Restrictions breed creativity.

A great way to either get better at something is to challenge yourself to do it without the most obvious tool or method. For instance: get from your home to your office, but you can’t use your car. Or: make and eat an ice cream sundae, but you can’t use any spoons. Stuff like that.

Immediately the most basic of tasks forces you to engage creatively. You’ll figure out new methods and think in new ways in order to overcome the challenge this once-simple task now presents.

And sometimes – not every time, but sometimes – you actually find a better method, because the most obvious route isn’t always the best one.

Here’s a real-world example: go find a new job, but you can’t use any online “job boards.” Stay off of those sites. For a lot of people, that’s actually a better way to go – eliminating the most obvious tool.

Try it. Challenge yourself. See what you find.

Too Hard

As a teenager, my father would occasionally joke and call me “One-Trip Johnny.” This particular nickname came about every time my mother would return from the grocery store and ask for my help bringing in the groceries from the car. No matter how many bags there were, I would always get them all in one trip.

My parents would laugh, baffled at how much I would strain and struggle and inflict pain on my hands, arms and back to haul in all these bags in one go. But to me, it made perfect sense – and still does. Maximum effort, minimum time.

Some people think of that mentality as “working too hard.” But that’s only because they’re looking at a snapshot. The intense moment. The moments surrounding it – moments doing what I want, not hauling two bags of groceries at a time – you don’t see those.

I put my work where I want it, so I can have my time where I want it, too.

Little League

My father and I were in the house one day near the beginning of spring. It was a beautiful weekend day, and I was a teenager – 15 or 16 as I recall. The doorbell rang and my father answered to find two young boys, about 10, wearing somewhat threadbare baseball uniforms. Parked at the street was a running car with an adult male inside.

The two boys explained that they were out attempting to raise money to fund their Little League team that year. They were looking to raise $700, and one of the boys carried a donation jar.

Now, my father absolutely loves encouraging this sort of thing. He beamed when he told the boys, “I’ve got good news for you. I’ve got a bunch of chores I need done around the yard – carrying out some old boxes from my garage, cleaning up some weeds along the fence, and so on. Go get your whole team over here to do these chores and I’ll fund the whole thing, you won’t have to go to any other houses today.”

The kids’ eyes went wide. They practically raced down to the waiting car to tell their chaperone (one of the kids’ dads, it would turn out) of their great fortune. I smiled too – this was so characteristically my dad. He was willing to pay about 10x as much as the chores were worth in order to support some local youths out doing something good. (Plus, I’d otherwise be doing those chores for free, so I was happy!)

But it didn’t last.

Less than a few minutes later there was an angry knock at the door. My father opened it to find the two boys looking downtrodden, and the dad looking angry. This guy proceeded to scold my father – to yell at him! – for suggesting that the kids actually work for the money. They were just out trying to collect donations, he said. He wasn’t trying to put the kids to work, heaven forbid.

Now, these weren’t exactly difficult chores. My father wasn’t suggesting they go into a coal mine. He wasn’t even going to have them use anything sharp, for crying out loud. Pull weeds, carry out old boxes of junk to the curb, pick up sticks that my dog consistently left in the yard, that sort of stuff. A few hours tops of easy labor for a whole team, and then no more fundraising. My father was donating – he was just doing it through the vehicle of self-respect and an honest day’s work. Values my father believed in tremendously.

And this other dad apparently didn’t.

My father was the not the kind of guy to ever hand someone a dollar. But he’d run his car through a charity car wash five times in a row and tip an extra ten bucks each time. When a friend of his fell on hard times when she lost her job, he made sure she could get as much money as she needed to pay her bills – by cleaning for us. The dignity of work, and the motivation it brings to improve your station, were things that mattered to him. They didn’t seem to matter to this other man, who stood yelling about my father’s attitude while my father stared at the guy in shock and the kids looked embarrassed.

To my father’s credit, he didn’t yell back. I feel like if those kids weren’t standing there this might have gone differently, but my father simply said “Sorry I couldn’t help you out, good luck,” and shut the door.

I like to think that despite the guy’s insistence on having a terrible attitude, that those kids did in fact learn a lesson about dignity and self-respect that day. They wanted to work. They immediately saw what a good deal they’d lucked into, and they clearly were disappointed that it didn’t work out. The man might have tried to lecture them on “not letting people take advantage of you” or some nonsense, but I like to think that they knew, in their hearts, the truth. That the only person who had cheated them that day was the guy driving the car.

Notes, October 2020 Edition

Hey everybody! I’ve been listening to some great tunes this month, and I’d like to share them with you.

