Zibby Owens: I'm very excited to be with Matt Hall today. Matt is the author of Odds On: The Making of an Evidence-Based Investor. He is the cofounder and president of Hill Investment Group and currently lives in St Louis, Missouri, with his wife and daughter. He is also the host of the podcast “Take the Long View.”
Welcome to “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Matt Hall: I'm glad to be on this great show, Zibby.
Zibby: Matt, you wrote this book called Odds On: The Making of an Evidence-Based Investor. We met on vacation with our kids. You were like, “I wrote a book.” I had no idea it was so amazing. I read this whole book start to finish. It’s called The Making of an Evidence-Based Investor in the subtitle, which sounds very business-y, but this is really a personal story, this book that you wrote. I just loved it. I'm really excited to be talking to you about it.
Matt: Thank you. I worked really hard on the book. Writing what, for me, is a very personal story, writing a memoir is not easy. I heard one of your other podcast guests at one point say that it doesn't feel lonely if you're creating a work of fiction because you're getting to know this village of people that you're creating. For me, going back through my own experience, you have these moments where you go, is this going to be relevant? Is this going to connect with people? I loved the process. Writing the book has been transformational. I really wanted to do a personal narrative that was aimed at sharing the important truths I have found about modern investing. I had experience watching my mentor write many books that didn't really connect. If you go to any big bookstore and you look in the business section, it’s littered with books that are all doing the same thing. I really wanted to do something different.
Zibby: Your book talks a lot about your personal journey and how you started off life. You dropped out of law school. You never thought you'd drop out of anything. You were almost ashamed of that decision, trying to find out what to do next. You got lots of advice from your dad, which I realized you scattered throughout the book. He originally pointed you in the right direction by saying, “I know you're passionate about two things. You love financial markets and investments, and you're really into golf. We know that you're not going to win the British Open, so what about finding a job in finance?” which is so classic. I love parents who tell it like it is. He says, “Surround yourself with smart people and learn something valuable.” He gave a lot more advice. Tell me about how your relationship with your dad has affected your trajectory in work. Do you find yourself now giving advice to your daughter similar to this type of advice?
Matt: I love your question. First, I would say both my mom and dad have been hugely important. They're both educators. Our dinnertime conversations were not about business. They were generally about students and school experiences they were having. I'm more like my mom. She's tough but fair, very outgoing, innovative. We’re very similar. We both admire and love my dad. He's patient and understanding and unconditionally supportive. I would say in my parenting of our own daughter, I try to be some fraction of the magic mixture of the two of them. I feel very lucky.
My dad’s advice and his wisdom has had a huge impact on me. As I think about the most important things he's said to me or the best advice or guidance I have felt from him, it’s been less about the words and more about -- he has this look he gives me, and he's always given me, that is a combination of “I have high expectations of you, and you can do it.” I can vividly remember as a kid playing catch with him in the yard. We would always try to end our session on a good one, one that he would throw a little bit farther. He always had that same look even then, like, “I'm going to make this difficult, and you can handle it.” I have remarkably positive self-talk because both of my parents were always telling me, “We expect a lot, but you can handle it.” Even when I couldn't, their mantra didn't change. It always felt that way. My relationship with them and the guidance they’ve given me has always been about somehow building my self-confidence. I'm hugely grateful.
The advice of “You need to rethink your plan for yourself” -- I just interviewed Danny Meyer, the Shake Shack creator and restauranteur who has a St Louis background, for my own podcast “Take the Long View.” He was about to become a lawyer himself. His uncle said to him, “You're going to be dead forever. You're going to be alive for about a hot minute. You don't need to waste your time becoming a lawyer. You love food. Go work in food. There's such a finite amount of time we have. Don't waste it away in law. You're not passionate about it. You're miserable even thinking about taking your LSAT.” I had the same kind of moment or the same kind of experience with my dad, maybe a little less tough than that. I'm hugely grateful that I made that change.
Zibby: I bet you have a lot of clients who would say they're particularly grateful for that change as well.
Matt: Thank you. The parenting piece of this is I think about my own daughter, who you've met. We take walks together. I find myself doing the exact same thing that I just told you I found in my parents. I heard on some show one time, a rabbi said, “There are two hands of love. There's affection and discipline.” If you have too much of one and not enough of another, you'll have an imbalance. I'm definitely more on the discipline side. My wife Lisa’s much more on the affectionate side. I find myself doing exactly what I just told you my parents did for me, which is always saying to Harper, “I expect a lot, but I think you've got it.” I love that. I love that that gift was there. Actually, that's probably part of the reason I was able to do this book. It felt scary and vulnerable. I hadn’t done it before, but I was committed to not doing what everyone else told me to do. I met with many agents who told me to do something very different. I met with publishers who told me to do something very different. When the pros tell you what you're doing is dumb, you rightly second-guess yourself. I couldn't find another investment or money book that tried to bury the boring inside of a personal narrative. I was committed to doing that.
