Brain Drain

If you aren’t programming your brain, somebody else is.

A lot of people hold what I believe to be an erroneous belief, which is that you have a set of beliefs that are natural and thus “genuine,” and any attempt to deviate from that set of beliefs is self-delusion. Or “not being true to yourself” or something like that.

Which is, of course, utter hogwash.

You don’t have any “natural” beliefs. What you have are inputs that you allow to hold sway over you. You’re a blank slate by default, but you can’t remain that way. As long as you can have beliefs, you will. You can’t hold empty slots. So if you don’t deliberately tend to which inputs become beliefs, your brain will just grab whichever ones present themselves.

The first step in this process is recognizing that just because you believe something now, doesn’t mean that it’s some sort of “natural” or “genuine” belief that you’re in any way beholden to. Your mind is a factory that converts stimuli into actions, with “conversion to beliefs” as the central engine. But you have control over every aspect of that factory.

I don’t mean to imply that it will always be easy. It won’t. If you were badly injured by a dog when you were at a young and impressionable age, then your belief that “dogs are threats” may feel very core to you. It’s been around for a long time, driving your actions for many years. The machinery of that belief may be rusted into place. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no function by which you can change it – just that it would be difficult.

Unfortunately, too many people adopt the belief that “beliefs aren’t changeable” too early in their life. They simply become a product of whatever easy sensory input is sent their way. They become slaves to whim and impression rather than agents of reason and will.

Start with that belief. Change that one. Then the rest of your beliefs, old and new, will have to meet a new standard in order to be worthy of space in your mind. And many will fail to meet that standard, and you’ll have the power to let them drain away.

Worthy Opponents

We don’t pay enough respect to our opposition. In general terms, I think most people would be better off if their default reaction to adversity was respect rather than anger or hatred.

Anger is a response. Base and biological. It’s not worth basing a philosophy around.

Hatred is just long-term anger. It’s anger that crystallizes, metastasizes. Anger is to hatred what “the pain of getting a nail through your hand” is to “never pulling it out for the rest of your life.”

Anger and hatred don’t teach you anything substantial. The only conclusions that anger and hatred can lead you to are “avoid” or “destroy.” There’s no nuance, no true wisdom contained therein.

But respect – that’s a choice. A belief. An important one.

My father was a fighter. Strong as an ox, but more importantly, quick like a fox. When my friends and I were late teenagers, 16-17 and at the peak of both our physical ability and our desire to prove it, my dad used to let us all take turns trying to land a hit on him. Dozens tried. No one could touch him before he put them on their backsides. Then one day, one managed to. Got a hit right across the bridge of his nose.

I froze. I expected my dad to be furious. I expected his stung pride and bruised ego would make him angry and he’d lash out, scream at us, something. That’s not what happened at all – he laughed. Then he shook the guy’s hand, told him it had been years since anyone could tag him, and spent the rest of the day sparring with him.

My father reacted with respect. Hatred and anger make you weaker. If that had been a real fight with something on the line, anger would have made him sloppy and predictable. The simple truth is that as good of a fighter as my dad was, anyone capable of hitting him was also someone worth studying. Worth learning from; hence, the afternoon of sparring.

This isn’t just about fists. It’s anything in life. If you think of yourself as strong, capable, competent, smart, and adaptable (and I hope you do!), then anything capable of giving you trouble must also be something with considerable power. Weak problems won’t trouble you. Only worthy opposition will give you any pause at all.

So if something hinders you or troubles you, then it’s worth studying. Learning from. Respecting. Life will give you many opponents – and not all of them will be other people. Anger and hatred will make you sloppy and predictable, and you’ll lose. But respect will open the door to learning, and then you will become even greater than you already are. And you will overcome even the worthiest of opponents.

Victory Condition

Are you winning or losing today? This month? This year?

How do you know?

Most people can’t tell. They have a vague sense of whether or not they’re doing “well,” but even that is often based more on society’s standards than their own. They have no sense if they’ve progressed towards any real goals, because they don’t have them. They make short-term decisions that they hope are good, and similarly hope those decisions will congeal into some sort of happy life.

Disaster. Disappointment. Heartbreak.

The good news is that you don’t have to be the victim of such tides, forever having your life served to you by luck and chance. The good news is that you can succeed or fail on your own merits instead.

All you have to is pick a target.

Declare a victory condition. Declare, concretely, what your goal is and your timeframe for achieving it. Then you’ll succeed or fail – but even if you fail, at least you’ll know that you’re failing and can change your actions accordingly.

Otherwise you may fail your whole life and never realize it. Always wondering why you aren’t quite as happy as you think you could be.

The Reed and The Rock

I hate to argue.

That being said, if I have to, I want to win. So I care about strategy.

There are fundamentally two kinds of arguments: ones where you win by default, and ones where you lose by default. Or to put it another way, there are arguments where you have to convince someone of something in order to get the result you want, and arguments where someone else has to convince you of something in order to get what they want.

Or to put it another another way: who has the ball? As in, “take my ball and go home?”

