Dad Advice

I gave some advice to someone recently, and they referred to it as “dad advice.” I’m choosing to take that as high praise, and I thought I’d share the advice here.

It was this: sometimes you have to do something that you know will fail, because that’s the only way you’ll move forward and learn something.

I’d like to bring up another piece of advice that isn’t original to me, but I know first-hand how true it is: “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Those two things are related. Hopefully, you’ve never been punched in the face – and hopefully, you never will be! But I can tell you with 100% certainty that the first time you get a really solid haymaker to your moneymaker, there’s no way to be prepared for it. You can have all the training in the world, be an excellent martial artist, be in great shape, whatever – if you’ve never actually felt that impact and the primal fear and hurt and rage that comes with it, all that stuff goes out the window.

Which means, if you want to be a good fighter, at some point you have to just get punched in the face. You know it will hurt, you know it will suck, but there’s just no way to move past that hurdle without experiencing it.

You can do it in a controlled environment – you can be in a sparring gym, with friends, etc. But you can’t avoid it completely.

That’s true of almost every skill. At some point you just have to fail as hard as you can, while trying as hard as you can, to learn that lesson. Even if you won’t get the result you’re aiming for, you will take the sting of future failures away – and that’s success all on its own.

Wet Roads

In my younger days, when I had only been driving for a short time, I once took my father on a few errands with me behind the wheel. We both had a few things we needed to do in the city, and he wanted to see how I was keeping up with this new skill. As it happened, that day was very rainy one, and many parts of the road had standing water on them.

As casual driving conversation, he asked me if I knew what to do if I started to lose control. I could always use a few pointers and said so. He reminded me that the most important thing was to do exactly what I had been doing. Not to panic and hit the brakes or anything. He said, “remember, the car wants to go straight.”

Almost prophetically, within about five minutes of that conversation I hit a patch of water and the car started to slide – we weren’t speeding by any means, but we were still on a highway and going fast enough that I didn’t want to lose control of the car. But his advice was fresh in my mind – I took my foot off the gas but didn’t put it on the brake. I kept my grip on the wheel tight but didn’t try to swerve or pull over. And sure enough, we slid right through the water and stopped hydroplaning.

There are two bigger lessons from this that apply to things other than driving.

The first lesson is this: everything has a trajectory; a default path it will take unless you alter it.

The second lesson is this: what that path is depends on the actions you take before you hit the crisis.

If you’re driving safely to begin with, and you’re doing the right things, you’re more likely to make it through a patch of wet roads safely than if you were speeding, swerving, and driving recklessly. Likewise, when you hit any sort of crisis, you’re likely to make it through just fine if a.) you were already doing the right stuff and b.) you don’t stop doing it just because you hit a crisis.

Your life wants to go straight.

Something Done Right

Today, a new entry in the series of “Johnny dispels a folksy truism.” Today’s entry: “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

Nonsense. In fact, pretty much the opposite is true. The whole foundation of that saying is that you should hoard knowledge, eschew delegation, and never teach others. That’s not only a terrible way to “get things done right,” it would be wildly inefficient in the long run even if it wasn’t.

I have three young kids, and any time they see me doing absolutely anything, they want to help. One of my firm parenting policies is that I say “yes” to requests to help as often as humanly possible. Now, allowing your kids to help you with a routine household task adds, conservatively, 6 hours to that task. And often there isn’t actually something they can do to help, but I always find something anyway. There’s always something you can hold, or stir, or fetch, or something like that. And I want to encourage my kids not only to engage and spend time with me and not be pushed away, but also to feel like “being able to contribute” is their default state in life. So I try to never shoo them away.

But there’s a big, big side benefit to this. What starts out as inventing busywork so you can spend time with your kids rapidly turns into real competence. Yesterday, my eight-year-old daughter chased me out of the kitchen and told me to “mind the kids” (meaning her two younger siblings) so that she could prepare dinner. She whipped up spaghetti and gravy, and I’m not ashamed to say it – it was better than mine.

