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In Praise of Slightly Scuzzy Carpeting

Across North America this month, an important rite of passage is taking place: College and university students are leaving home, moving to new towns and cities, and setting up living quarters away from their parents. And the parents of these young adult children are facing an important developmental task of their own: Resisting the urge to make everything absolutely perfect for their offspring.

Or, as the case may be, NOT resisting that urge. In my work as a financial psychologist, I have witnessed affluent parents insist upon setting up exquisitely appointed first apartments without ever involving their child in any aspect of the process. I have also watched parents of much more modest means overextend themselves financially in order to ensure that their kids’ experience of want is virtually eliminated. In both cases, the parents have robbed their children of important decision-making opportunities and life lessons. When parents go overboard in such ways, it can leave young people with little to strive for and even less to be proud of.

Here’s what I have come to know: Young people benefit hugely from the experience of living with slightly scuzzy carpeting and second-hand pots and pans. They gain important life skills when they have to research consumer products, deal with landlords directly, and live within a pre-determined budget that they manage on their own. These lessons help them morph into solid citizens and capable life partners.

Peter Buffett is the son of Warren Buffett, one of the richest men on the planet. In his largely autobiographical book, Life is What You Make It, Peter Buffett writes about the benefits of experiencing manageable financial struggles in adolescence and early adulthood:

As I see it, living modestly – especially when we are young adults — …is not a penance but a salutary challenge. Being broke or close to it is a state of being entirely appropriate to a certain stage of life. It tests our ingenuity and our humor; it properly pulls our focus away from “stuff” and toward people and experience. It’s not a tragedy. (p. 116)

So here are some guidelines I offer to parents who are trying to discern just how much financial support it is wise to offer:

1.   Think of this phase of family life as a continuation of your children’s financial apprenticeship with you. You’ve been guiding and teaching and monitoring them throughout their life, and now you have to equip them for a new level of fiscal independence. To that end, there are important conversations to be had in the weeks and months to come. What is it that they need to know about the wise use of credit cards? What are the costs they have planned on incurring throughout the coming academic year, and how will unexpected costs be dealt with? How can they have fruitful conversations with roommates about shared expenses? How should salary expectations figure into their choice of a career? What kinds of causes matter to them, and how do they want to bring their time, talents, and resources to bear on such things?

2.   If you do plan on offering financial support, do not give your children the curse of a blank check. Instead, give them a modest amount of money for school and living expenses that will force them to exercise prudence. Make it clear that they will be responsible for dealing with additional expenses on their own. And when they do mess up, be a sounding board and thinking partner for them rather than a cash dispenser.

3.   Share your own experiences of messing up, financially, and how you recovered, and what you learned as a result. Talk about your regrettable purchases and the opportunities missed. Telling such stories with humour and self-compassion is a great way of banishing shame and secrecy around money matters.

4.   Pay close attention to any experience of resentment you might be having. One of the functions of this emotion is to alert you to the possibility that you are giving more of your funds, energy or time than is either necessary or wise. Resentment can be a cue that this emerging adult child of yours has entered a new stage of development, and that it is therefore time to shift how you offer support to them. This usually involves transferring more responsibility to the child for managing their own coursework, social life, and bank account. Not coincidentally, this will free up YOUR vital energy to focus on developmentally appropriate things for YOU — your intimate partnership, your career goals, your health, etc.

5.   Finally, make a point of letting them know how proud you are of their growing independence. Voice confidence in their abilities to make decisions, to course-correct, and to survive some of the tough experiences they’re having.

You’ve got this! So do they! (Well, they will, eventually, as long as you don’t interfere with their learning by repeatedly bailing them out.)  And if you’re feeling frustrated with any setbacks, feel free to adopt this coping strategy taught to me by my cat: Go into the bathroom, shred the toilet paper, and come out when you feel better. It works every time.

