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PART I

WHERE I’M COMING FROM

1 My Call to Adventure: 1949–1967

2 Crossing the Threshold: 1967–1979

3 My Abyss: 1979–1982

4 My Road of Trials: 1983–1994

5 The Ultimate Boon: 1995–2010

6 Returning the Boon: 2011–2015

7 My Last Year and My Greatest Challenge: 2016–2017

8 Looking Back from a Higher Level

PART II

LIFE PRINCIPLES

1 Embrace Reality and Deal with It

2 Use the 5-Step Process to Get What You Want Out of Life

3 Be Radically Open-Minded

4 Understand That People Are Wired Very Differently

5 Learn How to Make Decisions Effectively

Life Principles: Putting It All Together

Summary and Table of Life Principles

PART III

WORK PRINCIPLES

Summary and Table of Work Principles

TO GET THE CULTURE RIGHT . . .

1 Trust in Radical Truth and Radical Transparency

2 Cultivate Meaningful Work and Meaningful Relationships

3 Create a Culture in Which It Is Okay to Make Mistakes and Unacceptable Not to Learn from Them

4 Get and Stay in Sync

5 Believability Weight Your Decision Making

6 Recognize How to Get Beyond Disagreements

TO GET THE PEOPLE RIGHT . . .

7 Remember That the WHO Is More Important than the WHAT

8 Hire Right, Because the Penalties for Hiring Wrong Are Huge

9 Constantly Train, Test, Evaluate, and Sort People

TO BUILD AND EVOLVE YOUR MACHINE . . .

10 Manage as Someone Operating a Machine to Achieve a Goal

11 Perceive and Don’t Tolerate Problems

12 Diagnose Problems to Get at Their Root Causes

13 Design Improvements to Your Machine to Get Around Your Problems

14 Do What You Set Out to Do

15 Use Tools and Protocols to Shape How Work Is Done

16 And for Heaven’s Sake, Don’t Overlook Governance!

Work Principles: Putting It All Together

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CONCLUSION

APPENDIX: TOOLS AND PROTOCOLS FOR BRIDGEWATER’S IDEA MERITOCRACY

BIBLIOGRAPHY

INDEX

To Barbara, the half of me who has made me whole for more than forty years.

INTRODUCTION

Before I begin telling you what I think, I want to establish that I’m a dumb shit who doesn’t know much relative to what I need to know. Whatever success I’ve had in life has had more to do with my knowing how to deal with my not knowing than anything I know. The most important thing I learned is an approach to life based on principles that helps me find out what’s true and what to do about it.

I’m passing along these principles because I am now at the stage in my life in which I want to help others be successful rather than to be more successful myself. Because these principles have helped me and others so much, I want to share them with you. It’s up to you to decide how valuable they really are and what, if anything, you want to do with them.

Principles are fundamental truths that serve as the foundations for behavior that gets you what you want out of life. They can be applied again and again in similar situations to help you achieve your goals.

Every day, each of us is faced with a blizzard of situations we must respond to. Without principles we would be forced to react to all the things life throws at us individually, as if we were experiencing each of them for the first time. If instead we classify these situations into types and have good principles for dealing with them, we will make better decisions more quickly and have better lives as a result. Having a good set of principles is like having a good collection of recipes for success. All successful people operate by principles that help them be successful, though what they choose to be successful at varies enormously, so their principles vary.

To be principled means to consistently operate with principles that can be clearly explained. Unfortunately, most people can’t do that. And it’s very rare for people to write their principles down and share them. That is a shame. I would love to know what principles guided Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill, Leonardo da Vinci, and others so I could clearly understand what they were going after and how they achieved it and could compare their different approaches. I’d like to know which principles are most important to the politicians who want me to vote for them and to all the other people whose decisions affect me. Do we have common principles that bind us together—as a family, as a community, as a nation, as friends across nations? Or do we have opposing principles that divide us? What are they? Let’s be specific. This is a time when it is especially important for us to be clear about our principles.

My hope is that reading this book will prompt you and others to discover your own principles from wherever you think is best and ideally write them down. Doing that will allow you and others to be clear about what your principles are and understand each other better. It will allow you to refine them as you encounter more experiences and to reflect on them, which will help you make better decisions and be better understood.

