You Might Be An Underachiever If…

Here’s some humor and inspiration to send you into your weekend—another phenomenal guest post from my friend, mentor and co-author of The Ultimate Financial Plan, Jim Stovall—that is sure to make you laugh and think.

JIM PROMO PHOTO - SMALLSuccess is a wonderful concept. It is self-defining and self-fulfilling. Once we get past our school years with standardized tests and regular percentage grades, we emerge into the adult world where, to a great extent, we get to determine what is important to us.

In school, the labels “achiever” or “underachiever” are determined as compared to your fellow students; however, in the real adult world, you and I get to decide what is important to us and what levels we want to achieve in our lives. Only you and I know whether we are overachieving or underachieving because we establish the rules, set the target, and create the timeframe and deadlines in our own minds. There is probably no greater factor in our own personal satisfaction in life than our own assessment of whether we are overachieving or underachieving as it relates to our own goals.

Since the concept of achieving is elusive and hard to define, I thought I would borrow a time-tested technique from the comedian and entertainer Jeff Foxworthy. Mr. Foxworthy has singlehandedly elevated the term Redneck from an insult to a point of pride among many people simply by helping his audiences define the term. With that in mind, we can take a look at the term underachiever as it relates to your own personal goals that you have established for yourself and your life.

If the last goal you set for yourself involved a science fair project in the seventh grade, you might be an underachiever.

If you spend more time watching television every day than you spend on your own personal development in a year, you might be an underachiever.

If the last 10 books you read all involved comic character superheroes, you might be an underachiever.

If you consider the act of getting off the couch to change the batteries in the remote control to be vigorous exercise, you might be an underachiever.

If you have more creditors calling you than friends calling you, you might be an underachiever.

If the majority of your life savings is loose change that fell out of your pocket into the car seat or recliner, you might be an underachiever.

If you have more premium channels on your TV than you have biographies on your shelf, you might be an underachiever.

If friends, family members, acquaintances, and pets avoid you when they want to have a good day, you might be an underachiever.

If you spend more time planning your three-day weekend than you spend planning your life goals, you might be an underachiever.

If the greatest success you ever had or ever hope to have came during a Little League game when Richard Nixon was president, you might be an underachiever.

If you instantly know who got voted off the island, who picked which idol, and who’s dancing with what star, but you don’t have advisors and mentors, you might be an underachiever.

At the risk of encroaching on Jeff Foxworthy’s space, sometimes it’s easier to define what we don’t want and change it than to define what we do want and obtain it.

As you go through your day today, define your own success, set your own goals, and become an achiever.

Today’s the day!

Jim Stovall is the president of Narrative Television Network, as well as a published author of many books including The Ultimate Gift. He is also a columnist and motivational speaker. He may be reached at 5840 South Memorial Drive, Suite 312, Tulsa, OK 74145-9082; by email at; or on Facebook at

Start With Your Obituary

This is a guest post from my friend, mentor and co-author, Jim Stovall, who has overcome blindness to become a best-selling author and source of inspiration for literally millions.  Please enjoy.

Most people would assume that an obituary is the final word in a person’s life; however, there was a gentleman who lived in the 19th Century for whom an obituary was a new beginning.  You and I can join him.

Alfred Nobel was a Swedish gentleman who lived from 1833 to 1896.  He amassed a fortune as the inventor and mass producer of explosives including dynamite.  His story might have ended there except for a premature obituary.  When Alfred Nobel’s brother passed away, the press mistakenly ran an obituary on Alfred Nobel.  Among other things, this obituary stated Alfred Nobel was “a man who had made it possible to kill more people more quickly than anyone else who had ever lived.”

Alfred Nobel had the advantage of previewing his own obituary, and he knew he didn’t like it, and he didn’t want to be remembered that way.  So, he took action.

Relatively few people know of Alfred Nobel as the inventor of dynamite, but he will forever be known as the creator of the Nobel Peace Prize and Nobel prizes for literature, economics, medicine, and the sciences.

He changed his lasting legacy 180 degrees by simply becoming aware of his own obituary and rewriting it.  You and I can join Alfred Nobel today as we become aware of the fact that we are daily writing our own obituaries, and if we don’t like the first draft that we have today, we can edit it before it goes to the final press.

We have a tendency to look at the world through a short-term lens.  We consider today’s schedule, this week’s calendar, or this month’s expenses.  If we want to be a high-impact, self-actualized, successful person through the long-term lens, we’ve got to begin writing our own obituary and creating our lasting legacy today.

