself. Here’s an excerpt:

“Probably the best lessons to be learned from this book come from his repeated failures and how he dealt with them. In the book, I think he lost his entire fortune four or five times. I did the same thing, but was fortunate enough to do it all in my early twenties on very small stakes of capital. I think I lost $10,000 when I was 22, and when I was 25 I lost about $50,000, which was all I had to my name. … I think it’s no coincidence that our greatest champions, our greatest artists, our greatest leaders, our greatest everything all seem to have experienced some kind of gut-wrenching loss. I think their greatness, in part, was fashioned on the crucible of that defeat. To a certain extent, I think that holds true in my field as well, and I am leery of traders who have never lost it all. I think that intense feeling of desperation that accompanies such a horrifically deflating experience indelibly cauterizes great risk management reflexes into a trader’s very being.

There are two unpleasant experiences that every trader will face in his lifetime at least once and most likely multiple times. First, there will come a day after a devastatingly brutal and agonizing stretch of losing trades that you’ll wonder if you will ever make a winning trade again. And second, there will come a point when you begin to ask yourself why it is you make money and if this is truly sustainable. That first experience tests an individual’s grit; does he have the stamina, courage, guts, and smarts to get up and engage the battle again? That second moment of enlightenment is the one that is actually scarier because it acknowledges a certain lack of control over anything. I think I was almost 38 years old when one day, in a moment of frightening enlightenment, I knew that I really did not know exactly how and why I had made all the money that I had over the prior 17 years. This threw my confidence for a jolt. It sent me down a path of self-discovery that today is still a work in progress.”

Before we marvel at the success of these money masters, we should think with what difficulty they have arrived at it. There are important lessons in it for all of us. As I remind myself of their struggle, and study how they coped with adversity, it always helps renew my ambition. If I enter a bad trading patch, which occasionally besets every investor, I revisit their trading campaigns so as to break the negative behaviours that are liable for my losing streak. Although I have faced some crushing battles, I will not be defeated. I am willing to suffer with patience, with open eyes, and understanding.

Abundance

Even after all this time,
The sun never says to the earth,
“You owe me.”
Look what happens with a love like that,
It lights the whole sky.
—Hafiz

At the peak of every commodity supercycle in history, humans have thought our insatiable demand for resources will exhaust the earth’s crust of just about every metal and mineral. In 1798, Thomas Malthus warned of the dangers of population growth, arguing that the power of demographics will be superior to the power of the earth to provide sustenance.

But even as our numbers swelled from 1 billion in 1800 to over 7 billion today, a surprising thing happened: nature did not go bankrupt. Mother earth, it seems, has much to give. There have still been famines. But in all such instances, the loss of life was a result of failure in human action—botched policies, hoarding or corruption, and lack of cross-border aid. The world, as a whole, has never been short food.

Inadequate production is not to blame for some 800 million people that go to bed hungry each night. According to the United Nations World Food Programme, one-third of all food produced globally (1.3 billion tons) is never consumed. The food simply goes to waste. How is it that we are like this?

From the earth’s abundance, springs life. Yet, we seem to squander our amazing inheritance. Poor nutrition causes nearly half of the deaths in children under five — that’s 3.1 million children each year. One in nine people on this earth do not have enough food to lead a healthy and active life. In America of all places, 35 million people are hungry and don’t know where their next meal will come from—13 million of whom are children. As actor Jeff Bridges poignantly observed, “If another country were doing this to our children, we’d be at war.”

What then should we make of this carelessness? Why do we withhold the bounty of life? Why can’t we give like the sun, to everyone equally and unconditionally? It is not the world’s resources, but our hearts and mind that are finite. It is not the neglect of resources, but the neglect of people that is likely to end very badly.

The Fall

I come from a big family. My mother has eight siblings and my father has ten. You can imagine how many uncles, aunts, and cousins I have. Yet, there is not a single lawyer, doctor, or engineer in our whole family. Not many finished university and no one pursued a professional degree. And so, it was my father’s wish to have at least one doctor in the family. Since I was “smarter” than my elder two brothers, I was the one encouraged to enter the medical profession.

