It may have been over a year since I last put together a podcast episode, but I’m back today to talk with Consumerism Commentary Podcast guest Carl Richards. Carl is here to talk about his new book, The One-Page Financial Plan: A Simple Way to Be Smart About Your Money. The author will also be the keynote speaker at the upcoming FinCon Expo.
In today’s podcast, Carl and I discuss why reducing a complex financial plan to one page can be key for living the fulfilled life you envision and how certain emotions can stand in the way. We talk about avoiding financial mistakes, and what a financial adviser’s (or a friend’s) role might be.
Because Carl is “The Sketch Guy” for The New York Times, we talk about the origins of Carl’s sketches, and how these sketches and Carl’s other art have been received in the art scene.
Finally, Carl and I discuss the process of publishing, and listeners will get an early listen to what might be the focus of his FinCon keynote address.
Consumerism Commentary is offering five free copies of The One-Page Financial Plan to five Consumerism Commentary readers. To be considered for receiving one copy of the book, which is also available at retailers, leave a comment below the transcript.
Continue reading this article to listen to or download the podcast. You can also subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.
Luke: Welcome to the Consumerism Commentary podcast, I’m Luke Landes. My guest today is the New York Times Sketch-Guy, Carl Richards, also the author of The Behavior Gap and his new book, the One-Page Financial Plan. Carl will also be the keynote speaker at FinCon this September. Carl, thanks for joining me today!
Carl: Luke, I’m really excited to talk with you. Thanks for having me on!
Luke: We’re going to talk today about the One-Page Financial Plan, and it’s surprising to me, because if someone says “financial plan,” I think of a pretty thick document — 10, 20, 50 pages. I can’t imagine what it would take to get all that information about goals, projections, budgets, and investments on one page. So what does a one-page financial plan look like?
Carl: First I have to tell you a funny story, real quick. My daughter, who was 9 at the time of this conversation, I heard her talking to a friend, and she was like “my dad’s really busy,” and her friend said “what’s he doing?” and my daughter said “he’s working on his new book,” and her friend says “what’s it called?” My daughter says “the One Page Financial Plan,” and then there’s this long pause and the friend says “well why is it taking him so long?!”
It’s clear, you’re going to do a lot of work. When it comes to financial planning, there’s going to be documents. I think saying that you’ve said 10 or 20 page documents is being modest. I’ve seen 200 page thick books, but the problem with those books is not that there’s not valuable information, it’s that we never use them. I’ve never seen somebody say “let me pull out my financial plan and reference it.”
A financial plan becomes almost like a product, or an event, in most of our minds like “okay, I got my financial plan done,” and to me, that’s the main paradigm I was trying to break and shift a little bit, is that planning is not a product or an event. It’s a process. It’s an ongoing process. And so, in order to make it an ongoing process, you have to have something to reference.
And so that, to me, is what the one-page financial plan is. You take all that stuff – maybe this is a good comparison. If you’ve ever put together an Ikea shelf, or a children’s toy, you know there’s a 50 page instruction manual in the box. If you want the thing to be put together correctly, you’re probably going to have to reference it.
But while you’re working on it, the single most important thing is the picture on the box. It tells me if I’m headed in the right direction. The goal of the one-page plan is to take all of that other work you’ve done, important work that still needs to be done, and reduce it down to a simple statement of why you’re doing this – I call this your “money why,” a value statement, and mine’s on page 11, so it just simply says “spend time with my kids doing things we love,” so it’s this reminder of why you’re doing all this.
It may be “secure in retirement so I don’t end up like my parents, so we can take that trip in 20 years that we’ve really been wanting to take.” Whatever it is that’s the big deep “yes!” that allows you to say “no” to all those distractions, that’s up there. And then, 2 or 3 of the things that are top-of-mind that you’re working on right now. It could be “pay off my student loans,” for us it is “fund retirement account, fund our kids education accounts, and save money for a house.” That’s what’s important to us right now. And the reason that’s important is because that document is actually here on my shelf.
The other day, somebody came to me and asked if I wanted to invest in a company they were starting, and I love that stuff! Who doesn’t? We’re such suckers for exciting startups, and I used to spend three weeks meeting with people and analyzing people, reviewing projections – this time I spent three minutes because I saw the plan and remembered “oh, we’re totally focused on this right now,” and it gave me the “deeper yes” to say “no” to that distraction. So that’s the goal of the one-page plan.
