Periscope Depth

who is he and what is he to you?

I don’t think I told you this one.

A few months ago, two financial consultants came to talk with us over lunch. They presented “Ten Proven Strategies To Help Secure Your Financial Future.” If you’ve ever done more than an hour’s research in investing disposable income, none of these strategies would have been new. Be Prepared For Emergencies. Reduce Debt. Invest For The Long Term. Dollar-cost Average. All advice you can get online. But I didn’t know that going in, plus I like free sandwiches.

So: guy in his mid-thirties, woman in her late twenties. Guy does most of the talking. He’s a good enough public speaker. He puts up slides but doesn’t read off them and he bounces the occasional question to the audience. When we get to Strategy #4, “Create a Will and Estate Plan,” he talks about the importance of documenting where you want your assets to go after death. Then he pauses.

“Anyone know who Lee Strasberg is?” he asks.

I didn’t raise my hand. I don’t mind talking and I don’t mind getting attention, but I don’t like the weird fisheye lens of answering a speaker’s questions. “Anybody?” he asked. “Nobody ever gets this.” Well, that sounds like a challenge, I thought. I put my hand up, just as he was saying, “I will buy lunch for anybody who … yes?”

“He was an acting coach. Founder of the Actors Studio in New York.” Then, realizing why he brought Strasberg up in the context of writing your will: “He was also the heir to Marilyn Monroe’s estate.”

“Exactly. Wow. Okay.”

And then he resumed his spiel. I thought nothing more of it until the tenth strategy (“Seek Expert Advice”). He was talking about the Dow Jones Industrial Average. “Anyone know how many stocks are actually on the Dow?”

“About forty,” I said. I was mostly guessing.

The next day, the guy sent me an e-mail inviting me to lunch. I ignored it. I don’t want to sound ungracious – I don’t get offered a lot of free lunches – but I didn’t want to spend 25 minutes talking with this guy about financial planning. And I didn’t think we’d have a lot else in common. I suppose I could have asked for lunch at Globe and then ate in silence, like a WASP couple on their seventeenth anniversary.

I’d forgot the incident until Friday, when someone dropped my unclaimed mail at my desk. I get paper mail so rarely that I never think to check the box. Inside a small envelope was a Starbucks gift card for $10 and a note from the financial planner. Apparently he takes his promises of rewards for trivia answers very seriously.

“The wise man knows that he knows nothing,” goes the old saw, but I’m not sure that’s the case. People who are smart know things. But they’re smart because they have a deep intellectual curiosity. And when you have a deep intellectual curiosity, you’re always aware of how much else there is to learn. People without intellectual curiosity don’t consider the world a source of trivia and enlightenment. Planes fly because it’s time for them to take off; bread appears on supermarket shelves out of a vacuum; you remember and forget things because you remember and forget them. So wise people feel they know nothing because they know how grand the world of knowledge is. Dull people feel they know plenty because they’ve mastered their tiny domains.

The moral of the story: I have a $10 Starbucks gift card to give away.