Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

We all have been trained in elementary school of what to do if we catch on fire:  stop, drop and roll.  Now about to enter my fifth decade of life I still remember this survival training because it is so simple, shown to be so effective, and therefore seems to stick with us.  Simple, effective solutions are the best, aren’t they?

I have been mulling over this literally for about three weeks now and have decided to share with my blog readers and hope it can help out in the world at large.

This simple concept has applications in our lives right now, and as it turns out, not just with coronavirus but with the renewed interest in dealing with police brutality most recently horrifically brought back into the spotlight with the needless death of George Floyd.  It was really this dual impact that finally got me off the fence to write this post after such a long absence from the blog.  I felt the coronavirus value was good but as it continues to expand it felt too important not to voice more publicly.

First, let me provide some details about me that may not be readily apparent from everything else on the blog.  Perhaps people have discerned this already, but as I have never explicitly, as I recall, stated these things, for this post I want to leave no doubt.  I am a middle-aged, conservative, white male who lives in the suburbs and has a job I can do from home.  I share this because I believe I will say at least one thing somewhere in the rest of this post that will go against the commonly accepted understanding of what someone like that would do or think, and therefore I hope it will add some value to what I share here because you will be able to see that I am attempting to practice what I preach.  So, let’s dive in, the water’s deep and there is a lot to cover.

The first of the three instructions we have ingrained in our collective psyche is Stop.  Stop binge watching news about either subject.  Stop constantly talking with your friends and family about it.  Stop obsessing over this or any other topic that can easily steer to the heavily negative during this time when most of us are stuck at home and have much more time on out hands than we ever have because anything we used to do in “spare” time, is not or has only recently become available again.  Even what has become available, is in a new format.  For me I like to go to the movie theater, concerts, plays, church, fairs, museums, sporting events and also tend to eat out along with those things or also separately, typically once a week at least.  For the last ten weeks, none of those things have been on the table and most of them are likely off the table for the rest of this year, if I avoid (i.e. STOP) jumping on the wishful thinking express.  I was as guilty as anyone of spending too much time thinking about what I had lost in the first few weeks, than about steering my mind to more constructive pursuits about what I could actually do and making peace with that.

One of the biggest Stops is to stop thinking that opinions are facts.  If literally any one person can view something differently than you do, that is your flare in the sky, spotlight on the obvious, that you are dealing with an opinion and not a fact.  We are all entitled to our own opinions, but none of us gets our own facts.  Facts are the same for virtually everyone.  You know that rule you also learned at some point in school that always or never on a True/False test make the question false?  This is one thing, of a very short list of things, that is an exception to that rule.  A fact is ALWAYS the same for everyone, otherwise it is not a fact.  This is a truism we seem to have lost, especially in the United States, where debates and discussions get heated almost immediately because we start tossing out our opinions thinking they are facts.

Let’s use these two issues we are living with in the US and look for facts and see how few of them there are.

Coronavirus that causes COVID-19.  It exists. Like other viruses, people can get sick from it.  It has a gene sequence that has been shared with scientists.

George Floyd.  He has died.  He was a person of color.  This happened in the Minneapolis, MN area.  This was filmed from many angles.  A police officer had his knee on his neck.  George said “I can’t breathe” multiple times.

I have tried very hard in these lists to avoid anything that could be disputed (an opinion formed about), as that would not be a fact.  Likely, you feel I have not stated other obvious “facts”.  I challenge you, as I challenge myself everyday, to really determine if much else that you believe is a fact about these issues is.  Or is it an opinion you have turned into a fact in your own mind and that now drives your views and opinions of others and your interactions with them.

Stop thinking it’s all about us.  We get told this as children all the time, but as adults we are terrible at taking our own medicine.  Stop only talking with and seeking opinions of others who are just like you and on important, complex topics like global pandemics and abuse of power, seek to understand the opposing viewpoint.  One of the most valuable skills is to truly learn how to properly debate.  The best debaters in the world always prepare for what the opposing viewpoint will likely present.  The less understood, or at least less focused on, point of a debate is that debates are about opinions and not facts.  Facts may be used, but it the debaters opinion about what those facts mean that provides the material to present and for the judges or audience to then decide where they land.  Who provided the best case?  This is where facts matter again, and words matter.   If someone tells you that “the best people” said or did something, but refuses to name those people so you can fact check them for yourself, you really have nothing but a glorified and sometimes confidently and loudly stated opinion.  Why are they the best people?  Who are they?  What did they say that makes them the best?  What qualifies them to be an authority?  More importantly what other people, what “worst people” might have similar credentials and expertise but have a compelling explanation that contradicts them?  If we are truly open to hear and learn, we may find our opinions changed or at least challenged and become more humble in our firmness, but standing firm on opinions makes it very easy for us to make poor and foolish decisions with consequences that we may not have thought about and that could take years or more to unravel.

Stop letting others think for us.  As I have watched the internet and social media become more and more a core of people’s lives, I have observed a negative impact that most people seem to not know how to educate themselves on a topic.  The patience to do the work seems to have left many of us.  We are too busy, but then we get riled up when things do not change.  Who will change them?  It is always someone else.  I have never seen a study or poll done on this but I believe there would be overwhelming belief that the citizens of the Revolutionary Era were less “educated” than citizens of today.  I challenge us to think about that.  People spent a lot of time thinking about things, and did they likely have fewer facts?  Probably, because much was not known or properly understood.  Science had not learned about viruses yet.  People felt different races of people had biological differences later proven as false opinions, but they were believed as fact, and acted upon.   However, they did not have an easy way to learn about a topic around the world, and especially in a growing republic in North America, citizens took seriously their collective good and worked together to move things forward.  Today, we spend five minutes googling something and reading two or three of the top results and being content.  Learning about something has not suddenly become easier.  Finding material about it has, but the time needed to become an expert has not.  We have become complacent with outsourcing our thinking to others because in our self-absorbed importance we do not have time for that, so we let others make our decisions for us.  Is this really what we want?  If not, stop and do the hard labor to be an educated citizen of your country and then determine what action you personally will take to impact what moves you.

