Empty Buckets

I like to build kits. When I was a little kid, I would find any sort of container like a satchel, backpack, suitcase, etc. and then fill it with themed stuff. As a kid, this translated into old briefcases dedicated to Lego building (with organizers for different blocks and flat mats to build on), satchels for journaling and craft projects (marble notebooks, scissors, glue sticks, tape, stickers, vintage magazines, and markers) and even the now-infamous (among my family) “Pouch-o-Fun” which was just a fanny pack that contained various little dime store toys for fidgeting with on long boring car rides or in doctor’s office waiting rooms.

As an adult, I still build kits. For everything. I have a tool kit for around-the-house handyman stuff. I have a mobile office kit for when I work somewhere besides my house that contains every adapter, cord, and accessory I need to work in a truly remote capacity, including a mobile hot-spot. I have a kit for my shaving. A travel medicine kit with nothing that can’t go on a carry-on.

If I engage with any activity in a meaningful way, chances are I’ve built a kit for it. I tweak and shape them over time, optimizing for space and organization. The point of these kits is to make it easier to engage with the activity, and to make sure I don’t forget anything when I need to do so. Too many times when traveling for business did I realize I had a headache or an upset stomach or a stain on my only dress shirt or something like that, so I built out a kit of all of the remedies for those common troubles. Now when I fly, I just have to grab one thing and throw it in my bag, instead of trying to think each time, “Do I feel a headache coming on? What if this jacket gets a hole in it?”

I’m good at this. Building kits is a genuine talent of mine. “Everything You Need To Do X” in a well-organized container.

One thing that made me much, much better was when I realized the most essential component of any such kit: empty space.

I used to think that if a container wasn’t 100% filled to the brim with stuff, then I hadn’t truly optimized it as a kit. If it wasn’t full, after all, then either I could fit in more potentially useful stuff, or I could use a smaller container, and both seemed like upgrades to me. But one day I had brought my Lego kit (the aforementioned briefcase) to a fellow kid’s house to play, and the neighborhood friend was kind enough to gift me a few blocks I’d liked. And I had nowhere to put them. I carried them home in my pockets like a chump, because my Lego container was so efficiently packed that there wasn’t room for anything else, even a few bricks.

It took a few more incidents like that for me to really learn the lesson, but the point is that a good kit needs some room for adjustments “in the field,” whatever that happens to mean for a particular use. When we go camping, my daughter and I always pack a few extra empty bags or other containers – for me, it’s usually for trash and for her it’s usually for cool rocks she finds, but there are a million other uses.

The most useful kind of bucket is an empty one. If it’s filled with water, you have water – and water is good! But you can’t do anything else with that bucket. An empty bucket, on the other hand, can do a million things, including carrying water if you find it.

Here’s the broader lesson: leave room in whatever you’re doing. Room to pick up cool rocks, room to accept gifted Legos, or room to adjust and change and bend as you need to. If you work a 40-hour week, don’t pack it so tightly that there isn’t 15 minutes to accept an impromptu meeting with someone that could be very beneficial. If you have a lot of hobbies, don’t over-schedule yourself to the point where you can’t just grab dinner with a friend.

It’s very good to be organized. But don’t make the mistake of organizing away all your margins. Leave a few for good measure.

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