HAVING YOUR OWN PRINCIPLES

We come by our principles in different ways. Sometimes we gain them through our own experiences and reflections. Sometimes we accept them from others, like our parents, or we adopt holistic packages of principles, such as those of religions and legal frameworks.

Because we each have our own goals and our own natures, each of us must choose our own principles to match them. While it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to use others’ principles, adopting principles without giving them much thought can expose you to the risk of acting in ways inconsistent with your goals and your nature. At the same time, you, like me, probably don’t know everything you need to know and would be wise to embrace that fact. If you can think for yourself while being open-minded in a clearheaded way to find out what is best for you to do, and if you can summon up the courage to do it, you will make the most of your life. If you can’t do that, you should reflect on why that is, because that’s most likely your greatest impediment to getting more of what you want out of life.

That brings me to my first principle:

• Think for yourself to decide 1) what you want, 2) what is true, and 3) what you should do to achieve #1 in light of #2 . . .

. . . and do that with humility and open-mindedness so that you consider the best thinking available to you. Being clear on your principles is important because they will affect all aspects of your life, many times a day. For example, when you enter into relationships with others, your principles and their principles will determine how you interact. People who have shared values and principles get along. People who don’t will suffer through constant misunderstandings and conflicts. Think about the people you are closest to: Are their values aligned with yours? Do you even know what their values or principles are? Too often in relationships, people’s principles aren’t clear. This is especially problematic in organizations where people need to have shared principles to be successful. Being crystal clear about my principles is why I labored so much over every sentence in this book.

The principles you choose can be anything you want them to be as long as they are authentic—i.e., as long as they reflect your true character and values. You will be faced with millions of choices in life, and the way you make them will reflect the principles you have—so it won’t be long before the people around you will be able to tell the principles you are really operating by. The worst thing you can be is a phony, because if you’re a phony you will lose people’s trust and your own self-respect. So you must be clear about your principles and then you must walk the talk. If inconsistencies seem to exist, you should explain them. It’s best to do that in writing because by doing so, you will refine your written principles.

While I will be sharing my own principles, I want to make clear to you that I don’t expect you to follow them blindly. On the contrary, I want you to question every word and pick and choose among these principles so you come away with a mix that suits you.

MY PRINCIPLES AND HOW I LEARNED THEM

I learned my principles over a lifetime of making a lot of mistakes and spending a lot of time reflecting on them. Since I was a kid, I’ve been a curious, independent thinker who ran after audacious goals. I got excited about visualizing things to go after, had some painful failures going after them, learned principles that would prevent me from making the same sort of mistakes again, and changed and improved, which allowed me to imagine and go after even more audacious goals and do that rapidly and repeatedly for a long time. So to me life looks like the sequence you see on the opposite page.

I believe that the key to success lies in knowing how to both strive for a lot and fail well. By failing well, I mean being able to experience painful failures that provide big learnings without failing badly enough to get knocked out of the game.

This way of learning and improving has been best for me because of what I’m like and because of what I do. I’ve always had a bad rote memory and didn’t like following other people’s instructions, but I loved figuring out how things work for myself. I hated school because of my bad memory but when I was twelve I fell in love with trading the markets. To make money in the markets, one needs to be an independent thinker who bets against the consensus and is right. That’s because the consensus view is baked into the price. One is inevitably going to be painfully wrong a lot, so knowing how to do that well is critical to one’s success. To be a successful entrepreneur, the same is true: One also has to be an independent thinker who correctly bets against the consensus, which means being painfully wrong a fair amount. Since I was both an investor and an entrepreneur, I developed a healthy fear of being wrong and figured out an approach to decision making that would maximize my odds of being right.

• Make believability-weighted decisions.

My painful mistakes shifted me from having a perspective of I know I’m right to having one of How do I know I’m right? They gave me the humility I needed to balance my audacity. Knowing that I could be painfully wrong and curiosity about why other smart people saw things differently prompted me to look at things through the eyes of others as well as my own. That allowed me to see many more dimensions than if I saw things just through my own eyes. Learning how to weigh people’s inputs so that I chose the best ones—in other words, so that I believability weighted my decision making—increased my chances of being right and was thrilling. At the same time, I learned to:

• Operate by principles . . .

