Saturday, December 14, 2013

Financial Saviness

Great article on the mindset it takes to be financially sound. Every single situation is different, and there's no cookie-cutter advice that works for everyone.

With respect to Navy life, I was an idiot for not investing in Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) early in my career. No reason not to, other than stupidity and false excuses about what I needed to spend money on. Once I did start socking away the cheddar, I spent a great deal of time worrying about which funds to invest in, how much to allocate, etc.

Thankfully TSP came around with their lifecycle funds, which do some of the work for you. I have no doubt that I could do better if I managed the funds myself, but at what cost? I have no desire to spend every waking hour looking at tickers, analyzing the market, and given my irrational fears, paying a lot of money to someone to advise me. And feeling taken advantage of when the market tumbles and I followed that advice.

1) You have to have a system that's easy to use: Because if you don't, you'll never follow it.

2) You need to have some built-in boundaries to keep you on track & honest

3) Don't nuke it out: You can do better than Pareto (the 80/20 rule), but don't lose your mind trying to get that last 0.001% gain.

I sleep comfortably knowing our retirement savings are on autopilot (I needn't do anything to deposit the money), and we periodically assess what we're investing in (for ethics and earnings). But I don't worry whether I should have traded yesterday or in two weeks. It's a marathon, not a sprint. The important part is to get started out of the gate, and to keep running!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Think on these Things: A Unique Interpretation of Paul's Exhortation

I really enjoy the blog "What's best next" as a Christian resource, but as a general resource for life as well. The main topic is how to integrate a life of faith with a life of satisfying work.

In his recent post, Matt discusses Paul's wisdom to the Philippian church on the subject of spiritual disciplines. As a Christian growing up, it was hammered home the importance of spending time in the Scriptures, praying, and other activities we tend to "do".

As an adult, I've enjoyed a number of experiences over the years that I would categorize as "good", but always felt somewhat uncomfortable about because they weren't necessarily "spiritual". Movies that had a theme which rang true, or music that got stuck in my head because the composition was so amazing. I would dwell on them and tended to feel a bit guilty for it.

Paul's command to focus on excellent things is important for us today. Not only because we can become focused on worthless things (think about what value reality TV has added over the past decade), but because there's so much out there to focus on in the first place. Our attention is constantly challenged in the media-driven society we live in.

Two great implied thoughts on the verse & post:

1) We can choose what we spend our attention on. While marketing works, nevertheless, we have a choice as to what we invest our time in.

2) The filter is "excellence". In this case, the author directs us to consider all of the good things around us, independent of their source. As a Christian, I would say that God is the ultimate source of truth, and it is by His reflection and outpouring into the world that we have beautiful things. A Muslim would say something similar about Allah. The world-class physicist may say it about his scientific methodology. There are amazing artists from the Eastern world, and many atheists have contributed significant findings to our understanding of the universe. Why would I avert my eyes from truth solely because of their beliefs?

Take what is good, and throw away the rest. Tim Ferriss posed this in his recent book "The 4-Hour Chef" as a way to intake the volume of information he provided. The world is a big place, and our life's experiences are as yet immeasurable. Our challenge is to make the absolute best of everything around us.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Directed vs. Drifting: How Are You Spending Your Time?

I subscribed to Jon Morrow's posts on blogging about a year ago, but the value of his words extends beyond a career as a writer. In this post he tells a personal story of how he turned his lifestyle around and went from mediocre student to one of success. I find his arguments compelling.

It's easy to discuss the esoteric nature of "free will" and our ability to choose things. But here is a perfect example. We are all given resources to manage, to steward. Money is one of the easiest things to equate to stewardship, but I find more and more that time is my most valuable resource. I can't earn more time. I can only spend what I have wisely.

No one says you can't have fun and let off steam, but over time, it's easy to lose sight of those bigger dreams and goals we have. One Netflix series turns into several shows at a stretch (thank you Arrested Development...) I hope we can all commit to reducing our intake of less-than-helpful content and focus on the good things around us too.

