Carlton Fisk - A Game of Inches

Life is a game of inches.

I heard some version of this a lot as a kid watching Cincinnati Reds baseball with my dad.  Nevermind the fact that watching Reds baseball during that era was (and still is) more a test of loyalty and an exhibition of masochism.

Frequently, my dad would say: “It’s a game of inches”, referencing a ball declared “foul!” that otherwise might have tripped a left fielder up in the corner of the field – making him look more like a clumsy fawn than a professional athlete.  Or, who can forget Carlton Fisk waving for his game winning homerun to stay in-play against the Reds in the 1975 World Series?  This was before my time, but I’ve seen the replay so many times, I might as well lived through it.  For you Sox fans out there, let’s not forget who won Game 7.

In golf, how your ball comes to rest against or on top of a single blade of a grass may impact your ability to make clean contact on the next shot.

You likely have your own examples that come to mind that aren’t sports.  I’ve watched an old episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with our kids where he visits famous pianist Yo-Yo Ma.  I’m always amazed that if his fingers slipped by even a fraction of an inch triggering a wrong note (which is very conceivable at the pace he plays), it’d likely be noticeable, and the experience would be totally different.  Game of inches.

Extrapolating this concept over the duration of our lives can be both a frightening and liberating experience.

Personally, I frequently replay a “game of inches” moment in my life: a decision to meet some friends at a restaurant – that ultimately led to meeting my wife.  That single decision to head to the restaurant (which I was on the fence about) likely led to my marriage, where I live now, and our kids.  Game of inches.

You likely relate on some level.  It’s frightening because we have no idea when those moments occur, except for in hindsight.

This could be one now… or the next one… or is this one?  It can be paralyzing if you allow.

However, the liberating part is that – while we lack immense control – the habits we form in all these moments (inches) can trend in a certain direction.

Author and investor, James Altucher, frequently says, don’t try to be the best.  Just get 1% better each day because, that compounded, is 3800% annually.

BJ Fogg, in his book Tiny Habits, encourages us to build on activity that already exists in our lives.  For instance, he frequently references his own journey of doing small amounts of push-ups each time after going pee.  Hey, whatever works.

Ryan Holiday, modern day writer on Stocism, frequently references Greek philosopher,  Epictetus: “Every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running… therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it.”

Game of inches, habits, moments.

And, yes, it’s frightening that one moment can disrupt otherwise excellent behavior that’s trending in a positive direction.  Many might feel that way now amidst the pandemic.  One moment in time (let’s call it those dreadful weeks in Feb/March) can make your retirement account decline by a third after decades of doing the right thing.

Although, it is liberating that we can control the trend – maybe not the ultimate destination – but the trend.  This is done through our tiniest of habits – our personal game of inches.

Aristotle’s Golden Mean has been refined through the years.  Below is an example of a modern version and some of the virtues offer insight to the game of inches we play with money – that is, how we can trend positively.

Here’s a look at a few of them:

Determination – In the last 15 years, if we missed the 20 best trading days, our annualized percentage return dropped from approximately 7% to approximately -1% (S&P 500 – dividends not reinvested).  In a vacuum, that statistic can be sort of disenchanting.  It takes determination to remain steadfast when considering the nature of our most accessible wealth creation tool in America.  If we venture into the world of predicting the stock market and act accordingly, we start spending time in the excessive version of this virtue (greed).

Patience – These volatile times make people irritable (lack of patience).  A patient person would expect an upward trend of the stock market over DECADES of time.  Thinking by even ONE decade might hurt you – see the lost decade in the US that included the 2000 “dot-com bubble” and the 2008 financial crisis.  Wealth accumulation is likely a 30-40 year process as is wealth distribution.  Habits (and inches of progress) must trend positively over DECADES of time.

Generosity – Since no one is immune to our current uncertainty, we can all be susceptible to the deficiency of this virtue (stinginess).  Now is the time to dig deep and double down on our convictions.  If we don’t execute now, they were never convictions – they were merely convenient ways to pat ourselves on the back.  Per Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get.  We make a life by what we give.”  It doesn’t have to be money, either.  We can give our time.

Self Control – Many of us are battling impulsiveness now.  There is down time.  We worry about our health, our kids’ schooling, our brokerage accounts, our business revenue, our employment status.  I frequently reference one of my favorite quotes about worry from an MIT commencement speech, “Worrying is about as useful as solving an Algebra problem by chewing bubblegum.”  An impulsive person would act upon this worry.  That deviates from surrendering to the game of inches and leaning on your habits.

We’re all playing a game of inches – made up of habits, moments in time, decisions (some quick, some more deliberate).  I think this pandemic shines a spotlight on the fact that we’re all in far less control of achieving personal and professional goals than we might think: maybe that’s our families, promotions, business success, portfolio longevity.  Conversely, though, we can control our trend – our habits, our moments, how we carry ourselves.  Which leads me to the same conclusion I always land on:

Stay calm.  Stay invested.

Thanks for reading,

Mitch

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