Financial Life Focus

How to clearly navigate your financial life

Music, Money and Life: How they all work together!

What can we learn from Dmitri Shostakovich about life and money?

The other day, while driving, I turned on the Classical music station. To my delight, they were in the midst of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. It immediately snapped me back forty years to the first time I ever heard this piece. I had just finished a lesson with my trumpet teacher who wanted me to hear his new Bose 501 Reflective Speakers and he selected the 4th movement for the demonstration. The composition opens with a thunderous roar: timpani, trumpets, and trombones exploded through the speakers' and shook the room. I was transfixed by the power of the music. The air in the room was replaced by a symphonic whirlwind, courtesy of Bose's 5-sided reflecting speakers. I expected to see paint chips flying off the walls. Several minutes later, though, the spectacular sounds were replaced by something quite starkly different - gentle passages that were barely audible. What really caught my attention was the dramatic transition from the galloping pace of the opening to the subtle passages that followed. The ethereal violins carried me into a totally different place. Finally, the symphony resolved into a roar of brass and timpani. As I had done that first day, I sat back in my car and allowed the majesty of it all to sink in. It all fit so perfectly.
People do not often compare masterful symphonies with financial planning-but bear with me. That dramatic transition I was talking about, the shift from the fire to ether so to speak, reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a client.
My client - let's call him Jim - had received notice that his position with his employer was being eliminated. He would be separated from service in the next forty-five days. Not surprisingly, he was in a panic. A flood of emotion, mostly anger and fear, reflected throughout the room. Next to him, his wife, Peg, sat in silence. Invectives flew, accusations projected around the room, he verbally tore into anything and everything at hand. I almost expect to see chips of paint flying off the conference room walls. The world had treated him with great disrespect, after all!
As a financial life planner, a good deal of my energy is devoted to listening and truly hearing the client. What I heard was chaotic fear! How would Jim provide his family with security? He was forty-eight years old and he had worked for this pharmaceutical firm for over twenty years. The pharma industry was consolidating and his specialty was just not that much in demand.
Thankfully, Jim and Peg were good savers and handled financial challenges very well. They had accomplished many of their financial check offs, such as emergency fund, insurance protection, college savings plans and retirement accounts. While they had not attained financial independence, they were financially responsible adults who lived within their means. Peg worked part time to provide some extras for their family. The problem here was not that they would go into debt or have to sell the house. The problem was Jim. Admittedly, this was a tough position for him to be in. Yet, his fear and anger made it very difficult for me to make any suggestions. As Jim's volume reached the top of the crescendo, I looked over at Peg and asked, "What do you think, Peg?"
Peg took her time before answering. Her silence cleaned up some of her anger in the air. She spoke in a very quiet and measured way. "Jim, I love you and I know you are hurting. I also know it will be alright. I think, with Michael's help, we can put any fears aside as to our ability to meet our obligations. We may need to change our thinking about the future and what's next. Perhaps now is not the best time to do so, but, perhaps after a little time has gone by we can begin to talk about this in a constructive manner." She paused, then added, "I have heard you many times over the last several years talk about getting out of the corporate rat race."
The room was consumed in a silence that lasted more than just a few measures. Jim exhaled audibly; he obviously heard Peg loud and clear.
Thirty days later, Peg and Jim were back in the office. This time, Jim's enthusiasm and positive energy replaced the bombastic performance of his last visit.
"Michael, I want to apologize for the horrible outpouring last month. I guess I was too carried away."
"Jim, there is no apology necessary; my job is to hear you and understand what you're dealing with to the best of my ability. Life presents challenges and this is a big one. I am here to help in whatever way possible. Tell me where things stand now?"
"We've been doing a lot of thinking about the future. Believe it or not, in the short term, I will be a substitute chemistry teacher. I have always enjoyed teaching and certainly chemistry is my training. The biggest bonus is that I was asked to help coach the soccer teams. I am pretty excited about that, too. If I find that I really enjoy it, I can apply for a teaching certificate and pursue a full time position. What it comes down to is, I have the opportunity to explore some options."
I have to admit; even I was surprised at his turn around. "Wow! How did all this happen, Jim?"
"Peg's sister knows the Superintendent of Schools in a neighboring district who had been seeking a fill-in Chemistry teacher for over a month. It is a perfect fit in terms of my interest, availability and ability. I look forward to the challenge."
The meeting evolved into a discussion of other work and family related transitions. The notes were positive, strong and vibrant; the rhythm and tempo all blended into a fine cohesive resolution. I couldn't help but think about the stark difference from the first meeting to the second and how the transition flowed. It was a musical moment; the loud and bombastic to the soft reflective thinking, finally resolving into a strong and meaningful finish. I thought about that experience of hearing those great speakers and that incredible symphonic piece and immediately saw the similarities between the music and life. Even Shostakovich would have been impressed!

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Michael F. Kay, a Certified Financial Planner, practitioner and a CPA, is president of the firm Financial Life Focus.

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