Your best investment? You

Your best investment
Your best investment

Lessons culled from interviewing successful entrepreneurs: It pays to pursue your interests

I remember staring at a newsmaker's laptop screen one afternoon, in awe at the 20-year-old's Excel spreadsheet that detailed his planned net worth over his entire lifespan, according to several life scenarios. In fact, he has amassed a net worth of around $100,000.

He even drew up an estimate of how much I would be worth in about 30 years, before and after buying property I can't afford anyway. It was quite a sobering experience seeing those figures, even if they were just estimates, trust me.

He had taken the Associate Financial Planner certification during the school holidays for fun. It was fun for him because finance is his interest, the others being tennis and ornamental fish.

I find that he and the dozens of investors, entrepreneurs and businessmen that I've interviewed for the Me & My Money columns over the past year have one common investment - themselves.

Investing in yourself and having the discipline to do so are important lessons I've learnt from these interviews. Invest your time, effort and sometimes money in anything you desire and it usually pays off even if you don't realise it.

But make sure you do it and start early to make the best of your fleeting youth. I've interviewed a few young people who started investing even before they turned 18 and, by the time they hit their early 20s, their portfolios ranged from mid- to high five-figure sums. But that wasn't the most impressive part.

It is more inspiring to know they spent their time learning about the markets and financial instruments that helped them to build their portfolios. They invest their time by reading everything and anything about economics, finance, investing and world news, try to execute what they've read by investing, and then learn from mistakes - an experience that cannot be bought.

Many think video games are a waste of time, but these young investors that indulged in them have learnt the fundamentals of trading. I'm not suggesting you spend your time gaming, but they spotted the opportunities in learning about buying, selling and placing orders.

I've come across this in several articles: Nobody on their deathbed has ever said, "I wish I had spent more time at the office."

I guess as a young person, you'd want to invest your time in building your career and wouldn't think twice about spending the night in the office. But why not use those extra hours picking up new skills or attending a course that could help you work faster and possibly advance your career? My colleagues have taken free online courses on Coursera. You could also look at MIT OpenCourseWare by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Apart from brighter prospects that could take you further within the firm, the new skills and knowledge that you acquire could even change the course of your career or lead you to set up your own business. Work hard and work smart, and the possibilities are endless.

Funnily enough, a few entrepreneurs said they wish they hadn't studied so much. One even gave up university to start his own venture. What they really meant was to not mindlessly join the paper chase, and instead use that time and money to do what you are truly interested in.

Investing in business was no easy ride for them either. Not only did they start a company from scratch, but also they had to build up industry and product knowledge. All that takes time, money and discipline.

Others, like Tollyjoy Baby Products chief executive Tan Wee Keng, also invest in their health and relationships. He gave up smoking for his children and spends more time with his family after realising he may have neglected them when building his business in his 30s.

My newsmakers also suggest finding mentors to help you. Don't forget that while you're building a relationship with them, they are also investing their time and effort in you, so learn as much as you can.

For someone like me, who enjoys a little isolation once in a while and can go a day or two without using WhatsApp, or even months without speaking to my best friends - I'm serious - maintaining such relationships really requires some effort.

My mentors and friends are understanding people, thankfully.

Since I started work, the investments I've made in myself have been rather ad hoc. I've learnt how to drive a manual car and studied basic Japanese, which I've mostly forgotten, taken Korean lessons and calligraphy sessions with my mother and earned my advanced open-water scuba diving qualification. I'm a master of none, of course, but when each Me & My Money interview reminds me to invest my time and money wisely, I've been taking things more seriously. Or so I hope.

I've engaged a tennis coach and I'm learning about the complex world of options from a young newsmaker who has kindly offered to teach me and is often appalled at my learning retention rate (I'm sorry, I'll study the notes more diligently after work). Next on my list: Mixology skills and coding.

I've also cut down on mindless channel-surfing and, more importantly, Facebook, but let me have Instagram at least?

And each time I falter in my investing journey, I remind myself: No one has ever said, "I wish I had watched more television."

Funnily enough, a few entrepreneurs said that they wish they hadn't studied so much. One even gave up university to start his own venture.

What they really meant was to not mindlessly join the paper chase, and instead use that time and money to do what you are truly interested in, not just for the sake of it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2015, with the headline 'Your best investment? You'. Print Edition | Subscribe