Is it Time to Rescind the Biggest No-Go Zone of All?

Warning: this essay is all questions, no answers.

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There are lots of no-go zones in our lives, are there not? Our lives are filled with things that we simply don’t do when we’re among people, n’est pas? Call them rules or social niceties or manners or what you will; in here we’ll call them no-go zones, as in you must not go there. Going there would be bad manners. You’d be breaking the rules and it would be most improper. It would be in bad taste.

The easiest example of a no-go zone (forgive the crudeness here — it’s an unavoidable consequence of talking about behavior that most people believe to be impolite) is that of public defecation. Having just been olfactorily assaulted by an infant on a smallish airplane, I can’t help but think (at least as I write this, but otherwise not at all . . . ) about how seldom it is that this particular no-go zone — the public fecal release no-go zone — is breached, even though with 6 billion people on the planet the chances are that, at any given time, about 4.2 million of them are confronting the atmosphere (which we all share) in precisely the way the offending infant on the smallish plane did.

(Scatological aside for the arithmetic-head in you [the first ever in the FHB, and probably the last]: assuming that the deed takes, on average for everyone on the globe, one minute, and assuming that the act happens once per day per person, then each day the population of the globe requires 6 billion minutes to do the deed. One day contains 1,440 minutes [60 minutes per hour times 24 hours per day equals 1,440 minutes per day]. Dividing the 6 billion minutes per day required for everyone on the planet to move their bowel into the 1,440 available minutes per day, and assuming that it all happens uniformly, then, 4.2 million people are doing their doody every second of every day — and doing it, mostly, with no one observing them do it, via any sense or faculty [6 billion people-doing-the-deed-minutes per day divided by the 1,440 of available minutes per day equals 4,166,666.6666666666667 people doing the deed during each available minute].)

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Now I am not here to question the wisdom of that particular no-go zone (though, upon quick analysis, I say “yay” to that no-go zone. I’m for it by golly.) Hopefully, though, this example really solidifies for you what I mean when I refer to a “no-go zone.”

(And, I kid you not, it was only after about an hour of writing that I heard any pun in the juncture between the no-go zone phrase and the public fecal release example at all. Funny what the subconscious can conjure, eh?)

But I *am* here to question some other no-go zones.

In fact, every time I think that a no-go zone is justly a no-go zone — one that serves a good purpose, and one that therefore does good things by blocking certain things from happening — sooner or later I come to realize that the no-go zone is harmful, and shouldn’t be there at all.

For example (one far closer to the overall FHB theme than the example above) at one time in my financial health advising I used to tell clients that I didn’t work on the revenue side of their financial lives, i.e., that I only worked on the expense and balance sheet (a/k/a Asset Grid in JFRQ-land speak) sides. So, I would tell them, I can help you with your money-out, and I can help you with how you store your saved-up money, but when it comes to money-in, you’re on your own.

But after saying that to clients a couple of times I came to realize, first, that having a no-go zone like that was a mind-set vestige from the world of conventional financial planning (which knows no revenue model by which a financial planner can be paid directly for helping clients increase their labor-generated revenues) (what would the broker-dealer compliance department say?) (by contrast, it’s not hard to mock up a money manager, pulling in a percent a year on a retiree’s assets, arguing that the retiree should spend less, is it?), and, second, that the no-go zone impeded the client’s overall objective of improving his or her financial health (because for most people the revenue side of their financial life is the key determinant of their overall financial health, with planning for the come-what-may a distant second and things such as investing prowess as a “not even in the same ballpark” distant seventy-second place or so on the list).

So, just like that, kerplooey, the no-go zone fell by the wayside, and these days I am happy to help clients with the revenue side of their financial health, and do a lot of it (though by no means do I hone to a strict partyline rule that “more is better” when it comes to money-in) (though, all things being equal, particularly in terms of lifestyle and values [the place where the happiness deficit usually arises alongside the quest for more money-in], it’s far easier to be financially healthy with more money-in than with less).

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So lately I’ve been thinking about another no-go zone that I and most everyone takes as a given. This no-go zone, common in our culture and I believe many others, treats the numbers in a person’s financial life as a no-go zone. This no-go zone forbids talking about the numbers in one’s financial life with people outside one’s family (and indeed, many people think it’s just not right talking about it inside a family either) (a topic for another day, but I’ll just add quickly: moms and dads, you should talk about this stuff with your kids, and that’s whether you’re 40 with young kids or 80 with adult children).

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So the saying that people in polite circles never discuss sex and politics is incomplete and/or outdated, isn’t it? Those topics come up fairly often nowadays don’t they, certainly among friends, yes? So those no-goes are often fair game these days.

But how often do you hear people actually talking to other people about the numbers in their lives?

For instance, do you know how much your very best friend makes? Do you know how much is in his or her 401k or IRA or other retirement plan?

