“Could you put in some Mayans?”

480px-Harlan_Ellison_at_the_LA_Press_Club_19860712
Source: Wikipedia

Harlan Ellison died this year. A terrible loss.

He was one of the better science fiction writers of all time. Thinking about “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream”  still gives me the jibblies. Ellison was no shrinking violet when it came to the business side of his chosen art form. He was also famously protective of his artistic integrity.

In fact, he might written the original Star Trek movie, if only he were a bit more flexible. Stephen King recounts the story in his (underrated) book, Danse Macabre. In a lengthy footnote, he gives Ellison’s version of events:

Paramount had been trying to get a Star Trek film in work for some time. [Gene] Roddenberry was determined that his name would be on the writing credits somehow… The trouble is, he can’t write for sour owl poop. His one idea, done six or seven times in the series and again in the feature film, is that the crew of the Enterprise goes into deepest space, finds God, and God turns out to be insane, or a child, or both. I’d been called in twice, prior to 1975, to discuss the story. Other writers had also been milked. Paramount couldn’t make up their minds and had even kicked Gene off the project a few times, until he brought in lawyers. Then the palace guard changed again at Paramount and Diller and Eisner came over from ABC and brought a cadre of their… buddies. One of them was an ex-set designer… named Mark Trabulus.

Roddenberry suggested me as the scenarist for the film with this Trabulus, the latest… of the know-nothing duds Paramount had assigned to the troublesome project. I had a talk with Gene… about a storyline. He told me they kept wanting bigger and better stories and no matter what he suggested, it wasn’t big enough. I devised a storyline and Gene liked it, and set up a meeting with Trabulus for 11 December (1975). That meeting was canceled… but we finally got together on 15 December. It was just Gene and Trabulus and me in Gene’s office on the Paramount lot.

I told them the story. It involved going to the end of the known universe to slip back through time to the Pleistocene period when Man first emerged. I postulated a parallel development of reptile life that might have developed into the dominant species on Earth had not mammals prevailed. I postulated an alien intelligence from a far galaxy where the snake had become the dominant life form, and a snake-creature who had come to Earth in the Star Trek future, had seen its ancestors wiped out, and who had gone back into the far past of Earth to set up distortions in the time-flow so the reptiles could beat the humans. The Enterprise goes back to set time right, finds the snake-alien, and the human crew is confronted with the moral dilemma of whether it had the right to wipe out an entire life form just to insure its own territorial imperative in our present and future. The story, in short, spanned all of time and all of space, with a moral and ethical problem.

Trabulus listed to all this and sat silently for a few minutes. Then he said, “You know, I was reading this book by a guy named Von Daniken and he proved the Mayan calendar was exactly like ours, so it must have come from aliens. Could you put in some Mayans?”

Is there not a more perfect parallel for client meetings?

You spend hours, if not days or weeks, agonizing over the minutiae of asset allocation and return expectations and manager changes and security selection only for the client to turn around and ask for some Mayans.

“I hear weed is going to be huge. Can we buy some pot stocks?”

Or:

“I found a company that wants to build a bridge to Mars. They’re crowdsourcing investors. Can I invest?”

Unfortunately, we can’t respond the way we’d like to respond in our darker moments–how Harlan Ellison responded to Mark Trabulus during their fateful meeting in 1975:

I looked at Trabulus and said, “There weren’t any Mayans at the dawn of time.” And he said, “Well, who’s to know the difference?” And I said, “I’m to know the difference. It’s a dumb suggestion.” So Trabulus got very uptight and said he liked Mayans a lot and why didn’t I do it if I wanted to write this picture. So I said, “I’m a writer, I don’t know what the fuck you are!And I got up and walked out. And that was the end of my association with the Star Trek movie.

There are a lot of reasons clients ask for Mayans for their portfolios. Greed. Fear of missing out. We learned all that in Behavioral Finance 101. But there’s another reason clients ask for Mayans. It’s the same reason Mark Trabulus asked for Mayans back in 1975, while sitting there in the long shadow of Harlan Ellison, the creative genius.

They want to contribute.

Imagine yourself on the client side of the table. You sit in meeting after meeting going over dreary reports full of inscrutable data tables. You’re bombarded with jargon. You scan your portfolio and it’s full of abstracted stuff like foreign SMID cap value funds.

Can we really blame people for wanting to contribute some of their own ideas? It’s their money in the portfolios, after all.

Yes, their ideas are usually bad ideas. You can’t let them run roughshod all over the place. There’s a reason they’ve hired a professional for advice. But it’s just as important to recognize some of the most annoying things clients say and do don’t necessarily come from a place of fear or greed or arrogance.

This is why I am generally a fan of “play money” accounts for individuals. Some side pocket of the portfolio over which the client has complete discretion, but that’s sized so it won’t blow up the financial plan if it goes to zero. Not everyone wants a play account, or needs one. But for clients who do, it’s an important outlet.

It’s a way for them to participate in the financial markets and the investment process.

It’s a way for them to express… (dare I say it?)… some creativity.

Even if their ideas are dumb.

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