Financial Fact and Fiction

by Jim Stovall

It is difficult to make good financial decisions even under the best of circumstances.  There are a myriad of tools and an endless supply of information available to us, but it’s difficult to sift through the debris and get to the true treasures that lie underneath.

In listening to one of the recent political debates, one candidate who felt his opponent was bending the truth was heard to say, “My opponent is certainly entitled to his own opinion, but he is not entitled to his own facts.”

As we try to boil down financial news into information we can utilize, we must separate the fact from the fiction.  Here are a few examples.

If you follow the news reports and talk shows, you might think that rich people don’t pay enough taxes or don’t pay their fair share.  This fiction would paint a picture of idle rich people frivolously spending hoards of money without contributing to the tax burden.  The facts are that the wealthiest few percent of people in America pay the majority of taxes while over half of working adults pay virtually no tax at all.

The fiction one might derive from the media would tell us that most U.S. consumers buy and consume goods that were made in China.  While China has a robust, thriving economy and will certainly play a significant part in global financial matters for the foreseeable future, the financial facts are that only 2.7% of goods purchased by Americans were made in China.  Over 88% of American money is spent on goods and services provided in America by American companies.

Another Chinese fiction would have us believe that China owns virtually all of our government debt which they might refuse to refinance at any point in time, putting the American economy into a tailspin.  The financial facts are that China owns 7.6% of our U.S. Treasury debt.  Our own government owns three or four times more than China, and state governments, municipal governments, and private investors like you and me own more than anyone else.  Our growing national debt is a concern, and once again, China is a factor, but when we’re evaluating the situation we must deal with fact, not fiction.

An alarming fiction tells us that the majority of the energy that the United States uses to keep our economy and defense going is imported from unstable or unfriendly governments in the Middle East.  While the amount of oil imports is certainly a concern and we can all agree that energy independence would put the United States in a more stable position, the fact is that currently the United States imports 9.8% of its oil from the Middle East.  This is down nearly a third over the last decade.  Almost half of our energy is produced right here in the United States with twice as much coming from Canada and Mexico as comes from the Middle East.  This means that approximately three-quarters of the oil consumed each day by the United States comes from right here in North America.

There are plenty of facts to be worried about without creating anxiety over fiction.

As you go through your day today, make good financial decisions based on facts, and eliminate the fiction from your thinking.

Today’s the day!

Mice and Men

by Jim Stovall

Recently, there was a university study done using white mice as the subjects for a psychological experiment.  The mice were put into a cage with a red light and a green light on opposite sides of the space.  The experiment was designed in such a way that when a bell rang, a mouse could rush to the red light or the green light to receive a treat.  The treat was only presented for a few seconds, so that if the mouse guessed wrong and went to the green light when the treat was being presented at the red light, the mouse didn’t have enough time to rush across the cage and get the treat.

The experimenters designed the study so that 80% of the time, the treat was presented at the green light.  After a short period of time, the individual mice became aware of the discrepancy between the results of guessing the red light versus the green light, and they would only go to the green light when the bell rang.  In this way, all of the mice—by only going to the green light—were successful in receiving a treat 80% of the time.

The conclusion of the experimenters was that the mice were relatively intelligent and acted in their own enlightened self-interest.

Then the plot thickened when a similar experiment was done with human beings.  Individuals were put in a room with a red light and a green light on opposite walls.  When the bell rang, they could collect chocolate candy directly beneath one of the lights, but they had to guess correctly between red and green as there wasn’t enough time to get across the room if their first guess was wrong.

Like the mice, after a short period of time, the humans observed that most of the time, the chocolate candy was presented directly beneath the green light; however, unlike the mice, the humans tried to outguess the pattern and rushed toward the red light periodically.

The mice, by recognizing a prevailing condition and only going toward the green light, were rewarded 80% of the time.  The human beings, by trying to outguess the experimenters, were only rewarded 67% of the time.

By any measurable scale of intelligence, human beings can out-think and out-reason mice; however, human beings are susceptible to the thought that they can out-guess a prevailing system.  One need go no further than a casino to see relatively intelligent human subjects participating in a system where they intellectually know they cannot succeed on a long-term basis.