Zibby: Bury the boring, that's funny. Good little subtitle there. One thing on your daughter Harper just because I love her so much. She is so amazing. I have to get out there. Whatever you are doing as a parent, I have to bottle up and copy, not that I don't love my own kids. [laughs] My kids love your daughter. She's so awesome. Had to say that. You wrote really beautifully and openly about your battle with leukemia in this book, and whole lead-up to it, the diagnosis, not knowing what was going on with you, the treatment. You shared all the things you learned. Especially, what you learned from the way the doctors actually handled your treatment has now informed your approach to professional services. I was hoping you could talk a little more about how that experience has informed not just your personal life and priorities, living in the moment and all that, but also your professional life, which could really be the rest of this podcast. Go ahead. [laughs]
Matt: So much to unpack here. First, I would just say when I was working on this section, I remember being teary eyed in my office. I feel so incredibly grateful. For anyone who's listening, if you've ever wondered, is something wrong me, or why am I feeling this way? I had been feeling like something was not right for some time. I had lost a lot of weight. I was having a problem with my vision. I was sick all the time. The uncertainty of not knowing what's wrong with me was creating a massive amount of anxiety. I was only thirty-two years old. I had just left a job that I loved to start my own business with another partner. I didn’t handle the stress of that very well in hindsight. I remember as I was recounting this story and trying to capture it and document it, I had this overwhelming feeling of gratitude. I went through a phase where I wrote thank you notes to anybody who was involved in either the research that helped me or the practitioners who helped me.
As to the specific question about how the doctors who helped me changed me and changed the way I work, it comes down to -- this may sound a little bit corny, but it’s how I really feel. A psychotherapist friend of mine said this expression to me. I was describing how when my eye doctor helped me figure out what was wrong, she opened her door and said to her assistant, “Cancel the rest of my appointments.” She shut the door. I remember instantly not feeling as scared. The reason I didn't feel as scared is because I felt well-held. That expression of someone's got you, it’s going to be okay. The uncertainty and the feeling of floundering around in this uncertain scary place was over. This person has you. I felt that both when my eye doctor helped me figure it out and when my oncologist helped me walk down the path to a heathier future. I had never really felt that uncertain or scared before. I had certainly never felt that well-held or cared for before by a professional person or someone outside of my family. It sounds so weird to say this, but I felt lighter. I felt liberated when that happened. I was still scared, of course, but confident that these people were my advocates. They were with me. Yes, they understood the science behind what was wrong with me, but they didn't want to burden me with all the unnecessary details or teach me everything they knew. They wanted to hold my hand and help me.
That has informed so much of my life post-that experience. Honestly Zibby, I really struggled with whether to include this section in the book or not. I thought there are going to be people who can't relate or they don't like this section. It feels too vulnerable or too scary for me. I'm so glad I did. I know this is cliché to say, but there is strength and power in the vulnerable. So many people who have either had their own health experiences or traumatic life events have then come to me after reading the book. They don't want to talk about investment philosophy. They want to talk about how they had a similar experience or how they felt that same sort of feeling of being well-held by someone else in their lives. I'm really glad I put it in there, but it was tough to write and tough to process even though there is some important inspiration for me in it.
Zibby: I hate to say the worst part of your life was the best part of your book, but I think it was that approach and the openness and your willingness to share the whole thing -- you almost have this lighthearted tone that you take with all the book, which is, “Hey, I'm going to tell you a story. This is what happened to me. Here's what I learned.” I thought it was fantastic. Thank you for sharing it. You actually tie that in. Your doctor at the time had told you, “Take this medicine. This is what you do. Now go live your life.” You took that advice and just went off and did it. Then at the end of the book, you're having a moment of self-reflection.
You say, “When I roll into my driveway, I sometimes take a moment to sit with my feelings about all of this. We live in a complicated world. We don't know what will happen to any of us, even in the short run. Everything is uncertain, but we’re not helpless. I remind myself to stay focused on what I can control and accepting of what I can't. Then I get out of the car, cross the yard, and I go inside and get on with my life.” I literally get goosebumps reading that again. It was such a beautiful ending, not to give the ending away. I'm not really giving anything away. Talk to me about even writing this. Were you sitting there crying writing this ending? You tied it all together so well. It’s the doctor’s advice and surviving this and then starting this whole business that you've done and all of it. Now, there you are just living.
