Community

Labor Day and Investing in YOU

Posted on Sep 2, 2019 in Community, Investments, Planning, Retirement, Women, Worklife

We’re in an era of constant change. As soon as you buy one thing, there’s a newer version. In the old I Love Lucy television show, Lucy asks the question: “If everything now is new and improved, what was it before? Old and lousy?”

In the same way store shelves are continually restocked with the “new and improved,” we need to think of our skills and talents this way, too. You have no doubt spend time and money on knowing what you know, doing what you do, and becoming who you are. This human capital – you – needs on-going investment and care to stay in top form.

Keeping your tools sharp helps you jump on a new opportunity or take on a new role, and it’s important because sometimes the decision to make a change may not be yours. As the prospect of a recession looms, you need to be able to recover quickly if a downturn affects your job, or company or your industry.

A career transition expert tells me that while this is good advice, you’re not likely to move on it now, even if you’re in a bad job. Like being in a dead-end relationship or on the brink of needing to think seriously about a long-term care plan, no one likes to think about the possibility of future misfortune — job loss, break-up, or broken hip. And yet, now is the best time, when you don’t have to make a reactive plan, but can craft a proactive one.

If you think you can skip this step if you’re retired, you might want to think again. Whether it’s serving in a volunteer role, re-entering the workforce, or keeping up with the grandkids, you’re still going to benefit from learning something new. (Your brain will thank you too – more on that in another post!).

Think FaceBook, Instagram, Slack, Evernote, the newest shiniest iPhone…Continual learning is a habit all of us need to develop, not only to recession-proof your income-generating capacity, but also because the way we live will continue to change at an ever-increasing pace.

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, co-founders of the Life Design Lab at Stanford and recovering techies themselves, argue that much unhappiness comes from an unsatisfying work life, and by designing your life you move into a mindset to constantly evolve who you are and what you can do.

There is no better time to start than right now.

Make it Personal
If it sounds daunting to tackle “how to keep up with an ever-changing world,” literally take it personally: think about what you’d like to do that you’re not doing now, and identify how you can add to your tools and talents in those areas.

You can use this exploration to think about career or industry changes, in addition to getting to the next career step. Yes, you need to pay your bills, and you’ll spend 2,000 hours this year working that 40-hour a week job to do it – you may work more. Life is short, but workdays are way too long to not like what you’re doing. Thinking about what you’d like to learn next could take you in a satisfying new direction.

What’s the next step? Do you want to move to the next rung on your career ladder? Pivot into a new function? Make a move to a new organization? Attract a new opportunity? This might mean thinking big, and sometimes that means making big changes. But this is your life, after all. What skill, experience or quality lights you up when you think about adding it to your toolbox?

When you do this, your values and personal strengths naturally enter into the mix. And when you align what you’re doing at work to what you value, you do better work, are more likely to be inspired and happy.

Shifting your thinking from “what skill do I have to have to keep my job?” to “what can I learn that will help me do my best in my career?” changes your focus from thinking about working in a job to thinking about working on YOU.

Make it Portable
It’s not only about what your organization needs next, it’s about what you can learn that you can take with you. In the work world today, you want and need to be able to jump into a new role, or to a new company, when you want to – and even when you don’t.

In her book, Radical Careering, Sally Hogshead explains portable equity this way:

Portable Equity is personal capital that boosts your long-term career opportunity and market value far beyond your current job: your experience, skills, network, reputation.

The portable part of this is important. Many covet the equity compensation that comes from working someplace that pays employees in some form of company stock. But that kind of equity can dissolve overnight based on the fickle nature of financial markets, and it can get left behind if you don’t stay long enough. Portable equity moves with you. It IS you. As Hogshead rightfully points out, “You can be fired from a job, but you can never be fired from your career.”

When you develop a mindset of continual improvement in yourself- in all the things you know and can do and can offer the world – you’ve made the leap to thinking about building your portable equity. It’s not a machine you leave on the shop floor, it’s not a proprietary software system your company built for internal use. It’s the skill you have to use that machine in any shop, the knowledge of a system that is like many other systems.

The Three Pieces of Portable Equity
Your human capital consists of skills and experience, your network, and your reputation. Start by choosing one thing to work on next, and write it down. Plans that you write down have a 42% better chance of being achieved:

“I will learn python.”
“I will understand tax reporting for Americans overseas.”
“I will learn canine CPR.”

One: Skills and Experience
Picked a skill or experience to target? Once you have your target, research resources to help you get it:
Places – Classrooms, on-line learning, local workshops, your organization. Where can you find the resources to learn what you need to know or do? EdX, Coursera, your library, YouTube – there are more ways to connect with your interests than ever before.
Funding – Check to see whether your company offers financial assistance for what you’re planning, or if your boss will approve funds to pay for it. The thing about investing in your human capital is that while you’re going to benefit your company as long as you’re there, it doesn’t mean you can’t take it with you when you leave. Barring a corporate budget for development, think about setting aside your own reserve for career investment.
People – Who already has this skill you’re after? Who is doing the job you want? And how did they get it? Perfect questions for your network.

Two: Network
Decided to expand or engage your network? Just like getting a loan from a bank, it’s easier to connect with your network when you don’t need anything from it. A network, a real one, is not just 500-plus connections on LinkedIn. It is a living thing, and you need to participate. You are connected to these people for a reason.

