How to make your vote count

Many feel that money influences our representatives.

Many believe that elections are decided by money rather than votes. I think this is correct, but only in so much as we believe that is true and willingly throw our vote away or not vote. I know this because I was one of those who felt helpless and didn’t bother voting.

I was helping to creating an environment of hopelessness. An environment that promoted the idea that our neighbors are ignorant, dumb, and lazy. Then I realized something important. With this attitude, we will never elect any real change into office. We will think our personal vote doesn’t matter because it will be diluted by the mass of humanity who isn’t paying attention.

But I was wrong. I was more than wrong, in fact. I was part of the problem!

As much as people are focused on themselves and their wants and their opinions, they are also influneced by their environment. In fact, studies have shown if a person is given a test with an obvious answer, they will change their answer to the wrong one when they are put into a group of people who provide that wrong answer!

It is indeed true, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. Devalue your vote and your fellow citizen’s capacity to do the right thing, and after a time, you will find that that is precisely the environment you live in.

Value that vote. Ask others how they’re voting. And why.

In Egypt (and Syria, and Tunisia, and Bahrain) people are rioting against military police because they don’t want to be told what to do by a dictator. They are being arrested without trial by secret police and being tortured because they want the right to vote.

Don’t throw your vote away.

The question to ask yourself is: What are the most important issues? And are the Democrats or Republicans addressing these issues, or avoiding them?

Remember, the power is still with us.

The secret to truly changing yourself

When I was in middle school, I noticed that I was smaller than most of the other kids. And I hated that. I hated my skinny arms and legs. So I started lifting weights. And eating… and taking supplements. I got bigger, but I always found fault. Even throughout college, I compared myself to other guys.

For years, I forced myself into this lifestyle until it became a habit… until one year. I stopped working out. I had met someone, the first person who showed care for me. We moved in together. I soon realized that I had never been training for me. Now, years later, I exercise for myself, for the good feelings I get. And I focus on getting fit, not big.

Changing something in your life means taking control. And where does that control come from? Your personality, values…your attitude, right?

So the first step in changing our actions is finding out what values are driving them. Is it because we’re unhappy with ourselves? Because no matter how much you “improve”, you will never become happy with yourself if you’re not already content with life.

Once you gain this self-awareness, then whatever changes you want to make aren’t hard, because…well…because you want them. When my goal changed from getting validation to being fit, it was almost unconscious. I didn’t obsess over becoming healthy. I didn’t hold myself to a strict program. I didn’t read books about why it was better to be more fit. I didn’t do those things because I didn’t need to do those things.

A measure of the value of a goal is how much you want to do the grunt work. But if the drive to change comes from inside you, you will embrace the grind and it will cease to be one. Facing the challenge of something new will become exciting, not paralyzing. The sacrifice won’t feel like a sacrifice.

But it won’t really work if you’re doing it because you think you must or you have no choice. You can’t do it if fear is driving you, or if you’re forced to.

People do change. We evolve. Just don’t force it. Evolution is natural. Other people and your environment can supplement a change in your values, but the truest values, the ones that drive us to do the right thing, always come from the inside.

So what’s the secret to really changing yourself?

Let go of what you think you need.

Free yourself. Because no one else will.

We were meant to evolve. And we have the self-awareness and freewill to do exactly that.

You are more important than you think

“How can I help you?”
“I was calling to close my Citi accounts.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. And why are you wanting to close your account?”
“Well, after I’ve been reading about the part that Citi played in buying and selling mortgage bond derivatives, going into huge debt, which caused the market to collapse, I feel that I can’t do business with them.”
“Uh. Ok. So you’re closing your bank account because of the mortgage bond derivatives or whatever?”
“Yes.”
“Ok.”
Silence.
“You know, back in 2008 the market crashed-”
“Oh, I know. I’ve been an account specialist for 10 years.”
“Ok”
“So you’re closing your Citi account? Are you not having a bank account anymore…?”
“I’m closing all my Wall St bank accounts. And keeping my accounts with my local bank.”
“Ok. Well, I can’t turn back the clock, unfortunately. It looks like you had a lot of activity on your accounts.”
“Yes.”
“So 4 years later you’re closing your account..”
“Yes, I would’ve done it sooner, but I didn’t know things would turn out like they did.”
“Well, I can’t speak to the actions of the bank, but restitution has been made and we’ve moved ahead.”
“I don’t think it has. The US market collapsed, and, you know, there’s blame to go around, but I think the banks need to face the consequence of their actions.”

