PSA: High Prestige Colleges Are a Waste

It’s summer, so many of you teenagers or parents of teenagers are probably considering all sorts of college options. It can definitely be a tough decision, and there are a lot of misconceptions and mistakes that can cost you a lot of money.

Misconception number one: prestige, name brand colleges give their students a leg up on life.

For a long while I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that top-end colleges don’t really provide students anything more than an impressive resume, and a recent podcast I listened to from NPR’s Planet Money cited some research to back my hunch. Charles Wheelan, in his book Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data, describes this experiment. Here’s his explanation on the NPR podcast:

[Two researchers] found a large group of students who had been accepted to a group of schools that they described as the highly selective schools, so it’s the Ivy league and a whole bunch of others you would recognize, and those same students had also been selected or admitted to a group of schools that were less traditionally competitive… less highly selective. So they were good enough to get into Harvard. Some of them subsequently went to the highly selective schools; some of them didn’t. And what that sets up is a nice comparison group where everybody in the sample is smart enough to get into what we describe usually as the very best schools… some went to those schools, some didn’t. So then we can compare their life outcomes 10 or 15 years later. It turns out, there doesn’t appear to be any great advantage, in fact, no statistically significant advantages at all in terms of wages for most students going to the highly selective schools with one notable exception which is for minority students, there does appear to an advantage, but for the vast majority of folks in the sample, there was no real huge advantage to getting into and going to one of these highly selective schools. (emphasis mine)

You can listen to the full podcast here: NPR Planet Money #453. It’s about 18 minutes long, and the part I referenced starts around 11 minutes.

Your wallets and bank accounts can breathe a collective sigh of relief. You or your child will really be okay if they don’t go to Yale. No matter what school you pick, you’ll have to work hard to learn and make the most out of your college years, stay dedicated and focused in order to finish, and then transition into the working world and put as much effort into that as you did to your education.

Even better, if you educated yourself and invested the difference, you could have a fantastic head start on your adult life.

So, be smart, study hard, and remember, it’s not the college that makes the difference, it’s the student. You have been informed. Good luck!

Marriage Secrets for Newlyweds

I’ve got a whole lot of friends getting married in the next year. Love is in the air in my circle of friends, meaning rehearsals, weddings, receptions, excitement, new hope, and maybe, just maybe, some nervousness or confusion. Don’t sweat it; it’s natural.

Among my friends, my wife and I were some of the first to get married. We were high school sweethearts and dated for 5 years before we got married. We dated our Senior year of high school through 4 years of undergraduate college, with our wedding popping up right after graduation. We just celebrated our 2 year anniversary (or 7, depending on how you count it), and I realized I’ve learned a whoooooole lot about marriage in that time. Not everything, by any means, but enough to write a helpful blog post for those who are newly and soon to be hitched.

As another disclaimer, my wife and I did not live together before we got married, and we both lost our virginity (to each other) on our wedding night. I’m extremely proud of both of those facts, and I would highly suggest doing the same if you can. Just know that if you’ve made different choices, your mileage may vary on parts of this post.

Context established, let’s jump into the most politically incorrect, and therefore, most honest and helpful, posts on young marriages you may ever see.

Lesson 1: Sex is really awkward at first

This is why, regardless of your religious or moral opinions, the commitment should come before the sex. Sex is just like anything else — the first time you do it, you suck at it. No, that’s not an innuendo. You’re bad. It’s going to be weird.

It may not be a romp through pleasure town like you’re hoping for, but it is an experience. It’s fun in an adventuresome sort of way. Enjoy the goofiness and awkwardness. Eventually you’ll learn what works for each other and things become fun in that other way.

Lesson 2: Sex is not more prominent in the first year

If you’re about to get married, I can pretty well guarantee you’ve heard the old story: if you put a penny/marble/whatever in a jar every time you have sex in the first year of marriage, then after the first year you take out a token each time you have sex, you’re never supposed to run out.

Total crap. Let me ask you — do you like to do things you’re good at or bad at? Okay, most of us like doing things we’re good at. Now, how do you get good at something? Practice. And practice takes time, right? It’s really that simple.

In the first year, you’ll be getting used to the weirdness, learning about each other in many ways, sex being just one of them, and settling into the pace and norms of your marriage. Set your expectations around that idea, and be sure to enjoy the journey.