If it’s your ball, then other people have to convince you. You can win just by not arguing, as long as you’re okay with the “and go home” part. You can be the rock – you don’t have to be flexible. You’re the person being sold to, so you don’t have to be flexible.

Meanwhile, there are arguments where you have everything to lose if the argument just doesn’t happen at all. You don’t have a ball, so you have to convince the kid who does that he wants to stay. You have to maneuver, be flexible, be the reed. You need tact and diplomacy.

Like many problems, you’re halfway to solving it if you can categorize it correctly. A surprising number of people can’t. They argue like a rock when they should argue like a reed, and vice versa.

Imagine someone’s selling a house and despite the best advice of their real estate agent, they’ve massively overpriced it. They’re convinced that their house is worth this inflated price tag, and they refuse to come down on price or do any property improvements. They’re arguing like the rock, as if it’s other people who need to adjust their expectations. “If someone wants this house, they’re just going to have to cough up the cash!”

But… no one does want the house, at that price. You need to be the reed. Change the price, make improvements to the property, or at the very least be super super charming as you hold open houses. You can’t win via stubbornness.

Meanwhile, I once knew someone who had quit his job because he got a much better offer and honestly didn’t like where he worked. His current employer made him a counter-offer to stay. It wasn’t enough, but this guy felt awkward even saying so – as if he owed it to them to accept the offer! He was arguing like the reed when he should have been the rock. He should have made up an offer that would genuinely have gotten him to stay, no matter how high it was, and told them “this or nothing.” He already had all the cards, why debate at all?

Identify your starting position, and whether you need to dig in or bend. If you get good at that, not only will you win more arguments, but the best benefit of all is that you’ll have a lot fewer to begin with.

A Minute Late

I remember one particular work meeting I attended many many years ago, near the beginning of my career. It was extremely early in the morning, and my boss at the time had a well-known habit of locking the door to the meeting room at the exact minute the meeting began. He was a stickler for punctuality, that one. Interestingly, one time a co-worker arrived nearly half a day late, without having called or anything, and the boss just helped him get caught up and didn’t say anything else about it. Privately, I asked him about it later.

He told me: “An hour late, and there’s a story. A minute late is just disrespectful.”

I don’t manage like he did, but there are definitely some elements of wisdom in that story.

First, I think it’s good if early in your career you have someone who pushes you on the fundamentals – punctuality, personal presentation, etiquette, etc. There are times when it’s appropriate to be more lenient on those things, but before you flaunt those rules you have to know them.

Next, I think it’s true that easily-correctable mistakes are, when the consequence thereof falls upon another’s shoulders, the most disrespectful. If you’re an hour late because you were in a car accident on the way to work, that’s understandable – and likely rare. If you’re a minute late, it feels more likely to be because you simply didn’t manage your time well (and also likely to be more common).

And of course lastly is the vital piece of wisdom that when someone else has the keys to the meeting room door, they’re the ones calling the shots. If you don’t like it, find another meeting room – one where you have the keys.

100 to None

More options usually means more power. More choice, more freedom, right? It’s true, but it’s not complete.

Thinking that “more choices is better” leads to an incomplete philosophy; the desire to always have more choices. Recently I was talking to someone about negotiating power with an employer – certainly you have more if you have a hundred employers who want to hire you versus just one, right?

Seems true in relationships, too. If you have a hundred people who want to date you, you’re better off than if you only have one option, right?

Even shopping. If you can only shop at one store, you’re stuck with whatever they sell – but if you have a hundred options you can probably get exactly what you want.

These are all true – to a point. On your side, choice is important – and on their side, your choice means “they” (whoever “they” are) have to compete, making each individual option better than it would be in a vacuum.

But there is a way to have this power without relying on the universe to have multiple options for you. You have to control the Ultimate Option.

Opting out.

If you don’t need a job, then you have as much negotiating power with one employer as you do with an array of hundreds. You get to set all the terms, because you can walk away if you don’t like the deal. If you’re comfortable with your own company, then you don’t have to compromise and take a romantic partner you don’t really want.

Now, some of that is admittedly Utopian. We’re not complete societies as individuals. Most of us need external income, and romantic partners are great, and friends are awesome, and stores have lots of great stuff to buy, and so on. The point isn’t to completely isolate yourself from the world.

Rather, this advice should remind you that “walking away” is always on the table if the remaining deals are bad enough. It’s a reminder to build yourself a life where you have a reasonable amount of independence – maybe most people need a job eventually, but your own level of saving and frugality can be the difference between needing one tomorrow and not needing one for twelve months. Sure, many of us want a long-term life partner, but your healthy personal habits and hobbies can be the difference between being so desperately lonely that you ignore red flags and being comfortable being alone long enough to make good choices. And not waiting until you’re on your last roll of toilet paper to buy more can be the difference between getting robbed at the cash register and waiting for a sale.

Patience is a virtue. Walking away takes strength. Strength and patience are both rewards of a life lived with care.

Radical Shift

Gradual change drags inertia with it. A radical change can achieve escape velocity.

