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Chapter 6.12: Sir John Templeton: The Greatest Investor of the 20th Century?
He first put his theory to the test in the fall of 1939. With the Depression still raging and Hitler’s
troops rolling into Poland at the start of World War II, John Templeton decided to take all the money
he had saved and borrow some additional money as well and buy $100 worth of every stock valued
at $1 or less on the New York exchanges. That portfolio became the basis of a vast personal fortune
and asset management empire. He also became a pioneer in international investing. While the rest of
Americans refused to look beyond US borders, John was scouring the world for opportunities.
And as his fortune grew, so did his commitment to giving back. In 1972 he established the
world’s largest annual award given to an individual, bigger than the Nobel Prize, honoring
spiritual achievements. Mother Teresa was the first recipient of the Templeton Prize. His foundation
also funded research in science and technology, and in 1987 Queen Elizabeth knighted him for his
enormous contributions to humanity.
Sir John continued to speak and write and inspire millions with his humble message of integrity,
entrepreneurship, and faith, right up to the time of his death in 2008 at the age of 95. (Incidentally, he
had accurately predicted the collapse of the housing bubble that year.) The following is an excerpt
from an interview I conducted with him just months before his passing. His kindness shines through in
every answer, as he shares his philosophy that the same qualities that make you a great investor can
also make you a great human being.
Sir John, most people seem to be either money oriented or spiritually oriented—they have to be
TR: one or the other—but you seem to have found a way to integrate these two in a truly natural and
real way in your life. Can people integrate both in their lives?
Definitely! There is no disparity. Would you want to deal with a businessman you could not
trust? No! If a man has a reputation for not being trustworthy, people will run away from him.
His business will fail. But if another man has high ethical principles, high spiritual principles,
he will try to give to his customers and his employees more than they expect. If so, he will be
popular. He will have more customers. He will make more profit. He will do more good in the
world, and thereby he will prosper himself and have more friends and be more respected.
So always start out to give more than is expected from you, to treat the other person more than
fairly, and that is the secret of success. Never try to take advantage of anyone or to hold anyone
back in their own progress. The more you help others, the more prosperous you will be
TR: What was your first investment? What drew you to it, and how did it turn out?
I was just getting started when it was the beginning of the Second World War in September
1939. We had just finished the world’s greatest depression and there were many bankrupt
companies. But a war causes a demand for almost every product, so during a war almost every
company will prosper again. So I gave a stockbroker an order to buy $100 worth of every stock
on both exchanges selling for $1 or less, and there were 104 of them. And out of those, I made a
profit on 100 and lost money on only four.
So three years later, when my wife and I had an opportunity to take over this small practice of
a retiring investment counselor, we had the savings needed to do that! We began with no clients
in Radio City in New York and worked there for 25 years, continuing to save 50 cents out of
every dollar so that we could build up our assets for our retirement and for charity.
Wow! And you got quite a bit of a return saving 50 cents out of every dollar, Sir John. Most
people today would say “That’s impossible! I can’t save fifty percent of my money and invest
TR: it.” But that’s how you built from nothing, and you did this during the Depression! I’ve also read
that if someone invested $100,000 dollars with you [in 1940], never put another dime in, and
forgot about the money, by 1999, that would have been worth $55 million! Is that the
JT: Yes, provided they reinvested their distributions.
Let me ask about your investing philosophy: in the past, you’ve said to me, “Not only do you buy
at maximum pessimism, but you want to sell at the peak of optimism.” Is that correct?
That’s correct. There’s a good saying there, Tony. “Bear markets start on the time of
pessimism. They rise on the time of skepticism. They mature on the time of optimism, and
JT: they end on the time of euphoria!” That always happens in every bull market, and it helps you
determine where you are. If you just talk with enough investors to find their psychology, you can
tell whether the market is still safe at a low level or high at a dangerous level.
TR: What do you think is the single biggest mistake investors make?
The great majority of people do not build up any wealth because they do not practice the selfdiscipline of saving some of their income every month. But beyond that, once you’ve saved that
money, then you have to invest it wisely in good bargains, and it’s not easy. It’s very rare for any
JT: one person, particularly any one person working in just their spare time, to select the right
investments. Any more than you would want to be your own medical doctor or your own
lawyer, it’s not wise to try to be your own investment manager. It’s better to find the best
professionals; the wisest security analyst to help you.