Lesson 3: Your partner really doesn’t care about _________

In my case, it was personal finance (go figure). I desperately wanted my wife to engage in our budgeting and financial planning to the degree that I am engaged. Who was I kidding? I’m engaged in other peoples’ personal finances more than they’re engaged in their own. To expect my wife to match my financial nerdiness was stupid.

You need to have these types of conversations, and always be honest and transparent. I enjoy being the one that handles the money in our relationship, but my wife still has the ability to see everything I spend money on and where all our money is just as well as I do. She just doesn’t care. And that’s fine.

Spend time early in your marriage finding what things are important to each of you. There will be things that are important to both of you, so you’ll need to talk about them regularly and share the responsibility. There will be things that your spouse doesn’t care about at all, and things that you don’t care about at all. What’s important isn’t what those things are, it’s being open and honest and knowing what things fall into each person’s circle of concern.

Lesson 4: The best times won’t be what you expected

One of my favorite things is seeing my wife asleep in bed on mornings when I wake up and get dressed before her. She always lays under the covers in a way that just her head pops out. It’s adorable.

This too is about setting expectations. Don’t try to force things to be a certain way in your marriage. Be flexible, and don’t think too much about stuff. The best moments are going to be the ones that you couldn’t script and don’t expect.

Lesson 5: Good and bad, everything is supercharged when you’re married

There are things in your relationship that you know are hot topics. You should know those things if you’re engaged or considering marriage. There are things about your relationship that are easy and you can talk about naturally, and there are those things that just seem to cause trouble whenever they pop up.

When you’re married, the good times are better and the bad times are harder. Marriage isn’t a fix-it button for a relationship.

That doesn’t mean you have to resolve all of your issues before marriage; that’s impossible.  But you do need to know what your troubles are, and you do need to know how to fight fair with each other. The things you disagree on now are probably the things you’ll disagree on for years to come. Ease the pain by recognizing it and crafting productive ways to discuss the issues.

Lesson 6: Spend some time apart

I still think this is one of the most important lessons. When you’re dating, especially when you’re a new item, it feels like you could just bottle up with your partner and spend every minute of the rest of your life with them. That feeling will either carry over into marriage or will come back in full force after you’re married.

But you can’t spend every minute of the rest of your life just with your partner. And quite frankly, you’ll have times when you don’t want to. Be fully committed to your marriage, but maintain your individuality. Have your own friends. Keep doing the things you like to do that your spouse doesn’t. It’s really okay. They’re your husband or wife, not a Siamese twin.

A practical application that Tana and I have found works well in our marriage is to try to arrange our schedules so we each have a day off alone and a day off together. I think it works great.

Lesson 7: Spend time with other people

If you’re close friends with me or you’ve followed my blog for a long time, you know this is one of the relationship items I really harp on. There’s a tendency for new, freshly-in-love couples to isolate themselves because they just love each other so darn much. Giving emotional energy or focus to other people is a waste when I could spend that effort on my snuggly-boo.

Don’t do that.

Why? First of all, it’s boring, and if you find that out only after pushing all your friends to the wayside, you’ll be screwed. Second, just like no single person can be socially healthy if they don’t spend time with other people, no couple can be socially engaged if they don’t. You need outside input. Other people provide new perspectives, different opinions, and a different kind of fun than your spouse provides.

Oh, and combine this with #6. When you go and hang out, you don’t have to act like you’re not a couple, but don’t follow each other around holding hands all the time either. Socialize, enjoy, interact, laugh, learn. It might work to be an island for a while, maybe even years, but long-term you’re compromising your ties to the outside world, your influence with those around you, and yes, even your own relationship.

Lesson 8: Learn how your partner communicates affection

You probably already know this by now, but it helps in a big way to know how your partner really says “I love you.” This isn’t a cheap advertisement, it’s been a huge eye-opener in my own marriage — if you haven’t yet, pick up a copy of The 5 Love Languages and read through it with your partner.

My love language is Words of Affirmation, and my wife’s is Quality Time. I can tell her in so many words how much I love and appreciate her, but it’s not until I reward her with genuine, focused time that she feels that love and appreciation. On the flip side, I know that I just want to hear her say how she’s proud of me and grateful for me on a regular basis.

