Dr. Jamie Weiner on the rising generation’s quest for legitimacy
Dr. Jamie Weiner is a clinical psychologist and the co-founder of Inheriting Wisdom, a Chicago-based consulting firm that specializes in the human factors affecting high-net-worth families. He has written several books on this topic, the latest of which is The Quest for Legitimacy: How Children of Prominent Families Discover Their Unique Place in the World. A small-group self-help program based on the book’s findings launches this July with a retreat in Oxford, England. Dr. Weiner met with Crain Currency’s Darrell Hartman to share more about his latest venture.
This book is for those who grew up in “the land of giants,” as you call it—in the shadow of highly prominent and/or successful parents and forebears. Many would say that they’re lucky. Are you saying that they’re not?
It’s probably best to understand it as an advantage and a challenge at the same time. It’s a challenge because you grow up having seen people [around you] accomplish unusual success, and you struggle—usually in silence—with figuring out how you’re going to measure up. Many of the people we interviewed [for the book] are people the world would see as successful. But internally, they felt their real desires were in the shadow or that they weren’t legitimate.
What are the four phases of the “quest for legitimacy"?
The first phase is awareness. For example, I talked to a woman whose parents were diamond traders and whose dad taught her to count using a bag of diamonds. Then she got to school and learned that not everyone learns how to count this way—that how she’d grown up was different. The second phase is the tug of war: that point where you’ve begun to feel the pull between your family and the outside world and you think, “Which of these is right and believable?” The third phase is exploration. The fourth is ownership—taking agency over one’s life.
Let’s talk about exploration for a second. Why is this crucial phase such a problem nowadays?
In a classic rite of passage, there is a period of separation from the world that you were brought up in. But these rites were for tribes, and we now live in a global culture. What are our rites of passage? Most of what’s offered to the rising generation is about the tools they need to fit into the family enterprise, not about helping them discover themselves.
Some families try a version of it, though, right?
For kids of the rising generation who want to go into the family business, there’s often talk of working for somebody else for a year or two. That’s an attempt to let somebody go out and explore something on their own. But the things that we think are periods of separation — going to college, say — don’t actually serve that purpose.
Why is it hard for families to embrace this idea of a trial separation?
Two fears. One is that the wealth will be lost. Every culture has a version of the “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves” phrase about wealth being lost in three generations, even though there’s no truth to it. The second one is a fear that the next generation won’t be able to handle what they’ve been born into. It’s a misguided sense of caring. Particularly in a generation of helicopter parents, there’s this idea that you love your kids by cutting off their wings and helping them do everything.
Tell us about a successful exploration phase.
My favorite example is of a woman whose family had done very well until all of a sudden, in high school, the business fell apart. In spite of that, she traveled to all these programs, with the encouragement of her mother, where she met people from around the world and did different things to help people. It was an exploration outside of the shadow of her family. Now, through that, she’s built her own business helping families in Mexico work through business challenges. When she went to get married, her father was upset because he couldn’t help her buy a house or anything else. But she turned to him and said, “You’ve given me the gift of helping me figure out how to do this on my own.”
Does a smoother transition between the generations, a sense that they are on somewhat equal footing, help to build and preserve wealth?
Yes, but it’s about more than that. Almost everybody we interviewed said that making a contribution within the family was important: being in the business, managing the money, some form of leadership, or feeling a sense of stewardship about what’s being handed to you.
You spoke with a lot of multigenerational families. Did you find any that had especially constructive policies with regard to the rising generation?
I interviewed one 250-year-old family that had set up a system where you didn’t grow up believing that you would have a role in the business. There are a couple thousand people with some connection to this family, but only six to 12 of them are going to end up in ownership roles. So you don’t plan your life around that happening. That makes it very different. But I also think that this [policy] could be done in second-generation or third-generation families.