Reverse Negatives

Reading good things puts fuel in my creative tank.

Reading garbage is like putting sugar in the gas tank. It’s not just bad, it’s worse than reading nothing at all. You’d rather have an empty tank than a polluted one.

When I read good things, I have good insights. When I read garbage, the most I usually come up with is “anti-garbage,” which isn’t the same as good stuff.

Telling someone not to do bad things might be correct, but it’s not as helpful as giving them examples of good things to do.

Which sounds better: telling someone that they’re kind, or telling someone that they’re not a jerk?

One is a “reverse negative.” It’s not really an insult or anything, but it’s still thinking about them in very negative terms. It uses a negative (being a jerk) as the anchor point, and then basing your evaluation of them in terms of distance from that negative.

I don’t want my brain constantly trying to put distance between my thoughts and negative space. I want my brain engaged with the task of getting me closer to positive space. All the time.

One Basket

When it comes to major decisions, you can’t base your entire choice on one metric. That seems obvious – but people do it all the time.

People say “I want the fastest car.” Or “I want the highest-paying career.” Or “I want to attend the most prestigious university.” They pick one metric, and pursue it relentlessly. And then they’re miserable.

Imagine saying you want the highest-paying job. You get a job offer for $200k per year, with 4 weeks’ vacation, in a field you have great passion for, with a smart and capable team. But you pass it up for a job you hate, with no flex time, a team of hateful misanthropes… but it pays $201k per year.

That’s an extreme example, but people do similar things all the time. Engineering probably pays more than painting, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be happier. And painting is probably less stressful than engineering, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be happier either!

In truth, we want a careful balance and mix of elements in our big decisions. I don’t just want the safest car. I want a car with the right mix of safety, price, cargo room, and other features.

If you get too hung up on relentlessly pursuing a single metric, you can bury yourself with unfavorable trade-offs. Maybe not as extreme as the example above, but bad enough that taken together they can make you really miserable.

Carefully measuring all of these trade-offs usually isn’t worth it on small decisions. When you’re figuring out what to eat for dinner tonight, feel free to pick “fastest” as your metric. It’s totally fine to buy the “cheapest” pair of sunglasses if you don’t really feel like worrying about it.

But major decisions? Things that have vast, rippling effects on huge swaths of your life? Don’t be a single-issue voter. Make a list of the things that matter and reasonable goals for each category, and mix and match until you find what works for you.

Here’s a tip: whatever the top example in any given category is, it almost always has terrible trade-offs for everything else. Care about the mix.

Thine Own Self

The person I want to be is as real as the person I am.

I’ve got a sweet tooth. I love sugar; put a Twix bar in my mouth and I’m a happy guy. At least, for maybe 10 minutes until that sugar actually hits my bloodstream.

Diabetes runs in my family, and I used to be a very high risk factor for it due to my weight. Being unhappy with my overall health and wanting to live to meet my grandkids, I finally managed to get it under control. I’m happy to say I’m at a very healthy weight these days (though I’m still continuing to work on being even healthier!), and I avoid sugar almost 100%.

I would be lying if I said I was being “true to myself.” My true self loves sweets and will snack himself into the grave in about 5 years.

Here’s another thing I’m very proud of: when I was much younger I was absolutely filled with a seething, ungodly rage. I didn’t have exactly what you’d call a “temper;” I didn’t fly off the handle easily or anything. Rather, I let things push me into very dark grudges that came out in very unpleasant ways and were hard to put back into the box once they escaped. I didn’t go off easily, but when I did it was bad. I’m very happy to say that’s not the way I operate any more – I’ve never once raised my voice in anger at my children, I haven’t let my mind wander into indulgent revenge fantasies in a decade or more, and so on.

But that’s not being true to myself. My true self is a horrible little gremlin who will magnify the tiniest slight and allow the wound in my heart to fester until it blacks out all reason.

I could go on and on. Horrible flaws too numerous to count. Each time, in order to overcome them, at some point I had to just drink the Kool-Aid and say “even though it’s a lie, it’s a lie that I want to be true – I am not that person anymore.”

I know that’s weird advice, but sometimes you have to start by just lying to yourself. Because who you are isn’t a deeper truth than who you want to be.

