So in my quest to get braver and more productive, I’ve neglected this one part of The List—the part where I need to get smarter. And the other night, when Drew was pretending to be asleep and Thomas was pretending to work on grad school, I figured I’d pretend to learn about finance. The first thing I did was google “finance for kids”.
It turns out that people have defined some crucial money terms for children, so I read a few of those definitions. They made me feel pretty advanced…words like “credit” and “cash” and “interest”. I got this, I thought. It was time to graduate to Finance for Dummies.
Well, that was a mistake. I got confused really fast.
This is a very specific thing that I want to get smarter about, and not for the reason you might think. I don’t have any money and I don’t plan on trying to invest it a bunch of places when I do. Thomas and I have simple tastes. It’s just that my father was a finance lawyer (and all-around smart guy), my sister has a degree in Economics (which she says is more abstract than finance, but still), and my father-in-law is Vice President of a bank. And when they all get together, they start using these money terms I don’t know and can’t even remember, so I can’t google them. It’s just “blah blah blah money”.
It brings me back to when I was a kid and my dad would sit there talking to his friends—his friends were understated bespectacled men like himself—and they would be laughing about these things I knew had to do with “finance”. I figured I’d get it someday. And then I forgot to learn about it. And then I forgot that I’d intended to learn about it, and started joking about how I knew nothing about it.
It turns out finance is different from economics, which is different from accounting. They’re all money subjects. And the word “money” is a loaded word for me—it conjures up images of giant gray steel and glass buildings in Dallas and Boston and New York, places I would go to visit my dad. I would ride the giant elevator with him, and then we would get lost in a labyrinth of beige hallways where people sat silently in plainly-decorated offices. I had to be very quiet, because they were working.
What did they work on at the investment company? Sometimes he’d have stacks of papers that reminded me of book reports, but I wasn’t allowed to touch them. Sometimes he’d have unintelligible phone conversations. It didn’t make any sense to me, but I trusted that it was important. And I trusted the people who worked with him. In fact, all my life I’ve had this instinctive trust for “money people”—I knew what they did, even though I didn’t know how. They came to work, they talked on the phone, and they kept businesses from going bankrupt. They had secret knowledge and they communicated with matrix-style parades of numbers. They didn’t raise their voices or draw attention to themselves. We left them alone so they could do their work, and we didn’t touch the things on their desks. Maybe that’s why I find the Bernie Madoff story so intriguing and so awful: his office, his appearance, everything seems like he should be a good guy. People trusted him to do his job.
Writing about the Bernie Madoff show made me rethink my idea to learn “anything about finance”. When I started with “finance for children”, it was definitely helpful, but it made me feel pretty stupid. I’m close to the age my father was when we went on those trips up the elevator to the great quiet offices, and yet I’m reading Finance for Dummies. And some of it was too hard for me. That’s quite a blow, I’ll tell you. I know I’m not as smart as my dad, but come on.
I guess I have a fear of looking stupid. Sure I do. It’s one of the reasons I joke a lot (sometimes when the situation calls for NOT joking). And underneath that is this worse thing…the fear of actually BEING stupid. Tackling a couple pages of Finance for Dummies was pretty scary, because I had to admit that I was ignorant about something that had surrounded me my entire life. I mean, I could’ve asked my dad these questions years ago. Good grief, he made me read Who Moved My Cheese when I was nine (great read, by the way). But I didn’t. Fast forward years and years, and I have a blog with a List of goals to accomplish that mostly center around making up for lost time.
Still, there’s a freeing feeling when you admit you don’t know something. Because once you admit you don’t know it—REALLY admit it to yourself—you can learn it.
So I decided to take a bunch of my questions to this lady at my school who has a job I can neither describe nor spell, and she was in the middle of doing something important, but she obliged. She struggled to define terms for me in the way people struggle when they know you know NOTHING about the subject and they might just be confusing you more. And people walked by and heard this discussion: a woman of thirty asking another woman to define the difference between accounting and bookkeeping. I decided to NOT feel stupid. You can do that, you know—decide to NOT feel stupid.
It turns out bookkeeping is PART of accounting. Thank you, real live woman. And thank you, Wikipedia. Both of you have been a big help.