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Author: Mary Lloyd

I run a company dedicated to providing useful, current, relevant resources to those who want meaning and satisfaction in the years after they retire. To address the non-financial aspects of planning for and living this stage of life we currently offer: Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love, A practical, fun to read book with exercises to help you chart your own course. www.mining-silver.com, a content-rich website on the topic Planning Tools for Bold Retirement, a workbook of exercises to help you figure it out, and Living Silver, a four-part, eight-hour course on how to make this phase of your life sparkle. I left an executive position in the natural gas industry at 47 thinking I had it all figured out. After 13 years of working on how to make it work, I am now ready to make sure I can help everyone I can reach learn that the current "Golden Years" model falls far short of what we need to thrive for as much as another 30 years once we no longer have to go to work.
Surviving a Grumpiness Epidemic

Surviving a Grumpiness Epidemic

This post is from July 31, 2012, slightly modified. It deserves a second debut.

How do you stay happy when things are going wrong for everyone else?

I am facing the grumpies on several fronts right now. I’d love to be the vaccine for helping these loved ones get past the bad things that have happened, but instead, I seem to be getting sucked deeper and deeper into Grumpyville.

Unless you’re Oscar the Grouch, grumpy is not a preferred state. Most of the time, you don’t even realize how negative you’ve become. Right now,my sweetie, who has been pretty upbeat about dealing with all the ups and downs of cancer treatment has bronchitis. He’s over the chemotherapy drill and on the mend in terms of “The Big Thing.” So it surprises me that he is being this impatient with a cough and some chest congestion. He does not sound good, I assure you. But it’s a temporary dilemma.

But he’s angry because he was finally starting to feel better after a long, long time of butt dragging. He’s impatient that what was starting to happen has yet again been delayed. It’s understandable, but that doesn’t mean the moans and the sighs and the complaints don’t affect me.

Photo by Dennis O’Donnell

I forget that sometimes. That I’m not invincible to other people’s woes. I feel bad for him, sure. But it’s getting to me. I’m starting with the sighing, too. What’s with that?

On top of that, my three-year-old granddaughter is in a grumpy phase. She is not a happy girl right now. Lots of things have changed for her recently. She has a little sister when before she was a one-girl show. Her mommy just went back to work after maternity leave. And Daddy, who used to be there whenever she needed him, is now already at work when she wakes up in the morning.

Her solution to all these changes? Scowl–fiercely and often. I never thought I would be afraid of a three-year-old but she has a formidable countenance when she’s not happy.

And then there are “the usual” frustrations.   Some local ne’er do wells rammed into the gate to the subdivision again over the weekend.  (I know, if there weren’t a gate it would not be a problem but….)  People are upset over what Mitt Romney said in Europe and what Barack Obama said at home.  Lots and lots of people are either angry or sullen.

How do I not end up being the same just by association?

I guess the first step is to realize that’s what I’m being exposed to.  But there’s more that I can do for myself, isn’t there?

Hmmm.  I guess the big thing is to tell myself often and firmly, “That’s not where I want to go.”  But what else?

  • Look for beauty. Everywhere. It creates its own joy.
  • Get outside and MOVE. The act of getting your body from Point A to Point B lifts your mood.
  • Stay away from the grumpy people on the periphery. You don’t need a ten minute conversation with someone in line at the grocery store who’s not happy about life.
  • Don’t bother with the news until the grumpy time is past with those closer to you.
  • Laugh at it when you can.  I need to do this with the three-year old particularly.  She’ll get past it and it will be easier on both of us if I don’t buy in at all.
  • Remember “This too shall pass.”  Because it will.

We all hit a rough patch now and then.  But it is important not to let “grumpy” become your M.O.

Using Mistakes

Using Mistakes

We’re doing this wrong.  It’s a mistake to think mistakes are dishonorable.  We miss the boat when we avert our eyes, embarrassed that one happened–to someone else or to yourself. It’s also a mistake to think they are something a really good person (like YOU) can avoid all the time.