It’s hard to break out of the norms you’re personally used to. But the payoff is well worth it when you know how to properly communicate the most important things.

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Eight seems like enough for now. There’s much, much more, and I’d love to hear lessons and thoughts from other married people or questions from those who are about to enter their new season of life. Marriage is a good, good thing. It’s sad how often it ends poorly. I think that’s because of people having expectations that are impossibly crazy or because they failed to prepare beforehand and just coasted into their nuptials without proactive thought.

I asked my wife for inputs on what she thought about this topic, and one thing she mentioned was that marriage isn’t as hard as it’s made out to be. I couldn’t agree more. Be loving, be reasonable to deal with, and be committed. The rest you’ll figure out as you go.

The Time We Created Pinterest

In college, I had two jobs. First, I had a customer service phone job. Remember 411, the only way to find out where stuff was at before smartphones were a thing? Yeah, that was me. My second job was one my good friend Allen Herbert hooked me up with. We were research assistants at an airplane disassembly shop associated with our university.

Sounds cool, right? Mostly what we did was scrape crusty old sealant off of greasy skin panels and take pictures of hundreds of inch-long clips, but the job was pretty educational, the pay was good for a bunch of college interns, and thanks to some heavy ebb and flow times, we were occasionally afforded other luxuries, like time to work on school stuff or just time to kick back and mess around while sections of the plane were being taken apart for us to do our cataloging.

They say idle hands are the devil’s playthings, and that’s even more true when you get half a dozen college age guys together. Over the course of the year or so that a whole bunch of my college buddies worked there together, we had lots of interesting conversations and did some silly things. We still have epic conversations about the crap that happened there.

One of the things we did was when we had the chance, we would work on these images we created for our computer backgrounds. I’m not exactly sure who came up with the idea, but we eventually came to call it Life Collage. We would take pictures from the internet of things we were interested in and squeeze them into a static image of all the other things we liked. We had pictures of our dream cars, pictures of girlfriends, pictures from TV shows that we watched, guitars, engineering stuff, whatever we wanted. In our little office of a bunch of bestie friend college dudes, it took off like a rocket. Everyone had a Life Collage.

At some point, we made the following proposal:

What if we could make a website based on this, where you’d have your own Life Collage as a home page? You could either add images with tags, like add a picture of your guitar with the tags “guitar, music, Epiphone Sheraton II” or add pictures from other people’s collages to your own. The social aspect comes from connecting you with friends and with people using the same images and tags, so you can get in touch with other people of similar interests. You could have groups that like certain things, and we could even have search functionality that lets you look for people with the most matching interests.

…sound familiar?

We were reasonably serious about it, and even talked to a few people we knew that were in the Computer Science department or had some experience with building websites. It just never materialized.

It was a few months ago, years after we’d all archived Life Collage in the remotest recesses of our minds, that Gabe, one of the guys that worked with us and dreamed about becoming social media moguls together came to my house for a Saturday evening get together and dropped the bomb: “Do you guys realize we created Pinterest?”

We all took a minute to ponder if Gabe was off his rocker, until he started describing the similarities. First reaction, I think, was just shock. Then came the rage. None of us have since become multi-millionaires, and we had a great idea that quite possibly could have skyrocketed us into vast wealth and social status that we just didn’t act on.

To be honest, I’m mostly sharing this just because I’m still angry about it and wanted to complain. But I do think there’s a lesson in this, other than if you find out you and your friends missed becoming wealthy by a narrow thread, keep it to your darn self, Gabe.

I think the lesson is that thinking of something, creating an idea, strategizing… it’s just the beginning of the process. Everyone has thought about what they would do to get in better shape. Everyone has created an idea for strengthening their relationships. Everyone has strategized about starting a business or looking for a job they’re passionate about.

And yet, it’s not worth a thing if you don’t act on it. The best plan in the world doesn’t make you one bit more successful until you execute it. Let your goal this week be to identify your plans, ideas, and strategies, and get them out of the mental phase and into actions that you start taking to improve your life.

My friends and I missed creating Pinterest. You don’t want to find out what you’re missing by your inaction. Go and get on it, starting today.

 

How To: Point Out Problems and Not Sound Like a Jerk

Someone asked me an interesting question after a large group event the other day. I attended a meeting talking about the roll-out of a revamped leadership development program at my workplace. As you’d imagine, I’m very interested in the subject, and on this occasion I was more informed than most people since I’ve been working a side project related to the program over the last few months.

