As financial advisors, our expertise needs to cover human psychology as well as number crunching. We consider the needs of the soul, as well as building a strong financial foundation that supports clients’ dreams.
When you enter the world of the soul, you enter a mythical world of dream states, fantasy, universal truths unveiling themselves from the past and inviting you to your future. Mythology, wizardry, Disney and yes, fairy tales, have lessons to teach if we are willing to listen to them.
To reach the depths that are necessary to tap into your subconscious, music, art, literature and story telling can bypass overthinking that many times just gets in the way. With the lens of what fairy tales can teach us about personal finance, I’ve reread some of these familiar, long-forgotten tales that may have a different meaning as we progress through our lives.
Let me start with a story that speaks to me as a musician as well as telling a classic tale. The above referenced book is beautifully illustrated and tells the Russian folk tale of a hero’s journey as he finds love and riches beyond his wildest dreams.
Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, lived the great ruler Tsar Vasilyi. He had three sons, and the youngest was named Ivan-Tsarevitch. The Tsar’s greatest pride was his garden, filled with exotic trees, and in the center of this garden was the prize of his kingdom: a tree with golden apples.
So, apparently, he prized his golden apples more than his family.
Someone was stealing the golden apples, so the Tsar tasked his children with finding the culprit. The first two sons failed, but the youngest saw The Firebird land on the golden tree and he grabbed a glowing feather. He showed the feather to his dad.
I must have this Firebird! Whichever of you can catch the Firebird will have half my kingdom as a reward.
The father’s greed for more “gold” sends his sons into danger with the promise of material wealth as the prize.
Ivan’s hero’s quest has him meet a magical “big gray wolf” who befriends him and acts as his guide. The wolf flies over the kingdom to another wondrous garden and tells Ivan the secret to capturing The Firebird.
You will see a Firebird in a golden cage hanging from the branch of a tree. Take the Firebird, but do not touch the golden cage, for it will bring you bad luck.
And of course, Ivan falls victim to greed and touches the cage. An army of guards takes him to King Muhmud who turns out to be a friend of his father. He sends Ivan on a mission to bring back a horse with a golden mane.
More gold. And as we’ll see, more temptation.
So Ivan goes back to his giant wolf and the wolf saves him again. They fly to another magical kingdom where he locates the horse. The wolf tells him to only touch the horse by its mane, not the golden harness, but you know what happens, don’t you??
He falls victim to his own greed again and touches the golden harness.
Off to see King Karam who rules that kingdom. That king also needs something, so he sends Ivan off to rescue his sister Yelena the Beautiful and bring her home.
Back to the wolf, who’s getting a bit annoyed at this point, but he flies Ivan to a place where no human has been. Baba Yaga the Wicked lives here and has Yelena the Beautiful. The wolf tells Ivan, look buddy, do everything she says and you’ll be OK. And this time, Ivan follows the advice. He has to jump in a boiling cauldron that turns out to be a portal to another world.
Here he meets Koshchei the Immortal. He wants to fight Ivan, so the wolf has to turn into a giant horse. Ivan has a magic sword. They fight. After many rounds of battle, Ivan sees Yelena the Beautiful. She gives him strength and he wins by killing Koshchei the Immortal. Guess he wasn’t really immortal. All is illusion in these fairy tales.
That was the end of the evil Koshchei, for evil cannot be immortal. Only love can be immortal.
And that’s the punchline of just about every great mystical story. Love conquers all.
Of course Ivan and Yelena fall in love. They go back to her brother’s place. He’s eternally grateful, gives them his kingdom, and says Ivan can rule when he gets too old.
Then back to Muhmud. He’s so taken with Yelena’s beauty, he gives her the golden-maned horse and then gives Ivan the Firebird in its golden cage.
Then back to Ivan’s dad’s kingdom. The wolf wishes them well and takes off.
The Tsar is happy to see his son and Yelena. They throw a big wedding feast. The Firebird provides the light.
And they all lived happily ever after.
A classic story of beauty, love, greed, friendship, power struggles, magic, and of course, a happy ending.
Now just for fun, let’s dissect this from a financial planning standpoint. You can see the theme of lusting after gold all the way through the story. Along the way, the hero is warned to take only what he needs, but he falls victim to wanting more.
Money is just a form of energy. A currency to get you to what really matters. Often that’s family, love, justice, peace. The values are the true gold. The people are what really matter.
Many times we start planning with a Mind Map (a high-level one-page summary of important aspects of your life) that walks us through investments, estate documents, insurance, relationships, interests, values. Often the early focus is on setting up the right investments, planning a course of action to save for later in life, getting the kids educated, and so forth. Later, we may see how the intangibles in the Mind Map—the values, the relationships—become the things that matter most. And how money may be directed to further these purposes.
