Category Archives: Psychology and Philosophy

Personal Finance

There are many opportunities and techniques with personal spending and promotional offers that can allow you to save or receive credit or money. I am always surprised at how many people do not take advantage of these opportunities despite having sufficient free time and technical ability. One of the most obvious is buying gift cards at a discount from personal resellers or intermediaries. While there are varying degrees of risk doing this, if you use a credit card you can always request a chargeback, and for discounts of over 10% at stores you were going to shop at anyway, they are often worthwhile. For example, Gift Card Mall on eBay used to commonly offer OfficeMax gift cards at 20% off (a $50.00 card for $40.00), which I purchased and used at OfficeMax to buy U.S. postage “forever” stamps at 46¢ each, just days before the increase to 49¢. With the 20% gift card discount, I was effectively saving 25% and the stamps were costing me about 37¢ each.

Using cash is anathema to me. Besides avoiding being tracked, there are no hard advantages to using cash for the buyer. The buyer is at the mercy of the seller’s refund policy if sold a defective item, yet is usually paying the same amount that a credit card user who is receiving 1-2% or more cashback, buyer protection, extended warranties and insurance, and an interest-free loan from the lender. Except in the cases of receiving cash discounts, avoiding credit surcharges, or haggling, any benefits the buyer receives by using cash where credit is accepted are purely psychological—such as spending less and avoiding high interest rates due to poor repayment habits. People who are able to pay their statement balances in full before the due date 100% of the time are better off using credit. Of course, with a typical interest rate of 18%, carrying a balance even one month costs 1.5% of the principal, which immediately negates the cashback earned. Every month after that is a loss.

Many credit cards and bank accounts offer financial incentives for opening accounts and using them. These are primarily one-time bonuses but there are also some continuing bonuses that you can receive every month or quarter. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card typically offers a waived annual fee and 40,000 point bonus after spending $2000.00 in the first three months, and the points can be worth $400.00 cash or up to about $600.00 if transferred to Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Amtrak, etc. for traveling. $2000.00 in spending can be “manufactured” by loading money to your American Express Serve account, sending money to your spouse or a family member using Amazon Payments, or it can simply be reached by buying things you would have bought anyway. [2014-09-11 Update: Amazon Payments is ending person-to-person payments on 2014-10-13.] In March 2014, First Niagara bank of Buffalo, NY was offering a $250.00 bonus to new checking account holders after they received $250.00 in direct deposits, made five bill payments, and used their debit cards 10 times. These were easy requirements to meet even for people who are unemployed and not receiving pensions or social security, because transfers from PayPal or other services and banks were counted as direct deposits. Accounts can be opened by customers residing anywhere in the United States through correspondence—which requires providing information online and mailing a copy of your signature. While Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and U.S. Bank typically offer modest bonuses that require jumping through more hoops, Chase Bank and Citibank commonly offer a $200.00 bonus for opening a checking account with easy requirements, albeit redeeming the Citibank reward points at face value requires redeeming them for a check to your mortgage or student loan issuer (they send the check to you, written to the lender, but do not verify the existence of the loan—so you can deposit the check to your account with the institution it is written to, such as another bank).

Examples of continuing bonuses on credit cards include the Bank of America Better Balance card and Discover It card. The BoA BB card pays you $30.00 every quarter provided you have a statement balance greater than $0.00 every month and pay more than the minimum payment each month (or only the minimum payment if the statement balance is below ~$25.00 and is equal to the minimum payment). I have had this card over a year and have received $120.00 in bonuses. While this pales in comparison to many credit cards which offer $500.00 or more, hopefully the Better Balance card will continue for years, and the card has the added bonus of typically coming with a 0.00% promotional interest rate for 12 months. The Discover It card offers 5% cashback on up to $1500.00 in purchases in rotating categories each quarter. The current quarter offers 5% back on purchases at gas stations, and I was able to find a gas station that allowed me to buy $500.00 OneVanilla Visa prepaid cards using credit. These prepaid cards have only a $4.95 fee and can be used to purchase money orders at Walmart or Winn-Dixie, or loaded to an American Express Bluebird account and used to pay bills such as credit cards and mortgage payments, thus reducing their opportunity cost. Thus you can make $60.15, or more if redeeming your Discover cashback for gift cards that offer a 20% redemption discount (i.e. a $25.00 Staples gift card for $20.00 in Discover cashback rewards). ShopDiscover also offers cashback for online purchases at participating retailers that is often higher than other cashback sites, such as 5% at Target.com, TigerDirect.com, and Staples.com.

