What you don’t know …. has the power to amaze you

What you don’t know can’t hurt you. Or can hurt you. What you don’t know could fill volumes. You don’t know what you don’t know ….. and “what you don’t know” is the start of many bits of wisdom, not all of which are wise.

I recently had a wonderful trip to Peru, and came home realizing something new about what I don’t know. It’s the only thing that has the power to amaze me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of knowledge. It’s essential for smart behavior in everyday life, and it makes traveling easier and less stressful. I research my trips ahead of time and I have fun looking forward to experiencing sights, sounds and tastes recommended to me by other travelers. But if that is all I do on the road, I’ll never be surprised. My trip to Peru made me more aware of how it is the unexpected discovery that holds the power to astonish.

Take Machu Picchu. It was wonderful, in spite of the rain and the crowds and many cordoned off areas designed to help preserve this wonder of the past. I’m glad I went. But how could I be amazed? It looked just like the pictures. Just like I expected. Very cool.

The day at Machu Picchu was also long and tiring, starting at dawn and ending with a bus, train and van combo back to Cusco. My travel companion was less exhausted than I, and spontaneously agreed to go on a second venture the next day leaving at three in the morning and involving a lot of walking and donkeys. She was off to Rainbow Mountain, a place she had never heard of and wasn’t sure she even wanted to see.

I’m willing to bet it was the most amazing part of her trip. She walked to over 17,000 feet and found herself here.

My day was more restful, but I had time to wander around the streets of Cusco, to sit in a park, find a small coffee shop, and be surprised be at what could be discovered on a self-guided walking tour of this city. I found things to amaze me, as well.

This epiphany about the unknown has prompted me to ask others who enjoy traveling to describe their favorite “I had no idea” moment. One man spoke of a wonderful trip to Nicaragua. He was hoping to go to this ocean on his last day, but his traveling companion insisted on taking him on a jeep ride well into the jungle. He got out at their destination frustrated, only to find they were at a beautiful, clear fresh water lake known to very few people

A well-traveled couple from South Africa, , also part of our Peru Venture, didn’t hesitate when asked for their most amazing surprise while traveling. It was the city of Assisi in the Province of Perugia, Italy. Unexpectedly beautiful. I certainly would never have guessed that.

I have my own such story. My husband and I stumbled on Slieve League in County Donegal, Ireland years ago after visiting the lovely Cliffs of Moher. Slieve League’s sheer drop of over 1500 feet down to the ocean is three times that of Ireland’s more famous cliffs, and I remember clearly how the two of us stood at the top of it in astonishment, wondering how we could possibly not have heard of this.

I now think every trip needs room for surprises like this. We spent our last night in Peru in Lima, and signed up at the last minute for some tour of a park with fountains. It turns out that the Magic Water Circuit, as it is called, is fairly famous, but we didn’t know about it, and the dancing light shows in 13 giant fountains left us, you guessed it, amazed.

Aren’t we lucky it’s a big world, and none of us have the time or inclination to learn everything about it all before we travel?

(For more on my trip to Peru see woman traveling alone and History at its most exciting.)

 

 

 

If I’d only known then …

I’m making an effort to get out more. Specifically, I’m working to engage with other writers, both in person and online. I want to broaden my base of knowledge before I start on my next writing project, one I hope will keep me happily making up stories for many years.

It occurred to me today, while listening to a woman describe to us how she sold her first novel to HarperCollins, that much of what writers crave to know is “what do you know now, that you wish you’d known then.” We give this advice, and we ask it of others, almost endlessly.

I found myself visiting with the woman next to me, who is on chapter one of her first book. “Who is it you are writing for?” I asked her. It’s a question I wish I’d spent more time pondering, back when I was in her shoes. If I’d only known then how helpful that question is. I tell her so, and she nods in appreciation. She is doing what we are all doing at this meeting –  gathering little grains of information from others to soften our learning curves.

Our speaker is Heather Newton, author of Under the Mercy Trees, a book about a southern family. She lives nearby, and published Under the Mercy Trees in 2011 after spending years writing it. She is now sending her second novel to an agent to market.

Yikes. I started writing in 2011 and have written six books since them. I’m certain mine are not of the same literary quality, but I wince when I hear her best nugget of what she wishes she’d known back then. That’s right, she thinks she rushed too much, and sent her first book out before it was the best it could be, squandering opportunities to impress. There is a wisdom in that, of course.

One of the oddities of self-publishing, especially electronic books, is that it can be a never ending process. Hidden typos that reveal themselves can be fixed at any time, and all recipients point forward get the improved manuscript. The first time I made such a fix I felt guilty, like I was cheating by correcting something supposedly etched in stone.

I’ve long since gotten over that. Why penalize myself and my readers for having missed something initially? It serves no purpose.

In my case, my books were born with links to supplemental material, such as music and photography that tied into the story. I thought it was clever and fun, but it gummed up the works for some readers and turned out to be almost impossible to maintain. So, over the last couple of years, I’ve been going back and eliminating the links and the references to them. In the process, I clean other things up too, as I find them, because why not.

I am almost done with this process on d4, the last of the books to contain links. I’m pleased with the result, and will probably do some advertising and giveaways to celebrate this new and improved manuscript. What a shame I couldn’t have gotten this final version in front of my initial readers. Wouldn’t those reviews be better? More copies have been sold?

