Improving Your Political Experience (or: My Thoughts on the First 2016 Presidential Debate)

During and after the first presidential debate on Monday, I was keeping an eye on my Facebook feed to see what folks were talking about. While many people expressed disappointment with the debate overall, what I saw of my friends’ and acquaintances’ reactions was as frustrating to me as the debate itself. And that’s saying something.

With this post, I’m not going to talk about policies or positions or beliefs. I’m not going to talk about candidates or parties. I’m not going to talk about fact checking or point-counterpoint or who “won” the debate. I’m going to talk about how we the people engage in our political discourse. And, spoiler alert, I’m going to claim that the reason we get crappy politicians is that we the people are really crappy at approaching this important subject in a decent and appropriate way.

clinton-vs-trump-1

To lay a little groundwork, I want to recall one of the most celebrated and longstanding works of the 20th century, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I am strongly of the opinion that this should be required reading for kids, but in lieu of having the level of influence to make that happen, all I can do is proselytize for it in my own space. You can view a high-level synopsis here, read a PDF of the entire thing here, or purchase your own copy on Amazon here.

Within a highly personal and emotional topical framework like politics, we can tend to revert to less effective ways of communicating with each other – ways that, rather than helping build our case and contributing to constructive discourse, serve only to further divide, polarize, and entrench not only ourselves, but those with whom we disagree.

So, while I can’t change the candidates we have now, what I can hope to change is how we all approach the subject. If we keep these timeless principles in mind, we’ll be more productive when we find ourselves in these vital types of debate, and maybe, over the long term, help make the entire process more fruitful and engaging for everyone.

To do this, I want to ask everyone reading this a few things. I’ve added some extra thoughts under each, but I think we could gain a lot if we did nothing else besides honestly asking ourselves a handful of introspective questions.


Question 1: If you already had your vote decided, why did you watch the debate?

After the debate concluded, the steady trickle of updates turned into a deluge of conclusive thoughts and comments. The number one, most immediately obvious thing I noticed as I read through people’s posts was this: not a single person changed their mind at all. People who have been posting for one candidate continued to do so. If you liked Candidate A going in, you thought they won and that Candidate B looked like a fool. You thought your choice made good points and the other choice was wrong or flat-out lying.

This is a complete departure from reality. Both candidates on the stage dodged questions. Both candidates said things that contradict positions they’ve previously held or statements they’ve previously made. Both candidates had valid points and witty remarks. I would guess that no one would agree 100% with either candidate if you presented every argument or statement so that you couldn’t identify who made it. Moreover, the candidates have changed their positions so many times over the years that on another day or in another year, they could be running for the opposing party. Some of that is expected with growth and cultural tides, and some of it is quite shocking and represents a philosophical reversal. Both sides. Your candidate is not immune.

What did we gain by watching the debate? Celebrating the inevitable victory of our candidate and the simultaneous evisceration of our “enemy”? Most people expressed frustration, if not regarding the debate as a whole, regarding the disgusting “other” candidate who is absolutely unconscionable to vote for (funny that half say the same about A as the other half say about B). I’m convinced from what I’ve seen that we would vote the Devil himself into office. After all, “At least he’s not ________!”

Look, if you expect to gain something from watching the debate – clarity on a candidate’s viewpoints or policy proposals, a decision on who to vote for, greater understanding of a topic you lack knowledge in – then by all means, that’s what it’s there for. It’s not a competition, and if it is, it’s the worst competition ever. If you wanted to cheer for something fleeting and irrelevant, you’d have been better off watching the football game. At least at the end you would have a score to determine who won instead of just saying that your team won and fans of the other team saying they did.

The point is, we’re not open. We perceive everything the other candidate says as poison because of who’s saying it. We rarely assess, objectively, the strengths and truths of the opposing candidate and the weaknesses and lies of ours (and regardless of who you like, there are plenty). It’s an insipid application of a common cognitive bias known as the Halo Effect (or Horns Effect for negative perceptions). We as individuals and as a country need to be aware of this and overcome it if we ever expect our political position to improve.

From Carnegie:

  • Win people to your way of thinking #8: Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
  • Win people to your way of thinking #9: Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.

Question 2: Have you ever been convinced to change your position through someone criticizing you? Have you ever changed someone’s position on an issue by being antagonistic?

Ostensibly, the reason we engage in political discussion is to solidify our positions and grow their adherents. We want more people to believe the same thing we do, because we value our opinions and beliefs. And that’s fine.

But let’s talk about effective communication. Name a time when you had a heated, emotional argument with someone, and one of the parties came out with a changed opinion. I’m going to venture to guess that you can’t. Once it becomes aggressive, we become defensive, and instead of thinking about the subject openly, we begin merely thinking of the merits of our existing position and the flaws of theirs. This is the root of entrenchment. This is the root of polarization. Often, when we think we’re doing ourselves a favor by shredding apart someone else’s position, all we’re doing is tearing up the bridge of influence that connects us with them.

Carnegie’s entire section on this is supremely quotable, but here’s a few of the best lines:

Nine times out of ten, an argument ends with each of the contestants more firmly convinced than ever that he is absolutely right. You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it. Why? Well, suppose you triumph over the other man and shoot his argument full of holes and prove that he is non compos mentis. Then what? You will feel fine. But what about him? You have made him feel inferior. You have hurt his pride. He will resent your triumph. And – ‘A man convinced against his will Is of the same opinion still.’

As wise old Ben Franklin used to say: ‘If you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a victory sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent’s good will.’ So figure it out for yourself. Which would you rather have, an academic, theatrical victory or a person’s good will? You can seldom have both.

Sound familiar? Wonder why American politics is worse than it’s ever been? The internet has allowed for global, seamless, supercharged communication. Unfortunately, the kind of communication it’s supercharging doesn’t seem to be working in this area. That’s not the fault of the medium, it’s the fault of the users. If we present ideas in reasonable and effective ways, we can have more influence than ever before. Or we can continue to draw deeper lines in the sand with our vitriol and bile.

  • Win people to your way of thinking #1: The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
  • Win people to your way of thinking #4: Begin in a friendly way.

Question 3: Has making fun of someone else ever exerted positive influence?

The memes. Seriously. Stop it. These are the epitome of ineffective communication (counter-effective, in fact).

If our political position can be represented by a cartoon, we’re not giving the subject the gravitas it deserves. More to the point, if we’re under the impression that people will be swayed from their positions by something flippant and mocking, we are so dead wrong.

This is one area where the design of websites and social media platforms actively works against us. Images and video are eye-catching when scrolling, and therefore tend to promote active viewing, which leads to better opportunities for engagement. And it’s reinforced when likes, shares, comments, retweets, etc., are used – consciously or not – as a barometer for the success of a post. It’s in Facebook’s best interests to prioritize things that encourage engagement with its platform, but we have got to stop expecting anything but polarization from applying this to important subjects across the spectrum.

