Top 5 Posts of 2013

Top Blog Posts of 2013-01One of the great blessings of my career—heck, my life—is the opportunity I’ve had to communicate through the written word.  Thank YOU for reading my work.

In 2011, my bucket list daydream of having a book published came true; then in 2012, I began actively contributing to Forbes.com, for which I write a weekly blog post.

I enjoy the creative process enough that if only one person read a post, article or book that I wrote—and benefited from it—that would be reward enough for me.  The pleasant surprise of 2013, though, was that far more people read and responded to my work than I ever could have imagined.

Even more of a shock, however, was the subject matter of the posts that became popular and garnered the most attention.  I’m a financial planner who writes about the intersection of money and life, but my most viewed posts definitely skewed toward the life part of that equation.

In case you missed any of them, here are the top 5 most viewed posts of 2013:

5. Haiti Doesn’t Need Our Help (Forbes.com) — Though it only ranks fifth in views, I think this would be my personal favorite—and most important—post of 2013.

4. 10 Days Is the Magic Vacation Number. Here’s Why (Lifehacker.com) — This post was initially published on my Forbes blog, but Lifehacker republished it (with permission), where it racked up an even higher number of views.

3. Two Reasons Why Copying People Won’t Make You Successful (Forbes.com) — On this most recent post within the top five, I got to work with two of my favorite “success authors,” Michael Hyatt and Laura Vanderkam. We discussed why the path to success isn’t necessarily found following someone else’s footsteps.

2. What you don’t know about Social Security can hurt your retirement (CNBC.com) — I’ve had the privilege of working with CNBC for several years on video projects, but this article was my first contribution on the written front.  I’m looking forward to more of these in 2014.

1. 7 Reasons I Dumped Facebook (Yahoo! Finance) — I’m still dumbfounded by the popularity of this post.  Yes, I decided to quit Facebook and hesitantly chose to write about why.  Apparently, this sentiment happened to hit the online airwaves at just the right time, because after getting more views than anything else I’ve ever written for Forbes.com, it was picked up by Yahoo! Finance and went viral on their site. Crazy.

I’m really looking forward to 2014, excited about the opportunity to bring money to life—and life to money—in writing.  I’m soaking up wisdom from the Forbes editorial staff, have two new book projects in the works and was humbled by CNBC’s invitation to join their inaugural group of 20 financial advisors making up the CNBC Digital Financial Advisor Council.

But I’d love to hear what YOU want to read more of in 2014.  Please shoot me an email at tim[at]timmaurer[dot com] with your thoughts.  (Yes, I know email address is not “spelled” correctly; it’s so robo-spammers don’t snag my email address.)

THANKS AGAIN, AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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20 Lessons We Can Learn From 20-Year-Olds

20 YO Graphic-01It’s become enormously popular to publicly lecture 20-somethings.  I’m not a 20-something, but my regular interaction with the Millennial generation as a college instructor leads me to conclude that we may have more to learn from 20-somethings than we have to teach them.

Here are 20 lessons in LIFE, WORK and MONEY inspired by the Millennial generation:

In LIFE…

Nobody responds well to being lectured.   Despite the ineffectiveness of self-righteous bombast, it seems never to be in short supply.  Insisting that someone else sees how wrong they are may guarantee that we will feel more right—but it doesn’t necessarily make it so.  Even if you have good intentions, the best time to teach someone something is after they’ve asked for input.

Life needn’t be so strictly compartmentalized.  Work, family, leisure, service, worship and artistic expression are elements of life that remain segregated for most.  But this schizophrenia of roles leads to inauthentic living in one or more of these venues (and drives us crazy).

We should give ourselves permission to be more of who we are and less of who people want us to be.  There’s an externally successful business owner who shows up at my gym for his morning workout dressed to the nines in a suit and tie.  He didn’t come from a meeting—he just thinks it’s important to send a message everywhere he goes that he is successful (and he’s happy to announce it).  The Millennials’ refusal to engage in such posturing is often mistaken for aloofness or apathy, but it’s really more about a healthy yearning for authenticity.

Being miserably busy is not a good measure of self-worth.  Busyness is no virtue.  It leads to forgetfulness, distraction and tardiness.  And it’s exhausting.

We are human beings, not human doings.  We tend to explain who we are by listing what we do for work and what we have accomplished professionally.  Millennials are more comfortable in their own skin and more capable of enjoying time that can’t be measured in terms of productive output.

 “American” is not actually a language.  Millennials are the first generation in decades who don’t take American pre-eminence for granted.  They’re expanding their personal and professional horizons with international travel and picking up a second or third language.

