Miscellaneous content from the original enlightened caveman. Some serious, some not. Take your chances.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

In Dire Need of Perspective

I've spent the past five days snowboarding in Whistler, British Columbia. What a staggeringly idyllic place, even if this year's snowfall has been only a fraction of what they usually get. As cancellation policies prevented me from choosing another destination, I resigned myself to short days on the mountains accompanied by aesthetically-inspired writing sessions. I was wrong on both accounts. It turns out that even when Whistler only has 50% of the snow it usually has, it still beats the heck out of most resorts - it's huge. So I spent as much time as possible on the slopes. And the writing, well, they didn't have high-speed internet in my condo. Really.

I actually had to walk 10 minutes to an Internet Cafe to get connected. That oppressive burden was enough to prevent me from spending anything but the bare minimum amount of time in front of my laptop. Instead, I investigated the temporal limits of what is known as the apres-ski, but not without a bit of underlying indignation at being forced upon such a task. It wasn't my fault. Really. And now that I'm home and jacked in wirelessly (ahh, that's more like it), I can take a step back.

It's amazing how quickly we Americans get used to things, and it's even more amazing how irritated we often get when proceedings deviate from the new norm. How could such an obviously planned and well laid-out village such as Whistler not be blanketed in Hot Spots? The nerve of some people. But as trivial (and absurd) as my whining is, I think it points to a larger trend in this country. It seems that American culture promotes a tendency to regularly recalibrate expectations about how life should unfold. As they say in the world of finance - past performance is no guarantee of future returns. In fact, the past is becoming more and more irrelevant every day.

Think of all of the ads that gently bombard us throughout the day. They're all about the future, the better future, the one that is only a truckload of products and services away. Want something now, but can't afford it? No problem. No interest till 2006. Want to be thin? In just a few short weeks, with the right book, diet, meal-plan, and/or pill, no problem. Still paying for your past mistakes? It's not your fault. Don't beat yourself up. The future is about second chances. It's about third, fourth, and fifth chances. Chin up. Tomorrow is a new day...provided you drink enough coffee. The rat race moves forward, always forward, and faster, always faster. In its path, it leaves the tattered remains of perspective.

It's not that we need aspire to be active historians, holding candlelight vigils for the "best of 1997." We need only widen the lens through which we view our lives, and this is hard at high speeds. Moving at a fast pace necessarily requires focus. Going a mile at a walk, we can take in the scenery. We can see the details of our surroundings, and if we look close enough, we can often see what's come before. We can get a feel for how far things have progressed. Going the same mile at 60 mph offers us no such opportunity. We have to keep our attention mostly forward - to navigate, make necessary course corrections, and to avoid obstacles. There's simply no time for taking it all in. Our lens is too narrow. The same is true in life, but here lies a dilemma - what do we do?

The obvious, but, in my view, incorrect answer, is to simply drop out, to get off the wheel, to quit the rat race. This is certainly the cure for the perspective problem, but it often brings with it the kind of scenery that doesn't make much use of a wide-angle lens. Yes, you can despise the rampant consumerism that, perhaps more than anything else, regrettably defines this country today, but I don't know how you can reject it without hopping from the frying pan into the fire. The fact is that life in this country can be as blissful as it can be anywhere on the planet. You can shape your environment in any way you like, and you can surround yourself with wonderful, like-minded people, even if you're a total wackjob. But - there's always a but - there is a direct correlation between the degree to which you can manipulate your environment and the amount of money you have.

These are the kinds of statements that prompt outrage in some people. Hands will wave and dust will fly at the injustice of it all. But as David Hume warned, it is a mistake to confuse what we want with what is. So, while others will reject the rat race out of hand, I think we should accept it and endeavor to get what we want out of it...without getting sucked in too far. Our harbor in the storm is perspective, and it works in two ways.

First of all, perspective is what allows us to realize that we have it good. I try to step outside myself and view my world with a wide lens. I try to remember that, in pure prosperity terms, I have it better than 99.99% of the humans that have ever lived. You do, too. We have come an amazingly long way, baby. Items that were once only available to the tippy top of the upper crust are now household items for most everyone. Not so long ago, a trip to Whistler, BC from Atlanta would have taken weeks, not hours, and I'd have had to either plan my trip months and months in advance or hope for the best when I got out there. Nevertheless, we curse the gods when we have to take our shoes off to go through security and we fly into fits of rage when our cell phones drop calls. It's pathetic, really. Life has never been so comfortable for humans, and while the information age makes me keenly aware of what the other guy has, I try to remember that there is always more. You can always be richer, more powerful, better looking, smarter, and so on, which brings me to the second thing we get from perspective.

