It makes up nearly a quarter of the global economy and has a GDP of roughly $21.44 trillion.¹ But that statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. The truth is that only a few Americans have truly mastered how money works and the rest are lagging behind. Despite having the largest economy, the U.S. ranks 13th in GDP per capita.²
And it all begins with the state of financial literacy.
Knowing how money works has never been more important. But it’s becoming an increasingly rare skill among Americans. Here’s a quick look at the significance of financial literacy in the modern world and how ignorance is hampering our ability to build wealth.
The importance of financial literacy is increasing.
Americans are faced with a complex world. We have access to unlimited information on everything under the sun, endless opinions on every issue, and infinite options for entertainment. Money is no exception. The two tried and true safety nets of the past—social security and pension plans—can fall short, so we need to figure out how to provide for our own futures. The options for how to save and grow our money are myriad. Now it’s on us to figure out how to build wealth, save for retirement, and leave money behind for our kids.
Understanding how money works isn’t just helpful for achieving those goals. It’s absolutely mandatory. Saving, budgeting, and the power of compound interest are just a few of the concepts that you’ll need to master before you can start building your financial future.
Financial literacy is decreasing.
Americans are less able to plan and provide for their futures than ever. Financial literacy slid from 42% to 34% between 2009 and 2018.³ And that number is significantly lower for Millennials than for the rest of the population, with only 17% able to answer 4 out of 5 basic questions about finances.⁴ That ignorance shows in our decision making and our inability to build wealth. A stunning 33% of Americans have nothing set aside for retirement.⁵ 44% don’t have enough saved to cover a $1,000 emergency.⁶ We’re surrounded by money and opportunity but don’t have the knowledge to convert them into personal wealth.
There are several reasons why financial literacy could be decreasing. Financial education is not widely taught in public schools, with less than half of states requiring a personal finance course for a highschool diploma.⁷ Perhaps we’ve just been slow to keep up with the rapid changes in the global economy. Or maybe some people benefit from having a large chunk of the population stay in financial ignorance. The lack of financial literacy is most likely a combination of all these reasons! The real question is, do you know how money works? And if not, where will you learn?
¹ Caleb Silver, “The Top 20 Economies in the World,” Investopdia, Updated Mar. 18, 2020,https://www.investopedia.com/insights/worlds-top-economies/
² “GDP per Capita,” Worldometers,https://www.worldometers.info/gdp/gdp-per-capita/
³ Andrew Keshner, “Financial literacy skills have taken a nose dive since the Great Recession,” MarketWatch, June 27, 2019,https://www.marketwatch.com/story/americans-financial-literacy-skills-have-plummeted-since-the-great-recession-2019-06-26
⁴ Keshner, “Financial literacy skills have taken a nose dive,” MarketWatch.
⁵ Dani Pascarella, “4 Stats That Reveal How Badly America Is Failing At Financial Literacy,” Forbes, Apr. 3, 2018,https://www.forbes.com/sites/danipascarella/2018/04/03/4-stats-that-reveal-how-badly-america-is-failing-at-financial-literacy/#69cecb072bb7
⁶ Pascarella, “4 Stats That Reveal How Badly America Is Failing At Financial Literacy,” Forbes.
⁷ Ann Carrns, “More States Require Students to Learn About Money Matters,” The New York Times, Feb. 8, 2020,https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/your-money/states-financial-education.html
A recent study found that 65% believed life insurance was too expensive for them, and another 52% didn’t know how much or what kind they needed. 42% of respondents didn’t have life insurance because they didn’t like thinking about passing away! ¹
But life insurance doesn’t have to be mentally or emotionally overwhelming.
That’s why we’ve created this beginner’s guide to life insurance. We’ll give you a simple explanation of life insurance, define the purpose of life insurance, and see who needs it most!
What is life insurance?
Life insurance is typically a contract between you and an insurer where the insurer promises to pay an agreed upon amount to your beneficiary(s) when you pass away. The contract itself is called a policy, making you the policy holder. The money your beneficiary receives (depending on the type of policy you have) is called a death benefit. The monthly or yearly payment you give to the insurer in exchange for the insurance is called a premium. In short, you pay an insurer a little bit each month in exchange for a payout to your loved ones in the case of your passing (or because of other circumstances stipulated in the policy).
What is it for?
Life insurance can’t replace your presence for your family and loved ones. But it can replace your income. There might be people who depend on your income to make ends meet or to achieve their dreams, like a spouse or college-aged child. Life insurance can offer them the financial resources to maintain their lifestyles. It also provides them some time to grieve and plan their future.
Who needs it?
As a rule of thumb, it is recommended that people with dependents have some form of life insurance. Typically that means people with families that rely on their income to pay bills or with aging parents that need financial support. But there are some surprising ways that loved ones in your life might depend on you. Keep an eye out for a blog post with more details on who needs life insurance later this month!
Life insurance, at its core, can be straightforward and simple. It’s one of the most important layers of financial protection you can provide for your family to help replace your income and give your loved ones some peace of mind. Next week we’ll take a closer look at the different types of life insurance and how much coverage is enough for you!
¹ “Is Life Insurance Tomorrow’s Problem? Findings from the 2020 Insurance Barometer Study,” LIMRA, June 16, 2020, https://www.limra.com/en/newsroom/industry-trends/2020/is-life-insurance-tomorrows-problem-findings-from-the-2020-insurance-barometer-study/
Here’s the breakdown:
Nearly every type of debt can interfere with your financial goals, making you feel like a hamster on a wheel – constantly running but never actually getting anywhere. If you’ve been trying to dig yourself out of a debt hole, it’s time to take a break and look at the bigger picture.
