An Interview with Jim Rogers, Investment Biker, Legendary Commodities Trader, and Co-founder of Quantum Fund
Jim Rogers is a legendary commodities trader and Chairman of Rogers Holdings and Beeland Interests, Inc. In 1970, Mr. Rogers joined the Arnold and S. Bleichroder investment bank, where he met George Soros. Three years later, Mr. Rogers and Soros co-founded the Quantum Fund, which beat the S&P by 4,153 percent over the decade and positioned itself as one of only a few successful hedge funds at the time. After retiring at the age of 37, Mr. Rogers chased his lifelong dream of travelling the world by motorcycle. From 1990 to 1992, he covered over 100,000 miles across six continents. In 1999, he covered over 150,000 miles across 116 countries. Both of these trips earned him spots in the Guinness Book of World Records. He’s moderated WCBS’ “The Dreyfus Roundtable,” FNN’s “The Profit Motive with Jim Rogers,” CNBC’s “Your Portfolio,” contributed to nearly every major publication, and authored seven books. He majored in History at Yale University.
Personal thank you to Jim Grant for the inspiration as always.
Tell me about being a busboy at Yale.
Wait, how do you know about that?
Lots of reading.
It was my freshman year. [laughing] I arrived in New Haven knowing nothing about the city, about the world, about anything, and I got thrown into the busboy job in my first few days at Yale. It turned out great for me because it was in the hall of graduate studies. They were all graduate students, and for some reason, they took an interest in me, and I learned a lot. They were older. They were from various parts of the country.
I knew nothing. I was underprepared, I guess maybe is the way to put it, who knows if I was qualified but I was certainly not prepared.
The Politic: One of my favorite anecdotes was about your six-year-old self, when you had to pay for your own baseball glove. You went down to the local hardware store, bought one for $4, and returned every week to pay the proprietor 15¢ installments.
Jim Rogers: His name was Cruse Braswell for what it’s worth.
Do you think that gave you any sort of competitive advantage or heightened determination when you finally arrived at Yale? That you were thinking about financial realities which other people–for whatever reason–didn’t need to think about?
I do know that somewhere along the lines, I had learned perseverance and the ability to work hard and never give up. Whether that was part of the Braswell experience or not, I do not know. But I do know that I had the ability, or the determination, to work harder than many of my classmates.
Many of them were smarter than I was and better prepared than I was. But I don’t think many of them had this insane, I would say “desire,” but maybe “ability” to work hard. I know I got that from my upbringing in small town Alabama, mainly from my parents, and certainly from my father.
I read that you wanted to teach that trait to your two daughters. Do you think you’re doing a good job?
Well, we’ll know in 30 years. [laughing] We’ll look back here in 2049, and we’ll know whether I’ve done a good job or not. [laughing]
So, you were talking to these graduate students… What disciplines were they coming from?
I have no idea. Looking back on it, I don’t know… I don’t know. I know it was the Hall of Graduate Studies. And that was just for graduates. I don’t know if they lived there or not in those days, but there was certainly a graduate students’ dining hall, and I think they all ate there. It was not the law school or the medical school or something like that. They were graduate students. I have no idea. I can’t answer the question!
Did you have any hobbies on campus aside from the rowing team?
Well, my freshman year, I don’t know how I did it, but they had something called “freshman one-act plays.” I guess it was Yale Dramat that did it, and I somehow got a part–a lead–in one of the freshman one-act plays, which I ended up doing.
I was coxing. But other than doing that and working, I didn’t have much time for anything else. [laughing] I wasn’t sitting around playing checkers or anything. I didn’t have the time. I was in over my head. I was in way over my head!
Here’s someone who’s hell-bent on achieving success from a very young age; someone who ran what was previously the largest hedge fund in the world; someone who managed to beat the S&P by 4153 percent over a decade; someone who set a Guinness world record by motorcycling 100,000 miles across six continents in two years.
And here you are doing drama. That doesn’t seem to fit the image– what’s up with that? How did you get into drama?
It’s a good question. I wonder…
I read, or I somehow knew, that they had tryouts for freshman one-act plays. In those days–I don’t know about now–Dramat got freshman every year and they put on, I think, three plays with only freshman involved. I guess it was a recruiting tool as much as anything else.
