Subscriber Only: The Paradox of Choice
Kenneth Kelly Lund was my grandfather, and he enjoyed a long if somewhat fractured life.
Born into a jack-Mormon family in the badlands of Salt Lake City, he lived through two world wars, missing combat in both by dint of age; ten years too young for the “war to end all wars” and ten years too old for the one that made a mockery of that name.
He was felled at the age of 88 - and in solid health until that point - by an aortic aneurysm after a night full of good friends and above-average Chinese food. On his deathbed, he left me with two pieces of wisdom, both no doubt dearly bought.
The love you give is equal to the love you get, and always visit your dentist first thing in the morning.
Come to think of it, that first one is from The Beatles, but the dental advice was all KKL.
For the benefit of my British readers, dentists are a kind of physician, which you see every six months to look after your teeth. A hallmark of their profession is that the later in the day you schedule your appointment the more likely they will be running behind.
Conventional wisdom would say that too many patients scheduled too close together causes a domino effect, continually pushing excess minutes past the tops and bottoms of the hour, resulting in this late-day tardiness.
But as is often the case with things we deem obvious, this is not so.
Dentists run late because they spend most of their day avoiding the practice of dentistry. In fact, the word dentist is derived from the Latin dentarius, meaning, one who has a lot of other stuff going on.
Take my dentist for example.
Last Monday I arrived early for my annual check-up, the first appointment of the day, and before the staff had even clocked in, yet the good doctor was already on the phone working his latest side hustle.
As I sat amongst the calming beige hues of his waiting room, deciding which magazine to read - Sports Illustrated, which speculated on Tom Brady’s chances for a fifth Super Bowl win, or Entertainment Weekly, whose cover gushed about the blockbuster movies of 2019 – I could clearly overhear him in his office, talking no doubt with a fellow ivory carpenter, about investing in a crypto startup.
On my last visit six months ago, it was land in Belize. Previous to that it was a charter fishing company. And before that, it ran the gamut, from a frozen yogurt franchise to a gold bullion play, and even a children’s petting zoo.
To the best of my knowledge - his receptionist is as equally nosy as she is loose-lipped - none of these financial distractions have panned out.
Which leads me to wonder, why, in his quest for greater fortune, doesn’t he stick to something he knows, like, oh, I don’t know…dentistry?
My grandfather’s childhood was unremarkable by the standards of the day, but by adolescence, he could frequently be found making the rounds at the local taverns, by request of his mother, in search of his father, whose demons had grown.
And when they were no longer bearable, my grandmother left, taking with her my great aunt, and leaving my now grown grandfather to find his way in the world.
For a while, he lived like a hobo, which was a classier, saner, and less chemically altered version of what we now call the homele…I mean, the unhoused.
But he still had dreams. Big dreams. Like not sleeping in the park for the rest of his life.
Eventually, he settled down in Laguna Beach, where he embarked on a series of professions that included among other things, furniture maker, handyman, audiologist, used car salesman, and founder of the first zither manufacturer in California.
My grandfather did a lot of things over the course of his life. Yet nothing seemed to satisfy him, either intellectually or financially.
I mean he did okay.
He and my grandmother always had a modest roof over their head and a commonsense car. And once a year, every year, they would take a two-week vacation to somewhere, based upon which destination had the best package deal.
But I got the sense that they were never one failed business venture away from financial ruin and that my grandfather was a jack of all trades, but master of none.
A few years ago, a struggling trader hit me up and asked if we could talk. I said “sure,” and we hopped on a pre-Covid Zoom call, which back then wasn’t even called a Zoom.
He began to walk me through his recent trades, hoping I’d provide some insights as to what went wrong. My initial reaction was a tell.
“Are these US stocks?” I said.
I was serious. I didn’t recognize any of the tickers or the names. But in fact, they were good ole’ US-listed stocks.
He told me about his scans and how they were designed to find stocks nobody else was trading.
Again, my response was informative.
“Why would you want to do that?”
In his mind, these were undiscovered gems, and somehow, he felt that because they weren’t heavily followed it gave him an advantage. He liked the challenge and the excitement of trying to find the next big mover.
But what these scans were really doing is churning out thinly traded outliers with spreads you could drive a truck through.
Recently I met a very successful trader who runs money for a select group of wealthy individuals. He sticks to a handful of relatively conservative options strategies and only trades ten stocks.
That’s it. Just ten.
Which is better, constantly going after any and all opportunities or getting good at one thing and sticking to it?
It’s a tough question, with an answer that’s ultimately personal - and likely lies somewhere in between.
But it’s one that every trader and investor owes it to themselves to ask.
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