Did you know there are often advantages to paying off certain types of debt before other types? What the simple list above doesn’t include is the average interest rates or any tax benefits to a given type of debt, which can change your priorities. Let’s check them out!
Credit card interest rates now average over 17%, and interest rates are on the rise.³ For most households, credit card debt is the place to start – stop spending on credit and start making extra payments whenever possible. Think of it as an investment in your future!
Interest rates for auto loans are usually much lower than credit card debt, often under 5% on newer loans. Interest rates aren’t the only consideration for auto loans though. New cars depreciate nearly 20% in the first year. In years 2 and 3, you can expect the value to drop another 15% each year. The moral of the story is that cars are a terrible investment but offer great utility. There’s also no tax benefit for auto loan interest. Eliminating debt as fast as possible on a rapidly depreciating asset is a sound decision.
Like auto loans, student loans are usually in the range of 5% to 10% interest. While interest rates are similar to car loans, student loan interest is often tax deductible, which can lower your effective rate. Auto loans can usually be paid off faster than student loan debt, allowing more cash flow to apply to student debt, emergency funds, or other needs.
In many cases, mortgage debt is the last type of debt to pay down. Mortgage rates are usually lower than the interest rates for credit card debt, auto loans, or student loans, and the interest is usually tax deductible. If mortgage debt keeps you awake at night, paying off other types of debt first will give you greater cash flow each month so you can begin paying down your mortgage.
When you’ve paid off your other debt and are ready to start tackling your mortgage, try paying bi-monthly (every two weeks). This simple strategy has the effect of adding one extra mortgage payment each year, reducing a 30-year loan term by several years. Because the payments are spread out instead of making one (large) 13th payment, it’s likely you won’t even notice the extra expense.
Words and ideas seem designed to confuse and trick you. But you might be surprised by how simple the concepts and terms actually are once they’re explained.
Consider this article your personal life insurance phrasebook to help you cut through the lingo and better understand the products you’re exploring. Let’s start with the basics!
- Policy and Policy Holder
A life insurance policy is a contract between you and an insurer stating that they will pay out a certain amount of money upon your passing (or another event specified in the policy). The policyholder is the person who owns and controls the policy.
- Death Benefit
The money that gets paid out from the policy when you die.
You, as the policyholder, get to decide where the death benefit will go. The people who receive the money are called beneficiaries. That could be a spouse, child, or anyone who depends on your income.
The payment you give the insurer in exchange for the life insurance policy is called the premium. You might have to pay these monthly or annually.
- Term Life Insurance
Some life insurance covers you for a specific amount of time. Your beneficiaries only receive the death benefit if you pass away during that time frame. This is referred to as Term Life Insurance. It’s typically considered the most straightforward form of life insurance available.
- Permanent Life Insurance
Another type of life insurance lasts for your entire life. This is called Permanent Life Insurance. There are multiple subcategories of permanent life insurance.
- Cash Value
Some permanent life insurance options come with a savings component. This is called a Cash Value. You can usually borrow against the cash value and spend the money on whatever you please!
This isn’t an exhaustive list of life insurance words and phrases, but it should be the minimum to get you started. Consider reaching out to a financial advisor to act as your translator as you dive deeper into the language of life insurance!
Every year, Life Insurance Marketing and Research Association (LIMRA) collects data on why people aren’t buying life insurance. Here are the three most popular objections to owning life insurance and a few points to consider if they’re stopping you from protecting your family.
“Life insurance isn’t that important”
This is the #1 reason Americans don’t buy life insurance. 67% say they have other financial priorities. ¹ And there’s an extent to which that’s understandable! Your mortgage, car payments, and college tuition are incredibly important for the wellbeing of your family. They’re the building blocks of your lifestyle and empower your loved ones to pursue their dreams.
But life insurance helps ensure that your family can meet those financial obligations and maintain their lifestyle, no matter what. It replaces the income they would lose if something were to happen to you unexpectedly. Life insurance is important because you have other financial priorities!
“Life insurance is not affordable”
65% of Americans think they can’t afford life insurance. ² But it’s incredibly common to overestimate the cost. LIMRA found in 2018 that 44% of Millennials thought life insurance was 5 times more expensive than it actually was. ³ To put things into perspective, a healthy, smoke-free 25 year old can expect to pay about $25 per month on life insurance. ⁴ That’s roughly the same as subscribing to several streaming services combined. ⁵ A young person can protect their financial future for the same monthly cost as binging their favorite shows and movies.
“Do I really need life insurance?”
The third most common reason Americans don’t have life insurance is because they don’t think they need it. There are many reasons for this. Maybe you’re thinking some of these yourself. “I’m young and healthy, I don’t have a family,” and the list goes on. A 23 year old without financial dependents like a spouse, aging parent, or child might legitimately have bigger financial fish to fry. But anyone with people in their lives that depend on their income to make ends meet and to pursue their dreams should have life insurance coverage. It’s not about how healthy you feel or how much you’ve saved up. It’s about protecting your family regardless of what life throws your way. Would you skip out on car insurance because you’re a good driver? Or ignore homeowners insurance because you have a fire extinguisher?
So the question now becomes, why don’t you have life insurance? Did any of these objections ring a bell? I would love to talk sometime about your concerns around securing the right protection for your family!
