Archive for December, 2009

On New Year’s Resolutions

This is yet another of a variable Series of Short Takes on topics of the day.  This one is not religious or political, for once.  G-rated, as it were.

It seems that everyone sets New Year’s Resolutions.  Well, more accurately, some people do, and some people like to feel superior to those that do by pointedly NOT doing it.  They argue that since most people don’t keep their resolutions, they’re saving time by not making any in the first place.

Alas, like many seemingly sound ideas, this one is half bunk.  Because resolutions have an impact even if they are not kept.

First, think of all the gyms that would have a 10% decrease in business if nobody signed up the first of the year, intending to really get in shape this time.  That would be a tragedy.  Kidding, of course, but there are some people – impossible to know what fraction – that really are going to keep going to the gym, or lose wight, or stop smoking, or what have you.  If they did not start, they wouldn’t continue.  But they do, and some keep going.  Every year there are those that really do make radical changes in their lives, and many of those changes start on January 1.

Second, on the negative side, there’s good evidence that making a resolution and not keeping it harms one’s sense of oneself.  It does violence to integrity.  Even if you are the only one that knows that you made the resolution, to break it reduces your commitment to yourself.  Therefore, as advice, please don’t frivolously make resolutions.  Don’t promise what you aren’t going to do.  It’s bad in business, and it’s bad in private.

An aside: this is one reason I have inveighed against goal-setting for so many years.  Most people “set goals”, but then either don’t expend the necessary effort to achieve them (reducing integrity) or expend too much effort to achieve them (screwing up priorities).  This leaves aside the even greater problem of people setting goals “looking out”, as my friend Jonathan Heaton says, instead of “looking in”.  Setting a goal to make $100,000 this year is great, but it’s very likely to be at least somewhat beyond your control, sort of like setting a goal to have it snow four inches (accomplished, BTW).  It would be better to set a goal to become the sort of person that is worth $100k per year, which is entirely in your control, and reinforces rather than weakens priorities.  But this is a topic for a much longer post.

Finally, though, and back on the positive side, those that make resolutions are at least aware that they need to improve, and willing to expend some effort to get themselves to do it.  That effort might be tiny indeed, no more than saying aloud to the general atmosphere, “I’m not going to speed down my street anymore.”  It might be followed by little or no real effort, which is bad, but the initial resolution, the original desire to change for the better, that has real power.  Those that use that power will find themselves strengthened and refreshed, regardless of what follows.

And those that use that power well, and discipline themselves to follow through, those people can become transformed.  I know.  It’s happened to me.

May it be so for all of us this year.

My Vent for the Year

I don’t vent.  I don’t blow up.  I think that kind of negative emotion is counterproductive and I fight it.  Still, I’m mortal.  Sue me.

The enemy of growth is uncertainty.

I am a gardener some of the year, in my spare time, and I have about a hundred houseplants, and I’ve learned a few things from this activity that bear directly on the current economy.

Plants grow well in certain conditions. They like there to be a certain amount of light, a certain amount of heat, and a certain amount of water. Not an average over a week, mind you, but a definite amount every day. No water for six days, then 3 gallons all at once will kill most plants. Light uninterrupted for four days, then three days of darkness is not really conducive to good growth. An average temperature of 65 is great, as long at it doesn’t consist of half the time at 30 and the other half at 100. Plants like it predictable. A little water today, a little more tomorrow. 14 hours of light today, 14 hours tomorrow. Temperatures in the 60-70 range all the time.

Oh, they’ll still grow if things are a little sketchy. They can take a few days of rain, then a few days of bright sunshine and heat. If the soil’s not right, or the water is the wrong ph, or there are rocks to negotiate, they can handle that, but they won’t grow as well as they might otherwise have, and if two or three of those things combine, the failure rate goes up pretty fast. Bugs, incidentally, love to attack weak plants. They tend to leave stronger ones alone. What that means is that once you start down the path to weakening your plants, you can expect other things to start going wrong and make things worse.

Let’s apply this to the current economy, shall we?

Corporations like things predictable. If they know what tax policy is going to be, they can concentrate reserves and personnel on development and growth. If tax policy is changing every ten minutes, a lot of those resources are channeled into figuring out whether today’s successful business model is going to be illegal in a year, or perhaps next week. It’s distracting and it’s destructive.

