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Reconsideration

January 20, 2010

Notable News from a Year Ago, January 20, 2009: First black president inaugurated.

That is a sign of change coming, isn't it?

RECONSIDERING THE STOCK MARKET

So here we go: the first entry in Diary 3.0. And it’s simple, really. I’m going to tell you why an African-American man like me almost didn’t vote for Barack Obama.

Sounds sacrilegious, right? If that “almost” hadn’t been there, it’d sound preposterous. But the fact is voting for a black man, especially a black Democrat, for President was a lot harder for me in 2008 than it would’ve been in 2007.

I realized most, if not all of what I knew about the stock market, was really only blanket “buy low, sell high” statements from people who didn’t really know…

In 2007, it would’ve been one of those whatchamacallits — a no-brainer. In 2008, I waited to the last possible minute to vote early. Early because I had to fly to Puerto Rico on Election Day for work. But it was that difficult for me, and considering the intense individual battle I was fighting, a bit anticlimactic when the state of Tennessee voted Republican.

There’s only one word that can explain this to you: reconsideration. The cause of all this reconsideration: the stock market. In 2007, because my wife wanted to something atypical to make money, and also because I wanted to reverse the dollar cost averaging (and therefore, blind, follow-the-herd approach) to money management in my 401K, we got heavy into stock market education: classes, books, analytical software, dreams.

In the beginning, the books were more valuable (and enlightening) than the classes themselves, particularly The Disciplined Trader by Mark Douglas. After I read it (and after the intense reconsideration it caused), I realized most, if not all of what I knew about the stock market, was really only blanket “buy low, sell high” statements from people who didn’t really know. (And we’re basing knowledge here on results — because if they really knew about the stock market, they’d be rich, right?) I realized trading wasn’t about money as much as discipline and psychology — my discipline, my psychology. I learned I would never be good in the stock market if I didn’t understand my inner workings — if I wasn’t aware of the unconscious stories I told myself, or the hidden psychological beliefs that tripped whenever I endeavored to stand.

The Disciplined Trader and his follow-up, Trading in the Zone, are required reading in my mind — but not because of the stock market. If you replace “Trader” with “Life”, or “Trading” with “Living”, as in Living in the Zone, then what Mark Douglas has written is a self-help book of uncommon and unexpected insight.

Knowing why you believe something, and how that belief may have gotten there, is crucial information when you place a trade and have no influence on the outcome other than the amount of time you spend in it (no influence, of course, because we’re not shorting stocks here) — but it was only a matter of time before I saw the value in these self-examinations beyond the stock market and applied themselves elsewhere. And what better place to start than the part of my life that’s most often on my mind: writing.

RECONSIDERING WRITING

You don’t know how hot the water is until you’re sitting in the pot…

I walked away from writing after high school for two reasons: 1) I didn’t feel like I had anything to say, and 2) Because nothing came when I sat down to write fiction, I started losing confidence in myself.

At the same time, I was being seduced by logic. Calculus was difficult, but I was good at it, and the problems always resolved to one inalienable answer. And then there’s this inexplicable love for Georgia Tech that I can’t begin to explain (especially since I’d never met an engineer before in my life), so I’d known, since ninth grade, what was required to get me through the door, and aligned my life and studies accordingly. Which meant: integrals were in; split infinitives were out. And engineers, they told me, made the big bucks. Add that to the Hope Scholarship, which came out the year before I graduated high school (and would pay my complete tuition as a Georgia resident as long as I kept a B-average), and what were my reasons for not becoming a Rambling Wreck?

I won’t belabor the point here — I graduated from college in 2001 and took a well-paying job in manufacturing. I moved to Tennessee. A year later I was wondering where I went wrong. Not that the job was bad, because it wasn’t. And the salary, at least for a former rice-eating undergraduate (rice, of course, being the preferred food of the poor), was more than my parent’s combined annual income. No issues there.

But, as I like to say: You don’t know how hot the water is until you’re sitting in the pot. Corporate America had sounded so fabulous in college, especially during Career Fairs with recruiters walking around in their crisp, colorful polos and free CD cases — but once you’re on the other side, you see things differently. At least I did.