Examples of continuing bonuses on bank accounts include the Extra20 Checking account by Santander Bank of Boston, MA (formerly Sovereign Bank) and the Discover Bank Cashback Checking account. The former bank offers a $20.00 monthly bonus when you have both a checking and savings account with them, receive $1500.00 or more in direct deposits to the checking account per statement cycle, and pay two or more bills per statement. The bonus is deposited to your savings account each month. Accounts can be opened through correspondence (mail/web) nationwide and Santander is liberal in what they count as direct deposits (transfers from PayPal, Amazon Payments, and other banks currently work). As with the bill payment requirement for the First Niagara bonus, the bill payments could just be a couple dollars toward your credit card bills—you do not have to pay an entire bill. The Discover Cashback Checking account offers 10¢ back on every debit card purchase, bill payment, and check written per month, up to a maximum of 100 items ($10.00 back), though prior to July 1, 2014, the bonus was unlimited. Before August 1, 2013, the Chase Freedom credit card offered 10 extra points back on every purchase, which was then eliminated. The Discover offering is a suitable (though less potent) replacement, and I typically use it for purchases below $7.00 that would only earn 1 point per dollar on my credit cards. You can also pay a couple dollars to all of your credit cards several times per month to get closer to the $10.00 monthly maximum.

There are many offers which I would like to take advantage of but don’t have the equipment for or am unable to be approved for. Isis Mobile Wallet (which is soon to be renamed) offers $1.00 back on up to 50 purchases of $1.00 or more per month and many other significant offers that can be used to make hundreds of dollars, but is not compatible with my smartphone or carrier (Metro PCS). I would love to get the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express credit card which offers 2% cashback on all purchases, but it is too difficult to get approved for. The Chase Ink Plus and Ink Bold credit and charge cards offer opening bonuses of $700.00 and $500.00 with $5000.00 spending and 5% back on utility bills and office stores, but I have had no luck being approved for them by claiming my photography or reselling hobbies as businesses. There are also many bank account bonuses that are regional and unavailable to Florida residents.

While bank account bonuses in the United States are considered income by the Internal Revenue Service and you will usually receive a 1099-INT or 1099-MISC form in the mail in January of the following year, credit card rewards and bonuses typically require spending a certain amount. Thus, the IRS considers them a discount on purchases made, which is not income. Thus, no income tax must be paid on most credit card bonuses.

Credit card and bank account bonuses require successfully opening the accounts you are applying for. Many bonuses are unavailable to people who have poor credit or banking histories, because credit card issuers and banks will not even allow such individuals to open the accounts the bonuses are offered on, if any accounts at all. Obviously, many damaged credit histories and permanently overdrawn bank accounts result from poor decisions and negligence by the account holders, institutional errors, and disgust with penalty APRs and cascading overdraft fees which result in borrowers giving up completely. It is best to avoid these issues completely by never missing a payment or overdrawing a bank account. However, you should also regularly check your Experian, TransUnion, Equifax, ChexSystems, and Early Warning Services reports for incorrect data, and even correct negative information can sometimes be disputed. The burden of proof may be on the institution rather than you, and the negative information could be removed if your creditor fails to produce supporting documentation. This is particularly true with fraudulent medical bills (hospitals are notorious for over- and double-billing).

