It Takes All Kinds

a Few Stories and Profiles by Erik Hedegaard
mainly from inside the pages of Rolling Stone
(with additional commentary and folderol provided by the author aka Charlie, sometimes)



World’s Worst Investor

Posted on | February 4, 2014 | No Comments

I really wish I’d done what financial adviser Adriane Berg told me to do 12 years ago. I never knew how much I wished it until recently, when I gave her a call. She sighed deeply when I told her I hadn’t taken one word of her advice. She sighed once again when I told her I wanted to know how much I would be worth now if I had taken it. She also chuckled and groaned.

“I’m almost afraid to do this for you,” she said. “You know why? I don’t want to make you feel bad.”

At the time I went to see Adriane in 1984, I had $125,000 in cash sitting in a bank account. This wasn’t money I’d earned. This was money I’d collected over the years following the deaths of various relatives and loved ones. They’d made the money, but it was mine now, and I thought I’d better make it grow. Adriane had some sensible suggestions. Buy a couple of mutual funds, like TR Price Health. Buy some stocks, like GM.  Do it now. Do it today.

I didn’t, of course. For some reason, I couldn’t pull the trigger. Every time I made the decision to buy, my hands began to shake. All I could see on the other side of the purchase was disaster — stock-market crashes unlike any in history wiping away my small fortune. And it had been that way ever since, whenever I thought about investing more than a few dollars. I saw black holes. I saw my wife and daughter eating at Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits for a big night out. Worse, I saw myself having to sell my fly rods to pay for it. Oh, it was all too awful. So the only thing to do was to basically do nothing — and, in the actual passage of years, to fritter away most of that original sum. By the end of 1996, I was down to a measly $32,000.

Clearing her throat, Adriane came back on the line. “Are you ready for this?” she asked. “Okay. Now, none of the investments I told you about in 1984 were that brilliant. Most of them would have been known to the public. And yet, given the time value of money, if you had bought them, and held them, and this is including the crash of 1987, then today you would have $871,943.”

My hands shook. My heart fibrillated. I croaked a few expletives, then hung up the phone, slumped over in my chair, and allowed a great numbness to wash over me. Eight hundred and seventy-one thousand nine hundred forty-three dollars. It was a beautiful number, just shy of the magic million mark, which it would doubtless have reached within a year or so. It was the house with three bathrooms instead of one. It was the tony Landcruiser instead of the common Taurus. It was the proud Sage RPLX fly rod instead of the whippy, humiliating Cortland. It was a snooty private college for the kid and a steady stream of DKNY for my wife and many intangibles besides: peace, security, rosy high comfort.

That number: $871,943. It was the ugliest number I’d ever heard. I blasted Adriane for revealing it to me. She should have kept it to herself. “Jesus H. Christmas!” I thundered.

“Honey? Honey, what’s wrong?”

It was my wife, poking her head into my den. I told her everything. I told her about my conversation with Adriane and what we could be worth now. I looked at her with large, spaniel-sad eyes, expecting a warm shoulder upon which to rest my head. Instead, lips set grimly together, she shut the door without a word. I heard her talking to my daughter. I heard my daughter say, in both pity and disgust, “Oh, Daddy!”

I felt wretched.

And yet, in many ways, this moment wasn’t the end for me but just the beginning. For right then I fessed up and admitted to myself and to my family that I had a grave and deep-rooted investing problem. My problem was my fear of pulling the trigger, of investing when I knew I should. I admitted to my wife and daughter that the fear had cost us all, big time. And then I told them I wanted to conquer that fear.

My daughter rolled her eyes.

“Go on,” my wife said. “Go on and get the hell out of here.”

Thus my journey began. It was a journey that would ultimately take me all over the country in search of answers and understanding, or at least some good clues to the workings of the financial side of my psyche. And it didn’t end until I sat in a place where I shivered with a fear I had never felt before in my life: under a waterfall, with a thousand pounds of ice-cold water pummeling the soft crown of my head, making me feel like I was about to split wide open and die on the spot and never again have to worry about my little pile of money and why I had such a problem letting it grow.

Maybe you, like me, have a big, gulping fear of pulling the trigger. Or maybe that’s not your problem at all. Maybe your problem is you pull the trigger too often; or you don’t let your profits run; or you don’t keep your losses small; or you invest on whims; or you think Louis Rukeyser and his guests actually have a clue. Or maybe you think you don’t have a problem — and that’s only the first of your problems. In any event, it boils down to this: There are lots of ways to mess up in the markets if your head isn’t screwed on straight, and the sooner you straighten yourself out, the sooner you’ll have at least a fighting chance.