We are human. Humans make mistakes. We’ve been taught to see them as flaws….things we should have gotten right the first time. But guess what? We learn better when we don’t get it right the first time. When everything goes right, it’s hard to figure out why. That means it’s hard to replicate that success. When things go wrong, you need to correct. You adjust one thing at a time to get things to go right the next time. Once you do, you know what works.

We don’t do this for every single step of everything we do. But we do enough of it that we have learned a whole lot more about whatever it is we are trying to master than if we’d gotten it right the first time. Mistakes are important.

When we make a mistake with a person, there’s another opportunity. To admit a mistake to another takes courage and humility–traits effective people have and unsuccessful people do not. So you get a jump start on learning how to be effective in social settings if you get comfortable with making a mistake in that setting–and then correcting it.

But what about when other people make mistakes. What’s the benefit of that in your world? Well, when it’s a mistake that affects you, you have the chance to learn to forgive. When we can accept the imperfection inherent in us all and let whatever happened pass, we become emotionally stronger people.

What about the situations that you just hear about? Where someone made a terrible mistake with someone else that doesn’t directly affect you in any way whatsoever? That is the best opportunity you will ever get to take the measure of that person as a person. Someone who owns the mistake, acknowledges that it was wrong, and then proves they have learned to not do that in how they live from there forward is worth trusting. Someone who blames someone else (often everyone else!) for what happened, who has no remorse over what they did, and who doesn’t have a clue how to change that behavior is not worth trusting.

We need to get to where we are doing this with people who want us to make them our elected officials. Every single one of them has made mistakes. And the media, since they are focused on getting attention for their work, are going to do their best to uncover every single mistake of every single candidate. What do you do with that?

You use it!

How does that person handle being called out for a past mistake? Do theyu own it? How long ago was it? Is there evidence between then and now that suggests it’s ingrained or has the person evolved over the years? What do those involved think of the mistake. (Sometimes, the media are the only ones doing the arm-flapping.)

The model we are currently using for news information is flawed. We have way too much sensationalism and not enough fact checking and integrity in what’s published, particularly online. But we can do a lot better with what they do offer us, too.

First, there’s fact checking, of course. But if this person did do that horrible, terrible, no-good thing, find out how long ago it was. Watch how that person deals with the information coming to light. Owning the mistake and explaining what they learned and how they do things now because of learning it is a person worth your vote. Claiming it never happened or blaming someone else because it did is spineless.

We don’t even want Spineless as dogcatcher.

HOW we deal with mistakes matters.  It’s a measure of character, emotional development, and problem solving skill.  It’s also a test of whether we can LEARN.  People who make the same mistakes again and again have a problem we need to notice.

But when we discount others because of a mistake, we deny ourselves the chance to vet based on true evidence of competence.  When we go with the person who supposedly never makes a mistake, we are buying in on a fake.  WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES. It’s what we do once they happen that determines our quality as people.

The Phone from Hell

The Phone from Hell

Sometimes technology is demonic. I know this as fact.

I decided I needed a new phone 4 months ago.  I did all the right things–spoke with family members who are effective with tech….did online research….thought about what was really important to me in a phone. 

I was going to be spending time in Europe, and the carrier I was using was a “US only” provider.  So I decided to switch carriers at the same time. More online research, more checking with “family experts,” etc. 

I decided on a phone other family members had had great success with.  It’s small, has a good camera, and is easy to grasp (important for me).  It was also twice as expensive as any phone I’d ever bought. Time to step up to the big kids’ game with this technology thing.

I did the ordering and set up my account online.  When the phone arrived, I set it all up online.  All by myself! Without NO problems. I was so proud of myself.

My descent into phone hell started the next day. A friend told me the call quality was really awful. I pretended she never made the comment.

Things went nicely for six weeks—partly because I was in Europe for three of them and didn’t call anyone.  Then things got bad.  A caller would suddenly not be able to hear me.  If I hung up and called back, the problem persisted.  Then calls started dropping entirely. Then they began dropping before they even rang. 

