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Do You Know How to Be Practical?

A self-assessment inventory.

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

In my most recent Psychology Today article, I wrote, Do You Know How to be Resilient? I was pleased that the editors selected it as an Essential Read. So I figured I'd do two parallel articles:

Do You Know How to Be Motivated?

And today, Do You Know How to Be Practical?

Taking this inventory may help you decide whether you want to be more practical and if so, what specifically you want to do:

1, Do you realize that prestige is rarely worth the price?

Career. Sure, it’s fun to tell friends and family you’re a doctor, lawyer, or environmental pooh-bah. But the competition, cost of training and then pressures of being in the profession often outweigh the prestige, even if you end up successful. Many unhappy doctors, lawyers, and environmental higher-ups, not to mention frustrated actors, musicians, and writers see me for career coaching.

A Wall Street Journal article, "Why Doctors are Sick of their Profession," reports, for example, that in a survey of 12,000 physicians, only 6% described their morale as positive!

Positive psychology guru Martin Seligman's article, "Why are Lawyers So Unhappy" cites a Johns Hopkins study that found that law topped the list of 103 high-depression careers and another study reported that 52% of lawyers are unhappy.

People are more likely to be happy if pursuing a career that's less cool and more under-the-radar. That’s because career contentment mostly derives from having good job stability, reasonable pay, moderate pressure, and good learning opportunities. You’'ll more likely get that in a career in which hundreds of people aren't vying for a decent job. That’s why I like careers such as haircutter, audiologist, and manager/leader/owner in an under-the-radar field.

Where you live. The cost difference between a tony and decent neighborhood is enormous while the benefits aren't.

For example, part of some people's motivation to live in a fancy neighborhood is to hob-nob with fat cats. Well, you can do that at vastly less cost by volunteering to work for a nonprofit that appeals to the well-heeled: the symphony, museums, or theatre.

An even more common reason people opt to spend big on a designer-label neighborhood is that they think their kids will turn out much better in those locales' public schools. At best, that's an open question. The higher achievement in high-income schools is largely because the kids and their families are--to use the current argot—more privileged—not because of a major difference in instructional quality. From the classic Coleman Report on forward, study after study finds high correlation between socioeconomic status and student achievement.

It's even unclear whether more money is spent per student in fancy neighborhoods. For example, when counting all sources of of funding—federal, state, and nonprofit—inner-city schools may have more money and smaller class sizes.

An argument can even be made that it's better for a child's peer group to be socioeconomically mid-range than than hoity-toity.

What you buy. The typical statusmobile—e.g., Mercedes, Jag, or Beemer—costs 400% as much as, for example, a middle-of-the-line Toyota Corolla. One might begin to understand buying a statusmobile if it required less service and broke down less often. But, except for Lexus, it's the opposite! They require more service, more expensive service, and break down more! For example, in Consumer Reports ranking of reliability, of the 28 brands, Toyota ranks #2 right behind Lexus, BMW #11, Porsche #14, Lincoln #16, Mercedes #21 and Cadillac #25 just slightly above last-place Fiat,. There’s nothing prestigious about being stuck on the side of the road with your Mercedes, waiting for a tow truck—something I saw yesterday with, I must admit, a bit of schadenfreude.

I also roll my eyes at fashionistas, who walk around with their chests and butts as billboards for overpriced brands. Why overpriced? Because designer-label companies spend millions to cultivate their image as an “in” brand and, of course, add that to the price of every pair of $600+ Gucci, Pucci, or Chu shoes.

Many practical people think big-spending fashionistas are silly and wonder if all that money and time on wrapping their exterior in fancy brands is done to cover up and distract from the inferior product within. Buying your clothes at, for example, Kohl’s or LandsEnd avoids that impression, saves you a fortune, and dresses you in timeless designs rather than the “fashion-forward” costumes you’ll soon feel the need to replace because they've gone out of style: “Narrow-bottom pants in tangerine?! Omigod, that’s so last-year. This year, you simply have to wear bell bottoms in aubergine.”

I find watches among the more amusing of such purchases. A $20 Casio tells better time than, for example, a $10,000 Rolex! I guess that's why expensive watches advertise so much. Every time I see someone wearing a pricey watch, I think, "S/hes a fool or insecure, probably both."

2. Do you treat time as treasure?

  • Meals. Practical people realize they can prepare healthy, tasty, inexpensive meals with little shopping and preparation. For example, a dinner of salad, broiled and seasoned meat or fish, a steamed and seasoned veggie, and fruit for dessert, takes little time and money, and is healthy and tasty.
  • Recreation and travel. Practical people realize that frequent few-minute breaks during the work day, few-hour entertainments during the evenings and weekends, and an occasional day-trip and even more occasional weekend trip yields far more pleasure at less cost than long flying vacations. The latter require far more cost, stress preparing for and recovering from, and an experience that often, like childbirth, is filled with unexpected problems that must be suppressed so they'll spring for yet another such vacation.
  • Chores. Practical people hire someone to do work that frees them up for things they'd rather do.They might hire someone to clean their place, do errands, bookkeeping and billpaying. With the found time, they do something more productive or fun. Even if you're of modest means, hiring someone for a few hours a week at $15 an hour frees you to do things that will earn much more than that.

3. In relationships, do you use your head at least as much as your heart?

Long-term relationships. Practical people don’t let the swoon of infatuation catapult them onto the marriage locomotive. Once that train takes off—you tell people, plan the wedding, send out the invites—it’s very difficult to stop...until after the wedding when the relationship’s problems slowly magnify while the infatuation fades. And now, the legal entanglement makes dissolution far more expensive and stressful.

Practical people take their time before marrying and certainly don't think they'll change their partner after marriage. I lived with my wife for three years before marrying her, at which point we both were confident, rationally and emotionally, that it would work. It's been almost 40 years since then, and we were right.

Friends and family. Practical people don’t assume that “blood is thicker than water." Just because someone’s a family member doesn’t necessarily imply you have major obligation. After all, you didn't choose your family. You were placed there by chance.

You may have better things to do with your time than, for example, to indulge your ne’er-do-well family member who keeps hitting you up for whining time and/or money. Yes, you may feel your family are your peeps. After all, you may share genetics and lots of experiences. But sometimes, the people you’ve chosen to be close to—platonic and romantic—can be more worthy of your time. At least practical people tend to think that.

The takeaway

So, are you as practical as you want to be? If not, is there at least one thing you’d like to do differently as the result of having done this self-inventory?