Luke: I like how you described this process. Last time you visited Consumerism Commentary, you said the process of creating a plan can be more important than the financial plan itself. Going through the process can be rather difficult. Some of the things that you said … what your focus should be. I think a lot of times we’re just overwhelmed by all the things that we do need to focus on, so how do you make some of those decisions?
Carl: Very thoughtfully. I think what’s interesting is the concepts behind being smart about money are pretty darn simple. Spend a little less than you make, save for a rainy day, buy a diversified portfolio, keep your costs low, and behave. That’s not really all that complex. Where it gets complex is what we’re talking about. Navigating the emotional side of it. How do you decide what’s really important to you? You have some conversations.
That’s what I’ve outlined in the first three chapters of the book, this sort of template for people to have these conversations around money. We start talking about it. I think this all stats with simply noticing what you’re doing. We’re constantly walking through life half-asleep, and particularly when it comes to our financial decisions, we’re just doing stuff either because we’ve always done it, or it’s what the neighbors are doing, it’s what we heard on the Financial Pornography Network, we’ve filling random prescriptions. In other words, we’re living other people’s lives financially.
And just the process of starting to notice that, and be thoughtful and on purpose with that, — like “you know what, I don’t care that every personal finance expert in the world tells me I’m a ‘latte loser’ because I spend $4 a morning on my coffee, I really value it.” Okay, then do it! Or maybe you’ll find something opposite, like “you know what, turns out that car that I leased… It’s not really bringing me all that much happiness. Maybe next time I get a new car I can get the cheaper one because I can spend that money on that trip.”
So just noticing is how we start. We’re so used to not doing that. We just aren’t paying attention.
Luke: These are really difficult questions. You may come to the conclusion that the car that you have isn’t making you happy. But how do you know what does make you happy, and how do you know what to funnel that money into in order to replace or fulfill some of the internal desires that you have?
That’s such a good question. I think the way you know is you just start paying attention a little bit. Just start noticing, “Going on that walk every morning with my wife on the trail behind our house. I really enjoy that.” Taking the dog out for a walk, throwing the tennis ball — like yesterday, I just got involved in a spontaneous game of catch with my daughter with a tennis ball and it took me five minutes to finally say, “Wait: be here.” Because I wanted to go off and do something else, and after about 20 minutes of just playing catch, then we moved to Frisbee and at the end, I was like “that was amazing!” I really enjoyed that.
And it’s just because I noticed. This is really hard to do. Simple, but not easy. I’m pretty sure if we just listen and pay attention inside, and give ourselves a little bit of room – like turn off the Financial Pornography Network for a little bit, get a little quiet, and think about the things that bring us happiness, I’m pretty sure we all have a one page financial plan inside. We just need to listen carefully enough to put it on a piece of paper.
Luke: It sounds like you’re talking about being present, or being in the moment, and how important that is to living a fulfilled life. How do you take that and build a financial plan around that? Is it just a question of figuring out what you need in order to have the freedom to live in the moment without stressing about money?
There’s a lot in that question. First of all, let’s be clear that we’ve also got to balance the hard realities of life. The reality is we can’t ignore the fact that 20 years from now, you may have some obligations that are really important that you start saving for now. The only way I know to make that decision is – stressing about the realities of life, I haven’t met anyone that that’s helped. So sometimes there’s a tendency to say “I don’t have time for all this garbage, this mindfulness stuff, I gotta go to work!” I don’t know anybody who that has helped.
I’m not saying that life isn’t going to demand that we make some really hard choices. In other words, my wife and I have just had this conversation. Mindfulness around money does not mean you can spend money you don’t have. It’s not The Secret, that book where money’s just gonna magically show up out of the air. That’s not what it means. What it means is even the hard decisions are much better made by being a little bit quiet and being thoughtful about it and saying “I do know.”
If you ignore, if you’re just mindful and want to be present and just spend the money now and all that stuff that sometimes we misinterpret that genre with, then you’re ignoring something that’s really important down the road. If you’re aware of it or not, it’s causing underlying stress. You’re thinking about it. Living a life that’s not aligned with what you say is important to you causes stress.
I think the answer to all of this is, independent of whether or not you have extra money to save today or you’re paying down debt or, let’s just say you can’t even see a way to make any change, you’re so overwhelmed (which is unfortunately the reality for a lot of people,) that you can’t see anything that you can do. Well, it doesn’t do you any good to sit there and feel overwhelmed by it.
