Once a client's goal is specified, in dollars, with a date then and only then the entire machinery of financial and estate planning can go into motion. We can allocate time, money, energy. We can measure and manage. We can hire, supervise, train, and fire. We can lay out timelines and project management grids. We can be strategic or tactical, macro or micro. We can be look at things from a 30 thousand feet perspective or drill down to a granular level. We can chart in many colors with flows and boxes, and sound effects if needed. We can create an "iron cage," as Weber called it, in which all the resources, financial or human, are lined up effectively and efficiently to deliver results on time and on budget for less than a client might expect to pay in fees for a comparable job with another firm. With a prorata goal, a project calendar, and some benchmarks, we can say at every moment that we are either on schedule or not, and if we are off schedule what corrective action we will take. What joy! Life organized to a farethewell, and driven by purpose, just like in the Protestant Work Ethic, or your Day Timer run mad. Nothing is left to chance except the goal itself.
When you begin to probe the goals the language changes. Even competent planners with no imagination or spiritual perspective begin to invoke words like vocation, calling, inspiration, wisdom, success, love, meaning, happiness, human flourishing, legacy, immortality, or grace. It is perhaps characteristic of our culture that thousands upon thousands are specialists in helping clients with the means. But no one gives a flip about the ends to which all this industriousness is devoted. Who comes forward when at a professional meeting we rally all those who are helping clients elevate or cultivate or refine their ends in view? If we held such a session at Advisors in Philanthropy, The Financial Planning Association, Association of Advanced Life Underwriters, or American Council of Trust and Estate Counsel, you could fit us all into a Dumpster with room left over for several sacks of garbage, an old TV, a carton of remaindered books, and maybe a broken down sofa.
I think we are passionate about means because our ends are so empty, so paltry, and so arbitrary, so unexamined that only by concentrating on the means to those ends can we avoid panic or despair. The story of Diogenes and Alexander hits this off nicely. Alexander visits the famous philosopher in his Dumpster, or at it was then called, his tub or barrel. When Diogenes asks Alexander the Great what he is up to, the general says, "I am off the conquer the world." When Diogenes asks what the general will do once he has achieved that goal, Alexander says he will rest. To which Diogenes replies, "See my dog sleeping in the sun? Why not lie down and rest with him now?"
If like Diogenes we think of ourselves as physicians of the client's soul, our test would not be whether we accomplished the client's goals (which are more often than not symptoms of moral decay and the sorry state of education) but whether we awakened the successful client from death in life. At the very least we should prevent clients from passing on their family values, at least until those values have been tested for possible taint or corruption, as we test the blood supply before giving transfusions. (I can think of certain families whose values have blighted entire nations for generations and may prove the undoing of planet earth.) I would not expect financial, tax or legal advisors to improve the client's moral health; advisors generally have zero professional training in moral philosophy or the pyschology of dealing with unscrupulous people in power. Nor do advisors themselves always live exemplary lives. We are just experts in means. Nor do I advise clients to do moral philosophy on themselves, any more than they would give themselves brain surgery or amputate their own gangrenous toe. Moral improvement is best left to an expert, a Dumpster Dweller in the tradition of Diogenes.
Forgive the satire; it is an old cure for what ails us. I only wish, like a good doctor administering a nauseating dose, I could make it taste sweeter so it would go down better. Generally patients just spit it out, unless you pinch their nostrils shut and force the spoon in hard, right to the gag point, or just beyond. They will thank us for it later.