As you go through your day today, think like a mouse when you have no control over the conditions, and think like a human when your effort, energy, and ingenuity can make the difference.

Today’s the day!

Customer Service and Survival

by Jim Stovall

Customers are like teeth.  The only ones you need to maintain are the ones you want to keep.

I hear news stories and ongoing news media coverage about how bad the economy is and how consumers are not spending money.  You wouldn’t know this from going into the average retail establishment today.  The majority of businesses you might enter to purchase a product or service do not provide a level of customer service that you would expect from someone that is not having enough retail revenue.

There is a local establishment near my office where we purchase sandwiches for lunch.  They do not deliver, so we go across the parking lot and pick them up.  They have asked us to fax our orders to them.  This was acceptable, except they explained that they don’t often hear their fax machine receive an incoming order, so they asked if we would call them after we fax in the order.  We set up an account so our staff can simply sign for the lunch when they pick it up.  I mistakenly assumed they would bill me monthly, but when I did not receive a bill for close to a year, I contacted them and had to go through an accounting nightmare simply to pay for all the sandwiches.

One day it occurred to me that I’m working way too hard in a bad economy to spend my money.  If I have to write down the order, fax it in, call and alert them they have an order, and provide them with accounting so I can pay my bill, I’m doing everything but making the sandwich myself.  This situation would be laughable if it wasn’t so commonplace.

I travel often for speaking engagements and movie or TV business.  A polite and professional flight attendant is rare enough that you really notice it when you get one.  This is unfortunate because, due to rising fuel prices and the economy, the airline industry is struggling.  Most airlines’ flight routes and fares are just about the same from one airline to another.  The real differentiating factor they have to offer would be great service, but this is not the case.

In most customer surveys, good service and a polite, professional staff rank high in the criteria prospects use to make buying decisions.  In most cases, great customer service and polite, professional attitudes don’t cost anything but a little effort and energy.  In fact, it is invigorating and enjoyable to serve others.

If you want to succeed, you’ve got to make it easy for people to do business with you, feel good about spending their money, and want to tell others about their experience.

As you go through your day today, determine to separate yourself from the crowd by providing stellar customer service.

Today’s the day!

Persistence and Procrastination

by Jim Stovall

Down the street from my office is a very large media complex containing a TV station, several radio stations, and a large conference center.  At one corner of the massive building, there is a large fenced area where several radio and TV broadcast towers soar hundreds of feet into the air.  Thousands of people drive by this complex every day and have seen the towers so many times they don’t even notice them any more.

Several months ago, a troubled young man—for reasons of his own—decided to scale the fence and begin climbing one of the towers.  By the time anyone noticed this young man perched on a precarious ladder hundreds of feet in the air, it was too late to stop him.  Police, ambulances, and emergency rescue workers were called to the scene and began efforts to persuade the young man to climb down from the tower.

The young man either ignored them or periodically threatened to jump.  As will happen with any large gathering, the media was soon on the scene.  TV, radio, and newspaper reporters began around the clock reporting of the ongoing activities of the young man who became known as The Tower Guy.

This went on for days and, somehow, the reporters found things to talk about.  The young man became dehydrated, sunburned, and appeared to be disoriented.  Finally, one heroic rescue worker was able to communicate with the young man and talk him into coming down.

The final media reports described how persistent The Tower Guy was in remaining on his perch for many days.  It’s important that we don’t confuse persistence with procrastination.  It is easy to think that persistence is doing something repeatedly or constantly while procrastination might be thought of as doing nothing at all.  In reality, too many of us are like The Tower Guy in that we persist in doing nothing of importance which, in reality, is procrastination as it relates to the things in life we know we should be doing.

Practice does not make perfect, in spite of the old adage.  Practice makes consistent.  Only perfect practice will make something perfect.  Persistence is only a virtue if we are persisting at doing things that matter to us and make the world a better place.

Most people perform activities today because they performed the same activities yesterday and will do it all over again tomorrow.  Before you do anything as a regimented part of a routine, make sure you know why you are doing it, what it will accomplish, and when you will be done.

As you go through your day today, make sure you’re investing every moment wisely and not just repeating mindless activities because that’s what you’ve always done.

