Monthly Archives: August 2010

teaching and being taught, and links

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this on this blog or not, but I spent a fair amount of time as a part-time schoolteacher for both middle school and college freshmen as a substitute teacher and later as a graduate assistant. I taught intro to calculus and accounting in grad school and substituted for math, gifted ed and other subjects when I was still chasing my starry-eyed dream of becoming a math professor.  I was good.  My students liked me and I don’t recall if I’ve ever had a negative review or bad experience teaching (I don’t think I have).  I continued my teaching/training throughout my corporate career, leading new employee classes and training in software for over 15 years.  I like training and teaching.  Nowadays I do little of that as a corporate consultant – nobody wants me to train, they want me to DO.  And now, if not yesterday.

Well, I get glimpses of the past and flashbacks now that I have kids. I spent a couple of days at my children’s preschool/pre-K school where Little Buddy attends pre-K and Pumpkin goes to daycare (or preschool or whatever you’d like to call it).  I do realize from time to time, when I self-analyze my abilities, that I do have one ability if nothing else:  kids like me.  I can engage them in learning and don’t make them nervous as some other parents do.  I probably would have made a decent grade school or middle school teacher if I could have supported a family on that salary.  That’s a sad observation, frankly, but one for another post.

I’ll make one other observation, too, unrelated to personal finance or careers: my children’s school concentrates heavily on play, and I like it.  Not learning, but play – directed, but not with any intention towards teaching any specific subject.  It’s interesting as a parent to process the conflicting emotions that arise from watching this:  you want your kids to learn but I also (mentally) slap myself and say “Pumpkin’s not even 3 yet – she deserves play time.”  I’m a firm believer in the concept that kids need play time – creative time, self-directed – to develop themselves.  They’ll have plenty of time to be crammed into desks and forced to learn times tables later, I guess.  Just my parental opinion, I guess.

MonaVie Blackmails Me?: Stunning that a company, or a rep for a company, would stoop this low. Read the article to see how low a supposedly ‘legitimate’ company can stoop. You can also read MonaVie: Multi-Level Marketing Gone Haywire for more idiocy. I can’t believe anyone falls for MonaVie’s crap after I’ve read stuff like this.

Blue Cash Rewards Increase: I’ve owned a Blue Cash card for years, so this is good news.  I’ll take it…

Social Lending Arbitrage Beats Projections: I still think Lending Club is a good bet – if you’re interested in trying it they have a $25 signup bonus right now.  I’d treat it like any other investment – it has its ups and downs, but it can serve as a reasonable diversification strategy versus the market.

Personal Finance the Krav Maga Way: Since I’ve seen all the Krav Maga signs up around my neighborhood, I thought this was an amusing – and timely – post.

Small but Alarming Indicator: This is unpleasant – but not unexpected – anecdotal news.  On the other hand, Bubelah just attended a small business workshop where they barely had enough room for the interested attendees, and I remarked that it must have been all of the laid-off people thinking about launching small businesses (and good for them if they were)…

Life After Debt: What It’s Like in the Third Stage of Personal Finance: Just an interesting read, on many levels (fitness, travel, etc.)

and more…

how to become a successful consultant

I’ve preached the gospel of “going it alone” for years on this blog, and I stick by it. I’ve seen far too many of my colleagues hung out to dry by the corporations they work for to think that being an employee is a good career path.  But being a consultant has one ugly secret, deep down at its core:  in order to be a successful consultant (monetarily, not actually effective) requires that you first spend your time in the dirty, ugly trenches as an employee.

I’d like to say it isn’t true. I’d like to think a really gifted, talented person with an eye for change could leap out of college and start helping people as a consultant.  I’d like to think that the tools for communication would naturally be there for some of these people:  comfort speaking in front of large groups, the ability to write clearly and directly, the personal confidence to sell products and relate to decision makers without trepidation.

In my experience:  nope, doesn’t happen.

