Several years ago, I read a fascinating book, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, about the life of math genius Paul Erdos. Author Paul Hoffman chronicled Erdos' life, his contributions to mathematics, and his eccentricities.
Those eccentricities were legion. His entire life was devoted to math and the pursuit of ever-greater knowledge. He never married or even dated, never lived in a single place, and was always traveling from spot to spot with all his possessions in a single suitcase and a plastic bag. He was hooked on amphetamines and caffeine, and had his own unique language, referring to children as "epsilons" and God as the "SF" (Supreme Fascist).
Erdos was much more than the sum of his quirkiness, though. A unifying force in his life was the driving desire to work with other mathematicians, to learn from them, to teach them, and ultimately to help scoot mathematical discoveries and knowledge forward. Erdos was all about collaboration and learning. That's what stuck with me.
I'd always imagined math as a solitary pursuit, with professors huddled over poorly lit desks scratching away with pencil on lined paper in silence. Instead, I found that one of the 20th century's brightest minds believed that by working with others, everyone would benefit. By sharing information and thoughts, by helping other people be better thinkers, and by admitting that everyone has something to learn, knowledge could be advanced quicker.
Medicine and collaboration
Just recently, I read another equally fascinating book that highlighted this principle for me in a different field. Moving from math to medicine, Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande is compelling, fast-paced, and well written. Gawande speaks to all sorts of ethical and practical issues associated with medicine and surgery.
At one point, he details a Harvard Business School study on learning curves among surgical teams trying to grasp a new procedure. The researchers found that the fastest-adapting team was not one headed up by the most experienced surgeon in the study. Instead, the way the winning team worked together made all the difference.
Team members were supportive of one another and worked together as true equals and partners. They tracked their results diligently. They made time to discuss the new procedure before surgery, and afterwards. They were better because they relied on each other and helped one another, instead of simply contributing separate parts to the overall operation.
Collaboration taken further
Group learning works well in mathematics and medicine, and I can't help but see a parallel here with investing knowledge. By asking questions, reading differing opinions, and participating in discussions, all investors can shorten their own learning curves.
I'm lucky that my job affords me ample group opportunities to learn more about investing. Tom Jacobs and Jeff Fischer flank me on one side while Matt Richey and Bill Mann sit on the other. Rex Moore's a stone's throw away (and trust me, I do pitch stones at him all day long), as is Mathew Emmert. Personal finance gurus Dayana Yochim and Robert Brokamp also sit nearby.
Learning from these people is easy, since they never shut up. (Kidding, my fellow beloved writers!)
Seriously, though, it's a perfect environment for expanding knowledge. Need a question answered about stock option accounting issues? Want to know about this one particular biotech company? Curious about someone else's view of a company you really like? My co-workers will happily talk about these topics and more. And it helps us all become better thinkers and investors than we'd be if we were seeking out all this information on our own.
Don't work around Fools in person?
Our discussion boards provide this type of landscape in a cyber setting, if you're not otherwise surrounded by folks interested in investing. They are perhaps the purest example of how group learning, cooperation, and collaboration can facilitate some phenomenal discussions.
My favorite Fool discussion board is the Martian Chronicles board, which is heavily populated by brilliant minds. I'd name some names here, but I'd risk leaving someone out.
In the last month or so, they've had in-depth discussions about tax accounting issues that surface when analyzing a company's financials, Peter Bernstein vs. Peter Lynch, retailers lacking direct competition, and options valuation, to list just a smattering of topics. They make this stuff interesting, accessible, and sometimes (yes!) even fun. They debate, they question, they probe, but moreover, they learn from each other.
The Foolish Collective board is another that consistently provides encouragement and support for delving into investing and learning more about it. This board's whole mission is to help members learn about researching companies.
The Fool also features discussion boards for specific companies, as long as they're trading above a minimum market cap. The Berkshire Hathaway
If you own Yahoo!
Tom Gardner is also putting collaborative learning to work with his Hidden Gems newsletter. Subscribers have access to special discussion boards, where they can ask questions, learn more, and discuss current Hidden Gems recommendations with Tom and other Fool analysts, as well as their fellow subscribers.
There's also a board dedicated to coming up with new Hidden Gems. Here, subscribers propose new investment possibilities, with everyone working together to uncover the next great Gem. Hidden Gems subscribers have a good thing going, with a focused approach and open attitude to learning more from each other.
To capitalize on collaboration, you don't have to go all Erdos on us, selling your home and devoting your life to investment learning. You don't even have to become a team-leading surgeon to see the benefits of collaborative thinking and learning. To be a better investor and thinker, however, you should embrace the idea that collaboration and learning from others will move you ahead much quicker than solitary study. Now, go collaborate!
If I've piqued your curiosity and you'd like to give our discussion boards a look-see, you're in luck. You can sign up for a no-muss, no-fuss free 30-day trial anytime.
As mentioned above, LouAnn Lofton owns shares of Starbucks and Abercrombie & Fitch. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.