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.