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8 Investing Lessons from an Engineer

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Engineer. Pilot. Astronaut. Col. Chris Hadfield is all three. And during his time commanding the International Space Station, he likely also had the status of the “most popular man (not) on Earth.” While in orbit he became somewhat of a social mediaAGLOE.png sensation—posting breathtaking pictures of Earth from orbit, educational videos about life in zero gravity and the first-ever music video recorded in space.

If that’s not enough, he’s also an author. Earlier this year, I read his book titled “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” I’d recommend it for anyone interested in space and science, or simply hard work, determination and being prepared for anything.

But, it turns out there are a surprising number of lessons that apply to investing as well. So, here are eight investing lessons you can learn from an engineer, or, if you prefer, pilot and astronaut (All quotes in green were pulled from the book):

Lesson #1 – Risk is inherent, but don’t compound it with your actions.

Getting to space is obviously a risky proposition. Investing can feel the same way at times. Being ready not only means being prepared for what can happen, but also for how you will react.

“Preparation is not only about managing external risk, but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them. When you’re the author of your own fate, you don’t want to write a tragedy.”


Lesson #2 – Planning for the worst allows you, counter-intuitively, to be optimistic.

Planning for what could go wrong, and being prepared to handle it, makes you confident and therefore optimistic that you can handle anything that life, or the stock market, throws your way.

“My optimism and confidence come not from feeling I’m luckier than other mortals, and they sure don’t come from visualizing victory. They’re the result of a lifetime spent visualizing defeat and figuring out how to prevent it. Like most astronauts, I’m pretty sure that I can deal with what life throws at me because I’ve thought about what to do if things go wrong, as well as right. That’s the power of negative thinking.”


Lesson #3 – Set limits beforehand when the temptation to take risks is low.

According to Col. Hadfield, the temptation to take risks is strongest close to the actual launch date. There is so much momentum built to get to launch, it would be easy to bend a rule here and there to allow the launch happens on time.

Just like with a rocket launch, we are going to be more tempted to bend our rules (our investment strategy) in the heat of a market downturn or a raging bull market than we are beforehand when cooler heads prevail. The best investors have their own “flight rules” (a financial plan and investment strategy) before any money is invested. They know the rules and how to respond in all circumstances.

“We came up with them [Flight Rules] when there was no urgency or pressure and there was enough time to pull on every string and analyze every consequence.”


Lesson #4 – Planning can be painful at the time but puts your mind at ease.

Col. Hadfield had many things to do before launch, some of them personal. Things like picking an astronaut to tell his wife if he doesn’t survive the mission, reviewing his will and straightening his financial affairs. What needs to happen if he doesn’t return? It may seem counterintuitive, but making sure his family is taken care of in his absence didn’t make him feel anxious, it actually reduced his anxiety.

You probably aren’t going to space anytime soon, but just like with Col. Hadfield, planning ahead and making sure your family is taken care of might feel unpleasant at the time, but you’ll be thankful you did it.

“But that didn’t make me feel like I had one foot in the grave. It actually put my mind at ease and reduced my anxiety about what my family’s future would look like if something happened to me.”


Lesson #5 – Fear is not knowing where to focus.

Many people are anxious, nervous and even fearful regarding their financial situation. And usually this comes from not knowing what to expect and where to focus—not from being in a particularly bad situation.

This feeling of uncertainty, of being overwhelmed, of not even knowing where to begin, creates a sense of fear and helplessness.

Knowing what matters and what doesn’t, then keeping the proper focus, alleviates much of the fear in investing.

“Fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have control over what’s about to happen. When you feel helpless, you’re far more afraid than you would be if you knew the facts. If you’re not sure what to be alarmed about, everything is alarming.”


Lesson #6 – Success often takes a long time.

But our culture doesn’t exactly encourage taking the long view. There’s a lot of pressure on delivering today, showing results now, and a “what have you done for me lately?” mindset.

Just like it doesn’t work like that to become an astronaut, it’s not a good way to invest either. Investing is a long-term game; it takes time for compounding gains to add up to something truly impressive. For example, Warren Buffet has accumulated 95% of his net worth AFTER his 60th birthday. At age 60 he was was worth about $3.3 billion compared to $72.3 billion today!

That’s the power of compounding and taking the long view.

“I am in space, weightless and getting here only took 8 minutes and 42 seconds…Give or take a few thousand days of training.”


Lesson #7 – Strive to be a zero. 

One of the main themes from this book was to “strive to be a zero.” Col. Hadfield had a mental framework whereby he classified three types of people and potential outcomes in any situation: a negative one, a zero or a plus one.

He found the best approach was to aim for zero. Meaning, do your job and don’t prevent others from doing theirs. He wasn’t looking for ways to be a hero; he simply tried to be solid. The problem with striving to be a plus one, he found, is that you often end up as a negative one.

This concept of limiting mistakes is a good framework for investing as well. It’s easier and more reliable to limit your mistakes and expenses than it is to look for ways to enhance your returns.

A Wall Street Journal article from earlier this year describing the successful investor Thomas Gayner put it like this: “Several of Mr. Gayner’s peers describe him as a good investor who has become great by knowing he is just good.“

“Aiming to be a zero is a good game plan. My goals had been modest—fulfill my responsibilities to the best of my ability, and not distract or cause any trouble for anyone else on the crew.”


Lesson #8 – Focus on what matters

People focus on the wrong things all the time. Nowhere is this more apparent than with investing. Things that can be spun into a good story like stock picking or speculation about what the economy is going to do next year get all the attention. We tend to idolize those who have taken big risks and accomplished spectacular things.

But success with investing takes years of deliberately sticking with an investment strategy and an unwavering discipline in times of stress. We should applaud these things, not the latest investment fad or simply pile into what’s worked lately.

“Still, I know that most people, including me, tend to applaud the wrong things: the showy, dramatic record-setting sprint rather than the years of dogged preparation or the unwavering grace displayed during a string of losses.”



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Cordant, Inc. is not affiliated or associated with, or endorsed by, Intel.

Published on December 22, 2015

Isaac Presley, CFA

Isaac Presley, CFA

Isaac Presley is the President and Director of Investments for Cordant, a wealth management firm serving current and former Intel employees. To learn more, you can read Isaac's full bio.

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