I was sure that my personal calling was to be a doctor, and that was exactly what I was going to be. My friends started calling me Dr. Jawad and I started watching ER and Doogie Howser. I planned my life. I was going to go to Johns Hopkins, get a medical degree, specialize in some difficult-to-pronounce discipline that involved surgery, and be set for life. Based on my research, I would be making six figures in six years.

And then in grade 11, when I was sweet 16, I sat for my O’ Level examinations. My parents were travelling, my two elder brothers were already studying abroad, and my younger brother was my younger brother—who cares about them. The point is, I was home alone for the very first time in my life. I started skipping school, and could not be bothered about preparing for the important examinations. I was too busy discovering life.

This was an epic disaster.

Here’s my result: I got an “A” in French, a “B” in English, a “C” in Physics, a “D” in chemistry, an “N” in math (to this day I don’t know what “N” stands for), and an “E” in biology. That’s right, Dr. Jawad got an “E” in O Level biology. My promising medical career was over. That was one of my first encounters with the “F” word. I was a big failure!

My parents could not believe their eyes when they saw my alphabet soup inspired report card. I had let them down—big time! To this day, there’s still not a doctor in the family. After a crisis meeting with my father and eldest brother, it was decided that I would become a lawyer now, “Barrister Jawad Mian.” Naturally, I started watching Ally McBeal.

Because of my colourful O level grades, I was not willing to repeat the experience with A’ Level examinations. So, England was off the list as a destination for further studies. I decided to go to Canada and study finance during the pre-law years. My first year at college was great socially, but pretty poor academically. There’s one particular experience that may explain the entire episode.

I had an exam in the morning for which I had not studied a word. I played cards all night with friends and chatted on MSN messenger. My older brother came online and we chatted. He asked what I was up to and I expressed great stress about an exam in the morning. I pretended to be working really hard. His next words to me have stayed with me ever since. He said, “May you get what you deserve.”

I immediately uttered the other “F” word. Based on my study ethic, I had no doubt I would fail my morning exam. I was right. That was a turning point for me. I thought about my parents, I thought about my O’ Level grades, I thought about my attitude to life.

I pulled my act together and got pretty decent grades after that. The highest score achieved in my final year was 93 on a politics class. I only boast of that grade to prove that I’m not really that stupid. I finished my 4-year finance degree in 3-years (perhaps the first sign of over-ambition). Looking for a change of scenery, I applied to England to study law and got in.

Now I faced a dilemma. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a lawyer anymore. After much deliberation, I decided to defer my law school acceptance for a year and look for a job in finance—just to try it out. I soon landed a position as a bank teller and just like that, my personal calling changed, again. From doctor, to lawyer, to… hedge fund manager? The personal legend continues.

Life is a journey, and we are all just travellers. It’s okay to fall down or not know where you’re going. Nature has marked out a path for each of us, and it won’t let us stray too far from our course. There is no shame in falling, only in failing to rise back up on our feet. As Paulo Coelho said, the secret of life is to fall seven times and to get up eight times. Even success, it has been well said, is nothing more than moving from one failure to the next with undiminished enthusiasm.

Life is not without its challenges. The critical test of humanity is how we lead our life, and how we endure the challenges and trials that are inflicted upon us. As the perceptive 19th century author, Hannah Whitall Smith, wrote:

“The mother eagle teaches her little ones to fly by making their nest so uncomfortable that they are forced to leave it, and commit themselves to the unknown world of air outside. And just so does our God to us. He stirs up our comfortable nests, and pushes us over the edge of them, and we are forced to use our wings to save ourselves from fatal falling. Read your trials in this light, and see if you cannot begin to get a glimpse of their meaning. Your wings are being developed.”

So what if you fall?

How else will you learn to fly?

The Shrine

As fragrance abides in the flower,
As reflection is within the mirror,
So does your Lord abide within you,
Why search for him without?
—Guru Nanak

There is an old Hindu legend that has been recounted in many books. I stumbled upon it in William Danforth’s I Dare You!, on page 81:

[A]t one time all men on earth were gods, but men so sinned and abused the Divine that Brahma, the god of all gods, decided that the godhead should be taken away from man and hid some place where they would never again find it to abuse it.

