5 Things in Life You're Never Really Prepared For
On the Internet, you can find preparation instructions for just about any emergency you can think of. That's good, since we're entering tornado season here in the Midwest. But I've discovered that in everyday life, there are so many more predictable, unavoidable things that nobody is ever prepared for. Fortunately, the only thing you'd need to pack into your emergency kit is awareness. And, according to your mom, some extra underwear. But mostly awareness. For example, most people are woefully unprepared to handle things like ...
Someone Else's Illness
Most of us are prepared for our own impending illness because we know our bodies and what we can handle when we turn into human petri dishes. We know how much work we can handle, how much time we can afford to miss, how long we can go without performing professional wrestling moves on our unsuspecting pets. We can make those financial and physical adjustments on the fly and go on living after it's passed. But when our kids, parents, or spouses get sick, it's a whole other awful universe.
"I tried telling her to man up, but it didn't seem to work. At this point, I'm out of options."
In her younger years, my daughter had huge problems with dehydration when she got sick. She wouldn't drink anything -- we couldn't even force feed her. Not even those Popsicle things that all parents say do the trick. She was hospitalized three times from it, and every time, our world stopped. When you're in that situation, your entire life becomes focused on that moment, making sure that your child gets through it safely. Everything else can wait.
When it happens to a parent, the kids now have to take over their own meals, getting their own homework and chores finished with minimal or nonexistent guidance ... which usually means it doesn't get done. It's the same with business. How many times have you arrived at work and seen a manager bouncing around in chaos as she tries to lure some poor sucker in to cover someone else's shift? Yes, getting sick yourself shuts down your week, but it's hard to remember that it does the same to the worker who has to cancel all of his plans on his only day off in order to make sure your shift gets covered. Or the single mom who now has to skip work in order to take care of her kids. Or the magician who has to find another assistant for tonight's show because the mosquito trick gave his last one malaria.
"This is what I like to call the 'handful of rattlesnakes' trick."
It always comes out of the blue, because how insane would you have to be to constantly monitor someone else's chances of catching a virus? But when it does happen, it sends out a shockwave of disruption that can travel a pretty impressive distance. You will undoubtedly be one of the affected people, and if you're not prepared for it, it will blindside you like your grandma's left hook when you try to turn off her Oprah.
At my wife's job, she has to look at people's bank statements. I don't know why -- I just always assumed her job was "money thief." Regardless of what she actually does or steals, one of the most common things she finds in financially troubled cases is a $500 cellphone bill. And we're not talking about families with three or four phones -- these are single college students in their early 20s working part-time jobs. Part of the reason is that we live in a weird area where we don't have much selection in companies and coverage is spotty. So going to the neighboring town often puts you into roaming. But even more damning is that the fine print for seemingly cheaper plans often goes ignored.
On my wife's cellphone, she once went over a certain bandwidth on her "unlimited" plan, and they throttled her download speeds so much that it was virtually unusable. Again, it was all spelled out in the fine print, but the problem is that it's almost always a mile long and filled with indecipherable legal jargon. So much so, in fact, that the people selling you the product may not even be trying to trick you into a sale when they answer your questions incorrectly. They just can't decode the lingo because they don't have a legal degree.
"Yes, as far as I know, you never have to pay for it as long as you live. I think that's what 0 percent financing means."
It's why TV and radio commercials have that ridiculously fast, quietly spoken jumble of nonsense at the end. And when we slow those down (by law), they become ridiculous parodies of themselves. Even Googling the terms "medication commercials side effects" gives you page after page of comedy sites making fun of them.
But without forcing companies to make things like the terms of car leases painfully clear and honest, they simply wouldn't. And since no one wants to find out at the end of a lease that you can't paint your car to look like the bus from The Partridge Family, we insist that they make good with the fine print. And you always have to be on the lookout for the less obvious things so you don't get taken advantage of. That's where we get comedy goldmines like Macy's infamous "Worst Coupon Ever Made."
Seriously, click that link and be prepared to laugh yourself into a coma.
When I was a kid, I (and many people I grew up with) didn't have a phone. Not just a cellphone -- those hadn't quite become mainstream yet -- but a house phone. The Internet didn't exist, at least not in a way that was accessible to anyone outside of the military or criminally nerdy computer geeks. If you wanted to visit friends, you talked to them at school or work, wrote them a letter, or just showed up at their house and hoped that their father wasn't in an "answer the door in his Blue Man Group costume" sort of mood. We were off the grid pretty much permanently. Now understand that this is not a bitter old man pointing his cane and yelling, "When I was a kid, things were different!" It's about dependency. You can see a real-life example of our dependency on electronic communication by the complete and steady collapse of the U.S. Postal Service.
Right now, if I lost my Internet for a day, I'd be screwed. All of my work requires communication and immediate response, because like many people, time is a precious commodity for me. Even the simplest things require me to have solid communication. If I need something from the store, I don't have the cushion to show up and just hope that they have what I'm looking for. A wasted trip cannot be justified because it means I just spent time doing something unproductive. It's time that I could have used toward work or my family or constructing my special glitter cape. If I'm looking for a questionable item, I have to call the store first to make sure they have it.
Finally. I didn't think I'd ever find one.
Even if you're not working a high-pressure, time-consuming job, losing cellphone access or email can just wipe out your entire day. Because when that happens, it's exactly when everyone you've ever met suddenly needs to get a hold of you right now. And when you don't respond, they're not thinking, "Hmmmm ... he must have a problem with his connection." They're thinking, "That jerk won't answer his phone because he obviously hates me!" Your boss thinks you're ditching work. Your mom thinks you're screening her out of your calls. Your kids assume that the answer to the horrifying request they were about to ask is "Yes."
