Resources

Imagine you’re a cave man. You kill some animal and you want to eat it. Every calorie is a precious treasure in this environment; you’re eternally on the very brink of starvation. And yet instead of gorging yourself on your kill, you share it with little teeny tiny versions of yourself, despite the fact that they can’t help you with anything.

In one sense, you do it out of love, or maybe a biological imperative depending on your relative level of cynicism. But you also do it because it’s an investment – eventually if you keep feeding those little ones they’ll become big ones, strong and fast enough to hunt with you, and get even more food. Three people hunting together can bring in much more than three times the amount of food that one person alone can, so there are some very nice dividends here.

Humans create resources. We have amazing powers to transform our environment, turning raw matter into things useful to us. Sharing resources sometimes seems scary – “what if there isn’t enough for everyone?” – but ultimately resources invested in others pay huge dividends back to you, and to society.

The greatest breakthrough, then, came when we developed resources that you could give away but still keep. Knowledge, language, communication, music, encouragement – all these things provide real and tangible benefit to others, but take nothing away from you. As Thomas Jefferson said: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

It’s possible that you could give someone a car, and as a result of that car they’re able to get a better job than they otherwise would, which lets them invest more money into their own development, which lets them command an even greater income in the future, and eventually this person is far wealthier than they would otherwise have been and they pay you back many times the value of the initial car in one way or another. But even if that were the guaranteed outcome, a car is a tangible resource that costs you money – unless you have a bunch of cars just laying around to give to people, it might not be feasible that you can do that.

But giving away knowledge – not only can that pay even higher dividends to you, but the cost of doing so is damned near to zero. (“Near to,” since of course time is still a resource to consider – but with modern technology, in the time it took Thomas Jefferson to send that particular piece of wisdom to Isaac McPherson, you could deliver the same quote to millions of people!)

So invest in the world. If you have knowledge, share it. If you can encourage someone, do so. If someone else can light their taper at yours, be honored – for you illuminate the world.

Boxes

We spend a strangely large percentage of our lives building boxes around ourselves. These boxes limit us, and don’t seem to add any particular value to our lives.

Your career path is one such box. Can you name every industry on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ page? You probably could barely name a half a dozen of them off the top of your head, and there are hundreds of them. And that’s just categories! Really broad categories, within which are thousands upon thousands of different jobs. Even the same “job” could be wildly different in two different companies, in practice.

But most people really quickly put themselves into a tiny box of what they “do.” Society seems to encourage this to some degree – if your last job was as a welder and you decide you want to try copy writing, you get some strange looks.

There’s a certain age where you’re encouraged to try new things, but then there’s definitely an age – in my experience between 25 and 30, but your mileage may vary – where you’re supposed to stop trying new things, except maybe as hobbies.

People categorize everything. Sometimes it’s useful shorthand – if you mostly haven’t enjoyed seafood, romantic comedies, or prog rock then those might be useful categories for you. But we too often take what is useful shorthand and make it iron-clad law. It’s good to break out now and then. Try the shrimp, watch a Meg Ryan movie, listen to Dream Theater. And the next time you’re looking for a new way to trade value with the world, look outside the box.

The Strange Ones

I love people with weird ideas. Ideas about politics, religion, philosophy, personal relationships – any of it. I like people who deviate from the norm. In my experience, the more a person’s view on a topic is outside the Overton window, the better the conversation will be.

I think it’s because people who have strange opinions generally know it, and so they’re generally prepared to defend their decisions with actual reasons. They’re also more willing to hear other strange viewpoints.

When someone’s viewpoint is well within the societal mean on that topic, there’s a strong possibility that they’ve never given it serious thought. It’s the “default” for them, just the way things are. But they’ve lived so long in that mental bubble that they can’t fathom a different viewpoint, even though they might have no real rational reason to hold that view.

People who have changed their minds have more interesting minds.

Action Goals

The difference between long-term goals and short-term goals is that long-term goals are essentially wishes by themselves. Very few long-term goals can be acted upon by themselves. “I want to be rich.” Okay, but that’s just a hope or dream, it’s not an actionable thing. “I want to be thin,” or “I want to be married,” etc.

Those are directional, and I’m not saying it’s not good to have direction. But you can’t leave it there. You have to break your long-term goals down. The smaller the unit you can break them down into, the better.

“I want to lose weight.” Okay, break that down. How much weight? By when? What will it take – what do you have to do every day, every hour, to get there?

Too Big: “I want to lose weight.”

Smaller, But Not Small Enough: “I want to lose 3o pounds this year.”

Getting Better: “So I want to lose 2.5 pounds per month.”

Even Better Still: “So I want to lose about a quarter of a pound every three days.”