“We will bury it deep in the earth,” said the other gods.
“No,” said Brahma, “because man will dig down in the earth and find it.”
“Then we will sink it in the deepest ocean,” they said.
“No,” said Brahma, “because man will learn to dive and find it there, too.”
“We will hide it on the highest mountain,” they said.
“No,” said Brahma, “because man will some day climb every mountain on
the earth and again capture the godhead.”
“Then we do not know where to hide it where he cannot find it,” said the lesser gods.
“I will tell you,” said Brahma, “hide it down in man himself. He will never think to look there.”

And that is what they did. Hidden down in every man is some of the Divine. Ever since then he has gone over the earth digging, diving and climbing, looking for that godlike quality which all the time is hidden down within himself.

So how do we find the Indwelling One?

Most of the world religions and spiritual traditions will tell you that the Way is not to be found in the sky above; the Way is in the heart. As per Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, faith is an endless pilgrimage of the heart.

As simple as it sounds, the inner journey is not without effort. Our heart is a vessel that contains a debris of old memories, our secrets, feelings, and dreams. But we also store up hard little stones of self-concern, anger, hatred, arrogance, and greed. A vessel must first be emptied before it can be refilled, such that, as Charles Le Gai Eaton observed, only someone who has expelled this debris from the heart can hope that something of the divine plenitude may flow into him. When the heart is polished, all the impurities vanish and our own unblemished essence is illuminated. It is of this purity that Prophet Jesus probably spoke when he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

Mahmud Shabistari, the 13th century Persian poet, beautifully conveys this path to self-realization in the following verse:

Go sweep out the chamber of your heart,
Make it ready to be the dwelling place of the Beloved,
When you depart out, He will enter,
In you, void of yourself, will He display His beauties.

The shrine of God is in the heart of man. If only we knew what harm is brought to our own being by even a small injury in thought, word, or deed against it. The principal moral of religion is to consider the heart of others, so that in the pleasure and displeasure of every person with whom we come in contact, we see the pleasure and displeasure of God. To Bulleh Shah, the 18th century Sufi, this mattered more than anything else.

Tear down the mosque, tear down the temple,
Break everything in sight,
But do not break anyone’s heart,
For that is where God resides.

The biggest loss in life is to have a hardened heart. We have let our hearts rust through years of neglect. If we could just rise above the ordinary faults of human life and see the divine in our fellowman, we would take more care to guard our own attitude, speech, and action to prevent any undesirable impression from occupying our heart. For the wise—the clear-hearted ones—overlook the weakness in others, because they see them reflected as their own.

Great Expectations

When I first read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, I didn’t fully fathom the genius of the novel. I was in high school, and saw it as a traditional unrequited love story. Not until I experienced many of the common concerns of growing up—falling in love, seeking acceptance, longing for success—did I begin to grasp the essence of the novel—an epic coming of age story. All of these themes are intricately woven into the narrative.

Great Expectations depicts the personal growth and development of Pip. From his youth to adulthood, Dickens takes us through many changes in his personality, shaped by the events and characters that influence him. Dickens portrays a bewildered world, not unlike our own, in which wealth and success hold meaning and sway. The beautiful Estella is at the top of the societal order, and Pip desires to become a part of it to acquire her. But Estella lacks judgment and remains impervious to him. When Pip realizes that his life’s purpose was merely an illusion, an internal struggle forces him to redefine his values.

The novel ends not fulfilling any great expectations, but with Pip rising to a new self-awareness. By losing everything that blind ambition caused him to desire, he wins happiness and freedom. A moral regeneration leads him to understand the true worth of people and things. Life thus takes a new meaning.

I used to equate “success” with wealth accumulation and social status. If I could also save the world or champion a noble cause along the way, then that would be super. I was keen to establish my place in the world. My work was my center. The quest to reach to the top defined me. Anything that advanced my goal made me happy, and anything that hindered made me sad. The gap between my life’s ambition and reality was filled with great expectations.

I hustled along. There were things to do, places to go, people to meet. Striving for the future helped me to escape the weariness of the present. Because there was so much I wanted to accomplish, I always felt confined by time. But subconsciously, I enjoyed telling people about my busyness.

According to writer Alain de Botton, one of the most interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. Yet, our ideas about what it means to live successfully are often not our own. Modern society places immense pressure to define success in material or worldly terms—wealth, fame, position, or power. This affects what we want, and how we view ourselves and others. “He is successful” is code for “he is rich.” But it shouldn’t be this way.

