Growing up in the 70’s, it sometimes felt like we were living in the age of HORRIBLE THINGS THAT ARE ABOUT TO HAPPEN!
Overpopulation of the planet was our first threat. Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford University biologist, published The Population Bomb in 1968, and spent the 70’s repeatedly appearing on the Johnny Carson show warning us that we were all going to starve to death due to impending food shortages. In 1970 he told us “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come.” According to Ehrlich, I wasn’t going to make it past 25. The 1973 film, Soylent Green, predicted we would be forced into commercial cannibalism to survive.
If we didn’t starve to death, we were going to freeze or be killed due to oil and gas shortages. It didn’t take too big a stretch of our imagination to believe that predication. OPEC had imposed an oil embargo against the US, and the resulting energy crisis helped trigger long lines at gas stations and the original Mad Max film, where roaming gangs killed each other for fuel.
The same year Mad Max was in theaters, the famous BusinessWeek magazine cover article, The Death of Equities, appeared. All of us heading off to college in August, 1979 were told inflation was destroying capital markets, stock ownership was a recipe for financial failure, and ‘only the elderly who have not understood the changes in the nation’s financial markets‘ were stupid enough to still hold them. It made for some very up-beat conversations with my accounting professors at Ohio State.
These issues occupied our minds and raised our anxiety levels on a daily basis, yet none of the predictions came true. At the same time, there were other things we were doing to ourselves that turned out to be much more deadly – like smoking.
Why do we worry about things we can’t control, and obsess over predictions that may or may not come true, but ignore things we CAN control that have a much greater impact on us?
I thought about this over the weekend after I watched The New York Times video, The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion, on my way to the Memorial Golf Tournament.
That afternoon we watched as Hideki Matsuyama hit an iron shot about 200 yards down the fairway to the right side of the 11th green. We heard a loud pop – the sound a golf ball makes when it hits the side of a tree – but came to the sickening realization he had hit a spectator. As the man lay on the ground, it felt like forever before the medics to arrived to provide medical attention. They eventually took him for further evaluation, the ropes were put back up and everyone returned to their viewing spots.
As soon as the next player hit from the fairway we heard ‘FORE!’ The shot headed to the same area where the man had been hit, and people scurried to safety covering their heads with their arms. But once the ball was spotted people went right back to their places. This happened two more times while we watched from the opposite side of the course. Nobody moved to a safer spot!
I suspect many of those same people worry about terrorist attacks, plane crashes, and other unlikely hazards to their health, but they continued to stand in harm’s way when the odds of being hit were painfully clear.
The same thing happens all too often in our financial lives. We worry about fluctuations in the stock market, or consider selling out of bonds in anticipation of inflation caused by Fed policies, when the real financial danger lies in the things we control, but sometimes do nothing to change.
Knowing what we spend annually, keeping ourselves out of credit card debt, saving for major expenses like college; these are some of the things that make us financially successful, but they’re not the things we tend to focus on.
The next time you catch yourself worrying about interest rates, the stock market and other big-picture issues, ask yourself if you are focusing on what really matters to your own financial security. You are much more in control of your personal success than you realize, and can prevent HORRIBLE THINGS THAT ARE ABOUT TO HAPPEN!