Dr. Moira Somers

Working with Clients who Repeatedly Reject Your Advice

When your job involves giving financial counsel, there will be days when you wish it didn’t. There will be times when you long for the job satisfaction that could have been yours if only you’d stuck with astrophysics, or baking cupcakes, or castrating pigs — anything that would have spared you from having the umpteenth conversation with the same clients about (fill in the blank):

A. Why you won’t buy the latest “hot stock” for their retirement account
B. Their need to get a grip on overspending
C. The folly of pulling out of the market in an effort at market timing
D. The wisdom of getting back into the market after ignoring (C)
E. The fact that you don’t, in fact, control rates of return

When having such interactions with challenging clients, most advisers just take a deep breath and carry on in the fervent hope for a more fruitful conversation next time around. But there comes a time when you recognize that this strategy is, at best, wishful thinking and, at worst, fiddling while Rome is burning.

Instead of simply hoping for better days to come, you may need to take a more active or assertive approach to the problem. Client behaviours that signal the need for direct action include:

  • unreasonable demands for your time and attention
  • repeated rejection of financially prudent fundamentals
  • constant changes and stalls on their desired course of action

Then there are the indicators that come from your own physical or emotional reactions to the client:

  • persistent dread of an upcoming meeting
  • feelings of contempt or disdain
  • sleeplessness
  • anxiety
  • fantasies about targeted meteor strikes

These internal indicators are not just inconveniences; rather, they are clarion calls to address the fact that some aspect of this client relationship is taking a toll on your well-being. At such times, you have a number of options.

Firing the client. In some cases, saying goodbye to a trying client is the only sensible and ethical thing for an advisor to do. Persistent adherence challenges are among the tip-offs that the time has come to do just that. On those occasions when you do need to remove someone from your book of business, do your best to keep the terminations respectful and cordial. Avoid adding a
layer of shame or sense of failure to either the client or yourself. In addition to making you a ‘class act’, respectful conduct helps keeps you on the right side of professional standards.

Ensure that you are adhering to all regulatory and ethical guidelines with respect to this course
of action, as well as with your firm’s own internal policies. (Wait – your firm doesn’t HAVE an
internal policy about how to fire a client? BadBadNotGood! Fix that problem first.)

Between the two poles of tolerating and firing lie the following:

Stating the obvious. This is particularly effective when you’re at an implementation standstill. By highlighting the fact that you seem to have reached an impasse, that nothing seems to be changing or moving forward in the direction that you thought you’d agreed on, you increase the odds that you can co-create a better path forward. (If you’d like some sample scripts for starting up such conversations, you can find them in Chapter 9 of my book, Advice that Sticks.)

Accepting 100% responsibility for your part of the problem. It is entirely possible that you have contributed to the problem in some way. Maybe you launched prematurely into advice-giving before truly understanding the client? Ignored your own inner voice that this person was not a good fit for your practice? Tolerated snide or deprecating remarks for many meetings in a row? Be prepared to apologize for your missteps, and to ask what they need from you if you decide to move forward together. Humility and curiosity will serve you well in any difficult conversation.

Informing them of the non-negotiables. This may become necessary not only with rude or aggressive clients, but also with those who make demands that are patently at odds with your firm’s own investment philosophy or way of doing things. A firm set of guidelines helps ambivalent clients make up their own mind about your suitability for them, and keeps them in line if they do decide to remain with you.

Figuring out what you CAN agree on. What is the client currently motivated to do that will move them towards a better life? How can you participate in that? The Plan B or Plan C that clients ARE ready to act on is far superior to the Plan A that they’re NOT up for.

Making an internal transfer. There will be times when you really do not want to lose the business of a difficult client, or when you simply do not have the authority to fire him or her (e.g. you are an employee of a bank rather than the owner of a private firm). In these cases, you should try to divvy up the contact with other team members, or transfer that client to a willing

Above all, remember this: You don’t need to keep going at it alone. Advanced training, coaching and case consultation can all be tremendously helpful here. The personal side of advising is every bit as complex as the technical aspects of advising, AND every bit as learnable. Admittedly, it takes time and effort to do that learning, but the benefits accruing to your team’s
well-being and your own job satisfaction will be well worth it in the end.

