The Sadness Switch

People who are upset, depressed, sad, or filled with anxiety often unintentionally prevent themselves from being helped by performing a sort of bait-and-switch on themselves. It goes like this:

Sad Sam laments about his feelings to a friend, colleague, loved one, etc. That other person says “oh, you just need to get some sun/find a better job/sleep more/etc.” Some sort of generic but positive actionable advice. And Sad Sam says “That’s not it at all! I’m depressed, it’s not as simple as ‘get more sun,’ I have a real chemical/medical problem.” That’s a legitimate response, by the way! If someone truly has depression, they’re also sick to death of people in their life saying “just get more sun” and junk like that.

But! If Sad Sam laments about his feelings and the friend says, “well, it sounds like you have depression, maybe you should seek some sort of professional help and/or medication,” then Sad Sam is just as likely to say “I don’t have depression, my life is genuinely bad/rough/difficult/terrible!”

You see what happened? Whichever solution they’re presented with, they claim they have the opposite problem and it’s therefore unsolvable.

But that switch is false. First off, both things can be true – you can have a real medical condition that affects your mood, energy levels, thoughts and even actions, AND you can have a tough/difficult/crappy situation you’re living in. In fact, there’s probably a high correlation between those two things, so it’s not uncommon at all for one person to be experiencing both simultaneously.

But the “solution” to both is exactly the same, so switching the focus from one side to the other doesn’t work. The reaction to both is this: I work every day to get better or I give up and die.

That’s it. There’s nothing else.

If your external situation is crappy, you work to make it better or you give up and die. If your internal situation is crappy, you work to make it better or you give up and die.

What the actual methods are will vary from person to person. For an internal situation, possible improvements can come from medicine, therapy, spirituality, meditation, or Taylor Swift (seriously, listen to This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things and tell me you don’t feel at least a little bit better). For an external situation, possible improvements can come from physical exercise, getting a new job, moving out of a bad environment, or increasing your social activity. Lots of those things will have overlap into both situations – physical exercise both improves your mood and likely improves your situation in life for a variety of reasons.

But the point is, since the solution to both internal and external sadness is “put in the work or give up and die,” it’s a false defense to deflect from one to the other. If your car is both out of gas and has a flat tire, and someone says “oh, you have a flat tire, if you fix that your car will move,” it doesn’t really make sense to say “No, I’m out of gas – so my car will never drive again and it’s totally hopeless!” Look, the core advice is this: your car can drive again, but you have to fix a few things, regardless of which things they are.

So get to work. Or give up and die. But very, very preferably the former.

Notes, June 2020 Very Special Edition

Hello everyone! I’m doing a departure from my normal format of the monthly “Notes” post. Normally I just pick a handful of albums and talk about them, but I’m going to step away from that a little this month to talk about why I do that, and the awesome thing I’m going to share with you this month instead.

I like music. I don’t know anything about it, but I love it. I’m not a talented musician (I can actually rock pretty hard on the harmonica, but that’s it). I’m not well-versed in music theory or history or anything like that. I just really, really like it. I listen to anything anyone shows me – I’ve never said, “eh, I’m not really into that kind of music” because I’ve never encountered a genre yet that didn’t have something in it that could move me. So my goal is twofold – I want to learn about as much music as I can (knowing full well I’ll never even scratch the surface of all there is), and I want to share what I’ve learned with other people who also just feel the thrill of listening to something with such power.

To that end, I pick a few albums every month and talk about them, link them, and hopefully start a conversation. My dream is that someone new listens to those albums for the first time as a result.

Last week I had the absolute honor of getting to talk about this stuff on season finale episode of the Music Challenge Podcast, a podcast dedicated to exactly that – the stories that connect us to the awesome music we listen to. I’m going to link the episode I was in below, but listen to the whole season (and the ones to come!) because you’ll get more from them than you ever would from just a single blog post of mine. (Plus, as a bonus, I still talk about multiple albums in the episode so you’ll get the normal content of a Notes post anyway!)

The only universally shared languages are math and music, and music is just math with soul. Go and listen.

Little Things

Sometimes, people you care about are stressed or upset or in pain, and that in turn makes you stressed or upset or in pain. You want to help. Reflexively, you might ask: “Is there anything I can do?”

Sometimes there is, but most of the time you don’t get a good answer to that question. Partially because there might not be anything you can do, but honestly that’s not really the problem. Often there’s a ton of stuff you could do, but you don’t know what it is.

Relying on the person who’s in pain to tell you what to do isn’t a great strategy. They’re in pain, they’re not ready to manage a project. They might feel guilty for asking for something specific, even if you’ve offered help in general. And they might just be too distraught to know what would even help.