You aren’t any “thing.” There are a long series of actions you’ve performed in the past, but that isn’t you. To an outside observer, it may be a predictor of your future behavior, but that’s only because statistically most people don’t change that dramatically. But statistics aren’t destiny. If even one person in a million can do something, then that one person can be you.

And it starts with saying that it is. Whether you believe it or not in your “true heart” or whatever garbage that is, you have to start by looking in the mirror and saying that you are not a slave to the pattern of your prior actions.

Some people might say, “sure, I can change my eating habits and my anger management and whatever else, but you have to stay true to your core values.”

Hogwash. Maybe your core values are garbage and you should change them!

Christian Picciolini’s “core values” were Be A Nazi. Those are bad core values! And then he changed them, and that’s way better.

Saying you have to “be true to yourself” is one of the most insidious forms of status quo bias. It’s giving more weight to your current beliefs than any other set, just because they’re your current beliefs. Don’t do that. Assume, at every point, that you can do better.

With your thoughts. With your actions. With your behaviors, your goals, and especially your values. Improve them and sharpen them. I have what I believe to be good values that make the world in general a better place. But I’m humble enough to recognize: so did Christian Picciolini. Maybe I’m wrong. And so I live to those values, but I also test them by listening to others, being open-minded, looking for the smartest people that I disagree with and seeing if they’ll talk to me.

All that, and no sugar. To thine better self, pursue.

Make Your Bed

I have three children. One of the reasons I write this blog and choose the subject matter that I do is so that my kids can have a record of my thoughts and their progression. While I hope to be around for a long time, life has many unexpected twists and turns and I like the idea of them having something to turn to if they find themselves in a situation where they’d really love to ask their father’s advice, but I’m not there.

So today’s advice, while applicable to anyone, is aimed primarily at that mission.

Make your bed.

I’m serious. Every day. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you have to make the effort to square the space you’ll lay your head. First, it accomplishes something. Right away, when the day is still nothing but potential for good or ill, you’ll have imposed order on the chaos. You’ll have taken care of yourself. You’ll have also taken care of your immediate environment, and that’s important. The old camping adage of “leave no trace” should apply even when you’re not camping. If a person can’t pick up after themselves, if they leave chaos in their wake and cause problems for the next person to pass through, then they’re not a person with respect for themselves or others. Making your bed every morning is good practice to be the right kind of person.

It’s something you can look at and be comfortable for a moment. The simple act takes just a few moments and gives you a clarity of purpose, something to do practically on auto-pilot while you plan your day – or even something to keep your mind clear for a few moments before the plans of the day barge in. Then you can look at the finished product before moving onto the rest of your day, so right off the bat you’ve both accomplished something and rewarded yourself. A fine start to the day!

A side benefit is that if you commit to making your bed every day, you’ll wake up just a little bit earlier. Especially in our morning routines, minutes often count – we’re rushing towards everything, having stolen every minute of sleep we could. That’s a hectic and stressful way to start a day, and making your bed adds some Zen-like serenity to it instead.

And lastly, the biggest benefit of all: there are few things finer than climbing into a bed that’s made at the end of the day. If your day was good, it’s a great reward. And even if your day was awful, it’s a kind comfort – at least your bed is made. The place where you lay your head is safe, and orderly, and comfortable, and reminds you that you have the ability to impose order on the chaos. Tomorrow will be a better day.

And it will start with you making your bed.


I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently to how work works. Everything from the most efficient working blocks to ideal environments. Not to mention things like what you’re working on, both short and long term.

What follows are some of my thoughts as they relate to me. This isn’t an instruction manual for everyone (I have a notoriously weird brain) but I will explain my thought process behind each thing so perhaps you can see how I reached my conclusions and do something similar for yourself.