Find a cohort – another person or small group of people you know who might be interested in the same thing. Early in my career, I wanted to learn SAS and gathered two other colleagues to take a weekend course.
Find an accountability partner and schedule regular coffee or lunch or exercise class. Even if you’re working on different next steps, you can encourage each other.
Don’t overlook the social part of your network. You never know what you’ll find when you speak from the heart about what you want next. A recently laid off woman in my book group found a connection to her next step, a career pivot, just by letting us know what was going on with her. Most people want to be helpful.
Update your connections – all of them – Keeping your network up-to-date isn’t about just asking for something. Your posse knows about your successes already; let your broader circle know what’s new. It might be as simple as turning on alerts in LinkedIn. Or when your brunch buddies are checking in since your last get-together, give yourself some snaps: “Things are good; had a few forgettable dates, still enjoying my yoga class, and took a class to learn python/taxes/canine CPR.” You never know who or where opportunities to use your new skills might pop up.

You don’t have to do this alone. And you shouldn’t. Find friends, colleagues, family who can help you. You don’t need a lot of people, but you do need people. They listen to your Big Idea if you have a major transition to work towards, they offer feedback, they refer you to others who can help, they are a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes just getting the word out to that first person can get the ball rolling.

A SPECIFIC CHALLENGE FOR WOMEN: Women are usually more than willing to offer help someone else. When you help another woman, and that woman asks “if there’s ever anything I can do for you,” ask her to pay it forward: when she has an opportunity to help another woman, ask her to commit to doing it. Imagine what we could accomplish if you knew that every woman you helped would help another, and that when you needed it, that huge network would be there to help you.

Three: Reputation
Want to ensure that your best self is what recruiters find when they go online? It’s super to have learned a new programming language, added another certificate in your field, completed a project that stretched your skills and knowledge. Don’t keep it to yourself.

Clean sweep your social – Whether you love social media or hate it, it has become a necessary tool of work life. A recent CareerBuilder Study found that 57 percent of hiring managers are less likely to interview a candidate they can’t find online, and 70 percent of employers use social media to screen candidates. More than half of managers have decided not to hire a candidate based on their social media profiles. Think about online complaints about your job, or photos from a late night out. Check your online reputation through the channels you manage yourself; do a Google search to see what else turns up about you. The rest of the world is going to see that too.
Update your “Atta Girl” file – We live in a culture that requires both competitive engagement and for women, modesty. Ladies, let’s get over that last part. If you can’t get comfortable using your own words, use someone else’s. You will need to sing your praises. On your resume, at your next performance review, at the interview. You need a file or e-folder where you keep track of every compliment, each piece of positive feedback, or stat showing successful outcomes that you receive or contributed to. And when a crap day rolls around, you have a secret weapon to remind yourself what you can do.
Update (or create) your LinkedIn profile – More than half of employers won’t hire a candidate without an online presence, and employers are increasingly looking online to check up on current employees. If you’re planning a career change, be smart about whether you want to advertise that you’re “looking for new opportunities”. Think about whether your online profiles reflect where you are – and where you might want to go next. If you’re enrolled in a class, add it to your profile. Your online profile becomes another accountability partner, and you’ll have another update for your circle once you complete your new thing.

Make It Happen
Other than a haircut, change doesn’t happen overnight. But it can look swift and feel effortless if it’s aligned with what you love to do.

Reframe how you look at your talents not as what you need to do for someone else, but with an eye to what really floats your boat. Pick one step or all three, and get to work. Vocation or avocation, you’ll invest the majority of your time in it. Make sure it’s serving you and what you want out of life – and make sure you can take it with you.

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Lessons from Apollo 11 at 50

Posted on Jul 24, 2019 in Community, Family, Planning, Relationship, Technology, Women

This weekend, the Apollo 11 moon landing celebrated its 50th anniversary. The event was just on the edge of my personal history: I was five (and a half – back when counting halves was important). The experience of Apollo 11, and the missions that came after, shaped me and the way I see the world.

I’ve been a space geek since I can remember. A highlight of my life was a trip to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the late 1990’s, an outing during a business conference. Apollo 11 was one of many missions in the Apollo program, which followed the Gemini program and the Mercury program before that. The tour at KSC recreated the last two minutes of the Apollo 8 mission launch. Apollo 8 flew the first humans into the Moon’s orbit, and gave us the famous photograph, ‘Earthrise.’

After a history lesson about how many things had gone wrong – seriously wrong – just prior to that mission, we visitors looked into a room with the actual consoles from that Mission Control room, the jackets and windbreakers with the logos of companies now gone, or merged into others, hanging on the backs of chairs: McDonnell Douglas, Northrup Grumman, North American Aviation.

It was 1998 and we were all thinking about Y2K and what could go wrong. At the time I was at Starbucks and responsible for the company’s banking relationships; one fear was that the electronic ledger that banks used would go kablooey as we flipped into the new century and money would disappear off the books (it did not).

The Apollo 8 launch required more than 400 different systems to work together, systems built by many different companies, each responsible for a piece of the whole. We counted down to zero – Ignition – and the room shook and filled with light and sound. Apollo 8 had launched! Then we walked out into the hangar, out under a Saturn V rocket. All 363 feet, 3,270 tons of it. We sat down for dinner, of which I have no memory. Everything stopped with that rocket.

