Best Books for Investors: A Short Shelf

I’ve already outlined 12 books the sophisticated investor should read.

Now Jason Zweig, WSJ reporter and author of Your Money and Your Brain, chimes in with the books he recommends for investors.

(If you’re not looking to be a practitioner, I’d recommend reading Buffettology, which is very under-appreciated).

Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich, Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them

In clear, simple prose, Belsky and Gilovich explain some of the most common quirks that cause people to make foolish financial decisions. If you read this book, you should be able to recognize most of them in yourself and have a fighting chance of counteracting some of them. Otherwise, you will end up learning about your cognitive shortcomings the hard way: at the Wall Street campus of the School of Hard Knocks.

Peter L. Bernstein, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

The late polymath Peter Bernstein poured a long lifetime of erudition and insight into this intellectual history of risk, luck, probability and the problems of trying to forecast what the future holds. Combining a stupendous depth of research with some of the most elegant prose ever written about finance, Bernstein chronicles the halting human march toward a better understanding of risk—and reminds us that, after centuries of progress, we still have a long way to go.

John C. Bogle, Common Sense on Mutual Funds

The founder of the Vanguard Group and father of the index-fund industry methodically sorts fact from fiction. Following his logical arguments can benefit you even if you never invest in a mutual fund, since Bogle touches on just about every crucial aspect of investing, including taxes, trading costs, diversification, performance measurement and the power of patience.

Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton, Triumph of the Optimists

Neither light reading nor cheap (it’s hard to find online for less than about $75), this book is the most thoughtful and objective analysis of the long-term returns on stocks, bonds, cash and inflation available anywhere, purged of the pom-pom waving and statistical biases that contaminate other books on the subject. The sober conclusion here: Stocks are likely, although not certain, to be the highest-performing asset over the long run. But if you overpay at the top of a bull market, your future returns on stocks will probably be poor.

Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! or What Do You Care What Other People Think?

These captivating oral histories of the great Nobel Prize-winning physicist ostensibly have nothing to do with investing. In my view, however, the three qualities an investor needs above all others are independence, skepticism and emotional self-control. Reading Feynman’s recollections of his career of intellectual discovery, you’ll see how hard he worked at honing his skepticism and learning to think for himself. You’ll also be inspired to try emulating him in your own way.

Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor

Originally published in 1949, called by Warren Buffett “by far the best book on investing ever written,” this handbook covers far more than just how to determine how much a company’s stock is worth. Graham discusses how to allocate your capital across stocks and bonds, how to analyze mutual funds, how to take inflation into account, how to think wisely about risk and, especially, how to understand yourself as an investor. After all, as Graham wrote, “the investor’s chief problem—and even his worst enemy—is likely to be himself.” (Disclosure: I edited the 2003 revised edition and receive a royalty on its sales.) Advanced readers can move on to Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, Security Analysis, the much longer masterpiece upon which The Intelligent Investor is based.

Darrell Huff, How to Lie with Statistics

This puckish riff on how math can be manipulated is only 142 pages; most people could read it on a train ride or two, or in an afternoon at the beach. As light as the book is, however, it is nevertheless profound. In one short take after another, Huff picks apart the ways in which marketers use statistics, charts, graphics and other ways of presenting numbers to baffle and trick the public. The chapter “How to Talk Back to a Statistic” is a brilliant step-by-step guide to figuring out how someone is trying to deceive you with data.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Successful investing isn’t about outsmarting the next guy, but rather about minimizing your own stupidity. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2oo2, probably understands how the human mind works better than anyone else alive. This book can make you think more deeply about how you think than you ever thought possible. As Kahneman would be the first to say, that can’t inoculate you completely against your own flaws. But it can’t hurt, and it might well help. (Disclosure: I helped Kahneman research, write and edit the book, although I don’t earn any royalties from it.)

Charles P. Kindleberger, Manias, Panics, and Crashes

In this classic, first published in 1978, the late financial economist Charles Kindleberger looks back at the South Sea Bubble, Ponzi schemes, banking crises and other mass disturbances of purportedly efficient markets. He explores the common features of market disruptions as they build and burst. If you remember nothing from the book other than Kindleberger’s quip, “There is nothing so disturbing to one’s well-being and judgment as to see a friend get rich,” you are ahead of the game.

Roger Lowenstein, Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist

This book remains the most comprehensive and illuminating study of Warren Buffett’s investing and analytical methods, covering his career in remarkable detail up until the mid-1990s. If you read it in conjunction with Alice Schroeder’s The Snowball, you will have a fuller grasp on what makes the world’s greatest investor tick.

