10 things to tell a graduating high school senior

young graduateOh, young mind, how we envy you! The world is your oyster, and who doesn’t like oysters? Here you are, venturing out into the world. Freedom, independence, adventure are all just around the corner! Mom’s not there to do the laundry anymore, but who cares! Nobody will yell at you when you sleep til 2pm on a Tuesday. Nobody will be waiting to make sure you do your homework instead of watching Sucker Free Countdown. Bliss.

Unfortunately, the boogeyman is out there too. You have to generate some income to pay for the things you took for granted in your home. Yes, of course, the luxuries of shoes, Wiis, ironically detached rock band t-shirts and overpriced notebook computers used primarily for Facebook, but also items you didn’t realize were so horribly expensive while Pops was paying for them – milk, cell phone bills, iTune downloads.

So here are 10 things to remember for the new graduate, about to head off to college.

  1. You need to hit the ground running. If you have scholarships and grants, great. You’re already ahead of 90% of the US student population who finance their education with loans. Don’t blow it – make keeping those scholarships and grants your #1 priority, even if it means giving up the Alpha Beta Delta Wednesday mid-afternoon Beer Bash.
  2. Please don’t think life is going to be easy majoring in Spanish (for example) and graduating with $50,000 in student loans. Go ahead and do it if you want to – there is something to be said for following your dreams – but I’d think strongly about making some good connections and giving some hard thought to how you’re going to use that Spanish degree, considering about 30% of the US speaks it better than you even after 4 years of study.
  3. Party, but not too hard. There is a fine line between making friends, enjoying life and gaining experiences, and lying in the toilet stall with your shirt covered in puke at 3 am in the morning.
  4. Spend a lot of time on the Internet learning useful skills – make a blog, set up an online store, learn website design, etc. Do not spend a lot of time playing vampire tag or sending movie messages on Facebook.
  5. Don’t play video games. I’m serious. I see this as an immediate and massive threat to your development rivaled only by television. Get out and interact with people – you will never have such free time and so many people ready and willing to sit around and just talk about anything you want! Trust me, you’ll have plenty of time to play video games when you are older.
  6. Join organizations. Hanging out with your friends in college is great. But join organizations that will force you to meet people you otherwise might not meet. Join intramural sports. Join interest clubs. Get out and participate. Don’t just hang with your friends in the dorm. And don’t stop joining even after you finish college. There are a lot of interesting ways to meet people that don’t involve a keyboard and an IM account.
  7. If a class looks interesting, take it. I was a mathematics major and most of my “extra” courses were Russian, German and linguistics courses. But at the same time I threw in courses on “leisure and pop culture” (about the groupies who follow the Dead, George Jones, Jimmy Buffet, etc.) and economics (because I find economics fascinating). Mix it up. You will find out what you love and hate, and that’s useful to know.
  8. Get a credit card now. I know that’s odd advice considering how much trouble people have, but get a credit card and start building a credit history. AND PAY THE WHOLE BALANCE EACH MONTH! I know many people who are in debt today will say “easier said than done,” but learn to pay the whole balance each month. I did. Friends of mine did. It can be done, just like quitting eating junk food. Now is the time to set your habits in regards to money. If you can’t pay off the full balance one month, freeze the card in a block of ice or cut it up. When you pay it off, lesson learned (right?), you can start using it again.
  9. Don’t buy any furniture or appliances that you can live without. You will have plenty of time to buy a blender when you have a home. As a college student, you need a bed, a chair, a desk, a microwave or a hot plate, and a fridge. Stop. Don’t buy anything else. Scavenge. Spend your money on decent food for your health, or to have extra money saved up. I scavenged bits and pieces of stereo equipment people put away for my stereo. I had an old black and white TV. I knew that all of the furniture was going to be abused beyond belief (I lived in a fraternity). Nothing I owned in college stayed with me past my first year as a working man, so I’m glad I didn’t spend anything on anything, practically.
  10. Live life to the fullest! Think about this: you are at the apex of human development. You are living in an age when change has become exponential rather than incremental. You have won the “birth lottery” by being born in the West in the late 20th century – by attending college you are amongst the best educated, most privileged and luckiest people to live on this planet in human history. DO NOT WASTE THIS TIME! Have fun, play hard, study hard, meet people, spend hours talking about life or love or hopes or politics or whatever you want. But most importantly, be aware that you are in a position that 6 billion people around the globe would die to be in. Seize that opportunity and squeeze it ’til you shake out every last drop.

