#160 Peter Cundill



In "Routines and Orgies: The Life of Peter Cunhill, Financial Genius, Philosopher and Philanthropist," Christopher Rizzo Gill chronicles the extraordinary life of Peter Cunhill, a value investor whose professional acumen was matched by a vibrant personal life. Cunhill's story is pieced together from 44 years of detailed journals, revealing a man of insatiable curiosity and a dedication to learning, which he considered vital to his success in investing and beyond. Despite his immense success, Cunhill faced profound challenges, including a battle with a debilitating neurological disease, Fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome. The biography paints a portrait of a complex, multifaceted individual who, despite his flaws and the trials he faced, lived a life of intensity and sought to experience the world to its fullest, embodying a philosophy that embraced both discipline and the pursuit of pleasure.

Summary Notes

Biography as a Source of Inspiration

  • The book discussed is a biography that provides insights into the life and thoughts of Peter Cundill.
  • It is an epic tale covering various aspects of Peter's life, including his professional development and personal challenges.
  • Peter's journals, written over 44 years, are a key source of material for the book.
  • The journals are detailed, confessional, and cover successes, failures, and the lessons learned.
  • Peter's curiosity and openness to learning are highlighted as key traits.

"This book is a biography, not an investment manual. But those seeking insights into the thinking of one of the greatest value investors of all time will find it has much to offer."

The quote establishes that the book is a biography that offers insights into the thinking of Peter Cundill, a notable value investor.

The Journals of Peter Cundill

  • The journals are intimate and encompass every aspect of Peter's life, including his professional career and personal relationships.
  • They cover his sporting achievements and physical challenges, reflecting his adventurous spirit.
  • Peter's journals also delve into his mental health, including periods of depression and self-doubt.
  • They serve as a commonplace book where Peter noted and developed ideas from his readings.
  • Peter's dedication to learning and mastery is emphasized as a lifelong commitment.

"It is supported by 44 years of meticulously kept daily journals written in tiny script, which are intimate, utterly frank, self admonishing, and confessional."

The quote emphasizes the extensive and personal nature of Peter Cundill's journals, which provide a window into his life and thoughts.

Peter Cundill's Professional and Personal Philosophy

  • Peter Cundill's approach to life and investing was marked by discipline, concentration, patience, and determination.
  • He believed in living life as if it were a book, striving to make something interesting of himself.
  • Peter's professional life and personal development were closely intertwined.
  • His early reflections reveal his struggle with ambition and the desire to lead a useful life.
  • The book highlights Peter's belief in the importance of being passionate about one's profession.

"Perhaps I anticipate a biography as I watch my own development. If so, I'll need to make something interesting of myself first."

This quote shows Peter's foresight and intentionality about living a life worthy of a biography, indicating his ambition and self-awareness.

The Early Life and Career of Peter Cundill

  • Peter's early life and his development into one of the greatest value investors are documented through his journals.
  • His journals reveal his inner thoughts, fears, and ambitions from a young age.
  • Peter's career before founding his own fund is highlighted, including his roles and responsibilities.
  • His job satisfaction and professional goals are explored, revealing his contemplation of what constitutes a fulfilling career.

"Do I want my job to become my obsession? I'm not sure. What I do know is that I want to do something which will engage my spirit and all of my faculties, my very being. And why should this not be my profession?"

The quote reflects Peter's contemplation about the role of his job in his life and his desire for a profession that fully engages him.

Personal Reflections and Growth

  • Peter's journal entries provide insight into his self-critique and personal growth.
  • He reflects on his family relationships, personal insecurities, and the drive to improve himself.
  • Peter's commitment to physical fitness and his obsession with being in top physical condition are highlighted.
  • His relationship with his mother and her influence on his intellectual life is acknowledged.
  • Peter's ambition and fear of complacency are recurring themes in his reflections.

"There is a choice of courses in life, either to seek equilibrium or to enjoy the heights and suffer the depths."

This quote encapsulates Peter's philosophy of life, indicating his choice to experience both the highs and lows rather than seeking a balanced, uneventful existence.

Experience and Desire for Intensity

  • Peter Cundill expresses a desire to feel alive through intense experiences.
  • He engages in high-risk activities like climbing Mount Everest and flying in experimental planes.
  • Cundill seeks out these experiences to escape the monotony of daily life.

"And so he goes out and purposely puts himself into dangerous or painful situations."

This quote illustrates Cundill's intentional pursuit of dangerous experiences to feel more alive.

