Perspective

There are no perfect solutions. Just solutions that maximize your personal values.

But everyone has different values, and that’s okay. In fact, sometimes the best clarity you can get on a problem is from someone who doesn’t care about the same solution as you.

Why? Because people who care about the same destination as you are looking at the problem from similar angles. If you’re stuck trying to get a project done and you value speed and efficiency, you might get a better perspective from someone who values taking their time, because that’s a different angle from which to view your problem.

Don’t always seek advice from people like you. Change it up!

Obviously

Have you ever done one of those “Escape Rooms?” I love them. They’re super fun. I love a challenging mental puzzle and those combine that with great entertainment, immersion, and total isolation from anything outside them, which are all aspects I enjoy. I love them enough that I geeked out about their creation for a little bit and ended up doing a bunch of research on how they’re designed.

It turns out that they’re really difficult and complex to design, but not for the reason you might guess. It turns out that the most common mistake is to make them way, way too hard.

This makes sense when you hear why. When people are designing any sort of puzzle, the natural thing that happens is the creator looks at the project and thinks “this is so easy a child could do it. Look how obvious the answer is. I’ve got to make it way harder – add in more red herrings, hide the solution better, put in more obstacles, etc.” So they do, and then it’s impossible to solve.

Why did the creator think it was too easy, then? Because everything is obvious in hindsight. All puzzles look simple when you already know the solution.

The creator knew the solution to the puzzle, so the puzzle looked easy. But making something difficult enough that it looks difficult even to the person with the answers means making it so challenging that regular people won’t ever get past the first step.

Despite this being untrue in the extreme, people have a natural tendency to equate something being difficult with that thing being valuable. This leads people down all sorts of incorrect assumptions about what jobs “should” be worth money and which “shouldn’t.”

I get why people do it. People value honest effort. They want life to be fair. In the minds of many, the person who ends the day the sweatiest should be paid the most, because they’re “working harder” than the guy in the 3-piece suit and the corner office. But guess what – value isn’t about how hard it is for you to do something. It’s about how much benefit it gives to the other person.

I’m going to tell you a strange but true cautionary tale. This is the story of a graphic artist I knew. He had always wanted to be a graphic artist – designing logos, websites, marketing materials, stuff like that. He loved it. So he worked tirelessly at it to get better, taking jobs for way less money than they were worth, because he wanted to improve his portfolio and skill set. He kept saying he’d eventually charge more, but right now he didn’t feel like he was enough of an expert to justify it. I told him he was crazy, but it was his business.

Years passed and lo and behold, the dude actually became absolutely amazing. His skills were honestly unparalleled. He was not only an amazing designer, but he knew every tool, every piece of software, every technical skill that was complimentary to his design. And do you know what happened when the people in his network, family and friends and friends-of-friends, came to him with work?

He did it for free.

I was gobsmacked. Why wasn’t he charging? Do you know what his excuse was now?

“I don’t feel right about charging them, because it’s so easy for me to do. If anyone brought me a challenge, something that was difficult, I’d charge them of course – but I don’t feel right charging a thousand bucks for something it takes me 20 minutes to do.”

I nearly strangled him. One of the best graphic artists I’ve ever seen and he was working in a bank to pay the bills.

Nothing was ever going to be a challenge for him because he’d spent all his time and effort becoming a master – and he didn’t charge when he wasn’t because he wasn’t. In his mind, the only things it was “right” to charge for were things where you gained no benefit personally (so he couldn’t charge while he was learning) and were also difficult to do (so he couldn’t charge when he wasn’t). See the problem?

He still works in a bank. Don’t be him.

If something is obvious to you, then you might instinctively devalue it. You might think that it would be wrong to offer it to the world in exchange for money, because it isn’t that hard for you. Just like the puzzle-maker, you think that because you see the solution immediately that it must not be that difficult for anyone else.

But someone out there desperately needs that solution and can’t find it on their own. They need you, but you don’t think you’re valuable.

Each thing that comes easily to you – think to yourself, “Who doesn’t find this easy?” That’s the person you need to help. That’s your client base.

Obviously.

Image result for drawing a maze

Influence

I was having a conversation with someone today, and they mentioned a really interesting question – what four albums were your biggest influence in high school?

That’s a neat question for a few reasons. First, four is a more interesting number than five in this context; having to pare the number down is more challenging. But more importantly, the question isn’t what albums you thought were good, or even what albums you like now. It’s about what influenced you.

