Things VS People

© 2009 Brooke Allen
brooke@brooketallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published October, 2009, in International Family Magazine
Republished in Folks Magazine on 10/24/09.

When I was 16, my dad told me to get in the car – we were going for a ride. We drove to Bolek’s Foreign Car Service. My dad told Bolek that his son needed to learn how to work and he would drop me there every Saturday morning. He told Bolek that I wasn’t worth anything so he shouldn’t pay me anything. He gave Bolek $100 as an advance against any damage I might do. Then he drove off.

Over the next year I learned to get my hands dirty, how to use tools, and how things worked.

– – –

When my dad had a problem, we went to visit Frank at Frank’s hardware store.

Frank was a problem solver and his store was a huge collection of tools and parts for solving problems.

“Looks like this is a job for a ¾ inch bit and a stove bolt.” “I’d use a rubber coupling and a hose clamp.” “An arc welder is better for that than acetylene.”

– – –

Decades later, I became a dad too.

– – –

I sat next to a four-year-old girl at a neighbor’s dinner table.

“I hate broccoli. How come I never get what I want? I hate you.” She began pounding the table and crying.

While her parents were in the kitchen making her French fries, I turned to her and asked, “Wow. How do you do that?”

Her crying stopped abruptly and she gave me a sly smile. “You want to yell and make a lot of noise. Don’t stop. It really helps if you can cry.”

“But, why do I want to do that?”

“Because that way you get what you want.”

A young boy was given a present by his divorced dad at Cub Scout camp.

“But mommy gave me two presents, and both of them were nicer than this.” He wrinkled his nose.

The dad frowned, “You don’t think this is the only thing I got you, do you?” That afternoon, the father left the camp to go shopping.

– – –

I sat on the abandoned lifeguard chair as I watched a young girl run across the sand.

She twisted her ankle and fell in a heap.

She began crying hysterically.

Suddenly she stopped, stood, and looked around. Her father was far away; out of earshot.

She collapsed again and bawled even louder.

She stood again. Her father had wandered off so she resumed joyfully running down the beach.

– – –

Today, I can tell you what everything in a hardware store is used for.

But I am terrible at getting other people to do what I want.

Teach your children to manipulate things, not people.

 

(And the best way to teach them not to manipulate people is to not let them manipulate you.)

Crime Prevention

Many lock in only one door. Concept of security.

© 2009 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published September, 2009 in International Family Magazine

A week after I moved to Manhattan, I went to a street fair and found there a policeman with a big sign: HELP US PREVENT CRIME

I approached, “I’m game. How can I help you prevent crime?”

He said, “By putting three locks on your door.”

“But I already have two locks on my door, and I find it really annoying. How does having three prevent crime?”

“Years ago, everyone had one lock, so we told them to get two. Now everyone has two, so you need three.”

“But how does having three prevent crime?”

“The thing is, crooks are lazy… if they weren’t they’d get jobs. Your goal is to make your door harder to break into than the next one.”

“But that doesn’t prevent crime. It just gets my neighbor broken into instead of me.”

He laughed, “What do you care?”

A girl moved in across the hall a few months later. She did not have a phone and frequently asked to borrow mine, so I began leaving my door open. She reciprocated, and soon a bunch of us on the floor did. Our tiny apartments became less claustrophobic. Friendlier too…

There were break-ins in our building. But not on our floor – even though none of us bought that third lock. Perhaps it was because we were looking out for each other.

It takes community to prevent crime, and communities are made from open doors, not locked ones.

Putting more locks on your door prevents crime just like stuffing your face prevents hunger.

What am I?

© 2009 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com

Originally published August, 2009, in International Family Magazine

My friend in college, Debra, asked me, “What are you?”

I did not understand the question.

“What are you? How hard can that be? I’m Jewish, what are you?”

I said I was not religious.

“Neither am I. Just tell me what you are?”

I had not been raised with a religion… in fact; it had not been mentioned, kind of like sushi. I was 25 before I had even heard of sushi.

I asked my parents, “What am I?”

My mom said, “Brooke.” She laughed.

“I know that, but what am I relative to you?”

“Our son.”

“But what religion am I?”

“We don’t know. You haven’t told us.”

“How can I not even know what religion I am?”

“That is a personal choice – you will need to make it yourself. Or not.”

