your stuff or your life

Years ago, on a weekend visit, I spoke to a friend of mine from a Middle Eastern country while our family was visiting with his family. We spoke over a huge pile of Legos and the Bert-n-Ernie Garage and a full set of Thomas the Tank Engine trains (although, in all fairness, most were gifts).  He was reminiscing about how he grew up with practically no toys:  he and his brothers made toys out of wire and twine and cans and sticks.  I spoke about my childhood – less simple, but still free for the most part of electronic gadgets.  We watched a Euro 2008 match on satellite TV while we spoke, drank German beer and checked other sports score on my high-speed Internet laptop.  Then my friend lamented the fact that while his mother had managed to support his whole family and grandparents on one salary, it just wasn’t possible anymore.

It is. Take out the imported beer, the satellite TV, the piles of children’s toys, the second car, the computers, the high-speed internet, and so on and it is.  It’s amazing how within the span of one generation we’ve added so many “extras” – but at the same time Americans are now working harder than any other industrialized nation, even more than the infamously hard-working Japanese.  I may exempt the Internet from this equation, simply because what I pay for access – a $600 Toshiba laptop and a high-speed cable connection – are worth it in terms of information and learning and entertainment.  Other than that, though, we have added so much to our lives that we’ve lost sight of the fact that we don’t need most of it.

Yet at the same time America is unbearably wealthy by global standards. We have calories (not good ones, but calories nonetheless) available in almost unlimited supply for almost no real cost – Americans spend less of their salary on food than any other nation in the world.  You can buy enough Cinnamon Toast Crunch to feed a family of four for a day for $10.  Even the poorest people in America can afford television; and despite the recent increase in gas prices, we still have some of the cheapest gas in the world and almost no-one is too poor to afford a car.

I don’t automatically assume that “having things” makes anyone unhappy, any more than I assume having things DOES make someone happy. Americans are uniquely blessed with a regulatory environment that is still wide-open by global standards, and the remnants of an entrepreneurial spirit that lives on despite 50 years of creep in governmental control.  Yet at the same time a gap has opened up that shows that the materialistic society has limits.  I have made no statistical studies, but I have so many acquaintances who are loaded down with material goods who are desperately unhappy and apprehensive about the future that it seems to be a trend.  I’m not exaggerating, either – these people have possessions that would have convinced me, in my youth, that they were multimillionaires.  So progress has been made in the material world, but something – somewhere – was lost.

I don’t know what the answer is, because the Internet and cable/satellite TV and clever toys and gadgets like MP3 players have not seemed (and that’s the key word) to be EVIL. I enjoy my Blackberry, a lot.  Could I live without it?  Of course.  Does it enrich my life?  It sure did yesterday, when I listened to a fascinating interview on it, showed my kids a music video they loved and found an address I needed.  But is it part of a slow trickle of gadgets-for-money-for-time that have robbed me of the deliberate life?  That’s something each of us, in the wee hours, have to decide for ourselves.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik

how to book hotels without emptying your wallet

One of the biggest hindrances to planning a trip is figuring out where you can stay during your travels that won’t break the bank. Finding a clean, convenient, and, last but not least, affordable hotel shouldn’t take up all your time, and it shouldn’t be a hassle. But who has time to compare dozens of hotel websites, or even dozens of hotel bargain finders online?

That’s where a hotel finder like Excellent Hotels comes into play. Excellent Hotels has relationships with over 35,000 hotels in over 130 countries worldwide.  Simply enter your destination, the duration of your trip and how many people are involved. Excellent Hotels will combine the best elements of selection, price and service to find the perfect hotel for your budget. And whether you’re looking for hotels in New York, hotels in Paris or hotels in Montreal, you’ll get a varied selection of 3 to 5 star hotels. Excellent Hotels has also partnered with Auto Europe, a leader in worldwide car rental services. Auto Europe has over 8,000 car rental locations in all Excellent Hotel countries, and can help you book discount car rentals, chauffer and transfer services, and prestige and sports car rentals.

If you’re looking for something especially fancy, Excellent Hotels is the exclusive distributor of Châteaux and Hotels Collection and Exclusive Hotels brands in Europe. Exclusive Hotels offers accommodation options in Paris and the surrounding French region. The majority of the lodgings offer amenities like spas, golf courses and gourmet dining. With the Châteaux and Hotels Collection, you can choose from over 500 hotels, mostly in Francy, Italy, Spain and Portugal. These hotels always fall into the category of luxury hotel, a historic building, a hotel in the heart of the city or a hotel in the heart of the countryside. Through them, you can find prestigious and unique hotels that allow you experience Europe to the max – without the price problem.