Today’s the day!

Wet Paint

by Jim Stovall

There are several ways we can learn lasting and significant lessons.  Some people learn as an ongoing enjoyable part of life, while others have to learn everything the hard way.

If you find a painted wall somewhere around your home or office and put up a sign that says “Wet Paint,” without realizing it, you’ve created a perfect laboratory for observing human behavior.  If you simply stand by and watch, you will see human nature and the learning process take several forms.

Some people will come by, see your “Wet Paint” sign, glance quickly at the wall, and go on about their way.  These people are generally well-adjusted, reasonably trusting, and non-confrontational.  If you remove the “Wet Paint” sign, these people will often make it a point to avoid touching the wall for several more days and even go so far as to alert others that the paint on that wall may still be a bit wet, so they should be cautious.

If you continue your observations long enough, you will observe another kind of human behavior as it relates to your “Wet Paint” sign.  A person will come by, clearly see your “Wet Paint” sign, and immediately touch the wall to see if the paint is actually wet.  These are people who would not have touched the wall if you had not put your “Wet Paint” sign there in the first place.  Even though this person has damaged your paint job and gotten wet paint on themselves, if they come by later, whether your “Wet Paint” sign is there or not, they will actually touch the wall again and continue this same behavior for hours or even days until they learn, through their own experience, that the paint is no longer wet.

All of us have the potential of learning very valuable lessons each day.  Some people can learn by reading or hearing the words of others; other people need to observe the outcomes of other individuals; while many people have to learn the lesson the hard way every time or, worse yet, never learn the lesson at all.  While we may think these learning styles are innate or inbred, we actually have more control over how we learn and what we learn than we might realize.

In our ever more complex, fast-paced world, it becomes more critical than ever that we develop the ability to learn lessons from others who have gone before us.  You don’t want to be among the sorry souls that learn, the hard way, that the surgeon general’s warning about cigarettes or the pleas of financial planners to plan for your retirement years were valid.

With all of the multimedia opportunities around us and constant access to the Internet, we should be able to learn from others’ words or at least their actions without having to get a handful of wet paint every time.

As you go through your day today, commit to learning the most lessons you can in the easiest manner possible.

Today’s the day!

Horse Sense

by Jim Stovall

More than virtually any other animal, horses have impacted the way we humans have lived throughout most of recorded history.  Many of us who have lived in the 20th and now the 21st centuries, have no direct connection to horses, but there is still much they can teach us.

Recently, I was reading about draft horses which are very large, muscular animals that, throughout history, have been used for pulling great loads and moving very heavy objects.  A single draft horse can pull a load up to 8,000 pounds.  The strength involved in this is hard to imagine.  So then we can speculate what would happen if we hooked up two draft horses to a load.  If you instantly thought two draft horses could pull 16,000 pounds if one draft horse can pull 8,000 pounds, you would be wrong.  Two draft horses pulling together cannot pull twice as much as one.  They can actually pull three times as much.  The two draft horses that can each pull 8,000 pounds alone can pull 24,000 pounds working together.

The horses are teaching us a very clear lesson in teamwork, but they still have more to teach us.  If the two horses that are pulling together have trained with one another and have worked together before, they can’t just pull three times as much working together as they can by themselves.  The two trained horses in tandem can actually pull 32,000 pounds, which is a load four times as heavy as either of the horses could pull by themselves.

The powerful lessons that these magnificent draft horses can teach us involves not only teamwork but coordinated and trained collaboration.  No one lives or works alone as the proverbial island unto themselves.

I have many friends and colleagues who telecommute.  This is a phenomenon that has gained popularity in the last few decades.  Many people avoid lengthy and expensive commutes and high-priced office space by simply working from home.  This can be very effective and efficient for some people; however, just because there is no one else around doesn’t mean that these people work alone.

The very technology that allows us to work independently requires the coordinated efforts of more people pulling together than has ever existed throughout history.  We now work regularly with people whom we have never met.

