Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!

  • The hardest financial skill is getting the goalpost to stop moving. But it’s one of the most important. If expectations rise with results there is no logic in striving for more because you’ll feel the same after putting in extra effort. It gets dangerous when the taste of having more—more money, more power, more prestige—increases ambition faster than satisfaction. In that case one step forward pushes the goalpost two steps ahead. You feel as if you’re falling behind, and the only way to catch up is to take greater and greater amounts of risk.  
  • The ceiling of social comparison is so high that virtually no one will ever hit it. Which means it’s a battle that can never be won, or that the only way to win is to not fight to begin with—to accept that you might have enough, even if it’s less than those around you.

  • “Enough” is realizing that the opposite—an insatiable appetite for more—will push you to the point of regret. The only way to know how much food you can eat is to eat until you’re sick. Few try this because vomiting hurts more than any meal is good. For some reason the same logic doesn’t translate to business and investing, and many will only stop reaching for more when they break and are forced to. This can be as innocent as burning out at work or a risky investment allocation you can’t maintain. On the other end there’s Rajat Guptas and Bernie Madoffs in the world, who resort to stealing because every dollar is worth reaching for regardless of consequence. Whatever it is, the inability to deny a potential dollar will eventually catch up to you.  
  • If something compounds—if a little growth serves as the fuel for future growth—a small starting base can lead to results so extraordinary they seem to defy logic. It can be so logic-defying that you underestimate what’s possible, where growth comes from, and what it can lead to. And so it is with money.

  • More than I want big returns, I want to be financially unbreakable. And if I’m unbreakable I actually think I’ll get the biggest returns, because I’ll be able to stick around long enough for compounding to work wonders. No one wants to hold cash during a bull market. They want to own assets that go up a lot. You look and feel conservative holding cash during a bull market, because you become acutely aware of how much return you’re giving up by not owning the good stuff. Say cash earns 1% and stocks return 10% a year. That 9% gap will gnaw at you every day. But if that cash prevents you from having to sell your stocks during a bear market, the actual return you earned on that cash is not 1% a year—it could be many multiples of that, because preventing one desperate, ill-timed stock sale can do more for your lifetime returns than picking dozens of big-time winners. Compounding doesn’t rely on earning big returns. Merely good returns sustained uninterrupted for the longest period of time—especially in times of chaos and havoc—will always win.  
  • A plan is only useful if it can survive reality. And a future filled with unknowns is everyone’s reality. A good plan doesn’t pretend this weren’t true; it embraces it and emphasizes room for error. The more you need specific elements of a plan to be true, the more fragile your financial life becomes. If there’s enough room for error in your savings rate that you can say, “It’d be great if the market returns 8% a year over the next 30 years, but if it only does 4% a year I’ll still be OK,” the more valuable your plan becomes. Many bets fail not because they were wrong, but because they were mostly right in a situation that required things to be exactly right. Room for error—often called margin of safety—is one of the most underappreciated forces in finance. It comes in many forms: A frugal budget, flexible thinking, and a loose timeline—anything that lets you live happily with a range of outcomes. It’s different from being conservative. Conservative is avoiding a certain level of risk. Margin of safety is raising the odds of success at a given level of risk by increasing your chances of survival. Its magic is that the higher your margin of safety, the smaller your edge needs to be to have a favorable outcome.  
  • A barbelled personality—optimistic about the future, but paranoid about what will prevent you from getting to the future—is vital. Optimism is usually defined as a belief that things will go well. But that’s incomplete. Sensible optimism is a belief that the odds are in your favor, and over time things will balance out to a good outcome even if what happens in between is filled with misery. And in fact you know it will be filled with misery. You can be optimistic that the long-term growth trajectory is up and to the right, but equally sure that the road between now and then is filled with landmines, and always will be. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.  
  • The highest form of wealth is the ability to wake up every morning and say, “I can do whatever I want today.” People want to become wealthier to make them happier. Happiness is a complicated subject because everyone’s different. But if there’s a common denominator in happiness—a universal fuel of joy—it’s that people want to control their lives. The ability to do what you want, when you want, with who you want, for as long as you want, is priceless. It is the highest dividend money pays.  
  • Using your money to buy time and options has a lifestyle benefit few luxury goods can compete with.  
  • People tend to want wealth to signal to others that they should be liked and admired. But in reality those other people often bypass admiring you, not because they don’t think wealth is admirable, but because they use your wealth as a benchmark for their own desire to be liked and admired.  
  • We tend to judge wealth by what we see, because that’s the information we have in front of us. We can’t see people’s bank accounts or brokerage statements. So we rely on outward appearances to gauge financial success. Cars. Homes. Instagram photos. Modern capitalism makes helping people fake it until they make it a cherished industry. But the truth is that wealth is what you don’t see.

