Archive for September, 2009

Never Forget…what?

In my ever-expanding quest for unpopularity, let me offer the following post on the 8th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

There will be a great deal of remonstrance today that we should “never forget”.  “Forget”, if I remember my junior-high grammar correctly, is a transitive verb, meaning that it requires an object.  So I wonder, on this day of remembrance, what it is exactly that we ought not to forget?

At first glance, this is kind of an easy one.  One thing would be that we should never forget the attacks that brought down the World Trade Centers.  I doubt very seriously that most of us will.  Another would be that we should never forget the people that died that day.  Again, that’s fairly easy.  If you knew any of them, you surely will not, and even if you didn’t know them personally, you know many of them by the things they did that day, immortalized in movies and books and songs.

Then, though, there are some more obscure things that perhaps we ought to remember.  One of those is that there are people in the world that are intent on killing us.  I don’t think there are as many of these people as there used to be, but there are still a good number, and it might be well to keep that in mind.  Another one is that no matter how bad things are, there are going to be people around you – even perfect strangers – that are on your side and will go to spectacular lengths to help you, even at the cost of their own lives.  Those things, though not as obvious, are perhaps even more important than the first batch.

And then there are some things to remember that are downright opaque, and some of these things are deeply unpleasant.  One of these is that if you live in a big city, you’re a target.  I grew up in DC (just outside it) and worked in the District a lot.  I was back and forth across the 14th Street Bridge fairly often, and the Pentagon was a major milestone on that route.  I live in Lehi, UT on purpose.  Another one of these is that government is incredibly inept, and the larger the governmental entity, the greater the ineptitude.  There are relatively persuasive arguments that US foreign policy in the mideast, whatever it is, is partly responsible for the attacks.   I don’t see how that can be denied, myself.  Proximate cause?  Probably not.  Excuse?  No. Contributor?  More than likely.  Then there’s the ineffectual response of the US air defense, the Anthrax attacks, still unsolved after 8 years, the continuing debacle of what to do with Ground Zero, the degradation of US domestic air travel, the foreign-policy response since then…and most of these things are bad, and some are reprehensible.  One thing I remember clearly from 9/11 is that the government cannot protect me, and I shouldn’t expect it to.

But I remember other things, too.  I remember the Congress singing God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol.  I still choke up just thinking about it.  I remember hugging my children a bit harder for a few weeks after that.  I remember that life went on, for most of us, just about everywhere.  The sun continued to rise and set.  Vegetables still needed harvesting.  Children grew.  Any of us could have our lives taken from us at any time, but really, we’re not that important.  The world moves on.  I find that strangely comforting.

So on this 9/11, I’ve decided to remember these two things: one, that I never know what day will be my last day, what hour my last hour, what act my last act, and those days, those hours and deeds are precious beyond expressing.  And two, because that is true, if I truly remember that, then every hour and action should be one that I am proud of.  That if this turns out to be my last communication with the world, I want to be proud of it.

There’s an apocryphal story about Martin Luther.  One day, he was out in his yard planting a tree.  He was covered in dirt, sweaty and a mess, and one of his parishioners walked by.  Obviously disapproving, the parishioner said to him, “you preach sermons about being ready for Christ to come, yet here you are in the mud of your yard.  If you knew Christ would come this very hour, what would you be doing?”  Luther leaned on his shovel and wiped the dirt from his brow.  He looked the man in the eye and said, “I’d be planting this tree.”

May we, in remembrance, do today only those things we ought, that if today is our last, it will also have been the best we could make it.

My Goal With This Post Is…wait, if I tell, will it come true?

Progress on this goals debate.  I’ve gotten something of a reputation now for being a one-note johnny, asking everyone I know how they go about setting goals.  Reaction is mixed.  A large number of people tell me they don’t set goals at all.  This leads me to ask them what they think a “goal” is, and boy, the answers I get from that question certainly are varied.

I have divided it up like this: on the one end, we have God, who does not set goals, because He always does exactly as He purposes.  On the other end we have a one-year-old.  One-year-olds do not set goals, either, because they can’t do it.  They have wishes, but if they cannot immediately satisfy them, they are incapable of changing their behavior to obtain the things they want eventually.  Goals are someplace in the middle, along with objectives, targets, plans, hopes and dreams.

