After years of talking with clients, reading numerous books and raising two children with my wife, I have reached a conclusion that may seem obvious: No one has their act together.
This is not meant to be judgmental, merely observational. Each of us may have different triggers that cause us to temporarily lose our grip, but rest assured, we all lose our grip. For some, it may be the person in the car ahead of them with their left turn signal permanently blinking. For others, it may be a massive stock market correction. Regardless, all of us will find ourselves spiraling into the abyss.
The challenge becomes how long between periods of disorder, how do we manage it when it arrives, and how can we not get too smug when chaos seems nowhere near us.
One of our clients had a very clear picture of what their retirement would look like until her partner passed away early and unexpectedly. When a partner dies, it seems like everything is over. The surviving spouse initially has to take on the responsibilities their partner handled. They often find their home to be exceedingly lonely, and they may not be able to create a new picture of what their lives will look like. Psychologist James Hollis in his lecture series, “Creating a Life,’’ explains this as a “gap between our fantasies of sovereignty and control and how life turns out.”
If proper financial planning is done, then managing this gap (and the anxiety surrounding it) is not about money worries, but how to accept our new reality. For this client, it was acknowledging that things were going to be very different. The challenge was not to try to fix things; they were unfixable. Instead, we needed to focus on the tasks of settling the estate, managing insurance proceeds, changing titles and developing a new cash-flow model. Tending to the things over which we had some control made dealing with the things over which there was less control a little easier. This client had the space to deal with her personal grief and that of the children or to handle her feelings as she began to rebuild her life. Separating the real issues from the imagined ones allowed her to move to, at least for a while, having her act together.
We are constantly moving in and out of having our act together. Most of us want to give the impression, though, that everything is working. One of our clients was quitting his successful career because he never wanted to do it in the first place. He had felt pressure to enter a profession that was never his calling, worked at it for several years, and realized that he could not imagine continuing in it. His wife decided to get a job (and was, fortunately, able to do so) which allowed him to go to graduate school and start a completely different career. He is working long hours doing interesting work and he has more energy for outside activities.
Psychologist Hollis says people end up saying, “I’ve never lived my life. I was living the instructions I received or I was trying to get away from those instructions.” The irony with this client’s situation was that before the career change, most people would have certainly felt that he had everything going for him. It was only after he pursued what he loved that he could stretch out the time between getting whacked by disorder and reduce the time it took to get his act together.
Another client came to us after her divorce. Her feelings of anger, guilt and failure made her an easy target for her ex-husband to try to assert his power and need for control. It was important for her to spend time talking about her money concerns and fears so she could adequately deal with them. As the light was shone on those worries, they could be either discarded or managed, allowing her to get her next act together.
Spend your life wisely.
Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. His Gains & Losses column appears on the last Sunday of the month. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.