Monday, May 18, 2020

The success and beauty in failure

Part of my occasional, ongoing series working with the book, The Collapse of Parenting, by Dr. Leonard Sax.

Aaron S. Robertson

A couple of stories to open this discussion up

In his 2016 book, The Collapse of Parenting, Leonard Sax, MD, Ph.D., devotes Chapter 5 to attempting to answer the question, "Why Are So Many Kids So Fragile?" There are two stories from that chapter that I find fitting to share here.

The first one is about a young man named Aaron (that's a cool name, by the way). Aaron has been a gamer since early childhood, and he's a whiz at the game Madden NFL Football. In high school, during a routine checkup, the nurse practitioner told Aaron and his dad, Steve, that Aaron was overweight. She recommended sports as an outlet to increase his physical activity. Steve, in turn, suggested to Aaron that he give football a try. Steve was a football player throughout his time in middle and high school, and he really enjoyed it. He had already been encouraging Aaron to give it a shot for quite a few years, but to no avail. But when some of Aaron's pals, who were fellow gamers, decided to try out for the JV team, Aaron finally caved in.

Here's what happened, in Steve's words, from the book:
“Aaron was pretty cocky when he went to the tryouts. He thought that being master of Madden NFL Football would give him an advantage. But the coach said he wanted to get a sense of who was in shape and who wasn’t. So he had them do some sprints. Then he made everyone run a mile, and every boy was timed. Aaron’s times in the sprints were terrible, and he took nearly 12 minutes to run a mile. One mile. The coach said, ‘Son, I have no idea whether you’re going to be able to play this game or not. You’re out of shape. I expect to see you back here tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. with the other kids who are out of shape. You’ll run another mile around the track, then we’ll go the weight room.”

“What happened? Did Aaron go back the next morning” I asked.

“Nope. He never went back. That was his first and last foray into any kind of after-school sport…” (Sax, 2016, pp. 94-95)
Julia was a high school junior when her story was told in the book. She was very competitive by nature. Dr. Sax surmises that perhaps she got some of that from her parents. Mom is an investment banker, dad a surgeon. Long story short, Julia attempted to take AP Physics her junior year, a course that is usually taken senior year. Accustomed to always being at the top of her class, or at least very close to the top, she scored a 74 on the first quiz. Her teacher suggested after this first quiz that it wasn't too late to consider dropping the course. This, unfortunately, sent Julia into a downward spiral emotionally and mentally.

After some hard convincing by her mom, Jennifer, Julia started getting help from a tutor. She scored a 79 on the second quiz, and this sent her into a total depression. She couldn't handle getting a C in the course. Jennifer took her to see the pediatrician, who placed her on a low dosage of an antidepressant. It helped for a short period of time, but her mood and feelings relapsed. Jennifer then decided to take her to a psychiatrist, who recommended adding another medication to the mix. She was alarmed when she read the potential side effects of this medication, which included weight gain and diabetes. That prompted Jennifer to reach out to Dr. Sax for a second opinion (Sax, 2016, pp. 95-98). 

Here's the scoop: You're going to experience failure numerous times in life.

You're going to encounter failure throughout your life. Many, many times. Countless times, in fact. In all sorts of contexts, places, situations, and sizes - in school; the workplace; relationships of all kinds; sports; business ventures; tests of all kinds; not getting into your top college choices; your finances; not getting that dream job, internship, or scholarship; and from simple mistakes to what may feel like the end of the world to you.

There are two main contributing factors that lead to, or accelerate, these failures:

1) Simply encountering circumstances beyond our control, and there will be plenty of these.

There were many other applicants that were better qualified. The economy is crashing, and now I'm out of a job. The other team showed up to play, while my team was nowhere to be found. A recession is causing my investments to nosedive. I just didn't foresee this as a possibility, and so it caught me completely off guard. A sports injury has railroaded my dreams of going pro. And, let's be honest - there are people out there who are just jerks by nature, and nothing you say or do will ever change or please them. They will put up barriers for you without any particular rhyme or reason.

2) Circumstances that are totally within our control.

Instead of studying for the big exam, I decided to spend all that time playing video games with my friends. I didn't ask for help when I needed it, and now I'm in a mess. I could have been a better listener for my friend. I let my teammates down by not putting in the practice time I needed to. I never saved anything (money), and now I'm out of work. Etc., etc.  

Here are the solutions to overcoming failure and powering ahead

First off, accept and embrace failure as a natural part of life that's not going away. Simply accepting this fact is actually quite liberating and empowering. The earlier you can embrace this truth, the better you'll be prepared mentally and emotionally for when these times do come along, and they surely will. You'll be more level-headed, even-keeled, and able to look at things more objectively and reasonably. 

See every situation, every failure, as an opportunity to learn. Every situation in life and career is a learning opportunity that will better prepare you for future success. Ask yourself, and really take the time and effort to reflect on, questions like: What can I take away from this experience? What in this situation did I have control over? In regard to those things that I did have control over, what could I have done better? What could I have taken more seriously? How can these newfound insights better prepare me for the future?

The current situation that we find ourselves in, the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, presents many such learning opportunities to us, if we simply take the time to listen to them. In a post that I just published last week, "Building your own personal economy," I discuss, and offer a number of solutions to, how this crisis has fully unmasked (pun intended) the true magnitude of Americans' lack of savings. We're living paycheck to paycheck, we can't fund an unexpected $500 car repair, and missing work for even a week or two with all the lock downs and business closures across the country has left us in dire straits. 

Yin and Yang
Realize that success and failure are intertwined, and that you cannot have one without the other. Look at success and failure as Yin and Yang. It's an axiomatic truth that they are interconnected, and that one cannot exist without the other. We can't have success without failure, because it's learning from those failures that leads to the successes. And we can't have failure without success, because we wouldn't have anything to compare failure to. And because we wouldn't have anything to compare failure to, we wouldn't have anything to strive for. We wouldn't know what success looks and feels like because it doesn't exist.       

