Thursday, October 20, 2011

No Body's Perfect

Everyone has areas in which they are particularly capable or talented.  Little children, as they develop, experience the delight of acquiring one skill after another. “I can walk!”  “I can talk!” “I can ride a bike.”  As they spend more time with interacting with other kids, they make comparisons and discover where they excel:  running faster, telling funnier stories, winning at computer games.  When you’re starting out in life, it’s fun to learn about and dwell upon your strengths.  In the long run, though, there is more to be gained by studying your weaknesses because those are the traits that are most likely to get you into trouble.

I have strong, flexible muscles in my legs.  My knees are still in good shape for a 65-year-old.  Where I fall down, sometimes literally, is balance.  In 2001 I decided to challenge my sense of balance by learning how to rollerblade.  I’ve never become very good at it but I’ve definitely improved and it gives me satisfaction to be able to do it at all.  Rollerblading has also helped me to fall down better.  One late afternoon in winter I went out the side door of our house and started down the limestone steps, not noticing a patch of ice near the bottom.  Over I went, but I managed to turn as I fell and came away with only a small bruise on one arm.  Our local Y gives balance classes; if liability weren’t a consideration it might be more useful to have classes in falling down.

The same goes for mental faculties.  I have never been quick at math.  I understand the basic concepts but I do arithmetic calculations slowly and make lots of mistakes.  I studied math during the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, before calculators became ubiquitous so my grades in these courses were mediocre.  When I got older and started having to do taxes I always put it off until the last minute because I knew it would be a mess.  Finally, I took a more mature approach and enrolled in the H&R Block tax preparer’s course, one of the best investments I’ve ever made.  Learning about tax law and analyzing the forms not only gave me more confidence in doing my return but also opened up whole new areas I had known nothing about.  At that point it became clear to me how much real estate ownership, including investment real estate, is favored by the tax code.  As a result, my husband and I got into the business of buying, fixing up, and renting out houses, which worked out very well for us.

Adults tend to forget how hard it was to acquire all the skills they learned in childhood:  little fingers trying to use a pair of scissors for the first time or struggling to hold a pencil or fork.  As grown-ups we like to feel competent and in control.  We avoid situations in which we might seem clumsy, stupid, or inept.  I believe that, once in a while, it is important to put yourself into such a situation, to experience the awkwardness of learning a difficult skill and the increased confidence that comes from mastering it.  Chinese general Sun-tzu said, ”Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”  I say, “Know your strengths well and your weaknesses better.”

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