Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I Do Not Fear Death, For I Have Truly Lived

I recently read a great post over Dragos Roua - Brilliantly Better. He wrote about the difference between living in reality and living in an illusion. He states that "If you are experiencing fear of loss in your current situation, then you’re in an illusion." He goes on to explain that "In real life, you have nothing to lose. You’re already complete. You can only enjoy your life every second." There is a LOT more than that post, and I highly recommend you follow the link - he's an excellent writer.

Anyway, I was reading the comments, and one reader really lambasted him because she felt that we have a great deal to fear losing in real life. She was concerned about losing the people and things in her life. She felt that his definition was totally off base, but I feel he was right on the money.

Let me elucidate. Fear has been called an acronym for False Expectations Appearing Real. I believe that to be true. Studies have shown that the vast majority of the things we worry about never happen. Of the ones that do, they are seldom as bad as we feared they would be. Now, I am not saying that fear is illusory in all situations, but unless the danger is imminent (for example a wild animal is charging straight at you) then chances are caution, rather than fear, is called for.

A few years back, we had a fire in our house. We lost almost everything on the second floor, including all 30,000 books in our library. We did have insurance, but the system for replacement was so convoluted that we never did get it all sorted, and finally ended up fixing the house ourselves, as the contractor never did show up. Our books were our most valued possession, and we never got them back. I tell you this because it taught me a very valuable lesson (no, not that insurance companies are evil - I already knew that). We lost our family heirlooms, our books, and most of our furniture, but we were fine. All the stuff we lost was just that - stuff. I won't say I am happy about the loss, but in the end I am still me, and I now know that even if I lost everything I owned, I would be okay. In a weird way, I am a better person because things are less important to me now. I know they can vanish in an instant, so I am not attached to my possessions. I still value them, but I do not fear losing them. Thus, I am living in reality from the material point of view, not in an illusion.

The illusion is that when you lose things you are diminished in some way. Much of our modern way of life is designed to foster this illusion. Much of the current concern over the economy is that money is not liquid enough. What that means is that consumers are not spending like they used to, so business is nervous. Unless people quit saving and start spending, many economists are predicting a depression. That's why the government stimulus program was concocted, to give people a reason to acquire more possessions, and thereby stimulate the economy. Of course this ignores the reality that most of those possessions are manufactured in other countries, so the money doesn't stay in the country, but it is, after all, a global economy. What you buy does not define who you are as a person.

Another fear people have is loss of income. Many people have lost their jobs recently, myself included. This is the fear of the unknown, for most people define themselves by what they do. One of the first questions people ask when they meet a new person is "What do you do?". The usual response is to give your occupation. This is a way of deciding pecking order, in my opinion. Whoever has the best job is given status. I haven't changed in the last month, yet I get a far different response when I say I am unemployed than I did when I was a manager for an internationally known company. I am not worried, as I know I am a person of worth and that I will be compensated commensurate with my talent and what value I give to my community. Because I know I am a person of worth, I am not afraid. I live in reality, not in the illusory world where my job determines my worth. The unknown excites me, rather than terrifies me, for I know that every adversity makes me stronger.

Many people also fear loss of health or fitness. This is still an illusion. I am not stating that accidents and illnesses do not happen, but rather that the fear of it is based on fantasy, not reality. Until it happens there is no reason to consider it, and we are robbing ourselves of appreciating the marvelous machine the human body is. Nick Vujicic is an extraordinarily successful man, and he was born without arms and legs. There are countless examples of people overcoming physical challenges, so even those in dire straits have reason to hope. The realistic approach is to focus on the joy you have, and not worry about what might happen.

Finally, we have the fear of death, whether it is self death or the death of those dear to you. Again, this fear is ultimately a waste of our time and emotional energy. We cannot prevent it, so rather than fear what is the one inevitable fact of all our lives, learn to make the moments you have count. Spend quality time with those you love, and realize it is not the moments you breathe that matter, but rather the moments that take your breath away. When someone you love dies, it will be painful, but rather than feeling sorry for yourself because they are no longer with you, focus on how fortunate you were to have them in your life. Celebrate their life, and be grateful that you made the memories you could. As for fearing your own death, if you focus on truly living your life to the fullest, when it arrives you will not fear it.

There Is No Try

The word try is a huge saboteur in our personal lives. How often have you heard of someone trying to quit smoking, or save money, or be a better spouse? It happens all the time, and almost always ends in failure. The reason is simple - try is a "wiggle word". We use it when we are not fully committed to following through.