I don’t know! I read about it, I tried out, and I liked it.
You know, in my little town, I had acted. There were only one or two plays, but I had acted in those plays, and I liked it. So, I went over and tried out. Lo and behold, I got a part.
In a second life, would you become a professional actor?
Oh, yeah, I still like being on stage. I haven’t thought about becoming an actor or trying out for professional plays, but I do make a lot of speeches around the world, and the reason I do it is because I like it so much. It’s so much fun to be on stage and to capture everybody’s attention. You know when you’ve grabbed an audience. And that, for me, is great fun.
For what it’s worth, both of my daughters have turned out to have great stage presence. They are very, very good on stage. I don’t know where they get it, but it’s something that I certainly like a great deal.
But have I gone so far as to try to become a professional actor? No. Not much scope for that in Singapore— very, very little scope. You would make no money. But maybe I should go and try out for some plays in Singapore!
Speaking of stage presence, I think your first time on TV was with CNBC. You picked up the phone and took a call with your mom while on live TV!
Yes, yes, yes. That wasn’t my first time. But it was a call-in show, Your Portfolio, and mobile phones were new. I had one in my pocket. I didn’t have enough sense to turn it off, and lo and behold, my mother called me. [laughing]
I remember my co-host, we both were a little startled, and he looked at me and said, “That’s your phone.” I picked it up and said, “Hello?” It was my mother asking how I was doing. I’ve since learned, if you go on stage or on TV, turn off your phone.
Does CNBC still have the video of that? Can you go back and see it?
Oh gosh. That’s a good question. If they do… I mean, that’s certainly over 20 years ago. If there was a video, and there probably was a video, I’m sure it’s long, long, long gone. In the old days, the law was that TV networks had to keep everything for seven years in case anything ever came up. But I’m sure it’s long, long, long gone. It would be great footage!
I don’t doubt the internet!
What was the name of that show? It was Your Portfolio. If it exists, and I cannot believe it exists, it would be good to see.
I’ll try to find that for you. Here’s a tough question… I mean it respectfully. You were a History major at Yale. I’m sure it was different when you graduated since less people were in hedge funds. But nowadays, lots of our History majors go into finance. That being said, their track records usually don’t stack up close to yours– in fact, not many people’s do.
When you write about your major investments in retrospect, do you ever think, “Man, that was just lucky of me,” or do you think you were actually that good at predicting historical trends in commodities?
I often speak at universities and schools. And they always ask, “What should we study? What should we major in?” And I always tell them, “You should study history and philosophy.” And they always say, “No, no, no, no. We want to be rich, we want to be like you!” [laughter] And I say, “Well, if you want to be successful, you should study history, because history will teach you that things are always changing. Everything you know today is not going to be true in 15 years, which is an extremely important lesson to learn, because most people get up every day and think that whatever is going on is the way the world is and always will be.
What they should is wake up every day, and say, “Whatever’s happening today is not going to be around in the future. The world is going to change, and I need to figure out how it’s going to change.” And that’s true whether you’re a writer, a manufacturer, an investor—whatever you are. History is extremely important to understand. And it’s all happened before. Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” And it does. It has all happened before— one way or another, and it is going to happen again. That’s extremely important.
For instance, speaking about finance, you can go back and read about bubbles. We’ve always had bubbles all over the world and always will. They’re always the same, and people always say the same thing in bubbles.
If you know that and can recognize that, it’s a lot easier for you to understand when you’re in a bubble, and to not get sucked in to the point of destruction by a bubble. So, history is very important. To me, I’m glad I didn’t study… I’m not sure what else I would have studied. Probably investment management or accounting or something. I’m glad I studied history.
What do you study if you want to work on your timing— timing bubbles and timing trades?
The history of my failures! I’m terrible at timing. I’m terrible at timing. I’ve learned that I am always too early. I used to assume that everybody knows what I know. I now know that they don’t. They don’t think like I do, and they don’t know what I know. So, I’ve learned to wait a year or two before I decide to do something. And even then, I get it wrong. I don’t know.