There are some people like Alfred Nobel whose legacy extends worldwide through the way they have impacted society.  There are some individuals who impact only a handful of people, but their impact is felt at a core level.  You can change the world and leave a powerful legacy either way.  Some people change the world while other people change the world changers.

There are teachers, pastors, coaches, and mentors whose names history will never record but whose legacies will endure as long as thoughts or discussions of greatness exist.  Stake your territory, make your claim, and begin writing your own obituary now while you can still make a difference.

2013 Personal Finance Reading List For The Attention Deficient

When a student of mine recently asked for a reading list that could help satiate her budding interest in the intersection of money and life, I was pleasantly surprised and inspired to aggregate a list of titles that met the following criteria:

1)     Not boring

2)     Not long

3)     Not salesy

As you may have suspected, these criteria ruled out the vast majority of those books written in the subject matter, and forced me to expand my search well beyond prescriptive how-to books.  The list is bookended with two novels, but every entry utilizes a fair amount of narrative to communicate its message.  This is vitally important, because regardless of how much the financial industry lobbies to make your financial peace contingent on its proprietary products and processes, personal finance will always be more personal than it is finance:

Warm Up

The Ultimate Gift

Master storyteller, Jim Stovall, has sold over 4 million copies of this book that was turned into a movie and spawned a series of associated books and movies (one of which was co-authored by yours truly).  The original is a novel about a billionaire who dies and attempts to save his grand-nephew from destroying his own life with money.  Although it was never intended to do so, The Ultimate Gift attracted a cult-like following among financial, estate and tax advisors who bought the book en masse to give away as…gifts, pun intended.

Simplifying and Downsizing

Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money

This book is written by a good friend of mine, Carl Richards, who, in additional to being a great financial planner, also writes for The New York Times.  He uses simple drawings to distill the complexities of personal finance in a way that is practical and approachable.

You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap)

This book is written by Tammy Strobel, a woman who previously worked in the financial services industry and then went on a quest to radically simplify her life.  I doubt that many of us will take it to the extreme that Tammy has, but if you could take just a few of her principles into account as you craft your existence, I think you’d get more out of money and life.


The Total Money Makeover

Need your butt kicked into financial shape?  This book, by radio/TV superstar, Dave Ramsey, is my first recommendation for people who are in trouble with debt.  Dave’s message has helped thousands (millions?) get out of debt and live true financial freedom.  And even if you’re not in debt, this book helps lay out a foundation for making sure you stay that way, save enough and keep your priorities straight.  Dave tends to oversimplify some financial disciplines to a fault—like investing—but nobody gives a better kick in the pants to those ready to receive it.

Wealth: Is it Worth It?

You don’t have to like chicken sandwiches to enjoy this book—and even have it change your financial life.  Truett Cathy is the 90-something founder of uber-successful fast food giant, Chick-fil-A, and while he does have a tendency to sermonize, he does so lovingly, and heck, he’s earned it.  (You can read my review of the book and hear an interview I conducted with Mr. Cathy by clicking HERE.)  In addition to much of his own wisdom, he shares feedback he’s received personally from other notable luminaries, like a guy named Warren Buffett, whom I’ve heard knows a few things about money as well.


The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

This book, written by Michael Lewis (bestselling author of Moneyball, The Blind Side and others) is the best explanation of how the financial crisis really played out that you’ll likely find.  And because he’s an amazing author, it’s also very entertaining.  Please be aware that this is Rated R for language—the default vernacular under the pin-striped exterior of the financial industry.  (You can read more of my thoughts on this book HERE.)

Reminiscences of a Stock Operator

This book may be considered THE classic on security trading, but while it is the most technical of my selections, it’s actually a novel based on the life of famed trader, Jesse Livermore.  [Spoiler alert] The hero actually died—at his own hand—virtually penniless after making and losing at least four fortunes.  But while this book was written as a cautionary tale, many in the financial industry have strangely deified it, still handing it to new recruits as a how-to.  The morale of the story, in my opinion, is actually that beating the market is exceedingly difficult and that the voracious pursuit of money leads to, at best, a big pile of money and at worst, death.  Although it’s a great deal longer, I do recommend the annotated edition by Jon D. Markman, which embeds this fascinating story in historical context.

Life Planning—The Most Important Part of Financial Planning

Anything You Want

This is a very short book—more like a manifesto—by a guy named Derek Sivers.  Derek was a rock star who started a company, CD Baby, to help musicians sell their music online.  It became huge and he sold it for millions of bucks…but he donated all the proceeds to charity and moved on to his next project [insert screeching record sound].  You’ll love this short volume.

