In wealth-building, focus on the playing field not the scoreboard
When it comes to building wealth, it's a game of time and commitment. Don't get stuck by comparing yourself to others.
Building wealth is a process, not an event — a process that takes discipline and a long-term outlook. You must focus on yourself, not what others are doing. Work hard and maintain a consistent approach. This may not be easy, but it’s doable for most people if they choose to make a commitment and stick to it.
In the end, though, the “stick to it” part is what usually trips people up.
In an excellent post on his blog Seeking Wisdom, Jana Vembunarayanan gives a fantastic summary of how to succeed at just about anything. Here are his observations and recommendations, to which I’ve added some suggestions for applying them to your finances.
1. Recognize that it takes a long time to create anything valuable. Investing works over long periods of time. The market has never lost money over any 20-year stretch. The problem for many people is that they don’t understand their time frame. They confuse short- and long-term money and end up bailing at the worst possible moment. Finding a strategy that works, and sticking with it for decades despite the inevitable booms and busts of the markets, is not exciting. While you might feel you are missing out on the latest big thing, you will most likely have the last laugh.
2. Work hard every day even if you don’t see improvement in the short term. Building your skills enables you to earn a higher income, so you can save more. Small increases in savings each year are barely observable at first, but over time you can be working toward saving 20% of a $100,000 salary, which will provide great rewards in the future. Many will give up because they become impatient with a seeming lack of progress. Accept the short-term stagnation knowing you will be rewarded with the miracle of compounded returns in the future.
3. Keep doing it consistently for a very long time without giving up. Persistence is the key to any successful endeavor. While it might satisfy a short-term urge to remodel your kitchen by raiding your 401(k) account, resist this temptation and stick to the plan. Investing is simple but not easy. Track your wealth accumulation yearly, not daily. This encourages you to build your future, not mortgage it.
4. Enjoy the process, and don’t worry about the outcome. Put things on autopilot. Set your plan to save a certain percentage of your salary, with an increase of a percentage point or two each year until you maximize your contributions. Find a few diversified, low-costindex funds, add an automatic yearly rebalance, and forget about it. Enjoy your life and ignore the daily end-of-the-world events that saturate the financial media in their quest for advertising dollars. Focus on the fact that you will be financially secure by sticking to your plan. In your free time, devote your energies to finding things you like to do. Find ways to increase your skill level and eventually make money from a “job” that doesn’t seem like work. This way to supplement your income might lead you down some surprising paths while you have the security of your savings plan at your day job.
5. Don’t compare yourself to others; instead, compare yourself now to yourself two years ago. Keeping up with Joneses is, as serial insulter Donald Trump would say, a loser’s strategy. A phenomenon called “lifestyle creep” can sabotage the best-laid plans. It means that the more you make, the more you spend. Your only accomplishment is making the hamster wheel spin faster. Don’t worry about what others have. No matter how rich you are, there will always be someone who has more than you. And such people might just be renters anyway, buying their goodies with credit cards with huge balances. Look at yourself instead. Build a disciplined savings plan, and follow it with no deviations. Competing with your neighbors over who has the most “stuff” is not a good use of your time.
As Warren Buffett once said, “Games are won by players who focus on the playing field, not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard.” Keep these five points in mind, and your probability of success will increase immensely. Good habits will eventually lead to superior results in whatever you do. The key is to figure out what works for you and stick to it. Your process will determine your future. Spend time developing it, and then enjoy your life.