I’ve noticed that many of the families I’ve been privileged to serve share a common experience. Somewhere in their family history, a traumatic event impacted them. This event shaped the values of the generation who lived through it. But in many instances, that generation chose not to talk about it. The generations who follow are often minimally aware of the event or its significance.
The stories you tell your family make a statement. They tell your heirs what matters. If it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t talk about it. If your family seeks to preserve wealth for generations to come, I’d like to suggest that telling the right stories can make a big difference. The stories can transmit values that guide the decisions of future generations, without being preachy. Here are some suggestions for developing those types of stories.
THE JOYS OF SIDEWALK CHALK
It’s amazing to me how we, as humans, make lemonade out of lemons. Of course, the COVID-19 outbreak is one of the biggest lemons most of us have ever experienced. But many people have found ways to make something positive out of this negative situation. Fighter jet flyovers and spontaneous outbreaks of applause for health care workers are two such examples. Here is another.
I recently gave sidewalk chalk and construction paper to a couple of quarantined families in my neighborhood. These families have children adjusting to life in a pandemic. What I saw a few days later amazed me. The sidewalks and windows beamed with the colorful artwork of wonderful children and this just happened to lift my spirits a bit.
While the COVID-19 shutdown has certainly changed our lives, it comes with a built-in benefit. Because most people have slowed down, they have time to reflect. I know I’ve certainly done this. During my reflection time, I uncovered a family event that I wish I knew more about, because it just might have helped me and other family members cope with quarantine.
I am told that my grandfather, Arthur Pedersen Jr., contracted one of the last known cases of smallpox in Illinois. At the time, smallpox was one of the most feared diseases in the world. I know very little of this event because it wasn’t one of the more popular family stories. But recently, I remembered and decided to ask my 99-year-old great aunt who lived through the event with my grandfather.
As it turns out, my great-grandfather, Arthur Pedersen Sr., lived in a hotel while my grandfather had smallpox. He was away on a business trip when my grandfather came down with the disease. He was given the choice to go in and be housebound with the rest of the family or stay out of the house completely until my grandfather recovered and the quarantine was lifted. He chose to stay in a hotel. In this way, he was able to continue providing for the family with his paycheck, as well as by regularly bringing groceries and other supplies such as library books or even schoolwork.
I certainly wish I knew more about what life was like for them during their quarantine. I asked my great-aunt many questions. But her memories, as you can imagine from a 99-year-old woman, were faded. I can’t help but wonder what it felt like for my great-grandfather to be isolated from his family at a time when his young son was struck with a disease that had killed so many people. How much did he worry?
I wonder how the teenagers coped with being kept from their friends before most teens talked on telephones—let alone social media. I wonder how my great-grandmother kept up her own spirits as she kept the household running day and night while also playing nurse and teacher, being the only adult in the house. I wonder what memories they made as they must have found ways to entertain themselves together. I’m sure there were many “inside jokes” created from that time period, memories of which probably made them all smile for the rest of their lives.
It certainly seems to me that the family was strong and resilient through that time. For the adults, that strength quite possibly could have come from dealing with the Spanish flu, yet another pandemic that they lived through. I’ll never know what they felt, what they thought about or how they coped because no one ever documented it. These rich experiences and perspectives are lost to time.
HOW STORIES GUIDE THE DECISIONS OF HEIRS
It may not be intuitive to you that a story about something that happened to you, maybe even something that happened a long time ago, could guide the decisions of your heirs. I think this might be why more families don’t tell these stories or even document them.
But how many times have you said to yourself—I wonder how my parents would have handled this situation? It is a natural human response to want to know how our ancestors navigated their lives and made decisions. While we may agree or disagree with their decisions, we’ll never get the chance to be guided by them if we don’t know their stories. Their values and their voice will not be as present as we might wish to help guide our decisions.
As a wealth manager, I’ve gained insights by working with multi-generational families. You may have heard the saying: shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations. This means the first generation creates the wealth. The second generation tries to manage the wealth. But by the third generation, the wealth is gone.
One of the major reasons this happens, at least in my experience, is because someone made a decision or set of decisions that did not work out for them and the family. Sometimes the decision is to do nothing. Other times the decision is to take specific actions. But it’s the decision-point where wealth is placed at risk. Let me give you a couple of examples:
- Mark Twain built significant wealth within his lifetime. But he bet a lot of it on a complicated printing press that never reached maturity. A less complex printing press eventually prevailed, and Twain lost a huge portion of his wealth. He had to go back on the speaking circuit just to make ends meet.
- In 1911, Frances Perkins, a member of New England’s upper-middle class, witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. This deeply moved her, and she committed her life and her wealth to making the world a more just and humane place. But her husband lost their wealth when, in a manic state, he invested all of it in a gold scheme. Perkins would struggle financially the rest of her life.
It typically takes a long time to build wealth, often an entire lifetime. But losing wealth can happen much faster. An ancient proverb says that the smallest fly causes the entire bottle of ointment to stink. I take this to mean – you can make great decisions for decades, but one poor decision can undo all of the great decisions.
If you are a member of a multi-generational family that is seeking to protect wealth, please allow me to suggest that family stories may be one of your most powerful resources. One thing is for certain—if you never tell your story, it will be lost to time. The wisdom you’ve gained and the values that have shaped your life will not be available to your heirs to help guide them.
FIVE SUGGESTIONS FOR DEVELOPING POWERFUL FAMILY STORIES
If you’d like to create stories that can help preserve your family wealth, here are several practical suggestions:
- Consider a chronicler.
- Allow your chronicler to ask you questions.
- Don’t try to tell perfect stories from the start.
- Document the decisions you made and alternatives you considered.
- Record it in writing and capture the storyteller’s voice in audio or video recording.
A chronicler is someone who listens to you, asks clarifying questions and then helps you create stories that convey your values. The chronicler takes the raw data of events that impacted you and helps you shape a narrative that can serve as a guide for future generations. A chronicler can bring new life and dimension to your stories.
I’ve served as something of a chronicler to help my clients create compelling stories that document important events in their lives. One thing I’ve learned is that stories take time to craft and it helps to have someone asking you questions. Memories tend to get jumbled up over time, which can make it difficult to tell a coherent story. Stories also tend to change and improve with their telling. The more a story is refined, the more it seems to impact the listener.
The other thing I’ve learned is that a story doesn’t have to be perfect the first time you tell it. In fact, I prefer to have my clients engage in stream-of-consciousness thinking, where they simply flow with what’s in their mind while I document it. Then I can ask questions to help clarify the timeline of events and their meaning.
My other recommendation is that you document decisions you made and alternatives you considered. For example, I know that my great-grandfather stayed in a hotel when smallpox hit his family. But I don’t know who made this decision, why they made it or what other options they considered. It would be helpful to me to know what they didn’t choose and why. Sometimes, the path you don’t choose says as much or more about your values as the path you do choose.
Finally, I recommend that you have your story recorded so that it is preserved for future generations. This can serve as a resource to your heirs when they are facing big decisions or trying times. I know, for certain, that if a story had been written down about how my great-grandparents coped with smallpox and quarantine, I would absolutely have read that story when dealing with the COVID-19 quarantine.
WHAT STORIES DO YOU WANT TO TELL?
Effective stories convey the guiding values that often allowed a family to build wealth. These values can also inform the generations who follow to make decisions that preserve the family wealth. If you never tell your story, your experiences and perspectives will be lost to time. But if you tell powerful stories, your heirs might not only feel closer to you, they might also be the beneficiary of your wisdom. If I can help you craft your story, please reach out to me for a conversation.
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