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Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
I read Guy Spier’s book, The Education of a Value Investor: My Transformative Quest for Wealth, Wisdom, and Enlightenment, in a single sitting.
The section of the book I was most interested in reading was on his charity lunch with Warren Buffett. While details of what transpires at these lunches are fairly scant, there is a whole chapter on it in this book. I tore into that chapter first, eager to find out the pearl of wisdom that eluded me. Finding no secret, I flipped to the front and fell into the story.
I had the serendipitous pleasure of running into Guy at the Omaha airport earlier this year. What I loved about him – and his book – is that he’s open about his struggles. In a world where so many of us, myself included, are closed and guarded about things we don’t want other people to know or see, Guy is an open book. He has struggles. He’s human. He’s real. Things are not black and white. He didn’t come out of the womb fully formed with uncompromising ethics.
He’s a testament to the fact that we can make mistakes, admit them, and get better. We can change. We can even change our nature. We can find ourselves in compromising positions – be they professional, moral, or ethical – and recognize that we’ve made poor choices and find a better path forward. Guy is living proof that we can teeter on a moral cliff and change the path we are on. First, however, we must stop digging. That requires recognition that what we’re doing or about to do is wrong. “These moments of clarity are so rare in life,” he writes, “and even the people closest to us may question whether we should act on such instincts.” We only have a few of these moments in life, we must learn to recognize them and act. “If you’re going to do something, it’s best to commit to it with wholehearted gusto.”
And Guy did commit to changing himself. “When you begin to change yourself internally,” he writes, “the world around you responds.”
I hope this idea resonates because it’s important—more important, perhaps, than the fact that I had lunch with Warren Buffett. As I hope you can see from my experience, when your consciousness or mental attitude shifts, remarkable things begin to happen. That shift is the ultimate business tool and life tool.
But the question worth exploring at this point is how you go about changing yourself? It sounds so simple doesn’t it? I want to change and poof. Change. It doesn’t work like that.
One lesson that Guy reinforces is that your environment matters to the decisions you make.
“It’s important,” he writes, “to discuss just how easy it is for any of us to get caught up in things that might seem unthinkable—to get sucked into the wrong environment and make more compromises that can tarnish us terribly.” While we think that we change our environment, it changes us.
Part of the problem (of working on Wall Street) was that the competition was so fierce. This led to the belief that, if I wasn’t willing to do something, someone else would quickly step in to do it. This kind of environment is perfectly designed to get people to push the boundaries in order to succeed. It’s a pattern that’s repeated again and again on Wall Street. Through ambition, greed, arrogance, or naïveté, many bright, hard-working people have strayed into grey areas.
One non-intuitive way to improve your environment is to choose the right teachers that have already discovered the truths you want to learn.
There is wisdom here that goes far beyond the narrow world of investing. What I’m about to tell you may be the single most important secret I’ve discovered in all my decades of studying and stumbling. If you truly apply this lesson, I’m certain that you will have a much better life, even if you ignore everything else I write.
What I stumbled upon was this. Desperate to figure out how to lead a life that was more like his, I began constantly to ask myself one simple question: “What would Warren Buffett do if he were in my shoes?”
I didn’t ask this question idly while sitting in a coffee shop sipping a cappuccino. No. I sat down at my desk and actively imagined that I was Buffett. I imagined what the first thing would be that he would do if he were in my shoes, sitting at my desk.
Self-help guru Tony Robbins calls this “modelling” our heroes. “The key,” Spier writes, “is to be as precise as possible, picturing them in as much detail as we can. A related technique that he teaches is called matching and mirroring, which might involve changing the way you move or even breathe to match the other person’s movement or breathing. In my experience you start to feel what they feel and you even start to think like them.”
A few other lessons from the book are worth noting, one of which is the fundamental nature of Guy’s approach to life (not investing.)
I’ve come to see that this is a smart strategy for life: whenever I have the choice of doing something with an uncertain but potentially high upside, I try to do it. The payoffs may be infrequent, but sometimes they are huge. And the more often I pick up these lottery tickets, the more likely I am to hit the jackpot.
Remind you of anyone? That’s an approach that Nassim Taleb employs. It’s also the one that investor Mohnish Pabrai describes in his book The Dhandho Investor: The Low-Risk Value Method to High Returns. As Pabrai puts it, “Heads I win. Tails I don’t lose much.”
Another lesson is that small differences in behaviour over time can lead to incredible impacts. Sending thank-you notes is A Simple Act of Gratitude, with profound benefits:
At first my letter-writing experiment was quite calculated, since I did it with an explicit desire to improve my business. I had a clear expectation of what the results would be. But it started to feel really good, and I became addicted to the positive emotions that this activity stirred in me. As I looked for more opportunities to thank people, I found that I truly did become more thankful. And the more I expressed goodwill, the more I began to feel it. There was something magical about this process of getting outside myself and focusing on other people.
In sending out this cascade of letters, I began to open up to people in a way that I never had before, and I started to see everyone around me as someone I can learn from. As I now understand, this habit of writing letters is an incredibly effective way of compounding goodwill and relationships instead of merely compounding money. Einstein is often said to have called compounding the eighth wonder of the world. But the narrow financial application of compounding may be the least valuable and least interesting aspect of this phenomenon.
In the end the biggest lesson that I took away from meeting with Guy and reading his book is that we need to stop living our life through other people. I can play basketball every day for 18 hours and I’m never going to be Michael Jordan. I can study financial reports until I’m blue in the face and I’m never going to be the next Warren Buffett. In the end The Education of a Value Investor, is an important reminder that we need to be more authentic versions of ourselves. We need to do what is right for us and that might not be what is right for others. We need to stop pretending to be other people and compromising our internal standards or ethics. We need to find who we are and how we want to live. “Instead of trying to compete with Buffett,” Guy writes, “I should focus on the real opportunity, which is to become the best version of Guy Spier that I can be.”