Yay, graduates!

best financial move in college, part 2

Patrick, of Cash Money Life fame, has tagged me to give my best financial move in college. This “organically growing” meme was started by plonkee. The first part was posted yesterday.

Steve at the Hermitage in St Petersburg

Best Financial Move In College #2: Learning an “exotic” foreign language.

If you read this blog, you probably know that I’m a Russophile. I lived in Moscow for several years, I can read/write/speak Russian fairly comfortably and my wife is Russian. Key the computer geek theme music: I mentioned that I was a finalist in the International Science Fair: I wrote, in Basic on a Tandy Color Computer with a cassette-tape drive, a very primitive artificial intelligence program that reliably translated English into Russian, grammatically correct. I even had to develop the Cyrillic font. I did all of this after buying a Russian grammar book at a public library for $.10 and using it to set it up – I didn’t know Russian at all.

Anyway, after the ISF my interest in Russian waned. I always joke that my ancestry is German with a little German mixed in. Even though the Original Blap Ancestor ventured to the new world in the 16th century, my paternal ancestors clung to German ways and traditions and language. And I mean they clung. To the best of my knowledge, my dad was probably part of the first generation of Blaps to speak English at home rather than German. So in high school and college I had a strong motivation to take German, and I did.

But I always liked foreign languages. I took French and Latin as well and decided in my sophomore year that Japanese would be a good challenge. Keep in mind that this was the mid-80s: Japan appeared to be well on its way to becoming the dominant economic power of the 21st century. We know now, in retrospect, that Japan’s economy tripped and stumbled and has never really recovered, and China and India are now careening past it, but at the time it seemed that Japan might become an economic superpower at a minimum and THE economic superpower if everything fell right.

I decided to take Japanese. It was a new course at Hometown State – only one class was offered. So on registration day I woke up and strolled over to the registrar only to find that it had filled up in minutes and no slots were available. I was disappointed, but I still wanted to take a language. I thought Spanish might be useful, but boring (I didn’t care for French when I learned it – romance languages don’t appeal to me). I skipped through the catalog until I saw Russian and remembered my little project at the ISF four years earlier. And best of all, it was at 10 am so I could sleep late – back in college I had yet to discover the benefits of waking up early.

Russian was fantastic. The teacher was a guy straight out of PhD school, passionate about the subject and the culture. He invited his students to his home, showed us Russian movies, introduced us to actual Russians (quite the novelty in the Deep South in the 80s, let me tell you) and managed to get Russian food. I loved the intellectual challenge of the language – a different alphabet but more importantly a language completely removed from the European languages’ interrelationships.

So why was this a good financial move? I’ve already mentioned it in 8 steps to a six figure career, but here it is in a nutshell: it gives you instant credibility as a smart person (deserved or not). Employers and contacts and almost everyone I meet expresses shock that I can speak Russian, read it and write it. I don’t think it demonstrates much intelligence, personally. Language acquisition is more of an inborn skill, I think. But I do think that learning Russian demonstrated some intellectual curiosity and the fact that I stuck with it indicates some intellectual discipline. I have benefited hugely in my career from knowing Russian. It meant that I was plucked out of obscurity as a junior staff member of a Big 6 (now 4) accounting firm and hurled into the middle of the mid-90s Russian economic explosion. It opened up opportunities I would never have had as just another staff person.

But that’s not the biggest part of it. Without developing my Russian skills I wouldn’t have met, pursued and married my wife. Maybe if I had taken Japanese I would have lived in Japan, developed a fondness for all things Japanese. Hard to say. But I do know that the decision to learn Russian set in motion the life process that brought me to where I am today: with a wife who is focused on the same things I am, personally and financially. So that’s actually the single biggest reason why that was a great financial move.

