One person’s garbage…another person’s treasure

Chances are if you were born before the 1990’s you’ve heard the above expression. While part of me wants to chalk it up along with many of the others I’ve mentioned on this site as having little to no value the older version of myself sees some unspoken wisdom in this notion. Having spent a part of my youth living with my post-depression era grandparents it’s easy to identify the obvious financial undertones of the statement but it’s in the extension of this ideology to the other areas of life that a reward just as great can be reaped. Allow me to share a pair of examples.

The first example that comes to mind is oddly enough intimate relationship(s). Take the man or woman that has [recently] been dumped by an otherwise uncaring, asshole partner. Whether or not they’re a physical or emotional gem is a matter of debate but odds are 50/50 that the person is. Now throw the fact they are leaving an otherwise unhealthy experience – which likely has lead them to engage in things such as questioning their self-worth – there is a strong chance they will be putting their best foot forward with their next ‘at bat’ while simultaneously making some beneficial personal changes…making them an ideal mate. Just as one places an empty candy wrapper in a waste receptacle people are equally disposable. One person’s relational garbage is potentially another person’s treasure.

A second example, and for the sake of being brief the last in this article (though there are several more), is a person’s career choice. Though this could be considered an extension of an individual’s financial actions I’d like to draw attention to the non-monetary side of this life consideration. The inspiration for this example came from a chance encounter with a passenger I had on a flight recently. Though I hardly consider anything chance; more like the law of averages in operation. The gentleman, a D.C. attorney, had recently graduated from Georgetown and was working in his first year as patent lawyer for the US Patent Office; a fact I cued in on from of all things a pen he was taking notes with. In the majority of cases I don’t care for engaging on a personal level with customers as I find most, particularly in first class, to be uninteresting middle management clogs but I have a penchant for law so I took up the chance to speak further with him.

 

After several minutes in dialogue I discovered a very interesting facet to his line of work. The first was an existing shortage of patent law lawyers. Having a sister who is an attorney and formerly having considered law school myself I knew there wasn’t a shortage of trial attorneys, corporate lawyers or even family attorneys but never gave much thought to intellectual property. During the middle part of our conversation he said something that struck me and ties directly back into the topic of this piece. Somewhere around his last year of law school he began collecting feedback from his classmates, gauging where their focus and interests within the field lied. What he discovered was that the overwhelming majority were hellbent on corporate, securities or criminal law and just like that he knew what he wanted to do. He went on to explain further the logic behind this – you see patent law was boring, required as much if not more case reading and interpretation than other types of law, paid well but not house in the Hamptons well and possibly most important lacked any prestige.

 

It was the last part of what he said that got the small motor between my ears I’ve mistaken for a brain spinning. Patent law felt as though it was a career middle child of sorts…easily overlooked and in some circles considered a garbage part of the profession. Once again, one person’s trash another person’s treasure. No struggling to find work, working 100+ hour weeks to make partner and even the healthy possibility for starting a family if that was a person’s desire. These types of nuances, personal and/or professional, exist more often than people think. Whether discovering the rebounding and wounded partner or the what’s behind the curtain of a professional subset, life can be like a giant estate sale with hidden prizes to be found underneath the surface. In order to access an awareness to these things all a person merely has to do is listen and be diligent. Time and a level of patience affords every one of us the opportunity to discover some type of trash we will soon discover is a Rembrandt.

The Wheels on the Bus

While on my way back from a family visit (the main reason for taking some time off from writing) I had the privilege of sitting next to a very opinionated man during the unfortunate return flight back to Chicago. He and a colleague of his were speaking on some socio-economic issues they both apparently felt those around them needed to be aware of. As is often the case the dogma spewing from his mouth was as one sided as a boxing match between Helen Keller and Mike Tyson in his prime would be. I could almost see the Politifact meter failing off the left side of it’s accuracy curve. I listened intently as I knew at some point the opportunity to engage this grossly misinformed individual would happen and little did I know I wouldn’t even be waiting to take off.

