I don’t know how it is in your house, but around mine — the kitchen is the heart of our home. And that 10-year-old faded & nicked Ikea black Bjursta kitchen table is sort of the aorta; endlessly beating through… Art projects and gift wrapping. Laughter and tears. Fart jokes and spilled milk.
That table has been with us when we lost another place-setting for Thanksgiving. When we added a whole new leaf, in a house brimming with life. It’s been a place of sharing. Caring. Of quiet conversations about why things are they way they are. And, the mysteries of our lives together, connected by that table.
Eventually my younger sister & I would learn how to help set that table. There was a special place for forks and knives, on top of the folded paper napkin, which always made me feel like we were in some sort of church for food. The ceremony of it all.
As kids we bowed our heads to say thanks for what we were about to eat, and then we’d talk about our day which amounted to one giant non sequitur-ed festival of family.
I can’t help but smile thinking about that butcher block table we sat around as a kid.
And of course today the conversations are different. Carpooling movies are recapped. Schedules are coordinated via text message. My kids specifically share their ‘high’ and ‘low’ of the day; surgically sharing for maximum emotional efficacy based on something I read on my iPad.
I also remember every salesman’s pitch, sitting right there — at our kitchen table. The steak knives. The vacuum. The 1000-in-1 uses for the latest magical cleaner, Avon, Amway, and the Herbalife. I’ve seen it all — sold at that table. All of them were going to make my parent’s lives magically better. Especially all of those great mutual funds my dad was buying from the guy who lived down the street from us.
Our kitchen table was going to be made out of gold & Japanese stocks…
It was the 80’s. My dad’s friend actually moon-lighted as an advisor. He was a “work friend” who was getting ready to retire in five years and just happened to really “know a lot about mutual funds.” And mutual funds are good. My dad’s friend was going to do the mutual fund selling thing full-time once he’d retire with his government-job pension. And this same man would sit down at dinner tables around the neighborhood — “helping” everyone, with a belly full of mom’s lasagna — or Mrs. Kaplan’s tunafish casserole, which actually wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.
I remember it like it was yesterday. He pulled out the chart… the one about compounding. And showed my dad how his $50 a month was going to make him a multi-millionaire. (My dad, not the salesman, right?)
Forget the disclosures about the commission or fees. Those were buried in the snazzy folder with the mountain of other paperwork filled with glossy photos of white people being rich. Then he’d talk about why Mutual Funds were so amazing.
“Look at those returns, if this keeps up you could double your money in 2 years…”
Japan, of course, eventually crashed. My dad sold at the bottom. Gold too. My dad moved that to silver instead. Commissions paid in-full each misstep of the way.
By day, Mr. Mutual Fund Expert was nothing more than a middle manager in a semi-dead-end government job. By night, he was the Woodside West Warren Buffett. I just made that up by the way — his name was Dave, but I did actually live in Woodside West.
Dave was good. Really good. He had all the trappings to prove it. Collectable car. A Corvette. A Harley. He had to be good at it, with all those toys. And the people in my ‘hood couldn’t get enough of the silky yarn he’d spin in every sentence. Because, he was selling a better tomorrow. A life like his: free of worry or fear. Almost sure-fire independence. Freedom funds full of choices, and lots of vacations.
My college was funded on a wink (and a smile).
It’s so sad really now that I know the truth. I almost wish I could go back to the days when life seemed so preciously innocent. But in every pain there is opportunity to gain better understanding, if of nothing else, about what you’re made of.
Watching what happened at that kitchen table is part of the reason I’m in the industry today. My parents treated him like the pope when he came over. The good silverware. None of my prized McDonald’s limited edition collectors Smurf glasses would grace our table that evening. I had the whole set, and still no way. The crystal came out for him. He was too good for such common pleasures. He was going to save us from ourselves.
In the end — he didn’t; of course. My dad’s savior moved out of the neighborhood a couple of years later (probably because there was no one left to sign up), to a bigger house, in a nicer neighborhood — because he was that good.
The next guy who sat at our table told us about how my dad’s friend was screwing us over. None of the funds were beating the market anymore….
My dad was crushed.
My dad’s friend was also selling A-shares. This new guy was going to sell us B-shares instead; they were better. (You industry-folk understand what a mind-F#%k that is). Basically, either way the salesperson got the same inflated commission.
This new guy was going to fix it though. And return my dad’s calls.
He didn’t. He moved too. Bigger house, better neighborhood.
So, what’s the moral?
In the end, the kitchen table didn’t really protect us from anything bad, really ever. The next guy was a crummy salesperson too. They all went to the same “financial advisor” school: Here’s the list of products we need you to sell, these pay the highest commission, go get ’em.
But I will tell you, that kitchen table… it’s important. It’s the place where you learn about attitudes & insights you’ll never garner from an online risk questionnaire a phone call, and definitely not from behind your faux cherry desk or during FaceTime. The hurts. The fears. the placement of a picture on the wall. The past, and the future.
It’s a place to be revered. And so is your place at the table.
I’m very blessed. I’m blessed because the day I left behind Wall Street and my role of selling products my life is so much better. The air is cleaner. The sky is just a bit more true blue. And, when you change the way things happen at the kitchen table you eventually remember what it’s for…
Last night some wonderful people fed dinner to me, and my boys. Our kids played together like they were best friends. We drank one of his favorite beers & I brought cupcakes for the kids.
We visited for 3 hours. And do you know how long we talked about his money? Five minutes.
Because the trust and truth is so rightfully, transparently, and simply deep. The understanding so thorough; the relationship is so steady that we’ve moved beyond a good day or bad day in the market. I’m not touting some manager who’s crushing it. Or end of days gold funds. Or some exotic Certificate of Deposit promising you market-like returns and no risk. Who can live like that?
I lay out the simple truth at their table the first day we met:
My job is to help you make better decisions with your money and If I can’t, I’m going to find people to help you who can. You’re the CEO, my job is simply to be at your beckoned call and give you the best advice I can. You can take my advice or leave it, you pay me for my advice, not the action in your portfolio. Sometimes I will be wrong, but hopefully I will have always done a better job in managing your expectations even in the face of these possibilities.
In the beginning of our relationship together this will all be a faith-based exercise, but hopefully over time as things unfold you’ll see the steady truth of what I’m telling you, and showing you with my action as we continue into the future together. There’s no penalty to leave me & you can ask me any question about anything, anytime.
And… my advice to you — is to spend less than you make. Look for the simplest solutions when you’re investing. And don’t stop paying attention, ever.
As a result, I’m not the guy they call for a hot tip…
I’m the guy they call when their dad just died. Or they’re getting married.
This last year, I spoke for the family at a funeral, had more holiday cards than ever, and sat at the table of honor among the closest friends and colleagues of the newlywed grooms.
Those Morgan Stanley commercials were cheesy, I know. Do you remember them? The guy standing there with mic in hand at the reception waxing on about that once little girl growing up into such a wonderful woman being betrothed today.
“But what do I know? I’m just her Morgan Stanley Advisor…”
It’s not because that’s not how it happens. It does. At least it can. It should. At that kitchen table… It’s just not supposed to be the place where you sell a pack of lies. It’s not supposed to be a place where you really ever sell anything. It’s way more special than that. It’s a place to tell someone the truth. To tell them what’s in your heart.
And that’s why I heart Wall Street.