When I was talking to some of your associates down in the Bahamas, I was asking them, “What
does he invest in?” and they said, “Anything! He’ll buy a tree if he thinks he can get a good deal
on it.” Then I said, “How long will he hang on to it?” and they said, “Forever! Basically until
it’s worth more!” Sir John, how long do you hang on to an investment before you know to let it
go? How do you know if you’ve made a mistake? How do you know when it’s time to actually
That is one of the most important questions! Many people will say, “I know when to buy, but I
don’t know when to sell.” But over these 54 years that I’ve been helping investors, I think I have
the answer, and that is: you sell an asset only when you think you have found a different asset
that’s a 50% better bargain. You search all the time for a bargain, and then you look at what you
now own. If there’s something in your present list that is a 50% less good bargain than the one
you found, you sell the old one and buy the new one. But even then, you’re not right all the time.
TR: Sir John, why should Americans feel good about investing outside their own country?
Think about this: if our job is to find the best opportunities, surely we will find more
opportunities if we do not limit ourselves to just any one nation. Likewise, perhaps we will find
better opportunities if we are able to look everywhere rather than just one nation. But most
important is that it does reduce your risk because every nation has bear markets. Usually twice
every 12 years, there’s a severe bear market in a major nation, but they do not occur at
JT: the same time. So if you are diversified, having your assets in many nations, you do not have to
suffer through the bear market in one nation as a person who had all of his eggs in one basket
We have always advised our investors to be diversified—not only diversified into more than
one corporation and diversified into more than one industry, but also diversified into more than
one nation in order that they will get greater safety and greater potential profit.
What do you think it is that has separated you from all the other investors out there? What’s
made you one of the greatest investors of all time?
Thank you. I do not regard myself as that. We’ve not always been right. No one is, but we have
tried to be a little better than the other competitors and to give more than is expected from us and
JT: always to try to improve our methods, to use new methods in order to stay ahead of the
competition. If there’s any secret in it at all it is this: do not try to be a go-getter. Try to be a
Sir John, there’s so much fear out there today on so many levels of society. How do we deal
To overcome fear, the best thing is to be overwhelmingly grateful. If you wake up each morning
and think of five new things for which you’re overwhelmingly grateful, you’re not likely to be
JT: fearful, you’re likely to radiate your optimism, your attitude of gratitude, you’re likely to do
things in a better way, draw more people to you. So I would think an attitude of gratitude will
prevent a life of fear.
I would love to hear through your own perception: Who is Sir John Templeton? What is your
life really about? In the end, how do you want to be remembered?
I am a student, always trying to learn. I am a sinner. All of us are. I’ve tried to be better day by
day, and particularly I try to keep asking myself, “What are the purposes of God? Why did God
create the universe? What does God expect of his children here?” And the closest you can come
in just a few words is: He expects us to grow spiritually. He gives us trials and tribulations
just like you have examinations in school, because it may help you to grow into a greater soul
than you would have otherwise. So life is a challenge. Life is an adventure. It’s a marvelous,
exciting adventure. All of us should do the very best we can as long as the Lord allows us to be
on this planet.
JUST DO IT, ENJOY IT, AND SHARE IT!
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHTER THAN YOU THINK
The point of living is to believe the best is yet to come.
Why do most people pursue wealth? It’s because they’re after a greater quality of life. And one thing I
know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that anybody can deal with a tough today if he or she feels
certain that tomorrow has greater promise.
We all need a compelling future.
So if you’re wondering why we would take time to talk about the future and technological
breakthroughs in a financial book, it’s because technology is a hidden asset that every day is
compounding its capacity to enrich your life.
There are breakthroughs occurring today and in the months and short years to come that will
revolutionize the quality of your life and the lives of everyone else on earth. This tide of technology
will offer the opportunity for all boats to rise.
And in financial terms, you know what’s really great? The cost of technology is decreasing while
its capacity is geometrically expanding! What does that mean for you? It means that even if you start
building wealth late in life, you will likely still have a great quality of life in the future, for even less
money than you might think.
Also, learning about these trends in technologies can awaken you to some of the greatest
investment opportunities of your lifetime. These technologies are growing exponentially. The
time to pay attention to them is right now.
