Jim Brown is arguably the best all-around athlete ever.
He was a track star, one of the nation’s finest lacrosse players, averaged 38 points per game on his high school basketball team, and broke NFL records as a running back for the Cleveland Browns. In 2002, The Sporting News named him the greatest football player of all time.
He was pretty handy with a tennis racquet, too. And he liked to wager on his matches.
At a Las Vegas tennis club in 1979, Brown was frustrated when his opponent cancelled a money match at the last minute.
A stranger approached him with a young boy. His proposal – delivered in a thick foreign accent – was preposterous. He bet Brown that his nine-year-old son – short and scrawny even for his age – could beat him in tennis.
And he was cocky about it. He offered to put up his house.
We can only imagine what ran through Brown’s mind as he sized up the half-pint. After all, this wasn’t a bet. It was an insult.
The stranger had chosen the wrong man to outrage. Brown wasn’t just an athletic phenom. His NFL career could be summed up in his oft-quoted remark, “Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts.”
He countered that they should make the bet an even $10,000.
The club owner tried to warn Brown. And while he did reduce his wager, he wouldn’t be talked out of the match, insisting, “the man needs to be taught a lesson.”
And so Jim Brown strode off to the courts. With Mike Agassi and his young son Andre in tow.
It didn’t take Brown long to recognize his error. He had been hustled.
We seldom deliver lessons in humility. More often than not, we wind up on the receiving end. This is especially true in my bailiwick, the investment arena, where high confidence and big egos are routinely taken down like the Berlin Wall.
Every successful investor develops an abiding sense of humility, a deep respect for the unknowable. What will happen tomorrow or next week is always an open question.
And if you don’t know who you are, the stock market is an expensive place to find out. Just ask Victor Niederhoffer.
A professional trader and former finance professor, Neiderhoffer established his reputation as hedge fund great George Soros’ partner, managing his fixed income and foreign exchange investments from 1982-1990.
Niederhoffer is a smart guy and an unorthodox thinker, drawing on many disciplines – including psychology, philosophy and advanced mathematics – to make his trading decisions. His 1997 book, The Education of a Speculator, was a New York Times bestseller.
But in the fall of that same year, he got his post-graduate degree. Viewing the Asian market meltdown as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Neiderhoffer invested his hedge fund in Thai bank stocks, confident the government would never let them fail. He was wrong. His fund quickly lost more than three-quarters of its value and he was forced to close its doors.
Niederhoffer is an experienced, insightful guy. But I wish he’d written The Education of a Speculator after his hedge fund collapsed, not before. That would have been a book worth reading.
Niederhoffer is hardly alone, of course. History has not been particularly kind to all manner of experts and their definitive pronouncements:
* Anglican Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) researched the dates of Biblical events and painstakingly subtracted all the Old Testament generations. When he finished his calculations, he proclaimed that the earth was created on October 23, 4004 B.C. at nine o’clock in the morning. (We now know he missed his mark by 4.6 billion years or so.)
* In 1899, Charles H. Duell, commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office proposed shuttering the office. “Everything that can be invented,” he said, “has been invented.”
* In 1927, The New York Times heralded Philo T. Farnsworth’s new creation, the television, with a front-page article and this subhead: “Few Commercial Possibilities Seen.”
* Walter Lippman, one of the 20th century’s most respected journalists and thinkers, wrote in a column dated April 27, 1948, “Among the really difficult problems of the world, the Arab-Israeli conflict is one of the simplest and most manageable.”
* In 1962, a little-known Liverpool group called The Beatles auditioned for Tony Meehan of Decca Records. They performed 15 songs in just under an hour. Decca sent them packing, saying “guitar groups are on the way out” and “the Beatles have no future in show business.”
It’s not just the “experts” who flounder, of course. Life is one long lesson in humility. Our perceptions can deceive us. Trust gets misplaced. Knowledge grows and opinions change. Even when the truth is with us, there are often exceptions.
It’s natural to seek out experts who can guide us. But outside of physics and chemistry, predictions about the future are best taken with a whole shaker of salt.
We are all swimming in a vast sea of the unknown. The sooner we recognize this – and embrace it in our personal and business lives – the better our chances of staying afloat.