Traditional education is overvalued.  While Millennials are known for having overpaid for higher education, their dissatisfaction with what they got in return—fueled by their angst over the loans that now burden them—are serving to ensure that they and their children will spearhead the biggest education overhaul in a couple centuries.

In WORK…

Being a slave to work is no badge of honor.  Being the first in and last to leave may send a message to the types of people who value an ascetic work regimen, but it will also send a message to your family and close friends that your work is more important than they are.  Which message do you want to send?

We’re not all productive in the same ways and at the same times.  Sure, there are advantages to being an early bird, but the best employees will figure out where, when and how they work most effectively, and the best bosses will encourage them to do so (to a mutually beneficial end).

Work and life aren’t something to be balanced, but instead something to be integrated.  That we must balance work and life implies that they are seemingly opposed forces incapable of being effectively blended, but the most effective leaders and satisfied employees find ways to bring work to life by inviting more life to work.

Success is overrated.  Boomers have made an art form of becoming successful, or at least appearing so.  Success certainly isn’t a bad thing, but when the visible representation of success (more impressive titles, bigger houses, nicer cars, granite everything) takes precedence over those for whom we supposedly became successful to serve, we have a problem.  This isn’t even a generational thing.  It’s never really been true that reaching the pinnacle of success is what ultimately makes our lives fulfilling—it’s really significance and meaning for which we hunger.  Millennials seem to have a better handle on that.

In MONEY…

You don’t have to “get settled down” right away.  Financial planner, Roger Whitney, told me “[Millennials] are getting married later in life [than Baby Boomers] which gives them time to mature and be more financially secure when entering marriage.”

Money shouldn’t be a taboo topic of discussion.  30-something personal finance writer, Arielle O’Shea, finds Millennials to be more open about money.  Even if it’s because they’re more cynical about financial security, having seen a couple bubbles burst and many of their parents split over financial issues, Millennials seem to be more open to discussing their personal finances (to good effect) with each other and in public.

We don’t have to own everything—sharing is ok too.  Having to own everything we touch in this lifetime may be good for auto and home improvement companies, but it’s certainly not the most efficient or inexpensive way to do things.  Airbnb allows users to swap living spaces, Lyft offers a network of drivers when you need a ride, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg in the growing sharing economy.  Millennials are making and saving money with services like these, according to Forbes writer, Maggie McGrath.

The acquisition of real estate is overrated.  Creating stability, building equity and getting tax deductions are all good things—but losing money and depriving yourself of the freedom and flexibility to be mobile are not.  Millennials haven’t abandoned home ownership, but we all need reminding that it does have its drawbacks and shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion for everyone all the time.

We can and should embrace the role of technology in our financial lives.  The financial services industry is known more for hindering progress and clinging to antiquated, high-margin practices and procedures.  Millennials, however, are creating and “using websites such as Mint, You Need a Budget or Manilla, which not only help to track spending, but serve as accountability partners with e-mail alerts when spending limits are exceeded,” according to Mary Beth Storjohann, founder of Workable Wealth.

Youth isn’t a license to embrace reckless investing.  Carmen Wong Ulrich, host of Marketplace Money on APM says “[Millennials are] less likely to want to risk investing their money in the markets, but that also means they’re more likely to stay away from the financial products (and marketing) that burned their parents.”  Indeed, losing money isn’t a good strategy, regardless of your age.

Experiences are more valuable than things.  David Burstein, Millennial author of Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaping Our World, acknowledges that 20-somethings are spending more than any past generation on travel and eating out, but it’s because they place a higher value in deepening interpersonal relationships and creating lasting memories.

The “traditional” notion of retirement isn’t necessarily an ideal.  Millennials tell me that they expect to be working a long, long time.  They don’t expect pensions and don’t trust Social Security, leaving them with little choice, but they also don’t idolize the notion of full-time feet-in-the-sand retirement.  They plan to work longer and enjoy themselves more along the way, many of them hunting more for a calling than a job.

You can do well and do good at the same time.  Profit or charity—take your pick?  The Millennials have invited us to consider that we don’t have to choose between Robber Barron or do-gooder.  In addition to Google’s unofficial motto—“Don’t do evil”—companies like Toms and Warby Parker give one pair of shoes and eyeglasses (respectively) for every pair sold.

