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Do Your Motivations Lead to Financial Discipline?

Do Your Motivations Lead to Financial Discipline?

September 21, 2021

For those of you who don't know, I volunteer with a local program, here in Greensboro, North Carolina, for recovering drug addicts. As you might imagine, life has not always been easy for the folks who come through the program, and for some of them, it includes having spent time in prison. The program for which I volunteer, however, represents a significant step in a positive direction. Specifically, I volunteer as part of a men's group and the bulk of our conversations deal with basic life skills and basic life philosophies--i.e., making sense of the world around us and understanding the moral and philosophical guard rails that are, or should be, in-place to help guide us.

It was during one of our conversations that a philosophical question was posed by one of the attendees about life motivations. The question that was posed went a little something like this: if you see someone who seems to be sitting still in life (i.e., time is passing them by--they are going nowhere), how do you help them see that time is passing them by and how do you help them do something about it?

If you've had a conversation with me, or if you have just perused our website, then you might have picked up on the fact that I often employ navigational language when talking about financial decisions and planning. The reason for this is because life is fundamentally a journey, thus we are, quite literally, navigating our way through it. With that being the case, I will sometimes find myself stumbling upon a new metaphor that I can use to help give insight or to help illustrate a point.

I stumbled upon one such metaphor recently when I was preparing for a presentation to be given to some UNCG students. The presentation was intended to answer the question, what is financial planning? I won't explore that topic here, but one factor about financial planning that complicates efforts to define it is that it is so dynamic--i.e., there's so much that could potentially fall under the financial planning umbrella that it's hard to offer a concise definition. This is exactly where a good metaphor can come in handy.

The particular metaphor that came to mind while I was preparing for the presentation was archery. I won't go into a terrible amount of detail here about all of the points that I can connect between financial planning and archery, but here's a sampling: the objective of archery is to send an arrow flying from somewhere it is to somewhere it is not, while the objective of planning is to strategize how to get from where you are to where you are not, but would most likely rather be; the tools used in archery are presumably selected to be the best tools for you, the individual, to use to send the arrow where you want it to go, whereas the financial tools that you select should be the best for you to use to get to where you want to be; and lastly, while it is flying through the air, the arrow stands to encounter any number of things that could impact its trajectory, whereas life is sure to present plenty of things that are of the trajectory-impacting variety and are most certainly outside of our control.

To me, the most important point that they have in common, however, is the one that I want to focus on here: motivation--i.e., why use a stick to send another stick hurtling through the air over a relatively long distance? Besides an obvious answer, like hunting, what entices someone to simply go to the range and launch arrow after arrow at a target?

The answer that I arrived at is that it's something different for everyone, but the important part is knowing that the fulfillment that comes from hitting the target is about more than just the exact moment when arrowhead meets your point of aim. For example, it might represent an improvement in accuracy, which will ensure that someone is a better hunter, which will enable more natural meat to be harvested, which will mean they will consume a healthier diet, which is part of a goal of living as health of a lifestyle as possible. Likewise, it could mean winning a tournament, which could involve a monetary prize, which might mean that a family is supported. The last example that I would mention here would be that by simply sending an arrow down range it might mean that someone has overcome a disability, which means that strength and functionality have been gained, not to mention confidence, which could mean that basic life tasks are a little easier.

When this thought hit me, I was reminded of the old rate, time, and distance formula from high school math: r x t=d, where r=rate of speed, t=time, and d=distance. What I realized about this mathematical formula is that it actually tells you that, if you don't move, time will continue to pass and you won't go anywhere--i.e., 0(r) x any amount of time(t)=0(d). That might sound like one of the most redundant statements ever made, but I have found that it's not always obvious to folks when they aren't moving. Further, it's also apparent that some folks sense that they aren't moving, but they might not understand the feeling and/or why they aren't moving, or even what they could do to begin moving. So, why might it not be so obvious to some that they aren't moving, or why might they not even realize that they aren't moving? In other words, why do some people never even attempt to send an arrow down range? Where is their motivation? What explains their lack of motivation?

Motivation is closely related to another philosophical subject that also came up recently: discipline. Have you ever tried to force yourself to do something, like go to the gym, eat right, or something else that you knew was good for you, only to revert back to your old behaviors? If you are sitting there nodding your head in acknowledgement, and we all should be, you are not alone. To be sure, I have no doubts that we have all successfully made ourselves do something once, maybe twice, so what I'm really referring to is forcing yourself to commit to something new on an ongoing basis, something that represents a substantive change in who you are or the life that you lead.

Assuming we were all honest and nodded our heads, then it's important to realize what that means: you can't enslave yourself. If you could, then you would just make yourself do the things that you should do and be the person that you should be--life would be so easy. Why is this important? It's important because it reveals that life isn't set up to be easy, and part of that is because discipline doesn't come from force--i.e., you can't enslave yourself (yes, I said it again on purpose).