¹ “Is Life Insurance Tomorrow’s Problem? Findings from the 2020 Insurance Barometer Study,” LIMRA, [https://www.limra.com/en/newsroom/industry-trends/2020/is-life-insurance-tomorrows-problem-findings-from-the-2020-insurance-barometer-study/](https://www.limra.com/en/newsroom/industry-trends/2020/is-life-insurance-tomorrows-problem-findings-from-the-2020-insurance-barometer-study/)*
² “Is Life Insurance Tomorrow’s Problem? Findings from the 2020 Insurance Barometer Study,” LIMRA, [https://www.limra.com/en/newsroom/industry-trends/2020/is-life-insurance-tomorrows-problem-findings-from-the-2020-insurance-barometer-study/](https://www.limra.com/en/newsroom/industry-trends/2020/is-life-insurance-tomorrows-problem-findings-from-the-2020-insurance-barometer-study/)*
³ “9 common life insurance myths debunked,” Policygenius, https://www.policygenius.com/life-insurance/common-life-insurance-myths-debunked/
⁴ “Average Cost of Life Insurance (2020): Rates by Age, Term and Policy Size,” ValuePenguin, https://www.valuepenguin.com/average-cost-life-insurance
⁵ “Americans already subscribe to three streaming services on average. Is there room for more?,” allconnect, https://www.allconnect.com/blog/average-american-spend-on-streaming#:~:text=One%20poll%20from%20The%20Hollywood,at%20just%20over%20%2414%2Fmo.
But few have been caught in the crossfire of change quite like Generation X. Sandwiched between two larger generations, the folks born between 1965 and 1976 have seen an iron curtain fall, two major wars, a digital revolution, a global financial crisis, and now a world-shattering pandemic. Bridging the gap between so many stages of history has fashioned their perspective and financial health. Here’s a guide to understanding Generation X!
Generation X holds surprisingly little wealth. They account for only 16% of the nation’s wealth, while Baby Boomers hold 56%.(1) Debt is also rampant among Gen-Xers, with an average outstanding debt of $136,869.(2) That’s higher than any other generation—and has only increased over the past few years.(3) None of this seems to slow down their non-essential spending, which is also greater than their parents and children.(4) And they’re more reluctant than other generations to seek help from a financial advisor.(5)
Attitudes and anxieties
These pressures have shaped the attitudes and outlooks of Gen-Xers. They’re about as stressed as Millennials when it comes to debt, with a focus on credit cards instead of student loans.(6) But there’s more to it than just stress. Generation X is incredibly hard on itself. 41% would rate their financial health as not very good to not good at all. 43% think their finances are much worse off than their peers’, and half think they earn less.
Gen-X’s outlook on retirement doesn’t line up with previous generations. They’re not particularly prepared; pre-pandemic, they had saved about $35,000 for retirement. Many plan on cutting costs in order to save, but they’re estimated to be the first generation that’s less prepared for retirement than their parents.(7) No wonder most plan on working through their golden years!(8)
The Sandwich Effect
There are several reasons for the dire straits of many Gen-Xers. They endured the financial crisis of 2008, and before that the dot com bubble of 2000, and now they find themselves in the midst of a pandemic-fueled recession. But that’s not all. They’re currently a bridge generation. They have retiring parents to care for (Baby Boomers) and young adult children they’ve had to support (Millennials). Every generation has to contend with this sandwiching effect at some point, but it’s proven particularly difficult for the Gen-Xers.
There’s no doubt that Generation X faces particularly serious challenges. The real question is what’s next for the bridge generation? Where will they find the financial tools to achieve peace of mind for retirement?
Many came of age during the Great Recession, only to confront a pandemic-fueled economic downturn just a decade later. Here’s a quick look at the financial health of Millennials.
Few Millennials are financially healthy
A 2019 survey found that only 24% of Millennials are financially healthy. That means less than a quarter are “spending, saving, borrowing, and planning in a way that will allow them to be resilient and pursue opportunities over time.”(1) 54% are financially coping. They’re not sinking, but not necessarily thriving either. The final 22% of this generation are financially vulnerable. Bear in mind, these findings are from before the COVID-19 shutdowns which have left millions unemployed.
Employer practices and financial health
There are several contributing factors to the financial instability of Millennials. For instance, they typically hold fewer assets than the previous generation (Gen-X) but have roughly the same amount of debt.(2)
The evidence seems to suggest that employer practices like setting stable hours and offering benefits have tremendous impacts on financial health. Millennials with consistent schedules were 2.2 times more likely to be financially healthy.(3) Stable monthly income, employer-provided insurance, and paid sick leave also correlate to high financial health.
Millennials are skeptical of financial services
There’s a strong perception among Millennials that financial services should help them improve their financial lives.(3) And there’s an extent to which the industry is rising to meet those needs. Millennials are all over online and mobile banking; 65% to 72% have used those services in the last 12 months, respectively.(4)
But overwhelmingly, Millennials don’t feel like their financial institutions stand up for them. Only 14% agreed with the statement that “[My primary financial institution] helps me improve my financial health.”(5) That means that, even though they prioritize businesses that fight for them, Millennials feel abandoned by the financial industry.
So where does this leave this generation? It means that Millennials, by-and-large, feel financially unstable, neglected by their employers, and ignored by financial institutions. Who knows how COVID-19 has escalated those sentiments? The question is; who will meet the needs of Millennials?
It’s not Wal-Mart or Amazon or Apple; those are companies. The answer, while it might surprise you, actually makes perfect sense. It’s the industry that manages, stores and protects money for billionaires, conglomerates, companies—and you.
That’s right, the financial industry is the largest industry in the world!
Totalling $109 trillion, it dwarfs the competition.(1) For comparison, real estate is worth $33 trillion and retail amounts to $26 trillion. But what exactly is the financial industry? Here’s a quick look.