I have five tattoos (as of this writing; I have plans for more); all of them are book quotes. They’re specifically from books that were hugely influential in my development. They aren’t all from books that I would even recommend to someone today (though one remains my favorite), but all of them had a dramatic impact on me as a young man. Whether because I embraced them or rejected their ideas, whether because I found shared solace in other readers or protection from a callous world in their pages (as so many young men do), these books changed me. The tattoos are a mark of that.

That’s why I’m comfortable with them as tattoos. Even if I eventually grow to hate every single one of those books, they will still always have been the books that helped shape me. Since that will always have been true, a permanent mark is appropriate.

So how about those albums? What would be my four?

Dookie, Green Day. Honestly my first real exposure to modern, popular music. Everything else I liked before that was from my parents’ generation (and their influence); this was the first album I ever bought that was actually targeted at me. I wore out multiple copies of this CD with my friends, and it was the soundtrack to a lot of my best memories of that time.

Bad Hair Day, Weird Al Yankovic. A long-standing nerd icon, Weird Al was a major Darmok for “my people.” This was the album that introduced me (and probably many others) to his genius.

The Wall, Pink Floyd. Still one of my favorite albums of all time, this album was shown to me by the coolest person I’d ever met (besides my dad), and I think I’ll forever associate this music with aspirational coolness.

Flood, They Might Be Giants. TMBG are absolute geniuses, and every… single… song on this album contained elements of that brilliance. I listened to this album a million times and shared it with everyone I could. I sing songs from this album as lullabies to my kids. I know the whole thing by heart.

Those albums range from things I think are fantastic even today, to stuff I don’t even listen to any more. But I can see where one thing led to another thing, how each new passion grew from an older one. Whether it’s what entertains us or inspires us, threatens us or propels us forward, it’s worthwhile to do a little personal archaeology and uncover the building blocks we stood on to become who we are.

Image result for pink floyd the wall hammer

How To Get Paid For What You Do For Free

It can sometimes be an excellent idea to work for free. But you should never work for nothing.

What’s the difference? Well, “free” generally just means “not for money.” But there are tons and tons of valuable things you can get in exchange for your efforts that aren’t money.

One of the first rules you should adhere to is this: When working for free, you set the terms. Don’t let someone tell you that designing their website for them pro bono would be “an honor” or “great exposure.” There are plenty of great reasons to work for free, but unless you’re specifically doing it as charity for someone who needs it, you should be aiming to get something for your free work.

What are some of the things you can get in exchange?

  1. Barter. Sometimes you have a service you can provide, and the person or organization who wants that service has something you need directly. Instead of charging each other your standard rates, you can each get a little discount by trading.
  2. A head start. If you’re trying to compete with others for a permanent role, especially early in your career (or early in a new vocation) where you don’t have a large established body of work, it can really put you at the front of the pack to provide a sample of what you can do. Exchanging a little free work for the best shot at a great gig can be an awesome trade.
  3. Reputation/”street cred.” Even later in your career, you can get a lot of benefit out of doing free work by making sure you’re getting the proper accolades. Letters of recommendation, great reviews, even official titles can all open new doors. Make sure you’re actually getting all of that!
  4. Connections. Doing free work as a way of getting face time with people that can make a big difference in your life can be the sort of exchange that pays huge dividends. If a person or organization is really a big deal in the sphere you want to work in, it can absolutely be worth it.
  5. Experience. The classic “I can’t get this job without experience, but I can’t get the experience without a job” is totally untrue. There are TONS of ways to get experience without having a job first. This is one of those ways. I’ve met people who have been echoing that same lament for 2 years, but balk at the idea of doing a month’s worth of work for free to get their foot in the door.

There’s a ton of stuff you can get for your work that isn’t money – at least, isn’t money directly. All of those things are steps on the road to greater income from your work. There are intangible things too, like just satisfaction or enjoyment, but those are their own rewards. If you like painting fences for the sake of it, then you don’t need my advice.

Be careful when doing free work, though. First, like I said, make sure you’re setting the terms. Going out an volunteering your work for free is actually one of the best ways to avoid being taken advantage of; if someone seeks you out, they might just be trying to get one over on you – and if you’re good enough for them to seek you, you’re also good enough for them to pay you. But if you’re hitting the proverbial pavement actively looking to give your work away in exchange for one of those things above, you’re more likely to find a great opportunity. People love moxie.

