Recently I gave two different women diamond engagement rings. I even got them together in the same
room, so they could compare rings. Not only was there no jealousy, but they were also both absolutely
thrilled for each other. Since I’m neither the world’s biggest jerk (debatable) nor the greatest lover
(laughable), what gives?
What gives is one ring is a memory and the other is a promise. The first ring belonged to my wife,
Barbara. It was a symbol of our love and lifelong commitment to each other. When I put it on her finger
45 years ago, I promised to take her as my wife “…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better
or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part.” The
chorus to a White Lion song says, “All through your life, I’ll be by your side, till death do us part.” And
that was where I was, by her side, when death parted us two and a half years ago.
That ring is now a family heirloom that will be passed down for generations to come. It is a reminder, to
paraphrase Proverbs 13:22, that through a life well lived, Barbara left an inheritance for her children and
for a thousand generations to come. My oldest granddaughter is now the keeper of Barbara’s ring.
The second engagement ring is on the finger of my wife, Jill. It is a promise to love her and a
commitment to stand by her. On the Handmade Engagement Rings website, it is noted that “in antiquity
it was believed that the ring finger had a direct connection to the heart and so the partner put the ring
on the left hand of his fiancée - the side of the heart – as a sign of infinite love and eternal connection.”
Love may be infinite and eternal, but Ecclesiastes reminds us that life isn’t. It is short, fleeting, and
meaningless. As the Message version so graphically describes, “…there’s neither work to do nor
thoughts to think in the company of the dead, where you’re most certainly headed.” While this might
not be encouraging, it is realistic. I know full well after watching a spouse die and then three weeks later
being diagnosed with kidney cancer that death is an impossibility that suddenly becomes a reality.
However, accepting this reality is not morbid or depressing. In a strange way, it is quite freeing because
you start thinking about how to live. In Living Life Backwards, David Gibson mentions that “We tend to
live as if the one thing that is certain will never come… [but] my death is certain… it is the timing… that is
uncertain… So, what should life in the meantime look like?” His answer, which he gleaned from
Ecclesiastes, is to “enjoy the gifts God has given you, the simple things that give you pleasure.”
Gibson says that “Gift, not gain, is your new motto. Life is not about the meaning that you can create for
your own life, or… that you can find in… your work and ambitions. You do not find meaning in life simply
by finding a partner or having kids or being rich. You find meaning when you realize that God has given
you life in his world and any one of those things as a gift to enjoy.”
That’s why Ecclesiastes directs us to “Enjoy life with the woman you love. Cherish every moment of the
fleeting life which God has given you under the sun. For this is your lot in life, your great reward for all of
your hard work under the sun.” And that’s why Gibson urges us to “…cherish and protect the person
God has given you… If you are too busy to enjoy the life you have together, then you are too busy.”
I gave two rings. One reminded me life is short and the other that a spouse is a precious gift. Based on
that reality, I changed the way I live. I see my life, wife, family, and friends as gifts to be enjoyed for as
long as I have left. This Christmas, if you love someone, I encourage you to -- in the words of Cody
Johnson -- “Hold 'em as long and as strong and as close as you can, 'til you can't.” Merry Christmas
When I get wound up about some political issue, my wife leaves the room. It is a trick she learned from my secretary, who does the same thing when my obsessive compulsiveness kicks in over an inconsequential event. It’s also a trick that we should all learn about consuming news, writes Mark Manson in his blog “Why You Should Quit the News.”
In short, he says you should quit the news because “…the vast majority of news is… of little relevance and utility, promoting skewed and inaccurate perceptions of the world, of other people, and of ourselves. It generates stress and anxiety, causes greater distrust in others, and can actually make us less informed about the world…”
The problem isn’t that information is bad, it is that the goal of the news media is not to inform, but to get your attention. What they are doing, Manson explains, is taking advantage of cognitive biases “…that we all fall victim to, and [using] them to keep us engaged and wanting more.” It is no different than what video gaming companies do to keep their users addicted.
The result, according to Manson, is that the “…news media optimizes information that feels important with little regard to its actual importance.” Such information is “immediate, fast-moving, narrative-driven and highly visible… The problem is that the most important information is usually long-term, slow-
moving, impersonal, abstract and invisible, and not necessarily negative.”
The financial news media is no different notes Jeff Sommers in When You Think About Investing, Don’t Think About the News. To prove his point, he quotes Nobel laureate Richard Thaler: “Sometimes you’ve got to just turn off the news. Don’t pay any attention to it.” His reasoning is the same as Manson’s, in that the focus is on short-term emotions instead of long-term thinking. “This is concerning,” say the authors of Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, “because judgment has an emotional component. The psychologist Paul Slovic terms this the affect heuristic; people determine what they think by consulting their feelings.”
