Last Thursday evening, I was sitting in my sophomore son’s World History classroom at Berkeley High School’s spring open house. His teacher was describing the research methods for their spring project – a 4-6 page research paper on a topic of their choosing in world history between 1500 and 1945. He specifically mentioned that one of their sources had to be something in hard copy and that given the limits of the high school’s library they would probably need to do research at the main branch of the Berkeley Public Library.

The public library has an enormous cache of data. More data doesn’t necessarily provide more meaning, though, and that is why 35% of his grade will be for selecting a good question, and developing a plan of research. In my experience, understanding the question and determining what is needed to truly provide an actionable answer – that can be the hardest part of the work.

In personal finance and investments, just like world history, there is an enormous proliferation of information available seemingly anywhere and everywhere. It is simple enough to find information online or in the newspaper on just about any corner of investments and personal finance.

And to make sense of that data – you have to ask the right question.

Our work often begins with doing just that:  helping clients articulate their concerns, and tease them apart from the issues the media thinks are most important. Instead of figuring out how much they “should” save for retirement, we would rather clients talk about what they want to spend money on. They can’t get the right answer to the “how much to save” question if they aren’t clear on what they are saving for. Figuring this out usually re-orients and energizes people, and literally moves them closer to what they want.

Maybe once my son figures out his topic for that World History paper — I’m going to guess he’ll choose something about World War I — I bet he’ll be more excited about hitting the library.