My hope is that this chapter will also inspire you to take greater care of yourself and your family,
not only financially but also perhaps physically as well. Without physical health, there is no wealth.
Being around long enough to take advantage of some of these huge advances in technology should be a
priority—especially after you hear about some of the changes that are unfolding as we speak.
So let’s take a brief journey together and explore the cutting edge of our technological future. I’ll
say in advance: this chapter takes an unabashedly positive view. But it’s not just based on my
enthusiasm—but rather reflects the work of some of the greatest scientists on the face of the earth. Not
those who just predict, but those who deliver what they predict. Individuals who have done
everything from decode the human genome, to design the first digital voice recognition system, to
develop commercial space shuttles that fly people back and forth to the International Space Station.
Now, I acknowledge that many people have a different, more skeptical view of technology. And
perhaps they’ll be right. Some look into the future and see a Terminator-style dystopia of killer
robots and genetically altered Frankenfoods. Others look forward to a world of flying cars, like they
had in The Jetsons; or android helpers, like Star Wars ’s C-3PO; or meat and vegetables that can be
grown from single cells to feed the world’s hungry. None of these extreme scenarios has come to pass
yet. I choose to look at how technology will be used to make a massive difference in the quality of our
lives. I also understand that people often fear new technologies and worry that we’re going too fast.
After all, there has always been a “dark side” to these advances—often because these technologies
initially put people out of jobs until they adapt to new forms of employment. As Steven Rattner, the
influential financier and columnist, pointed out in the New York Times, even Queen Elizabeth I of
England refused to patent a 16th-century knitting machine because it would put her “poor subjects”
out of work. But according to Rattner, “The trick is not to protect old jobs . . . but to create new ones.
And since the invention of the wheel, that’s what has occurred.”
Most of the time, these new tools have been used to enhance human life. And today some of the
biggest challenges in the world, from too much carbon dioxide in the air, to a lack of fresh water, to a
scarcity of farmland, are being solved by new technologies. And all this seems to be happening
overnight. But throughout history, there has also been a minority who will take any tool or technology
and use it as a weapon. Electricity can light up a city or kill someone. But there are millions more
streetlights than electric chairs. A Boeing jetliner can carry us across oceans or be used as a bomb to
murder thousands—but there are millions more flights than hijackings.
It’s natural for human beings to fear the new and unknown, and to focus on worst-case scenarios.
Our brains are wired for survival, and that’s how we’ve made it as a species. But our imaginations
can also hold us back. Science fiction has made many fear futuristic technologies, like artificial
intelligence. But actual scientists and futurists such as Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, and Juan
Enriquez see advanced technologies as an opportunity for humanity to evolve and transform into
So if you’re irritated by an optimistic future, you should move on to the next chapter! But if you’re
a person who is truly interested in knowing how technology is shaping our lives, I think this will help
you understand what’s available and what’s coming. The way I look at it, you can choose to be fearful
about the future, or you can embrace it. But nothing is going to change it.
Why? Because the future is already here.
The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
Every ten minutes in America someone is horribly burned. They’re rushed to the hospital in searing
pain—one of the most intense pains a human body can suffer. The nurses scrub away the blistered and
charred flesh and cover the wound with cadaver skin to keep the person from dying of infection. Can
you imagine the skin off a dead body put on top of your own?! If the patient survives, the scarring can
be brutal. I’m sure you’ve seen faces, arms, and legs scarred beyond recognition. Sometimes there are
multiple surgeries, and healing can take years.
So imagine how one night Matt Uram, a 40-year-old state trooper, finds himself about to become
another one of those grim statistics. His life altered forever.
How? He’s next to a bonfire when someone throws a cup of gasoline on the flames, and the burns
cover his right arm and the right side of his head and face. The doctors and nurses move fast, cleaning
off the blistered skin, disinfecting Matt’s wounds, applying salves. Normally he would be in the burn
unit for weeks or months, going through the same agonizing process twice a day. Instead, a team of
specialists goes to work with a new technique. They harvest a layer of healthy cells from unburned
patches of his own skin. No cadaver skin for Matt! These cells are cultured, and before long, a spray
gun is gently painting the wounds with a solution of Matt’s own stem cells.
Three days later, his arms and face are completely healed. (And this miracle has to be seen to be