Homer’s Odyssey: a Lesson for Investors!

While I was serving my term of mandatory military service in the Singapore Armed Forces, I read a piece of classical Western literature that was breathtaking in its scope and entirety.

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‘The Odyssey’ from the Greek poet Homer captivated my imagination of a world of brave warriors, spectacular battles, treacherous seas, and perilous journeys across the realm of Ancient Greece. In essence, ‘The Odyssey’ was in fact the sequel to an earlier piece known as ‘The Iliad‘, which recounted the events surrounding the famous Trojan War filled with Ancient Greek mythology and the themes of glory, revenge, love and tragedy.

‘The Odyssey’ explores the epic journey of the hero Odysseus on his way home (Ithaca) after the fall of Troy. However, the god Poseidon attempted to prevent his return journey, which ended up taking a full decade that saw Odysseus roaming a long way around through the Ionian islands to as far as the eastern end of the Mediterranean (Egypt & North Africa).

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I found ‘The Odyssey’ fascinating as Homer describes not just the struggle that Odysseus had against mother nature (storms and treacherous seas), obstacles (like the cyclops and a hydra-like monster) but also against his own inner impulses – literally a fight against self.

One particular episode that left a deep mark in my memory was Odysseus’ (battle) journey past the land of the Sirens. Following the encounter with the witch-goddess Circe, Homer described that there was an area out in the sea where beautiful female humanoid creatures known as the Sirens live, and they would lure nearby sailors with their enchanting voices and music. However, sailors who were drawn too near to the Sirens upon listening to their singing would end up shipwrecked on the rocky coasts of the Sirens’ island and literally remain there, frozen in awe.

Odysseus wanted to listen to the Sirens but he knew that he would lose his rational state, endangering himself and the lives of his men.

As quoted:

“First she said we were to keep clear of the Sirens, who sit and sing most beautifully in a field of flowers; but she said I might hear them myself so long as no one else did. Therefore, take me and bind me to the crosspiece half way up the mast; bind me as I stand upright, with a bond so fast that I cannot possibly break away, and lash the rope’s ends to the mast itself. If I beg and pray you to set me free, then bind me more tightly still.”

Odysseus therefore made a pact with his men to put wax in their ears so that they could not hear the Sirens’ singing, and he was tied to the mast of his ship so that he would not jump off the ship when they sailed past the Sirens. Odysseus also ordered his men not to change course under any circumstances and to keep their swords pointed at him, charging them that they should attack him if he broke free of the bindings.

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When they really sailed past the Sirens’ coast, Odysseus was driven insane and struggled with all his strength to break free to join the Sirens. However, his preparations beforehand paid off eventually, as his men continued rowing past and kept their ears plugged with wax. Odysseus was incredibly self-aware, understanding his own emotional weakness and planning ahead for moments of vulnerability. It was this effort that enabled him and his men to survive the encounter with the Sirens.

As Homer wrote: “Men are so quick to blame the gods: They say that we devise their misery. But they themselves – in their depravity – design grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.”

As an active investor in the financial markets, there are literally numerous possible scenarios that could lead you to be overrun by your emotional impulses, losing your rational faculty and leading to potential sub-optimal outcomes. It has happened to me many a times, and as long as you’re actively involved with the markets, you can be sure that there will be many journeys past countless islands of Sirens.

The variety of our emotional responses and impulses are also variant; we have to deal with anger/frustration, temptation (greed/fear), confusion, impatience and so on and so forth.

We could learn from Homer’s hero Odysseus; by being aware of one’s own inner state and impulses in various scenarios and anticipating what one would do in those scenarios. Planning a course(s) of action to deal with our anticipated responses would be necessary, and if it helps, any possible systematisation of those responses will enable you to deal with those circumstances in a disciplined way.

Are there any possible Sirens in the near-future? What sort of preparations are you making? Have you tied yourself to the mast?

 

*Image credits to https://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/, http://img09.deviantart.net, http://1.bp.blogspot.com & https://www.exfontibus.com/products/homer-odyssey*


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