The Great Minds Of Investing – Interview with William Green

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Episode Summary

William Green is the author of The Great Minds of Investing, a book that features profiles of famous investors. William interviewed 22 investors for his book, including many billionaires, and breaks down what makes them truly unique and different people from the rest. There are so many great qualities you can take away from these brilliant investors who have made tremendous mistakes both throughout their lifetime and in their career.

The Great Minds Of Investing – Interview with William Green

Hi. Welcome to The Successful Pitch. Today’s guest is William Green. The author of The Great Minds of Investing. William has written for many publications both in the US and Europe including Time, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, The New Yorker, The London Spectator and The Economist. He edited the Asian edition of Time while living in Hong Kong, and then moved to London to edit the European, Middle Eastern and African editions of Time.

As an editor and co-author, he’s collaborated on books such as Guy Spier’s much-praised memoir, The Education of a Value Investor. I had Guy on recently and he’s fantastic. That’s how we actually were fortunate enough to connect. He’s also coming up with an autobiography of a legendary art collector. Born and raised in London and received a master’s degree in journalism in Columbia. He’s now in New York. Guy, I can’t thank you enough for introducing us. William, welcome to the show.

John, it’s such a pleasure to be here with you. Thank you.

I always like to ask my guests, how do they get started in the world of journalism, investing, and how did you become passionate about that. Can you take us back to your childhood if you don’t mind?

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The Great Minds of Investing

Sure. I grew up in London and I grew up in a very bookish family. My father was a very literary judge. My mother was a writer. Everything really was about words and language and the like. I went to Eton, which was this very posh English school, which was where people like Prince Harry and Prince William went. I was supposed to be this great English gentleman and I thought I’d be a man of letters.

I went off to Oxford and I studied English Literature. So far so good. I leave at 20, 21 thinking I’m going to become a famous novelist. To my surprise, I discovered the stock market. Basically, I had owned a small apartment with my brother at London and we sold it. I had a little bit of money. Not a great deal because in those days land and property wasn’t as valuable.

I needed to figure out what to do with the money. I started to study investing. What I found was really intriguing, was that there was this elite group of investors who were just incredibly smart, who had this record of beating the market over many years. They were these master game players. I think there was a part of me that had always been very lazy and never really wanted to get my hands dirty. I never would have summer jobs where I would do anything really serious and painful. I always had this fantasy that I would just make money by using my brain.

When I was about fifteen, I had become obsessed with horse racing. Again, because I thought, “Here’s a great way of making money without doing any real work.” I think what happened to me when I discovered investing was I thought, once again, “Okay, this is this really cool area where if you’re really smart, you can actually outwit the crowd.” Initially, what happened to me, my interest in business and investing really was born out of my total laziness, my just wanting to make money without having to do a lot of work.

Then as I became a journalist in my early 20s, I had this incredible opportunity to go interview some of these people. I would go off, say, to the Bahamas, to interview Sir John Templeton, who is this guy who had averaged 15% a year returns for 38 years and ends up making $400 million selling his company. I would actually get to see these extraordinary people up close.

What started in a way, is this naughty, somewhat lazy, indolent boy wanting not have to do very much work actually became this intellectual passion. Because I looked at these guys like Templeton or Peter Lynch who I interviewed, or Michael Price who is on the cover of Fortune as the biggest SOB on Wall Street.

I would look at these guys and think, “What do they have that other people don’t have? Why, when most people are going with the flow, doing okay and sometimes doing well, then failing and then being fearful and not really fulfilling their potential? Why is there this group of people who perform extraordinarily well, that they win over the long term?”

What I found that’s been an enduring fascinations to me really over the last 25 years, has been this idea that if you want to be more successful, both as an investor and also in life, in business, in your family life, you should really study people who are extraordinarily successful and then reverse engineer them and figure out why they win.

I’d say my interest in these people became a little bit more profound as I got older and ceased to be just about how do you make money and became more about how do you become successful in business, how do you become successful in life? What matters in life, what disappointed them, what fulfilled them?

