Birthdays: Candles and Kids

 Today I learned:

1. Birthday candles: I always wondered at what age people give up trying to add the correct number of candles to your birthday cake. Today I learned that age is 37, and there is a very simple reason for it: Economics.

Everything up to 36 requires only one box of candles. It costs the same to decorate a cake for my 2 year as it does for my 4 year old, or for that matter for my wife.

But not for me.

As of today I am officially a 2 box’er.  In a monetary sense at least it just isn’t worth it.

2. Kids: Sitting at the table tonight eating a 36-candle cake (lovingly made by my wife and kids) it occured to me that I enjoy my birthday now far more than I did a few years ago. You might expect that the reverse would be true. I am getting to an age where people start to worry about the number, but that doesn’t bother me. 37 is no worse to me than 35 or even 25 as far as I am concerned.

It is more that before kids I just didn’t pay much attention to birthdays. Now I can’t avoid them. At any moment in time the kids can spout off the next three birthdays in our extended family, and the number of sleeps to the next one. They love birthdays and a celebration is required. What I saw as just another day is to them a very, very big day. I don’t think they could even comprehend the possibility that I might not have agreed with them.

I think a lot of adults are like me. We go on day by day and don’t pay much attention to things like our birthday. Not everyone is like that though – I work with a few people that take a vacation day on their birthday every year.  I always considered it kind of silly – why waste vacation day on a rainy Tuesday in November? -I am now just starting to get it. My kids have helped teach me that I need to rethink my position.  It can be a good day, and if I want it can be a great day.

Why not?

Time to open a nice bottle of wine.


A Milestone Day – Reflections on Day 66 and Next Steps for the Two Things Blog

When I kicked off the two things project I set a simple goal: Learn two things a day and blog about them for 66 straight days.

This post marks my achievement of that goal. To celebrate the accomplishment, for today only, I will go past my usual two things to reflect on what I have learned from the experience and to discuss next steps for this blog.

Today I learned:

http://atabsh.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/lessons-learned.jpg

1. Be Consistent: Practice, practice, practice. I am not saying practice made me perfect, but it made me better. Looking at my early posts, one thing is clear. I wasn’t very good. With practice, I feel like I got better, or at the very least I got more confident. This led me to take more risks in my writing and at the very least helped me feel better about what I was doing.

2. Be Experimental: The most fun I had came out of trying new things.  Throwing Smurf into a conversation and finding enlightenment in the Honey Badger are just two of the things I would not have done without the blog experiment. As well, Email Free Day, The Streaming Diet and The Helping List have all improved my life in some small way.  Life gets better when you take a few risks and try new things.

3. Be an Artist: I didn’t need to buy brushes and an easel to create art, and the energy that flowed out of committing to create something new from nothing everyday felt amazing.

My behaviour also changed unexpected ways. One impact was in how I consume things.  After two months of blogging, Facebook is basically dead to me. It’s an exaggeration of course, but there is an aspect of truth to it. My consumption of media has shifted 180 degrees, moving away from passive sources and on to more active or creative forms. I was a classic Facebook lurker, visiting the site 3 to 5 times a day for several minutes just to see what other people were up to. Now I rarely visit the site – 1 to 2 times per week at most – and typically to communicate with a friend through messaging services. Instead, I now spend my internet-time reviewing sites that inspire learning and creativity.

4. Be fearless: This is easier said than done, and in truth it was an unintended result rather than an initial goal. When I launched the blog I was clearly fearful, and the emotion did not dissipate quickly. In fact, when it disappeared on day 24 I made a note of it. It was then that I realized my self-talk had shifted from “What am I going to write about today?” to “What do I get to write about today?” My post that day focussed on emotion, and at that point I finally felt fearless. Day 24 was also the first time I got up the courage to “publicize” what I was doing to people I actually know too – that is when I first referenced the blog on my personal twitter account (@darrenmcknight) and put up a link on my personal website (darrenmcknight.com).  The lesson for me?  Do something 23 times and it will finally get easier.

5. Be present: Learning facts is easy but the best lessons I learned came from listening to family, kidsfriends, colleagues and even strangers.