. . . that are so clearly laid out that their logic can easily be assessed and you and others can see if you walk the talk. Experience taught me how invaluable it is to reflect on and write down my decision-making criteria whenever I made a decision, so I got in the habit of doing that. With time, my collection of principles became like a collection of recipes for decision making. By sharing them with the people at my company, Bridgewater Associates, and inviting them to help me test my principles in action, I continually refined and evolved them. In fact, I was able to refine them to the point that I could see how important it is to:

• Systemize your decision making.

I discovered I could do that by expressing my decision-making criteria in the form of algorithms that I could embed into our computers. By running both decision-making systems—i.e., mine in my head and mine in the computer—next to each other, I learned the computer could make better decisions than me because it could process vastly more information than I could, and it could do it faster and unemotionally. Doing that allowed me and the people I worked with to compound our understanding over time and improve the quality of our collective decision making. I discovered that such decision-making systems—especially when believability weighted—are incredibly powerful and will soon profoundly change how people around the world make all kinds of decisions. Our principle-driven approach to decision making has not only improved our economic, investment, and management decisions, it has helped us make better decisions in every aspect of our lives.

Whether or not your own principles are systemized/computerized is of secondary importance. The most important thing is that you develop your own principles and ideally write them down, especially if you are working with others.

It was that approach and the principles it yielded, and not me, that took me from being an ordinary middle-class kid from Long Island to being successful by a number of conventional measures—like starting a company out of my two-bedroom apartment and building it into the fifth most important private company in the U.S. (according to Fortune), becoming one of the one hundred richest people in the world (according to Forbes), and being considered one of the one hundred most influential (according to Time). They led me to a perch from which I got to see success and life very differently than I had imagined, and they gave me the meaningful work and meaningful relationships I value even more than my conventional successes. They gave me and Bridgewater far more than I ever dreamed of.

Until recently, I didn’t want to share these principles outside of Bridgewater because I don’t like public attention and because I thought it would be presumptuous to tell others what principles to have. But after Bridgewater successfully anticipated the financial crisis of 2008–09, I got a lot of media attention and so did my principles and Bridgewater’s unique way of operating. Most of those stories were distorted and sensationalistic, so in 2010, I posted our principles on our website so people could judge them for themselves. To my surprise, they were downloaded over three million times and I was flooded with thank-you letters from all over the world.

I will give them to you in two books—Life and Work Principles in one book, and Economic and Investment Principles in the other.

HOW THESE BOOKS ARE ORGANIZED

Since I have spent most of my adult life thinking about economies and investing, I considered writing Economic and Investment Principles first. But I decided to begin with my Life and Work Principles because they’re more overarching and I’ve seen how well they work for people, independent of their careers. Since they go so well together, they are combined here in one book prefaced by a short autobiography, Where I’m Coming From.

Part I: Where I’m Coming From

In this part, I share some of the experiences—most importantly, my mistakes—that led me to discover the principles that guide my decision making. To tell you the truth, I still have mixed feelings about telling my personal story, because I worry that it might distract you from the principles themselves and from the timeless and universal cause-effect relationships that inform them. For that reason, I wouldn’t mind if you decided to skip this part of the book. If you do read it, try to look past me and my particular story to the logic and merit of the principles I describe. Think about them, weigh them, and decide how much, if at all, they apply to you and your own life circumstances—and specifically, whether they can help you achieve your goals, whatever they may be.

Part II: Life Principles

The overarching principles that drive my approach to everything are laid out in Life Principles. In this section, I explain my principles in greater depth and show how they apply in the natural world, in our private lives and relationships, in business and policymaking, and of course at Bridgewater. I’ll share the 5-Step Process I’ve developed for achieving one’s goals and making effective choices; I’ll also share some of the insights I’ve gained into psychology and neuroscience and explain how I’ve applied them in my private life and in my business. This is the real heart of the book because it shows how these principles can be applied to most anything by most anyone.

