Goals are important. Without goals, it’s difficult to have success. Think about this for a moment. If the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t have a goal to win the 2017 Super Bowl, they probably wouldn’t have hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy last February. If Apple didn’t have a goal to completely change the way we interact with technology, the iPhone probably wouldn’t be breaking sales records. If a family doesn’t have a goal to replicate their pre-retirement income during retirement, they probably won’t.
Irina and I have a goal - to successfully reach the top of as many US state highpoints as possible. One of our sub-goals this past July was to successfully reach the summit of Mt. Rainier, Washington’s highpoint. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it because we suffered from altitude sickness around 1:30 am at 12,200’ as we were climbing up the rocks on the Disappointment Cleaver. So, we had to turn around and climb back down to high camp while the rest of the team continued toward the summit. What a “disappointment!” Out of the previous 46 state highpoints we attempted, there was only one, Boundary Peak in Nevada that we didn’t reach on our first try. Ironically, that was also because of altitude sickness!
What I have discovered during our climbing, is that I learn a lot more from trying and failing than I do from trying and succeeding. So, I want to share some things I learned from failing to summit Mt. Rainier. My hope is that my lessons learned can help you work toward your family’s financial goals.
IDENTIFY KNOWN RISKS IN ADVANCE AND CREATE CONTINGENCY PLANS
Very few plans execute without something going wrong. Therefore, part of planning for any goal should include contingency planning for known risks. Some of the risks inherent in mountain climbing are altitude sickness, rock and ice fall, unexpected weather, physical and emotional injury, dried up water sources and unforeseen changes to route or terrain.
By knowing that altitude sickness is a risk, by understanding the associated symptoms, and by having a plan for how to handle the possibility, we were in a better position to make a safe decision to return to high camp. If we hadn’t contingency planned in advance, we might have continued toward the summit, which could have made the situation worse.
Big risks can derail your financial plans. As you plan for your various goals, make sure that you are aware of the known risks along the path to your goals. Two examples of known risks as they relate to retirement planning are economic recession and bear markets. As part of your planning, consider creating a contingency plan for how you will handle these situations – before they happen. It’s a lot easier to execute a contingency plan that is well thought out in advance as opposed to creating and executing a response to a crisis while it is happening.
KNOW WHAT IS NORMAL AND WHAT IS NOT NORMAL
This one is important. You need to know what is normal and what is not normal so that you can identify when something is going wrong. In the case of mountain climbing, we need to know what our body feels like when climbing at high altitude. How do our muscles respond? How fast does our heart beat? What is a typical breathing pattern? What is a normal pace? How fast does our heart recover after an anaerobic burst?
On Mt. Rainier, in the middle of the night, in the dark, when we were sleep deprived and dehydrated, we needed to be able to identify that something was wrong. Sounds simple, but it’s not. Adrenalin is flowing, our brains are oxygen deprived, and emotionally, we want to keep moving toward the summit. If we hadn’t been aware of what was normal and what was not normal, we might have continued our climb – and altitude sickness doesn’t get better as one gains more altitude.
With your investment planning, you should understand how your investments will operate over the course of a market cycle. How might they perform when markets are up? When markets are down? When interest rates are increasing? When interest rates are decreasing? What is a normal operating range during any given year? What impact will diversification have on your investments? Should you expect your investments to outperform their associated indexes every year? Remember, by understanding what is normal, you will understand what is not. When your investments are performing abnormally, that is the time to consider a modification. If you can’t identify what is abnormal, you might continue on a path that is inconsistent with your goals. On the other hand, if you don’t know what is abnormal, you might make a change when things are operating normally – which is equally hazardous.
THINGS THAT ARE BEYOND OUR CONTROL CAN INFLUENCE OUR ABILITY TO ACHIEVE A GOAL - AND IT'S OK
Planning should involve stacking the deck in your favor. Identifying the things that you can control as well as the things that you can’t. Then, focus your energy on the things that you can control, and let go of everything else. For example, on the mountain, we simply can’t control the weather. At high altitudes, weather can change rapidly, and often these changes can’t be forecast. Is it frustrating when we spend months training and planning to climb a mountain only to be turned around by thunder storms or snow storms? You bet!
Even though we thought we were well prepared for Mt. Rainier, we were turned around by something that we couldn’t control. Our body’s reaction to less oxygen. Altitude sickness is a funny beast. You might climb the same mountain two different times and suffer from altitude sickness on one climb and not the other. Things that we tried to control were: where we trained, our diet, hydration, sleep, altitude acclimation and the way we breathed during the climb. And, it still wasn’t enough. With your financial planning, you might find that no matter how much you try to control, it may not be enough either!
Is it frustrating to spend years saving and investing toward that perfect retirement date, only to be thwarted by an unexpected downsizing that snatched your job away? Of course! Is it frustrating for the economy to be thrust into recession the year you retire? Yes! Is it scary when stock market volatility increases when unpredictable world events cause uncertainty and fear? Absolutely! And, these things might happen. We have no control over them. As a result, you may not make your goal. But it’s really okay; although you may be disappointed, you can hold your head high because you did everything in your power to get there.
UNDERSTAND WHY YOU DIDN'T MEET YOUR GOAL AND DECIDE WHAT'S NEXT
Once the emotional sting of not reaching a goal has subsided, make an honest assessment of why you didn’t reach the goal. Debrief. The goal of the debrief is to identify all of the factors that played a part in missing the goal and determine if there is anything that you could have done differently to reach your missed goal. This is where the real learning takes place.
From our debrief, we believe there were a few things that might have contributed to our altitude sickness on Mt. Rainier. First, we didn’t train at high altitudes (living on the east coast and work got in the way). Maybe we could have incorporated a couple of trips to Colorado to climb at altitude. Second, we didn’t sleep well the first night (we were in a tiny area with six other people, enough said). Maybe there are a couple of things we could have done to improve the quality of our sleep. Finally, we probably could have hydrated better. There are no water faucets on the mountain, so melting snow is the preferred method of securing safe water to drink. In hindsight, we could have consumed more water. Maybe these changes would have helped, maybe not. But certainly they wouldn’t have hurt.
Going through the process of self-reflection should help you decide if your goal is still attainable, if the goal should be changed, or if the goal should be dropped altogether. Here is a situation that I ran into a few years ago. Our clients were saving for college for their three children. Their goal had been to send their children to the best college that they could attend. During their saving years, unexpected job losses and health issues derailed their savings plans. Although they still wanted to send their children to the best college they could attend, they realized that doing so would not only derail their own retirement plans but would also saddle their children with a lot of student debt. So, they decided their children would attend less expensive colleges. This is a good example of changing the goal.And, self-reflection made them realize that it is better to “over save” and have a cushion in case the unexpected occurred. So, they increased their annual savings toward retirement.
Your goals are important. That is why we spend so much time talking with you about them. We know that achieving goals is hard. That most of us need help. That is why we created our Wealth Management process, which is built around Planning, Guidance and Advice. Planning helps you identify your goals, develop strategies to move toward them and develop contingency plans for the big risks. Guidance helps you monitor your progress, to know if you are on track, and to see if there are any new risks that need to be addressed. And, Advice is all about helping you when you have questions, opportunities, problems, concerns and fears along the way. Which includes debriefing when goals aren’t reached.
October is National Financial Planning Month. Take a few moments to think about your goals. Then call us to let us know what they are, so we can brainstorm about how we can best help you.
And, please follow Irina and me as we try to summit Mt. Rainier for the second time on July 3-5, 2019. Our highpointing journey is part of our Second Half Strategies – to see the world, meet interesting people, create more bonds with each other and stay physically fit.
What are your Second Half Strategies?