Full disclosure: I’m a diehard Clemson football fan. If I’m being completely honest, though, I’m really a diehard fan of college football in general. If there’s a game on TV, it doesn’t matter who’s playing, I will watch it. Even I can admit, however, that being a football fan can seem a little strange. I mean, just imagine (ok, some of us don’t have to imagine) spending thousands of dollars on tickets, food, fuel, lodging, etc. just so you can go stand in a field and/or on top of some concrete hills, surrounded mostly by people you don’t know, acting like you’re best friends with those people (simply because you happen to be wearing similar clothing, and maybe even face paint), and sharing with them what you’ve labored over and maybe even spent hundreds of dollars on. By the way, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that you do all of this even with the potential of walking away from it all sad, frustrated, maybe even angry, definitely exhausted, losing your temporary new best friends forever, and ready to do it all over again in a matter of a week or so—where you will be meeting new temporary best friends. Obviously, football is not the only arena in which human beings put strange behavior on display. We all have our own thing, albeit for some of us our things are a little more obvious than others. Regardless, chances are that there is something for all of us in which we are willing to invest our labor, emotions, and finances, but that an outside observer might conclude is a little ridiculous—*scoff*.
I’ve got news for that outside observer: I could, and most certainly would, make the simple argument that the presence of passion indicates the presence of meaning, but that’s not necessarily the point of emphasis here. The point here is to emphasize the importance we assign to certain decisions. For instance, I would imagine that most people would say that making a mortgage payment is more important than attending a football game—I know, I know, there’s an exception to every rule. Further, I think only the most maniacal of fans would tend to spend more over their lifetime on what it takes to properly represent their fanaticism, as compared to what they spend on making sure there is a roof over their head. The fact that we would spend more on one or the other is an indication of the priority we have assigned to those things. If we can so easily arrive at a place where the priority of something like football, relative to something like a mortgage payment, can be put in perspective, then why aren’t we as emotional when we make our mortgage payment as we are about football? I mean, we all get excited about football, right? I can say with confidence that I would feel pretty bad if I couldn’t afford my mortgage payment, but there’s no doubt that switching from writing checks for rent to writing checks for a mortgage initially generated an excitement that has now faded, and I don’t think it took all that long. If my love for Clemson is any indication, true passion doesn’t fade. So, what can we glean from the fact that our excitement does fade for certain things?
I think it’s fair to say that excitement fades, because we take certain things for granted. The fact that we take something for granted, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that the particular thing in question lacks value—it might just mean that we no longer acknowledge or perceive its true value. You can easily perceive value when you merely consider what life would be like without a certain thing—e.g., your home. Why is this a part of who we are? Is it because certain things have become so commonplace and mundane that we lose appreciation for how hard it was to acquire those things? Have we also forgotten that the very process of acquiring things simultaneously teaches us how easily, and the ways in which, something can be lost? Do we just have a hard time picturing things any other way, or do we simply not want to? Regardless, if someone’s decision-making led to them losing a home, even if it was for the understandable, relatable, and completely justifiable reason of attending a football game, one might look back at the decision and think that he/she probably should have reached a different conclusion—if only it could be known how everything would play out.
That’s part of the beauty of being an official in a football game, though, right? He/she gets the chance to make sure that the decision they, or one of their buddies, made in the heat of battle was the right one—i.e., ensure the ideal call is made. Obviously, what I’m referring to is instant replay, but here’s the concept that is instant replay: someone makes a decision, someone (could be the same person or someone else) questions the decision, and as a result, the decision gets to be reconsidered—by the way, the entire process is undertaken with the benefit of knowing what the consequences are going to be. That sounds like a dream, right? Maybe even ideal? I mean, how often do you get to slow life down as much as you like, take your time considering a decision from as many angles as possible, and make sure that you see all of the pertinent details, including the outcomes of the various options at your disposal. I don’t know about you, but that does, in fact, sounds pretty ideal to me.
