Thank You Microsoft

Thank you Microsoft for all of the amazing memories, friendships and a lifetime worth of learning about business, technology and perhaps most importantly, a lesson on how to work together with others to achieve a common vision. It’s funny how the skills I learned in grade-school about how to cooperate and work well with others ended up being the most important ones in my career.

I joined Microsoft over 13 years ago – as an intern. Towards the end of my internship, I was given the offer to join full-time. After exploring some other career options, I figured what the heck – Microsoft would be a great place to spend a couple years (at most!) before going to get my MBA. I never imagined that a 20 year old would be given so much responsibility anywhere else. I accepted! The MBA never happened. I was learning a ton on the job and fell in love with Seattle and the company. What I thought to be a short stint turned into much more.

During my career I worked on mergers and acquisitions, new business models, product naming and branding, pricing, market research, product planning and finally, business planning for our retail channel. I’ve traveled the world, met with Fortune 500 companies and CTOs, worked as an individual contributor and been a manager of several different teams. I worked on line of business software, productivity software, enterprise services, consumer services and operating systems. I couldn’t have asked for a more broad-based and educational experience.

I can say without question that happiness in the workplace is directly related to the person you work for. A boss means everything. I’ve been lucky to have many world-class managers. Thank you to my past managers: Paul, Marc, Jason, Jenna and Bernardo. You gave me the latitude and flexibility to do my work as I saw fit and apply my own creativity, with just enough guidance to stave off disaster. You looked out for the business and also for my own well-being. Thank you for that.

What’s next?

I am leaving Microsoft to travel the world, see the American country-side and witness my life through a different lens. I’m not leaving to join any other company – as most people would think. I don’t have a startup idea or some other business venture on the side. I am simply resigning to do something now that I thought I wouldn’t be doing until after I retired.

Most importantly, I am lucky to have the chance to go on this great adventure with the most special person in my life – my wife Alison – before kids or further obligations come into the picture. For my entire adult life my identity has been largely defined by Microsoft and the Seattle area. Aside from heights, the only thing that scares me is the idea of living a life wondering “what if…” I’m going to find the answer to that question.

So here I go. I’m going to spend the forseeable future (a year? maybe more?) living a different type of life that is free of daily work, and full of whatever else comes to mind. Some days will be great, others will be tough. This vagabond style of life is not going to be forever, but it is the right thing for now. As a 34 year old, I have many more years of my life left to work (and plan to!).

For now, it is time to get my but out on the road while I am healthy and able.

You can follow our exploits at www.raviandalison.com.

Ravi

A New Model for Successful Investing

There is a saying that the way of thinking that got us to where we are today will not be sufficient to get us to where we need to go in the future.

This is a long post (perhaps my longest to date on this blog) but is utterly needed given the crazy state of the financial world we are living in. In the following words, you’ll see my approach for navigating this mess, and how you can also do the same – while getting a great night’s sleep in the process!

Why should you listen to me?

I am not an investment professional. Everything in this post is simply my opinion. However, I have spent a long time educating myself in this topic. I have a degree in Finance, worked briefly at one of the world’s (formerly) esteemed asset management firms (Merrill Lynch) and was at one time a fairly active “investor.” I say “investor” with “” because I now know too well that speculator would have been a far more fitting term. I’ve gained and lost money and think that people can learn from my experience.

My goal in this post is not to scare you, but simply to shed a little light on what I think might be a way out of this mess for many of us.

There Is Always A Bigger Fish.

Let’s first talk a little about the whole finance industry itself. It’s all built on trust. Specifically, the trust that a financier needs to earn from their investors. It’s a business based on sure things. After all, why would anyone throw their hard earned dollars after something that might not work out in their favor?

While in reality, there are no sure things, in the world of finance, people make a boat-load of money trying to sell you stuff like it is. To close this inherent gap between possibility and reality some of the brightest minds on our planet are employed (or at least were) in this task. It is no surprise that funds invested in equities, commodities, derivatives and other arcane asset vehicles reached epic proportions over the past decade.