This was frustrating, “Ok, let’s make it simple. How about race? I’m not Black, right?”

My mom said, “I wouldn’t be too sure. There was a lot of fooling around going on. Everyone did it; don’t let them tell you otherwise.”

It was like sparring with a judo master who fades from every thrust.

In total exasperation, I said, “Look, my girlfriend is Jewish, and she wants to know what I am. Let’s start there… I’m not Jewish, right?”

My father became serious, “Do you want me to tell you what I want you to be?”

“Yes.” That would be a start.

“When they come to round up the Jews, I want you to be Jewish.”

__________________________________________________________

My friend in graduate school, Mona Hakim, was born in Bethlehem. When she was young, her family moved to Lebanon to avoid threats against her father’s life. She was going to the American University of Beirut when the civil war started.

She told me that your identity card had your religion printed right on it. Thugs would stop your car, and if you were the wrong religion for that part of town, they would chop your head off and place it on a fence post. Muslims did it. Christians did it.

Some people began blackening out their religion on the ID card. That worked for a while. How could you kill someone if you didn’t know what they were?

It didn’t take long for the thugs to think up an answer. If you were Muslim, and you weren’t proud of it, you deserved to die. Christians felt the same about Christians. They couldn’t agree on much, but they did agree on that one thing… don’t say what you are, and we’ll kill you.

That is when she decided she had to get out of there.

I asked her, “So, what are you?”

She said, “I’m not telling you. I’m through with that shit.”

Turns out, she was Mona – good enough for me.

If you conclude that your problems are caused by members of another group, you had better make sure you are not one of them.

If those others are humans, then you are either one of them, or you are inhuman.

Innocence and Responsibility

© 2009 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

My wife and I both feel that our society has gone overboard in making people afraid.

One very destructive message inflicted upon children is that they should fear strangers.

In a planet as overpopulated as ours, even extremely rare events provide plenty of copy for the press.

As awful as they may be, abductions are rare. When they occur, someone the child knows (a relative or an estranged parent) is usually the culprit. Strangers intending harm are few and far between.

As parents, we were much more concerned about the physical and emotional harm that we might cause you than the harm that stranger might bring.

Simply riding in a car is by far the riskiest thing most children do. Swimming in a pool is pretty dangerous. Talking to strangers is not.

This is not to say that children should be left to their own devices… not at all.

We believe that very young children are not yet capable of exercising good judgment, whether it is over wearing a seatbelt, gauging the depth of the water, or evaluating strangers. They are no more ready to bear this burden for themselves then they are ready to baby-sit the children of others. Responsible people must look out for their safety at all times since they can’t do it themselves. Eventually children will learn responsibility by observing others, not by being told a set of rules.

Our point was illustrated one Sunday morning in a bagel shop. I was reading the Newark Star Ledger and the woman sitting next to me was reading the New York Times She had a daughter (age five or so) who had nothing to do and was catatonic with boredom.

Since the Ledger has comics, and the Times does not, I decided to offer the young girl my comics.

She began to hyperventilate and make squeaky noises. Then she began to cry.

Her mother peered over her paper, “What’s wrong, honey?”

“Th. Tha..That.” She was gasping for air. Finally, pointing at me, “That man is trying to talk to me.”

The mom barked angrily, “Don’t be silly. That rule doesn’t apply now.” She snatched the comics from me and thrust them at her daughter. “Don’t embarrass the man.”

The girl became even more upset. Think of all the conflicting rules she was expected to follow and the conflicting emotions that were generated.

It is easy to understand where to draw the line. Think about how you would assign blame for an accident. If a toddler, left in the charge of a nanny, were to explore a light socket with a paper clip, would you blame yourself for not protecting the sockets or the nanny for not paying attention? Surely you wouldn’t blame the toddler for being curious; it’s in their nature.

You may not be innocent, but your children are. Let them lose their innocence at their own pace; it will happen soon enough.[1]


[1] I am glad to see that there is a web site devoted to freedom for children (and not going nuts) entitled Free Range Kids (http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/).

In the Best Interest

© 2009 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

Republished in Folks Magazine on 10/17/09.

In 1981, I decided to create my own consulting company. It occurred to me that I must learn more about selling if I was to find clients and flourish. For this I took a short sales training class over a weekend. On my next vacation, I visited my grandparents in Cornwall, where we had the following conversation over lunch:

“Grandma, do you remember when my sister and I spent the summer here in 1966?”