As it happens, a small but growing industry has sprung up to tend to the needs of the psychologically befuddled investor. I first ran across these services while leafing through some of the more hard-core investment publications, such as Futures magazine, Traders’ Catalog & Resource Guide, and Technical Analysis of Stocks & Commodities. The advertisements sang out to me: “Think right and grow rich!” and “It can take years and a lot of money to become an expert trader — or it can take 90 days!” and “I’ll send you 24 money-making secrets that will boost your market profits by 35–350% within one year!” It was to these ads that I now returned, sending off for the marketing literature from six or so operations. Soon I learned that while these outfits are geared primarily toward that most stressed-out and messed-up of market participant, the short-term futures trader, they also welcome the twisted longer-term player — folks like me. I further learned that the people running these programs are not your garden-variety, couch-oriented shrinks. When money’s on the line, the time-consuming talking cure apparently just won’t cut it. Thus, these trading coaches (as they like to be called) have come to specialize in speedier, more offbeat techniques. Some of them use hypnosis, some use chaos theory, some use Zen, and some use neurolinguistic programming, or NLP, the mimic-the-masters modeling technique made famous by big-jawed Tony Robbins.

Naturally, I had every right to feel a little queasy about all this stuff. The claims for success were fairly outrageous and the methods a wee bit nutty. But I didn’t want to think about the negatives. I just wanted to change. To that end, I got a woman named Adrienne Toghraie on the phone. Adrienne is president of Trading on Target and a so-called NLP master practitioner. Her ad in one of the magazines featured her picture. I liked that. With her cloud of spilling dark hair, she looked like somebody you could trust.

We spoke of my trigger problem. She mentioned her forthcoming, $1,595, two-day seminar in San Francisco. I asked if the seminar would help. She chuckled knowingly and said, “You will be transformed!” They were just the words I wanted to hear. She went on to talk about NLP itself in great detail — “What I do,” she said, “is reprogram people to go in the direction they want to go, rather than in the direction they are going” — but the means I didn’t care about, only the ends, that thrilling transformation business. I’d spent the past week ordering a whole slew of stock-market software programs to give me a passel of buy/sell signals on which I could sunnily pull the trigger and, posthaste, make up for 12 years of lost time. I wanted change bingo-bango. And just the way Adrienne rattled it off over the phone, with such assuredness — “You will be transformed!” — I knew it wouldn’t be long. She made it sound so easy. She made it sound like a lark. I couldn’t wait. I was going to be made instantly well. I had no doubt about it.

We met inside the mendocino room at the Fisherman’s Wharf Marriott. Adrienne was a smiling, vaguely plump woman with that wild-shooting brown hair, and what she really wanted first from each of her 12 seminar students was a hug. The others dove right on in. I hung back. Adrienne marched up, arms widespread, saying, “Come on, I want to feel your energy.” I smiled weakly. While on principle I’m not against such things as “energy,” spiritual matters in general just don’t interest me. I’m basically a materialist. I like things. Furthermore, I don’t like to touch or be touched by strangers. But what choice did I have? I placed my arms around her, stiffly.

Then everyone sat in chairs in a semicircle and faced this woman. I looked around the room at my fellow headcases. They were regular-seeming guys, dressed in khakis or nice jeans, Nikes or tassel mocs, polo shirts or button-downs. Mostly they had everyday names, like Paul, Greg, Neil, Scott, and Max. They certainly didn’t look deeply troubled. But they were. They had to be, probably, to be here. One fellow admitted to losing $90,000 on one trade, $250,000 on another, and so on, into the pits of hell. “I overtrade!” he moaned. “I let my losses grow! I pull the trigger too quickly! I have been broke three times! I need help!”

But you didn’t have to say anything about your problems if you didn’t want to, and I didn’t want to. When it came time for me to introduce myself, I mumbled something about a trigger-pulling problem and left it at that. I shrugged my shoulders. I made out like it wasn’t that big a deal, though of course it was. Only, it wasn’t something I was going to confess to a bunch of guys I’d just met, tears leaping from my eye corners and so forth. That would be too mawkish for words. I sat back, arms folded across my chest.

