A framework for speculation

From Wikipedia:

Speculation is a financial action that does not promise safety of capital investment along with the return on the principal sum. A person or entity that engages in speculation is known as a Speculator.

I just finished reading The Zurich Axioms. With a dubious origin in Swiss banking traditions and designed for investors, it consists of 12 major and several minor ‘axioms’. It’s a quick read that I found surprisingly relevant, because we’re all speculators. A startup, a stock, a new job, a relationship, a shortcut to avoid traffic, a hand of poker - we constantly make choices. Tiny investments of time, money, intellect and emotions from which we expect a positive return. The axioms better those investments by outlining simple risk management tips and building a framework for speculation. I recognized several as generalizations internalized through experience, but more valuable were those highlighting repeat weaknesses in my decision making. The major axioms are listed below, followed by my notes and interpretations.

The Zurich Axioms

1. Worry is not a sickness but a sign of health. If you are not worried, you are not risking enough.

Playing things too safe. I must have enough at stake to be fully committed to an endeavor. Reminds me of a Churchill quote: “Play the game for more than you can afford to lose… Only then will you learn the game.”

2. Always take your profit too soon.

I excel at this. Somewhat contrary to advice paraphrased as “let your winners run”.

3. When the ship starts to sink, don’t pray. Jump.

Cut your losses quickly and don’t look back. Overanalyzing before action can lead to bigger losses.

4. Human behavior cannot be predicted. Distrust anyone who claims to know the future, however dimly.

One rule, but two distinct pieces of advice. I’m reminded of Mike Tyson’s famous line: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

5. Chaos is not dangerous until it begins to look orderly.

Guilty. Pattern recognition is one of my worst habits and I need to recognize this trap.

6. Avoid putting down roots. They impede motion.

This can be interpreted many ways, but for me it implies liquidity. Illiquid investments should generate a much higher return.

7. A hunch can be trusted if it can be explained.

Back it up with data. I should explore intuitions or hunches by working backwards to understand where they came from.

8. It is unlikely that God’s plan for the universe includes making you rich.

Hard work not destiny brings success.

9. Optimism means expecting the best, but confidence means knowing how you will handle the worst. Never make a move if you are merely optimistic.

Go into every decision with a plan and a backup plan should it fall apart.

10. Disregard the majority opinion. It is probably wrong.

I’m a natural contrarian, but sometimes worry the contrarian viewpoint is too obvious.

11. If it doesn’t pay off the first time forget it.

This is not related to persistence, more along the lines of don’t chase a loss. Avoid turning an investment into a ‘white whale’ just to prove you were right.

12. Long-range plans engender the dangerous belief that the future is under control. It is important never to take your own long-range plans, or other people’s, too seriously.

Things changes quickly, remain fluid and adapt to market conditions.

The Zurich Axioms


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