Reinventing the Wheel

Sometimes it’s good to lean into the tropes.

While we often strive to be creative, unique or original in our works, it’s inevitable that you’ll use well-established building blocks.

Let’s say you want to write an original song. Even if you try really really hard not to recycle musical concepts or lean too heavily into your influences, this just scratches the surface of how deep your foundations really go. You’re probably not inventing a new language with new phonemes for the lyrics. You’re probably not inventing new instruments to play the song on. You aren’t creating a new file type to store the digital version. And so on.

You’re using the tools that exist to create something new.

It would be silly of a critic to say that Frank Zappa wasn’t creative or inventive because he used existing instruments – how trite, right? Or to say that Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t innovative because his buildings were constructed out of wood and nails – jeez, derivative much? I mean, Vincent van Gogh just used paint! What a copycat!

Stylistic elements are just that – tools. I see a lot of creators go through a phase where they feel like they have to throw away literally everything that came before in order to be original, but that’s like saying you want to be a famous painter who will never use brushes, canvas or paint. Some people do try to do that! They make art by smashing watermelons onto taxicabs or something and while that has its place (I’m no art critic, but I don’t fundamentally believe there’s any such thing as ‘not art’), it isn’t a substitute for actual creativity.

In fact, some of the people who did reinvent a few wheels as part of their creative process did so by really understanding them – knowing the rules is important to effectively subverting them or making your own. (J.R.R. Tolkien comes to mind, having actually created a language as part of his fantasy saga.)

Sometimes you just lean into it, hard, like in Snow Crash where the main good guy is literally named “Hiro Protagonist.” There’s nothing wrong with it – these are all tools in your tool box. Know them, and build the thing you really want to build.

The Gum Principle

This is The Gum Principle: “Whenever someone offers you a piece of gum, you should say yes, even if you don’t want gum or even hate gum. You should say yes, because ‘want a piece of gum?’ can also be an extremely polite and tactful way of saying ‘you have terrible breath’.”

The Gum Principle is broadly applicable to a lot of life, however. Sometimes people think we need help with something, but suggestions that we need help are unfortunately often seen as hostile or insulting. So helpful people who also have a sense of tact and decorum will frequently try to find ways to help solve the problem without ever calling attention to it as a problem, in so many words.

Maybe the world would be better if we were all more direct? I’d like to think so, but hurt feelings are a thing and we obviously developed social norms for a reason, so maybe it’s better that we improve our ability to navigate these nuances rather than try a brute force strategy.

I’ve heard of some really extreme examples of application of the Gum Principle. One story I heard was of employees at a business who got a new co-worker who seemed to have terrible personal hygiene, despite being a nice guy. He just… stunk, to put it mildly. No one wanted to be the one to tell the nice but awkward and shy new guy that he reeked, so instead they invited him to the gym with them, then afterwards when they all stank from an intense workout they shared personal hygiene tips with each other – loudly, and secretly for the benefit of the new guy. It worked, and the new guy started showing up to work perfectly fine.

That’s a lot of effort to spare someone a little embarrassment, of course. It was extremely nice of those guys, but the important thing is this – if the new guy had said “no thanks” to the gym trip, now the other guys are forced to just say “Okay, we were trying to be subtle, but dude you need to shower and buy some new deodorant. Or ANY deodorant.”

The Gum Principle means you should generally accept offers of help and assistance, even if you think you don’t need it. If your boss offers to pay for a sensitivity course for you “because you might enjoy it,” then you should say yes, because they might really be saying “you’re a huge jerk and if you don’t stop we’re going to fire you.”

Of course, sometimes gum is just gum. But what’s the harm in saying yes? You might accidentally do a bunch of self-improvement stuff that you didn’t plan on? Oh, boo hoo.

Once I embraced the Gum Principle, a nice side benefit for me was I started being more honest with myself, and even with others, about my weak points. Now, if someone offers me gum I’ll often make a joke out of talking about the Gum Principle, and then I can feel more comfortable just asking if my breath is bad. Sometimes they say “no it’s fine, I was just being polite” and sometimes they say “take the gum, dude. And stop eating liverwurst and onion sandwiches, dear lord.”

The Ocean Doesn’t Care

I had a friend, long ago, who would always bring his troubles to the ocean. It was a good place to reflect, he said, because it was easier there to remember how insignificant your woes really are.

The ocean doesn’t care. You could scream into it and thrash and flail and it won’t make a lick of difference.

