I learned from my mistake

Three weeks ago I had a short phone conversation that dramatically underscored an important lesson I mistakenly thought I had already learned. It was about how I determine value. More specifically, how I decide how much to pay for things.

Here’s the short backstory: My central air conditioner went out and needed to be replaced. On top of that, it turned out to be best to replace the furnace, too. See, every time we’ve had it serviced in the six years we’ve lived in this house, the various technicians will always tell me that it was installed improperly by the original builder and wasn’t working right. So I decided to look for a package deal.

Knowing me like you do, you can imagine that I was pretty thorough on researching brands and seeking bids. I had three different estimators out to the house. Our preferred heating and air company was the highest bid, which didn’t surprise me because they have a reputation for premium quality work. What DID surprise me was how low the competing company’s bid was. They had just replaced my neighbor’s A/C, and he loved them. And they were significantly less money for the same units.

So I called the sales guy back for the premium company and explained that if they could match the lower bid, we’d go with him. He didn’t promise anything, and a few minutes later called back with a revision that only shaved off a small fraction. He insisted that’s what it would cost to do the job right.

I said, “Well, thanks for the effort, but we’re going to go with the other guys if you can’t match their price.”

And in his response came the lesson: “I certainly respect your choice, Michael. But let me ask you – what did the guy who built your house choose?”

I didn’t get him at first. Did he want me to say the brand of the furnace or something? He left me twisting in the wind until I figured it out: “Ummm, he probably chose the cheapest option.”

“Yes – and you’ve been paying higher utilities bills every month for years because of that choice.”

I wrapped up the call and hung up intending to call the other company. But I kept thinking about his point. This was a real investment in my home, a decision that would affect us pretty much every day for the next 20 years. Yes, the parts were the same, but the skill and experience and knowledge of the guys doing the installation was the real value. Why was I fixated on getting the lowest price? Why wasn’t I thinking of the best long-term investment?

So I called him back, admitted that he had gotten to me, and pulled the trigger. Now that the job is done and I’ve seen all the extra attention to detail, air flow calculations, and more sophisticated duct work, I know I made the right choice.

It occurred to me that many people are unknowingly and continuously making the same mistake with their careers that I almost made with my heating and cooling.

Your career is your most significant financial asset. It’s also one of your most significant sources of emotional reward and frustration. And that’s why allocating your professional development funds is your most important decision. Investing in yourself now leads to improving your results, which in turn leads to more money via your paycheck every single month for years to come.

If you want to buy the “quick fix,” it's going to be cheaper. Unfortunately, it's also temporary. And the short-term thinking only leads to more short-term thinking. So you'll pretty much be STUCK on a hamster wheel looking for the next short-term fix.

Investment in yourself is a completely different decision. The payoff is slower, but bigger… exponentially bigger. And you basically end up UPGRADING yourself over time. So problems you're dealing with now will most likely NOT be problems again. You'll outgrow them.

So it's your choice which route to take. If you have the long term view and are committed to excellence, you're in the right place. If you're looking for short term fixes, there are plenty of other people who are willing to deliver that.

This article was originally published on September 3, 2015

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