Part III: Work Principles

In Work Principles, you’ll get a close-up view of the unusual way we operate at Bridgewater. I will explain how we’ve coalesced our principles into an idea meritocracy that strives to deliver meaningful work and meaningful relationships through radical truth and radical transparency. I’ll show you how this works at a granular level and how it can be applied to nearly any organization to make it more effective. As you will see, we are simply a group of people who are striving to be excellent at what we do and who recognize that we don’t know much relative to what we need to know. We believe that thoughtful, unemotional disagreement by independent thinkers can be converted into believability-weighted decision making that is smarter and more effective than the sum of its parts. Because the power of a group is so much greater than the power of an individual, I believe these work principles are even more important than the life principles on which they’re based.

What Will Follow This Book

This print book will be followed by an interactive book in the form of an app that will take you into videos and immersive experiences so that your learning is more experiential. The app will also get to know you through your interactions with it in order to provide you with more personalized advice.

This book and the app will be followed by another volume containing two other parts, Economic and Investment Principles, in which I will pass along the principles that have worked for me and that I believe might help you in these areas.

After that, there will be no advice I can give that will not be available in these two books, and I will be done with this phase of my life.

Think for yourself!

1) What do you want?

2) What is true?

3) What are you going to do about it?

PART I

WHERE I’M COMING FROM

Time is like a river that carries us forward into encounters with reality that require us to make decisions. We can’t stop our movement down this river and we can’t avoid those encounters. We can only approach them in the best possible way.

When we are children, other people, typically our parents, guide us through our encounters with reality. As we get older, we begin to make our own choices. We choose what we are going after (our goals), and that influences our paths. If you want to be a doctor, you go to medical school; if you want to have a family, you find a mate; and so on. As we move toward these goals, we encounter problems, make mistakes, and run up against our own personal weaknesses. We learn about ourselves and about reality and make new decisions. Over the course of our lives, we make millions and millions of decisions that are essentially bets, some large and some small. It pays to think about how we make them because they are what ultimately determine the quality of our lives.

We are all born with different thinking abilities but we aren’t born with decision-making skills. We learn them from our encounters with reality. While the path I went down is unique—being born to particular parents, pursuing a particular career, having particular colleagues—I believe that the principles I learned along the way will work equally well for most people on most paths. As you read my story, try to look through it and me to the underlying cause-and-effect relationships—at the choices I made and their consequences, what I learned from them, and how I changed the ways I make decisions as a result. Ask yourself what you want, seek out examples of other people who got what they wanted, and try to discern the cause-and-effect patterns behind their achievements so you can apply them to help you achieve your own goals.

To help you understand where I’m coming from, I am giving you an unvarnished account of my life and career, placing special emphasis on my mistakes and weaknesses and the principles I learned from them.

CHAPTER 1

MY CALL TO ADVENTURE:

1949–1967

I was born in 1949 and grew up in a middle-class Long Island neighborhood, the only son of a professional jazz musician and a stay-at-home mom. I was an ordinary kid in an ordinary house and a worse-than-ordinary student. I loved playing around with my pals—touch football in the streets and baseball in a neighbor’s backyard when I was young, and chasing girls when I got older.

Our DNA gives us our innate strengths and weaknesses. My most obvious weakness was my bad rote memory. I couldn’t, and still can’t, remember facts that don’t have reasons for being what they are (like phone numbers), and I don’t like following instructions. At the same time, I was very curious and loved to figure things out for myself, though that was less obvious at the time.

I didn’t like school, not just because it required a lot of memorization, but because I wasn’t interested in most of the things my teachers thought were important. I never understood what doing well in school would get me other than my mother’s approval.

My mother adored me and worried about my poor grades. Up until middle school, she would make me go to my room and study for a couple of hours before going out to play, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. She was always there for me. She folded and rubber-banded the newspapers I delivered and baked cookies for the two of us to eat while we watched horror movies together on Saturday nights. She died when I was nineteen. At the time, I couldn’t imagine ever laughing again. Now when I think of her I smile.

My dad worked very late hours as a musician—until about three in the morning—so he slept late on weekends. As a result, we didn’t have much of a relationship when I was young other than him constantly nagging me to take care of chores like mowing the lawn and cutting the hedges, which I hated. He was a responsible man dealing with an irresponsible kid. Memories of how we interacted seem funny to me today. For example, one time he told me to cut the grass and I decided to do just the front yard and postpone doing the back, but then it rained for a couple of days and the backyard grass became so high I had to cut it with a sickle. That took so long that by the time I was finished, the front yard was too high to mow, and so on.