Every generation finds comfort in the norms it helped establish and relishes in the norms it helped deconstruct—but the outgoing generation tends to not-so-quietly mourn when the incoming generation does the same.  Pew Research calls the Millennials confident, connected and open to change.  Yes, it’s a little scary that 20-somethings are changing the way we live, work, play, invest and worship—all without even asking our permission!  But it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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5 Things The Most Successful People Do In The Bathroom

Bathroom4Please don’t feel misled or manipulated by this parody title—I’d have clicked on it too.  But before you read another three-to-three-hundred bullet points on how you can be more successful, please consider that doing so may actually be unproductive or counterproductive without a proper frame of reference:

We wake each day on a quest for personal validation that we apparently believe is found in someone’s definition of success.  We then presume that rote replication of the habits of the supposedly successful will directly correlate to similar degrees of success in our own lives.

While appealing, this logic fails—for two primary reasons:

1)     You’re not them.

2)     They’re not you.

You’re Not Them

Michael Hyatt is a leadership/writing/speaking/creative/success blogger whom I’ve been following for a few years.  He is a certified member of the successful people demographic, especially as a best-selling author and sought after speaker.

Michael blogs on a host of valuable topics and has introduced me to many productivity and technological tools, some of which (like Evernote) are now a major part of my life.  But what attracts many if not most of his followers is that Michael is what his readers hope to be—a professional writer and platform speaker.

If you want to be a professional writer or speaker, I highly recommend Michael Hyatt’s blog.  He offers oodles of free content on blogging, self-publishing, finding a literary agent and getting published.  He also sells e-books on writing a book proposal, books on building a platform and conferences on launching a business as a public speaker.

Having personally consumed a wide range of Hyatt’s free content and paid-for products and services, I can attest to their benefit.  But none of Michael’s followers (myself included) should delude themselves to think that by following Michael’s precepts to the letter their own success is guaranteed.  Why?

You’re not Michael Hyatt.

You don’t have a lifetime’s worth of experience in publishing.

You weren’t the “Chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, the seventh largest trade book publishing company in the U.S.”

You might not even be a good writer or public speaker.

While Michael Hyatt’s success is certainly at least a byproduct of the tangible habits that he has practiced and well-articulated to his followers, it’s possible—if not likely—that his success is contingent even more on the personal intangibles that he—and only he—possesses.

They’re Not You

I say this not to discourage you on your path if you’re an ardent follower of Hyatt’s or anyone else’s, but instead to affirm that the innate gifts you were born with are almost surely different from those with which Michael was endowed.

You might become Michael’s next contemporary co-headlining conferences with him—or you may be an even bigger commercial success than Hyatt pursuing a completely different methodology—BUT you also might be a better editor, copywriter, photographer or literary agent—or maybe a doctor, a sailing instructor, a stay-at-home dad or a rock-star plumber.

Laura Vanderkam is another successful person who has written extensively on successful people.  Her What the Most Successful People Do e-book series is well-researched, artfully written and entirely practical.  One of the books focusses on what the most successful people do before breakfast, outlining many of the great benefits of early risers.

I was shocked, then—and more than a little relieved—when Laura told me that she is NOT particularly a morning person.  (Neither am I.)

Instead, Laura has designed her mornings to cater to her strengths.  She has learned that her most productive hours are between 8:00am and 10:00am.  Those two hours are sacred writing and creating time for Vanderkam.  Phone calls, appointments and emails are never scheduled or touched until thereafter.

Who are you?

Sure, there’s a piece of me who wishes I was one of the star football players featured prominently for my beloved Baltimore Ravens on Sunday afternoons.  But if I took one hit from an NFL safety while coming across the middle on a slant pattern as a receiver, you’d be reading my obituary, not this blog post.  I’m not made to do that.

What were you made to do?

Once you get that far, once you declare who you are and what you were made to do, then it’s time to analyze how well you are applying your skills with the limited time that you have.  “Know how you’re spending your time, so that you can see where space is available,” Vanderkam said (and she’s written an entire book on that practice alone).  Only then is it time to start analyzing best practices of the people you most admire and integrating them into a regimen designed specifically for you, your skillset and your calendar.  “You have to apply it through the filter of what will work in your life and what will not.”

“People should strive to be the very best version of who they are,” Michael Hyatt told me.  “There are many paths to success.  The best one is the one that allows you to use and develop your innate strengths.  Those will look different in different people.”

The worship of success and successful people has become so aggressive in the blogosphere that I wouldn’t be surprised if we do see an article in the future instructing us on what the most successful people do in the bathroom.  But we shouldn’t hope to find significance in being deemed successful (by whatever measure).  Instead, when we cultivate our own unique significance through a perpetual cycle of self-examination, education and practice, success becomes a natural byproduct.