To save extra time, we can do the booking and planning for you – no matter whether the trip is concerned with business, pleasure or group travel. Excellent Hotels specialists are standing by toll-free 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call them today to see what they can do for you.

8 ways to obtain passive income

piggy bank

piggy bank

A few years ago when I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad, the concept of passive income lit my brain on fire. I had never thought of the idea of making money for nothing.  I assumed that money was achieved only due to the hard-pressed exchange of time for filthy lucre.  Kiyosaki, the author of RDPD, assured us that passive income was the key to wealth.

Where is the passive income?

I plunged into research. I identified rental income, investment income and even creating original content as “passive income.”  I had visions of checks flowing in, one after the other, landing in a pile on my desk called the PI pile.  But after time, I realized that the pursuit of passive income was nearly impossible through these routes.  How can you really make passive income?  Inquiring minds want to know.  These are the top 8 “real” ways to make passive income, but even they have a catch – all but the last one.

  1. Pick up spare change off the ground. You do have to bend over, but you probably do that at work every day, so you’ll at least be getting something out of this transaction.
  2. Marry someone rich. You’ll have to do some work, true, but if you aim high enough we’re talking about a huge return on investment here.
  3. Hook up with someone rich and desperate enough to pay to keep you around – the classic “sugar daddy” scenario.   Granted, you may have to do some work here… but I’ve seen this work out where surprisingly little effort is expected in return.
  4. Have someone else do the work for you; a nice trick if you can manage it.  Ask your buddy the web designer to create a website for you – for free.  Why would he do it?  The exposure?  The joy of being taken advantage of?  Don’t worry – you’re getting passive income!
  5. Win an office lottery pool. OK, you risked a few dollars, but someone else went to the bodega, bought the ticket and checked the results.  You didn’t put much sweat into your share of the Mega Millions, did you?
  6. Gamble. There is, of course, a potential downside here.  But if sitting around sipping free martinis while playing a game and winning isn’t as close to passive income as possible, I don’t know what is.
  7. Invest in dividend-paying stocks. This point is a cheat.  You have to earn the money that you use to buy the stock.  On the other hand, everything that happens after you buy it is gravy.  That income becomes close to truly passive – so the trick is to use windfalls (an economic stimulus check, for example) to invest in dividend-paying stocks.
  8. Be born rich. Yes, you might have to be nice enough to great-aunt Milfred to avoid getting cut out of your trust fund, but let’s face it:  this is as close to passive income as you’ll see in this life.

Don’t think you’ll get rich without working for it.  Everything you can generate wealth from takes effort.  Writing a book is hard work.  Blogging is hard work.  Rental income is hard work.  It may create a wealthstream for years to come, but that’s what you should be aiming for:  wealthstreams, not passive income.  Don’t imagine that there’s a magical key to wealth that doesn’t involve either hard ongoing work or a good bit of upfront work.

Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by Images_of_Money

are you selling your life to your employer?

profit and loss statement

profit and loss statement


When I was a young buck, fresh out of accounting MBA school, I had a prestigious job working for one of the (at the time) six biggest accounting firms in the world. It was a small office, but it was the second biggest of the six in the city I lived in at the time. It was a well-respected firm and I was lauded by my school, friends, family and peers for landing a position there.  The future was so bright, I had to wear green accountant’s eyeshades.

If you aren’t familiar with the work-life structure of the big accounting firms, a little background is in order. I’ll refer to them as the Big 4 (today there are four – during my professional career one has disappeared – Andersen – and two have merged). In the Big 4, the corporate culture is up-or-out. What does that mean? Nobody remains in static positions. There are three basic levels: staff, manager and partner. Staff and managers have a number of subdivisions, but a new joiner will progress, inevitably from junior staff to senior staff to junior manager to senior manager to junior partner to senior partner. You either get promoted on schedule or you are pressured to leave… or fired.

