Choosing Poorly

My elder grandson has been with us for a few weeks and he just finished a project for an English course that deals with Death of a Salesman, The Great Gatsby, and Of Mice and Men, in the context of capitalism and the American Dream.  An interesting subject and one that illuminates many of the problems we have today.

Wikipedia has a nice description of the American Dream.

“The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers”

The problem each protagonist faces, and fails to identify, is that of personal barriers.  Just because the society imposes few or no barriers does not imply that there are none. Poor choices, personal limits, and delusional beliefs lead to failure.

The capitalist system is one of fairness.  Ruthless fairness.  If people allocate resources improperly, fail to pay attention during change, or choose methods that are poorly researched and inappropriate to the task, the result is inevitable failure.

Having a perfectly groomed golf course does not guarantee a good score and neither does having a sound political and economic system to play within.

In the books, each character has a dream.  As it turned out, the dreams were unattainable given the methods chosen to achieve them.  Each character failed to adequately address their personal characteristics.  Their decisions and actions ignored their personal barriers and biases.

Life and particularly financial life is not so easy that a good result will just happen.  Each of us has unique skills and other resources and the system offers opportunities to use them. We also have limits and blind spots. Discovering a productive mix is what leads to success.

Most of us are not good at finding the optimal mix on the first try.  Introspection and review of our personal limitations can help us. If you think the system is wrong, it may be that you have failed to notice a personal barrier that the system will not accommodate.  Best you find it and adapt early.

The methods chosen by each character could not work and yet they chose them anyway.  I am reminded of the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which the guardian of the Holy Grail and it’s decoys tells Indiana’s adversary that he may have one, but must choose wisely. The true grail will provide life while the others will take life away.  After choosing one and drinking from it, he dies a horrible death.

The guardian comments, “He chose ….. poorly.” 

The result is not so dissimilar when you carelessly choose your path through economic life.

Video clip from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade

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Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

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