I sought help from the carrier.  Their solution was to have me do a lot of diagnostic stuff.  And then more diagnostic stuff.  Again and again.  They said it worked better if I called when there was a problem.  Kinda hard to pull off when it’s the call function that isn’t working.  (This is a large tech firm. I don’t think they worry too much about the phone part of their products.) So I was stuck with Live Chat.  A LOT of Live Chat.  I did what they told me. Turned off Bluetooth. Turned off my phone’s wifi. Brought the phone up in “safe mode” again and again. Did a factory reset. Nothing helped.

Since this only happened at home, I started getting in my car and driving to where I could see the cell tower to make important calls. (Yeah…this is when it became “mildly insane.”) But still I kept going back to that carrier for help.

They finally agreed to replace the phone. Problem solved.

Nope. The new (refurbished) phone had problems immediately. 

Back to “live chat.”  Plus phone calls after I borrowed a phone that did work. The light was dawning–this kind of business doesn’t do real customer service. This was not something they were going to fix. They expected ME to fix it.  Every time I asked for help, they gave me different set of instructions on what to do and different answers about what was causing it. Nothing helped.

I did more on my own. Changed my internet service provider. Installed a new modem. Upgraded my service bandwidth. Repositioned the wifi equipment.  Nada. 

Back to the carrier. They told me I needed to “become a developer” so I could generate a “bug report” for them.  This is a secret designation within the phone software that they coached me through. But it was also the reality of what was going on. They wanted me to learn enough to help them solve their problem. There was some kind of bug in what they had created.

They gave me an even longer list of instructions and said to email them the report when I’d produced it.  (Does this sound like work direction to you?  Did to me.)  I followed their instructions until they didn’t work (the third step of about fifteen). 

I finally regained my sanity and said “No”.  I never agreed to learn how to do work they should have done to remedy their system problems. I’m good at a lot of things but troubleshooting cellphone software is not one of them. I asked for a refund.

Silence.

I found a different carrier and lucked into a free phone of equivalent value.. That made the experience sting a little less.

But why did I put myself through this in the first place? I should have listened when my friend complained about call quality. A full refund would have been automatic if I’d sent it back in the first 15 days. I also got way too hung up on how much I paid for it.  (Or as my brother put it “Do the emergency surgery and get on with your  life.”)

This is a whole different approach to “Customer Service” and we need to be aware of the difference. The easiest solutions come when can you do what they tell you to do and that solves the problem.  But sometimes, that’s not enough.  That’s not your fault. The service providers need Plan B for those situations–and it’s not in trying to make you into a software developer for their benefit.

Eventually they replaced the replacement phone–after I gave up on them.  A family member was looking for that very phone.  All’s well that ends well.

Leisure – the Salt of Life

Leisure – the Salt of Life

This post originally appeared April 3, 2013

Some folks may be feeling sorry for themselves because they have to be get creative to be able to retire at all.  That makes as much sense as being upset because the caterpillar turned into a butterfly.

We spend our working years looking forward to not working—to long lazy stretches of lying on the warm sand at a sunny beach or relaxing in a favorite recliner.  Reality is different though—100% leisure isn’t satisfying in the long haul.   Yep.  It’s a bad idea even if you can fund it.

Leisure is like salt–when you sprinkle a little on what you have cooking it brings out the flavor.  But if you try to exist on a steady diet of just salt, your meals are going to be not only very unpleasant.  They will be dangerous.

Too much salt can kill you.  That’s true of leisure as well. Leisure steals a lot of important emotional nutrients from your diet if you resort to it too often.  You don’t feel competent because you haven’t done anything to prove your mettle.  You lose confidence in yourself because you aren’t doing anything significant.  You start to ask yourself scary questions like “Why am I even here?” You lose your enthusiasm for life.  There’s no zing in “doing nothing.”

Leisure means you expend little, if any, effort.  It is not the same as play.  Play is far more active and personal—and much more essential.  According to researcher Dr. Stuart Brown, play helps our brains develop, makes our empathy bloom, helps us navigate complex social situations, and is essential to creativity and innovation. Play is for everyone, too—not just kids.