Next month, I am becoming a graduate student at University of Central Florida and am taking some face-to-face classes which will require me to drive from the Daytona Beach, FL area to the Orlando campus approximately 25 times next semester. This will require 2800 miles of driving, and I drive a van which only gets 18 miles per gallon of gas on the highway. This means I will use about 156 gallons of gas to commute next semester, at a cost of about $545 at $3.50 per gallon. Even a used, modestly-priced, fuel-efficient car would probably use half as much fuel at best, which would save me only $272.50 on gas for my classes next semester. I considered buying a car, and some friends say they would to avoid wasting so much gas, but it would actually be more expensive to replace the van with a car, especially considering the van has low mileage, has been very reliable, and lacks resale value due to nonfunctional air conditioning and cosmetic problems. Plus, I am safer in a van and can carry up to eight passengers or 1536 lbs. of cargo if needed. It would be financially unwise to replace the van, but many people would make this decision with a flawed mathematical analysis, or none at all. Basic arithmetic skills are essential to effective personal finance.

I am using a service called Savings2Go which provides gift cards at 20% off for Home Depot, Target, Best Buy, Applebee’s, and other stores and restaurants. You can buy up to $75.00 in gift cards per store per quarter, and they offer a $15.00 rebate on grocery purchases each quarter, for a $14.95 monthly fee. When I called to cancel after the end of my 30-day trial, they offered to reduce the fee to $29.95 per year and to increase the grocery rebate to $25.00 per quarter. Having agreed, I have already received $50.00 in checks which exceeds the $29.95 fee I paid. I enjoy using the Applebee’s gift cards to eat out with friends, and have bought other gift cards for personal use or to share at-cost with family and friends. Another service called LeisurePlus, also administered by Stonebridge Benefit Services, offers 20% off on restaurant gift cards and gas gift cards for BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil, for up to $75.00 in gift cards per store per quarter. They charge $9.95 per month and have a 30-day money-back guarantee, so I signed up in mid-June and bought a total of $450.00 of gas gift cards in June (2nd quarter) and early July (3rd quarter), paying only $360.00. Then, I canceled before the 30 days ended and got my $9.95 monthly fee back. I found out about these services through telemarketing calls, and while there was a class action lawsuit against Stonebridge in 2011 and there are numerous complaints against them, I have only saved money with them. I am also in a trial period with Everyday Bargains to get 20% off on up to $75.00 of Walmart, Publix, and Winn-Dixie gift cards. However, I cannot recommend Savings Galore, Advantage Plus Legal, Family Saver, or Magazine Rewards Plus, since they never sent the membership packets or gifts and I ended up having to complain or request chargebacks against them with my credit card issuer.

One cool fact about credit cards is they can actually be leveraged to provide an indefinite, interest-free loan to the cardholder. Consider that Amazon Payments allows anyone to send $1000.00 per month to another person on credit with no fees—and the recipient can be a spouse, significant other, family member, or friend who could remit the balance and also send $1000.00 with his or her credit card, or even as an authorized user on the initiator’s credit card. [2014-09-11 Update: Amazon Payments is ending person-to-person payments on 2014-10-13.] The “Serve” prepaid card by American Express also allows anyone to load up to $1000.00 per month from a credit card to their Serve card (as $200.00 per day) and immediately withdraw it to their bank account, with no fees. Credit cards provide grace periods of at least 21 days after the statement ends to pay the statement balance without incurring interest, and to avoid interest, only the balance accrued during the previous statement must be paid before the due date. For example, if your statement ends on July 18 and payment is due on August 12, you could have charged $4000.00 from June 19 to July 17, and subsequently charge $3000.00 more between July 18 and August 12, yet only pay $4000.00 before August 12. In this example, the $3000.00 charged between July 18 and August 12 would post to the August 18 statement and not have to be paid until September 12. Thus, you could always owe $2000.00 or more yet never pay interest, and additionally be earning 1-2% in cashback every time you borrow more. Some new credit cards offer a 0.00% promotional APR for up to 24 months, so you can just max them out and make the minimum payment every month until the promotional rate ends, while leveraging the interest-free credit line into low-risk investments or no-risk certificates of deposit and Kasasa checking and savings accounts. While this practice may increase your credit utilization above 30% and negatively impact your credit score, the impact is far less than a delinquent account and disappears when you pay the balance.

