Family Matters: Finding Purpose in Your Heritage

To best prepare for the future, it helps to understand the past.

old family photographs

Every year, Katherine Dean, Head of Family Dynamics at Wells Fargo Private Bank, asks her children, “What makes you proud to be a Dean?” Their responses, whether they’re aware of it or not, almost always relate back to family values.

Dean wants her children to lead productive, purposeful lives. She’s helping them to develop a solid foundation by nurturing an understanding of their family’s values and history. This home perspective mirrors her work perspective: Dean leads a team of family dynamics professionals who help clients address the intellectual, cultural, social, emotional, and interpersonal relationship aspects of managing wealth. “For multigenerational planning, it’s important to look back and appreciate the sacrifices our ancestors made that brought us to where we are today,” says Dean. “That’s how we uncover our family’s values. We need that connection to something bigger than ourselves.”

Find purpose in your family history
As Chief Historian of Wells Fargo & Company, Dr. Andy Anderson is also founder and director of the Wells Fargo Family & Business History Center. He believes history tells us about our present and future selves. “Family history is the deepest form of self-knowledge,” he says. “In today’s world, it’s hard to know what’s real. If you look back three generations, that’s multiple stories that relate to who you are and what you stand for.”

Anderson and a team of historians research family heritage to help clients develop a foundation from which to build their futures. “Many client families have achieved great levels of success,” he says. “How did that happen? Understanding the great values and strength of character shown by their ancestors inspires imagination in the next generation.”

Anderson recalls explaining to one family that their ancestors boarded a ship in 1795 to come to America from Ireland. “Eight of the 11 family of Irish farmers died in a shipwreck within sight of land. The family, previously unaware of this tragedy in their ‘coming to America’ story, then recognized the profound sacrifice and sorrow their ancestors had endured for subsequent generations to have a better life.”

“It’s important to look back and appreciate the sacrifices our ancestors made that brought us to where we are today.” —Katherine Dean, Head of Family Dynamics, Wells Fargo Private Bank

In another family, two sons of a 90-year-old patriarch had doubts about whether they wanted to take over the family business. Anderson relates that with the help of the Family & Business History Center, the sons learned their grandfather had built a successful energy company after emigrating from Russia with nothing. The sons ultimately decided to maintain the family business in honor of their family’s legacy. “It was the perfect situation for a family dynamics conversation to take place so they could plan for the future,” Anderson concludes.

Teach your children well
Dean says it’s common for children to have concerns about whether they’re prepared to take over an enterprise. Meanwhile, the parents worry whether their children will be self-reliant, productive members of society.

“We need to open up these dialogs so families can have clear goals and expectations,” she says. “Wealth is a magnifier. It makes a complex family system even more difficult.”

According to Dean, children often learn what they live; those lessons learned as children can have a lasting impact as they become adults. “The disease of entitlement has been known to wither away large sums of money and cause destruction in the best of families’” reminds Dean. “Will money change a person from good to bad or from bad to good? It’s not likely, but money poorly applied can magnify character flaws.”

Learning from family history and providing good role models across generations can go a long way in helping to mitigate those potential issues. “Consider how money might be a magnifier for good. Children who learn to share are more likely to be good corporate citizens when they are financially wealthy and grown. Children who are taught to ‘take all you want, but eat what you take’ are less likely to misuse or underappreciate resources as adults. Children who witness random acts of anonymous generosity from their parents toward neighbors and even strangers have been pre-trained in the art of charitable giving.”

Get the next generation involved
Many children take an active interest when it relates to family history. Anderson supports activities such as Family Heritage Projects, which most American school children complete in third, fourth, or fifth grade. For the project, students create a display about their family history and culture and present it to their classmates and parents during family heritage and diversity celebrations.

By tracing their family history, children not only learn about their ethnicity but also discover how they may have inherited their talents and skills. If a teenager learns her great-grandmother, for example, had exceptional musical talent, it may inspire her to pursue her own passion for singing or playing an instrument.

“These projects provoke imagination,” Anderson says. “They encourage children to think about their heritage not in an abstract way, but from the perspective of, ‘this is who I am.’”

Although knowledge of one’s lineage may help a family build a more prosperous enterprise, the insights go much deeper. As Dean says, “What did it take to create that wealth? Your intellectual, time, social, and spiritual capital: that’s your wealth. When you redefine what wealth means, you find more meaning in life.”

To help your children have healthy concepts about their worth, Dean recommends considering a broader definition of “wealth” to include things that are not quantified in dollars and cents. “One example is to be relationship rich,” she offers. “Ask your children this question: Do you have people around you who love and care about you, and have the ability to help you become successful in life? If they answer yes, then you can emphasize that they are ‘wealthy’ from a relationship perspective.” Through all of these conversations, you can help your family legacy live on in a positive way.

Research your lineage
Want to learn more about your ancestry? Anderson shares a few resources for tracing your roots:

Heather Johnson writes about small business, finance, real estate, and other topics from Oakland, California. Image by iStock

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