Delayed Reaction

Here’s a thought experiment for you: imagine you could make any changes you wanted to the fabric of our society. Blank check! You can create or remove or overhaul institutions, alter prevailing social trends, make ideas more or less popular, change the scope of civic leadership, etc. But (of course) there’s a catch: you have to put all your changes down on a list, and they all take effect the day after you die.

No changes happen during your lifetime, but the day after you shuffle off the mortal coil all your sweeping ideas go into effect.

Tell me – as you were reading, did your ideas change when you got to the catch?

I could be remembering wrong (the human memory is notoriously fallible), but it seems to me that when I was a very young man, the prevailing sentiment among good-hearted people when confronted with societal ills was “I want to work to make this better for my kids. I don’t want the next generation to have these same difficulties.”

I’m not sure if that attitude has largely departed or if it’s simply drowned out by noise that wasn’t there when I was younger (either is equally possible), but I think it’s a better attitude than attempting to change the world for yourself alone.

There’s still plenty of conflict to be had – what I think a better world for my kids looks like and what you think a better world for your kids looks like might be very different – but the conflict becomes more civil, less heated. We’re no longer attacking each other. We’re building.

Forget about you for a moment. What do you want the world to look like for those that come after? The real beauty of this is that time has tremendous leverage. If you say, “I want a shady back yard right now,” that would take a lot of work. If you say, “I want my kids to have a shady back yard,” all you have to do is plant a seed.

Tool Daddy

My youngest kid is super strong and extremely adventurous, so today I had to install various counter-measures throughout the house to keep his zone of destruction relatively isolated.

My middle kid, who is on the most adorable kick ever of wanting to help everyone do everything, was practically salivating at the idea of getting to dig around in my tools with me to install these new features. She changed my name to “Tool Daddy” (instead of regular Daddy) and amended her own name similarly – complete with insistence that I refer to her this way.

She was quite diligent! The entire time I was installing, she was right next to me with a tool of her own, mimicking my actions. Every ten seconds or so she’d stop to say “Wow Tool Daddy! You’re doing a great job!”

There’s an explicit understanding I’ve had with all of my children, and I think it’s a good bargain to strike. The bargain is this: yes, my kiddos, you can help me or accompany me with absolutely anything, as long as you’re not deliberately hindering me. Of course I understand that the work goes slower with a kid on each leg than it would otherwise – but it’s also not really “work” at all if my kids are laughing and learning and we’re all enjoying the time. The hard rule is just that they’re not allowed to “goof off” in a way that is counter to the activity. My kid can take a screwdriver and poke at what we’re building all day, no matter how ineffectually – but if she pokes me, or starts digging in the grass with it, etc. then she’s on her own.

This works well. Even at a very young age, it makes my kids want to learn what I’m actually doing, makes them observe, teaches them a little more focus and discipline each day while still preserving the fun. That’s a good lesson for everyone – have fun, but stay focused.

You can build a lot that way.

Who You Should Listen To

There is such a vast chorus of voices out there that it can be tricky to decide who you should pay attention to. “Do your own research” is good advice, except that research will still put you in contact with a lot of different sources of information; discretion is required. So here are my criteria for how I decide who at least is potentially worth my attention:

  1. They face consequences for being wrong. A surprising number of people ignore this very important criteria, but I want to listen to people with skin in the game. This pretty much eliminates any politician and most people in the media right off the bat. They might point me towards topics I want to research, but they shouldn’t be the final step of anyone’s investigation because they almost never face consequences for being wrong or even outright lying.
  2. They spend a lot of time in their field. Journalists don’t give information; they write about information. But if a journalist writes an article about an interesting new discovery made by astronomers, that doesn’t make them an astronomer. So they probably got a lot wrong, or oversimplified, or sensationalized, etc. That means if I care about the information, I can use the article as a starting point, but I have to go deep. I might as well ignore it as noise otherwise.
  3. They can talk like a human. There’s an old adage that says if you can’t explain it to a ten-year-old, you don’t understand it. The more you try to build a barricade out of jargon or ultra-specific industry terms, the more likely I am to think you just don’t want to be scrutinized. That’s not me saying “anything I don’t immediately understand must be voodoo” or anything silly like that. But if you’re simultaneously talking to me and seemingly trying to prevent me from understanding what you’re saying, I’m going to assume you’re more concerned with looking smart than with imparting information.

