PHYSICAL THERAPY is a teaching profession. I am the teacher and my patients are the students. They come to me with a problem in need of a solution. I help them find the answer.
Most of my patients have never faced the daunting challenge of overcoming a physical disability caused by injury or disease. They don’t know where to begin. Many have also never put in the sustained effort needed to achieve a tough goal. I’m tasked with teaching them both—giving them the knowledge that they need to get where they want to go and encouraging them to put forth the effort required to get there.
I know how they feel. I had never really settled on a serious career goal until my early 30s, when I decided to return to college to train to become a physical therapist. At about the same time, I decided to become an “expert in investing.” I didn’t know at the time what that meant, but I figured I needed to be one so I could retire one day. I did know that I knew nothing about investing, and would need to begin from scratch.
But first, physical therapy. I learned the basics, about muscles and joints, nerves and organs, and about the chemistry of the body. I went on to learn how all the parts work together to produce movement and allow us to interact with the world around us. Finally, I learned treatment strategies to help restore the bodies of those who need physical therapy to regain what they’ve lost because of a joint injury or a stroke. I landed my first physical therapy job at age 36.
I didn’t know it then, but I was following the centuries-old, three-stage classical model of learning. In the grammar stage, the basics are learned through memorization and review. In the logic stage, the individual parts are put together and put into practice. In the rhetoric stage, the student is ready to share knowledge with others.
I think about this three-step process when I’m treating patients. Let’s say that disease has left a person a little too weak to get up from a chair by herself. She has done this seemingly simple task all her life without thinking about how she does it, and can’t figure out why it has become so complicated. Standing up from a chair is a big goal for her. It’s the beginning point so she can get on with the rest of her day. She looks to me to teach her how to make that first big move.
Initially, we work on the basics—learning the right exercises to strengthen the right muscles and how to reposition the body to gain a mechanical advantage. We move on to putting that knowledge into practice, and one day she rises independently from sitting to standing. She has an epiphany. What was complex becomes simple. The next thing you know, she’s teaching her friends what the nice PT taught her. Is she an expert in physical therapy? No, but she doesn’t have to be. She knows just enough to achieve her goal.
I followed this same classical learning model when I turned my attention to becoming that investment expert I so desired to be. The most important basics I had already learned from my parents. I was a good saver and a frugal spender. These behaviors allowed me to max out contributions to the 401(k) that came with my first PT job and, soon after, my first IRA.
Along with my wife, I continued to learn basic information by taking a community college night course in personal finance and through reading some books and online material. We both learned about the importance of diversification, proper allocation and low investment fees, and about the astounding results of compound interest.
Over the course of several years, we learned to put this information into practice by choosing low-cost, broad-based index funds for various asset classes. As the years went by, we saw our knowledge and our portfolios grow. I had my own epiphany, and again the complex became simple. I eventually realized that I knew enough to show others the right path to take them a long way toward retirement.
Twenty-four years after making my first investment, I am perhaps four or five years from full retirement. I am in the midst of my current education project, learning the best strategies to generate income and save on taxes during retirement. My wife, also a PT, is down to working one day a month, but spends many long hours helping family members who depend on us.
Have I become that investment expert I thought I needed to be? Hardly. But like my patients, I don’t have to know all there is to know. Instead, I need to know just enough to achieve my retirement goal.
Ed Marsh is a physical therapist who lives and works in a small community near Atlanta. He likes to spend time with his church, with his family and in his garden thinking about retirement. His favorite question to ask a young person is, “Are you saving for retirement?”