When we do financial cash flow plans, we often are answering the question “How Much is Enough?” When will our clients have enough to be comfortable in their lives, to leave their children enough but not too much, and how much can be directed to other projects that can potentially benefit millions of others.
This is what brings real joy. And it is true for any scale of wealth. Giving time is just as valuable as giving money. Studies show people find more satisfaction when helping others than just about anything else. But the path to that point may take many years. A hero’s journey.
As you’re pondering these big life questions, perhaps you might want to let your heart and your instincts guide you (and stop overthinking things). Music can help you do that. Go to a live performance. Try classical music. I find my brain does amazing things and solves all kinds of problems when I sit and let music take over.
Music can also tell a story. In the case of The Firebird, Igor Stravinsky wrote a suite that captures the spirit of the classic Russian folk tale.
I first came to know this story as a young cellist (my first profession). I strongly recommend that you go listen to Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. I like the Leonard Bernstein version. Click here to listen on Spotify.
I also recommend watching Gerard Schwarz’s narration of The Firebird. Click here to watch.
The musical Firebird Suite doesn’t exactly follow the literary story that we just walked through together. (That particular book combines three fairy tales to create this version of The Firebird.) In Stravinsky’s suite, Koshchei the Immortal petrifies people. Ivan captures The Firebird and in exchange for her freedom, she agrees to help him when he needs it. Ivan falls in love with a princess in Koschei’s kingdom and The Firebird helps him defeat Koschei and his monsters and marry the princess.
It’s one of the great musical pieces of all time. The oboe solos, the French horn solos, and yes, even some cello solos are very beautiful and worth a listen.
Music is one of the quickest ways to reach the soul’s realm. You don’t always need words to convey a message. In fact, the deeper you go into your soul, there really aren’t words to describe it. Images, sounds, the world of imagination and creativity take over.
Want to try another story??
Midas and the Golden Touch
As we continue our journey into the world of fairy tales and personal finance, we find a number of other stories that revolve around “gold.” Probably the tale that is most well-known is King Midas and the Golden Touch.
There once lived a very rich king called Midas who believed that nothing was more precious than gold….The chink of gold coins dropped into a leather purse sounded sweeter to him than the songs of his finest musicians. There was only one thing that Midas loved more, and that was his daughter, Aurelia.
The Latin derivation of Aurelia is aureus meaning “golden.” So there it is again—this obsession with gold.
Midas also loved roses, but over time, his interest waned. Aurelia however, never stopped loving those roses. She brought them to Midas’ breakfast table every day.
But Midas couldn’t help but think if the roses were made of gold, they would last forever. And here is obsession #2 in these fairy tales—eternal life.
So money and eternal life are prominent themes in fairy tales, mythology and stories of all kinds because they express part of human nature. Sound familiar?? How many drug commercials are on TV every night—promising extended life? How many TV and movie plot lines center around greed, trickery, lust for more money and power? It’s still with us today and people will always be fascinated. These stories are timeless as are their lessons.
Ah, I do love it so, he sighed, gazing at his riches. No matter how hard I work, no matter how long I live, I will never have enough.
And this is what gets Midas in trouble. Not knowing how much IS enough. (Remember my financial planning discussion of The Firebird?? As planners, we spend time with clients quantifying just how much IS enough. And the joy comes in experiences, having enough and giving away what you don’t really need. That brings true happiness.)
One more word about Midas’ obsession with gold. He goes into his dungeon to look at it. The dungeon represents the lower, baser level of his nature. It’s the shadow side of what can be a powerful force for good. These story tellers are clever.
Midas was a good king. When his guards found an old man trespassing by sleeping under his rose bushes, instead of punishing him, Midas invited him to breakfast. He understood that without his gold he would be just as poor.
Another universal message: we are all one. But for the grace of God, there go I. And mercy doesn’t go unnoticed.
While Midas was admiring his gold in the dungeon, he sees a magical vision of a young man who turns out to be the old man he previously treated with kindness. To reward Midas, the vision asks what would make him happier.
The golden touch would bring me all the happiness I need.
And that was Midas’ big mistake. We make it too. We think if we just have more money we’ll be able to do more for our families, make more of a difference. But it can become an obsession where we start neglecting our families to work more. To make more. To have more.
So the next morning, Midas found that his touch turned all his bedding to gold. And his clothes, his glasses. He raced out to the garden.
How happy Aurelia will be when she sees these roses of gold! He never noticed how the perfect golden blossoms drooped and pulled down the bushes with their weight.
But Aurelia cried when she picked a rose for Midas’ breakfast table. She missed their scent. And when Midas tried to eat his breakfast, his food turned to gold and he could not eat.
