Book Excerpt: The Pursuit of Absolute Engagement

Jan 19, 2017

CoverToo often, I meet with advisors who have businesses that run them, instead of the other way around. There is little personal satisfaction and no emotional ties. If you fall into that category, there’s hope. Today, I’m sharing chapter 1 of Julie Littlechild’s new book, The Pursuit of Absolute Engagement. It’s a road map for advisors who want to blend their successful business with the life that they want.

Chapter 1: Life, Discontent and Possibility

If you’ve ever listened to a child talking about his or her dreams for the future, you’ll know that kids have an extraordinary ability to describe the unlikeliest dreams as if they were concrete plans. In less than a week, my son can shift his focus from architect to circus performer. And despite a somewhat schizophrenic approach to career planning, I love that his conviction doesn’t waver. His goal, in that moment, is absolute.

I’m sure the day will come when he realizes that the market for circus performers is limited, at best. At that point, he’ll probably set his sights on something a little more mundane. And in that moment, I fear, his complete belief that anything is possible may start to erode. Like the rest of us, he may lose that part of his imagination that can see the dream without the need to self-edit. But this book is about changing all of that.

As adults, we build up a remarkable capacity to talk ourselves out of dreams before ever giving them a chance to breathe. You likely started out in this industry with a very clear vision of your future. You’d grow the business and be wildly successful and, of course, equally fulfilled. And the path to achieving that goal seemed to stretch out clearly and straight ahead.

And you got to work….

You had a plan to grow and things went well. You continued to add new clients until you found that the bigger challenge was managing the growth.

At that point, you may have hired an assistant and started to build a real team and a real infrastructure. And that’s just work. On the home front, you might have married and had a kid or two. Then, my guess is, you found yourself running faster than ever just to keep up.

And here you are, responsible for a team and your clients and your family, and you need to keep that pace of growth, precisely because you’re responsible for a team and your clients and your family. You’re pushing yourself hard (and doing the same to those around you). Some days it feels like you’re doing anything you can just to keep your head above water. And just like that, the business is running you instead of the other way around. When did that happen?

It’s not all bad news. If you can relate to any of this, my guess is that you still love the industry, you’re making a great living and helping people in the process. Yet despite all that is good with this crazy, wonderful industry, it can cause you to feel like you’re trading off between growth and personal fulfillment.

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Choosing Between Growth and Fulfillment

Over the years, I’ve observed a pattern when it comes to growth. Advisors are strong out of the gate, then plateau; they push forward and plateau again. And so the pattern continues, with minor dips and plateaus but generally moving in the right direction. If growth is your only goal, this is good news.

But what if growth isn’t your only goal?

Achieving a reasonable level of growth is a bit like working through the first two levels of the hierarchy of needs, developed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow. His research suggests that people need to meet lower-level needs, like safety, food and shelter before they can begin to think about higher-order needs like love, esteem and self-actualization. In the same way, sustainable growth creates a foundation for the business and you need to achieve it before you can fully focus on higher-order outcomes, like deep personal fulfillment.

The Fulfillment Flatline

For the first few years of your career, growth and fulfillment probably seemed to move in tandem because you were building something new and achieving the goals you had set. However, I’ve observed that even while a business is growing at a reasonable rate, fulfillment seems to level off. It’s what I call a “fulfillment flatline.”

The symptoms of the flatline are evident, if not always obvious.

  • You probably work harder than most of the people you know, but the work that used to energize you has started to wear you out.
  • You love your business, but your days are full of tasks that take you away from the type of work you love to do.
  • You aren’t exactly jumping out of bed in the mornings to get to work. The snooze button has become your best friend.
  • You feel like you’re twisting yourself into knots to meet the demands of your family, your clients and your team, and because of that, you don’t feel like you’re doing your best for anyone.
  • You stopped asking how your needs fit into your day a long time ago.

So here we sit. Life is good, but perhaps not great. You’ve drifted.

The Causes of Drift

There are three reasons we drift from our intended vision. The most common cause of drift is that life pulls us off course from our original vision, however a lack of vision or a change of heart may also play a role. All three causes are insidious but once identified can be the catalyst for something extraordinary.

1. The One-Degree Effect

Some of us start with clear goals but drift off course—imperceptibly at first. This is what I call the One-Degree Effect. The One-Degree Effect is the cumulative gap between where you are today and where you thought you would be when you started out. It’s not, necessarily, the result of significant (or even conscious) decisions. Rather, it’s the impact of veering, very slightly, off course over a long period of time.