Obviously, nothing is ideal, and the notion that anyone might have that expectation might cause some to chuckle. All of us can attest to outcomes that have been less than ideal, or at least not of the variety that we had been hoping. Having said that, it doesn’t stop us from pursuing ideals. Maybe part of the reason we remain persistent is because of how much we believe we can control. I would assert that there are potentially only be two reasons for a suboptimal outcome: 1) there was something that was not accounted for adequately, maybe because it was not known, or 2) preparation and planning were lacking—in some cases, you could easily make the argument that both of those reasons should be combined into the second one. Maybe the fact that we can so easily put a concept into words tricks us into thinking that the ease with which we conceive of a concept is a proxy for the level of difficulty we will experience in applying the concept; or maybe we know that striving for better (an ideal, as an example) does, in fact, result in better, as long as we are closer to the ideal than when we started.
No, I have not looked this up for confirmation, but I still will make the following four statements with utmost confidence: 1) no team in the history of football has ever played a flawless game; 2) no official in the history of the sport has ever called a flawless game; 3) no team has ever quit, because of the futility they experienced in attempting to play a flawless game; and lastly, 4) no official has ever quit, because of the futility they experienced in attempting to call a flawless game. Anyone who would be willing to quit something, because the outcome is either not perfect, is not applying one of my philosophies: perfect dismisses good, but good accepts perfect. What this essentially means is that, compared to the standard of perfection, anything less to be unacceptable, whereas a standard of good simply implies that any progress is an improvement.
I feel confident in saying that the vast majority of people understand that perfection is an unattainable standard, but that improvement is attainable, and it is a worthy objective. Signs are everywhere that imply an understanding of this concept. For instance, football teams still develop and practice game plans, even though they know they will most likely have to amend their plan in the heat of battle; and officials will stop a game dead in its tracks, making everyone wait for what seems like an eternity, essentially acknowledging that it’s possible they got something wrong—this is tantamount to an admission of being imperfect. The simple fact that we will develop ideas like preparing by simulating hypotheticals (practice), remaining flexible to allow for subsequent adjustments, or that we will build an entire system dedicated to reviewing decisions, seems to indicate the extent to which the idea of striving for better is engrained in us. As a matter of fact, you might even consider practice and instant replay to be cousins. In both instances, the subject matter at-hand is being slowed down and considered carefully so that the best information can be considered, hopefully leading to the best decision(s) possible. Dare I suggest we change the name of practice and preparation to Instant Pre-play?
Gradually then Suddenly: Consequences a Lack of Preparation
Bill: “How do you go bankrupt?”
Mike: “Gradually and then suddenly.”
Mike’s response in this dialogue from Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises does a perfect job of illustrating how a lot of problems seem to appear to us, and I can certainly relate with my own experience with being overweight. For the last decade, my experience with my weight has been a bit of a roller coaster. I came into the decade probably weighing around 240-250 pounds, ballooned up to 300 at one point, and have since trimmed back down to about 230-235. Just like an actual roller coaster, anyone who has ridden the weight roller coaster knows how uncomfortable it can be.
The discomfort you feel on an actual roller coaster is obviously the result of sudden twists, turns, rises, and falls. If we were being honest, though, we would probably say that the twists, turns, rises, and falls aren’t really all that sudden. It would seem to me that for something to be sudden it must be unexpected. When you sit down in a roller coaster, do you really not know what to expect? Assuming that you do, then maybe the sudden nature of the twists, turns, rises, and falls is artificial, and we are really just falling victim to something that the designers of the ride have created in order to prey upon our abilities and powers, or lack thereof, of perception—they create dissonance to disorient us.
Whenever I listen to someone else’s weight loss journey, I typically hear a similar story: things changed for them after a defining moment or point in time—it’s almost as if they say, and sometimes they literally do, “Suddenly, I was fat.” My defining moment was seeing a picture of myself from my wedding, but it could’ve been any one of a whole host of things: having a hard time clipping my toenails, finding myself out of breath from playing with my son in the yard, having to work to push myself up off of the couch, stretching the threads that held the buttons on my shirts, etc.; and just like the stories of others, it all felt sudden.