Most of us do need more play when we retire.  Careers are built on the mantra of productivity and play is, by definition (at least by Dr. Brown), not productive.  So we don’t value play.  Stuart notes that the opposite of play isn’t work.  It’s depression.  So yes, we do need to play when we retire.  But play is active.  When you play, you are doing something and having fun at it.

But we don’t need an exclusive diet of that either.  Play is like sugar—it’s a treat.  You need more of it than leisure—just like you use more sugar than salt in your cooking (unless you’re making dill pickles or sauerkraut).

But the real deal is flour.  (In a gluten-free environment, it’s just not wheat flour. And in a healthy environment, whole grain.)  You use flour—lots of it–in bread and pasta.  You use it for gravy and coating the chicken you are going to bake or—gasp!—fry. And, of course, there’s flour in cookies, cakes, and pastries.  In my kitchen analogy, the piece we need the most of, the “flour”, is work.  To be a healthy version (“whole grain”) it needs to be work you love.

We need work, just like we need grains in our diets.  But just like whole grain flour is good for you and bleached white flour is not, meaningful unpaid work is better for you than anything you do for money that you don’t have your heart in.  The work you need when you retire should be more wholesome and more enriching—but it should be there.

If you can’t afford the leisure-centered version of retirement, rejoice.  You didn’t need all that leisure.  You need a chance to play and a chance to do meaningful work along with that leisure.  With some effort and reflection, you might be able get both of those things in work you continue to do for pay.  If that’s not possible, you can still fit them into your day with a bit of ingenuity.

Human beings are not made to sit around the swimming pool sipping mojitos day after day.  That kind of experience is only fun as an interlude–a break between more emotionally, mentally, and physically engaging activities. A little is pleasant.  A lot is lethal.  You really can die from sitting around

Learn to play.  Find good work.  Sprinkle in some leisure every once in a while.  You’ll be miles ahead of the folks who packed the car and moved to Easy Street because they could afford to stop working.

Why Work Is Important

Why Work Is Important

It’s easy to grasp the importance of work in terms of paying the bills. A lot has been written about the need for challenge that many meet with their work, too. And the social value of going to work has been thoroughly documented. But there is something even more basic about it. It’s almost as important as food…water….shelter.

I’ve been trying to get a handle this elusive aspect of work for more than a decade. I think I finally found it in The Second Mountain by David Brooks. Brooks has taken a lot of heat for that book. For starters, he has the audacity to suggest that there is more to a good life than “things” and “being the very best You.” But he has also knit the pieces of a life together like a wise uncle, and what he has to say about work is spot on.

He quoted a conversation William Least Heat-Moon described having with an old man who was walking his dog on some American backroad: “A man’s never out of work if he’s worth a damn….It’s just sometimes he doesn’t get paid….that’s got nothing to do with working. A man’s work is doing what he’s supposed to do, and that’s why he needs a catastrophe now and again to show him a bad turn isn’t the end, because a bad stroke never stops a good man’s work.”

In current society, we look at those “bad turns” as a character flaw. And we are convinced that not having to work is the ultimate brass ring–just short of winning the Powerball lottery in solving all life’s problems.

We are so off the mark.

Work gives us a way to know our own value and to contribute to the community so we feel we belong. But instead of a moderate dose on an ongoing basis, we pile it so high we can’t do it all for years and then try to not do any once we can “retire.” Why?!

Brooks goes on to say “A job is a way of making a living, but work is a particular way of being needed, of fulfilling the responsibility that life has placed before you.”

He carries the concept across a lifetime using advice first offered by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Your work should have length–something you get better at over a lifetime. It should have breadth–it should touch many other people. And it should have height–it should put you in service to some ideal and satisfy the soul’s yearning for righteousness.”

All that makes good sense as you work through your career years and build a list of “professional achievements.” But the pith of this idea is just as relevant after you give up paid work. We still need to “fulfill the responsibility that life has placed before you.” We need to work.

