Someone I used to know was having a problem with her two kids. They were about 2-3 years apart in age, with the boy being the older; they were roughly 9 and 6. The problem was that the boy was constantly hitting his little sister (specifically, slapping). No matter what punishment the parents levied, the boy simply would not stop, and he protested every punishment as unfair.

One day, this mom overheard her two kids arguing in the playroom, and fearing it might lead to another slapping incident, went to step in. However, the kids were arguing loudly enough that she inadvertently snuck up on them, with neither being aware that their parent was just outside the doorway.

So imagine her shock when her six-year-old girl smugly ended the argument by clapping her hands loudly a single time and then instantly bursting into very convincing waterworks and yelling “Mooooooom! He slapped me again!”

Turns out, every instance was faked. Punishments weren’t correcting the son’s behavior because he wasn’t actually striking his sister, and his protestations that he was innocent were actually true. The mom looked back and realized she had never actually once witnessed the incident herself, she’d just trusted the claims made by the sister (supported by some convincing sound effects!).

There are plenty of parenting lessons there, but today isn’t a parenting blog post. It’s a post about sources.

Because we all, at various stages, make the mistake the mom made. We take a reaction to something as evidence that the “something” happened. Now, I’m not saying all reactions are fake or malicious. But they’re not good primary sources for a lot of reasons.

Social signaling is a real thing. We have a thousand things putting pressure on us to react in different ways to different things. Even without that, people over- or under-react. And even those terms assume there’s a baseline “correct” way to feel about something, but of course there isn’t.

Back when I was managing salespeople in the financial industry, I once fielded an escalation call where a customer felt she’d been wildly disrespected. The way she was yelling and almost sobbing would give you the impression that the rep she’d been speaking with had dug up her mother’s grave. She wasn’t faking, either – she was clearly very genuinely upset! So naturally I wanted to help as much as I could, so I asked if she’d mind if I pulled up the recording of the call to review while she was on the line.

The rep had… wait for it… slightly mispronounced her surname.

That was literally it – the recording of the call wasn’t more than 15 seconds; she’d answered, he’d asked if Mr. Surname was available (our client), and she’d lost her top. Now, being the diplomatic manager that I was, I didn’t push back against a hysterical woman, I just engaged her in some dialogue and it turned out that Mr. Surname was actually in the hospital, it was pretty serious, she was stressed out of her mind, and he normally took care of this sort of thing and so on top of everything else just hearing an unfamiliar voice ask for him was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

We resolved it, everything was fine. But what was important in that moment was to realize that in no universe would it have been correct to give her reaction any sort of weight in my decision on how to handle my employee. Her reaction was genuine from her perspective, but just because she reacted as if he’d run over her dog didn’t mean he’d actually done that.

We are especially susceptible to this when we don’t have access to the primary source. We see people’s reactions to political speeches and agree or disagree with the reactions based on a lot of things, but “going and listening to the original speech in its entirety” isn’t usually one of them. We hear a loved one complain about a relationship and get mad on their behalf, even though we’ve never even met the significant other and certainly weren’t present for the event being described.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t trust people. You have to, to a degree. It’s good to believe someone when you first hear their reaction, in the sense that you accept their reaction as genuine and the feelings they’re feeling as valid. But before you act on that belief, especially in a way that’s going to impact others, you need to dig into it a little yourself.

People say “ouch” for all sorts of reasons, and not all of them are because they got hit.

Omission Impossible

How many things can you filter out of the truth before it isn’t the truth anymore?

I’ve been asked by a few people what the differences are between how I use my three major social media outlets – this blog, my LinkedIn profile, and Twitter.

The answer itself is clear to me – this blog is for whatever I want. I don’t design it to be a specific thing, so the proportion of topics I write about is roughly equal to the proportion of topics I think about. And I don’t write for a specific audience; rather, I want to attract exactly the audience that wants to read this blog. If that audience is just my Aunt Karen, then that’s awesome (and I love you for reading, Aunt Karen!). If more people read it (and I suspect they do), then that’s cool too – but I’m not writing for anyone else. I’m writing what I want, and trying to become a clearer thinker and more developed person as a result.

