Change: The Three Areas to Make It Happen

For several reasons I decided to make some changes and get back to the fundamentals in the month of July: exercising consistently, eating a healthy diet, spending more time outside and less time on social media, consistent meditation, writing in my journal on a daily basis, reading books every day, zero frivolous spending, and not drinking any alcohol. During the final few days of June I mapped out a specific plan with specific goals on each of these objectives. The next step was to figure out how to make these changes happen.

There are three main ways to change oneself:

  1. Change one’s daily habits or routines.
  2. Change one’s environment.
  3. Change the people one surrounds him or herself with.

Outside of these three change is improbable, if not impossible. In fact, without some combination of all three, it is not likely to happen either. Real and permanent change requires one take deliberate steps in all phases. For example, if I wanted to lose ten pounds, but I kept visiting the same bar (number 2) with the same group of unhealthy friends (number 3), the weight loss would never happen. It might in the short term, and if I have great self-control I might even be able to keep it up for a full year, but ultimately I would revert back to my old self. Point being, significant and lasting change requires not one or two adjustments, but mindful adjustments in three specific aspects of one’s life: one’s daily habits or routines, one’s environment, and the people one spends time with. As Darren Hardy notes in The Compound Effect, “Small, Smart Choices + Consistency + Time = Radical Difference.”

Deliberate Practice

I just finished reading Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. It was excellent. This passage really caught my attention:

In the 1960s, the psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner attempted to answer this question (on plateauing) by describing the three stages that anyone goes through when acquiring a new skill. During the first phase, known as the “cognitive stage,” you’re intellectualizing the tasks and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second “associative stage,” you’re concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient. Finally you reach what Fitts called the “autonomous stage,” when you figure that you’ve gotten as good as you need to get at the task and you’re basically running on autopilot. During that autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stages seems to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at typing, we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. You could call it the “OK plateau,” the point at which you decide you’re Ok with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.

But what if we are not OK with how good we are at something? What if we still want to improve? What if we still want to get better?

The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing - to force oneself to stay out of autopilot.

This is what experts do.

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive phase.”

Overall, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is a worthwhile read. In addition, another book on my list regarding this same topic is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. The bottom line is this: in order to learn on a expert level, we must literally think about how we think.

America's Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve by Roger Lowenstein

An excerpt from America’s Bank by Roger Lowenstein:

When America last had a central bank, in 1836 (the year before J.P. Morgan Sr.’s birth), the country was a financial innocent. Its credit was borrowed in Europe; its stock market barely existed; its most common mode of transportation was the horse. The United States of 1913 was entirely different. The frontier had vanished; industrialization was a fact. Ford’s was churning out 170,000 Model Ts a year. The New York Stock Exchange listed more than three hundred companies, and corporate news was disseminated on glass-domed stock tickers. The banking industry had mushroomed, thanks in large part to the greater willingness of people to deposit their savings. The heady progress of finance was, however, an unfulfilled promise to the great wash of industrial workers. Capital in its formative stage was undemocratic. Workers’ pensions and other forms of savings were practically nonexistent. Leisure time was the province of the wealthy. America had far more banks than ever, but banks existed to serve business.

What struck me the most reading about “the struggle to create America’s bank,” was the similarities to the issues being debated today. In many cases the exact same questions are still being asked: what role does government have in business? Is Wall Street too powerful? Should we consider a gold standard or use fiat money? The excerpt from the book could practically be taken from the news today:

When America first established the Federal Reserve, in 1913, the country was a financial innocent. The Great Depression had not yet occurred; its stock market barely existed; airplanes were yet to become an accessible mode of transportation. The United States of 2016 is entirely different. The frontier has vanished; Silicon Valley is a fact. Musk is hoping to churn out some 300,000 Model 3s next year. The New York Stock Exchange lists more than two thousand companies, and corporate news is disseminated almost instantaneously via the internet. The banking industry has mushroomed, thanks in large part to a decrease in barriers of entry and a proliferation in financial technology. The heady progress of finance is, however, an unfulfilled promise to a great wash of workers. Capital is somewhat undemocratic. Workers’ pensions, 401ks, and other forms of savings are practically nonexistent. America has far more banks than ever, but banks exist to serve business.

Nothing is new, and everything is different. Frank Vanderlip is now Jamie Dimon. President Woodrow Wilson is President Barack Obama. Charles Hamlin is Janet Yellen. While we have all heard some version of “past performance is not indicative of future results,” it is important to read about financial history in order to gain some perspective. With the Federal Reserve garnering the attention of the financial industry with their every move, America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve by Roger Lowenstein is a one place to start.

