10 Quick Ways to Improve Yourself Every Single Day

It’s that time of year when most people start to work on “resolutions” for next year. But don’t wait until January 1 to put those resolutions into action. Significant, life-improving change takes a long time – and the time to start is always right now.

I should know.

Perhaps because of a perennially low sense of self-esteem (probably deserved), I’ve been working on improving myself ever since Sister Christopher, my Grade 1 teacher, rubbed a wad of chewing gum into my hair as punishment for chewing it in class. (“That will teach you! And now maybe your parents will give you a proper crew cut!”)

So – and not to brag – when it comes to self-improvement, you have to agree: I got an early start.

Alas, we cannot become smarter, more skillful, more disciplined, or happier simply by choosing to be so. But the good news is (and you won’t hear this anywhere else – for the time being) that all of the psychological benefits of positive change come to you the moment you start changing. They are not dependent on the goal.

Another bonus: Studies show that the best way to change is through small, repeated actions.

Here are 10 “small” actions you can take every day that will make your life better:

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Learning, Practicing, and Understanding

Thursday, December 20, 2018

 Delray Beach, FL.- What’s going to be on your list of New Year’s Resolutions for 2019? Do you want to become a masterful writer? Marketer? CEO?

Whatever your goal is, know this: There are four stages in mastering a complex skill: learning, practicing, and understanding.

The first two are intertwined. The last is an achievement.

You cannot practice without some little bit of learning. And you cannot learn without a lot of practice. But the understanding… oh, that’s the wonder!

Let me explain.

For some time now, I’ve been mentoring three young people in the financially valuable skill of writing advertising copy.

Each week, they bring in some piece of copy for me to critique. These are not long pieces. Nor are they complete. They are early drafts of what we call “leads” – headlines and the first 300 to 700 words of copy.

When mentoring copywriters, I like working with leads because they are short and yet they provoke the most important questions about advertising:

For example:

* Does the headline work? Does it hook my attention? Does it make me want to read on with positive expectations?

* Does the rest of the lead introduce an emotionally compelling promise or idea? Does that promise or idea meet the prospect where he is at the moment of reading? Does it build from there? Does it leave the prospect desperate for more?

* What type of lead is being used? A story lead? A secret lead? A promise? An offer? If it is a secret lead, is it followed by a story? If a story leads, is a secret introduced?

The other advantage of using leads for teaching copy is that if their leads are flawed (as they often are), the flaws will typically be the most common mistakes junior copywriters make.

For example:

* Mistaking topics for ideas

* Breaking “the rule of one” – i.e., presenting  multiple ideas or making multiple promises

* Making claims without proof

* Writing copy that is generalized and/or vague

I’ve been using this teaching format for decades, and it’s usually good and useful. Smart, hardworking students generally make fast progress. I’m sure there are other ways to teach and learn that are as good or better for individuals. But for me, this is a protocol that has proven to be effective for most people most of the time.

One thing that has surprised me is that there is little to no relationship between a person’s ability to understand a writing principle and his/her ability to put that principle to work.

In fact, I’ve been confounded by how often, after, for example, explaining how a particular headline isn’t working, I will get the same mistake the very next day. And the day after that. And so on.

When I first noticed this many years ago, I assumed the fault was mine. That I had not explained the principle clearly. But repeated and even variant explanations of the same principle did no good.

So was it the student? Was it his fault?

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Principles of Wealth #23*

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Delray Beach, FL.- Wall Street promotes the idea that investing in stocks and bonds is the sensible way to grow rich. But a strategy that focuses solely or even primarily on stocks and bonds is a flawed strategy. The prudent wealth builder knows this.

Pat told me about the great delivery service he’s been getting from Company A. “The other guys,” he said, “they just drop the packages over the fence. But Company A’s guy drives in and delivers my packages to the door.”

“I really like this company,” Pat said. “So I did some research. And based on what I learned, I think it’s a good investment. I’m going to buy their stock.”

