“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” – John C. Maxwell

 

Hiring Someone to Grow Your Business:

The 7 Personality Traits of a Superstar Entrepreneurial CEO 

So, you want to hire someone to run your business?

Maybe you’re nearing retirement. Or maybe the person running it now is doing a disappointing job.

In my career, I’ve been in this position maybe a hundred times. In fact, I’m waist-deep in it again right now – with three companies simultaneously, with annual revenues ranging from $15 million to $100 million.

It’s not easy.

So much is at stake.

So how do you find the right person? What qualities should you look for in this all-important search?

This is what you will hear from an executive placement expert: “You need someone with experience… someone with good communication skills… someone that can build strong teams. But most important, you need a big thinker – a visionary and a risk taker.”

When I was young, I was vulnerable to that sort of business-school bullshit. It may be appropriate for a billion-dollar business. But if you have a $10 million or $100 million business, “qualifications” like that won’t help you at all.

Running an entrepreneurial business is very different from running a mature one. A mature business needs to be managed. An entrepreneurial business needs to be grown.

In past essays, I’ve explained my theory of “growers” and “tenders.” Tenders have a talent for solving problems and making a business run smoothly. Growers have a talent for growing revenues and profits.

To run your entrepreneurial business, you need a grower – a superstar with the following qualities:

  1. He’s competitive:He doesn’t hate losing… but he loves winning.
  2. She’s Pareto-focused: She understands her priorities and follows the 80/20 principle in pursuing her objectives.
  3. He’s a work horse: If he has to, he will outwork anyone else in the company. It doesn’t matter if it takes 18 hours a day.
  4. She’s knowledgeable: She understands the business inside and out – an understanding that comes from an interest in figuring out how things work. She wants to know what is going on and why.
  5. He’s fearless: He’s not afraid to hurt feelings. He’s not afraid to fire people or to tell them when he thinks they have erred.
  6. She’s open-minded: She’s open to new ideas, but doesn’t accept ideas that don’t make sense to her.
  7. He’s strategically lazy: He always wants to be the smartest person in the room (and the most powerful) but he’s wise enough to understand that if he puts himself in charge of everything he will never achieve anything beyond what he, as one person, can do. Plus, he doesn’t want to work that hard. So he hires the most talented people he can find and gives them the freedom to do what they do best.

So why am I not telling you that you need a “visionary” and a “risk taker”?

 When it comes growing an entrepreneurial business, I can’t think of any quality that matters less than vision.

When you are growing a start-up company, you have no idea how things will develop and what challenges you will face. That’s because markets are dynamic and problems are specific. You can’t vision your company into success. You have to react and respond, test and retest, try and fail until the future of the business makes itself clear.

The best entrepreneurial leaders (i.e., growers) don’t concern themselves with what the business will become in 7 to 10 years. They focus on this year and this month and this week. Long-term for a grower is, at best, two to three years.

As for risk takers…

 That entrepreneurs (and the CEOs that run entrepreneurial companies) must be risk takers may be a bromide that is even more common than visionary. I think it is equally untrue.

I would not hire anyone to run any aspect of my business (except perhaps a sales team) that I would judge as a risk taker. There is so much inherent risk in building any business. The challenge is to make progress without losing all your time, money, and patience – and that requires the ability to make smart, low-risk, high-growth decisions.

So if you are shopping for a CEO, look for the abovementioned 7 traits… and steer clear of risk takers and visionaries.

 

 

This essay and others are available for syndication.
Contact Us [LINK] for more information. 

Continue Reading

“He that is of the opinion that money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.” – Benjamin Franklin

 

How to Be Happy With Your Money 

It is often said that money doesn’t buy happiness.

When I had no money, which was the case for the first 30 years of my life, I resented that notion. It seemed a glib sentiment expressed condescendingly by those that had to those that had not.

It was also an idea that I didn’t want to hear. I was on the threshold of a 20-year crusade to make money – as much money as I possibly could. If my ambitions had been to be an actor and some Hollywood celebrity said acting wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, I’d have felt the same way. (“You’ve done it. And you have it. I haven’t done it and I don’t have it. Yet. So don’t get in my way!”)

That was then. Now, so many years later, I have more money than I ever imagined I’d have. And guess what? I’ve come to the conclusion that the “money doesn’t buy happiness” cliché, like most clichés, is true.

Don’t take my word for it. There have been countless studies to support this thesis. And virtually all of them conclude the same thing: Once you have enough money to pay the bills, go to a restaurant now and then, and take a vacation once or twice a year, having more money doesn’t make you happier.

But I didn’t know this when I was wearing hand-me-downs in high school. And I didn’t know it when I started my career.

From 1982 to about 1998, I spent 60 to 80 hours a week working my ass off to make and save money. I approached those objectives with monomaniacal intensity. And largely because of that (I had no natural genius for business), I was successful, moving my net worth from zero to nearly mid-eight figures in 16 years.

During those years, I had countless pleasurable moments. But I can’t say I led a generally happy life. I was frequently excited, inspired, and impassioned. But I was also frequently on the verge of depression and despair.

Whenever news of some famous guy offing himself grabbed the media’s attention and people were asking “why,” I said nothing. But I got it.

In the winter of 2000, I started writing about wealth building in Early to Rise, an ezine I published for 10 years. One of the subjects I researched and wrote about on and off throughout that decade, was the relationship between money and happiness. And it was almost always about the wisdom of the money-doesn’t-buy happiness cliché.

But that didn’t stop me from continuing to make “getting richer” my number one goal in life.

 

Finally, the Realization 

Then one day when I was vacationing with K in Rome, I had a life-changing moment. We were crossing a bridge over the Tiber River, and I was lost in thought, worrying, as usual, about some business deal, when K stopped. She said something, but I could not hear her. This was not the first time that happened. It had happened a thousand times before.

I asked her what she had said.

“I was thinking about how much I’m enjoying this trip,” she said. “And I asked if you were having fun.”

“Right,” I said. “Fun.”

And then I thought, “Wait! What am I doing? Enough of this! I’m not going to spend any more time oblivious to the world around me, thinking only about how I can get richer than I already am.”

And I meant it. When we got back to our hotel room, I opened my laptop, went to my yearly list of long-term priorities, and moved “financial goals” from the top to the bottom of the list.

It wasn’t a miracle cure, but it was a start. For the first time, I was able to let happiness seep into my life, a drop at a time.

 

An Unexpected Extra 

Oddly, though, despite the fact that I was no longer fretting about adding to my wealth, my net worth continued to increase. In the 19 years that followed that walk over the Tiber, it doubled and then doubled again.

What happened was this:

I continued working because I liked the work I was doing. I continued to make plans and negotiate deals and create products and develop marketing strategies. But I did it with a different mindset. I set objectives and pursued them, but without caring about whether I accomplished them or not.

My 30-year-old self would have considered that last statement to be another case of condescending bullshit, but it didn’t feel like bullshit. It felt real.

What I finally figured out was another cliché, a biblical adage (Timothy 6:10) that is often misstated. The misstatement is: Money is the root of all evil. The actual statement is: For the love of money is the root of all evil.

I interpret that this way: If you can work towards building your wealth without attaching yourself emotionally to the goal, you can have your cake (gaining net worth) and eat it too. (Don’t worry! Be happy!)

In other words, if you accept the fact that money won’t bring you happiness and that desiring it will bring you (and those around you) myriad forms of pain, you can rid yourself of the ambition of forever acquiring more.

Let’s say you want to retire. You hate the work you’re doing and you want to quit as soon as you possibly can.

So you do this: You figure out the lowest possible amount of money that you need in your retirement account to live comfortably ever after. And you promise yourself that when you reach that “magic number,” you will quit your job.

By accepting the fact that more money won’t bring you more happiness, you won’t be tempted to ratchet that number up when you reach it. (As I did about a half-dozen times.)

Then you get back to work. And you work with a purpose. But your purpose will no longer be to earn more and more money. Your purpose will be to do a really good job until you reach your magic number.

I know this may sound like nonsense. If you think so, I believe it’s because you haven’t tried it. If and when you do, I believe you will find – as I did – that you will work better than you ever did. And as a bonus, you will enjoy your work much, much more.

 

Sometimes, Money Really Can Buy Happiness 

There is another thing you should consider doing: Rethink the way you are spending the money you earn. When our hearts are attached to dreams of making lots of money, we tend to spend what we have in foolish ways.

You may have heard the argument that people generally get more long-term pleasure out of spending money on experiences rather than things.

The first time I heard it, I was repelled by it. It seemed illogical. Experiences are ephemeral, I had always believed. You have them and they are gone. Poof! But things – ah, things last!

It didn’t take me too long to realize the fallacy of this logic. Experiences can last. They can last a lifetime. And the pleasure they bring can be deep. Things usually bring a lot of immediate pleasure, which ebbs over time. Eventually, your things might give you no pleasure at all.

So I resolved to spend less on things and more on experiences. And that has worked wonderfully well.

For example, I long ago discovered that I was getting very little extra pleasure from the collectible  cars I owned. The excitement I had driving them the first year or two had disappeared. Today, I want my cars to be comfortable and low maintenance. I still have a 1989 NSX, which I rarely drive. But the rest of my collectible cars are long and happily gone.

