From the January 2004 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

January 1, 2004

Open a New Window

Can't get excited about another new year? Maybe you're viewing the future through the past, darkly

Once again, it's time to take down the old calendar and put up in its place a brand-new year, bright with hope, unmarked by any of the emotional, financial, and spiritual scars of years past.

As a New Yorker brought up on Broadway show tunes, I find myself humming the exuberant theme from Mame: "Open A New Window, Open a New Door." The end of one year is the perfect time to open a window and take a fresh look at life. Whether you decide to try a new direction or recommit to cherished goals and values, the start of a new year offers an opportunity to pause and make sure you like the view to where you're going.

If you're finding it hard to muster enthusiasm for the future, problems like these may be blurring your vision.

I used to enjoy making New Year's resolutions, but this year I just don't have the energy to think about changing my life. It's been a bad year, with the death of two close friends and the loss of another friend's son in Iraq. How can I acquire a more positive outlook? Before you can move forward, you may need some help in letting go of the pain you feel. Consider asking your pastor or local mental health agency about grief counseling. In a group or with a trained counselor, you will no longer be alone in dealing with your grief and can feel safe expressing the anguish and hopelessness that haunt you.

At the same time, try to reconnect with whatever activities help recharge your soul. This will gradually become easier as you lighten your burden of heartache. I would also suggest making time to explore something you used to love doing or always thought you'd enjoy. As the saying goes: "When one door closes, another opens."

I can predict with some certainty that if you honor the process of grieving and the memory of those you have lost, you will eventually regain some bounce in your step and in your spirit.

Our son, who is halfway through his junior year of college, wants to drop out, move to New York, and become a theater set designer. I know he's very talented, but I'm anxious about the huge risk he would be taking. If he fails, the investment in college will be wasted and we could end up supporting him for years. What should we say to him? Your parental concerns are valid and understandable. On the other hand, it's important not to smother the dreams of youth--a time of life abounding in the passion and courage to take risks and try new things.

This said, consider getting together with your son for a nice long schmooze. Begin by wholeheartedly supporting his dream of succeeding as a set designer. Once he feels that you understand what drives him, he may be more open to hearing your fears.

At this point in the dialogue, ask if he will consider an alternative to dropping out immediately. For example, you might propose that after he graduates from college, you will subsidize his efforts to break into the theater world for a year or two. If he's not willing to wait this long, suggest that he take a one- or two-year leave of absence from college to pursue his desire, with the understanding that he'll come back and finish his degree unless he's making enough money to support himself.

Above all, don't try to talk him into putting his dreams on hold indefinitely. I think it can be subtly devastating to people's self-respect when they are denied (or deny themselves) a chance to succeed in a field that calls to their spirit.

I recently heard the composer of the Broadway hit Hairspray, Mark Shaiman, tell an inspirational story of his dream to be a songwriter. With his parents' blessing, he left school at 16 (he later earned a GED) and went to New York to seek his fortune on the Great White Way. Before long, he was accompanying Bette Midler on tour. He may have been a prodigy from the start, but I found it moving to learn that his parents didn't stand in the way of his passion--which has certainly ended in glorious success.

If you can master the delicate parental balancing act of cautioning reason and practicality while nurturing your son's dreams, I believe the two of you will end up building a stronger relationship that benefits you both over time.

In our year-end evaluation, a client kept talking about a former holding of his that lost money more than a year ago. It's a stock that was originally bought by his father, who recently suffered a severe stroke. My attempts to calm my client's agitation only made matters worse. He ended by saying that he wants to take all his money out of the stock market and put it in laddered Treasuries. I respect his need for financial security, but how can I persuade him to be more rational? The emotional burden of seeing beloved parents become debilitated can easily drain someone's energy and clarity of thought. This, coupled with the financial trauma of the recent past, may be causing your client's seemingly irrational behavior.

