Saturday, April 16, 2016

If it isn't working--then what?

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
Mahatma Gandhi

A couple of weeks ago, I shared this graph on facebook as a part of the, “It isn’t working.” series. I share data of this sort to challenge people to ask hard questions about how our behavior as a nation and individuals is producing results that almost no one wants. Usually, once posted, I feel as though I have made my point. I delete my copy of the graph and life moves on. However, I couldn’t get this graph out of my mind and I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Now I feel as though I am ready to at least give it a try.

The key here is that roughly one out of five Americans is spending more money than they take in. Obviously, this can’t continue. It will end in bankruptcy, for a nation just as for individuals. For now, let’s not think about the nation or foolish people who are destroying their lives with bad decisions or retired folk who are spending their savings as planned or those on welfare. Let’s consider people who are trying their best to earn a living in a bad economic climate, one with too many people chasing too few jobs.

Over the course of the forty odd years of my working life, I have seen good years and bad years. I have lived through recessions, layoffs, boom years, and plain old economic mediocrity. In spite of the best efforts of the Fed and Treasury, no one has a painless cure for debt, the underlying cause of the business cycle.

However, there is another force at work for which there is no easy answer.

I (along with just about everybody) have written about the slow but relentless progress of automation and artificial intelligence in the workplace. I don’t know who first said it but, “If what you do can be reduced to a set of instructions, you can be replaced by a machine.” Seth Godin notes that for 150 years, the industrial revolution has been able to provide a rising standard of living by hiring people to keep their machines running and make a profit. More people—More profits. This allows a company like General Motors to pay their workers $29 per hour plus another $10 per hour in current benefits. When retirement benefits are included, this totals out at over $70 per hour worked in wages and benefits over the course of a lifetime. Increases in productivity provided workers in the developed world with a lifestyle without precedent in human history. Today, the rules have changed. More robots—More profits. This is even a problem in low cost nations like China.

As long as we live in a free country, every day we are given an opportunity to stand out, to be different, to provide enough value to our employer that we become indispensible, what Godin terms, a linchpin.

What can you do that no one else can do or is doing? Godin would suggest, “Just do it.” He believes that what we, as humans, should be doing is art, something that can’t be reduced to a set of instructions. Even in liturgical churches, where the priest is following a set of instructions when celebrating the Eucharist, some of these men are more successful than others, not because one follows the instructions more accurately than the priest in the next town, but because of the “art” they perform with other human beings during the remaining 167 hours in a week.

Godin suggest that we do art because it is in us and it has to come out, not for money. In a simple exchange of value, your labor or product for my money, Godin believes that no art has been created. Godin has no problem with you selling your art, so that you can earn a living, but consider the product of your art, a souvenir. He gives the example of Picasso. He didn’t paint to sell paintings. He painted what he wanted to paint.

Godin believes that if you do your best, if live a life of generosity, giving your employer your very best, every day, with or without immediate feedback in the form of more money, the nature of the universe is such that you will ultimately receive. This has certainly been true in his life and if I am honest, when I have lived a life of generosity as defined by Godin, I have ultimately benefited, financially, even if those blessings came by a strange circuitous route that had nothing to do with my job.

That is why I write this blog. In spite of what some authors believe, finding financial freedom can’t be reduced to a one size fits all set of instructions. It is an art. That is why I share everything I learn that might have value to even one of my readers without charging anyone a dime. Maybe someday my electronic scribbling might generate an income stream, but that isn’t important. Today my job is helping you find you find your way to financial freedom.

I promise you, it is still possible.

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