By Chris Gibbons
Let’s start with a New Year’s admission: self-reflection is hard.
Each of us believes we know ourselves, that we have a sense for the nature of our loved ones, and that we’ve identified a firmly formed picture of right and wrong. Perhaps above all else, each of us believes we are rational people and make decisions based on facts and not emotions.
If you’re chuckling, that’s good. We like to think we are all of these things and more, but our experiences tell us we’re often not. New Year’s resolutions are a great example of our annual attempt to address how often we find ourselves to be less than perfect. The same is true for our clients, of course, with one big difference. It is our responsibility to give them guidance in spite of their and our imperfect humanity!
When that guidance becomes focused on legacy, the level of responsibility goes up. In order to facilitate a conversation about self-reflection, and because this word legacy can often feel too esoteric to grasp sometimes, our team built a process to simplify things. Here is how we go about finding our client’s truths and aiding in their ability to make progress in pursuit of their legacy.
Legacy is the book you write every single day.
I use this phrase a lot and love the book metaphor for myself and for our clients. The obvious reason is how basic it is and how tangible it is: everyone has at least held a book and understands in some measure how storytelling works. However, the more profound reason is using this metaphor allows our clients to become the protagonist in their life stories, to take the pen, turn the page, and write the next chapter themselves.
For many, this is the first time they’ve had permission to engage their own lives with so much instrumentality or to engage in anything grander than the context of “this year’s (soon-to-be-failed) resolution.”
Not everyone is a gifted writer unfortunately, so we use these four steps to help our clients get over some of their metaphorical writer’s block.
- The first step is a conversation about how our clients make decisions. When it comes time to make a financial decision, are their instincts to be fearful, to be joyful, or perhaps to be of service to others? This knowledge is foundational because it speaks to something primal in each of us, a civilized “fight or flight” in a way.
- The second step is about how those instincts have shaped our client’s individual and shared values. Every person and family has a set of these, whether written or implied, and they can include traditions, cultures, habits, languages, and codes. Finding out these familial “terms of engagement” goes a long way in the ultimate bookwriting process.
- The third step is putting to voice how these values become priorities. For example, a governing principle of a husband and wife might be the pursuit of further education. As they age, as their children age, as their grandchildren age, that priority likely won’t change. Rather, the focus of that energy might move on to different family members and in different forums.
- Thus, the final step is putting near term goals to these priorities and deciding the order in which these goals will be met. Minor accomplishments, boxes that can be checked off, are so important in writing a living legacy. Because these accomplishments are founded on a simple and repeatable process, we find that even our most reserved clients suddenly find footing to run with weight of writing their story … one step at a time.
At every interval, we remind our clients to seek honesty within themselves instead of outward validation. This is enormously important for couples where one spouse is dominant and almost without fail opens the door for a thought or opinion that has never been voiced before.
We also encourage our clients to be deliberative in all parts of their planning. Other advisors, other experts, and other opinions are always valued in the work that we do. We know that if we allow for other perspectives and broader access to information, the end result will be a more thoroughly knowledgeable client and a better decision. (This requires a bit of legacy-writing on our part too, believing in ourselves as trusted advisors enough to not be threatened by other experts!)
Lastly, we advise our clients to bring important stakeholders into their legacy conversation as they feel comfortable. Often these are family members, but sometimes include business partners, friends, neighbors, and caretakers. Even if none of these people are required to make a decision for our clients, involving them in the conversation or the messaging of this legacy story gives them agency and makes them feel valued.
The most significant outcome of an engagement like this is a life more fulfilled: holding the pen and writing the story starts that process and to know that our client has lived a life of significance and impact, to know that a mother and daughter have deepened their relationship, to know that a business will continue to serve a community long after the founder passes away, to know that we were good stewards of the gifts we’ve been given …
To know we’ve allowed our clients room to write a book about their lives the next generation will want to read, that is why we built this process.
Our resolution? To keep helping our clients write their own book.
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Chris Gibbons is a Wealth Advisor for EisnerAmper Wealth Management in Philadelphia, PA. Though his formal education is in Philosophy, for more than 11 years he has guided families, small businesses, and unique individuals to financial fulfillment. His professional expertise in estate planning and risk management, in addition to his foundations in financial planning and investment management, help clients match their values to a personalized, ongoing strategy, one for every step of their financial lives.