One of the very first posts I wrote for this blog, way back in December 2018, is, "Success comes from not quitting." And in that post, I discuss the career highlights of several historical figures, mostly athletes. And the reason why they became legends - the reason why we know their names today - is because they simply kept going. Every day was a new day, a new opportunity to learn from yesterday's mistakes and defeats. A new day to notch another victory.

As I note in that post, pitcher Cy Young has the most wins in baseball, but guess what? He also racked up the most losses. Neither record is even close to ever being broken. The biggest loser in baseball is also its biggest winner. Babe Ruth was the home run king for decades before Hank Aaron came along and took the title. Decades after Aaron, as we know, Barry Bonds claimed it. But while Ruth was the home run leader for decades, he also held the record for most strikeouts. That record - the most strikeouts - was eventually claimed by another legendary slugger, Reggie Jackson. Michael Jordan and Bob Cousy were cut from their high school basketball teams. And Thomas Edison was said to have failed thousands of times on the light bulb before he finally got it right.

Adopt a Growth Mindset, and unleash the power of yet.

This next point ties in well with this notion about seeing every situation as a learning opportunity. I recently took an online course as a part of my ongoing professional development called "Teaching Online: Principles, Techniques and Strategies." The course covered, among other subjects, the Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset philosophy. I was already aware of this approach prior to taking this course, but it was great to get a refresher on it, and it definitely fits the overall topic of this post. Check out this video that was in the course. It does a wonderful job of explaining the concept:



And check out this poster, which ties in really well with the video:

The power of yet

Adopting a growth mindset and understanding the power of yet is what frees up your mind to allow you to see every situation - every failure - as a learning opportunity.

Try looking at your failure from a different perspective - it may not be nearly as bad as you think.

Here's my take on Julia's situation - I'm actually a little jealous of her. I make it no secret that I was a slacker in high school. From where I stand, her carrying a C in AP Physics is far more than I ever accomplished in high school, and college credit is college credit. A grade of a C is passing the course, and that means college credit before even filling out the admissions application. Combined with her other AP coursework throughout high school, she's well on her way to a much faster (and far less expensive) start in college - as well as in career and life - than I ever was. Whereas Julia saw that C as being a major failure, I see it as simply standing for the word, "Credit." There you have it - a different perspective.

Have backup plans.

Around six months ago, in mid-November, I wrote this brief post about the importance of cultivating many options - essentially, having a few viable backup plans ready to go in case things don't work out as you had planned, or simply to enable you to explore new territory and opportunities, or to hedge your bets against risks.

Finally, work on building courage, humility, and gratitude - NOT self-esteem.

I'll close with this passage from the book that I found particularly insightful and relevant for this post. It's on the dangers of self-esteem. Now, that may sound somewhat strange to say - that we shouldn't have a high amount of self-esteem - I found it somewhat strange and paradoxical at first, as well. But I read this passage a couple of times and really reflected on it for some time, and it now makes perfect sense to me. All too often, we tend to confuse self-esteem, because it's a big word or phrase that's ingrained in our culture, with what we should really be aiming for - courage, humility, and gratitude. These characteristics are different from self-esteem, as we'll discover here. Here is that passage:
Charlene has very high self-esteem. I don’t think that’s such a good thing. Her high self-esteem at age 15 is setting her up for disappointment and resentment at age 25. I have witnessed this trajectory many times. Soaring self-esteem in childhood and adolescence, carefully nurtured by parents and teachers, predictably leads to a crash after college, typically about 3 to 5 years after graduation, when it slowly dawns on the young adult - the same adult who had been so talented as an adolescent - that she’s actually not as talented as she thought. She discovers that just because she was repeatedly told that she is amazing does not mean that she is, in reality, amazing.

Put bluntly, the culture of self-esteem leads to a culture of resentment. If I am so wonderful, but my talents are not recognized and I’m still nobody at age 25, working in a cubicle - or not working at all - then I may feel envious and resentful of those who are more successful than me. How come that other young writer got her novel published, and she was on the TODAY Show and I can’t even get an agent?

One parent recently said to me, 'Kids need self-esteem. I want my daughter to have the courage to apply for that big job, her dream job. And that requires self-esteem.'

Not quite, I answered. Taking appropriate risks requires courage, first and foremost. Again, many parents confuse self-esteem with courage, just as some parents tend to confuse humility with timidity and cowardice. To be courageous means that you recognize the risks and your own limitations, but you find the resolve to move forward anyhow. The young person with bloated self-esteem, unaware of her own deficiencies, is unlikely to do well in the job interview. But the young person who is genuinely interested in what the recruiter has to say is more likely to get the job.

The right kind of humility helps you to recognize your own shortcomings. To be better prepared. To understand the risks. And to take those risks courageously, when necessary.

The antidote to the culture of bloated self-esteem is the culture of humility. If I am in the culture of humility, then I rejoice at the success of others, and I am happy with my portion. The culture of humility leads to gratitude, appreciation, and contentment. The key to lasting happiness is contentment.

This conclusion is now grounded in some compelling research. Investigators have recently found that if an individual has a grateful attitude toward life, that individual is more likely to be satisfied with life, more contented, and happier. (Sax, 2016, pp. 162-163).

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Building your own personal economy

If the coronavirus pandemic can teach us anything from a financial standpoint, it's that we each need to focus on building our own personal economies. We can't trust, or rely on, other people, politicians, or broken-down systems to do that for us.

If you're one of my high school or college -aged readers, you have the greatest asset going for you right now. You have time on your side. Don't squander it. Harness its great power before it catches up to you and is gone forever. And if you're one of my older readers tuning in, it's better late than never, as the old saying goes. You can immediately commit to these principles and strategies today, and dramatically alter your course heading for the better.

Aaron S. Robertson

Backdrop

As time goes on during the lock downs and business closures throughout the country due to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, we're seeing more and more of the devastating financial effects all of this is having on families and businesses. As I write this, well over 30 million Americans are now unemployed during the pandemic. Food insecurity is creeping in, and children are going hungry. Lines to drive-up food pantries are backed up for miles in some areas of the country. Protestors are demanding an end to the shutdowns, with many pleading that they simply need to return to work in order to support themselves and their families. Rents, mortgage payments, and other bills are going unpaid.

