I take a professional interest in any tools used by advisors to elicit values. Overall, while they are an improvement over not eliciting values at all, the tools have a sad quality about them, as if drawn from a culture in its waning moments, when the last light to flicker out is the cold blue light of the television. Here are a few exercises from values-based planners I know and respect:
- Client to sort cards, each with a value word on it (as, for example, "honesty.")
- Client to react to photos, each evocative of a value (as, for example, the photo of an infant holding a parent's finger.)
- Client to review 50 values and tick off which he or she holds dear.
- Client to paste photo of self at age 6 on a worksheet and supply his or her favorite activity, happiest memory, saddest memory, favorite story, etc. Exercise to be repeated for various ages.
- Client to tell story of life while being videotaped for posterity.
- Client to react to a series of questions, "What about that matters to you?" Money matters to you? What about having more money matters to you? Security? What about security matters to you? And so on.
- Psychological Testing: Kolbe test and others, to elicit phychological type.
- Client to create a list entitled, "What Matters Most," in bullet points.
- Client to collect 10 or so cracker barrel sayings, in the spirit of Ben Franklin, or Polonius, for the benefit of heirs: "Never borrow money, you can't repay." "Early to bed early to rise," "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today." "To thine own self be true."
- Client to reminisce about what he or she learned about money as a child. What family stories were told about money? What messages reinforced?
It is almost as if we were running a focus group for a new product, and were using the techniques we had learned from Madison Avenue for creating a brand or experience. We elicit these responses and then shape the plan or experience to suit the consumer. This, my Fellow Americans, is not wisdom. It not how wisdom is elicited, cultivated, passed on, or corrected. I am not saying such work is bad; it is good as marketing and client service, and will move money. It is far better than not discussing vision and values at all in the planning process. What I am saying is that, judged as meaning creation, or the elicitation of wisdom, as preparation for an existential life choice, it compares ill to the work of even a routine Fool in the Dark Ages, or a journeyman Sophist in Greece, or a bored Confessor in Catholicism. We can do better.
Dr. Amy Kass is, I believe, on the right track, in bringing into the philanthropic conversation the best that has been thought and said about vision, values, ethics, and obligation in our literary and religious traditions. That these texts are not clear on their face, that they are often at odds with one another, that they require interpretation, and that interpretations differ should be a wakeup call for anyone doing values-based planning. What would lead us to believe that the stories, the yarns, the tall tales, the daydreams, the lovely lies, told to us by our clients as evidencing their values, vision or destiny are any more reliable or any more transparent than is the surface meaning of a literary text? If you can't interpret a literary text, how can you interpret your client's stories and self-descriptions and self-delusions? Life is a stage. Every client is a text whose meaning is partly lost on the teller, no less than on the audience. (See "Oedipus," "King Lear," "Portrait of a Lady," or "Madame Bovary" for cases in point.) To understand the story - the story of one's own life - that is a fatal quest. We begin blind and end blind. The difference is that when blinded by the light we can see how blind we once were when we considered ourselves far-sighted.
As advisors seeking the client's meaning, vision, values, or destiny, we might as well turn to sortilege, Tarot cards, polygraphs, palmistry, and Rorschach blots as use the tools enumerated above. Better, though, that we use such simple techniques than never take the narrative turn at all. Perhaps any tool that elicits a client's story will work, so long as we know how to interpret the text. So, uh, King Solomon, What about wisdom matters most to you?
Well, let me qualify my remarks. The advisor who understands the client's values better than does the client himself or herself is a true Fool. We will do better as Courtiers to take the client's values at face value, and deliver the goods. Know thyself is poor advice. The man famous for that counter-productive saying was condemned to death by his clients. They realized later they had made a terrible mistake, but a lot of good that did him. He had already drunk the poison assigned to him and died an agonizing death. Maybe sticking to pictures of babies and all that would be prudent.