Incidentally, before we get to far down this road, I have to say that one of the reasons I’m pursuing this is that I despise all this goal-setting crap I’ve been taught all my life, especially the “go-getter” trite phrases like “a goal you don’t write down is just a wish” or “set your goals high and don’t stop till you get there” and other such drivel.  I think – no, I am sure – that the vast majority of goal-setting motivational self-help (mostly well-intentioned) garbage has done as much to confuse and depress and distract people from what they should be doing as anything the world has ever known.  I just want that out there on the record.  The outwardly perky, inwardly desperate platitude-spouter is a proverb, and a sad commentary on how we’ve lost sight of what a truly happy life consists of.

Na.  Enough of that.  We forge on.  I have an example of what I mean about the uselessness of traditional definitions of goals.

My father doesn’t set goals.  Only two things he can remember that he wanted to do when he was a kid were sail on the Queen Mary and live in Virginia (he’s from Utah).  Check and check.  But this is a man that went from the late South High in Salt Lake, a kid whose father was a bus driver, and ended up with degrees from Columbia and Stanford and the University of Washington, a Masters in Education, and a distinguished and well-respected career on the right wing in Washington D.C.  He has seven children.  He’s still married to the same woman after 43 years.  He’s led dance bands, taught at colleges, toured the world making speeches, was once targeted by a well-known terrorist for assassination.  He did this without setting goals?  Really?

So this demands the question: what is a goal, anyway?  If it isn’t what all these books and motivational speakers tell you it is, then what is it?  Glad you asked.

Here’s my working definition: it’s something you want bad enough to change what you’re doing, or who you are, to get it.

That’s pretty broad.  I understand that.  I also understand that this violates the SMART concept of goal-setting (goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Rhapsodic and Time-Bound.  Okay, not rhapsodic, but you know what I mean).  But by the SMART definition my father never had a goal to perform Cox and Box, or play Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, or compete in the National Crossword Puzzle Championships, but I know he wanted to do those things and wanted to badly enough that he expended significant effort to make them happen (and he did them all).  That makes them goals, as far as I’m concerned.

I also know that this specifically excludes your specific, written New Year’s Resolution to make a million dollars this year.  I know, you really wanted to.  But what did you do to change so that you could become a person that could make that kind of money?  Anything?  I mean, anything real?  If you’re like me, you didn’t.  Just because you wrote it down doesn’t make it a goal.  And just because you didn’t write it down, if you nevertheless changed what you were doing so you could get it, then I think that’s evidence that it’s a goal.

This is slightly off the topic of how to SET goals, and what you do with yourself if you don’t reach them, but I think we have to take this step backward before we can make progress.  My general bent is not to proceed until I know that I’m going the right way, but in this case I’ve been moving forward and trying to do my best, understanding that I’m going to get better tools and more understanding as time goes on (you could help, incidentally, with comments).

As evidence I note a couple of things that I did the last two days to reach a goal of mine, that I would not have done had I not set the goal with a specific number (I’m talking here about production, mortgage loan production).  I might still have got the loans I inked, but I might not have, too.  Now I have them, because I set a goal that I would have a certain production this week.  That is just about the only reason I did what I did.

Experiences like this convince me that goals are important.  They make me better.  And I think they make me better even when they play into my character flaw of beating myself up when I don’t achieve them.

[Incidentally, this definition of a goal also removes my difficulty about God and whether He sets goals or not.  God doesn't change.  Therefore He has no need of goals.  Jesus Christ changed, but he never changed in His essential nature, that is, He was always doing His best at everything, and always doing what He was supposed to do.  He never needed to improve; He was perfect.  We, however, are imperfect, and we are frequently playing Free Cell when we are supposed to be calling clients.  We have need of goals.]

I still don’t really know how to set them well, or how much energy to invest in them, or all that.  And I’m still asking for your comments and suggestions.

My Goal is to…ah, forget it.

[Warning: There's some religion in this post.  If you don't want to read any of that, skip this.  It's not mostly religious, but I'd hate for you to wade into some unawares if you're strongly opposed to it.]

Debate on Facebook about goal setting, reposting here with additional commentary because Facebook isn’t really a good forum for this kind of discussion.

I have a problem with goal setting.  Not that I don’t set them; I do.  Occasionally I even reach the goals I set, though that’s far from common.  No, my problem is figuring out whether or not I should set them.