Even so, I don’t write everything that comes to mind. I have bad days, and times when I want to just pour that out. But I don’t. My main reason for that decision is I know that all things are temporary, but I want to make my negative spaces more temporary and my positive ones more enduring. So I preserve the positivity here, and let the negativity have its moment, but then pass away. Like tears in rain.

LinkedIn, on the other hand, has a much more narrow purpose. Yes, I do link my blog there, but that’s mostly for visibility. The stuff I put on LinkedIn that I don’t put here is very topical and tailored to my professional life. I’m not writing for posterity there, I’m interacting with my professional culture and peers in our day-to-day existence. I advertise there whereas I don’t here, for example.

Twitter, lastly, is my even-more-ephemeral thoughts, but it’s also more likely to be a quick thought, joke, emotion, opinion, or something light. Thoughts that don’t necessarily add value outside of a little entertainment (I hope!) or opinions I’m just trying on for size. I don’t argue anywhere, but on Twitter I do occasionally poke the bear a little.

None of these three things are lies. I don’t present a version of myself that’s false. But each is incomplete.

My blog shows a version of me that is relentlessly self-improving. I want to be that person, I strive to be, but my blog rarely shows my dark days. My anxious days, my can’t-get-out-of-bed days, my so-stressed-I’m-not-sure-I-can-handle-it-much-longer days. They’re temporary, but to you they might as well not exist, dear reader.

My LinkedIn shows a 24/7 professional who only thinks about work and never raises controversy or thinks thoughts outside the Overton window.

My Twitter shows someone who is light and silly, carefree and fun.

I am all these things, but I’m also their opposite. Their balancing factors all exist in me.

I don’t change my thoughts for LinkedIn. I don’t post things I don’t mean, or tailor thoughts to fit the audience. I just only post there the thoughts I have that already feel appropriate for the medium and the brand I present there.

I don’t lie. But I omit plenty. We all do – and in fact, we require it from others. From classic advice like “don’t talk religion or politics at the dinner table” (incidentally, I hate that advice – that’s the one place I do want to talk about those things, in the comfort of a safe environment with people I trust and feel close to) to frequent admonishments to “leave it at the door” with “it” being anything relating to your personal life and “the door” being the front door of your professional life, as if those were completely separate existences.

Omission can be dangerous if we don’t recognize it. It’s not bad, but the human brain fills in the blanks. And with no other information, we fill in the blanks with essentially the same information we already have, over and over. That’s why when you see an Instagram post of a celebrity on a tropical island, you assume they spend the 364 days, 23 hours and 55 minutes you’re not witnessing each year also gallivanting around on tropical islands, but they’re probably not. You fill in the blank space with more of the same, but what you don’t see of someone is more likely to be very different than what you do. It might not be the opposite, but it will be a balancing factor.

If you see someone writing about wealth, that doesn’t mean they’re actually poor. But it probably means that when they’re not posting, they’re working – earning that wealth, rather than enjoying it. If someone posts a picture of themselves where they look gorgeous, that doesn’t mean it’s a trick of the camera and they’re secretly hideous, but it does probably mean that in the invisible spaces they’re working out, dieting, getting good at makeup, etc. They’re earning what they show.

So when you see me posting things that are positive, insightful, or clever (and I sincerely hope I’m pulling that off), it’s not that I’m not those things (hopefully!). It’s that in the spaces in between, I’m earning those things. I’m earning insights through struggles and failures, I’m earning positivity by surviving negative moments. The cleverness really is just me, though. I’m funny.

Whenever you only get glimpses of someone – because you only see them on various social media platforms, or because you see them in person but only in specific and narrow contexts, think of those moments as trophies. If you see someone get a trophy, you don’t assume that they spend all day every day getting trophies handed to them, right? No, you assume that the trophy is a culmination of both hard work and then application of that work, and you’re just witnessing the moment of reward. If you see a gold medal being hung around the neck of an athlete, you can imagine in broad strokes the years of effort in a general sense, the months of training for specifically that event, and the intense burst of effort leading to that moment. You’re imagining correctly.

So keep that analogy in mind every time you see a great post on Facebook. It’s a trophy. It’s true, it’s earned, it’s genuine (in most cases – assuming otherwise is usually just sour grapes); but it’s a culmination of a lot of other things. They don’t just stand around having gold medals hung around their neck 24/7.