In the mortgage industry, which is my industry, we’ve spent the last year trying to figure out what all the new rules and regulations mean for us, how much extra time we will have to devote to managing the increased paperwork, and whether whole lines of business are even viable. Some of us – the best of us – will survive this, too, as we’ve survived everything else so far. But NONE of us will do better work for the client or ourselves than we would have if we’d been left alone. ALL of us, and this goes for the Top 100 all the way down to the green kid that just got his license, are spending huge amounts of time learning to navigate government regulations instead of trying to do a good job for the borrower.

The argument is fairly made that if we had spent our time doing a good job for the consumer in the first place, we wouldn’t have all this government regulation, so it’s our own fault. But this argument is stupid.

First off, it’s not the broker on the street that created the 100% no-down 520 FICO no-doc loan. All the brokers did was sell the product. Was it a mistake to sell it? I guess. But you know the part of page 3 of the 1003 that asks all the invasive questions about race and sex and national origin? That’s not there because brokers needed more boxes to check. It’s there because the government will sue you and put you in jail if you don’t make loans to people, especially low-income people and MOST especially people that routinely fall into the category of higher-risk borrower. A broker could decide not to sell any of those products at all, but this is sort of like deciding not to sell iPhones because you think that it’s a fad and people will eventually figure out that you can’t replace the battery. It’s stupid to do this. Businesses exist to make money, and failing to sell what people are buying, just because you don’t like it yourself, is a great way to end up working at WalMart. No offense, Mr. Walton. This is even more especially true when the Department of Housing and Urban Development can put you in federal prison for not doing so.

Second, the vast majority of the problem in the real-estate industry has been caused not by bad loans, but by bad houses. Not that they’re poorly constructed, but that they were overpriced. Some of that is the fault of the lending institutions, which created loans that roughly doubled the available pool of buyers, naturally (and somewhat artificially) boosting home values. At least as much of it is the fault of the government, pushing said lenders to create loans for people that traditionally default in huge numbers. And a lot of the fault has to be carried by the Fed, leaving interest rates at ridiculously low levels for a long time, again reducing the cost of buying and ramping up demand. None of that stuff has anything to do with the loan officer on the street.

And lastly, there’s the elephant in the room, which is that none of the government regulations will do one blessed thing to make any of the above less likely in the future. None. Not HVCC, a lawsuit about a lender-owned AMC that specifically permits lender owned AMCs to continue. Not HERA, a gigantic waste of time and money that pushed closings back a week or more on most loans. Not RESPA, The Sequel, which hilariously creates a new, “simpler”, 3-page Good Faith Estimate that is so iron-bound that no lender with any reputation will issue one until the borrower signs a notarized contract to do business with that lender and nobody else. Not one of these byzantine regulations – oh, and let’s include the national database of loan originators, which now requires a fingerprint card, as if there were any evidence whatever that such provisions have reduced any kind of fraud in any industry – will do anything whatever to reduce the incidence of evil people duping stupid ones.

But it will make it so that the good loan officers are unable to distinguish themselves from the rest of the herd. It will make it more expensive, more complicated, and more difficult to continue to work in this industry, which will chop down the number of players and – consult any economics textbook – raise the prices for the borrowers.

Our plant will continue to grow. We will make it through the drought, through the hail, and force our roots through the rocky ground. We will survive. But we will never produce the fruit that we could have, and no one else will, either. And tens of thousands of our compatriots will be out there competing for the six available jobs, having been killed off not by incompetence or laziness, but by the twin terrors of the Great Recession and Uncle Sam.  Worst of all, we can’t even plan for what we’re going to do next year, because we never know from one minute to the next what new dragon will rear its head.  Not a market dragon, hard as those are to deal with, but the mighty dragon of government, trying to “help”, and changing the temperature and the landscape because it makes re-election a better bet.

Happy New Year.

On Quiet, or the Lack Thereof

This is one of an occasional series of short essays on the salient topics of the day.  Usually they are religious or political in nature, and this one is mildly that way too, so you’ve been warned.  Today’s post comes as a response to a terrific post from the Brains On Fire Blog, by Robbin Phillips.

