A couple of years ago, shortly after I quit work, I joined a local running club.
There is a wide range of running abilities at the club. Some of the runners there think nothing of running a marathon in under 3 hours.
But there are also many people there who are out of shape, new to running and just looking to lose some weight.
I was a bit worried that in my 40s and after many years working a desk job, I was being hopelessly optimistic by joining a running club. After all, what if I was slower than everyone else and they all laughed at me?
I shouldn’t have worried. As is often the case, my fears were groundless. I was quickly struck by how friendly and welcoming the atmosphere is. It’s a bit like a social club that does some running on the side.
There are many parallels between improving your personal fitness and improving your personal finances. Both can be made simple. Both require work. Both are easier with coaching and like minded people around you.
At the running club, one thing I quickly noticed was that everyone kept referring to something called “PBs”. Initially, I wasn’t sure what everyone was talking about but the penny eventually dropped and I realised that PB is short for Personal Best.
Everyone in the club seemed focussed on their personal best. Clearly everyone has a different genetic inheritance and not everyone can be the fastest runner in the club. There is some friendly competition between the fastest runners but the overwhelming focus is not on “beating” everyone else, it’s on being the best that you can be.
If you can accept this, the idea naturally follows that we are not optimising for status (nor for convenience or luxury). We are trying to be the best that we can be. The implication of this is that challenge, effort and sweat are not things to be avoided. They are an essential part of the process.
The club contains some inspiring people. One impressive lady there is in her 60s and only took up running in her 40s. She now runs for Great Britain in a veterans age category and attends international competitions. She cycles to training and to local races in all weathers. She runs training sessions turning up every week and is incredibly generous with her time.
People like this lady have helped show me that everything I previously thought I knew about ageing was wrong. The decline in our physical capabilities caused by ageing is incredibly slow and completely outweighed by the rapid decline caused by a sedentary lifestyle.
Having read The New Evolution Diet, I’ve come to believe that we don’t stop exercising because we age, to a great extent we age because we stop exercising. If you watch a documentary about hunter gatherers, the men remain capable hunters into their 70s: slim and fit with good muscle definition. Use it or lose it.
This is all fresh in my mind at the moment because at the weekend I got a new personal best at my local Parkrun.
I want to talk about Parkrun i) because it’s a great British institution and ii) because there are so many parallels between physical fitness and getting your finances in shape.
Parkrun (www.parkrun.org.uk) is a 5k running event, held every Saturday at 9am in your local park. Once you have registered at the website, you can just show up on the day. No need to pay, no need to enter in advance. You can turn up at your local event or any of the 400+ events that operate all across the UK and, increasingly, the world.
Parkrun is a grass roots organisation started by individuals: real people and not by a commercial company looking to sell product or some bossy government committee. Thanks to the volunteers that help out, the event is completely free and almost 100% free of bureaucracy.
The event is incredibly well organised. You get a barcode and so your time is accurately measured and then emailed to you every week. I recently ran my 50th event and got sent a high quality Parkrun T shirt. The price for all this? It was free.
Parkrun is running at its most natural. My local Parkrun is an off road course through a forest. There are hills and there is mud and puddles. You often see deer in the forest and can hear the birds singing.
Parkrun is a easy social and friendly environment. For anyone who naturally tends towards introversion (I am INTJ), this is a great and natural way of meeting people in your local community. Remember that you are the average of the 5 people around you. Everyone who is there has made a conscious choice to put down the doughnuts and get off the sofa even if only for one day a week. These people deserve our respect.
Whenever possible I take my children with me to Parkrun. I don’t claim to have this parenting thing down yet but I’ve found that my oldest son will trade time on the Playstation for physical exercise. No doubt if I was a better parent, he’d be running for the joy of self-development, inner peace and seeing the morning dew on the wild flowers. I tried pitching him that, but sadly it doesn’t cut any ice with him. More tangibly, one Parkrun buys him an extra hour of killing aliens on the Playstation. I go with what works.
It’s much more powerful to show your children what to do rather than just tell them what to do. Not only does my son get the exercise himself, he gets to see his Dad running and the subliminal message I hope he takes from this is that exercise is a normal and regular part of life to be sought out and not something to be avoided as you get older. My children would love to pronounce me old and decrepid and send me off to the glue factory, but it’s harder for them to do this whilst my 5k time remains better than theirs. Their day will come.
Parkrun teaches me humility every week. I got my personal best this week and I came 17th out of a field of 279 people. But I was still soundly beaten by at least one guy who looked 20 years older than me (ouch) and by a young girl (double ouch).
Your PB is a bit like your net worth. There is always someone quicker than you…just like there is always someone richer than you. Unless you are Mo Farrah or Bill Gates, you have to make peace with this. Personally, I have no problem with that. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on getting faster or richer: my goal is to achieve the best self that I am capable of achieving.
Everything on this site is true. But because it’s on the internet, I guess that a lot of people don’t believe it. After all, the whole concept of financial independence seems too good to be true. So wherever possible, I try to show not just tell. Here is a screenprint of my official Parkrun result email:
I think of my finances a bit like I think about my fitness. I want my money to work hard and to grow as much as possible. Sure I could afford to relax and stop focussing on my investment returns. But over time I’ve come to enjoy the process of getting wealthier not just the outcome. When it comes to finance, I don’t compete with anyone else but I am always trying to improve myself.
I know from giving financial coaching that one of the worries people have is whether they’ve left it too late to learn about investing or to achieve financial independence. The answer is that it’s never too late to learn. We are where we are. We can’t change the past but we can always focus on being the best we can be.
So, like exercise, personal finance is a path to self-improvement. I sometimes think that some of the angry comments you see on FI sites are missing this point. I’m pretty sure that the reason that some people describe FI websites as “preachy” (mistakenly, I think) is that they feel on some level as if they are being judged and found lacking.
I’m not judging you. I don’t think I’m better than you. How could I when I don’t know you?
But here’s what I do know: we can all get better. And I’m better than me.