Burton G. Malkiel, A Random Walk Down Wall Street

In this encyclopedic and lively book, Malkiel, a finance professor at Princeton University, bases his judgments on rigorous and objective analysis of long-term data. The first edition, published in 1973, is widely credited with helping foster the adoption of index funds. The latest edition casts a skeptical eye on technical analysis, “smart beta” and other market fashions.

Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays or The Scientific Outlook

Russell is Buffett’s favorite philosopher, and these short essay collections show why. Russell wrote beautifully and thought with crystalline clarity. Immersing yourself in his ideas will sharpen your own skepticism. My favorite passage: “When a man tells you that he knows the exact truth about anything, you are safe in inferring that he is an inexact man…. It is an odd fact that subjective certainty is inversely proportional to objective certainty. The less reason a man has to suppose himself in the right, the more vehemently he asserts that there is no doubt whatever that he is exactly right.” Think about that the next time a financial adviser begins a sentence with the words “Studies have proven that….”

Alice Schroeder, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

With unprecedented access to Buffett, Schroeder crafted a sensitive, personal and insightful profile, focusing even more on him as a person than as an investor—and detailing the remarkable sacrifices he made along the way. If you read it alongside Lowenstein’s Buffett, you will have an even deeper understanding of the master.

Fred Schwed, Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?

First published in 1940, this is the funniest book ever written about investing—and one of the wisest. Schwed, a veteran of Wall Street who survived the Crash of 1929, knew exactly how the markets worked back then. Nothing has changed. Turning to any page at random, you will find gleefully sarcastic observations that ring at least as true today as they did three-quarters of a century ago. My favorite: “At the end of the day [fund managers] take all the money and throw it up in the air. Everything that sticks to the ceiling belongs to the clients.”

“Adam Smith,” The Money Game

In the late 1960s, the stock market was dominated by fast-talking, fast-trading young whizzes. The former money manager George J.W. Goodman, who wrote under the pen name “Adam Smith,” christened them “gunslingers.” In this marvelously entertaining book, Goodman skewers the pretensions, guesswork and sheer hogwash of professional money management. Reading his mockery can help sharpen your own skepticism toward the next great new investing idea—which almost certainly will turn out to be neither great nor new.

Creativity and the Necessity of Giving up Your Best Loved Ideas and Starting Over Again

“You need all kinds of influences, including negative ones, to challenge what you believe in.” — Bill Murray

“Any year that passes in which you don’t destroy one of your best loved ideas is a wasted year,” says Charlie Munger. If only it were that easy. It’s mentally hard to come to an opinion and even harder to give up that attachment and admit that we were wrong. That’s one reason Henry Singleton opted for flexibility instead of predetermined plans.

still writing

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

The idea is to live in the middle of ideas, believing in them enough to take action but not enough so they become too big of an anchor when something better comes along. More than acknowledging the uncertainty of beliefs you need to embrace it. Keats called this ability “negative capability.” Roger Martin argues that successful thinking involves integrating several different ideas while maintaining the ability to act. It is through the exploration of these opposing ideas, or uncertainty if you will, that we come to better outcomes.

I came across this passage in Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing that speaks to the necessity of failure and uncertainty in the creative process.

When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.

Shapiro further highlights the parallels between writing and the broader parallels with the creative life:

The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail—not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime.

[…]
The page is your mirror. What happens inside you is reflected back. You come face-to-face with your own resistance, lack of balance, self-loathing, and insatiable ego—and also with your singular vision, guts, and fortitude.No matter what you’ve achieved the day before, you begin each day at the bottom of the mountain. Isn’t this true for most of us?

Still Writing will help you discover the mindset for a creative life.

The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

"When you are choosing what to keep, ask your heart; when you are choosing where to store something, ask your house."
“When you are choosing what to keep, ask your heart; when you are choosing where to store something, ask your house.”

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing explores how putting your space in order causes “correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective.” Marie Kondo, the author, recommends that you defy conventional wisdom and start by discarding and only then thoroughly organize your space in one go.

All of this seems more relevant than ever. We’re surrounded by things only to buy more things. We have no idea what we have or what we need. Worse, most of these things are not things that we love. Getting rid of things and simplifying your life sounds easier than it is. In part because when we get down to it, we just don’t know how to make those decisions between what to keep and what to throw away.

Her approach is not a simple technique. It addresses why most people fail to stay tidy.

The act of tidying is a series of simple actions in which objects are moved from one place to another. It involves putting things away where they belong. This seems so simple that even a six-year-old should be able to do it. Yet most people can’t. A short time after tidying, their space is a disorganized mess. The cause is not lack of skills but rather lack of awareness and the inability to make tidying a regular habit. In other words, the root of the problem lies in the mind. Success is 90 percent dependent on our mind-set.