Shortly thereafter, Adrienne pushed into the heart of the seminar. We talked about what motivates people to trade, about our values, about the need for discipline in trading, about the fact that if your conscious mind and unconscious mind are in conflict the unconscious mind always wins. Adrienne also told us to yell “It’s showtime!” whenever she asked for the time. “Why? Because you never know when a trade is going to come up, just like you never know when I’m going to ask for the time. So this creates an anchor for you to be ready at any point in time to trade.”

I wasn’t so sure about that. But when she asked for the time, I stood up with everybody else and squirted out the words “It’s showtime!”

Later, we learned about eye movements and their connection to different emotional states and to trading success. She called a fellow up and told him to conjure a stressful moment in his life. “Okay,” she said. “Now, what I want you to do is just keep your head straight, but look up to the ceiling. Good. Now, what happened to the stressful feeling?”

The fellow blinked several times. “It’s gone! It disappeared!”

Adrienne clapped her hands and looked extremely pleased.

“Right!” she said. “See, looking up keeps you in a visual state, while looking down keeps you in a feeling state. How is this useful to you as a trader? Always keep your computer screen at eye level or above. You don’t want to have your screen any lower. You never want to trade in an emotional state.”

There was a moment of silence. Someone began humming the theme from The Twilight Zone, and someone else shouted, “Wow!” Another person yelled “I’m cured!” to much laughter.

Except that no one was really cured of anything. Presumably, cures would happen only during or after the dozen or so NLP exercises designed to bring about real, deep-seated change. According to Adrienne, one key technique is to slip into the right-brain alpha state through deep concentration, then crowd out all gut-wrenching memories of past trading behavior with a suffusion of simple calmness. Do this often enough and what’s imagined can begin to supplant what’s real in actual, under-the-gun trading situations.

“Transformations occur when you have a perceptional change,” Adrienne told us. “When something you’ve always looked at in a certain way, you’re suddenly looking at in a different way, through different eyes — maybe the eyes of a super-trader.”

To demonstrate this, she had us sit in our chairs and visualize ourselves stationed in front of our computer monitors looking at some screaming buy of a chart pattern on the screen. We were supposed to feel our fear. I settled into position. Fear I didn’t have a problem with. It was instantly alive in me, a mewling, toothless baby trapped in a flaming blanket. After a while, though, I thought maybe it would be helpful if I went further and tried to see where the fear came from. Up floated some images. I saw my grandfather, a wildly successful businessman who had opened the first Ford tractor dealership ever seen in Iowa, who had been an assistant secretary of defense in the Eisenhower administration, and who had never invested his money in anything but super-safe Treasury notes and bonds. I saw my wealthy, wealthy grandmother standing on the front lawn of the humongous, many-gabled house she’d given my mother after my mom’s divorce from my dad — with my mom about to get married to a bearded, beatnik music teacher and my grandmother shrieking, “You’ll never get another dime from me. Never! Ever!” I saw my mother in the late 1970s, during the global oil crisis, when she succumbed to the dire prophecies of a coming depression as trumpeted by one Howard Ruff; and buried gold Krugerrands in a rot-resistant plastic tube in our backyard; and stored a year’s supply of freeze-dried shrimp in our attic; and bought a shotgun to ward off the screaming, penniless hordes shortly to show up on our doorstep. For a moment, I saw these as the people and events that had led to my present predicament, just as everyone else in the room had their own strange and peculiar histories that had gotten them into their own present predicaments.

Or maybe this didn’t have anything to do with the state of my psyche at all. Maybe I was right to think the big crash was just around the corner — the odds, as one financial newsletter writer had recently said, about the same as in playing Russian roulette, “except with bullets in five of the six chambers.” That made more sense to me. My memories slipped away.

Then I opened my eyes, stood up, and moved away from my chair. As instructed, I looked at the space where I had been sitting and tried to see in my place a super-trader. A guy who knew no fear, no hesitation, no conflict — only well-considered, forward-moving action. I was supposed to see him pick up the phone and place the trade, easy as pie. You could learn from this. You could take this home with you. I stared at the space.

“Done!” I said brightly. “Sweet Jesus,” I said, expressing my awe at the vivid impact of the exercise. But I was pure phony. At the last minute, phone in hand, my super-trader had turned to mush. Instead of placing the order, he’d slammed down the phone, opened the patio door, and stepped outside for a smoke.

I didn’t tell Adrienne any of these things. I didn’t want to disappoint her. After all, this was a woman who had worked with both cancer and AIDS patients and had, she said, led them to reversals in their symptoms. So she was a kind of miracle maker. And, indeed, everyone here seemed to be showing progress. Everyone but me. It was upsetting. I was ashamed. What was wrong with me? Was I so shallow and feckless a human being that I couldn’t expand my depth of thought to include anything beyond that on the level of a ham-and-cheese sandwich?

