Vitaliy Katsenelson is a recognized investor and award-winning writer. He has written on a wide variety of life’s most important challenges, including parenting, self-improvement, art, and music. In his newest book, Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life, Vitaliy inspires us with a personal collection of stories and life lessons derived from classical composers, ancient Stoics, and contemporary thinkers.
Interview: (5 Quick Questions)
Recently, Vitaliy was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer several questions about his new book, including several questions of a very personal nature. Vitaliy wasted no time, passionately seizing the opportunity with each question, to embed real life examples, bringing us further into his world. I’m certain you will find his answers as extremely enlightening and transparent as I do.
If you could only keep one section of the book, which section would it be, and why?
I’ll give you more than one answer. I think the Stoic philosophy section of the book will have the widest impact on readers, and I personally benefited tremendously from learning about Stoicism. I look at Stoic philosophy as an operating system for life. It gave me much-needed clarity on how to approach life. It significantly reduced the volatility of my negative emotions. In fact, the way the Stoic philosophy section is written, it could be a standalone self-help book.
I have a deep connection to several essays, and two of them were so important they went into the title of the book.
“Soul in the Game” is a lens through which I look at life. It is an attitude I instill in my kids and is now deeply embedded into the DNA of my firm, IMA.
I’ll give you small example. My 16-year-old daughter Hannah wanted to earn some money. She started teaching chess lessons. Before she had her first lesson with an 8-year-old girl, I asked her, “Did you prepare a curriculum of what you want to teach this girl? Did you think of how you are going to teach? How are you going to make it interesting for her?” Hannah was so excited about earning money, she had not given teaching much thought. She said, “It will be easy; I’ll start with basics.”
Here is what I told her:
You should have soul in the game when you teach this class. Doing a great job should be near and dear to your heart. You need to be net positive to everyone you interact with, especially this girl. The girl’s parents entrusted you with their precious child. Just imagine if the roles were reversed. Would you want your teacher to teach just to make money?
Think of the true reward: If you pour your soul into teaching, you can singlehandedly have a significant positive impact on this girl’s life. Think how much satisfaction you’ll receive if you get a lot of kids to fall in love with chess. Remember how you felt when you fell in love with chess? This is your opportunity to give back. This satisfaction will mean more to you than money. Much more.
You’ll be receiving joy from teaching long after the money you were paid is spent. Money should be a secondary consideration. If you focus on doing a great job, the money will take care of itself. Her parents will tell other parents and you’ll have more students.
This conversation changed how Hannah approached her lessons. She spent hours preparing for them. I wasn’t at home for the first lesson, but my wife told me Hannah was a terrific teacher.
“The Art of a Meaningful Life” essay brought me closer to understanding what creates meaning in life, for me. I read somewhere that life itself has no intrinsic meaning; it is up to us to create it. I used to think it was relationships with friends and relatives that creates meaning in life. As I was developing this essay, I realized that though relationships are incredibly important, alone they are not enough, at least for me. I realized that without creativity my life feels empty. This is why I love investing and writing – both are very creative activities. They provide needed tension, the good problems that I need in life.
What do you miss most about your mom?
I have to close my eyes and try to remember what the 11-year-old version of me felt. I remember just wanting her to be with me. Wanting her not to be gone.
I used to think parents’ most important task was to provide shelter and food for their kids. Today I realize that though those things were often a struggle for my parents in Soviet Russia, they are usually easily achieved in modern society.
I now realize that when we are young our parents are our conduits to the outside world. We see the world through their eyes. They teach how to look at the world. How to interpret it. How to behave in it. They make us feel safe. They make us feel loved. They feed us not just with food but with their love and attention. This is what the 11-year-old me missed about my mom. Her being there, her love, her attention, her words of encouragement.
Today, as the adult me, I’d want her to see her grandkids. I think she’d see in them seeds she planted in me. She’d be proud of them.
Which of your dad’s paintings is your favorite?
The painting of the New York Stock Exchange. It is not his best painting, but it is dear to me because he painted it for the Russian edition of my first book, “Active Value Investing”. He even edited the Russian edition of the book. Until he read the Russian translation of “Active Value Investing”, he harbored the suspicion that my day job was legalized gambling. After he read it, he understood that though there is a lot of randomness in daily stock movements, in the long term it is anything but gambling. My father, scientist that he is, immediately tried to scientify investing. I told him that some folks have tried, have won Nobel prizes, created an industry of consultants, but still could not in turn squeeze all the art out of investing, though they tried.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known sooner in life?
There are so many things. Where do I start?
How about, I don’t have to win every argument. I was sick with that disease; it ruined a number of my relationships. I wish I had known about Stoic philosophy in my teens; my life would have been a lot easier.
Being kind to others, all the time. I try to do this in every interaction with every person. I do this even with telemarketers. I have the same love for telemarketers as I do for anyone else who calls me during dinner trying to sell me something I don’t need. I tell myself, they are human beings who have… well, a thankless job. I don’t allow myself to get annoyed with them and I turn my innate reaction, which is anything but kindness, into kindness. If I am kind to everyone all the time, then I don’t have to think about it. Some people are naturally programmed by Mother Nature to be kind to others all the time. Not me.
Even more importantly, being kind is a muscle. I have been exercising and training it a lot. I want to be net positive to society and being kind is a big part of that.
My kids and my employees pay a lot more attention to what I do than to what I say. Hopefully, I set a good example for them with my actions. Being kind is so important to me that it is one of IMA’s core values.
What’s your greatest hope for each of your children?
Like any parent, I want them to be happy.
Life will not always be easy for them; it will come with its own set of challenges for each of them. I will not always be there for them. I want them to be resilient – get back up when adversity pushes them down – or even better, antifragile: find strength in adversity.
I want them to be happy with themselves. If they are, they’ll be happy with the world. I want them to have good problems, problems that bring meaning to life. I want them to be net positive for society. My kids are one of the reasons I wrote “Soul in the Game”. I dedicated the book to them – “Because you don’t read my emails” – it is my guide to life for them.
Soul in the Game is beyond entertaining, engaging, and awe-inspiring. Vitaliy has delivered an irresistible memoir, and so much more, worthy of readers everywhere. All that’s left to do, is simply enjoy it!
Creative Thinking Misfit