“Use the Force, Luke”

A small green character with large ears and a cane stands in a foggy, dense forest with tangled trees.

I was recently asked to suggest a list of topics for a seminar series on personal finance. So I jotted down some thoughts on the usual suspects: buying a first house, investment basics, tax-savings strategies, saving money on college, etc. Just for fun, I also suggested a session that I called “Your Best Friend or Your Worst Enemy: You,” in which I envisioned talking about the power of our minds in shaping our behavior and our future life outcomes. My collaborator was excited about several topics he thought would be very appealing to our target audience, but summarily dismissed my suggestion to talk about thought and behavior. “It’s too soft,” he said. “Nobody is interested in that stuff.”

That’s really too bad, I thought, because the soft stuff, in the end, is the stuff that matters most.

“Don’t underestimate the Force!” – Lord Vader

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” —Ben to Luke

“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” —Han to Luke

These two classic quotes pretty much sum up the perspectives of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ forces. And while I agree with Han that a blaster can come in extremely handy in a tight spot, what I’ve realized over a lifetime of dealing with money is that blaster-equivalents – the ‘hard’ stuff, the technical stuff – come and go. They can indeed be very useful and one should try to make good use of them. They do not, however, trump the ‘soft’ stuff of money.

The soft side of money, the Force of Money, isn’t about interest rates and stocks and mortgages and alpha and beta and asset allocation. It’s about personal conviction and discipline. It’s about consistent, patient behavior in the face of short-term distractions and meaningless data. Most of all, it’s about true self-knowledge. And that is why it is both so difficult as well as so powerful.

“Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.” –Obi-Wan

Let me give you an example. A woman I know – we’ll call her Sara, though that’s not her real name – inherited a fairly significant sum of money several years ago. She’s not a zillionaire, mind you, but it was a tidy sum and enough to enable her to implement a different life for herself than the one she grew up in. That, however, is also the problem. She had grown up in very modest circumstances. Her parents had pretty much lived paycheck-to-paycheck, with occasional no-paycheck periods in-between when they had had to rely on friends and family, or do without. As a result of those early life experiences, neither Sara’s self-image nor her learned behaviors have prepared her to deal with this money. In fact, her background and convictions are causing her to actively sabotage her new wealth.

Because she grew up in circumstances in which only ‘other people’ had money, it was safe for Sara to believe that ‘people with money’ were bad. Now that she has money herself, she finds it impossible to reconcile the fact that she wants to be a ‘good person’ with the fact that she has money. Rather than dealing with the issue of her own self-image, and being open to reevaluating her long-held belief that ‘people with money’ are bad, Sara is getting rid of her money so that her emotional conflict no longer exists and she can go back to thinking of herself as ‘good’ and of ‘people with money’ as bad.

Sara’s money beliefs and behaviors further reinforce this position. She doesn’t believe that she is capable of maintaining and growing her money over the long term. She feels the need to spend any excess money she has because she secretly believes that what ‘magically’ appeared in her life will ‘magically’ disappear again. Perhaps more importantly, she feels compelled to ‘help’ random other people she knows by giving them her money. I suspect she feels it isn’t ‘fair’ that she has something that they do not. But I also know that saving for her own needs is something Sara has never, ever done before in her life. She is accustomed only to giving to and getting from other people. She is also oblivious to the power of this behavior in her life.

All of the fancy investment models and financial strategies in the world aren’t going to be of use to Sara unless she is willing to re-think her own personal relationship with money. Her self-image is ‘I am poor, but good,’ and I fully expect to see her spend down and give away all of her money so she can go back to being what she was before the money came into her life. In the end, Sara will make her actual world conform to her mental world.

In addition to the Saras of the world, however, I know people who I believe will always overcome short-term financial setbacks and will – baring the End of Days – die wealthy. They are Money Jedis. They have learned how to use the power of money in their lives for good, and without letting it turn them to the Dark Side. You, too, can learn the ways of money, but you have to think beyond blasters. Your answer begins not with investment models and tax strategies but rather with the soft stuff, and especially with yourself.

“The Force will be with you. . .always.”

 

11 January 2016

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