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Like so many Americans, Seth Rubin was a victim of the recession of 2009. He was laid off as a project manager for a construction company when the construction business plummeted near his home in Denver. An avid cyclist, he had always dreamed of opening up a coffee and biscuit shop, but the huge upfront investment and the risk was too much for him to pull the trigger.

But he was unemployed and backed into a financial corner, so he got to the point where doing something is less risky than doing nothing. During a long ride, Rubin made a proposition to cycling buddy Mike Miller, owner of a small local chain, Basil Doc’s pizza. Rubin had a crazy idea: he wanted to take over one pizza shop for a few hours in the morning, before lunch, when it was closed anyway, and try out his biscuit shop idea.

“I figured I’d bounce the idea off of Mike, hoping that he’d talk me out of it,” Rubin said.

But Miller didn’t talk him out of it. In fact, he offered to keep Seth’s share of the rent low while he was feeling his way through it. Four months and less than $5,000 later, Seth served his first biscuit as Rise and Shine Biscuit Kitchen and Café. Soon, the two duplicated the formula at all Basil Doc’s locations.

Rubin didn’t know it, but he’d overcome one of the more vexing “flow issues” that keep people stuck in life — the dreaded “step function.”

Have you ever returned a rental car an hour late and been charged for an entire additional day? Why can’t you buy 65 more minutes?  Nope, you have to buy 24 hours.  This happens with cellphones, too. Exceed your 2 GB data allowance by one byte, and you have to pay for another Gig of data (making that a very expensive byte!).

Yes, these things are maddening and unfair. But for the purposes of the Getting Unstuck series, in which we examine eight reasons people get stuck in their financial lives, I’m going to call these “step functions.”

Step functions are all around us, and they are really vexing because they often stop our dreams dead in their tracks.  The most classic step function: You want to start a business, but you can’t because you don’t have $100,000 in capital.

A function, as it’s defined in the field of mathematics, has input and output, action and consequences. Step on the gas a little more (input) and you go a little faster (output). Sometimes though, this input-to-output relationship isn’t so smooth. If your car is at a standstill in snow, you might have to floor it before the car starts moving (and then it’s really moving!). This concept of a sudden “step” from stopped to moving after you hit a threshold is one of the most important flow issues, because it can often be mistaken for getting stuck.

These things that happen in chunks are “step functions.” You want to add just a little more of something, but that thing is only available in bundles. The result is a jump in cost, effort or benefit. Bakers know this rule well; it hits them right between the eyes every time a recipe for cookies calls for a pinch of baking powder, and they need to buy a whole box. Grocery stores, naturally, don’t tend to sell by the pinch.

Airline loyalty programs are usually step functions – after you fly some number of miles, you hit a threshold and then, boom, you move to a new status and get an extra bag of peanuts when you fly (given airline cutbacks, you may only get one extra peanut, not a whole pack). Step functions are not inherently good or bad, they are just the way some processes work. But if you don’t recognize and plan for them, they throw off the theory that incremental effort yields incremental reward.

The key to beating step functions is to use a little creativity and smooth them out. Want to jump into a second career in photography but don’t have $5,000 to spend on gear? Rent equipment for three months to see if you really have what it takes.  Need a master’s degree to shift careers, but can’t imagine quitting your job?  Start with night classes earning credits that can be applied to full-time study later. Want to start a business but don’t have six-figures saved up? Find a Mike Miller to partner with. One of the easiest ways to get unstuck is to figure out what step function has you trapped, and then figure out a way to eliminate that big, imposing chunk, or at least smooth it out a little.

Step functions are only one of several flow issues you’ll likely encounter as you try to make changes in your life. Others include erosion, choke points and mystery ingredients. These things can trap you the way hair in a drain traps water in your tub. All you need is the right plumber trick, and you can make your career, or your financial life, flow easier.  Here’s a brief explanation of each.

Choke Points

A choke point is the part of the system that breaks first and slows everything else down. Failing to identify a chokepoint can bring a gushing flow to an unexpected trickle. When you hit a choke point, the whole system can slow or even stop. It’s the equivalent of tripping a circuit breaker by plugging in one too many strands of Christmas tree lights.

A common cause of plateaus is not recognizing when and where choke points will occur. For example, insecure managers often hit a plateau because they make themselves a choke point; they micromanage, approve every tiny decision, and put other people on hold while they deliberate. Their part of the business is held back by their need to ponder, consider and digest. You know who they are: walking “blocking issues.”

Merely understanding choke points exist is often enough to unclog a drain. In your financial life, your choke point could be your credit card debt, which simply eats too much of your income for you to get ahead. Or it could be your boss, who thwarts every effort you make to get a raise or promotion. I don’t suggest using Drano to solve that problem, but it’s still a good metaphor to understand where your challenge lies.


Imagine an Easter egg hunt.  Think about when kids find the eggs. About 90% are discovered in the first few minutes. Then it takes an hour or two to find those last few eggs. Poor kids. They may not know it by name, but they are getting a harsh exposure to erosion plateaus.

No matter how hard they hunt, the same effort yields fewer eggs as time passes. The problem is that even though effort remains constant — kids hunt just as hard in the first 10 minutes as they do in the next 10 minutes — their reward for that effort decreases. Less eggs are found as time goes on. When we consume a resource that is fixed (or replenishes slower than the rate at which we consume it) erosion must occur.

Erosion plateaus tend to happen smoothly. There is no sudden drop in effectiveness or flow that often comes with a step function or choke point; effectiveness just gradually falls.

Good timing is the solution to erosion plateaus. A beachcomber looking for lost treasure in the sand on a popular beach is better off spending 30 minutes at dawn every day than spending eight hours on Monday morning.  This is also an example of another critical lesson from erosions – identifying the difference between replenishing and non-replenishing resources.

The simplest way to fight this problem in your financial life is to think about the time you put into tasks at work and the gain you get out of that time.  If you are working 10 or 20 hours overtime for free each week, you’ve got a problem. Your effectiveness is eroding, but more important, the value your work has to your bank account is eroding.  You’d be a lot better off taking on a part-time job, or starting a home business, with that extra time.

Mystery Ingredients

Why does your chicken noodle soup never taste like the one Mom used to make? Why does this diet plan work for everyone except me? It might be due to a factor I call “the mystery ingredient.” Failure to identify a mystery ingredient is another common cause of plateau. It’s why your raspberry pie never tastes quite as good as the one Grandma used to bake.

The defining characteristic of a mystery ingredient is that even the chef doesn’t know what it is. The mystery ingredient could be changing market conditions, interpersonal issues between co-workers, or just a team member with a can-do attitude. It’s the elusive catalyst that makes things work.

Plenty of companies find their results suffer when they lay off employees who didn’t seem productive. Why? Maybe that person was the glue that held a department together in ways that don’t fit into a spreadsheet. Maybe she was the only staffer who could smile even on rainy days.

Look around and pick one or two people in your life who seem to handle money and time better than you do. Be humble enough to ask that person a few questions someday, and listen closely to the answers. Get past clichés, and “I guess I’m just lucky” responses, and find out why this person seems to be on top of things. In future columns, we’ll discuss some of the “magic” components that seem to vault some folks forward while others seem stuck in mud. But remember, good teachers are all around you all the time. You just have to open your ears and eyes to the “mystery” they’ve solved.

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