Don’t ever let anyone – including you! – treat your work as less valuable just because you aren’t charging money for it. Respect the contract no matter what the terms are. If someone promises you a title, or a service, or anything else – collect on that as surely as if you were chasing a dollar.

One last thing – if you really want to gain the maximum benefit of doing free work, you have to really lean into it. You can’t do it begrudgingly. You have to be eager to provide value, show off the confidence in what you can offer, and demonstrate that you aren’t being pushed around – you’re setting the terms. It can be a difficult hill to defend sometimes, but the people that do it well get a huge advantage from it.

Image result for tom sawyer fence

Urgency

How can you tell if something is important?

It’s not as easy as it may seem. I’ve met plenty of people that either think everything is important or nothing is. Have you ever had that co-worker that marks every email “urgent?” Or known that friend that gets a call from a family member in the hospital and lets it go to voice mail?

I’ve had both. Lots of people just aren’t great at prioritizing.

Many of us aren’t quite so extreme, but think we’re doing a good job deciding what’s important on a day-to-day basis while actually still getting pulled into the weeds. Emails come in, phone calls, people knocking on your door. Meanwhile you have projects, priorities, things on your to-do list. And that’s just your responsibilities! What about your ambitions, your goals, the things you do to improve yourself and move beyond just treading water? How do you figure out which of those things need to happen, and in what order?

There’s a pretty simple method that I really love – though don’t confuse “simple” with “easy,” by any stretch. It’s called the Eisenhower Method, because ol’ Ike had a pretty efficient time management system (though he didn’t claim to actually invent this one, it’s just inspired by him). It basically divides all possible tasks into one of 4 categories, based on where that task falls in relation to two binary descriptors. Any given task is either time-sensitive or it isn’t (Urgent/Not Urgent), and it either has big consequences or it doesn’t (Important/Unimportant). That gives us four possible combinations, arranged like this:

Image result for blank eisenhower matrix"

That means for any task that comes in, you just have to ask two questions, and then you can put that task in the appropriate box. After that, you can have pre-set ways you treat each box.

The first question is, “Is this time-sensitive?” The definition of that term can be different for different people – different things are time-sensitive for a surgeon than for an accountant. But whatever time means to you, you should define “sensitive” in terms of regular intervals, and update your matrix at those intervals. For instance, you could update your matrix once a day, each morning when you get to work. In that case, a task whose outcome won’t change whether you do it today or tomorrow isn’t time-sensitive according to the scale you’ve set. Note that just because it isn’t time-sensitive doesn’t mean it isn’t important! But it’s a good idea to separate the two, and you’ll see why.

The next question is whether or not the task has big consequences. Again, you have to define this, but there are plenty of solid ways to do so. One way is simply a monetary question – how much money do you stand to make or lose based on this task? Anything above a certain threshold gets marked “important.” But there are plenty of other measurements – just be honest with yourself. How many other people get screwed if I don’t do this thing? How many days do we lose? How much cookie dough gets wasted? Whatever threshold you pick, be honest about it.

Okay, now based on the answers to those questions, you have a box for each task. Lots of people just default to putting everything in that top left box, but if everything is critical then nothing is, and you’ve done nothing to prioritize your day. Meanwhile, if tasks are actually in their proper boxes, you can do what you need to:

  • Important & Urgent: Do first.
  • Important & Not Urgent: Do next. Each [time increment], move things to first box.
  • Unimportant & Urgent: KILL IT WITH FIRE (or delegate, you know).
  • Unimportant & Not Urgent: Give to other people to train on.

See the trick? The trick is to just not do the stuff in the bottom two boxes. This whole matrix is just a way to help you clarify what belongs there.

The things that are “unimportant but urgent” are the things you should avoid doing as much as possible. Delegate, outsource, automate. Turn your phone off, or close your email tab for a few hours. Install a chat bot, hire an assistant. Whatever the solution is, find it – because that quadrant will kill you otherwise.

The things that are neither urgent nor important are dead weight. If they don’t matter, don’t put the same resources towards them as you to towards the things that do. That doesn’t mean they’re completely useless – they’re great training fodder. If you want to duplicate yourself, that’s a great bank of tasks to give someone to train on, because the stakes are low and they have time to figure it out.

(Pro tip: If you’re a parent, these are great tasks for your kids.)