When we take a step back, it becomes easier to see that there is a very real point of diminishing returns with respect to the rat race. Not only do we recognize that we have it seriously good; we recognize that it may not be much better if we get what the rat race directors are pushing on us. Books like Gregg Easterbrook's, The Progress Paradox, and Barry Schwartz's, The Paradox of Choice, make it clear that increasing prosperity is not bringing a corresponding rise in individual happiness. (FYI - I generally disagree with both authors' conclusions. However, their statement of the problem makes sense to me.) That means that, at some point, good is good enough. Though our caveman minds will urge us to keep chugging along the wheel (anything to keep up with the Joneses), perspective is what allows us to determine when every extra turn is a waste of time and a distraction from what really matters in life. The only folks I would exempt from this are the folks who should be covering the world with wireless high-speed internet. Just a couple more turns, fellas.


Blogger alice said...

"The obvious, but, in my view, incorrect answer, is to simply drop out, to get off the wheel, to quit the rat race. This is certainly the cure for the perspective problem, but it often brings with it the kind of scenery that doesn't make much use of a wide-angle lens."

Your commentary is very apropos to my situation. My husband and I are in the midst of getting ready, within a year's time, to leave SoCal for a very remote spot in NoCal. It is, ironically enough, in a ski area, about four hundred miles north of San Diego where we currently live.

We bought our property twelve years ago and not until three years ago started to build. We are building it ourselves, or I should say, my husband is. He has been going up there during the summer/fall and working on it. This year will be the final push. We are making everything. My husband has been welding all of the railings lately. I, of course will be making all the cabinets. We made all of the mouldings and light fixtures and we are making all of the doors. Everything will be unique and I hope wonderful.

In the meantime, however, I have a business to run. And we have a house to sell. We had a couple of realtors look at our place. Each had a couple of things which needed to be done to our thirty year old house in order to get top dollar. We don't have time to do any of this stuff and could sell it for twenty times it's original sellig price as is....but no, we want to get the best price. So this week I have been engaged in the total remodel of two bathrooms...tile floors, new cabinets and sinks, all new trim and of course paint.

Now as I said we could sell it for a ridiculous price as is, but we have to see if just a bit more effort could get us MORE.

As I said we are moving to a very remote island in the state. No public airport, no buses, no public transportation... and no Home Depot or any of the kinds of suppliers I'm used to. It's going to be a complete change.

And I'm so ready (after I get these bathrooms done). I can't wait to leave SoCal which has been ruined by too many people. The population of California has doubled in the last twenty years and it shows.

We are not wealthy.We have what we have because we do everything ourselves. We don't drive brand new cars, I don't shop at Nordstroms. My daughter grew up believing that unless something was on sale you couldn't buy it.
This house will be the reward for the sacrifices we have made. I think that today people don't have that kind of feeling about things. People have to get what they want now and damned the consequences of credit card debt and no savings.
I have always been one who is into delayed gratification.

It will be interesting to see how we do in such a remote place. It is so incredibly beautiful, I don't think I'll lack for any stimulation, but the pleasures will be simple...hiking and fishing. That doesn't cost a whole lot. I think it will give us time to just live.

3/11/2005 10:44:00 PM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

It will be very interesting to see how your transition goes. Getting off the merry-go-round isn't always easy. It's like you've been going so hard for so long that slowing the pace hurts just as bad as maintaining it. It happened to my mom.

She retired not too long ago because the pace of her consulting job was affecting her health adversely. Being in a position to simply walk away, that's exactly what she did, but is wasn't as blissful as she hoped. It turned out that she was so accustomed to the fast pace that the retired life catapulted her into a bit of a depression.

It wasn't long before she was surfing Monster.com looking for contract work. Ever the big-picture son, I insisted that she'd only find herself in the same situation she was in before. While she agreed, something had to be done. This is where it gets good.

My son, Thomas, was nearing 10 months and my wife was ready to get back to work, even if only part time. So grandma took on the role of his care-provider and it has made all the difference. Indeed, I would say that my mother is happier now than she has ever been. (It might have something to do with the fact that she feels like she's raising me again - Thomas looks *exactly* like I did at his age.) She traded her business suits for sweatpants and sippy cups, and while the spending money she has now is nothing compared to what she had two years ago, she is ecstatic. She got off the wheel and tuned into the best part of life - spending time with loved ones.

