By Brad Thomason, CPA
Clearly, it was one of the better ideas that any one had ever had. Twas the week before Christmas and I was zipping through the local Walmart to get a few ingredients for dinner, and check something in the sporting goods section for a last minute gift. For reasons I can’t really explain, I veered down one of the toy aisles, and saw a box containing five jigsaw puzzles. Each was a movie poster-style picture, depicting one of the Pixar movies. Though an infrequent impulse buyer, I scooped it up and took it home, nonetheless.
Then I opened all five puzzles at the same time…and dumped all the pieces into a single container. All 2,350 of them. Well, 2,349 of them, as we would later learn. But you get the point.
This action drew various responses from members of my family, which ran the range from, “Oh my gosh, Dad,” to “What have you done?!”
However, for the next two-and-a-half days this stroke of unappreciated genius lead to the proverbial “hours of family fun.” The kids (who aren’t really kids anymore…) and I sat at the dining room table for hours, listening to music, singing at varying degrees of volume and quality, talking smack to each other, and grinding through the substantial task of divide-and-conquer that I had manufactured. Some of us stayed up late; others of us fussed at the first group the following morning for all the noise. It really was a lot of fun. And in the end, we did in fact sort the mess and solve all five puzzles. Ten minutes before dinner on Christmas Eve. So we took a quick pic, destroyed the evidence, and returned the room to its intended use, as if the whole puzzle-gate business had never occurred. All-in-all, a pretty cool holiday memory.
Spending all of that time working those puzzles really drew my attention to one of the basic truths of the universe, not exactly news but one that’s still worth mentioning on an endless loop. Sometimes it takes a while to really see what’s right there in front of your face.
If you think about it, what better example of this principle could there be than a jigsaw puzzle? Once you flip the pieces right-side up, you are literally looking at everything you need to know to put the puzzle together, in a single view. Yet it takes hours of going back over the same terrain to actually see what you need to see to do it. I couldn’t tell you the number of times one of us announced that it was a certainty that a particular piece was simply not there, only to find it some minutes/hours/days later. As I mentioned above, there was only one piece actually missing by the end. But there were many more assumed-to-be missing pieces throughout the course of the project. “Hidden in plain sight” was much more than a turn of phrase for all of us by the time things wrapped up.
To work a puzzle you have to stare. You have to look at the same thing more than once. You have to accept that there will be realizations which come later, and you have no earthly idea why they came that time and not before. To do so takes attention, focus, and above all, time. Like erosion, it’s a business model rooted in sustained pressure over long duration.
If you think about it, as you have gotten older, isn’t it the case that knowledge has become less about going wider, and more about going deeper? I’m not suggesting a person ever runs out of new things to learn, especially when it comes to hobbies, and travel and things like that. But the big stuff, the core matters that affect everyone moving through the adult world? You had all that pretty well in hand decades ago, didn’t you? Or, at least you had the basic version, the 75% to 80% you needed to know to not completely make a mess of your life.
Since that time though, for me anyway, the important growth in knowledge has come from going deeper into those things. From trudging on down the path, full in the grips of diminishing return, to try to go from 80% to 90% and then to 95%. From looking at what I’ve already looked at before, even thinking things I’ve already thought before, in the hopes that the continued engagement will spawn some new realization. Miraculously, such efforts almost always deliver the goods.
As complex topics go, retirement is one of the deeper wells that I have found. It is deceptively complex, likely because of the vast number of moving parts which may come into play. To really understand the major principles requires lots of time and contemplation. And to study every little fold and nuance? I don’t know, but I’ll tell you later if I ever get there.
Part of doing well at retirement, I think, is making sure that you have realistic expectations about how long it’s going to take just to understand what it is that you need to be doing. Then, allocate the time and put in the hours.
No one expects to solve a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle in half an hour. If retirement was an actual jigsaw puzzle I’m not sure how many pieces it would have. But a lot more than 1,000. Or even 10,000, I imagine. Strictly speaking I don’t really know because I’ve never tried to tackle one with that many pieces. If I did though, I wouldn’t expect it to go fast, and I would (hopefully) not let myself get discouraged that a big block of time would be required to achieve the goal.
Which, I think, is a big part of the prescription for how to approach comprehensive retirement planning. You just gotta take time to stare. Then, stare.
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