Never Underweight Humility

Our sons have been playing in a summer basketball league and have entered the playoff season.  The first opponent they faced was a team they had beaten easily during the regular season.

“They don’t know how to play!  We’re going to kill them!” my son said.

“You played them at the beginning of the season, things could have come together by now,” I cautioned.  “Never underestimate your opponent in a game, or in life.”

Cue the eye roll – because you know that’s exactly how he responded.

As my son pointed out, I don’t know much about basketball. But there’s this little matter of having lived more than half a century and having seen a thing or two – especially upsets.

Going around thinking you’re the bomb can cause an explosion, all right.  Reality shows like Top Chef and Project Runaway delight in showing contestants openly bragging that this week’s challenge is their area of expertise and how they will smoke the competition. The episode usually ends with the contestant eating crow and heading back home or barely squeaking by – kind of like winning a basketball game by a measly five points, which is what happened.

With the EBI West Conference still fresh in my mind, I thought back to one of the speakers, Michael Lombardi, an America football executive.  He spoke about lessons for life and business.  Basically, he spoke about what makes great, great.

Mr. Lombardi worked as an assistant coach to one of the most successful football franchises, the New England Patriots, under the impressive (if not grumpy) Bill Belichick.  What separates the Patriots from other teams is the fact that they have appeared in more Super Bowls than any other team and eight of those 10 appearances were under the guiding hand of Belichick.

Lombardi credits a culture of humility as an important factor in the team’s historic successes.  Every season starts as if the previous season’s wins didn’t exist.  This explains why the locker room is bare.  Past triumphs matter not and they certainly won’t get the Team another championship.

Giving into an ego stroke would derail them – and that won’t help them establish themselves as the team with the most Super Bowl wins (that distinction belongs to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have won six championships to the Patriot’s, five).

I have seen this happen with investors who have had a good run of things; though unlike a football franchise, often times luck – not skill, talent or discipline – was behind the success.  Pride blinds the eye to the truth and can poison future success.  Add into the equation exceptionally high, earned income and the hunger to make a better future can start to wane.

Life is good, it will always be good.  Aren’t I great?

To be successful in life – and investing – requires that you prepare yourself to perform in all environments – favorable and hostile; each has its own challenges.

Keeping a cool head requires a plan to keep the ego in check when things are going well and to not give in when you’re getting knocked around.

Here is what this might look like:

  • When times are good, save more. You can afford to and, when the market turns volatile you will feel better for having put more away when you could.  It also forces you to live off of less; being lean never hurt anyone.
  • Rebalance, rebalance, rebalance. Your advisor should help you determine the appropriate mix of investments given your time frame and your risk tolerance, but as the markets move your portfolio can get out of balance.  For example, if an allocation of 70% stocks and 30% bonds makes sense for you, and stocks go down in value, your allocation might shift to 60% stocks and 40% bonds.  Rebalancing forces you to sell the bonds (high) to buy the stocks (low) to return to the 70%/30% mix.  These adjustments needn’t take place frequently, but keep an eye out for major shifts in allocations.
  • Understand what you have and why. There is a temptation to load up on an asset class that has performed well.  A good portfolio has a mix of investments – both the top performers and the bottom performers.  You need to own them all in order to participate in the market shifts that topple last year’s “winners.”  If you know the role all these investments have in your portfolio, you will not over-weight one investment type because it is the latest rage.
  • Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard. Be happy for the successes you get, but understand that how you are prepared to handle the difficult times will dictate your long-term financial health more than your short-term wins. Let’s face it; it’s hard to go forward if you are grinning at yourself in the rearview mirror.  At best, you won’t move forward very fast – at worst, you’ll end up in the trunk of the person in front of you.
  • Share your painful lessons, especially if it will spare someone a similar fate or can help someone heal from their wounds. That’s just being a decent human being.

Long-term success is achieved when we push just as hard at the beginning of the journey as we do at the end.  Humility fuels that drive and allows us to start over again and again.

If we have the courage to be brutally honest with ourselves, it also can help us identify the blind spots that would threaten our well-being – just ask Bill Belichick.

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