The Advice Trap

Be careful! Sometimes people want to blame you for something, but they disguise their accusation as a genuine appeal for advice. Once you start dispensing advice, the trap closes – and you start to look like you’re defending the problem that you didn’t cause in the first place.

I am particularly susceptible to this trap because I automatically interpret all complaints as appeals for solutions. When someone says “I don’t make enough money,” I just sort of translate that by default into “hey, could you give me some advice on how to make more money?”

But often that’s not what people are saying! Sometimes they’re saying, “I don’t make enough money, and I blame anyone who supports the current economic system or any of its close variants” or something like that. So then we’re having two different conversations because the initial statement doesn’t actually track literally onto either of our interpretations. So then naturally they hear my well-meaning personal finance advice as some sort of political defense of a thing they wanted to complain about, and now we’re fighting and I didn’t even realize it.

That can happen by accident, but be careful when people do it on purpose. Not everyone wants solutions.

Where Things Grow

Your favorite things deserve to be someone else’s favorite, too. Things grow in the sun; let your best be visible. Talk about things, even to no one. Do things publicly. Let people see.

Tell stories. Share books. Give stuff away. Don’t hide things, because the dark is where the wounded animal goes to die.

You, But Faster

I think people often mistake intuition for emotion, and vice versa. They aren’t the same. Emotions are inputs; if we’re not careful we can confuse them for decisions and act accordingly, but that’s foolish. They’re sources of data; senses, like hearing and sight. Use them to collect information, but never let them drive.

Intuition is different. If tuned correctly, your intuition should reach mostly the same conclusions as your higher reasoning, just more quickly and without offering supporting explanations. Your early view of your intuition should be “trust, but verify.” Remember, it’s the same brain. It’s just jumping to the conclusions that you might have reached yourself more slowly.

That doesn’t mean it’s never wrong – but you’re not always right, either. And sometimes when we take too long to reach a decision, we overthink it to the point where we introduce errors our intuition didn’t encounter.

When you do end up going with your intuitive response and acting upon it, the most important thing you can do is still engage your higher reasoning after the fact to analyze the decision. Without the pressure of an immediate deadline, let your slower intellect puzzle out how the decision got made and whether it was a good one. Then retain that information (maybe even blog about it to really get it to stick) and help your intuition calibrate. The closer you can get to the point where your speedy intuition reaches the same conclusions as your slower deliberation would have reached, the better.

The Poop Truck

The world is specialized. That means that there is a golden area of opportunity for you, as a unique individual. All you have to do is find the stuff that most people don’t like but you don’t mind, and get good at it.

You don’t even have to love it! You definitely shouldn’t hate it, but “comfortably pleased” is a great bar. I’ll be honest with you: most people who operate septic tank trucks probably don’t love it. But they don’t mind it, and they probably do love money, which other people are happy to pay them in order to not empty their own septic tanks. Driving the poop truck may sound gross to most people, but there’s a subset of the population that doesn’t mind it, and that trait is worth a lot.

Way back when I was in sales, I noticed that most salespeople really hated doing any sort of recruiting or training, but most training in sales is “hands-on” and done via shadowing. Salespeople often really hate that, because it’s effort that takes away from the main thing they want to be doing (selling to make money) with no immediate reward.

I actually liked training, even though in the short term it cost me a little money personally in the form of lost sales. And in realizing that I liked it but my coworkers hated it, I saw opportunity. I started volunteering to take everyone else’s training rotations. I went from middle-of-the-road salesperson… to #1 sales manager in the company. I had my pick of people because I’d trained them all. Everyone wanted to work with the person who put effort into them when they started. I built teams, and in the long run, earned way more than the meager amount I lost initially.

That’s an example of how the diagram can apply in a micro level as well as macro. It isn’t just about choosing whole industries that other people don’t like, it’s about choosing your specific path even within one. There are infinite nested layers of complexity and specialization, and you can find your micro-niche even within the macro-niche you’re in.

Throw Your Socks Away

Do you have a sock drawer or other designated “sock spot?” Look in there now. How many different kinds of socks do you own? How many different pairs? If you put all your socks loose in a basket, how many would you have to pull out at random before you were guaranteed a matching pair?

For me, the answer is: two. All my socks are identical. Once a year, I throw away all my socks, and I buy a dozen identical pairs of new socks. This costs me all of twenty-five dollars, and I always have nice, new, matching socks.

People get so hung up on this idea that you shouldn’t throw things away that haven’t completely failed yet. So if your socks are all threadbare, mismatched, sagging – but still technically socks – then it’s wasteful to throw them away! Bah! Some things you should waste. All things are temporary, but some things are “good” for a year, and then “barely passable” for like ten years after that before they finally, actually break. You don’t need to be held hostage by your socks!