To acquire the right mindset, she argues, we need the right technique. There is a fundamental misconception that the ability to tidy comes from experience. Most of us tidy up a little bit at a time. We should however tidy up in one shot. This brings visible results.

A change so profound that it touches your emotions will irresistibly affect your way of thinking and your lifestyle habits. …

When people revert to clutter no matter how much they tidy, it is not their room or their belongings but their way of thinking that is at fault. Even if they are initially inspired, they can’t stay motivated and their efforts peter out. The root cause lies in the fact that they can’t see the results or feel the effects. This is precisely why success depends on experiencing tangible results immediately. If you use the right method and concentrate your efforts on eliminating clutter thoroughly and completely within a short span of time, you’ll see instant results that will empower you to keep your space in order ever after.

What is Tidying?
She breaks down the physical act of tidying into two aspects: “deciding whether or not to dispose of something and deciding where to put it.” Tidying is a tool, not an end. “The true goal,” she writes, “should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.”

There is a saying that “a messy room equals a messy mind.”

When a room becomes cluttered, the cause is more than just physical. Visible mess helps distract us from the true source of the disorder. The act of cluttering is really an instinctive reflex that draws our attention away from the heart of an issue.

Why Storage Experts are not the Answer
We all want the quick solution: organize my junk better. But this does nothing to get rid of clutter.

What is the first problem that comes to mind when you think of tidying? For many, the answer is storage. My clients often want me to teach them what to put where. Believe me, I can relate, but unfortunately, this is not the real issue. A booby trap lies within the term “storage.” Features on how to organize and store your belongings and convenient storage products are always accompanied by stock phrases that make it sound simple, such as “organize your space in no time” or “make tidying fast and easy.” It’s human nature to take the easy route, and most people leap at storage methods that promise quick and convenient ways to remove visible clutter.

[…]

Putting things away creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved.

Why Tidying by Location is a Fatal Mistake
Kondo exposes why tidying by location doesn’t address the problem and recommends a way to avoid this common pitfall.

The root of the problem lies in the fact that people often store the same type of item in more than one place. When we tidy each place separately, we fail to see that we’re repeating the same work in many locations and become locked into a vicious circle of tidying. To avoid this, I recommend tidying by category. For example, instead of deciding that today you’ll tidy a particular room, set goals like “clothes today, books tomorrow.” One reason so many of us never succeed at tidying is because we have too much stuff. This excess is caused by our ignorance of how much we actually own. When we disperse storage of a particular item throughout the house and tidy one place at a time, we can never grasp the overall volume and therefore can never finish. To escape this negative spiral, tidy by category, not by place.

Two Essential Actions of Tidying

Effective tidying involves only two essential actions: discarding and deciding where to store things. Of the two, discarding must come first.

There are two further types of tidying: daily and special event tidying. Daily tidying is the act of using something and putting it back. Special event tidying is putting your house in order. Until you have done the “once-in-a-lifetime” act of putting your house in order, any attempt to tidy on a daily basis will fail.

Start by Discarding

The secret to success is to “tidy in one shot, as quickly and completely as possible, and to start by discarding.”

Do not even think of putting your things away until you have finished the process of discarding. Failure to follow this order is one reason many people never make permanent progress. In the middle of discarding, they start thinking about where to put things. As soon as they think, “I wonder if it will fit in this drawer,” the work of discarding comes to a halt. You can think about where to put things when you’ve finished getting rid of everything you don’t need.

Deciding what to discard

This is where people often have the most trouble. Until reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I focused on how to throw things away, not why.

Kondo, however, totally changed my perspective on this.

There are several common patterns when it comes to discarding. One is to discard things when they cease being functional— for example, when something breaks down beyond repair or when part of a set is broken. Another is to discard things that are out of date, such as clothes that are no longer in fashion or things related to an event that has passed. It’s easy to get rid of things when there is an obvious reason for doing so. It’s much more difficult when there is no compelling reason. Various experts have proposed yardsticks for discarding things people find hard to part with. These include such rules as “discard anything you haven’t used for a year,” and “if you can’t decide, pack those items away in a box and look at them again six months later.” However, the moment you start focusing on how to choose what to throw away, you have actually veered significantly off course.

A better approach is to choose what you keep, not what you dispose of.

I had been so focused on what to discard, on attacking the unwanted obstacles around me, that I had forgotten to cherish the things that I loved, the things I wanted to keep. Through this experience, I came to the conclusion that the best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.

You may wonder about the effectiveness of such a vague criteria, but the trick is to handle each item. Don’t just open up your closet and decide after a cursory glance that everything in it gives you a thrill. You must take each outfit in your hand. When you touch a piece of clothing, your body reacts. Its response to each item is different. Trust me and try it.

Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle.

