Achieving Simplicity in All Areas of Your Life

Financial and retirement planning – most important issues in our lives, in fact – are often made too complicated. The best plans… the best ideas… are actually the simplest, says Steve Harvill, founder of Creative Ventures.

You can also take an active role by using easy-to-use tools to work towards your most important goals one step at a time.

Steve shares some strategies for injecting simplicity in the key areas of your life. You’ll discover…

  • Having “more” of something doesn’t mean you have more value

  • The “old school” method for achieving key objectives

  • Why you should be thinking inside the box

  • The OCT method for focusing on tasks with the most impact

  • And more

Listen now…

Episode Transcript: 

John: Hi. This is John Kerry. Welcome to another episode of Secure Retirement Podcast. Today I'm sitting with a gentleman who's going to blow your mind. His name is Stephen Harvill. I've heard him speak before. Stephen is the creator of a company called Creative Ventures.

Steve, it's good to see you again. 

Steve Harville: Thanks so much for having me and a chance to do the Podcast. It was great to see you here in New Haven. 

John: Well, I learn something new every time I'm around you. 

Steve Harvill: That's quite an honor. 

John: Would you please take a moment and tell our listeners a little bit about your background. I think it's fascinating that at age 25 you were hired to do a big project with Disney and still do it. 

Steve Harvill: My company is 32 years old. It's a strategic consulting firm. Our offices are in Dallas, Texas, but I live in Austin. When I was very young I had an idea for a real estate company that I was working with. We were planning ski resorts. And they implemented the idea and it became really effective. And the CEO of the company came and said, "Steve, I want you to go to Houston and introduce this idea to the Urban Land Institute." 

And I said, "I'm not going to Houston and stand up and talk about something I made up. I'm a 25-year-old scientist right out of college." And he said, "I understand you thought I was asking you to go. I'm telling you to go." 

So I got on the plane and went to Houston. After I introduced the idea a number of people came up to me afterwards and asked me if I could come and help their company do it. One of those companies was Disney. I said, "I could absolutely do that. It's not that hard to do." And they said, "How much do you charge for that?" And I went, "You can charge for that? Are you kidding me?" 

And that started the company that 32 years later is still actively working on strategy with companies all over the world. 

John: Well, let me explain to our listeners where we are. We are in Hew Haven, Connecticut. We are at a Park Avenue Securities conference on retirement planning. And yesterday we had the pleasure of going over to Yale University and listening to some folks. And you told the group earlier that you're a scientist. You actually have a degree, I think you said in astrophysics. 

Steve Harvill: In physics, yes, and in marine biology. 

John: And marine biology. So tell me how in the world does a scientist, because I have a lot of friends that are scientists at Florida State University. So how do you go from being a scientist to become a very successful entrepreneur in your world? 

Steve Harvill: You know, I think to say that I'm a scientist is probably an exaggeration, because a scientist is a practicing person. I never practiced what I learned or what I got out of my college education. So, I was always driven at an early age by story. Stories fascinated me. I was a comic book kid. I'm a comic book adult. I've gone to the movies every Saturday since I was nine years old. 

That idea of story fascinated me, and I was always thinking that there would be a way to structure ideas around story to create some type of an impact around it. And that was really the idea that launched everything that we did, was this idea that we could present, in a really unique format, our ideas so that they would be dynamic, have an impact, people would remember them. They'd be simple. They'd never exceed three parts. 

And that's what we've kind of built the company around. And we have seven strategic platforms, seven different ideas that we work with companies on all the time. 

And so it was really more based on the idea that you look at things like a scientist does, right? In parts and pieces. You look at them as having a connected element to them so that they reach an outcome. And from that moment on it was just about using that stuff to implement our ideas, and our ideas just happened to hit home. 

John: Today in your workshop you talked about elegant simplicity. I find that in our world of financial advising, it's too complicated. It's too complex. And I know it's complex for me, and I have to work at it to find ways to present ideas in a simple way where clients feel comfortable with either the advice I'm giving or the products themselves. 

Would you take a little bit of time, please, and explain why it's so important to go from that complex down to the simple and why it's so dag gum difficult to do so? 

Steve Harvill: We live in a world that believes that complexity creates value. That more is better. So we're always thinking that if we can get more, we get more value, we have more impact. And that's wrong. 

