A Bodey in Motion

Building momentum, one step at a time

It Isn’t Really For Free

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We use the words for free a lot in our society. Probably more than we should.

Restaurants give out free refills. Online stores offer free shipping. Churches offer free counseling. Free samples. Free delivery. Interest free for 12 months! There’s a free toy in every box!


And I could also mention the roads we drive on, the schools we send our kids to, and all the other services that our local, state and federal governments provide to us for free.

But then I’d be in for it.

Many of you would quickly and vigorously explain to me that people do pay for those things. Taxes and fees are collected that are spent on those so-called free services.

I would humbly agree with you, but then I’d gently explain that that’s true of everything we think of as being for free.

Nothing is provided without a cost. Somebody always pays.

I think we fool ourselves into believing it’s not us. When our government provides something for free, we tell ourselves that they’re taxing those who can afford it. When a business does it, we might convince ourselves that they’re absorbing those costs as an incentive to get us to buy more. When a church gives things away for free…I don’t know, maybe we think God’s paying for it?

Still, the uncomfortable truths are that, when it comes to free stuff:

  1. We’re paying for more of it than we’d like to believe.
  2. In the rare case that we are able to get something without any cost, we’ve forced somebody else to pay. (Some of us don’t find that thought as uncomfortable, but we should. More on that in a second.)

That first point is really self-evident when you stop to think about it. Consider your local furniture store for a second. Doesn’t it seem like they’re having some sort of sale every weekend? The truth is that, even on sale, furniture has one of the highest margins in retail. The delivery costs are easily covered by the margin, and so is the cost of “No Interest for 12 Months”

(And, of course, if you fail to make a payment, or pay off on time, all that interest gets applied retroactively – which is a big bonus for the store).

The furniture stores aren’t alone. Almost every area where a business offers a free product or service, you will discover a tremendous margin involved, and you’re always the one who’ll be paying that initial cost.

I could go on similarly regarding free government services. I won’t, because I think this thought should suffice: If our government taxes those people that can afford it so they can provide services, but all of us pay taxes, who’s getting those services for free?

Enough of that, let’s get to the second point.

I know the word force can make people defensive, so let me get a disclaimer out of the way.

I’m not talking about charity. I’m not saying that people can’t be generous with their resources, and I’m not saying that we should never accept a gift when it’s offered. I’m certainly not saying that people who give are always doing so out of duty or that people who receive should feel guilty. None of that would be my point.

The second point above is really addressing entitlement.

Have you ever been in a restaurant that doesn’t provide free drink refills? They’re rare these days, but there are a few still out there. Maybe they don’t mark their drinks up as high, or they’ve decided to pour each drink from a fresh can or bottle. Whatever the reason, if you’re used to free refills, not getting one can irritate the crap out of you.

I mean, this is America. We get free refills here, dammit.

And if you raise a big enough stink, you might just force them to give you one.

They’ll pay the cost of one soda to make a customer happy. So what? That’s their choice.

It is, but it’s not about them. It’s about us.

Back when restaurants first started offering free drink refills, it was a big deal. Right or wrong, we were grateful for their apparent generosity. Today, though, that tune has changed. How long did that take? Maybe five years, if that.

A thing offered “for free” for too long quickly loses it’s value. The real cost of what’s been given becomes invisible to us. As a result, we begin to abuse that thing or service, and we start to believe that it’s our right to do so. Suddenly, we’re entitled to it.

(No, I’m not just talking about drink refills anymore.)

(No, I’m not going to name names.)

It gets worse. We’ve begun to develop an almost Pavlovian response to the word free. So, we might not even bother to learn the cost of a service, however generously offered, before we involuntarily start devaluing it in our minds.

For example, churches and ministries seldom want cost to be a barrier for people who need counseling. Several churches I know, and one I work with, offer financial counseling for free. One pastor I know provides marriage counseling and performs ceremonies without establishing a cost. You can guess how each of those cases can turn out, and more often than they should.