Scale Models

People have an internal frame of reference. They have a concept in the world that, whether it accurately maps onto the real world or not, is what they must operate in. We can try to improve the accuracy of our mental models of the world (and we should!) but they’ll never reach perfection, and they’ll never perfectly line up with another person’s.

One of the best things you can do for a person you love is to respect their mental model. Someone might tell you that something is very, very important. You might think it isn’t, but the point isn’t the disagreement: the point is that in their world, it is very important indeed. Their model may change – in the future, they may look back and think that thing wasn’t very important at all. But they will also remember whether or not you chose to believe them when they said it was, and wanted to share it.

Collaboration is bringing two or more mental models into better alignment. Love is just saying, “I believe yours.”

“The Sailing Ship”

Today I bury the greatest man I have ever known.

I’m afraid I don’t have anything more to say today, so I would like to take a rare turn and share the poem that my father asked me to read at his funeral. I will honor his wish today. It’s a good poem.

What is Dying? by Charles Henry Brent

What is dying?
I am standing on the seashore.
A ship sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean.
She is an object and I stand watching her
Till at last she fades from the horizon,
And someone at my side says, “She is gone!” Gone where?
Gone from my sight, that is all;
She is just as large in the masts, hull and spars as she was when I saw her,
And just as able to bear her load of living freight to its destination.
The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her;
And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “She is gone”,
There are others who are watching her coming,
And other voices take up a glad shout,
“There she comes” – and that is dying.

Anyone Can Do It

My father was one of the most talented people you’d ever meet. He could do a thousand things. If you expressed any wonder at all at his myriad talents, his response was the same: “anyone can do it.”

This wasn’t humility, false or otherwise. He truly believed anyone could do anything. Virtually all of his skills were self-taught; he had little in the way of formal education and I’m not sure he ever opened an instruction manual in his life. But he would listen to people, quite happily – especially if they were trying to teach something.

There was always someone trying to teach something, he would tell me. All you had to do was listen and try it. You could probably do it. He loved Bob Ross; many homes in our family are adorned with paintings my father did while following Ross’s directions.

Just pick it up, whatever it is. The paintbrush, the guitar, the hammer. Use your hands to find the tools, your eyes to watch what you’re doing, and your ears to listen for people trying to teach. You don’t need more than that, and you can do anything. And anyone can do it.

Institutional Boredom

You can raise the floor without lowering the ceiling. When I was in high school, I remember gym class being a massive disappointment. I went to a tiny middle school (we didn’t even have a cafeteria; we ate at our desks in the classroom), and I was excited about going to the larger high school that served several towns (because our town was too small to have one). One of the things I was excited about was actual physical training.

In every movie I’d ever seen about high school, gym class was a grueling boot camp of rope-climbing, push-ups, stuff like that. Despite the negative picture this was meant to paint, I was amped for that stuff. I wanted the physical challenge!

Instead, we stood around and played the laziest games of frisbee imaginable. It was a joke; it was 45 minutes of “activity” that was only physical in the loosest possible sense. No one ever so much as broke a sweat. At one point I finally asked about it – why was our “phys ed” so lazy and poor?

The roundabout answer I received was that people complained about the more grueling stuff, so it was removed from the curriculum. At one point they did make the kids run laps, lift weights, climb ropes, and all that good stuff. But the kids who needed it most were also most likely to complain about it and eventually, the school caved. Now nothing more than gently tossing around a frisbee was ever asked of anyone.

Now, I actually don’t care about that. I don’t care at all about what other people do – I have zero opinion on what schools make kids do, and I didn’t then, either. What I cared about was that in the process of lowering the standards of physical education for everyone, they also lowered the ceiling of what was possible. It wasn’t important to me that the class wasn’t forced to lift weights and climb ropes. What was important to me was that I wasn’t allowed to. I had to stand around and throw the frisbee with everyone else. We had some of that stuff – a weight room at least, even if the rope was long gone – but you couldn’t use it unsupervised, which in practical application meant it never got used. So instead of using my allotted 45 minutes per day on things that would actually have improved my physical health (not to mention enjoyment!), I had to spend 45 minutes of pure horrified boredom.

There may come a time when you, as an individual, have to decide on the standards for a group. You may have some incentive to lower them, and I won’t judge you for it. But make sure that when you have people who actually want to go above the bare minimum for those standards, you let them. Institutional boredom is a thing – but let people escape from it.

Put It Down

Both hope and despair have weight. They are both difficult to carry. They are anchors that attach you to something, either way. I think that’s why apathy gets attractive to some people – for better or ill, it weighs less than the other two options.

The more weight you give to hope or despair, the more easily it can tip over into the other. Balance is difficult when you’re trying to put everything on one side.

Maybe “apathy” is the wrong framing. There can be healthy ways of detaching yourself from expectations, good or bad. A noble stoicism can be freeing. But putting down weight is sometimes as hard as carrying it.