For my last blog, I lamented EPA Director Scott Pruitt’s seeming failure to consider ‘the long view’ approach in his decision making around environmental protection. Since then, EPA policy seems to have migrated even further down the paths of short-term special interests, hardening my personal views against current EPA leadership. Is this frustrating? Yes. Does it get me down? Yes. Can I do anything about it? I would argue that answer is also yes. I can take conscious action.
What’s “conscious action?” Full disclosure: I made it up. But the idea behind it is certainly not mine, nor is it uniquely limited to use in my life or towards my values. In my mind, conscious action means doing what we know to be right, even if our efforts seem to do little to move the needle toward solving a problem.
Take for example, picking up a few pieces of trash on a heavily littered beach. Do such efforts keep a meaningful amount of plastic out of the digestion systems of fish? No. Will they make a dent in the huge whirlpool of trash circulating in the Pacific? No. But I would argue that if we choose to ignore the opportunity to clean our beaches and oceans, we have essentially and grudgingly written off the problem as hopeless, which is depressing if we cherish these things.
On the other hand, if you take the conscious action of picking up pieces of trash you pass on the beach, I almost guarantee you will feel better; this simple but positive action lifts our spirits and reinforces what is important to us. So this is what I try to do and I nag my sons to do it, too.
This principal can even be applied toward personal finance. Even the most-well-off people should have financial goals and should be taking “conscious actions” toward realizing them. Whether it be goals for retirement, charitable giving, or providing for heirs, developing specific goals – making them conscious, if you will – can be the first step toward success and fulfillment with respect to your money.
But the second step is taking action. Sometimes this can be a daunting task, especially if you are unnerved by volatile markets or if you and your spouse aren’t always on the same page with financial priorities. Heck, it’s daunting just because financial planning can involve goals so distant that it can be hard to wrap your brain around trying to solve for them now.
For example, consider the case whereby a currently cash-strapped individual needs to accumulate millions of dollars to safely retire in twenty years. On the one hand, since cash is tight and the retirement goal so far way, the individual can easily rationalize not saving toward this goal now.
But I would argue that every year this person chooses to ignore his financial goals and therefore values, i.e. taking on a high luxury car payment at the expense of marginal savings toward his financial goals, he sabotages a bit of potential spirit. “Spirit,” you say? Yes, spirit! Consider that if this person took the conscious action to drive a less expensive car and was therefore able to save toward his goal, he might be happier and perhaps even enjoy the more economical car over the more expensive one, knowing that this sacrifice moved him closer to accomplishing his values-based financial goal.
Even if we can’t easily solve weighty issues like retirement or pollution, we shouldn’t just write them off. Taking conscious action with our values in mind is fulfilling. Taking actions which move us further from our goals is not. This may sound like common sense in theory, but in practice I see people denying themselves opportunities to achieve marginal successes every day.
Taking conscious action makes us powerful. Remember the old bumper sticker: You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. I like this because it is black and white. And even if Scott Pruitt is going to continue to dismantle policies that protect our water, air, and natural habitats, I feel better when I have the discipline to proceed with conscious action, proceeding forward with my personal goals and values in mind.