Everyone works hard in the Big 4. I have worked until 6 am, showered and gone back to work. I have worked week after week, 12-14 hour days every day including Saturdays and Sundays. The deadlines are unmissable and the pressure is enormous. The staff and seniors are typically devoted to no more than a few clients at once, and they have very little discretion in which clients and which areas they work. Managers have more latitude, but typically take on far more responsibility. They are responsible for training, mentoring, reviewing and organizing the staff on the project, and at the same time they must manage the clients’ expectations, pursue collections and billings and meet firm expectations on landing new business. Partners’ responsibilities are intense; mistakes on their part can destroy the firm. They must be technically proficient in accounting principles, “rainmakers” and office leaders. The days of the cheerfully drunk partner who shows up for golf and cocktails are long, long gone.

Staff and managers work exceptionally hard, though. I had a decent salary compared to my peers but I also worked 100 hour work weeks. My hourly wage was approximately $9 per hour as a staff person. Babysitters in New Jersey typically demand a minimum of $10 per hour. By the time I was a manager things weren’t much better – when I jumped to private industry I received a huge pay raise for nothing other than getting out of the grind. Had I stayed until I was a partner, I would have received a partnership income in the (I guess, depending on the market and a million variables) range of a quarter million per year. Retirement at 50 would have been achievable with a partner’s pension. I always knew I didn’t want to stick around to make partner. My intention was to stay two years then bolt – but then I stayed another – and another – and the next thing you knew I realized I was facing a big choice.

The Big 4 payoff is like a lottery, like many other industries – consulting, financial services, you name it. You make partner, you get rewarded for those awful hours and those long busy seasons. If you leave before then, you have been suckered. You gave up a lot of hours at minimum wage to build someone else’s firm; someone else’s client relationships; someone else’s partnership share. I spent years toiling at an awful salary to strengthen my firm and enrich the partners.

Don’t work like this for an employer.

I regret those hours now. I have a good consulting gig, don’t get me wrong. Leaving at 6 pm is a late day for me. I have few responsibilities and very little pressure. But if I had taken my 20s and poured those 100 hour work weeks into my own business, or even a small firm where I could have shared in the growth, I would have benefited enormously – more than just having a six-figure salary. I do have a fearsome resume to show for it; people in my field generally know what it means to have been in the offices and firms and fields and industries I was in, and it makes a difference in landing consulting jobs now. But I built no assets for me.

So the point is this: if you are working insane hours, stop and figure out your hourly wage. Stop and ask yourself: if I quit today, or I quit 3 years from now, will my resume look much different? Am I building something for someone else or for myself? It may be that you’re happy with your position as an employee – but if you’re working past the 9 to 5, you’re donating your irreplacable time – YOUR LIFE – to your employer, free of charge. That’s an awful nice present. Think about whether you’re happy giving it. You could probably spend a lot of those spare hours – which can never be replaced – doing a lot of things for yourself.

Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by word_dancer51

Friday quote: learning from mistakes

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

Scott Adams (1957 – ), ‘The Dilbert Principle’

I wrote and published a post on Friday about the ‘pursuit of ends.’  It’s a vitriolic post about the current state of things in America, particularly as pertains to our economic system.  It was a mistake.  If you come to the site, it’s no longer there, but if you get the blog by RSS or email you’ve probably seen it.  That’s fine, I wrote it and I meant it.  But I didn’t mean to publish it, for a simple reason:  it’s an angry political post, of the type I used to write (pre-2007) on brip blap in its earlier, political incarnation.  I don’t think it’s a positive thing, and I’d like this blog to remain relentlessly positive (particularly since I have some big changes coming up).

It’s not that I don’t believe what I wrote – I do.  I had put it in my drafts but didn’t realize I had scheduled a future publishing time, so it appeared.  I got one angry comment from a reader – sorry, Chris, I assume you’re no longer a subscriber – which made me realize it had gone live.  But even though I would stand by what I wrote, I just don’t want this blog to be too topical (i.e. looking at current events – I’d rather have ‘evergreen’ contents) and I don’t want it to be political.

If you follow me on Twitter (@bripblap) you’ll notice I’m fairly outspoken, sometimes harshly so, about politics.  I’ve also written again and again on this blog about how I think watching the news – particularly political news – is not only unconstructive but actually anti-constructive.  And I kick myself repeatedly for getting sucked back in, especially once the presidential election cycle ramps up.

So I allowed myself to make a mistake, and learned something from it.  First of all, put my political thoughts in my political Tumblr – and second, even I don’t like reading my own political rants.  That should tell me something.

Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by jurvetson

Layaway Plans – Good or Bad?

