The Starbucks Learning Curve

I went into the local Starbucks last week to order my usual drink: a grande caramel frappuccino with whipped cream. If you are not familiar with this drink, it is what you would order for your last meal were you ever to find yourself on death row. Heck, the calories alone might kill your before they got you to the table. It is my vice and I am sticking to it.

As I watched the young girl make my drink, I could tell it was her first day on the job. Her cluelessness was palpable. Her every movement punctuated with hesitation. And when she finally delivered my decedent delight, I noticed she had committed the ultimate sin of the frappuccino chef: she forgot the caramel topping. No big deal. I nicely asked her if she wouldn’t mind adding a little of the luscious brown sauce to the top of my whipped cream mound. After briefly apologizing for her “obvious” oversight, she did so with great alacrity.

Here is a truth we all have to come to terms with: we suck at something the first time we try it. In fact, we are usually so bad the first time out that we cannot even imagine a time when we will not suck at it. It is even worse when our initial incompetence is on public display for all to see. An accountant can hide in the back room and make their mistakes in private; a Barista cannot.

There is no doubt that I will one day soon walk into that Starbucks and witness that same young girl whip up a perfect frappacino while simultaneously juggling a dozen other responsibilities. Learning is like that. At first you cannot walk and then one day you are running a marathon.

It is sometimes difficult to remember that the initial incompetence we experience when trying something new does not last forever. In most instances it does not even last very long. But it is no doubt frustrating (and sometimes embarrassing). What it can never be is a deterrent to trying.

Michael Jordon got cut from his high school basketball team. Jerry Seinfeld froze on stage during his first standup comedy performance. We all suck at first; welcome to the club. Embrace it, just do not let it stop you from starting, and do not let it deter you from continuing on.

Your biggest fear is that you will suck in public, embarrass yourself in front of someone you know and be the laughing stock, forever. I hate to burst your bubble, but most people do not really care that you suck and they never give it another thought. Why? Because they know at some point in their past they sucked, and they may suck again in the future. And because it is just not that big of a deal. Go ahead and suck. Embrace the Starbucks Learning curve. Soon you will be making perfect frappacinos.

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The REAL Secret to Changing Your Life for the Better

I know what you are thinking. “Not another self-improvement technique. Who do you think you are, Tony Robbins?” I have to admit, it’s not really a secret, so much as it is a topic few people discuss. There have been books written on this subject, but not many people bother to read them, which is remarkable when you consider that it truly can change your life for the better. I will even go so far as to say I doubt any big, meaningful change can happen in your life without this “secret.”

First the good news. This secret does not cost any money to use and anyone can do it. Starting today. And the change you seek will begin to take effect immediately once you start. Whatever it is you seek, be it more money, a better job, lower weight, better health, independence, can all be had by using the secret.

Now for the bad news. This secret you need to use to get what you want is easy to do for a day or a week, but hard to do for a month or a year (or many years). Anyone can start to use it, and many often do, but not many hold onto it long enough for it to make a difference. You may have even unknowingly tried to implement this secret in the past, and if you did, you no doubt understand how difficult it is to stick with it.

So, what is the secret you need to use to get anything you want? Delayed gratification: the ability to wait to obtain something that you want.

If you think back on your life and see any of the wonderful things you have achieved or attained, somewhere along the way you made a conscious decision to wait some period of time to get what you wanted. Did you ever lose a substantial amount of weight? You delayed gratification. Did you graduate from college? You delayed gratification (for at least four years). Did you save money for a down payment on a house or to start a business? You delayed gratification.

If delaying gratification can get you almost anything you want, why don’t we do it more often? Because it is difficult to do, and here is why. Suppose you want a better body (who doesn’t?), but you also happen to like big, juicy burgers. Now while the pleasure of the rock-hard abs will not be realized until some unknown time in the distant future, the taste of the juicy burger is immediate—it is right now. And in the duel between pleasure now and pleasure in the future, pleasure now wins out almost every time. It is human nature.

So, what is the secret to implementing the secret? I wish I could offer some insight, but I am human too. The only comfort I can offer is to tell you that the next time you want something really bad and fail to achieve it, at least you will know why. Because you wanted a bite of that big, juicy burger right now.

