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Small changes add up to huge impacts over time
When I moved to the US many years ago, I was married plus two, just out of grad school, and in debt. My salary was a whopping $31,000, and being over 11,500 miles from home, Ramen noodles frequently served as dinner— you know, the type that comes dried, powdered, and sells for under $0.30 a packet? When we discovered that a hot meal at a local hospital cafeteria was under $3, that became our new go-to place for lunch. Creating a plausible budget and sticking with it was not easy, so I was always on the lookout for opportunities to improve our situation. Fast forward many years, and our situation is frankly unrecognizable (in a good way).
What Worked and How
It’s an open secret that “overnight successes” are usually decades in the making. Don’t believe me? Read up on the journeys of icons such as Walt Disney, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Michael Jordan, and many others and you’ll see what I mean.
By the time they become media darlings they had already come up against, and overcome, big challenges where success was anything but predictable and their path was anything but a straight arrow from nothing to everything.
In today’s reality of venture capital, the “sexiest” companies are seemingly always looking for overnight breakthroughs, 10x results by next year (if not next quarter!), and “hockey-stick growth.”
But is that the only, or even the easiest, path to success?
From personal experience, massive results are much easier to achieve gradually than rapidly. Big goals take time and consistency. As Desmond Tutu famously said, “There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.”
Also, think about what would happen if you started a small snowball rolling down the side of a snowy mountain… By the time it got to the bottom, it wouldn’t be so small anymore, would it?
Sure, I’ve managed occasionally to score a massive result rapidly, but that always took a combination of the right opportunity (which is rarely under our control), paying attention to that opportunity (which isn’t easy), and being prepared for that sort of opportunity. As the Ancient Roman philosopher Seneca observed, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
The Predictable Difference Made by 1%
Borrowing a concept from Jeff Olson’s book, “The Slight Edge,” you can achieve nearly inconceivable results by making small, but consistent, right choices over time.
Greek mathematician Archimedes (you know, the “Eureka!” guy?) once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Making the right choices consistently over a long time uses a similar principle — time and consistency are your lever to moving your world.
Let’s take a couple of hypothetical friends, Jack and John, who start working at the same company at age 22, earning the same $50,000 a year. Remarkably, they both stay with that same company for 45 years until retiring at age 67 (I did say this is hypothetical :)).
John goes through life like everyone around him. He makes commitments to himself but each time he sees a shinier object and moves to that, giving up on the previous commitment. He works hard, but lets day-to-day stuff distract him. Jack on the other hand commits to himself and doesn’t let go.
On average, each year John gets a 3% raise, while Jack works extra hard to get a raise that’s 1% higher. John sets aside 5% of each paycheck, while Jack starts at 1% more, 6%, and further increases his saving rate by 1% each year. John manages to earn an average 6% annual return on his investments, while Jack studies how to invest better, and makes on average 1% higher returns.
Clearly Jack should end up doing better than John, but how much of a difference could such little changes make?
Let’s follow the two friends and see how they do over time.
After one year, at age 23, Jack has $3000, just slightly more than John’s $2500. By the time they’re 40, John has almost $96,000 saved up — not too shabby. Jack, on the other hand, has over $310,000! When retirement arrives at age 67, John has accumulated nearly $832,000, far better than most Americans. John, however, has put together a retirement portfolio worth more than 7x as much, at about $5.9 million.
To put this in perspective, according to the 4% rule, John should be able to withdraw from his portfolio just under $33,300/year to have a good chance of not outliving his money. Jack can withdraw nearly $236,000/year! Alternatively, if he’d be willing to live on $66,600 a year (double what John would be able to draw from his portfolio at age 67), Jack could reach his FIRE moment at age 54! If he’d be ok with John’s ultimate draw of $33,300, he could fire his boss at age 48!
Just imagine how much better things would have been for Jack if he managed to get a return of 10%/year, close to the long-term average for the stock market… (hint: he’d nearly double his portfolio).
The Bottom Line About What You Can Do
Consistently showing up, consistently making better choices, and consistently striving to improve yourself just a bit each time isn’t glamorous. You won’t have the paparazzi trailing you, or breathless journalists hanging on your every word. On the other hand, those are the things that are within your control, and over time they’ll make a massive difference in your results.
To improve yourself and your results over time, start by asking yourself, “If I had a $10,000,000 portfolio, how would I change my life?” That will presence you to your inspiration, your real “Why?” As in, why should I work harder than I have to?
From that inspiration, define your goals, using the following steps.
- Brainstorm as many goals as you can think of in all areas of your life.
- Divide these goals into three lists: Nice to Have, Very Helpful, and Life Altering.
- Set aside the first two lists for reconsideration next year.
- Split the Life Altering list into the 8 dimensions of wellness: financial, vocational, environmental, social, physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual.
- In each area where you have more than one goal, identify your top priority, the one you want to work hardest to achieve. While you may think that working on the others on an as-possible basis is a good idea, it’s not. Those are actually the enemies of your achieving your top priority. Add those lower-than-top priorities to the goals you already set aside for reconsideration next year.
- Come up with an action plan for improving yourself in each of the 8 areas where you identified a top-priority, life-altering goal.
- Execute your plans.
- Rinse and repeat each year.
What are you willing to commit to improving even by just 1% each year to reach your big hairy financial independence goals early?
About the author:
My career has had many unpredictable twists and turns. A MSc in theoretical physics, PhD in experimental high-energy physics, postdoc in particle detector R&D, research position in experimental cosmic-ray physics (including a couple of visits to Antarctica), a brief stint at a small engineering services company supporting NASA, followed by starting my own small consulting practice supporting NASA projects and programs. Along the way, I started other micro businesses and helped my wife start and grow her own Marriage and Family Therapy practice. Now, I use all these experiences to also offer financial strategy services to help independent professionals achieve their personal and business finance goals.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to encourage any lifestyle changes without careful consideration and consultation with a qualified professional. This article is for reference purposes only, is generic in nature, is not intended as individual advice and is not financial or legal advice.