So what was your best move?

best financial move in college, part 1

Patrick, of Cash Money Life fame, has tagged me to give my best financial move in college. This “organically growing” meme was started by plonkee. This will be a two-parter because I didn’t want a post that looked like a short novel…

ventress hall

I have what might be an “unallowed” answer, so I’ll give both of them. One of them had a huge impact, one of them had less of an impact, but both were important long-term decisions.

Best Financial Move in College #1: I attend a public university.

I will be as clear as possible about this: my choice of college has made more of an impact on my financial life than any other decision I have made. A little background: I was a good student in high school. I was class valedictorian, I had high scores on my SAT and ACT exams, I was a varsity athlete. I had received a full scholarship to attend school in Germany as an exchange student; I was an International Science Fair finalist; I had clubs and academic honors and extracurriculars out the yin-yang. I applied to a fairly wide spread of colleges, ranging from my hometown state university to small private liberal arts schools (one I really liked I’ll call Tiny Private) to well-known-very-good-but-not-Ivy schools (one of which I will call Regional Private) to the big grandaddy of them all, Harvard.

I got accepted to every one. I got scholarships to every one. I got tennis scholarships, academic scholarships, etc. etc. However, many people are surprised that anyone who was accepted to Harvard would turn it down. I did. I applied to Harvard on a whim, with no serious intention of attending even if I was accepted. I sent in the application on the deadline date. I started the application, handwritten, in black ink and when that pen died I finished in blue ink. I did it because one of my friends told me there was no way I could get in, and I took the bet. I had no intention of going there. I actually had my mind set on Regional Private – and received a full scholarship there, too.

But one school was ferocious in their recruitment – my hometown state university, which I’ll call Hometown State (for obvious reasons). They were relentless – they gave me not only a full scholarship but they swamped me with calls, meetings with academic deans, calls from alumni, even additional scholarships to cover the costs of books, fees, housing, and on and on. Part of this was due to my dad’s relationship with the university, but a lot of it was simply because I was well-known there already – friends of mine had parents who were professors or administrators or otherwise associated with the school.

I visited Regional Private School and detested the people I met, who were condescending and intellectually dead rocks. Harsh, I know, and maybe it was bad luck, but as a multi-generational legacy (I would have been a third-generation student there) but I couldn’t stand it on multiple visits, including a “new prospects weekend.” I toyed with attending a few other schools, including Tiny Private, but I decided the cool atmosphere didn’t make up for the fact that nobody had ever heard of them or that the academic and social programs were limited.

I decided to go to Hometown State. It was the best decision I ever made financially, for one reason: I actually made a profit attending school. After tuition, fees, books, fraternity dues, food, everything I made a profit. I got a bachelor’s degree and started day one of my postgraduate life with money in the bank and no debt. I think (although I don’t know) that even with full scholarships at Tiny Private or Regional Private or Harvard I would have had enormous expenses not covered by tuition scholarships. My parents would have covered many of those expenses, I’m sure, but I would still have struggled.

I have never regretted attending Hometown State for a minute. To this day I point to that as one of the best decisions I ever made. I loved college. I did well academically. I was again active in all sorts of things: club sports, varsity lacrosse, a fraternity where I was pledge trainer, social chairman and rush chairman at various times, and interest groups from a Russian-language club to political organizations. I did all of this without having one minute’s strain or stress or worry about how I could afford this, or how I was accumulating debt. And I have still done well in my career.

That is my “unfair” answer, since it wasn’t IN college. I’ll give my “fair” answer in my next post.

photo credit: me! an original photo!

 

reader question: “I forgot WIDD”

I had an interesting question from NH Mom of 3 about my WIDD idea. A WIDD, in case you don’t remember, is a “what I done did” file – a record you keep of all of the projects and details of your past positions.

“I wonder, is there a way to “cram” and get down onto paper what you have done on past assignments to make a starter WIDD file? I an in between positions currently (not of my choice, and not planned!) and am starting to interview elsewhere. Any advice?”

My response was that I think if I was trying to recreate a WIDD file from scratch, the very first thing I would do is contact anyone who I’d stayed in touch with from that job and ask them what I did. It sounds strange, but it is the simplest way to get started. Either your former colleague will remember (maybe they worked on the same project, or they supervised you or were supervised by you) or your ex-colleague will at least trip off a few associations in your head that might help.