Technically, the financial industry is composed of companies that offer financial services. But what exactly is a financial service? The International Monetary Fund defines it as “how consumers and businesses acquire financial goods such as loans and insurance.”
— The most obvious example of financial services are the services a bank offers. It offers a place for you to safely store your money. You can also get a loan from a bank if you need to make a big purchase like a home or car. Banks make money by charging interest on loans and adding fees to their services, and they can range in size from local, small-town establishments to massive nationwide banks.
But there’s more to the financial industry than just holding and lending money. Investment is a huge part of this sector. Financial advisors and brokers help everyone from the middle class to the rich and powerful make and manage their investments. They can manage staggering amounts of money for huge businesses. Financial protection services, like insurance, is another major segment of the financial industry.
The foundation of the economy
Modern economies are fueled by the financial sector. They’re the gatekeepers to prosperity. Anyone trying to start a business, save for their future, or protect their family has to go through banks, advisors, and agents. Economies thrive when the financial sector is healthy and melt down when it’s not!
The financial industry might appear as conspicuous as other sectors. We don’t go to a financial advisor every week for groceries or fuel our car at the bank. But that doesn’t mean it’s not vital to every part of our lives.
1) Federal Reserve, February 2020
So why does it feel like you have so little control? How many people feel financially helpless? Like there is barely enough to make ends meet and never enough to prepare for the future?
78% of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic hit.(1) That means most of us weren’t in control of our finances. We were just riding the coattails of a fabulous economy.
So what does it take to achieve financial control?
Here are some basic ways to grab the reins of your personal finances!
You should know how much you make. But do you know how much you spend and on what? Discovering that your bank account is empty at the end of each month is one thing. But figuring out where your money is going—that’s something else entirely. This knowledge is what will help equip you to create a strategy and take control of your life.
Start by figuring out how much you spend in total and subtracting that number from how much you make. Then, break down your spending into categories like rent, gas, eating out, entertainment, streaming services, and anything else that takes a chunk out of your normal expenses. It might feel like homework, but hang in there.
Goals are the key to creating an effective financial strategy. You have to know what you’re building towards if you want to develop the best steps and strategies. It’s okay to think simple. Maybe you’re just trying to get out of debt. Perhaps you’re trying to save enough to start a business or buy a home. Or you might be a bit more ambitious and have an eye on a dream retirement that you want to start preparing for now.
Figure out what it is you want and how much it will cost. From there you can use your budget to start cutting back in categories where you spend too much. You might discover that you need to increase your income to accomplish your goals. Map out a few steps that will move you closer to making your dream a reality.
Once you’ve built a strategy based on your goals and budget-fueled insights, the only thing left is to follow through and take action. This isn’t a grandiose, one-time maneuver. This is about little decisions day in and day out that will help make your dreams a reality. That means making small moves like meal prepping at home instead of eating out, or avoiding clothing boutiques in favor of thrift shop finds. Those little acts of discipline are the building blocks of success. You might fall off the wagon every now and again, but that’s okay! Pick yourself up and keep pushing forward.
It’s important to have each of these three components operating together at once. Knowing your financial situation and not doing anything about it may not do anything but cause anxiety. Cutting your spending without an overall vision can lead to pointless frugality and meaningless deprivation. And a goal without insight or action? That’s called a fantasy. Let’s talk about how we can implement all three of these elements into a financial strategy today!
But as you head out for a night on the town with friends or maybe cuddle up next to your kids to watch their favorite movie, did you ever consider how you spent your after-work time during the week?
Whether you’re routine-driven, a free spirit, or somewhere in between, setting aside a few minutes every day to spend on your finances has the potential to make a huge difference in the long run. By adding these 3 financial habits to your daily routine, you have the potential to give yourself a little more power over your finances.
1. Check your inbox (or mailbox). Whether you pay your bills via credit card, automatic withdrawal, or a hand-written check that you mail in to the company, a daily look-see will help you stay on top of any alerts you get. Spend a few minutes every day glancing over incoming bills, payment receipts, and new online transactions. Being aware of the exodus (or pending exodus) of your money can help fend off late fees, overdrawing your accounts, or maxing out your credit card.
2. Review your spending. Every evening, take quick stock of any spending you did that day – whether in brick-and-mortar stores or online. This exercise can be eye-opening. For instance, are you in the habit of grabbing a piping hot cup of coffee from the drive-thru on your morning commute? Depending on your coffee preference, that can cost up to $5 a day! Maybe 5 bucks isn’t a huge deal, but consider this:
Just staying aware of those little daily expenditures may make a huge difference in your financial health; when you know how much you’re paying over time for something you could prepare at home (for far less money), you may decide to scale back on the barista-brewed coffee so you can help boost your financial future – and keep yourself on the path to financial independence.
3. Learn a little more. Knowing how money works is a vital part of achieving and maintaining financial independence. Taking a few moments every day to educate yourself a little more about money can make a huge difference in the long run. It can keep you aware of best practices for money management and all the ways your money can work for you. Try a blog post, YouTube video, or a best-seller on finances to keep yourself informed and up to date.
As you start putting these simple financial habits in place, contact me any time! Together we can assess how these small changes could help strengthen your financial strategy and get you closer to financial independence.
Hours of dedicated learning, training, and mentorship are required to move from amateur to expert. But who has the time for that? Most of us are still figuring out our careers or how to be a better parent or partner. With our busy lives, acquiring an additional skill—no matter how beneficial or fulfilling it may be—can seem like a fantasy.
But what if there were a way to quickly become competent at a skill?
It turns out that there are some simple steps you can take to jumpstart your learning process. Here are some tips for quick skill acquisition!