Still Strugglin'

I know how it feels to wake up f***ed up
Pockets broke as hell, another rock to sell
People look at you like you're the user
Selling drugs to all the losers mad Buddha abuser
But they don't know about the stress-filled day
Baby on the way mad bills to pay
That's why you drink Tanqueray
So you can reminisce and wish
You wasn't living so devilish s-s***
- The Notorious B.I.G., via Still Strugglin’

I am sure we can all relate to the above passage by the late poet, Notorious B.I.G. It is certainly understandable to be stressed by money and other financial concerns. This has been especially true lately. As the chart below shows, the VIX, which measures volatility and is sometimes referred to as the “fear index,” has been above its 50 day and 200 day simple moving average for almost all of 2016. 

The last six months have been a different story compared to the first half of 2015. As Inspectah Deck adds, “A man with a dream with plans to make C.R.E.A.M, Still strugglin, Survival got me buggin'” 

Michael Batnick over at The Irrelevant Investor had an insightful post last week where he explains a hard truth about investing:

If you’re feeling a little frustrated, I have some bad news for you, this is how stocks work. The stock market doesn’t owe you anything. It doesn’t care that you’re about to retire. It doesn’t care that you’re funding your child’s education. It doesn’t care about your wants and needs or your hopes and dreams.

I absolutely believe that stocks are the best game in town. I don’t think there is a better way for the average investor to grow their wealth. However, this is called investing and the price of admission is gut wrenching drawdowns and sometimes years and years with nothing to show for it. If you can accept that this is the way things work, you can be an enormously successful investor. 

Behavior trumps everything when it comes to investing. The VIX chart above probably doesn’t even matter, as it is such a short time frame. However, to paraphrase Josh Brown, long term results are the only ones that matter, but long term is not where investor’s live their lives. They live them in the day-to-day short term. This is why it is crucial to have a plan, to bridge the disconnect between life and long-term investing results. As Biggie eludes to, the alternative is not pleasant. 

Millennial Planners Retreat 2016: A Weekend with the Next Generation

Our first annual Millennial Planners Retreat was a huge success; its success was the result of significant preparation and some smart planning.

The experience was so influential that we decided to share some of our time together with the rest of the Millennial Planners community in hopes that we can inspire you to do something similar one day.

For the first time ever all four of our group members were in the same region of the country, and we took full advantage of our close proximity. We should disclose that the idea of a retreat was adopted from an idea we took from Michael Kitces - you can learn more here. We took the idea and ran with it.

Designing the Retreat

Poplar Beach, Half Moon Bay 

Poplar Beach, Half Moon Bay 

First, we knew we needed to separate ourselves from the hustle and bustle of the big city of San Francisco. Fortunately for us, being located in the Bay Area we were able to find an Airbnb available in the nearby beach town of Half Moon Bay - besides the idea for a retreat in the first place, that was our first good decision.

From there we needed to craft one full day that would tackle everything we could want from a "Retreat."

Early Morning - Private Time

Regan, Poplar Beach

Regan, Poplar Beach

Our group is largely comprised of morning people so we knew that private quiet time was essential for the early morning hours - this time was spent with walks and jogs along the beach, reading, and for some, study time for the CFP® examination. This time was very important to the success of the day, as it allowed us to clear our minds and prepare for the conversations that followed.

After private morning hours, a solid breakfast brought us to the dining room table for some light conversation, along with our first round of (strong) coffee.

Late Morning - First Group Sessions

From left to right: Joe, Regan, Bryan

From left to right: Joe, Regan, Bryan

Besides the great idea to hold the Retreat in a beautiful beach town in Northern California, the next best idea was the breakout sessions we held - this served to be the bread and butter of the entire experience.

There were a couple tricky parts to designing the group sessions, the most important of which being: "What are we going to talk about?"

Luckily, we have some thoughtful guys and decided to let each member have their own time slot that they were in charge of leading. Since our personal attention spans are only so large, everyone was given around one hour on their session topic. The topics themselves were completely up the individual in charge and they were free to run it however they wanted. We used a Google Doc to share what each of us were planning on talking about in our group session - this helped everyone get a sense of what the topics were ahead of time and also prevented any overlap in topics.

After breakfast, we were ready to jump into the meat and potatoes. Joe volunteered to get the sessions started. 

Joe's Session

Joe and Regan

Joe and Regan

The first session focused on the qualitative side of financial planning. Specifically, the use of stories, analogies, and the ability to communicate complex ideas in simple terms. The conclusion we reached was that mastering this requires deliberate engagement with others in conversation. One has to step outside their comfort zone and practice, having as many conversations early on as possible. A potential way to begin might be with family members or close friends. Author Edward Hess writes the following:

We develop efficient and effective learning skills through practice, practice, and more practice. Learning well is not done carelessly. Learnings skills are improved through intentional practice with contemporaneous feedback that focuses on improving specific weaknesses. We have to learn “how” to learn.