The Art of Non-Conformity

Chris Guillebeau is a lifestyle/travel blogger—not a personal finance guy—but this is a great book for opening your eyes to the type of career and life you want to have.

The 4-Hour Work Week

Speaking of non-conformity, meet Tim Ferriss.  This book has turned into a phenomenon and a “4 Hour” series by Tim Ferriss.  Read it and you’ll see why.

Life Changing

Same Kind of Different As Me

Let’s finish up with a break from all that wisdom and practical advice to enjoy this brilliant re-telling of a true-story in novel form.  This is really a book about greed and spiritual awakening, co-told by an adulterous big-shot art dealer and a homeless man.  This will break your heart…and then warm it.  Enjoy.

Oh, and I almost forgot…

The Ultimate Financial Plan

Yes, the one financial book that every one of my students is required to read[i] I did co-author, with the aforementioned Jim Stovall.  It’s intended to walk you through a comprehensive personal financial plan in the spirit of The Ultimate Gift’s timeless truth with timely applications you can use to the benefit of your todays and tomorrows, personally and financially.

Most of these books are pretty short and fast reads—I’ve got a touch of (depending on who you talk to) A.D.D. and it takes a really gripping book for me to make it through, but all of these passed the test!  I’d love to hear your thoughts if and when you read any of these, as well as your suggestions to be added to this list that meet the three criteria.

[i] The other required text for my class is the Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, the short classic writing/grammar book, because one thing most educational institutions forget to tell their students is that if you can’t communicate well, your degree is WORTHLESS!

Decisions and Consequences

by Jim Stovall

We all succeed or fail based on the decisions we make.  All the decisions you have made in your entire life have brought you to this place, at this time, reading these words in a newspaper, magazine, or online publication somewhere in the world.

A lot of people who are not where they want to be in their personal or professional lives like to think of themselves as victims.  There is something that appears initially comforting about not being responsible for the shortcomings in our lives; but unless or until you and I are willing to accept our current circumstances as a product of our own decisions, we can’t live the rest of our lives knowing that the decisions we make today can result in the things we want tomorrow.

One of my mentors, Lee Braxton, gave me two powerful pieces of advice on making decisions.  First, he said, “Don’t make any decisions until you have to.”  I found it ironic that, during this past election season, millions of people through early voting programs or absentee balloting, voted weeks before election day.  This presumes that there won’t be any factors or revelations that might change their minds.  Other than a potential conflict in your schedule, there is no benefit to voting early, and there may be a benefit to waiting on all the information and facts that can come at the last minute in a campaign.

The second piece of wisdom that Mr. Braxton gave me came from his statement, “When you can’t decide between two options, choose the one that leaves you with more options.”

If you own one chicken and can’t decide whether to make an omelet from the eggs or eat fried chicken today, choosing the omelet will give you future options.  Once you fry the chicken, there are no more choices to be made.  Recent surveys show that over half of the people who choose to have a tattoo later choose to have it removed.  This process is painful, expensive, and often doesn’t work completely.

Choices and options have a great value attached to them.  When you look at investing in the stock market, you can buy an individual stock, or you can buy an option which allows you to choose later whether you want to own or not own that particular investment.  You can sell your option to someone else as the right to make that choice has a recognized value in the marketplace.  Never choose until you have to and leave all your options open as long as you can.

Wisdom and knowledge help us make great decisions.  A wise person realizes that no matter how certain they may be about a choice right now, there will be more facts and information available later.

As you go through your day today, accept the fact that you are a product of your choices, and determine to make quality decisions.

Today’s the day!

Wisdom Equals Wealth

by Jim Stovall

If you were to ask any segment of our population what they believed it would take for them to be wealthy, the vast majority would give the simple answer, “Money.”

Making, earning, or being given more money does not make you wealthy.  Wealth is the accumulation of money.  I have encountered many people through my work in the area of financial education who make over $1 million in income and have little or no net worth. Some of these million dollar earners actually have a negative net worth.

Building wealth, at some point, becomes a matter of spending less than you earn.  Recent financial studies in the professional sports industry reveal that by the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress, and 60% of former NBA players have gone broke within five years of retirement.