Those aren’t the end-all, be-all of my list. Just those three things doesn’t automatically mean I’ll trust everything you say; I’m eternally a skeptic at heart. But if you don’t at least check off those three boxes, I’m almost certainly going to assume you’re all smoke, no fire.

Note that a very big, very absent criteria is “agrees with my priors.” In fact, having these three criteria always at the forefront of my mind helps me avoid the echo chamber. If I look at something and say, “okay, this is from a person who clearly has a decent amount of time in their sphere, they’re not being deliberately obtuse, and they’re in a position where being wrong would be very costly to them,” then that immediately tells me that any natural inclination I have to dismiss them is likely to be confirmation bias at work and I should give it a more serious consideration.

There’s a lot of noise out there. Be a skeptic, but be a principled one.

Crossings, Old and New

A fable:

Once upon a time there was a bridge across a mighty river. The river was wild and couldn’t be crossed any other way; even this bridge had to stand against many floods and surges and often there were times that it seemed it might not make it. But each time, the keepers of the bridge explained to all those who dwelled nearby that there was no other way to cross the river – if the bridge were not kept in good repair, then this way would be lost, and so people contributed their time and wealth to the bridge’s upkeep.

After weathering enough storms, people stopped questioning the bridge – it had proven its worth many times over and stood the test of time.

The bridge was so stable, however, that it eventually outlasted the river. Time and water have a way of eroding the landscape, and what was once a mighty but well-defined river slowly became a wide, meandering wetland. It now stretched over many miles but was no more than a few feet deep at its deepest; the bridge still stood in the middle but connected nothing to nothing.

An enterprising young person one day proposed the building of a ferry, broad and stable, which could easily take people from one side of the wide wetland to the other. Because her idea was new, she anticipated that many people would attack it, but she had an answer for all their misguided objections. The ferry was a good idea; it was simply unusual and she understood that people wouldn’t comprehend the value and she would have to convince folks of it.

Some of the people began to be convinced of the idea and liked the prospect of the improvement it would make to their lives. And then one of them spoke out and said “We could easily afford the ferry with the money we save not paying for that bridge’s upkeep any more.”

Though this was a wise idea, the man that spoke out was savagely ridiculed. Stop paying for the bridge? Was this man insane? The bridge has stood the test of time, it has proven itself over and over, all those who questioned it in the past were proven wrong until eventually they stopped questioning it, and the bridge has remained the same all those years!

The bridge had remained the same. But the river had changed. Changed so much that the bridge was a useless institution, but time is a stalwart guardian. The man who spoke out and the woman who dreamed of a ferry both raised this point – that the bridge had earned the respect of history but was no longer needed – but were once again shouted down. The people who did the shouting had no arguments in favor of the bridge, but their loyalty was unshaken nonetheless.

The bridge had existed so long as an institution that people had forgotten how to defend it; they simply knew that they should, because they always had. It had been so long since anyone questioned it that no one knew the answers anymore, but they answered regardless – with shouts and insults. None shouted louder than the bridge keepers, who had long built lives and livelihoods around maintaining a monument to a world that no longer existed anywhere but in the minds of those that paid.

There is no end to this story, because it repeats again and again forever. There is always an old bridge to nowhere defended by those who have forgotten reason and replaced it with tradition, and always a new ferry going somewhere unexplored and captained by people ready to defend it.

Pick the ferry.

Understanding Loyalty

“Loyalty” is an interesting, but frequently misunderstood virtue.

While people can be loyal to each other, “loyalty” is still describing a set of priorities that one entity feels towards another. I can be loyal to you and you to me, but we’re still describing two relationships then. And I think both sides of the loyalty connection are misunderstood.

First, “loyalty” doesn’t mean “obedience” – though far too many think it does. Or, more accurately, they think that a lack of obedience means a lack of loyalty. I’m extremely loyal to my kids, but that hardly means I obey their every whim.

Loyalty doesn’t mean obedience. I don’t even think it means never inflicting harm, and I’ll tell you why. At the core, I think loyalty means that I place the long-term well-being of an entity on the same level of value as my own.

I’ll inflict short-term harm to myself for long-term gain. That means if I have to, I’ll do the same for those I’m loyal to. Kids are a good example – my kid doesn’t WANT to stand in the corner in a time-out for 15 minutes because she smacked her brother with a plastic dinosaur. Making her do that is inflicting a short-term harm, but it’s much better for her long-term well being that she grows up understanding the consequences of actions and not to harm others.

