Review – Essentialism

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (buy from Amazon.com)

by Greg McKeown, published 2014

This past year I’ve been exploring topics related to the concept of mastery. It is so tempting for me to try to be interested in everything I come across and consequently it’s a real challenge to be selective and commit to being a master of only a few things. Essentialism was recommended to me by a friend and it’s a great concept inside of an okay book.

The key to essentialism, which is a combination of the ideas of prioritization and mastery, is to be conscious of tradeoffs. One has to develop a habit of asking, “What will I NOT do in order to get this done?” Progress in one aspect of life can only be made at the expense of denying progress in all the others.

The author teaches at Stanford and implements the empathy-based design thinking approach in his essentialism advice. In this case, he offers several techniques for building empathy with yourself– to gain clarity about your purpose, to acknowledge physical limitations (primarily sleep) necessary to making sustained progress and to engage in free-spirited play to unlock creative thinking and avoid self-reproach. And like a design thinker, he advocates a kind of Minimum Viable Product approach to making progress on your priorities. Don’t set your sights on one big effort, or assume that you can define the endpoint of your efforts before you get there; start with a rough idea of where you think you want to go and think of the next tangible iterative step you could make to progress. In so doing you’ll develop confidence and motivation to keep moving forward.

One thing I enjoyed most about the book were the numerous pithy quotes at the masthead of each chapter and sprinkled throughout the text. I might copy a few of them into the blog after I finish writing this. On the other hand, the book is also another disappointing amalgamation of pop business and productivity stories, name-dropping and “stuff my friends did that I thought was worth including in my book” that deny this book a chance to enter the pantheon of classics, aside from the fact that it really offers nothing new on this subject other than the marketing of the idea.

The four-part structure of the book, Essence, Explore, Eliminate, Execute, has the clear “focus-flare” cadence of the Design Thinking toolbox’s Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. Essence sounds like Empathize, Explore sounds like Define, Ideate sounds like Eliminate and Prototype/Test sound like Execute to me.

In thinking about the message of focusing on what’s really important, I made a note in the margin on one page which said, “if it feels like I can do anything I want with my life, it’s ironic because I will in fact only do one of those things.” If that’s true, and I think it is, it would be better to figure out what that one thing is sooner rather than later lest I risk wasting a lot of my time on what turns out to be non-essential.

3/5

An Investment Confessional

Since the market low in March of 2009, I have not managed to keep pace with the passive return of the S&P 500 index. In no year in the last 8 have I met or exceeded the return of the index on a portfolio-wide basis. I would’ve been much richer by now if I had just turned my capital over to Mr. Market almost a decade ago and spent my time and energy worrying about anything but investing.

And I managed to do this primarily by being uninvested throughout this time period. I have not gone back and done a trade-by-trade and year-by-year study of my portfolio returns over this time period (I am including here my personal accounts as well as other accounts I manage) but just eye-balling it I think it’s safe to say the most exposure I’ve ever had to equities over this time period was no more than 25% of any of the portfolios and probably a lot closer to 20% on a gross capital basis. In essence, I sat out one of the biggest bull markets in history and missed an opportunity to capture a 271% total return through passive management. That’s something like 18% a year, an impressive long-term rate of return by most standards.

How did I manage to let this happen? And what have I learned from this experience? More importantly, what do I plan to do differently going forward?

The story of this mishap is complicated in my mind and is over ten years in the making. I was aware of the stock market as a concept since my early teenage years. On Friday nights after dinner my family would watch a battery of shows on PBS including “Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser.” I learned nothing about investing from watching this show other than there was this place called a stock market and people had a lot of opinions about what was happening there. My father was no investment guru and my clearest memory of him with regards to the stock market (aside from watching this show beside him) was him coming home during the Tech Bubble — which I did not know it as such at the time, nor did he — and saying things like, “Wow, I can’t believe it, my AOL stock doubled again today” as he set his briefcase down and went to change for dinner. He did not work to understand what was going on with the companies he owned and he did not encourage me to be curious about it.

In high school I never took one of those “business” classes where everyone plays the “stock market game” and creates a fantasy portfolio. In retrospect, this is a terrible way to introduce young people to the idea of common stock investing as most learn from it what I learned– it’s “fun”, it’s “random” (the winner was inevitably some kid who got lucky betting on things that happened to go up during the course of the game) and there are no costs if you’re wrong because everyone was playing with funny money. But I remember being disappointed I didn’t get to play, and excited when I realized I could find the website on my own and play on my own time, although I quickly gave up when I realized I had no idea how to pick a stock and was basically just rolling dice.

When I began working over the summers in between school years and accumulating some savings I began looking for yield beyond my bank account. This was during a time where a “safe” money market fund was yielding just over 5% a year. I put my savings with Vanguard’s MMF and felt quite wealthy watching it grow at 5%, not knowing what a money market fund was or why it offered more than a bank account and not knowing that with a little elbow grease I could earn much more than that as a proper stock investor.

Fast forward to sometime in college and I was much more interested in this idea of investing as a discipline. I was becoming aware of the world of finance, likely in part due to my proximity to the global center of it (“Wall Street”), in part because many classmates and friends were talking about it as a career opportunity and in part because my readings and interests and slowly taken me there. I became aware of the hedge fund industry and the idea that people made their living making investments all day long. I decided that sounded pretty interesting to me (much more on this topic in a future post I plan to write) and might be something I’d like to pursue as well.

And somewhere in there I came across a recommendation to read The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham. Which I proceeded to do, but, despite reading the book from cover-to-cover, including the end chapter commentary by Jason Zweig that many people detest but which I think actually adds some value and can even be enjoyed as a standalone reading, I really did not understand much of what I read. And the even greater sin was that I failed to apply what little I understood.