It sounds smart. It reminds me of how, in One Up on Wall Street, Peter Lynch described his amazing success as the manager of Magellan Fund, which made 29.2% from 1977 to 1990, bringing the assets under management from $18 million to $14 billion.

“Invest in what you know,” was Lynch’s most popular investment rule. He attributed his success to his habit of going beyond the spreadsheets and looking under the hoods of the businesses he bought. He argued that the average investor could do the same.

He was wrong about that. And there’s a good chance that Pat will be wrong about the trade he’s about to make.

Why do I say that?

Because the average investor can’t possibly know enough about the stocks he buys to achieve a 29.2% return over a long stretch of time. The average investor, in fact, can’t even achieve the average overall market ROI of 9% to 10% over time. The average investor makes a third of that, if he’s lucky.

When Lynch talked about investing in companies you know, he meant that you should know more than you can ascertain from the public filings, from the balance sheet, the P&Ls, metrics such as P/E ratios, etc. He liked to get inside the industry a bit, get to know the players, ask questions of the execs and the frontline workers.

Lynch had the power to do that. The average investor doesn’t. At best he can do the kind of research that Pat did on Company A. But that’s not nearly enough. He’s still very much on the outside.

I’ve been “inside” the investment advisory business for more than 30 years. I have known dozens and dozens of managers and analysts. I know many of the best-known gurus. Most of them are smart. Most of them are driven. Some of them beat the market for a while. But few can match Lynch’s record. (And Lynch’s performance, let’s not forget, ended after 13 years.) So how can the average investor expect to do what even the pros can’t?

No matter what you hear from Wall Street, the stock and bond markets are not there to help the average investor get rich. They are there to provide fees and commissions to brokers, managers, and analysts.

Buying stocks and bonds is a sensible thing to do if you see it as a part, and only a part, of an overall investment strategy. What the smart investor should expect from his stocks and bonds is what the market is willing to give average investors. And that is average returns – 9% to 10%. Not 29.2%.

Now I agree with Lynch and I’ve said it a thousand times:  The smart way to build wealth is to invest in what you know. But when I say know, I mean know inside and out. I mean know with your eyes closed. I mean know the beating heart of it.

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How Good Are Your Products? Why It Matters Even If Your Customers Can’t Tell

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Delray Beach, FL.- My family has a small interest in a Craft Beer Brewery owned by friends of ours. Because our interest is small and because they are friends, I do my best to limit my input to answering questions they ask, which are few and far between.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have questions of my own.

Since the beginning, for example, I’ve wondered how much taste matters when it comes to selling beer. Is there a relationship between how good a beer tastes and how well it sells? Is there even such a thing as “good” and “not good” when it comes to taste?

I’m intrigued by this issue because I’ve had to grapple with something similar in almost every business I’ve worked with – questions about the relationship between product quality and sales.

In this particular case, my friends have spent a small fortune working on the quality of their brands. To them, there is a real difference between the quality of one pilsner and another.

They also believe – and this I don’t dispute – that consistency in taste is a very important factor in building a best-selling brand.

But is the taste of one beer really better than another? Or is it just a matter of personal preference?

And if so, why bother trying to make your beer taste “better” according to some expert standard of excellence? Wouldn’t it be smarter to simply find out which ones have the widest consumer appeal?

The fact is, I’ve been thinking about the question of quality in relationship to everything from cigars and wine to art and literature for most of my adult life.

And here’s what I believe: There is an absolute difference. Some Cabernets are better than others. As are some cigars. As are some books. As are some works of art.

But the number of people that can identify or even notice gradations of quality are small. Depending on the item in question, my guess is that less than 10% can tell the difference.

When it comes to cigars and tequila, I consider myself among the minority that can distinguish between, good, bad, and mediocre. I feel the same way about literature and art.

Beer? I haven’t a clue. And I’m willing to bet that 90% of the beer drinking market can’t tell the difference either. Actually, I’d say 98% of the mainstream beer drinking market and perhaps 80% of the craft beer market.

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Got a Tag Line? When It Makes Sense to Have a Personal Brand

Tuesday, December  11, 2018

Delray Beach, FL.- A colleague refers to himself in his publicity as “the world’s most ___-ed man.”