Skills are typically composed of smaller processes. For instance, playing a song on piano requires a few different abilities. You must be able to move each finger to the right keys at the right time, you should probably know how to read music, and possess a sense of when to play more loudly or softly. Trying to play a song without some command of those capabilities can feel overwhelming or impossible!
That’s why it’s useful to start with the end product and work backwards to discover the little skills you need to master. Once you see the micro-processes involved, you can start working forward. This might feel silly at first. Jumping between the same few notes over and over again until you’ve got them down isn’t the most glamorous endeavor! But it lays the foundation for a more complicated and satisfying skill that will pay off in the long run.
It’s easy to think making progress will be a straight line. We’re building up our little skills, getting better and better with each practice session. But pretty soon we hit a wall. There’s a problem that seems we can’t overcome. We might even start backsliding or feeling like we’re getting worse!
Don’t sweat a roadblock. It’s perfectly normal to hit a plateau when you’re trying to acquire a skill. Take a break from practice, go for a walk or take a nap, and get back to it with a fresh perspective. You might be surprised by how much learning occurs when you allow your brain to relax and process.
As nice as it sounds, multitasking simply does not work. There’s overwhelming evidence that it actually slows down your brain and wildly reduces efficiency.(1) Multitasking must be avoided at all costs when you’re trying to quickly learn a new skill. Try setting aside some undistracted time every morning or evening for a few weeks to work on your skill. That means leaving your phone in another room, turning off the TV, and telling your family that you’ll be busy for a while. Get in the zone and start practicing!
An hour every evening for a month won’t transform you into a Picasso. You’re not shooting to be a virtuoso. Instead, these tips and strategies may help you quickly acquire competence in just about anything you set your mind to. So draw up a list of some skills you want to develop and start learning!
Have you fallen into a rut of living the same day over and over again, rehashing the same information and thinking the same thoughts? Maybe you’re bored and looking for adventure or intellectual stimulation. It turns out that there are actually a few things you can do to consistently push your mental capacities and become a lifelong learner!
Good writing is magical. It can transport us to distant lands and introduce us to incredible worlds and characters. But reading can also transform our minds, especially when we encounter new and challenging ideas. We’re able to overcome the limitations of our own imaginations and experiences and see the world through someone else’s eyes.
Surveys have shown that almost all successful people, regardless of their backgrounds, read extensively.(1) And it’s no wonder; the ability to assume appreciate perspective is incredibly powerful. But what should you be reading?
Expand your horizons
Not all reading is created equal. Romance novels about vampires and werewolves might count as brain “junk food”. It also might be best to avoid a 19th-century philosophical treatise right out of the gate!
Instead, explore entry-level books about topics you don’t know a lot about. Dip your toe into new subjects and see if they spark your interest! You can always move to more advanced work on the subject from there. On the other hand, you can find new opinions and perspectives on topics that you’ve already mastered. How is your field changing or evolving?
Conversation is another great way to encounter new ideas. Chances are that you’re surrounded by vast amounts of knowledge sitting untapped inside your friends and family. You just need to know how to extract it! The keys are to listen seriously and ask real questions based on what you’ve heard. Most of us are more consumed with what we’re going to say next than with what the other person is saying. Honing in on what you’re hearing and trying to develop questions as you listen helps you understand what they’re saying and fuels your curiosity. It’s a virtuous cycle where everyone benefits!
But the key to both of these lifelong learning strategies is to focus intensely. That means when you’re reading or taking a class, turn off your phone and absorb what’s right before you. Engage in conversation intentionally, asking real questions based on what the other person is saying. You might be surprised how tricky both of those things can be at first! But stick with it. Those learning muscles will grow stronger and stronger until you’re brimming with information!
One final tip: always ask why. Don’t just ponder something to yourself. Ask someone who might possibly have an answer! And don’t be vague. Be as precise and specific as possible when you ask your question. The best thing about learning is that you can potentially keep learning forever! Learn to love the process of learning, and you might be amazed by how far your brain power can go.
Having flaws in your work pointed out to you can be a stressful experience and seriously affect your mood and self-image. Even criticizing someone else’s performance may make you feel uncomfortable and self-conscious.
But criticism is incredibly important. When done correctly, it can empower us to improve our weaknesses and maximize our strengths. But first, we have to learn how to receive criticism well and not let our egos get in the way. Here are a few ideas!
Pause and reframe
It’s easy to react poorly even to the best intentioned criticism. There’s an emotional leap we make where something simple like “I think this could be said better” gets interpreted as “you’re dumb and made a dumb decision and will always be dumb.” But that’s often our own emotions or insecurities talking and unnecessarily connecting dots. Next time you’re facing criticism, try taking a deep breath and pausing before you respond or react. You can also take that pause to reframe the situation in your mind. Is this really your boss seeking to degrade and destroy you or is this an opportunity to learn and improve?
Know your value
One of the key factors in how you handle criticism is how you value yourself. Even gentle advice can deeply hurt someone who has a low estimation of their worth. To them, it may seem to confirm their suspicion that they’re really not that useful and that they should probably just give up. The same goes for people who are dependent on praise and approval. Criticism can make them feel like they have to perform like a superhuman to earn the approval of the person criticizing. Until they do that, they’ll be a nervous wreck!
The key to overcoming these barriers is to understand that you have value in and of yourself. Part of that worth comes from your accomplishments and skills, but some of it comes down to your mindset. What do you tell yourself about yourself? Have you really studied the art of self-confidence? Start developing the skills it takes to know your own worth and watch as your attitude towards feedback changes!