Your life does not separate easily into discrete boxes, independent of one another. Some people are better than others at building those barriers, but no one can create truly impermeable ones. As your income rises, so do your expenses. As your accomplishments stack up, so does your stress. And so on.

This isn’t a good thing, but it often happens. If you got a steady 10% increase in your income every year for ten years, then at the end of ten years you’d be in relatively the same position of wealth as you were to begin with, just maybe (maybe!) with nicer stuff. It takes more discipline than most people realize, and certainly more than most people have, to increase their income year over year but maintain the same level of frugality.

But if your income suddenly doubled in a single year? Well, there are certainly plenty of people who go bananas in that circumstance and even end up worse off. But for many people the system shock can result in a careful examination of your circumstances. You can say, “okay, I’m making 100% more money, but I could be really happy with only a 20% increase in my living standard and be saving & investing a LOT towards my future.” That’s the smart play.

That’s the high-risk, high-reward scenario. The big promotion that can come with plenty of extra stress, in and out of work. The move to a new city that can have lots of rewards but plenty of distractions. The radical shift.

It’s not for everyone. But some people are born to greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them, so it’s good to give some thought about what you’d do if that shift came to your door. And if you do that, and like what you’re envisioning, then maybe you don’t wait for it to knock after all. You go find it.

Ain’t Gonna Get Any Better

Yesterday I was doing a variety of household chores, accompanied (as they often are) by a random shuffle of my music. A particularly great song came on – so great, in fact, that I ended up listening to it on repeat for about four passes, letting it wash over me.

The song is “Hey Mama” by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, and the theme of the song is a mother telling her son that despite his struggles and pains in life, he hasn’t earned the right to quit yet. He hasn’t yet worked hard enough to proclaim with certainty that life “ain’t gonna get any better.”

The song resonated with me – for one, it’s similar to advice my own father gave me. Advice which changed my life, honestly.

Here’s the truth: most people aren’t afraid of hard work. But most people want their perception of their rewards in life to roughly equal their perception of the pain and struggle it took to get it. Most people just want the scales to balance.

They won’t always balance. If no one’s ever told you that, I’m sorry to break the news – genuinely, not sarcastically. It sucks to tell someone that. It sucks as a parent to tell my kids that there are going to be things that just don’t work, things that fail, goals you don’t realize, pain that never pays you back in reward.

But I can tell you this, the silver lining. The scales don’t always balance. But as long as you’ve got a drop of sweat left in you, then you can’t know for sure that they haven’t. If there’s a prize at the top of a thousand stairs, then things can look pretty damned bleak when you’re on stair number 999. But maybe one more drop of sweat will do it.

No matter how badly the odds were stacked against you, no matter how much you had to go through, you haven’t earned the right to complain if you didn’t give everything you have to it. You ain’t worked hard enough.

The world gets better only through effort. Your personal world, the larger one around you, the one in the future for your children’s children’s children. When you get to the very end, the last breath, when you’ve given it your absolute all – on that day, if you want to complain that it won’t get any better, people will listen.

Except they won’t have to. Because if you do that, the world will be better. I promise.

Be Cool

Don’t let it get to you.

Nothing makes you more agitated than already being agitated. Stress begets more stress. That’s why temporary solutions are often a good idea.

Sure, zoning out with some loud music and a drive doesn’t solve any of my problems. But if it resets the stress levels, then I can solve them.

Do the things that make you feel cool. Get in the zone, enjoy it for a bit, then ride it into battle against your problems.

Are you stressed right now? Then shut it all off for an hour. An hour won’t kill you. Be cool.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

Anger is like a grenade that you think is a sniper rifle.

When something makes you angry, you virtually never direct exactly the right amount of energy at the subject of your rage nor to various bystanders. In fact, you’re probably not even picking the right primary target. You want to think your anger will accomplish something, like it’s a targeted laser or a precise scalpel. In reality, it’s a grenade that you pull the pin from and then drop at your own feet.

The biggest victim of anger is almost always you. Anger is something that happens to you, as much as you want to believe it’s a tool that gives you energy and strength. You’re not The Incredible Hulk. You don’t get bigger and stronger when you get angry; rage does not become a shield that protects you from future harm.

Anger and pain are, in fact, very similar. Both are signals that your body sends to your brain in order to inform you that something bad is happening to you. Pain is a signal that tells you “Hey dummy, move your hand away from the stove.” Pain is simple to interpret in most cases. Anger does the same thing if we listen to it. Anger is really a circumstantial version of pain – in the same way that pain tells you to take your hand off the stove, anger tells you to change your oil more frequently. It does that by making you mad when your car breaks down.

Unfortunately, we often miss that message. Our car breaks down, and instead of “moving our hand from the stove,” we pound on the stove harder – and kick the refrigerator, too. We don’t listen to the message.

That’s misplacing your anger – and it’s about as effective as trying to reduce the pain of your burning hand by punching someone else in the face. You don’t reduce your anger by throwing it at other people. You reduce it by listening to it. Let it talk to you, track its path to your door. Then take your hand off the stove, dummy.