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Passing It On

Edmund Marsh

I KNOW I’M NOT WISE. Still, I’ve picked up enough wisdom to realize I didn’t have much of it when I was younger. At the very least, 60 years of stubbed toes, slips and falls have shown me that some paths shouldn’t be trod, while a few are worth traveling.

I try to refrain from offering unsolicited advice. But I’ve lately had a growing desire to steer young adults toward choices that escaped my notice when I was their age—with a focus on three areas:

Think about who came before us. As young adults, we frequently encounter situations that are new to us, but perhaps not to old timers. For instance, on the first day at a new job, or maybe as a new member at a place of worship, notice that you’re stepping into a structure that’s already in place. The old guys and gals may be doing a lot wrong, but they must also be doing something right. Asking for advice before offering it can ease acceptance of a brilliant idea, and may even help refine and improve it. I still cringe at the memory of situations when I failed to recognize my cluelessness.

In the investment world, a plunging 401(k) can be unnerving for a first-timer. At such a moment, encouraging words from someone who’s seen a downturn or two can ease a young investor’s jitters. Meanwhile, in a buoyant market, young investors may be blind to risks that often go unnoticed by the uninitiated.

It’s also good to remember that we can be a newbie, even when we’re old. Every year, I sail into unfamiliar waters, but that doesn’t mean they’re uncharted. Chances are, someone has tackled the task before or faced the same financial decision. If I’m smart enough to recognize my ignorance, the advice I need may be there for the asking.

Think about who comes after us. During my middle years, I often focused only on meeting my own goals and responsibilities, with little thought beyond myself. I strove to keep up with the demands placed on my brain and my time by work, family and others. I must admit, it often seemed easier and more efficient to do a job myself, rather than teach another how it’s done. I may have also lacked the ability, and perhaps the humility, to relinquish control to someone else.

In recent years, I’ve realized such thinking is short-sighted. I’ve begun to reflect on the responsibility I had to the brand new members of my circle, and how in the past I might have failed them. To make amends, I’ve begun reaching back not only to those just starting out, but also to colleagues just a few steps farther from the finish line than I am. Part of my exit plan is to help these busy people in their own middle years avoid my mistake—and recognize the value of training those who are younger.

For example, at work, there are myriad ways that seasoned physical therapists can nurture younger ones. One important way is through clinical education, which is essential to turning out new rehab professionals. Each licensed therapist learned the ropes from an experienced therapist. I willingly devote extra time organizing our clinical education and encouraging our physical, occupational and speech therapists to give back to their profession.

In my own life, the experience of caring for older relatives has taught my wife and me that eventually we’ll probably need to rely on someone who has intimate knowledge of nearly every aspect of our lives. That person is most likely our daughter. With that in mind, in addition to the training and parental support appropriate for a teen on the cusp of young adulthood, we sneak in topics that cover the broad continuum of her life and ours. We have begun sharing details of our finances and our plans for the future.

I also encourage strangers to foster newcomers. Last year, when a friendly, young phlebotomist gave me much appreciated painless service, I called her supervisor to suggest she recognize the worker for her superior performance. About the same time, before a medical procedure, a timid, young nurse failed in her attempts to start my IV. An older nurse took over and quickly found the vein, but also found time to needle the novice about her inexperience. Before she left, I complimented the expert, but also suggested she give the young nurse some pointers.

Think about what lies ahead. When I was young, time seemed such a cheap commodity. I thought I had years before I needed to start on the nitty-gritty of a financial plan. I also wondered who could possibly know what to plan for. I now realize I was wrong on both counts.

Back then, even though I didn’t know it, I was in desperate need of good advice. If I live long enough, I’ll outlive my ability to earn money, but not the need or desire to buy the necessities and niceties of life. To accumulate enough funds, decades of diligent saving and investing are required. Even unknown events, like an early death or disabling injury, should be prepared for with life and disability insurance.

Ed Marsh is a physical therapist who lives and works in a small community near Atlanta. He likes to spend time with his church, with his family and in his garden thinking about retirement. His favorite question to ask a young person is, “Are you saving for retirement?” Check out Ed’s earlier articles.

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