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Early Life Experiences and Their Impact on Your Life Today


14May 2007

Sometimes the obvious becomes lost in the clutter of day to day living. Recently, in a number of small ways, I was reminded of how each person’s own personal life history shapes their view of the world, and thus, their expectations. These personal beliefs then translate into choices a person makes and their reactions to life circumstances.

Let me cite a few examples that illustrate the point. As part of my work with successful business families across the country, I am fortunate to be able to interview them and hear their life histories. What is fascinating, and educating to me is how clearly one can see the connection between the individuals’ stated (and lived out) life values, the coices that they have made over time, and their stated goals for the future — and their own personal life history (and often, their parents’ life experiences, as well.)

For example, Marjorie (all names are made up and some facts are changed to maintain confidentiality) grew up in East Texas during the Depression. Her father was a subsistence farmer and life was difficult, but they were making it. They then endured and survived the Dust Bowl years (1930s). Just when they were starting to do a little better, the U.S. government came along and purchased their farmland in order to build a military installation. Unfortunately, the government didn’t pay much for the land, and it was a huge setback for her father and their family. To this day, Marjorie feels like the government tends to “take” more than it gives and she is adamant in her family’s wealth transfer planning (she and her husband have become quite successful in their business) that the government will receive no money through estate taxes even if it means her children and grandchildren receive less money. Obviously, her early life experience dramatically shaped her thinking.

For advisors who work consistently with individuals who lived through the Great Depression or Dust Bowl of the 1930s, we have come to expectd certain characteristics that developed from their early life experiences. Members of the “Greatest Generation” (as Tom Brokaw has described them) tend to be extremely frugal, they save everything (string, nuts and bolts, coffee cans, almost anything you can think of), they have plenty of extra food in their cabinets, and they are usually “tight” with their money (but they are also generous with their family!)

In comparison, members of the Baby Boomer generation (those born from post-WWII through the late 1950’s) had a very different early life experience. Life was fairly stable (although they lived in the anxiety-ridden Cold War period). They grew up in homes where the core value was “working hard”. Typically, their father’s primary role was that of provider, and their mother was in charge of taking care of the family and the home (although she often worked part-time outside of the home or went to work once the children were in school). The Boomers generally have a positive view of life — they have experienced economic growth, significant improvement in their lifestyles, and incredible developments in science.

Later generations (those raised in the 60’s and 70’s), Generation X, Generation Y and beyond have had different early life experiences again. Generally speaking, they have been raised in various levels of affluence (clearly no where near the poverty or survival levels of their grandparents). Much of the focus has been on them being “happy”, with a lot of time and resources devoted to entertainment (TV, movies, cable, DVDs, computer games, Gameboys, Xbox, Wii, etc.), involvement in sports, personal development (dance lessons, music lessons), and academic achievement (getting “good grades”, at least). Many believe (myself included) that a large number of the younger generations have very different expectations about life and about work. One interesting read is Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before by Jean Twenge, Ph.D. (I may review the major points of this book later).

One point to consider is: if you are having a hard time understanding another person in your life — whether they are family (parent/child/grandchild), friends, or coworkers — it may be useful to sit down and learn more about them. Find out about their life — what they have gone through, what they have overcome, the challenges they have experienced, and the people and events that have significantly influenced their lives. And, if they are interested, share some of your life story with them, as well.  The process and discussions may take some time, but seek to understand their life experience and how this has impacted their worldview.  (I am also finding it helpful to reflect on my life and see the connections with some of the issues I am dealing with.)  You may not fully understand or agree with their thinking — and you almost certainly won’t change them.  But I find that a small dose of understanding often leads to an increased measure of patience and empathy.

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