So what do you do? Do you come up with a great idea and then go on your phone’s notes app and say, “Do this in 2 years… Do this in 3 years.”
[laughter] Well, I should! I don’t do that because I’m not as proficient with modern technology as you are, or my kids are, for instance, but maybe I should start doing that— I’ll put a note on my calendar: “Now you should think about doing X.”
A bit of a basic question, but as a fundamentals guy, what do you think when you see quant traders nowadays that aren’t well-versed in history but are able to consume massive amounts of data with success?
I don’t know if that’s the guys or the computers. If it’s the guys, then my hat’s off to them! I used to know guys that were unbelievable short-term traders. Roy Neuberger, founder of the firm Neuberger Berman, I mean he was astonishing. Astonishing. He’d be reading a newspaper, and he would look up to me and say, “There are 100,000 shares of IBM for sale on the floor. Get 90.” How the helllll did he know that?
There was a guy named Mike Steiner. Mike’s still around, and he was phenomenal at short-term trading. I don’t know how those two did it. There are guys who are just absolute geniuses at short-term trading before computers. Even Mike, Mike is probably 80 years old now– 78 maybe… anyways, he’s old. There were no computers, but he just had this phenomenal ability at short-term trading. Some guys can do it.
But to repeat, I’m the single worst trader in the world, the single worst market timer in the world. But it can be done, and I’m sure the computer can digest or figure out whatever it needs to do successful short-term trading.
To answer your question, I don’t know if that’s the computer or if that’s new guys like Roy Neuberger. I know they exist— or existed, anyways, and I presume they still exist. But I don’t know if they’re doing it on their own instincts, or on the computer. If they’re doing it on the computer, it’s probably easier and maybe even better. But computers make mistakes too, so you’ve got to teach your computer to do it right.
You often advise people to become farmers rather than working on Wall Street. I guess it goes something like this: The average age of farmers is increasing; there’s an undersupply of people in the farming industry; there’s an oversupply of people in hedge funds and finance; and so on.
There might be an oversupply of generalists, but can’t I do better by super-specializing in a finance-related field? Like short selling of x industry, where there isn’t an oversupply of people?
Whether it’s gardening or garbage collecting, there’s never going to be an oversupply of people who are really good at something. It doesn’t matter what it is nor how absurd it is: If you’re really good at it, and you specialize, don’t worry! You’re going to survive, and you’re going to stand out. Especially if you love what you do and you’re really good at it, you should never listen to anybody else— just do it. Just do it!
Why is your advice for people to go into production of real goods as opposed to just becoming specialized in finance?
If, for instance, by “real goods” you mean agricultural, then yes. In my view, there is going to be a shortage. We’ve had great cycles in history. If you go back and read Russian novels, Russian history, really any history, you’ll know that farmers have been great counts and great nobles during certain periods across the world. They’ve made huge fortunes. That being said, the farmers have also been poor as dirt mice during other periods of history. There have been great cycles in history. But in agriculture, specifically, we’ve had a long period of bad times. The world is going to continue to change, and agriculture will make its comeback. I know that from reading history.
And yes, if you love it, if you love it– now, Eric, I’m not going to become a farmer because I would fail miserably at being a farmer, no matter how good times are… But if you love it, then do it. When I went to Wall Street, anybody who thought on it said, “You’re making a mistake. It’s a backwater.” And it was a backwater. But I didn’t know that, and I loved it, so I went to Wall Street. If you love something, go ahead and do it. Don’t listen to other people.
Good advice! Backing up again… The story of history is the story of change. What is the single most utterly-baffling event you’ve experienced in your life? Something that you didn’t anticipate for a second– maybe the fall of the Berlin Wall. What just stunned you?
The one that comes to mind immediately is children. I was adamant against children all my life. I used to have livid discussions with friends of mine who also didn’t like children.
Well, Eric, I was wrong. [laughter] That’s a gigantic surprise for me.
I had my first child when I was 60, after railing, ranting, rationalizing, and understanding the reasons not to have children. We used to sit around and talk about, “Oh, did you hear about Joe’s son? He got arrested for drunk driving. And oh, did you hear about Bill’s daughter? She got knocked up. She’s pregnant and doesn’t know what to do.” We used to go on and on about the miserable stories of other people’s children– about how foolish they were to have children.