At the outset I found I immediately listened more closely. This in itself was a good thing, but my motivation initially wrong. At first I was trying to find a “nugget” in my conversations that I could write about. Eventually this faded away and I simply felt more engaged.  Once I stopped looking for things to learn it was easy to focus on just listening. That’s when I started to find true nuggets.

All in all, this was a planned exercise in introspection and from my perspective it has gone very, very well. So well in fact that, goal accomplished, it is time to change things up a bit…

What’s next for two things I learned today?

The journey is not over, but the pace of blog posts is changing. I will still endeavour to learn and record two things every day, but from here on out I only plan to post a new blog piece when I feel the lessons learned contain ideas that are so “big” in my journey that I should share them with the world.

How often will that be? I really have no idea, and you will notice that I make no attempt to define “big.”

I will say this though: I have thoroughly enjoyed the self-reflection and creative outlet this blog has added to my life. With that in mind, some days big might be huge and some days it might be pretty small.  Hopefully, at least, big will be entertaining…


Cookies vs. Cookie Dough: A Risk Tolerance Analogy

 Today I learned:

1. Everything I Know About Risk Tolerance I Learned in the Kitchen: I recently met with an investment advisor and to kick-off the meeting he walked me through a Risk Tolerance assessment. You know the test – it is the same one you are required to run through at the bank every time you change your RRSP portfolio. I assume this holds true for your 401K in the U.S. too.

Having done this quiz a number of times, it got me thinking: Is there a more creative way to tackle this subject?

http://thepinkpeppercorn.blogspot.com/2010/05/chocolate-chip-cookies-for-new-house.html

Without any immediate ideas I dropped it until the other day.

I arrived home from work to find my wife and four year-old daughter making chocolate chip cookies. I came in at the perfect time. The hard labour was done – all that was left was to lick the spoon and put the trays in the oven.

After a failed attempt to wrestle the spoon from my daughter I was faced with a simple decision.  I could wait 9 minutes for the cookies, or I could dig in to the uncooked dough immediately.

For me, that decision is simple: Eat the cookie dough.

After eating a couple cookies worth of dough I started to think about my decision. Other than the obvious – I have more than a bit of a sweet tooth – could I learn anything from my behaviour?

I realized that given the choice to eat chocolate chip cookie dough now, or wait 9 minutes for what will hopefully become the perfect combination of crispy chocolatey goodness, I will always go with the dough.

Why?  I know the cookie dough will be good, now. I also know that if executed properly the finished product will be better. The problem is that so, so, so many things can go wrong.  A kid might need to go pee. I might get distracted by an incoming email. Don’t even get me started on telemarketers.  Nine minutes could easily become twelve, and all will be lost.

It is about risk. And when it comes to cookies, my tolerance is pretty low.

2. Analyis of Risk – The Cookie Dough Method: The above baking-based self-assessment made me wonder, does my dough-first strategy translate to other aspects of my life? My investment strategy?

The Cookie Dough Method for Analysis of Risk Tolerance was born. Or, I guess, baked.

Do you think your approach to baking cookies can predict your risk tolerance in investing? Take a nibble on my quiz to find out…

Take the Survey

A. Your age is:

  1. Under 18 (If your mom does not let you use the oven alone please navigate to this page now.)
  2. 19- 64
  3. 65 or over (Cookies should not be a prominent part of your diet and will wreak havoc on your cholesterol. Navigate here.)

B. You are headed out to buy the ingredients for a batch of cookies. Do you:

  1. Methodically record all the requirements from a recipe card you got from your mom, which she got from her mom?
  2. Arrive at the store and then shop for what need based on the recipe they put on the bag of Chipits.
  3. Wing it. You can borrow from your neighbours if you forget eggs or sugar.

C. Your oven is:

  1. In tip-top shape. You have it serviced annually.
  2. A professional, model. You installed because it matches my fridge. You don’t really know how to use it.
  3. Oven? You prefer to cook over an open fire in your backyard.

D. You are responsible for:

  1. Providing cookies for yourself, and probably a husband/wife and kid or two one day.
  2. Providing cookies for yourself, your spouse, your ex-spouse, all the kids and three generations of elders.
  3. Responsible?