“I sure do. That was a great time, wasn’t it?”

“It was.”

I paused for a moment. I wasn’t sure how to begin, “Well, I’ve taken a class on selling. Thinking back on that summer, I believe you were using sales techniques on us.”

“How so?”

“After dinner, you would say something like, ‘Do you want to clean up before dessert or afterwards?’ That is called the alternative choice close.”

She winked at me. “That’s true. Go on.”

“Then there was the time you made a list of all the reasons I should learn horseback riding even though I didn’t want to. Then you gave me the paper and asked me to list the reasons I should not. I couldn’t think of anything.”

She smiled, “That’s called the Benjamin Franklin close.”

“You would say things like, ‘After we go to the art museum, we’ll go for ice cream.’”

“Closing on a minor point.” She even knew the names of these techniques.

“We could never play you off against granddad like we could with our parents. In fact, it seemed to work the other way around. You might say something like, ‘If you promise to clean the table, wash the dishes, and put your clothes away, I’ll then go see if Granddad might take us out for dessert. But we only get this one chance to ask. Is it a deal?’”

She chuckled. “In my day we called that the MacAdoo close. I think it was named after someone called MacAdoo. Car salesmen use it all the time.”

I was stunned. She knew all these things I had just learned a few weeks earlier.

“That summer in 1966 was kind of weird. Ruth and I enjoyed doing chores for you that we hated to do at home. You seemed so appreciative.”

“We enjoyed your company so much and we did appreciate the help.”

“But grandma, you never worked as a saleswoman, did you?”

She laughed. “Well, there was the time that a builder gave us a house. First, he agreed to let us live in his model home. Then, since I helped him sell most of the other houses in the development, he gave us the house as a reward.”

She continued, “When your dad and his brother were very young we came to know Dale Carnegie. I learned a lot from him so I thought I’d apply his techniques to raising our children. They worked.”

What an amazing confession. “Don’t you think you were being manipulative?”

Her answer: “Not at all.” She paused. It seemed that she wanted to phrase her answer just so.

To persuade another of something is not manipulative if you are doing it in their best interests and not just your own.

TV Fatality

An old trashed TV with a smashed screen isolated on a white background.© 2009 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

 

In 1960, when I was eight years old, my parents bought a television. It was a black and white console model and it cost my dad about a month’s take-home pay.

It changed my life.

I could now entertain myself without friends, family, books or using my imagination. I could pretty much have fun without doing anything.

It started slowly but by the end of the decade that box had taken over our family. We would even watch television while eating dinner.[1]

In September of 1970 I went off to college in Indiana. For nine months I did not watch one second of television.

While flying home I practiced the first words I would say to my parents, “I have lived the greater part of a year without television. I will stay the summer in your house because I don’t have enough money to stay somewhere else, but I warn you that I refuse to watch television with you. There are so many more important things to say and do.” After my time away, I had so much I wanted to discuss with my folks, and the thought of competing with Laugh In, Ed Sullivan and the Million Dollar Movie both scared and sickened me.

“Dad, there is something I must say to you.”

“Sure, son. But first, are you still into ham radio?”

“Yes.” There was an amateur radio club at my college and I’d remained active.

“Do you still keep a junk box?”

“Yes.” A junk box is a large chest in which electronics enthusiasts place old equipment from which they hope to someday cannibalize parts. In the ninth grade I had taken apart a discarded television and rewired it as my first short-wave transmitter. Using Morse code, I’d been able to contact people in every state and dozens of countries with that “homebrew” transmitter.

“I’m glad,” he said. “The television is in the barn.”

It was in pretty good shape except that there was a bullet hole through the picture tube.

My family had figured out the same thing I had. One evening, after dinner, my dad gathered my mom and my sister around the TV and he shot it.

Usually, the best way to end an addiction is cold turkey.


[1] Warning: Extremely dangerous — do not try this at home.

Can You Afford It?

Worried business woman sitting behind the desk with empty wallet© 2009 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

It is important not to buy stuff you cannot afford.

