Thursday, March 27, 2008

Charles Givens and the Theatre of Investing

This blog began around 1990 (Had Gore even invented the internet then?) when I saw personal finance guru Charles Givens being interviewed on a morning television show. Givens mesmerized the program hosts as he described strategies for managing money and accumulating wealth. When his alloted time was over, the hosts were visibly reluctant to let Givens go.

If memory serves me right, Bryant Gumbel was one host. In my mind's eye, I still see him delightedly conversing with Givens and making a mental checklist of things he needed to do in his own financial life after the show was over. Even after Givens left, the hosts continued to talk enthusiastically about what they had learned. Given their intelligence and celebrity status, it was startling to see how little these wealthy persons knew about handling their money.

If it was good enough for the talk show hosts, it was good enough for me. Givens was on the air to promote his books and his lecture tours and the company he had founded to dish out financial advice and services. I immediately went to the library and checked out Wealth Without Risk, a Givens bestseller.

The book taught me a lot about managing personal finances. In fact, I was so happy about what I was learning that I attended a free one-day seminar offered by the Givens company. There I learned even more about cleaning up my disorganized personal finances and investing to take care of my kids, so I bought a box of educational videotapes (Are you surprised they were hawking merchandise?) that I would use myself and share with loved ones. The materials were actually very informative and I still, in moments of pique, ruminate about which of my beloveds still has those tapes floating unlocatably in a basement or attic when I might want to watch them again some day.

As often happens in enterprises dealing with finance, the Givens companies ended ingloriously, caught up in allegations of scamming customer money and lawsuits and other ugly things. I'd like to know more about Givens himself. Was he ever accused of any criminal behavior? Did he manage to hold onto his own wealth? What's his story? If he had lived longer, maybe he would've been able to clear his reputation. Or maybe he would've been able to establish himself as a first rate scammer if this is what he was. Who knows?

At any rate, I learned enough about investment techniques from Givens to make a little money in the stock market. Some of it was lost, so I had to learn how to try and make it back.

But learning about investment techniques is not the major lesson which needs to be mastered in regard to successful personal finance.

The important lesson is that protecting your family's wealth and security requires vigilance, critical thinking and a good eye for the best and the worst of people. If you follow the advice of gurus who promise you you can make yourself wealthy just by performing a few tricks or following the folk wisdom of the financial industry, you will eventually scam yourself.

Now you see the subject of our blog: What are the ways in which middle class people scam themselves into undermining their own financial security? If our readers desire it, we might even turn the blog into a wiki.

Scamming and showmanship are natural partners. There was a lot of showmanship in the television interview where I first encountered Givens and a lot of showmanship in the seminar I attended later and a lot of showmanship in the controversies and collapses of his various enterprises. Such showmanship inclines me to invoke a theater metaphor for understanding how to deal with personal financial security and the villains that threaten to undermine it. We'll do more with this metaphor later.

Finally, on several occasions I heard Givens advise people not to take the accumulation of wealth too seriously. It's important, he repeatedly preached, but it's not all that important. You transform yourself into a fool when you let the accumulation of wealth impair your important relationships or undermine your spiritual integrity. That's really good advice.

So, thank you, Charles, for the enlightenment you provided. And the entertainment!

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