Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

“Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other. And that’s the way we filter out buying opportunities.”
Charlie Munger, Investor

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

Doing One Thing Makes You Sacrifice the Opportunity to Do Something Else of Value

In economics, opportunity cost is the cost of not choosing the next best alternative for your money, time, or some other resource.

One of the foundational principles in economics is affirmed by the popular American aphorism, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Resources are scarce. When resources (time, money, mindshare, autonomy, and all that) are scarce, selecting one opportunity necessitates forgoing other opportunities.

Life is all about values and priorities. You face trade-offs. Life requires of you to make choices among mutually exclusive alternatives. Every time you select something, you forfeit other alternatives and the concomitant benefits. The cost of something is what you will give up to get it. This is opportunity cost.

You Can Do Anything but Not Everything … What Will You Sacrifice When You Choose One Option Over the Others?

When mulling over multiple choices, the quality of any option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. The price you pay (or the sacrifice you make, or the benefits you give up) for doing what you’ve chosen to do instead of doing something else is the opportunity cost.

In sum, an opportunity cost is the cost of passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.

Many costs are calculated in terms of money. However, just because you don’t have to spend money to do something does not imply that the options you face are without their costs. For example, you don’t have to spend money to go for a hike or watch a sunset, but there is an opportunity cost there too. You could have used that time to do something else you value—visiting a friend or reading a book, perhaps.

  • If you decide to invest two years and some $100,000 getting an MBA at a brand-name business school, there’s an opportunity cost; it costs you lost wages and all the things you could have pursued during that time and with that money. But you anticipate that getting your MBA will pay off by way of a better job in a better company with a better salary.
  • If you spend your weeklong vacation taking your parents to a beach destination in Florida, there’s the opportunity cost of not going to Paris with your spouse.
  • Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices If you decide to wake up twenty minutes earlier in the mornings to leave home sooner to work and beat the horrendous traffic, there’s the opportunity cost of twenty minutes of extra snoozing.
  • When the refrigerator at home breaks down and needs replacement, you will have to give up buying that latest big-screen TV you’ve been coveting.
  • There’s an opportunity cost to even reading this article at this moment. You could have been watching TV, taking a nap, calling up a friend, or moving on to another article in the time you’re devoting to reading this article.

In a nutshell, even decisions that appear to be no-brainers carry the hidden costs of the options you will decline. Thinking about opportunity costs may not change the decision you make, but it will give you a more rational assessment of the full implications of your decision.

Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices—Big and Small

Opportunity cost is a concept of great magnitude. It is one of those apparently simple concepts in social sciences that are difficult to master and tough to put into consistent practice. Tim Harford, the British author of The Undercover Economist offers a particularly instructive example of appreciating opportunity costs in his Financial Times column:

Consider the following puzzle, a variant of which was set by Paul J Ferraro and Laura O Taylor to economists at a major academic conference back in 2005. Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by a staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga—there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b) £10, (c) £40 or (d) £50.

Answer: Going to see Lady Gaga would cost £40 but you’re willing to pay £50 any time to see her; therefore the net benefit of seeing Gaga is £10. If you use your free Radiohead ticket instead, you’re giving up that benefit, so the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead is £10.

Learn to Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs—The Stakes Become Clearer

Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs You live in a world of scarcity and must therefore make choices. You cannot avoid regret since there are opportunity costs for every choice you will make.

Everything in life is about opportunity costs. Every time you say “yes” to a choice, you are also saying “no” to everything else you may have accomplished with your time, money, and resources.

Opportunity cost is a commanding tool that you should be wise to apply to all decision-making. If you integrate this concept into your thought process, you will not only make judicious choices, but also better understand the world in which you live.

Idea for Impact: Whether you’re choosing graduate school, mulling over switching careers, starting a business, investing your money, buying a car, or frittering away your evening watching TV, considering the value of forgone alternatives will help you make better choices. Make the lens of opportunity costs the underpinning of your decision-making processes.

What Type of Perfectionist Are You?

Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism

Psychologists recognize two forms of perfectionism—adaptive and maladaptive. Both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists have high personal standards—for themselves and for others. However, failing to meet those standards is more stressful for the latter than for the former.

Adaptive perfectionism is the normal, healthy form of perfectionism. Adaptive perfectionists endeavor for success—they tend to complete tasks in good time and have high standards for their work. They take into account their strengths and limitations and don’t overexert themselves unless it really matters.

Perfectionism turns out to be maladaptive when people become terribly concerned with the notion of “just the thing”—they strive for perfect performance. So nearly nothing turns out to be “good enough.”

Failing to meet high standards is more stressful for adaptive than for the maladaptive perfectionists

The #1 Pitfall: Maladaptive Perfectionism Rigidifies Behavior

Maladaptive perfectionism may cause people to dodge tasks for fear of making an error or for not being able to complete tasks to their lofty standards. They tend to want to control their environment. When events do not go as planned, they develop negative attitudes. They are inclined to striving to achieve goals in their own way; consequently, they regard their personal and professional settings as competitive and handle relationships more aggressively.

Many maladaptive perfectionists aren’t necessarily high achievers because their drive for perfection leads them to chronic procrastination and to never-ending, futile agonizing.

Even success can be imperfect to maladaptive perfectionists. Their reaction to reaching a goal is often “so what?” followed by “what’s the next big thing?” with nary a pause for “I did it! Let me celebrate.”

Idea for Impact: Prioritize Your Perfection

Perfection can boost your satisfaction too much can be paralyzing There’s nothing wrong with high standards. Soaring, impracticable standards are another matter, however.

While a reasonable dose of perfection can boost your satisfaction, too much can be paralyzing. In the real world of constraints and limited resources, perfection is hard to achieve and your quest for the ideal can suck up precious time, energy, and money that could produce superior results elsewhere.

You don’t have sufficient resources to do everything, so commit them where they can bring the greatest overall improvement. (I’ll write about the concept of opportunity cost next week.)

If you’re an obsessive perfectionist, recognize that your compulsion to “get it right” can endorse a rigidity of character and action that is limiting.

Prioritize your perfection. It’s impractical to reach perfection in all areas of your life concurrently. Rather than trying to master everything, pick some areas of life you want to excel in, and go for average in others.

Death Should Not Be Feared

The Flickering Flame of Consciousness Will Go Out One Day

A friend was recently racked with melancholy: in the last few weeks, five of his family members and friends were diagnosed with debilitating diseases or cancer. This followed the passing away of a dear friend earlier this year. Like everybody else, facing the decline and death of the near and dear compelled my friend to contemplate life and confront his own mortality.

Convention can bind us to the notion that death is frightful and should not be talked about. However, death needs to be discussed—and contemplated—all the time, not in terms of the fear of life but as a reminder of the brevity of life. The great English author Graham Greene (1904-91) wrote in the novel Travels With My Aunt (1972,)

You will think how every day you are getting a little closer to death. It will stand there as close as the bedroom wall. And you’ll become more and more afraid of the wall because nothing can prevent you coming nearer and nearer to it ever night while you try to sleep…

Death Should Not Be Feared; It’s an Essential Progression of Life

When we’re forced to confront death, we resist doing so. Death is a very natural phenomenon just like birth, and there’s no need to shy away from it. In his famous 2005 Stanford graduation address, Steve Jobs (1955-2011) addressed his pancreatic cancer and his brush with death:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Accept the impermanence of health and life. Appreciate and live each moment wisely.

Bertrand Russell’s Evocative Reflection on Transience and Morality

The celebrated British mathematician, political activist, and philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872—1970) wrote a beautiful reflection on death and life in his essay “How To Grow Old.” The metaphors evoked by the way that Russell portrayed human existence “like a river” are overpowering.

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

Idea for Impact: The Only Thing We Really Get to Influence About Death is the Course of Our Approach to Death

We may look at death and decline with fear instead of anticipation, but the alternative to death could truly be worse: boredom and stagnation.

Fortunately, though death and decline may be unavoidable, how we look at it is totally up to us.