We give ourselves this freedom to fail for several reasons. Often whatever we are trying to do wasn't our idea in the first place. Your boss or your significant other might ask you to do something for them. "You should..." is the key phrase in these situations. Unless failure will result in a large tangible penalty, you will usually fail if that is your motivation.

We also try when we know it is something we should do, but do not want to do. Quitting smoking is one of the best examples of this. Smokers know the habit is disgusting and costly, but for a myriad of reasons do not really want to quit - but almost every smoker is either trying to quit or planning to quit. Again, failure is almost assured.

Finally, we try when we want to do something, but have not fully prepared ourselves to succeed. these are the heart breakers, because you really did want the result, but you just didn't do your homework. The failure is the direct result of poor planning. Think of a job seeker who did not prepare themselves for the interview, and you'll get the picture.

Trying costs us dearly. Even when we are not committed to our purpose, when we fail it causes us to lose faith in ourselves. We develop rationalizations to explain our failure, and so create a habit of lying to ourselves. Our confidence declines, and we become even less likely to attempt change. Eventually, we reach the point where we stagnate, and become trapped in our lives, powerless to change what we have become.

The way to break this cycle is to quit trying. Decide to do rather than try. Never say yes unless you are committed to achieving the result. If someone else tells you what you should do, do not agree to try. Develop the habit of only saying yes if you enthusiastically agree that the task must be done, and that you are the best choice for the task. Learn the 80/20 rule, and use every day. For those not familiar with this rule, it states that 80% of your results are the result of 20% of your efforts.

Making a daily To Do list will increase your success rate dramatically. Note that is is not called a “TO Try” list. Let that be your litmus test. If you would not put it on your To Do list, don't agree to it. Once you have your To Do list, choose the tasks that will yield the greatest results, and do those first. Then complete the other tasks in order of importance. 
By adopting the strategy of doing rather than trying, you will increase your efficiency, and your effectiveness. This will increase your confidence, and allow you to take control of your life again.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Higher Education Is Destroying Our Future

According to a recent report from Georgetown University, there will be over 3 million jobs without qualified candidates in 2018. "Qualified" in this case means having a college degree in the appropriate field. I smell a rat.

Over 80% of last year's college graduates did not have a job when they graduated. That's a million unemployed recent college graduates for a single year. Granted the degrees they have are not in the growth areas, but they are nonetheless degree holders. So let's take a look at the fields that are projecting shortfalls in the next few years.

The highest shortfall is in the health care field. Nurses are and will continue to be in short supply. I have a problem with this. Once upon a time, there was a job called nurse's aide. These were the people who changed the sheets, helped people get out of bed, and brought you your bedpan if you couldn't get up. They even checked blood pressure. These were low paying jobs, and I speak from experience, as I worked in both a hospital and a nursing home when I was younger. I was still in high school, so having a degree in nursing was not an option. For the last decade at least, I have not seen a nurse's aide in a hospital, I have seen nurses doing those jobs. At an average current salary of over $47,000 to start. Is it any wonder we have the highest health care costs of any civilized nation when we pay almost $50,000 to a person who changes bedpans? I made minimum wage, which would be a little over $15,000 a year in today's wages. Where I worked we had six aides per nurse, so you could save over $350,000 per ward just by going back to the old system, and have 6 times the number of nurses available for actual nursing positions.  The surplus nurses could fill the technician slots that need to be filled, using an in house training program.

The next biggest shortfall is in education. I can understand why no one wants to teach anymore, given the fact that an elementary school teacher starts out at an average of under $30,000 a year. The average college graduate has about $23,000 in loans at graduation, which equates to about $64 a week in loan payments. After taxes, a first year teacher makes just over $400 a week, and most of the jobs available are in the metro areas, where the cost of living is higher. A waiter in a decent restaurant has more disposable income than a beginning teacher does, and better working conditions as well. No wonder so many teachers moonlight. Still, we can solve this problem with an older model as well, but we would have to break the teacher's unions nationwide to implement it. Stop requiring a four year degree for teachers. Teaching certificates used to be a two year program. In fact, teaching used to require less than that, in the 1800's. Many will scream that this is an oversimplification, which it is. But I would also like to point out that our educational system is not working currently, and we spend $10,792 per student currently, one of the highest costs per student in the world. I doubt my idea could do a worse job, and it could improve things. The government suffers from the paralysis of analysis, and won't act until they figure out all the ramifications of change, which could take decades. We can't wait that long. We need to do something different right away, not someday.