Celebrate with them. And when you show off your own shiny new trophy, don’t feel like an impostor just because you know it’s a snapshot that doesn’t always reflect everything that built that moment. Because that’s true of everyone.

The Zone

Sometimes you have to deeply embed yourself in a “flow state” in order to really rock out some quality work. That’s where I am tonight. Hydration, music, a singular purpose.

What puts you in The Zone?

Hungry or sated? Caffeinated or calm? Background noise or utter silence? Eye of the storm or tranquil garden? Coffee shop or log cabin? Light or dark, hot or cold? I’m always curious what helps people attain that hyper-focus state. Opinions welcome, though I won’t read them until tomorrow.

I’m in The Zone.

The Risky Spoon

Decision fatigue is a real thing, my friend. Many clever people have come up with many clever analogies for it – one I particularly like is “spoon theory” – but one of my own design is the analogy of a car cruising down the road. If you’re moving along a straight road, the drive is pretty easy. It takes very little effort to keep the car on track; things moving straight want to keep moving straight. But each time you come to a fork in the road and have pick a direction, you now have to exert effort on the car. Muscle power, fuel, tires fighting friction, all of it to make a choice.

Going some distance down a straight road is much easier than the same total distance over many forks and turns. That’s a good analogy for why making a lot of decisions is tiring, even if you do the same total amount of work and even if each individual decision doesn’t seem that difficult.

(I just realized I totally could have made a “forks and spoons” pun out of today’s title. Forgive me.)

One way I deal with decision fatigue in my own life is to have a huge number of basic decisions on auto-pilot and a good system for installing ‘defaults’ into other decisions as well. By making a lot of decisions about small stuff in advance, I leave room in my brain for the big rocks.

But another way that I combat decision fatigue is to have a really high tolerance for risk in most situations.

When I’m headed out to a new restaurant, that presents me with some major decision trees. I’ve never been to this restaurant, and the menu presumably has more than one item on it. That gives me a huge number of choices, but the outcome is largely inconsequential – one way or another, the decision won’t matter in two hours. So what do I generally do? I don’t even look at the menu, I just tell the server that I’ll have whatever the special is tonight. It’s a risky move from a foodie perspective – the special could be anything! But I have a high risk tolerance here: I’m not a picky eater, I don’t generally care whether a meal was good, and a story about a particularly bad meal is as enjoyable to me as a good one. So in the absence of a good default, I default to – whatever!

I notice that many people develop a high risk aversion for even these incredibly minor risks. What movie to go see, where to go for a walk, what topping to get on a group pizza. These things have zero impact on your life past the next hour, so roll the dice! I’d rather default to a risk than burn precious decision-making power.

I have an almost infinite endurance against life’s “small disasters.” Oh, the burger joint got my order wrong? Whatever. One of my shirts shrank in the dryer? Doesn’t change the trajectory of my life. Kid spilled milk on the floor? There are paper towels on the counter, honey.

I do not, on the other hand, have infinite spoons – or forks (ha, got there). For me, making decisions is like going to a flea market with only five $100 bills, and no one can make change. In that scenario I (like you, probably!) would only buy items that cost $100 – you’d ignore items that cost $2 even if they were cool, because you’d have to pay $100 for them. Maybe I’d get a slightly better-tasting meal if I actually looked at the menu and decided what to order instead of saying “surprise me,” but the marginal benefit is just so incredibly minor and the cost (for me) is so high that I never do it. If you knew in advance that you could only make five decisions in a day, you wouldn’t waste one on what to have for breakfast.

Enjoy a little chaos in the small spaces, and impose your order on the big ones.

Respect & Compromise

There was an interesting thought floating around the internet a year or so ago that I found pretty insightful. I’ll share it here, though this isn’t original to me:

“Some people take the term ‘respect’ to mean ‘treat like an authority figure.’ Other people take the term ‘respect’ to mean ‘treat like a person.’ And then there are people who seamlessly interchange the two when it suits them – they’re the authority figures who say ‘if you respect me, I’ll respect you.’ What they mean is, ‘if you treat me like an authority figure, I’ll treat you like a person.'”

