William Green is a journalist and author, who has written for many leading publications in the US and Europe, including The New Yorker, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Money, The Economist, and others. He has interviewed presidents and prime ministers, inventors, criminals, prize-winning authors, the CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies, and countless billionaires.
William’s most recent book is “Richer, Wiser, Happier,” where he draws on interviews that he’s conducted over twenty-five years with many of the world’s greatest investors. He spent time with time with people like Sir John Templeton, Joel Greenblatt, Nick Sleep, Mohnish Pabrai, and Charlie Munger, and distilled for the readers what it is that we can take away from their disciplines, their mindsets, their habits, and day to day activities, that we can apply in other walks of life beyond financial management.
Mark Bidwell 0:39
Hi, this is Mark Bidwell from OutsideVoices. My guest this week is William Green, journalist and author of a number of books, his most recent one being called “Richer, Wiser and Happier.” And at the beginning of this conversation, he gets a wonderful and very insightful perspective on why is it that the lessons that we can learn from some of the world’s greatest investors are relevant for other walks of life beyond financial management. So what is it that we can take away from their disciplines, their mindsets, their habits, their day to day activities that can be applied to other walks of life. And there’s plenty in this conversation, which I think you’ll find of interest. William spent time with some of the greatest investors of recent times, people like Sir John Templeton, Joel Greenblatt, Nick Sleep, Mohnish Pabrai, and my favourite, Charlie Munger. And he distills many of these encounters and the lessons he’s taken away from them into a number of insights, that as I say, I think you will find of relevance, irrespective of what your challenges are, and what you’re trying to achieve in life. William and my paths crossed in the 80s. We were in school together, and more recently, at Omaha at the Berkshire Hathaway annual general meeting, and also close to home here in Switzerland at Guy Spier’s Value x Event. And it was wonderful to reconnect with William, and to again, pick his brains on some of the insights he’s taken away, and some of the personal lessons he’s applied in his life, many of which have emanated from these conversations he’s been having with some of these fantastic investors over the years. So without further ado, here I am talking to William Green.
Mark Bidwell 2:37
So with me today is William Green, who is a very successful journalist and author. And you’re actually, William, the third journalists we’ve having on I’ve had on the program, I’ve had Gillian Tett the US Editor of the FT who is an anthropologist like me, and then I’ve also had David Novak, who was CEO of Yum Brands, who was a journalist before he got into business. So you’re in good company here.
William Green 2:58
Thank you, thank you.
Mark Bidwell 3:00
You got a new book coming out called “Richer, Wiser, Happier.” And I’d love to talk about that. But let’s start with what led you to write this book?
William Green 3:08
Well, I had this extraordinary opportunity over really the last 25 years to interview many of the greatest investors of our time. And gradually over that period, my view of them shifted. So in the early years, I think I just saw this as a game, where I could maybe make some money without working very hard, without getting my hands dirty. And as I spent more time with these people over the years, I started to realise that investing was really this subset of worldly wisdom, to use a phrase that Ben Franklin used. And what I started to realise is, these guys had tremendous practical wisdom about how to live, about how to think, about how to make decisions, about how to deal with the fact that the future is unknowable, and yet we’re all having to make decisions about the future, whether it’s financial decisions, or who to marry, or where to live, or whether to have kids. And so they’re masters of uncertainty. They’re living in a very uncertain world, but they can’t just throw up their hands and say, Well, I don’t know, let me leave it to chance, because they’re betting very real money on this uncertain future. And I think because there are very high stakes, unlike for most journalists or for pundits on TV, or for philosophers or colleges, because there are very real stakes, they have real skin in the game. people’s retirement money and their life savings, and their kids’ college savings, that forces them to think in an extremely pragmatic way. So I can regard them almost as pragmatic philosophers. They’re not asking these abstruse questions like, does this chair exist? They’re thinking about, how can I survive uncertainty? How can I position myself in a world where nothing is knowable, and yet I need to act? I can’t just sit back. And so, I wanted to delve deeper into their minds, and explain what they had figured out about how to become more resilient, how to make better decisions, how to deal with things like pain, failure, uncertainty, setbacks, public shame when you fail, or you’re proven to be wrong publicly for year after year. So partly, it was wanting to share their ideas with other readers, and then also, frankly, with my kids, wanting to say, well, here’s what I’ve learned from all these remarkable minds. And partly, it’s a very personal thing, that I’m wrestling with these questions myself, I’m trying to figure out, how do I position myself for an uncertain future? And how do I become more resilient? And how do I make better decisions? So there’s a deeply personal aspect of the book, where it’s me wrestling with solutions. I have skin in the game here, this isn’t a casual intellectual exercise, I’m actually trying to figure out, not only how to invest, but how to live. I’m exploiting the fact that I have incredible access to these wonderful minds to ask them these questions, so that I can figure it out myself, and then share those answers with other people in ways that could help them in their lives.
Mark Bidwell 6:06
Yeah. And I think you said in the intro, that the book is about sharing ideas worth cloning, and my sub question was, for whom, but you’ve answered that, and it’s for you initially, it’s for your family, and it’s for your readers. It is about investors, but it’s not a dry investment book. This is equally applicable to parents, to employees, to anyone wrestling with uncertainty, let’s face it, that’s a good description of 2021 at the moment, right?
William Green 6:32
Yeah. And I always felt a little bit sheepish about writing about investing in money because I studied English literature at Oxford. And I always had these kinds of high minded dreams of being this great novelist or something. And it seemed kind of tawdry to write about money, I was always a bit embarrassed about it. And actually, what I gradually realised is, no these issues, it’s this perfect microcosm of everything. The markets are a beautiful microcosm of everything, because there is such uncertainty. There’s such complexity, such overwhelming complexity. And so it seems to me that, if you can find a few master principles that help you to navigate through that fog, that applies totally to the market, but it applies in every other area of your life as well. So if you just think about, for example, the difficulty of making good decisions given our wayward emotions, the fact that we have all of these biases, the fact that we are ignorant about so many things, the fact that we delude ourselves, the fact that we have all of these behavioural glitches. We’ve all seen people like Danny Kahneman talking about these behavioural problems, but the greatest investors actually have to do something about it. I mean, you actually have to find workarounds to deal with your own stupidity, your own self-delusion, your own blind spots, your own biases. And so I think there’s something about that practicality of the greatest investors, that I find deeply helpful. And so once you start to realise that they’re these extraordinary consumer game players, and these practical philosophers, it’s a very useful lens, actually, to see every problem in your life.
