If you’ve been a regular reader, you know that we introduced the idea of “Defining Wealth” in our July newsletter. First, we discussed financial wealth. Then, last month, we explored this topic a little deeper in “Stewarding Social Wealth.” We conclude this series here by introducing the notion of “personal wealth.”
So, in returning to the wealth‐as‐an‐iceberg metaphor that I introduced in July’s newsletter, if our investment assets, valuable physical possessions and bank accounts are the tip of the iceberg, what lies beneath? In other words, if material wealth is the relatively small portion of our overall wealth that is exposed above the surface – easiest to see, measure, quantify and define ‐ and if the social wealth that we touched on last month is a broader, more hidden dimension that exists just below the surface, then what do we find at the bottom ‐ the deepest, most hidden, and hardest‐to‐define dimension of wealth?
To me, it’s the concept of personal wealth. If my iceberg is stable, and not given to sudden turnover, that dimension is necessarily the deepest and most important component of all that I value and hold dear. Personal wealth, in my mind, is the ballast that helps keep all the other components upright, and the foundation on which all the others are built. For this reason alone, I think it’s crucial to explore what that concept means on an individual basis. It’s critical to be purposeful about recognizing, appreciating and stewarding that personal wealth. Otherwise, you risk instability of the whole.
Interestingly, my concept of personal wealth is most frequently defined by subjects with little material value. In fact, the things that make me feel most “wealthy” may not be material at all. I cannot sell them to a stranger (and wouldn’t, even if I could) and they certainly couldn’t be pledged as collateral when I apply for a loan. By the same token, no amount of material wealth can ever replace them. Pause for a moment and think about the people you love, and the people who love you. How important are they to your sense of wealth and well-being? Think about the lessons you have learned throughout your life and the values you hope to pass down. How important are they to keeping you feeling grounded and safe? Recall your most poignant experiences. Think about the spiritual beliefs that give you a sense of faith and continuity. Ponder the close relationships that give your life purpose and consequence. Aren’t these some of the things that make up the core of who you really are, how you think of yourself, and what you would be most bereft to lose?
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we’ve watched heroic rescues taking place in Houston, our hearts aching for our neighbors. People evacuated their homes, clutching nothing but their pets or each other, with large garbage bags filled with both necessities and small treasures as they left their material possessions behind. In the days following, we have seen endless footage of people returning to sort through their water-logged belongings as flood waters recede. Why is it that people search especially hard for old photographs and family albums? Why do they feel profound gratitude when they find them? Why do people get so emotional about great‐grandmother’s tattered quilt? Why does my grandfather’s warped, split bamboo fly‐rod represent such a treasure to me?
The answer is that they’re all powerful symbols and important reminders of who we are and where we’ve come from. They’re tangible representations of the intangible elements that make us unique and give us meaning. They may not count to the uninitiated eye, but they are part of what comprises our sense of personal wealth and history. They are also powerful guideposts for our future.
When my grandfather died 25 years ago, my father flew out to settle his affairs and begin the process of going through his personal possessions. Deep in the back of an old filing cabinet he discovered something that none of us had ever known about: five loose‐leaf short stories my grandfather had written shortly after his own father’s death. They chronicled trout fishing trips they’d taken together and remembrances of personal traits and idiosyncrasies that some of our family can recognize in ourselves now. My father made photocopies, bound them together, and distributed them to all the members of our extended family.
Those tales have been prized by all of us, and for many years they were the preferred bedtime stories I read aloud to my children as they grew up. Trust me, no publisher would pay for them, but to me these stories are invaluable. They connect me to the past – and now to the future. They remind my kids that they are important parts of something that is far bigger than they are alone, and they give context and deeper meaning to their lives. They reinforce a sense of shared history and common values that go back five generations. They teach principles like patience, persistence, determination and a sense of humor. They also convey a profound joy at the beauty that exists in the natural world, and the value of time in the wilderness for solitude and reflection. In short, they’re a crucial part of my sense of personal wealth.
And that’s why that old split bamboo fly‐rod with the warped tip is so valuable to me.
Each of us has our own definition of personal wealth. Think about yours. What are the important lessons to be passed on? What values do you want to communicate? What emotional touchstones need to be preserved? Have you been fortunate, as I have, to receive a written, photographic, or painted legacy from a forbearer? If not, is it up to you to create that tradition? Think about other ways to create and shepherd personal wealth, like renewing close family relationships, pursuing a passion, or exercising to maintain long‐term health and set an example. Invest your time, talent, and resources into the people, activities, and principles that are the closest to your heart. Take affirmative action that reinforces your sense of who you are and what you stand for.
In my experience, the happiest and most fulfilled people ‐ those who think of themselves as genuinely “wealthy” devote ample time to purposefully building and caring for this dimension of their lives. Importantly, they purposefully align their financial wealth‐building activity with supporting it.
It’s been said that money is a wonderful servant but a vicious master. As the sole focus of attention, our material wealth can become tyrannical, whipsawing us between greed and fear as short-term events beyond our control affect its daily value. It can create feelings of guilt, scarcity, inadequacy and anxiety, and result in an avoidance of money decisions altogether. Or it results in greed, and a compulsive sense that no matter what, there will never be enough.
Taken in balance, however, and integrated carefully and purposefully into a long‐term philosophy that also gives attention to building and stewarding social and personal wealth in equal measure, money takes on a different role. It becomes a valuable tool, and an ally – something to be held less tightly and deployed graciously, with a bigger‐picture perspective. It loses its destructive power to control, and gradually becomes an additional source of comfort and abundance; something to be stewarded with a sense of responsibility and gratitude for what it can do to augment a more holistic definition of a life well‐lived.
For all these reasons, highly effective individuals and advisors regularly explore all the dimensions of what they individually define as “wealth.” They challenge themselves to bring those dimensions into balance within one overarching wealth management plan, and they tailor their financial planning and investment decisions to support that vision.