Everything I Needed to Know I Learned While Buying a Car

buying-a-carYou probably don’t enjoy buying a car, assuming you’ve experienced this convoluted trauma. Yet running the auto dealership gauntlet is informative: about yourself, whether you understand how relationships work, and your mastery of tough stuff like negotiation.

The schooling offered in the auto showroom begins with “curb appeal:” how the vehicle looks. All material goods offer the same criterion by which to judge them. We value houses, watches, and phones this way. First impressions don’t stop there, but continue with the physical appearance of everyone you meet, the sound of a new voice, the scent as you stand close.

You then peer under the hood of the car. Applying this to people, you get to know them, check for substance beneath the surface; evaluate the individual’s humanity, strength, and kindness or self-interest. At least I hope you do and thereby move beyond the dazzle of a stunning exterior. A pity if instead your head is stupefied by a gorgeous facade and you ignore a person of common appearance bearing treasures within.

The vehicle sales rep hopes you will be captured by his kindness and prone to an impulsive decision. He highlights the techno whistles and bells. Will you be lured by his siren song and dance? We all need resistance to a sales pitch, whether the seller is trying to unload a TV or promote himself.

Given an auto’s cost one can benefit from homework. Do you have the patience to perform the needed research or will you do what “feels” right? We face the war between emotions and intellect daily: between due diligence and slipshod judgment.

How dependent are you? Do you rely on others to make decisions? Friends and relatives have lots of opinions about cars and, if they are experienced and smart, such knowledge is worth considering. Best, however, to learn what can be discovered on your own as well as from expert advice: “own” the process by which you come to own the product.

The act of car buying shakes up some of us. We plead for a spouse or friend by our side. A successful transaction demands the ability to say “no” and stick to it — a test for many.

Decades ago my wife and I lived in New Jersey. Soon after our arrival our car was destroyed in an accident. We hoped to purchase a new 1972 Dodge Duster, expecting that we’d get a better price than on the just released 1973 model.

The first salesman we met counted on our being callow customers, novices in the veiled combat of car buying. The man told us he had the only remaining new 1972 Duster in New Jersey. Aleta and I understood there would be many more ’73 models than the 1972 Dodge we wanted, but we didn’t trust his report. He offered us a price, but we said no and began to walk out. The sales rep trailed us. As our closeness to the door increased the price of the vehicle decreased. We soon discovered dozens of available 1972 Dusters, the cars he said were as rare as a dodo, the extinct flightless bird.

There is power in letting people see your back. Wanting a thing less than the next guy usually gives you the upper hand in a transaction with him. So, too, in romance. Rhett Butler’s last words in Gone with the Wind offer an example of the attitude I’m writing about. Such a stance often elicits concessions by the counterparty in his effort to get what he wants from you. Generally, the longer you remain silent the more favorable the terms offered become. In effect, you can set most of the conditions.

When desiring a thing desperately we risk giving away the best of ourselves in the act of acquisition. Money is the least of it. Honor and basic human decency may be forfeited, as well. Among ancient philosophers, the Stoics gave particular emphasis to the dangers of becoming too “attached,” whether to objects, honors, power, or people. Buddhists make the same argument.

Self-possession, they would argue, is far more valuable than anything you can buy.

Some things in life are not worth the price you pay for them. As many young people have discovered, cars can be among those things. Sadly, the list of overvalued commodities, jobs, titles, high income lifestyles, and relationships is beyond reckoning. Beware defining your hoped-for future by a list of “must haves.”

As the knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would remind us, “choose wisely.”

“You Should Always Have Enough ‘F**k You’ Money:” Relationship Power in Politics and Life

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My apologies for the profane title. There is just no delicate way to get this idea across, as the musician Larry Adler knew when he first wrote it.

What he was trying to say was, unless you are able to do what you want despite the personal or financial cost, you really don’t have as much power as you might think.

More about Mr. Adler later.

But for now, take a look at the above 2005 photo of journalist David Frost (on the left) and Donald Rumsfeld, then U.S. Secretary of Defense, as an example of what Adler was talking about. I imagine you can guess who is in control of this interview — who has the power.

In order to be successful, a reporter must have access to the people who make the news. And, if politicians find you to be too aggressive in your questioning, they will go elsewhere. In this relationship, the politician usually has more power.

This tells us why so many TV political reporters seem incapable of pursuing answers to the tough questions that need to be put to politicians; indeed, why the tough questions often go unasked.

The truth is, they are not incapable, they are simply unwilling and hesitant. Afraid of being cut off from access.

Why? Because unlike the politician they wish to interview, they cannot go elsewhere to tell their story. That gives the politician more power.

Power also explains much else about relationships; that is, who is in charge, regardless of who might appear to have the upper hand.

I’ll get to your relationships later in this post.