At the end of the meeting, during the Q&A, I stood up and asked a pretty pointed question (cuz I ain’t afraid). The presenter gave a… less than satisfactory answer, so I asked a quick followup, which was dodged with artful verbal dexterity. It was frustrating, but I knew I’d keep working on the project with my sub-team and hopefully be able to help out in that way. Didn’t think much more of it.

When the presentation dismissed a few minutes later, a gentleman I’ve never met before approached me. He asked me something really interesting:

How did you learn to ask critical questions like that without sounding like you’re baring your teeth?

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In other words, he wanted to know how I was able to be critical of something without sounding like a critic. Or one more way of putting it, how to criticize an idea without sounding like a jerk.

Guess I hadn’t really thought about it specifically before. In an uncharacteristic moment, I fumbled around and gave him exactly the kind of half-answers he was ultimately complaining about. He asked me if I had taken classes or practiced in front of a mirror or joined a speaking club or read books about it. Unfortunately, in the moment he asked, I hadn’t formulated anything solid. Even though I didn’t have a good answer for him then, and even though he’ll probably never see this post, I thought it would be a good thing to post for the rest of us. Down to business: how do you ask pointed questions without being too edgy?

  1. Don’t aim for destruction. I think many peoples’ default mode when asking tough questions is to shame the recipient so they look like they’ve “won” the exchange. In this case, I did disagree with the presenter, but I also understood that she was most likely just like me, trying to do the best job she could. She didn’t want me to fail, and I didn’t want her to. When you adopt a team spirit and keep your perspective on the best answer for everybody and not just your ego, you’ll talk differently than if you see it as a word contest or debate.
  2. Avoid indictment. The presenter may have been the leader of the program, and yes, she had some stake in both the successes and failures of it. But had I been out to incriminate her for her failures, the question would not have been nearly as effective as it apparently was. One of the classic rules of criticism in Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People is to let people save face when being critiqued. Even better, avoid making them feel defensive by avoiding the word “you” entirely. You points a finger. It puts people on the spot. If you want to be effective, you need to challenge without overtly blaming. Focus on the situation at hand, not the people involved.
  3. Know the difference between passion and emotion. Passion makes for a great argument. When you care about the subject, you’re going to speak much more genuinely and say more important things. Passion makes people want to listen. But when you get emotional and let the issue shake you instead of facing the issue with confident concern, you’ll be less influential.

It’s all in the approach. You don’t necessarily have to be a wordsmith to bring up the big questions. Truthfully, a short, poignant question can be even more impactful than one drawn out and eloquently stated.

Be familiar with your own style. Be aware of your personal tendencies. Look for opportunities to use and develop many different approaches. And always keep in mind the tips above. Now go out there and ask away!

Why I Don’t Want to Be a “Millionaire”

A friend of mine posted a status on Facebook this last week that taught me something. It probably wasn’t what they intended to teach, but hey, learning works like that. It went something like this, “I want to be what God wants me to be. That may never be a millionaire.”

My first reaction was a bit of irritation. See, the term “millionaire” carries a lot of cultural baggage with it. There are preconceptions of a lifestyle, mostly dead wrong by the way, that comes attached with the term. There are a lot of attitudes assigned with the term, mostly dead wrong by the way, that aren’t exactly what most noble people desire to emulate. There are a lot of assumptions about how to become a millionaire, mostly dead wrong by the way, that make people not want to pursue wealth because it’s assumed to require greed or manipulation. Our society has so much misconception about what “millionaires” are really like that they’re scared of success. And that’s not a good thing.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized: I don’t care about being a millionaire either.

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I can say with a high degree of certainty that I eventually will be. Probably many times over. But it’s not the title or the association that I’m after. “Travis Lane, Millionaire” in itself means nothing to me.

What does mean something to me is the peace that I will gain knowing that I have set up my family’s financial future.

What does mean something to me is what that money will represent — the financial fulfillment of my responsibility as a husband and future father.

What does mean a lot to me is that I’m almost positive my wife and I have never had an argument about money, and that certainly won’t be likely to happen if our security continues to increase in the future.

