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The Seeker

Siddhartha is an allegorical novel by Hermann Hesse written in 1922. It deals with the story of a restless Indian boy named Siddhartha, who leaves the comfort of his home and embarks upon a spiritual journey in search of peace and wisdom.

On his quest, he first spends time with the Samanas, who encourage him to live a life of deprivation. He practices fasting, meditation, and self-denial, but all his efforts are in vain. He feels no closer to enlightenment. He tells his friend Govinda, who also accompanied him on the journey, of his doubts.

“I find only a short numbing of the senses in my exercises and meditations and that I am just as far removed from wisdom, from salvation, as a child in the mother’s womb.”

His unrelenting search for a universal understanding of life takes him to Gautama, Buddha himself. He had heard that he was a man of bliss, and that Brahmans and princes would bow down before him and become his students. He decides to walk over to the town of Savathi to meet the exalted one.

“He looked at Gautama’s head, his shoulders, his feet, his quietly dangling hand, and it seemed to him as if every joint of every finger of this hand was of these teachings, spoke of, breathed of, exhaled the fragrant of, glistened of truth. This man, this Buddha was truthful down to the gesture of his last finger. This man was holy.”

Never before, Siddhartha had venerated a person so much, never before he had loved a person as much as this one. But Siddhartha felt little curiosity for his teachings, he did not believe that they would teach him anything new. He felt strongly that true wisdom can only come from within. So while Govinda chose to stay and sought refuge with the monks, Siddhartha moved on.

He ventures into the city where he meets Kamala, a courtesan, who sends him in the direction of material pursuits. Even as a rich man, however, Siddhartha realizes that the luxurious lifestyle he has chosen is merely an illusion, empty of spiritual fulfillment.

“He had been captured by the world, by lust, covetousness, sloth, and finally also by that vice which he had used to despise and mock the most as the most foolish one of all vices: greed. Property, possessions, and riches also had finally captured him; they had become a shackle and a burden.”

With a gloomy mind, Siddhartha leaves everything behind, and decides to live the rest of his life by the presence of a river, where he had earlier met Vasudeva, an enlightened ferry man. He becomes an observer of Nature, and the river teaches him many lessons, with Vasudeva as his guide. He learns from it continually. Above all, he learns from it how to listen. The quieter he becomes, the more he is able to hear. Siddhartha also realizes that he had learned something new from everyone he met on his path. There is Truth all around. From that moment, Siddhartha ceases to fight against his destiny and thinks only of the Oneness of all life.

“There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things. He was an inspired man.”

Years later Govinda, still restless in his heart, comes to the river after hearing talk of an old ferryman who is regarded as wise. He asks Siddhartha to ferry him over, not recognizing him at first as the friend of his youth. As the two old friends begin their trip across the river, Govinda asks Siddhartha to share some of the things he learned on his journey.

“What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find… When someone is seeking, it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.”

Don’t we all spend our life searching for something? We write our goals, design our path, and then chase after it with everything that we have. We pursue our objectives aggressively and directly, ignoring all other possibilities, and try our best not to deviate from the plan.

In place of hurrying on the path with our hands stretched out, reaching for the goal—which always seems farther out in the distance, fleeing from our grasp even as we get closer—perhaps we should walk through life, with our arms wide open, and our palms tilted toward the sky. In this manner, we would be open to receiving everything that comes our way, and living in the present, as opposed to in some uncertain future. Rather than feeling tired of life and the long road we still have to travel ahead; we would be free of worry, and slowly discover the joy of surprising ourself instead. Maybe we learn something new on every step along the way. When Siddhartha glanced at the river, he realized something: “This water ran and ran, incessantly it ran, and was nevertheless always there, was always at all times the same, and yet, new in every moment!”

I’ve grown up to believe there are no coincidences in life. We are always in the right place, and everything happens at exactly the right time. Instead of obsessing about our goals or destination, maybe we should remain in the present moment, and just let the universe move about. Like the river, life has its own flow, we cannot impose our own structure upon it. We can’t control it—all we can do is listen to its current. Sometimes, when the outside noise dulls down, the quietness within reveals a lot, but only if you listen, intently.

The Gospel Of Wealth

Andrew Carnegie was once the richest man in the world. Coming from a poor background, he loved making money and he loved spending it. Yet he felt guilty sometimes about loving it so much. In December of 1868, at the age of 33, Carnegie sat at his desk at the St. Nicholas Hotel in New York and wrote a memo to himself. He had a net worth of $400,000 and received annual income in dividends of $50,000 from his holdings in sixteen companies. We quote:

“Beyond this never earn. Make no effort to increase fortune, but spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes. Cast aside business forever except for others… Man must have an idol—the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry—no idol more debasing than the worship of money… To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery.”

He vowed to retire in two years. But the lure of wealth proved too strong. By 1901, he was easily worth over $250 million.

His conscience never slept. In a famous article titled “The Gospel of Wealth” published in 1889, Carnegie expressed that the chief problem of the age was the proper administration of wealth, “so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in a harmonious relationship.” We excerpt as follows:

”This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: To consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer…in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community. The millionaire’s wealth was not his to spend, but his to wisely give away. Rich men should be thankful for one inestimable boon. They have it in their power during their lives to busy themselves in organizing benefactions from which the masses of their fellows will derive lasting advantage, and thus dignify their own lives.”

But how do you determine what’s “surplus” in today’s world?