The technology of the time: The telephone. The typewriter. The transistor.
Not yet invented: The personal computer. The cellphone. The internet. Pong.

Thirteen missions using a Saturn V rocket were flown, all of them successful. They completed these missions and never carried a weapon into space. “We came in peace for all Mankind.”

With a backdrop of great civil unrest and international turmoil, we found the money and the focus to send men to the moon. There were detractors; there were plenty of domestic issues that needed attention, too. The same can be said today.

Destination Moon
In homage to the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, I went to the Museum of Flight outside of Seattle and stood inches from the Command Module, Columbia, that splash-landed in the Pacific, bringing Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong safely back to Earth.

There were a lot of things that had to happen before Columbia came back to us. Tests, mistakes, massive, tragic failures. Many of the Apollo missions you don’t hear much about were testing equipment and different stages of what would become the trip to land on the Moon.

Making mistakes, course correcting along the way
We talk a lot about “course corrections” in planning and investment management, too. We offer questionnaires and exercises to test your risk tolerance, to establish benchmarks so we know whether we’re meeting your goals, and make many small and sometimes big changes to plans as we go and as the environment changes around us.

Apollo 7 tested the Command Module in Earth orbit and Apollo 8 tested it in lunar orbit. Apollo 9 evaluated the Lunar Module in Earth orbit, then Apollo 10 was the “dress rehearsal,” testing all of the stages of a mission to the Moon, up to landing on it. All this work was to prepare for Apollo 11.

The point is that Big Goals are accomplished in many, many small steps. For those of you thinking you “should” know something, or “should” be at a certain point in life financially, know that we all learn as we go. It might have been a little easier for the rocket scientists at NASA to set and keep their goals, given that they had the laws of physics to work with; there are no such rules that govern the stock market. You make a plan, you test the plan, get help as you need it, and course-correct along the way.

Taking a minute to reflect on and take in each success along the way
After landing on the Moon and before stepping outside the Lunar Module (LM), Buzz Aldrin radioed to Earth: “This is the LM pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”

If you listen to the radio transmissions of the whole mission, you hear the milestones; even under the strict protocol between Mission Control and the flight crew, you hear the recognition of each achievement, each phase of the plan as it’s executed. And on occasion, there is a call out just to honor reaching a goal.

It’s easy to get caught up in checking things off your list, then moving right on to the next thing. But there will always be a “next thing.” Satisfaction and joy are found in between. During each Mission, there was always the next thing to worry about, but as stressed and weary as they were, with this huge responsibility, they still took a minute and just allowed themselves to feel the success. Allow yourself your successes, too.

Part of Something Bigger
Every culture has a creation story. Something started this whole thing, and that something is bigger than you or I. Whether you believe a faith-based origin story or not, the result of all of us being here is deserving of respect. And awe.

Most of the research on happiness boils down to having a sense of purpose and belonging. We each need to feel our individual efforts have value and meaning, and also that we are connected to something bigger than ourselves. This perspective can run afoul of the American insistence on individualism, on boot-strapping, on doing it yourself. In the words of Irv Grousbeck, co-founder of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, “We have all drunk from wells we have not dug.”

Astronauts in the Apollo program had various personal beliefs about God and how we got here, and appreciated the collective work that was required for what they were doing.  At each step, they called out how this was in every way a team effort. Even if you’re not a space geek like me, it is amazing to contemplate a time when everyone— virtually everyone on Earth—was pointed in the same direction. There was a profound sense of responsibility for what we were doing, and what it would mean for people other than ourselves. Six hundred million people around the world watched men land on the Moon. We knew we were part of something bigger.

There was a continuous refrain throughout the program and its missions that one person doesn’t do this alone. We set aside major differences: despite the Space Race with the Soviets, the astronauts left on the Moon two memorial medals of Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin, space pioneers, along with messages from world leaders. They also left a patch from the Apollo 1 mission, which took the lives of three astronauts in a launch pad fire, but from which we learned vital lessons that later allowed three other astronauts to reach the Moon. On the Apollo 11 patch, the flight crew opted for inclusivity over individual recognition and decided not to include their names, so it would “be representative of everyone who had worked toward a lunar landing.”

It’s a rare client who doesn’t have an underlying goal to feel that what they’ve done during their life has been meaningful, and to want to be connected to others.  For me, meaningful work is my reason for being.   It is my preeminent goal, and it is a privilege to be a part of helping someone else live up to their goals for meaning and connection.

No One is Perfect
As a perfectionist myself, I realize how this limits me, but it’s hard to let go when you feel the stakes are high.  To that, I suggest for both of you and I that we let it go: No one is perfect.  But there are work-arounds!

Perhaps the most surprising part of the exhibit for me was not to see Buzz Aldrin’s helmet and gloves from his Apollo 11 moonwalk (which were awesome!), but to see the notes he had written on his glove.  The display included a magnifying glass so you could read the to-do list reminding him of his tasks during the moonwalk.  Note to Self: get a photograph of a boot print on the Moon! Check!