The easiest way to understand the impact of the One-Degree Effect is to think about a plane’s flight path. If you flew from San Francisco to New York and your plane was just one degree off course, you’d go one mile off course for every 60 miles flown. When you disembarked, you’d be about 43 miles away from your intended location. That might not sound like a big deal, but it would be if you were heading to Manhattan and ended up in Princeton, New Jersey. And that’s just one (barely perceptible) degree— 1/360th of a circle. We’re often off course by far more than that in our businesses and lives.

When you experience the One-Degree Effect, your goals are still there— and they’re still tangible and meaningful—but you wonder how you ended up so far off course.

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2. Lack of Vision

It’s not uncommon to start your career with a clear goal, which you probably expressed in terms of growth, assets or revenue. Having that kind of goal, however, is very different from having a vision of the business and life that you want to live. If growth is the only goal, you can take any one of a multitude of paths to get there. And as long as the topline is growing, you’re on track. The challenge for many, however, is that path doesn’t always lead to the life they wanted to live.

A goal is the outcome you want to achieve (growth, for example). A vision, however, is how you want to achieve it (by doing specific types of work for specific types of clients). The differences between goals and vision are striking.

  • You can reach a goal and remain wildly unfulfilled. When you realize a vision, it reflects what’s most important in your life.
  • You can reach a goal and feel exhausted (or bored) by the process. When you realize a vision you’re energized and inspired.
  • You can reach a goal by applying any number of tactics and strategies (think throwing strategies against a wall and seeing what sticks). When you realize a vision, it’s the result of intentional action and a clear path in a specific direction.

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There’s no doubt that you can grow a successful business without a vision, particularly if size is the primary metric you use to measure success. Vision is, in fact, optional. However, if you want to build a business that’s both growing and fulfilling, vision is not an option.

3. Change of Heart

Sometimes the reason for drift is much simpler. You start with a clear vision, but over time you change. Your vision changes, what’s important to you changes, how you want to spend your time changes and how you define what you want to leave behind changes. And if you change where you’re aiming, you need a new path to reflect what really matters in your life.

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The Fork in the Road

The three causes of drift show that fulfillment can take a beating for a variety of reasons. But not everyone flatlines—some break through. Those who break through create businesses that are not only growing, but are equally fulfilling. My hypothesis, which draws on observation, research and a healthy dose of personal experience, is that advisors don’t break through because they are lucky, work harder or execute better. They break through as a result of an intentional pause and period of reflection, after which they ask a new question about the future. That period of reflection can be a critical turning point if you just give yourself the time and permission to stop.

When you pause and reflect, the question you ask of yourself changes.

In the past you asked: “How can I grow the business five, 10 or even 20 percent this year?”

Now you ask: “What do I really want to create?”

The new question—What do I want to create?—marks a shift from a pursuit of growth to a pursuit of Absolute Engagement. When you ask that question, you’re asking yourself what you want the next phase of your life to look like. Do you want more of the same? Or, do you want to work toward a future that’s deeply engaging for you, for your clients and for your team, a future that’s not just engaging but absolutely engaging?

Crystallization of Discontent

When you arrive at that fork in the road and ask yourself what you want to create, it may feel like an epiphany:

Sue van der Linden is a financial advisor in Washington, D.C. She has a successful business, a husband, a young daughter and a passion for horses. Like so many professionals, the couple moved out of the city to a bigger home that they loved. They loved the home, but the commute was tough—32 miles each way. Every day, Sue woke up early to make the trek, returning at 7 p.m. if traffic was cooperative. If not, it was more like 8 o’clock.

One morning, Sue describes watching her then seven-year-old daughter sleeping soundly. It was 6:30 a.m. and she was about to wake her up, as she did every morning, so they could get to school and work on time. As she reached down to shake her awake, she asked herself a new question. “What am I doing? I’m waking up a small child just to drive to work.”

Not long after, the house was on the market and shortly thereafter the family moved closer to the city, to work and to school. They loved the house they were in and had invested so much of themselves in creating a home. In what seemed like a moment, however, she realized how much she was giving up to have that house and how much the family would gain by having more time that wasn’t spent in traffic. It seems like a small change, but it ultimately gave her more time to connect with her daughter and more time to pursue riding, a passion that was put on the back burner while she tried to juggle work, family and a home in a distant suburb.