On the other hand, the art I own gives me pleasure all the time. It is not the art itself, the thingness of the art, that I enjoy, but my experience of enjoying it every day. So I continue to buy and sell art, always in an effort to improve the quality of my collection, because the experience of doing so gives me lasting pleasure.

I’ve also discovered – and this should not surprise you – that I can “buy” a considerable dose of happiness by spending my money on other people. Instead of buying a new car for myself, for example, I’ll buy one for my sister or lease a car for a friend that needs one.

In fact, when I think of the money K and I have spent over the years, there is no doubt that the greatest yield came from the financial help we’ve given to family and friends in need and to our Community Center in Nicaragua.

Still doubtful? That’s okay. I spent many years where you are – and I’m glad I lived beyond them. I wish the best for you.

 

This essay and others are available for syndication.
Contact Us [LINK] for more information. 

Continue Reading

Sebastian was flattered when Michael, his former protégé, asked him to critique the promotion he’d written. After all, Sebastian hadn’t written much copy in the 10 years that had passed since they worked together. And during that time, Michael had written a score of blockbusters. He was the man.

Nevertheless, Sebastian agreed to do it.

“It’s generally very good,” he wrote in his critique. “But I have one idea that you might want to consider…”

After sending it off, Sebastian worried. His suggestion would require Michael to spend hours reworking the lead. And he wasn’t sure that his idea was any better than what Michael had already written. He feared that Michael would be insulted.

Sebastian didn’t have to worry for very long. An hour later, Michael returned his email. “That was brilliant!” he wrote. “I don’t know how you do it! I’m going to get to it right away!”

Sebastian felt immense relief. Michael was in an entirely different mindset. He was focused on the work, on making it better. For him, it had nothing to do with feelings.

 

How to Get Better at What You Do Best 

“If you accept your limitations you go beyond them.” – Brendan Behan

The greatest challenges we face in life are obstacles that reside inside of us. When it comes to mastering a skill, the greatest challenge is not the work and time involved in acquiring it but the desire to be a master before you become one.

Hubris – Aristotle’s term for excessive, blinding pride – is the fatal flaw that foiled many tragic heroes in literature, from Oedipus to King Lear to Captain Ahab. And in developing any complex skill, such as copywriting, hubris manifests itself in the same way. The copywriter believes – or desperately wants to believe (which is sometimes worse) – that his/her writing is above reproach.

This is equally true for musicians, tennis players, salsa dancers, sumo wrestlers, and skateboarders. Those who are willing to say “I can do better” do better. Those who say “I am the greatest” soon take a tumble.

What you want in your career is the confidence that follows accomplishment, not the pride that precedes a fall.

So that’s the first lesson: No matter how good you are at what you do, never tell yourself that you can’t get better and never believe you can’t learn from others, even those that cannot perform at the level you have attained.

Think about your strongest skill – the talent or capability that is most important to the achievement of your main goal. Now ask: “Am I willing to acknowledge that there are people in my universe who are better at this than I am?”

If you can accept the limitations of your strongest skill, there is no limit to how far you can develop it.

The Fire and the Funnel 

Ego is the fire that fuels our ambitions. The ambition to master any skill is sparked by the heart’s imagination – seeing oneself at the top of the podium, lauded for one’s achievement, acknowledged for one’s value.

But when ambition becomes pride and pride becomes excessive, the skill seeker stops learning. He cannot learn because he believes he has nothing to learn. He refuses criticism. He defends his weakest efforts. He denies his failure – to others and to himself.

On fire with an exaggerated opinion of himself, he burns out.

Humility is the funnel that can prevent this. Humility set boundaries on pride and keeps the ego fire under control.

When I started actively training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) at age 47, I wasn’t very good at it at all. I had always prided myself on being a good grappler and a scrappy fighter, but I found out very quickly that those old confidences could not sustain me. I got my ass handed to me by guys that were half my size.

I had a choice: Be humble or be proud.

Pride would have spurred me to announce that BJJ was a bullshit sport and quit, thus avoiding future humiliations on the mat. Humility would have let me accept the reality of my incompetence, thus allowing me to continue to practice and learn.

Happily, I chose to be humble. And since then, every time I’ve advanced through the belt rankings, from white to blue to purple to brown and to black, I’ve had to face the fact that there were many others – not just higher belts but lower belts, too – that were more skillful than I.  Even today, getting beaten by a purple belt or a brown belt challenges my pride. And each time, I have to choose to accept the fact that others are better… because if I don’t, I cannot continue to improve.

Human beings are designed to get better through practice. Everything we ever learn to do – from walking to talking to writing concertos – gets better through practice. Practice makes our fingers move faster, our hearts beat stronger, our brains think smarter. What is it that Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods talk about when they talk about their careers? It’s not that they were gifted with extraordinary natural talent. It’s that they worked harder than their competitors.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. That’s a foolish idea. Practice makes better. And better is where all the enjoyment is in learning.

To become a better version of whatever you are good at now, you need the fuel of your ambition to drive you forward. But without the funnel of humility to restrain your pride, you will stop practicing. And when you stop practicing, you are out of the game.

 

This essay and others are available for syndication.
Contact Us for more information. 

Continue Reading

We are in a taxi in Paris – the four of us. PB gets a call. She gives us the sorry look and looks at the phone. She smiles.

“It’s L,” she says.

L is her daughter, her bright, beautiful daughter. We’ve known L since she was born.

“What’s up?” PB says to L.

For a full minute, she listens intently, the smile gone from her face. We wait anxiously, wondering how bad the news is.

”Okay,” PB says. “Now calm down. Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to go to the nearest Four Seasons. Speak to the concierge. He’ll be able to help you.”

Pause.

“Love you too!”

PB and her daughter are very close. And that’s a wonderful thing. Here’s the problem. L is a full-grown woman – a married, professional woman.

What We (Should) Want for Our Children 

“Of all nature’s gifts to the human race, what is sweeter to a man than his children?” – Marcus Tulius Cicero

When my children were infants, I wanted only one thing for them: good health. 

I’m sure every parent feels this way. The wish for a child’s health is deep and strong. It’s as deep as DNA and as strong as the survival instinct. It is, in fact, a manifestation of the survival instinct. In wanting our infant children to be healthy, we are, at bottom, wanting the deepest part of our selves – our DNA – to survive.

When my children were young, I would have stepped in front of a train to save them. I still would.

I’ll bet you would, too.

Putting our children’s survival above our own is a good thing. But it’s not a virtuous thing. It’s an animal instinct motivated by biology.  So there you go.

Actually, I lied. There was another thing I wanted for my children when they were infants. I wanted them to be good looking. 

I know how that sounds. And I’m quite sure most parents would deny they wanted their kids to be good looking. But I did.

And why not?

If I had any other wishes for my infant children, I can’t remember them. So let’s move on.

When they were toddlers and continuing through their early childhoods, I wanted my kids to be good at just about everything they did. 

I wanted them to be quick learners, agile athletes, and accomplished at any extracurricular activity they joined.

Wanting these things for them felt as natural to me as my earlier wishes for their health and good looks. But it wasn’t nearly as strong. I definitely wanted them to quickly learn and shine in all of their growing challenges, but I wouldn’t step in front of that train to satisfy that want.

I’ve noticed that some parents seem to spend most of their time ferrying their kids to activities, cheering them on, and hiring tutors and coaches to develop their skills. Other parents never show up. Some of them probably have no time. Some just don’t care that much. The intensity of my desire for my kids to be good at everything fell somewhere in the middle. I signed them up for activities and showed up now and then. But I never coached them. Or paid someone to do it.

I remember going to one of my eldest son’s soccer games when he was only four. At the time, he had only a passing interest in the sport. I mean that literally. He spent most of his time standing in the grass looking down at the flowers. Every once in a while, the ball would land in his vicinity, at which point he would casually kick it away, as often as not to a team mate. “Good pass!” someone would shout. It usually turned out to be the parent of the child to whom my son had unwittingly passed the ball.

I never considered myself a fanatical parent. (Although my kids tell me that when it came to writing, I was like “Bull” Meecham, the character in Pat Conroy’s book The Great Santini that bounced a basketball off his son’s head.) But I do believe that the desire to see one’s young child excel  springs from the same DNA that makes us want them to be healthy and good looking. In other words, it is a desire that is natural and good, so long as it is reasonably restrained.

I also wanted my young children to be well mannered. 

When they were very young, my kids’ bad behavior often amused me. Their temper tantrums seemed oddly cute. (I have never felt that way about other people’s children.) And truth be told, I feel the same way about my grandchildren’s bad behavior today.

But by the time my kids were four or five, I was rarely entertained by their bad behavior.

K felt the same way. She believed that one of our parental duties was to help our children function successfully and appropriately in the world they were born into, which was our world, the adult world. We wanted them to be happy, but not at the expense of making people around them – children or adults – miserable.

For many parents, disciplining toddlers and young children is a harrowing experience. It wasn’t that way for us. Teaching our kids good manners was relatively easy, thanks to K, who understood the importance of setting clear boundaries.

