Narratives & Assumptions

If you let anyone else assume anything about you, they will be wrong.

You are a complex person, with many facets. To truly understand you, someone would have to have lived every minute of your life, thought every one of your thoughts. Since no one can even come close to that, they have to guess at the gaps – and they will be wrong. Frequently.

So don’t let them assume. Coyness is not a virtue. Play your cards on the table, and be direct. Say who you are, what you want, what you can do. Tell your own story, because if people try to put you in a different one, it will be the wrong one.

Don’t blame people for being wrong. They can’t be otherwise unless you give them the answers.

Guilt, Fear and Flow

Are you familiar with the flow state?

(Warning: deep rabbit hole. You could get lost learning about this!)

Every task you perform, you engage with somewhere at the intersection of your ability and the difficulty of the task. If the task is too easy for your ability, you’re bored. You won’t do your best work, you won’t fire all the creative cylinders, and you won’t want to do it for very long. If the task is too difficult for your ability level, you’ll be stressed. You won’t do your best work because you’ll be scrambling just to get over the most basic thresholds, you’ll encounter too much that you don’t understand, and you probably won’t do it for very long without a ton of mental strain.

If the ability and difficulty match, on the other hand, you get in the zone. You do really creative work, you engage and are satisfied. This is true regardless of where actual ability and difficulty rank, as long as they’re roughly even – toddlers can get into the flow zone as well as adults. The important thing is that as your ability increases (and it will; this is where it happens!), you have to push yourself into more difficult tasks as well.

In that section, you’ll find all the greatest rewards. Not only personal rewards such as learning and satisfaction, but also tangible, worldly rewards. Matching difficulty to ability is where you do things that other people value most, and therefore you get the most out of them. If you’re a fantastic defense attorney, you won’t get much reward from helping people get out of parking tickets, but you also won’t get any reward out of taking on cases that are so difficult that you always lose and never learn anything. You want to be right where you should be.

This isn’t easy! Most of the time, we’re in that “bored” or “stressed” section instead. The flow state has to be constantly adjusted, since if you’re in it, your ability is increasing all the time. And on top of that, there are major psychological barriers to changing from either “bored” or “stressed” to “flow.”

If you’re bored, the major psychological barrier is fear. If you want to move from bored to flow, you’re naturally trying to make your life harder, because right now your ability is outstripping the difficulty of your tasks. You know, intellectually, that the rewards are better, but any well-adjusted brain will have at least a little fear response when you’re about to try to level up your difficulty.

If you’re stressed, the major psychological barrier is guilt. If the difficulty if your tasks is outstripping your ability, then moving towards a flow state means taking on easier tasks, and that can wrack us with guilt. It can feel like giving up, or abandoning work we saw as important. And maybe it was important! But if you can’t accomplish it (yet), then you need to get into the flow state to level up.

If you’re any sort of video gamer, there’s a natural analogy here. Lots of video games of the RPG variety have a mechanic called “experience.” For non-gamers: your character in the game will get more powerful as you get experience, but you only get experience from tasks that are reasonably difficult. Most game scale this experience with the relative difficulty. So if your character is “level 10” on a 1-50 scale of power, then level 10 tasks will be appropriately difficult and give you some experience. Level 8 tasks will be easier, and probably give you a lot less experience. Level 12 tasks will give you more experience, but be much harder. When you reach a certain amount of experience, you “level up” and become level 11.

The important part of the analogy: if you’re Level 10, then level 1 tasks won’t give you any experience. They’re too easy to challenge you, and (just like in real life) we only grow from challenge. Meanwhile, a level 30 task would probably give you a ton of experience – except you can’t do it. Those tasks are impossible for a level 10 character.

So you can do level 1 tasks forever, but you’ll never grow. And you can attempt level 30 tasks forever, but you’ll always fail at them. The only way to grow is to get into the flow of doing tasks that are roughly equal to your level.

