Persistence and Procrastination

by Jim Stovall

Down the street from my office is a very large media complex containing a TV station, several radio stations, and a large conference center.  At one corner of the massive building, there is a large fenced area where several radio and TV broadcast towers soar hundreds of feet into the air.  Thousands of people drive by this complex every day and have seen the towers so many times they don’t even notice them any more.

Several months ago, a troubled young man—for reasons of his own—decided to scale the fence and begin climbing one of the towers.  By the time anyone noticed this young man perched on a precarious ladder hundreds of feet in the air, it was too late to stop him.  Police, ambulances, and emergency rescue workers were called to the scene and began efforts to persuade the young man to climb down from the tower.

The young man either ignored them or periodically threatened to jump.  As will happen with any large gathering, the media was soon on the scene.  TV, radio, and newspaper reporters began around the clock reporting of the ongoing activities of the young man who became known as The Tower Guy.

This went on for days and, somehow, the reporters found things to talk about.  The young man became dehydrated, sunburned, and appeared to be disoriented.  Finally, one heroic rescue worker was able to communicate with the young man and talk him into coming down.

The final media reports described how persistent The Tower Guy was in remaining on his perch for many days.  It’s important that we don’t confuse persistence with procrastination.  It is easy to think that persistence is doing something repeatedly or constantly while procrastination might be thought of as doing nothing at all.  In reality, too many of us are like The Tower Guy in that we persist in doing nothing of importance which, in reality, is procrastination as it relates to the things in life we know we should be doing.

Practice does not make perfect, in spite of the old adage.  Practice makes consistent.  Only perfect practice will make something perfect.  Persistence is only a virtue if we are persisting at doing things that matter to us and make the world a better place.

Most people perform activities today because they performed the same activities yesterday and will do it all over again tomorrow.  Before you do anything as a regimented part of a routine, make sure you know why you are doing it, what it will accomplish, and when you will be done.

As you go through your day today, make sure you’re investing every moment wisely and not just repeating mindless activities because that’s what you’ve always done.

Today’s the day!

Wet Paint

by Jim Stovall

There are several ways we can learn lasting and significant lessons.  Some people learn as an ongoing enjoyable part of life, while others have to learn everything the hard way.

If you find a painted wall somewhere around your home or office and put up a sign that says “Wet Paint,” without realizing it, you’ve created a perfect laboratory for observing human behavior.  If you simply stand by and watch, you will see human nature and the learning process take several forms.

Some people will come by, see your “Wet Paint” sign, glance quickly at the wall, and go on about their way.  These people are generally well-adjusted, reasonably trusting, and non-confrontational.  If you remove the “Wet Paint” sign, these people will often make it a point to avoid touching the wall for several more days and even go so far as to alert others that the paint on that wall may still be a bit wet, so they should be cautious.

If you continue your observations long enough, you will observe another kind of human behavior as it relates to your “Wet Paint” sign.  A person will come by, clearly see your “Wet Paint” sign, and immediately touch the wall to see if the paint is actually wet.  These are people who would not have touched the wall if you had not put your “Wet Paint” sign there in the first place.  Even though this person has damaged your paint job and gotten wet paint on themselves, if they come by later, whether your “Wet Paint” sign is there or not, they will actually touch the wall again and continue this same behavior for hours or even days until they learn, through their own experience, that the paint is no longer wet.

All of us have the potential of learning very valuable lessons each day.  Some people can learn by reading or hearing the words of others; other people need to observe the outcomes of other individuals; while many people have to learn the lesson the hard way every time or, worse yet, never learn the lesson at all.  While we may think these learning styles are innate or inbred, we actually have more control over how we learn and what we learn than we might realize.

In our ever more complex, fast-paced world, it becomes more critical than ever that we develop the ability to learn lessons from others who have gone before us.  You don’t want to be among the sorry souls that learn, the hard way, that the surgeon general’s warning about cigarettes or the pleas of financial planners to plan for your retirement years were valid.

With all of the multimedia opportunities around us and constant access to the Internet, we should be able to learn from others’ words or at least their actions without having to get a handful of wet paint every time.