“What time is it?” Adrienne asked all of us.

“It’s showtime!” everyone shouted, jumping up.

I struggled to my feet, too, and got out the words. Only, my heart wasn’t in them. For me, it wasn’t showtime at all.

I had cool stuff. i had lots of cool stuff for my computer sitting on my desk in the den. It had come in the mail while I was away. I had the ultra-sophisticated SuperCharts and MetaStock stock-charting programs, the latest versions. I had CycleTrader, a fascinating new program designed to reveal the inner cycles of the markets. I had a program called Ultra Market Advisor, which contained a good 40 of the world’s best market-timing signals. I was giddy. Everything I had was super-wizzy and state-of-the-art. But none of it made a difference, because I still couldn’t pull the trigger. I was frozen at the screen.

What had held me back in San Francisco? Why hadn’t it been my showtime? These questions bedeviled me. They woke me up at three in the morning, racing through my head. Why had I been so damned resistant? After a while, I guessed it had something to do with my shallowness and various constitutional biases. I don’t like dealing directly with feelings, and that’s precisely what Adrienne was asking me to do. It made me uncomfortable. It made my skin crawl. I shied away. I avoided. And for that, for that simple unwillingness, I was rewarded with nothing. All that time spent with Adrienne, a waste. I was no closer to solving my problem.

I turned sullen. The morning after my return from California, I pushed away my bowl of Wheat Chex and just sat there at the breakfast table, head bowed.

“Come on, Dad,” my daughter said.

“Snap out of it,” my wife said.

I shrugged. I moped. I returned to my pile of brochures, where I found one from a brokerage-house executive turned market-oriented hypnotist. A hypnotist — that seemed like a bright idea. Maybe this person, who worked just a short drive away, could get my unconscious mind to do what my conscious mind would not.

“Here’s a story from the Bible,” the hypnotist said. “It’s about the master who gave everyone a certain number of talents, talents being a form of money. He gave one man ten talents and that man invested them. He gave another man one talent and that man buried it, to keep it safe. Later on, the master made the man with one talent give it to the man with ten talents, punishing him for not doing anything with his money.” The hypnotist looked at me. “You have to be willing to let it go. You’re trying to clutch at things.”

“Gee,” I said. “I hadn’t thought about the theological implications.”

The hypnotist said, “Oh, yeah,” and suggested I sign up for 13 weeks of treatment, at a cost of $2,477. “One of the things we’ll do is place you in a trance and walk a time line.”

“A time line?”

The hypnotist nodded. “What we do is go back and re-experience history and then change the interpretation of that history. We always assume our karma is such that our past creates our present and our future. And it’s not so.” A brief pause. “Of course, when you’re in a trance, I’d never tell you to go buy anything. I’d never say, ‘Buy gold on the opening bell.'”

I began to feel a little uneasy. “Good Lord, I’d hope not.”

We talked a bit more, mostly about my fear of market crashes the instant I make an investment. Mulling this over, the hypnotist finally said, “You may be right. Maybe you’re not wrong in your thinking. Maybe you just haven’t found the appropriate investment vehicle for you.” Then came the thought that I should place my money with a money manager — and who better than the very one the hypnotist used.

Perhaps the hypnotist meant well, but I was getting the willies. I came for psychological help, not for recommendations for a money manager. It was untoward, too strange. Plus, the hypnotist seemed about as touchy-feely as Adrienne — time lines and karma, indeed. I got out of there, went home, and placed a few calls to some well-known traders and stock-market thinkers to see what they had to say about trading coaches in general.

“There’s a lot of fraud in that end of the business,” said Bo Thunman, editor of Club 3000, a newsletter for traders.

“Most of it is snake oil,” said Dr. Alexander Elder, author of Trading for a Living and himself a psychiatrist. “You get a guy who’s on a losing streak and is desperate enough, he’ll pay for snake oil.”

“As traders, we all get to points where we are psychologically aberrated and will seek out anything for help,” said Larry Williams, the author of numerous books on trading. “It could be the devil or Christianity or Hinduism or, yes, a psychologist type. To beat the market, I myself have been through every head trip from est to Esalin to astrology. I now think it’s all mumbo jumbo.”