Just imagine if the thousands of brilliant MBA/PhD-types applied their skills to political, non-profit or environmental causes instead of going to Wall Street……wow, what a different world we would be in…but I digress…

I have learned that in the world of finance, as in most things, there is always a bigger fish than you. Even if you are a billionaire, there is someone who has more money or more pull (e.g. a foreign government). In finance, it’s the big fish that get paid first when the sky starts to fall. So when Wall Street starts to melt down, unless you are one of them, you better expect to be last in line holding your tin cup.

Since early 2000 – after starting work full-time, I changed my investment approach in a major way. In place of managing a complex array of stocks and options in my portfolio, I started selling my individual stocks and replaced them with more manageable (and in my mind less risky) diversified mutual funds, sector-based ETFs  (exchange traded funds) and other value-oriented funds developed using computer models through FolioFn.

I wanted to get out of the game of stock-picking – realizing too well that the so-called experts trying to sell stocks using overly complicated analysis were using models built by kids that graduated college at the same time as me, and were just as clueless about how businesses really worked. It didn’t make sense, so I wanted to get out of the game.

I felt like I was being chased by far bigger fish, and it was true. I had little to no information advantage for any of my trades.

I continued this trend for a few years, moving a large chunk of my investments into index funds tracking the S&P 500 or the Morgan Stanley International Index. Again, I didn’t want to be in the game of researching and trying to pick individual stocks.

A little over a year ago, seeing the housing hysteria reaching an absurd peak (and starting to crumble in areas like Miami) I started liquidating. Eventually, half of my net worth was sitting in cash or cash-like assets. I even bought a CD for the first time in my life.

It felt a bit odd owning a CD. I even called my brokerage one day to check on the maturity date for it and they commented that someone my age could really stand to have more equities in my portfolio. Yes, the salesmen were just doing their job.

Even more odd, every evening I would look out from my balcony in downtown Bellevu, Washington (one of the most affluent suburbs in the country) at the half-dozen cranes building luxury condos for people who needed yet-to-be-created high paying jobs to afford their crazy mortgage and HOA dues. I saw people who made far less than me spending far more. Again, things just didn’t make sense. So I wanted out of the game. I sold, sold, sold.

Last fall, when the shoe finally dropped, the remaining 50% I had invested in the market got hammered, just like everyone else. Whenever there is panic, I find that the best thing to do it nothing. So I just sat tight, at least initially. Emotions generally do not lead to the best decisions when it comes to financial matters. This much I learned from my early days as a speculator. I am ever grateful for that experience.

However, now that a few months have passed, I’ve been able to re-adjust my portfolio to align with a new way of thinking that in my mind is far more capable of taking me to where I need to go financially in the future.

I now have almost all of my net worth in 100% cash or cash-like fixed income investments. For those of you who think “wow, Ravi’s really setting a low standard when it comes to wealth mastery,” read on to really understand how this could just be the most powerful strategy around for sustainable and long-term wealth accumulation.

In A Bull Market Everyone Is A Genius.

I majored in Finance. I traded my first stock before I could drive a car. I started reading the financial news practically every day since the 5th grade. When I was 10 years old, I entered USA Today’s stock market contest and did very well, placing at the state level against kids years older than me. I got my picture in the paper. I was hooked.

In college, I traded stocks using my savings, making and losing a fair sum in the process. Lucky for my ego it was the late-90’s. A bull market is forgiving on the foolish. In retrospect, I realize that my gains were at most dumb luck though in the euphoria of the late nineties I quickly devised my own theories about how I was just better at it than everyone else.

Over the summer after my sophomore year of college I went to work at Merrill Lynch, where I worked with people who didn’t seem to know that much more than me, but these very people were creating investment products that were supposed to deliver great returns. Everyone seemed to know how to beat the market. Again, things didn’t make common sense but I figured I was just to naive to understand everything, and went along for the ride.

I remember one day during my time at Merrill Lynch  (I worked as an intern in their asset management division in New Jersey) going to a reception with some of the investment banking interns in Manhattan. These kids, some of whom knew far less about finance than me, were pretending like they actually understood how to dissect arcane financial statements and build models showing how some emerging technology would grow over the next 5-10 years. Everyone thought they had some special gift and were in the know. In a bull market I guess everyone is a genius.

