Sunday, June 28, 2015

The tortoise and the hare, or how to save 2 million bucks

I hope you’re doing well!  Last week, I shared how small things can mean a lot in personal relationships.  This is just as true in a professional context.  The key is to move forward little by little.  Rick, a personal role model, who often talks about the power of incrementalism.  Small steps can be powerful.

Let me share a story, then suggest concrete steps you can take to achieve seemingly impossible goals.  (And a story of small, big investing.)

The Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare

Consider Aesop’s story of the tortoise and the hare.  In the Wikipedia synopsis:

Tired of the Hare’s boastful behaviour, the Tortoise challenges him to a race.  The hare soon leaves the tortoise behind and, confident of winning, takes a nap midway through the race. When the Hare awakes however, he finds that his competitor, crawling slowly but steadily, has arrived before him.”

What lessons can you draw from this story?

If you’re the rabbit,
  • Don’t be an ass (or hare)
  • Don’t slack off
  • Pride can lead to self-destructive behavior

If you’re the turtle (or more generally in life):
  • Be relentless in pursuit of your goal
  • Show up consistently, every day
  • Small steps applied consistently can lead to big outcomes
  • Don’t be afraid of tackling big challenges, even if you don’t have a natural talent for it (whatever you assume that to be)

Life Application

I can share a telling example of how this story plays out in life.

In 2007, I started reading a blog by an anonymous IT engineer at IBM who wrote about his goal of saving $2 million for retirement.  His blog is called 2MillionBlog.

The engineer had only a modest income, earning around $50,000 working full-time for a big company (decent salary in 2007).  At the time, he had saved over $350,000, so I imagined he had been saving for a while.  Gains in stock market and his employer stock options helped him get to that point.

I then stopped following his net wealth updates as I went back to school, and then had a career roller coaster for several years.  Basically, I had better things to do.

Fast forward to 2015, and I check in on this personal finance blog.  As of May 2015, this engineer now has a networth of around $1.3 Million, including equity built up on 4 houses!  

His salary had not changed much, and he did not have a side income to supplement his paycheck.  Plus, he had gotten married and had a child, and his wife does not work (she had worked for a while as a pre-K teacher, earning a modest salary).

So, how did he do this?  I gathered these key points:
  • First, he had a goal; he wanted $2 million.  “If you don’t know where you are going, any road’ll take lead there.” (Lewis Carroll)
  • Next, he measured.  Unlike the tortoise, navigating most modern endeavors is more complex than walking.  Measuring the right things is a prerequisite to the behaviors that will help you achieve your goals.
  • Third, he learned.  This engineer didn’t start with a master plan.  Hell, he probably didn’t even know about investing basics when he started with his desire to save up for retirement.  But, he learned well, and applied the lessons.  He learned to buy and manage multiple properties.  He learned about retirement savings.  He took advantage of credit card promotions, traveled cheap on reward points, and a host of other techniques.  “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”  (Dwight Eisenhower)
  • Finally, be the tortoise.  Don’t snooze.  I acted like the hare.  In the intervening years, I lived like how most Americans live.  Working, saving a little, spending more.  While the IT engineer tortoise inched along, I took this detour and that detour, and took long naps.

Behind the simple story, you can see many texts between the lines.  The first three steps don’t lead to big outcomes on their own, but the fourth (be the tortoise) is like the magic recipe.  By sticking to the daily behavior toward the goal, this IT engineer let powerful forces of compounding do the heavy lifting.  

At first, he despaired that he may never get to $2 million.  But, after a while, the monthly gains from dividends and rising asset prices helped him add to his wealth far beyond his monthly income.

(By the way, there’s a great book about this kind of small things leading to big savings in a book called The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas Stanley.)


Of course, there’s no sure thing.  The markets could come tumbling down.  This post isn’t a howto on getting wealthy.  Rather, I wanted a reminder of the power of consistent and properly directed small effort.

How can I work so that I am a little better than I was yesterday?  And how can I let that build on itself?

And all of this should be done with a degree of humility about the bigger forces (beware of hubris).  I found this captured in ancient wisdom from Ecclesiastes 9:11 (King James translation):

I returned, and saw under the sun,
that the race is not to the swift,
nor the battle to the strong,
neither yet bread to the wise,
nor yet riches to men of understanding,
nor yet favour to men of skill;
but time and chance happeneth to them all.


