Three years ago this week, I had a heart attack.
It was life happening while I had other plans. It was a busy working morning on a packed Friday that was part of an overscheduled week in a frantic month — meaning “an ordinary day” — when early-morning chest pains sent me to Boston Medical Center, where doctors inserted two stents after removing a 100 percent blockage in an artery known in medical circles as “The Widowmaker.”
Awake during the entire procedure, my focus mostly was on what happens next. My bad habits had short-circuited my health and led to this at age 48, but success is moving from one disappointment to the next without losing your enthusiasm; once you are sure that you’re not experiencing a life-ending moment, you have plenty of motivation to turn it into a life-changing one.
As historian E.H. Carr once noted, however, “Change is certain. Progress is not.”
So even as I took the first steps to regain my health, I pointed to the three-year mark as a key time to evaluate my progress. I chose that time frame because experts say it takes 1,000 correct repetitions of an activity to develop muscle memory; each rep done incorrectly – every mistake — is supposed to require 10 more done properly to achieve the correct final result. Thus, if I considered each day one repetition in trying to live healthy, three years would give me enough days and let me make 10 mistakes along the way to develop the proper “lifestyle memory.”
There is a personal finance angle to all of this, because saving, budgeting and investing properly are remarkably similar to diet, exercise and eating right. Just as many people have trouble with a diet, so do they have issues living on a budget, spending within their means, and saving properly. Whether it’s financial plans or life goals, however, the last three years have served as a lesson in perspective and priorities.
Here are a few hard lessons that the last three years have made me recognize:
Making plans is meaningless without follow-through. You hear all the time that you don’t plan to fail, you just fail to plan, as if having a plan by itself is some magic panacea for getting things done. Planning is a first step, not a final one. Three years ago, there were a lot of things I planned for that were on the verge of going undone, a thought that frightened me as much as any in that moment.
So while it may be true that “Man plans and God laughs,” it’s equally true that wishful thinking doesn’t make things happen or give you time to get them done. I’m not rooting for another cardiac incident, but I know I will not have the same fears if one happens.
Setbacks make the journey more arduous, but it’s not over until you decide to stop moving forward. Primarily, my health problems stemmed from — and continue to be caused by — my weight. Where I once described my weight loss after the heart attack as “one-and-a-half chins,” today it’s more like one chin, meaning I have gained back a few pounds.
I’m not happy about it, but I also can’t let my disappointment set me all the way back to the danger zone.
Most things in life are not measured by one single metric; my doctor pointed out at my annual physical two weeks ago that he’s less concerned with the number on the scale than with my overall health. In that regard, he’s extremely pleased with my progress over the last three years.
Likewise, savers or people trying to reduce debt or reach a goal can get so focused on a single target that they falter when some emergency or other event steals their momentum. If they worry about being knocked off track, they will be; they need to focus on making overall progress rather than allowing downturns to convince them that hitting the number is hopeless.
You can’t take care of others without first taking care of yourself. Looking back, everything that led to the peak of physical treachery in 2010 was done with the best of intentions. I needed to work that hard to be a good provider, I had to live the frenetic pace to handle the life events that were challenging my family. By not first caring for myself, I nearly failed my family in the worst possible way. Now, by spending some time every day to care for myself physically and emotionally, my family and my employers get me at my best rather than at my stressed. That’s better for everyone.
Live the way you want to be remembered. When my father died last year, he was buried in a New Jersey cemetery, steps away from Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Nobel Laureate whose gravestone says: “His greatest joy was work.” I admire Singer’s writings, but that sentiment struck me as odd. I love my job — I have always said I get paid to play — but it does not define me. There’s no prize for being the most overworked, cheapest, stingiest, miserable cuss in the boneyard; had I not been so fortunate three years ago, I might have been remembered mostly for working myself to an early grave. I’ve spent the last three years trying to show my family that my priorities are back in order; while they will always acknowledge that I love my job, I’m confident it won’t be the thing they say about me first.
Life eventually forces you to recognize the difference between perception and reality. If your self-evaluations are too rosy, life will smack you into awareness; the wrong time to find out that you were irrationally optimistic is when life is punching you in the face.
A lot of people think they are in reasonably good financial health when their outstanding debts or their spending habits and lifestyle instead mean that they are headed for a reckoning somewhere down the road.
Where I once used a weekly lacrosse game as way to convince myself that I wasn’t “too out of shape,” today I spend hours each week in the gym and the only reason I am willing to say that I am “in shape” is because “round” is a shape.
Own up to your shortcomings, and do what you can to fix them, rather than glossing over them figuring you will get to them in time. Embrace being a work in progress; it’s a whole lot better than being a work in regress.Chuck Jaffe is senior columnist for MarketWatch. He can be reached at email@example.com or at Box 70, Cohasset, MA 02025-0070.