(noun, etymology Dutch from ‘boedel’: estate, possession, inheritance, stock.). 1. Crowd, pack, lot, as in ‘the whole boodle.’ 2. a. Counterfeit money b. Money acquired or spent illegally or improperly, particularly when used in bribery for political purposes. 3. Slang for money in general.

What’s Under That Kilt?

Posted on: Dec. 7, 2010  |  By: Ronnie Kahn  |  Category: Boodle-cise, General

The Essence of a Plan: Understanding the Context of Our Identity

A man wearing a kilt is standing in set concrete up to his ankles.  This was the image Jane gave to her current financial situation.  She actually had brought in this exact image to my office that she had found in a magazine.  She came to me because she was convinced that her life could only be better if she did a financial plan.  She felt that this was the keystone to what was not working with her life.  While many of my clients think a financial plan important, most don’t put it on such an exalted plane.  As a financial planner, I had to ironically convince her that a financial plan was not a panacea or grand solution.  At the same time, I needed to help her find out what was.

A financial plan, per se, is a wonderful tool to see how the decisions we make can affect our lives.  It helps to focus our goals and try to find ways to attain those goals.  Ultimately, a bunch of pages of numbers that can be skewed by so many interactions, unknowns, and slight changes is not a real solution.  While it may be a lot better than putting your head in the sand, it still is just a direction of now which means we live in and for the present and a way to improve your decisions and choose a path.

Jane was a visual person and insisted that the Kilt Man image would help her to focus on the changes needed to make her financial life the way she wanted it.  The Kilt Man was a wonderful metaphor for changing the way she made decisions by either not being intractable or stuck, on the one hand, symbolized by the feet set in concrete, or at other times when needed, digging in and holding firm.  What it was not was a proverb of sorts that one could fall back on to see clearly how to make a decision under any circumstance.  It was only a clue about change, not how to do it.

Jane was unhappy with the business she owned, but she thought she was too old to start a new career as a landscape architect.  Her passion was outdoor plants and gardens.  Jane wanted her financial plan to help her family, but also had a secret desire to travel to the exotic places her mother had lived as a child.  I tried to assess how Jane made decisions.  When I asked her if the numbers couldn’t show both goals as realistic and she had to decide between the two, she always chose her family’s needs first.  If I asked her to decide between two dinners out a week and the travel, she looked confused.  I told her these are how the numbers of a financial plan work.  Small changes make great differences over time.  She seemed clear on what she didn’t want, but was cloudy on how she wanted her future to play out.

I asked again by clarifying to her if it would be worth trading two dinners out each week for accumulating enough extra money to do the travel.  She said she thought it would be worth it, but didn’t look completely convinced.  I further asked her to put the Kilt Man image in her mind and then decide about the dinner versus travel choice.  She had to admit that it didn’t really help her, so I set out to have her come up with her financial “essence,” that illusive distilled substance of her plan that could be used to make all types of decisions.  It would be her financial identity mixed with the journey she wanted to be on.  I suggested some ways of finding this essence.

The most important thing you can do when charting a financial plan is to come up with its essence.  Most of us want a plan’s brains, but we really need a heart.  This heart cannot just be a mission statement or sound bite.  It must prove its mettle by being the proverb that we must draw on to make any decision that keeps our lifeblood flowing downhill.

Finding the essence may seem simple, but to really do what it needs to do, it is a lot tougher than making the actual plan itself.  First, we need to pare down everything and deconstruct what really winds our clock.  Then, we need to come up with the perfect theme to capture all our future directions and new decisions.  We need it to be “generative,” meaning it will offer us new creativity, inventions, categories, and ways of seeing the world.

If you think of a successful advertising slogan or movie pitch, these allow you to understand more than just one limited picture or idea.  They can be expanded on to imagine how all kinds of other things would work as well.  For an ad campaign, the slogan could explain how the company produced their product to customers or ran their firm to their management, while the employees could also get an idea of how they could play their part.