I find that matches my experience pretty well. Some people like to redefine common terms to suit their personal agendas. Sometimes this is done in a negative way – like saying “meat is murder!” You want to associate a common thing that you dislike with a universally bad concept. But other times it’s done to associate something bad with a good term in order to sell it.

One such word is ‘compromise.’

Most people define it like this – you give a little, you get a little, we meet in the middle of what we both want but still reach a deal that’s better than no deal at all.

But some people try to sneak in a different, shady definition that goes like this: “Compromise means that when I demand something from you for nothing and you don’t want to do it, we agree that you do half of it and call it a day.” That’s like asking someone for $100, and when they say no, saying “okay, let’s compromise and call it $50.”

Superficially, it feels like a compromise. You wanted me to give you a hundred bucks and I wanted to give you nothing, so $50 is in the middle. And if you’re quick enough you might pull that over on some people in many different contexts. You’ll get half of an unreasonable demand instead of a whole one, but you’ll be out the door before they question why they gave you anything at all.

Be careful of people trying to pull this trick. People who want to “compromise” often want to pull you in their direction without actually offering anything back. That’s not a compromise – it’s swindling.

How Much?

Imagine you’re conducting a very narrow “focus group,” with only ten members. What you’re trying to discover is whether or not you should sell chocolate or vanilla cookies.

You ask each of the ten people whether they prefer chocolate or vanilla and have them check off a box. 9 vote chocolate and one votes vanilla. So you should sell chocolate, right?

Well, maybe.

Let’s say that those 9 people have a very slight preference for chocolate; they’ll buy a chocolate cookie over a vanilla one if both are in front of them, but if they want a cookie and no chocolate option exists they’re happy to buy vanilla. Almost never would they choose not to buy a cookie at all if there wasn’t a chocolate one. And on top of that, they’re also not big cookie fans to begin with; they desire maybe 1-2 packs of cookies a year.

Meanwhile, the Vanilla Guy is obsessed. If a store carries only chocolate cookies and no vanilla, he won’t even shop in that store any more. And on top of that, he buys ten packs of vanilla cookies a week – a major consumer.

Assuming these ten people were a representative sample of the population, the company should absolutely make and sell vanilla cookies. The 10% of the population that prefers them buys more in two weeks than the other 90% of the population buys in a year, meaning that even though the market is niche, it’s deep.

The problem with a lot of the measurement of choices is that it doesn’t reflect this kind of depth. Most choice-measurement is very binary. Even most attempts to measure strength of conviction are pretty feeble – if you give someone a five-point scale instead of a binary choice it’s mostly junk, based on impulse and emotion rather than actual conviction in the long term. It won’t translate to action.

If I really wanted to measure overall depth of opinion (and not just how many people were on each side of a debate issue), I’d want something to truly measure depth. And since talk is cheap, I’d charge for it.

What people will pay money for is very, very different than what people will vocally support. Talk is cheap. Not only does it cost nothing to say you want to help some particular social cause – in many cases you actually benefit just by saying so, in the sense that you gain social capital with your peers. Ask people whether or not they support preserving a national park and most will say yes. Ask them to sign a petition and you’ll get a smaller number; ask them to donate a dollar and you’ll get fewer still.

Imagine asking the chocolate/vanilla question again, but this time giving 4 choices instead of two:

  1. I prefer chocolate.
  2. I prefer vanilla.
  3. I prefer chocolate so much that I’ll give you $10 to demonstrate my conviction.
  4. I prefer vanilla so much that I’ll give you $10 to demonstrate my conviction.

If you asked the original group this question, your focus group would have actually given you the correct answer – sell vanilla cookies. You’d have gotten 9 answers of “Number 1” and one answer of “Number 4.” If you weighted the answers based on dollar gains, you’d see the real answer.

