Thursday, November 13, 2008

When you're ready

With all respect for Buddha, I think the Buddhist proverb "When the student is ready, the teacher appears" is just a little off. In my opinion, it should go something more like this:
When the student is ready, he sees the teacher.
Unlike another common phenomena where you learn a new word and then start hearing it everywhere or meet a new person and start seeing them everywhere, this isn't so much about noticing. It's about projecting*. Unconsciously.

Let's say you are madly in love with a lice-infested, unemployable, ill-tempered, moose of a man. You wonder whether you should stay together though, in your heart of hearts, you are completely confident in your feelings. Everything you hear on the radio points to yes! If the song is about breaking up, you notice that the guy being broken up with sounds nothing like your catch. If the song is about staying together, you notice that the song is about love and commitment and perhaps the guy in the song who is so worth committing to sounds a little like your lousey love interest.

Now instead, let's say your heart of hearts was actually singing a different tune. A song about breaking up would instead be a message, "You should break up!" A song about staying together will help you realize "this is the kind of relationship you deserve and you don't have a shot at it until you drop the loser you're with!"

The words of the song haven't changed. But what you are able to read out of them has. When you are ready to know something, you will begin to run into people / books / road signs that can teach it to you. However, depending on how coy your subconscious self is (or how inattentive your conscious self can be) you may not notice half the time.

At the Museum of Science in Boston a few years ago, I came across a vase on which an optical illusion was painted. If you looked at it one way you would see dolphins frolicking in the ocean. If you looked at it another way, you could see two lovers embracing. (Click here to see an example of this kind of illusion.) The display description that went with the vase mentioned that most adults could easily see both images. It also made the following assertion, which really captured my attention: an innocent child would not / could not see the embracing couple.

What it is that we cannot yet perceive, and therefore learn from, because we are not yet ready?

A world full of teachers surround us. To those we cannot yet see, please be patient. In one way or another, we are innocent children.

*Unfortunately, perhaps due to self-help jargon abuse, the word "projecting" has a bit of a negative connotation. I believe the negative aspects of "projecting" are a result of the student being ready to learn something that is completely incorrect.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Saving something for the swim back

There is a scene in the movie Gattaca where the protagonist is able to beat his "genetically superior" brother in a challenge to swim the farthest away from shore. He explains how he did it with "... I never saved anything for the swim back."

This scene made a big impression on me when I watched it as a college freshman. By not worrying about what was to come later, the underdog was able to pour everything into the current moment and prevail. I thought this was a great catch-all example for how to approach one's life, with some very obvious exceptions.

Based on a few recent conversations spurred by concerns over the economy and job security, I realize these exceptions may not be as obvious as I thought.

To be fair, I think the issue is somewhat masked by our ability to (through credit cards and overdraft protection, etc) to go into debt without immediately being aware of it. So, for the following set up, think CASH ONLY.

Harry is hanging out with some friends in town. He knows that a cab ride home will cost $12. Harry has $20.

At some point during the evening, Harry takes a break from dancing with his buddies, sits down at the smoothie bar, and orders a $5 dollar cranberry/orange juice/protein powder shake. While he is enjoying it, a woman he flirted with on the dance floor approaches him and mentions that what he ordered "sounds delicious." Harry remembers that he has $15 left in his wallet. Can he afford to buy her a shake?

It's my guess that most adults would answer the above question with a "no" since, if Harry buys the cool girl a shake, he will be $2 short on a cab fare home. I think it's also fair to assume that at a cash only restaurant, most folks know to consider more than the price of food shown on the menu when determining what they can afford to order. (They take into account tax and tip.)

But despite this, there are many high-wage earners who, on top of necessities such as food and shelter, spend and spend and spend until there is nothing left of their net income to set aside for an emergency fund or retirement. In other words, they approach finances the way the hero of Gattaca approached overcoming his shortcomings. Any change of plans -- a failing economy or a job loss, for example -- and they are stranded miles away from shore.

My recommendation is to forget you ever saw the movie when it comes to finances. When pondering an expense and asking yourself "can I afford this?" remember the tax and tip, remember that something may come up to force a change of plans, and remember to leave enough left for your "cab fare home".


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