Last Thursday, I drove to the place that was my home for four formative years of my life, my undergraduate university. I’ve written before about how the degree and overall course of study during college isn’t directly related to what I do today. Nevertheless, I still feel strongly about the importance of music and arts education.
I’ve been distracted away from this passion for many years; some bad experiences in my career in the non-profit and educational worlds led me to explore a different vocation. And then, as Consumerism Commentary began to grow as my “side job,” I pushed some other passions aside. At the same time, I haven’t maintained many connections with friends and professors from my time at the university. I was to be more involved, and today, I’m in a position to do so.
After a drive that brought back some memories, I found myself on campus, enjoying a tour arranged and led by a director of development. I’ve been a financial supporter of the university for several years, so I knew the purpose of this friendliness, including the opportunity to meet with the chair of the department and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was primarily financial. More came out of it than I expected.
The director of development used the phrase: “time, treasure, and talent,” which although I had never heard this before, it seems to be a common way to describe charitable endeavors. For instance, I agreed to visit the campus again and speak to students in a new entrepreneur track at the university about my experiences.
It was on the drive home that I was struck with another idea about money systems. I passed an area on the interstate highway that I became closely familiar with over a decade ago. My new-to-me car, a grey 1986 Toyota Celica, broke down at that spot on the highway. I was working near campus after graduation, and it might have been when I was driving back to my parents’ home for vacation. And it might be misleading to say, “The car broke down.” It would be more accurate to say, “I broke the car.”
No one explained to me that in order to maintain a vehicle, you need to check and maintain the oil level. This is a basic rule of operating a car, and every driver should know this, but I didn’t. I could blame my dad for never telling me; maybe he did, and I didn’t remember. The 13-year-old car was a graduation gift, so I was just thankful to have something to drive. I didn’t ask the right questions, such as, “What is everything I need to know about owning and operating a car?”
A habit is a system, and asking questions until you understand everything is a habit.
Create a habit of asking questions.
I’m the kind of person who needs to know as much as possible about a topic that interests me. As a kid, I used to read the World Book Encyclopedia collection my parents had in our house. Today, if I read or hear something that leaves me with more questions, I search for more information online. If I read a word and I’m not confident about my understanding of the definition, I’ll look it up. When someone I respect sees success in an area I’d like to see success for myself, I ask for suggestions.
It’s not enough to just ask questions. Get in the habit of asking the right questions — questions that get to the core of the issue. Even if I had asked my father to tell me everything I needed to know to own and operate a car, it’s likely I’d not get all the information I needed right away. It would start a conversation that would lead to follow-up questions, and getting into these details would give me real confidence — not false confidence — that I’m in a much better position for succeeding in my desire to make the car last many years.
The strongest barrier to asking questions is the fear of sounding stupid. Believe me, when friends asked me how I could possibly not know that a car’s motor needs oil to run, I didn’t feel like the intelligent young adult I knew I was. But I got over it, and figured it’s better to ask questions and ensure the knowledge is there than to run into a problem later.
As a result of my lack of inquisition, I needed to come up with several thousand dollars to replace the car’s motor at a time when I was earning very little money and had a growing amount of debt from student loans and credit cards.
The known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.
A few years, ago Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was defending the administration’s choice to go to war with Iraq. Here is what he said about the evidence:
There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns -– there are things we do not know we don’t know.
Putting aside the circumstances that required such a statement, Rumsfeld was getting to the core of risk management. When you ask a question, it’s usually because there is a known unknown, some topic for which you are aware of needing more information. But ask you get into the habit of asking these questions, your increased knowledge can reveal other missing details for which you originally didn’t even know was a hole in your set of knowledge of a topic.
More classic a phrase than “time, treasure, and talent” is “trust but verify.” When I ask questions, I try to only ask those that the other person in the conversation is qualified to answer unless I’m looking for less-than-informed opinions. I don’t immediately take a response as truth. Depending on the question, the answer might stem from a personal bias.
If I had taken that unasked questions about my car to a mechanically-inclined friend as well as to my father, I might have received two different answers, had two different conversations, and ended up with some confirmed ideas and possibly even more questions.
Healthy skepticism assists your financial condition in more direct ways. When you’re visiting the same mechanic that offered you advice to fix your car, asking questions helps reduce the possibility of being charged for something you don’t need. Asking questions when negotiating a contract or a job can offer you opportunities to earn or save more money than you would have been able to had you remained silent.
The more you get into the habit of asking questions, the better chance you have of taking advantage of good financial opportunities, whether to save money, to earn more money, or just to prevent someone from taking advantage of your ignorance.
Have there been any situations where asking questions has helped you financially?
Published or updated November 18, 2013.