Unless you look beyond the obvious, work is hard to find at this stage of the game though. Plus options are distorted by prior experience, particularly if you did something “important” during your career years. The expectation is that you can pick up where you left off in terms of authority and impact. It just doesn’t work that way.

But work abounds for every single one of us if we stop pretending it has to be grandiose and custom tailored to what we already have done and know how to do. To do work at this stage of life well, we need to notice what needs to be fixed and get on with it. For a while, this might be all the things around the house that didn’t get attention while you were in career mode. But eventually, you start to see things beyond home sweet home. Maybe a kid in the neighborhood needs someone to talk to on a regular basis. Maybe a stretch of road you travel often is littered and needs some TLC. Maybe you notice an article about a local food bank needing someone to transport food donated by grocery stores.

Ideally, what you do as work both deepens what you already know and lets you learn more. Maybe you’re already really good at logistics but know nothing about food distribution. Maybe you’ve been in the grocery business your whole life but now have the chance to learn how to work as part of an effective volunteer team. (I once helped a city of 33,000 create a public art plan. When I started I knew zero about public art, but I was highly effective at building teams who could create solid plans. And we did.)

The specifics aren’t as important as the commitment to keep working in some way. We need work.

Success via “No”

Success via “No”

 Yesterday, I was caught by an online headline offering “the one habit that Warren Buffett says separates successful people from everyone else.”  I lived in Omaha for ten years.  I like Warren Buffett.  And anything about behavior lures me because my academic background includes a lot of psychology.  So I clicked.

The article was by Marcel Schwantes for Inc.  The quote it attributed to Buffet was:  “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”  

photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

Schwantes then goes on to quote Steve Jobs about what constitutes focus: “”People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

You have to pick what you say yes to–carefully.

This isn’t just about business decisions.  The advice applies across the board.  For most of us, the Yes comes without even thinking for pretty much everything.  And that is where the trouble begins.  Yes to everything means you can’t do anything very well.  It also means you are running around like a chicken and living on a few hours of sleep every night trying to get it all done with even a C grade.

We need to learn to be far more lavish in doling out No’s.

Okay, so what do you say No to?  The new project at work?  Having dinner with the neighbors?  Taking the kids to the park?  Visiting your mother-in-law in the dementia unit? Working out?

It depends. There is no guru cradling a Magic 8-Ball, but it’s not all that hard.  You say No to the things that are not important… to YOU.  You say No to the things that will distract you from what is important.  You say No to things that waste huge amounts of time without gaining anything important.  You say No to the things that you can see before you even get into them are going to throw your life off balance.  You say No when the opportunity, request, or, even demand, is going to jeopardize an important Yes.

And that means you have to know what IS important.  This is not something for your wife/husband, mother, best friend or kid to tell you.  This is stuff your heart has to tell you. That’s one of the few places we say No a lot. To what our hearts begs of us.  We have this so backwards.

You also have to have the courage to step up to that No.  That is also up to you.  You can learn how to do this well—it is a SKILL.  (I remain a fan of Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Connection for how to do that.)

This ability really does separate the successful from the not-quite-there.  People who know what they want and can stay focused on those things get them much more readily than the rest of us who chose afresh every day (and thus, start from scratch again and again on what we are trying to achieve).

If you are focused on the important things, your life will be happy.  Even when there are big challenges and things are not going well, you know you’re working on the things that truly deserve your effort.  You know you are making progress on things that mean a lot to you.  You know what you are doing is worthwhile even if it’s difficult.  And you also know that the other Yes’s are in balance.  All is well with your world.

Workaholics are not happy.  Doormats are not happy.  Learning how and when to say No can literally transform your life.

Who Should Pay?

Who Should Pay?

A recent article in a friend’s online newsletter was a rant that the guy should always pay when on a date with a woman.  That seems grossly unfair to me—if you both have money, taking turns seems more appropriate.  This friend likes the “old fashioned way.”  She has as much of a right to believe that’s best as I do to believe otherwise. 

But there’s a bigger question here.  How can we be effective in deciding when to pay and when to have another pay?

