Time is like a river that will take you forward into encounters with reality that will require you to make decisions. You can’t stop the movement down this river, and you can’t avoid the encounters. You can only approach these encounters in the best way possible.
That is what this part is all about.
Where I’m Coming From
Since we are all products of our genes and our environments and approach the world with biases, I think it is relevant for me to tell you a bit of my background so that you can know where I’m coming from.
grew up in a middle-class neighborhood on Long Island, the only son of a jazz musician and a stay-at-home mom. I was a very ordinary kid, and a less-than-ordinary student. I liked playing with my friends— for example, touch football in the street—and I didn't like the school part of school, partly because I had, and still have, a bad rote memory and partly because I couldn’t get excited about forcing myself to remember what others wanted me to remember without understanding what all this work was going to get me. In order to be motivated, I needed to work for what I wanted, not for what other people wanted me to do. And in order to be successful, I needed to figure out for myself how to get what I wanted, not remember the facts I was being told to remember.
Rote memory is memory for things that don’t have an intrinsic logic for being what they are, like a random series of numbers, words in a foreign language and people’s names (all of which I have trouble with). On the other hand, I have a great memory for things that make sense in a context. For example, I can tell you what happened in every year in the economy and markets since the mid-1960s and how many things work.
One thing I wanted was spending money. So I had a newspaper route, I mowed lawns, I shoveled the snow off driveways, I washed dishes in a restaurant, and, starting when I was 12 years old, I caddied.
It was the 1960s. At the time the stock market was booming and everyone was talking about it, especially the people I caddied for. So I started to invest. The first stock I bought was a company called Northeast Airlines, and the only reason I bought it was that it was the only company I had heard of that was trading for less than $5 per share, so I could buy more shares, which I figured was a good thing. It went up a lot. It was about to go broke but another company acquired it, so it tripled. I made money because I was lucky, though I didn’t see it that way then. I figured that this game was easy. After all, with thousands of companies listed in the newspaper, how difficult could it be to find at least one that would go up? By comparison to my other jobs, this way of making money seemed much more fun, a lot easier, and much more lucrative. Of course, it didn’t take me long to lose money in the markets and learn about how difficult it is to be right and the costs of being wrong.
So what I really wanted to do now was beat the market. I just had to figure out how to do it.
The pursuit of this goal taught me:
1) It isn't easy for me to be confident that my opinions are right. In the markets, you can do ahuge amount of work and still be wrong.
2) Bad opinions can be very costly. Most people come up with opinions and there’s no cost to them. Not so in the market. This is why I have learned to be cautious. No matter how hard I work, I really can’t be sure.
3) The consensus is often wrong, so I have to be an independent thinker. To make any money,you have to be right when they’re wrong.
3.1) I worked for what I wanted, not for what others wanted me to do. For that reason, I never feltthat I had to do anything. All the work I ever did was just what I needed to do to get what I wanted. Since I always had the prerogative to strive for what I wanted, I never felt forced to do anything.
3.2) I came up with the best independent opinions I could muster to get what I wanted.For example, when I wanted to make money in the markets, I knew that I had to learn about companies to assess the attractiveness of their stocks. At the time, Fortune magazine had a little tear- out coupon that you could mail in to get the annual reports of any companies on the Fortune 500, for free. So I ordered all the annual reports and worked my way through the most interesting ones and formed opinions about which companies were exciting.
The way I learn is to immerse myself in something, which prompts questions, which I answer, prompting more questions, until I reach a conclusion.
3.3) I stress-tested my opinions by having the smartest people I could find challenge them so I could find out where I was wrong. I never cared much about others’ conclusions—only forthe reasoning that led to these conclusions. That reasoning had to make sense to me. Through this process, I improved my chances of being right, and I learned a lot from a lot of great people.
This included my retail stockbroker, the people I was caddying for, even my local barber, who was equally engrossed in the stock market. (It wasn’t as precocious as it sounds. At the time, instead of talking about the Yankees, everyone was talking about stocks. That was the world I grew up in.)
3.4) I remained wary about being overconfident, and I figured out how to effectively deal with my not knowing. I dealt with my not knowing by either continuing to gather information until Ireached the point that I could be confident or by eliminating my exposure to the risks of not knowing.
Sometimes when I know that I don’t know which way the coin is going to flip, I try to position myself so that it won’t have an impact on me either way. In other words, I don’t make an inadvertent bet. I try to limit my bets to the limited number of things I am confident in.
3.5) I wrestled with my realities, reflected on the consequences of my decisions, and learned and improved from this process.
By doing these things, I learned how important and how liberating it is to think for myself.
In a nutshell, this is the whole approach that I believe will work best for you—the best summary of what I want the people who are working with me to do in order to accomplish great things. I want you to work for yourself, to come up with independent opinions, to stress-test them, to be wary about being overconfident, and to reflect on the consequences of your decisions and constantly improve.