It’s not just you: Even a rocket scientist needs a crib sheet…

Progress We Have Made
One of the things both inspiring and vexing about a look back at the Apollo missions is that there were women and people of color involved in various aspects of the Program, yet many of them we are only hearing about now, fifty years later:
Katherine Goble Johnson was one of the “computers” at NASA behind John Glenn’s Mercury mission, for which she received the Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2015 (and a film credit in Hidden Figures in 2016);
Frances “Poppy” Northcutt was an engineer, the only woman in Mission Control during Apollo 8, and remained a NASA contractor until the early 1970s when she pivoted to become a lawyer; she now describes herself as a “one time rocket scientist, sometime lawyer, full time feminist”;
JoAnn Morgan was an instrumentation controller for Apollo 11 and the only woman in the firing room. She became the first woman to serve as a senior executive at the Kennedy Space Center.

We have had a history not only of discriminating against women and people of color, but also of leaving them out of the sanitized version of history we record. Were it not for the then-recent invention of television prior to Apollo, we might never have known that there was at least one woman in Mission Control and lots of others who helped one man take a “giant leap for mankind.” After seeing her on TV, little girls from around the world sent Northcutt masses of fan letters saying things like “I didn’t know women could work in mission control.”

These women and others were pioneers of space and also here at home. One of the best parts of their stories was how they helped the women coming after them. As role models, but also actively, by serving as advocates in promoting other women for more senior positions and pushing for policy reforms at their companies, such as parental leave. We may be at a point in our history again where women recognize the power of coming together and helping each other.

Fifty years after Apollo, we have made progress. The big lessons for me are those I note above, along with the message that it’s going to take all of us coming together to push for progress here on Earth, whether that is greater diversity in the workplace, pay equity, leave policies for caregiving and retraining, or new endeavors in space. If we can put a man on the Moon…

The Museum of Flight’s Destination Moon exhibit runs through September 2nd.

For more on the ladies of NASA’s early days, you can read more here:
Poppy Northcutt Remembers Apollo 11 (Space.com)
The Women Who Helped Put Men on the Moon (Los Angeles Times)
Five Women Who Made the Moon Landing Possible (The New York Times (tiered subscription)

And you can follow Poppy Northcutt on Twitter: @poppy_northcutt

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Valentine’s Day Planning

Posted on Feb 15, 2019 in Community, Estate Planning, Family

Sweethearts Candies

If all the pink hearts and chocolates you’ve been seeing in stores since just after Christmas weren’t enough of a giveaway, it’s Valentine’s Day. The first conversational candy hearts were crafted by the New England Confectioners Company in 1866.  Yes, that means we’ve been doing this for over 150 years.  And this year you probably heard that due to a change in control at the company, it would not be producing the chalky, nearly flavorless candies.  Yet Valentine’s Day marches on.  The National Retail Federation projects that we will spend $19.6 billion this year on Valentine’s Day.

All the hubbub can leave many feeling like they’re missing something: a romantic partner, a partner who is romantic, or the right combination of candlelit dinner/jewelry/flowers/candy. Setting aside the consumerist take-over of the day (as well as its dark history), and considering its modern meaning more broadly — as a celebration of love  — that is a worthy goal.  Love is one of the few truly infinite resources we have, and it takes many forms: romantic love, friendship, familial love, self-esteem or love of oneself, and love outside of one’s self, whether that be for humankind, nature, a vocation or God.  Building a truly rich life incorporates as many of the types of love as possible. Celebrating and enhancing these connections is what we strive to do.

Valentine’s and Love

Last week I went to hear John and Julie Gottman talk about love. Not about finding it, but about knowing when you really have it, and about keeping it once you do. The Gottmans were at Town Hall to promote their new book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.

Gottman and his colleague Robert Levenson founded the “Love Lab” 45 years ago. As the story goes, they were “two clueless guys who knew nothing about relationships” who decided to research relationships.  John recalled how, 33 years ago as a newbie to Seattle, he decided to answer every personal ad in the Seattle Weekly.  In two months, he dated 60 women, and that experience was the start of his “date-a-base.” Over the years at the Gottman Institute, they studied 3,000 couples to see if they could find scientific evidence of the characteristics of long-lasting love. John’s methodology and the Love Lab developed their renown based on their 94% accuracy rate in predicting whether couples would stay together.

Love and Connection

When asked about what keeps people on the hunt for love, despite rejection and failures, Julie Gottman noted that at the core of their research they find that what we all want is connection.  She says this, and the room gets quiet.  At the end of the day, we all want to be valued, to be seen, to be heard, to be loved. Whether we’re coupled or not, this need for connection unites us all.

Love In Many Forms / On Many Forms

The other take-away from the Gottmans’ talk is how the base of any good relationship is in how we communicate. Whether love between romantic partners, friends, within families of origin and of choice, communities to which we belong – all types of love enrich our lives.  You want to enjoy them while you have them, and you might want to leave something to them after you’re gone.  This is where a little planning comes in.

Each of your retirement accounts (401k, 403b, 457, IRA etc) and life insurance policies passes to your heirs by way of a Designated Beneficiary.  You may think your Will controls everything, but it does not control these assets.  Because life is long and things change, you should check your beneficiaries to make sure they are current.  Beneficiaries can be people and/or charitable organizations.  To check yours, you should be able to go online to view your retirement account beneficiaries, and typically you just need to submit a form to change them if needed.  For life insurance policies, beneficiaries  may be viewable online, or call your carrier.  If you’ve gotten married, divorced, had children or have just had a change of heart regarding your legacy, check in to make sure you beneficiaries are up-to-date.

