Swim Coach or Lifeguard?

by Benjamin Beck, CFP® Benjamin Beck, CFP® | January 17, 2022

At our old office before our renovation, I had a whiteboard behind me where I scribbled occasional notes. On it were two quotes that never got erased. They were there until the day that whiteboard was removed from the wall. The one which I want to discuss today is a simple question, “Swim Coach or Lifeguard?” 

Physicians – the way we predominantly use them in today’s healthcare environment – are the ultimate lifeguards. The surgeon, in particular, is the physician at the point of intervention. There is a great quote by Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, that I’ll paraphrase as, "When you're in the unfortunate situation of needing a lifeguard, you’ll actually need a lifeguard…you're no longer at a point where a swim coach can be helpful."

If I'm out in the middle of the ocean, and I never learned how to swim, a swim coach coming out in a helicopter yelling, "Hey, float on your back and do this exercise," is not helpful. At that point, I'm about to drown and I need someone to save my life. I no longer have the independence to help myself.

When you're 70 years old, and if you have not prioritized your well-being in the past, you run a very strong risk of losing your independence from a health perspective. Years ago, you probably could have used a “swim coach.”  Be it a nutritionist, a trainer, a fitness professional, an accountability partner, it could have been a parent or another family member. Somebody, or a group of people could have helped you prioritize your health and extend your life. But you didn’t.

The swim coach to lifeguard analogy to me is so incredibly powerful because it's all about choice. It's about recognizing and prioritizing what's most important today to create a scenario in the future where you can put yourself in a position to maintain your independence and your dignity. 

At this point, we're still talking about healthcare, yet the parallels to finance are simply uncanny. We're talking about eating right, exercising regularly, not smoking, listening to and engaging someone who can put you on a path to maintaining your independence through your life. 

When it comes to your personal finances, it's much the same. Understanding things like… the compounding effect of returns over longer periods of time; the realization that every five years we're going to go through a bear market, and that what you need to do in that situation is absolutely nothing; making sure you don't sabotage your long-term outcome; enlisting the help a qualified financial advisor aka swim coach; and on and on…

When I say, “qualified financial advisor,” I mean not just someone who can guide you as to what to do with your money, but more importantly, someone who understands the behavioral psychology around money. Someone who understands what human beings are hardwired to do, and who can help you address your emotionality, so you don’t sabotage yourself along the way.  Unfortunately, people don’t learn about their own tendency to self-sabotage, and then check a box considering it done. (“Phew! That’s done! Now I know not to get in the way of my own success!”) There’s no way to indicate that the learning has been processed, so that they can benefit from it for the next thirty years. Sadly, people tend to forget. A qualified financial advisor is someone who is prepared to be a client’s coach for many decades to come.  They will make sure the client starts early on, and stays on track, or else they will need a lifeguard. 

In our line of work, the lifeguard is Social Security. These days, a retiree will have about three decades left to live, or at least one of the spouses/life partners does. That's statistically speaking the amount of time that people will be around. So, we need to be planning for a three-plus decade-long retirement. Accepting this fact also requires you to accept the paramount importance of the growth of your income during this time. It necessitates the growth of your income to accelerate at a pace higher than that of inflation.

But if you don't understand all this, and if you don’t prioritize your financial health as early as possible, it puts you in a really difficult position down the road, possibly to a point of no return. Instead of 62 as your retirement age, you might be retiring at 72 or 75, and left out in the middle of the ocean with no ability to swim on your own. At that point, the lifeguard is all you can hope for. Obviously, it’s not an outcome anyone would choose. And yet, by not choosing a swim coach earlier on, it may be the most likely outcome for them. 

I wrote this phrase “swim coach or lifeguard?” over ten years ago, and it keeps coming into my mind, because it translates across finance, health, nutrition, even family. I think it’s important to point out that the key takeaway is to engage the lifeguard, and not to get caught up in the mess of prescriptive “do’s and don’ts” – all the noise around us, particularly in the media. If you start listening to all that noise, it’ll make your head spin. 

I want to keep a big picture view to say, look, you need to take control of this thing, this future of yours, as soon as possible. Obviously, at Beck Bode, our investment strategy is central to our philosophy, so we ask our clients to follow our Strategy. But I would be the first to say, “If for some reason you don’t like our Strategy, please just invest your money fully in the equity markets – however, you do it but do it.” I’d be the first to say, we don’t have all the answers, no one has the answers. Just like no one knows whether it makes sense to “not eat sugar for the rest of your life.” All I’m saying is to find a way to achieve a semblance of control in your financial life. Do it in a direction that realistically and reasonably puts you in a position for a good outcome down the road. Does that mean you have to get up at 5:00 AM every morning and run 50 miles? No. But maybe it means, "Hey, you know what, maybe I shouldn't be sitting at my desk for 12 hours straight every day." Or, “Perhaps I should pay a little bit more attention to my diet.”

Or here’s a crazy thought, “Maybe I should enlist the help of a financial advisor to help me understand what it’s going to take for me to not have to worry about money for three or more decades after I retire. " 

You’re not looking for a magic bullet. The choices are “swim coach or lifeguard?” 

You decide. 

Ben Beck is Managing Partner & Chief Investment Officer at Beck Bode, a deliberately different wealth management firm with a unique view on investing, business and life.

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