by Samuel P. Hull, ACC, CPCC®, RLP
On July 30, 2011, I came very close to dying. One moment I was in Staples buying a new computer mouse, and the next I was in the hospital with a totally unexpected intestinal arterial massive hemorrhage. Over the next 24 hours, even though I was in the Mass General Hospital ICU, I repeatedly slipped perilously close to the edge, only to be brought back by heroic medical care and 24 units of transfused blood.
While recovering, I have been thinking a lot about what happened to me, not only what my radically increased awareness of the fragility of my own lifeline means to me and my family but also how my experience has altered how I would have conducted my conversations with my financial planning clients.
I was an independent RIA business owner for 15 years until I sold my business in early 2008. After earning my CFP certification in 1995, I started applying all the technical financial planning tools and techniques through the six-step process that makes what we do as financial planners so powerful and unique. As I grew more proficient in my craft, my focus gradually shifted away from the technical aspects toward trying to gain a deeper understanding of my clients’ lives and goals so that I could facilitate action and motivation on the part of those clients.
To accomplish this more effectively, I undertook extensive training by Carol Anderson, Ed Jacobson and George Kinder in what was becoming known as “financial life planning.” The debate within professional circles as to what exactly constituted being a financial life planner was neatly captured by Dave Yeske, CFP®, a few years ago when he simply defined it as “financial planning, done well.”
I realize now that I should have looked at things differently and shifted the focus of my client conversations more toward life quality enhancement and away from material issues and asset accumulation. Too often the only path I talked about and saw as meaningful for my clients involved getting “more.” I preached that the way to accomplish that was by shifting needs gratification from today until sometime later. I wonder if there isn’t a different perspective that I might have used with my clients that might have offered them a richer and more gratifying life journey though still meeting their long-term financial goals.
Simply put, I think I too often served as an enabler for my clients’ self-deception and resultant lack of current fulfillment. How did I do this, I who took pride in being a good financial planner, a life planning professional who helped create meaningful change and betterment in my clients? I did it by not recognizing the role of time in creating the difference between well-meaning playacting and reality.
A New Take on Life Fulfillment
We all float along in our personal one-way river of time, usually aware only of what we experience in the moment. Our awareness is of what we see and feel relative to ourselves at any particular time. We see the stream, not what’s on the banks, our “now” merging seamlessly into the past. The future is an abstraction, its eventual realization lost to us in the almost infinite complexity of possibilities. But death is the one reality we all face eventually. Death is not an “if,” it is a “when.” We humans find it hard to think in those terms when applied to ourselves. To other people, OK—that’s an abstraction.
The difference is caused largely by removal of any sense of personal immediacy. As most people do, I assumed I had all the time in the world, and that death applied to other people, not me. Most clients play that game, too—it’s only human. However, as Miracle Max says in that wonderful movie “The Princess Bride,” being mostly dead is not the same as being all dead.
After I recently became “mostly dead” for 24 hours, it became clear to me that life fulfillment was not just an abstract exercise played every now and then in a life planning session. Life fulfillment for me and those I love is what really matters most. Having ducked death has given me a much different perspective on the role of time in thinking about what matters to me now. I contemplate a future that somehow seems more fragile than the five- and 10-year goal projections I used to use so easily in the past.
In the Kinder EVOKE training, I was taught the application of the famous “three questions” used to help clients bring forth and discuss their unrealized dreams, goals and objectives. The third question, which focuses on one’s mortality, is usually the one that takes people deepest into themselves and often produces a gasp of shocked recognition in the shortfall of their own life fulfillment. The third question presents to clients the following scenario: You are told by your doctor that you have only 24 hours left to live. What do you regret not doing in your life? Who did you not get to become?
Using this and the other two questions, I would then work with my clients to develop a life-fulfillment program, culminating with a time line and prioritization of their specific goals and activities. What I have now realized is that for myself and, I suspect, for most planner-client relationships, although the answers to the third question drive the life plan, the uncertainty of one’s life duration should be addressed front and center in the conversation. It is the elephant in the room and needs to be recognized boldly.
Stress Test Goals and Time Lines
As for me, one thing I have long regretted is not doing more “interesting things” with my wife, Joan, and my children. “Interesting things” means those activities and experiences that form the core of family legends and stories. From such spring a form of immortality; vainly, I hope for that as well as for the warm feelings that can be generated in the doing of the interesting thing itself.
Before my recent near-death experience, Joan and I would talk about spending a month or two in Hawaii sometime after we retired, but nothing ever reached the planning stage, even after we both had reached formal retirement age. My personal life plan was generated nearly six years ago, and Blue Hawaii always ended up way off in the future, sliding away every year as we reviewed our plan. Time was self-renewing, it seemed, and we always felt we would have enough of it. When that false sense of security was exposed, we made plans to spend a month in Hawaii in January.
So, what does all this mean for me and my financial life planner the next time we sit down for our life plan review? I am going to make sure all my goals and time line assumptions are stress tested and pushed through an uncertainty-of-life filter. Goals and activities will be viewed from a new perspective that explicitly accepts that life is finite, and that its duration is uncertain. What have I been postponing that if left undone would leave me and those I love feeling unfulfilled?
I’m going to set up a budget each year to fund what I’ll call our Life Fulfillment Bucket. We’ll empty the bucket continuously by doing interesting things, family activities and gifts, random acts of unexpected love and, in general, as much as possible that calls to me as being meaningful to do in however much time I have left. Time is a precious gift, and I want my financial planner to help me view it as a wasting resource with a greater utility value to be gained by spending it sooner rather than later.
This will have to be coordinated with our asset management and portfolio withdrawal rate planning, but our priorities have shifted toward maximum utilization of the Life Fulfillment Bucket and away from believing that I need greater certainty about our asset durability. I guess you could say I’m weighing current life fulfillment more than I am a feeling of security about a future that might never happen. As they say, “Life is uncertain, so eat dessert first!”
Samuel P. Hull, ACC, CPCC®, RLP, is the founder of Riverbank Consultants LLC in Arundel, Maine. He has served in numerous leadership positions within the financial planning profession, including positions on the FPA Board of Directors and as chairman of CFP Board’s Board of Examiners.
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