Staying Positive in a Negative World

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Does your attitude matter?

What impact does your state of mind have on your clients and your business?

Is it important for an advisor to stay upbeat, enthusiastic and positive? And if so, how the hell do you do it?

I think it’s fair to say that we are living in somewhat frightening and turbulent times. The seemingly constant barrage of bad news can feel overwhelming.  You’ve got the big picture stuff like Islamic terror, climate change, and mass shootings. Then you have the business specific absurdities like DOL.

These would be plenty to deal with alone, but throw an election year on top and you’ve got some real fun. The battle shaping up is like Luke vs. Vader, the Alliance vs. the Horde, The Federation vs. the Borg, Harry Potter vs. Voldemort.  (Any other nerdy references you’d like?)

It’s possible, that over the next few months, the tone of our national conversation will turn so sour and rancorous that we may find ourselves wondering if we’re seeing the end of America as we know it. Of course, we’re not…but I promise you it’s making the barbarians in the Middle East, China, Russia and North Korea joyful to see us beat ourselves up like we’re going to do.

So how can you stay positive and enthusiastic when everything around you is so damn negative?  And should you even try? Is the energy expenditure worth the effort?

Attitude Counts

I believe that you do need some form of positive attitude to be successful and effective as a financial advisor. I’m not saying you should be an irrational cheerleader always upbeat and happy.  That kind of optimism often comes across as fake or forced.

I knew a guy who was like that. He always had a smile on his face or some cheery thing to say. No matter what was going on around him he seemed to always find a happy thought or positive spin.

I hated him!

It just felt so unnatural and inhuman. Like he was some kind of caffeinated robot disconnected from reality. I’m sure some people liked it but to me it actually made him look kid of dumb…like a Forrest Gumpy goofball.  So that’s not what I’m talking about.

I prefer a realistic outlook with a positive tilt. If you think of your mental energy in asset allocation terms, I generally like to be about 35% in the reality of problems and challenges but 65% in the potential opportunity and solutions.

Understanding History Helps a Lot

Obviously, there are always positive things happening around us and focusing on them helps.  But whenever I find myself sinking too deep into the abyss, I grab a little history to pull me out of the quicksand.

Nothing we are experiencing today (with one exception) is totally new.   And none of it comes remotely close to the darkest days we’ve seen.  Everyone thinks that their time is the most significant or influential, and that’s natural, but it’s not accurate. We are living today in blissful tranquility and opulence compared to any other period in human history.

I don’t say this to downplay the importance or human toll of current events…just to put them in perspective.

You want scary and violent?  We could go back to Genghis Kahn, (ISIS is already there) but let’s keep it relatively recent. Read anything about World War One.  Philip Gibb’s famous book, “Now It Can Be Told” will make your knees buckle.

We rightly fear Zika virus…but let’s remember Polio, AIDS or 50-100 million deaths in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19? Folks, a hundred years ago it killed 3 percent of the world’s population!

If you decry presidential election shenanigans…Hayes and Tilden in 1876 make Trump and Hillary look like a middle school student council race. Or for a more musical lesson in political backbiting, listen to the Hamilton CD (which is fantastic, btw.) Thomas Jefferson and some other big names don’t fare so well. But I’m proud to have gone to Lafayette College. The Marquis was a real hero.

A Leader’s Perspective

I don’t remind you of these dark events to depress you. Quite the opposite. When you run through the list of present day fears you’ll see it’s all happened before and been exponentially worse in most cases.  Yet we’ve survived every crisis and we will come through these as well.

Knowledge can create inside you a sense of calm and repose that fosters a positive outlook in the face of daily stress and bad news. Importantly, it gives clients a feeling that you are in control.  You are the Captain of their ship and they need to believe that you’ve seen a few storms. Today’s squall is a mere breeze for you. Conversely if you’re shaken by current events, they get worried. When you feel fear…they feel terror. The first rule in hand-holding, (which is a big part of our job) is you need to have a hand to hold!  If your hands are covering your own eyes…they’re screwed!