As you go through your day today, commit to learning the most lessons you can in the easiest manner possible.

Today’s the day!

The Victory In Failure

This past weekend, my seven-year-old son, Kieran, got beat up.  Worse yet, I was forced to stand by powerless, watching the whole thing, unable to intercede on his behalf.  Thankfully, everything’s fine.  He sustained no lasting physical injuries although it may take a while for him to recover emotionally…from his very first official wrestling tournament. 

Believe it or not, at seven he’s two-to-three years behind most of the other kids his age, so he spent the majority of his three matches getting his 60 pound frame slammed and twisted into the mat.  After spending weeks building his skills and confidence, he realized within 10 seconds into the first bout that he was outmatched.  At the end of the second (of three) 60 second periods his disappointment crescendoed and erupted into tears, doubling his embarrassment.  He spent the third period struggling to keep from getting pinned with tears streaming down his face.

Personal Failure

The worst part was that he still had two matches to go, and having seen the other two kids wrestle already, we knew it wasn’t going to get any easier.  He wanted to quit and go home.  What was I to do?  Parents in the movies always have the right thing to say, but I was searching and finding nothing; that is, until I remembered Tim Tebow.

We live in Baltimore, and that means we root for two teams—the Ravens, and whatever team the Steelers are playing—but over the course of this season, our household also admittedly got wrapped up in Tebow fever.  We’re suckers for underdogs and comebacks.  But what impresses me the most about Mr. Tebow is not his ability to win, but his grace in failure and his impervious defense against capitulation.  Whether deified in victory or discarded in defeat, he seems to maintain the same sincere posture of positivity, even after Denver’s 45-10 loss to the Patriots.

Kieran indeed lost his final two matches, but got successively stronger in each.  In the third, his dedication even earned him a couple points against a far superior opponent and a small cheering section of coaches, parents and teammates anxious to affirm his courage in the face of sure defeat.  He carried himself with respect and a sincere smile on his face to the fourth place (out of four) podium.

Financial Failure

Kieran’s story has little to teach us about money, but much about failure.  In no period since the Great Depression has financial failure been so widespread and felt with such impact.  There are those, like my son, who did everything they could to improve their chances of success, but lacking a certain level of experience or knowledge found themselves pinned down by the weight of decisions that turned on them.  Even many of those eminently qualified and gifted—like my friend and financial planning colleague who bared his soul sharing the story of his real estate blunders during the crisis—were humbled in defeat.

Losing your home, losing your job, or losing your ability to retire due to market losses is harder to handle than losing a football game or a wrestling match.  Failure of this magnitude can be absolutely crippling.  But it is, indeed, possible to gain something from losing.

The Depression Baby generation became the best savers in U.S. history (see Beyond Our Means, Princeton University Press, 2011).  Foreclosure and bankruptcy have spawned inspired financial counsel that has changed the lives of millions for the better (see Dave Ramsey).  Many job losses have imbued the aggrieved with enough frustration towards corporate hierarchy that they’re becoming our next wave of innovative entrepreneurs (see report by the Kauffman Foundation).  And market losses have encouraged the first generation of early retirees to pursue meaningful vocations they’re happy to perpetuate over occupations they were racing to end.

I’d love to know what you have gained through loss or failure, so please share in the comments section if you’re willing.

(This wasn’t the only emotional experience I had with Kieran this past weekend relating to sports and somehow, in my mind, things financial.  I wrote about the other in my Forbes blog this week—you can read “What Do NFL Playoffs And Money Have In Common?” by clicking HERE.)

Horse Sense

by Jim Stovall

More than virtually any other animal, horses have impacted the way we humans have lived throughout most of recorded history.  Many of us who have lived in the 20th and now the 21st centuries, have no direct connection to horses, but there is still much they can teach us.