I did not begin searching for Ben Graham stocks. I did not use his principles of risk management in constructing my own portfolio. I did not look for opportunities to spite Mr. Market and buy stocks when he was panicking and sell them when he was giddy. I did not begin looking at stocks as ownership certificates in real businesses. I did not even do any investing beyond my Vanguard MMF! For whatever reason at this stage in my life investing was a purely academic interest.

This began to change as I neared the end of college and was seriously considering a career in finance. Around this same time, I had been reading deeply of Austrian economics and had become convinced, like many who had, that we were on the precipice of a global economic calamity that would start with the housing sector and quickly come to overwhelm the banking sector. I was obsessed with this End Times prognostication and spent most of my time working to understand what was coming and thinking about an investment strategy that would stand to benefit from macro disruption. I was finally ready to take some action and I ended up doing two things.

The first thing I did was to sow doubt about my parents’ equity holdings in their mind, particularly their heavy concentration in the financial sector (prime offender: Citibank), which their broker was convinced was one of the cheapest parts of the market and thus he had increased the total exposure in their blue chip portfolio. I told them the end was coming and they should liquidate everything and go to cash. I was initially unsuccessful, but when the first hiccup in the markets occurred, my dad got worried and decided to at least follow my advice to sell all his financial stocks, including Citibank, his largest position, which the broker bleated about painfully for weeks afterward.

The second thing I did was to follow Peter Schiff’s strategy regarding the Great Decoupling of the United States from the rest of the world, and what better way than to open an account with Schiff’s firm, Europacific Capital, to buy all these great foreign stocks (especially commodity companies and infrastructure businesses) at rich commissions? I put essentially my life savings to date into this account, naively trusted my broker when he told me he’d help keep an eye on the portfolio and recommend trades to me at appropriate times, and chose five companies (“that should be plenty of diversification!”) from a list of about 15 or 20 he pulled for me on a basis that was then entirely arbitrary and is now completely unmemorable for me. All I know is I did not use any of Ben Graham’s principles or ideas and I think I feigned a knowing approach by saying the P/E ratios of the companies I was about to buy out loud, almost like an invocation, but beyond that I had little idea what these companies did, what valuation I was buying them at and how big my Margin of Safety was.

The way the story turned out is my parents were grateful and I was obliterated. I saved my parents a lot of money with the move to liquidate the financial stocks as that blunted most of the pain that was to come. After the markets had tumbled some 20-25% (and maybe about 30-40% of the total move down) they ended up liquidating the rest of the stock portfolio and held on to their high quality bonds, something that I had no opinion on despite reading Ben Graham and being pretty opinionated about most other credits in the market (I could talk your head off about CDOs and what a danger they were long before Michael Lewis wrote any books on the subject) which was a good move as interest rates went ZIRP. They really thought I was a genius and neither of us knew I just happened to be lucky. I should’ve been more clued in by what happened in my own portfolio.

My own portfolio lost a lot. At one point I was down about 70%. America did not decouple from the world and the world did not decouple from America. Everybody rode the coaster down together and because I picked economically sensitive businesses at near peak valuations it was indeed a painful ride. I had no idea what to do other than to just hold on (actually, not a bad response and much better than the typical mistake of panicking and selling to Mr. Market at the worst time). But after about two or three years of waiting after the crisis, my portfolio was still down about 50% and I decided it was time to admit I had screwed up and realize my losses. If I had just been more patient, I might have been down at most 20-25%– a bad drawdown, for sure, but much different in terms of wounded pride and sucked out capital than a 50% permanent impairment; even my crappy picks which had amounted to little more than throwing darts at a stock table would’ve caught a bid like everything else during the Great Global Reflation.

Being massively right in my parents’ case and massively wrong in my own should’ve been a good indication I didn’t know what I was doing. Instead, I took away the lesson that macro investing worked and I might actually be good at it if I could learn how to do it consistently well, and stock picking on the other hand didn’t seem to work because I had picked stocks and that went poorly for me. It was embarrassing, particularly because I had told a lot of people ahead of time what I was doing and why, but I found myself still interested in the subject and wanting to explore it more.

That was hard to do as a career because the aftermath of the global financial crisis made getting a job in the industry almost impossible. I went to work for another large company and made more idiotic macro bets while I bided my time. Somehow I was able to stifle the cognitive dissonance of reading Security Analysis at my desk at work (covered wrapped in a brown paper grocery bag, and only when I had gotten my paid work finished for the day) while buying things like the 3X leveraged short financial ETF in what was left of one of my personal accounts. I have no idea why I was reading Ben Graham’s magnum opus analyst handbook at this time or how I had even heard of it and once again I understood little of what I read despite going cover-to-cover, and applied none of it. I scraped some short-term capital gains on these stupid trades and then gave it all back and then some when my luck ran out. I finally threw in the towel and swore off “investing” for awhile as a personal practice while I continued to be interested in getting into it as a career.

After months of pestering a small global macro fund I had heard about in Texas about an analyst position, they agreed to hire me and suddenly it seemed my dreams were coming true. I was convinced this was just the beginning of a long and successful career as a professional investor and despite my initial failures at investing I was excited to come on board and learn what it was really all about.

It turned out not to be so. I learned little about financial analysis or portfolio management in a positive sense although my time spent with this firm armed me with an abundance of lessons in what not to do. The gentlemen I worked for were extremely intelligent, talented and honest and had made out like bandits during the crisis with their own successful predictions and even more successful operations, but like me they had been fooled by luck and had failed to appreciate that successful investing is a practical exercise, not a moral one. They could not let go of their critical view of economic events and the connection they had to the market and they became as embittered as they were emboldened to soldier on against the forces that be in hopes of teaching the world a lesson in folly.

