Archives For August 2011

Have you ever found the answer to a difficult problem at an incredibly inconvenient time? Do answers come to you while in the shower? Maybe you try to write it in the fogged up glass because you fear the answer might escape you as quickly as it appeared.

Maybe it’s more than just a coincidence that ideas come to you when you’re least prepared to write them down. Other inconvenient times I find inspiration are when I lay down to sleep, when I’m running with my dog Lucy (as pictured above), or hiking in the woods.

In all cases, I’m not prepared to capture my thoughts or write them down. There is one thing most of these moments of inspiration have in common; I’m disconnected from the distractions of the outside world.

I’m in the zone and my mind can focus solely on the issue at hand. Gone are the updates on what the latest celebrity is doing, the fluctuations of the stock market, or the worry of work.

When do you do your best thinking?

The shower is a great place to think because you can drown out all outside noise. The flow of the water creates a natural ‘white noise’ that allows you to finally hear your thoughts.

I used to run while listening to music because it kept me going and took my mind away from the pain of running. However, I realized I didn’t think much because the music filled the gaps where my thoughts were supposed to occur.

It’s not until I unplug myself from the music that I can think. There are some forms of music such as classical that allow you to think, but most of them don’t.

It’s very important to set aside time each day to think. Turn off the TV, the radio, and find a quiet spot. No offense to your family, friends, and other loved ones, but you can’t think when you’re in the middle of conversation.

Television is probably the best strategy to prevent your mind from working. As Daniel Lapin says in Thou Shall Prosper, TV is bad because “the picture on the screen deprives you of the freedom to create within your mind.” You can only focus on so many things at once; realistically, you can only truly focus on one thing at a time.

I know that if I turn the TV on and start flipping channels, I’ll eventually find something that sucks me in and keeps me watching. I try to stay away from it in the first place so I don’t get caught in the trap. It’s amazing how this works.

In fact, just last night I started watching “Livin for the Apocalypse” on TLC. It was entertaining and mostly took a comical angle on the strategies some doomsdayers are using to prepare for the end (which is very near in their minds). If you don’t like this article, you can blame it on that show due to my lack of focus!

Try to turn the TV off so you can focus. You need to be in a quiet place without distractions. I can’t even focus on thinking while driving because I apparently need to focus on the road. Don’t be afraid to spend time with your own mind. The more direct and structured you are with your thinking time, the more productive you will be.

What should you think about?

Are you trying to figure out what you want to do with your life? Maybe you need to find the answer to a difficult work question. Allow yourself to think about it! When you start, you may have no clue what you should think about. However, as you allow your mind some time, you’ll start to find some direction.

I use some of my time to think about YLTL and the type of blogs I want to write. In the course of a normal day, I might think of one new topic if I’m lucky. However, when I take Lucy out for a walk and purposefully think of new blog topics, I’ll usually come up with 2-3.

The mind is the most powerful force on the planet. Are you using yours or are you afraid to be alone with it?

I love good debt, don’t you?  Nothing feels better than writing a check every month to pay on my good debt.  In fact, I send Bank of America a thank you card along with every payment!

Ok, now I’m obviously full of it!  Honestly, does it even sound possible to like debt?  Not to me.  But, there are many financial gurus who praise the concept of using other people’s money to pay for what you want.

The “good” debt title is usually bestowed upon items that are seen as investments like students loans and houses.  Almost everyone can agree that debt from credit cards, credit lines and short term loans can be considered “bad” debt.

Is a home mortgage good debt?

I don’t think a home mortgage is good debt.  First, a house isn’t an investment, which was proven over the last couple years as one third of homeowners have gone underwater on their loan.  Basically, they now owe more on their mortgage than their house is worth, thanks to the decline in housing prices.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not bashing owning a home or taking on a loan under the right circumstances.  I currently have a mortgage on my own house.  A home can be a smart decision to protect against inflation and provide stability, but it requires way too much cash to maintain it to be considered an investment.  The cash outflows include taxes, insurance, maintenance, renovations and more.

That’s why I don’t consider a mortgage good debt.  However, at some point many of us will take on a mortgage because homes are so expensive, but you should try to not have a mortgage your entire life.  You can eventually pay off your mortgage if you initially purchase a house you can afford and pay extra toward your loan. It takes a lot of hard work and focus.

Is a student loan good debt?

I used student loans to pay for about half of my college, so it’s hard for me to argue against them.  Proponents say they’re worthwhile because they allow you to pursue your goals of higher education.  In fact, so many people use student loans that total student loan debt now surpasses total credit card debt!

Some student loans are necessary, but they’re mostly overused.  I paid for the remaining half of my school with scholarships, work and help from my parents.  In hindsight, I could have worked more while in college to pay my own way so I wasn’t as reliant on student loans.  The problem is it’s hard to actually see the impact of student loans when you’re in college.

