The Isolation of Abundance

“Robin Williams worried about faltering career,
struggled with survivor’s guilt, sources say,

by Hollie McKay, August 12, 2014,

“…Very few people in this world reach the level of fame Robin Williams did and could understand the type of depression he dealt with,” Veteran Hollywood publicist Michael Levine added. “There tends to be a lack of compassion – ‘So what, you’re famous’ – and it’s hard for people to then empathize. People like Robin often feel like they have to completely isolate themselves from the fishbowl they live in, and are so isolated they are afraid to ask for help.”

As I read this paragraph in Hollie McKay’s article, I found I was startled by the echo of isolation I have encountered many times among my wealthy clients. In fact, one of the reasons my practice exists is that my clients need a person whom they can confide in and count on for empathy about many, many thoughts they have never felt free to express with friends or family. They begin to explore with me the big qualities of life: identity, relationships, communication, and certain parenting questions. In all of their questions, their financial wealth is a central force.

One of life’s most difficult challenges is coping with any pain alone and the isolation of having no one you trust to share the burden. When the pain escalates, greater isolation results from believing that no one can possibly understand. No one. And believing nothing can make the pain stop. Nothing. When this mindset persists, it can lead to depression. Even surrounded by material abundance, depression can wield its grip. And there’s that lack of compassion you know to expect from others: ‘So what, you’re wealthy.’

Abundance is a concept that, at first glance, looks overwhelmingly positive. Yet for some it carries the question, “Why me?” and a sense of guilt for having plentiful resources while millions of others don’t have enough. Those who lack resources can be envious. They are sometimes eager and skilled at taking advantage; hence it can be difficult to sort out who, if anyone, truly cares and is trustworthy. Wealthy individuals can feel overwhelmed by the choices: fun, helping others, saving and building more wealth. Very few manage a healthy balance of these three priorities.

Our wealthiest individuals have a lot in common with successful movie stars. It is easy to view celebrities’ lives in the media. Both movie stars and very wealthy individuals typically live in fishbowls and can feel they have little in common with others. Both have an abundance of assets highly valued in our culture, assets which are often envied and misunderstood by outsiders. The thing is, no one gets a free ride through life. It is simply not the human condition. The human condition is that we all have challenges. Yes, they vary a lot, and someone else’s challenges inevitably will look easier to you, but nevertheless, everyone has challenges. Everyone.

Sometimes we forget how we can benefit by our connections to others. On the one hand, we make assumptions about how someone else’s life is easier than our own; and on the other hand, we truly forget how much we have to offer others. All of us create our own isolation at times with our assumptions and forgetfulness. It can be helpful to have reminders of the importance of who and what is present in our lives.

A few years ago our pastor, Bob Sanders, gave an inspiring sermon series, “The Ministry of Presence.” His theme was not only God’s presence for us, but the presence we can each provide for others.

We are all ministers of God’s love, every one of us. This includes those of us who feel we have nothing to give. But we all have something. Each of us is in a web of relationships, even thin relationships, and it is in these relationships that we are each called to be there for others. I have always admired people who instinctively know when someone needs attention. While this is a gift, even the most awkward of us can be kind and can listen. We can affirm a person whose pain feels unmanageable to them and restrain ourselves from giving advice. And as many of us have found out, there is nothing more fulfilling than knowing you were there for someone at a critical moment.

One of Bob’s most salient points came from his mentor, Bob Oerter, senior pastor of the first church where Bob served. He remembered Bob Oerter saying something he’d never heard anyone else say: “It would be to a person going through a tough time, a person he cared deeply about, and there often would be tears in his eyes as he said it: ‘Don’t waste your pain.’ I asked him what he meant, and he said, “It means if you have to go through this pain, don’t miss what it has to teach you. Don’t let it make you bitter. And don’t be in a hurry for a happy ending. Let God use it for good in you and in others.”

