An Afternoon With Peter Lynch


As part of the Catholic Speakers Series at the Harvard Business School, Peter Lynch, legendary American businessman and investor, shared his insights, in a conversation moderated by Clarisse Siu, President of the HBS Catholic Student Association, on faith, life and markets.

"Management is getting things done through others," he said. "I had a career and I had faith," hinting that the two are not mutually exclusive. "Optimism is part of doing well in business," he noted. "The cynics don't prevail." If we think about life as the pursuit of wisdom, Lynch, shared many nuggets that taught students how to live a more meaningful and happy life.

He stressed the importance of kindness in business. "Being nasty and cynical does not work," he said. When you disagree with someone, avoid pounding them. "Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn," Dale Carnegie, American self-help writer, advised in his 1936 classic How To Win Friends And Influence People. "But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving." Lynch repeated that mantra. "There should be a neutral response to good and bad news."

Lynch talked about gratitude, which translates into appreciating more what we have already achieved. He stressed the value of forgiveness; don't only remember your grudges.

"Don't make life about having a big scorecard," Lynch insisted, explaining that envy is the worst of the seven deadly sins. If you keep a scorecard and constantly compare yourself to others, you will not have a fulfilling life. You can't make your happiness dependent on how others score.

Persistence is a virtue, he cautioned, but stubbornness is a vice. The probability of success determines the difference. Look at the facts and ask yourself whether it makes sense to put in more work. Ask yourself on a regular basis if what you pursue remains a good story.

"There are a lot of people that are gospel experts, but are they living their advice?" Lynch asked students. It's not enough to know. You need to put your knowledge into practice.

When he was asked about investment advice, Lynch said the decision of doing nothing is underestimated. "There should be a business case on doing nothing," he suggested. In a world where people buy and sell daily, Lynch's advice of patience is important to bear in mind. As trader Jesse Livermore said, men who can both be right and sit tight are uncommon.

Lynch said that often when you think that you are late to the game, the game is only in its second inning. To illustrate his point, he talked about Wal-Mart. Even if you bought Wal-Mart ten years after it went public in 1970, you still would have made 30 times your money. Wal-Mart was only in 15 percent of America. Saturation hadn't been reached yet.

Above all, you need to help those that are disadvantaged. Lynch enjoys reading biographies of incredible achievers that have made it against the odds. Often those kind of people give back the most. If you don't do something in your life to help the disadvantaged, he said, you have failed. As Mahatma Gandhi said the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.

This was originally published at The Harbus, the student newspaper of the Harvard Business School.