By Beth Montgomery

With the closely approaching holiday season, you may be considering the layaway programs so many companies have implemented in their retail stores. While these programs may seem appealing, it may be better for you to save up the money on your own and pay for your gifts in full later. Years ago, before the common use of credit cards, layaway programs were quite popular. Now that the economy has taken a downturn and more people are unable to establish credit, these programs are making a comeback through retail stores like Toys R Us, Sears, KMart, and now WalMart. Layaway allows shoppers to reserve items in the store and pay in installments without incurring interest or affecting the customer’s credit score. With one out of every seven consumers already using 80% of their credit limit, I wonder if it is smart to encourage these types of programs. Financial education has taken a back burner in our society, and this lack of knowledge isn’t helping the average consumer and their spending habits. On the other hand, people are having a hard time with the holidays during this recession, and some don’t have the option of using credit. For these people, financial illiteracy isn’t the problem. Layaway programs could help them through these difficult times because layaway allows them to buy their gifts without finance charges and with the ability to spread out the payments.

Pros of Layaway Programs

Sometimes, it can be easier for consumers to see a list of the facts related to a decision. Here is a list of the many advantages to layaway programs.

  • The cost is divided into several payments. The full amount doesn’t need to be presented at one time.
  • Fees added to the total cost of the items put on layaway are usually much cheaper than the monthly interest possible on a credit card.
  • You can set aside holiday gifts before they go out of stock.
  • The shopping rush that can happen over the holiday season can be avoided.
  • Impulse purchases can be realized and you have the option of backing out of buying an item (for a fee in some cases).
  • Failed payments will not reflect on your credit report
  • You can plan ahead for other special occasions (showers, weddings, birthdays, etc.)
  • More expensive items are available for purchase when a maxed-out credit card may have prevented that purchase before layaway.
  • The retailer stores the items. It isn’t necessary for you to find space in your own home.
  • Responsible use of layaway could help those who have a hard time managing money. It is necessary for them to plan ahead and make payments in order to get what they have bought.
  • You can put an item on layaway while it is on sale and keep that sale price, and if the price goes down during the layaway period, you may be able to get the item for that lower price (in some cases).

Cons of Layaway Programs

There are also many disadvantages to layaway programs. Before you decide to put any purchases on layaway, you should consider all of these cons.

  • Inexpensive items placed on layaway could result in fees equal to or greater than a credit card interest rate.
  • The store policy may require the initial price of an item be paid, even if the item goes on sale during the layaway period.
  • Fees attached to layaway programs can get expensive. These fees can range from $5 to $150 or more.
  • It is easier for undisciplined consumers to spend more than they can afford.
  • If the store goes out of business, the items and the money paid for layaway could be very difficult or even impossible to get back.
  • If payments aren’t made, the money already spent on the items placed on layaway could be lost, but will most likely be reimbursed in store credit or with a gift card.
  • Some consumers use credit cards to make payments on their layaway plan, which defeats the purpose.
  • Temptations to buy more items could arise when you go to the store to make a layaway payment.
  • Some say that if a customer can’t pay for something all at once, then they shouldn’t be making that kind of purchase in the first place.

Layaway programs can be a good option if they are used properly. However, the best way for anyone to buy holiday or other gifts is always with cash. Saving up your money and then making a major purchase will always be more satisfying than a layaway program.

Beth Montgomery is an author working for a company that focuses on financial education. Her articles relate to business, finance, and credit options for all credit ratings.

photo Attribution Some rights reserved by DaMongMan

the scrambled egg theory of productivity

scrambled eggs

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

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?  That time is gone, and that egg can’t be unscrambled.  The money out – unless you spent it on something that will return to you like education, or an investment – is money gone.  In the cosmic sense, it has been scrambled.

Your time works the same way, too.  Every time you watch TV, for example, you lose a piece of your life. Whether it’s worth it or not is up to you.  I’ve seen many movies that inspired me, or made me laugh.  That might have been a good use of my time.  Everyone needs to relax and be entertained from time to time, but you do have to choose how to spend 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.  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.  This tendency to watch movies multiple times is one of the main reasons my family cut the cord.

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

how to succeed at work

Years ago, after a month of unemployment when I was, for all intents and purposes, a professional writer I found that I started to miss my corporate consulting gig. I missed the contemplative time I had during my long commute.  I missed the fear I felt as I walked into the lobby, past heavily armed police officers with assault weapons.   I missed the early morning routine of standing in line before being run through a gauntlet of metal detectors and passing not one but three security checkpoints.  The bitter instant coffee.  The fluorescent lights!  And the meetings, oh the meetings!

