Firebreathers

Firebreathers

March 22, 2022

There was no room left for thought. I jumped over the bar for the last time. People were screaming and yelling, but tunnel vision apparently applies to the ears too; everything was muffled. I noticed a moment later that my legs had stopped working, and I had correspondingly collapsed on my back. Lying in a rapidly growing pool of sweat, my lungs felt like they were graciously hosting a bonfire. Dearly departed homeostasis aside, I felt grateful.

Two minutes prior, I was also struggling. I was 7 minutes and 55 seconds into a workout. It was not just any workout; it was a CrossFit Open workout. For those unfamiliar with what that entails, every year there comes a point where the CrossFit community releases workouts that are meant to serve as benchmarks for your fitness. 3 workouts spread across 3 weeks would be completed by hundreds of thousands of people and ranked. After three weeks, you would know how fit you were relative to the rest of the world. These metrics would be used to qualify you for future rounds, eventually culminating in the crowning of the fittest people on Earth.

The interesting thing about these workouts is that they are typically quite short. Most are 8-15 minutes total. With such a short workout and so many people, every second matters. An extra break can literally translate into falling backwards thousands of places in the rankings.

Thus, you go into the workout with a plan. People who mindlessly sprint through the workout will burn out part way through. People who come out too slow realize they aren’t tired enough and should have gone harder. It is almost as much a matter of strategy and technique as it is fitness and iron will.

At least, in theory.

The reality, however, is that when you are on the fringe of what your body can handle, strategy goes out the window. Adrenaline and lactic acid are coursing through your veins, your heart rate is through the roof, and you are perilously close to muscular failure. In short, you are under extreme stress. In these moments, the fate of your plan is decided. Will you break down and deviate, or will you fight through the pain and continue to make rational decisions when human instinct is screaming at you to quit?

Enter investing and financial planning. When we help clients create customized strategies for a successful financial life, we typically do it in calm, comfortable circumstances. The market is usually doing well, accounts are growing, and people feel prosperous. We discuss the likelihood of success and the great income they can expect in retirement. We throw up beautiful graphs reminding us of the long term performance of the market, despite all of the challenges over the decades (like this one):

Staring at this picture together, we remind them that if we stay patient during rough markets and ride out downturns, we can expect an excellent outcome. Do not panic sell when markets are down. Stay the course. We agree on strategies and devise a plan.

Back to this blasted workout. I am 7 minutes and 55 seconds in. The time cap is 10 minutes: I have 2 minutes and 5 seconds left to finish the workout. I am at wit’s end and struggling. If I am going to finish, there is zero room to stop for even a moment. A couple days prior, I had attempted the workout and failed, 20 reps short of finishing. The “plan” was perilously close to getting thrown into the fire that was already consuming my lungs.

Then, I heard a voice.

"Conner, get back to the ground.” I was so tired I didn’t even think about it. I listened.

“Good. Now pick up the bar.” My brain wasn’t working well enough to argue.

“Back down. Hands on the ground. Do it now.” Okay.

And so it went. The voice calmly urged me on, and my glycogen-deprived, fight-or-flight brain mindlessly listened.

In investment world terms, I was here:

When stock markets fall 20, 30, 40%+ like they did in 2008, people panic. Their mind goes into fight-or-flight, stop-the-bleeding mode. They want to deviate from the plan. They want to quit, and for good reason.

Then, if they are lucky, the phone rings. They hear a calm voice: “Look at the grocery store. It’s filled with people, like usual.” True.

For those still working: “You are still getting paid every month.” Thank goodness.

For those who are retired: “We have cash and conservative investments to pull from for a few years.” Thank goodness.

For those still saving: “Your retirement contributions are buying almost twice as much as they did before. The stock market is on sale.” I hadn’t thought about it like that.

For everyone: “Take a break from the news and your accounts. Go hiking. Hang out with the kids or grandkids. Lose yourself in a good book.” Fine.

Returning to my workout, that calm, insistent voice continues to push me. With five seconds left, I finish the workout. Lying there on the floor, a dark shape looms over me. It’s the person who decided to coach me through the workout (thanks, Andy), effectively shepherding me through two minutes where I was at my most vulnerable.

Nothing he said was new to me. I knew how to pick up a heavy object and jump over something. There was no revelatory bit of wisdom or advice. He was part accountability partner, part support, and mostly narrator.

He also helped guide me to 1,480th place out of the 154,815 men who also competed, effectively landing me in the 99th percentile for the workout. I actually finished two seconds behind last year’s third fittest man on Earth. There was no way that could have happened without Andy in my ear.

Back to the panicked investors. Today, the Dow market index is almost exactly 2.5 times its all-time high before the 2008 crash. If investors stayed invested, they came out just fine. There was nothing revolutionary that the voice suggested to them. There was no silver bullet or brilliant bit of stock picking advice. More than anything, there was someone there to help them during the tough moments and keep them from selling and missing out on the growth that came on the heels of the loss.

Having someone there during a few vulnerable times to ensure you stick to the plan is often more valuable than the best tax efficiency tips, the sagest estate planning, and the wisest investment allocation advice. One decision in a moment can set someone backwards (or forwards) by years. It can mean going back to work or staying happily work-optional. It can mean leaving something meaningful to your children, or being financially dependent on your children.

There is a prestigious name for people in CrossFit who can grit through tough workouts at a high level. They call them Firebreathers. People glorify perseverance and self-motivation, and it is true that willpower matters. Much less appreciated, however, is the value of the people alongside those Firebreathers who support and nudge when self-motivation fails them.

The same is perhaps even more true of investors. When it comes to one’s financial life, we cannot leave the implementation of the plan to motivation alone. Coach or advisor, the idea is the same. When willpower alone fails and our clients are in pain, we help them breathe financial fire.


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