Another example is the current trend for kids to live with their folks for free, even if they are gainfully employed.  Who benefits with that?  From the outside, it looks like nobody.  The kid is denied the chance to learn how to meet their own needs with their own resources.  The parent continues to shell out for additional groceries, higher utility bills, etc. instead of being able enjoy things that meet their own discretionary needs.

Then there are the parents who insist on paying every time even though their adult kids are ready and willing to pick up the tab.  Who wins there?  Nobody.  Again.  The kids are left to be “dependents” long after they have matured beyond it.

And then there are friends.  The poor money manager kind, especially.  They can be quite comfortable with you footing the bill all the time because “you have more money.” Maybe that’s true, but it’s likely, at least in part, to be because they didn’t and don’t do good job of money management.  If you want to do something expensive they can’t afford and want them along, open your wallet.  But if every time you go to lunch, they choose a place beyond their own means and then expect you to pay, give it some thought.  Being someone else’s sugar daddy is a dead-end. 

What does paying say about the situation? 

Treating someone else to something that costs money is a way to say “I love you.”  So most of us find some situation where paying the bill is important.  But it also says “I believe in you and value your competence” when you give the other person the chance to pay.  And it can be saying “We’re friends, and we share the load—and it’s your turn this time.”

It’s not about dollars.  It’s about power—who is going to be subordinate by being “taken care of”.  The very old sometimes need to be “taken care of.”  And the very young, certainly.  But if you are taking care of everyone all the time, stop.  You’re throwing things off balance big time.

We need to pay attention to the message we are sending when we choose to pay.  Is it

  • Treating a loved one to something special?
  • Setting a good example for kids not yet old enough to have their own resources?
  • Carrying out the responsibilities of a specific role—like caregiver or bookkeeper?
  • Celebrating something that makes you feel prosperous with friends?

These are all legitimate.

OR is it

  • Accepting doormat status and paying for someone else’s good time who should be paying for it themselves?
  • Treating your grown kids as if they aren’t capable of paying when they reached that status long ago?
  • Relying on old practices without confirming that’s how the one you expect to pay wants to do it?

Sometimes, having the other person pay is the most responsible, loving thing you can do.  And sometimes it’s selfish, immature, and lazy.

As for who should pay on a date?  Well, if all you are after is a nice dinner, then insisting he pay may be the way to go.  (You may never see the guy again, but perhaps that’s your MO.)  When I date, it’s to get to know a guy.  I want to see what he’s like when he has the power and when I take it. If you can get in sync about who does when, you are well on the way to being good friends at a minimum.   When you insist he is always the one to pay, you’ve lost the chance to learn many important things. What’s he’s like when someone else has the power? Is he comfortable with give and take?  How does he handle his resources?  Does he respect yours?

Come to think of it, that’s all stuff to look at when deciding if the kids or friends should pay, too.

Ending the year

Ending the year

This article originally appeared as Ending 2013.

We are to that point in the calendar where we officially write THE END on the current year.  Each of us comes up with our own rituals for marking this.  It’s different for me now that I’ve “given up work”–not as straightforward or obvious.

When I was in corporate America, Dec. 31 was my favorite work day–partly because most of the office had taken vacation and I could get a ton of work done.  But every Dec. 31, after everything else was buttoned up, I’d also spend an hour reflecting on the year that was ending.  There were always things to point to that made me proud, excited, happy.  It was a great little ritual because it never occurred to me to dwell on what had gone wrong.  I left the office and walked into the new year with confidence.

Now, I’m not so good at that.  It’s tempting to tell myself that it’s because I haven’t gotten anything done in the dying year that justifies being happy, proud, or excited.

But I can finally see that’s not really what’s going on.  (Thank heavens!)

Once we are out on our own, it’s harder to set a course and stay on it.  That’s one of the side effects of that flexibility retirement blesses us with.  As we age, things tend to get less predictable as well.  Illness or injury quite often, but also opportunities that make us veer off course from the things we said we were going to do.  Two weeks in Mexico with the perfect travel companion?  Of course the volunteer work you were going to find can wait.   A friend with a litter of puppies that have him overwhelmed?  You love puppies–why not help out?