  1. I definitely do my best “deep work” at night. Apart from being a natural “nite owl” (which is kind of a nice way of saying hopeless insomniac), I also work best when there’s nothing looming in my schedule. My mind tends to naturally track to my next scheduled thing, so even if that thing is 3 hours away it still tends to distract me from from what I want to be thinking about now. Working at night means there’s nothing looming, so if I want to just get into “the zone” and do deep work, night time is the right time.
  2. Music keeps me focused. Apart from just giving me a good mood booster, music keeps me from losing track of time. I have a terrible sense of how much time has passed, especially when focused on something I’m working on. If I go down an unrelated rabbit hole while researching (something I’m very guilty of), I can easily lose hours if I’m not paying attention. But music gives me a concrete marker for the passage of time, and so that doesn’t happen.
  3. If I’m working on something that isn’t super interesting to me or I don’t want want to be working on (but is necessary), then I really enjoy working with a partner. I remember at a previous role I had, there was a coworker I got along with very well, and we’d stack our least pleasant tasks together and tackle them once a week on a late worknight, order food, and keep each other focused and motivated. Definitely beat trudging through it alone, especially if you find yourself easily distracted. In a remote environment (like many of us are in now!), I wonder the best way to just have someone working adjacent to you but not with you might be?
  4. My creative impulses are not all the same, so having different ways to express them and organize them are key. Sometimes I need to scribble, so an actual notebook is essential. Sometimes I need to type. Sometimes I need to talk out loud.
  5. I reduce the distractions presented by various devices by giving them specific mounts on my desk. The mental trick works really well for me – putting my phone in another room won’t work for me, since I frequently use if for work, but putting on a mount on my desk while I’m working turns it into a work accessory, and not something I’m just randomly picking up to fiddle with.
  6. When my hands get idle, I lose focus. I keep “fidget” objects on my work desk – and ONLY on my work desk. That means when I get fidgety, I’m still keeping my mind in a work mode, because my mind still associates fidgeting with those particular objects as something that happens only during work time.

I think lots of people don’t actually think about how they work best, which not only means they’re working less efficiently than they could be, but it means they think that generic solutions will work for them. I don’t think they will – this seems to be an area where you have to really self-reflect and lean into your strengths. And especially adjust for your weaknesses.

Beginner’s Luck

The other day I attended a webinar on a subject relevant to my daily life and where I wanted to improve – increasing your “work from home” efficiency. I’ve worked from my home office full time for almost a decade, and sporadically for years before that, but you can always improve and even if you’re already an expert on something that doesn’t mean you know everything. Plus, things change! Even if the first home office I ever set up was perfect, new tech(niques/nology) have changed the game and I’m sure I don’t know all of it.

The webinar was… fine. Actually, that’s uncharitable – the webinar was fantastic, but not for me. One of the “top tips” was… get a desk lamp. But here’s the thing, most of the people on the webinar had their worlds rocked by this wisdom, because they’d been working with overhead light and open windows or just the glow from their monitors and getting a desk lamp really is much better than that. Since all knowledge is acquired, it’s silly for me to be judgmental about the fact that “desk lamp” was solid gold insight for many people. At one point I was new to working from home, and I’m sure the first time I put a desk lamp on my desk instead of relying on the 60-watt yellow overhead bulb in that room I was probably equally impressed. But this whole experience highlighted for me what I’m going to call “The 101 Problem.”

Here’s The 101 Problem: If you want to be valuable by teaching a new skill or informing on a particular subject, the most good you can do usually comes from providing beginner’s content. It’s simply math: For any decently interesting subject X, the number of people who don’t know a thing about X is about 99.99% of the population. That’s a pretty huge potential demographic, both in terms of you getting some sort of reward for your instruction and in terms of how many people you can potentially reach and help. Compare that to the number of people who already have the 101 content down and are ready for advanced stuff: we’ve already established that 99.99% of people know nothing, so only .01% of people know anything at all, and only an even smaller percentage of those people will want to go further, be reachable by you, etc.

So in other words, the demographic for good Beginner’s Content is several orders of magnitude larger than the demographic that wants/needs Advanced Content. So most good content creators are making content for beginners (lucky them!) but few are making content for anyone else.

In fact, a common complaint about anyone trying to make advanced content on anything is that it’s not “accessible” enough!

The cycle here is vicious. On subject X, I find it easy to learn the basics because we live in a wonderful world absolutely filled with information. Once I’m past the beginner level, I’m much more “on my own,” but if I stick to it and continue to learn, I can become an actual expert. Once I do, there are a few people who would love for me to share my expertise – but The 101 Problem rears its head again, because if I wanted to spend time teaching my skill and maximize both my personal ROI and the number of people I helped, I wouldn’t help the people trying to become experts! I’d help the know-nothings trying to become novices.

I’m not sure that there’s a solution to this problem. It could just be that once you’re on the path of knowledge in a particular sphere, it’s just your path.

