Happiness is Practical

Happiness is something that you both must sacrifice, and something that you will sacrifice almost everything else for.

At many, many points in your life, the correct decision will be to sacrifice immediate happiness for some “practical” reason. It will almost never be the correct decision to sacrifice long-term happiness for any reason.

We sacrifice immediate happiness all the time. I love my job, but yesterday as I was about to log onto a meeting my doe-eyed three-year-old batted her adorable eyelashes and said “will you play with me a wiiiiittle bit?” It would have made me roughly a bajillion times happier to have done so, but I still logged into the meeting (and played with her a wot later). So we recognize that we can’t always make the decision that results in the most instantaneous happiness – we have to pay bills, do chores, and so on.

The only problem with that is that day in, day out it can make us convinced that happiness is always trivial. That it’s not practical, not something we get to make a priority. That it’s something that maybe happens sometimes, or maybe is a by-product of doing all the work, but it’s not something we get to actively choose.

Bunk, I say.

You have to choose it. Happiness isn’t something you lay at the altar of productive, practical work and success. It’s what you do all that stuff for.

That’s a big thing to grapple with. It requires a lot of faith – faith that in the long term you’re capable of happiness and capable of building the world in which you get to feel it. It can seem very far away at times. Sometimes the “struggle years” get dark, and you’re as broke or overworked or unhealthy as you’ll ever be in your life. During those times, it can be very difficult to believe that happiness is an actual, concrete thing you can build.

But it is. If it wasn’t, nothing else would be worth it anyway. You can carve out a happiness homestead for you and the ones you love. You might have to sacrifice a lot of happiness along the way, to put in the work you need. Some days just surviving will be an amazing feat.

The farmer needs faith. The farmer looks out on a field of nothing but dirt and has to have faith that all the hard work put into that dirt will yield bounty. That’s you – no matter how much things around you look like dirt, you can reap great things from it. It will take work, it will take sacrifice, but it’s there.

How To Write Well

Sometimes you just have to start at the top and slide down – you’ll go back up again, and down again, and up again. It happens.

Sometimes you have to just start moving forward, even though in a while you’ll circle back to where you began and even further around.

Sometimes you have to just start at the top and plummet straight down.

Sometimes you’ll do that again.

But if you did all that and you had a pen, then congratulations – you wrote “well.”

Buying Time

I think the phrase “time is money” has it exactly backwards.

Money is time. From the very first time I paid a bill, I realized that what money really represented was the length of time before you had to worry about anything again.

Time is what I really want. I’ve never been a “fancy toy” kind of guy. I’m a material minimalist, so I’m not generally racing to have the shiniest sarcophagus. So when I hustle, I’m looking at my hustle in terms of the hours I buy with the hours I put in.

When I was 20, I briefly worked a temporary gig in on a factory assembly-line making eyeglasses. They had a process I loved – every day when we came in, we had a quota of orders that had to be filled that day. We got paid for a full eight hours, regardless of how little time it took us to complete the day’s orders. So if we got all the orders out in 3 hours, we got paid for the full day and got to leave. This sounded ideal to me, but there was a snag.

I, and a good friend Scott that worked with me, recognized the value in working our butts off to get out early. We’d work as hard as we could, skip all our breaks, and hustle like madmen because what we really wanted was time, not ease. An easier job that took longer was (obviously, to us) strictly worse than a harder job that was done faster.

But here’s the thing about assembly lines – it’s a team effort. And not everyone bought into our concept. Some people just didn’t get it. We couldn’t understand why people even wanted breaks – why stop for 15 minutes that you still have to spend in this building, when skipping it would mean getting out at least 15 minutes earlier and doing whatever you wanted? But despite our frustrations, we discovered that there were some people that would genuinely rather work in a low effort way for longer than maximum effort for minimum time.

One person really maximized our frustrations when they told us why they didn’t want to work as hard as us: “Why work harder? We get paid the same no matter what.” We were practically pulling our hair out. Yes, we get paid the same amount of money. But if we work harder, we earn more time.

But then – I had a breakthrough. One of the biggest epiphanies I’ve ever had, in fact. I asked the person what they were planning to do after work. Their answer explained everything – they had no plans. Doing nothing. Sitting around, drinking a few beers, watching TV and waiting for the next day to start.

That has never been my life (and it wasn’t my friend’s, either). We did stuff. We absolutely always had some project, some activity, some engaging thing we wanted to do. I can genuinely never remember a time in my life where I was bored, waiting for something to happen.

I learned a lot that day about what people will pay for time, and how not all hours are equal. It guides many of my personal decisions – I value remote work very highly because I hate wasted commuting time; those are hours I can spend with my children, my own projects, and so on.

So my time was more valuable to me than theirs was to them. They valued ease; I valued freedom.