In addition to however else you might plan to celebrate (or not celebrate) Valentine’s Day, do choose a day to check in about your beneficiaries.  Make sure the ones you love are reflected accordingly.

A Note on Galentine’s

If Valentine’s Day isn’t for you, perhaps Galentine’s Day is. In 2010 Amy Poehler’s character on Parks & Recreation, Leslie Knope, invented the notion of “Galentine’s Day.” February the 13th became the day when women celebrate their female friendships, traditionally over breakfast which Knope described as “Lilith Fair minus the angst and plus frittatas.”  Eight years after that TV episode aired, we’re still referencing this holiday.  It’s true both days have been mercilessly merchandised and enforce stereotypes about women (single and coupled), money and what we all want.  But who doesn’t like an excuse for frittatas?

If you missed Galentine’s Day this year but want to plan ahead for 2020, here is more info on How to Celebrate Galentine’s Day the Leslie Knope Way .

In any event, here’s to a happy Thursday and a little love in your life.

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Planning for Joy

Posted on Jan 7, 2019 in Community, Health, Simplicity

Yes, losing 10 pounds might bring you joy when it happens. Giving up red meat and quitting smoking will help improve your health over time. Saving more money will result in meeting financial goals sooner, or with greater confidence, and you know I’m going to encourage this, but it won’t happen overnight.

I cannot object to any of these resolutions. They are all laudable. They also require change, and change is hard. It takes at least three weeks to change a habit, and often longer. By all means, get started on those resolutions (or re-start them), but also plan for greater joy.

In addition to my New Year’s Resolutions, here’s what I’m planning to add more joy to my life:

1. Play
My dog has a good life. On her worse days, she suffers from the boredom of watching me work. Since I have to work to keep a doghouse over her head, she’s going to have to learn to deal with it. And yet, that doesn’t mean I can’t learn a thing or two from her, too.

Often when I’m downstairs in the office, she is upstairs in her corner perch, watching the neighborhood scene. I’ll hear her pad down the stairs and come around the corner into the office. Every time she does this, I greet her with my happiest dog-voice, and take a break in what I’m doing for a pet and a little play. I say I do this for her, to have good associations with my office so she’ll hang out here. In truth, I find it is good for me, as well. I am terrible at taking breaks, and the dog is a natural.

I could just set a timer and tell myself to take a break. How much more fun it is, though, to unleash the joy of seeing my dog prance around the office with her little paws in the air, her play-bow, and her goofy look, when I take a breath before I start a new project.

2. Organize My Desk
I know this sounds like work. I am a planner by nature, and I like order in my universe. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism, but it also helps me to focus and relax into whatever I’m doing when I’m in a clutter-free zone. My new house is slowly getting organized, but not yet up to my standards of order, and it’s stressing me out. As a business owner, there is no end to things to do for the job. A clear desk is an accomplishment, too. My plan for the New Year at work is to close out each day putting my desk in order, filing papers, and scheduling the next day.

Earlier in the business I sublet office space from a large engineering firm. The sliding glass doors to each office had no locks. For practical purposes, I ended each work day putting all my projects away, under lock and key. Starting the next day was bliss! Taking joy in sitting down and intentionally beginning a new project, rather than staring down a pile of ongoing work, is my goal for 2019. I’ve done it before, and I know I can do it again!

If you’re inclined to try a bit of rearranging to de-clutter your space but need a little nudge, here are a couple of resources. I was a huge fan of Peter Walsh and his Clean Sweep program on HGTV. The program is 10 years old, but his approach is timeless. His philosophy towards organizing your home and office is the same as mine towards personal finance: arrange your environment (or money) to live a richer, fuller life with less stress. And you can sign up for his #31DaysToGetOrganized daily reminders to help you one day at a time. If Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is more your speed, you can read her book or go straight to her new series on Netflix to learn how to “KonMari” your spaces.

Kondo talks specifically about joy in organizing your things, and Walsh used his master’s degree in educational psychology to help people let go of the associations they have with things that no longer serve them and to refocus on what really mattered. Both focus special attention on items of sentimental value, and the meaning they add to our lives. Here’s to more joy and greater meaning in your spaces (and at my desk) in 2019!

For more on Peter Walsh: Peter Walsh on YouTube
For Marie Kondo on Netflix: Marie Kondo on Netflix

3. Re-invigorate My Hibernation
Even though we are past the Solstice and our days are getting longer, Winter has barely begun and we will have many cold, gloomy days to come. “Hiberation” is from the Latin meaning “to pass the winter” and for many that means hunkering down and doing as little as possible until the warmth and sun call us out into the world again. But therein lies a missed opportunity.

For nine years after my mother’s stroke, I split my weekends into two periods: Saturdays were for life maintenance, running errands, stocking the fridge, doing laundry. Getting the house in order for a new week. Sundays were spent with my mom. Doing her laundry, checking on supplies for her apartment, getting her place in order for the next week, watching a movie or going to a show, and having dinner before going home. I loved the time with my mom, but I was exhausted by the end of the weekend. After she died, I had a hard time figuring out my Sundays. Then one Sunday I had brunch with friends. I remembered the luxury of sleeping in, meeting for eggs and biscuits, and lingering over that final cup of coffee.