Letter To You, Bruce Springsteen. The Boss has always seemed like a “love him or hate him” sort of artist. I’m firmly in the former camp, but as a true New Jersey native it’s almost mandatory. That being said, lots of Springsteen’s stuff isn’t that great – a lot of his work was over-produced and mediocre, but when he’s at his best he’s absolutely amazing. The album Nebraska is long-considered his best work (and I don’t disagree with that assessment), but listen to me. Listen to me. Letter To You is better. This is incredible stuff. No skips, every song is incredible, The Boss at his best. If you have ever once in your life driven down a lonely road at night and not known what was waiting for you around the next curve of your life, this album will find that moment and pull it out and turn it into something somber and hopeful and painful and joyous and just help you get around that next curve. I know it sounds like I’m overselling it, but I promise I’m not.

Girl Next Door, Saving Jane. Saving Jane is a mid-2000s one-hit-wonder who sounded a little like Smashing Pumpkins except with LeAnn Rimes singing instead of Billy Corgan. While Marti Dodson (the lead singer) has had a pretty prolific songwriting career outside of Saving Jane, the band only really had one hit, the eponymous track off this debut album. But like a shocking number of one-hit-wonders from the 90s and aughts, their “hit” is actually one of their worst tracks. This is in fact a superb album; the songs are really put together well and they’re played with talent. If you’re looking for something a little between pop punk and country, this is it, and it does that weird niche very well.

Cuttin’ Grass, Sturgill Simpson. Speaking of country! I’ve been on a kick lately to try to increase the amount of country music in my rotation. I love old country artists, but I really disliked the whole “stadium country” thing that happened in the past few decades. So I sort of wrote off the genre for a while, but now I’m discovering that some of the really recent stuff is fantastic. This album is a great example. Go listen to “I Don’t Mind” and still try to say “I don’t like country” with a straight face. People who say that are almost always talking about this Toby-Keith-style “bro country” music and not the stuff that’s really hitting home where you don’t hear it.

The Bang Years, Neil Diamond. Man, what a freaking non-stop hit factory this guy was. I’m not going to waste a lot of words talking about one of the greatest and most prolific musicians of the 20th century. But I will say that there’s definitely a whole new generation that’s sleeping on how good songs like “You Got To Me” are, so if you either haven’t listened to this stuff or you just haven’t in a while, do yourself a favor and go ahead.

Boogaloo to the Beastie Boys, Reuben Wilson. Reuben Wilson is a legendary and fantastic jazz organist with a really great sense of humor and fun. This album is entirely jazz organ covers of Beastie Boys hits. If I have to say a single additional word to make you go listen to this album, then you’re a lost cause.

Enjoy the music in your lives, everyone. If you have a moment, share it with someone else.

The Calendar of the Mind

You can schedule your body more easily than your brain.

You can live by the calendar and the clock. You can make sure that your physical form is where you want it, present and punctual, on some very tight timetables. You can be at school, work, an event, in your bed, at exactly the moment you want.

But that doesn’t mean your brain will follow.

You can be physically at work, but your mind can be miles away. Your head can be physically on your pillow, but the brains rattling around inside can be going a mile a minute.

That’s something you need to consider when you’re making your schedule. Which tasks require your mind to be completely present? And how long will it take your mind to catch up with where you’ve put your head?

Paintbrush in hand and canvas in front of you – it does no good if the mind’s eye is turned elsewhere. Check in with your mind when you make the schedule. Respect the natural flow of your best thinking, and work with it.


When you’re at the bottom of the hill, deep in the valley with lots of work ahead of you, you question. You challenge. Mostly you want the obvious to not be true – you don’t want to be at the bottom. You want to be mistaken somehow – to somehow have your present circumstances be better than they in fact are.

Despite your desire to strategize, you have no advantages and very little information. You can’t see very far from the valley – barely to the next peak. So if you want to get anywhere at all, you just have to work and work and climb and climb until you reach the summit.

Now you’re finally there! You have vision for miles and an advantageous position. Do you take advantage of this new set of circumstances to do all the things you wished you could do from the bottom?

No way. You hop on that sled as fast as can be and race back to the bottom.


That’s not just sledding. It’s life for many people. When times are hard and we don’t have the juice to plan well, we wish we did and we climb and struggle. Then we find ourselves through some combination of effort and luck on top of the mountain, but we don’t pause and linger. We just relish the fact that things got a little easier and we ride it out… until we’re at the bottom again.

There’s a saying I’ve heard once or twice, and maybe you have as well: “Tough times create strong people. Strong people create good times. Good times create weak people. Weak people create tough times.” It’s an interesting thought on the cyclical nature of macro-level events, but I think on a micro level it just applies to most individuals. Tough times make you work your butt off, but working your butt off makes you prosper, but prosperity makes you slack, and slacking gives you tough times.

Maintaining consistency of effort as the world around you and your individual circumstances change is very difficult. But the more you commit to it, the less those circumstances will change. The next time you’re at the top of the hill, linger. Scan the terrain, plan your route instead of just charging downhill. Heck, maybe don’t charge downhill at all – the top of the mountain is a great place to build a cabin. Enjoy the good times, for sure – but don’t squander them.