That they did, but the folly was their own. Sadly, it was my folly, too, because despite seeing that it wasn’t working, I was also rather gung ho about it. I couldn’t figure out HOW to invest like that in my own portfolio, so I was mostly inactive as an investor. I also began work on another project in cognitive dissonance. This time, I had managed to figure out that Ben Graham had a student, Warren Buffett, and that there was all kinds of information out there about Buffett, his life, his investment record and his method for investing and risk management. I began drinking heavily at this fountain while taking another turn at the writings of Ben Graham. I was beginning to wonder if maybe the macro stuff was a dead end and there wasn’t something to this value investing concept. I was thinking about doing it in my own account. My timing was again almost impeccable, but I did not know it!

First though, I decided to pitch my bosses on value investing. Maybe we could balance out some of the short exposure in the portfolio with some of this Ben Graham stuff? There seemed to be a lot of opportunities out there based on some quick screens I ran. That’s when I got the dumpster diving speech.

Value investing is a lot like dumpster diving– every once in awhile you come up with a Picasso, but most of the time you come up smelling like garbage!

And besides, everyone knows Warren Buffett is an asshole and just lucky, he’s been on the side of the establishment which has put the wind in his sails, he got a bailout when his house of cards almost came tumbling down in the crisis and no one has been able to replicate his success, likely because he is working some kind of fraud. You don’t want to go there, kid, and neither will we!

My confidence was completely shot! This turned out to be the second best time to get into value investing besides the March 2009 low itself, but I had just been told this was basically the stupidest idea a person could come up with– and since I hadn’t managed to learn much from them, this was about the only idea I had. I was burned out on them, burned out on my broken dream and burned out on how bad I seemed to be at investing in general. So I called it quits.

I ended up joining the family business while I licked my wounds, egotistical and otherwise. The idea was to have a hideout while I figured out where my next heist would be. I was trying to figure out how to go be an analyst somewhere else but I didn’t know where. It seemed like I needed an education, so I began what I came to call my “Personal MBA” program, an intense, year-long effort of reading everything I could get my hands on about business, finance and investing. I’ve written about that earlier on this blog.

Buffett talks about value investing as something that a person either takes to immediately or rejects outright. While I hadn’t yet successfully employed the concepts in my investment practice, it had clearly infected my mind. The macro thing did not make sense to me at a conceptual level but the idea of studying stocks as businesses and looking for indications of cheapness that lent a margin of safety did. I think this is why I kept pushing on and went through my Personal MBA despite having no track record otherwise.

A few interesting things happened during this time period and shortly thereafter. First, I began doing real research and analysis on individual companies– I built spreadsheets and collected operating data, I read SEC filings and books about industry and company history and began to appreciate what it meant to approach the process of investing like a businessman. Second, I actually made some investments– some net-nets in the US (what remained at this stage in the game), some good companies at great prices and even a wonderful company at an un-fair price and later, a basket of foreign net-nets (my JNet strategy), along with a few special situations and some capital structure arbitrages I was coattailing on with another investor friend. While there were a few flops that either went nowhere or I lost a little on, for the most part my results on an individual investment basis were good to great and a few were even outstanding. Third, I continued believing I had some kind of crystal ball as far as market timing was concerned and I let that dominate my overall investment program– as described at the beginning of this essay, I took small, almost meaningless positions in most of the companies I invested in (aside from the JNet basket) such that when they worked, they didn’t have much of an impact on my portfolio overall and when they failed, they also didn’t have much of an impact. It was an excellent way to have nothing to show for the effort I put into it!

While this exercise helped me to build intellectual confidence, I was still not matching it with practical confidence and I doubted myself a lot along the way. What’s worse, my obligations in the family business continued to compete with my interest and efforts in investment management such that they were not only a serious distraction at times from a more meaningful and concentrated effort in this space but they were also a suitable rationalization for why I couldn’t just go all-in and really commit to my investment activity.

At one point I changed operational roles within our business and finally had no bandwidth to spare for investing. I went functionally inactive on investing for almost two years and decided ahead of time that it would be irresponsible to have the portfolios exposed even the minor amount they were at that point in time (especially because I kept not liking what I was seeing as I gazed into my crystal ball!) while I wasn’t paying any attention to them so I liquidated to concentrate on operational issues full time. Incredible, given that sitting on one’s hands is said to be the hardest part of managing a well-constructed portfolio and I missed out on even more returns, meager as they were, with this decision.

Recently I have returned to a more strategic role in the family business and it is more clear now than ever that we need someone to be working on sound capital allocation for us. The most logical person to do this is me, in part because I was the person to point out the need and in part because I’m the only person with that kind of knowledge base. But do I have the experience?

This is where we come to some of the learnings I have taken away from my journey to date. As I mentioned before, I made some grievous errors early on in my investment career. I violated the first rule of investing countless times and I am lucky to still be standing thanks in large part to my extreme propensity to save which has allowed me to accumulate savings faster than my early rate of depletion. But since that time period, when I have actually applied the value investing framework knowingly and cautiously, my results have been good and within expectation. If I had not been so lacking in confidence and tried to make up for my initial indiscretion by being over-conservative, my investment operations at scale would’ve yielded an agreeable rate of return on the capital employed. Just as I must be honest with myself about my initial mistakes, I must be honest about some of my virtues and I think I can count these decisions as part and parcel.

One standard I tried to live by in my earlier investing was perfection. I often failed to act because I could not be sure of absolutely safety and I had determined that if I ever made another mistake in my investment operations, particularly with regard to the macro environment and crystal-ball gazing, that these mistakes would be unforgivable and would reveal how I was in actuality no better, in a moral sense, than any of the other petty mortals plying this trade.

This is, after much contemplation, an unreasonable standard to try to live up to because it is impossible to act at all under this standard. To be a successful investor, one does not need to be the best– one needs to simply act prudently according to sound methods. But, as my re-reading of Benjamin Graham’s classic text recently helped me to appreciate, one must act. Facing this fact, what can I do? The best I can, is the only answer I’ve found. Given that I know how I made my earlier mistakes, and I believe I understand how I succeeded the few times I did, there is really little risk for me of reprising the role of the vaunted “fuck up artist”.