In a sense, what I’ve been trying to do for the last 20 odd years is to figure out what can I learn from these people that will help me in life. I think, probably, that’s the overarching theme of a lot of my writing and also the speaking that I do. That’s really the question, is how do you actually reverse engineer these people so you can become more successful yourself and hopefully happier yourself?

One of the blogs that you wrote on your LinkedIn profile about Warren Buffett is so fascinating and just full of great quotes. Is there something from there? The one that resonates with me is about taking action. “Predicting rain doesn’t count, building arks does.” Is there one theme that you’ve noticed not only in Warren Buffett but other people you’ve interviewed that are successful entrepreneurs that you can expand on that quote with?

I think one of the things that’s really fascinating about Buffett, one of the reasons why he resonates with people so deeply is because he has extraordinarily values. Here’s a guy who’s unbelievably smart. He clearly has an IQ that’s off the charts. I think the reason when you read something like that piece on LinkedIn that he resonates with you is that he’s actually talking about some fairly deep values.

If I remember rightly, the first quote from him was something where he said, “When I look back at my life and figure out what the reason was why I’ve been so successful,” he said really, the key was the unconditional love that he received from his father.

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Great Minds of Investing: Warren Buffett said the key was the unconditional love that he received from his father.

Here’s someone who we think is just going to tell us how to get rich. Actually, he’s talking about unconditional love. I’m looking at these quotes from him like that and I’m thinking, “How do I become a better father?” Because I have a fourteen year old daughter and a seventeen year old son. I’m thinking, “Wow, that’s really interesting.”

Buffett is actually saying that that the reason why he’s become this guy who has $70 billion and has beaten the market over 50 odd years is actually because of the love of his father. I think what’s really interesting with someone like Buffett is that it’s not just about how do you beat the market, how do you make money. It’s about these broader values, these broader ideas of what works in life.

When you look at the way that Buffett runs his business, he has a tremendous emphasis on integrity, decency. There’s a wonderful line from Buffett at one point where he says, “You can’t do a good deal with a bad person.” I actually think what’s really striking about Buffett on many levels is his profundity as a thinker about life, not just about business.

Part of what fascinated me with Buffett is that I figure there were all these people like Robert Hagstrom, these great writers about why Buffett’s such an incredible investor. My fascination increasingly over the last couple of years has been, what can we learn from Buffett about having a more successful life? I think that idea of integrity and honesty that he represents and these values, like trustfulness and authenticity, these are incredibly powerful ideas.

One of the reasons why he’s been so successful is that he has a reputational advantage. You know that if he’s going to take over your company, he’s going to leave you in place as the CEO, he thinks you’re doing a great job. He’s going to treat you decently, he’s going to let you have some autonomy. I think for a lot of us, we look at the business world and we think if you want to be really successful, you’d have to be at snake. I think what’s fascinating about Buffett is that you realize that’s not actually entirely true.

There’s this other more enlightened way to be a capitalist were actually being decent becomes very powerful. There was a fascinating speech that Buffett gave many years ago where he was talking about his partner, Charlie Munger.

If I remember rightly, he said something like, “When I look back over the last 41 years, or something like that, that I’ve been in business with Charlie, I’ve never seen him take advantage of a single person.” That’s an incredible reputational advantage. I think this is something that applies to all of us. You have to figure out, do you want to get ahead by whacking everyone in the face with your elbows on your way up or do you want to try to do it this other way?

That’s a great quote that you have in your blog from Warren Buffett, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

Exactly. These two friends of mine, Guy Spier and Mohnish Pabrai, had a charity lunch with Warren I think it was in 2009 where they paid $650,000 to have that. They won this charity auction to have lunch with him. One of the most memorable things, particularly for Guy, that Buffett talked about was this whole concept of the inner scorecard.

The way Buffett presented it, he said, “You have to ask yourself, would you rather be the worst lover in the world but known publicly as the best, or be the best lover in the world but known publicly as the worst?” His point was, you have to have this internal barometer of how you behave. He said his father was the greatest sort of inner scorecard guide.

His father was a congressman. At one point, I think there was some change in the salary scale of a congressman. They told his father, “Okay, you’re going to get an extra couple of thousand bucks.” His father said, “No, I was elected a salary of $12.5 thousand and so that’s how much I’ll take,” and he returned the money to the treasury. I think this had a huge impact on Buffett, this idea that you should act in a way where you look yourself in the mirror every morning and you just think, “Yeah, I’m okay with who I am.”