Thanks to a momentary ground stop of inbound traffic into ORD this fine fella and I were able to first exchange glances and as soon as he noticed what I was browsing through on my Reddit feed in his mind I must have been fair game. As the seconds ticked off the clock of life I could see the anticipation building on his face. Finally, I turned to him with a look that must have conveyed the statement ‘you can begin speaking your non-sense now’ because the dogma began to flow like diarrhea. After first lambasting my preferred sources of news – The Guardian, Mother Jones, the CBC and Reuters (The Wall Street Journal received his approval) – he then proceeded to go on about the topic I currently had on my feed, a report demonstrating how a series of large corporations could in fact afford to pay their employees more money in lieu of massive stock buybacks.

His position was that as a public company it was completely up to the executives and shareholders to determine and approve such a strategic decision. While in principle I agreed with his position I followed up his statement with a query – what were his feelings on such programs as SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, etc.? Not to my surprise he was vehemently against the entirety of them. To which my response was that if the minimum wage was increased to say $14/hr many of the people who depend on these programs would a) make enough to be self sufficient and b) no longer qualify for these programs thus reducing the tax revenue necessary to support these discretionary programs. Also, it would help to reduce Medicaid enrollment (currently @ 64.9 million people) as a small percent of people could thusly afford to purchase insurance in the marketplace.

The gentleman paused to take my little spiel in. I went on further to explain this is how most of life exists – not just in terms of politics, sociology, finance, etc. – that the answer lies in looking past the obvious, foregoing the process of emotional attachment and seeing that the problems of life can go around and round in an endless circle, never resolved only argued over, or a solution can be sought. This part is incredibly difficult though as it requires a skill that many of us lack, myself included, entirely…pragmatism. It’s hard to say what keeps us on this bus ride to nowhere…pride, lack of education, indoctrination…who knows? Regardless of what’s to blame and at the expense of a lot of wasted time let’s just assume that we’re never truly correct about anything. This sounds counter-productive, and at some point along the road it is, but to second guess what we think…what or how we approach something can be a very valuable tool in breaking the circle and the chains that bind us.

Someone’s Punching Bag

You live and you learn…or if you’re someone like me you live and you don’t, not at least until life hits you in the face so hard you find yourself emotional concussed. Of the variety of topics, I’ve covered so far, ranging from professional to academic and even including personal there’s one item I realized I haven’t spoken on (at least of any great length) and that’s self-worth. While the concept has been touched on I want to speak to it in the form of a very common American phenomenon – participation in athletics. Americans LOVE their sports and I must admit I’m a pretty big basketball fan. The reason I’m drawing a line between the two is that they together illustrate a euphemism for almost all of life.

At some point in our history sport(s) became a right of passage. As we as a society completed/abandoned our conquest of what’s become the modern United States and her territories the focus shifted on rallying our people around something other than (near constant) warfare (didn’t work out but the thought was nice). After all variety is the spice of life. With the ushering in of the modern Olympic games in 1896, the development of American football, basketball, and modern professional baseball, people found a new way to socialize and shortly thereafter stratify individuals based on the combination of skill and genetics. Fast forward some 60, 70 years later and we found not only these sports as professions but as serious collegian activities as well.

From this historical understanding let’s proceed to weave this cultural caveat into the articles topic, self-worth. It’s natural for people to define their value in the context of others. What people think of us, their opinions – manifested through words and actions – have tremendous influence over our emotional framework. We seek acceptance and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing its something that can be leveraged against us. An area where this is blatantly obvious, yet for some reason never spoken upon, is the world of preparatory sports; namely high school athletics. It’s the perfect storm of social upheaval and (in many instances) the last step before coasting to adulthood.

The thing that makes this particularly note worthy is that in addition to being thrown into a world dominated by primal thought (which I’m certainly not against) – defined by a hyper-obsession with winning and domination over one’s competition/enemy – there is an additional toll not often thought of; the physical taxation levied on a person’s body. As someone that was a part of a national championship high school wrestling team and an attempted collegian walk-on I feel the aches and pains of what I’ve put my body through every single day and at 37 feel as if I’m someone 20+ years older. Through all the vigorous training I gained nothing. I was not a recruited athlete and received zero additional instruction or focus from any of my coaches. I’m not bitter about this and only bring it up to make a final point on the matter.