Consider the source
It’s also worth remembering that not all criticism is created equal. There’s some feedback that might not be worth taking seriously whatsoever. Your nagging grandmother, your impossible to please friend, and your nitpicking coworker are probably not the best places to turn for useful critiques and advice. But bosses, experts, and mentors? That’s where you need to put aside your pride, remember that you still have value, and actually listen.
You might be surprised how these simple steps can transform your perspective on criticism. Suddenly, the advice and critiques of others seem less like threats and more like opportunities. There’s so much wisdom walking around in your peers and mentors. Learning how to handle criticism like a pro opens up access to a whole new world of experience and ideas that just might change your life!
Some people seem to be born with an eye for the new and the unexpected and the exciting. There’s nothing wrong with conventional thinking; you probably don’t want a doctor or nurse known for an avant-garde attitude! But there are times when we’re confronted by problems without obvious solutions. We have to think outside the box to overcome and make progress. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to approach life more creatively. You might not become a Van Gogh, but these tips might come in handy the next time you encounter a roadblock.
Talk to the experts to expand your horizons
Experts can be a touch boring, especially when they keep lording their knowledge over you at dinner parties. But they can also be a huge source of inspiration, if you know how to talk to them! Instead of zoning out or looking for a way to interject your own opinion, start listening for opportunities to ask questions. Look for things you don’t understand about what they’re saying or an idea that strikes you as interesting and ask them about it. And when they’re done explaining it, try repeating it back in your own words. You might be surprised by the connections that your brain starts to make. Plus, the person you’re talking to will feel valued and appreciated!
Boredom births creativity.(1) It’s counterintuitive, but it makes sense when you think about it. Your brain likes to be busy. Watching paint dry or reading the phonebook is so dull that (if you actually did those activities) you’d spontaneously start exploring new ideas just to pass the time. Your brain is never less inhibited or less constrained than when you’re performing a mundane task. Clear out some time in your schedule for a boring activity. Maybe (safely!) try voice recording your ideas in the car on your commute to and from work. You might find a long shower is the perfect time to brainstorm and think through problems. Get creative and do something monotonous!
Pick up a creative hobby
If your schedule is already full and you’re constantly on the move, picking up a hobby might seem kind of pointless. But a hobby can teach you important lessons about creativity that you can’t learn anywhere else. You might learn that performing a beautiful song is composed of dozens of little micro-movements and components that all take time to learn and master. You might learn that painting a stunning landscape starts with a single brushstroke. And you might learn that out-foxing your opponent in chess comes down to your burgeoning ability to imagine a dozen possible outcomes and responding well when things don’t go your way. Clear out some time, talk to an expert, and start creating something just for fun!
Start with the craziest idea first
Convention is the biggest enemy of creativity. We’ve all had ideas that we’re afraid to share or voice because we think people will think we’re stupid. But being creative is all about seeing potential where no one else can. And that by default means some folks are going to shoot you looks. Overcome all of that by expressing your wildest ideas first. Come out of the gate with a barn burner. Listen to serious feedback and criticisms, but don’t be afraid to voice your ideas. You might just stumble on something brilliant!
These tips may not transform you into a generation-defining sculptor or wordsmith*. But they might just spark the creative edge you need to see problems in a new light and find opportunities where others see danger. So make some time, start some conversations, pick up some hobbies, and start dreaming!
*Please let me know if this article does happen to make you into a generation defining artist of any kind!
Maybe we’re overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task and our brains just shut down. We might have a few odds and ends to wrap up that don’t seem very important after all. Or there might be an issue that we’ve ignored for so long that we don’t even really think about it until it’s almost too late!
Most of us know that procrastination usually doesn’t produce a good result. Here’s a quick look at how procrastination works and how you can beat it!
Why do we procrastinate?
There are a few reasons why we procrastinate. In general, your brain is much better at understanding the here and now than something that has yet to happen. The hassle of completing a task can seem more real to us than the future feeling of accomplishment we’ll have once everything is said and done.(1)
But it goes deeper than that. Oftentimes, we procrastinate when we associate negative emotions with a task.(2) That’s why we often put off boring or physically demanding tasks as long as possible. We might also be afraid of facing the consequences of failing at the task or being judged poorly by our peers. Putting off the task is an easy, though often costly, way of regulating those doubts and fears. But avoiding the task doesn’t normally make us feel better. Procrastination often leads to a spiral; we put off a task out of fear, feel bad about ourselves, grow more fearful, and on and on.
How to avoid procrastination
There are a few strategies you can use to combat procrastination. Try breaking your tasks down into the smallest, least intimidating pieces possible and start knocking them out, one by one. That can make a big problem seem much more manageable in the short term. You might also want to reward yourself when you overcome each milestone to help you associate productivity with something positive.
But overcoming procrastination isn’t always about strategy. Sometimes we have to overcome deep feelings of fear and anxiety. Studies have shown that practices like self-compassion and re-framing an issue can go a long way to defeating procrastination. Ask yourself why you’re avoiding a task. Is it fear of your work not being recognized? Fear of being ignored? Try to work through what’s causing the slow down and recognize what’s going on!
Don’t forget to cut yourself some slack next time you hit a roadblock. It happens to everyone! Take a breath, try to understand what precisely it is you’re avoiding, and then look on the bright side of how much better you’ll feel once your work is complete!
It makes sense. Lines are long, traffic is bad, and situations don’t always conform to our expectations. Staying calm in the face of difficulties isn’t easy. We get angry and upset and vent those feelings to anyone who will listen.
But there’s a reason patience is considered a virtue. Here’s a quick case for practicing patience in your personal and professional life!
What is patience?