Need some ideas for further skill development? Here are some steps for you to consider

  1. Sign up for my newsletter.
  2. Explore the various offerings at the Financial Transitionist® Institute. You cannot beat the training or the learning community to be found there.
  3. Join one of my case consultation Mastermind groups. These monthly meetings include real-life advising challenges shared by group members, and related teachings from me. Contact me for more information regarding openings for new members.

The Universe’s Way of Slenderizing My Thighs? One Woman’s Search for Meaning

Some weeks back, I wrote an article about the high levels of personal depletion that I was observing all around me. The post was titled “Shot, but too stubborn to fall down”, and it received a lot of attention. It seemed that people were hungry for the psychologically sophisticated advice that was the take-home message of the article: “Fall down, dammit. Fall down, and stay there for a while. Do it voluntarily, pre-emptively, proactively, before your mind and/or your body remove all choice from you…”

So guess what I did on the weekend? I fell down, dammit. I fell down and broke my arm while enjoying a lovely morning skate at my cottage on Lake Manitoba. I got up, drove myself to the little country hospital near my cottage, bit down on a stick while they casted me, and drove back to the cabin while contemplating all the ways in which a fractured arm did not figure into my plans. Then I took the pain medication the nice doctor had given me, and all contemplation ceased for a while!

But now there’s plenty of time for pondering – time that would normally have been taken up with baking shortbread or wrapping Christmas gifts or shovelling out from the blizzard that is currently raging outside my door. Pondering is one of the few things left for me to do with my diminished wee life for the next five weeks, and I intend to do it well.

Several people have asked me already what I’m supposed to be learning from this event, what purpose it is meant to serve in my life. My inner smartass has a ready response — Clearly, keeping me from baking shortbread is the universe’s way of slenderizing my thighs – but I keep this response to myself. One doesn’t wish to appear unspiritual.

Years of being a psychologist– of bearing witness to people’s struggles to understand events ranging from the merely unexpected to the truly astonishing or shocking—have given me a different perspective on the matter of meaning. Meaning is not so much discovered, I believe, as it is created or assigned by the person who is committed to having a meaningful life. Depending on the day, that awareness is either comforting or discomfiting to me. The good news is that I can stop trying to read the unfathomable mind of the Almighty, and trust that any necessary guidance or direction will be provided to me in good time. The hard news is that, in the meantime, it’s my job to settle down and pay closer attention to my own heart and mind, to notice and to tell the truth about what’s working (or not) now that life has been altered.

So that’s what my bum arm and I will be up to over the next few weeks. I’ll be heading back to the cabin with my well-worn copy of Greg McKeown’s brilliant book, Essentialism. For the fifth or sixth year in a row, I’ll spend time reading the book and looking at what’s been emerging in both my personal and professional life. Then I will deselect and eliminate the stuff that needs to go, and commit to what is meaningful and life-giving for the year ahead.

My skates, alas, will stay in the city. But any and all offers of shortbread for the journey will be gratefully received…as will any recommendations for additional books to take along with me. What reading materials or resources do YOU take along on your purposeful planning retreats?

Shot, But Too Stubborn to Fall Down

My mom had an endless supply of pithy one-liners to describe people’s behaviours and quirks. “She’s been shot, but she’s too stubborn to fall down” is one of those lines that I’ve been reminded of multiple times lately. It refers to someone who keeps on working when they should be restoring themselves, to someone whose doggedness is no longer leading to productivity or effectiveness. Remind you of anyone you know?

Several events this week made me think of that line from my mom:

  1. Coaching sessions with several C-suite executives / business owners who began crying within seconds of the start of our calls. (Who knew that, “How are you?” could be such an evocative question?!)
  2. Therapy sessions with injured health care workers, all of whom suffered avoidable injuries by ignoring low-level pain signals in order to finish up a shift
  3. Catching sight of my own bedraggled self in the mirror, with my shirt on backwards and inside-out, just minutes after telling a colleague that I was hale and hearty

Seven months ago, a pandemic arrived, and we all hit the ground, running. We rallied everything we had to stock up, safeguard our families and employees and customers, keep our income streams going or replace work that was lost. That was all fine and good, at least for a time. Most human beings have the capacity to deal with shocking and severe stressors, and to emerge, intact and even stronger, on the other side.