I’m a good public speaker. I can sell.  I can work a technical presentation and apply complex principles to difficult problems.  I couldn’t have done any of this, in my opinion, without the years in the trench:  the years I spent hammering away, unrewarded, at Big 4 firms and multinational corporations.  What they gave me was, at the same time, invaluable and a curse.  They let me work hard.  They put me in front of very senior management or executives at clients before I might have been ready to deal with them.  They asked me to navigate politics, presentations, negotiations and calculations without a net.  I sweated a lot of 11 pm nights at the office working on presentations so I’d be relaxed and able to throw them off without much trouble today.

If you’d like to be a consultant – a REAL consultant – with a grasp of your subject and the sort of calm, unhurried patience you see in the most polished advice-givers, let me give you a tip:  spend a decade getting your brains beaten in by a consulting firm or a corporation. There’s no better training for confidence than to have your confidence challenged, pushed and tortured for years.  It’s sad but true.  If you work out, the true muscle-building activity takes place on the rep where you “fail” – the rep where you can’t lift the weights one more time.  That’s the point at which new muscle mass – scars, really – build up your muscles and increase your strength.  Being pushed to prepare that presentation or asked to analyze that acquisition on short notice is what will make you a better consultant.

There is no shortcut. When I was hiring for a multinational corporation, I didn’t look to independent consultants two years out of MBA school.  I looked to the Big 4 and other consulting firms.  Why?  Not because I had any love lost for them (I didn’t, at all) and not because they had the best prices or even the best people.  I did it because I knew these were people who had been pushed since day 1 at their firms to fail.  The “upwards or out” mentality is useful even if you’re not in a corporate position.  You’re either increasing your skills and widening your contact pool or you’re heading out.  This is the philosophy of the Big 4.  Up or out.  It makes sense, even while it’s a sad way to live.

So if you think about becoming a consultant, think about putting in a long time in your chosen profession as an employee first. Get that job at an engineering firm, or hospital, or accounting firm, or whatever.  Make sure you can cut it.  Once you’ve stopped failing, or struggling, maybe you’re ready to sell yourself as a consultant.  Just don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that there is no job bigger than you or tougher than you; as a consultant, you have to be constantly aware that eventually “the one” project will arrive where you can’t quite keep up.  And that’s when those ugly skills and pathetic abilities – staying up late and working while everyone else is out at the local bar – will come in handy.

minimalism, and links

One of the most difficult steps to organize your life – finances, relationships, etc. – is decluttering, I think.  I’ve been thinking a lot more recently about the idea of decluttering and minimalism.  I don’t consider myself a minimalist, but I have simple test that works:  if I clean up, do I feel more relaxed?  If I organize and remove unnecessary items, do I feel better?  Yes, I do.  It’s not a tough test; anyone can do it quickly.  I don’t like clutter.  I don’t even like auditory clutter; on a Waldorf-inspired binge a few months ago, I removed almost all of our childrens’ toys’ batteries so we wouldn’t have to subject ourselves to the bleeping and blooping.

Part of the decluttering is tough.  I do enjoy having a lot of books in the house, but I wonder: will our children even appreciate books or will they just tote a Kindle or a Nook around with them?  I don’t like junk lying around but I can’t bring myself to toss out pictures our children having painstakingly crafted.

Minimalism and/or decluttering are tough journeys, no doubt about it.  I’m reading more and trying to get my own head straight about what I want out of my material possessions.  Is it fair for me to deny my kids batteries in their noisy toys while keeping a DVD player for myself, for example?  Food for thought.

On to the links:

learn one lesson: who is the client?

Whether you work as an employee, a consultant, a small business owner or an entrepreneur you probably find yourself in a client relationship from time to time. In my case, I’m always serving a client. Over time I’ve realized that a good question to ask yourself, as someone in client service, is “who is the client?” I’ll approach this question as a consultant, but I think it applies to almost anyone who works with clients or even works in a company where they have to treat other employees as clients.