Lately I’d been feeling blue again on Sundays. The luxury of a “free” day seemed to be amplifying the freedom single people have: I could do anything. And so sometimes I did nothing, only to feel let down by frittering away my time. I started to plan outings for my Sunday afternoons. A movie, a play, a museum. All the things I loved, things easy to do on my own, and things that would get me out of my own head and return me home refreshed. That was a successful Sunday, a joy.

Winter weekends can be perfect for binge-worthy TV on a comfy sofa with a warm beverage and snacks. They can also be opportunities to explore your neighborhood or city, enjoy a hobby or expand your connection to others. And even if you’ve fallen off the resolution wagon already, get right back on, and as you work on changes for an Improved You, consider a few tweaks for a more joyful You as well.

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Blind Spots and Seeing the Whole Picture

Posted on Jul 27, 2018 in Community, Family, Investments, Planning, Relationship

I’m a huge movie buff. In a different life, I would have been behind a camera, capturing people’s stories on film. One of the best stories I’ve seen on film is a movie making the festival circuit this year, Blindspotting. Daveed Diggs of Hamilton fame, along with longtime friend, poet and fellow actor Rafael Casal, have made a buddy movie like no other. It is smart, funny, painful, intense, and powerful. The writing is tight, the acting top-notch. The pair had been working on finding a way to produce the film for ten years, and its tone and subject matter could not be more pertinent today.

And why am I telling you about this in a personal finance blog? The power of the movie is in its exercise in asking the audience whether they can see more than one thing at the same time: Can you see the two people in profile AND the vase? Can you see a black ex-con and a thoughtful man reinventing himself? Can you see that the friend you’ve known your whole life has a different experience of the world because his skin color is different than yours? Can you see a rich person and someone struggling? Can you actively look to see past your blind spots? This is important because without the ability to do so, you can miss important information about your friends, your family, the people you work with, and the broader world around you, as well as about your finances.

What is “Blindspotting”? You’ll find that out when you go to see the movie. (And seriously, go see it.) We’ve all heard of blind spots: something in your range of vision that you should be able to see, but which is obstructed. The obstructions come from a variety of sources, but they can come straight from you: a blind spot is a predisposition, a prejudice. The most dangerous are the ones that you don’t know you have. Dangerous because you may think you are lighting candlesticks when you are lighting dynamite.

We all have them. We are all products of our own stories and experience: our upbringing, our families, and the shortcuts that help us make sense of the world. Sometimes those shortcuts don’t show us the whole picture and result in blind spots. Here are three common ones that might impact your personal financial life, and one additional that can cause you to negatively affect someone else’s:

Confirmation bias – You embrace information that supports your perspective and cultivate a blind spot to that which contradicts it. You buy a stock and when there is good news about the stock, you acknowledge that and feel you have made a wise investment. When there is negative information about the stock, you discount the news.

Recognizing that you’re likely to have a bias for the choices you make and being able to look past that blind spot and take in all relevant information about an investment will make you a better investor.

Over-confidence – What you’ve done in the past has been successful, so you are confident that you know what you’re doing. You have a blind spot to the role luck can play and to evidence itself, and in investment management, that’s one place where numbers don’t lie.

You invest in real estate and home prices soar. You feel like a brilliant investor. Real estate prices plunge, and you blame the market, not your strategy. The blind spot is your confidence in your ability versus the capriciousness of markets.  Why you were investing in real estate in the first place should be your benchmark: you needed a home and were buying for the long-term, or you wanted a long-term investment in rental property and could carry the on-going costs of the property during the periods you couldn’t rent it. That’s the measure you need to be using as a benchmark for success, not your ability to time a market. It’s hard not to get caught up in a frenzy, which also makes it the best time to go back to your desk and work through the numbers to see if an investment will meet your goals over your time horizon.

Note that the corollary of over-confidence exists as well: under-confidence. You invest in the S&P 500 and the market goes up. You consider yourself lucky. The market falls and you blame yourself for a bad investment. Your blind spot is self-confidence: without question, luck factors into timing of investing. But if you invested in the S&P 500 as a long-term strategy for growth, knowing that there will be market fluctuations, there is no luck or blame, that is a solid strategy.

Rationalizing: You overspend but explain how much you’re saving by buying things on sale. You desperately want to get out of debt but as soon as you’ve freed up some extra income, you’ve committed it to another loan or run up a balance on another credit card. You’ll start saving tomorrow.

We are creatures of habit. We are attached to our rituals, our patterns, our ways of doing things, and accepting that they may not be serving us – to say nothing of actually changing them – is hard to do. The blind spot is what you believe is really important and whether your actions support it. What is your goal? Looking at actions instead of hopes or dreams is where planning comes in. All of the above actions are rational in some way to the person making them. Seeing how the action (buying something you don’t expressly need because it’s on sale) impacts your stated goal (saving for a vacation to Italy) can help you release an old rationale and better align actions with what you really want.

And one more for the other people in your life:

Making an Assumption: This is the quickest shortcut we all use. You don’t give the plum project to the new parent because it involves travel and you assume they wouldn’t be interested in that now. You order a $90 bottle of wine at dinner with a friend, not realizing that her half of the price of the wine was what she was budgeting for the whole meal. You see your neighbor’s new Tesla, their designer shoes, the gardener at their house and you assume they are greedy and material people.

