by Skip Moen
Solomon, the son of King David and Bathsheba, was the last ruler of the united kingdom of Israel. His reignâ€” between 961 and 922 BCâ€”was by all accounts the most prosperous and peaceful of all the Israelite kings. While later historians have embellished many of the stories of Solomon, there is no doubt that he displayed considerable vision and skill, particularly in practical matters of the state and the administration of justice, and secondly in the areas of academics and teaching. He was a patron of the literary arts, an architect and planner of some renown, and a commercial giant.
His writings consist of the well-known collection of Proverbs, practical advice for life; the Song of Solomon, a romantic literary masterpiece; and Ecclesiastes, a reflection on the greatest human issues.
Solomonâ€™s position in religious teaching cannot be assailed. More than a few readers have also noticed the considerable practical application of his thoughts on human behavior, ethics, communication and diligence. Since he plays a significant role in the formation of our cultural heritage, even if we no longer embrace the details of his religious beliefs, it is important to consider the thoughts that stand behind much of todayâ€™s assumptions about business practice. From contracts to goal setting, Solomonâ€™s ideas are still with us today. Any man who has that much influence nearly three thousand years later is worth paying attention to.
If Solomon amassed one of the worldâ€™s greatest fortunes, I want to know how he did it. I want to know how he thought so that I can align myself with the same kind of thinking. When military strategists read Sun Tzu, they expect insight from ancient thinking. When politicians read Plato, they are looking for insight into human behavior. (Actually, itâ€™s quite possible these days that politicians donâ€™t read. They are too busy campaigning.) So, why shouldnâ€™t we expect amazing insight into investing from a man who had it all (including those 1,000 women in the harem)?
What does Solomon tell me? If I examine the text carefully, I discover some very disconcerting information. The first thing that this wise man says is that we must be entirely realistic about the world. That realism means that the world is a very nasty and unpredictable place. Solomon is quite clear. As far as man is concerned, â€œanything awaits him.â€ No matter what the hedge fund people tell you, life is completely out of your control and absolutely unpredictable. Solomon got it right. â€œIf no one knows what will happen, who can tell him when it will happen?â€ So much for stock timing, â€œobviousâ€ trends, and market predictions. The plain truth (free of charge) is this: the future is unknowable. Donâ€™t ever listen to anyone who tells you otherwise.
This fact of life has some further personal developments. â€œEven in laughter the heart is sorrowful and the end of joy is grief.â€ Solomon sees what so many pundits ignore. Victory today is swallowed in defeat tomorrow. Pleasure today evaporates into sorrow. The good life still ends up at the grave. Solomonâ€™s first principle of investment is this: no investment strategy is worthwhile if it has only a temporal goal. In the end, six feet under is still six feet under. If you are going to invest wisely, you will not concentrate on those things that evaporate at death.
Of course, there is another difficult implication in this bit of wisdom. You never know when you are going to die. The conclusion is inevitable. If I am operating on an investment strategy that requires duping the Grim Reaper, I am not only stupid, I am delusional. Solomonâ€™s famous dictum, â€œAll is vanityâ€ is the final word on this form of denial. Sometime during your earthly sojourn, you will arrive at the zero sum. Thatâ€™s when you add up all the things that consume your attention, demand your energy, focus your dreams, and expend your efforts only to discover that it doesnâ€™t bring fulfillment. Human life has a basic emptiness built into it. When Solomon looked at the whole array of human endeavor he saw its ultimate futility. All the opportunities, all the triumph, all the worry, and all the gains trickle down to the grave. A hundred years from now, almost everything that seemed to matter so much to us today will scarcely be remembered. On the surface of the earth, one life just doesnâ€™t seem to count for much, even if youâ€™re the king.
Solomon uses the word vanity to describe the lack of lasting significance from work. On deepest reflection, in spite of all our efforts, work is more or less a self-defeating wheel for two reasons. There is always more to do, and what is done is never quite enough to completely satisfy. Solomon looks far down the path and sees that if I stake my ultimate significance of my work, I will come up short. Somewhere the grass is always greener.
So much of todayâ€™s culture suffers from this work-identity syndrome. Not just career paths but even our leisure activities, our life missions, and our altruism become elements in the zero-sum game of what we do. Vanity, says Solomon. What about you? Have you looked down the path and seen the gravestone? Are you defined by your emptiness and the fixation to fill it? Are you working for your life? Or living for your work? Or is there something more?
Are you thinking in terms of â€œlegacyâ€? Sure, I canâ€™t take it with me, but I can enjoy it now and when I die, I can leave it all to my children. That counts for something. Now we get a glimpse of Solomonâ€™s wisdom. Three thousand years before probate battles, Solomon put his finger on the problem. â€œI hated all the fruit of my laborâ€¦for I must leave it all to the man who will come after me and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool.â€ Thatâ€™s trust-fund planning in a nutshell. You earn. They spend. And who knows if they will be wise or foolish.
Hard-core realism is the only sure basis of a worthwhile investment strategy. And hard-core realism says that the world wonâ€™t turn out the way you want it to, not for you and not for those who come after you. No matter how much you try, you just canâ€™t control it.
So, why donâ€™t we pay more attention to this undeniable fact of life? Well, itâ€™s not very comforting. We donâ€™t like to think about our lack of control, so we tend to hope for the best and pretend life is better than it is. Are you divorced? Did you get married planning to get divorced? Why not? More than 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, yet I doubt that any couple at the altar would say, â€œOh, yes, we know that we have less than a 50 percent chance of making it so we have a plan in place for our divorce.â€ No, we donâ€™t like to think about the bad news. Thatâ€™s why Solomon (who knew a few things about women too) is such a good advisor. But be careful. Solomonâ€™s answer is not pre-marital divorce planning. Thatâ€™s no answer either. Solomon is pointing out that you canâ€™t control life even if you plan for all the contingencies.
Now for the good news. If I know that I canâ€™t cover all the contingencies, if I know that the ones I leave my fortune to may blow it all, if I am realistic about my true lack of control over the forces in the world, then I will invest with something else in mind. Something that doesnâ€™t depend on contingency planning, uncontrollable fate. and disingenuous inheritors. What is Solomonâ€™s greatest investment advice? Amazingly, itâ€™s not about money at all. Itâ€™s about the use of money, the purpose of money, and the outcome of money. Solomon doesnâ€™t suggest a get-rich scheme. He suggests a get-smart program. It goes like this:
Rejoice in every one of the years you have.
Remove grief and anger from your heart.
Recall which acts in your life brought joy to others.
Repay in some way what you have been given.
Respond to a higher calling.
Rejoice because the man who is bitter about life will be unable to make much of it.
Remove because truly living is not about whatâ€™s in the bank but whatâ€™s in the heart.
Recall because where you made others smile is probably the place where you smiled too.
Repay because what you made of yourself was still a gift.
Respond because no personal legacy lasts but eternal ones do.
If you look at your investment strategy from the perspective of the 5 Rs, you can very quickly assess how youâ€™re doing on the Solomon scale. The 5-R plan is investment in your peace of mind. And what good is all the money if youâ€™re unhappy?
Would you like some guidance with your investment value strategy? Skip Moen provides personal consulting services. You can reach him at (407) 405-3174 or on www.skipmoen.com.