what trekking reminded about investing


“A trail in the Sahyadris doesn’t qualify as a trek! It’s a walk in the park compared to a real trek,” exclaimed a friend when I posted the picture on facebook. I was still proud of having made it to the top in the pouring rain as a novice, and more importantly back down without any slip-ups.

Ok, so it was a hike rather than a trek. I’d only ever hiked twice before. The first time I attempted to walk anything steeper than my neighbourhood street was to Machu Pichhu about 6 years ago – it was fantastic to get to the Inca ruins but we took the train back down. Then there was the trek up to Matheran. The descent made me realise my knees need a lot more muscles holding them in place.

So when a friend invited me (or rather gave in to my pestering) to join a hiking trip, I was all excited. It’s only when I met the group at 530am, did I realise that I was the only one who, not only hadn’t been doing this regularly, but wasn’t into marathon running. Oh, and on the wrong side of 40, I was the oldest.

As I reflected upon the day, I could see some parallels between trekking (yeah yeah hiking, but trekking sounds better) and investing –

It’s all about the goal

As soon as we started ambling up steep boulders, I was out of breath again and fell to the back of the pack. Eventually, the group split into two – most of the group raced ahead while another woman and I became the tail-enders. The guide stayed with us. We decided to enjoy the walk up…stopping to take in the view and feel the wind in our hair. The last half kilometer was excruciating…. we wanted to camp just short of the summit but the guide kept egging us on. Needless to say, reaching the top was exhilarating. Once we got there, we managed to find the energy to jump in the air for pictures.

In my professional world, I often get asked about the ‘best investments’ that provide returns of ’25-30%+’. I always wonder what rush these investors are in for them to take the risks that come with such high returns. The goal is to accumulate a large enough sum to pay for your financial independence – you need to ensure that you eventually make it there.

It’s vital to know your own abilities

My step was a bit tentative. My grip slipped quite a few times though I managed to re-gain my balance each time. My thinking was that I’d rather be safe than sorry; any fall would hurt me a lot more. Some of the others were more sure-footed…they slipped and injured themselves, but probably recovered faster too.

I’ve experimented with investing in venture capital and structured products in addition to my staples of direct shares and mutual funds. And I’ve lost money doing so. But I’ve never invested large enough sums for such losses to affect my financial health. When I see novice investors speculating in illiquid angel funds, structured products and art funds (??!), I try to ask them questions to make them realise they might not fully understand the risks.

It’s best to have an expert guide

After slipping and re-gaining my balance for the umpteenth time, our guide pointed out that my fear made me tread lightly with the whole foot when I should be putting my body weight on my toes to get a good grip. I am sure this small intervention will improve my skills massively in the future.

I was even slower and more tentative on the way down. The gap between the leaders and tail-enders became even wider; we were probably 15 minutes behind on the way up but had fallen half hour behind by half way mark on the way down. We had agreed to have a waterfall shower on the way down…so we expected the leaders to wait for us there. No sign. So we kept moving. We figured we would see them on the plains. No sign. Finally the phone rings – they had reached the village, only to realise it was the wrong village. They had taken a wrong turn somewhere and descended on the opposite side of where they were meant to be. It eventually took them another 3 hours of hitchhiking to get back to where our cars were parked while we waited in the rain.

Whether it’s hiking or investing, an expert can point out our behavioural mis-steps/biases, make sense of the paths/markets and guide us through the plethora of side-trails/investment products.

It’s good to have right tools

The day before the trek, I went to buy a pair of hiking boots. I wanted to buy a cute looking pink pair, but apparently they only come for dainty-sized feet. (I got reminded of how a colleague had teased me when I left my last job about how my successor would have big shoes to fill…literally). I settled for a semi-waterproof pair with ankle support with bit of a purple patch. I also bought a pair of boring hiking trousers. The stylist in me then added appropriate colour to my outfit with pink UV-resistant arm sleeves and headband that I wear while sailing.

If you’re thinking ‘what a lot of fuss’ right now, you’re not alone. A couple of the fellow hikers turned up in running shoes. Half way up, the soles came off. Anyone was in shorts and short sleeves got love bites by mosquitoes. Caps were meant to fly away.

Investing requires a lot of research – whether on our part, or our advisers’. Research requires data and tools. Investing also requires us to be honest about our performance. Performance calculations have to adjust for cash flows and time. While some people can do all the research and calculation in their heads, some mortals need the right tools to help.

Remember to have fun

All said and done, the hike was a fun day out. There were meaningful aspects – we got some exercise, we deepened friendships and we got inspired to conquer our respective mountains. There were silly moments – we laughed aloud, we pouted for pictures, we embarrassed our villager hosts by stretching our legs up against the wall.

We achieved what we set out to do.

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