Financephobic #2: To live is to gamble

May 3, 2024

Stop planning for the long-term.

Alright, if you’re obsessed with something audacious — like becoming a professional jazz dancer or qualifying for the national synchronised swimming team — go ahead. Plan. It won’t work, but I get why you want to control the minutiae of your future.

But your dull, adult, ‘realistic’ plans? Those you make when you’re afraid the world is moving faster than you are? When you come up with a ‘vision’ — a daydream wrung dry of its zest and joy and whimsy — and then give yourself homework for a decade? Or two, or four? Come on.

You know those: Get into a prestigious university. Jump through four jobs. Gain fifteen years of industry-relevant experience and enter your target company at the AVP level. Work 90-hour weeks. Badger your rich uncle to send you leads. Hold your nose and schmooze with the promoter’s useless adult kids. Stab your boss in the back. Take over the sales vertical. If you get it right, at age 62, your dreams and your labour come together in a soaring, triumphant crescendo: you become the CEO of a mid-tier company!


Perhaps you’re rankling and shifting in your seat. Maybe you launch at me: “Oye! Oye Financephobe! This is how the real world works. You must plan long-term to achieve big goals. You need to channel your energy and find the right strategy to get ahead. Life is a long race, and to win, you must plan!”

Very well. To that, I say: you know, you might be dead in half an hour.

Minutes from now, you might walk into the bathroom for a quick leak and step into a small puddle of soapy, slippery water. It’ll happen in a flash. You’ll be flung into a spin. The world will zip past you. You’ll feel an uncomfortable, swooping tug at your stomach. Your eyes will recognise nothing in the blur until they fix at the edge of the sink for a mere instant, right before your head makes contact. There’ll be a loud crunch that you will hear from the inside. And then, everything will go black.

Maybe not. I hope not.

It’s still a scary thought: the odds this happens, low as they might be, are not zero. It’s within the realm of possibility. Tomorrow morning, your house may well be full of people sniffling and sobbing and murmuring “But, but… it was so sudden!”

Every single day for the rest of your life, there will be a non-zero chance that everything falls apart. Not because you die in a bathroom: it could be anything, really. What if, late one evening, you forget to switch to your personal social profile and end up plastering the company ID with rude, politically controversial jokes? What if you get a call from the Income Tax Department about a pending refund and answer a few questions, only to realise that you’ve been scammed out of your savings? What if you’re overconfident about your ability to control an upset stomach at a client meeting, and end up with a small brown stain on your reputation? One bad day could upset plans you’ve laid for years.

Worse still, what if everything almost comes together? You aim for the peak of your career and begin your relentless ascent. You plan, you sacrifice, you play your moves to perfection. Until, at age 58, you have to take a sudden break because your younger kid is struggling with college, and you end up bowing out as ‘Head of Sales – Eastern Region’. What a tragedy it would be: you ran a single race your entire life and came fifth.

Ahhh, but then… what if you make it? What if, by some miracle, you survive the churn and the uncertainty? Well, well. Then you’ll have achieved your long-term plan. You’ll be a sixty-year-old living by the decisions of your twenty-five-year-old self. Congratulations on dying on your chosen hill, you puny giant.

Your long-term plans coming together flawlessly is perhaps the worst thing you could wish upon yourself. It would mean that everything that shaped the person you are came early in your life, and the next many decades were some sort of meaningless addendum – so predictable that you foresaw it all years in advance. Imagine the boredom.

But I get it. You learn fairly early on that every once in a while, life walks up to you and whacks you across the face. For no reason, with no warning. You clutch your cheek; you smart, you groan. Then, you tell yourself a cute, reassuring story: if you could only put together the perfect plan – something so detailed and meticulous that nothing was left to chance, maybe life would ignore you and move on to someone else.

Alas, this is to have it backwards. You can’t catch uncertainty in a bottle like a marauding genie. You can, however, embrace it.


If you want to live well, learn to gamble well.

Don’t be an idiot. Don’t gamble for entertainment — not unless you have money you really don’t care for. Don’t endanger yourself. Or your life’s savings. I repeat, though your gambling could well pay my salary: don’t be an idiot.

Don’t start gambling. Don’t gamble any more than you do. My point is: you’re always gambling.

You’re gambling because you make decisions you can’t understand for a future you can’t predict. There’s no getting around this. We aren’t all-seeing supercomputers; we’re chimps with facelifts. We fling arbitrary guesses at the wall and hope something sticks.

That’s what I do, anyway. Here’s a sample. Last week, I went shopping with a colleague to find him a trekking bag. Most of our decisions were pre-made for us. We knew what he wanted. We knew where to shop. We had but a single challenge: we had to choose between two bags, equally sized and similarly priced, and we had no idea how to pick the better one.

