Lately, I’ve been joking that I often feel more like a biographer than a financial planner.
I now wonder whether that’s really a joke, or actually the truth.
The reason I started saying this was because when I prepare reports for clients, the sections of the report I spend by far the most of my time working on are the “About you” section and the “What you want to achieve” section.
This may sound crazy when people generally contact me with a simple request regarding what to do with their spare cash.
But it’s important:
- I’m constantly struck by how investment decisions can be simple, but idiosyncratic to each household. We all have different circumstances, needs, objectives, experiences, values, priorities, challenges, opportunities, and things that keep us up at night. Advice needs to be tailored to all of these factors.
- The more time I spend on showing that I understand where clients are coming from, and how my advice is linked to where they want to go, the more likely they are to accept that advice and implement it. I don’t just want to provide great advice. I want to provide advice that people actually implement.
Financial advice can be highly impactful. The key is to provide the right advice in the right way. And for me, the way I do it is by embedding advice within the story of my clients’ lives.
A biographer helps write a person’s story
When I say that a biographer helps write a person’s story, there are two ways of reading that statement: a passive way and an active way.
From one perspective, it involves putting what someone tells you into words.
This can be tremendously valuable: seeing another person’s interpretation of what you’ve told them, and the weighting of particular events and priorities, can be like seeing yourself in a mirror, in a different way.
But from another perspective, it’s even more powerful. Sometimes I feel like I’m helping clients re-write the story of their lives.
People often seek financial advice during a time of transition. They may have recently repaid the mortgage. They may have lost a loved one and inherited a significant amount of money. They may be approaching retirement. They may have experienced a significant change in their professional situation.
Often, advice comes at a time when people are entering a new chapter of their life.
What is this new chapter about, and how does it fit in with previous chapters?
A good biography involves themes over the course of a lifetime Each chapter, however, includes unique tensions and challenges.
Some of the ways I feel like a biographer include:
- Helping people recognise that they are in, or entering, a different chapter of their life. In itself, this can be valuable and rewarding. Even if you’re in the middle of a chapter, contextualising your situation as a longer story can provide much-needed perspective.
- Helping people see the past in a different light. Often this means validating decisions they’ve made, by looking at these decisions from a different perspective. One of the most rewarding things about my job is when I help to reframe decisions that people have made in the past, that they’ve questioned or feel embarrassed about, but make them see that what they did was the right thing for them and reflected their values and priorities at the time. When we interrogate the decisions we’ve made to get where we are, we often realise we wouldn’t change anything.
- In helping people realise that they’re in a new chapter, helping them appreciate that lessons and strategies that were appropriate during previous periods may no longer be relevant. Sometimes the story that was appropriate for you 10 years’ ago isn’t the story that’s appropriate for you now.
Many people have pointed out, the financial planning process feels like therapy. The advantage I have is that it’s not prompted by some acute pressure or need, but usually with a positive end in mind.
It’s a privilege and a responsibility. But a big part of the advice process is helping people create a narrative for the story of their life so far, and help them make money decisions that enables them to create a story that works for them going forward.