Is it possible to apply leadership and life lessons from the military to your financial life? The answer is a resounding YES. I’ve been in the financial industry long enough to hear some pretty creative metaphors for financial stewardship, and to be fair, some are fantastic, while others are weak or overused. I mean, if I hear another golf metaphor used for a financial concept, I may develop a headache right on the spot.
The reason we financial professionals use metaphors is because we are attempting to create clarity for our clients and prospective clients. Let’s be honest here—we all prefer ideas and explanations that are simple and easy to understand because the greater our level of understanding, the more empowered we feel to take action. Relating something we understand with something we view as complex is one way to make that type of connection.
So, what can a Navy Seal teach you about personal finance? Before I tell you, I’m not going to paint with broad brush strokes here—the specific man I’m referring to is Jocko Willink, who is developing somewhat of a cult following due to the release of his book Extreme Ownership (co-authored with Leif Babin), his consulting company Echelon Front, and his growing podcast audience.
Full disclosure-I have never heard Jocko discuss specific financial ideas, but the themes of his discussions on leadership and discipline have many real life applications to both businesses and individuals who want to succeed with their money.
This is not just the book title—it’s the idea that leaders (this means YOU) must take 100% responsibility for their results. It’s described as, “Leaders must own everything in their world; there is no one else to blame.” You may not view yourself as a leader—you many not have a leadership position at your job, but you are 100% responsible for your personal finances. True, you may have some obstacles and outside influences, yet that still doesn’t release you from personal responsibility. It is way too easy to blame someone or something other than yourself, but what good comes of that? If you want to reach your financial goals—first you must actually have goals (crazy, right?). Next, you must be willing to take 100% responsibility for reaching them.
Simplicity > Complexity
One area that our society is failing at is financial literacy. We teach algebra and geometry in high school, yet we don’t sit our kids down and show them the destructive nature of credit card debt or how to balance a checking account. The end result of this negligence is that most of us learn our financial habits from outside influences such as our parents, and habits, unfortunately, are not the same thing as principles. If you want to win with your finances, you must develop a set of simple financial principles that are unwavering. Often times, people fall into the mental trap that financial matters are too complex and difficult to understand, so they fail to do anything. Or, they begin—but eventually fall right back into their old habits.
Don’t fall for the complexity trap. If you are exploring a strategy or course of action that cannot be explained simply, don’t go for it. This is one of the most common mistakes I see people making with their financial lives— they are trying to implement ideas that are way too complex. The best financial advisors should be able to explain things so that you understand them—in fact, it is part of our job to make the complex become simple. Beware those strategies and ideas that can’t be simplified.
This next paragraph is an exact quote from Jocko where he describes the danger of overthinking your tactics when in combat:
“You’re preparing to take a building and you come up with a plan. You set up two elements to cover and move so you can take the target. But as you begin looking at the map and imagery, you notice that there is another outhouse about 150 meters away from the house. And now that you see it, you decide to break apart your team and dedicate some guys to watch that outhouse just in case. You might think that you’ve covered all of your bases but what you’ve REALLY done is separate your units, increased your communication problems, separated your fields of fire, disaggregated your fire power, diminished your unity of command, broken your SOP…eliminated your tactical advantage for the mere chance that when you hit the house at 2am, the guy is in the outhouse. This is what overthinking can get you.”
Please understand that there is a huge difference between doing your due diligence and overthinking. As an advisor, I want my clients to ask questions and seek understanding. I think any good advisor would welcome that dialogue. However, there comes a point with any plan or strategy when it is time to execute. Overthinking or analysis paralysis rarely benefits anyone in the long-term.
Jocko says, “When people get super detailed about planning, they often fall into the trap of planning for something that can’t be known. How about instead of making a plan for something that can’t possibly be known, make a plan that’s adaptable!”
There are some aspects about your finances and your future that simply cannot be known. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of permutations you attempt to analyze, unknowns will remain unknown —until they are known! Plans that are flexible and adaptable are superior to those that aren’t.
Discipline Equals Freedom
What an amazing phrase this is! This concept can be applied to so many areas of our lives—our health, our wealth, our business, etc. When it comes to personal finance, you must take ownership of your decisions and your outcomes—the good, the bad, and the ugly. This begins with developing the discipline it takes to reach your goals (again—do you have financial goals?).
I run into people all the time that believe they’ll “get serious” about retirement in their 50s. I won’t get into the arithmetic of that talking point, rather I’ll say this-“If you haven’t developed the discipline to save a percentage of your earnings in your 30s and 40s, how do you expect to save 2-3 times that much in your 50s?” The simple truth is that it’s not likely to happen because it’s too painful to make that level of lifestyle adjustment.
Personal finance is a game of discipline. There’s no other way around it. You must determine your goals and work with the level of discipline required to reach them. Stay focused. Be Adaptable. Take Ownership of the outcome. At least, that’s what I think Jocko would say.