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Revolutionary Retail: Test-Driving Warby Parker And Dollar Shave Club

Eyeglasses and razors are two notoriously high-margin personal commodities for which we’ve been overpaying for decades, but two companies have declared war on these monopolistic product lines.  Using vastly different marketing strategies, Warby Parker and Dollar Shave Club sell eyeglasses (for men and women) and men’s razors respectively, almost entirely online and via mail-order—at a fraction of the prices we are accustomed to paying (as little as $95 for prescription glasses and three bucks a month for razors).  But are they worth it, and what’s the experience like?  Since I’m physiologically incapable of recommending anything I haven’t experienced, this largely late-adopting guinea pig offers the results of his experience here:

A Rebellious Spirit and a Lofty Objective

Let’s start with Warby Parker, as they were founded first.  According to co-founders and Wharton grads, Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt, David Gilboa and Jeffrey Raider, “Warby Parker was founded with a rebellious spirit and a lofty objective: to create boutique-quality, classically crafted eyewear at a revolutionary price point.”  Admittedly, I’m a sucker for anti-establishment world-changers, especially those who save me money, but I had to be sure Warby Parker would meet the high expectations they set for themselves.  Here’s how the process worked for me:

1)     I chose 5 sets of glasses online.

glasses1

2)     A few days later, I received this package in the mail:

glasses2

3)     I suffered through two NO WAYs, a NOPE and a MAYBE before finally reaching a YES from my wife and kids.

4)     I sent the box of five back in the same packaging in which it arrived (postage paid) and ordered my new glasses online through an intuitive, step-by-step process that included plugging in my prescription.

5)     I received my new glasses in about a week.

glasses3

What if you don’t like any of the first five pairs of glasses you try on?  They’ll send you another five at no cost.  What if the final product isn’t to your liking?  Returns are also free.  What about anti-reflective coating?  It’s included in the price.

The all-in pricing was, for me, the most satisfying part of the entire process.  We have a pretty basic vision insurance plan at work, but I was shocked at how little that actually got me when I went to one of the mainline brick-and-mortar eyeglasses carriers (not to be named, but rhymes with Crenshafters).  There, I got an eye exam at no charge.  Then, I had $45 to put toward frames and $52 for lenses, separately priced even though they both play a pretty important role.  The only frames priced anywhere close to my reimbursement rate looked like they were rejects from the bargain bin at the Dollar Store.  I was already a couple hundred bucks out-of-pocket just for frames that I was willing to put on my face.  Then, unless I was willing to live with a painful glare when using my glasses where light was present, I had to pay extra for anti-reflective lenses.  More still was tacked on if I preferred not to view the world through scratched lenses.  At Warby Parker, there were no extra add-ons—everything I actually wanted in a pair of glasses was included.  And true to their pledge, the glasses indeed look and feel as though they are higher quality than my name brand (rhymes with Bayran) spectacles.

How do they do it?  They cut out the middlemen by creating their own designs and selling directly to consumers.  According to Warby Parker, high end brands sell their recognizable names to the companies who design and produce the glasses.  The production companies then mark-up their final product to the optical shops who then boost the prices by another 200-300%.  Don’t you love being taken advantage of?

On top of that, like Toms shoes, Warby Parker gives away a pair of glasses for every pair they sell to paying customers.  The icing on the cake was that I learned my health insurance will actually reimburse Warby Parker, so my new and improved glasses will cost approximately zero dollars.  Viva la revolucion!

Downsides

While Warby Parker has worked to eliminate virtually all of the hesitations we might have of buying something online with their home try-on service, what they noticeably lack is opportunities for customization.  Although their frame selection continues to broaden, most of the frames fall under the vintage heading with a hipster vibe, so if you’re going for a Bono look, you’re out of luck.  If you need bifocals, progressive lenses or transition lenses, you’re not going to get them at Warby Parker, although they pledge to be working in that direction.  And while I found their customer service by phone to be very helpful, you obviously won’t have a Crenshafters employee to clean your new glasses and place them on your lovely face.  You may even want or need to take your new purchase to a local eye specialist for an adjustment.

Shave Time. Shave Money.

Dollar Shave Club attacked the high-margin world of razors from an entirely different angle than the high-minded Warby Parker.  They’ve used humor—almost exclusively—to attract and retain customers.  I heard about DSC the way most men did, through a hysterical, irreverent video featuring the company’s co-founder, Michael Dubin, and decided it was worth the minimum $3 investment to check it out.

