Your life contains many sets of scales, balancing many things. Very few of these scales will come out to be perfectly balanced in the great accounting at the end of your life. Be comfortable with that, because it’s virtually unavoidable. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to these “scales” lately.

Imagine a man dies in a great deal of debt to others. He’s borrowed a lot of money he hasn’t paid back, or he’s given I.O.U.’s for goods & services received that will now never be honored. Even if a part of him was genuine in his promises, he’s still overextended his credit (social or otherwise, formal or informal) and along that metric, has taken more from the world and his society than he’ll ever pay back. I don’t believe that every kindness has to be repaid (I certainly don’t think it’s valuable to try to “tally” your freely-given good deeds versus others’), but in the case of debts, repayment was expected, and so we might consider that a failing on the part of the man.

Now imagine a man on the other side of those scales. He lent freely and extended long credit terms on services he provided, even though he did track and expect repayment on those debts. When he shuffled off his mortal coil, he was owed a great deal from others. That means this man perished having done more for the world than the world did for him (at least along that metric). We might well consider this an admirable facet of the man’s existence.

You will never balance all of these scales completely. Your balance sheet will never be zero. The harms you visit on others, the harms visited on you, the kindnesses you offer, and the kindnesses you receive – these will never net out.

I’ve written before about the interaction between effort and luck, and how you can minimize luck’s impact on your life by maximizing your effort. It’s true, but lately I’ve been thinking about how so much of what we call “luck” is actually just other people’s effort.

For instance, I was incredibly lucky to have been born in the United States. As of this writing, it’s still hands-down, no-question the best possible place to be born in terms of opportunities and benefits enjoyed by those who were lucky enough to have done so (as it was when I was born, as well). I say “lucky” because it was outside of my control – I obviously didn’t pick where I was born. But just because it was outside of my control doesn’t mean it was outside of anyone’s control. My great-grandfather made the active decision to come here, and along with a few other people did their future descendant the great favor of allowing him to come into existence in some of the most fortunate circumstances imaginable.

Their effort, my luck.

Their scales might not balance. If you consider the far-reaching impact of their actions, my grandparents probably visited more kindness on others (present and future) than they ever received themselves. Even if you consider their immediate, selfish reasons for coming to the US and the success of that endeavor, it can’t compare to the benefit their later descendants would gain from their acts.

You can do that. You can’t balance your own scales; if you try, you’ll actually end up with far less benefit than if you didn’t try at all and just focused on the good stuff. Instead of worrying about being repaid for every kindness or repaying every harm, just focus on being kind and avoiding being unnecessarily harmed. That means that you’ll inevitably “lose” some of the benefit of your effort – but I’d rather get paid for 80% of a million dollar’s worth of work than get paid for 100% of a thousand dollar’s worth, you know? And a lot of the benefit of your hard work that you don’t capture can instead be captured by people you care deeply about – or would, if you came to know them decades hence. The investments you make now, the work you do today, can be the great fortune of your children’s children’s children.

Your effort, their luck.

Don’t repay harms; work to ensure others never suffer them. Don’t count kindnesses; commit them in great volume at every opportunity. Don’t repay honor with honor; be honorable even in darkness.

If “luck” is just how we define the things outside of your control, then don’t worry about your own. Instead, maximize your effort, and let someone else inherit their great luck from you. You may never meet them, but they’re thankful to you all the same.

Have a wonderful year, everyone.

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As much as possible, I like to distance myself from want. I prefer to need nothing – or failing that, as little as possible.

When you want something, you trade a piece of yourself away. You give the universe power over you. You yield control over your actions, or at least some influence over them, to something outside of your mind.

Even if you agree with me about this virtue, you’ll never be completely free of outside needs and wants. But moving the needle towards zero is a worthwhile goal. The less you need, the more room you have in your life to be a producer of value instead of just a consumer of it.

And the more frequently you find yourself in situations where you’re the commodity instead of needing a commodity from others, the more freedom you can buy with your life. That’s the only real exchange rate you have – how much of your life you want to let others dictate instead of you.

Try to keep it to a minimum.

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With Friends Like These

I’m inherently really skeptical of anyone who agrees with me a lot, especially if they agree loudly.

It’s not because I think they’re being disingenuous – I think this even if the person isn’t communicating with me directly. But if I hear someone talking about stuff I like and agree with, my eyes narrow.

I don’t want to agree with anyone 100%. I think that’s a recipe for disaster. I want to listen to people who make me uncomfortable, and I want to make others uncomfortable when they listen to me. That’s how we learn stuff.

