While sorting through reader e-mail yesterday morning, I began to detect a subtle recurring theme. People were writing because they had a goal in mind, but their present circumstances seemed to be far from their intended destination. These two points were so far apart, in fact, that my correspondents were afraid to begin moving. Because the distance seemed overwhelming, they were paralyzed.
The importance of action
I used to feel this way, too. I would look at the enormity of my debt — $20,000! $30,000! — and I would stop before I could even begin. This was, of course, completely self-defeating. The most important thing you can do to achieve your financial goals (or any goal, for that matter) is to take action. It matters little which action you take so long as you begin moving in the right direction. You might, for example:
- Start a Roth IRA.
- Open a high-yield savings account.
- Cancel your cable television.
- Read a book about the stock market.
- Learn to bake bread.
Don’t be paralyzed because you don’t know the best path to take. Pick one good path and follow it. Whatever your financial goal, that first small step is the most important. It leads from inaction to action. It leads to the future.
Closing the gap
While I was thinking about this yesterday, I stumbled upon a video from This American Life‘s Ira Glass. On the surface, it seems completely unrelated to personal finance. And maybe it is. But I think that in these five minutes, Glass gets to the heart of success with any goal:
Ostensibly, Glass is speaking about story-telling. (Which is why I was actually watching this.) But what he’s really talking about is the process of mastery, of building skills and achieving goals.
Glass says that when you begin any endeavor, you’re a novice. You have a clear vision of what a successful person would do or be (debt-free, for example, or have a million dollars), but your own efforts aren’t anywhere near what you define as success. Maybe you still spend money on videogames or on handbags. Maybe you eat out too much. Whatever the case, there’s a gap between your view of success and your present abilities.
“A lot of people never get past that phase,” Glass says. “A lot of people at that point, they quit.”
But to succeed, you can’t quit. To achieve your dreams, you need to keep stumbling along. Nearly anyone who is successful, says Glass, goes through a period of months or years where they can tell that what they’re doing isn’t as good as they want it to be:
You gotta know that’s totally normal. The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work…It’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
Or, translated into the language of personal finance, keep practicing frugality. Keep saving money. Keep reading about the stock market. It’s only by continuing to do these things that they become habits, and it’s only by developing these habits that you’ll be able to meet your financial goals. Don’t be discouraged if you stumble. You will make mistakes. You need to fight your way through these. “You will be fierce,” Glass says. “You will be a warrior.”
But to begin, you need to take action. You need to take that first step. You need to begin walking in the direction of your dreams.