But are you making an assumption that interferes with seeing the whole picture? Your predisposition creates a blind spot. You won’t see the whole picture in each case until you ask questions and learn more. You’ll retain a prejudiced view of what a new parent wants at work, what your friend can afford, and what your neighbor is really like. The effort to see a blind spot takes time and attention and energy, all of which feel for most of us like increasingly scarce resources.

These decisions we make based on our biases, our assumptions, our blind spots, can have a very real impact on the lives – financial and otherwise – of other people. You limit the professional growth of an employee, you burden a friend with an unexpected expense, you fail to offer friendship to a neighbor because you are operating in a blind spot.

Are you seeing what you think you are seeing? Or could there be another way of looking at something? Can you step back and take in the whole picture objectively? Could there be more to the story? People and situations can be more than one thing. In developing an awareness of what we know for a fact, setting aside the shortcuts, expanding our view into blind spots, we get better information for action. Blind spots are not blindness – we can improve the completeness of what we see. It requires observation, attention, and sometimes confronting a limitation under which we’ve been operating.

Financial self-awareness is the first step. Learning to be aware of our blind spots can lead us to greater understanding, compassion, and better decision-making all around.

As for Blindspotting the movie, my experience at the SIFF screening was intense and very personal. There is an art to allowing us to laugh while we cry, something Shakespearean about giving us that release so that we can continue to watch, to engage, to care about these characters, flawed as they may be, in the short time we have with them. This is a powerful film, coming at a time when we are churning up some deeply held beliefs among us, which I continue to believe is the first part of healing. Right now it may not feel like we’re making progress, yet like any problem – or blind spot – you can’t do anything to change it until you recognize it’s there.

It is only a movie. But if it promotes a continued conversation about racial tension, police violence, gentrification, growing income inequality, and how we can promote empathy and compassion while tackling these issues, then it is so much more.  Blindspotting opens nationwide July 27th.

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Awakening From Slumber: Ten Years After The Financial Crisis

Posted on Jun 27, 2018 in Community, Investments, Philanthropy, Planning, Retirement

Ten years ago I was in Rome and passed a shop on Via del Corso that sold crystal balls.  If I Image result for crystal ball shop italycould have figured out how to bring one home without setting off airport security, I would have picked one up for the office. Then when you ask me what I think will happen in the market, I can point you to my little Roman souvenir and you will be able to see the future as well as I can.

One of the closest things I have to a crystal ball is my relationship with PIMCO. In addition to being the largest bond manager in the world, PIMCO has the biggest and most geographically widespread research team I know. Most of you who work with me hold at least one PIMCO fund in your portfolio. Even if you don’t, you have heard of their research: they were the folks who came up with The New Normal to describe economic and financial life after the Great Recession. (And which you are likely using to describe any number of new trends in your own life.)

Each year, PIMCO holds its Secular Forum, a gathering of its internal investment professionals along with guest speakers to discuss and debate the state of the global economy and markets over the next three to five years. Like much of PIMCO’s team, my background is in bonds as well, in markets for which critical to understand not only an individual issuer’s ability to repay a debt, but also the longer-term trends that will affect its ability to do so. As part of PIMCO’s investment process, its Secular Forum is designed to promote new ideas and differing points of view, to look into the future for the trends they believe will have important investment implications. They meet, then they publish their results for their advisory firm clients.

The title of this year’s look at 2018 and beyond is called “Rude Awakenings.” That gives you an idea of where we are headed.

The Great Recession: Ten Years Later
After The New Normal, PIMCO dubbed the last five years (2014-2018) the “New Neutral.” This moniker described the low growth, low interest rate environment we found ourselves in world-wide, chugging along without much economic change, with your savings accounts earning next to nothing, but overall slow and steady growth in the economy.

PIMCO predicts our economy will be more volatile over the next several years than this past New Neutral period, and the global political environment will be rockier as well. Nations which worked together to combat the aftermath of the Financial Crisis are showing nationalistic tendencies, meaning it may be every-nation-for-itself when the downturn comes. Neutral no longer, we will need to be prepared for Rude Awakenings. We will need to be flexible, to be able to respond to changing conditions, and to take advantage of opportunities in the investment landscape as they present themselves.

Here are four of the Rudest Awakenings we can expect:

Rude Awakening #1: You expect the same stock market growth in the next 10 years that we’ve had since the Financial Crisis. The big question many of us are struggling with is the state of the business cycle, and when we will shift from expansion and growth to contraction and recession. PIMCO’s research points to a good chance of recession in the next three to five years, most likely sooner rather than later. It’s surprised many of us that the stock market continues to be supported at its current level.

PIMCO forecasts a downturn in 2020, though they note it could be a little later due to government spending (fiscal stimulus) on infrastructure, which means more jobs and economic growth. But because this type of deficit-spending is coming at a time late in the economic cycle when we have very low unemployment, PIMCO calls this stimulus a “fiscal sugar rush.” The “sugar rush” is the artificial high that comes from spending money we don’t have (deficit spending, thanks to tax law changes) on roads, bridges, and the like and risking overheating the economy when unemployment is already so low. This type of stimulus tends to be an expansion-killer as debt levels become unsustainable, and spending that creates deficits increases uncertainty that PIMCO believes is not yet reflected in the stock market. Any of you with kids know how bad the crash can be after a sugar binge.

The things that most affect the timing of the recession are what the Federal Reserve does to manage inflation, whether we get a rise in worker productivity, and whether the current trade spat turns into a full-fledged war.

