What Do I Understand Now That I Wish I’d Understood Then?

What do I understand (or at least think I understand) now that I wish I had understood when I had began my journey through adulthood? It’s of no consequence to me, of course: it’s impossible to turn back the clock. But it might be of some help to you, Vera.

In looking back I’m struck by how naïve I was when I came out of high school and, four years later, college. I had little appreciation for what the world was really like. Growing up in a working-class family in homogenous rural south-central Pennsylvania hadn’t exposed me to much. My world was very small.

More than four decades of career experiences in law, business (CEO), government (special agent for DOD and, later, cabinet secretary), and higher ed (college president) changed that. To a degree. There is still much about life I don’t understand or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to accept. I’m still learning and always will be. Nonetheless, life has imparted a few lessons along the way.

Some of the lessons were easy to learn; some were hard. Some were moments of euphoria and left fond memories; some were painful and left scars. Others were learned merely by reading or observing. (It’s always preferable to learn from other people’s wisdom or mistakes.) I decided to compose a list of what I consider to have been some of the most important lessons.

What the list isn’t, however, is a list of rules to live by. I’m not fond of rules and would never suggest life is so easily mastered. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before, I have absolutely no desire to tell you how to live your life, Vera. Rather, I’m simply sharing some of the things I wish I had better understood when I was young, starting out.

Some of the lessons are practical; some are of the existential variety. The list is neither complete nor final. After all, I’m still learning.

Please don’t infer an order of priority, for none is intended. “You” and “your,” below, refer to me; it is as if life is speaking to me. Occasional personal comments follow parenthetically. Continue reading

The Fear of Missing Out

Social media and internet usage are driven, in part, by the fear of missing out. In my case, despite knowing better, I check news sites, Twitter and Facebook far too often. I want to be sure I don’t miss something important. Unfortunately, the internet does a poor job of separating the important from the trivial, which means I spend too much time and focus on the unimportant.

The problem is, all of this is time consuming and distracting. It interferes with other things, namely, things that have the potential of being far more meaningful and valuable to myself and others.

The other aspect of the problem is the lack of discipline being exhibited. A well-disciplined person would not succumb to the temptations of immediacy that the internet provides. The person would be in control.

Finally, there are the detriments of information overload. Simply put, I know too much. And a lot of what I know is utterly useless — sheer clutter and noise. It doesn’t make me a better person or better informed, and it certainly isn’t useful in making better decisions. It’s just information overload, plain and simple.

That’s the problem as I see it. So what’s the fix? Here’s the plan I’ve been implementing.

The first step is to be clear about what I need to know. I have a national newspaper delivered daily so there’s no danger of missing something of national or international importance. Hence, I’ve been reducing dramatically my checks of internet news sites.

But it’s not that simple. There is some news that is critical to what I do, namely, investing and trading financial assets (stocks and bonds primarily). So I do need to keep in touch with developments that could impact significantly the value of those assets and the markets generally.

Which brings me to Twitter. It’s a great resource; however, like other sites, it can get out of control. So I’ve been culling the list of people and organizations I follow to focus on those who are more regularly adding new insights or material information that is more likely to have a bearing on investment decisions.

I’ve also stopped reading most of the president’s tweets. At first, they were entertaining and insightful, providing a window to a deranged mind. But, frankly, by this point he’s become a bore. A potentially dangerous one, but a bore nonetheless. I don’t need daily reminders of just how crazy it is that an individual like him occupies the White House.

Finally, on the email front, I’ve been unsubscribing from all but what are essential sites for purposes of investment decisions. And have been converting daily Google Alerts to weekly ones and dropping ones that have only marginal value.

I often say that fear is the most insidious and injurious force in the universe. I believe that. But fear takes many forms. It’s taken me far too long to appreciate the grip that the fear of missing out has on my life. Finally, I’ve reached the point where denial is no longer an option. It’s time to take control.

Too Afraid To Be Away From the Office

Americans don’t take roughly half of their allotted vacation time because of fear. Vera, if you ever find yourself in the position of being afraid to take your allowed vacation time, know that it’s time to take stock of your life.

Sixty plus years of life has convinced me that fear is the most persistent and powerful force in the universe. And that one key to a happy life is to overcome it.

It’s no easy task. In fact, some people may say it’s an impossible task. But they’re only partially right. It is impossible to conquer fear entirely, but it is quite possible not to allow it to dominant your life.

But it may take some planning. And willingness to take some risks (or what will be perceived by many people as risks).

If you’re going to be beholden to anything eternal to you, such as an employer, a particular client, an image or certain position in life, then it’s likely you’ll fear losing that thing. And it’s possible that that fear will lead you to do things you’d otherwise not do, and to feel things you’d rather not feel. It’s because the thing owns you.

The antidote to fear, in my experience, is freedom: the freedom to walk away, the freedom to live your life in harmony with your values and heartfelt desires.

Yet freedom can be illusive. Things seek to steal it, to deprive you of its glory. Fear tells us freedom is risky. Unreliable.

To the contrary, the risk lies in allowing fear to convince us that the other is the source of freedom and happiness. And that it doesn’t reside within.

We think we need more than we do. Fear convinces us of that.

Many people are afraid to spend time away from the office. They fear losing their job. Or their privileged position.

I hope you know freedom, Vera. My hope for you on this Labor Day is that you’ll never be afraid to leave the office and, if you find yourself in that position, that there will be a path out to freedom.