Actually, I didn’t think it was. I could see how what Adrienne did with NLP might work and how hypnotism might work. And certainly the sales brochures sent out by trading coaches are chock-full of testimonials from clients; I’d talked to some of them, and they were indeed satisfied. So what helps one person might not help another person. That’s always the case. But I still hadn’t found what could help me. Maybe nothing could. That was beginning to seem like a rather distinct and horrifying possibility. I spiraled into a deep funk.

Then, one evening, while watching the great newscaster Dan Rather, I began thinking about the way he’d signed off his reports during one week in 1986. “Courage,” he would say, apropos of nothing. From there, I recalled the time Dan got mugged on the streets of New York City. The mugger had apparently said to Dan, also apropos of nothing, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?”

How odd that these two things should come back to me now. I thought them over. Courage and frequency.

Maybe I was beyond help with the trigger thing. But couldn’t it be that if I had the courage to persevere, help was right around the corner? Perhaps the next coach I saw would be the person for me — the person on my frequency — and all I had to do was take the next step. I began feeling better. And pretty soon I was up in the air once again, on the way to someplace new.

“You don’t make money by thinking,” Bill Williams was saying. “You make money by doing. Most traders overanalyze everything. They go, Well, gee, maybe this, but what is this, and what is this? It’s mental masturbation, and it doesn’t do you any good. What we want to do here is eliminate the mental masturbation.”

I was in Texas City, Texas, at Bill Williams’s fine palatial house hard by the lapping waters of Galveston Bay. Through his Profitunity Group company, Bill sells a $2,580 home-study course on futures trading based on his reading of the science of chaos and nonlinear physics. Once you’ve taken it, you’re then eligible to attend one of his $2,420 semiprivate tutorials. Already Bill had gotten me mighty excited about what he could do for my trigger problem. “What you have right now is a lack of faith,” he said. “And what we do is demonstrate that it’s not only possible for you to have faith but that you’d be a lot better off if you did. And once that happens, pulling the trigger becomes automatic.”

There were six of us there inside Bill’s trading room, looking at five big computer monitors all showing charts of various commodities in various states of upheaval. Unlike many trading coaches, Bill also trades, putting into practice what he teaches and urging his students to do so as well. On a Monday, for instance, I saw that one thing he didn’t have any trouble with was pulling the trigger. He fired off orders left and right. I marveled at his fearlessness.

I also liked him. I liked that he had a ponytail. I liked that he was a veteran of the loopy 1960s, with a degree in engineering and a doctorate in psychology, which had led to his involvement in LSD research when it was still legal and, later on, to helping people with the deep-tissue massage technique known as rolfing. I liked the fact that besides his market work he also ran a small side business teaching people how to beat lie-detector tests. In addition, he was something of a humorist. “Do you know what CNBC/FNN stands for?” he asked at one point. “It stands for Can Never Be Correct Financial Neurotic Network!”

In fact, Bill doesn’t believe in watching financial news, or in reading The Wall Street Journal, or in following market newsletters, largely because none of them know anything about chaos theory.

Sipping on a cup of tea, Bill explained to us how he looks at chaos. “Chaos normally means random, mixed-up bullshit,” he said. “But in the science of chaos, it really doesn’t. In this context, chaos refers to new information coming in that has the appearance of chaos but that’s really organized around a much higher form of order. So, in trading, when new information comes into the market in the form of a new price, you have two choices. You can either attempt to organize it along Aristotelian lines, by distorting the information so it fits into old categories and preconceptions, which in my opinion is the nail in the coffin for trading. Or you can let the new, incoming information determine your approach, which is what we do here.”

He went on to detail his chaos-derived trading methodology. It involved looking for prices to break out of certain turning-point patterns that Bill called fractals, as well as the use of various oscillators and a relatively arcane market theory known as the Elliott Wave. It fascinated the rest of Bill’s students. But I was no longer listening. Bill’s twang of a voice was lost in the background of my own thoughts.

In the foreground, racing toward me, was something called price. A single price, one moment in time, a piece of apparent chaos — and then, whammo, it smacks into my brainpan and shatters. The price bits rip into my brain’s protective meninges, skid across the cerebral cortex, and slice through the limbic system, setting off a neural firestorm that somehow causes the fear that leads to my problem with pulling the trigger. In other words, perhaps I was a true Aristotelian kind of guy, with a brain full of old categories and preconceptions, all of them ready to work overtime if need be. In this light, I could see how new information wasn’t determining my actions. My past was. The hypnotist had said I was trying to clutch at things. It wasn’t me. It was my Treasury-bond-loving grandfather. It was my wealthy, shrieking, money-withholding grandmother. It was my Krugerrand-burying, shotgun-toting mom. All of them were long dead, but perhaps in me they lived — a trio of fearful, hysterical nut jobs making a mockery of my desire to invest the share of money they’d left me.

