The Fingerprints of History – The Irrelevant Investor

There are a handful of times in my life where the first encounter with someone has stayed with me forever. One of those times was in 2014 (15?) when I met Scott Krisiloff.

At the time, Scott was running an asset management firm, but what struck me had nothing to do with his day job. He told Josh and me that he was reading every issue that Time Magazine had published, starting in 1923. I couldn’t believe it.

At the time, I spent a lot of time filling in my gaps in historical knowledge. The journey Scott was embarking on was next level.

I described my learning experience as when you get a new iPhone and it learns your fingerprints. You put your finger down and some lines fill up. You pick it up and put it down, and more lines fill in until the phone knows every angle of your thumb. You may not know everything there is to learn in the vast history of the world, but with every book you read, the fingerprints of history begin to fill in the gaps. Scott learned the fingerprints of history like no one I’ve ever met.

I haven’t spoken to him since that first meeting, but we’ve talked about his project many times over the years. As we prepared for it to be on The Compound and Friends this week, I was so excited to find out if he was done yet. He did. Scott read around 4,000 issues spanning 77 years, finally stopping in 2000 once his first child was born. The depth and breadth of his knowledge was on full display during our 1.5 hour conversation.

Not only did Scott take years of his life to go through all of this, but he documented it for us to enjoy. From 1934 to 2000, Scott boiled down each issue to the most salient points, which are superimposed on the evolution of stock market prices during this period.

I look forward to standing on Scott’s shoulders and reading each of these monthly recaps.

I leave you with 10 things he learned from this incredible experience.

The TIME project

1) Compared to the scale of history, a human lifespan is relatively short. In the early days of TIME, the magazine’s editors began obituaries with the phrase “As befits all men, death came, last week for…” It was a reminder that finally we were returning all in one place, no matter how rich, famous or powerful. We all know life is short, but looking at the cycle of birth and death for entire generations makes us realize just how short life really is. For 77 years I have watched many generations go through the cycle of life. I also got to watch the major events that shaped society during those lifetimes. I have noticed that major events occur relatively infrequently, are set in motion over very long periods of time, and are driven by forces greater than any one individual. A human lifespan is incredibly short when measured against this scale.

2) Focus on the things that matter. We are all here for a short period of time, so it is essential to use this time wisely. Wealth, fame and power will not lead to immortality. The societal memory is short and even those who reach “the top” are eventually forgotten. It happens even faster than you think. If you are looking for validation, self-realization is not the place to find it. Invest in family, friends and self-understanding. These are the things that will be most valuable on your journey through life.

3) Savor the best moments in life. There are a handful of times in life when everything clicks into place and the collective energy of society resonates with optimism. These moments don’t last forever, so it’s important to enjoy them when you have them. In TIME, these moments could often be attributed to unique articles that captured the moment. One of my favorites was the spring of 1955, when “Spring was in full swing in the United States, and the nation’s prevailing mood seemed to be as bright as its flowers. The American people have never been so prosperous.

4) The window you get into the world is relatively random. We all have a unique time window on this planet and the events we see are somewhat random. The person who lived the core of their adult life from 1920 to 1960 had a very different view of the world than the person who lived that life from 1940 to 1980 or from 1980 to 2020. Entirely different types of people would have thrived in those windows, and someone who may have been successful from 1980 to 2020 may have been blocked by forces greater than themselves from 1920 to 1960. Winners and losers are determined largely by chance and circumstances.

5) Just when you think you understand everything, everything will change. When I read TIME, I often imagined myself as someone who was born around 1900 and started his career in 1923. In the 1970s, I reached a point where I felt like I had everything seen. I had 50 years of professional “experience” and the cycles repeated themselves. Then the 1980s came. Economic dynamics have changed and upset everything I thought I knew. I learned from this experience that there are structural breaks in the way the world works and more forces at play than anyone has the capacity to comprehend.

6) Human progress is the result of a permanent relay race between generations. At any time, the planet is inhabited by a group of generations sharing a common experience. As time progresses, the baton of leadership passes from one generation to the next and eventually a whole new set of generations inherits the Earth. Each generation benefits from the wisdom of those who came before and guides the course of society for those who will follow. One of the most profound shifts in generational leadership occurred after World War II. In 1945, TIME wrote that “the way man with man changes from generation to generation, and the way man with machine changes sometimes overnight. The war brought forth a new generation of men, and with them almost a new world of machines.

7) America works best when we work together on big projects. There is a school of thought that fierce competition leads to human progress. I found the opposite to be true. The defining event of the 20th century was the Second World War. The war created a mission that was so important that it lifted an entire society out of economic depression and organized everyone towards a common goal. The spirit of collective progress not only helped win the war, but endowed an entire generation of Americans with a sense of duty to the community. This spirit carried our country for decades after the war and led to unprecedented progress in both economic production and social cohesion. We don’t need war to organize ourselves to solve big problems. We just need to set common goals that create a shared sense of purpose.

8) It is essential that we protect our institutions. Strong institutions last much longer than any generation or set of generations. For this reason, they provide stability and guidance to subsequent generations. It is essential that we protect and develop our institutions as points of contact between generations and times. Beware of rulers who seek control of these institutions for personal enrichment and self-glorification. Institutions that have been built over centuries can decline over time. Look for leaders who are humble stewards and recognize that they are protecting something much bigger than themselves.

9) In the short term, politics matters. In the long run, science matters. In 1999, TIME named Albert Einstein the Person of the Century. It was the perfect choice. The three finalists for the honor were Roosevelt, Gandhi, and Einstein, but the magazine ultimately chose Einstein because ultimately “politics is for now. An equation is for eternity. In the short term, government has the greatest impact on economic cycles, but in the long term, science and technology define humanity’s productivity and standard of living. We should invest in science because it is an investment in the progress of humanity and it is a worthy mission to pursue as we spend our time on this Earth.

10) We all share a small world. In TIME’s Person of the Century issue, he also noted that “Einstein taught the greatest humility of all: that we are but a point in an unfathomable universe. The more we understand its mysterious, cosmic and atomic forces, the more reason we have to be humble. And the more we harness the enormous power of these forces, the more imperative this humility becomes. It was the most important lesson of observing the passage of time over three quarters of a century. We don’t fully understand why or how we are here, but we share our short time on this planet with billions of other souls who are each trying to make sense of the same world in their own way. The need for compassion, empathy and humility is so much greater than the need for competition and conquest.

I began by reading each issue of TIME with this spirit of conquest, but the experience changed me. I learned that these goals can be personally and socially destructive and winning will not give you the wealth you seek. As a result, I will spend the rest of my life cherishing every moment I have here with the people I love. And I will spend my working hours building and supporting strong institutions that foster human understanding.

I imagine anyone living a long life could come to similar conclusions about what’s important and what isn’t, and I think it’s a gift to have been given that perspective at a relatively young age. Ultimately, reading each issue of TIME, I learned the value of time, which is by far our most precious asset.