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Zen and the Art of Portfolio Maintenance

“…there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all.”    - Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Amidst the market volatility we have been reflecting on our investment frameworks. These can take many forms –typically step-by-step processes or manuals of instruction to create a portfolio of investments. But these never feel right.

They’re prescriptive, and boring. Markets, investing and people are exciting and dynamic. They’re hard to define. It’s like talking about the system without capturing it. The second you try and define it, it becomes less.

“If we do define it we are defining something less than Quality itself.”1

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance1, this essence – Quality – is explored. Quality is neither subjective nor objective – mind or matter – it can be “found only in the relationship of the two with each other”. It bridges this dichotomy between classical understanding (reason, underlying form) vs. romantic (creativity, intuition) that persists everywhere in everyday life.

“The nature of our culture is such that if you were to look for instruction in how to do any of these jobs, the instruction would always give only one understanding of Quality, the classic…”

If we were to describe what a motorcycle is in a classical sense, we would talk about the individual parts and how to put them together mechanically, like a manual. But there’s more than one right way to build and repair a motorcycle – and that’s the art, the romantic beauty of decisions, intuition and spirit. 

The classical understanding is also impersonal. It removes the influence of the mechanic and the rider. A motorcycle really isn’t a motorcycle if it doesn’t go anywhere2. The real motorcycle is a classical motorcycle taking a father and a son on a trip across the frontier to some destination – on a road called Quality.

We view portfolios and portfolio maintenance the same way. Our industry has become impersonal – the “dualistic subject-object way of approaching [portfolios] sounds right to us because we’re used to it.” But this “shuts out Quality”.

“The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along… The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time the material’s right.”1

Our frameworks pursue Quality. They are less manuals and more like a craftsman’s journals – sets of knowledge and tools learned and gathered over time. They’re constantly evolving, flexible as the “forms are capable of change”, grimy with oil and residue from past experience. These frameworks contain classical methods to build a portfolio – but there’s more to it. Marko Papic expresses this idea beautifully when describing his own investment framework:

“I use the term ‘framework’ because it is less deterministic than a theory and not as prescriptive as a method. It is messy, full of contradictions, and much more art than science. It fits with forecasting… because forecasting is similarly messy.”3

This piece would be more complete sharing our journals across asset classes and domains, but that would require a few Chautauquas. We expand upon these in our longer-form works. For now we’d like to cover qualities that expand across our frameworks.

Active Observers

“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment... you’re a passive observer... 
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all.”1

There are many ways to travel through the market landscape. We prefer to ride motorcycles – to not be passive observers or participants of the market. 

We also maintain our own motorcycles. The importance of continuous maintenance, understanding how the parts work together and diagnosing & fixing issues cannot be overstated, especially when traveling long distance. Accidents happen. Environments and weather change. We need to maintain fine-tuned machines. 

We are motorcycle enthusiasts; craftsmen; mechanics.

We Care

“They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, ‘I am a mechanic’… They were involved in it but not in such a way to care.”1

We are mechanics. Our clients come to us with broken motorcycles, or looking for new ones. These are not just objects, but mediums of achieving meaningful goals – getting themselves, or their family, to destinations. This is the “real business of motorcycle maintenance.”

But there is no manual for that. A mechanic has to care – and identify with it – to do Quality work.

We care.


“Assembly [of motorcycles] requires great peace of mind”
“Quality takes you out of yourself, making you aware of the world around you.”1

For us, this sense of Quality helps us stay grounded and focused on the bigger picture. We encourage you to come with us for a ride. No matter your destination or sense of urgency – we will be sure to be caring, active observers and mechanics.

It’s our Buddha, the Tao; our peace of mind during turbulent times.

Important Disclosures & Definitions

1 Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Vintage, 2014. (First published 1974.)
2 References a train in the book (ref.1 Pg.289) Edited for literary purposes. 
3 Papic, Marko. Geopolitical Alpha. Wiley, 2020.

Performance data quoted represents past performance. Past performance is no guarantee of future results; current performance may be higher or lower than performance quoted.

One may not invest directly in an index.

AAI000241 06/30/2024

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