As soon as these notions occurred to me, they seemed painfully obvious. Embarrassingly obvious. I’d glimpsed them during Adrienne’s seminar, but they’d immediately eased back into the mist. Even now, I could feel them struggling to disappear. But every time they faded, Bill brought them back with one of his aphoristic sayings or far-flung psychological theories, of which he had many.

“Nobody trades the market; we all trade our belief systems,” he would say. And: “As adults, we mostly respond from our memory banks, instead of directly to the incoming information.” Furthermore: “All of you are here because of a fantasy. The fantasy is to come down here, spend this time and money, and when you go back, something will be different. And hopefully it will be. But at this point in time, it’s still a fantasy. It’s a game. A game we’ve made up. It’s not reality.” Bill paused briefly to let this sink in. “Realize, then, that the main reason to play the game of trading is to find out who we are.” Another pause. “And that the only way to play this game in such a way as to find out who you are is to realize that what was — before you made what isn’t into what is — was totally okay.”

Of course, this sounded like so much slippery spaghetti, but I decided to see if I couldn’t get a grip on it. What Bill was saying, I think, is that you can’t change who you are until you find out who you have been — and playing the market will reveal that person to you. Yet once you’ve found that person, you still can’t make any changes until you accept — truly and without prejudice — the person you’ve found. I understood this, more or less. It had a kind of logic.

But then Bill went off the deep end. He started talking about “the quantum soup that connects everything.” Ponytail bobbing, voice rising, he said, “From a quantum scientist’s point of view, everything in the world is the same thing, so everything is connected, as if by little white strings. Everything, the whole universe — Jupiter, Mars, UFOs, the airplane in the sky. You and me. It’s the quantum soup. It’s where things happen. It’s where things change. From this level, you can change anything in your life in an instant, because it’s the underlying structure.” He smiled broadly. “And that gives you immense capabilities. I mean, there’s no reason in the world why you shouldn’t make $1 million next year in trading. There’s absolutely no reason.”

Little white strings? Quantum soup? Change in an instant? A million dollars? It sounded like the gibberings of a madman. But whatever Bill meant, I was all for it. To make up in a year what I’d missed out on in 12? Bring on the quantum soup! Unfortunately, taking that trip wasn’t on the Profitunity agenda that day, which also meant that Bill’s stated goals for his futures-trading students — most of whom had accounts in the $10,000 to $25,000 range — had to be trimmed back a bit, to “a little over 300 percent a year.”

I, of course, would have settled for merely the annual historical average return of stocks over the long haul — a runty 10 percent. Was that too much to ask for?

Still, I was happy. I felt that my experience with Bill had been valuable. I thought that I was making progress. Indeed, I had begun to see that staying out of the market was, in fact, my way of playing the market — playing it according to a belief system set in motion by that troika of nut jobs from the past.

By the time i got home, though, I was morose again. I’d come a small way. I wanted to go further. I wanted that quantum soup. I wanted it now.

“Claptrap,” my wife said when I told her about Bill Williams’s theories.

I shook my head. “You’re fitting new information into old categories.”

“You’ve got to cut this stuff out,” my wife said. “Look, maybe you just can’t do it. So you can’t pull the trigger. Is that so bad? Is your worth diminished? Are you any less a person?”

“Oh, Daddy,” my daughter said sadly.

I glanced at my desk. It was strewn with investment books. I had Fundamental Analysis, by Jack Schwager, and its companion study guide. I had New Technical Trader and New Science of Technical Analysis. I had Making Up for Lost Time, by my old financial adviser Adriane Berg. Furthermore, all the software I’d gotten was ready to go. Charted on the screen at the moment was the bright, happy zigzag of the Robertson Stephens Partners mutual fund — currently a super-buy, according to my CycleTrader program. I switched over to my most beloved of all software programs, Investors FastTrack, to see what it had to say about a few other funds. I saw lots of good ones. Plus, a quick visit to the FastTrack area on the Prodigy bulletin board told me that most of my investing cyberpals were making money hand over fist, flinging themselves into the market with apparent abandon and sure gusto. I took up a copy of my latest statement from the Jack White brokerage firm, which showed me what I already knew: that all my money was sitting idle in a money-market fund. All 32 g’s of it.