Most sports fans and observers of professional athletes mistakenly assume that professional football players or basketball players have it made financially.  They assume these ball players are instantly made wealthy for the rest of their lives.  Once again, we have to remember that wealth is a process of spending less than you bring in, and accumulating money so that your money can earn more money.  This compounding is what creates permanent wealth and passive income.

If you make $1 million a year and spend $2 million a year, or like some of the athletes cited above who make $10 million a year and spend $15 million a year, you are not as wealthy as someone who earns a modest income but habitually saves and invests 15% or 20% of their monthly cash flow.

Wealth is not a function of what you earn.  It’s a function of what you do with what you earn.

If you don’t understand these principles, like many pro athletes, a high income will only serve as a counterproductive financial tool to leverage you into more debt and obligations.  If we took all the money in the world and divided it up equally among the population, within a few short years, those who are wealthy today would be wealthy again, and those who are in debt today would find themselves in financial distress once again.

Income is not the key to wealth.  Knowledge is the key to wealth.  But that knowledge will only generate permanent net worth for you when it is applied in the form of wisdom.  Most people realize that they’ve got to save and invest to accumulate wealth; however, for a myriad of reasons, they don’t do it.

We don’t fail because we don’t know what to do.  We fail because we don’t do what we know.

Someone who knows and understands a financial principle but fails to apply it is no better off than someone who remains ignorant of the financial formula or concept in the first place.

As you go through your day today, commit to learning, understanding, and applying the financial concepts that will turn your income into wealth.

Today’s the day!

Advisors, Advice, and Advertisements

by Jim Stovall

Recently, I have been researching and writing my next book.  This new book, The Millionaire Map, will be out next year and deals with my own story of becoming a millionaire and interviews including research on thousands of other millionaires.

Throughout this process, I have been amazed at the voluminous body of knowledge relating to wealth-building, investing, and financial topics.  I have been even more amazed at how much of the advice is bogus and how many of the advisors are phonies or outright frauds.

One of the keys to succeeding in any endeavor is to seek out and apply the knowledge and wisdom of others.  One of the surest ways to fail in reaching any goal is to take advice from someone who doesn’t have what you want or hasn’t been where you want to go.

Recently, I was contacted by a longtime friend and internationally-prominent figure in the religious community.  He shared with me the recent financial troubles he had suffered and asked to borrow a significant amount of money to cover some pressing bills.  This is always a difficult request from any friend or family member as it introduces the question, “Am I helping to solve the problem or simply prolonging it?”

I was pleased that I was able to offer my friend some advice that would help him solve his own problem in a timely manner while making it possible for him not to get in this financial condition again.  I’m not sure he was totally satisfied as he was looking for quick money instead of short-term solutions and long-term strategies.  Hopefully, as a religious leader, he will understand and accept my attempt to teach him to fish instead of giving him a fish.

Ironically, just a few short weeks after that discussion, I received an advertisement and invitation from this same individual inviting me to pay a significant amount of money to attend his upcoming wealth-building conference.  While I found this literally comical, it grieves me to think of all of the financially-struggling individuals who are seeking hope and information who will attend this dubious event.  These poor people will lose much more than the price of admission.  They will lose hope and the possibility of succeeding.

When people are treading water in the open ocean, they need a life preserver not an overpriced pile of bogus advice.  People can only tread water for so long before they go under for good.  Self-proclaimed experts who waste the time and money of financially-drowning individuals are guilty of much more than stealing money.  They steal hope and future success.

As you go through your day today, examine the advisor before you examine the advice.

Today’s the day!

Sick, Well, and Better

by Jim Stovall

I have a friend and colleague I have worked with for over a decade.  She is among the most talented and gifted professionals it has ever been my privilege to work with.  Several years ago, she was diagnosed with a disease that has made it very difficult for her to function in her personal and professional life.

Recently, her doctors—after exhausting all other possibilities—were considering a radical procedure that would have left her permanently impaired.  Thankfully, one of her doctors, before performing this procedure, decided to send my friend and colleague to an 83-year-old physician who has a great deal of experience and expertise within this particular field of medicine.  This talented octogenarian informed my friend and colleague that he had only seen her condition three times during his lifelong practice.  He went on to explain that she actually had two separate conditions that, together, were creating this debilitating perfect storm she had been suffering with.  He prescribed a medication to handle one of the conditions which made the remaining illness manageable.

Today, my friend and colleague—along with everyone in our organization—is feeling gratitude for this breakthrough in her treatment.  She still is suffering symptoms that most people would find extremely painful and inhibiting, but she is thankful, optimistic, and back to her high level of functioning.

