We recently got a question in our Start Investing Community from "Buzzard," a college student who already invests in an IRA and wonders what his next investment should be. One answer was this: Invest in yourself by doing well in college.

Now, that might seem trite. But I'm prepared to argue that investing in yourself should be your No. 1 priority. There are many ways to do it. The most conservative route is to enhance your job skills, to take stock of yourself, maybe analyze the skills your boss has and think about which ones you need.

The surveys I see list five categories of skills important in business today: computer literacy, foreign languages, mathematics, writing and communications. Signing up for some classes in those areas could make you more promotable or help you to get a new job.

I think that's fine, but I'm going to urge you to be bolder, to think about how you might enhance your life rather than just your job, and to do something that's hard for you but that will make your life better.

Take a Risk, Get a Reward

Here's a simple example of what I mean. This summer, my 14-year-old daughter, who is painfully shy, went to camp for an entire month, the longest time she's ever been away from her family.

The two of us had lunch in the camp dining room the day I dropped her off. Her eyes filled with tears. "I don't think I'm going to make it, Mom," she said. "I don't know how to talk to people."

The month is over now, and my favorite letter from her began like this: "You were right. I needed to learn how to talk to people so that I could show them my fun and interesting self. Now I have new friends." She took the risk and she got the reward. (I paid the bill.)

I wonder how many of you think about your personal portfolio in these broad terms. I'm guessing that many people who invest online are pretty serious about the financial side of their lives, maybe to the detriment of the softer stuff.

Calculating your net worth can become addictive. No matter how much you have in your portfolio, it never seems like enough. On July 12, I wrote a column about how to invest $1 million. We got lots of email about it. That mail revealed a lot about how much is enough and what people value in their lives.

Most of those who wrote agreed that a million bucks is not enough for a life of leisure. But some readers wrote to say they were appalled that people feel they need millions and millions of dollars. They were appalled, too, about the relentless counting of those dollars.

You're Not a Cheap Investment

And guess what? Investing in yourself costs money. Perhaps that's the hardest thing about it. Maybe it will even decrease your net worth. That's what's happening to me right now. I made a decision last summer to begin a two-year program that leads to a master's of fine arts in fiction writing. The program will cost me around $25,000 in cash, maybe a bit more.

But that's just a drop in the bucket compared to what it will cost me in lost income. I dropped half my workload, keeping just two regular clients. No surprise, then, that my income for the first six months of 2000 was little more than half of what it was for the first six months of 1999.

Of course, giving up work means more than losing current income. I'll probably lose professional momentum by being off the speaker's circuit for two years. So I may not be able to pick up where I left off. It's a big risk.

Now where's the payoff for investing in yourself? When I finish the program, is it likely that I will sell a book of short stories or a novel that make up for all the income I lost over those two years? That's pretty laughable.

So what's the point? For me, it's about following a light I see, even though I don't know where it might lead, about enriching my days rather than my portfolio. I think you need to take a chance, to open one door that reveals another and then another. I think you have to trust where you're going even though you can't see it.

A Portfolio of Freedom

Some of my neighbors here in New York's Hudson Valley, Marc Eisenson and Nancy Castleman, along with Gerri Detweiler, a credit expert, write about this in their book,

Invest in Yourself: Six Secrets to a Rich Life

, and on their Web site,

www.investinyourself.com.

The three argue that a portfolio is composed not just of stocks and bonds and real estate, but also of the investments you make in yourself, in your lifestyle, in designing a life that makes you happy. They call that freedom.

Sure, we need financial investments to accomplish that, especially stock investments for growth. Yes, we should be setting aside regular amounts of money and dollar-cost averaging into stocks and mutual funds. But what good is all of that if we don't know what kind of life we want, if we're not investing in ourselves?

I can't think of a better time to focus on this than summer. So I urge you when you're lying on the beach next weekend, or playing golf or hiking up a mountain, to think about where your passion is and what you can do to invest in it, to make it a more meaningful part of your life. Maybe even to figure out how to make a living from it.

Mary Rowland is the Start Investing columnist for MSN MoneyCentral. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. She welcomes your feedback at

mctsc@microsoft.com.

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