Seeking life's lessons in books, podcasts - Wall St elites reflect

New York

SHANE Parrish was a cybersecurity expert at Canada's top intelligence agency and an occasional blogger when he noticed something curious about his modest readership six years ago - 80 per cent of his followers worked on Wall Street.

The blog was meant to be a method of self-improvement, helping him deal with a job whose pressures had increased with the growing threat of global hacking. But his lonely riffs - on how learning deeply, thinking widely and reading books strategically could improve decision-making skills - had found an eager audience among hedge fund titans and mutual fund executives, many of whom were still licking their wounds after the financial crisis.

"People just found us," Mr Parrish said. "We became a thing on Wall Street."

His website, Farnam Street, urges visitors to "Upgrade Yourself". In saying as much, he is promoting strategies of rigorous self-betterment as opposed to classic self-help fare - which appeals to his overachieving audience in elite finance, Silicon Valley and professional sports. His many maxims cite Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bertrand Russell and even Frank Zappa. ("A mind is like a parachute. It doesn't work if it is not open.")

Today, Mr Parrish's community of striving financiers is clamouring for more of him. That means calling on him to present his thoughts and book ideas to employees and clients, attending his regular reading and think weeks in Hawaii, Paris and the Bahamas, and in some cases, hiring him to be their personal decision-making coach.

"These guys are driven to get that incremental edge - they are competitive, gladiatorial in that aspect," said Mr Parrish, 39. "We are trying to get people to ask themselves better questions and reflect. If you can do that, you will be better able to handle the speed and variety of changing environments."

To do that, he advises investors like Scott Miller, the founder of Greenhaven Road Capital, to disconnect from the noise and read deeply.

"I will leave my computer and go into a separate room to read," said Mr Miller, an early sponsor of Farnam Street who is currently reading Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, by James Clear. "It feels weird to do this in the middle of the day, but I do it."

Mr Parrish's site has drawn the attention of some of the biggest names in finance. Dan Loeb, one of the more prominent hedge fund executives on Wall Street, is a big fan. And Ray Dalio of Bridgewater, the world's largest hedge fund, recently did a podcast with him.

"Shane is a special person," Mr Loeb said via email.

Few Wall Street obsessions surpass the pursuit of an investment edge. In an earlier era, before computers and the Internet, this advantage was largely brain power: Warren Buffett plucking a nugget from an annual report or George Soros making a seismic bet against a currency.

Today, information is just another commodity. And the edge belongs to algorithms, data sets and funds that track indexes and countless other investment themes. This has been devastating for hedge fund and mutual fund managers who make their living trying to outsmart the stock market.

With their business models under attack, they are searching for answers. And Mr Parrish has a simple solution - reading, reflection and life-long learning.

"These days, if you are not getting better, you are falling behind," said Mr Parrish, who is reading The Laws of Human Nature, an examination of human behaviour that draws on examples of historical figures by Robert Greene. "Reading is a way to consume people's experiences, to learn something timeless and then apply it to your life."

Chuck Royce, founder and former chief executive officer of Royce mutual funds, who oversees US$4 billion in investments, said he stumbled on Mr Parrish's site and related to it immediately.

Mr Royce developed a reputation as one of the industry's most astute fund managers, specialising in small, high-quality companies in the 1970s. But in the recent period of low interest rates, his main mutual fund's performance has suffered.

"I failed to understand that in this period of zero rates, inferior companies would outperform high-quality ones," said Mr Royce, who was part of a group that spent a long weekend talking books and big ideas with Mr Parrish in Hawaii two years ago.

He has embraced Mr Parrish's core principles. He gets up at 5.30 every morning to do his daily reading, which currently includes Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Bets When you Don't Have All the Cards by Annie Duke, a former poker champion - and a big favourite among investors these days. At the office, Mr Royce works from a couch strewn with papers. His Bloomberg terminal is in another room.

"It is all about habits," he said. "Setting goals is easy, but without good habits, you are not getting there."

Some executives have long sought insights from the printed page - and not just in the business section. Emmanuel Roman, chief executive officer of the bond giant Pimco - who is reading On Grand Strategy, an assessment of the decisions of notable historical leaders by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer John Lewis Gaddis - called reading "a pure passion". And Lloyd Blankfein, chairman of Goldman Sachs, has talked up the benefits of reading books, especially those not related to economics or finance.

Mr Parrish is an unlikely guru, a computer scientist from Halifax, Nova Scotia, who seems bemused by his sudden cachet. On a recent swing through New York to meet with clients, he was dressed in a T-shirt and shorts and carried a worn backpack. Slight and balding, he looked more like an unhurried graduate student than a counsellor to some of the wealthiest executives on Wall Street.

Mr Parrish joined the Communications Security Establishment, a division of Canada's Defence Department, straight out of college. His first day was Aug 28, 2001, and he was soon promoted in the tumult that followed the Sept 11 attacks. Suddenly, he was managing a large staff at the age of 24.

Wanting to improve his decision-making skills, he found inspiration in Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett's long-time investment partner. Mr Parrish quickly became an acolyte, drawn to Mr Munger's thoughts on multidisciplinary thinking and mental models.

He pored over Berkshire Hathaway's annual reports and became a regular attendee of Mr Buffett's yearly meetings in Omaha, Nebraska. The name of his site is another tribute to the billionaire investor - Berkshire Hathaway's address in Omaha is 3555 Farnam Street.

Last year, Mr Parrish left intelligence work to tend to the site full time. He would not disclose how much his various projects were making. Farnam Street now consists of book lists, essays, podcasts and a vibrant social network - all of which are anchored by his self-improvement musings.

There are also branded goodies to be had, such as a decision-making journal and a Farnam Street thinking cap.

Some 190,000 people have signed up to Brain Food, his free weekly newsletter. Mr Parrish's more dedicated followers pay US$250 a year to become part of his "knowledge community", a premium site with a private discussion forum and additional content. They have flocked to his social network, trading book ideas and meetup suggestions in Toronto, Dubai and London. NYTIMES

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