I attended a presentation by a professor who talked about how, as a child, his Dad drove their cars into the ground even though their less successful neighbors purchased new ones every few years. His father said they could not afford new cars. The young man did not understand – they had enough money. His Dad said, “people afford what they want.” His father wanted him to go to college and that meant he could not afford new cars. His dad’s statement led to a career – Lowell Catlett is now Dean of the Agricultural Economics Department at New Mexico State University.

There is an infinite amount of stuff out there and even the wealthiest person cannot afford it all. To lust after things you cannot afford will make you unhappy. To buy stuff you cannot afford will make you broke.

There are different levels of how well you can afford what you want:

Level 0 – There is no way you can buy what you want.

Level 1 – Someone will lend you the money to buy what you want.

Level 2 – Your cash flow from what you are currently doing is sufficient to buy what you want.

Level 3 – The cash flow from the next best thing you could be doing is sufficient to buy what you want.

Level 4 – The interest on your savings is sufficient to buy what you want.

When I was a college student in 1970, nobody in their right mind should have lent me any money, and given that bankers then were in their right minds, they didn’t. Today, there is a huge industry devoted to getting people hooked on living at Level 1. These people think you should care about your Credit Rating, which is a mathematical score lenders use to determine if you can stay at Level 1 long enough to repay them. If you can’t cover your debts, you will discover that you have dropped to Level 0, even for things you have already bought, like a house or a car.

My parents started at Level 2, and they suggested that I want to be at Level 2 as well. They gave me $500 to start me out. My college lent me $1,000, but living at Level 1 was so scary that I paid that money back on my second installment. I’ve stayed at Level 2, or above, the rest of my life. Living at Level 2 used to be called “living within your means” before marketers convinced people that the ability to borrow money was a “means.”

A friend sends his son to private school. He makes enough money to do this without borrowing. I asked him if he would consider leaving his current job for another that pays less. He said he could not because then he could not afford the school. So, he can afford what he wants at Level 2, but he cannot afford it at Level 3 since he cannot afford to lose his job.

There are two ways to advance from Level 2 to Level 3. 1) Lower what you want enough so that if you lose your current job you can still afford what you want with the next best job available to you, 2) Advance to a higher paying job without increasing your wants.

Living at Level 3 allows you to accumulate wealth. This comes from saving the difference between the money you are receiving and what you are spending. At this point, you will view Credit Ratings in a different light – from the point of view of a lender.

You might even accumulate enough wealth so that you can live your life entirely from the money generated by your wealth. Then, you will be free to do anything you want as long as you do not start wanting things you cannot afford at Level 4. People who get to Level 4 live well in retirement.

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner, was asked how he became so successful.[1] He spent his money to meet his needs, not his desires. He also worked very hard on increasing the value of his second best option (known to economists as “opportunity cost”). Charlie was 60 years old, and a multi-millionaire, before he bought his first new car. He lived at Level 4 before deciding that a new car smell was worth wanting.

Many of us have been living at Level 1 far too long, and are now in the process of dropping to Level 0. This is sad, particularly at a time when the second best option is also declining, in many cases to zero (unemployment).

There is a bright side.

We will learn how little we really need.

We will learn how much we need each other.

Before you want a thing, determine how much you really need it.

 

Then determine how well you can afford it.


[1] For this and more wisdom from Charlie Munger, see: http://www.tilsonfunds.com/Whitney%20Tilson%27s%20notes%20from%20the%202007%20Wesco%20annual%20meeting-5-9-07.pdf

Why? Why not?

© 2008 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

Someone said, “Mardi Gras starts today.” Six of us shared a table for dinner at the small engineering college in Indiana.

I said, “Let’s go?”

Four people said, “Why?”

Roger said, “Why not?” Roger, who had grown up in Indiana, had only once ventured outside the state for a weekend in Chicago.

That snowy February evening our friends dropped the two of us on Interstate 70. All we had was $20 and our thumbs. Our friends gave us a phone number. “Call when you’ve had enough of this silliness and we’ll come and get you.”

The next day we called, “You can come and get us if you want.”

“Where are you?”

“New Orleans.”

That day my life changed.

“Why don’t we take a trip around the world next week?”

“Why not?”

“Why go to graduate school?”

“Why not?”

“Why get married?”

“Why not?”

“Why change careers without notice?”

“Why not?”

“Why have children?”

“Why not?”

“Why move your family to Japan for a few years?”

“Why not?”

“Why are you writing this?”