A problem exposed that transcends all politics and personal beliefs about the virus

For this discussion, try to set aside any political or ideological persuasion you may have. Whether or not you think the coronavirus is a hoax; whether or not you're in support of these lock downs/closures; whether or not you feel your Constitutional rights are being violated - none of that matters for purposes of this discussion. These issues will be tested and battled out in the court system in due time. In the meantime, there's one indisputable fact that we know for sure right now in this very moment, and that is the purpose of this discussion - we Americans are not saving enough, and, as we're seeing, we can't weather out a storm, be it in the form of a pandemic, a natural disaster, an individual job loss, or a widespread economic meltdown.

A case in point: Here in Wisconsin, the "Safer at Home" order went into effect on March 25. Granted, schools had already dismissed prior to that date. The school district in which I'm employed, for example, held its last in-person school day back on March 13. Now, the "Safer at Home" order was originally scheduled to go through April 24, but it ended up being extended through May 26. So, let's assume, worst-case scenario, barring any court intervention or the governor lifting it earlier, that the order will stay in place through May 26. In total, that makes for nine weeks between March 25 and May 26 - a hair over two months. As this page on the Wells Fargo Web site explains, we should ideally have 3-6 months worth of expenses tucked away in an emergency fund. That's the typical advice doled out by financial advisors and economists across the board. But families and business owners are really hurting right now, and we're not even at the full nine weeks yet. I'm writing this on May 10, and we still have 16 days to go until we reach May 26. And, in fact, families and businesses were already feeling the pain and pleading to get back to work less than one month into the order. Clearly, we're not saving enough. We're living paycheck to paycheck. But we're great at spending and racking up debt, as Warren Buffett recently pointed out in comments he made about Americans' use of credit cards.

We need to focus on building our own personal economies so that we have the resources to effectively navigate through the storms that undoubtedly come our way in life. And they come in all shapes and sizes - anything from an unexpected car repair to an accident or critical illness. Anything from widespread economic decline to - yes - a pandemic. Back to unexpected car repairs for a moment - this press release issued by BankRate.com in 2016 pointed out at the time that 63% of Americans could not afford to cover a $500 car repair or a $1,000 visit to the emergency room. Four years later, in 2020, those numbers haven't improved much. According to this article published by CNBC back in January, 41% of Americans can cover a $1,000 emergency with savings. That leaves some 59% who cannot. And when it comes to the current state of retirement savings, the picture doesn't look pretty, either. According to this recent Washington Post story profiling six retired baby boomers:
Half of American families in the 56-to-61 age bracket had less than $21,000 in retirement savings in 2016, according to a longitudinal study by the Economic Policy Institute that used the most recent available figures. A less formal survey last year found that little had changed. Forty percent of Americans over the age of 60 who are no longer working full-time rely solely on Social Security for their income - the median annual benefit is about $17,000.
Clearly, what we're seeing right now, is that it took this current crisis - the pandemic - to unmask (pun fully intended) the dire problem of Americans' lack of savings. Tens of millions of Americans not being able to fund an unexpected car repair or emergency room visit, with each individual incident scattered over a long period of time, isn't going to make the news or create large-scale economic disaster. The problem is there, but this type of occurrence isn't enough to expose the true nature of it. But bring tens of millions of Americans together, all at once, who have been out of work now for anywhere between one and six weeks or so, and the lid has been fully blown off. We can't hide it anymore. We're now clearly seeing the magnitude of Americans' lack of savings.

Roots of the problem

I'd imagine that our inability - or unwillingness - to save is largely due to our collective consumer culture. With credit so readily available, it's all too easy to want to live for today by splurging and borrowing against the future. Tying into this is the whole "Keeping up with the Joneses" mentality. It's a trap that's easy to get caught in when it seems like everyone else around you is doing it. But a couple other factors, I suspect, are also at play here.

In addition to the consumer culture/keeping up with the Joneses dynamic, I'm betting that another factor contributing to the problem is that we just don't want to imagine anything bad ever happening. We don't want to think about those things - an accident, serious illness, job loss, natural disaster, pandemic, economic collapse, death - the car needing to be repaired. And because we don't want to think about the potential for things to go wrong, we're naturally caught off guard and perhaps even shaken to our core when they do happen.
"Tens of millions of Americans not being able to fund an unexpected car repair or emergency room visit, with each individual incident scattered over a long period of time, isn't going to make the news or create large-scale economic disaster. The problem is there, but this type of occurrence isn't enough to expose the true nature of it. But bring tens of millions of Americans together, all at once, who have been out of work now for anywhere between one and six weeks or so, and the lid has been fully blown off. We can't hide it anymore. We're now clearly seeing the magnitude of Americans' lack of savings."
Finally, a third contributing cause that I see here at work is our dependency on "the system" stepping in and providing relief when things go awfully wrong. We've come to expect unemployment insurance and other programs that collectively comprise what we call the "social safety net" always being there for us and coming to our rescue. The problem here is that the social safety net is marred by bureaucracy, inefficiencies and backlogs, technical woes, budget cuts, and politics. When it comes to the unemployment system alone, today's front page section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is replete with stories of working people still waiting after many weeks to receive their first unemployment payment. Furthermore, these programs were always meant to be a band-aid of sorts; a little bit of temporary help - a supplement in a jam. They were never designed to fully take the place of our own planning and saving. We can't rely on these programs like that.         

What should we do about it? What can we do?

Fortunately, there are a number of tools and strategies we can implement to help us prepare for these situations and significantly mitigate the effects on ourselves and our families. We, alone, must do these things for ourselves and our families. We can't rely on other people, on politicians, or on broken-down systems to do these things for us. It doesn't matter who's in office. It doesn't matter how strong the broader economy is. We have to do this important work ourselves and resist the temptation to take the words and promises of others at face value.