The place to start is to find something that you can control. I was at a point in my life when we lived in Las Vegas and we were about to lose our house where there was nothing I could find. Everything seemed so out of control. I was in the hospital because of it — it was so much stress.
One day I remembered a friend of mine said “when you feel that way, there’s always one thing you can control,” and it was your breath. I remember linking together breaths for a period of a couple of days, and that little seed of control grew a little bit and a couple days later it gave me the energy to figure out how bad it really was. We sat down and did what’s in chapter three of the book, we got really clear about our current reality. And that takes some energy.
Once we got clear about our current reality, we started seeing things that we could do — what if I got rid of the second car we had for a family of five and we only had one car, and I walk to and from work? There’s a couple hundred bucks a month. What if we got rid of cable? That little seed of control, starting all the way down at breath, grew and grew and grew to the point where, three years later, we couldn’t even recognize our financial situation anymore. It was so much better. Let’s get clear that the idea that worrying and stressing about this hasn’t really helped anyone.
Luke: It sounds like anxiety can be one of the most damaging things to your finances in total.
It’s damaging to your health, your finances, and it never really helps. I know that’s easier said than done. I’ve been there and had been tell me and just thought, “that’s a load of garbage. Right now I can’t even pay my mortgage.” Again, finding one little thing that you can control and then focusing on that until you find a second little thing you can control, and then a third thing — that’s the only way I know to dig yourself out of a hole like that as soon as you’re in one.
Luke: Does all this have to happen on your own, within your family, before you go see a financial adviser to seek help, or can a financial adviser guide you through this at all?
First of all, you have to find a real financial adviser, but yes, a real one can. So can a friend, to be honest. Here’s the other “piece” — I’ve watched this happen maybe 10 times in the last 12 months because of some community work I do. People in stressful financial situations aren’t seeing clearly. We all have blind spots, and by definition, we can’t see them. Particularly when you add stress to it, the blind spots can get bigger and bigger and bigger.
So to have somebody else take a look and say “whoa whoa whoa, have you thought of this?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people say “no, I didn’t even think about that.” They almost feel dumb, and you have to explain to them “don’t feel bad, you’ve been doing the best that you can,” but sometimes it takes an outside person to see it. We all need that, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s about financial stress at this point.
Your investment decisions, even when you have tons of money, that’s the value of a real adviser. They can say “what you’re saying doesn’t exactly make sense to me. Can I just ask a couple of questions?” It will help you see the blind spots.
Luke: Part of this has to be guessing, because so much of it you just don’t know. What you will be and who you will be in the future. How can you make some good guesses about what is going to make you happy 10, 20, 30 years down the road?
I love that you’re using that word, because they are “guesses.” The reason I think that word is so powerful is because it gives you permission to relax a little bit. We already know you’re going to be wrong — how are you possibly going to guess correctly exactly what you want something to look like even five years from now, let alone 20 or 30?
So the idea is just to let go of the pressure of making of a “correct” guess, and just make one. Where do you think you want to be? Put the stake in the ground and you head that way. Even if that’s just two years from now: you’ve just graduated from college, I *think* I want to do this — we all know you’re going to be wrong.
If you doubt this, ask anybody to tell you where they thought they would be in 5 years — having watched what’s happened to you, I guarantee that’s not what you thought would happen to you. If someone had asked me if I thought I would be writing for the New York Times or publishing a book with Penguin – no way. I would have never dared even have that as a goal.
The point is: make a guess, head in that direction, realize it’s going to be wrong. That’s why you have a one-page plan with Sharpie stuff — you didn’t carve it into granite with a chisel. You’re going to update it. It’s a process of just making a guess, and making course corrections, and repeating that over and over and over until you die.
Luke: One of the pitfalls — something that can be really frustrating — is what happens when you look around and it seems like your friends and colleagues are succeeding in ways you don’t feel you are. It seems like there are two ways this can effect someone: one way is to use that as motivation, but I’ve rarely seen that happen. I think you’ve written about this in the book — the comparison can actually be dangerous and hurtful. Is there any way to balance that, or how do you just stop comparison altogether?
Very carefully. I think we have to think and notice the stuff we’re doing: check in with ourselves — is this really what we want to be doing? Check in with ourselves in terms of our motivation because it’s so easy. It’s almost impossible to not get caught up in that. We tease our kids about that and call it “peer pressure,” but then when we do it as adults, we don’t admit that we’re doing it. I just think being clear about your own values allows you
Let me tell you a real quick story. We had this friend, Steve and Pam, and they were always really successful in high school. Really smart, both of them. She was a cheerleader, amazing people, so I always held them in really high regard, and then when the graduated they went on to do amazing stuff — he was an international consultant for a firm, and flying all over, and it was amazing.
