I’ve always had a keen interest in my family’s history and began recording it when I was a teenager. Recently I started converting my grandfather’s old home movies into digital files. I wanted to preserve these family scenes for the generations who will follow me. I also reviewed notes and journals that my grandfather had written for his heirs. In these messages, I find my grandfather describing his morals and what he wanted us to know about his life and our family history.
He did this to communicate values, create family unity and give us an identity. But I believe he also did this to encourage his heirs to be good stewards of wealth. Among the clients I serve, this is a major concern. If you would like to preserve your family wealth for the generations to follow, telling family stories might be one of the most effective ways to do so. Here are some ideas to help you do this.
THE NOSTALGIA OF HOME MOVIES
The home movies I discovered were actually housed in round tins that, once I opened them, contained rolls of old-fashioned films on a reel. These movies have no sound, so when they are played, all we see is what was filmed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Most of the footage is from family events, like my grandfather’s birthday party, holidays and special get-togethers.
There is something deeply nostalgic about seeing people as children who are now in their 70s or older. My grandfather and grandmother had eight children. In the movies these children, my aunts and uncles who are very special to me, are just starting their lives. They are young and active and full of energy. They love running around with my grandfather who also seems so happy.
In fact, there is a moment where my grandfather takes my grandmother by the hand and gives her a special look. It’s one of the most tender moments I’ve ever seen between them. I see my grandparents in love with each other. That’s deeply affirming to me; to know that my grandparents had a strong and loving bond between them.
But I also know that they had their issues. They sometimes bickered about the details of events they were trying to recall. I know that my grandmother faced some rather stressful times. My grandfather, as an executive in a thriving business, worked six days a week and very long hours which often left him with little time at the end of the day. This meant my grandmother was alone much of the time raising eight children. I don’t know how she did it.
VALUES, STORIES AND FAMILY WEALTH
I believe these stories and home movies are very important for my family. In fact, I’ve been learning about the importance of family stories and how they communicate values as I pursue the goal of becoming a Registered Life Planner®. Financial Life Planning helps people attain the life they long to live. Life Planners empower clients to discover and articulate their most essential goals in life. Life Planners also work with clients to cultivate the financial conditions necessary to live the life of their dreams.
Some of the families I serve have already accumulated multi-generational wealth. One of their biggest goals is the preservation of that wealth for the generations who will follow them. What I’ve begun to discover, which is something I think my grandfather already knew many years ago, is that family stories communicate so much more than just information or entertainment.
Family stories, especially those that really matter, tell you what a family values and how a family has chosen to behave historically, even in complex or difficult times. This sets expectations and creates clarity and resolve for the generations to follow who will also face difficult times and have to make tough decisions. In this sense, family stories are one of the best possible strategies for preserving wealth because they equip younger generations with wisdom and values.
Family stories are often a defense against frivolous behavior that might cause wealth to be lost unnecessarily, as in the prodigal son story. But they also guide decisions regarding healthy, yet risky, behavior. In another article, I relate the story of how my grandfather lost his wealth later in life by taking on too much entrepreneurial risk. This was a risk worth taking, even though the outcomes were not good. In fact, risk seems to be at the heart of many powerful family stories I’ve heard.
For most of the clients I serve who have accomplished something financially significant, risk was a key part of the story. They risked something big, at some point, to achieve something great. This is what they want to communicate to the generations who follow them. The family wealth came at a cost to them, sometimes at a great cost. The wealth represents something so much bigger than just numbers or bank accounts or investment holdings. The wealth represents the personal sacrifices they made to ensure their family had a secure future.
But telling family stories is not something that necessarily comes naturally or easily to everyone. More importantly, not every story is helpful for communicating values or creating resolve. Some true family stories might be, at best, examples of what NOT to do in life. This is why I’ve developed a set of questions that I believe can allow you to create and communicate the stories that will most likely preserve family wealth:
- Where did the motivation come from to create the wealth?
- What do the patriarch and matriarch want for the generations to come?
- What values will guide how we behave and what we do and don’t do?
- How do we shape stories that communicate our values effectively?
- How and when do we use the stories?
WHERE DID THE MOTIVATION COME FROM TO CREATE THE WEALTH?
I’ve been fortunate to listen to many family stories, particularly from patriarchs and matriarchs who were instrumental in producing the family’s wealth. These stories amaze me. As I listen to these people, I’m seeking to identify one major thing — the motive for why the wealth was created in the first place.
This gives me a window into their soul and what it felt like to be them during the struggle. I know that most people who accumulate wealth in this country do so by way of a struggle, a hard road, a fight, some major obstacles to be overcome. But the question is—why would they do that? Why would they fight?
I find that many people who are highly motivated to fight their way toward success had some painful event early in their life that impacted them and that still haunts them today. Sometimes this is the death of a provider or an accident or disease that left someone debilitated. Sometimes it is emigration from another country, like my family. Sometimes it’s just outright poverty and a desire to never go without again.
If this is true for you, then I recommend that you find a way to tell this story. Your heirs probably don’t know what it felt like to face those situations. How could they? Your sacrifice has ensured that they don’t know what it feels like. Yet, if you want your heirs to be as careful with your wealth as you would be, they need to know why you were willing to fight for it.
WHAT DO THE PATRIARCH AND MATRIARCH WANT FOR THE GENERATIONS TO COME?