But the stressors that can put the lie to that general truth are the ones that are chronic and unremitting, with no natural breaks or periods of reprieveChronic stress without recovery is what leads to emotions that won’t stay contained, to bodies that break down, to mental processes that grow sluggish and inflexible.

So here’s my best advice to you: Fall down, dammit. Fall down, and stay there for a while. Do it voluntarily, pre-emptively, proactively, before your mind and/or your body remove all choice from you. Step away from the desk; put down the tools; turn off the phone and computer.

While you’re down, think about what you need to truly restore yourself. Depending on how long it’s been since you were shot but too stubborn to attend to yourself, it might take a while to figure that out. But it will come to you, eventually. The vacuous drooling stage of recovery WILL end, and some answers will emerge. The trick is to make yourself stay down until you can tune in to those things that are calling to you from the strongest, healthiest part of yourself – that impulse to move your body, that yearning to pull out some long-neglected hobby, that calling to lean into beauty and connection. It’s all there, my friend; it’s been there all along. You just didn’t know how vital it was to attend to it. But now you do.

Article originally published on LinkedIn Oct. 16, 2020.

Are you a leader with ADHD? I’ll be quick.

Did you know that people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are more likely to be demigods than those of us without? It’s true – you can read all about it in one of the best series of books ever written for young people: Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

Know what else is true? The business environment is one that often attracts and rewards those people who, as kids, spent more time in the principal’s office than in the classroom. The very qualities that earned the exasperated ire of teachers – the high energy levels, the tendency to hyper-focus, the zanily divergent thought processes — are the same qualities that can contribute to great entrepreneurial success.

Being a business owner or leader with ADHD still has its challenges, though. Among those challenges?

  • Keeping stuff organized.
  • Figuring out how much time to allot to tasks.
  • Alternating attention.
  • Being patient with co-workers who are more linear (okay: plodding, even) in their approach to things.
  • Staying the course.
  • Noticing the subtle interpersonal cues that come your way, and discerning which ones to act on.
  • Putting up with repeated digs involving the word “Squirrel!”

Neuropsychologists call these skills ‘Executive Functions’. These abilities don’t reside in the KNOWING HOW TO sections of the brain — the parts responsible for knowing how to walk, or talk, or do math, for example. Instead, these skills lie more within the realm of the KNOWING WHEN TO, and are largely housed in the prefrontal lobes of the cerebrum.

In terms of its origin and its impact, therefore, ADHD is a poorly named disorder. It’s not so much a problem of attention as it is a problem of executive functions. (Readers with ADHD, this is where you can demonstrate your superior faculties for divergent thinking: Figure out a better acronym. Try to work in the letters for such things as Time Management, Organizational Skills, and Demigod Powers. Then come back and finish up this article.)

To maximize your effectiveness as a leader with ADHD, you’d be well-advised to commit to a few things.

  1. HIRING second- and third- and fourth-in-command types who are exceptional with respect to those executive functions you lack,
  2. DELEGATING to them whenever possible,
  3. ACTING ON the feedback of colleagues and family members when they tell you what they need you to start or stop doing, and
  4. SUBMITTING (yes, submitting) to a certain amount of disciplined routine, as chafing as that might feel.

I know that these habits are not exciting in the least, not sexy at all – unless, that is, you are enthralled by the notion of having your brilliant ideas actually come to fruition in the marketplace. Or unless you long to have people think of you with less exasperation and more admiration or appreciation. If so, then you should be embracing those habits with all the fervour of a tomcat on date night.

If you need more ideas for succeeding as a leader with ADHD, or help in persisting with new habits, consider hiring an executive coach with expertise in this area. Together, you will co-create an action plan that includes putting in place all the guardrails you need to stay in your lane. Then all that remains will be for you to … Release the Kraken!

Amazing things can happen when you clean off your desk.

XY Podcast featuring Dr. Moira Somers

Here is an engaging and timely interview with Clayton Daniel of XY Adviser on how advisers can better help clients with mental health problems. We also proposed some ideas for how to create more cross-pollination of ideas between our mutual professions.