Years ago, during my first semester of grad school at Indiana University, I became acquainted with Ross, who was my apartment neighbor and also a first semester MBA student. Ross was an interesting guy. He had no business background but was very intelligent and creative. Prior to starting the MBA program, Ross was a top musician for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Coincidentally, Ross and I happened to be in the same accounting class that first semester and periodically we would study together and compare notes. Midway through the first semester, we had our first exam. I felt pretty good about it and so did Ross.
A week later, we entered the cavernous theater-style classroom and noticed that the professor had written the top five exam scores on the large board in the front of the room. When the professor handed back my test, I looked at the score and silently cursed as I realized I did not get one of the top five scores.
After the professor handed out all the exams, he walked back to the front of the room and next to the top five scores, he wrote the name of the person who achieved them.
To my utter amazement, the professor wrote Ross’s name next to the highest score.
I slouched down in my chair, furrowed my brow and thought, “How in the world can a guy with no business background come in here and get the highest score on an accounting exam in his first semester at graduate school?”
I spent four years getting an undergraduate degree in Finance, three years working in finance and accounting for a Fortune 50 company and yet, this musician from Boston beat me! “It’s not fair,” I immaturely thought.
Being competitive, I decided to “get even” and I immediately set a goal for the final exam.
My goal over the next eight weeks was to not only beat Ross but also get the highest score and revel in the glory of seeing my name up on the board. So I kicked things up about 10 notches.
I took copious notes in class. I went home and typed them up so they were legible. I spent many nights at the library working through problems and memorizing definitions. I pestered the professor during his office hours with questions. I worked myself into an accounting frenzy!
As the final exam neared, I was primed for success. Ross, on the other hand, was his usual carefree, goofy-smile self. He had no idea that his mid-term score became a bulls-eye on his back and I was determined to shoot an arrow right through it on the final exam.
My heart was racing as the professor handed us the final exam—if nothing else, at least I had adrenaline working for me. About an hour and a half later, I saw Ross out of the corner of my eye stand up, walk to the front of the room and turn in his exam.
“Oh Sh&*”, I thought, “I’ve still got a lot to do and after all this preparation, he can’t beat me again.” About 20 minutes later, I turned in my exam, tried to calm myself down, and wondered how I would get by the next week until we met again to go over the results.
Walking back to my apartment, I reviewed the exam in my head and felt cautiously optimistic. Unfortunately, my pride would not let me ask Ross how he felt he did.
One week later, I solemnly walked into the meeting room and awaited my fate. The professor quietly walked to the front of the room and wrote 5 scores on the board. The first score he wrote was 97 followed by 96, 96, 94, and 92. I began to perspire.
It seemed like an eternity before the professor got around to hand me my exam. I didn’t want to make eye contact so I kept my head down and then all of a sudden, my exam plopped down on the table with a thud—face down.
I waited about five seconds before I nervously and gingerly turned it over.
In a big, bold red color, I saw the number . . . 97. “YES!” I not so quietly said under my breath. I got the highest score and I beat Ross. I conquered my demon.
Now it was time for my moment of true glory. I lifted my head and with a big smile and puffed chest I proudly watched as the professor strode back to the front of the room. In just a few seconds, my name would be written on the board next to the 97 for all in the class to see just how smart I was.
“Well class, I’m proud of the job you all did this semester” said the professor. “Yeah, that’s great buster, now just put my name up on the board,” I thought to myself.
“Are there any questions about the exam?” he continued. A few people asked questions. Then it began to dawn on me.
He was never going to write my name on the board next to the 97.
I achieved my goal of getting the highest score and beating Ross but the only people who would know about it now were my wife, my mom and—if I wanted to gloat—Ross. In an instant, my emotions went from gleaming pride to wounded ego.
Reflecting back on that experience of many years ago, I realize that I did all the right things when it came to setting the goal and taking the action to achieve that goal. My key goal-setting steps included the following:
- Writing down the goal
- Visualizing successfully achieving the goal
- Identifying action steps to achieve the goal
- Working like crazy to implement the action steps
However, I made one big mistake—my reason for wanting to reach the goal was all wrong. It was driven by my immature, egoic desire to “beat” my friend Ross who I viewed as intellectually inferior to me when it came to accounting.
Now, some of you may be thinking that no harm was done so who cares if your motivation came from trying to show off your (perceived) intellectual superiority over someone else. Fair enough. But this “negative motivation,” if left unchecked, could have morphed into other areas of my professional dealings. It could have led me to continue tapping into my darker emotions to try and succeed while making other people fail.
Over time, I came to realize that I wanted to be a business person who succeeded by creating winning combinations with all the people I worked with including staff, clients and vendors.
Likewise, as a financial advisor, it’s very important that you understand the “why” behind each of your goals.
Ask yourself, “Am I setting this goal for the right reasons and is this goal congruent with my values and what is best for my clients?”
If your answer is affirmative, then the world will conspire to help make those goals happen and you’ll be intrinsically satisfied when you achieve them. If your answer is negative, you may still achieve the goal, but, like I experienced many years ago, it will be a very hollow victory and, if left unchecked, could lead to bigger problems down the road.
An earlier version of this post was published at FinancialPlanning.com.
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