Athletics, like much of life, is a casting call in which most people will not even get a supporting role. There are many folks I’m sure that participate in these gaming events based not on a clear desire or passion for the activity but rather as a way to create value for themselves. My concern lies in the fact that the overwhelming majority (especially in sports that are extremely demanding in nature – such as American football and wrestling) will serve as little more than turning someone into the bricks upon which competitively superior participants will walk. Your injuries, frustrations and time spent in the mostly inefficient routine of practice illustrate an occurrence that happens also later in life; where in the business world those who are better connected, though inversely skilled to their colleagues, will once again use those around them to lift themselves up. I don’t wish to say that participation in sports is a bad thing, it’s not and is able to help a sizeable number of people in a variety of ways, what I am cautioning against is a person blindly throwing their future physical (and to a degree mental) health out the window in the statistical likelihood of receiving nothing in return. You’re likely worth far more than making someone else’s dreams come true.

Slow and steady wins the race

As someone on the outside looking in at the success of other’s I’ve noticed an interesting commonality. Lasting achievement doesn’t resemble a hurricane, it’s more a steady rain that provides the fields of life with just the right amount of sustenance to keep everything green. This is something visible to both the well-known and common person alike. The strange and interesting thing to me is how often this is overlooked. In our desire to have all the necessary items of existence ‘out the box’ ready we fail to recognize where the true success of the average lies – in the process of growth. The concept of steady improvement, adjustment and learning along with calculated planning has taken a back seat to dominance.

From the business world to sports a person can see this everywhere. A company and its board bring in a new CEO to replace an outgoing one who was not given enough time to execute their vision. A team drafts a player that was a high achiever at the collegian level with the blind belief that the level of success will automatically translate in the pro’s. The trouble with this thinking is that it puts little premium on tomorrow while placing nearly all the eggs into ‘today’s’ basket. We trade in impact for stability and in the end often get neither. Is there a solution to this conundrum? You bet there is and it involves a radical process…exercising patient.

To breakdown the pitfall of not allowing natural growth to take hold I’m going to turn to a place where it’s most obvious – the world of sports. Of all the positions in a sport one that has possibly the greatest premium is the quarterback in American football. Let’s take what many analysts consider to be the top five players as of 2018: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers. Of these guys only two of the five (40%) were drafted in the first round and neither (Roethlisberger or Rodgers) was selected in the top 10. Also, of note is that the teams Aaron and Ben played were a complete non-factor in the race for a college championship title – Miami of Ohio unranked the entire season and the University of California finishing the season 7-4 in the 25th spot.

The point of this divesture is that reaching a certain level of success, on whatever stratosphere it exists, relies perhaps more in the foundation than the completed project. Time changes things and the ability to adapt is often time as critical as skill level. Peaking, while a naturally occurring phenomenon, should not be where the greatest concentration is placed, albeit sport or life. Rather I purpose a two-prong approach. The first, operate within a healthy framework of output. Whether that is athletically, academically or even professionally – too much, too soon, ultimately equals something that doesn’t last. The second is prepare for the transition. This one is a little tricky because it requires a lot of self-reflection and/or unbiased 3rd party opinion. An ounce of honest, intelligent, reflection is worth a pound of long term future achievement.

Judge not yet ye…never mind go ahead and judge

The opening part of the above title is likely as well known in the United States (and perhaps most of western or Christian-leaning culture) as any other maxim. Taken from the new testament text of Matthew the passage loosely states to ‘judge not, that you not be judged…for with what judgement you use, you shall be judged and with what measure you use it shall be measured to you again’. How lovely and idealistic a recommendation…actually more like how misguided and baseless a concept. Judgment is the very foundation on which the decision-making process was built. It involves on some level the use of our otherwise expansive brains to see the necessary potential for action and to move accordingly based on various information (or even the lack there of).

Judgement exists in two forms: judgement before an action and judgement based on the interpretation of (ideally) relevant facts. The first part of this involves the use of prejudice. Prejudice as it’s viewed in today’s world is a very loaded and dangerous word. In the modern liberal wing of political thought, it is an enemy of the people that needs to be snuffed out from existence in order to bring balance to the world. But, let’s think about it for a second, what is prejudice at its core other than a preconceived opinion not based on reason or actual experience; essentially it is a thought lacking perspective. Developing perspective on a matter is an act that requires involving oneself in something an individual may otherwise, and most likely doesn’t, have experience in. The problem is that we are hard wired to judge, especially in situations of duress…which are from an evolutionary standpoint brought on by uncertainty…things we don’t have experience with (particularly as it relates to our well-being – this is called the ‘fight or flight’ response).

