Focus on One Thing

April 17, 2020

My normal shot shape with a driver is a little fade from left to right. Unfortunately, my home course is setup such that the majority of holes favor a draw -- a right to left ball flight. Most of the time, I couldn’t hit a draw with my driver if my life depended on it. The one exception is the 9th, which has a lake on the left. For some inexplicable reason, I tend to hit a draw on that hole. I have the opposite problem on the 5th hole that sets up wonderfully for my little fade, but has huge problems if you go too far right. In golf, a block is a shot that goes way right. I might hit one block a round and more often than not it happens on the 5th hole. 

There is a biblical passage that could only have been written by a golfer. “… I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” Part of the problem is my lack of skill but that doesn’t explain why I make my biggest mistakes at the worst times. There is only one explanation – it’s a mental problem.

Caddying for my brother-in-law on the PGA Senior Tour, I discovered the difference in mentality between a tour player and a recreational player. He thinks about what he wants to do, I think about what I don’t want to do. I was reminded of this when reading an article by Daniel Hicks about his experiences caddying for European Tour player Christian Cevaer. After giving some well-intended advice about all the potential problems on a hole, Cevaer looked at him with a smile and said “You know, that's the kind of information I never want to hear from a professional caddie. I just want to know where I should hit my ball to. Not where I shouldn't… A golfer needs to have only positive thoughts."

Having only positive thoughts is rather difficult, explains author and life coach, Denise Green, because "We are hard-wired with five times as many neural networks for negative thinking than positive. Given that we experience about 60,000 thoughts a day, that's a lot of negativity." Hicks says that professional golfers overcome this negativity by learning “…to focus on one thing – the next shot.”  It’s a common trait among successful people, according to management consultant, Mike Clayton, who believes “…it’s no coincidence that, when asked what the secret is to their great success, both Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have each cited one answer: the ability to focus on one thing at a time.”

Focusing works because, as Gary Keller and Jay Papasan point out in their book, One Thing, “Success is sequential…” Productivity blogger, Darius Foroux, clarifies that it does not happen “…all at once… Things add up… overtime… to form an impressive feat.” Regrettably, one bad decision can negate a sequence of good ones, which is something we all have to remember in times of crisis. This isn’t the first financial crisis I have been through and as I wrote in the despair of 2008, “My confidence is shaken as doubt joins fear in shouting ‘It really is different this time.’ But is it really? I don’t think so.” Neither did John Templeton, who called “this time it’s different… the four most expensive words in the English language.” And that’s why my friends at Dimensional remind us, “The world has observed many previous crises, but capital markets have rewarded disciplined investors.” Such investors take a long-term view of markets. They realize market declines are unnerving. But they know markets rebound. What they don’t know is when. So, now is not a time to exit the market, it is a time to hold fast. 

I’m not as good a golfer as I could be because I end up doing, at the worst of times, what I don’t want to do. It’s a mental problem. Fortunately, it’s a problem that doesn’t carry over to my investing, because I have learned not to react to short-term market distractions and to ignore the financial media when they are focused 24/7 on negative information. Like successful golfers, I don’t think about the things I shouldn’t do, I think about the things I should do and try to focus on one thing – the long-term. stewardship-minded investment managers don’t “…advertise their performance.” 

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