I wrote this for CFA Institute about three months after I'd decided to come out publicly. It was first published on the Enterprising Investor.
Here’s the funny thing about turning over a new leaf: You can do it whenever you want.
Life can start at 0, 15, 30, 60, or 90. You decide when. Nobody else will.
But there’s no denying that the coming of a new calendar year is a prompt to look ahead. We hope, we wonder, and in theory, we improve ourselves. There is always a gap between theory and practice though, and the intention of this essay is to explore ways to close it. We talk a lot about goals in this industry, but often in an overtly normative way: Meet your liabilities, save for retirement, buy a house.
Identifying a goal, making plans to achieve it, and then sticking to the program is hard enough when the goal is small and you really want to do it. Around this time last year, a lot of people said things like “I want to learn to make pasta from scratch,” or “I’m going to go running every morning.” I was one of them.
A New Year’s resolution of mine that recurred for years was to remember lunch.
I came close. I hope you are wondering what could possibly make that so hard. There are at least five restaurants within a two-minute walk of our office’s front door, and New York City has nothing if not plenty of delivery options.
Deficit Versus Difference
A better question is why this goal even exists: I get the most done on days when I skip lunch.
I know this because I’ve been tracking my productivity with RescueTime for nearly a decade. But it’s not “Lunch is for wimps!” machismo that keeps me from predictably pillaging the sandwich bars of Midtown, it’s ADHD. I am susceptible to hyperfocusing on problems that interest me. Fortunately these problems are often work related. And even though I knew this, I spent a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to make it go away.
Now would be a good time to consider how the way we talk about goals as a profession might produce similar effects in the minds of our clients. There is nothing wrong with a good retirement plan, but what if clients believe they are fundamentally less complete as human beings without one that changes. Think about the last 10 financial ads you saw. How many featured active seniors, a boat, perhaps a grandchild?
It’s not that these aren’t lovely things, and there is nothing wrong with marketing your products. But there is a risk of imposing objectives that suit our business models onto our clients that cannot be credibly dismissed.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
I think that a New Year’s resolution is a special thing in every case, but for people who work in a field organized around the goals of others, it presents an unusually full opportunity for introspection.
My last Weekend Reads focused on techniques you can use to find meaningful actions, mainly a compelling way of examining where exactly you would like to intervene. This one, I hope, has provided an invitation to think seriously about what it is that goals are and are not. They are personal. They are not guessable.
Fortunately, you have an opportunity to cultivate a productive empathy: Try to learn something new and pay disciplined attention to what helped you the most. My guess is that it will almost never be an instruction manual.
Since we are heading toward the end of 2016, I’ve collected a number of different books that might provide a jumping-off point to the New Year:
- The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich by Timothy Ferriss.
- Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey.
Don’t just listen to me. Here are a couple of other takes on using these sorts of materials to reach goals:
- “7 Goals Self-Help Books Can Help You Achieve” (Huffington Post)
- “Top 100 Goal Setting Books” (UniversityofMotivation.com)
- “Better Goal Setting and Tracking: 50 Books and 21 Tools to Achieve Your Goals” (Buffer)
- “What Are the Best Books on Setting Goals for Life in General and Planning to Achieve Them?” (Quora)
This is not to say that goals are all that matter. Here are several reads with more direct application to your daily work:
- “State of Startups 2016” (First Round Capital)
- “How the Circle Line Rogue Train Was Caught with Data” (Data.gov.sg Blog)
- “Diane Coyle Recommends the Best Economics Books of 2016” (Five Books)
- “Can Uber Ever Deliver? Part One — Understanding Uber’s Bleak Operating Economics” (Naked Capitalism)
- The best books to read, according to EconFinanceTwitter. (Financeblah)
And here are some others that I think you will enjoy:
- Here’s what happens when you try to pay your bills with a drawing of a spider. (27B/6)
- “52 things I Learned in 2016” (Medium)
- Giving thanks for the speed of light. (Sean Carroll)
- “Confessions of an Instagram Influencer” (Bloomberg)