Defining the Whole: All Together Now!
The fall has always seemed like a time for coming home and getting settled. In the annual holistic financial planning calendar, we are ready to begin a new cycle. As we take stock of our lives after an active summer, it’s a good time to look at where we are, to see how we’re doing, and to begin the small steps of planning for the next year, including considering new potential income sources and other portfolio adjustments before the New Year. In that fall spirit I’d like to go back to the beginning of the holistic financial planning process, to the first step of assessing our situation: what we call “Defining the Whole.”
When I was a permaculture landscape designer, sometimes I would show up at a new client’s property, a piece of land I had never seen before, home to people I didn’t know, and I would have a moment of terror: “Holy #%!*, I have no idea what to do here. What if they realize I know nothing?!?” We’ve all experienced this moment of insecurity, but what I realized is that terror is exactly why we have a planning process. A good process can be a safety net, a way of grounding yourself in the midst of complexity; at least it gives you a starting point. In those moments of terror looking at a new client and a new piece of land, what I did know was that the first step is always assessment: what is here? What are the existing conditions and factors to work with? And that is where the holistic financial planning process begins: at the beginning, with assessment, defining the whole situation we are working with.
In conventional financial planning we start with a rather narrow scope of assessment: financial statements. What do you have, what do you owe, what do you make, what do you spend? Otherwise known as assets, liabilities, income, and expenses. And we usually calculate several simple numbers such as net worth and net income. We might even look at debt ratios and savings rate. In holistic financial planning the financial data is crucial but insufficient. As you might imagine with a name like HOLISTIC financial planning, and taking a first step called “Defining the Whole,” we take a broader and more comprehensive look at assessment.
I’ve been integrating Ken Wilber’s work into holistic financial planning over the last several years. There’s a thousand pages of theory to get you up to speed with Wilber, if you’re not familiar with him, but let me cut to the quick (with the help of a handy graphic). When taking stock of your whole, keep as broad of a perspective as possible. Financial numbers are crucial and at the same time so are personal elements such as emotional and spiritual well-being, physical health, motivation, and productivity. Look also at who comprises your various we elements: your family and friends, business associates, social networks, your spiritual or religious community. And look at how you’re embedded in larger systems such as your ecological footprint, and your community contribution and legacy. Evaluate where you are in each of these areas, and write it down. Some of these assessments are subjective, such as emotional and spiritual health, where you describe how you feel. Others are objective, like ecological footprint, financial statements, or your blood pressure. Some are neither; they are primarily existential. Unless you get off on counting your number of Facebook friends, it suffices to list your most influential and important family, friends and associates, and describe the broader networks and communities you’re a part of. Don’t get stuck in precision; aim for inclusion and broad strokes. It will become obvious if you’ve forgotten something.
One last point: write it down. In 1992 I started a Masters of Science in Sustainable Systems, essentially a formal degree in permaculture. I arrived a week early to get oriented and set up my office. No one else was on campus and I had free time. My mother had given me Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I had read it and thought about it, but hadn’t written anything down yet. So, with my free time, I did. And what
I wrote down and realized in those several hours changed me. I realized with a jolt that I shouldn’t go to graduate school, that I should leave Pennsylvania, return to Santa Fe, and educate myself in permaculture through on-the-job training. It was a shock because it was so clear. And painful and a little embarrassing too. I didn’t own a car, so my parents, who had just driven me there from Missouri, would have to drive back and take me home. I slept on it. The following morning I called and, in testament to their generosity, they barely blinked, and gladly drove out and retrieved me. I have never regretted that moment, or the power of writing something down. Thinking, reflecting and ruminating are essential, but true change begins when you take the time to put your insights into words, and then use these written glimpses as part of the ongoing process of consideration. I encourage you to give it a try!
This article first appeared in the October 2009 edition of the Natural Investing newsletter
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