Take time to talk with him about how he feels and why. Validate his need for things in his life that seem safe and secure. He might welcome your offer to strategize about ways to ease his sadness about his father. Even if his dad is being well cared for, your client may need to reach out for support to close friends, family, or folks at a nearby church, synagogue, or community center.

As you explore these options, you may be able to help him feel less shaky. Ideally, you can then encourage him to see that extreme risk aversion is not the best course. Perhaps the two of you can then work out a new mission statement that gives him more peace of mind without radically compromising his long-term goals.

This process may take more than one meeting. But I believe that the more you can help lighten his burden of anxiety and pain, the more willing he will be to listen to sensible advice about his money.

My widowed mother-in-law, a former teacher, has decided to join the Peace Corps. This "wild idea" horrifies my wife (her only child), who wants me to talk her out of it. I think her mother is looking forward to helping other people, and I'm reluctant to discourage her. On the other hand, I don't want to alienate my wife. What should I do? I think any solution to this dilemma has to come from listening, not talking.

I'd begin by listening carefully and compassionately to your wife's concerns. For her own well-being and peace of mind, she may need to feel that her mother is safe and nearby. Empathize with her fears and communicate to her that you understand her perspective.

Once she feels fully heard, you may be able to share your own views on why the Peace Corps could be a good move for her mother, even if it's difficult for her daughter to accept. If you don't get along with your wife's mom, find a gentle way to cop to this right now. Otherwise, you're bound to be accused at some point of being glad to see her move to Cameroon or Kazakhstan. This would definitely impair marital harmony.

As a next step, I would suggest that the two of you sit down with your mother-in-law and explore together what she is thinking. She may have several ideas she's interested in pursuing, not just the Peace Corps. One of these alternatives might sit a lot better with your wife.

Try your best to slow down this process of listening and communicating so that everyone's thoughts, feelings, longings, and fears can be heard. It may well be that the Peace Corps is exactly right for your mother-in-law, but unless your wife has an opportunity to get on board with this decision, the result could be emotional distance or painful conflict. With thoughtful, compassionate discussion, a win-win outcome is much more likely.

Now that the kids are grown and out of the house, my husband has gone back to school to earn a graduate degree. He keeps praising me for continuing to bring home the bacon, but I'm actually jealous of his opportunity to stretch his mind and try new things. I'm thinking of going to night school for an executive MBA. What's holding me back is a fear that if we both go off in new directions, maybe we won't want to come back together again. Am I just being insecure? Should I take the plunge anyway? Your concern is natural and reasonable. When one or both people change in a relationship, for whatever reason, there is always the possibility that they will grow apart and lose each other. On the other hand, if there is little change, the relationship can get bogged down in chronic habits and patterns and slowly die of stagnation.

So is the solution for only one person to change at a time? Almost certainly not. In fact, if you continue to envy your husband's fresh opportunities while you toil away like a dutiful workhorse, it's likely that you will begin to resent him and your relationship. This represents a far more dangerous risk to your marriage than the chance of growing apart if you both pursue your passions.

So I think it's definitely okay for you to step out of your rut and try a new direction that stimulates and excites you. However, both of you need to agree to compromise and make space for quality time together, not just for fun and intimacy but for meaningful conversation about the new and different aspects of your lives.

Try to share the energy by opening up your new worlds to each other as much as possible. Introduce each other to the people in your respective environments. Talk about what the changes you are experiencing mean. Above all, remind each other how much you value your relationship and how important it is for you both to grow and encompass new ideas. Best of luck!

When a new year rolls around, all the trials and tribulations of the past may make it difficult to embrace the opportunity for change. Take time to center yourself and recharge your batteries. If this seems difficult or intimidating, don't hesitate to ask for the help of a loved one or a trained counselor.

Listening to your own deeper yearnings will help you tune in with more sensitivity to your family, friends, and clients. You may then be able to help them breathe new energy into their own lives, so they can make decisions that will serve them well in the months to come.

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