More than that though, is that there’s a danger from agreeing with someone who you don’t know well. If I find someone on Twitter who says a few things that I agree with, I’m tempted to give them a signal boost, maybe a retweet with a “this guy knows what’s up!” attached. And as soon as I do, they’ll then say something new about how the moon lizards did 9/11 or something and now great, I’m associated with that guy.

That’s also why I won’t generally use political labels. I’m fine with talking about my views on a particular policy if asked directly (and under the right conditions), but I won’t give myself any sort of political identity label if asked. Not only do I prefer not to give people reasons to make incorrect assumptions about me, but I also don’t want to suddenly be attached to any crazy views adopted by whoever else chooses to adopt that same label – it’s not as if I can control them, after all.

I like my independence, both in action and in thought. So I try to keep a healthy distance. You should, too.

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For several years I worked with amputees. I got to closely interact with people that had lost limbs due to traumatic injuries, chronic illness, or violent conflict. I met them at all stages of their journey – some were still in the hospital, less than 24 hours after they and their limb had parted ways forever, others were years past their amputation. Some were missing more than one limb; I spent a day with an incredible young man who was missing both arms, above the elbow, and both legs, above the knee.

One thing I learned was that there was absolutely no “standard” path for anyone who has suffered this kind of loss. Some of these people were para-Olympians winning gold medals in the 200-meter dash with two prosthetic legs, while others were never able to even hold a job again. There was a wide spectrum of what the post-amputation lives could look like, and wild variation in how people chose to adapt.

While I don’t believe in defining anyone else’s success for them, there were definitely people who fared better in their changed lives. Among the people who I would consider to be great stories of post-trauma success were incredible athletes, motivational speakers, brilliant artists and musicians, business leaders. People who did tremendous things in spite of their disadvantage.

Among that crowd, though, I noticed an interesting trend when it came to how other people interacted with the amputees. People were encouraging, supportive, even awe-struck when engaging with them, but there was never an unreasonable expectation that they’d literally be able to do 100% of what they could do before the loss of the limb, especially in the case of an arm or hand. And no one was insulted by this or anything. In fact, it was a common topic of conversation: “How have you altered the structure of your life to build pathways around the things you can’t do anymore?”

For instance, one person told me that he only bought certain kinds of belt/pants combinations in specific styles so he could dress himself with one hand. It meant he still could dress himself with one hand, but he had to change something about his life for that to be possible. Minor things like that were common – changes to kitchen/bathroom setups, modifications to cars, and so on. (In fact, my father did this – he lost all the toes on one foot to diabetes, and afterwards he custom-made a metal insert for his boot so he could still shift gears on his motorcycle, which had a toe shifter.)

You know what you never heard? You never heard someone say about one of these amazing, independent amputees: “Oh, it’s such a shame they never recovered from their amputation.”

You would never hear that because it would be a ridiculous thing to say, or even think. What does “recover” mean to an amputee? For most that I ever met, “recovery” meant a successful life, but it didn’t mean returning to exactly the life you had before, because that would be impossible. You can get close, you can be independent, and with modifications to your life you can live it closely to how you did before. But your limb is never coming back, and that means your life has changed. No one saw that as bad – just different.

We do not treat people with emotional trauma the same way.

We treat emotional trauma as binary. You’re either still in some way different than how you were before the trauma, and thus not yet “recovered,” or you’re completely back to how you were, and thus you are. We have absolutely no room in our collective mental model for an emotional amputee.

Some pain isn’t temporary. Some injuries don’t heal.

Consider the following two statements:

“I was out with Bob the other day, and honestly I’m pretty frustrated with him. I wanted to go to that coffee shop on Fifth Street, but when I pulled into the parking lot, Bob objected. He said that’s where Mary broke up with him and he can’t go inside. Can’t! I told him, ‘jeez Bob, it’s been three years since she left you – can’t you just get over it already?’ I mean, come on.”

“I was out with Bob the other day, and honestly I’m pretty frustrated with him. I wanted to go to that coffee shop on Fifth Street, but when I pulled into the parking lot, Bob objected. He said that the stairs are really steep and he can’t manage them with his artificial legs. Can’t! I told him, ‘jeez Bob, it’s been three years since the accident – can’t you just get over it already?’ I mean, come on.”

I don’t want to make assumptions about how you felt reading both of those paragraphs, but I’ll go ahead and tell you that in my experience, the first one seems like a reasonable position to a lot of people, while the second one obviously makes you a huge jerk and almost no one would argue that point.

I worked with enough amputees to know that some do let it hit them too hard, and need a bit of firm love from their support network to get their lives started again. But no one expects them to create a perfect duplication of their pre-amputation life. And it would be totally unreasonable to get mad at an amputee for being unable to do something specific that they were capable of before. In many cases, it’s just more realistic to restructure your life so you don’t do that thing any more. If that means that you change your regular coffee shop to the one with no stairs, so be it.

