What Will Be the Soundtrack to Your Life?

As an experienced investor, I know that financial crises and cycles are inevitable; I just don’t know when or how they will unfold. The same is true in life. In the recesses of our minds, we all know we will die — we just don’t know how or when death will beckon us or our loved ones.

A number of personal experiences compel me to reflect, share and write about how the strategies I use to prepare for and manage financial crises are also applicable to preparing for and managing life crises.

Experienced investors know that crisis is inevitable; we just don’t know when or how it will unfold.

Two Stories: Alan and Tanji

Alan Braxton, a childhood friend from Philadelphia, started feeling weak while playing tennis with his daughter. It turned out he had a cancerous tumor the size of a grapefruit in his stomach. After the diagnosis, Alan used to joke with close friends that the trees seemed a more vibrant green and his favorite soda tasted extra sweet. Although doctors successfully excised the initial tumor, the cancer returned with new tumors growing in after successive surgeries. Alan and his wife, Deborah, decided to forgo additional chemotherapy and focus on his quality of life. He passed away one month later.

I co-hosted a women’s investment management retreat, where I reconnected with an effervescent young woman whose enthusiasm and zest for realizing her dreams was infectious. Tanji Dewsberry was a fellow financier and 37-year-old single mother to a 10-year-old son. Tanji’s enthusiasm and drive quickly endeared her to the entire group. She aspired to write a children’s book and become an entrepreneur — goals that she eventually accomplished. A bit over a year ago, an electrical short in the walls of her home smoldered and ignited in her son’s bedroom. Presumably attempting to save him, Tanji went into his room, where firefighters later found them both deceased.

What Would You Do If You Had Two Years to Live?

While the context of these deaths varies, a unifying lesson binds them. The same way a market can crash in an instant, life can be taken away in a moment. Neither Alan nor Tanji could have predicted their fate. I surveyed individuals, asking, “What would you do if, God forbid, you knew you had only two years to live?”

I heard:

The more I listened to what people shared, the more I wondered, “Why wait for ‘bad news’ to start living fully?”

“Live Like We’re Dying” and Maximizing Risk-Adjusted Returns

I am reminded of two things. First, I think of the song, “Live Like We’re Dying”. The phrase in this song might sound like a call to live recklessly. I see it, instead, as a call to cherish life and take full advantage of what you can create and what life has to offer while being aware of the risk and inevitability of death.

Second, the spirit of these lyrics actually mirrors a cardinal investment management rule, “Deliver attractive risk-adjusted returns.” That is, as an investor, I am supposed to maximize returns while managing risks. An investment loss can obviously never compare to a life loss, but similarities nevertheless exist. With investment decisions, I knew of the inevitability of things not going as hoped for or as planned; companies I invested in could implode, and economies and or markets could falter. I had to generate attractive investment returns by constructing portfolios poised for financial upside, yet simultaneously use strategies to protect portfolios from downside risk.

Preparing for the Unexpected and a Start-Up with a Fresh Take

There are many ways to prepare for life’s pitfalls. For example, you might not only “save for a rainy day”, but also save for a “rainy season.” This might include securing adequate health and life insurance, creating a basic and living will, taking the steps to plan for your child’s education, or summarizing your finances for loved ones. Being prepared could mean telling those you love how you feel, apologizing to anyone you’ve hurt, reaching closure with any unfinished business or writing letters for loved ones.

A new start-up called MyExitStrategy.co is helping people to prepare for death while also helping them to live fully.

Started by a group of soulful and talented MIT grads, My Exit Strategy is a place where you can get guidance on end-of-life planning and store your wishes securely online. This way, loved ones can know exactly what your wishes are in the event of death or an emergency. The company’s first product offering is a web service that makes it fast and easy to designate a healthcare proxy. For example, in the event that you can’t make healthcare decisions for yourself, your healthcare proxy (e.g., your partner, best friend, spiritual advisor, sibling, etc…) will make decisions on your behalf. Also on the site are probing, thoughtful and dare I say it, fun, questions. For example, one of many questions and answers that will go into your secure account is:

“I want to be remembered as someone who…”

Options: always made people laugh / wanted to help / was a really good friend / could cook up a storm / was generous and kind / marched to the beat of my own drum / wore lampshades on my head at parties / spent too much time at work / inspired creativity in others / brought communities together / [custom fill-in your answer].

The Opportunity to Bring Upside to Your Life Amidst Uncertainty

My friend Alan taught me that we all can discover how to appreciate life’s simple things. I learned from Tanji’s story to act now and not put off until later what we can do today. Their legacy has led me to fully appreciate, advocate and practice living more fully each day. Today, we can love freely and unconditionally. We can take the time and effort to create special moments. We can forgive; lead with love; live each day fully and joyfully. We can give and serve in ways that really matter.

One strategy to maximize personal returns and well-being includes investing in yourself first. You can then invest in and take care of those around you from a position of strength.

At the center of both financial and personal returns are you and your choices. So until that day when you leave this world, keep in mind what is important. Live like you are dying. Maximize your personal returns of happiness during your brief stint on earth. Don’t put it off until tomorrow. Start now. Choose joy.

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