The best part about these tools and strategies? It doesn't matter what your income is. Your income is not tied to your ability to save, mitigate risks, and build wealth. We know plenty of people earning six-figures who are sinking in debt, and we know plenty of people earning far humbler numbers by comparison who have become millionaires by faithfully following the 10 things millionaires do not do. You can start today with many of these items with the proper mindset and a little discipline.

First, let's talk about that mindset - I don't know if I've transformed into a jaded, cynical, bitter old man in my 30s, or if I've simply become more of a reasonable realist. For me, determining where that line is can be difficult sometimes. But here's my philosophy and psychology in a nutshell, for whatever it's worth. It goes back to some points made earlier about people generally not wanting to think about bad things happening, only to be caught off guard when they do happen: If you can imagine it happening, it can happen. If it can happen, it's likely that it will happen. There's virtually nothing that surprises me anymore about the world - about how people react; about how we treat one another; about the motives of others; about bureaucracy; about chaos, destruction, disease, natural disaster, famine, mass death, economic collapse, situations beyond our control; etc. If it can happen, it's likely that it will happen. And that's why it's important to think in terms of possible worst case scenarios and hedge your bets accordingly in order to protect yourself and those you care about. That was the general gist of my post, "Cultivating many options," that I wrote back in mid-November. In that post, I argued the benefits of having a few backup plans always ready to go at a moment's notice.
"We have to do this important work ourselves and resist the temptation to take the words and promises of others at face value."
I love movies about Wall Street and the world of investing, and one of my favorite films of all time in this genre is The Big Short. Here's a clip from that movie:



Here are some particular lines from that above clip that do a great job of summarizing my overall mindset and approach to life:
Charlie: "Our investment strategy was simple. People hate to think about bad things happening, so they always underestimate their likelihood."

Narrator: "Their strategy was simple and brilliant. Jamie and Charlie found markets will sell options very cheaply on things they think will never happen. So when they were wrong, they were wrong small. But when they were right, they were right big."   
The envelope system - Back in early March, I wrote a post about how I just started utilizing the envelope system for budgeting and saving, a strategy that I picked up from a personal finance class I assist in at the high school I work at. Since starting the envelope system, I've managed to save over $2,200 as I write this. Now, granted, I concede that this number may be a little artificially propped up by Wisconsin's "Stay at Home" order - it's hard to spend money when there's nowhere really to go. Nonetheless, $2,200 is $2,200. I wouldn't have it without this system in place. At first, it took a lot of discipline and getting used to. Now, it's second nature, and it's working really well for me. I love it. I could kick myself in the rear for not starting it earlier.
"It doesn't matter what your income is. Your income is not tied to your ability to save, mitigate risks, and build wealth. We know plenty of people earning six-figures who are sinking in debt, and we know plenty of people earning far humbler numbers by comparison who have become millionaires..."
The snowball method and the avalanche method for tackling debt - The snowball method is taught to students in our personal finance class. It's highly effective yet very simple to implement. This finance article on CNBC discussing ways to tackle credit card debt does a great job of explaining the concept:
Popularized by “The Total Money Makeover” author Dave Ramsey, the snowball method prioritizes your smallest debts first, regardless of interest rate. To try it, start by listing out all of your debts, smallest to largest. Pay the minimum balance on each one, except the smallest. For that one, dedicate as much cash as possible each month until it is repaid. Then move on to the second-smallest debt.

The idea is that you’ll gain momentum by watching debts disappear - as you would watching a snowball grow bigger and bigger - and that will motivate you to continue.
That same CNBC article describes the avalanche method this way:
To employ the avalanche method, list your debts from highest to lowest by interest rate. Pay the minimum balance on each, but this time dedicate as much extra as you can each month to the one with the highest interest rate.

Mathematically speaking, tackling the highest interest rates first is the most efficient way to handle debt because it eliminates interest as quickly as possible. The debts that would be racking up the most in interest are dealt with first, so you can minimize interest paid.
Both the snowball method and the avalanche method are effective for tackling debt. However, it should be noted that, according to this research conducted by Harvard Business Review on paying down credit card debt, which the CNBC article cites, the snowball method appears to be the best way to go because it's easier to stay motivated. There's a psychological effect at play here. You're more likely to see the total number of your debts disappearing faster, even though your higher-interest debts may be getting paid off last, and it's seeing the total number of debts shrinking that will keep you energized throughout the process.

Using cash as a negotiation tool - Who doesn't like cash? Once you start accumulating some through saving, budgeting, and knocking some debts out, you can use cash to your advantage in many scenarios where you're able to negotiate, not just buying a car. Mark Cuban and Dave Ramsey explain the benefits of using cash to negotiate.   

Long-term care insurance - In December 2011, just days before my 29th birthday, I purchased a long-term care insurance policy. This Wikipedia article on long-term care insurance explains it well:
Long-term care insurance (LTC or LTCI) is an insurance product, sold in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada that helps pay for the costs associated with long-term care. Long-term care insurance covers care generally not covered by health insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid.

Individuals who require long-term care are generally not sick in the traditional sense but are unable to perform two of the six activities of daily living (ADLs) such as dressing, bathing, eating, toileting, continence, transferring (getting in and out of a bed or chair), and walking.

Age is not a determining factor in needing long-term care. About 70 percent of individuals over 65 will require at least some type of long-term care services during their lifetime. About 40% of those receiving long-term care today are between 18 and 64. Once a change of health occurs, long-term care insurance may not be available. Early onset (before 65) Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease occur rarely.

