In May of 2009, when I was 38 years old, I outran 13,000 competitors to win the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge, an annual 5.6-kilometre race in Singapore. As I broke the finish tape, I felt what many other runners would feel under the circumstances: short-term invincibility. I had no idea that I had bone cancer.
It was discovered six months later, during a routine MRI scan. I booked a date for my surgery and then went for a 20-kilometre run. I wasn't sure if it would be my last.
During the operation, surgeons removed chunks of three ribs and part of my spinous process. They rearranged my back muscles to cover the hole vacated by my ribs.
This kind of surgery carries a risk of paralysis. But I was fortunate. As I lay in my hospital bed after the operation, I was relieved to find that I could move my legs. After two weeks in the hospital, I returned home wearing a spinal support vest. I could shuffle forward while leaning on a wheelchair.
To distract myself, I began to write a book about a long-time passion of mine – investing. As I wrote, I began to notice something I hadn't expected. My cancer experience was clarifying my perspective – not just on life, but also on far more mundane matters of money management and portfolio construction.
Three years later, I've fully recovered. I've gone back to work and even returned to competitive running. But my investing strategy has been fundamentally altered by my experience. Let me offer three lessons I've taken to heart:
I discovered the hard way that rehabilitation from a serious illness shouldn't be rushed. Soon after my surgery, I was riding a stationary bike, marching up hills in my spinal support vest and obsessively working my back muscles with exercise bands.
My surgical area lit up like a beacon during my next MRI scan. Fortunately, it was swelling and scar tissue this time, not cancer.
I had to develop patience; instead of racing for victory, I had to focus on slow, steady improvement. The same philosophy is important with money. Expecting immediate results and fretting when we don't get them does more damage than good.
These days I'm far more phlegmatic than I used to be. I think I'm a better investor because of it.
The odds matter
Being patient doesn't mean I'm willing to accept whatever comes. The difference from my pre-cancer days is that I no longer worry about stuff I can't control. I change what I can, relax about things I can't, and try to base my behaviour on the best research I can find.
Consider diet, for instance. My illness drove me to research and consume the foods and vitamins that cancer hates: raw organic vegetables, green tea, extremely dark chocolate, vitamins C, D, E, and selenium. I eliminated foods that cancer thrives on: fruit juices, sugars, and red meat, among others.
Sure, some people are lucky. They can eat burgers and fries while smoking a pack of cigarettes a day without developing cancer. But I prefer to tilt the odds in my favour.
Same goes for investing. It's possible for a day trader or an actively managed mutual fund investor to do well. All the numbers, though, suggest that most of them don't.
Before cancer, I liked to research and buy individual stocks. I had done quite well. But after my surgery, I had to confront the facts.
All the data show that a simple strategy of buying low-cost index funds produces better results than 80 per cent of active investors.
While I already owned some index funds, I decided it made sense to tilt the odds in my favour and adopt a pure indexing strategy for my entire portfolio.
Simple is good
It wasn't just the numbers that convinced me to become a pure indexer. It was also the reality of marriage.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, my wife and I had a relatively complex investing portfolio shaped by my investing enthusiasm. But she wasn't interested in the stock market. If I did have a magic formula for investing (something I seriously doubt) she wasn't keen on learning it.
Recognizing that she might outlive me, I sold $700,000 worth of individual stocks and added the proceeds to the exchange-traded index funds I already owned. Then I taught her how to rebalance the portfolio in a few minutes once a year. If I die before my wife, I'll rest better knowing that she won't be paying somebody to underperform the market.
Three years after my surgery, my MRI scans continue to look clear. My weight has (finally) climbed back to its pre-surgical level and my strength is back. I can break a five-minute mile, do 33 pull-ups and dispassionately rebalance a portfolio of index funds. Following a couple of evidence-based strategies for health and money, I'm hoping for longevity – and bucket loads of wealth.
See Andrew Hallam's model portfolio here.