"This is a marathon, not a sprint." -- eBay CEO Meg Whitman
Yes, Meg Whitman said it. And so did at least a dozen other top business executives (and probably some not-so-top executives, and probably Yogi Berra). But what does it mean, exactly? What's wrong with sprinting, and what's right about a marathon?
Well, Whitman was speaking of running her business to achieve long-term results. Some managers are tempted to focus on hitting short-term numbers, and they sacrifice long-term performance as a result. But by keeping the marathon analogy in mind, Whitman forces herself to focus on what's important.
This particular analogy probably rings true more for Drip investors than anyone else. If you're putting a little bit of money away on a regular basis, you're certainly not looking for a quick run-up in price. You've chosen what you believe is a great company with great long-term prospects, and decided to become part owner of that company for a long, long time. Yes, conditions may change and you may decide to sell well before you planned. But generally you're in this for the long haul.
"Something in me wanted to find out how far I could run without stopping." -- Marathoner Jacki Hanson, as quoted in WomenSports magazine
I've run three marathons in my life, and the experience made me a better investor. Like Hanson, the race held a special mystique for me. It would require a big commitment on my part, I knew, but I felt I could I could do it, and I knew I would be the better for it regardless of what happened. Running a 26.2-mile race requires a lot of preparation; it's not something you can think about a couple of months beforehand. The program I followed involved 32 weeks of training. Even with that, halfway through my first marathon I wished I had prepared even more!
Investing requires similar preparation, of course. It will take weeks, and even months, to complete the proper "due diligence" required to fully understand a particular company. There are important questions that need to be answered before you invest a dime. (One great approach to understanding a business inside and out is detailed in Philip Fisher's classic Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits. The book lays out a 15-point business-focused plan for evaluating companies. To learn about evaluating a company's financials, you can start at our Investing Basics section.)
"Running is a lot like life. Only 10% of it is exciting. 90% of it is slog and drudge." -- Distance runner Dave Bedford
Bedford may be speaking the truth about professional runners, but while there are certainly times I have to drag myself out the door, only a small percentage of training is "slog and drudge" for the recreational runner. But Bedford does bring up the key point of persistence. As someone once said, "90% of success is just showing up." (Believe me, you'll have your fill of quotes by the time you finish this column.) You'll never improve enough to run a marathon with sporadic training -- you need to show up on a regular basis and stick with it.
Leaning to be a good investor is a never-ending process. There's always more to soak up -- more out there that can make you better. If you can't make the effort to further your education on an ongoing basis, you'd probably be better off investing in index funds and relaxing. But those willing to make the commitment have the potential for greater wealth years down the road.
Persistence has a very nice, sweet payoff beyond the obvious. Runners who persevere through the tough times -- who climb off the couch when they'd rather take a nap -- will finally, mercifully, reach a point when inertia begins working for them instead of against them. At this point, their bodies feel light and energetic most of the time. Like a caged tiger, they feel restless if they can't get out for their regularly scheduled run. Fat has begun disappearing, and is replaced by calorie-burning muscle. It's not easy to get to this point, but it's great when it happens!
Similarly, persistent investors will eventually become more comfortable evaluating companies. The momentum turns, and things that were once confusing are now understandable. They become more confident in the entire process and, most important, more successful. Again, it's not easy to reach this point, but it will happen eventually as long as you keep "showing up."
"He who conquers others is strong; he who conquers himself is mighty." -- Lao-tzu, sixth-century B.C. Chinese Philosopher
Marathons and markets have taught me a lot about myself. I found out, in time, that I couldn't impose my will on either process. I also discovered or clarified my different strengths and weaknesses. Investing has sharpened my mind, while running has allowed me to grow both physically and mentally (lots of time to think during long training runs!). The ability to view life through the eyes of a marathoner, rather than the eyes of a sprinter, has made a profound difference in my quality of life. The Big Picture has come into sharper focus for me, and I'm better able to de-emphasize things that I'll look back on in a few years as being nearly meaningless.
If you're a current or potential Drip investor (pretty likely, if you're reading this column), try to keep these things in mind. Prepare, persist, and grow. Success will not happen overnight. Each small chunk of change you invest in a company may continue to look insignificant for quite some time. But if you've done your homework, then over time -- years, not months -- you'll be amazed at what you've accomplished.
"Running provides happiness, which is different from pleasure. Happiness has to do with struggling and enduring and accomplishing." -- The late Dr. George Sheehan, longtime running author
The finish line
Almost anyone reading this can run a marathon. There are good training programs out there that will slowly, surely prepare you for the race. And I truly believe that going through the process will help you as an investor.
It isn't easy, of course. In fact, it's downright hard. But most people can do it. My favorite training programs come from Jeff Galloway, who has helped thousands of non-runners prepare for and complete marathons. His beginner program starts with just a 30-minute walk... but it ends 26 weeks later with a 26.2-mile run -- and the thrill of a lifetime!
If we're lucky, we'll eventually develop an attitude the beloved Dr. Sheehan, quoted above, would have been proud of. He lived seven years with cancer, and continued running and sharing his experiences with his readers through regular columns in Runner's World magazine. When he died just short of his 75th birthday, he truly had "made every day count."
Rex Moore invites you to experience some of the writings of George Sheehan, and share your thoughts on the Running Fools discussion board. The Motley Fool is investors and runners writing for investors and runners.