Investing in life: Vitaliy Katsenelson bares his 'Soul in the Game — The Art of a Meaningful Life' for all

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A funny thing happened on the way to Vitaliy Katsenelson’s investment columns: Readers came for advice but stayed for the stories — and the paintings, of course, which is a story in itself.

Katsenelson has been the chief investment officer of the Denver-based IMA since 2007, and since that time has written a pair of books on investing. That those titles have been well-received is acknowledged by both being widely translated — money being an international language.

But these works are not the sole literary output of a busy management investor. Katsenelson writes … a lot. He has written for Financial Times, Barron’s, Institutional Investor, Foreign Policy and international newspapers, among others. In addition to a weekly blog on classical music, he also writes regular columns, offered in print and as professionally produced podcasts, on investment that over time, and a move into fatherhood, morphed to include other columns on additional writings, incorporating his musings on life, art and classical music.

A recent example: Katsenelson spent the first 18 years of his life in Murmansk, Russia, after which his family emigrated to the United States in 1991. It is this background that provides a unique and stirring perspective on the current war in Ukraine. There is little about investing, but much about life in his four-column series, which can be read or listened to at his website, contrarianedge.com (https://tinyurl.com/bddvczh7).

Today, Katsenelson is set to produce his third book — and first non-investment title — mounting on the common sense lessons he has learned and shared from building a life well-lived.

“Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life” (Harriman House) is a cornucopia of short writings structured in sections to guide a reader through those things that have not only shaped the author — his early life, his life philosophy, values, goals, creativity and music — but might help shape us, too. In the book, Katsenelson doesn’t preach, he simply tells us what works for him and why. We decide the rest.

Recently, Katsenelson agreed to answer a few questions about his work, his writings and his new book. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Mayer: Before we get into the book, you have a background that many of us would find interesting, especially today. Could you give us the highlights?

Vitaliy Katsenelson: So, as you can tell from the book, I was born in Russia and moved to United States in December 1991. So, I’ve lived in the United States for more than 30 years. I basically grew up as an adult in the United States. My whole high school education was here, and my undergraduate and graduate degrees in finance were in the United States. When I completed my graduate degree, in addition to having a day job, I taught at the University of Colorado for about eight years. And then I got bored with that. Then I wrote two investment books and just finished (writing) “Soul in the Game.” I have a wife and three kids, and I live in Denver.

TM: “Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life,” is not your first book, but it is you first non-investment book. Could you explain how it came about?

VK: I have a very large email list of people who subscribe to my (investment) articles. When I started writing, in the beginning, I only wrote about investments. But then, little by little, I would start writing and adding a little bit of my life’s adventures. That usually started with a few paragraphs. At some point, it would become maybe a page, but always in addition to my investment articles.

Then, I would get emails from many readers that they enjoyed (the stories) — and my father’s art (paintings), which I also include in the articles — more than the investment article. That actually gave me almost, like, permission to write about my life more.

What happens is that writers have a lot of insecurities, especially (for me) when I write about life because all of my education is in finance. Investing is my day job, what I do 50-60 hours a week. Now, I’m an investment guy writing about life. So, feedback from readers was incredibly important. Then, later, people would email me and say, well, it would be great if I could read all of your essays on life in one book — but I always dismissed it. Then something happened.

One day I was writing about Tchaikovsky (and one particular piece) that he struggled with. It took him about a year to write it. As I was reading this, I realized, oh my God, this is similar to the struggle I have as a writer — so, I ended up writing a piece about creative activity. Any creative activity that’s worth doing is going to be painful at times. Anyway, when it was done I realized that this could actually help people who are struggling to write. And then I had a realization that I actually have written, over the years, a lot of pieces like that, pieces that were helpful in different parts of life. And I said, you know what, I’m going to put those pieces together and turn them into a book.

TM: That’s actually a good segue into my next question. You’ve made a living in financial investing, but something you make clear in your columns and early in the book is that you consider your most important investment the ones that we make in our lives, not bank accounts. Would you expand on that?

VK: Yeah. If you think about it, even after you have a certain amount of money — enough to pay for your daily needs — after that certain amount … money brings you less and less utility. If you have 10 million or a billion dollars and your habits don’t change dramatically, then making extra money doesn’t really (influence) your happiness. What really keeps us (happy) comes from just loving life and the relationships you have with your partner, with your kids. We only have one life, and it doesn’t really matter how much money you have when you die. What really matters is the life you lead.

I think this realization only comes when people get older, because it is when you’re older you start thinking about your mortality. When you’re young, you don’t think about that. So, this book is basically (from) realizing that and trying to understand, what does it mean to have a meaningful life?

TM: You’ve structured the book in specific divisions, almost as if you are taking us on a life-lesson journey. What is the thinking behind that?

VK: It’s kind of funny. At first I was just going to take my articles and slap them together. But then, as I was editing and organizing the book, I realized that first, I wanted to give people background, a peek into my childhood, to provide perspective. You know, where I came from. Then, the second chapter became very important because that includes what is almost like my slogan for life, having soul in the game. And so on. After this, I talk about this (with) my kids, my parents, and then I talk about my kind of self-improvement journey.

Then, when I was almost done with the book I was literally working out the last chapter when I stumbled on the stoic philosophy. When I stumbled on that it really just took over my life. I emailed my editor and I said I needed to cancel the deadline because I really wanted to explore stoicism in the book. I ended up six or seven months, probably, reading and writing about the philosophy. So, this is brand new content that hasn’t been published before.

There’s also a section on creativity … because creativity is what gives life flavor. That’s what makes me want to wake up in the morning, where I get the most enjoyment in life.

Finally, there is a (section on the) melody of life because I’m in love with classical music. This section is basically there because there is a lot to learn from composers. Remember, this book was started because I wrote about Tchaikovsky. … And that’s how the book is structured.

TM: In the book, you offer the opportunity for readers to share many chapters with others via a QR code. This seems a bit antithetical for an author attempting to sell books. Why did you make the decision to do this?

VK: That’s also kind of funny. I really don’t care how many books (I sell) … I just really want people to read it. If there’s a chapter that really touches (a reader) I want them to be able to show it to their friends, and hopefully it will touch their friends as well.

TM: You also made the decision to include a beautiful color section of your father’s paintings in the book. You typically include one of his paintings at the top of your columns and you’ve mentioned in past writings how drawn readers of your columns are to his work. What is it about his work that drives that?

VK: Probably because it’s so good. I mean, I’m biased, but he’s just incredibly, incredibly talented. Early in my writing career, when I would send out an article and forget to include my father’s art, people would respond to me and say, OK, but please don’t ever send them out again without your father’s art. I could not publish my book at this time and not include my father’s art.