By Stephen Balzac
March 17, 2011
Jesse Livermore, the legendary stock trader of the early twentieth century, was famed for his ability to keep his cool no matter what the market was doing. He neither became discouraged when he lost money or exhilarated when he made money, and he made a lot of money. His greatest triumph was making $100 million (no, that’s not an error) on Oct. 29, 1929, the day of the market crash that preceded the Great Depression. He was one of only two people to make money that day. As people were panicking around him, he calmly covered his short positions into the chaos. What was his secret?
It was simple: Jesse Livermore had a plan. Over the course of his trading career, he developed a plan for when to buy and when to sell. When the plan didn’t work, he stepped back, analyzed the failure, and adjusted his plan. Jesse Livermore’s plan failed many times, especially during his early days as a trader. He went broke more than once and, in 1915, was a million dollars in debt. But Jesse Livermore never failed.
Now this may look like sophistry: he created the plan and the plan led him into bankruptcy. Isn’t that a failure? Sure: it was a failure of the plan. By creating an external construct, a plan, Livermore was able to prevent his emotions from dominating his trading. More broadly, he was able to place the failure outside himself. It’s much easier to change one’s plan than it is to change oneself. On the flip side, when things went well, he could enjoy the fruits of victory without allowing the excitement to color his perceptions and cost him his profits. Each day, he knew that he had followed his plan.
This lesson can be easily applied to the business world, especially today. The news is a steady drumbeat of economic disaster after economic disaster, bankruptcies, shrinking sales, and so forth. It’s extremely difficult to not become discouraged; I regularly hear from business owners that they are no longer listening to the news. It’s simply too depressing. Unfortunately, restricting information only reduces a business’s ability to act when the opportunity presents itself; you won’t even know that the opportunity is there! Tom Watson, the founder of IBM, was reputed to read the papers every day all through the Great Depression. He had a plan, and part of his plan involved staying aware of what was happening around him. He was waiting and watching for his moment of opportunity. That moment came, and the rest, as they say, is history.
So how do you go about making a plan?
- Start by defining a broad vision of what your business wants to accomplish. What will the world look like if you’re successful?
- Identify the steps needed to bring that vision into reality.
- For each step, identify how you will recognize whether or not it is working. It pays to decide upon your metrics before the pressure is on, and to identify the signs of trouble as early as possible. Jesse Livermore never bought a stock without deciding in advance the conditions under which he’d sell it, whether for a profit or a loss. As a result, his losses were small and his profits large.
- Break those steps down into activities that can be done on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.
- Define appropriate checkpoints where you can evaluate progress and determine whether or not your plan is working. Remember to allow sufficient time to collect enough data to make a good decision. Evaluating before you have enough information is an excellent way to abandon a successful plan before it has time to pay off.
- Execute your plan, day in and day out. You measure your own success or failure by whether or not you stuck to the plan.
- Constantly review and revise your plan as you learn more. Failures of the plan are simply an opportunity to evaluate and adjust.
When we fail, it can be difficult indeed to get up and try again. But when the plan fails, it’s relatively simple to modify it and keep going.
What’s your plan?
Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” For more information, visit www.7stepsahead.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.