What we do requires us to confront clients' deepest fears.
Within financial planning and investment circles, it has become common to hear the term "soft" used derisively to describe interior work. Communicating that such work is obviously beneath them, those with self-perceived exterior skills and self-conceived importance sort of sneer the word into the air. In contemptuous contrast, they communicate the belief that their own skill sets are, of course, "hard." For sure, they know what counts. You can hear it in their derogatory tones. They can work the numbers. They can sell the products. They can develop the finely tuned strategies to maximize whatever. None of this "touchy-feely" nonsense for them.
Then we have to endure their snide asides as they speak disparagingly of those of us working within money's interior implications. "Soft side," they scoff contemptuously. "Soft" means the humanities. "Soft" means you can't measure it. "Soft" as in unworthy of consideration by professionals who are truly serious about real work.
The attitude is getting old. It is bad for the profession; it is bad for clients; it is bad for the planet; it is very, very bad for money. In fact, not only are these skills not "soft," but left-hand side "interior" skills are literally essential for understanding money and the people who use it. The issues within this penumbra impact lives, cultures and the world around us in profound and vital ways. Indeed, these skills go to the essence of financial planning and its proper place as an authentic profession. In their absence, bad stuff happens.
In these contexts, there is nothing "soft" about it.
The word is intolerably insulting and demeaning.
Unfortunately, functional resistance seems easier said than done. Snide references to "soft" seem to roll easily from the tongues even of those who ought to have the good sense to know better. They just can't lay off the "s" word either.
Too bad. Not only is this descriptor insulting, inappropriate and culturally damaging, but the accompanying attitude remains in the way of collective address of personally and culturally vital issues. "Soft" is just a word, but it does such harm.
Just so we understand the contrast, "hard" means "technical proficiency." It especially means investment skills, product expertise, legal knowledge and the ability to maximize personal gains from our legal and financial systems. It means you can know the right answer and test for it. In the world of men, "soft" means that it does not involve science or math. There is no inarguable structure; formulae don't foot. You can't fix it with duct tape and a Swiss army knife.
Soft "means "even girls can do it." (Which, let's face it, within this value system, really means that anyone can do it; that the work lacks demonstrable merit.)
Bill Gates' thesaurus gives us several dozen synonyms for the word itself.Yielding. Squashy. Spongy. Supple. Pliable. Elastic. Malleable. Flexible. Bendable. Limp. Springy. Smooth. Supple. Velvety. Quiet. Mellifluous. Melodious. Faint. Muted. Gentle. Delicate. Subtle. Understated. Dim. Diffused. Mellow. Gentle. Lenient. Lax. Easy. Forgiving.Spineless. Undemanding. Weak.Tender. Sensitive. Kind. Sympathetic. Softhearted. Pleasant. Sentimental. Limp.
Yuck. And these don't even get us towards such obvious referents as "flaccid" or "flabby."
And, of coarse, (spelling intentional), we all know what "soft" really means, don't we? (Wink, wink. Smirk, smirk.)
Look at these words. Whew! Who really wants to be any of them? Well, maybe "mellifluous" just because saying it is such a tactile pleasure. However, the rest generally suggest lack of character or strength and certain unmanliness. Not good.
These are not evil qualities, mind you. But neither are they the obvious qualities of professionalism, understanding, intelligence, savvy, reliability-namely wisdom, which most would judge as desirable qualities for the competent, ambitious advisor. Moreover, they don't help us understand the concept of money and its theoretical constructions. Neither does it help us grasp the essential qualities of dominant international trading currencies, or the design qualities of the 4,000 or so complementary currencies that have leapt into existence over the past 20 years.
Ridiculous. When it comes to money's interior, there is nothing soft about it.
So why the fuss? Well, for starters, analytic sloppiness generally results in negative consequences. Money is no exception. What greater impediment to our profession's growth than building both our art and our craft upon slipshod analytics that fail to recognize the structure and characteristics of our core professional challenge?
Then, it means we fall short of understanding the individuals who come to us for vital counsel and service. They are not merely software inputs and buying units, they are living, breathing, flawed, wonderful humans, each with their own peculiarities and propensities, hoping against hope that they can find someone, anyone, you, to help with this essential intangible we call money.
Finally, it ignores the palpable cultural vacuum around money and its theory, even though money is the most powerful and pervasive secular force on the planet and our chief tool of mutual interaction. For our profession to ignore money's interior aspects is to fail in our appropriate and necessary responsibilities to understand the role of money throughout our cultures, and the attendant critical issues facing our species. Perhaps more important, it results in ignoring what is most likely of greatest importance to our clients. "More" is not worth much if a client's most profound values and priorities are not truly addressed.
Let's be honest about the intensity of clients' demands upon us and their authentic money needs. They are not mere accumulation; they are vitality itself.
Money's interior qualities require us to deal with such notable softballs as death, illness, life purpose, critical choices, success, failure, primal fears, our relationships with God and living the spiritual/moral/ethical life, nightmares, vital personal relationships, parenting of our children, caretaking of our elders, one's own aging processes, personal and social taboos, resource distribution, fundamental notions of fairness and how we play with each other, concepts of ethics and morality, politics and political systems, law, abuses of various forms including sexual, self-esteem, literal survival-which is to say those issues which consume most of us most of the time.