The reason I draw a distinction between the fact that I was overweight and my realization of the fact is because, much like what I described with an actual roller coaster, none of what is experienced with obesity is actually sudden; and given what we know, it most certainly should not be unexpected. So, even though my problem did not occur suddenly, why did it feel sudden? My perception of the problem was sudden—suddenly, it all came into focus when I saw that picture.
There was a very interesting phenomenon that occurred once I perceived the problem: it was like I became completely aware of not just how big I was, but how big I had been, how long I had been big, just how much I needed to change, and how I would have done things so much differently, if I had it to do all over again. Prior to my perception changing, however, if someone would have asked me how I would’ve rated my health, I most likely would’ve given myself a higher grade than I deserved. Why? Well, I would’ve based that higher grade on what I could have been or used to be, but not what I really was. Further, I know that I possessed a mistaken belief that fixing it would be a quicker and easier task than reality would dictate.
Another one of my favorite philosophies: in order to be the thing you want to be, you have to do the things that the thing you want to be does—e.g., a police officer must do police officer things, a doctor must do doctor things, a healthy person must do healthy person things, a financial advisor must offer financial advice (imagine that), etc. A similar concept that’s another favorite of mine is found in cybernetics: the purpose of a system is what it does (POSIWID).[i] If I had been honest with myself, it would have been obvious what was really going on and that my lifestyle defined the truth. Further, I would have been forced to acknowledge just how bad my decision-making had been and that a resolution to change things could happen now, but better decisions and the corresponding results were going to have to play out over time.
Source: Peterson, Jordan. @jordan.b.peterson. 10 Sept 2020. Instagram.
So, the fix was simple: all I had to do were the things that the thing I wanted to be does. I had to change my system to ensure that my decisions aligned with a purpose that I defined. What was the specific system that had to be changed? Only my entire lifestyle—after all, that is the system that, in large part, determines our health.
With my wife as a willing accomplice, I became motivated by a more enduring, pervasive, and meaningful purpose. Whereas playing football in high school and college (yes, the physical brand of flag football we practiced counts) and the pursuit of summer muscles were sufficient to get me in the gym from time-to-time earlier in my life, my awareness of my own mortality and morbidity has kept my decisions and actions aligned for 6-7 years straight now. What my wife and I have done is turned maximizing our health into our goal. Framing our goal in such a manner implies that we treat good health as an ideal, not something definitive or concrete.
Adopting such an approach has ensured that we not only have both motivation and reason to align everything that we do, but that it remains so. In short, our lifestyle is now built around our health. Further, pursuing an ideal means that we know that overall success is defined by being persistent and consistent, not relaxing simply because we hit a certain mark. This ensures that we remain vigilant for additional ways that we can improve and that we never consider our job to be done. To be sure, it’s not as if we never set concrete goals. We have, and continue, to set small goals along the way, especially when emphasis was placed on the loss of weight, but we are more motivated by the simple concept of improving and just being healthier than we were the day before—living by a system that dictates our decisions so that results are more consistently in-line with what we want to achieve.
There’s an important implication in that last statement: we have learned that we must be flexible with our specific goals. Being flexible in such a manner is probably something that is necessary for anyone to stay motivated and prevent discouragement. What this highlights is that success is at least partially a matter of perspective. If your field of vision is limited to the readout on a scale, then you might miss the inches that you have lost, as reflected by numbers on the tape measure wrapped around your waist. When our perception is limited, we not only risk missing details that are necessary to make the best decision possible, but we also risk missing ways in which we are still progressing. Essentially, our limited perspective leads to a mistaken belief that we have stagnated, because we have confused stagnation in one aspect as a lack of progress overall.
Anecdotally, I have observed that one of the reasons that people get discouraged on a journey to better health is they conflate losing weight, and only losing weight, with progress toward better health. The reality is that there are a tremendous number of variables that go into the actual loss of pounds, not to mention achieving better health. What I have found that a lot of people don’t realize is that your body acclimates to the environment you put it in—essentially, it compensates for the stress that you place it under. So, depending upon your perception, which is most certainly impacted by your knowledge of a subject, you might miss the progress you are making. If I was to offer someone advice on being healthy, I would simply say that you should prepare by educating yourself and planning decisions ahead of time (e.g., if you’re going to a new restaurant, look at the menu ahead of time), seek the best possible perspective by cultivating multiple sources of information and measuring success in more than one way, and have patience and grace for yourself by acknowledging that decision-making will be difficult to start and that proficiency takes time.
