By Nick Richtsmeier
Many people in my profession would not make an immediate leap from the late physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking to our work of capital markets, mutual funds and financial planning. This is understandable. Our work in financial advising is overtly pragmatic. It’s either mathematical or fervently personal, with little room for theory or imagining the “why” behind what we do. It is—I suggest—so much like the world of science Hawking was awakened to 50 or more years ago. He watched as the imaginations of his peers went deeply to the practical, to the technological, while he dreamed of deeper questions about how and why.
The loss of Stephen Hawking to the intellectual community is a significant one. While he will too often be remembered for his atheism or for his ailments, his true contribution is one of imagination: believing that meaning and understanding was possible, where so many others had abandoned aspiration. Hawking wanted to be known for more than just science, he wanted us to understand why the world worked and why it didn’t and find our meaning somewhere in between.
While financial advice has little to say about the meaning of life or the purpose of the universe, I believe we’re the makers of meaning by profession. The best and most aspirational work of financial advice is to pull us up from the head-down work of financial modeling and help clients have the tools and resources to understand the “why” behind their financial world. We are at our best as educators and space-makers for a deeper engagement with the financial world, and all our work with our clients should spur on hope. This was the essence of Hawking’s work: he rejected hope in the ephemeral, but demanded it in the practical, believed that the harder we look at something and the more we demand that it make sense and prove its logic, the more we could be liberated to see the possibilities of a better future.
Financial advising is a business which, if it’s not careful, will very soon surrender to the waves of technology as the solution for all things. We will become a business where simplicity and low cost are our highest goals—a commodity to be priced on the Nasdaq. Our only escape from this tide of depersonalization is the power of meaning-making. The power to look the world as it’s coming to our clients: a world of social interconnectivity, technological acceleration, soul-level isolation and geo-political anxiety.
We have the opportunity as financial advisors to hold space for every client to examine these forces with intelligent curiosity, see them as opportunities rather than threats, and engage in the making of meaning for their one and only life. It was Stephen Hawking who said:
“We are all different. There is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit.”
As financial advising is a distinctly human profession, one that requires the heights of aspiration to be connected to the solid ground of reality, we would do well to be the unlikely carriers of the Hawking legacy by embracing a handful of his core principles:
- Change is necessary and good. Fear of change is always grounded in an unwillingness to grow. If we believe as Hawking did that expansion and growth is at the core of the human mind, financial advisors have nothing to fear in a world that is quickly moving beneath our feet.
- Data is the basis for optimism. Too often a feelings management is masquerading as optimism. Hawking believed that we could allow real data and real science to lead us to places of defensible hope in the future. Advisors would be wise to abandon touchy-feely sales tactics and embrace a world where the science of our profession provides guideposts for clients to move forward.
- Wonder why we are the paths to meaning. Most advisors entered the profession in search of meaningful work. Hawking’s research reminds us that we cannot find meaning by looking at ourselves. We must find meaning by way of curiosity and a pursuit for the reason behind our assumptions.
The intersection of the curious mind and the open heart are the critical features of those who will make the future in financial advice. The flexibility, humility and wonderment required at that intersection may be rare in our industry (like so many others), but it’s not impossible. And maybe, if Hawking was correct, there is little that is.
Nick Richtsmeier is the Chief Innovation Officer at Trilogy Financial and Chief Operating Officer of its independent Registered Investment Advisor Trilogy Capital.