Scavenger Hunt

Imagine that you’re really, really good at jigsaw puzzles. You can do them quickly, efficiently, and you rarely if ever have difficulty finding the location of a piece.

Okay, now imagine I take a pretty difficult, thousand-piece puzzle and pick fifty of those pieces at random and give them to you. I don’t even show you the other 950 (heck, I don’t even tell you how many there are), nor the box or picture.

You can’t solve this puzzle. No matter how long you stare at those fifty pieces. No matter how you turn them and arrange them and consider them, you’ll never complete the jigsaw.

In this scenario, however, lots of people fail to realize why they can’t solve the puzzle. They do one of two things: Either they blame themselves and start thinking that maybe they aren’t so great at puzzles after all and they should just give up and never do a puzzle again, or they get mad and start blaming a cruel and unjust universe for delivering an unsolvable puzzle and they should just give up and never do a puzzle again.

Neither is true. You just don’t have all the pieces. It has nothing to do with your abilities – how smart you are or how capable you might be. It also isn’t that life has dished out a particularly unfair dilemma in your direction. The problem is a simple one – you’re missing 950 pieces.

Where are they? Scattered around the city, the country, the world. You’re not solving a jigsaw puzzle – you’re solving a scavenger hunt.

That is an allegory for pretty much every problem you will ever face.

99% of problems can’t be solved by thinking about them. Thinking about things has a rapidly diminishing marginal return in terms of generating solutions. And that’s because thinking about things doesn’t generate new information; it just rearranges information you already have.

You need to do that… a little. When you have all the information, you need to assemble it correctly into the right action plan to solve your problem. But if you’ve been thinking about something for more than a few days and you’re stuck, then you don’t have all the information yet. You’re smart. If you had all the pieces, you could solve the puzzle. Ergo, if you can’t solve the puzzle, it’s because you don’t have all the pieces yet.

Go out and get new information. Go on the scavenger hunt, grab a few more pieces, and then think again for a little bit. You might not actually need all 1,000. This could be like Wheel of Fortune, where you can solve the puzzle before every letter is visible. But you can’t solve it if you only know 3 letters out of 100, and you don’t even know there’s a hundred total, and you can’t see the spaces between words.

No matter how long you think about it.

Image result for jigsaw puzzle pieces

Intentional

If I throw a heavy object at your head, you’ll duck or catch it or react in some way. You’ll do this even though you didn’t consciously decide to.

It was a reaction. An automatic response. Your brain runs these subroutines for you all day every day – you’d be dead in minutes if it didn’t. And while we should be thankful to our brains for this, we should be careful what we let slip into the grip of automation.

The Path of Least Resistance is a sincerely tempting one. But it leads to a dark place. Have you ever heard the phrase, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions?”

Let me adjust.

“The road to Hell is paved with no intentions.”

When you coast, you end up somewhere significantly less than desirable.

My father had this habit of driving wildly sub-optimal routes when going from point A to point B. He’d pick me up from school, and instead of driving the mile or so to our house down the straight road that connected the two, he’d take a sharp left and we’d drive all over town before ending up home. When I asked him why he did that, he’d smirk and say “I make the rules.”

He’d take weird turns because the standard route offered him nothing new. He wouldn’t see anything he hadn’t seen before, or learn anything new, or meet anyone interesting. He’d get lost on purpose to teach himself how to find his way back instead, embracing what appeared to be a sub-optimal choice in the short term because of what it did for his life.

Taking a job at your uncle’s company right out of college because you don’t have to work hard to get it (or even work that hard once you’re in it) can seem like the best choice. It might pay you better than comparable jobs you’d have to work much harder for. It might seem absurd to opt out of that arrangement, in the same way that it seems absurd to take a meandering, 5-mile route from my middle school to my house when they’re actually less than a mile apart and on the same road.

But my father never, ever got lost. In the days well before GPS or even MapQuest, my father’s sense of direction was flawless and his sense of adventure unflappable.

Live an intentional life, even if it involves weird turns and odd routes. Choose to make choices, not to let them be made for you. Take the path of most resistance, to build in yourself the ability to fight resistance when you have no choice. You can do it. You make the rules.

