Vitaliy Katsenelson is the CEO of Denver-based value investment firm IMA. He assumed his current position in 2012 having originally joined the company in 1997 before working his way up through the ranks.
In addition to his day job, Vitaliy is a book author, essay writer, lover of classical music, practitioner of Stoicism, and a self-described “student of life”.
I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Vitaliy’s upcoming book Soul in the Game, which I really enjoyed reading.
The book is largely a collection of personal stories with embedded lessons, an approach that develops a friendly connection between the reader and author. It is somewhat unconventional in its format as the stories are not arranged according to their chronological occurrence but rather by theme, however this enables the reader to dip in and out of the book at will.
Overall, Vitaliy’s stories, his sincerity, and his clear dedication to improving as a person while treating others with kindness, make Soul in the Game the embodiment of one of his core values described in the book: Leave the world a better place than you found it.
It was great to be able to interview Vitaliy recently. You can find his answers below.
You can also find him online here:
You describe having “soul in the game” as having “every ounce of your attention and strength and love” invested in a creative pursuit. How do you personally judge when a pursuit is worthy of having your soul invested in it?
I have to admit, when I was originally writing about having soul in the game, I was visualizing “the game” as being one’s occupation. In fact, the trigger to write the original essay was the realization that my investment industry often lacks in both skin and soul in the game. Choosing how you allocate about a third of your time is one the most important decisions you’ll ever make. It’s up there in importance with whom we are going to marry.
Lately, in talking to friends and my kids, I have found myself referring to soul in the game in activities that are not directly related to my main occupation. My kids now laugh and make bets on how many times I’ll say “soul in the game” during family dinner.
For instance, I caught myself realizing that I don’t have soul in the game when I am working out. I work out because I have to do it for my current and especially my future health. I wish I could take a pill and receive the benefits of working out and how I feel after working out, without subjecting my body to pain. I wish I could get to the “I have worked out” state without working out.
On another hand, even if I could outsource writing to a ghostwriter, I’d never do it. I love writing, and despite its often being excruciatingly frustrating, I am willing to suffer through this pain. The process of learning and creating is meaningful to me. I put writing in the category of good problems to have. I have soul in the game as a writer.
Recently, I found myself congratulating my wife that our 21-year-old son Jonah has soul in the game after I observed him studying for his courses at university. I’ve never seen anyone so dedicated to studying. This is the same young man who earned a 1.3 GPA his junior year in high school. Jonah has elevated studying (attending classes and doing homework) to be his highest priority. Despite going to CU Boulder – a university well known for being a party school, Jonah always puts his education above his partying.
He tutors his classmates; he finds satisfaction in helping others, and this helps him to learn subjects better. Observing his efforts gives me enough grounds to say that he has soul in the game as a student – and I am as objective as a father can be. His GPA of 3.97, arguably more objective, though not a perfect measure, confirms my conclusion.
Here’s another example. My 16-year-old daughter Hannah wanted to earn some money. She started teaching chess lessons. Before she had her first lesson with an 8-year-old girl, I asked her, “Did you prepare a curriculum of what you want to teach this girl? Did you think of how you are going to teach? How are you going to make it interesting for her?” Hannah was so excited about earning money, she had not given teaching much thought. She said, “It’ll be easy; I’ll start with basics.” I gave her the following lecture:
You should have soul in the game when you teach this class. Doing a great job should be near and dear to your heart. You need to be net positive to everyone you interact with, especially this girl. The girl’s parents entrusted you with their precious child. Just imagine if the roles were reversed. Would you want your teacher to teach just to make money?
If you focus on doing a great job, the money will take care of itself. Her parents will tell other parents and you’ll have more students.
This admittedly lop-sided conversation changed how Hannah approached her lessons. I wasn’t at home for the first lesson, but my wife told me Hannah was a terrific teacher.
Soul in the game is an attitude, wherein the game could be anything we find meaningful. For me, soul in the game must be present when I do something that has a direct impact on others; otherwise, I’d be going against my core value of being a net positive to others, and this is what I try to instill in my kids.
Finally, I think it is impossible for us to have soul in the game in the long term unless we are deeply passionate, deeply in love with what we do.
You tell a lot of great family stories in Soul in the Game. For those with children or young relatives, how can Stoicism help us navigate the difficult task of guiding those who look up to us?
Children pay more attention to what we do than to what we say. As parents we need to be practicing what we preach for our children to take us seriously. My kids know that I am a practicing Stoic. My older kids have read Soul in the Game, but even before they read it, we talked about Stoicism all the time. I don’t always succeed in acting like a Stoic, and I tell my kids about my lapses. We discuss how I might have acted differently.