Of course, as people, we generally have very different views of what “can’t” means when it comes to physical versus mental/emotional tasks. We accept the impossibility of physical tasks when they appear impossible – oh, you can’t get up these stairs because you’re in a wheelchair, that’s perfectly fine, let’s eat somewhere else. But when it comes to mental or emotional tasks, especially those done by others, we think of everything as simply a matter of “trying hard enough” or some such bull – oh, you can’t go into this bar because the cover band is playing your murdered sister’s favorite song, well just ignore it and come have a beer, you’ll get over it.

We should stop seeing people as “not recovered” from emotional trauma just because they’re different than they were before it. If they’re living a life within the standard deviation of success and independence for their circumstances, then that might well be what recovery looks like. A changed life.

If you love someone who lost a limb, you aren’t supporting them by waiting around for their arm to grow back. You aren’t supporting them by getting frustrated at their inability to play piano like they used to. Even if you don’t get frustrated, you’re not supporting them by saying, “It’s okay, I’ll be patient with you, and eventually you’ll play the piano again.” Like… they really might not. That doesn’t mean they can’t live, it doesn’t even mean they can’t play music of some kind, but it might just not look like what it did before. If you’re supporting them well, you’re saying: “I’m here for you, in this life, and what this life looks like. I want to be a part of it, even if that part has changed.”

Change happens all the time, usually gradually. Trauma is just a word for a whole lot of change all at once, a sudden burst of change that maybe you didn’t entirely want. You can’t stay the same no matter what. “A man never steps in the same river twice; it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” So don’t expect it of others.

Amputees often have phantom pains; pains that seem to come from the limb that’s no longer there. It’s rough, because there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it – if you feel like your hand is burning but you don’t have that hand, you can’t exactly put ice on it. It’s just one of the things you have to deal with.

You can have emotional trauma so severe that it’s like an amputation. A lost part of you. You don’t have to let it kill you, but you might not ever be able to regrow what you lost. Instead, you build a new life around your new capabilities, and you live that version of your life to the best of your ability. And sometimes you’ll have phantom pains, emotional responses that seem to come from what you don’t have any more. Like phantom limb pain, there won’t be a fix – it’ll just be something you have to deal with.

My goal in writing all this is to give you an extra tool to help those you care about. Chances are good that someone you know and love has dealt with something like I’ve described, and you were scared and unsure how to help. This might help. Don’t try to make them live in a world other than their own; just join them there.

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Safety Dance

You need to build up your tolerance to danger.

This is partially a parenting thing, but I think this advice applies to a whole heck of a lot of adults, too. You need to be unsafe. A lot. It’s good to have certain places and times of the day when you’re secure; it’s definitely a good thing to have a roof over your head and a door with a lock and a solid eight hours where you’re not on alert for predators of all kinds so you can get sleep.

But you shouldn’t stay there. If you have a safe place, a comfort zone, a secure location – leave it. Frequently and at great length.

This can manifest in a lot of different ways. When you’re young, it means using knives and building fires and climbing things. When you’re older, it means taking a lot of risks of all kinds. But you have to do it.

You are not, and never will be, 100% safe. You’re probably safer than most humans in history, but emergencies happen. And not only do you need to know how to deal with them, but you need to be the kind of person who can.

Why? Because there are few qualities that will serve you better in life than “calm under pressure.” Put yourself in danger, not just so you can learn to deal with that particular kind of danger in the future, but so you can calibrate your innate panic response to low and manageable levels.

There’s no ideal level of risk tolerance – it differs from person to person, and that’s okay. But no matter what your personal level is, you should operate about 10% outside of it on a regular basis.

There’s another element to training yourself out of reliance on safety, and it’s just as important as teaching yourself to be calm under pressure. It’s also an important element of your independence. An over-reliance on safety almost always entails a lack of decision-making power over your own life. If you’re afraid of being unemployed, then you’ll make bad choices to keep a job – even a bad job. You’ll sacrifice things you don’t want to sacrifice, behave in ways you wish you didn’t, all because of fear.

But if you train yourself not to be afraid of things, to feel confident in a crisis, then you’ll make the best choices for yourself. You’ll move when it’s time to move.

Go do something dangerous.

Let's get dangerous.
Let’s get dangerous.

Take Your Turn

Chess has a lot of moves. There are a lot of possible options on a chess board mid-way through a good game. You can pick one of a myriad of courses, but an interesting note: you can’t pass. You can’t choose to just skip and not move a piece. I’m sure there are plenty of times where it would be strategically advantageous for you to do so, but you can’t.