Instant Replay: The Ultimate Perspective
Have you ever thought about the fact that there are no sports that celebrate moving as slow as possible? I mean, moving as slow as possible would essentially mean sitting still. As exciting as that sounds, I don’t know that too many people would be interested in watching a bunch of guys or girls, or both, just sitting around, scoring points by being the best at doing nothing. With immense gratitude, we don’t celebrate those kinds of things. It makes complete sense, though—anyone can do nothing. We don’t celebrate rules—we celebrate exceptions. When someone runs faster than everyone else, we celebrate. When someone jumps higher than everyone else, we celebrate. When someone is stronger than everyone else, we celebrate. If we were to describe the concept of a sport, we might say that a sport is an exhibition of physical ability, usually done in as fast a manner as possible, which is a reflection of proficiency.
Maybe things are different where you come from, but where I come from, speed and intentionality don’t usually go hand-in-hand. In other words, if you plan to do something with purpose, aimed at a specific outcome, you tend to do so in a prudent fashion, which typically entails caution, organization, and an appropriate amount of deliberation. To anyone who has watched a football game, words like deliberate, prudence, caution, and maybe even organization probably don’t come to mind. When a pile of bodies gathers around one guy, simply because he has the ball, it can seem like pure madness, desperately lacking method. I recently saw a play, though, that reminded me of just how much method is, in fact, behind the madness, and that what might be seen as chaotic is more of a reflection of our inability to perceive of organization or purpose, which is really yet another way in which we might lack proficiency.
Initially, the play seemed mundane and similar enough to any other play that you might see in a football game: a cornerback tackled a wide receiver. It wasn’t until I saw the replay, which was most certainly in slow motion, that I caught something that I thought was rather enlightening about the play and the game of football, itself. During the course of tackling the receiver, the cornerback, who was directly in front of the receiver, literally threw a punch at the football in the receiver’s hands as he initiated the tackle. What caused this to catch my attention was the fact that I could see the cornerback essentially wind up to make the punch, but I saw that he missed, which resulted in his punch glancing off of the receiver’s facemask and the receiver’s head popping up with a punched-in-the-face quality to it.
Sure, I suppose that the argument could be made that the cornerback was unsuccessful, and that he needs to work to become more proficient at such a move. The point of telling that story, however, does not concern the success or failure of the punch. Rather, the point is to illustrate how quickly you can acclimate and adapt your decision-making to your surroundings the more you practice and the more experience you have. Having played on the offensive side of the ball, I don’t really have the mindset that the typical defender would have, but I can absolutely appreciate the speed of the game and what it takes to have the presence of mind to attempt something like that.
In this case, the cornerback did successfully make the tackle, and to the average spectator that might be all that matters. I can assure you, however, that making the tackle is not all that matters to the cornerback or his team. The tackle is the bare minimum of what he, and others, expect. I’m sure his teammates and fans were pleased to see his tackle, but how much harder would they have cheered if he had been successful at causing and recovering a fumble?
An official essentially has the same burden: seizing upon a very brief opportunity to do the best job possible. Like the cornerback, an official must practice to acquire and maintain efficiency, and naturally, the more an official practices, the more experience an official gains. Further, the more circumstances vary from instance to instance, the more proficient the official will be at making appropriate calls in the midst of the chaos. The official, however, has a crutch that a player does not have: instant replay. A player is not afforded the opportunity to watch a video of what he just did, observe that if had done something different it would have been more ideal, and then dictate a different outcome based on his observations. Even though I’m sprinkling in a little humor there, it does allow us to see the real benefit of instant replay; perspective. The reason an official can either confirm or overturn a call is simply because he/she is being afforded the opportunity to carefully and deliberately consider all possible information from all possible angles, which results in the best possible perspective—if we didn’t consider those qualities to be central tenants of good decision-making, then instant replay wouldn’t exist.
