The No Jar

Most people say “no” far too reflexively. They dismiss or decline before they’ve even thought about it. They say no to things because they’ve said no to them before, or because there was even the slightest bit of uncertainty in the option, or even because they’ve set their internal default to “no.” This is a terrible habit.

Why? Because a reflexive “no” almost never gains you anything in life, but every single thing you said “no” to was an opportunity to gain something, even if only information. Your two options for answering any opportunity should be “conditional yes” or “deliberate no.”

A conditional yes is just that – a yes, “if.” It’s a good first answer. But the other is equally valid if done correctly. There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying “no,” of course. You can – and should – say “no” to a great many opportunities. But don’t let it be your default or your reflex. Think about why.

How can you raise the cost of a “no” on yourself? Simple. Keep a “No Jar.” It works just like a swear jar (a concept that can be applied in lots of interesting ways), except that instead of putting in a dollar when you curse, you put in a dollar when you say a reflexive no. A “deliberate no” is free – so if you take your time, think about it, come up with several reasons why the answer is “no” and what would have to be different to make it a “yes” – then that’s different. That’s free. But a “no” fired off within seconds of hearing the option? That costs a dollar.

“I don’t know what I want to eat tonight,” you lament. Your friend or partner suggests a place, and you immediately scowl and say “nah.” Boom – one dollar in the jar. Looking for work and a family member sends you a job listing? If you immediately trash it, that’s a dollar. The point isn’t to force you to say “yes” to everything; that’s why it’s a dollar and not $100. It’s just to raise the cost of saying “no” just a little bit so that you’re more likely to give each option a proper weighing and build a habit of keeping an open mind.

And here’s the side benefit – when you’re ready to say “yes” to something truly great, you’ll have a little startup capital to do it with.

Fortress

A clean house is a fortress in which you can weather any siege the outside world can throw at you.

No matter what your living situation is, it’s improved by cleaning it. You can live out of a car, but it’s still better to live out of a clean car. Clutter is the fertile soil in which grow the weeds that will poison and choke you.

Clean your space.

Take A Break

Kids break stuff. It’s sort of natural. You should encourage it.

Don’t make kids afraid to break things. You should teach them healthy respect and not wanton destruction, of course. But they shouldn’t be afraid to touch things and experiment and even take them apart.

How else will they learn how to put them together? Most sense of the physics of the world comes intuitively, though contact and experimentation. You can’t ever understand how a hammer feels, predict the arc of the swing in your hand, if you’ve never done it. Reading about hammers, watching videos about hammers – it’s not enough. You’ve got to swing one.

And for kids, sometimes that means swinging them onto little toy cars in the driveway. It’s okay.

Min/Max

In the world of sales, compensation is often divided between a flat salary of a certain amount, and then a bonus or commission that’s variable based on sales numbers and performance. Some other professions work this way too, but sales is the most well-known.

In fact, it’s one of the draws of sales. A variable bonus or commission means you can earn more in an immediate way. But it’s also something that some people avoid, because it comes with uncertainty.

That’s why many sales roles have a mix. Sure, there are sales roles that are “straight commission” (no salary at all), and others that are normal salaried or hourly roles with only a nominal or even non-existent commission structure. But a hybrid is the standard.

Now imagine that you’re in sales, and you’re given some control over your compensation package. You can increase the commission percentage at the expense of decreasing the base salary, and vice versa. You have some knowledge of your own abilities, of course, but you can’t predict the future so you can’t guarantee your sales numbers. How would you configure your compensation?

I’ve been in that position, and here’s what I did: I minimized my salary to the level where it exactly covered my essential bills. No extra, no fun money, just keeping the lights on. And then everything else went into maximizing the commission.

This is a pretty viable strategy for a lot of things in life. Make sure your minimum costs are covered, then go high-risk/high-reward with the rest.

Do In A Day

You, like most people, probably vastly overestimate what you can get done in a day. Same with a week and even a month.

