Irving Kahn

Millions of people die every year of something they could cure themselves: lack of wisdom and lack of ability to control their impulses.

Irving Kahn

irving-kahnIrving Kahn is 107. To put this in perspective, when he was born in 1905, Teddy Roosevelt was beginning his full term as President, Czar Nicholas II was quelling the first Russian Revolution and the Wright brothers completed a sustained flight of 39 minutes.  Kahn has experienced a lot, and when he speaks, it’s worth listening.

Despite his age, Kahn is still active as chairman of Kahn Brothers Group in the management of over $700 million in client funds. Five days a week he makes his way to his 22nd floor corner office and like many folks, takes work home on the weekends. This makes him Wall Street’s oldest active money manager. He began his career in 1928 as a runner on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Eschewing the craziness of the trading floor after only a week, he transferred to the research department where he began a systematic self-education into the principles of investment. Impressed by the success of Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing, he became a life-long disciple. Eighty years later, Kahn still preaches the Graham gospel. Last year in a Business Week article he wrote, “Buy the out-of-favor, the unpopular. Nobody can predict the market. …Look to invest in dollar bills selling for 50¢. …Think downside risk. Think total return. …Stay away from options.” This about sums up value investing and reflects Kahn’s personal belief that how you “feel” about the market doesn’t matter. In fact, your feelings about an investment can lead to impulsive and ill-conceived buys.

At 107 you might think Kahn would spend a lot of time reflecting on his long life but he doesn’t    He believes that looking back robs you of the energy you need for today. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore the hard lessons of experience. One of the reasons Kahn manages the wild gyrations of the market so well is that he’s lived through so many of them. Herds of bulls and bears along with multiple depressions, recessions, recoveries, bubbles and bursts make up his rich experiential base. Experience, then, is the foundation for what Kahn calls wisdom.

While Kahn doesn’t spend much time thinking about his own longevity, his keys to our longevity are wisdom and impulse control. In his forward looking style, experience becomes wisdom when applied to new situations. But this isn’t enough. The twin evils of instant gratification and rationalization can undermine what experience tells you is true.  Let’s face it—one month into the new year most diets and exercise routines flag because one more slice of pie won’t hurt and sleeping in instead of working out is really OK once in a while. And it doesn’t stop there. An entire industry is dedicated to helping us buy on impulse. From the corner grocery store to iTunes to Amazon.com, we’re encouraged to buy without thinking. At the same time, social media can take an impulsive comment or indiscreet action and generate embarrassment, hurt feelings or a resume filled with an alarming number of short-tenured jobs. So the next time you feel like doing something without much thought, remember Kahn and use your experience to control the impulse. It might not help you live longer, but it just might keep you thin, fit and financially sound.     —Ebert

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