When pressed, that's what clients say they need to get past Inspiration Deficit Disorder.
Last year I was fortunate to publish a book called The Number: A
Completely Different Way To Think About The Rest of Your Life, which
took readers on a journey through what is to many people, maybe even a
few of you, the generally perilous and often confounding world of
financial planning. To research it, I spent a couple of years
interviewing hundreds of ordinary people around the country, mostly
boomers, mostly affluent, most in the sweet spot as far as prospective
clients are concerned. I also spent a lot of time hanging out with
financial advisors, finding them (you'll be pleased to hear) far more
intriguing, and a lot less frightening, than so many boomers seem to
regard them. In fact, as I would eventually say in the book, financial
advisors are actually a blast to schmooze with. You have great stories
to tell, and for good reason: After all, you hold a VIP backstage pass
to people's psyches.
In any event, after the book came out I started giving talks to various groups. At first these talks were largely based on themes I'd covered in the book. Over time, though, I began to add new reflections triggered by relevant headlines, such as last year's startling report on the U.S. personal savings rate; the late, great Social Security reform effort; the dismal drumbeat about imploding corporate pension funds.
I also extended my efforts by doing other research-interviews with even
more boomers, online surveys-into why people continue to do what they
do, or persist in doing nothing at all, when it comes to getting a
financial plan in place. As a result, I've got a lot of fresh meat on
why many boomers see financial planning and planners as a blur. And
I've got a new take on what clients say they would create if granted
the opportunity to build the ideal financial advisor from scratch.
Some say they want a kindly uncle, a Walter Cronkite-type to anchor their financial destiny; others call for a Sgt. Joe Friday, a just-the-facts kind of guy, one who doesn't beat around the bush. And a great many say something like this: They'd build their perfect advisor out of equal parts empathy and tough love-somebody who combines the compassion of Mother Theresa with the hard-nosed resolve of Vince Lombardi. They were asking, in other words, for a financial planner with all the qualities of a saint in shoulder pads.
Following one of the talks I gave to the planning community last fall, I had the pleasure of participating in a small follow-up discussion. It centered on the ways an advisor might break the ice with a new client, or drill down through the emotional snowpack of an existing one. Some three-dozen advisors were in the room, from the U.S. and several other countries.
As discussion leader, I tried to do my own icebreaking by reflecting on something I'd mentioned in the talk itself, and I still wish I'd thought of while I was writing the book. It seems there's a raging pandemic out there, one that has so far escaped the attention of the World Health Organization and for which there seems to be no easy cures or vaccines.
I call this affliction "Inspiration Deficit Disorder," or IDD-a condition akin to ADD except it's not characterized by impulsiveness or hyperactivity, but by inertia and fear, two of the key reasons many boomers are so allergic to the idea of determined and disciplined financial planning.
What causes IDD, and who is at risk?
Here's my theory, in short: Many people don't seem fundamentally
inspired by the retirement life they imagine for themselves. Golf seven
days a week? A condo here, a fishing boat there? These can be sweet,
idyllic, don't get me wrong. But as motivations to plan, to save
conscientiously, to think hard about a legacy we might want to leave,
such material incentives don't always do the trick. They don't measure
up to what folks like George Kinder and other life planners suggest are
(or should be) the real motivators. Things like indulging a
long-suppressed creative impulse: writing, painting, learning to play
the piano. Or, giving something back to the community or a valued
institution, i.e., remaining productive and feeling needed. Or, using
our sunset decades to repair broken relationships with loved ones or
Fellow conversationalists in the session all seemed to agree that the key to getting clients to overcome Inspiration Deficit Disorder was to create a sense of intimacy between client and planner. Many in the room told remarkable and insightful anecdotes about how, in their everyday practice, they try to break the emotional ice with new or ongoing clients, to get men and women to open up about their submerged hopes, dreams and the anxieties that swirl around the second half of life.
One advisor described vividly how she frequently has productive, often thrilling, introductory planning sessions with many women she encounters-would-be clients who leave her office inspired about the benefits (financial and emotional) of getting a plan together. But not infrequently, the advisor said, these women lose their resolve by the time they reach home and hit the garage-door opener. Once inside the house, the advisor explained, these women find themselves reluctant to broach the subject of life goals (and how to finance them) with husbands who've expressed a long-established aversion to "touchy-feely stuff," or who labor under the delusion-harrumph, harrumph-that "financial planning ain't rocket science, so I can do it myself."
Another advisor in the room offered that a good way to break the ice emotionally is to encourage folks to tell open-ended stories about their kids or grandkids, topics that most of us are all too eager to blabber on about. In many cases, this advisor noted, such stories give way to an empathy between advisor and client, and they prepare the soil for deeper excavation into those family matters that are a bit stickier: the bottled-up desire to cement emotional and financial security within, and between, generations.
This idea of getting clients to tell stories isn't new-I've heard many advisors talk about it. But the small group discussion that day shed fresh light on it for me. I began to envision another role model that advisors might try to emulate-one that transcends stereotype images of kindly uncles, tough-talking detectives, selfless missionaries and fire-breathing football coaches.
I found myself thinking that perhaps there was another form of role model that could prove useful; that is, planners might think of themselves as one of those rare, unforgettable teachers some of us were lucky enough to have when we were in school. In my case, he was an English teacher-let's call him Mr. Quinn. Mr. Quinn had the gift to make each kid believe he or she had truly great stories to tell: happy stories, sad stories, stories with colorful and interesting characters, invariably drawn from real life and involving family members and friends. Mr. Quinn insisted that every last boy and girl in the room had fascinating, true stories to share, full of wisdom and insight beyond his or her years. Through gentle prodding, plus a willingness to listen, plus a real feel for the human condition, Mr. Jones had a wonderful way of getting us to open up, to revel in the stories we told, and to realize things that had previously not occurred to us.
So, just maybe, we all concluded that morning, it might take more than even a kindly uncle, or a tough-talking detective, or a hard-nosed missionary, to help clients get over their Inspiration Deficit Disorder. It might take someone with the sincere desire, and passion, to unlock a client's most vivid stories. In other words, it might take an advisor who doubles as a creative writing teacher. It might take something of a Mr. Quinn.
Lee Eisenberg is the author of the bestselling book, The Number: A Completely Different Way To Think About The Rest of Your Life, published by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Reviews, commentary and updates can be found at TheNumberBook.com.