K was a genius at this partly because she believed in self-discipline and partly because she herself was self-disciplined. No excuse for breaking a rule, no matter how ingenious, was accepted. Penalties – mostly time-outs – were enforced with unwavering consistency. (I was virtually no help in this regard.) K ruled the roost, and our boys were generally obedient and cooperative without losing their boyishness and their native instincts to cause a fair degree of chaos wherever they went.

When the boys grew larger and realized their mother could not physically enforce the punishments she gave them, they became emboldened and would occasionally defy her. This is when I became useful and when they began hearing the universal maternal refrain: “Wait till your father gets home!”

K did not believe in spanking, so I didn’t spank them. But I did employ the power of my deeper and louder voice to get their attention. And if they refused to go to their bedrooms for a time-out, I would escort them there. That was largely successful.

As they moved into their mid-teens, I wanted my children to be emotionally resilient and mentally strong. That wasn’t a decision I made formally. It happened serendipitously. 

Once, when my eldest son was about 15, we got into a play-wrestling match. It began as fun but quickly turned into the test that most fathers have with their teenage sons – the chance for the son to show his father that he is equal to him in strength and courage.

I felt my son’s strength the moment we began grappling. I didn’t initiate the higher level of play. He did. Had I not been wrestling competitively for years, he would have whooped me.  But since I did have the skills, I “upped my game.” I was on the verge of winning the battle when I had a flash thought: “If you do this, you are sending him a bad signal.”

So I let him win – and it saved us both. I feel sure that by winning that match, I would have damaged his self-confidence deeply and permanently. And that would have damaged my sense of being a good father even more.

The experience, short as it was, helped me realize that what I wanted most of all for him at that point of his life was that he would mature into a person that was mentally and emotionally stronger than me.

That’s what every healthy minded parent wants. Don’t you agree?

When my kids were in their early 20s, I wanted them to become financially independent.

I’m not sure how I arrived at this one. It may have been in response to talking to the boys about college. It may have been because I realized that they would soon be living away from us and would have to fend for themselves.

By that time, our financial situation had moved well beyond the meager straits we were in when the kids were small. We had the resources to support them financially for the rest of their lives, but we knew that would be a terrible thing to do. They had become hardworking, responsible, and self-sufficient human beings. We didn’t want to ruin that by laying a path ahead of them paved with easy access to money.

So we didn’t. We told them repeatedly that they would inherit nothing from us – that if they wanted the luxuries that money can provide, they would have to earn it themselves. They wore clothes bought at discount clothing stores. They were not permitted to have their own TVs or cellphones. They did not get an allowance, but they could work for spending money. And when they were 16, we didn’t buy them a car, like some of their friends’ parents did.

We deprived them of all these things because we wanted them to learn how to earn on their own and, even more important, understand that they were not entitled to our or anyone else’s wealth.

And it worked. During their college years and in all the years since, none of them has ever asked us for a nickel. I am immensely proud of that.

Of course, when they became adults and had their own children, we wanted to help them out in every way we could. But they were adamant about wanting to be financially independent. And though we keep trying to help out with this and that, I’m secretly pleased that they don’t want – or need – our help.

Now that our children are in their 30s and even approaching their 40s, I have discovered yet another wish I have for them. I want them to be and remain independent thinkers.

There is so much groupthink in the world today. When my kids were in college, they were exposed to all the politically correct ideas and ideologies that are still popular among academics. Sometimes I worried that they would emerge with heads full of conventional thinking. What was the point of going to a university for that?

One of my sons, fresh out of college, told me that he thought the Antifas were correct in sucker-punching people whose opinions they disagreed with. This irked the hell out of me. We debated the issue. But I couldn’t convince him of the absurdity of his position. It wasn’t his position that bothered me. It was the fact that he was making an argument that he had been taught by some jackass professor.

These days, I no longer worry about that. None of my sons sees eye-to-eye with me on anything. They have their own views and, like their father, they like to argue about them.

But the thinking behind their arguments is braver and more nuanced than it was when they were younger. Each in his way is skeptical of trendy ideas and opinions, analytical, and willing to state his mind. That makes me feel like, “Yes, son. You are a man now. You  can march forward into the miasma of bad thinking that awaits you and survive!”

And although they all express themselves differently in terms of style and temperament, they all make their arguments with less irritation and more kindness than I did at their age. That makes me proud.

This essay and others are available for syndication.
Contact Us [LINK] for more information. 

Continue Reading

Art Collecting: Learn While You Earn* 

 

“The only time life allows for happiness is the present. Right now. In this very moment.” – Michael Masterson

 

Investing in museum-quality art will make you richer financially as the years pass, but owning that art will give you a richer experience of life every time you look at it.

Like literature, art can make statements and tell stories. Like music, it can stir up strong emotions. And like dance, it can elevate your notion of beauty.

This is the softer side of art collecting – and this is why I like it so much.

I won’t try to convince you of it now, but I believe that the three best ways to enjoy life are through loving, working, and learning.

To enjoy the people you spend time with, you must love them. Loving them – not being loved by them – is what provides the real pleasure.

To enjoy what you do in life, you must find work that is meaningful to you or you must find meaning in the work you do. Then you must work long and hard at it with purpose.

And to enjoy the things in your life, you must acquire things that are meaningful to you or find meaning in the things you have. Then you must devote your time to learning about them and from them.

It is that last secret to enjoying life that we will be exploring here.

 

Art can describe things… 

One type of art that I love looking at is what I call, for a lack of a better term, descriptive art. By that I mean images that describe events and situations in vivid detail. I learn from that sort of art by studying the details and trying to put them together to arrive at an understanding of what is actually going on.

For example, I love the work of the early Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. I like the imagery in his murals and triptychs. I particularly like his grotesque depictions of hell, showing the many ways sinners will be tortured for eternity. (To see one of my favorites, do a Google search for Hell 2 by Bosch.)

I love looking at 15th-, 16th-, and 17th-century Flemish paintings of everyday life, as well. Van Eyck… Brueghel… Rubens… give me a window into a different time, a world that no longer exists. I like to see what the people are doing, how they are dressed, and the tools they work with. (For a few examples of what I’m talking about, do a Google search for Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden, The Moneylender and His Wife by Quentin Matsys, and  Hélène Fourment in a Fur Cloak by Pieter Paul Rubens.)

 

Art can tell a story… 

Do you remember how, when you were very young, you could read a story over and over without any decrease in the pleasure it gave you? That’s how I feel when I look at the work of figurative painters like Andrew Wyeth.

I call this narrative art (again, my term) because it tells a story. And like literary fiction, I don’t like every narrative painting I see. But when I do like one, I am able to get never-ending pleasure from it. Each time I look at it, I slip into a reverie that feels both fresh and nostalgic.

For me, the best narrative art is not explicit in its storytelling. There is a story there, but it is not obvious. Its value for me lies, interestingly, in its lack of detail – the opposite of what pleases me about descriptive art.

When narrative art has too much detail about the story, my pleasure wanes the more I look at it. Thus, though I like Norman Rockwell, I can’t get the lasting pleasure from looking at his work that I get from a painting by Andrew Wyeth.

 

Art can make a statement… 

For as long as art has existed, it has been used to make social, political, artistic, and even personal statements. I think of this as rhetorical art because its purpose is to persuade. Examples that pop to mind are Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, George Grosz’s Grey Day, Frida Kahlo’s Diego and I, and Ai Weiwei’s Law of the Journey.

Then there are the genres: the nationalist poster art of WWI , the patriotic illustrations of Norman Rockwell and his imitators, WPA art, the Mexican muralists, the Chinese communist posters, the Chinese anticommunist realists, the American graffiti artists, etc.

In terms of medium, style, and expression, they run the gamut. But their purpose was the same: to promote an idea, ideology, or view of the world in a didactic way. Their work was meant to inform and enlighten, not to inspire or please.

And yet, many of them were masterfully done and have entered into the heights of the most sought after art.

I am fascinated by poster art but I don’t collect it. I do invest in the modern Mexican muralists and many WPA artists. The best pieces are out of my range. Those I visit in museums. I do not enjoy them for their messaging. I dislike overt messaging in every realm of art. What I like, usually, is the bold imagery and the colors. Yes, they are making statements. But if you enjoy the art, as I do, you can ignore those statements.

 

Art can stir up useful feelings… 

In my collection of paintings and sculptures, there are a fair number that move me in ways that I can’t quite understand. Most of them are either abstract or impressionist, not realistic depictions of dramatic events or scenes. But the emotions they provoke are strong and consistent. One painting may stimulate a vague nostalgia. Another painting may prompt a bright feeling of hope or optimism. Yet a third painting may evoke a feeling of dread. I don’t know why.

I do know that I tend to look at these paintings on purpose – not accidentally.  On another day, I might pass by an impressionist view of a silhouette of a black boat in a green lake against a yellow sky, but today I stop to look at it because I know, subconsciously, that I need a dose of the feeling it always gives me.

I might look at a small sculpture that I own by Henry Moore when I need the stimulus to be more serious about my work, or look up a photo of a sculpture by Umberto Boccioni when I need an aesthetic injection of emotional strength.

I’m quite sure that most people that rarely look at art would think that what I’m saying here is absurd or fabricated.  But I’m equally sure that people that look at art regularly know exactly what I mean.

There are drugs that can probably do the same thing. But I prefer art.

