Make a New Plan, Stan

Make a New Plan, Stan

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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.

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