Maybe the real solution is to walk it with a friend – someone who neither knows much more than you nor much less, but different things, and wants to learn alongside you. Headed in the same direction.

That sounds nice.

Notes, September 2020 Edition

Hey everyone! I’ve got a little music I’ve been listening to that you might like. Some of this stuff has really been getting me through the days!

Psychic Warfare, by Clutch. Clutch is a weird band, because as awesome as they are they don’t seem overly concerned with sounding pleasant, which kind of feels like a prerequisite for most music. They sound good, but in a way that doesn’t allow you to fade them into your background. They’re meant to be loud, to drown out other noise, to grab you by the neck and make you listen. Their aesthetic is sort of like if George Thorogood was the front man for Rage Against The Machine, so you can imagine what I mean. Anyway, go listen to “Our Lady of Electric Light” and then the rest of the album.

Hozier, by Hozier. So I really, really disliked this album when I first heard it. But I’ve done a complete 180 on it and I think this just falls into “acquired taste” music. The sound is sort of similar to Leonard Cohen, very deep and spiritual, and I think you have to be open to it. “Take Me To Church” and “Foreigner’s God” are excellent songs in particular. Listen to one or both of them, and listen to the other the next day before forming an opinion. I think Hozier is better if you already know it.

Illinois (or: Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the ILLINOISE) by Sufjan Stevens. Hahaha, what a weird and cool album. I love a good concept album, and I also love “music meta jokes” (like the fact that there’s no Traveling Wilburys Volume II), so this being named Illinois after Stevens’ previous album was called “Michigan” made for an insinuation that he would do 50 albums, one for each state (which he sort of encouraged people thinking) before he admitted that he wasn’t. Regardless, the album itself has some stunningly good music along with the kind of weird experimentation similar to They Might Be Giants. “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is a particularly good track.

YNOT by Tony K. Tony Khnanisho comes to America from Iraq in the early 90s as a little kid, his family fleeing the violence there. They land in Detroit, where he grows up absorbing hip hop and becomes an outstanding artist himself. YNOT (officially a “mixtape” and not an album) is full of great contributions to the scene while still keeping a pretty unique and unusual sound compared to the genre as a whole. His sound is incredibly sharp and well-produced (owing to his awesome production skills) and his talent will definitely have you moving.

Goodnight Girls, by The Unwed Teenage Mothers. The Unwed Teenage Mothers are a bunch of fabulous dirtbags from Mississippi who sound like what would have happened if punk had been Dixie instead of Yankee. I caught one song (“Nothing Will Ever Get Any Better”) and immediately got the album. That song is one of my favorites, but “For Rhianna” and “Sunday” are also excellent. The whole album is great and really easy to listen to – give it a shot if you like fast, fun music.

That’s all for this month – keep listening, keep sharing, and may all your notes be high ones.

Something Different Today

A different kind of writing, today.

Thought #1: Promotion-as-reward makes as much sense as transfer-to-different-job-function-as-reward. Sales offices die by promoting their top salespeople to management positions. Different skill set entirely. Being good at marketing isn’t the same as being good at managing marketers. Hard to turn down a promotion, but sometimes your own career suffers if you accept.

Thought #2: When I’m processing a question that requires my creative input, sometimes I’ll turn off the filter that people have in their brains that keeps them from saying stuff. I’ll just dump every random thought I have on the topic out loud. Like dumping out Scrabble tiles, so I can look at them and then figure out what words I can make.

Thought #3: Stress prevents you from being productive, but being productive is generally the cure for stress. Saving a little bit of easy productivity for when you’re really stressed can be like having a secret quantum tunnel for those times.

That one. Okay, I like that one.

When you’re feeling stressed – when you are stressed? Is stress a feeling, or a state? Bridges don’t “feel” stressed, but put enough pressure on one and it collapses. What’s the difference between feelings, states, responses?

Everything is a chemical or an electrical impulse. Emotion/state/response is a categorization for convenience. Still helpful, though. So where does “stress” fall?

Is it external or internal? More internal, despite seeming like the opposite. Outside stimuli provoke stress, but your internal processing matters. Two people can touch the same thorn and feel wildly different levels of pain. Is it based on sensitivity of nerve endings – or discipline of the mind?

So let’s call stress a state. It isn’t an instantaneous response, like pain or anger. But it isn’t a long-term association like love. It’s more of a status that you hold based on how you’re processing things. It’s when you’re running hot, nearing capacity.