I definitely recommend the “Hot Deals” forums on Slickdeals.net and FatWallet.com for finding good deals on many items. They are particularly good for electronics. There are other forums for finance, coupons, and drugstores which can also be helpful. It is easy to end up buying things you don’t need, so it is important to only search for things you actually need, but it is also important to recognize opportunities that are too good to pass up, and to get in on them before they expire. Make sure to use cashback sites such as Ebates, FatWallet, BeFrugal, Mr. Rebates, Plink, ShopDiscover, Chase Ultimate Rewards Mall, BankAmeriDeals, and American Express Offers to “click-through” and get money back, but also be careful to read the terms and confirm the items you are buying are not excluded. Also, many cashback sites have minimum thresholds to reach before you can cash out, and inactivity fees if you forget about your cashback balance. You should probably use LastPass, KeePass, or another password manager to keep track of all the email addresses, usernames, and passwords you are using for various websites.

If you do a lot of printing at home, one really basic thing you can do to improve your finances is to buy a Brother HL-2140 or HL-2240 black and white laser printer (which go on sale for $49.99 commonly). Particularly if you print a lot of documents that don’t require color, using re-manufactured toner cartridges in these printers can cost as little as $10.00 to print 2500 pages. When I see friends spending $50.00+ on ink cartridges that cost them upwards of 15¢ per page, I always try to convince them to make the switch.

Usually, banks and big businesses rape consumers with fees, high margins, and shady tactics. However, they use some of this money for marketing campaigns and loss leaders that you can actually make money on. It is very satisfying to be part of the small percentage of smart consumers who cost these institutions money through offers and mechanisms that they freely advertise.

While there are many avenues I did not touch on in this post, I find banks and credit cards exciting because they provide large rewards with less time and effort than more intensive practices such as rebates and coupons. However, that is not to say this should be an “either/or” proposition. Depending on the value of your time and what you like to do with it, it is possible for you to pursue all these avenues and more. Sometimes, you can even get back more than you paid for an item with a mail-in rebate. If an item is offered for free after rebate at Newegg or Staples, and you have a 10% or 20% off coupon, you can get back 10% or 20% more than you paid. Usually, even rebates that say “rebate value must not exceed purchase price” do not enforce this stipulation. There is always a difference between the terms in writing and in practice, which can be more lenient rather than strict. You can always argue against interpretations that are overly strict, while quietly accepting grace periods, courtesy offers, and other gifts without complaint. If this bothers you, just think of all the other people who have no issue with it.

Financial literacy is barely taught in grade-school or college, yet people who lack it have a lower quality of life and squander much of their labors. The unidirectional nature of time means you cannot give advice to your younger self or modify the past in any way. Like any area of life, if you want to improve your finances, accepting and making peace with your prior mistakes and ignorance is an unavoidable step. It is always better to make a positive change now than later or never. There are many notions, beliefs, and myths you will have to dispel, replace, and overcome on this path. I can promise you it will be worth it.

Overcoming Narcissism

Whenever people suggests they “deserve” to be treated better, an interesting question to ask is: “What are you basing that on?” If we look at how they treat others and it does not measure up, perhaps they deserve to be treated no better than their worst behavior toward others? If their expectations for respect are based on accomplishments that do not exist, then such respect cannot be deserved without commensurate achievement. If their expectations are based on their innate worth as human beings, regardless of their diligence or lack thereof, then we should be dealing with an issue of human rights. More often however, we are dealing with a symptom of narcissism (namely, an unearned sense of entitlement).

