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10 Really Simple Financial Lessons to Live By

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If you liked The Black Swan, you'll love Nassim Nicholas Taleb's latest book, The Bed of Procrustes.

Unlike Taleb's previous books, there's no storytelling in this one. There are no predictions of future meltdowns. No warnings to idiot bankers. The entire book is simply a collection of hundreds of "philosophical and practical aphorisms" -- pithy one-line quotes full of meaning and importance.

I've selected 10 of those quotes that struck me as financial lessons. Few were meant as such -- these are broad aphorisms not meant to be confined to finance -- but all provide at least some lesson that can help make you a better investor. Enjoy.

1. Education makes the wise slightly wiser, but it makes the fool vastly more dangerous. 

Fellow Fool Bill Mann calls this "Harvard stupid." Harvard stupid, he says, "comes from thinking that you're smarter than everyone, without recognizing that you still might not be smart enough to control the evil your creations threaten to unleash." We're looking at you, Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) .

2. To bankrupt a fool, give him information. 

I haven't seen the study, but I'm willing to bet there's a perfect inverse relationship between investing results and time spent watching CNBC.

3. "Wealthy" is meaningless and has no robust absolute measure; use instead the subtractive measure "unwealth," that is, the difference, at any point in time, between what you have and what you would like to have. 

Plenty of those making $30,000 have ample savings. Plenty of those making $1 million a year live paycheck-to-paycheck and are buried in debt. Wealth is completely relative. As Chris Rock says, "If Bill Gates woke up with Oprah's money, he'd jump out the window."

4. What I learned on my own I still remember. 

They teach about financial risk in school. If you still remember those equations, you're either a finance professor or devoid of a life.

Learning something because you experienced it is the most valuable form of education. Late in the housing boom, I invested in Beazer Homes (NYSE: BZH  ) and Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) because they looked cheap. I didn't realize that the way they made money made Russian Roulette look conservative. Losing money on those two is a lesson I'll never forget.

5. The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits. 

As the blog The Reformed Broker put it: "The four most dangerous words in investing are 'It's the Lightning Round!'"

6. The sucker's trap is when you focus on what you know and what others don't know, rather than the reverse. 

If you find a cheap stock and you can't explain why it's cheap, there's a good chance you're missing something that others see. To quote Buffett: "If you've been playing poker for half an hour and you still don't know who the patsy is, you're the patsy."

Take Annaly Capital (NYSE: NLY  ) . There may be good reasons to own this stock right now. But trust me, Annaly's dividend isn't huge because it's a hidden gem that only you know about. If you're not aware why the dividend is so high right now -- because the yield curve is about as wide as it gets, and destined to fall -- you'll be taken for a ride as the economy recovers and that curve flattens. Others are aware of this. Just make sure you are, too.

7. Knowledge is subtractive, not additive -- what we subtract (reduction by what does not work, what not to do), not what we add (what to do). 

A young child once asked Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B  ) vice-chairman Charlie Munger what advice he could give to ensure success in life. "Don't do cocaine, don't race trains to the track, and avoid all AIDS situations," he replied. What he meant, I'll presume, is that what you don't do is just as important as what you do.  

8. A prophet is not someone with special visions, just someone blind to most of what others see.

Same as above. You'll win by default if you simply avoid the mistakes others make. Those who made a fortune betting against housing didn't have special insider knowledge. They simply didn't believe that housing prices could go up forever.

9. The best test of whether someone is extremely stupid (or extremely wise) is whether financial and political news makes sense to him. 

One of the biggest disservices the media cranks out are daily market roundups that begin, "Markets fell/rose today on news that …" followed by a random and usually meaningless datapoint. Markets go up. Markets go down. Get over it and stop trying to connect the dots.

10. What they call "risk" I call opportunity; but what they call "low risk" opportunity I call a sucker problem. 

The past three years, explained in one line.

Fool contributor Morgan Housel owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Fool owns shares of Annaly Capital Management, and Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (15) | Recommend This Article (109)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 06, 2010, at 1:19 PM, blakec868 wrote:

    One of the best articles I've read as a fool. Thank you

  • Report this Comment On December 06, 2010, at 1:35 PM, Acesnyper wrote:


    Seriously. I agree this is gotta be one of the best write ups I've seen since joining.

  • Report this Comment On December 06, 2010, at 4:21 PM, patrails wrote:

    A wise man can learn from a fool, a fool learns from no one.

  • Report this Comment On December 06, 2010, at 4:50 PM, CoachKnight wrote:

    "Markets go up. Markets go down. Get over it and stop trying to connect the dots."

    Love this quote. Good article.

  • Report this Comment On December 06, 2010, at 7:05 PM, PeyDaFool wrote:

    Hands down, best MFing writer on the MF.

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2010, at 12:12 AM, xetn wrote:

    The "Fool' focuses on stock, options, funds and bonds and negates the precious metals. But just consider;

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2010, at 10:56 AM, mtf00l wrote:

    My, my how uncontroversial...

    Interesting about Beazer. I was following them myself for awhile. I requested their information several times from their website however, they never sent it, conversely I never bought the stock in real life.

    Thanks for the aphorisms. =D

  • Report this Comment On December 10, 2010, at 10:16 AM, lwb1354 wrote:

    I'll take Charlie Munger's advice any day!

  • Report this Comment On December 12, 2010, at 9:35 AM, bermuda999 wrote:

    You've sold me on the book!

  • Report this Comment On December 12, 2010, at 11:21 AM, baekeland108 wrote:

    Fantastic Article! I will need to get the book. The best financial advice I have ever been given is always in non-financial books.

    Here is a GREAT read for my fellow Fools: The Day They Shook The Plum Tree.

  • Report this Comment On December 13, 2010, at 4:51 AM, SpeechRec wrote:

    I just wish you guys had passed on that Charlie Munger quote before I went out to snort cocaine off the railroad track while participating in some AIDS situations.

  • Report this Comment On December 14, 2010, at 5:04 PM, fuzzylou wrote:

    Wonderful article! One of the best articles I've read in a long time.

  • Report this Comment On December 14, 2010, at 5:15 PM, beechtree1 wrote:

    please explain, what is it meant by:

    "if bill gates woke up with oprah's money, he'd jump out the window

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2010, at 2:25 AM, FuzzyLogic1 wrote:

    The joke, beechtree1, is that despite the fact that Oprah is a billionaire many times over, Bill Gates is MANY times over a billionaire than Oprah is. If Bill Gates were to find out he was as "poor" as Oprah, he'd jump out the window.

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2010, at 8:00 PM, beechtree1 wrote:

    thank you, fuzzyLogic1.


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