September 2008


Washington Mutual’s bankruptcy last Friday was the largest bank failure in U.S. history.  Amid the financial crisis that has been going on for some time now, huge bank failures are no surprise.  Corporate greed is nothing new either, but this example just underscores how ridiculous things are getting.

 

As lawmakers debated the details of bailout plan – a plan in which you and I as taxpayers will be the owners of bad mortgages that originated so that overpaid executives could get huge bonuses – WaMu was dumped to JP Morgan Chase.  We should probably feel bad for the person at the helm of WaMu when the ship went down, right?

 

Think again.  WaMu’s CEO, Alan H. Fishman, was given close to $20 million in the deal.  That’s not all.  He was only CEO of the company for 17 days… and it failed.  That’s over a million dollars a day for bankrupting a company!   Granted, the company was already going down when he took over, but this is insane.

 

Maybe this is our secret plan to protect our borders.  If we can mess up the economy enough, charge over $4 for a gallon for gas (if you can find a station that has gas), dump bad debt on the public, and raise taxes to bail out companies who made poor decisions while their CEOs get $20 million golden parachutes, nobody will want to come to the land opportunity any longer.  We can supply our own “tired, poor, and huddled masses.”  Oh that’s right, those people slipping through the borders aren’t paying taxes. 

 

I don’t mean to sound like I am bashing the United States.  I think this is still the greatest country in the world, but when we pool money of the citizens to bail out corporations, we are turning away from the principles of capitalism.  Yeah, I know that the bailout is supposed to protect the economy, but where does it end?  The problem here is greed and the love of money (the root of all evil, remember?) and our solution is to throw more money at it???  Look, I don’t have a solution and I guess some action is better than nothing, but a socialistic response sets a precedence that I’m not sure we fully understand yet.

 

I admit it.  I am hyper-competitive.  I realize that to some of you who know me, this is like saying Michael Phelps can swim.  I wish I could just enjoy playing a sport, a board game, or a fantasy football season; but I have to win.  Even if what I’m doing is not a sport or there are no competitors, I still have to beat some kind of personal goal.  For example, we’ve moved around quite a bit and I’ve gotten to where I can unpack all of our household belongings and get the house set up in two days…  if I’m hiking, I have to make a certain distance in the allotted time (my wife loves that one)…  I actually get upset when my team loses at Pictionary!

 

My latest competitive endeavor is running.  I got into it because our church put on a 5K community benefit and I thought it would be good exercise.  The problem is that there is a big timer at the finish line quantitatively judging me to a tenth of a second and a whole bunch of other people trying to run faster than me. 

 

As with most of my pursuits, this one began harmlessly.  I ran once a week with the goal of finishing the race without showing everyone what I had for breakfast.  After a few weeks, I realized that finishing wouldn’t be a problem and I began to focus on my time.  Eventually, my wife asked me why I didn’t just run for the fun of it.  I looked at her with that confused look dogs give when they hear a really high pitched sound.  Not be competitive… what kind of heresy was this? 

 

When the race day finally arrived, I did ok.  Doing ok is the worst result for a competitive person.  It’s better to win so that we can feel good about our accomplishment or to lose decisively so that we don’t have to worry about doing well in the future.  We prefer abject failure over adequacy.  

 

The interesting thing about running a 5K is that even though the competition is divided into age groups, those age groups are meaningless.  From my observation, there is the under 20 age group that is made up of kids that run cross-country and still have all of the cartilage in their knees.  The 20-somthings are usually sleeping in and if they wake up early enough to make the race, they will probably place in the top three of their age group due to the lack of competition.  I am in the 30-something group.  This is kind of a transition zone from the sleepy 20 year-olds to the hardened 40-year olds.  Those in their 40’s are mostly serious.  Some will run the course in under 20 minutes and for the most part, they are competitive.  Just about anyone over 50 takes this very seriously and will finish ahead of the majority of the 20 and 30 year-olds.  Then there is the over 65 group.  These people actually run to the event from their home.  During the pre-race, they do some Jack Palance calisthenics followed by a breakfast of asphalt and nails.   Then they whip up on the youngsters, accept their trophy, and jog to the next race… which they run while holding their trophy.