Consequently, our judgment is impaired by watching alarming newscasts about stock markets. We think we are being rational when we are in reality panicking because we “come up with plausible rationalizations for our judgments and… actually think that they are the cause of our beliefs.”
At times like this, when markets are uncertain and the news is scary, it is more important than ever to “…stick to your plan,” says Thaler. “Don’t think you are a genius and you can beat the market. Because you probably can’t… My thing is, that we know that any sudden moves by individual investors… if anything, they’re more likely to be wrong than right because our instinct is to sell when markets go down and to buy when they go up — and buying high and selling low is just not a good strategy.”
After hearing Thaler’s comments about sticking to a plan, Sommers asked him the logical question: “So what constitutes a good plan?” He said it starts with an emergency fund of a few months of income in a bank account. Next, you diversify with low-cost U.S. and international index funds as your core holdings. If you are healthy, it is usually best to defer taking Social Security for as long as possible. And finally determine an appropriate balance between stocks and bonds, based on your needs and risk tolerance.
If I am talking politics, you should leave the room. I would suggest doing the same thing if you are in a room with the TV tuned to financial news. You want information that is important and not information that feels important. As Manson warns, “Paradoxically, in its effort to inform… news media positions itself to misinform…” So, when making investment decisions - think about the plan, not about the news.
“Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention…” might be the lyrics of a good Frank Sinatra song but it is bad “psychology, neuroscience, and when you get down to it, history,” writes David McRaney in his review of The Power of Regrets.” The author, Daniel H. Pink, says a “no regrets” mindset is “…not a blueprint for a life well lived. [It is] …forgive the terminology – bullshit.”
Regret is a negative emotion, but it is not unhealthy or abnormal. Pink explains “It is …universal, an integral part of being human. …It clarifies. It instructs. Done right, it needn’t drag us down; it can lift us up.” It balances positive emotions and helps stimulate learning and growth. It helps us survive. Like everything in life, in excess it is a problem. But too little is also an issue.
Pink sorts regrets into four categories and “Connection Regrets” are by far the most common. We “…have a massive amount of regret about fractured or unrealized relationships,” explains Paula Davis in Psychology Today. And those regrets are either “open door” or “closed door,” depending on the possibility to change them.
In my case, it was my wife dying of cancer that simultaneously opened my eyes to my negligence as a husband and slowly closed the door to my chances to do any more about it. Most of our marriage, I treated her how I would want to be treated instead of how she needed to be treated. On our premarital counseling personality test, she scored 100% on “feelings” and I got 0%. I was a bull, and she was a China shop. It was a match made in heaven, but the journey took some detours down roads paved with my good intentions. I tried to be sensitive, and she tried to be understanding, but we still ended up with a lot of broken glass. The good thing was that we always cleaned up the mess together.
Barbara and I finished well because she was good, and I got better at learning from my regrets. As Pink explains, “All regrets aggravate,” but they can be productive instead of destructive if they motivate you to positive actions. So, instead of ignoring or despairing you can use the negative feelings as instructions
for “…making better decisions, …improving your performance, …deepening your sense of meaning.”
The regret-fueled changes that I made helped Barbara and I cram a lifetime into 7 months. That’s because when facing death, you live in the moment and time stands still. However, when facing retirement, time marches on closing the door for compounding to grow wealth. This fact is often lost on the young because the perception of time is not constant. It speeds up with age, which is why a survey from Magnify Money “…found that the biggest [financial] regret among Americans is not investing sooner.”
If you have similar regrets, you are not alone. The survey finds that “Investing regrets are the norm… [and most people] …believe investing regrets are inevitable.” However, repeating the mistakes that led to regrets is not inevitable. You may be behind, but Pink reminds us that saving for retirement “…is like the
old proverb. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second-best time is today.”
Frank Sinatra’s daughter revealed that he grew to hate My Way. Contrary to what he sang, he had more than a few regrets. The ones he mentioned most were about ignoring his family. I regret that I wasn’t a better husband. But Pink tells us the purpose of regrets is to make us feel worse today “…to help us do better tomorrow.” I became a better husband and am now a better father and grandfather. Regrets have also made me a better advisor and can make you better at managing your finances. We can’t change the past. But we don’t have to repeat it. There might have been a better time to do something, but until the door closes, we always have the second-best time – today.
It is normal for me to start out a round of golf with bogies or double bogies on the first three or four holes. “This is a story I have heard so often,” muses teaching pro Karl Moris, “that we could label this Poor Start Syndrome.” I label it something else, but since I only swear on the golf course, I won’t mention it here. Whatever the name, I always attributed the slow starts to stiffness, but recently have come to realize that it has more to do with fear than flexibility.
