Photo Credit: Hello I'm Nik
A few days ago at dinner a friend asked if I had any regrets in my life. "I'm only 68," I replied. "It's too early for regrets." And anyway, I am happy that I married the woman I did and that we have great kids and grandchildren; if I altered something I did or didn't do, wouldn't my life have turned out different?
No, I don't have any regrets. Even entertaining a regret leads to brooding and endless bouts of what-if. If I were unhealthy, unhappy, unlucky, poor, crippled, or a Muslim, sure I would have many regrets: I'd be asking myself what if I had bet on the right horse, married the right girl, gotten that degree, scored the right job, started the right business, met the right people, or been born a Jew? Wouldn't life have been better for me?
That is not to say I didn't make mistakes. To paraphrase a great truth: if a mistake doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger. One of the lessons I try to teach my employees and business partners is that if you don't make a lot of mistakes, you're not doing enough business. The businessman who has zero tolerance for mistakes is not taking any risks. Without risk there is very little reward.
One of my boys recently started a new business (after less than a year he is doing over a million dollars in business in six mall locations), and has already logged over a dozen mistakes made by his employees, each occurrence of which is going into the employee manual as a lesson for future workers. I told him that he won't be as successful as I am until his business is making at least a dozen mistakes a day.
Let me give you an example: back in 1980 I had about 70 people working for me going to hotels in a number of states buying gold and silver scrap. A competitor of mine on 47th Street in New York asked me how I was able to get so many trained gold-buyers as quickly as I did. I told him him I didn't hire trained people because I couldn't find them so I simply hired novices that were given an hour training instead of weeks because gold had shot up so quickly there wasn't time to train them.
Turn Mistakes into Gold
He then wondered if that didn't lead to a lot of mistakes, of people buying things that really weren't gold. Here's what I told him: "By using untrained people I am buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of precious metals every week. Although they are making mistakes, hundreds of mistakes, only 20% or less of what they're buying is not real. But that still allows me to makes more than a hundred grand a week profit after all expenses. If I wait a month or so to train them properly, I may make more money later with very few mistakes, but I will have given my competitors a chance to lock in locations that I may not be able to get later. And anyway after a month or so the untrained people will have gotten on-the-job training and become better."
His response? He wouldn't be able to what I did because it would bother him if his workers lost money on some purchases. Because he had little tolerance for mistakes, he didn't make the money I made.
Another time I had the opportunity to buy a few thousand pounds of catalytic converters. There was no one to tell me how much to pay for the products or what I could expect in the way of profit or how long it would take to process or how much platinum metals I could recover. So I figured, what the hell, and gave it a try. I paid $44,000 for the load based on a guess and six weeks later, after sending the drums filled with converters to Canada, I got back about $41,000. The $3,000 loss was due to a number of mistakes:
- I miscalculated the percentage of platinum metals in the converters,
- I should have locked in most of the platinum because the price dropped over the time period,
- I should have stripped the products locally to lower the shipping weight and costs to Canada,
- I forgot to ask for my barrels back,
- I should have separated the copper, nickel, steel, and other metals for local scrap sale and disposal.
Eventually, through these and many hundreds of other mistakes, I was the only one in most of New York who bought every kind of scrap metal imaginable. This gave me an edge against every other gold buyer in the city. Today, I am still only one of a very small handful of people who buy low-content silver-plated items as scrap.
As for past personal mistakes, well, I am a rather gregarious, outgoing person and have interacted with thousands of people and have made an uncountable number of mistakes, but I don't regret any of them because I live in the present. If someone I trusted betrayed me, I don't want that to change me, to make me not trust another person. That doesn't mean I have not learned a lesson from a bad experience (see my advice about lending money to relatives here), it means the bad experience should not make me bitter and angry and relive the past over and over and over.
Let me correct myself - I wrote that I don't have any regrets; actually I have only one regret. It's not a regret of something I did or didn't do in my life. I only regret that someday, all that we have written and learned as a species, all the great and wondrous things to come, that eventually it will all be unremembered, cold, scattered subatomic particles floating further and further away from each other into endless eternity.
Who will be reading my blog then?