That’s enough sarcasm for one post. I started missing the big checks, but it took a while.  If nothing else during that time period I saved $400+ on commuting costs a month.  I got my final load of dry cleaned clothes from the cleaners, and I didn’t need to buy my lunch once because I’d been too lazy to pack one the night before.  I had more time to spend with my kids and for the first time in years I’d actually slept until 7:00 am (until Little Buddy careened into our bedroom).  I’d managed to start exercising again – albeit not on a regular schedule yet – and at that point I would have called unemployment an unqualified success.

You only need two things to succeed at your job. It doesn’t matter if your job is working retail, corporate consulting or even just being a stay-at-home parent.   Everyone has “a job.”  The vogue these days (at least in most of the blogs I read, which are a bit of a self-reinforcing bunch) seems to be to look down on jobs.  I have written my fair share of articles expressing that view.  Yet everyone has a job.  Some people are luckier than others:  their job pays more, or allows more free time or comes closer to the definition of an avocation than it does to the definition of a job.

The two things you need to succeed at your job are:

  1. the basic skills necessary for the job: You can’t be a plumber if you don’t know how to unclog a drain.  You can’t be a lawyer if you can’t pass the bar.  But you CAN be a good consultant if you can solve problems and present that solution clearly.  You can do many jobs quite well with just the basic skills necessary for that job.   If you can clear that minimum threshold with your skills, you can succeed… if you also have thing #2.
  2. a (net) enjoyment for what you’re doing: Forgive me for being an accountant.  The idea of net enjoyment is probably peculiar to an accountant, but it’s an accurate description of a basic condition:  the positives outweigh the negatives.  Every undertaking in the world, be it a corporate job, an entrepreneurial endeavor or a family picnic has SOME positives and SOME negatives.  The balance in one direction or the other is often quite clear, but sometimes it is close to balancing.  The trick is to understand those close-to-balancing situations.  Are you in a position, work-wise, where the positives outweigh the negatives?  If not, do you see that situation reversing itself in the future?  And if not, when are you quitting?  Every day you have to make that assessment, considering the long tail of your work over the last few years, or even over your entire life – has it been, net, a good undertaking?

If you don’t have the basic skills for a job (be honest with yourself, but chances are you do since you’re doing it already), or you don’t have a net enjoyment for what you’re doing, I don’t think you’re going to get far. People who are highly skilled but hate their jobs don’t get far.  People who are incompetent and love their jobs don’t get far, either.  People who are moderately skilled and like what they do for a living can often do quite well.  I don’t think they will be millionaires, necessarily, but they should be successful at that undertaking.  Make sure you can assess your own skills, and your TRUE level of enjoyment for your work, and you’ll be able to make an accurate judgment as to whether you’ll succeed eventually – or not.

photo credit: Chovee

Getting A Loan With A Bad Credit Score

Obtaining access to financing has gotten a whole lot more difficult over the last few years. It can be tough for a person with an average to below average credit score to get access to the funds that they need. There are some loan products that provide these borrowers with the funds that they need in a crunch. Here are three of the more popular ones.

Personal Loans

Personal loans are unsecured loans that are issued by a lender to a borrower. Unsecured personal loans can be found at banks, credit unions, online lenders, and loan companies. These loans are often used to pay down existing debts such as credit card debt or to catch up on past due balances. A person with a long time history with a lending institution has a much better chance of qualifying for a personal loan since the lender already has a relationship with the borrower. The rates on personal loans vary depending upon the institution.

Bad Credit Loans

Bad credit loans are last chance financing for borrowers whose credit scores are in the dumps. A bad credit loan is useful when it helps a borrower to avoid bankruptcy or helps a borrower avoid the loss of home or car. Bad credit loans are typically short term loans that carry higher interest rates. These loans assist borrowers with poor credit scores that would fail to qualify for a loan from a traditional financing institution like a bank. Borrowers can reduce the total amount of interest that would need to be repaid by paying off bad credit loans rapidly.

Line Of Credit

A personal line of credit is a loan that is granted to individuals that need access to cash and do not want to put up collateral. A personal line of credit is an easy way to borrow because you only have to pay interest on money that you use. You can get credit far greater than the amount that you need and just withdraw the funds as needed. Your line of credit will be replenished as you pay down the balance.