What does mean a lot to me is that I can give, and will be able to give even more in the future along with my increased worth. Although I’ve occasionally been hesitant about my giving (and it’s okay to be — if you don’t feel like it’s sometimes a sacrifice, it’s probably not worthwhile), I’ve always been blessed enough to give, and I’ll certainly continue to give as the blessing increases.

See, it’s not about being “a millionaire.” It’s not about driving nice cars or owning expensive watches, although those things certainly aren’t bad side effects. It’s about peace. It’s about security. It’s about responsibility. If those things are your goal and you treat your money wisely over long periods of time, you’ll likely attain a seven figure net worth by accident.

Don’t focus on your net worth. Focus on what financial security means for you and your family. The money will follow.

How to Get Great Customer Service

The late great Zig Ziglar made it a habit to greet people with a friendly “Good morning!” no matter what time of day it was.

Why? 90% of the time, he said, he got “Good morning” right back. This little trick reminded him of one important truth: what you send out is what you’ll receive back.

I had a great example of this principle just this week. I’m refinancing my mortgage and had some inconvenience (yes, I still have a mortgage — don’t worry though, I’m working on it with more intensity than the Jersey Shore cast works on their tans).

If you haven’t read a news article about housing in the last 20 years, you might not know this, but lots of folks aren’t exactly pleased with the mortgage industry or the service they receive from mortgagors. You can find images all over the internet of flowcharts regarding the ownership of an individual’s mortgage. Large banks are not typically known for their stellar customer service anyway, and the heat gets turned up quite a bit when it’s a person’s biggest expense that’s on the table. So when I say I “had some inconvenience,” that could be a precursor to a lengthy tale of misery and torment.

So what happened to me? When my wife and I got married, we purchased a house, mortgaged through MetLife. We were very conservative since it was a big commitment and we were just settling into post-college working life, so we got a 30 year term. We’re more comfortable with our finances now (thank you, budgeting) and mortgage rates are ridiculously low, so we decided to refinance to a 15 year term at a much lower rate.

Well, during the refinance process, MetLife decided to stop servicing mortgages, so all existing mortgages were sold to Chase (ugh). This means not only do I have to deal with the details of refinancing, I also have to track down new mortgage information from Chase just so it can be closed. If only MetLife had waited another month, this would have been a whole lot easier. Poor me!

And yet, you know what it took in the end to resolve the situation? Two phone calls, about 5 minutes long each. I called Chase with my previous mortgage information, got my new mortgage number, asked a few clarification questions, then called my new broker and relayed the information. On both ends, I got fast, effective customer service. Why do you suppose that is?

I’ll tell you, thanks for asking. First, instead of getting emotional about the inconvenience, I just did what needed to be done. Sure, I could’ve been upset about the situation. I could have complained to any party involved about just how put out I’ve been. But what does that accomplish? Nothing. It just makes it harder to do what I would have had to do anyway. Second, I was nice to the people I talked to, and they were friendly and helpful right back. Common sense, right? The Golden Rule? And yet you’d be surprised at how livid people can get at how bad their life is and how the world owes them a favor.2013-03-06_Customer_Service_Representative

Trust me, I know all about this. I was a customer service representative for over a year (although I don’t look quite as stunning as the dude in that picture). I talked to 1,000 people a day for a year. I know better than most that the way you approach a service interaction majorly affects the service you’ll receive. I also learned how to diffuse anger and keep people calm. It’s a powerful skill on both sides of the equation. I don’t think I’ve had a bad customer service experience in the last 5 years. I’ve even gotten compliments from representatives about how easy I am to deal with. Compliments from customer service representatives. Who knew they were people too?

The point is, you know how to treat people well, so just freaking do it. When we get overly emotional or personally offended about little things, we forget the most basic rules of courtesy and decent communication. Give kindness to get kindness. Give service to get service. It’s as simple as that.

Hurts So Good

Today’s post is brought to you by Boundaries, the book I started this week and that you’re therefore stuck with for the next several posts. Enjoy, and welcome to November!

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Have you ever been hurt?

Your answer to that is without a doubt “Yes,” but there are many different ways of taking it. Someone may say yes — I broke my arm when I was 10. Somebody else might say yes — my partner was unfaithful. Hurt runs the gamut from minor to major, from physical to emotional, from harmful to beneficial.

…wait. What?