Matt: Going back to the part about how my doctor really -- if you have a health issue, the internet can be a dangerous place to explore what could be wrong with you. I remember as I was getting the treatment, I went back through all these chat rooms and support groups and all these places where people were talking about the kind of leukemia I thought I had. I came to the first appointment. I had all these questions. I handed the sheet to my doctor. He looked at it. He had a very nice look on his face. It didn't look condescending or dismissive. He looked at me and he said, “Matt, I can answer these questions, but you're going to take 400mgs and you're going to get on with your life.” A part of me was like, I kind of would like the questions answered. [laughter] Again, it felt liberating to have someone say, “I have already filtered all of this for you. I know what matters. These are the things that matter. We’ll get to some of this. Right now, do these two things.”
As I wrapped up the book and as I was thinking about, how can I mark and have a ritual of sorts of remembering what matters, what's important, what to be grateful for -- the way that this connects to my business life is I think if you use the academic research and what science says about successful investing, you can be liberated from asking questions that are all pretty noisy. They don't really mean much. They're not the essence. It doesn't mean that when people ask us questions that we always say we’re not going to answer them. We’re all so busy. Part of what you're doing is helping people filter for what the ideal book is to read. What's worth their time? As we’re cluttered with information and craving, at some level, simplicity, that's part of the beauty of what I was trying to get at the end. You can still do very well and make smart investment decisions and actually outperform and be freed up to grab more of your time back.
My doctor was saying to me, “You can stop thinking about these worrisome questions. Do what is essential. Then live your life.” The risk when you get healthy is that you sort of forget how valuable the second chance is. To me, I've said this to a lot of friends, there's something really beautiful in a near miss. For me, this was a rough experiment, but it was a near miss. I'm okay. I don't want to lose that gratitude or appreciation. You hyper-focus after something traumatic happens on the finite amount of your time. You get really intentional about time, almost restless in the beginning. I had to try to figure out a way to live with ease but also remember and be grateful that all of what I'm doing is important and I could be intentional about how I use time. The ending of the book was really about saying I have to, daily, remind myself of how fortunate I am. That's what that part was about.
Zibby: The quote in the book that you said about that whole thing is, “Sometimes you can help people make better decisions by not answering their questions.” I try that with my kids sometimes. I'm not going to answer these 67,000 questions about the day, but here we go. Here's what we’re doing. It’s the same general approach. Speaking of time and the finite amount of time we all have, how did you fit in writing this book with the rest of your life and running your business and your family and tennis and all the rest of the stuff you love to do?
Matt: As I mentioned to you, I had read all these investment books. I was telling friends occasionally, “I think I might write my own book.” People would instantly say, “Yeah, you ought to do that. I think you could put something good together.” I had met with several other authors and said, “I'm thinking about writing a book. What's your process? Who's your agent? How do you do it?” I was tinkering around. I have a good friend. We were at breakfast one time. He was like, “No one’s going to do what you want to do, Matt. You have to do it. Either do it or stop talking about it.” I've always responded really well to either being underestimated or being challenged or pushed. That was the gentle nudge I needed to get going.
I got really serious about time blocking and created sacred times where you could not get to me unless someone was dying or in trouble or the house was burning down. I had three-hour chunks on generally Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. My whole process was different from the advice I was given from some people. They said, “Write a book proposal. Get an agent,” so on and so forth. Every agent I talked to told me to write a prescriptive -- the sort of book that winds up in the nonfiction business book ghetto. I see all these books. I've read them all. I don't want to read them. I don't like them. I don't think many humans wanted to read them. I wanted to do something different. It took me eighteen months to put this together, even with that dedicated time. Then I hired a great editing team who really helped me take what I was trying to do to the next level. One of the compliments I often get is that people read it in one or two sittings.
Zibby: That's what I said too. It’s true. I couldn’t put it down.
Matt: I have to admit that one of the things that I wasn't capable of doing that I really needed help with was creating these hooks at the end of each chapter to allow people to keep going. I wanted this to be understandable and relatable and palatable for real people, not practitioners in my industry which is who typically reads most of the technical books, the people who work in my space or want to work in my space, but not the real humans. My process, I felt like it was really hard because I had never done it before. I felt a lot of uncertainty because I didn't know if anyone was going to care about this. By the way, for me, it’s been transformational. From North Dakota to the Netherlands, I've talked to people all over the world and I still to this day get emails or nice notes from people who have read the book. It’s really been transformational for me. In terms of aspiring authors, I'm biased because I'm on the other side of a lot of the struggle. It’s been, without question, one of the best decisions I ever made. Like so many things that are worthwhile, it was slow. It was hard, but very rewarding. I have enjoyed it. Now I feel like because I did the process, I should write another book at some point.