That’s a GREAT analogy for your life. Pick tasks that are at your level, get good at them, and then mentally award yourself the next level when it feels appropriate (hint: if you’re bored with tasks that challenged you two months ago, it’s time to level up!). If you can’t accomplish something, don’t get down on yourself and say “I guess I’m not good enough,” just say “I need to level up a few times first.”

Keep this in mind, and your life will be less frustrating, more fun, and far more rewarding.

Live Your Lifestyle

As I opened up this page to write today’s entry, my oldest daughter bounced into the room.

“What are you writing about today?”

I asked her what she thought I should write about.

“Write about us kids, and how great we are. Or about how much fun you have with work. Or about teaching us stuff like art. Or just how happy you are with your family.”

I told her that those are the things I write about every day.

So I think it’s pretty great that she gets me, and that clearly I’m living the life aligned with the things I care about. I always try to do that, but it’s nice to get some outside confirmation that it’s going well. If you care about things, talk about them – especially to the people you love. They’ll help reinforce the path that your heart truly wants to travel.

So Many Days

There will be so many days in your life. So many more days than there will be hours in any one of them. Heck, far more than there will be minutes in any one of them.

Doing something for a whole day, every minute, pales in comparison to doing that thing one minute a day, every day of your life.

And a minute isn’t much.


Here is a personal flaw of mine: if I see a fire in my house, I’ll think “this problem would be a lot easier to solve with a sprinkler system installed.” I will then start designing a sprinkler system instead of, you know, putting out the fire.

I don’t like temporary solutions. I don’t like, in the common business slang, “putting out fires.” I like preventing them. Automating their destruction.

When I run out of some common household good, I don’t pop out to the store and get a replacement. I find a distributor of that product who will ship it to my house on a recurring subscription and then customize my order to my usage, so that I never run out again. I think that’s a good thing overall, except in doing all of that I never actually go out to the store, which means I just won’t have access to some thing I need like shampoo for a week until my first order arrives. (That’s a real thing that’s happened to me.)

A co-worker asked if we could meet up next week to discuss some things. I thought, “I really need a good automated calendar system for internal meetings as opposed to external client-facing ones, and I should build in some preliminary questions so the meetings stay organized, and I need to make sure my calendar is aligned with my working blocs so the meetings don’t distract me from other tasks…”

I started to do all of that, and then I got an email from that coworker checking in, because I’d never actually responded to her and just booked a danged meeting.

Some people – probably more people, honestly – go too far in the other direction. They never design systems for themselves, so they’re permanently in “fire-fighting” mode. I’m honestly terrified of that, which is why I’m so systems-oriented in my thinking. But like all things, you can go too far.

Maybe I’ll design a system for how to analyze problems as they come in and decide if they need a system or not…

Assume the Solution

Some people never assume gaps in their own knowledge. This is, obviously, a Very Bad Thing. I promise you, you definitely do have gaps in your knowledge. So if you think you don’t, then you’re just confidently wrong a lot.

Other people are more aware of the gaps in their own knowledge, but only in the general sense. They think, “oh sure, I don’t know everything – because there are lots of things nobody knows, or even can know.”

Then, there are the truly special breed of people. The ones that are self-aware, self-confident, and intellectually curious enough to say:

“I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I feel confident that a solution exists somewhere, and so all I have to do is go find it.”

That’s the way to be!

The first type of people never think “I don’t know how to solve this problem” at all. They think they do, they’re often wrong, and then when disaster strikes they usually blame something else.

The second type of people say, “I don’t know how to solve this problem, so it must not be solvable.” They think the gap in their own knowledge is universal – if they don’t know how to solve it already, it’s because a solution doesn’t exist.

Be that third kind. Learn to say, “I may not know how to do this, but the vast well of human knowledge is deep indeed, and my powers of curiosity are strong. A solution exists, and I have the capability to find it.”

Assume the solution, array your mind towards that search, and the world is yours.

What It Takes

A list of things you need to do in order to complete a task is not a list of reasons not to attempt that task.