Pummel Ball

The rain would hit the windows in great waves, bursts of wind throwing buckets at the side of the house while the dark horizon threatened lightning. The streets would become rivers, waterfalls into storm drains while the lakes and creeks rose to meet them, washing out the clear lines of demarcation that we’d built between us and nature.

I would stare out into it, my boots already on, my rattiest jeans and most ancient hoodie. Pockets empty, hand twitching over the phone. It would ring, like phones used to do, telling me that it was carrying a voice through wires from another window looking out at the same storm. I snatched it up before the first ring had ended. Hello?

Pummel Ball. It’s on, Miller’s Park, see you in ten.”

And I was out the door and into the rain.

We’d play every time it rained. “Pummel Ball” was basically kill-the-man-with-the-ball, but with points. My high school mates and I invented it as an alternative to the organized sports we didn’t like to play. We liked play, but we had a strong distaste for tradition – everything we did, we liked to build ourselves.

Pummel Ball was played exclusively in the worst weather imaginable – a non-negotiable rule. We needed the mud and the soft grass to combat the violence of the sport. We’d pick some park or playground and someone would bring a ball – usually a football, but often a “Nerf” one or something similar. We’d arbitrarily pick a “goal,” which could be a nearby set of monkey bars or the hood of a junker car – all that mattered was that you could spike the ball into it with a resounding finality, as was the point.

There were no teams. Every man for himself. We’d crouch in a circle maybe 20 yards from the goal, and one person would throw the ball into the air. The goal was then to be the person who took control of the ball and spiked it onto or through the goal. It had to be spiked, not thrown. Everyone else’s goal was to keep you from doing that, by any violent means. It was savage. The play ended if you hit the ground still in possession of the ball, and we’d throw it again from the starting point.

By the time the game was over, with scores like 8-6-4-4-4-2-1-0-0-0, we were monsters. Blood and mud covering shredded clothes, sometimes but not always returning with all the shoes we came with, we would laugh and limp our way out of the park and back to our homes.

Another reason for the weather – no one else in their right mind would be there. We couldn’t play this game with kids around or nice families out for a stroll in the park. Only once did our game get busted up by the cops, but we had no fear of arrest or anything like that – after all, they no more wanted us in their cars in our state than we would want to be there.

There was no set number of plays or minutes. We played until our bodies gave out.

The point of all play is to test. To push. Clever strategy board games push your mind into new pathways, ways of thinking that you don’t use otherwise. Poker pushes your social skills, makes you read and scan and monitor (both others and yourself) in ways you’ve forgotten how to do. Athletic games make you strain and challenge. Betting games test your ability to think about money and odds and statistics and probability. Some social games just give you the freedom to push the boundaries of polite interaction and social mores. But good play always tests.

We must test, we must push. From the day you’re born, the world starts to shrink around you. There are invisible bonds all around you, and they tighten a little more every day. Push at those walls with all your might, test their weak points and seams, and so you can break them when you really need to.

Don’t always hide from the storm. Sometimes you need to match its strength and show it what you’re made of.

Lessons From a Failed Blog

WordPress helpfully reminded me today that I registered a blog with them eight years ago. Astute and consistent readers may note that as of this writing, The Opportunity Machine has been cranking out hits for just a little over a year, so what gives?

Well, this isn’t my first attempt at a blog. I absolutely love what this blog has become for me, but it wasn’t a “hole in one” – I swung and missed before. That blog gained no traction and quite honestly wasn’t very good. I want to talk a little about why.

  1. It wasn’t daily. Yes, I think that’s one of the most important components. I’m a strong advocate for the philosophy that you aren’t serious about something unless it has a daily presence in your life. My posting schedule for that old blog was “whenever I have a truly fantastic idea for a post,” and you can guess how often that was. Which brings me to:
  2. I edited myself WAY too much. I felt like posts had to be grand works of literature and philosophical insight in order to be worthy of my signature. Ha! The best work I’ve ever done, in any sphere, came because I just made myself work no matter what, not because I waited for lightning to strike me and then expected that expertise would naturally follow.
  3. I tried to stick to too narrow of a topic. I wrote about political philosophy, and since I’m an armchair enthusiast at best on that subject, actual insights from me were few and far between. Sometimes really interesting stories would happen to me (I will say this for my life, it’s virtually never boring), but because I was trying to maintain “purity of theme” I didn’t write them down. If you only ever stay in a single lane, you don’t get many chances for adventure.

Put the work first. I really do believe that you should start gathering wood and nails and tools before you even have a blueprint. You can plan yourself to death and never swing a hammer once, but starting to work forces you to make a plan as you go.

When I started this blog, I literally had only one criteria: I would write in it every day. I had no plan beyond that. And because of that, it’s worked.

The Anxiety Knot

Anxiety, worry, panic. They’re not physical features, but they bind you all the same. Why?

