When One Thing Doesn’t Work, Try another

That won’t work … Yeah, that won’t work either. I tried it,” they say when we try to offer them solutions to their problem. “Why do you insist on helping me?” they ask with fatigue. “Why can’t you just listen?”

“When one of my friends has a problem,” we say, “I try to help them.”

“Why do you have to help?” they ask. “Is it because there’s some part of you that needs to be right?”

“If I need to be right, why would I pose so many, different solutions? If I have an unusual need to be right, I would only pose one solution and insist that you try that. My motto is, if one thing doesn’t work try another one. If I thought I was always right, why would I write as much as I do? I’m searching for answers and solutions when I write, and when they work for me I suggest them to my friends to see if it will work for them.”

“Well, you can go ahead and shove your solutions in your nether regions,” they say, “because none of them work.”

“Fair enough,” we say. “What solutions have you found?”

“I’ve tried everything,” they say. “Nothing works.”

Is it simplistic to think that for every problem there is a solution? Yes it is. Is it simplistic to say that if that solution doesn’t work, try another? Yes it is, but some truths are complex and some are very simple. Some say that there are only so many facts that lead to one final solution. Yet, we know we will argue over what that truth is until the end of time. When we argue over truths as they apply to solutions, we think that if all parties concerned dug deep enough, we will eventually arrive at an agreed upon truth.

One agreed upon truth we think we all have is that everyone wants to be happy. When we encounter problems, we think the pursuit of a solution that could lead to health, happiness, and peace of mind binds us all. When we finally find our solution, we want to share it with friends in similar straits, to help them sort through the complexities. We want to help them find happiness too. We don’t demand that they use our solution, and we’re not hurt when they don’t. Our goal is to join their quest for a solution to that which plagues them. The problem is they’re not as concerned with finding a solution that might work for them, even internally. Their goals are to presumably draw attention to the complexities of their predicament so they can gather sympathy and attention, and so we all acknowledge their problem for what it is. 

When we reach this point of an argument, we have two choices. We can either walk away or acknowledge the severity of their complaint? Neither choice solves their problem, of course, but it becomes obvious that they don’t want to solve their problem as much as we thought, and they only want us to acknowledge the severity of their problem, as they lay it out. Our reward for soothing them in this manner is their smile.

I saw that smile once in the uneventful silence of a hospital’s Emergency Room (ER). While counting the hours it took for an ER attendant to consult with me, I accidentally overheard an ER attendant inform a young teenager that she had a condition. He informed her that her condition was not life-threatening, or severely debilitating, but that she suffered from a relatively mild version of a condition that would require lifelong diligence on her part to maintain a modicum of health. She smiled. She probably didn’t mean to smile, but it happened. She tried to hide it from the ER attendant and her mother, because she knew how serious the moment was. She turned away from them because she couldn’t stop smiling.

Before I list off what I thought sparked a twinkle in her eye, let me write that it’s entirely possible that the ER attendant’s diagnosis soothed her because it put an end to the fear of not knowing. Those of us who have had our body fall apart in small, confusing ways can empathize, because we know that fear of not knowing. We spent months prior to our emergency room visit trying to figure out what was wrong with us. We listed our symptoms on various medical websites, trying to come to up with a diagnosis of our own, and we found a whole lot of nothing. Armed with a diagnosis, we, like this young woman, found solutions in the form of proactive measures we could employ to maintain a modicum of health that we hoped could lead to more energy and more healthy happiness.

The smile I saw on her face was something different however. I saw a little spark in her smile that suggested she considered that this diagnosis might add some complications to her life. Most of us live simple, boring lives, because we inherited quality genes that provided us a finely tuned and well honed machine that rarely breaks down. We appreciate the brilliance of the design of our body, to some degree, but after living with it for as many decades as we have, good health can be a little boring at times. When our body does break down, in small, relatively harmless ways, it can be interesting and even a little exciting for reasons that are tough to understand or explain. 