A number floated into my skull. There was a dollar sign attached to it. The number was $871,943.

To my wife and daughter, I said, “I’m going to go try one more thing.”

“No!” said my daughter. “Please, Dad, no. You’re getting weird!”

“One more thing,” I said mulishly.

My wife glared at me. “Stop it,” she said. “Just stop it. I won’t have it. In fact, I forbid it.”

It was a little on the cool side when I arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas, for the Zen Trader Challenge, a three-day event put on by a fifth-degree black-belt ninjutsu instructor named Dr. Richard McCall. Apparently, Dr. McCall has spent untold years studying the Zen ways of the feudal-era Japanese samurai warrior. From his studies, he has extracted the essence of what made the samurai so fearless. And it is this that he attempts to impart to those who attend his seminars.

The other students and I gathered inside his dojo. We changed into our gis, fumbled with our white belts, and lined up in the main training hall. I felt awkward and a little ridiculous. In fact, I thought the whole thing was pretty stupid. But that was just me, coming from my background, with my boatload of drifting biases. If I was going to get anywhere, I had to put them away. I let my hands fall to my sides. A fountain with a small Buddha perched in its center burbled in the background. Mystical flute music danced through the air. Dr. McCall stood before us, a happy-seeming middle-aged man with a beard and the accent of the Arkansas native.

“I’ve seen countless people develop outstanding trading systems,” Dr. McCall drawled. “They paper trade it. They test it out. But when it comes time for the heavy stakes, they start screwing up. You get into a situation where risk enters the picture, and behavior changes. So the issue here is risk. And the first thing I gotta do is wake you up and show you some risk.”

Dr. McCall called forth one of his lieutenants, a black belt named Robert, and handed him a cucumber. Robert placed the cucumber against his own neck, covering his jugular vein. “Here’s what’s going to happen,” Dr. McCall said. “I’m going to take action, and Robert’s going to be still. Both are absolutely essential to success. I’ve got a tolerance for error of one one-hundredth of an inch.” Dr. McCall had in his hand a gleaming steel sword. He brought it back and held it high. Then, with a sharp cry, he swung the sword forward at cannonball speed, toward the soft cucumber pressed into Robert’s equally soft neck.

The cuke thumped to the floor in two pieces. No blood spurted in steaming gouts from Robert’s neck. He hadn’t even been nicked.

Dr. McCall turned to us. “Now, that’s the real thing, gentlemen,” he said. “That’s the absolute, precise behavior control you have to have in any discipline. It doesn’t matter if it’s the swords of the samurai or trading the market. Makes no difference.”

I was awestruck. I’d seen Bill Williams zip off orders for futures contracts, but that was nothing like this. In essence, Dr. McCall had just executed a round-trip trade on a life. It was an incredible display — brief, simple, and accomplished without sweat. How was that possible? How did he do it? I threw myself into what he had to say.

When Dr. McCall said that a person’s spirit is as real as a person’s body and mind, I went with it. When he said that body, mind, and spirit could connect only through proper breathing, alignment, and meditation, I swore I would learn all three. When he explained the acronym ACTION — Accept all possible losses before entering the battle; Center yourself in mind, body, and spirit; Trust your inner skills and warrior intuition; Imagine victory clearly in your mind’s eye; Only exist in the present moment to conquer fear; Never, ever stop once you have begun — I was right there with him, soaking it all in.

Then came the challenges. Each challenge represented an opportunity for Dr. McCall’s sempai — us, his select students — to put into practice the concepts we had learned. Once overcome, each challenge would then reflect back to us our own growing inner skills and burgeoning warrior intuition. At these, I mostly sucked. We were supposed to keep three balloons up in the air at once, for as long as we could, a demonstration of our mastery of centering and self-control. The least of the other guys in my group kept them going for 45 seconds; flailing and stumbling, I clocked out at seven seconds. Another time, three of Dr. McCall’s helpers threw tennis balls at us; we were supposed to deflect them with the tip of a sword. The balls hit me in the cheek, in the throat, in the forehead, in the tummy, in the kernels, everywhere. It was embarrassing, a humiliation.

