An epiphany, thanks to a total stranger

Austin Repath is an author, a philosopher and a former Humanities professor. He recently had an article — which really made me stop and think — published in the Globe and Mail. In it, in the form of a letter written to a young woman — a stranger he met — he reflected on the lessons he’s learned in his long life.

He starts off providing some context for this letter. He was in a coffee shop when a “twentysomething” started to talk to him. While it may not seem unusual on the face of it, it’s certainly not every day that you find someone her age chatting up a guy in his 80s. But that’s what happened.

For some reason, after they both went their separate ways, Repath felt that he’d “let her down,” that he hadn’t provided whatever she was looking for in terms of information or answers — not that she’d asked directly. He concluded that she’d probably been too uncomfortable to ask.

When it finally dawned on him that what she was after was what he’d learned about life, he decided to write the letter, hoping she’d see it in the newspaper, because he had no other way of getting it to her.

The passage that led me to reflections of my own is this one:

“… There is a boon given to those who are faithful to their path. With the collapse of every dream, the breaking of every illusion, I found myself becoming more vulnerable, more open. And out of this transformation came an awakening of what I believe is the most human of all virtues, compassion. Having suffered, been hurt, failed at so many attempts to gain ‘success,’ I find myself able to reach out to others in a way I never thought possible — with compassion. How to describe compassion? For me, it is an awareness that others, too, share the regret of mistakes made, failures endured, loves lost. That’s what happens as we become human …”

Although it’s never mentioned, as I read and re-read and re-read this paragraph, what comes to mind for me, is “empathy.” Maybe because it’s in such short supply at a time when the world needs it so desperately. And then it hit me.

Isn’t the “ability to understand and share the feelings of another” one of the most important qualities an Investment Advisor should have? To understand our clients’ emotions, anxieties, and aspirations – to have empathy.

It’s interesting. “Empathetic” is not a word one usually hears in connection with Investment Advisors. We’re expected to be knowledgeable, smart, skillful, savvy, expert, even clairvoyant at times, But you’ll never see “empathetic” on an advisor’s resume or on a list of attributes investors want in their advisors. And I’m beginning to think it should be.

Because if we don’t put ourselves in your place, if we don’t really get what makes you tick, if we can’t identify with you, how can we provide you with a strategy, a plan, a portfolio and ongoing guidance that speaks to your values, your innermost thoughts and your goals? Your advisor is your facilitator. Successful investing is all about the investor – all about you.


Alan Friedman is an Investment Advisor with CIBC Wood Gundy in Toronto. The views of Alan Friedman do not necessarily reflect those of CIBC World Markets Inc. CIBC Wood Gundy is a division of CIBC World Markets Inc. a subsidiary of CIBC and a Member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund and Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada. If you are currently a CIBC Wood Gundy client, please contact your Investment Advisor.

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