work ethic

Letters to Our Children #1: About Money

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This is the first in our series, Letters to Our Children. It is intended to be a guide to money and financial planning. Those things happen in the context of life, so we need to begin with a broader focus.

Money is really handy. Those who have it tend to live longer, happier lives. They are able to do things that those without money cannot. In a variety of ways, money can be traded for time, which is what life is made of.

Just as a vehicle may be used to get back and forth to work, or as a getaway car by criminals, money can also be used poorly. We believe money should be invested wisely and spent well.

One of your most important forms of wealth is not usually thought of as wealth. Your human capital is your ability and willingness to employ marketable skills for customers or for an employer. Human capital translates into earning power – for example, physicians earn more than fry cooks. A portion of what goes into human capital is free: your attitudes and habits.

Human capital only has value when somebody pays you to put it to work. It is helpful to keep in mind that all worthwhile enterprises are in the helping profession. The grocer helps people feed their families. The car dealer helps people get where they need to go. The surest path to more income and wealth is to do a superior job of helping more people. The best career insurance is to help your employer help more people.

For now, we’ll leave it like this: money is useful, and it is helpful to understand how to make the stuff. Coming editions will focus on using it, protecting it, and managing it to meet your goals and objectives.

Clients, if you would like to recommend specific topics we might cover, or visit about anything else, please email us or call.

You Can Rig the System, Too

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Politicians are telling us that we would be doing better if the system was fair. “The system is rigged” is a bipartisan theme this season. Through incompetence or malevolence or greed, the powerful few are supposed to be holding us down.

If you know us, you know we don’t spend a lot of time arguing politics. It is no surprise that any human endeavor has room for improvement. More pointedly, there are things about our society that are terribly unfair—including some things that are deeply rooted.

Each of the seven billion of us retain the ability to wake up each day and make the most of what we have to work with. Our resources may be few or many; our challenges may be petty or life-threatening; each one of us has our own story and our own situation. But we can each make the most of what we have to work with, day by day.

In key ways, YOU can rig the system in your favor. This thought was inspired by a list going around the internet, ‘Ten Things That Require Zero Talent.’ We can judge the merits of this list with a simple thought experiment.

Imagine that you are an employer, providing a valuable product or service to the rest of society. Among your employees there are two in particular you are considering for promotion and a good raise. One of them has all ten of these traits, the other has none of them. Here’s the short version of the list:

Being on time; having a good work ethic; putting in the effort, having positive body language; demonstrating energy, attitude and passion; being coachable and prepared.

So as you think about the free items on this list, which employee will you choose to promote? (Please accept our apologies for asking such a silly question with such an obvious answer.) The simple fact is that one employee rigged the system in his favor, and the other did not.

Our point is that each of us has considerable influence on our own destinies. In election season we discuss political and societal issues, we challenge things that need challenging and support things that deserve support. As we do so, let’s remember that our first job is to wake up each day and make the most of what we have to work with.

A Lesson From An Old Friend

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Surveys indicate that many Americans dislike their jobs. If you are among them, I hope you are not irritated by the enthusiasm I have for my work.

“Job” is the key distinction, however. One individual who had a formative influence on my life did not have a job—he had an enterprise. Dean Sack founded the York State Bank in the World War II years, among many other endeavors, and ran it to the age of 92. If you have ever wondered how I arrived at the goal of working to age 92, this is it. I met Dean when he was 76, eleven years after he retired—a retirement that only lasted six weeks!

Ironically, much of our work is devoted to helping people fund and find fulfilling retirement lifestyles. Most do not have control over their working conditions to the degree that I enjoy. So retirement is a worthwhile and laudable goal for most, if not for me.

When the Depression hit in 1929, Dean was an adult, at work. He fascinated me, a student of history—and face it, not many want to hear an old man’s stories. So we grew close. Among the qualities that Dean showed: a hunger for new ideas, and to learn; consistency and honesty and integrity, no pretense and no bull; a tight focus on the things he could control. He and others of his generation did much to build their communities and the world.

I was fortunate to observe so much wisdom at an early stage in my career. Thirty years ago, nobody talked about ‘work-life balance,’ but Dean was the model for an integrated life: being the same person at work and play, with friends and customers, day and night.

We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before, as they say. Vast wisdom resides in those generations. The lessons we may learn cost nothing, but can be valuable beyond price. Here’s to our mentors and teachers and wise elders!