Something that has amused me since I was a child is seeing rules that are, in practice, totally unenforceable. In modern society, many people seem to have adopted a belief in a sort of specter that punishes “rule-breaking” in an absolute, omniscient manner – I can’t imagine how else to explain the behavior some people have.

Some rules are dumb. The people who wrote them know that they’re unenforceable, they’re simply hoping that you don’t know. An example I saw recently: an employment offer that required a “minimum one year of service.” Here’s the thing – it’s theoretically possible to impose some penalty there. For instance, you could say “at the end of your first year of service, you get $X in bonus, but we don’t pay that out unless you stay the whole year.” But this offer had nothing of the sort. It was just “if you work for us, you have to stay for at least a year.”

Okay, think about that for like two seconds. How on Earth would you enforce it? As an employer, you pretty much have exactly one stick to apply as punishment, and that’s termination. So if I quit… you’ll fire me?

Profound Meaning

Sometimes, things just happen. There isn’t a lesson in everything. But part of my nature is to look for lessons, every time – I always feel like if enough happens to make it a story, then there’s enough in the story to draw a moral. So if I can’t find one, I often just default to assuming that the meaning must be so deep, so incredibly profound, that it simply escapes me. What actually ends up happening is that I am awed by random gibberish. But so what? My world is more interesting if the random gibberish awes, rather than annoys or frustrates.

When I was at the cemetery, making burial arrangements for my father, the cemetery employee helping me at one point lifted up his pant leg to show me the Van Halen tattoo he’d recently gotten on his calf. This man, in his 50s, had gotten the tattoo only a few years ago when Eddie Van Halen passed away. For some reason, I did not find this event at all strange. This seemed like a perfectly normal situation to find myself in, at the time.

Today, out of nowhere, this bizarre memory popped back into my brain and now feels like a somehow deeply important experience, though I couldn’t begin to tell you why. But I’m sharing it, just in case it turns out to be.

Write Before, Write After

As a fan of a lot of Stephen King’s early work and as a young literary buff, I definitely absorbed with great relish the advice he penned about the topic. (And by the way, incredible thanks are due there – whether you like the advice or not, the fact that King wrote so much about his craft is very praiseworthy; if only everyone documented their processes so well!) One of the pieces of advice he gave was that if you want to write prolifically – that is, if you want to actually produce a large content of work – then writing has to be the biggest rock of all. You have to wake up every day, he said, and write ten pages before you do anything else. Before you shower, before you call or email, before anything. That’s the only way it will happen.

Well, I don’t know if I agree that it’s the only way it will happen, but it certainly seems like it would produce a lot of writing, especially if you were diligent about forming the habit of holding yourself hostage. Of course, even if I wanted to follow that advice I realistically couldn’t: three children won’t wait around for me to write ten pages before I feed them and take them to school. But I get the spirit of it.

At the same time, I’ve noticed that my writing is starkly different when I do versus don’t follow that advice. When I write first thing in the morning, a few things are true: my writing is generally easier, for one. I’ll get more written, faster. And my writing is often more concise. But I actually don’t think it’s as interesting.

When I write late, it’s often a chore. I slog through the process of getting started. But when I do put words to the page, they’re often (at least, in my opinion) more interesting. Usually because they’re a reflection of the day’s events, which are often themselves very interesting.

So a mix is fine for me – keep some variation in my style, in what appears here. The lesson is that this is probably true for almost everything you do. Where you slot something in your day affects how that thing happens. Even something as simple as leisure might change depending on whether you’re doing it early or late, or what came before or after. You could probably take all of the exact same activities you normally do, swap their orders around one day, and find very different results. Give it a try.

Hands Off

It’s a joyous feeling when something you’ve nurtured for so long suddenly bursts into its own growth. When you’ve had your hands on something directly, you get this false feeling like your hands will be needed forever. Then as soon as your back is turned, bam!

I joined my company when it was extremely scrappy. Small team, big ambitions. Today I joined a meeting and didn’t know half the people in it, and I feel like that happened overnight. They were great people!

A plant I’ve been nurturing is suddenly huge. This is a big deal for me, as I have never grown a plant in my adult life.

Take your hands away, more frequently than you think. Watch what happens.

The Three Horsemen of Falsehood

I love “armchair epistemology.” I love thinking about how we come to know things, and how we come by the information we believe to be true.