If you’re uncomfortable with money being used as a proxy for strength of conviction (and I could see why), then you can replace $10 with anything that isn’t nothing. For instance, the four choices could be:

  1. I prefer chocolate.
  2. I prefer vanilla.
  3. I prefer chocolate so much that I’ll sit here for an extra hour to demonstrate my conviction.
  4. I prefer vanilla so much that I’ll sit here for an extra hour to demonstrate my conviction.

or they could be:

  1. I prefer chocolate.
  2. I prefer vanilla.
  3. I prefer chocolate so much that I’ll let you stab me with a needle to demonstrate my conviction.
  4. I prefer vanilla so much that I’ll let you stab me with a needle to demonstrate my conviction.

or whatever you want. The point isn’t to use any particular cost, it’s just to impose some cost on an answer. Otherwise, the answer should be taken as the mildest possible version, with the understanding that a single very strong preference might be more influential on the potential outcome of a decision than even a large number of mild preferences.

Consider that carefully any time you have to base a decision (even in part) on what people say they prefer. Try to find another way to figure out how much they prefer it – because talk is cheap.

The Next Five Minutes

“In the long term, what I want to do is…”

And then the person finishes that sentence by saying something totally different than what they’re doing right now and have done for the past several years.

When, exactly, does “the long term” start? It’s not a date on a calendar. “The Long Term” doesn’t officially begin on September 20th, 2024. The Mayans didn’t predict its coming on a big stone disk. It’s not discrete.

In fact, “the long term” only exists in the past. You can only figure out what you did in the long term by looking back on it. When looking forward in time, the long term is just whatever you do in the next five minutes, over and over again forever.

There’s no year that isn’t made up of the days within it. There’s no space between those days where “the long term” happens. Your destiny is just you showing up for a great day, over and over.

You can make one day great. You can absolutely nail the next five minutes. You have so much control over those short bursts that the only reason you don’t exercise it is because you think it doesn’t matter.

“Sure, I’ll lay around and drink beer and watch TV today, but in the long term I want to get healthy and work on restoring that classic car.” That’s what people say – what they think. That “today” is somehow separate from “the long term.”

The long term starts at the end of this sentence; go get it.

Pi Day

Hahaha, I love humans. They’ll find the silliest little bit of humor and turn it into a whole movement. They’ll use one spark of joy to create culture-wide “in jokes” and then whole layers of subculture will surround them.

Today is ‘Pi Day.’ Why? Because it’s March 14th… or 3.14, like the first three digits of pi. Haha, I love this!

It’s like how May 4th is “Star Wars Day.” Because, get this, “May the Fourth be with you.” Ha!

I absolutely love the whole concept of shared, culturally-embedded jokes. Think about ‘knock-knock’ jokes. They’re amazing. Not because they’re particularly funny (though one or two definitely are), but because you just instantly know how to interact with someone if they start off by saying “Knock, knock.”

A perfect stranger could walk up to you on the street and say those words and you’d probably respond correctly. Even if you chose not to, it wouldn’t be because you didn’t know what you were supposed to say. Shared humor constructs give us a way of immediately connecting with our society.

That’s why I never worry too much about “screen time” for kids. I watched a fair amount of television as a kid. It didn’t ruin me, and it certainly didn’t turn me into a “television addict” (seriously, this was a concern for kids growing up in the 80’s); in fact, I barely watch TV at all now. But what it did do was give me a shared connected language of quotes and jokes from all of these culturally-relevant shows that enabled me to engage in conversation with a huge number of people. Conversations that didn’t have a natural starting point were instead enabled because we both knew The Simpsons well enough to quote it at each other. Humor is cultural studies.

So remember as you and your family (and your kids!) are all trapped indoors for the next few weeks, that a little television never hurt anyone, and shared cultural jokes are worth their weight in gold.

Living Out Loud

Anything worth doing is worth doing visibly.

If you’re pursuing a path of self-improvement, write about it. Talk about it. Vlog about it, whatever. But do it in a visible way. This has tremendous benefits:

  1. It will organize your own thoughts. If you can’t explain your plan to a stranger, you probably don’t have a great plan. Chronicling your journey while you’re on it keeps you focused.
  2. It will give you accountability. There’s just something about announcing your goals that makes them real. Put them out into the world, and people will see them. That can lift you up.
  3. It invites encouragement and collaboration. There is a vast wealth of great wisdom out in the world, and being visible is a way to invite it.
  4. It provides credibility. There’s nothing like actively living a journey to prove you can do it.

So often we engage in our best efforts and most worthwhile thoughts in secret while blasting out our chatter and noise at full volume. Switch it around a little and see what marvelous doors may open.