Something meaningful was lost when we made a tacit agreement to grade people based on their achievements. In The City of God, St. Augustine wrote, “It’s a sin to judge any man by his post.” It’s the person, not the job, that should count. Studies show there is no clear positive correlation between wealth and happiness. If we can meet our basic financial needs, money adds little to our level of fulfillment. This explains why our pursuit of material goals proves less satisfying when attained. And there’s the crux. Today’s definition of success needs serious realignment.

My unknowing 20-year old self sought to live an ideal sucked in from other people. My notion of success was based on superficial impressions, rather than my own sense of purpose. Like Pip, I misconstrued everything, including my heart’s desire.

Thankfully, my reorientation did not spring from a midlife crisis or an emotional breakdown. As I developed a deeper understanding of the world and our existence, my perspective changed. At 28, unmarried, with no kids, no debt, and enough savings to support me for a few years, I quit my job as a prop trader. I aimed to create a life that reflects my values and satisfies my soul.

In short, I traded money for meaning.

“How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives,” observed writer Annie Dillard. To me, a life of presence is more precious than a life of promise. I decided how I want to live, and went about finding a way to make a living within that way of life.

I’m very nuanced about what the word “success” means to me now. I still do what I love and work very hard, but life doesn’t feel like work anymore. I no longer mistake “doing” for “being” and am closer to my natural rhythm. My faith is now my center of strength. And, it has been well said; all is well with the faithful, whatever the circumstance.

The whole future lies in uncertainty. So I stopped trying to control or even predict where I’m going. As the poet Anatole France wrote, “If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads.” The last four years have been the most fulfilling and rewarding, both personally and professionally.

The lesson here: we must not confuse the impulse toward self-improvement with cravings for material success. In order to improve our circumstances, we should strive to improve our character.

‘Tis the Season of Shame

Shortly after I graduated from university, I landed a job as a bank teller in Toronto. It was surprisingly enough one of the best things that could have happened to me at the time. I was pretty shy growing up. I’m not a big talker. I was always the quiet one in our group of friends, I probably still am. But as a bank teller, I was forced to interact with everyone: comely girls, creepy men, and cranky old people. Slowly, I began to get comfortable with my role and with time I gained confidence. It was a small neighbourhood branch so it had a very sociable atmosphere. The branch manager (Vicky) was Italian, the two personal bankers (Nitee and Niadia) were Indian and Spanish, the financial advisor (Akis) was Greek, and my two side-kicks at the till were Irish (Julian) and Canadian (Kathy). I was there for 3-months and absolutely loved it.

What I remember most fondly from my experience was the period leading up to Christmas. I can’t stand the cold. Even after having spent nearly a quarter of my life in Canada, I never got used to the winters there. But for some reason, during each Christmas season, I wouldn’t mind freezing. I think it had much to do with the wonderful holiday spirit.

It was fascinating for me to see the entire city come alive. Trees and malls would be decorated with lovely looking lights long before snowfall had any chance to cover them in its fold. From November onwards, you could shop till you drop with big discounts at every store. I would spend from my purse to buy blank cards and gifts for people I worked with. And every morning, as I picked up my “double double” from Tim Hortons, I would smile at the sight of Santa and his reindeers doing the rounds on my coffee cup. At our branch, the local radio station was always on as background score for our daily activities. In December, all they played were Christmas jingles. For the first few days I went mad listening, but as time drew on, I found myself humming along. My favourite was Chris Rea’s “Driving home for Christmas” and The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s “Fairytale of New York.”

I noticed our customers become friendlier as well. The grumpy old man was not so grumpy anymore and the hurried small business owner found the time to say hello first. As Charles Dickens once observed: “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

Just like my colleagues at the bank, we all may have come from different places, but we all still belong to humanity. No one has exclusivity. As the late musician Jeff Buckley advocated: “The soil from America can differ from the soil in Malaysia, but its soil, it’s still the same. And the colour of people’s skin can differ from place to place but it’s still skin. And, in that regard, there is no difference.” We are all but travellers heading to the same destination, even if not in the same direction.

If there is any moral principle that we must understand, it is that humanity is as one single body, and each nation, all races are the different organs. The well-being of each of those organs determines the happiness and well-being of the entire body. The shame is in not feeling the strain when one organ of the body is in pain. The need of the world today is a selfless conscience together with a sense of awakened justice. The world will crumble when all selfless people cease to exist. In many ways, it would appear their number is thinning quite rapidly.