I do not know what was going on in her head, of course, but I imagine that she knew that this condition would not only require attention from her, but from her family, her friends, her employer, her school, and anyone else who cared about her. She probably sat in that ER room thinking that she would become the center of attention among those who cared about her. Until they could devise a plan to help her manage her day-to-day activities, she would also be a subject of sympathy from those concerned about her health. She knew she could talk to them about it, and that smile suggested she looked forward to those conversations and all of that attention. She knew she would be able to express her concerns, and she knew they would finally listen to her, because this was a big deal. They, along with her doctor, would help her devise a plan that would include a disciplined diet that she would have to follow, and she probably figured she could violate it when she was “feeling a little naughty”, and because she had a relatively mild case, the consequences of these violations would be minimal, but her friends and family would still be concerned when she did that.

She probably also thought about her obnoxious brother, boyfriend, or anyone else who thought they knew what was wrong with her. They all offered her a diagnosis, and she argued with them that it was far more complex than that, but they wouldn’t listen. They also offered her simplistic home remedies that promised some quick-fix solutions to what ailed her. Her smile suggested that she couldn’t wait to tell them they were all wrong, all along, and her condition was far more complex than any of them dreamed. Armed with ER attendant’s diagnosis, she realized she could now tell them all to go to hell. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. This is a big deal. You have no idea what I’m going through here. I have a condition that requires constant care and treatment.” That smile told me that she couldn’t wait to drop these lines on her obnoxiously simplistic friends and family. “Oh, so, you’re telling me that you know more about this than a doctor?”

What is the antonym of solutions-oriented thinking? Thesauruses list a number of antonyms, but they do not list the term problems-oriented. The term does not exist, because no one is problems-oriented, at least in the sense that a person uses problems to find some happiness. Some of them appear to love to talk about their problems non-stop, and they view any attempt to resolve them as an attempt to minimize their issue.

Solutions-oriented thinkers are no smarter, healthier, or in any way better than someone who appears to relish talking about their problems. Solutions-oriented thinkers are often quick to recognize patterns and devise an immediate solution, but they often have to face the flaws in pattern recognition thinking. When those humbling experiences occur, they choose a more methodical approach that includes consulting others, manuals, or another more methodical approach, and they use that information to devise another solution.

“But I thought you just said the other solution was the answer,” their agitators say. “I thought you were a know-it-all.”

“I was wrong.”

Solutions-oriented thinkers are also wrong as often as anyone else is. They might be surprised, confused, and frustrated when their proposed solution doesn’t work, and problems-oriented people might enjoy that initial failure, but the solutions-oriented person does something that shocks the problems-oriented person, they try something else. Solving problems, to them, is an ego-less pursuit of finding an answer that involves trial and error. 

Solutions-oriented thinkers in solutions-oriented positions, in some Fortune 500 companies, are doing away with the traditional interview process. Through trial and error, they’ve decided to do away with the closed boardroom methodology that challenges a potential candidate with a, “This is the problem. Quick, what is your solution?” is no longer the way to find the best candidate. These innovative companies are sending their questions to their potential candidate’s homes, via email, to allow them to process the question, trial and error it, and arrive at the best possible answer. They recognize that quick thinking might sound great in the traditional interview, it does nothing for them long-term. They think the “thinks quick on their feet” bullet point to finding the best employees is overrated. They prefer a person who studies the nature of the problem, arrives at a diagnosis, recognizes their errors of their impulsive, pattern-based thinking, and arrives at another diagnosis of the situation to be their ideal candidate. Their first prerequisite is to find a candidate who is bold enough to offer a unique, creative, and innovative approach to problem solving. Such candidates are rare, because most of these approaches are ridiculed when they’re wrong, and most prospective candidates have been conditioned to avoid sticking their neck out in this manner. Candidates who can absorb such ridicule and endure the lack of faith they receive from bosses for occasionally being wrong, and simply try something else are such a rare commodity that innovative companies are willing to try anything to find them. They know such thinkers do not perform well in the standardized, traditional interview format, so they tried another format to find that special candidate who tried something else when their second and third solution didn’t work. The Fortune 500 company doesn’t want people who are always wrong of course, but even the best candidates are going to be wrong, and some of the times their error will be humiliating. What do they do then? What do they do when all else fails? They want to hire that ego-less thinker who tries everything they can think of and when that fails, they use the revolutionary approach of problem-solving by trying something else.   