The next instruction we need to heed is Drop.  Drop the pretense that because we spent a few hours reading, watching or otherwise consuming material on a given topic that we are now an expert at it.  If you are not a virologist, drop believing because you have listened to a dozen virologists, you understand coronavirus.  I have watched all 16 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, but that does not make me a surgeon.  We need to understand what we are experts in, and I like the traditional benchmark of that, which is something we have spent over 10,000 hours doing, and drop the social media fueled delusion that because we spent the weekend “studying” this, we now know everything there is to know about it and can speak with authority.  Tie this to the point about facts above.  Never die on the hill of a “fact” in a topic you are not an expert about.  Realize that what you have is an opinion on a fact and then be open to having your mind changed.

Take time to understand who is saying something worth listening to.  Some curious material related to the space of George Floyd and police brutality.  John Lewis is a civil rights hero who has a clear message you can hear in an interview on MSNBC where is advice was  “to vote as we’ve never voted before”.  Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, in the midst of a coronavirus briefing this weekend spent over ten minutes providing more thoughtful and calm rationale for how the power of change is in “we the people” not in the leadership who are afraid to admit they are not experts on something they learned about yesterday.  Cory Booker has an interesting idea for some legislation on a national registry of police disciplinary actions.  Listen to Donald Trump’s stance and read Barack Obama’s statement and understand that they come from two vastly different life experiences and ponder what that means in how you interpret them, and most importantly do not simply dismiss the one that does not line up with your belief system.  On coronavirus, watch what is happening outside your country and work hard to know the studies are still opinions until many, many studies get the same results, so do not be too quick to jump.  We likely need a vaccine before this is over and that could take years, so understand what that means, how real progress is going, not just best case long shots.  Listen to briefings from other leaders and see what they are doing and encourage your local leaders once you form an educated opinion rather than just grumbling that they should do more.  We all want this to end, but it will take as long as it takes and poor choices from us can make it take longer.

Drop the belief that most things are black and white and realize that most are actually infinite shades of grey.  If someone does not agree with us, that does not make us right and them wrong.  That means each of us has a different opinion.  The polarization we see in many societies is largely driven, in my opinion, by the fallacy that something can only be one thing or the other.  The inability to then civilly discuss anything means we can likely never really get to the root of complex issues to make improvements or to drive positive change because far before we get to that fertile soil we have contaminated it with the dung of animosity, sarcasm, arrogance and self-righteousness.  Being “strong” on something does not mean being willing to name call, belittle, sign an executive order or send in the military.  That’s being a coward and a dictator.  If you have to force someone to do something then maybe your idea is a poor one to begin with.  Work harder on your idea, as you are likely wrong in some degree.

The final step to save ourselves from harm is to Roll.  Roll with the punches.  Everything is not personal.  We are not required to respond to everything anyone says to us as a personal affront or attack or as something that must be processed through our filter of opinions and tested for any contamination of “otherness”.  Life is hard.  If these last few months have not been hard for you in some way and likely the hardest you have had on this earth, then bless you as you are truly special.  Those who will likely emerge better on the other side will have embraced rolling with the changes and making for themselves and those important to them the best lemonade out of the mountains of lemons.  People have gone through massive events before.  We all will have our opinion about how these events compare to others

I do not want to be tone deaf to the real barriers that poverty and racial bias throw into the mix.  Even in the world of white privilege, challenges surface.  Rolling with the punches is unpleasant or many times impossible in some situations.  It runs the risk of sounding like the argument that all people of color need to do to avoid police brutality is to listen to the police.  We have an eight minute and forty six second video of horror to show that OPINION is wrong.  Facts may come out (please remember what a fact is) that show otherwise, but at this time that is a tall order given the many angles and sources of video showing no resistance at all.  So I wanted to be certain to share that I understand that for many people this last step is much harder, but it does not mean that in whatever format that is can apply, that it is not the better option.  What those of us not in that position should try to do is help when we see that situation and drive our leaders to make it better, and if there is something we can personally do to make it better for someone to do it.  Think of the story of the kid on the beach who is throwing starfish back in the ocean so they do not drown.  When the adult points out to him that what he is doing does not matter, the child states, “It matters to this one” as he tosses it back into the sea.  Do what you can and do not hide behind the “it’s someone else’s problem” when presented with an opportunity.

I believe if we do these things, to finish getting through these tough events and making the new reality that we will be in, as well as keeping this in mind for future happenings, that we have a much better chance to get to positive outcomes faster.  Just as stop, drop and roll puts out your clothes as fast as possible if you caught on fire, so this stop, drop and roll can shed the perceived panic and metaphorical fire you may feel yourself in.  The goal is to laser focus on things that are real and that you can then think about and drive positive results with.

Conspiracies are more and more in vogue and are getting much more of a voice than they deserve because people in positions of power use their megaphone to toss them out there.  We can use stop, drop and roll to see past this and uncover the facts for ourselves or we can rely on the easy road of just listening to the loudest voices who have verified it with the best people who shall remain nameless so we cannot think for ourselves.  Most conspiracies fail basic scrutiny once you understand the number of people who must all be in agreement and not say anything for them to actually exist.  Once that number gets above five or so, the chance of one of them not telling someone is almost zero.  Conspiracies such as labs fabricating viruses and impacting the world, domestic terrorists being solely responsible for all protest, and systemic racism in police forces just become easy things to latch on to rather than figuring out what is actually happening and seeking to understand the other side and coming to the table.