But first let me address the connection between politicians and members of the news media in greater depth.

Understanding this might help you understand your own life.

Let’s start with a few premises. Most TV and radio interviewers are not well-known. Their ability to obtain interviews with the most prominent people in the world depends on the good will of those people. And, there are many, many more interviewers than there are people in positions of power.

So let’s say that you’re a low-level reporter, a man of small reputation, who wants to talk with a congressman on TV. You start by asking a question and get in response the politician’s well-rehearsed talking points on the subject, which are not likely to precisely address the query.

Perhaps the politician says, “The American people want X.” Do you challenge this? Do you say, “Well, Congressman, according to the last five polls we have on this subject, the American people actually don’t appear to want X. Not even close. Why do you persist in saying that they do in spite of the data?”

No, not likely, not usually.

Why not?

As I’ve implied above, the reporters need the public servants much more than the public servants need the reporters. Since there are many more interviewers (and news outlets) desiring the time of the elected official, the latter can avoid an unfriendly interrogator. He can go elsewhere with his talking points, to a place where he will receive a less challenging reception.

Put simply, we are dealing with supply and demand.

Because of a surplus of TV, radio, and internet news sources, the terms of engagement will usually be dictated by the man who is in demand, not the relatively anonymous reporter who can always be replaced by someone in the long line of other aspiring journalists. Only the best known, most popular or well-respected members of the press are in a position to do their jobs thoroughly and well: to ask the tough questions, get them answered, and forcefully challenge self-serving untruths.

If, however, you are the aforementioned anonymous reporter who actually tries to do his job, relentlessly challenging falsehoods and the efforts of elected officials to change the subject, you lose access to them.  Without “newsmakers” to be interviewed, your show’s sponsors abandon you and your boss fires you. And so, to avoid this outcome, you may surrender a bit of your integrity and permit answers that are unresponsive to your questions, while ignoring those comments that are disingenuous, preposterous, misleading, or frank lies.

The independence of the reporter and the politician is only apparent. It doesn’t reflect their real interdependence, with the “pol” most often holding the reins, able to direct the conversation as he wishes; answer what he wants in the way he wants and ignore the rest.

This sort of thing doesn’t stop with political reporting.

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If you watch CNBC for moment-by-moment financial news, expect drama over sobriety; expect red-faced intensity to match the gyrations of the changing numbers on the screen. So-called authorities are given a platform for economic analysis, typically without a serious challenge to the limited understanding anyone has of the financial markets.

The show specializes in overly simple economic opinions and predictions offered by “experts,” who provide only brief justification for their statements. Nearly all of the talking-heads who offer that advice seem equally certain about what they are saying, even if their positions are diametrically opposed. Unfortunately, the audience, made up of average investors, will find the underlying issues far too complex and insufficiently elucidated to do much more than pick one of the speakers who “sounds good” and hope that his judgment is right.

Why is this permitted to happen?

Although the reporters do appear to be bright, well-educated people, their first job is to make sure we watch them — nothing more noble or enlightening than that; certainly the goal of helping us understand what is important about financial events is lower on their list of priorities.

As a result, CNBC does what is necessary to make drama out of financial happenings, hoping that you will stay tuned in. It treats the ups and downs of the stock market as big news, even when that news is very temporary and of little or no lasting importance. Large moves up on the Dow Jones Industrial Average can be received as if “Happy Days are Here Again,” while down-days are made to seem as if the sky is falling.

If your investments appear to be tanking, I wouldn’t call on one of these people to talk you off the ledge (as in the case of the rather stiff creature just below, who looks as if she has been watching CNBC too much recently).

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Sensation-producing guest commentators are often featured over those who are inclined to say “this too shall pass” or “I don’t really think anyone can explain movements in the financial markets on a day-to-day basis.” The latter message is problematic for CNBC not only because it is boring, but because it defeats the show’s premise: that your stock portfolio will benefit if you regularly watch and learn from the program, despite the stomach acid created by its over-dramatized, hyperbolic presentation of financial commentary.

Rarely is anyone on CNBC permitted a really detailed and lengthy defense of his predictions about upcoming commercial trends. That would be too much like taking a course in economics, famously called “the dismal science.” But a thorough and complex look into the crystal ball at fiscal “Tomorrow Land” is surely required given the historic failure of financial analysts to create an accepted and accurate method of doing this.

Program hosts really don’t want to offend by pointing out the limits to economic future-casts, so statements by guests are rarely aggressively challenged, although some of the regular CNBC presenters are quite happy to argue with each other, since fights just might attract more viewers.

But even worse, a guest commentator is not required to provide a performance record of his accuracy in predicting the future of the financial markets, in the way that a baseball player’s hits, runs, and errors might point to a player’s value to the team.