So, free stuff often isn’t, and too much free stuff is a bad thing. What can you do? How do you respond to a it in a healthy way? You should:

  1. Identify the actual cost of what’s being offered for free.
  2. Ask yourself (and them) how they can give that away. Who’s paying for it?
  3. Figure out what the value of what’s being offered is to you. How much do you gain by accepting it?
  4. Check your gratitude.

Question: Do you think churches should stop offering counseling for free? Even if they eventually waive the costs, should they be up front about what is necessary to provide these benefits?

February 27, 2012 Posted by | Christ and Church, Politics and Other Insects, Work and Money | , , , , , | 4 Comments

Quick Hits of the Week

  • So, around the first of this month, Congress passed a law forbidding welfare money from being used at liquor stores, casinos, and strip clubs. Let’s ignore, for a second, the fact that this legislation is nearly impossible to enforce. What I want to know is, if people are spending their welfare money on those things, how are they able to pay for groceries and keep their lights and heat on? Yes, I’m being a bit facetious. I know that there is waste in the system, and people can and do receive far more than they need for their basic necessities. At the same time I know single moms who are struggling to make ends meet without being able to receive any welfare, because they have the audacity to stay employed. You get more of what you reward, and less of what you punish. What does this current system encourage more of?
  • I just recently came across BA Expat, a blog by a young entrepreneur named Zack. I look forward to reading more from him. The post that got my attention was his 10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Life Today.  While I already do a few of these things, but I’m challenged to add a couple of the others in the next month. For example, I know it’s past time to de-clutter my closet (not to mention a few other areas of my life).
  • As the father of three future teenagers, I’m always looking for good advice to put in my back pocket to teach them about dating when they’re ready. Perry Noble from Newspring recently delivered a pair of punch-lists of unacceptable behavior, one for the men and another for the women, when dating. Dating relationships lead to marriages. Leading my kids to have high standards for the people they date (and to live to high standards themselves) means that my wife and I can be relaxed and suppotive when each wedding day comes.
  • Speaking of weddings, brides are usually smiling on their wedding day. I don’t know about these wedding photos, though. Her smile is kind of painted on. And what guy needs help getting dressed? A tuxedo isn’t that complicated. Anyway, after the ceremony, their honeymoon consisted of a cross country tour in a stylish custom RV, and when they got back they moved into the house of her dreams.

February 23, 2012 Posted by | Quick Hits and Links | , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Quick Hits of the Week

Poke the Box

Poke the Box by Seth Godin
I saw Seth Godin speak at last year’s Willow Creek Leadership Summit. While all of the speakers were excellent, and several of them challenged me in unexpected ways, he was the one I was anticipating the most. He didn’t disappoint. (Plus, he won the ‘Most Creative Use of PowerPoint’ award hands down.) During the next break, I picked up Poke the Box, because I wanted to go deeper with what he had said.

Human nature is to need a map. If you’re brave enough to draw one, people will follow.

Most of us are great at doing what’s asked of us.

We’re taught how to do it as children. As long as we work hard to understand the material, and complete every assignment that we’re given, we receive excellent marks and praise. So, as we head out into the real world, we try to follow the same pattern. In our jobs and our relationships, we check the required boxes and expect stellar ratings.

That’s when we begin to see the problem, because almost anyone can do what they’re told. That’s nothing special. It’s just average. To become excellent again, we have to do something more. Some vague thing, but we know there’s risk and maybe some sacrifice involved, and we haven’t been taught anything about that. We’ve only been trained in mere competency, and the result is mediocrity.

A mediocre career.

A mediocre marriage.

A mediocre life.

And many of us are willing to accept that. Nothing about living that way is fundamentally broken. It’s just normal. There’s no need to fix it.

Isn’t there?

We all have dreams. We make resolutions every New Year. We have great ideas. We set goals. We want a better future. So, why do we allow ourselves to stay mediocre?