Mark Bidwell 8:13
So let’s get into it, you’ve got eight chapters in the book, and you zero in on a similar number of investors. How did you select or indeed reject these investors? What were the criteria by which they got in, or by which they got rejected?
William Green 8:30
It was totally nebulous and ill defined. I wrote about people that I admired, that I liked for the most part, and who I thought embodied something that went beyond just an ability to make enormous amounts of money. So there were certain people that I started to write about were multi-billionaires, who have enormously impressive intellect, and it felt almost as if the body rejected that organ. And I actually stopped and discarded what I wrote about them, because I think there were people who just didn’t admire those human beings. And so I focus on people who I believe are exemplary, despite all of their flaws and failings that we all have, they are exemplary in ways that go beyond an extraordinary ability to make money. So that was very idiosyncratic. As a journalist, we’re supposed to be tough mindedly writing about everything. But I wanted to write about people that I actually thought I could learn from and my readers could learn from about how to live, and how to think, and how to be wiser, as well as how to become richer. Another thing, I wanted people who want a flash in the pan, I wanted people who had done well over decades, and so I was looking for people who had survived and thrived during many different periods, and who embodied certain principles that I think are in some ways timeless, because inevitably some of them will going to end up underperforming massively at exactly the wrong time, or they will suddenly look like fools, because that’s just the way the markets work. But I figured if they embody principles that are really powerful, then that didn’t really matter. And then I would say, there’s a tremendous focus in the book on, one of the great investors I focus on is a guy called Matthew McLennan, and he uses the phrase resilient wealth creation. And that’s something that resonates very deeply with me. I’m not looking for people who are rolling the dice in the easiest way possible, but are probably going to crash into a mountain at some point. I’m really interested in resilient wealth creation, I think the intensity of this period of COVID really highlights the importance of resilience both personally and financially.
Mark Bidwell 10:49
Yeah, yeah. One of my comments was around, if we look at this group of individuals, I mean, they are all male, white, I’m probably gonna get this wrong, but 50 to 90. So when you’ve answered some of the questions as to why that is, because that wasn’t the challenge. It’s just an observation. These are people who’ve been around, they’ve written a few waves, they haven’t got wiped out.
William Green 11:11
There is a major star of the book, Francis Chou, it is pretty International, I recorded all over the world, so there are people from many different countries and ethnic backgrounds, but the issue of women in the investing world is a really thorny one, and I interviewed quite a few women for the book. And there was one absolutely remarkable woman who I was going to focus on. I got all excited, and I was like, she really has to be a key character, and then I went back to look at her website to see how her results had been lately, and she closed down the firm and quit the business. There’s a remarkable key character in the book called Laura Garrett, who my son was saying yesterday, she’s his favourite character in the book. She started in Kansas in the middle of nowhere, as coming from a family of factory workers and farmers, and just loved investing, and wanting to become an investor, and knew that it would be unbelievably difficult to get into the business, and as a result went and lived in Japan, and became fluent in Japanese because she thought, well, I need to have some talent, some skill to set me apart. But I talk about just how difficult and extraordinary it was. And she is this diminutive, very polite, slightly shy Midwesterner, and I regarded her just as this warrior, the toughness of this word to break into this very male business. She was talking to me about this, I don’t think this is in the book, but she was talking to me about how many friends of hers who were incredibly talented female investors quit at a certain point in that 40s, because they were just sick of alpha males thumping their chests and taking credit. She said there were a lot of extraordinary female investors taking themselves out of the business, and then she talked about the fact that early in her career, she started at this company American Century, where she got some job where I think there were 12,000 applicants for that job. It was amazing that she got the job, she is a remarkable woman. And she said, there was one person in her office, when you looked around to look for female role models, it’s just so hard. There was a woman there who she said had kids, who worked from 8am to 5pm, and they said to her, you can never be promoted. Because there’s just no way, you look at the people who are getting ahead here, and they come in at 6am, and they work till 10pm, and then they come in at weekends. So she said, you didn’t need to be told that it was going to be difficult for you to have a family, and balance that as a woman, you could see it. And then at a certain point, she decided, well, I can’t compete if I have kids. And she’s an international investor, she’s visited 75 countries at the age of 48. She’s this continuous learner, who chases around the world constantly, getting this kind of informational edge, and she’s married to a guy who’s an international salesman, and he often lives in that home in Kyoto in Japan, and she often lives in that home in Utah. And so I said, do you ever regret the fact that you didn’t have children? And she’s like, yeah, I do, but I really, really loved my job. So this is not simple, and I’ve thought about this a lot, because I wondered, is it my biases and prejudices that led me to focus mostly on men? And I talked a lot to my daughter about this, who’s 19, and I think one of the reasons why I went big on writing about Laura Garrett is precisely because my kids said to me, no, no, she’s the most fascinating of all of these characters, but she’s not the most famous, she’s not a household name. She doesn’t have the greatest record of them. But she’s a remarkable human being, and it gives me great pleasure to focus on what she embodies, which is really this extraordinary ability to keep learning, before she goes on any trip, she reads three books about that place, and every year she has a new subject which is going to research. So it’ll be physics, or Russian history and literature. I had this sushi lunch with her where I said, what’s your new topic, Laura, and she said, oh, it’s a really quirky one, it’s explorers, starting with Vikings. There’s something really wonderful about this strange, idiosyncratic, beautiful mind, tackling the problem of international markets ,and trying to figure out where do I want to bet, and she’s going to places, she’s always looking for countries that everybody hates. She’ll go to Turkey after there’s been a failed coup, but she’ll look for the three best companies in Turkey after a failed coup, after Erdogan has thrown everyone in jail, judges and policemen and soldiers, and it’s the last place anyone wants to be. And she was saying, well, the hotels at the peak when everyone wanted to invest here with $1200 a night, and now they’re $70 a night. And that tells me, that pattern recognition of coming here again and again, tells me that this is a bargain. I wrestle with this issue of how few women are in the book, and how few women are in the industry, and I’m embarrassed by it, and it’s painful, and it’s daunting, and it’s, as my son would say, it’s above my pay grade.