I had a former colleague call me about a month ago to ask me if I remembered the name of a project we’d worked on five years ago.
Fortunately, I had my records and was able to help her out. Try reaching out to some of your former coworkers! People are usually happy to hear from former colleagues and also usually happy to help. You have to admit to yourself the possibility that your former coworkers might be more organized than you are, or simply have better memories.

If that doesn’t help, you can always look back through any old calendars or appointment books you might have. Most people keep some sort of calendar with important dates on it. Even if the calendar has minimal details, look at it. I recreated a few of my projects in Europe once by looking at my (paper at the time) calendar with flight information on it. Seeing “10:15 am flight to Kiev” jogged my memory about a particular project I did there that I had forgotten about.

But none of your former colleagues are available, you tossed all of your calendars and you’re getting frustrated. Try a memory-jogging exercise. Sit down in a quiet place and start trying to remember your jobs. I’m not talking about the projects you worked on or the duties you had. I’m just talking about the physical aspects of your job. Think about the faces of your former colleagues. Think about where the coffee machine was. Recall your desk. Keep a blank piece of paper next to you and scribble down anything that occurs to you. Go back after a day and look at the notes again and see if it has sparked a memory.

When all of this fails, I would suggest hitting the Internet and finding a job description similar to the one you had. Many companies will advertise job specifications on sites like monster.com. These descriptions may either serve to refresh your memory or give you a starting point to just create a bare-bones description.

Thanks to NH Mom of 3 for the question! If you have questions, feel free to email me and I’ll do my best to answer either by email or here on brip blap!

Creative Commons License photo credit: CJ Sorg

where is Solomon when you need him?

urinal

Creative Commons License photo credit: daviddesign

 

Here’s a question for you, to see where you fall on the health/hygiene versus the environment scale. Ladies, sorry but I’ll be referring to a purely male institution so bear with me.

In the office I’m working in we have urinals. They are the old-fashioned kind where you have to yank a lever to flush – no motion detectors, no waterless suction, etc. When you flush, a HUGE amount of water rolls down the drain. And the drainage is so crappy that to get the water clean, you have to hold down the lever.

Here’s the question: which is the best course of action?

A. Hold down that flusher until the water is as clear as Lake Baikal
B. Push the flusher down for one second, just to show you made an effort to anyone else in the bathroom, but effectively leave it unflushed.
C. Walk away and wait until the urinal’s been used by four or five different guys before flushing thoroughly.

I know it’s a disgusting topic but every single day for a year it’s bugged me, and I’ve even said something. For the record, the response was “we plan to install waterless urinals eventually.”

Not if eventually means within the past year, they didn’t.

So which is worse?
A bathroom smelling like a Greyhound station or gallons and gallons of clean water being used to flush a fairly small amount of waste down a drain?

welcome to New York City

PATH train station


I ride the New Jersey PATH trains into Manhattan most weekdays.  If you aren’t familiar with New York, I can summarize by saying that it’s basically the “New Jersey subway.”  It connects three of the big Jersey cities – Hoboken, Newark and Jersey City – to midtown and lower Manhattan.  A lot of commuters will drive to the station, park and take the train from there rather than ride into the city (I take a bus).  It’s slightly cheaper than the New York subway and (in my opinion) better maintained.

The first stop in Manhattan is the Christopher Street station, in Greenwich Village.  Christopher Street and the immediate area is a charming little bit of Manhattan that summons up images (unfortunately) of Courtney Cox living in a multi-million dollar apartment on an unemployed cook’s earnings.  It’s a nice little area, but not a big center for business – it’s more of a shop-and-restaurant kind of area.  One of my favorite restaurants, Alfama, is nearby.

I never get off at Christopher Street during the work week.  I only exit there if Bubelah and I are going to dinner in the Village, which we haven’t done recently.  But during the work week there’s an odd little scene that goes on during the morning commute.  Two guys who appear to be station workers – I never really see their badges, but they have the general PATH worker getup – stand near the station exit.  And they yell.  A lot.