If isolation and addiction has gripped the life of someone important to you, I encourage you to read Bill Messinger’s recent blog:”Wealthy, famous, powerful and addicted,” at

It is with great excitement that I introduce the Longbow NXG: Four-day “Taster” Program in the UK, October 11-14, 2014, in which I am advising and teaching. Longbow is the leading center for the development of purpose and potential for significant wealth inheritors. This introductory weekend retreat brings together a small group of like-minded people who are committed to transforming what is possible in their lives. I will be there to help you discover and build on what really matters to you, introduce you to skills to overcome limiting thoughts and behaviors and develop a plan of action to create your future. After the retreat, you could continue to work with Longbow either through a multi-faceted year-long program or by selecting any one of their bespoke services including personal assessment, coaching or executive mentoring. For more information, visit
© 2014 Thayer Cheatham Willis. All Rights Reserved.

The Navigator is a quarterly newsletter for all who have an interest in wealth. The rich really are different, but not in the ways most people think. Many envy the wealthy and presume they have no problems, but in fact, they face unique psychological challenges. Thayer Willis, LCSW, wealth counselor, speaker and author of Navigating the Dark Side of Wealth: A Life Guide for InheritorsandBeyond Gold: True Wealth for Inheritors, helps her clients develop the meaningful lives we all treasure.

Treasures Lost and Found: Family Closeness

Like branches on a tree we grow in different directions, yet our roots remain as one. Each of our lives will always be a special part of the other. ~ Unknown

My cousin passed away much too soon. Though the faith we shared assures me she is in a better place and is reunited with her precious son, whose death at twenty-one was an unimaginable tragedy, still she was not old enough for us to let go easily. A few months ago, after returning home from her service at the tiny country church where our fathers and their six siblings worshipped as children, there was a thought I couldn’t shake.

My cousin’s father and his siblings grew up very poor in the Virginia countryside. My grandmother made all of their soap; their water came from a creek that meandered by their house; and that creek was their refrigerator – they had a watertight box they lowered into it to keep eggs, milk and other food cold. My grandfather died when my father was seven and there was barely enough money to keep the children together. In fact, there was talk of sending the youngest siblings to live with relatives and friends because there wasn’t enough money to support so many.

The older sisters insisted that they could care for the younger ones and kept the family together. Whenever anyone worked for pay, the money was pooled to buy the basics, mainly food. All of the kids worked on the family’s leased tobacco farm before and after school – picking the bugs off of the plants; “hilling” or preparing small hills for the young plants; “topping” and removing suckers; harvesting; and many, many more tedious chores. My grandmother was a teacher and believed that education was the path to success in life. An amazing amount of schooling was completed by those farm kids – college and graduate degrees – mostly paid for by my uncle, the oldest brother, who used the first profits from his little company, the Georgia Hardwood Lumber Company, to pay for educating his younger brothers. My father was one of those lucky brothers.

Besides their tremendous success in building their lumber company into the giant Georgia-Pacific Corporation, every one of those eight siblings grew into strong, positive, remarkable individuals. And just as importantly, they remained extremely close throughout their lives. In his later years my father called each of his sisters every day. The closeness of my aunts and uncles was evident in many of the words delivered by my cousin’s loved ones at her service. That group of siblings was often referred to as “the eight apostles.” All of us in successive generations know of their strength and closeness. During the service, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a treasure they had in their family cohesiveness, and the fact that those of us living now, their descendants, once knew it through them. But we no longer have it, not as they did.

We know each other and we get along, but I can’t help but wonder if the financial wealth that came with the success of Georgia-Pacific paved the way for us into a world where we are not dependent on each other, and where something precious in that interdependence has been lost. I wonder if it is not possible to have both financial ease and interdependence in the best sense of the word.

To be clear, it is not simply the impoverished circumstances of the “eight apostles” that created the closeness I witnessed. It was also one of my grandparents’ priorities to raise their children to be close. There were surely many crossroads, challenges and consistent parenting for the support and strength I saw to have developed. This was a faith-based, Christian family and undoubtedly their spiritual upbringing played an important role.

But my question remains: is it possible to foster this kind of strength and closeness in a family where there is financial wealth and ease?

I believe this can only happen far outside the mainstream. It is the values, priorities and actions of the parents and what they exemplify, that determine the kinds of relationships that are possible in their family. It is entirely possible to train children to love and prioritize each other; to respect, cherish and depend on each other in the positive ways; and to feel interconnected in the way that I experienced among my father and his siblings. It is just so rarely practiced that it is almost impossible to find among families today. The forces of society in general and the forces of financial wealth clearly work against it. But occasionally I see a rare example, and I aspire to it with my husband and children.