What is adding value into your life?
If time is a resource to steward, what are you spending it on? Education? Building relationships with others? Creating a product or service?  Serving?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Quality... An Elusive Beast

This post was originally on my mind from recent events, but the following article on Effortless Gent prompted me as well:

QUANTITY, not Quality

While in my mind I'm sure the Count of Monte Cristo was a proponent of quality (look at the number of items he owned, from yachts to homes, all of which were "the best"), the argument for quality in our time becomes hard. When is a $400 pair of shoes really worth $400? How about that $25K vehicle advertised during your favorite syndicated television program?

This question is on my mind after the travel events I've been doing over the last three months. In June, anticipating 1) leaving for a one week business trip requiring more than my normal carry-on amount of gear, and 2) looking at what to take on an extended multi-month trip, I purchased a rolling duffel bag, costing about $30 (note: a soft-side bag was a mandated requirement). Nothing too big, but it looked adequate enough. Within the week, I had broken one zipper (self-repaired but only usable in one direction thereafter) and the shoulder sling buckles. Hmm...

I packed that same bag on my way out the door for my big trip. It was pretty well stuffed, and pushed the weigh limit of 70 lbs I needed to meet. On my first stop stateside, I convinced myself to look for a more durable alternative. At the store, I was drawn to a really heavy duty rolling duffel, three wheels, well constructed, but talked myself out of it due to price ($90) and color (green camouflage). Instead I purchased a more respectable black/grey rolling duffel for $50. It was bigger in capacity, and I felt it would fit my gear better.

Fast forward a few weeks. I drug that bag over some poorly paved parking lots and airport terminals, and sure enough, broke one wheel and completely obliterated the bottom canvas. As soon as I checked into my hotel, I went online, found the manufacturer of the three-wheel roller (S.O.C.) and ordered a tan version of their bag. My sister-in-law's Amazon gift certificate covered expedited shipping, but it set me back $110.

Rolling Load Out - Coyote Brown

It's easy to look back in hindsight and think "If only I'd spent the money on the right bag in the first place..." I've done so countless times, on a variety of purchases.

- How many pairs of brown shoes have I owned?

- How many cars did I purchase based on faulty reasoning?

- How many tech gadgets has this family gone through?

In the quest for quality, I believe one needs to ask several questions and understand the operating environment for prospective gear to best determine what basis you purchase on:

1) Quality is not always about cost:  In the marine industry especially, I found that dollar signs do not equal quality products. Sometimes the more expensive option is more durable, efficient, or user-friendly, but not always. Avoid the trap of thinking quality is based on price alone.

2) How long to I intend to keep this thing?: This question helps frame the decision and thought of pricing. For a bag, how many trips per year will you take and use it? If a bag can last you ten years, at five trips per year, then a $100 bag is really $2 per trip. Alternately, my $50 bag cost me $50 per trip. Those $400 double-monk strap shoes? If worn several times per week, and cobbled when necessary, may last you a long time and cost less that a "throw-away" copy costing $40-$50. Then again, a $50 pair that's taken care of can also last a long time, but may break down faster.

3) Am I getting $___ worth of utility or value out of the purchase?: I balked a lot at iPod prices in the mid-2000's. It simply seemed like a way to gouge customers; market something they don't really need and charge them a lot for it. But ultimately, people realized an important fact: the iPod did its function incredibly well. The same with Apple's Mac line of computers. Many owners say the same thing "It doesn't do everything, but what it does do is without fault. It just works." If you use that iPod or Mac every day, and really get a lot of use out of it, then buying quality matters. I'm about to pitch this "burner" laptop because the effort of changing hard drives again, and dealing with licensing of Windows, is more frustrating than the cost of a new travel computer. How many previous computers have I bought when I could have saved for that Macbook Air? Hmm....

4) What balance am I willing to strike for quality?: In the end, every purchase contains some compromise. Know what you are willing to budge on and what you'll hold ground for. In car buying, there are a plethora of options you are balancing. Maybe heated seats are a real want, but cruise control is a perceived need. If purchasing used, how many miles are you willing to trade for a feature? That un-optioned model with 5000 miles may be a competitor with the limited-edition rolling in with 15,000 on the odometer. If you're purchasing for a long-term relationship, how well will you deal without electric windows? How long will the difference be between 10,000 miles of lifespan?