I’ve also decided to give up my crystal ball and related esoteric knowledge I don’t actually possess. In exchange, I will accept Ben Graham’s portfolio maxim of the 25/75 split, ie, that the maximum exposure to stocks or bonds in one’s portfolio at any one time ought to be no more than 75%, and the minimum exposure ought to be no less than 25%. (And I read “cash and cash-like instruments” as part of the bond allocation, which I think of as “cash yield”.) Having more than 75% exposure suggests a kind of enthusiasm which is, short of a few specific scenarios, likely to involve a speculative-gambling attitude about the future and its risks. And having less than 25% exposure (specifically to stocks) makes it hard to even consider oneself an investor and seems to be evidence of falling prey to crystal ball reading.

This part is really hard right now. “But aren’t we at all time highs for the market?” Yes, we are. It’s very painful to consider that and I feel very nervous about taking the plunge now, so to speak, only to find myself suspended in mid-air as I see the plug being pulled from the pool. I comfort myself a bit by realizing that I am not making a timing “call” in trying to follow this approach, ie, the water is fine, come on in! In fact, I am trying to do the opposite, to resist the temptation of thinking I know and to allow myself an opportunity to take risk, prudently, regardless of what I think of the “market.” The other thing I remind myself is that I will not simply start making investments to achieve some arbitrary portfolio exposure level as quickly as possible. Instead, I now have granted myself “permission” psychologically to invest up to 25% of our capital in appealing opportunities if I should find them. Before, I would’ve had to stop and ask my crystal ball for directions first.

Another thing I’ve learned is that successful investing takes patience no matter what. Even the ideas that worked out well for me on an annualized basis took several years to play out or ripen to their full value. Part of the pressure I used to put on myself in this space was figuring out how I was going to generate X% a year, that year. I didn’t know where to find such an opportunity that was that quick and that safe. It doesn’t exist. Another investment chimera. If I pick safe ideas with a strong upside option and can wait patiently fortune will favor me in time.

There are many people, value investors especially, who have outstanding long term track records who are not Warren Buffett. They are unlikely to be doing something corrupt and they do not have his unique genius. They never seem to have set out for themselves the goal that they must be the best or perfect. They’ve all made mistakes. And they’ve all continued investing in a variety of market conditions, with the wind in their face and the wind at their backs. If they can do it, I can, too.

There are also many obviously lesser people trying their hand at this. They are the gambling fanatics who aren’t even trying to hide it, and the weak minds who have donned the clothing and the diction of the sage investor but do not realize they’re only engaging with the methods at a superficial level. These people are bound for disaster, and yet many of them manage to practice as investors and even confuse other people into letting them run their money. It would be a shame to let the world be dominated by those types and it boggles the mind why they should live with confidence and cheerfully go about their business and I should not.

It has been a long, odd journey to get where I am today. Of course I wish that I had learned these lessons earlier, or in some other way and in so doing to have been spared this trying ordeal to manifest my own confidence. But one of my goals is to learn to live my life without apology or regret and I’ve come to realize that taking the path I took is simply one of the data of my life. I’ve accepted it and I am ready to make good on what I’ve learned by putting the lessons learned to work today, not “when the time is right.” The best time to live life as wisely as one knows how is always today, not tomorrow.

Review – The Acquirer’s Multiple

The Acquirer’s Multiple: How the Billionaire Contrarians of Deep Value Beat the Market (buy on Amazon.com)

by Tobias Carlisle, published 2017

I received a free copy of this book from the author.

I spend a lot more time thinking about the best way to introduce people to the world of value investing than I actually get requests for such information, though I do receive occasional requests for advice. The reason is not just because I am a pedantic thinker but because I spent a very long time acquiring my own knowledge on this subject, with many wrong turns and wasted efforts and I have always wondered, “Is there a better way?”

Toby Carlisle’s “The Acquirer’s Multiple” may just be that better way.

But first, let me explain the most up-to-date advice I have been vending, and keep in mind, this advice is not intended as “how to be a good investor/make good investments” because I am not a registered investment adviser nor would I attempt to impersonate one– this is just my opinion of “how best to learn about investing”. I think I can dispense that advice as an opinion without running afoul of the authorities because I am just talking about ways to acquire certain knowledge. At least I hope so!

My suggestion is to read the following titles, in this order:

  1. The Richest Man in Babylon: Now Revised and Updated for the 21st Century (Paperback) – Common
  2. The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy
  3. Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist
  4. The Accounting Game: Basic Accounting Fresh from the Lemonade Stand
  5. The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, Fourth Edition (or more specifically, Buffett’s Shareholder Letters from Berkshire Hathaway, and his private partnerships, available on the Berkshire website)

Perhaps at a later date I will spend some time writing a post explaining in greater detail why I recommend these resources in this order to an aspiring student of (value) investing, but for now I will simply say that the first two explain how to save and how to develop the psychological discipline and personal habits that permit one to save money, and you must have savings if you want to fuel an investment program. The second lesson is in inspiration, to study the life of the greatest master of investing in the modern era to understand both what is possible, and what it takes, to be great at investing. The third lesson is a rudimentary knowledge of accounting, “the language of business” because if you’re going to be investing in businesses you ought to have a clue what is going on.

Only then, young grasshopper, are you ready for your fourth (but not final) lesson, which is to learn the methods and principles of (value) investing itself. And I can think of no greater expositor of these principles than the great master himself once again, Warren Buffett, especially because you can read along as his company develops and see the wondrous workings of these principles in “real time”.

