How I Discovered the Most Important Lesson of My Life

I recently found out that for the third time I didn’t pass level II of the CFA exam. When the email arrived I didn’t even get a chance to open it when I saw – “We sincerely regret to inform…”.

I immediately slunk down in my desk chair as my heart sank. I had tried to prepare myself for the possibility but I really believed that I passed this time. It was such a big let-down and I knew it was entirely my fault.

My mind raced through what more I could have done and the implications for my future. I thought about how I’m going to need to take it again next year, how I wasted the last five months studying, and how even if everything went perfectly I won’t finish until June 2019.

As my thoughts began to slow and the reality of what just happened settled in, only one thought continued to linger. I knew I had the ability and possessed the level of intelligence needed to master the material. Which could only mean one thing…

I didn’t put in the work. It was an embarrassing and shameful realization that I only had myself to blame.

When I experience a setback like this one, I try to reflect back on what went wrong and what I can change to ensure it doesn’t happen again in the future. In retrospect I was able to see a pattern emerge that started early on in my life. For as long as I can remember I’ve tried to stay under the radar by putting forth a minimal amount of effort. I think the idea was to not stand out, in either a good or bad way.  Over time I believe it became a habit and it’s been a tough one to break as I’ve grown older.

When I was in school there was no chance I would ever read a full book as long as I could get away with it. I might read the first chapter to learn the characters’ names, skim the middle, or get a classmate to fill me in on anything important before a quiz. Looking back, I don’t think it’s uncommon among children but my guess is most people grow out of cutting corners. I certainly didn’t.

This was especially true for me in high school. The classes weren’t that difficult and I was able to retain most of the information by simply paying attention in class.

I remember a specific instance in my American History class. It was the end of the year and we were taking the last week of the semester to prepare for the final exam. As we reviewed the material we were supposed to fill out a study guide that we would turn in at the final for credit. Even though I was in class and it wouldn’t take much for me to fill out the worksheet I wasn’t going to do any more work than I had to. Especially because I thought I knew the material really well.

As you might have assumed my teacher was not too thrilled by my decision, and in an attempt to placate her I decided to strike a deal that could make us both happy. After a bit of convincing we agreed that if I got 100% on the final she would give me full credit for the study guide and if I didn’t, I would get nothing.

When it came to test day I was able to hold up my end of the bargain by not missing one question. This story in particular sticks out in my mind because I was obviously successful but there were numerous times when I fell short. It’s an extreme example but I believe it illustrates my point. I don’t share this story with you to brag but rather as an example of how this mindset was ingrained in me at an early age. Even with a simple task such as filling out a study guide, I didn’t feel the need to do the work. I was very good at putting forth the minimal effort and getting the maximum output which continued to solidify my poor work habits.

I know it might seem like I might shy away from all hard work but that’s not actually true. I come from two great blue collar families that taught me the benefits of hard work and the pride that comes along with it.

For the most part when I was growing up, we focused on the hard work that was being done with our hands or with our bodies – not necessarily your mind. I am where I am today, in part because I saw and heard stories about the work my parents and grandparents did for our family. From a young age I knew I wanted to emulate them and hopefully do the same thing for my family someday.

My first exposure to this type of work came when I was fourteen. I started working summers with my dad at a company that built wooden stair cases – think construction meets a factory meets carpentry. It was in a large warehouse with no air flow which could be brutal during the summers. With no air conditioning the only respite we had was fans that were placed by the shop doors.

One of my responsibilities was to unload the several lumber shipments we received daily and stack the boards inside of the shop. This meant moving one board at a time from one pile to another. I was also tasked with keeping the lumber stacks organized which often took up a majority of my days. I had several other menial tasks like sorting nails or screws, shoveling sawdust, and picking up wood scraps to be thrown away.

That was my summer every year from the age of fourteen to twenty-two. It was exhausting physical labor and I worked my butt off. To this day, I still think it was the most formative experience of my life.