Well, I was wrong. I was completely wrong. Children are fabulous. Everybody should have one. At least one!
Not sure if this is kosher, but how much of that railing and ranting was just you wanting to stay a bachelor?
Well, it was all of the above. I loved being a bachelor. I just adored being a bachelor and finding new girlfriends if I wanted– I loved my freedom to do what I wanted. I went around the world on a motorcycle at the age of 46 or 47. Most 46-year-old people, male or female, couldn’t set off around the world on a motorcycle. They have family. They have responsibilities.
Being a bachelor gave me freedom to do whatever I wanted. And I did just that. I wouldn’t have had that freedom if I were married with family. That’s part of it. I loved, loved, loved the whole thing of being a bachelor. I saw the problems of children. I told you– we all shared stories about these poor saps who had children. It costs a lot of money. It costs a lot of responsibility.
No, no. Then I had one, and I realized that I was totally, 100% wrong about children. That was a great surprise after 60 years of being adamant not to have children.
Very heartwarming! Let’s call that one a “personal” surprise. What’s the biggest “historical” surprise to you?
In my lifetime… I’m going to have to think about that because nothing comes to mind. Let’s see… I mean, I had sensed or figured out some of these things, which is one reason why I sometimes get my investments right. I know, Eric, there have got to be many, many, many. I just cannot think of them right now. I’m sure I’ll think of something eventually! The September 11 attacks were a great shock to all of us, but I’ll have to think about the question more.
Mr. Rogers, my next question might come across a-little-bit blunt, but I mean this as your friend. I read that as a young man, you had told most everyone that you would retire by the age of 35…
I did. Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I used to tell myself that. That was my plan. Listen, I’m a little bit absurd. I look back on my life, and I see things I said at one stage. Lo and behold, I did them, and I wonder what kind of nut I was for thinking those things. But now, I realize that maybe I better listen to myself, because some of those nutty things I said actually happened, like going around the world or retiring early in my 30s. But go ahead, go ahead. Yes, I did use to say that.
Here’s the blunt part. [laughing] You retired when you were 37, right?
So that means you missed the mark by 2 years?
Yes, yes, yes. I can maybe explain why, but go ahead!
Uh, explain why!
Well, I was probably actually 36 when I decided to go ahead and fulfill my goal– my lifelong ambition. I was either 35 or 36, and I decided, “I’m going to quit! I’m leaving!” But then, through an extremely difficult time in the market when everybody was losing their shirt, we were doing so well. We were having so much fun, and it was such a thrill… That’s part of the reason I loved the investment world so much. So, I said to myself, “No. This is too much fun. I’m not going to quit.”
Of course, by then, I had gone through the mental process, I had made the mental decision, I had tasted retirement. In the next few months, I went ahead and retired. But because of that period of really, really feeling the exhilaration, of just cracking everything, especially when everybody else was doing so terribly, I decided to stay a bit longer.
My dad works on Wall Street, and I think he’ll probably work there until he’s at least 100 years old. What do you think it is about Wall Street that keeps people looking at tickers until they’re 100?
Well, it’s a very exciting life. If I was manufacturing hubcaps, I don’t know if it would be anything like the excitement of Wall Street. If I was manufacturing hubcaps more-or-less every day, every week, every month, I would know what exactly what I’d be doing that day, that week, or that month. But in the investment world, everything changes. [laughter]
You know, you can go to work at 10 am and know the exact state of the world. By 11:00, it’s a three-dimensional puzzle. Everything changes. Not just length and breadth, but time and everything else! The whole world changes constantly, and that’s what’s so beautiful about investing: constant change. Nothing is stable. To me, that’s a very exciting thing.
That’s one of the reasons why I liked Wall Street so much. It was a constant challenge. And of course, you’re trying to outsmart everybody in the world. You’re trying to outsmart everybody, everywhere. Whether they’re in Chile or New York, they’re all trying to figure out what’s going to happen in the markets.