In addition to the new prescription, her elderly and wise doctor gave her some powerful medicine known as hope and understanding.

I meet countless people through these columns, my books, and the speeches I make across the country.  Many people are suffering with personal, financial, or business conditions that remain undiagnosed and very painful to them and the people around them.  These people need to find what my friend and colleague found which is the fact that a diagnosis and treatment provide hope and clarity that can bring healing long before the symptoms begin to disappear.

If you are one of the millions of people drowning in debt, I would suggest the mere process of diagnosis and treatment will change your attitude and revolutionize your outlook.  If, instead of confronting an undefined terrifying stack of bills that you feel you have no hope of paying, you simply add them up and establish a budget to address the total amount of your indebtedness, you will sleep better tonight and have a great day tomorrow.

This improvement will come not because you have paid off one dollar of your debt but, instead, because for the first time in a long time—like my friend and colleague—you will see a light at the end of the tunnel and know that the future is bright, and hope abounds.  A challenge defined and addressed is a challenge in the process of being overcome.

As you go through your day today, diagnose your condition and take a double dose of hope.

Today’s the day!

Mission and Method

by Jim Stovall

Any successful author, speaker, or thought leader in the field of personal development and achievement would tell you that focusing on your goals is a key to success.  While I totally agree with this concept, I want to dedicate this week’s column to clarifying what it means to focus.

Yesterday, I spent quite a bit of my morning talking with a lead homicide detective in a major metropolitan area.  Lest you have any misgivings or concerns, our conversation surrounded me pursuing my profession as a novelist and moviemaker as opposed to him interrogating me in the pursuit of his profession.

This detective has over 30 years of experience and has solved many notable and high-profile cases.  When I asked him about the keys to his success, without hesitating, he told me that focusing on solving the case is imperative; but as we explored it further, he explained that while he is totally focused and committed to solving the crime, he has to avoid being swayed toward any particular suspect or set of clues.  If he were to focus all of his energy toward one suspect or fact in a case, he would eliminate all of the other information and resources at his disposal.

You and I need to do the same in our personal and professional lives.  We must be totally committed to our goals without limiting the realm of possibilities as to how we will get there.  We must never waver from our mission but be totally open to all of the methods that may present themselves.

Every day, new doors of opportunity are opening while others are closing.  This has always been true, but the worldwide explosion in technology and connectivity has accelerated this changing landscape.  I see people today succeeding through new avenues and methodologies that did not exist just a few years ago.  If these people who are currently succeeding become committed exclusively to these new methods, they will inevitably fail on a long-term basis.

As I dictate these words, much of the United States is suffering through a record-breaking heat wave.  If you were to ask anyone affected by this extreme weather about the best way to keep their home or office comfortable, they would invariably tell you that air conditioning is the key to success.  If you immediately implemented air conditioning as the key to successfully creating a comfortable home or workplace, you would achieve the desired results; however, if you became stubborn and steadfast in your conviction that air conditioning is the only way to have a comfortable climate in your home or workplace, you would inevitably be very cold this coming winter.

As you go through your day today, be thankful for the unlimited number of avenues toward success and pursue your mission with passion.

Today’s the day!

Hope In Hell On Earth: Micro-Finance In Nicaragua

This is not a sermon or a sales pitch, but a story about a place as inspiring as it is disturbing, where greed has raped a people of their material resources and dignity but where brilliantly applied generosity has created hope and enterprise of which Fortune 500 companies would be envious.

For months I had prepared myself for this moment, stepping off of the run down school bus in the middle of La Chureca, the dump of Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua.  Listed among the Seven Horrendous Wonders of the World, Chureca is not just a collection of refuse, but also a refuge for over 300 families.[i]  Men, women and children compete with mangy dogs for sustenance and sex traffickers for their minds, bodies and souls.

I knew it was coming from the moment I accepted the invitation to join a contingent of teachers, health and finance professionals orchestrated by GraceCity, a young church in downtown Baltimore enamored with serving the poorest-of-the-poor in its home town and, interestingly, the Managua city dump.  But nothing could prepare me for the sights: homes manufactured of rubbish; smoke lifting from piles of debris; a multi-colored landscape of mountainous trash dotted with laborers scrounging for something of worth under a 98 degree sun; a makeshift school[ii] lined with barbed wire; and scores of children, many without shoes or a single article of clean clothing but with stunning smiles lighting up their dirty faces.  After all, they were thrilled to see us—we were there with the ORPHANetwork, a Virginia-based NGO devoted to serving malnourished and displaced children in Nicaragua.  We were at one of their many feeding centers in the country, designed to provide at least one nutritious meal per day to over 10,000 starving children.