Think of a big goal you had struggled to achieve in the past.  Break it down:
  • Write down the goal
  • Take a stab at what you want to measure to ensure you’re moving toward the goal
  • Resolve to learn from the journey so you can be better than you were yesterday
  • Stick with it; don’t give up!
  • Perhaps you’ll want to pick up this FREE Kindle copy of Aesop’s Fables.

Further Reading

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Small gesture, big impact

I hope you’re doing well!  Last week, I shared the importance of surrounding yourself with great people.  You are the product of the five people you spend the most time with.  So, I have been thinking about how to be nice to people around me, and to be remembered for being good.  

Do you ever think back to a co-worker or a classmate from many years ago?  Or do they just fade into dark corners of forgotten memory?

On the Road to Work

I drive on a two lane road with a wide median to work.  This morning, I saw a man crossing the street to get to a bus stop.  He had crossed half way and stood at the median as a long row of cars kept driving.  This man stood in the middle looking both ways, apparently dazed by the passing cars.  

I stopped to let him walk the remaining half to the bus stop.  At first, he hesitated and then looked my way.  After waving a hand, he started to walk.  As he walked, he first pointed a finger at me in recognition, then gave a double thumbs up, arms raised high.

Was he really that excited and surprised that someone had stopped to let him pass?  (Apparently, people in my city don’t know the rules of right of way for pedestrians.  Sadly, South tends to be rather regressive when it comes to things like this.)

A small gesture can make someone’s day.  This gleeful pedestrian made me think about how just few, small things can make the difference between happiness and misery, whether in public or private life.  Small big things.

Be Memorable, Be Vulnerable

In my book How to be Happy: 12 Powerful Steps, I talked about a Daily Values List.  Unlike the todo list, this list does not get crossed off.  Rather, it’s an aspirational list, a list of reminders to help me be a better person.  An item on that list is “be vulnerable.”  Another item is “be better than yesterday.”

One of my goals at my new work is to be genuinely good to people around me.  Of course, I’m always courteous.  But, do I really care about people who are basically strangers outside of work?  The other day, I was talking to “V,” who is a summer intern in our marketing group.  It turns out she got married the prior weekend.  As far as I could tell, there was no group celebration about this news.  The next day, I grabbed a little card and wrote a congratulatory message and shared how glad I was that she was on the team.

Her response: Thank you SO MUCH for the card! That was amazingly sweet and I love the stationary.

What small item on your list will give you a big return?  What small gesture you make will make someone smile?  I believe in making someone else smile, you will, too.  

Much of what we think about career accomplishments tends to be focused on skills or tasks.  You often find tips about how to be more productive.  Certainly, today’s dynamic and complex economy demands high skills and productivity.  Still, beyond the techniques and processes, all work is done with and through people.


What small action can you take today to make someone’s day?  (And in turn make yours.)

I’d love to hear about your little big thing.

Further Reading

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Five People You Meet and Power of Context

I hope you’re doing well!  Last week, I shared the importance of assuming the right attitude and thinking about the type of story you want to live out in your new role.  During this past week, I thought about the people I joined in doing the work.

Five People

In The Five People You Meet in Heaven, the author Mitch Albom imagines that heaven consists of the five people who most influenced you on this earth.

A brief Wikipedia synopsis: “Eddie is killed and sent to heaven, where he encounters five people who significantly impacted him while he was alive.”

I find this to be an interesting metaphor for life.  The world you create in life is the world you’ll know in afterlife.  If we choose to be happy and surround ourselves with happy people, we will find that happiness beyond today.  It’s been a few months since I released How to be Happy: 12 Powerful Steps.  Yet, the daily practice goes on.  Who we choose to be around has a profound impact on our own happiness.

And it’s not just happiness.  I’ve once heard that we become the five people you spend the most time with (choose your friends wisely)!  Spend all your waking hours around drinkers, and you’ll find yourself drinking more.  If all your friends become vegetarians, you’ll find yourself eating less meat.  (You know this to be true.  When you join a company where everyone works late, you find it hard to go home on your own.  Choose your careers wisely!)

This is profound.

As much as you like to think you control your habits, you’re at the mercy of the environment you live in.  And that environment has a surprisingly narrow definition: the five people you spend most time with.

This is also empowering.  Your own habits and attitudes will influence those around you.