And then the unthinkable happens: Midas reaches out to console Aurelia and turns her to gold. Remember at the beginning of the story, we learn the one thing Midas values more than gold is his daughter.
The mysterious stranger’s vision once again appears and tells Midas that to reverse the golden touch he must walk in the river to its source. The water will wash away what he no longer desires. He must take a vase to collect some water to sprinkle on the things he turned to gold to restore them to their natural state.
Water is a metaphor for soul. You see it in many stories that caution against greed, lust, ego. Midas is reclaiming his soul.
Joyfully, then, Midas restored all else he had transformed—except for a single rose, kept forever as a reminder of the golden touch.
So all this talk of gold makes me think about the age-old practice of alchemy. Alchemy is the science of turning lead into gold. It’s as eternal as the search for the fountain of youth.
What we do as financial advisors is help people in their search for modern day alchemy. We help them look at what they have today that they can use to build a future of their dreams. Yes, it involves money. But is also involves all kinds of other life lessons. Sacrificing what you can have today to build for tomorrow. Finding what other people value so that you can build your own wealth through meaningful work. Understanding the rules of tax and investments, so that you create an intelligent strategy to grow and protect your assets. And not all assets are financial!
If you study alchemy, you find that there is the science of it and then there is the spiritual metaphor that is perhaps more interesting to me. In the metaphor you see that gold represents a heightened awareness of soul—appreciation of beauty, kindness, family, friends, freedom, time. All variations on the true wealth in life—love.
So when we as advisors talk to clients about budgeting, saving, how much they can spend in retirement, putting an estate plan together, we are talking about using money as an energy to transform their lives.
The themes in mythology, fairy tales, great music and literature are universal. The soul and our search back to ourselves run throughout.
Gold is a metaphor. It’s much more than a financial asset. Its meaning is transformational.
OK, one more. And more modern this time.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The last “fairy tale” I want to explore with you today is a more modern one: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. While it is much more current, it reminds me of other tales such as The Sword in the Stone. There is magic afoot. Dumbledore/Merlin are the great wizards. Harry/Wart are the young men learning great life lessons from the magical world of wizardry.
This is the first book in the Harry Potter series. In the UK, it is titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The Philosopher’s Stone is used in the alchemical process of turning lead into gold. This story is filled with references to ancient alchemy.
It all begins in the Dursley home with The Boy Who Lived. Instead of being born into a life of riches, Harry Potter grows up not knowing his own story, in humble surroundings. On Harry’s 11th birthday, Hagrid—a giant of a man with a heart of gold— comes to get him to initiate him into the world of wizardry at Hogwarts. First stop, the bank!
They didn’ keep their gold in the house, boy! Nah, first stop fer us is Gringotts. Wizards’ bank….Run by goblins….Gringotts is the safest place in the world fer anything yeh want ter keep safe—‘cept maybe Hogwarts.
So before the magic can begin, there has to be money. Again, money is another form of energy. We harness it to do what we need to in the world. It buys the things we need—a wand, books, treats—to take us on our journey. At Gringotts, Harry and Hagrid have to go into the lower levels—the shadow side of financial energy—to unlock the vault where the valuables are kept.
And Hagrid removes another item from Hogwart’s vault. The Sorcerer’s Stone.
When Hagrid and Harry first enter Gringotts, they read the engraving on the silver door:
Enter, stranger, but take heed
Of what awaits the sin of greed,
For those who take, but do not earn,
Must pay most dearly in their turn.
So if you seek beneath our floors
A treasure that was never yours,
Thief, you have been warned, beware
Of finding more than treasure there.
So the journey starts with taking enough money for what Harry needs—and no more—and then shopping in Diagon Alley with a final stop at Ollivanders for a magic wand.
A magic wand…this was what Harry had been really looking forward to….Every Ollivander wand has a core of powerful magical substance, Mr. Potter. We use unicorn hairs, phoenix tail feathers, and the heartstrings of dragons.
The stuff of fairy tales. Scotland’s national animal is the unicorn. It’s a symbol of purity and healing. The phoenix rising is a classic fairy tale about death and transfiguration. The tears of a phoenix bring everlasting life and magical healing—as seen in a later Harry Potter book: The Chamber of Secrets. And dragons are symbolic across many cultures. In Asian cultures, it can symbolize wisdom, hidden powers, transformation through fire.
When Harry gets his wand it reminds me of when Wart pulls the sword from the stone. These defining moments and power symbols are a rite of passage to what lies ahead in a hero’s journey.
Once at Hogwarts, Harry meets two life-long friends, Ron and Hermione. Finding the true gold of friendship is a theme we see over and over in the Harry Potter series.