How to get Started

My advice to begin tidying not by room but by category does not mean that you should start with any category you like. The degree of difficulty involved in selecting what to keep and what to discard differs greatly depending on the category. People who get stuck halfway usually do so because they start with the things that are hardest to make decisions about. Things that bring back memories, such as photos, are not the place for beginners to start. Not only is the sheer volume of items in this category usually greater than that of any other, but it is also far harder to make a decision about whether or not to keep them.

In addition to the physical value of things, there are three other factors that add value to our belongings: function, information, and emotional attachment. When the element of rarity is added, the difficulty in choosing what to discard multiplies. People have trouble discarding things that they could still use (functional value), that contain helpful information (informational value), and that have sentimental ties (emotional value). When these things are hard to obtain or replace (rarity), they become even harder to part with.

The process of deciding what to keep and what to discard will go much more smoothly if you begin with items that are easier to make decisions about.

[…]

The best sequence is this: clothes first, then books, papers, komono (miscellany), and lastly, mementos.

What to do When you Can’t Throw Something Away

Human judgment can be divided into two broad types: intuitive and rational. When it comes to selecting what to discard, it is actually our rational judgment that causes trouble. Although intuitively we know that an object has no attraction for us, our reason raises all kinds of arguments for not discarding it, such as “I might need it later” or “It’s a waste to get rid of it.” These thoughts spin round and round in our mind, making it impossible to let go.

[…]

When you come across something that’s hard to discard, consider carefully why you have that specific item in the first place. When did you get it and what meaning did it have for you then? Reassess the role it plays in your life.

[…]

Every object has a different role to play. Not all clothes have come to you to be worn threadbare. It is the same with people. Not every person you meet in life will become a close friend or lover. Some you will find hard to get along with or impossible to like. But these people, too, teach you the precious lesson of who you do like, so that you will appreciate those special people even more.

[…]

When you come across something that you cannot part with, think carefully about its true purpose in your life. You’ll be surprised at how many of the things you possess have already fulfilled their role.

[…]

To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose. To get rid of what you no longer need is neither wasteful nor shameful. Can you truthfully say that you treasure something buried so deeply in a closet or drawer that you have forgotten its existence?

Kondo argues that by keeping so much stuff, we’re not valuing what we have.

The fact that you possess a surplus of things that you can’t bring yourself to discard doesn’t mean you are taking good care of them. In fact, it is quite the opposite. By paring down to the volume that you can properly handle, you revitalize your relationship with your belongings. Just because you dispose of something does not mean you give up past experiences or your identity. Through the process of selecting only those things that inspire joy, you can identify precisely what you love and what you need.

In a world where we often focus on how to get more than we already have, sometimes the best approach is to remove something we already have. “Letting go,” Kondo says, “is more important than adding.”

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a fascinating look into how to put our house in order and the psychology behind why we can’t let things go.

(image source: flickr)

What if it Were You?

I remember the moment Farnam Street started. It was the same day that I realized my MBA was full of hot air.

Since then I’ve been plugging away trying to go to bed each night a little wiser than when I woke up.

In many ways Farnam Street is a labour of love. Each year it takes more and more time (and more and more money) to produce and deliver.

I used to keep track of the hours it took each month to research, produce, and deliver. I stopped earlier this year when I realized Farnam Street is increasingly me and I am increasingly Farnam Street (not to mention consistently crossing 100 hours a month). My worlds are converging — and that’s a lot of hours.

Making the site something that I’d want to read, not only in the (hopefully) consistent high-quality content but also in the look and feel has been – and always will be – a priority.

In a world where everyone competes for your attention, I hope you agree that I’ve tried to earn it and do so in the right way.

While expenses come from seemingly everywhere, the site generates revenue in three ways: Amazon affiliates (if you click on a link and purchase a book they send me a very small percentage of it), sponsorship, and the generous support of readers like you.

The most important of those is the last: generous readers like you. You are what makes Farnam Street possible.

If you find any value here, I’d ask that you consider signing up for a recurring monthly (see below) or one-time donation.





Thank you for reading.

Patagonia: The Art of Telling a Beautiful Story

The Patagonia video below is a reminder that things can be built to last, that we don’t need to buy more than we need, and that we can celebrate the old. It’s also a great reminder that you can build a valuable company in a way that doesn’t compromise your values; a reminder that how you get where you want to go is as important as where you are going.

In a world where we tend to think short-term, this is a reminder that things were here before us and will persist after us. Clothing, which we culturally see as largely disposable, doesn’t have to be that way. You can make high quality clothing that lasts years and even generations.

Even if you’re not curious about Patagonia, the video is worth watching as a fascinating example of branding and storytelling.

(h/t twistimage)