One Big Difference Today

The powerful feeling of confidence that you get from studying history runs into one big obstacle today…the media.

This is a new force facing mankind. Never before have we had such a persistent, penetrative volume of instant news and information. There are so many voices today and it’s so hard to turn them off that we can be easily carried away by the flood.

Many advisors believe they need to be connected to the media…and this is a huge mistake.  I do a lot of coaching and one of the biggest challenges I face when working with advisors is confronting the amount of time each day they spend staring at the TV or monitoring the media.

I did some work recently with a NYC wirehouse team and I visited their office for a day just to see what was going on. The team was successful but they were having some strange problems that seemed to be mostly communication related. So I did a basic time & motion study on the team leaders. They spent over half the day watching CNBC!

They were glued to the screen, listening, commenting, reacting to everything they heard or saw. When a junior advisor came in to ask an important question…they shushed him up to hear some portfolio manager touting his favorite stocks. He walked out with no answer and with the lesson that you don’t disturb the bosses during the day.

At the end of the day we all gathered for a meeting where I was to present some of my findings. I started by taking a razor knife and cutting the video cable behind the senior partner’s TV.

They were shocked and didn’t know how to react. But it was crystal clear to me that their problem started with the inaccessibility of their leaders.  The guy eventually reconnected his TV so it wasn’t a total transformation, but we built some new commitments and started a new habit pattern that helped them quite a bit.

Action Steps

To stay positive, start by getting your head out of the media vortex. It’s a bottomless pit that will suck you in deeper every day. And it will NEVER be good news. Hell, the media mantra for decades has been “If it bleeds, it leads!”  Business-wise you will never make a dime from it.  I know that cutting the cable is easier said than done but it will be a good first step toward maintaining some energy balance in your life.

If you have a TV in your lobby for clients to view, turn off CNBC and loop a DVD of The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Best of Johnny Carson or one of the greatest sitcoms, Taxi.  Not Taxi Driver…just Taxi with Judd Hirsch.  (If you’re too young to know these shows, watch them yourself. )

If a client asks, “Why aren’t you watching CNBC?”  Answer, “I’m a financial professional. I don’t watch the news…I MAKE the news!” 

Aye aye, Captain.   Damn straight!

Avoid Black Holes

Cut yourself off from people who drain your enthusiasm. These might be clients, colleagues, friends, or even extended family members.

I love my mother-in-law and I know this is cliche, but she’s like a dark cloud of negative energy. (Fortunately she doesn’t have a computer!)  So when she comes over I give her a big hug, tell her a joke, and run quickly from the room!

Clients can be harder to disconnect from because you want to be there for them. So if you can’t cut them off, time block them. Set a clock and when the alarm rings shift the tone of the conversation. “Dave, I love you, but I have a meeting in one minute.  Tell me the best thing that happened to you yesterday. You’ve got 30 seconds and then I’ve gotta’ go!” Try to get them focused on something positive before you hang up. But DO hang up!

In conclusion…

Being positive takes energy but it pays dividends professionally and personally.

First, successful, intelligent investors don’t want to work with Eeyore. If you’re my advisor and every time we talk you depress and confuse me what the hell do I need you for?  I’m already depressed and confused. I need you to be a bright light, a beacon of hope on a dark horizon. I want to feel that you’re energized and passionate about what you do and how you’re working to get me to my goals. I want to see you as a reflection of myself…or the better parts of myself.

Personally, a positive attitude can help you live healthier, stronger and longer. That’s a proven scientific fact. Not to mention the impact it can have on everyone around you. You become someone who inspires and lifts up other people. Taken to a higher level, you become a person who can truly help others.

So start thinking happy thoughts. Look for reasons to be thankful, upbeat and energized. Try to enjoy more of each day and focus on the good stuff happening all around us. Limit your exposure to toxic radiation and counter-punch the news with laughter, joy and fun. I’d say get to the gym and workout, but coming from me that’s strange advice.

Actually, I did a push-up this morning and I do feel better about myself. Felt the burn…didn’t want to over-train, so I stopped at one.  Tomorrow…watch out baby!