We shouldn’t lionize Buffett or any of these other guys. They’re all flawed just as we are. Buffett had problems with his relationships, with his marriage. He clearly had an extraordinary wife who divorced him and who he continued to adore and remain close to. It’s not like you can look at these people and say, “This is a saint and everything is perfect.”

That’s not to be disparaging about Buffett, who I really do revere. I think it’s just a reminder, we’re all deeply flawed. When you look at people like Buffett, it gives you something to aspire to because you start to think, “There’s a different way to do business that might almost seem naive but actually there’s a tremendous advantage to behaving in an ethical decent fair way.”

What you said about living your life by your own inner scorecard, for me really is just a great reminder that you can’t live your life worried about what other people think about you.

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Great Minds of Investing: Templeton had this extraordinary ability to go his own way and to think for himself.

I think that’s really key. This actually, this was one of the very profound lessons I had very early in my career as a writer. When I went to Bahamas to see Templeton, before I had my interview with him, I sneaked behind a tree and was watching him exercising. He would go into the ocean every day and would pump his arms and legs under the water for 45 minutes using the resistance of the water to exercise. I’m looking at this old guy, at the time I think he was 86. His face is slathered with this horrible white goop to protect him from the sun.

Sunscreen.

Exactly, but super thick. He’s got this ridiculous hat on with floppy ears, with ear flaps. As I was looking at him, I was just thinking, “Here’s a guy who just absolutely does not care what anybody thinks about how he looks, how he exercises, how he thinks.” It struck me, it became a metaphor in my own mind, that he had this extraordinary ability to go his own way and to think for himself.

Someone had a lovely phrase to describe it when I was interviewing people about Templeton, where he said, “It was the willingness to be lonely.” I remember asking Templeton, where did this come from? Actually, it was funny because I said to him, “Who were the biggest influence on you?” He said, “Really, nobody. Nobody influenced me.”

I thought this was this incredibly arrogant thing at that time. Then he started talking about his parents. He said that they would go in these road trips when he was a boy. They would put him in charge from a very early age, seven, eight, or nine, of navigation.

They basically left him totally in charge of this. He said there was one occasion, where, finally, after a couple of hours, he realizes that he’s taken them 200 miles in the wrong direction. They haven’t told him. They really were just saying, “You’re free to make your own mistakes.” This, for him, became this enormously powerful thing. He was able to go his own direction.

One of the reasons why he became one of the greatest investors of the last century was that he had this philosophy that you would buy at what he called the Point of Maximum Pessimism. For example, during World War II, he made this extraordinary investment when the world seemed to be ending. He bought something like a 104 stocks for under a dollar each. I think it’s something like 36 of them were in bankruptcy at the time. He told me that basically, over the next five years, he quintupled his money. Because the world righted itself and he had the strength of mind to go his own way to think to himself.

I think whether you’re a great contrarian value investor like him or you’re a great entrepreneur, you have to have this tremendous ability to think for yourself, the emotional strength to go against the crowd and the confidence to go against the crowd. It’s not something that many people have I think, to have that degree of independence of mind. I think when you see people like that, it makes you realize, “This is what I have to aspire to, I need to have a little more courage.”

One of the things also that Buffett said to Mohnish and Guy at their lunch is, “If you want to get better at something, hang out with people who are better than you. You can’t help but get better.” Buffett’s partner, Charlie Munger, says, “That includes hanging out with the eminent dead.” You should be reading books about Ben Franklin and whoever, anybody you admire. You’re reading books about them and you’re figuring out, what can I take from Steve Jobs or from whoever it might be that I can use in my life?

I think it’s fascinating that these people like Buffett and Munger who we regard as these titans at the moment, actually, have done exactly the same thing where they’ve been studying people who were better than them and figuring out, what do I learn from them?

Two things you said that I just really like a lot, which is one, not only do we not have to let go of what other people think about us, and you’ve painted great picture of him in the ocean with all that sunscreen and the hat, but we don’t have to wait to be in our 80s before we can let go of worrying about what other people think. Most people think, “When you get to a certain age like that, then you’ll let go of what other people think.”

