Win/Win

When I was 15 or so, my father called me outside one day and said “the oil in your mother’s car needs to be changed. Come on, you’re gonna help me.”

We spent all day on it. First we drove her car up onto ramps so we could more easily get underneath. We opened it up and let the oil start to drain out into the pan, and while that was happening we looked at the cap to see the specified kind of oil for the car. We drove dad’s car to the store and bought the oil, as well as a new filter. We got back and crawled under the car again to close it up, and then spent time both under the car and under the hood, changing the oil filter, replacing the oil, checking with the dipstick, all that. Then we carefully sealed up the old oil and took it to be disposed of properly, driving mom’s car in the process so that he could make sure everything was okay before giving it back to her.

When we were all done, he asked me: “What did I teach you today?”

I said that he’d taught me how to change the oil on a car.

He said: “No! I taught you the value of twenty dollars! [$20 was the going rate for an oil change at the time.] It’s good to know how to do that stuff yourself in case you need to, but you should almost never do it. Someone else could have done that in ten minutes for twenty bucks, and I could have made more than that doing something else. Now that you saw what a pain in the ass it was, you’ll appreciate spending twenty bucks not to do it.”

He’s a wise man, my father. He intuitively understood a lot of economic concepts (like opportunity cost/comparative advantage!) without any formal study in the subject. I remember another of his lessons: Don’t complain about gas prices. He said “A gallon of gas might cost three dollars. But my car can go fifteen miles on a gallon. Go outside and push my car fifteen miles – hell, just walk fifteen miles – and then tell me you wouldn’t rather have paid three dollars to drive.” He understood next best alternatives, too.

At the core of these lessons is a philosophy for life that can lead to a lot of success: Seek out the win/win scenario.

Paying someone else to change your oil is (for most people) a win/win scenario. You gain time that is worth more than the cost of the service, and the people specializing in that service make a living. Most people make money by making other people’s lives better. We live in an age of miracles and wonders. It’s good to remember it, and be grateful.

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