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The Necessity of Optimism

Kevin McVeigh, CFA
February 4, 2020
The Necessity of Optimism

The United States of America Certificate of Naturalization
Number: 2224130
Petition Volume: 147
Number: 15359
Description: Age: 23, Height: 5 feet, 6 inches, Color: White, Complexion: Light, Eyes: Blue, Hair: Brown, Distinguishing marks: None
Name: Charles Patrick McVeigh

In Testimony Whereof, the seal of said court is hereunto affixed on the 1st day of June, in the year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-Six, and of our Independence, the One Hundred and Fiftieth.
           --James L Hotchkiss - Clerk of Supreme Court, Monroe County, New York

I’m too privileged. Too privileged to have a genuine understanding of what it took for my grandfather to make the journey. A journey where memory begins as an orphaned youth, wanders without formal education toward the Irish Calvary, and ultimately through Ellis Island to the United States of America.

I’m too cloistered. Too cloistered to imagine what he must have felt when the formless took shape. Different elements coming into focus, horizon growing visible, and the crystallizing view of Liberty Island and our revered sentinel, Lady Liberty.

Despite the differences between my grandfather’s start in life and my own, I have come to understand, and embrace, his most important personality trait. Optimism. He expected the good. He believed hard work, resilience, discipline, and a commitment to deferred gratification, would ensure a brighter tomorrow. To him, a healthy sense of optimism was not only important; but indeed, a necessity.

Chasing a Dream 

Unlike crossing the Atlantic, the leap required to understand the importance of attitude on success is clear. Most of us know that optimism—at least reasonable optimism—can pay dividends as wide-ranging as health, longevity, career trajectory and, yes, even investment success. If you’re not convinced, research by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission proved this point, although in an unexpected way.

The SEC wanted to find out if ‘head-in-the-cloud’ dreamers—entrepreneurs— seeking investment capital, were looked at by bankers with more skepticism than down-to-earth realists. The expectation was that overoptimistic leaders would receive less backing from financiers, but the opposite was found true. Banks were, unequivocally, more likely to approve loan applications to those more enthusiastic and optimistic. However, this glass half full perspective doesn’t go unchallenged.

Rooted in Discipline 

Given the nature of today’s news media, optimism is hard. What is news? Fake aside, news is, by definition, a presentation of things that happen. News isn’t things that don’t happen. If a group of politicians practicing for a fundraising baseball game get shot at, that’s news. If another group of politicians gather for a similarly important cause and don’t find themselves dodging bullets, we don't see a news truck, satellite dish, camera and reporter saying, “there wasn't a shooting here today.” Unfortunately, the news media is inherently biased toward a policy of “if it bleeds, it leads," all in pursuit of eyeballs and clicks. This is exactly the kind of environment that makes optimism hard. Implication? Optimism takes discipline.

Embark on Your Journey

Investing in the stock and bond markets, and doing so in the presence of uncertainty, rarely is easy. Aversion to loss, resistance to change, and fear of regret are few of the many cross-currents requiring skilled navigation. However, investors with an assumption of the long view, the discipline to stay the course, and a predisposition to expect the best in all things, are more likely to find the wind at their backs.

Number 2224130 lived a rich and full 93 years. Although the lens through which he viewed the world did not prevent life’s normal setbacks or ‘corrections’, he nevertheless proved to be the ultimate investor. Maybe not in the way you or I might define ‘investor’ but he was wealthy in all that mattered. Family, friends and faith were the primary holdings of his investment portfolio. And when combined with his dream, discipline, and a relentless embrace of optimism, Charles Patrick McVeigh carved out a life of immeasurable success.

Wired To Fail

Kevin McVeigh, CFA is a Managing Director and Partner at Exchange Capital Management. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

Editor's Note: This article was originally posted in 2017. It has been updated to reflect current regulations and statistics.