Do you know anyone who inherited money recently? If so, do you know how much it was?

Hmmm . . .

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I just had dinner with a bunch of folks from New York. People who live in New York are different from people who live in San Francisco. They’re great (just as New York is great), but anyone who lives most of their life on the piece of concrete and other human-made objects known as Manhattan are different from those who live most of their lives on the piece of concrete and other human-made objects known as San Francisco. They are very different places, each with their strengths and weaknesses, and each with the people who are drawn to the particular mix of strengths and weaknesses their city of domicile presents.

I bring this up here because a quintessential New Yorker made popular a song that might have the answer to the question we’re raising here, as perhaps the no-go zone that precludes all of us from talking about the numbers in our financial lives with even our best friends is a result of this thought:

Money changes everything.

I’m reminded of intra-family issues that arise when a person with parents and sibs hits the Silicon Valley big-time, with sudden wealth in the tens of millions of dollars generated by owning founders or near-founders shares, or pre-public offering options — the sort of securities that can, quite literally, make deci-millionaires out of young people with the ringing of a bell (or, more accurately, the first pricing on the first day of public trading of the now-publicly traded shares).

So ask yourself this: if your child was suddenly worth $10 million (or 50 or 20 or whatever), what would you do? How would you feel? What would you expect from yore child? Would you expect yore child to make you (feel) rich as well? Would you expect a new house? A new car? And what if your child refused? It happens.

And can you imagine a scenario where either or both you and your child came to wish that you had never known about the sudden wealth?

Would money change everything? And if you said “no” to that last question, are you really so sure of that?

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I’m also reminded of the very odd, very non-mainstream Operations teacher I had in school. Instead of talking about The Goal and widget manufacturing, this guy talked about information flow and continuous improvement and the number of M&Ms in each of dozens of bags bought at different drug stores.

And he was extreme. Extremely extreme.

The relevance here is that this teacher consulted to a company in Silicon Valley in which, following the teacher’s advice, every employee of the company knew how much every other employee of the company made. The teacher insisted that this was a great and smart way to do things; most of the students, however, wondered if this approach might not go just a little bit too far. Yes, information flow is important, and the more the better, they all said, but isn’t there something different about the numbers in people’s financial lives?

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The popular crapola media give us one counter-example. Most Sunday morning paper readers are familiar with the annual issue of Parade (is that the right name of that insert with the gossipy letters page at the front?) called something along the lines of, “How Much People Make,” where they show how much given folks make, from the celebrities of the day to salespeople hawking dthis, dthat and dthe other dthing (I just got back from Chicago), from coal minors subject to grave dangers to CEOs showered with huge fortunes (even if they retired long ago), and from doctors once universally admired but now viewed skeptically by many, to dock workers (Marlon and Lee and the birth of unions).

Next to other gossip, as this article always is, one has to wonder: Is there something gossipy about sharing one’s numbers with others? Or can it be done in a productive, caring way?

But, aside from Parade, can you think of another counter-example in the media? The PBS money shows (Ormond, Kawasaki, Ponds, etc.) never really put scale onto their advice do they? Maybe Ormond does (aside: I think she has gotten much better over the years) (though I still have some issues with what she says/how she says it) but I can’t remember any time when I heard any of these heads answer a question that had a dollar amount in it.

It’s just not done.

Not in polite circles, anyway.

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Now, I don’t have time to decently spin this tale out, and haven’t had time to fully think this thing through. But let this serve as a marker and as a reminder that I am going to be questioning whether the no-numbers-please no-go zone is helpful or harmful to people’s financial health in general.

Might it be that the no-numbers-please no-go zone comes from the desire of Da Man to keep everyone down, by telling them not to talk to each other about something which, if they did talk about it, would help them tussle their way out from underneath the oppression of Da Man? Is it, then, an age-old form of self-censorship with ulterior motives behind it? Is this the same thing as Google in China, the same thing as Bush/Cheney in the Whitehouse, only a whole lot older?

Is this:

Keep ’em stupid by keeping the information bottled up?

Or is Cyndi right, so that, by merely mentioning some numbers to your best friend you are apt to upset the applecart? Is it true that, by simply saying, Hey, Terry, I just got rich to the tune of $14,587,214.58, that then, as if by magic, with the snap of that finger of a sentence passing through your lips and the molecules vibrated thereby instantly fluffing up the hairs inside of Terry’s ears, nothing can ever be the same?

What sort of cause and effect is that?

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My hunch is that, somewhere down the line (years from now?), I am going to declare that the no-numbers-please no-go zone is harmful to people’s overall financial health, and make it go kerplooey for those in my charge, at least to some degree (perhaps via financial health groupwork).

And my further hunch is that initially the fallout from breaching that no-go zone will be substantial and difficult, but that over the long run much good will come from having people — in some context and with some people — openly talking about the numbers in their lives with other people.

It might do people a world of good.



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