Most students think they’ll be rich soon after graduating and will quickly pay them off.  In fact, I recently spoke to a group of college students and asked them when they would earn their first million.  The oldest estimate was 32 and the rest estimated between 24-29 years old.  School doesn’t do a good job of teaching reality!

Many people come to the realization a few years after graduation that all the debt wasn’t such a great thing.  Like my student loan did – their loans stick around for years after graduation.  Even worse, many people who are graduating soon realize they can’t even find a job!

Talk radio host and financial guru Dave Ramsey recommends taking on no debt to pay for school, but he is ok with a 15 year mortgage for a house.  To be honest, I don’t totally agree with Ramsey’s thoughts on student loan debt.  I do think you should do whatever you can to minimize the amount of debt you take on, but you shouldn’t forgo an education just to avoid loans.

I experienced many great opportunities during my four years in college that I wouldn’t have experienced if I was working full time.  These included volunteering, leadership positions, and networking.  I believe they have contributed greatly to my development, and I may not have experienced the same current success if I had stayed busy delivering pizzas instead.

If you want to read more about higher education and if it’s worth it, check out my other post, “Is a college education worth the price?“.  In the end, I’m not going to call any debt “good” because that mindset helps justify its use. As Leonardo Da Vinci said, “It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.”

Sometimes debt can be used to help us, but I’ll choose to use it sparingly and pay it off as soon as I can.  Do you think there is such a thing as a good debt?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Do you know how to succeed at work?  If so, you’ll have a much better shot of receiving raises and promotions.

If you’re a Seinfeld fan, you might know where this is going… But, if you’re not, the quirky character George Costanza gives his advice on how to succeed: simply look busy.

It’s not just about looking busy, Costanza believes there’s an art to it!  He says the key to succeeding at work is to look annoyed.  In fact, his theory is: if you act annoyed, you’ll always seem busy!  While admittedly this might work for a while, it’s probably not the best advice!

What can you do to succeed at work?

According to Rabbi Daniel Lapin in his book Thou Shall Prosper, there are three things to start doing to succeed in an entry level job to succeed at work:

1.  Show up regularly and on time
2.  Obey instructions
3.  Speak and act respectfully

Seriously, anyone can do those three things.  They may sound ridiculously simple, but my parents gave this advice when I was young, and it worked for me.  It’s amazing how hard those three items are for some people.

I worked for my Dad as a maintenance man/janitor at my high school.  It was a pretty crappy job (pun intended) but it was actually very rewarding.  I showed up on time, did what my boss instructed, and was always respectful of my coworkers.

It’s sad to say, but what I learned in that job has helped me more in life than most other jobs I’ve had!

Maybe that’s why I can relate to what Andrew Carnegie believed when he said, “It is not the rich man’s son that the young struggler for advancement has to fear in the race of life, nor his nephew, nor his cousin.  Let him look out for the “dark horse” in the boy who begins by sweeping out the office.”

This is the path I’ve taken and it has led me to succeed at work.

Following Lapin’s three earlier suggestions will help you get ahead, but to succeed at work you need to work smart.  Use the points below to work smart.

1.  Find advocates of you
2.  Help others get what they want
3.  Follow the 80/20 rule in work
4.  Work for people you like and admire

So, what do these really mean?

1.  Find advocates of you

One of the most important ways to succeed at work is to find, and work, for people who are advocates for you.

While working as a business and IT consultant at Accenture, we had an annual reviews where everyone was ranked against each other.  To make it even tougher, a group of leaders discussed each person behind closed doors before ranking them. If you didn’t have someone who knew the great work you did and wasn’t afraid to fight for you, you wouldn’t do well in the rankings.

Sometimes, I was forced to be direct and find an advocate and ask them for help.  It made all the difference in my rankings.  Give it at try – find a leader in your workplace and directly ask for their help.

However, there is a catch.  You must have their respect first.  You can get their respect simply by doing great work, or developing a great relationship.

Now that you have their ear, let them know what you’re doing.  Keep a list of tasks you’ve done exceptionally well and discuss it with them.

If you are a workplace leader or boss, you shouldn’t be above this idea.  The people who work for you can also be great advocates.  You shouldn’t make them say good things about you, but if they like and respect you as a leader – they can let your boss know.

Before you start looking for an advocate to help you at work, remember: you must also be an advocate for yourelf.

Many people are so humble they won’t speak up for themselves and the great work they do.  Don’t consider it bragging, other people need to know.  Keep a list of major accomplishments and items you are proud of – it will come in handy when you talk to your boss or your new advocate.

2.  Help others get what they want

We live in a selfish world.  However, to succeed in work, you must help others get what they want.  Zig Ziglar says the best way to get what you want in life is to help others get what they want.