In one of my past posts that I reference very often, I wrote about the important of doing literally anything when you’re stuck and don’t have a clear plan. In the context of that post, I was talking about helping yourself – but the advice applies well when helping others as well.

Small acts of kindness go a long way, and you can’t really do them incorrectly. They’re about expressing your sincere commitment to the other person’s well-being more than about fixing a specific problem. They’re about giving the other person a little momentum to get started.

Don’t worry if you don’t know exactly how to help. Just do anything, even a little thing. The little things go a long way.


There is a time to be wild and try crazy things, and a time to lean on tradition & habit. I think most people get those two situations exactly backwards.

When things are going very well for someone, they tend to coast. They don’t look too hard under the hood, and they don’t question things. Another entry in the “Johnny Loves Debunking Folksy Truisms” file is this one “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s terrible advice, and I’ll get to why in a minute.

Meanwhile, when things are going poorly and you’re in the red, people tend to panic. I’ve written before about why it’s so hard to do nothing even when “nothing” is the right call, and it’s still true. When the chips are down, people – for a wide variety of reasons – start wanting to mess with all the settings.

Let me explain why you should probably be doing exactly the opposite, and talk about why “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is terrible advice.

There’s a fable about an old man with a leaky roof. When it’s raining, the water falls through a hole in his roof, necessitating him putting a pot on the floor to catch it. He can’t fix the hole then because it’s raining, of course. And then when it’s sunny out and he could fix it, he’s not troubled by it – because no water is coming in through his roof. So his shortsightedness means that he never mends the hole in his roof.

Let’s take that and extrapolate on the lesson of it. Of course, the old man was half right – fixing your roof in the rain is a pretty terrible idea. Not only is it much harder, but the risk is also way higher – not just your personal risk of injury, but the risk that you’ll actually make the problem worse! One wrong move and a small hole could become a man-sized one and suddenly one small pot on the floor isn’t going to cut it as a stop-gap solution. No, during the rainstorm the correct move is just to hunker down – put the pot on the floor and ride it out.

We all recognize that in the story, the mistake of the old man wasn’t not fixing the roof in the rain, but rather, not fixing it in the sun. When the day is sunny, you can do anything! Lower risk, more available resources (such as good natural lighting to see by), and less chance of a big mistake doing anything to create immediate disaster. Even if you did put a bigger hole in your roof during your repair attempt, your living quarters would still be dry and you’d still have time to fix your mistake.

That’s a great analogy! When you’re in lean times, either as a business or an individual, you have to rely on the tried-and-true things to get you through that patch. Don’t try to think your way out – work your way out. Put in the time doing the most reliable things you know how to do until you’re in the black.

But when you are in the black? Try anything! With extra resources and a low risk point, that’s the time to try out new things, make riskier investments, etc.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say, “Oh man, I just got laid off from my job, so I think I’m going to go back to college and get another degree.” Those same people wouldn’t have taken a $50 online course for a relevant skill when they were employed, but now that they’re in a bad way they want to drop a thousand times that number (and several years) on something they aren’t sure about?

When your back is to the wall, work. When you’ve got a good amount of runway, that’s the time to get wild. Don’t reverse them. If it’s broke, fix it just enough to get it working again. If it ain’t broke, build ten new versions of it, so you have them when the first one breaks.

Justifiably Wrong

Someone can be wrong about something without their incorrect belief being unjustified.

Information is rarely perfect, and lots of signals can be misinterpreted. Even assuming charitable, intelligent observers, those observers can still get an incomplete picture.

If you wear a yellow shirt only two days in your entire life, and some by some coincidence you interact with a particular bank teller only on exactly those two days, the bank teller might have the impression that you frequently wear yellow shirts. They’re wrong, but they’re not unjustified. (Sure, they might be savvy enough to know that two data points isn’t enough for such speculation – but few honestly think this way intuitively.)

Now imagine that you see the bank teller on a third day, only this day you’re wearing your trademark red shirt that you always wear because you love it, and you only wore that yellow shirt those two days because your red one was being mended. Bank teller sees you and offers a friendly hello, and then maybe makes a comment like “Where’s your famous yellow shirt today?”

Now imagine you got mad. How dare this person! You’re not some yellow-shirt-wearing person! You’re a tried-and-true RED-shirt-wearing person! Everyone knows that! You don’t ever think of yourself as a yellow-shirt person. How could anyone think that?! Oh, you’re so mad and frustrated and upset!

Look, you might take it as an insult to be associated with yellow shirts. You might really want to be known as a red shirt person. And you might even BE a red shirt person – the bank teller was wrong. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t justified in their assumption.

You shouldn’t be mad. Instead, you should reflect: “What made this bank teller think that I, noted red-shirted person, was a yellow-shirt?” And if you’re smart, you’ll realize the limits of other people’s information about you compared to your own self-perception.

