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Financial Planning Insights

What the Movie Soul Teaches Us About Planning

By Joe Maier | Johnson Financial Group

4 minute read time


In Pixar’s movie Soul, we learn that achievement doesn’t always lead to happiness. How does this relate to financial planning? Director of Wealth Strategy Joe Maier shares how to build a financial plan based on principles of enjoyment rather than external expectations of success. Because unlike the main character in Soul, you only have once chance to live your story.


Last Saturday night, I watched the Pixar movie on Disney+. Soul is about Joe Gardner, a jazz musician and music teacher who lives his life focused on wanting to “succeed” as a jazz musician in New York City. At the beginning of the movie, Joe finally gets his big break, getting the opportunity to play that night with a famous jazz musician. On his way home from rehearsal, Joe is so excited that he does not pay attention to where he is walking and falls down an open man hole and dies. The remainder of the movie is about Joe, in the afterlife, trying to get back to his body in time to play the gig he has been searching for his whole life. As part of his journey back, he mentors a “new soul,” one who has yet to be assigned to a body. Joe watches that new soul embrace the wonder of living: discovering new foods, the beauty of nature and the love of a friend. Finally, at the end of the movie, Joe learns the lesson. Life is not about achievement; it is about happiness. Joe gets a second chance to live and his final line is “I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”

Soul, in the guise of a children’s movie, is a wonderfully deep exploration of the meaning of life. A truly meaningful, happy life focuses not on achievement, but rather on fulfillment. Stated another way, a life filled with goals and achievement, without any meaning or joy attached to those goals, is not a life to be celebrated but rather one to be pitied. At the end of the day, people whose life is lived in blind adherence to a checklist of external expectations of success are destined to fail by succeeding.

So what does any of this have to do with planning?

In my career, I have been around several clients and planners who build plans based on principles of achievement rather than enjoyment. They have plans based on numerical goals and math equations that have no connection to human emotion. They are all “what” and no “why.” Planners promise investment results that will “beat the benchmark” or tax planning that will “drive down the tax bill.” They offer “rules of thumb” on what income is needed to retire, savings goals and asset allocations. But I have seen several clients that achieve, even exceed, these numerical goals and end up miserable. That is because their “success” had nothing to do with them, with their story. It wasn’t based on vision or mission or happiness. It was based on a cold, uncaring math problem. In fact, their plan was not their plan at all, it was the advisor’s plan.

Planning starts with happiness.

Planning, at its heart, is a strategy designed to use your assets and income to maximize your happiness. To do that, a plan needs to start with your story: who do you care about and how do you want to care for them? What makes you happy? Does financial dependence scare you and does the thought of financial independence take that fear away? Do you get more joy out of things or experiences? Are you happier when you share experiences or when you explore on your own? Do you prefer to give or receive? Is making an impact on family, society or both important?

If your planner has not asked you any of these questions, how do you know that your plan is designed to maximize your happiness? Do you have the right plan? Do you have the right planner? Are you like Joe Gardner: blindly seeking achievement only to later find it and discover that, instead of making you happy, it leaves you feeling empty?

My Advice in This New Year

Learn from a simple but profound children’s movie: start with happiness then plan for that. Don’t do the reverse. Unlike Joe Gardner, you only get one chance to live your story. Do it right.

Our experienced advisors partner with you to develop a strategy that tells your story – a story designed to care for the people you love. A story that uses your income and assets to create a legacy. A story that, when it comes to life, has the potential to maximize your happiness. Connect with one of our advisors today.


Joe Maier

Joe Maier

SVP Director Wealth Strategy JD, CPA | Johnson Financial Group

Joe has extensive experience helping high‐net worth individuals, family offices, business owners and corporate executives meet their wealth and legacy goals. His areas of specific interest and skill include business succession planning, financial and estate planning, and wealth transfer strategies.

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