Instead what we're looking for is the right thing, not moral something, but the right thing. And the right thing is almost always a much more simple product, a much more simple presentation, a much more simple story than we ever think it is. And so we have to fight against this prejudice we have thinking that more is always better. 

If your brain can overcome that, then you create this idea of restricting what you can do. You build ... Actually, people talk about thinking outside the box, simplicity is about building boxes, because what you do is you limit your input. You say to yourself, "I only have this much space. What can I do in that much space?" It's called creative restriction. 

And so what we look at is helping people say, "We'll create the box for you. You can do whatever you want within the box. You can't go outside the box." And it forces people to think differently about their content, Right? 

If I told you you only had three pieces to the story you could tell a client, you would figure out how to tell the most compelling and impactful story in three pieces. 

John: Absolutely. 

Steve Harvill: And that kind of restriction is what simplicity is really about. It's about training your brain to think that way. 

John: I love it. In my office we have a philosophy, my team and I, three full-time people that support me, April, Amanda and Jay. We want to keep everything as simple as we can, but we still battle this thing about making it too complicated. And our clients love it, because they'll say, "Look. I don't understand annuities. I don't understand investments. I don't understand the life insurance, but I do know that you understand me and what I'm trying to get." 

And that was my big take away today. I'm here. I'm glad that I come for these conferences. I learn. But the challenge, as you pointed out, when you get back home there is a whirlwind of activity, and narrow it down to the few things that you want to do. Maybe the one thing that you said. 

Steve Harville: The one critical thing. We call it the OCT. And it's really hard to do. It's a staggering amount of discipline. You're already doing that. You already recognize that really what the story about is your clients tomorrow, right? 

John: Right. 

Steve Harvill: You're in the tomorrow business. You're protecting their tomorrows. And that idea then creates the opportunity to weave stories around that one aspect, right? All stories have three parts, a beginning, a middle and an end. And so a good story is structured around those kinds of pieces. And so what you're really looking is, "What are the stories I tell my clients?" Right? "What are the stories that I can connect the value of my knowledge to the value of their output, of what they need at the end of their journey, at the end of the journey of doing work with me."

And you and I have met each other on a number of conferences before. This isn't the first one. And I think that the way your company positions that is the right way to look at simplicity. But you're right, it's always a battle. 

John: Yes. 

Steve Harville: You're always battling against, "Oh, it's this. It needs to be that. It needs to be this." When it really doesn't. And it takes this staggering amount of ... You know, Bob Dylan, the singer/songwriter, great singer/songwriter Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan said, "It's only about three chords and the truth." 

John: Yes. 

Steve Harville: And if you can build something around something as simple as that and you can do the stuff that he's done, that shows you the value of simplicity. 

John: I don't play guitar much anymore, but when I first started, the guy who was teaching me said, "All you need is three chords."

Steve Harvill: Yeah, that's it. And most rock and roll songs are based on that simple pattern, right? And they build things in between the chords, but it's just the three chords. It doesn't have to be that complicated. And you know what, people will flock to simplicity. 

John: Yes. 

Steve Harville: They'll see you as different. They'll understand the connection faster than anyone else will that's in a complicated situation. It's just trying to fit it properly, and that's the challenge. And I thank God for the challenge, because it keeps my company in business. 

John: Yes. Talk a little bit about how people listening to this can apply some of your concepts in their day to day lives? They're not running a big business necessarily. My clients are people who are members of the Florida retirement system. They could be a government employee. They could be a business owner. They could be a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant. A big, broad spectrum. 

So from a personal planning standpoint, whether it be their money, their time, their energy, their life, what advice would you offer them? 

Steve Harvill: Let me give them a couple of tools. 

John: Okay. 

Steve Harvill: One, and you may be surprised, but simplicity evolves around very simple tools, which is great for that. One of the tools that people overlook the use of is what is called, "The Checklist." We call it, "The checklist format." And that is creating a very simple form that allows you to make sure that every single time you do something you're doing the right pieces of it. 

Because what will happen is, you'll repeat it, repetition will create a little laziness in the outcome, and you'll miss important things. So the creation of these checklist ideas, surgeons use them in surgery. We talked about it a little today, about the five elements that stop an infection and that how every surgeon has to check off those five things to be sure that they're done every single time that they go into surgery. 