“Why not?”

My world opened up on that freezing day in 1971 when I changed how I react to opportunity.

Live not by “Why?” but by “Why not?”

Money

© 2008 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

My parents and the silver Jaguar they were about to sell because my mother was pregnant with me and they needed the money
My parents and the silver Jaguar they were about to sell because my mother was pregnant with me and they needed the money

My father told me two things about money that had a profound effect on my life. They were:

“Money should buy freedom, not chains.”

and,

“It is easier to make money doing what makes you happy than to buy happiness with the money you are paid for doing what makes you miserable.”

Even though I can remember my father’s explanations, at the time (age 17) I thought he was off his rocker.

He explained that if you had a certain amount of money, and then someone gave you more money, you should have more options open to you.

This seemed self-evident, but I didn’t buy the part about chains.

Imagine someone who always wanted to be a school teacher who, in order to make more money, became a principal, then moved to the private sector as a salesman, manager, and finally a senior vice-president earning ten times his potential salary as a school teacher.

Since our hypothetical teacher had given up teaching for more money, you would expect that finally, as a highly paid executive, she (or he) should have plenty of money to finally fulfill an ambition of being a teacher without the money worries that plague most teachers.

But for nearly all, such a person sees their options dwindle rather than expand. They measure their success in how much money they make and the prestige that comes with position. From Senior Vice President, they only want to become President.

Worse yet, this person often borrows against an expectation of a rosier future and finds themselves a slave to home payments, credit card debt, private school bills, college tuition, and the economic cycle.

I recently had lunch with a friend who has started a financial consulting firm. His distinguishing feature is that he will tell his clients the truth rather than what they want to hear.

He said, “Ninety-percent of Americans live beyond their means — no matter what their means.” He gave an example of a client in mid-life who was worth $15 million from which he earns $650,000 a year. However, he spends $1.2 million a year and he wants my friend to find him a safe investment to support his lifestyle. This is a mathematical impossibility. My friend could calculate how quickly the client will find himself on welfare.

I wonder how much misery must this client need to overcome when $650,000 a year doesn’t do the trick.

I like to end these pieces with succinct words of wisdom. I can do no better than to repeat what my dad said to me during my Senior year in High School, just before he gave up a career in the business world to return to sculpture full-time.

 

Money should buy freedom, not chains.

 

It is easier to make money doing what makes you happy than to buy happiness with the money you are paid for doing what makes you miserable.

When Pigs Fly

© 2008 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

In 1977, American Airlines offered me a job in Manhattan in their Operations Research group and I took it.

One of our projects was to build a mathematical model to determine how much we should overbook each flight so as to maximize profit. You could generate happy clients when there isn’t enough room in coach by bumping them up to first class. But if you throw them off the plane entirely you might lose them forever.

On the other hand, since a full-fare customer could use their ticket on any airline at any time without penalty, if you kept a seat open for everyone who said they would fly with you then your planes would fly half-empty. It was an economic necessity to overbook, and every airline did it, but I was not about to tell my friends about this part of my job. Nobody really thought an airline should promise something and then not deliver. Nobody. Including me.

Fifteen years later, we found ourselves living in Tokyo and planning a visit to relatives in England. I made a reservation on Japan Airlines but, after we realized that the flight landed at a very inconvenient time, we made a second booking on British Airways.

Upon return, as we walked through the door to our home in Tokyo, the phone was ringing.

“Hello, is this Mister Allen?”

“Speaking.”

“Are you OK?”

“I’m fine.”

“And your family; is everyone all right?”

“Sure. Who is this?”

“This is Japan Airlines. A week ago you had a reservation on our flight from Tokyo bound for London’s Heathrow airport. You didn’t show up. We held the plane for 15 minutes and you still didn’t come so we took off without you. We can make up fifteen minutes in the air but eventually we had to go because it would be inconsiderate of our other passengers to wait any longer. We just want to make sure you are all well.”

“We’re fine. We flew on British Airways instead.”

“You flew on British Airways?”

“That’s right. We had full-fare tickets and they are good on any airline.”

“That’s true. But you didn’t tell us.”

“We don’t need to tell you. We can use our tickets on any airline at any time.”

“That’s true too. But, by not telling us, you were being inconsiderate.

 

Just because you are a customer does not make you always right.

——————

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