  • Wealth is the nice cars not purchased. The diamonds not bought. The watches not worn, the clothes forgone and the first-class upgrade declined. Wealth is financial assets that haven’t yet been converted into the stuff you see. That’s not how we think about wealth, because you can’t contextualize what you can’t see.

  • Investment returns can make you rich. But whether an investing strategy will work, and how long it will work for, and whether markets will cooperate, is always in doubt. Results are shrouded in uncertainty. Personal savings and frugality—finance’s conservation and efficiency—are parts of the money equation that are more in your control and have a 100% chance of being as effective in the future as they are today.  
  • If you view building wealth as something that will require more money or big investment returns, you may become as pessimistic as the energy doomers were in the 1970s. The path forward looks hard and out of your control. If you view it as powered by your own frugality and efficiency, the destiny is clearer. Wealth is just the accumulated leftovers after you spend what you take in. And since you can build wealth without a high income, but have no chance of building wealth without a high savings rate, it’s clear which one matters more.  
  • More importantly, the value of wealth is relative to what you need. Say you and I have the same net worth. And say you’re a better investor than me. I can earn 8% annual returns and you can earn 12% annual returns. But I’m more efficient with my money. Let’s say I need half as much money to be happy while your lifestyle compounds as fast as your assets. I’m better off than you are, despite being a worse investor. I’m getting more benefit from my investments despite lower returns. The same is true for incomes. Learning to be happy with less money creates a gap between what you have and what you want—similar to the gap you get from growing your paycheck, but easier and more in your control. A high savings rate means having lower expenses than you otherwise could, and having lower expenses means your savings go farther than they would if you spent more.

  • Past a certain level of income, what you need is just what sits below your ego. Everyone needs the basics. Once they’re covered there’s another level of comfortable basics, and past that there’s basics that are both comfortable, entertaining, and enlightening. But spending beyond a pretty low level of materialism is mostly a reflection of ego approaching income, a way to spend money to show people that you have (or had) money. Think of it like this, and one of the most powerful ways to increase your savings isn’t to raise your income. It’s to raise your humility. When you define savings as the gap between your ego and your income you realize why many people with decent incomes save so little. It’s a daily struggle against instincts to extend your peacock feathers to their outermost limits and keep up with others doing the same. People with enduring personal finance success—not necessarily those with high incomes—tend to have a propensity to not give a damn what others think about them.  
  • Savings without a spending goal gives you options and flexibility, the ability to wait and the opportunity to pounce. It gives you time to think. It lets you change course on your own terms. Every bit of savings is like taking a point in the future that would have been owned by someone else and giving it back to yourself. That flexibility and control over your time is an unseen return on wealth. What is the return on cash in the bank that gives you the option of changing careers, or retiring early, or freedom from worry? I’d say it’s incalculable. It’s incalculable in two ways. It’s so large and important that we can’t put a price on it. But it’s also literally incalculable—we can’t measure it like we can measure interest rates—and what we can’t measure we tend to overlook.

  • When you don’t have control over your time, you’re forced to accept whatever bad luck is thrown your way. But if you have flexibility you have the time to wait for no-brainer opportunities to fall in your lap. This is a hidden return on your savings. Savings in the bank that earn 0% interest might actually generate an extraordinary return if they give you the flexibility to take a job with a lower salary but more purpose, or wait for investment opportunities that come when those without flexibility turn desperate. And that hidden return is becoming more important.

