The radical power of realizing you’re a “dumb shit”

Listen up.
Listen up.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Until 2017, Ray Dalio, multi-billionaire founder of Bridgewater Associates, resided in something of an ivory tower. (His hedge fund’s Westport, Connecticut, headquarters literally has a moat.) While the outside world prodded to know more about his secretive investment firm—notorious, ironically, for its internal culture of radical transparency—he kept his management and investment principles almost entirely confidential.

However, as he nears retirement, Dalio is experiencing a change of heart, deeming it his moral imperative to share the mindset and experiences responsible for his success. In September 2017, he published a 300-page opus about his approach. The book, The Principles: Life and Work, paved the way for a TED Talk, countless high-profile interviews, and an animated adventure show based on his management principles. Dalio even got a Twitter account.

And yesterday (May 31), the hedge-fund impresario took to perhaps the most modern, democratic forum to share his advice: Reddit.

In his first-ever Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), Dalio spent over two hours answering questions from strangers, on topics ranging from investing to entrepreneurship to career strategy.

Dalio to 20-somethings: You don’t know shit

One Reddit user asked Dalio, “If there is one thing you could teach a 20-something year old, what would it be?” Dalio responded:

“To know how to simultaneously think for yourself and know that you know virtually northing, so that you have to take in the best thinking that’s available to you and critically analyze it.”

Another user inquired, what advice Dalio would give himself if he could go back to the beginning of his career, when he was single-handedly operating a hedge fund out of his garage. Dalio’s reply was equally blunt:

“It would be: ‘Recognize that you are a dumb shit [who] doesn’t nearly know what you need to know in order to have the life you want to have, and that life is an adventure in which making mistakes and knowing how to learn from that is the best part.”

The two statements are a perfect distillation of the 209 principles that Bridgewater employees were required to memorize when I worked at the firm in 2015 and 2016. That’s because the single most important principle is this: “Know what you don’t know, and what to do about it.”

Life lessons

It’s easy to be skeptical when extremely successful, wealthy people expound the importance of failure; struggle definitely looks a lot sexier when you’re miles beyond it. But Dalio’s story backs up his claims. For example, in 1982 he bet his entire savings on an economic depression that never came, which nearly cost him his firm, and forced him to fire all of his employees.

“This experience was like a blow to my head with a baseball bat. I was so broke I had to borrow $4,000 from my dad to pay my bills,” Dalio recounts in his animated Principles series. “Being so wrong, and especially being so publicly wrong, was painfully humbling. I am still shocked and embarrassed by how arrogant I was in being totally confident in a totally incorrect view.”

To know what you don’t know, you need sufficient humility to genuinely believe you are not the smartest, or most special person in the room. To be willing act on that knowledge—seeking out honest feedback, even when it’s tough to swallow—requires humility, but also positions you for far greater rewards.