As we speak with our children who are learning alongside us in these two massive events, I try to continue to teach them about the importance of being a good citizen and not simply taking action for the sake of action.  You must take the time to determine what you feel is the right action.   We never have all the facts, but be open to new facts that show you were wrong and then apologize if needed and redirect.  In these two situations some of my questions to others are:  Where do we think the virus has gone that just allows us to open up and act as if we just had a three month vacation?  How could it have been a hoax and where are all the people who “died” now living to make us think they are all dead?  Again, as a conspiracy how had no one leaked this secret island or bunker or why had no one gotten fed up of living in hiding and emerged yet to tell us April Fools?  Does it make sense to focus on the most optimistic timeline when all historical evidence on projects tells us that most likely scenario is most likely for a reason and then best to plan for?  How does property damage stop police brutality?  Have you thought about all the broader impacts to your community when you slow the ability of businesses to reopen by destroying them?  Have we worked to understand how people of color feel when asked to live in a society that does not honor the social contract they are expected to abide by and then holds them accountable for violating something that rings hollow to them?  Have do we take that understanding and make policies that make sense?  When the policies we make hamper the law enforcement professionals and we find their lives are endangered, as they claim will likely happen, are
we prepared to rethink it and continuously improve?

Finally, I think a key point, especially in a democracy, is that change is slow and deliberate, not a flash in the pan.  This is what I try to share with anyone who will listen.  The Stoneman Douglas students wanted to drive change and then here we are.  Were they wrong?  Certainly not, but I believe they wanted change to happen faster than is reasonable.  Change management is hard.  Ask any project manager.  Changing a company takes months or years.  How long does changing a country with over 300 million people?  I have heard people saying businesses have insurance and can rebuild.  OK, maybe they do.  But why should they have to?  How does destroying a business have anything to do with getting change in police policies?  I have yet to hear or meet a person who was not sickened or outraged by what they saw in the George Floyd video.  This is a great time to start the change that has been tried and failed in the past.  Again, Governor Cuomo was quite eloquent in his discussion of the timing of societal change and what it takes.  Will this be the time that takes?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  We’ve been here before.  But doing the wrong things and causing distractions will certainly not help and will likely set us back further as people return to their polar corner.  As Maya Angelou said, “Hate.  It has caused a lot of problems in this world, but it has not solved one yet.”  Maybe those destroying things do not hate the police, but it is not likely they love them either, doing what they are doing.  My opinion is a small group of people are responsible and that most of those who are out are peaceful and just want to be part of a group that thinks like them.  Community is natural in situations where we feel helpless.  The new voting block is one of the largest we have and they can impact change in a way that works, but not at internet speed, and that patience is a lesson I hope that is learned.  I also hope they understand that not being registered to vote or not voting is a huge mistake as change happens through this process.  Not voting and then grumbling is akin to not plugging in your freezer and then stomping about that the ice cream melted.  It’s foolish.  Bring people along but do not try to push a rope.  Outrage is not how things change; it is simply a symptom of the understanding that a change is desired.  Hard work and perseverance get things changed.  Let’s focus on that.  That is some of the lessons I try to teach my children.

So STOP feeding our confirmation bias and seek out opposing viewpoints and truly understand them, DROP social media and internet fueled expertise and admit and be open to having new facts change your mind and diligently look for them to make sure they are not there before you dig in to an opinion, and ROLL with whatever comes and determine your next step in the next minute, the next day, the next week and the next year based on the reality of the now and not the nostalgia and the gnashing of teeth of what was.  The goal of this is to keep yourself in a position of relative calm from which to make your decisions rather than one of panic.  The world is on fire, and we are as well, but if you stop, drop and roll, I pray you have a more peaceful journey.

It’s finally spring time up here in the Upper Midwest, with this weekend having a prediction of 70 degree weather this Sunday.  As I sat this morning in the front room I could hear bird outside in the sunshine and see the last vestiges of the snow that had fallen last Sunday night melting away, hopefully for good until next winter.  Soon plants will be growing and I’ll have to get outside to clean up the yard and mow for the first time.  While I hope for a bit of a reprieve, for as I get older I find I have less desire for the manual labor required to do this work, yet I know it is necessary.  Growing up my mother used to spend hours in the yard each weekend working on the flowers or the garden.  She had many rose bushes,  I remember another chore I used to hate in the fall; bringing out the giant stack of Styrofoam rose cones that were in the shed and helping Mom cover the rose bushes.  We’d carefully tuck everything in and then I placed bricks on the corners of the cones to keep the winter winds from blowing them away.  We have a large rose bush on the side of our house now, much too big to cover.

When spring came my Mom would uncover the rose bush, or my wife now goes out and the first thing that is done it to prune the rose bush.  I’ve also seen my wife do this with flower arrangements I bring home from time to time.  I just bought the thing and it is bright and shiny and new, and the first thing she does is take scissors to them to prune.  I thought, “Why?”, but was always amazed at how much better it looked afterwards.   The rose blooms were now arrayed in full splendor instead of hiding like Easter Eggs in the grass.  Some time she had also taken the one arrangement and made several out it, taking a flower or two in a vase in the window by the kitchen sink, a few more on the kitchen table and the rest on the island where I had set them originally. The effort of pruning had turned something that was already wonderful into something glorious.

I should not be surprised.  After all Jesus uses many times to explain how pruning not only takes away the dead growth, the vines that bear no fruit, but that he will even prune the vines that are bearing fruit so that they will bear even more fruit.  My Mom and my wife do this with plants all the time, but on this early spring day, my thoughts have turned more to Jesus’ example and what I can do with my life and what I see others doing as well.  What can I prune?