There is a larger universe to which you belong, with its own patterns, and of which you are only a small part.

Don’t Be Mad At The Wall

It’s a wall. Your options are to go over, around or under it. I guess you could even give up and turn back if that’s your inclination. But getting mad at the wall for existing accomplishes precisely zip.

It’s perfectly natural to feel frustration, but that doesn’t mean it’s helpful or productive. Frustration is anger combined with powerlessness – but you are not powerless. Never.

You have brains in your head, and feet in your shoes. Frustration is what you feel when a solution has not yet presented itself, but the feeling of frustration is the very thing preventing a clear solution from manifesting. If you need to walk away from the wall for a minute, do so. But screaming isn’t climbing.

In other words – get over it.

Yes or No

There’s this old joke about “yes or no” questions, and it’s a short one. “Answer yes or no: have you stopped kicking your dog?”

The trap there, where either a yes or a no answer ends up with you admitting that you’ve kicked your dog at least once, is the point that the joke tries to illustrate. “Yes or no” might seem like clear, easy binary answers, but you can stack a lot of assumptions into the premise.

When that happens, it’s fine to point it out! Those are situations where it’s fine to say “I reject the premise of the question” or even to just keep quiet.

Not all questions are traps, however. Some are just honest – if direct – requests for information. The more dishonest someone is by default, the more they’ll tend to treat all yes or no questions as traps.

There is no reason for an honest person to fear direct questions. That doesn’t mean you always have to answer them – after all, it may be none of your business. But if you ask someone “do you like ice cream,” some people will just say yes or no, and some people will hedge.

What is hedging? Hedging is answering in such a way as to be able to deny that you answered either “yes” or “no” later. Lawyers and politicians do it all the time, for predictable reasons. They don’t want concrete positions that can be used against them later – they want to remain flexible.

Of course, you can remain flexible even while being honest. You can ask me if I like cake, I can say no, and then later if you see me eating cake and you think you’ve got some sort of “gotcha” moment on me, I can freely say “I’ve changed my position on cake; I’ve had some really excellent ones lately and it’s caused me to refine my opinion. Now I can say I like cake of a certain type and quality.” There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind.

But be honest and show conviction in your answers. You’ll breathe more.

The Last Place You Look

I’ve always vehemently hated the phrase “it’s always in the last place you look.” I get that it’s a joke and all, but it’s just so beaten to death. In fact, I dislike the phrase so much that one time when I was looking for something and someone nearby uttered the phrase, I actually vowed to look in two more places after I’d found what I was looking for just for spite.

And because I’m a man of my word, I did – I found whatever object I’d been hunting for, and then just for the gag I also looked under the couch and behind the TV.

Behind the TV, I found a $5 bill that had fallen behind there however long ago.

The lesson, of course, isn’t “spite pays off.” If only! No, the lesson that I choose to draw from this wild event is that we shouldn’t necessarily stop looking for something just because we’ve found it.

Take job hunting, for example. We look for jobs and we’re so relieved when we find one that we stop looking – but why? A better job, or even just a new adventure, could come from continuing to keep your eyes open in those same channels.

Maybe we shouldn’t live our lives with our heads in the sand, only pulling them out to look for stuff when we’re in dire need. Maybe there should never be a “last place you look” because you’re always looking, always aspiring.

Or maybe I’ve missed the lesson here entirely.

Oh well. I’ll keep looking for it.

The Liar’s Hall

If you are a young, single person, here’s some advice to you: don’t hit on food service workers while they’re at work. Your server, your bartender, your barista – be polite, but don’t try to take it any further than that.

Let’s take a step back and look at the larger case here, and then we’ll come back to that specific advice as an example. In general, you want people to be honest with you. Your life is better if everyone gives it to you straight, trust me. But honesty is not just a matter of the character of other people – you also can create the conditions for both honesty and dishonesty in how you conduct your own affairs.

Let’s take an extreme example. Point a gun at someone and ask them if they like your haircut. You’re very likely to get enthusiastic approval, but how much could you trust it? The person was backed into a corner, given very little choice but to give you the answer you wanted. Even if they genuinely liked your haircut anyway, you put them in a position where the statement is meaningless.

Now, hopefully you abstain from pointing guns at people – and hopefully you don’t abstain from such behavior just because it benefits you to do so! People deserve respect and that’s reason enough not to “corner” them. But often we corner people without realizing it (it’s not always as obvious as a pointed pistol!) and thus we often build a Liar’s Hall around ourselves without even knowing it.