Recently, I was reading about draft horses which are very large, muscular animals that, throughout history, have been used for pulling great loads and moving very heavy objects.  A single draft horse can pull a load up to 8,000 pounds.  The strength involved in this is hard to imagine.  So then we can speculate what would happen if we hooked up two draft horses to a load.  If you instantly thought two draft horses could pull 16,000 pounds if one draft horse can pull 8,000 pounds, you would be wrong.  Two draft horses pulling together cannot pull twice as much as one.  They can actually pull three times as much.  The two draft horses that can each pull 8,000 pounds alone can pull 24,000 pounds working together.

The horses are teaching us a very clear lesson in teamwork, but they still have more to teach us.  If the two horses that are pulling together have trained with one another and have worked together before, they can’t just pull three times as much working together as they can by themselves.  The two trained horses in tandem can actually pull 32,000 pounds, which is a load four times as heavy as either of the horses could pull by themselves.

The powerful lessons that these magnificent draft horses can teach us involves not only teamwork but coordinated and trained collaboration.  No one lives or works alone as the proverbial island unto themselves.

I have many friends and colleagues who telecommute.  This is a phenomenon that has gained popularity in the last few decades.  Many people avoid lengthy and expensive commutes and high-priced office space by simply working from home.  This can be very effective and efficient for some people; however, just because there is no one else around doesn’t mean that these people work alone.

The very technology that allows us to work independently requires the coordinated efforts of more people pulling together than has ever existed throughout history.  We now work regularly with people whom we have never met.

Recently, I co-authored a book with Tim Maurer—www.TheUltimateFinancialPlan.com.  Co-authoring a book involves tremendous coordination and constant communication.  Throughout the process, it was vital that both Tim and I fully understood and agreed upon very sensitive areas and directions within the manuscript.  I’m very pleased to report, thanks to Tim Maurer and our publisher Wiley and Sons, the co-authoring of the book The Ultimate Financial Plan was a very productive and enjoyable process.  I think we have a far better book than either of us could have written alone, but the ironic fact is that Tim Maurer and I have never actually met one another.  I have been on his radio show, we have done teleconferences, exchanged video messages, and edited one another’s manuscripts, but we have never been in the same place at the same time.  Unlike the draft horses, we can multiply the power of one another’s efforts without having to physically be in the same harness.

As you go through your day today, harness the power and productivity of teamwork, but be willing to expand your definition of collaboration far beyond your own time and place.

Today’s the day!

The Articulate Incompetent

by Jim Stovall

The Internet and digital age have given rise to a new phenomenon.  There are people whoknow enough to be dangerous, not only to themselves but to you and me as well.  Beware of the articulate incompetent.  These are people who can talk a good game but have little or no experience at applying the newly-found knowledge they espouse.

With the ease of accessing a search engine and a brief period of focus, anyone can begin to convince you that they are an expert on anything.

Our grandparents would have had to travel to several libraries and universities and talk to a number of experts over several months or even years to have access to the information you and I have at our fingertips via the web.

To succeed in the 21st century, we must learn to differentiate information from knowledge, and knowledge from wisdom.  Information is nothing more than random data or facts that have no specific application until they are internalized.  Knowledge is the intake of that information.

A person who becomes knowledgeable has sought out a source of information, and by mastering that information, has gained knowledge, therefore becoming a source of information.  Wisdom is the practical, successful application of knowledge.  Wisdom is never gained solely by sitting in front of a computer screen or by occupying a seat in a classroom.  It comes through hard work, generally accompanied by trial and error.

Wisdom allows us to avoid painful, frustrating, and time-wasting situations.  Unfortunately, this wisdom is usually gained from going through painful, frustrating, and time-wasting experiences.

A person with knowledge may have a diploma, book, or computer program.  A person with wisdom often has bruises, scars, and a bit of gray hair.

As you are trying to reveal and, therefore, avoid the articulate incompetent, it is important to realize they will want to tell you what they know while you will want to inquire about what they’ve done.  An articulate incompetent may just know slightly more than you do about any subject.  You can usually derail an articulate incompetent by allowing them to spout off their knowledge and then just simply ask them, “How have you applied that in the real world, and what were the results?”

We still live in a world that, when it’s all said and done, there’s a lot said and very little done.  We don’t succeed based on what we know.  We succeed based on what we do.

Knowledge is a wonderful thing if it is obtained on the road toward wisdom that can benefit the traveler and the whole world.