Not Bad At All

I spent another night out in the woods this weekend. As a hobby, I absolutely love backpacking – the time spent outdoors is incredibly relaxing to me in a way that feels very earned. It’s difficult for me to relax when I don’t feel like I “deserve” it, and in the hustle of modern life it can be difficult to feel that way. The physical exertion of camping is different – I hike for hours and miles, then exert a bunch of energy clearing and setting up a campsite, and by the time I sit down to just bask in it I feel like I really deserve it.

As a skill, it’s so very fun to learn.

When I first decided as an adult to just make this my hobby, I sort of did it with no real plan and figured I’d figure it out. And I did! You can learn just about anything by throwing yourself heedlessly into it. The things I was so proud of myself for figuring out of my own that first trip out are now second nature just a few trips hence. I just go do weekend trips, then come back and watch YouTube and read books and gather knowledge to fill in gaps I noticed I had with each trip. And so now I’m really starting to look like I know something:

I wouldn’t recommend this hobby to just anyone. First, no single hobby or activity is fun for everyone, and I know lots of people wouldn’t want the sore legs and stiff back and physical exhaustion as a price tag for the mental clearing that this does. Heck, it might not even do that mental clearing for you. So I don’t recommend this as a universal thing.

But I DO recommend finding a thing that meets that criteria for you. Something with a great learning curve and deep knowledge so you can continually improve (and thus practice at learning and improving on your own), that also gives you a sense of “earned satisfaction” when you do it. The tools to get there might be different, but the end result is good for the soul. I’m happy with mine – it isn’t for everyone, but I liked my 7 AM today:

And that wasn’t bad at all.

Perfect Day

There’s never a “perfect day” to do anything, except in retrospect.

Looking back, many days were perfect. Days that fit so well with the events that filled them that I wouldn’t change a thing. You never know in advance, though. So you can’t wait for them.

I do know this – a day can’t turn out to be a “perfect day for fishing” if you don’t fish. So just go fish. Maybe it will turn out to be the perfect day at the end, and maybe it won’t.

But there’s never a perfect day for waiting.

And there are only so many days at all.

The Nerf Gun Effect

When I was a kid, I had Nerf guns. If you’ve never heard of these… then I guess you live under a rock? On Mars? But just in case – they’re plastic guns that fire foam darts, and they make satisfying noises when they do so. Your little cousin also makes satisfying noises when you nail him right between the eyes with those little orange darts, it’s so cool.

Anyway, like I was saying, I had these as a kid. And truth be told, they were okay. Not particularly inspiring, but neat. They usually fired a few darts before you had to run around collecting them and reloading, they were pretty simple overall. But they were really fun fuel for the imagination and kids everywhere had a great time with them.

Well, pretty recently I saw a Nerf gun in a store. At first I was just pleasantly nostalgic about their continued existence. But then I took a closer look… and they were AMAZING. Way better than anything I had as a kid! Look at these things!

These are way, way cooler than the ones I had as a kid. I did a little digging, and found an interesting answer for why these toys suddenly got so good.

They’ve been around long enough that the people that are currently designing them were the kids who played with the first ones.

That’s the answer. We’ve hit second generation. It made me realize that happens with all sorts of things. I liked cartoons as a kid too. And they were totally fine! But I’ve also watched some series with my children, and they’re incredible. I’m not just talking the animation technology – I’m talking about the story, the characters, all of it. They’re just better shows than what I had.

When I was a kid, The Simpsons was the greatest show ever. The Simpsons is still on… and it’s pretty terrible. Why? The same people are still making it. They never passed the torch. The kids who grew up watching The Simpsons started making their own shows, and they’re standing on the shoulders of giants. The giants, meanwhile, are starting to stoop.

If you create something, and you really want it to thrive – at a certain point you have to give it to fresher minds. New blood. Willy Wonka really had the right idea – the person who loves what you’ve made so much that it practically defines their life is the right person to take it over from you. Give it to them, those eager souls. Let new minds into your creation, let them take it from you and don’t worry about it all.

Those guns are in good hands.

Twice As Hard

It takes twice as much strength to make up for weakness. You have to know that going in.

Everyone has a weak point. Something they aren’t good at. Some people are luckier than others in terms of which thing they’re not good at, but that’s the hand you’re dealt.

Working to improve your flaws is a good thing. But you’ll get a lot more return on investment by improving your strengths to super-heroic levels than you will by improving your weakest points to slightly-less-weak.

And there is more than one way, as they say, to skin a cat.

You might be really bad at climbing up rock walls. But you might be great at building ladders. If you want to get better at climbing rock walls, be my guest. But if your goal is just to get to the top, then you’re better off using your best traits than trying to worry about the “right” way to do things.

And by the way, don’t misinterpret the most common method as being the “right” method. There are no rules and the walls are made of smoke.

But the point is this: the most common path is usually the most common because it’s the easiest. That doesn’t mean “most effective!” It just means “requires the least effort.” Something can be easy and still not work. And if the most common path for you involves something you’re not good at, then it doesn’t work AND it’s hard, so just don’t go that way.

Take your own route and work twice as hard as the “normal” path requires. That gets results.