After my mother died, my dad and I became very close, especially when I started my own family. I both liked and loved him. He had a casual, fun way about him the way musicians tend to, and I admired his strong character, which I assume came from living through the Great Depression and fighting in both World War II and the Korean War. I have memories of him from when he was in his seventies, not hesitating to drive through big snowstorms, shoveling himself out whenever he got stuck like it was no big deal. After playing in clubs and cutting records for most of his life, he began a second career in his midsixties, teaching music in high school and at a local community college, which he continued until he had a heart attack at eighty-one. He lived another decade after that, as sharp as ever mentally.

When I didn’t want to do something, I would fight it, but when I was excited about something, nothing could hold me back. For example, while I resisted doing chores at home, I eagerly did them outside the house to earn money. Starting at age eight, I had a newspaper route, shoveled snow off people’s driveways, caddied, bussed tables and washed dishes at a local restaurant, and stocked shelves at a nearby department store. I don’t remember my parents encouraging me to do these jobs so I can’t say how I came by them. But I do know that having those jobs and having some money to handle independently in those early years taught me many valuable lessons I wouldn’t have learned in school or at play.

In my early years the psychology of the 1960s U.S. was aspirational and inspirational—to achieve great and noble goals. It was like nothing I have seen since. One of my earliest memories was of John F. Kennedy, an intelligent, charismatic man who painted vivid pictures of changing the world for the better—exploring outer space, achieving equal rights, and eliminating poverty. He and his ideas had a major effect on my thinking.

The United States was then at its peak relative to the rest of the world, accounting for 40 percent of its economy compared to about 20 percent today; the dollar was the world’s currency; and the U.S. was the dominant military power. Being liberal meant being committed to moving forward in a fast and fair way, while being conservative meant being stuck in old and unfair ways—at least that’s how it seemed to me and to most of the people around me. As we saw it, the U.S. was rich, progressive, well managed, and on a mission to improve quickly at everything. I might have been naive but I wasn’t alone.

In those years, everyone was talking about the stock market, because it was doing great and people were making money. This included the people playing at a local golf course called Links where I started caddying when I was twelve. So I took my caddying money and started playing the stock market. My first investment was in Northeast Airlines. I bought it because it was the only company I’d heard of that was selling for less than $5 a share. I figured the more shares I bought, the more money I would make. That was a dumb strategy, but I tripled my money. Northeast Airlines was actually about to go broke and another company acquired it. I got lucky, but I didn’t know it at the time. I just thought making money in the markets was easy, so I was hooked.

In those days, Fortune magazine had a little tear-out coupon you could mail in to get free annual reports from Fortune 500 companies. I ordered them all. I can still remember watching the mailman unhappily lugging all those reports to our door, and I dug into every one of them. That was how I began building an investment library. As the stock market continued to climb, World War II and the Depression seemed like distant memories and investing seemed like simply a matter of buying anything and watching it go up. It would certainly go up, the common knowledge held, because managing the economy had developed into a science. After all, stocks had nearly quadrupled over the previous ten years, and some had done much better than that.

As a result, dollar-cost averaging—investing essentially the same dollar amount in the market every month, no matter how few or many shares it could buy—was the strategy most people followed. Of course, picking the best stocks was even better, so that’s what I and everyone else tried to do. There were thousands to choose from, all neatly listed on the last few pages of the newspaper.

While I liked playing the markets, I also loved playing around with my friends, whether in the neighborhood when I was a kid, using fake IDs to get into bars when we were teens, or, nowadays, going to music festivals and on scuba-diving trips together. I’ve always been an independent thinker inclined to take risks in search of rewards—not just in the markets, but in most everything. I also feared boredom and mediocrity much more than I feared failure. For me, great is better than terrible, and terrible is better than mediocre, because terrible at least gives life flavor. The high school yearbook quote my friends chose for me was from Thoreau: If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

In 1966, my senior year of high school, the stock market was still booming and I was making money and having a blast, cutting school with my best friend Phil to go surfing, and doing what fun-loving high school boys usually do. Of course I didn’t know it then, but that year was to be the stock market’s top. After that, almost everything I thought I knew about the markets was proven wrong.


