A couple weeks ago, I vacationed with my wife and two kids in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was truly a great vacation, and one where upon returning I felt like I had been gone much longer than a week. But one experience in particular stuck with me as it so poignantly differentiated preparation for an experience from the actual experience.
As wealth advisors, we are often working with clients in two different phases: one phase in which we are helping them plan for a change in their financial lives, and then a second in which we are helping them live through the change.
In Santa Fe, I had an opportunity to visit the Georgia O’Keefe museum and viewed her painting titled, “Pelvis IV.” I have seen it reproduced before on posters or postcards, even making an appearance in my college dorm rooms. But, seeing it in person grabbed my attention to the point that my almost-four-year-old son ran off into another exhibit room without me budging.
The painting is simple. It allows the viewer to gaze into the New Mexico blue sky through the pelvis bone of a cow. Viewing the poster version, if asked, I might have described it as “pretty” and I remember thinking the blue and white colors were pleasing when I saw the poster back in college.
However, in person (and please, forgive my limited artistic vocabulary), the contrast of the colors and thickness of the oil paint, created depth in a way that actually evoked a feeling of vertigo. This piece of art that is “pretty” when reproduced on a poster, was downright jarring in person. I was actually uncomfortable standing-staring at it but couldn’t look away.
Yet, the reproduction on the poster I had seen in college is true to the painting. There is nothing about the picture on the website I have linked above that is inaccurate, or that I can point to and say, Oh, that part is incorrect. The image on the website is genuine, but at the same time, it’s nothing like it. Both the poster I saw in college and the image on the website could have in many ways prepared me for what I would see in person, but in other ways not prepared me at all.
What does this have to do wealth planning?
As an advisor, I want my clients to know that I am acutely aware of this distinction between looking at a reproduction and experiencing the real thing. Preparation for the experience and the actual experience can be very different. At Cordant, we do a great deal of financial modeling for our clients with the goal of replicating possible financial outcomes. One of the most important models we create is a client’s Baseline Financial Plan. In these plans, we account for as many relevant financial details as possible and we use these plans to help clients make major life decisions: When can I retire? Should I take this job opportunity? Can we afford this house? Will I have to spend less if there is a market crash?
With these models, we want to as accurately as possible replicate financial outcomes so that our clients can have answers to these questions and make good, well-informed decision. I recognize, however, that no-matter how accurate our modeling may be, the model is the poster of the painting described above. It is a valuable decision-making tool, but it is also an abstraction of reality. Retirement, a new job, a new house, a market crash—each of these real experiences will have impacts that a model can’t simulate.
My takeaway is this: we should create the most accurate models we can so that we can make the most well-informed decisions, but not be fooled into thinking actual experiences won’t cause us to want to veer from previous plans. It’s crucial to recognize that the well-informed decisions made based on a model may be more difficult to execute on and stick with when faced with reality.
What this means to me as an advisor, is that a big part of my role is to help our clients stick with their plans and remind them of the plans we made and why we made them. As an investor planning for my own family’s wealth journey, it means I want to make sure I have an advisor (not me) making sure I’m steady and have someone in my corner looking out for me when the vertigo sets in and my kid takes off running into a different exhibit room.