“Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life.”1 —Barbara Kingsolver
Over the years I have heard many people cite the fact that the Bible frequently talks about money. Depending on the translation you use, there are as many as 2300 verses that reference money, wealth, or possessions. You may be familiar with some of these:
- “The borrower is a slave to the lender.” Proverbs 22:7
- “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”1 Timothy 6:10
- “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Acts 20:35
The Bible of course is literature. It turns out, money is a vast topic in many forms of literature (second only to love, perhaps).
There would not be literature without people, nor would there be money.
To succeed in the financial services business, a business about money, we must first understand people. To understand people, we must collect stories about them. Humans are not predictable and determinative like algebraic equations. Human lives display “narrativeness.”
To apply knowledge about the human experience we need both to read about people in the form of stories, and also share what we learn from those stories.
Question: Are you reading fiction, whether short stories or novels? Are you gathering stories to help you better understand your clients?
Gaining Financial Education through Fiction
I came across an intriguing paragraph while reading articles posted on Knowledge@Wharton, an online business journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
“When you read a great novel and engage with its characters, you sense from within what it is like to be someone else. You see the world from the perspective of a different social class, gender, religion, culture, sexual orientation, moral understanding, or other features that define and differentiate human experience. By living a character’s life vicariously, you not only feel what she feels, but also reflect on those feelings, consider the nature of the actions to which they lead and, with practice, acquire the wisdom to appreciate actual people in all their complexity.”2
Fiction, when well-written, helps us to understand real people by first seeing the world through the experience of fictional characters. Such insights are as necessary in financial services as in any discipline. If we are not equipped to understand what motivates people, how can we possibly grasp their limitations, clearly see their problems, or recommend appropriate solutions? People do not always act rationally or, seemingly, even in their own self-interest.
This is the point Barbara Kingsolver made. Empathy is necessary to successfully build a trusting clientele.
Sometimes we need empathy to understand the collective actions of an entire people. (Macro.) Usually, we need empathy to better understand the individual people we meet. (Micro.)
Consider the Brexit vote. People on that occasion seemingly voted against their own economic self-interest. This could have been foreseen by economists who were familiar with Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, in which he astutely observes that human beings will sometimes willingly act against their self-interest precisely to demonstrate their unpredictability.
“To care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred. Whether it is good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things.”3
First Example: Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862. As a novelist and author of short stories, she “drew upon her insider’s knowledge of the upper-class New York aristocracy to realistically portray the lives and morals of the Gilded Age.”4 The expression, “Keeping up with the Joneses,” is said to refer to her father’s family. Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Literature, for her novel The Age of Innocence. Her novel The Custom of The Country provides insight into a behavior still common today. Insatiable greed.
The novel’s subject is Undine Spragg, a beautiful, vain, spoiled, ambitious, and selfish woman. Undine feels entitled to live a luxurious lifestyle and she intends to live it to the fullest. Her indulgent overspending leads to marital stress and financial strain.
“She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.”5
Second example: Honoré de Balzac wrote a series of some 90 novels and novellas collectively known as The Human Comedy. The books that made up the series were published between 1829 and 1847. Eugénie Grandet is one such novel first published in 1833. The novel is a provocative, entertaining, moral tale about avarice and stinginess that remains astonishingly relevant.
Honoré de Balzac was no stranger to the tyranny of money. He studied law and philosophy but to his family’s dismay (some things never change) he settled on a literary career, in which he was not initially successful. He failed in his publishing and business ventures and landed in debt. He wrote at a feverish pitch, fueled by gallons of coffee, and an urge to be financially successful.
In Eugénie Grandet we meet Felix Grandet, a master cooper, who married the daughter of a wealthy timber merchant. This took place when the French Republic had confiscated the lands owned by the Catholic Church. Felix Grandet auctioned his wife’s dowry in order to buy substantial property. At this time, his only daughter, Eugénie, was ten years old. Soon more wealth fell into Grandet’s lap by way of inheritance of the estates of his mother-in-law, grandfather-in-law, and grandmother.
With all this wealth, he was an unhappy miser. No one but his banker was invited into the house. Wealth made him powerful, but not generous.
“The miser does not believe in a life to come; the present is everything for him.”
Other novels explore similar important financial lessons:
- “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” Read more about the depth of this truth in The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
- “You cannot count on an inheritance.” This is graphically depicted in The Nest, by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.
- “Only fools treat their money with childish contempt.” This, and other valuable lessons are learned from reading , by J.D. Salinger.
- “Spend within your means, or misery will ensue.” Like the reality of this experience, this subtle lesson is discovered in Gustave Flauebert’s Madame Bovary.
Fairy Tale and Fable View
Aesop’s Fables are so prized as a source of proper moral and practical education (including financial education) that the entire collection is available free on a website hosted by the Library of Congress.6 Consider The Miser and His Gold:
“A Miser had buried his gold in a secret place in his garden. Every day he went to the spot, dug up the treasure and counted it piece by piece to make sure it was all there. He made so many trips that a Thief, who had been observing him, guessed what it was the Miser had hidden, and one night quietly dug up the treasure and made off with it.”
The Miser valued the gold so much that he continually wrapped his arms around it and whispered his affections for it. His world revolved around it.
“When the Miser discovered his loss, he was overcome with grief and despair. He groaned and cried and tore his hair.
A passerby heard his cries and asked what had happened.
‘My gold! O my gold!’ cried the Miser, wildly, ‘someone has robbed me!’
‘Your gold! There in that hole? Why did you put it there? Why did you not keep it in the house where you could easily get it when you had to buy things?’
‘Buy!’ screamed the Miser angrily. ‘Why, I never touched the gold. I couldn’t think of spending any of it.’
The stranger picked up a large stone and threw it into the hole.
‘If that is the case,’ he said, ‘cover up that stone. It is worth just as much to you as the treasure you lost!’”
The Moral: “A possession is worth no more than the use we make of it.” In other words, wealth for the sake of itself—merely for bragging rights—is worthless.
Aphorisms and Maxims
The writings of Benjamin Franklin (under the pseudonym Poor Richard) often tackled topics of money and business. Entitled Poor Richard’s Almanack, this collection contains many truths that are simple to use when instructing clients.
- “Rather go to bed supperless than rise in debt.” Franklin had a great disdain for being in debt. In those days, if you were in debt, the whole town knew it. He would rather be hungry than owe money.
- “Tis easier to suppress the first desire than to satisfy all that follow it.” Franklin compared “Wants vs. Needs.” Fighting the urge to spend money makes it easier to suppress future desires to spend.
- “For age and want, save while you may; No morning sun lasts a whole day.” There is no time like the present to begin saving for old age and times of need.
- “Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship.” Franklin knew that little things add up. Spending just $1.50 per day, five days a week, for fifty-two weeks = $360!
A successful independent financial professional is someone who seeks to understand people. To gain this understanding requires reading stories, nourishing empathy, and listening closely to the client. None of us will live long enough to gain the wisdom that humanity collectively has accumulated. This collective wisdom is found in novels, short stories, fables, and aphorisms.
Clients deserve the wisest advice we can give. That wise advice is readily available—if only we will read.
- Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vintage; Reprint edition (August 30, 1994).
- The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton, page 362, Bantam Classics; Later Printing edition (May 1, 1991).