The Most Valuable Investment

Written by Nathan Corbitt, CPA, CFA, CFP® on December 25, 2012

In his book, “Winning with People,” John Maxwell tells the true story of a six-year old girl who was born both deaf and blind. Unable to communicate with the outside world, this girl’s life was transformed when a young teacher began to invest in her life. The teacher’s name was Ann Sullivan and the six-year-old girl was none other than Helen Keller. When I read this story, the word “invest” caused me to pause. Like myself, I imagine most people would be intrigued by an investment with both the capacity for appreciation and multiplication; one that can pay dividends in perpetuity; and one that can impact a life while also shaping the coming generations. Yet Maxwell is not referring to the typical stock and bond investments – he is talking about investing in people’s lives.

Andrew Carnegie described this type of investment well when he said “No man becomes rich unless he enriches others.” By investing in someone’s life, we can stimulate personal growth and create a legacy by reaching beyond our years through the encouragement and development of the next generation. While investing in people will certainly look different for everyone, two common characteristics of those who do it well are 1) their intentionality and 2) their ability to focus on the investment, rather than the reward.

Intentionality requires us to have a clear purpose that drives our strategy. The strategy becomes the guardrails that enable us to maintain proper focus and trajectory in obtaining our goals. Goals also allow us to accurately measure the effectiveness of our investment. In order to be effective, we must focus on what we put in, rather than the results. Similar to financial investing, when we invest in people, we have little control over how or when the results are manifested. And, lasting growth and values cannot be created in a day or even over weeks and months. It requires years of constant attention and care.

Largely due to the time required for intentional investing, being effective requires being selective. Typically people who are energetic, hard working and idealistic are good candidates to invest in. They often lead by example and have the ability to cultivate others to follow in their footsteps. I believe these traits are effective for generational investing because they can allow our investments to multiply again and again.

While you may have been familiar with the previous story of Ann Sullivan, what you likely have not heard is that nearly a half century after meeting Keller, it was Sullivan who became completely blind as she entered the final stage of her life. During this dark phase in Sullivan’s life, it was Keller who was her constant companion and caregiver. As you can see here, investing in others has the ability to shape lives and change generations, and often the greatest beneficiary is the investor.