Are You Following a Path, or Creating a Path?

Journal of Financial Planning; June 2014


Ross Levin, CFP®, is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina, Minnesota, and author of Implementing the Wealth Management Index, published by Bloomberg Press. EMAIL author.

While I was quietly working in a coffee shop this spring, my daughter called me from college, sobbing uncontrollably. Trying to decipher her words between the ambient sound of people requesting lattes and her gasping was almost impossible. I picked up “public intoxication … night in jail … feel terrible … sorry.” I gathered my wits, took a deep breath, curbed my anger, and asked whether she was okay and how she was doing. She started laughing and said, “April Fool’s.” Not funny.

That call could have completely changed not only my morning, but my life. In that 30-second interaction, the number of thoughts and feelings flashing through my head was stultifying. I went from how her future could change, to how she would emotionally handle this predicament, to how this could impact her twin sister, to what my wife would think (she was in on the joke, but that’s another story). Though none of it was real, I had envisioned a path on which we were all about to embark.

When we are in our office, every time we pick up the phone or check an email, our life changes. Not necessarily dramatically so, but it changes. We feel more or less connected, more or less anxious, more or less in control. These subtle responses impact the next interaction we have until 30 years down the road we end up in a place where we can’t figure out how we got there.

Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote: 

Pathmaker, your footsteps
Are the path and nothing more;
Pathmaker, there is no path,
You make the path by walking.

Okay control freaks, there is no path. You make the path by walking. Each step in front of the other creates our lives. Every seminar you attend, client you advise, newsletter you read, sets your direction on the path—no straight lines and only at times our true north to guide us. I love this. This means that every choice I make sets me on a path, but I am not following it, I am creating it.

Decisions versus Experiments

Let me tell you about a client of ours with more money than she could ever spend who was afraid to retire. A conversation describing how much she had and how it would be invested made her more, not less, anxious. She lost her husband when she was in her 20s, and although she may consider that her defining moment, it feels more correct to say that all of our moments are defining.

Why are some people so able to move on from loss and others so paralyzed by it? We make the path by walking. Life may happen to us in all sorts of ways, but we always take the next step.

We talked about how hard it is for her to make decisions because she lives in a right or wrong world. When we were in conversation, we moved things from good or bad decisions to the concept of experiments. Renting a home for part of the year is an experiment. There will be things she will like about it and things she won’t like. This will give her feedback and allow her to take the next step. If she rents a place she hates, no problem. We can explore what she didn’t like and gather information on future places that may be more appealing.

The stakes for decisions seem high, and many of them are. Who I marry or whether to have children are decisions. What career I choose or which home I buy are more decisions than experiments. Where I go on vacation or what car I own are experiments.

We make very few pure decisions. Pure decisions are those irreversible choices where we are no longer bushwhacking but rather walking on concrete. All choices guide us, but we don’t need to make the stakes higher than they really are. We can’t avoid being the pathmaker by not returning phone calls, or not opening our mail, or by not having the difficult conversations with employees or partners or clients. Regardless of what we do or don’t do, we are walking on the path.

Are You Really Listening?

Have you ever talked with someone who has obviously learned the techniques of active listening? Don’t you hate their self-conscious rephrasing of your words in an attempt to either pacify or connect with you?

Have you ever talked with someone who is intensely listening to you? Don’t you love it? They may make you uncomfortable with their ability to hear what you aren’t saying, but you walk away feeling totally seen.

As you walk on your path, are you listening to yourself or using techniques? I don’t ask this in judgment, but rather from looking at my own life. I try to notice when I am reacting from fear or anger—both of which tend to stem from a concern about what I am going to lose, rather than from my center. Difficult interactions make me want to blame others, and that pulls me along my path instead of having me step along it. Everyone has a role in everything. I want to see my role so that I can make sure that I am choosing it. I can never control my results; I can only control my actions.

Can you think of times when you have intensely listened to a client? When you hear a client talk about retirement, are you carefully listening to what they want things to look like and what they are willing to both give up and grab for it? If so, then you know that a technique like determining a safe withdrawal rate would be only one piece of the puzzle. Some clients want to spend more money earlier while they have their health, and will consider changing their lifestyle in later years. Some clients will be nervous when markets are soft and automatically modify their spending, thereby rendering somewhat static calculations less useful. We better be very good with the science of what we do, but clients don’t walk on straight paths.

Poet David Whyte posed for me the biggest question you can answer for yourself if you want to actively choose your steps on the path: “What is the courageous conversation that I don’t want to have?” It may be with a business partner, a life partner, a client, or yourself. Whether you have this conversation or not, you are walking along a path. The question is, do you want to have a say in it?

General Financial Planning Principles