Every brush with death and serious illness should remind you to accept the impermanence of health and life. It should help you appreciate and live each moment wisely. It should serve to remind you to cherish everything with you while you have them.

Book Summary of ‘The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload’

'The Organized Mind' by Daniel Levitin (ISBN 0147516315) In the best-selling The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin argues that the problem with the proliferation of information isn’t as much about the storage of the information as it is about organizing and retrieving that information. The human brain is incredible at storing data; the challenge is summoning up the right stuff at the right time, while not being distracted by the rest.

To be efficacious, we not only need to limit the information we consume (by simplifying, limiting our sources, quitting social media, taking digital Sabbaths, etc.) but also need to develop systems to take the strain off our befuddled brains. To do this, Levitin says, we must organize our personal environments to better channel our brains’ unique approach to doing things.

According to The Organized Mind, the trick to efficiently organize and manage information is to “shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world.” Levitin uses the latest brain science to propose “organization principles”—methods and disciplines to regain a sense of mastery over the way we can organize our time, home, and office.

Organization Principle #1: Conquer information overload

The information age is drowning us with an exceptional deluge of data. Simultaneously, we’re expected to make more decisions quickly than ever before. To survive information overload, Levitin suggests:

  • Be much more discerning at what you allow in. Not all input is worthy of being let in. Exercise control and discipline regarding your input choices. Don’t keep what you can’t use.
  • Develop and put into practice an organization system that works for you: to-do lists, 3×5 cards, etc. Whatever that system is, it needs to offload, classify, and be easy to retrieve. A mislabeled item or misplaced location is worse than an unlabeled item.
  • Organize in all areas and facets of your life. “Too much stuff” is fatiguing, no matter which part of your life has the “too much stuff” problem.

Organization Principle #2: Quit multi-tasking and become fanatical about focused work

Quit Multi-tasking Levitin’s pet hate is multitasking, which he describes as “the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy.” Our brains are not designed for multitasking; he writes, “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

  • Allow no distractions when you are in “focused work mode.”
  • Limit the interruption caused by email, text messages, visitors, and callers.

Organization Principle #3: Rest more, work less

In our chronically sleep-deprived society, sleep deficit is a performance killer. The general effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance are well-known: scientists have documented that when we are sleep-deprived our immune system suffers, our thinking and judgments are impaired, and our fuse becomes very short.

Studies have found that productivity goes up when the number of hours per week of work goes down, strongly suggesting that adequate leisure and refueling time pays off for employers and for workers. Overwork—and its companion, sleep deprivation—have been shown to lead to mistakes and errors that take longer to fix than the overtime hours worked. A sixty-hour work week, although 50% longer than a forty-hour work week, reduces productivity by 25%, so it takes two hours of overtime to accomplish one hour of work. A ten-minute nap can be equivalent to an extra hour and a half of sleep at night.

  • A calm, well-rested mind is a fruitful mind. Don’t overlook sleep, rest, and vacation as stress busters.

Organization Principle #4: Organize your physical environment into categories so it helps your mind

Organize Your Physical Environment One principle that Levitin emphasizes repeatedly is “offloading the information from your brain and into the environment” so you can “use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.” One appealing example he offers is, “If you’re afraid you’ll forget to buy milk on the way home, put an empty milk carton on the seat next to you in the car or in the backpack you carry to work on the subway (a note would do, of course, but the carton is more unusual and so more apt to grab your attention).”

  • Levitin also emphasizes the importance of putting things away in their designated places, because there’s a special part of our brain dedicated to remembering the spatial location of things.
  • Neuroscientists have proved that the human brain is good at creating and thinking in categories. “The fact that our brains are inherently good at creating categories is a powerful lever for organizing our lives.” Further, “productivity and efficiency depend on systems that help us organize through categorization.”

Organization Principle #5: Spend only as much time on decisions, tasks, and actions as they are worth.

