Pass the CFA Exam Like a Warrior!
We have discussed in previous articles that the CFA exam challenges at least as much your mental and emotional fortitude than your knowledge of finance theory. The constant fight that is entailed in studying for a CFA charter is the reason we called this website Financial Analyst Warrior. This is a fight against many enemies, namely:
- Social media
The human response when facing a danger has been summarized by the three Fs: Flee, Freeze or Fight.
Although it would be a stretch to claim that studying for the CFA exam constitutes a “danger” we can all agree that it is a stressful process. Some will abandon their pursuit along the way (flee), some will be intimidated by the task and constantly postpone their study (freeze) and some will fight on!
The fighting analogy not only describes accurately the warrior mindset that allows us to aggressively pursue our goals, it also provides us with many lessons, learned on the battlefield (the real one) that can be applied to less belligerent tasks, such as studying for an exam.
The warrior image does convey a violent and aggressive vibe to a perfectly academic and intellectual pursuit which some could find curious. However, from my personal experience, this testosterone-injected image is not only the best way to succeed in an exam or competition; but also to accept the any outcome with grace and stoicism.
A good warrior is strong and impassive in the face of danger and doesn’t let his/her emotion get in the way of quick and efficient decision making. Great warrior exudes confidence and control without reeking of cockiness (actually I am sure most great warriors ranged between a bit cocky and humongous douchebags). We believe the warrior image incorporates the perfect mix of calm and aggression that is required to attack the exam while maintaining a discipline and methodical approach to nail all the questions.
Here are some of the best teachings from warriors and how a warrior lifestyle can increases your odds at passing the dreaded CFA exams!
How to Foster a Warrior Mentality Ahead of the CFA Exam
1) The Warrior Ritual
We discussed the importance of a ritual in a previous article but its importance cannot be overplayed. The ritual can be seen as a form of meditation that lets your mind transition from whatever you were doing to the new task to tackle which can be studying for the CFA, undergoing a practice exam or writing the actual exam.
A ritual does not have to be an elaborate dance or a goat sacrifice as an offering to the Gods (although it is preferable). It can be as simple as a small routine where you prepare your body and soul for the upcoming task. Back in college, I would always listen to aggressive gangsta rap before an exam. That would put me in the zone and clear my mind off of any other concerns or distraction.
You do not need to be superstitious to perform a warrior ritual. The important thing is to provide you with a buffer between whatever you were doing before and the CFA related study/exam.
2) The Warrior’s Pre-Battle Visualization
Visualization is the practice of playing a scenario in your hear before it happens. Athletes always visualize their upcoming competition in order to be ready for all scenarios and contingencies. Ahead of combat, warriors should also visualize their enemy and see them perish a thousand times. When I say visualization I don’t mean simply seeing yourself sitting down answering questions, that does not take much imagination.
Candidates need to visualize everything that will happen from the morning of the exam onward; how they will wake up, what they will eat, how they will get to the exam facility and enter into the exam room. When you visualize these mundane steps several times in your hand, you will be less prone to distraction and more focused when you actually go for the exam. Imagine going into a new city, you naturally look around because everything is new for you and your attention is all over the place trying to absorb as much information as possible. When you walk in your own neighborhood, you are not distracted by anything since you have been there several times. Your attention is therefore more focused toward whatever you are doing.
This is also the reason why it is always advisable to visit the exam location in advance. It is harder to visualize something you have never seen before…
3) The Warrior Physical Preparation
It is said that Shaolin Kung-Fu was developed as a series of exercise that helped the Shaolin Buddhist Monks stay in shape despite long hours of meditation. The purpose was to maintain strong and healthy bodies to sustain endless sessions of sedentary meditation. These monks understood that it is easier to concentrate when the body has a regular opportunity to move around.
As a rather fidgety guy, I have always found that the most difficult part of the CFA is the requirement to spend long hours sitting in a chair looking at a textbook. Back in college, I barely studied so it was not that much of an issue. To nail the CFA, there is no getting around it, you need to put in a significant amount of hours. The only thing that saved me was that I would train in between study session so that my body was relatively tired and the “down time” provided by the studying was welcomed.
An example of how you can cultivate your body to withstand long hours of studying is by splitting your reading sessions with short workout sessions. Exercise can be as simple as a few push-ups, sit ups or jumps just to get the juices flowing. There are tons of short exercises that does not require any equipment or space (check Youtube). I suggest to place a special focus on back and shoulder exercise since these are the areas that suffer the most from being hunched over books for extend periods.
4) The Warrior Discipline
Discipline is an essential ingredient to succeed at most tasks in life yet it is very difficult to maintain for an extended period. First of all let clear out some misconception about discipline. It is not true that some people have it and some do not; everyone can have discipline if they are properly motivated. Also, discipline is never constant. I may keep to my study schedule for 2 month and then suddenly slack off. It is impossible to be always perfectly discipline but the warrior example gives us a perfect image to strive for.
In the military discipline is imposed from above so there is not many opportunities to deviate and if so there are harsh sanctions. When studying, there is no such authority that imposes a studying regimen and each candidate is left to their own regulations. There are no direct consequences from slacking on the studying since the fact that I forgo my curriculum readings today has arguably a small impact on the pass/fail result on the exam. Given this lack of accountability, some candidates find sources of discipline elsewhere. Some find it in the shame they will have to endure given a failure. Some find comfort in their salary bump once the exam passed. Candidates who already have competitive DNA will find motivation and discipline in the sheer fact that they defeated the dreaded CFA exam single-handedly.