Those checklists are really important. So think about creating very simple checklists around your ideas. If it's a planning ideas what are the three most important parts about that idea to make it happen? What are the three most important things you have to get done in a day? Not the five things, not the ten things. What are the three most important things? 

Make sure they're visual, in front of you all the time. And if you can create just even the use of a checklist, you'll simplify a lot of the things that are going right in your head and they're not. 

John: Correct. When you were sharing that story about the physician, I'll tell you what I thought about. And I use this every day. I have on my wall a picture of a B52 bomber, because when I was in the Air Force I was a crew chief on the B52. And we had to use a laminated checklist pre-flight and post-flight that you had to check everything off with a grease pencil. And it was imperative you do that because you had eight crew member's lives in your hand every time that plane took off or landed. 

Steve Harvill: It's a great example of using that. And people think of it as being a silly, an old-fashioned, silly thing. It is one of the most important simple tools you can use. And we have checklists in my company for every task that happens almost every day. So that I am sure that everybody in Dallas is doing the right stuff all the time. 

We utilize a thing called the OCT, the one critical thing, every day. And we want to be sure we get that one most important thing done. And then everything else on the checklist is gravy. 

John: I think anyone listening to this, if you just took the idea that Steve just shared of, "What are the three things I want to get done?" And possibly maybe it's four if you count your OCT, because how many times do we get up, "Oh, I've got all these things to do," and you've got this big list. But if you forced yourself, the restraint you said earlier ... 

Steve Harvill: Yeah, creative restriction. 

John: Creative restriction. Move it down to three and maybe four counting your Number 1 thing. So how do you apply that in your personal life? Do you do the same thing in your personal life? 

Steve Harvill: I do. And I wouldn't let you use that fourth item on your checklist. 

John: Oh, you would not? 

Steve Harvill: I would say the OCT is one and you get two other ones. 

John: Oh, got it. 

Steve Harville: Yeah. 

John: So it has to be one of the three. 

Steve Harvill: It has to be one of the three. And people will do that. We call it, "The bleed." People will say, "Here are my three things, and here are the three parts of the first thing." And I will say, "No. No. No. That's six parts already. You only get one thing to do, the elements of the discipline around that idea of three." So I use it constantly in my life. 

So I'll have the list of the next three books that I'm going to read. I already have them written down and then the order that I'm going to read them. I'll keep that list active all the time. I'll hear something or I'll see something that will catch my eye, and I carry my notebook with me all the time. That will get in the notebook so that I never let it escape. 

One of the problems in complexity is things escape. They're ethereal, right? 

John: Yes. 

Steve Harvill: They're like fog. They're here in a moment and then they're gone. But the more simple things that you can do and a more simple perspective allows you to capture them. 

So all of the stuff we do, we capture. We never let it go.

John: I agree with that. And today you made a comment, "If you're taking notes, and how could you not be taking notes?" I keep journals. One entire bookcase in my home is just nothing but leather bound journals. 

And friends will be critical and say, "Why do you pay $20 for a leather journal when you can just buy a legal pad?" I said, "Because a legal pad I will lose it. I will lose those sheets. Those leather journals will be there." 

Steve Harville: Yeah, it's amazing how when someone uses an artistic form of note taking, that the notebook, the paper, the pen and pencil are very important to that process. 

John: Yes. 

Steve Harvill: They select a specific thing to use. They use it all the time. It's part of that kind of the criteria of the habit of doing, right? Is they select a specific one. We used to do ... and I've got idea notebooks like you fill a wall. But I used to have trouble going back and finding the ideas in the notebook. So when I was writing my latest book, I went to a five by eight index card system. So all my notes were on five by eight index cards and then I filed them by the idea. And I thought, "Oh my God, all those journals that I did. If I had been doing the cards, I would have found everything." 

John: Yes. 

Steve Harvill: So I made a big shift. One of the things about simplicity is you need to be flexible to new ideas, right? And so that was a huge shift for us to go to the five by eight cards that we started probably a year and a half ago. 

John: I like using four by six cards to keep notes for articles I'm working on, so I'll have them alphabetical.