Since in practicing Stoicism we are trying to rewrite behavioral habits that we’ve formed throughout a lifetime, it requires patience and deliberate effort. When my kids have problems, we talk about them, and when appropriate I bring in Stoicism as a solution. (Reframing and dichotomy of control are my go-to frameworks.)
We all love Marcus Aurelius’s line “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly.” But we are perhaps unsure how to apply it. You have the nice, practical idea of “setting your egg timer to six months.” Can you explain the concept a little and how it informs your daily actions or attitude?
If you woke up this morning and discovered you only had six months to live, would you approach life differently? Would you value relationships and experiences more than material things? This framework puts what I really value at the forefront. It makes me aware that though time may be infinite, the time we have on this wonderful planet is not.
Here is one example.
I used to look at driving kids to school as a chore. I reframed it. Today I look at it as a gift. Hannah has only two years left in high school. I get to drive her to school only 400 more times. She’ll grow up, and just like my son Jonah today, she won’t need me driving her. The act of driving is not as important as actually being present while I am with my daughters in the car. We talk, we listen to music. The realization of the scarcity of time I’ll have with my kids forced me to reframe how I view an activity I used to dread.
I remember catching myself wishing my kids would get on to the next stage of their lives. When they couldn’t crawl, I wanted them to crawl. When they were crawling, I wanted them to walk. And so on. I stopped doing this. Now I am just “inhaling” every stage of their lives and trying to be present for them. I am teaching Hannah how to drive. I am not sitting in the car with her and wishing for her to already be able to drive. No, I am just living in the moment and enjoying the time I spend with her, knowing that this too shall pass.
Here is another example with a similar concept I discussed in Soul in the Game. I borrowed it from Seneca: Live each day as a separate life.
I recently watched an interview with Ilya Yashin, the Russian politician and journalist. At the time, Yashin was one of very few people still living in Russia who openly criticized the Ukraine war and the Putin regime. Nearly everyone who is openly critical of the war and Putin has left Russia and for a good reason: Russia has turned into a dictatorial, Stalinist sort of regime where even just calling the Ukraine war a “war” and not a “special operation” is a criminal offense that can land you in jail indefinitely. Yashin, a brave soul, refused to leave Russia and continued doing his antiwar show on YouTube from Moscow.
Marcus Aurelius and Seneca would admire Yashin – a man of convictions and principles. So do I. But something else piqued my interest in the interview.
At the time of the interview, Yashin was living on borrowed time; he could have been arrested at any moment. In fact, Yashin himself was puzzled by the fact that he was still a free man.
I was really touched by his answer to a seemingly simple question: What does your day look like?
He answered (and I am paraphrasing):
I’d be lying if I told you I am not worried about being arrested. But I live every day as if tomorrow doesn’t exist. I find that to be liberating. This absence of tomorrow makes me appreciate and value today so much more. I wake up in the morning, and I realize that I woke up because my alarm clock went off, not because there was a knock on the door by the police who came to arrest me. My mood instantly improves and I have this deep desire to live. I feel I am blessed. I feel like now I live a real, full life. I meet my friends, I work, I read books. I am more productive because I realize this day may be my last day as a free man, and you start valuing these things.
Yashin lives each day as if it is his last, as if there is no tomorrow. He is present for every minute of each day because he realizes he may not have that many minutes left as a free man.
About two weeks after this interview Yashin was arrested by the Russian police while walking in the park.
In Soul in the Game, you stress the importance of being a “student of life, for life.” I find this chimes very well with Seneca’s line, “As long as you live, keep learning how to live.” What practical advice would you offer for maintaining this state of mind?
Let me tell you what I do. I look at myself as a constant learner. It is part of my identity. What we tell ourselves and what we do can reprogram us over time. If we do this long enough, eventually it will become our identity, our default behavior.
Student of life is an attitude I try to bring everywhere I go. I constantly keep asking myself what I can learn from the person I am interacting with – be it someone I am meeting for the first time or a friend I am having lunch with.
I found writing to be very helpful. I am constantly looking for new ideas to learn and explore. My writing is a sort of insatiable machine inside of me that is constantly looking for new knowledge to regrind into essays.
I reframe a lot. I initially approached doing podcast interviews to promote the book as a chore. Then I reframed them as an opportunity to learn. After all, I am discussing topics that are near and dear to me. Podcast conversations allow me to explore them from different angles. I try hard not to repeat myself from interview to interview, giving myself a fresh challenge each time (though at times that has proved difficult). These interviews went from being something I must do to spread the word about the book, to something I am really looking forward to. And I’ve learned a lot!
In the pursuit of being a student of life, you make the distinction that knowing and not doing is not knowing. How do you ensure you follow this important guidance in your practice of Stoicism?
I don’t want to completely dismiss the importance of knowing Stoic concepts, but knowing them and not practicing (doing) them will have the same impact on your life as if you did not know them.