Let’s think about our interactions with people throughout our lives. In moments where we felt we had the most influence, were we dismissive, glib, and insolent, or were we respectful, caring, involved, and open?

Has sarcasm ever worked? Has mockery ever worked? Has abrasiveness ever worked? Has reducing others’ opinions to nothing ever worked?

It’s amazing that we teach our children to not be bullies, but we turn into exactly that when politics comes up, and particularly online. It used to be limited to the anonymous comments sections, but increasingly, it’s leaking into regular channels. I’m appalled by the things that people now say online even when they’re not behind the veil of anonymity. And even if we don’t see the impact our posts have on others, we can silently lose influence and respect.

Making a coherent, impactful argument can take time, effort, and thought. But people are complex. Government is complex. If we want to be serious about improving our relationships and our country, we need to grant these areas a little more weight and caution.

From Carnegie:

  • Fundamental techniques in handling people #1: Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.
  • Win people to your way of thinking #2: Show respect for the other person’s opinions.

Question 4: Do you dismiss all voices that don’t agree with you?

One final criticism of the power of the internet and how it’s changed our political atmosphere: confirmation bias is, in my estimation, now the easiest and most dangerous cognitive bias in our country.

We can literally block any voices that don’t agree with us. We can hole up inside our own silo communities, populated exclusively with people who agree with us, and never have to hear anything else. After 4 years of this, an election will pop up, we’ll emerge from our caves, grunting our mottos and clubbing our enemies with memes and soundbites, then go back to intellectual hibernation until the next argument arises.

Let me be clear: removing toxic influences is a good thing. Removing differing opinions is not. Separating these takes practice, wisdom, and discernment.

If you don’t interact with anyone who disagrees with you, it’s in your best interest to make some new friends. We all need to grow, whether that’s by changing our beliefs or simply testing them in reasonable discourse against alternate viewpoints.

We need to listen to other people and seek to understand and integrate them, not defeat them. Two of the main suggestions from another fantastic book, Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, are:

  • Habit #4: Think Win/Win
  • Habit #5: Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood

We need to remember that everybody wants the same things. We all need food, water, shelter, and clothing. We all need physical and emotional security. We all need love and belonging. We all need esteem and self-actualization. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs isn’t broken into “Republican” and “Democrat” or “liberal” and “conservative” categories. We may have different ideas on the structure and materials, but we’re all building the same pyramid of things we need to live a happy, fulfilled life.

Our country, our government, our technology, our medicine… all of these were born by creative destruction. We had to divorce ourselves from the status quo to progress and grow. We had to say that what exists – whether I’m vested in it or opposed to it – isn’t good enough. We can do better. Let’s create together.

There are certainly hills that we should be willing to die on. But if we’ve assigned that level of criticality to each and every one of our political positions, we’re far too closed off. We need to open the dialog back up. It starts with each individual, and it scales up to nations. That’s how it always has been, and always will be.


Tips for Improving

In addition to some hopefully thought-provoking questions, I wanted to include a few easy tips to improve both your influence and your interaction with political debate. None of us is perfect at this, so even if you already actively try to implement these, let them serve as a reminder now as we enter the most heated part of the election cycle.

Tip 1: Ask more questions. Make fewer statements.

Asking good questions is incredibly tough, but it has massive benefits. Sometimes, questions clarify a position and remove disagreement before an argument begins. Sometimes, questions turn up the reason for a belief, which can be compelling or at least contextualizing – you may still disagree, but you understand. And often, a good, critical question is more penetrating and powerful than making a bold statement.

  • How to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment #4: Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.

Tip 2: Pull the thread.

Find out why people – including yourself – believe the way they do. Can you build up your argument from universal axioms, or is it “Just the way it should be”? Often, even if you still disagree on the how we achieve our objectives, you can find common ground in what we’re trying to accomplish. It can often take the edge off, even if a disagreement remains. That’s not only mature, it’s healthy for our shared growth and progress.

  • Ways to make people like you #4: Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  • Win people to your way of thinking #6: Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.

Tip 3: Be Objective.

Don’t be dismissive of valid criticisms and counterpoints. Be open to saying, “What if this critique is valid?” and following that thought through. Most of us recognize that we’re not perfect, that we have growth potential. And yet, we often become so attached to an idea, belief, or political candidate that we become immune to facts that don’t support them. Be willing to be wrong. Poke at your beliefs from every angle. If it turns out you were right, you’ll still reap the rewards of having an impeccable defense for it – after all, if you thought of every way you could be wrong and overcame it, you’ll likely be able to defend against the best intrusions. And if you were wrong and you adjust your perspective, then you now have something that better resists criticism. You’ve made your beliefs better. That’s growth.

  • Win people to your way of thinking #3: If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

Tip 4: Go deeper.

Stop flattening people out and judging them by one aspect – in this case, who they’re supporting. There are people I love and respect supporting and voting for each candidate. Saying someone is dumb because they’re voting for A is no better than saying they’re a bad person because of their skin color. Honestly, it’s dangerous to compress three dimensional people into 1D. Stop assigning simple identifiers and segmenting people off based on a handful of – or single – metric. It takes effort and time to see people for the rich, complex blend of upbringings and beliefs that they are, but it’s worth it, not only for the personal rewards, but in that it’s the only way to effectively exhibit influence.

  • Ways to make people like you #1: Become genuinely interested in other people.

This has been extremely long, but I wanted to put my thoughts out there, in what I hope is a positive and constructive manner. I hope you’ve found it useful and sensible, in an environment that is often fraught with frustration and anger. We can all improve in these ways if we remember that we’re not dealing with pixels online, but real people… each one of which is the main character in their own life story.

Here’s hoping that this can improve your interactions in politics and beyond.

Best wishes.

6 Reasons Why Voting Third Party Isn’t a Waste

In an election cycle where the two major American political parties have nominated the most unlikeable candidates in history, interest in 3rd party alternatives is edging higher. While polls show third party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein potentially having a very real impact in the election, talk about why voting 3rd party is a waste has never been more prevalent.

As someone who most strongly aligns with the policies of a 3rd party candidate, and strongly detests what both the Republican and Democratic parties have respectively become, I feel part of my due engagement in the political process is sharing my justifications for voting outside the lines. I hope you’ll find these reasons compelling and valid if you too are tired of the candidates churned out by corrupt, democracy-sidestepping major parties.

Reason 1: Your vote is already wasted

Thanks to the electoral college, your vote will go to whoever wins your state, regardless of the ratio. A nearly 50/50 race is exactly the same as a landslide. If we extend the “wasted vote” philosophy to its natural end, everyone might as well just vote for whichever party won the 2012 cycle in their state. You wouldn’t want to waste a Democrat vote when your state is heavily Republican, right? The exact same logic applies to 3rd party candidates around the nation.