 

Art is accessible… 

As I said in the first installment of this series, you can get the emotional benefits of art without spending a nickel. Art is everywhere. Not just in museums but in restaurants and retail stores and public parks and even in the homes of your friends.

Art is also accessible in terms of education. You don’t need a college degree to benefit from it. The street sweeper in Florence, Italy, has the same capacity as the CEO of Ferrari to enjoy Michelangelo’s David. The laborer cutting grass on the Florida millionaire’s estate has the same capacity as the estate owner to admire the Fernando Botero sculpture sitting in that very garden.

Wealth, in fact, can actually be a hindrance to the enjoyment of art. I know more than a handful of wealthy people who buy art and pretend to enjoy it. They believe it gives them prestige. They fill their homes with “limited editions” from well-known artists, such as Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall. To that same end, they fill their garages with Porsches and Lamborghinis. I sometimes wonder if – aside from showing off their trophy pieces to visitors – they ever even look at them.

Having a college degree (even a graduate degree in art history) might help you talk impressively about art. It might provide you with the vocabulary to describe the technical aspects of a piece or explain its historical context. But it doesn’t give you an advantage when it comes to really seeing art or enjoying it in a personal way.

And you certainly don’t need a college degree to invest in it.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll tell you why my art collection has appreciated as much as it has. It’s the primary reason so many ordinary, amateur art lovers have acquired amazing, multimillion-dollar collections.

For now, I’ll leave you with this:

 

Five Good Reasons to Invest in Art 

  1. If you buy smart, art can bring you very good returns, as proven by several indexes, including the MMAA.
  2. It is not hard to understand… especially if you limit your collection to a handful of artists whom you can study in depth.
  3. Investing in art – even museum-quality art – is something anyone with a middle-class income can do.
  4. As I pointed out in my last essay, art has benefits that you can’t get from a stock portfolio. It is, for example, tangible, portable, and insurable.
  5. Most important, if you love art, it can give you ideas, thoughts, and feelings that will enrich your life immeasurably.

* This series of essays gives you an advance look at a new book that I’m working on, based on my experiences over the past 40+ years as a collector and investor in fine art.  

 

This essay and others are available for syndication.
Contact Us [LINK] for more information. 

Continue Reading

Ever since Trump took office, conversation with many friends and most of my family has been a challenge. They feel about him the way some of  my conservative friends and colleagues feel about Hillary Clinton. When feelings are strong, reason declines and facts lose their context. I like a loud argument as much as any Irish American, but I don’t like an intellectual joust that leaves emotional bruises. Those bruises last longer when ideology insinuates itself into argument. Ideology leads to groupthink. Groupthink leads to war. And war is always destructive.

When news of the coronavirus broke, there was every reason to believe we were in a global crisis. Crisis often galvanizes otherwise opposing factions to band together against a common enemy. I hoped, naively, that this would be the case. Alas, it did not happen. The threat of COVID-19 became, almost immediately, an ideological topic.

The reports we were hearing from China and Europe through the World Health Organization (WHO) were positively frightening. But the numbers associated with those stories didn’t make any sense. So I began to write about it and do some research on my own. The more I studied what was being said, the less I believed it. And when the shelter-in-place solution was introduced as the “scientific” protocol for reducing the eventual death rate from COVID-19, I was challenging it in my blog posts and conversations.  

That was not well received by my friends and family members who were getting their information from the mainstream press. They were convinced not only that sheltering-in-place was the right course of action, they believed that the USA had been hobbled by Trump by not putting it into effect sooner. It didn’t seem to matter to them that Trump’s earlier doubts about  it were not his, but the recommendations of the WHO, the CDC, and the White House panel of experts headed by Dr. Fauci.

We do agree on one thing: The Trump administration bungled its response to the threat. But my friends/family think the mistake was in implementing mass quarantines too late. I think the mistake was in implementing them in the first place. 

 

Living in Fear of the Fear of COVID-19 

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” – Ben Franklin

I want to resume my wrestling, but K is worried that I will catch the virus from a training partner and infect the family.

My brother-in-law is worried about the throngs of (mostly young) people that have descended on Atlantic Avenue and its restaurants since they reopened a week ago. “It’s all bullshit,” he says. “Nobody is keeping social distance or wearing masks. Even some of the servers aren’t wearing masks.”

My fellow members of The Mules, the book club I belong to, want to have our next meeting virtually, as we’ve had the last two.

It’s difficult for me to speak about the virus with any of them because I know they are seriously frightened. But I believe their fear is unsubstantiated by the facts. And it angers me to think that they have been prompted into that level of fear by politicians and media that are using this crisis to further their political objectives.

So when I do speak about it, I find it difficult to restrain my anger. I state my opinions in definitive terms in hopes of shocking my friends/family out of their panic. It is a foolish approach. My sister reminded me of that yesterday, and she was right. So I’m writing this today, another essay on what I’ve learned about the coronavirus and why I believe the fear they are living with is based largely on misinformation.

I want to begin with some facts. But before I do, I implore you to read these facts with an open mind. Keep in mind that they all come from sources that you probably trust: the WHO, the CDC, Dr. Fauci and team, and several dozen studies done by respectable research institutions since the last essay I published on the virus itself.

*Fact One: Based on current death rates, COVID-19 ranks 13th on the list of the ailments that people, worldwide, die from each day. It is exceeded by cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, lower respiratory infections, dementia, digestive diseases, neonatal disorders, diarrheal diseases, diabetes, liver diseases, kidney diseases, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDs. It is also exceeded by road injuries and suicide (which is on its way up). The number of people that die from cardiovascular diseases is more than 20 times greater. (This would not have been true had you made the comparison when the death rate was at its peak, but it is true now.)

You may be thinking that you are not interested in comparing COVID-19 to cancer or heart disease, since they are not contagious. In terms of my topic – which is fear – I think that is an illogical position. But put that aside…

* Fact Two: Of contagious diseases, it ranks 7th, after lower respiratory diseases, neonatal disorders, diarrheal diseases, digestive diseases, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDs.

The fatality rate of COVID-19 is the primary reason that some epidemiologists were so concerned about the disease in the first place. Early reports had it at double digits, then at 6%, and then at 3.4%.

Those were the numbers that spurred the call for mass quarantining. But those numbers were based on case fatality rates.

As I explained in every essay I wrote on the subject, this is an useless and potentially misleading statistic. The case fatality rate does not measure a disease’s actual lethality rate. It measures only how many people died compared to how many people have been diagnosed as positive.

We can only know the actual fatality rate (some call it the infectious fatality rate) when we know how many people have died compared to how many people have been actually infected.

That was impossible to determine in March or even April because test kits were limited and no one was doing randomized tests of people that showed no symptoms.

Those tests have been conducted in the last four weeks. And what they are showing us is that the earlier case fatality rates overestimated the true fatality rates by a factor of 10 to 50.

For example:

* Fact Three: A new randomized study of 3000 people in New York State found that 13.9% of those tested for antibodies were positive. That means 2.7 million New Yorkers have already contracted COVID-19. When this was reported, there were 257,216 cases with 15,302 deaths. That equates to a case fatality rate of 6%.

But as I explained above, the case fatality rate is meaningless until you know the number of people infected, not just the number diagnosed. I suggested in my April 8 essay that it must be at least 10 times higher because symptoms for so many were flu-like and because of the lack of testing available then.

Adjusting for the latest findings, we can see that the actual lethality rate is a bit more than 10 times case the fatality rate, coming in at about 0.5%.

* Fact Four: This same study found that 21.2% of those tested in New York City were diagnosed as positive for COVID-19 antibodies. New York City’s population is 8.4 million. Extrapolating on that, we can assume that about 1.78 million denizens of the Big Apple were already infected with COVID-19 at the time. This means that even in the worst hot spot in the country, the actual fatality rate was 0.6%.

* Fact Five: These findings are similar to those from antibody studies done in Santa Clara, CA; LA county; and Kansas. Dutch, German, and French studies also show a much higher incidence of the virus than case studies would suggest – which means much lower real lethality rates.

My friends and family members that have a different view than I do tell me that the actual death count from COVID-19 is higher than reported. They tell me that there were surely people that died from it in the early days that were not diagnosed. I don’t doubt that. But if you understand the protocols that were put into place in by the CDC in early March, you can deduce that this must be a fraction of the distortion that occurred during the period of time when the death count was in the thousands.

* Fact Six: The CDC’s recommendations for reporting COVID-19 deaths included patients that died with “symptoms” of the disease, even if they didn’t die “of” the disease. In other words, if a patient that died of pancreatic cancer happened to test positive for COVID-19, the cause of death should be noted as COVID-19. (Note: When the state of Colorado did a study of this recently, differentiating those people that died with COVID-19 symptoms from those that died of COVID-19, the COVID death rate dropped by 25%!)

It’s hard to understand why the CDC would have made this recommendation, since it is patently unscientific. Most symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to flu and other respiratory diseases. Even in hot spots, less than half of those with COVID-19 symptoms test positive. Several emergency room and ICU doctors have commented publicly on this anomaly, complaining that they feel pressured to report deaths as due to COVID-19 when there is no certain reason to think it is so.