But like most people, you also probably vastly underestimate what you can get done in a year, ten years, or your life.

I’m not sure why that seems to be the barrier. But for most folks, you should be more ambitious with your years and more deliberate with your days.

I know it sounds strange to say this, but you can probably only accomplish one moderate thing each day. One! Everything else is mostly filler and treading water, because those things actually take up a lot of your day. Just working and feeding yourself and sleeping and stuff takes up a lot of your juice, and if after all that you only accomplish one decent thing you’re in fantastic shape. Why fantastic? Because think about what it would look like if you accomplished 365 moderate things all in a row.

That’s why you underestimate your years.

Putting Down Your Thoughts

I really like the term “putting down your thoughts” as a euphemism for writing. It’s more accurate than I first realized.

Imagine picking up a dozen small objects from around your house all at once – a stapler, a frying pan, the TV remote, and so on. Hold them all at once, without anything to carry them in. Now try to do anything. It’s pretty tough!

In order to be productive, you have to put some of that stuff down. My thoughts are like that, except they’re sticky. They don’t want to be put down. They all demand my attention, flashing lights and bright sounds, calling on me to engage with them. Some of these thoughts are negative and imposed from the outside. Some are quite positive and fun, but still demanding!

“Putting them down” is, well… putting them down. So I can free up my brain for a bit. Writing just quiets them for a while, appeases them. They’ll be back, of course – they never stay down long. But it’s manageable.

It’s especially helpful to get unstuck from loops. Sometimes a particular snippet will just repeat ad nauseum and I can’t move past it. Unless I write it down. From there I can build it out to its natural end or just exorcise it completely, but I can take it off the track of my mind.

I carry a notebook, pencil and pen wherever I go. I used to rely solely on note-taking apps, but sometimes the thoughts aren’t words, sometimes they’re pictures or graphs or symbols, and a note-taking app won’t do. But a notebook is always ready.

Some thoughts are tremendously, horrifically bad. Intrusive, unpleasant thoughts can spring when we least expect it. We have fears and anxieties within us, and plenty of ammunition for them externally. It’s only natural that sometimes you have a thought so bad that it will poison you and destroy you if allowed to remain. Like a wild animal that’s gotten a taste for human flesh. Only one thing to do.

Put it down.

Contact

I was a late adopter of cell phones for my age bracket. When I was 20 years old, one of my jobs was as a stable hand. I loved it. I lived on the farm, and worked 3 hours each morning from 6 AM to 9 AM in exchange for free room and board plus a modest salary. The rest of the day was mine to do what I wanted, and I worked a more serious, career-focused job while maintaining an incredibly low cost of living. I had a junker car that I owned outright. I had no debt and no real bills. And no cell phone.

Humorously enough, I had a computer and internet. Just no phone. I wasn’t impossible to reach – you could email me! If, you know, I was in front of my computer to check it. Which was almost never.

Of course, cell phones weren’t what they are now. The first iPhone was still years away. Phones just called and texted people. Maybe they played Tetris. And I was perfectly happy not having one. Eventually, though, they got better and better – and soon their allure became irresistible, as this small pocket device could replace a large number of bulky objects, and I’m very pro-stuff-reduction.

The problem is, this awesome little computing machine was also… well, a phone.

Nowadays, I’m not a stable hand. I’m a father of three who remotely manages a team of a half-dozen people and reports to several others. In other words, I need to be reachable, virtually 24/7. The little computer that I wanted became a little computer that I didn’t want, but it’s still attached to a phone I didn’t want then, but do need now.

I’m not anti-tech. I’m no luddite, by any means. But modern society, even in recent memory, used to have assumptions that for large swaths of your day you were just unreachable, and that was okay. It didn’t come with guilt, it didn’t come with panic. Modern life wasn’t built on the explicit assumption that every member of it can be contacted at any time.

I definitely have “contact anxiety.” If I’m out of contact for even a short period, I tend to start to worry that something bad is happening.