Significantly, Levitin suggests the practice of satisficing—a decision-making approach that aims for acceptable or “good enough” results, rather than the optimal solutions:

Satisficing [is] a term coined by the Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, one of the founders of the fields of organization theory and information processing. Simon wanted a word to describe not getting the very best option but one that was good enough. For things that don’t matter critically, we make a choice that satisfies us and is deemed sufficient. You don’t really know if your dry cleaner is the best—you only know that they’re good enough. And that’s what helps you get by. You don’t have time to sample all the dry cleaners within a twenty-four-block radius of your home. … Satisficing is one of the foundations of productive human behavior; it prevails when we don’t waste time on decisions that don’t matter, or more accurately, when we don’t waste time trying to find improvements that are not going to make a significant difference in our happiness or satisfaction. … Recent research in social psychology has shown that happy people are not people who have more; rather, they are people who are happy with what they already have. Happy people engage in satisficing all of the time, even if they don’t know it.

Organization Principle #6: A Zen mind is an organized mind

Conquer Information Overload Beyond the productivity hacks and the tweaks, Levitin suggests a spiritual composure in favor of mental organization. He advocates practicing Zen-like mindfulness not only to relieve the anxiety that comes with worries over undone tasks and unease over future uncertainties, but also to allot more of your limited attention to the present moment.

  • Instead of seeking to cope with information overload and travel at warp speed, focus on the things you can do to put yourself on the right path to better wellbeing—one thought, one bite, one task, one project, and one breath at a time.

Recommendation: Read Daniel Levitin’s ‘The Organized Mind’

In today’s “age of information overload” you may find yourself continuously distracted and swamped with demands for multitasking. Daniel Levitin’s fascinating The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload explains how to organize your mind, systematize your home and office, and gain control over your life.

Even if The Organized Mind is somewhat meandering and ill-organized (which is ironic for a book getting organized,) Levitin discusses noteworthy capabilities and limitations of the human brain and how to effectively deal with them.

Idea for Impact: Develop a comprehensive plan to audit, simplify, and structure how information flows through your life. Develop personal habits and organizational systems to lead your mind effortlessly to good decision-making. As Levitin suggests, “The task of organizational systems is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.”

Hoarding and Learning to Let Go

I recently happened upon A&E channel’s reality TV program Hoarders, now in its ninth season. Hoarders shows appalling footage of homes jammed floor-to-ceiling with bewildering amounts of mess. With help from therapists, professional organizers, and “extreme cleaning specialists,” hoarders featured on the show learn to pare down their stacks and cleanup their homes and offices.

Hoarding usually accompanies varying levels of anxiety. Hoarding both eases anxiety and produces it.

Hoarding: Harmless Collecting v/s Serious Disorder

Hoarding ranges from mild to severe. Compulsive hoarding is the unwarranted and excessive accumulation of things as well as the unwillingness and the inability to dispose of them. Hoarders believe that their collections will be needed or will have value in the future.

Beyond normal collecting behaviors and hobbies, hoarders amass vast quantities of possessions that fill up and disrupt functional areas of their homes and offices. They stack stuff everywhere—attics, basements, desks, countertops, garages, bathtubs, stairways, cupboards, and nearly all other surfaces they can no longer be used for their intended purposes. When there’s no more room indoors, hoarders expand their clutter into yards and vehicles, and even get storage rentals. They frequently shift items from one hoard to another, without shedding anything.

Hoarders often fail to recognize it as a problem, making treating their hoarding a challenge.

Understanding Hoarders: The Psychology of Hoarding

Hoarders usually have an extreme attachment to their possessions, and oppose letting others borrow—even touch—their possessions. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the definitive catalog of mental disorders used by American mental health professionals, calls “the inability to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value” a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD.)

Hoarding behavior typically has physical, emotional, social, financial, and legal hurtful consequences. Hoarders have trouble making decisions. They often suffer from chronic procrastination, and have considerable difficulties getting things done.

Hoarding usually accompanies varying levels of anxiety. Hoarding both eases anxiety and produces it. Hoarders feel emotionally secure when surrounded by the things they collect. The more they hoard, the more shielded they feel from the outside world and the more they become isolated from their family and friends. But, sure enough, they feel ever more alarmed at the prospect of having to discard or clean out their hoarded stuff.