A fatality rate of 0.5% is considerably higher than the 0.1% or 0.2% fatality rate of influenza. But as I have explained, there is an important difference between COVID-19 and influenza. COVID-19 does most of its killing among populations of older people that have other life-threatening, “comorbidity” issues.

* Fact Seven: A study by the AMA found that 94% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in New York City had serious underlying conditions. 53% had hypertension, 42% were obese, and 32% had diabetes. The median age was 63.

* Fact Eight: In New York, the fatality rate for COVID-19 patients between 18 and 45 is 0.1%. For children, the fatality rate is statistically zero percent.

These numbers correspond to the analysis I did in March. Also, multiple studies have shown that children are not significant “vectors” of COVID-19. That means they don’t spread it very well.

The chances of contracting COVID-19 are much greater in confined spaces than they are in the open air.

* Fact Nine: A Chinese study of 3000 COVID-19 deaths found that all but one of the patients contracted the disease indoors. (The one exception contracted it through contact with someone that had just arrived from Wuhan province.) Yet many state governors, like New York’s Cuomo, were forcing elderly COVID-19 patients into nursing homes – which accounts for the severe contagion and death rates that we saw in those facilities across the globe. (This policy has just recently been reversed, weeks after the results of this study were reported.)

There have been several new studies suggesting that herd immunity for COVID-19 might be much lower than the 60% to 80% that was originally projected. I haven’t had time to locate these studies, so I can’t call this a fact. I know the projections are between 10% and 40%. 10% makes no sense. But 40% could explain why we’ve seen the recent drop in mortality.

There is no disputing the fact that you can reduce the speed at which the virus spreads by social distancing and washing hands. This is the strategy of flattening the curve. But flattening the curve is about slowing the spread of infection – not necessarily decreasing the eventual death count – which is what happened because of measures like social distancing and hand washing, not the lockdown.

* Fact Ten: Studies from Germany and Switzerland found that the flattening of the curve of the contagion happened weeks earlier than originally believed. In every case studied, the peak appears to have been before lockdowns were implemented. What that means is that the lockdowns did not work. They were not the reason the curve flattened. They had, if any, only a negligible impact on the curves in those countries.

* Fact Eleven: According to an analysis by Stanford University, there is no statistical correlation between lockdowns and COVID-19 deaths between those states that locked down early and those states that locked down late.

Those are some of the facts. And all of them come, as I said, from the WHO, the CDC, and reputable university and scientific studies.

So this brings me to the point of disagreement I have with friends and family members that believe the lockdown was and still is necessary, and that the movement towards opening the economy puts them and others in danger of dying.

Spend five minutes thinking about the above facts, and you have to agree that the proper response to the coronavirus threat would have been to isolate the most vulnerable (which we did not do) and not shut down the economy.

In fact, there is an argument to be made that sheltering-in-place has caused and will cause thousands and potentially hundreds of thousands of additional deaths. Deaths from depression, suicide, and domestic violence, as well as the deaths of many people with symptoms of heart attack, stroke, etc. that should have gone to the hospital but didn’t because of the fear of getting infected.

* Fact Twelve: Vaccinations for children have abruptly fallen at an alarming rate since the shutdown. In Michigan, fewer than half of infants 5 months or younger are up to date on their vaccinations, which may allow for outbreaks in diseases like measles.

But I won’t make that argument. It’s more important to make another point.

Unless we develop a miracle vaccine in the next few months, there are going to be lots more people dying of COVID-19. We don’t know how many. But based on the facts I’ve listed above, I hope it’s clear that there will be no lowering of the death rate by any continuance of the lockdown.

And speaking of a miracle vaccine, we have seen an historically unprecedented acceleration of efforts, private and public, to find a vaccine. And according to reports on both sides of the argument, we are making progress. At least a half-dozen vaccines have been approved for initial, phase one testing.

But here’s another fact to consider:

* Fact Thirteen: 90% of drugs that are approved for initial, phase one testing fail to make it to phase two.

The logic behind the opinion that many hold – that mass quarantines will minimize future deaths because the spread of the virus will be slowed – is faulty. The opposite is the case.

The only valid purpose for the lockdown that ever made any sense was to flatten the curve and thereby prevent hospitals from being so overwhelmed that they could not properly treat COVID-19 patients. But I’ve not found a single report that verified a death caused by, for example, lack of access to a ventilator.

What the lockdowns did, without question, is slow the race towards herd immunity. That means (again, barring the development and approval of an effective vaccine in the next few months) we will almost certainly have a second and even a third wave of the virus. And when those waves come, they will likely be different – maybe more lethal – strains. Which would mean, for certain, that the lockdown strategy will have resulted in many more deaths.

That is what makes me angry. And that is why I am upset when I hear my friends and family members say that those that favor opening the economy are putting money ahead of lives. It’s simply not true. The facts don’t support it. If we want to reduce the eventual death count, we must allow the virus to spread among the large percentage of the population that has little to no chance of dying from it. We have to reach heard immunity before a new, more lethal strain comes back and infects us. (This, by the way, is what happened with the Spanish Flu of 1918.)

I am angry and I want to blame someone. But I can’t blame my friends and family members who are scared because of the misinformation they’ve relied on.

I blame the mainstream media for not investigating the pandemic with any seriousness. And I blame some newspapers and news programs for pursuing reporting that was evidently meant to scare people.

These reporters and commentators failed very early to do even the simplest arithmetic, which would have made them understand how misleading the early case fatality rates were. Since then, they have ignored the studies that have unearthed the evidence listed above. Why they continue promoting their false narrative is anyone’s guess.

But because they will continue to promote their false narrative, the people that have taken it for truth will likely continue to believe it. They will continue to find ways to blame the Trump administration for the deaths that will follow, ignoring the fact that the mistake it made is clearly the mistake of shutting the economy down.

As I’ll explain in a moment, though, none of that makes any difference. We are already fast into the opening process and that isn’t going to stop.

But before I get into that, a few words on what I think we should have done.

In retrospect, the smarter federal policy would have been to:

  1. Allow those that had a near zero chance of dying from the virus (children and people under 28) to lead their normal lives, spreading the virus among their peers at a controlled but relatively free pace, so that we could move towards herd immunity as fast as could be reasonably done.
  2. Advise healthy people in their 30s, 40s and 50s (whose chances of dying from COVID-19 are less than 1%) to act like responsible adults capable of making adult decisions.
  3. Focus 80% of our resources to quarantine the 20% of our population that is most vulnerable to the disease.

In retrospect, the correct response from the CDC and the president’s task force would have been to recognize, immediately, that the arithmetic that gave us “official” lethality rates of 10% and 6.5% and 3.4% (and the early predictions of millions of US deaths) was obviously wrong.

In retrospect, state and local governments should have kept parks and beaches open so that people could get the exercise and the sun they needed. They should have advised anyone concerned about catching the virus or passing it on to their elders that the likelihood of that happening in the outdoors is tiny compared with the chances of catching it in any sort of “sheltered” place.

In retrospect, we should not have required nursing homes to take back their clients that had been diagnosed with COVID-19. That’s what caused the spike in deaths that we saw. We should have isolated those people and, thus, reduced the huge percentage of deaths that occurred in such facilities.

* Fact Fourteen: 41% of the Americans that have died from COVID-19 were in nursing homes. In Minnesota, the percentage was 81%. In New Hampshire, it was 72%. In Rhode Island, it was 75%. In a dozen other states, it was more than 60%.

The coronavirus is very contagious. And it is lethal to older people that have serious comorbidity issues. But it is not lethal to the rest of the population. To most of those that have been put on unemployment – mostly younger, healthier people – it isn’t a great threat at all. And to those that are vulnerable, shelter-in-place increased their chances of dying from it.

Those are, it seems to me, the facts.

The curve has flattened in most of America, but COVID-19 has not been conquered. Not at all. It will come back and it will continue to kill. In one of my early essays, I predicted that it would kill between 60,000 and 120,000 this year and as many as 600,000 if we don’t reach herd immunity.

The lockdown did not and will not diminish that number. Only herd immunity (either acquired naturally by spreading the infection or with the help of a vaccine) will do that.

In retrospect, it would have been better to if the WHO, the CDC, and the administration had reduced, rather than inflamed the panic that has spread like a virus across our country. It would have been better if they had admitted, early on, that the original arithmetic and modeling were bad and waited for the facts.

I would like to think that anyone that that is fearful now could get a realistic grip of reality by focusing on these facts, but that may not happen. When you have invested so much emotional energy into a fear about the future, it’s difficult to give it up.

I doubt, too, that when this is over, those that have accepted the viability of the lockdown will change their opinions. They will be suspicious of facts that don’t support the narrative they have been sold. And the media and public figures that sold that narrative aren’t likely to admit that they were wrong either.

They make minor adjustments to their stories to accommodate realities that cannot be refuted, but will hold on to the scientific evidence that is more difficult for lay people to understand. They will do this to protect themselves from the shame they must feel when they think about what they have created.

For my part, I’m going to do my best to bite my tongue whenever I hear fearful friends and family members fretting about the opening up of the economy. Biting my tongue is an easy price to pay to avoid saying something that pisses them off.