I did pretty great at the fire walk, though. We went out to a nearby estate. Dr. McCall doused some charcoal with lighter fluid. Up went the flames, and off we walked. When it was my turn, I did as all the guys had done before me. I breathed into what’s called the one-point, a spot two inches beneath the belly button. I focused on the tip of the sword I held in my hands. I raised and lowered the sword three times and, with a great, bloodcurdling yell, I strolled the coals. Not a problem. And that being the case, I looked forward to tomorrow. Tomorrow we were going to Petit Jean State Park to sit under a waterfall. It sounded rather lovely, I told Dr. McCall, an idyll after the potential danger of the fire walk.

Said Dr. McCall: “Well, wait till tomorrow to make that assessment, okay?”

In the early afternoon, under a deep-blue sky, we scrambled across moss-slick shale toward the falls. I could see water jumping out of the top chute and dropping down 100 feet with a noise like one long thunderclap, or maybe even war. It was furious out there. Dr. McCall stopped to give us instructions. “It will not hurt you,” he shouted. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

I started shivering.

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Dr. McCall went on. “As soon as the water hits the top of your head, it’s going to suck the breath right out of your body. You’ll feel panicky and want to breath in. But that won’t work while the cold water is hitting you. So you’ve got to blow out by screaming. Scream. Get air going out! Then start breathing like a bellows. Breath in, breath out — hard. As soon as you do that, you’ll feel warmth come up your back and across your shoulders, spreading down your arms. It’ll be total euphoria. You could stay in there all day and not be hypothermic.”

Hypothermia? I hadn’t thought about that.

Dr. McCall smiled at the noisy, thrashing scene in front of us. “This water temperature, that flow,” he hollered. “This is it, the maximum.”

I wobbled in. Wind shot around the falls and forced open a path for me, blowing back the curtain of plunging water. An instant later, though, some whirling splash caught me amidships and quite nearly rolled me over. I sat. Water hit me flat on the head; it was meat-locker cold and, coming from such heights, as vividly solid as a block of granite. The pounding was terrible. For a moment, I thought the water had penetrated my head and was rushing through my brain with such friction that aneurysms were blistering up like paint under Strip-Eez. In my upper chest, a globe of nausea formed. The entire time, of course, I was screaming. It didn’t make any difference. I felt no warmth and no euphoria, only dreadful pain. I thought — with a kind of vague detachment — not that I was about to die or that I could die but of something Dr. McCall had suggested earlier: that the waterfall experience could be analogous to a near-death experience.

Then the oddest thing happened. All of a sudden, I felt nothing. No pain, no euphoria, just nothing, as if I weren’t even there. Behind my shut eyes, I didn’t see bright lights; nor did I see darkness. I simply didn’t see anything. Nonetheless, I could think, and what I thought was: Is this the quantum soup? I decided that it was. In the spirit of the moment, I dredged up pictures of my grandfather, my grandmother, and my mother and saw all of us connected by Bill Williams’s little white strings, the strings then shooting off to connect with everything else there is in the universe — Mars, Jupiter, Hillary Clinton’s ankles, a ball-peen hammer resting in the palm of some auto mechanic somewhere, my fear of pulling the trigger. Then these things dissolved into one thing — nothing. And I thought, blandly, Well, this is okay.

Too quickly, however, the feeling of my tongue in my mouth came back, thick and spatulate. I realized I wasn’t screaming anymore. And again pain boxed my head. It was too much. I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled out from under the falls, my agony compounded by the fact that while in the quantum soup — the structural level at which all change is presumably possible — I’d forgotten to think about making changes. It had been the furthest thing from my mind.

I swear this is the truth, though: Today I own shares in CGM Realty Fund, Northeast Investors Trust, Robertson Stephens Partners, and Legg Mason Value Trust. They aren’t real swingers. Nevertheless, I picked up the phone and bought into them. Afterward, I sat back in my chair, shocked at my own behavior. I viewed it as a kind of miracle.

“Okay, so let me get this straight,” my wife said. “The little white strings that connected you to your dyspeptic family and also to that trigger business now also connect you to that waterfall stuff. Specifically, they connect you to that moment of great cosmic nothingness wherein everything screwed-up about your past suddenly meant nothing to you.”

“I believe that to be the case.”

“Uh-huh. And so it’s just like the great Bill Williams said: The moment you saw they could mean nothing, they did mean nothing. And you were free of them, just like that. You didn’t have to ask for change, because the change had already happened, without you being aware of it.”

I nodded, somewhat sheepishly.

“It’s psychobabble,” my wife said. “It’s the power of suggestion.”

My daughter said, “Weirdness personified.”

“Whatever works,” I said to them firmly. “Whatever works.” 

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