Alleviating Hoarding: Reducing the Chronic Stress from Clutter

'The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up' by Marie Kondo (ISBN 1607747308) If you’re a hoarder, take small steps to tidy up. If you feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of your possessions and the decluttering task that lies ahead, remember to take small steps (try my “10-Minute Dash” technique to overcome procrastination and get a task going.) Under the supervision of a trusted companion, tackle one small area at a time. But, psychiatrists recommend, don’t let someone else (a friend, domestic help, or organizing professional) clean for you—long-lasting behavioral changes necessitate talking through the process as you make decisions. Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s bestselling self-help book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, suggests that you should appraise (“touch”) each of your belongings one at a time to determine whether they “spark joy”—if they don’t, thank the belongings for their service and get rid of them. Sort items to one of a very few categories—“trash,” “donate,” “sell”, and “must keep.” If you haven’t used something in a year, toss it out assuming that you’re unlikely to find it useful in the near future. Idea for Impact: Reducing clutter and getting organized takes time, patience, and courage. If necessary, find a cognitive behavior therapist that specializes in treating hoarding disorders to delve into why you feel compelled to hoard and learn how to discard and organize your possessions.

If you have a hoarder in your life, don’t be embarrassed, sad, or angry with the hoarding habits of a loved one. Don’t force the hoarder to change—your loved one may change for a short time, but unless there is a compelling reason for change, she will go back to her natural state. To be effective in the long run, resist the urge to clean up for her. If the underlying behavioral patterns aren’t remedied, the hoarder will likely replenish the clutter or even intensify the hoarding behavior to make up for the loss. Even if the hoarder doesn’t realize the chaos she’s imposing on her family, friends, pets, and neighbors, try to help her or get help for her. Nevertheless, understand that you can control only your efforts—not the results—despite doing your best. Idea for Impact: Avoid enabling your loved one’s hoarding behavior. Offer to help her if she needs it, but expect change to be a long and slow process. Temper your expectations—changing this problematic behavior is her journey and her battle to fight. If all else fails, seek help from a cognitive behavior therapist that specializes in helping families and friends of hoarders.

The Gift of the Present Moment

People Tend to Live a Fantasy … They are Unable to Remain in the Present Moment

Most people tend to focus on things that aren’t happening right now. They get easily distracted. Through their bodies are present physically, their minds are elsewhere. They become easily absorbed in the past, get depressed, and compulsively pick over the past with the purpose of learning their lessons. Or else, they project themselves into a hypothetical future, get anxious, and worry about things that may never occur.

'Present Moment Wonderful Moment' by Thich Nhat Hanh (ISBN 1888375612) According to the renowned Vietnamese-French Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (b.1926), life can be found only in the present moment. In his Present Moment, Wonderful Moment, a persistently insightful discourse on the Zen-Buddhist philosophy of dwelling in the present moment and living a meaningful life, Hanh writes,

When we are driving, we tend to think of arriving, and we sacrifice the journey for the sake of the arrival. But life is to be found in the present moment, not in the future. In fact, we may suffer more after we arrive at our destination. If we have to talk of a destination, what about our final destination, the graveyard? We do not want to go in the direction of death; we want to go in the direction of life. But where is life? Life can be found only in the present moment. Therefore, each mile we drive, each step we take, has to bring us to the present moment. This is the practice of mindfulness.

When we see a red light or a stop sign, we can smile at it and thank it, because it is a bodhisattva helping us to return to the present moment. The red light is a bell of mindfulness. We may have thought of it as an enemy, preventing us from achieving our goal. But now we know the red light is our friend, helping resist rushing and calling us to return to the present moment where we can meet with life, joy and peace.

The prominence on living the present moment is perhaps the defining characteristic of the Zen philosophy. This attitude tries to get you to understand that life exists only in the present, or nowhere at all. There’s no purpose in getting anywhere, if, when you get there, all you do is think about yet another future moment.