What Sue experienced is an example of what American psychologist Roy F. Baumeister calls the crystallization of discontent. Baumeister, a respected academic who has published 30 books and written more than 500 articles, is a professor of psychology at Florida State University.

What felt like an epiphany was, in fact, a moment in which the story became complete for Sue. Leading up to that point there would have been frustrations with traffic, a grumpy child, rushed family meals and an occasional twang of loss because she had given up riding. These disparate issues suddenly came together in a coherent and clear storyline: Living here is making our lives worse, not better. The discontent was crystallized.

Note that in response to that epiphany, Sue didn’t suddenly turn her life upside down. It’s not as if she gave up her lucrative job as a financial advisor, stayed home and started selling homemade jam to her neighbors. She simply changed one aspect of her world that was getting in the way of greater fulfillment, even if it involved a sacrifice.

Yes, some people pause and realize they should be doing something completely different, but for most of us, it’s about refining some aspect of our existing business. The epiphany, in my experience, is often quiet—a realization that there’s something more and that you need to go down another path. And while that moment might represent the crystallization of discontent, that isn’t what triggers action. To take the first step toward change, it’s not good enough to know what’s wrong, you need to be able to visualize a better or different future. Without that skill, discontent remains just that. You need a vision.

A Question of Vision

To understand the impact of vision in our lives, it’s helpful to look to the work of renowned psychologist Martin Seligman and others. Seligman is a professor of psychology and the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s widely considered the father of positive psychology, which focuses on exploring human potential or, as some people refer to it, the science of happiness.

One of the theories that Seligman studies is called prospection. Prospection is the ability to envision a better future and it shows up in everything from goal setting to daydreaming. It’s that ability to imagine something better that causes us to take action. Seligman’s research runs contrary to traditional wisdom, which suggests that human beings are programmed to take action to run from pain. His research suggests that while our decisions are influenced by past experience, we’re actually driven to take action based on a positive view of the future.

As you work through the pages of this book and think about the future you want to create, prospection will play a critical role. It’s that vision of what’s possible and what’s positive that will inspire you to put the work in to design the business and life you really want.

What’s Next?

absolute engagementWhen you get to that fork in the road and you pause to ask yourself what you want to create, you have two choices. You can continue on the same path, with the view that more of the same will get you where you want to go. It might be hard work but it’s squarely in your comfort zone. Or, you can listen to what you’re feeling and make some significant changes.

If growth is your only goal, ask yourself why. If it’s simply because you haven’t articulated a vision for the future, then let’s define that future. The only thing that will change the trajectory you’re on is a new vision of what’s possible. I’d suggest that the way you get there is by focusing on achieving Absolute Engagement.

The Recap

  • As we become adults, we tend to limit our dreams to the clearly achievable. In the process, we put limits on our imagination before we give ourselves a chance to dream big.
  • We start our careers with a clear goal to grow; managing and sustaining that growth knocks us off course.
  • At some point fulfillment flatlines, despite continued growth.
  • The flatline is the result of drift from our original goals, lack of a clear vision or a change in what is important to us.
  • Some advisors pause, recognize they are off course and break through by changing the question from “How will I grow?” to “What do I want to create?”
  • When you reach the fork in the road, you have a choice to pursue Absolute Engagement or slip back into your comfort zone.
  • The pursuit of Absolute Engagement changes the trajectory and focuses you on a future that combines significant growth with profound fulfillment.

To learn more about the research behind The Pursuit of Absolute Engagement and access the exercises associated with this chapter go to

Reprinted with permission by Julie Littlechild. The opinions expressed are those of Julie Littlechild. SEI bears no responsibility for their accuracy. Littlechild is not affiliated with SEI or its subsidiaries.

absolute engagementAbout Julie Littlechild

Julie Littlechild is a speaker, writer and the Founder of She has worked with and studied top producing advisors, their clients and their teams for 20 years. She is a recognized expert on driving deeper engagement and growth and the author of a popular blog. Julie sat on the national board of the Financial Planning Association from 2010 – 2013, was twice identified as one of the 25 Most Influential People in Financial Planning by Investment Advisor Magazine and won the Influencer Award in practice management from Financial Planning Magazine. 

John Anderson

John Anderson

John Anderson is the creator and lead author of Practically Speaking blog and Managing Director of Practice Management Solutions for the SEI Advisor Network.

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