The right thing to do by whom?

Welcome to this month’s newsletter. This time I would like to talk about the issue of "doing the right thing". It is an intriguing subject because most of the time we know what is the "right thing" to do in most situations, such as eating healthily and exercising regularly, but we often we don’t end up doing it. So I thought I would throw in my two cents on some of the reasons why this can be the case.

Let’s look over a few situations where most of us instinctively know what is the right thing do, but we don’t always do it:

  1. You know you should go to bed early to give yourself enough rest for your next day at work, but you let your friends and family dictate when you end up going to bed;
  2. You know it is good for you to have your lunch at a regular time, but you let your work dictate when you can have your lunch or skip it all together;
  3. You know you should not spend more money than you earn, but you let advertising or pressure from others dictate how much you spend;
  4. You know you should save or invest a portion of your surplus income continually for your future, but you let market conditions and other people’s opinions dictate when you do so;
  5. You know you should only pay for someone’s work if they deliver the outcome you need, but you continue to let the underperformers dictate why you should keep them in the job.

Insane? Isn’t it? 

Most of us do this every day. We know what is the right thing to do, but we seem to do the opposite. While there could be many reasons behind this, I have found an easy angle to help everyone take a fresh look at this issue. In reality, when our mind thinks about the concept of “the right thing to do”, we often don’t add these two words “by whom” at the end. If you observe all the statements above, you can easily find a pattern where we seem to let “the right thing to do by others” dominate “the right thing to do by ourselves”.  In other words, “the right thing to do by yourself” is overpowered by “the right thing to do by others”. In other words, your environment is having more say over you than you having over it. You are being dictated by what other people want, rather than what you really want.

Does this mean that we need to be self-centred and completely selfish so that we can do the right thing by ourselves? Ironically, when you decide that you should have more power over your own environment and everything you do you must “do the right thing by yourself”, you also end up “doing the right thing by others” as well. Let me use the above examples to demonstrate:

  1. Knowing the right thing to do by yourself is to go to bed early so that you can rest well for next day at work. If you set this boundary with your friends and family so that they let you have your way, you probably will perform better at work. You could then end up having a better career, and setting a great example to your family and friends to follow, so they may end up doing the same;
  2. Knowing the right thing to do is to feed your body lunch regularly at an expected time. If you respect yourself and your body’s needs, you will have to manage your diary better so that people around you will also learn to be better and more disciplined time managers;
  3. Knowing the right thing to do is to be a good money manager of your money, you will end up having more money to spend later on things that are more meaningful to you and your family or friends;
  4. Knowing the right thing to do is to save and invest continually regardless of the external environment, you may get into a habit of not being affected by the ups and downs of markets and other people’s emotions. You may even end up contributing to the overall stability of the markets;
  5. Knowing that you should only pay for results, you may have to fire some of the non-performers in your business, and by doing so you may actually force these non-performers to find something else they are good at so that they can enjoy better pay doing more suitable work.

You can also easily flip the logic around here and understand that you can’t really do the right thing by others at the expense of doing the wrong thing by yourself. Using the same examples again:

  1. When you don’t do the right thing by yourself, i.e. go to bed earlier to rest well for your next working day, you are also doing the wrong thing by your family and friends, as you have set a bad example for them to do the same thing in their lives;
  2. When you don’t do the right thing by yourself, i.e. having lunch at a regular time, you are also encouraging your work colleagues to neglect their health and be disorganised;
  3. When you don’t do the right thing by yourself, i.e. manage your money well, you are making it ok for all your family and friends to be bad money managers;
  4. When you don’t do the right thing by yourself, i.e. continue to save and invest regardless of the market conditions and people’s emotion, you have put inconsistency and an overly emotional approach to money into your friends, family and the overall market;
  5. When you don’t do the right thing by yourself, i.e. fire your non-performers, you are lying to the non-performers and costing them the opportunity to find something more suitable for them to do.

You see, very often when we know what is the right thing to do but don’t do it, it is because we think we don’t want to do the wrong thing by others. But in doing so, we are doing the wrong thing by ourselves.  The truth is that when we are doing the wrong thing by ourselves, we are also doing the wrong thing by others over the longer term; but if when we do the right thing by ourselves, we are definitely doing the right thing by others over the longer term as well. 

So let’s all get off our moral high ground: in reality there is no such thing as “doing the right thing by others, at the expense of doing the right thing by ourselves”, it doesn’t exist. It is a much better option that we focus on doing the right thing by ourselves first, as it will inevitably lead to doing the right thing by others as well.

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