One day we were talking to them and they said “it’s not in the budget.” What I think she meant was that the money was budgeted elsewhere, I’m sure they had the money, but they had made choices. But when she said “it’s not in the budget,” I was like whoa — wait a minute, we’re all the rest of us, we’re all playing this little game, and you’re not allowed to say that out loud. That’s what I thought in my head and I thought, “she just broke the rules!”
She just admitted out loud, as a very successful person, that they have a budget, and that buying a new minivan is not in the budget. I remember being shocked. It was 15 years ago and I can still remember.
Let’s realize there aren’t any rules. The only rule that really pays off is the one that says “hey. I’m clear about why I’m spending my money, and I’m gonna stick with it.” Lately, I’ve said some things like that. Friends will suggest I get something new, and I just say “just because you can buy a new one every month if you want to, doesn’t mean I can.” And it’s hard not to say that in a way that’s judgmental of them, I don’t mean it that way. I just mean to say that it’s not in the budget. That’s okay.
Luke: It seems like when people say that, what they’re really talking about is their priority, and how they determine what is important to them, and they’re actually taking their values and they’re using the money to follow those values. That’s something that’s hard to do.
For sure. Here’s the thing that is really important to realize — I love that word, “values” is a kind of action. The image in a recent column I wrote in the Times was, just imagine a circle down at the bottom left hand corner of the paper that said values. Then on the opposite side, there was a circle in the bottom right hand corner that said “actions” and there was no crossover.
Then it showed those circles getting closer until the point where those circles had crossed over — in fact, it showed the point where they were one circle that just said “values and actions,” perfectly aligned. The thing you need to realize is that that process is what life is about.
It can be painful when you first do it and realize “oh my gosh, there is a huge gap between what I say is important to me and what I’m actually doing.” I’ve just come to that realization recently. In my circle on the right it says “time with my kids,” like that’s number one other than time with my wife, and I’m not spending much time with them right now because I let work take over. It was kind of painful to realize.
Now, I’m okay with that pain though, because I’d rather know than keep living the pain of having it be an underlying problem. I guess all I’m saying is to give yourself a little bit of room. Give yourself a little bit of a break. Realize that when you first go through this process, if you’re clear about your priorities and your values and how you spend your time and money, you might uncover some stuff that might be a little painful. It’s okay.
That pain is actually good pain, it’s like the kind of pain that helps a muscle grow. It’s necessary pain. The goal is just to move those things closer, and you’re constantly going to be doing that. That’s what life is about.
Luke: Speaking about pain, there’s pain from big mistakes and you mentioned your experience in Las Vegas – is that something we can talk about?
Carl: Of course. 12 million people read that article, I don’t think it’s a secret.
Luke: How do you avoid making a big mistake? What we’re talking about is a bad real estate investment in your case, and in my case, I had lots of big mistakes that led to me hitting my own personal rock bottom which I’ve written about recently as well. Is there a way that we can see this coming and maybe prevent ourselves from making these big mistakes before it’s too late?
Carl: Hmm. I hope that through our own personal experiences – I’m really hopeful that I don’t repeat that exact same mistake, which really– Sometimes those mistakes – I think there’s a lot of things I did that I should have done differently.
The title of that article I wrote was “I Should Have Known Better” and I think that’s still true. But sometimes you just get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Realize that sometimes these things that look like you made a terrible mistake was just the function of stuff happening. The wrong place the wrong time. I could give you like two really simple things and if they had been slightly different, I would have never had that mistake happen. Again, it was my fault for putting myself that close to the edge that one wrong thing threw me over the edge.
All I’m saying is I don’t know. I know that being – some of the most common cognitive mistakes, like projecting the recent past – let me give you two that I think really are at the root of a lot of these mistakes. One is projecting the recent past into the future. If we’re talking about money, it would be something like thinking real estate is going to go up forever, especially at the rate it was going up in 2005. We might be in that same place again, we’re starting to hear people say “real estate is never a bad investment!” If we talk about the stock market, it’s sort of similar, right? Taking the recent past and projecting it.