Ultimately, everyone buys for their own reasons. Again, each purchase is in some way a compromise. But for those things we need to buy, consider the long term impact of the purchase and how quality factors in.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Count of Monte Cristo: Why I Write About Becoming Like Edmond Dantes

1997: A young farm kid named Travis gets a reading assignment from his English teacher: the class will be reading "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas. Despite the prescribed pace, I manage to complete reading the book in about half the time. My regulars at the local YMCA that I lifeguarded at smiled and shook their heads as I described how captivating the story was that weekend. My parents probably thought nothing of it, as I'd routinely stay up in my room or curled on the couch reading something (I come from a family of readers). If nothing else, reading this literary classic probably shaped my life more than anything else in high school.

Fast forward several years. During college I was able to find a battered copy during a beginning of term book sale. And read it voraciously. After graduating, that copy lived on the sailboat I called home, and was read regularly. When the advent of digital reading came and my wife bought me a Kindle, it was one of the first titles I found. On average, I'd say I've read the book about once every other year.

Why am I so obsessed with Edmond Dantes? When I draw my vision back to the 10,000 foot level, I think to myself, "He's the kind of person I find myself idealizing." Not so much in the area of vengeance (although obviously a significant part of the story) but more so in the area of roundedness. When presented the opportunity to learn every the Abbe Faria had to teach, Edmond grasped those things with desire. He poured himself into the task of creating a better self. And while his initial motivation was to avenge his circumstances, I don't believe this character is necessarily wrong. The first three chapters of Solomon's book of Proverbs appears to speak positively of the gain of wisdom:

"...making your ears attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding;..."

Analyzing my intrigue with Edmond Dantes made me realize the appeal of his character was in his multi-faceted nature. He was at ease in every situation he found himself in. All topics were not just fair game, but areas of expertise for this man of mystery. Truly, he was the original man of mystery. 

I'd like to say my fascination with becoming like Edmond isn't hubris. I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't almost equally obsessed with James Bond (Daniel Craig's version of course, and probably Roger Moore a close second.) But I think it's a not unworthy goal to be comfortable in as many situations as possible, to be able to adapt to the environment you find yourself in. And may through the study of numerous and varied topics to become better able to think critically, to frame arguments, and to find solutions to complex problems. Wicked problems, as my war college professor described them.

So I decided to set off on a personal quest, to spend my life in the pursuit of an ever-expanding body of knowledge and skills, to become the most rounded person I am capable of. A Renaissance man. Probably not "The Most Interesting Man in the World." But close.

As a Christian, this is a difficult topic. Humility would appear to contrast this pursuit. So to some extent, this quest is a challenge in successfully combining the two desires of my life: to know God, and to become the most capable man I can be. With that perspective, "I Am Edmond Dantes" seeks to be a vehicle to:

1) Record life lessons learned
2) Describe the results of my efforts (and maybe have some accountability to achieving results)
3) Process the challenge of combining spiritual thinking with lifestyle design
4) Communicate those things to others

So there's a manifesto for you. Cheers to the journey ahead. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Life Lessons: Travel Smart

One of the lessons I wish I knew when I graduated from the Naval Academy (heck, even while at USNA) is how to travel smarter. Since taking a job that requires me to travel about once a month, I've become intrigued by several resources for light travelers.

Probably my favorite, OneBag was a great resource to renew my thinking in this area. Another site was by Andrew Hyde. Also a good read.

I won't repeat everything they've said, but a couple things that are serving me well.

Get One Great Bag

I accidentally ran across a Delsey Helium Pilot personal carry-on for a rail trip, and have used it faithfully over the last few years as my one bag. It stows overhead, stows beneath the seat in front of me, and fits perfectly in the trunk of our car. With careful planning it can serve me for over a week. Laundry keeps me afield longer if necessary. My next move is to "upgrade" to a similarly sized leather bag, more for looks than anything.

Find the Right Travel Accessories

To make one bag work takes a little ingenuity. I have a couple of accessories that make traveling this light possible. I keep all of my liquid toiletries in a heavy clear vinyl bag in one of the end pockets. Easy to pull out for TSA inspections. My dry toiletries (razor, comb) go in another small zip pouch kept in the same pocket.