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The Most Important Question You Will Ever Be Asked

The unemployment rate is high; nobody really knows how high. But I bet the employment dissatisfaction rate is even higher. How many people truly love their job? Can’t wait to go to work? Would do it for free? Turns out, not that many. Less than half.

I am sure there are many contributing factors to this statistic, but one of the most influential is the understanding that few people plan out their life, and even less have the courage to correct course midstream. Back when I was in the real estate industry I used to joke that nobody goes into real estate, then end up in real estate. That is probably how it is with most people. By some combination of random events and aptitude tests they ended up where they ended up. They got hooked on the paycheck and have been there ever since.


But I think it is worse than that. I think the dream inside most people is dead (or extremely dormant). Knowing what they know now, how many people would know exactly what choice to make if given another chance? Would you know what path to take if you were given another shot? So, here is the question, the most important one most people will ever have to answer, and one most people have never given a second thought.

At the end of each pay period you take home a certain amount of money. Imagine that exact amount of money—no more and no less—showed up in your bank account every pay period BUT, you did not have to go to work. How would you spend your days?

Unlike the “What would you do if you won the lottery?” question, this one does not improve you life financially one bit. You are in the same house with the same car wearing the cloths and taking the same vacations. No around-the-world cruises for you. Just the chance to spend your days differently. How would you do it?

Now for the tough love part. If you can answer that question, really answer it, honestly, and know it is the truth, then that is how you should be spending your days right now! My suspicion is that most people cannot answer that question because they just have not given it that much thought. As you grow older you become aware of this extremely unfair exchange of time for money. You give up this very valuable and very scarce (and getting scarcer) commodity called time in exchange for a very abundant commodity of increasingly questionable value called money. And then you realize that you are here for a purpose and not fulfilling that purpose is the biggest mistake of all. And time is running out.

If you do not know the answer to that question I suggest you get busy. And if you do know the answer then you need to get even busier, migrating from the life you have to the life you choose.

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So Was Red

What would you do if you if you were wrongly imprisoned and sentenced to a life term?  Would you patiently dig a tunnel from inside your prison cell for 20 years? Would you inconspicuously drop handfuls of the dirt from that tunnel into the prison yard day after day? Would you successfully fight the urge to tell anybody what you were up to? Would you be patient enough to wait for the perfect moment to escape? Would you crawl 500 yards through a “river of shit” to secure your freedom? That is what Andy Dufresne was willing to do to secure his freedom.

By now, you probably know the person I am referring to, Andy Dufresne, is a fictional character, played by Tim Robbins, in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. It may be a fictional story, but it is the highest rated movie of all time on the movie database website IMDb. Why do you suppose that is?

The story of Andy Dufresne is the quintessential story of self reliance in the face of a great injustice. Two things that reach deep into the human spirit: injustice and self-reliance.

Have you been wronged? Almost everybody has at some point in their life. It might be a small injustice (your partner cheating on you) or a big one (being wrongfully imprisoned). That you were wronged is not the issue. What is the issue is how you reacted to it. Did you stand around complaining about your injustice, or did you seize the moment and rely on yourself to change your circumstances?

Without ever knowing it, Andy Dufresne used the Pyramid of Self Reliance to break out of prison.
Self RelianceThe first thing he did was nurture the belief that he could escape. Next he took responsibility for it. He understood if he was going to get out, it was up to him. Then he took action. Painstakingly, patient action. For twenty years. How many people can say they unfailingly committed to a twenty year goal in their life?

He must have educated himself on the best escape routes, times and circumstances. He must have had a passion for escaping. How else do you explain his twenty year commitment? And finally, he remained flexible. He did not escape at the first possible moment, but at the best possible moment. On a stormy night with plenty of lightning and thunder.

The Shawshank Redemption is a popular movie because it reminds of us of what we can be when we choose self reliance. When we stop waiting for the universe to deliver that which we long for, and instead, assume it is already ours and take the necessary actions to retrieve it.

The movie culminates with Andy’s friend Red (played by Morgan Friedman), delivering one of the more memorable lines in cinema history: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” I would like to modify that line just a little. Get busy being self reliant or get busy… What are you waiting for?

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The Real Secret to Healthy Eating

If you are expecting some super new diet, you can forget it. I could not possibly tell you what you do not already know: like how you should eat more fruits and vegetables and less carbs. That salmon and broccoli make for a healthier meal than anything you can buy at McDonalds™. You already know that, so why are you still eating food that is so unhealthy? That is the secret I am going to share with you.