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Asking this question might seem stupid, but I think that it’s easy to confuse yourself. As an example, I usually have two (or more) people who might be THE client. The first is a day-to-day manager, who lets me know what he or she needs and expects. The manager might not be just one person, but for the sake of argument we’re just talking about a single person (I’ll call him or her or them The Manager). The second person who might be THE client is the person who signs the invoices and – basically – pays me. Usually the second person is the manager’s manager (or even a couple of times removed). I may have some minimal relationship with that person (I’ll call him or her The Executive) and probably don’t get much daily direction from them.

So when conflict arises between The Manager and The Executive, who do I need to worry about? I know that my first instinct is to guarantee that The Manager is happy, since he’s the guy I have to deal with on a daily basis. He has a better chance to judge whether the product of my work meets requirements or not, and if I don’t meet his requirements I’m going to be in trouble.

On the other hand, The Executive pays the bills. If she’s not happy with something I’m doing, or something The Manager is passing on to her that I’m doing, I may not have that client on my list much longer. The Executive is the one hobnobbing with other executives and influential people in my industry, and a bad word here and there could really hurt me (and a good word could help me). The Executive may not understand what I’m working on and may not be in a position to judge my work fairly, so a lot of my interaction with The Executive is probably brief presentations at high level meetings where a smile and a confident speaking tone make a bigger difference than the details of the work.

The easiest answer is to say “take care of both of them.” The truth is that in many consulting relationships (and this goes for employees, entrepreneurs, etc.) the consultant is usually swimming in turbulent waters. The desire of The Manager to look “more useful” to The Executive than the consultant is often eddying just under the surface. The Executive is often more concerned about how the consultants present in a meeting – can they sell the project? make it look snazzy? – than whether the i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed.

So given that you can’t please everyone all the time, what’s a poor consultant to do?

Early on in my career, I worked with a senior accountant on a difficult project – in the example above, he was The Manager. I didn’t see eye to eye with her most of the time. However, I was lucky to form a friendly professional bond with the overall project manager, who became a mentor to me and was The Executive. I had some tough times with The Manager, and The Executive heard about it. The Executive, however, knew me well enough to push me forward to other higher-profile projects and laud me to other executives.

In retrospect I was probably unfair to The Manager but I learned my lesson – please The Executive. Or did I learn my lesson? At various times in my career on other projects I got carried away with the day-to-day tasks and forgot about The Executive. When the project ended, The Manager looked like a star and The Executive barely knew who I was. Again and again, I realized that the consultant who won the next project was not the detail guy, or the smartest guy, but the guy who forged the best relationship with The Executive.

That’s not to say that you can get by schmoozing without doing good work, but good work won’t do much for you without schmoozing. The relationship with The Executive is always critical to landing the next client. The Manager may be able to help you as well, but chances are good that they won’t talk you up TOO much, fearing a reduction of their own image.

Identifying your client won’t always be easy, but it’s a part of the job that can’t ever be overlooked. If you can please everyone, congratulations – you’ve found an easy client. If you can’t, make sure you know who The Executive is, and make sure they know who you are. I think you’ll find that it makes all the difference – not just now, but in the future, too.

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nothing ever changes, and links

Not to inject politics, but just to point out how times change, here’s a quote from an American politician in the not-too-distant past (emphasis mine):

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world. As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions.

This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning. These changes did not happen overnight. They’ve come upon us gradually over the last generation, years that were filled with shocks and tragedy. …

Looking for a way out of this crisis, our people have turned to the Federal government and found it isolated from the mainstream of our nation’s life. Washington, D.C., has become an island. The gap between our citizens and our government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual. What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends. Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift.

You don’t like it, and neither do I. What can we do? First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.

Sounds a little bit like a diatribe from right- (or left-) wing radio, doesn’t it? Take a guess at who said it (answer at the end of the post).