Think of each thing you have to do, each series of events that affects you in some way, as a string. It has a beginning and an end, and some distance between. Laid out neatly next to one another, each of these strings can be viewed calmly; they may even flow neatly together and make a woven pattern you enjoy.

But if you just tangle them all together, it becomes nearly impossible to do anything. The same number of strings, the same total length, but now an impossible obstacle instead of a helpful pattern.

That’s the “anxiety knot.”

But this actually presents us with a good method for overcoming it. It’s just like the those Christmas lights – you pick one strand, and slowly weave that one out from the rest. Ignore the knot. Heck, cut it if you have to – but get your hands around one discrete string.

Do one thing.

This isn’t a cure for anxiety. But it’s a method that helps me focus and center when the knot is strong, and so it may help you as well. Picturing things, crafting analogies, understanding the problem on some other level – these things always take the teeth out of a problem for me.

They help me untie the knot.

Inclusion & Arbitrage

I’m going to tell you the story of one of the greatest feats of entrepreneurship I ever encountered.

A few years ago, when my youngest kids were very young and every extra dollar was a blessing, I drove for Uber pretty frequently on the weekends. (Side note: I actually love driving for Uber/Lyft – I like driving, I like meeting new people, and I like independent tasks, so it’s a big win all around for me.)

One time during one of these Saturdays, I received a strange ride request. The name wasn’t a standard first name, it was from a company name, like “Grandparents-To-Go” or something (it wasn’t that, but something very similar). Upon accepting the request, I got a friendly text from the ride stating that it was from a third party, who the name of my actual passenger was, and to call with any concerns.

Upon talking with my actual fare, a very sweet senior lady, I discovered that she had booked her ride through this service, “Grandparents-To-Go,” and I was so curious I called the number after I had dropped her off and talked about his business. It was one of the cleverest business models I’d ever seen, and I considered the founder a genius.

Here was his business model: Services like Uber and Lyft are 100% app-based. You need a smartphone and a relative level of tech savvy to use them, two things that often senior citizens don’t have. But seniors also often don’t drive themselves, especially at night. So here was a demo that could be hugely helped by rideshare services, but often had difficulty. So this guy decides to bridge the gap by forming his own company where you could call a friendly 800 number, talk to a real live human, and tell that human over the phone where you wanted to be and when.

And get this – the guy just used Uber to request a ride for them! That’s it! That was his whole business model – he had an Uber account for his business, he took payments over the phone with a 10% markup, and let Uber do 100% of the actual work.

It was honestly one of the best things I’d ever seen. This guy had an outstanding racket going, but at the same time he was actually providing a useful service. He found a way to help people who needed help and make a cool living without doing anything more than posting some ads and picking up his phone.

What are the lessons here?

  1. Finding something awesome that a specific population has difficulty accessing and finding a way to bridge that gap is a great business model.
  2. Even if something is really simple for most people, you can still be a hero by handling it for the people who can’t.
  3. Connecting the dots is worth money.

I want to reiterate – it’s not as though this guy’s customers weren’t aware of his business model. It was all over his advertising: “Let me handle Uber for you!” was essentially his slogan. So the people knew that he was just a “broker” and there wasn’t anything shady going on. They were thrilled about it – the woman I picked up was coming home from her great-grandson’s baptism and since she lived fairly far away, told me that without this service she simply would have missed it.

The more people there are trying to make a buck by doing things like getting grandparents into Ubers, getting women into STEM education programs, or getting minority populations into tech jobs, then the more grandparents we’ll have in Ubers, the more women we’ll have in STEM education programs, and the more minority populations we’ll have in tech jobs. I hope I always live in a world where people can make a living by doing good.

Make The Truth Obvious

“Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.”

Well… wear that t-shirt!

There are so many true things about you that would get you a lot of benefit if they were also obvious to others. Sadly, they aren’t. Information transfer is difficult, and signaling various qualities about you is pretty much what all humans do all day, every day. Despite this, we’re often bad at it.

For starters, we tend to rely on overly-traditional signals. But the more traditional a signal becomes, the less impressive it becomes as well. It may be hard to imagine now, but there was actually a time when a high school diploma carried a lot of weight as a signal of intelligence and conscientiousness. Now it’s just so default that it’s meaningless. Saying “I graduated high school!” is something your grandma sends you fifty bucks in a card for and then the whole universe promptly forgets about.

Wealth is relatively easy to signal, but the signals are also easy to fake. Plus, a lot of the traditional signals for wealth are now actually signals for being bad with money. (Remember, rich people drive ten-year-old Toyota Corollas and wear clothes from Target. That’s why they’re rich. Spendthrifts drive sports cars with 28% interest rates and wear watches that cost three paychecks.)

And that’s just wealth! More abstract things like intelligence, responsibility, and specific skills or qualities are harder to show off. I mean, how do you show off that you’re humble?

