Five Ways Building Wealth is like Running a Marathon
This past weekend, I crossed a major item off my bucket list: I finished my first marathon.
The training took months. It affected everything in my life for awhile (as my wife would attest). As I was running plodding through some of the later miles of the race, I reflected that building wealth really is similar to preparing for and running a marathon. This can be hard to hear. We live in an age of instant gratification, and so we look for ways to get rich quick. We’re always looking for something we can do quickly — a short sprint — as a shortcut to success.
But tips and tricks only get us so far. At the end of the day, building wealth is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.
Here are five ways building wealth is like running a marathon:
1.) It takes time.
Anyone who’s successfully run the 26.2 miles of a marathon knows that a lot of work goes into preparing for that day. Distance running is not something that can be crammed into a couple weekends of procrastinated, hurried work. For a successful marathon, the preparation can’t be rushed.
The same is true of building wealth. Although everyone likes to dream about winning the lottery, wealth very rarely comes this way (and when it does, it doesn’t stick around). The millionaires and billionaires Sound Stewardship has worked with created their net worths by following basic principles, such as living below your means, saving aggressively, having a long term plan. Pretty straightforward, yes — but not easy to implement. It takes time.
Even if wealth from an inheritance shows up overnight, it wasn’t built that way. The money itself was created by years of diligent application of good stewardship principles. The heir’s parents or grandparents had to do something right to build that wealth. They had to live by the principles. We love stories of overnight success, but these stories typically gloss over the years of hardship and struggle it took to build the rewards. Success is incremental.
2.) You have to run your own race.
The last six miles of a marathon have a special reputation. At this phase of the race, the challenge becomes most intense. For me, the mental games were as fierce as the physical difficulties. Since this was my first marathon, I didn’t know exactly what my perfect pace would be. I ended up starting too fast, so I needed to slow significantly in these later miles. It was tempting to get discouraged as people passed me by. I wanted to compare myself to them and define my success by my ability to keep up.
Experienced runners know this is a major mistake. You have to run your own race. Comparing yourself to others and focusing too much on how others are doing is a recipe for failure. It can cause you to make pacing mistakes or skip the walking breaks that could greatly extend your stamina. Instead, success comes by defining personal goals, exploring your own ideal path to get there, and then executing on that path.
Our culture is also one of comparison. We’re constantly bombarded by advertising that’s designed to make us compare ourselves to those in the ads. Marketing is designed to make us feel like we’re behind where we should be — where we could be.
Personally, I don’t often feel a strong pull to “keep up with the Joneses.” For me, the financial anxiety is strongest when I want my kids to keep up with the Joneses’ kids. I look at the opportunities my children’s peers receive, and I am tempted to do anything to get them these opportunities. And if this Atlantic article is an indication, this is a major reason that so many Americans build up debt and live without an emergency reserve. One reason we can’t save is that we don’t want to withhold any experiences from our children. This too is a major mistake, and ironically, one of the things that most holds back affluent Americans (and their children).
3.) It’s not a great goal in itself.
Running a marathon is an admirable objective. Like many goals, however, it does not make a great goal in itself. Finishing a race like this serves as a secondary goal, not a primary goal.
Here’s what I mean: Many people choose objectives like this one because they are easily definable. Common examples include losing weight, taking a certain trip, career accomplishments, or reaching a financial target. But these are all secondary goals. Each objective has something more important behind it than the actual target listed.
Consider asking WHY: Why do you want to lose weight? Is it so you can be healthier and have more time for friends and family? Why do you want to travel? Is it to create memories and deepen relationships with loved ones? Keeping these purpose-focused goals front and center will do more to maintain your motivation than the top-level ones.
For me, the race was an opportunity to run alongside my brother and father. My father himself has run many marathons, but he’s thinking about slowing down. I wanted at least one opportunity to run with him. This was what kept me going when I felt like sleeping in and skipping a workout.
It’s important that each individual find out why money is a goal of theirs. In this exercise, two things will happen: 1) You will find increased motivation. 2) You may find shortcuts toward your real goal. There are plenty of ways non-runners could have spent quality time with parents.
If we’re not careful, the top level goals may even push us away from the underlying goals. The stereotypical example is the hard-working father who pursues wealth to give his kids a great life, but then leaves them practically fatherless because of his workaholism. This a common trap.
4.) It’s best not to do it alone.
Experienced runners know the importance of learning from others. What distance should I run on the weekends? How long should I use one pair of shoes? Is this pain here normal?
There are a lot of options for runners to work with others. Running coaches provide individual or group sessions. Running websites offer tips and tricks. Training programs created by experts keep you on track. Running partners provide companionship, accountability, and safety. Physical therapists help you stay away from injury.
Wealth building is the same way, yet we very rarely seek help. Social scientists have noted that money is perhaps the most taboo subject in American culture today. People don’t talk about their money problems together.
As a financial planner, I’m obviously a big proponent of professional help. I regularly have conversations with clients that they don’t feel could be had with their friends, co-workers or even pastors. Because we address the real goals behind the money, we often uncover insights that would be hard to discover on your own.
5.) It builds on itself.
This marathon was not my first race. I have run many 5Ks and half marathons before. In many ways, those years of races were preparation for this longer race. And this race itself may be groundwork for something more. The habit of running has helped me become healthy enough that I can target big goals like this one. The final way that wealth building is like running a marathon is that the fun is not over once the race is done.
Living a healthy financial lifestyle is the same way. Each victory contributes to a strength that builds over time. Eventually, financial feats that seemed impossible become commonplace. Goals we could not imagine before fall into place because of years of good decisions. Those on the outside may be envious of the ease at which it appears wealth comes. But they don’t see the groundwork — the “maintenance miles” — that came before the success.
Very few of you will ever run a marathon. I’m not sure that I ever will again! But we’re all in a financial marathon, whether we like it or not. How we train and practice will mean the difference between gasping for air or crossing the finish with a smile.< Back to Updates