A Life of Their Own

There’s an old saying about what happens when you assume. You’ve probably heard it; it’s largely negative.

But here’s the thing – it’s impossible not to assume. You have to start with a base idea of what’s going on around you. You can’t walk into a restaurant and say, “Ah, a room of some kind! I don’t want to make any assumptions about what goes on here, so I’ll just walk up to the closest other human and ask them to explain the nature of this place to me.” In addition to seeming like a lunatic, this method would also just be painfully slow at gathering information.

No, it’s fine to make assumptions. If you walk into a restaurant, you can safely assume that someone there will direct you to a seat, take an order from you, deliver food that mostly matches your assumptions, and then charge you a price you assumed you’d pay.

Assumptions themselves aren’t dangerous; they’re necessary. It’s when we let them off the leash and allow them to take on a life of their own that they become dangerous.

Unfortunately, our brains aren’t great at separating out kinds of information, especially over the long term. It stores it all in generally the same place, and it doesn’t readily differentiate between “information with numerous backing sources and logical cohesion” and “stuff you made up.” So it’s really easy to get accidentally caught up in knowledge that you think you have. Then soon that knowledge gets used as the basis for something else, and before you know it you have a whole universe of false information.

You need to find a way to check your assumptions. Some people are naturally pretty good at this, but others aren’t – and it’s a vital skill to develop. It’s worth cultivating a healthy habit of asking yourself, “Do I know that for certain, or am I leaning too heavily on an assumption?” Check sources and keep track of what you only think to be true.

Unpleasant rumors, bad plans, and even animosity between people can all come from unchecked assumptions that have run wild. Keep them as the theoretical concepts they were meant to be.

Ready To Go

At the end of this week my oldest daughter and I are going on our first overnight camping trip together. I’m incredibly excited, and she is as well. Today, we went out and bought some gear for her so we can take a nice long hike while we’re out there.

She’s so funny. She was cracking jokes and making poses the whole time we were out, but she also had great insights and questions about the adventure ahead.

One of my favorite qualities in her is her utter readiness to do anything. She doesn’t think anything sounds “lame.” She wants fun, experiences, adventure – and she sees the potential for those things everywhere. She leans into whatever is in front of her, embracing the core concepts, asking questions, and learning as she goes.

She’s an interesting kid, but even more she’s an interested kid. She wants to know everything. One of my favorite activities with her is taking her many, MANY questions about the universe and guiding her through the process of finding out the answers on her own using the tools she has available. (Parenting tip: The “Calvin’s Dad” method works great here – if she asks a simple question, give her an absurd answer, and she’ll go find out for herself and not ask you again.)

My father once said to me: “If you’re gonna be dumb, be tough.” I think at the time I was probably crying about a self-inflicted injury, hence the statement, but there’s a much deeper wisdom there. We all have flaws. Working on improving them is a good thing, but not all of them can be improved substantially – some things are just part of who we are. So if that’s the case, you should develop counter-balancing traits.

If you’re gonna be dumb, it’s worthwhile to try to get smarter. But if you can’t get smarter, at least be durable enough to outlast your mistakes.

I am naturally a creature of extreme habit. It is almost never my idea to do anything outside of my normal routine. Without some outside influence, all of my days would look identical. But I don’t necessarily want that; despite my inclinations, I love adventure. I love the stories, the experiences, the life. But lacking the natural initiative to do those things, I instead cultivated a different trait – saying “yes” to stuff all the time.

It might not be my natural inclination to seek adventure. But when it comes knocking, I always answer.

I can smell adventure on people. From across the room I can tell that someone is going to turn out to be interesting. That they’ll be someone that brings more adventure into my life in one way or another.

Sometimes I work for those people. Sometimes I befriend them. Sometimes I get one mad at me, just to shake things up. But I like to know them.

My daughter is that, turned up to 11. I try to be like her. Ready to go.

Burdens, Desires, & Motivations

Some things shouldn’t be done by people who want to do them.

There are some things in life that are burdens that need to be carried, even to the point where we greatly admire the people who carry them, but we should be wary of people who want to do them. I’m going to start with a really extreme (and uncomfortable!) example, but then pull it back into a more day-to-day examination of the concept.

