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The Stroke of a 36-Year-Old Financial Advisor

How stress can kill you (or awareness can make you a million-dollar producer).

Allyson Lewis, 10/27/2011

It was late in the year 2007 when financial advisor and producing manager Michael Sears was taking his elementary-age daughter to school. He had something happening at the office that was causing him more stress than usual, and even his wife had stopped him in the garage before leaving to ask what was bothering him, but he brushed off her inquiry and headed to school.

He usually was one of the first two or three cars in the drop-off line each morning, and this day was no different. He pulled to a stop at the entrance and pushed the button to open the back door of his mini-van (yes, real financial advisors and Dads drive mini-vans) to let his daughter out. As usual, he twisted his body to tell his daughter goodbye and give her a hug as she got out of the van. As he twisted back around to focus on driving away, the stroke began.

Michael had no idea what was happening. He put the car into drive so his daughter would not see what was happening, and with his foot on the brake, he slowly drove his van sideways in the street to block traffic. As he was slowly moving forward, he grabbed his cell phone and speed-dialed his wife, but by the time she answered, his speech was slurring and all she heard was a weak, "love you." She immediately knew something was terribly wrong and drove to the school.

Michael opened the front door of the van to try to call for help, and he blacked out. As grace would have it, a nurse was two cars behind him, and within minutes an ambulance arrived.

At the age of 36, Michael Sears had suffered a significant stroke. He could have died that day, but he didn't.

Stress can kill you--or, learning from it can make you a million-dollar producer.
Michael started as a financial advisor in 1996. He is thoughtful and reserved, but he is obviously very driven to succeed. He describes himself as a perfectionist with a Type A personality. For more than a decade from 1996 to 2007, he had put every ounce of his attention and energy into succeeding in this business. He said, "My success was how I defined myself. I had no balance, but thanks to an amazing wife, we always have had a wonderful family life."

In late 2007, Michael Sears had a massive stroke. In 2008, he had his best year of production ever!

These are the insights he gained from that day:

1. I had a "THANK GOD I AM ALIVE" feeling that was immediate, and it saturated my entire being with thankfulness and gratitude. It gave me a completely new perspective on life.

2. I developed a different relationship with TIME. I now knew that today could be all I really had. I began to more fully focus my attention. And as I increased my concentration, I found I could accomplish tasks much more quickly.

3. Somehow I recognized that success can only happen if I will let it happen. That may sound strange, but I began to believe that success had a much broader definition, and I was going to quit pursuing success and start pursuing a successful life. It was amazing to see how the little things in life changed.

4. I instantly made a decision to stop being caught up in the details. As a perfectionist, I wanted everything to be done a certain way. I was micromanaging the tiniest of details--to the point of exhaustion. I knew this was not the best use of my time and attention.

5. My stroke filled me with empathy for all of my friends and clients who were facing illnesses and financial hardships and tragedies in their own lives. I recognized that I had been so driven to grow my practice that I was missing out on truly caring for those people closest to me.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Michael to share his "prescription" for how he runs his incredibly successful practice today. I asked him, "If you had the opportunity to personally speak to each person reading this article, what specific advice would you give them?" He continued:

1. You must RE-PRIORITIZE your life. Begin with an honest self-evaluation. I never did that before my stroke. I have always tried to be the best--but, I had never defined what "being the best" should be. When you prioritize your life, you are required to rank what is most important. In the face of death, my priorities became crystal clear. And the life I was living was not perfectly congruent with the man I knew I wanted to be. I recommend you set aside time out of the office to have a "LIFE DAY." Just think about what you want your LIFE to become.

2. Evaluate the BALANCE in your daily life. Work can consume you; on the surface you look successful, but internally, the never-ending stress of striving is killing you. In the months that followed my stroke, I thought about things that had not been on the forefront of my 36-year-old mind. I thought about what it would mean if my work and my life became more holistic. What if I would focus time strengthening my body and my mind through physical exercise and challenging learning? How could I begin to grow in my own personal understanding of faith, family, and love?

3. Be more EFFICIENT in life.
a) I had to prune my practice. If you want to GROW, you have to have capacity to GROW.
b) I had to NARROW my focus to become more efficient at providing an exceptional level of service to a very specific niche of people.
c) I improved my personal time management and productivity skills.

4. Learn how to LEVERAGE yourself. After my stroke, I knew I could not do everything by myself; just acknowledging that was a great step forward. Specifically, I immediately knew I needed to work on a team of talented financial advisors with varying strengths--I wanted to be part of something where 1+1=3.

5. My final piece of advice would be DON'T WAIT. I am trying to do this in every aspect of my life. On a personal level, I am spending more time with my family, taking golf lessons, taking more vacations to re-energize my heart and soul, and I am even taking piano lessons, which is something I have always wanted to do.

At the office, we have upped the ante on prospecting. We have adopted the idea that now is a great time to prospect. No more procrastinating. Seize the day.

What I have learned from my friendship with Michael Sears.
Stress is a silent killer.

As a time management expert I see the impact that a lack of planning has on individuals in the financial-services industry. You can choose to live with chaos, confusion, and disorganization. Or you can decide to prioritize, organize, and simplify your life at work and at home.

This process begins with clarifying your personal values. There is no doubt that Michael Sears faced a crisis in late 2007. In that moment, his only wish was to contact his wife by phone and say, "I love you." That was his first priority. But you needn't face a crisis to start this reassessment. As Michael suggested, schedule a "LIFE DAY" to re-evaluate where you are and where you want to be.

Part of the problem with prioritizing your values is that sometimes it can be difficult to know where to begin. You may find it helpful to download our "Prioritize" worksheet as a starting place. (To download the PDF, visit The7MinuteLife.com and enter our Member Tools section. If you have not yet registered, you can register at the top right-hand side of the page and a password will be immediately e-mailed to you.) To view a three-minute video on the same subject--you can click here. Lastly, we'd like to ask you to help us collect anonymous data regarding priorities and values. We are currently hosting a seven-question online survey. We will share the results of this survey in next month's article.

Allyson Lewis is the author of The Seven Minute Difference. She speaks about improving time-management, increasing productivity, and rediscovering purpose. Find out more about her new online video training program, The 7 Minute Life System, here. She also has a blog and a Twitter account.

The author is not an employee of Morningstar, Inc. The views expressed in this article are the author's. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Morningstar.

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