Ramit Sethi, author of I Will Teach You to Be Rich, recently shared his thoughts on a New York Times profile of Russ Whitney, a real estate mogul who charges thousands of dollars to learn the secrets of his success. (Whitney helped inspire Casey Serin’s foreclosure odyssey. John T. Reed has extensive information on Whitney, not all of it negative.)

Ramit’s post prompted me to read the original New York Times article. I began the piece planning to offer my own criticisms of Whitney and his get rich quick schemes. But two-thirds through the article, I realized there were actually two stories here: one about Whitney’s brash hucksterism, and another about the people — like Casey Serin — who are so desperate to get rich now that they lose touch with reality.

Midway through the article we meet Tracie Taylor, who is leading Millionaire U, a three-day real estate training course for “advanced” students. Most of the students don’t actually know much about real estate, so Taylor is giving them the basics. She’s also touting goals, positive thinking, and visualization (all excellent tools when used correctly).

Taylor knew early that her class of advanced students was strictly remedial. Assessing them, she found that only 8 of 40 had invested in real estate before. The infomercial had talked of buying and quickly selling houses, and those who enrolled seemed largely unaware of the real estate slump.

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They were eager to be good students, but blurted out terrible answers. “Where did you guys study math?” Taylor asked. Later, she realized that not one student could even name the world’s richest man. “People with goals are the ones who succeed,” she lectured, and she assigned her class the homework of compiling a hundred goals. The next day, when she asked all who had completed the homework to stand, the doctor rose, stunned to find himself alone. “Why are you surprised?” Taylor asked him.

Wow.

This knocked me off my feet: forty people who want to get rich are asked to come up with a list of goals, but only one person completes the assignment. These people haven’t got a clue. They’re going to return home with a thick binder of PowerPoint slides and a pile of credit card debt, but no real understanding of how to achieve their dreams.

There is no quick road to riches.

There are, however, well-worn paths that lead to the slow accumulation of wealth. These paths all require work and self-discipline. The more work you do and the more self-discipline you can muster, the quicker you will accumulate wealth. These slow, sure paths to wealth also require goals. (Apparently even the quick road to riches requires goals.) I don’t mind that the seminar participants didn’t know who the world’s richest man is — it’s Bill Gates — but it bothers me that they weren’t willing to create a list of goals.

Goals are the fundamental building blocks of success, not just in personal finance, but in every area of life. Without goals, you are living reactively, letting life push you around. With goals, you can live a proactive life, steering toward a destination. When you have an end in mind, it’s easier to see when you’ve made a wrong turn. You know where your path is supposed to lead.

No matter the state of your personal finances, whether you’re wealthy or poor or somewhere in between, take time to set goals. State them in positive terms. Make them specific. Put a deadline on achieving them. Make them actionable. Write them down. Work a little toward them every day. (It’s much easier to achieve goals when you focus on the individual steps toward them.)

When I was young, I had crazy goals like: “I want to be rich by the time I’m 30.” That was a fun goal, but it didn’t mesh with my reality. I was acquiring debt. I was moving away from wealth, not toward it. A better goal would have been: “I will get out of debt in three years.” Or “I will research online college programs and take 4 classes toward my degree this year.” Or “I will contribute $200 monthly to my savings account.” These are realistic, achievable goals, and one toward which I could make progress every day, if even just a little.

As my financial situation worsened and I became overwhelmed by debt, I gave up on goals of any sort. This just made matters worse. Without goals, I was going around in circles, caught in a debt cycle from which there seemed to be no escape. It was only once I set goals for myself again — realistic goals — that I was able to begin my escape from debt hell.

A decade ago I might have attended one of Whitney’s seminars (if I could have afforded it). I was convinced there were secret roads to quick riches, if only I could find them. I’m glad to have discovered the slow, sure path to wealth. I still struggle to stay on course — sometimes losing sight of my goals — but I do my best. I’m glad to have all of you along for the journey.

[New York Times: Russ Whitney wants you to be rich]

This article is about Basics, Self-Improvement, The Best of Get Rich Slowly