Everyone has some negative feature of themselves that they’d like to work on. A personality flaw, a vice, a failing, a lack in some area. Collectively, let’s just call these “bugs,” and for the rest of this post, that’s what I mean when I use the term. Anything about yourself and/or your life that you’d rather improve or eliminate.

My personal theory (backed up by plenty of personal experience) is that it’s not the bug that’s really that hard to get rid of. It’s everything else that’s attached to the bug.

You see, bugs have a way of insidiously burrowing into many adjacent (and even not-so-adjacent) aspects of your life. Partially that’s your own doing – on some level you know the bug is a bad thing, so you create justifications for it. But those justifications, over time, become foundational to big parts of your life if you don’t catch them. You start to identify with the bug, instead of with the person you’d be without it.

Take drinking, for example. Like probably most Americans, I know lots of people who have had unhealthy relationships with alcohol, ranging from full-on addiction to just problematic interactions. For some percentage of these people, the physical dependence on alcohol is the primary factor preventing them from killing this bug. But that’s actually a small percentage! For the larger majority, the problem isn’t physical dependence – it’s how much of the rest of your life becomes centered around drinking.

You drink when you party. You drink socially. You drink to relax. Someone buys you a bottle of wine as a present. You share drinking-related humor on social media. You might not be physically dependent on it at all, but you have zero idea how to interact without it. Maybe quitting drinking was easy – but dealing with the fallout of quitting was ten times more stressful.

Drinking is an easy example to visualize, but it’s everywhere. Take my friend Steve* (*name changed to protect the innocent… me, from backlash). Steve was in bad shape, overweight, unhealthy. Fixing this was tough, so instead he started to identify with it. He made in-shape people his “outgroup” and made fun of people for being “meatheads” or “gym-rats” or whatever, implying that anyone who worked out had to be a “dumb jock.” As a result, he had no in-shape friends and his social circle was all other unhealthy people who felt the same way. Now getting into the gym and cutting out the pizza and soda wasn’t his problem; his problem was that he’d systematically eliminated any possible support group for that. He could have hit the treadmill any time, except now it’s not about the physical difficulty, but the fact that his entire social life was built around being fat and unhealthy.

People do this all the time. They let their bugs take control of the system. Some people spend a few early years in a minimum-wage job and decide to learn more skills and work harder and get out. Other people start identifying with being poor and hating people who aren’t, and now suddenly your identity is as someone who can’t succeed no matter what.

We all have bugs. Bugs aren’t themselves a moral failing – each and every one of us will have things we want to improve, escape, or change. But there are two critical things you need to do in order to kill the bugs:

  1. Don’t let the bugs become your identity. Always make sure that the person you see yourself as is the person without the bugs. See yourself as fundamentally a sober, healthy, successful, whatever person who is working always to become that.
  2. Don’t surround yourself with people who do let their bugs become their identity. They will drag you down, reinforce your bugs, and prevent your empowerment.

Those are both very, very hard things to do. But I’ll give you a great tip for how to start: meet someone new.

Before you do the incredibly difficult work of changing your self-perception and cutting negative people out of your circle, meet just one new person. Make sure that person isn’t someone who identifies with their bugs, and make sure when you first meet them, you tell them who you’re trying to be. I know a lot of great people like this and I’m happy to introduce you.

Why is this important? Because that one person can start the process of turning the tide. They can pull you up, because they know who you’re trying to be. They can give you positive encouragement when you need it. They won’t already be a part of your negative circle. They can be the first person in your new in-group that will start to outnumber the old. It’s easier to eliminate your bad influences if you don’t feel like they’re they only people you have.

This person could be a boss, a mentor, a person in an organization you belong to (or join!), or even a very old friend you haven’t spoken with in years and re-connect with. Or they could be a complete rando you meet in a coffee shop that seems cool. They could be someone I introduce you to, like I suggested. But they do exist – which can be hard to see when all your existing people are so negative.

The journey of self-improvement can be lonely, and the very desire to have people near us can attract us to exactly the people preventing that self-improvement. So it’s good to have someone to talk to who isn’t, if you need it.

I’m here if you do, my friend.