There are two additional reasons why I think it's important to acknowledge that discipline is not a matter of being able to push yourself in a certain direction. First, I think people are too hard on themselves. I have experienced self deprecation, and not just of the humorous variety, on the part of the folks who come through the program where I volunteer, as well as in conversations with clients and others. It seems far too easy for us to get down on ourselves, especially when we only seem to focus on what we haven't accomplished, when we think that mistake that we made a decade ago is a permanent stain, or even when we use someone else's benchmark for what our life should look like. We take this a step further, though, and we think that it could have all been so different, that it should be different; and that we could have accomplished different, if we had simply forced ourselves to make a different decision--if only we could enslave ourselves. Different is just different, though, and what we should be focused on is pursuing better.

The second reason that it's important to acknowledge what discipline is not is because it eliminates one possible explanation for a lack of discipline. In other words, if we can eliminate pushing as the source of discipline, then it would stand to reason that pulling may very well be where the answer is found, and this is where a little more of my story comes into play.

As someone who has been on a weight loss journey for around 7-8 years, and has lost 75 pounds, I can tell you that my success only came after I decided that I wanted my exercise and eating habits to take me in the direction of being the healthiest version of me that I can be, not simply to be the biggest and strongest neanderthal roaming the gym--not that there's anything wrong with that. So, it was when I identified a reason that was compelling enough to pull me in a certain direction that my behavior and level of commitment also changed, almost organically. There is some irony, however, in the fact that a lot of the things that I said or envisioned as goals years ago are things that I am accomplishing now with a different mindset.

All my life, I've played sports, so being active was never a problem. It wasn't until high school, however, that exercise equipment and exercising were officially introduced to me. The reason that I put it like that is because it wasn't until then that some formality started to surround what I was doing when I walked into a gym. Prior to that, if you found me in a gym, it was exclusively because I was hanging out with someone else. Sure, I would perform exercises, but let's not kid ourselves, I was there primarily for social reasons. The bottom line, however, was that there was enough to get me in the gym from time-to-time, but not enough to keep my there, even after some structure was introduced. So, the issue of my inconsistency was a matter of my motivation being insufficient to secure my commitment.

In November of 2012, I met my wife. I am very proud of my wife. Not only does she have her own significant weight loss story to share (90 pounds and counting), she has built herself quite a practice in a very short period of time as a Family Nurse Practitioner, with one of her specialties being weight loss. It wasn't until my plans for the future began to come into shape, thanks to my wife, that I really started to think about who I wanted to be in that future. Moreover, my wife's mental gears began to turn in the same direction and we both began to realize that we were not as healthy as who we wanted to be in our future. So, around 2013-2014, we embarked on a health journey together. We have approached this endeavor with the mindset that there will always be some way in which we can incrementally improve our health. This implies two things: first, that being the healthiest that we can be is not something that we will ever achieve, and second, it creates an additional challenge to find new ways in which we can improve.

Before adopting this mindset, my wife and I both had our own stories of inconsistent approaches to our health. I won't speak for my wife, but I can tell you that my inconsistency involved periods (usually a matter of months) of working out regularly and then periods (usually mo...just kidding, it was years) of being, quite literally, fat and happy--complacency set in. The funny thing about complacency is that it seems to be defined, at least in part, by a mindset of being satisfied--i.e., you've done enough and there is no hunger for more, regardless of what has actually been accomplished.

I associate this satisfaction with inadequate goals. In other words, the mindset that I had about my health led to goals that were of a temporary nature--you might could even say that I was treating my health as a series of sprints, instead of a marathon. The goals that I was setting of being able to lift certain amounts of weight on certain exercises became useless once I achieved them--i.e., I had to start all over again with a new goal. I don't know about you, but running sprint after sprint becomes exhausting. A steady pace has proven to be much more manageable and easier to maintain.

Another reality about my "health" goals that needs to be acknowledged, however, is that they weren't really about my health. It can, and should, be argued that added strength is generally a sign of a healthier individual. It cannot be argued that the exclusive sign of health is strength, thus I was neglecting a fair bit of my health with my narrow focus on my strength.

What this tells me is that it's easy to get distracted and to actually become obsessive about the wrong things, all while thinking we are on the right path. Another good example of this is the population of folks who seek surgical intervention as a means of weight loss, as opposed to developing the lifestyle that will naturally keep them healthy, and end up gaining all of the weight back that they lost. As I mentioned before, one of my wife's areas of focus is weight loss, and she has several patients who have endured a surgical weight loss solution, but now need her help after having gained their weight back. Fortunately for them, my wife is very good at what she does, and the first thing that she does is ensure that they have the right goal: improving their health.

In putting all of this together, this is where I land: anything that we want to last a lifetime needs to be approached with a marathoner's mindset. Moreover, while we are running the races of our lives, we need to stop worrying about whether the placement of our feet is perfect on every step. I can promise you that it won't be, but I can also promise you that it will most likely be something that you can overcome. Lastly, the marathon we are running might feel like but one event at a track meet where lots of events are taking place, but what event your neighbor is participating in has nothing to do with your event, and maybe more importantly, there's actually nobody even competing against you--you are running a marathon of one.

So, when it comes to your financial plan, pick your goal, because it's important to you, and only you, and set your cadence for the best pace of improvement for you to manage and sustain.