If you’re manufacturing hubcaps, you have a few competitors and a few things you have to do. But with the investment world… The investment market hits the whole world, and it’s changing every hour.
I liked that one statistic in your book: At some point there were… five million shares trading on the NYSE? And nowadays, there are five million shares trading on one stock before breakfast?
It was actually three million shares when I first went to Wall Street. Three million shares per day was a big day on the New York Stock Exchange!
But back to your father. You know, there are people who just absolutely love the market. I told you about Roy Neuberger. He was still going down there when he was over 100 years old, because he liked it so much. Maybe you could say he didn’t have anything else to do, but he probably could have found something. Maybe he could have gone to the baseball games every day or something. But he found the thrill, and I’m sure your father… I don’t know your father… I’m sure there’s a certain element of that to your father. These guys absolutely love the market. They’re consumed by it, and that’s one reason why they do so well at it.
He could talk 24 hours for sure.
There are certainly people like that, and at one point, I was like that! Now, I’ve moved on to other things.
What have you moved on to?
My girls, for one thing. I’d rather be with my daughters more than just about anybody or anything now. I still see the world; I still invest; I still go around making speeches. I told you, I like doing that very much. It’s a lot of fun to capture an audience.
But if I could have dinner with anybody in the world, I’d rather have dinner with my daughters than just about anybody.
That’s definitely the pull quote, Mr. Rogers.
Well, it’s true!
How old are they at this point?
Eleven and Sixteen.
Is your 16-year-old in her rebellious phase yet?
No– I mean, the 11-year-old is a more rebellious teenager than the 16-year-old! [laughing] No, she’s been wonderful so far. I keep waiting for that phase to happen. I keep waiting for her to come downstairs one morning and say, “Ah, and you’re a dork!” [laughing] I haven’t had those experiences that I’ve heard from other parents yet.
Parents from the U.S. or Singapore?
Mainly the U.S. Maybe it happens in Singapore, but I haven’t heard many of those comments yet. I know they must be out there. Teenagers brains are… It’s pretty simple. It’s a biological factor: Teenagers’ brains are changing, so sure, they’ve got to be crazy at some time.
What are the biggest differences you’ve observed between Singapore and the U.S.?
Well, first, everything works in Singapore. [laughing] Nothing works in New York. When you call a plumber… whatever it is! You land in the airport in Singapore, and within 12 minutes, you’re in a taxi. You land at JFK, and within 12 minutes, you’re still figuring out where to find customs.
It’s magnificent how efficient everything is in Singapore. The education system is enormously different. Everything works here. That’s the first and obvious difference.
Then there’s the prosperity. My family and I just drove from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, and the infrastructure in America is clearly “in need”— let’s put it that way. Infrastructure in Asia is remarkable, whether we’re talking about highways, roads, subways, taxis, airports— take your pick. It’s an astonishing difference between Asia in 2019 and the U.S. in 2019. Driving from the Atlantic to the Pacific made it even more obvious.
Curveball! What’s your favorite movie?
I’m sorry, what?
What’s your favorite movie?
I don’t have an answer to that. I can think of a few, but I’m not much of a movie buff. I can think of some that I’ve liked in my day, but I’ve probably seen fewer movies per capita than anybody you know, and maybe anybody in the world… anybody in the U.S., I should say.
Man, I thought you were going to say Forrest Gump.
Well, that is a movie I saw, and a movie I liked, because I was from Alabama. But I don’t have an answer.
In fact, the only reason I probably saw Forrest Gump is because I’m from Alabama. Oh, I know! That’s exactly what happened! Somebody asked me, “Do you know Greenbow, Alabama?” I said, “No. I’ve never heard of it.” And so, I went to see the movie because Forrest was supposedly from Greenbow, Alabama. I liked it. I liked it. I liked it… I had fun.
What do you miss about Alabama?
Well, I don’t miss much about anywhere. My wife tells people that I’m a gypsy. I like to move about and travel, so I miss my family. But no, I don’t really… I, I, I find that I like wherever I am, and I don’t sit around saying, “Oh gosh, remember how good the chicken was in Alabama?” No, I don’t find myself missing anything anywhere I’m afraid.
