Freedom vs. Responsibility: The US Conundrum

Sorry, folks, another post related to the current coronavirus outbreak in the US.

As of my writing this post Emerald City Comic Con is scheduled to continue in Seattle, Washington next week. This is an event that gathers together 100,000 people or thereabouts each year and crams them into a concentrated area where they are most definitely less than six feet apart.

It’s a bad situation for spreading germs in the best of years. There’s a reason the term “con crud” exists. But when you pair that with the fact that Seattle is a current location where COVID-19 is currently circulating in the population, you have a recipe for disaster.

Because all of those people have homes they’re coming from. They aren’t all Seattle residents. They will attend this conference and then they will return to their homes all across the country and perhaps across the world and, if they are exposed to coronavirus while in Seattle, will effectively and quickly spread coronavirus all across the U.S.

I don’t say this to be alarmist. It is what it is. And it’s already happening in the U.S., we just aren’t testing enough to acknowledge it.

But what this situation highlights is the fundamental conflict we face here in the United States. It’s the issue of personal freedom versus community responsibility.

On Twitter I’ve seen a number of people announcing that they’re cancelling their appearance at the ECCC. Almost all of them have cited personal health, family members with health issues, or, the latest, a young child at home. Those who’ve posted about continuing to attend have talked about their own relative health and giving their team members a choice to attend. None that I recall seeing have talked about their community.

Okay, great, they personally are young and healthy and if they are exposed they’ll probably get over it in a couple weeks. (Probably.) But what about their co-worker? What about the flight attendant who has to be in a plane with them? What about their Uber driver? What about the person who fills their prescription at the pharmacy? What about the waitress at their favorite restaurant? What about the old lady who takes the bus with them to her medical appointments? What about…anyone else other than that individual making their individual decision?

China was successful in mitigating this outbreak because they shut everything down. They are a society where that is possible. (And, no, I’m not advocating for us being that type of society. I’m just pointing out the difference.)

The U.S is so concerned with personal financial cost and personal liberties that we have failed to contain this illness. And that failure will kill people. And if we continue down this path, we will kill more people. Not just in the U.S., by the way, but around the world. Our failure to properly contain this spread will impact every other country in the world.

Now maybe those people attending ECCC won’t be the ones who suffer the consequences, but people in their communities will. And people around the world will.

You know, it’s weird how uncomfortable it makes me feel to call this out. It is so ingrained in me that we respect individual rights in this country that a part of me wants to defend the creators who are still choosing to attend ECCC. Don’t they have the right to make a living? To survive? To be paid for their work?

But this is the bind our country places us in. Because we as a country do not provide social safety nets for our citizens we have put these people in a position to choose between attending this conference, perhaps gettting a little sick, hopefully staying in business, and maybe killing a stranger somewhere down the line and, perhaps, bankruptcy.

A clear personal financial consequence versus a vague societal one. You know what choice the average individual will make in that situation each and every time. That’s why we have regulations and rules and government. Because sometimes the optimal personal decision is the worst societal decision.

Do I have solutions (other than a very strong belief that they need to cancel that damned conference and start actually fucking testing enough people in this country to get their hands on the actual scope of the issue)? No. But I think this situation highlights the central dilemma we need to confront in the United States. How do you allow people those individual freedoms while still encouraging the best social decisions? Because, as we’re about to find out, we’re all in this together.

(And, hey, if I’m being over the top and paranoid about this and it all fizzles into nothing, well, okay. I’d rather look stupid by being too concerned than see the other outcome.)

News Coverage Disappoints Me

This is what cnn.com is showing right now related to the current coronavirus outbreak.

CNN Headline

And I have to tell you it frustrates the hell out of me. Because pretty much any expert or frontline individual handling this in the U.S. would tell you that the headline should be “there are now 158 CONFIRMED cases of novel coronavirus in US”.

That distinction between actual number of cases and reported number of cases is vital for getting people to understand what is actually going on in the US right now with respect to this illness.

See, the thing is, if you don’t test for something you can’t find it, right? And that’s what’s happening in the US right now.

