A Perfect Start

Now that we've reached the actual 21st century, we're probably going to have to think up a new, more futuristic-sounding name for this column. Meanwhile, in these first days of the new millennium, it's time to step back and look at the Big Picture. At a time like this, only the most soulless of people can keep their minds from drifting off to the eternal questions about life and humanity: Where is this grand adventure we call "history" taking us? What is humanity's rightful place in the universe? Is there a God? Does He (or She) approve or disapprove of our present tax system? And does She think the market is overvalued or undervalued?

Anyway, the point here is that we spend so much of our time buried in the minutiae of our work that it takes a once-in-15-lifetimes calendar event to stir the deepest sediments of our imagination and force us to take stock of ourselves. So let's seize the moment, and look, not at how to structure a VEBA or sell our advice to a niche market, but at the genuinely eternal truths about our profession. What is it that separates the people who make a difference in the profession-and in the lives of their clients-from the thousands of others who seem to muddle through their careers without ever knowing what it feels like to be on top of their professional world? This is the best advice I can offer to those of you who recognize inside yourselves the spark of greatness, and want to use it to light your life, your practice, and the world around you on fire.

Forget everything the management gurus are saying.

Success in the next 1,000 years will be defined in completely different terms

Be passionate. There is one thing that I consistently see in the best and most respected professionals-of every kind, not just in financial planning. Most of us don't stop to put it into words, but you can see it in the way their eyes light up when they talk about how they've helped their clients, how those people responded when they finally realized that they could retire, that they could afford to buy that vacation home, that they could pay for a grandchild's college education, and that they really don't have to worry about living as a bag lady in their old age. In our little financial planning community, the best and most successful practitioners-however you want to define it-actually live for those moments when their clients achieve a treasured life goal, and (more specifically) for the moment when that realization first crosses their faces.

So many people in our business measure their success by the amount of money they make, or the number of dollars they have under management, or the returns they are able to generate compared with the market. Once you make the significant breakthrough, and begin to measure your achievements by the gratitude in your clients' eyes, and develop a hunger for that gratitude, then you enter a kind of professional nirvana, where you no longer care about those other numbers-and, paradoxically, those other numbers suddenly grow beyond anything you thought you could achieve before.

Of course, the enemy of this passion is the minutiae of daily work. It is all too easy to forget why we got into this business when we're spending 10 consecutive hours digging around in the quarterly reports or trying to make the numbers work in a complicated estate plan-day after day after day.

I think there's probably a larger issue here-the elixir of success in life itself. My own motto, which I am constantly forgetting and re-learning again, is: Live and love with all your heart, and be determined to incorporate your love of life into the work you do. Let yourself dream big dreams on behalf of your clients.

Share your work. Every time I read those management books, with all their talk about delegating duties and empowering employees, I think of how we've let doublespeak complicate plain truth. The truth is that you can't do everything and shouldn't even try. Sure, it's a huge chore to teach somebody else how to do some of the things you do, and sure, when you have employees, it means you have to shift some time away from "doing" to "managing," which is at best an unhappy tradeoff.

But if you think of it in those terms, you're defeating the process from the start. I think the key is to cultivate the same spirit of generosity with your employees that you are offering to your clients. Instead of bringing people into the office to handle the drudgery you no longer want to do, you are sharing your life and your treasured work on behalf of people who seek out your services. What you might describe as drudgery is important to the process of enriching the lives of your clients. Be willing to allow others to share the adventure that is your work life, and teach them to hunger for that same glint in clients' eyes. Then learn to take the same satisfaction when your employees' eyes sparkle after helping a client, and the rest is going to take care of itself.

Be flexible. One of the cruelest ironies of success is that it tends to mislead us into thinking that this journey we are all on has ended, that we have somehow reached a destination.Therefore, the most successful people, at any given moment, are the least prepared to deal with the new, ever-changing dynamics of the profession. Think of the American military confidently taking the same time-tested principles that won the beaches of Normandy and trying to make them work in the swamplike coastline of a new battlefront called Vietnam.

In our profession, we saw this riches-to-obsolescence story played out most clearly in the 1980s, when a few innovative professionals began selling voluminous financial plans like a product. They achieved huge market share, were lauded as great "producers." But they were totally unprepared for the new era when financial planning became an ongoing process that couldn't be outlined on the back of a napkin. Other innovators defined their "product" as their ability to select the "best-performing" mutual funds. They ruled the planning world for a couple of years, and then gradually became less relevant when we all finally realized that past performance really is no guarantee of future results.

The key to riding these waves of fashion and professional paradigms is to understand that there are no destinations in life, only passing scenery on a journey that never stops. In the very near future, the ground is going to shift under us more quickly than ever before. Very large financial services firms will learn how to become mainstream members of our culture and community. There will be Internet gurus who hold amazing power over thousands and even millions of investors. A generation of delegators is passing away; the new generation of people raised on the Internet culture will never be able to unplug from a diversity of opinions. I don't know how the financial planning community will adapt to these changes. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that many of today's most successful advisors will be the last to cope successfully with them, and-just like in the early and mid-1980s-a fair number of people we revere as the profession's top practitioners will become suddenly, stunningly irrelevant.

The magic elixir that you find in every professional success story is the ability to constantly reevaluate everything you do in your office and try constantly to make it better. The operative motto is: Nothing is perfect, everything can be improved, and if it is working beautifully today, then I'll probably have to make big changes in the near future.

The only way to build this flexibility into your planning business is to be wary of your own assumptions, and to constantly ask your staff and your clients for ways to improve what you do. Whatever is set in stone will crumble. The ability to respond to outside feedback is the single most comprehensive definition of life. Breathe it into your professional environment.

Become a pioneer in the process of connecting financial affairs with human and spiritual values. Here at the end of the millennium, there has been a hunger for spiritual connection across the entire American cultural landscape, a desire for meaning, for significance, for something larger than this simple succession of mundane, utterly familiar events that is our life. Everybody seems to have a different word for it: a spiritual revival in the Protestant churches; a renewal of basic values in the Catholic Church under a charismatic pope; the "New Age" for people with more open-ended spiritual connections.

In the next millennium, that hunger will no longer be denied. This will be the century-perhaps the millennium-of magic. Until now, financial planning has been the most practical of professions, but that is going to change so quickly that if you blink you'll be left behind. Clients will stop yearning for a better life and start looking for ways to make it happen, and "better" will no longer be defined as comfortable retirement and loads of grown-up toys. It will be a connection with who you are, an effort to uncover what you were intended by God Herself to spend your days doing in this world.

Advisors who are able to view money as a means to a larger end, and to talk comfortably about the workings of the Almighty and the brotherhood of humanity and the never-ending effort to bring the world incrementally closer to paradise-who are able to convert those spiritual goals into procedural steps the way the spreadsheet converts a retirement goal into monthly investment contributions-they will have nothing to fear from the competition offered by larger corporations and the Internet.

Of all the many changes that I expect to see on the planet within the next thousand years, this seems to me to be the most far-reaching and the most profound. It goes back to where this column started. The best of us have a hunger for the joy and achievement of the people around us. Financial planners are at the very heart of what the world and all its people want more of as we take our next step of the journey. As we look at ourselves in the context of what has been and what is yet to come, we realize that there is no better way to make a living than to help others-and, in the course of that, to help our officemates and ourselves find the joy in the journey.

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