We, just like the cornerback, don’t have instant replay. Therefore, just like the cornerback, our preparation is key to our ability to make the right decisions amid chaos and to adapt as circumstances deviate from what we expect. The more we develop our skillset and framework for making decisions, the more effectively we can navigate changing and fast-moving circumstances.
Football is Life
Yes, I do mean that football should be the most important thing in our lives, but in case it’s not obvious to everyone, I assure you that life has other plans. As I touched on earlier, the reason football can’t be the most important thing is because we have too much else that we have to make sure we address. Further, all of our responsibilities seem to bombard us constantly, right? I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone express the desire for more responsibility, but I have absolutely heard laments of wanting to offload responsibilities. I have also never heard someone bemoan the fact that they have too much time to make a decision—as if to say, having less time would improve my ability to make this decision. For these reasons, making financial decisions can be very difficult. First, they are responsibilities, and who likes responsibility? Second, they are not our only responsibility—we always seem to have more than our fair share to deal with, and whatever is right in front of us tends to attract the most attention. Lastly, life doesn’t slow down and give you the opportunity to make the best decisions or even just to catch up. So, what do we do about it? We take a page from the script of football teams—we have to take time to make preparation the priority.
If you think about it, when a football team prepares (read: practices), what they are doing is running simulations, and those simulations revolve around what if. If it’s the offensive part of a practice, you might hear a coach say something like, “If this linebacker comes up, what are you going to do then?” Likewise, if the focus is on the defense, you might hear something like, “If this running back swings out of the backfield, what are you going to do then?” The key is not that you understand what all of that might mean; rather, the key is understanding that the coach in those examples is asking if-then questions—if ‘x’ happens, then what? The entire purpose in asking that kind of question is to add or change a variable and see impact it has on decision-making. Likewise, the entire purpose of a simulation is to create the proper framework for variables to be considered, and having the proper framework allows for the efficient development and application of skill.
When my wife and I first embarked on our journey of health, we were most certainly frustrated. Part of the changes that we made to our lifestyle included a change in our nutrition—i.e., we have subscribed to a particular diet for about 6-7 years now. As anyone who has ever made such a change probably knows, overhauling what you eat takes work. General concepts are always easy: you know the types of foods that you can incorporate and the types of foods you have to exclude. It’s when you put those concepts into practice that things can become difficult and tricky. Over time, I developed the proficiency to be able to go virtually anywhere and order an acceptable meal from virtually any menu. That has most certainly not always been the case, however, and there were times when I wasn’t sure that I was going to ever be able to eat outside of our home ever again. Like with anything else, though, my knowledge grew through experience; and my experience grew, because I remained committed to my diet and sought to apply it in any and every dining scenario I encountered.
An important point that this highlights is the simple fact that my experience grew as a matter of coincidence, not purpose. Had I been purposeful, I would have certainly grown my experience, but in a different, and potentially much more proficient, manner. To give you a simple example of how easy this could have been, I could have looked up restaurant menus prior to going to the restaurant. I mean, how difficult is that, really? Even though health was now a top priority, if not the top priority, for me, taking that simple step was a rarity. Fortunately, the worst that happened, and probably the worst that could’ve happened, was it just took me a little longer to order my meals. But what if I had allowed myself to get frustrated with effort that it took to order a meal, to the point that I lost sight of the benefits? Would it have been a sign that I didn’t take things as seriously as I should have? Would it have been a sign that I placed a higher priority on things being easy, as opposed to experiencing the best outcomes possible? Or would it have been a sign that I was allowing my perspective to become detrimentally limited? Regardless, the end result would have been the same: I would not have ended up doing the healthy things that a healthy person does.
So, if life feels chaotic and decision-making feels hard, as understandable as that might be, what are you not doing that could help address those feelings? I haven’t stated it specifically, so I hope that you have picked up on it on your own, but everything that has been stated here, in terms or preparation, simulations, commitment, etc., applies to financial decision-making. In essence, I strive to help my clients prepare for decisions, so that the decisions they end up making are not as big of a surprise as the circumstances that life presents, thus necessitating the decisions.