The True Mea­sures of Suc­cess

To help clients achieve hap­pi­ness, hit­ting tan­gi­ble fi­nan­cial goals is only part of the story, Dave Grant says.

Financial Planning - - CONTENT - By Dave Grant

In or­der for the plan­ning process to help clients achieve hap­pi­ness, hit­ting tan­gi­ble fi­nan­cial goals is only part of the story.

De­spite good times, I be­gan to re­al­ize that my def­i­ni­tion of suc­cess had been mis­guided. I had fo­cused on the re­sult (my in­come) and not on the process (grow­ing a busi­ness).

THERE’S ONE CRU­CIAL QUES­TION I ASK clients be­fore I start work­ing with them. It of­ten doesn’t take them very long to an­swer, but it can de­ter­mine if I ac­cept these peo­ple as clients or not:

“What would make our re­la­tion­ship suc­cess­ful 12 months from now?”

This ques­tion can elicit a range of an­swers. Some of them are re­al­is­tic, while oth­ers are not.

But this con­ver­sa­tion is a great way to de­ter­mine if our goals and meth­ods are com­pat­i­ble, and it helps us start off a re­la­tion­ship on the right foot.

But then the sit­u­a­tion gets more com­pli­cated. When I get fur­ther into the plan­ning process — af­ter the prospects have be­come ac­tual clients — and ask them, “What would have to hap­pen to make your life suc­cess­ful?” the an­swers are usu­ally very tan­gi­ble.

They might be some­thing like, “Re­tire at 65, spend more time with my fam­ily, travel twice a year …”


In these lists, it is rare that in­spi­ra­tional goals come up.

This is un­for­tu­nate be­cause of­ten such ideals could ac­tu­ally pro­vide the foun­da­tion for reach­ing their tan­gi­ble goals.

It would be rea­son­able for clients to be list­ing such in­tan­gi­bles as main­tain­ing good phys­i­cal health, ex­plor­ing faith, lov­ing a spouse on a deeper level, and so on.

In short, iden­ti­fy­ing im­por­tant in­tan­gi­ble goals should be a vi­tal part of the plan­ning process as well.

Why is it so hard to ver­bal­ize in­tan­gi­ble mea­sures of suc­cess? Why do we an­chor our hap­pi­ness on re­sults and not en­joy the process of get­ting there?

Find­ing the an­swers is just as hard for ad­vi­sors as it is for clients.


This topic hit home re­cently for me. In 2016, my solo RIA nearly col­lapsed and I un­der­took a re­brand­ing.

This project forced me to be more re­al­is­tic about my goals.

I re­verse-engi­neered an in­come tar­get that would be ideal for my fam­ily. I un­der­stood that it might take me a cou­ple of years to achieve suc­cess with all the changes I was in the process of mak­ing, and I was pre­pared for sac­ri­fice and dis­cour­age­ment.

And yet that was not the way it worked out at all. Things took a serendip­i­tous turn and I was able to reach my new in­come, ob­jec­tive within nine months. My gross in­come ac­tu­ally ended up dou­bling in that pe­riod of time.

But here’s where mat­ters be­came some­what trou­bling. What should have been a cel­e­bra­tory time pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally didn’t feel that way.

I started to feel anx­ious about whether I could repli­cate this in­come, as al­most 50%

had come from free­lance writ­ing and one­time fi­nan­cial plan­ning fees.

I thought that even though I didn’t need the in­come, I had to keep my fun­nel of prospec­tive clients full in or­der to main­tain the firm’s mo­men­tum.

Even as my work­load be­came lighter, I strug­gled with feel­ings of guilt about not con­stantly work­ing on my busi­ness and I found it dif­fi­cult to en­joy my down­time.

Just like some of my clients, I be­gan to re­al­ize that my def­i­ni­tion of suc­cess had been mis­guided.

I had fo­cused on the re­sult (my in­come) and not on the process (grow­ing a busi­ness). Once I reached my in­come goal, I had come to the end of my jour­ney and now I had no di­rec­tion. I was un­able to sa­vor my good re­sults. Clearly, my fo­cus should have been less bi­nary.


Why wasn’t I happy with my ap­par­ent suc­cess? Sure, my pro­fes­sional life had been a se­vere chal­lenge be­fore when I was run­ning a fail­ing com­pany.

But now, hav­ing turned things around, shouldn’t con­tent­ment be eas­ier to find? My grow­ing ros­ter of clients were happy, my bank bal­ances were grow­ing, and my busi­ness stress was fad­ing away.

In choos­ing to an­chor my suc­cess on a sin­gu­lar mile­stone, I had cre­ated an in­evitable prob­lem.

Once I reached that one goal, I would have to ad­just it or cre­ate new ones. Would life be­come a frus­trat­ing, never-end­ing process of chas­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult mile­stones and never be­ing happy? I re­al­ized I was not en­joy­ing this process.

I started to reflect on my clients, their fi­nan­cial plans and their over­all lives.

How many were just like me — striv­ing to achieve a cer­tain in­vest­ment bal­ance be­cause that would be the sig­nal of the best time to re­tire, ver­sus en­joy­ing the process of life and work, right now?

What did they need to change? And, did I have the con­fi­dence to ask them and to ac­tu­ally be able to help them ex­plore their an­swers? If I was hav­ing these strug­gles, surely oth­ers were as well.


For ad­vi­sors, as well as for our clients, the fo­cus should be the process and not solely the re­sults.

We should zero in on im­prov­ing our own lives and the im­pact we have on oth­ers. Reach­ing those ob­jec­tives should make our lives, and the lives of those around us, eas­ier and more en­joy­able.

If all this re­sults in hav­ing more in­come, ex­cel­lent. If it means we don’t make as much money, but there is con­tent­ment, then we’ve also won.

For our clients, we may need to re­frame our con­ver­sa­tions. In­stead of ask­ing them “What does your suc­cess­ful fi­nan­cial plan look like?” maybe we should ask them “What would you like to im­prove in your life? What im­pact would you like to make and for whom? What would you like to ex­pe­ri­ence? What needs to hap­pen in your day so that when you lay your head down to sleep, you do so with a smile?”

Some ad­vi­sors may do this al­ready. How­ever, for me, ask­ing these ques­tions will be a dras­tic change.

Dis­cov­ery will look a lot dif­fer­ent and will prob­a­bly re­sult in a search for a lot of in­tan­gi­ble and qual­i­ta­tive in­for­ma­tion on which to build fi­nan­cial plans.

Even the plans them­selves might look dif­fer­ent. I ex­pect plan­ning soft­ware will be able to tell only half the story of some­one’s hopes for their fu­ture. It’s hard to quan­tify some­one’s de­sire to, say, spend time im­mersed in a new lan­guage each year, men­tor dis­abled chil­dren and cher­ish their spouse each day.

If I can re­fo­cus my def­i­ni­tion of suc­cess on con­tin­ual im­prove­ment and the pos­i­tive im­pact on peo­ple’s lives, tan­gi­ble mile­stones will be­come only part of the story. Earn­ing money and pru­dently sav­ing will be­come less of a fo­cus, and the jour­ney of life will be­come more ful­fill­ing.

We may need to re­frame our con­ver­sa­tions and search for in­tan­gi­ble and qual­i­ta­tive in­for­ma­tion on which to build fi­nan­cial plans.

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