The situation we have today is that unhealthy food, unfortunately, is cheaper, faster and more convenient than healthy food. And in most cases it tastes better too. What that means is if you wait until the last minute to figure out what to eat for dinner, you are going to eat unhealthy. If you wait until you are starving before you decide on your next meal, the only fast options are unhealthy ones. The fast food industry has made a great deal of financial investments into technology that prepares and cooks unhealthy food quickly. The same cannot be said about healthy food. Can you think of a single drive-through restaurant in America that offers fresh juice, or steamed vegetables, or grilled fish?

If you want to start eating healthy, for better or worse, you are going to have to plan your meals out in advance. And not just plan them, but purchase the ingredients and prep them too. You are going to have to think about eating long before you are hungry if you want to eat healthy. That is the secret to healthy eating. It takes way more work than unhealthy eating. Lazy people are not healthy eaters.

In my experience, there are two keys to eating healthy on a consistent basis. First, the planning, the purchasing and the preparing of your food must become part of your weekly ritual—something you don’t even have to think about. For me, healthy eating begins Saturday mornings at 7:30 am when I go to the local farmer’s market. I buy as many fruits and vegetables as I can carry. And on the way home I stop by the local supermarket and buy those fruits and vegetables I cannot get at the farmer’s market. It is my ritual—I don’t even think about it. By 9:00 am Saturday morning I have acquired my weeks worth of fruits and vegetables. Since my breakfasts consist of fresh juice and cantaloupe, I do not have to give breakfast another thought for the week. And since dinner is usually just a combination of one vegetable and some healthy protein (like chicken or fish), all I have to do is stop on the way home for dinner to pick up the protein for that night.

The same goes for snacking. Plan your snacking by purchasing healthy snacks and you won’t find yourself wondering over to the vending machine.

The second key to consistent, healthy eating is to find a handful of foods and recipes that work for you and stick to them. Once you get this “base” menu sorted out, things you enjoy eating multiple times a week, then you can mix it up by experimenting, but you must have a base of foods you know and enjoy to fall back on. There is no need to “gourmet it up” to eat healthy. Find a couple of dinners, a couple of lunches and a couple of snacks that you really enjoy and start there. Trying to eat healthy by eating foods you don’t enjoy will not work for very long.

How am I doing with my healthy eating? Good, but I can do better. I eat mostly healthy meals, but I still eat unhealthy ones too. And the only thing I know for sure is that the healthy meals I eat are planned and the unhealthy ones are not. So, until someone opens a healthy drive through, with fast, delicious, healthy food, we have to take responsibility to arrange for our weekly food intake in advance. A hard habit to form, no doubt, but probably less painful than testing your blood sugar five times a day.

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What if There Were No Health Insurance – For Anyone?

I just love to engage in thought experiments. To think about scenarios that will probably never happen, just for the fun of being able to consider what the consequences might be (without, of course, actually having to experience them). My favorite thought experiments are those that most people would consider impossible, could never happen, don’t even think about.

So, for today, I ask you to consider what you think would happen, if, starting tomorrow, there was no health insurance for anyone. Would the human race die out within in year for lack of medical care? Would our life expectancy suddenly plummet? I am not so sure.

As a brief background, health insurance as we have come to know it in America, is less than 100 years old. Now that is partly due to the fact that 100 years ago, for many illnesses, there was little that could be done for most people anyway, so there was little purpose to insuring against them. But the fact remains: recorded history is about ten thousand years and we have survived 99% of that without health insurance.

One consequence of no health insurance would quickly become a fact: you would have to pay for your own medical care. I think we can agree on that. Two more consequences would quickly follow from that. First, medical service providers would have to tell you the price they charge, unlike today. (Does anyone know what their last doctor’s appointment cost?)  Second, there would be a built-in incentive to be healthy. More health would mean less cash out of your pocket to pay for medical services. So far I like it.

Imagine doctors having to post their prices on a web site. Couple that with the on-line recommendation ecosystem that would evolve and you would actually have market forces keeping the price of medical services in check. Good doctors could charge more; inferior doctors less, as it should be. And as crazy as this sounds, it is already happening.