I think back to the many, many times I feel I know what will be said, and from my impatience, I jump in and finish a sentence.  I have justified the action in my head as showing I am listening, or I am in tune with the speaker and I am just showing them I get it.  But what if I’m not?  What if they were going to say something totally unexpected?  How many times has this action cost me something?  A better relationship?  A new view on a staid, old happening?  A chance to see a rose that was buried until someone pruned away the greenery that was hiding it?  If I prune away jumping in with my own opinions, I might hear something amazing.  More importantly I will make sure that whoever I am spending time with feels heard.  I see the reaction far too often.  The nod and statement of agreement, “Yeah, that’s right”, after I jump in, coupled with the look in the eyes that there was something else, but they’ve chosen to move on.  I vow to do better next time, but then fall into the old habit.  I have made it a goal for me to sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut more often, keep the thought in my head, and let others speak and see if they match.  In the short time I’ve been actively doing this for the last few weeks, I have been wrong more than I’ve been right, on where I thought the person was going.  How much have I missed for years because I failed to prune this behavior from me?  While I’ve had great relationships with people and had great conversations (fruit), how much more fruit could have been gained by pruning this away?  I hope to find out going forward.

I am also keeping an eye on where else I can prune over the years.  While I think my self-focus is reasonable, what if I cut back on that some more?  Would it open me to seeing how I can help others?  I’ve done a bit of that when I helped with divorce support, but with that gone now, I find I have a desire to do something else, which may turn into financial coaching, but that is still something I’ve determined by looking inward into how I think I can help.  Am I missing other gifts I have that could help others because I am looking only at what I can think of and not listening for clues people are giving, but I am missing, perhaps for the behavior above?  I want to be open to better results there.

I have been in a new job for a month now.  I no longer have a role where anyone reports to me, something that I have had for over fifteen years.  I have found that I had to prune away methods and actions in the last four weeks that I have been doing for over a decade.  I have to avoid jumping into other people’s areas of responsibility and being OK with handing the problem over to another, my part being done.  I have to let reciprocal relationships build where in the past I could have relied on positional authority to force the issue if I needed.  I’ve also exercised a lot of what I just spoke about, waiting for the other person to finish before I jump in.  I’ve not been perfect on that, as it is hard for decades of habit to get cut away in a few days, but just as my wife can quickly prune away the unneeded parts of the rose in a few seconds and uncover something great, I’m working on that too.  I consciously decided to prune away high level management responsibilities because I did not like the type of person they would drive me to be.  The stress and pressure to do the impossible was wearing on my family, my friends and my co-workers.  It was also wearing on me.  Just as unfruitful growth still saps the strength of the vine until they are removed because they still take energy to sustain, those things were sapping joy and peace away, so I decided to remove them, and it has been very pleasant.

My wife is also pursuing some pruning on her job front for some of the same reasons.  She’s returning to working with students individually through private practice rather than going to a school and having to deal with all the politics and blocking that goes on that are sapping her happiness and fulfillment.  She started out this way but without as many connections and reputational bridges as she has now, it was difficult to find enough students to help.  Now she feels that is different and she’d like to prune away the job that bore this fruit, to allow even more fruit to spring forth.  I look forward to seeing what will blossom, and I think my wife does as well.

I think I understand what this means to her, but I’m going to use my newly pruned “shut up and listen” self to hear what it really means to her, rather than making assumptions that her journey is the same as mine was.  I believe that pruning will lead to more growth in our love and respect for each other which will grow into other areas of our life and the world.  It is what we are meant to do, prune away even those things we feel may be of some good, to realize the greater good they have been hindering from springing forth.  It is also important to prune constantly, not just at set times.  I have avoided New Year’s resolutions for exactly this reason.  Why wait to prune until the turn of a year, or the turning of a season?  I happen to have been a bit more self reflective today and it tied a bit to all the changes I am going through in my job and the season happened to align, but I embraced the change rather than put it on a list to hit in nine months.  I’d encourage everyone to do the same, to strive to be a healthy vine and encourage the vines around us to do the same.

When you get to the point of having kids, one of the impacts is that you likely get to see how much things change between your experience and theirs.  There are countless things written about how the pace of change is higher than it has ever been and how it is growing faster and faster. Even with regards to written information I saw something that said what was produced (mainly on the internet) in the last two years exceeds everything created in the prior two hundred.  I used to have an expectation when I was very young and had just learned about the library that by the time I died I could read everything. I realized how wrong that was pretty quickly and this pace of creation has sealed the deal. Asides from not wanting to read everything any longer (there are far more topics I really have no desire to explore in any way either fictionally or non-fictionally) even in the areas I am intrigued about there is far more material than I could ever consume in a lifetime.  

This is just one area where the pace of change is incredible, but the things that drive me loopy as a parent and make me wonder how different it is from my parent’s experience with me as a child continue to increase all the time.  I am a pretty simple guy at heart and I’ve settled in to a belief that I can keep myself quite content and busy for decades with access to my library and a streaming service or two when I want some video entertainment. Even some of these things, that are normal now, are still a recent novelty and that was more of what I have been thinking about for the last few weeks.

As I study history it is fascinating how even within someone’s lifetime and certainly just a little beyond that, nearly everything has changed incredibly.  Just 100 years ago (which can be in a few centenarian’s lifetimes even now) WWI was still going on. Weapons that caused ghastly amounts of damage and suffering were being used such as the machine gun and the various forms of gas on the battlefield.  Gone were the “gentlemanly” days of battle when things happened mostly one on one. Many of the people who were living then could have remembered back to the Civil War and carnage they entailed and been amazed and how much more killing could be done just a few decades later.