The Old and the New

As I mentioned in previous post, I recently started a new job.  With that, I have the pleasant opportunity to connect with new kinds of people and to make new friends.  

The old me thought about how I could get ahead.  The new me wonders what I can do to help others get ahead.  The old me thought about how much money I could make in such and such a role.  The new me wants to be content with work as its own reward.  The old me focused on me.  The new me catches myself doing that, and remembers to look around.  The old me worked hard to give all the answers, pleased to think of my own brilliance.  The new me seeks to ask questions so I can learn.

The old me was young and immature, but had no idea about how immature I was.  The new me at least recognizes I’m immature and knows nothing.

The Choice and Power Are Yours

One of the new people I recently met at work is a young fellow named Phil.  He sits by himself quietly for the most part.  He sits little bit apart from the team in a corner, and I thought he was one of the analysts who’d been with the company for a while.  I started talking to him and learned that he’s an intern.  That explained why he sat quietly by himself and no one seemed to talk to him regularly.

I’m pretty sure the old me would have thought to myself: interns … what do they know?  Turns out, Phil knows quite a bit!  He apparently runs a laundry concierge service at his college, and the business rakes in six figures net income!  He’s exactly the kind of entrepreneurial and energetic people I wanted to surround myself with.  Yet, I’m curious how many other people know this about Phil.

You have the power to surround yourself with good people, happy people, fun people.  You also have the power to be good, be happy, and have fun with your life.  And the process of choosing is a daily practice.  Choose wisely each day.

Further Reading

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Sunday, June 7, 2015

What is your favorite story of a new beginning?

A New Hope

Recently, I started a new job.  I’ve done this many times in the last few years.  Maybe too much.  Along with the usual experiences of a new start - excitement, curiosity, even fatigue - I thought about how I might make this particular beginning memorable and meaningful.  

(I experienced many new starts.  As a young college graduate in a post-dotcom bubble economy, I had a job offer rescinded.  It was my first taste of how callous and impersonal the business world can be underneath the smiles.  As a young auditor at a Big Four accountancy, I felt I found a good job, but not one I found interesting.  And when I found something that was fun and interesting, I struggled to balance it with financial payoff.  All this to say that I’ve experienced many ups and downs, and I’m still here!)

In this new start, I got to thinking about what kind of story I want to tell of this period in my life when I look back.  For me, the story as told in the movie starring Robert Redford, The Natural, comes to mind.  In that movie, Roy Hobbs is a baseball phenom with a complicated history.  His talents as a young baseball player lead to hubris.  That prides leads to a fatal mistake that derails his career before it starts.  Years later, many years after the world has forgotten him, Roy returns to the baseball he loves and starts over.  He is an old, 30-something rookie.  He swallows his pride and others’ skepticism and shows up for practice every day.  He works hard to prove himself.  He is human.  He stumbles with the new-found fame, but remembers his old self and gets back on track.  Rather than taking a bribe to throw the pennant game for big payoff, he stays true to himself and does his best with what he has.  

Roy’s story resonates with me.  Rather than dwelling on the past, the right attitude is to assume humility, and be curious like a newcomer should be.  A new player should be deferential to the team, and work hard to prove himself.  Certainly, some work will be menial, but I can use all things as an opportunity to learn.  I hope that I can look back years from now and be proud of how I worked hard regardless of my age.  I hope that I can take pride in serving my team and my customers faithfully, and growing as a leader.

Narrative Arc: What’s your story?

Which makes me curious.  What kind of narrative are you writing with your life or with your career?  If you started something new recently (a new job or new family or new location), then what kind of story would you like to be able to tell about it when you look back?  Were you beaten down, but picked yourself back up and persevered?  Were you faced with evil (or difficult) forces, but kept your integrity and won with patience and love?

This isn’t about legacy.  It is about how you make sense of your world.  What kind of experience do you want to have in your life?  Thinking about the right narrative arc can help.  In his book The Seven Basic Plots, the author Christopher Booker outlines seven narrative archetypes:

  1. Overcoming the monster
  2. Rags to riches
  3. The quest
  4. Voyage and return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

I think my story will be a mix of these.  What I do know is that I want to be more mindful about writing a plot and working hard to follow the plot this time around.  I wonder what kind of story you’re excited about living out.


Think about the narrative arc you would like to live out.  How would you work to build that story into an aspect of your life today?

You may want to check out the book The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker.