Culture is not separate from the people who live in it. Let nothing be so sacred that you can’t discuss it, put nothing on so high a pillar that you can only ever view it from one angle. If you need an opportunity to take an odd view once in a while and get away with something heretical, today’s the day.

Happy Halloween!


Relationships have, at a minimum, three components. In a two-person relationship, those components are the first person, the second person, and the context.

You’ve known this to be true since you were a child, the first time you ever hung out with a friend from school outside of school. (Or how about the universal strangeness of running into your teacher somewhere outside the classroom!) You can often tell a lot about the relationship by how it changes when that context changes inadvertently. If you run into your boss at the grocery store, are you excited about it? Or do you avert your eyes and make for the exit?

Very healthy relationships can expand through multiple contexts, but some still may be more comfortable than others. Working with a spouse or close friend can seem great at first, but also has the potential to be difficult. When your bandmate – with whom you have a great professional relationship – lands on hard times and becomes your roommate, things may be different. Context matters.

Something I’ve heard talked about a lot recently is the idea of “parasocial” relationships. This is the idea that you can feel like you have a relationship with a famous person, simply because you have access to so much information about them. A constant stream of their comings and goings, their thoughts, their words – all aimed (it often seems) right at you. You may hear more from your favorite celebrity than your own immediate family. The celebrity, of course, couldn’t identify your dead body for a thousand dollars, but that fact gets subdued by everything else.

Really, what’s happened is that you have the context of a relationship without the relationship itself. Person B is missing, but Person A is in the space where a relationship would go. And because Person B isn’t really interacting, Person A gets to adjust that context all they want.

That’s part of the appeal. With two real people, the context becomes an aggregate of their desires. An offer to hang out after work can be declined, an invitation to escalate a friendship to a romantic level can be rejected, and so on. But when Person B is just there, no one is stopping you from inserting the feelings that you want.

Of course, this isn’t just a phenomenon with celebrities. We often misunderstand the context of the relationships we’re in because people are imperfect communicators and relationships are complex. Things like the above examples – trying to turn a professional relationship into a friendship or a friendship into a romance – are common stories. Intensity doesn’t equal depth: you can get thirty hours of new information each week about your favorite celebrity, but that doesn’t mean that you have a deep relationship with them. And you likely spend many hours each week with your coworkers, but that doesn’t mean that you’re friends.

It doesn’t mean you aren’t, of course! But examining how we interpret the context of our interactions is a fascinating pursuit nonetheless. Some people do it very badly! Parasocial relationships with celebrities are one thing, but there’s also the person that thinks their waitress is in love with them or that their lab partner wants to be their best friend. When these don’t pan out, the person can often feel like they’ve been rejected as a person – but that isn’t the case! It’s the context that’s been rejected, which isn’t a moral judgment on the individual at all. If Tom Hanks doesn’t want to be your best friend even though you’ve felt like he was for years, it isn’t because Tom Hanks thinks you’re a bad person. It’s just because this context doesn’t fit in the broader tapestry of his life.

…I only just realized this now after typing that last paragraph, but I’m describing the central conflict in the movie The Cable Guy. That movie is super good and underrated, by the way, but it’s exactly what I’m talking about here.

Worked A Little

There’s a strange pattern I see people often repeat, and it baffles me. A person will want some change in their life, so they’ll adopt a particular strategy to achieve that change. The strategy will start to work a little; some early progress towards that change will get made. Then, they’ll declare victory and quit.

The strategy was working, and they quit! Now, I say this baffles me, but I actually do have a working theory why people do this. Change is hard. Improvements are usually harder. So when you want something in your life to improve, you have to commit to a certain amount of extra effort. And it’s always easier to commit to things than to follow through on them.

So people commit, but then it’s haaaaaaard. So they want to stop, but they also don’t want to be the kind of person who quits. You know what’s psychologically easier than looking at yourself in the mirror after you’ve quit, though? Just saying “I got what I wanted” after the first minor milestone.

Now you don’t feel like you quit – after all, you improved! …a little.

This is one of the reasons it’s so important to set specific goals, rather than just vague “I want this aspect of my life to get better” statements. Those vague statements give you all sorts of back doors to slither through when you hit the first incline.

But even beyond that, there’s something you have to recognize. Improving your life isn’t something you can do as a discrete action. Your life will only improve if you live it differently for the rest of it.

Let me say that again: Your life will only improve if you live it differently for the rest of it.

You can’t improve some part of your life by working a little on it and then walking away. The default state of your life is the way it is now, and it will always return to that default state without something supporting the new shape of it. You have to build that, and you have to maintain it forever. You need to either accept that – nay, embrace that – or else you will always end up walking away from things that worked a little, but could have worked a lot.

A Dash of Disaster

Generally speaking, a perfect score isn’t a desirable goal.

If you have a 100% perfect attendance record at school, you should skip a few days. You’re missing out on other things, and the life outcomes for having a 100% attendance record are identical to having a 95%. If your close rate as a salesperson is 100%, then you’re definitely not being bold enough, and you’re missing out on great opportunities. If everyone likes you, then you’re boring.

The point is that a “perfect score” in anything probably requires so many more sacrifices than a 90%, but the outcomes will be largely the same. Or if they’re worse, they’re worse at 100%! Consider: you can get a 100% close rate as a salesperson by only even attempting to sell to complete lay-ups, but you’ll get maybe two sales a month. Meanwhile, closing at half that rate but pitching ten times as often will net you way more success.

You need a pinch of failure, a smidgen of sorrow, a dash of disaster. If you aren’t experiencing that, then it’s a sure sign that you aren’t taking enough risks, trying enough new things. You’re leaving too much behind in the name of safety.

Underclaim, Overgain

Did you know that a few billion dollars in federal tax refunds go unclaimed every year? Billion, with a “b.” Money that belongs to people, and it just doesn’t get claimed.

In some cases, there might be mitigating circumstances – deaths of the primary claimant that haven’t been resolved, things like that. And it’s also possible that some folks just don’t have a great handle on their lives at the moment and so they miss it. But here’s my thought: for a lot of those people, it probably makes perfect sense.

Claiming a reward for something takes juice. Maybe not as much as earning the reward in the first place, but it’s not free. If you win a car in a sweepstakes – even if all the taxes are paid – you still have to physically go to wherever the car is and pick it up. Even if it gets delivered, you have to be home that day! Yes, these seem like minor inconveniences for a free car, but the point is that it’s certainly possible that you have a conflict with something else that’s more important. Maybe your child is going in for surgery that day, and you can’t leave them to go pick up a car. Life happens.

Okay, now onto the broader point. Because claiming your due carries a cost, it makes sense that you shouldn’t claim everything you’re due. Even at the barest minimum, claiming takes precious time. You’re technically “owed” a lot of things that it makes no sense to collect. If you spot your buddy for coffee one day, you could easily make the case that your friend “owes” you a dollar. But how much sense does it make to try to claim that? Would it even be worth your time, let alone the social strain, to call your friend and make them wire you a buck?

People with a fixed mindset and with a poor mentality often spend an inordinate – even absurd – amount of time trying to claim the things they’re owed, even when the cost of doing so far outweighs what they receive. You’ve met these people. The people who tally every little thing, the people who are far more obsessed with “fairness” than with success, the people who pay for a $17 pizza with a $20 bill and instead of saying “keep the change,” make the delivery driver count them out a buck thirty back because that’s the exact amount of a 10% tip. It’s not just money, either: “Sure, I’ll give you a ride to work since we work in the same building. But you’ve got to give me a ride next week,” even though they don’t need it and it doesn’t matter. Stuff like that.

You’re burning more resources making these claims than you’re getting from them. Sometimes, even the big things aren’t worth claiming. Yes, you should probably get upset if you don’t get your paycheck or the large item you ordered and paid for. But even then, if there’s enough of a dispute at some point you may have to just evaluate what it will cost to get your claim and possibly write it off. Yes, that will sting a little. But you can get what you want, you can get what you’re owed, or you can feel self-righteous – but only one.

Quick aside, and a great example: I recently watched the movie Moneyball for the first time (I know, I’m way late to this one). In the movie, the GM and Assistant GM of the Oakland A’s are using a statistical analysis to build a team, while the manager objects because he’s more traditional. Despite his objections, the process works and the A’s go on a winning streak. The news runs a story about the A’s winning “seven in a row,” but gives credit to the manager (the one who objected the whole way). The Assistant GM hears this story and is upset; he says to the GM “Did you hear that?!” The GM responds: “I heard ‘seven in a row.'”

Absolutely perfect. He isn’t concerned about getting credit, regardless of whether he’s “owed” it. He’s concerned about getting what he wants. Save your energy for the big claims, the ones that will pay off. That means letting some – maybe even a lot – of the small ones slide.

You Are Not Your Failures

You are a new person, every second of every day. As soon as something has happened, it’s no longer something that’s happened to you, in a certain sense. Because the past is immutable, it can be jettisoned as emotional weight. You can detach.