  • Do not aim to be coldly rational when making financial decisions. Aim to just be pretty reasonable. Reasonable is more realistic and you have a better chance of sticking with it for the long run, which is what matters most when managing money. To

  • Academic finance is devoted to finding the mathematically optimal investment strategies. My own theory is that, in the real world, people do not want the mathematically optimal strategy. They want the strategy that maximizes for how well they sleep at night.

  • Room for error lets you endure a range of potential outcomes, and endurance lets you stick around long enough to let the odds of benefiting from a low-probability outcome fall in your favor. The biggest gains occur infrequently, either because they don’t happen often or because they take time to compound. So the person with enough room for error in part of their strategy (cash) to let them endure hardship in another (stocks) has an edge over the person who gets wiped out, game over, insert more tokens, when they’re wrong.

  • There are a few specific places for investors to think about room for error. One is volatility. Can you survive your assets declining by 30%? On a spreadsheet, maybe yes—in terms of actually paying your bills and staying cash-flow positive. But what about mentally? It is easy to underestimate what a 30% decline does to your psyche. Your confidence may become shot at the very moment opportunity is at its highest. You—or your spouse—may decide it’s time for a new plan, or new career. I know several investors who quit after losses because they were exhausted. Physically exhausted. Spreadsheets are good at telling you when the numbers do or don’t add up. They’re not good at modeling how you’ll feel when you tuck your kids in at night wondering if the investment decisions you’ve made were a mistake that will hurt their future. Having a gap between what you can technically endure versus what’s emotionally possible is an overlooked version of room for error. Another is saving for retirement. We can look at history and see, for example, that the U.S. stock market has returned an annual average of 6.8% after inflation since the 1870s. It’s a reasonable first approximation to use that as an estimate of what to expect on your own diversified portfolio when saving for retirement. You can use those return assumptions to back into the amount of money you’ll need to save each month to achieve your target nestegg. But what if future returns are lower? Or what if long-term history is a good estimate of the long-term future, but your target retirement date ends up falling in the middle of a brutal bear market, like 2009? What if a future bear market scares you out of stocks and you end up missing a future bull market, so the returns you actually earn are less than the market average? What if you need to cash out your retirement accounts in your 30s to pay for a medical mishap? The answer to those what ifs is, “You won’t be able to retire like you once predicted.” Which can be a disaster. The solution is simple: Use room for error when estimating your future returns. This is more art than science. For my own investments, which I’ll describe more in chapter 20, I assume the future returns I’ll earn in my lifetime will be ⅓ lower than the historic average. So I save more than I would if I assumed the future will resemble the past. It’s my margin of safety. The future may be worse than ⅓ lower than the past, but no margin of safety offers a 100% guarantee. A one-third buffer is enough to allow me to sleep well at night. And if the future does resemble the past, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. “The best way to achieve felicity is to aim low,” says Charlie Munger. Wonderful.  
  • Nassim Taleb says, “You can be risk loving and yet completely averse to ruin.” And indeed, you should. The idea is that you have to take risk to get ahead, but no risk that can wipe you out is ever worth taking.

  • The odds are in your favor when playing Russian roulette. But the downside is not worth the potential upside. There is no margin of safety that can compensate for the risk. Same with money. The odds of many lucrative things are in your favor. Real estate prices go up most years, and during most years you’ll get a paycheck every other week. But if something has 95% odds of being right, the 5% odds of being wrong means you will almost certainly experience the downside at some point in your life. And if the cost of the downside is ruin, the upside the other 95% of the time likely isn’t worth the risk, no matter how appealing it looks.  
  • Leverage is the devil here. Leverage—taking on debt to make your money go further—pushes routine risks into something capable of producing ruin. The danger is that rational optimism most of the time masks the odds of ruin some of the time. The result is we systematically underestimate risk. Housing prices fell 30% last decade. A few companies defaulted on their debt. That’s capitalism. It happens. But those with high leverage had a double wipeout: Not only were they left broke, but being wiped out erased every opportunity to get back in the game at the very moment opportunity was ripe. A homeowner wiped out in 2009 had no chance of taking advantage of cheap mortgage rates in 2010. Lehman Brothers had no chance of investing in cheap debt in 2009. They were done. To get around this, I think of my own money as barbelled. I take risks with one portion and am terrified with the other. This is not inconsistent, but the psychology of money would lead you to believe that it is. I just want to ensure I can remain standing long enough for my risks to pay off. You have to survive to succeed. To repeat a point we’ve made a few times in this book: The ability to do what you want, when you want, for as long as you want, has an infinite ROI.

