Ghosts in the Machine

This holiday season, get ready for the blitz. We’re not talking football. We’re talking tech.

The National Retail Federation is projecting 2012 holiday sales will rise 4.1% from 2011 levels. A good portion of that will go to consumer electronics. Researchers at Booz & Co. expect a 4% rise in consumer purchases of downloadable gifts such as digital music, movies and books.

The shopping season is already off to a fast start. Amazon reported Thanksgiving holiday sales of its Kindle e-reader products doubled over the same time last year. And Apple alone may soak up a lot of holiday spending. Writing at, Chuck Jones predicts sales of updated iPads and iPad minis should boost the company’s December quarter revenues by 19% year over year.

Sales enabled by technology continue to rise. Online retailers predict a record $43.4 billion in holiday sales this season as shoppers increasingly rely on social networks and mobile devices, according to Bloomberg. It estimates Internet sales will grow 17 percent over last year, or more than 10 percent of U.S. retail spending, excluding gas, food and cars.

What does that mean for those of us looking for gifts this Hanukkah and Christmas? Besides the usual smartphones, video games and big-screen TVs, expect to see a lot of so-called labor-saving devices.

Amazon is selling a wireless child locator shaped like a Teddy bear for $28.99. For the man cave, Sharper Image is promoting a Pac Man Arcade Machine for $2,999, with free shipping. And for people who like to drink, Bed Bath & Beyond offers a carbonator that turns water into soda for $129.99 and a cordless wine bottle opener for $29.99. Too bad they can’t turn water into wine. It would fit with the birthday celebration.

If all this strikes you as commercialized corruption of the holiday, you’re not alone. Charles Schultz expressed the sentiment 47 years ago with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” As for the rest of us, some will light candles. Some will assemble the crèche and head to church. Others will give quiet thanks for good friends, family and health, realizing that in this holiday season, gratitude is one of the greatest gifts of all.

Housing builds momentum

Two numbers released this morning show the housing market heading in a better direction.

New housing construction rose 2.3% to a 750,000 annual pace from a revised 733,000 annual rate in July, the Commerce Department reported via Bloomberg. Construction of single-family houses rose 5.5% to 535,000, the fastest rise since April 2010. Single-family-home permits were up 0.2% to an annualized 512,000, the highest since March 2010. Part of that growth is due to historically low mortgage rates—the average 30-year fixed has leveled at 3.55%.

There’s more good news for owners of existing homes and the agents who trade them. Sales of previously owned houses jumped 7.8% to a 4.82 million annual rate, the most since May 2010, according to the National Association of Realtors. The median price of an existing home climbed 9.5 percent to $187,400 from $171,200 in August 2011, according to Bloomberg.

The trend has reached bellwether Southwest Florida, according to data in today’s Sarasota Herald-Tribune. For the first seven months of the year, Sarasota County issued permits for 620 new homes valued at $201 million, a jump of 55% over the same period last year.

All of that comes on the heels of yesterday’s news from the National Association of Home Builders that confidence among builders rose from 37 in August to 40 in September, as measured by the NAHB/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index. That’s the highest reading since June 2006.

“The pace of overall housing production has been edging gradually upward all year as consumers become more confident in their local housing markets, and the latest data are further evidence that the housing recovery is here to stay,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe.

More than skin deep

Beauty pays. That’s the conclusion of Daniel Hamermesh, economics professor at the University of Texas in Austin, who measured the economic benefits of looking good.

His conclusions:

  • Attractive people are likely to earn about 3% to 4% more than a person with below-average appearance.
  • Better-looking people tend to sell more products or attract more new customers.
  • White-collar criminals are more successful if they are better-looking.

For us mortals, is plastic surgery the answer? Hamermesh says research doesn’t support that conclusion. “Surgery pays back less than $1 for every $1 spent. But it might make you feel better.”

Brian Tracy: setting goals isn’t the only goal

In many ways Brian Tracy is the opposite of Zig Ziglar, more corporate than homespun. In other ways they mesh well, sharing a similar background and bootstrap philosophy. Which is one reason the organizers of the People Builder Rally in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, booked the pair to appear on December 10, 1991 in back-to-back motivational talks.

At the time Tracy, the lanky forty-seven-year-old Californian who grew up in poverty and dropped out of high school before graduation, had made his mark by systematically studying why sales people were successful. After graduating from college, he created a seminar based on those principles and released it a self-help audio recording entitled “The Psychology of Achievement.”