By extension, guessing you don’t lose sleep over missed trades on the market?
No, no, no. No, no. That’s not a terribly important part of my life. Now, at least with specific short-term trades, I’m aware of what’s going on. I make decisions. I make investments. But I certainly don’t regret anything that I’ve missed.
I’ve learned a lesson which every investor should learn. If you missed it, you missed it. Don’t think about it anymore. What’s the saying, “There’s lots of girls at the beach?” No, there’s plenty of investments. Don’t worry. You have a chance. [laughing] Don’t worry— there’s lots, lots, lots more coming down the road.
Another hard-hitting question here. Let’s jump way back in time: what was it like being bankrupt?
Well, I didn’t technically go bankrupt. I did lose everything. That was not fun. I was devastated, especially because four months earlier, I had absolutely been the genius of the year. I was a gigantic success, and again, when everybody else was losing everything.
I didn’t go bankrupt. I just lose everything. I didn’t have to sell my motorcycle– it wasn’t that bad. [laughing] But no, it was devastating. I didn’t know what to do. Some people commit suicide, some people run away, some people change their lives, some people become monks. No, all I could do was just go to work and keep trying… keep trying to start over. I didn’t know anything else to do.
Just for context, was Lois your girlfriend at the time?
Lois was… No, Lois was gone by then. I was divorced by then, which, I guess, made it worse. No, I was divorced by then. She was long gone.
I take it you don’t talk to the ex-wives anymore.
No. No, no, no. I don’t have any reason to. I didn’t have any children. I didn’t have any money, so…
What’s a question you wish people would ask you? What do you think about that you don’t get a chance to talk about?
That’s a good question, but what you’re really saying is, “What would I like to tell people?” Well, the life story, the life lesson, is to be persistent. I’m trying to teach my daughters to be very curious. This is not a direct question to your question, but I am trying to teach my daughters to think independently, because it’s very hard to do, and very, very few people do it right. Nobody questions what they see on the television, on the internet, in the newspaper. I’m trying to teach them to do that. I’m trying to teach them to get information from various sources, and then to try and put it all together. Even then, you probably won’t get it right. But that’s the only way you’ll ever have a hope of getting it right! So, you have to think independently. You have to be curious. I’m trying to teach them to be aware of boys, too.
There’s a sundry of things I’m trying to teach. I’m trying to teach them to persist. There’s a poem—I think an American poem–called “Try, Try Again.” I think they both know it by heart now since we’ve read it so many times. The world is full of educated people who are not successful; the world is full of smart people who are not successful. The world is full of talented people who are not successful. The world is full of beautiful people who are not successful.
The people who are successful are the people who persist— the ones who never give up. Those nuts will never, never give up. Try, try again. If there’s one word I’m trying to teach them, it’s “Persevere.” Again, this is not a direct answer to your question. But since I have these two children, and I’m very, very keen on these two children, these are things I’m trying to teach them and make sure they understand.
How would you define “success” for your daughters?
The only definition I have of success is being happy. There are lots of people in the world who are not successful by the standards of Wall Street, let’s say, but they don’t care because they’re happy. [laughing] Happy people are happy. They don’t sit around saying, “Why don’t I have six cars like Sam? Sam has six cars. Why don’t I have six?” They don’t care because they’re happy. Sam probably isn’t happy with his six cars.
So, I want my daughters to figure out what they love, and to pursue what they love, whatever that may be. That will make them happy, and they’re more likely to be successful if they’re doing what makes them happy. If they’re not successful, if not they’re not happy, my only desire for them is that they figure out what they’re passionate about and then pursue it. Many people never figure out their passions. They do what they’re told. They do what somebody suggests, maybe a friend. I hope they can figure out what really makes them happy, and I hope that they pursue whatever that may be.
Right now, my 11-year-old says she’s going to be an actress. She’s in plays. She gets paid. She’s in a movie. She’s astonishing! She’s so good on stage. She’s going to be in… The Chinese called her to be in the first Chinese blockbuster. It’s a tiny part. But they called her. She didn’t have an agent or anything. She got paid real money.