Merriam-Webster defines patience as “bearing pains or trials calmly or without complaint.”(1) Also: “not hasty or impetuous.” Let’s unpack those definitions!
Patience is basically a calm response when things don’t go your way or meet your expectations. Is a project taking longer than you want? A patient response would be to not get angry, maintain your composure, and keep working your best at it.
The benefits of patience
We don’t always have the luxury of making decisions in a stress-free environment. But patience comes with a variety of positives. First, it gives us a degree of clarity when we’re making tough choices. Enacting a bit of patience can prevent you from making an emotional call when you unexpectedly feel the heat!
Second, patience can help us achieve our goals. It can be easier to do things with short-term benefits. But doing something today that will help us a year down the road? That can be much harder. Patience can help us accomplish things now that will benefit us later in life. It helps us tolerate discomfort with grace and wait to reap the rewards of hard work later down the line!
Finally, patience towards others can encourage them to be patient towards us. There’s nothing more alienating than getting snapped out by someone who loses their temper when things don’t go their way. But responding graciously and calmly to a person’s disappointing behavior can make a huge difference in their lives and may help them improve. It might also make them think twice before they treat you poorly the next time!
How to practice patience
Recognizing the benefits of patience is one thing, but actually being patient? That’s a whole different ball game! Here are some tips for the next time you feel yourself growing impatient with a person or situation:
- Breathe deeply. It’s one of the simplest ways of calming yourself down when you feel frustration starting to bubble! Take a few deep breaths and reassess the situation with a fresh perspective.
- Empathize. Try to understand the perspective of the people who are upsetting you. What’s the best possible reason that they might be doing this annoying thing? Does it make some sense from their point of view and given their experience? Are they legitimately being malicious or do they have understandable motives for their actions?
- Be grateful! You probably have much more to be thankful for than you realize. Take some time to count your blessings and remember the good things in life. You might be surprised by how much that reframes your experience and makes you more patient!
One last thing: Don’t confuse patience with weakness! We’re so used to a go get ‘em, hustle mentality that patiently working and waiting can seem counter-intuitive and downright dumb. But patience has always been a virtue, and it can make a big difference in your personal life and your business!
Our lives are full of actions that we’re almost unaware of. Many of them just help us get little things done more efficiently. But some habits can have a huge impact on our lives in either a positive or negative way. Here’s a quick breakdown of how habits work and ways to “trick yourself” into better behavior patterns.
We’ve looked at why the brain likes habits in a previous article, but it’s worth reviewing again!
Your brain craves efficiency. It looks for the path of least resistance when it comes to using energy. Making decisions takes a lot of brain power. Too many choices in a day can leave you feeling mentally exhausted, so your brain looks for ways to cut corners. It starts automating little decisions that you make repeatedly. Brushing your teeth, tying your shoes, and checking your social media are choices you’ve made so often that your brain stops consciously weighing in and seems to just spontaneously make you do them.
So that’s why your brain likes forming habits. But the mechanics of how a habit forms is essential if you’re trying to upgrade your unconscious behaviors!
Cues, Routines, and Rewards
A habit can be broken down into three basic components. It starts with a cue. That’s any kind of trigger that makes you want to do something. Actually performing the action suggested by the cue is called a routine. Following the routine usually results in some kind of reward, either physical or psychological.
So let’s say you’ve developed a habit of eating a cookie with your morning coffee. You wake up, put on the pot, and brew a delicious cup of joe. You instantly start craving the cookie when you smell that medium roast goodness. That’s the cue. You reach into the jar, grab the biggest chocolate chip cookie you can get your hands on, and take a bite. That’s the routine. And the tingling joy and comfort you feel when that life-giving treat hits your tongue? That’s the reward that brings you back morning after morning. But the consequence might be that you’ve put on a few unwanted pounds in the last couple of months.
How to use the habit pattern
It’s easy to see how certain habits can lead to some undesirable outcomes. We tend to form habits around anything that rewards our brains, whether it’s junk food, caffeine, or dangerous substances. But our brains also like things such as observing progress and accomplishing goals.
How can we use this to encourage good habits? Here are a few ideas: Start really small: Break your desired habit down into pieces and try to regularly perform each one. You might be surprised by how good it feels to accomplish something, which can prompt you to make more and more progress. Reward yourself: Some activities are very rewarding in the moment. But not everything that’s good for you leaves you feeling accomplished right away. Try something like only playing video games after 30 minutes of reading! Be patient: Habits don’t form overnight. You’ll probably mess up before it sticks. Don’t sweat the little failures and keep trying until that habit becomes second nature!
You can also use this knowledge to break bad habits. Try to identify the cues associated with the habit and avoid or eliminate them. Also, consider ways that you might actually be rewarding yourself for bad behavior. It’s worth asking friends and sometimes professionals for insights into your habits!
Have you considered the role your surroundings play in your everyday life? It turns out that one of the easiest ways to bring about change in our lives is actually to change our environments. What if the layout of your bedroom or the distance from your desk to the kitchen was impacting your productivity and decision making? There’s plenty of room for each of us to improve. Here’s how and why making some changes to your environment works.
Your brain is efficient
Making decisions is draining. (Heard of “decision fatigue”? It’s real!) We can only make so many choices per day before we start to run out of steam and need a rest. But we’re faced with countless choices every time we wake up! Should I go back to sleep? Should I shower or brush my teeth first? What will I wear to work? Should I try out that new shortcut to the office? It can become stressful for your brain to struggle with a choice every time one of these little prompts presents itself. That’s why we rely on decision shortcuts called habits.