Look, I’m a New Jersey Italian. I can rock some spaghetti and gravy, but hers was better. She’d seen everything I do when I make it, absorbed it like a sponge while she was “just” mixing or fetching or whatever I’d have her do, and then adapted her own recipe. Because I never chased her away, she wasn’t afraid to experiment. She never thought of herself as too young to do what the grown-ups did.

The best way to get something done better than it ever was before is to give all your knowledge to someone who’s only at the start of their journey. You’re always learning, but the amount you learn between day 16,435 and day 16,436 of practicing a task is minuscule compared to the amount your learn between days 28 and 29. People just beginning to learn something have quite a few advantages over the “old dogs.” Inventiveness is one of them – my daughter added an ingredient to her gravy that I have never, in all my years, even considered. It was unconventional, but fantastic, and it came about because of the new ideas that come from sharing the task. (At her request, I am keeping her secret ingredient a secret – you’re on your own!)

Taking the time to teach, share with, learn from, delegate to, and include others in your work can seem frustrating or time-consuming. But unless you want to be stuck doing all the work forever on every task just to have mediocre results, it’s the best way forward.

Now, if I want spaghetti done right – I have someone else do it. I’ll watch the kids.

A Story About My Father

Today I’m going to share a story. I don’t know if I have any deep lessons or morals to draw from it – it’s just a 100% true story that’s incredibly illustrative of the man my father is, and is worth sharing.

My father has always been an excellent “junkyard engineer.” His garage is always full of odds and ends, bits and pieces, and a wide variety of tools he uses to combine these things into small inventions. Here’s an example: when my father’s eyesight started to go bad and he found it difficult to read books at the normal print size, he found a camera and wired it to a large monitor, then mounted that camera over a sliding keyboard shelf (the kind that are sometimes attached to desks) which had clamps on either side. Now he had a place he would put a book and slowly slide it past the camera, magnifying the page and projecting it onto the much larger monitor for him to read.

To my father, there is no problem that can’t be solved by the right combination of scrap.

Which brings us to the other day. He sent me a picture of himself, wearing a pair of 3-D glasses (the old paper kind that would come in activity books), from which he had removed the lenses and to which he had attached a playing card on the left-hand arm. He was smirking in the picture and asked me to guess why he had done this.

I was unable to (of course), and so he informed me: When he watches TV, there’s a lamp beside him in his study that was casting an unpleasant glare against his eye. So he carefully attached a playing card to these glasses frames in such a way that when he was seated in the position from which he watches TV, the playing card exactly blocks out the light from that lamp.

If you’re laughing hysterically at the absurdity of this, just know that so was I – and the story isn’t done.

I asked him what I felt was the obvious question: why didn’t he just turn the lamp off when he watched TV?

He replied: “the switch is broken.”


Carry On

What do you carry around with you on a regular basis?

I don’t ever like feeling “unarmed.” In this context, that doesn’t mean I carry around weapons – it means tools. I fall very neatly into a certain suburban-dad stereotype where I always like to have a few tools on me whenever I’m out of my house. Things like a Swiss Army knife, a multi-tool, stuff like that.

I’ve never been in a situation where I would have lost my life or suffered any major damage if I didn’t have one of those, but on the other hand, I’ve used them to solve minor inconveniences for myself or others thousands of times. If I saved 30 seconds of frustration each time, these little gadgets have more than proven their worth.

Some people do the same with other items – I’ve known people that are never without a sewing kit, others never without a notebook, still others never without an actual weapon.

The small accouterments that we use in our daily lives say a lot about the shape those lives have taken. What do you carry with you?


One of the ways you can think about the motivations of groups is to put them into one of two categories: those that are for something and those that are against something.

By default, I am very wary of groups that are organized around being against something.

It’s not that there aren’t things worthy of being against! It’s that those groups have a lot of inherent problems.