Someday, though. Someday when my modern work is done, I’ll retire. And I won’t retire from being productive, no. I’ll be building and writing and thinking and whatever else I want to do until they put me in the ground. But some day I’ll retire from everyone’s contact list – it will be hard to get ahold of me, and I will not feel anxious or guilty about it, and I will love it very much.

Happiness on Credit

From an economic standpoint, debt has some important functions. And from a psychological standpoint, sometimes treating yourself to something you want can make you feel good.

But combining the two is a recipe for disaster.

If you want to maximize the happiness you get from a monetary expenditure, then save up for it. You’ll maximize “anticipation happiness,” you’ll feel a sense of earned pride, and your actual purchases will be more sensible. If you splurge on a new widget (and that’s fine to do here and there!), but put it on your credit card – now you’re stuck paying money for nothing for however long it takes to pay it off, because from the perspective of your dumb lizard brain (the thing you were satisfying with the splurge in the first place) you already have it now, so money is just going down the drain.

Debt is fine as a way of gaining assets and smoothing out income curves. It has its place as a leverage and investment tool. But the point of “splurging” is to give yourself a quick shot of happy chemicals, and doing that on a credit card is really close to just doing drugs. You’re not just trading away money for happiness, you’re trading away long-term happiness for short-term happiness.

Everything Looks Like a Nail

The old adage of “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” is something I’ve actually found to be true. Unlike many folksy aphorisms that I delight in dismantling, this one has proven accurate to me time and again.

So use it to your advantage!

Here’s how – limit your tools to healthy ones. Let me give you an example: let’s say you have a nasty habit of dealing with stress via drinking. If alcohol is available to you and you’ve adopted that as your “tool,” then every problem will look like a reason to drink. But if instead you remove the alcohol and start building a habit of dealing with stress by running a half mile, then every stressful situation will start looking like a reason to run.

I do that with this very blog. My co-workers joke about it. Some interesting discussion or problem will come up at work and I’ll get a certain look in my eyes and at least someone will say, “he just found today’s blog post.” And it’s true! Because this blog is, in many ways, my “hammer,” then everything looks like a good topic for a blog post. That’s healthy for me – a natural channel.

If your tools are rage or alcohol or frustration or quitting, then everything that happens to you will fit into the framework you’ve built around those tools. They’re not just solutions, they’re lenses through which you view the problem itself. Change your lens, and the same events in your life will fit themselves into different frameworks.

The Voices

I read a total of six books to my kids today, in various combinations. They’re voracious consumers of the written word, all of them. They can all, to varying degrees of proficiency, read on their own – but they still pile onto my lap or around my feet to be read to, and I’m grateful for it.

I love reading out loud. I’m super good at it, too – I do the voices and everything! I know when to dive into the story and let it wash over them, and when to pause and ask them to talk about what we’re reading and share their thoughts and feelings. (Of course, my youngest kid’s thoughts and feelings are mostly him excitedly pointing to words he recognizes and shouting them, but the older two are surprisingly nuanced for their ages.)

My thoughts are often consumed by worry about what to teach my children. How to teach it. Whether I’m teaching it well enough. What might happen if I don’t.

And then, we have days where I’m just shocked at how much they already know. How many little details they already own, and what beautiful big pictures they already know how to paint. My three-year-old extrapolates and predicts behaviors, filling in characters’ reactions in advance even in stories she doesn’t know. My eight-year-old is inventing riddles and puzzles and jokes, already more clever with wordplay than I was at her age (and quite a bit older). Even my youngest can pick up books that he clearly can’t read, but can turn to each page and recite it from memory based on only one or two times it’s been read to him. And he does so with great enthusiasm.

The best thing you can do for your kids isn’t to teach them. It’s to make it easy, and enjoyable, for them to learn. Give them tools. Let them have books and paper and yes, screens. Show them how to use those things to find knowledge and master its building blocks.

And when they want you to read to them, say yes. And do the voices.