Loyalty is a long-term virtue. In the short term, not enough stuff even happens to really test loyalty, and I think loyalty untested is no loyalty at all. If I do a bunch of stuff that benefits you, but also benefits me, that’s not really loyalty. At some point, loyalty unquestioningly requires sacrifice.

Look, I don’t want to put my kid in the time-out either. She whines, and her eyes well up, and she gives me the most adorable puppy dog eyes you ever saw in your life and it breaks my heart. I’d much rather believe her obviously-insincere apology and let her get back to playing. But that’s not helping anyone either – me or her.

This isn’t really a post about parenting, but parenting is a good example. Just as we often confuse loyalty with obedience, we also often confuse it with “hierarchy.” As if only people of a lower position on some ladder could be loyal to those higher. But if anything, it’s the other way around.

A soldier’s loyalty to his general is going to be tested far less frequently than the general’s loyalty to his soldiers. Why? Because the soldier rarely has a choice. The soldier obeys orders whether he’s loyal or not, or bad things happen. The soldier gets paid. The soldier (mostly) has less information than the general. These factors all mean that the soldier’s loyalty isn’t really tested – a soldier who is loyal in his heart of hearts and a soldier who is a cold, self-centered mercenary will still mostly behave the same, because all the other factors align to make it so. But the general has a thousand choices a day to abandon his loyalty to his soldiers. If he is truly loyal to them, if he values their long-term well-being as his own, he’ll make very different choices than if he doesn’t, and he’ll be free to do so. He has far more choice.

This is why loyalty is a very finite resource. You can’t be loyal to a dozen different entities, because loyalty to one may conflict with loyalty to another. You have to be careful with loyalty; temper it heavily with principles and make sure that you understand that you must be loyal to yourself first (and yes, loyalty to yourself is different from selfishness).

But loyalty is like love. There are plenty of misunderstood versions, flimsy facsimiles, or even malicious imitations of it, but it’s worth cultivating the real thing.

“I Feel Good”

People like me don’t take feeling good seriously enough.

It’s convenient when it happens, but I don’t pay enough attention to it. It takes a back seat to other responsibilities. I’m aware of the Big Things ™ that I want, that give me satisfaction and purpose, but I don’t pay enough attention to smaller things that just make me feel nice in the moment.

I’m not even talking about things I can do. I know that a walk around the block makes me feel good, so I do it when I can – though I don’t prioritize it enough. I know I feel better when I drink a lot of water (especially with some cucumber in it… mmm), and yet despite how free and easy it is to do, I don’t drink enough. But more than these small things which I don’t give enough space, there’s also the things that happen to me.

I love hearing a new song, but I don’t turn on the radio. I love the opportunity to fix a broken thing, but I don’t go where broken things are. I love a chance conversation with a stranger, but I don’t go out.

Busy, busy, busy. Too busy for little things, little smiles.

Maybe not today.

I’m going to go cut up a few slices of cucumber and put them in a water bottle and walk around the block. Smile for me today.


It’s so fun to peel back the shiny outer layers of the world and see what happens behind things.

Almost all living organisms produce some sort of outer covering to protect their delicate and complicated insides from outside influence. Skin, membranes, whatever. Even liquid metals develop an oxide layer as just a natural consequence of being exposed to the world, and this layer in turn protects the rest of the element.

Institutions and organizations form public-facing fronts that look very different from the “factory floor.” Cars aren’t just exposed engines riding around.

My point is, everything gets a shield. Naturally or artificially, everything just sort of develops a cover to shield its guts from the outside world. That shield is protective, but it’s also obscuring – you can’t tell how a car works by looking at it, because you can’t see all the parts that really make it work.

That’s true of almost everything. But you can peel back that layer. Sometimes in a more literal sense and sometimes metaphorically, you can go digging around inside. You can find out all sorts of interesting things by opening a back door somewhere and looking around inside.

But it takes some courage. Modern humans have developed a real aversion to poking around where they haven’t been expressly invited. They think that if they haven’t been asked to go somewhere explicitly, then they’ve been banned from there implicitly. That’s not true at all!

We have a local pizza place near us that we adore and is my kids’ favorite restaurant. It’s been a neighborhood staple for a while. One day while we were sitting in the dining area waiting for food to come out, my oldest kid just wandered into the back and asked to see the ovens and such. I admit (regrettably!) that my first instinct was to tell her to come back out and not bother the poor folks trying to work, but I’m glad that my instinct was shot down. Wendy, the wonderful owner, told my kid to come on back and look around and showed her all sorts of stuff. My kid was glowing, and ever since she’s considered herself practically staff at that place – she’s even earned a few dollars in tips by busing tables there!

