Courage is not the absence of fear in mountaineering… or in investment

A A friend recently convinced me to watch a new Netflix documentary, “14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible”. It follows a Nepalese mountaineer who attempts to scale the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 meters in less than seven months.

Even a non-climber like me can understand that the effort undertaken by the star of the film, Nirmal Purja, was impressive. But what put the feat into context for me was when I learned that the previous record was also around seven years old – but ANS, just over seven years old.

As I watched, I couldn’t help but consider the parallels between rock climbing and investing. While the latter does not bear the immediate life-or-death consequences of mountaineering, it does have life-changing impacts if not managed appropriately. Both activities are equally negatively affected by emotion. In fact, our biological engineering to avoid risk can work against us.

“Fear is always within you”

“14 Peaks” was fascinating in so many ways, and I highly recommend it. A word of warning though: if you’re dizzy, you might consider enjoying it with someone or something to calm your nerves, as the jaw-dropping visuals are…intense.

Along with the stunning views and cinematography, I was struck by Nirmal’s candid insight into what it takes to accomplish something as unique and daunting as the top of the world’s most dangerous mountains. In short, his laser focus on the final objective and his confidence in his team allowed him to overcome doubts or fear.

“The fear is always in you,” said Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who was interviewed in the documentary because he was the first person to achieve the same goal (it took much longer, 16 , which, in my book, doesn’t take away from the impressiveness).

Something that seemed to help Nirmal compartmentalize fear was his trust in his partners. “I knew I had the best team in the world,” he said. He even shared some of the group’s diverse strengths. I was amused to hear a balance between essential traits for reaching the top of a giant piece of rock (as team member Nirmal said “can carry the size of a house”) and attributes which probably matter more while waiting for a good weather window at base camp (a team member “is the best dancer in the factory”, supposedly).

Control the emotions

Thinking about the parallels to investment experience, especially in turbulent market environments, this quote from Reinhold’s interview in the film grabbed me:

“People today, if you ask them, ‘Why are you going to the high peaks?’ They say, ‘Because it’s fun.’ I don’t believe them. It’s not funny. It’s a place where you have to learn to deal with pain because it hurts.

Watching the market drop 20% or skimming headlines that scream “bear market” and “stock market crash” doesn’t bring the same physical pain that mountain climbers know, but the emotional stress runs deep. It’s basic behavioral finance.

So what is the remedy? Similar to Nirmal, who stayed focused on his end goal and trusted his team, at Blueprint Investment Partners, we believe in optimizing behavior through planning and preparation. Our focus is on the long term of supporting financial advisors who help clients develop and stay grounded in financial plans that can preserve capitalization. We also hope that our systematic investment process will unemotionally tell us what, when and how much to buy and sell in any market environment.

Over time and experience, we have expanded our comfort zone to the point where we can boldly execute our process in the face of uncertainty and discomfort to help advisors achieve their clients’ goals. For example, we have a stoic way of looking at market declines, recognizing that there are three distinct phases that lead to a bear market, and not all to demand action.

Investing and climbing can both involve fear, but achieving goals in either area usually means accepting some level of risk. It’s about finding the right tools to compartmentalize emotions with preparation, discipline and a strong team.

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