"He chased the extremes he was not comfortable with, just the day to day monotony of normal life."

The quote emphasizes Cundill's aversion to the mundane and his pursuit of extreme experiences to counteract it.

Personal Life and Professional Ambitions

  • Cundill reflects on his personal life, including dating, marriage, and the desire for children.
  • He prioritizes his professional ambitions over personal relationships.
  • Cundill questions the compatibility of marriage and a domestic life with his professional goals and personal routines.

"So he says, the loss is painful. And yet I'm doing good professional work. I'm probably better off as a bachelor because my primary ambition is to be a great professional."

This quote reveals Cundill's prioritization of his career over personal relationships, even when facing emotional pain from a breakup.

"The thought of domestic life slightly repels me, and given my strange set of routines, how could anyone possibly live with me anyways?"

Cundill expresses his discomfort with domestic life and doubts about cohabiting with a partner due to his unique habits and routines.

Investment Philosophy and Career Development

  • Cundill is influenced by Benjamin Graham's margin of safety principle.
  • He questions the capabilities of his then-boss, Frank Treble, and decides to pursue his own path.
  • Cundill's concerns about Treble's investment strategies and the potential impact on the company's reputation lead him to leave and start his own company.

"My own instincts are to make his success of the trust company, with investment counseling and mutual fund management as its natural corollary."

Cundill's instincts drive him to focus on investment counseling and mutual fund management, hinting at his future path in the industry.

"I am now concerned that the trust company will suffer from this policy by being starved of capital and exposed to potential loss of credibility and reputation should there be any bad investment decisions."

Cundill's concern for the company's credibility and reputation reflects his foresight and prudence as an investor.

Professional Struggles and Breakdown

  • Cundill experiences a mental breakdown due to professional insecurities and concerns about his boss's financial decisions.
  • He feels the weight of unquantifiable uncertainties and the potential looming crisis.
  • Cundill's journal entries provide insight into his personal struggles despite his outward success.

"This unquantifiable uncertainty left Peter feeling insecure about his entire professional life, and he suffered what he called a mini mental breakdown."

The quote conveys the intense stress Cundill experienced due to uncertainties in his professional life, leading to a mental breakdown.

"Judging from trouble's general demeanor, Peter suspected that a serious crisis might be looming."

Cundill's observations of his boss's behavior lead him to suspect an impending crisis, contributing to his anxiety and breakdown.

Investment Strategy and Philosophy Formation

  • Cundill develops his investment philosophy after discovering Benjamin Graham's work.
  • He creates a unique investment strategy based on Graham's principles, incorporating his own ideas into the methodology.
  • Cundill emphasizes detail, patience, and commitment in his investment approach.

"It struck me like a thunderbolt. There before me was the method, the solid theoretical backup to selecting investments based on the principle of realizing underlying value."

This quote captures Cundill's epiphany upon discovering Graham's investment principles, which became the foundation of his investment strategy.

"Values and investment. Value in an investment is like character in an individual. It stands up better in adversity and overcomes it more readily."

Cundill draws a parallel between the resilience of value in investments and character in individuals, emphasizing the importance of strong fundamentals.

Physical Fitness and Mental Agility

  • Cundill values physical fitness and its connection to mental performance.
  • He adopts a disciplined approach to exercise, influenced by historical figures like Plato and Aristotle.
  • Cundill believes that maintaining physical health is crucial for achieving excellence in all aspects of life.

"Lack of physical activity destroys the naturally good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise, save it and preserve it."

Plato's quote, referenced by Cundill, highlights the importance of physical activity for maintaining one's natural condition.

"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation."

Aristotle's quote, also referenced by Cundill, underlines the role of consistent training and habit in achieving excellence.

Independence and Wealth

  • Cundill's pursuit of wealth is tied to his desire for independence and freedom from constraints.
  • He seeks financial abundance to avoid limitations imposed by a lack of resources.
  • Cundill's journal entries suggest that his ambition for financial success is to gain complete autonomy over his life choices.

"He wanted money and power, but I think a lot of that had to do because he strove for independence."

This interpretation of Cundill's motivations connects his pursuit of wealth and power to his overarching goal of independence.

"The more that I think about the way that the Greeks, especially the Spartans, regarded the subject of exercise and the necessity of maintaining peak levels of physical fitness, the more I am convinced that the health of the mind and the spirit are either bolstered or hampered by the condition of the body."