And the worst part is that there's nothing you can do about it but sit there and wait for it to come back on, passing the minutes with solitaire because all of your other games now have online DRM that prevents you from playing them unless you're connected to the Internet.
"All I want to do is melt the skin off of the undead with my inferno spell! Is that seriously too much to ask?"
But it's going to happen, and all we can do is expect it and not drive ourselves into a flame-thrower-wielding panic when it does.
A Sudden Influx of Money
In January of 2012, I wrote an article about stupid habits you develop when growing up poor. One of the biggest surprises for many people was the habit of spending windfall checks as quickly as possible, because poor people were used to the money just trickling away to everyday life if they tried to save it.
But the problem is actually much deeper than that. There is a common mistake that people make when they imagine what their lives would be like if they, say, won the lottery. Everyone has had those conversations. "I'd buy myself and everyone in my family a house and a car. Then I'd sit back and never have to worry about bills again." The mistake is that they imagine their lives exactly the same as it is right now, except with more income. But that isn't the way it works at all. Just ask the long list of people who went bankrupt after winning the lottery.
Lesson 1: Stop using money to dry your tears.
When people get more money, they tend to immediately fix all of the broken parts of their current material life. You need a car that doesn't crap out on you every three months. You need to replace the 15-year-old stove that won't hold a pilot light anymore. The living room needs repainting and the carpet needs to be replaced. The furniture could use updating. You've always wanted to own a horse that can shoot fireballs out of its mouth. Remember the old phrase "More money, more problems"? It sounds like a joke, but it is absolutely true once your perspective changes: more bills, bigger payments. You don't even have to dip into luxury items to make that happen.
If you're not used to that kind of spending, it's very easy to overstep your financial boundaries and put yourself in a worse position than when you made less money. "I got a raise that gives me an extra $400 a month! Woohoo! Now I can finally afford to replace my car!" Then you find out that the car payment is $500, so now you're $100 in the hole. Even if you take off the cannon and booster rockets, you're still barely breaking even.
Then again, some things you just can't compromise on, money be damned.
The only way around that is awareness. Asking people who make more than you how they manage the money is a good idea, but not everyone is comfortable talking about their income and budget, even if you're close to them. Even then, they can give great advice, like "Don't just have a checking account. Start a savings account, too, because it accrues interest, and you can always bounce the money from one account to the other as needed." But that advice will never, ever trump your personal awareness of the potential problem and what your financial limits are.
Personally, this is the hardest thing I've ever had to learn to deal with. I was (and still am in many ways) completely unprepared for it. I won't use their names, but off the top of my head I know of two writers for this very site who were extremely talented but gave it up after diving into reader feedback. The few articles that they contributed pulled millions of views, and the content itself was interesting, entertaining, and educational. I really enjoyed their work. However, after a few articles each, they both realized that the critiques they received from readers caused them enough stress that continuing to write just wasn't worth it. That stress simply wasn't a trade they were willing to make in exchange for the money, the audience, and the free country that we give to our favorite writers.
In any job, you feel cheated when you get a bad review. It's because most people feel that they are doing an adequate to excellent job, and that their position is important. How often in your life have you heard someone say, "This place would shut down if I didn't come to work"? It's usually right before you pretend to rush to the bathroom, stifling your maniacal laughter the whole way.
"Oh, man, I'll never be able to wash away all of the stupid that you just sprayed into my face."
When those people find out that they're actually replaceable, or that they're doing below-average work, it's an unexpected shock to the system that just instantly drains all hope. Even if only temporarily. There are three reactions you can have to this sort of criticism, and all three dramatically affect your work:
1) You can let it get to you, and your motivation just gets wiped out. "Why even try when all of my work is met with aggression and negativity?" I was like this for a long time because I let feedback get to me. Watching someone tear down something I had worked so hard on was too much for me to handle, and I very nearly quit writing several times. It threw me into a depression that was bad enough that I neglected washing my personal jet for almost a week.
2) You can use it as a motivational tool. "If I'm working 'below average' by completing five projects a day, I'll work on doubling my output so I rise above their expectations." It's a hard frame of mind to get into -- some people simply can't get past the above-mentioned reaction, so this idea seems impossible and foreign to them. But if you can use negative critique as fuel, you have a powerful motivator.
"Hey, remember last month's performance review? I just wanted you to know that you can now suck it."
3) You can ignore it and continue what you're doing. You have to be very careful with this one because it totally depends on the source of the criticism. If it's coming from your bosses, you'd definitely better take it to heart and apply the advice immediately. They pay your salary, and their words aren't so much advice as they are a direct statement of "Do this or we'll drop you like a handful of spiders." But if it's coming from consumers of your art, you have to weigh your current success against a thousand other factors because your reaction will affect the core of your work. For instance, an unsuccessful musician could benefit from negative crowd feedback because they're directly telling him what he needs to do in order to make them come to his show. Like wear a bigger sequined codpiece or something. A successful one has to stop and say, "I'm already successful. Will their critique make me more successful, or will it chip away at what I've already built?"
It's not easy. Everyone thinks they're doing great at their job because they're putting out the effort and getting the results they're aiming for. Having someone step in and tell you that your personal goals are below the company's expectations is a hard pill to swallow. The only thing you can do (just like all of the other points in this article) is expect it to happen. You'll be surprised how much that anticipation will improve your performance. Or at least improve the speed of your air-punching.
"I'm going to punch the air now. If your face happens to get in the way, I cannot be held responsible. Here I go."
It's just too bad that we can't put all of this information into a Tupperware box with some beans and just pull it out when the world starts sucking.
John has his own website where you can find out more about him and his books, more articles, and social media type stuff.