Byron Wien: How To Live Forever and Other Lessons
General Assignment Reporter
When Byron Wien, the vice chairman of Blackstone Advisory Partners, speaks, the market listens. The frequent CNBC guest has, in 2013 alone, called for the S&P 500 to retreat to 1300, gold will go to $1900 an ounce, and earnings performance will break down.
Apart from his prescient predictions, Wien's writings have also become cult favorites. His annual "Ten Surprises" are hailed more like the market's "Ten Commandments," and his frequent op-eds consistently provoke discussion. The strategist-cum-journalist honed his craft as a staff writer at the Harvard Crimson in the 1950s, and also served as George Soros' co-author for "Soros on Soros: Staying Ahead of the Curve
Now, as he's nearing his 80th birthday (on Valentine's Day, no less), his writing of late has often taken a more philosophical bent. Two years ago, He wrote an autobiographical essay for the New York Times' David Brooks two years ago on life at age 78.
In January, he expanded upon that essay in an address to a symposium in Vail, Colo., held by Milwaukee mutual fund manager Dick Strong. The speech, nearly a month later, is still making the rounds on Wall Street, from trading desks to C-suites.
Here's the gist of Wien's Reflections-At-Age-80:
- On standing out: Create a "defining product." (That would be Wien's Ten Surprises, started in 1986.) Network intensely. Send hand-written thank-you notes.
- On career trajectories: Number crunching early on, conceptual work thereafter. "Stay at risk throughout." And sleep at least seven hours.
- On philanthropy: "Relieve pain rather than spread joy." Cultural institutions like theatres and museums "don't need you."
- On youth: At 40, people become more comfortable, less insecure, and "become a nicer, more likeable person. Try to get to that point as soon as you can."
- On meeting new people: Discover a formative event in their life before age 17. "It is my belief that some important event in everyone's youth has an influence on everything that occurs afterward." (Notably, Wien was orphaned at 14, an experience he frequently credits for his gumption today.)
- On immortality: "If you work forever, you can live forever. I know there is an abundance of biological evidence against this, but I'm going with this theory anyway."
… Perhaps the noted contrarian will be proven right yet again. Blackstone has confirmed the authenticity of the speech.
Here's the full speech.
To the Attendees at Dick Strong's January Symposium in Vail
Here are some of the lessons I have learned in my first 80years. I hope to continue to practice them in the next 80.
- Concentrate on finding a big idea that will make an impact on the people you want to influence. The Ten Surprises which I started doing in 1986 has been a defining product. People all over the world are aware of it and identify me with it. What they seem to like about it is that I put myself at risk by going on record with these events which I believe are probable and hold myself accountable at year-end. If you want to be successful and live a long, stimulating life, keep yourself at risk intellectually all the time.
- Network intensely. Luck plays a big role in life and there is no better way to increase your luck than by knowing as many people as possible. Nurture your network by sending articles, books and emails to people to show you're thinking about them. Write op-eds and thought pieces for major publications. Organize discussion groups to bring your thoughtful friends together.
- Get enough sleep. Seven hours will do until you're sixty, eight from sixty to seventy, nine thereafter which might include eight hours at night and a one hour afternoon nap.
- Evolve. Try to think of your life in phases so you can avoid a burn-out. Do the numbers crunching in the early phase of your career. Try developing concepts later on. Stay at risk throughout the process.
- Travel extensively. Try to get everywhere before you wear out. Attempt to meet local interesting people where you travel and keep in contact with them throughout your life. See them when you return to a place.
- When meeting someone new, try to find out what formative experience occurred in their lives before they were seventeen. It is my belief that some important event in everyone's youth has an influence on everything that occurs afterwards.
- On philanthropy my approach is to try to relieve pain rather than spread joy. Music, theatre and art museums have many affluent supporters, give the best parties and it can add to your social luster in a community. They don't need you. Social service, hospitals and educational institutions can make the world a better place and help the disadvantaged make their way toward the American dream.
- Younger people are naturally insecure and tend to overplay their accomplishments. Most people don't become comfortable with who they are until they're in their 40's. By that time they can underplay their achievements and become a nicer more likeable person. Try to get to that point as soon as you can.
- Take the time to pat those who work for you on the back when they do good work. Most people are so focused on the next challenge that they fail to thank the people who support them. It is important to do this. It motivates and inspires people and encourages them to perform at a higher level.
- When someone extends a kindness to you write them a hand-written note, not an e-mail. Handwritten notes make an impact and are not quickly forgotten.
- At the beginning of every year think of ways you can do your job better than you have ever done it before. Write it down and look at what you have set out for yourself when the year is over.
- Never retire. If you work forever, you can live forever. I know there is an abundance of biological evidence against this, but I'm going with this theory anyway.