The funny thing is that they yell really funny, encouraging things to people.  “Looking great!”  “Go get ’em, tiger!”  “You are the man!” are mixed with cheery waves, high fives and big grins.  These two guys look like they might’ve just finished the evening shift and just decided to hang around to cheer people up.

It’s a fun little scene to watch.  I get a smile from it every day.  And the good lesson is that I hope if someone asks those guys “What do you do?” when meeting them for the first time, they don’t say “I work for the PATH.”  I hope they say “I make people happy.”  It’s nice to see good people doing good things for nothing except the sake of doing good things.

Creative Commons License photo credit: skunks… and yes, I know, it’s Hoboken’s PATH station… I couldn’t find a pic of Christopher Street!

the newest problogger on the block

boy jumping in pool
I am joining the ranks of authors of blogs such as Lazy Man and Money, Get Rich Slowly, The Digerati Life and The Simple Dollar and becoming a problogger! While my blog may not be on the scale of theirs, I am excited to announce that I will be a problogger soon!

For about a month.

One of the beauties of contract consulting (to me, at least) is that the contracts come to an end. In this case, the contract couldn’t have come to an end at a more perfect moment. I had planned on taking unpaid leave under the FMLA to stay home with Bubelah when our daughter arrives. However, it turned out that the client managed to hire a permanent employee for the position I’ve been filling for a year (after I turned it down – I am too spoiled for a “regular” job now) and decided that having a consultant back up a junior exec just wasn’t a good idea in these tough economic times. I was ready to move on after a year, as well, and had been sending out feelers for other projects for a while, too.

So at the end of April I’m done with my client.
It’s been a good client and I’ve made some good (work)friends there, but I will not be sorry to see it go. The 1 1/2+ hour commute had begun to drag on me, and with summer approaching I’m hoping to get some quality toddler-soccer time in the evenings if I can work closer to home. I’ve already had preliminary talks with a Wall Street client (don’t believe the hype – most Wall Street companies are doing just fine and conducting business as normal).

But between now and then I will be problogging!
This is my second test run (after a five-week break last year) pretending to be financially free. What I learned the last time:

The Good Stuff

1. I am still very disciplined about getting up early, even when I don’t need to be.
2. My son didn’t get tired of seeing me all day, every day. Not a bit.
3. Bubelah and I actually get along very, very well with both of us home. I think the stereotype is that couples would get irritable if they are around each other all day, but we actually found that it makes for a much smoother and easier division of labor according to who wants to do what, and that means everyone is happier.
4. My spending (other than fixed costs like the mortgage) drops significantly. When you’re at home and you have the time to economize (and need to) you tend to do so. When you work outside the house, sometimes you rush to the quickest (i.e. least frugal) solution (for example, take-out dinners).
5. I’m happier. This may sound like a given, but it’s not. I know plenty of people who cringe at the idea of a non-working life. They prefer the offices, the interaction with their colleagues, being defined by their jobs. It’s not a bad thing – everyone should do what they like – but I found that I have absolutely no problem with not working. Last year I used that time to start up this blog, learn a lot about finance (yes, there’s always something new to learn, even for an accountant/MBA) and just enjoy my family.

The Bad Stuff

1. I eat much healthier food, but with the kitchen right there I tend to eat more of it. Grazing will get you, even if you graze on carrots all day.
2. I have a tough time tearing myself away to “work.” I am hopeful that other than a few days around the birth of our baby I’ll be able to force myself to write at least a couple of hours per day, and not put all of my blogging off until late in the evening. I get too caught up in playing and relaxing.
3. I lack focus. I got a number of projects done, but I do let myself get caught up in what I think of as “new project syndrome” – hey, I need to start an herb garden…when actually what I need to do is fix that squeaky hinge that’s been on my to-do list for six months.
4. It isn’t permanent. As much as I like these intentional breaks between contracts, they can’t last forever. I know it’s not permanent, that I need to go back to work. My blogging income isn’t as bad as it was in my GOAL update, but I think I make more in one day consulting than I make in one month blogging. Blogging might buy a few books, but it’s not going to pay the mortgage – so I know that these breaks aren’t going to last. Soon, though!! (snaps rubber band)
5. I’m happier. I know I listed this as a good thing above. But if you have to drag yourself back to The World of Cubecraft after you’ve taken the months of May and June off (with all of the nice weather), it puts a sock in that happiness. This time I’m resolved to use that as a motivator to get rich quickly and eliminate my NEED to consult.