We’ve stopped poking the box.

Life is a buzzer box. Poke it. […] When you do this, what happens? When you do that, what happens? The box reveals itself through your poking and as you get better at it, you not only get smarter but also gain ownership.

Early in our lives, we discovered new things about our world by trying. Risk wasn’t a factor, because all we could do is try. If we failed, we’d just adjust and try again. In fact, failure taught us how to try better.

As the father of a typical two-year-old, this is so real to me. While my wife and I are proud of our littlest girl, we know that we’ve had little to do with her development thus far other than just being there and responding. Walking. Talking. Playing. Helping. She’s mostly learned them all by simply trying to do these things over and over and over.

Even now, though, a stigma is being attached to failure (because you can’t wear big girl underwear if you still pee your pants). As she gets older, she’ll learn more and more about the word responsibility, and that taking a risk and failing will cost something. The more real that becomes, the more wary she’ll become of trying something and paying that cost.

That’s a problem, but it’s also a huge opportunity.

The formula is simple:

When the cost of poking the box (ptb) is less than the cost of doing nothing (0), then you should poke! [ptb < 0 -> poke]

Understanding risk and cost is important, because it will (and should) inform our desire to try something new. Inform, but not halt. What our culture erects as a wall made from our failures, stacked on top of one another and mortared together by the fear of not being seen as anything but a success, really needs a good bulldozing.  The truth is that it’s only just a helpful guideline for our efforts to grow ourselves and improve our world. Oh, we should stack up our failures, but only so we can climb up on top of them and clearly see the next way we’re going to try to move forward.

Poke the Box is excellent. One of the top three books I read in 2011. Godin is a master at putting a lot of content into very few words and this work is no exception. A small book of under 100 pages, and enough white-space to keep it easy on the eyes. Such a quick read, you’ll get through it in no time. Such a good read, you’ll want to go through it twice. I hope I’ve done it justice, here.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got more poking to do.

February 20, 2012 Posted by | Marriage and Family, Past and Future, Read and Reviewed, Work and Money | , | 1 Comment

Quick Hits of the Week

  • I’ve been reading and learning a bit about the concept of gamification, and I’m fascinated. The basic idea is to take the techniques and mechanics developed for games, and apply them to more mundane tasks and events to increase interest and engagement. The good people who do the web show Extra Credits have addressed the topic a couple of times, and I almost demand you to take the twenty or so minutes out of your busy day to learn more about the topic. Why? It works. For example, check out this article by Matt Ridley about how researchers are using computer gamers to redesign enzymes in a way that are up to 18 times more efficient than what an organic chemist could come up with. A remarkable feat that happened because of a game that anyone can download and play. Gamification will be huge in the coming decade.
  • So, there’s some concern over the recent National Defense Authorization Act for 2012, which included a controversial provision regarding potential indefinite detainment of US citizens. Some are shocked that such a bill would be passed. I’m not. Look at the numbers in regard to Guantanamo and it paints a pretty clear picture how our government feels about the idea of indefinite detainment. “Oh,” I hear you gasp, “but that’s different. Those aren’t US citizens. They’re terrorists.” Maybe some of them are, but they’re also people who have been “created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” including that no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” By quietly allowing this exception to continue, Americans have swung the door wide for possible abuse.
  • I know he wrote and directed the movie, so he gets to claim authority, but George Lucas is completely full of crap. I don’t get why he thinks he needs to clear this up. If someone is pointing a gun at me, and I have the opportunity to shoot them first, it doesn’t make me a cold blooded killer. It makes me a scoundrel, and not dead, which is a good thing. Seriously, George, shut up.
  • Finally, I’m all for getting a good bargain, but I guess what constitutes good differs depending on which part of the world you live in. Take Japan, for instance. I mean, 20% off is alright, but it would have to be 50% or more before I’d say it was that good of a sale.

February 16, 2012 Posted by | Quick Hits and Links | , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Quick Hits of the Week