I’ve been thinking about strategy lately, and I am coming to the conclusion that not everyone knows the difference between a plan and a strategy. The reason I think this is that most people get upset when their plans are disrupted. A good strategy begins with the assumption that the disruptions will arrive in a continual stream.
When I was young and poor, I never felt like I could make much in the way of plans, much less strategy. I didn’t know it, but my overall strategy was, Get the rent paid this month, somehow or other. That was it, that was the whole thing. I had few policies or systems in place. Little about my life was intentional. I thought that was because stuff kept happening to me.
I didn’t realize that chaos is the natural result of lack of a plan.
This is one of the interesting things I have noticed about chronic disorganization. My disorganized households are similar in many ways and unique in others. For instance, one household has laundry covering most of the floor, yet the kitchen is sparkling clean every day. Another has dirty dishes everywhere 99% of the time, yet the laundry gets washed, folded, and put away like clockwork. Another house looks immaculate, yet there are two storage units stuffed to the rafters and they’re going broke, and of course the fourth house is the total package of hoarding and squalor.
These different outcomes arise naturally from whatever it is that each individual does in default mode.
Default mode is its own type of strategy. It’s the thing we’ve found that works if we keep doing it, at least in the short term.
I used to have a roommate. He had a friend he would bring over, an obnoxious guy who would insult my housekeeping yet keep coming back. This guy had a plan where he would go to various drive-thru restaurants and claim his order had been messed up. He had never actually ordered or paid for anything; it was a scam. He figured if he threw a big enough fit, they would give him what he wanted just to get rid of him. In this manner he would ask his associates what they wanted, and day after day he would scam them bags of hot fast food. (Never me, because I was already a vegetarian and also because I wanted nothing to do with that guy). Eventually he had become recognizable at every place in our area and that plan quit working.
It should not have surprised me that the roommate who kept bringing over the scam artist would wind up living off me rent-free for months, until my boyfriend made me kick him out.
I got into situations like these when I was young and poor because I did not understand much about other people’s motivations. I wasn’t very good at recognizing patterns of behavior. I assumed that other people were honest and well-meaning.
The truth is that they usually are; they do not set out to trick or defraud other people, unlike the scumbag fast food scammer. They don’t consciously intend to cause problems. Problems like not “being able to pay” the rent are the unintentional results.
Results of what?
A plan that does not include enough fallback options.
In other words, a plan that is not a strategy.
After my divorce, I spent quite a lot of time reading self-help books and writing hundreds of pages in my journal. I wanted to figure out how I had gotten myself into that situation. Why had I trusted someone who was untrustworthy? How had I missed what other people later told me were obvious red flags?
One of the conclusions I came to was that I needed to be more selective in who I trusted and how I would vet the people I allowed into my social orbit. I would never tolerate having someone like the fast food scammer in my home again.
It was extremely difficult for me to come to terms with this, and it took a few years, but finally I concluded that I couldn’t blame anyone but myself for the financial ruin that followed my divorce. I had wanted to tell myself that it was someone else’s behavior that “got me into this mess,” but the truth was, it *was* my behavior. I was “the kind of person” who would trust an untrustworthy person. I was the kind of person who signed a lease and set up accounts with an untrustworthy person, and that therefore made me untrustworthy as well.
If I rent a motel room, and I then invite someone into the room who starts spraying ketchup everywhere, then I am clearly liable for the mess even though I myself did not make the mess.
This burned me up, but once I made the connection I couldn’t disagree with myself. If I have one set of values, and the people around me have a different and incompatible set of values, then I am in effect living their values instead of my own. How would anyone know any different about me, other than my associations and my behavior?
I started to make the connection between my results and my state of being in constant reaction mode. One crisis after another. I had always felt that it was unfair that something always seemed to be going wrong in my life. Gradually I started to realize that I needed to have some kind of plan in place in order to avoid these crises.
The first part of my new life strategy: Stay away from scam artists, jerks, criminals, or other lowlifes.
I also realized that a huge part of avoiding untrustworthy people was to build more financial security into my life. I needed to be in a position to turn away bad roommates, avoid being on road trips with sketchy people, and generally make sure I only had to share housing and transportation with people who were reliable and honest.
This was what led me to start obsessively reading personal finance books at the public library. I wanted to learn everything I could so I could avoid the worst parts about being poor, which starts with having criminals for neighbors and roommates. I also wanted to avoid going hungry, not being able to go to the doctor, and not being able to pay my rent or my bills.
Reading all those free books gradually helped to teach me how to put a basic plan into place. More importantly, these books helped to teach me what questions to ask and how to start thinking strategically.
My life as an educated investor is wildly, radically different than my life was as a poor twenty-something. I have been in worse and scarier situations, but I have been able to resolve them because I am better at problem solving and critical thinking. It’s not so much that having money solves a lot of problems, although IT DOES; it’s that the ability to think strategically can solve many types of problems, including lack of money.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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