The Minnesota Investor: In investing, as in life, it pays to listen

  • Article by: ROSS LEVIN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 30, 2008 - 4:37 PM

Sometimes, people only hear what they want to hear, or they don't listen at all. That often can lead to missed opportunities.



I looked around the audiology waiting room and realized that I was -- by a quarter century -- the youngest person in there. After my hearing examination, the audiologist said, "Let me guess: Your wife sent you in.

"Your hearing is perfect, so whenever I see someone your age with perfect hearing, I know that it's their spouse who sent them."

We often hear only what we want to hear or we don't listen at all. I find that particularly true with financial planning.

Clients will often come in bringing materials that reinforce their view of the world. Or they will come in with pages torn from the same publications that everyone else reads. But if you read what everyone else is reading, you'll end up doing what everyone else is doing. While this may initially seem comforting, it inevitably will cause problems.

How do you listen to different voices? Some of the best financial planning advice can come from the strangest places. I was thinking about this recently as I read Voltaire's "Candide." While this book has been praised and vilified, it does provide some pearls of wisdom.

"Is there anything more absurd than to wish to carry continually a burden which one can always throw down ... to caress the serpent which devours us, till he has eaten our very heart?"

Have you thought about the burdens that you choose to carry and why you are doing so? Obviously we have responsibilities that we cannot shirk, but sometimes we are simply stuck.

One of our clients was feeling tremendous stress around his job. There had been some management changes that made him question whether he could continue to work there. He was close to retirement, so we did an analysis that showed he would have enough resources if he quit, or he could change to something that was more meaningful but which paid less. The job was a burden that fed the serpent of security.

Once he realized that he had the permission to quit working, he found his job more palatable. Work was no longer a burden, and the serpent was sated. It is a good exercise to really question why you are doing what you are doing. Sometimes all we want is the freedom to change our situations, even though we have no intention of doing so.

Another of our clients made a choice to not accept a promotion that required a transfer. She chose to stay where she was even though it would mean less money and prestige throughout her career. She reminds me of Voltaire's King of El Dorado, who says, "I am sensible that my kingdom is but a small place, but when a person is comfortably settled in any part he should abide there."

It is important to have ambition and to make the most of your life, yet it is equally important to allow yourself to be comfortable.

To settle is not the same as settling. We can be comfortable but not complacent.

We recently had a Japanese college student live with us. Everything that Americans take for granted was a source of wonderment and appreciation for her. Hearing how she marveled at our world as she looked through her fresh eyes was one of the greatest gifts that we could possibly have received.

This world is fast-moving, constantly changing and all-absorbing -- appreciation and thanks have a way of slowing things down.

All of us have hearing problems that are situational.

Sometimes we hear the echoes of "shoulds" from our parents. Other times we run around with a crowd that tells us what we need to do. How can we hear our own voices?

Awareness of how you are thinking about things and whether you are reacting to something in a way that doesn't seem appropriate is a signal that you want to give this additional attention rather than avoid it.

With partners, this often happens when their objectives are not aligned. Sound financial planning explores these areas with you to ensure that what you are doing is what you wish to be doing. It not only can help you define your joint goals, it can save you a trip to the audiologist.

Spend your life wisely.

Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. He is a certified financial planner and author of "The Wealth Management Index." His Gains & Losses column appears on the fourth and fifth Sundays of the month. His e-mail is

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