You hear of such things on the news and see pictures of such children on commercials filled with brown faces asking for money on late-night television, but it’s hard to believe it’s true—that I was fortunate enough to be born in a geographic location with a host of inherent benefits while these kids were born into the closest thing imaginable to hell on Earth.  When I gaze into my children’s eyes, I see in them a vast universe of unencumbered curiosity and possibility, but in La Chureca, I was forced to look into the eyes of girls as young as six who have already been sold into prostitution.

It was as if I was in one of those movies when a scene strikes a subject so hard that all he can do is marvel in slow motion, unable to process the myriad of overwhelming stimuli.  But as my worldview crumbled and my eyes welled up, I was forced to turn my gape downward.  A young boy was tugging on my shorts. Once our eyes met, he throttled his hands upward in the universal sign for “Pick me up,” and before I could confirm that I’d been vaccinated for all that he was visibly carrying, he’d swung himself around to my back, stripped my sunglasses and made them his own, smacked my side and yelled “Vamos!”  Just a kid.  Any kid.  Born in a garbage dump.

As I impersonated a horse for my newfound friend for the next 15 minutes, life began to return to normal speed.  I could hear clearly, but I couldn’t understand.  I had expected the smell of aging trash from opening my own garbage can, but the more pervasive scent in La Chureca was that of garbage burning.  My brain began to re-engage, and I couldn’t but begin to process the questions How? and Why?

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, only behind battered Haiti.  The per capita income is $3,200[iii].  Per year.  While the official unemployment rate was just 7.03% for 2011, the underemployment rate is nearly 50%.  Indeed, “minimum wage” amounts to about $90 per month.  29% of kids make it past the sixth grade, only 10% graduate from high school.

When I peppered our American guide with questions intent on discerning the “why” behind Nicaragua’s systemic extreme poverty, he gave me three reasons: 1) a history since colonial times tainted by corrupt leadership, 2) outside meddling and 3) persistent natural disasters.

Indeed, with Nicaragua’s exposure to the Pacific on its western coast and the Caribbean on its eastern, hurricanes and a particularly rainy, rainy season have wreaked havoc on everything from homes to infrastructure to crops.  Additionally, “the country of Lakes and Volcanoes,” with 19 total volcanoes and eight active, is also prone to earthquakes.  A quake in 1972 leveled much of the capital city of Managua, forever changing its face.  But the other two reasons for extreme poverty in Nicaragua point to corruption and meddling driven primarily by greed.

The chief meddler would have to be the U.S.  Of course we had that little issue of the Iran-Contra Affair, but long before it, the U.S. asserted its will in Nicaragua with boots on the ground from 1909 until 1933, when we could no longer afford to intervene mired in our own Great Depression.  Why were we there in the first place?  To stop the Nicaraguans from completing a canal to compete with our own in Panama.  But along the way, we managed to foment enough nationalist dissent to create an environment ripe for the rise of Augusto César Sandino, the first Sandinista.  Yes, we helped create the problem we were unable to correct covertly in the 80s.

And while the Sandinistas are in control again today, political power struggles of the last 100 years are still visibly evident.  Whether in the capital city, small towns or the countryside, a drive through Nicaragua becomes a blur of competing political colors, flags, slogans and faces vying for one’s attention, or better yet, one’s vote.  Not a single road marker, guard rail or bus shelter is unaffiliated.

Reflecting on the country’s endemic poverty and tradition of dysfunction, handing out bowls of nutrition-charged rice to the starving children of the dump, I wondered how exactly there was any hope to be found.  I remembered something I read about “hell on Earth.”  I’m no theologian, but apparently in the recorded instances of Jesus discussing hell in the Bible, he used the word “gehenna” to offer his followers a visual.  Gehenna was the garbage dump outside ancient Jerusalem.  A burning heap of trash.  The people of La Chureca live there.  In hell on Earth.

But there is hope, and I soon learned why.

You see, I wasn’t invited to Nicaragua as an expert in matters spiritual or nutritional.  I was there to hopefully learn enough about the country and culture to provide any insight I might muster to a fledgling micro-finance operation (Neo) embedded in a small church (El Faro) whose stated purpose is to serve the people of the dump.  Inspired by Muhammed Yunus’ Nobel Prize-winning work with the Grameen Bank in India and supported by a few U.S. churches, Neo’s goal is to nourish the bodies, minds and spirits of the Churecans by giving them vocational vision—a life purpose—and an economic infusion designed to fuel that vision.