I bought a clothes folder that fits snugly within the main compartment of my bag; I think this is the model from Eagle Creek. I use this to neatly fold my dress shirts. I also have two small "packing cubes" that I use to separate my underclothes and workout gear. Small pouches or zippered bags are used throughout to sort items for handiness.

Use a Travel Checklist to Pack

The OneBag website gives a great piece of advice in using a checklist to pack. Mine is a 5x7 card, folded and always kept in the top pouch of my bag. I wrote the list a while ago and add items if necessary now. It's not an "everything" list; it's more of a mental reminder of things to think about. Many items are kept in my travel bag permanently, so I don't have to think about packing at all.

The list helps me sort through what I need for a trip as well as helps me remember to repack everything when I'm ready to come home.

Items that are permanently kept in my bag: phone charger, HDMI cable (for my tablet), extra microUSB cable, book light, spare glasses, collar stays, goggles for swimming, several plastic bags for wet items, a small mesh bag for laundry, one pouch of dry laundry detergent, some quarters, and a few dryer sheets (in case I need to do laundry), extra headphones, pens & note cards, and a flashlight.

Be a Great Air Traveler

One of the travel methods I tend to dislike the most is air. While you probably can't guarantee a perfect flight every time, you can do your best to make it a better experience. A few things that I've learned.
  • Be a part of every major miles program (and hotel programs as well). You may never use the miles, but if you aren't collecting them, you will never use them. Do this early! Like right now!
  • Only wear slip-on shoes at airports. Never laces. Maybe zippered sides.
  • Before hitting the TSA line, my pockets are empty and in the front pouch of my bag. Only an ID card and boarding pass in a shirt pocket.
  • I tend to use my flight time to relax (vice feeling I need to do work). With that in mind, I almost always pack the same way: I have a small satchel, easily stored in my carry-on and removed once through security. It counts as my hand-carried item. In it are my tablet, phone, headphones, earplugs, a paper book or magazine (for take-off & landing), and some snacks. The beauty of the tablet these days is that it (or a good phone) substitutes for an ebook, video player, video game console, and more. I've never felt the need to, but many flights have wifi, so you could surf (but why? Really?).
  • Food: I try to use my airport experiences to find something interesting or comforting to eat. It's a cheat day for me, so anything is on the table.
  • Smile: I like to talk with new folks, and keep a positive attitude. More than anything, it tends to help reduce the friction involved.


Do your best to think through your travels ahead of time. You'll get many opportunities to build and practice your skills, so make the best of it!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Hindered Prayers: Are There Consequences for Being a Husband?

I've been thinking hard about the subject of "hindered prayers." What are those things that God's Word specifically say will prevent or hinder my prayers to Him? Peter gives an example related to a husband's responsibility for the conduct of his wife. If her conduct is going poorly, it is the husband's responsibility and the consequence is hindered prayer.

In seeking guidance on this, I found the above link. A very comprehensive article on the subject, and a must-read for husbands and husbands-to-be. The author's interpretations are well laid out and justified, and he breaks down the verse in detail. Not a lot of direct application examples, but the spirit of the things Peter describes are all there.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Directed vs. Drifting: An Analogy

To use a model from the Gospels...

"The Kingdom of God is like a transportation network across a continent.  One man who wanted to travel invested his time and money into building a railroad network.  He planned out where he wanted the tracks to go, dug out good footings, laid a heavy foundation of gravel and concrete sleepers, and purchased quality steel rails.  He knew the train wouldn't be able to go side-to-side, and could only follow the route he planned, but he knew it could do so very fast, and carry many passengers and cargo.

Another man decided he didn't want to spend the time or money on a railroad system, so he purchased a 4x4 truck. He could go anywhere he wanted in the country, across mud and ice and grass and trails and roads. But he quickly found that he couldn't travel faster than the train, as the bumpiness made his girlfriend car sick, and he couldn't bring many people with him because he was cheap and didn't get the King cab model".

Application: Directed living is tough. It requires an investment of time, and probably some money or other resources.  In the long term though, it provides liberty with structure. A directed Christian can't just "go" wherever he or she feels like. There are limits they place on themselves (i.e. rails) to ensure that they can be the most efficient in a certain direction.