Our welfare is not in looking after ourselves, but in looking after others. This season, what we truly need is to give a damn.

Awakenings

There is an old story about a beautiful peasant girl named Layla who was passing through a farmland while going to another village. There was a man offering his prayers out in the open. The custom was that no one should cross in front of the place where anyone is praying. When the girl returned from the village, this man was still sitting there.

He voiced, “O girl, what terrible sin have you committed earlier!”
“What did I do?” she asked puzzled.
“I was offering prayers here, and you passed over this place.”
“What do you mean by offering prayers?”
“Thinking of God”, he replied.
“Really? Were you thinking of God? I was thinking of my young man whom I was going to meet, and I did not see you. Then how did you see me while you were thinking of God?”

Science magazine published an instructive report which spoke to the challenges of the disengaged mind. We quote from the editor’s summary: “Nowadays, we enjoy any number of inexpensive and readily accessible stimuli, be they books, videos, or social media. We need never be alone, with no one to talk to and nothing to do. Wilson et al. explored the state of being alone with one’s thoughts and found that it appears to be an unpleasant experience. In eleven studies, they found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”

How strange. Perhaps the French philosopher Blaise Pascal was correct in observing that: “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” Life is difficult for many of us, but very often we make it even more difficult for ourselves by
the way we think.

In our age of connectedness and perpetual motion, there is something to be said about cultivating stillness in order to summon some emotional and mental clarity. We suspect that most of man’s problems arise from him abandoning the religion of solitude. Pico Iyer, in The Art of Stillness, reveals the unexpected pleasures of sitting still, without being distracted, as a way to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of our minds.

He reflects with a sense of nostalgia: “Not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury; nowadays it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize… We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off – our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.”

Iyer believes that this is the reason why many people seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi. They are all desperate to unplug. How many times have we imagined sitting on the banks of a river in perfect tranquility, or leaving everything behind and going on top of a mountain to live an unperturbed life?

From time to time, we all feel overwhelmed by the demands of this world and would like nothing more than to withdraw into a more peaceful state. But, as the example of the man in the opening story shows, harmony eludes the untutored mind. But it is surely something we can attain if we put our heart to it, as demonstrated by Layla when she went in search of her Majnun.

Much has been written about meditation as the solution for the modern man or woman given his or her frantic schedule. According to popular blogger Maria Popova: “Over the centuries, the ancient Eastern practice has had a variety of exports and permutations in the West, but at no point has it been more vital to our sanity and psychoemotional survival than amidst our current epidemic of hurrying and cult of productivity. It is remarkable how much we, as a culture, invest in the fitness of the body and how little, by and large, in the fitness of the spirit and the psyche – which is essentially what meditation provides.” Research has shown this can lead to better health and clearer thinking, even emotional intelligence. And if you’re Ray Dalio, it can even lead to bigger profits. As acknowledged by the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund: “Meditation, more than any other factor, has been the reason for what success I’ve had.”

We find all cultures of the world steeped in esoteric practices of one form or another to provide an effective means for acquiring self-knowledge. A kind of introspection and detached observation which helps people discover an even higher aspect of themselves. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is contemplative prayer. In the far Eastern traditions, vehicles of meditation often have to do with mastering aspects of breathing or the heartbeat. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, it is sitting with an awareness of thoughts and feelings without clinging to them. In Islamic tradition, it is emptying your heart and invoking God’s name. The objective of these practices is not to force yourself into a state of peace – which would be counterintuitive – but instead, to refocus your attention away from the ego or intellect toward the calm, pristine depths within. To attain harmony, one has to seek that lilt which is present in the innermost core of our being.

According to Inayat Khan: “It is just like the sea: the surface of the sea is ever moving, yet the depth of the sea is still. And so it is with our life. If our life is thrown into the sea of activity, it is on the surface. We still live in the profound depths that are still, in that peace. But the key is to become conscious of that peace which can be found within ourselves.” As the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius shared in one of his Meditations, nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul. You need not sail to St. Barts or travel to the Himalayas.