Steve Harvill: Really good idea. 

John: If I get an idea of something for our newsletter, I may not be ready to write that article, but I can write it down and file it. 

Steve Harvill: We have a huge thing for newsletter. We have a 30,000 circulation newsletter that goes out every month, and I have the newsletter file and I have the Blog file and I have the Over Coffee, which is our video series, the three-minute video you can watch while you're having your coffee in the morning, called, "Over Coffee."

I have those categories, and those are topics that I'll go back and I'll write on, I'll think about. I'm doing one on the relation of simplicity in the universe, and I have all the notes on that. That's the magazine commissioned us to write that. And so that's how I keep my notes also. Very simple and elegant methodology. 

John: I love it. Would you take a few minutes and talk about the importance of narrowing it down to the three things, though. Because you talked about that like the traffic light. You showed that. I believe we do think in threes. I don't know where I've learned that over the years, but I think we do think in threes. 

Steve Harvill: There's a process of simplicity called, "Thoughtful reduction." And that's that capability of taking something that's large and making it smaller. And to do that, in order to thoughtfully reduce something, you have to think. That's what the thoughtful portion is. It's not just reduction. So that large lists of large things can be made smaller if you think about them. 

And so you have to be able to place them in the right order, be able to see them is really important, scale. And so we make sure we see everything in order to be able to know what to do. So we use Post-its a lot. So we'll use large Post-its to build maps of the idea. We'll move the pieces around on it. We'll storyboard them on large sketch pads so that we can see the idea.

John: You'll hear some noise in the background, folks, because we're at a conference and things ... 

Steve Harvill: Yeah, broken down. 

John: ... are being done. So bear with us just a moment. 

But Steve, let's go back to ... the last few minutes we have let's talk a little bit about why it is so important to narrow it down to those things. I think intuitively most of us know that our lives have become more and more complex. Supposedly technology is supposed to make our lives better. 

You were sharing with one of my colleagues earlier chastising him in a nice way about checking his e-mails too much and allowing him to disrupt his family time. 

So why is it that we have all these tools that are supposed to make our lives better but it's made our lives more complex? 

Steve Harvill: That's because we think any time we get any free time, it has to be filled with productivity. 

John: Yes. 

Steve Harvill: That's wrong. Free time isn't meant to be filled with productivity. It's meant to be free time. 

John: And allow your brain to rest. 

Steve Harville: Exactly right. So here, I'll give you a quick exercise to show you how to do that. 

John: Okay. 

Steve Harvill: Take six Post-its. Two each of the same color. Right? So let's say there's two red ones, two yellow ones, two blue ones. 

On the two red ones write the two most important things you have to do tomorrow, one and two. 

And the next one, the next color, write the two secondary most important things you have to do.

On the last one write the third things that you have to do that are third most important. 

So now you have two of the most important, two of the second most important, two of the third most important. Okay? 

John: Yes. 

Steve Harvill: Now take one of the most important ones and throw it out. You don't get to do it. Take one of the second ones and throw it out. You don't get to do it. Take one of the third ones and throw it out. You don't get to do it. And you will be shocked at how fast you'll make that decision. And it will show you exactly which of those was the most important. 

John: Because now you have a visual representation. 

Steve Harville: We use poker chips and we'll tell people, "Here are your poker chips. Here are the reds, the blues, the grays. You get to do your most important, second most and third. Now, immediately throw out one of your most important. You don't get to do that one." They'll look. They'll move it off. That's how fast they're able to figure out what's important. 

John: Just that quickly. 

Steve Harvill: Just that quickly because they see it.

John: That is a great exercise. And I would think that the sooner we teach our children and our grandchildren how to do this, the better their lives will be. 

Steve Harvill: Yeah, they're fighting it all the time. You know, we're teaching our children the same way we taught our children in the 1800s. We're teaching them for jobs that won't even exist. That's an entire different Podcast on the problems with the way we're doing things. We're stifling stuff. We're forcing pegs into the wrong holes and we're producing students that are very good at rote. They can win contests but they can't independently think. They can enter a math contest and win a math contest, but if given that problem out of the context of the contest they can't solve it. 

John: Yeah. 

Steve Harvill: It's a big issue. 

