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Taking It Personal

Advisors should be personally committed to doing everything possible to promote their clients' success.

Carl Richards, 10/14/2010

Lately, I've been thinking about the personal commitment required to be a real financial advisor and was reminded of a great passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The narrator is having some serious issues with his motorcycle that need to be fixed. He takes it to a supposed motorcycle mechanic, just as we all would. After multiple return trips to the shop, the narrator picks up his bike for the final time, and as he is driving away, he discovers that the mechanic forgot to bolt the engine in place. He then offers this fascinating observation:

"Why did they butcher it so? They sat down to do a job and they performed it like chimpanzees. Nothing personal in it. The biggest clue seemed to be their expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easy going-- and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, 'I am a mechanic.' "

"They were like spectators." Part of the reason that our work is so emotionally difficult comes from the need to take it personally. Because investment decisions are always better when they are made in the context of people's goals and dreams, it is pretty hard not to take it personally. Once you've had one of those meaningful conversations with clients and understand what they really want, what they have been working their entire lives for, you are no longer a passive spectator.

At that point, it is almost impossible not to take it personal. If you call yourself a financial advisor (using the term generally to mean someone who gives financial advice), doesn't it follow that you will naturally start to care about the outcome of that advice? I would argue that it is only after you start to "care" that you cross from being a spectator into the land of a trusted advisor.

But, of course, once we start to care, we are faced with a very difficult paradox. As real financial advisors, we care deeply about our clients and their financial goals and dreams, but in the end, we have very little control over whether they realize those dreams.

We care so much, but control so little.

We can't control the return they get, how much they save, when they will need money, or how much they will need.

So there we sit, deeply committed to the success of something that we ultimately can't control. Aristotle said, "It does not belong to medicine to produce health, but only to promote it as much as possible."

As financial advisors, that seems to be our lot as well. When it's all said and done, we can't control a client's successful arrival at his or her financial dream, but we can (and I would argue must) be personally committed to doing everything possible to promote it.

Carl Richards believes that the world is a better place when people make smarter decisions about their money. That's just one of the big ideas he promotes at BehaviorGap.com, where Richards asks tough questions about financial planning and investor behavior. Richards puts his ideas to work in the real world through his firm, Prasada Capital Management.

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