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What Is Financial Success?


Implicitly, what every Physicians Money Digest reader is looking for is financial success. But what is it? According to my Kitchen Cabinet of bemused docs, the definition of financial success is "enough." But enough to do what? Enough for security, for power, for bragging rights? What's your definition?

Implicitly, what every reader of Physicians Money Digest is looking for is financial success. But what is it? According to my Kitchen Cabinet of bemused docs, the definition of financial success is "enough." But enough to do what, or have enough or feel enough? Enough for security, for power, for bragging rights?

Contrary to an ad currently running (too much) on TV, where people are walking around with an enlarged cutout of some six- or seven-figure random number under their arm, there really isn't a magic "number" that defines financial success. For we are blessed with a psychological quirk that says just by getting to some artificial financial goal, we automatically shift gears and want more, the next artificial level.

We have evolved to be strivers to survive, let alone thrive, that greatest historical rarity. So we may have milestones such as, "Gee, I never thought I'd earn $100,000," or, "Have a net worth of $1 million," but those are now commonplace for most physicians. And these milestones often define two of the three rough markers that many use for financial success; some annual earnings level and a likewise arbitrary round number defining our net financial worth. The third might be in the form of a shorter-term event where, through ability or luck (usually the latter), we attain some unexpected disproportionate financial gain. It could be receiving an inheritance, selling an asset for more than expected, or even winning the lottery. Voila! Success!

The one thing that these paper financial gains share is our emotional response of surprise and pleasure. And, of their nature, the responses are transitory. Ergo, you eventually come down to earth and you want to set your sights on the next level just because you can.

Another characteristic that financial gains and milestones share is their opportunistic nature. The idea being that if we throw enough activity, investment and even hard work out there, some percentage of it will come back to us and we’ll feel good about it.

That is also one of the identified characteristics of what it takes to be "lucky," as I've written about before. Luck favors the well prepared, it's true, but it also tends to favor those who have the most irons in the fire.

Now that doesn't mean that we should go off half-cocked in search of the golden needle in the haystack, but rather be mindful of one of my favorite adages: If you want to get a kiss, it may take asking 10 people and getting slapped or rejected by nine. Likewise, doctors live our professional lives figuring, consciously or not, that for every 10 patients we see, after the bad debts and the insurance company rejections, that we will still realize enough to keep the lights on, help our patients, feed our families and maybe have enough to enjoy life and look to the future. Another, more gritty, definition of financial success.

An important aspect of getting our arms around what financial success really means is shown by the results of studies that show how dependent we are upon comparisons with our neighbors. (It used to be called "Keeping up with the Joneses.")

Study after study shows that no matter how much we earn or accumulate, our feeling about our economic sufficiency depends heavily upon what we perceive our neighbor and/or peer makes or owns. I've seen one that says people feel "enough" is always $10,000 a year more than they are currently making.

I am guessing that physicians of whatever specialty who live in poor or rural areas feel pretty good about their financial success by comparison with their milieu. While doctors who live in more expensive enclaves, such as my Silicon Valley or Manhattan, say, at the same income level or even better, might feel as poor as church mice. My family tells me that they do sometimes that way after hobnobbing with some “Siliconaires.” And I might refer you back to my article on comparative incomes among medical specialties if you want to re-open that can of worms.

So after all of this, what is financial success? I am coming to the conclusion that it isn't only relativistic to each doctor’s situation and goals, but actually may have no practical usage or meaning at all. It just doesn't help either your program or your feelings whether you attain such a moniker or not. If you don't meet your expectation, you feel inadequate. If you do attain some preconceived point, you find either it doesn't help or that you immediately revise your endpoint upward. Financial success is kind of like finally opening that cherished childhood present only to find the wanting and the expectation to be much more fun than the realization. It's really about the journey, man.

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