  • Ask a founder to list the biggest risks they face, and the usual suspects are mentioned. But beyond the predictable struggles of running a startup, here are a few issues we’ve dealt with among our portfolio companies: Water pipes broke, flooding and ruining a company’s office. A company’s office was broken into three times. A company was kicked out of its manufacturing plant. A store was shut down after a customer called the health department because she didn’t like that another customer brought a dog inside. A CEO’s email was spoofed in the middle of a fundraise that required all of his attention. A founder had a mental breakdown. Several of these events were existential to the company’s future. But none were foreseeable, because none had previously happened to the CEOs dealing with these problems—or anyone else they knew, for that matter. It was unchartered territory. Avoiding these kinds of unknown risks is, almost by definition, impossible. You can’t prepare for what you can’t envision. If there’s one way to guard against their damage, it’s avoiding single points of failure.

  • A good rule of thumb for a lot of things in life is that everything that can break will eventually break. So if many things rely on one thing working, and that thing breaks, you are counting the days to catastrophe. That’s a single point of failure. Some people are remarkably good at avoiding single points of failure. Most critical systems on airplanes have backups, and the backups often have backups. Modern jets have four redundant electrical systems. You can fly with one engine and technically land with none, as every jet must be capable of stopping on a runway with its brakes alone, without thrust reverse from its engines. Suspension bridges can similarly lose many of their cables without falling. The biggest single point of failure with money is a sole reliance on a paycheck to fund short-term spending needs, with no savings to create a gap between what you think your expenses are and what they might be in the future. The trick that often goes overlooked—even by the wealthiest—is what we saw in chapter 10: realizing that you don’t need a specific reason to save. It’s fine to save for a car, or a home, or for retirement. But it’s equally important to save for things you can’t possibly predict or even comprehend—the financial equivalent of field mice.

  • Like most products, the bigger the returns, the higher the price. Netflix stock returned more than 35,000% from 2002 to 2018, but traded below its previous all-time high on 94% of days. Monster Beverage returned 319,000% from 1995 to 2018—among the highest returns in history—but traded below its previous high 95% of the time during that period. Now here’s the important part. Like the car, you have a few options: You can pay this price, accepting volatility and upheaval. Or you can find an asset with less uncertainty and a lower payoff, the equivalent of a used car. Or you can attempt the equivalent of grand-theft auto: Try to get the return while avoiding the volatility that comes along with it. Many people in investing choose the third option. Like a car thief—though well-meaning and law-abiding—they form tricks and strategies to get the return without paying the price. They trade in and out. They attempt to sell before the next recession and buy before the next boom. Most investors with even a little experience know that volatility is real and common. Many then take what seems like the next logical step: trying to avoid it. But the Money Gods do not look highly upon those who seek a reward without paying the price. Some car thieves will get away with it. Many more will be caught and punished.

  • Morningstar once looked at the performance of tactical mutual funds, whose strategy is to switch between stocks and bonds at opportune times, capturing market returns with lower downside risk.⁵⁰ They want the returns without paying the price. The study focused on the mid-2010 through late 2011 period, when U.S. stock markets went wild on fears of a new recession and the S&P 500 declined more than 20%. This is the exact kind of environment the tactical funds are supposed to work in. It was their moment to shine. There were, by Morningstar’s count, 112 tactical mutual funds during this period. Only nine had better risk-adjusted returns than a simple 60/40 stock-bond fund. Less than a quarter of the tactical funds had smaller maximum drawdowns than the leave-it-alone index. Morningstar wrote: “With a few exceptions, [tactical funds] gained less, were more volatile, or were subject to just as much downside risk” as the hands-off fund. Individual investors fall for this when making their own investments, too. The average equity fund investor underperformed the funds they invested in by half a percent per year, according to Morningstar—the result of buying and selling when they should have just bought and held.  
  • Expecting things to be great means a best-case scenario that feels flat. Pessimism reduces expectations, narrowing the gap between possible outcomes and outcomes you feel great about. Maybe that’s why it’s so seductive. Expecting things to be bad is the best way to be pleasantly surprised when they’re not. Which, ironically, is something to be optimistic about.