They offer three different razor/blade combinations with corresponding price points:

1)     The Humble Twin, “Reliable; this is the ’82 wagon that starts when the temp’s below zero,” at three dollars per month (including shipping) for five blades

2)     The 4X, “The Lover’s Blade,” six dollars per month for four blades, or

3)     The Executive, “The final frontier; it’s like a personal assistant for your face,” nine bucks for four blades

Per blade cartridge, that’s $.60 per Twin, $1.50 per 4X and $2.25 per Executive.  To put those prices in perspective with comparable Gillette razors, my previous blade of choice, you’ll pay $2.30 per Sensor Excel cartridge, $2.90 per Mach 3 Turbo and $3.62 per Fusion Proglide, premiums of 283%, 93% and 61% respectively.  (The Gillette pricing comes via Amazon.com.  It requires you to buy in higher quantities and may not include shipping and handling.)

As any good financial planner would, I opted for the cheapest Dollar Shave Club offering to start and have been pleased enough with the Humble Twin for over a year now that I see no need in upgrading.  And the humor keeps coming; each month when I receive my new set of blades, it comes with an accompanying card featuring a funny profile of an employee or patron.

glasses4

Downsides

For the Humble Twin, at least, the handle and the blades are noticeably disposable, but that’s what I expected and I’ve yet to suffer as a result.  Dollar Shave Club, as one might expect, is now branching into presumably higher margin product lines, like their “Shave Butter” and “One Wipe Charlies, flushable moist wipes” for men, but they will eat into your shavings savings.  I’ll stick with Barbasol and TP.

Conclusion

I’m not an early adopter prone to trying every new product trend, or a frugal fiend dying to shave pennies off of every single purchase I make, but Warby Parker saved me $200-$300 on my new glasses and Dollar Shave Club saves me over $100 per year for products that are as good or better than those they’ve replaced.  It’s possible that neither will suit you for numerous reasons, but they offer no- or low-cost entry points making them worthy of exploration.

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter at @TimMaurer, and if you'd like to receive my weekly post via email, click HERE.

Face-Off: Comparing The Impact Of The Shutdown vs. The Debt Ceiling Crisis

1_photoThe government shutdown is to the debt ceiling threat as political squabbling is to political suicide.  I mean no disrespect to the many individuals who are negatively impacted by the shutdown—you are being unjustly abused like the single shovel in a sandbox argument—but I can only muster so much sympathy for the campers holed-up outside of the Grand Canyon waiting to begin their rafting trip.  All of us, however, and the full faith and credit of the world’s currency reserve nation, are being held hostage in a high stakes game of political chicken regarding the newly dubbed Debt Ceiling Debacle of 2013.

Okay, now I’ll drop the SAT logic, metaphors and hyperbole to explain the fundamental differences between the government shutdown and the debt ceiling threat, the two dominant news headlines of the day:

Government Shutdown

The government shutdown occurred because of disagreements in Congress over the proposed budget for the coming (now current) fiscal year, beginning on October 1, 2013.  It’s as if you and your spouse can’t agree on how your household income should be spent.  We haven’t actually had a budget passed by Congress for years, but continuing resolutions were passed each time the moment of truth arrived [read can kicking] to maintain the levels of preceding budgets.  This time, they didn’t agree on a continuing resolution.

The resulting government shutdown has a very meaningful and noticeable impact for those working directly for the government, doing contract work for the government or availing themselves of government resources.  Non-essential government employees are furloughed, but have been promised back pay.  Many government contractors are also idle and are not expected to receive pay for time off.  As for the many government services—from federally subsidized mortgages to national parks—USA Today did a good job answering 66 questions about the shutdown on October 1, and followed up with another 27 a day later.  If you’d prefer a more visual and humorous description of what precipitated the shutdown, check out The Atlantic’s explanation—in Legos.

In short, the government shutdown may not show DC’s best side and is an annoyance to those of us not receiving the government services that come out of our paychecks, but it’s likely to be forgotten a couple days after it’s over.  The same can’t be said regarding the debt ceiling issue.

Debt Ceiling

The debt ceiling issue is not a direct consequence of the government shutdown, although it certainly is tangentially related to our inability to pass balanced budgets that actually take in the amount of income required to pay all of the government’s bills.  Since we spend more than we make as a country, we must go further into debt to meet our expenses.  The debt ceiling, then, is our credit limit set by Congress, which currently stands at $17.3 trillion (with a “t”).  It’s the equivalent of you maxing out your credit cards and going back to the credit card company asking for an increase of your limit.