There are people in the FBI who specialize in stopping the trafficking of child pornography. This is a good thing – I don’t feel like I have to take a strong stance here on “child porn is bad, mkay” but just in case. Now, an unfortunate reality of the capture and prosecution of people who traffic in that stuff is that someone on the law enforcement side has to look at it. Someone has to look through all the files on a criminal’s computer to see which are child pornography, or try to identify victims, or just evaluate for how many charges to bring against the person, etc. We can safely call that job a “burden.” It has to be done, but it’s not something a good person would look forward to.

Now, imagine you had a bright young FBI agent who was volunteering hard to get that job. It’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where their motivations are pure, but it’s pretty difficult. Like, that’s a really terrible and burdensome and soul-crushing job, and the kind of people who go beyond being willing to carry the burden for the rest of us and into being excited for the opportunity? If I met such a person, I would be extremely wary of them.

I knew a marine once who told me that he wanted to be a sniper, but they wouldn’t let him despite him having all of the proficiency and skill needed. I asked him why, and he said “I had a psych evaluation where I told them I really wanted to be a sniper.” That actually seems like sound policy to me.

Douglas Adams applied the philosophy to political leadership. To quote:

“The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

(By the way, Douglas Adams was freakin’ brilliant.)

Things like investigating and prosecuting child pornography, being a sniper, or leading a nation are all terrible things to endure. They might need to be done (opinions may vary here), but they’re terrible for the soul of the individual doing them. In other words, they’re burdens. It can be noble to take on a burden, but when you’re eager to do it – not because you’re eager to spare others the burden, but because you’re actually eager to do something so damaging to the soul – it should give us pause.

And it might be a good reason not to let that person do that thing.

Now, I used some big, big examples to illustrate this concept. Heavy, heavy burdens. But there are lighter things that fit the general idea. Let’s look at rehab.

Drug and alcohol rehabilitation is tough. I know people personally that have gone through it. Every person is different – different in how intense the intervention has to be, how long they have to be “actively” in rehab, and so on. If two people sign up for a six-month rehab program on the same day, it’s totally possible for one of them to be in a good enough place to leave in two months, while the other might not actually be ready even after six.

But imagine that someone tells you, on day one, that they’d like to be done the program in two months instead of six. Even though you might know that it’s possible for some people to be capable of doing that, the very fact that the individual asks that on day one is a really strong indicator that it won’t be them. It shows that they’re not motivated to get better, they’re motivated to get through. Which in turn means you should probably put a note in that this person likely needs extra time, rather than less.

Why a person wants to do something matters, in other words. Sometimes the “alternative benefit” is obvious and just a matter of preference: when I was a teenager, I worked in a local convenience store. One of the jobs everyone hated was unpacking the big deliveries we’d get several times a week, because it meant you had to spend at least a few hours in the cooler unpacking all the drinks and stocking them onto the cooler shelves, and you had to do it by yourself so you couldn’t chat with your co-workers.

Here are some things I love: Listening to music, and being cold. If you’re unpacking the cooler you don’t have to interact with customers, so you’re allowed to wear headphones. And it’s freezing in there (obviously) even in the brutal summer months. So I always volunteered for that job. It was a win/win since most other people didn’t want to do it. I didn’t pretend that I was volunteering out of a sense of altruism, to save my co-workers from having to do it. I wanted to do it. But in this case, that’s okay – I was eager rather than burdened, but my eagerness wasn’t a harbinger of any other malicious intent.

Now, contrast this with the story of Kelly* (name changed). Another task everyone hated was counting out their cash drawers at the end of their shifts. We didn’t have a slick cash machine, so you had to count everything out by hand, enter it into a pretty archaic system, etc. Since it had to happen after your shift was officially over but took like 15 minutes, everyone actually ended up having to stay 15-20 minutes past their shift (torture to a teenager!), or much longer if more than one person clocked out at the same time (a frequent occurrence!), since there was only one archaic machine to enter your totals in. Kelly was JUST SO NICE and always told her shift-mates that they could go home and she’d stay behind and count everyone’s tills for them. Kids eager to run from work ignored the obvious red flags. Kelly was pocketing a lot of money from other people’s drawers (never her own), and she was very clever. Being off by $20 on your till was grounds for discipline, but letting someone else count your till was grounds for immediate termination. Kelly kept apologizing and saying it was an honest mistake until someone finally caught her counting multiple tills and just fired her for that.

