With Thanksgiving and the holiday season approaching, I thought I'd take a step away from my traditional observations on how to thrive in a digitized age, and take a slightly more reflective perspective.
One of my odder hobbies is to study philosophy. Investigating our existence and what motivates human behavior is fascinating to me. Last month I had the rare opportunity to attend a four-day philosophy retreat at the lovely Miraval resort near Tucson, Ariz.
The four days were filled with healthy living (organic food and lots of exercise) and discussions about being human, and why we make the choices we do. A large portion of the program involved round-table conversations about ideas that shaped our lives.
(More from Joe: The scary truth: The struggle between who we are and what we want)
The process is very helpful but more important, it helps to clearly articulate ideas that have changed you as a person. It made me think of the three quotes that have affected me and are particularly useful in regard to financial choices we all make and how we live as a consequence.
In no particular order:
1. The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe — Albert Einstein
When I first read this I was a 14-year-old boy living in an extremely hostile world, having just witnessed a violent revolution in war-torn Zimbabwe, while growing up in a violent household with no financial stability. The idea that I could decide if the world was fair or not was life-changing. Until I read this quote, it never felt like “choice” was up to me.
Regardless of what is happening to us at any given time, we humans have one important decision — one of living with fear or living with confidence. The choice each of us makes has a profound impact on how we live and how we make financial choices. Mr. Einstein (ever the pragmatic scientist) suggested that if you choose to live in a hostile universe you will always live in fear of the worst happening to you. If you turn out to be wrong, then you will have wasted away your life in concern; while if you are right, the universe will mistreat you anyway. It's a classic lose/lose.
Conversely, if you choose to live as if the universe is friendly and you turn out to be wrong, then you will view every bad thing that happens as a lesson learned and be optimistic. And if you are right, then you will be a good person and the world will treat you well in return. A lovely win/win.
We have all seen clients who live in fear regardless of their financial success, and many of us are wired the same way; we never stop worrying, no matter how much we accomplish. It's as simple as adjusting our perspective.
2. Life is the sum of all your choices — Albert Camus
Our lives are simply a reflection of the things that happened to us and how we reacted to them. One of the things I constantly have to remind myself is that the things I think I ought to do are always a choice. We all fall into traps where we think we have no choice but to do something, or that we presume we have a binary choice with extreme consequences (If I don't work 60 hours a week I will be poor!). However, the world is far more nuanced and our choices are not limited to extreme binary outcomes.
Helping clients understand that their choices have multiple levers they can adjust, and helping to optimize those choices, is an indispensable role we fill. Having an empathetic adviser can help any person make smarter choices and contemplate subtly different outcomes rather than binary ones.
3. It is difficult to find happiness within oneself, but it is impossible to find it anywhere else — Arthur Schopenhauer
The 19th-century German philosopher had some very well-thought-out ideas about how humans interact with the world. His concept that we are all ultimately seeking happiness, but looking in the wrong places, is one that we financial beings should all remember.
We are all prone to crediting external factors for our happiness or misery. “If I only had more money, if my family only appreciated me more, if only my portfolio had better performance.” We all like to assume that something external will make us feel better about ourselves, but it seldom does in any lasting way.
Recognizing that happiness and misery are self-managed reactions rather than being caused by external factors is contrary to our natural impulse. Helping our clients react and live in a way that is consistent with their ideals requires a high level of empathy and care. Giving them perspective about the events that happen in their financial life can change our clients' entire lives.
And one final quote for all advisers:
The perfection of wisdom and the end of true philosophy is to proportion our wants to our possessions, our ambitions to our capacities … we will then be a happy and a virtuous people — Mark Twain
Living within our means and having lofty but attainable goals. Now that is something to aspire to as individuals and as a country, and we advisers are in the center of making that happen. That is something to be truly grateful for.
Joe Duran is chief executive of United Capital. Follow him @DuranMoney.