A drifting Christian (or any other person) chooses to have "liberty" without structure. While it appears they have more freedom to do what they like (watch certain movies, pursue certain relationships, spend their time and money in more ways), they in fact are unknowingly placing limits on themselves.  The truck cannot achieve the same speeds as a well-built train, and cannot carry the same load either.

Specific examples:

A marriage (with limits on intimacy outside the relationship) is like a train; a series of non-committal dating relationships becomes like the truck.

A purpose-driven career is like the train (focused attention on professional growth to show God's glory), while a career-drifter (who doesn't want to commit; distinct from someone who is making a deliberate career change) is like the truck.

A Christian who dedicates time each week to study a particular section of the Bible is like the train (limiting other activities to focus on that study), whereas a drifting Christian simply takes what comes across their path .

Who will you be? The train, or the truck?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Directed vs. Drifting: Where are Your Going?

Back in March I gave an evening study called "Directed or Drifting", the basis of which was a blog post by Cal Newport over at Study Hacks. I tooled the viewgraphs and topic to the Christian arena, as the point of Cal's message is applicable to every area of our lives. And in fact, I think that is the most important part of the message: we can't be a directed Christian and not be directed in other areas. We are either all in, or we're out.

As a Christian, we need a handful of things to help us in the path of "directedness." I'm sure there are other nuances and actions here, but I sum them up in this way:
1) We need goals of who we intend to be in Christ;
2) We need clear and measurable objectives regarding those goals;
3) We need some criteria that define what we will and/or will not do, and;
4) We need Biblical accountability to help us consistently achieve those things.

And lest you think I'm some great rabbi, I learned these tenants from Chip Ingram of Living on the Edge in his amazing sermon series "Balancing Life's Demands."

Let's start with the first: Who do I intend to be?

If I don't know who I want to be, I'll have a hard time achieving that state.  Joshua 24:15 "But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." While the Holy Spirit helps me in the process of sanctification, having a clear picture of the end results helps me judge how I'm doing, and gives me hope for what the future holds.Set some times aside to pray for direction and wisdom, and write out some ideas about who you want to be in Christ. Here are some examples that I am committed to myself:

These ideals are biblically based (greatness in relationships, profession, and faith), are specific to me, and were arrived at over time through prayer. I didn't specify "how" I'll achieve these, but for each one I can picture what that might look like. Each is achievable through the work of the Holy Spirit in my life, focusing and energizing me in various activities.

Some specific "criteria" or "measures" I've come up with associated with each goal above:
Being a great husband means:
  • Spending dedicated time each week with Brigette
  • Doing activities that a spiritual leader in the home would do (prayer, study together, etc.)
  • Being faithful stewards of our finances and resources
Being a successful Naval officer means:
  • Achieving necessary professional wickets such as expected billets and roles.
  • Gaining expertise in my warfare area
  • Doing good work
  • Taking opportunities to further my professional education
Being a respected nuclear engineer means:
  • Achieving educational/professional credentials
  • Being able to accurately perform skills associated with my job (calculations, research, etc.)
  • Taking on challenging work
  • Having people come to me because they know they'll find answers and help
  • Being able to "defend" my resolution of any tensions between faith and science
As a practical point, I have each of these written as a note in Evernote which I review periodically (about once a month for each) to see how I'm doing in each area. I try to ask myself a couple questions for self-assessment. 

1) Since I last reviewed this area, what have I done that reflects my growth in this area (a success)?
2) What have I done to grow further in this area?
3) What am I now doing to grow this area?
4) What additional help do I need in this area? (mentoring, resources, experiences, opportunities)
5) Who is helping me to assess this area?
6) What is one thing I will commit to doing between now and my next self-assessment to grow?

I try to keep track of my notes so I can see progress. A calendar reminder in Google flags me at the beginning of each week to tell me what I'm going to review that week on a rotating basis. 

Total time: ~ 1 hour to develop goals and measures, ~ 30 minutes each week to review.
Resources: Something to capture what your goals are, something to track your progress.

Next up: Pre-decisions.