One last tip: If you’re dividing up your tasks, every box should have something in it. If you don’t think you have any tasks that are neither urgent nor important, you’re calibrated incorrectly. Something goes in every box – or you’re ignoring something important about your life.

Personal Narrative

You’ve probably heard the phrase “you’re the hero of your own story” before. For plenty of people, you’re your own villain, too.

One of my favorite movies is a completely underrated masterpiece called Stranger Than Fiction, starring Will Ferrell. Ferrell’s character, Harold Crick, discovers that he’s a fictional character in a novel when he suddenly gains the ability to hear the voice of the narrator and book’s author. Since no mental health professionals will take him seriously, he seeks out a literary expert, Dr. Jules Hilbert (played by Dustin Hoffman). Dr. Hilbert approaches the problem with a literary eye, telling Harold that he needs to look for clues as to whether the story he’s in is a comedy or a tragedy, in order to predict Harold’s ultimate fate. The same events can happen in either story, but the lens through which you view them changes the nature of the tale significantly.

I won’t spoil any more for you (it’s such a good story and so absolutely worth a watch), but the element I want to draw out is that this is also true about you. Hopefully you’re not hearing any disembodied voices describing your life, but the point is that you’re life is only partially defined by your actions. The rest is defined by the story those actions become a part of.

Here’s another phrase you’ve probably heard: “History gets written by the winners.” While that’s a cynical look at geopolitics, there’s a powerful lesson for the individual there. The meaning of events is often open to interpretation. Let’s say you’ve decided to take up rock-climbing. One day you have a pretty bad fall and you break your arm, resulting in you being in a cast for a few months. Those are the events, but that’s not the story. The story is up to you – is that the story of why you decided to quit rock-climbing, or is that the story of how you learned a valuable lesson about both safety and perseverance, and got back on the mountain and became great?

That’s up to you.

No event exists in a vacuum, good or bad. A story is created by connecting different events together – and the meaning of an event can change years later when something new happens or new facts come to light. There’s always time to write a new chapter, which means even the past is not set in stone. You can’t change what happened, but you can absolutely change what it means.

So often we let our personal narratives define us, instead of the other way around. We often use the power of these stories to shield us from uncomfortable truths – to shift blame away from ourselves, or to explain away our failures as inevitable, or to define ourselves as deserving of something we haven’t earned. It’s natural, but it’s dangerous. Once we start to tell our story this way, it becomes difficult to change. You can’t tell the story of how you overcame a failing in order to rise to great heights if your story doesn’t include acceptance of that flaw to begin with.

Even worse is when we write the ending of the story far in advance, and yet use that power to write a bad one! You’re literally taking a third-person omniscient view of your own life and using that to predict failure. If you’re going to pretend that you can predict or even manifest the future’s events flawlessly, you might as well write incredible success! At least then you’ll be striving for something, giving yourself a road map, and inspiring yourself. But what’s the point of writing an inevitable failure?

Of course, I know the point. You write a future failure as inevitable because you’re more afraid of the “failure” part than the results of that failure. People want to avoid blame more than they want to avoid disaster. As long as you couldn’t have been expected to do better, you can at least be comfortable in the knowledge that the failure wasn’t your fault. So we decide in advance that the failure was inevitable. And then of course, it becomes so.

So few of us ever realize that the exact reverse of that power is also true. You can just write an inevitable success, and writing it will make it so. Failure is a choice – as long as you choose not to quit, you’ve only got two states of existence you can occupy: Success, or Still Trying. You don’t fail until you quit.

It’s an adventure story. Your adventure story. And it has a happy ending.

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Other People

You need other people to succeed in life, but they’re also your greatest impediment.

All the good we do in this world we do for, and because of, other humans. We care for them, raise them, feed them, motivate them, help them, protect them. Simultaneously, all of these efforts are impeded by other other people – they will distract you, attack you, hinder you and rob you.

They’re worth it regardless, but we have to be vigilant.

If you don’t think crab pot mentality is real – then go out to the bar with people you knew in high school, but tell them you don’t drink. Or go to a family gathering for the holidays but tell them you’re on a diet. Or decline an invitation to an event you could afford because you’re being frugal. You’ll see.

The socially-safe route through life is one of sloth and dependence. The lower the bar of your ambitions, the easier it is to find “your people” and have a lazy river carry you through life. The path of greater virtue and reward is harder and more rapid, but perhaps the hardest thing about it is how many people don’t want you to do it.

