One of the biggest problems facing investors is the amount of ‘noise’ that we get from the financial media and commentators. Financial news sections, the internet, and podcasts are continually bombarding us with the latest ‘hot stock’ or miracle investing strategy. Meanwhile investors get caught up in the noise checking their stocks daily to see what’s performing well and what’s under-performing.
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It is therefore no coincidence that the very best investors have found some unconventional ways to shut out the noise and focus on what’s important in order to achieve outstanding returns. But how do they manage to do it?
One answer can be found in the book – The Education Of A Value Investor, by Guy Spier. In Chapter 8 titled – My Own Version Of Omaha, Spier illustrates how he and some of the world’s great investors such as Buffett, Munger, Pabrai, and Klarman have set up their work environments in such a way as to minimize distractions and cut out the noise from financial markets. While some of these methods of created a distraction-free environment may seem unconventional, clearly they work, at least from these great investors. Spier himself made the decision to move to Zurich from Manhattan to create what he calls – his own version of Omaha.
Here’s an excerpt from the book:
So I started actively to consider alternatives to Manhattan. For a while, I thought seriously of moving to Omaha, given how well it had worked for Warren. I also considered Irvine, California, where Mohnish lives. I contemplated other American cities like Boston, Grand Rapids, and Boulder. And I thought about relatively low-key European cities such as Munich, Lyon, Nice, Geneva, and Oxford. But in the end, Lory and I agreed on Zurich. I had gone there often as a child and had always liked it.
Zurich also struck me as a place where I could live in mental peace—a quiet, pleasant, slightly bland setting where there isn’t too much going on. Here I could focus on my family and my fund without undue disturbance. Occasionally people ask me, “But isn’t it boring there?” My answer: “Boring is good. As an investor, that’s exactly what I want.” Because distraction is a real problem. What I really need is a plain, unobtrusive background that’s not overly exciting. And I’m certainly not alone in finding Zurich conducive to clear thought. Historically, the city has provided a space for free contemplation to residents as diverse as Carl Jung, James Joyce, Richard Wagner, Vladimir Lenin, and Albert Einstein—not to mention Tina Turner.
Next, I set about finding the perfect office—another key component of my new environment. Initially, I made a mistake, renting an office for a year on the Bahnhofstrasse, a ritzy street that is Zurich’s own enclave of Extremistan. It’s an elegant area, full of expensive stores. But super-rich settings like this are not ideal for me since they stimulate unhealthy appetites. So I soon decided to move to an office on the other side of the river, a 15-minute walk from the Bahnhofstrasse’s glitz and glamour. For me, this feels like a safe distance.
I also began to recognize that other investors I admire had adopted a similar approach to building their environment, whether consciously or not. Mohnish, for one, works in a less-than-glamorous office park in Southern California with no other financial institutions nearby. I once asked him why he hadn’t set himself up in an attractive office in one of Irvine’s fancy shopping centers, close to his favorite restaurants. “Oh, Guy,” he replied. “I don’t need all that razzmatazz!” I have no doubt that he understands what the area around him can do to his mind.
Likewise, Seth Klarman, one of the most successful investors on the planet, works out of a decidedly unflashy office in Boston, far from the intoxications of Wall Street. If he wanted, he could easily rent the top floor of a gleaming skyscraper overlooking the Charles River. Nick Sleep set up his office in London near a Cornish pasty shop on the King’s Road, far from the grandeur of Mayfair, which has become Britain’s hedge fund mecca. Allen Benello, the manager of White River Investment Partners, works out of a nondescript office in San Francisco, nowhere near the city’s financial district. And Buffett, as we’ve discussed, is tucked away in Omaha’s Kiewit Plaza—another building that is not exactly known for its razzmatazz.
This strikes me as a significant yet largely unrecognized factor in the success of these investors. Small wonder, then, that I wanted to create my own version of Omaha.
That said, I’m different from Buffett—and not just in terms of IQ points. For one thing, it’s important for me to have a pleasant view from my office, whereas he’s not fussed about such aesthetic considerations. While I like to look out on trees or something similarly cheering, he routinely keeps the blinds drawn in his office. But in other substantive ways, I consciously modeled the environment he’d created in Omaha. For example, Warren lives about a ten-minute drive from his office, which is slightly outside the city center. Mohnish’s office in Irvine is also about ten minutes from his home, and it’s slightly outside the city center. I mirrored them, selecting an office that’s a twelve-minute walk or seven-minute tram ride from my home and that’s slightly outside the city center.
For me, it works to be outside the heart of the city, partly because this makes it less likely that too many people will drop by the office opportunistically. They need a stronger reason to make this effort, so their visits tend to be more worthwhile.
These decisions were carefully considered. For example, Mohnish and I had specifically discussed commuting times, reaching the conclusion that the ideal commute takes around ten to twenty minutes. This is close enough to improve one’s quality of life, but far enough to establish a separation between work and home. For people like me who get obsessive about their jobs, it’s useful to have this separation. We need to see our families and spend time at home when we’re not just buried in work.
As I’ve mentioned, one of my flaws is that I’m amazingly easy to distract, and I need to address this problem in designing my physical environment. Unlike Buffett, who can operate brilliantly without a computer or an email address, I rely on my computer. But I’m also aware that the Internet and email can become appalling distractions for me. To counteract this and to help me remain focused, I physically divided my office.
At one end of the corridor, I have a “busy room,” with a phone, a computer, and four monitors. But I keep the computer and the monitors on an adjustable-height desk, which I typically position so