Wildcards in the Economy


2014-12-28 – Economists say that 20 percent of all gifts are unwanted. I don’t know where I got that statistic. I vaguely remember reading something. But since there is really no way for an economist to know this, I am just going to leave it at 20 percent.

Presumably, part of this statistic is returns. The shopping centers in my area were visibly busier on the day after Christmas than the day before. Some of that, of course, were shoppers taking advantage of post-Christmas sales. But a large part of it was returns. We were part of the return crowd.

But not all unwanted gifts are returned. Unlike the rest of my family, I rarely return a gift I receive. The only two reasons I ever return a gift are: I already have the item or it doesn’t fit. I never return a gift because I don’t like it. In my experience, an unliked gift is an opportunity to try something new—a kind of wildcard for my life.

It might be a style of clothing I never would have worn. Or a book that I never would have read. Or a show I never would have seen. Or a sport I never would have played. Or a song I never would have heard.

The effect has been small, of course. Economists say that only 20 percent of gifts are unwanted. The rest are wanted.

Most of my larger wildcards in life have come from different directions.

Many years ago, I was laid off from my first law job. As I was leaving one of the partners in the firm suggested that I contract a particular organization that was doing community mediation. Only a few years before, when I was in law school, I deliberately passed up an opportunity to learn mediation. It wasn’t me. But this time, I reluctantly took the advice. That experience reshaped my views on the law and on politics forever.

Some years later an old girlfriend suggested that I take some improv classes. Then she dumped me. The improv experience was much more valuable to me than she ever was. I never would have even thought of doing improv on my own. It was another wildcard that paid off.

Years later again, when my first son was four, I had an opportunity to be a soccer coach. I never played the game. I didn’t even know what soccer was other than a game in which players moved a ball around with their feet! A woman a work told me that, if I got in while my son was four, that minimal knowledge was more than the kids had. So I took the plunge and wound up joining other parents in founding a children’s soccer league for the neighborhood.

Who would have thought?

What wildcards have I missed?

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