Finding this core keeps us from making decisions that take us away from what really matters while focusing us on what really does count.  Behavioral psychologists have shown us how the context or relativity of a situation affects our decision making.  Given three choices, such as items we want to buy, we usually pick the middle choice.  If you go into one restaurant, you may spend fifteen dollars, but at a higher priced restaurant you will not even consider something priced that low.  Restaurants usually include a very high priced item as a decoy knowing that most of us will then have no problem with the second most expensive item listed.

In 1995, Donald Redelmeier and Eldar Shafir showed that when students were given two choices to, one, study at the library or, two, attend a lecture by an admired author, as you may have guessed, around 80 percent of the students chose the lecture.  Yet with a different group, when a third option of watching a foreign film that someone has wanted to see was added, twice as many students decided to, get this, study.

Dan Ariely, in “Predictably Irrational”, has shown a similar decision-making conundrum.  The first two choices were between a print-only magazine subscription and an Internet-only option for half the price.  Most students chose the Internet-only version.  When a third version was added as a print and Internet subscription choice for the same price as the print-only subscription, 84 percent of those students chose the print and Internet subscription version.  That means that around 50 percent less chose the Internet-only option from the two-choice version, just by adding the third option.

To summarize, when given two choices, the result is that almost everyone selects choice A, for example.  If three choices are then given and choice A is either the highest or lowest quality or least or most expensive, then choice A is rejected.  But if three choices are given and choice A appears in the middle, or the other two choices are similar, choice A is widely selected.  While we like to think of our identities and personalities as fixed and consistent, the way choices are presented have as much to do with our decisions as our so-called likes and dislikes.

Ariely goes on to say that we can extend this when we think of ourselves as honest or moral, yet that is contextual as well.  Most of us are very reluctant to outright take cash money, but when that money is in the form of office supplies or a bottle of water given at a business meeting, we rationalize that it is okay.  Studies show that cheating goes down if someone has been exposed to The Ten Commandments before the test.

Now let’s return to Kilt Man and see if this all has to do with whether there is a solution to improving our lives.  Again, the reason that we uncover the essential core of a financial plan is decision making.  Since our decisions are haphazard, as we have seen when there is no true content to base them on, the actual context is provided by the decision itself.  Now, if we can find an essence to what we want for our life and our money, then any decision can be answered within that content framework.  In Jane’s case, if she tried to tap into Kilt Man, could she answer whether she should change careers or buy some investment property?  The answers for her were still muddled, which meant her work was not done.

So what was the solution?  While asking Jane whether Kilt Man gave her the answers she needed, she grudgingly had to admit not.  “So what do I do?” she said.  While she was staring at the picture, I said quite innocently, “Something is missing.”  After a moment or two of focusing on the photo, she exclaimed, “Shoes.”  I thought she was just making a literal joke since in the picture the Kilt Man’s shoes are sealed in concrete. She launched into a discourse on what shoes meant to her.  She went over the type of shoes needed should be comfortable and hold up for the long journey.  She didn’t want high heels or impractical ones just for looks.  She talked about the metaphor of putting herself in one’s shoes so that she wouldn’t lose touch with her empathetic side.  She even added another metaphor that she wanted to fill those shoes in a way that would make her proud.  Then I returned to the question and asked her if she would change careers.  She said that since her journey in these prized shoes would be a long one, it was not too late, and she saw that she could start now.  For every additional financial planning question we posed, she came back to the image of those shoes.

Most of us would just see shoes as a bundle of traits that have to do with moving around on foot and could find nothing meaningful about that image.  For you and me, they may just seem like a prop, but for Jane those shoes were her essence.  Each person’s essence cannot be some general wishy-washy set of goals since that cannot be utilized to make decisions with.  For Jane, shoes meant taking a long trip in simple and practical ways.  She saw putting herself in someone else’s shoes as reminders of the social side of that trip of understanding and being with friends and family.  She also saw in the filling-those-shoes metaphor that it would make her proud if she worked for and cared about others, especially those less fortunate than her.

Each person has a different way to get to their essence.  For some it may be an image, yet that may not work for the next person.  In a future blog, I will review some of the wonderful ways to get to your Kilt Man and how to approach getting to your essence.  It may be one of the toughest things you can do, but it will change your life.

* We do not know the origin of this picture.  If it is your property and you would like it removed, please let us know.

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