That means that if you’ve failed, stumbled, or made missteps – you can immediately observe them objectively as if they happened to someone else. Because they did.

A past failure should not be a blow to your emotional well-being. It should be an instruction manual for how not to fail again. Rarely can it be both, though – so if you’re reeling emotionally from a failure, you’re probably not learning valuable lessons from it.

Get away from the creeping mentality that you’re somehow nothing more than the sum total of all your failures. You’re not. You’re just the author of an incredible awesome instruction manual for future success.

Easy As ABC

A really, really common style of headline is: “New Discovery: A Causes B!”

And my immediate thought is always, “What if C causes A and B?”

“Correlation does not imply causation” is old news, but it’s unexciting news. So it doesn’t get spread around nearly as much as it should. When you read the headline “A Causes B,” usually the article actually says something along the lines of “we observed a lot of A and B together, so we’re assuming one causes the other.”

There are plenty of ways to correct for this, of course – but rarely are such methods actually employed. It’s faster and more fun to just rush off with a bold claim. I recently read a story that claimed that toxoplasmosis (the weird parasite-borne disease that skews your behavior towards liking cats, and yes that’s a thing) also caused people to become more entrepreneurial and less risk-averse, because among the population of Denmark more entrepreneurs had toxoplasmosis than the rate in the general population.

So sure, one theory is “A Causes B;” in this case, “toxoplasmosis causes risk-seeking behavior in humans.”

But here’s another theory: “C causes A and B;” in this case, “a high innate risk tolerance causes humans to both be more entrepreneurial and interact more with cats.” One of the most common ways you can get toxoplasmosis is from a cat’s litter box – might it not be reasonable to say that more risk-averse people are more likely to be more cautious when dealing with cat feces?

I’m not saying I’m definitely right or anything. Like I said, there are controls you can put on experiments to rule that stuff out – but people rarely do, and it doesn’t look like they did it here.

There’s a real danger to taking “A Causes B” stories at face value. The implied second stage is usually “Since A causes B, if you find some way to artificially increase A, you’ll get the natural result of increased B.” But if A doesn’t actually cause B, you’re wasting resources trying to artificially inflate it.

No Snubs

Sometimes we don’t do something by conscious choice, and other times we don’t do something simply because that “something” was a sacrifice to the opportunity cost of something else. We should evaluate these choices – both in ourselves and in others – differently, but often we don’t.

We can’t do everything. We can’t maximize on all values, we can’t give 100% of ourselves to every aspect of our lives. We have to balance things, make trade-offs, and be intentional about our time and other resources. Making those trade-offs isn’t the same as refusing to do something because of the thing itself.

Don’t infer about others (or yourself!) that you’re somehow anti-reading because you prioritized spending time with friends during your scant few hours last week. Not doing something isn’t always a snub.

The Sands of Time

A lot of our culture revolves around telling stories. And by “our” culture, I mean humans’. All of them. All humans, all cultures. We tell stories.

The details come in and out of fashion, but it’s awesome how universal some themes become. I’m not one of those people that laments the fact that modern cinema and television seems to endlessly recycle the same source material, reboots and adaptations and prequels and all that. I think it’s extremely natural (and I can pick and choose what I want to experience anyway, so why get mad?).

I think that we look for stories to help bridge the gap between us. Shared experiences connect us, but the later in life we meet someone, the fewer opportunities we’ve had for shared experiences. So instead we look for cultural touchstones – music, movies, books. We grab the stories we love and we look for others who love them too, because then we already have a foundation for communication.

So I’m happy when a thing gets revisited. Now people have a way to connect not just across space, but across time. I didn’t think the Star Wars prequels ended up being good, but sharing the story of how I stood in line to see the first showing of the first one let me connect in a new way with my father, who had done the same for A New Hope. That’s a neat thing.

Anyway, I’m off to see Dune. I hope it’s good – but it doesn’t really matter. It is, and it will be again, and we’ll talk and talk and talk. I look forward to it.

Red Belt

My oldest daughter tested for her Red Belt tonight. She passed with flying colors… color. One color. Red.

Each success, each of her accomplishments makes me prouder than the one before. I know how hard it can be to keep topping yourself, but she keeps reaching and reaching. And she always finds a purchase, something to grasp.

She will fall. She has before. She recovers, tries anew, gets clever and gets tough.

And then she puts on a new belt. Not to symbolize the challenges she’s overcome, but the new ones she’s now excited to face.