Sunday, April 26, 2009


You need your community. Drop that veneer of independence and admit it. Your community keeps you safe, protects your streets and provides stability.

If you have the means, opportunity and time to read this, you've already won the lottery. You aren't spending your time working in a Bangladeshi garment factory, for example. Your community's past and present have helped make you what you are.

Where there are rights, there are also responsibilities. Your relationship with your community is symbiotic. 

Your community needs you. You are the only person with your eyes, ears and backstory. You see opportunities no one else sees, and you see solutions to obstacles that challenge others.

It's easy to be a sheep: don't make waves, everything will continue just as it was. But you can do better than that. Step up and get involved. Pay attention to the issues that inspire or perturb you. Talk to people about them. You get bonus points for talking to people who disagree with you, because those are the conversations likely to spark ideas.

When those sparks fly, be nice to them. Treat your ideas with respect. Write them down if you have to, because they vanish if not properly cared for. Grow them and set them free. Ideas are like magic pennies. They wither if hoarded, but multiply when shared. You never know how they'll come back to you.

Connect with people. Make sure other people in your community know what you're capable of. You're not the only instrument in the orchestra, but you can accomplish some pretty amazing things if you play together. Other people need your expertise, but if you hide your candle under a bush, they won't be able to find you. Neither of you will know an opportunity was missed, but the world misses out.

Do your best. If your calling is to play the french horn, play it well, but understand the role of the timpani, the strings, the bassoon and the conductor.

Pay attention. There are opportunities knocking. They're dressed up to look like work, but through them you help your community thrive. It will do the same for you.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Strategic Planning

Spring is a good time for planning. It fits with the life cycle: First you plant the seeds, then they grow, then you harvest the crops, then you survive the winter.

As city dwellers, we don't have the annual agricultural cycle to guide our strategic planning. We count on specialists to produce most of our food, and this frees us to work, to socialize, and to create. We take for granted the freedom we get from the people who grow our food.

Economists applaud this specialization of labor because it raises production, but this type of consumption relieves us from thinking of the environment at all, never mind its limits.

We get paid, we go shopping, we grumble at the prices, but we stuff our fridges and our faces with exotic fruits and processed foods from all corners of the world. Instead of planting our crops, in the spring we file our taxes. For the most part we get a pretty good return on our money.

Taxes help pay for services that most people wouldn't consider attempting alone. Things like defending our borders, providing medical care for sick people, teaching many thousands of snotty nosed kids, and building roads to places you might want to drive to.

Paying taxes, however, isn't exactly a raison d'ĂȘtre. 

Living in cities provides the cross pollination of ideas that spices up culture. Rome had more than a million people at it's peak in the 3rd century. It was the world's undisputed cultural center. Nowadays we take cities with a million people for granted and complain that there's nothing to do. 

Strategic planning provides the framework within which the people who live in the city can find meaning. A clear strategic direction which works within the limits to growth and provides engagement and meaning for its citizens is extremely valuable.

This kind of vision for the future can galvanize communities and encourage them to pull together to achieve something better than they could achieve alone. It's a pretty good bang for the buck as far as taxes are concerned. What's your vision?

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Expectation Management

"Thank you for your time. This should compensate you for your efforts here." She hands you an envelope with $100 written in bold marker on the front. You'd never really discussed compensation, but $100 seems fair. It seems impolite to open the envelope right away.

You make it to the hallway before you tear open the envelope. You count it twice. Sixty five bucks?!? Where's the rest? Surely there's been some mistake. You go back into the room but she's disappeared, having taken her lab coat and clipboard with her. She never even said what sort of research she was doing. Now you're upset, but there's nobody to complain to. You go home grumpy.

Now let's run that scenario again, but instead of $100, the envelope says $40 on the front. You still end up with $65, but instead this time you're up $25. You're elated, happy with the way things turned out.

Dipping into reality for a second, the stock market and real estate bubbles seemed fun while they lasted, but when they collapsed, a lot of people with high expectations were severely disappointed.