The best thing to do is to avoid the crab pots altogether. Instead of trying to tell a bunch of alcoholics that you don’t drink, don’t go out with them in the first place. If your co-workers are telling you not to “stick your neck out,” then rather than try to convince them otherwise, you should quit and find a better environment.

Some people will read this and interpret it as me advocating for a radical autonomy, but quite the opposite. I think it’s vital to find your tribe. To have your friends, your circle, your people, your society. I just advocate being selective as heck about it.

Some great advice I once heard: “If you find you’re the smartest person in the room, find a better room.” That’s true, and you can replace “smartest” with any other positive attribute – hardest working, most creative, etc.

The world is too full of amazing people to waste time with crabs.

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Mandatory

The more you have to do something, the less you enjoy it.

My father told me that one of the worst decisions he’d ever made was when he turned his passion for photography into a business. Even though he was successful and ran that business for 15 years before retiring from it, he said it sucked all the joy out of it.

An old story I’ve heard many times: bright young minds whose love of reading is absolutely crushed by the way the factory that is school chews up and spits out any real enjoyment from the act, reducing it to a narrow pipeline of books you didn’t choose, which you read just to regurgitate facts about them. Then, some of those kids rediscover reading later in life and fall in love again – sadly, many don’t.

But we can’t avoid all responsibilities in life. Some stuff is just mandatory. Are we doomed then to always hate the stuff we have to do? Will work, permanent relationships, and maintenance of your home always be grey and loveless endeavors?

I don’t think so. I think there’s a secret ingredient that lets you split the difference.

Make sure you always have a walk-away point. An exit strategy. Keep things from ever being truly mandatory, but instead make them things you choose every day.

For instance, take your job. For many people, the need for gainful employment is just a fact of their life. But the people that need jobs the most often end up being the most miserable in them. Instead, be frugal. Reduce your needs. Live well below your means, so that you have enough of a cushion that you can walk away from your job any time. Sure, you may have to get another – but you’ll have the economic/financial mobility to do so. The very fact that your dependence on the job is reduced will in turn lower your stress and increase your enjoyment, making it more likely that you’ll remain and thrive!

A mistake I’ve seen many people make in terms of romantic relationships is moving in together just to save on rent, far earlier than is appropriate. Suddenly you’re with someone not just because you want to be, but because you can’t afford to live on your own. That’s a recipe for disaster – dependence breeds contempt if done too early.

There are sometimes good reasons to become entangled in such a way that you can’t easily walk away from something. But they should be taken only with great consideration. The less handcuffed you are to anything, the happier you’ll be with everything.

Image result for handcuffs

Repairs

Most engines have more than one moving part. Pretty much everything around you is an engine – heck, you’re an engine. The classic thing under the hood of your car is a kind of engine, one that converts liquid fuel into movement. But in a broad sense, an engine is any device or process that turns one resource into another. You’re an engine that converts food into action. Your mind is an engine that converts information into ideas. And so on.

When a valuable engine breaks down or malfunctions, we don’t generally throw the whole thing away. Because engines are made of a great many moving parts, it’s possible for the whole engine to work poorly (or stop altogether) because of one faulty component. Isolating that component and fixing or replacing it is a much better idea than scrapping the whole machine.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though. Even a trained auto mechanic might take a decent amount of time and effort, as well as a few mistakes, to figure out which part of an engine is faulty and repair it. I probably couldn’t do it at all. The same with the human body – a doctor might be able to figure out which of my internal organs is failing and causing me to be sick, but I sure can’t. But still, I’d rather that doctor try than just toss the whole body and start over (hahaha, no I wouldn’t – if it were possible I’d absolutely just replace my body, but this is the world we live in, sadly).

Your processes are like that. You have at least one engine that converts “time” into “successfully sent emails.” If that process breaks down, you don’t necessarily have to start over. Maybe you can figure out which step is the faulty component, or which aspect isn’t fulfilling its purpose as part of the whole.

In order to do that, we have to be aware of the components as discrete things – we can’t miss the trees for the forest. This can be especially difficult when it comes to processes in our own minds. Your mind has an engine for converting “time” into “relaxation,” but maybe (like mine) it doesn’t work so well. What components might exist in such an engine? There’s an “identify what relaxes me” component, an “ignore distractions” component, a “give yourself permission to not be working” component, and so on. Only one of those would have to be faulty for me to not be able to successfully relax.

