Jack Bogle’s Secret To Success

(from a CFA Institute interview)

Q: Because you have been so successful, let me ask you this: What is the secret to success?

Bogle: People often ask me what the secret to success is, and I say, “I absolutely have no idea.” In fact, I don’t use the word success. But I think it has something to do with working a little harder and a little longer than everyone else on whatever job you are given or task you are doing. Do a better job on it than everyone else, and the rewards will come. From this perspective, at least, the secrets to success are not very mysterious.

Some people will never have passion for anything because that is the type of person they are. Being yourself is very important. This is true whether you are dealing with your associates or your clients because people can spot a phony a mile away.

Figure out who you are, and try to follow a career that fits with who you are. Woodrow Wilson wrote a book titled When a Man Comes to Himself. I came into myself, to be honest, when I was probably 11 years old. I figured out who I was and what I wanted to do in life very early–too early, you could argue. Most people start to get a good sense of who they are probably in their early 20s, some in their 30s or 40s, and some never. Some people never get to know who they are.

People need to ask themselves, “Am I the kind of person I want to be? Am I filling a role in life, in the community, and in society that I want to fill? Am I comfortable in my own skin? Where does being a good spouse and parent fit in with a career?” People should consider all those kinds of things.

“The Last, Best Order”

There is a neat post on Redfin’s blog. It is the CEO’s “IPO diary.” Read the whole thing for a fascinating look at the process from the inside. A couple of sections really resonated with me:

Masters of the Universe
In other ways too, the roadshow had the feel of a bygone era. For example, almost everyone on the buy-side we met that week was a man: in one group lunch, all 24 of the portfolio managers in attendance were male. We may have met more portfolio managers who were Israeli special forces veterans than women. I asked our bankers how long it would take the first one to kill me with his bare hands.

Almost all of them took notes on tablets. Some of them tried to look up as you spoke, but with their eyes focused on nothing except the numbers in their head. They weren’t just capturing the highlights of a meeting; it was a nearly verbatim transcription of what we’d said, so we could be held accountable for it later. Information in every form is the currency of Wall Street, and drops of it never seem to fall on the floor.

Chess with Bobby Fischer
Most of the fund managers were exotically, obviously smart. Except for one person who fell asleep in a meeting, none of the fund managers we met was anyone I’d want to be on the other side of a trade with, buying what he sold, or selling what he bought. This is what I realized I had been doing my whole life as an E-Trade stock-picker; it had been like challenging Bobby Fischer to a game of chess. I spent a long time that first week trying to judge whether it made sense to have so many brilliant people decide where our society allocates capital, as opposed to making cars or software or hospitals.

The Last Ideology-Free Realm
What impressed me most about these people was their willingness to change their minds. No one in our society seems to change her mind about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton based on a new fact, but a fund manager on the wrong side of a bad trade has to change her mind in a moment or lose her job. This is why investing is the world’s last ideology-free realm. It would be easier to accept the premise that our society can’t agree on one version of the truth anymore, about whether temperatures are rising or the economy is growing, except that’s exactly what happens when every public company reports its earnings every quarter. You can believe what you want to believe, but not with a million dollars on the line.

And, perhaps most interesting to me:

The Last, Best Order
One of my favorite meetings was with a Scottish fund manager in San Francisco. His firm was known for buying only a few stocks, and holding each for as long as a decade. In a hotel meeting room with enough prospectuses, pitchbooks, cookies, fruit, cheeses, crackers and popcorn for 30 people, he came in alone. And rather than rattling through twenty or thirty questions about our metrics, he just asked me why I ran the company.

I found myself talking about my older brother, who had died just before I became Redfin’s CEO, and the feeling I had then that my life so far hadn’t made the world a much better place. He asked me about whether Redfin’s sense of mission would survive our public offering. He didn’t write much down. His order was one of the last, and the best, to come in.

My aspiration as an investor is to be that “last, best order.” There’s a reason I classified this post under Finance, Investing, Learning and Values. There is some real insight here.

Practicing Objectivity

They say there is nothing new under the sun and so when I started thinking more deeply about philosophy, The Meaning of Life, etc. a few years ago I should not have been surprised to find myself drawn to a philosophy developed over 2000 years ago!