Last week there were news reports that the care facility in Kirkland, WA that has been the source of the majority of the fatalities reported in the US so far had another 50+ individuals showing potential symptoms and another 150 people that were patients or staff of that facility in addition to those fifty. And yet, those people have not been tested. As of 20 minutes ago, CNN is just now reporting on that fact.

So right there, in one small location, you very likely have at least 50 more cases.

On top of that are all the stories coming out of people with travel history and symptoms who’ve tried to get tested and were refused. One in New York was told to go home via the subway and go back to work if he wanted. Think about that from a disease transmission perspective. How many times has that happened in the last six weeks? How many cases are there that we simply don’t know about because no one is testing aggressively?

If you only look at the fatality number of 11 and use a 2% fatality rate, at a minimum there are 550 cases. But we’ve already seen that some fatalities that occurred previously were only retroactively identified as fatalities related to this virus. So how many more were there that were chalked up as pneumonia or the seasonal flu? And that fatality number is a lagging indicator. This infection takes weeks to reach the point where someone dies from it. (Per the WHO report on China.) So that’s 550 as of a month ago.

It really frustrates me that I get more accurate information on what’s going on from Twitter than I can from my local news or from CNN who I had previously considered a trusted source. (Their coverage of the stock market the other day when it dropped a 1,000+ points in a day was also almost non-existent as it was happening. I had to go to Yahoo Finance to track that.)

I understand the desire to not be sensational and to not cause a panic. Especially with respect to stock market trading which in the short term can be very emotion-driven. And I get that we have a bunch of stupid people in this country who will react to bad news in stupid ways. And that the news very often gets accused of an “it if bleeds it leads” mentality.

But I have a 90-year-old grandma with COPD and a mother who is almost seventy and has needed emergency treatment on multiple occasions for breathing issues. Based on what I’m seeing I think they should both be limiting their public activities for the next couple of weeks.

There are no REPORTED cases in my state right now, but to think that a virus could be circulating freely in Washington state and not have made it to Colorado is wishful thinking. (My last full-time job I traveled every single week from Colorado or DC to New York or Miami or the UK or Germany. There are people whose jobs routinely have them on planes traveling all over this country–and this world–on a weekly basis. And flu transmission on planes is incredibly high.)

I told both my mother and my grandmother this over the weekend, but they looked at the local news coverage which says, “Hey, no big deal, small numbers, small risk” and they ignored me. My mom went to a casino which is a germ breeding ground on the best of days, and my grandma went to church, the store, and the doctor this week.

Hopefully I’m being alarmist about the current situation and the people I love will be fine.

But there has to be a way to provide news in an objective fashion while still applying critical thinking. Not just, “Hey, we’re being told this” but “Hey, we’re being told this and here’s the context in which that information should be evaluated.” Because far too many people in this country just listen to the news that airs at four on the local television station or just read the headlines of their chosen news site without engaging with that content and applying outside knowledge to it.

Anyway. It’s frustrating.

 

 

Knowledge is Power

There’s a thread on Kboards right now where someone posted about how anyone can make a living self-publishing and then shared that they were making $4,000 a month with minimal advertising (they had some free titles) off of approximately a thousand 10,000-word erotic romances.

That’s 10 million words of content. The OP stated that they’re working 15-18 hours days to do this and don’t mind because they come from a background of having to put together a bunch of minimum wage jobs to make ends meet.

I admire the OP’s work ethic and what they’ve accomplished for themselves. (At my current writing rate it would take me another twenty years to hit 10 million words published. I currently have about 2 million.)

But what it really made me think about was class differences and knowledge and opportunity and how incredibly-hard-working people can almost kill themselves working hard for small rewards simply because they don’t know that there are better options out there.

For example, I took a year off in college. I had this notion that I’d become a stockbroker and earn enough to go back to Stanford and pay for it with cash if I could just work as a stockbroker for five years. (Turns out I hate selling people things and would almost try to talk them out of investing with me since I was twenty years old at the time and it made no sense for someone to trust me with a hundred thousand dollars they’d worked hard to earn for decades.)

When I went back to college the next year I needed a job to make ends meet. (Kids, check the cost of living where you go to school. Seriously. Palo Alto is not cheap.) As a kid from a lower middle class family my immediate instinct was to go get a job at the local mall. Which I did. They were happy to have me and to pay me some amount a little above minimum wage, but not that much above minimum wage.

