A Dying Investment Banker Makes Best Of Odds Gordon Murray spent a life on Wall Street. Now, he's facing death from brain cancer. In his final days, he's made peace with his fate and found meaning in helping others — particularly through a slim, smart volume of investment advice for people on Main Street.
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A Dying Investment Banker Makes Best Of Odds

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A Dying Investment Banker Makes Best Of Odds

A Dying Investment Banker Makes Best Of Odds

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Melissa Block.


And Im Robert Siegel.

The big questions in Gordon Murray's life are about knowing the odds, and making the best of them. After a long career on Wall Street, he has co-authored a slim, smart book of investment advice for people on Main Street. He advises us to be passive investors. It's not about making the killer investment that beats the market; it's about buying wisely into the market, and taking advantage of its inherent strengths.

Here's another fact about Gordon Murray and the odds. He's going to die soon. Two years ago, he was diagnosed and treated for brain cancer, a glioblastoma grade-four brain tumor.

In speaking of all this, and of the recurrence of the cancer this year, Gordon Murray is full of realism and even humor. He and his book were the subject of a New York Times story, headlined: "A Dying Banker's Last Instructions." The story went viral.

Mr. GORDON MURRAY (Banker): You know, we hit a chord with people. There's something about dying banker...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURRAY: ...probably most people think is a good thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Earlier this week, Gordon Murray talked with me about his book. It's called "The Investment Answer." His co-author is financial advisor Dan Goldie.

And more important, he talked with me about living after hearing a diagnosis that meant his death was near.

Mr. MURRAY: Obviously, it was a shock. But fortunately, it came at a time in my life when I had balance. I didn't need this as a wake-up call. You know, my kids - well, they're now 22 and 25 so, you know, I already had so much to be thankful for. And one of the good things about having one of these malignant glioblastomas is that you do get some time to get closure, to plan and to spend so much great time with your family and friends.

SIEGEL: You mean because you assumed that you would still have months to live.

Mr. MURRAY: Well, you're told in a caring way, you're dead on diagnosis. But you know, usually, you know, you've got a couple months to 12 months, to - it's now been two years for me. So by some statistical measures, I've hit it out of the park.

So you know, so when you basically accept that your days are numbered and you embrace the disease - and I'm not knocking people who are very private about their conditions - but I found that you can really touch a lot of lives in a positive way.

And it's funny, 'cause so many doctors and other people told me, well, you should just get that beach house in Hawaii, and watch the sun set. And I realized all of this work I'd done after 25 years on Wall Street - you know, while there were a lot of things I couldn't do, like play bridge or tennis - this is something I wanted to continue doing.

SIEGEL: The book, "The Investment Answer," is full of iconoclastic observations about investment. And one of the questions you address is, should you be an active or passive investor? And it just seems - we seem programmed to think that active must be better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Whatever is active must be preferable...

Mr. MURRAY: Yeah. In every single chapter, you know, there are insights and observations that really do fly in the face of everything that we've ever heard about investing. I think it's American to believe that if you're smarter or you work harder, you can beat the markets.

But of course, after the higher turnover, the higher fees, the taxes that accompany the turnover, the opportunity cost of cash and, you know, a bunch of other reasons, I've never seen a study that shows that long-term investors can beat the markets over time.

And I should probably back up because I spent 25 years trying to do that myself. And when you're in institutional sales training or management, you're interfacing with a large institutional investor such as PIMCO or CalPERS or Franklin Templeton advisers, for example. And it's a level playing field.

Where my problem - and where I think the greatest abuses have occurred - is when that Wall Street broker is transacting with grandma. And she has no idea whether those muni-bonds have been marked up 3 or 4 percent. And I think that's where Wall Street has really abused the trust with the investing public.

SIEGEL: In the New York Times article about you...

Mr. MURRAY: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: ...and about the book, there's a line, there's a quotation attributed to you - that people believe a writer who has a brain tumor, you say. Do you find that youve acquired greater credibility in these past couple of years?

Mr. MURRAY: Yes, it's a very powerful platform. Even my kids listen to me now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURRAY: There is something that happens when you have, you know, a terminal disease. And so it's actually a platform that I've taken really seriously. And in my own, personal situation, I do have the peace of mind of knowing - and this is what we point out in this book - that you focus on what you can control.

You control having the right asset allocation, having the right diversification within and across asset classes. And the most important aspect is probably having the discipline to stay the course.

SIEGEL: I assume like a lot of people, I am impressed right now by your extraordinary equanimity and grasp of your situation and your illness.

Are you surprised by yourself? That is, prior to the diagnosis do you think you understood how you would cope with this? Or are you surprised by your own behavior?

Mr. MURRAY: Yeah, I was surprised how meaningful it was helping other people, and that I really got great joy from that. In fact, I tell my kids now, if you start to feel sorry for yourself, just do something for someone else.

But yeah, if this had happened to me 10 or 20 years ago, I really would still be wallowing in self-pity and life is unfair and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Yeah. You were 58 years old at the time of the diagnosis?

Mr. MURRAY: Yeah, 58 when I was diagnosed. But the thing is, you know, I had had a chance to get some perspective, the chance to give something back. And that I've lived this long and experienced so much closure, planning, love from friends and family - I mean, boy, everybody should be so lucky as to have a phase like this.

And I mean, the fact is, we're all going to die. I'm going to beat you, Robert, across the finish line, most likely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURRAY: But in the whole scheme of things, it's not by that much. And, I think, when you realize that you're not your body, it doesn't really matter that much whether you live short or long.

SIEGEL: I should explain: You're at home in California right now; Im in Washington, D.C. You sound very vigorous. You sound, you know, you sound like a healthy guy to me right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: I've interviewed a lot of people who dont sound as on top of things without brain tumors, than you sound today.

So - you feeling all right?

Mr. MURRAY: You know, Im feeling - it was six months ago that I was told I had six months to live. And I am - I mean, after this interview, Im going to get back in bed, and Ill probably sleep for a few hours. But there's something else, and I hope it came through my voice.

When you have a belief system - because I've worked for Wall Street firms and heard, you know, Siegel, if you can't sell it, we'll find somebody who will.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MURRAY: And after awhile, people know. But when you have a belief system, then it's easy to get excited because there's just a difference when you believe what you're talking about.

SIEGEL: Well, Gordon Murray, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. MURRAY: Thank you, sir.

Gordon Murray talking with us from his home in Burlingame, California. His book is called "The Investment Answer."

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