Two Personal Stories: Living with Margin and Being Marginless

Harness_Margin_Concept

In two recent posts, I’ve talked about the concept of margin in our lives, and the variety of things that this simple word, margin, can mean.

The first post introduced the topic here.

The second post can be found here.

In this post, let’s talk about two personal stories.  The first addresses a time in my life when I felt no personal margin to deal with work issues.  It was not a fun time being a young officer in the U.S. Army in Europe in the early 1970s.

The second story is more recent and talks about losing some important stuff while travelling.  I did have some margin, but the experience made me think again about what it must mean to be marginless.

Being Marginless – A First Personal Story

Many years ago when I was a young lieutenant in the U.S. Army serving near the East German border in the First Armored Division.  I was in charge of a maintenance platoon at time when maintenance of equipment was difficult because of availability of parts, availability of trained technicians, and, frankly, the attitudes of lots of soldiers at time when far too many young soldiers (and others) were “doing” too much German beer and drugs.

We never knew what excitement would arise from across the East German border, and there was an excruciating focus on readiness of our soldiers, tanks, trucks, weapons and other equipment.  We never knew what troubles young soldiers who overindulged in German beer, marijuana, or a variety of stronger drugs, might fall into or what mischief they might create.  It was not an easy time in the Army.  Recall that the active war at the time (early 1970s) was across the Pacific in VietNam, and major resources were shipped there rather than to Europe.

The officers in the division support command of the First Armored Division were constantly called upon to achieve readiness levels that were not feasible given the conditions noted above.  We were often called into meetings on post to be yelled at and “motivated” to get things to the desired level of “readiness.”

One winter evening in late 1971 or so, all of the officers of the 123rd Maintenance Battalion were called back on post for the latest crisis, which we called “flaps.”  I don’t know the meaning of this word if I ever did.  Perhaps it reflected all of us flapping our arms and accomplishing nothing.  Nevertheless, life in the 123rd Maintenance Battalion was one flap after another for its officers.

At that meeting, Lieutenant Colonel Lampe was berating the assembled mostly young officers.  I eventually got frustrated, and requested permission to speak.  I should have known better.

I said that everything that happened, routine or not, was treated as a flap, or with extreme urgency by our commanders.  I noted that we were encouraged, cajoled and even threatened to address every so-called flap with all resources possible.  I recall that I ended by stating that if every little thing that happened was treated as a crisis or as a flap, we as officers had no resources (i.e., margin) to deal with actual crises that occurred from time to time.

LTC Lampe did not like my comments and asked his Executive Officer to talk to me about my attitude.

But the young officers in the 123rd Maintenance Battalion were marginless.  So I know what marginless feels like, at least from that perspective of trying to do a good job while lacking the needed resources and margin to do it.

Having Some Margin – Another True Story

The financial difference between well-off Americans and homeless people is, in some respects, the plastic and cash carried in pockets and digits somewhere.  If you don’t think it is true, have the misfortune to lose your wallet while you are traveling somewhere and see how protected you feel.  Your thoughts will turn very quickly to those of survival and margin.

During May of 2016, I “lost” my computer and wallet at New York’s Laguardia Airport.  I didn’t realize the loss until I was on my flight and en route to Memphis.

First, I realized I didn’t have my computer.  I started to work on something and the computer simply was not in my briefcase.  I knew instantly that I had left it when I wasn’t feeling well and had gone to the rest room.  I felt sick for sure, and began to think what I might have lost or what exposure I might have created.

A few minutes later, I realized that I had left my wallet with the computer.  I had taken the wallet out to pay for my dinner at one of those iPads-in-lieu-of-servers.  I had put my credit card back into the wallet and left it lying with my computer.

The wallet contained about $250 in cash and all of my credit cards.  Here I was, on an aircraft, with no wallet, no cash, and no computer.  My initial thoughts were that there was nothing I could do about the situation until I got home to Memphis.

As I thought regarding my computer, I keep all notes, research and working files in my Dropbox account.  I save literally nothing to my computer’s desktop or in any other crevice on the machine.  So I knew I had captured all the work I had done on an important speech while traveling.  A bit of work margin.  That made me feel somewhat better.