On the first tee I found myself worrying about all the things that could go wrong. “And for most of us [such thinking], creates an even bigger challenge in a game that is already very difficult,” says mental golf coach David MacKenzie. Talking with my 11-year-old granddaughter, Sally, I discovered that she faces similar issues riding horses. She said that horses can sense your mood and if you are fearful when approaching a jump, they will not go over it. To succeed she said, “You have to push through the fear and be totally committed to the jump.”
Just as Sally’s horse senses her emotions, my body senses my fear, releasing adrenaline, which tenses my muscles and over activates my brain. When that happens, my body does what a horse does and won’t do what it is supposed to do. Sports psychologist, Jon Stabler warns that “…when extreme fear is happening, we may lose touch with ourselves… It may feel like... our bodies are doing whatever they want [and] we have no direct control.” To control the fear, he explains that “your thoughts create the fear. Control your thoughts and you can stop the fear and resulting reactions and poor performance.” To accomplish this, Ellen Rudolph, an expert on the mental side of golf, says you must “…believe in your strategy [and] stay committed to the shot you’ve planned…”
Stepping onto the first tee or approaching a jump triggers reflexive fear. However, Jason Zweig in Your Money and Your Brain emphasizes that “Humans are reflexively afraid not just of physical dangers, but also of any social signal that transmits an alarm.” Stock market volatility and the resulting hysteria in the financial media will definitely trigger such responses. And “…when a potential threat is financial instead of physical,” he warns, “reflexive fear will put you in danger more often than it will get you out of it.”
It will get you in trouble because the odds are against you. That’s why after reviewing the statistics, Ben Carlson stated in a 2020 Fortune article, “Selling out and waiting for the dust to settle is… a horrible plan.” The statistics are not even close. According to Investopedia, “Nobel Laureate William Sharpe… concluded that an investor employing a market timing strategy must be correct 74% of the time to beat the [buy-and-hold] benchmark portfolio.”
However, even though the odds are against cutting your losses and running, I can’t help thinking of the lyrics to an Elvis song, “It feels so right… How can it be wrong?” Its feels right even though it’s wrong, says neuroscientist Daniel Kahneman, because in the unpredictable world of investing, human judgment is unreliable. His solution to the problem is “…to replace human judgment with formal rules that use the data… to produce.... a decision.” And that data suggests that prudent diversification and the discipline to stay the course is a better decision. In hindsight it may not turn out to be the best decision. But in an uncertain world there is usually no other prudent choice.
Fear creates an even bigger challenge for investors in an endeavor that is already very difficult. To rise to the challenge, you need to slow down your overactive adrenaline-fueled thinking. You do that by knowing the statistics, believing in a rules-based strategy, and staying committed to it. As Sammy Davis, Jr. said about dealing with fear, “You always have two choices: your commitment versus your fear.”
“Who are you and how do you know my name?” Those were my friend’s thoughts after two complete strangers greeted him at the Newark airport with, “Welcome back to the United States, Mr. York.” Without any explanation they asked, “Can you follow us?” It is at times like this that you wish you could be like Liam Neeson’s character in the movie Taken and say, "I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want… I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills… that make me a nightmare for people like you.” Or then again, you could be like my friend and quietly go with them.
My friend is Matt York and he had just returned from Guinea. It was the height of the Ebola crisis, and everyone was running for their lives to get away from the epidemic. Matt, on the other hand, risked his by racing into the middle of it. And while he didn’t look as imposing as Neeson’s movie character, he did possess a very particular set of skills that could help stem the tide of the Ebola nightmare in West Africa.
Matt is the founder and president of Videomaker Inc., a leading publisher on video production. He is also the executive director of illuminAid – a non-profit he founded in 2008 to educate the world’s poorest people through low-cost video technology. He takes no salary, donates his time, and uses his skills in video electronics to encourage positive deviation. Positive deviation is an approach that empowers people to break free from the constraints of ingrained traditional behaviors and to establish more productive ones that lead to better solutions to common problems in their community.
In Guinea, traditional burial behaviors affected the Ebola crisis because the virus isn’t spread by sneezing or coughing but by direct contact with body fluids. So, the funeral ritual of everyone drinking from a cup that had been pressed against the decedent’s lips was a problem. The positive deviation desired was the replacement of this harmful practice with the removal and cremation of the body. To facilitate the
change, Matt and his team taught local leaders how to create videos and provided them with the solar powered cameras and projectors needed to shoot and show them. However, the content and messaging were left to the local leadership because information alone is not enough to change behavior. It must be presented and communicated in ways outsiders would fail to grasp and only locals could understand.
