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Balancing Act: The Newsletter (No. 187, March 2015 )

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  • Hire people to do hard labor (like shoveling snow). There are people who need the money, and your risking a heart attack isn't a very smart alternative.
  • If we ask for a second opinion from another doctor, despite the first one's fine credentials, why don't we get a second opinion on our taxes, our estate planning, our investments, our auto repairs? Everyone has a bias. (I've never met a surgeon—for humans or animals—who doesn't believe surgery is the best answer to almost anything.)
  • Just because your dog is friendly and well trained don't expect that it will be friendly and non-threatening to every new person. You have no ideas what that dog smells and what that represents in terms of threat.
  • I understand food allergies, but if you have to negotiate with the server for ten minutes you don't have an allergy, you have a fetish.
  • I can see being surprised by a meteorite falling in the back yard, or Sophia Vergara sitting next to you in a theater. But snow in New England in February has been going on for 10,000 years. That's like being surprised that when the doorbell rings, there's someone at the door. (What a coincidence!)
  • Why is it that people who don't need them spend so much time worrying and fussing over coupons, discounts, and deals?
  • When someone complains that they didn't like alternatives for lunch at an event I'm hosting, I ask if they complain about the lack of education they're receiving when they visit their favorite restaurant. (It's like complaining about airline food—are you there for a culinary experience or because you have to go someplace that's too far to walk?)
  • If you are bothered by others' bad habits and unfortunate behavior, stop enabling them. That includes telling them they bother you instead of passively accepting it.
  • The "favor forward" stuff is nonsense. If you want to do something for me just do it, but don't make it a ransom conditional on my doing something you insist I do for someone else. (It's like being upset when you allow someone to turn in front of you in traffic and resenting the fact that they don't wave to thank you. Is it a good deed or are you trying to collect something n return?)
  • We're in an age of debasement of credentials. Everyone is "best-selling," everyone has "rave reviews," everyone is a legend in their own mind. Ask peers you trust for references and referrals. Don't believe the noise being blared from self-aggrandizing loudspeakers.

 

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Once upon a time, if you picked up a non-fiction book, you could rely on it being true, at least under the conditions that prevailed when it was written. Today, commercial publishers are far more concerned with what will sell rather than what is actually valid.

We also have a proliferation of self-published works which are simply the views of the author who is paying for the print run, which can produce some extraordinary claims and dubious "facts." Thus, we have miracle diets, "cures" for tinnitus, how to live on nine cents a day, why we legally don't have to pay taxes, and so forth.

Add to this the vast electronic publishing universe, which is actually one, vast vanity press. Every day I read stuff on Facebook which is empirically untrue, unfair comparisons, misquotes, and/or utter ignorance of history and science. Everyone may be entitled their own opinion, but I doubt they're entitled to their own set of "facts." (Wikipedia, which has become the "Bible" of free publishing, hardly competes with the old Encyclopaedia Britannica for scrupulous accuracy.)

The burden on us is heavier than ever to be discerning, to consider the source, to use our judgment. I'm co-authoring a book at the moment with Kim Wilkerson in which one of our contentions is that wisdom is the culmination of experience, education, talent, knowledge, and judgment. We have a lot of smart people, a great many talented people, and even highly knowledgeable people, but when we think of "wise" we tend to default by millennia to Aristotle or Plato or Socrates.

It's one thing to enter Best Buy with our specifications for a modern, highly sophisticated and complex "entertainment system" (viz.: television), but it's another to walk into a meeting without such specs to discuss a new product, refinancing, vacations, or schools. I can compare performance statistics on cars, but what do I use to evaluate advisors, or investments, or candidates for election—beyond the "noise"?

I don't want to read anyone's book who's merely famous for writing the book. I want to see his or her track record of success. I won't pay attention to "celebrity" endorsements of anything unless that person has demonstrated expertise in the area (ergo, "shut up and sing"). I ignore the private agendas on Facebook and the self-serving articles on Linkedin because you can't dissuade a zealot with mere facts.

The publishing jungle has become inexpensive, ubiquitous, and without barriers to entry. Be careful out there.

 

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The human condition: Threats

There's a (probably apocryphal) story of two German hotels in the same town. One had a sign on the reception desk which read, "Although breakfast is included in your room rate, you will not receive a reduction or credit if you do not eat breakfast." The other hotel simply had a note in the package with the key, "We are pleased to offer you a complimentary breakfast."

The point is the same, but the methods vary starkly. Have you ever seen a store with hand-made signs in the window like this: "No shoes, no shirt, no service. No smoking. No food or beverages. No bills larger than $20. No checks. No credit cards for charges under $10." And so on and so forth. The owner doesn't trust anyone, feels that you have to conform to common sense by fiat rather than rely on judgment.

There is a restaurant in Providence called Al Forno. It supposedly originated thin-crust pizza, and often makes the list of the top restaurants in the US (their PR person is better than their chef). Frankly, the food is good, but I wouldn't put it in the top 10 restaurants in Providence, which is a great eating town. But the real problem is that Al Forno is so arrogant.

There are no reservations, so you're expected to wait for hours during peak periods, except for the special friends of the owners who sail by everyone else. We arrived on one occasion and were walking up to the second floor reception area when we came upon a perfectly priggish guy stationed on the staircase.

"Are you here for dinner?" he asked, eyebrows arched.

"Yes." (No, I'm here to exercise on your stairs.)

"Well, we can't possible seat you for two-and-a-half hours," with focused eye contact.

I told him he was mistaken, because we weren't staying, and we left.

If you're going to be in business of any kind, you can't fear your customers and you can't relegate them to the status of annoying interlopers. I've never assumed a new prospect is damaged, so why would a business assume I'm damaged or undesirable?

Competition is such today that you can find almost anything you need with the addition of a great attitude and comforting behavior, and that extends from restaurants to heart surgeons, and from auto dealerships to estate planning. I'm weary of banks nickel and diming us on every transaction, treating us as their own ATMs instead of trying to develop us as valued customers and investors.

Demand proper treatment. If you don't get it, leave. I don't recommend Al Forno to anyone and refuse to take clients there. I'm looking to move my sizeable portfolio to another bank because my current one does nothing proactive for me, ever.

But I always appreciate a complimentary breakfast, whether I eat it or not.

 


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I was holding my Million Dollar Club meeting at the 5.5 Star Aminta Resort on Lake Maggiore in Stresa, Italy. We arrived a few days early and on our first evening we were awaiting the shuttle that traverses the two miles into the charming village. As in all such events in Italy, it was late.

A white-haired man in a blue suit with red tie joined us and asked if we were going into town. When we said we were, he pointed out a hotel minivan and said he'd drive us in. During the five minutes we spoke of the lake's beauty (it has islands with palaces).

Arriving on the cobblestone streets of town I began to wonder if he were the doorman and I should tip him.

"Do you work at the hotel?" I asked.

"Well, I work on it, actually."

"What do you mean by 'on it'?"

"I own it."

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