Sunday, October 16, 2016

Why self-help books don't work

I cannot think of how many times people offer well-meaning suggestions -- "hey check out this book" or "listen to this podcast".   I went through a phase in my life where I was a self-help junkie.  I spent hours in the self-help aisles at Borders and Barnes & Noble (yes, this is back in the day when they were still doing well) previewing many books and buying a good fraction of them.  At some point, I started noticing that I really wasn't getting much out of these books.  In fact, I got to a point where it sickened me to even think of self-help books.  Why?

There's a formula to these books

They are typically about a subject that bothers the vast majority of people, e.g. anxiety, anger, weight management, becoming free from the daily grind, etc.  The book usually starts out with the author's story of why and how they got interested in the subject.  Then they proceed to discuss the science or research around that problem.  And finally they offer a basket of solutions and discuss success stories.  If one reads enough self-help books, one will immediately become aware of the pattern and also the repetitiveness of the solutions across different authors.  The same is true for TV shows and documentaries.

Success stories are always available, but one must realize that these are far from the norm.  For every college drop out that makes it to billionaire like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, there are a million others that dropped out of college to follow their passion and failed (well maybe some small percentage made it, but not quite as big).  In other words, this is not much different from the roll of a dice.  There is no formula to it.  The same goes with success stories for regaining physical health or learning to overcome psychological health issues.  For every one that succeeds, there are a bunch of others that tried the method and failed.

Does that mean that self-help books are useless?  At this point, I do consider the vast majority of them near-useless.  Reading them is basically akin to buying a lottery ticket.  Chances are, even if it works for one, there are 100,000 others for whom the advice did nothing.  So the odds are stacked against the average reader.  Next time you read a self-help book and practicing the advice doesn't work for you, don't be ashamed or disappointed.  Just realize that you fell for the trap of the self-help book!

(This is my personal opinion, of course.  Others may have had better luck with them.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How to think about money?

This was the question asked in one of the financial discussion forums.  Here are my thoughts on this subject.

Money is like grease. In sufficient quantity, it makes everything in life go smoother. Too little and you hear squeaks all the time. Too much of it, and it doesn't help things as much, and in fact can cause things to gunk up if it's used without measure.  People with "old money" tend to be much better at managing it.  And, just like grease, money by itself cannot fix a broken machine (whether that machine is health, family, etc.).  An extreme lack of money can cause certain areas of one's life to breakdown (inaccessible healthcare, unable to take advantage of opportunities for education, stress in relationships, etc.).

As I dabble with new age beliefs, I am starting to see how it is very limiting to think about money the way many "responsible" folks do. We think of it as a limited resource and one that can only be earned through hard work and discipline. More and more, I'm finding out that is not true. There are so many examples to the contrary. People born into wealth have different beliefs about it as do people "in the zone".

A few more thoughts on what I have found true in my life with respect to money.  When one is "hungry", one is extremely susceptible to falling for elaborate scams, and must therefore be on guard for them.  When one is "full", it becomes a lot easier to spot such scams, and therefore stay away from them.  Also, people with low self-esteem will often let themselves be scammed even though they can see it, just because they are afraid of being alienated by the scammer.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Stealth inflation

When most people think of inflation, they think of the headline numbers being published like the producer price index (PPI) or some variant of the consumer price index (CPI) such as the CPI-U (CPI for urban consumers.  While those methods are itself are debatable, what I'm going to talk about is a little different.

This is really about how planned obsolescence is engineered into products.  Everything is affected from mundane household items like paper towels, garbage bags, and toilet paper to small and large appliances (toasters, refrigerators, etc.), to furniture, clothes shoes, computers, cars, you name it.  Basically, companies are able to engineer their products precisely for a certain lifetime.  Where companies took pride in building products that were practically indestructible and would last a lifetime (e.g. a washer or refrigerator that would last 30 years with no problems), they now engineer their products so that they last 5, maybe 7 years.  Financial engineering has allowed them to set aside money to deal with warranties and buybacks.  In the process the expense is being borne by the consumer.  Where you might have bought such an appliance for life, you now need to buy 8-10 of them over that same period of time.  On paper it looks like you're getting a lot of features for the same amount of money, but in reality, the quality is gone and you're really paying 6-8 times.  This kind of inflation is not reflected in any of the indices mentioned above.

Where I used to buy clothes that would last forever, it feels like I'm constantly wearing them out every few months now.  Where I could buy a pair of shoes and have them last a year, they are now gone in 3-4 months tops, usually even sooner.  The price of a pair of shoes is the same or lower, but it's now made of such poor quality, it just doesn't hold up.  In this process, we have not only lost our money, we also waste more time shopping and also spend many futile hours looking for something that might be of better quality.  Does better quality exist?  It does, but even that is hit or miss, and usually only with luxury brands.  To get decent quality from a pair of shoes, one would have to pay about 5-10 times what one might pay for a "normal" pair.  And yet, going with a luxury brand and paying that much may or may not yield a better product, so it's a roll of the dice.

What is most frustrating is when things fail in unpredictable way, e.g. trash bags puncturing and making a mess of everything.

Best of all companies will then send a survey to ask your perception.  There's probably an executive at that company saying "if people aren't complaining, we're building in too much quality and we need to reduce it."  In this way, they target a delicate balance where they achieve decent reviews (typically written by people who haven't owned the product long enough) and a few bad reviews (from people that experienced the product fail unexpectedly and actually bothered to write a review).

