The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It


I have a very dear friend whose name is Pete.  We’ve known each other for twenty-five years.  He is a kind, caring and charming man.  He also drives me crazy.  Pete is perhaps the most indecisive person walking the face of the planet.

Pete has a background in library science.  Given a task, finding references and cross-correlating them, Pete’s the man for your job.  He is thorough and efficient and confident and seeks out all the potential material for the individual making the request of him.  Obviously, he has capability within his chosen field of expertise.  Why is he unable to extend this to other aspects of his life?

Several years ago Pete’s position was being eliminated.  He was understandably concerned about his future and, as he was in his early 60’s, was worried about being able to find a new position.  However, he did find a new spot with a large firm in their library.  This position was only for a six month period – but it had the potential of continuing beyond that time – depending on the economy and how well the firm did.

It was at this point in his life that Pete finally started paying attention to his financial situation.  He had previously entertained a “live for today” philosophy and had done little to provide for his personal financial well-being.  He had relied on the fact that he would one day collect Social Security and his far less than flamboyant life-style could continue un-interrupted.

Faced with the facts of financial-mortality, Pete suddenly felt panicked.  As I was doing financial planning for wealthy individuals at the time, Pete called me for help.  I was happy to provide it.

I reviewed Pete’s financial situation.  (This is always a bit uncomfortable for me when I’m dealing with someone who is a friend.)  But since I cared about Pete, I laid out a plan for him.  I explained that he needed to make some sacrifices – and to start on a dedicated program of saving for his future.  He would have to save a greater percentage of his income  than a person who was younger because he had less time to accumulate a nest egg.

After I laid out a suggested program and explained the mechanics and mathematics of it, he nodded in agreement.  I was quite sure that I had boiled down all the material in a way which he would be able to comprehend.  I always try to reduce all the complex verbiage that so many in the financial service industry like to use down to terms that any person can readily understand.  Pete and I went out to dinner together and I left it up to him to take the steps I had outlined.

Several weeks went by before Pete and I chatted again.  Pete called me at home.  I had just finished dinner and was sitting down to start a new book that I had purchased, but I was happy to hear from him.

Pete began the conversation by saying, “You know – I think you’re right.  I need to do something to insure that I’m going to be able to make it financially.”

I was pleased at that.

He went on, “I ran your plan by some other people I know and they agreed with you.”  Of course, I didn’t know that.

I asked, “With whom did you consult?”

The list amazed me.  Pete had spoken with his barber, his two sisters, the man who worked in the produce section of his favorite store, the newspaper vendor from whom he purchased the Chicago Tribune, a lady who worked in the sock section at Marshall Field’s, two of his co-workers, his dentist and another friend who had just declared bankruptcy.

When he enumerated this list, I was truly floored – but grateful that all of these people who had at best a limited knowledge of financial planning, had agreed with me.

Well, the good news is that Pete did start, and more importantly, continue on a solid financial plan that provided him with far more additional security than if he had done nothing.  But this episode caused me to think about how people process information and reality.

Making a decision is always risky.  If your decision proves to be a poor one there is always the potential for failure and embarrassment.  No one likes either of those.

Perhaps it is for that reason so many of us retreat to what we believe is the safety of inertia – doing nothing.  We adopt the Sartrian philosophy that, “Les jeux sont faits.”  “The die is cast.”  If we are the victims of fate we cannot be held accountable for the outcome that has been pre-destined for us.  Sadly, trusting ourselves to fate, while it might leave us faultless, seldom provides the outcome that most of us would desire.

On the other hand, actively making choices exposes us to the potential of failure.  Failure is embarrassing and no fun at all.  But it is only with the acceptance of the possibility of failure that we can achieve anything of worth.  We expose ourselves to the ridicule of others and our own sense of self-doubt – but can grow in the process if we realize that failure is not an end but a beginning.

I have been fortunate that in my life I have achieved many failures.  Those have been my greatest learning experiences – and ones from which I ultimately greatly profited.  I hope to experience more – though not the same ones I previously encountered.  I try to learn from my mistakes – not repeat them.

For those of us who are hung up by the iron mistress of indecision and are afraid to make a mistake, please remember that in failing to decide you have indeed decided.  Take a chance.  Life’s too short to have it be ruled by fear and the fate that you have no reason to believe will favor you.

Decide to decide.


Comments on: "ON INDECISION" (10)

  1. Amen! I will need to share your advice with my dog groomer. Decide to decide. Well said.

    • Napoleon was reported to have an interesting way of dealing with issues. Supposedly he put every letter he received in a drawer for thirty days. When he took them out to read them, most of the matters which the writers had addressed to him had resolved themselves. The others had reached a critical point and it was to these that he turned his attention. Of course, we all know how that turned out for the Emperor.

    • “To trim or not to trim – that is the question.”

  2. This is me. And just like you, my mother says, “Honey, making no decision at all IS the decision.” I hate that, but it rings true. I chuckled hearing all the people Pete mulled it over with. I do the same thing, unsure I’m going to make the right decision. Let me see what everyone else thinks first. Especially my mother who always says exactly the right thing. “Well, honey, what do YOU think?”

  3. I am so surprised to hear you say that, Jennifer. It’s very obvious to me that you’re an extremely capable woman. When you write on a subject about which you’re passionate you obviously have done your research and know your stuff. Although we’ve only known each other for a few weeks – and then only through the blogosphere – I would feel more confident relying on your advice on conservation and recycling than 99% of the people I know. But I’m going to make a little more fun of indecisive people in the next post. (It’s all with the intent of hoping that they can gain some self-confidence and start to take control). And remember the advice my dad gave me, “You might as well laugh at yourself – because the rest of the world will be.”

    • Gosh, thanks juwannadoright. Your words are so kind. I’m not indecisive on all things—like the environment. But on little things, like what I’m going to eat for dinner. Or what type of ice cream to buy. I can stand there in the ice cream aisle for 20 minutes and CANNOT make a decision. So, I’ll call my mom and ask her what type of ice cream I should buy. I mean, really. That is so pathetic! LOL! I guess I’m just not that passionate about ice cream. You would think that would make me really difficult to live with….but no complaints so far. Well, not presently. 😀

  4. I absolutely agree with you. It’s better to make a bad decision than no decision at all. At least you can learn from that mistake. Of course one needs the tools to evaluate decisions too and not just pick an option at random. Once you fail though, better pick up the pieces and quickly find a better option. Another point you made is that people who have competencies in one field may be totally unfitted to handle the problems of life outside that narrow competency. I’ve worked with PhD’s who are brilliant in their field of concentration, but do not have the ability to communicate with the world around them and are thereby confined to the back rooms of research.

    • Many years ago I came to a conclusion why people fail to make decisions. Let’s say that you have a hum-drum job but have an idea for a new “gizmo” which you believe could make you wealthy – but you never act on that dream. So years later, having completed your career in your mundane job you still have the ability to look back and say – “I really could have been someone – I could have been a contender.” But if you act on your dream and fail, then you no longer can make that statement. Many believe it’s better to hold on to a dream than actually taking the risk of making it happen.

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