The Gift of the Present Moment

Reclaim and Expand the Present Moment

'Calming Your Anxious Mind' by Jeffrey Brantley (ISBN 1572244879) Life is only available in the present moment. The past is just a memory and the future is merely a projection. The American psychiatrist Jeffery Brantley writes about the importance of awakening to the present moment by way of discipline and deliberate practice in Calming Your Anxious Mind:

Everything happens in the present moment. It is in the present moment, the now, that you live. All of experience, whether it occurs inside your skin or outside your skin, is happening in this moment. In order to live more fully, to meet the stressors and challenges of life (including fear, panic, and anxiety) more effectively, and to embrace the wonder and awe of life more completely, it is fundamental that each of us learns to connect with and dwell in the present moment.

To teach yourself the art of attention and presence is both a difficult and beautiful undertaking. The habits of inattention and absence are strong, yet the experience of life, moment by moment, is precious.

Bear in Mind, Your Present Life-span is Only One Moment Long. So Live It Now.

'Fear Essential Wisdom' by Thich Nhat Hanh (ISBN 0062004727) In Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that mindfulness lets us become “aware of what is going on in the present moment—in our bodies, in our feelings, in our perceptions, in the world.” Hanh advocates grounding ourselves in the present moment via mindfulness meditation:

When we are not fully present, we are not really living. We’re not really there, either for our loved ones or for ourselves. If we’re not there, then where are we? We are running, running, running, even during our sleep. We run because we’re trying to escape from our fear.

We cannot enjoy life if we spend our time and energy worrying about what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow. If we’re afraid all the time, we miss out on the wonderful fact that we’re alive and can be happy right now. In everyday life, we tend to think that happiness is only possible in the future. We’re always looking for “right” conditions that we don’t yet have to make us happy. We ignore what is happening right in front of us. We look for something that will make us feel more solid, more safe, more secure. But we’re afraid all the time of what the future will bring—afraid we’ll lose our jobs, our possessions, the people around us whom we love. So we wait and hope for that magical moment—always sometime in the future—when everything will be as we want it to be. We forget that life is available only in the present moment. The Buddha said, “It is possible to live happily in the present moment. It is the only moment we have.”

Establish Yourself in the Present Moment

Idea for Impact: Whatever adverse happened or whatever bad looms, don’t let it spoil the present moment.

Learn how to pay attention to the present moment rather than getting tied up in negative thinking about the past or the future.

When you establish yourself in the present moment, you can live life and make the most of those stimulating, refreshing, and nourishing elements of life that are always within you and around you. As the American psychologist and yogic scholar Richard Miller said, “In the end, we realize how simple life is when we accept this moment, just as it is, without pretending to be other than who we are.”

Never Criticize Little, Trivial Faults

Lessons from the Renowned People Skills of Steel Tycoons Charles M Schwab and Andrew Carnegie

The American steel magnate Charles M Schwab (1862–1939,) was a protege of the steel baron-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919.) During the course of a long and successful career, Schwab built his Bethlehem Steel Corporation into America’s second largest steel producer and one of the world’s most prominent businesses.

'Be hearty in approbation and lavish in your praise' - Lessons from the Renowned People Skills of Steel Tycoon Charles M Schwab

Don’t be “bothered with the finicky little things that trouble so many people.”

Charles M Schwab started his career as a laborer in Andrew Carnegie’s Edgar Thomson Steel Works. Thanks to his exceptional ability to cozy up to people and facilitate congenial working relationships, Schwab rapidly rose up the ranks of the Carnegie steel empire.

By the age of 19, Schwab was assistant manager of the steel factory. When an accident killed the factory superintendent in 1887, Andrew Carnegie appointed the 25-year-old Schwab as the manager of the Thomson Works. At 35, Schwab became president of the Carnegie Steel Company at an annual compensation exceeding $1 million (worth $30 million today.)

In an essay titled “My 20,000 Partners” in the 19-Dec-1916 issue of The American Magazine, Schwab shared a management lesson he learned from his mentor Andrew Carnegie:

Mr. Carnegie’s personality would enthuse anybody who worked for him. He had the broad views of a really big man. He was not bothered with the finicky little things that trouble so many people. When he made me manager, Mr. Carnegie said, “Now, boy, you will see a good many things which you mustn’t notice. Don’t blame your men for little, trivial faults. If you do you will dishearten them.

