Having a good mentor can make all the difference

Seek the advice of someone who has 'been there, done that' - and reap benefits

There are many ways to get rich.

That is what any personal finance and investment guidebook will tell you.

Flip one open, and you are sure to be confronted with well-rehearsed platitudes on timing the market and tips on how to conduct technical analysis on a stock.

But as I thumbed through a handful of these texts at Kinokuniya bookstore one weekend, I was disappointed to find only one that mentioned the role of a mentor in the journey towards financial security and success.

In the second chapter of his book, Value Investing For Employees, author Clive Tan recounts the way that he first picked up investing in the stock market.

For the uninitiated, value investing is a strategy in which the investor aims to buy stocks that are priced below their estimated value.

Mr Tan had attended a workshop on investing just as he was about to start his career as a teacher. He credited the speaker for helping him to "live my life the way I design (it)".

We can read all the books in the world,but having someone willing to extend a guiding hand does make all the difference.

If you ask me, Mr Tan's experience sounds rather like the story of one of the most well-known investors of all time - Mr Warren Buffett.

Mr Buffett, chairman of multinational conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, once wrote in Forbes magazine that Mr Benjamin Graham - the father of value investing himself - had been his "idol" ever since he read his book, The Intelligent Investor. He even went to Columbia Business School just because Mr Graham was a professor there.

After graduating, Mr Buffett said he made a pest of himself by sending his ideas on investing in securities to Mr Graham frequently. One day, he finally received a reply saying: "Next time you're in New York, come and see me."

He then landed a job at Mr Graham's firm Graham-Newman Corp - also believed to be the very first hedge fund - and the rest is history.

As American author David Shenk rightly notes: "Any person lucky enough to have had one great teacher who inspired, advised, critiqued, and had endless faith in her student's ability will tell you what a difference that person has made in her life."

I count myself lucky enough to have experienced the kindness of those who have extended their advice and given their time to me unconditionally.

And they do it not because their success has bestowed on them a certain nirvana-like benevolence, but because it is always heartening to them to have young, inquisitive people with a drive to learn asking them questions. At least, that is what they tell me.

I recall the kindness of an elderly gentleman whom I had the good fortune of meeting when I took a course meant for real estate sales personnel, during a break just after I graduated from university.

For a start, I had no intention of becoming a property agent, and relented only because my mother felt strongly that I should make use of my free time to learn something new.

To add to that, hauling myself out of bed at 8am thrice a week did not please me at all.

But providence determined that this distinguished-looking man was to sit next to me during the course.

Week after week, he introduced me to books he had been reading about investing in property, and told me of his best investment decisions. He also shared freely about the lessons he had learnt from his own mistakes, as well as those made by his friends.

Intrigued, I began to pay more attention in my classes, which sparked my interest in real estate. Even now, what I learnt then is still useful in my job as a property reporter.

I eventually found out that the man was the retired head of the corporate banking unit at a major financial institution here, and that he also owned an asset management firm.

I was humbled by his passion for learning despite his accomplishments, and his example taught me that I should never be too proud to learn.

Alas, mentors do not fall from the sky.

Yet, sometimes, using a bit of gumption to gain proximity to a mentor figure is all it takes to change things for ourselves.

Recently, a friend told me the story of how he had managed to reap a neat profit from a property bought during its launch many years ago.

A senior colleague, whom he knew had a keen nose for real estate, was intending to snap up a few units.

He also explained to my friend the reasons that the investment was a sure-win.

"If even he could have been so sure as to buy so many units, I didn't think it could have gone very wrong," my friend said, and he has clearly been proven right.

According to Mr Shenk, this is all a matter of "identifying magnificent external resources".

But I suppose the biggest merit of having a mentor is benefiting from the insights of someone who has "been there and done that" - someone who can point out the blind spots in our lives. This is especially important as it can take only one mistake to unravel all that we might have accomplished.

Scientist Isaac Newton stood on the shoulders of giants. Journalist and political thinker Walter Lippmann spoke of men who plant trees that other men will sit under, as Mr Buffett put it in the preface of the fourth edition of The Intelligent Investor.

To him, "Ben Graham was such a man", wrote Mr Buffett.

So, to the mentors who have helped lift us to greater heights - whether they realised it or not - thank you.

ocheryl@sph.com.sg