Reason 2: No vote is wasted

On the flip side of #1, where you consider essentially every non-winning vote “wasted,” we have this reasoning – no vote is ever wasted. Even if your vote ends up changing nothing more than the margin of victory, a strong showing from other candidates sends a message that your vote isn’t free, that you can’t be ignored or violated, and that if candidates don’t consider issues vital to you, they can lose. It may not affect things now, but over time, enough people voting for what they believe in instead of voting “against the greater evil” can make a real difference. The strength of outsider campaigns in the current cycle is proof of this. Don’t talk yourself out of your beliefs because of the votes of other people. As kids we’re told not to kowtow to peer pressure, but we seem to forget that at the ballot box.

Reason 3: Your vote matters more if you vote 3rd party

This one is a simple matter of math. Casting the 101st vote for a smaller candidate makes a much larger incremental difference than casting the 1,000,001st vote for someone with major support. Small candidates receiving more votes is a movement that you can be a part of. Major party candidates receiving more votes is the status quo. If you’re happy with the status quo, by all means, cast your vote to maintain it. If you’re sick of it, your vote goes farther with a 3rd party than it would “contesting” the election with the other big party.

Reason 4: You don’t control outcomes, only yourself

It’s a bit of a more personal argument, but it’s an important one for me. I try to live my life by principle, and one that’s seen a lot of mileage with me has been to only worry about things that you can directly control. You could spend all your time worrying about meteors striking the earth, supervolcanoes erupting, nuclear war breaking out… but your worry doesn’t change what happens, so why do it? Preparation for some unexpected but realistic outcomes is wise, but living in constant fear of what may or may not happen, and what you can’t change anyway, is emotionally crippling. The same philosophy applies to elections. I’m not in control of who gets elected. No voting scheme where I support the lesser evil is going to really impact the outcome – but it does impact me. You owe it to yourself, and ultimately your nation, to vote with your conscience, according to your values and ideals, and not take your cues from what’s happening externally. A vote for a candidate or a cause you believe in is far less a waste than a vote that violates your beliefs.

Reason 5: If not you, then who? If not now, then when?

It’s widely acknowledged that people are absolutely sick of the current direction of politics. Candidate approval is at an all-time low. Divisiveness and entrenchment are at all-time highs. How long will we stand for it? If we keep voting in spite of what we believe, we’ll get more of what we’ve been getting. We’ll continue to perpetuate the system that we all hate. It’s on all of us to leverage our votes for what we want, and not just what we’re offered from on high from the self-interested major parties. I find it enlightening (and sickening) that both major parties this election cycle made intentional efforts to sabotage the will of the people. Republicans openly discussed strategies for bypassing Trump’s lead in the primaries, contesting the convention, and handing the nomination to someone chosen solely by the Republican elites and not at all by the people. Democrats secretly worked behind closed doors to quash the Bernie Sanders threat to their preferred candidate Clinton, wielding insider superdelegates like a weapon that could freely bypass the will of the people. Pathetic. Pathetic to both of them. Unless you, every one of you, uses your vote, your voice, to stand up and say we’ve had enough, then nothing will change.

Reason 6: Would you rather give up your heart, your brain, or just your vote?

The number of people I’ve spoken to and read opinions from who find the prospect of either major 2016 candidate to be completely deplorable is astounding. Many people find both Clinton’s corruption and Trump’s demagoguery unconscionable, and yet are willing to side with the one they find to be less disgusting by any tiny, infinitesimal margin they can imagine. If you truly cannot cope with the ideals, policies, or messages of these two candidates, then you owe it to yourself to sacrifice your vote to preserve your conscience. If your intellect, gut feel, study, intuition, or any other important barometer tells you that both major parties are wicked, please don’t give up those important internal markers just to feel like you made a feeble stand against the tides. Keep your beliefs, keep your heart, keep your mind, and toss your vote to whomever you believe to be best equipped to lead our nation.


Before signing off, I want to say a few more things very quickly. First, all of these arguments are intended for the many people who want to vote for someone else, but feel obliged by whatever force to vote for a major party candidate that they don’t align with. If you’re a huge fan of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, by all means, vote alongside your ideals. You owe it to yourself to vote your beliefs, just as someone who wants to vote for an alternative candidate owes it to themselves.

Second, not all of these reasons are intended to build a cohesive, syllogistic case for voting 3rd party. Some of them even appear to be conflicting. My goal isn’t to build an impenetrable argument for voting 3rd party, only to give plenty of potential reasons to identify with, and perhaps repeat in defense of your vote if someone asks why you would vote 3rd party (as if their opinion should drive your vote anyhow). I don’t need you to agree with all six of my points. Just one is enough if it resonates with you.

And finally, keep in context how little the President really matters. It’s an important position, yes. It matters, yes. But it’s a tiny sliver of impact on your own life, and a tiny sliver that you have no practical control of anyway. As much as you owe it to yourself to vote with your conscience, you owe it to yourself to not let other people control you, whether it’s your friend, neighbor, or the President of the United States. If you’re a person of faith, you believe that God has control over our destinies, regardless of who is currently Emperor Caesar King Fuhrer Mayor Judge Ruler President. And if you’re not, you should know that there are still checks and balances in our governmental system, and the President, while influential, isn’t King Under the Mountain, with full and uncontested executive power. Whoever wins, it probably won’t affect you very much. Live your life. Don’t worry. Be happy.

If you want to learn more about some of the influential third party candidates, you can check out Gary Johnson’s platform at johnsonweld.com, and Jill Stein’s platform at jill2016.com

Since finding it, I’ve been a huge fan of the site isidewith.com. On this site you’ll answer questions about your opinions on a number of political issues, and rate their importance to you. You can go as deep as you want or as shallow – answer as many or as few questions as you like. When you’re done, the site will compare your views against the candidates, and rank them for you according to your alignment. You can compare your answers to theirs and see where you align and differ. It’s a valuable and fun tool for getting a snapshot of where you stand with the remaining candidates. My results are below:

ISW

Myself, I’ll continue to proselytize for 3rd party voting, and will be casting my vote for an outsider candidate in the fall. I hope you’ll consider joining me.

The Idiot’s Guide to Not Being Tricked by Statistics

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Mark Twain

Today’s world is powered by data. Companies like Google, Facebook, IBM, Amazon, and many more, thrive on collecting massive amounts of data from their users, then using that data to tailor a unique experience. Or, if you’re more conspiratorial, use it to manipulate customer psychology and destroy privacy.

Whatever your opinion on those things, so called “Big Data” is very real. And where there’s tons of data, there will be lots of statistics to try to make sense of it all.