Defeating the Aliens

“The aliens are not evil, but they are here to eat us,” our main character replies to the first question the talk show host asks him. This contradiction draws some laughter from the studio audience, as they don’t understand the difference. “Do we consider the lion evil? Of course we don’t. When lions eat cute, baby antelopes, they don’t do it to satisfy some perverse love of violence. Anyone who thinks lions are evil is assigning their thought process to the primal actions of the lion, or they might watch too many cartoons. I agree with those who say that the aliens are not evil in the same vein, and I disagree with my colleagues on this note, but I can only guess that the lion’s prey don’t care what their intent is. We know the only reason lions kill is that they’re hungry. I think the aliens who landed on our shoes are desperately hungry, and they know we have meat on our bones. They just want to eat it. If you consider that evil, that’s up to you, but my bet is that the baby antelope doesn’t suffer their fate without, at some point, mischaracterizing the lion’s motive.”

The reactions the various players have to the main character’s appearance on the talk show ends up saying more about them than it does the main character, or the aliens. When the scientists and reporters attempt to interact with the aliens, soon after the shock and awe of their arrival subsides, they do so to understand why they’re here. They want to befriend them, and we follow their lead on the matter, because we want learn everything we can about them, so we can learn from them.

The aliens know their arrival is the greatest thing that has ever happened to us, and they know how much it excites us. They operate in good faith, in the beginning, and they focus on public relations to build trust with us to hide their real motives. When one of the reporters, assigned to cover the aliens, disappears, the aliens’ approval ratings suffers a dive. The public begins to suspect that the main character might be right when he suggested that the aliens captured her, filleted her and refrigerated her to take her meat back to their home planet.

“They had their eyes on that reporter,” the main character suggests, “because she had right combination of muscle and fat. My friends and I have studied all of the people who have gone missing since their arrival, and we’ve found no discernible patterns, other than they’re not too fat or too muscular. We think the aliens are eating those of us of a certain body mass index that contains a quality mix of fat and muscle. We think there are so many humans on earth that they’ve developed a finicky preference. They prefer those of us with a little fat to add flavor to our meat, in the manner a little fat flavors a ribeye steak. 

“Their initial landing was awe-inspiring,” our main character says on another talk show, “and I was as affected as anyone else by their initial messages, and their attempts to help us advance our science, but the number of missing people that followed alarmed me so much that I began studying them. It’s them, I’m telling you, they’re the reason we now have so many missing people. They’re filleting them, and refrigerating them to feed the starving population on their home planet. I don’t know why it’s so hard for us to accept this idea. Our water supplies have not diminished, nor any of our other natural resources, and I don’t think they’re here to build friendly relations between the planets, as they suggest. There’s no evidence to suggest that they’re here to breed with us, or any of the other things we’ve guessed aliens might want over the decades. So, what’s their motive? I don’t care what their public relations team says, we should still ask why they came here in the first place? We’ve heard them say they had the technology to come here decades ago, so why now? Why are they here? I think they regard us as food, and I’ve been trying to get that message out before it’s too late. As we sort through all these complex arguments regarding their intentions and motives, we forget Occam’s Razor, “All other things being equal, we may assume the superiority of the demonstration that derives from fewer hypotheses.” Simply put, the best answer is often the simplest.”

Most moviemakers line “alien attack” movies with hints of the adversary’s high-minded intelligence. The aliens, in these productions, are required to be of an intelligence we cannot comprehend, and they are of unfathomable strength and power. Our production would state that evidence suggests that power and strength usually counter balance one another in most beings. Is the lion smarter than the human is? No, but that wouldn’t matter in a one on one conflict. Is the body builder smarter than the average person is? Most are not, because we all focus on one pursuit to the usual detriment of the other characteristic. Thus, the alien cannot be of superior, unfathomable intellect and superior strength and power. Not only is it a violation of what I consider the natural order of things, it’s not very interesting.

Yet, even productions that try to have it both ways, be they sci-fi novels, movies, or otherwise eventually begin to train their focus on one of these attributes. If they depict the aliens as the literary equivalent to the bloodthirsty lion is this nothing more than a slasher flick? If they focus on the superior intellect, do they do so to achieve a level of complication that might lead to more favorable critical reviews? Whatever the case is, we now require our moviemakers to provide subtle hints of alien intelligence. The more subtle the better, as that makes it creepier. The moviemaker, as with any storyteller, might be feeding us the entertainment we want, but I don’t think so.