We’ve had a debt ceiling in place since 1917, but Congress has continually raised it.  “Since 1960,” writes Mark Koba at CNBC, “Congress has acted 78 times to permanently raise, temporarily extend or revise the definition of the debt limit—49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democrats.”

The biggest threat if we sail through October 17th without an agreement, when it is estimated that the U.S. Treasury will run out of necessary funding and lack the power to borrow anything more, is that our worldwide creditworthiness would come seriously into question, which could precipitate a demotion from our long-standing as the world’s currency reserve.

What does that mean?  Currently, international business is conducted in U.S. dollars.  When foreign countries buy oil, soy beans or steel, their currencies are exchanged into dollars to complete the transaction.  This has given the U.S. dollar more strength than it likely deserves, as foreign countries stockpile our cash to spend as needed.

Not raising the debt ceiling at this time could even mean not paying interest to those who hold our U.S. debt obligations the world over—for the first time.  Ever.  The corresponding lack of confidence in our political process and uncertainty of our financial capabilities could very well pull us back into the recession that many feel like we haven’t left yet, and the longer-term implications are even worse.

Worst of all?  We—you and I—can’t do anything about it.  Unless, that is, any of our elected representatives are checking their Twitter accounts as they sit with arms folded, legs crossed and brows furrowed.  In that case, consider tweeting this post—they might just receive an education.

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter at @TimMaurer, and if you'd like to receive my weekly post via email, click HERE.

Facebook Isn’t Always Your Friend: Don’t Get Burned By Social Media

gty_facebook_like_button_nt_130313_wblogWe’ve known for a while now that employers are scanning the social media presence of would-be employees before making a job offer.  More recently, we also learned that our very own credit worthiness could be impacted, not only by the content we put forth, but also by the knuckleheadedness of those to whom we are connected online.  Alternative lenders, such as Lenddo, Kreditech and Kabbage, may track social media activities of you—and your friends—in determining whether you or your business are a worthy credit risk.  So unless you decide to follow my personal path—Facebook abstinence (the only method proven scientifically effective in 100% of cases)—I hereby offer the only slightly less certain way to avoid being haunted in the future by your social media past: Don’t “say” stupid [stuff] online.

Consider this litmus test to be applied before liking, updating, tweeting, sharing, tumbling or pluss-ing:

Only share that which you would be happy to see appearing in BOLD CAPS on the front page of USA Today, the New York Times and your home town paper.

Even if we’ve been duped into believing that social media offered any level of privacy whatsoever, the reality is that it doesn’t.  Its inherent design is to compound, to magnify and to extend the reach of whatever message we communicate, for better and worse.  Privacy settings, if anything, obscure the fact that we are exposed.

It deserves mention that Facebook, contrary to some reports, is not the devil.  Nor are they, or any other social media outlet, an altruistic venture.  They all teeter on the fence between the seemingly opposed realms of Beneficial and Intrusive.  Ironically, however, it is hard to imagine their offering much of a benefit were it not for their intrusion.  It is our input that builds the algorithms in Facebook to direct us to the friends we seek and the artists, brands and personalities we follow.   In the case of these unique lenders, it is individuals and businesses lacking sufficient credit history to receive loans through conventional means who are divulging their online activity to the alternative lenders who find parallels between social media activity and credit-worthiness.  We’re not talking about major credit agencies, banks and insurance companies requiring our social media login information—yet.

Whether we are looking up old schoolmates on Facebook, scanning for trends on Twitter, building our virtual networks on LinkedIn or applying for a loan, it is up to us to determine what information in our possession is worthy of dissemination in these venues.  While it seems that every third person we meet these days is a “Social Media Consultant,” the aforementioned litmus test for online activity won’t cost you an awkward lunch meeting and is simply based on applying the 2,400 year old Hippocratic Oath to ourselves—first, do no harm.

Whether we like it or not, we may need to consider protecting our social media footprint the way we protect our credit score, for the sake of our available credit, our employment and even our reputation with family, friends and colleagues.  As Will Rogers said well before Al Gore invented the interwebs, “It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.”  The advent of social media has given us the opportunity to fast-track reputation building, but it has also shortened the journey to embarrassment and magnified every online misstep.  You can’t delete your past, but you can delete your post. So unless you’re willing to see that post, tweet, status update or email making headline news, consider hitting delete instead of send.

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter at @TimMaurer, and if you'd like to receive my weekly post via email, click HERE.

The Art of Screwing Up

Screw Up2-01I was enjoying breakfast with my good friend, Danny O’Brien, recently, when our conversation moved to the topic of screwing up, making mistakes and the steps we take thereafter.  Danny said, “The quality of our lives is not determined by whether or not we screw up—because we all will.”

