Well, it’s December 1st. One month to go in 2021. Just a few busy weeks and then Christmas. And shortly after, New Year’s. And then…2022. Which means (hopefully) another bite at the apple. Another round of birthdays, holidays and vacations. Another opportunity for meaningful pursuits, work and volunteering. Another chance to invest in and spend time with friends and family. How many more chances will we all get? Who knows? I turn 49 later this month. Maybe my turn on this ride will last another year. Maybe another 30 years. Again, who knows?
But, barring something unexpected over the next few weeks, I know that I at least have THIS opportunity. This holiday season. This time with family. This chance to help others. This chance to mend fences. This chance to give generously. This chance to relax and recharge. This chance to reflect on the past year and plan for the new one. I don’t know how many more chances I’ll get, but I have this one. So I’m going to make the most of it. You should too. Make a conscious effort to slow down. Focus on what matters. Be intentional with your time. Reallocate your bandwidth toward the things that matter. Don’t let the season pass in a whirlwind of stress, strife and credit card debt. Who knows how many more chances you’ll have, but you have this chance. Make it count.
Hi everyone! Long time no talk. I hit pause on my writing for a bit to focus on some big changes in my world. As many of you know, in addition to my writing, I work as a financial planner. Toward the end of last year, I decided to go out on my own and start my own financial planning company. It’s something I’ve thought about doing for a long time, but never pulled the trigger.
Then last year I thought, what better time to do it than during a pandemic induced global shutdown! Seriously though, I’d been with my previous company for 25 years, enjoyed the people and the work and made a good living. It was a tough decision to move on, but it ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made (more on the new company at the end of this article).
I’m sure many of you have faced similar forks in the road or are maybe even contemplating one right now. So for my first article back, I thought I’d write about the best advice I got and lessons I learned as I contemplated the change and then took the plunge. Hopefully, it will help some of you
Don’t let fear make your decision. Pretty much anything you do in life that’s worthwhile and difficult will get you out of your comfort zone. In other words, it’s going to scare you. That fear is a good indicator that you should be paying attention. It’s a reminder that you should consider your path carefully. Just don’t give it veto power over your decision making. If you let fear make your decisions, you’ll never do anything worthwhile. Choosing unhappiness over uncertainty is often a bad choice.
Sometimes you’re not ready to do it until you’re ready to do it. When I told my brother about my decision to start the company, his first response was “It’s about time.” Then he laughed and said he was only kidding. He’s a successful business owner and he said looking back on it, he wasn’t ready to start his business until the day he started it. Had he started it 6 years or even 6 months earlier it would have failed. As I said before, don’t let fear hold you back, but also don’t start before you have the things you need to make it work. Timing is important.
Sometimes the only difference between a huge success and the status quo is just a willingness to say yes. I have a friend who coaches founders of very successful organizations. He told me it’s easy to look at these people and think that their success is a direct result of their skills, hard work or brilliance. Truth be told, he’s often surprised by how normal they are. What they have, however, is a willingness to try. When the time came where a decision was required, they said yes and took the risk. You don’t need to be Albert Einstein or Elon Musk to succeed at something. You just need to put your yes on the table.
Sometimes the best time to do something is when things look their worst. When I talked to my dad about it, I asked if I should wait because of all the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. He thought about it for a second and then told me the story of when he started his business back in the early 70s. The economy was in terrible shape and he’d just been laid off. Unlike me, he didn’t have much choice about what came next. No one was hiring and he had a growing family to feed, so he started his own company. Looking back on it years later, he realized that was the perfect time to start. His opportunity was greatest when he said yes to something that everyone else was saying no to.
Sometimes older is better. We tend to venerate youth and think of our 20s and 30s as the ideal time of life to take big risks. That’s not always the case. Yes, as you get older you have more responsibilities and more at stake, but you also have more skills, wisdom and life experience. When discussing my situation with a close friend he said “You’ve been doing this for 25 years. There are very few corners you can’t see around.” It’s easy to get complacent and play defense later in life, but truth be told, that’s often a great time to go on offense.
Get comfortable with discomfort. As we age, we often get comfortable. We make more money. We upgrade our house, cars and lifestyle. We get settled into a career. As this happens, we’re less willing to rock the boat. Less willing to take risks. More willing to compromise. Sometimes our fear of discomfort can keep us from doing something that we need to do. If you take a big risk or make a significant change, I can almost guarantee that you’ll go through a period of discomfort. There will be stress, uncertainty, long hours and a big learning curve. But there will also be growth, excitement, challenge, fulfillment and payoff.
Focus on taking the next step. A big change often means a long To-Do list. Don’t get distracted or overwhelmed. Just focus on what’s next. It you try to do too much, very little gets done and the things that you do, don’t get done well. Concentrate your efforts on a few wildly important goals that can be broken down into a series of logical steps. Each day ask yourself: “What’s important now?” What’s the next step that needs to be done to advance the process? Whatever that is, that’s your focus. Not the 500 other things on your list.
Accept Reality. Sometimes an option you’re considering depends on someone or something else. If you’ve tried that door and it stays closed, however, that’s probably a good indication that your way forward is on a different path. Give thanks for the clarity, accept reality, make your decision and move forward.
