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Friday, May 22, 2015

Musings on Power

Posted by Tim Stobbs on May 20, 2015

I was watching the first Harry Potter film the other day with my kids and I was struck by a statement made towards the end of the movie when Harry is confronted by Professor Quirrell “There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to see it.”

The first time I read that phrase it stuck in my head a bit, but at the time I considered it typical bad guy drivel to justify what they have done.  Now that I’m a bit older and cynical I have to admit…he is actually very accurate in that phrase.  Pardon?!?

Ok, bear with me for a minute or two.  You see the use of any power (political, economic, hierarchy…you get the idea) is only limited by two main factors: the morality of the user of said power and the potential consequences of the action.

The first limit of morality is basically only a construct in the mind of the user which may or may not align with your particular version of morality.  So this is why you have some managers who inspire their staff and try to improve the outcomes of the people under them and other managers use their power to inflict suffering on others.  In both cases, the user of the power feels justified in their actions by virtue of the morality that only exists in their own head.  As such, there really isn’t any universal good or evil but rather instead only your particular perception of those concepts.

For example, would you accept the idea that killing another human is a evil act?  Ok, let’s say you agree.  So if you then killed someone while defending your wife and children from an attacker, is that evil?  I would guess you would think not, but again consider that initial sentence…if killing someone is evil does the context of the act matter to make the act good?

Now consider if we can muck up something that should be straightforward as murder, just image how much grey area exists in the rest of the world.  For example, is any of the following behaviours good or evil?

  • Taking a second serving of dessert.
  • Picking up money off the street.
  • Feeding a homeless person.

The answer in each case depends on the context of the situation and your personal morality.  I can easily imagine in every case where the action could be evil or good.  For example, feeding a homeless person might be considered an easy good action, but what if you are enabling the person to continue their drug habit and beat their spouse and children.  Do you still feed them?

In the end, good and evil are simplistic constructs that only exist in our heads.  They don’t have any existence in reality other than what we imagine them to be.  So the first part of that original quote by Professor Quirrell is correct: there is no good or evil.

Now we move on to second limit on power: the potential consequence of the action.  Since good and evil only exists in our heads we decided to try to direct other’s morality by writing it down into law or in some cases we use social acceptance to drive certain behaviours.  Yet there is a flaw to this line of thinking…after all, it is nearly impossible to find someone who at some point has broken a law?

For example, have you ever in your life jay walked?  Odds are yes, and yes it is illegal, but you still did it.  Why?  Because you likely at the time you thought the potential consequence of the action was so minor there was limited risk of getting caught.  Or when was the last time you went just 1 km/hour over the speed limit?  Yesterday, last week by accident…regardless you broke the law, but just didn’t care about the consequence or didn’t think you would get caught.

Therefore the risk of getting caught and punishment are drivers in your mind on your actions and a limit to any power you wield.  Yet the irony of this is in fact the odds of getting caught on most things are actually fairly damn low.  There are not cops on every street corner handing out tickets to jay walkers, they only have so many resources and thus focus on other things first.  The same exists just about everywhere…so if you don’t fear the consequence of your action you don’t have a limit to that power.

For example, at your job they get to direct you to do lots of things (when to show up, when to leave, how long to work on something…etc), but they have very few options of actual consequence to motivate your actions.  They can only really:

  • Assign you undesirable tasks
  • Offer disapproval for an action
  • Alter your rate of compensation
  • Fire you

That’s it.  So when you cease to be fear those consequences the power they can wield over you becomes almost non-existent.

So now that you are free of your fear of the consequence of your action (or at least of getting caught in many cases) and you are free for your notion of good and evil since it only exists in your head in the first place…you start to agree that there really is: only power and those to weak to see it.

In effect this is what having enough retirement savings grants you: economic power.  At which point your application of that power is only limited by your imagination (what is possible and what is good/evil to you) and the consequence of the action.  If you no longer need your job, you can tell them to go screw themselves.  Or if you want to live somewhere else you can move.