Good idea or bad idea?

Epithets have power when they are short and apt and memorable. Like Honest Abe. Or Tricky Dick.

In my colleague’s case, the tag came honestly – borrowed from a book jacket endorsement. And he’s been repeating it lately in what looks like a strategic effort to carve out a “niche” in his market.

It’s an old but still interesting approach: Find an unoccupied knoll in the landscape of your industry, claim it as your own, and then do everything you can to remain king of it. If you can gain the reputation of being the smartest or most honest or most reliable person in your neck of the marketplace, you’ve achieved something very valuable.

Likewise, gaining a reputation for being a master of a particular business skill is immensely valuable. You will always have more work than you can handle. And you’ll be able to charge more for your time than your competitors will be getting. In fact, if you are smart in choosing customers/clients, you could make twice or three times the amount others in your field typically make.

And once you have the reputation, using an epithet is a super-efficient tool for establishing a personal brand.

Building True Expertise

If the field you work in is crowded, it’s difficult to rise to the top. This is when it makes sense to narrow your brand to a small or neglected niche.

For example, 20 years ago, when I first started writing about business (in Early to Rise), there were all sorts of people out there claiming to be experts in internet marketing.

But within five years, the field had expanded so rapidly that it was no longer credible to position oneself as an Internet Marketing Master. So what happened then was a proliferation of people promoting themselves as gurus of particular aspects of internet marketing – like free-to-paid or VSLs or webinars or product launches. Dozens of individuals developed multimillion-dollar businesses by claiming the high ground in these niche areas.

To be successful as an internet marketer today, you have to get even more specific. You might, for example, develop expertise in product launch formulas for natural health products using YouTube as the medium. So if I were starting out now and wanted to enjoy the benefits of a personal brand, I’d certainly consider using the efficiency of an epithet. But I’d make sure that it would be a very, very narrow handle that I could justly claim for myself. Because if you claim to be what you are not, you will do the opposite of what you want to do.

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My No Brainer “System” for Knowing When to Buy a Stock

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Delray Beach, Florida.- Most of the stocks in my core investment portfolio – my Legacy Portfolio – are dividend-paying stocks. And since I don’t rely on cash from those dividends for current income, my practice is to reinvest it.

The common way this is done is automatically through a dividend reinvestment program (DRIP). That is an order you give to your broker to use the dividends of a stock to buy more of that same stock.

When I designed the Legacy Portfolio (with the help of Tom Dyson and Greg Wilson), I wanted very much to reinvest the dividends, but I was doubtful about DRIPs. My question to them was a simple one:

“In every other investment I’ve ever made, the price I pay for the asset matters. I assume this applies to stocks. If that’s true, why would I use DRIPs, which are designed to buy more of the same stock regardless of the price?

“What if, instead of automatically investing each dividend in the selfsame stock, we accumulated the dividends as they arrived, kept them in cash for a while, and then invested them in just one or maybe two stocks that were currently underpriced?”

Tom and Greg did a fairly extensive analysis of my proposition and came back with the encouraging conclusion that such a practice would increase overall yield. (I don’t remember the differential, but it was significant.)

I mentioned this in a recent videotaped interview that Legacy Publishing group did with Bill Bonner, Doug Casey, and me. And it prompted a viewer to write this to me:

“I’ve read your strategy for buying income-producing real estate. You determine whether the asking price is fair or not with a simple formula: 8 times gross rent. What I want to know is if you have such a simple formula for determining the value of a particular stock, both for making the initial purchase and for re-investing the dividends.”

This is what I told him…

Determining a “fair” price for a dividend stock is a bit more complicated than it is when you are valuing income-producing real estate.

For one thing, stocks are shares in businesses, and businesses are more dynamic than houses and apartment buildings.

They are dynamic and they are organic. How they change is not up to you. Rental properties, on the other hand, are fixed and tangible. Except for an event like a hurricane or fire (which can be insured against), they change only when you do something to them (add a bathroom, paint the walls, etc.).