Moving forward, I would like to discredit the just-world hypothesis and its manifestations, such as karma and destiny. There is no empirical evidence that people get what they deserve at a universal level. I also propose that it is empowering to believe that people who unfairly hurt you are not bringing “bad karma” upon themselves, nor are they any more likely to experience hardships in their lives, except to the extent their behavior endangers their property, relationships, or freedom, or the extent to which you seek justice against them. The reason this is more empowering than believing they will “get what’s coming to them” is because it is closer to the truth. The truth does not have to be encouraging to be empowering. Discarding your belief in fairness allows you to recognize that regardless of your wishes, nothing good will come without continuous, definitive action by you.

I would also like to instill the belief that past events are the best predictor of future events. If you expect to be successful in the future, ask yourself what you are basing that belief on? Nearly 100% of the time, looking at a person’s actions in the past year is an excellent predictor of their future accomplishments. Your stated goals and intentions are meaningless. Everyone is very “busy,” and it is very easy to say that you are going to write a book without writing anything, that you love travel without going anywhere, and that you are a visionary without having produced any fruits. It is far harder to accurately assess your track record and acknowledge that reaching your aspirations will require fundamental changes in the habits and behaviors that govern your life. Without fundamental changes, you cannot expect dramatic improvements.

Although this is seemingly unrelated, Pual Arden’s quote, “it’s better to regret what you have done than what you haven’t,” is often wrong. You can interview anyone who regrets committing a murder, having an affair, or making a bad investment to see evidence of this. As an impetus to overcome fear and pursue your truest desires, this belief is wanting at best. I find it is far more motivating to look at trailblazers in your desired field who do not allow sociocultural disapproval to inhibit their lives. Become envious—even jealous—of them, and let your competitive instinct drive you to become better and faster than them. I find this strategy to be far more effective than worrying about hypothetical future regrets.

Overcoming narcissism does not necessarily require “settling” for something less, nor eliminating your love of power and adulation. An alternate route is to prioritize actual achievement rather than the illusion of achievement. Then, you can enjoy admiration as a byproduct of your accomplishments, and avoid descending into madness. It is very important to do what you love for intrinsic reasons rather than for prestige and authority. Only then will you have the motivation to work continuously despite many years of being unnoticed.

A great predictor of what you love to do is what you have loved doing. If you have spent the past year watching TV shows, despite professing a love for writing, perhaps you should become really good at watching TV shows and teach other people how to notice details and predict the plot of new episodes of their favorite TV shows? If you say you want to do something but never get around to doing it, despite having available time and resources, what does this say about you? That you are a pretender, misguided, deranged, or a lout? Perhaps you should immediately cease telling yourself and others of your aspirations, until you take even one small action to bring them to pass?

Who am I to point out flaws, to criticize, or even to make suggestions if my life is not in order? Do not make the mistake of believing that you should only listen to people who are shining examples of success. It is not—nor has it ever been—about me. Good ideas can come from anywhere. People are entitled to care nothing about you and everything about what you can do for them. To say that you “deserve” better is a misnomer. You have no rights. Whatever you have is a gift. People who say they “deserve” better are like spoiled children who cannot understand they have already been given parents who are far more generous and permissive than average.

Life is a gift. Friendship and politeness are gifts. A gift cannot be earned. A gift cannot be an exchange of value. A gift cannot be deserved. A gift can be withdrawn at any time. Value and treat gifts accordingly, and you will be better able to see the truth about yourself and others. Paradoxically, you will also be more forgiving, because it is easy to be angry at someone for betraying your expectations, but far more difficult to be angry at someone for being true to him- or herself.

Beyond Hypocrisy

Identifying hypocrisy in others is a premier way of discrediting them and is a part of the zeitgeist of 21st-century life. Since people tend to produce such an abundance of accessible information on their webpages and networks, it is easy to analyze this information and discover where they have espoused a belief yet expressed contrary actions or statements. Particularly if someone is criticizing you, they can often be discredited not by analyzing their criticism, but by illuminating inconsistencies in their rhetoric and thus demonstrating their moral inferiority, or at least their absence of moral superiority. The implication is that anything they say to criticize or advise others should be ignored, because they cannot even maintain consistency in their personal narrative.