There’s a signal in that noise, definitely. Something to latch onto and read. But stress is unusual, in that the solution is sometimes counter-productive. Are you in pain? Remove the thing causing you pain. Are you angry? Remove the thing angering you. But if you’re stressed – sometimes you can’t just remove the stressor, because you’re stressed about balancing kids, a job, a mortgage. All things you can’t immediately discard. You have to mitigate and solve long-term, unless you always want to run from anything mildly difficult.

So you have a few techniques. One is to raise your stress threshold. Self-management and organization can help. Another is to de-stress using an unrelated thing, whatever that is for you. A third is to change the way you’re actually approaching the thing you’re stressed about, reassign resources. Maybe you can’t get rid of your kids (I hope!), but if you get rid of a less important and unrelated thing, can you afford a babysitter more often? Things like that.

This was a glimpse at my writing process. I’m putting it here because I think it will be interesting for me to look at later. Start with a few thought threads, whatever I’ve been thinking about lately. See which one flows naturally into longer form. Jot down thoughts as they come. The last step, which I didn’t do today, is to go polish and align. Instead I left the thoughts as they fell.

Someone Is Looking For You

Right now, this very second, someone is looking for you. And you’d be happy if they found you, except they can’t.

There are more than seven billion people on this planet. Each one of them has, I would conservatively guess, about a hundred different wants and desires across any given day. That’s a lot of wishes being made, and there aren’t enough shooting stars for all of them.

With that many desires, it’s absolutely certain that you’re the right person to fulfill one of them.

Someone is looking for their next great employee, or their perfect boss, or their soul mate, or the owner of exactly the car they want to buy or something. The right person is looking such that you would be very happy if they found you.

Everyone is looking. Nowhere near enough people are trying to be found.

Some years ago a young man in the UK was out of work and pulled this bold and quite frankly genius stunt:

It worked! He got something like a hundred job offers after people went to the amazing website (it’s still up, you can visit it!) and then landed a great role. He even spent his first paycheck on a second billboard to say “thank you.”

He flipped the script. Instead of focusing on looking, he focused on being findable.

I’m not suggesting you buy a billboard – for one, copycat stunts are rarely as effective as the original. But I am suggesting you spend a little time reflecting on who you’re looking for – and then thinking about who they might be looking for, and where they might be looking. Why can’t they find you?

Fix that, and be found!

The Other Side of the Equation

“I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you.”
– Bob Dylan

The old adage that you should walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before you criticize them is true, but not for the reasons most people assume. I think most people miss the real wisdom contained here.

(Fun aside: my favorite follow-up to that bit of folk wisdom is “…because then when you criticize them, you’ll already be a mile away and you’ll have their shoes.”)

Most people seem to interpret the saying as meaning that you should take the time to understand people as individuals before you criticize them. However, I don’t think that’s actually true. I think you should mostly just not criticize people unless the criticism is warranted because it’s helpful, necessary, true and kind. If it’s not those things, keep your mouth shut. If it is those things, then someone’s individual circumstances have already been taken into account – literally every person on Earth has unique circumstances, so “having unique circumstances” can hardly be considered a prerequisite for being deserving of careful consideration. Everyone deserves kindness, even if you don’t know a thing about them.

Instead, you should “walk a mile” in their position relative to you.

Go to any restaurant and observe for a while, and you know what you’ll soon discover? You can tell which customers have ever worked in food service, and which haven’t. Same with a busy retail location. The people who are kinder (or at least more understanding) aren’t behaving better because they know anything about that specific server or cashier. They’re behaving better because they know what it’s like to be on the other side of that equation.

Former hiring managers make great job candidates, and people recently on the job hunt make better hiring managers. People who have been telemarketers are kinder to honest people just trying to make a living over the phone – and perhaps meaner to scam artists. In both cases, they understand the equation and what goes into both sides of it.

Any time you enter into an interaction where you haven’t been on the other side, tread lightly. You’re in unfamiliar territory. If you care about other people, you’ll be kinder than your default level, because your default level is probably too low. And even if you’re a cold-hearted misanthrope, you should still be wary. If you’ve never been on the other side, you’re at a disadvantage. In either case, it behooves you to seek understanding.

Don’t be a drag.