I find the absence of that kind of score card quite remarkable. Financial analysis and advice is a business that focuses entirely on numbers. Yet the reporters infrequently track the predictions made by those same guest commentators. Such data might, after all, result in some pretty embarrassing questions like “Gee, four months ago you were certain of X, now you are saying you are certain of Y and over the past three years your predictions have been correct only 31% of the time, so why should we believe you now?”

As Burton Malkiel notes in his classic book on investment, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, the great majority of investment managers do not do as well in choosing profitable stocks for their clients as would a randomly chosen selection of similar equities. This fact, by the way, has stood the test of time and is part of known and accepted economic knowledge.

In other words, if the predictive failures of the experts were displayed on the TV screen, those consultants with a history of mediocre clairvoyance (which is most of them) wouldn’t come within a mile of CNBC or any similar media outlets. Given that the hosts don’t want their program to fail, they cannot easily say that “the emperor has no clothes.”

Don’t expect this to change any time soon.

They have given away that power in return for commercial success.

So what else are we talking about here, beyond the political and financial domains?

I believe that what I’ve written here about power in relationships applies just as well to the connections between leaders and followers, performers and their audience, the pastor and his flock. In all these relationships there are conditions in which the unseen power of one person or group will produce deference or capitulation from the other person or group, even when we’d think this shouldn’t be so.

Some of the most admired people sometimes fear that they will lose their audience. As a result, they become hostage to others’ opinions and betray their own better instincts by giving away their power to those same “others.”

I am reminded of a story told by Yehudi Menuhin regarding Pablo Casals in Menuhin’s book Unfinished Journey. Menuhin, a world-famous American violinist, was the first Jewish musician after World War II to play under the direction of Wilhelm Furtwängler, the most famous German conductor of his time. Furtwängler was a controversial figure because he had chosen to stay in Germany during the period of the Third Reich and was believed to have compromised himself by allowing his artistic talents to be used for propaganda purposes by the Nazi state. But he was never a member of the Nazi Party and helped save the lives of a number of Jewish musicians. In other words, a man with a complex history.

In 1947, already under heavy criticism for his musical contact with Furtwängler, Menuhin hoped to arrange a recording to be conducted by Furtwängler with the equally famous cellist Pablo Casals. Casals was then 71-years-old and revered for both musical and extra-musical reasons. He had refused to set foot in his Spanish homeland so long as Franco, the fascist dictator, remained in power there, and he publicly opposed Franco from his self-imposed exile in France.

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The stage was set: the musician Furtwängler, tainted (perhaps unfairly) by fascism and the musician Casals, hero to the anti-fascists. They had made music together of great beauty and refinement before Germany was ruled by Hitler and his gang. Could Menuhin bring these two men together now that the war was over?

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Let Menuhin tell the story:

I asked Casals his opinion of Furtwängler… Furtwängler he admired, not only as a conductor but as a German: he had been right to stay in Germany and do what he could for music and musicians. Reassured, I suggested that I might try to arrange a recording of the Brahms Double Concerto to be made by Casals, Furtwängler and myself. He accepted in principle.

I made several attempts to pursue the matter (with the record company EMI; they) were interested.  For Furtwängler it would have been a most valuable accolade, given by the foremost antifascist musician; but all approaches were deflected by Casals — he would love to make the recording but couldn’t at the moment. Finally, some two summers later, after perhaps the third prodding, he sent me a letter which with disarming frankness betrayed the limits of his independence: he assured me that he personally had nothing against Furtwängler and could envisage few greater pleasures than playing with him, were it not for the fact that to do so might compromise his antifascist stance and dismay his followers. In other words, he was prepared to let me know he didn’t have the courage of his convictions; so long as those convictions were approved by his admirers, they were strong convictions indeed, but in other circumstances not strong enough to withstand guilt by association with a man wrongfully accused.

Now think back to those politicians I mentioned before — the ones who have their way with reporters who fail to strenuously cross-examine them; but by contrast, many of these “pols” go along with the “party line” of the people who are supposed to be on their side. I am talking about public officials who conform with servile adherence to tests of political purity maintained by some of their constituents, (for example, a pledge never to raise taxes on anyone regardless of circumstances, no matter how rich the person might be).

Such politicians can dictate interview terms with some of the journalists, but appear hostage (like Casals) to their “friends” and supporters, be they big business or labor unions or the people who fund their campaigns for reelection.

Look around you. Look at clergymen and their congregations, at wives and husbands, at parents and children, at employers and employees. And, look too, at you and your lover, if you happen to be unmarried. Figuring out who might have the upper hand (and why) is not always an easy thing. But if you cannot live without a certain person’s approval, you do not have as much leverage as it might otherwise appear. You are likely to give too much ground, too often.

