During my senior year of college, one of my final exams consisted of a single question that I’ll paraphrase here: Suppose your client is a mining corporation, and you have to do a year-end audit where you have to assess the value of coal in a pile. How do you take inventory of that pile of coal?
I had studied my brains out. I started drawing isosceles triangles and cones – elaborate solutions to calculate how much theoretical coal would be in that theoretical pile. When I handed in the paper, I was proud of my answer. But I had missed the forest for the trees. I forgot the first, most important, simplest step: Stick a pole into the pile of coal, to see if it’s lying on top of a pile of dirt. In other words, make sure all that coal you’re auditing is actually coal. Because in real life, that’s what you’re paid to do.
I received a D. I didn’t pass the course, which was required for my degree, and my graduation was delayed a semester. As someone who had always been a good student, I felt humiliated. Looking back, though, it was one of the most important wake-up calls I’ve ever had.
For so long, I had been convinced I knew it all. Missing the crux of that question challenged me to see more – to pay attention and to listen. It taught me not to over-complicate when the best approach is to simplify. In turn, that helped me to look for what’s really important in any question in front of me.
It has been more than three decades since I took that test, but its deeper lessons are still with me today in helping support our clients. We are constantly trying to simplify the complexities of people’s financial lives. In order to do that, we need to pay attention and listen and understand the things that are important to them. We can’t just tell them the benefits of a particular solution or strategy; we need to tell them what’s excluded. We can’t just talk about the upside of an investment; we need to explain the risks.
The theory and the knowledge I learned back in school are so important to how I do my job today. But as I came to understand, that knowledge is only as good as my ability to apply it to real life – to real people with real concerns, who want real answers. Blowing that test so many years ago helped teach me that lesson. And it’s one I’ll never forget.