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The Art of Letting Go

In many areas of life, intense activity and constant monitoring of results represent the path to success. In investment, that approach gets turned on its head.

The Chinese philosophy of Taoism has a word for it: "Wuwei". It literally means "non-doing". In other words, the busier we are with our long-term investments and the more we tinker, the less likely we are to get good results.

That doesn't mean, by the way, that we should do nothing whatsoever. But it does mean that the culture of "busyness" and chasing returns promoted by much of the financial services industry and media can work against our interests.

Investment is one area where constant activity and a sense of control are not well correlated. Look at the person who is forever monitoring his portfolio, who fitfully watches business TV or who sits up at night looking for stock tips on social media.

In Taoism, by contrast, the student is taught to let go of factors over which he has no control and instead go with the flow. When you plant a tree, you choose a sunny spot with good soil and water. Apart from regular pruning, you leave the tree to grow.

But it's not just Chinese philosophy that cautions us against "busyness". Financial science and experience show that our investment efforts are best directed to areas where we can make a difference and away from things we can't control.

So we can't control movements in the market. We can't control news. We have no say over the headlines that threaten to distract us.

But each of us can control how much risk we take. We can diversify those risks across different assets, companies, sectors and countries. We do have a say in the fees we pay. We can influence transaction costs. And we can exercise discipline when our emotional impulses threaten to blow us off course.

The reason these principles are so hard for people to absorb is that the perception of investment promoted through the financial media is geared around the short-term, the recent past, the ephemeral, the narrowly focused and the quick fix.

 Now you know the truth, so enjoy your summer and stay busy relaxing.