Larry Adler, the twentieth century American harmonica virtuoso, very clearly saw the “power” element in human relationships at work in the period just after World War II. As a man who had been “blacklisted” for alleged Communist sympathies during the McCarthy era, he did not want to be anyone’s hostage, even at the cost of his livelihood. He spoke his mind publicly at a time when doing so was dangerous.

Although he was not a Communist, he believed that no one in a free country had a right to require him to take a loyalty oath or declare his political sympathies — in effect asking him how he would vote. In the midst of a political witch-hunt — at a time when many employers and concert-promoters demanded this kind of reassurance — his refusal resulted in the loss of his ability to get work, forcing a move to England simply to make a living.

The title quotation for this post comes from his autobiography, It Ain’t Necessarily So.

Just to reiterate:

You should always have enough ‘F**k you’ money.

You don’t have it unless you are willing to act on it; that is, unless you are prepared to refuse conditions imposed by someone else, even at great cost to yourself.

But it’s more than just about money, isn’t it?

If you love status, approval, applause, material things, the sexual attention of others (or money) more than who you are and what you stand for, you are in trouble, my friend.

And the person who figures this out will have power over you.

Powerful or powerless?

Most of us aren’t heroic.

Still, you must choose.

Indeed, you have already made the choice.

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The top image is David Frost (left) Interviewing Donald Rumsfeld on June 14, 2005, photo taken by Robert D. Ward. The second picture is of CNBC’s Fast Money Team until 2007 – 5 – 18. The statue on the ledge that follows comes from the Heurich Mausoleum by Louis Ameteis ca. 1895 and was photographed by Wikipedia Saves Public Art. The fourth image is a Centenary Statue of Pablo Casals at Montserrat, Spain taken by UserMdd4696. Just below it is a 1955 commemorative postage stamp of Wilhelm Furtwängler, scanned by NobbiP. Finally, a photo of Larry Adler taken at City Center in New York, ca. 1947 by William P. Gottlieb. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Power of “No”

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Most people don’t realize how much power they have. Or how easily they give it away.

The key is to be able to say “no.” And to hold to that position without alteration.

I learned how easily I could give it away in graduate school.

A door-to-door salesman rang the bell of my apartment. He had a list of magazines. Did I want to subscribe to any of these?

The simple and direct answer was “no.” Had I said this and held to it steadfastly, his time wouldn’t have been wasted and my money, of which I had very little, would have been saved. Instead, I felt that I had to give him a reason, an excuse. I didn’t of course.

But, I chose to say, “Gee, its too bad you don’t have Sports Illustrated on your list.”

“Oh, but I can get that for you!”

I was sunk. I didn’t really want to buy anything. But I’d given the young man, probably no older than I was, an opening. And now I was committed to purchase a thing I didn’t need.

Well, I suppose I was young, inexperienced, and immature. All true. I allowed myself to be held hostage to my insecurity, a feeling of guilt, a need to explain myself, even though it wasn’t required.

If you must have the approval of others, if you believe that you are duty-bound to give them a reason for your actions, then these situations present you with a problem. So too, if you fear confrontation. If you think someone will only provide approval if you consent to their wishes, then you will leave the interaction as the other’s thrall. In effect, the keys to your life and the certificate of ownership will be the property of someone else.

But if you don’t let them or their opinion of you count for so much — if you can live with their unhappiness and don’t feel the need to convince them of the rightness of your position — you will come out of the interaction still in possession of yourself, as opposed to being the possession of your counterpart.

Remember, in many situations you don’t have to persuade the person across the table of your position. You just have to hold to it.

Short of pulling a weapon on you, there is usually very little that people can do to require you to do something that you don’t want to do.

Unfortunately, there are quite a number of people, especially female, who are able to say “no” in defense of their children, but not as an advocate for themselves; all the more, they are prepared to go on attack if they believe that those same little ones have been ill-served by someone else. And yet, when it comes to defending themselves, these moms have trouble. Put simply, it comes down to the fact that they don’t value themselves very highly and therefore can’t easily assert themselves. But for a person they do value, especially their flesh and blood, they are transformed.

If you can’t yet do it for yourself — say “no,” stand your ground — you’ve got some work to do. Your life will be much more the life that you want it to be, if you prevent others from taking you in their direction against your wishes. Think of all the favors you’ve done that you wanted to avoid, the responsibilities you took on at work that really shouldn’t have been yours to take, and (for some women only) the men whose attention you suffered unnecessarily.

If you can’t prevent these things on your own, psychotherapy can help you to learn to employ the word “no” to great effect. It allows you to examine the reasons for your inability to be assertive and gives you tools (and practice) in how to live in a new way.

The ability to say “no” is extraordinarily empowering.

This is one thing you shouldn’t say “no” to.

The above image is by Fibonacci from Wikimedia Commons.