Someone can be wrong about you, but that doesn’t mean they were wrong about the information they received.

Okay, so obviously yellow and red shirts here are metaphors. Stand-ins for, honestly, whatever you want them to be. If you’re one thing, and someone else thinks you’re something else, don’t get mad. Reflect on why they think that. Even if it’s not true, you have to take ownership of that information. They think that for a reason. If the person is intelligent and charitable, they might even think it for a very good reason, so you shouldn’t just brush it off.

That’s something a yellow-shirt would do.

Double Negative

Some people are just naturally very negative. They hear an idea and immediately jump to a reason why it won’t work. “Why don’t you apply for that job,” you ask. “Oh, I’ll never get it, they want someone with blah blah blah,” they respond. These kinds of people aren’t evaluating risk versus reward, they’re just reflexively reversing whatever idea is presented to them.

This habit, once you let it take hold, is very hard to overcome. If your first instinct is that something will fail, chances are good that you’re far too risk averse and you’re missing a lot of areas where you could positively impact your life with small changes in effort. That can eat away your life, but once it’s there, that poison is hard to cure.

So what if you just turned it to your advantage? If your first instinct is to reject ideas, why not give yourself bad ideas to reject? Push the needle hard in the other direction, and let your instinctual rejection cause it to bounce back into the positive.

“Hey, you should throw out your exercise equipment. Just put it on the curb,” I’d say to you. Maybe without even realizing it, you’d say “No way, that equipment is useful, I’m going to work out right now.”

You’re a pessimist? Fine. Be a pessimist about pessimism. Assume you’ll fail at failure. If tricking your mind is what it takes to get started and begin to work the poison out of your system, I certainly won’t hold it against you. Whatever it takes to make that first spark.

What, If

It’s good to surround yourself with challenge. It’s good to have people around you that will question you, give you adequate push-back, and run your ideas through the crucible. You should strive for that. (You should also strive to surround yourself with people who are doing that to be supportive, not people who just actually oppose your success.)

But no one has the capacity to check your ideas like you do. You have one huge advantage and one huge disadvantage over all external auditors.

The Big Advantage: No one truly knows your biases, flaws, hangups and priors like you do.

The Big Disadvantage: Nobody ignores them like you do, either.

At our core, we begin every project and action with this foundational thought: “I am right.” We need to, or we wouldn’t get started. Our brains aren’t great at internalizing thoughts like “I’m probably right, and even if I’m not, it’s a good idea to move forward anyway because statistically it’s a good plan and I can course-correct as I go.” Nope, the brain simplifies: I am right.

But the brain’s simplification can quickly become resistance to new data. Confirmation bias turns “I am right” into “I cannot be wrong,” and that’s dangerous.

Here’s a quick way to remove (some of) that bias – The Fictional Other.

Isolate your problem down to a single sentence, and remove any pronouns or names: “A high-paying client is being very difficult to manage.”

Then, think about another person whose only problem is this one. And ask yourself:

What would that person do, if they wanted to solve this problem and cared about nothing else?

What, if.

That person has no other problems. They don’t have any other agenda. No tribe to impress, no status to seek, no biases to serve. Just a single problem.

(I think this is why “What Would Jesus Do” is actually a great mnemonic device for people attempting to live better lives. It’s not just that Jesus was exceptionally moral, it’s also that He was unfettered and had great clarity of purpose. He didn’t have your chains. You put yourself in His state of mind not just to remind yourself to act well, but to quiet all of the other voices from your life that tell pull you in directions otherwise.)

But whether you’re religious or not, the “What, If” model can provide a great check on your actions. Once you’ve got an idea of what the hypothetical other person would do, hold that up next to what you’ve actually been doing. Do they match? Are they even close?

No one can answer that like you can.


There’s a difficult point in our lives where we realize that no one, no matter how much we respect them, is infallible. The reason this is so difficult is that we’ve held certain people to impossible standards and then we’re disappointed when they fail to meet them – even if we’re not perfect, we want to believe someone can be.

It happens with your parents. You grow up around these mythic figures who know everything, but then one day you start spotting the cracks in the veneer and see their mistakes and it can make you unreasonably furious (and it doesn’t help that this usually happens around a time in your life when you’re more prone to unreasonable fury than normal anyway). But true maturity is recognizing that they weren’t fallen gods who failed to deliver on a divine promise; they were ordinary people trying their best and figuring it out as they went, same as you. And if you reach that level of maturity, it means they probably did a pretty great job.

It happens with your living idols. You see someone at their very best in their athletic performance or their business acumen or their political convictions, and then you start to see that outside of that very narrow spotlight they’ve got messy, difficult lives, just like you. They make bad choices and do bad things and fail even at the good things a lot of the time. But that doesn’t mean the good can’t outweigh the bad. Good deeds don’t absolve you of bad ones and they’re not an excuse, but if a person messes up and grows and learns and even pays penance for the mistake I think we can let their good deeds stand on their own.

