The Motley Fool is a web site devoted to helping average people make better investment and financial decisions. Recently, GRS forum administrator (and resident economist) Jericho Hill got a chance to visit The Motley Fool headquarters. This is part two of a report on his experience. (Here’s part one.)

When I was in high school, I participated in my state’s stock market game. It was designed to introduce our economics class to the world of investing. That’s where I first heard of The Motley Fool, an upstart website for financial investors that went against the grain of having advisors manage your money. Their newsletter analyzed the advantages of managing your investments yourself, and advocated indexed mutual funds over managed funds.

So, when I received an invitation recently to visit the Fool Headquarters in Alexandria, VA for a focus group, I jumped at the chance. The purpose of the focus group was two-fold.

  • One part of the meeting focused on The Motley Fool’s free CAPS service, a community stock-picking tool. I discussed this experience last week.
  • The second part of the focus group dealt with how the participants used financial information, where they got it from, and what our views on investing were.

It was the second part of the meeting that I felt was the most valuable. Along with various Motley Fool staffers, the group members spoke about their personal investing habits, beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes. We heard from people ranging from first-time investors saving for retirement, to a professional financial planner, to well, myself. The breadth and depth of perspective was illuminating.

Prior to the focus group, I had walked around the office floor and noticed quite a few quotes on the walls. One by Peter Lynch read “Never invest in any idea you can’t illustrate with a crayon.” Another said “Though it’s easy to forget sometimes, a share is not a lottery ticket, its part ownership in a business.”

Later, during the group discussion, another quote came up by Warren Buffett: “If you have one or two great ideas a year, you’re doing great.” The two new investors in the room stated that they felt pressure to succeed and succeed often as they started to invest for retirement. Knowing there were resources that played on the psychology of investing rather than mathematics of investing was important to those attendees. They also didn’t know where the best sources of information were, or who to follow.

Many of those in the room felt that it was not prudent to follow one particular author or person. Rather, it was the subject matter that as important, and as Burton Malkiel said “Investors should act like intelligence agencies, gathering information no matter how seemingly insignificant.”

Somewhere during the conversation, I brought up the problem of risk. Individuals have different risk profiles, just as some people can ride very scary roller coasters while I’m stuck on the Dahlonega Mine Train ride at Six Flags. Further, not only do we handle risk differently, but another attendee pointed out that we even define risk differently. Our group took five minutes to write individual definitions of risk. They were all different when we reconvened.

We had a long discussion about risk, and about how our differing views on risk can make conversations on financial topics difficult. Different risk tolerances create difficulties in determining just what one’s best financial plan is. How does one define risk? More importantly, how do you define risk? All agreed that becoming more comfortable with one element of risk (volatility) was exceptionally important to being a successful long-term investor.

When the focus group ended, there was no general consensus on what information we should consume, to whom we should listen, where we should invest, or even how we should invest. That seems like a profound thought to me: that your best personal finance advisor is yourself, regardless of whether you’re just starting out or finishing up.

Jericho Hill also recently had a chance to speak with David Gardner, one of the founders of The Motley Fool. Look for excerpts from that interview at Get Rich Slowly in the future.

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