I am a serious person, and I value seriousness in others. That doesn’t mean I’m humorless or dour, mind you! I’m plenty goofy. It’s just that I approach things with a mindset that they should be valued for what they are. I strongly dislike sarcasm, I prefer to make my opinions clear, and I engage in discussion on the grounds presented.

I tend to value seriousness in others. Again, not “lack of humor” – in fact, if you can conduct yourself seriously while also maintaining a sense of humor I will regard you very highly. I crack jokes a-plenty, but not at the expense of being engaged with whatever I’m engaging with. Because I value others who take things seriously, I look for ways to evaluate intellectual seriousness.

One of the most certain ways to see if someone is an intellectually serious person is to see how they examine, present, or absorb counterfactuals to their own positions. If you think we should go about a certain project in a certain way – can you articulate what would change your mind? If you have a certain opinion – can you describe what led you to it, other than absurd claims of objective truth?

If you can’t? If you can’t wrap your head around the opposite view, then you’re likely not a serious person. You don’t have to agree with the opposite view, of course! But if you can’t see it, then you can’t engage seriously with any discussion surrounding the options.

At All Costs

Most people have goals that they would very much like to accomplish, but we tend to weigh these goals against the cost of achieving them. Costs not only in time, money, effort, juice, or other of our own resources, but also in terms of opportunity cost. We can’t pursue every goal; we must prioritize.

But there’s an additional complication, which is that some goals may detract from other people’s ability to accomplish their own, and we like those people. Taking away their resources might get you closer to your goal, but you generally don’t.

Those people in turn have their own people, and so on. The web of our interlocking cares for one another and the things we try to accomplish, both individually and as clusters within that network, is endlessly fascinating to me. It motivates me to look for ways to align goals, ways to understand motivations, and ways to imagine myself in the situations of others.

I think once you start to see that web, it’s very hard to un-see. It becomes very hard to think of yourself as truly atomistic again. There is a lot of good to be done with that knowledge. I will try to discover more.

Ever After

A great success can be a major blind spot. We want so badly for each success to be the “ultimate” one that changes the rest of our life to a simple repeating pattern. We struggled and won; doesn’t that mean we deserve for the struggle to end?

Sadly, that’s not the way it works. There will be new struggles, and old successes will lose their luster. The thing you wanted most in the world at 20 probably won’t still make you happy at 30, 40, 50.

You do deserve a rest. But not forever. You have to keep marching; there’s always a sequel. If you do it right, they can always be fun. Good stories in their own right, worth reading and enjoying. And that’s the secret – not to dread the fact that there will always be another page, but to embrace it and make it your own.

Want Ad

You’re about to engage with someone. You’re on the verge of sending them an email, starting a conversation, etc. This will be your first interaction, and you’re goal-oriented, so you’re very focused on the best way to get what you want. You’re also, perhaps, focused on what could go wrong with that plan – what if they don’t like my email?

What very, very few people do is think “what does the other person want to happen today?”

Other people have goals too, and they’re often very easy to help. That goes a long way towards getting rid of the anxiety that they won’t want to talk to you – of course they will, if you’re helping them. It also helps you start to craft win/win scenarios that get you closer to your own goal.

Yet so few people take this step! It’s more challenging intellectually – our entire brain is designed around fulfilling our own wants, not those of strangers. We don’t have as many good processes for figuring out what a relative stranger might desire. But practice – it’s worth the effort.

The Personal Mirror

We can’t view ourselves through the eyes of others. We can’t import all their biases and viewpoints and lenses, and we can’t export our own to make room for them. For better or worse, the way others truly experience us will remain a mystery.

But we can certainly gather clues to the impact we’re making and adjust accordingly. While you should always take the expressed opinions of others regarding you with an enormous helping of salt, that doesn’t mean you should dismiss them as irrelevant. You should look for patterns. The rest of the world is your personal mirror.

First, release your ego. There’s no “right and wrong” here. If everyone in the world thinks you’re rude and you think you aren’t, this process doesn’t mean that you have to accept that you’re a jerk. But it does mean examining your behavior and looking for what aspect other people may be incorrectly interpreting as rudeness!

(As an example, back in 1992, then-President George Bush was visiting Australia. While riding around in the limo, he held up his index and middle finger in a “V” sign, which is common in the US as either meaning “peace” or “victory.” Down Under, however, it means… something very rude. 100% of his audience might have thought he was being rude without it being true – but that doesn’t mean Bush should have just shrugged his shoulders and said “sticks and stones!” Something was definitely wrong with his behavior, in the sense that it wasn’t communicating what he wanted to communicate.)

Before your intent reaches the mind of your audience, it has a LONG way to travel. It has to make it through your imperfect ability to communicate, past the audience’s imperfect ability to observe, then through the filters of their own experiences, biases, moods, heuristics, and even current fatigue level. Then their response has to make that same journey back in the other direction! Is it any wonder that we don’t always get it right?

So adjust. Don’t just stubbornly plant your feet and say “well, my intent was pure, so it’s everyone else’s responsibility to recognize it.” Hogwash! It’s on you – because you’re the one who wants the benefit of better communication.

“Twitter Isn’t Google”

“Twitter isn’t Google” is good, actionable advice. Here’s what it means: due to social capital loss, you have a finite number of things you can successfully ask other people in a given time period. But there’s no penalty other than your own time to search for answers yourself. Because of that, unless you suspect that an answer will be MUCH harder to find yourself than asking someone else, you should try to independently discover it. In other words, before you type that question into Twitter, you should type it into Google.