Shared values in the family encouraged by regular times when the family is together, shared spiritual practice, even humor and play, all contribute to weaving the family together. You can have this in your family. It begins with the awareness; the strength and conviction to stand up for what you believe in always; prioritizing family members’ relationships; and then the relentless commitment to the practice.

I shared this story with my wise and dear colleague, Richard Bakal, who is gifted in seeing the big picture, and he listed the circumstances he sees here which brought about such an extraordinary result. I find his list, in summary, to be very thought provoking:

Living in near poverty, close enough to real poverty, so it is clear that only continuous hard work and cooperation will keep the family alive and together.

* A rural environment, and dealing with nature’s forces teaches vital lessons. Life in a city/urban environment is full of diversions, temptations and very bad examples.

* A large family with lots of children. This may be key! In such a family, the mother cannot possibly care for all of the children, which the older children recognize and thus help take care of the younger ones. This kind of care giving and care receiving naturally creates the closeness that you remember and strongly desire.

* The death of their father intensified the bonds between the children. There was talk of sending the younger children away, but the older sisters would not allow for this. How could they?

* The very strong emphasis on education, for all the children – girls as well as boys, younger ones as well as older ones.

* The family was strongly faith-based and this undoubtedly sustained it and its members.

I don’t think, unfortunately, that “it is possible to foster this kind of strength and closeness in a family where there is financial wealth and ease” unless there is extraordinary awareness, discipline, and delayed satisfaction from the founders/parents. Adherence to as many as possible of the circumstances I listed is also important.


© 2014 Thayer Cheatham Willis. All Rights Reserved.

What Do We Owe Our Children?

So now it’s okay to be a spoiled brat? Three recent trials have focused on this very question: Ethan Couch, the Texas teen who appears to have gotten away with murder; Rachel Canning, the New Jersey teen who sued her parents for support and tuition; and prior to these, a lawsuit in the Northeast in which I was an expert witness, where two young adults were suing their father for the way he had handled their inheritance. In all three, my initial reaction was dismay at the ingratitude and sense of entitlement of these young family members. Yet, digging deeper, there is evidence of failure not only of these families, but of our society as a whole.


What is a parent’s responsibility? Since humans are born dependent and cannot live without care, we probably all can agree that we owe our children food, shelter, clothing and public school education or the equivalent. We need to meet their basic needs, or we are clearly irresponsible. After those first several years, what we owe our children becomes less clear. I believe that we owe our children good examples of all kinds in preparation for adulthood: clear teaching of values, and the encouragement of strength for character development. We owe them these inner tools and the opportunity to make their way in the world. All of this until at least age 18, and beyond for many of us.


Recently, a colleague sent me the following, written by Judge Phillip B. Gilliam, originally published on December 17, 1959, and reprinted in the Pierce County Tribune. 


Though this was written over half a century ago, it reflects the underlying truth that at some point we each need to take charge of our lives and work to become constructive and productive.

Consequently, the most important step in the upbringing of young family members is helping each one develop the ability to build a life: to launch. Don’t make life too easy for them or they will never know the sweet joy of challenges well met and the joy of their own success.


In the cases of the young people cited above, what went wrong? Perhaps growing up in a culture of entitlement, narcissism and ingratitude is taking its toll.


When I asked my 22-year-old daughter to respond to the above, she offered the following:


“What is wrong with Generation Y seems to be the question on everybody’s minds these days. Why are they moving back in with their parents? Why aren’t they working? How can they think life is harder for them now than it was for us? For many, the answers to these questions stem from one idea instilled in us when we were kids. Follow your dreams. The Baby Boomers were predominantly free-spirited, optimistic and experimental. Those same wild young adults who played in the mud at Woodstock became parents and taught their children that if you can dream it, you can do it.”


“I’m not saying that was the only life lesson we were taught while growing up. The obligatory axiom, “life isn’t fair” was a favorite of my parents. As was, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Even though those may seem slightly negative, pair them with hearing, “you can do it!” countless times and you come up with the idea that even though you may not get what you want the first time around, try again and you will succeed. When asked what my dream job was at the age of 7 and I said President of the United States, the response I got was along the lines of, “I can’t wait to see you on TV!” It was not, “Let’s be realistic.””