When I want to find fault with my men I say nothing when I go through their departments. If I were satisfied I would praise them. My silence hurts them more than anything else in the world, and it doesn’t give offense. It makes them think and work harder. Many men fail because they do not see the importance of being kind and courteous to the men under them. Kindness to everybody always pays for itself. And, besides, it is a pleasure to be kind. I have seen men lose important positions, or their reputations—which are more important than any position—by little careless discourtesies to men whom they did not think it was worthwhile to be kind to.

'Don't blame your men for little, trivial faults' - Lessons from the Renowned People Skills of Steel Tycoon Andrew Carnegie

“Be hearty in approbation and lavish in your praise”

Schwab’s excellent people skills and management methods are extolled in How to Win Friends & Influence People, Dale Carnegie‘s masterful guidebook on people skills. Dale Carnegie quotes Schwab:

I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among my people, the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop the best that is in a person is by appreciation and encouragement.

There is nothing else that so kills the ambitions of a person as criticisms from superiors. I never criticize any-one. I believe in giving a person incentive to work. So I am anxious to praise but loath to find fault. If I like anything, I am hearty in my approbation and lavish in my praise.

I have yet to find the person, however great or exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than he would ever do under a spirit of criticism.

Idea for Impact: People who cannot tolerate others’ shortcomings are at a marked disadvantage in life.

'How to Win Friends & Influence People' by Dale Carnegie (ISBN 0671027034) The older you’ll get, the more you’ll appreciate the wisdom of enduring the negative emotions— skepticism, disapproval, anger, contempt, and hostility—that stem from others’ behaviors.

One of the keys to effective interpersonal skills is to know when and how to give feedback. Commend whenever you can, criticize when you absolutely must.

Remember, criticism can swiftly erode away positive feelings. Don’t nit-pick. Don’t get caught up in trivial peculiarities.

You Can’t Know Everything

“Have intellectual humility. Acknowledging what you don’t know is the dawning of wisdom.”
Charlie Munger

You Can't Know Everything, So Embrace Uncertainty In the course of life, some of the most dangerous circumstances to be in are when you think you’re the smartest person in the room. Smarts without humility can get you into trouble because hubris leads to intellectual arrogance and a blatant disregard for opinions and judgments that are contrary to the ones you already hold.

Recognizing that you can’t know everything and that you will never know everything must not prevent you from acting. Rather, you must embrace uncertainty and take into account the possibility that you could be wrong.

Embrace Uncertainty

Risk is what is left behind after you think you’ve thought of everything you currently can. Risk embraces all those matters that are unaccounted for—everything that you need to protect yourself from.

Intelligence transforms into wisdom only when you recognize that, despite your confidence in the present circumstances, you cannot predict how things will play out in the future. You will not be able to make an optimal decision every time.

The conduct of life is not a perfect science. Rather, it is an art that necessitates acknowledging and dealing with imperfect information. Be willing to act on imperfect information and uncertainty. Set a clear course today and tackle problems that arise tomorrow. Learn to adapt more flexibly to developing situations.

Idea for Impact: The wisest people I know are the ones who acknowledge that they don’t know everything and put strategies in place to shield themselves from their own ignorance. Make risk analysis and risk reduction one of the primary goals of your intellectual processes.

People Cannot be Perfect

“Each person is an idiom… an apparent violation of the syntax of the species.”
Gordon Allport, American Psychologist, in Becoming

“People Are Like Apples”

People Are Like Apples - 'Root for their better angels' Some of the best advice I’ve ever received relates to managing people. Many years ago, as I was getting ready to hire my first employee, I prepared a long list of ideal competencies. My manager laughed at my list and remarked that I was looking for a perfect candidate, one that I wouldn’t be able to find. He told me a metaphor about how “people are like apples” and encouraged me to look for a good-enough employee instead.