I eventually realized that I had my iPad with me.  I was able to connect with GoGo Inflight Wifi, and then texted my fiancé (family margin) to ask her to call my assistant, Todd Lowe (work margin), to ask him to begin damage control on my credit cards and to try to locate both the computer and the wallet through Lost and Found at LGA. Todd jumped right on the task and had me reasonably protected by the time my plane landed in Memphis.

After the dust settled, a better name for Laguardia’s Lost and Found is Lost and Still Lost.

With triage underway, I rested a bit easier, but nevertheless, could not shake a sense of angst.

To put the event into perspective, I had been on the road for two weeks.  The first week was some work/vacation time at my get-away place in Port Orange, Florida.

Then I worked a couple of days in South Florida and flew to Boston to give a speech at the 2016 Spring Symposia of the RPT&E Section of the American Bar Association (May 11, 2016).  By Thursday afternoon, I was beat from work, travel, and speaking, and was experiencing some stomach and lower bowel issues.  In other words, I was darned tired and not feeling well.

I had the thought that it would really be nice to get home, and then took the mental steps through landing, walking to my car, and driving home.  I had been gone 14 days, so I knew I’d have to pay $84 to get out of “economy” parking.  It is economy because it is a long walk from parking to planes.  I like the walking and don’t mind.  Then I realized that my wallet and all my cash and cards were gone.

My seat mate saw this whole fiasco develop and was most sympathetic, but that didn’t help much.  Talking to him did probably keep me from going crazy prior to landing.  When I realized I’d need cash to get out of the garage, he reached to pull out his wallet to loan me some money.  Nice.  Friendly margin and unexpected.

About that moment, I had a comforting realization.  I always carry a second wallet in my briefcase.  Whenever a $100 bill comes into my life, I put it there to be available for indulgence or emergency, and had accumulated seven of the bills by that night.  Some financial margin and in cash.  This was an emergency, so I was glad to use one of those bills to get my car out of the parking garage.  As an afterthought of this experience, I carry one seldom-used credit card in my second wallet from now on – just in case.

We spent most of that Friday working on the many loose ends that losing a wallet entails.  Stopping and replacing credit cards, my health safety card, my insurance card, my driver’s license (and getting my passport out until it arrived).  Changing passwords where appropriate, as well.

I went to my bank where I withdrew $400 to replenish my walking around and travel wallet fund.  Margin.  I borrowed a credit card from Mercer Capital to get me through the weekend.  More margin.

Saturday morning, I played in my regular handball game, trying to act as if nothing had happened.  But I still felt stupid.  Saturday afternoon, I found a workable replacement wallet.  Sunday morning, I was happy to go to church to relax and pray and forgive myself for my stupidity.  Emotional and spiritual margin.  My son was in town and we spent all the rest of the day working out and hanging.  That was therapeutic.  Family margin.

On Monday morning, my business and personal American Express replacement cards arrived, and I was pretty much back in business.

After talking with my fiancé, I developed a checklist for traveling.  It is just a quick mental checklist (written down in Notes on my phone) to keep things at top of mind.  I used it on the next Wednesday as I was leaving for New Orleans for a speech at the 2016 Joint Conference of the AICPA and AAML (May 19, 2016).

For what it is worth, my checklist is good to keep in mind when going through airport security, where travelers are unnaturally separated from their things in strange and sometimes stressful circumstances by the TSA screening process.

Concluding Thoughts

Would you rather live a life with margin or one of being marginless?  I’ve always worked on one or more of the important areas of life where margin is needed: personal finances, work, physical conditioning, spiritual life, emotional, and time.  Seldom do I hit on all cylinders at the same time.  But I keep trying.

In my experience, it is better to live a life with margin in the important areas of life than to be marginless.  Unfortunately, the difference between margin and marginless living lies, most often, in what we do as we live life at the margin between the past and the future.

Sometimes, however, like my time in Germany with the Army, there seems to be little that can be done.  You just have to work with what you have and work through it.

If you want to talk about margin in your business, or to discuss any other matter that pertains to valuation and corporate finance for your private business, give me an email (mercerc@mercercapital.com) or call (901-579-9700).

In the meantime, be well!

Chris

Reminder

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