Mind you, some of these kids were english literature majors (no joke) and hadn’t traded a stock in their life. Yet here they were thinking they knew everything about business and high finance. It made absolutely no sense, but no one would admit it.

You Think You Know? You Have No Idea.

During my Junior year in college I had my first real experience with a trading environment, in our derivatives class. It was a more advanced finance elective, and a few days a week we’d crowd into the computer lab where we’d proceed to make or lose a lot of play money while putting to use the strategies learned in the lectures.

Straddles, spreads, strangles….once you learned how to apply them it was easy to go on auto-pilot. You turn into a robot, looking at the numbers on your terminal and just applying the right strategy when it met the requirements that the text-book called for. It wasn’t particularly hard. You just had to put your emotions aside and follow rules, ruthlessly.

Then things took a twist. One day in the lab, Professor Hathaway – a man in his late-thirties who retired from trading derivatives as a professional trader (apparently torturing college students was more fun), started dishing our information to certain people at random times during class. Those who understood how to capitalize on the information would see their profits skyrocket. I remember working with my team-mates (we worked in pairs or triads usually) when he sauntered over and handed a slip of paper with some bad news regarding the underlying stock whose derivatives we were trading.

We pulled the trigger and sold a boat-load of calls before the rest of the class saw the news flash across their screens…we went from almost last place to near the top of the class in profits in just a few minutes! Since our results impacted our grades for the class, this was a big deal. We made a few enemies in class that day 🙂 .

Leaving the computer lab that day I realized that information was really king. Unless you know more than the other investors out there, and have the resources to do something with that information, you can and will get taken for a ride. There is also someone more informed.

The gal next door spending all weekend pouring over Investors Business Daily. The stockbroker spending 50 hours a week reading analyst reports. The analysts spending 80 hours a week researching business models and speaking with CFOs. The investment banker spending 100 hours a week meeting with senior execs gathering inside information. The corporate execs themselves who are actually creating the futures for the companies you are considering putting your hard earned money into. They are all think they know more.

There is always someone who knows more. That person has the edge. Keep that in mind. You might do OK  when the coffers are overflowing, but when times get tough, you’ll be the last one in line holding the tin cup.

Cold Hard Cash

I now have practically 100% of my net worth invested in cash and cash-like assets (includes fixed income CDs, Money Markets). I do not own corporate bonds, stocks or any other asset that is not insured by the government. I do not own real estate (this is as much a lifestyle choice as an investment choice right now for me). This model for investing is not risk averse, it is simply designed and optimized around a different set of criteria.

First of all, this approach is not wholly unique, there are many others out there (search the web) who talk about the strategies I will describe. Specifically, two successful business-people and bloggers Tim Ferriss and Marc Cuban both discuss the issues with buy and hold investing and the equity market in general. You can read their thoughts on their blogs, or just poke around the web and you’ll run across others who strike a similar chord.

I’ll lay out the logic for my new model for success investing. I hope that no-body reads this post and immediately sells all their stocks. That is not the goal. The goal is to get you to think hard about where you are investing your hard earned money. Think about those investments that have been sold to you as sure things or safe investments, and really consider their true nature. Be conscious of where your money is going, and then make adjustments from an objective point of view. Perhaps your own assessment will lead to the same conclusions as me.

A New Model For Investing

Here are a few considerations for my new model for investing. I’ve already put my money where my mouth is. We’ll see how things fare over the coming years. There may be few sure things, but one thing I do know is certain, with this approach I am going sleep darn well at night! Read on to see why…

1. Cut Spending to Increase Your Rate of Return

The biggest return on investment someone can make is through saving. People are always out looking to make a quick buck in the stock market, but nobody looks at their own checkbook or credit card statements. In today’s market, people would do back-flips for the chance to get as little as an 5-10% return this year on their investments. With interest rates so low and the equity markets in duress, that is not likely for most investors.

However, just imagine if you could cut just 10% out of your monthly expenses. Suppose you spend on average $1000 a month on surplus spending outside of basic living expenses. Perhaps by packing your lunch, skipping your afternoon latte and renting movies instead of going to the theater every week you could cut $100-200 a month from that. There you go, save the difference and you’ve just increased your portfolio by 10-20%! Get hardcore about budgeting and cutting back frivolous expenses and you can surely grow your portfolio by 10% or more this year by just saving more.