As of last year, UBS estimates there are 2,325 billionaires around the world with a combined net worth of $7.3 trillion. The average person in this ultra affluent tier is 63 years old and has liquid holdings of $600 million. There is a wealth “ceiling” of $10 billion with 95% of the world’s billionaires worth between $1 billion and $10 billion. Crossing the $10 billion threshold has been particularly rare.

Based purely on subjective reasoning, we can probably all come to an agreement that anything above $1 billion represents a fair “surplus”. With interest rates at 2%, this would provide an annual income of $20 million. The world would still have 2,325 billionaires and nearly $5 trillion swept aside
to spend for “benevolent purposes”.

The point I’m trying to make here is really simple: There is enough money in this world to solve all of our problems. It’s just that the money doesn’t flow to all the right places. There is no shortage of food either. No one should sleep hungry. Yet, food just doesn’t pass on to where it’s needed most. As Gandhi once said, the earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.

How do we unclog this world?

A new Oxfam study found that—based on current trends—by next year, 1% of the world’s population will own more wealth than the other 99%. According to the report, 80 people now own the same amount of wealth as more than 3.5 billion people, down from 388 in 2010. This has sparked a futile debate on rising global inequality and on ways to correct such imbalances. I for one don’t believe in government’s interjection or redistributive taxation. The laws of distribution should be as free as the laws of accumulation. We just need to break down our ego-shell and awaken our conscience.

Peter Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in June of 2013 titled “The Charitable-Industrial Complex”. We quote:

“As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering”—feeling better about about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity. But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.”

Excluding future pledges, billionaires, on average, donate just over $100 million cumulatively over their lifetimes. This is equivalent to 3% of their net worth. Why can’t we give as extravagantly as we spend? And why do we wait till the end of our lives? As Peter Tunney says, “THE TIME IS ALWAYS NOW”. I truly believe (excessive) savings weakens the soul.

We marvel at the “giving pledge” of billionaires, and yet, it is those who have little and give it all who are the true believers in the bounty of life. As per Khalil Gibran, their coffer is never empty. You often say, “I would give, but only to the deserving… The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture. They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish. Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights, is worthy of all else from you.”

I have come to realize that my earnings are not just my own. Mixed in my purse is the right of many others who earn too little or nothing at all. We are all but trustees for the poor and dispossessed. This is the real test for mankind. The river of money should always flow, with no forcing, and no holding back. What’s your surplus?

What Babies Teach Us

Zaynab turns two this month. As a first time father, I also turn two in my experience as a parent. I feel like we are growing up together.

For the last two years, I’ve watched Zaynab marvel at this world of sights and sounds in what was without question the most accelerated period of learning in her life—putting everything she can into her mouth as a way of connecting with it, pushing her explorations further as she learned to crawl, stand, and walk, establishing her individual identity as she distinguished between this thing called “Zaynab” (she refers to herself in third person) and everything else, and now, using the gift of speech to make sense of her surroundings and negotiate her existence in the world. She is absorbing new observations a mile a minute and developing an awareness of herself as an autonomous, self-determining being.

With all the hours of attention we give our children, we naturally think we are the ones teaching them. But if we dare to pay close enough attention, they have a host of important lessons for us too.

One of my greatest joys is to watch my parents spend time with Zaynab. How she folds into their arms so neatly, and how they shower her with endless warmth and affection. It allows me to imagine something that just never occurred to me before: how thirty years ago, it was probably me they had in their arms and were obsessing over. As a witness to their incredible outpouring of love for their granddaughter, I just feel humbled by how much love they must have felt for me, even if my mom was crying when I was born (she desperately wanted a girl, and I was her third boy, can you blame her?).

Back to the point, it makes me sad for ever raising my voice at my father in a heated argument. And it makes me appreciate my mother’s sacrifices even more, which continue to this day. I should, perhaps, be more kind and say, “I love you” more often.

However different we may all be now, we were all babies once. It’s easy to play it tough now, to overdo our independence, but we have all been recipients of continuous selfless and exhaustive attention, at all hours and in multiple ways. And therefore, no one made themselves. Babies are a reminder that we’re dependent creatures. Today, they need us. Tomorrow, we will need them. Now we hold their hand. Later they will hold ours.

As adults, we struggle to make someone happy or even feel happy ourselves. But ostensibly minor things please babies. Things that have become boring to us, perhaps unfairly so, excite them to no end. Zaynab encourages us to celebrate even the most ordinary experiences of life as precious divine gifts. It’s so easy for her to put a smile on someone’s face.

Philosopher Alain de Botton believes we should hang out with babies as a corrective, to remind us of what really matters. “It’s easy to get sickened by our species: the greed, the status consciousness, the vanity… [Babies] don’t care if the car is big, they don’t pay attention to what one’s job is or how much one’s making. They teach us about the truest, purest, ego-free kind of love, which is about giving affection without an expectation of receiving anything in return.”

I find them to be the utmost spiritual teachers. No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. Babies only care about being with people who are nice to them whatever they look like. From three months of age, research has found they actually understand the difference between ‘mean’ and ‘helpful’ behaviour and have a natural instinct to favour the latter.

Most of all, they’re messengers of hope, testament that no matter how much hate there is in the world, love will never be defeated. To the point that even faced with death and destruction, they have the power to prevent us from feeling too disenchanted with the state of our world.

While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.
- Angela Schwindt

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.