By Tony Evans
"Personal Transformation" By Kiril Sokoloff. Crossroad. 135 pp. $16.95
Following his address to the Wood River Valley on Sunday, Sept. 11, His Holiness the Dalai Lama will give a private address to a group of elite money managers at the home of investment banker Kiril Sokoloff. The title of this meeting on Sept. 12 is "Compassion is Good for Business."
Sokoloff is the man behind the Dalai Lama's visit to Idaho and is a close personal friend of His Holiness. Sokoloff's memoir, "Personal Transformation: An Executive's Story of Struggle and Spiritual Awakening," is introduced by the Dalai Lama and features him on its cover, perhaps revealing a link between those working to make a difference in the world and those charged with making a killing in the markets.
"Personal Transformation" is a series of evocative sketches on friendship, love and loss by a successful investment analyst willing to bare his "Russian soul" after many years of isolation and despair due to late-onset deafness and a heart-rending divorce from his wife, Katie. Even as the author's hearing diminishes, further isolating him from his world of music and conversation, his deep studies of history and economics bring him, and many others, great fortune and success.
Born to a Russian émigré father, who fled the Russian Revolution, and his American composer wife, Sokoloff was an only child, raised on the classics to appreciate European art and culture. Introverted and bookish, he suffered from an "inferiority complex" made worse by late deafness, which struck during his college years.
As a young man, Sokoloff learned about the world at the feet of his uncle, Jim Hunt, an investment banker who worked for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and later at the CIA, eventually becoming Head of Intelligence for Western Europe.
"My uncle said that the securities business and intelligence were the most interesting of all careers," writes Sokoloff. "It's all a question of judgment. Who do you believe? ... What is disinformation? What's real?"
As an investigative reporter for the Business Week Letter during the stock market bust of the early 1970s, Sokoloff began a study of discarded "13D reports." These are reports filed by company stockholders with a 5 percent or more interest in corporations. By studying the habits of these large "catalyst" investors, he amassed a database that uncovered the successes of Warren Buffet, Larry Tisch, Carl Icahn, Henry Singleton and many others.
In 1983 Sokoloff went public with an eight-page memo of his findings. The information proved invaluable to institutional investors and was reported on by the New York Post and Forbes Magazine.
The client list of 13D Research Inc. grew and evolved through the study of emerging markets, and bankruptcies and distressed securities, and by following boom-bust cycles in Germany, Brazil, China and the Americas. Sokoloff describes himself as "agnostic with regard to change," and he is known as a "contrary thinker" who spots changes in markets early. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Sokoloff followed his friend and fellow investment advisor Dick Strong to the Himalayas for an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The subsequent meeting changed his life.
When asked what humanity was most in need of at that time, the Dalai Lama responded by saying, "Peace of mind ... Peace of mind ... Peace of mind."
When asked why the terrorists have perpetrated such "evil," the Dalai Lama explained that they have a highly developed intelligence, but their hearts remain cold. "We have to work on developing the heart."
So began Sokoloff's spiritual journey, alongside various philanthropic endeavors revolving around the survival and expression of Tibetan culture. In his paper "The Huge Danger of Destructive Emotions," (available to paying subscribers of his newsletter at 13D.com), Sokoloff describes the negative emotions, such as fear, anger, greed and jealousy, as the bane of rational thinking and disruptive to the mind's equilibrium.
"The essence of destructive emotions is excessive focus on the self," he writes. "Throwing your ego into a cause or purpose much greater than yourself, on the other hand, leads to happiness."
How this all shakes out in one's investment portfolio would be a good topic for future writings. When does "risk-averse" investing become the negative emotion of fear? When does the desire for increased profits become the negative emotion of greed? And how closely can the Buddhist doctrine of "Right-livelihood" be followed in the myriad of transactions of today's marketplace?
As a memoir of deafness, "Personal Transformation" will be a welcome gift for the 10,000 hearing-impaired individuals to whom Sokoloff is contributing free copies. Although his book suffers at times from poor organization and sentimentality, it is a welcome plea for trust and compassion from within the culture of investment banking.
Sokoloff's stated ambition is to "restore trust in corporations," and to help others transform themselves through love and compassion. Perhaps he will succeed by drawing attention to the place where all great change begins—within the human heart.