Long-term care is an issue because people are living longer. As people age, many times they need help with everyday activities of daily living or require supervision due to severe cognitive impairment. That impacts women even more since they often live longer than men and, by default, become caregivers to others.
Now, most people in their 20s aren't thinking 40+ years down the road. But if you're one of them, you have a great advantage. Generally speaking, time and health are on your side, and the younger and healthier you are when you purchase one of these policies, the lower your premium amount. The odds that you're going to need this kind of assistance when you're older are high. And a policy like this can help mitigate those odds by protecting your assets down the road from being eaten up by healthcare costs, not to mention relieving loved ones from the burden of having to take care of you. Insurance agent and financial advisor friends of mine tell me that purchasing a long-term care policy when I did was one of the best moves I could ever make. Many people who purchase these types of policies don't start thinking about and buying them until they're in their 50s or older - to a significant cost disadvantage.

Finally, on this subject, if I pass away prior to having to tap into this policy, all the premiums I paid into it will be returned to my estate.

Disability insurance - I purchased an individual disability insurance policy (individual meaning that it's not tied to my employer-sponsored benefits - I own it as long as I continue paying the premiums on it, regardless of employment status or job changes) back in June 2017. If I become disabled and, hence, unable to work, this policy will provide a guaranteed monthly income for a set period of time. Additionally, at the age of 65, with the way my policy is structured, I can have my premiums returned to me. The amount of premium returned to me will depend on the amount of benefits I took from the policy. If I never have to tap into the policy, I'll have 100% of all the monthly premiums I ever paid into the policy given back to me at 65. I look at this as sort of a forced savings strategy. If I pass away prior to 65, I can have the premiums I paid up to that point go to a beneficiary.

This Wikipedia article on disability insurance sums it up well:
Disability Insurance, often called DI or disability income insurance, or income protection, is a form of insurance that insures the beneficiary's earned income against the risk that a disability creates a barrier for a worker to complete the core functions of their work. For example, the worker may suffer from an inability to maintain composure in the case of psychological disorders or an injury, illness or condition that causes physical impairment or incapacity to work. It encompasses paid sick leave, short-term disability benefits (STD), and long-term disability benefits (LTD). Statistics show that in the US a disabling accident occurs, on average, once every second. In fact, nearly 18.5% of Americans are currently living with a disability, and 1 out of every 4 persons in the US workforce will suffer a disabling injury before retirement.
Job loss insurance - Not long ago, I purchased a policy from SafetyNet, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, SafetyNet is no longer taking on any new customers, but you should be able to find somewhat similar coverage through another provider. These types of policies are becoming popular.

Anyway, at the time I had their coverage, SafetyNet provided an insurance policy that protected against job loss on two different fronts - job loss caused by an involuntary, no-fault-of-your-own layoff/shutdown/business closure that would prevent you from working for at least 30 days, and job loss caused by a covered illness or accident that would prevent you from working for at least 30 days. I believe there were three levels of coverage. You could pay $5 per month for a payout of x. That was the lowest premium/payout amount. The payout may have been $1,000. There was an amount in the middle. And I chose the highest amount of coverage. I paid $30 per month - one dollar a day - for a payout of $9,000. Well, that ended up being a good decision on my part. I ended up filing a claim in early 2018 when the business I was working for was experiencing financial difficulties and had to lay me off. It really came in handy, and I was able to collect regular unemployment insurance from the state of Wisconsin, as well.

Now, for these job loss type of policies, one thing to keep in mind is potential tax implications. With me taking a payout on the layoff/shutdown/business closure side of things, the payout counted as income, and I had to pay tax on that $9,000 when I filed my tax return for the year. Well worth it. I would have had to pay taxes on that $9,000 anyway if I had earned it working. By contrast, you do not have to pay tax on a payout from a covered illness/accident claim.

Finally, here are some additional tips, strategies, and resources from personal finance expert Dave Ramsey that I highly recommend:

30 Easy Ways to Save Up to $1,000

How to Save Money: 20 Simple Tips

How to Save Money Fast
 
8 Ways to Turn Saving Money Into a Game

These are just a few things you may want to consider employing as you seek to build up your own personal economy so that you can navigate the challenging times and curve balls that life, without a doubt, throws at us from time to time. I also have life insurance (both employer-sponsored and individual coverage) and some investments in my toolbox, but that may be better suited for a future post here. I'd also like to write a post in the future about employee benefits. Depending on what your employer all has to offer, there could be some really nice gems that can further help you in mitigating risks and planning for the future.

What are your thoughts, observations, and experiences? Do you have any financial tips and strategies not discussed here that have served you well during times of uncertainty and crisis? We'd love to hear from you! Please feel free to share in the comments section below.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Oksana Baiul

Fondly remembering the 1994 Lillehammer games: How a 16-year-old Oksana Baiul melted my 11-year-old baseball-loving heart and introduced me to the Winter Olympics and the world of figure skating.

Aaron S. Robertson

Recently, I was having a conversation with several friends, and we ended up on the topic of the Winter Olympics. The next Olympic Winter Games is scheduled for February 2022 in Beijing, China.

During that conversation, I recalled, fondly, the very first Winter Olympics that I actively tuned into - the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway. Not coincidentally, it was also the first time that I actively tuned into the sport of figure skating. And it was all because of Oksana Baiul of Ukraine.

I was 11 years old in February 1994 when the latest issue of my Sports Illustrated for Kids subscription arrived in my mailbox. And there she was, at 16 years old, gracing the cover of the magazine. My 11-year-old heart skipped a few beats and then proceeded to melt.

1994 Sports Illustrated for Kids Oksana Baiul cover
The 1994 Sports Illustrated for Kids Oksana Baiul cover.
Prior to that issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids coming to the door, an issue that served as a preview to the upcoming games, I don't believe I had ever heard of Oksana Baiul, even though, I would soon learn, she was the ladies champion of the 1993 World Figure Skating Championships held in Prague, Czech Republic. But if I never heard of her beforehand, it wouldn't have been surprising, I suppose. For starters, I was a typical Midwestern city kid from a blue-collar family, and not yet exposed to much of anything that could be described as "the performing arts" or "the fine arts," much less "worldly" or "world culture." Not unless you want to count all the times I had Chinese, or spaghetti, or tacos, for dinner. I probably would have had trouble locating Ukraine on the map back then (or on the globe, as many classrooms still had). Furthermore, when it came to sports, I was a big baseball and basketball fan, more so baseball. Just several months before the Olympics, this native Milwaukeean and die-hard Brewers fan found himself rooting for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1993 World Series against the Toronto Bluejays. I faithfully watched every single game from beginning to end. The Bluejays ended up taking the series. Actually, when I think about it, that was the first World Series that I actively tuned into.