Depression era family

People now in their late 70s and older would have been alive for at least part of the Great Depression.  The lack of ability to get even the most basic or resources was everywhere and is a stark contrast to the “worry” we have today with the vast social safety nets put in place by most developed nations.  Food pantries, unemployment and other social welfare programs and other safety measures exist to at least provide some cushion in times of hardship. Life in the US at that time was already far ahead of most other nations, in part because we had escaped the devastation of lives and infrastructure that most of the rest of the developed world had gone through.  The progression through WWII and the decades after was ever increasing and as technology started having a daily impact lives were transformed.

The home became full of gadgets and appliances.  Washing was no longer done in a tub with a washboard and elbow grease and clothes left to dry on the line but instead was able to be done in a machine that did a lot of the work.  Initially you still had to run the clothes through rollers to press the water out, but quickly faster spinning machines were able to suck the water out using the power of centrifugal force and clothes dryers appeared.  One could say progress slowed on the clothes washing front but even recently we have seen HE devices that use less water and cleaning products and keep driving innovation forward. Every other aspect of home life was transformed in similar ways.  Brooms and dust pans gave way to vacuums and Roombas. Outhouses turned into indoor plumbing.

TI-99/4A, the catalyst for my life’s work

As I move through middle age, I am amazed even over my relatively short lifespan so far how things have changed.  I still recall black and white TVs in our and my relatives homes. I recall when I had to watch what was on when it was on on a small set of channels I could count on my hands.  I remember cars that were gigantic and having a difficult time getting information about topics. I remember encyclopedia salesman, and vacuum cleaner salesman and other salesman visiting our house.   I recall being fascinated with typewriters that could “erase” mistakes with a white ribbon and then typewriters with tiny displays, that then led to spell checking before it went to the page and then led to my kids saying “what’s a typewriter?”  The horse and buggy lasted for hundreds, even thousands of years, but we’ve seen entire product life cycles comes and go in a span of a few years or decades, being made obsolete by something else, that was repalced by something else. In the short time I have been on this earth, we went from live TV only, to VCRs, to laserdiscs, to DVDs, to Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, to streaming on demand.  Similar changes have taken place with written formats, where books and newspapers and magazines are not electronic on Kindles and websites. I used to have to go to the library to look something up and now I can see it in seconds. We used to laugh that the processing power in our calculators when I was in high school was more than that in the lunar module that had landed on the moon barely twenty years before that and now we look at those calculators like the more arcane relics ever.  They might as well be abacuses for all the computing power they had compared to the smart phone I have now, which dwarfs my TI-99/4A computer I got for Christmas when I was 12. It came with a speech synthesizer, as TI was a pioneer in that technology, that plugged in on the right side and is larger than that smart speakers you can buy now that connect to the internet and are computers in their own right. Now my smartphone or car will talk to me and I can talk to it. All the speech synthesizer could do was talk to me.  The shame.

The change my parents will see over their lifetime will be dwarfed by the change my wife and I will see and it will likely be dwarfed by the change our kids will see, but I’m at the point now where I wonder if this is a good thing and how to stay grounded in that, how to manage that change so it does not overwhelm us and make us irrelevant, or worse, do us harm.  I recently came across a study that shows that brain scans of kids who engage with screen a lot show an thinning of the outer membrane of the cortex that is used to engage with the physical world. No one knows what that means yet, just that it is there, and it is beginning to be shown to be tied in a causal way to changes in the environment around us that we have embraced.  Could similar things have happened with earlier generations as we moved from walking everywhere to riding in carts to motorized transportation in our musculature and ability to support our own bodies over a lifetime? Highly likely, but these changes did not occur multiple times over one lifetime as they do now. When I got that TI-99/4A I knew that is was the start of something amazing but I in now way predicted anything close to where we are now and I still likely have decades to go before I die so I have no clue what will be the landscape in various areas of life compared to now.  When I watched the Jetsons as a kid, I could not wait for my flying car before I was 30. That did not happen, but I have a phone in my hand that is thousands if not millions of times more capable than that TI computer was in about the same time period. So while I cannot predict what the change will be, I now it will happen, and I have to determine how to handle it.

My concern now returns, as it does often as a parent, to my kids.  I think I am seeing a lack of capability in dealing with change in a healthy way.  I’ve talked about this in other posts about attention spans and inability to focus, have patience or do other things.  My concern is that just like I cannot foresee the change itself I believe our kids are doing things that they have no idea what it will cause them years down the road.  Are their brains developing in ways that will cause problems? I recently heard about the latest popular thing among kids, Mukbang, which is watching videos of people eating.  When I was a kid I has a hard enough time watching the real people around me eating, let alone searching for and then watching other people I do not know eating on a screen. I struggle with simply thinking that this behavior is not an indicator of something else.  But what? Is it good or bad? Does it indicate that we are not going to head to more extreme version of entertainment or is it the opposite, the shutting down of ambition leading to finding that watching someone eat a bowl of noodles is “strangely satisfying” as one kids described why they watch Mukbang videos.  Are we transitioning further into a state, as happened with texting years ago, where people would rather do something virtually than do it in person? What does that mean for our development as a social species? Does this help us drive more division and hatred because we no longer need to be civil to each other, because we can just sit around and watch other people eat and be strangely satisfied?  You can likely continue this butterfly effect for quite a long time, if not forever.

Is that fact that we struggle to find jobs that satisfy us a cause of dissatisfaction with work or is a symptom?  Work used to involve getting together with people and talking and working on things in the physical world together.  Now we e-mail and Skype and play with virtual models. We analyze things and microsegment and divide things into smaller and smaller pools because we can make simple ad clicks on a website turn into thousands of dollars if we just get enough interest in whatever we are saying or doing (some of the top Mukbang producers are making over $10,000 a month, making the “job” of eating and filming yourself doing it far more lucrative than the average income of a US household).  What does that mean? What behavior does it drive?