Problem is, on Mark Twain’s scale of truth, statistics are just beyond “damned lies,” so it’s understandable if you have a tepid relationship with statistics. Add to it the avalanche of statistics hyped up on the news and the fact that lots of people who have taken statistics classes hated them (sorry, no stats on that), and you’ve got a platform for spreading misinformation and deceit to a wide audience. The political rhetoric of entire nations could be changed if people took a little more time to understand how to make sense of statistics.

I’m not sure if this post will do that, but it can sure change things for each of you reading it. Welcome to The Idiot’s Guide to Not Being Tricked by Statistics.

In this guide, I’ll give you four ways to get a clearer view of statistics, doing my best to provide plenty of examples along the way. Let’s get started.

Method 1: Invert the Statistic

A while ago (September 19, 2013), I posted the following on my Facebook:

When you see a negative statistic, immediately invert it. “1 in 5 Seniors can’t retire.” That means 80% can. “1 in 10 people don’t have jobs.” So 90% of people do. Negative headlines are poisonous and misleading. They exist to sow dissatisfaction, not to inform, improve, or enlighten. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.

I stand by those comments. Very, very often, you’ll find that statistics, even factual ones, are presented to be persuasive, not informative. That’s going to be a common theme in these methods for staying rational, so get used to it. Take the emotional edge off by muting the TV or navigating your web browser away from the article, invert the statistic, and see if it’s still worth being upset or negative about. Sometimes, that’s all you need. Sometimes, you’ll need to complement with one of the following methods. Read on.

Method 2: Convert Numbers to Percentages, and Vice Versa

This is a favorite of mine. In general, the rule is that in large systems (for instance, whole nations like the USA), raw numbers sound larger and percentages sound smaller. This is due to the fact that it’s very difficult to contextualize quantities and probabilities of a sufficient magnitude. A classic example (although probability, not statistic related) is the lottery. It’s very difficult to imagine the number three-hundred-and-fifty-million, so when the chances of winning are one in that many, we overestimate them because we can’t even process the enormity of those odds. Interesting fact, you can actually calculate the break-even value of a lottery ticket by taking the payout (tax reduced and in present value dollars), multiplying it by the odds, and comparing it to the cost of a ticket. Short form: it’s a bad idea.

In smaller systems it can go the other way (50% of our employees approve of the new media policy; turns out it’s the 5 managers out of 10 employees that promoted the policy). In any case, it’s best to always convert to get a clearer picture and develop context. Let’s look at a few examples.

One of my wife’s favorites is hype over pet food recalls and problems. Consider this headline from Fox News: Toxic jerky treats linked to more than 1,000 dog deaths. Sounds dire. Only it gets a little less convincing when, according to the AVMA, some 43,346,000 households own dogs, and at an average of 1.6 per household, there are around 69,353,600 puppy pets in the US. These 1,000 dogs that died, while certainly sad, represent .00144% of the registered dog population. If only 1% of dogs ever had these treats, it’s still only .144% of the dogs exposed to the treat that died – 693 had the treat and were fine before one died. When you hear “1,000 cute little puppies died due to the bad treats,” you get riled up. But it takes the edge off when you realize just how few that is in the scheme of things. There’s more to the story too, which we’ll revisit later.

Now let’s amp up the intensity and talk about something more fiery. According to the Pro Choice official website, “13,000 women each year have abortions because they have become pregnant as a result of rape or incest.” The site references a 2003 Guttmacher Institute study which can be found at this link. There’s no denying that rape and incest are always terrible, and no one should make light of them. But… are we making too much of the political rhetoric center around these admittedly horrible cases? Let’s contextualize by using the number-to-percent trick.

The exact same Guttmacher Institute study that Pro Choice referenced (in case anyone thinks I’m selecting sources with bias) shows the following table:

abortion_stats

Which tells a much different story. 1% of abortions are because of rape-induced pregnancy. Less than 0.5% are as a result of incest. While I’m in full agreement that these 1.0%-1.5% should have some sort of recourse, 1% isn’t even close to enough to drive the overall conversation to the extent that it does. This is a post about statistics and not my personal politics, but it seems we’re basing way more than a representative amount of the abortion conversation on these 1%. Especially when 74% or more are for essentially selfish reasons and could have been avoided by making good choices regarding sexual practices, including both contraception (there’s no reason not to use or enforce this with your partner) and abstinence (I chose to not have sex until my wedding night; believe it or not, hormones can be overcome with self-control).

Mini-rant aside, the point should be clear. Fox News (and every other media outlet in the world) is incentivized to make headlines more dramatic, because that’s what gets views, shares, subscriptions, whatever. Pro Choice is incentivized to make it look like a lot of pregnancies are terminated due to honest tragedies in order to drive the discussion towards the outliers which more strongly support their views instead of talking about the vast majority. We, as consumers of information, need to be able to contextualize how representative these stories are, in order to make intelligent, rational decisions, instead of being swept away in emotional appeal. Convert those numbers!

Method 3: Make Sure Any Comparison is “Apples to Apples”

Did you know that the average American has watched more television in their life than all of the founding fathers of the United States combined? You should learn from them, you lazy slacker.

A classic method of deceit is to take something that’s technically true, but not useful, and play it off as useful (or heck, even just as interesting). Consider the following “technically true” comparison from Business Insider, reposted on Reddit and everywhere else on the internet:

Taco Bell sold 100 million Doritos Locos tacos in their first 10 weeks of availability. It took McDonald’s 18 years to sell the same amount of burgers.

Sounds interesting, right?

Yeah, but it’s really not.

What’s missing from this is that when Taco Bell introduced the Doritos Locos taco in 2012, they had a massive, established infrastructure of over 6,000 restaurants spanning the United States and beyond. McDonald’s only had 102 restaurants by 1959, 4 years after Ray Kroc opened his first version of the store. I’m not sure where that infographic got its statistics on McDonald’s, but the comparison is clearly flawed. The delusion takes hold because we think of McDonald’s in current day context, a massive global company with insane distribution abilities, but the statistic is against a much different, much smaller McDonald’s. It’s taking early, infancy-stage McDonald’s against full-maturity Taco Bell. It’s like asking who would win between Muhammad Ali in his prime and Mike Tyson at age 4.

Plenty of these kinds of things exist. The effects of time and cultural shifts are extremely difficult to quantify, but it doesn’t mean no effort should be made to do so. But we can’t control the media that’s produced, only our interaction with it. Check those stats to make sure they’re actually illustrating a viable comparison.

Method 4: Context, Context, Context!

I saved this for last because it’s really all-encompassing. Most of the others could have been put under this heading, but deserved their own space. To finish off, here are a bunch of quick things to consider when viewing statistics.

Sources

Misinformation is all over. It’s not perfect, but you can at least see if the sources are reasonable as a sanity check. Is it from the CDC? Does it reference a university study from a school that you’ve actually heard of? Or is it from some dude’s blog? A celebrity’s Twitter? This requires reading more than just the headline, and sometimes, even more than the article itself… which I know is super scary and not all that common. But be uncommon. It won’t catch all the garbage, but it’ll catch enough to be worth doing.

