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Category: Businessperson autobiography
Published: 1987
Read: 2000
Reviewed: Sep 2009

This was Donald Trump's first book, written in 1989. It begins with a "week-in-the-life of Donald Trump" section where he details his real-life daily routine. He then talks about his youth and growing up with his father, Fred Trump, who was a successful real estate developer himself. After that, each of the book's chapters focuses on the details of key deals he made (the Commodore, Trump Tower, Atlantic City, Hilton, Central Park South, the USFL, Wollman Rink, and West Side Yards).

There were many lessons and stories that were educational, such as:

  • Evaluating and structuring a deal (be willing to walk away if the price isn't right).
  • How crucial it is to stay within budget (especially when working with contractors who are ready to take advantage of you).
  • Financing a deal (avoiding the middle manager bureaucrats at the banks and talk to the head guys who understand a business' vision).
  • Dealing with political figures (like the mayor of New York).
  • Negotiating with banks (a lesson which many of the recent amateurs would have benefited from).
  • The complexity of the deals (having to deal with lawyers, the press, politicians, architects, bankers, the counterparty, the families members of the counterparty, and other stakeholders)

And although you won't hear too much about his failures, that is due to the simple fact that, he didn't really have any up until this point.

There were also a few random quotes that stuck out as helpful:

  • "Sometimes your best investments are the ones you don't make."
  • About motivation: "I wasn't satisfied just to earn a good living. I was looking to make a statement."
  • The critics mostly write to impress each other.
  • "Often, the easiest part of the deal is price."
  • "If there's one thing I've learned about the rich, it's that they have a very low threshold for even the mildest discomfort."

This book is unique because it allows the reader to get an inside look at the inner world of a genuine deal-making mogul. It's rare to get a completely candid look at deals like Trump's because deal-making is essentially about people, and it's not as easy to get a mogul to divulge details about the people he's worked with, as it would be to get him to divulge the details of his stock portfolio. And Trump never holds back his personal opinion about the people he's worked with. In a publicity-driven world where celebrities are tossed softball questions in all their interviews, his candidness is a refreshing (and increasingly rare) trait.

Although Trump has always been a guru, at the time this book was written he didn't have the self-promotional air about him that he does today. Below, he admirably cautions newcomers who think they can copy his success in the real estate market:

"[U]nlike the real estate evangelists you see all over television these days, I can't promise you that by following the precepts I'm about to offer you'll become a millionaire overnight. Unfortunately, life rarely works that way, and most people who try to get rich quick end up going broke instead."

One thing in the book that made a big impression on me was a picture in the middle of the book of Donald inspecting a building with his father when Donald was only 12 years old. This picture shows the level of passion that Trump had for real estate. People like to paint Trump as just a "money guy", but this 52-year-old snapshot illustrates the depth and breadth of Trump's real-estate skills and knowledge.

It should be noted that this book is a biography and not a "how to" book. Nonetheless, some people incorrectly stated that the book had no useful tips. This is because some people are too lazy to use inductive reasoning to extract lessons from stories and don't have the ability to learn anything unless the lessons are laid out in a bulleted list. In this book, the lessons are in the form of little comments that Trump says in passing. They are not in chapter headlines or bolded text that says "Make sure you never do this!!" These useful stories are fleshed out in complete detail and are far superior to the vague, over-simplified stories you hear from the fake real estate gurus on TV.

There are a couple of reasons why Trump's lessons are not easily laid out. First, Trumps invests by using his instincts rather than some easily-definable, objective criteria. Second, all of his deals are unique. One deal may be about a financing issue, but the next deal may be about air rights, or zoning issues, or dealing with contractors, or dealing with architects. These kind of lessons can't be easily consolidated into generalized rules. This is why the book is called the "Art" of the deal, because what Trump does actually requires a large amount of creativity and vision. I have the same attitude about my trading - that it is an art form. But whenever someone asks me for trading advice, they are usually disappointed that it doesn't come in a CliffNotes format.

Another reason the book's lessons are lost on many readers is because Trump's large real-estate deals are mainly focused on people issues. Therefore, his advice won't be as relevant to everyday real estate investors who mainly deal with non-people issues like getting a bank loan or fixing up a house. Trump, on the other hand, has to deal with people who are: trying to screw him, hard to work with, or kissing his ass. And it is precisely because these issues deal with people that make his lessons so valuable - because people issues are timeless and universal. This is why the book retains its value after all these years and doesn't read at all like it was written 23 years ago.

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