Unwarranted prejudice, something very much alive and well, makes no sense and can even be categorized as reprehensible if for no other reason than the individual has made zero attempt at trying to understand that with which they are casting judgement. This doesn’t mean that the act in and of itself should be abandoned. It’s because of the blanket manner in which judging is itself judged that we as a species (which is far, far more important than the characteristics of race and certainly ethnicity) find ourselves still in a rut. It goes back in large part to the earlier piece in which I spoke about the dangers of being nice – by forgoing this natural, built-in mechanism, we find a large number of us taken advantage of by life’s inequalities (the majority of which are unfortunately predicated on race, gender and socio-economic status).

What we need, perhaps now more than ever, is to judge; judge whether or not a particular company is a good fit for us before we pack up our bags to discover it otherwise isn’t (my case), judge whether college is a good fit as the debt we are likely to be straddled with will take decades to pay off, judge to what degree an elected official is full of shit (as they all are to varying degrees)…the list goes on and on for the unforeseeable future. When we judge it has to be understood that the system of weights and measures is so out of whack it’s like comparing the American standard of measurements to the Metric System. There’s ‘rich justice’ and ‘poor justice’. There’s the judgement of the rights of victims versus the rights of the accused. There’s even the judgement of majority versus minority opinion. No where does it state that life is fair, at best it’s a sliding scale and to see and act as though everything is peaches when most things are broccoli is like cutting a brake line before driving downhill – not a good idea.

Between the Lines

Though it stands to reason that a person who believes they are mindful of the comings and goings of life should in fact be; it would appear that many of us are negligent. Our focus (mine included) has long been on the substances we’ve perceived of great alarm but in the end it’s the matters of small concern that should be treated most vigorously. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the moments of seemingly little consequence can have a tremendous impact. War fare is always the most obvious but what about things in every day life that occur in increasing fashion that in theory should sound some type of alarm. Whether it effects the entirety of a nation (the housing crises) or a tiny collective (employees of a company) the signs are everywhere.

The key has been, and always will be, reading between the lines. Case and point from the aforementioned. Back in the early 2000s I worked as a shift coordinator in the mail service division of what is a now defunct bank. This bank was at a time one of the 10 largest in the Midwest. We had a division called ‘CLS’ or consumer loan services which as the name implies handled consumer lending. As films such as ‘The Big Short’ have depicted there was a massive run-up in home sales, building, construction, etc. – in what I can only guess was an attempt to alleviate the financial recession resulting from (in my opinion) not the events surrounding the 11th of September but the still collapsing tech market – fueled by insane lending practices.

I still remember to this day opening an improperly addressed manila envelop (no department locator code or even an ‘attn:to’) and seeing a home loan application for a property that’s purchase price was in excess of 186,000 dollars. Along with this application was…what for it…no W2 or w2’s, no employment history, just a ‘statement of income’.  I’m not sure if this couple was approved for the loan but as time has shown there is a strong possibility they were. This was more than three years before the recession of 07’. I’m not intelligent but I could see a clear problem with this. Obviously, the events surrounding this and the resulting fallout were terrible on millions of people. But what about the later part, the “tiny collective” I spoke of?

The example I’ll use in this case is my present company. Within the last 10 months I’ve lost 6 (that I’m aware of) co-workers all under the age of 55 to either a heart attack or stroke. Shortly after the lost of the last of them, he was 38, we received information in our company email that we were being afforded the right to participate in a healthy study of our industry conductive by Harvard. Within a couple weeks of the close date of the study I received a letter in the mail stating that the company had increased its’ life insurance policy it had on me to 120,000 (keep in mind the policy it pays out to my parents in the event of my death is only 40,000). I briefly found this rather odd before coming to my senses and realizing the company literally makes money if I die.