Time scales

When numbers are presented, see if they’re comparing things over time, or could somehow be distorted by time. The McDonald’s vs. Taco Bell statistic is a good example of this. Recalling the 1,000 dog deaths from the “toxic jerky,” the article says that “since 2007” there have been 5,000 complaints regarding health issues possibly stemming from consumption of the treats. While it doesn’t specify if the 1,000 deaths were over that same time scale, it seems fairly likely – and let’s consider what that would mean if so. Instead of .144% of the dogs that ate the treat dying, it would be 1/6 that rate, assuming an even distribution of the deaths and a reasonably constant dog ownership rate in the nation. In that case, 4,166 dogs could have eaten the treats before even one died… a rate of .024%; less than a quarter of a tenth of a single percent. They say that time changes everything, well it’s true of statistics too, so be watchful.

Isolated case

Hey, crazy things do happen. While this is more about not being deceived by media in general, and is often avoided by the “convert number to percent” tip, it’s important to recognize when something is just an absurdity. Deaths from shark attacks are the classic example. Not to make light of those few who have been killed by sharks, but being killed by a shark is a pretty sexy, and rare, way to go. Media reports what’s sensational because that’s what readers find interesting. Shark attacks and plane crashes are big, emotional, crazy events, but there’s just no reason to be deceived by hype into thinking that it’s more probable than it is.

External factors

This is another huge point. Sometimes, within certain constraints, unlikely events are more likely to happen. Let’s remember our dog treats one last time (I promise). The statistic in the article doesn’t shed (ha) any light on some pieces of vital information that could skew the interpretation of the results. How old were the dogs that died after eating the treats? Were they in otherwise good health? Were they fed a balanced diet, including, on rare occasion, the indicted jerky treats, or were they fed the treats as food instead of as an irregular snack? Not to be hypocritical, but some of the top comments on the article (admittedly rarely a good source of information) were echoing the sentiment of how bad these treats were by saying that their 10+ year old dogs were being affected by them. Well geez, the average life expectancy of a dog is 10-13 years anyway.

A well-presented statistic leaves very little reasonable doubt that something critical in understanding it was missed. If you have a few minutes when you’re done with this post, head over to this podcast on the Freakonomics website and listen from around 16:11-21:31. Pay close attention to how the Freakonomics host grills the interviewee on his methodology for his study and how he arrived at his conclusion. This is solid journalism. It asks questions and lets an intelligent consumer decide whether or not to agree with the conclusion.

Fact check

Some things are just bold-faced lies! Again straying outside of statistics for just a moment, I think about the article that went viral on Facebook in 2013 about how the Pope said that “all religions are true,” “religious truth evolves and changes,” “Satan himself is a metaphor or a personification,” and much, much more. Apparently nobody that shared this thought it was a bit radical and checked the sources, because the blog that posted it has a disclaimer page that says right at the top “The original content on this blog is largely satirical.” I had a friend ready to change his beliefs because of what this article had said. A bit naïve, perhaps, but how much of what we read influences, subtly or overtly, what we believe? How much of what we hear influences how we vote, which has a very real impact on the direction of the nation? Coincidentally, here’s an article fact checking the 2012 presidential debate in Denver. You’ll notice there are quite a few ratings of half true, mostly false, and false. Surprisingly, not even our nation’s top leaders are above leveraging tricky statistics.

Know trends

Frankly, I had to put this in because the TED talk embedded below was just so entertaining and powerful to me. When you have a broad spectrum of knowledge, it’s much easier to contextualize things related to that knowledge. You can’t know everything about every topic, but thankfully, we have a great ability to synthesize and puzzle out predictions of things based on what we know of other things. They’re not always right, but again, they’re a sanity check that helps us from constantly being blown around in the wind when the next “convincing study” comes out.

The TED talk below is from Hans and Ola Rosling, and is talking about global trends regarding poverty, education, and death from natural disasters, among other things. Give it a listen after you finish this post.

The real data, not the sensationalized stories you see on your homepage or on the news, paints a different picture.

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In conclusion, let me add that in no way am I trying to convince you to be unmoved by things that happen in the world around us. Every person affected by involuntary unemployment is worth thinking about. Dogs having health issues that can be linked to a particular brand or type of treats is worth considering and taking action on. Rape is awful, and resulting conceptions are horrible situations that deserve an answer. Taco Bell really does sell a whole lot of Doritos Locos tacos, and we should all be blown away at the amount of faux-cheese they’re pushing.

The point is to become more informed, and in particular, more rational about what’s presented to you. There’s a lot of noise produced in today’s world, but little communication of reality through a sane and accurate representation. I hope these little tips and examples have been helpful and entertaining, and will lead to you being a little wiser, a little more positive, and far less often tricked by statistics!

Soul Mates Don’t Exist

If you’re one of the many men or women out there waiting for your Prince Charming or Fair Maiden, I’ve got bad news for you. They don’t exist.

At least, not in the sense of “one perfect person destined to be your lifelong, trouble-free partner.” “Happily ever after” is much easier to say than it is to accomplish.

If you’re reading this blog, I believe you’re a reasonable, grounded person. You probably acknowledge that no relationship, whether marriage, dating, friendship, or family, is without its struggles, arguments, and disagreements. I won’t belabor that. You already know that relationships require investment and are always susceptible to damage or ruin. Trust is an egg; easy to break, really hard to put back together.

But I do think that even very intelligent, emotionally mature people can get distracted by the idea that “the one” is out there, just waiting to be unearthed like a rare gem. In fact, we tend to think that these “silver bullets” exist in a lot of areas of our lives. Maybe this diet is the one that will finally get me healthy. Maybe this job is the one that will be fulfilling as well as profitable. Maybe this person will be the one that I can love and cherish with ease for the remainder of my days.

This notion, this pervasive belief that courses through our cultural veins, is not surprising. Consider the following reasons why this infectious lie of chance solutions to our biggest personal issues persists:

  • It’s external. It allows us to blame our environment for our failures, rather than our own action or inaction. “The job market is bad,” “the diet plan was debunked,” and “they just weren’t the one for me,” are all statements that reflect this environmental blame for a lack of personal success.
  • It’s romantic. Not in the sense of “kissy kissy” romantic. Affection, intrigue, longing, those are all fine and well. When I criticize the notion for being “romantic,” I mean definition number two: “suggestive of an idealized view of reality.” This applies to all of our examples. An ideal world is of course desireable. It would be wonderful if the best jobs, perfect health, and wonderful partners would fall from the sky into our laps. But that’s just not how it is.
  • It’s popularized. Both fiction and non-fiction media flog us with dreamy stories of perfect couples that magically fall in love. The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t translate into the real world. The ridiculous turnover rate of celebrity marriages is why the end credits roll on romcoms after the “perfect” couple realizes they’re soul mates and get together. Then, because we’re relationally sadistic in our culture, we derive pleasure from gossiping about the breakup too. Drama at the beginning and at the end of a relationship sells two sets of magazines, but it won’t make you happy in your life.