Which meant that while I was completing that triple major I’d decided on, that I was also working forty plus hours a week to pay my rent and car payment and put food on the table.

But there were so many other choices I could’ve made that would’ve made my life easier. I ended up getting fired from that job about two months before graduation. (About a week after I’d complained about being made to feel very uncomfortable by the manager’s brother who followed me around all the time and then got into a shouting match with the manager over the fact that I was wearing shorts and he was wearing shorts but she said I wasn’t allowed to while he was, but that’s another story for another day.)

When I lost that job, I learned a few interesting things that I wish I’d known earlier.

First, I was working enough to earn vacation time at that job but had never been told about it. So on my last day they handed me a check for something like $400 I hadn’t even known I was due.

Instead of working through finals week because I needed the money, I could’ve taken a few paid vacation days. Who knew? (My manager…)

Second, turns out I was able to go down the street to a temp agency and immediately get a new job that paid me twice as much as the bookstore had. For stuffing envelopes and updating a database of customer addresses. Brainless work.

I had grabbed the first opportunity I found because as someone who came from my background and had no financial reserves to take the time find “the best job” and no one to tell me there were other options, I didn’t know I could do better than that almost-minimum-wage job at the mall.

(Honestly, if I’d been really thinking about how to make the most while working the least I would’ve taken one of those “we’ll pay you $25K for your eggs” ads in the back of the school paper seriously and not had to work at all. But, ya know. Hindsight. And growing up with a mindset that expected to work hard for what I received.)

What’s interesting is that I almost fell into that same mistake again when I graduated. Working full-time to barely make ends meet while trying to complete a degree like that meant that I hadn’t followed the proper path to get a consulting or investment banking job. (Or to prepare for grad school.) I had no clue how any of that worked, so I failed all those interviews.

Which meant after college I found myself back in Colorado with no access to the fancy campus recruiting options and no job prospects.

Not knowing what else to do, I applied for a manager position at a local ice cream shop. The salary was enough to pay my bills and I was qualified for it. Not based on my degree. Based on my prior experience managing the cashier’s office at an amusement park for a couple of summers.

But that manager did the biggest kindness to me that anyone has probably ever done me. He told me they were willing to hire me and that they’d give me the job if I really wanted it. But he also told me that he thought I could do better than that job and encouraged me to keep looking.

So I did.

And about a month later I was able to get my first regulatory job which ultimately led to my consulting job.

That one difference in which job I took after college meant the difference between working sixty hour weeks to earn $40K a year with minimal benefits and working sixty hour weeks to earn $160K with good benefits and promotion potential.

(Not immediately. We’re talking ten years out. One job had career potential with an upward trajectory, the other did not because it was a small family-owned business.)

I was lucky. Because a complete stranger was kind enough to share with me that broader perspective that they had but I didn’t. No one in my family had been down that path before. My brother and I were the first to go to college straight out of high school. And I was certainly the first to end up with an “elite” degree.

(One I still didn’t leverage properly even where I ended up. Starting i-banking salaries plus bonus the year I graduated were probably more than that $160K. But coming from where I had that wasn’t even something to imagine let alone expect.)

So bringing this back to that post on Kboards.

I see this woman who is happy with her accomplishments and happy with her income and I think of how many people come from those environments where you have to work tremendously hard to stay above water. And where it never occurs to you that you can work in a different way to accomplish that same goal. And where you don’t have the time or energy or connections to show you that easier path or to even tell you it exists.

A part of me wants to take that woman aside and say, “work smarter”. Write longer. Advertise.

But I don’t know that that’s an option for her. Maybe the quality isn’t there for that to help. Maybe it will just destroy what she has created.

So instead of reaching out to her, I wrote this blog post. To say that if you feel like you’re working at your max to barely get by that maybe it’s worth taking just a moment or two to look around and see if there isn’t a better option out there. If you’re good at what you do, see about a raise. If you’re not using the skills you trained on, see what’s out there job-wise. Ask yourself if there’s something else you could do that would pay more for the effort you’re putting in.