Today Tracy is chairman and CEO of Brian Tracy International, a company that specializes in the training and development of individuals and organizations. He has consulted for more than 1,000 companies and addressed more than 4 million people in talks and seminars in more than forty countries.

We met at his “Success Secrets of High Achievers” seminar in 1991 and talked about the importance of time management, goal-setting and getting your priorities straight. He was touring the world and I was writing a column on the human-potential movement. I moved on and the interview remained unpublished for nineteen years. With this post I’m finally reaching that goal.

Brian Tracy

Brian Tracy

JW: As I look at your resume I’m just amazed. Founder of your own company, head of a large real estate development company, avid reader, author, trainer. You speak four languages. You do 155 to 120 speaking engagements a year. Why this drive?

BT: I work hard because I recommend that people work hard, and I don’t ever say anything to anybody that I don’t practice. I accomplish an enormous amount simply by working very efficiently.

Very successful people are very tight with their time because they look upon their time like money. It’s a very scarce resource and has to be spent carefully in order to get what they want. One of the most important keys to success is being very clear about what is important to you, what you want to accomplish. Most people are very fuzzy about that, but if you’re fuzzy about that it’s impossible to manage your time, because your time is sort of like shooting a rifle, and you can’t shoot a rifle unless it’s clear what you’re shooting at. So you have to say, “Where do I get my biggest payoff, not only in terms of financial returns but in terms of happiness?” And then you have to rifle in on those things.

JW: Did your philosophy grow out of an incident?

BK: It just came about by evolution. I was in my twenties before I even knew anything about goals, aside from sports, and then I found if you wrote down goals and made plans to accomplish them, you just suddenly went into overdrive. This began to happen at an incredible rate. I ask people, “OK, what if I make a couple of points about goals now. I know what you’re going to say, you’ve heard about goals, you don’t want to hear about goals anymore. Does everybody here know you’re supposed to have goals?” I say, “Good. I’ll tell you what. I won’t say another word about the subject today on one condition, and the condition is that you take out your goal lists that you carry with you and you review on a regular basis and show it to the person next to you. I’ll just wait patiently while you do that.” And I’ll sit there and sometimes ninety-nine percent of the audience sits there without moving. They have a few vague wishes and hopes but they have no goals. They have nothing written down.

JW: Have you always been goal-oriented?

BT: Aside from sports it never dawned on me until I was about twenty-three.

JW: What happened then?

BT: I was traveling. I set off when I was twenty and didn’t come back until I was about twenty-eight. I went out to see the world. I didn’t have the money to pay for my passage so I got a job on a ship. I traveled across the Atlantic as a galley boy, swabbing the deck, carrying food, feeding the crew. I read a lot, biographies and autobiographies and stories about men who had done a lot of interesting things, had traveled to a lot of countries, had a lot of adventures. If I ran out of money then I’d work until I had some money and then travel again.

JW: You must have started thinking, “Can I do this forever? What am I going to do with my life?”

BT: When you’re in your twenties, you’re in a reactive mode; you’re reacting to your situation. I was broke most of the time, in places like Gibraltar, Bangkok, Singapore, Johannesburg, Mexico City. When you’re out of money you become very creative. In my case I realized that selling was the only thing I could do.

JW: What did you have to sell?

BT: In Johannesburg I sold office supplies. In London I worked in a car dealership, cleaning cars. In Bangkok I got a job selling mutual funds. You just have to be determined. Remember the whole experience of human life is a learning experience, and therefore we only learn when we have to learn. I think it was Abraham Maslow who said that ninety-nine percent of human actions are motivated by deficiency needs. They feel they have to. Whereas only one percent of human actions are motivated by what we call being needs, and most people are reactive. So they become discontented or unhappy, and being discontented or unhappy, it’s like burning your hand—you avoid that. And so they move away from unpleasant situations.

JW: Going back to goal-setting, many people say they don’t have the time, that they can’t balance work and family as it is.

BT: I’ve analyzed it very carefully and come up with a very simple conclusion: it’s very simple to do as long as you don’t do a lot of other things as well. What people are trying to do is not just balance the requirements of work and family but they’re trying to do a whole lot of other things as well. They’re trying to maintain all their social engagements and all of their friendships and sports and outside activities and work and so on. So what I say, and I have four children, is that I have a very well-balanced life because when I work, I work one hundred percent, and when I’m not working, I’m with my family. I don’t have anything in between.