Sometimes when someone volunteers for the burdensome job, there’s a bad motivator in there somewhere.

The point of all of this isn’t that you should be constantly suspicious of everything that everybody does. But you should seek to understand why people make the choices they do. Aligning people – including yourself – with circumstances where they’re motivated to do good deeds helps create a good world. Do it when you can.

The Long Game

Some things take a long time to pay off.

It’s worth remembering that on the days where it doesn’t seem like you’re moving the needle much. Today I finally saw a radical success in something that I’d been working on since last June, and it was great to see. Nine months isn’t that long, in the grand scheme of things – but the typical length for the kind of project that was is about six weeks, so it definitely felt like it dragged.

Which meant there were times I felt like throwing in the towel, but the long game is tricky. Sometimes it costs more to quit than to keep going.

Some projects (like this one) involve a lot of waiting. You sow the seeds and do the right things up front, and then see if they paid off down the line. You water them occasionally, but don’t have to involve yourself that much. So if you quit, you’re not really getting anything.

Quitting is a currency. You quit in order to buy something – you quit smoking to buy health and money, you quit a hobby to buy free time, you quit a bad job to buy happiness and freedom. But when a project isn’t really costing me much of those things, quitting doesn’t buy much of them back. That makes quitting a bad deal compared to hanging around and seeing if my long game pays off.

In general, this becomes a good (though unconventional) reason to front-load your work on any major project. If you do the majority of the work in the beginning, then quitting becomes a bad deal because it doesn’t buy you anything worthwhile. And then if, some time down the line, it pays off – you get to celebrate.

Cheers to that.

Notes, February 2020 Edition

Here’s some music that I’ve been listening to, thinking about, or discussing lately.

MCIII, by Mikal Cronin. This is a common path for new music for me – one song by an artist will appear on the soundtrack to a movie or show that I like, and since I tend to pay a lot of attention to the soundtrack choices in visual storytelling, I’ll give them a deeper listen. The songs that really stand out when listened to in that way then entice me to pick up an entire album and maybe an entire discography (thank you, Spotify). That’s how I found Mikal Cronin, and he’s great. I can hear his influences in both British Invasion-style music, the 90’s alt scene he clearly grew up through, and a lot of singer-songwriter influences. Despite the clarity of these impacts, he has a very original sound and very emotional resonance.

Volume 1, by The Traveling Wilburys. I’m absolutely ashamed to say that I was sleeping on the Traveling Wilburys. Despite Tom Petty being one of my favorite artists of all time, and definitely loving to various degrees the other members of this supergroup, it just really slipped through the cracks. I vaguely knew of the existence of this project but had never really gone deep into it. Now I have, and it was like coming home. I miss Tom Petty dearly and hearing what to me was “new” music with his voice was wonderful. Just because something was popular doesn’t mean everyone knows about it, and of course this project was over 30 years ago, so plenty of people today might not know how good this is. Give it a listen. If you like, you can also listen to their second and only other album, titled – hilariously – Volume 3. George Harrison was a prankster.

Revolution Radio, by Green Day. Yes, Green Day two months in a row. They’re one of my favorite bands, and a few days ago they dropped a new album. I gave it a listen and it’s pretty good, but it also reminded me to go back to the last album they released, which is amazing. Green Day’s career has divided itself neatly into specific eras with distinct sounds, and with the release of “Father Of All Motherfuckers” (pardon the cursing, it’s the actual title of the album) a new era has clearly begun. That makes Revolution Radio the capstone in their most commercially successful era, spanning from American Idiot to that album, and listening to it knowing that context makes it even better.

