The Line Between Improvement and Satisfaction

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This article originally appeared in the Grand Junction Sentinel, August 10, 2022.

Imagine today is your last day on earth. Not a pleasant thought but stick with me on this. Looking back on your life, what will you have accomplished to make you proud, happy, and content?

Think about that for a second. The question is worded precisely, one designed to encourage you to think about what you accomplished, not what you wanted to achieve. I ask it this way for a straightforward reason: open-ended goals.

When I ask clients about their goals for the future and what they’d like to do with their newfound freedom in retirement, the answers are rarely clear. Typical responses include travel, vacation, time with family, and even trying to acquire more money. While these are all worthwhile endeavors, the challenge is not in dreaming about them but in creating a concrete plan to bring them to life. Unfortunately, these open-ended goals are, by their nature, impossible to achieve.

I contend that the word “more” is to blame. Any goal to which you can add the comment “more” isn’t an achievable goal. Travel more, vacation more, and spend more time with family are all open-ended goals. Even if we spend most of our time doing them, we could always spend more.

This isn’t isolated to retirees. Many of our younger clients struggle with the same goals they’re trying to accomplish, especially regarding money. Ask them how much they want to have when they retire, and the answers are constantly changing. Because there’s always more money to be made, people feel as if they need to be in constant pursuit of it. So, the goal posts are always moving.

As a result, people tend to feel anxious. Their anxiety comes not only from the internal comparison of their current position in life versus their expectations but also from external comparisons. They look down the street and see the neighbor’s new sports car. They surf Instagram at night, absorbing life highlight reels from their friends. They are constantly bombarded by how well everyone else seems to be doing. But as President Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” It steals us away from the satisfaction of our accomplishments, changing our focus to the yardstick between current “us” and ideal “us.”

I think there are two solutions to this problem—well-defined goals and gratitude.

Well-defined goals are those with a clear objective and a concrete endpoint. Let’s return to our earlier example and focus on travel. You may want to travel more, but what does that mean? Do you want to travel once per quarter, month, or week? With whom do you want to travel? To where? Pull out a sheet of paper and start to write down some of these answers. Maybe your end goal will evolve: “I want to travel four times next year, twice with my spouse, twice with the whole family. I’ve always wanted to visit Japan, and the family would love a trip to Mexico.”

All of a sudden, traveling “more” becomes achievable. What’s better, accomplishing these goals will give you the satisfaction and confidence to take on bigger plans in the future.

The other solution to the anxiety caused by comparison is simple: gratitude. My coach, Dan Sullivan, co-authored the book The Gap and The Gain, all about how people compare. He argues that comparing yourself with the “ideal” is a path to disappointment simply because we rarely achieve the “ideal.” On the other hand, when you measure yourself based on progress, it is encouraging and stimulating.

Establishing a baseline allows you to measure your progress. Gratitude is what allows us to understand where we’re at and to be thankful for the things we have. In my experience, anxiety tends to fade when I focus on gratitude. It’s hard to be scared and worried while simultaneously remembering everything that you built, achieved, and earned.

Competition, drive, and hard work push us, our economy, and our world forward. Without some level of stress, society would never evolve. But we must also recognize when we’ve jumped on this never-ending treadmill and remember it’s okay to stop running. “More” is not an achievable goal but rather an elusive ideal. So instead of running after more, stop, recognize and be thankful for all that you’ve done, and set out to achieve concrete goals. In doing so, I think you’ll find more satisfaction, confidence, and newfound happiness.

Steve Booren

Steve Booren is the Owner and Founder of Prosperion Financial Advisors, located in Greenwood Village, Colo. He is the author of Blind Spots: The Mental Mistakes Investors Make and Intelligent Investing: Your Guide to a Growing Retirement Income and a regular columnist in The Denver Post. He was recently named a Barron's Top Financial Advisor and recognized as a Forbes Top Wealth Advisor in Colorado.

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