Have you ever dislocated a joint? Your arm is a-floppin’ around out of socket, can’t do anything, and is in immense pain. Then they set it. I’ve never experienced this, but I take it from action movies that it’s about the most grueling pain ever. Sylvester Stallone can probably shrug it off but most of the rest of us can’t.

How about dental work? When the dentist has to drill out that cavity, it sure hurts. Of course, the purpose is to prevent your tooth from rotting out and causing the Black Plague epidemic in your mouth. On the flip side, did the candy that caused the cavity hurt when you ate it? Nope, it felt pretty good, didn’t it? But it sure wasn’t what you actually needed.

Now, have you ever been told your attitude was poor? Maybe you’ve been told that the way you’re handling something in your life is immature or self-destructive.

When dealing with our own hurts as well as with our ability to inflict hurt upon others, we need to separate temporary hurt for the eventual good from hurt for the sake of hurt. In other words, we need to separate hurt from harm. Hurt is a fleeting feeling, something short-lived and ephemeral. Harm is a long-term consequence that can change your life.

When you’re feeling hurt, especially when it’s an emotional or relational hurt inflicted by a friend or loved person, you should investigate whether the hurt was meant in love, for your eventual benefit, or for your harm. If someone is willing to put the truth on the table, they’re willing to sacrifice your opinion of them in the moment for your benefit later on. That’s a mature action. That’s a true friend. Listen to them. If someone hurt you with the sole intention to harm, then they’re petty and childish, and shouldn’t have any control over your emotions or your future. Ignore them. Develop the personal maturity to recognize the difference.

Sometimes being told that something is your fault helps to remind you that you’re in control. Maybe you screwed up. That’s okay, if you had the power to get here, you have the power to get out.

A good friend in high school once grabbed me by the collar, threw me against a wall, and told me he loved me, but my attitude lately had sucked. What were my options in that moment? I could fight back… who was he to tell me off? Or I could ignore him… who cares what he thinks? But this was a trusted friend, and I knew he had my best interests in mind. In light of that truth, I had no option but to investigate my attitude. He was right. It sucked. And he was willing to risk hurting me and our connection in order to benefit my future. These are the kinds of people we need to associate with. Luckily I got to return the favor to him (and probably back and forth several times over the course of our friendship). Having accountability with your friends, coworkers, and romantic partners is key in good relationships and in developing yourself.

So, when dealing with friends, peers, people in general, whether you’re the hurtee or the hurter, remember to be aware of the difference between hurt and harm. It might not happen exactly in the moment of conflict, right when the doctor pops your arm back in socket or drills your cavity, but remember that sometimes hurt can hurt so good.

Why I Like the Minority

I have a good friend who likes to haul out this line every now and then: think of how stupid the average person is, then realize that half of all people are stupider than that.

Clearly this is a bit tongue-in-cheek (and technically it should be median instead of average), but it serves as a good platform to talk about something that I have to mention every now and then: being weird.

I love being weird. Average people are broke. We’re getting closer and closer to a majority of people in the US being clinically overweight — average people are unhealthy. Average people are scared of the uncertain future because they don’t have a plan to be proactive about it. Average people don’t think critically, because in the majority opinion or way of thinking, you’re rarely challenged. It’s easy to be average, and harder to be weird. But it’s not very rewarding to be average.

In many ways, my desire to be weird spills over into other areas of my life, often symbiotically as in politics, where I would rather be run over by a bus than labeled as either of the major parties in this country, but sometimes in awkward ways like technology. I own and operate a BlackBerry phone and love being on the fringe and watching the development of BlackBerry 10. It’s a little fun to be different and root for the underdog. This philosophy probably drove some of my utter and complete distaste for the Occupy Wall Street movement. “We are the 99%,” and you’re proud of that? “We’re broke and angry about life and there are more of us than you!” Compelling argument. Or not.

Even if you don’t convert to BlackBerry, you definitely should adopt the “Be Weird” philosophy in certain areas of your life. It’s true that most people don’t have a plan for their health, their finances, their career, their friendships and relationships, and all the other stuff I talk about. Break free from normal. If you need help crafting that plan specially for you, that’s what I’m here for.

Give it a try this week. Divorce yourself from conventional and normal. Look for ways to be better than normal, stronger than average, smarter than the median person.

Be weird.