The third and final field I will examine is science and engineering. This problem is harder to solve, because these fields pay well, often already have streamlined educational programs, and don't appeal to most students. In order for our country to compete globally, we have to find a way to encourage more students to want to be geeks. Smart is not cool, and unless we find a way to make research more glam we will fail.

None of this addresses the root of the problem, which is the cost of higher education. Even a public four year school costs over $7000 a year for tuition and fees for in state residents. This does not include room and board, which averages about $8,000 per school year. High school graduates aged 18-24 have a median income of below $20,000 before taxes. College students are usually single, with no dependents and no other deductions, so the get taxed about 25%, leaving them less than the cost of college even if they work full time year round.

Tuition and fees have increased at a rate that is simply outrageous. I realize colleges do incur per student costs, but consider this : Since 1978 the cost of living has gone up roughly 250%, health care has gone up 600%, and tuition and fees have risen almost 1000%. The only major added benefit I could find is internet access, which wasn't available in 1978. How is this increase justified? When I graduated high school, a student was able to save enough working full time during the summer to afford tuition, and by working part time during the school year afford a cheap apartment. Now that model is no longer viable. In fact, it is becoming nearly impossible to merely survive on the wages an 18 - 24 year old earns.

Fortunately, our friendly college advisers have an answer for this. All a student has to do is take out loans, and have a family that is willing to contribute. In fact, until a student reaches the age of 24 they are considered to be their parent's dependent. The government expects the student's family to contribute, and even has a special program called the PLUS loan for parents. You read that right - a legal adult who is under the age of 24 must submit their parents' earnings in order to be considered for financial aid.

Not every parent can afford to send their child to college. This does not matter. Some families can, so all must submit their financial records. What about those who can afford to contribute but choose not to? Again, that does not matter. If you are under the age of 24 and want to go to college, what your parents earn will affect your financial aid package. How long will it be before some lawmaker decides that those who can afford to contribute are required to do so?

Let's not forget that once a student is in college, they have to fulfill their general education requirements. What does that mean? In my case, I took a bowling class in college. This means I was required to pay tuition and fees, in order to learn a skill I have used perhaps a half dozen times in thirty years. I also took a poetry class - not reading, but writing. I was in a technical curriculum, but learning how to write poetry was something I paid hard earned dollars for, in order to have a "well rounded" education. In my opinion, many, if not most, of the general education classes are designed with one goal in mind. Transfer as many dollars from the student to the college as possible. Because a degree is unobtainable without attending college, and every college has a number of these requirements that are unrelated to the actual field of study, students are forced to continue to pay.

Another area where students are forced to pay is textbooks. Hundreds of dollars per semester, in fact. These books are updated regularly, so often the book from the year before is obsolete, forcing a student to purchase the new book instead of a used book. I understand that as knowledge changes, books do become dated. I also know that math does not change radically annually, and yet math books are frequently changed. I'm sure academicians would have a logical explanation for this, but from the outside it looks like one more swindle pulled on a captive market. In this day and age many, if not most, students would benefit from ebooks which could be updated frequently and for very little cost. The college that uses that model would win my kudos, but I will not hold my breath as it would kill a cash cow so I don't expect to see it happen.

As costs rise, higher education becomes less accessible, but in order to earn a living wage it is becoming essential. Most college graduates will earn a million dollars more in their lifetimes than those who do not have degrees. I think that may be why there has not been a boycott of the education industry. Consumers would have demanded government intervention if gasoline cost $10 a gallon, yet have passively allowed education costs to reach a level that is comparable to paying just that. Who benefits from these higher costs? That is the big question. Perhaps it is the banks that underwrite the loans. Perhaps it is the government itself, as many colleges and universities are state run. Perhaps both of these, and someone else as well. I do not know. All I know for certain is that unless the trend reverses itself, the middle class will continue to shrink, the lower class will grow, and the upper class will hold an even higher percentage of this country's assets than it already does. So I guess higher education is not really destroying our future, just the future of the middle class.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Memories And Musings

I feel old. I can remember black and white television, and only getting three channels. I remember phones with a rotary dial, and vinyl records. I remember when putting a man on the moon was a big deal, and you had to go to a theater to watch a movie. I remember how hopeful people were about the future, and I remember the attitude that we could do anything we set our minds to.