A habit is just a routine that you regularly perform. Most of the time we don’t even notice that we’re engaging in a habit because it’s second nature to us. And there’s a reason for that. It’s your brain saving energy by going on autopilot to perform an action without having to make a decision. That way you can use the bulk of your mental power on unique and important problems that might pop up during the day, not on thinking about when you should brush your teeth!
Trick yourself into making wise decisions
What does your brain’s love of shortcuts have to do with your environment? Let’s look at an example.
Your alarm clock is right next to your bed. It goes off every morning at 7:30am. It doesn’t take you long to figure out that you can smack the snooze button and go straight back to sleep with hardly any effort. Before long you’re hitting the snooze button every time the alarm goes off without even thinking about it. You’ve trained yourself to sleep in later by making your alarm easier to turn off. But what if your alarm was on the other side of your room? What if to silence it you had to stand up, walk over, and hit a button? That simple change could give you the jolt that you need to wake up and get your day started on time!
Take a look at your surroundings and ask yourself what kind of behavior it encourages. Is it more convenient for you to grab a soda from the fridge or fill up your water bottle? When you work at home, are you in the middle of distractions like the kids playing or too close to the TV? At work, does your office layout lend itself to productivity or socializing with your co-workers?
It might take some legwork to get started, but try to arrange your life in a way that makes wise decisions easier. You might be surprised by the results!
We live in a world of dollars and cents, ones and zeros, and cold, hard facts. Dreams and hopes are great, but results will always be our number one priority.
But what if your imagination mattered?
What if your mind’s eye actually held the key to success? There’s strong evidence that actually visualizing certain outcomes can reduce stress and empower you to achieve your goals and dreams. It might sound like voodoo, but it’s actually not! Here’s how it works.
Mind and Muscle
Your brain is connected to your body. Your brain registers things that happen to your arms and legs and ears and lets you know if they’re good or bad. A soft blanket? Good! Stubbing your toe? Bad!
But the connection between your brain and body goes both ways. Imagining an action in your mind can actually improve your performance in real life. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for this; legends like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Muhammad Ali were big believers in imagining specific outcomes.(1&2) But there’s also research to back it up. People who imagined exercising certain muscles gained almost as much strength as people who physically exercised!(3)
Visualization can also reduce stress. Studies have found that novice surgeons and police officers who receive imagery training feel less stress and have less objective stress.(4)
Some visualization tips
Imagining yourself on a generic island paradise in 15 years is just daydreaming. The key to effective visualization is specificity. Be as precise as possible. Break down how you’ll achieve your goal or throw that game-winning pass into as many tiny movements as possible, and imagine how you’ll execute each one. Incorporate your senses; what will you smell and hear when you finally achieve that goal?
Verbal affirmations can also help with this visualization process. Take a page from Muhammad Ali, and tell yourself that you’re the greatest every morning before you get breakfast! Even better, say your goal out loud before you go to bed or eat lunch. Writing up a mission statement that you read daily or making a vision board of images that inspire you are also ways to boost your visualization!
Just remember that one of the key strengths of visualization is that you can do it anywhere. Develop your goals, make them as specific as possible, and then start imagining!
It’s the end of nearly two decades of classrooms, tests, essays, late nights, and early mornings, but it’s the start of your full-fledged independence.
That move isn’t always easy. We face a huge number of unknowns when we leave the hallowed halls of the university and enter the dog-eat-dog “real world.” What kind of job will I end up with? Where will I live? What will my coworkers be like? How well will I adjust to a totally new routine? Those are important questions that don’t always have clear answers. However, there are some things you can do that will help navigate your post-graduation world. These aren’t magic antidotes, just helpful steps that might bring some stability and order to your experience!
Create a vision
Having a career vision is essential. It can provide structure and a sense of purpose. Decisions can be weighed by how much they move you towards realizing your goals, which can help give you clarity when making tough calls.
Keep your vision as specific and precise as possible. That dream of working at a prestigious law firm and wearing designer suits every day? Take it and drill down on the details. What kind of law do you want to practice? What’s your dream city? How high up on the ladder do you want to climb? Be honest with yourself about what you really want.
It’s also important to develop a time frame for your goals. Think about a 5 to 10 year time frame and see what you think is realistic!
Map out your path
Now it’s time to map out how you’ll make your vision a reality. What needs to happen for you to get that promotion or end up in the city you want to experience?
The first step is research. Your dream position might require a master’s degree or special licensing that you can’t afford just yet. Maybe you need some time in the field before moving up. Break down exactly what needs to happen, and when, for you to achieve your goal. Sometimes it’s best to start with the goal itself and deconstruct it into smaller and smaller pieces that are easier to manage. Start checking off those little steps until your goal looks more and more achievable!
It’s also a good idea to find a mentor to guide you. Ideally this would be someone who’s undertaken this journey themselves! They’ll have insights into roadblocks that you’ll face and little tips that can make all the difference.
No plan is perfect. We’ll always overlook a detail, not factor in a risk, or overestimate our ability to handle something. It’s easy to get discouraged when those things go wrong. It can make your dream feel unattainable, and you might start to doubt yourself. But rolling with those punches and not getting discouraged by setbacks is essential to achieving your goal. Take a step back, assess the situation, learn from your mistakes, and get back to the grind. You might have to adjust your expectations and even re-evaluate your process. That’s fine! Do what you need to do and get back to work once you’ve hammered out the details.
Remember that flexibility is key. Your passion for a certain type of work or field of study might cool off as the years go by. You might find that your goal of becoming an alpha executive conflicts with your goal of being an available parent. Don’t push those hard decisions off until tomorrow. Do some serious soul searching about what matters to you today, make some goals, figure out a process, and don’t let little failures get you down!