Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Book Lessons #1: The Snowball Early Chapters

As most regular readers might know. I had been amazingly slow in my reading. So, in 2018, I finally finished reading Alice Schroeder's 2008 masterpiece on Buffett's life titled The Snowball. This is the best book written on Buffett ever. It depicted his whole life from birth in 1930 all the way to events in 2007-2008. I think there are so many lessons we can learn that we should revisit these posts in the months and years ahead. But for today let's focus on a very practical today's common life issue that I gleamed from the earlier chapters in the book.

The Snowball

In describing both Buffett's childhood and his own early career when his kids were very young. I realized how their lives and ours were related. Both Howard Buffett (Warren Buffett's father) and Warren himself dealt with the markets. His father was a stockbroker before he became a senator. The big revelation reading about their lives was that they had no time to deal with domestic issues, or rather, anything else outside their work. A career in the financial industry was so mentally draining and time consuming that they had no time to deal with wives, kids and the rest of the domestic chores (as with being a senator later on for Howard Buffett). As such, both housewives find it very hard to raise many kids. Both Howard and Warren had three kids and the mums had a really hard time. In fact, Buffett's mum went into a crazy rage with her kids so much so that her eldest daughter and Warren himself resented her for the rest of their lives. It was very sad.

Ironically, modern societies are not suited to raise children. There's a saying, "it takes a village to raise a child" but with the rise of nuclear families in the 20th century, we no longer live in villages. One father and one mother have to raise multiple kids. America experienced this decades ago and now we are the first or second generation in Asia going through this. The results are not encouraging. From the book, we also realized that Buffett was a delinquent in middle and high school until he finally woke up one day to improve his studies. His kids also didn't do that well in school. This is an important reflection point for Singaporean parents today, which is made worse by our education system. We shall revisit this point later.

Back to Howard and Warren's daily lives. Their work consumed almost all the hours. They wake up early in the day to read up on market news, spend most of their time in the office on the phones, in meetings or more reading. At 6 or 7pm, they get off work and go home for dinner, which is the only family time during weekdays and then it's more reading late into the night or playing bridge. Reflecting on my own life, it has been pretty much the same routine. We spend so much time working, reading and thinking that we are mentally exhausted. There is very little energy left for anything else.

Brutal markets: STI fell 7% in 10 days

The markets are brutal. The participants are all smart. When everyone competes at the highest level, that’s where it’s always super tough. It takes Joseph Schooling to swim 8 hours every day to win an Olympic gold. It is not too different in order to become the top 10% of all investors who can beat average market returns. Warren Buffett reads two newspapers everyday, magazines, annual reports of potential investments, on top of all the other stuff he has to read. He probably spends 8 hours reading everyday. It's just crazy. On top of that, he did his fair share of travelling all over USA in his younger days. He was always in New York, not mentioning a two year stint at Graham and Newman. Then later on he needed to be everywhere: Omaha, California, New York, Sun Valley (Idaho), Washington etc. That was his life then, this is our lives today. 

When he is out on the road, his wife and also his mum during Howard Buffett's days dealt with the three kids. All by themselves. No domestic helper, no iPad, for distracting the younger kids. Not even TV for Howard's wife as it wasn't invented yet. It was unimaginable how they survived. I truly appreciate another adage, "Behind every successful man, is a very successful woman." There can be no Warren Buffett without Susie. There can be no Lee Kuan Yew without Kwa Geok Choo.

To be outstanding in our careers, our wives sacrificed. This is usually not very visible. In fact we resent why they couldn't be more. Why couldn’t they become Mrs Lee Kuan Yew. Why they couldn't understand we are working our asses off in the trenches from 8am to 6pm and when we reached home, we are not ready to juggle kids and wash dishes. We just want to switch off.

But today is 14th of February. Today is the day to put aside our complaints and give our loved ones a  big hug. Thank them for making our lives easier, for doing the chores, for taking the kids to the playground despite being totally drained.

Cupid did shoot the good arrow, right?

This cupid (Ying Tze) would be good yah?

Then, we have our education system...

I am convinced that 80% of all parents in Singapore cannot win against our education system. But that is actually ok. Our education system is a pressure cooker destined to churn out maybe 5% pristine students and maybe 35% damage products. There's 20% of okay students who would eventually find their way to success just like how Warren Buffett did and how his kids did. There will always be the average and below average students which makes up remaining 40%. A big proportion of these students get on with lives, but some would also get demotivated and become damage products. This damage is done every year and is usually irreversible. This is the sad truth. Our education system does not lift up the average, it destroys the average. But this is kept invisible. As for the bottom 20%, our system failed them, utterly.

How to win against this system? We almost need to be superheroes. Like Mr and Mrs Incredible, two superheroes married. One can take care of work, investments, annual holiday trips, on top of earning the dough. The other becoming a full-time schoolwork CEO, COO and CPO - Chief People Officer, managing all the different tutors, enrichment, as well as schoolwork. Yup, in short, become as good as one of the Avengers, save the world while looking damn cool. 

Well, the saving grace is that we don't really have to win in the system because the system is totally not preparing our kids for the future. The classroom was invented 100 years ago and had failed to improve with the times. There is not much point in learning how to write essays using bombastic words and flowery phrases or in solving three variable simultaneous equations in primary school. The former is a reflection of the outdatedness of our system, the latter the incomprehensible mentality of trying to squeeze over-abstracted concepts into young brains when they are not ready.

The most important lessons our kids have to learn would not be taught in schools. Especially Singapore schools. They are:

1. Learning to relearn everything, not rote memorizing.
2. Learning the soft skills, dealing with people, presenting, talking well.
3. Learning to use all different available tools, which is easily available today via the internet and other means, and not always relying on fixed methods or formula.

Wishing all couples a very Happy Valentine's Day! 

To my dearest wife, thank you for your love for the past 15 years!