Social Distortion, by Social Distortion. I generally try to act in a civilized manner. I pay my bills, I brush my teeth, and I never ever throw a whiskey bottle through the windshield of a police car to cause a distraction so I can break a pool cue over the head of the trucker that tried to put his cigarette out on my leather jacket, and then take his Zippo and pack of Lucky Strikes off his unconscious body and light one up just before the cops tackle me and throw me in handcuffs. But sometimes you want to feel like you just did all that without actually suffering the consequences – and for those times, this album has you covered.

Barabajagal, by Donovan. Something I always absolutely love is when I find music that has really good underlying technical proficiency supporting a kind of music that is just unabashedly weird. This is why I love They Might be Giants, Cake, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and of course Donovan. If you can get me really tapping along with my eyes closed and letting music wash over me, but at the same time your album is both about the fictional mythology of the lost continent of Atlantis and also how much you love your shirt, then let me tell you that you have me hooked. In the same way that Social Distortion gives me that sweet post-street-fight high without the broken nose, Donovan makes me feel like I did a whole bunch of great drugs that I didn’t actually do.

Enjoy, everyone. May your life be filled with wonderful music – and if it is, share it with me!

Converse

Today I had a number of exciting conversations. Reflecting upon my day, what struck me was how varied the types of conversations were. Because of some of the work I’ve been doing lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about communication styles and how they impact not only what information we communicate directly, but the very shape of the person we are in another person’s mind as a result.

Today alone, I had the following impactful conversations:

  • Someone shared with me many great ideas and goals in a brainstorming session.
  • Someone came to me for advice with a difficult situation.
  • I interviewed someone for a job with our company.
  • I taught someone a skill.
  • I met someone for the first time and had a deep conversation about their history and struggles.
  • My boss and I shared business strategy and management advice with each other.
  • I laughed at a silly situation and then made plans with a loved one.
  • I taught a valuable lesson about patience via some discipline (don’t worry, that one was my kid; I don’t just randomly go around parenting strangers).

These conversations were all so different; formal to informal, emotional to logical, purpose-driven to carefree. They involved a wide range of people who were all so very different from me and from one another.

We have so many words we can use, a vast myriad of orders we could put them in, and infinite ways they could be interpreted. It’s an absolute miracle we can communicate anything at all, let alone the deep and nuanced thoughts that we share with each other so many times a day.

That’s why I love slang. I love new slang terms, because every new way of expressing an idea is a million million new conversation paths that can spring into existence. Every piece of shared experience is a way to help someone understand something new – even if that someone is you.

Build The Plane As You Fly It

My boss said this phrase to me the other day, and I absolutely love it.

Her and I were having a discussion about taking action without prior instruction, and how the source of that instruction can be internal or external to the process itself. In other words, sometimes you need to know what you’re doing before you do it, but other times you can use the process itself as the method by which you learn to master it.

You can build the plane as you fly it.

Now, this is a spectrum, for sure. Humans aren’t neatly divided into people who can do this and people who can’t, and nor are tasks neatly divided into ones you can learn as you go versus ones you can’t. Both of those things are incredibly wide ranges, and even their intersections differ. There might be certain kinds of “planes” that I personally can build as I fly them, but someone else couldn’t. But they in turn might be able to build an entirely different kind of plane in mid-air while I couldn’t.

However, spectrum or not, this is definitely a skill that can be developed overall. The ability to process new information in real time and incorporate it into what you’re doing quickly is very valuable, and you can get better at it.

You know what’s good practice for this? Cooking. Try this: go to the store with $30. Buy raw ingredients that you like – no prepackaged meals or things with the word “instant” in them. Don’t worry about a plan; just buy the raw foods you like. Whatever meats, dairy products, fruits and veggies, etc. that you generally know you enjoy.

Then go home, put them all on the counter, and turn the stove on. Throw something in a pan. Go! Make a meal! Stuff is cooking!

This is a great method because the stakes are low. You don’t stand to lose more than $30 and an evening. And there are many different paths to success – there are a lot of ways a random assortment of ingredients can turn out delicious. So this is a low-risk way to force yourself to have to incorporate information as you go: “That smells good, but it looks done! These don’t taste right, what do I add? This was awful, how do I salvage it?”

