Meaning in Motion

Meaning in Motion

February 24, 2022

“We often live with a forward momentum, an inertia, if you will. This pushing forward, pushing forward. And when you suddenly stop, here’s a mixed metaphor, it can feel like musical chairs, and the music has just stopped, and you’re standing there and you don’t have a chair. And that’s really disconcerting. Because part of what we do, which I think leads to a significant amount of burnout and existential struggle, is we take meaning from motion…And then when I take away the motion, what happens to my meaning?”

So said Joe Colonna, CEO and co-founder of Reboot.io, an executive coaching and leadership development firm. Prior to his coaching career, he was a partner with JPMorgan Partners, the private equity arm of JPMorgan Chase. He also co-founded New York City-based Flatiron Partners, one of the nation’s most successful early-stage investment programs.

His point is centered around the problem too many of us share: our well being and sense of success come from feeling busy. We become so ingrained in rushing and doing that we can lose sight of what really matters. We can become incapable of relaxing–stillness is almost painful. One might replace “We” with “I” lately, in classic Victorian style.

This translates in the investing world. With investing, people often make changes to the detriment of a portfolio's performance. Studies show that when average investors make trades, their performance suffers. The more trading, the worse performance becomes. There are exceptions, but in general this holds true for professional money managers too. Less is often more. There are times to make changes, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Especially when markets fall, worried investors often succumb to the tempting itch and try to “stop the bleeding” by selling their investments and waiting for calmer times. It can be exceedingly difficult to settle into stillness and ride out a bad market.

The need to be busy can also hurt from a tax perspective. Buying and selling investments with a quick turnover can generate short term capital gains instead of long term capital gains, and short term gains are generally taxed more.

Of course, there are different kinds of motion. A body or mind deliberately in motion is good. We exercise our brain and body to maintain our ability to move and think. Especially as we age, we need this. The mindless motion is the kind to avoid. We don't want to metaphorically tie our shoes and unlace them in order to re-tie them again just to feel meaningfully active.

We also see this with some people who retire. Their identity and sense of meaning is a tangled mess wrapped in the daily grind of work. If there isn’t something meaningful to replace work like relationships and hobbies, retirees tend not to fare well. They wind up watching too much television (especially men, it turns out!), and their cognitive health often suffers.

There is a balancing act on display here. People need relationships and activities they can draw meaning from, but we should also be able to pause and recharge–whatever that looks like for you.

The answer for those of us who struggle to be still and happy at the same time? For many, practice is the answer. People who deliberately stop and make time for rest fare better. “Rest” does not necessarily mean lying in bed, either. It can take the shape of time with friends and family, enjoying a hobby, exercising, or spending time with a pet.

Still, old habits are tough to break. People often come to us for help with retirement planning for this exact reason: they want help exiting the rat race. They are exhausted from whirring around on the hamster wheel of work, chasing meaning from motion, and the conversation inevitably becomes more than just a money discussion. We want to know what is next; do you have things you want to do instead? Retirement is an opportunity to reinvent yourself. Like the podcast we recorded during the COIVD shutdown mentions, retirement should be a Renaissance–not the beginning of the end. Done properly, it can be a catalyst for becoming more deliberate and fulfilled with your life.

Regardless of whether retirement is now, decades out, or never, the principle remains the same: Rather than finding meaning in motion, be meaningful with your motion.


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