5 Ways Social Media Can Cost You Money: I wrote about how to make money on Facebook a while ago, but you could easily flip that story over to the “other guy’s” side and realize that social media is definitely a good way to lose money, too. Be careful what you say online! On the other hand, here’s: How to use Twitter to find a job for the counter-argument.

Why the Economy is Not Relevant to Investing: I’d agree. The overall economy is, in many ways, a meaningless stat when it comes to investing, particularly in individual companies.

Where Are The High Paying Jobs?: No surprises here; the coasts, and particularly Washington DC.

And more:

Answer: The speech is Jimmy Carter’s famously derided “malaise speech” – although he never used that word. I think he had a better idea of where we were headed than people were willing to give him credit for at the time. I’m not going to argue he was a great president, but you could certainly take that speech and plop it onto Fox – or MSNBC – and not miss a beat, couldn’t you?  Tells you something about how the more things change, the more they stay the same, don’t they?

how to develop good habits

A woman walked up to a little old man rocking in a chair on his porch.
“I couldn’t help noticing how happy you look,” she said. “What’s your secret for a long happy life?”
“I smoke three packs of cigarettes a day,” he said. “I also drink a case of whiskey a week, eat fatty foods, and never exercise.”
“That’s amazing,” the woman said. “How old are you?’
“Twenty-six,” he said.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that habits fall into two general categories: good habits and bad habits. A good habit is flossing every day. A bad habit is smoking. Some habits might fall somewhere in between, or depend on frequency. Flossing every day is a good habit. Flossing once per month isn’t a bad habit, exactly, but it’s not – strictly speaking – a good habit either. Eating a huge overcooked steak once a year is not a terribly bad habit. Eating one for breakfast every day is.

But let’s stick with good habits and bad habits, because most people can tell the difference and don’t need more distinction than that. Most of them can then be thrown into another three categories:

  1. habits you should break – debt, looking down on things, negativism
  2. habits you should take – wake up early, play outside, etc from when you were a kid
  3. habits you should make – positivity, frugality, love

We’ll call that break, take and make.

Break
In a sense, it is often a lot easier to identify a negative habit than a positive one. Overeating or smoking or playing too much Halo is usually a fairly easy pattern to spot. However, the habits that you need to break are often either very pleasurable (overeating for example), or arise from addiction (smoking), or are based on deeply ingrained behaviors (negative thinking). So how do you go about modifying bad habits? What are the methods for eliminating them from your life?

  • Stop. Sometimes a bad habit just needs to cease. If you smoke, stop – get some nicotine gum instead. If you watch 6 hours of TV per day, disconnect your cable. If you gossip, turn the subject to sports or politics or movies. This method is hard, and frankly almost never works – but sometimes it’s worth a shot.
  • Modify. If you drink Coke, try switching to diet Coke, or diet Sprite, or ginger ale, or seltzericon – or cycle through them in that order. You do not have to immediately stop a habit. Take baby steps. If you don’t exercise, don’t imagine that you will run a marathon the week after you start taking a 20-minute walk; but DO imagine that you’ll take a 25 minute walk the next week, then a 45 minute walk, then a 20 minute jog and then – who knows? That marathon might not be so far away after all!
  • Inhibit. In another post I wrote about using a rubber band to help stop negative thoughts. You can use this extremely simple tool very effectively. The purpose is not to injure you or create a fear of an action, but merely to jolt your awareness. I think this is probably the easiest yet almost the most effective way to halt any bad habit. It is one of those exceptionally simple methods that most people scoff at until they try it. Give it a shot.
  • Journal. I have plenty of bad habits, but I have seldom seen one that can withstand a brutally honest journal. If your habit to break is sweets, keep an extremely detailed sweets journal. When, where, what, how many calories, why you ate it (sad? bored?) and almost inevitably you’ll notice a decrease. Writing things down will help solidify the habit in your mind, and make you think twice before engaging in it, knowing you’ll have to record that incident in your journal.