How about pharmaceuticals? I can think of two consequences of having to pay for prescriptions drugs out of pocket. For non-life threatening diseases, there would be tremendous downward market pressure on the price of the medication. Just like fine jewelry you can live without if it is too expensive, so too would it be with prescription drugs you can live without. Of course with lower profit margins from downward market pressure, there would be less incentive for pharmaceutical companies to develop these drugs in the first place.

With life threatening drugs, the prices would remain high (at least during the patent protection period). Now for people of means, this would not be a problem, but it certainly would be for those who could not afford it. And for very rare, life threatening diseases, it is doubtful that the drugs would ever be developed. This is in contrast to today, where drug manufacturers can develop drugs for rare, life threatening diseases because the cost of the extremely expensive medications is spread across the entire insurance base.

Another extreme impact of the no insurance experiment would be the redirecting of over $400 billion dollars of health insurance premiums. Without health insurance premiums to  pay, there would exist about $1200 per person per year in the US to pay for direct medical expenses. Not enough to cover major surgery, but plenty of money to accommodate a person of normal health. And with the downward price pressure that would surely exist, the $1200 would buy a lot more medical service than it does today.

As for individuals, their medical care would ultimately depend on their income. People of means would still get the very best care, as they do today with health insurance. There would be little change for them. For people with no means, there would be very little change for them also. They cannot afford medical insurance today and they would not be able to afford medical care if there were no insurance tomorrow. They would continue to be recipients of some sort of pro bono medical care.

As for those in between, the situation is not so straight forward. Some people would learn to save for a medical rainy day. Some would forgo necessary medical care they did not want to pay for. Some would go far into debt to pay for necessary medical care. Perhaps purchasing co-ops would spring up to facilitate bulk purchasing of medicine. And end-of-life care would certainly change. People would be forced to make economic-health tradeoffs toward the end of their life.

Finally, we have to consider the doctors. Would they be better or worse off? It probably depends on the doctor. The very best would continue to do well, the others might struggle. How about their compensation? It would be determined by the free market, just like every other non-regulated good or service. But there is one advantage all the doctors would love: no more medical billing headaches. No more rejected medical claims, no more resubmitting medical claims multiple times, just cash on the barrel. They would get paid faster and more predictably. I wager to guess most doctors would like that.

This topic is far too complex to cover in a single blog post, so this was just meant to stir the pot a little. I would like to hear your thoughts on the prospect of having to pull out your credit card to visit your doctor.

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There is Always a Plan B

Whenever you set out to accomplish anything, whether you know it or not, you have a plan. It may not be written down anywhere—it may just be in your head—but you have a plan: a series of steps you think will accomplish your goal. This plan, the first one that pops into your mind, is called Plan A. Plan A is your best guess as to the way to get what you want. Unfortunately, as you probably know from experience, Plan A rarely works out so well.

I cannot think of a single instance in which a person accomplished something extraordinary using Plan A. I am sure there is a reason for that, I am just not sure what it is. Fortunately, there is always a Plan B. Plan B is the plan you use after you discover how ineffective Plan A is. So, if Plan A is so frequently ineffective, why not just skip it and go right to Plan B? Because Plan B is the plan you employ after you have learned something: why Plan A does not work. It is that incremental knowledge and experience which makes Plan B more effective.

That Plan B is more effective than Plan A should come as no surprise to anybody. What is surprising though is the unyielding devotion some people have to Plan A. They confuse persistence with insistence.

You want to accomplish your goal. You know that few great things are achieved without persistence. You are determined to persist until you achieve your goal. So you do. But being persistent does not absolve you of the responsibility to run with your eyes open and remain flexible as you traverse the path to your goal.

More people have wasted more time and energy in a dogged determination to stick to Plan A and “see it through.” You may feel that switching to Plan B in mid stream somehow shows a lack of persistence. But it doesn’t. Persistence with your goal is fine; persistence with a hopeless plan is foolish. Persistence without flexibility is a formula for frustration.

The secret to success at anything is how quickly you adopt Plan B. Suppose you have been searching for a job by submitting one online resume after another and it has not resulted in a single interview. It is time for Plan B. You may not know what works, but you sure as heck know what doesn’t, so try something different. Now!

Starting a businesses? Trying to lose weight? Define your goal and remain persistent. But never forget, there is always a Plan B, so get to it.

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