2. Invest In Yourself

I spend a lot of money and time on personal development. Between yoga training, personal development seminars, books and other things, I spend thousands of dollars a year on training to improve my own skills. Instead of investing money in some company that you think you might make a quick buck from, how about investing a fraction of that money is real skills training for yourself.

These skills: be it a language, leadership, sport, instrument, marketing, presenting or whatever else…..can be parlayed into money-making opportunities down the road. Who knows, maybe the presentation skills training might help you land a far better paying job. Maybe that language training might make you more relevant to a prospective employer. Maybe the martial arts class will give your the confidence to ask for a well-deserved raise. Investing in yourself is the best investment you can make.

3. Invest Where You Are An Insider

Warren Buffet does not buy 100 or even 1,000 shares of a company. He buys enough to get the attention of the executive staff of the companies he targets, and in most cases he invests enough to actually have controlling interest in the company. If you are going to invest in a company, you need to have an information advantage. This can either come through really and truly knowing more about an industry, or perhaps through investing in a small company where you actually have a say in the vision and future product direction of the firm.

4. Put A Value On A Good Night’s Sleep

The models we use to calculate rate of return on our portfolios are woefully inadequate for the modern world. What if your portfolio had a 1 in 9 chance of doubling this year….but an 8 in 9 chance of dropping by 20%? What if you have to live like that year after year for 10 years? How well would you sleep? Contrast that with being guaranteed a 3-6% rate of return in low-risk income products. How well would you sleep with that guarantee?

For the past year I have slept very well, and now that I am in all cash I really really sleep well. There is a huge value in this. Most of us never think about it, but I urge you to factor your own stress and sanity into your financial planning. It is priceless.

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So there you have it. I hope this has given you a fresh perspective for navigating the financial mess we are in right now.

It does not have to be scary.

You can be in control.

Just take some time top think about what you are really after financially, get hardcore about your expenses and budgeting, and at the end of day just be sure to set a little something aside for the biggest investment opportunity available to you right now, yourself.

Why Do New Year’s Resolutions Fail?

8bc72ed7It’s another year, and another time to reflect on the amazing things have been created over the past year, while also considering great new possibilities for the coming 12 months.

It’s also a time of year when gyms and health clubs are packed and hordes of people are crowding the organic produce sections at the local grocer in an attempt to clean up their diet, their bodies and their overall health. Yes, it’s that time of year – resolution time.

Even though history shows that the vast majority of resolutions set at the beginning of the year go unfulfilled – people still go through the process of setting them and then charging out to achieve them with reckless abandon.

I mention health specifically since it is the most common resolution people tend to make, but there are many more. Exercise more, eat better, make more money, work less, etc. However, despite the variety, there is a still a unifying thread under them all.

Each and every one of these resolutions (at least the vast majority) will go unfulfilled. Most will not make it past January 15th.

This has nothing to do with the capabilities or level of dedication that someone has to see a goal through. It just has everything to do wih the actual resolution itself. A poorly set goal is a waste of time  – plain and simple. The key here is the power and ultimate motivation (intent) behind the goal to begin with.

It is the intention, not the resolution or goal itself, that truly matters.

New Year’s Resolutions Cut Off Choice

When you resolve, you decide. That is to say, you close off all possibilities. If you are standing on a trail in the woods, and you come to a fork, you have a choice to make. You can go back (turn around) or go on one fork or the other. Taking a course of action essentially precludes the others. While in theory you could take one fork for a while and then turn back and take the other – this doesn’t happen in real life (as an aside – in real world studies of people who have gotten hopelessly lost in the wilderness, backtracking almost never happens, even when they have no idea where they are going!).

When you take a path, it is human nature to close off other possibilities. Our brains are wired so that we can filter out information that isn’t in line with our goal and identify information that is. The issue here is that while focusing in on a goal is a powerful skill, life is often far from clear cut, and when we commit to accomplishing some thing, we may miss out on noticing other things that could be even more aligned to our true needs and support our life in a more positive way.

For example, someone may make a resolution to jog every day for at least 30 minutes.This seems like an admirable goal at first, and frankly, exercising every day is a great thing for most of us to aspire to. However, suppose that what this person is really after is to have more energy in their life so they can come home from a busy day at work and still have the energy left to play with their kids.