So, how does this all tie together…these seemingly tiny, inconspicuous things? Think about it, the company (an airline) is actively engaged in a competitive work practice that it begins to realize (or likely already knew) is waging hell on its employee’s health. What better way to gauge the accurate extent to which individuals in the company are suffering to predict the future, everything from potential medical costs, to establishing levels of upcoming attrition, up to but not ending with how much longer they can continue said practices before something comes out to shed light on an otherwise unfortunate way of conducting business. This logic may not gel with you and frankly I’m not concerned if it does but finding these events, as small as they are, to be unrelated and completely random is a tremendous disservice to oneself. These fractional occurrences happen on a monthly, weekly, even daily basis and if a person chooses to mind them no attention they will ultimately become a victim like countless others.

The Cost of Commitment

According to a 2014 report by Bloomberg since 1978 the cost of college tuition and fees have increased by roughly 1,120%. This period increase is more than food and medicine combined. A bit concerning when one takes into account the fact that according to a publication released around the same time as the aforementioned Bloomberg report (2014) by the National Student Clearinghouse that the combined percent average of students completing a so-called four-year degree within six years or less was approximately 46.5%. Is there any wonder that as of this writing there is over 1 trillion dollars’ worth of student loan debt (I personally have over 36k of it)? While this topic could be expanded into multiple articles touching on an enormous number of sub-topics I’ve only referenced it for illustrative purposes. What I prefer to highlight is the underlying concept behind this phenomenon – commitment.

What is commitment and why does it mean so much to humankind? Regardless the source one uses in searching for the definition (almost) anyone with the ability to read this will define it as essentially the dedication to a cause. For the second part of the question I believe the answer could be simply stated as it is an act that helps foster trust. If you’ve read any of my other posts, read a copy of my manifesto, or like me tend to see things not as they appear but search for a deeper interpretation, I offer to you the following. Commitment, as it’s most commonly practiced in todays world, is the engagement in cyclical obligation. It’s the nature of this last defined part that deprives humans of true freedom – removing any inkling of choice.

While it may read as though I’m not a fan of the concept of commitment (which is not true) I see and understand its overall value and contribution to the upward movement of society. What makes me quasi-skeptical of the practice as a whole is the blind adherence we have as people to the principle. It’s this almost drug-like dependence to the construct that prevents us from an equally as valuable idea – reconsideration. I’m not sure exactly what drives this (if I did I wouldn’t likely be in the position I’m in both personally & financially today) but for the sake of speculating I would say fear in the form of perception. Western society places a high premium on confidence, so much so that people that exude it despite their other personal shortfalls are often held in high regard.

The question then begs, ‘how can one escape the grips of toxic commitments’? For someone like myself that has a tremendously difficult time of navigating through the big-ticket items of life the only success I have had (which isn’t much) is in re-framing the action. I don’t make commitments any more, rather I make a collection of decisions. By reverse engineering the process I’m able to catch more of the mistakes I make before they cumulate into the ‘c’ word. Simply by turning the auto-pilot off and taking control of the wheel we become more engaged. It is during this period of engagement, which exists consciously or unconsciously before every action, that we are afforded an opportunity to see what direction our decisions are trending in.

Some everyday examples of this include items both big and small. From whether or not a person asks someone out, to buying a home, to having kids, hell even the shoes they buy these are all really just decisions at one point in time or another. After beginning to make the transition away from commitment and toward decision (it’s not necessary to master this skill but rather only start implementing it) the next step is critical; I would even argue this is more important than the transformation itself. This next step is to realize that decisions (or commitments) don’t EVER have to be made. While it can be detrimental to put things off perpetually it’s worth stating that many, if not most, of the fatal errors in judgement we make DON’T have to be made at all. Having second thoughts on marrying that other person, then don’t. Not sure you can afford that 4-bedroom home…okay then don’t buy it. Can’t figure out if college is the right fit…yep, you guessed it, don’t enroll.

Very little of what we think we have to do, do we really have to do. This is the point many people that fail, fail to realize. I’ve performed a personal jihad during most of the decision-making process. Where this differs from actual self-destruction is that in a greater percentage of the incidences the individual will go on to repeat the same course of action numerous times. The cycle will not be broken until we can free ourselves of the burden of fear; fear of not meeting one of the many idiotic pressures of society. In the end I’m not saying don’t get married, or don’t go to college…I’m not even saying don’t get those pair of insanely priced sneakers. You’re free to do whatever you like, it’s your decision and the best part of it being yours is you can say ‘yes’…you can say ‘no’ or you can say nothing at all.