I think the quality moviemaker modifies his material in such a way that it provides subtle hints of the surprising and unusual intelligence of the aliens. They spool out hints of the aliens’ intelligence in drips to further horrify and mystify us. They do this to mess with our mind in a way that a slasher flick doesn’t bother doing. They want to creep us out and scare us somewhere deep in our psychology.

In our production, the aliens have developed powers that we cannot comprehend, but as with any decades-long reliance on a power, it comes at a cost. To explain this theory, the main character says, “Imagine if we could emit super gamma rays from our eyes, in the manner these aliens do. It would be a superpower to be sure, but it might lead us to neglect the intelligence we might otherwise employ in tactical and militaristic conflict. We might rely on those powers so much that it could result in a deficit of our intellect. I submit that even though these aliens employ some war-like tactics, they’re as intelligent as a lion and not as smart as we are. I think we can defeat them with our intelligence.”  

Every alien/monster movie eventually also eventually turns into an allegory about our inability to accept outsiders. In our production, the aliens would use our compassionate approach to outsiders against us. They are intelligent enough to put together a seductive war-like plan, and in doing so, they purport to support a cause that most humans adore. They don’t have a cause, but they know that we’ll follow them to our own demise if they cater to our heart correctly.

The reporters and scientists in every alien/monster movie are always correct in the designs they create for how we should approach and handle our relations with aliens. What would happen if they operated from a faulty premise? Everyone who employs the scientific method to resolve a crisis, approaches the situation with a question, does background research and eventually reaches a hypothesis. At what point in the attempts to prove or disprove that hypothesis, do we troubleshoot and find out if we approached the issue from a subjective or biased view? At what point, do we arrow back to the beginning on our algorithm and correct the question that led us to an incorrect conclusion? 

In our production, the reporters and scientists are operating from a flawed premise they develop as a result of their own biases and subjective viewpoints. The aliens enjoy that premise and begin building upon that narrative to sell it to all earthlings. These useful idiots inadvertently aid the aliens’ public relations campaign to soften us up. They discover, too late, that the less worldly main character’s simple truth that while the aliens are not as evil as their detractors suggest, they’re also not hyper-intelligent as the reporters and scientists theorized. The idea that they just want to eat us bears out, and we realize that if we all agreed to these facts earlier, we could’ve saved a lot more people. We all had a difficult time agreeing to the idea that we were of superior intellect, but once we did, we used it to defeat them. We used our intellect to nullify their superior force. We were elated with the victory, of course, but once life returned to normal, there was that sinking feeling that if we just ignored the reporters, the scientists, and all of the people who believed we should be more accepting of the aliens sooner, we probably wouldn’t have been victims of the worldwide slaughter that ensued. If we listened to the main character, and all of the people who supported his view, and we followed his simple strategy for attack, we could’ve saved a lot more lives.

Boring Investment Advice from a Know Nothing

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” was one of the most valuable takeaways I had from working at an online brokerage company. Soon after I landed this job, I entered the training room. The information overload I experienced in the training class was intimidating, overwhelming, frustrating, understandable, illuminating, and intoxicating. I thought I knew something when I finished these grueling classes, and I was eager to put that knowledge into play in the market. Every time I did, throughout my tenure there, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” became the refrain of my pain.

Watching the brokerage’s customers put their knowledge into play in the stock market only reinforced the idea that I didn’t know what I was doing, because some of these callers knew a lot more than I did and they spent a lot more time studying trends. They could recite a company’s tiny, accounting numbers and explain to me how those numbers were indicators for future success. They could explain cyclical trends in the company’s industry and how those trends and numbers coupled with prevailing winds in the market and the nation’s politics could indicate that the company’s stock was ready to explode. They were eternal optimists on the subject of their stock, yet their results ended up being as unimpressive as mine were. 

Some of these callers didn’t have the money to pursue their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, some didn’t have the stomach to pull the trigger, and others didn’t have the brains as evidenced by the fact that they asked me for advice on what they should do. Those in the latter group were more memorable for the creative ways they tried to blame the company, and me, when their too primed to fail moves fell through. The theme of these calls was, “You, and your company, shouldn’t have permitted me to do this.”