A tougher issue for me will be how I go about taking advantage of all these openings. For one thing, as I said at the top, I want to resume my wrestling. That would mean rolling around on the floor with young guys who, if they had COVID-19, would likely be asymptomatic. I understand why K has forbidden me from doing that. I believe the actual risk is infinitesimally small, but being wrong is not chance I’m willing to take.

I will have to put off my favorite form of exercise until K’s fear subsides. And I realize that’s not going to happen until the pandemic narrative she has been listening to gives up the ghost of its beliefs about the lockdown and shelter-in-place strategies.

That will happen well before we have an effective vaccine. I can see it happening already. K had her hair done yesterday. My brother-in-law hugged a friend. It is people like this, not the protesters that have been opposing the shutdown, that will bring the American economy back to life.

They will do it not because they believe the shutdown was wrong, but because they are sick and tired of being locked up.

There is only so long that a mentally healthy person can stay locked up in a prison of fear.

 

This essay and others are available for syndication. 
Contact Us [LINK] for more information. [BOLD/CENTERED]

Continue Reading

In Part 1 of “Free Is a Bad Idea,” I wrote about how “free” is generally bad in business – in particular, how free offers tend to work poorly as marketing campaigns and can actually weaken the long-term profitability of a business. Today, I’d like to talk about another area where “free” is generally a bad idea: how well-intentioned charitable projects can be damaged and even doomed by giving away things for free.

 

Free Is a Bad Idea, Part 2: Free Offers in Charity 

 “Too many have dispensed with generosity in order to practice charity.” – Albert Camus

I know more about making money than I do about giving it away. But I’ve been inclined toward charitable giving all my life, and have been actively involved in running a charitable foundation for the last 20 years. So while I don’t pretend to be an authority on the subject, I’ve come to several conclusions about what works and what doesn’t.

Among them is this: In charity, as in business, “free” is generally a bad idea.

I am writing a book about the 20 years I’ve spent running and funding a charitable foundation, in which I recount dozens of stories about charitable impulses gone awry. (You may remember reading one of them, here on the blog, about my attempt to help Marcus and Gabriela.)

These stories all have the same plot: I decide to “help” someone by giving them something – usually money – only to find, in the end, that the transaction was good only for me. It made me feel magnanimous. But it hurt the person I intended to help in some substantial way. Not only were the objectives of the giving not met, but the giving usually gave rise to unexpected and disappointing consequences.

For example: I once gifted money to someone I cared about to start a business – no strings attached. Over a period of about two years, I increased the funding until I had put in nearly a quarter-million dollars. When it became apparent that the business model was not working, I discontinued funding it, which meant the business had to be closed. The response from the beneficiary of my generosity was a mix of anger and resentment.

We eventually got past that because we each valued our relationship more than our mutual disappointments. But I was vexed with the memory of it until I woke up one day and realized that I had to accept responsibility for the failure. My mistake, I decided, was that I gave the money with “no strings attached.”

Some time later, in 1998, I set up the foundation I mentioned above to manage my charitable activities. Its primary program was FunLimon – a community center in Nicaragua. It was initially intended to provide the local people with literacy and English classes, but soon grew into a large athletic and educational facility.

This was a significant commitment to charitable giving, and it gave me an opportunity to learn that there was still a great deal that I didn’t know about how to help people in a meaningful way.

Soon after we opened FunLimon, for example, I “sponsored” a local baseball team in the town. We bought them uniforms, shoes, and gloves, and paid the fee the team had been paying to participate in the league. The next year, they surprised me by asking for an entirely new set of uniforms, shoes, and gloves. When I suggested that they could use the old ones, they went on strike. (I’m not kidding.)

Another example: At the beginning of the school year, we gave all the school children in the local area a backpack filled with school supplies and a new pair of shoes. Many of them, too, asked for new backpacks and supplies the following year. When we asked why they couldn’t use the old ones, they told us that they wanted new ones.

Yet another example: For several years, we supplied the local schools with meat products to enrich the lunches they provided (which were basically rice and beans). Since we could not imagine any negative consequences to this particular program, we meant to continue it indefinitely. But then we discovered that several of the schools weren’t using the money we gave them to buy meat. They used it instead, they told us, to give the kids graduation parties.

I have better stories than that, but I’m saving them for the book.

Ultimately, I came to understand that giving away money is as challenging as getting it. To avoid the inherent negative consequences, I have to treat my charitable activities with the same seriousness as my business endeavors. That means, besides putting in the time required, taking responsibility for the negative consequences of anything our foundation does, even when those results are contrary to our good intentions.

Doing less damage than good… 

Our motto – “Do Less Harm Than Good” – reflects that principle. And from that, we have developed a mission statement, policy documents, and guidelines that help us evaluate and execute our programs.

One of those guidelines, one of the most important, is to be wary of giving away anything for free.

Our recreational facilities, for example, used to be free to anyone that wanted to use them. Now we charge a small membership fee – a dollar or two a month. Likewise, our educational programs – from English to Spanish literacy to martial arts and our trade school programs – used to be free. But now, they, too, have a small tuition fee.

At first, there was a bit of grumbling about these new fees. A few people even accused us of trying to profit from our non-profit! (Had they bothered to check the public records, they would have seen that the revenue we get from any and all fees and tuitions represents in total less than 20% of our expenses. Another 5% of our revenues come from private donations. And the rest of the annual budget – more than $200,000 a year – is funded by yours truly and family.)

When these objections were first voiced, I was surprised and disappointed. How could anyone complain about paying a dollar or two a month to have a membership in a first-class recreation center? And why would someone that was paying $50 a month for English lessons, given an hour away in the city of Rivas, feel that paying the foundation $5 for native instruction was a rip-off?

The answer is human nature.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is nothing in the human mind that is more universal than the capacity for entitlement. (But that is a subject for another essay.)

Because of the initial objections, early enrollments in our programs went down marginally after we started imposing fees and tuitions. But within six months, those same programs were back to being fully booked and overbooked.

Perhaps more importantly, class attendance improved. In some cases, dramatically! The demand for English classes, for example, almost doubled (now that they had a chance to realize what a great value they were at $5 a month, compared to $50).

In addition, we noticed that the frequency of tardiness and truancy that we had taken as a norm during the “free” years diminished by about 20%. And the number of students that graduated from the trade school programs increased by more than 30%, from 60% to 90%.

And though we have no numbers to prove this, our instructors and staff personnel believe that all those that take advantage of our programs enjoy themselves more, appreciate what they are being given more, and complain much less. (Complaints are virtually zero.)

We still provide school books and other school materials to local students. But nowadays, they are required to pay for them – usually at a discount of 75% to 90% of what they would cost in a store. And if anyone can’t afford the small amount we charge, we offer no-cash alternatives that cost them their time and labor. In the case of school supplies, for example, they can pay for their yearly requirements (about $50) by spending several hours cleaning or painting the school.

So that is the short story of what I have learned about giving away charity for “free.” It is generally a bad idea. There are exceptions to this rule. I sometimes, for example, will pay for emergency medical expenses, and we have funded an area program for improving wells that was provided freely. But even those, I’m thinking, might be better used and more appreciated if we found a way to “charge” for them.

I expect that you don’t run your own charitable foundation. That your method of supporting charity is to give your money to a public charity whose mission you support. You may do your due diligence by consulting with one of the services that rates public charities based on factors such as what percentage of funds received go directly to the beneficiaries. I would recommend taking one more step and finding out if those charities give away their help for free. Most do. And that has almost certainly created negative consequences that won’t be in those reports.

Think about it.

This essay and others are available for syndication.
Contact Us [LINK] for more information. 

Continue Reading

After many years of mulling it over, I’ve come to the conclusion that giving away things for free is a bad idea.

I’m sure that statement will sound odd or even idiotic to many people, but give me a chance to make my case.

 I’m going to do it in a series of essays. This is the first one… 

 

Free Is a Bad Idea, Part 1: Free Offers in Business 

“All marketing is basically about customers and marketing and making money and capitalism and winning and promoting it and having something someone really wants.” – Roger Ailes

If you have been in business for any length of time, you know that giving away free samples – a longstanding strategy to introduce new products – is, at best, a sometimesgood idea.

It works best when the free samples are given to existing customers. The more loyal the customer, the better it works.

This stands to reason. Customers that are happy with a brand are more likely to value free offers from the same brand. They not only tend to trust the intention of the offer, they are predisposed to like the freebies.

But free offers – truly free, not “free with purchase” – to non-customers (i.e., customers) are generally less successful. They are, thus, rare in direct marketing (particularly on the internet).

There are two reasons:

  1. The cost of giveaway programs is usually much greater than the cost of direct sales. Therefore, they require a proportionately higher amount of spending from each customer to justify the extra expense.
  2. Even when the cost is not great (e.g., giveaway programs for digital products), free-offer promotions (again, truly free) don’t work because the “quality” (average lifetime value in terms of dollars spent) of the customers that they attract is generally much lower than you’d get from conventional offers.

In my early days as a direct marketer, I was a big fan of free offers because they could yield three to five times the response rates I could get from conventional offers. While the historic campaigns (that required payment) might have enjoyed an average response rate of, say, 2%, I was getting 6%, 8%, and sometimes 10%!