E. It is Sunday and you invest 2 hours making a batch of cookies for your kid’s birthday party. Your oven thermostat breaks and they are all ruined. You:

  1. Pay a weekend night service charge to get things fixed before you bake again.
.
  2. Go to the bakery and buy whatever is recommended.
  3. Take another kick at it.  You’ll guess right this time.

F. The timer is about to go off and the phone rings. You:

  1. How could it ring? You planned ahead and turned the ringer off.
  2. Call screen and answer if if sounds interesting.
  3. Answer it and agree to a survey that will take “about 5 minutes.”

G. How would you describe your overall cookie status?

  1. I already have a cupboard full in case we have visitors.
  2. I have been known to take all my cookies and invest them in one of those Christmas time cookie exchanges where people try to show up with raisin-based “cookies” and then trade up.
  3. I live cookie to cookie.

Results

http://cache.kotaku.com/assets/images/9/2011/04/scoring.jpg

Total the value of all responses:

Score 7-8: You are a lot like me. You have a low tolerance for risk and must consider this in both your baking and investment strategies. You should consider safe investments. Oreos for example. Start with the bulk of your portfolio in short to medium term bonds and pre-made Pillsbury dough. The rest of your portfolio should go into highly diversified, large cap stocks and Girl Guide Cookies.  Tinker with home made recipes but save some chipits for mom’s recipe.

Score 9-15: You have a moderate risk tolerance, and may want to consider learning more about investment strategies and recipe development. You might consider a portfolio that is anchored by an index fund, and something from a bake sale. You could probably handle a good chunk of cash invested in fruit (e.g. AAPL) or other natural resources. Every once in awhile you’ll burn your cookies, and your capital, but in the long run you should have enough around to at least enjoy the crumbs.

Score >15: You have a high tolerance for risk.  You have never even tasted cookie dough.  In this economy, if you want to retire with a full cupboard one day, you need to marry a rich chef.

Real-Life Application

I am working on a full online and interactive version that will allow you to take your results straight to the bank, to skip their annoying questions and save time in the investment process (Note: I am not really doing that, and if you thought I actually was, click here.)

Obviously (or at least I hope it is obvious) this was meant as a joke. That said, I do see some applications for this type of thought process. As my kids grow up, I foresee difficulty trying to teach lessons like planning for retirement and the time value of money. Trying to get kids to think about what they want in an investment strategy is tough, but with a bit of creativity maybe we can teach them the same lessons through real-life application.  ”Come on kids, Daddy wants to talk about RRSP’s. We’re going to bake a cake…

Comments?

So, what’s your risk tolerance?  Do you steal from the tray or wait patiently until they are done? Do you keep a close eye on the process (READ: stare eagerly through the window with mouth watering and the oven light on) or just trust that things will work out in the end? Do you ever open the door early just to check if they are done?

As well, any other ideas on how to apply this type of thinking to teaching kids or others about money?


I’ll Never Be a Wine Writer plus Raising Successful Kids

Today I learned:

1. I’ll never be a wine writer:  I fancy myself as a bit of an oenophile – my expertise may be questionable, but it is improving and I at least approach the subject with a relentless enthusiasm to which the empties in my garage can attest.

That is why I am saddened to admit I would never make it as a wine writer.

This lesson hit me today, like the feeling you get after quaffing too much (or really any) Yellowtail,  as I read this month’s edition of Ask an Oenophile in BC Business Magazine. One quote sealed it for me:

Everybody should drink more Beaujolais. It’s romantic, it’s sexy, it’s lyrical, it’s ethereal. Really good Beaujolais smells like you just made out with your first love in a field of fresh strawberries – there’s a smell of wet earth, a little sweat, ripe strawberries…This wine, especially the 2009 vintage, has this incredible Audrey Hepburn character. It’s lithe, but there is this enormous charm and depth behind it all. 

I can’t talk like that.

More precisely, I won’t talk like that.

I could learn, but I need to be able to enjoy a nice bottle of Syrah and then respect myself in the morning.