Meditation, in the words of Inayat Khan, is not some stoic physical position or arduous mental exercise that you do for 20-minutes in a day. It is really a letting go. The lifting of a veil, in our view, which leads to a marvellous change of viewpoint. By awakening our self, we develop more attentive and appreciative eyes that are so essential for a true reflection of the world. We don’t view it as just another to-do item.

At Stray Reflections, there are times when we sit around the office and do nothing. We just try to cultivate our receptive capacities as we “meditate” about the world. We find the thoughts that come to us unbidden are far more original and profitable than the ones we consciously seek out. It still takes us a long time though to coalesce our stray reflections into some actionable trade ideas. But one thing is for certain, when we let our mind go, we discover that we can see the world more clearly. As Pico Iyer alleged in one of his earlier essays, “It’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.”

We don’t do much with it, frankly. Just like not too long ago, it was access to information and price movements that seemed the greatest luxury for an investor; nowadays we think it’s often freedom from information overload, and the chance to sit still and not feel compelled to trade on every earnings release that feels like the ultimate prize. As the demands on our attention have increased in this madly accelerating world, we prefer to pull ourselves away from the screen every now and then to hone the power of detachment. We now experience fairly undisturbed thoughts and emotions to volatility spikes, and don’t always search for a well-reasoned explanation.

It’s not that we have declared a Trading Sabbath (different from our CNBC Sabbath). It is essential to stay in touch with markets and to know what’s going on in our positions. We have just developed habits of observation that we feel are far more important in our research process than fairly large and frequent accumulations of consensus groupthink. We endeavour to narrow the differences between what we choose to focus on and what actually gets us results. We take seriously our duty to our cherished readers and hope to provide a valuable return on your time.

Your harmony is important to us.

The Sixth Sense

Close both eyes, to see with the other eye. – Rumi

In religious scriptures, we learn that God created man out of dust from the earth, and then breathed into him of His spirit. Thus the body and soul are distinct, and it is the soul which gives the body its life. Isn’t it strange that we pass through our whole life cleverly conscious of our physical body, and yet generally unaware of our inner self?

From our early childhood, we begin to develop an awareness of our surroundings through the five physical senses—sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. This forms the basis of all our life experiences. But I feel there is more to human nature than what we live outward, on the surface. There is a tremendous power hidden within.

Inayat Khan speaks to this intuitive human faculty:

“We sometimes experience in life that which we see without eyes, hear without ears, and express without speech. It is the soul that sees, but we attribute sight and hearing to the eyes and ears. In absence of the soul, neither the body nor the mind can see. When a person is dead the eyes are there, but they cannot see; the ears are there, but they cannot hear… When the eyes are closed, do you think that the soul sees nothing? It sees. When the ears are closed, do you think that the soul hears nothing? It hears.”

The ordinary senses are connected to our external organs: eyes, ears, tongue, nose, and hands. The soul connects through the heart, our most vital organ, which we neglect most of all. If only we knew what harm has been brought to it by our own thoughts, speech, and action. The light of the soul only enters and illuminates the heart, when the hardness that covers it is broken through.

The best practice one can make is to not let material comfort lull you to spiritual sleep. The trick is to not starve your soul. This is very difficult in a world that is obsessed with feeding every desire of the body, and seeking happiness through material pursuits.

According to Pascal Bruckner, our hedonism is not wholesome, but haunted by failure: “However well behaved we are, our bodies continue to betray us. Age leaves its mark, illness finds us one way or another, and pleasures have their way with us, following a rhythm that has nothing to do with our vigilance or our resolution.”

The moment we extricate ourselves from our exclusive preoccupation with the physical self, and start nurturing our inner self, our soul, the latent power of the “sixth sense” will manifest to view.

Once the eye of the heart opens, a new consciousness is awakened. Our outlook changes, our insight deepens, and we develop a divine point of view. We cultivate new ways of observation that bypass the ordinary senses, and lead to greater unfoldment. This is beyond the understanding of the intellect, which distrusts thoughts that do not originate from the knowledge of the mind. And yet, it is these reflections, that spring from the depths of the unblemished heart of awakened souls, which make explicit the innate powers of man. The whole world begins to seem differently then.

When will we, if ever, move from identifying with the body to identifying with the soul?

Keep in mind, when we finally meet our death, the earth will reclaim our body; and it is the soul that will rise and seek God unencumbered.

All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there. – Rumi