Yet there is a downside to this power.  Once you realize the limits of it are largely self imposed, you options to wield it become nearly limitless and your choices in life become infinite.  But a large number of choices makes it harder to pick an action or result, so using that power becomes actually fairly damn hard to do.  It takes considerable effort to think about a larger number of options and narrow them down to a more manageable scope.  Often this is where your fear of change kicks in and people get stuck in the one more year of work syndrome…they are in effect trying to delay change to avoid making that final decision to quit.

So what do you think about power?  What changes have you noticed in yourself as your economic power has grown?

A History of Labour – Part VII

Posted by Tim Stobbs on May 15, 2015

Consulting WorldMoney Really Isn’t Everything (Year 7 and 8 A.D. – After Degree)

I typically find most people are not really willing to stand up for what they believe is right.  They get so sucked into the game of earning more, getting more stuff that they end up in such a tight financial situation that even the thought of taking a pay cut on purpose is alien to them.  I’m not one of those people.

Despite making a disgusting amount of money in my previous job.  Literally some years I was making just under $90K/year with bonuses, it wasn’t what I needed at that point in my life.  If you have read my previously long winded post about my first son’s birth you know he had been born 10 weeks premature and spent over 60 days in the hospital prior to coming home.  After that my wife and I made the conscious choice to seek out a job closer to our families.

I did actually try and almost got a transfer within my current company at the time to a sales job in Regina.  Yet I lost out in the end, since they managed to high the competition’s salesman instead.  I even told the manager I understand it.  The guy required almost no training as he knew the clients and all the industries…of course he was the better choice than me.

But when push came to shove and my father asked to pass along my resume to a consulting firm he knew I said sure why not.  Then the next week I had a causal conversation with one of managers from that company.  After that I had fully expected to go through a full interview, but instead they phoned me up with an offer.  Just one problem…they couldn’t get close to what I was making now.  I had to take a $20K/year pay cut to move back near my family.  I signed the offer with sigh.  It was only money after all and Regina at the time had fairly affordable cost of living.

The decision ended up being a good one as I also got the opportunity to work on preliminary engineering work on a clean coal project being proposed in Saskatchewan (yes, THAT project that just came online here in 2014).  It was extremely interesting work and right up my alley since many of the potential technologies were based on an amine system, which I had just spent the last few years troubleshooting so I provided some more common sense adjustments to few things that would help things out when it got to being operational.

Overall I actually enjoyed the work at this job.  I also made several good friends while working this job so the co-workers were excellent as well.  I just hit one major problem with the job over the years….the work load was extremely variable.

How much?  Imagine your worse, most busy well EVER that have that occur every few months.  But then also include a few weeks here and there were you are so dead for work you are actually cleaning up all your files, your inbox gets empty and you surf the internet a LOT and still don’t have much to do.  That part really sucked.  I learned I don’t do boring at work….like ever!

During one of these particular low spots in work I was sent out to one of the company’s east coast offices to help them for three weeks.  While I was out there I would also tour a power plant with a FGD (Flue Gas Desulphurization) system which would be a helpful bit of professional development as some of the clean coal designs we were looking at included such a treatment system.

Yet my first job out there for a week, I never met the client and I did all the work on the computer….in summary it pissed me off to no end that I could have done the entire job from my desk back in Regina.  Ugh, but most managers didn’t really get working remotely yet, so I was stuck in a hotel.

In the end, I found the extreme swings of the workload frustrating to me.  I genuinely prefer to have a more steady workload so after putting up with this for a few years I was in the mood to seek out something new, but I had not even starting looking for a new job when an email from my father showed in my personal email.  It was a posting from his company and the job description looked like it had been written just for me. (Aside: my father’s interest in my career stems from the fact we both have the same degree, so he tends to know what I would be interested in and keeps a lazy eye out for those sort of jobs.  So when he hears about one that he thinks I might like, he sends me the posting.)

I figured why not and then applied for the job.  I was off to anther adventure.