Matt: We’ll see when that comes about. My process was lonely at times, fun at others. At the end, I had a friend of mine who said, “Are you proud of what you did?” I said yes. They said, “Then it doesn't matter what anyone else's reaction is to it. If you feel good about it, that's what matters.” I feel very proud of it. I worked on it five years ago. It came out three years ago. It’s still creating great conversations to this day.
Zibby: That's amazing. I love that. Tell me a little more about “Take the Long View,” your podcast. By the way, you have the best podcasting voice ever. You're there. I'm looking at you on Skype with your whole setup and your microphone. I could just hang out and listen to your voice all day. Good thing you have a podcast.
Matt: Thank you. You know Zibby, my mission is how can I change the way people think and feel about investing? The book has been good, but the book is a commitment. I did my own audiobook. It takes three and a half hours to listen to it, but it took me about ten hours to tape that thing because I had never done that before. The podcast, for me, has been a way to make the same sort of message easier for people to grab onto. They're doing the dishes. You know this from your experience with this. I’m in the car. I'm doing meal prep. I'm doing some dishes. I'm exercising. It’s so easy to grab hold of a conversation between two people. Again, how can I bury the boring or disguise the vegetables into other conversations?
Part of why my firm’s mantra is “Take the long view” is in order for the math to play itself out, you have to wait. You have to be patient. I hate this analogy, but it works in some ways. If you think about a casino, the math is figured out. Everything else is a distraction to prey on human weakness. The math is figured out. The winner is the owner of the casino. In many ways, the math is figured out. It’s not as exciting for people. I want to put some of the contrarian thinking inside of interesting stories and conversations. I love doing the podcast. Just like what we’re doing today, it’s so fun to have a conversation between two people. The listeners can eavesdrop in on that conversation. I really enjoy it. It’s been fun. It’s afforded me an opportunity to make the message of my mission even more attainable.
Zibby: Do you have any parting advice? I know you've already sprinkled this throughout our conversation. Any parting advice to aspiring authors?
Matt: I say do it. That advice I mentioned earlier where if you're proud of it, if it means something to you -- it’s hard sometimes not to listen to the other voices, as I said about listening to professionals or people who had done it before. I didn't have one person who was saying, “The way you want to do this is going to be great.” Everyone who was a professional kept saying, “The way you want to do this won't work.” People want prescriptions. They want you to tell them, “Buy this fund. Do this magic trick. Take this kind of approach with taxes and this kind of approach with estate planning. Everything will work out for you.” I couldn't imagine doing that for complete strangers when I know nothing about them. You can't diagnosis them when you don't know people. I didn't want to dispense this generic advice that, again, I could find in other books. I did an audit. How many people have written a memoir in the investing space that's been well-received or that's just out there? I could only find two examples. I thought, I'm going to do this. I'm going to do it my way. I would say listen to that voice. You know at some level what you want to accomplish. Do the thing that is unique. That's been super helpful for me.
Another interesting thing I would say, I got advice from an author and marketing guru named Ryan Holiday who helped me think about how to get endorsements for the book. I found the endorsements to be hugely valuable. I don't think endorsements sell books. Who people see on there, if they trust them, it can be a tipping point for the person picking up the book and taking it home and diving into it. I'm not famous. I don't have a huge following. If people see someone they know or recognize and trust, boom. Even if it’s from an unrelated field, it can be hugely helpful. That advice from Ryan Holiday told me don't just get a bunch of boring old white guys from the investment world. Go get some other folks from other industries. That was great advice.
Zibby: Excellent. That is great advice. I don't think anyone's said that before. Thank you. Matt, thank you so much for coming on my podcast and for writing this beautiful book. I'm glad that you didn't listen to anyone because what's come out of it is a really special story. You're a great storyteller. I'm really glad I got to read it and understand more about investing in a different way. I certainly learned more about your life. Thank you for letting me in and sharing all that.
Matt: Zibby, I'm honored by all your nice comments and honored to be on this great podcast. Keep doing what you're doing by introducing people to the books and stories that are worth their time, especially moms who don't have time to read books.
Zibby: I will. I’ll try. Thank you.
Matt: Thank you, Zibby.