Here’s my dilemma.  I am an intensely religious person, and I believe that God through His son Jesus Christ is my model for how to behave (a model I do not reach, let it be said).  God didn’t set a goal to create the world in seven days.  What God purposes, He does.  Now, it is true that God is omnipotent, so He can do all He means to do, and I am not, so sometimes I fail.  But if Christ is the model, and He didn’t set any goals, then what is it that I am to take from this?

I’ve been instructed by my religious leaders, as well as good men and women that I respect, to set goals.  The general instruction is to set goals that will require me to stretch, to improve, in order to reach them.  That means they are, almost by definition, goals I am not sure I can reach.  If I were sure I could reach them, they wouldn’t be a stretch.  I might think I can reach them, they might be projectably feasible based on past performance, but if I know for sure I can reach the goal, then I’m not stretching.

There is, however, one category of goal that this does not apply to.  These are goals that are commandments from God.  All of those are reachable by definition.  God cannot and would not give commands to His children for them to do things that they cannot do.  So if my goal is to draw closer to Christ, I can do that.  If my goal is to deepen my spiritual commitment, I can do it.  I know what I have to do to make those things happen.

But if my goal is to lose 10 pounds, there’s hardly a guarantee that I can do it.  Perhaps I can, perhaps I can’t.  Ultimately, obviously, I can lose the 10 pounds by having surgery to remove a kidney, but that brings in another difficulty for me, and that is, should I be setting conditional goals?  As in, should I set a goal that I’m going to lose 10 pounds, but only if I decide that I really want to more than I want to do something else?  That doesn’t sound effective to me.

So I guess I have several problems.  One is that I hate to lose.  Not reaching a goal sucks, and it sucks more than reaching it feels good.  Two is that I’m not sure that setting a goal in the first place is a good thing for me to do.  I find no great satisfaction in doing so.  Three is probably semantic – I do make long lists of things to do every day, and I guess you could call that a goal, but what I’m mostly trying to do is remember all the stuff I promised I’d get done, not set any specific target.  Would I perform better if I did put some targets on there?  Four is that I don’t think much of setting goals over things I can’t control.  Setting a goal to run a 5 minute mile is great, but even if I train all day every day under the tutelage of Sebastian Coe I might still not be able to get there.  It reminds me of setting a goal to have three straight days without rain.  Five is that setting a goal makes that goal disproportionately important to me, meaning that sometimes my priorities get out of wack.  Six is that if I insist on my priorities in the face of the goals I’ve set, I am by default saying that I have a goal to do thus and so, but only if I really want to.

And yet, I still set goals.  I don’t set many, but I do set some, and I hate myself if I don’t reach them.  That, at least, I recognize as a character flaw, and that if I’m unhappy only I am to blame for that.

But I’d still like some help.  What do you do?  What strategies do you use that help you become a better person?  Do you reward yourself?  How do you do that?  Are your goals 1-0 (yes I got it/no I didn’t), or scalable (got most of the way there)?  How do you deal with losing?

RateWatch – Persistent (Mysterious) Direction, Now

Market: We’re flat.  Yesterday we were up 34 bps.  This is a trend, now, and not a blip.  There is consistent pressure for mortgage-backed securities (mbs) to rise to the 100- and 200-day moving averages, which we are sitting on right now.  That means rates holding steady at their current very low levels, between 5% and 5.25%. [Disclaimer: YOUR rate might be higher, and it might be lower.  That depends on a lot of things, not just the current market.  Get a pro to check for you.] [Incidentally, I am a pro.  <grin>]

Analysis: As usual analysis is complicated.  This morning’s data (ISM and pending home sales) were better than expected, which for months now has meant that mbs would retreat and stock would rise.  But for the past two weeks, that has not been so.  It’s not the Fed, this time – the Fed is buying mbs, of course, but buying them in ever-smaller quantities, and buying mostly the 5% and 5.5% coupons, meaning that they are providing no pressure for rates to go below 5%.  That pressure, what of it exists, is coming from the broader market.  And frankly, people, it makes no sense.

There’s no big move to the upside.  There is no immediate prospect of rates dropping back into the 4.5% range.  But still, there is this persistent pressure on mbs pricing that is holding things right where they are, instead of losing ground, as analysts expected (myself among them).  I wrote last week that the only thing I could point to was back-bench sentiment that the economy really wasn’t bottoming out and that there were worse things to come, but as time goes on that argument is less and less persuasive to me.  So I don’t know what it is.  Ideas?  What do you think?