Even though she was somewhat forced into retirement, I can't help but wonder how many people could live with less (monetarily) but get more out of life. I wonder when (or if) the pendulum will swing back far enough to make this something other than a fleeting consideration in the minds of the masses.

3/11/2005 11:47:00 PM

Blogger alice said...

This brings me back to the Wilkinson essay and his comment that people don't naturally understand economics, but to "just have faith". (I know he didn't say that, but I knew it would get a rise out of you.)

Lately, during the past twenty years or so, I have felt out of touch with the economy of the US. That sounds stupid, but bear with me. When I was a kid, I was told never to spend more than 1/4 of your paycheck for your housing. Then you could spend what you needed for food, clothing, fun, but make sure to always pay yourself (save). I understood this.
it made sense.

Now I will digress. A friend of mine worked for a large airline. She told me that this airline needed to increase its market share continually in order to stay profitable. Now this airline was one which had a dubious service reputation, but its priority was increasing "market share". This made no sense to me. It seemed to me that the airline could make vast sums of money providing great service at a good price.It seemed to my uneducated mind that the most reasonable thing for the airline to do would be to take care of what it had, instead of going after more. Interestingly, that airline is in bankruptcy now.

I think that the really smart guys aren't really all that smart. Look at Enron...all those MBAs and no one knew what was going on. I think we've all been taken for a ride. We have faith in something we don't understand and we think that there is someone out there who does. I doubt it.

3/12/2005 12:33:00 AM

Blogger alice said...

Weekends are a bitch for blogs. Just when I have some time to do some serious chatting, everyone else is going to Wal-mart and the grocery store or (should I say it?) having fun.

I'm glad your mom has had some time to enjoy her life. I'm sure that being with her grandson has given her a whole new perspective on her life. It will be a great memory for her and your son will grow up having known his grandmother intimately, which is rare these days.

I've been thinking about advertising. You say it gently bombards us with thoughts about the future. It is ubiquitous and insidious.

In days past, we looked to our local community to give us cues about how to live. Keeping up with the Jones's generally meant keeping up with someone who lived down the street and was of the same socio-economic class as you. Now we have a window on the world, or at least the world that the advertisers want us to see.

For example, I don't wear jewelry, largely because I work in a shop environment and have no need to wear it. My hands are "working hands" and therefore don't look great with something that accentuates them. But at Christmas time I watch the ads for diamonds which insinuate that if your husband really loves you, he will surprise you with a diamond. This year a competing ad suggested that if your husband really loves you he will haul a Lexus into your living room.

I think of myself as immune to advertising, but I must admit that watching those ads make me feel deprived. It's not that I want a diamond... it's that if my husband really loved me he would surprise me with an outrageous gift.

Now my husband points out that if he were to purchase something really expensive, I would get pissed off that he did so without consulting me. He's right, but I do know that this type of advertising has tapped into some deep need in me and that's what it's designed to do.

They are good at what they do.

PS. It would be nice if there was a way to spell-check

3/13/2005 11:34:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

"This made no sense to me. It seemed to me that the airline could make vast sums of money providing great service at a good price.It seemed to my uneducated mind that the most reasonable thing for the airline to do would be to take care of what it had, instead of going after more."

The airline industry is one of those industries where profit is directly connected to volume of business (or market share). The costs associated with owning and maintaining planes, hiring and training pilots, flight attendants, and ground crew, and paying airport fees are incredible. Profitability, therefore, entails having enough people buying tickets to recoup costs and have something left over. So, while I agree that many airlines fail to focus on customer service, the pursuit of market share is an unavoidable component of that industry.

My personal feeling is that large corporations inevitably veer away from whatever it is that makes them successful in their early years. As they get larger, bureaucracy takes over, and the important things, the simple things (like customer service), give way to managing to spreadsheets. That's why executives like Lou Gerstner (IBM) and Jack Welch (GE) are so notable - they were able to focus both companies on the basics of business, even when it meant bucking bureaucracy.

"I think that the really smart guys aren't really all that smart. Look at Enron...all those MBAs and no one knew what was going on."

