The superpower of financial awareness
Much of the training I went through as a crime syndicate enforcer1, police officer, FBI agent, and martial artist centered around situational awareness. Every tradition approaches it differently, but at heart the concept is simple: pay attention, and see reality as it is.
Like most simple yet important concepts, it is damn difficult to get right. The "correct" answer is rarely obvious. Stereotypes, bias, and even experience can lead you astray. I literally have the scars to prove it.
Our human limits also play a hand. I can effectively monitor three people as potential threats, if they are positioned well and the environment allows for it. Those conditions rarely come together as well as I would like, and many chaotic situations have far more than three potentially bad actors present.
You cannot give every threat the appropriate amount of attention. In the real world, you have to make compromises and calculate odds in order to come up with the least bad decision.
The Braavosi know it
Not everyone goes through FBI training, but the concept is not an obscure one. In the first novel of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, Arya Stark receives training in sword fighting from one of the series' most beloved characters, Syrio Forel2, first sword of the Braavosi.
The core of her training revolves around situational awareness and seeing things as they truly are3.
"On the day I am speaking of, the first sword was newly dead, and the Sealord sent for me. Many bravos had come to him, and as many had been sent away, none could say why. When I came into his presence, he was seated, and in his lap was a fat yellow cat. He told me that one of his captains had brought the beast to him, from an island beyond the sunrise. 'Have you ever seen her like?' he asked of me.
"And to him I said, 'Each night in the alleys of Braavos I see a thousand like him,' and the Sealord laughed, and that day I was named the first sword."
Arya screwed up her face. "I don't understand."
Syrio clicked his teeth together. "The cat was an ordinary cat, no more. The others expected a fabulous beast, so that is what they saw. How large it was, they said. It was no larger than any other cat, only fat from indolence, for the Sealord fed it from his own table. What curious small ears, they said. Its ears had been chewed away in kitten fights. And it was plainly a tomcat, yet the Sealord said 'her,' and that is what he others saw. Are you hearing?"
Arya thought about it. "You saw what was there."
"Just so. Openning your eyes is all that is needing. The heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true. Look with your eyes. Hear with your ears. Taste with your mouth. Smell with your nose. Feel with your skin. Then comes the thinking, afterward, and in that way knowing the truth."
The training Arya receives is quite literally a fantasy, but it carries truth. People who do not know better believe winning is about what you do. They are not wrong per se, but they have placed the cart before the horse.
As Syrio tells Arya, you first have to see what you are facing without blinders, bias, or self-deception standing in the way before you have a decent chance of imposing your game.
A fundamental skill
Situational awareness is an important asset in almost every part of your life. For some reason it tends to go unnamed and unheralded in non-martial contexts.
Childcare is a prime example. A child's caregiver is successful or not due to their level of situational awareness more than any other factor. Is the child grumpy because they are hungry or tired, or are these actual tears of pain? Are they playing in a way that is safe or dangerous? What small signs is the child sharing I can use to head off disaster?
I have known nannies and teachers who routinely display more situational awareness than secret service agents protecting the president. The best are woefully underpaid and under appreciated.
It is also vital to understand reality as it is when making financial decisions. Situational awareness in a financial context allows you to avoid many common traps and capitalize on opportunities.
In that past, at least in some departments, you've heard that there is no such thing as buying an undervalued stock, or making money in stocks, that the market is efficient, and that everything is priced right at all times relative to the known information about it. Therefore, there's no use thinking. And, of course, from my standpoint I'd like to have everyone believe that, because it's a terrific advantage to be in a game where your opponent has been taught not to think.
I wish the people I played bridge would. An appreciable percentage of the money in Wall Street is managed by people who believe that. It's the old story that if there's a $20 bill on the floor there's no sense picking it up because it can't be there.
The mass of people in the developed world hemorrhage money every month on cars, house payments, alcohol, cable television and eating out—and they do it without thinking. Recognizing the state of your finances now, and where things will likely stand in the future, is fundamental.
Do you have a budget? Do you know how much you will earn next month? Do you know what income streams will be available to you when you retire? If you had to pay a $1,000 bill next week, could you cover it? How do you know? Have you ever thought about it?
Some people live their whole lives without truly taking stock of their financial situation. They have all of the information they need to understand where they are and where they are going, but they never bother to actually see it. They will hit sixty and somehow be surprised when retirement remains a distant dream.
Financial awareness can help you avoid falling into the same trap.
The first step to shaping the future is understanding the present.
Andrew Reeves is an entrepreneur, touring musician, and practitioner of eleven martial arts. He reached financial independence at age 28 and has dedicated his retirement to fighting crime and helping others.
"Training" paints a far more formal picture than is actually warranted by my time as an enforcer. Still, I had many informal lessons from two of the best teachers around: experience and pain.
He apparently dies shortly after the passage quoted below, but there are a few fan theories out there that posit his death, which happens "off screen" in both the novel and the HBO adaptation, is not so cut-and-dried. It is possible that a character who shows up much later on is the same person.
The rest involves chasing cats and pigeons, and standing on one leg for hours at a time.
Syrio reminds me of the best of my own teachers.
Can you recall a time situational awareness saved your bacon? Do you truly understand your financial situation? How many financial threats can you effectively monitor at the same time?
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Love this. Situational awareness is what separates those of us who make the RIGHT decisions the majority of the time from those who just throw a bunch of gooey crap up against a wall to see what sticks. You're right, a lot of people just barrel through life without truly taking stock of their situation and the reality of the world in which they live.
They don't slow down enough to allow that necessary process to happen.
What a fabulous article. Really makes you think and take stock of what is happening now, in all avenues of your life. I like to think that I practice situational awareness but I never thought to apply the same concepts to my finances. Thanks! Denise
Nice writing style and interesting read. I can attest to the benefits of financial awareness. If financial stability/independence is your goal, financial awareness is the foundation.
Love this post. But I think it's important to distinguish financial awareness from financial obsession. Many people religiously track their portfolios on a day to day basis as if the daily movement matters. Many of them were the ones who turned temporary paper losses into real, wealth-crushing losses in 2009.
I thought I have great financial awareness, but when I saw this "...money every month on cars, house payments, alcohol, cable television and eating out..." I think, I know I have eating out to cut, and try not to get into house payments. [Paid off the car in 5 years].
@Menard Solve, you're absolutely right. That behavior can make people feel informed, but it actually is a kind of forced blindness. Like paying so much attention to the danger in front of you that you fail to check your six.
@lyn, don't stress about it! People have to live somewhere, and most of us need (or at least "need") a car. It isn't always a problem to have recurring costs or to splurge on a night out.
Am I aware of where your money is going? Am I comfortable with my expenses, savings, and investments? Have I made plans for common stumbling blocks?
Even just asking yourself those questions makes you more aware than most.
With interests rates so low in generic bank accounts in the UK we have had to diversify, meaning at any one time our money is in 7/8 different places. I think although it makes it more difficult to track, diversification is key to lowering the potential risks.
I have specifically chosen stocks based on their dividend history (especially during recessions) meaning I don't have to follow the price daily but each month I track where I'm at in a spreadsheet as it's much easier to visually see my progress.