As you go through your day today, separate information and knowledge from wisdom, and avoid the articulate incompetents.

Today’s the day!

Financial Death

“If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”

Steve Jobs was not the first to say this, but apparently the most famous[i].  He mentioned it at the Stanford commencement ceremony of 2005, and he didn’t leave the quote merely hanging in the philosophical ether.  He personalized it further:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Jobs was initially diagnosed with cancer in October 2003, told first (mistakenly) he had less than six months to live, so he did have a chance to contemplate his thoughts on death prior to these eloquent words spoken at Stanford.  But according to his life prior to cancer, he seemed to live with this same blend of urgency and peace with prospective failure.[ii]

What keeps you from living life with a sense of urgency?  What keeps you from an impassioned pursuit of whatever it is that you feel created to do?

In entirely too many cases, the answer is fear not of physical death, but instead fear of our financial demise…which is often rooted in a fear of lifestyle reduction…which is often rooted in a fear of relative lifestyle comparison with our peers…which is especially ironic when you consider the millions of unemployed workers, bankrupt households, foreclosed homes and underwater homeowners.  Most stricken with these seemingly terminal financial illnesses actually “followed the rules.”  They didn’t take big chances, but instead followed the crowd.

What would it look like in your life, work and finances if “all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure” were cast aside, as Jobs suggests?  And is it possible to do this responsibly within the confines of a financial plan that supports “what is truly important” to you?


[i] I say that because try as I might, I’ve not been able to find any other reference to this quote other than Steve Jobs!

[ii] For those not versed, he dropped out of college because he didn’t want to waste his parents’ life savings, co-founded Apple in a garage at the age of 20, got fired from Apple at the age of 30 for a vision that conflicted with the board’s, started Pixar and was subsequently invited back to Apple to leave a legacy that few would argue will ever be surpassed in the realm of technology and business.

New and Old

by Jim Stovall

We seem to be constantly on the search for something new to replace something that is old.  We are bombarded with advertisements, promotions, and sales pitches imploring us to experience the latest, best, new, and improved items that may be available.  While, in many cases, new things are better than old things, there are certainly many exceptions in which old things are best.

My late, great friend and mentor Paul Harvey was fond of saying, “Not everything we call new and improved is.”

As a small child, I remember that my mother would divide my toys into two groups.  One group went into my toy box which I would play with immediately, and the other group of toys went into a cardboard box that was stored for later use.  At a point and time known only to my mother, when I started getting bored or my toys seemed stale, she would immediately replace the group of toys in my toy box with those that had been in storage.  I instantly felt as though I had all new toys.  Everything seemed exciting and brand new.

You can have this same experience as near as your bookshelf.  Some of the greatest titles you have ever read are waiting for you to revisit them and delve into the treasures that you have forgotten or simply missed the first time through.  There are some books that, frankly, are not worth finishing, but there are others that bear reading many times.  I re-read some of my favorite authors annually and would swear that they somehow rewrote sections of the book or added chapters while the book was sitting on my shelf, because it seems so fresh and new to me after multiple readings.

All of us enjoy meeting new people, making new friends, and forming new business relationships.  It is great to be actively pursuing new people in our lives, both personally and professionally, but always remember that some of the greatest people you will ever meet in your entire life are people you have already met.  Unfortunately, too often, we think of people we already know like a book we’ve already read.  We let friendships slide and business relationships dwindle away due to lack of attention.  With a little thought and care, along with some of the new social media tools, there is just no excuse for not staying in touch with people who are meaningful to us.

One of the new year’s resolutions I actually made and have kept for several years involved getting together with my parents each week.  Several years ago, I realized that even though my parents live a few miles from my home that I had gone several months without getting together with them.  After making the decision to see them each week, I have found the experience to be imminently rewarding in many ways, and I have learned things about my parents and other people in our family tree that I had never known before and wouldn’t have ever known had I not made the effort to stay in touch.

As you go through your day today, explore new people, places, and things, but don’t forget the treasure of the people, places, and things you can revisit time after time.

Today’s the day!