October 11, 2015

Kudos to Irving Kahn

In the Saturday, December 22, 2012, issue of The Wall Street Journal, there was an inspiring story written by James Zweig called “The 107-Year-Old Stock Picker.” The subject of the story was 107-year-old Irving Kahn, the chairman of the Kahn Brothers Group, an investment management firm based in New York City. As Zweig describes him:

“He personifies the virtues that Graham (Benjamin Graham) spelled out in his classic 1949 book “The Intelligent Investor,” from which this column takes its name.”

Later on in the story, Zweig tells us more about Kahn:

“Discipline has been a key for Mr. Kahn. He still works five days a week, slacking off only on the occasional Friday.”

In answer to a question about his remarkable longevity, Kahn responds:

“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 appears to be an individual firmly grounded in the real world, and as active as a 107-year-old can possibly be. Zweig commented: “In some ways, Mr. Kahn says, these are the good old days.” As an investor, he correctly notes that he has more tools than ever available to level the playing field between investors and those from whom they buy securities. His goal is to know more about the stock he is buying than the investor who is trying to sell it to him. He is energized by his job and his daily life, and his physical faculties have declined relatively slowly.

Although I have had many role models in my life, certainly Mr. Kahn has to be added to them. I believe that the key to health and longevity is a continuation of one’s passionate commitment to family and friends, causes, and work. When someone completely “retires” from active living, he or she actually increases his or her psychic burden.

The other key to healthy longevity is to live every day with the appreciation of life that a productive very old person carries through the day. When I have met such people, very little that bothers me would bother them, because they have had a few extra decades in which to put life into perspective.

How do they think differently from someone at my age or someone far younger than I am?

  • They have been through enough up-and-down cycles in life to realize that neither success nor adversity is permanent. Life has a mix of both every year for us.
  • Just as those who have had near death experiences tend to worry less about just about every other problem, those who have relatively short life expectancies tend to consider daily problems to be of lesser consequence.
  • They celebrate small successes every day. At first glance, this would appear to be an acknowledgment that a person has failed to achieve more ambitious goals, but it actually increases the likelihood of more ambitious accomplishments. Efficiently taking small, successful steps often gives an individual the ability to adapt to changed conditions and achieve success with fewer big failures.

Conversely, by encouraging older people to retire and disengage from active work, we inadvertently put them in a much more psychologically vulnerable position. They lose the ability to see past the news headlines into the many good things that are happening. They get fearful, when they should be celebrating the progress we are making on many fronts.

Why do I believe that to be the case? Someone in the flow of the business, political, cultural, and community world has a much better understanding of reality than someone who gathers information from the mass media. The TV media, in particular, is designed to report what it calls “news,” but what is typically a highly distorted and negative selection of the broader flow of events and trends. Initially local news editors, but now national and global news editors as well, on all news stations select stories for broadcasting or printing based on the principle of “If it bleeds, let it lead.”

For this reason, although the world is less violent than it was two decades ago, and the absolute level of crime is the lowest it has been for decades, the sensational reporting of crimes gives the impression that violence is at an all-time high.

Recently, I met a highly accomplished journalist and author named Greg Behrman, who feels the same way I do. We spend far too much time covering what’s wrong in the world, and not enough time spotlighting the things we are doing right, and that require considerable innovation in solving problems. Think about this point for a minute in a number of contexts:

  • As a country, we are seeing a significant increase in the percentage of people that are overweight or even obese. We have a true public health crisis in slow motion. That is no longer news. We see it all around us, particularly in the Southeastern United States, and in the lower income parts of big cities.

However, I learned that New York City has actually stopped and even reversed the incidence of childhood obesity, but I did not learn it from the news media, but from a speech given by Dr. Tom Farley, the City’s Public Health Commissioner. I am sure that the advisory board meeting at which Dr. Farley spoke was not the first time at which this news was made public, but it would be difficult to find this story in the popular media.

  • We get the impression that we are a more violent world than ever before, but Joshua Goldstein recently published a book called Winning the War on War, which documents that the absolute level of armed conflict is declining over time. Why do we not see these statistics dominating the airwaves?
  • The U.S. has had great success in several public health campaigns over the last four decades in reducing the percentage of adults who use tobacco, the likelihood of automobile related fatalities, the likelihood of workplace-related accidents, and the incidence of alcohol abuse. This is not broadly or frequently reported.
  • Our air is cleaner, there is a lower incidence of acid rain, and the level of hazardous waste discharges in our factories is far lower than it was 40 years ago, but there is very little reporting on these positive environmental trends.
  • In many respects, medical science has enabled us to achieve a better quality of life than was possible when I was growing up. My wife was an early beneficiary of lasik surgery, which eliminated her need to wear contact lenses or glasses for everyday distance viewing (although she still wears reading glasses.)

Whenever I am down, I think of Irving Kahn, but more importantly, I think of the old Frank Sinatra song That’s Life, particularly one section of the lyrics:

I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king

I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing

Each time I find myself flat on my face

I pick myself up and get back in the race

That’s Life, That’s Life

I tell you, I can’t deny it

I thought of quitting, baby but my heart just ain’t gonna buy it.”

We should take a moment upon reading this and celebrate Irving Kahn and everyone like me who keeps getting “back in the race.” For, in doing so, he has clearly discovered the true fountain of youth.