Finger in the Dike

The CFA and Holes

As some of you know, I spent the last two months cramming for the Chartered Financial Analyst Level I exam, which I took last week. The test covers over 3,000 pages of material across ten topics, ranging from Ethical and Professional Standards to Economics to Derivatives. 

The expression that best captures the nature of studying for such a wide-ranging exam is “finger in the dike,” which comes from a Mary Mapes Dodge story about a Dutch boy who plugs his finger in a leaking dike to prevent the town from flooding. The CFA is like that, only every time you plug a hole, a new one forms. On one mock test, I scored a 50% of Derivatives. I then studied that topic to plug the hole. On the next test, my Derivatives score went up to 70%, but my Fixed Income score fell. A new hole created. 

The finger in the dike is an apt metaphor for life. We have many goals: work, family, hobbies, etc. and want to succeed at all of them. But success in one sphere—plugging one hole—means letting another develop. You put in extra hours at work to get ahead; your friendships suffer. You spend more time with family; your workout routine is pushed to the side. 

Juggling Acts

People talk about pursuing competing goals as a juggling act. Success does not mean reaching a singular, narrow goal (e.g. work), but rather keeping all of one’s projects in the air: juggling work, family, hobbies, etc. With enough practice, momentum, concentration, and balance, you can really have it all. 

Despite its initial appeal, the juggling act metaphor paints an unrealistic picture. It implies that the only thing standing between you and your goals is your own ability to juggle, and that your goals themselves are small objects capable of being tossed around in whatever direction works for you. Have a scheduling conflict between your daughter’s piano recital and a work call? Just reschedule one of them. And juggling is a performance; the metaphor implies that you’re in the spotlight, with an audience.

But in real life, we often face battles alone, with no one to witness them, like the boy who stuck his finger in the dike overnight as the rest of the town slept, oblivious. Reaching our goals can feel insurmountable: not small balls to juggle, but mountains to climb. Finding time for our passion projects, work, and loved ones is not only difficult, as the juggling act implies, but impossible, as the leaking dike does. It’s not that we can overcome our challenges if we just practiced juggling more. It’s that we physically cannot resist the pressure of the water spilling through the wall. We cannot move either the recital or the work call. We cannot grow more fingers to plug holes. 

Indeed, the popular self-help book The One Thing rejects the idea that we can juggle our way to success. “The simultaneous demands of work and family are taking a toll,” write the authors Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, who recommend “focusing [one’s] energy on one thing at a time.” They quote the Russian proverb: “if you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.”

The finger in the dike metaphor also reveals that the challenges you face are really bigger than yourself. They can be structural in nature: if the wall were fixed, or the water levels lower, there would be no problem. But while the problems are yours to deal with, the fixes are out of your direct control. You don’t control the healthcare system, but you pay the bills. You don’t write the carbon emissions regulation, but you deal with the hurricanes and wildfires.

Plugging Holes and Building Walls

I wonder how much of our lives are wasted plugging holes—putting out fires—when we could be building our own walls, doing our own projects. We spend a lot of time on damage control—covering for a co-worker as a deadline approaches, apologizing to a friend after a period of absence, starting a diet to make up for missed workouts—cutting into time we could use to get ahead, create something novel, do something extraordinary. 

In that spirit, my next post will explore leisure and its benefits.

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