You’re really inviting us, at any age, to stop worrying about what other people think. That story about how his parents let him get lost and make his own mistakes, to me the thing that really stands out is not only did they let him make his own mistakes, but then they didn’t beat him up and make him feel bad about making it.

That’s an important point. I hadn’t really thought about that. He said this really had a lifelong influence on him, the fact that they allowed him to make those mistakes. I think with all of these people, the ability to make mistakes and then not be crushed by them is absolutely key. It’s very easy when you look at the life of an extraordinarily successful entrepreneur, or tycoon or investor. I’ve interviewed so many billionaires over the years. These are remarkably successful people.

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Great Minds of Investing: The ability to make mistakes and then not be crushed by them is absolutely key

You look back at their life with the sense of it was almost inevitable. Actually, when you’re living the life in the present tense rather than looking back at it, there was nothing inevitable about it. There were moments where these people were totally crushed. There was a time early in his career when Charlie Munger lost his son who died. He lost all his money trying to basically pay the medical bills. His marriage ended. Munger is the one guy who most investors regard as even smarter than Buffett.

When you look at him now, he’s 91, 92 years old and he makes these incredible statements, where he just, he speaks like God. Just with tremendous intelligence. It’s as if he always knew the truth. Actually, when you look at his life, these were very, very hard earned lessons. He invested on margin at one point, I think in the 70s, and almost went under.

When he’s talking about how to avoid stupidity, how to get ahead by actually avoiding folly and stupidity. He’s not talking as someone who’s just looking at everyone else and saying, “You guys are idiots.” He’s saying, “I screwed up. I almost destroyed myself through stupidity and here’s what I’ve learned about how not to be foolish again.”

I think that ability not just to learn from your own mistakes but, as Buffett said, “It’s great to learn from your own mistakes, but it’s much better to learn from other people’s mistakes.” To read about someone like Munger getting almost undone by investing on margin and then the world going haywire and him being exposed, those are very powerful things.

I think these are habits that all of us should develop. This ability to look at extraordinarily successful people and say, “What did they do wrong? Also, what did they do right?” Not to lionize them. To say you know, “Why was their emotional life a wreck? Why did their marriage go wrong?” It’s like with your parents, I tell my kids, “You should learn from the stuff that I do right, but also learn from my idiocy. Don’t repeat the stupid things that I do.”

When we show people our flaws, I think that vulnerability is what makes people be able to relate to us.

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David Hawkins talks a great deal about authenticity, about being totally truthful and just not lying.

I think that’s very powerful. One of the people in this book, The Great Minds of Investing, that I wrote, one of the people I connected to most was this guy Mohnish Pabrai, who’s very close friend of Guy Spier’s as well. Mohnish is fascinating because when he stumbles upon a very important idea, he totally internalizes it and makes it 100% what he does. One of the massive ideas that he encountered in life was from this book Power Vs. Force by this guy David Hawkins. Hawkins talks a great deal about authenticity, about being totally truthful and just not lying.

You can see when you spend time with someone like Mohnish that he just … I went to India with him for about five days a few weeks ago. Whatever question you ask him, he’s going to tell you the truth. I think when you spend time with people who are less honest, you start to sense it. Mohnish’s view is that whether it’s intuitive or explicit, you actually sense when somebody’s lying to you or holding something back.

I think one of the things that strikes me as a powerful lesson from these guys like Buffett, Munger, Mohnish Pabrai, Guy Spier, is this idea of becoming more and more authentic to who you are, more and more truthful. One of the things that Mohnish discovered, which I thought was fascinating, was during the financial crisis, he had a terrible time and his fund was down 60 or 70% from peak-to-trough.

He said, he went to his shareholders and he just said, “Yeah, the market suck. It’s been a tough time,” but he said, “That’s not really the reason why our losses were so bad.” He said, “The reason that our losses were so bad was that I made this mistake, this mistake, and this mistake.” He said the amazing thing was that almost nobody bailed out of the fund, because he said really, what people want is for you to tell them the truth.