The researchers at The University of Chicago’s Financial Education Initiative discovered that traditional financial education suffers from the same problem. Financial behaviors aren’t significantly changed by teaching objective financial facts because people’s “behaviors are shaped by what students bring to a financial education course and the deeply personal lens through which they approach financial literacy.”
As an advisor I must be aware of such ingrained behaviors in my clients that are the result of how our brains are hardwired for financial failure and exacerbated by poor role modeling. To encourage change, clients need education about such things as debt, spending, risk, return, compounding, taxes, gifting, and more. But it has to be done in ways they can understand and relate to. It must address their hopes and fears, their learned behaviors from life experiences, and the environment in which they live.
It turns out the two suits in Newark were there to escort Matt to an isolated area for Ebola testing. They knew their mission (to prevent the spread of Ebola to the US) and they knew that Matt had been to West Africa. The key to affecting positive deviation is similar – knowing the objective and knowing your audience. That way you can make and implement an effective plan to change ingrained behaviors for the better. For Matt that means providing local leaders with the video equipment and training they need to effectively speak to their community. As an advisor that means knowing my clients and personalizing my approach based on individual behaviors and the factors behind those behaviors.
You can donate to IlluminAid at www.illuminaid.org/donate
“Why is this person calling my dad William?” was the question my daughter was asking. We were at the
Sheraton on Kauai for scuba lessons. The plan was for my daughter, her two older children, and myself
to finish a two-day in-water certification program while her husband watched the younger girls.
Unfortunately, I was scrubbed at the last minute because of a surgery 6 months earlier. So, my son-inlaw took my place diving and I was left babysitting the 8- and 10-year-old girls.
After a few hours hanging around the pool, I got bored. Going through the list of activities at the
resort, the only things currently available were ukulele and hula lessons. Having nothing better to
do, I signed us up for both and headed over to the recreation area. The same Hawaiian women
taught both classes. I told her that her name sounded like “Ooh Eeh Ooh Ah Aah Ting Tang Walla
Walla Bing Bang” to me. She said the first syllable was similar, so I opted to call her “Ooh.” She was
struggling with my name as well and decided it would be easier if she just called me “William.” And
that is why when she saw me hangingout at the pool with my daughter she yelled, “William!” and I
waved and yelled back “Ooh!”
I found out 20 years ago that the IRS will occasionally do something similar to what Ooh and I did
when writing regulations to interpret complex laws enacted by Congress. One such example is Section
401(a)(9)(B)(i)(II) of the tax codes which says if an IRA owner “…dies before his entire interest has
been distributed to him, the remaining portion of such interest will be distributed at least as rapidly
as under the method of distributions being used…” In their first attempt to interpret the “at least as
rapidly” clause, the IRS in the 1987 proposed regulations required the IRA owner to make an
irrevocable election on their required beginning date regarding the choice of beneficiary and the
calculation method to be used when distributing their IRA over their lifetime and after their death.
The rules, while a faithful interpretation of the law, were extremely difficult to understand and the
outcomes could be dramatically different, depending on luck and the choices made. IRA owners were
confused about their choices and IRA custodians were confused about the required payments.
Into this mess, I stepped with software that helped IRA owners make decisions based on the best
odds and allowed custodians to easily calculate the amount of the required minimum distributions
(RMD), even in the most convoluted cases. A good example of how simple it was to use occurred in
1999 when I was in Portland consulting with an attorney. I told her that the information in the RMD
report her firm had paid a few thousand dollars for was wrong. And I bet her that a local friend’s 11-
year-old daughter could get the right answers, with no help, in less than 10 minutes, which she did.
The accuracy and ease of use of my software caught the attention of some of the country’s top estate
attorneys, a number of the largest financial publications, the biggest IRA custodians, and even the IRS.
I was counting the millions I was going to earn when the IRS decided to change their interpretation of
the “at least as rapidly” rule to one that significantly deviated from the wording of the law but was
easier to understand and apply. It was also much friendlier to IRA owners and especially to their
beneficiaries, who were almost guaranteed the ability to stretch inherited IRA payments over their life
In the new proposed regulations in 2000 and the subsequent final regulations, the IRS did what Ooh
and I did: arbitrarily substituted ease for accuracy. Instead of faithfully interpreting the law, they
basically said 'the law is whatever we say it is.' In 2020, Congress, in the Secure Act, trumped the IRS
and legally changed the meaning of the “at least as rapidly” rule and this time made it very clear that
in the majority of cases it means 10 years. For those beneficiaries of inherited IRAs who will no
longer have the opportunity to stretch payments over their lifetime, “Ooh! That hurts.”