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How to Start Investing with Inspiration from Mark Twain

Updated on December 23, 2014

Mark Twain, writer, investor, humorist and born sucker

Mark Twain wrote over 30 books and is a national treasure. He was also a man with a keen wit and great powers of observation, especially about money and society and the use and abuse of power. He was born in 1835 and after trying his hand at being a riverboat pilot and silver prospector, he turned to newspapers and finally books, both fiction and travel commentaries. As his books became more successful, his business acumen sparked his own publishing company which he launched with his classic, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

If he had stayed with publishing his own books, he would have been a wealthy man, but his keen eye for character and the foibles of society abandoned him when it came to investments. He invested in a number of inventions, most notably the "Paige Compositor", an automatic-typesetting machine that would have been a fine device if it ever made it to market. However, the investor, James Paige, took 14 years to perfect it and other competitors beat his invention to market.

This failed investment contributed to Twain's bankruptcy in 1891, after sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars into the ongoing development of this machine, estimated to be at least $4 million in today's dollars.

This might explain his opinion of investing: "If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man."

Bitten many times, Twain kept at it, combining what he was good at (writing and public speaking) with what he was terrible at (investing in the next great invention). He considered his education as a life-long journey (not to be confused with school- where apparently he learned very little).

So, this wise and witty man was also a born sucker for a good invention, requiring just a few dollars up front...

Mark Twain, in later life and looking a bit tousled and ruffled after a lifetime of investing

Mark Twain, about to spot another great investment!
Mark Twain, about to spot another great investment!

From bankruptcy to boom times again

Mark Twain rebuilt his fortune by travelling the world on a grand speaking tour lasting from 1891 to 1900. He also wrote more books and became an opponent of American imperialist ambitions. He saw the great evil of greed and man's cruelty to each other, turning his sarcastic wit to effective use railing against both until his death in 1910.

Whatever his politics and personal opinions of politicians, theologians and business leaders, he never lost his faith in the American dream, to build one's fortune in this land of great opportunity.

As he said, "all you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure".

His opinion of banks would be very relevant today, "A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain."

Most of all, he had confidence in himself and his ability to talk his way to prosperity, one audience at a time, around the world.

Hal Holbrook's thrilling performance as the Man

Mark Twain's Investing Advice

Given his lifetime of investing; building and losing fortunes in various business ventures, Twain's writings contain several sage comments for future investors to follow, based on his long experience. They are valuable and should be taken to heart by every investor starting out.

1. The stock market: Be very careful!

"October. This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August, and February."

"Let us be thankful for the fools. But for them the rest of us could not succeed."

"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please".

2. Real estate: Twain realized the adage that it is in limited supply!

"Real estate is always a good investment. God isn’t making it anymore!”

3. Inventions and the next new product, he warns:

"Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising."

4. Honesty and fair dealing, another characteristic that has been lost over time:

"Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

So there you have Mark Twain's investing advice, in his own words. Go thou and do likewise.

The Real Mark Twain filmed by Edison

Books about Mark Twain and Investing


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    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 5 years ago from California

      I love this quote: "Real estate is always a good investment. God isn’t making it anymore!”

      I like that real estate is limited. Everyone needs it and no one can make it. When we run out of farmland every sqaure inch will be valuable. I can see within the next fifty years, there being a massive land shortage. As suburbia moves outward, even the ugliest piece of property may be worth big bucks.

    • WesternHistory profile image

      WesternHistory 6 years ago from California

      These are some great quotes from Mark Twain. Thanks for the post. Samuel Clemens also worked for a time as both a steamboat captain on the Mississippi and as a journalist in Virginia City Nevada during the silver mines boom years.