Problem One: Selectivity. Groups that promote something generally have the aim of “increase the number of people that engage with X,” whether it’s selling X, raising awareness of X, raising money in support of X, etc.. That naturally means you’re not concerned with getting everyone and everything, just more than there is now. If you’re a fan club, you don’t care that everyone becomes a fan of your thing, just more people. But groups that are against something almost always have the aim of “total elimination of X,” whether it’s a complete ban, eradication, etc. That leaves no room for edge cases, flexibility, or personal autonomy. For instance, take people that belong to pro-school choice groups don’t want to eliminate public schools or make everyone home-school their kids, they just want to increase the availability of those options. Meanwhile, people that belong to anti-school-choice groups want to totally eliminate home-schooling. Even when your goal of elimination is noble, like eliminating tuberculosis or something, this leads to further problems. Such as:

Problem Two: Persistence. All groups, regardless of their stated goal, have a secondary (and often secretly primary) goal: continue to exist. No movement ever just willingly declares “mission accomplished” and goes home without a fight. That means that even once-noble goals can become corrupted as organizations continue to redefine ever more nebulous ambitions in order to stay relevant. And since resources are finite, those established movements crowd out progress towards newer and more important goals. As bureaucracy increases, efficiency decreases, and that’s the natural way organizations go as time goes on. Organizations that are pro-something face a similar problem over time, but at least they can keep their goal focused.

Problem Three: Denial. Organizations that are anti-something have a strange way of denying their own victories. It’s bad press – if the perception is that you’re constantly fighting a giant Goliath, you can solicit sympathy and the support that comes with it. But once you’re on top and clearly winning, people stop donating. That means in order to continue to survive, you have to constantly claim that you’re not actually making progress, but you don’t want to seem ineffectual, either. So you have to simply claim that your foe is ever-strengthening, even when the opposite is true.

As a general rule, I think it’s much better to pick a good thing and promote it than to pick a bad thing and work against it. Like all general rules, there are certainly exceptions, but it’s also good if you acknowledge the problems above even if you’re waging a war against a truly terrible foe.

Utter Nonsense

Want to get better at speaking? I have a fun exercise for you. I call it “Utter Nonsense.” Because that’s what you have to do: utter nonsense.

This isn’t just about public speaking – this is about speaking in any context, whether it’s a sales pitch, an interview, a speech, etc. Practicing this exercise gets you better at talking, that’s all.

All you need is the ability to record yourself on video and the ability to mark time in 60-second increments. Here’s how it works: You start the recording on your own smiling mug, and you set that one-minute timer. Then, you start talking. The rules are that you only lose if you:

  • Pause for more than a breath
  • Use a filler such as “um,” “like,” or “you know,” etc.
  • Break your flow by laughing, losing it, etc.

You specifically don’t lose if you just ramble about complete balderdash. You don’t even have to use real sentences. You can pull a Keyser Söze and just start talking about objects in your line of sight. You can just start spouting off random words, as long as you keep the flow. Someone who doesn’t speak a word of English should look at the recording and think it was probably a great speech.

When it’s done, you watch the recording, and then you’re allowed to laugh all you want. But then do it again. Rinse, repeat.

Why the focus on everything BUT the words? Aren’t the words… kind of important?

Sure, but you never get to the part where the other party listens to your words if you can’t pitch them accurately across the gap from your lips to their ears. You need to get good at cadence, confidence, posture, pitch, and all that stuff. And that stuff is hard to focus on if you’re trying to get the words right.

So skip the words for this exercise. Watch some YouTube videos of great speeches given by foreign leaders in a language you don’t speak. Since you can’t understand the words, you’ll observe everything else – body language, tone, etc. Do the same for talk shows or news in foreign languages (and turn the subtitles off) – watch how people listen and answer questions, look at their eye contact, etc. Then compare those to the videos you made, and see where you can improve.

The Beat of Your Own Drum

Some people just naturally make their own path in life. They don’t fit neatly into the lines drawn for them, and they leave the beaten path frequently. I was definitely one of those people – and I learned some hard lessons about that life.