I considered myself a marketing genius. And when it became clear that all those additional customers I was bringing in were weak spenders, I refused to give up on my precious free offers. I tried again and again, using every possible tweak I could think of in our backend marketing. But none of it stimulated those freebie-respondents to spend more money with us.

The only thing that did work was de-emphasizing the “free” in the free offer and writing in copy that reminded people that unless they were serious about buying the free sample later, they shouldn’t respond.

That worked reasonably well, but it was basically a soft form of direct selling.

I could no longer deny the truth that kept slapping me in the face: In prospecting for new customers, the lower the price of entry, the greater the number of tire kickers and moochers you attract. If you lower the price to zero, you fill your marketing files with deadbeats that will, in time, destroy your business.

 

Then the Internet Happened

I learned the lesson above in the mid to late 1980s. After that, I eschewed freebie campaigns and even highly discounted offers.

But in or around 2000, the world of direct marketing changed drastically. Most of my direct-response clients and all of my publishing clients moved from mostly print promotions and products to mostly digital in the space of about five years.

In that first decade of this millennium, free offers became the dominant strategy for acquiring prospective customers. By offering digital books, courses, and periodical publications, my clients were able to sign up millions of people that had an interest in business, entrepreneurship, investing, natural health, and international travel.

The strategy was to bring in prospects with free offers and then send them “free” material that provided both information and sales messages to “convert” them to paid customers.

What we found was that, like the old days, most of these prospects never bought anything. And of those that did become paid customers, their lifetime values were generally lower.

Meanwhile, the old, direct-sales campaigns continued to work, much as they had always worked. But these programs got little to no attention because they were bringing in far fewer names.

What happened is that the cost of acquiring “free names” (prospective customers) via the internet began to climb because of market competition. Yet the value of those free names did not rise accordingly.

Meanwhile, our direct sales were still moving along quite well. Eventually, we realized – at least I did – that it would have been better for us to focus on paid offers. They always were, and always would be, the best strategy for building a sustainable business with the greatest value with the least risk.

I’ve learned several lessons from these deep dives into free-offer marketing, but the most important ones are these:

* Free-offer marketing campaigns attract many moochers. Moochers love free offers. Not just because they like the idea of getting things for free, but also because they pride themselves on getting things for free that others have to pay for.

* Free offers attract not just moochers but perfectly good customers that appreciate a bargain. But when these people respond to free offers, they instantly become less valuable as customers because people, always and everywhere, do not value what they get for free.

You cannot turn a moocher into a quality customer. As I said, I’ve tried it a hundred times in a dozen ways. It just doesn’t work. Plus, they tend to be expensive – at least more expensive than you think. They continue to be your major responders to free offers, clogging up your processing and fulfillment departments. And they tend to complain more (even though what they are getting is free), clogging up your customer service department.

You can attract good buyers with free offers, and those people will “convert” into paid customers. But because of the free offer you sent them, these otherwise good customers will be less good to you. They will underestimate the credibility of your business. They will expect less from you and trust you less, too. And they will definitely give little to no value to whatever it is you gave away for free.

This is not advanced marketing analysis. It’s human nature.

Free is, as so many marketing gurus have said, the most powerful word in selling. That’s still true if all you want to do is attract a large following of people that like getting things for free.

But if you want to build a business, you need to purge yourself of the ego satisfaction of having a huge file of “maybe” customers and focus on building the biggest list you can of real customers, customers that value your products and services and are willing to pay you fairly for them.

In Part 2 of this essay, I will talk about why I don’t like free offers in the realm of charity.

Continue Reading

About 20 years ago, I did a little experiment. I wanted to find out if it really is possible to do business from anywhere in the world. So I packed my family off to Rome (one of my favorite cities) for a six-week “working vacation.” I not only learned that, yes, it is possible for me to work in Rome (or just about anywhere else, for that matter), I also learned something that has had a much more profound effect.

In Rome, completely separated from the crazy, stressful routine I was used to back home, I learned how to simplify my life.

If you think simplifying your life will mean making less money, enjoying less success, maybe even being less effective as a businessperson, think again. Simplifying your life is about having more – not less – of the good things. More passion. More meaningful work and relationships. And you can have more of those things by having fewer of the bad things – unsatisfying rituals, self-destructive habits, energy-draining feelings, and so on.

 

The Simplicity Imperative 

“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.” – Henry David Thoreau

Today, I’d like to talk about simplifying your work life. I’m going tell you about a few things I’ve discovered that have worked for me. If they work as well for you, you’ll  accomplish more of what matters and eliminate stress-inducing and time-wasting experiences that are commonplace to smart, hardworking people in almost every sort of business.

We live in a time in which information overload is ubiquitous, communication is largely unfiltered, and meaningless busyness keeps many earnest people from achieving their most important goals. In an effort to keep up with the daily storm of inputs, they unwittingly mistake being busy for being productive – even though, in calm moments, they can easily distinguish them. Very commonly, they let the priorities of other people – their bosses, their colleagues, and their employees – take precedence over their own. As a result, they feel swamped… and out of control.

If this sounds familiar, you should know this. You are never going to gain control over your life if you continue to do what you are doing now: trying to catch up with the current backlog so you can start fresh and stay in control after that’s done.

It’s not going to happen. Even if you do catch up, you’ll have, at best, a day’s respite. Then the whole mess will begin anew.

There are probably a hundred personal productivity mistakes I have made in my business career, but most of them can be sorted into three persistently wrong-headed impulses:

* The egoistic desire to be the “man” – i.e., the person that solves the problem and gets things done.

* The self-indulgent enjoyment I get from solving complicated problems with complex solutions.

* The mental resistance I have to reexamining my priorities every day.

These wrong-headed impulses have corrective measures:

* I have to remind myself every day NOT to get involved in 80% of the work problems I encounter.

* I have to ask myself, every time I come up with a “good idea”: Can I make this simpler? Simpler to explain and to understand and to execute?

* I have to spend a half hour every day examining the chores in front of me and prioritizing them so that I can delegate or ignore most of them.

I’m not suggesting that these protocols will double your effective productivity, cut your stress levels in half, and put your career advancement in fast forward. They had that effect on my career, but you’ll have to decide if they make sense for you.

If you are intrigued by what I’ve said so far, you should begin by considering the following two-step plan for improving your business life:

It’s not the ingredients that matter. It’s the cake! 

Whether you’re managing a project, running a company, or handling your day-to-day schedule, you need a firm grasp of the big picture. Yes, that’s what every business management expert says – but I don’t believe more than 10% of those that “know it” do it. I know I didn’t.

Having a “vision” for the business will do nothing for you or the business if it’s a lofty dream about either improving the world or making a zillion dollars. For a vision to work, it must be specific to your industry and to your company. It must be realistic – i.e., achievable. It must be understandable – i.e., clearly articulated. And it must be customer-focused – i.e., it can’t be only about you, your shareholders, and your employees.

Ninety percent of the “visions” I see promoted by CEOs in the business press are obviously BS – pabulum for the public or feel-good messages for shareholders and employees. As a business leader, you are certainly entitled to whatever fantasies you have of the future. But the company vision you should formulate and promote should be, as I said, achievable, understandable, and customer-focused.

Work on that and you will have something to build on. You don’t have to get your vision exactly right out of the gate. You shouldn’t even try. Because as time passes and you learn more about your business and its market, you will adjust and sometimes even radically change parts of it. But having a pretty good vision (that adheres to these three rules) will make your work life so much better. You will find, as I did, that everything moves faster and with fewer restarts and much less stress and toil.

First the Vision. Then the Goals. 

Your business objectives should grow naturally out of your vision.  Use it as a guide to develop your goals. I establish mine at 5 levels:

  1. Long-term (5 to 7 years)
  2. Annual
  3. Monthly
  4. Weekly
  5. Daily

Since I have explained this system in detail elsewhere, I won’t get into it here. The logic of it is easy to understand: How can you create yearly goals if you don’t know what you want to accomplish in 5 to 7 years? Likewise, how can you create monthly goals without a yearly plan?

I won’t try to convince you, here, why this is such an important practice for personal productivity in your business life. I will acknowledge that it takes a bit of time. A half-hour daily. An hour or two weekly and monthly. And a day or two yearly.

And unless you are already in the habit of doing this (not making to-do lists – that is a completely wasteful practice), the idea of this extra work will not appeal to you. I can say only this about that feeling: I get it. I felt it. But I was wrong. This is the single most effective thing I’ve ever done to accomplish what I’ve accomplished in my business career.

It’s all about time. Yes, you’ve heard that before, too. But it’s true. Time is the most valuable resource we have in life. And it is also very limited. We can give ourselves more of it by working longer hours and more days and by living longer. But that can only get you so far.

The answer is not to spend more time working, but to increase the productivity of every hour that you work.

Some tricks to help you along the way: 

 When composing your daily objectives, ask yourself:

* “Is this something I could not do? Is it something I could delegate? Is it something I don’t need to do at all?”

* “Is there some way I could do this in half the time?”

* “Is this related to one of my long-term objectives, one that will truly improve my career?”

In selecting my priorities each day, I highlight the most important tasks – the ones that that are essential to my long-term business plan. And because I know I can do only a limited number of things each day, I do those tasks first thing in the morning, when I have an abundance of mental energy. Accomplishing them gives me a boost of additional energy that helps me get through all the secondary and tertiary objectives of the day.

