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Investing is Not a Direct Route From the Bottom to the Top

“Congratulations Matt. You just died.”

That was my inner dialogue as I dangled off of the face of a frozen waterfall. I had never been so frustrated in all of my life. I was a longtime winter sports enthusiast. I was an experienced rock climber who never fell. I was in decent shape, flexible, and had great grip strength. Why was ice climbing so hard !?

There are lots of technical reasons that I stunk at this particular activity, but I won’t bore you with the details. After a long hike through though snowy forest outside of Vail Colorado, I had been given spikes for my feet and an ice axe for each arm. An experienced guide gave some instructions to me and one of my oldest friends. I was feeling good. I was made for this.

Beyond the “tools of the trade”, I had some safety gear including a helmet and a long length of rope to catch me in the event of a fall. I’m glad I had them but, as far as I was concerned, they weren’t going to be necessary. I looked at that rope like the airbag in my car. If I needed to use it, then something had already gone terribly wrong.

Well I guess something must have gone wrong, because I was hanging from that rope like a piñata. It had gone perfectly taut in the blink of an eye, and my friend at the other end was the only thing keeping me from a long fall and a sudden stop. I was mad. I was disappointed in myself for having made a mistake. My image of myself as an experienced climber who simply “doesn’t fall”...was shattered. I regripped my axes and tried again.

And I fell again...and again. Eventually, I stopped feeling so bad every time I fell off of that wall of ice. I started to look at falling as a natural part of learning to climb ice. After all, we don’t look at a child as a failure when they crash their first bicycle, or a fallen toddler as a failure as they learn to walk. If that were true, every one of us would be crawling through our daily lives.

Matt Miller Ice Climb

Yup. That’s really me (circa 2010).

How to Fall but Not Fail, and How to Tell the Difference

So why in the world is this in the Upleft Logbook ? There are two reasons. The first is that investing (and life) is not a direct route from the bottom to the top. Every investor slips. Everyone falls. The secret to keeping your fall from becoming a failure is to have safety measures in place to make sure that if you do fall, then the distance isn’t so far that you’ll be seriously injured. In finance these safety tools may be hedges, exposure to tactical management, and diversification into less volatile asset classes. Once you’re safety gear has done its job though, your next step is to get your grip and start climbing again. This is the only way to the top.

I eventually got to the top of that frozen waterfall, and I still consider it to be perhaps the most physically challenging thing I have ever done. Beyond the physical test, was the mental challenge of accepting that falling isn’t failing . In fact, falling was a critical step towards my ultimate success.

An important trick to avoid a climbing injury is the use of a belaying knot. It is a special knot that (if used properly) allows you climb, but will only let you fall so far, in the event of a mishap.

And that’s the second reason this is an Upleft story…

Related: The Most Important Question You Haven’t Asked Your Advisor