As a financial advisor for the past 20 years, the question that I’ve likely received most often is some version of, “So, how are we doing, you know, relative to our peers?”
We have an innate desire to be successful, don’t we, or at least better than someone else? And while I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a healthy competitive impulse or a desire to win, one of the more soul-sapping traps, especially in financial planning, is that of comparison—which Teddy Roosevelt called “the thief of joy.” Much like in arm wrestling, there’s always somebody better.
In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, wrote words that I think we need to thoughtfully consider, especially in our culture so fixated on visible (apparent) success in every aspect of life (but especially money and material things):
“Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue… Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”
The more we aim, the more we miss? We have to let it happen by not caring about it? We’ll only find success because we’ve forgotten to think about it?
This instruction sounds at least countercultural, doesn’t it, if not nonsensical! But that might also be in part because I omitted Frankel’s direct answer to the implicit question: “So, how does one become successful, then?” But we’ll get back to that in a minute. First, let’s grapple with his most poetic proclamation, and see if we can make sense of it.
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“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
I think the parallel between success and the more approachable, “happiness,” can help us wrap our brains around Frankel’s assertions. So, let’s put it to the test:
Forgetting success for a moment, can we arrange a scenario in which happiness can be made a goal? Can we arrange circumstances in such a way that happiness can be guaranteed, and therefore, goal-a-fied and pursued? Let’s try:
How about vacation? It’s that mystical time when we only do what we want to do where we want to do it with whom we’d most like to enjoy the experience. But, have you ever been unhappy on vacation? Hah—it’s a silly question, right!
And I’m not just talking about being unhappy about the difference between the dreamy version of vacation that you’d imagined and its reality. Sure, no one’s going to be thrilled about flight delays, room downgrades, horrible weather, or any number of unmet expectations. But let’s imagine you have the moment custom dialed in—watching the ultimate sunset over the most gorgeous body of water from the porch of the ideal oceanfront villa, sipping on your perfectly poured drink of choice next to your favorite person. Happiness should be guaranteed, right?
But what if you just snapped at your favorite person in a disagreement about dinner plans and you’re still in the earliest phase of that sulking—internally (and often externally) denying your fault in the matter?
Now you’re decidedly not happy, and maybe even more not happy because in the midst of that idyllic environment, you know you should be.
Success Is A Feeling, Not A Fact
Success can be just as transient, can’t it? We tend to talk about it as though it’s a fact—a credential, degree, salary, house, car, number of likes or followers or zeros in your bank account—when it’s really more of a feeling, often fleeting.
You could live in the best neighborhood in town, have the biggest house, and be out front washing the nicest car when your neighbor rounds the corner with a new set of wheels that demotes you to second-nicest car in the cul-de-sac status. Do you feel slightly less successful in that moment? (Think about how many times each day the average person scrolling through social media feels some version of this success demotion…)
Ok, so we don’t become successful by planning for it, yet Frankl does offer us a formula for success:
“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue,” he says, “and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” (Emphasis added.)
Here Frankl is summarizing his body of work, known as logotherapy, suggesting that it is meaning in life that is our foremost form of motivation (an evolutionary step forward from Freud’s theory that the pursuit of pleasure is our greatest motivator and a deviation from Alfred Adler’s hypothesis that it is a quest for power). This meaning in life is found, Frankl submits, in pursuit of causes and people—but the key phrase is “other than oneself.”
Yes, we are most likely to enjoy the fruit of our labor if we’re laboring on behalf of something or someone other than us. Yes, I know this call to self-sacrifice isn’t quite as enticing as the all-that-matters-is-your-passion-your-dreams-your-your-your narrative that is so pervasive today, but if we pause long enough to consider, doesn’t this more sober statement ring true? That it is in being part of something beyond ourselves, in serving others, that a greater joy is found than in individualistic pursuits? But there’s a catch.
The Bad (Good) News
The catch is that greater meaning is often found not only in a cause or person beyond ourselves, but also in suffering on their behalf. And who is more credible to make this assertion than the man who gave up his opportunity to safely leave Austria as the Nazis were descending to remain with his less fortunate family members, most of whom Frankl watched die in concentration camps?
But there is a silver lining in this hard truth: It means that our suffering today can actually be an investment in our happiness tomorrow.
Speaking of investment, let’s bring this full circle, back to the application of this wisdom in our financial planning. Most of that which we deem to exhibit financial success is quantitative and dictated for us by financial advisors and the financial media: a number of dollars in the bank, our investable assets, our rate of return, the number on line 11 of the 1040 tax form, the sticker on our car representing our college (or our children’s colleges), our title, our retirement date…
To be clear, none of these things are inherently bad; it’s just that they’re not inherently good, either. They are ascribed value precisely when they are attached to, in support of, or in connection to something meaningful. The real work of financial planning, then, is to explore, discern, and infuse meaning in that which is otherwise just a neutral tool.
Individually, have you done this work?
And if you’re a financial advisor, have you created the space and developed (or adopted) a method designed to attribute meaning to money?
In so doing, we find new sources of insight and deeper wells of resolve that increase the satisfaction derived from our planning and increase the probability of genuinely successful outcomes.