1 A surprise simultaneous attack by the North Vietnamese on more than one hundred cities and towns in South Vietnam.

CHAPTER 2

CROSSING THE THRESHOLD:

1967–1979

I came into this period with the biases I had picked up from my experiences and the people around me. In 1966, asset prices reflected investors’ optimism about the future. But between 1967 and 1979, bad economic surprises led to big and unexpected price declines. Not just the economy and the markets but social sentiment deteriorated as well. Living through that taught me that while almost everyone expects the future to be a slightly modified version of the present, it is usually very different. But I didn’t know that in 1967. Certain that stocks would eventually rebound, I kept buying them, even as the market fell and I lost money until I figured out what was going wrong and how to deal with it. I gradually learned that prices reflect people’s expectations, so they go up when actual results are better than expected and they go down when they are worse than expected. And most people tend to be biased by their recent experiences.

That fall, I started at a local college, C. W. Post. I got in on probation because of my C average in high school. But unlike high school, I loved college because I could learn about things that interested me, not because I had to, so I got great grades. I also loved living away from home and having independence.

Learning to meditate helped too. When the Beatles visited India in 1968 to study Transcendental Meditation at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, I was curious to learn it, so I did. I loved it. Meditation has benefited me hugely throughout my life because it produces a calm open-mindedness that allows me to think more clearly and creatively.

I majored in finance in college because of my love for the markets and because that major had no foreign language requirement—so it allowed me to learn what I was interested in, both inside and outside class. I learned a lot about commodity futures from a very interesting classmate, a Vietnam veteran quite a bit older than me. Commodities were attractive because they could be traded with very low margin requirements, meaning I could leverage the limited amount of money I had to invest. If I could make winning decisions, which I planned to do, I could borrow more to make more. Stock, bond, and currency futures didn’t exist back then. Commodity futures were strictly real commodities like corn, soybeans, cattle, and hogs. So those were the markets I started to trade and learn about.

My college years coincided with the era of free love, mind-expanding drug experimentation, and rejection of traditional authority. Living through it had a lasting effect on me and many other members of my generation. For example, it deeply impacted Steve Jobs, whom I came to empathize with and admire. Like me, he took up meditation and wasn’t interested in being taught as much as he loved visualizing and building out amazing new things. The times we lived in taught us both to question established ways of doing things—an attitude he demonstrated superbly in Apple’s iconic 1984 and Here’s to the Crazy Ones, which were ad campaigns that spoke to me.

For the country as a whole, those were difficult years. As the draft expanded and the numbers of young men coming home in body bags soared, the Vietnam War split the country. There was a lottery based on birthdates to determine the order of those who would be drafted. I remember listening to the lottery on the radio while playing pool with my friends. It was estimated that the first 160 or so birthdays called would be drafted, though they read off all 366 dates. My birthday was forty-eighth.

I wasn’t smart enough to be afraid of going to war because I naively thought nothing bad could happen to me, but I didn’t want to go because I was charging forward with my life and to put it on hold for two years seemed like an eternity. My dad, though, was adamantly against the war and hell-bent against me going, even though he had believed in and fought in the prior two wars. He had me examined by a doctor who discovered I had hypoglycemia, which gave me an exemption. When I look back on that, I see that I got out of serving on a technicality—that my dad was essentially helping me dodge the draft—which now gives me mixed feelings. I feel guilty I didn’t do my part, relieved I didn’t experience the harmful consequences so many others suffered from the war, and appreciative of my dad for the love behind his effort to protect me. I have no idea what I’d do if I were faced with the same situation today.

As America’s politics and economy deteriorated, the country’s mood became depressed. The Tet Offensive in January 1968¹ seemed to convey the U.S. was losing the war; that same year Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for a second term and Richard Nixon was elected, beginning an even more difficult era. At the same time, France’s president Charles de Gaulle was turning in his country’s dollars for gold because he was concerned the U.S. was printing money to finance its spending. Watching the news and the market move together, I began to see the whole picture and understand the cause-effect relationship between the two.