 

I tell you all of this because, being in the less competitive 30 something group, I actually have a chance of winning a trophy in my age group.  Fueled with this knowledge, I have downloaded training plans that include pace intervals, speed intervals, hill work, and endurance runs.  What was once a healthy activity is now becoming a competitive obsession.

 

We do the same thing at work don’t we?  Instead of a timer or our placing, we compete for job titles or raises.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with being competitive but we have to be careful about why we are competing.  Far more important than the attainment of our goals is our decision on which goals to pursue.

It’s hard to believe, but tomorrow is my daughter’s third birthday.  It seems like it was just yesterday that we were burping her while trying to steady her wobbly little head.  Now she is quite capable of burping on her own and doing somersaults over our dog.  Where did the time go?

 

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity provides a means by which time can be “stretched” by moving at close to the speed of light.  That’s great, but it’s not very practical with today’s gas prices.  I think he should have spent his time trying to figure out why time seems to go so much faster as we get older.  Do you remember how long it took for Christmas to come when you were a child?  What about those endless summers of your youth?  Birthdays that were once infrequent milestones now seem more like gravel roads.  Quick – without doing any math, how old are you?  Unless your age happens to have a zero at the end of it, that one probably stumped you.

 

One of the reasons that time seems to go so fast is because we are trying to cram so many activities into our lives.  We treat our schedules like a flight attendant trying to get an oversized bag into an overhead bin.  We pack it in and slam the door shut.  When the door pops back open, instead of removing anything, we rearrange it, pack it in tighter, and slam the door harder. 

 

The problem with trying to do so much is that it really robs us of the opportunity to do anything significant.  I’m not trying to say that we should be lazy and not do anything.  On the contrary, I believe that staying busy with a plethora of activities is actually a form of laziness.

 

Rather than putting forth the effort that it takes to identify those activities that allow us to utilize our God-given talents, positively impact people, and dedicate our time to something larger than ourselves, we surrender ourselves to societal stand-by activities.  We sign up for things that we are dispassionate about because our friends are doing it… or we don’t want to deny our kids a particular experience… or we just feel obligated.  After over committing ourselves, we complain about those activities as if they are to blame for our hectic schedule.  In truth, we are to blame because we lack the courage to say no to all of those things that eat away at our passion.

 

There’s a line at the end of the movie The Usual Suspects that says, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”  How true this can be if you allow insignificant busyness to supersede your life’s mission.

With the Dow down almost 1000 points over the past few days, who’s laughing at my stamp investment idea now?

My brother-in-law sent me the following email with the subject line of “money = happiness”.

It may not be comforting to folks who aren’t minting cash, but the rich really are different. “There’s no group in America that’s happier than the wealthy,” says Taylor, of the Harrison Group.

Roughly 70% of millionaires say that money “created” more happiness for them, he says. Higher income also correlates with higher ratings in life satisfaction, according to a new study by economists at the Wharton School of Business. But it’s not necessarily the Bentley or Manolo Blahniks that lead to bliss.

“It’s the freedom that money buys,” says Betsey Stevenson, a co-author of the Wharton study.  Concomitantly, rates of depression are lower among the wealthy, according to the Wharton study, and the rich tend to have better health than the rest of the population, says James Smith, senior labor economist at the Rand Corporation. In fact, health and happiness are as closely correlated as wealth and happiness, Smith says.

The wealthy even seem to smile and laugh more often, according to the Wharton study, to say nothing of getting treated with more respect and eating better food.

“People experience their day very differently when they have a lot of money,” Stevenson says

This brings to mind the famous quote: “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can bring you a better form of misery.”  It is important to note what the study author says about the happiness brought about by money – “It’s the freedom that money buys”.  I talk about the concept of “financial freedom” in my book.  I ask the reader to imagine winning a lottery and to have the luxury of never having to work again.  Put yourself in that situation. 

 

For most of us, the thrill of receiving a windfall of cash has less to do with the superfluous luxuries we could buy and more to do with the freedom of not having to continue toiling away at a job that we are dispassionate about.  We daydream about having the freedom to live a meaningful life, not buying $5,000 shower curtains. 

