On June 17, 1997, Chris Hill started working at The Motley Fool. In this episode of MarketFoolery, he shares a few investing lessons he's learned over the years, talks about how he's trying to think more like a Zen master, and recounts the time he bought a stock while he was high on painkillers.
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This video was recorded on June 17, 2021.
Chris Hill: It's Thursday, June 17. Welcome to MarketFoolery. I'm Chris Hill and today is my 24th anniversary of working at The Motley Fool. Where were you on June 17, 1997? Were you even born? Were you in grade school, high school, college? Did you have a job? Were you working somewhere? June 17, 1997, I walked in the door at 123 North Pitt Street, took the elevator up to the office, and started doing the things that you do on your first day at a new job. Filled out a bunch of forms, got assigned a desk and a computer. I was given an official Motley Fool mug, with the original logo, which I think I have this right, I think it was drawn by Julia Rydholm, who is the sister of company co-founder, Erik Rydholm. Still have the mug, by the way. Don't worry, I'm not going to walk you through every professional memory that I have of the past 24 years. But I'm going to share a little bit because there's no way for me to think about my time at The Motley Fool without stock investing being at the front and center of my brain.
I had worked in the U.S. Capitol building for six years, so I've been investing through the Thrift Savings program. But when I get to The Fool, I started learning about stocks and thinking about businesses in ways that I really never had before. The idea that the numbers of a business are important, but it's not just about the numbers. The story of the business is important, the people leading it -- that's important. And the more I've done this, the more experienced I've gotten as an investor, the more comfortable I have gotten with a few things that I did not realize 24 years ago. The role that luck plays in investing. The importance of being selfish. Staying as even keeled as possible for as long as possible. I've made investing mistakes over the past 24 years and I will continue to make mistakes about stocks where I didn't understand the business and couldn't explain what the company does.
One time I bought a stock when I was high. It was 1999, I'd had all four of my wisdom teeth out and I was spending a few days at home recuperating and my diet consisted entirely of milkshakes and painkillers. I was sitting on the sofa, channel-flipping through cable because there's no streaming video, there's no Netflix, I'm flipping channels and I get to C-SPAN, and there's a trade association that's having some big meeting in D.C. They've got a keynote speaker, some young guy who'd recently taken his company public, and he's talking about the future of this industry and I listened to the whole speech, and did I mention that I was high on painkillers? I was high on painkillers. In this narcotic induced fog, I remember sitting there and thinking: "This guy is brilliant and I like what this guy has to say and I'm going to buy this stock." I went to my computer and logged onto my account and bought shares of this guy's company while I was high on painkillers. I have come to realize you need to recognize luck when you see it.
I have sold stocks before they cratered, not because I had any amazing foresight, it just worked out that way. You can do your research on the company and still attribute part or even most of your success with that stock to luck. I've done plenty of homework over the years. But there are different stocks that I can point to and say, oh, yeah, that's due to luck. Yes, I did my homework but really the timing of that one work was luck. I mentioned the importance of being selfish. Let me explain what I mean by that. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, these things did not exist in 1997, and part of being successful as an investor is knowing yourself, knowing the game you are playing, and realizing there are a ton of other people in the investing world and they are playing a different game than you are. They have different timelines, they're in different situations, different stages of life. I'm not suggesting that you should live a selfish life, but you need to be selfish about your investing life. If someone is selling a stock you own or they're trashing it on social media, they're playing a different game, and it's more difficult to stay focused, specifically because of things like Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. Just like people are posting photos of how they're living their best life, the investing version of that is people constantly touting their winners, so you got to stay focused.
And that brings me to staying as even keeled as possible for as long as possible. I just finished reading a book about Mike Nichols, who's a great theater and film director. He did The Graduate and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Those are great films. Those are all-time great films. They're a little intense, they're not the kind of movies that you put on, on a Friday night at the end of the long week. He's done other movies that do fit that category for me anyway. Just fun rewatchable movies like The Birdcage and Charlie Wilson's War. For those unfamiliar, Charlie Wilson, real-life congressmen from East Texas and in real life, and therefore in the book Charlie Wilson's War, and therefore in the movie he teams up with a real life CIA operative named Gust Avrakotos. Tom Hanks plays Charlie Wilson. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Gust Avrakotos, two great performances. I think Philip Seymour Hoffman got an Oscar nomination out of it. To make a long, complicated story short, in the 1980s, these two men helped to conduct a covert war against the Soviet Union.
One of the differences that you come to learn between Charlie Wilson and Gust Avrakotos, Wilson served in the Navy, he's someone who sees wars as conflicts, that have a winner and a loser and that's that. When the Soviet Union falls, he celebrates, it's like it's all over, we won. There's a scene late in the movie after the Soviet Union has fallen, there's a party at Charlie Wilson's apartment and he's standing on a balcony with Gust, and Gust is trying to get him to not be so excited about this victory, as great as it is. He tells Charlie Wilson, and he's trying to get him to realize what's going on here. So he tells Charlie Wilson the story about the Zen master and the little boy. Because there's this little boy and on his 14th birthday, he gets a horse and everybody in the village says, "How wonderful the boy got a horse," and the Zen master says, "We'll see." Two years later the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg and everyone in the village says, "How terrible," and the Zen master says, "We'll see." Then a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight, except the boy who can't, because his legs are all messed up, and everybody in the village says, "How wonderful." And the Zen master says, "We'll see."
Over the past 24 years, I have seen wonderful times as an investor and I've seen terrible times as an investor. The birth and rise of the Internet in the 1990s was so exciting. And then the bubble burst in 2000, and then 9/11 happened. And then slowly, steadily business and the markets return for five positive and strong years until the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, followed by the greatest bull run market in history, followed by a global pandemic. It's natural to get excited in good times because we are human beings. We are emotional creatures. That's why it's all the more important to stay as even keeled as possible for as long as possible because as David Gardner has said on occasion, "The only game that counts when it comes to investing is the long game." That's the game you want to be playing. By the way, back in 1999 when I was home recovering from having my wisdom teeth removed, the trade group that was meeting in Washington, D.C., was the Association of American Publishers. The young CEO who was speaking was Jeff Bezos, and the company he had just taken public was Amazon.com. To borrow from the late great Hunter S. Thompson, I hate to advocate buying shares of a company while you're high on painkillers, but the one time I did it, it worked out for me. But seriously, though, recognize luck when you see it.
So that's a few thoughts on the last 24 years. Where to from here? We'll see. I want to wish an early Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there. Best financial lesson my father ever gave me, he taught me the concept of being cheap, not thrifty, although he did teach me about that. But I remember exactly where I was when my dad taught me what it meant to be cheap in the sense of being stingy, of being miserly. Being cheap in that sense is nothing to aspire to. It is something to avoid. Yes, save more than you spend, invest accordingly, but don't ever be cheap. Just as we invest for the long term, there is no long-term upside in being cheap ever. Anyway, to all the fathers, grandfathers, stepfathers, surrogate fathers, father figures, and more that are out there, have a great weekend. As always, people in the program may have interest in the stocks they talk about and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. That's going to do it for this edition of MarketFoolery. The show is mixed by Dan Boyd. I'm Chris Hill. Thanks for listening, see you on Monday.