Summary

Lessons Learned

  • Money is nice, but don’t underestimate the value of other things like living closer to family and don’t forget the cost of living in a location matters a lot when it comes to a salary. So $70K in a smaller city may be close to $90K in Calgary after housing costs.
  • Know your personal work style and make sure you gets jobs that align to that.  Otherwise you will be unhappy.

Financial

  • Despite the pay cut, we did just fine. We cleared the last of our student debt with the move to Regina and managed to only have a mortgage of $150,000 on the house.  Which is a major reason I’m so far along as I am in my plan.  I didn’t overpay on housing.

Book Review: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Posted by Tim Stobbs on May 7, 2015

So after hearing about The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo a fair bit in the media I borrowed a copy from my library and started to read.  After all I’ve had passing flirting with minimalism over the years so I figured it couldn’t hurt.  But to be honest, I didn’t expect to learn much from the book. Damn I was wrong.

For for being a fairly short book Marie manages to pack in a lot of insightful comments on people’s behaviour to our stuff.  The first one to struck me as being hugely helpful is the average person is never taught how to purge or organize anything except in a haphazard way from family or perhaps friends.  So what happens is our homes (no matter how large or small) tend to build up WAY to much stuff.  Now how messy you are will determine how obvious the problem is, but volume still often exceeds what we can reasonably store in our homes.

Then people try to deal with this huge backlog of things but often try to do it just a little at a time which is like trying to swim up a river a foot at a time.  You might make some progress but you are going to feel exhausted from it all the time and likely give up.  So Marie’s solution is simple…do one monster size purge in your life and then you are done (it may take months to finish).  This isn’t to say you don’t need to do a little purging once and a while afterward, but organizing your stuff if pointless until you get rid of a huge amount of it.

Marie’s method is interesting because she doesn’t focus on what to purge, but rather what to keep.  Her criteria of it must ‘spark joy’  as you handle each item sounded weird to me until I stumbled on the idea of  that means: do you love the item?  So by default there is no maybe pile…you either love and keep it or it gets purged.  It’s a somewhat brutal method, but given the amount of crap people own it is surprising effective criteria.

Then to hone your decision making skills she points out a method of doing it by category of object for the entire house instead of by room.  That way you get practice on the easier decision items and work down to the hard decisions like sentimental items.  Her suggested list is clothes, books, papers, komono (miscellany) and lastly mementos.   Komono is further broken down into CDs/DVDs, skin care, makeup, accessories, valuables (passports, credit cards…), electronics and cords, household equipment (stationary, pens, sewing kits…), household supplies (expendables like tissue, detergents, medicine…), kitchen goods/food supplies and other.  Your stop point for purge is when you feel comfortable with what is left.

After you do your monster purge then you start to organize things .  At which point most storage solutions are not really required since you actually have like 25 to 80% less stuff.  Then the trick to preventing clutter from all from coming back is to keep everything in its place.  Assign a home for EVERYTHING and put it back when you are done using it.  She cautions not to try and organize as you purge as you will lose focus and then stop.

Overall I’m done clothes, books, DVDs and still working on papers…I got side tracked by having to finish my taxes.  I have to agree with the idea of the monster purge idea as once you get going you hit a sort of momentum that makes the effort of keeping going easier.  My motivation for this is the dream of waking up in  house where I love everything that is there…my neglected items are gone and I can FIND things easily.  She rightly points out without some kind of goal in mind the process really won’t work.

This isn’t to say that some of her ideas are a bit odd like unpacking your purse or bag completely at the end of each day after you get back home from work.   Umm, no thanks. Too much work for no real point. Or that she treats objects like they have personality and you should thank them for their service.  So feel free to ignore the really odd ideas in the book…I am.

In the end, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the book and I am finding it useful so far.  It remains to be seen if I can complete the process, but I’m enjoying the results so far.  So have you read the book yet?  Do you think Marie is nuts or brilliant…or perhaps in between?