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The downside of storytelling

  • Article by: ROSS LEVIN
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • December 29, 2012 - 3:20 PM

When my daughter picked me up from the airport this summer, we drove about half a block before she blurted, "I crashed the car."

"Was anyone hurt?'' I asked.

"No," she said, "I ran into the house. I'm really sorry. And don't write an article about it."

I was grateful that she was unharmed, but not so happy about our high auto and homeowner's deductibles. Since she relented on the column permission, I at least got something out of the accident.

But I learned something, too. Once I knew no one was injured, I found myself surprised that I didn't move into anger about the accident and how it happened. Right at that moment, for some reason, I didn't create a story that would have judged her or her driving -- which, at age 19, had been accident- and ticket-free. And because I didn't create a story, she didn't need to create one either.

We try to make sense out of things by making stuff up. The politicians create stories about why they can't resolve the fiscal cliff, and we react to their stories with those of our own. Pema Chodron in her book "Taking the Leap'' says, "Rather than getting so caught up in the drama of who did what to whom, we could simply recognize that we're all worked up and stop fueling our emotions with stories."

This is a time when many people who come into our office are feeling all worked up. World events this year have some clients feeling unsettled about what the future holds. Instead of simply accepting the great investment returns that came in 2012, many are fretting about what's going to happen next. But why?

If we tell clients what is going to happen in 2013, I am telling them a story. If my interpretation fits their picture, they will be comforted. If it doesn't, they will create an alternative explanation that squares with their ideas. A plan is in place regardless of what happens, so there is no need to know what can't be known.

If you can do one thing with your money, it is to notice when you are fueling your emotions. And then pause. Acknowledge that you are getting worked up about the endless things that could happen rather than what is currently happening. There are going to be both good and bad financial things that occur in your life, and you will inevitably adapt to either.

In my experience, clients who use their money for social position create the most stories and tend to be the least satisfied. They spend their money to show others what they have. They get locked into what's next and spend no time with what's now. This is troubling for them because they feel that they never have enough compared to others who have more.

When you look at your personal situation, don't allow yourself to get hooked by other people's money choices.

A close friend of one of our daughters at college has been given anything she wants and much for which she never asked. She told our daughter that she doesn't know how she will ever make it on her own because she never has had to be financially responsible. As you read this, what is the story you are telling yourself?

Are you judging how she was parented? Are you thinking you have done similarly for your own kids and regret it now? Are you worried about how your kids handle money? Notice if this example created some emotional pull on you.

There is no way to know the complexity of this girl's situation in two sentences. Yet reacting to it -- and imagining how things should be different -- is important information for you to understand about yourself.

We become unsettled when we want things to be predictable in a world that offers little certainty. Chodron writes, "The source of our unease is the unfulfillable longing for a lasting certainty and security, for something solid to hold on to."

Create a margin of safety for yourself so that when things are disrupted, you feel comfortable enough to handle it. You can do this by reducing your debt and accepting that the reward of investing comes from its volatility. But most important, your margin of safety is magnified when you appreciate where you are right now.

When you are wanting nothing, you have everything. What if, for 2013, this becomes your story?

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 ross@accredited.com.

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