Is it possible to become an expert in conversation at a young age? Not if one remains in his or her comfort zone. Only through deliberate practice can one expedite what otherwise only comes with experience. However, what can be viewed as an obstacle can often also be turned into an opportunity. As Reid Hoffman writes in The Start-up of You, “You may not see inexperience as an asset to highlight, but the flip side of inexperience tends to be energy, enthusiasm, and a willingness to work and hustle in order to learn.” Overall, we reasoned that a millennial that harnesses the strengths of youthfulness, such as technology skills and an eagerness to learn, and who also regularly engages others in conversation to practice communication will find themselves with an abundance of possibilities sooner rather than later.

Regan's Session

Regan

Regan

The second session consisted of imagining our group and individual circumstances one, five, and ten years in the future. We then went around and each discussed what we had brainstormed. Thinking outside the box was encouraged. Lastly, we reflected on our past and answered the question, "what was the one big experience that changed the framework from which we view the future?" This last question in particular was very interesting because all four of us have significantly different backgrounds, which have affected the way we view our career. One of the potential mistakes to be wary of when forming a study groups is collaborating with people that are too similar.

Within Millennial Planners, some of us went to very large schools and some of us went to very small schools, some of us are very extroverted and some of us are introverted, some of us grew up in a very rural setting and some of us grew up in a more urban setting. Point being, a difference of opinion is a good thing when brainstorming. Overall, this session was very reflective and got us all thinking deeply.

Lunch and Beach Therapy

Bryan and Joe

Bryan and Joe

Just like exercise, thinking requires a periodic break. A few of us grabbed some groceries and we had lunch. Then we headed down to the water to enjoy the weather and view. This refreshed us so we were ready to go for the two remaining afternoon sessions.

Early Afternoon - Final Group Sessions

Bryan's Session

Bryan

Bryan

Don't underestimate how much you like going to work. It should be worth giving up part of your salary to stay there.”    - Anonymous Millennial Planner

After taking a break to eat lunch and walk down to the beach, everyone filled up on caffeine to resume the afternoon sessions.

The first afternoon session focused on work satisfaction and what it takes to build an environment that everyone can succeed in. A few minutes into the session, one of our group members said something profound and is quoted above. Since we spend a majority of our waking hours either at work or thinking about work, we should not only like it, but we should also know why we like it.

As our careers and aspirations continue to grow, the ultimate goal for some of us will be to create a workplace that could attract the best talent, keep everyone happy, and produce the best work for our future clients. Our group was a lot of fun to have these conversations with, as we all come from different backgrounds and continue to work in different office environments.

Since the financial planning industry is so young, we fully grasp that our opportunities as young professionals are different than the careers of some of our friends. For instance, in this industry, a 30-person financial planning firm is considered to be "huge." On the other side of the spectrum, several of our friends and colleagues work at 2-person shops that operate more like "start-ups." No matter which path a young planner should choose, there is room for all personality types and the potential upside is tremendous. 

Luke's Session

Luke

Luke

The fourth and final session consisted of brainstorming on how to field challenging questions from clients. Several common scenarios were presented and as a group we walked through how best to approach the client’s concerns. As with all the sessions, certain takeaways from one were applicable to the others. This was true for this session in particular.

The majority of the block was spent thinking on how to blend the technical details with an empathetic message. We concluded that in challenging rather than trying to convince someone or change their mind, it is usually preferable to walk them through it with examples or stories. In the book Mindwise, Nicholas Epley writes, “Arguably, your brain’s greatest skill is its ability to think about the minds of others in order to understand them better.” One has to put themselves in the other person’s shoes so to speak. Overall, it was session with a high degree of collaboration, and we talked through several answers together. 

Evening Fun - Drinks, Dinner, and A Few More Drinks

Luke

Luke

After a long day of discussion and thinking, we had a few drinks and went to a local restaurant for dinner. As Tim Ferriss notes, “alternating periods of activity and rest is necessary to survive, let alone thrive. Capacity, interest, and mental endurance all wax and wane. Plan accordingly.” While the sessions were certainly productive, the evening was candid and fun.

After a few beers and some wine, we had dinner and saw what Half Moon Bay had to offer. This was a nice way to wind down the day, while also having a bit of fun at a bar or two after dinner. 

Reflection

Bryan

Bryan

Each of the four sessions were very reflective. Rather than trying to cram too much into one day, we tried to have a deliberate and focused day. As Phil Race, psychologist, professor and learning specialist said: "The act of reflecting is one that causes us to make sense of what we’ve learned, why we learned it, and how that particular increment of learning took place. Moreover, reflection is about linking one increment of learning to the wider perspective of learning – heading towards seeing the bigger picture."

We live in a world where there is always an emphasis to do more. However, one of the reasons we decided to meet for this weekend in Half Moon Bay was to be a bit more secluded to help with deep reflective thought. 