Which is more to say that the interior covers that which most people are afraid to tackle most of the time.
"Soft!??!" Give me a break.
Does it take courage to ask people the questions that make them squirm? You bet. But how are you going to know their goals if you don't? Can just anyone untangle the strings of relationships, life experiences and value systems that go towards establishing the essence of people's relationship with money? What about the skill it takes to hold space for questions that may literally be the most serious ones that many individuals face?
But let's not look just at individuals. How about tensions within our "we" relationships, including child care, taxation, social safety nets, duty, responsibilities, risks, education, medicine, public safety, ecology, sustainability and the environment, and on and on. Can we naïvely presume that these do not engage our personal relationships with money? Can we naïvely presume that our clients and their personal decisions are not part of the collective "we" that experiences all of this and more?
If it is so easy, so "soft," why do these issues raise such a ruckus? Seems to me our "hard" exteriorly competent friends protest just a little too loudly. Maybe a good dose of introspection would help a bit? Or would that be too "[you know]."
Then let's think about money's design aspects and possibilities. These range from our common perceptions of money, namely the dominant international trading currencies, to using its conceptual essence to meet some of our most intense sociocultural challenges. After all, what is money if not our most effective tool for inducing peaceful relationships among billions of people?
Among others of its vital qualities, we can appreciate that money is inherently nonviolent. In pursuit of personal interests, money enables human beings to serve each other and meet each other's needs without resorting to the authoritative force ultimately required by governments to enforce laws. For example, I suggest that complementary currencies represent the primary nonviolent, non-coercive tool for addressing critical social issues. It is not complex. If we agree, then we don't need force. If we don't agree and you want to make me do it anyway, then we do. Money's motivations are the constructive alternatives to governmental guns. Simple as that.
Our collective failures to grasp this quality have led to all sorts of mischief. This is where the concept of money has become so extraordinarily valuable. When people talk about complementary currencies, they are discussing new forms of peaceful agreement for mutual cooperation.
Here, it is for us to grasp that money, itself, is not hard, but an interior phenomenon of immense force and power. Money's source is first and foremost a matter of relationship. Interior. Money, any kind of money, from these international trading currencies to the nearly 4,000 fully functioning complementary currencies currently at work on the planet, engages perceived reciprocity and mutual exchange. Which is to say that money is "agreements" that manifest from our collective interior; "agreements" that are core to humanity's most common methods of mutual cooperation and support; "agreements" that are required for manifesting the most powerful and pervasive secular forces on the planet. These are big-time "agreements"-peaceful cooperation to the power of most humans.
Since we obviously do not have six billion people regularly voting to continually re-agree on the values of dominant international trading currencies, we can observe that the requisite "agreements" typically morph into systems of "belief" for most of us. "Agreement" comes first, but belief sustains. Or perhaps more specifically, belief in belief is what is required for money to be effective. First, we believe money has value; second, we believe others believe money has value. With this combination, money has value. "Belief" also grounds in the interior. It can't be measured, but money is worthless without it.
Without agreement, then belief and belief in belief, there is no money.
When people don't want another country's currency, they are indicating disbelief in its inherent value. If folks are not in agreement about a currency's value, trade is altered and exchanges cancelled. If reciprocity is not perceived, just calling it "money" does not generate the exchange. No agreement, no belief, no money. It is as simple as that. For better or for worse, the money obviously does not care.
Checked out euros versus dollars lately? Glad you went to France in 2001? People are losing faith that dollars will continue to hold value. How about Argentina's pesos? Fortunately for them, folks may be regaining lost confidence. But it is still all about the Interior.
Agreement. Belief. Theoretically, these generate workable, reciprocal, viable, valuable instruments for enabling human beings to work together and provide for each other. "Soft?" Sure. Whatever you say.
When it comes to matters with these sorts of consequences for individuals, communities and cultures, don't give me judgmental words like "hard" or "soft." Give me words that help me grasp structure, that convey powerfully and meaningfully; words that facilitate authentic communication. Here, "interior" and "exterior" are much cleaner and infinitely more effective.
Words are powerful. I suspect we could have a great conversation re the reasons and motivations of those who have foisted "soft" upon us. However, we don't have to play. Rather, we can avoid these linguistic traps. For those of us who care about the personal and cultural interior, we can grasp the implications of being suckered into fear and negativity and we can communicate that there is nothing "soft" about it. If we want respect for our work commensurate with its difficulty, I suggest we have to act like it is valuable and worthy of esteem.
This goes to the heart of what this profession is about. This is "us" all right.
That means we don't call it "soft."
Richard B. Wagner, JD, CFP, is the
principal of WorthLiving LLC, based in Denver. He is the 2003 recipient
of the Financial Planning Association's P. Kemp Fain Jr. Award, which
recognizes a member who has made outstanding contributions to the