It’s too easy to get a little bit of something and cling to it when you’re right at the edge. But that can keep you at the edge.

Sometimes head down, full speed ahead isn’t the best choice. It got me a lot of what I ended up with, but looking back I know there were better choices I could’ve made.

Maybe that’s the case for you, too…

First Release of 2020

This is a book I’ve been meaning to write for a couple of years now. I figure it puts a nice pretty bow on the first twenty years of my professional life which revolved around financial services regulation first on the regulatory side and then on the consulting side.

It may be one of those books that doesn’t find its audience, but I hope over time it will come to the attention of the sort of folks who see a title like Regulatory Compliance Fundamentals and think, “Oh that looks interesting.” Because it is if that’s your thing.

It’s short, 102-pages, but packed with knowledge. ($9.95 USD ebook/$19.95 USD print)

Regulatory Compliance Fundamentalsv2.jpg

Being Thankful

A couple weeks ago it was Thanksgiving here in the U.S. and even though the history of the holiday is fraught, for me personally it’s always a day to spend with good food and the people I love and to take a moment to reflect on what I have in my life instead of what might be missing.

And, of course, the new year is right around the corner and that’s another time for assessing where I am and what I want for the next year. And, in this case, the next decade.

In some key respects, my life is not ideal. But in all the ones that matter the most I have to say that I am incredibly grateful to be where I am and to have what I have and to have done what I’ve done in my life.

It’s not part of my natural disposition to stop and count my blessings. I’m always pushing forward, wanting more. (Not more money as my career choices have shown…but more satisfaction or happiness or accomplishment.) I’m trying harder these days, though, to take those breaks. To sit in the moment and find the pleasure in where I am and what I have right now.

Not too long, though, or else the next book won’t get written. But long enough to let that contentment sink in.

You should do it, too. I assume if you have the time and resources to read this blog then there’s a lot going right in your life even if it’s not perfect right now.

 

Would You Invest In You?

I spent the last hour or so writing a potential query letter for an agent.

For the uninitiated a query letter is essentially a sales pitch you send to someone (an agent) who has the contacts with publishers to get you a contract to publish your book. So in the non-publishing world this would be like your cover letter and resume.

Here’s who I am. Here’s what I bring to the table. Are you interested enough to see more or talk?

(And, yes, you don’t always need an agent to get a publishing contract nor do you always need a cover letter and resume to get a job. But for this discussion…)

It was an interesting experience.

Because on my side of the table I can see my own potential. I was writing this query because I have an existing series which I think could sell well through a trade publisher based on how and where it currently sells. There’s definitely unexploited value there that I can’t tap into myself.

(I’ll note here for any writers that querying without an unpublished book is generally not done, but I was willing to take that chance because if you never ask the answer is always no, right?)

So I wrote the query.

But then I switched perspectives and looked at it from the viewpoint of an agent.

And, well…

Hm.

I had to ask myself, would I want to represent this client? Would this query excite me? Are those numbers worth sitting up and taking notice?

And would I be comfortable selling an author as a fantasy author who I know also writes mysteries, romance, and any non-fiction that seems to pop into their head? How do I market that author? Can the publisher rely on them to stick with this genre? Will they play well with what’s expected of them?

And are those sales numbers really strong enough to be interesting? I mean, sure, great, good for you for selling your ebooks at $7.99.

But…How loyal are those readers who made it through that entire series? Are they excited enough about this author that the author would be worth taking on? Will this project have any buzz? Any excitement? Or do people just read and move on?

And I have to say…Sitting on the other side of the table, I wasn’t all that impressed.

On the non-fiction side, sure. Great. I was already approached by a publisher this year and for good reason with those titles. And I could spin a pretty story there. But this one…

Hm.

It was an interesting exercise to go through. To sit down and try to think through how I’d sell myself to my target audience.

And I think it’s worth doing for anyone, whether it’s for a book contract, a job, or a date.

Ask yourself, does what you have to offer make you appealing to your target?

If not, what needs to change? What are you missing and how can you fix it?

Or do you need to shift focus? Because you will never meet their requirements so why waste that time and energy pursuing something you will never get, because you know that if you were them you wouldn’t say yes to you. So why expect them to say yes when you wouldn’t?