Despite this, it’s worth the effort. I hear this lament all the time: “People don’t know the real me. If only they did, they’d give me a chance.” That sentence gets uttered in response to dating woes, job search aggravation, college admissions, whatever.

Well – it’s not their fault that they don’t know the “real you.” It’s yours.

They can’t read minds. You have to communicate. Here’s how:

Step 1: Think of the quality you want to signal. Intelligence, ability to grow excellent tomatoes, running speed, graphic design, attentiveness. Whatever, just pick the thing you want people to know.

Step 2: Ask yourself, “Besides myself, who else is the ultimate example of this quality?” If you don’t know, figure it out. Don’t proceed until you can point to a real life person (whether you know them personally or not) that has that quality.

Step 3: Ask yourself why you know that they have that quality. For example, if you picked “creative” as your quality and found the most “creative” person as an example, ask yourself why you think of them that way?

Chances are very, very good that you don’t think they’re creative because you asked them and they told you. Instead, I’ll bet that you think they’re creative because you saw stuff they created.

They probably did whatever their creative thing was and put it out into the world to see. They painted a mural on a building or they released and album or they published a book or they invented stilts for dogs or something. The same is true of any quality.

You need to get out of your own perspective. Don’t ask “how can I show people that I’m intelligent?” You’ll get stuck. Pick the most intelligent person you can think of and ask how that person showed you that they were intelligent. Emulate from there. Wear the t-shirt.

Rush Charge

It’s common practice to pay more for something if you want it faster. Same-day shipping, expedited service, etc. There’s the standard length of time, and then there’s the rush pricing.

What if there was the reverse? What if you could lower your price or get some sort of a rebate if you received what you wanted more slowly?

I do a thing with my kids, where if they’re too impatient for something I make them stand in the corner and count breaths. Deep inhales and exhales, count to 20, 30, 40. Remember that things will come as they come.

Sometimes you can pay more to rush them along, but almost never can you make something’s time come sooner by bouncing around impatiently. That’s a lesson for adults, too.

If you can reasonably put resources towards expediting something, then make the informed decision. $50 might be unreasonable to get a $5 item to you one day sooner – but maybe not. There are plenty of reasons you might need that item a day sooner, and some of those reasons might involve preventing the loss of more than $50. I won’t judge.

But some things just can’t be sped up no matter how many resources you put towards them. A great line someone shared with me: “Even with nine women, you can’t make a baby in one month.”

Try this: Every time you have to wait for something that you’d otherwise not wait for, put a dollar in a jar. Or ten dollars, or a thousand (whatever works for your budget). Maybe make the payment for every day you have to wait. Then when you get the item, pick up the cash at the same time and spend it on whatever you like. Reward yourself for your patience. Build up a tolerance for waiting.

Things will come as they come.

Kids Today

There is significantly more value in young people than you realize. And I don’t mean in some sort of nebulous “children are the future of the planet” sense. I mean value for you, in the very near term.

We spend our early years getting it nailed into our heads that “age = experience” and to some extent even that “age = value.” We progress along in school based on age rather than any other metric, we’re told to “listen to adults,” and all that.

It’s natural to then think that the ladder continues linearly forever. But once you’re more or less an adult, it’s just a free for all. 50-year-olds don’t necessarily know more than 20-year-olds. Yes, experience is important – but age doesn’t automatically mean experience. A 50-year-old who has never ridden a bicycle does not have more experience at bike-riding than a 20-year-old who’s been pedaling since age 4.

Experience is WAY more specific than we think it is. “General world knowledge” is actually super localized to your time and place and culture; what I think of as “common sense” would do very little for me if I didn’t live in a suburban, middle-class area of the United States in the early 21st Century. So no matter how old you are, your knowledge and experience comes from the stuff you’ve deliberately focused on and not much else. Pretty much everything you haven’t deliberately learned is urban legends, old wives’ tales, etc.

Tomorrow my oldest daughter starts her video game design course. She’s eight. And she’s not like super advanced or anything – this is a course for her age group! I might know more than she does about life now, but let’s not pretend she isn’t going to lap me real soon.

Just keep that in mind the next time you’re making some snap judgments of people in a professional context. Even if you look at someone younger than you and think “I know way more than this person,” just know that their trajectory is much better than yours. They’re going to lap you. But you can ride that wave now!

Young people work cheap. How much you demand for your labor in the market is partially a result of the value you provide, but it’s also partially a result of what you need, and when you’re young you don’t have as many needs yet. (In fact, learning to keep “need creep” down is a big advantage all on its own.) And while you’re getting that immediate value now, you can also be building relationships with the leaders of tomorrow. If you think you’ve got it in you to outpace every person younger than you for the rest of your career, good luck. I’d rather invest in them, whether they’re 8, 18 or 28, and then reap that investment as we all age together.