Again: the company was (and still is) good to me. But the employer-employee relationship? It wasn’t until I was full-time that I recognized the necessary restrictions that came along with a position where the company assumes all the risk in running the enterprise, and the employee only expects (and, in most cases, feels entitled to) a paycheck. Such relationships, in times of increasing competitiveness and economic difficulty, are typified by short memory spans. They’re also where hard work has limited reward and elevated yearly expectations. I came to believe, in effect, that though I had achieved more than my parents that I hadn’t dreamed big enough. For me, in any light, I’d underachieved.

So, in 2002, a year into the job and working a temporary assignment in Pittsburgh, the coldest winter in the city in 10 years as I remember, my winter of discontent, I returned to the dream that I’d casted off six years before. I recommitted myself to becoming a writer.

RECONSIDERING WRITING, PART TWO

Well… it’s 2009, and chances are you’ve never read anything I’ve written. Or maybe you have. Whatever the case, I’m convinced I wouldn’t be here now, writing this blog, if I hadn’t started pursuing the stock market — if I hadn’t read Douglas’s books in 2007. Otherwise, I never would’ve had cause to reconsider my subconscious beliefs about being a writer. Nor would I have realized that, because of these beliefs, I had been working against myself over the years as much as working toward my dream.

My writing soared when I stopped beating myself up over wanting to do it…

I’ll give you a perfect example. It wasn’t uncommon from 2002 to 2007 for me to come home after work and write. In fact, I still do that now. Nights and weekends. (Not having kids and marrying an understanding spouse — it helps. You better believe it.) If I had a good day writing after a rough day at work, everything was perfect; if, on the other hand, I had a bad day and the words wouldn’t come, I’d beat myself up psychologically over wanting to become a writer in the first place. I’d say things to myself like: Why do you want to do this? How stupid, how ungrateful, do you have to be to want to walk away from a great job and a possible long career with benefits just to become a goddamn writer?

The internal struggle was strongest, of course, when words were hard to come by, and I actually thought it wasn’t a bad thing — just a little natural self-doubt. But then I read Douglas’s book and asked myself where the conflict was coming from. Why did I feel so strongly about having a good job with benefits? Why was writing lesser in my mind even though I wanted to do it, needed to do it?

The answer, as you probably have guessed, was my parents. They drilled higher education and employment (with benefits) into my head as the keys to happiness. I went to college and graduated, got a job. I did exactly what my parents told me to do.

The barrier I found myself running into, however, the conflict, was between the belief my parents had given me and the ones I was developing on my own. Of course, my parents would never do anything to purposefully keep me from achieving my dreams — no loving parent would. But here was a perfect example of a belief that was doing me more harm than good, a belief that was contrary to the Plans I was building for myself, a belief that, in Mark Douglas’s parlance, needed to be deactivated.

I didn’t become a master stock trader after reading Douglas’s books, but my writing soared when I stopped beating myself up over wanting to do it. It’s a not a topic covered in How To Write manuals, which typically focus on mechanics and query letters, but my free advice, readily dismissed if you choose to, is to take care and be cognizant of your psychological health — your mindset. Not just in writing, but with everything. Treat your mindset like a professional sport: Play defense on what gets in; frequently watch game film on how you can improve it.

As for me, once I became aware of my own writing mindset, it was as if a rock had been removed for the dam. In the fall of 2007, I finished my second book, Michael’s House. [This title has changed by the way. Now it’s called The Inner Limit.] I didn’t find an agent (more on that much, much later), but I came to peace with my desires, and started enjoying the journey instead of kicking myself for attempting to go.

RECONSIDERING EVERYTHING… EVEN POLITICS

Don’t ask me how I knew I was a Democrat because I can’t tell you.

At this point, it should be clear that nothing in my life since 2007 has been above reconsideration, no belief is too sacred. Nothing gets grandfathered (or fathered, or mothered, or this-is-just-how-I-grew up) in. Nothing. Not even religion. But since I started this entry talking about Obama, I’ll follow the judicious example set by the Constitution and keep church and state separate. When I said earlier that I almost didn’t vote for Obama it was for one reason, and one reason alone: I didn’t know if I wanted to be a Democrat anymore.