Okay, now we’re onto something. Losing a quarter of a pound doesn’t sound hard at all, does it? You can probably lose a quarter of a pound by going for a walk around the block each day and not drinking soda with lunch for three days.

So even better still: “I will walk around the block each day and I’ll cut out soda. I’ll measure my progress every two weeks and look for at least a pound of loss.” Now that’s an actionable goal! That’s an actual thing you can do, every day, and commit to. And it’s not super hard at all! If you just focus on this really easy thing, you don’t even have to pay attention to the big, daunting goal at all.

Measure your progress. Maybe you’ll need to change, maybe you’ll need to adjust. Maybe it’ll work better than you thought! (Note: I’m no diet guru. This is just an example.) But you now have actionable steps you can take, instead of just wishes.

This method works for pretty much anything you want to do. Break your long-term plans into your action steps, and you not only make real progress, but you don’t make yourself intimidated by a lofty goal. Losing a quarter of a pound is easier than losing 30, writing a page (or a blog post) is easier than writing a book, and working an hour of overtime is easier than coming up with thirty grand for the new car you want.

Baby steps to a better world.

Effort and Luck

All results you experience from things you attempt will come from some combination of factors inside and outside your control. For sake of shorthand, we’ll call the factors inside your control “effort” and we’ll call the factors outside your control “luck.” So everything that you experience, you experience due to some combination of Effort x Luck.

By our definition, you can’t control Luck. So you want to minimize its impact. You can’t eliminate it entirely, but you can mitigate its effects. To see how, imagine I told you that you had to make delicious rice pudding, but with one caveat: You have to use a full cup of mustard in the recipe. You’re not allowed to use any less than a full cup.

Sounds gross. If you can’t take out any mustard, how are you supposed to make delicious rice pudding? Well, if you try to make only a normal amount of rice pudding, you probably can’t. But you could make 20x the amount of rice pudding, and by that point the one cup of mustard would be so diluted that you probably couldn’t even taste it. Or maybe it would take 50x. Or 100x. But there is some amount you could make to where the mustard would be inconsequential.

That’s how Effort and Luck work. Luck – defined as factors outside your control – will remain fairly constant throughout your life. But Effort is, by definition, up to you. You can’t change Luck, but you can put so much Effort in that the effects of Luck are barely noticeable.

That means putting in the kind of Effort that limits your vulnerability to luck. You can’t control if it rains or not – that’s Luck. But you can read weather reports, carry umbrellas, and give yourself extra time in case traffic is bad – that’s Effort.

Sometimes you’ll fail and it will be because of a random occurrence, something outside of your control, Bad Luck. But if you accept that excuse to yourself, you’ll learn nothing and leave yourself vulnerable. Luck is constant – if a random occurrence knocked you out before, it will again. Instead of saying “Oh well, can’t be helped,” figure out how it can be. Remember, it’s better to succeed than to be blameless in your failures. Don’t worry about fault. It’s just you and me talking, and we’re here to help each other. I won’t judge you, and I know you won’t judge me. So let’s own our failures, even the ones due to chance, and beat it next time.

The Second-Best Time

One of my favorite pieces of wisdom comes from an unlikely place – the garden center at The Home Depot. Specifically, a sign above the shade trees:

“The best time to plant a shade tree was ten years ago. The second-best time is now.”

I absolutely love that. It’s a good reminder that even if you wish you’d done things differently or started something sooner, there’s no time like the present. Maybe you’d be farther along if you’d chosen to start learning some skill or another when you were younger – but you didn’t know then, and you know now. Get started.

Experience is Exponential

The plants you choose to water are the ones that will grow. Soon they’ll expand well beyond your initial investment and the pattern of their growth will be wild and exciting and unpredictable.

That analogy holds true for pretty much anything you focus on in your life. If you value knowledge and you invest in it, the knowledge you gain will take on a life of its own and grow beyond your original investment. You’ll have more to talk about, so you’ll talk to more people, and more interesting people, and you’ll in turn learn more and more. Those pathways will open and the branches will grow.

If you value stuff, you’ll be buried in it. If you value experiences, you’ll have more and more. If you value money, it’ll gather size and speed like a snowball rolling downhill. If you value family, your family will grow and grow and grow.

For a long time, if you stop watering a plant it will die. But there does eventually come a time when the plant has grown so large it doesn’t need you directly anymore. The tree has gone from depending on you to providing you shade as you sit and enjoy it.

It’s worth taking the time to really think about what you want growing in your garden. If you water the tree of violence and conflict, that’s what will grow. If you water the tree of knowledge and experience, that’s probably better. Pull the weeds when you see them.