Overall I see the struggles in anxiety and depression just with our own kids and I begin to wonder if it is not a form of inability to deal with change.  In a world where change is constant and we are supposedly so good at it, are we reaching a point of overload, and are our kids the canary in the coal mine telling us enough is enough through the mental health issues that are becoming more prevalent?  I am concerned that the rate of change makes it impossible to study the impacts of change on us and we move on to the next topic to study because we do not have the time to figure out the impact of one change before we change again. I have memories of living in a time that was very different to fall back on.  I enjoy sitting and reading for hours because I learned I could do that. As I begin to think more and more about what I will do after I stop needing to work, I see a life more and more about basic things like reading, walking, talking with people and sharing time with them. As I watch my kids I see them mainly engaged with screens and I get more and more unsure if they would even be capable of that.   And maybe that’s OK, but maybe it’s not. And what is they determine it’s not but they’ve damaged their neurology enough that there is no going back? Where if they are not plugged into the matrix that they will have a mental breakdown and go into some new form of psychosis? My wife and I increasingly are having discussions about things we are amazed to see our kids are not capable of dealing with as we did at their age, almost as if they lack resiliency, sticktoitiveness and passion.  I see younger employees unable to focus and devote the diligent and sustained work needed to solve big problems. Will that ultimately be what slows down the pace of change? Wouldn’t it be ironic if the rate of change breaks the mechanisms in the human brain that allowed us to impart the effort to get here in the first place and causes us to stagnate as a species?

Transitions – Part One

Posted: December 5, 2018 in Finances, Philosophy, Tools

Over the last few years (2014-) our lives have progressed through several transitions.  We both changed jobs, we added a few pets (admittedly not high on my list of favorable transitions), some kids legally became adults by hitting their eighteenth birthday (I will talk about that a bit in an upcoming post) and I began walking us down a more intentional path towards our “golden” years, though my target is to get us there sooner, through a process that has become known as FIRE (financially independent, retire early).  This last transition is one I will spend some time talking about in this post.

For those not familiar with the term, let me start with a bit of background.  FIRE is the goal of “buying your freedom” from work and making the conscious decision to be much more intentional with your decisions on what to do with your money with the goal of increasing our saving rate and/or lowering your expenses.  You can find a lot of detail about the math and the ideas on sites more devoted to that, and since my goal right now is to not convert this blog into a FIRE site, I will leave you to dig around on those sites if you want to get into the nuts and bolts, but I will likely talk more about concepts related to this as I go forward as it has become a big focus for me basically beginning in 2016.  You can find people who retired in their 30s.  I just read an article today about a woman who retired at 28 in New York City.  The variations on the how and why are endless and as the reaction moves from “you did/are doing WHAT!?” to “tell me more” the mainstream media is starting to take notice of this not-so-new lifestyle choice that prioritizes a meaningful and enjoyable life over the consumption driven lie that Madison Avenue likes to convince us is how life works.

So our unique story is that the E part of FIRE, by the nature of when we began is not so early.  As things sit now if all continues on the plan I hope to walk away from a job I must do about ten years earlier than I would have if I stuck with the traditional model and worked until my federally approved retirement date.  I am still about ten years from that point (a little less, but we’ll deal in round numbers), but the focus being shifted coupled with a less than joyful work situation for me in the last year has raised the level of urgency in my head quite a bit, which leads me to things like writing this post about it.  I’ve spent the last few weeks looking at houses in areas we have thought we might want to retire to, beginning in earnest a retirement budget in our budgeting software we use so make sure that the target level we’ve set really works for us (I plan to spend 2019 refining that and capturing expenses in enough detail that my wife and I can sit down and look it over and see if it seems comfortable and know our target seems solid).

I’ve always been relatively frugal (by American standards anyway), doing what I thought was a good job as keeping stupid expenses as bay.  As I got better jobs and the higher pay that came with it I was never a fan of keeping up with the Jonses.  I drove what I felt were relatively reasonable cars while colleagues went with the luxury lines, massive SUVs and sports cars that tend to come with a typical middle class American dream.  The inflatable house was never something that drove me either, feeling the need to expand the square footage per person available just because the bank said I could, like so many people fall prey to.  I was pretty proud of myself, that is until I started to learn about FIRE and get exposed to the thinking of the community.  It began to show how far I still could go.  My particular journey began as many do, with a quest to validate something I felt was right with some evidence.  In my case it was the long held belief that the insane amount in retirement calculators from large investment firms like Vanguard and Fidelity were not realistic and that we’d be just fine with less.  A lot less.  When I ran numbers in those calculators I kept getting values between $5-$10 million dollars as what I should be targeting, and try as I might, I could not envision how that was explainable.  I set out in late 2015 to find some discussion, with strong logic and math behind it, to back up what I felt in my gut was true.  I was expecting to find something that showed a decreased, but what I cam across was nothing short of life changing, a transition of massive proportions. I searched for a long time, finding more of what I thought was garbage, and eventually I stumbled upon a site that had been around for a few years at that time but one I had never heard of called (known as MMM for short).  The specific article I started with was ‘The 4% Rule: The Easy Answer to “How Much Do I Need for Retirement?”’  As I read it, I felt I had found exactly what I was looking for, but little did I know I had found so much more.  I had heard of the 4% rule before but it was couple with the 80% rule as well, which was what was spouted off by the investment firms who said you need 80% of your income to retire on, so if you did quote well at your job over time and got a salary a ways into six figures, which in my field of technology is certainly quite possible you would need $4+ million which was better than the calculator numbers but not by much.  The part of MMM’s philosophy (what I came to learn was a core principle of the FIRE community) that hooked me was that if you could get your expenses down you could retire on less.  A lot less.