Mark Bidwell 16:32
So some of the ones I was keen to dig into, let’s start with Mohnish. Mohnish, who is the self proclaimed cloner. I was struck by a couple of things. When you met with him, you were flying back, and you were recognising, and you wrote on the plane in your notebook, who are the people I need to clone, and what are the big ideas I need to clone? And then there were some other big ideas you took from him. Maybe we can touch on what answers you’ve come up with to the question that you wrote? How has his very successful strategy been of help for you as a journalist, or as a parent?
William Green 17:10
Well, Mohnish Pabrai is a very remarkable person. He’s one of the most intelligent, ferociously driven, charismatic investors I’ve met. And I had this extraordinary experience, where I traveled with him for five days in India for the book, and I visited him in California at his home there, and I went to Omaha for the Berkshire Hathaway meeting with him, met him in New York. So I was really trying to figure out what is this guy figured out about how to think, how to invest, how to live, and absolutely central to what Mohnish does is this concept of cloning, which is his term for what you could call modelling, or replication, where you’re basically saying, here’s the smartest player of this particular game. Let me reverse engineer what they do, figure out why they win, and then replicate it with relentless attention to detail. And this is such a provocative idea. Because if you think about it, we’re also desperate to be original, and to reinvent the wheel, and Mohnish’s view is there’s something in human DNA that makes us almost ashamed of cloning, of replicating other people’s best ideas, and as a result, there’s this low hanging fruit, where you can get so far in life simply by studying the people who’ve already figured these things out. So this to me is a very beautiful, and subversive and practical idea. And so Mohnish did it with Buffett and Munger, where he basically said, Buffett has uncovered the laws of investing, and he said they’re as fundamental as the laws of physics. What astonished him was that he sees how everyone else invests, all of these fund managers invest, and he says, well, they’re just totally hosed. They have too many positions, they trade too often, they’re making decisions constantly. And here you have Buffett and Munger, who are acting like spear fishermen, they wait by the stream, and once every six months, some incredible, succulent salmon comes along and they spear it, and then they go back to doing nothing for the next six months. And sometimes it might be five years, and so he decided to replicate that.
Mark Bidwell 19:20
But the art of this is a very simple idea, the key thing is knowing where to stand on the rock by the river, and which river. And all for Mohnish is to identify who is the best at what they do? That is the key first step, isn’t it?
William Green 19:33
Then you also have to replicate people who suit you in some way. This isn’t about blind cloning. So for example, Mohnish at one point lost 67% in a year during the financial crisis. I said to him, how did you handle the stress? He said, I don’t feel stressed. And he said his wife at the time wasn’t even aware that he was going through difficulty. So I have someone who’s prone to fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. I’m a journalist, we focus on, on everything that can go wrong, or has gone wrong, or might go wrong, we’re born pessimists. And so for me to clone Mohnish in that sense as an investor, and to clone the extreme concentration of his portfolio is not smart. And Guy Spier who is a friend of yours and mine, has many of the same positions as Mohnish, because they discuss a lot of their investments, but he has much smaller weightings in those stocks, because as he poetically put it, I don’t have bowls of steel like Mohnish. This is a really important caveat, that you clone the fundamental ideas and insights that work, but you have to do it in a way that’s aligned with your own temperament and skills. For me to clone that aspect of Mohnish would be suicidal, but for me to clone this idea of cloning, is incredibly helpful, and this had such a powerful impact on me. For example, when I started to work on this book, I would very consciously go look at books by people like Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis, Oliver Sacks, and I would really carefully reverse engineer them, and I would think, what is it that makes this work, and why do I need to reinvent the wheel, when they’ve worked out certain things, that just are incredibly powerful for a nonfiction writer. These things can be really minor, like when I went to do WilliamGreen.com as a URL, it was gone, and I look and see what Michael Lewis has, MichaelLewiswrites.com. And so my website is WilliamGreenwrites.com. And then I noticed that a friend of mine has MaliaBoydWrites.com, and she’s cloned it for me, and I think that’s kind of wonderful. When Mohnish bought Seritage, this mall operator in the middle of the height of COVID, the last thing you want to buy is a mall operator when all the malls are closed, and he took this opportunity, he hadn’t owned any US stocks in the last couple of years. Out of 3700 stocks, he couldn’t find a single company that was cheap enough for him to buy, so he’d been fishing in these other rivers in Korea, and India and China and the like. And he finds Seritage, buys 13% of the company, in some ways that was a clone position, because Buffett had bought it in his personal portfolio, something like five times the price that Mohnish bought it and I cloned Mohnish, and I bought it in the depths of the COVID crisis. There’s something kind of joyful about the subversiveness of borrowing other people’s best ideas. But at the same time, you have to be really, really careful about it, because you’ve got to do the work, and you’ve got to understand it, and you’ve got to know that it suits your temperament and your skills. In the case of Seritage, it’s more than doubled since then, but the truth is, I’m not really qualified to analyse that. It seems like a really smart thing, and I can congratulate myself on it, but actually, I probably shouldn’t have bought it. That’s something where cloning worked out for me, but I probably didn’t deserve for it to work out for me.
Mark Bidwell 23:10
Yeah, yeah. Well, I suppose the other side of it is also cloning-buying, but cloning-selling often can be a little bit harder, because you don’t get visibility on it. And if something happens, and you miss that, then you can find yourself not having captured the ball.
