The Best Way to Learn As an Investor

How to learn vicariously through others.

Feb 25, 2014 at 8:47AM


I made my worst investment seven years ago.

The housing market was crumbling, and a smart value investor I idolized began purchasing shares in a small, battered specialty lender. I didn't know anything about the company, but I followed him anyway, buying shares myself. It became my largest holding -- which was unfortunate when the company went bankrupt less than a year later.

Only later did I learn the full story. As part of his investment, the guru I followed also controlled a large portion of the company's debt and and preferred stock, purchased at special terms that effectively gave him control over its assets when it went out of business. The company's stock also made up one-fifth the weighting in his portfolio as it did in mine. I lost everything. He made a decent investment.

The silver lining is that I learned my lesson. I will never make this mistake again. Experiencing it made me a better investor.

But so many other investors made this mistake before I did. There is a graveyard of investors like me who got burned by blindly following legendary investors without knowing why those legends invested in the first place. Wouldn't it have been great if I learned from their errors, rather than experiencing the loss myself? I made this mistake in my early 20s. Every dollar I lost is a dollar that won't compound for the rest of my life. By the time I retire, this blunder may easily cost me $1 million.

Capitalism is all about making, and learning from, mistakes. Jeff Stibel, CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp., made this point well in Megan McArdle's new book, The Up Side of Down. "The brain is a failure machine," he said. "When you're born, you have about all the neurons you'll ever have. When you're four, you have pretty much all the connections between those neurons you'll ever have. Then the brain starts pruning. The brain starts shrinking. You're actually learning by failure."

But there's no rule that says you have to learn by failing yourself. It is far better to learn vicariously from other people's mistakes than suffer through them on your own.

At a conference years ago, a young teen asked Charlie Munger how to succeed in life. "Don't do cocaine, don't race trains to the track, and avoid all AIDS situations," Munger said. Which is to say: Success is less about making great decisions and more about avoiding really bad ones.

I think this is especially true in investing, where luck plays a larger role than most of us think. You are more likely to learn valuable lessons from failed investors than successful ones, because successful (especially very successful) investors likely experienced some degree of luck, while failed investors likely made bad decisions in situations that you yourself will someday face.

If it were up to me, I would replace every book called How to Invest Like Warren Buffett with a one called How to Not Invest Like Lehman Brothers, Long-Term Capital Management, and Jesse LivermoreThere are so many lessons to learn from these failed investors about situations most of us will face, like how quickly debt can ruin you. I'm a fan of learning from Buffett, but the truth is most of us can't devote as much time to investing as he can. The biggest risk you face as an investor isn't that you'll fail to be Warren Buffett; it's that you'll end up as Lehman Brothers. So why wouldn't you try to learn more from the latter? 

Focusing on failed investors over the years has taught me a few valuable lessons.

1. The overwhelming majority of financial problems are caused by debt, impatience, and insecurity.
People want to fit in and impress other people, and they want it right now. So they borrow money to live a lifestyle they can't afford. Then they hit the inevitable speed bump, and they find themselves over their heads and out of control. That simple story sums up most financial problems in the world. Stop trying to impress people who don't care about you anyways, spend less than you earn, and invest the rest for the long run. You'll beat 99% of people financially.

2. Complexity kills.
You can make a lot of money in finance, so the industry attracted some really brilliant people. Those brilliant people naturally tried to make finance more like their native fields of physics, math, and engineering, so finance has grown exponentially more complex in the last two decades. For most, that's been a disservice. I think the evidence is overwhelming that simple investments like index funds and common stocks will demolish complicated ones like derivatives and leveraged ETFs. There are two big stories in the news this morning: One is about how the University of California system is losing more than $100 million on a complicated interest rate swap trade. The other is about how Warren Buffett quintupled his money buying a farm in Nebraska. Simple investments usually win.

3. So does panic.
In his book Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzalez chronicles how some people managed to survive plane crashes, getting stranded on boats, and being stuck in blizzards while their peers perished. The common denominator is simple: The survivors didn't panic. It's the same in investing. I've seen people make a lifetime of good financial decisions only to blow it all during a market panic like we saw in 2008. Any financial decision you make with an elevated heart rate is probably going to be one you'll regret. Napoleon's definition of a military genius was "the man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy." It's the same in investing.

Mark Twain once said that, "If you hold a cat by the tail, you learn things you cannot learn any other way." I disagree. Watch someone hold a cat by the tail and learn from their mistake vicariously. It's so much easier.

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics. 


Contact Morgan Housel at The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

4 in 5 Americans Are Ignoring Buffett's Warning

Don't be one of them.

Jun 12, 2015 at 5:01PM

Admitting fear is difficult.

So you can imagine how shocked I was to find out Warren Buffett recently told a select number of investors about the cutting-edge technology that's keeping him awake at night.

This past May, The Motley Fool sent 8 of its best stock analysts to Omaha, Nebraska to attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting. CEO Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger fielded questions for nearly 6 hours.
The catch was: Attendees weren't allowed to record any of it. No audio. No video. 

Our team of analysts wrote down every single word Buffett and Munger uttered. Over 16,000 words. But only two words stood out to me as I read the detailed transcript of the event: "Real threat."

That's how Buffett responded when asked about this emerging market that is already expected to be worth more than $2 trillion in the U.S. alone. Google has already put some of its best engineers behind the technology powering this trend. 

The amazing thing is, while Buffett may be nervous, the rest of us can invest in this new industry BEFORE the old money realizes what hit them.

KPMG advises we're "on the cusp of revolutionary change" coming much "sooner than you think."

Even one legendary MIT professor had to recant his position that the technology was "beyond the capability of computer science." (He recently confessed to The Wall Street Journal that he's now a believer and amazed "how quickly this technology caught on.")

Yet according to one J.D. Power and Associates survey, only 1 in 5 Americans are even interested in this technology, much less ready to invest in it. Needless to say, you haven't missed your window of opportunity. 

Think about how many amazing technologies you've watched soar to new heights while you kick yourself thinking, "I knew about that technology before everyone was talking about it, but I just sat on my hands." 

Don't let that happen again. This time, it should be your family telling you, "I can't believe you knew about and invested in that technology so early on."

That's why I hope you take just a few minutes to access the exclusive research our team of analysts has put together on this industry and the one stock positioned to capitalize on this major shift.

Click here to learn about this incredible technology before Buffett stops being scared and starts buying!

David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Coca-Cola.We Fools don't 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.

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