Don’t burn bridges. Ever. If change takes you someplace new, leave on good terms. Act honorably. Be transparent. Wish everyone well and move on.
How about you? Is there a change you want to make or a new adventure you want to pursue? There’s no time like the present. Don’t talk yourself out of it just because it’s scary or because you’ve had a few birthdays. Decide what you really want out of life and then start taking those plans very seriously.
About the new company
In my financial planning practice, I focus almost exclusively on retirement planning. For 25 years, I did that work at another company and then did all my writing about retirement in books, newspaper articles and at this website. I always thought it would make sense to do those things under the same umbrella, so when I made the switch, I jumped through the hoops necessary to turn Intentional Retirement from a publishing company into a financial planning company. You won’t notice much change going forward. I’ll still post articles regularly at the site and there’s no cost or obligation to follow along. That information is general in nature, however, and is not intended as advice for your specific situation. If you enjoy the articles, but want to do more detailed planning for your retirement, now I can likely help with that as well. Just reach out to me at Intentional Retirement HQ and we can talk further. No pressure obviously, but feel free to touch base if you’d like more information. Thanks for following along. Like I mentioned earlier, the transition went amazingly well and I’m settled into a new day to day rhythm. With that in the rear view mirror, I’m looking forward to writing more regularly again and I’m excited for the new adventure.
I was driving past a large cornfield the other day—I live in Nebraska after all—and had a few thoughts on sowing and reaping. We’ve all heard the phrase “You reap what you sow.” That’s true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, if you plant corn, you’ll get corn. No surprise there. But there’s also an element of time and quantity. Time in the sense that it takes time for the seeds you plant to germinate, grow and yield their crop. Quantity in the sense that you often yield much more than you plant. With corn, for example, 10 pounds of seed typically yields 7,280 pounds (130 bushels per acre) of corn. So we reap what we sow, but it takes time and the output usually exceeds input.
As I’m sure you’ve deduced, I’m not talking about corn. I’m talking about living a secure, purpose filled, meaningful life. You won’t get a crop that you didn’t plant. If you want security and meaning, you need to plant “seeds” that will yield those things. Seeds that yield financial independence. Seeds that yield quality relationships. Seeds that yield a healthy body and mind. Seeds that yield meaningful work. Seeds that yield unique experiences and lifelong learning. Seeds that yield satisfaction, contentment, happiness and fulfillment. And once those seeds are planted, you need to nurture them just like the farmer waters, fertilizes and weeds his crop. And then one day, you will have a bountiful harvest. Some of your crops will mature quickly. Some will take more time. Either way, don’t wait. Start planting today with tomorrow’s harvest in mind.
How are those 2020 plans working out for you? In crazy and uncertain times, it’s easy to get sidetracked. To feel helpless and stressed. To give up or get discouraged. To ask: “What’s the point?” To pick up bad habits. And even to actively do things that reduce your odds of long-term retirement success. Things like:
- Not being intentional with your time and money
- Not exercising
- Eating badly
- Drinking too much
- Not learning new things
- Having too much debt
- Neglecting your marriage
- Not investing in your friendships
- Associating with the wrong people
- Allowing yourself to get bitter over circumstances
- Taking life for granted and assuming it will go on forever
- Getting stuck in routine
- Comparing yourself to others
- Not taking some “at bats.”
- Letting the headlines derail your investment strategy
- Doing nothing instead of doing what excites you
- Not taking care of your mental and emotional health
- Caring too much about what others think
- Mimicking others rather than deciding what you really want out of life
- Having an external vs. internal locus of control (i.e. “Everything is out of my control.”)
Are you struggling with anything on that list? If so, what’s one thing you can stop doing this week because it is holding you back and harming your chances of a successful life and retirement? What’s one thing that needs to go because it doesn’t align with what you want your life to be? Don’t let a difficult year derail all your hard work. It’s time to weed the proverbial garden.
“It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good.” – Pa Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie
COVID-19 has been a tragedy. There’s no disputing that. Thousands dead. Millions sick. Millions more jobless. It’s hard to overstate the negative impacts of the pandemic. And yet, to paraphrase Pa Ingalls, even terrible situations can produce some good. As difficult as this time has been, I can’t help but think that many of us will look back on it as one of the best things to happen to us. Not in a “I just won the lottery!” sort of way, but in a “Painful, but positive” sort of way. Keep reading to see what I mean and to see how you can make sure that this “ill wind” blows some good for your retirement.
It forces us out of routine. It’s easy to get in a rut. Easy to put life on autopilot and live the same day over and over. Even if we don’t like the rut we’re in, we’ll often stay there because it feels safe. Human nature is such that we will often choose being unhappy over being uncertain. One thing this virus has done in spades is forced us all to live life in a different way. It grabbed the steering wheel and yanked us out of the rut. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost certainly a good thing. It gives us a fresh perspective. It helps time pass more slowly (because routine is the enemy of time). It opens us up to new experiences and new ways of thinking about things. It presents new opportunities. Yes, it brings uncertainty, but hiding in all that uncertainty is opportunity. Look for it.