Anonymous attackers cannot be accused of hypocrisy except on the basis of inconsistencies in their attacks. If you know nothing about your critic, there is no canon of literature or Facebook postings to show they are as fallible and hypocritical as they accuse you of being. Privacy grants superiority, because it means you have no past statements or actions to be held accountable to. You can point out the flaws of others without giving them any ammunition. If you are not interested in criticizing others, privacy at least shelters you from others who want to criticize you.

Self-reporting as a Christian is an easy way to be hypocritical. A Christian is one who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ taught his followers to turn the other cheek, to give all that one has to the poor, to love one’s neighbors, and to cut off one’s hand if it causes him or her to sin. Since many people who proclaim to be Christians do not follow his teachings, many Christians are hypocrites. Theoretically, one can call out the hypocrisy of Christians without fear of retribution, because Jesus Christ also said “let he who is without sin, cast the first stone,” which, more broadly applied as a general principle, means that a Christian should not point out faults in others.

Being labeled a hypocrite has a strong negative connotation in Western culture. It can be compared to schizophrenia without the associated waiver of personal responsibility. It is arguably worse than being labeled a liar, cheater, usurper, or thief. It means that one cannot even practice what they impose on others, nor follow what they espouse as personal or universal principles for authentic living. Because the hypocrite label has become quite powerful, it is much more salient to say “person X is a hypocrite!” than “person X is acting hypocritically.” If someone can be labeled a hypocrite, they are discredited now and forever, but if we admit their act of hypocrisy may be an uncommon or isolated incident among numerous statements and actions, the proclamation is greatly weakened.

Elevating hypocrisy to such heights is unnatural, unethical, dehumanizing, and an impedance to progress. It paradoxically makes people who say nothing, write nothing, and do nothing morally superior to artists, lovers, and creators. One cannot be a hypocrite if one makes no statements to contradict! Demanding that others maintain the same values, perspectives, and beliefs throughout their lifespans—or even among different settings in a single day (i.e. work life versus home life)—is restrictive and unreasonable. Expecting them to issue a plethora of retractions and apologies when their stated beliefs change is ridiculous. Shifts in personal values often occur gradually and without notice. To say that my 2014 self is hypocritical to my 2009 self is likely accurate, but more importantly, a useless criticism. If I have not been hypocritical, I probably should have been trying harder.

I had the idea for writing this essay before doing some searches and found this blog post which quotes The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. The author of the blog post (who is incidentally anonymous) concludes hypocrisy is better than “preaching nothing and lacking morality altogether.” While I disagree with this conclusion and see them as equivalent, seeing hypocrisy in this light is a welcome change and may enable people to take bolder risks and accomplish greater things in life.

It is a common belief that people who claim the moral high ground should be held to a higher standard than ordinary people. This allows their hypocrisy to be parroted by people who are just as hypocritical, under the assumption that as a teacher or public figure, they should—to use two clichés—either walk the walk or get off the soapbox. However, what if the opposite is closer to the truth? Since prolific creators have more “baggage” associated with their past work, perhaps they should be given more leeway when compared with people who create very little? It is easy to contradict yourself when you are adding to a large canon of work. Contradiction might be both inevitable and desirable. If we maintain the same beliefs indefinitely and consider this practice virtuous, we deny ourselves the educational opportunities of playing devil’s advocate.

Who has the authority to say what is right and wrong, what is true and false? If we believe in moral absolutism, we might believe truth is universal and can come from anyone—including people who usually lie. If we believe in moral relativism, we might believe truth is changing and the same standard could be true when taught by one person and false when taught by another. This is not to say that absolutism is better than relativism, or to comprehensively distill either perspective. I am trying to say that both have value and both should be used. Homogenizing concepts that appear diametrically opposed is one of the greatest joys in philosophical exploration. However, it is impossible to experience if you are not willing to be a hypocrite.