He also meets some enemies. Some are all powerful—Voldemort. Some are his peers—Malfoy and his cohorts.
And he finds a mentor in Dumbledore who acts as parent and guide as Harry goes through his adolescent years at Hogwarts.
Relationships become even more meaningful over a lifetime. They shape how we choose to use our resources. As financial advisors, we start by identifying what our clients value and who the people are in their lives. Over time we come to know these people through our clients as we plan estates, cash flows, retirement goals and so forth. We also learn about what our clients fear, what they worry about. And money can help with some of those concerns too.
On our very best days, when we change people’s lives through financial planning, it’s almost like magic. We help people see what they might have missed on their own. We help build their confidence so that perhaps they can use their energy to help themselves and others.
The plot of The Sorcerer’s Stone revolves around a monster guarding the stone at Hogwarts—Fluffy, a three-headed dog. The trick to getting past the monster is music. The sound of a harp or a flute lulls it to sleep. Music is a way to the soul.
Voldamort is trying to steal the stone because he can use it to give himself eternal life. He is able to stay alive for shorter periods by drinking unicorn blood.
The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.
In the Forbidden Forest (because knowledge is sometimes forbidden), Harry learns the true significance of the Sorcerer’s Stone from the unicorn Firenze–the Italian word for fire. It is the Elixir of Life. Fire is an essential part of the alchemical process. The Sorcerer’s Stone was the red stone that was key in the chemical transformation of lead into gold.
Snape wants the stone for Voldemort…and Voldemort’s waiting in the forest…and all this time we thought Snape just wanted to get rich…
There it is again—the lust for power and money. The dark side that threatens us. Although as we read the whole Harry Potter series, we learn that Voldemort was once a student at Hogwarts just like Harry. But he took a very wrong turn along the way. There is always a shadow side to everything.
And there’s trickery involved. It’s not really Snape, the Potions teacher, who is the bad guy. It’s Quirrell, who teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts. Smoke and mirrors. Literally mirrors. The Mirror of Erised (desire spelled backwards) is one of the challenges that Harry must overcome. It shows you what you think you most desire. If you see yourself as you really are, you’ve found true happiness.
Dumbledore tells Harry “It does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live, remember that.”
The Mirror of Erised has been enchanted by Dumbledore to protect the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry fights Voldemort who is living in Quirrell’s turban and when he wakes up:
Something gold was glinting just above him. The Snitch! He tried to catch it, but his arms were too heavy. He blinked. It wasn’t the Snitch at all. It was a pair of glasses.
It was Dumbledore. There to comfort Harry after his battle with evil. The Stone had been destroyed. In doing that, it also killed Nicholas Flamel (a historical figure in alchemy) who was a friend of Dumbledore. They decided death was preferable to having the great power out in the world where it could be corrupted.
To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but to Nicolas and Perenelle, it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure. You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all—the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are the worst for them.
And once again, money and eternal life are at the heart of this fairy tale.
Harry seeks answers from Dumbledore as he recovers in the hospital:
Love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.
Love is the ultimate power. It conquers even death. Remember, J.K. Rowling wrote this shortly after her own mother’s death. Her mother never got to read the series. It is a theme that permeates the Harry Potter series.
And how did Harry get the Sorcerer’s Stone to defeat Voldemort?
Only one who wanted to find the Stone—find it, but not use it—would be able to get it, otherwise they’d just see themselves making gold or drinking Elixir of Life.
Using power in the service of others is its own reward.
Fairy tales remind of us themes like good versus evil. Personal transformation. The power of love and friendship. The magic of education and relationships. The dark forces that are always around. And how we seek the light to guide us.
Personal finance, when done well, is a transformational process. Most of us start with very little in life. What we do throughout our journey can transform the energy around us. Financial. And perhaps soul.
Imagination is a necessary requirement for taking your life to the next level. Entering a childlike state where modern day frustrations can be won over through–magic, good versus evil, life over death, love–bring renewal, hope and vision.
Have some fun with this. Look at the beautiful illustrations in the books I’ve shared. Listen to the music that speaks to your soul. Remember the people who first introduced you to these stories and values. Share that with your own children and grandchildren. Read with them. Take them to concerts. Spend time together enjoying each other. Instill the values that will help others find their way through life.
The next time you sit down to pay your bills or think about your budget or plan your next career move, dream a little too. Fairy tales or mythology or even a classic Harry Potter movie bring lessons that speak to your soul. The trick is to ground those dreams with practical steps you can take to get you where you want to go. It’s not all about spreadsheets and algorithms. It’s about heart, love, dreams. Inspiration is key.
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