One of the mistakes I made, and that I’ve seen others make again and again, is believing that deviating strongly from the average means that you get to care less about selling yourself, impressing others, or “playing the game.” The total opposite is true.

Now, if you’re a true misanthrope and your idea of “leaving the beaten path” is to go off the grid and live in a cabin in the woods – more power to you, and there are days where I’ll be a little jealous. This advice doesn’t apply to you. Live your best life, and let no one stop you.

But a lot of people want to shirk society’s conventions and still be successful within that society. In other words, they want to march to the beat of their own drum, but still get all the money, fame, respect, power, or other rewards (whatever they may be) from being a successful member of the main band.

You can do it! Not only can you, but it’s awesome when you pull it off. But the mistake is thinking that you can do all that while paying zero attention to “what anybody thinks.”

If you’re doing a weird thing, you have to sell that weird thing. Intensely, and every day of your life, if you want to succeed. You have to live and breathe it, and you have to shout it from the rooftops. People who stay in society’s easy, normal paths can do so with little friction – they can keep their heads down, punch in and punch out, and no one will question them. Those lines lead to specific places with relative certainty, and if that’s where you want to go, you can just sort of strap in and go along for the ride.

But if you step off that path, life is no longer automatic. You’ve taken manual control, and that means a lot more effort. Part of that effort, if you still want the rewards from success that your society can offer, is convincing other people to believe in you.

Once you recognize that you can’t just toil in obscurity if you want to turn your weird life into a successful weird life, there’s a second mistake that you’re likely to make. I did.

That mistake is thinking that “selling your weird” means that you have to sell it to everyone, including haters and detractors. Totally false!

The second you step off the normal paths, people will start attacking you. Not many at first, but the number will grow as you get weirder, more successful, or both. Some will be random people you don’t know, but some might be old friends, family, people close to you.

You don’t need to convince them. You shouldn’t try. For every detractor, there are literally 50 million people that don’t know you at all yet. Those are the people you sell to.

A good sales professional knows that in the time it takes you to try to argue a hard “no” into a weak “maybe,” you could have just found 20 more people who give you an enthusiastic “yes!” Good sales isn’t about convincing people who are already super negative – it’s about finding people who are positive. So as you’re out there living your amazing, weird, successful life out loud, marching to the beat of your own glorious drum, don’t spend a second on the haters. But spend a lot of time on the neutral folks, and show them how amazing your drum really is.

Change The Rules

I’m a pretty big geek. One of the geeky hobbies I enjoy is board gaming; we’re in a tremendous time for people who love complicated, elaborate board games. Growing up I’d always play anything with a board & pieces that anyone would put in front of me, from chess to Scrabble. If that represents the extent of your familiarity with the genre, let me assure you – board game culture runs deep, and it’s a lot of fun.

I’m a big enough geek about board games that I often do more than just play the finished product; I seek out discussion forums, read play-testing material, and watch interviews with designers. Not only is it solid entertainment for me, but there’s a surprising amount of insight that’s applicable to the business world.

One particular lesson that I found interesting is about when to just give up on a certain rule. The wisdom goes like this: if you’re testing a game (and these games go through hundreds if not thousands of hours of testing) and the majority of your players forget, ignore, or break a particular rule – get rid of it. The answer isn’t to try to reinforce the rule in some other way or to write it in a bigger font in the instructions. It’s to discard it entirely. Let the natural actions of your demographic shape your structure when you can; don’t fight against it.

It reminds me of a story I heard about the parks department in some Swedish town. Every time it snowed, they’d go out to their parks and make maps of where the footprints in the snow crossing the park were. Then, the next time they needed to add walkways, that’s where they would add them.

Otherwise you end up with this:

Desire Paths For Fabric - Mods - Minecraft - CurseForge

That lesson is hugely transferable to most businesses. If you’re trying to get a group of people to act a certain way – maybe your customers, perhaps your employees, etc. – and they simply won’t stay in the lines you’ve drawn? Redraw the lines around where they are.

