Your own breath fills the room. Sometimes you need to find new air. You need to capture it out in the wilds and bring it home with you; domesticate it for a while. It will grow old as air does; but you can go out again and capture it new.
Shake the cobwebs off when they form. Roll off the moss. You’ll be amazed.
I am an adult. I live in a pretty urbanized part of the world. The upshot of this is that at any point, day or night, I can buy ice cream. There are very few barriers to me doing so.
Therefore, it shouldn’t be special when the ice cream truck rolls by. This shouldn’t signify anything. I can get ice cream any time.
But of course, it does.
Some of this is nostalgia, sure. But my kids have never known a time when they couldn’t also get ice cream whenever they wanted – the only barrier is my approval. But the chimes still make their hearts swell.
To some extent, I think there’s value in taking joyous moments and nesting them outside our direct control. Scarcity and unpredictability can create a sort of joy that an on-demand existence cannot. The ordinary cannot, by definition, be extraordinary.
Here is something for you to do today.
Take something you know how to do very well – for this example, let’s assume you know how to bake a cake. You can bake a cake in your sleep, right? You’re amazing at it. (And if not – just pick something where you are.)
Now do it while recording yourself. Talk out loud; speak through your process. Stop to snap some pictures. Video the whole thing.
Next, take that raw data, and turn it into a presentation. A nice slide deck with quotes from yourself, images of important steps, video clips of the hard parts. Put all of that into a presentation.
Why? Because being able to take an action and turn it into a talk about that action is a really high-value skill. Most people try to do it for the first time with an action they don’t know very well, and then deliver it to an audience they’re unfamiliar with in a high-stakes scenario.
Ever had to deliver a talk at work? Maybe even for an interview? Yeah, like that.
If you did it instead with an action you already know intimately in a setting where nothing at all is at stake, you would be able to spot ways to improve your performance by a factor of ten, easily. You don’t even have to show it to anyone but yourself if you don’t want to (though you’d be surprised how easy it is to underestimate the interest others might have)!
And, as a nice reward for yourself: you get a cake.
I was out driving with my children recently, running some errands. At one point, one of my daughters asked me: “Why are so many people so bad at driving?”
My default answer to questions of that nature is: “Everything is a skill, and all skills are specialized knowledge. So for any given skill, we should expect the majority of people to be bad at it.” This isn’t even a matter of “half of all people are below average,” it’s the fact that skills aren’t naturally occurring. You have to actively learn them.
I thought about it more deeply though, and I think there’s even more to it. Most people are bad at things not only because they haven’t taken the time to be good at them (and this isn’t blameworthy necessarily; we all have limited capacity to learn and have to prioritize different things, so no one can be good at everything), but because people don’t even know what “good” means.
I once talked to someone who claimed to be a “very good driver.” When I pointed out that she had been in eight car accidents even in just the time I’d known her, she defended her claim by pointing out that she had not been found to be at legal fault in any of them. My definition of “good driver” starts, at minimum, with getting in no accidents at all.
I’m not here to quibble over what constitutes a good driver. I’m here to point out that most people have no definition of “good” at all for the things they claim to be good at.
Which is why most people are bad at most things.
I find that being flexible about some things and relatively uncompromising about others is a good thing. I’m often surprised about how people apply this, though.
Here’s how I apply it: I think of all things in terms of their proximity to my life. The closer things are to my actual life, the higher my standards – and vice versa. I have very strong standards about how I raise my children, how I conduct my work, how I treat my health. I have lower (but still pretty high!) standards for what I consider acceptable behavior from my close friends and family. I’ll speak up on a variety of topics if it affects a close professional colleague.
At the other end of the spectrum, I have absolutely zero opinion, total flexibility, on the food preparation standards of restaurants in another country. On which books a library in another state chooses to carry. On how much television other people’s children should consume.
Why the difference? It’s not because I don’t think there are better or worse behaviors – of course I do. It’s because I recognize that local knowledge is powerful, and I don’t have it when it comes to non-local things. All situations have different confounding details, and I don’t know them – my information about anything other than my local environment comes through many filters. Given that, it only makes sense to hold stronger opinions, leading to higher standards, where your own influence is deepest.
Other people seem to… not do that. People have iron-clad opinions about what a refugee from halfway around the world should do based on one headline that they half-read, but they don’t have a nutrition plan for their own kids. They judge the behavior of celebrities that might as well be from another planet, but they’re unsure what their own career ambitions are.
Living in a connected world is wonderful for many reasons. But don’t ever forget that you’re essentially a tourist in the rest of the world, and you’re the absolute monarch of one tiny corner. Conduct yourself appropriately.
