The buzz around the firm this month is all about benchmarking. Everyone’s tearing their hair out because writing down every detail of what we get up to every minute of every day just looks bad. Basically, you want zero accountability, because sooner or later you’re going to have the conversation that goes, “maybe we’d be a bit more financially streamlined if we didn’t pay you a generous salary to have three-hour client lunches”.

Really? Bummer.

I’m a fan of blurry details, of hazy facts, of imperceptible nuances that make me an awesome financial planner whose insight, ease of communication with clients and general maverick flair isn’t quantifiable. I’m loose, I’m cool, I’m free. I’m also sometimes down at the pub.

The jury’s out on benchmarking, even in industries where benchmarking makes perfect sense. The biggest complaints I hear are that benchmarking usually results in comparing apples to oranges. I’ve always found that expression strange, since apples and oranges don’t seem too dissimilar as far as objects go. It’s not like comparing biscuits to sea eagles.

However, I do remember paying my way through university working in retail and having to meet hourly sales targets. They were just numbers. They didn’t accommodate normal, human variation like, say, the fact that no-one had come into the shop all afternoon. Management can reiterate the six steps of active selling until their faces melt, but even they have to admit that the six steps rely somewhat heavily on the presence of actual customers.

So what are we in financial planning going to put a benchmark on? The number of times an adviser says the word China? “Nice work, Wes. This week, we want 6 per cent growth in the use of the phrase; I’m really confident in your long-term prospects for significant wealth creation.” Sure. I can do that. Six per cent? Easy.

Love it or hate it, benchmarking is something we do naturally as humans. I have friends who are my life-benchmarks.

There’s Francis, who is someone I endlessly and unsuccessfully try to emulate because he has set the bar so high.

Then there’s Travis, who is a benchmark of what happens if you never achieve success, never strive for wealth and only just manage to hand in your fortnightly dole form.

I’ve had the opportunity to measure my life against both of these friends in recent weeks. At present, the unemployable Travis is “surfing my couch”. That’s his term, not mine. Sure, it’s surfing, if you count surfing as lying down and not moving. I’m sure Kelly Slater does. I often look at him and think “there but for the grace of God go I”, but there’s no denying that Travis is happy as a loon. He can sit on my coach watching lions on the National Geographic channel for hours, my cat in his arms, pointing at the screen and encouraging her to “step up”. So who am I to judge?

Francis, on the other hand, is always skiing somewhere, or on a yacht, and every time we talk on the phone there seem to be Sherpas shouting in the background. He’s staying at the Intercontinental in Sydney doing “a bit of business”. You’d think that with the long hours he works, the crushing professional pressure he’s under and the vast sums of money he earns, that deep down he might be unhappy. Actually, no you wouldn’t. The guy is rich as an Aztec King and loves his life so much he sounds like he’s always just about to laugh. Good for him, I say.

The three of us, old school buddies, are sitting down to lunch today for the first time in maybe 10 years. Francis’s shout, of course. I used to measure my life against my friends with the strictest list of benchmarks imaginable. Travis’s failures were a boost and Francis’ success a blow.

Sitting down to lunch with the two of them, I recall how my happiness was tied to their achievements but I had it the wrong way round. Benchmarking amongst friends, and in business I suppose, is not about enjoying others’ failure and being wounded by their victories, it’s understanding and learning from their experiences, positive or not.  

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