And as far as the American figure skaters went, sure, I may have heard the names Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi, and a few others before in passing, but so what? It didn't mean much to me. My friends and I were in love with baseball. We were boys of summer. Other than building the occasional snowman or snow fort, anything to do with winter sports and recreation seemed largely foreign and just plain blah to us. We were no Dan Jansens or Bonnie Blairs, that's for sure. When we weren't playing little league, or Cub Scout softball league, or games in the streets, we were building our card collections, watching the Brewers on TV, and taking in baseball trivia and history. In winter, we would switch over to playing baseball games on Nintendo and watching Milwaukee Bucks games on TV, all while impatiently waiting for spring training to come. But I'll tell you what - like every other American who didn't follow figure skating, I definitely became aware of the names Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding by 1994, following the infamous physical attack on Kerrigan by associates of Harding's. It was hard not to. It was a scandal that made the two young women household names around the world, and it eventually led to Harding being stripped of a U.S. championship title and banned from professional competition for life. Among the men responsible for the assault on Kerrigan were a bodyguard of Harding's, along with Harding's ex-husband. The attack occurred on January 6, 1994, in Detroit. Both competed in the Olympics the following month, and the tension between them was clearly visible as the investigation by the authorities and all the media buzz continued.

But it was this talented young woman from Ukraine that caught my attention and got me hooked on figure skating. And with it, I developed an appreciation for the Winter Olympics as a whole. I finally started paying attention to hometown heroes Jansen and Blair, who both took home gold from Lillehammer in their respective speed skating competitions.

The beauty, elegance, artistry, and grace of it all is truly amazing. It's theater, dance, ballet, and sport all rolled into one. And it's not all outwardly visible. It's not all simply physical movements, physical endurance, and physical appearance that we see. Far, far from it. I can't begin to imagine what goes on in the minds of these skaters - the amount of mental focus required to pull it all off successfully. Having to think of the next move in advance while somehow, simultaneously, being fully present in each and every moment. One slip of the mind, even for a split-second, can cost the entire show. And yet, they make it all seem so care-free. So seamless.

Following are four performances by Oksana Baiul during the 1994 Winter Olympics. The third video captures her gold medal performance, while the fourth one features a joint performance with Viktor Petrenko, also from Ukraine.

The very last video is entitled, "15 Strict Rules Female Figure Skaters Have To Follow." I came across it while conducting research for this post and thought it was worth sharing. Very informative and interesting.

Enjoy!  










Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The real purpose of K-12 education

We have to realize that K-12 education should be about preparing students for life, not university, and that some of the greatest, most rewarding career opportunities out there can be found in the vast vocational/trades/technical college realm.

Aaron S. Robertson

Recently, I finished reading a book called, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups, written by Leonard Sax and published in 2016.

Dr. Sax is both a medical doctor and a Ph.D. psychologist, and the inspiration for a lot of his writing comes directly from both his office visits with children and families, and from his numerous talks and tours at schools and in communities across the country and even the world. He currently has four published books out, one of them in a second edition. I recently ordered his Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls (2011) from Amazon, and just started reading it yesterday.

In the coming days and weeks, I plan on writing a number of posts here tied to The Collapse of Parenting. I'm spending a lot of time with the book, going back to revisit certain parts and really digging deep and reflecting on what I've been observing and experiencing in my short time in education so far. It's a wonderful read, and I highly recommend it to parents, expecting parents, those working in education (both K-12 and college level), and even employers and recruiters, who can certainly benefit from the rich insights and data the book offers on the younger generations coming up in the workforce.

To follow along with these specific posts, I've created the tag/label, The Collapse of Parenting. Click that link, and you'll be taken to all of the posts.

For this first post, I'd like to discuss Dr. Sax's thoughts on what he sees as the real purpose of K-12 education. Many Americans today, it seems, have this idea that K-12 education is designed to (or should be designed to) prepare students for admission into top colleges. It's an idea that, I can personally attest to from both my experiences as a high school student in the late 1990s and as someone working in K-12 education today, is arguably misguided, to say the very least. Actually, it's a disservice that is quite toxic. It deprives all individual students by downplaying or even outright hiding other opportunities, and it deprives our economy and society of needed talents and resources. We collectively depend on a rich diversity of skills, talents, interests, experiences, and specializations in order to produce the goods, services, ideas, and knowledge that move us forward.

Benefits of learning a trade
 

Now, to the credit of many U.S. school districts and experts in the world of education today, the conversation and landscape is already in the process of changing. The Collapse of Parenting came out at the very beginning of 2016, and since that time, many districts have begun moving away from presenting a college-only future to students. This was actually the basis for a previous post I wrote a little more than a year ago, Manufacturing and the trades in schools, in which I heralded what I see as the return of these skill sets and opportunities in schools and in the broader dialogue.

Nonetheless, we still have a very long way to go. I don't think it's anyone's fault, in particular. This college-only philosophy simply started off by slowly creeping into education and societal thought years ago already, and, before we know it, just about everyone is buying into it - parents, students, teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, the media, pop culture, savvy marketers, and so on. It took off to the point where it has dominated a good swath of K-12 education for quite a few years now, and it's difficult to get out from under its stranglehold.

Let's explore further. There's actually a two-pronged discussion taking place here, with both parts very much intertwined. First, we'll explore the misconception that the mission of K-12 education is to prepare students for college (college, in this context, is generally understood to be the four-year university path), and then, tying into that belief, we'll look at the misconception that vocational training/work in the trades/technical college education is somehow inferior to the university track.

