Getting Out of H.A.R.M.'s Way: Attitude Awareness - Part 3
You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude
toward what happens to you, and in that, you will be mastering change
rather than allowing it to master you.
~ Brian Tracy
We’re continuing with our series of Getting Out of H.A.R.M.’s Way, where we’re uncovering some of the root causes of many of our financial problems. We last dealt with habits and now we’ll look at attitudes.
Financial frustrations arise for reasons other than those that are obvious. While we focus on issues caused by limited resources and ineffective money management, our human nature brings about its own set of problems in our economic lives. Our attitudes about economic concerns are one such area that cause personal finance challenges. Without some self-awareness about our economic attitudes we can end up becoming or own worst enemies.
A story that comes to mind to help illustrate this point is the scenario from the familiar Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25.The storyline so realistically paints a view of real world financial behavior and the kinds of emotional conflicts involving money, that we can consider it to be something like a case study:
Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
The story goes on to explain that when the man returns, he is pleased to find that the first two servants had doubled the money that were given. The third servant, however, received a harsh rebuke for his actions. His behavior had devastating economic consequences which included termination of his position.
“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags.”
Yes, I know the cast of characters in this parable were fictional to make a point. But can’t you relate to this story as if it were real? Let’s look at this as if it were a true-to-life situation and analyze it further to see how the servant’s economic outcome can be tied back to his attitude.
The dictionary defines attitude as “a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person's behavior” The problem with our attitudes is that they reflect our own pattern of thinking, so it’s pretty difficult to recognize if you’re thinking wrong. As the definition implies, the place where you’ll see the ways your attitudes affect you is in your behaviors.
So we see that the servant made a financial choice that ended up costing him. Despite having been characterized by his employer as wicked and lazy, the servant’s actions may have been well-intentioned. From his perspective, he likely felt that he was doing the honorable and financially prudent thing by safeguarding the money and avoiding any possibility of loss. It likely wouldn’t have dawned on him at the time that his perceptions were putting his economic situation at risk. When we are in the midst of our present circumstances, everything we’ve reasoned to be right is going to seem right to us.
Honestly, every time I engage this story, I feel a bit of empathy for the third servant. I could see myself, unintentionally, making a mistake of this nature. What I mean by “mistake of this nature”, is human nature. Don’t we often make ineffective choices, believing that we’re acting prudently? The outcomes in this parable realistically mirror the types of insights about how we are mentally wired. The research in the field behavioral economics has opened our eyes to why we commonly act against our true economic desires and own best interest. Unfortunately, the research focuses on why we do what we do but it doesn’t provide strategies on how we need to respond to the way our human nature and brains work.
Here, I present an approach to help identify the stumbling blocks in our attitudes that hinder us economically. To follow the approach, we first have to recognize that many economic challenges are the result of our behaviors. Those behaviors reflect our financial attitudes. But attitudes are a way of thinking so we need help seeing the way we think. That is, we must recognize why we have a certain way of thinking in a particular situation. This requires developing a sense of self- awareness. It takes digging a little deeper into your thoughts and feelings. Attitudes are the feelings and thoughts reflected in our behaviors, so to understand your attitudes, you must have some mindfulness about your thoughts and feelings. What are you thinking and what are you feeling behind a situation? Answers to these two questions can reveal your attitude about a matter by helping you get to the heart of your emotions and beliefs. Let’s take the servant’s story to look at an example of this approach.
I can only assume that the servant, who had been deemed responsible enough to handle one talent, would, in truth, have wanted to better his life’s circumstances. He probably wanted the rewards that come from greater responsibilities and a chance at upward mobility to elevate him from his limited servitude duties. I bet he had wished his employer looked upon him as person capable, enterprising, and wise enough to engage in a productive venture. If this were the case, his attitude did not reflect these aims. Suppose he had the chance to do it all over again. How could he have fared better?
He first would have had to recognize how his behaviors were in conflict with his truer aims. So let’s say, so for example, that instead of burying the money, he had allowed it to earn interest at a bank, as was mentioned. He might not have had his employment terminated, but would that choice have reflected economic behavior that supported his truer aims? No, it merely would have been a financial decision that marginally benefitted his employer but that had no potential to help him achieve his true aims. What if, instead, he had thought about how cautiously he was behaving? He could have then honestly considered whether having the money buried and limiting himself to his current duties were compatible with putting himself on the road to his higher goals. He might have realized the conflict and faced it in time to avoid his own undoing?
Getting in touch with his thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and emotions might have allowed him to see where he needed a real attitude adjustment. So what was he feeling? In defending his actions, he admitted fear of his employer’s reprisals. He might have felt the lack of confidence needed to engage in commerce. What might have been his thoughts? “My current job will remain secure if I make sure I don’t lose a cent.” He may have imagined the possibilities of an unprofitable venture, accidental loss, or perhaps his inability to resist the temptation of using the money on himself.
Our servant adopted a ‘play it safe attitude’. He became objectively blind because of his emotions and his thoughts. His economic perspective became limited to ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ or ‘Better safe than sorry’. This was not an attitude that reflects behavior required to achieve greater things.
The point is not that there is anything wrong with any particular attitude. There are many economic attitudes such as, risk taking, risk aversion, safety, aggressiveness, security, indulgence, generosity, and frugality which are appropriate in different circumstance. What’s to be understood is how attitudes, if left unchecked, can do harm when they influence behaviors that work against what we want. A changed attitude leads to different behaviors and better outcomes for financial wellbeing, increased wealth, goal achievement, and personal fulfillment.
Apply the same approach that was done with the servant to become aware of any attitudes that might be stumbling blocks to your economic aims. Think of outcomes in your present circumstances or consequences you are experiencing. Then reflect on ways your actions, inactions, decisions, and indecisions might have an influence. Finally, consider your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and beliefs relating to the specific circumstances. See if you now understand more clearly why you have a certain way of thinking about the matter and determine if that attitude you’ve adopted has led to a behavior that doesn’t serve you well. Resolving this conflict is the financial problem that needs your attention. A changed attitude will drive different decisions and new behaviors that lead to financial wellbeing, goal achievement, personal fulfillment, and increased wealth.