I love that. We just have to really play that up so much William, because it’s something that needs to be underlined and bolded, especially for the listeners when they’re thinking of pitching an investor, they must be 100% truthful. They can’t hide anything, because it will come out in due diligence and then the deal will go sour, or they get an investor and things aren’t going well, they need to be able to tell the truth to the investor and own up to the responsibility of what they did wrong and what they’ve learned from it and not do it in order for the investor not to suddenly micromanage them.

I think you’re absolutely right. This really applies to everything. It applies to when you’re running a business, it applies to when you’re talking to your kids, it applies to everything. If you’re going to pitch your company to a venture capitalist, they might not know specifically what you’re lying about, but I think they sense when you’re holding something back. I think there’s something tremendously liberating when you just decide, “You know what? I’m going to tell the truth and we’ll see where the chips fall.”

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Great Minds of Investing: When you peer under the hood and you want to see the dirt in there, it’s actually tremendously liberating.

I had this myself because there was a period when my career hit a rocky stage and I got laid off during the financial crisis. For a while, you feel ashamed and you’re like, “Okay, maybe I should hide this and I should pretend that everything’s great.” Then after a while you start to think, “To hell with it, I’m just going to be honest about what’s going on in my life. I’m not going to hide the fact that I’ve gone through tough times. I’m not going to hide the fact that I’ve written stories that got killed by major magazines or whatever.”

Once you start to do that and you start to say, you want to peer under the hood and you want to see the dirt in there, it’s actually tremendously liberating because you don’t have to remember what you’re lying about. I think the extraordinary thing is that people start to look at the truth tellers. This is not to say we’re all super truthful. There are degrees of honesty and dishonesty.

I think people look at investors, CEOs, writers, whatever it is, who are trying to tell the truth, who are pushing towards this level of integrity and honesty about themselves and what they’re doing. I think they sense it. I think of one of the things that’s really interesting that I’ve found in life, people always say, opposites attract. I don’t think that’s true at all, I think like attracts like.

As you start to behave somewhat better in your own life and to be more truthful and more open about your flaws and your failings and the like, I actually think you draw into your life a better quality of person. You might find that if you lie or prevaricate or you conceal a little bit about the problems with your company or your career or your background, that you do still manage to sell, you do still manage to get founders and the like, but they’re probably not going to be the people you actually want to have in your life.

You’re drawing less high quality people into your life. What I found really fascinating is when I’ve seen people like Mohnish Pabrai or Guy Spier who behave in this way where they’re trying to be more decent or more open and more honest about their flaws and their failings, their mistakes. They draw an incredible group of people around them. I think it’s a superpower in life, once you understand this. Exposing your vulnerability and your mistakes, because people sense whether they can trust you or not.

When you take down your mask, which is another way of saying that, and show your flaws a little bit to people and don’t pretend that everything’s always perfect, not only you’re going to attract the right investors, but as a startup you’re going to attract the right quality of people to join your team. Because they won’t feel like they have to be perfect to join your team.

They’re like, “If you, as the founder, are willing to share your flaws and not be hypercritical about them, then maybe that will be a place where I could make a mistake and not feel like I’m going to be fired tomorrow.” That’s what’s going to attract really great people on your team. As we all know, having a great team is one of the keys to being successful.

I think it’s hugely important as a manager. When I look back on my own career, when I look at the best bosses I had. When I worked for people who were bullies and who were not that talented. I couldn’t wait to get out. When I worked for people who were really decent and kind and supportive, I would do anything for them.

You don’t want to sound naive about these things. There are incredibly smart people who get by being sons of bitches. I think there’s this other way where you see people who behave very decently and they attract great people in their lives.

I was trying to think about it, who was it, there was someone I interviewed recently. He was a multi-billionaire who is running one of these big funds. He had a partner and he just said to me, “We haven’t argued in 30 years. We’ve never had a difference about anything in 30 years.” That’s an incredible thing to say, where you treat someone, you treat your partner that decently. Actually, I remember it was Mason Hawkins, who’s a close friend of Buffett’s. He runs a firm called Southeast Asset Management. He said to me, “My partner is just the most decent human being you’ve ever met.” What a wonderful thing to be able to say about the person you work with every day?