The best part about living in a free society is that if someone does wrong, we don’t have to work for them if we don’t want to. We can quit. Or if there is someone who works for us and they do wrong? We can fire them if the government won’t do it.

The government, of course, encouraged the banks to give out mortgages by providing them the money, which led to homes being overvalued, and people getting homes who wouldn’t have been given mortgages before, but then defaulting on their payments.

But the bankers made the bad loans, and the Wall St banks deceptively packaged the bad loans with the good and sold them with good ratings, so it feels right that I fired all the Wall Street bankers that were working for me. Given, I’m still part of the system. And my money is still coming from a corporation, since I work for one. But it’s not coming from the most carelessly powerful corporations of all. The ones that the government is allowing to exist in the same too-big-to-fail capacity that they were in before the crash of 2008. Apparently, these banks should be called too-big-to-control.

But I controlled my business with them. And if we all do that, and make it known we will not stand for such clear carelessness and deceit, and we will not have our bank accounts, 401k’s, or credit cards with them, then I think the banks will be controlled. And they will be controlled in the best way possible:

By the customers who they have wronged and who must pay for their bailout.

And that’s you and me.

If we criticize Chick-fil-A, should we criticize ourselves?

The three of us got to the bar and ordered some beers. Proper beers, mind you, because we are men of taste, or at least openminded. The sun was setting, the temperatures dropping, so we found a table outside on the patio. It was here where I demonstrated how seeing the big picture is just as important as having a set of ideals.

We got our food. I abstained from ordering meat, explaining my moral and environmental values. We talked and ate. The sun set. We talked and ate some more. Soon, we settled our tab, and stood up to leave. Sage asked Nate, “Aren’t you going to eat those?” motioning to the couple chicken wings he had left. Nate said, “No, you want them?” Sage shook his head, so I grabbed one and started to eat.

“Now this makes me think different about you being a vegetarian,” Sage said.

“Well, I never said I was a vegetarian.” I replied. “They’re going to throw it away.” I finished and grabbed the remaining wing. “It’s wasteful. The animals died needlessly if this goes to the trash.”

Our ideals must be in context

I thought about this when I heard about the protests against the management of Chick-fil-A for giving money to anti-gay groups. Many people, gay and straight, recognize the management’s actions as trying to prevent the freedom of gay people. But do they understand that the principle should be applied in context?

If we value liberty, we must value liberty wherever it is threatened. Is what Chick-fil-A is doing worse than what the Chinese government is doing, not allowing their people to vote? Should we be taking a stand and boycotting Chinese goods before worrying about boycotting Chick-fil-A?

Both groups are acting in disrespect. But they are different.

These two situations are different in how the motivations are acted on: China has accomplished their goal of taking people’s right to self-determination and liberty, and Chick-fil-A is trying to limit sexual freedom. If we choose to be actors in this life, we must decide, is it wrong, and if so, what do we do about it?

Life is more than ideals. It’s about the application of those ideals.

The difference between China and Chick-fil-A is important. Just as when I chose to eat meat that evening, it wasn’t because I stopped valuing animals, but because I saw their waste to be worse than not eating them.

Here in the US, most of us do not live in desperation. We have first world decisions that most of the world does not. Do we have the morals and courage of our convictions to change our lifestyles, even a little, in response to the disrespect from both Chick-fil-A and the Chinese government?

I say we do.

Engage. You don’t need to be an expert.

Do we talk to other people about what we’re doing? About what they’re doing? Do we ask why we do what we do..buy what we buy, bank who we bank with..eat what we eat..send our kids to the schools that we send them to, fund the wars that kill for goals we support? Do we not only talk, but do we listen to what they’re saying…and even more importantly, think about what they really mean?