I sampled a few other posts on the site and was amazed as what I was seeing.  I very quickly followed a link he had on his home page that let you start at the first blog post and then spent the next three months reading every single post consuming it voraciously, until I was done with the hundreds of posts.  It’s been joked from time to time that Mustachianism is a cult and boy was I hooked.  I now am a frequenter of the forum section where like minded folks can talk about all types of topics.  It really is a great community and if the FIRE concept intrigues you in the least, I’d suggest a visit to the site.

As I was moving through this material and sharing with my wife, the transition began.  I had a new focus for the retirement target and it was not to wait until 67 and it was liberating because it was clearly doable.  The challenge we have is that we came upon this concept quite late in our lives and have the baggage of some poor (by FIRE standards) choices that were made, but as a wise man once said, “you have to begin where you are”.  The discussions at times became heated because I would share what I was learning, and my wife was thinking just because I spoke about something, that I wanted to go do that.  The most obvious one of those was MMM’s focus on a car being a huge drain on savings and so you should bike everywhere and only use the car for long road trips or when you had to transport things you could not on your bike, like construction supplies.  I clearly understood that our bed was well made at that point, and was not proposing we sell our cars and bike thirty miles to work (MMM does bike year round in Colorado and has several posts about not whining about biking in winter).  I was just sharing to show some of the radical thinking that could be used to drive down costs that help you get to the 60%+ savings rates needed to get to FIRE in a 10 year period.  The part that was missed in this was that using the principle of begin where you are, we were not starting out from $0, so we can still hit the 10-12 year window without being so radical.  I did however want to make as many changes as we could that fit within our reality.  We also have the added challenge/goal of being at the phase of life that we want to help with our kids college costs, though not at the fully funded level that is still lingering with some parents.  With six kids though, even a partial funding is still substantial.  So we have not moved, nor are we planning to move, to within a few miles of our jobs so we can bike, but we are being conscious about our car expenses, looking for the cheapest gas with Gas Buddy, waiting for sale where possible on big ticket items like tires (just replaced the tires on my car after 83,000 miles during a sales event where I got to buy 3 and get the 4th for $1, and replaced them with the same Kumho tires with the target of getting 83,000 out of this $300 set), and likely not buying new cars going forward (since I keep the cars till they fall apart I always figured getting new was best and frugal, but not so sure after reading many articles about it in the FIRE community).  This has shifted my mind set to a much more engineered and focused exploration of how to maximize our dollars for happiness, including the happiness of retiring early.

We are targeting around $40-$48K per year as our expenses so that translates into $1-$1.2 million in savings, a much more palatable (and possible) target.  This is well below the 80% of what we make target that is most popular out there, and therefore makes for some interesting conversations with family and friends when it comes up.  The load lifted by not having to figure out how to support a much crazier target is immense.  That target is still pretty generous by FIRE standards and I am hopeful we may be able to lower it a bit however we need to plan for a target that is doable for us, not simply accept what others have accomplished.  There are some people in the FIRE community, known as Extreme RE who do things on $12K per year and love it.  The accepted FIRE level is $25K or less.  We are moving into what is known as “fat FIRE” with our level because we know we are leaving excess luxuries in the budget, but I still do not feel like we are going hog wild because I’ve seen a lot of fat FIRE targets of $60-$80K and we are still quite a ways below that, so I feel great about what I will call our Goldilock’s FIRE level.  Not to small, not to big, but just right, especially for us.  I do think we could do $30-$35K pretty easily but targeting a bit more gives us some added things which may be important as we want to travel with the kids or be able to host a bigger event or two each year that may cost a few thousand dollars and we have that room to do that.  We’d then have our social security on top of this as we move into normal retirement age and that gives us even more cushion (and also why I think we may settle on a lower number as we’ll have the added money later).  The benefit of a lower number is we hit the target sooner and can make the ultimate financial transition that much faster.

So that is a lot about one of the biggest transitions we’ve gone through in the last few years.  I will get into some of the others in future posts, and as I said at the start, I know more will be said about how frugality and maximization is impacting choices.

Proverbs 14 is a wonderful text that most Christians are familiar with.  As a book written mainly by the wisest man who ever lived, Solomon, any chapter is a great trove of what it means to be wise, but chapter 14 stands out as one of the simplest ways to determine your standing in this era of quick quizzes.  You can read through Proverbs 14 like a Cosmo quiz; am I this or am I that and then add up the score at the end of the 35 verses and see on a score of 0-35 how wise (or conversely how foolish) you are.

Today I wanted to focus on two specific verses, verse 14 and verse 29 as I find myself assessing how we are doing as parents all the time using these two measures that God has so wonderfully provided.  For those not familiar with them, let me reprint them here.

Verse 14 says “The backslider in heart will have his fill of his own ways, But a good man will be satisfied with his.” Verse 29 reads “He who is slow to anger has great understanding, But he who is quick-tempered exalts folly.”  I’m going to talk about each of these individually and how I feel they should impact our lives as parents.

One of the things anyone who knows me understands pretty quickly is that I love personal finance and helping others with it.  I’ve been contemplating ways to start financial coaching as a side hustle because I think my combination of financial simplicity joined with a humble Christian spirit of wanting to help can benefit a lot of people.  I’m not looking to write books or be on TV, just to help people and as a bonus maybe make a little extra money to help my family.  One of the first concepts that anyone needs to grasp as a motivation for not spending (which leads to saving, which is the goal) is compound interest.  You may have even heard the statement attributed to Albert Einstein (most likely falsely but done so nonetheless to add some weight to the importance of it) that goes something along the lines of compound interest being the most powerful force in the universe, the eighth wonder of the world.  That he who understands it, earns it and he who does not, pays it.