The higher your expectations, the more you open yourself up to potential disappointment. If, on the other hand, your expectations are low, you might be pleasantly surprised. As a customer, pleasant surprises are much more conducive to happiness than expecting the best and being disappointed. To be a happy customer, expect less.

To flip that around in a business setting; give customers a little more than they expect. They'll be pleasantly surprised and maybe they'll tell a friend or two. Letting customers down, or otherwise not quite living up to expectations is a recipe for dissatisfied customers.

It used to be that a typical dissatisfied customer would tell ten friends, which is about eight more than they would tell if they were happy with a service. Nowadays any customer can project their discontent to the whole world on a blog like for example. Keep the customers happy. To that end, it's much better to underpromise and overdeliver.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Don't Churn your Tax Free Savings Account

I had my first bad experience with ING Direct yesterday. Okay, second, if you count them reducing my interest rates without telling me. I tried to make some deposits into my Tax Free Savings Account, which is well under the $5000 limit.

Now I've made some deposits and withdrawals from the account with the understanding that you get that contribution room back. This is the part they don't make clear.


Can I "replace" my contribution if I withdraw from the account?
Yes. When you withdraw money from your Tax-Free Savings Account, you automatically create contribution room in the next year. This means you can replace what you withdraw in the future without penalty.

This is the clearest indication I was able to find on the ING website, and I was specifically looking for something that would tell me that I wouldn't be allowed to replace my withdrawals whenever I wanted.

You can put the money back, but not in this calendar year. It's like a nightclub that can only hold five thousand people, except that once some people leave, the bouncers still won't let any more people in, even though there's still room in the club.

Be aware. The money in your TFSA is there if you need it, but you don't actually get the contribution room back until the next year, so don't churn the account. (And no, this is not legal advice, just my experience.)

ING is still my savings bank of choice for their reasonable interest rates, functional user interface, and ability to download transactions directly into iBank.

The TFSA is a great place to save your after-tax money, but don't make the same mistake I did and churn the account. You reduce the room available for tax exempt savings.

This is probably a Canada Revenue Agency rule, but ING is at fault here for failing to manage expectations about what you can do with the TFSA. To be fair, I don't think any other banks are talking about this limitation either, because they all want your money. This can lead to disappointment, when you expect it to work one way and it ends up working another.

Still, is among the best choices for Canadian no-fee, online, high interest savings accounts. They have a referral program too, which means if you're a new customer and open an account with at least $100, they'll give us both $13 if you use my referral code (or Orange Key in their lingo): 31567867S1

Just don't churn your Tax Free Savings Account.
If there's a way around this, let me know in the comments.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Rights, Responsibilities, and Endurance

People defend their rights. Whether it's my right to drive an eight year old SUV, my right to speak freely, or my right to poo in the drinking water (most houses use potable water for toilets), we get very defensive if we feel our rights are threatened.

Responsibilities, on the other hand, get short shrift. Nobody talks much about defending them, except maybe lawyers when they sue people for avoiding their responsibilities. Responsibilities are the social glue that holds us together. If we don't take responsibility seriously, as evidenced by the financial crisis, society starts to fray.

We have responsibilities to complete strangers. People count on other drivers to stop at stop lights. Our culture corrects people it finds excessively irresponsible: The parent of a toddler who was noticed in a parked car outside a Calgary casino was treated particularly harshly in the popular media.

If you've seen Disney's The Lion King you've got the basics. Everything's connected. We're responsible to every other living thing in the world, but we're the only species that has any sense of the scale of the problems we've created.

Iroquois tradition considers the impacts of every decision on the seventh generation. It avoids our get-it-now, no money down mindset that permeates modern consumer culture and focuses on what will endure. If we don't endure, then we are just another failed experiment. The dinosaurs didn't know better. We, on the other hand, are watching it up close.

It's currently difficult to protect the rights that the seventh generation has to a healthy planet. They can't exactly defend themselves, and they won't be able to afford lawyers for about another two hundred years.

Our responsibility to the future: we endure or we fail. With globalization, peak everything, consumerism, political exigencies and hungry bellies, making collective decisions that take the long view is a very tall order. The grad class of 2209 (and their lawyers) are counting on us being up to the challenge.