When I became a Democrat I cannot tell you, but I remember well the first time I professed it. In the fifth grade there was a mock presidential election, and given the choice between George H. Bush and Michael Dukakis, I voted Dukakis. (Incidentally, Jesse Jackson was also involved in that election, too, but his role, and his reputation, came to a different end.) When I told my dad about it after school (in the mock election, Dukakis won), he asked me why and I said: “I voted for Dukakis because we’re Democrats.”

Don’t ask me how I knew I was a Democrat because I can’t tell you. I’m assuming, as osmosis and children go, I had picked up on it over the years so that when it came time to choose sides, Democrat was what I chose. Like most other African Americans, regardless of when it happened I know it did, and I’ve been kowtowing to the Democratic Party ever since.

I couldn’t have explained what a Democrat was to you then any more than I could a Republican. And when I had a definition that I could recognize and speak to (this was in high school), it came mostly from my dad, the union man. To hear it from him, the political parties could be explained by elevation: The Republicans looked down on the Little Guy, and wanted to crush him, but the Democratic Party stood in the way. An even simpler definition was otherness. We were poor, so Republicans weren’t. We worked for the Man and relied on the union to keep our jobs. Chances were the Man, the Boss — he voted for Bush.

My father in Vietnam thinking to himself: You mean I'm going to have a son one day who wants to be a Republican? I don't believe you.

Corporate America, much to my dad’s chagrin, had already started driving me away from that philosophy by sending me to seminars designed to sour my opinion of unions in favor of right-to-work. Even before the infusion of the stock market doctrine, I was questioning the direction of the United States. I wondered if I was one of the many people blaming others for their problems, their unhappiness. I wondered if I was getting myself into tremendous debt because “they let me” when I knew, in the first place, that I shouldn’t. Did I have personal accountability, not just in my finances (and my 401K), but over every controllable factor within my life?

I believe, eventually, based on my musing about the lack of personal accountability in the United States, that I would have found cause to examine and/or change my political party affiliation without Mark Douglas. The stock market and my fervent search to discover the wealth key; my realization that my retirement was dependent on the stock market and not Social Security, and so I’d better start at 30 instead of 67 ½ learning how to make a living off of it, only accelerated this reconsideration.

Then came Barack Obama. Quite naturally, I wished him well and would’ve championed the cause if he was a Republican, which was the direction I was headed in my own life; but he was a Democrat like my poor father, like every poor person I knew, like I was trying to flee. And, to make things worse, I learned that part of Obama’s rescue plan included raising capital gains taxes [which so far appear to be a complete untruth], and here I had crafted a multi-year stock market strategy to free myself, and my family, from the tenures of fiscal worry. By voting for Obama and his proposed capital gains tax initiative, I was, in effect, voting against myself and the plans I had lain. I didn’t know what to do.

So I watched the debates, looked for a reason to dislike the man. Found absolutely nothing. With my newfound self-analytic tools, I asked myself why I detested John McCain so — what was the real reason, not the surface reason. Was it the fact that he was white and I wanted a black man to win? Was it his age and the prospect of Sarah Palin being the de facto next President? Did I see too much George W. Bush in McCain’s unpolished mannerisms, his glib “trust me I know what’s best” answers? Did Obama just look and behave the way you want your President to look and behave after eight years of public gaffs at home and abroad by Bush?

Again, because it required a second asking — was I simply going to vote for Obama because he was black?

I won’t tell you I purged all of my biases away before I voted. I won’t say some part of me was voting for Obama because he was black. But I do know George Bush and John McCain got a stringent No Confidence from me. And I know that, from here forward, I’ll never vote for a candidate simply because of his (or her) political affiliation. I’m not a Democrat, nor am I a Republican; I only vote for the person I think can do the job best. If it’s Obama — beautiful. If it’s not, then he’s got to earn vote again in four years. I told you before: nothing is above reconsideration.

Not even the first black president.

Next Vista: Wednesday, January 27, 2010, “The Truth”

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