Like I said, an interesting experiment.

(Then again, if you don’t ask, the answer is always no. And it’s easy to talk yourself out of an opportunity through fear. So maybe think about it to strengthen your position as much as possible, but then try anyway.)

 

 

Mindset

I wanted to be an astronaut when I was growing up. Enough that I went to an engineering-focused college my freshman year, declared myself a physics and electrical engineering major, and signed up for a special tour of NASA in Houston. I even had a whole folder of articles on the space program that I’d cut out of the paper. My college essay was about going to space.

But I’m not an astronaut.

Because I didn’t have the mindset to get there. When I heard that you had to have perfect vision to be an astronaut, I gave up. And I soon switched to majoring in psychology.

Compare that to a man who actually became an astronaut, Chris Hadfield. I watched his masterclass last week and in the last video he was talking about how he became an astronaut.

He decided he wanted to be one when he lived in a country that didn’t even have a space program at the time. And then he spent over a decade-plus working towards that goal, becoming a test pilot, getting a masters, etc. all while that goal was not even something anyone else would have thought was possible. Because of that, when his country finally put an ad in the paper for astronauts he was there and ready to act.

He believed that impossible things happen. And because he did, he succeeded where I failed. He had the mindset to succeed.

I’ve always considered myself a fairly successful person, but I realize looking at what he did that I’ve often chosen the easier path instead of persevering when I faced a setback. (My moving to New Zealand is a perfect example. I do not live there today because I let their rejection of my residency application stop me when there were other options. Just not the convenient options I wanted, so I gave up.)

Fact is, most of us don’t have the vision and resilience to work towards a goal like becoming an astronaut in a country that doesn’t have a space program. Or becoming a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Or a professional athlete. Or anything else that takes years of hard work, focus, and effort.

But I think a lot of us could at least reassess our mindset to achieve greater success.

(The rest of this is writer-specific, but if you’re not a writer think how this could apply to your circumstances instead.)

There’s a writers’ forum I frequent. (The new one, not the old one.) And I have to say…

I am horrified by what I see as the predominant attitude at that place.

There was an entire discussion there a while back about how it’s not possible to make a living at writing and how no one should bother trying because they’ll just be disappointed. And another one there last week by people boasting how they don’t track their sales because that’s a waste of time and effort. And now there’s one about how AMS ads don’t work or maybe only for those who spend five figures on ads because someone tried them and didn’t get them to work for themselves, so clearly they are a sham.

All of which is…bullshit.

And an example of how a poor mindset can sabotage you.

If you tell yourself that no one can do this, including yourself, do you think you’ll succeed? Do you honestly think you’ll push through when things get tough? No.

If you don’t even try to figure out what contributes to your success and what holds you back, do you think you’ll succeed? Maybe. By luck. But who wants to stake their dreams on luck?

If you try something and fail once and then decide that it must not work, do you think you’ll succeed? Not likely. Most people fail at least once on the way to success.

I mean, sure, some people will succeed while saying you can’t, paying no attention to what helps someone succeed, and giving up and changing direction every time they hit a wall. But most won’t.

So if you want to succeed? Aim high. Believe that even if no one else can do it, you can. When you run into a setback, reassess. Pay enough attention to what works and what doesn’t so you can learn and adjust and adapt.

Does that mean you will succeed? No, of course not. The harder the goal the less likely you’ll achieve it no matter what you do. But having the right mindset certainly makes it a helluva lot more likely.

 

A Moment to Be Grateful

An author whose blog I’ve followed for years lost his wife to cancer yesterday. She leaves behind him and their two children and what sounds like many, many others whose lives she touched.

I don’t know how old she was, but I suspect she wasn’t much older than I am. I’d been going to write a blog post today about how persistence and endurance and the ability to change course are I think some of the most important skills for being a successful writer, but instead I want to take a moment and just be grateful for what I have.

Life is never perfect. If it is perfect it’s only perfect for a moment. A snapshot in time. And then the dog barks, you step in gum, someone says something rude, something horrible happens somewhere in the world and it fills your TV or computer screen.