But even this can be an overwhelming introduction for a noobie who doesn’t realize what a deep pool they’re wading into in asking the question. For the action-oriented, then, I offer a 3-Point Plan of Investment Attack which includes:

  1. The Richest Man in Babylon
  2. The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns (Little Books. Big Profits)
  3. The 2013 Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter, “Some Thoughts About Investing”

This short list will teach you how to save money so you have fuel for your investment machine, and then it provides the basic knowledge needed to decide if you want to be a humble Sunday-driver investor and do passive index investing, or if you want to be a more racy investor and pick your own businesses to invest in the way a true value investor would.

Pedantic as I am, where the heck does Toby’s book fit into all of this?! Well, I think now I can whittle my 3-Point Plan down to 2-Points: The Richest Man in Babylon, and The Acquirer’s Multiple. And I might be able to turn my original 5 item foundations into a 3 item list, using Richest Man, Accounting Game and The Acquirer’s Multiple as the set of texts. Here’s why.

Toby has done something incredible with this book. He has boiled a deeply studied, highly opinionated, multi-trillion dollar field of human endeavor down to its most essential, best researched and expertly practitioned concepts and he’s done it all in simple language that I am convinced even a complete neophyte would find approachable. He has included a number of delightful graphics that help to illustrate these simple concepts about how typical market participants behave and where investment value comes from that, for the first time in my life, I actually found increased my understanding of what I already knew rather than confused me (note: charts, data tables, etc., usually just distract me and I skip them, I am a mostly verbal knowledge acquirer). You really can’t go wrong jumping in this way.

The best part, however, is that he has curated some dramatic and action-packed biographical stories demonstrating how successful billionaire investors have put these ideas into practice. This checks the “inspiration” box I mentioned earlier because it helps the reader see how these ideas were translated into action and it gives confidence that you, too, could stand to benefit in this way.

And finally, he repeats (yes, the book is repetitious) all the neatly summarized concepts into one final summary list at the end of the book that involves 9 rules for a value investor to live by. I am confident that if a new investor referred to this list again and again at each point in his investment research and portfolio management process and asked himself, “Am I living true to this list?” he would be very satisfied with himself over a long period of time if his answer was “Yes”. And if the answer were “No”, then he’d understand exactly what he needed to do to get back on course.

I know Toby personally. He is a highly intelligent fellow, his passion for these ideas and the subject are intense and, if you ask me, he lands firmly in the “Graham” side of the “Graham-Fisher” spectrum of value investing (discussed a bit in the text) that all value investors and followers of Warren Buffett debate endlessly. And that is why I was so pleased that the conclusion of the book included an admonition to “check yourself before you wreck yourself”, so-to-speak. The Acquirer’s Multiple principle itself couldn’t be simpler, but Toby knows, as do all great investors in the Grahamian-tradition, that true risk lies in the behavior and biases of the investor himself, particularly an investor who can’t follow simple principles he knows to be true because he insists on trying to outsmart them.

Don’t try to outsmart what can be simple (though never easy!)… like reading 5 books on the art of investing when you could maybe get away with just two or three. And I am now convinced that Toby’s book should be one of them.

4/5







Notes – What Is Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) Theory?

Several months ago, a friend of mine introduced me to “Jobs To Be Done Theory” (JTBD) via the free work of an entrepreneur named Alan Klement called When Coffee and Kale Compete. The JTBD framework is part of a growing base of entrepreneurial knowledge in the innovation space with key similarities to things like disruptive innovation (The Innovator’s Dilemma by Christensen) and Design Thinking practice. These approaches to entrepreneurship focus on empathy as a methodology for understanding the psychological motivations and needs of a potential customer rather than on their demographic characteristics or profile data. Solutions are designed to help the customer make progress rather than being built around features or functions; in this way business people might be surprised to find out that “coffee” and “kale” can be competitors in helping a person make progress on “get my morning started right”, whereas in the traditional product design space an entrepreneur might be more focused on “how to build a better cup of coffee for 18-35 year old women.”

As Klement says in the introduction,

I want to help my customers evolve themselves. I shouldn’t study what customers want in a product. I need to study why customers want.

He describes a JTBD as consisting of three elements:

  1. job is your struggle to make a change for the better
  2. The to be part denotes that overcoming that struggle is an evolutionary process; it happens over time
  3. The change is done when you overcome that struggle and have changed for the better; there are things you can do now, that you couldn’t do before

These jobs originate inside people, not inside things. They have to do with motivations or states of mind, that is, they are psychic not material in nature. And there are many potential strategies for helping a person to accomplish that transition from one state to another, which is why it is possible to envision disruptive solutions that redefine the categories by which product or service competition occur.

Klement helpfully summarizes some principles of JTBD theory:

  • Customers don’t want your product or what it does; they want help making their lives better
  • People have Jobs; things don’t
  • Competition is defined in the minds of customers, and they use progress as their criteria
  • When customers start using a solution for a JTBD, they stop using something else
  • Innovation opportunities exist when customers exhibit compensatory behaviors
  • Solutions come and go, while Jobs stay largely the same
  • Favor progress over outcomes or goals
  • Progress defines value; contrast reveals value
  • Solutions for Jobs deliver value beyond the moment of use
  • Producers, consumers, solutions and Jobs, should be thought of as parts of a system that work together to evolve markets

He works through a number of case studies to illustrate these principles. The methodology in each case study focuses on interviewing customers to get verbatims about how they reason about what problem they’re trying to solve and what solutions they’ve tried in the past and present. The emphasis is on revealed preference, determined by actions, rather than stated preference, determined by marketing surveys or hypothetical scenarios. By unpacking these statements rather than making assumptions, the entrepreneur can work to understand the mindset of the customer and how he sees himself struggling to make progress in a particular part of his life.