And the other one is forgetting that things change. So one quick test that I am really a big fan of now is the “overconfidence conversation.” You just simply say that you’re convinced something is going to happen. I’m going to quit my job and start my own company and I’m going to put my life savings into it, and you’re really sure that it’s going to work out, so you ask this question: “if it works out the way I plan, how will my life be different?”
And sometimes that’s — my life will be materially different, but most of the time it’s like “well it would be different around the edges, but it may not make a massive difference.” And the second question is, if you’re wrong, how will your life be different? Often, that answer is like “oh my gosh, I would be in a lot of trouble. I’d have to go back to work for 20 years,” or whatever.
And the third question is “have you ever been wrong before.” And just putting yourself in the position to realize – closely related, often we make these decisions based on the probability of something going wrong, and we calculate like “okay, there’s a 3% chance I may be wrong, so I’m going to do this.” The only thing I would ask you to add is not just the probability of you being wrong, but add the consequence. So even if there’s a 3% chance, if it’s going to kill you, that’s a different discussion than if you just skin your knee. So adding consequence to probability is really important.
Luke: Does it help to have a trusted adviser between you and your actions to maybe stop you from making those choices?
Carl: I think a real financial adviser is worth their weight in gold because of that. If they just prevent you from making a mistake. You shouldn’t ever hire a financial adviser because you’re not smart. I don’t think you hire a financial adviser because you’re not successful. Hopefully they are more experienced with the spreadsheet and the calculator than you are, but even if they aren’t. Some of the smartest financial people I’ve ever met have a personal CFO or financial adviser in their lives because they’re not them. Having somebody there that can be the thing between you and the big mistake.
Luke: Another set of eyes, or someone who’s kind of on the outside and doesn’t have an emotional investment?
Carl: Yes! An unbiased, unemotional third party. Of course you’ve gotta get clear about what their own personal conflicts of interest are and all of that other stuff. In terms of just what their job is, I think their job is just to point things out that you’re not thinking of. Walk you in off the ledge when you’re thinking of doing something stupid. It’s really hard to walk yourself off the ledge.
Luke: I love the simplicity of your sketches. Just about everything you write is accompanied by a piece of art, and the sketches illustrate various things about financial realities that aren’t always obvious. How did you start with sketching? Was that something you had done before you were even interested in finance, or did it come later?
Carl: No, it was an act of desperation. I was sitting there trying to explain something to clients, and I thought it was really critical, critical that they understood this concept. And they just weren’t getting it.
Luke: So the sketches helped communicate that?
Carl: Yeah, so there I was, trying to explain this, and they were smart people, and they weren’t getting it, so clearly I wasn’t doing a very good job. So out of an act of desperation I was like “no, like THIS!” and I stood up and drew it on the whiteboard. And they said “oh! I get it now!”
That was sort of when the lightbulb went on and I thought “oh, okay. I need to see if I can do this every time.” So the goal of the sketches is that they act as a shortcut to the idea, and they also act as shortcuts and souvenirs. They also act as a souvenir of the experience you had together, the learning experience.
Luke: Was there a point where you realized that what you were doing with the sketches was fairly unique, and could be something that kind of helped you in your writing, or bolstered your career, or just gave you sort of a personal brand that helped identify yourself?
Carl: I try to be really careful about looking backwards and crafting a narrative out of stuff that happened, but I sort of thought everybody did this! I think we all have that problem, is that we have a unique talent, and we think that because we do it, that it must be that everybody does it, so I kept having people tell me over the years.
It took a long time, it was like somebody had to hit me with a bat a couple times saying “hey! This is unique!” When I finally said “oh, you know what? It is!” I think the conversational tone of the writing, and the images are what makes my work unique. If there’s something that makes it unique that’s what it is.
Luke: Do you start with the writing and build sketches from that, or does the idea for the sketch come first for you?
Carl: It depends. Often it’s the writing, or at least the idea. The idea for this upcoming week’s column for the New York Times is about finding a third way, often in money we say “this is my way” and then your spouse may say “this is the way I see it” and you’re just so hung up on how each other can’t see the other person’s way that you don’t even have the tools to find that there might be even a third or better way.
So that was the idea, and this morning on my mountain bike ride I was like “I want to write about the third way, so how could I illustrate that?” And then I started working on the illustration. So I hadn’t done all the writing yet, but I knew the core idea was the third way so I thought “how could I illustrate ‘the third way’?”