Rude Awakening #2: Growth in worker productivity is always good for the economy  Worker productivity has been below average since the Great Recession, and while gains in productivity are typically desired as a means of expanding the economy, productivity growth can have a dark side.

Technology-driven productivity growth could extend the current period of expansion, pushing out the recession to a later year. But technology can also be disruptive to markets and the economy. In the case of new technologies, these have an additional impact on legacy companies: think Amazon and every bookstore chain you’ve ever known. New technologies often disrupt industries and displace/replace workers. This higher “technological unemployment” can lead to a populist reaction, and we’ve seen a snippet of what populist sentiment can reap in a number of countries, the US included.

Rude Awakening #3: Populism doesn’t seem to have much impact on the economy Whatever you might think about the current US administration, the American version of populism has been well-liked by financial markets. But expect a different flavor of populism if we hit a recession: Expect a more radical populism that demands redistribution of wealth or income tax increases, nationalization of key industries, and/or a protectionist trade policy.  Italy is serving up an early 21st century version today, where we’re seeing a widespread populist reaction to world events.

Rude Awakening #4: Protectionist trade policy will level the playing field for US goods PIMCO considers China to be less of a risk to the global economy now than previously, as they have re-centralized power and are exerting more control over their economy; they are less of a loose cannon now. That said, tensions over the trade imbalance with the US and over intellectual property rights are growing. PIMCO sees the US-China smackdown as the Rising Power vs. Ruling Power WWF fight of our time: In ancient times, Athens challenged Sparta, in the last century, Germany challenged Britain. Neither of these bouts ended well for the challenger, but there was a whole lot of disruption to global economic systems. China’s challenge to the US as the world’s pre-eminent power is not expected to lead to armed conflict but could lead to rude awakenings on the geopolitical front. Not even a month after PIMCO’s Secular Forum, it appears this expectation of disruption is becoming reality with escalating trade tariffs.

What Will this Next Recession Look Like?
If the future plays out in these ways, what kind of recession will we be waking up to find? The expectation is that this time, the downturn will be shallower and longer than it was in the Great Recession (December 2007-June 2009). Two things that are different now are that (1) it’s hard to rely on central banks to ride to the rescue this time, and (2) we have much greater economic inequality worldwide. The first issue means we won’t have the same solutions we had during the last downturn to help avoid a global economic meltdown, and the second issue means that more people could be affected in this next time, with seriously frayed social safety nets and little protection against great economic harm.

What To Do?
So now that I’ve given you lots over which you can lose sleep, what are you supposed to do about it? How you can prepare? Consider the following:

Get serious about paying off debt. Whether it’s credit card balances, a home equity line of credit or other non-mortgage borrowing. The next year or two is the time to get serious about paying it down. It’s going to cost you more in interest as the months go by, and you might need that debt capacity if things hit the skids.

Build up your cash reserve. If you’re working with me, I’ve already bored you with the fat cash balance I think you should have in reserve. For the rest of you: plan on setting aside a minimum of six months’ worth of expenses (12 months if you are self-employed) in a savings account, or a couple of CDs.

Start setting aside funds for planned major purchases.  You could end up getting them for cheap. One of the things about a recession is that overcapacity as the economy winds down means many goods such as cars and other big ticket items go on sale, and start to come on the market at better prices. If you can, maybe wait to 2019 or 2020 to pick up a new car or major household appliances for less.

Work on pink slip-proofing your job. You know you are doing a great job at work, but you will need to make sure others know, too. No one is immune to job loss, and if you think you’re high enough up on the food chain to avoid being sent packing, remember from the company’s perspective, getting rid of you means getting rid of your big comp package too.

Retirees need to re-assess their asset allocation. -With the next recession expected to be shallower but longer than previous ones, that means arranging your resources so that you’re not having to liquidate anything at an inopportune time. If you’re working with me, we’re building “buckets” of assets to protect your retirement draws three to five years from now. Going forward, structuring this protection becomes even more important.

Consider stockpiling your resources for charitable giving.  Our social safety net is more frayed now than it has been before, and when the recession comes, more people will need help. Demand on charity will be greater, just at a time when donors are more strapped, too. If you are charitably inclined, using a donor-advised fund to accelerate the tax benefit of your contributions is one way to stockpile funds to donate when needed over the coming years.

Take this time to reflect on what’s really important to you. This is my standard refrain. When times are good, it’s often easy to drift towards all things bright and shiny and to forget about the warm and wonderful: the people you love, the things you like to do, the experiences you want to have. It’s also a hard time to put off gratification when it seems like the whole world is on a shopping spree (they are, but it will more than likely come to no good end.)

In our always-changing world, it should come as no surprise that the next ten years will look very different from the last ten. Best we can tell, you can expect more volatility, and be prepared for a recession in the near term. The timing of a downturn is always a confluence of events that are not hard to see but whose coming together is difficult to predict. In the meantime, be cautious about getting overextended — whether stretching financially to buy a new house or taking on other debt to finance spending — and be mindful about maintaining or stockpiling a cash reserve.

Remember that there are limits to the things you can control, and the trajectory of our global economy is not one of them. Consider what you can do on the list above, and then go out and enjoy the rest of life: take a walk, see friends, hug your dog, hang out with family. These things you can do something about, and ultimately they are what really matter as well.

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