So stay tuned; starting in about a week I will be the latest Problogger in the PF world… at least for a while!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Fábio Pinheiro

how I managed to spend almost $9000 on lunch this year

carrot for lunch

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I try to bring my lunch to work with me, both for health and wealth reasons, but it just doesn’t happen all the time. I’ll say:

  • “I forgot to pack it and now I’ll miss the bus”
  • “There’s nothing good I want to eat”
  • “I like eating fresh veggies at the salad bar”

Basically it all boils down to “I’m lazy.” Either too lazy to cook, too lazy to prepare, or too lazy to pack it. Whatever the reason, I end up getting a salad most days. But as I mentioned, I decided this past year to track my spending to keep it down. I put together a spreadsheet and kept track of every dime I spent on food this year.

So the results, one week short of a year of tracking? I spent almost $9000.

Let me explain, because that’s not entirely true.
I spent $1300 out of my pocket. But if I had taken that money and invested it at a return of 8% (which I don’t believe is a realistic assumption but that’s another story) for 25 years, it would have been almost $9000. That’s a lot of money to pass up.

On the other hand, I do get cash back rewards since I put lunch on my Amex Blue every day. Before you gasp at the fact that I put food on my credit card, I should point out that we pay off our credit cards promptly every month, and I never spend anything that I couldn’t pay cash for if I needed to – other than our mortgage.

I also did see a massive downward trend after I started keeping track (with a few bumps).
Almost every week I managed to smash down my weekly average, and in recent weeks I was down to about $4 per day. Of course I had a few outliers in there, but generally the trend was good and my habit of writing things down paid off.

The final benefit was eating healthier. If I bring food from home it might be a whole wheat sandwich with turkey or some sort of meat substitute. Fine, but not as good as what I get from the salad bar – lettuce, carrots, oil and vinegar. So I did realize some sort of health benefit from not bringing my lunch. You may argue I could do the same thing at home, but it’s tough to transport salad back and forth to work. Not impossible…but not my first preference.

Planning is the biggest key to success – making sure that you shop wisely and pack the night before are 90% of the battle. So next year I’ll try to cut back from that $9000!

Creative Commons License photo credit: malias

new feature – free magazines

A slight break from my usual routine – I’ve added a new feature that’s pretty interesting (to me, at least). You’ll notice I’ve added a “Magazines” link above, and it takes you to a page where you can subscribe to magazines – for free.

Most of these magazines are ad-supported, so they do need you to sign up to increase readership. I do get a commission if you do sign up. Some of the magazine offers are “subscribe for a few issues then pay” type of offers, so be careful that you don’t commit yourself to something you don’t want.


I can say some of them, like CFO magazine, are fantastic resources – I’ve been subscribing to CFO for as long as I can remember and I’ve never paid a dime. I read it cover to cover every month. It’s a testament to the power of advertising, I guess, but it’s a fascinating read and it’s free.

So hopefully you’ll find that useful – let me know if you have any questions about the service!

And as long as we are talking about free, don’t forget about Revolution Money Exchange and Prosper. I can’t make it any more straightforward: sign up through those links, get money for free. You have to provide banking info to get the money out, true, but I did it and didn’t have any trouble – so give it a shot! I love the idea that RME is going to challenge PayPal (which I also like), simply because I like the idea that new companies take on old companies and the competition, overall, makes everyone better.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Jan the manson {condemns stealing pictures}

unscrambling the egg

Physics tell us that one of the laws of the universe is this:

You can’t unscramble an egg.

Think about it. It can’t be done. You can freeze liquid water, then heat it and turn it to gas and back to water, but you can’t unscramble an egg. It just won’t unscramble. Hit it with gamma rays, do whatever you want and it won’t unscramble.

scrambled eggs

I like to think of this every time I feel like eating junk food these days. Sure, I can eventually lose the weight I gain from eating Ho-Hos, but those chemicals and those unneeded calories have passed through my body and there is no way to undo that. As you eat, you are either damaging or helping your body, and that damage – although possibly almost infinitely small – can’t be undone.

