What’s a dream job for a guy just out of college?
Back in the early 2000s, I landed mine: I was a reporter and filmmaker for National Geographic.
It was a dream job for a dude in his mid-20s, bent on traveling the world and having all kinds of adventures…
Like many young journalists trying to make a name for themselves, I was assigned exciting but dangerous stories in foreign lands—many of them in conflict zones.
Almost all my work was international, and many places I reported on had little in the way of developed-world luxuries like the rule of law, clean water, or even regular electricity…
I constantly worried about snakes, disease, gunfire, and being kidnapped.
This Life Isn’t For Everyone…
Young, hungry reporters—like I say, those of us who wanted to make a name for ourselves—did this work.
Many middle-aged and older reporters I knew stayed away from the kinds of intense stories I was covering. They had spouses and young kids to support—as well as mortgages and cable bills to pay.
It was not a logical job to take if you had significant responsibilities elsewhere.
Some of my stories covered violent conflicts between gold miners and environmentalists in South America. Another one was on the ongoing war in Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Another was about the man-eating lions owned by Saddam Hussein’s sons in Iraq.
For nearly five years, I traveled to over 70 countries for National Geographic, ultimately creating over 50 stories for their various media, both online and on television.
All this travel taught me one vital lesson that would stay with me for the rest of my life…
… But Loss Can Happen To Anyone
You might find it strange that I learned the benefits of portfolio diversification while chasing down what happened to two female lions in Iraq…
But here’s the thing—the lesson I took to heart when I finally returned to the U.S. and gave up my reporter job to focus on building wealth…
Every story I researched for National Geographic inevitably involved loss—often significant loss. Loss of citizenship in war. Loss of prized forestry and wildlife for environmentalists. Loss of profits for gold miners. Loss of farmland due to landmines. Even the loss of a “kingdom” for Iraq’s Husseins.
Of course, I have no pity for dictators. As someone who’s run for U.S. president twice, and California governor once—as an independent, a Republican, and a Libertarian—I embrace democracy and free societies.
But my National Geographic stories revealed to me that everyone can lose something significant: from good people to the super rich to corrupt rulers. As an objective observer, it was my job to tell a story.
And the most important lesson I gained by telling those stories has to do with understanding the absolute need to diversify.
I learned that if businesses, livelihoods, and even personal security—no matter who you were—were not diversified, you stood a chance of losing everything.
As a young man—with my first real job, steady paychecks, and an entrepreneurial spirit—this was indeed an important lesson. After all, why was I fundamentally different than the people and their circumstances I was covering as a reporter?
I too could be subject to great upheaval in my life, losing significant parts or even a lifetime of monetary gains if I wasn’t careful…
With this in mind, I began to build my financial world, using my National Geographic checks to invest wisely. And being diversified was at the center of my investing methods.
Building Wealth And Being Diversified
I lived very cheaply while traveling the world as a roving reporter, so most of my money was saved in my bank account. After a few years, it really started to add up.
But finding good ways to grow my money wasn’t easy… because just as important as growing my money was not losing it.
Naturally, like many young people, I liked the sometimes quick gains of the stock market. The allure of metals like gold and silver was also attractive…
However, in the end, it was the tangibility of real estate—specifically, rental properties—that attracted me the most.
This was the pre-2008 real estate boom in the U.S., and I began flipping fixer uppers in Oregon and California, doing most of the labor myself, in order to sell them on or rent them out.
The lending environment and the growing property market were such that I could put US$10,000 down, buy a dilapidated house for US$100,000, fix it up in three months, and sell it on for US$200,000…
I didn’t have to do anything spectacular for the property to double in value—just make it livable and nice. You can up the value of a home by 10% with a coat of paint and some basic gardening… Turn a large closet into a home office—add US$5,000 in value. Knock down internal walls to transform an older house into an “open plan” modern dwelling. Every little change added up to a big payday.
I did this starting in my late 20s, and quickly watched many of the homes I owned start going up in value…
Some of them started producing excellent cash flow, so I didn’t even need to rely on my journalism anymore to survive…
Nearly three decades later, I have spread my wealth across seven different countries and three continents, much of it in the form of diversified real estate.
I’m Prepared For Anything…
I am still a diversification addict. I am—I’m not afraid to admit it—something of a “prepper.”
I always hope for the best, but plan for the worst—this is the true reason why diversification is important, after all.
Here are some of the reasons I bought the properties I have…
I own a 68-acre island in Nova Scotia, Canada, filled with tall trees. The timber on the island is arguably as valuable as the dirt.
In Napa Valley, I own an under-construction winery. The proximity to Silicon Valley—you can commute there—is what makes this property so valuable. Renters want to both be in the countryside and close to their work at Google, Facebook, or Apple.
In Argentina, where I bought my first vineyard, it’s the grapes and the water from the nearby Andes that make the property valuable. It’s also, of course, in the Southern Hemisphere, so the seasons are the opposite to what they are in the Northern Hemisphere.
Such a thing can seem trivial, until a mini ice-age hits Earth—and for whatever reason, it’s only the Southern Hemisphere that is somewhat warm now. Even if unlikely, such disasters can happen.
I take my diversification to extremes! But I believe it’s ultimately the prudent thing to do… because you just never know what the future holds.
The same strange ideas apply to my oceanfront land in the Bahamas. I believe in having at least one property near the equator—where the sunlight is strongest.
Likewise, I own a home in Oregon, because I want a base where it rains 80 inches a year—so important when other parts of the world are facing droughts and water shortages.
My ultimate escape plan is my 30-foot sailboat, which is stored in Greece. Before (and during) my National Geographic gig, I spent several years sailing the world, so I know how to survive on a boat and make the most of this “floating apartment”…
Ultimately, I have the ability to become permanently waterborne. Remember the movie “Waterworld”? All the land disappears, in a scenario similar to the biblical Great Flood…
… But How Much “Prepping” Is Too Much?
My wife thinks some of my ideas are over the top.
I don’t blame her.
But… Preparing for the worst—even if you take it to extremes—has no downside… It’s all upside, if the worst comes to pass.
I don’t know of anyone who was ever upset because they carried an umbrella on a rainy day—or had insurance when their home burned down.
Preparing for bad scenarios in life is not just prudent, it can make difficult years much easier to get through. That’s the whole point of diversification.
Of course, my practice of financial diversification goes way beyond the location of my properties. I believe you should never have all your money in one bank. Never only bank in one country. Never only work in one currency. Try to become a dual passport holder, as I am. (As the son of Hungarian immigrants to the U.S., I was lucky enough to be entitled to a Hungarian passport, which is an EU passport. And I pass this right on to my children…)
Beyond money, own power tools, different cars, a tractor if you have land, and ample survival gear. Have a month’s supply of dried and canned food on hand at your main home…
While I’m not big on hoarding gold, I certainly have some. I also own fine paintings, jewelry, and name-brand watches, like Rolexes. I also think it’s important to own some crypto, whether you believe in its promise or not. Just in case.
I’m not hoping the world ends… I’m not diversifying because I want to be proven right when the worst happens. Best case scenario: I never have to use all my diversified assets.
But, like I say, it’s about protecting yourself during bad times—times that could turn catastrophic.
It’s about having assets and a place to go when the place you are in turns to hell.
As I turn 50, I continue to invest and travel. I even occasionally report on stories I come across in the places I visit. I’ve now had the good fortune to have visited 100+ countries and made hundreds of friends and contacts along the way…
I have never forgotten the people I met during my National Geographic years who lost everything…
I’m doing everything I can so that I—or my kids—never end up in that scenario.
Contributor, Simon Letter