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Upward Passage

The last person I wanted to see was my mother. Here I was talking to a girl I liked in the stairwell of my middle school when I heard the outside door close. I looked down the flight of stairs to see Mom looking back up at me.

She looked smartly conservative in her corporate suit, running late to the school play.

“Hey,” I murmured, hoping not to get into why I was in the hall when I should have been backstage for my bit part. She took her time coming up the stairs, said “Hey” to me, smiled at the girl and walked down the hall to the auditorium.

She must have heard the voice inside my head: “Don’t talk to me. Don’t talk to me. Don’t talk to me. Don’t talk to me.”

Maybe she had seen the flicker of terror on my pimply 13-year-old face and had taken mercy. It was the first time I had seen her by chance out in the world when I was trying to be somebody other than the child she knew.

I was in the midst of desperately letting go of childhood, but it was only decades later that I realized Mom’s quiet bravery to just walk on by and let go of her boy. She was a single mom and I was an only child, so that was a significant passage.

Passages happened to be the name of the musical we were putting on. It was based on Gail Sheehy’s book of the same name, which focused on the disorienting middle-age transition for people about my mother’s age. I had no idea about the book, although Mom had read it.

It’s probably Sheehy’s most famous book. But I was recently reminded of one of Sheehy’s later books, Pathfinders.

In that book, Sheehy looked into the secret of how some people reached their goals in life despite crises when others failed. The work was the result of life history questionnaires that 60,000 people completed and interviews with hundreds of respondents.

She found that these people not only could endure the crisis but used creativity to excel in their new circumstances. However, they were really expert in letting go of what was and grabbing hold of what can be.

One of those people was Julia Walsh, a woman who became a widowed mother of four at 33 in the 1950s. She then decided to become a full-time stockbroker in an era when women were rare in financial services. To help care for her four children, she invited her mother-in-law to live with her and keep house. Walsh kept her mother-in-law invested, literally, by paying her 20 percent of her commissions.

A few years later, she married a widower who also had children, bringing the grand total to 12 kids. Even with all that going on, at the age of 54, Walsh decided to leave her firm and start one of her own. By 1980, she was making $750,000 a year. She let go of security all along the way to success.

Even though that story is more than 35 years old, it should resonate with agents and advisors today. This is certainly a time when insurance agents and financial advisors have to let go of what’s comfortable in order to succeed.

Senior Editor John Hilton’s feature article this month offers a perspective on a couple of major transitions. One is succession planning, where agency owners would like to make some retirement cash on the businesses they invested in.

The other is fee-based advising, which many agents and advisors are adopting. That is partly in response to growing pressure to help clients holistically and not be so product-centric. Of course, the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule was a hard shove in that direction. Although the rule’s fate is now murky, its introduction had a significant effect on insurance and finance.

As disruptive as the rule has been, it has had a surprising unintended consequence. It helped raise the value of agencies because of recurring fees. A long-standing problem for retiring insurance agency owners has been that the business’ value was in its operation and book of clients, but not much in revenue-generating assets.

It isn’t easy to transition later in a career. But Walsh did a hard pivot at 54 and started an agency, at an age when many advisors are starting to daydream about a retirement destination.

How can mere mortals execute exponential change? Pascal Finette, an author and educator, told Publisher Paul Feldman how. In this month’s interview, the tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist said the key is not in incremental change, but in completely rethinking a business. Progress can’t happen when a person has one hand firmly latched onto the old way of doing things.

Passages — rising from one stage to the next, not only willingly but enthusiastically is the way to a better future.

Mom showed me how to accept change, probably before she was ready to. And that girl I was speaking with also helped me see things differently.

“Who was that?” the girl asked. “Um, yeah, that’s my mom,” I admitted, wanting to slap my forehead.

“She’s pretty.”

That unexpected answer got me thinking about my mother as an actual human being in the world and letting go of the image of Mom.

“Yeah, I guess she is.”

Steven A. Morelli is editor-in-chief for InsuranceNewsNet. He has more than 25 years of experience as a reporter and editor for newspapers, magazines and insurance periodicals. Steve may be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @INNSteveM. [email protected].

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