So let’s get back to the friendly barista at your local coffee shop. Here’s the thing – their job is customer service. They’re at her most nice to begin with, and some of it at least is probably artificial, so right off the bat you’re probably over-estimating how interested they might be. But beyond that, they’re also implicitly cornered – they can’t just leave, they can’t just ignore you, and at least some part of them has to worry that rejecting your advances will result in trouble for them professionally. That means if you hit on someone in that environment, you’re creating the conditions to be lied to. You shouldn’t do this purely out of respect for the other person, but the side benefit to acting honorably is that you also excuse yourself from the Liar’s Hall.

People inadvertently enter the Liar’s Hall all the time, and smart people always look for the exits. Company and political leaders who exercise a lot of power are almost always trapped there, which is why it’s so important for them to find ways to get honesty regardless.

Always be aware of when you might find yourself in the Liar’s Hall. Whenever you ask for other people’s opinions, make sure you note any reasons they may have to feel like they have to lie to you, and diffuse those reasons to the best of your ability.

Personally, I have to navigate this almost every day. People literally pay me for my advice. On the one hand, they’re paying me to give them feedback they couldn’t receive anywhere else, but on the other hand, they are paying me. I learned very early that I have to set the expectation with my clients that I’m going to be brutally honest with them and not sugar-coat things, even if they get information they don’t want to hear. I don’t want them to be in the Liar’s Hall, so I make sure right from the start that I set the groundwork for honesty.

If you frequently give or solicit opinions, you should do the same.

Notes, August 2020 Edition

Hello everyone! I have some music I’d like to share with you. As usual – no agenda, no theme, nothing but music I like and think you might, too.

Violent Femmes, by Violent Femmes. The debut, eponymous album by this stripped-down punk band is absolutely iconic. This is high-school angst at its finest (quite literally, as most of the songs were written while Gordon Gano was still in high school), and in the same way that you can’t ever really recapture that spark, the band never really did better than this. But it doesn’t matter, because they immortalized it with this album, and you can go listen when you want to feel that way too.

Fish Outta Water, by Karen Lovely. This is the most recent album by Lovely, who has been releasing albums for about a decade. This was my first exposure to her music, though, and I only recently heard of her. I’ve been blown away though, and Fish Outta Water has been on heavy rotation. “Next Time” in particular is such a fantastic song, though the whole album cooks.

Red of Tooth and Claw, by Murder By Death. These guys are so weird and cool. I heard of them years ago when I decided one night to send out a mass text message to everyone in my phone asking them what they were listening to. This was one of the responses and it’s super, super cool. They’re a little Johnny Cash, a little Jim Croce, a little Bobby Fuller, but all with more modern indie rock vibes. Modern cowboy music. I like it a lot, and it’s just so different that the band stays really interesting. Listening to this album is like watching a good movie.

Cage The Elephant, by Cage The Elephant. Some punk/alternative takes itself WAY too seriously, and I love that Cage the Elephant isn’t like that. They’re like Rage Against The Machine but having more fun. They’ve got fantastic hooks and this album is incredibly fun to listen to. The band members were all blue-collar everymen before their music careers and it shows in the subject matter of their songs – extremely relatable, and able to get you pumped even for a mundane day.

Comfort Eagle, by Cake. Cake is one of my favorite bands, but their album structure has always been a little off to me. I have every album, and there’s something to love on every one – but at the same time, I don’t think they’ve ever released a “no skips” album where every song is outstanding. Their total library therefore has an incredible volume of great songs, but on my music playlists they’re pretty curated. That being said, Comfort Eagle might have the best ratio of fantastic songs to skips out of their discography, so if you’re looking for an introduction to this fantastic band this is a great place to start.

Enjoy some music, everyone! As always, tell me what you’re listening to, and be grateful for every second.

Thinking Back

Tonight my father and I were reminiscing about old trips we’d taken in the days of my youth. He was telling story after story, starting each one with “Do you remember the time…”

I noticed an interesting phenomenon. My father’s memory of my childhood years is naturally more acute than my own recollection of it. I honestly didn’t remember a lot of the stories he told. But the pattern that emerged became clear – I remembered all the “good” stories and didn’t remember all the “bad” ones.

He told me about a family road trip where I apparently had an absolutely miserable time, and I didn’t recall it at all. But the story of the camping trip when I was eight and caught a snake all by myself I could see like it was yesterday. The times my father and I got in screaming matches – all forgotten. The times we looked at the stars by firelight and when we built my tree house together – vividly recalled.