Recently, I co-authored a book with Tim Maurer—www.TheUltimateFinancialPlan.com.  Co-authoring a book involves tremendous coordination and constant communication.  Throughout the process, it was vital that both Tim and I fully understood and agreed upon very sensitive areas and directions within the manuscript.  I’m very pleased to report, thanks to Tim Maurer and our publisher Wiley and Sons, the co-authoring of the book The Ultimate Financial Plan was a very productive and enjoyable process.  I think we have a far better book than either of us could have written alone, but the ironic fact is that Tim Maurer and I have never actually met one another.  I have been on his radio show, we have done teleconferences, exchanged video messages, and edited one another’s manuscripts, but we have never been in the same place at the same time.  Unlike the draft horses, we can multiply the power of one another’s efforts without having to physically be in the same harness.

As you go through your day today, harness the power and productivity of teamwork, but be willing to expand your definition of collaboration far beyond your own time and place.

Today’s the day!

New and Old

by Jim Stovall

We seem to be constantly on the search for something new to replace something that is old.  We are bombarded with advertisements, promotions, and sales pitches imploring us to experience the latest, best, new, and improved items that may be available.  While, in many cases, new things are better than old things, there are certainly many exceptions in which old things are best.

My late, great friend and mentor Paul Harvey was fond of saying, “Not everything we call new and improved is.”

As a small child, I remember that my mother would divide my toys into two groups.  One group went into my toy box which I would play with immediately, and the other group of toys went into a cardboard box that was stored for later use.  At a point and time known only to my mother, when I started getting bored or my toys seemed stale, she would immediately replace the group of toys in my toy box with those that had been in storage.  I instantly felt as though I had all new toys.  Everything seemed exciting and brand new.

You can have this same experience as near as your bookshelf.  Some of the greatest titles you have ever read are waiting for you to revisit them and delve into the treasures that you have forgotten or simply missed the first time through.  There are some books that, frankly, are not worth finishing, but there are others that bear reading many times.  I re-read some of my favorite authors annually and would swear that they somehow rewrote sections of the book or added chapters while the book was sitting on my shelf, because it seems so fresh and new to me after multiple readings.

All of us enjoy meeting new people, making new friends, and forming new business relationships.  It is great to be actively pursuing new people in our lives, both personally and professionally, but always remember that some of the greatest people you will ever meet in your entire life are people you have already met.  Unfortunately, too often, we think of people we already know like a book we’ve already read.  We let friendships slide and business relationships dwindle away due to lack of attention.  With a little thought and care, along with some of the new social media tools, there is just no excuse for not staying in touch with people who are meaningful to us.

One of the new year’s resolutions I actually made and have kept for several years involved getting together with my parents each week.  Several years ago, I realized that even though my parents live a few miles from my home that I had gone several months without getting together with them.  After making the decision to see them each week, I have found the experience to be imminently rewarding in many ways, and I have learned things about my parents and other people in our family tree that I had never known before and wouldn’t have ever known had I not made the effort to stay in touch.

As you go through your day today, explore new people, places, and things, but don’t forget the treasure of the people, places, and things you can revisit time after time.

Today’s the day!

Dependable People

by Jim Stovall

The world could be divided very simply into two distinct groups of people.  There are people who you can trust to get things done, and there are people you can’t.

All of us have a myriad of things to do each day in our personal and professional lives.  How we prioritize these items and get them done on a regular basis will determine how successful we will become.  Even if you work or live by yourself, you are dependent upon other people for each of the tasks you want to accomplish on your daily list.  In some cases, you are waiting on other people to bring you the tools or information you need to move ahead.  In other cases, you are delegating responsibilities to others so that you can oversee a project or work on other aspects of it at the same time.

Recently, I went through several weeks of my daily list of tasks and realized that about 80 percent of the items I work on each day are dependent upon others.  If the people whom I had delegated items to or venders I had depended upon were totally reliable, my days would be much more free and clear than they are.

Recently, I was talking to a friend about a business professional he was dealing with on a project.  He had glowing recommendations for this individual.  As he told me the story, it basically boiled down to the fact that he had arranged to have this person perform a job in a certain way, with a particular budget, with a definite deadline.  The person he was praising had, indeed, done what he said he was going to do, within the allotted time, and within the prescribed budget.