To begin, Dr. Sax, in my opinion, hits it right on the head with this statement when he observes that:
At some level, sometimes subconsciously, many Americans – both parents and students – have accepted the idea that a primary purpose of K-12 schooling, maybe even the primary purpose, is to get accepted into a selective college and to prepare for college. That’s a mistake. The primary purpose of education should be to prepare for life, not for more school. And many of the skills needed to succeed in life are different from the skills needed for admission to a top college. (Sax, 2016, p. 189)
And just what are those skills needed to succeed in life? Well, based on my years in business and industry before moving to education as my primary field, I would certainly say that they include the abilities to effectively read, write, and communicate. Math for everyday life and work is a must. By that, I mean the ability to perform old-fashioned multiplication, addition, subtraction, division, and percentages with relative ease in one's head. The ability to synthesize information, reflect, and think critically. Knowing how to identify quality sources when conducting research of any kind. Understanding one's rights and responsibilities as a citizen, and this is where paying attention in social studies classes comes in. Definitely personal finance. The ability to face, understand, and accept failure as a part of life and work. And teamwork, getting along with others, playing fair, sharing, personal responsibility - essentially, Fulghum's Rules, which were instilled in us in kindergarten some 30-35 years ago, and which Dr. Sax points out have largely been replaced with, "...teaching diphthongs rather than teaching respect, courtesy, and manners" (Sax, 2016, p. 50). By contrast, kindergarten students in Finland still spend their school days playing, having fun, and learning how to get along, and, somehow, it's not preventing them from thriving academically as older students.       

Dr. Sax calls this whole college-only approach buying into "the middle-class script." He writes:
When I visit schools, I often meet with students, in groups both large and small. When I meet with middle or high school students, I sometimes engage them in semi-Socratic back-and-forth questioning. I pose questions and call on students who raise their hands. What’s the point of school? I ask. Why bother? To get into a good college – that’s the answer I most often hear from American high school students. So what’s the purpose of college? I ask. To get a good job, to earn a living, the students answer. This dialogue is the basis for what I have come to call “the middle-class script.” The script reads as follows:

1. Work hard in school so you can get into a good college.
2. Get into a good college so you can get a good job.
3. Get a good job and you will make a good living and have a good life.

There are several problems with this script. The first problem is that every line in it is false.

1. Working hard in school is no guarantee of admission to a top college. We all know stories of kids who worked hard, earned good grades, and didn’t get into any of their top choices.
2. Getting into a good college is no guarantee of a good job. The media and the blogosphere are full of stories of young people who have earned bachelor’s degrees from Princeton and Harvard and who are now waiting tables or simply unemployed.
3. Getting a good job is no guarantee of having a good life. (Sax, 2016, pp. 187-188)
He goes on to explain this last point by describing colleagues in the medical field as a prime example:
I have seen some such adults among my own physician colleagues. This man may be regarded as a successful surgeon; he may earn $600,000 a year; but he's miserable. He's unhappy because he is working 80 hours a week at a job he has come to loathe. If you are working 80 hours a week at a job which shrivels your soul, then you are a slave. I don't care whether you are earning $600,000 a year or more. Life is precious. Each minute is a priceless gift. No amount of money can reclaim lost time. If you are wasting your time on work you detest, you may come to feel resentful about the time you are losing. If you are a physician, you may come to resent your patients. I have learned to recognize such physicians, and I try to steer my patients away from them. (Sax, 2016, p. 190)
And now, here's where that tie-in to frowning upon vocational/trades/technical college training and education comes in. Dr. Sax explains how high school students expressing an interest in wanting to become mechanics are viewed in Germany and Switzerland compared to their peers here in the United States. He notes:
I find that parents in the United States, more than in any other country, have bought into the middle-class script. In Germany and Switzerland, for example, there is no shame if a 15-year-old chooses to train to become an auto mechanic rather than embarking on the university track. And that’s true even if both parents are university professors. Mechanics in those countries are respected and they earn good money.

Mechanics can earn good money in the United States as well, but there is a stigma, a lack of respect, attached to 'blue-collar' work in the United States today, which is utterly lacking in Mitteleuropa. In the United States, it is hard to imagine the child of two professors choosing to go straight into 'vocational training' to be a mechanic unless that child has been diagnosed with some sort of learning disability. Most Americans today regard 'vocational training' as a low-prestige option for below-average-IQ kids or for kids with learning disabilities. (Sax, 2016, pp. 188-189)
The four-year university path isn't for everyone, nor should it ever be. It's merely one of many post-high school avenues in which to try to find meaningful work, personal fulfillment, and the tools and resources to build a decent quality of life. And like any path in life and career, we must accept that, at the end of the day, there are no guarantees of anything. Things like meaningful work, personal fulfillment, happiness, and success, are all in the eyes of the beholder. They must come from within, because they are different for everyone. You may find them easily, or you may never fully discover them. They may last for many years, or they may quickly come and go. What's special and fulfilling today may become an ongoing burden tomorrow, as we see in the case of the $600,000-per-year surgeon. You may have to reinvent - or rediscover - yourself every so often.

“Most Americans today regard 'vocational training' as a low-prestige option for below-average-IQ kids or for kids with learning disabilities.” - Dr. Leonard Sax

As many of my regular readers here know, I'm a Ph.D. student. And as I reflect in a previous post, Embracing lifelong learning,
While it's true that this is the highest level of academic degree that can be attained, it's certainly not the be-all-end-all of learning. It doesn't make me a genius. It doesn't give me everything I'll ever need to know. All it demonstrates is that I can conduct original scientific research. Big deal. Far more people out there know a heck of a lot more than I do and are far more successful than I am without that formal education. And I sincerely hope that you become one of them.
As someone who has climbed the degree ladder of the university track, I often encourage high school students to explore careers in the trades and other opportunities in the vocational and technical college realm. There are a ton of them now - culinary arts and hospitality management, dental hygienist, real estate and property management, graphic design, early childhood education, Web and digital media design, information technology (IT), criminal justice and law enforcement, nursing, paramedic and EMT, fire protection, truck driving, marketing and sales, funeral service, human resources (HR), cosmetology, aviation. We can go on and on. There are so many awesome opportunities today in this vast realm, and many vocational and technical college scholarships go unfilled or with very little competition, which makes for great odds for someone who's seriously interested in exploring and putting in the work. There are plenty of traditional apprenticeship and other on-the-job-training opportunities out there, as well.