I can’t go back in time, any more than I can see the future, no matter how often I write about characters who can. Would I have written better books if I’d only known then what I know now? Of course I would. Hell, I’d have lived a whole better life with that kind of knowledge.

Or, at least I like to think I would have.

 

 

Would you be illiterate?

booksThere was a time, a mere few hundred years ago, when most adults could not read or write. Literacy was the domain of the rich, and of others with power, like clergy,  healers and scholars. And while the ability to read did not automatically confer power, it was a stepping stone of some value.

Fast forward four hundred years. Even today, denying any group a basic education is equivalent to denying them power in society. But the world has grown far more complicated.  Along with flush toilets and stain removers, we have new kinds of literacy. Computer literacy, for starters. Older adults who refuse even the basics of email and cell phone usage are slowly relegating themselves to the sidelines. On the other hand, those of any age who bother to learn the basics of nutrition, medicine, law and even geography are better equipped to navigate life. Knowledge isn’t power, but it is one of the prerequisites. We choose ignorance at our own risk.

moneyYet of all the types of literacy we can benefit from, none seems to be more intimidating even to intelligent, educated people than the one that ties directly to power: money itself. This amazes me.

My financial education began several years ago when I was laid off by the company I worked for for two decades. Along with the expected problems, I found myself with a 401K plan that had been quietly growing in the background. Lucky me. I had the option of leaving it where is was, but I was far too pissed off at the company to leave any of my money in any thing that bore their name. So silly anger inspired me to learn enough to make a roll-over into an IRA. That wasn’t the end of it though. Most of the funds in the IRA were still in the hated company’s stock, which was now doing very well given that Wall Street always loves a good lay-off. So, I sold the stock.

bankersI quickly discovered that the investment community was (1) quite good at finding people in my shoes and (2) quite persistent about letting me know how well they would treat me and my money if I would just turn everything over to them. The louder they clamored, the more cautious I became.  I figured that if so many people wanted to handle my investments so badly, it had to be a very good deal for them. Which meant it probably wasn’t a particularly good deal for me.

Slightly paranoid contrarian that I am, I decided to learn to handle my own investments. I figured I had two years of college calculus. I could explain special relatively to my sister. If all of these guys calling me could all understand investments, so could I. How hard could it be?

Well, I made a lot of stupid mistakes. The good news was that I made them in little tiny increments, because at least I knew that I didn’t know much. I made baby-sized bad investments and itty-bitty good investments. Yes, I did make only a pittance off of stocks that did great because I’d only invested a pittance to begin with. I let a lot of cash just sit there doing nothing while I made spreadsheets and read a lot of stuff I didn’t really think I cared about on the Fidelity and Motley Fool websites.

27-Courage-Quotes-14I did sign up for some services that make recommendations for individual investors. Some were so much of a rip-off that they ought to be shut down. Others were useful and I began to pay a little more for their more elite recommendations. I learned to hold my nose at terms like “preserving wealth” and to buy stocks in companies I didn’t like. I learned to sell stocks I did like. I played with stops and limits and then I experimented with short-term trading. I tried basic options investing, learned how to by higher risk corporate bonds all by myself, and checked out index funds. As long as I only used a little money at a time, and kept track of absolutely everything, I discovered that I could learn a lot.

So. I wasn’t rich before I started and I’m not rich now. I think for all of my effort I about match what the S&P has done over the seven year period that I’ve been doing this. That is fairly remarkable, considering all the dumb mistakes I made. I could well have pissed away what savings I did have, but caution and variety were my friends.

high-frequencyBut wait. I’m way richer in one way. I’m now literate about money. Me, who always thought the stuff was kind of evil even though I liked to spend it. What’s more, I find that I understand the politics of money better. I get how those with wealth can make more wealth and not even realize how easily they are doing it. No evil intended. I get how our system is skewed toward the investor. I get the reasons this is good, and the reasons why this makes our society increasingly lopsided, and allows some of those who are talented and hardworking to still be barely able to get by. I’m not powerful, but I’m literate in a language of the power, and that matters.

Why mention this on a writing blog? Not to brag; I hope there is no bravado in this tale of me stumbling along powered in part by mistrust and in part by anger with a former employer. Rather, I want to share a second facet of this that baffles me.

What I know makes its way into my writing. You’ll find geology in x0 and physics and anthropology in z2. And you’ll find a fair amount of information about wealth in y1 and some basics about the the stock market in d4. Some readers could do without this sort of thing, and I respect that. I do try to keep my fun facts short and relevant to the story. Other readers seem to enjoy them, which is nice. I’ve received praise for my bits about the South Pacific, about anti-depressants, about the sex trade, and the Buddhist path to enlightenment. Only the stock market seems to leave people cold.

“I skimmed over it.” “I don’t understand that stuff.” “I don’t care about money.” It seems that readers, both friends and total strangers, have the biggest block of all when it comes to learning about the financial world. I’m not saying I’m the world’s greatest teacher. But the same people who gamely followed along with entanglement theory and immigration law had a much harder time opening their minds on this subject. That’s cause for concern.

In a world with increasing income disparity, and with the jobs that create wealth the fastest coming from the financial sector, doesn’t it behoove us all to understand that “sector” a little better? I think it does. It’s not that complicated to learn. And while the ability to understand investments will not automatically confer power, it will be a stepping stone of some value. Knowledge isn’t power, but it is one of the prerequisites. We choose ignorance at our own risk.

You don’t need to know this stuff because you have a little money to invest. You need to know this because your world is increasingly run by those that do.