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A Dying Investment Banker Makes Best Of Odds

The big question in Gordon Murray's life is about knowing the odds and making the best of them.

After a long career on Wall Street, Murray co-authored a slim, smart book of investment advice for people on Main Street: The Investment Answer. In it, he advises investors to be passive: 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.

Murray, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor two years ago, is also facing the odds in his personal life. When he was diagnosed, Murray underwent surgery. He had a recurrence of the cancer this year -- and six months ago, he was told he has six months to live.

In talking with NPR's Robert Siegel, Murray is full of realism and even humor.  He says now people want to hear what he has to say.

"We hit a chord with people -- there's something about 'dying banker' [that] probably most people think is a good thing," he says.

But even as he cracks jokes, Murray is candid about his reaction to his diagnosis.

"Obviously, it was a shock, but fortunately it came at a time in my life when I had balance," he says. "I didn't need this as a wake-up call. My kids are now 22 and 25, so 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."

Murray says that when he got the news, he was told in a caring way he was "dead on diagnosis."

"Usually you've got a couple months to 12 months. It's now been two years for me, so by some statistical measures, I've hit it out of the park," he says.

When you basically accept that your days are numbered and you embrace the disease ... I found that you can really touch a lot of lives in a positive way.

And Murray says he wants to use his last days giving back.

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

So he put energy into The Investment Answer, which is full of iconoclastic observations about investments.

"In every single chapter there are insights and observations that really do fly in the face of everything we've heard about investing," Murray says. "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 a bunch of other reasons, I've never seen a study that long-term investors can beat the markets over time."

Murray says he's spent 25 years trying to do that himself -- and learned he couldn't beat the market. He also noticed things about Wall Street he didn't like.

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

But now that Murray has a brain tumor, he has what he calls "a very powerful platform."

"Even my kids listen to me now," he says. "There is something that happens when you have a terminal disease. It's a platform that I've taken really seriously. In my own personal situation, I do have the peace of mind of knowing you focus on what you can control: the right asset location, the right diversification within and across asset classes -- and the most important aspect is probably having the discipline to stay the course."

Murray says that what has surprised him about himself after learning he is going to die is how meaningful it has been helping other people.

"In fact, I tell my kids now, 'If you start to feel sorry for yourself, do something for someone else.' If this had happened to me 10 or 20 years ago, I would have been wallowing in self-pity and 'life is unfair,'" he says.

"I was 58 when I was diagnosed. But the thing is, I 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 and friends and family. Boy, everybody should be so lucky as to have a phase like this.

"The fact is, we're all going to die. I'm going to beat you across the finish line, most likely. But in the whole scheme of things, it's not by that much. And when you realize you're not your body, it doesn't really matter that much whether you live short or long."

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