Are we trying to be members of a community, or do we see everyone as doing their own thing, a zero sum game, as passengers on a ship out of our control? Or do we see ourselves as part of it, as responsible for it, unafraid of facing the problems of our society?

Why we don’t do these things is addressed by Meslin. He says: “As long as we believe that people, our own neighbors, are selfish, stupid or lazy, then there’s no hope.” We must recognize this, because it is the collective that is going to change things. And once we accept this, we must have a conversation.

Politics isn’t a bad word unless you’re using it to win an argument, or give yourself an identity. Politics, in fact, is probably the most important thing to talk about right now. Not partisanship…but politics. There’s only one thing more important, and that’s figuring out that you belong in the conversation because you’re not an island onto yourself. That’s what Obama meant, but couldn’t really express.

We’re not different than anyone else, regardless of what they’re doing out there. The guy between jobs, the CEO, or the small businessperson. We have the opportunity to decide because people believed so much in the idea that we’re all equal, that they were willing to die for a system that could give us the power to decide…and it DID give ALL OF US the power to decide. And we must decide, or else the institutions, corporate and government, they will do it for us. And I think these institutions have gotten too big to handle our needs. It’s up to us to start this conversation.

Now, it’s up to us.

Taking off the blinders requires learning how to ignore

I have trouble sitting down to work sometimes. My focus is on many things, and so it is on nothing. Then I realized how to let go. And it was more than simplifying and prioritizing. It was the realization that I needed to acknowledge and then ignore many things. In order to get stuff done, I needed to ask myself throughout the day, day after day, week after week: “What do you want? What are you doing?”

The other day, I was returning from the bathroom to continue my writing and saw the new handheld vacuum I had purchased recently. I like tools, and this was a bright, shiny new one. Soon, I was unplugging it, having just swept the kitchen. I stopped suddenly and thought, “What am I doing? Why am I not writing?”

Vigilance is key

Neil Gaiman has a great analogy for making tough decisions in life. If your goal is a mountain, make sure your decisions are taking you towards that mountain, not away. The mountaintop is far so it’s ok if it takes you a long time to get there, as long you’re making your way to it.

My experience would make me add this to his analogy, “Make sure you’re not circling that mountain, neither going towards it or away from it.” To this end, I think it’s vastly important to reiterate to ourselves, “What do I want? What am I doing?”

The day I started ignoring things was ironically the day I took the blinders off. I looked up from the solid foundation I was laying and noticed all the options that were open to me, from professional to social, and then I decided to stop and ask, “What do I want?” It is overwhelming, but the possibilities appear around you, and it is the first step towards accomplishing what you want.

The saying that ‘ignorance is bliss’ isn’t true. We’re not animals. To achieve bliss we must be conscious of our surroundings and taking a stand and making choices and adapting. And this requires taking the blinders off and asking ourselves repeatedly, “What am I doing? What do I want?”

Let go of what you think you need

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” -Thoreau

Most of my life, I didn’t have a problem with building castles in the air. Instead, I was laying solid, immovable foundation, hard and fast… on a swampy marsh. But I was totally invested in that career path to be a doctor. The familiar path. Without realizing it, I became that path. My identity was becoming that one thing, and all other things were unacceptable. Other options would be failure. Mindless, thoughtless, I was putting down a foundation for the foreman in charge, society at large, the unseen owner, for his approval, for the reputation, for my ego. I might as well been a bank thief, because I was taking something. Rather, I was a Wall street bank executive, because I was violating a trust. But I was violating my own trust. My self’s needs, and freedom. I was so focused on the goal, I lost sight of the why. The most important question of all. Why do you need it?

Let go of what you think you need. And then you won’t be afraid to risk big in order to get what you really need.

What, or who, do you need to let go of? Or what have you already let go and where has it taken you as a result?

Comment and let me know.