That’s a good foundation for understanding decisions. Ultimately you have a finite time span in which to make and act upon any and all decisions. At a certain point life or other people will make a choice for you. (That’s why I advocate controlling your default, at least.)

There are a shockingly small number of situations where inaction is not worse than any action at all. In 99% of situations where you don’t know what to do, picking any option out of a hat and committing to it would be better than doing nothing.

I want to clarify that I’m not advocating acting rashly or irresponsibly, nor am I saying that patience isn’t a virtue. It absolutely is. But there’s a world of difference between patience and inaction.

For instance: you’ve applied to a job, interviewed well, and sent a great follow-up email. Then you hear nothing back, and the allure is strong for you to send another email the next day. That’s probably the wrong decision, but while I advocate not sending the email, I absolutely don’t advocate doing nothing.

Inaction would be doing nothing and just saying “wait and see.” Intelligence patience is taking other actions – applying to new jobs, putting together a project so you have something to actually offer in a follow-up email to the first one, or practicing your interview skills to close those deals even better next time. There’s a whole host of things you can be doing while you’re being patient.

While I said I didn’t advocate sending another pesky email, you know what? I absolutely think it would be better than doing nothing. If you’re seriously just sitting around waiting for a “yes” or “no” from one other company – send the email. They’ll send you an official rejection, you won’t get the job, but that means you’ll be pushed to once again get the ball rolling on something, which is infinitely better than sitting around waiting for life to happen to you.

Take your turn already.

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Feed The Horses Every Day

When I was 19 years old, I lived in a stable. That’s a true thing! In eleven stalls of this 12-stall stable there were horses; the 12th stall had shoddy plywood walls and the bare elements to convert it into a sort of apartment. It didn’t have a bathroom in it, but there was one at the far end of the stable that I could use. In addition to living there, I also worked there as a stable hand – one was the reason for the other, in fact. For 19-year-old me it was a sweet deal. I worked from 6 AM to 10 AM taking care of the horses and cleaning the stables, and then the rest of the day was mine. In exchange for this, I received a very minor living stipend, but paid no rent or utilities. A place of my own and a small income just for taking care of some horses for a few hours every day? It was fantastic.

It didn’t interfere with anything else I wanted to do. I was free to work other jobs and pursue other interests at my discretion – as long as I fed the horses every day.

Now, I’ve said it before plenty of times, and I’ll say it again – 19-year-old me wasn’t super bright. I made plenty of mistakes. And I’ve also mentioned that I was kind of a “city-slicker;” a pejorative moniker that I wanted to be rid of, which was at least part of my reason for taking the stable hand job. I say this only as background so that you kind of understand how this next mistake came to be.

Christmas Eve, I’d driven back to my parent’s house – not far from the stable, but maybe an hour or so out of the rural area and into the suburbs. That night I’d stayed over, in order to have a pleasant Christmas morning with my parents and sister, as had been our tradition my entire life.

Which prompted a call from my boss/landlady, who was (understandably in retrospect) quite upset at my absence. I had, in my teenage ignorance, simply assumed that as an employee I’d be off work for Christmas. I worked every other day – holidays, weekends, etc. But Christmas seemed so fundamental, that one day when everything is closed, that I just went home without even thinking about it. In fact, I was actually flabbergasted – offended, even! – that she’d be calling me. I said, “What do you mean, ‘where am I?’ It’s Christmas.”

She said: “You still have to feed the horses every day. They don’t know it’s Christmas.”

Now, that landlady was a miserable and wretched person for a whole host of reasons, I would later discover (not the first of which was that she lived in a farmhouse directly next to the stable and could have just fed the horses herself for one stinkin’ day, but I digress), but she wasn’t wrong then – I was.

There are days that will mark themselves as extraordinary; days which weigh heavier in the balance of your soul than others. Maybe Christmas, maybe a different holiday. Maybe a particular anniversary or your own birthday or someone else’s. These days may carry more significance to you, and it can be good to honor them with the spirit of their passing, whatever that may be.

But don’t let them become excuses for losing sight of who you work every ordinary day to become. You have a responsibility to your future self, commitments you’ve made to the person you want to become. You’ve committed to reach certain goals, whether they’re financial, spiritual, health or personal. Don’t forget those goals, even in the big moments.

I was tempted to just write a quick “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal” for today’s post. It’s Christmas, after all – who’d blame me? But while I don’t mind short posts, my commitment is to try to write something that will make you think every day. So even though it’s Christmas, and even though I did all the things I wanted to on this day, I’m still here. Feeding the horses, every day.

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