Klement later discusses two well-known case studies in the disruptive innovation literature, Kodak and Apple (iPhone vs. iPod), and reinterprets the story through the JTBD framework. With this, we see that Kodak’s business was annihilated not because they were complacent and didn’t see how technology would make their product irrelevant, but because their focus was on optimizing a particular solution (traditional film) for a particular JTBD rather than focusing on that JTBD itself and trying to ask what is the best way to help customers make progress on that in light of changing technology. In contrast, Apple took a very profitable product, the iPod, and thought about what kind of job it was fulfilling and what was a better way to do that job, the iPhone, rather than thinking about how to build a better iPod. This is because “no solution for a JTBD is permanent.”

One thing I found challenging in trying to digest this new framework was identifying the JTBD itself. Klement offers a few guidelines for deciding if you do NOT have a JTBD defined properly:

  • Does it describe an action?
  • Can you visualize somebody doing this?
  • Does it describe “how” or “what” and not why?

If the answer is yes, it is likely not a JTBD because JTBDs are emotional and represent psychic states. They are ways people experience their own existence and how they progress from one state of existence to another, they are not the thing that makes the progress themselves. Sometimes these JTBDs are exceedingly obvious. But a lot of the time, they’re subtle and can only be defined with confidence after a long, empathy-driven process of interviewing and conversing with customers to better understand what they think they’re trying to do. This is hard work! The JTBD framework is certainly not a quick or easy fix to the dilemma of how someone with an entrepreneurial bent can design great new products and services that meet peoples needs.

The book is chock full of case studies and deeper explanations of the basic components summarized above. I highlighted and underlined various meaningful passages that I won’t bother typing into these notes because they’d be too out of context to add clear meaning to a reader; besides, I read this book earlier this year and didn’t get to write up my notes until now, so I can’t even remember with some of them why I found them impactful at the time.

Alan Klement offers free consultation services and aspires to help people on a paid basis as well. I have spoken to him a number of times as I have read his book and attended the Design Thinking Bootcamp to share thoughts and ideas about the JTBD framework, especially as it applies to personal design challenges I am exploring in my own business. He informed me that he is working on a revised and re-organized 2nd edition which he plans to release soon. I will likely revisit the book then and consider publishing further notes and thoughts about the JTBD framework as I become more familiar with it and even work to use it in my own design challenges in the future.


Finding My Buffett

Charlie listened. Eventually he asked, “Do you think that I could do something like that out in California?” Warren paused for a moment and looked at him. This was an unconventional question coming from a successful Los Angeles lawyer. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m quite sure you could do it.”

[…]

“Why are you paying so much attention to him?” Nancy asked her husband.

“You don’t understand,” said Charlie. “That is no ordinary human being.”

~The Snowball

Who wouldn’t want Warren Buffett as a friend? Who wouldn’t want to be the ultimate coattail rider as the Charlie Munger of the Berkshire Hathaway-type life story?

While it’s never been clear to me what value Charlie Munger brought to the duo aside from his acerbic wit and getting-high-on-my-own-supply love for See’s Peanut Brittle which undoubtedly boosted sales, it’s fairly obvious what Munger got out of Buffett– encouragement.

And that seems to be all Munger needed to find greatness in himself.

It is actually amazing that this bond was formed and that Buffett was not only willing to share with Munger his secrets but pushed him to try it himself. Why did he do this then? The truth is, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters, for Munger anyway, is that Buffett did this.

When I look back at my own history, particularly with regards to my interest in investing, I don’t see any encouraging moments like this. Perhaps I have simply forgotten them, or perhaps they did not occur. I think I had ample opportunity to be encouraged by others and yet I don’t have any recollection of it. As I am currently seeking after my passion in life and searching for what my own greatness might be about, I seem to remember at one time it might have had something to do with being a great investor. Along the way I lost sight of that vision, became discouraged, dejected and doubtful.

This might seem like a good opportunity to blame the various people in my life who might have encouraged me to keep going but did not. That isn’t my point and it isn’t what I believe or am focused on right now. Instead, I notice one more thing about the time that Charlie met Warren. That thing is this:

Charlie asked for what he wanted.

Notes On Reading With Our Little Lion

The Wolf and I have been a bit negligent about reading with our Little Lion to date. When he was just out of the womb, I spent the first few weeks of life reading through “Our Oriental Heritage” from the Story of Civilization series, while the Little Lion and the Wolf breastfed to sleep. We made a lot of progress– we got through all of Ancient Egypt and most of the Mesopotamian cultures, through to Persia. I think we stopped right around Ancient India.

Many things got in the way when we set the book down and forgot to come back to it, not just one thing. But the most important reason in my mind is that it seemed like our Little Lion developing his other skills and capabilities was more important than trying to read every day. Eating, sleeping, walking (me + stroller + doge), rolling and crawling, etc. Reading was one more thing that seemed to have limited benefit on a relative basis.

I know all Good Parents read to their kids everyday, even when they’re not paying attention or can’t sit still on their lap. I also know all Good Parents do Tummy Time. We didn’t do Tummy Time. And we didn’t read to our Little Lion every day. So we might not be Good Parents. We’ll see.

One thing we do with our Little Lion is we talk a lot. We listen to music. We have adult conversations with one another, using adult words, and with our Little Lion, using adult words. We talk about our emotions and we don’t hide from him when we aren’t getting along with ourselves, each other or other people. His home is partially bilingual (trilingual… but I can’t seem to catch a break on getting that third language spoken more frequently than the second!) so our Little Lion is getting a lot of exposure to language.

The Wolf and I are big readers. Even if we’ve been negligent so far with our Little Lion, he will have no questions about whether he’s living in a literary household. Some day he’ll read our reviews on this blog, and hopefully contribute his own! He will see the Lion and the Wolf reading all kinds of things, nearly every day, often for long stretches of time. If he grows up hating books, I don’t think it will be because we didn’t do a lot of story time for the first ten months of his life.

