Another Life List Item Complete – So What?!?

Another big life project complete – So what!?

We made a “Life List” a few years ago in a search for personal meaning for our lives – heavy stuff! We had quit our jobs (early 2011), had hiked the Appalachian Trail, and were part way down the West Coast of the United States on bicycles when we began compiling the list of meaningful experiences to help guide future adventure decisions. The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation officially made the list in the summer of 2011 (wild adventure idea, huh?!), and now, as of September 2016, I can officially say that I have earned my CFA designation. And while I am generally wired to be forward looking, it’s time for some reflection – basically, I need to answer the question, “So what?!”

What is it?

The functional end of the journey is that I am now eligible to put the letters CFA after my name. I can call myself a Chartered Financial Analyst. There is a list of criteria necessary to enter the program, there is a series of three exams that must be passed in order to move through the program, and there is a minimum amount of work experience necessary to ultimately earn the charter. The pass rates of the tests are low (usually below 50%; some years and some tests have lower than 40% pass rates). The curriculum is broad. And it’s all self-study – classes are available through outside vendors, but upon signing up for the exam, you get a thick curriculum (or e-version) and a date on your calendar to see if you’ve learned enough to pass the test. The tests are offered once per year on the first weekend in June (except Level 1, which also has a December test option). Pass the test, and you can take the next one the following June. Fail, and you’re waiting another year to try again. It’s also not free. Test registration fees are north of $500 per test, and I ended up generally spending greater than $1000 per year on additional study materials.

The seed was planted for me back in 2004 when I first began working in the wealth management business. A co-worker was signing up for Level 1 as a career-bettering strategy and he encouraged me to do the same. He said that it was a really hard test and that if even I passed only one of the three tests, then my odds of getting better jobs in the industry were greatly improved. I wasn’t so much motivated by the career stuff, but the challenge of passing difficult tests hooked me, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

I signed up for Level 1 back in 2008, only to fail miserably due to a complete lack of effort to prepare. 2011 was the year the CFA exams made my Life List, and in 2012 I finally got serious about making it happen. I took a class to prep for the December 2012 exam. I failed again, but this time by a narrow margin. I took the Level 1 exam again in December of 2013 and passed! It was then on to Level 2 in June of 2014. Fail. I tried again in June 2015 and passed Level 2. That meant that June of 2016 was open for Level 3. Thankfully, I passed this exam on my first try. I had the work experience, I obtained the required referral recommendations, and I earned my charter. Project complete!

All in, I’ve spent north of 1000 hours preparing for exams. I’ve spent 18 hours cumulative in exam halls sitting for CFA exams. I’ve spent thousands of dollars to do all this. I’ve earned my charter. Yay! But now comes the big question – What does this mean to me and why does it matter?


This stuff was hard! The fact that I finished something that was really difficult for me, that required persistence for more than three years, to learn something that is generally seen as challenging material to learn, that means something to me.  

I learned things that have a direct impact on my life. While I am no whiz when it comes to managing money, I understand the basics. I learned a good deal on the job, and the CFA journey has helped to broaden my knowledge and provide improved perspective.

Maybe the designation helps me get a job if I ever decide to work in the financial field again – this point is debatable, and as of now, I’m quite happy with our current life set up, so maybe this point ends up moot.

These are the reasons I’ve been giving for the past few years when I’m asked why I’m spending so much time and money on this project. I was taking the CFA exams while I was in nursing school, and as I was growing my running coaching business, so I understandably could be questioned on my motivations for participating in the CFA program.

I also wonder to myself if it’s some sort of weird ego-driven, success thing that pushed me to take these tests and to stick with it. Maybe there is something in the subconscious that is pushing me to do these projects. Maybe I need to feel like I’m keeping up with my peers. Maybe I need to prove to myself that my choice to take an alternative life path is indeed a choice rather than me simply not being able to hack it in the regular world. Maybe, but I don’t think so.

I think the meaning that I’m getting from this experience ties into the motivation to begin the journey in the first place. It’s something along the lines of: I want to journey somewhere. I want to dive deep into the experience. I want the journey to be challenging. I want to learn along the way and I want to have my thinking change, to be moved as part of the experience.

There are loads of experiences that meet these criteria that I could have dedicated time and money to. I could have decided that I wanted to become a chess master. I could have decided I wanted to become a concert-performing celloist (I still would love to learn to play the cello). There are tons of options. But I had to pick a journey, and it had to mean something, if for no other reason than that I picked it and was dedicating time to it. I think that there are more rewarding journeys than others, and that this may vary from person to person. But it’s not that just any old difficult project will do. There is value to me in understanding how our economic system works. It impacts my life, it impacts my family and friends, and it makes my life better understanding how this stuff works. But that’s not the key ingredient to why this matters. Not only do I choose the adventures, but I’m ultimately the decider of what is meaningful for me, both logically and emotionally. This CFA journey means something to me because I choose to have it mean something to me. I think differently, I’m better off from a knowledge standpoint for it, and I feel really good about finishing this. I guess that’s it. That’s the meaning and that’s the answer to “So What?!” I care. I cared the entire time. I worked hard, I learned, and I finished what I started, and that matters to me.

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