Jogging is a nice goal, but consider how this resolution could actually close of other possibilities for to get exercise – opportunities that might involve other things besides jogging – and might actually preclude activities that could incorporate having fun with the kids while getting exercise at the same time (like playing ball, tennis, hiking with them, etc.).

In other words, resolutions restrict opportunities by focusing the human attention on a very specific goal, a goal that might not be directly aligned with the underlying motivating force for change.

The Power of Intention

It’s the “Why” that matters, not the “What.” If you have a goal to get six-pack abs, lose 20 pounds or clean up your diet – those resolutions are all about the “What.” They don’t consider the “Why.” This is why so many resolutions like this fail hopelessly.

The “Why’s” are the compelling reasons that will motivate you to get up early and stay up late in the pursuit of something that truly matters to you. In the case of losing weight, ask yourself “Why is this important to me?” Is it because it will allow you to live longer? Play with your kids without getting tired? Play sports at a higher level and more safely? For each of those “Why’s,” there is in turn another another set of reasons that are driving them. Continue down this path of asking why, and you’ll notice a series of deeper intentiuons that will bubble up.

These fundamental intentions are the driving forces that will be strong motivations for you over the long-term, when the going gets tough and the initial energy and zeal behind your goal fades away. They will serve as powerful landmarks that will open you up (and more specifically open up your sub-conscious mind) to people, places, things and experiences that are in line with your intention.

8 Steps to Connect With Your Intentions

Here are a few simple steps I take to come up with my intentions for the new year. I’ve done this for the past 4 years or so (modifying the process along the way) and it works incredibly well. Try it out even if you already have your goals all set for the new year, and see how it can help you to get even more clear on what your real intentions are for the year.

Brainstorm.

Begin by taking few blank sheets of paper. I recommend doing this by hand (not on the computer) to avoid distraction and allow for free-association. You can even put on background music if you like. It also is a good idea to do this with others (friends, family) for extra motivation and accountability. Take 10 minutes and just brainstorm all the different things, people, experiences you would like to come into your life. Don’t worry about the time-frame. Just brainstorm. Let your mind flow. Be sure to consider your health, wealth, relationships and career. Think broad. Your goals should be to keep writing without stopping.

Classify.

Take a moment and them write a 1, 3, 5, 10, or 20+ next to each item in your list based on the time frame for the item. For example, you might have “buying a house” as a 5 year goal, but “losing 20 pounds” as a 1 year goal.

Prioritize.

Now, circle your top 5 (you choose how many….3-5 is a good range to start) goals for 1 year, 3 years, 5 years and 10 years.

Cluster.

Re-write your circled goals on another sheet of paper, but instead of writing your goals in a list, you will do an affinity map. To do this, begin to write goals that are similar to each other close to each other. For example, if you have a goal to “lose 20 pounds” and another to “run a marathon” these might be close to each other because they are related to health and fitness. If you have sticky notes available, you can even write all of your circled goals on stickies and then arrange them into little clusters based on similarity. At the end of this step, you should see a few clusters begin to emerge.

Embody.

For each cluster, consider the person you would have to become to achieve those goals. This is where you begin to develop your intention. For me, I structure my intentions in the form of “I am…“. For a cluster of health-related goals – for example – I might write “I am a strong and lean physical powerhouse.” Putting the “I” at the beginning makes them personal, and using “I am” precludes that you are already that which you seek – your job is just to discover that and see it in yourself! Once you have discovered this intention, write it down as the title for the cluster.

Prioritize.

Look across the intentions you have created…all starting with “I am”….and if you have more than 5, circle the top 5 (ideally you would have 3-5 at most). These would be five things that – if you really embodied these intentions for the year – would completely transform your life and the lives of those around you.

Purpose.

Now – for each of these 3-5 intentions – write a short paragraph about why they matters. Think about the people you will impact for the better. Think about how your life will be better. Think about how you will feel when you embody the intention every day of your life.

Clarify.