That being said, our Little Lion seems like he’s able to get some benefit from being read to now and seems like he can actually enjoy the interaction actively. So we’re diving in a bit on this one now, reviewing potential titles to add to his library. We’re also thinking about principles for selecting books for reading and principles for how to benefit from reading together. Here is what we have thought about so far.

Principles for Selecting Books

  • Avoiding fantasy themes until much older; no books that depict characters or events which could not possibly be witnessed in real life
  • Emphasizing characters, events, animals, natural environments, that our Little Lion has a good chance of experiencing in his present location; there is plenty of time, as he develops and over the course of his reading career, to explore places and things beyond “home”
  • Emphasizing people, emotions and simple story lines with vivid images (real, or highly realistic is fine)
  • Action emphasized over values and meanings, though values and meanings we agree with are okay (things we’re not okay with: PC culture, sharing is caring, collective inclusion and individual exclusion, embedded authoritarian messaging)
  • Baby-centric narratives are okay for now, but modeling relationships and older people is okay, too
  • Questionable– “fairy tale” type stories like Aesop’s Fables. The Fables characters are animals, who usually talk, the emphasis is on the lesson and the action, not the talking animal, but the animals could easily be retold as people to make the stories useful
  • You can’t know if every book is appropriate ahead of time, it might take flipping through a copy at a book store or actually trying to read it after buying it to figure out it’s a joke

Principles for Enjoying Reading Time Together

  • Try it when everyone is well rested
  • Okay to read “the same thing” over and over, especially if baby chooses to do so; it’s new to them!
  • There’s more to story time than being read to or following the story; touching, looking, making noises, tasting, etc. are all part of the experience
  • If baby doesn’t want to sit on the lap and read actively, he can be read to “passively” while he plays, crawls, etc. in a safe space nearby
  • The adults can read “children’s books”, or read their own books that fall within these guidelines (actually much more likely with an “adult” book), whatever they’ll be interested to read with the child
  • Act it out and get animated if you like; tell a good story!
  • Use the book as a prop to tell a different story if you like, especially if it has limited text and can be easily modified
  • Talk ABOUT the book as much as you READ the book; discuss what’s going on, see what baby is reacting to, ask baby questions about the story; as baby gets older, you can both evaluate what you read afterward, and do critical reviews of “joke” books you’re sorry you read
  • Read baby history and the classics when desired (we’ll be working our way back through the Story of Civilization, and through some Shakespeare as well)
  • Don’t feel compelled to finish any book you start or to stop baby from “interrupting”, let baby do what they will and work with it; if it’s too distracting, try story time another day; the goal is to be together, not to “read” together
  • Understand that reading to “passive” baby is a specific activity and shouldn’t replace actively observing baby’s playtime or come to dominate such interactions

Beyond this, we’ll be treating it like a science experiment and expecting a lot of learning from failure!

Quotes – Excelling In Trivialities

Anger, spite, malice, impatience, and a vehement desire of getting the better in a concern wherein it were more excusable to be ambitious of being overcome; for to be eminent, to excel above the common rate in frivolous things, nowise befits a man of honor. What I say in this example may be said in all others. Every particle, every employment of man manifests him equally with any other.

~Michel de Montaigne

How Science Is Science? How Irrational Is Irrational?

Daniel Kahneman helped make chic the idea that mankind is fundamentally irrational, especially when it comes to economics or more crudely as people think of economics, money. At least, that’s what people who read his “Thinking, Fast and Slow” book think he was saying.

I find this “science” to be infuriating and misleading. It gets people to overemphasize the small, selectively irrational parts of the workings of the human mind while ignoring the large, broadly rational parts of the human mind. If what you needed to know about humanity is that we’re really just irrational, you’d be at a loss to explain the wonderfully rational world around us– physics, engineering, social organization and yes… economics.

I have a low estimation of people who find this book and its message appealing. It says a lot more to me about their unresolved childhood traumas and emotional needs than it does about the way the world really works or anyone else’s ability to think critically about various subjects.

And that’s all assuming that what Kahneman wrote a huge book about was actually true! But if it’s not even true, if his science lacks scientificness, well, then we’ve got real problems. On that note, this was fucking embarrassing:

From Daniel Kahneman

I accept the basic conclusions of this blog. To be clear, I do so (1) without expressing an opinion about the statistical techniques it employed and (2) without stating an opinion about the validity and replicability of the individual studies I cited.

What the blog gets absolutely right is that I placed too much faith in underpowered studies. As pointed out in the blog, and earlier by Andrew Gelman, there is a special irony in my mistake because the first paper that Amos Tversky and I published was about the belief in the “law of small numbers,” which allows researchers to trust the results of underpowered studies with unreasonably small samples. We also cited Overall (1969) for showing “that the prevalence of studies deficient in statistical power is not only wasteful but actually pernicious: it results in a large proportion of invalid rejections of the null hypothesis among published results.” Our article was written in 1969 and published in 1971, but I failed to internalize its message.

My position when I wrote “Thinking, Fast and Slow” was that if a large body of evidence published in reputable journals supports an initially implausible conclusion, then scientific norms require us to believe that conclusion. Implausibility is not sufficient to justify disbelief, and belief in well-supported scientific conclusions is not optional. This position still seems reasonable to me – it is why I think people should believe in climate change. But the argument only holds when all relevant results are published.

