(A Reader Asks:) My younger relatives, now adults, are all asking me the same question: When does my life start? They finally get out of college and enter the workforce, only to find layoffs, declining opportunities and a generally awful environment. So what do I tell them?

August 20, 2009

Michael’s Response:

Of course, your nieces and nephews and cousins all know that life has started and they don’t get to return any of their bad days for good ones. The real  question they’re asking is, “Why me? Why did my older brother/sister graduate and get a good job and a condo and, now that it’s my turn, the economy sucks.”

And you can safely tell your relatives that it’s all a conspiracy against them, that God likes their older siblings better, that they are doomed to suffer and life will never get better.

Or you can tell them to grow a pair.

Does that seem a bit harsh? Sorry, but it’s a genuine case of tough love. I’d hate for your young relatives to waste even a moment of their lives in turmoil over things they cannot change.  I would love for them, instead, to recognize how much tougher, smarter and more confident they will be as a result of the challenging period we’re in now.

I have a friend who spent some of his youth in a refugee camp. He came to the States, built a business, lost it and started over again. He wasn’t happy with failing and having to start over, of course. After life in a refugee camp, however, losing a business wasn’t exactly a big strain on his ability to cope with life’s disappointments.

My own adulthood began with me getting fired from my first job and laid off from my third, during a period of oil shortages, economic stagnation and high inflation. It was tough and depressing, but I learned a lot of lessons that have served me well since then. Like everyone, I wish I didn’t have to learn anything the hard way, but I’m glad I’ve had the benefit of those insights as new challenges arose.

Even if we don’t decide to move to a refugee camp, going through the rough periods when we’re younger has a number of payoffs throughout our lives:

  • We learn how to protect ourselves by saving or taking fewer risks, and those lessons stick with us because they’re part of our “formative” adult experience.
  • We become more resilient, which makes us more capable of dealing with the inevitable negatives that occur later in life.
  • We get all kinds of stories to tell our grandchildren about how much harder we had it in the old days, making us as crotchety and boring as our own grandparents.

We don’t get to choose when we’re born or to whom, where we’ll grow up or what kind of economy will await us when we enter the work force. We just have to deal with it, even if we want to whine about it from time to time.

In the end, life is like a MacGyver episode. You look around and find a lot of junk. But if you have the right insights, you can make a lot out of it.


A Reader Asks: How do I find a middle ground in life? I don’t want to live in a mud hut, for example, but I want to help preserve the environment. I want to help the poor, but I’m not planning to give away all my money and become poor myself. How do I find the balance?

August 13, 2009

Michael’s response:

First, the good news. Your life will never be completely in balance.

Actually, that’s not good news. It’s great news. Absolutely incredibly marvelous news. Because, if you know your life will never be perfectly balanced, you have one very large item that you never have to worry about again.


Life balance can’t be measured. It’s almost entirely subjective, based more on our feeling of being in balance than any external measure or opinion. In a way, our lives are in balance if we believe them to be so and they are out of balance if that is our royal decree.

Who says your life is out of balance? You do.

You believe there is something else you should be doing and someplace else you should be spending your money and some other way you should be more supportive of your friends. And when you look for the culprit who’s telling you all the things you aren’t doing that you SHOULD be doing, you don’t have very far to look, do you?

So the first step in finding balance is to avoid being unbalanced in the search for balance. Knowing that close enough is good enough can help us avoid the deadly trap of overcomplicating the issue. Basically, finding balance requires two things:

  1. Decide approximately where you want to be and what you’re willing to give up to get there. Avoid the crash diet impulse that leads to three days of frenzy and a lifetime of failure. Take it slowly, the balanced way, and just add one or two things at a time. Leave a note on the door to remind you to turn off the lights when you leave. Take a minute to direct HR to deduct 1% of your salary for your 401(k). Add things as time goes by, but never add so much that you feel pressured by the demands.
  2. Don’t fixate on it, don’t feel guilty about it and don’t try to measure it. Balance is a bit like sleeping. Sleep is very important, but you won’t get there if you lie in bed all night thinking about it. Be conscious of your goal, but don’t make yourself crazy, because crazy people are…what’s the word??…unbalanced.

Let’s say you want to reduce your carbon footprint. Take a look around and make a list of how you live. Do you set the air conditioning at 62 degrees, leave the lights on when you leave the house, drive an SUV so big you need to have a gasoline tanker truck following you to the store?

Find the low-hanging fruit, the handful of things you can do that require no effort and have some impact. Forgive yourself for the items that are very expensive and very difficult and have very little net impact. You can get to them later.

So, if you were planning to fly to a vacation spot but worry about the energy impact of your trip, remember that the plane is taking off with you or without you. If you are on the plane, your incremental impact on the environment is actually very small. In fact, we can use less energy in a week when we fly away on vacation than if we stay home. If I stay home, I’m heating/cooling an entire house, but if I’m in a hotel, my incremental impact is heating/cooling one room. 

That’s the thing about balance. There are a million tradeoffs along the way. Tradeoffs and imbalance are the natural order of the universe. Our failure to be in balance, however we define it, is not a failure at all, but normalcy.

The reality, though, is that we have to believe it to make it so. If we make changes and we can’t give ourselves credit for doing good, can’t escape the feeling there’s more we should be doing, then we might as well make no changes at all.

So the first step in achieving balance is very simple:  We have to be able to forgive ourselves for our inability to be perfect.


A reader asks, “How do I put my life plan into action?”

August 9, 2009

Michael’s response:

There’s an old Yiddish proverb that says “Man Plans and God Laughs.” Making a plan for life can be very valuable, if we’re careful to define what we mean by “planning.” If we mean that we will be a vice president at 27.3 years of age and have $109,472.10 in the bank before we’re 30, count on hearing lots of laughter from the heavens.

It can happen, of course, and you’ll be sure to hear about it from everyone whose plans come to pass. You’ll hear much less from the millions more whose plans weren’t realized.

Since we are human, none of us is really good enough to anticipate all the issues and roadblocks that will arise in life. However, we can come up with a life plan that incorporates values, perceptions and responses, enabling us to implement our plan consistently in the face of unpredictable developments.

We can develop a life plan, or response mechanism, that emphasizes living in the moment or making the best of things. We can consistently implement a plan to do a good deed every day, even if we cannot predict when and how this bit of altruism will occur. In fact, we set ourselves up for disappointment and failure when we try to plan the way things will turn out, rather than the way we will respond to events. We have more control over our responses than we do over events, which means we can actually have more influence on our future by planning our approach to life than by planning the results.

Happily, this response-oriented planning can actually yield better results. At the least, we end up feeling better about the results, simply because we respond in the right way–according to our plan.

Who Sez? (A thought about life)

August 6, 2009

I heard it again yesterday. One more mom telling her daughter that the daughter’s generation would be the first to fare worse than its parents. I hear that a lot these days and I keep wondering, how do they know?

First, I’m not sure how well my generation is going to end up. I know a lot of people overburdened with debt, unable to retire, worried about their health care and stuck with SUVs that burn more gas than the Hindenburg. Oh, yeah, they’re also not sure if they can count on their pensions or savings or Social Security to actually be there through their “golden” years.

And these are the people predicting a declining standard of living for their children? Pardon me for being a realist, but there are a few major flaws in their worldview:

  1. It might turn out that our own, overleveraged and overindulged generation is the one that won’t have as great a life as our parents.
  2. We have absolutely no way of knowing what’s ahead.
  3. The next generation is going to learn from our mistakes, including the flawed logic of living beyond our means.

Hey, parents, leave the kids alone.