William Green 23:24
In my view, part of what I’m cloning is that I know from studying a lot of the greatest investors that I want to do less, that I want to make very, very few decisions. So when I bought that, I’m thinking, okay, well, so I have this exposure to US property, and I’m happy to have that for 10 years. And so I look at someone like Matthew McLennan mentioned before, who’s obsessed with this idea of resilient wealth creation, and his turnover is about 10% a year in his portfolio. So the average stock he’s holding for 10 years, and that suits me very, very well. I have a lot of flaws as an investor, but patience, I think on the whole, that’s an easy thing for me to clone. So for something like Seritage, I’m like, yeah, I can just buy this and sit on it, and we’ll see if I can actually do it. Because it’s hard, you get impatient, but I think cloning is such a deep and powerful concept. One of the other things that I cloned from Mohnish that again, I’ve probably failed at that multiple times, but Mohnish is obsessed with the idea of truthfulness. He read “Power Versus Force” by David Hawkins, which is a remarkable book.
It’s a very remarkable book.
Yeah, it’s pretty out there, and I’ve read most of his other books which are even more out there, but I think are really profound. I think Hawkins was a psychotherapist who then became a mystic, and I think was probably enlightened in his writing from this position of being enlightened, and he’s sort of saying, this is how it is, this is how the world functions, whether you believe that’s true or not. The ideas are very, very powerful and interesting. I’m just open minded about those ideas. One of the most powerful ideas that Mohnish got from “Power Versus Force” is that people basically smell whether you’re honest or not, whether you’re being truthful or not. Monish’s view is that it’s a superpower, basically, to just be utterly truthful. For example, when he lost 67%, during the financial crisis, he didn’t say to his shareholders, well, the market got killed, and we’re well positioned, we’re going to recover. He said to them, I made two or three dumb ass decisions, and that’s why we’re in trouble, that’s why we screwed up. And he said almost nobody redeemed from the fund, because he said, they really want you to be honest with them. I had something recently with Mohnish, where I was just totally candid with him about a situation. It was really interesting to see that he embodies this himself. He ended up making a decision that was against his best interest and in my best interest. It was extraordinary to see this in reality. So if you are actually totally transparent and honest about the situation, people smell it. For me, that’s been very clarifying. I could approach this conversation and think, well, how do I pitch myself in the best possible way? And how do I brand myself and how do I sell my book, or I can just say, let me try to be truthful, let me try to be authentic, and not make a colossal fool of myself, but see where the chips fall. So just that single idea is incredibly liberating and powerful. And Mohnish’s view is that when you discover a powerful idea like cloning, or like being truthful from “Power Versus Force,” or like the power of long-term compounding, or not wanting to disrupt long-term compounding; once you understand these really big ideas, most people just dabble with them, they say it’s a really good idea, and they take it for a spin around the block, and then they kind of move on to the next thing. He, in his expletive-filled way will say, it just doesn’t work, and these people are idiots. And he says, you go 1,000% when you find an idea like that. There’s a beautiful line from Charlie Munger, Buffett’s genius 97-year-old partner, who says, take a good idea, and take it seriously. I take that very much to heart, that when when you find a powerful principle like truthfulness, or cloning, or even a powerful habit like meditation or exercise, or living within your means, or intermittent fasting, or whatever it is, you have to really make it a part of your life. One of the things I’m hoping for with this book, is that people will go through it, and they’ll find a kind of a buffet, there’s so many ideas that I think could change your life, not because I’m such a genius, but because I’m sharing these things that I’ve learned from these brilliant people. I’m hoping that people will latch on to a few things where they say, okay, this is the key part, and I’m gonna make this a core part of how I think, invest and live.
Mark Bidwell 28:08
Absolutely. One of the big ideas for me, which is still echoing, is from Joel Greenblatt, which is, you don’t need the optimal strategy, you need just a good enough strategy. And I think in this world, we’re all desperate, we all try to outperform, I find myself wanting to be as good as I can be, and the reality is, a lot of those places are taken to be world class in certain areas. But that’s not necessarily what you need, you need to optimise, and that will generate plenty of results, without necessarily reaching for the very top of performance characteristics in whatever field you’re operating in. So that for me was a very powerful idea.
William Green 28:47
It’s a fascinating thing that that idea comes from Joel Greenblatt, because he was the ultimate high performer. Greenblatt setup this firm when he was about 27, called Gotham Capital, where initially, he was mostly investing money from Michael Milken, but at the time he’d been earning something like a billion dollars a year, or some ridiculous sum, $650 million in one year. And Joel, over 20 years averaged 40% a year, which is just astonishing. I think I figured out that if you invested a million dollars, you basically turned it into 837 million, something like that, 40% here, it’s quite a nifty trick. And yet, later on in his career, it was fine for Joel, because he ran his super concentrated portfolio, but after five years, he returned half of the shareholders’ money, half of the outside investors’ money, and after 10 years, all of it, so he was just investing his money, his partner’s money and their family, and probably a couple of friends. He could handle the extraordinary volatility of a portfolio, where he had 80% of the money in six to eight stocks. He said, you could lose 20-30% in a couple of days. Most people just can’t handle it. What he later did is he decided that he was going to create a different type of investment firm, that was so much less volatile, that people would actually be able to make it to the finish line, because he said, for him, it was fine to invest without volatility, but most people just couldn’t stomach it. So much of the coverage of investing in the media is about who’s outperformed, who’s shot the lights out. That horse race aspect of it is not that helpful, because the reality is, if you’re a professional investor, sure, you need to beat the market, but for most of us, resilient wealth creation is much more important. If you can reach the finish line of being independently wealthy, able to live the way you want, financially secure, why do you care whether you’ve got the optimal solution or not? That’s been tremendously clarifying for me, because I can say, well, I’m happy to invest in funds that are less racy, but that I believe are less likely to blow up. For me, that’s been tremendously clarifying, the idea that you don’t need the optimal strategy, you need a strategy that’s good enough, to use a wonderful phrase from Tom Gayner, who I write about extensively, that’s directionally correct. You want to be directionally correct in your life, in everything that you do. If you’re directionally correct, then you keep plugging away over many years and decades. What Tom Gayner said to me is, you end up being number one-ish, and he said, the field thins out so much, because so many people are doing stupid stuff.
Mark Bidwell 31:40
It’a avoiding fatal mistakes, isn’t it? Making non fatal mistakes?