It happens with past heroes. There are a lot of statues in the world, and if we dig around inside the flesh and blood that bore those visages we’ll find, without exception, some kind of rotten jerk in some sphere or another. Some were far more bad than good, some were far more good than bad, but no one was all of one or the either. We don’t necessarily owe those people respect just for their good deeds and can (and should!) admonish the ones that were bad. But that doesn’t mean we have to disrespect the good deeds themselves. We can respect a noble act, independent of the person – however ignoble they might have been.

It happens with mentors. It happens with bosses. It happens with significant others. People are human – they have human flaws. At their best, they do incredible things. We need those incredible things, and we need them whether you do ten incredible things before breakfast or whether you’re a rotten jerk your whole life and you pull out just one incredible thing right at the end. We don’t have to ignore flaws – in fact, we should pay close attention to them. Remind ourselves that we all have them. Engage with them. Work on them, try to fix them, strive to be better. Leave a better world.

No one is infallible. If that means you don’t idolize anyone – good. Let humans be humans. Celebrate wins. Enjoy good deeds. Emulate virtue, and learn more about it. Don’t try to force people to be infallible, for you’ll chase away great merit.

Weak Links

I don’t like making mistakes. I imagine I’m not alone in that regard, so this post might have some useful advice for you!

One of the ways I’ve managed to reduce the number of mistakes I make in my day-to-day life, work, and other activities is to take active stock of the weak points in my decision-making and the “blind spots” in my actions.

Here’s a very basic example: let’s say I’m moving about in a crowded store with breakable things on the shelves. First, I recognize that this requires me to actually act differently than if I were walking around outside. Second, I recognize that if I’m going to knock something over and break it, it’s probably not going to be with my hands. Why? My hand-eye coordination is good, my hands are always in front of me and thus in my field of view, and there’s usually more clear space in front of me than behind me. No, if I’m going to knock something over, it’s almost certainly going to be with my elbows.

My elbows only have to move a small amount back to be outside of my field of view, they have less sensory input than my hands, and the space behind me is often more limited (when we feel crowded or cramped, we tend to back up as a general rule). So, since I’m aware of that, I correct for it. I bring my elbows into my sides and lock them there. I don’t step backwards at all. I look over my shoulder and check my distances as I move around the crowd.

In other words, I looked for the weakness in my process, realizing that mistakes would likely come from there if they come from anywhere.

This applies to… well, just about everything. In just about any process, you have “hands and elbows,” meaning areas that you’re naturally very well attuned to and competent in, and areas that are in your blind spots. Mistakes more often come from the elbows.

When mistakes aren’t very costly, focus on your strengths. If I were out doing yard work in my own yard, there aren’t many things I could hurt with a stray elbow. So it would be silly to waste effort constantly checking them; in that instance, I should be focusing on my hands and doing my best work. But when mistakes are costly (like being in a crowded glassware store), it makes sense to be more aware of my weaknesses.

Identifying the difference between the two scenarios, and then identifying what to do in each, can reduce your mistakes considerably. And it’s better advice than a generic “be careful.”

When my daughter is climbing a tree (a frequent occurrence!), I never say “be careful.” That’s about as useless a piece of advice as you can give. Instead, I say “look at your feet.” She, like most people, looks at her hands while climbing. But you’re not going to fall because of your hands – if you fall, it will be because you weren’t watching your feet and you got a piece of footing that wasn’t secure and it slips out. That’s the weak point, and falling out of a tree is a costly enough mistake that it warrants mitigating.

80% of the time (at least), you’ll be in situations where it’s more correct to go all-in on your strengths. But in those 20% of times where mistakes can be severe, reduce them – watch your feet and elbows.

What Have You Got To Lose?

When you make bets with someone, you might lose. That fact alone is why betting is good for you – you’ll be more careful and you’ll tend to interact only with more serious people. Talk is cheap, as they say, but if you “make it interesting” it gets… well, interesting.

A few losses when there’s something on the line will make you smart. Very quickly.

My oldest daughter made a wager with me tonight – she gave me 10 to 1 odds on a dollar that I couldn’t exactly duplicate a series of actions she’d take. The scheme is that one of the actions involved pretending to take a sip of water but actually holding it in her mouth – a later action in the series would be spitting it out and hopefully I wouldn’t be able to do the same.

I was born at night, but not last night. Daddy got his $10.

And you better believe I kept it! I even made her take my money to the store and buy stuff for me. She learned a powerful lesson.

Don’t talk trash if you won’t bet; don’t bet unless you’re sure you can win; and you’re never sure you can win against Dad.

Happy Father’s Day, y’all.