There’s little I can do to dissuade you from being influenced by #3 (popularity) other than to tell you to stop reading and watching that crap. It’s part of our culture and I’m not here to start a revolution, just to help you live a better life. The only way I can address #2 is to tell you that if you want to daydream, go ahead, but if you want to actually make things happen, whether getting a better job, getting fit, or getting into a healthy, long-term relationship, you’ll be best served by shattering your idealized perception of the world and adopting a more realistic view. If it’s any consolation, even if the reality is more difficult, it’s much more fun and fulfilling.

But really, it all comes down to #1 (externality), and that much I can definitely attempt to persuade you to intellectually abandon. Not long ago, I posted the following statistic from Richard Koch’s book The 80-20 Principle, which might just change the way you think about the idea of externally destined “soul mates”:

20 percent of those who marry comprise 80 percent of the divorce statistics (those who consistently remarry and redivorce distort the statistics and give a lopsidedly pessimistic impression of the extent of marital fidelity).

Moreover, CDC vital statistics data paints a picture even easier to understand:

  • 41 percent of first marriages end in divorce.
  • 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce.
  • 73 percent of third marriages end in divorce.

It seems clear from long-running statistics that the answer is not, as Journey said, “paying anything to roll the dice… just one more time.” When it comes to the notion that the person you picked was the problem, they just “weren’t your soul mate,” it is time to stop believin’. Soul mates don’t exist. There’s another answer.

Been pretty heavy so far, huh? Let’s talk about the real solution.

What inspired this post was a conversation with my wife. We’ve been married 3 years and have been a couple for 8. We’ve had many discussions on the subject, and we both agree on the following: we could have made it work with someone else.

Sound terrible? Maybe, but I think it’s just realistic. I love my wife desparately, more than I ever have. Each year we spend together I fall for her more and more. Every experience, every laugh, every argument, helps us know each other, and ourselves, better and better. I’ll be committed to her and her alone until death pries us apart.

And yet, the reason for this passionate commitment isn’t magical romantic butterflies or some fate that underpins the universe. It was a choice to make a long-term commitment and continual investment in her and our relationship together. We’ve been making little deposits in our relationship for over a decade. For many years, we made deposits of friendship and familiarity before there was ever a “relationship” (although at least on my end there was always attraction). It was these active investments that allowed us to have a meaningful romantic partnership.

Just as importantly as investments in our relationship were the investments we made in ourselves. The best couple isn’t made of up two complementary puzzle pieces that aren’t whole without the other. The best couple is made up of two independent, self-sustaining people who would be just fine without the other, but can be great with the love and support they receive from their spouse.

Emotional maturity. Spiritual solidity. Financial literacy. Physical fitness. These are all things that you should do for you before you even consider pairing up with someone else for the long haul. You owe it to yourself, much less your future partner, to be a whole person on your own, without them to “complete” you. That’s placing an undue burden on anyone, even a dedicated husband or wife.

If soul mates don’t exist, you are responsible for making yourself an attractive candidate, for going out and meeting people, and for being insightful and wise enough to choose to invest in someone worth investing in. Only when you acknowledge that you own the problem can you begin to create the solution.

A Retirement Strategy 25x as Effective as Investing

No matter how old you are, you should be developing a strategy for saving and investing for retirement. The more distant and far away it seems, the greater your opportunity; the single most vital factor in investing is time.

Still, investing can seem mysterious and nervewracking to many people, so you might not get the right kind of start or you might delay your start. The strategy I’m about to give you here is not a reprieve from investing, but it will make your investments go a whole lot further, taking some of the stress away and maybe helping you enjoy the journey a bit more along the way.

Shall we?

For an easy but somewhat more precise approach to figuring your nest egg (the amount you’ll need for retirement), Kitces suggests multiplying your estimated preretirement living expenses by 25.

-Jane Bennett Clark, What’s Your Retirement Number?

This is one of the easiest and most conventional formulas for calculating how much you need in retirement. Either calculate your annual expenses and multiply by 25, or use the “4% Rule” where you adjust your target retirement number until 4% of it is enough to live on. Mathematically these are the same thing (multiplying by 25 is the same as dividing by .04). So you need to save, invest, or otherwise accumulate $25 for every $1 you spend on an annual basis.

*ahem*

Maybe you see where this is going.

For every dollar you squeeze out of your budget, every frivolous expense that can be eliminated, you save your future self twenty-five times that amount. If you can stomach the notion that an $8 streaming service like Netflix and $30 internet package is a reasonable substitute for $60 of cable service and $20 of internet, you’ve saved yourself $500 a year.

“Yeah, so what, we’ve all heard crap like that before, Travis. Spend less, yadda yadda.”

Maybe so. But it’s a little more staggering when you think that your “measly” $500/yr saving translates into $12,500 that you no longer have to fret over accumulating for retirement.

Oh.

This puts all those silly things like brewing your own coffee in the morning in a whole new light. $5 a day seems like nothing. $1,250 a year seems a little more substantial. But knocking $31,250 off your retirement account needs? That homemade coffee starts to taste a little better.

So far we’ve talked small (like $30k is small, right?), but now let’s go a little bigger. In my mind, automobiles are probably the biggest killer of retirement strategies for the average, middle-income person. Heck, it’s probably even worse for upper-middle class income earners who buy nice cars to pretend they’re wealthy, but that’s another topic for another day.

Let’s say instead of getting into the cycle of $250/month car payments, you decide to save up and pay cash for your cars. Sans payments, even moderate ones, you’re saving $3,000 per year, knocking $75,000 off of your retirement needs. And what does it cost you? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. You can still drive safe, efficient, attractive automobiles, albeit a few years older maybe, and shave tons off of your spending. And that’s not even considering the incidentals like taxes and insurance, never mind the fact that a $250/month payment doesn’t exactly get you in a brand new Benz.

And get this: money you’re not spending is money that can be invested or saved. It’s a double whammy. I could’ve titled this article “A Retirement Strategy 50x as Effective as Investing.” But 25x is shocking enough. I’m in the business of helping you out, not giving you heart attacks.

Investing is necessary, and it’s also rewarding. But investing can feel like it takes a long time to pay off. Paying down costly debt and being proactive about managing your costs has an immediate benefit, and you’ll start seeing an effect on your personal bottom line now, as well as being really, really effective at making your retirement ambitions and plans that much more palatable.

Master Interpersonal Skills with One Sentence

“When we meet someone who’s humble, we’re attracted to them. When we meet someone who’s arrogant, we’re repulsed.” -Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church

Interpersonal relations in a nutshell.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Think of someone you really dislike.

