What You Can’t Learn From Your Heroes

Standing on the shoulders of giants by learning from the best in a given field is a great way to get a better grasp of your subject matter of choice. A favorite pastime for investors is to read and share quotes from the likes of Warren Buffett, Paul Tudor Jones, Jesse Livermore or any number of the all-time greats. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone (probably more so).

But at times I wonder if people take their hero worship to extremes.

In his latest book, What To Do When It’s Your Turn (and it’s always your turn) Seth Godin shares a story that exemplifies how this mindset can be taken too far:

Stephen King, one of the most beloved, famous and bestselling authors ever, often goes to writer’s conferences. After he talks for a little bit he says, “Any questions?”

Inevitably, someone raises their hand – and I’m paraphrasing here – and says, “Mr. King, you are one of the most beloved, famous, and bestselling authors ever. What kind of pencil do you use to write your books?” It’s almost as if knowing what kind of pencil Stephen King uses will help them be more like Stephen King.

People want to believe that if you just tell them exactly how to do something that they’ll be able to follow the step-by-step instructions that will enable them to become great themselves. If only life were that easy. I see this in the popular lifehack articles all the time:

Seven Things Billionaires Do in Their Morning Routines

Ten Things You Need to Know About Starting a Successful Company

These types of stories can be entertaining and make for good dinner conversation, but you’re never going to be able to learn how to get rich, become a better investor or start your own company by reading a top ten list or focusing on minor tactics. There are certain things that can’t be taught or only come through experience.

While you can gain perspective and learn from how they succeeded in life, there are a number of things your favorite investors or business leaders will never be able to teach you.

They can’t be there to hold your hand during the next bear market.

They can’t force you to make decisions that are in your own self-interest.

They can’t tell you how much of your net worth to put into any investment or how to size your positions perfectly.

They can’t show you how to understand your own limitations and when to say no to a business opportunity.

They can’t help you control your emotions when making decisions during stressful situations.

They have no control over your past experience in the markets or how your memories shape your current biases.

They can’t help you how to get lucky from time-to-time.

They don’t have an understanding of your unique circumstances so they can’t determine the relative attractiveness or riskiness of a given security or fund.

They can’t change your personality or make you more comfortably with a given strategy if it’s not the right fit for you personally.

In his excellent book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield says, “Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are an become it.”

I enjoy studying the top performers in business and finance. They’ve been some of my greatest teachers. But I’ve learned that it’s only helpful when I can figure out how to apply the lessons to my own situation. Learn about your heroes to gain perspective and even motivation. Just don’t take your hero worship too far. You still have to make your own decisions and be the best version of yourself you can be.

What To Do When It’s Your Turn (and it’s always your turn)
The War of Art


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Discussions found on the web
  1. Gregory commented on Apr 06

    Wise writing!

  2. PanamanianStrongman commented on Apr 06

    As someone who made and lost multiple fortunes speculating in commodities, Livermore would be on my list of not-so-great investors.

    • Ben commented on Apr 06

      From reading about him it seems like it was more a game to him than anything. He’s an interesting character and it’s crazy people still quote him after all these years.

      • Mark H commented on Apr 06

        I think the real benefit comes from imitating the things that successful people DON’T do. Livermore’s story is a goldmine when it comes to cautionary tales and biases we all need to fight against.

        • Ben commented on Apr 06

          That’s a great point. Let someone else pay the tuition for you.

    • Kate Stalter commented on Apr 07

      Thank you!! I have never understood the obsession with “Reminiscences.” I read the book several times, when I worked at IBD, where it was considered something of a religious text. Rather than a how-to, it’s a collection of anecdotes, many of which have no discernible lesson.

      • Ben commented on Apr 07

        People love easy to remember quotes. I’m sure more people know the quotes than have read the book. People who have actually read the book know that Livermore was constantly blowing himself up and losing all of his money.

  3. Willow commented on Apr 06

    Very good points. Knowledge is nothing if you’re unable to apply it to your own life or use it to enhance another person’s life.

    • Ben commented on Apr 06

      Well said. Thanks.

  4. Scott Boone commented on Apr 06

    Good article. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery in some areas of life, it seldom helps when it comes to investing. We’d all like to find a simple set of rules that would ensure success in every market, but as every experienced investor knows, every market cycle is different, no matter how similar it may appear to past events (which, as an aside, is probably a good reason to avoid a “rules” based approach to Fed policy). Having said this, the one set of rules that investors should follow (i.e., diversification coupled with appropriate asset allocation and time frame) seems to be the hardest for most investors to follow.

    • Ben commented on Apr 06

      Yup, no such thing as an easy to follow strategy since nothing works all the time.

  5. Market Map commented on Apr 06

    I’m my own hero . Turned $20K in my Roth IRA in 1996 into $330K into 2015 through careful portfolio management and various selection methods ( IBD stocks, Index funds, and in last few years tactical asset allocation ).

  6. Neil Brooks commented on Apr 09

    The stand-out quality in most success-hero stories is that person worked their butt off. A good work ethic is so important, and others’ examples can inspire us to work harder, though you’re right that we can’t pick up the nuances of success just from quotes and stories.

    • Ben commented on Apr 09

      Good point. There are no shortcuts to becoming successful, but that’s what many people would like.

  7. StreetEYE (@streeteye) commented on Apr 18

    “9 Things I Never Learned From Warren Buffett, And Neither Will You”

    no substitute for experience

    • Ben commented on Apr 19

      I agree. And most people learn this the hard way (which ends up being their experience eventually).

  8. Froogal Stoodent commented on Apr 20

    You made some great points here…a lot of these keys to success can’t be emulated easily. These are excellent points to keep in mind!