If you sell a three-pack of e-books but you field a dozen calls or emails a day from people asking if they can just buy book #2, then figure out the price of book #2 and sell it alone. (Or, even better, sell Book #2 at the same price as before, but include Books #1 and #3 for ‘free’ with it. Nothing changes, but your marketing better matches your customer demographic – you’ve redrawn the lines.) Either way, don’t just fight the tide.

Remember that the end result you want is more important than the structure that leads you there. KPIs are only as good as the progress they enable towards a goal, but I’ve had more than one manager who loudly proclaimed that we were successfully hitting every KPI even as the ship was sinking. If the rules structure is working against the goals, it’s the rules that have to give.

All The Wrong Reasons

Imagine the following hypothetical:

You have a friend, let’s say Jill, who’s working on a difficult problem, a mathematical equation of some kind. It’s deep and complex, but Jill is good at this sort of thing. Generally, Jill’s foundation is secure – however, by a stroke of bad luck, she received some bad information somewhere and her answer is incorrect.

Now let’s say that you’re also good at this sort of thing, and you spot the point of error. You decide you’re going to let your friend know. But before you can do so, some other obnoxious person, let’s say Jack, starts screaming at them that Jack knows the right answer, because Space-Emperor Zorgnax revealed it to him in a drug-fueled fever dream. Not only is Jack obviously bananas, but in this hypothetical Jack is also being a real dingus about it – claiming not just that Jill happens to be in error, but that Jill is generally unintelligent or not fit for her work, etc.

Now, let’s complicate things further. Let’s say by some coincidence, Jack actually is right. Not about the Space-Emperor Zorgnax stuff, but his actual end answer is the correct answer to the equation. You know, because you got there using actual math. He essentially just guessed, but even a broken clock is right twice a day and he happens to have gotten this one right.

What would you do?

It’s not as simple anymore as just saying to Jill, “Hey, you know how Jack is telling you that the answer is 48, in between screaming obscenities at you and threatening your death? Well, he’s right. It actually is 48.”

Your ability to be seen as objective has been stolen by a lunatic who happens to share your viewpoint.

That happens in real life, too. Not just in hypotheticals. More often that I’d like, I find myself in a similar situation:

“On the subject of X, I hold the A view. Lots of people hold the B view; I think they’re wrong, but they’re reasonable, polite, and I can see why they’ve reached the conclusion they have. Meanwhile, there are a bunch of drooling maniacs loudly shouting the A view – in my view, they’re correct, but not only are they ridiculous, they’re right for the wrong reasons.”

Why does it matter if you’re right for the wrong reasons?

Because your methodology won’t duplicate. Let’s say you decide which of two wires to cut on a live bomb by numbering them 1 to 50 and then picking a number out of a hat. If by some miracle you’re correct (and hey, there’s a chance), you still haven’t created some miraculous new bomb-defusing technique. Your methodology won’t withstand iteration.

That’s why it’s so frustrating when that broken clock is right. It’s hard enough proving someone wrong when their bad methodology has led them to an incorrect answer. It’s downright impossible to convince someone that their thinking is flawed when it accidentally got them the right answer.

I once saw a trivia-style game show where the host asked a contestant, “If I’m drinking the penultimate beer of a six-pack, which number beer am I on?” (‘Penultimate’ is a cool word that means ‘second-to-last.’)

The contestant, who clearly didn’t know the word, uttered the following string of nonsense: “Okay, ‘penultimate,’ huh? Penultimate. Pen. Like pentagon. And a pentagon has five sides. So… five?”

Ha. Broken clocks, etc.

I have a rule of thumb that’s served me well: If I have a strong opinion and a lot of people agree with me, I check my work. I’m wary of strong consensus. I’m doubly wary if the people that agree with me seem unhinged. They might still be correct, but for all the wrong reasons. That causes me to not only double-check my results, but my methodology. If I’m still right, I can be satisfied by that – but I’ll sleep better knowing that I did my extra homework before saying anything.

“It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.” – Mark Twain