That really could be the whole blog post, but I’ll elaborate. Often when a rewarding task or cool project idea presents itself (either because you’ve thought of it or because an outside source has suggested it), people will immediately start listing the reasons it would he hard as reasons not to do it. But all tasks have steps requiring effort! That’s just what it takes.

“I can’t move to a new city, because I’d have to research places to live, find a new job in the new location, pack my stuff, figure out transportation…”

Yeah? I mean, of course? You have to do all that stuff, but… you certainly can.

Here’s how to make your life way, way better. Every single time you find yourself saying the following sentence:

“I can’t do [X], because that requires [Y],” just change it to “I want to do [X], so it’s time to get started on [Y].”

“I want to move to a new city, so it’s time to get started on researching places to life, finding a new job there, packing my stuff, and figuring out transportation!”

That’s just what it takes.

Backup Planning Ahead

Most plans, at some point, involve at least a little bit of waiting. If you’re building a house, there are times where materials are being delivered and will take some time to arrive. If you’ve interviewed for a new job, there’s time spent waiting for feedback. And so on.

What most people do during that time is wait. But if the plan is for something important, that’s a terrible idea. What you should do is immediately move onto Plan B.

This is true even if you have absolutely no reason to think Plan A will fail! If the project is important, then mitigate the effects of random acts of chance as much as possible. Let’s say you’ve ordered some building materials for a construction project with a tight deadline. You have no reason to believe that they’ll be late, and you should be fine. Even so, if you’d otherwise just be spending the time waiting “on pause” for them to arrive, you should instead start figuring out how you’ll continue the project without those materials arriving promptly.

At worst, you train yourself to respond to future emergencies, even if this one doesn’t manifest. At best, you actually find that your Plan B looks better than your original course of action and you’ve found a new and better way to do things. And somewhere in the middle, you may prevent an unexpected disaster.

This doesn’t have to apply to everything. If you’re baking banana bread, it’s fine to just wait while it bakes. If it turns out bad, it probably wasn’t a disaster worth stressing over, so it’s fine to just read a book or something. But I’m always shocked when I see people who just “wait and see” when it’s a major endeavor. You can have delivered the best interview of your life and you’re certain you’re going to get an offer – even so, if you’re looking for your next career move you don’t leave it up to chance.

When it’s a big deal, use all your resources – and one of the most precious ones you have is the time you’d spend waiting.


There’s a concept that I talk about fairly frequently, and I was certain I’d written about it before. But I couldn’t find exactly the essay on the subject; it turns out I have indeed written about it more than once, but I haven’t actually defined it in its own essay, so here we are.

The subject is the difference between information that is True/Untrue versus information that is Helpful/Unhelpful, and the intersection of the two.

Plenty of information can be true or untrue, though for these purposes we’re even considering matters of opinion as “true” or “untrue” within your personal frame of reference. So for instance, if you believe that people should just naturally not commit crime, then that belief is “true” to you.

Information that gets you closer to what you want is “helpful.” Information that doesn’t, or that pushes you away from what you want, or that hinders your ability to get it – all of that information is unhelpful.

Consider those two axes intersecting to form a grid, consisting of 4 squares. So we have four categories – “True & Helpful,” “True & Unhelpful,” “Untrue & Helpful,” and “Untrue & Unhelpful.”

What I want to address here is a huge, important obstacle that most people just can’t seem to get around when they’re trying to solve a particular problem: they focus on what’s true, rather than what’s helpful.

Let’s say you’re about to walk through a rough neighborhood at night, on your way to an evening out. You have valuable-looking clothes and jewelry on because you’re dressed up. You have on good-looking but not-very-practical shoes. A friend suggests that you may be an inviting target for mugging, and perhaps you should take precautions.

Okay, we’ve identified a goal: you want to have a pleasant night out. For the purposes of defining information as “helpful” or “unhelpful,” this is what we’re trying to get to.

And we’ve identified a problem: you may be vulnerable to crime in an above-average way.