Planned obsolescence coupled with offshoring of manufacturing to cheaper locales has kept inflation in check.  What happens after every ounce of quality has been engineered out of the product and there are no other lower cost locales to move manufacturing to?  That's when a "new and improved" product is introduced (still worse than the original one) at a higher price, and that's when we start seeing regular inflation.

It's going to be a slow and painful journey into the future.

A new business model

Purely my perception--with planned obsolescence, we're seeing the emergence of a new business model.

The model works as follows.  The company builds a product with bad quality and starts selling it.  The majority of people won't complain.  For the small percentage of people that complain, the company simply issues a refund (if the customer complains to the store) or coupons for more free bad product (if the customer complains to the manufacturer).  Manufacturers have a finance department that determines how much funds need to be set aside for issuing such coupons and refunds.

Product quality, which was the primary driver of brand loyalty, has now been replaced by loyalty programs (rewards points) and marketing. But loyalty programs are itself an illusion--they encourage one to buy sub par quality, overpriced goods, in exchange of a tiny percentage of the purchase in rewards.

Legislation to the rescue?

France recently passed a law to require appliance manufacturers to display how long their appliances will last and how long spare parts would be available for the same.

Imagine if all products required that?  There would less room to cheat.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A beautiful mind

It is often said by the masters of meditation that we create our own reality.  My reality, since as far back as my memory goes has been one of hidden abuse and oppression disguised as love for a greater good.  Why would the mind create something like this?

Growing up as a kid, before the age of 7, I was exposed to a fair amount of physical abuse from my parents and also witnessed my older sister go through the same.  I was often bullied by my sister and was told not to mention it to my parents or I'd get in even bigger trouble.  In this way, I grew up thinking abuse was normal and that, if one complained one was simply being a sissy.  I watched my sister get beaten up fairly regularly by my father.  I was beaten by my father on 2 occasions; on both occasions I lost control of my bladder probably due to the shock, but also due to the fear that it might increase in intensity and become a regular happening.   (Given that we get what we focus on, was I setting myself up for abuse in boarding school by fearing this type of abuse?)  I remember vividly the circumstances that led to both.  The first one was dropping and breaking my mother's musical powder bowl.  The second instance was when I requested to ride in the car of family friend as we were all leaving from the club.  My dad misheard that as me wanting to go to their place and started yelling at me about how I don't appreciate what I have.  I didn't have the guts to speak up and say he heard me wrong.  By the time we got home, I got my first slap before we even made it into the house.  And then a second one by the time we made it up to the house.  In both of these instances, my mother made me apologize to my dad.  What I learnt: It's not just OK that I got abused, but when I do get abused, then it's my fault and I need to apologize to the abuser.

These learnings were the training ground for me learning to suppress my feelings for the following 8 years as I attended a boarding school.  Boarding school was a very abusive environment.  There was no hiding from abuse; it was present all 7 days of the week.  In fact, there were some years when being away from classes was a bad thing.  The only way you could escape the abuse while still being on premises was being sick and admitted in the school infirmary.

My 8th grade in school was the absolute worst year.  We'd get beaten on our butts with hockey sticks or cricket bats regularly by the dormitory prefects, almost daily, in the night before going to bed.  And on weekends, we'd be asked to kneel in the sun and hop back and forth about 50 m almost continuously, till our legs felt like trees.  Any slowing down was met with further beating up.  I was one of the tougher kids with respect to putting up with abuse and I did everything in my power to behave so that I would not be punished.  I basically learned very well to numb out the feelings in my body. But yet, there would be dormitory-wide punishing, and lots of it, so there was no escape.  There were thefts too.  The same prefects would steal food that students had brought from home (it was the norm to bring processed junk food like packaged and canned foods).  It was quite unbearable.  This would probably have continued throughout the year, but one of the students did not return from a mid-term vacation.  Instead his father wrote a letter to the principal about these abuses.  The prefects were disgraced publicly and life went back to being somewhat normal.  Through all of this I never complained to my parents.  How would I?  To me this was normal and there was some way I was falling short.  I was also supposed to be "brave" and not have them worry about me.  Surprisingly, though, once I started going to boarding school, there was no more abuse at home (but I was only home for very brief periods of time amounting to a little over 2 months a year during the school's summer and Christmas holidays).

Fast forward to adult life and I see how I give my power away to people that choose to abuse me.  I am only now starting to learn how to stand up for myself, but it creates a tremendous amount of discomfort every time I do so.  The discomfort stems from going against the incorrect lesson that I have learned where I ought to not only accept abuse, but feel guilt and apologize to the abuser.

The mind has indeed created a very interesting puzzle.  I don't think it really mattered where I was physically or who I was with, it was able to create the conditions for abuse.

When negative things happen in my life, and there's a lot of it happening now, I keep wondering why it is that my mind that is creating this type of reality and how I can change that.  Meditation is supposed to change that, but for the last 8 or so years, I have seen a lot of deterioration in my physical and emotional health despite maintaining a regular practice.  This makes me question the efficacy of meditation.  Or perhaps I'm not practicing it correctly, but where do I go to learn how to practice correctly?  (FWIW, I have had many lessons in meditation from many different teachers.)

While I was aware of the pattern of abuse in my life despite changing the places and people around me as early as 2002 (triggered by anxiety attacks which I was having then), it has taken me over a decade since then to be able to see how I react to situations because of the past conditioning and be able to even attempt to break that reactivity.

Because of the abuse I have seen from various authority figures in my life, it is very unlikely I will have a guru in this life.  The moment I give someone that authority, it will immediately create fear in my mind and re-create the cycle of abuse.  And I have reached a stage in my life where I won't allow that to happen.