Friday quote: changing yourself



Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

– Leo Tolstoy

I’ve written before about why I don’t watch the news, political or otherwise.  I do get some news – I check the local news to make sure there’s not a road closing near me or a new farmers’ market I should be aware of.  I include myself in the large pool of people who dream of change throughout the world – ending American wars!  fixing Wall Street! ensuring equality for women throughout the developing world!  ending poverty! etc.  I’d love to see these things happen, but the simple fact is that it’s unlikely that my individual efforts would affect ALL of these things.  With concentrated effort and a lifelong focus, I could affect one of these things, perhaps.  But I, like so many others, focus on changing the world (to little effect) and miss focusing on changing ourselves (at great affect).

I’ll suggest that there is no greater first step to changing the world than changing yourself.  Make yourself better and you’ll be better able to serve the world.  Get more fit – live longer.  Get richer – be able to give more.  Get smarter – provide more help.  It’s easy to see that self-improvement is the first step to take in serving others.

This post is as much a reminder for myself as it is any sort of advice for others.  Remember, with me, that improving ourselves is the first step in improving the world, as Tolstoy pointed out.

Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by R’eyes

Steve Jobs wouldn’t hire Steve Jobs

Here’s an absolutely fantastic career/work idea I got via This Week in Tech:  Steve Jobs would not have hired Steve Jobs.  There are multiple reasons.

  1. Steve Jobs wouldn’t have wanted to go to work for a big corporation like Apple.  He was an entrepreneur.
  2. A strong CEO like Steve Jobs wouldn’t have wanted to hire someone like Steve Jobs who wanted the #1 job.  He wanted to be firmly in control.
  3. People wouldn’t have wanted to work with someone like Steve Jobs, because he would have been too focused on becoming the #1 guy.

The list could go on.  I thought the point was brilliant.  On This Week in Tech they were discussing whether there was a guy like Jobs at Apple and they pointed out – quite rightly – that there most likely couldn’t be a guy like Jobs at Apple.  That kind of guy would exist outside Apple.  He wouldn’t want to be part of Apple – he’d want to be part of a small startup.

Here’s a relevant point:  after Walt Disney died, the Disney corporation spent decades trying to do “what Walt would’ve done.”  Guess what?  They couldn’t figure it out, and nothing good ever came of that thought process.  Eventually Disney reinvented itself as a media company that had – as a side business – some of Disney’s theme park/animation business.

This could be applied to almost anyone:  are you a startup person, or a corporate power-struggle person?  There are skill sets suited to both, and reasons to be proud of both, but they don’t overlap at all.  The kind of skills that make someone successful in their own business don’t make someone successful in a large corporation – they can actually hurt.  And a corporate employee might be lost as a small business owner.

I don’t like Apple, to be honest, but I admire Steve Jobs:  not as a “visionary” but as  businessman and a marketer.  He figured out how to sell a product and sell it well.  He was not a visionary like Ted Hoff or Steve Wozniak, who actually INVENTED personal computers.  He was a master marketer.   But marketing is a large part of making a product come alive, and how companies succeed.  Understanding why Steve Jobs wouldn’t hire Steve Jobs is a good way to understand how companies transcend the marketplace and become exceptional.  Companies don’t hire entrepreneurs or innovators:  they hire good workers.

Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by Annie Bannanie 06

how I became Russian

Patrick, of Cash Money Life fame long ago tagged me to give my best financial move in college.  I posted this long ago, but it’s worth reposting.  How I came to become a Russophile is an interesting story – I think.

Steve at the Hermitage in St Petersburg

(me, in St. Petersburg, circa 1997)

Learning an “exotic” foreign language, and how it changed my life.

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. Even more:  I have been interested in Russian long before I “knew” Russian or Russia.  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.  Pat, pat, pat on the back, Steve.  Score one for geeky computer boy.  The US Army liked my program, gave me a commendation and took the code.  What happened with it after that, I dunno.

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.  I loved it.  I had a great teacher, and I spent a summer semester in Germany as an exchange student.  To this day I speak, read and understand German quite well.

But I always liked foreign languages in general. 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 the University of Mississippi, where I went to school (yes, we had Japanese courses in Mississippi) – 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 – we were in the midst of the cold war and that was amazing) 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?