Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Learning as a Lifestyle

I am not a self starter. Unlike some people, I need direction before I become confident enough to start doing anything on my own. As a child, I was never encouraged to take any risks at all. As a result, I never learned how to take a calculated risk, an important predictor of success in life. These two weaknesses are most likely interrelated.

However, I think these weaknesses caused me to develop what I believe to be one of my personal strengths, the ability and desire to learn from everybody. When I started working at Renfrew Bleachery I had the good sense to learn as much as possible from my fellow employees. Even though I had a liberal arts degree and not all of them had high school diplomas, I instinctively understood they knew more about their jobs than I did about mine.

Once I remember talking to a grizzled old timer who ran the bleach range. The company brought in a consultant because they were having problems with the machine. A bleach range is perhaps 120 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 12 feet high. It is a monstrously complex assortment of rollers, chemical vats, mysterious sealed boxes, and heating elements. The old timer told me the consultant walked around looking in control boxes and under the machinery for a good two hours before asking him where a particular control unit was located. Our employee immediately took him to the correct location on the machine. The consultant was shocked. He asked, “How did you know where to find it?”

The old man replied with obvious satisfaction, “After 21 years, I learned a thing or two about this machine.”

Later in my career I was hired as a department supervisor at a saw chain factory. When introduced to a man five or more years younger than I was at the time who was to become one of my employees, I asked him how to operate the machinery found in his area. When he told me, I took notes just like when I was attending classes in college. He was absolutely shocked. He couldn’t believe someone from management would be paying that kind of attention to his words. Too bad for management; maybe if they had spent more time listening to good employees the factory would still be there today.

Although I have my prejudices and preferences when it comes to investing and money management, I make it a point of studying material from a number of viewpoints, including those of authors with whom I generally disagree.

This is critically important in understanding any political issue. There are simply no news sources that are anything close to objective. All the networks and publishers put their own political spin on the stories they choose to cover. Sometimes what they choose to cover or not cover reveals much about their point of view. However, if you study the same question or story from four or five different viewpoints it is possible to gain enough information to come to some kind of reasonable conclusion.

I believe that if we possess information that might benefit another, we are obligated to offer them the opportunity to learn what we know. When I wanted to learn how to run the machine used to heat treat steel saw chain components, I asked the man I respected as our best machine operator. He said he wouldn’t tell me because what he knew guaranteed his job security. I could have caused him problems. After all he was an employee and I was, by that time, a shift superintendent. I let it slide. I learned from other employees and supervisors. It turned out he was not the only person who knew how to operate that machine. In the end, his knowledge didn’t give him the job security he desired.

When I was in engineering school, I did a lot of volunteer tutoring and some paid tutoring. Even though helping others raised the curve, threatening my quest for a high GPA, I discovered that if I understood a subject well enough to teach others how to solve a particular type of problem, my A was guaranteed. A willingness to help others had its side benefits. One of my “students” gave me a key to the engineering building. He got the key in a trade with a graduate student who was in desperate need of a tank of gas for his car. This key allowed my access to the computer network after hours and during weekends. It was easy to find an unused terminal in a locked and empty building; no sitting on the floor waiting for the next available terminal for me. I passed that key on to a deserving underclassman when I graduated.

I have tried to consistently follow this path in life even when it appeared that generosity did not produce the desired career results. Consciously taking the high road in a particular situation where I was basically stabbed in the back late in my career allowed me a greater opportunity and motivation to learn about the art of investing. Even though I ended up in a slot where I didn’t have the ability to achieve at a high level of excellence, I was able to retire earlier than if I had received that promotion and not learned what I have learned about money.

Because I was retired when the family emergency hit, I had the time I needed to work on those complex and emotionally difficult problems. If I had not been retired, I would have been forced to apply for extended leave without pay.

Things have a way of working out.

Even when things don’t work out according to our understanding, I believe that if we have acted in accordance with our faith, our understanding of what is good and just, God will know. I am thinking of the 21 Libyan martyrs murdered for they faith by ISIS in Syria. They weren’t clergy or missionaries. They were just men trying to feed their families by working at jobs no Syrian wanted. Now they are in the very presence of God, their names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life along with the other saints, martyrs, and heroes of our faith. Their reward in eternity will be great.

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