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First-World Problems

By December 1, 2016 2 Comments

The battery on my iPhone dies faster when I wear my Apple watch. That’s a classic example of a “first-world problem”. If you’ve never heard the expression, a “first-world problem” is something that a person in a third-world (developing world) country would never say, and probably wouldn’t understand. People who are wondering if they’re going to eat today aren’t worried about having “nothing good to watch on TV tonight”.

I recently visited Mumbai, India, and I was struck by the close proximity of poverty and wealth. I travel a lot and I see both poverty and wealth – but never intermingled the way it is there. In most major cities, the poverty and wealth are separated. You can tell when you’re in a wealthy area, and you can tell when you’re not. But not in Mumbai. As you ride from one place to another, you pass 5-star hotels and extreme poverty, almost randomly. New apartment buildings rise next to ramshackle huts, protected only by tin roofs and plastic sheeting.

Mixed emotions
This was my second time to Mumbai, and both times I was struck with mixed emotions. On the one-hand, I feel very lucky to have been born where I was, to these particular parents. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I’ve also never known poverty or real hunger. On the other hand, I also feel guilty when I’m there. I get to go back home to my first-world problems, including the flight delays and expensive airport food.

It’s all about perspective
When my younger son was turning 16, I wanted to try to explain to him just how fortunate we are to live where we do, and to have the opportunities we have. We decided to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, as we both love to use tools and build things. We didn’t go to a third-world country, we went to Omaha, Nebraska. Omaha is a very nice city, and not one that you’d automatically associate with poverty. I had been going there for many years for business, and had only really seen middle-America. The unemployment rate was relatively low, new houses were popping up and old buildings were being revitalized into condos, restaurants and shops.

Where has this been?
So, I was very surprised to see the neighborhood change, as we drove to the Habitat offices. You see, I had never had a reason to go to North Omaha. The offices were out west, where the new construction was happening. North Omaha has boarded up houses. It has gang violence. Who knew? Certainly not me, since I didn’t live there. It wasn’t like Mumbai, where the poverty intertwined with the affluence. My son was surprised to see people going into the boarded-up house next to our build site. We were both surprised to hear the stories from the Habitat staff, about a single mother living with her children in a basement apartment, with dirt floors. This wasn’t the 1800’s, it was the 2000’s. We ended up doing Habitat, three years in a row in Omaha, before he headed off to college – and all the first-world problems that come with it.

Why am I telling you this?
As we close out another year, we tend to reflect on our triumphs, and failures. I hope you’ve had both, I know I have. Both triumphs and failures come from opportunities and taking action. You can’t have either unless you try something. Yes, sometimes bad things happen to good people (like health issues and car accidents, both of which I’ve had). Proactive people aren’t luckier than the rest of us. Proactive people aren’t sitting around waiting for someone, or something, to improve their situation. Proactive people are acting on their ideas, not sitting on them. As I said in my last post, failure isn’t a bad thing. It’s just an unintended consequence of trying something, and not getting the result you desired.

“I’ve never made a bad decision. I’ve just had bad results.”
I love that quote by William Greenblatt. None of us has a do-over button. We can’t go back in time and make a different decision. All we can do is learn from it, and make better decisions going forward. Successful people don’t stop trying new things when they experience a failure; they don’t give up when they hit a road block. They persevere, because that’s what success is.

I wish you lots of first-world problems
So, my New Year’s wish for you is that you have lots of first-world problems. I hope they run out of your favorite dessert in the restaurant. I hope the battery dies on your phone when you need to take one more photo. I hope it’s a little too cold in your house, and you have to put another blanket on the bed. Why? Because if those are the worst of your problems next year, it’ll be a great year. I look forward to hearing your stories of success, and yes, your stories of failure. Let’s toast to them both!


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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Rob Ferre says:

    Thanks for sharing Alan. At times I look back at my failures with bitterness and disdain. But I know have learned from them. Without my failures I wouldn’t grow. I also hope this year to do more service. I am looking to go to Mexico to do some service. I am inspired by your post to do more. Thanks for sharing and here’s to the new year!

    • Alan says:

      Thanks, Rob. You can practice your Spanish more in Mexico, and then we can confound everyone in the states when they see the two of us speaking Spanish.

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