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December 13, 2003


For existentialists, existence precedes essence. It's not that no one or nothing has an essence. It's just that essence, for free human beings anyway, is achieved rather than prescribed. You become the results of the decisions you make. You don't "find yourself," as those suffering "identity crises" try to do. You make yourself by making decisions. You're not just the result of the genes you inherited or the circumstances of your birth. Of course genes and family background make a difference, but what you choose to do with them is subject to existential freedom.
      − James Ogilvy

I have only one hard-and-fast rule regarding philosophy:   I try not to think about it too much, mostly because it gives me a headache.

But I was given a free subscription to Strategy+Business magazine — a sparse, professional journal which flaunts a cover price of $12.95 per issue. At that price, whether I pay it or not, I feel as if my not reading the thing would be practically dishonorable — a sort of subscription blasphemy, if you will. In the latest issue (Winter 2003) was an article entitled "What Strategists Can Learn From Sartre." The author, a fellow named James Ogilvy, piles up some of his research and teachings in existentialist philosophy to create an interesting little set of axioms, which he dubs the "Five Principles of Existential Strategy."

Sure, the magazine is meant to look impressive laying on the oak coffee tables of corner-office CEOs and CFOs. (Who else could justify forking over thirteen bucks for a single issue?) But every so often I can find articles lodged in there that make for a pretty easy crossover to the personal-finance realm. (Actually, I find that the more of anything I read, the more I can swirl it around and find some application to financial-planning stuff.)

Anyhow, here are Ogilvy's "Five Principles of Existential Strategy," reworded a bit for appropriateness to our topic here:

  1.   Finitude.   You can't be all things to all people. If you're not saying "no" to some possibilities, then you're not acting strategically.

You can accomplish anything, but you can't accomplish everything. Your money can accomplish many things, but it can't accomplish everything. Being human means you'll have to make hard decisions; being fiscally responsible means you'll have to make hard decisions often.

  2.   Being-Toward-Death.   No one is too big to fail, to die, to go bankrupt. Gliding on momentum can lead to disaster.

You have to cultivate a sense of the fragile. Spend time thinking about the future, as well as planning for it. Take steps to strengthen yourself and your family's situation should anything untoward occur — which, eventually, it will. Make sure you've done your absolute best to provide adequate savings, insurance, and an otherwise firm financial footing.

As Ogilvy so succinctly writes:   Strategies are best developed prior to the moment of urgency.

  3.   Care.   Define your interests more precisely than "percent of income saved" or net worth. If you can't detail where you stand and what you want, you'll fall for anything.

What do you care about strongly? What goals do you have? What would you like your money to provide for you? Specificity is key, because specific goals give you a finish line. Broad, generic goals do not.

  4.   Thrownness.   You have a past; you have experiences and core competencies. Know them, use them, and don't forget them.

The existential principle of "thrownness" is based on the concept that human beings, when they enter the world, are "thrown" into a tumultuous arena — one where risk is the norm and obstacles are neverending. If your past experiences can help you in some way — and odds are good that they can — then keep them close at hand. The world ain't always a shiny, happy place, and it's likely that somewhere along the way, you'll need all the help you can muster.

  5.   Authenticity.   Remember your past, but don't be bound by it. Feel free to reinvent yourself and your household for an uncertain future.

For an existentialist, the future is inherently unpredictable. How, for example, could 18th century man have foreseen the wonders of gigabits, fuel cells, broadband, and Palm Pilots? Since you cannot know for certain what's coming, you must craft your plans with flexibility in mind. There may come a time when your world is turned on end. When that happens, past experience can be your guide, but don't be constrained by it. New solutions might be reached only through entirely new thinking.

Michael | December 13, 2003

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