And I’ve said to her, “Okay, if that’s what you want, then you pursue it. But I want you to be aware that right now, there are 400 million teenage girls in the world who want to be actresses, and only six of them are going to make it. So, you better learn to wait on tables, because you’re probably going to end up in Los Angeles, as a waitress, or Shanghai, as a waitress. But if that’s what you want to do, I urge you, urge you, urge you to pursue it.
Sounds like what my parents say!
Well, so you’re going to be a waiter in Los Angeles? Maybe you’ll see my daughter! [laughter]
[Laughing] Maybe! If you can’t tell, I’m partial to journalism… doing interviews, writing profiles– all that jazz.
That being said, I see the writing on the wall for “journalism” in its present iteration, at least for most people. And my parents say, “We want you to do what you love, and we will support you doing what you love, so long as you know and accept that the odds are stacked against most people in your place.”
I’m happy to hear your parents say that because they’re exactly right! I know many parents that want to shape their children. My mother told me I should be a doctor. I don’t know why she said that. But for several years, I thought I was going to go to medical school. In fact, back when I was at Yale, I took all the required courses for medical school. My senior year, I remember taking out this application for Harvard Medical School– for what it’s worth. The application said, “Name:” and I thought to myself, “Nah, I don’t want to fill out the goddamn form.” [laughing]
I realized that I didn’t want to go to medical school, so I didn’t even fill out the form. I never applied. My whole four years at school, because of my parents, because of my grandparents, because of my friends, or because of society… who knows why… I had planned to go to medical school. Thank goodness I didn’t. Nothing against doctors, but thank goodness. It just wouldn’t have been right for me.
Something that really stood out to me while reading your books was how you stick to your principles. That first time, when you were on the Oxford crew team, when the coach tried to take a bribe from your father… and you chose to resign. And then that second time you resigned, when you were working with Soros in the 70s… Amazing. Where did you get that from?
Eric, I remember my grandmother telling me at one point–I think I put in my book–that one of my forbearers was in partnership with Commodore Vanderbilt. In fact, he was the guy that owned the land that Vassar college now owns, and he sold the land to Vassar. He resigned and left Commodore Vanderbilt because he didn’t like his business practices.
This is a story that comes down from my grandmother, so who knows. And it was 100 years later, but I remember when I got to Yale that freshman year, as we discussed before, I was assigned to Vanderbilt Hall. And I remember saying, “Oh my god. Mr. Vanderbilt didn’t do too bad for himself!” [laughing]
I knew where I came from, I knew my circumstances, and I remember saying to myself, “Huh, Maybe I should bring my grandmother up here and show her Vanderbilt Hall!” [laughing] I thought, “I should show her that maybe Mr. Vanderbilt wasn’t as bad the family lore says!
Anyway, for whatever reason, my parents were pretty strong on that sort of thing. I guess it’s worked its way into my brain too. I could be really rich if I learned how to be dishonest, how to cut corners, but I’m quite happy now. Don’t get me wrong. [laughing] I don’t want to change my life to one of crime! Or a life of dishonesty, now, at this stage! I think it’s more like that I’ll try to become a professional actor than a professional criminal.
Although… You do seem to be spending a lot of time around the black market.
Well, black markets are great! You learn a lot! Especially in those days! I had to, because otherwise I wouldn’t get any money. But black markets teach you a lot! It’s amazing how much you can learn from the black market.
You know, if you’re sick, I can take your temperature, and we know you’re sick. We don’t know what’s wrong, but we know you’re sick. The black markets are the same way. The black market can tell you whether somebody’s sick, whether a country’s sick, and it can tell you how sick somebody is, depending on the rates on the black market.
No, it’s great. You learn a lot, and the black-market people know all the ins and outs. The black-market people are like a Madame. A Madame knows everybody in town and what they’re doing.
The black market is the same way. These guys who are “under the radar,” if you will, can really tell you a lot. They may not have the insight that you need to understand the real cause and the real cure, but they can tell you how bad things are; they can tell you what’s wrong; and, they can tell you who’s doing those bad things.
I looked up the biggest U.S. black markets in anticipation of speaking to you! [laughing] Gambling, cocaine, movie piracy, prostitution, music piracy, cigarette smuggling, and kidney organ trafficking.
