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Many folks have been in debt so long, and their families have been in debt so long, that they can’t imagine living any other way. But a simple twist in thinking can really change their fortune. Often, they don’t really have a debt problem – they have an income problem.  And the second problem is sometimes easier to fix than the first.

Dr. Hugh Thompson and I have spent many years studying the problem of getting stuck. Today we will discuss the reason No. 2 that people get stuck in life – growing numb — according to the eight causes laid out in our book Getting Unstuck: Breaking Free of the Plateau Effect.

There are a lot of clichés that point out the same familiar problem: when you only have a hammer, everything looks like nail; you can’t solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that created it; the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, and so on. They all describe folks who keep trying solutions that just don’t work. Today I’d like to explain why this unhelpful characteristic of human nature is so persistent, and how learning about it can help you immediately in your financial life.

Comfortably Numb

Anyone who has ever tried to learn how to play piano, or who has even “learned” how to drink alcohol, or walked into a foul-smelling bathroom, has encountered immunity, the first causes of plateaus. It’s simple, really: our bodies are wired to notice dramatic changes, and our senses “wake up” when we are presented with new things.  The opposite is also true. We quickly grow numb to things that are familiar.

Take a smelly locker room — PEE-EW! — when you first walk in, it’s an assault on your nose. But what happens next? Within only a few minutes, the horrible, unbearable smell begins to fade into the background, and somehow, becomes invisible. If you don’t believe me, think about the opposite smell. Wow, it feels great when you first cut flowers and bring them into the house, but the dramatic smell of even the prettiest rose fades pretty quickly.  You don’t notice the flowers again until you leave the room and walk back in. Hold on to that as a metaphor for a moment.

This numbing of your sense of smell has a name: acclimation. It means you “get used” to things, and then you stop noticing them. Acclimation was very useful when women and men lived in caves.  They didn’t need to smell each other to stay alive – they needed to smell an approaching tiger. So our bodies are wired to notice sudden changes in environment that might signal a threat. But that other guy in the cave? He sort of fades into the stonework.

The Plateau Effect

The Plateau Effect

If I were to plot a graph of your smell as you brought flowers into the house, or suffered in a locker room, it would look EXACTLY like a graph of your body’s response to morphine or alcohol, or hundreds of other sensory inputs. That’s why the more morphine you take, the more you need. The graph would also look an awful lot like dozens of other important equations in the world, such as the best way to build a house, or the impact of printing more money on the economy. We call this the plateau curve. Everything you do in life — and we mean everything — will follow this pattern: Beginner’s luck followed by sophomore slump.

What does all this have to do with money?

This cliché is worth repeating: many don’t really have a debt problem, they have an income problem. The challenge they need to attack in their financial life is simple: they need to make more money. We have found that the single biggest impediment to making more money is that people “get used” to their current situation in life. They dream of starting a side business, or getting a promotion, or moving to a new company, but they are like the frog in slowly boiling water that doesn’t notice its life is at risk. They simply let days turn into years and miss their opportunity to grow. They get acclimated. Their incomes flatten out.

Shifting Out of Reverse

Of course, nothing stands still. As you probably remember from Economics 101, there’s no such thing as a company that runs in place – companies are either growing or shrinking, and so are you. If your income is stagnant, it’s really shrinking. Inflation alone will eventually strangle you, let alone life events like having a child or getting sick.  As expenses rise, that debt mountain begins to feel hopelessly large.
Acclimation is the surest recipe for getting stuck in this financial quicksand.

How do professional fragrance-smellers break free from acclimation, so their noses can awaken to the smell of a dozen perfumes within a few minutes?  By taking a big-old whiff of coffee beans.  They “shock” their olfactory nerves back into reality by introducing something totally new. Anyone can do this.

The antidote to growing numb, to getting used to your life plateau, is a shock to your system.  If you are a lawyer, maybe it’s an art class. If you are a classical musician, maybe you should play the electric guitar for a month.  And if you are stuck in a dead-end cubicle job, maybe it’s Etsy. Where can you find your “coffee beans?” That’s where you’ll find your answers. They best place to look for extra income is doing something you’ve never done (for money) before.

Such shocks are a big challenge, particularly for perfectionists, so we will talk about them a little later on. But first, I know what you are asking: “How can I go on some wild coffee bean adventure while I have mouths to feed?” You don’t know it, but you are talking about the mechanics of change, something we call “flow issues.” And in the next column, that’s exactly where will pick up this discussion of plateaus.

Other articles in the Getting Unstuck Series:

More Money-Saving Reads:

Image: Liudmila Sundikova

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