How I Moved from Promoting Baseball to Passing the CFA Exams

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By Matt Spezialetti

I was a bag of nerves when exam day rolled around.

The exam was at the Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia and my humble abode is in Mohnton, PA, a solid 1.5 hours west of the city. Like most candidates, I envisioned my car breaking down, a massive traffic build-up, or some unforeseen natural disaster.

I got up at 3:30am to run on the treadmill, left the house at 5:00, and arrived at 6:45 to sit in my car and study some more. Victory was within my grasp.

The culmination of six intense months was nearly complete. However the real journey began long before that.

A sports guy, through and through

Before my 24th birthday, I had worked/interned/volunteered for the Charlotte Knights, Reading Phillies, ESPN, Philadelphia Soul, Philadelphia Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, Johnson C. Smith and the Camden Riversharks. Sports was everything to me.

To continue the career momentum forward, I enrolled at Winthrop University to pursue an MBA with a Marketing concentration. As the Manager of Promotions with the Charlotte Knights, it appeared like the right path to take. One of my required classes to get into the program was a basic Finance course. A real laugher for anyone with industry experience, but challenging for myself, who didn’t take one business class in my undergraduate studies.

Understanding how the world works

It was the second class on a chilly February Saturday when it finally hit me. How do I go through life without knowing how the world works?

Loaded question, I know.

It was about understanding the stock market, the world economy, interest rates, companies…everything. Where was this for the past four years of my life! It felt like someone literally flipped the proverbial light bulb on above my head.  But the hardest decision I’ve ever made was ahead of me: continue the grind through sports or pursue this wild, new passion called Finance (and start with a clean slate).

Deciding to retrain

In April I resigned from my position. My wonderful parents accepted me back home, I took a job working at a factory packing surgical equipment for the summer, and applied to three universities in Philadelphia.

Temple University was my first choice. I poured my heart and soul into the essay portion of the application because who wants to accept a graduate student with ZERO experience.

It almost wasn’t meant to be. The director of the program, Dr. Soss, called me on my lunch break from work and explained that I didn’t have the mathematics background to pursue a M.S. in Financial Analysis and Risk Management. While sitting on the curb of the employee parking lot, all I could think about was if I had made the wrong decision.

Thankfully, he suggested the Investment Management track would be more appropriate.

All of a sudden, I was heading to Temple University for a Master’s degree in Investment Management, and studying for this crazy thing called the CFA exam.

6 months before CFA Level I – starting my prep

The summer was quickly evaporating. In July, I drove down to meet Dr. Soss and receive all the Kaplan study guides to begin my preparation for the Level I exam.

My first task: read the entire accounting study guide. Note: not a good idea. I spent more time Googling words that I didn’t know, than actually reading. When reading, I couldn’t comprehend it. It was like learning another language and never opening your mouth to use the words.

The classes at Temple however gave me a shot to see some of the concepts in work. We didn’t sit there and cover all the topics, but most of my classes gave me some great insight into the major points of the study guides.

I bought all the textbooks for my classes too. Hull’s book on derivatives was quite the read. I made the decision that I was never selling any of the books, so I could mark them up how I liked. Living life on the edge!

Living and breathing finance

Lifestyle changes soon came. I started to put down the sports section and read the money section of my local newspaper (Reading Eagle) and eventually The Wall St. Journal. I learned that lesson a few weeks in that if you want it – it’s got to be your life.

I went so far as to remove a whole bunch of non-sense followers on Twitter and upgrade to finance-related professionals or firms. The average IQ of my followers probably jumped by 30 points.

All of these things helped drive concepts home. Not only was I interested in what I was reading, but some of these details were bound to show up on the CFA Level I exam. Right?

1 month before CFA Level I – motivation is key

Classes at Temple ended in early November, which left me one month until the test. I won’t dive too much into the studying techniques that worked for me because they have been covered by Sophie here. Notecards, rereading, mock exams, the usual.

But what I did have was the time, and more importantly, the motivation. It isn’t some novel idea that if you are motivated to do something, you do it better or get it done faster.

You can’t be unmotivated and pass any level of the CFA. You have to care on some level. There has to be that desire to better yourself – better your life. I made the test bigger than just another test; it was about my life. I had left my previous industry and while I knew it was the right decision, how could I prove that to myself and others?

Simple, I pass this test.

The month before I was in go mode. Gym around 7am – study – lunch – study – gym again – study – dinner – study. Repeat. It was a solid 8-9 hours of studying each day. I didn’t need more because I made every minute count. Facebook was deactivated, Twitter was off and on. I stopped going out on weekends outside of football Sundays. I wanted to pass the exam more than I’ve wanted to do anything else in my life.

That’s why I had the shakes walking into the exam hall. Well, either that or the Monster I downed about 20 minutes before.

After the CFA exam

After the day was over, I went to grab a drink with my friends at The Fieldhouse. Some people felt that it was a great accomplishment and the pressure was done. I was incredibly pissed-off. So angry that even after 45 minutes at the bar and another half hour to get back to my car, I still dropped some expletives and threw some haymakers at the passenger seat on my way home.

I was pissed because I cared so much. All those questions I didn’t know where ingrained in my head. The whole ride home it was like I was stuck in the movie Groundhog Day running through the same events.

How I believe I passed

I passed anyways. So what was the factor that made it happen? I wanted it more, plain and simple.

Call bull if you want – and I normally would if this was sports. Did the Chicago Blackhawks’ players want the Stanley Cup more than the Tampa Bay Lightning’s guys? Same goes for the Golden State Warriors versus the Cleveland Cavaliers.

So doesn’t everyone want to pass all three levels of the CFA the exact same? Absolutely not. Some people study more or less. The work takes place in the privacy of a bedroom not in-front of millions of people. It is much harder to amp yourself up to sit in a chair for eight hours.

And it’s about the qualities of those hours, the lifestyle changes – sacrificing some personal relationships to get it done.

Find your motivation, study with some jam (warning:video has colorful language!)

Am I making this overly emotional? Probably. But that’s how I got it done. I understand myself well enough that if I became so emotionally involved, it would be impossible to not give it 100%. That leads me to my final point, find your motivation.

For me, it was that emotional pull of showing people I made the right choice to leave sports. It could be about getting that promotion at work, proving your own intelligence to yourself, or maybe another one of life’s challenges.  Get a little angry when you get a question wrong. When you want to stop, think about everything you have gone through to reach this point.

Former Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette always talked about playing with some jam.

Study with some jam too.

Because highly motivated people will go on to do great things in their life. And you should want to be great.

Zee Tan
Author: Zee Tan

300Hours founder


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