Years ago I attended a conference where the trip was more educational than the conference itself. I flew into a local airport and then was driven to my hotel. My hotel was a good hour away from the airport. Fortunately, the conference host provided a car to get me from the airport to the hotel. Unfortunately, my flight was delayed and I did not arrive until after midnight. My driver was still waiting for me at the airport and around 2 in the morning we started the long drive.
Just about the entire drive was through winding, mountainous roads. Being a city kid I was amazed how dark it was on the route. Suddenly, our car started slowing down and the driver pulled over to the side of the road. The driver exited the vehicle, popped the hood, and then walked around to the trunk of the car and removed an empty milk bottle. I asked him if we should try and call for assistance while realizing I had no cell signal. He motioned for me to follow him as he walked into the thick woods. We walked a couple of minutes until we came to a small stream. He dipped the bottle into the stream, filled it, and turned around to head back to the car. Once we were at the car he opened the radiator cap and poured the water into it. He then closed the hood, we both jumped back into the car and the car started right up. We then proceeded the rest of the way to the hotel.
Once we arrived I asked him how he knew there was water a few minutes from where our car broke down. He explained to me he did not. However, his experience told him we were in a mountainous area and there was bound to be a stream filled with runoff from the mountain nearby. He couldn’t control that the car overheated, he couldn’t control the lack of a cell phone signal, but he had the experience and expertise to focus on staying calm and finding water to put in the car so we could get back on the road.
Okay, so this never happened. I read a similar story recently from Sam Zell. I saw this sketch from Carl Richards and thought the two themes matched – focusing on the intersection of things that matter and what you can control.
So often in the world of investing and retirement planning people want to focus on things completely out of their control. Whether it is the individual movement of a certain stock, the sequence of returns of the market as a whole, or the next great investment scheme, I mean strategy. While these items are exciting and matter with your investment success, know they fall outside the world of what you control. Instead, your experience should tell you it makes more sense to focus on things that matter within your control. They include items such as controlling fees, managing for taxes, and developing a solid and personalized financial plan. Wouldn’t you rather be the guy who has the experience to search for water versus the goofball trying to get a cell signal in the middle of nowhere.