I approach Stoicism as a practice. I don’t succeed in this practice all the time; I fail plenty. My stepmother read Soul in the Game. Her feedback on the Stoic section was, “Fascinating stuff. I learned a lot. But you need to practice more of what you preach.” She’s right. As I have mentioned, I am rewriting habits I formed throughout my life. It takes a lot of practice and therefore a lot of failure.
I approach my Stoic journey the same way I parent my kids. When they fail at something, we discuss what they can do better next time. I provide words of encouragement. We move forward. When they succeed, we examine the sources of success, and I congratulate the hell out of them.
Being kind and forgiving to yourself is very important. The self-punishment we inflict on ourselves when we fail often becomes counterproductive and unnecessary. We’ll just give up on whatever we are trying to improve on.
You talk about the importance of measuring yourself against your internal value system as opposed to external factors. How do you form/update your internal value system, and what kind of reviews do you carry out to measure your thoughts and actions against it?
Dichotomy of control teaches us that there are very few things that there are up to us. Most things, like the politeness of the clerk at the car rental counter, the timing of traffic lights, weather, telemarketers calling us during dinner, are not up to us – they are externals. Our value system is one of the few things we have control over in our life; it is internal to us (other internals are beliefs, perspectives, and actions).
We need to carefully calibrate our values and goals to make sure we don’t accidentally tie them to external variables. Our values and goals should be process-based with short-term feedback loops. I’ll stress this point again: We should not link them to external variables.
Here is a very recent example. Five months before Soul in the Game came out, the book’s publisher asked my input of how many copies of the book they should print. I was puzzled by this question. The publisher explained that normally this was not an issue, but because of the pandemic it now took 23 weeks to print a book, as opposed to the normal week or two.
We had a dilemma. If they printed too many books, they’d be gathering dust on the shelves in the publisher’s warehouse. On the other hand, if they printed too few, bookstores would be out of stock for months and we’d lose a lot of readers. After our conversation, the publisher placed an order larger than their regular first run.
I loved the confidence my publisher had in Soul in the Game, but I suddenly found myself feeling a great burden of responsibility for the book’s sales. Selling out that first big print run inadvertently became my goal. Let me clarify this. If this book fails, if the first print run never sells and rots in the publisher’s warehouse, my life will not change one bit. I want this book to succeed because I feel it can help the people who read it. But of course, the publisher took a risk in book printing, and I don’t want to let them down.
However, once I caught myself being tied to a specific number goal, I immediately changed the goal. I told myself that I’d do everything I could to let the world know about the book for two months before and three months after it came out. After that I’d move on with my life. By that point I would have given the book a chance. People would either love it (it seems they do) or they wouldn’t. Also, after three months, the additional effort I put in would produce only limited incremental results.
If I had set my goal as selling X number of many copies of Soul in the Game, then my happiness would have been tied to something I had little control over. All I could do is write a good book (and I had written the best book I possibly could) and put my absolutely best efforts in letting the world know about it.
Putting a timer – five months – on my effort in spreading the word about the book allows me to move on to different subjects. In fact, given my obsessive personality, I have already found a new obsession (addiction) – chess. I never took it very seriously, but I really enjoy the game, and it also provides a different type of exercise for my brain. But even as I approach chess, all my goals are process-based.
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Vitaliy. Finally, the question I ask all interview guests: In terms of what the philosophy means to you, what is Stoicism?
I’ll cheat a little and answer this question by quoting from Soul in the Game, because I answered this question in the introduction to the Stoic philosophy section:
We enter mindlessly into life, born almost as a blank piece of hardware. Mother Nature equipped us with a very rudimentary hunter-gatherer operating system. Then our parents start programming us and the external environment slowly kicks in. We get programmed by family, friends, co-workers, the media (and now social media), and, simply, by circumstances.
If we are lucky and we get the right parents, siblings, and friends, read the right books, and the road of life nudges us into the right direction, we may end up with better programming. But the reality is that most of our programming is random and happens without our direct intervention.
Life kind of just happens.
This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is thinking about thinking, or being aware of making decisions. It is being fully present. Mindfulness requires you to take a step back from yourself, to become almost an outside observer of yourself and your programming. Meditation is helpful in this regard; it allows us to get into the thinking about thinking mode.
Once we tune ourselves into the “mindfulness mode,” which programs do we activate and which do we stop? Each one of us comes equipped with unique hardware, and thus we need to create and maintain the programs that work for us.
I feel like I had enough luck to qualify as a life lottery winner – great parents, relatives, friends, family, career; lucky to be born in Russia and also lucky to have moved to the United States. But until I started to write about life, I did not have much in the way of introspection, or self-awareness. I lacked mindfulness.
I realized I needed to consciously program myself (and my subconscious), with a program that worked for me (religion was not the answer for me).
Stoic philosophy was that program.