I can probably bet a lot of money that that’s the kind of person they’re looking to invest in too. They want to only be around people that match their values and their sense of integrity.

Exactly. One of the things Hawkins said to me that was really fascinating was that, he was talking about the type of people who he hired and he had about six characteristics he looked for. Actually, he said that the single most important thing he looked for employees he hired was generosity. He said he look for people who … He knew they were going to have excess income, he knew that we’re going to become rich if they were good in what he did.

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Great Minds of Investing: People who shared their wealth had much more longevity in the investment world.

He wanted to know that they were going to be prepared to share some of that wealth. He said the extraordinary thing was that you actually, you discover that the people who were prepared to share their wealth and be very philanthropic had much more longevity in the investment world.

If you were just working for yourself, if it was just about how do I buy a faster car, or a red Ferrari, or a bigger house, or whatever, then that drive at a certain point wanes a little bit. What he was saying is that he felt that when there was a slightly broader cause than just your own ego and getting the best Volvos and toys and the like, you actually did a better job.

I think again, there’s nothing wrong with buying a beautiful car if you’re very successful or buying a beautiful house. These things are all fine. I think one of the things that strikes me with these guys who have been very successful is some of them are really pretty evolved and thoughtful about what the money does and doesn’t buy them.

The ones who strike me as most impressive in terms of models to how you want to live your life are the ones who haven’t lost sight of things like generosity, philanthropy, having a good work environment and the like. The ones who are really just out to dominate the world and prove to their father that they think they were better than he thought, those guys can be incredibly successful but they tend to create a lot of chaos, both to the people around them and also in their own lives.

I think again, when you’re trying to study people that have been very successful, you want to figure out what are their relationships like, both inside their company, with their wives, and the like, with their kids, how messed up are their kids. Look at them be like, “What do I want to be like?”

I had this fascinating exchange with a guy called Irving Kahn, who died at the age of 109 last year and was one of the famous value investors. He was too sick to talk to me in person when he was 108, so I gave him various questions that his grandson, who is in his 30s, went over with him for several days. His grandson came back to me with the answers that he’d written up.

One of the things I said to Irving Kahn is, “When you look back on the last 108 years, what’s the secret not just of a very profitable life or a very long life, but a successful life?” He said, “It’s all family, it’s all relationships.” He said he’s really proud of the fact that he built a company, Kahn Brothers, that has three generations of his family working for it and is really successful and does the right thing by its clients.

It’s that combination of having built something worthwhile, that force for good in the world, his company, and the fact that he has healthy kids, healthy family, and good relationships. I think that’s really striking when you see someone with that 109 year perspective saying, “It’s not that I’m dying with the most money, or the most toys.”

It’s great. It’s full circle to the beginning of the episode where you talked about Warren Buffett’s whole focus on unconditional love from his father being one of the keys to his success. What a great insight you’ve given everybody to think about themselves, how to approach investors with authenticity so that you attract the right investors, and just how to be a happier person through this whole mindset.

That’s why your book has got a great title, The Great Minds of Investing. Everyone’s going to assume, “It’s all about the mindset of how to make money,” but it’s that and so much more. I highly recommend everybody getting that. We’re also going to put the book you mentioned, I believe you said Power vs. Force in the show notes.

Yeah, I think it’s an important book. It is an important book.

William, how can people follow you on social media? What’s your Twitter and all that good stuff?

They’re welcome to visit my website, which is WilliamGreenWrites.com. They’re welcome to find me on LinkedIn and become friends with me there. I don’t tweet as much as I should and so I’m struggling even to remember what my Twitter handle is. Sorry about that.

No worries. We can certainly follow you on LinkedIn and visit you on your website as well. Thank you so much for being on the show today. It’s been an honor.

Thank you so much. A real pleasure of me, John.

Links Mentioned

J Robinett Enterprises
John Livesay Funding Strategist
William Green Website
The Great Minds of Investing by William Green
I’ve Followed Warren Buffett For Decades – LinkedIn Post by William Green
William on LinkedIn
Power vs. Force by David R. Hawkins

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