I remember GI Joe being as big as Barbie, and Tonka trucks made of metal so tough you could ride on them. I remember school teachers who paddled kids who were bad, and no one batting an eye. I remember the kids in my home town, who were planning to work in the same factory their Father worked in, because back then we still made things in this country. I remember when having your mother work was unusual, and having two cars in a family was almost unheard of.

I remember when a skateboard was quite literally that - a board that you nailed the wheels of a skate onto. I remember cars that didn't have seat belts, and kids clambering all over the back seat. I remember riding a bicycle without a helmet, and neighbors who knew your name. I remember it being scandalous if a girl got pregnant in high school, and I remember kids who couldn't read didn't graduate.

I also remember other things, like college kids being gunned down by the National Guard because some of them were protesting against the war in Vietnam, and that two years earlier three young black men protesting segregation were killed by police at SCSU and the media practically ignored it. I remember how outraged Americans were by the deaths of over 58,000 young men in Vietnam, and yet those who returned were literally spat upon by civilians.

Overall, as a nation, we seem to have less swagger than we did then. People no longer believe in our country's future, and we have more of our populace in prison than any other developed country. We have the highest rate of teen pregnancies and divorces in the world, and no one seems alarmed that the Bill Of Rights is being destroyed by those in power, in order to "keep us safe".

Technology is more prevalent than it was before, but we seem to have forgotten that quality of life matters as well. I miss seeing kids playing outside. Kids spend an average of 28 hours a week watching television, and many additional hours using a computer or their cell phones. We talk about saving the planet, but how can we expect a generation that hasn't experienced the outdoors to care about the environment?

The good old days weren't all that good, but we managed to survive them. Perhaps there is hope that we as a nation will make it through the crisis looming on the horizon, as the American empire collapses. Perhaps.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What Is Going On

I saw an interesting graphic the other day. It was called “Where Does The Money Go” on visualgraphics.com. I found it interesting for several reasons. First, it is based on 2007 statistics from the U.S. Department of labor, and it showed the average income of a “consumer unit” with 1.3 wage earners and 2.5 people making $63,091 annually. Average is a slippery term, as there are 3 different types of “average” , mean, median, and mode. Mode is the easiest to understand, just add the highest and the lowest and divide by 2. I believe the graphic must be based on mean average, which is add all the numbers together and divide by the total number of statistics you are analyzing. This would skew the numbers upward given the distribution of wealth in this country. A better picture is provided by the median average income reported by the Census Bureau in September of 2010, showing $49,777 as the average income. Median average is the number in the middle, as many people are above that figure as are below it.

I also noted the graphic showed $2,853 spent on healthcare. This confused me no end, as I spent over $5200 on insurance premiums while working for a Fortune 300 company. This was just the premiums, it did not include any health expenditures, as I never received my cards and could not use the insurance at all. Further, I had recently researched healthcare costs in the United States, and the figure for 2009 is $8,047 per person. You read that right – over eight thousand dollars spent on healthcare for every man, woman, and child living in the United States.

Now let's look at taxes. The graphic showed spending at $49,638 per consumer unit, so I had to assume taxes were $13453, or roughly 21%. Yet the Congressional Budget Office reports the median tax rate at 31.6%, which would be $19937. So using government figures, this consumer unit should spend $18598 on healthcare (the cost was only $7439 per capita in 2007), leaving $24556 for all other expenditures, or roughly 38% of total income. That's about $472 a week, for food, housing, clothing, utilities, transportation, savings, education, and entertainment. Given the 2006 average mortgage payment was $1,687 and the average car payment is $479, that leaves nothing for anything else, and a negative balance of $136 a month for homeowners, although rent was only $890 on average, so renters had $175 a week for all their expenses. While it can be done, it isn't easy.

What do we learn from all this? First of all, statistics are unreliable. It is possible to prove statistically just about anything, even a logical fallacy. Second of all, We pay far too much for healthcare and taxes in this country. Third, the government can't solve the problem, as the different departments cannot even agree on what the actual figures are, much less develop a workable solution. Finally, nothing will change unless action is taken, since doing the same thing the same way and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. I have no idea what needs to happen, all I can do is sound the alarm. I just hope someone who can come up with a solution takes notice and is moved to act.