“No, the quality of our lives is determined by what happens next.  Will we hide or come clean?  Will we make excuses and search for justification or take responsibility, even if it means receiving consequences?”

Whether in our families, businesses or financial management, mistakes are a given.  So as long as screwing up is a part of all of our lives, why not make it an art form, transforming it from a curse to a blessing?  Here are three steps to doing so:

1)     OWN – Our first instinct is always to deny and defend.  Our self-preservative nature fights to keep our better judgment at bay, but in the face of a clear but yet un-owned error, we have an opportunity to claim full or partial responsibility.  And while family, friends and employers don’t love our mistakes, they hate buck-passing even more.  However, owning our failure isn’t easy, because owning also means accepting the natural consequences of our actions.  Claiming bankruptcy might eliminate your debts, but you’re also not likely to procure credit for another seven years or more.  Demeaning your children still weakens their resolve that you’re their biggest fan, blowing up at your employer can still get you fired, and calling your spouse a choice word could leave an impression that lasts for years, even decades.

2)     APOLOGIZE – John Wayne famously said, “Don’t apologize, Mister, it’s a sign of weakness.”  Hogwash!  (As someone from Wayne’s generation might say.)  A willingness to apologize is a sign of strength—an unwillingness to do so is a sure sign of both delusion and weakness.  Do you avoid apologizing to perpetuate a façade that people might perceive is impenetrably perfect?  Do you think people are more likely to trust, love, respect or follow you if you can (apparently) do no wrong?  The opposite is true.   If you try to prolong the ruse, the best case scenario is that people will fear you—if you’ve succeeded in fooling them—but it’s impossible to truly trust, love, respect or follow someone (in a healthy way) if we believe them to possess the inherent infallibility we know to be present in our own lives.

3)      REFORM – “Only the penitent man shall pass.”  Do you remember that classic line from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?  As Indie mumbled the cryptic phrase written in his father’s journal on his quest to retrieve the Holy Grail, he properly (and in this instance, necessarily) infers aloud that, “The penitent man is humble…kneels before God…KNEELS!”  And right as he drops to his knees, he narrowly averts sure decapitation.  Penitence, repentance, humility—whatever you want to call it—might be seen as only the first step of reform, followed by a second step, an action of a more preferable sort.  But true penitence quite naturally results in different (better) behavior; if it doesn’t, the humility itself is merely superficial.  Indeed, the root meaning of the verb “repent” actually implies a fluid continuum: contrition, followed by action that is the stark inverse of the errant behavior.

If you have followed this path before, then you know that the satisfaction of recovering from a mistake is often proportionately greater than the pain suffered in being humbled by our own fallibility.  You also likely know that when our misdeeds cause others pain, we can somehow mysteriously surpass the strength of our pre-mistake relationship after owning, apologizing and reforming.  Although it’s no guarantee, practicing the art of screwing up is often endearing to family, friends and even clients.  But let’s not forget that if we’re genuine in our penitence, we shouldn’t be screwing up quite so much in the first place.

There Are No Free Skittles

photoLast week, I went on a mission with my two sons, Kieran and Connor, ages nine and seven.  The mission was to acquire newly released Lego sets bearing the resemblance of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with whom the boys particularly identify.  And while any expedition to Toys-R-Us can be fraught with peril, this one was an especially harrowing trip.

After claiming our intended purchase, we waited in line.  (Have you ever seen two boys, ages seven and nine, wait in a line?)  Not without a penchant for distraction myself, I wandered momentarily out of the cue and asked the boys to stay in line.  Upon my return—no more than 20 seconds hence—I noticed Connor chewing something.

“What are you chewing, Connor?”

“A Skittle.”

“Where’d you get that Skit—Oh, Connor, did you pick that up off of the floor?”

“Yup.” (Proudly.)

Later, when my wife asked him why he felt compelled to forage for food (we’d just eaten dinner, by the way) on the floor of the toy store, he answered quite matter-of-factly, “Free Skittle.”

Of course we know there are no free Skittles, but even we adults continue to be drawn to that which has no apparent cost.  How else is it, then, that a frightening plurality of the phone calls and emails we receive each day are goading us to simply receive a gift that is seemingly priceless with supposedly no price?  Obviously, there’s a market for it.  So whether it is our hopeless good nature that wishes to believe in the altruism of the free gift giver (unlikely) or our burning desire to receive something-for-nothing (more likely), the freebie-seeking thread is so persistent in us that the theme remains a constant in money and life.