Take
When you were a child, you woke up full of energy and excitement on Saturdays. The cartoons were on, it was the day you were allowed to eat Lucky Charms instead of something good for you, and you didn’t have to go to school. You didn’t know it at the time, but waking up early was a good habit. It kept you from wasting half the day sleeping, making it harder to fall asleep Saturday night. It meant that on your weekends you accomplished “maximum fun” and really squeezed as much into the day as you could. Where did that habit go? Some of it left because you got older… because work beat you down … because you just NEED that sleep. You don’t have to leave this good habit behind you in childhood, though. Reach back into your past and take back these good habits. Take back the habits of playtime, of reading, of avoiding things that didn’t directly contribute to your health and happiness. These are habits which are just day-to-day simple tasks that improve the quality of your life. Examples could include:

  • Making time for play
  • Learning about things because you’re curious
  • Questioning “the way it’s always been done”
  • Never learning to sit still

Here are the first steps to doing this:

  • Identify those habits:
  • Remember how they felt
  • Ask yourself if there’s any reason you couldn’t still do that
  • With a nod to Prince: act your shoe size, not your age

Make
If you have seen The Secret, or read any similar self-help book, you’ll realize that the power of positive thinking is a hot topic right now. It has been a hot topic for hundreds of years, in fact, and there’s a reason for it. It works. Having a mental habit like positive thinking is a snowball habit. The more you do it, the more powerful it becomes and makes it easier and easier to maintain as a habit. There are other key “make” habits like this:

  • Eating a healthy, natural diet
  • Spending time with family and friends by actually being there; no Blackberries, no agendas, and no pressure
  • Making time for meditation
  • Daydreaming
  • Being kind

So how do you make these habits? I’ll refer back again to The Secret, but it could just as easily come from the works of Benjamin Franklin or any self-help individual in-between. You can control your thoughts. There is very little else in this world that you can control the way you can control your thoughts. Use that power to your advantage. Tell your mind “this is a habit, this will be a ritual and we will keep it.” Imagine you have already been doing this habit for years. Imagine that it has made you happier, more fit, richer, calmer – whatever it is that you want. You really have to visualize it, write it down, draw it or otherwise make it a real image in your mind. You will be amazed at how quickly your mind adapts to a “new reality” once you order it to. A habit is not a set of chains or a gun pointed at your head. It is 100% the result of your mind, so only you – as the person in control – can change your mind and therefore the habit.

personal mission statement, and links

I’ve been trying apply the Pareto Principle (discussed ad nauseum elsewhere) to my daily activities a bit – trying to focus on important things and let stuff that I might enjoy but don’t really advance my life goals go.  It’s harder than you think:  I like reading about sports and spending time tinkering with this blog, but neither activity moves me anywhere closer to where I want to go with my life.  I did do one activity that was quite helpful:  I am trying to use Stephen Covey’s suggestion, from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, to write a personal mission statement.  It’s one of those typical self-help type things that sound somewhat goofy but it’s a surprisingly difficult exercise.  I’m trying to limit it to about three lines and you can get a definite idea of where your values are when you’re forced to narrow down your personal priorities – which can encompass your family, friends, work, beliefs, and so on – down to about 2-3 sentences.  Not that easy.

On to the links:

3 Reasons Why Most People Will Never Earn More Money — And What You Can Do About It!: It’s a good point, and frankly one that I have been guilty of: I spend more time explaining why I can’t than trying to do it. I could make more than I do, but I don’t.

What Will Retirement Look Like for Younger Generations?: It’s a depressing thought. The future of retirement in the US is bleak. If anyone tells you otherwise, they are kidding themselves. Even in the public sector, things are looking worse. In the private sector? Forget about it. Tell me how you can retire at a reasonable age if you’re a middle-of-the-road wage earner in America and I’ll tell you how I can sell you a lovely bridge in Brooklyn.