It forces us to reexamine our priorities. Priorities are the things in life that are most important to us. They are the people, activities or things that we really care about and that bring us meaning. When life is going along swimmingly and we’re healthy and have plenty of time and money, we tend to get lazy. We allow things in that clutter or confuse our priorities. When life gets hard, however, and one or more of our priorities are threatened, it refocuses our mind on what’s important. Hard times force us to cut and say “no.” They force us to get back to the basics. That means a life less cluttered with filler and more focused on the things that bring you joy and meaning. That’s a good thing.
It forces us to think differently about debt. When the economy is strong and interest rates are low, it’s tempting to add debt. You almost feel foolish if you don’t. “One percent interest? Why wouldn’t I buy a $60,000 car?” But when hard times hit, servicing that debt becomes difficult if not impossible. Debt increases risk and reduces cash flow. It adds stress. It can derail your plans and dreams. It weakens your financial “immune system.” The pandemic is a good reminder to use debt sparingly.
It shows the fallacy of “appearances.” On a sunny day, a house built on the sand doesn’t look any different than a house built on rock. But when the storms come, the difference is pretty clear. It’s easy to get caught up in appearances. It’s tempting to keep up with the Jones’s. But even in the best of times, that strategy can be stressful and unfulfilling. In bad times it can be catastrophic. Machiavelli once wrote “The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities.” Don’t be one of those people. Build a life that is happy, secure and fulfilling, not one that only looks good on Instagram.
It exposes our weaknesses. Warren Buffett once said “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked.” There’s nothing like a combination global pandemic + financial crisis to help expose your weaknesses. Too much risk in your investments? Too much debt? No rainy day fund? Strained relationship with your spouse? Underlying health issues you’ve been ignoring? Settling for a life that isn’t what you want? If the tide went out and you find yourself a bit overexposed, maybe it’s time to go shopping for a swimsuit.
One of the most important ingredients to a successful retirement is to decide what you really want out of life and to start taking those things very seriously. COVID-19, while terrible, has likely helped you in that regard by forcing you to reexamine your habits, routines, priorities, purpose, relationships, finances, lifestyle and any number of other things. Embrace that process and you’ll likely come out the other side a stronger, more resilient, more self-aware person.
What are some practical ways to apply all this? I’ll put a few ideas below along with links to articles and resources at Intentional Retirement.
Quick thought for today.
If you want to live an intentional life, you should focus primarily on
the present. Let me explain. We all spend part of our days—either mentally
or physically—in the past, present or future.
You’re sitting there right now in the present, but maybe you’re thinking
about something you did this past weekend or dreaming about something you hope
to be doing 5 years from now. Past, present
and future. We all spend our time
inhabiting each of those spaces.
Unfortunately, most of us mess up the proportions. We spend too
much time and energy on the past and the future and not enough on the
present. We look back and worry about the
things we did or didn’t do. We look
forward and dream about the things we hope to eventually do. That only leaves a small amount of our time
where we’re honest to goodness living in and making the most out of the
I’m not saying that you should ignore the past and the
future, but the present should be your priority. Anything else means you’re focusing on things
you can’t change (the past) or things that might not happen (the future). Here are a few suggestions on how to get the
How to use your past:
Don’t obsess over it. Don’t
waste your time thinking about regrets or wishing you had done or said things
differently. Don’t cling to
bitterness. Don’t hold grudges. Instead,
think fondly of the good times and be grateful for the wisdom earned and lessons
learned from the challenging times. Use
it as a foundation to build on. Remember
the people, places and things that made you who you are.
How to prepare for your future: Don’t push everything to the future. Don’t treat it as some magical time where you’ll finally start living. Delayed gratification is great if it’s allowing you to work toward something, but it becomes a problem if it becomes an excuse for life avoidance. Use the runway between the present and the future for planning and preparation. Use it to set the proper direction for your life and to get any necessary prerequisites out of the way. Use it to set goals, dream, plan, save and even to experiment. All of those things will help you hit the ground running and make the most out of your future years.
How to live in the present: Don’t get bogged down in the routine of
life. Don’t focus all your time on the
maintenance of living. Don’t live a life
that is frantic and unintentional. Be
present in your days, with your friends and during experiences like vacations
rather than worrying about how to make it look a certain way on social
media. Decide what you really want out
of life and start doing that. Today. Even if you have to start small, start. Have intentional action in your relationships,
activities, health, hobbies, pursuits and every other area of your life. Be proactive.
Learn. Do. Go. Experiment. Take risks.
In other words, live.
A good balance of past/present/future is something like
10/60/30. If yours looks more like
30/20/50, you’re not really living life.
You’re worrying about the life you’ve already lived and dreaming about a
life you hope to someday live.
At Intentional Retirement, we believe that retirement is an
intentional way of living that prioritizes freedom, fulfillment, purpose and
relationships. It starts today and is an
incremental process of aligning your lifestyle and actions with your highest
priorities. To do that, you need to
focus on the present. Stop fretting over
what is past or dreaming about what is to come.
Today is a new day. Start doing.