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My Defining Moment at the Dentist & Why I’m a Financial Planner

By Joel Redmond, CFP

After you reach a certain level of success in finance, I think there are times when every planner experiences a period of “going through the motions.” Client reviews feel forced and mechanical. Ascertaining client dreams seems prosaic and vapid. The “seeing eye” and the “listening ear” become subordinated to the babel of self-talk that looms incessantly on the horizon of our own minds during client engagements: I wonder what my spouse is cooking for dinner. I wonder who’ll win the Packers game. I wonder what the next episode of Downton Abbey will be like.

But there comes a moment in our lives when we ask ourselves: why are we doing what we’re doing? Why this métier, among all of the other ones out there? Why help people with their finances, when we could spend our time trying to be actors, or athletes, or musicians, or seamstresses?

We need a defining moment, and they can happen in the oddest of places. One just happened to me at the dentist.

My Defining Moment 

It started with Number 14. The front teeth looked good, and always had ever since the braces came on in the 7th grade (and off in the 9th). But it was Number 14, way in the back, that I’d let go for awhile. It had occasionally hurt, but sitting way back there I decided to put off any dentist visits…I would schedule them, and then cancel them. Life was busy. I had stuff to do.

And then I couldn’t sleep, and I could feel my blood pulsing through the veins in my cranium in the nerve endings of Number 14. All night long.

I called the dentist and finally had them look at it. They filled it in, gave me an antibiotic, and told me to come back in two weeks. I did. Then they took impressions and put on a temporary crown. I remember looking at the dentist’s sweater when he was standing over me – the end of the plastic UPC tag was still poking out of his sweater sleeve. And I saw the intensity of the look on his face, staring down at Number 14. The pain was gone – even after the Novocain wore off – and I immediately understood the significance of our work in a new light.

Why I’m a Financial Planner

Sometimes, we lament that clients don’t immediately follow our advice. But sometimes it’s only after they endure the harrowing experiences they suffer by rejecting this advice that they truly appreciate the value of our recommendations. I could never have tasted the sweetness of a pain-free mouth without the time I spent chewing only on the right side and succumbing to the perverse curiosity that made me keep wiggling it.

This experience also gave me a healthy new found appreciation for the body of knowledge that we possess as practicing CFP certificants. In many ways, our profession is very young, and we perhaps don’t have the same level of standardization as dental science now has. But we’re getting there. John Wiley & Sons is publishing a comprehensive guide to financial planning this year. CFP Board continues to improve and amend the curriculum for the CFP certification process in the US. And FPSB continues to promote and steward the marks internationally, combining the resources of over 150,000 CFP certificants worldwide.

And, if this isn’t enough, CFP Board continues to publish and promulgate its Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct.  These ten standards are so important that they probably should be memorized by every practicing financial planner. Here’s a link to a previous post on them.

If you don’t yet feel like a medical doctor in this profession, there may be several reasons why. The first one is probably that the material isn’t as complex – the human body still outdoes the financial realm when it comes to depth of detail. A second reason is probably that the results of our work aren’t always as immediate in terms of the pain – removing a ruptured appendix and creating an asset protection trust don’t have the same effects in terms of immediacy, and health.

Taking the Practice Standards Seriously

But the final reason may be our own fault – we may not be taking these practice standards as seriously as we ought to, perhaps because we don’t perceive them to be matters of life and death. (Of course, compensation structures also differ, but that’s another post in itself.) Frankly, in many cases, they aren’t matters of life and death at all, at least in a physical sense. But it would be worse than foolish to suggest that our work doesn’t have a lasting impact on the well-being of our clients – psychologically as well as financially. What’s the hardest part? We don’t always get to see the relief when a client follows our advice. We don’t always know how much better the client feels when we fix the bad tooth.

Practice standards make sure that doing the right thing is its own reward, even when clients don’t thank us as profusely as we might like. Following them ensures that the financial planning profession continues on an upward path when it comes to integrity and competence.

What’s next? I’m going back for the permanent crown in another week. Even if the dentist is just “going through the motions,” if he does them right, I know I’ll feel better at the end of it, and never quite be able to think of that dentist again without more than a twinge of gratitude and admiration. This is what we should be aiming for as planners – the dissipation of that mushroom cloud of pain that plagues our clients. When we do this, we become who we were meant to be – and we help our clients become who they were meant to be. This is the highest reward – finding the “Number 14” in each of our clients’ lives, and taking care of it.

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