Retirement planning isn’t typically portrayed as a form of sorcery, full of mystical symbols and a backroom filled with abandoned caldrons and the stench of sulfur. However, just as people in the middle ages were captivated by the idea of turning lead into gold, many advisors today are intent on finding ways to create the ideal life in retirement for their clients.

The efforts of financial professionals mirror the attempts of alchemists in many ways, and with the right combination of elements, they may be able to achieve something pseudoscientists in the Middle Ages were unable to do.

Much of alchemy was based on relentless experimentation and a solid dosage of luck, hope and prayer. The goal was to discover a mythical substance referred to as the philosopher’s stone. It wasn’t an actual stone, but instead a sort of liquid, wax or powder that contained the power to heal, prolong life and to change base metals into gold. 

Unfortunately, it was doomed to fail because it was based on a misunderstanding of basic science. They believed that all matter was in a process of slow but constant change and composed of four basic elements: air, earth, fire and water. In other words, metals were believed to be alive and growing inside the earth. They were just at an undeveloped or immature stage on the way to becoming gold, which was perceived to have the perfect balance of all four elements. As a result, alchemists believed they could nudge the process along by changing the various properties of base metals and other matter. 

That’s an important history lesson for advisors experimenting with retirement alchemy.

First, just as the science behind alchemy was flawed, so is the thought process many new, existing and soon-to-be retirees take with their transition from work life to home life. They assume the golden years of retirement can be manipulated and nudged into something better simply because they have what they feel are essential elements to a perfect life.

Combining more freedom and less stress with fewer distractions and personal commitments are helpful elements to a successful transition. However, just as alchemists were unaware of the full periodic table and inherent properties of other metals and minerals, many clients don’t have written plans for the nonfinancial aspects of retirement and are left trying to adjust and mix the wrong things to help replace their work identity, stay socially connected, as well as keep mentally and physically sharp.

This brings us to our second lesson from alchemy. You can’t turn lead into gold! In the case of clients, lead represents their life leading up to retirement. If they focus exclusively on their careers and don’t cultivate hobbies and passions, strengthen relationships and start exercising their body and minds before they retire, their golden years may not end up so shiny and bright.

Furthermore, a key point our entire industry is missing is that planning for these nonfinancial things shouldn’t be a one-time interaction with clients. Just as advisors meet with clients to review investment performance, they also need to provide tools, resources and information to keep them engaged, educated and inspired