Cundill's reflection on Greek philosophy underscores his belief in the interdependence of physical fitness and mental well-being, which influences his approach to life and investing.

Dangers of Impatience and Responsibility

  • Peter Cundill acknowledges the dangers of his impatience and the impact it could have on his family.
  • He emphasizes the responsibility he holds due to the reliance of many people on him.
  • The quote highlights the potential risks of his behavior and his awareness of its implications.

"But the dangers of my impatience with the claustrophobic aspects of wedded bliss and family life are real enough. I must never let that happen again. There are other lives at stake and far too many people relying on me."

  • This quote reflects Peter Cundill's recognition of the consequences his actions could have on his family and his resolve to prevent any negative outcomes.

Happy Marriage and Self-Reliance

  • Peter Cundill discusses the characteristics of happy couples, emphasizing self-reliance and conflict de-escalation.
  • He believes in equality within the relationship and adherence to specific maxims for a successful marriage.

"I think what most characterizes the happy couples that I know is their ability to remain self-reliant on occasion and thereby to deescalate the grounds for conflict."

  • Peter Cundill suggests that the ability for partners to be self-reliant helps in reducing potential conflicts, contributing to a happier marriage.

Maxims for a Happy Marriage

  • Peter Cundill lists maxims for a happy marriage: don't lie, don't make promises you can't keep, and don't quit.
  • He acknowledges his own failure to adhere to the principle of monogamy despite these maxims.

"Don't lie, don't make promises you can't keep, and above all, don't quit."

  • This quote encapsulates the core principles Peter Cundill believes are essential for maintaining a happy marriage.

Professional Life and Business Success

  • In 1974, Peter Cundill starts his investment fund and later sells it to Mackenzie while retaining a minority stake.
  • He focuses on investment research, delegating other business aspects to ensure he spends most of his time on what he excels at.

"Identify the most important activity in your work and then spend all your time doing that."

  • Peter Cundill advises concentrating on the most crucial aspect of one's work to achieve success, reflecting his own practice in his professional life.

Dealing with Depression and Midlife Crisis

  • Peter Cundill suffers from depression in his fifties, attributing it to both professional setbacks and a midlife crisis.
  • He shares insights on overcoming depression by focusing on positivity and drawing inspiration from others' adversities.

"The spirit can always triumph, although you have to quash the negativity and fatalism with absolute determination and just cling to the positive."

  • This quote reveals Peter Cundill's belief in the power of the human spirit to overcome negative emotions and the importance of determination in combating depression.

Personal Philosophy and Life Tips

  • Peter Cundill develops a personal philosophy combining stoicism and epicureanism.
  • He shares "Pete's tips for good life," which include a mix of health, learning, balance, and adventure.

"Exercise between half an hour and 2 hours every day... Be curious. Never stop learning... Be a warrior. Be a priest, be a monk, be a hedonist."

  • These quotes from Peter Cundill's "Pete's tips for good life" reflect his belief in a balanced lifestyle that embraces physical health, continuous learning, and embracing various aspects of life.

Inner Monologue and Self-Reflection

  • Peter Cundill reflects on his inner monologue, creating an optimistic persona named Frank Cunheld to counteract negative thoughts.
  • He contemplates the potential psychiatric benefits of this technique and sees it as a form of rebirth.

"I wonder whether the superimposing of a good, healthy Persona over a flawed one is a psychiatric trick that is known and in use."

  • Peter Cundill considers the possibility that creating a positive alter ego could be a therapeutic strategy to improve mental well-being.

Family Tragedy and Personal Health

  • Peter Cundill's wife is diagnosed with cancer, and around the same time, he is reassured that his tremor is benign.
  • Despite his wife's diagnosis, he continues his professional and personal life, including traveling and maintaining extramarital relationships.

"Then my life changed. Joni said that her blood tests and scans showed that she has lots of cancer, the same as her mother. She is scared."

  • This quote marks a pivotal moment in Peter Cundill's life, as his wife's cancer diagnosis introduces fear and uncertainty into their lives.

Personal Struggles and Coping Mechanisms

  • Peter Cundill's wife, Joni, underwent major surgery and was in a critical condition.
  • Peter tried to cope with the possibility of Joni's death by sticking to his routines.
  • He struggled with the fear of death and sought to find meaning in Joni's illness.
  • Despite the grim prognosis, Joni showed signs of recovery, allowing Peter to attend a meeting in Toronto.
  • Peter found inspiration in Roy Thomson's autobiography, particularly the idea of letting the brain work intuitively based on one's bank of experience.

