I was an 18-year-old punk with a monumental chip on my shoulder. You know, the kind of kid certain of his indestructability, sure of his immunity from the dangers of self-destructive behavior.
At 2:00 a.m. on a random Wednesday morning in June 1994, after a long day and night of double-ended candle-burning, I set out for home in my Plymouth Horizon. At the time, my car was bedecked with stickers loudly displaying the names of late-60s rock bands. No shoes, no seatbelt, no problem.
Not even halfway home, I was awakened by the sound of rumble strips, just in time to fully experience my car leaving the road and careening over an embankment. After rolling down the hill, the vehicle settled on its wheels and I, surprisingly, landed in the driver’s seat. But all was not well.
Broken glass. My right leg was visibly fractured. I had hit the passenger seat so hard that it was dislodged from its mooring. Blood dripped on my white T-shirt.
I was well steeped in the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series, so I knew what was coming next — an explosion. Naturally, I busied myself with the task of escaping a fiery death.
The driver’s side door wouldn’t open, so I climbed across the center console with its five-speed stick shift. I’d later learn I had a broken femur. And a broken pelvis. The passenger door was also inoperable, so I crawled into the back seat, now really beginning to feel the pain. Neither of those doors would open. Metal had rolled down over the doors.
I gave up, right then, right there.
Four hours later, shortly after sunrise, a truck driver spotted the car. Soon thereafter, I was being shuttled into a helicopter headed for the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The last thing I remember hearing was, “This doesn’t look good. I don’t think this kid’s gonna make it.”
That initial prognosis almost proved accurate. At the hospital, my left lung collapsed. Uncooperative even when unconscious, I fought the breathing machines. The medical staff induced a coma, where I remained for five days. My parents were told that my chances of living had fallen below 10%.
Family and close friends were notified.
Obviously, I made it. But I suffered immensely with how to knit this incident into my life’s narrative. This wasn’t just some random, tragic occurrence. It was a natural outcome of poor decisions. I couldn’t reconcile why I’d been spared — a punk kid who didn’t care about anyone but himself.
I spurned physical therapy. I didn’t submit to psychological analysis for more than 12 years, until, after a series of panic attacks, I was diagnosed with symptoms of PTSD. There was simply no ignoring or escaping the shame of the most embarrassing event in my life.
But that chapter had to become part of my story.
I began working in the financial industry long before I learned to welcome this reconciliation, and I found myself right at home. Everyone seemed to be in the business of pretending. And it seemed to touch on everything.
How to dress, what car to drive, where to go to the gym. I was even taught how to answer the question, “So, how are you doing?” I couldn’t be entirely honest, of course.
I was just scraping by, in relative poverty, trying to convince the well-off to rely on me for financial advice. So, to salve my conscience, my sales manager had instructed me how to respond to that most common of questions in a way that was, as all the best lies are, partially true: “I’m doing…unbelievable!” Indeed.
I thought to myself: If I appear smart enough, educated enough, credentialed enough, experienced enough, then they will trust me. Believe me. (Pay me.)
Unfortunately, while the financial industry has built its case to the collective client by projecting a façade of impenetrable eminence, it has ignored the opportunity to build trust the way its built best. By being who we are. By being something most financial advisors are taught to never be — vulnerable.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage,” writes Brené Brown in her book, . (If you haven’t seen her inspiring, “The Power of Vulnerability,” treat yourself and join the 18 million souls who have.)
Perhaps the financial industry could exhibit more truth, financial regulators more courage, and advisers more vulnerability?
One financial adviser put vulnerability to the test on the biggest stage possible.
Carl Richards, one of my friends and colleagues, had reached every outward milestone of success. He was running a thriving independent advisory firm, writing for The New York Times, and working on his first book. But he knew there was a piece of him — a big piece — that he hadn’t yet reconciled with his personal story.
So he did the previously unthinkable. This financial adviser his biggest financial mistake. In the Times.of
What happened next was both fascinating and frightening. Richards, who wrote about losing his over-mortgaged house when the housing bubble burst, was strongly supported by some people in the financial world. Others, however, decried Richards as a professional heretic. Some even called for his credentials to be stripped. How dare he acknowledge financial fault and crack the public’s perception of our profession as perfect?
That stung, but the broader impact of Richards’ authenticity was remarkable. I asked him recently, “Now, three years since publishing your biggest financial mistake for the world to see, how much of an impact has that step in vulnerability had on your work and life?”
“A massive impact,” Carl said. “The surprising side effect has been what I’ve learned about the vulnerability of the human condition. None of us are immune. People have been willing to share with me because I’ve shared with them.”
My experience has been similar. The degree to which I’ve been willing to reconcile my worst moments with those I’d prefer that others see, the more I’ve been able to facilitate genuine relationships — genuine trust — with family, friends, clients and co-workers.
Of course I’m not suggesting that financial advisers should rely solely on anecdotal authenticity. Education, experience, credentials, a fiduciary ethic, and practicing what we preach are imperative. But they are a starting point. As Brown implores, “What we know matters, but who we are matters more.”
And who knows, vulnerability may even offer a competitive advantage as an adviser. While everyone else is trying to appear perfect, you can just be you.