Knowledge can only come to you in one of two ways when you boil it right down – firsthand or secondhand. You can discover something with your own intellect and senses or you can accept truth from another source.

Both methods have their flaws; sadly, we don’t have any universally-perfect way of discerning absolute truth. But I think the flaws in our ‘firsthand’ information-gathering systems are more apparent – certainly, we seem as individuals to spend more time refining them. If our senses aren’t giving us accurate information, we correct them with technology. If our intellect gives us the wrong answers, we study the flaws in our reasoning skills or we obtain new information and information models. In this way, we generally get better at acquiring firsthand knowledge, at least if we genuinely try.

But there are many flaws in secondhand knowledge as well, and we all too often simply ignore them. Secondhand knowledge has to come to you through The Three Great & Terrible Filters, each one stripping truth from information and scrambling the knowledge you receive. Despite their ubiquity (or perhaps because of it, like a fish being unaware of water), we barely acknowledge their existence.

The Three Great & Terrible Filters are Agenda, Noise, and Error. These are the Three Horsemen of Falsehood, and you’ve simply got to contend with them. If you don’t, you might as well just abandon knowing truth forever.

Agenda is… well, people have reasons to lie. Especially to big groups, and you’re part of a big group pretty much any time you receive secondhand information. I’m going to avoid using any majorly controversial examples here and pick a (hopefully!) less contentious topic to use as an example: the Moon Landing. Look, here’s the absolute reality: you don’t know that the moon landing was real. You don’t. You weren’t there. You don’t have firsthand knowledge unless you’re one of a very, very small number of people (and if Buzz Aldrin reads this blog, that is awesome).

So that means that your belief in the Moon Landing as a real event is based on secondhand information. Someone else told you that it happened. And here’s the thing – unless Dr. Aldrin himself is the one that told you, the person who told you also doesn’t know for sure that it happened. Secondhand becomes tenth-hand really quickly and you don’t even realize it. So sure, you can think that the person yelling “the moon landing was faked!” is a crackpot, but they have exactly as much firsthand knowledge as you do. So the first Horseman you must slay is this one: does anyone have anything to gain by lying to me? If they do, then they probably are. The reason I think that the moon landing is real is simply that I don’t think that enough people have enough to gain by lying about it, versus the enormous cost of maintaining that lie. Not everything passes that test.

The Second Horseman is Noise. Look, you want to trust the experts. Sure… but there are a lot of experts, and they don’t all agree. Consensus is a myth. People, even very reasonable and smart people with expertise on the same subject, will disagree about that subject. They will use their firsthand systems to reach different conclusions, and then they will try to transmit those conclusions to other people, and they won’t actually be lying, but they also won’t agree. To you, that’s noise. And people are really, really bad at admitting that two reasonable people can both be smart and yet disagree – instead, they start calling each other charlatans and accusing them of being Agents of The First Horseman, and this only increases the effect of Noise as far as you, the secondhand recipient, are concerned. And other secondhand people have all sorts of tribal loyalties, and they’re basically using those loyalties to stand in for certainty about information that they can’t possibly be certain about, so whether or not they believe Reasonable Expert A or Reasonable Expert B will almost always boil down to which color flag that Reasonable Expert appears to be waving. Noise, noise, noise.

Okay, so you’ve got lots of people with reasons to lie, and lots of people with no reason to lie but who disagree with other people with no reason to lie, and lots of mixes between those two. But now, to compound all of that, is the Third Horseman: Error. Because all of those people also have all the same problems gathering firsthand knowledge that you do, plus all of the problems with their own interpretations of the secondhand knowledge they need as part of their work, which means on top of everything else, they can just be wrong. So in addition to getting skewed by passing through the Agenda filters and the Noise filters, the information might not even have been right in the first place.

Okay, so this isn’t me saying you shouldn’t believe anything. It’s me saying you should be a lot less certain than you are about stuff. And the primary outcome of being a lot less certain is that you should be a lot less angry. Other people being wrong about stuff affects you every day. Someone else’s bad ideas about automotive safety can put my life at risk when they cut me off at high speeds to run a red light. Someone else’s bad ideas about business can put my livelihood at risk. This is just… you know, life. Being angry about it helps exactly not at all, ever. Focus your energy on raising your own awareness of things that you can use to directly improve your life and the lives of those around you, and be less certain about everything else. Let people be wrong; insulate yourself from their wrongness before you try to be angry that they’re not right.

