The Sergeant Major and The Zen Master

If you are going to build wealth, you need to think about trade-offs between now and the future.

Every day you are going to have to make choices between your current self and your future self.

Choices between spending now and investing for the future. Choices between procrastinating and taking action. Choices between patience and impatience.

Think about where you are today and where you could be in 5, 10 or 20 years time. Your two selves are separated (but also linked) by time.

If you choose to buy your freedom (rather than more stuff) your future self will be richer (as well as wiser). If you don’t spend £500 today but instead invest that and get 10% per year compounded over the next 40 years, that £500 grows to £22,600. If you are 35 now and expect to live to at least 75, then the opportunity cost of everything you spend needs to be multiplied by 45x.

I almost called this post Get Rich with Patience but I then realised that I was only covering half of what you need to know. To get rich you have to be really patient and yet really impatient at the same time.

Huh? To achieve financial independence, it helps to have an unusual degree of 1) impatience with your actions and 2) patience with your results.

To illustrate, I would like to introduce you to 2 of my imaginary friends:

  1. The Sergeant Major
  2. The Zen Master

The Sergeant Major is impatient with actions. He helps us get shit done. The Sergeant Major will be familiar to anyone that has watched An Officer And A Gentleman or Full Metal Jacket or pretty much any army bootcamp film or TV reality show.

The Sergeant Major puts new recruits through Boot Camp. He shouts, pokes, prods and generally dishes out whatever it takes to get the soldiers to try harder.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, The Sergeant Major gets a bad press and is often accused of being “shouty” or “aggressive” or even having something called “toxic masculinity”.

I suspect that The Escape Artist is unusual and that most of the population doesn’t have The Sergeant Major in their ear. Whenever I see procrastination I wonder: where is their inner Sergeant Major? Is he Absent Without Leave?

Then we have the Zen Master. The Zen Master will be familiar to anyone that has watched Star Wars (think Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda or the older Luke Skywalker). The Zen Master has as much power as The Sergeant Major (actually more power) but he has a different style. The Zen Master never shouts and is always super-calm even when in the eye of the storm, even when surrounded by chaos.

The Zen Master showed up later in my life; from the age of about 30 onwards (most guys in their 20s are wired to think they know it all). As I got older, I learned to question my first reaction and listen more to The Zen Master.

The Zen Master teaches patience with results. The Zen Master teaches us to focus on the process (that we can control) and stop obsessing about the outcomes (that we can’t). Paying yourself first and buying a global index fund is the process. Your net worth is the outcome: it depends partly on your process (that you control) and partly on the ups and downs of the stockmarket (that you can’t).

The purpose of The Sergeant Major is to get you to take action RIGHT NOW. The purpose of The Zen Master is to keep you calm and present in the moment.

The Sergeant Major and the Zen Master are like Yin and Yang. They are opposites and complement each other. Like light and dark, one can not exist without the other. Together they make a great team, capable of helping you achieve just about anything.

Impatience with actions

When I was a student, I took up rowing. It was a brutal shock to the system. But I did learn something about stoicism and about life. I realised that when your body is screaming at you that you can’t go on any longer, you’re only about half way through what you can do.

Rowing (or more accurately, the training regime) taught me a lot about myself. It taught me what I was capable of if I ground it out. It changed me physically and mentally. It introduced me to The Sergeant Major. After that, he never really left.

After I finished university I chose not to take a gap year and got stuck into the world of work. It was only later when I joined the dots between the maths of compounding and the realities of career choices, that I realised that we are hugely rewarded for cracking on with career and learning the money game as quickly as possible. I was lucky to be fitted with The Sergeant Major who shouted at me to GET ON WITH IT!

Because of the maths of compounding, in later life we get paid BIG for investing in our early years. And it’s not just investing. Everything valuable compounds: including knowledge, reputation and skillz.

Knowing this, The Sergeant Major does not rest whilst cash is sat around idle being slowly melted by inflation just like an ice sculpture at a party. Similarly, when The Sergeant Major comes across high fees in an actively managed fund or a workplace pension, he does not rest until he has eliminated the enemy, completed the transfer and got their compounding machine set up properly.

Similarly, The Sergeant Major does not talk airily about budgets; he ruthlessly prioritises and tracks his spending. The Sergeant Major does not say “I’ll think about it” and then go watch Netflix. Nope, The Sergeant Major gets shit done.

Patience with results

The Zen Master helps us with patience.

And patience is super-important for investing, which rewards a completely different set of traits from the rest of life.

The earning side of the equation is all about hard work, hustle and get up and go. But with investing, the last thing you want is constant activity. For the most part, you just need patience.

Once you have set up your compounding machine correctly, you need patience with the results. Don’t just do something, stand there!

The problem faced by rookie investors is that many are impatient and flighty. The biggest risk for the rookie is panic-selling at the sound of gunfire during stockmarket downturns. They feel like investing is important so it should be hard (no, it shouldn’t) and complicated (no, it shouldn’t). It’s really easy to invest simply and efficiently.

People often get discouraged from building wealth when the fruits of our labours seem too far away in time to justify doing the work. But this is a mistake; like a farmer who refuses to plant crops because they won’t be harvested for several months.

Unfortunately, the rookie investor is amped up by The News Media who compete for clicks and eyeballs in a brutally competitive market, spicing up the stories with an unhealthy mix of scare-mongering and exaggeration. If you think the media will serve you up the unbiased information you need to know, well bless…and good luck with that.

Imagine a farmer who planted their seeds and then a couple of weeks later reads an article in Farming Weekly saying that CABBAGE IS THE NEW LETTUCE and the hot new crop for 2020. What if the farmer dug up their lettuce seeds and replanted them with cabbages? Investors would laugh at any farmer who did that. But isn’t that what we often do as investors?

The Zen Master also saves us from other bad thinking. One such example would be catastrophising where we construct doomsday scenarios of everything that can go wrong. From there its a short step to feeling like things will go wrong and experiencing the trauma of events that will never happen.

The Zen Master reminds us to cross our bridges as we come to them. The Zen Master does not waste time worrying. The past has gone and can not be changed. The future is unknowable and we are not there yet. Now is the moment of power, the only time that we can change with our actions.

The power of The Zen Master comes from the fact that he understands that the best way to win is often not to fight at all. This is not to say that the Zen Master is always passive. The Zen Master may spend most of their time resting in calm contemplation. But they know how and when to strike. Fight effectively, Yoda Can.

If you are missing either a Sergeant Major or a Zen Master, I highly recommend doing the work to get both of them on your team. As I often joke, you’re never alone with Multiple Personality Disorder. 😉


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3 comments

  1. I like that farmer analogy – I might have to use that down the pub when someone has their ‘next hot investing tip’ I definitely need to invest in.

  2. Great post and great read. It’s amazing how differently you can see things when you leave your 20’s especially with the information above.

    As much as I would have liked someone to have told me to wise up, be patient, save and invest in my 20’s, I wouldn’t have listened. I knew it all and all I wanted to do was spend money on consumerism to look good in front of my peers.

  3. Hi,

    I like the attribute of a Zen Master who is applicable to passive investment as per my perspective.

    Well-written post.

    WTK

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