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The Linear Life Is Dead

Bruce Feiler is an excellent author whose newest book, Life Is In The Transitions, refutes much of what we have been taught about successfully navigating life, all while cluing us into something that we already know but rarely say: Life isn’t linear.

In fact, Feiler puts it even more starkly: “The linear life is dead. The nonlinear life involves more life transitions. Life transitions are a skill we can, and must, master.”

My interest in this compelling notion is twofold. First, Feiler’s assertion hits me right between the eyes and I’d like to master the skill of deftly navigating life’s many transitions. And second, as a financial planner for a couple decades, one of my primary observations is that the vast majority of financial planning is catalyzed by life events and transitions:

· When do most people get private life insurance for the first time? Occasionally after buying their first home, probably after having their first child, likely after their second, but almost surely after someone close to them passes away.

· When do most people get a will done for the first time? Maybe after coupling, hopefully after having their first child, but almost definitely after going on their first major vacation away from said child.

· When do most people do a major investment portfolio review? Possibly after changing jobs (especially if they had a 401(k) at the old company and got a raise with the new company), but more likely after (recovering from) a market meltdown. (Interestingly, it’s not in the middle of the meltdown, which more often leads to paralysis.)

· When do most people pay off residual, revolving, early-in-life credit card debt? After being embarrassed that they had to tell their new spouse or life partner about it.

· When do most people conduct a comprehensive retirement analysis? After someone close to them retires (or dies).

· When do most people update their beneficiaries on their company insurance policies and retirement accounts (from their mom)? Sometimes after they get married, probably after they have their first kid, but definitely after they get divorced.

The Linear Life Fallacy

“Beginning around 1900,” Feiler writes, “a plethora of new time periods became popular: adolescence, midlife, retirement, geriatrics.” Then in 1957, psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis,” and in the early seventies, Daniel Levinson (Yale) and Roger Gould (UCLA) sent out a host of questionnaires, the answers to which led them to conclude that there are “four seasons of a man’s life” (yes, up to this point, it was only men who had been considered in any of these analyses).

They went so far as to conclude that there were very specific years in which each of these phases were conceived: 17, 40, 60, and 80. Gould’s work was subsequently plagiarized and popularized through Gail Sheehy’s 1976 bestseller, “Passages.”

This all raises a couple of important questions: First, was Michael Scott’s boss/girlfriend in The Office named after a couple of 1970’s shrinks—Jan Levinson-Gould?? And, was there any validity whatsoever to the findings that came out of all of this work?

I’d bet the answer to the first question is Yes! But Bruce Feiler ultimately concludes that, while based in some truth, the phases of life findings are faulty, if not misleading, especially in today’s culture. He concludes, therefore, that “A hallmark of our time is that life is not predictable. It does not unfold in passages, stages, phases, or cycles. It is nonlinear—and getting more so every day.”

And isn’t this your experience? That the only thing that is predictable in life is its unpredictability? That the unifying theme of our lives is actually surprises that require course corrections—and that the more we fight those changes, the more challenges and pain we tend to endure? That’s certainly been my experience, personally, and that which I have observed in the lives of hundreds of families throughout my career.

A More Manageable Life

But here’s the good news Feiler delivers: Life is “more manageable, more forgiving of missteps, and more open to personalization, if you know how to navigate the new outbreak of twists and turns.”

The bad news is that financial planning, as a discipline, has also had a linear orientation. Do this in your 20s, that in your 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. Save [X] and spend [Y]; do this, don’t do that, and it’ll all work out. And phase-of-life planning is a temptation to which I have often fallen prey.

But the fact is that there are only three primary guarantees in life and financial planning: change, surprises, and failure. We like to think of them as the exceptions to the linear rule, but the longer we live, save, invest, insure, learn, work, and retire, the more we realize that these “exceptions” are actually the norm. And when we recognize that, we can better plan for the unexpected.

When we expect change, we accommodate it by defaulting to flexibility. A job loss or a new job that requires a move isn’t paralyzing.

When we expect surprises, margin (in both our balance sheet and our budget) allows us to navigate them with ease. A new auto transmission, replaced roof on the house, or a special needs child born later in life can be absorbed, completed, and welcomed, respectively.

And when we expect failure, we are so much more forgiving of ourselves and those we love when it happens. This way that which we value most in life—relationships—doesn’t become more important than our goals.

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