As a veteran career coach, Pamela York Klainer has encountered nearly every professional challenge under the sun. Her clients range from young entrepreneurs who are nervous about making it on their own to high-powered executives who are trying to spend more time with their families. But, she says, at the root of most such problems lies one issue: money. How much of it do people really want, and what are they prepared to give up in order to get it?
"It's considered distasteful to talk about money, and it's seen as especially distasteful to talk about our feelings about money," says Klainer, 54, who was a financial planner until 1991, when she became a career coach. (In 1996, she began a "stewardship consulting" practice, which involves helping new millionaires and other people who struggle with the psychological issues that wealth raises.) "But in my experience, money is almost always the silent subtext to stories about work and career."
That's why Klainer, who is based in Rochester, New York, gives her clients an unusual assignment: She asks them to write a "money autobiography" — to document their life story using money as the narrative theme. When do they first remember having money of their own? How was money discussed in their family? Can they think of a concrete image that illustrates the role that money has played in their life? "A helpful way to understand your relationship to money is to tell stories about significant events in your life in which money played a part," says Klainer. "We all grow up getting certain messages about money."
Decoding those messages — facing your hidden anxieties and expectations about money — is more important than ever, she adds, because people today have more responsibility then ever to shape their own growth. One reason why people are quick to jump at the wrong job, or even the wrong career, is that they're not honest with themselves about their material expectations: "For most of us, there is a discontinuity between the story we create for ourselves and the life we want to lead."
A money autobiography helps to pinpoint that discontinuity. The owner of a marketing firm, for instance, recently came to Klainer to express concern that she was unhappy with how hard she was working. This woman, who was in her forties, wanted to spend more time with her family — yet she was constantly pushing herself to meet high financial goals. Thanks to an inheritance from her parents, she was already worth several million dollars. But she wouldn't allow herself to touch that fortune until she had amassed one of her own. When Klainer asked her why, the executive seemed at a loss: "It was just a rule that she'd made for herself," Klainer says.
While writing her money autobiography, this executive realized that she was trying to "measure up to her parents," who were self-made millionaires, says Klainer. "Using an inheritance to make your life easier wasn't seen as a legitimate thing to do." Now this executive is reevaluating her self-imposed "rule" and thinking about donating some of her wealth to a charity.
In fact, many clients discover that they are living by rules about money that were handed down to them by their parents — and that no longer apply. Barbara Moore, 48, started seeing Klainer last November. Two years after she launched her own Internet-consulting business, Moore was plagued with doubts. She was earning enough to maintain her lifestyle, but her income was less than it had been when she was assistant director of libraries at the University of Rochester.
When Moore wrote her money autobiography, she began to see that she was defining success in the same way that her Depression-era parents — one a professor, the other a high-school teacher — had defined it. "To them, you always had to make more money every year, and you never quit a well-paying job," she says.
With Klainer's help, Moore is rewriting her definition of success. Instead of measuring success strictly in terms of immediate dollars, she now looks at how many repeat customers and referrals she has, at the impact that her work has on people, and at whether that work is fulfilling to her. "I still have doubts," Moore says. "But now I know where those doubts come from, and I can work on them."
Sidebar: My Money, Myself
Writing a money autobiography can help you understand your attitudes about money and how they affect your life. To help you get started, Pamela York Klainer offers three suggestions.
Start at the beginning. When do you first remember having money? What tone did your family's discussions assume when money was the subject? Search through your childhood memories; then work your way up to the present. You don't have to tell your story chronologically, but early experiences with money often lay the groundwork for adult behavior.
Recall specifics, not just generalities. One client of Klainer's, Barbara Moore, began to understand her money anxieties when she recalled that her mother used to rip the price tags off $3 cans of coffee (and other expensive groceries) — because her father was so paranoid about spending money. "Both of my parents worked," she says. "But I always sensed their anxiety about money."
You don't to have to be Tom Wolfe. Many of Klainer's clients don't have the time, energy, or literary flair to write a polished narrative. No matter. What does matter, she adds, is not the finished product but the process of thinking about money. In fact, Klainer suggests that you date your autobiography and rewrite it periodically, using it as a guide whenever you make important decisions. "People today are the authors of their own careers," she says. "They're faced with so many choices. But how can you know what you're striving for and how hard you're willing to work if you don't really understand your feelings about money?"
Contact Pamela York Klainer by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A version of this article appeared in the May 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.