Despite coasting through high school I believed I knew what hard work was because of my “tough” summer job. After I graduated high school I quickly found out that I had no clue what kind of effort was truly required in college. I tried to get by with my old tricks with my first major, pre-engineering. I only lasted 6 weeks in physics 101, a main prerequisite for engineering and that was my cue to search for another career path.

With the understanding that I couldn’t become an engineer by merely soaking in lectures, skimming text books, and doing homework only when it suited me, I decided to find a major where I could do just that. I switched my major to accounting which came more naturally and it was easy to fall back into my old ways. Not to say I was an A student but I was able to put in minimal effort and still get by.

“College is wasted on the young” – I’m not sure who first said that but I couldn’t agree more

My first job after graduation was as an accountant and I knew I wouldn’t be able to fly under the radar anymore. I would really have to put in the time and effort so that’s what I did. After a while, it became apparent that maximum effort isn’t often needed as a young professional. You are able to come in, do your work, and go home without ever overexerting yourself.

Several years into working I decided that I wanted to further my career and thought that the CFA exam would be the perfect way to do that. I didn’t know it at the time but I would learn a great deal about myself through my journey taking the exam.

If you aren’t familiar, the exam consists of three levels that cover an incredibly wide range of subjects related to the investment industry and has a pass rate of below 50%. It is suggested that you study for 300 hours for each level in order to pass. To put that in perspective that’s about 2 hours every single day for five months straight. If you’re looking for a challenge that requires maximum effort, this is it.

I took Level I on December 6, 2014 and passed on the first try which of course artificially inflated my confidence. I assumed that the remaining exams would go the same way and I would study just enough to pass. Looking back at my naivety I shake my head and think about how clueless I was.

After I found out I passed I didn’t take any time off and began to study for level II. I put in a similar amount of work as I did for the first level and thought it would be enough. I took that test in June 2015 which ended up as one of those times when I fell short. I didn’t pass.

Levels II and III are only offered once a year so I began to prepare to study so I could take it again in June 2016. I thought since I had already been through the material once it wouldn’t take that much to master. I again underestimated this exam and put forth, what I thought was just enough effort to pass. I waited for the results to come in and yet again – I didn’t pass.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome – Albert Einstein (maybe)

As I prepared to take the test a third time I told myself I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. I told myself I would work harder than I ever had to pass that damn test.

Not only was I going to work harder, I decided to change the way I studied the material. I’d try almost anything – I even created flash cards for myself which I had been opposed to up until this point. I had two things on my side this time around, a better process and the fact that I’ve studied this material twice before.

I also accepted the fact that I needed to put in more work this time despite my new strategy changes. Unfortunately for me knowing you need to work harder and actually working harder are two different things. Looking back, I have to admit that even though I knew what was required I regrettably didn’t give it my all. The habit of working just enough to pass is deep-rooted and it’s a strong mindset to shake.

Don’t get me wrong I put in a lot of work, just not enough. I could have done several things to put me over the edge. I could have spent more time on the areas where I struggled or done more practice questions. I’m sure there were a few Saturday nights I should have went to bed early so I could get up with a clear head [read: not hungover] and spent my Sunday studying but I didn’t do that either.

After doing a postmortem of my past attempts I’ve decided the only way to overcome this challenge is to recalibrate how I view work. Instead of merely focusing on the bare minimum to succeed I believe it starts with setting my sights on an ambitious goal. This way if I fall short, as I have tended to do, I’m still miles above the bottom.

I feel lucky that as I look back I don’t feel discouraged because I can say that I have seen progress over the years, albeit a little slower than I’d like. I’m not sure exactly what the future has in store for me but at the very least I know it’s up to me. The more I think about the challenge the more a quote by Marcus Aurelius comes to mind:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

The only way to pass this exam is by committing to work relentlessly until I do.

As always thank you for taking the time to read. If you liked my article I would greatly appreciate a like, comment or share. If you didn’t like it you can let me know that too.

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