I share with high school and college students that if the vocational/trades/technical college programs were held in higher regard, discussed more, and presented as viable options when I was in high school (I graduated in 2001), then, who knows, my life's work and overall course may have been altered quite radically from what it is today. As I share in that previous post I wrote just over a year ago, Manufacturing and the trades in schools:
I graduated high school in 2001. While I was in high school in the late 1990s, manufacturing in the United States was undergoing a serious exodus. Perhaps the hardest hit areas were in the Midwest, where manufacturing was a way of life, providing many families with a stable, comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. Many of the men in my family, along with many of our family friends, were skilled machinists. And many of them lost their jobs in the late 90s, including my father, an uncle, and even my mother, who did assembly work. Many plants during this time closed up shop and moved down to Mexico, where labor and other resources were much cheaper.

At the time, the message to those of us in high school was, "Avoid manufacturing. It's dead in this country. There's no future in it. Go to college." The four-year university was all the talk. That was the path we were all encouraged - even outright steered toward - to pursue. Many students from my generation, including myself, were the first ones in our families to go to university. Pursuing a university education, we were told, would lead to a great, comfortable living, and one that's clean - away from the oily, dirty, dim-lit environment often associated with machining and factory work back then, however real or merely perceived.

Simultaneously, the other trades, along with technical colleges and vocational schools, were largely downplayed as post-high school options, as well. These jobs and paths just weren't really talked about much, it seemed, and when they were, they were often cast in the same light as the then-disappearing jobs in the manufacturing realm - grimy, labor-intensive, whatever the opposite of the pristine, well-lit, promising, and even futuristic jobs being churned out by the white-collar world. The university, we were told by our parents, teachers, guidance counselors, the media, and broader society, was the way of the future. Many schools were scaling back or outright eliminating shop and tech ed programs, or they were on their way to doing so in subsequent years.
In closing, while progress is being made to move away from the longstanding misconceptions that K-12 education's role is to (or should be to) prepare students for university and that somehow, any other post-secondary opportunities are inferior by comparison, much work remains. Such beliefs are doing a great disservice to both individual students and to the broader society and economy to which we all belong. Our thinking must change. We must rip up this "middle-class script" and write a new one in its place.

I'll leave you with this final thought, also from Manufacturing and the trades in schools:
Want the best of both worlds? I typically advise students these days to take a serious look at a technical college or vocational school education. Learn a provable hard skill or trade first, something that you're really going to enjoy. Enter the workforce with those skills and gain some practical on-the-job experience for a while. And then consider going for the bachelor's and perhaps even beyond, if that's something you'd like to do. Maybe get a bachelor's in a business/management/leadership program. Now, you have two good things going for you - first, you have that concrete, verifiable skill set. And you'll also have that bigger-picture education that can help you set the stage for a promotion into management or even off on your own as a business owner yourself some day.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Andrea Bocelli Easter Sunday Milan Italy

In case you missed it or simply wish to watch it again, here is Andrea Bocelli’s breathtaking, memorable performance from Milan, Italy this past Sunday (Easter Day), April 12, 2020. Bocelli’s Easter Sunday performance even broke a YouTube record.


Paul Spiegelman

I recently came across a piece written by Paul Spiegelman for Forbes.com, and I'd like to share it here with you. Published just a little over a couple weeks ago, on March 27, it's entitled, "What It Means To Be A Leader Right Now". In this time of great uncertainty and anxiety, his words here remind us what's really important in life and work. I invite you to check it out when you have some time. It's a great read. Paul's been writing for Forbes.com for some time now, and it's always a pleasure to take in his insights whenever I have a chance.

I had the opportunity to interview Paul five years ago, at the beginning of 2015. At the time, he was serving as chief culture officer at Stericycle Inc., my former employer. You can read that interview here: Exclusive Interview: Paul Spiegelman, Best-Selling Author and Culture Executive.

From his bio on Forbes.com:
Paul Spiegelman is the co-founder of the Small Giants Community, an organization dedicated to identifying, connecting, and developing purpose-driven business leaders. He is the former chief culture officer of Stericycle, the co-founder and former CEO of BerylHealth and the founder and chairman of The Beryl Institute. Paul is a New York Times best-selling author and has been honored with the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. Paul is a sought-after speaker and author on leadership, employee engagement, entrepreneurship, culture, and leading a purpose-driven life. He has made many radio and TV appearances and his views have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, and he is currently a columnist for Forbes.com. Paul practiced law for two years prior to starting BerylHealth. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from UCLA and a law degree from Southwestern University. You can read more about Paul at www.paulspiegelman.com.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Periodic Table of Elements

Following are several resources to help you better understand or simply review the Periodic Table of Elements. We'll begin with an image of the Periodic Table. Simply click on the picture to enlarge it. Next, there's a brief video that provides a great, easy-to-understand introduction to the Table. Lastly, Dr. Edward Murphy of the University of Virginia delivers a fascinating lecture on the origin of the elements. The full description of the lecture, taken straight from its page on YouTube, is provided below. 

Periodic Table of Elements

Periodic Table Explained: Introduction



The Origin of the Elements

The world around us is made of atoms. Did you ever wonder where these atoms came from? How was the gold in our jewelry, the carbon in our bodies, and the iron in our cars made? In this lecture, we will trace the origin of a gold atom from the Big Bang to the present day, and beyond. You will learn how the elements were forged in the nuclear furnaces inside stars, and how, when they die, these massive stars spread the elements into space. You will learn about the origin of the building blocks of matter in the Big Bang, and we will speculate on the future of the atoms around us today.

Speaker: Dr. Edward Murphy, University of Virginia
Date: November 13, 2012