I'll agree that an MBA doesn't usually mean squat when it comes to really running a solid business. To me, it's simple - it all comes down to doers versus talkers. However, there's no question that there are important and complex things that, if understood, can make you very successful in business. Enron, prior to the scandals, was lauded as one the most innovative companies that ever existed. They were known to spin off hundreds of new businesses every year, and many of them turned out to be very successful. The insight and skill of the execs in that company to pull that off was remarkable and very much worthy of praise. However, with hindsight, it's easy to see that the more *entrepreneurial* a company is, the more they need checks and balances to guard against corruption (which must always been seen as a constant in human affairs) and to simplify complexity.

If you feel out of touch with economics, buy Thomas Sowell's books - Basic Economics and Applied Economics. They are *the best* econ books I've ever read - they have distilled the important concepts into very accessible and, dare I say, entertaining information.

3/13/2005 08:46:00 PM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

"Keeping up with the Jones's generally meant keeping up with someone who lived down the street and was of the same socio-economic class as you. Now we have a window on the world, or at least the world that the advertisers want us to see."

Yes. That's what I was saying in my "Consumerism: Status Gone Haywire" post. We're in a new age, one in which we're instantly aware of what's happening all over the globe. The ancillary consequence of these global networks is the ability to see how *the other half* lives. The bottom line is that our status seeking machinery is on duty at all times.

If we live in egalitarian surroundings, it is at least able to get some rest - there are no higher status people to keep up with. However, in America, especially with the heavy inluences of Hip Hop culture (which glorifies money for money's sake), there's an endless stream of people right in our faces to keep up with. So, the status engine revs up and into the rat race we go.

The whole thing, in my view, is driven by TV. The survival of a TV show is very much a selection process (as in, survival of the fittest). Lots of variations are tried and the ones that get the ratings stay on. Whatever those shows happen to have going, by assumption, becomes *the trend*.

Think of "Friends" and how many girls were mimicking Jennifer Aniston's hair or how many guys, like Chandler, were saying, "Could I beeee any hungrier?" Once that happens - a new hit show moves the trend bar - the advertisers jump on board and try to ride the wave for as long as they can (usually so long that they wear it out). This explains why you'll hear the popular euphamisms in ads about six months after they've ceased being *cool* - "Don't go there." "Oh no you didn't." It's all so smarmy that it's difficult to keep food down.

I must admit that I have a bit of a condescending attitude toward advertisements, for the most part. I assume they're lying from the start, and also assume that I'm way ahead of them - there's nothing they can tell me that I haven't already passed judgement on and moved on. Of course, there are exceptions, but not many. A positive aspect of the information revolution is the ability for some people to take the advertisers out the game completely.

I use Tivo and almost never watch a show when it is scheduled, which means I rarely see commercials. I've been doing this for a couple of years now, and *somehow* I've managed to thrive.

As for buying diamonds, the long running argument around here has to do with why you would ever do it. My view - unless you think of them as an investment (i.e. you might sell them at a profit later - suuuure), they're pretty much a big waste of money. At the end of the day, they are status symbols. They are bought to impress other people, to give then impression of wealth, and to (as the ads suggest) give the impression that the man really cares. Horseshit across the board, if you ask me. I'm not interested in others' opinions of my wallet or my relationships. While my wife agrees *in theory*, she never objects to the rare occasion when she receives diamonds as gifts. Funny how that works out.

3/13/2005 09:12:00 PM

Blogger analogee said...

"I try to remember that, in pure prosperity terms, I have it better than 99.99% of the humans that have ever lived."

-- can't believe you said that, EC. In almost those exact words, I've said the same thing, more than once. I might have used 99.9%, but I think there is easily justification for your number. I remember one time, a couple of us were sitting around at work, some of us with 6-figure salaries, whining about how bad things were, and I started to think about it (I generally can't stand whining, although it is a delicious indulgence from time to time, so I get caught up in it), and came up with a statement very similar to yours. The time factor is important. Even in today's world, we have it good, but in comparison to all humans that have ever lived, man, we are living like kings of kings. As I heard it expressed once, a king from 300 years ago would probably have given half his kingdom for a flush toilet and the internet.

PS - My favorite economics book: Armchair Economist, by Landsburg. EC and alice, for sure, you would enjoy reading it. It taught me a new way to look at the world, through the eyes of an economist (well, a Chicago School economist, at any rate). I've read the Sowell books, and like them too, but Landsburg is more fun to read.

3/14/2005 06:28:00 PM

Blogger alice said...

I'm beginning to wonder if Barnes and Noble is sponsoring this blog. I've gotten so many great suggestions for reading materials. Thanks caveman and analogee for the tips.

3/16/2005 10:36:00 AM


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