This is a guest post from Kent Thune, The Financial Philosopher, who applies timeless wisdom and inspiration to investing, personal finance, and the economy.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” — Reinhold Niebuhr

Recent volatility in the financial markets and a weakening US economy have tested the resolve of even the most patient of investors, and cast a shadow of doubt upon the most resolute in personal finance. What if the stock market continues its decline? What if the economy slips into recession? What should I do, if anything, to protect my investments? Where can I find the answers?

While these questions are normal in the face of uncertainty, the problem with them is that they are reactionary and seek answers from external sources. Those kind of questions suggest we have not sought answers from internal sources and, perhaps, have failed to ask questions that may be a bit more difficult, such as “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?”

I believe that it’s important for us to limit our attention to those external sources we can not control, to instead allocate attention to things we can control, and, ultimately, to set forth on our own path rather than the path of others.

“Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.” — Michel de Montaigne

From a financial perspective, there are significant events that are not within our control:

  • Financial markets. As legendary economist John Maynard Keynes famously said, “The markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.”
  • The economy. As with financial markets, the economy moves in cycles. That’s about where our absolute knowledge ends. To paraphrase Mark Twain, history may “rhyme” but it does not repeat itself.
  • Government actions. Fiscal acts (i.e. tax rates), monetary acts (i.e. interest rates), and geo-political acts (i.e. foreign government) have an incredible impact on the Big Picture of our finances, but no individual has any meaningful control over them.

There are, however, many items that are within our control as investors:

  • Asset allocation. We have the power to select a diversified mix of stocks, bonds, and cash. We also have the ability to control investment selection and investment types, such as mutual funds vs. individual securities, index funds vs. actively-managed funds, or even the use of “life-cycle” funds.
  • Holding period. While timing the market is a fool’s game, time in the market is prudent. Based on history, between 80% and 90% of the returns attributable to market performance come from just 2% to 7% of the time in the market. Miss the market’s greatest moves and you’re doomed to under-performance.
  • Savings rate. This is a “no-brainer”. All other things being equal, increasing the amount you are saving or investing will have a much larger impact on your long-term account value than market movements or economic activity. Of course, in order to have a positive savings rate, we must spend less than we make.

All of the above controllable determinants of investing depend on your goals, objectives, tolerance for risk, and time horizon. None of these can be accurately determined without asking those challenging questions I mentioned previously: “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?”

“If I have even just a little sense, I will walk on the main road and my only fear will be straying from it.” — Lao-tzu

Lao-tzu sought the Tao or The Way. Buddha called it Nirvana. Socrates promoted “the examined life”. And Maslow suggested it is self-actualization, which we all seek. Before success in finances or any other area in life, we must first know ourselves. Here are some suggestions for finding your own “path” and staying on it:

  • Find yourself. Who am I? Why do I think and feel differently than others? How can I leverage this knowledge to benefit myself, my relationships, my personal finances? First, you are a human, then you are an individual. For the understanding of yourself as a human, I suggest the book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, by Daniel Goleman. For understanding yourself as an individual, I suggest the online version of the Jung Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. These are only beginnings. Self-awareness is a life-long pursuit. Seek information that will enhance knowledge of yourself.
  • Define yourself. Our “path” may be easily diverted by social conventions and language. For example, what is your definition of “retirement”? Where did your definition come from? Is your ultimate financial goal financial freedom? What is your definition of freedom? Define other words for yourself as well, such as rich, wealth, success, strength, weakness, and happiness. Otherwise, you are following the definition of others.
  • Allocate attention. Meaning, happiness, and control in our lives best derive from internal sources. So how do we limit external noise? A good start is with our informational media consumption (i.e. television, internet, paper media). If we are consumers of information, we must stop to think of what it is that information consumes — our attention. Were you seeking the information or was it seeking you? Be aware that information sources, especially those that are in the business of selling advertising, are trying to “capture” your attention. Capture your own attention first by creating a “portfolio” of information sources: For example: 40% Music, 30% books, 10% blogs and internet, 10% periodicals, and 10% television.
  • Think about “thinking”. Anyone can think. But to strengthen our reasoning capabilities we must learn to “think about thinking.” To provoke this level of thought, try studying philosophy. For some relatively easy reading, start with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Philosophy, then gravitate to philosophies or philosophers that speak to your interests.

No matter which direction we are walking or what life brings us — whether it is personal finance or anything else — we cannot be wrong as long as we are following our own path. We will make mistakes, of course, but they will be our own. And, because of our self-awareness, they will help us to grow stronger and to continue in the right direction.

I think The Financial Philosopher’s advice is excellent. The main reason I struggled with money for so long is that I didn’t know myself, and I didn’t know what wealth meant to me. As I’ve come to understand myself and my aims in life, it’s been easier to set goals for my money. (And I’m an ENFP, by the way.) Photo by Mr. Hayata.