I knew, of course, that the results of priming studies were based on small samples, that the effect sizes were perhaps implausibly large, and that no single study was conclusive on its own. What impressed me was the unanimity and coherence of the results reported by many laboratories. I concluded that priming effects are easy for skilled experimenters to induce, and that they are robust. However, I now understand that my reasoning was flawed and that I should have known better. Unanimity of underpowered studies provides compelling evidence for the existence of a severe file-drawer problem (and/or p-hacking). The argument is inescapable: Studies that are underpowered for the detection of plausible effects must occasionally return non-significant results even when the research hypothesis is true – the absence of these results is evidence that something is amiss in the published record. Furthermore, the existence of a substantial file-drawer effect undermines the two main tools that psychologists use to accumulate evidence for a broad hypotheses: meta-analysis and conceptual replication. Clearly, the experimental evidence for the ideas I presented in that chapter was significantly weaker than I believed when I wrote it. This was simply an error: I knew all I needed to know to moderate my enthusiasm for the surprising and elegant findings that I cited, but I did not think it through. When questions were later raised about the robustness of priming results I hoped that the authors of this research would rally to bolster their case by stronger evidence, but this did not happen.

I still believe that actions can be primed, sometimes even by stimuli of which the person is unaware. There is adequate evidence for all the building blocks: semantic priming, significant processing of stimuli that are not consciously perceived, and ideo-motor activation. I see no reason to draw a sharp line between the priming of thoughts and the priming of actions. A case can therefore be made for priming on this indirect evidence. But I have changed my views about the size of behavioral priming effects – they cannot be as large and as robust as my chapter suggested.

I am still attached to every study that I cited, and have not unbelieved them, to use Daniel Gilbert’s phrase. I would be happy to see each of them replicated in a large sample. The lesson I have learned, however, is that authors who review a field should be wary of using memorable results of underpowered studies as evidence for their claims.

Review – Shoe Dog

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike

by Phil Knight, published 2016

What can we learn from business books, especially business biographies?

I used to laugh about this with a friend a considerable amount– all these dopey books about businesses, business men and business secrets, written by ghost writers and know-nothing journalists (hack writers), developed for and marketed to mass audiences who want an entertaining dream and not an edifying edifice to stare at imponderably.

We would be amazed at how absent these books were of any meaningful details, in fact, precisely the meaningful details necessary to actually understand what was going on and “how’deedodat?” It was like some kind of conspiracy of incompetent stupidity, to write books about business without margins, without tax rates, without rates of return on capital, without the capital structure outlined and revisited periodically as an enterprise grew, without definitions of risk and explanations of strategy.

Instead, lists of names, dates, places. Stylized depictions of tragedy and success. Cliched, retrospective business wisdom, as if the hustler-entrepreneur thought in any terms other than pure, maddening survival or unbridled, sociopathic dominance of everyone around him. Overlooking special revenue or R&D relationships with governments that were critical to a firm’s mastery of its market or early survival, or ignoring impolitic questions of how the founder avoided getting swept up in the local social conflagration du jour and being drafted out of existence.

To this mish-mash of storytelling sins this book adds a new one, anachronistic language. Somehow, Nike/Blue Ribbon was a “startup” before startups in the 1960s (and even into the 1970s, when it had been around for almost a decade… just getting going, really!) and one of the guiding philosophies of Knight and his “Buttface” crew (more on this in a bit) was to “fail fast”, nearly five decades before the software development revolution convinced the business world that iterative testing and quick trial to failure was the right way for all businesses to grow and not just a specialized niche that could essentially emulate A/B variants of its product or service offering at no cost or risk with the simple push of a button. But yeah, the shoe makers were doing that back when Vietnam was a thing.

That is why I read “Shoe Dog” with skepticism and found myself lusting after a critical beatdown as I turned the pages. A 25 year-old Phil Knight travels to Japan and secures a distributorship for a top Japanese athletic shoe, quite by chance and without any explanation of how he surmounted the language barrier in post-war Japan, then proceeds to tour the globe for four months by himself as some kind of backpacker-type tourist while his order samples, presumably, sit and wait for him the whole time? This is the beginnings of what would become Nike. And it went just like that.

Yeah, right.

The book is full of these glaring contradictions. Knight wanted to avoid the standard, stultifying corporate life, so he built a massive corporation. He believed in playing it straight as he advised his Eagle Scout nominees, so he lied to his financiers and production partners to grow his business. He never had enough cash to keep the bank happy and grow the business organically, so he bought himself a nice home and took the team on bi-annual corporate retreats to luxurious places (the book suddenly introduces this information about 12 years into the company’s history, where it is also revealed that they endearingly refer to one another as “buttfaces”, somehow demonstrating their open and transparent corporate culture). His co-founder fools him into giving majority control of the enterprise at the time of founding, then gives him 2/3rds of his share when trying to retire without fuss or challenge.

What “Shoe Dog” taught me, then, is that I’ve been naive to think there is anything esoteric one can learn from business books like this. It is my mistake for coming to a mass market piece of media and expecting to hear an honest telling, or even an interesting one. These books are written to entertain, glorify the egos of those who they are written about or nominally by, and perhaps even to some extent to distract, delude or otherwise throw off of the scent the would-be competitors who read them.

Reading between the lines, Knight was an alcoholic. He was clearly unscrupulous and at times cruel in his dealings with others. He did not spend the time with his family that they wanted from him. He lied, consciously, to his business partners and financiers. And he sued and counter-sued to stay in business or gain advantage. He did some other stuff, too, but these are the kinds of things that seem to set people apart, alongside luck. Some people play by the rules, either legally or their own conscience or both, and some people find ways to stretch these factors or simply break them without regret. Those people go on to be billionaires. And they have an incentive to lie about what they did and how they did it because after all, lying is what got them there in the first place.

You will never know how a business was really built by reading a book about it. And you would probably never find out even if you were a friend of the founder. You may not even be clear on what happened if you were inside the company itself. It’s too complicated and there are too many human factors involved that lend themselves to obfuscating the truth, if it can even be remembered.

One thing I learned from “Shoe Dog” is it’s my own fault if I keep reading this stuff and find myself frustrated at being anything but entertained.

3/5