Breaking things down like that has always been cathartic for me. Examining the pieces and seeing exactly which thing isn’t working right.

Tangent: recently I was reading about aphantasia – the inability to picture things in your mind. A decent number of people have this; you tell them to “picture an apple” and they just can’t. They know what an apple is, but it’s impossible for them to imagine one if they’re not looking at it. For a pretty in-depth look at one person’s very awesome account of this, check this out.

There’s apparently a reverse of this called “hyperphantasia,” where not only can you picture things in your mind, your ability to do so is incredibly acute and vivid. That’s what I have. My ability to imagine things is so vivid I can change the color of people’s hair while I’m looking at them. I can call up memories of rooms I’ve been in and walk around in them, viewing them from angles I never actually saw them in real life. I can summon Abraham Lincoln to my living room at a whim and have full conversations with him. I can imagine physical objects and actually feel them; I can wrap my hand around an imaginary baseball. If you’ve ever seen Star Trek and you’re familiar with the Holodeck – I just have one of those in my mind, on tap. Or the Matrix, if you prefer that analogy. Whatever.

Tangent-within-a-tangent: For a long time, I didn’t realize I was in the minority with this ability. I would be confused when other people couldn’t do what I could do. For instance – once as a sort of joke my 7th-grade math teacher asked me to multiply two 4-digit numbers in my head, like 2692 x 9663. I spaced out for a few minutes while she went on to continue teaching, and then I “came back” and gave her the answer. After confirming that I hadn’t secreted away a calculator or paper, she was flabbergasted, but I didn’t realize I’d done anything special – because here’s the thing, I did use paper. I just conjured up a piece of paper in front of me with an imaginary pencil and spent the several minutes doing the problem long-form style. I didn’t do the problem “in my head” the way I imagined that phrase meant, I just did it on paper that wasn’t technically there.

This happens with all sorts of stuff. Apparently I’m one of like 1% of the population that can flex my tympanic membrane (aka the eardrum) at will. You know the sound you hear when you put a seashell up to your ear? I can just make that sound happen without the seashell by flexing a muscle behind my ears a certain way. I thought everyone could do it. My daughter was talking about the seashell noise, and I commented “You know, you can actually just make that sound without the seashell if you tighten your neck muscles!” Except she couldn’t, and I thought I was just explaining it badly to a kid, but a little research and it turned out I was in the vast minority.

Okay, let me de-inception us a little and back up through the tangent layers back to the original point. When I say I like to disassemble my engines and examine their component parts, I’m usually literally doing that – at least in terms of how I visualize it. I’m turning my “convert time into relaxation” engine into a physical object on the table in front of me, labeling each gear and piston with one of the component features I listed above, and then taking it apart and examining it. Creating physical manifestations of metaphysical concepts.

I know that’s weird, and I know that’s not how most people are going to do it. But I think the core concept is sound: give things solid form in order to repair them. That can mean writing things down on separate pieces of paper so you can isolate them. It can mean making voice recordings of yourself. It can even just mean talking to other people, making things “solid” by putting them in another mind separate from your own. However you do it, a diagnostic process is vital to successful repairs. Find one that works for you.

(A final note: This turned into a weird, weird post. But I’m here for it. Embrace your weirdness, people.)

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Glorious Monuments

In the 1940s, a few hundred people each year in the US died from lightning strikes. By the 2010’s, that number was down to less than 40 per year.

Did we win the war on lightning? No way. People get struck at about the same rate as they always did; they just don’t die from it as much, because we’re a lot better at keeping injured people alive than we were in the 1940s. If you want to try a fun experiment, ask people around you to guess why there were ~400 lightning deaths per year 75 years ago, but less than a tenth that number today. People tend to immediately try to rationalize why fewer people were struck by lightning – “fewer people work outside these days,” or “we’re better at predicting the weather so people aren’t caught by surprise as much” or stuff like that. Far fewer people reach the correct conclusion intuitively.

I find that in general, people are bad at intuitively grasping positive externalities. If you’ve never heard that term before, I’m super excited to tell you about it, because it’s one of my favorite economics concepts (and please don’t make fun of me for being the kind of dork who has a “favorite economics concept”). A positive externality is when there’s a by-product of some action that benefits one or more third parties who had nothing to do with the original action.