Causality and Contrarianism

Catchy title eh? This week’s discussion is a bit philosophical in nature, but basically, the point I want to make is to not do normal things if you do not want normal results.

Simple concept right? To understand, yes, but to live according to, less so. Mob mentality is a form of survival, and it’s gruesomely effective. In college there were bunches of times when you’d get back a rough test and the first thing you’d do was look over at your pal’s paper to see how you stacked up. If enough people did badly, you’d argue the test. If a majority did poorly and argued it well enough, you could get a curve or some other mercy.

Much of life is the same way. We hold to statistics and averages because often they release us from personal responsibility. As the phrase goes, when a bear is chasing you, you don’t have to run faster than the bear, just faster than somebody else.

The average net worth of people under 35 is just over zero: about $3,000. If you don’t know, net worth is assets minus liabilities, so what you own minus what you owe. A house, for example, is usually a break-even on net worth. If you mortgage a house purchase, you have the mortgage value as a debt, but you also have an asset that would stand for that debt if it was called in: the house itself. Cash in hand or in a bank account or in investments is positive, obviously, as an asset without any liability. Student loan debt (which I suspect is the cause of the aforementioned figure) is a liability without a value-bearing asset, insofar as an education is not a measurable asset.

Does the fact that the average net worth of people under 35 is around $3,000 put you at ease? How would you perceive someone who was well in excess of that figure? Lucky? Greedy? A mere statistical anomaly?

Let’s go back to the test analogy. Inevitably, somebody in the class would pass with flying colors. Depending on their personality, their perception of the test difficulty, and a host of other factors, they’d either sit there silently while people asked for extra points, knowing with the bonus they’d surpass the 100% mark, smile while the proles asked for a curve knowing that with his score it’d be a small handful of points, or, the most entertaining (or infuriating), he’d actively mock the others who couldn’t pass “such an easy test.”

I found that very few tests were so difficult that they produced no winners. Life is much the same way. Even something so statistically overwhelming as the lottery spits out a winner every now and then. So, since there was and is almost always an outlier who passed, due to sheer brainpower, total luck, or just good old hard work and principle, the fact is that IT WAS NOT IMPOSSIBLE. And furthermore, something they did caused their success. The next logical inquiry would be, “What caused the success, and can it be controlled or mimicked?”

In essence, you know that what causes outliers is behavior that is not normal, so the most strictly effective iterative process is to take an action outside the norm, judge if the results were positive or negative outliers, and act accordingly. This was the Edison approach to the light bulb. It worked out pretty well for him. Back in high school physics (I was pretty good at physics), I had a friend who wanted to study together for the tests, so we tried something a little bit different. I went over to his house and he cooked dinner (this was not part of the studying, but he was an excellent chef), then while we ate, instead of reviewing the homework or notes, we would read straight through the chapter that the test was over. We would stop at any experiments and do them if they were feasible. We would do any example problems found in the chapter, but none of the homework problems. The first time we tested this method, we both got over 100%. Fair enough, so we did it again for the next one, with similar results. Once, a third friend joined the party. We were the three highest scores on the following test. We had stumbled upon a study method which, for one reason or another, had almost perfect accuracy. Also I ate a lot of good rice that year.

Even better is when you can make an educated guess at what kinds of irregular behavior will result in positive irregular results; let other people’s experience eliminate some of the iteration for you. This is what I try to teach: ways to be weird that will set you apart from the crowd in a good way. This is the basis of all my reading, studying, and testing; find out why normal people stay normal and exceptional people rise from normality to greatness. Jim Collins says simply that good is the enemy of great. Finding comfort in “average” precludes you from being “excellent.” There are NO stories of heroes or revolutionaries who were for the most part just satisfied with the status quo because their friends were or their culture was and their friends and culture got along “just fine.”

Warren Buffett says to be greedy when everyone else is afraid and afraid when everyone else is greedy. Once again, this contrarian thing seems to be pretty worthwhile. I’ve found it actually encouraging when people disagree with me on things that I know for a fact have worked for my good in my own life. When angry, unsatisfied, broke people say that I’m stupid, I get a big smile. If being smart makes you common, poor, and spiteful, I’ll take stupid any day of the week.

Are you unhappy or dissatisfied with some aspect of your life? Complaining about it or burying the emotion is normal, taking action on it is not. Let’s all strive to be a little bit more abnormal.