I am of course talking about stoicism. I encourage everyone to at least read up on stoicism. The Daily Stoic is a good starting point. The site provides quite a bit of content that is useful for introspection or reflection.

Today I encountered this quote from the philosopher Epictetus:

Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.

This is something to meditate on as an investor as well as an individual. As you go about your day, think of all the people and ideas you dismiss out of hand.

Are you dismissive about these people and ideas based on reasoned thinking? Or are you just making snap decisions for convenience?

How many people and ideas do you write off each day for no reason other than that they offend your preconceived notions of how the world works?

When you think about things this way, you will quickly discover surprisingly little of what you believe is reasoned from first principles. This isn’t something to be ashamed of! In fact it is intensely liberating. It means that life is not a test you pass or fail. Rather it is unknown territory for exploration. Life is an adventure, and you are the hero! What is more exciting than that?

The Wisdom Tree

I have often written about the need to be discriminating in the information you consume. Particularly as an investor. The overwhelming majority of information you will encounter on a daily basis is random noise: breaking news; talking heads shouting at each other over the latest cultural or political outrage; mindless entertainment.

Of all the noise you encounter, mindless entertainment is probably the least damaging. I would take an episode of Hell’s Kitchen over an hour of CNN, Fox News or CNBC any day.

Anyway, today I encountered the blog Safal Niveshak. which contains a beautiful illustration of The Wisdom Tree

wisdom-tree-safal-niveshak

… as well as another on on the spectrum of reading material.

reading-spectrum-safal-niveshak

Needless to say, I highly recommend following the blog.

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Returns

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Source: Wikipedia

The most important investing commandment is this: thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s returns. If there is one thing you absolutely do not do in investing under any circumstances, it is make decisions based on whether other people are making more money than you. This is akin to playing poker on a tilt and should be viewed as a cardinal sin. For those unfamiliar with poker terminology:

Tilt is a poker term for a state of mental or emotional confusion or frustration in which a player adopts a less than optimal strategy, usually resulting in the player becoming over-aggressive. This term is closely associated with “steam” and some consider the terms equivalent, although steam typically carries more anger and intensity.

Placing an opponent on tilt or dealing with being on tilt oneself is an important aspect of poker. It is a relatively frequent occurrence due to frustration, animosity against other players, or simply bad luck. Experienced players recommend learning to recognize that one is experiencing tilt and avoid allowing it to influence one’s play.

People invest on tilts all the time. Most commonly this happens when a particular asset or asset class prints an extraordinary return in a short period of time (*ahem* cryptocurrency). Investors see all the people who made money in that asset or asset class lionized in the media. These people are lauded as geniuses. Some join the pantheon of “legendary investors.”

Meanwhile, the people who didn’t make money are frustrated. They are jealous. They missed out on monster gains and are afraid of missing out on further gains. Their  emotions are further addled by the fact that some of the newly minted “legendary investors” are invariably young and/or unsophisticated. So instead of thinking critically about valuations or the timeless truth of mean reversion new investors pile into the hot asset.

If they are good at timing momentum (or just lucky) these investors might make a decent chunk of money. But often they pile in at exactly the wrong time—at the peak of enthusiasm for the hot asset. Beyond them there is no marginal buyer and so there is nothing left for the price to do except gap down. Left unchecked this behavior can wreak real havoc on a person’s net worth over time.

Another, far less common manifestation of an investing tilt is the fanatical short bet. This has killed Bill Ackman in Herbalife (I will not recount that saga here). It has also afflicted David Einhorn in Tesla. Dealbreaker writes:

Pitting Einhorn’s frigidly data-driven and Alpha-focused brain against the Church of Elon that is Tesla is inherently hilarious. Tesla stock is essentially impervious to the company’s failures. Neither analysts nor investors hold Elon Musk to his own guidance, Tesla doesn’t deliver on anything its promised, the stock doesn’t drop, and then Einhorn points his fingers and goes apeshit wondering how this isn’t working out as the greatest short position in the history of trading.

See, we’ve been warning everyone that Tesla should be valued as a religion and not as a car company. You can’t look at Tesla’s balance sheet and discern meaning anymore than you can consult The Book of Leviticus for mortgage advice. But this has not yet fully dawned on poor, numbers addict David Einhorn. And it is growing clear that his trade against Tesla is entering a dangerous early stage of what we call “Ackmania.”