To move beyond hypocrisy, we must minimize the stigmas and taboos associated with it. Being hypocritical must be seen as no worse than being angry, forgetful, misinformed, or human. Only then will artists have the freedom to operate without being heckled by a type of criticism that has been given too much power for far too long.

The Dark Side of Service to Others (Part 1)

Helping others is generally a good thing, but depending on the situation can be a bad thing for one or both parties involved. It can be a bad thing when it robs the other person of an opportunity for personal growth. For example, answering a question or telling a person how to do something can rob them of the opportunity to discover and learn themselves, or can reinforce them in a pattern of getting others to do their work for them.

For this post, I will define the dark side of service to others as actions of sacrifice for others that are worse than doing nothing. These are things that harm both parties (lose-lose situations), or things that benefit one party but come at an overly high cost to the other party (wasted potential).

An archetypical lose-lose act of service is giving money to a beggar who is an alcoholic or drug addict. It is a lose-lose situation because the giver has forfeited the opportunity to use the money for something else, and the receiver would be better off not having the money at all, given his or her addiction. The stereotypical solution to the situation is to offer the beggar food instead of money, to which the beggar will often decline.

While the above situation is well known, I want this post to be a starting point for evaluating acts of service you give or receive that are actually holding you back. Many of these services do not have to be abandoned, but can be modified to be beneficial to both parties. Others need to be discarded, because they cannot be reformed given their parameters. While choosing how to serve is a subjective, personal choice, there are some objective guidelines we can apply to judge others’ acts of service as being useful or useless.

There are a few other easy examples I will eliminate before proceeding to grayer areas. Service to strangers and fair-weather friends can be dark if it is pursued over service to family and close friends. Helping people who do not appreciate your help or chronically complain is ill-advised. Acts of service that are useful to others but take up too much of your time and energy may waste potential. Service that is done for narcissistic reasons may be a net loss.

Often, an act of service can be good or bad depending on how it is carried out. Helping a friend with math homework or an essay can easily be good or bad, depending on whether you are helping him or her think critically, or simply doing the work for him or her. This is similar to the parable about giving a man a fish versus teaching him how to fish. There are several reasons why giving the fish (or answers) may seem more appealing. One is that it is easier and takes less time. Another is it fosters dependence on the helper, which can make him or her feel needed and useful. A third reason is the receiver may request or demand it, because he or she refuses or claims to be unable to learn how to fish. All of these reasons can encourage helplessness and discourage self-actualization. A far more useful tutor is one who facilitates the learning process, rather than eliminating it.

Service that is done with expectations, reservations, or resentment is poisoned from the start. If there are expectations, they should be outwardly articulated. It is not productive to volunteer to help someone, expect to be compensated, receive nothing, and then feel resent for not receiving something you specifically asked not to receive. Conversely, while you may feel pressure from your sense of conscientiousness, the person who has volunteered to help you should not pressure you to help him or her in return. If anything, the helper should encourage you to pay it forward by helping someone else, which can go on to create a chain of service and goodwill. While the first person in such a chain gives without receiving, he or she arguably benefits the most, if you subscribe to the belief that it is better to give than receive.

Service to others has a real opportunity cost. You could be using such time, money, mental, and physical effort to work on your own interests, or to develop your talents and goals. If the service you are providing is not helping you to grow, any surplus may be nullified, because the meager benefit to the recipient may pale in comparison to the losses you incur. Time is precious, and time now is more valuable than time in the future, because the degrees of freedom available to you inevitably decline as years pass by. If mastery of a subject or discipline takes 10 years, how many 10-year periods do you have left? Are you using your years to develop your talents or to serve as a butler for others?

Certainly, teaching is the best way to learn. Thus, service to others is a powerful tool for realizing your own potential. However, if such service is mundane, has no teaching opportunities, and does not come close to employing your full ability, you may be better off not doing it, particularly if you have more pressing interests to pursue.

In part 2, I will talk more about situations where serving others is undesirable. There is also the possibility that I will not write part 2 at all. Regardless, there is a lot more I could write about this.