  • Go out of your way to find humility when things are going right and forgiveness/compassion when they go wrong. Because it’s never as good or as bad as it looks. The world is big and complex. Luck and risk are both real and hard to identify. Do so when judging both yourself and others. Respect the power of luck and risk and you’ll have a better chance of focusing on things you can actually control. You’ll also have a better chance of finding the right role models. Less ego, more wealth. Saving money is the gap between your ego and your income, and wealth is what you don’t see. So wealth is created by suppressing what you could buy today in order to have more stuff or more options in the future. No matter how much you earn, you will never build wealth unless you can put a lid on how much fun you can have with your money right now, today. Manage your money in a way that helps you sleep at night. That’s different from saying you should aim to earn the highest returns or save a specific percentage of your income. Some people won’t sleep well unless they’re earning the highest returns; others will only get a good rest if they’re conservatively invested. To each their own. But the foundation of, “does this help me sleep at night?” is the best universal guidepost for all financial decisions. If you want to do better as an investor, the single most powerful thing you can do is increase your time horizon. Time is the most powerful force in investing. It makes little things grow big and big mistakes fade away. It can’t neutralize luck and risk, but it pushes results closer towards what people deserve. Become OK with a lot of things going wrong. You can be wrong half the time and still make a fortune, because a small minority of things account for the majority of outcomes. No matter what you’re doing with your money you should be comfortable with a lot of stuff not working. That’s just how the world is. So you should always measure how you’ve done by looking at your full portfolio, rather than individual investments. It is fine to have a large chunk of poor investments and a few outstanding ones. That’s usually the best-case scenario. Judging how you’ve done by focusing on individual investments makes winners look more brilliant than they were, and losers appear more regrettable than they should. Use money to gain control over your time, because not having control of your time is such a powerful and universal drag on happiness. The ability to do what you want, when you want, with who you want, for as long as you want to, pays the highest dividend that exists in finance. Be nicer and less flashy. No one is impressed with your possessions as much as you are. You might think you want a fancy car or a nice watch. But what you probably want is respect and admiration. And you’re more likely to gain those things through kindness and humility than horsepower and chrome. Save. Just save. You don’t need a specific reason to save. It’s great to save for a car, or a downpayment, or a medical emergency. But saving for things that are impossible to predict or define is one of the best reasons to save. Everyone’s life is a continuous chain of surprises. Savings that aren’t earmarked for anything in particular is a hedge against life’s inevitable ability to surprise the hell out of you at the worst possible moment. Define the cost of success and be ready to pay it. Because nothing worthwhile is free. And remember that most financial costs don’t have visible price tags. Uncertainty, doubt, and regret are common costs in the finance world. They’re often worth paying. But you have to view them as fees (a price worth paying to get something nice in exchange) rather than fines (a penalty you should avoid). Worship room for error. A gap between what could happen in the future and what you need to happen in the future in order to do well is what gives you endurance, and endurance is what makes compounding magic over time. Room for error often looks like a conservative hedge, but if it keeps you in the game it can pay for itself many times over. Avoid the extreme ends of financial decisions. Everyone’s goals and desires will change over time, and the more extreme your past decisions were the more you may regret them as you evolve. You should like risk because it pays off over time. But you should be paranoid of ruinous risk because it prevents you from taking future risks that will pay off over time.

  • Define the game you’re playing, and make sure your actions are not being influenced by people playing a different game. Respect the mess. Smart, informed, and reasonable people can disagree in finance, because people have vastly different goals and desires. There is no single right answer; just the answer that works for you.

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