I’ve got the illustration right in front of me now, so now I’ve got the illustration, I’ve got to go flesh out the idea in terms of the writing. But it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes I’ve written the whole column and struggle to draw it. And other times, I have a really cool sketch in my mind that I have to write something to match.
Luke: The sketches are more than just illustration and communication, they are art. Has there been any kind of reception to them as art?
Carl: Yeah! I’ve done three art shows — an eight-week solo art show of 50 pieces here in Park City, I did an exhibition in London, and I did an exhibition in Belgium. I did one in Northern California, and we’ve got one next January, in St. Louis, Missouri. We’re doing real, live art shows, and believe me — I don’t know how that happened. It’s super fun, and a lot of people buy them. A lot of people buy either the digital or the printed version and hang them on their wall.
I have hundreds and hundreds of people’s walls with the art up there.
Luke: So I know you said you don’t know how it happened, but how did it happen? I really want to know how you went from writing about finances and sketching to actually showing your art.
Carl: Here’s how it happened: I had a financial adviser say to me — and I can remember him saying to me “hey, I want one of these on my wall. Will you print one large?” And I thought he was crazy. This was six or seven years ago. And then a few weeks later, he pointed out to me exactly which one he wanted, and said “if I get it printed, will you sign it?” And that’s when I thought “dude, you’re nuts.”
He said “I’ll give you $5 for an unsigned one and $100 for a signed one.” I said, “where’s the pen?”
That was the first time, and it got me thinking “well, if he wants one, maybe other people do.” Which is the same thing everything has been. I was sort of getting hit by a stick. He not only said he wanted it, but he demanded it!
An art center asked me to come give a talk about using illustrations to help people understand a complex subject like money. At the end of the talk, the exhibition director there asked if I would do a show for them.
By this point, I had learned to say yes and figure things out later, so I said “yeah, I will!” I stepped outside and just thought, “what in the world is happening?” He offered me a 50-piece solo show in the whole main gallery, and this is on Main Street in Park City. It’s where Oprah announced the O Network. It’s really punches above its weight in terms of cute little Park City, it’s a pretty influential place art-wise. I called one of my real artist friends and asked “how do I do this?”
His name is Nelson, and he came over to my office, and I just said “I don’t know what this means. Do I need to learn how to do watercolors, do I do acrylic, what do I do?” And I was drawing some stuff up on this old, weathered chalkboard I have in the office still. And he said “Carl: what if you just did old, weathered chalkboards?” And I thought, “what are you talking about? You’re nuts!” And he finally talked me into it, so we did these old, weathered chalkboards.
Then we had to figure out how to price it. How do we price an old, beat up chalkboard with one of my images on it? The person I asked to help me with that said “everything else is priced per square foot. Why don’t you do it per square foot?” A 3×3 chalkboard at this show was $1800. And they all sold.
I walked in to opening night and I didn’t know that they did it this way, but there are those little cards next to art in galleries that has a little description and maybe the price on it and there was all these black dots on the cards. Opening night there were around 150 people there. I actually had to walk back outside three times and almost threw up in the parking lot, I was so nervous. I see all these black dots and I thought they must mean something bad. Well, that means the piece was sold. It was crazy. That’s how it happened.
Luke: And do you continue to do that?
Carl: It’s a lot of work, so I like to do one a year, and our next one is in a community arts based gallery in St. Louis in January. It will run for about eight or ten weeks and we involve the community, like for this one, we’re going to try to bring in MBA and MFA students to a workshop where we make the MBAs draw, and the MFAs explain. The MFAs can’t touch anything, but they have to talk about the concept. We take a concept like “diversification” and say “how would you illustrate that? MFAs, you can’t draw, you can only talk.”
Luke: That sounds like an amazing project. I’d love to see how that comes together.
Carl: For sure! I’ll let you know. So it is January of 2016.
Luke: We have a lot of bloggers in the financial community who would love to publish a book through a publisher. How did you take the column that you had been writing, just like the bloggers have been writing for years and years and have quite an extensive compendium of articles at this point. How do you focus and turn all of that into a book that would be interesting?
Carl: I love that question. I’m a huge fan of byproducts. The act of blogging, by itself, and I love how Seth [Godin] talks about this, that just the act of metacognition: thinking about your thinking, he says “if I don’t get anything else out of blogging, that’s valuable.”
So you start there, and you think “okay, great. I’m building an audience, I’ve got a product here or there,” but one of the byproducts clearly is that you’ve got this big pile – and this is exactly what happened to me.