As we’ve seen play out over an agonizingly long time with Bill Ackman and Herbalife, hedge fund managers can sometimes fall into a dark corner of their own souls where a short position metastasizes into a true hatred, and the stock becomes a reliquary for all that is wrong with not just the market, but the world at large. It is a form of self-harm that saps you of your energy and steals your reputation. It also allows rivals to torture you from afar.

Of course, there are also holistic benefits to not coveting others’ returns. Life is short. Why waste time and energy resenting people who have had success in the markets?

 

“Fail Well”

A while ago I put up a post that may have gone a little off the deep end. It likened investing to a spiritual journey and drew heavily on the example of Bridgewater Associates.

Barry Ritholtz has a neat Bloomberg View piece up summarizing some takeaways from a recent interview with Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio. I love this thinking and it is why I keep an investing journal:

Throughout the book, and in a recent conversation we had, Dalio insists the key to his turnaround was revisiting failure and learning from it. He is enamored of the framework described in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Campbell’s book examined the evolution of mythological figures, whose failure leads to discovering new wisdom that they use to achieve their goals. Dalio wanted his failures to have the same results, so he created a broad set of rules to do so:

  • View mistakes as opportunities to improve. He calls this “mistake-based learning.”
  • Own your errors. Never hide them, but bring them forward to create a learning opportunity. His advice is to “fail well.”
  • Pain + reflection = progress. The “pain of failure” should lead to reflection, from which your wisdom derives.
  • Track what you do; keep systemizing what you learn from your mistakes.
  • There are many more principles, but this gives you an idea of some of the basics.

Dalio does things that most ordinary people don’t do. Set aside for a minute his remarkable track record as an investor and note the following unusual business behavior: He writes down and reflects on everything he does. Then he systemizes it, eventually turning these into algorithms that his firm’s computer systems help backtest against earlier eras. The end result of this is a hybrid of human creativity and machine learning that produces results better than either could separately.

Making Mistakes

Investing is a humbling activity. Mistakes are inevitable. Every Warren Buffett has his Dexter Shoe Company. On top of that, there is the old saying that the market can stay irrational longer than you can remain solvent. It is often difficult (many would argue it is impossible) to distinguish between results generated through skill versus luck.

Because of this it is absolutely essential to focus on process versus outcomes. There are times you will make “mistakes” because of bad luck, despite a solid process. Other times mistakes will result from process gaps or failures. In this way you can distinguish versus “good mistakes” and “bad mistakes.” 

Good mistakes happen when you identify the correct investment thesis and you do the analysis but the investment position does not “work” (maybe because of timing). An example of this is the legion of short sellers who had The Big Short trade on in housing and mortgage bonds but ran out of time before the payoff, either because their investors ran out of patience or due to other portfolio issues.

Bad mistakes result from analytical blind spots or insufficient higher order thinking. Bad mistakes are things you should be getting right more often than not. If you dip-buy a bunch of oil companies following an oil price crash, for example, and you are not hedged to the commodity, and oil prices collapse further, and you lose even more money, then that is a bad mistake. You have fallen into a classical value trap.

The very worst mistakes are unforced errors stemming from laziness and/or hubris. Bill Ackman’s Valeant investment was the absolute worst kind of bad mistake. Not only did Ackman get Valeant spectacularly wrong, but he repeatedly deferred to Valeant management and rejected evidence contrary to his investment thesis. The result was a $4bn loss to his investors

Extrapolating beyond investing, this becomes a pretty robust framework for thinking about daily life.

Bad shit happens in life. A lot of the worst of it is completely out of our control. However, there are plenty of things you can control on a daily basis. The most foundational of these is awareness of your thought patterns and behavior.

A surprising number of people do not choose to live a particular way so much as default to the behaviors that come most naturally to them. To these individuals, every misfortune is bad luck or the cosmos conspiring against them. I guarantee you have met someone who fits this profile. You are likely related to at least one of these people: someone who is perpetually ill, or short on cash, or falling victim to some “random” calamity, pinballing from one misfortune to the next.

If your process for daily living involves no conscious effort at maintaining your health, mental acuity and financial stability, you will always be vulnerable to the random shocks the cosmos throws at you. These shocks are also more likely to have a catastrophic impact.

Process, process, process! Mistakes are inevitable. What is not a foregone conclusion is what, if anything, you will learn from them.