I was asked a few months ago to give a presentation at the financial planning department's alumni dinner at the University of Georgia, my alma mater, but they wanted something a bit different from my usual industry presentation. Instead of talking specifically about financial planning, they asked me to identify key life lessons successful advisors had learned - issues that, if you master them, can lead to a life and career that's extraordinary.
My first lesson is the most powerful and hardest to master: Whenever you make a mistake (all of us do, and all of us will), be strong about acknowledging and correcting it. Whenever you take bold responsibility for your mistakes, you'll likely discover the opposite of what you may have expected: that people don't think less of you. Indeed, you may increase your credibility with every mistake.
When I first learned this many years ago, I was the editor of the magazine you're reading now, and that particular month it seemed like everything was going wrong: Writers were missing their deadlines, the production schedule was full of holes, two editors called in sick and the cover art wasn't working. Out of this perfect storm, we published a magazine with two notable errors.
In one, we transposed two digits on a mutual fund's performance numbers, effectively moving them to the bottom quartile from the top. In the other, we reported that a prominent advisor's office was 25 miles west of San Francisco. (Perhaps we could have joked afterward that he could walk on water!)
The writers we'd hired made these mistakes. Each of the articles had been edited by one of my senior editors and fact-checked by the proofreaders, and that was exactly what I was thinking as I walked down the hall to the office of the CEO of the company that owned the magazine. I desperately wanted to come out of this mess with my own credibility intact.
I could see he was angry as we sat down to talk. Yet I found myself, much to my surprise, taking full responsibility for the errors. I said I would call both parties involved and apologize, and ask them for proposals on how to fix the situation. While I couldn't promise there wouldn't be more mistakes in the future, I vowed that going forward they would have a much harder time getting onto the published pages of the magazine.
I also told him I had already contacted the company that printed the magazine and called back my column so I could rewrite it. I would apologize not just to the people affected by the mistakes, but also to the readers who'd seen the bogus information. My boss' anger turned to a kind of astonishment, and he seemed a little nervous when he asked if we really needed to bring it all up again.
From then on, my boss trusted me in a way that he never quite had before. Not only that, my editors and writers were grateful the hammer hadn't fallen hard on them. They trusted me more than they ever had, and they worked extra hard not to make me have to walk down that hall again.
After I wrote the new column, I got a lot of messages from readers saying they now trusted the magazine more than ever because they knew if we made a mistake, we'd fix it right then and there. Some said that was refreshing in a world where everybody else seemed to be covering their backsides.
I couldn't believe how it turned out; it seemed so counterintuitive. Mistakes had been turned not only into a learning opportunity, but also a chance to forge stronger and more trusting relationships.
If you take the opposite approach, your story might not end as happily. I remember a prominent advisor who managed assets for his clients using a complicated investment system. At the end of a year, his performance statements showed he was ahead of the market averages by double digits. In a letter to his clients, he talked about how this proved the superiority of his asset management systems and how he looked forward with confidence to the year to come.
Three months later, he was horrified: There had been an error in the previous statements. One fund's performance had been transposed on a spreadsheet as +26% instead of -26%. Once that was corrected, the advisor had actually underperformed the market slightly.
The advisor did not go to his clients with an apology. Rather, he redeployed their assets into a riskier configuration in hopes of making up the difference between what he had reported and the actual results. This proved not to be a great strategy for that subsequent year, so he doubled down again to try to catch up.
Each year the performance statements became more fictitious, until finally he couldn't hide the discrepancies any more. He was sent to jail for running a Ponzi scheme - I believe rightly so, even though I believe he sincerely wanted the best for his clients and didn't profit personally from the deception.
ON THE MOVE
Another of the lessons I offered in my speech is my belief that the most successful advisors have made a conscious decision to win the lifelong battle against procrastination and laziness. I don't think there's a person alive who isn't afflicted with these two diseases; they are a natural part of the human condition. They are the tendency that keeps us watching television for four or five hours in a row, or surfing the web or playing digital solitaire when we have a project in front of us. I have seen these traits rob talented people of promising careers and leave others looking back, at the end of their lives, regretting that they never found the time to make a difference.
There are three parts to this battle. The first is to recognize that we all share this affliction to a greater or lesser degree, and consciously understand that it is a formidable enemy of our success and achievement.
Once you understand that, your next step is to recognize that you have within you extraordinary potential. There are more possible combinations of human genetics than there are subatomic particles in the universe. Not only are you unique, there will also never, ever be another person with exactly the same combination of talents and skills as you have - ever again in the long, infinite history of the universe.
That is something everybody should take seriously. If you waste or lose your potential, we may never get it back.
Finally, you need a strategy. The one I use, probably the simplest concept you ever heard, is to befriend your future self.
Whenever you find yourself playing solitaire on the computer, imagine that you're talking to you, two weeks, six months or 10 years in the future. Get to know that person you will become. And ask him or her very serious questions:
What could I be doing, right now, that you would be glad I did when I become you in the future? What would you most like to have me do now so that your life, when I become you, will be easier, better, happier, more successful and more prosperous? What action do you really wish I would take right now?
This is not an invitation to workaholism. Your future self might ask you to delegate a task you don't enjoy and get it off your to-do list forever. He or she might ask you to take up a fulfilling project. He or she will almost certainly want you to spend more quality time with loved ones, get more exercise and sacrifice the stuff that doesn't matter, which have become a big part of the lives of too many Americans. I promise you that if you are listening to your future self clearly, it will not be a request that you spend more time reading The Wall Street Journal every day or watching more television or playing more solitaire.
In my experience, the difference between an extraordinary life and an ordinary one is hairline thin. These two simple yet powerful lessons — to turn your inevitable mistakes into trust-building opportunities, and to win the eternal war against laziness and procrastination — are proven ways to bridge that small but significant gap.
Bob Veres writes and publishes the Inside Information service at bobveres.com. For a free sample, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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