So in retrospect, I think back very fondly on my early years, even though they had the same ups and downs as anyone’s. It’s possible that the natural way of things is like that, except I know lots of people that seem to only remember the bad stuff. Miserable or misspent youths, failings in their adolescence and early adulthood, even slights from last week. Those same people will callously dismiss a gentle reminder of a good event in yesteryear, as if it attacked their perception of their own misery.

The reality is, of course, that our lives are filled with good and bad. Taken in a true accounting, there is less distance between the most miserable life and the most joyous one than we care to admit. That leaves you today with a choice.

The past has brought you to this moment, but the ship only sails one way. It has no further power over you, so you can become the kind of person who dwells only in the darkness or you can draw strength and power and inspiration from your moments of light, however few they might in actuality be.

I know, in a general sense, that my father and I had rough years. I am very grateful that my memory of those times is faded and indistinct, but I can remember with great clarity the time we built a wooden race car together.

Hunchback

I absolutely hate hunches.

An enormous amount of your subconscious mind is your enemy. Bent on your destruction. Your impulses are generally horrid. Your instincts are bigoted, biased, lazy, hostile, egotistical, defensive, greedy and craven. The Mr. Hyde lurking within all of us, the personification of all of those traits, is an opponent to be constantly battled against.

So why would I ever trust sudden bursts of “insight” from that creature?

Here’s the problem. Human brains don’t have good self-diagnostic capacity. Gut can give me a sudden flash of epiphany that’s entirely based in superstition and that would lead me to ruin if acted upon, and I have no way of differentiating it from a brilliant insight gleaned in a moment of connection between multiple thoughts in my higher reasoning. They “feel” identical.

I rely on those higher insights. That’s the problem.

Usually, when people say “trust, but verify” they’re referring to outside sources. But I apply that to all of my own “bright ideas,” just in case they’re not so bright after all. But like I said, we’re not good at self-diagnostic – so how do I do it?

Here are a few of my methods:

  1. Have a few people that you’ve generally vetted as being pretty smart, and make sure you’re open with them about your biases. This can be tougher than it seems. Often the very biases we’re trying to shake are biases that it’s pretty socially damning to have, so this person has to be trustworthy. And YOU have to have the courage to admit your flaws to them. But once you do this, you can say to that person, “Hey, this idea has been really persistently knocking at my brain, but I’m worried it might come from my high level of risk aversion regarding relationships. Can you tell me what you think?” That person can then adjust their opinion of the idea in a vacuum based on what they already know about your particular tendencies to one side or the other of any particular line and help you correct for it.
  2. Time Delay. One method I’ve discovered that seems to be pretty good at sifting the higher insights from the base impulses is time. No matter the level of conviction with which they first hit my brain, the vile impulses fade much more quickly than the truly good ideas. If I have what seems like a “good idea” but actually is coming from that place of fear or rage or anything else, it won’t last long. If the idea is still nagging at me more than a week later, it has a good chance of being grounded in something beneficial to me. As a result, I put all “sparks” away from the tinder. I don’t act on them. If they’re still burning from internal fuel a week later, I’ll give them more serious consideration.
  3. Measure against principles. Mr. Hyde didn’t have any rules to obey. The worst of the damage he inflicted might have been mitigated if there were some internal laws that he couldn’t break. We have some version of this imparted by our society – we have the impulse to steal something or hurt someone to get what we want, but we deny that impulse because of a prior principle we’ve considered. But we fall short – the number of vile ideas we will have far exceeded what most people have built principled walls against in advance.

(There’s a great bit by the hilarious comedian Burt Kreischer where he’s telling the story of how he got tempted into robbing a train. He suddenly goes on a tangent about how he’d never cheat on his wife because one day he was having a beautiful morning with his family, and he realized how good it all was, so he had a conversation with himself about how important it was to never ever mess that up, and what he would do if he were ever tempted by another woman, etc. He then returns to the main story by saying “Here’s the problem, I never had a conversation with myself about robbing a train.”)

Hunches are easy little monsters clawing up your back and whispering what you want to hear into your ear. Make sure you have a rigorous machine built into your life that allows you to test all of your impulses. Some will come from places of higher insight and be gold – but just like prospectors looking for the real thing in the riverbeds of the American West, there’s a lot of dirt to sift through.