We’ve been doing it for two or three years, about a thousand words a week, and I woke up one day thinking about that big pile on the table of 30,000 words. I wondered how we could take that – and I didn’t want to just slap together a book. There are plenty of those, and some of them are really good, I’m not saying they’re bad. I just didn’t want to do it this way, where you just slap together blog posts so I just said instead “what’s in here? What are the common themes? What narrative can we draw through the whole thing?” So I think that’s what you do.
We took 50 to 1000 images that represent each idea, so we just printed out all 50 images, and we did this in the basement of my house and we taped them to the wall and moved them around until we found an interesting narrative. Then we knew that behind each image was about 1,000 words. Then we grabbed the words and organized it that way (of course, it made no sense at that point, it was just a series of unorganized blog posts.)
Then we wondered how we could craft it all together. Sometimes that involves getting someone else involved. You may be really good — that’s a skill, I’ve always had somebody else involved, I always get an “old-fashioned” editor. Not like the kind that exist at many publishers now, but an old-fashioned editor that can take 50,000 words of relatively unorganized content and say “hey Carl, I think there’s something here and here and here.” That could just be a spouse or a friend that you just ask to help you, because it might be a different skillset than blogging. But then again, it might not be. But that’s how I do it.
Luke: I think that makes a lot of sense. I wondered who “we” were, so I figured that you had some help there. I think bloggers and writers kind of focuses in on the skillset they have that is very good, and for a lot of us who have been publishing, that is the actual act of publishing your thoughts and writing articles. When it comes to putting something together in a condensed or publishable form, it seems to require a different skillset.
Carl: I think so. I know people who are really good at this and can do both — I’m not saying you can’t. I’m slowly slowly slowly trying to figure out what I’m uniquely skilled at, and trying to get people around me who are uniquely skilled at the stuff I’m not at.
For instance, I have not seen the inside of my email for almost six months. I don’t have the login, I don’t have the password. My assistant, Cara — I had mentioned to her that I had been wanting to get rid of email for so long. The next day I came in and she had changed the password and wouldn’t give it to me. When people email me, if you get a reply, and it’s signed by me — it is absolutely from me.
The way it works is that she prepares a brief, two times a day, that outlines the messages I get. Then I literally write the reply in the brief, she just cuts and pastes it into the email. So it’s from me, don’t get confused about that, but there’s only about 10% of emails that require a reply from me.
Most of the time she’s able to say “Hey, John! This is Cara, and Carl asked me to reply. It looks like you need to book a time.” Some people look at this as being delegated, but no — actually, that’s a sign of my love and respect for you, because she’ll get it done!
Otherwise you and I will be trading emails for ten years and we’ll never have a conversation and I’ll miss the appointment and I’ll blow it off because I’m not good at that. It’s back to this editing idea that editing is, I think, a skill that takes an outside pair of eyes.
If you’re a blogger, I would highly encourage you to create, even if you decide to create a 10,000 word ebook that draws all this narrative together, it gives people a souvenir of the work they’ve been reading. You’d be shocked by how many people buy a book — I know lots of these guys who just slap together blog posts, and they almost haven’t done any more work than that, and they tell people. “Everything I’ve written here is on my blog,” but people still want it because it’s a souvenir of the experience.
Luke: Do you think you’ve made the right choice in publishing through Penguin? How did that opportunity come about, and is there an advantage to that over publishing an ebook or self-publishing a printed book?
Carl: This is a really challenging subject for me to talk about, simply because I realize that I’ve been really lucky. There’s not a set of lessons, you’re never going to see a book from me that says “four great ways to secure a huge book deal.” I think the only lesson I have that’s of value to anyone is to play in traffic and hope you get hit. Don’t expect to, and don’t even hope. Just play in traffic might be the only way to put it.
Luke: It sounds dangerous!
Carl: Yeah, it does sound dangerous! But a better way to put it is “write good stuff, and make it easy to spread. Repeat over and over and over.” Have no expectation of anything other than that. To answer your question specifically, for me, the experience of publishing both of these books with Penguin has been awesome.
I’ve enjoyed the process, and financially, it’s been rewarding, so that’s the calculation you make: at the end of the day, you’re going to have to write the book traditionally, with a traditional publisher or not. You’re going to have to write the book and sell the book. Nobody else is going to do that for you. “Sell” is maybe a crass word to use, but you’re going to have to market and spread and share the book. Nobody else is going to do that for you, barring the top one-tenth of one percent. It’s not the top ten percent, it’s almost no one. You’ve got to build your own platform, market your own book, sell your own book.