Maybe it’s someone you’re forced to be around, say, in a work situation. Maybe it’s a family member who always rubs you the wrong way. Or perhaps it’s a customer that you absolutely cannot please, no matter how much effort you invest. Now, ask yourself, why is it that you don’t like them?

In my case, I work in proximity with an individual who, among many idiosyncrasies, only engages in conversation to disagree. This person never agrees, never aims for concensus, and never has neutral conversations. The result? Whenever they jump into the discussion, everyone else is looking for the fastest, most painless exit possible. How does that relate to the One Sentence to Rule them All? They never receive information, presumably because their opinion is always superior and the inputs of others are inferior and worthless. Even if that’s not the true thought process behind it, it’s certainly the way it appears in context.

How about the person you thought of that you have a hard time getting along with? Is it because his issues always trump the conversation? Is it because her opinion is always loudest and least relevant? Is it because he refuses to be part of a conversation and would rather give you a lecture? Whatever the specifics, does it lead back to a lack of humility? A lack of interest in the needs, desires, and lives of others? Does it stem from a sense that they think they’re better? Smarter? More interesting?

Now, flip the tables. Think of somebody you do like. What makes those interactions positive?

There are probably a few characteristics, no matter who you’re thinking of and no matter what context that relationship is in. There’s a reasonably even amount of give and take from both parties. She listens when you present your points and isn’t just waiting for her turn to talk. He presents his side as if it’s valid, but not the ultimate, sole truth that only a fool wouldn’t believe. Her responses to comments and questions are focused on what you said, not her counter-scenario.

Nearly every bit of relational advice points back to this one idea.

  • In See You at the Top, Zig Ziglar says you can get everything you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.
  • In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie presents dozens of time-tested principles for becoming skilled socially. Among them: become genuinely interested in other people; be a good listener and encourage others to talk about themselves; talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
  • James 3:13 says to show your wisdom by acting in humility.

You could fill the page with examples from different authors, different works, different philosophies, different historical periods, and they would all sing the same song. Likeable people are humble, interested in others. Difficult people act and speak solely in self-interest. Consider this excerpt from Dale Carnegie:

If you want to how to make people shun you and laugh at you behind your back and even despise you, here is the recipe: Never listen to anyone for long. Talk incessantly about yourself. If you have an idea while the other person is talking, don’t wait for him or her to finish: bust right in and interrupt in the middle of a sentence.

Do you know people like that? I do, unfortunately; and the astonishing part of it is that some of them are prominent.

Bores, that is all they are – bores intoxicated with their own egos, drunk with a sense of their own importance.

…if you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments.

Remind you of anyone you know? Probably so. But more importantly, is it something that could be said of you? We’re all about honest introspection around here.

There are several practical ways to identify if you’re guilty of excessive self-interest and start to master interpersonal skills today:

  • Count the number of questions you ask versus the number of statements you make
  • Become aware of how many times you say “I” or “my” versus how often you use “you”
  • Focus on withholding negativity and speaking positively

You just might find the world to be a brighter place when you acknowledge the other people in it!

Do You Like Getting Angry?

I’ve never understood horror movies. Seriously, why would anybody watch something whose sole purpose is to scare you? For me, there are two outcomes to a horror movie:

  • It’s lame and boring, and you’ve wasted your time and money watching it just to scoff it off
  • It actually gets to you, and you spend the next week sleeping with one eye open, scared of any dark corners of your house

…both of which are tremendously unattractive to me. So no Mississippi Flamethrower Carnage for me.

As a casual student and observer of human psychology, I’ve looked into this, and have entertained several theories on why people like scary stuff. My favorite is the idea that there’s a thrill associated with surviving a dangerous situation, and scary movies in particular are a way to give ourselves that primal thrill of survival within a framework that our conscious brain knows is safe. You get a little dose of the thrill of surviving the axe-wielding masked maniac without any chance of actually being axe-murdered. Just a theory.

There are other mysteries and “glitches,” if you will, in what people like to subject themselves to. For instance, the unsolved murder shows they air all the time right before the news. Why? Just… why? The only possible result from watching those is perpetual fear of something that has an incredibly low chance of happening. In the United States, you’re more than twice as likely to commit suicide as you are to be murdered, but if we subject ourselves regularly to programming that highlights these rarities, we begin to accept them as eminent reality.

One thing I’ve noticed that the internet brings out of people is the desire to align themselves with a cause and engage in debate in defense of that cause. That’s the euphemistic way of saying that the internet can make people jerks. Folks seem to like being angry, and more and more, popular sites are baiting people by posting inflammatory articles with overblown titles to prey on this odd preference.

To pick on someone from both “sides” of the political aisle, The Huffington Post and The Matt Walsh Blog are both serious offenders on this front. Here’s what happens: they post something with content, title, or both, that’s very polarizing. You see it, and you just HAVE to read it. Because it’s naturally divisive, you’ll likely agree strongly or disagree strongly. And, because all of us want to take part in social justice, we get caught up in comment wars, fueling continued traffic to the site.

In short, you’re being manipulated.

These types of authors don’t necessarily care if what they’re peddling is good for you. That’s none of their concern. What matters is getting traffic and attention, which increase their influence and their financial incentive. Whether or not it’s good for you is irrelevant. You’re giving them what they want just by playing their game.

There are two ways to take this. one is to manipulate and abuse it. People by and large aren’t going to stop clicking on clickbait articles, and if they do, the clickbait will adjust to what people have shifted to. If your interest is renown or financial gain, you might as well. As I thought about this post, I realized that some of my most read posts have been those that have been a timely perspective on a vogue divisive topic.

The other way to take this information is to use it to bolster your resistence to that same manipulation, and to refocus on engaging with content that is actually positive for your heart, soul, and mind.

In See You at the Top, one of the most foundational books in my own development, Zig Ziglar talks about this phenomenon from both sides. On the content consumption side, he talks about how you wouldn’t let somebody walk into your living room and dump a barrel of festering garbage on the floor, and yet, when we watch, read, and listen to garbage, that’s exactly what we’re letting happen to our mind and spirit. Not all content is good for you. Not all opinions are worth listening to. Just because you can eat candy all day doesn’t mean you should. Don’t make the same mistake with your thoughts.

On the content production side he offers something that has encouraged me for years as I’ve posted my thoughts and ideas for growth and betterment. Zig basically says that although feeding people “candy” can give you fame, or money, or renown temporarily, eventually people will get sick of it. The winners in the long term are those who speak with authority, honesty, integrity, and mutual interest, genuinely desiring to provide valuable and helpful content to their audience. I hope it’s true for me, but even if it’s not, please, look for those people. You’ll know them by a consistent message, low levels of hype, and high levels of impact on your life. The content will also be personally challenging. A blog can’t change your life unless you change your behavior as a result of the content. Look for the hard path, and you’ll grow.

