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The Great Imposter

Steve Abramowitz

I’VE BEEN AN IMPOSTER all my life. In high school, I drove my silver Corvette Stingray into the teachers’ parking lot, revving the engine to announce my arrival. But once I came out from under my shades and joined the throng of students converging on the entrance, I reverted to the shy introvert walking tentatively with his head down.

From time to time, we all take on the role of great pretender to hide our fears of failure and humiliation, and to get ahead in a competitive world. Remember your first date? Were you the boy jaunting up to her front door with knees buckling to meet her parents? Were you the girl in front of the mirror perfecting her make-up? Or how about the newbie realtor driving the Mercedes he can’t afford to impress clients?

My posturing didn’t stop with high school. Terrified at the prospect of losing control, I avoided pot parties in college and took up pipe smoking. I had to be “on” even before I entered graduate school. At my admissions interview, I was told my excellent grades showed a love of learning. I nodded knowingly, remembering those all-nighters cramming for finals, with Motown music playing in the background, to compensate for my poor attendance.

Journalism was my original college major. For my honors thesis, I proposed to study the Black Sox scandal, when eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. Prof. Grey, a bespectacled, stubby man in a crisp white shirt, striped blue tie and burgundy vest, responded that baseball didn’t meet his standards for academic significance. I turned and left his office, feeling diminished and a little bewildered. Two days later, I made an appointment with the dean to change my major to psychology.

I approached my first academic job with innocence and fervor. I was committed to a 60 Minutes-style investigation of the good-old-boys publishing charade. I mailed mock research reports to psychologists from two divisions of the American Psychological Association, each with divergent social values. I found the reviewers were partial to studies that supported their own social convictions.

The resulting study was accepted for publication in the American Psychologist, the profession’s flagship journal. Then, a month later, I received a letter from the editor revoking the decision. No reason for the withdrawal was given other than a vague reference to the journal’s responsibility to uphold the traditions of the field.

Clearly, a higher-up was more concerned with preserving the fiction of a value-free peer review process than with making room for the inevitable role of psychologists’ social beliefs in their evaluations of research. I lost my faith in psychological science and spent my remaining 10 years in academia primarily climbing the ladder to tenure. Once again, I was the great imposter.

Just as enthusiasm for my job as director of psychiatric research was waning, I picked up a new book by Sheldon Jacobs, an early advocate of no-load mutual fund investing. He encouraged purchasing fund shares directly from management companies to circumvent the standard 8.5% front-end sales commission. Having owned funds for several years, I had already learned the two gospels of long-term investing, time in the market and the compounding of gains. Attention to commission-free and low-expense investing produced even more outsized returns. The good news: The index fund revolution has lessened the need for such vigilance.

As a psychologist, many years of tending to people’s struggles and shadows takes its toll. With retirement beckoning, I began to wind down my practice. By chance, checking my portfolio one day, I saw that Charles Schwab was looking to expand its independent advisor network. Driven by my longtime interest in the financial markets and especially fund investing, I opened an investment advisory service six months later. I felt blessed to have an opportunity to live out a passion, a chance many folks never get.

But no job is a free lunch. For all their faults and sins, brokerage houses can match representatives to their specialty. Danny deals with options and Gail covers retirement issues. But many small independent advisors try to run an omnibus shop, offering all solutions to all clients. Because our expertise and interests are as individualized as our training and personalities, we are often imposters.

I’m well-versed in mutual funds and exchange-traded funds, but I was woefully unprepared to navigate clients through the maze of fixed annuities, variable annuities and whole-life insurance. I closed my business after a couple of years, recognizing that diversification across the universe of financial options takes precedence over a narrow focus on fund investing.

We have all suffered a Prof. Grey who blocked or marginalized our career paths. Fifty-five years ago, I encountered a supercilious and arrogant man. As an impressionable and sensitive boy just emerging from adolescence, I abandoned a field I had envisioned as a career while sports editor of the Hewlett High School newspaper.

Since mid-2022, I have contributed more than 20 articles to HumbleDollar. Writing about personal finance, with an emphasis on consumer advocacy, has been enlightening and at times emotional. Psychology as a profession has been gratifying and, all things considered, has been good to me. But here now, finishing up this article, I no longer feel like an imposter.

Steve Abramowitz is a psychologist in Sacramento, California. Earlier in his career, Steve was a university professor, including serving as research director for the psychiatry department at the University of California, Davis. He also ran his own investment advisory firm. Check out Steve’s earlier articles.

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