Practical analysis for investment professionals
28 August 2015

Weekend Reads for Finance Pros: Survival Skills, Diversity, and Running

Posted In: Weekend Reads

Two things this week have gotten me thinking about survival skills: the upheaval in global markets, with the rout in China that prompted comparisons to the 1987 “Black Monday” crash in the United States, and the novel The Martian, which I recently started reading.

I don’t need to rehash the events of the past few days. Suffice it to say, investors had their mettle tested. For many, the first instinct when things go south is to react, to do something, usually the wrong thing. Very few keep a cool head (a key survival skill). And yet, as the headline of a New York Times article wisely advised retail investors, generally the best course is to “Take Some Deep Breaths, and Don’t Do a Thing.”

Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal captured the sentiment perfectly in this tweet:

In other words, don’t panic.

Not panicking is key to fictional astronaut Mark Watney’s survival on Mars. If you’re a math (and/or survival skills) geek, The Martian may be a book for you. Technology website Ars Technica headlines an interview with the author, Andy Weir. A Wall Street Journal review, which praised the work as “brilliant,” describes Watney’s grim situation thus: He “is stranded after a thoroughly credible misunderstanding (don’t trust remote spacesuit readings), and his problem is a stark one: Survive 1,412 days till the next Mars expedition gets there, relying only on what’s been left behind. He has a Habitat, rations for six for 50 days, 300 liters of water, an oxygenator that produces oxygen from carbon dioxide and two vehicles. Not enough, as anyone who can do simple arithmetic can tell — and there’s a lot of fascinating arithmetic in ‘The Martian.'”

I will admit, I’m a little late to the party on this one: The Martian has already been made into a movie with Matt Damon in the lead role. It’s slated for release in the United States in October. But if you’re curious about Watson’s fate (as I am), pick up the novel before you set off for the silver screen.

Stories of survival and human endurance have long fascinated me. I’ve often wondered what it is that drives some to persevere against seemingly insurmountable odds, while others perish. And why is that some people rise to the challenge and take charge, displaying a fierce will to survive, while others give up hope early on? (I am also curious about what drives ultra-marathon runners to undertake punishing conditions that exact a heavy toll on their bodies and minds. Kirk Johnson, a reporter at The New York Times, chronicles the experience of training for and running the Badwater Ultramarathon — an annual 135-mile race in Death Valley, California, in his book, To the Edge.)

These questions have led me on a few literary and historical reading expeditions through tales of survival against tremendous odds. Here are some of my favorite content on this topic: The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Arctic Experience. As a review at the time of its publication put it: “The story of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition of 1914–17 has everything a polar saga could possibly have — fierce storms, a relentless ice pack, heroic fights for survival, a near-miraculous open-boat journey, an almost continuous doubling of the danger every time salvation looms.” Another great sea survival story is In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. The Essex set sail from Nantucket in 1819 on a routine voyage but was rammed and sunk in the South Pacific by a sperm whale. (This book has also been made into a movie and will be released later this year.) If you don’t have time for a book, you could always read the article, “The True Life Story that Inspired Moby Dick.” Changing topography, Touching the Void is another epic survival story. This time the setting is not the ocean, but a 21,000-foot peak in the Andes. Of course, no list like this would be complete without mentioning Into Thin Air, 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, and Unbroken.

Many years ago, when I was at the Financial Times, I met Ken Kamler, an orthopedic microsurgeon who was on Mount Everest in 1996. He was the only doctor on the mountain on the second deadliest day in the history of Mount Everest climbs when eight climbers disappeared after a huge storm hit. Their tragic story was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling Into Thin Air. Kamler has an enviable bio on the TED website, “adventure physician.” (You can view his talk, “Medical Miracle on Everest.”) He also wrote an interesting book, Surviving the Extremes, about what happens to the body and mind at the limits of human endurance.

Here is a very brief list of some other interesting (and far shorter) reads, in case you missed them:

China and Investing

  • The view from the ground via veteran Asia correspondent Bill Powell: “What Wall Street Gets Wrong about China” (Newsweek)
  • As Morning Edition co-host David Greene points out in the set-up to this radio story “Investors’ Biggest Enemy Could Be Their Natural Instincts,” “As much as we might want to trust our instincts, this period of wild ups and downs on the stock market may not be the right time to do that . . . we know getting panicky and selling after stocks have already nosedived is a pretty lousy investment strategy, but investors do it anyway. And, in fact, our brains send us all kinds of bad impulses when it comes to investing.” (National Public Radio (NPR))
  • The Sustainable Active Investing Framework: Simple, but Not Easy“: Wesley Gray, the author of this post, is a former Marine, so my guess is he knows a thing or two about survival. He says his time in the Corps taught him a lot of things, but one lesson stood out from the rest: “Make Bold Moves.” (alpha architect)

Gender Diversity in Investment Management

  • John Authers wrote an excellent column last year on the business case for greater diversity in the investment decision-making process. His point, deftly argued, is a simple one: “if investors want better outcomes, they would be better served if capital is allocated by diverse teams.” He notes, “Whatever one’s opinion on social policy, there is a pressing need for a more diverse body in markets. Diverse teams deliver better results; diverse markets allocate capital more efficiently, without bubbles.” See “Breaking the White Male Grip on Markets” (Financial Times)
  • Tom Brakke also tackled the topic of gender diversity recently in a blog post titled “guerrilla girls” (the research puzzle)

And Now for Something Completely Different

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

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About the Author(s)
Lauren Foster

Lauren Foster was a content director on the professional learning team at CFA Institute and host of the Take 15 Podcast. She is the former managing editor of Enterprising Investor and co-lead of CFA Institute’s Women in Investment Management initiative. Lauren spent nearly a decade on staff at the Financial Times as a reporter and editor based in the New York bureau, followed by freelance writing for Barron’s and the FT. Lauren holds a BA in political science from the University of Cape Town, and an MS in journalism from Columbia University.

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