William Green 31:46
Yeah, Jeffrey Gundlach, who’s known as the King of bonds, who oversees something like $140 billion, who’s utterly brilliant, I interviewed him in Los Angeles. He used that phrase, non fatal mistakes. He said, you just want to make sure that your mistakes are non fatal. The first question he’s always asking himself is, if I’m wrong, what’s the consequence? And he said to me, the way you define success is really by longevity. You need to get to the finish line in terms of investing, but this also influences my view of something like the COVID period, because one of the distinguishing characteristics of the great investors is that they focus to an incredible degree on disaster avoidance. You’re constantly trying to avoid catastrophe that can knock you out of the game. Partly, that’s because in investing, there’s brutal mathematics, where if you lose 50%, on some dumb investment, you’ve got to make 100% to get back to where you started. So the ability to avoid disaster is extraordinarily powerful. But then I think about this the whole time with COVID, that there’s a wonderful phrase from Matthew McLennan, who said to me, you need to survive the dips. Like most great truths, it’s so simple and so banal, it’s really easy for your eyes to glaze over and for you to dismiss it. But if you actually internalise that idea, and you turn it into a mantra that you live by, this ability to survive the dips in a period like this, or in a period where your career has gone against you, or your marriage or your relationship, your health, that ability to survive the dips and to have that kind of resilience, and the faith that the sun also rises, that it’s not always going to be like this, that’s very, very powerful.
Mark Bidwell 33:38
Yep. There’s so much here, which I don’t want to take the conversation back, but we mentioned the book, the Hawkins’ book, and it was quite out there. Probably the most out there investor in the list here is Templeton. His success is absolutely remarkable, but also a lot of his philosophies are quite different, or quite extreme is probably too strong a word. But certainly, you talked about rolling your eyes when you first heard about the power of positive thought 20 years ago, when you first met him. I’m just curious about how important the inner dialogue, the positive thinking, obviously it was very important for him, but that’s probably a vital part of the toolkit to help you survive these dips, right?
William Green 34:26
Yeah, I’m kind of embarrassed by how I responded to Templeton 20 years ago. There’s a section of my book called something very unenticing, like Notes on Additional Sources and Resources. But it’s actually full of weird stories and recommendations from the investors, where I talk about reading the books that I had from him many years ago, and then reading them a couple years ago, and literally blushing and groaning out loud, as I realized how close minded I’d been, and how there were things that he was trying to teach me 20 years ago, that could have saved me so much pain, and so much failure if I just had been more open to them. So Templeton was a very extraordinary guy who I think you could very easily argue is the greatest international stock picker of the 20th century, he had this extraordinary record of something like 38 years, where he’d made 14.5% a year.
Mark Bidwell 35:23
But he didn’t have the Berkshire Hathaway sort of float machine that drove his returns, it was a pure Investment fund, right?
William Green 35:32
And he didn’t even have Ben Graham to clone. When he started as an investor, he told me that there was only one investing book that he could find. And when he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and he said that he wanted to study business, he said, they looked at him, like he said, I want to study garbage. I think he had to study law. So he was going into investing and inventing the rules himself, he was figuring out how the game worked. And he coined this beautiful expression of wanting to invest at the point of maximum pessimism. So he made this extraordinary bet during World War Two, when the world seemed to be falling apart, and he bought 104 busted stocks at less than $1 a share, and I think quintupled his money over the next five years, while everybody else was cowering in the corner. What fascinated me was the ability of this brilliant mind, this extraordinary investor, to go against the crowd. He embodied for me what I call the willingness to be lonely. Late in life, he was engaged in this very eccentric endeavour, basically, as he would put it, to increase spiritual information a hundredfold. So he was doing things like funding research at Harvard into whether prayer heals, and what type of prayer heals, and how do you heal someone, and do you say, god’s will be done, or do you need to put your hands on the person, should they be praying themselves for healing, or is it okay for you to do it remotely? And I, as a kind of skeptical journalist, who was I guess at that point, probably agnostic, looked at him like he was a bit of a moron. And the joke is, I ended up becoming much more spiritual later in life, but what I realised is that my closed mindedness blocked me from hearing what he was trying to teach me. I think what Templeton embodied was this extraordinary open mindedness, where he wanted to explore these questions that other people maybe thought were stupid. And I said to him that people often think that you’re a kook. And he’s like, yeah, sure but I had the self-confidence to believe that the experts didn’t really know what they were talking about, and to investigate things for myself. His eccentricity, his willingness to think for himself, his willingness to ask questions that other people dismissed, was absolutely central to his brilliance. And then how can you go against the crowd to that degree, unless you have this tremendous equanimity, and peace of mind, and he had lost his first wife when they went on vacation, and she had a motorcycle accident, she died leaving him as a very young man with three children to raise. I think his ability to master his inner life, to master his emotions, to master his thoughts, was so central to his ability to handle that setback, and then to handle the challenges of investing during World War Two, going against the crowd, exploring the spiritual questions. I feel like I’ve been in a 20 year inner argument with Templeton, and I think about him constantly. I’m taking these things that he tried to teach me then, and I’m actually really trying to live by them in many ways. One of the most important is simply this awareness, that if I can’t gain control of my own thoughts, of my own emotions, I’m toast, and I’m never going to be as good at it as he is, but I can go and be directionally correct and work on it.
Mark Bidwell 39:15
Well, particularly given the uncertainty that characterises today as well, but it is likely to continue in different shapes and forms. This is one of the things that Charlie Munger mentioned in the book, he’s obviously had a lot of personal challenges in his life as well. But it’s actually the ability to confront these difficult issues, and be nice and find nice ways of dealing with them, nice and effective ways of dealing with them. It’s very similar to what Tony Robbins says, which is around, most people complaining about all the problems they’ve got, but problems are a sign of life, and the only people who don’t have problems are people who are dead, and we need to get better at how we solve problems and handle problems, and a key part of the toolkit there is ultimately the emotional mastery if you like. So that thread is woven into a number of different areas here.