It’s hard work to convince a father who prostitutes his 10-year old daughter to truck drivers to feed their family that there is a better way.  It’s hard work to explain that a small loan isn’t to be used for short-term emergency subsistence, but instead to buy beads then crafted into a jewelry inventory.  It’s hard work to instill an entrepreneurial vision in someone with HIV/AIDS whose self-worth is nonexistent, at best. It’s hard work to instill confidence and worth in children born in the dump, 90% of whom report suffering some form of abuse.  It’s hard work that requires at least a generational commitment on the part of a diverse team of co-laborers.

Fortunately, such a team exists.  Most of the team members are Nicaraguans applying daily effort toward the end of eliminating the abject dehumanization of their countrymen and women.  Some of us Americans are privileged to work beside them in this glorious endeavor.  We learn more than we teach, we are inspired more than we inspire, and we receive more than we give, ever mindful that many well-intended Americans sadly do more harm than good in similar initiatives.[iv]

The best-dressed member of this team is none other than Under Armour.  The Baltimore-based clothing company—famous for celebrity endorsements and making those who adorn their sportswear look much cooler than we really are—already has an international presence, but they’re also in the dump.  After Under Armour’s Senior Creative Director for Men’s Apparel, Nick Cienski, had an experience similar to mine walking off the bus in La Chureca, his wheels started turning. As of today, they’ve already donated several industrial sewing machines, fabric, patterns, some seed-money and training that is breathing vocational life into single moms from the dump, helping break the cycle of prostitution.

My head was spinning just trying to figure out how all these different players had come together.  Under Armour makes a donation to begin a sewing business that works in conjunction with the micro-finance initiative run by the church in Nicaragua in partnership with the ORPHANetwork supported by GraceCity, whose collective mission is to serve a community living in the biggest dump in the poorest country in the Americas.  Wow.  I didn’t see that coming.

But my economic adventures in Nicaragua reached even more inspiring heights, and altitudes.  Two gringos—former Erickson Retirement Communities CEO, Rick Grindrod, and I—headed into the beautiful Nicaraguan mountains with Mario Pérez, Executive Director of PAC (Pueblos en Acción Comunitaria or People in Community Action).  As his son (also Mario) drove us over winding roads through nestled mountainside towns, the former economist with the Nicaraguan government told us a story that was to culminate as we reached our destination.

Over 15 years ago, the international aid organization, World Relief (coincidentally also headquartered in Baltimore), planted one of its own, Kevin Sanderson, in Nicaragua to lead an operation designed to help rural coffee farmers rebuild their lives and businesses after having left them behind for a 10-year civil war.  With a background in both agriculture and finance, Kevin was ideally suited for the task and made Nicaragua not only his project, but also his home, marrying a Nicaraguan and starting a family there.

Often deemed an MFI (micro-finance institution), PAC is really so much more.  It’s a holistic “value-chain” operation.  Soup-to-nuts.  First, they scour for coffee farmers with entrepreneurial blood.  They give that entrepreneur the freedom and responsibility to build his own team of farmers and plantation workers.  Then, often contradicting over 100 years of tradition, they train them in environmentally sensitive, sustainable farming techniques.  They provide the financing for a cash-intensive harvest and streamlined processing, even connecting the farmers to roasters.  Every PAC coffee farmer now meets Fair Trade Certified standards, allowing their product to be sold at a premium and quite possibly end up in the bottom of your cup of specialty coffee.

After about seven years (and in keeping with their core beliefs), World Relief turned over the reins of the operation to the Nicaraguans, now led by Mario, who led Rick and me 3,000 feet in elevation to the home and business of Claudio Martinez.  Claudio, one of PAC’s anointed entrepreneurs, was waiting for us on his porch with several of his farmers.  Telling us their stories through a translator, Rick and I sat aghast as one farmer after another told us how this economic initiative had not only transformed their vocation, but redeemed their whole lives, providing their families and entire villages with the chance for a new life.

PAC’s innovation has now extended well beyond Central America’s most famous crop.  They have also trained farmers to diversify their yields with cocoa and vegetables—and not just any vegetables.  We traversed a recently developed farm that yields multiple specialized crops that aren’t indigenous to or even consumed in Nicaragua (or the U.S.), but are much loved in the world’s two most populous nations, China and India.