One tension-spot in multi-generational families concerns what to do, or not do, with the wealth. There can be very different visions for how the wealth should be used between, say, grandparents who created the wealth and grandchildren who will inherit the wealth. These sorts of differences are normal, but there are healthy ways, and not-so-healthy ways, to approach them.
I believe that patriarchs and matriarchs absolutely deserve a voice in what happens with the wealth that they or their forebears created. That being said, we all realize at some point that we cannot live our children’s or grandchildren’s lives for them. They have to make their own choices. This is where family stories can really help.
Before we discuss those, let’s examine two techniques that some family leaders use to try to assert control over their wealth. First, in some instances, estate planning vehicles can limit the range of options for how wealth can used. These vehicles can be good safeguards if you have heirs who are prone to self-destructive or frivolous behaviors. But if your heirs do not see themselves this way, this approach can create a lot of tension and may not produce buy-in to your vision.
Second, some family leaders repeat over and over again what they want younger family members to do with the wealth. This can be off-putting for young people who might feel they are being preached to or who feel that their vision for the wealth is just as legitimate and worthy as the wealth creator’s. This approach can actually drive young people away from your vision rather than cause them to embrace it.
I find that family stories can be a subtle, but often clear, way of describing what patriarchs and matriarchs want to see happen with family wealth. My recommendation is that you take some time to reflect on what you want to see happen with your family wealth and actually write it down. But then don’t say that. Instead, find one or more family stories from your history that communicate the point. Telling these stories usually gets the message across without young people feeling that they are being preached to. We are all trained, from childhood, to look for the moral of the story.
WHAT VALUES WILL GUIDE HOW WE BEHAVE AND WHAT WE DO AND DON'T DO?
It’s easy to talk about values but sometimes it’s much harder to see them in action and understand the connection between values and behavior. For example, first-generation wealth creators probably deserve a month-long vacation, jaunting across Europe. But is this the right thing for their 20-something grandchildren to do—even if they can afford it? Does this align with the family’s values?
Sometimes it’s not all that effective to simply state your values. If you want to communicate your values to younger generations in a way that shapes their behavior and choices, stories might be the best option. Here is a simple exercise to help you do this.
First, carefully reflect on the values that have guided the choices you’ve made and how you’ve behaved. Sometimes, it is easiest to do this in the presence of a wealth manager who can ask you questions and document your answers. I find that most people tell me of their experiences and the moments that shaped them and then describe the values that arose out of those experiences. The values statement is almost a by-product, an after-the-fact conclusion, of the experiences.
Second, I recommend that you make a list of at least the top five values that have served your family well. It’s also a good idea to describe why these values matter to you and how you feel about them. Third, identify a set of stories that show when the values were put to the test in your life. Be prepared to tell these stories, which is what we will focus on next.
HOW DO WE SHAPE STORIES THAT COMMUNICATE OUR VALUES EFFECTIVELY?
Learning to become an effective storyteller is crucial to telling stories that work, that change hearts and minds and preserve wealth. In reviewing my grandfather’s notes and written documents, I find a lot of statements, some of which resonate with me deeply. Other statements are not as meaningful to me.
My grandfather did not have the benefit of working with a Registered Life Planner®. Even though he told me many effective stories, I wonder how much better his stories could have been if he would have had a guide? I believe effective stories draw upon a few simple guidelines:
- They follow a narrative arc: a beginning, middle and end.
- They communicate a meaningful point.
- They can be expanded or contracted based on the amount of time available. In other words, great stories can be told in 30 seconds in an elevator or in 20 minutes over dinner, while still getting the point across.
- They contain details that communicate a sense of place and time, like home movies.
- They fascinate the listener and hold their attention.
- The contain a moral without hitting people over the head with it.
As you think about the stories you want to tell your heirs, how can this framework help you? How can your stories be made more effective?
HOW AND WHEN DO WE USE THE STORIES?
It can be very helpful to have a set of stories available to tell your heirs to communicate your values. But for the stories to be effective, it’s important to know how and when to tell them. Young working adults, especially those with small children, have very little free time. I find that it’s most effective to tell stories when time is on your side, when you have free moments of uninterrupted communication. I encourage you to look for these moments, or better yet, actually plan for them. Let me explain.
There are typically two ways to tell the stories: one-on-one or to a group of two or more people. I find that one-on-one stories often come across best when you are having lunch, taking a walk or going for a drive. This also allows your family member to ask questions. If a loved one has small children, consider hiring a baby-sitter or scheduling another family member to watch the children.
When telling stories to groups of family members, planning is essential. My colleague Bob Legan recently wrote an article about family vacations as a great time to tell family stories. But family dinners, religious events, holidays, birthday parties and other gatherings can be excellent times to tell stories. The counsel above about shaping stories to the time allotted should help you make the best impact.
It’s also advisable to consider recording your stories on video. I wish the home movies my grandfather took had sound. I would love to hear what was said, the laughter, the voices of small children who are now aged or passed on. Video recording your stories preserves them for the generations who will follow in a way that is highly impactful. Your unborn heirs will hear your words, your stories, your inflections, in your own voice.
HOW CAN I HELP YOU USE FAMILY STORIES EFFECTIVELY?
I believe that family history and stories are one of the most effective ways to communicate values. They help your heirs understand why you took risk in building wealth and the sacrifices you’ve made. They help you express what you want your wealth to do for the ones you love. If you would like to discuss with me how to develop family stories that can help preserve your wealth, let’s have a conversation.
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