My main goal with clients is to make sure they don’t make mistakes that can’t be undone. I don’t ever want to see a client lose money that can’t be made back. And it happens a lot. It happens because people are terrible at communicating their goals. It’s because they can’t reliably remember their past. The stories they remember may simply not be true.
I’ve learned our smartest clients can be the worst. They’ve been good at “programming their computers” to be confident about their decisions. I don’t claim to be a psychologist. But I’ve been a student of human behavior for 30 years. You see, my first go at it was when I had to convince Ukrainians that capitalism is a good thing. Everyone can win. But that’s not what Ukrainians were taught and learned. They learned capitalism is a win/lose transaction, that someone is always “being taken advantage of.” As Russian author Dostoevsky illustrated, the Russian soul thrives on suffering. Serfdom ended in 1861, but Russians and Ukrainians missed the cultural awakenings felt elsewhere.
I prefer nonfiction, like Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” and Steve Peters’ “The Chimp Paradox.” But learning can also happen from well-written fiction. As a student of linguistics, I’ve found Ted Chiang insightful. His writing illustrates not only how we perceive reality but gives us a peek into the future.
One of Ted’s stories, “Story of Your Life,” was made into a blockbuster movie – “Arrival.” It’s about a linguist (Louise, played by Amy Adams) trying to communicate with aliens (Heptapods). It reminds me of teaching capitalism to communists in the early ’90s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At that time, the Russian language didn’t facilitate useful business communication. Ukrainians couldn’t conceive of both parties (buyer and seller) winning. They operated under the thesis that someone profits at the other’s expense. They called it “speculation.” In some ways, it is a holdover from feudalism – where the serf never won (at least in the stories).
In “Story of Your Life” (“Arrival”), Louise learns the Heptapods’ language. In doing so, she gains a weapon. The weapon is that she experiences time backward and forward.
Because of this history of oppression, to earn their trust, I had to show Ukrainians how they could benefit. I told them the story of an entrepreneur building a car trailer. The entrepreneur used a car axle and wood to build an “automotive trailer.” He pulled this trailer behind his car to the country and bought cabbages. He then drove the cabbages to the city and sold them. The entrepreneur made money, sure. But the dacha owner sold cabbages that would have rotted. And the city dweller got to eat. Everyone won.
I told them that the more entrepreneurs with car trailers there are, the lower the price to the consumer in the city.
Miscommunication doesn’t just happen between two people. People rarely recollect what really happened. In Chiang’s latest book is the story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” which explores how we remember.
The story has two parts: One in the past and one in the future. In the past, a young Tiv (Nigerian) meets a European. Europeans have writing, but the Tiv do not. Unlike the Tiv, Europeans record events as they happen, to access them later. This concept is foreign to the Tiv, who rely on oral history.
In the story, a dispute arises between two chieftains. Both chieftains claim their tribe is descended from a different man. The young Tiv accesses the European records to learn the truth. He tells his chief that the rival chief is right, because it is written. His chief informs him that is not their way. Because he knows what is right. The Tiv even have a word for this: Mimi. Mimi is what is right, even if it is not technically correct, or “vough.”
The other part of the story is told in the future. The author of the story remembers his daughter, Nicole, yelling at him. In his memory, she blames him for his wife leaving. Nicole has a lifelogging device that allows her to actually replay her memories. The author accesses her lifelog and learns what he remembers is correct with one exception. The person yelling and blaming is not Nicole. It’s the author.
This is an important insight. Again, miscommunication doesn’t just occur between people. Miscommunication even happens between a person and himself.
This is why, at Global View, we go to great pains to make sure we understand what our clients want. It means we ask questions about how we go here. How did they save? What sacrifices did they make? What is important to them? What do they hope to accomplish by “retiring?” It means we talk to clients about what we expect will happen as they age and change.
It’s our goal for them to feel it. To feel what it will be like when they don’t have to worry about income. To feel what it will be like when they recognize their assets will live beyond their lives. And to think about how kids, grandkids and other charitable purposes will use the assets, and how they will be distributed.
Successful people accumulate funds, so they won’t have to rely on anyone else for income. Then they won’t need an employer. They’re free. We often call this retiring. But between accumulation and retiring, they gain financial independence. Every client, when they first retire, worries about not having enough income. But a few years in, they realize they are unlikely to ever run out of money. This means their assets will live past them.
Because we have done this for 20 years, we recognize what is likely to happen. An accumulator becomes financially independent. First, he retires. Then he learns he won't run out of money and understands he has become a benefactor. Then there is sunset.
We can’t experience time backward and forward like the linguist in “Arrival.”
But we can understand what our clients will reasonably expect. What volatility they must endure short-term in order to get long-term gains. How their attitude toward their money will change after they retire. And what needs they are likely to encounter in the areas of financial planning, taxes and inheritance planning.
This means we have built systems to help our clients meet these needs. We know that if we focus on what we can control and work on that, our odds of success are higher.
We can’t experience time backward and forward. But sometimes it feels like we do.