One for the Books

From left to right: Joe, Luke, Bryan, Regan

From left to right: Joe, Luke, Bryan, Regan

Our group, Millennial Planners, has been in existence for over one year. After numerous phone calls, group video chats, and regular messaging over several mediums, we decided it was time to get together in person. While technology has drastically improved communication capabilities, there are some things that can only be accomplished in person. In addition, it was fun to relax and have a few drinks with friends within the industry. Not only was the retreat valuable from a professional point of view, it was also valuable for our friendships with each other.

Ultimately, our group members have a deep trust with one another to the point where we would gladly appoint another member to be our own financial advisor. While there are plenty of textbooks and discussions about the quantitative side of this business, it is the qualitative side and similar personal circumstances that keeps it all together.

Our similar life stages brought us together over a common bond, but the empathy, trust, and core values that we share will hold our group together for many years to come.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

I am currently about halfway through Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, and I am finding it incredibly interesting. It is a compilation of several dozen routines of famous artists, musicians, and other creative people. I am really enjoying reading the details of the different artists, and I am learning a lot. Currey writes the following in the introduction:

The book’s title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be on autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resource: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods. This was one of William Jame’s favorite subjects. He thought you wanted to put part of your life on autopilot; by forming good habits, he said, we can “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.”

Currey hits the nail on the head so to speak. Routines are important because they enable us to manage our limited resources. Self-control and self-discipline are like muscles: they fatigue with use. Routines allow us to minimize thinking about each little decision and preserve our energy for the big decisions. “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” wrote W. H. Auden. This is why President Obama sticks mostly to a grey or blue suit. He has bigger decisions to worry about. “My wife makes fun of how routinized I’ve become,” President Obama says. Taking it one step further, Cal Newport suggests we should plan out each minute of our day, noting “the best knowledge workers view their time like the best investors view their capital, as a resource to wield for maximum returns.” This includes planning out open-ended activities and time for relaxation. As we noted in a post before, Tim Ferriss writes “alternating periods of activity and rest is necessary to survive, let alone thrive. Capacity, interest, and mental endurance all wax and wane. Plan accordingly.”

Daily Rituals focuses a bit more on artists and creative work; however, routines are just as important for other goals as well. When I was studying for the CFP® examination, I had a specific routine for my study plan. In addition, I wrote out a specific routine for the day of the exam so I could focus my energy on the examination questions. However, as Shane Parrish noted, “if you’re looking for some insight into what makes an ideal daily routine, you’re out of luck. One big insight to the book is that there is no one way to do things.” While there are a few general principles that always apply, each individual has their own preferences, and one’s routine will most likely evolve over time. Overall, Daily Rituals by Mason Currey is an entertaining read and an interesting starting point to explore more routine ideas. 

The Actual Way To Read More Books

I read an article over the weekend that I passionately disagree with and think needs addressing. The article was entitled “How Could I Read More Books?” and was part of BBC News Magazine. Now there are some fine points in the article – for example, a charity to help people who are unable to read at all. However, a majority of it is about speed-reading.

Speed-reading is a terrible idea. Skimming passages and chunking – grouping words together so they can be read as a single chunk – are awful strategies. In fact, the opposite is preferable. Read slowly. Take notes. Contemplate the subtleties of the text. This is how one learns and enjoys a book.

The article was trying to answer the question of the title: “How Could I Read More Books?” Unfortunately, the speed-reading answer is wrong. Yes, one can read more books that way, but it misses the point entirely. Speed-reading is a solution to reading more books just like steroids are a solution to becoming healthier. It may seem like you are getting results, but you’re actually making it worse.

So what is the real answer? How can we read more books?

The answer is simple but not easy – sacrifice something else. We all have 24 hours in a day. In order to do something more, one must give up something else. Considering we are still in the first few weeks of January, this applies to all New Year’s resolution as well. If your resolution was to add something to your life – 10 minutes of meditation, spending more time with family, learning a new language, etc, there is a second part to that goal that requires some consideration as well. You are going to have to give up something else.

The unavoidable truth is that if you want to read more you are going to have to sacrifice something else. Facebook, texting, and television are good choices, but it may be some social time with friends too depending on how far you want to take it. 

My last semester of college classes was in the fall of 2013. During the month of October I set a goal of reading one hour a day. I wouldn’t go to bed until I had read at least one hour. I sacrificed sleep and television mostly. (The former is not recommended.) I ended up reading 18 books that month. The takeaway was not “life-hack-and-productivity-trick your way to achieving your dreams” like some might have you believe. Rather, it was this: adding one hour of anything requires sacrificing one hour of something else. Speed-reading and multitasking are for frauds. If you want to get anything done it will require giving up something else.