My lifestyle at the time was such that I provided friends the opportunity to use all of the clever and humorous variations of the word frugal. I had money at my disposal in the post-Reagan era that preceded the tech bubble bursting. Momentum, growth stocks were exploding all over the place, and the excitement from these gamblers (not investors, gamblers) was infectious. I forgot everything my grandpa and dad told me about investing, and I put my foot in the tide. I learned the hard way, that if I was going to make any money in the market, the last thing I should be counting on were my knowledge, or my knowledgeable instincts.

Invest in What you Know

“Invest in what you know,” The wizard of Wall Street, Warren Buffet, advised those of us overwhelmed by the information required to invest in the stock market. The question I ask those who follow this wisdom is how often do your personal preferences align with the popularity of products?

An aficionado of coffee might know that the blend corporation ‘X’ puts together is superior to their competition, but do they really know that, or do they think that? More vital to the subject of personal investing is the question, does the coffee aficionado know anything about the business practices of ‘X’? They might know that ‘X’ makes a superior blend, because ‘X’ only uses the finest quality bean, but do they know how much that bean costs the company? Do they know what percentage of that cost the company passes onto the consumer? The idea that ‘X’ might charge the lowest possible cost possible to the consumer might be a key component to their personal loyalty to the brand, but how does this action affect ‘X’s profit margin? On another note, how many knowledgeable consumers have been frustrated by the number of consumers who for whatever reason, stubbornly insist on drinking an inferior blend? We might insist that our friends try our brand with the hope that they might switch, but how many of them do? They stubbornly insist on drinking their brand, because they’ve been drinking that coffee for years. It’s called brand loyalty, and brand loyalty can trump any definition of quality. Repeat after me, “I know nothing.” Buffet’s advice might be great for novices who have some money to play around in the market, and for them investing in ‘X’ is another way to show brand loyalty, but for serious investors seeking a path to some level of financial independence, it’s been a formula for failure in my experience.

Why do our employers provide us a select list of mutual funds for our 401k? They do it to protect us from indulging in our creative impulses when investing. They know that the key to long-term investing involves slow growth, and they study the mutual funds market to determine which funds will produce long term and consistent growth.

“Investing doesn’t have to be boring,” I’ve heard creative investors say in response to the adage that if you find investing exciting, you’re probably doing it wrong. Creative investing involves an otherwise intelligent person finding creative end arounds to prove they are as skilled in the investing world as they are in their profession. Creative investors seek to impress their friends with exclamation points!!! They want to tell their friends that they were in on the ground floor of an idea that made them millions, they want to show their friends a physical product to “wow!” them, and they want their friends and family to talk about that investment that put them over the top in the arena of accumulated wealth. Any common Joe can invest in a slow growth, blue chip companies that has an extensive record of paying consistent dividends. Investments in those companies requires little to no creativity or ingenuity, and they are the antithesis of sexy, creative investing. Watching such companies plod onward with miniscule, but consistent profits is about as boring as the professions most common people have, but seasoned investors will say that that long-term boredom might provide the most probable route to long-term success.

On that note, a vital mindset that an investor should maintain is one that recognizes the continental divide between investing and gambling. Some seasoned investors might say that all investing is gambling. If that’s true, we maintain that there is a continental divide between gambling on an upstart and gambling on a blue chip stalwart that has a proven history of consistent returns. There’s nothing wrong with investing in momentum and growth stocks versus defensive stocks, but most momentum/growth stocks are more volatile than defensive stocks.

The difference between stalwart, blue chip stocks that some call defensive stocks and momentum, or growth stocks are often found in their volatility. A theoretical measurement of a stock’s volatility is the beta number. If a stock has a .44 beta number, for example, the investor knows that that company is theoretically less volatile than most of the stocks listed in the market, a .62 is a little more volatile, but not as theoretically volatile as most stocks. A 2.15 beta, on the other hand, is a number that suggests that that company’s stock is more volatile than the rest of the market. This number is a theoretical variable that suggests that a 1.0 stock moves in line with the market.

The opposite of investing in growth stocks that promise growth based on momentum are the defensive stocks that generally sell the staples of consumer related products. Defensive stocks generally provide more stable earnings when compared to growth stocks, and they generally provide consistent dividends to the investor, regardless what’s happening in the rest of the market. There is always going to be some volatility in a company’s stock, of course, but some would say that a blue chip, defensive stock that offers a dividend could be a better investment for a potential investor than a bank’s certificate of deposit (CD).