All from having that perfect child-like courage to ask to look around. Lots of people are actually flattered when you show an interest in their thing and are happy to show you around. And if they’re not – so what? Be on your way and find a new adventure. There are plenty out there.

Rhythm & Blues

There is a natural rhythm to life.

Things will happen when they happen. Our brains have patterns, and we unconsciously spread those patterns all over the place. Ebbs and flows in all things.

“What goes up, must come down” is a good saying. It’s true in all sorts of ways.

One of my favorite economic concepts is “regression to the mean.” In a nutshell: when you have a lot of data points, most will be clumped around an average and there will be a few outliers. Every time a data point gets added, it will fall somewhere in the distribution, but in aggregate, most will end up in that middle. That means that if a particular data point falls really far to one edge or the other, chances are good that the next data point will be closer to the middle. So if your average run time for a mile is 18 minutes and one day you run a 16-minute mile, chances are good that you’ll do worse the next time.

If you don’t know about regression to the mean, that can be really discouraging! You ran a 16-minute mile, got all proud of yourself, and then the next day you ran 17.4. Maybe at first you get depressed that your success didn’t stick, and then maybe you start to make excuses – “oh, I was just tired and sore from yesterday,” or “oh, I got complacent and didn’t work as hard,” or something. But the reality was that your 16-minute mile was the outlier, and not a new base average.

Don’t get depressed! For one, it works both ways. If you run a 20-minute mile, you can probably safely assume you just had a bad day, not that your new base time is 20 minutes. Just be careful that the next day when you run an 18.3 you don’t make up fake stories like “I was more motivated because of yesterday’s failure!” Real change doesn’t happen in single data points.

You can improve the average. You can steadily go from 18 minutes to 17 to 16. But you have to stay consistent and work. Trust the rhythm. Things will go up and down along the way – that’s okay. You have to breathe out sometimes, too.

Mind Wrestling

This might be a controversial post!

I have a very clear memory of a moment with my father when I was young. I don’t remember clearly what led to it – just that I felt bad about some interaction with another child at school. Maybe it was an argument, maybe I was bullied, I just remembered feeling bad about it. In explanation of my tears, I told my father something to the effect of “he hurt me.”

His response was advice that I feel is sorely needed by many, and that I carry to this day. He said: “He can’t hurt you, because he’s not touching you. Words can hurt, but then he’s fighting you with his brain instead of his body, and his brain is no match for yours.”

His message was powerful. It wasn’t that words had no power or couldn’t be weaponized, but rather that the power to weaponize a message and use it to hurt could be countered by your own ability to rise above and control your own reaction. No mind has more power over you than your own.

It’s like arm wrestling, but always against a weaker opponent. Mind wresting, and you always have the advantage.

Now, let’s be clear – this doesn’t mean that you should be thoughtless or cruel with your own words, just because someone else could defend. After all, you shouldn’t just arm-wrestle people without their permission, either. It’s still impolite. But it does mean that you always have within you the capacity for defense from insult, offense, and annoyance.

This also doesn’t mean that this first line of defense should be the last. If you see cruelty and injustice in the world, you should act against it even if you’re able to defend yourself from the heartache it would otherwise cause. But let’s be realistic: a calm, clear mind is a better actor against injustice than a raging, sobbing mess. If someone can reduce you to tears with a barb or jest, you’re in no position to fight the good fight to defeat real injustice.

The first battlefield in any fight is your own mind. If you allow your enemies to occupy that territory, you’ll never win anywhere else.

If At First

If you are very, very patient, every safe is crack-able.

If 28-34-16 didn’t work, try 28-34-17.

Tweak. Improve. Iterate.

It’s not the best position to be in, the position where you’re literally just trying every combination. There are better ways, but sometimes the better ways fail. When you’re down to just trying every combination, don’t do it at random. Do it in an orderly way. Track your progress.

Don’t get frustrated. Not because it isn’t frustrating, but because being frustrated doesn’t help.

Even if you don’t succeed, I’ll tell you this – a tracked, categorized failure is better than a random, jumbled one.

You can always sell a well-recorded history of an interesting failure as a good story and a road map for others, if nothing else. It might turn into fuel for a better idea down the road. But none of that happens of you get reduced to this point and just start flailing.

When your back’s against the wall, more than ever, be deliberate.