Occupy yourself

Don’t think and the days go by, never to be done again, except in our heads. If only I’d done this, if only I’d done that…

But doing what? I’m often busy doing things as the days go by, but not really any thing. I’m buying things. Moving things. Cleaning things. Trying to maintain a steady state of constant activity. A mind occupied by everything but my self. Activity is the appearance of production, like a big leafy top to a little carrot.

More important is YOUR thing. That which will make you happy. It will leave you smiling at the end of day. But then I think too much on my thing, and the same situation is created. Stymied by thoughts and words. The paralysis of analysis. I find the best is when I plan. Then do.

The thinking comes first, so that the doing will flow… eternal, unconscious and unrestrained.

Who do you trust?

I was at the Nelsonville Music Festival this past weekend, at what may be the most underrated music festival in the whole of our United States of America. Under glorious clear skies, I walked around watching everyone sharing the campgrounds. There was no harassing, no thievery. You met others, shared what you had, and enjoyed yourself. There was a feeling of trust. A trust that is missing in many of the places we live.

Trust is powerful. It allows us to flourish. Trust builds friendship. It allows us to talk with others and expect to be respected. It gives us patience with life. But that’s just the start of it.

Trust makes you do the right thing

When you trust that others will do the right thing, then you will do the right thing regardless if that doesn’t do much to change the big picture, like if you choose to abstain from eating animals when most everyone else does not. Or being honest with the company expense account while others skim a little. Or moving your money out of Wall St banks when most other continue to use them. Or voting for a third party while most do not because they think it’s “throwing a vote away”. If everyone doesn’t trust others to do the right thing, then everyone will continue doing the wrong thing.

Trust brings about prosperity

When we work together, each with our expertise, we do great things. When we specialize in our areas of mastery, we can share the fruits of our labor equally in a collective society. Trust makes others know you will come through for them, just like they will come through for you. And the appreciation from others gives us a feeling of purpose. A reason to feel important in a world where it can be confusing to know what truly is important.

Matt Ridley makes a great observation of this in his book, The Rational Optimist: Self-sufficiency is associated with less wealth, while specialization with more wealth. And self-sufficiency takes a lot of time! The leisure time most of us have today is significant. And in a way, this leisure is more important than trust. This past weekend, it was this leisure time that allowed me to see trust demonstrated by interacting with others, by building a small community of respect and value.

How we use our leisure time is important, but it all starts with building confidence in our fellow human beings. Trust is having courage in the face of the unknown. It’s knowing that whatever happens, it’s going to be ok.

I felt that trust this weekend. I was reminded of how it made life better. It also reminded me that without it, we are likely lost.

After enough time, even important things fade into the background

Things fade into the background if they’re no immediate danger to us. The aging nuclear power plant that provides power but is not in compliance with safety regulations and sits near an earthquake fault line (like the Indian Point nuclear reactor outside of NYC). Or the cost of war in lives and money that doesn’t effect you… yet. Or the bank that continues to go into debt making risky bets because the government bailed them out by also going into debt. And without making cuts in government services…yet.

Last week the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, made an interesting announcment. The company lost over $2 billion dollars continuing their risky betting. Now, this is a fraction of their hundreds of billions of dollars in income. (Income, not profit: They have 3 times as much debt as assets.) So is Dimon preparing us for worse to come? Maybe. Or is he trying to establish an environment of acceptance of risky betting? Dimon said the investments were a “terrible, egregious mistake” but “we maintain our fortress balance sheet and capital strength to withstand setbacks like this.” Was this a PR move to instill trust in a market that is losing it?

In 1912, JP Morgan, the founder of this company, was speaking in a testimony with Congress. He was asked whether banking debt is based on money or property.
He answered that it was about character, “before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it…Because a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom.”

Do you trust a market where you buy things like a television? How about a market that buys…money? There’s a big difference that needs to be appreciated. One is in the business of creating cheap goods and services for money. The other is in the business of creating money. One is less government driven and difficult to corrupt, while the other is more government driven and much easier to corrupt. What they have in common is that the consumer decides whether to buy their goods or services.

And that consumer is you and me.