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A Shot Straight to the Heart

Apr 13, 2019

Exhausted, broken, dejected.

That’s how it felt. I collapsed onto the soft couch cushions at home well past 9 o’clock. Hungry, I didn’t really have much of an appetite. My mind was reeling. I still couldn’t process or accept the news I received when I was getting ready to leave work.

As a financial advisor, I spent the better part of 25 years studying, becoming certified, increasing my value (at least my perceived value to my clients), and striving to offer the best financial advice possible.

Some of my clients had been with me for almost the entire duration, loyal, dedicated, and wonderful people I considered friends.

I watched so many go through struggles, fade away, lose touch, and yet that was just the nature of life, right? That was the course most of our lives tend to take. Sometimes we’re fortunate enough to hold onto those connections, those relationships, the friendships for the bulk of our years on this mortal coil. Other times, though, we move, take on new jobs, build other relationships and eventually the visits slip into occasional calls. 

I never thought much about it until that evening. New clients arrived, some clients moved on, and even some friends  simply disappeared into new social circles.

As a professional advisor, one learns early not to take things personally. I had been involved in some heated discussions with clients over the years. Never disrespectful, but when you see the writing on the wall, the potential hardships or failures looming in the not-too-distant future, yet they don’t want to listen and change their outlook, it can be frustrating.

Sometimes clients were extremely slow and stubborn to listen to advice, invest properly, or change their view on the money they were earning and spending. They assumed they had it all under control.

A Solid Base

Most of my clients would be considered by the average American to be “well off.” They had decent paying jobs, owned real estate, had stocks, bonds, or other investments, and were planning for the future.

These men and women, couples, twentysomethings and even septuagenarians had vast and varied lives, lifestyles, religious beliefs, political affiliations, and yet they were all connected by this knowledge or idea that the security of their financial future will work its way out on its own.

Many listened to the advice and counsel I offered. Some resisted. Even those that resisted or who were bullheaded would often keep coming to me because of my experience or because of some other motivating factor I just didn’t understand. 

The Wake Up Call

The call came in at 6:06 PM. As I mentioned, I was just wrapping things up for the day, stuffing a few files in my briefcase, securing the cabinets, and about to shut off the lights. As with most Fridays, I’d be back at my desk by 9am Saturday morning.  It was a rarity not to be in the office on the weekends. 

The phone on my desk blared to life. I looked at it and then at the clock over the door. My escape. Just after 6 o’clock. It was time for me to go home. Friday evening, a long and stressful week was finally over. I didn’t need to take this call. Plus, I knew I’d be back tomorrow and I could deal with this then. 

Something prodded me over to the desk. I watched my hand extend to the phone, grasp it, and lift it slowly to my ear. “Hi, this is John”

By the time I slumped back in my chair, I kept replaying the words over and over. A friend of mine, a client, somebody I had known for more than 20 years, who I had known to be a good husband, father, diligent worker, employer, and overall great person was gone.


I couldn’t reconcile those words with the person I knew. It just didn’t make sense. As I spoke to our mutual acquaintance, I discovered there were secrets he had kept from everyone, from his wife, from me. They were secrets about his finances.

There’s only so much I can do as a financial advisor when my clients are not forthright and honest about their circumstances. I can only work with what I’m given.

When I finally hung up the phone it took my body more than an hour to finally get up and start moving again. The drive home was long, arduous, and difficult. The traffic on H1 was exceptionally bad, even for a Friday evening in Honolulu.

When I pulled in the driveway the clock on my dashboard read 8:35. It took me 20 more minutes to finally push my way into my house.

Starting to Wonder

My mind kept playing a new question over and over. The one person, the one client I assumed I knew better than all others had me fooled. I wondered if I had dug deeper, would I have discovered the truth and been able to help him?

I wondered if he had given me signs, signals, or some silent pleading that I missed.

I decided to get up and move around. Sitting did nothing for me. I shuffled to the kitchen, opened the cabinets and looked at a few bags of chips and other snacks, and decided against it.

Another thought hit me: What about my other clients? What about my friends? What about millions of other people out there I know nothing about? Could they be suffering in silence, too?

I was involved in my active clients’ lives. I kept up with them, held regular meetings, but it suddenly dawned on me that it didn’t mean they were completely honest and open with me. And what about past clients? These were people I assumed left in decent financial shape.

I struggled to grab a few minutes of sleep that night and long before dawn cracked her weary eye over our world, I slipped back into my car and headed to the office. I spent many Saturdays there, but this visit was different.

This weighed heavy.

I pulled out files and boxes and folders. I flipped open those folders and tried to look at things from a new perspective. What was really going on with them? How were they faring financially?

It’s one thing to help people build portfolios, invest, and set up IRAs, and even advise against carrying too much debt, but it’s another thing to see beyond the numbers. Could some of these people, these clients, these friends have been in a similar situation to the one who recently took his life?

I began to wonder.

Over the next several weeks, I pored through those files, dug into the information. I set up new meetings and began asking the questions I never thought to ask. I dug deep.

I was stunned. 

The Problem Was Bigger Than I Ever Anticipated

Invariably, almost all of my clients shared the same sentiment: I had helped them greatly.

Yet, I was perplexed because a majority of them were still living on what I would eventually come to call Pain Island.  Yes, they had their financial assets with me that I managed, but I knew for a fact they could be so much further along in their quest for financial security. 

Yes, they had expensive homes, a relatively decent portfolio, or some savings, but their debts continued to soar. They were earning more, but also spending more.

It didn’t make sense. I kept asking them, ‘What about the future?’ What were they going to do if the economy suffered a recession, their pension was stripped, or their savings was lost? I inquired about their family trust and wills making sure these have been updated. 

They all gave the same answer they’d always given: “Things could always be better, but for the most part we’re good.”

It was during this season of my life when I realized all the advice, all the council, all the information I provided to my clients and friends and family amounted to virtually nothing.

I decided to take stock of the entire financial industry, including fellow advisors and what I discovered was the problem was much bigger than any of us could have ever envisioned or imagined.

We Have Been Programmed

All those years I, like so many others, was going along basically on autopilot. I was making recommendations, helping clients invest, developing financial plans and goals, and sharing the information I was learning.

But despite all that information, all the resources, the graphs, the charts, all the tips and advice, a significant majority of my clients — as well as clients of every advisor I spoke to — was still suffering financially.

They were still setting themselves up for failure. And they just didn’t know it.

Some would discover the problem too late. Many would reach retirement, begin enjoying their Golden Years, and then realize they don’t have enough to sustain themselves.

It was in those moments, those few weeks of taking stock and discovery that I realized the problem was much bigger than a lack of information. I realized that people have been programmed to fail financially.

And it’s not fair.

So, if it’s not our fault, whose is it?

There are so many reasons, so many excuses, but getting into that wasn’t going to solve anything, not at the moment, not for my clients, and not for the millions of other people currently living on Pain Island.

That’s when I set out on a journey to discover the real underlying reason this was happening. Along that journey, I discovered there are many reasons the rich go broke, many reasons hard-working middle-class Americans struggle still to make ends meet, and so many reasons the poor feel hopeless and helpless.

That’s who I am. What I discovered led me to one of the most eye-opening, inspiring, and amazing truths about how we are programmed … to fail.

Now my goal is to help these millions of Americans who endure financial stress every day. I want them know, realize, and believe that true, lasting financial peace is possible.

It’s possible when you discover the real, underlying factors that led you right to Pain Island in the first place.