William Green 40:06
Yeah, I’ve been very fortunate in recent years, I actually got to know Tony Robbins pretty well, and I can see him dealing with adversity and challenges in an extraordinary way. One of the things that Tony is obsessed with is the idea that in these moments, where maybe most of us would become flooded emotionally, he’ll focus on particularly appreciation, as something where it’s easier in a moment of dismay to access appreciation, probably than love. It’s hard when you’re in an argument with your wife, or your kid or some colleague or whatever, where you’ve just had some tremendous setback to be full of love and hope, but you can focus on appreciation. I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea recently, because I’ve been studying this other stuff, partly from David Hawkins from this extraordinary book “Letting Go” that he writes, but also from some of these Tibetan Buddhist masters. There’s an idea that Hawkins has in letting go, that basically, instead of trying to change that emotion, when you’re being bombarded with some difficult feeling, his view is that you should be aware of that feeling, you should let it come up, you should stay with it, and you should feel it without resistance, or fear or judgment, and let it run its course, and that somehow the energy behind it dissipates. The resistance is what keeps the feeling going, and when you don’t resist it, the energy behind is released as a sort of pressure above that. We were never taught as children to deal with our emotions.
Mark Bidwell 41:48
Particularly given our school that you and I went to as well, right?
William Green 41:50
Yeah, you and I, we both went to Eton, and it was one of those places where, if you had a problem, you would say, oh, buck up, go deal with it, very much this stiff upper lip English approach. I now live in New York, where everyone has a shrink, and everyone’s very open minded about their emotions, so it’s a very different culture. I’m really exploring quite seriously this idea of how you should relate to your own emotions. There’s one chapter of that book “Letting Go” by Hawkins, that I read over and over again, this is Chapter Two that deals with this idea of really just kind of binding with the feeling, and letting it go, surrendering the desire to change it. I think there’s something very profound about that. I haven’t really squared this with Tony’s clearly very powerful idea that you want to shift it, you want to dismantle the emotion while it’s fresh as well, because as he says, you want to kill these negative emotions while they’re infants. But I think Hawkins and these extraordinary Tibetan Buddhists figured out this different approach for dealing with wayward emotion. There’s tremendous profundity in it, and this is something where I’m hoping to go deeper and deeper on this in the years to come, because this affects us in every area of life, right? And how do you invest when your emotions are all over the place? How do you make good decisions? So the ability to gain equanimity is hugely important in this. There’s a friend of mine that I write about in the book, who is actually a neurologist, who was a hedge fund manager. This is my friend, Ken Shubin Stein, whose class at Columbia Business School, his Advanced Investment Research class I want to take for a semester. He’s remarkable, and he’s thought a lot about these issues. What he says is, in terms of decision making, there are several things that are going to affect the quality of your decisions, that we know affect them – meditation, exercise, nutrition, and sleep, we know are going to have an impact on your ability to make decisions. During extremely intense periods, whether it was the financial crisis, which was hugely difficult for him as a hedge fund manager, and more recently, when he was a doctor in COVID wards in New York City, he was using these techniques to make sure that he behaved in an optimal way, and thought in an optimal way. One of the things that he did, that I think is an enormously practical workaround, is he used this mnemonic called PS, which is, he basically says when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, tired, in pain, or scared, those are really fertile conditions for you to screw up, make lousy decisions. So he said, while he was in the COVID Ward, dealing with patients and dealing with their families, he would say, alright, what’s my state at the moment? Well, my PP equipment is so physically uncomfortable, I’m actually in pain, and I’m so furious of the political decisions that have led to this, and the lack of equipment, and I’m so upset by the state of these patients. I need to be self aware, and I need to step back and know that I’m in a position where it’s going to be harder for me to tell the family how their relative is doing on this ventilator. I thought that was really fascinating that he had found this kind of practical workaround, based on the work that he’d done as an investor, based on his study of neuroscience. I said to Charlie Munger, during these very intense periods like the financial crisis, do you feel these emotions? Do you feel the type of fear that the rest of us feel? And he said, no, not at all. And he said, Warren is wired in exactly the same way, he doesn’t feel it either. But for most of us, we’re not Warren and Charlie, so you need to be really aware of your emotional and physical state, so that you can find these workarounds. One of the most powerful things for me that I learned from Ken Scubin Stein, was when he’s in an incredibly intense period, he just simplifies everything, he reduces complexity. He goes through his calendar, he is trying to cancel as many meetings, as many appointments. And he’s getting back to those four basics of exercise, nutrition, meditation and sleep, because he knows that he’s going to think better. That to me is a perfect example of an area where you can learn this profound practical wisdom from a really smart investor, that radiates out to every area of your life, that helps you as much in a COVID Ward, as it does as a writer, or a parent or someone trying to rescue a business in the midst of a global recession and a pandemic.
Mark Bidwell 46:48
Yeah, yeah, and come back to these core disciplines or habits that you stick with them over time, and they compound and they provide that resilience, and they provide the conditions for making smart decisions in these times of complexity.
William Green 47:03
Yeah, and one of the most fascinating things that Ken Scubin Stein said to me, he said you don’t want to wait until you’re in the midst of a crisis to adopt these good habits. He said, it’s really important to adopt these good habits before the crisis. I think that’s a tremendously profound point that most of us miss, that you don’t want to wait until your marriage is in trouble, or your kids having difficulty, or your business in trouble before you say, yeah, let me start meditating, let me start eating properly or making sure that I sleep, or making sure that I exercise. you want to create those conditions for resilience and equanimity in advance of the crisis. It’s such a simple point, but actually, like all of these great practical truths, if you take it seriously, it changes everything, because you’re positioning yourself to deal with crises in advance. That’s one of the most important principles that explains the success and resilience of the greatest investors is, they’re not denying the fact that things are going to be crazy in future, and that the next period is not going to resemble the previous period. They’re saying, I know that crazy things can happen. I know that we live in a world where things like COVID, even though I didn’t predict COVID, I know that we live in a world where things like COVID can happen. So how do I create conditions of calm in my own life, so that I’ll be able to create uncertainty. I think that has tremendous ramifications for all of us, because it means you want to find a handful of directionally correct habits that are sensible and resilient, that you can adopt over many years, and whose benefits compound over decades.
