By Eric Wilson
My last three articles have addressed the question of the purpose of wealth. Judging from the feedback I’ve received, they might have touched a nerve. Curiously that word, “wealth,” is offensive to many who are, in fact, wealthy. They don’t like it. They don’t know how to process it, explain it, or live with it. People love to tell stories about how wealth was created, but they are reticent to address what wealth now represents and the joy it can bring. I have found that many times they are uncomfortable with this newfound money and lifestyle, yet still love to tell the “rags to riches” story of how their wealth was created.
Inevitably, the stories I hear are ones of a deeply emotional nature. The love of an idea or a job that has turned into a career. That career created opportunity, but it was the way the person seized the opportunity that brought them the success they now enjoy. They had to choose to overcome the fear or the anxiety or the possibility of losing everything, and focus on doing the work every day. They had to have the courage to act when the opportunity presented itself. In doing so, they were able to move themselves up the socioeconomic ladder into a more fruitful and abundant lifestyle.
Now, one of the best things about my particular profession is that I get to hear people’s financial success stories. Where did their desire come from that made them successful? What happened to them along the way? What would they have done differently? What could I learn from their story to help me counsel others in similar circumstances?
I remember talking to a client a few years ago regarding plans for the distribution of his wealth, when he paused, looked at me, and said “I don’t like that term. I’m not wealthy.” He wasn’t married, had no progeny, had a low eight-figure networth with more coming via inheritance, and spent virtually nothing every year. He was the very definition of wealthy; he just didn’t like the stereotype it suggested. In fact, I’ve met clients who longed for the day that they could go back and live the scrappy life they enjoyed prior to hitting it big. It was the process that excited them, not the end result, which many view as a weight or burden.
I get it. Three years ago, when I was turning 40, I happened to be going to Las Vegas for an investment conference. Since I was to be there for a few days, I decided that I wanted to see what it felt like to be a “high roller” for a stay. Now “high roller” is a term similar to “wealth;” it means something different depending on where you are. So I set up a substantial line of credit through the casino and purposed to put it all at risk before the trip was over. Guess what? Even though I could have easily afforded to lose it all, I never came close to putting it all “out there.” I just couldn’t do it. My anxiety level was too high and the potential reward wasn’t worth the risk. That wasn’t who I was… it wasn’t in my DNA to gamble like that.
Many of the families I collaborate with have been wildly successful, but still feel poor. They are, as I referenced in an article several columns ago, the “strangers in paradise” Dr. James Grubman writes about in his book with the same title. They are intrigued with the fantasy of wealth, but are now also uncomfortable with the reality that wealth brings. “Yes” men, advisors that pander to them, salespeople selling them products that people “like them” need, are all part of their new reality. Their new challenge is to determine who in their lives is telling them the truth. You didn’t need their help making the money you now have, but people are lined up telling you what you should do. It’s an interesting paradox.
Over the past 22 years, I have attracted a lot of clients with this same character trait. No matter how much they have in the bank, they just can’t bring themselves to spend more, do more, give more, etc. Many times, they begin to alienate the ones closest to them by denying small increases in lifestyle. They haven’t taken the time to define what the money means to the family and how the family can enjoy the product of their life’s work. They have the money, but where is the joy?
This indictment stings because it has applied to me as well. I’ve struggled with my own successes being at odds with my rural, South Georgia beginnings. I haven’t wanted to lose what made me who I am, but I have been forced to grow, adapt, and change in order to meet the demands of what my present situation, including my family, requires. I’ll always be the son of a railroad machinist and nurse, but in order to provide true counsel and wisdom to this often over-looked segment of the wealthy population, I’ve had to invest a tremendous amount of time educating myself on the things people like us care about most… and it isn’t investments. It usually has something to do with family and how to protect it from the wealth and its negative effects, while preserving the values and character that gave the family its identity.
I’m going to be writing about this, a lot. This is important. Openly identifying and discussing your biases, attitudes, and reservations about the assets you’ve accumulated can help you go from uncomfortable to confident, helping to ensure your family’s long-term success. If you’re reading this and have a story to share about how you overcame long odds and achieved rare success, I’d love to hear it. I’d like to be encouraged that someone else has achieved the American Dream, yet still feels as though they’re still dreaming. It would help me know that I’m not alone.
Eric S. Wilson is a Senior Vice President, Family Wealth Director, and Founder of the Wilson Wealth Management Group at Morgan Stanley and for the past 20 years he has served the varied needs of individuals and families whose wealth has the potential to change the essential nature of their descendants’ lives. Mr. Wilson can be reached with questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 877.442.5445, or via his website at www.morganstanleyfa.com/wilsonwealthmanagementgroup.