Around 1970 or 1971, I noticed gold was starting to tick up in world markets. Until then, like most people, I hadn’t paid much attention to currency rates because the currency system had been stable throughout my lifetime. But as currency events increasingly appeared in the news, they caught my attention. I learned that other currencies were fixed against the dollar, that the dollar was fixed against gold, that Americans weren’t allowed to own gold (though I wasn’t sure why), and that other central banks could convert their paper dollars into gold, which was how they were assured that they wouldn’t be hurt if the U.S. printed too many dollars. I heard our government officials pooh-pooh the worries about the dollar and the excitement about gold, assuring us that the dollar was sound and that gold was just an archaic metal. Speculators were behind the rising gold prices, they said, and they would get burned once things settled down. Back then, I still assumed that government officials were honest.

In the spring of 1971, I graduated college with a nearly perfect grade point average, which got me into Harvard Business School. The summer before I started at HBS, I got a job as a clerk on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. By midsummer, the dollar problem began to reach a breaking point. There were reports that Europeans wouldn’t accept dollars from American tourists. The global monetary system was in the process of breaking down, but that wasn’t clear to me quite yet.

Then, on Sunday, August 15, 1971, President Nixon went on television to announce that the U.S. would renege on its promise to allow dollars to be turned in for gold, which led the dollar to plummet. Since government officials had promised not to devalue the dollar, I listened with amazement as he spoke. Instead of addressing the fundamental problems behind the pressure on the dollar, he continued to blame speculators, crafting his words to make it sound like he was moving to support the dollar while his actions were doing just the opposite. Floating it, as Nixon was doing, and then letting it sink like a stone, looked a lot like a lie to me. Over the decades since, I’ve repeatedly seen policymakers deliver such assurances immediately before currency devaluations, so I learned not to believe government policymakers when they assure you that they won’t let a currency devaluation happen. The more strongly they make those assurances, the more desperate the situation probably is, so the more likely it is that a devaluation will take place.

As I listened to Nixon speak, I wondered what those developments meant. Money as we’d known it—a claim check to get gold—no longer existed. That couldn’t be good. It seemed clear to me that the era of promise that Kennedy had personified was unraveling.

Monday morning I walked onto the floor of the exchange expecting pandemonium. There was pandemonium all right, but not the sort I expected: Instead of falling, the stock market jumped about 4 percent, a significant daily gain.

To try to understand what was happening, I spent the rest of that summer studying past currency devaluations. I learned that everything that was going on—the currency breaking its link to gold and devaluing, the stock market soaring in response—had happened before, and that logical cause-effect relationships made those developments inevitable. My failure to anticipate this, I realized, was due to my being surprised by something that hadn’t happened in my lifetime, though it had happened many times before. The message that reality was conveying to me was You better make sense of what happened to other people in other times and other places because if you don’t you won’t know if these things can happen to you and, if they do, you won’t know how to deal with them.

Enrolling at Harvard Business School that fall, I was excited about meeting the extraordinarily intelligent people from all over the planet who would be my classmates. And high as my expectations were, the experience was even better. I lived with people from all over the world and we partied together in an exciting, eclectic environment. There was no teacher in front of a blackboard telling us what to remember and no tests to see whether we remembered it. Instead we were given actual case studies to read and analyze. Then we gathered in groups to thrash out what we would do if we were in the shoes of the people in those situations. This was my kind of school!

Meanwhile, thanks to the wave of money printing that had followed the demise of the gold standard, the economy and the stock market were soaring. Stocks were in again in 1972, and the fashion at the time was the Nifty 50. This group of fifty stocks had fast and steady earnings growth and were widely believed to be a sure thing.

As hot as the stock market was, I was more interested in trading commodities, so that spring I begged the director of commodities at Merrill Lynch to give me a summer job. He was surprised because people from places like Harvard Business School weren’t typically interested in commodities, which were considered an obscure stepchild of the Wall Street brokerage industry. Up until then, as far as I know, no Harvard Business School student had ever worked in commodity futures anywhere. Most Wall Street firms didn’t even have commodity futures divisions, and Merrill Lynch’s was small, tucked away on a side street, and furnished with basic metal desks.

