Subtract to Reach your Goals

Paul Atherton |
01-01-2022
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Before you set any new goals, there’s something you need to know—you don’t always get out what you put in.

Something that’s drilled into the mind of every finance professional is the risk-reward pay-off.  

The mantra is basically that you need to take on higher risk if you want a higher reward.  

This mantra makes intuitive sense as we are told since birth that, in life, you get out what you put in. You need to add, add, add to get rewarded. 

More risk equals more reward, and more effort provides better returns. 

Perfect harmony. Perfect symmetry. 

Every ounce in is an ounce out.  

More risk = more reward.  

These sayings are so common and widely held that they are considered truisms.  

But I want to let you in on a bit of a secret.  

THEY ARE WRONG.

While these sayings hold true in some circumstances, real life, as it turns out, is vastly different. 

So, why are truisms not always true? 

These sayings all implicitly assume that the world is symmetrical and linear.  

However, the world is not symmetric, and it is not linear. The world is asymmetric and non-linear. Just have a quick look out your window! 

But what does that mean for you? 

To put it very simply—some things have more upside than downside.  

Sometimes you get much more out than what you put in. 

Let’s call that positive asymmetry. 

Others have more downside than up. Some things will drain you and take much more from you than you will ever get back. 

Let’s call that negative asymmetry. 

That is the reality of the universe. And it certainly is the reality of the investing universe. 

Let’s take a look at some of life’s positive asymmetry. 

  • Nutrition—it takes a little extra time to cook real food, but it’s usually healthier, tastier, and more filling 
  • Fitness—training at a high intensity for short periods has more benefits than high volume, low-intensity exercise. 
  • Relationships—small things usually mean much more, especially over a more extended period. 
  • Little acts of kindness—I have a coffee/tea with my wife every morning. Last night I hugged my son and told him I loved him. Immeasurably rewarding, and it cost me nothing.  

Now, some examples of negative asymmetry. 

  • Nutrition—Getting takeaway because you don’t have the time. Sure, McDonald’s is easy… but apparently, a McNugget has 30 ingredients aside from Chicken! 
  • Health—sitting on the couch instead of walking may seem preferable now, but it risks your health later. 
  • Finance—buying an expensive car (a depreciating asset) with a bank loan. 
  • Relationships— someone makes you feel worse after seeing them? It’s easier to ‘go with the flow’, but keeping someone toxic in your life negatively affects your health. 

Many things in your life have this unbalanced pay-off.  

But once you are aware of this, you can take advantage of it. 

Take advantage of asymmetry in the New Year 

As we start the New Year, we invariably add to our ever-growing list of things we want to do.  

Join this, become that, experience this, go there, do that. It is as if we wake up in the New Year with an empty schedule to fit in all these extra activities. 

Every New Year, there’s a surge in gym memberships. Sports teams have their applications spike. Financial advisors’ phones start to ring.  

We all have good intentions of starting the year off better. I’ll admit, there was a time that I also had this mindset. 

But in an asymmetric world, is this the right approach? 

I think not. 

After realising that this approach wasn’t helping many years ago, I started a different strategy for my New Year’s resolutions. 

I subtract. 

Why? 

Because it is vastly more important to stop doing things than it is to start, plus, it’s a whole lot easier.  

Let me repeat that – it is vastly more important to stop doing things than it is to start 

Subtraction is an enormous asymmetry pay-off. And once you subtract one thing, you usually gain the time or money to add something else.  

So, I say subtract, subtract, and subtract some more. There are so many areas in life where you can subtract harmful behaviours and reap the rewards. 

  • Health—save money and get healthier by subtracting junk food, smoking, or relying on your car. 
  • Technology—improve your relationships and your health by reducing technology use. I’ve resolved to spend a Sunday without my phone and leave it at home when I go on date night with my wife.  
  • Relationships—often a place where you will find the most benefit of subtraction. Can you think of someone who drains your energy, finances, or motivation that you can reduce or eliminate contact with? 

You can improve your finances by subtracting 

In finance, I use this technique to improve my clients’ returns. As I have mentioned before, one of the most impactful things I do for my clients is to remove the various fees, charges, and costs associated with many investment funds.  

That’s subtraction. 

I am not suggesting that it isn’t beneficial to add certain things. For example, exercise is enormously helpful to your long-term health. Adding a good advisor is tremendously beneficial to your long-term wealth too. 

But these additions are available due to another subtraction. For example, you can exercise because you stopped sitting on the couch after dinner. You contact That Wall Street Guy because you don’t want to go it alone anymore. 

As we head into the holiday season and the New Year, I want you to think seriously about how you approach your goals—financial and otherwise. So, sit down and think about what and who you want to subtract in your life and what may be added in their place. 

It will make all the difference. I promise. 

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Who is Paul Atherton, That Wall Street Guy?

An ex-Wall Street advisor who worked with major players in the global financial industry for over 30 years, Paul’s mission is to help regular people reclaim their wealth and financial security.

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