Musings

The hardest part about writing is staring at a blank screen and knowing you have something to say, but not how to get started. It’s far easier to read other peoples blogs or Facebook posts than to share your own voice. It’s also easy to judge other writers as simple or juvenile, without realizing that their writing isn’t meant for your benefit, but for theirs.

In a typical classroom, the focus is on the students, who greatly outnumber the teacher, and it is assumed the teacher is there for their benefit. However, the collective benefit to the students may be greatly outweighed by the singular benefit to the teacher. While most students forget most of what they’ve learned as soon as they write the required paper or take the required exam, the teacher is learning by teaching, not only by ingraining the material, but also by becoming a more experienced leader and communicator.

While people are equal in the eyes of the Lord, in a particular field or for a particular purpose the worth of one can outweigh the worth of millions. That is not to say the work of the millions is worthless, but perhaps that its greatest worth is simply for the enrichment and personal development of those individuals. For example, my skills at taking pictures or playing the piano may not be particularly impressive to anyone else, but they provide meaning to my life and occupy my time. While I make no money from them, I would not give them up for the world, because I enjoy them.

For people who are striving to make names from themselves, to create great works of art and to gain fortune and fame, it may be apt for many of them to realize their times have past. It is simply a mathematical improbability that they have enough time, talent, or motivation left to fulfill these dreams within themselves. Their focus must be on the next generation, for their strength and diligence would be better exercised in facilitating their children than facilitating themselves.

The perceived beliefs and actions of others are a powerful motivator. It’s very common to believe that you must perform work you do not enjoy to earn a living, because enjoyable work does not deserve pay and what you like to do isn’t practical or salable. If you simply replace this belief with the belief that many other people are getting what they want out of life, making opportunities as they see fit, and profiting abundantly while pursuing their passion, you will be driven to do the same. If you are an unhappy janitor, believing that “somebody has to do it” may provide you with consolation, but you could just as well be withholding a job from someone who actually enjoys janitorial work, which is a lose-lose situation. The United States is a free country, and just because certain work “must be done” doesn’t mean you have any responsibility or obligation to do it.

The passage of time can be called the great equalizer. Every creature and plant in this world, no matter how beautiful, will eventually return to dust. Every day I live will be forgotten, and everything I create will inevitably be destroyed. Why then should I be worried about what others think? In truth, other people usually give us far less consideration than we believe. The few that callously insult us, or emptily praise us, are really just projecting feelings about aspects of their lives onto our persona. They can safely be ignored.

Sporadic, concentrated periods of productive creativity often fall short of regular, disciplined work. Like shooting stars, creative episodes are bright and bold, but quickly fade away, leaving behind unfinished projects, forgotten paradigms, and nuggets of divinity which cannot be appreciated without context. Building a history of diligent work may produce far greater accomplishments in the long run, and there is no better time to start than now.

I have had the pleasure of falling in love with a beautiful and intelligent woman, who is a continent away. We are engaged to be married and I am moving to California in the summer of 2014 (after completing my B.S. in Psychology), since she cannot move to Florida. There is no greater joy than being reunited after months of phone calls and video chats, nor greater pain than being separated again. I feel so uncertain about moving so far away—I have so much of my family here, my possessions, my job, my home. I don’t want to work so many hours per day to support a family that I do not get to see them, but only secondary jobs may be available to me with so little experience and with such a common degree. But I also am incredibly happy and optimistic. I have never before found anyone who loves me like her, nor can I imagine any future where we are not in love.

How will our future play out? The habits and beliefs we exercise now are integral. How many could benefit by replacing idleness and passive leisure with active reading and fearless expression? Perhaps we are building skills, but not in the directions we want to go. Without clearly determining our direction at a young age, we may wind up without the expertise or means to accomplish our goals within this lifetime. However, the course we set in young age may not be the one that suits us in middle or old age. But as long as we keep moving, we will have a legacy to look back upon.