When you buy apples in a market, don’t look for spotless apples, but rather for good-enough apples. Spotless “choice” apples are not only difficult to find, but may cost more. Instead, look for apples that are good enough and may have one or two bad spots. When you get an apple with a spot on it, you can either remove the spot with a knife (almost always, the spot is not very deep) or simply eat around the bad spot, thus enjoying the rest of the “near perfect” apple.

Employees, bosses, colleagues, friends, relatives, parents, kids, spouses, and all people are like apples. Use a metaphorical knife to work around their imperfections, flaws, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies.

“Root for their better angels”

Last year, the ever-brilliant Ben Casnocha wrote a fascinating essay reflecting upon his “10,000 Hours with Reid Hoffman,” the founder of LinkedIn and a Silicon Valley investor. As Hoffman’s chief of staff, Casnocha worked on various strategic aspects of Hoffman’s professional and personal initiatives. He also co-authored two books, Start-up of You (on career management) and The Alliance (on talent management).

Casnocha’s “What I Learned” essay is full of helpful management and leadership insights. Here’s one on people-skills:

One of Reid’s underrated gifts … is that he maintains very complicated portraits of the people he knows. He appreciates the full spectrum of strengths and weaknesses of a particular person. He’ll comment on a friend’s character flaw—say, self-centeredness—but in the next breath note one of their unique strengths. Flaws that cause others to completely disengage are, for Reid, “navigable” (to use a Reid-ism) en route to their better side. … If you make a mistake (or three) or if a weakness of yours gets exposed—you’re not dead to him. It’s just another data point in a rich tapestry in a long-term relationship.

Work around Others' Faults

Idea for Impact: Work around Others’ Faults

A Chinese Proverb reminds, “Gold cannot be pure, and people cannot be perfect.” People differ greatly in their capacities: some are stronger than others, some are better looking, some are better at science, some draw and paint better, and some are better athletes. Some make decisions through logic; others rely on intuition. Intelligent people are sometimes not physically very agile and are frequently socially awkward. Great artists sometimes cannot do enough math even to balance their checkbooks. Most people are smart in their specific spheres of competence, but are clueless in many other areas of human endeavor.

When working with people, work around their idiosyncrasies. Overlook and compensate for their imperfections, or coach them and help them work on their weaknesses. Being skilled at working with people in all aspects of life involves being able to fortify their strengths and making their weaknesses irrelevant.

When Getting a Great Deal Might Not Be Worth Your Time

Life Spent Searching for Deals

Most consumers love a deal. However, some of us spend untold time searching for the best possible bargains.

If you’re one of these obsessive bargain-hunters, unless you derive some hedonistic pleasure in snatching deals, you may not have considered the possibility that you’re putting too low a value on your time.

Perhaps you could benefit from some perspective: the time you spend hunting for deals and trying to save that last penny may not be worth it. While you can quantify how much money you save by shopping around, you may not realize the opportunity costs of deal-hunting: it often comes at the cost of your time.

You may have a vague sense of the fact that “time is money,” but this might not be telling enough. You can find the approximate value of an hour of your time by dividing your annual income by 2,000 (or, more easily, by disregarding the last three digits of your annual income and dividing the result by 2.)

Obsessive Bargain-Hunters, Coupon Craziness Based on your “hour’s worth of money” or some fraction thereof, set a cost threshold, say $15, for the cost per hour you could spend bargain-hunting. Unless you’re saving as much as this cost threshold, deal-hunting is quite simply a waste of your time and money. So, don’t poke around the internet for a better deal or follow an auction on eBay if you’re saving less than $15 per hour spent deal-hunting. Similarly, don’t run to the Costco at the other end of town just to save a dime a gallon on 20 gallons of gas.

I’ve written previously that life is all about values and the priorities you assign to those values. Therefore, decide which choices in your life really matter and focus your time and energy there. Let numerous other opportunities pass you by.

Another part of leading a wise and meaningful life is not always seeking the best but instead making good-enough choices about the things that matter and not concerning yourself too much about the things that don’t.

Idea for Impact: Don’t spend more time on a task unless it really warrants this in terms of “time-is-money.” As the American Philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”