Foundations of Financial Planning: Part IV, Run Your Own Race

Financial Planning

Feb 21, 2024

In our Foundations of Financial Planning Series, we have discussed the importance of becoming familiar with your thoughts and habits around money, honestly identifying where you stand today, and putting a plan in place to get where you want to go by focusing on what you can control. You may be noticing a pattern here: good financial planning should revolve around you. While it seems obvious someone with a young family will have a plan that is completely different than someone who has been working for decades and saving for retirement, we don’t always acknowledge this fact. Different stages of life bring different financial challenges. We need to be willing to ignore what other people are doing and “run our own race”.

However, the differences are not just rooted in different stages of life. You could have a friend or co-worker who is the same age with a radically different financial approach than you, and probably for good reason. Rarely do we see the whole picture, and someone else’s situation will almost never be an apples-to-apples comparison.  These days it is easy to scroll on our phones and wonder how other people are going on vacations or affording big expensive purchases. It is also easy to copy what others are doing because we have a fear of missing out. While these urges are strong, they aren’t helpful (or healthy). Instead, we need to have an ongoing process that is suited to our unique situation- our needs, our wants, our strengths, and our weaknesses.

Carl Lewis is an Olympic gold medalist and one of the most accomplished sprinters of all time once explained his thoughts before a big race: “My thoughts are usually pretty simple. I tell myself: Get out of the blocks, run your race, stay relaxed. If you run your race, you’ll win.’He wasn’t picking his head up and looking side to side concerning himself with what anyone else was doing. He was focused on himself and sticking to his process. Many marathon runners explain how they ignore everyone around them during the initial sprint off the starting line because they can get caught up trying to keep an unsustainable pace not suited to them. Instead, they will focus on their breathing, their plan for that race, and those next few steps in front of them.

Nick Saban, the former legendary football coach of the University of Alabama focuses his players on what he calls “The Process” which is rooted in the field of behavioral psychology. To block out the outside pressures and expectations, Saban has his players focus only on the task that is right in front of them individually. He trains them to forget the opponent, the scoreboard, the media and any other outside influence. Instead, each player should focus on only their job on the next play or drill in practice. Whether you are talking about Alabama Football or financial planning, “the process” never really ends, it just evolves. In fact, in both cases the process actually becomes even more important when you have success because things get more complex.

Author Ryan Holiday describes it like this: “Let’s say you’ve got to do something difficult. Don’t focus on that. Instead break it down into pieces. Simply do what you need to do right now. And do it well. And then move on to the next thing. Follow the process and not the prize.” That is directly applicable to a good financial planning process. Rather than panicking about how much money you need to retire some day, break the problem down into smaller more manageable pieces today. When we had Navy S.E.A.L. and World Champion performance coach David Rutherford on the podcast he agreed with this concept of “process thinking”. He talked about the mental approach that was necessary make it through S.E.A.L. training. It was only about getting to that next checkpoint, that next meal, or the next drill. The same goes for our approach to building wealth. We need to stay focused on our individual situation and not get too far ahead of ourselves.  

There is more to this concept than improved performance or wealth building though.  It can also remove anxiety and make us more content. There is an old saying often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt that “comparison is the thief of joy”. Regardless of where it originated, it is truer than ever in today’s social media focused world where we can constantly compare ourselves to millions of people at any point in time.  Forget everyone else and instead build a plan based on what is important to you. Don’t think too much about what other people are doing. Their situation is different. Keep in mind that your parents, neighbors, friends, and everyone else’s race had a different starting line and will have a different finish line. Given this fact, it is okay if their approach is different. Run your own race.  


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