For years, I advised that in order to be successful in the financial advisory business, you have to have passion for it first. I really believed it. I saw it in my peers who told me stories of helping clients realize their retirement dreams. I saw it at industry meetings, where we share what we know about the latest tools and techniques, and how we apply them to our most interesting cases. I saw it in my partner, as he puzzled out a particularly complicated investment and estate-planning issue.
This is a difficult business. Any service business is difficult, but when you throw personal goals (financial and nonfinancial) and money management into the mix, you have stressful, complicated relationships that require you to constantly and consistently manage expectations along with financial lives. I figured that if you were still enthusiastic and excited about the job, given the complex nature of the relationship and service required, you must be passionate about the work.
Then I read Cal Newport's new book, So Good They Can't Ignore You. Newport takes a cue from the comic Steve Martin - who, when asked how he became a success, answered, "Be so good they can't ignore you."
Martin has maintained that it took him more than 10 years to hone his craft, constantly practicing and refining until he achieved great success. "Eventually, you are so experienced that there's a confidence that comes out," he has said.
There's a difference in philosophy, Newport suggests: the passion mindset versus the craftsman mindset. The passion hypothesis argues that the key to occupational happiness is to find your passion and purpose, and then find a job doing it. Yet a problem is that many people have unrealistic expectations about this passion and often do not find that perfect place. Further, passion without skills will not take you far. The craftsman mindset is rooted in being the very best you can be, continually focusing on getting better and better at your craft.
While the passion mindset concentrates on what the world can offer you, the craftsman mindset involves what you can offer the world. The craftsman mindset asks you to turn your focus away from the self-centered notion that your job must be "just right" and instead focus on becoming "damn good."
For me, Newport's framing was an epiphany. I realized that, when I started out, it wasn't because I had a passion for this profession. In fact, none of the people we credit with founding financial planning had any passion for it - because there was no profession.
It's only over decades that what started as a vision for something other than a sales-based business has evolved into a profession, where skills and expertise are highly valued and advice is paramount.
Over time, we concentrated on honing our technical skills and applying them to areas that needed solutions. We studied, we practiced, we learned by constant trial and error. We built, in Newport's words, "career capital."
"If you want a great job, you need to build up rare and valuable skills - which I call career capital - to offer in return," Newport argues. This is the core of embracing the craftsman mindset.
Newport identifies three fundamental traits that he says define great work and, therefore, a great job:
Think about the opportunities for creativity you have in your job as a financial planner. First, using your technical capabilities, you continually practice in situations that need solutions. Clients want to maximize retirement and minimize tax impact. They want to send their kids to college or buy a vacation home. The more you practice, the better you are at it, and the more you enjoy it.
Next, think about the impact you are making. Oftentimes, we don't know the full impact on the lives of those we assist until many years later. Finally, you have control over your work and your life. No one tells you when to start in the morning or when to close up at night.
PERILS OF IMPATIENCE
But you could not accomplish these things when you first started out. In order to enjoy these traits, this great job, you expand your career capital by educating yourself, practicing and learning from your experiences. One of the disconnects that older advisors sometimes have with the next generation is that many younger advisors have yet to build their career capital, but would like to have the control, impact and creativity that comes with all of that.
Newport uses his own experiences to illustrate the difference between the passion and craftsman mindsets. He started playing guitar at age 12. He formed his own band, practiced and by age 18 had a repertoire of more than 100 songs.
By contrast, musician Jordan Tice also started playing at 12 and practiced. But by age 18, he had signed his own record deal and was touring with a professional bluegrass band. Newport estimates that both put in a similar amount of practice hours, but it was the deliberate practice that Tice used that helped him excel. Tice constantly stretched himself beyond his capabilities and demanded instant feedback.
In essence, Newport suggests, "to successfully adopt the craftsman mindset, we have to approach our jobs in the same way that Jordan approaches his guitar playing ... with a dedication to deliberate practice."
Newport also lays out the strategy of another friend, Mike Jackson, and his "work-hour allocation" spreadsheet. Jackson decided to become more intentional about the way he accomplished work. For example, he used to get up, go to his email and process it until he was finished or simply lost steam or had to move on. Now Jackson uses a spreadsheet to spend his time more strategically, defining the number of hours he will use each week on specific activities. Limiting the time we spend on relatively unimportant functions opens up an array of opportunities to become the best in our field.
APPLYING THE STRATEGY
It seems that deliberate, intentional practice is the key to becoming a craftsman - and, in turn, a successful practitioner. According to Newport, there are four steps to applying this strategy in your own life:
Identify your entry point. Look for what he calls "open gates" - areas where it is easy to gain capital in the market. For example, students who graduate with a degree in financial planning may find it easier to get an entry-level job at a financial planning firm than someone who graduated with a liberal arts degree or even an MBA.
Define "good." Determine what it means to be "good" in this field and set up benchmarks to ensure that you are on a path that will move you toward this goal.
Stretch. Jordan Tice challenged and stretched himself constantly, growing his capabilities to become better and better each day. While "doing things we know how to do is enjoyable ... deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration," Newport writes. "That is what makes 'deliberate' as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in."
Be patient. As Steve Martin outlined in his strategy for learning the banjo, "If I stay with it, then one day I will have been playing for 40 years, and anyone who sticks with something for 40 years will be pretty good at it."
What's my epiphany? I'm passionate about my work not because I chose it but because in the process of developing my craftsmanship I've developed a passion for my profession. I believe this is an important concept that we need to carefully consider before we cavalierly tell students or clients to chase their passion.
Deena Katz, CFP, a Financial Planning columnist, is an associate professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University. She is also chairwoman of Evensky & Katz, an advisory firm in Coral Gables, Fla.