Lessons on business, investing, and life from a Navy SEAL

March 21, 2019


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Every semester, we host a speaker for my Texas Lutheran students. The goal is to find experts who speak from the world of “reality,” and they are always incredibly gifted and engaging. Academic theory is necessary from a foundational perspective, but engaging with people who have been “in the trenches” is a useful learning opportunity for my students.

This semester we welcomed Mike Zapata, who took “supercharged engagement” to a new level.

Zapata calls New York City home, but he grew up in Texas. After college Zapata enlisted in the United States Navy, completing SEAL training in 2001. He served nearly ten years with seven deployments throughout the Middle East and West Africa. During his tenure, he was Troop Commander of SEAL Teams 2 and 10, concluding his command with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group—better known as SEAL Team 6.

Upon retirement from the Navy, Zapata earned his MBA from Columbia. Today, he runs Sententia Capital Management. Sententia is Latin for “purpose.”

Spending time with Zapata, it’s clear that he was put on the earth to accomplish certain things—things of depth and substance. Although he’s a capitalist, he devotes a portion of Sententia’s profits to the families of elite military operators.

Additionally, Zapata is the president of publicly-traded Schmitt Industries. With a resume like this, it is easy to see why Zapata drew a standing-room only audience for his talk.

At Columbia, Zapata read the The Intelligent Investor. He said it was a like a lightning bolt struck him in the head; this investing philosophy and discipline made so much sense. Zapata is not the only one with this conclusion. The Intelligent Investor was written by Benjamin Graham—Warren Buffett’s teacher and mentor. It is a “must-read” for any serious investor.

Graham’s book helped Zapata understand that value investing limits downside while offering multiple upsides. This discipline creates an environment in which he might lose a little, but if he is right there is significant opportunity for big returns. This resonated with Zapata as it was similar to the mentality he’d had to use when analyzing enemy targets in his previous career.

As Zapata worked the room, he shared several key insights for all to appreciate:

  1. Balance humility with confidence. Many things you think are important are not.

  2. Keep your head down and do the work. It’s important to balance the humility to know you don’t know everything with the confidence that you have done the homework to effectively compete. While in graduate school, Zapata said he learned the most— not because he was the smartest, but because he knew the least. This humble attitude opened his mind to learning. In the process, he recognized how important it is to “know what you don’t know.”

  3. Have the perspective of a 90-year-old. This offers a much longer timeline over which to evaluate things and prevents you from making rash decisions.

  4. Pursue your passion. Life can be incredibly short; don’t spend it merely going through the motions.

  5. You will make mistakes, but if they don’t kill you, they really didn’t matter. Have the grit necessary to overcome hurdles and obstacles. In the process, non-lethal mistakes are learning opportunities.

  6. It is difficult—if not impossible— to “balance” work and family. Wherever you are, be present and fully committed to where you are at that moment.

  7. Read everything you can and then build your experience. Zapata said, “I read all the books; I was the perfect parent. And then I had kids.” There is a huge difference between theory and reality.

  8. Do everything you can to avoid a fight. However, if a fight is inevitable, make sure you have done enough research and training to ensure you will win.

  9. Go into negotiations and relationships with respect, humility and an open mind. There are multiple sides to every discussion.

  10. Success is a continuous journey. Never stop improving, growing or learning. There are many smart people with great ideas. However, they lack the ability to implement and execute their strategy. Get the wheels on the road.

  11. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Mimic those that have been at it for decades and generations. Those that preceded us have paved the way for our success.  

  12. Be vigilant in identifying and mitigating risks. Being a SEAL was not as high risk as many people might assume. That’s due to relentless research and preparation, which put the odds heavily in their favor. Apply the same intensity and preparation in your careers and investing.

If my students can apply these 12 principles in life and business, they’ll be well on their way to a life of purpose and perspective like Zapata’s.

Topics: Investing

Dave Sather

Sather Financial Group

Dave Sather is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER and President of the Sather Financial Group, Inc. Sather Financial Group is a $400 million “fee-only” wealth management firm based in Victoria. Sather Financial is ranked as one of the top independent wealth management firms in the country according to Financial Advisor Magazine. Dave was raised in El Paso, received his B.A. in Business Management from Texas Lutheran University and received his M.B.A. from Texas A&M University. He has spent the past twenty years in the financial analysis, investment and banking industries. Dave is an adjunct professor in the business program at Texas Lutheran University. Additionally, Dave is a director of Business Bank of Texas as well as the Chairman of the Finance and Investments Committee for the Brownson Children’s Home and is a member of the Executive Advisory Council at Texas Lutheran University. He resides in Victoria, Texas.
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