The same principle applies to finance. If you spend an hour of your life earning $20, then you spend that $20 on a CD, it’s gone. Your life is gone. If you spend two hours getting a listing ready on eBay and you make a profit of $1.34 selling a CD, that time is gone, too. Was it worth that $1.34? Was the initial purchase of the CD worth $20?

And similarly, every time you watch TV you lose a piece of your life.
I know it may sound like an obsessive focus on money, but that is time you could have been working on your education, or coming up with money-saving ideas, or studying investments. Everyone needs to relax, but you have to choose how to spend your life. Watching an episode of Gilligan’s Island for the third time is not what Benjamin Franklin would have done. Tony Robbins has a good bit about watching reruns of programs: he says we have two driving forces in our life, the desire for surprise and the desire for consistency, which are constantly at war. We want to watch a funny TV show for the second time because we know it’s funny; but we also hope something new will happen or we’ll see something we missed before. The chances of both of those desires being met decreases each time you see the same show in reruns. As he says, if you ever watch any TV show or movie more than once – get a life.

And trust me, I do this all the time. I have seen The Matrix and The Russia House so many times I can practically recite them – but I do know it’s time wasted.

So the next time you think about buying that CD or wasting time “making money” on eBay or seeing “that great episode where Gilligan breaks the Professor’s coconut-powered radio” just ask yourself if you really want to scramble that egg. Time is short, and it always – always – moves forward.

Creative Commons License photo credit: swanksalot

the charity customer

special customer offer
A charity, of course, may rely primarily on their reputation to obtain donations but to a large extent they need to hook you – essentially a customer – into thinking you’ll “get something out of it.” If the charity bumbles this concept and fails to deliver what you expected, they probably won’t continue to get your money.

I have a few specific experiences I’ve had with charities in mind. One is Children International. If you sign up to sponsor a child, you get pictures of the child, occasional letters and all kinds of appeals for holiday presents, birthday presents and so on. Your donation probably goes to a general fund and gets redistributed – it’s not like your check being cashed by the child – but still they give you the illusion that you are supporting a child.

I supported Children International for a number of years although I recently stopped contributing. I had started doing it a long time ago and Bubelah and I decided we’d rather see our money go to different causes (Russian Children’s Welfare Society and The Salvation Army, primarily) The Salvation Army, in particular, has us hooked almost as much as “customers” as donors – they take away things we don’t want anymore – gently worn coats, shirts, shoes and so on. We get more out of them than they do out of us, I think. The RCWS sends us a very pleasant, low-key request for donations a few times a year, but they also provide newsletters and charity fund-raiser invitations, and since both of us have significant connections to Russia we feel some personal connection to their mission.

But there’s another kind of charity – one that despite an admirable mission really botches their chance at hooking someone in for life. I think a lot of charitable givers do get “hooked in” or “turned off” on their initial contact with the charity. I dislike the United Way for what I saw as heavy-handed “forced giving” tactics in the corporate environment. I was pressured incessantly by my company’s management to give to the United Way when I was a wet-behind-the-ears accountant. My office was a 100% giver! Woohoo! Yet I said I preferred not to give, because at the time I supported another local charity and saw no reason to give to a national organization. It may not have been United Way’s fault, but getting reamed by senior partners about giving to one charity instead of their precious United Way (and thereby messing up their 100% giver claim) made me unlikely to give to United Way again in my lifetime.

Another one was Doctors Without Borders. I love their mission – it is one of the purest forms of charity I can imagine to go into a war zone and treat ANYONE injured, regardless of status or creed or condition. Yet they fumbled their initial encounter with me. I made a fairly large (for my income at the time) donation to them in my dad’s name and asked them to send a card telling him about it for his birthday. This was an established program, not something I made up. They missed it. They never sent it, despite several calls. Yet I started receiving an avalanche of mail seeking further donations – probably more than any other charity who has ever approached me. So since my attention span for charity giving is not unlimited, they lost my attention. I turned and looked elsewhere.