"I find that it can only deal with the prospect of Jay's passing by sticking to all my routines as far as possible, reprehensible as some would feel this is."

This quote illustrates Peter's coping mechanism—adhering to his routines—to handle the emotional stress of his wife's illness.

"The brain is like a very sophisticated computer. My advice is to allow it to work as it were, unattended. It will use your bank of experience and reach lateral conclusions and otherwise obscure connections intuitively."

Peter was inspired by Thomson's view of the brain working intuitively, which helped him during a personal crisis.

Final Moments and Reflections

  • Peter spent precious moments with Joni, sharing love and gratitude before her passing.
  • He wondered about Joni's feelings during her final hours and felt a mix of emotions as she entered a coma.
  • Peter and Joni's stepchildren, Roger and Evelyn, kept vigil until her death.
  • Peter reflected on his love for Joni and his satisfaction in having expressed it to her.

"I spent several hours giggling with her Jay, before I faded. Although there were some serious and memorable moments."

This quote captures the bittersweet moments Peter shared with Joni, balancing laughter and solemnity.

"Roger said that the death process had begun. It was not me. We took turns being on vigil."

Peter and Joni's stepchildren took turns watching over her, indicating the communal aspect of facing a loved one's imminent death.

Coping with Illness and Legacy

  • Peter's own health deteriorated, marked by fatigue, loss of strength, and reliance on sleep.
  • He faced the dilemma of enjoying the fruits of his labor versus leaving a material legacy.
  • Peter continued to contribute strategically and maintained a forward-looking perspective despite his illness.
  • He valued independence and aimed to live an authentic life without regret.

"My balance is unreliable. I sometimes suffer extreme fatigue. My strength is slipping away enough that I notice it from week to week."

Peter candidly described the physical decline he experienced as his illness progressed.

"Retirement is simply a death warrant. Hang on. You're still contributing strategically. Do not look back, look forward."

In this quote, Peter encourages himself to remain active and forward-thinking, despite his health challenges.

The Writing Process and Friendship

  • Peter and the author, Chris, collaborated on a book, with Chris helping to transcribe and organize Peter's journals.
  • The process was both enjoyable and therapeutic for Peter, allowing him to relive his life through his writings.
  • The book's title, "Routines and Orgies," was inspired by Aldous Huxley and reflected Peter's view of life's rhythms.
  • Chris witnessed Peter's physical decline, which was stark compared to his previous vitality.

"Our routines soon became established. After reading the day's papers and periodicals Peter stretched out on the bed beside my desk to assess what had been done and what needed doing."

This quote describes the daily routine that Peter and Chris established while working on the book, demonstrating Peter's continued engagement with life.

"Routines and orgies was Peter's chosen title, taken from a rather obscure travel book by Aldris Huxley."

The book's title signifies Peter's perspective on life, emphasizing the balance between the mundane and the exceptional.

Final Adventures and Reflections on Mortality

  • Despite his physical limitations, Peter continued to seek out new experiences and travel.
  • Phyllis Ellis, a former companion, recounted the challenges and poignancy of caring for Peter during a trip to Bermuda.
  • Peter's determination and humor shone through even as he faced significant disabilities.
  • The account reflects on the importance of living life fully, even in the face of debilitating illness.

"Peter did what he could. He wind up going to theater like 30 different times. He traveled to Egypt, went all these different countries."

This quote highlights Peter's efforts to maximize his life experiences despite his illness.

"Though I can make light of my week with Peter in Bermuda. But it wasn't really funny, not really funny at all."

Phyllis Ellis reflects on the gravity of Peter's condition, despite the humor she found in certain situations.

Final Advice and Legacy

  • Peter's last advice was to be patient, think long-term, and appreciate the power of compound returns.
  • His last year was filled with challenges, but he remained active and engaged in life.
  • The importance of living an authentic and fulfilling life was a key message from Peter's experiences.
  • Peter's story is a testament to resilience and the pursuit of a life well-lived.

"The mantra is patience, patience and more patience. Think long term and remember that the big rewards accrue with compound annual rates of return."

Peter's final advice encapsulates his investment philosophy and approach to life, emphasizing patience and long-term thinking.

"I had a wonderful life. And in his case, yeah, it sucks. I didn't want this disease, but I didn't have control over it. And the parts of my life I did have control over I made great."

This reflection underscores the importance of taking charge of the aspects of life one can control and finding satisfaction in one's choices.

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