It may have been at that very moment—several days into the trip and 10 hours into the PAC expedition—that I finally understood paternalism and began to recognize my own.  I had been warned of the difficulty we have rendering aid in developing regions as Americans.  Almost immune to our own affluence, we tend to presume the superiority of our balance sheets and income statements equates to at least a higher work ethic if not (although we wouldn’t voice it) superior ingenuity or even intelligence.

It’s almost as if we assume our ideas for improved healthcare, education, business and waste management are better because we have a 401k and can record our television shows to watch at our convenience with a DVR from our iPhones.  But standing in the middle of that Asian vegetable field in Nicaragua, I was forced to acknowledge that everyone I interacted with that day worked harder and longer, and employed a greater level of creativity, ingenuity and productivity, than just about anything I’ve seen in the States.

I am not their helper.  I can only be their partner, and may be lucky to make the cut.

After completing our 13-hour tour of coffee plantations, vegetable fields and cocoa processing plants with the Marios, all the while hearing stories about how they’ve overcome everything from illness, weather and crop failure to social movements designed to weaken their businesses, Rick and I were about one cup of Nicaraguan Joe from applying for citizenship.  Thankfully, our journey there is just beginning.

This is not just another emotional story intended to tug at your heart strings enough to get you to open your check book and help these organizations, although to that I am not opposed.  This story is for you.  While every word is true, it also stands as a metaphor for the influence of money in our lives, regardless of our geography.  The same issues that create systemic failure and success with money on a global scale also impact us personally.

Were I to simply declare that the pursuit of money for its own sake—greed—leads to nothing short of death while money employed as the currency of relationship brings life abundant, you might accuse me of over-dramatizing.  This is because in our country and your neighborhood this is not so pervasively and visually evident.  But death visits those in La Chureca and other pockets of hell on Earth daily, even for the living, and the primary source of this pain is financially rooted.  Meanwhile, tangible assets shared in partnership by caring individuals, associations, organizations and companies are often the very vehicle of hope that transforms lives for the better, materially, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

[i] This number is actually down quite substantially thanks to an infusion of cash from the Spanish government, fueling a plan to transform the dump into a landfill and displace the residents of La Chureca.  Unfortunately, this has actually increased the desperation of the remaining residents as their source of sustenance has dwindled in size.  Additionally, most of the major cities in Nicaragua have a similar dump with a similar population.

[ii] El Colegio de la Esperanza (the School of Hope)

[iv] The book When Helping Hurts opened my eyes to this and offers many helpful suggestions to ensure your charitable trips and efforts do more good than harm.

Everything Counts

by Jim Stovall

I’m a firm believer in the concept that we never do anything, good or bad, that we don’t get paid for.  Some of the good things you may do may not be immediately or obviously rewarded, but I believe they will be; and if someone does something bad, it may seem—in the short term—that they’re getting away with it, but consequences are a universal law.

Everything we do matters in the grand scheme of things.  There are some things that seem more critical than others, but if we will step back and examine it, we will realize that the crisis comes from our performance not external factors.

Recently, I enjoyed the NBA playoffs.  It seems like basketball, more than any other sport, often comes down to what sports announcers or fans would call a last-second critical shot.  In reality, if a team needs a last-second basket to win the game, that single basket counts no more or less than if they had made it immediately after the opening tipoff at the beginning of the game.  In fact, often the last-second basket seems critical because a team may have played poorly at some point in the first half, and the crisis comes to the surface at the last second.

Last college football season, fans watched in frustration and anguish as a young man from Stanford University missed a critical field goal.  Obviously, you would expect a kicker at the major college level to routinely make that field goal; however, if the team had simply gotten another first down in the second quarter or if a receiver had not dropped a pass on the opening drive of the game, Stanford might never have needed that field goal in the last second of the game.

Many crises we face in our personal and professional lives are self-induced.  We put ourselves in a financial or time constraint and then need some last second heroics to emerge unscathed.  Success in life is not about seeing how close we can get to the edge without going over the cliff.  While there are last-second emergencies and crunch times in everyone’s life, the majority of stress and frantic last-minute efforts could be avoided by prior planning.

Too many people who face last-minute financial or deadline emergencies based their planning on a best-case scenario.  If you don’t plan for the inevitable delay, flat tire, or budget overrun, you will live your whole life facing the frantic last-second shot to stay in the game.

As you go through your day today, plan to win in every area of your life beginning with the first play of the game, not just the last one.

Today’s the day!