This could mean you help your boss, your co-workers, or the people who work for you.  Helping others get what they want fosters a positive work environment and also means those people will step up to the plate for you when you need help.

3.  Follow the 80/20 rule in work

The 80/20 rule applies to many situations, but I believe it works perfectly in the workplace.  The rule? You should spend 80% of your time on 20% of the most valuable tasks or assignments.  We’re always going to be overloaded at work, and if you try to perfect everything, you’ll be left in a state of mental and physical anguish.

This doesn’t mean you slack off on the other 80% of the activities.  They still have to be completed, but you need to realize you might have to occasionally take a ‘good enough’ approach towards them.

4.  Work for people you like and admire

The quote by Warren Buffett sums it up.  “I choose to work with every single person that I work with. That ends up being the most important factor. I don’t interact with people I don’t like or admire. That’s the key. It’s like marrying.”

Do your best to choose people you admire and can learn from.  I know this can be difficult in a typical job because you might get stuck with a certain boss or co-workers.  We don’t all have the power of Buffett.  However, you shouldn’t just give up.

Find people you like and respect and spend more time with them.  You might even try to transfer to a different department under the guise of learning a new skill.

I had one particularly bad experience working for a manager I (and all of the people around me) despised.  He was power hungry and led through intimidation.  I saw him make at least five people cry.  Seriously!  He was very power hungry and got off on it.

It was an 8 month project, but I knew at the end of it I’d be able to get away from him.  I vowed to never work for him again and I avoided him the rest of my career.

These are the methods I’ve learned and try to use to succeed at work.  However, I’m not above using the occasional Costanza tip on a tough Monday!

Follow the steps outlined above to succeed in an entry level job as well as in your career.  Working hard will only get you so far, you must work smart to get ahead.  Working smart is a key part of taking control of your life.  Check it out the entire plan for some more tips.

How you found any particular strategies to help you succeed at work?

 

The most important and difficult part of long term investing is staying the course through the market ups and downs. It’s quite easy to stay the course when the market it is going up, but what about when it’s going down?

If you’ve been around any source of news, you’ve seen the carnage on Wall Street. The Dow Jones is down 15% in the last two weeks, and the pundits would have you believe the end is near.

Soon, the United States will be nothing more than a third world country and we’ll all be out of jobs. Are you scared yet??

No one seems to remember 90%+ of Americans are employed and companies aren’t doing too bad on their earnings. Things aren’t as bad as they sound right now.

Could the market keep going down? Yes. Will it go down forever? No. If it did, your retirement accounts wouldn’t matter anyway, so there’s really no point in selling now!

What you hear in the media all amounts to noise, and it’s easy to think day-trading is the way to go. When the market goes up next, the moods will quickly change.

As I commented on Twitter on Friday, “CNBC is financial porn. It’s addicting, unhealthy, and leaves you feeling unhappy after watching it all day!”

When you invest for the long term, you should turn the noise off.

As I mention in the how to invest wisely, the two most important elements of successful investing are regular contributions and time. When you contribute regularly, you’re using a term called “dollar cost averaging“. This means you invest at a set period (weekly, monthly, etc) regardless of the current market direction.

The easiest way to dollar cost average is to have the money pulled from your paycheck, and put it directly into your retirement account.

The most important part of dollar cost averaging is it’s your commitment to investing regularly, regardless of the ups and downs. If you were dollar cost averaging in March of 2009, your money has doubled since then!

Even when things seem crazy, as long as you’re investing at a risk level appropriate for your age and your portfolio is diversified, you’ll be ok.

I’m not a Financial Advisor, but some easy rules to follow for age appropriate investing are the 100 and 120 rule. The 100 rule states that you take your age, subtract it from 100, and place that percentage of your investments in stocks. The rest of the money should go into less risky assets such as bonds. For example, if you’re 30 years old, you’ll have 70% of your money in stocks, (100-70) and 30% in less risky assets.

The 120 rule is similar, but allocates more money to stocks since people are living longer. In the 120 rule, a 30 year old would have 90% (120-30) allocated to stocks. Both rules limit your exposure to stocks as you get older.

Stocks will go up and stocks will go down. As I mentioned before, from the market bottom in March 2009, stocks have nearly doubled! Who knows what will happen in the next few weeks, but the chances of the market going up in the long term are a lot better.

Even if stocks bounce around with no clear uptrend like they have since 2000, you can still do ok by dollar cost averaging since you’re buying some stock at the market lows.

The worst thing you can do is sell when things seem crazy like they do now.

I had a co-worker who came in the office in March 2009, right when things were at their worst with the stock market. He desperately said he sold all of his stocks. Almost on queue, the market hit its bottom and quickly racked up some big returns. However, my friend missed out on all of those returns because he pulled his money out.

Take ten deep breaths and stay calm. Don’t buy into all of the hype.