A Recommended Read…
One of the more memorable books I’ve read over the last few years was When Breath Becomes Air. This autobiographical account by Paul Kalanithi recounting the story of his journey and battle with cancer.
Kalanithi, a thirty-something when penning this account, had quite the resume. A double major at Stanford in English literature and human biology, an M.A. at the University of Cambridge in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, and to top it off, a medical degree from Yale. Paul would go on to complete his residency back at Stanford, training to be a neurosurgeon.
All of this training and education to be met with a stage IV lung cancer diagnosis absolutely changing the trajectory of his life. When Breath Becomes Air walks the reader through Paul’s experience as a patient, Paul draws special attention to his need and desire through this time for a doctor with a deep and genuine sense of empathy. He highlights how different it felt to be a patient as opposed to a professional. This man that personally held endless amounts of knowledge concluded,
“Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.”
In his search for truth, the doctor’s greatest lesson was learned as a patient – not all of life’s obstacles can be solved in a textbook.
I am intentionally leaving out some of the other key details of this biography. I would encourage you to read the book in hopes that you will glean a similar appreciation for this touching account.
More Than Numbers
For me, as a professional, this book was a reminder to slow down and continually place myself on the other side of the table – the patient’s perspective. I am an advice giver, I am a glutton for knowledge, and I can often lean too heavily into the quantitative instead of the qualitative. When Breath Becomes Air challenged me to see the perspective of the one receiving the advice and go deeper into how my advice was processed, interpreted, and internally translated based on that individual’s unique background.
It is easy to calculate maximum outcomes on a calculator. It is easy to forecast different scenarios to narrow down the optimal solution, yet it isn’t easy to measure happiness or achievement or joy. And these things matter; they matter most.
Fork In The Road
Often financial planning will lead you to a fork in the road. You will start by laying out multiple options for different financial objectives. Through a process of elimination, you will narrow your options down to this or that.
Sometimes one option will create a “better” financial outcome, but your preferences will lead you to go the other route. This can be a conflicting exercise and cause some investors stress. Why? Because they only measure what they can put in a calculator.
Here’s the first question I want you to ask yourself – will this decision make or break my financial plan? Most likely, the answer is no. This means that you can choose either path. You absolutely don’t need to always lean towards maximization.
Don’t stop here.
Press further into where that preference you expressed comes from – pull on that thread. This exercise will usually help you to learn more about what’s most important to you. For some people, they’ve always aspired to be debt-free, so they choose that fork in the road. Having multiple years of expenses in cash brings them an elevated peace for some people, so they choose that fork in the road. For others, expressing their values and beliefs based on the way they invest outweighs chasing the highest possible returns, so they choose that fork in the road.
This is an area where you must hone your skills in. Your feelings matter, and your emotions can be your greatest strength or your greatest weakness. Emotional decisions can lead us to veer off the path our financial plan has set forth for us, or our emotions can help us achieve a deeper sense of meaning and purpose from our money.
This is where I think an advice-giver – a partner in our financial decision-making – can be such a huge resource. A safe place to bounce financial ideas off and a person to challenge us or help us explore the deeper roots beneath our financial decisions.
This is the role I enjoy and the discussions I find to be most valuable. This is why the answers to so many financial questions start with “it depends…”. Should I pay off my mortgage? Should I invest a lump sum or dollar cost average? Should I claim social security at 62 or 70? Should I pay for some or all of my child’s college?
Again, there will be some of these decisions that are crucial, the kind that could potentially make or break a financial plan, but they will be the minority, not the majority. You will have freedom of exploration and dialogue about all the forks for the remaining less crucial inquiries.
Advisors Need Advisors
Paul Kalanithi, a top of his class professional, couldn’t serve as his own doctor – doctors need doctors. Just like advisors need advisors. I have the privilege of surrounding myself daily with other great advisors, and we collaborate on a lot of client projects. We also discuss our own personal finances and bounce ideas off of each other.
One of my dear friends and colleagues, Sean Latimer, is who I often lean on for advice. Sean and I have worked alongside each other across different professions for some 15+ years. I trust Sean, and that’s key. I trust him because I know that he knows me. I know that he knows what’s important to me. One of Sean’s greatest qualities is his ability to listen; Sean is an excellent listener. So, when I go to Sean for the 17th time, asking him to remind me why I shouldn’t just pay off my mortgage and “release myself of that burden,” he steers me back to my financial plan. He steers me back to what’s important to me – my family. For the time being, keeping the mortgage is part of a greater plan that helps my family get to the financial freedom we aspire to. And… I will still have the conversation with Sean an 18th and 19th time, and he will listen, as he always does. That’s a great advisor.
One of my favorite financial authors, Carl Richards, famous for his napkin sharpie sketches in The New York Times, likes to frame some client discussions this way, “You might fire me for what I’m about to say, but you should definitely fire me if I don’t.” This idea that he will operate with a level of candor that may be uncomfortable but avoiding the topic/discussion would be malpractice. It is in this type of soil that great financial conversations take root. Why? Because financial advice is about more than numbers.