What follows now are common conversational threads that fall into the four categories we identified, above.

I’m not going to do anything different! People just shouldn’t mug or rob other people.” I agree! They shouldn’t! So this information is true, but is it helpful? Does this belief and the actions it creates further our goal of an unmolested night out? Probably not – so it’s true, but not helpful.

“Oh gee, so if I go out I’m definitely going to get robbed. I won’t go out at all, I guess.” Not helpful, obviously – you won’t even attempt to go out with that attitude, so it isn’t getting you closer to your goal. Of course, it’s also not true! You’re certainly not guaranteed to be robbed, it’s just a danger that needs to be addressed. So this is both untrue, and unhelpful.

“Well, if I take a cab instead of walking, I’m definitely safe!” This actually isn’t true, but it is helpful! There are plenty of dangers getting into a vehicle, period. But they’re minimal to begin with and you shouldn’t let that stop you from living your life, so in this case the belief gets you closer to your goal of a fun night out. Even though you’ve actually underestimated your risk some, that underestimated risk is closer in alignment to what your risk preferences should be anyway.

“If I stay with a group and stick to well-lit areas, I’m much safer than walking alone, and I can still go out and have fun. Want to come with me?” True and helpful! This belief gets you closer to your goal and happens to be based in reality.

Clearly, “True & Helpful” is the best category of thought regarding a problem. But here’s the takeaway: “Untrue & Helpful” is a WAY better category than “True & Unhelpful!”

Don’t get hung up on the way things should be in an ideal world. This isn’t an ideal world – it’s the one we have. Recognizing that and acting accordingly is the most helpful advice I can give.

My Pain, Your Pain

People just love to compare misfortune. People have lots of different reasons, and it’s worth looking at why just about all of them are bad ideas.

Some people like to compare their pain to someone else’s in order to claim a higher level of sympathy. “Oh, you broke your leg? Well, I broke BOTH legs, so give me more sympathy/attention/love/help/whatever.” This is, well, pretty obviously bad.

Some folks want to compare misfortune because they want to give themselves an elevated social status as a result of their reaction. “Oh, you broke your leg? I broke both legs, and you never heard me complain or ask for help. I guess that makes me better than you.” It was painful even to type that sentence ironically.

Then you have the other side of the spectrum – people who compare their pain to other people’s in order to devalue their own experience. “I know I lost both legs in that car accident, but there are people who lost both legs AND an arm, so I shouldn’t complain or I might be seen as dismissive of their pain and suffering.” At least this one is coming from a more altruistic place, but it’s still incorrect.

Look, here’s the reality. Everyone is going to endure some pain. Some people are, even in the most objective sense, going to go through rougher seas than others. But your pain isn’t relative to other people’s, it’s relative to your own life and circumstances.

Let me give you an extreme example: two people get into a car accident, and both of them lose their left hand. On the surface, this is the same thing – but if one of those people was a left-handed brain surgeon and the other one was a right-handed voice actor, their pain might not be the same! I actually experienced a real-life version of this when I worked in prosthetics. Two patients in the same month had almost the exact same injury, resulting in the loss of several fingers on one hand. For the first patient, he told me that the only real difference in his life was he changed how he made his coffee and bought sweatpants instead of jeans. The other patient was a violinist.

All this is to say that pain, suffering, loss and misfortune aren’t objective things. Not only could the exact same event be different levels of bad for different people, it might not even be bad for some folks! So trying to compare your roll of the dice to anyone else’s is a fool’s game to begin with. You can’t compare rotten apples to rotten oranges.

But on an even deeper level, even if there was some objective measure, it wouldn’t help you. Let’s say you could concretely determine that yes, you had in fact endured more “suffering points” than another person. This would fall into the category of information that’s “true, but not helpful.” Would knowing this help you lessen your pain? Solve your problems? Improve your circumstances?


Pain, in addition to being non-relative, is not zero-sum. The same is true of sympathy. There’s plenty to go around of both.

Be understanding of others. Be focused on yourself.