We need not submit ourselves, however, to the entirely skeptical or willfully naïve camps.  There is a third option: to recognize that everyone (and nearly everything) has a bias.  The bias may be personal, but is quite often an economic bias—a conflict of interest where money is somehow involved.  It is most likely this bias that is affecting the behavior of the grantor of a “gift” and its actual price.  And lest you think economic bias is reserved for swindlers, it serves us well to recognize that it is actually quite ubiquitous.  Pastors, priests, aid workers and (gasp) doctors are no freer from economic bias than anyone—indeed, the bias may be even more powerful when it’s presumed nonexistent.

Everyone has a bias.  It doesn’t make them—us—bad people, but we’re all selling something, and the sooner you recognize that, the less likely you’ll be to get on that email list, hit LIKE on Facebook, sign up for that seminar…or eat free Skittles off the floor.

The Gift That Keeps On TAKING

“Let’s be honest. No one ever wished for a smaller holiday gift.”  So starts one of the TV commercials that seem to be run in nearly every ad block throughout every month of December.  Since it’s not my desire to shed a bad light on the company who developed this marketing pitch, I’ll not mention them, but only give you a hint: it rhymes with Schmexus.

They make excellent vehicles, and many would argue they do so at a reasonable value as compared to other luxury car makers.  The beef I have with them, and nearly every other luxury car maker, is that they ask us to make the purchase of one of their vehicles a Christmas present.  You tell me—is stacking another $50,000 (with all the options) on top of your existing holiday gift budget doable?

As Cousin Eddie said in Christmas Vacation: “Clark, that’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year!” (Watch that hysterical clip by clicking HERE.)  For most, the purchase of a new car is the gift that keeps on TAKING the whole year… or two, or five or six.  If, for example, you get the top of the line stocking stuffer, even with “attractive financing options at 1.9%,” you’ll be paying over $850 PER MONTH for FIVE YEARS!

I’m not expecting ad agencies to provide us with an ethical foundation as consumers—it could easily be argued that it’s their objective to melt away our common financial sense this holiday season.  But as I find myself staring longingly at luxury SUVs beset with bows as big as a Christmas tree, I thought it might be valuable to remind myself—and anyone else who might be susceptible to an indulgent moment this time of year—that a $50,000 present that requires an amortized mortgage on a depreciating asset isn’t really a gift…but instead, a burden.

The 5 Hour Energy Scam And The Power Of Self-Deception

“We asked over 3,000 doctors to review 5 Hour Energy, and what they said is amazing.  Over 73% who reviewed 5 Hour Energy said they would recommend a low-calorie energy supplement to their healthy patients who use energy supplements.”

The first time I saw this commercial, I had to double check to see if it was a Saturday Night Live skit.  But alas, it wasn’t.

Yes, they asked “over 3,000 doctors.”  According to the fine print, they actually asked 5,000 in person and only half of them agreed to review the drink, and by review the drink, they clarify that they agreed to read the ingredients and their associated descriptions.  An additional 503 doctors responded to an online survey, but they don’t tell us how many they asked to respond online.

73% of the docs who actually reviewed the stuff recommended a low-calorie energy supplement—not 5 Hour Energy, specifically, just a low-calorie energy supplement.  But this “recommendation” was still further qualified; they recommended the low-calorie supplement only to their healthy patients who actually use energy supplements.

What do we really learn, then, from this not-so-highly scientific study?

For those statistical anomalies who can somehow be deemed “healthy,” even though they require a regular chemical boost merely to survive the day, 73% of the doctors who didn’t blow this study off as an absurd waste of time recommend that you use an energy supplement that won’t also make you fat, accelerating your already rapid pace to an early grave.

My first inclination was to be offended that 5 Hour Energy thinks there are enough people dull enough to be manipulated by the lady with the perma-smile sitting next to a bunch of fake documents, but then it hit me—they’re not trying to get non-users to take 5 Hour Energy.  They’re trying to help existing users perpetuate their own ruse of self-deception.

Self-deception is more powerful than coercion, because we’re more inclined to believe the stories we tell ourselves (both true and untrue) than the convictions of others.  So the most effective external manipulation is that which supports what we’d already prefer to believe.  I know my body does not naturally require the daily infusion of 5 Hour Energy if I actually get enough sleep and exercise—but I’d rather not, so I’ll buy your story about the 73% of doctors.

What stories are you buying regarding your health, marriage or other relationships, work or finances that are rooted in self-deception?  And what forces may be seeking to perpetuate that self-deception?