Which is to say it’s easier to get a reliable estimate of the market value of a rental property. You compare it to similar properties in that location at that time.

That said, there are numerous ways to determine whether a particular stock, a stock sector, or the market is  “well” or “fairly” priced.

As Bill Bonner pointed out in his December 7 Diary, Warren Buffett’s favorite yardstick was to measure the relationship of total market capitalization (the value of all stocks added together) to GDP. Logic dictates that a good ratio would be below 100%, because a stock cannot be worth much more than the GDP of the country that supports it.

Another, more indirect, way to look at it, Bill said, is to compare U.S. household net worth(which includes real estate, bonds, and stocks) to national output.

And yet another calculation looks at the number of hours the typical person would have to work to buy the S&P 500 Index.

What are all these measurements telling us about the U.S. stock market today?

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The Wide Reach of the Blame-and-Shame Industry… or, How to Stop Waiting for Deus-ex-Machina Solutions to Unfairness and Inequality, Part 2

Wednesday, December 5th

Delray Beach, FL.- Aiden, a reader from South Africa, wrote recently, taking me to task for the essay I wrote about the very hot (in certain circles) topic of white male privilege. https://www.markford.net/white-male-privilege-where-do-you-stand-on-the-social-justice-scale#more-4272

(Aiden – thanks for the letter.)

The idea is not complicated: Historically, white men have benefited from being at the top of the pecking order in most modern societies. Some activists argue that this advantage became institutionalized in the economic, political, and cultural experience of people as paternalistic hierarchies —  and that this is responsible for most of what is bad in the world. In particular, the grossly unequal distribution of wealth and power that hampers (if not actually prohibits) the advancement of all women and every other ethnic and racial group.

Their argument is, in other words, a philosophy of blaming.

Aiden’s letter was, in part, a reiteration of their stance that since white males are to blame, the solution is to knock them out of their privileged positions and replace them with women and people of color. Once that is done, the equality of not just opportunities but outcomes will be possible.

In South Africa, he says, “white male privilege is real.” And 24 years after apartheid was abolished, it is still “glaringly obvious” in every corner of the country, from “the boardrooms of large corporate companies to the dusty streets of the townships.”

“As a colored man from South Africa,” he says, “I live in a world that is unfair, unequal, and scaled on gender-race privilege.”

He challenged me: “Now ask yourself, how is a black child who is undernourished, uneducated, and displaced supposed to raise themselves out of poverty and into a world where they have more than enough?”

Here is my answer:

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The Wide Reach of the Blame-and-Shame Industry… or, How to Stop Waiting for Deus-ex-Machina Solutions to Unfairness and Inequality, Part 1

Monday, December 3, 2018

Delray Beach,FL.- One of the first things a copywriter learns about selling diet products is that it is very important to say, at some early point in the sales message, “It’s not your fault.”

This does several good things.

  • It makes the targeted customer feel good to have the burden of responsibility lifted from his shoulders.
  • It relieves, to some degree, the shame of being overweight. (“If it’s not my fault, why should I be ashamed?”)
  • It creates a sympathetic bond between the person delivering the message and the targeted customer.

Now if you know anything about obesity, you know that there is sometimes some truth to the not-your-fault statement. Some causes of obesity are genetic. Not all. But some. And it is perfectly fair to assert that one of the reasons Americans are so fat is because they’ve been given incorrect information about healthy eating since they were children. The widely held (and then dispelled) idea, for example, that eggs are both fattening and also a danger to heart health. So you can imagine that the copywriter with a conscience might want to mention facts like these in his copy to support the much broader claim that obesity is not the fat person’s fault.

Bad eating habits are, of course, the primary cause of obesity. But the intelligent copywriter knows he’s not going to sell any diet pills by pointing that out.

We do the same thing when we are selling wealth-building products. Recognizing that our targeted customer feels angry and/or ashamed because of his lack of financial success, we can offer him some immediate relief by telling him that it is not his fault – even though some part of it probably is.

