When 95% is a fail

One of my daughter’s friends asked me a question. At first I thought it would be a fun and fairly easy question to answer. But I keep coming back to this key concept that I need to explain first.

There is a study that was done at some point in the late 60s. (I’m not an expert or on trial, so I have no idea what the reference for this study is, but I trust the source that told me about it.) They took a bunch of average people that were all at about the same level of life when starting in college. Then they looked at where these people ended up, at the age of 65. The statistics broke down like this: 1% was wealthy, 2% were fairly well off, 2% had enough to take care of themselves. The other 95% had to keep working, were dependent on others to take care of them or were in complete poverty.

Keep in mind that these people were all level at the start of college, so they were not “poor” to start.  They were not unintelligent or unmotivated… they were all going to college!

So they looked into what the difference was between these folks. It wasn’t the grades they got in college, or even if they finished college. It wasn’t what classes they took in college. It wasn’t how wealthy they were to start with. It wasn’t their IQ or gender or any other predictable factor.

What set these 95% on a course for failure? What helped the 5% get ahead in this race? The 95% didn’t plan on failure; in fact, they didn’t want failure and they thought they were headed in the right direction in the beginning.  But there was a very important but missing skill.

The difference is independent thinking.

Independent thinking means looking at a situation and deciding what to do for yourself. That seems simple enough, but 95% of people will make most of their decisions by looking at what other people are doing, making sure their actions and social interactions are in line with what other people are doing, and following what is expected. The lie in all of that is that you think that most people know what they are doing.  The truth is that they are all just as insecure as you; they don’t want their actions to break the normal and they can’t bear to handle the potential shame of trying something different and failing. So the pack huddles together and shuffles in mass towards oblivion.

Random example… buying your own kids presents for Christmas or their birthday. 50 years ago, on Christmas you might get 1 present for Christmas and a few stocking stuffers. The present would be worth the equivalent of a new pair of shoes (a BB gun, a toy car, a train set, a doll, etc.) The media starts showing us pictures of Christmas trees that can barely compete with the pile of toys and gifts under them, and over the holidays we visit friends that have piles of gifts all laid out nicely, and well they seem successful, and it sure looks fun. Added to that pressure is the knowledge that your kids are going to go back to school after the Christmas break and are going to compare what they got with other kids. So you go shopping, and you make your tree look like that.

You have no idea how much debt the other people incurred to get that pile of gifts. You know you couldn’t afford it. You know that most of the gifts you bought will not get used, and will likely get discarded within the first few months of the new year, but you buy them anyway. If you keep this up year after year, you will struggle to keep out of debt and your house will be filled with junk.  If you follow this pattern for birthdays and everything else in life, your finances will be a wreck. You will have debt instead of savings or investments.  The reality is that this simple issue can destroy your life and leave you with nothing, but… you will look the part.

Nobody will stop you and tell you that you are going too far. Nobody will chastise you for your lack of planning or short-sighted thinking.  Your children will certainly not complain… All those people who are saying nothing are trying to keep up with you.  I am not saying that giving gifts is bad or that even giving lots of gifts is bad.  I am not saying that someone who gives lots of gifts is somehow making a big mistake, but what I am saying is that you have to look and decide for yourself what you can spend, and what your kids actually need and not to worry about what others think of you.

When I was a teenager, I had a friend that would come with us to Red Robbin. We would all order our meals and drinks and maybe split an appy.  He would order non-stop fries and water.  We would spend $10 – $20 and he would spend $1.75.  He would then proceed to order three or four refills on his fries and leave full.  Now granted, that’s not a well balanced meal, but its not like a bacon cheeseburger is the picture of health. He did eat well at home and he had quite enough money to order anything he wanted, but that’s not where he wanted to spend his money and he didn’t care if he fit in or copied everyone else.  Because of the way he handled his money early on, and mostly because of the way he makes his personal decisions, today he owns a web hosting company that is doing very well.  You would be blown away with the number and size of his clients while even his own company’s dated website design says, “I don’t care what other people think”. He gets so much business from referrals that he doesn’t need his website to look nice to get business so paying to make his website look current would be wasted money.

in 2007, more than 40% of teens admitted to driving high and that number is even higher today.  While that is a bad statistic and makes the roads unsafe, what I got out of it is that a whole lot of teens are trying and smoking weed. So many, that in some social situations it might seem socially awkward or bad to say “no”. So many that you might have to think, “it can’t be that bad if that many people are doing it.” But who is looking down the road and thinking about where this “95%” type activity is heading. Is this a crowd, huddled together shuffling toward oblivion, or is it actually ok? I’m not answering this question for you; I am saying you need to answer this question for yourself.

So, here is a piece of advice that has served me well.  10 years.  I figure that any behavior or habit or strategy in life will start to show how it pays off within 10 years.  So if I wonder what something in life is like, I will find someone who has been doing it for 10 years and ask them. When I was 16 I started working at McDonalds and back then you could smoke on your lunch break in the staff room… I know – gross! Anyway, out of pure curiosity I wondered what smoking was like.  I would watch fellow workers come running down to take their break, get out a cigarette, light it up, breathe it in deeply and exhale like they were finally at peace. It would actually look kind of refreshing. I would then ask, “why do you smoke?”

This is the part that freaked me out… they ALL (and I mean ALL) said the same thing. “Oh, I have to – it relaxes me.”  Then I would ask, “yea, but why did you start?” They would say something about who introduced them, most of the time is was because everyone else was doing it, but then ALL (and I mean ALL) of them did the same thing; they would stub out their cigarette and say, “yea, I wish I hadn’t started. I’m trying to quit now.” This all happened withing about 45 seconds, and I repeated it about 20 times with all age ranges of people.  I figured out that smoking cigarettes has got to be one of the stupidest things that you can do.  I’ve never had one.  Ever.

Ask questions about the decisions you make in life and I mean ask about everything. You will find that most people have very very shallow logic if there is any logic at all in most of the decisions they make, and a lot are regretting doing the things that they are currently doing.  Wherever you find this… think up a new plan that makes more sense and don’t worry how it will look to others.

Because 95% is a fail, but turning on your brain is free and getting at least 96% is easy.

(Feven, your question is next 8-D )

2 thoughts on “When 95% is a fail”

  1. You’re absolutely right. Living intentionally and thinking deeply are key characteristics of a life well lived. Well said Jonathan.

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