At this point, many of these companies offer a yield (dividend) that is better than what most banks can offer in the form of a CD, and taxes are lower on dividends from stocks than they are on interest from a CD. The one caveat on investing in a dividend paying stock is the prospect of losing some, or all, of the principle investment in the stock, whereas a bank enters into a locked in agreement on the principle, and the interest, with the consumer when providing a CD for a specified amount of time.

Some call blue chip companies the major players in their industry, or the household names. The Dow Jones Index lists thirty of the major players that have a propensity to either move with the market, or dictate the movement of the stocks in their industry, and the subsequent moves of the overall market over an unspecified amount of time. The stocks listed in the Dow Jones Index are blue chip stocks that generally offer slow growth and dividends to its investors. These investments are what a creative investor might call boring investments.

Be Boring 

I am not an investment advisor, and I don’t pretend to be one on this site, but when I talk about investing it inevitably leads some to ask me what particular investments I would advise they put their money in. I tell them that I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night thinking that they might purchase a stock I’m tracking, because I know how much their family is counting on them to make wise investments choices. My one piece of general advice is that they avoid creative or sexy investing and develop an investment strategy that involves getting boring. I tell my friend if he wants to up his income, his best economic opportunities available to him are at the office and in his work ethic and loyalty to the company, for that might result in raises and promotions. If he wants to get filthy, stinking, and “I hate you now because you have so much money” wealthy, the best route to accomplishing that is to have your money working for you. “Working for you” can mean a variety of different things to a variety of different people, but I would advise that an investor in an optimum situation that entails having some disposable cash on hand find the least volatile, blue chip company that pays a consistent dividend. If they are in this optimal situation where they don’t have immediate need for the money from those dividends, they should set up a Direct Reinvestment Plan (DRIP) on that stock to watch the slow growth accumulate over the long term.

Those readers who blanch at the notion that “You don’t know what you’re talking about” is solid investment advice, should know that it parallels the advice Warren Buffet gave elsewhere. “If you’ve got 150 IQ and you’re in my business, go sell 20 or 30 points to somebody else, ‘cause you really don’t need it,” he said. “You need emotional stability. You need to be able to detach yourself from fear or greed, when that prevails in the market. You’ve gotta be able to come to your own opinions and ignore other people. But you don’t need a lot of brains.”

I agree with everything Buffet says here, except for the idea that the novice investor should ignore the advice of others. I advised my friend to create a fake portfolio on one of the platforms that provide that function. I advised him to input data that suggests that he’s made a purchase of some shares at the amount of that day, and then chart that stock’s progress for however long he finds necessary, and read all of the data and analytical reports that his chosen platform provides. Then, allow some earnings quarters to go by and read, or watch, interpretations of the company’s quarterly report, and digest all of the negative and positive data provided. (The optimum is to read the company’s quarterly reports, but most of these are about as long as Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and about one-tenth as interesting.) If he is still uncomfortable with his knowledge regarding individual stocks he chose to fake invest in, I told him to delete the stocks in that fake portfolio and start charting mutual funds and index funds in it. Investing in these vehicles requires as much homework as investing in an individual stock, but some outlets like Morningstar.com provide comprehensive ratings on various mutual funds. They also provide a description of the risk the potential investor will experience if they ever decide to push the buy button, a full breakdown on the mutual funds’ investments, or asset allocation, and an outlook that ranges from one month to ten years.

Investing in mutual funds and index funds might be even more boring than investing in blue chip stocks, as it takes away the personal rewards investors seek when picking an individual stock and riding it to the top. If the investor is using the art of investing to prove their craftiness, I suggest that they might want to consider the far less expensive route of downloading one of the thousands of strategy and war games in app stores to satisfy this need. If they are seeking immediate returns on their money, just about every state now has craps tables and roulette wheels in their casinos that provide gamblers a guaranteed payout. For those who have worked hard for their money and now want their money working hard for them, it’s vital that the investor take stock of what they don’t know, as opposed to what they do, or what they think they do. For those people, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” is the best advice I’ve ever heard.