Financial freedom does not mean that we have enough money to buy anything that we want.  Nor does the freedom from consumer debt constitute financial freedom.  While I was in the corporate world, I was free from consumer debt and I could buy just about whatever I wanted (within reason), but I lacked financial freedom.  Why?  Although I had the money, I was ransoming my time, energy, and passion to continue working at a job that provided the money.  I wasn’t free – I was imprisoned. 

Another argument I will make is regarding the statement “Roughly 70% of millionaires say that money “created” more happiness for them.”  First off, money cannot “create” anything – it can be exchanged for other things, given away, or stashed in a bank; but it will never create.  Second, I think it is safe to assume that the majority of mega-rich are actually doing things that they are passionate about.  Now the question becomes, what makes them happy?  Is it their passion for what they do or the money they make doing it? 

I think the most import factor that influences our level of happiness as it pertains to money is not how much of it we have, but our attitude towards it.  You can have millions and still lack financial freedom if you are allured by what money can buy.  Conversely, you can have little and enjoy financial freedom.

One thing I have learned from writing a blog is to always keep a post or two written ahead of time, so I don’t have to think of something at the last minute.  This comes in handy when something happens and you don’t have time to write (like having a baby).  It’s pretty obvious, but this was written last week right after our first trip to the hospital…

 

For those of you who don’t know, my wife is pregnant and is ready to give birth at any minute now.  To say that she is about to pop is an understatement – she looks like a tick that struck a vein.  She was induced with our first child, so we had a nice controlled setting where the contractions began at the hospital with all the beeping equipment already hooked up and charts drawing little mountain ranges.  This second one is a little different.

                          

She began having contractions early last week.  They started getting more frequent and then subsided.  On Wednesday night, they really got going.  At first they were about 12 minutes apart and not too uncomfortable (easy for me to say, right).   Then she went into this quiet phase where she wasn’t really giving me much information.  I don’t do well when not given information.  I kept asking her what was going only to hear a sheepish, “I don’t know.”

 

I had no idea how frequent her contractions were, but mine went from about a minute apart to a constant tightness.  I was becoming the stereotypical sitcom father-to-be.  Sara called the paging service for her doctor and was waiting for a call back.  Sara was patiently sitting with the phone in her hand.  I was frantically checking bags, packing them in the car, changing camera batteries, making sure the dog had plenty of food and water, taking the dog out one last time, rechecking the bags, checking to make sure we had our insurance cards and identification, unpacking bags to find said identification, repacking bags, reloading the car, mowing the yard, changing the oil, painting the kitchen, milking the cows, and washing the windows.

 

About 20 minutes later, still no call from the doctor and Sara was still waiting patiently with the phone in her hand.  By this time I had whipped myself up into the Looney Tunes depiction of the Tasmanian Devil and not so gently insisted that she call them back.  Shortly after her second call to the paging service, Dr. Payne called us (I guess Dr. Misery, Dr. Anguish, and Dr. Distress were out of town).  Once again, Sara is on the phone and I am outside the information loop – not good. 

 

To make a long story short, although the contractions got down to 4 minutes apart, she didn’t go into full-blown labor and my shortcoming of being a massive control freak was underscored.  For you women out there, that is why men are so bad at the whole birthing process thing.  We have no control and are reduced to bystanders.  Yeah the nursing staff may call us “coaches” but who are we kidding?  Of all the people in a delivery room, I am the least mission critical.

 

Now, rewind back to those moments before we went to the hospital.  I had no control over what was happening, so what did I do?  I created a bunch of busyness to keep myself occupied so that I could believe that I was somehow being productive.  It seems foolish and almost comical, but don’t we do that all the time?  We feel the urge to seek out and fulfill our mission, but to do so would mean giving up control.  When faced with the possibility of losing control, we create work and busyness that we can control however tedious and unimportant it may be.  We’ll generate reports, send meaningless emails, do housework, or start a new project for the sole purpose of being in control.  Remember when we talked about significance a while back?  I think we are prevented from experiencing true significance until we surrender control and stop doing work just for the sake of working and staying busy.

 

Are you overcome by busyness?  Do you spend your time frantically working toward insignificance?  Where are you afraid to give up control?

My wife and I welcomed our second daughter, Amelia, into the world at 7:20 this morning.  All are well.

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