Revisit the list of specific goals you have for each intention (look at the affinity map clusters you created) – and add any additional goals that might have come to mind for you. Take about 10-15 minutes to really flesh these out. You can also take this time to get more specific about goals you have already identified. For example, if your goals is to “lose weight,” perhaps you can get more specific and say “I will lose 10 pounds of fat while gaining 5 pounds of muscle in the next 3 months.”

There you have it! Post your intentions in a clearly visible place and reflect on them (and the goals that support them) every day.

Through following this simple process, you will used your brain’s natural desire to set and accomplish specific resolutions/goals to uncover the fundamental intentions that are driving your desires. You will also have a specific set of goals that map to each intention, giving you a clear place to start from and march toward.

However, unlike traditional resolutions, the intention – that is to say – the role that you have created for yourself (the “I am…..“) is what really matters.

Keep reading these intentions to yourself every day, and your brain will continue to serve you by being on the lookout for situations and experiences that can help you become the person you intent to become.

I’ve used this process to achieve big things in my my own life, I hope that it is useful to you. Please try it out and let me know how it goes in the comments!

5 Reasons To Live A Purpose-Driven Life

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For every person you meet who has a clear goal and direction for some aspect of their life, there are another 9 who are going through life aimlessly.

This is not to say that they may not be successful, happy or fulfilled. It is just to point out that not everyone lives a purpose-driven life.

Life just happens, and people seem to make the best of it.

I see this often in my workplace, with very few having any sense of where they would like their careers to head, just taking it day by day and hoping for the best. I also see it in the gym and in the yoga studio, where people just go through the motions, making little progress.

If you were going on a grand voyage….the biggest and most massive adventure (as one might use as a metaphor for life which is the grandest adventure of all) would you not at least start with a purpose?

When I get in my car, no matter where I am going, I at least have some sense of why I am in the car and where I would like to end up. If I didn’t have any idea, I would not get in the car to begin with! On the occasion (rarely) when I just drive around aimlessly, even that is done on purpose.

Why then don’t people take the time to consider what the purpose for their own lives are? This could be a simple purpose for their job, their family-caring and home life, their fitness plan, yoga practice, etc.

If I ask a half dozen people on the street to clearly state at least 1 goal in their life right now, I doubt any would be able to do so.

A purpose can even change over time. It does not need to be “right.” The point is to just have one. Why? Well, here are five reasons why I feel it is critical to have a purpose driven life:

  1. If you are not growing you are dying. Without progress in some aspect of your life, you are not just staying still, but regressing. When you understand the reality of this world and that all living things are slowly evolving, you are either evolving yourself or falling behind.
  2. Harness the untapped potential of your brain. The brain is a deletion machine. Of the millions of pieces of information that your brain captures in each day, it doesn’t keep everything. As I wrote in my post about vision boards, having a goal helps you focus your brain to notice things that will serve you in the pursuit of your goals. There is massive power in this, and takes no conscious effort on your part.
  3. Inspire the people you care about most. Achievement isn’t just about you. As you focus and work towards a goal, you’ll see that your efforts will in turn inspire others to look inward and cultivate their own character and ambitions. They say actions speak louder than works and your own purpose-driven actions will indeed speak volumes and influence those you care about in a positive manner.
  4. It keeps negativity at bay. The more you work to towards a positive end, the more you will notice that you have far less negativity entering your life. It is simple accounting. If you are consuming your thoughts, feeling and actions with energy directed towards a positive intent, you will have fewer mental, physical and emotional cycles to spend on things that drain your body, mind and soul.
  5. It is incredibly fun. Yes, making progress is fun. With a clear goal and purpose that is a stretch yet achievable, you’ll notice that each day will become more fun. It’s a pleasant byproduct of a purpose-driven life.

I could go on for days writing about how important it is to have a purpose-driven life. Remember, it is not so critical to figure out your overall and grand purpose for being on this planet! What matter most is to just focus on one thing (or a few things) that you feel is a positive and motivating ambition. It can be related to your family, body, finances, career, etc.

Just pick something, focus on it daily, work towards it sincerely, and watch what happens.

Don’t worry so much about the end, that is to say, don’t worry about the outcome. Just keep working towards the goal with confidence and see what manifests in your life. You’ll be amazed at the results, even if they end being something that you didn’t quite expect.