How I Learned to Avoid Shame by Blaming Myself

Many years ago, when I first began to study advertising, the gurus at the time pretty much agreed that the most effective ads were those that appealed to the prospective customer’s emotions – in particular, to his greed or fear. I launched an argument then that continues today: those hidden emotions, like shame, are much stronger. And that indirectly addressing those emotions is a much better way to gain and keep customers.

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Intimations of Mortality

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Delray Beach, Florida.- My friend Alec sent this brief note to me this morning:

“A light went out in our bathroom.  I remember that I changed it 14 years ago.  I showed my son how to do it, thinking surely it is the last time that I’ll change it.”

It reminded me of something Gary North, who was in his mid-sixties at the time, wrote about a dozen years ago. It went something like this:

“Just bought a suit. It’s inexpensive but well made, a nondescript charcoal gray that I can wear for almost any occasion. A good investment, considering the likelihood that this may be the last suit I ever buy.”

It stunned – and spooked – me.

Now I’m doing the same thing. All the time.

Should I get a new car? I don’t see why. I have more cars than I need right now. The car I drive is an Audi S5 coupe. I bought it slightly used five years ago. It’s fantastic – reliable and fun.

The other two, a 27-year-old Acura NSX and a 13-year-old BMW 850, are rarely used. Should I sell them? No. They cost almost nothing to maintain. And they will likely hold their value. Someone will figure out what to do with them when I die.

The last suit I bought – for Patrick’s wedding five years ago… was that my last? Yes, I think it was. I have a half-dozen perfectly good suits in my closet. I might wear each of them once a year.

Sometimes these intimations of mortality prompt me to spend more.

“A six-foot tree would be one-quarter the price,” Paul Craft, my palm tree consultant, tells me. “And it will be 30 feet tall in only 15 or 20 years.”

Only 15 or 20 years?” I say, laughing and shaking my head. “No. Order the biggest one you can find.”

We joke about death, but only to trivialize it, to temporarily diminish the dread.

At my book club meeting last night, we talked about the fear of death. (We were reviewing two books: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari and The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant.) About half of the group (four) admitted to that fear. The other half said they didn’t. I said that the only way one can be fearless about one’s death is to deny it. I said something like, “If you really contemplate your own death, the utter extinction of your personal self, you cannot feel anything but terror.”

I did not persuade them.

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Odds Stacked Against You? Stop Bitching and Get to Work!

November 24, 2018

 

Nicaragua.- NP believes that when parents hit their seventies they should start giving away their assets to their children as fast as they can.

“Making them wait till you die is manipulative,” he says.

I say “I don’t think parents should feel obliged to leave their kids anything. They should expect their kids to be able to take care of themselves.”

NP also believes that older parents should live in assisted living facilities so that they “aren’t a burden to their adult children.”

I believe adult children should feel honored to take care of their parents as they become less capable of caring for themselves. “Caring for a family member is a privilege,” I say. “And it’s morally correct. These are the people that gave you life and took care of you for umpteen years when you couldn’t care for yourself.”

We were talking about the same topic, but our views are 180 degrees apart. And yet when we talk about other things that matter – work and economics and politics – our views tend to be aligned.

Why is that?

I think I know why because I have known NP since he was a small child. His dad and I were partners for many years.

NP’s parents held family in high regard. And within the family, children came first. When it came to education, public schools were not even considered. And when it came to selecting private schools, they would sacrifice anything to make sure their kids went to the best.

They had the same idea about “things” like cars and clothes and computers and everything else.

My parents came from a culture for which family was important but the role of children within the family was very different. Children were not the focus. They were expected to help out and to respect their elders. And anything they got – which was very little – they got not because they deserved it, but because their parents were being generous.

Today, I have friends that brought up their kids as NP’s parents did. And I have friends that brought them up the way my parents did. (Which was the way K and I brought up our kids.)

I also have a few friends that had an entirely different attitude. They seemed to believe their responsibilities as parents ended at the child’s birth. They abandoned their children when they were very young and never looked back.

What’s going on here?

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