It was September 11, 2001, and my typical morning commute was underway…
Coffee in hand, I was already running 10 minutes late as I hopped on the PATH train running from Hoboken, New Jersey to Lower Manhattan.
But when the doors opened several levels under the basement of the World Trade Center, something was definitely different.
And things have never been the same again since.
I’ll get to several of the lessons I learned in just a moment, lessons that apply to your investing and your life as well.
Here’s What I Saw in Lower Manhattan Two Decades Ago
It’s hard to believe it was 20 years ago because I can remember the entire series of events in vivid detail.
The minute the train doors opened, there was the unmistakable smell of something burning.
“Is a trash can on fire?” asked the conductor.
Nobody answered. We were all too busy rushing toward our Wall Street jobs.
But as I ascended the first flight of stairs, the smell grew stronger, and a group of policemen were coming down the steps past me. That was my first indication something was really wrong.
My second clue came once I reached the ground floor of the building. People were moving much faster than normal. Bagels, napkins, and orange juice were just strewn about the floor. I saw a broken high heel that had been snapped right off a shoe.
“You will not panic,” I told myself. “There’s no point in running or acting irrationally. That’s how people get hurt. Instead, you’ll just go out the side door like you always do.” And that’s what I did, walking in the shadow of the building before crossing Church Street.
From Zuccotti Park, I looked back up toward the tower. Smoke was billowing out of a hole way up at the top. Shards of glass, papers, and all types of assorted office debris were raining down.
Still, the sheer size of the building dwarfed the extent of the damage. I knew there was no point in standing there watching. Besides, I was a driven New Yorker who had a job to get to.
As I walked down Broad Street, I continued to step over papers marked “confidential” and other items not normally lying on the sidewalk. But I was still assuming it was a smaller explosion. Or maybe there had been some other type of accident.
Then, just as I got in front of the New York Stock Exchange building, I heard an explosion.
“Another plane just hit the World Trade Center,” shouted a trader.
Another. That word surprised me. What did it mean? Had a plane previously hit the building?
Still not grasping what was happening – or perhaps in shock – I told myself it must have been a small rescue plane, maybe a firefighting helicopter trying to take care of the original blast.
The sheer magnitude of the event only hit me once I reached my office building.
As I neared the front door, I saw my coworkers pouring out.
One grabbed me and said we were under attack. That there were more planes on the way. That they were bombing the city.
It just didn’t make any sense at all.
“We have to get out of here,” he said. “We need to get on the nearest train right now.”
So we boarded the N/R line one block away. As it headed uptown, we stopped at the Cortlandt Street station, right back at the World Trade Center.
A crowd was getting on, visibly shaken. I tried not to listen to their stories of people jumping and other atrocities.
We got off at 14th Street and started walking across town, hoping that the train to New Jersey would still be open. Luckily it was, and a minute later we were passing under the Hudson River toward Hoboken.
At this point, I’m guessing less than 30 minutes had gone by since I first entered Lower Manhattan. And I’m fairly confident that I was on one of the last trains out of the city before everything completely shut down.
Back in Hoboken, I left the station and walked over to Frank Sinatra Park, which has expansive views of Lower Manhattan.
People were gathered in groups staring across the water. Construction workers were perched up in the metal skeleton of a building behind the park. The blue sky was streaked with black smoke clouds billowing from the towers.
We stood there looking. Nobody was really saying anything. And then the entire building collapsed right before our eyes.
I could go on from here – about how I had just signed a lease for an apartment two blocks from the Trade Center… about moving into the neighborhood on September 20… and about all those days and nights working and sleeping in a dust mask.
But I’ve told this exact same story a hundred times before, and I know that most people have their own personal associations and memories of the event – whether they were also in Lower Manhattan or halfway around the world.
I just can’t help myself from recounting this event, particularly whenever the anniversary comes around.
That’s partly because it’s therapeutic, but more importantly because I like to remind myself of what I learned that day 20 years ago.
Three Lessons From the World Trade Center Attack…
The very first thing I learned was that so-called “black swan” events really do happen – not just in history books, but even on beautiful sunny Tuesdays when you’re on the way to work.
So it pays to have a basic plan in place for catastrophic events… even ones you can’t possibly foresee or imagine.
On the financial front, that means regular “stress tests.”
For example, do you have an adequate emergency fund – maybe some money in cash as well as a healthy amount at the ready in a readily accessible account?
And when it comes to your investments, do you have an appropriate amount of diversification? Are you taking risks you can’t ride out? Do you have too much leverage?
As the World Trade Center attack demonstrated, the entire market environment can change in a split second.
This is precisely where Daily editor Teeka Tiwari’s concept of asymmetric risk comes into play – the idea of investing relatively small amounts of money into opportunities that have the chance of producing truly life-changing gains.
If you’re wrong on nine out of 10 investments, it’s not a big deal because you’re risking small amounts of money you can afford to lose.
And then if one out of 10 hits, you can easily make 10x, 20x, or 20,000x on your money.
All the while, you can still have the bulk of your investments in traditionally safer investments that earn steady returns and/or produce regular income – investments that can easily ride out any type of major catastrophe.
Speaking of, you should also be mentally prepared for the possibility of running into an unanticipated disaster.
As I walked down the street in Hoboken, still stunned by what I had just witnessed, I was surprised to find the payphones out of order. Plus, my cellphone wasn’t working because the network was so busy from all the calls. So I had no way to contact friends and loved ones, many of whom were still trapped in the city.
After the terror attacks, I never took those relationships for granted again. And I continued to place more and more emphasis on time well spent, doing things I enjoyed with the most important people in my life.
All of that has culminated in my current life 20 years later – writing these letters to you and surfing up and down the California coast with my wife and 14-year-old daughter.
Which brings me to the final lesson I learned from September 11, 2001…
That it is entirely possible to overcome even the most horrific events that take place in the world.
I say that because Lower Manhattan is more vibrant today than it ever has been.
The Cortlandt Street subway station – which was badly damaged in the attack and closed for years – is busily shuffling thousands of people through its turnstiles every day again.
And the S&P 500 is up roughly five times over since its initial post-9/11 crash.
So, yes, life is short and terrible things happen. That’s why it makes sense to prepare for the worst… celebrate the here and now… and remember that it’s always possible to overcome a tragedy.
Analyst, Palm Beach Daily
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