On a podcast I recently listened to, successful hedge fund manager and author, Joel Greenblatt, mentioned the three phases of life: learn, earn, and return.
An ideal for a lot of people is to spend the first part of your life learning, the second part earning money, and the third part returning what you’ve accumulated – in wealth and knowledge – to benefit others. This order seems logical, but I think it’s better to do all three simultaneously.
Warren Buffett read hundreds of investing books before attending Columbia to study under value investing pioneer, Benjamin Graham. However, that was just the beginning of his education. Today, he reportedly reads 500 pages a day including multiple newspapers, company filings, and nonfiction books. He’s 92 years old.
Early on, he taught investing at the University of Nebraska. He’s also written his annual shareholder letters as a form of investing education for his shareholders and the public. With a net worth of almost $100 billion, after giving away a significant portion of his money to charity, he’s been earning throughout his entire life as well.
Warren Buffett has learned, earned, and returned simultaneously almost his entire life.
Learn, Earn, and Return Today
I’ve found I don’t feel completely fulfilled if I’m missing one or more of these three pursuits. Today, my goal is to integrate all three into a fulfilled and increasingly successful life.
For about a year, I spend 90% of my working time reading books, company SEC filings, and news articles. It was fun at first, then it became depressing. I’d read and read and read, all while watching some of my companies slip in performance, knowing I could do something about it.
I accomplished what most entrepreneurs dream of, building businesses that run themselves. I literally had zero required meetings and zero operational responsibilities in three different companies. Yet, I felt like something was missing.
If I have a superpower in business, which is not certain, it’s marketing. I’ve spent countless hours trying to drive sales through my own written and spoken words across multiple businesses that I’ve built significant ability in this area. With all my time spent learning, I wasn’t using this valuable skill to help my companies or to increase my earnings. It’s like someone getting to the NBA only to spend all their time painting, not playing basketball. I was wasting my talents.
I also wasn’t sharing what I’d learned about business to help others. That’s a huge source of fulfillment for me and I was spending almost no time in that area.
It’s not hard to see, in retrospect, why I was becoming miserable. I was learning a lot, but I wasn’t using my best skill to improve my businesses and I wasn’t using what I’d learned to help others.
My goal today is to spend time in all three, simultaneously.
All Three Pursuits Can Feed Each Other
Then, I swung hard the other direction. I went to a mastermind with a top social media marketer who has been hustling as hard as possible to build his brand for about 20 years. Being around other successful entrepreneurs lit a fire under me and I went all in on earning and returning.
I created four new information products in about two weeks. I launched a mastermind. I did three webinars. We started hiring people again. I started marketing, sending emails, posting on social media, and even figured out TikTok – my top video today has over 700,000 views. All that happened in less than 30 days.
Then, I started experiencing a nagging feeling – once again – that something was missing…This time, I was spending plenty of time increasing earnings and sharing what I’d learned with others, but I’d stopped learning.
I went from reading 100 pages per day to reading almost nothing, other than listening to a few audio books more for motivation than education. I’d wake up checking the number of views and followers on my social media accounts. I’d go to sleep rapid-fire responding to 20 direct messages on Instagram each night.
Most people who teach business seem to take a tiny bit they learn from others, a whole lot they learn from themselves, and start telling people how to improve their lives. This is OK, but I also think it’s a disservice to others and creates a lot of invaluable noise.
I prefer to spend 10 times more learning than teaching. With this proportion, what I teach is more likely to be correct and valuable because I’ve taken in so much information from my own experience and others before opening my mouth.
Design a Life to Spend Time in All Three Areas Each Week
I tend to go all in on something when I commit to it. Years ago, I decided to do jiu jitsu. Once I got over the fear of sparring with others, I started going four times per week, watching hours of video instructionals each week, and building my life around this hobby I wasn’t particularly good at.
When I got into value investing, I read every book I could find on Warren Buffett, started reading thousands of pages of company SEC filings, and designed my entire life around living by his example.
The problem is, going all in for a short period of time, at the expense of everything else in your life, isn’t the best way to succeed. Long-term success almost always comes from sustained effort and focus over long periods of time, not short bursts of activity. This is the nature of compounding which Warren Buffett, Albert Einstein, and many other wise, successful people have discussed.
Today, my goal is to learn, earn, and return in a sort of balance every month. For now, my plan is to spend Wednesdays earning (marketing), Thursdays returning (teaching, doing videos, answering questions from our community), and the rest of the week learning (reading books, taking courses, and talking with others).
(An alternative approach I might try out in the future is Benjamin Franklin’s daily reflection, asking myself if I spent time in each of these three at the end of each day.)
Learn, Earn, and Return to a Greater Life
I believe we have a moral responsibility to learn constantly. Most people learn a tiny bit (if at all), form their opinions of the world, then spend the rest of their lives defending those opinions. I think it’s better to keep learning, especially from sources that contradict your currently held opinions. In this way, we get a more accurate view of the world and can be of more benefit to others.
I also like making money. I like having a nice house. I like having a nice car. I like not having to think twice about paying three times as much money for close-in garage parking at the airport. I also like never having to worry about money, which is also partially a function of spending within our means. Beyond a certain point, more money doesn’t improve your happiness any more than winning another Super Bowl after your first. However, building businesses is what I’m interested in and making money is how the growth of businesses is defined, so I try to help my businesses make more money.
All this learning and earning is without much purpose beyond the modest level at which our happiness plateaus, unless it benefits others as well. I’m in the fortunate position that one of my companies, Amazing, is in the business of teaching people how to build businesses. So, in teaching others, I also grow that business. However, I’m just as happy teaching others what I’ve learned even if there’s no direct financial benefit (such as in writing this post).
I believe a fulfilled and successful life consists of voracious learning, sufficient earning, and returning what we learn to benefit others. The main difference in my approach today is all three should be done simultaneously, rather than in sequence over our entire lives.
If you agree, please join me in this lifelong journey to becoming wiser, wealthier, and more generous with both time and money.