ETR Insider Report: Our First “Big Picture” Theory of Success

A colleague wrote suggesting that ETR might be more interesting if we tied the subjects of our articles to current events.

“I just wondered whether you couldn’t make ETR more topical by using the news to establish context,” he wrote. “Ford announced another 10,000 jobs lost this year … and, as you’ve been saying in ETR, the man who relies on a factory job is in a bad way.”

It was a good suggestion. I’ve wondered the same thing many times in the past three years. We do routinely cover the news. But usually our coverage is restricted to specific businesses or topics that we favor. Real estate investing, for example. Or the disintegration of the three retirement blankets: Social Security, Medicare, and private pensions.

But the subjects that interest me most tend to relate to self-improvement. Topics such as:

* What are the essential skills of a great public speaker?
* What is the quickest way to build muscle?
* Can intelligence be improved … and, if so, how?
* What are the seven steps to wealth?

Essays about these sorts of subjects aren’t usually inspired by news events. More commonly, they come from events in my personal life.

My colleague also suggested that we use current events to emphasize what he calls our ” Big Picture Theory of Success.” By this, he means the core beliefs we have about success.

This is another good idea. Especially because so much of what I read and see in the business, financial, and self-improvement press is pure bunk.

We do have ideas about the best way to start a business … the right way to become an Internet mogul … the fastest way to get into shape … and the top techniques for developing personal power. But too often we’ve allowed our basic ideas to lurk in the dimly lit background, figuring that our readers were better off paying attention to the specific advice we’re giving.

“You could have a whole set of theories,” my colleague suggested, “that provide the reader with a running commentary on world events and leave him with a clearer idea of his own superiority (because he understands what is going on and he is doing something about it).”

Maybe we should do that. In fact, I’d like this essay to be the first of many on “ETR’s Theories of Success.” But keeping them topical by referring to the news could be a problem. Why? Because I don’t pay much attention to world events.

Other than reading my colleague’s e-zine (which I read because it’s superbly written), I barely skim the front pages of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. When I read the paper or look at the news, I’m much more interested in the smaller stories, the human events. Like the recent story about the teenager who made a million bucks in about a week on his website … or the dad who regained his eyesight after 20 years of blindness.

What excites me is not geopolitics or the global economy but these little stories of ordinary people achieving great things and overcoming great obstacles. When it comes to the ” Big Picture,” my core belief (in a nutshell) is this: That stuff only matters if you want it to.

Big Picture thinking is enormously rewarding … and it can be helpful too. But it doesn’t really matter what picture you are looking at.

We live in a world of patterns. We look at this world through a tiny scope … our personal point of view. Given how narrow our perspectives are, we can never hope to see the whole picture, figure out exactly how things really work, or predict the future with any certainty.

The best we can do is recognize patterns in the tiny fragment of the world we can see clearly – and then consider how those patterns might be repeated in other, broader experiences.

After studying geopolitics for many years, my colleague has made several very astute observations. For example, he has discovered that you can’t always get what you want but you will often get what you deserve – even if you don’t want it. This particular piece of wisdom has helped him direct his readers’ investment choices. An individual investor’s moral compass won’t always lead to the gold – and my colleague is the first one to admit that. But it will usually bring the investor to where he deserves to go. So beware, he advises.

Because we live in a fractal universe and because each of us has such a limited perspective, we have to learn to recognize patterns to have any hope of achieving anything. One could argue – as I have in past ETR essays – that the human intellect is specifically designed to recognize and respond to patterns that are too subtle and complex to be understood logically.

The interesting thing about a fractal universe is the possibility that all patterns are related. If this is so, you should be just as able to recognize the patterns of success by studying football or art history as by studying geopolitics or global economics.

I think you can do that. And that’s why I feel okay about skimming the front page of the newspaper and then heading for the back.

To be successful in life, you don’t need to know what Chase Manhattan Bank is doing in Chile. Nor do you need to take action if you discover that they’re doing something you “don’t agree with.” In fact, it can be a distraction to get caught up in (bogged down by?) Big Picture events. They can usurp your time, consume your energy, and preoccupy your mind.

I think you can discover the universal secrets of success by becoming a student of almost anything – Jiu Jitsu, cooking with a wok, geometry. Because all of the most important patterns are the same.

It almost doesn’t matter what happens in the Big Picture. If you know how to operate on a personal level … if you know how to manage your personal life, your personal finances, and your personal relationships … then the Big Picture stuff won’t really affect you. (Okay, that’s not entirely true. It may very well affect you. But you can’t do anything about the Big Picture stuff anyway … unless you decide to go into politics yourself. And then you’ll probably find out that you had much less of an effect on the world than you thought you might.)

No, you can’t change the things you can’t change. And most Big Picture events fall into that category. But you can change (be in charge of, control) how you react to those events. You can hang your head and complain, or pick up a phone and make a strategic call. You can surrender to defeat, or approach your goal from a new angle. You can run away and hide, or charge forward and profit.

So that’s my first Theory of Success: You don’t need to know much (if anything) about the Big Picture stuff to be successful.

Just find some area of life to study… flowers… knitting… origami…and discover the patterns of success in that little world. Apply the lessons you learn to every opportunity that comes your way. Be persistent. And regardless of what happens to the world around you, you will come out on top.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]