We got to work anyway. We gawked at each bag. We pressed and we prodded. We tugged at their drawstrings. We flicked at the buckles. We plucked at elastic bands and poked at their spongy padding. We pulled at zips and stuffed our hands into every opening that appeared. When nothing gave us a ready answer, we began slapping at the bags. Gently at first, and then with some force. Phlack! Phlack! Phlack! We smacked them top and bottom, we slapped at their pockets, we put our arms all the way inside and slapped against the sides.

As I said. Chimps with facelifts.

Eventually, we just picked a bag. If you pressed us on why, we might have given you a plausible-sounding answer. The honest truth, though, is that we got tired and bored and one of them made us feel vaguely queasy.

And… that’s okay. I think this is how most of us make decisions, whether big or small. We limit ourselves to a few arbitrary options. We poke and prod and slap around until we’re tired and bored. Eventually, we pick an answer that seems to fit, not because we’ve followed an extensive, rational algorithm, but because, instinctively, something makes us feel excited or uneasy. Later on, we come up with reasons for our choices, after we’re done, lest others think we’re stupid.

Prove me wrong. There’s a comment box below. Tell me about the elaborate, nuanced process you came up with to sift through the millions of factors relevant to any big life decision: what career you chose, the city you settled down in, who you married, why you had (or didn’t have) kids, whatever. Put down something that works and doesn’t make you seem like a psychopath. I’m waiting.

Honestly, what else can you do? You’ll never actually know how your maiden trek will be. Or what married life will be like. Or what decisions you might regret twenty years into your career. You can read around and figure out some mental frameworks and common mistakes to avoid, but that’s about as far as you’ll ever go. At some point, you’ll have to take a call that is, in crucial ways, uninformed. Then, you’ll have to buckle in, brace for surprises, and hope everything turns out fine. That is, you’ll have to take a bet. It’s the only way.

If you’re already gambling, you might as well learn how to do it well.

To think of yourself as a gambler is to change how you go about life. To begin with, don’t start with a wishlist of everything you want from your life, like some brat at a toy store. Don’t behave as though Santa Claus is the master of your destiny. It won’t help. Your fantasies will not come true. It’s smarter, instead, to start with the hand you’re dealt. Look at the opportunities immediately before you, and assess your odds of cracking them.

On most days, your hand will be utterly unexciting. That’s okay. Try to put yourself in a slightly better position for the next round. Work out so you’re slightly healthier the next morning. Read twenty more pages of your book so your imagination grows a little wider. Write five more cold emails that nobody will probably read. Grind. Sweat. Accumulate. Someday, when the cards fall in your favour, all this effort will feel worth your while.

Even on days you have good cards, life is anything but straightforward. Opportunities have a habit of coming right out of the blue. You might not even see them approach. They look like that interesting job posting that’s tangential to your career path, or that important conversation you’re too tired to have, or that public speaking fixture that makes you nervous and jittery. They may not follow anything you’ve done so far; in fact, to take them may be to throw your life in a sudden and violent left turn. If you want any sort of outsized success, however, you have to play these moments for everything you’ve got. You have to gamble.

To make a bet, you must put something at stake. You must be willing to sacrifice. It might be your money, your time, your mental peace, your effort, your reputation, whatever; you must put something on the line and accept that you might lose it all and get nothing in return. This is what makes gambling so terrifying. It’s why you think twice before a bet. But if you understand what you’re risking, that’s alright. It’s how the game works. It is precisely because you are willing to take the loss that you stand to gain at all. The only way to lose nothing is to do nothing.

Don’t hide from loss. Instead, learn to answer a single question: what sacrifice should you accept for what opportunity? That is the art of gambling.

Once your bets are made, your fate will leave your hands. That mail will leave your outbox. You will have said your piece to that stranger. You will have stepped in front of that mike. You will do something you can’t walk away from, something that could backfire terribly. All you can do is wait. Let the dice fall. Accept whatever happens.

It is not easy to sit still while uncertainty washes over you. With it, however, comes a radical, new sort of freedom — a freedom from your own expectations. You stop chasing chimaeras. You stop living by a blueprint. You only play the hand before you; your wishlist from life ceases to matter.

Only one thing matters: do you win more than you lose? It’s that easy. If you do just that, consistently, your wins will add up until they dwarf your losses. The long-term will take care of itself. Your life might look absurd from the outside; it may be full of twists and turns and odd digressions. But it will be a good life, lived well, explored fully.

Unless, of course, you die in half an hour.


Money, for most people, is the easiest thing to sacrifice for a bet. Of everything you own, pound for pound, few things probably matter to you as little as money does.

Let me explain. I’m not saying money is worthless — not at all. If thieves broke into your house tomorrow and wiped you for ten thousand bucks, it’ll certainly sting. But what if they robbed you of anything else worth the same amount? What about a classy watch your dad bought you when you graduated from college? Or a gorgeous painting that ties your living room together? Or a nice bottle of perfume you were planning to give your partner on your anniversary?