There’s a desperate need in today’s world for some quiet.  Time was, you could go outside in the dead of night, or even the early morning, and there would be nothing of the human world you could hear.  A few crickets, maybe a nightjar, an owl.  Nothing else.  There is a peace for the soul in that quiet, and a chance to hear one’s own thoughts, and occasionally even the whisper of something else, something not ourselves, calling to us.

How many of us ever have that experience anymore?

With Twitter and Facebook and MySpace, to say nothing of Pandora and iTunes, there is never any place for us to just BE.  Always there is something streaming in, and usually something streaming out, without any chance to process, to understand, to grow some wisdom to go with our knowledge.

A month ago I added a one-hour block to my calendar twice a week for “pondering”.  I thought I needed a minute here and there to just think.  No phone, no computer, nothing.  Just me and a pencil and a sheet of paper.  After a month, I can tell you that that is the most critical time on my calendar all week, and I can tell you this because I have been unable to get myself to observe that time even once in eight chances.  Always something comes up.  I can’t do 60 minutes twice a week.  That’s a tragedy.

When I have taken time, usually really early in the morning, to think and to plan and to ponder the things I’ve been reading and doing, I find that I’m spectacularly more effective at everything I do that day.  I find that I get solutions to intractable problems, remember things better, even find that I know people I should visit, people that I should call.  People that need me to connect with them.  I wouldn’t have thought of it, except that for a moment I could actually HEAR, because there was nothing, for once, to listen to.

I do not think that the trend – I wouldn’t call it a recent one – toward a constant, unremitting stream of information (and I count music in that) is a healthy one.  The ability to concentrate for long periods is on the decline, and that decline has some nasty consequences.  But the inability to be quiet, and to listen for the Voice that calls in the quiet, is catastrophic, I think.

Peace, on earth, would be a very good thing.  Arrange some for yourself.

And Back At You, Sis

Warning: this post contains not much of interest to anyone but myself and those close to me.  If you’re a stranger, or even an acquaintance, and you happen on it, you might seriously want to start somewhere else.  It’s not a business post, and it’s not a community post.  There is, obviously, nothing here I’m ashamed of, and you can read it if you want, and it might even be interesting.  But it’s pretty obscure in places.  You’ve been warned.

My sister Alison Wonderland recently wrote a post about my post about potential.  In it, she heaps a lot of fulsome praise on me, says some very nice things, and brings up the possibility (true, I think) that the whole “reaching your potential” thing is complicated by gender, as in, my sisters are routinely told that they are amazing, inspirational people, while hardly anyone ever says anything like that to me.  You could contend that that is because they ARE amazing, inspirational people and I am not, but they argue otherwise and provide evidence.

But I don’t want to talk about that.  What I want to talk about is three different things; one, that I haven’t reached “my potential” because of some choices I’ve made; two, that in one, usually ignored way, it is possible to see that those choices have led me to far exceed my potential; and three, that nobody reaches his potential in this life.  Three mutually contradictory things ought to keep me writing for a while, don’t you think?

I haven’t reached my potential because of some of the choices I’ve made. I am a good actor, but not a great one.  I am a good singer, but not a great one.  I am a good writer, but not a great one.  I am a good businessman, but not a great one.  I am a good basketball player, but not a great one.  I am a good chess player and teacher and journalist, but not great at any of those things.  I am not even a great husband and father.  Not a great gardener.  I am great, truly great, at nothing.

I don’t think I could have been a great basketball player no matter what I did.  I could probably have played D II ball in college, but nothing better.  I’m not built for it.  But I could have been a great singer or actor.  I could one day still become a great writer (though for reasons I’m about to elaborate, I doubt that I will).  I will become truly excellent at nothing at all in my life, I strongly suspect.

Because I won’t ever put that focused time in that it takes to become great.  There are men (I use men in the generic sense) that can become great at more than one thing in their lives, but those men are so vanishingly rare that I’ve only ever heard of a few.  There are men – perhaps most men – that can become excellent at one thing, as long as they put the time into it.  [Fun reader's aside: Malcolm Gladwell says the magic amount of time is 10,000 hours, but whatever.  He also says that natural ability doesn't matter very much, and in that he's probably right, except that I would argue that without natural ability - or let's call it inclination instead - it's almost impossible to do that many hours of anything.]  But if they don’t put the time in, they don’t reach greatness.  I chose a long time ago not to put the time in.