“We were taught to shoot for the stars and I am happy for that. While it may make Gen Y look lazy, and it’s true that some of us may be just that, the rest of us are looking for a career that will challenge us and excite us, and most of all will make us fall in love with our life. If we have to wait tables or bartend while finding that career, we figure that’s better than getting stuck at some job we hate, slowly giving up on our dreams. That may sound idealistic, but that’s just how I was raised.”


Our kids have been told, “You are special and unique.” Many of them have not gotten the additional point that they have all been told this. Being inherently special is just not enough to make it in the world. Our young adults need to become productive contributors to society to be truly special. Open the door and discuss this with your kids.


© 2014 Thayer Cheatham Willis. All Rights Reserved. 

Guiding Your Children: Meaningful Philanthropy

Meaningful philanthropy grows from deep roots. Its beginnings are in the development of empathy. For teens and young adult family members, the important first steps are in the volunteering they do. This volunteering is for perspective and understanding.

First, to develop meaningful and effective philanthropy, young family members need to volunteer to help teens and young adults, who through no fault of their own, are in hospitals or assisted living because they cannot function on their own (e.g., cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, paraplegics from accidents, other injuries and medical disorders). This volunteering should be ongoing, for instance, three times per week for an entire summer. The summer commitment is so that your junior family members have the opportunity to form relationships with some of these young people who are living in difficult circumstances. The object is for your teen or young adult to see that the people they serve aren’t “the other,” but are very much like them, with the same hopes, dreams and desires. If successful, your young family members will develop empathy for those they help. They may also recognize that their own financial position (just like the physical condition of those living in institutions) is not of their own making. In your junior family member’s case, their financial advantage is the result of the efforts of others and a blessing for which they should be immensely grateful. It is certainly not a badge of entitlement or status.

Second, they also need to experience working with teens and young adults who, as a result of their own bad choices, usually involving drugs and/or alcohol, are not able to take care of themselves now – like those who depend on the Salvation Army. Again, this needs to be an ongoing volunteer job, so that they have the opportunity to form relationships. At best, your young volunteers will realize the impact bad decisions can make on their own lives and their volunteer experience will make vivid the reality of the consequences that flow from such behavior.

Additionally, there is the need for young people to understand that charities vary widely and selecting one takes careful consideration. Learning how to use analysis tools such as Charity Navigator is also good for their education in becoming a discerning giver. What does the charity say they accomplish and how does their claim stand up under scrutiny? This discernment is important in evaluating charities and can open the eyes of these young family members to the full range of management effectiveness or lack thereof.

When young family members are deciding how they would like to volunteer, there is a wonderful opportunity to discuss the fact that there is often a big difference between doing something that actually helps and doing something that makes YOU feel better. How do you tell the difference? They can focus on observing this in their own volunteering and it is a constructive topic for a family discussion.

Volunteering and these early steps of philanthropy can be processed as a family, and this will provide valuable opportunities for discussion and understanding. The family philanthropy model at this early stage can be simple and modest. For these first steps, it is not necessary to participate in a family foundation, nor is it ever, during these early learning experiences. Even when you add monetary gifts to your elementary philanthropy program, any funds set apart for your giving will do. The money donated is not the focus. The study of financial concerns can be introduced later.

There is a rich array of concerns that can be exemplified and taught in these early steps. Parents can effectively highlight recognition of family strengths; kindness; responsibility; generosity; business principles (through their research); and later, investing principles (through managing the funds which will produce the income to be designated for gifts). Last but not least, the family can experience teamwork with its multifaceted benefits.

Tucked inside the early steps of philanthropy is a powerful message for these young family members. We all inherit assets in life. For some it is great intelligence, for some it is fabulous good looks, or athletic ability. For some it is financial resources or it may simply be the quality of resourcefulness, but we all inherit some kinds of assets. However, the one thing no one inherits is a meaningful life. For that, we have to work.

None of us have been given a meaningful life, we are each meant to build one. Many wealthy family members, usually those who are not indulging in entitlement and who have developed empathy, find fulfillment and meaning in the work of their philanthropy.

© 2013 Thayer Cheatham Willis. All Rights Reserved.