You probably value most things you own beyond what their price tag conveys. They command an emotional premium. You remember waiting impatiently for their delivery, you remember excitedly tearing off their packaging, you remember showing them off to your friends and smiling sanguinely at their envious faces. These memories and feelings make them unique to you. Even if they now lie forgotten in the second cupboard of your guest room almirah, they are hard to part with.

Not money, though. Money is utterly fungible. You might care for what you plan to buy with it, or how safe it makes you feel. But the money itself? Those individual notes and coins and ledger entries? Nah. A Rupee is a Rupee, like any other. That’s the point, really: money is so banal and emotionally sterile, so incapable of being loved, that all of us, as a species, have appointed it as an empty container of value. This fact – how little money alone actually matters to us – makes it primed for betting.

All of finance, in a sense, is a matter of picking bets.

The most basic bet on offer is saving. It doesn’t seem like much at first: your money stays in one place, fluctuating slightly in value depending on interest rates and inflation. But that isn’t the point. Your bet, really, is that anything you spend on today will be worth less than what you might have to spend on tomorrow.

Today, perhaps, ten thousand bucks – if you don’t save them – are worth a lavish evening with your friends. If you keep them safe, some day, they might pay a night’s charges at an emergency ward. If so, you ‘win’ the bet. It’s the same amount of money, really, but it’s dearer to you at a later date. That difference is your upside. On the other hand, that money might lie dormant in your account until you eventually spend it to buy slightly better bathroom fittings while renovating your second home. Then, alas, you ‘lose’ the bet: giving up memories that may have lasted a lifetime for a shiny toilet seat.

Saving, though, is a minor, safe bet. If you give up the fun of spending today, you could find a more prudent way to spend tomorrow. Great practical advice, but there’s barely a prize on the table.

If you’re willing to taste a little more danger, you can attach a bigger bet to your savings. You can invest. For this, you’ll have to give your money away and brave a real chance that you never see it again. It brings bigger opportunities as well, though, some of which might make this sacrifice worthwhile.

To invest is to buy something in the hope that you can make money off it later. It’s not a place you ‘keep’ money. It does not promise safety. It is a bet, plain and simple. You give up your money, bid it goodbye, and purchase something else: an asset. You might know how much money your asset is worth at any moment, but it is not money in itself. Your money has been given to someone else forever.

Yes, I know. It’s scary.

It’s scarier still if you, like me, are financephobic. It’s so much. There are too many things on offer: stocks, bonds, real estate, treasury bills, gold, oil… maybe both your kidneys and your firstborn as well. As soon as you even think of investing, you’re thrown head-first into a furious deluge of information; a constant buzz of things going up and down and all around like mosquitoes in a swamp. How do you even begin?

Well, there’s good news: you don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to bet on the impact of militant activities in Yemen on oil prices a week from now if you don’t feel smart enough. The markets offer you plenty of easy, stupid bets. Try something simple – something you understand. If your conception of the world is still crude, if all you can come up with is something dull and obvious, like “big companies will get bigger,” make that bet. Invest in a plain-jane Nifty 50 ETF. It’s simple. It’s also one hell of a bet, with a decent chance that it’ll double your money every decade.

Once you develop a clearer picture of the world, you might see things that are less obvious: that most people haven’t caught on to. At that point (and only at that point), you can take sharper bets with bigger payouts in mind. You might still lose the money you put at stake. But if you’re being honest to yourself – if you’re betting on how you see the world, and not the latest fad or ‘stock tip’ – that’s alright. Just make sure you win more than you lose.

Where does this lead, though? How long do you bet money to earn more money?

Ah, that’s the beauty of it. You decide. Perhaps, someday, you find a really nice pocket of land at throwaway rates, and build what the next three generations of your family call ‘home’. Maybe you buy yourself a little farm and only eat fresh, juicy vegetables for the rest of your life. Maybe you put together enough to go for a long backpacking tour of Europe and find that all this time, you actually did have a true soulmate – only they sold perfumes in a little shop in rural France. Whatever.

Investing helps you earn more money, but that isn’t why you invest. There’s no inherent purpose to money. You give it a purpose. No matter what you value in life, there may come a point where you feel compelled to take a big bet. At that moment, your money will be the easiest, most readily available thing you can put at stake. That is why you invest.

Even if you’re Financephobic, ain’t that one hell of a reason to start thinking about it?

I’ll see you in the next one.

Senior writer at Zerodha

Post a comment

  1. Varadarasan Shanmugavel says:

    Please write for common man to understand. Nobody expects “hard to read content” from Zerodha.

  2. Jagadeesha H S says:

    Really Good content. Need bit patience to read.
    ONe suggestion. Please use easy words which most people can understand.

  3. Shrey says:

    Thank you! Was having a bad day.

  4. ani says:

    Holy shit, Pranav. Please write more. This is really, really nice.