So how do you assess a year once you’ve given up the annual goal setting process at work?  Do you even need to ask “Was this a good year?”

I think we do.  All of us want to be competent and deciding that the year was done well is an example of that.   But the parameters need to change.

Instead of looking at work projects and milestones with kids (graduations, potty training, whatever), at this point we need to ask ourselves more personal questions.  These are the ones I’m going to use as I end this year:

  • Did I do the things I felt were important?
  • Was I authentic in how I lived this year?
  • Did I offer kindness when I had the chance?
  • What did I create?
  • How did I have fun?
  • If I was starting again on January 1, what would I do differently?

That last one is just to prime the pump for the coming year.  Endings are beginnings after all.  As I close this chapter, I’m laying the foundation for the next one.

It’s not about whether you meet all those goals anymore.  It’s about how well you’ve lived this particular chunk of your life.  Only you know what’s important about that, so find the questions that resonate for you.  And then be happy, excited and proud of all you did with the last twelve months.

Happy New Year!

The Wisdom of Seeking Wisdom

The Wisdom of Seeking Wisdom

This article originally appeared May 7, 2009

One of the many sad consequences of our preoccupation with youth is that we don’t pay much attention to wisdom. That’s like worrying about what color to paint the garage and ignoring the Ferrari that’s housed inside.

Wisdom, per Merriam Webster’s is “accumulated philosophic or scientific learning: KNOWLEDGE” or “ability to discern inner qualities and relationships:INSIGHT” or “good sense: JUDGMENT.”Roll it all together and you get “a wise attitude, belief, or course of action.” Wisdom is a key to living well. But aspiring to it is not typically on our lists of New Year’s resolutions or personal goal statements.

That’s probably because to acquire it, you have to accept you’re getting older.  We don’t like to go there.

First, let’s face one unavoidable fact. Every single day of our lives, we get older. It’s the normal course of events. The only alternative is to die—and I’m not voting for that option. So if we’re going to get older anyway, why not do it gracefully? Why not do it in a way that makes the reality more compelling? Why not work on becoming wise?

Going back to the definition I started with, there are three pieces to this—and then the decision to live that way (which is the attitude part).

Knowledge

Jokes about hiring a teenager because they know it all have been around forever. And we’ve all met precocious ten-year-olds who could go on for an hour on a topic they found interesting. But the knowledge that serves as a basis for wisdom has to be more comprehensive than the knowledge of youth. Becoming wise requires an accurate picture of the real world. And that means you need to have lived there a while. And paid attention.

Too often, we live in the realm of what we assume to be true instead confirming what is. Buying a car—or house—that you can’t afford is an example of that. But so is staying in a dead-end job because you’re telling yourself you’re not good enough for anything better. Not believing in ourselves is the stingiest approach of all to life. But it takes wisdom to see that–and to stop doing it.

Gaining knowledge hinges on paying attention to what’s going on around you. People who have learned “what comes  next” again and again are more serene about life situations. A wise person knows the bad times will end and can work patiently toward that day. She also savors the good times because they, too, are temporary. What we learn of the ebb and flow of life—by living it consciously—gives us a more solid foundation.

Insight

Knowing about life is important, but you need to find the patterns in it, too–even when they’re hidden in the shadows. Insight is combining information from the disparate sources you’ve observed and drawing astute conclusions about what’s going on.

One of my dearest family members reacts intensely to overwork. Until I understood that pattern, I found myself in the middle of emotional upheavals that left me baffled and hurt. Without a conscious assessment of previous episodes and an effort to extract what was common to them, I believed—as she was prone to insisting in those moments—that I was inadequate as a person and a loved one. Now, I just find the quickest route to the sidelines. Getting out of the way for a bit is a much better solution for both of us. This is wisdom. It’s practical. It’s loving. And it’s not going to show up unless you’re getting older. You have to watch things for a while to see patterns.