Some of that choice was conscious; I have eight children and yes, I do know how that kind of thing happens.  I chose a faith that smiles on large families, and that in and of itself requires a huge commitment of time and money.  That choice was conscious and I knew that it would likely preclude my being a concert-level musician or a Broadway actor.  But some of it was unconscious; I gravitated away from many things just at the point where I was getting to be pretty good at them.  I did that because there is a point where the initial flush of success wears off, where there is a lengthy plateau that requires a lot of effort to climb off of.  I’m lazy and don’t like to do that much work, so, being interested in lots of things and naturally good at many of them, I just move on to something else.  That leads to things like having 10 different careers after 5 different majors in college.  Stuff like that.

Bottom line is, if you want to become great at something, you have to work at it and work very hard at it.  I never have.  I have chosen not to do that.  Perhaps that makes me a very interesting person.  It does not make me excellent.  When one’s potential is measured, it is nearly always measured in one area.  Rarely do you hear someone say, “you know, if he gets a degree in Roman History, dabbles with basketball and being a chess coach, teaches part time and sings opera and does community theater, he might become a relatively successful businessman.”  We always measure someone’s potential at its peak in one area.  “He could become a concert violinist,” we say, but we don’t say, “he could become a concert violinist unless he decides to have ten kids and volunteer at the local battered women’s shelter.”

So that’s one reason I “never reached my potential.”

Because of some of those choices, I have, actually, already exceeded my potential. By so far that it’s hard to even fathom it.  And I never thought about it until I read my sister’s blog after reading an Orson Scott Card story, “The Originist.”

The most important thing in the world to me is my wife Jeanette.  More than the kids, more than my parents, more than anyone or anything.  I have a friend that would love to be married to her.  Anyone sane would love to be married to her.  But something Card wrote jogged an idea for me.  I know that the person that I am, the parts of me that I’m proud of, anyway, did not exist or existed only embryonically before Jeanette.  She has made me what I am.  Some of it she did on purpose, like teaching me to pick my clothes up, and some of it I did, because pleasing her is delicious to me, but either way it’s her fault.  The good me is her work, her creation.  If I’ve done anything to be proud of, it is every bit as much she that has done it.  My resume is her resume.  I am her work.

But if that is true, then as much as I don’t want to take any credit for it, what she is is what I helped make her.  And she is a work of art.  She is a gem.  She is…she is breath and beauty and life itself.  I get to take some credit for that.

More than that, what we are making together is a marriage and a life, and that is entirely ours.  It is a thing I am enormously proud of.  I am an indispensable part of that.  Without me there is no marriage, no partnership.  Our marriage is not perfect, but it is far, far more perfect that I am alone.  It is, even I admit, a thing of great beauty and eternal permanence.  It far exceeds what I could predictably achieved.  It exceeds my potential, and I believe it exceeds my wife’s potential as well.  What we are building together is far beyond our individual top-end limit.

So in that way, I’ve already exceeded my potential.

Nobody reaches his potential in this life. (Warning: explicit religion)  I believe that the purpose of my life, the purpose of everyone’s life, is to learn to become God.  I believe that when Jesus says “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” and “those things ye see me do, even that shall ye do,” and “as I have loved you, love one another,” he is prescribing behavior.  He is literally asking us to become what He is, to do what He does, to eventually take our place with Him, as children take their place with their fathers.  As a child of God, my potential is to become what my Father is.

That is never, ever going to happen in this life.  We’re beings of such immense difference that it’s silly to even mention us in the same breath.  God is God, and He’s perfect at it, and I am just Chris, and I suck at it, and right there we have a yawning gap that will never discernibly close no matter what I do.  But still, He’s asked me to be like Him.  He’s asked me to reach for that potential.  He hasn’t stopped asking despite my pathetic and failed attempts.  He’s omniscient, so He knows I’m not going to make it, not if I live a thousand years.  But He also lives outside time, so what is a thousand years to Him?

Even the greatest geniuses are nothing to the intelligence of God.  The most accomplished men, the most holy saints, are like stars in the sky when the sun arises.  They shine, but who can see them when He is there?  Thus if our potential is to be what He is, no possible achievement in this life can ever reach that potential.

Therefore no one reaches his potential in this life.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our time together.  Please forgive this rather journal-like post, which probably has no significance to anyone but me.