[Warning: If you are interested in a calm, comfortable life, this blog will be counterproductive for you.]

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Black Swans Are Coming (a book review)

A "black swan" is an unexpected, unpredictable event that has large impact. The author of the brilliant book with this title, Nassim Taleb, drew the term from the discovery of black swans in Australia (click on the pic of the book to buy it from Amazon). For centuries, everyone in Europe "knew" that all swans were white. They had hundreds of years of evidence. Then colonization of Australia produced a discovery that upended the definition of "swan".

The central idea of the book is that black swan events have happened many times in history, in every area of life. It's not possible to predict what surprises are coming (by definition, it's an unexpected change). But it is possible to live wisely, knowing that eventually a black swan is coming.

How? Taleb recommends a barbell-shaped approach to life.

In the areas of life where unexpected danger could bring great pain, be very careful and put in extra protections. Get life insurance, make an extra copy of important documents, include a good chunk of bonds in your investing, be 110% sure of your marriage partner choice, etc.

In the areas of life where unexpected wins could bring great gain, invest just as heavily. One incredible win can pay for all the other areas. For example, sell books or music (could explode into a bestseller, invest in a start-up company, take the effort to meet someone outside your circles, etc.

Don't spend much time and effort in the middle range, where there's moderate risk for regular rewards. Put yourself in position to survive the negative black swans and benefit from the positive black swans.

Be BOTH a pessimist (plan for doomsday) and a optimist (bet on the long shot).

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Warren Buffet Shares The Single Greatest Key to His Success

I'm almost finished with a biography on Warren Buffet (Snowball). He's a complex man with very simple tastes. Lots to learn about life and business from him, but I just read the part where he was asked what was the single greatest hey to his success.

He was asked this when after he had become the richest man in America.

He said, "Focus."

He didn't explain further there--but the biographer references his life patterns and it's obvious what he means. Buffet visited his father's stock brokerage as a child and decided he'd figure out this game of stocks and win. He wanted to be rich.

Yes, he's smart. Sure, he had other principles that he established to guide him. But he created those principles and leveraged his brain through focusing on one thing his whole life.

He gave his children only the minimum attention while they were growing up. He found a wife who was willing do everything for him--cook, clean, bills, etc. He worked nearly all day long. For example, he had a special deal to have the newspaper delivered to his house just after midnight rather than waiting until the normal early morning deliveries. When he was out of town, he'd have his secretary read that him over the phone so he could stay clued in. He read stock reports on companies that most "serious" investors thought were too small to deal with.

He focused his life on a clear goal. And it's no wonder that he achieved it.

What do you care about so much you'd give even half that much time and energy to becoming good at?

Oh, by the way, Bill Gates was at the same gathering. His answer, "Focus."

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Life Lessons From the Strategy Game: Outwitters

Just before the holidays, I discovered a strategy game called Outwitters (for iPhone/iPad). Not only is it fun, but I've learned a lot playing it. (It's an incredible game, by the way, from the graphics to music to truly complex strategy--and it only takes about 30 seconds to learn the rules. Oh, and did I mention it's free?)

I know, I know. Some of you are doubtful that playing a game could be a valuable use of time. Hold your judgment for 30 more seconds. :)

This game is like chess, if chess had several different maps and the ability to create a new piece each turn--you pick which kind of piece. So there's more variables than chess. But some of the fundamental ideas are the same. For example, winning the game is hitting the other guy's base, not taking out all his men (like capturing the king in chess). But you don't really need to know the rules to understand the lessons I've gleaned from the game.

Don't Forget The Ultimate Goal
A couple of times I've marched up to the enemy base and spent my next turn taking out his pieces. I could have won by attacking the base. But I was so distracted with the immediate danger (his pieces hitting me back) that I forgot what I was ultimately trying to accomplish. And, yes, I lost those games.

He Who Attacks First Usually Wins
Waiting for the other guy to move--playing a reactive game--usually means losing. Sure, good players prepare before moving. But once you have enough men, waiting because you don't know what he'll do is a bad idea. If you have the capacity to attack (i.e. move forward toward your goal), do so.

Concentrate Your Forces
I've lost a lot of games by evenly spreading out my forces, trying to guard against all avenues of attack. But the best players are sending all of their pieces to one spot--where I've only got a couple pieces waiting. To win, concentrate on one or two things at a time and make a big impact there.

Play His Next Turn Before You Take Yours
Before I move my pieces, I've learned to stop and imagine what my opponent might do in response. When I don't do this, I'm often surprised by the nasty counterattack I could have seen coming. It's a discipline that takes extra work. But looking ahead at future consequences often changes my choices.

Play the Man, Not the Map
I've been tempted to come up with a great strategy and put my pieces there--and pay no attention to what my opponent is doing. That usually leads to disaster. You've got to pay attention to the other people's plans. A one-size-fits-all strategy doesn't work. Whatever you're doing, tailor it to the particular people involved.

Don't Be Afraid To Lose A Piece
There were times when I held back making a move because I know I'll lose a guy when he counter attacks. That's usually a mistake. As long as the move I make costs him more than it cost me, I can't be afraid to make the move. Also, the best players don't quit after a bad turn. Take a hit on the chin and keep fighting. I've won more than a few games by not giving up when I wanted to.

Consider Multiple Options Before Deciding
Often, I quickly come up with a turn I like. But when I exercise the discipline to create other options--even though I like the first one I thought of--a better turn emerges. My first idea may not be my best idea. So I try to come up with at least two--ideally three--ideas for a turn before choosing which one to play.

Don't Get Caught Up In the Emotions of Almost
Many, many games I've seen players get close to hitting the base, but only almost. And then they spend the next several turns making wild rushes at the base--they're so close! But they waste a lot of pieces, caught up the emotion of almost succeeding. Instead, winning requires pulling back and rebuilding for another credible run at the base.

Oh, and if you do try out the game Outwitters, let me know! I'd love to play a few matches with you. :)