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Ross Levin: When meeting in the middle is the biggest benefit

  • May 24, 2014 - 4:29 PM

A recent New Yorker article about Mark Tercek, the former Goldman Sachs investment banker who now heads the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, described an interesting strategy that the organization is using by working with businesses to help them price the competitive advantage that environmental decisions may give them rather than using traditional ­industry solutions.

The article by D.T. Max describes Tercek’s middle-ground approach, which is troubling to some conservation supporters. In the ­article, Harvard Prof. Michael Sandel says: “When you put a price on something, you change your relationship to it. Mostly, you weaken the bond, making it contingent, even dispensable, if the terms are good enough.”

While I believe that statement can be true, it also made me think that we really don’t put a price on enough things. If we did, we might think the price too high for what we get.

One of our clients is a four-day-a-week road warrior, traveling the country for depositions or trials. He works 60- or 70-hour weeks for great pay and a terrific lifestyle, which he has little time to enjoy. A recent health scare caused him to slow down and put business travel on hold for a month. During his recovery, he realized that how he was spending his time was not worth it to him. The price for the things that his career afforded him were not worth the cost. His life became dispensable as his work mushroomed. It is too difficult to turn things completely off, so we will be spending the next few years determining how he can slow down and make do with less so he can transition to a place where his relationship with how he wants to live is rekindled rather than continuing on his current hectic path.

While this is a drastic example, most of us experience this disharmony at some level. Our bonds with our internal interests have been subsumed by our external desires.

And we perpetuate this with the next generation. I was talking with someone who worked to put herself through college and medical school and now has children for whom she is paying their college costs. This person’s most formative experiences were balancing work and school. While she does not want her children to have to live through what she did, she wants them to be as directed as she was. Being able to pay for your children’s education is a wonderful thing, but it is not without its costs. Creatively determining the things that your student should provide for themselves (books, classes in which they receive a poor grade, spending money, clothing, etc.) may better prepare them for what lies ahead.

Raising your kids so they want for nothing may not actually be the most loving thing that you can do for them. Helping your children learn about choices and allowing them to experience some hardships is far more instructive than treating them as fine china to be carefully handled and polished. At our company, we have client family meetings and some of the children are wondering how they can simultaneously have their hand out and still earn their parents’ and their own respect. The price of providing too much support may not prove to be very supportive.

The costs in traditional solutions of working harder or doing whatever we can for our children may be far higher than a middle-ground approach.

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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