John: It's a big issue. And people are not paying attention. I love what you shared earlier, because it's a pet peeve of mine is when I'm going to the store to give someone my money and they're not looking me in the face. They're ignoring me like I'm a headache. 

Would you share just a little bit about that story, about the coffee? 

Steve Harvill: Yeah. It was in the coffee shop this morning. And they opened ten minutes late. Even though they committed on their sign to open at 6:00 a.m. it was ten after. I went in and I said, "Are you ready to go? Are you open?" She had opened the door. No answer, just nodded her head. I said, "Okay." And I ordered coffee for my wife and I. And as she was making it she never looked at me. As she rang me up, she never looked at me. She said, "Put your room number." And she handed the thing. 

And I bent over and stuck my head down on the counter so she'd look at me in the face. And I said, "Follow my head up," and she followed my head up. And I said, "You know, your tip is not based on your product. It's based on your personality. So why don't you smile just a little and look someone in the eye, and you'll be surprised at how much money you'll take home tonight." She just looked at me and went, "Hm." Obviously not that effective. 

John: I do that all the time, and my wife gets angry with me. 

Steve Harvill: Mine does too. 

John: But I will say, "Look. If I'm giving you my money ..." I will put the bill out there and somebody will hold onto it. They will take it and I will hold it ... 

Steve Harvill: Until they look up at you. 

John: ... until they look me in the eye. And it's a pet peeve, because in my world I don't get paid nor should I get paid until I create value. If you're my client and I bring value, then we should do business. If I don't bring value, we should not do business.

Steve Harvill: It's the idea that people think the transactional business is not important. Right? Even though it's not a relationship building business, it's straight transactional, they'll think it's not important. It is. 

John: It is important. 

Steve Harvill: It touches another person, so it's important. And I would spend more money training my transactional employees than I would spend training my relationship employees, because every phone call, every exchange of money, every question asked and answered is part of the deal. 

John: Yes. I agree totally. Well, I know we have other things to do. We're still at this conference. Steve, I just want to thank you so much for taking the time to share this with the listeners, and we bring value by sharing things outside of the financial planning world that I'm in, and I just thank you so much for doing this. 

Steve Harvill: John, I'd do anything for you. Just ask. 

John: Thank you so much. 

Steve Harvill: Thank you so much. 

John: If somebody wanted to receive information about your book ... 

Steve Harville: Sure. 

John: ... or just about your company, tell them how to get in touch with you. 

Steve Harvill: Yeah. The newsletter is free. It goes out every month. The blog is posted every two weeks. You just have to go to So And you can sign up for it there. You have access to all the past newsletters. You can order the books. You can do anything you want from there. See all the videos, everything on the website. And we'd love to have you as a visitor and a subscriber. 

John: And I would encourage you to do that. You'll find great information that will help you grow and be more creative in your own world. Again, Steve, thank you so much. 

Steve Harvill: I'm honored. Thank you for having me. 

If you would like to know more about John Curry’s services, you can request a

complimentary information package by visiting Again, that is Or you can call his office at 850-562-3000.

Again, that is 850-562-3000.

John H. Curry, CLU, ChFC, AEP, MSFS, CLTC, registered representative and financial advisor of Park Avenue Securities, LLC (PAS). Securities products and services and advisory services are offered through PAS, a registered broker dealer and investment advisor. Financial representative of the Guardian Life Insurance company of America, New York, New York. PAS is an indirect wholly owned subsidiary of Guardian. North Florida Financial Corporation is not an affiliate or subsidiary of PAS. PAS is a member of FINRA and SIPC. This material is intended for general public use. By providing this material, we are not undertaking to provide investment advice for any specific individual or situation, or to otherwise act in a fiduciary capacity. Please contact one of our financial professionals for guidance and information specific to your individual situation. All investments contain risk and may lose value. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Guardian nor any of its subsidiaries offer Long Term Care Insurance and Guardian, its subsidiaries, agents or employees do not provide legal, tax, or accounting advice. Please consult with your attorney, accountant, and/or tax advisor for advice concerning your particular circumstances. Not affiliated with The Florida Retirement System. 

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This podcast is for informational purposes only. Guest speakers and their firms are not affiliated with or endorsed by PAS or Guardian and opinions stated are their own. 








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