Be very wary of the many out there who want to manipulate you. If they can get you curious or angry or scared, so much so that you visit their site and rage at the content, they’ve already won. Protect yourself. Don’t let someone dump garbage in your living room. Consume content with nutritional value for your mind and soul. Read, listen, learn, and grow!

Everybody is Realistic

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a respected colleague, who was replaying a conversation they had with a coworker. Their talk went something like this:

“If you’re always negative and keep letting the bad things from your past keep you down, you’ll never be able to make a better future for yourself.”

“I’m not negative, I’m just realistic.”

Now, the person telling me about this is fairly positive and leads a pretty successful life. We went on to discuss exactly what was meant by “realistic.”

See, it seems to me that lots of folks use “realistic” as a synonym for negative or pessimistic, and “positive” people are simply naiveinexperienced, or flat out ignorant of the bad things that happen to themselves and others.

Now it’s true that sometimes the reality is less positive than it’s perceived to be. We’ve all been on projects where someone sets an aggressive schedule for us that is in no way achievable. You know the feeling, and you’ve probably said something similar along the lines of “They can put whatever they want on the schedule, but they’ll be forced to square up with reality sooner or later.” So I understand that there’s positivity and then there’s putting on rose colored glasses.

But particularly when we’re thinking about our future, the scope of our entire career, and our long-term dreams and goals, there is a massive benefit to positivity. Positivity breeds proactivity. That sounds a little bit heady, so I’ll say it another way: if you think nothing you do will change the outcome of your future, you won’t do anything. And you can be darn well certain that if you don’t do anything about your future, it’s not going to be what you want it to be. This realization led me to the title of this post:

Everybody is realistic.

If you think you’re going to have a crappy future because of this and that — your upbringing was difficult, you’ve had disadvantages, bad things have happened to you — then yep, you’re realistic. You’re going to continue to allow yourself to be anchored down by all the baggage you carry.

On the flip side, you could see a bright and awesome future for yourself where you accomplish your goals and dreams, so you remain positive about your prospects and take action to make them a reality. And you’re also realistic.

Whatever you think you’re going to get, you’re probably right. So envision a better tomorrow and start getting after it today.

Not Everyone Should Go to College

One of my personal heroes is Dan Miller. He’s an author, speaker, and coach, similar to what I want to be when I grow up. He’s had a storied and interesting work history and is one of the most good-natured and creative people you’ll ever hear from. I love his 48 Days podcast and listen to it regularly.

On a recent podcast titled Do What Others Don’t Do (sound familiar?), Dan mentioned driving by a prestigious private school and seeing a sign out front proudly advertising that, once again, 100% of the graduating class was admitted to college.

And it broke his heart.

What he said he’d have liked to see was something more like this: 60% admitted to college, 10% going to trade school, 10% continuing a family business, 10% entrepreneurs, and 10% traveling the world to figure out their goals and passions.

See, it’s not about doing X to achieve Y. Instead of forcing any one path on our students and children, we should make them aware of all the opportunities and encourage and support them in their pursuit of the one that most resonates with their abilities and dreams. Some should go to college. Some should not.

Let me break off and talk to those who may soon or presently be making a decision about college.

When you’re graduating high school, you’re most likely going to hear that your life is over if you don’t go to college. You’re going to hear parents and teachers and coaches and even peers telling you that you’ll never amount to anything without a degree.

Well here’s some perspective for you. Once you graduate college, you’ll be inundated with editorials questioning the value of college, complaining about degrees that offer no value, listing statistics about the rising cost of education, and the tremendous weight of student loan debt that burdens so many grads. It’s a complete reversal. It’s like you were punked, only instead of harmless fun, Ashton Kutcher took 4 years of your life and $50,000 out of your pocket. Less funny.

If I can emphasize one thing to new and soon-to-be high school grads, or really anyone considering further formal education, it’s this:

You are not an adult after you finish college. You are an adult now. Making the decision to go to college and what to study is probably your first major decision as an adult. Understand the impact of this decision on the next decade or more of your life, and grant it all the focus and gravity that a decision of that magnitude deserves.

Don’t just pick a major. Don’t just pick a university. Make a life decision. That may involve college. It did for me. But I also don’t intend to work in an area related to my degree for my entire life, so balance that information into the picture. My wife on the other hand often wonders if she’d be further if she hadn’t gone to college where she did and studied what she did. So believe me, I’m close to the feeling.

Understand all the opportunities available to you. Make the tough call. It might be what society tells you is normal, or it might be something completely different. No matter what you choose to do, make it a learning experience, and no matter your decision, never stop learning. Your ability to learn is what will make college worthwhile if you go, and also what will make college unnecessary if you don’t attend. Your ability and desire to learn is your greatest career tool. You just need to pick where that learning is going to happen.

Education Never Closes Doors

I had an interesting chat this weekend with personal friend and Travis Lane Coaching advocate Allen Herbert. As we often do, we discussed higher education and the choices people make in that arena.

Allen was talking about a friend of his who was deciding on a major and neglected a very solid field of study from their consideration. The reason? They didn’t want to be locked into something related to that degree for an entire career.

Now, I’ve made some people pretty upset over the fact that I think some college degrees are a worthless sham. I still think that. Here’s a more elegantly stated reason why. It’s not just about the money, it’s about unlocking an opportunity that is only unlockable via a degree.

When I say you should pick a college major with good career prospects regardless of whether you love the field or not, I do not mean you shouldn’t pursue a career or further your education in areas that you love. By no means. But you should not spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars to obtain an education that is unnecessary to enter that field.

If you’re going to go to college, assess the return on investment. If $30,000+ and 4 years of full-time study unlocks a career for you that is in demand and pays at rates above the poverty line, then it’s probably a good investment. If you want to work doing something you love and the pay is low, do it… or better yet, get creative and find a way to maximize not only your job satisfaction but also your income. But don’t spend all that time and money for an education that doesn’t give you new and fruitful opportunities. That is a waste.

You see, furthering your education, whether via personal reading, attending seminars and workshops, networking,  formal classroom education, or anything else you can imagine, it never eliminates opportunities. It only creates them. If it’s an expensive or lengthy investment, it should open up high dollar opportunities.

And the best part of those kinds of investments it’s that they’re almost universally acknowledged, even outside the specific field of study it takes place in. I’ve got an old friend with an engineering degree who graduated and went straight into a Sales Management position at Pepsi. Though irrelevant at face value, his high investment degree was recognized more as a statement of personal character and intellect than as a technical indicator.

So you see, education really is about opportunity. Don’t be sold on the idea that you have to follow some linear progression from degree into relevant job field and get stuck in that industry forever.

Continually educate yourself, make wise decisions regarding costly formal education, and go find or create something that you love.