What’s funny about this is that the advice is so concise and actionable, and yet to anyone 20 years ago it would be utter gibberish. It might be utter gibberish 20 years from now, too! I suppose a few decades ago you could have said “the phone book isn’t an encyclopedia” and gotten roughly the same point across, but I really love the nuances of time-dependent language. Someday people will say “the brainmesh isn’t infoAI” and we’ll all just understand what that means. The wheel turns.

Chassis or Chains?

Structure is a double-edged sword. If you’re not overly fond of structure, you might call it “needless busy work” or “bureaucratic red tape.” Things like documenting your mistakes, writing out templates, establishing policies. Meetings.

But with the right application, those things aren’t hindrances – they’re the shape of the rocket. The rocket will never fly, even if you have all the right parts, if they’re not in the right shape. If they’re not rigid and supported, they’re just a pile of junk.

The error goes both ways. Some people think “anything other than pure, direct creation is just a pointless drag on my process” and those people can never scale, grow, or repeatable-ize. Other people think “success requires structure, so as long as I create structure it will, in turn, create success.” But… nope. Those are “meetings for the sake of meetings” people, and they’re the worst.

A pile of junk won’t fly. But neither will an assemblage of parts carefully and rigidly shaped like an airport. You need a shape, but you need the right shape, and you need it to not have anything missing nor anything extra. This is difficult! It’s difficult enough that it should never be dismissed as automatic. This won’t just happen.

Bearers of False Choice

Let’s say someone else wants everyone to have Option A, and you want to have a choice between Option A and Option B. Be careful of the rhetorical trick where someone will attack Option B, or even suggest that you’re attacking Option A, rather than focus on the real issue: you want a choice, and they don’t want you to have it.

Jane at the office is trying to get the vending machine stocked. She wants to stock it with only soda. You suggest that it would be cool to also have something else, like iced tea, as well. Jane then says:

“I don’t want to drink iced tea, though.”

You point out that you’re not suggesting she drink iced tea, just that it would be nice if the vending machine had more than one option. Jane says:

“Why don’t you want people to drink soda?”

You reply that you don’t care if people drink soda, you might even drink soda sometimes, but you’d like to not have to drink it every day and you don’t want to be forced to. Jane replies:

“Well, no one’s stopping you from leaving the office and going down the street to the supermarket to get iced tea if you want it so bad, but I contribute to the vending machine fund and I don’t want to use it to buy you iced tea.”

Pointing out the absurdity of this, you mention that you also contribute the same amount to the vending machine fund, and that’s part of why you’d like it to have some choices instead of just being forced to drink the same soda every day. Jane replies:

“Soda is better than iced tea anyway. Why would anyone want iced tea when they can have soda?”

You see how frustrating this conversation is? But that’s only because Jane has managed to frame the argument in a false way. At every turn, she’s made it about soda versus iced tea, which is a completely false framing. It’s actually about choice versus non-choice, but that framing doesn’t help Jane win.

Now, in real life it’s unlikely that someone would argue this much over vending machines. Unless… maybe Jane’s spouse stocks vending machine sodas for a living, and iced teas don’t line her pockets the way sodas do.

And that’s what tends to happen in real life. In the world, people tend to do the ol’ bait-and-switch about choice when they stand to benefit from one side being picked universally. So watch for that, and don’t fall for the trick.

Two For One

A consistent path towards self-improvement is to look for ways to get double value out of your actions. You only have a limited number of hours in your life, so spending them on two things at once is wonderful.

If I work out with my daughter, I’m spending the same hour on both physical improvement and quality family time. That’s a good deal.

This is why I don’t bash people who over-share on social media. I want to take cute pictures of my kids, right? I want to preserve some memories, have things to look at later with them and laugh at when we’re all older. Maybe even show their kids one day. If I also share those pictures on a social media account, then I get to maintain relationships with extended family that lives far away, too. Two for one!

The basic formula is this: no matter what you do, there’s probably at least one other person who would care if you showed them. If you do a project for work, save it and talk about it later to a recruiter or colleague. If you write for fun, show someone who’s interested in that topic in general. The second thing can very often be “building relationships with someone” and that’s a wonderful thing to do.

A Little Less Comfort

If you can train yourself to accept even 10% less than the best version of anything, it’s like a superpower.

The modern world offers you many conveniences, luxuries, and pleasures. In general, I think that’s a good thing! Our society marches forward and we work hard to meet our own needs as well as those of our neighbors. In doing so, we create an ever more pleasant world. I certainly don’t oppose that, but I do think that on the individual level there can sometimes be benefits to taking a little less than full advantage of it.

You see, in order to maximize the benefits that society gives you, you generally also have to maximize your conformity to that society. Without any one person or small group of people needing to dictate it, society nonetheless trends towards very specific behaviors that it encourages or discourages – strongly.

But if you’re okay with a little less than the full buffet, you in turn provide yourself with significantly more freedom and choice. You don’t have to “unplug” and completely separate yourself from modern society (though more power to you if you do) in order to maintain your freedom. You can just be okay with used (but still very nice!) cars, or a restaurant that isn’t the most exclusive one around (but still makes a great steak), or a slightly less convenient shopping experience (that still gives you riches that kings of the past couldn’t dream of owning).

You can live an absolutely wonderful life if it’s 10% worse than the “best” life imaginable for your time period, and probably expend 80% fewer resources and experience 80% less stress. Just be okay with being slightly less than comfortable every second of every day, and other people lose almost all of their ability to control you.