Need an example? Your neighbor plants some trees in their own yard. They grow tall, and the shade from those trees partially covers your yard and house as well. You get lovely shade and your summer cooling bill goes down, plus a nice break from the worst winds. In fact, it improves the quality of your own yard so much that your property value goes up by around $10,000 when you sell the house. You had nothing to do with the original action of planting trees – you didn’t pay for them in any way, but you reaped benefit. That’s a positive externality.

Now, not all externalities are positive. In fact, no externality is inherently positive or negative, that’s just the result based on your own preference. If I love the smell of fresh-baked bread, then someone building a bakery next to my house produces a great positive externality for me – but if I hate that smell, the same action produces a negative externality for me.

As bad as people are at intuitively recognizing positive externalities, they’re freakin’ great at spotting negative ones. The classic case is a polluting factory – people who had nothing to do with the construction or operation of the factory nonetheless have to suffer from its waste products if they’re pumped into the air or water.

I think people’s different reactions to positive and negative externalities have a lot to do with airplane crashes. Come with me on this tangent!

Why do airplane crashes make the news but car crashes don’t? Because airplane crashes are super rare, and car crashes are one of the most common accidents. If the news reported on every car crash, that’s all it would report on 24/7. So a car crash is very “dog bites man” – it’s not news. But a plane crash is a big deal.

Despite this, many people act as though flying were much more dangerous than driving. They get nervous on airplanes despite driving every day. They buy flight insurance. Some people don’t fly at all for fear of how hazardous it is, but will drive while texting and smoking every day. Why? Because of the availability heuristic. This is a term from the world of psychology that talks about how people are biased to believe something is more common if they can easily come up with examples of it. Because plane crashes make the news, many people might be able to easily recall a plane crash, but have never seen a serious car crash. Those people might then be influenced to think that plane crashes are the more serious threat, even though they’re absolutely not.

Which brings us back to the topic at hand. Negative externalities like pollution are serious issues with deadly consequences, just like plane crashes. But they’re also much, much more rare than positive externalities. Positive externalities are so common that they aren’t news, so they’re very rarely presented to you in a way that captures your attention. And if you see the news of a plane crash, you might mistakenly believe that you shouldn’t fly, even though the positives of flying so vastly outweigh the negatives that it’s silly to even consider it.

Want a great example? Donating plasma. Plasma donation centers exist all across the country, and you can go there and get paid to sit in a chair for 45 minutes and give plasma. Plasma is the goop that carries your blood cells around; it’s vital to the creation of a lot of life-saving medicine. Because it’s not actually your “blood,” you can donate like twice a week instead of once every 2 months; basically as long as you re-hydrate it comes back almost immediately. In order to donate plasma, you don’t need any skills or credentials, so it’s a great way for people with fewer income-earning opportunities to stay solvent. But the positive externality is this: they RIGOROUSLY test people who donate every single time, for everything from drugs & alcohol to the presence of STDs. Anything like that disqualifies you. So a lot of recovering addicts also essentially get paid to stay clean, even though that’s not the original aim or purpose of these places at all. Those people’s families are getting a healthier loved one, even though they didn’t do anything at all.

That’s a big positive externality. Another one is that in our continual quest to make money in medicine, we’ve saved a few hundred people a year from lightning strikes – and a few hundred million from other stuff. People trying to make money from each other has such incredible spillover effects into my life.

I’m typing this on a computer. I bought the computer, so the benefits it gives me aren’t an externality; that’s what I paid for. Except… about 99.99999% of the benefit I get from this computer actually comes from other people having bought them. The people who read this, the people who write things for me to read, the people who create the sites I read on, and so on – that’s all stuff I didn’t pay for directly, but spillover effects we’re all giving each other.

I’m sitting in a glorious monument to positive externalities. I’m in a Midwestern convenience store chain called a Sheetz – a combination gas station/liquor store/fast food joint/grocery store with very decent nachos and a lot of energy drinks – and they have a little section off to the side with tables. I didn’t pay for this, or the free wifi they have here. I’m not paying for the electricity. Not even indirectly – I haven’t bought anything here today, though I might in the future. But as all these people come to and fro, buying their goods and shooting the breeze for a minute, they’re creating this constant spillover wave that I absorb.

This convenience store is a glorious monument to all the good we do for each other every day, just by existing. Sometimes we produce negative externalities, and if you’re a good person you’ll minimize them if you can. (Maybe don’t practice your electric guitar at 2 AM, even if you enjoy it.) But while you’re doing that, take a moment to really appreciate all those glorious monuments all around you.

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