“It’s not strength that matters; it’s focus.” — Bruce Lee
As you’ve read in my story, I graduated from college in 1996. For four years afterwards (four really fun years…) I did not focus on investing or on “personal finance” at all. These were the boom years, the party days, the “sure I’d love to buy all fifty of you another round of drinks, who’s counting?” nights. Good times, indeed.
My attention was directed on other things at the time, and sure enough, while those things flourished (I did meet and eventually marry Kung Fu Guy, so it wasn’t all for naught!), my personal finances withered in neglect, and that’s putting it kindly.
In fact, they withered so much that when Kung Fu Guy and I decided to start our own business in 2000, I had no idea what money I had (or rather, as it turned out, what I didn’t have!). My attention had been elsewhere, and when I finally turned my focus onto my personal finances it was not a pretty picture.
Luckily, this was just the wake up call I needed (nothing like an extremely embarrassing conversation with your future spouse to motivate you into action!). It went something like this:
Kung Fu Guy: “So, how much do you have in your checking account?”
Me: “Um, er, uh, well, I’m not exactly sure…”
Kung Fu Guy: “OK, well, do you have any credit card debt?”
Me: “Um, I don’t think so….? Not anymore…?”
Kung Fu Guy: “That’s good, are you sure???”
Me: “Um, well, I think so….”
And on and on…I remember never feeling so embarrassed in my life. (At the time, his vision of me was of this smart, savvy businesswoman who managed a 70+ person team of engineers and earned a six-figure income). Boy, did I ever throw a wrench into that pretty little picture!
Now, I’m not a dumb person (although after reading this I won’t blame you for disagreeing…) but what I fell prey to for those four years is a stealthy killer that plagues us all:
Lack Of Focus
Lack of focus is one of the most difficult things we must fight against every single day.
In today’s hectic world we are constantly bombarded by information of all kinds from multiple sources. By the time the average person has arrived at work they have already received a deluge of distracting information, from the morning news on TV to the multiple tweets and emails received on your mobile phone to the radio and billboard ads on your drive to work…it’s incessant. Everyone and everything in your life is competing for your most prized possession…your attention, or rather, your focused attention.
Your attention is a supremely powerful force, and like the sun it can be either diffuse and divided amongst many different objects, or funneled into a focused laser-beam of light that has the power to burn whatever it touches (think Cyclops in the X-Men—when he removed those glasses, watch out…now that is some focused attention!).
You have that power, too. Your focus is one of the most powerful weapons you have in your investing (and life!) arsenal.
You’ve probably noticed the power of focused attention in other areas of your life. If you have children you know that the single greatest gift you can ever give them is your undivided, focused attention. My girls love it when I focus my attention on them with no distractions—with just a few minutes of focused attention I can transform them from whining and crying into the two happiest little girls you have ever seen in your life.
Likewise, if you have ever done any goal-setting you know how important it is to state your goals positively and specifically (“I will eat 5 servings of fruit and vegetables each day”) versus negatively and vaguely (“I will NOT eat any junk food”). This is because you will focus your attention on whatever you write, and of course you want to focus on the positive (healthy fruit and vegetables), not the negative (junk food).
In kung fu there is a well-known example of the power of focus. Called “Iron Hand” or “Iron Palm”, practitioners learn to focus their attention and their energy, or chi, into the palms of their hands with enough force to break bricks or blocks of ice without hurting their hands.
Focus is a powerful force in all areas of life, but I have found it to be exceptionally important in investing, particularly while learning.
As Jodie from Australia wrote in Friday’s QnA, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the plethora of options available when you are just starting out as an investor. Where do you begin? Should you buy gold and silver? Learn how to properly value stocks? Focus on “cash-flowing” investments like real estate or dividend-paying stocks or bonds?
And even when you do choose a “starting point”, say, the stock market, for example, that opens up another round of choices. Should you focus on individual stock-picking and how to read financial statements? On ETF’s? Mutual funds? Closed-end funds? Options? What kind of options? Puts or calls or LEAPS or spreads? Should you buy options or sell options? Should you learn fundamental analysis or technical analysis? Focus on emerging markets, or global world dominators? And on and on and on….the choices never end.
However, luckily you have something absolutely magical that will help you focus your attention on what will immediately provide you with the quickest return on your investment of time.
And that magical tool is your vision.
Writing your vision down on paper will instantly help you focus your attention on what you want from your financial life. It’s a critical first step in narrowing your all-important investing focus down to something that is manageable and achievable for you. From there, you can continue to narrow your focus down to short and long-term goals that will enable you to make your vision a reality, and can narrow it even further down to the best strategies you will pursue to achieve those goals.
And then watch out….the power of your focus will astonish you!
When I did this back in 2000 it had an immediate positive effect on my money. Just by focusing on where my money was going and what had happened to it I was instantly able to plug the gaps and start saving much more money. And once I had plugged the obvious gaps in my money, I began focusing on what to do with the extra money I had each month.
Fast forward ten years and now not only do I know how to read a company’s financial statements, I also create and review personal financial statements for our family each month. At any given moment I can tell you precisely what the value of each of our accounts is, the rate of return we are expecting to get, the rate of return we are actually getting, articulate the reasons we are invested in that particular investment and our exit strategy, and much, much more. (I’ve come a long way, thankfully!)
The same is true for my investing education…I did not learn “how to invest” all at once; rather, using my vision as my guide I patiently (and sometimes not-so-patiently…) worked to master one small portion of each massive area at a time. I could never have become an accredited investor had I tried to master penny stocks, tax liens, real estate, corporate bonds, growth stocks, stock shorting, FOREX, stock options, commodities, precious metals, etc., all at once. My head hurts just thinking about all of that!
But what you focus on, you will master, I promise you.
So toughen up those Iron Hands and unleash your inner Cyclops and let me know how it goes! I guarantee you will amaze yourself.
To your financial success,
—Kung Fu Girl
“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.” — Bruce Lee