A few months later, when I was back for my second year at HBS, the first oil shock began, with prices quadrupling in a matter of months. The U.S. economy slowed, commodity prices soared, and in 1973 the stock market took a dive. Once again, I was blindsided—but in retrospect I could see that the dominoes had fallen in a logical sequence.

In this case, the debt-financed overspending of the 1960s had continued into the early 1970s. The Fed had funded this spending with easy-credit policies, but by paying back its debts with depreciated paper money instead of gold-backed dollars, the U.S. effectively defaulted. Naturally, with all this money printing the dollar plunged in value. That allowed for more easy credit, which led to even more spending. The inflationary surge that followed the breakdown of the currency system sent commodity prices even higher. In response, in 1973, the Fed tightened monetary policy, which is what central banks do when inflation and growth are too strong. This in turn caused the worst decline in stocks and the worst weakening of the economy since the Great Depression. The Nifty 50 were particularly affected, plunging severely.

The lesson? When everybody thinks the same thing—such as what a sure bet the Nifty 50 is—it is almost certainly reflected in the price, and betting on it is probably going to be a mistake. I also learned that for every action (such as easy money and credit) there is a consequence (in this case, higher inflation) roughly proportionate to that action, which causes an approximately equal and opposite reaction (tightening of money and credit) and market reversals.

I was beginning to see things happening over and over again, which led me to see that most everything is another one of those: Most everything has happened repeatedly before for logical cause-effect reasons. Of course, being able to both properly identify which ones of those are happening and to understand the cause-effect relationships behind them remained difficult. Though most everything seemed inevitable and logical in retrospect, nothing was nearly as clear in real time.

Because people chase what’s hot and avoid what’s not, stock investing fell out of favor after 1973 and commodity trading became the thing to do. With my background in commodities and my Harvard MBA, I became a sought-after property. Dominick & Dominick, a middle-sized, hundred-year-old brokerage firm, hired me as director of commodities for $25,000 a year, which was near the top of what HBS graduate starting salaries were that year. My new boss paired me with an older, experienced guy who had lots of commodities brokerage experience, and we were assigned the task of setting up a commodities division. I was in way over my head, though I was too arrogant to realize it at the time. I probably would have learned a lot of painful lessons had the job continued, but the bad stock market took Dominick & Dominick under before we’d made much progress.

As the economy unraveled, the Watergate scandal dominated the headlines and I saw again how politics and economics intertwine, usually with economics leading. This downward spiral led people to become pessimistic, so they sold their stocks and the market continued to fall. Things couldn’t have gotten much worse but everyone was afraid they would. It was the mirror image of what I’d witnessed in 1966 when the market hit its top, and just as it was then, the consensus was wrong. When people are very pessimistic, they sell out, prices typically get very cheap, and action to improve conditions has to be taken. Sure enough, the Fed eased its monetary policy and stocks hit bottom in December 1974.

At the time, I was single and living in New York; I was having a great time partying with friends from HBS and dating a lot. My roommate was dating a Cuban woman and he set me up on a blind date with one of her friends, an exotic woman from Spain named Barbara who could barely speak English. This wasn’t a problem, because we communicated in different ways. She thrilled me for nearly two years before we moved in together, got married, had four sons, and shared an amazing life together. She still thrills me but is too private a person for me to say more about her.

While I worked in the brokerage business, I also traded my own account. Though I had many more winning positions than losing ones, I can only recall the losing ones now. I remember one big one when I owned pork bellies. For several days the market for them was limit down—meaning that the price had fallen so low that trading had to be stopped. I later described the impact of this experience to Jack Schwager, the author of Hedge Fund Market Wizards:

In those days, we had the big commodity boards, which clicked whenever prices changed. So each morning, on the opening, I would see and hear the market click down 200 points, the daily limit, stay unchanged at that price, and know that I had lost that much more, with the amount of potential additional losses still undefined. It was a very tactile experience . . . [and] it taught me the importance of risk controls, because I never wanted to experience that pain again. It enhanced my fear of being wrong and taught me to make sure that no single bet, or even multiple bets, could cause me to lose more than an acceptable amount. In trading you have to be defensive and aggressive at the