Judgment

Judgment is not about deciding you’re better than someone else. The judgment that comes with wisdom is about choosing an effective course of action.

Sometimes, it’s obvious. If the house is on fire, you get out and call 911. But if you’ve been worrying for weeks about whether to go on vacation in June or August, maybe you need to let go of it for a while. Wise judgment is knowing when NOT to decide sometimes. Ever spend months feeling awful that you weren’t getting to something that “had” to be done only to discover it didn’t need to be done at all?

Wisdom includes intuition when employing judgment. Knowledge and insight are essential, but so is “gut feel” if you want to get it right. As we get older, we become more willing to hear—and honor—that “little voice.” We make wiser choices as a result.

Wise as an attitude

We don’t become wise instantaneously. Wisdom comes in small increments. To get all the way to unflappable, ongoing serenity, we need to decide we want to become wiser. Every day. For a lot of days…weeks…months…years.

Appreciating Little Bits of Genius

Appreciating Little Bits of Genius

Another blast from the past. This was originally posted Dec. 28, 2011. Here it is again with a few minor changes.

One good way to make your life better is to notice the ways it already is.  There are so many little bits of someone else’s smarts that we get the benefit of.  Usually we take it all for granted and notice the “not quite right” parts instead.

For a good day, start with your shower.  Hot water, on demand, where you want it on your body.  That wasn’t part of what was here before humanity started asking “what would happen if…?”   How lucky we are that someone figured out fire…and how to heat water with fire…and how to keep water hot in a tank…and get it to the bathroom via a network of pipes.  How wonderful for us that some genius figured out how to blend hot and cold water so that we can have it just the right temperature, turn it hotter–or colder–and turn it off when we didn’t need it any more.  A lot of people put their smarts into what has become a taken-for-granted part of modern life.

And at the breakfast table, how about orange juice–or whatever juice you drink?  Someone had to figure out that it would be cool to separate the juice from the fruit–or vegetable.  And someone had to learn how to store it once that was done.  And then how to transport it so that it stayed palatable and safe to drink.  If you make your own juice, someone probably helped you with that process by designing a machine to extract the juice in your very own kitchen.

The little things are good reminders of the big things.  We are blessed with machines that accomplish important stuff for us–everything from getting us to Point B from Point A, be it by car, train, airplane or space shuttle to making us coffee.  We have a wide range of options for gaining information–computers, books, newspapers, personal conversations.  Everything we know depends on someone else’s smarts for us to be able to access it.   Our lives are so much easier because of other people’s effort and ingenuity.

John Donne’s quote “No man is an island” is particularly true when it comes to our convenience.  We are so lucky that so many were so smart about so many “little things.”

As we end this year, let’s benefit even more by noticing them.  What little pluses do you rely on every day?  The barista’s skill at making your machiatto?  Someone came before them to invent a machiatto.  And to figure out that picking, roasting, and grinding coffee beans was worth doing.

The subway system?  The daycare to whom you entrust your child–or your grandchild?  Perhaps a nod to those who invented animal and graham crackers is in order. How about the clothes you’re wearing? There’s a ton of smarts in a good pair of pants.

These are just bits and pieces of a richly complex life of conveniences.  Our lives are so much easier and more pleasant in so many ways because of someone else’s thinking and ingenuity.  Lucky for us that they wanted to create those things.

In our current jaded take on commerce, the thought might come, “Well, they made money on the deal.  I don’t need to be grateful.”

Oh come on!  Most of the good that’s come about in the world is because someone wanted to solve a problem, to make something better.  Until recently, it was never about the money.  It was about the satisfaction of improving life for oneself and others.

A little gratitude for all those bits of creative effort and smarts puts you right with the world you’re blessed to be in.  So appreciate that stoplight–what chaos you’d have to endure if it had not been invented.  Appreciate the time clock if you punch one.  It keeps an accurate record of all the time you worked.  So many have done so much to make our lives easier.  Be happy about that–and then see what you can do to add to this glorious collection of little bits of genius.