Mark Bidwell 48:47
Yep. And as you said earlier on, the book is full of these, and I guess not all of them will suit everyone, because it’s about knowing yourself and knowing what works best for you, but there are a number and time is short, so we can’t go through more. It’s a wonderful book…
William Green 48:47
I totally agree.
Mark Bidwell 49:12
I’ve read quite a lot about Munger, I read a lot about Templeton, I’ve read Mohnish’s book, I hadn’t discovered the “Nomad Partnership Letters” until you’ve pointed me there, I learned a lot from there. You put it together in a way that is accessible and relevant, and the timing, of course, there’s a lot in here which can be of use to people now, irrespective of whether they are investors or just wrestling with some of the other challenges in life.
William Green 49:42
Thanks. I’m glad it resonated for you. I hope you’ll pick one or two things in it years from now, you’ll see, actually, I adopted that and it really had an impact on me.
Mark Bidwell 49:53
I have one already, which is that you don’t need to have an optimal strategy, it needs at least to be good enough. I will read the book again, because I’m aware that I embarrassed myself by not recognizing that it was a bit more of a diverse group than my notes suggested. But because we are running short of time. Three questions that I sent through to you before. What have you changed your mind about recently?
William Green 50:25
I would say the biggest unfolding changing of my mind, that’s been over probably the last 10 or 15 years, has been that I used to feel that everything was basically random and chaotic, and Darwinian, that there wasn’t much rhyme or reason to anything, and you just kind of had to survive somehow. And increasingly, I feel that there’s a deep pattern or structure to life, that maybe goes back to something that Tony Robbins says where he says that life happens for you, not to you. And whether this is actually true, or whether it’s just a useful idea, I don’t truly know.
Mark Bidwell 51:04
I’m not sure it matters actually, does it?
William Green 51:06
I’m not sure it matters. There’s a great teacher that I had, probably the greatest teacher that I ever had, who just would say over and over again, consciousness is everything. I think that your consciousness creates your reality. If you go through life thinking, this is a hostile world, everything is a zero sum game for me to succeed, someone else has to fail, and everyone’s out to get me and it’s and it’s tough, and life is bound to be painful, you probably create your reality. You’re looking for evidence of those things. Whereas if you go through thinking, I’m really fortunate, and I come across such extraordinary people, and I keep having these books come up that are really helpful, or these people that I meet that are really helpful, these experiences that I have that are incredibly helpful. And so you’re looking at everything as this kind of unfolding, benign pattern, where things are being revealed to you, whether it’s true or not, it makes for a much happier life. Pragmatic philosophers had this view of ideas as tools, and so you would just pick the tool that helped you most, it didn’t necessarily have to be empirically or provably true, but it should be a good tool. I think this is a wonderful tool, and the ability to see this kind of unfolding pattern and the way that one thing that seemed like a disaster led to something that actually turned out to be an incredible blessing, that led to some other thing that turned out to be an incredible blessing, I find that the more you focus on those gifts and on this deep structure, on this kind of appreciation for that deep structure, the happier you become. Whether it’s a happy delusion, or an accurate delusion, maybe it doesn’t matter, but I do think you’re creating your reality, and the world starts to seem more and more miraculous. It’s been a very happy shift in my life, Although there are times where, if I’m going through a crappy period and something’s tough, I totally lose that consciousness, and suddenly start feeling sorry for myself again, thinking it’s all chaotic, and how dare the world be out to get me. But when I’m a little more calm, and have a little more equanimity, I think I do have that sense of like, oh, even this thing where I had the crap kicked out of me, what a gift that was.
Mark Bidwell 53:24
Lovely. Second, where do you go to get fresh perspectives, especially when you’re facing tough, difficult challenges?
William Green 53:32
Well, I read absolutely constantly, and I buy books constantly. And I read them in a slightly eccentric way I think. I’m not trying to finish that many books, and I’m not trying to read them in a very linear way. I’m constantly collecting stuff, and I’m underlining massively, and putting assets around things constantly. One thing leads me in some other strange directions. Just to give you a random example of something recently, I have a friend who, like me, is a bit of a JewBu, like someone who’s Jewish, but is also obsessed with Buddhism and finds a lot of parallels within Kabbalah and Buddhism. And that’s a very fertile area for me, where these two areas of study reinforce each other in fascinating ways. He’s someone who’s meditated very seriously for 40 years, and he’s a money manager, but he spends his mornings reading ancient Buddhist texts, and then he goes to Habad on Saturdays for synagogue service, so he’s an eccentric guy who brings together these different traditions. I asked him for guidance on meditation, and he sent me reading about this guy, Tsoknyi Rinpoche who was an extraordinary Tibetan Buddhist, so then I started doing Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s course online fully which I think is remarkable. And then I buy a couple of books of his called “Carefree Dignity”, and something like “Open Heart, Open Mind.” And then I’m like, oh, well actually, I already have a book by his brother that I bought, because I listened to him being interviewed on a podcast with Dan Harris 100% Happier that I like a lot. So then I go back to read the brother Mingyur Rinpoche’s book, who’s this sort of superstar meditator who spent most of his life in retreat, and then I look at “Altered Traits” by Dan Goleman, that has a section on what happened to Mingyur Rinpoche’s brain. And then I get a book by their father, who was this extraordinary guy, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and that leads me to get a book by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche who was a teacher both of the Dalai Lama, and of Tsoknyi Rinpoche. It’s sort of this cascading thing, and then I’m friendly with Dan Goleman who wrote the book on EQ, but it’s also the “Emotional Intelligence” book which is really famous. but he’s also studied with Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and studied with Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s father Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, so I asked him about this, and he’s like, oh, you need to read this memoir by Tulku Urgyun Rinpoche, that talks about the people who taught him, so I have this stack of things. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s how I study things, and I don’t know where that’s leading to. But then when I combine that, with the stuff that I’m learning from David Hawkins, who’s talking about some similar concepts, and the stuff that I’m reading from the great kabbalists who are teaching similar stuff, there are these beautiful links between these different disciplines. I think that’s a bit what I’m trying to do in my book, where I see a principle like simplicity, the importance of keeping things simple. Can you see how it goes through business, through spirituality, through science with Occam’s razor. I think there’s something about my somewhat random interest in all of these different themes, that actually ends up leading me in unexpected directions and making connections that other people maybe don’t make. I think it’s partly harnessing the fact that I just have a very nonlinear brain. It’s this thing where my great flaw becomes a virtue, because it allows me to float through different disciplines and make odd connections. Yeah, yeah. This is how I console myself for my nonlinear brain.
