File Under “Young, Stupid”

By and large, it’s not my opinion that weblogs should chronicle the minutiae of an author’s everyday life, but I’m going to ignore that rule for a moment and let it be known to the entire world that I cleaned out my file cabinet yesterday. For years, I’d been moving around a set of hanging file folders stuffed with the accrued paperwork of my personal business affairs; I’d relocate these bulky files from apartment to apartment the way you might move furniture that you never use. And each time I had to open the drawer to retrieve some crucial document or file a document that seemed vaguely significant, I’d make a mental note: “Gotta clean out these damn files soon.”

Way-Back Machine

There was paperwork in there going back to 1993 (eleven years!), and not necessarily all important stuff, either. There were old receipts for gadgets bought at Circuit City, warranties for long-since expired appliances, memoranda from old workplaces, invoices issued from when I was a freelancer and earning US$15 per hour, and thick collections of 401(k) reports from long since rolled-over retirement plans. Those last items, along with a slew of other financial paperwork I found, made me realize how, after I left college, I really had no idea how to handle money. My investment reports would arrive every quarter, but it didn᾿t really matter a heck of a lot to me, because I was too ignorant and too scared of the notion of managing money for the long-term to look at them. I stashed them in a folder, too spooked by their mysterious powers to throw them out, and basically never touched them again. Using a twisted kind of logic, I would tell myself that keeping those papers permanently hidden away in a file cabinet, where they were ‘safe,’ was somehow better than paying no attention to my money at all.

The Age of Not Paying Attention

It occurs to me that, for lots of people who choose design careers in their early twenties, this is probably a pretty familiar-sounding experience. It takes a long time to really get comfortable with all of the paperwork of adulthood; designers in particular have careers that can isolate us from the realities of organizing the key documents that maintain our social standing, protect our health and our homes, help us plan for our futures.

The message that young designers get from their design heroes amounts to, more or less, be passionate and keep your nose to the grindstone. I don’t think that’s bad at all, but, having reached my thirties and having taken this recent tour of my file cabinet, it’s become apparent to me that I knew nothing about how to deal with the administrative duties of my personal life.

Just Do It

And, in a society that extols personal reliance above all, no one was really there to explain it to me. Not even my father, who, as a certified public account, was and is always there to help me do my taxes and consult on other issues. There’s just too much stuff that a person just has to dive into and figure out for himself. Part of the problem is that so much of it is so unfriendly and, yes, poorly designed. If only I had a decent primer on how to put together a portfolio of assets when I was twenty-one, something that clearly de-mystified the world of stocks, bonds, mutual funds and insurance policies, things might have been different. There’s a cottage industry devoted to making these materials palatable to novices, but little of it is truly well-designed — little of it meets the challenge of making these very complex concepts completely transparent.

But I can’t lay it all at the feet of the opacity of the fiscal world. As a younger working professional, I didn’t really want to know about anything else but design. It was much easier and comforting for me to focus on my craft and my art, and much less scary to avoid the prickly red tape of adulthood. What it comes down to is that you have to have that clarity of vision that lets you realize that your own future is wrapped up in all of this nasty paperwork. And to have that clarity, you just have to want it. I know now that’s all it takes.