I guess I could see each of those becoming legal, or de facto legal, at some point– except maybe kidney organ trafficking!
Wait you said organ trafficking? Uh, I didn’t know it was that big of a market in the U.S. I’m surprised because I thought… I thought buying organs was legal. I thought… I thought, I thought! Aren’t there waiting lists? That’s got to be legal. You don’t go down to the post office and put yourself on a waitlist for kidneys if that’s illegal! [laughing]
But I’m sure. No, no. Listen– I’m sure. Anything’s that wanted and/or needed, for instance getting into Princeton University, you can get illegally. We now know. We now know. Anything desirable will find its way to the black market. It makes sense that there’s a black market for organs. I just didn’t know it was that big!
I heard that the illegal way to get into Yale is through being President of your high school Key Club. (Mr. Rodgers was President of his high school Key Club)
[laughing] You know, I think about it periodically. I wonder if they still give out that scholarship. I was at my 50th reunion last May, or whenever I was there. I found the son of the admissions officer, Waldo Johnson. I said to him, “Are any of those guys still alive? I would like to go to them and find out how I got in to Yale. What happened? Why did they let me in?” [laughing] It’s not like today where only one-of-fifteen gets in, but even in those days, it was one-of-three or maybe one-of-four. But of course, they’re all dead. I wondered if there were records. I wondered if Yale kept admissions records from the old days. As far as he knows, there are no records of what happened and why.
No, no. But I’m sure. I look back, and I know that it was because of geographic distribution. Nobody’s ever applied from phone number five before. [laughing] Couldn’t find it on the map! No, no. I’m very clear how I got into Yale, which Is fine. I survived. I was terrified when I got there. I was in way, way over my head.
But Eric, there was nothing I could do because I had said to everybody in Demopolis, “Oh, I’m going to Yale!” I was going around bragging… bravado… crazy. I couldn’t go back and say, “I failed.” I couldn’t go back and let them know that I couldn’t do it. [laughing] So I had no choice. I had to sit there and work my head off in order to survive, because I couldn’t go back and make a fool of myself. I’d already made a fool of myself. [laughing] But they would’ve loved it if I’d gone back and said, “Oh, I couldn’t hack it.” So, I had to do it… I had to do it. I had to survive.
For a final question– what’s the last story you told someone? At your dinner table, maybe.
I don’t know– speaking of Yale and calling home, trying to call home that first Sunday. Yale’s a long way from Demopolis Alabama, where my phone number was 5. Here I am sitting in Singapore. I’m sure that when I went to Yale, I’d never heard of Singapore. I couldn’t have found it on the map.
And here I am, sitting with two daughters who are astonishing. My daughters are fluent in Mandarin. The Chinese call my daughters from Beijing. They’ve seen them on the internet. They call them and say, “Come to Beijing to be on TV.” My daughters have had three TV specials done about them, in China, because they speak such good Chinese.
Once upon a time, when I was in high school, my phone number was 5. I barely knew what Yale was, and I certainly didn’t know what Singapore was. A lot has happened in that period of time. I’ll tell you, Eric, Christmas of my freshman year, back in Alabama, all of us were sitting around talking about, “Where do you go to college?” They’d say, “Oh, I go to University of Alabama, I go to Auburn– whatever.” Some guy said to me, “Where do you go to college?” I said, “I go to Yale.” He was shocked. And he said, “Yale? You mean like Harvard and Yale.” [laughing] I said, “Yes, Yale like Harvard and Yale.” I mean, it was such a shock in that part of the world, in those days, that anybody would go out of state, much less that they would go to a place like Yale.
Yet here I am, sitting here in Singapore, looking out the window, living in a tropical paradise, with two daughters who are becoming stars in China. I was in the airport the other day in Shanghai. A guy looked at my passport and said, “I really like your daughters!” This was a passport guy, in immigration, talking about my daughters! [laughing] When I was 16, sitting there in Demopolis, Alabama, I never– you talk about a surprise? That’s a surprise. I never could have conceived something like this would be my life. Never, never, never.