Mark Bidwell 57:17
Final question, what’s been your most significant failure, what have you learned for it, and how have you applied that learning?
William Green 57:23
It’s funny, I used to say that I feel I’ve gone from failure to failure somehow succeeding, and it was sort of facetious, but I mean it, and I think partly what it is, is that being a writer, it’s just full of setbacks. When you’re having stories killed that you’ve worked on for months, you’re having so many setbacks, that you have to have a pretty thick skin. The most intense experience was definitely in the midst of the financial crisis, that I was editing the European Middle East and an African edition of Time Magazine, and got laid off. And so Time Inc, which was the biggest magazine publisher in the world, got in tremendous trouble, and had these huge cutbacks. A lot of us were laid off, particularly with international jobs where we were very expensive. I had this grandiose job, where I would go interview David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, I go to India and interview Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, I’d go to Poland, and would interview Donald Tusk. Here I was thinking I was so important, and I was probably working 70 or 80 hours a week, and I was doing something I was really good at. When you’re working that hard, and you think you’re really good, and you’re full of a sense of your own importance, and you get tossed out of Eden, because I loved that job, it’s not only painful, but there’s actually a weird sense of shame. And I remember at the time, going and telling someone who’s a remarkable teacher, he said, how are you William, I said, I’m, I’m fine, but I just got laid off. And he said, such a blessing. I think for the next five years, I was trying to figure out why this was a blessing. How do I turn this to my advantage? How is it good? And 10, 12 years later, it’s been a blessing in so many ways, and has led me in so many different directions that have been so beneficial. I never would have written this book, I don’t think, because I still loved editing, and I found it so easy, and it’s so much easier than writing, that I’m not sure I would have gone in this direction. This book has been the most fulfilling thing I’ve done. The book itself is full of discussions of resilience, of how you survive difficulty, pain, setbacks, shame, public failure. I think I was wrestling with this question myself, so I was going to these great investors, and I was asking them, how did you deal with it? Even someone like Munger, who’s had an extraordinarily successful and blessed life, lost his first child at the age of nine with leukaemia, and he said, he knew at a certain point that he was dying, and that we were lying to him. It was just agony. There’s someone I don’t write about in the book, but who I spent a lot of time with, who is a remarkable money manager, called Donald Yacktman, whose daughter had some terrible illness, locked-in syndrome, where basically, she could only move an eyelid. I was visiting him in Texas, and he said at one point to me, the rain falls on us all. So that was very fascinating to me, the fact that everyone I’ve written about has been through these extremely difficult periods. I write in the epilogue of the book about the importance of money and the importance of financial security and what money gives you, and what it doesn’t give you. But I made a point of ending really by talking about the importance of these inner attributes like acceptance, and hope and trust and appreciation, and equanimity and determined optimism. I think it’s incredibly helpful to understand that even the most successful people we come across, the people who’ve won the lottery, they become multi-billionaires, they have amazing art collections, and yachts and planes, they still suffer, they still go through the wringer. It seems to me that you need to focus on this inner game, the equanimity, the resilience. This was a lovely example of something where I had the crap kicked out of me in my life, I’d intensified my own need to solve this particular problem, and to get guidance from the smartest people around that I could interview, and to see how they handle adversity themselves. It’s a wonderful position to be in, where I can borrow that wisdom to help me in my own life, but then I can also share it with readers. I’m hoping that there’ll be people who read this and say, oh, wait a second, that’s how Bill Miller dealt with it, or that’s how Charlie Munger dealt with it. It’s kind of humorous, there’s a wonderful thing in the chapter where I write about Charlie Munger, where he’s talking about adversity, and I’m saying how it also helps to have a sense of humour. He talks about his misadventures as a sort of skinny kid in high school in Omaha 80 years ago. And he invites this girl he calls a blonde goddess out on a date to some dance. He said he was trying to prove how cool he was, so he was smoking. And he said, I set fire to her lace dress, but I was quick thinking, and he said, I reached for a glass of Coca Cola and poured it all over her, and pulled out the fire. And he said, that was the end of the blonde goddess. It doesn’t have to be too serious, part of it is the ability just to, a) to position yourself to survive the depth so that you’re not overextended, and so you’re working in your equanimity in advance, and b) to have a little bit of a sense of humour about it, and to trust that the sun also rises, and that you come through these periods that are very challenging, but that it changes. There’s a whole chapter about impermanence, and the implications of this Buddhist notion that everything changes. The beautiful thing about it is, well, yeah, sure, the good stuff doesn’t last, but the bad stuff doesn’t last either. I think I was able to take this experience of my own that was very bruising and humbling, and hopefully use it in ways that I hope will help other people as well. It’s certainly helped me.
Mark Bidwell 1:03:46
Wonderful. Where can people get in touch with you?
William Green 1:03:49
I’m pretty easy to reach. I’m on Twitter, I think my name is @Williamgreen72, I am on LinkedIn, you’re welcome to message me at my website, you can probably figure out my email pretty easily, I’m not very private. I’m really happy to have these conversations with people. Obviously, I have limited bandwidth, but if there are things that interest you or that help you, or people you think I ought to interview in future or things I ought to read. As I say in the Notes on Additional Sources and Resources, this is kind of a journey for me, and I’m hoping to provide ideas and resources for people that will help them on their journey to become richer and wiser and happier. If there are things that you encounter as readers that you think I ought to be aware of, that I should explore more, and a few people I ought to interview and try to synthesise their teachings, please reach out to me, I’d love to hear from you.
Mark Bidwell 1:04:40
Will do, absolutely. Thank you very much for your time. I’m sure the audience will find it very interesting. The book comes out on April 20. Very good. And many thanks. Have a good rest of the day.
William Green 1:05:09
I appreciate it. Thank you for such great questions.
Mark Bidwell 1:05:12