Like most things, if you want to get good at this, you should start with low-risk scenarios where you’re free to make a lot of mistakes. That’s how you learn anything, so give yourself the space to do it. Don’t worry if you’re not a master at first – no one is. But you’ll get there.

You’ll build the plane as you fly it.

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Numbers Game

“We lose money on every sale, but we make it up in volume!”

It’s the econ nerd in me, but I love that joke.

I was reminded of it yesterday when I saw someone comment online about applying for jobs being a “numbers game.” This is old, terrible advice, and it goes more or less like this: the way to land a job is volume, volume, volume. Apply to as many things as you can and something will eventually stick. the person giving this advice actually advocated NOT customizing the application or doing anything special, because it “just wastes time” and this is a numbers game.

I’m not going to tell you that this is terrible advice. Of course it is. I’m going to tell you why.

In order for something to qualify as a “numbers game,” a few conditions have to apply. One, the outcome has to be more or less determined by chance, rather than skill or effort. Roulette is a numbers game. Play it enough times and you’ll win, but there’s no way to play roulette “better.” You can’t affect the actual spinning of the wheel or where the little ball lands. Two, putting up volume has to be the actual best use of the time that can be spent on the activity. The best way to sell Girl Scout cookies might just be to generically pitch everyone that walks by your booth (just ask my daughter), rather than trying to craft a tailored pitch to every individual. And three, the chance of any random attempt getting you the result you want has to be positive.

So that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a “numbers game.” Just that job applications absolutely don’t fall in that category.

Imagine someone said to you, “building a house is just a numbers game. You just gotta gather all the wood and nails and stuff and throw ’em off a high cliff, and eventually they’ll fall in the shape of a house. Reading blueprints or carefully planning your approach is a waste of time, because it’s just a numbers game. If you can throw a pile of building materials off a cliff two or three hundred times a month, you’ll eventually get a house.”

You’d think that person was stark, staring mad. You’d be right. One, the outcome of whether or not building materials turn into a house isn’t up to chance – it’s determined by skill. Two, your time would be MUCH better spent learning carpentry and construction and applying those skills than just throwing building materials at random. And three, there is of course absolutely zero practical chance that this process could ever result in a house, even if you tried it a million times.

“Finding a wife is just a numbers game. Don’t bother learning anything about them or talking to them or anything, that’s a waste of time. Just walk up to every woman in town with a diamond ring and ask them to marry you. If you propose two or three hundred times a month, you’ll find a wife.”

Now, this analogy is actually a little closer to treating the job hunt this way. Why? Because there actually is some chance that you can find a wife this way – or at least, a better chance than the odds of a random pile of building materials landing exactly in the shape of a sturdy one-bedroom rancher. But consider – is the wife you find this way likely to be a good fit for you? Consider the kind of person who would accept a proposal from a total stranger. Consider that you know absolutely nothing else about them, and might not even want to marry them if you did.

That’s what happens when you treat important activities as numbers games. Even if you occasionally “get lucky,” how lucky did you really get? Rather, you probably got a very bad deal that won’t last long and you’ll be back to throwing pasta at the wall to see what sticks in no time.

The tired claim of “it’s all a numbers game” comes from a place of frustration and anger. Nobody likes rejection, and frequent rejection can take a major mental toll. One of the absolute worst things to hear when you’ve failed a bunch is that there’s something different you should do. Of course, that’s the best thing that can happen! If there’s something you can change, you can still succeed. If there were absolutely nothing you could improve and you were still failing, then that would unfortunately mean that you’re simply unable to do the thing you’re trying to do. So finding out there’s room for improvement is awesome news.

But it doesn’t feel like awesome news, and I get that. So what most people do is defensively blame the world. They say that the outcome is a result of luck instead of effort in an attempt to absolve themselves from the shame of their failures. It’s natural to want to blame a capricious universe instead of working to get better, because we often would rather be absolved of fault, even if that meant sacrificing the opportunity to be better. So this is a natural response, but like many of our natural instincts, you have to fight it tooth and nail to become better.

Most things worth accomplishing aren’t numbers games. They’re the result of effort, intelligence, and boldness. This isn’t a game of roulette – it’s your life. It’s worth putting the effort in.

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