At the end of the day, it really comes down to a financial calculation. Chances are you’re probably also going to get some outside editorial help that you pay for out of your pocket, even if editors at the traditional publishers are really good. You’re probably still going to want some outside help.
So at the end of the day, really, all of a sudden you’ve done everything other than get your book in the airports and some of the independent and big bookstore chains. That’s the only thing that traditional publishers bring to the table: that, and the money.
Again, I want to make sure that I stated this right: the editorial help you get from a traditional publisher can be incredibly valuable. So the calculation becomes which one is a better bet in terms of it working out for everyone financially. By “everyone,” I mean the publisher too, because in order for it to be a good business relationship, it’s got to work out for them to, so that’s the calculation.
Tim McGraw has a great calculator on his site on traditional vs. self-published. It’s just a calculator – you plug in a couple of variables and it will tell you which one might be better. Let’s assume you want to traditionally publish – how does it happen? Write good stuff and spread it.
I literally got a phone call. I had an agent at the time, but we couldn’t get a proposal done because I hate writing proposals. So it was like six months and I was still saying “I don’t want to! I’m not going to write the proposal!” and then I literally got a phone call out of the blue from Penguin. They didn’t know I had an agent, and she said “I’ve read everything you’ve written, I’ve printed it out, I’ve laid it out in chapters, and I’m calling to see if you’ll write a book for me.”
I told her I had an agent, but that I didn’t want to write a proposal. She said “can we make you a preemptive offer?” I said, “I’m a kid from the hills in Utah. I don’t even know that that means! Call my agent,” and three days later we had a book deal. You can’t plan that! The only thing you can do really is to focus on what you can control, write good stuff, put it in a way that’s easy to spread.
Luke: Have you given any thought to what you want to talk about at your keynote at FinCon?
Yeah, I want to talk about the amazing place that I’m now thinking of FinCon more in the terms of “financial educators.” I don’t care if that’s a blogger, a journalist, a financial advisor, it’s just people who are really trying to make a difference in how people treat money. And that is such a beautiful, sacred spot for me, so I want to talk about that, and I want to talk about my story and how it happened, only from the point of view of comparing it to compound interest. There was a whole period of time that was insanely boring: like my mom and my sister were reading my stuff, and my sister was lying, so it was just my mom. Then suddenly, the curve started to head up.
Often we’re trying to find shortcuts to that steep end of the curve, both in our investments and in our business lives if we’re content creators. What SEO tools can I use, what consultant can I hire, and what I think the lesson of Seth Godin is really fascinating to me — if you go back and look, there’s actually somebody who has plotted out his readership and his views and his number of posts. It looks just like a compound interest curve.
We all look at Seth now and say “yeah, but he can say that because he’s Seth.” Well no, he’s been saying that for ten years and he just did it every single day. There was a whole bunch of time that was boring, and the point is if you want to get to the exciting end of the curve, you’ve got to go through the boring part.
There’s no shortcuts. No shortcuts in investing and in content creation. You’ve got to go through it. If you start to realize it, the boring part is actually exciting! Because you know you have to do it. So that’s what I’m excited to talk about. Just this sacred role that we all play in terms of being financial educators, and the talk may be called “How to Change the World.” It’s a humble talk. Because I believe so passionately in your ability to do it!
Luke: That’s fantastic. And what you’re saying matches my experience as well with Consumerism Commentary on a smaller scale, obviously, than Seth Godin or yourself. But just seeing that curve, getting to the exciting part of that curve was very exciting for me. Now I’m “after” that point, and it’s just always been a big question for me as far as what’s next and what am I going to do to match that, or even to get as much satisfaction as I got out of it several years ago.
Carl: It’s fascinating. I love Seth’s idea of just continuing to scale trust so that if I say “hey, I made this, here it is for you. Do you like it?” There’s a group of people out there that will at least trust me enough to check it out. And hopefully, they’ll trust me enough to be honest with me about what they felt so I can keep making it better and better and better over time. And I think that’s a really fun place to be.
Luke: That was Carl Richards, author of the One-Page Financial Plan, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers. You can find a free chapter at OnePageFinancialPlan.com, and you can read Carl’s Sketch-Guy column in the New York Times.
Updated June 24, 2016 and originally published June 1, 2015.