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The only sure-fire investment

The only sure-fire investment

There’s only one investment that’s absolutely guaranteed to give you a great payback, regardless of the state of the economy and the uncertainties of this fragile world. I’m talking about the investment you make in yourself.

Think of yourself as a business

Imagine you’re Jane Doe, Inc. Whether you’re self-employed or work for a giant corporation—or even if you’re not in employment at present—this business is your basis for financial survival. If Jane Doe. Inc. is a sound business—meaning it offers real value to its customers (your employer, your boss and your colleagues)—it will prosper and provide you with a lifetime’s return. And that’s the case whether your “business” is selling your time and effort in a physical sense, your expertise, your creativity, or your willingness to do what the company asks of you. Whatever it is you do in return for payment is your “product.” Your “business” sells that “product” for wages, salary, commission or tips.

The world is extremely competitive. There are thousands, millions of people offering “products” that compete directly with yours. They could be John Doe, Inc., based in the next door house to yours. Or Jacques Doe, S.A. in Paris; Jonathan Doe, PLC in London; Helga van Doe, Gmbh. in Dusseldorf; or Do Lin Ji in Beijing. Everyone is part of a global market. For your “business” to prosper, you have to offer some kind of value that gives you an edge. If you don’t, you’ll be treated as a commodity.

Commodity businesses are tough

A commodity is something like coffee, or wheat, or hours of low-level work. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. If a company wants hours of time manning a help desk, it wants to pay as little as possible for those hours. And if that means it employs people in India rather than Indiana, who cares? The “commodity” is the same. We generally believe coffee from Colombia is superior to coffee from, say, Nigeria; but, believe me, if some huge corporation just wants to put hot, brown liquid in a trillion cups at the greatest profit to them, they’ll buy whatever’s cheapest.

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“Commodity” people are also seen as interchangeable. They’re hired as “hands:” just a living machine to do a particular job that real machines can’t do yet. No one cares very much about commodity people. If one of them doesn’t perform well, or has too much time off, or annoys the boss, they get fired. There are plenty more. In a day or so, no one will notice the difference. If the corporation needs to make some quick saving to boost quarterly profits, lay off as many of the commodity people as possible. After all, you don’t need to worry about losing valuable expertise. When the profits scare is over, you just hire some more. One is as good as another.

You don’t want your “business” product (you and the work that you do) to be seen as a commodity. If that happens, you’re at the bottom of the pile. Expendable. Replaceable at a moment’s notice. To be bought for the lowest possible price.

How do you escape the commodity trap?

  • By doing what any successful business does: creating some uniqueness in your product that marks it out and gives it added value. That means making significant investments in your personal “business”. Not once, but again and again, so you maintain your advantage. Because many of those competing businesses are investing as well.

    How would you feel if someone asked you to put your money into a scheme they weren’t investing in themselves? Would they have any credibility? Imagine being the Loan Officer of a bank. Someone comes to you with an idea for a business and wants you to invest the bank’s money in their future. It all looks fine until you casually enquire what the amount of their personal investment will be.

    “Oh, nothing,” you’re told. “I plan to use your money and keep my own.”

    Impressed? I think not.

  • Always invest in yourself first. Thousands of people every day expect their employers to invest time and cash in them (training, bonuses, good salaries, promotions, new equipment), yet they don’t invest a penny or an hour in themselves.

    Is it any wonder that their employers aren’t too keen to lay out more money? Or that they try to protect their investment by setting conditions or requiring people to pay the money back if they leave? Is it surprising most will only invest where it suits the company directly? Or that they’re unwilling to fund programs that they think might make it easier for people to get jobs elsewhere?

  • Whose “business” is it anyway? Yours, right? So you ought to have more interest in it than anyone else. And if you want your “business” to prosper, you need to get it the investment it needs, whether that means taking every opportunity your employer offers, going back to school, reading the latest books on your job you can find, or simply hunkering down and learning everything you can on a daily basis as you do what you’re paid for.
  • Every increase in the worth of your personal “business” (your experience, your knowledge, your skills, your motivation and capability) takes you further towards marking yourself out from everyone else. When times get tough, who will a business fire first? The “commodity” people: easy come, easy go. The people who aren’t seen as anything special: lots of those around when time gets better and we recruit again. The ones who can be replaced by machines.

    But companies aren’t keen to let their best people go. They’re tough to replace. They may join a competitor. The company needs them.

    And if things get really bad and almost everyone has to go, who’ll find it easiest to find new work, or start their own small business? Not the thousands of “commodity” people. There are so many of them that they swamp the few jobs available. And what can they offer to start their own business? Even gardeners and pet-sitters face competition from others who add just that extra spark of value.

Make that investment now!

As technology continues its march and it becomes easier and easier to locate jobs anywhere in the world, you need to stay a step ahead. There are fewer and fewer jobs for poorly-skilled people. The few that exist are badly-paid and chronically insecure. Of course, new jobs are also being created all the time, but they’re different jobs: more highly skilled, more technological, more professional.

If you want your personal “business” to prosper in years to come, you need to be able to take these new jobs, not cling to the shrinking number of old ones. You need to have that spark of extra value to stand out from the crowd. That takes investment of time, money and effort.

Just as banks are eager to invest in good businesses that they believe will prosper and bring them good returns, so employers are still keen to invest in staff who show they have what it takes to provide a big payback. But don’t expect anyone to invest in someone who hasn’t invested in themselves first. Even charities look for people to help themselves as well as seek help from others. Today’s employers are certainly not charities!

Will you sit around and hope someone will invest in you? Or go out and invest whatever you can—and as much as you can—first and then use that to convince others to invest still more?

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Invest all you can in yourself. Keep on doing it. You’ll never make a sounder and more certain investment in your life. And you’ll never reap a bigger reward.

Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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