2. Raising Successful Kids: I came across a thought-provoking blog post today about 5 Unusual Ways to Raise Successful Children (link below).

Several interesting points are made – I think there could be merit to the concept of giving incentive to learn from the masters. I particularly like one of the responses to the post which included a suggestion kids could learn alot from Ted videos. This seems like a viable way to introduce new ideas and it may be worthy of experimentation with our oldest daughter. With the recent explosion of TedxKids events, I expect age appropriate content may be more and more available, making this idea quite tangible.

The point I really keyed in on though was the final one in the article – teach kids to be powerful.

This led me to reflect on our approach to parenting. As the author recommends, we try to avoid any form of negative self-talk. We encourage the kids to avoid expressing actions in terms of accomplishment (i.e. “I am good at riding my bike,” or “I can’t tie my shoes.”) and instead we ask them to frame everything around the idea of practice. The thought is that this will ensure our kids understand that if they set a goal and then put in the time and effort, eventually they will be able to do whatever they want.

For example, when my daughter learned to stand up on skates, we congratulated her and then we talked about how the first time she tried she was not able to get up, but she practiced (by doing x, y, and z) and she gradually got better, to the point she was able to do it by herself. The idea is to re-enforce the concept that it doesn’t matter what you can or can’t do, it only matters what you are willing to put the time in to learn.

Thinking back now, this approach seems to be working.

Our oldest daughter now tends to frame her comments around the process of learning as the accomplishment, rather than the activity itself. We don’t hear things like, “Mommy, I cut my fish!” but rather she says “Mommy, I learned to use my knife!”  Hopefully in the long run this type of framing goes a long way to helping our kids understand that setting goals and practicing will allow them to do anything they want.

Link to the original blog post referenced above: 5 Unusual Ways to Raise Successful Children.


I Dance at a Pre-School Level and If Nobody Clicks your Link does a Tweet Make a Sound?

Today I learned:

1. I dance at a pre-school level:  I have never considered myself much of a dancer. Today I was presented with a wonderful opportunity to gauge my proficiency level.  With Mommy working, Daddy was on the clock for two dance classes this morning. The 2 year-old & parent participation class proved to be the most enlightening.

I rocked it.

Bunny hopping? Jumping on one foot? Rolling on the floor? Listening quietly to the teacher?  One class and it is clear I’ve got all that down cold. Maybe it’s not that I am a bad dancer so much as I have not been assessing myself against the correct criteria.

2. If Nobody Clicks your Link Does a Tweet Make a Sound? When I launched this blog I started a new twitter account (@twothingsblog) to accompany it. My initial intention was to experiment and try to see if I could engage an audience and bring them to the blog with a “passive” account. The strategy was simple:

  • Tweet 1 time per day, posting the topics of the day and a short link (via automated WordPress functionality)
  • Follow only a few random people initially
  • Follow back anyone that follows me (aside from tweeps that were obviously porn fronts)

It didn’t take the MBA to know this strategy would ultimately fail, but I really didn’t think it would be so colossally unsuccessful.  One month in and I can report some statistics from my twitter account:

  • 136 followers
  • 34 tweets
  • 13 re-tweets, seemingly all by bots
  • Exactly zero people have clicked through

Lucky I was not trying to monetize this little blog experiment.

Based on my experience so far it seems I have located a colony of people that want to gain followers for no other reason than, I presume, ego-stroking. I don’t read their stuff and they don’t read mine. Seems a fair trade, but utterly wasteful for both of us.

This proved to me that, as I expected, a passive twitter account is not going to get you anywhere.  It might work for a few people with a tried and true message or those with a dedicated base outside twitter (e.g. @thisissethsblog), but if you are just starting out there is no substitute for hard work. Unless you engage others directly, and in a meaningful way, you are just another addition to the background noise.

It strikes me that the term “follower” is part of the problem. It seems relatively easy to gain followers, but that alone is not going to get you anywhere. If I was trying to promote a business via twitter I think I would try to redefine the term as “customers.” That might shift my perspective towards an approach that has more of a hope at being successful.

Time to develop a new Twitter strategy…or abandon the channel.