Again, if you are unfamiliar with the concept, compound interest is what happens when you let money just sit in some instrument that provides a return.  What happens is that you earn a little interest that first period, and then in the second period you earn interest on the whole balance including the interest you earned before and ad infinitum until some point in time.  If you make a sound investment in a stock of a great company such as GE (less great this week after its last announcements), a very small amount of money invested when the company started would be worth millions today.  And this is just over a little more than 100 years.  This is an example of the power of compounding and we can see it at work all over the place in the financial world.

I believe we can take this same principle and looking at Proverbs 14:14 as our base and, understanding that God’s promises are eternal, apply this same concept to the power of influence we have through our connections.  As with any of the statements in Proverbs 14, you can be on the wicked/foolish side or the wise/godly side.  As the Einstein quote explains, if you are a fool you pay the interest, so it can drain your savings just as quickly as it can add to it, if you make the wrong choices on where to let compound interest work in your life.  With our kids we also are making an investment by showing them how to live with what we say and do every day.  We can live for the world and it’s ephemeral, short-term “rewards” or we can live for God and His eternal purposes and rewards.  Verse 14 tells us we can be guided and satisfied by what we do in following God, or we can have our fill, reap the cost, of backsliding to the world’s way of thinking about anything.  Every “investment” we make in our children can have eternal consequences.  Every word we say, every action we model they take in and it impacts them from that day forward.  What we then have the ability to do is change what happens in the world to a greater and greater degree the more time that passes.  How our children develop and how they treat others including their children continues to ripple outward and grow and the number of connections and generations grows.  We can radiate good out into eternity by making the right investment today.  Imagine what the impact you have today will have on this world 10,000 years from now, 100,000 years from now.  It is just hard to wrap our heads around that but if we return to the financial analogy, the impact we see in just 25 or 100 years is impressive, but if we calculated that out for 10,000 years it would be mind-blowing.  This is what God offers all of us to understand in life, and as a parent I think about that a lot.  Our decisions echo in eternity.  This is why God fights for every soul to be saved, because he understands the impact the compound interest of our actions has.  What we do today does not only impact today, it effects and changes everything that happens into eternity.  Can you even begin to think about what that means?  Does the awesomeness of that weigh on you as much as it does me?  That, and nothing less, is what God has given us a chance to impact.  What will you do with that awesome power?  I try to make it impact my thinking as often as I can and it helps me understand the importance of standing for what is right, asking What Would Jesus Do, and driving in the positive direction as much as I can.  Will you let this sink in and reassess your thinking?  What verse 14 challenges us to do is realize we cannot always change our position, but we can always change our disposition.  And that is the lesson of compound interest when applied to parenting.

Moving on, let’s look at verse 29.  I’m sure we all have heard this many times but do we really get what it means? Let’s walk through a scenario we all face many times as parents.

I ask my kids to do things, such as clean up around the house.  After I asked the first time, in a few minutes I heard raised voices.  When I approached I found they were arguing about who had done the most, complaining to each other that one or the other was not pulling their weight.  I asked them kindly to stop and keep working.

After a few more minutes, I returned to find them bickering about who was going to do what.  Who would vacuum, who would pick up the socks.  I stepped in again, got them to be quiet and told them to finish the job.

Finally, the third time, I checked out the results after they said they were done.  What I saw was very lackluster and not the result I expected, and they explained they did not understand what a clean basement looks like.  At this point I lost it and yelled at them about how they never help around the house, how they make no effort, how they never listen, how they never show any respect and I stormed upstairs as they started flinging their feelings at me.

I stood there thinking two things. Why am I having this discussion?  I should just tell them what to do and if they don’t I should just bring the hammer down and remove all their privileges! but the second thought pierced me to my soul, deeper than any basement could ever be, I let my anger get the best of me and I am acting like a foolish child.

I do not remember exactly what I said when I calmed down and laid out my expectations clearly along with consequences of not being able to use the space later if it was not clean in the future to help the lesson sink in but most importantly in these time I need to understand If I am going to help these kids grow up emotionally and teach them to appropriately express their anger, than I need to grow up myself. 

God never says to not get angry but he does give us example like verse 29 and Ecclesiastes 7:9 “Do not be eager in your heart to be angry, for anger resides in the bosom of fools” that are meant to clearly explain the consequences of improper anger.  We look and act like fools.  God never said we should not be angry, but he did warn us to not let anger turn into sin.  The easy way out is to think that losing our cool is human and natural and happens from time to time, but we are called to be better than that.  Let’s not take the easy way out, let’s help our kids learn how to behave like caring, rational adults and not like raving fools.

With a lot of kids, there is always a lot going on in our house.  It takes effort to not get angry, and we can say it is worse with more people, but those are just excuses.  God does not give us criteria for when it is OK to be a fool because we just can’t handle life.  His criteria, like him, are absolute.  Unrighteous anger is always a sin and as such we should avoid it.  Like any habit, this takes conscious effort.  It takes having a plan on how things will be addressed.  I have a plan, and even though that plan is when I feel my emotions getting the best of me to step away and regroup, I sometimes fail to execute the plan.  I need to then ask God and those I was inappropriately angry with for forgiveness.  However if we circle around to the earlier discussion, these actions have eternal compounding interest built into them.  Do I want people around me to learn that what we should be compounding is anger, or should we be compounding love?  Christ makes that answer very clear for us and we need to get better at laying the troubles we cannot handle, those that make us angry and irate like exes we cannot control, at His feet and try to emulate Christlikeness and show that we trust God.

So, can we be more like Solomon and less like ourselves?  I believe we can, but I know it will be hard.  Every sinner is on a road to improvement right up till they leave this world and then I am not sure if it continues in heaven or not.  I won’t be able to update this blog once I find out, but I do thank God for the fact that he gave us a Cosmo quiz right there in the Bible in Proverbs 14 to go down and assess ourselves and the ability to reach out to the Holy Spirit for strength and guidance to fix the warts we find.