10 Really Simple Financial Lessons to Live By


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.

We’ve selected 10 of those quotes that struck us 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 recognising that you still might not be smart enough to control the evil your creations threaten to unleash.”

2. To bankrupt a fool, give him information.

We haven’t seen the study, but we’re willing to bet there’s a perfect inverse relationship between investing results and time spent watching Sky Business News or 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 earning $40,000 per annum have ample savings. Plenty of those making $1 million a year live paycheque-to-paycheque 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. Buying ABC Learning, Centro Properties (ASX: CNP) or Allco Finance because they looked cheap or had a high dividend yield, taught investors and expensive yet valuable lesson. Never again will they buy shares in a complex, debt-ridden company.

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 share 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.”

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 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 in the US betting against the housing market 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.

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