If you have a hard time maintaining discipline when you are studying or trying to perform anything for that matter, try the following mind hack that I have been implementing for many years in various situations.
Mind-hack to Discipline Yourself
Whenever you feel like slacking off or watching TV/Internet or doing anything else than what you are supposed to do, imagine that you are being filmed. Imagine that there is a movie being filmed in secret about your life (similar that movie with Jim Carey) and that millions of people will be watching (or are watching live). If you can visualize that, the desire to look good and to give an image of yourself as a hard-working discipline cool guy or girl will usually be stronger than the appeal of laziness. This is a way to remain accountable even when you are alone. In this case you are accountable to millions of imaginary viewers that will potentially judge you and look down on you if you behave like a giant wuss. This is a form of self-imposed imaginary peer pressure and should obviously not be abused since that may lead some people to feel overly guilty and depressed all the time. For my part, thanks to this simple trick, I am usually able to be relatively discipline and look pretty cool even when I’m alone. ..
5) The Warrior’s Fearlessness
I read recently somewhere (although I cannot remember where) that fearlessness does not really exist. In reality, those who appear fearless, like warriors, are just better able to control their fears than the rest of us. It makes sense since it is hard to believe that someone who risks not only death but permanent injury and excruciating pain, does not shit his pants, warrior or not. Being able to stand up in the face of danger is not something everyone can accomplish instinctively. However, there are ways to build our fortitude so that we can avoid being overcome with fear.
One way is to visualize, embrace, study and even cherish the fear and its source. The soldier going to battle faces the distinct possibility of losing his life or a limb. He needs to understand that and consciously make effort that it does not happen. Some people do not like to envisage failure as an option. In my case I think you need to visualize the worst case scenario and see what would happen if this scenario does occur. This is a tip that I got from Tim Ferris in his 4-hour workweek book. According to him, most of the time, the worst-case scenario is not as bad as we think … although that certainly does not apply for the warrior since death is the worst-case scenario…
By visualizing and accepting the possibility of failure on the CFA exam, you can reach an inner peace and you may be able to face the exam with calm and impassiveness. Unfortunately, my best advice to overcome fear is failure itself although that is hardly an option in an exam scenario. Although you wouldn’t fail the exam just so that next time around you can be fearless, failure helps tremendously to de-dramatize the “worst-case-scenario”. I have experienced failure several times in all fields of life (school, CFA, business, career, sports, girls, pets, cooking, …) but every time (except with girls) it was a great learning experience and it allowed me to try again without being affected by the fear of failure.
If you don’t wish to fail the CFA just for the sake of becoming fearless (please don’t do that!), you can try building your resistance to fear by attempting any other activity that instills stress. For example if you are afraid of getting your ass kicked, try a mixed martial arts class. Or if you are afraid of heights, go skydiving. This will teach you to familiarize yourself with fear and possibly conquer it.
6) The Warrior’s Resilience
So far we talk about the pre-war ritual, the pre-war visualization, the physical preparedness, the discipline in your studies and the ability to conquer your fear. However, lets be honest, being a warrior is mostly about eradicating your enemy which requires aggression and combativeness. A soldier needs to keep on fighting despite the injuries and setbacks suffered. For a candidate, this translate into the resilience of answering question after question and not letting a bad streak affect them mentally. This may seem trivial but when you have to face a few questions in a row for which you did not know the answer beyond doubt, it can have a disastrous impact on the rest of your exam. You may enter into a spiral of self-doubt and candidates may get the impression that they are under-prepared for the exam. This is especially true in the level 2 exam where you have 6 consecutive questions on the same topic. If it happens to be your weak topic, your confidence level may drop quickly.
The first step in fighting the spiral of self-doubt is to be aware of it. Each question is a new fight and should be attacked head-on without other results affecting your mindset. Remember that if there are 180 questions and you typically require to get 70% of them correct to pass, that means you are allowed to answer incorrectly on 54 of those and still pass. Unless you get a streak of 54 tough questions, there is no reason for you to be affected by a bad streak.
I hope this helps you to visualize what we mean by adopting a warrior-like attitude. The main takeaway here is to not let the emotional factor squander the effort you spent in studying the material. Visualize yourself as a noble and powerful general going to war with the firm resolve to defeat the enemy….but just visualize it, do not talk about it or you will be seen as a total lunatic…
CFA Level 1 Starter Kit
We also invite you to check out our latest CFA Level 1 Starter Kit.
We created this CFA Level 1 Starter Kit to help you better prepare for the upcoming CFA exam.
We want to help you maximize your study efficiency and avoid the most common mistakes candidates make on the CFA Level 1 exam.
- Top 100 Pitfalls (mistakes) to avoid on the CFA Level 1 exam (+50 pages PDF eBook)
- Exam Strategies (9 pages PDF article)
- Concentration Tips (9 page PDF article)
- 3 study schedules : 16 weeks, 14 weeks and 10 weeks study plans (customizable in Excel)
By using the resources found in this Study Kit, you will be able to better focus on your studies knowing that you will have enough time to cover everything before the exam. You will also the learn the most frequent errors CFA Level 1 Candidates make and how to avoid them on the exam day.