If I ever have to choose between two priorities, I ask myself: “Of the two, which one will be more important to me at the end of my life?”

It’s all about economy – doing fewer things overall but making sure that the things you do have the greatest possible importance… to the business, to its customers, and to your career.

 

This essay and others are available for syndication.
Contact Us [LINK] for more information. 

Continue Reading

“There are two ways that art is judged as good: connoisseurship and marketing.” – Michael Masterson

 

Let’s Talk About Art…* 

Why did you put ‘art’ in the headline?” my inner editor shouts.

“Because that’s the thing I’m writing about,” I timidly reply.

“Nobody cares about art!”

“But they should,” I say.

“Fine. Write whatever you want. But don’t say, ‘Let’s Talk About Art.’ Art is boring. Write a headline that will make people want to read what follows.”

“Okay…” 

Money. Let’s Talk About Money! 

I collect art. I also collect books, beer bottles, and cigar lighters. I enjoy collecting them all. But there is something I get from my art collection that I don’t get from books, bottles, and lighters: I get richer.

I invest in art. I also invest in stocks, bonds, private-placement deals, and precious metals. All of these assets provide me with a sense of financial security. But there is something I get from my art collection that I don’t get from these other investments: pleasure.

Some people think of art collecting as a snooty hobby practiced by wealthy dilettantes. I have the same prejudice. Others think of art collecting as an important form of cultural and historical preservation. I believe that’s true. Most people don’t think about art collecting at all. And as an investor in art, I’m happy about that. The smallish, elitist, and insular nature of the art market makes investing in it easier and less risky for novice or amateur collectors – so long as they understand the basics. (Which is what I’m going to be writing about, once a week, over the coming few months.)

 

Why Art Is Part of My Long-Term Investment Strategy 

I’ve been collecting art – paintings, drawings, lithographs, and sculptures – for more than 40 years. I buy art for many reasons. I buy it for its beauty, its historical importance, and because it says something about me that’s hard to put into words. But I also buy art as an investment. I buy it as part of an overall strategy for creating wealth.

Art’s beauty gives me a constant stream of emotional income. Its historical importance gives me intellectual returns. Its importance in providing its owners with social status creates a ready and liquid market for it. And the small size of that marketplace makes for stock-market returns with less volatility.

I buy art in many modes.

Much of the time these days, the purchase is a calculated decision based on knowledge that I have about a piece and its potential for appreciation. My goal is to buy good pieces at below-market prices and hold them for the long-term. For my core collection, I know just what artists and pieces I need and how much to pay for them. If and when they become available at the right price, I buy in.

At other times, my buying is based on an unexpected opportunity. Someone that knows someone that knows I collect a certain artist contacts me and we work out a deal. This almost never happened when I was a new collector. It wasn’t until people in these little markets knew me (and my partner) that these good deals started floating our way.

And then sometimes I buy art just for fun – because a piece is cheap and I like it and don’t expect it to appreciate it. I think of this as buying toys or souvenirs.

For example, I once bought a great mixed-media piece from an artist that was selling his work on the sidewalk in Greenwich Village. Which is to say my interest in art goes way beyond its utility as an investment or the aesthetic pleasure it brings.

 

The Multiple Returns of Art Collecting 

As I said above, I enjoy several substantial benefits from my avocation of collecting art, from the enjoyment of learning about it… to the pleasure of seeing it… to the comfort of owning it… to the excitement of buying and selling it… to the pride of developing a collection that is uniquely my own.

But since my inner editor convinced me to focus on art collecting as an investment, I will try to limit this discussion to that.

Is art a good investment?

I recently asked my accountant to estimate how much my collection has appreciated over the years. He looked at the records and told me that my total average annual return has been about 8.5%.

That is not as good as my investments in small businesses and real estate (with returns exceeding 20%) or rental real estate (about 14%), but it’s pretty close to what I’ve gotten with stocks (about 9.5%) and a good deal better than bonds (about 4% to 6%, factoring in taxes).

And, as I’ve said, art offers so many desirable attributes beyond ROI that I’d be happy to take my 8.5%. But as I’ll explain, I have good reason to believe that one day my core art portfolio will equal or better my “collection” of stocks.

Let’s look at the facts:

Art is tangible. 

When you buy a share of stock or a bond, you are not buying a thing. You are buying a promise: the promise that the issuer of the stock or bond will pay you exactly what it is worth at some time in the future.

Stocks and bonds are representations of agreements. They have no intrinsic value. A hundred shares of stock entitles you to be paid 100 times the share price of that stock when you go to sell it. But if the company behind the stock goes out of business, those shares are worth nothing.

The same is true for bonds. The bond buyer lends the bond issuer money in return for the promise to return that money, plus interest. But if the company or institution behind the bond goes bankrupt, the certificate you have in the safe is worth nothing.

Art is different. You are buying an actual thing. You can see it, touch it, and feel it. You can hide it in the attic, put it on the wall, or keep in in a vault. Its value, like stocks and bonds, depends on the market. But the value of art is in the art itself, not in a promise.

Think of it this way: The wealth that I have in stocks and bonds is, I believe, real wealth. But where, exactly, is that wealth located? Certainly it isn’t in some database at some brokerage halfway across the country!

It’s nice to go online and look at your brokerage account when your stocks are doing well. It’s nicer still to see your bottom line get bigger year after year. But what if the unthinkable happens? What if, one day, you check your account and see zero at the bottom line? Or: “Notice. Your account is frozen. Please consult a lawyer.”

This is not something I worry about on a daily basis, but it’s not paranoia. Digital wealth disappears from digital accounts all the time for all sorts of reasons. Most of it can be recaptured through legal and regulatory processes. But not all of it, and not in all cases.

With tangible assets like art, you don’t have to worry about any of that.

 

Art is safe from theft. 

In the past, stealing investment-grade art was a profitable business. But today, you rarely hear about it… for one good reason. Over the past 20 years, and especially in the last 10, millions of pieces of investment-grade art have been identified, photographed, and registered in online databases, including registries with the specific purpose of protecting art from theft and forgery.

If someone steals one of my Jean Derain portraits, for example, I can register it as stolen in one of these databases – and that notice will appear anytime anyone searches that piece again, either casually or because they are thinking of buying or selling it. The notice instantly becomes available to thousands of brokers, dealers, gallery owners, and auction houses worldwide. This would make it very hard for the thief to sell my piece anywhere except to a pawnbroker at a tiny fraction of its value.

 

Art is a hedge against inflation. 

Another advantage of art (and most tangible investments) is that its value tends to rise alongside inflation. If you own bonds, for example, and inflation soars to 10% a year, the value of your bonds will likely decrease by that percentage.

That’s not the case with art. Art typically tracks inflation. The $10,000 piece you bought this year will be worth $11,000 next year in a scenario of 10% inflation. We haven’t had much inflation in the USA during the first two decades of the new millennium, but there is every reason to believe inflation will resume and could possibly accelerate into hyperinflation due to all the coronavirus spending by the government.

 

Art is portable (transportable). 

Portability is a beneficial characteristic of art that most people never consider. But for several reasons, it can be a considerable advantage.

If, for example, you want to move some of your wealth from one residence to another, you can do so privately and discreetly, without having to notify brokers or bankers or leave an electronic trail. Since the value of a piece of art has nothing to do with its size, you can move a lot of value this way. A million-dollar piece of sculpture can be shipped by postal service around the country (or around the world) for just a few hundred dollars.

 

Art can be tax friendly. 

Gallery owners and brokers of art are subject to the same tax rules as owners and brokers of any kind of business. But private collectors can take advantage of many strategies in place (and okay with the IRS and other taxing agencies) that can reduce the tax burden on buying and selling art. (We’ll discuss this in more detail later on.)

 

Art is insurable. 

While you can’t insure your returns from art, you can insure it against loss – either by theft or accident, both of which rarely but sometimes happen. Art insurance is easy to buy. (You can do it online.) And the policies are flexible. You can, for example, insure a single piece or an entire collection with a single premium. In some cases, you don’t even have to identify every piece in your collection.

Art insurance policies also cover damage. Years ago, when a housekeeper accidently broke a Picasso ceramic of mine, the company that was covering my collection at the time sent me a check just a week or two after I filed the claim. And the check was for more than I thought the piece was worth!

 

But here’s the best part… 

These are a few of the benefits and advantages you’ll have as an investor in art, benefits and advantages you won’t get from stock and bond investing.

And that’s not to mention the biggest benefit I’ve received from 40 years of collecting art – the daily joy I get from being surrounded by beautiful, personally meaningful, and historically important objects.

Buying art is a lot of fun – especially when you know that you are making a smart buy and/or adding to a developing collection. And owning art, as I’ve explained, is a good investment with lots of fringe financial and wealth-protection benefits. But I wouldn’t recommend collecting art to anyone that was interested in it only for those reasons.

To get the full experience of art, you have to learn to appreciate it. We’ll talk about that in the next time installment of this series.

* This series of essays gives you an advance look at a new book that I’m working on, based on my experiences over the past 40+ years as a collector and investor in fine art.  

 This essay and others are available for syndication.
Contact Us [LINK] for more information. 

Continue Reading