A charity is in a tenuous position compared to a business. Since they seldom actually give you anything in return other than a good feeling, it’s hard for them to capture your attention if they ever give you the slightest bad feeling. I grumble about Microsoft products but I still keep using Windows, because the good outweighs the bad. A charity can’t do that. They need to bat 1.000. There is no margin for error. There are so many charities doing so many good things that it’s easy to be distracted by the next ‘good charity’ when a ‘bad charity’ fumbles that initial contact.

So who are the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ charities? I am willing to bet two people will have exactly the opposite view of the same organization, and I’m sure someone could disagree with all of my assessments above just because of their own initial contacts with those organizations. It’s all determined by that first contact, when you decide whether or not to become a customer.

Creative Commons License photo credit: amishsteve

this monkey’s gone to heaven


Do you ever think what the world would be like without monkeys?
  Probably not.  Do we need monkeys?  We don’t eat them, or use them to plow our fields.  They don’t spend money so they don’t help the economy, and the outside possibility always exists that they will develop intelligence and turn all of us into zoo entertainment until Charlton Heston saves us.

But there is no real ‘reason’ for monkeys.  My son sure does like making monkey noises.  He likes seeing pictures of monkeys.  I’m not too proud to admit that the kid in me still gets a thrill seeing a big gorilla in the zoo.  Some of them are quite intelligent, and that’s amazing – I have seen documentary footage of a monkey using a blade of grass to stick in a hole to pull out ants.  That may not seem like much, but that’s using a tool and that’s a sign of rudimentary intelligence.

I don’t think the world would miss monkeys, exactly, if they all disappeared tomorrow.
  I’m assuming there wouldn’t be a big upset in the local monkey-area ecosystems or anything of that nature.  Much in the same way that I don’t miss the presence of passenger pigeons, I don’t think my grandchildren would someday worry too much about the lack of monkeys.  They could still watch King Kong the way I watch Jurassic Park – wow, check out the effects on that critter!

Children born today will never know a pre-9/11 world.  They will never know what it’s like not to have a massive, constant onslaught of information (unless they have Luddites for parents, and even then they can’t escape everything).  At least for Americans born in the 21st century, it will be hard to imagine a time when people overseas were excited (in a good way) to meet Americans.  It will be hard for my son to imagine a world without the Web, or where you had to be home to get a phone call.

I think it’s sad, in a way, but it’s a good example of how weak the human mind can be.  I have no trouble with the concept of a man on the moon, but 20 years before that happened a rocket that could travel from Germany to London was an astonishing technical achievement.  Four generations ago heavier-than-air flight was as kooky an idea as telepathy, but now nobody would blink an eye at an airplane.  100 years ago I doubt anyone thought there was any possibility whatsoever that humans could ever have an impact on the atmosphere of the earth.  Obviously even short-term trends can’t be predicted:  I don’t remember reading much in 2005 about the housing crash.  Analysts were saying Bear Stearns was a good investment 24 hours before it collapsed.  People thought Alan Greenspan was a genius.  I thought Lending Club was a decent investment.

I can’t imagine a world without monkeys, but with the way the world is going that day will come.  It’s a sad thought.  Each generation gets more and more information and exciting scientific discoveries and more and better foodstuffs (shrimp-flavored GMO corn!) but each generation loses something in exchange, too.  Maybe it doesn’t seem like much that we’ve piled garbage all over huge sections of the earth, or that another species of whale has disappeared.  

Probably in the larger sense it doesn’t matter – I believe humans will adapt and overcome climate change or whatever challenges lie in wait.  But the earth is a zero-sum environment.  Every time you pick up a cell phone, it represents pollution and toxic chemicals and radiation and life clutter and money spent.  And every time a monkey goes to heaven, or some other non-essential part of the world is shoved aside for “progress”, another few moments of life – what most of us seem to value when we look back on our happiest times – are made a little more gray.

(editor’s note:  I know there might be substantial upsets to the ecosystem if monkeys disappeared – I am making a hypothetical argument saying “let’s assume that there would not be an effect)

Creative Commons License photo credit: suneko, and yes, I am referencing this song

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