This short story may not seem to have anything to do with being a financial planner. But it has a lot to do with success - and that's a concept that's relevant to everyone.
I was a fairly smart kid; the intellectual part of school came easy to me. The behavioral part didn't go so well, on the other hand. By the fifth grade, I was failing five of eight subjects deliberately.
Teachers saw through my passive-aggressive behavior and promoted me anyway and, in middle school and high school, my grades and behavior came together. But when I started college at 17, immature behavior and casual attitude caused my grades to slip again.
By the age of 19, I had been disowned by my father and thrown out of the house. I was totally on my own. I attempted to hold down a full-time job and go to school, but before I turned 21, I was out of money and had to quit college.
I did have one option left: to enlist in the U.S. Navy. Luckily, my brain kicked in and I qualified for their most rigorous technical program, running nuclear reactors on submarines.
A decade later, I had served as a naval officer, graduated from college with honors and graduated from Harvard Business School. In short, I had engineered a successful personal turnaround.
So what does this have to do with being a financial advisor? Quite a bit - particularly if you have clients who have been confronted with serious personal or professional challenges, or if you have yourself.
HOW TO CREATE CHANGE
In his new book, The Charge, about living a more vibrant and engaged life, Brendon Burchard divides individuals into three broad categories of personal engagement. He calls them caged, comfortable or charged.
What caused the change from my formerly caged life, where I was mired in my bad attitude and trapped by my irresponsible behavior? What prevented me from embracing a charged life of helping and even inspiring others, being enthusiastic and engaged every day, seeing the world filled with exciting and huge possibilities for growth?
There were a couple of factors. The first part was hitting a financial brick wall, which in my case led to an emotional crisis. Some of you may have personally experienced this sort of event; it leads to a "fight or flight" response.
Burchard puts it this way: "The life worth living is out there ... on the craggy battlefields that test our wits and wills in the daily fights with our own demons. It is found during the long onward slog through the storms and strife ... where we are knocked sprawling and forced to face our own weaknesses. ... It is out there that we come face-to-face with the best in ourselves and with our destiny." I certainly was in a financial and emotional storm, and I decided to fight.
I lacked a conscious internal strategy - something psychologists say people must develop and control in order to become motivated, engaged and fulfilled. Forty years ago, I had no idea which key drivers would change my life. I do now.
The first issue was control. This can be a balancing act. Insisting on too much control (whether of others or yourself) can lead to disappointment, obsessions, stressful relationships and a colorless life.
What you should control, rather, are your mind and your emotions. It takes tremendous effort to manage the most powerful driver of all, your mind. I did this by focusing on specific goals and cutting out the negative stimuli around me - being sure to finish an important project before going to a weekend party, for instance.
Personal coaches express this as a critical need to focus on goals and cut the "noise." There are now even more insidious distractions - Internet gossip, trash talk radio and (as always) toxic acquaintances or co-workers.
NEW CHALLENGES, NEW SOLUTIONS
Here's another driver: Look at every problem as a challenge in need of a solution. As my financial situation slipped, I refused to recognize the base problem I was dealing with. And after I hit the wall, I began to see the world as it really is: tough, full of obstacles and unforgiving.
Now, however, I know I can overcome almost anything, through my faith and the help of my friends and colleagues.
Don't think this is an unrealistic assessment of my abilities; some tasks will take extreme effort. But this is the embodiment of what Winston Churchill said during an address at his old school, Harrow: "Never give in!"
When I was able to look squarely at my issues, overcome them and finally reach higher levels of success and challenge, work became more interesting and fun.
Yet from time to time, feelings of fulfillment waned and a kind of mental "itchiness" set in. What I learned: My mind is programmed to explore new ideas and settings, and to seek new challenges over and over.
YES, YOU CAN
Many financial industry professionals seek out the motivation and engagement that comes from working on challenging projects that require both creativity and collaboration. Burchard refers to this pursuit as "controlling for new." That was one of the driving forces behind my firm's recent combination with Savant Capital Management: We wanted to face new and quite different challenges.
But there's another side to seeking new challenges. It's about testing yourself, and determining whether you feel mentally prepared to master them.
For me, it was all about feelings of competence (or incompetence). I found that when my belief in my competence was high, I adjusted more rapidly, contributed faster and learned more quickly from my mistakes. My feelings about my levels of ability and competence have driven my goals for years.
Many decades ago, I heard the Rev. Robert Schuller ask this question: "What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?" Think about it.
CHOOSE YOUR THOUGHTS CAREFULLY
In his book As a Man Thinketh, published more than a century ago, James Allen put it this way: "A particular train of thought persisted in, be it good or bad, cannot fail to produce its results on the character and circumstances. A man cannot directly choose his circumstances, but he can choose his thoughts, and so indirectly, yet surely, shape his circumstances."
Early on, my lack of mental control produced a train wreck in my life. It was only after a deep personal crisis that I began to understand and use mental and emotional control, focus and goal setting to regain my financial and career footing.
As my wins started to outpace my losses, I strengthened my resolve, looked for problems to solve and challenges to overcome. Still, I came to realize if my belief in my ability and competence wasn't strong, I might waver.
Mental control is a continuous work in progress. And your attitude shapes the way you think about how to get things done - so if things aren't going quite as you desire, you might want to think about your attitude.
Glenn G. Kautt, CFP, EA, AIFA, is a Financial Planning columnist and vice chairman of Rockford, Ill.-based Savant Capital Management.
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