by Arjun Ashar
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Soros: The life and times of a messianic billionaire written by Michael T. Kaufman

Originally published in 2002, this book is a wonderful insight in the life of a man who is one of the foremost thinkers of our time. Set in three sections, it engagingly illustrates Soros’s early life escaping persecution under Nazi occupation, his academic and financial career and ultimately his philanthropic efforts to promote the ideals of an ‘open society’.

Drawing from his experiences of being taken prisoner of war by Russians, Soros’s father Tivador developed a peculiar survivalist mindset. This would manifest in his unconventional ideas of parenting and later on help him survive the Nazi occupation by living under a fake identity for his young Jewish family. Two incidents in the book highlight the primeval survival instinct that George’s father had, which shaped his sons thinking. Picking up the ominous signs emanating from Nazi Germany, Tivador changed his family name to a less Jewish sounding Soros, the choice was due the fact that the word “Soros” was pronounced almost exactly the same way in any language or dialect. This he hoped would help them obscure their Jewish roots to some extent. Secondly, he insisted on sending his firstborn son to one of the worst schools he could find in the city so that his son would learn to get along with a diverse set of people.

As opposed to Warren Buffet, who looks for continuity, enduring competitiveness and wide moats in his investments, Soros has  thrived in anticipating and benefiting from moments of enormous change in societies. This peculiar ability of his has been largely shaped by early childhood experiences escaping the Nazi’s, which bordered on surreal and later on by his observations of the effects of perception in shaping reality which he aptly surmises in his theory of ‘reflectivity’.

Dwelling beyond this book for a bit, it is interesting to note that both Buffet and Soros have laid an extraordinary emphasis on surviving change in their respective careers. Buffet expresses it in his uncompromising quest for sustainable competitive advantage and thus shields his portfolio from the effects of change. While Warren shuns or atleast tends to minimize the effects of change when he seeks out investments like Coca Cola and men’s razors, Soros actively seeks out for change drawing from his enormously wider set of experiences. Soros coming out of retirement in 2007 to protect his portfolio and his impeccable timing in shorting the pound in 1992 are a testimony to his wisdom in identifying major inflection points in the course of financial history.

Soros’s pattern of thinking neatly upholds a market’s current state on 3 factors: underlying trend, prevailing bias and (stock) prices. At any given point of time all of these 3 factors interplay and this decides the course of the market.

The book greatly dwells upon Soros’s philanthropic adventures to promote ‘open’ societies. As opposed to traditional ‘closed’ societies which resist change, open societies encourage ‘critical’ mode of thinking during times of extreme change. According to Soros, this critical mode of thinking is more suited to humans in their quest for adapting to change in as humane manner as possible.

Naturally, this critical manner of thinking helped Soros embrace and benefit from moments of catalytic changes in financial markets. More notably when he shorted the British pound and made more than a billion dollars. There is an entire chapter devoted to this famous episode in the book.  Soros’s partnership with Jim Rogers and their ultimate parting of ways is also sufficiently outlined.

George’s efforts to be recognized as a serious philosopher are somewhat amusing but nevertheless they cannot be entirely construed as vanity on his part since here is a man who has seen firsthand, the worst and the best the twentieth century had to offer. Having experienced the horrors of a closed society under communism and Nazi occupation and also having thrived in a relatively open society in England and America, Soros’s life experiences have much to offer to an interested reader of this book.