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The Principle Thing

by Alexander Green Friday, May 22, 2009


When I speak at investment conferences and seminars, the attendees usually want to know what lies just ahead for the economy and the stock market.


I hate to disappoint them. But I tell them anyway:


"I don't know - and neither does anyone else."


Fortunately, this isn't important. Investment success is not about following the right predictions. It's about following the right principles.


This is true in virtually every aspect of life.


Imagine a tunnel, bridge, or skyscraper erected without using proven designs, building materials or construction methods. The result would be calamitous.


A composer is free to create beautiful music, but only within the boundaries of harmony, melody and rhythm. (Few can bear to listen to a so-called "atonal masterpiece.")


If you are a golfer, you have to use the proper stance and grip. You have to keep your head still, your left arm straight, and your right elbow tucked in. You won't become a champion by re-inventing the golf swing. Players were whacking balls around St. Andrews before Columbus discovered America.


In sum, principles are the collective wisdom of our species. They tell us what is valuable. They warn us what is not.


Principles of law safeguard society and protect our rights. Health principles guide us on nutrition, exercise and the prevention of disease. Scientific principles further technology and explain the natural world.


Spiritual principles guide our lives. Or should.


There will always be arguments about doctrine, of course. But there is little disagreement on broad principles: honesty, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, perseverance, justice, humility, charity and gratitude.


These principles aren't binding. They're liberating. They imbue life with meaning.


And, make no mistake, we are meaning-seeking creatures. Without a reason to live, people easily fall into depression or despair.


In some sense, we are all spiritual seekers.


You may revere The Ten Commandments, The Sermon on the Mount, The Four Noble Truths, The Five Pillars or some infrangible set of ethical principles.


"Anything else you worship," argued David Foster Wallace at a commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, "will almost certainly eat you alive. If you worship money and things - if they are where you tap real meaning in life - then you will never have enough... Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they plant you... Worship power - you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay... Worship your intellect, being seen as smart - you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out."


On some level, most of us understand this. The message is embodied in our myths, proverbs, and aphorisms, our classic films, our great novels.


Yet society and culture - and even our unconscious - tug us the other way.


Madison Avenue surrounds you - in the streets, on the airwaves, in your home - showing you what you could have, how you could look, how you will feel when you finally acquire the latest, greatest and most fabulous bauble yet. (And did I mention it's new and improved?)


The modern economy doesn't just meet our wants. It continually creates new ones.


This isn't all bad, of course. I'm not unhappy that business has brought us iPhones, Miracle bras and 60-inch plasma TVs.


It's just that a life based on craving - on the worship of self - is no more satisfying in the end than a bowl of jellybeans.


Fortunately, the great spiritual principles are there, like Polaris, guiding you toward true north, reminding you that it's really not all about you, suggesting that the most important thing you can do today may not be to obtain or even achieve something, but to show those around you you care in a dozen little unsexy ways.


It may not be glamorous. But it's the truth.


Ralph Waldo Emerson ends his famous essay "Self Reliance" with these words:


"Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."


Carpe Diem,


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