The odds of a flipped coin coming up heads five times in a row is 1 in 32. If you’ve flipped a coin four times and it’s come up heads all four times, the chance of the fifth flip coming up heads is 1 in 2.
A lot of people struggle with that, conceptually. That’s the heart of the Gambler’s Fallacy: the belief that past events can influence raw in-the-moment probability. After all (some people think), if there’s only a 1 in 32 chance of getting five heads in a row, then surely this fifth flip coming up heads must be very unlikely!
Of course, you’re not evaluating the difference between getting five heads in a row versus the probability of getting one tails. You’re evaluating the probability of getting five heads in a row versus the probability of getting exactly four heads and one tails, in that order. And the chances of those two outcomes are equal – 50/50. So if you want the past four flips to “count,” then you have to count them both ways.
This all doesn’t really matter to the current flip, though. The thing that makes “five heads in a row” unlikely has already happened, so you’re only really asking “out of every time four heads get flipped in a row, how many times is the next flip also heads?” Which is again, 50/50.
Here’s what I notice about people.
If someone has 8 hours to complete a task, and they get distracted for 6 of them, they’ll stress. They’ll think the job can’t be done in 2 hours, that they’re a failure, that they’ve already lost. But if you just gave them 2 hours, they wouldn’t feel that way.
The past flips already happened; they don’t affect the present chances of success. They are what they are, good or bad. Call it.
My father used to be a smoker. He quit when I was a teenager and this certainly added years to his life. But when I was a little kid and he smoked regularly, there was a trick he used to do for the kids involving bubbles.
Most kids are familiar with bubbles – little wands, puddles of soapy goo, whimsical floating orbs of scintillating colors. But if you have lungs full of smoke when you use the little wand to blow the bubble, it looks rad as heck. You end up with a bubble filled with smoke, contained and isolated. The air around it is clear as the smoke dissipates almost instantly, but it continues to swirl within.
I was thinking about this today because I heard someone talking about a problem that’s “everywhere.” But it’s a problem I’ve never encountered once, and nor has anyone else I know expressed exposure to this problem. Since the person in question lives a very different life than I do, my conclusion is that the problem isn’t really “everywhere” at all. It’s just in their bubble.
It might be pervasive within their bubble, but that’s not the same thing. The smoke you think is “everywhere” might just be in a few square inches of space; it just happens that you’re in that space, too.
But all bubbles pop. All worlds eventually mix with the worlds around them. The smoke will dissipate and you’ll see that what you thought was so horrible was actually just an artifact of one tiny corner of space and time.
You can hasten this realization, by getting out of your own bubble a little. There’s nothing wrong with making your own little beautiful corner of the world and living in it. But if you start to think there’s something wrong with the world, make sure it’s not just something wrong with your corner – because that’s a much easier fix.
Sometimes you think there are no good ideas left in a particular sphere, but that’s time-based. It’s a pendulum. When people push too far into “originality for originality’s sake,” then people want “classic” stuff. They yearn for nostalgia. And then when the homages get too tired, people want something fresh. This is all okay – tastes are meant to be mercurial. They’re a way to use emotion to mark time, a way to season your seasons uniquely.
You don’t have to be an immovable pillar in what you enjoy. You’re allowed to like things you didn’t before and to abandon things that no longer suit your palate. Swing along with the pendulum, enjoy the ride.
There’s something you need to get if you want to succeed. Absolutely essential. If you don’t get it, you will never achieve anything. I guarantee it. If you do get it, you won’t automatically be victorious in all your endeavors, but you’ll definitely be well on your way. And again, if you don’t get it, you are completely doomed.
What do you need to get?
In your life, you’re going to do a lot of things that you won’t directly see the results of. Most of these things will be small, some will be large, but there will be many.
You’re going to be on the road one day, and you’re going to stop in a little diner. You will never be here again; you will never see any of these people again. Your actions here are performed without a future agenda, and you will not see their results.
In that scenario, some people say – why bother to tip well, or even at all? I’ll never see these people again, so it’s not like I’ll get bad service in the future. My reputation in my own communities will not suffer.
That kind of person sucks.
Leave cool things in your wake. Kindness and mystery. Fun and cheer. Magic and knowledge. In that scenario, take out a $20 bill, write a cool fact on it, and leave it behind. Draw a mysterious picture on the other side, with coordinates that you make up. Create a mystery, a kindness, and knowledge, all at once.
Because that’s cool. And leaving cool in your wake is its own reward.