And it’s easy when life isn’t perfect to forget how good it really is. It’s that dissatisfaction that keeps us moving forward and accomplishing more and more, but every once in a while it’s good to stop and freeze the moment and say, “Life is pretty damned good right now.”

For me it’s the little things. I have my dog. I have my family. I have peace and quiet. I have my health as much as you can have your health when you spend too much time in front of a computer and your drink of choice is Coke. I’m doing something I truly enjoy, both the writing and the Strengths coaching. I have a nice home. I live in a nice place. Those closest to me are doing well.

Are there things I would change? Absolutely. If I could double my book sales that would make me very happy. (For ten minutes and then I’d set some new goal that was hard to reach.) If I could find that perfect person who just fell into my life without the effort of trying to find them, I’d like that, too.

But, really, truly, I am so so grateful for the life I have right now and I wanted to take a moment to say so. And to remind everyone else to take that moment, too. You never know how many more you’ll have…

Data Principles for Beginners

I forgot to announce that I released a new title a few days ago called Data Principles for Beginners. If you’ve read the Excel titles you’ll note that I make mention throughout those books about issues I’ve run into on data projects I worked on with respect to structuring data or analyzing it.

Well, this book takes all of those little mentions and puts them in one place as well as exploring a few other key principles that will make life a lot easier for anyone trying to work with their data.

Data Principles for Beginners

 

Possibilities vs. Probabilities

As you might have noticed, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about writing success and what counts and what doesn’t and what’s realistic and what isn’t. That’s what happens when I reach a big milestone. I’m kind of go, go, go and then I hit it and I stop and assess.

So Thursday I went to the monthly writers’ group dinner that I attend and I shared my little happy milestone about grossing six figures and one of the guys said that’s a really rare level to reach, like that was sort of an anomaly and be all, end all. Nowhere to go from there.

My response was that, sure it was hard to hit, but I compare myself to the people netting six figures a year and so all I think of is how far I still have to go.

That’s guy’s response was that it basically wasn’t possible to net six figures a year at this because only about 1 in 10,000 people manage to do it.

My response to that was, well, why can’t I be that one in 10,000?

(I’m pretty sure everyone at the table was like, who would think that highly of themselves that they’d even image they could be that person?)

But, see, that’s the thing.

Just because something isn’t probable doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

Yeah, so most people fail at this. Seen and understood. Witnessed. How many people have I known over the years who wanted to write a novel and never wrote the first draft? How many wrote the first draft and never wanted to edit it? How many tried to get a trade publisher, didn’t manage it, and then quit? How many self-published and then quit when they didn’t have instant success? How many are still publishing and not seeing success?

It is unlikely to see a lot of money from publishing books. I will agree with that 100%. It is not probable that any given author who sets out to make a lot of money writing will ever reach that goal.

But it is absolutely, 100% possible to do so.

Can anyone do it? No. I don’t think so. I think some people are just not in a position mentally or life-wise to make that happen. I think some people are just never going to click with enough of an audience to make it happen.

But it’s possible.

I realized then that that guy reminded me of my grandma. In the sense that my grandma, every single time I talk to her and every single time she sends me a card (and she sends lots of cards, bless her), tells me to “be safe”.

It occurred to me the other day that I’ve been getting that message from her for over forty years now. Be safe. Be safe. Be safe.

Why not say, “Get out there and take some risks.” “Be adventurous.” “See if you can fail today.” “Do something you’ve never done before.”

But no, it’s always “be safe”.

Because she, like the guy who said these things to me, lives in the world of probability.

It’s a comforting world. If you don’t exceed what’s likely to happen then it’s easy to say, “well, this is how it is for everyone, right? I didn’t make it because most people don’t make it.”

But the possibility mindset is very different. It says, “If one person could do it, why can’t I? What makes them so special that they can succeed where I can’t?”

The possibility mindset pushes through. It keeps driving for the goal when the probability mindset is ready to sit back and admit defeat.

Which one is smarter? Probably the probability one. It’s why I hope my friends with good jobs who’ve worked steadily at them for 20+ years have a guest room with a nice couch when I finally crash and burn. But it’s the possibility mindset that has the potential to achieve what no one thought was possible.

Two interesting ways to frame a problem if nothing else.