Pay Off Your Mortgage vs Pay Down Your Mortgage: One of the huge questions in personal finance: I’ve always thought that it was stupid to pay off one’s mortgage (because it locks up your money) but now? Not so sure.

Sucked Back into Obsessive Couponing: Saving money is bad. No, really. No, really…it’s not. I wish I did it more than I do.

Should Unemployment Benefits Be Extended?: Listen, there has to be a limit. One year, maybe. I pushed seven months, myself, and had to relocate halfway across American to find a new job (admittedly by choice of a new locale). But I have never felt guilty about getting that money – don’t forget, it’s money paid INTO the system as “insurance” – your unemployment benefits are benefits being paid back to you because you paid that money into a fund for unemployment benefits. No shame it drawing on that account….

Lending Club Loan Investment Update: Lending Club has been a great investment for me and I may put more in soon; peer-to-peer lending is still a good way to diversify past Wall Street.
Are You a To-Do List Bottom-Feeder?: I am. I let small things keep me from big things all. the. time. It kills me that I recognize this and can’t correct it.

And more…

the passion of the hobbit

It’s a subject I waffle back and forth on – the idea that passion needs to rule your life. It seems obvious, of course, that you should have passion for your spouse, children… then maybe a bit less obvious but still reasonable to have the same passion for relatives, friends and interests.  Even less obvious would be the very abstract things like country, career, sports teams and so on.  If you’re passionate about something lower on the list like that – say, American Idol – reexamine your priorities.  I was passionate about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I recognize that it wasn’t a good direction for my passions.  I got a lot of entertainment out of it but my life is exactly 0.0% improved because of it.

But if you can’t focus on something, it’s a shortcoming. In my case, I don’t have a lot of passion for my work.  I view it as a mechanical activity that provides food, shelter, clothing and Netflix for the family.  I wouldn’t view this as ideal, although I realize at the same time that 99.99% of the human population wouldn’t view sitting in a quiet, air-conditioned cubicle for 8 hours a day for an income in the top 1% of the planet’s population as a hardship.  Many of the “seize your passion” bloggers do – they assume that everyone can seize their internet business bliss – nobody has to make the computer, only to live off of them.

But that’s fine – of course some can and some can’t. Whether any of us choose to do so is of course a choice; if you love taking care of horses and instead choose to pursue a career as an account receivable manager, you’ve made a choice.  Whether you can live with it or not is the problem – many can, and a few can’t.  I’d guess that the time when all of this questioning really came into play was when the social contract that said companies would handle retirement broke down.  If I worked for IBM for 25 years and knew they’d take care of me during those 25 years, and after, I’d be a lot more inclined to give up on the need for passion.  But nowadays, that’s not true; just recently a colleague of mine got laid off from a company he’d worked for over 20 years without even a thank you.  Your future is not secure.

I realized all of this tonight while reading to my son.  For about a week we’ve been reading a few pages of “The Hobbit” by J. R. R. Tolkien every night.  I’ve explained the general story to him – a little hobbit goes with a bunch of dwarves to steal back their gold from a dragon – but I don’t have many illusions about how well a four-year-old can follow Tolkien’s esoteric prose.   It’s not exceptionally complicated, but it’s not Goodnight Moon.

But tonight when I asked him if he wanted to try something easier, he said no. I asked whether he understood most of it, and he said no.  I asked then if he wanted to stop, and he said no.  I asked why, if he couldn’t understand all of it, and he gave me an answer that should make things clear (to paraphrase):  I’m excited about it because you’re excited about it, Papa.  He liked listening to it because I liked reading it.  Something was in my voice that wasn’t there when I was reading Goodnight Moon or I’m A Truck.

Some of my fondest memories from childhood are of my father reading The Hobbit to me from the same book at a slightly older age. I remember being a little confused by the language and the complex plot, but loving the fact that my dad thought I was ready for something so amazing.  That passion translates easily, and makes reading something like The Hobbit far simpler than struggling through Goodnight Moon for the 100th time.  Sitting down at the desk in the corporate office for the 100th time is much like that; coming up with new ideas, starting new jobs or developing new ideas is much like picking up The Hobbit.

