The Most Important Thing I Never Learned in School

10/26/2011 05:27 pm ET | Updated Dec 26, 2011

I started working in the financial field in 1990. I knew that I wanted to help people, and I also wanted to make money. Getting out of college there was no option to move back in with my parents, so I had to get out there and look for things, but I really didn't make any money for a long time.

In 1990, I made about $22,000 a year. Ten years later I had clawed and climbed my way up to about $26,000. And then I figured something out. I had an epiphany -- or an enlightened moment, whatever you want to call it, where I realized I was going about things completely the wrong way. I realized that I was focused on what I wanted, but not on what I was willing to give in order to get what I wanted, and as long as I approached my business in this way, I would never succeed.

From my observations and experience as a financial adviser, it seems that many people getting out of college are in the same rut that I was in. They know what they want to get, but no one along the way ever told them that they'd have to be willing to give something first.

Many, if not most, of us have been taught to focus on getting the big dollars and the big job, whatever it is, but we rarely come to understand that what we get really has nothing to do with what we want to get. If you're solely focused on what you want to get, chances are you'll get nothing. But when you figure out what you want to give and what you want to be -- you can then have whatever you want.

It's a weird paradox, but the truth is that when you let go of wanting anything, you can have everything. There's a great book out called Your Money and Your Brain by Jason Zweig. If your goal is to make a lot of money, I really recommend reading this. It's an unbelievable book that shows that the anticipation of getting something is overwhelmingly more exciting than actually getting it. And if this is true, what would it mean for us if we knew that the anticipation of winning the lottery or hitting the jackpot in any literal or metaphorical way is actually more exciting than winning it? Most addicts will say that the anticipation of a high is in fact much more exciting than the actual high itself. So what does this mean for us?

We tell ourselves that if we get a college degree we'll be fine. Then we get the degree but we still don't feel great, so now we've got to get something else -- the money and the job. But then we get the good job and we still don't feel like we thought we would.

I'm now a successful financial adviser, so I often get invited to other companies to speak to their advisers. And I'm usually expected to tell them how they too can get more, but when I show up I tell them the same thing I'm telling you today. The question I'll always ask is, "How many of you remember thinking that if you could make $100,000 a year, you'd have everything you thought you'd ever want and need?" I then ask them to go back 15 or 20 years, when they were just starting out, making $15,000 a year and thinking, "if I could just make that $100,000, I'd be happy, life would be smooth sailing and everything would be perfect." More often than not, every single person in the room raises their hand and says they remember thinking that. My next question is "How many people feel today the way they thought they would feel when they got the $100,000?" It's very rare that I look out and see someone with his or her hand raised.

The most critical thing for any human being is to know what they want to be in life. There is no other thing. You then don't have to figure out how to be happy because happiness is an illusion. The people who are truly happy are those who are so focused on what they're doing that they don't have time to think about whether they're happy or not. Every morning when they wake up, they think they have something to contribute to the world and if they don't do it, they're simply going to burst.

I'm not saying we shouldn't get out there and vote, or speak out against things that aren't appropriate, but if we're not aligned with our unique creative expression and bringing that to the world in service, then we're not transforming the world. The world is literally a reflection of us, and if we don't know what we're doing, and feel filled with void and lack, is it any wonder that the world shows up like that as a reflection? It is my hope that these ideas will leave you thinking about you, what you're doing here and how you're aligned with your energy. It's my sincere belief that this is what will truly change the world.

Partly adapted from Beyond Success: Redefining the Meaning of Prosperity, © 2009 Jeffrey L. Gitterman -- all rights reserved. Published by Amacom Books, a division of the American Management Association.