And when you hear anything, anything, remember that it is borne to you by Three Terrible Horsemen, and their only weakness is the swift sword of detached skepticism. Be not afraid.

Don’t Shoot the Other Leg

Imagine that you had a boss that, every day, shot you in the right leg with an airsoft gun when you came into work. You think this is horrible, so you say: “Someday when I’m a manager, I’ll be the complete opposite of this jerk. I’ll shoot my employees in the left leg!”

Clearly you’ve missed the point, right? But people do this more frequently than you imagine. They take a bad example and try to use it as such, but because they don’t have a firm grasp on exactly why their example is bad, they just do the opposite on every metric. But the opposite of a bad action isn’t necessarily a good action – especially if you identify the wrong axis.

“My last plant died because I gave it too much water. So this time, I’ll give it no water!”

Don’t just flip the script in a perfect way. Examine why the course of action was negative. Examine the full spectrum of alternatives, not just the most extreme one.

Thought to Target

Creating mental models for things is very helpful. Fish don’t know what water is because they don’t have a mental model for it. In the same way, there are things all around you that you don’t connect to other things because you can’t conceptualize them.

In order to take action on something, we need to be able to target it in our minds and intentions. We can’t do that without a conceptual framework. So analogies, models, terms and diagrams – these are all helpful. And even the ability to create them is a valuable skill to hone.


The thing about life is that you have infinite do-overs, but you can only quit once.

Lots of things are like that. I know people are often nervous about their performance at their job, for instance, but in most cases, you can try a lot of times before someone fires you. But if you quit, it’s pretty hard to unquit.

It’s not impossible, of course – you can occasionally grovel your way back into a job, romantic relationship, or broken lease. But it’s rare, unpleasant, and in most cases doesn’t last on the second go-around anyway. In most normal situations, once you quit, that’s it.

This awareness should make you both less and more likely to quit something, depending. Most of the time, this awareness should give you the motivation to make at least one more attempt at sticking something out. But if it’s truly horrible, it should make you quit faster – because you realize that most things you do are already “stickier” than you think. Most jobs would prefer not to fire you, even if the fit isn’t great. Most landlords would prefer not to evict you, even if you and the apartment aren’t a great match. Inertia and transaction costs are strong factors in people’s decision-making. Make sure you’re making the best decision, independent of that.

Fifth Best

A hugely underrated skill is knowing when a task needs to be done, but absolutely does not require “your best.” This is a hard skill to master, even harder to teach (especially to children), and most people can’t even wrap their heads around why it’s important. But if you do get a handle on this skill, your life will be much, much better.

Consider: in the majority of cases, there is no outcome difference between your best effort and your fifth-best. But your best effort might take a hundred times more juice than your moderate effort! That’s not a good return on investment, obviously.

Of course, sometimes your best effort is warranted, and there’s the rub. Telling the difference. There’s no universal rule, but here’s a good general one: your best effort should be reserved for the things you want to do, the things where there is no outcome except whether or not you enjoy it. If you’re planting a garden for yourself because you’d like to grow your own tomatoes, then your best effort is warranted. Your best effort probably won’t grow much better tomatoes than your fifth-best effort, but if you aren’t doing your best at your hobbies, why bother at all? What you’re really growing isn’t tomatoes.

Until you have the calibration down, “try your best at everything you do” might be good “starter advice.” But it’s also a recipe for perfectionist burnout if you don’t quickly get a handle on it. I’m definitely not suggesting that you should “phone it in” when the outcome actually matters. I’m saying that there are many scenarios where the range of outcomes is much closer to “pass/fail” than you initially think. Take the time to examine the potential results of your best effort versus your fifth-best, and ask yourself honestly: in this instance, does it matter?

Flowers Grow From Dirt

Today was a frustrating day with many challenges and setbacks. Yet when it was over, I played games and made cookies, taught lessons and gained stories. It was a good day.

These things aren’t unrelated. I didn’t have a good day despite the frustrations. I had a good day because frustrations stem from change, and change is the agent of progress. Sometimes things blow up – but then they settle in new places. With a little nudge here and there, you can make that work out really well.