It is sad to realize that in the world we live in today, if you do what you say you’re going to do, in a reliable and dependable fashion, it becomes noteworthy, and you become legendary among your customers or circle of influence.

As you move toward your goals and objectives in life, seek to surround yourself with people whom you can depend on.  This will help you avoid the redundancy of asking someone to do something and then being forced to follow up to see if it was actually completed and done properly.

As you go through your day today, strive to be a person who is dependable and reliable, and surround yourself with people who hold themselves to the same standard.

Today’s the day!

Minimize Meetings

by Jim Stovall

Every few days, I am asked to serve on a board or committee somewhere in the world.  I immediately reject virtually all of these requests, not because the opportunities or causes are not valid, but because many boards and committees tend to be inefficient, ineffective, and unproductive.

The lack of productivity does not come from the members of the boards or committees not being talented, committed, or dedicated.  The lack of productivity comes from the fact that boards and committees, by their very nature, exist to have regular meetings.

If we are to succeed in business or in life, we should never confuse activity with productivity.  Productivity is the constant progress toward a worthwhile goal, utilizing a well-thought-out plan.  Activity is quite simply any task that takes up time and creates work.  A hamster running around the wheel in his cage demonstrates great activity but no productivity.

I would be the first to admit there are times that a face-to-face meeting or the process of getting together a group of stakeholders is vital to success; but having the Monday morning meeting, the monthly committee session, or quarterly advisory board review are most often a recipe for wholesale ongoing activity with little chance of any meaningful productivity.

Never hold a meeting if a call will suffice, and never have a call if an email will meet your needs, and never send an email when doing nothing is likely to garner the same results.  This activity hierarchy should be used any time someone tries to corral a large portion of your productive time and turn it into a regularly-scheduled meeting which is virtually guaranteed to make you feel like the hamster running feverishly on the little wheel.

Following are some ways to stay as far toward productivity and away from activity as possible:

  • Reject all invitations to join a board or committee unless there is a specific, well-defined reason that you need to participate that will result in progress toward a meaningful goal which cannot be achieved any other way.
  • Avoid meetings by asking if you can participate via conference call or, better yet, send in your thoughts and input via email.
  • Unless otherwise compelled to do so by your employer, do not post your appointment calendar online where anyone can get to it.  Those huge blocks of unencumbered time where you were looking forward to being creative and productive can be gobbled up and commandeered by anyone in a meeting or committee frenzy.

As you go through your day today, define for yourself what is important, and avoid exchanging productivity for activity.

Today’s the day!

Work and Play

by Jim Stovall

Too many people in the workforce separate their lives into two separate and distinct categories.  They compartmentalize their days into the hours of drudgery and clock watching that represents their job and the freedom that exists when they get to their own leisure and recreation time.

People who work five days per week to get two days of a weekend or who work 50 weeks out of the year to get two weeks of vacation are missing the joy and satisfaction that comes from enjoying their work.

Mark Twain said that the secret to success is making your vocation your vacation.  Twain knew that enjoying your work will not only make you happier, it will make you successful.  If you are in a job or business that you do not enjoy, and you are competing with people who enjoy their work, you are doomed to failure.  You may have the talent and skill to succeed, but your competition who enjoys their work will always prevail in the end.

People who enjoy their work are more efficient, creative, and productive.  If you find yourself in a job you do not enjoy, it doesn’t mean you have to quit today, but it should indicate that you need to start making some changes in your life that will result in you doing work that you enjoy.

If you are among the unfortunate who do not love your job, you may want to consider the following:

  1. Are there parts of your work or your job that you do enjoy?  Maybe you can focus more on this work and make arrangements to make it a larger part of your job description.
  2. Are there jobs available within your organization that you feel would give you satisfaction, and you would enjoy doing?  If so, you may want to consider a transfer, even if it is a lateral move or step down within the organization.
  3. Is there a job or profession you have always wanted to pursue?  If so, what educational or training steps could you take now to prepare yourself to make the move later?
  4. If you don’t know what kind of work would make you happy, think of the things you enjoy in your leisure or personal time, and imagine how components of those activities could make up a job or business somewhere in your community.

As you go through your day today, realize that you can never be totally successful within your profession until you enjoy the work that you do.

Today’s the day!