I don’t like to think that work – and through that, life – is bleak without purpose. It’s not; other things should put life in balance even if there isn’t purpose in one’s work.  But work and parenthood and friendship and one’s relationship with parents, community, school and whatever else are, in fact, intimately tied up with passion.  Without the passion to pursue something – church, charity, community, work, parenthood, etc. – life is going to be a little less exciting.  Excitement is its own reward.

infant swimming

People have certain basic skills they need to acquire. The ability to feed yourself, clean yourself and shelter yourself are obvious. Past this come a whole list of “really ought to acquire” skills: understanding money, literacy and so on. However, living in New York for more than a  decade I noticed that two skills were often never acquired by many city people: driving and swimming. The driving is easy enough to understand: if you’ve ever visited New York or a similar big city you’d know that driving your own car is more expensive (parking, tolls, insurance) and public transportation makes it very easy to get anywhere without driving. Swimming can just be attributed to the cold weather and the lack of nearby pools for learning to swim.

But starting from an early age, Bubelah and I have taken pains to make sure that both of our children are not only able to swim for recreational purposes, but able to “rescue” themselves if they fall in water unexpectedly. With Little Buddy we started when he was less than 1 year old, and with Pumpkin we started just after she was 1. The necessity for the training moved from a mild concern to an urgent one when we moved to Florida. You can’t go 100 feet without seeing a pond or a pool or some other body of water – let alone the fact that we’re in an oceanfront town.

We signed both of our kids up for the Infant Swimming Resource, and to get an idea of what that was like, watch this video (if you’re a parent, it’s fairly amazing).

You might think that’s some kind of trick, but my son (a little older than 3 when he took the course) and daughter (a little more than 1 year old at the time) could do exactly the same, even in full clothes with shoes on. It’s a shocking thing to observe – in a good way. I still wouldn’t trust either of them to spend even 1 minute unattended around a pond, but it does give me the confidence that they wouldn’t panic if they did fall in water someday, which – in the minute it might take me to reach them – they wouldn’t do something that would result in drowning.

No parent (or spouse or friend or anything else) wants to contemplate the mortality of their loved ones. Jan commented on my post about making time for details about my lack of a will:

No WILLLLLLL?????? and you have children? This is really bad. Just jump on line and go to a simple legal site and download one. In fact- write one yourself and take it to your next party. Line up four people to sign that they saw you sign it. Do the details later. Appoint guardianship! Do it- TODAY!

Jan was of course right. Just like it was difficult to talk about why a survival swimming course for our children was necessary (because we don’t want them to drown), it was difficult to talk about how our children’s lives should be handled if we died before they were at least young adults. After I had written about not having a will, though, I realized it was time for us to answer the ugly questions finally – it was irresponsible parenting to teach children to swim but not worry about what would happen if they were thrown in the water, figuratively speaking, by their parents’ deaths.

Infant swimming is a good metaphor for many of the life skills we want for those we love to acquire, and for many of the actions we can take on their behalf to give them the ability to react in a crisis. We teach kids to recite their names and address from the time they can talk in case they are lost. We teach them to survive falling in a pond. We set up wills to protect them (frankly) against the system. So many of these actions are small, but they require asking yourself “what’s the worst that can happen” – and being honest with yourself about the answers.

Note:  This month, ISR has been selected to compete in the Pepsi® Refresh Project.  ISR needs daily votes for FLOAT during the month of August to “Help Eliminate Childhood Drowning” at this link www.refresheverything.com/InfantSwim.

Voting opened Sunday, August 1st, and is open for just one month! ISR supporters can vote daily to help provide ISR lessons to families in need. The Pepsi projects with the most votes receive the grants.  If you feel so inclined, please vote to help a worthy cause:  stopping childhood drowning.