The reason some people can’t keep up is that they’re wasting their time. It’s not that people don’t have the time. Everybody has the same twenty-four hours a day. When they work, the average person wastes fully thirty percent of their time socializing, and then they get behind in their work and feel this pressure. So one of the recommendations I make is to work all the time you work. And I say the key to success is—this is my own little creative synthesis—quality of time at work and quantity of time at home. You can’t switch the two.

JW: What does that mean?

BT: It means you work when you’re at work. People play and socialize and what happens is the work continues to mount up, and they say, “I’m under pressure and I have to take it home.” If you take ten things that a person has to do at work, only one or two of those are critical to their success in their career, and the others are various degrees of play.

JW: So one of the keys is to prioritize.

BT: That’s right. So you say, “Why am I on the payroll?” Peter Drucker has talked about this for years. You have to decide, “What is the critical output of my position?” And then you concentrate your resources on achieving that critical output and you discontinue all the things that don’t contribute to that critical output.

JW: How do you get the motivation to do that?

BT: Motivation is two things. First of all, it’s clarity with regard to what you want to accomplish. And second of all, the reasons why you want to accomplish it. Tom Hopkins says that goals are the fuel in the furnace of achievement. I say reasons are the fuel in the furnace of achievement—reasons for wanting to accomplish something. A person says, “I want to have more money,” and I say, “Why?” If I were to say that somebody very close to you had to have an operation within twelve months and it was going to cost the amount that you make in an entire year, so to pay for that operation you’d have to literally double your income in the next twelve months to save that person’s life, could you do it? You bet your bippy. Now I’ve got a reason. So it’s very, very important that you not only have goals but reasons.

JW: How did you get to this point? What did your father and mother do?

BT: My father was a carpenter and a sculptor and my mother was a nurse. The broader answer to the question is the psychological discovery that we are most motivated to achieve what we felt we were most deprived of during our formative years. During my formative years we had financial problems, and throughout all my growing up we always worried about money.

The reason why I’ve been successful is I have a singular focus, and the focus is to find out the ways, ideas, means, techniques to be more successful. I have friends who earn a million dollars a year in industries where the average income is maybe $25,000, maybe less. Is that person working forty times harder? When we study these people we find that virtually all successful people do certain things in the same way, over and over again. If you do the same things that other successful people do, you get the same results. There’s no mystery to this. The mystery is why people don’t do it. And why people don’t do it is, first of all, they don’t know, ignorance, and second of all, fear, because they’re afraid to move out of their comfort zone. Probably the third of all the reasons is maybe they don’t have enough reasons.

JW: Does this philosophy of success grow out of . . . is it a reversal of your childhood?

BT: It’s just that since I was not particularly well off financially in my childhood I became driven as an adult to achieve financial success, and once you achieve that, you realize that the tools you can use to achieve financial success you can use to achieve a lot of other things. Almost invariably, people start becoming interested in emotional things, relationships, and spiritual things, the development of higher levels of consciousness.

The great challenge that people have in their formative years is that they seem to feel like pawns, that the world is just happening around them. Psychologists have found that one of the keys to interpersonal effectiveness is what is called a sense of coherence. The person feels a sense of structure and coherence in the universe, that things are not just happening randomly. If you go back to the earliest days of Western philosophy, you come to Socrates, who taught Plato, who taught Aristotle.

Socrates’ great contribution was the law of causality, the Socratic Law, which is the law of cause and effect. I teach this all the time because the great truths are very simple truths. The law of causality simply says that for every effect there is a cause. Things happen for a reason. Earl Nightingale called this the Iron Law of Human Destiny, and it’s true, it’s the unbreakable law. So therefore anything that anyone else has achieved you can achieve as well. You just have to trace it back to the cause.

JW: I see we’re almost out of time. What’s next for you? Do you have a specific goal?

BT: I think the key to success in life is to do what you really enjoy, to do what you love to do, and therefore it’s everybody’s responsibility to find that. It’s not enough to enjoy doing it; you’ve got to become very good at doing it, because you find that other people enjoy doing it as well. And if you’re doing what you love to do, then really all you want to do is more of it. Because your work, your play, your whole life is one seamless whole. People who talk about backing off or taking a vacation, taking a trip around the world or avoiding burnout are people who are simply saying that they’re doing what they don’t like. Nobody gets burned out doing what they like. You get burned out if you don’t like it. So what I want to do is what everybody in my position wants to do—I’ll do more of the same. I want to do more speaking, write more books, do more audio programs. I want to share these ideas with more people.

JW: Thank you.