What You Say You Are

Do you know what the “No True Scotsman” fallacy is? That’s when you say something like “No Scotsman eats pudding,” and then someone else says “here is a Scotsman, and he is eating pudding.” So you respond: “Well, no true Scotsman eats pudding.”

What you’re doing is redefining the category so that your claim about that category is always true and can’t be falsified. It’s a way of changing the parameters of the argument so you can’t lose. “All reasonable people agree with me,” you might say. Someone else, by all accounts reasonable, says “I don’t agree with you.” You then redefine them: “Well, then you’re not reasonable.”

The No True Scotsman fallacy is about using rhetorical tricks to force someone out of a definitional category. But I’ve noticed a weird inverse version, where people use rhetorical tricks to force themselves into a definitional category.

It goes like this – pick a category of people that is hard to strictly define but everyone tends to love, have sympathy for, or defend. A decent example is “people just trying to help.” Now, you claim that category while doing something decidedly unhelpful, as a shield against criticism.

“How dare you yell at me for shoving that kid into the mud! I’m just trying to help this woman park.” But here’s the thing – your own declared category isn’t real. Category is a result of actions.

You don’t become saintly by declaring yourself a saint. You become a saint by being saintly. Rhetorical tricks or not, you are the sum of your actions.

Green Steps, Red Steps

Imagine a staircase. It has ten stairs, each painted green. Whenever you step on a green stair, you get ten dollars. Woo hoo! You get $100 for climbing the staircase, and you’re also rewarded for each individual step. Fun!

Now imagine another staircase, with ten stairs – but 3 are red, spaced out every third stair. When you step on a green stair, you get twenty dollars, but when you step on a red one, you lose ten. Climbing all ten stairs still nets you $110, which is awesome! You could feel bummed when you step on a red stair, but you’d have to be really short-sighted to feel that way.

This is literally everything in your life. There is some mix of advances and setbacks, but the point is that they’re all connected. They’re all part of the same process, one leading to another. Avoiding activities that have a chance of setbacks is just avoiding the staircase altogether.

Trust Your Systems

I’ve been designing systems to automate myself for years. Despite this, I sometimes stumble when facing a problem, and the reason is almost always the same. I falter when I don’t trust the systems I’ve built.

I have specific spots where I put all physical objects that I own, as a way of automating the process of “remembering where I put stuff.” When I can’t find an object, it’s rarely because I didn’t put it in the right spot; rather, it’s usually because despite this I look somewhere else first. It’s silly, and it’s usually only a second before I slap my forehead and say “duh.”

The deepest system is this chronicle. When I write down advice or lessons, it’s almost always because I encountered a particular problem and I wrote down my solution. And yet sometimes, when I encounter a problem, I forget to look here first. I forget my own advice.

Which is the point, of course. I can’t possibly keep in my active memory everything I’ve written here. That’s why I write it. But that means I don’t always know that there’s a particular piece of advice I need – but often there is, and I can use it to solve my current problem.

And if there isn’t, then I solve the problem from scratch. And I write it down. Trust your systems.


I’m coining a new (to my knowledge) phrase here today: Inactivism.

That’s when you do a bunch of “activism” that has zero chance of making any real impact, and the only reason you do it is some combination of outgroup rage and ingroup status-seeking.

Sam is my example. Sam professes to care deeply about the plight of the homeless. Sam yells a lot, both online and off, about this deep concern. Sam directs ire and rage at anyone associated with the “wrong” side of this issue, always within sight or earshot of plenty of people on the “right” side. Sam has never ever donated a dollar to a cause that actually helps the homeless or volunteered in any way to make an actual dent in the problem.

Sam is an “inactivist.”

Now, I’m being slightly uncharitable to the likes of Sam. I’m accusing all inactivists of being motivated entirely by status-seeking, but I think there truly is another angle at play. I think that the way our particularly skewed view of information presents these issues to us has led many of us into an “all or nothing” trap.

You see, all the information you receive about any particular plight is centered around the idea of that plight being dire. When things improve, even a little, it isn’t newsworthy. This can lead you to believe that problems never get better by increments – we either solve them all at once, or we don’t solve them (and it’s always the latter, and it’s always somebody’s fault).

But that’s not true at all! Imagine that you felt really bad about people being rained on. You think it’s terrible! So every time the clouds gather, you spend all day screaming at the sky to stop raining. It never works. Someone suggests that maybe you could just buy a few umbrellas and give them to people, and then at least those people wouldn’t get rained on? And you scream back: “But that doesn’t stop it from raining!”

Yeah… nothing will stop it from raining. That’s the reality you refuse to admit.

That’s the reality with pretty much any problem. You, personally, cannot make a dent in the problem as a whole. But you can absolutely do wonderful, powerful things locally and in small numbers.

The next time you want to be an “activist” about something, look around instead. What is a small – but actual – thing you can do about that problem in your own town? Go do that instead, and then get on with your life. The only real justice is the justice you can touch.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Rage clouds the mind.

The more incoherent and undirected your sense of frustration and anger is, the more it will act as poison for your mind.

Consider a person, in front of you, doing something that makes you angry. This situation has many fine resolutions, many ways for you to conduct yourself admirably and control your life. You can discuss, you can forgive. You can dismiss and exit. These are not only honorable, but they’re satisfying – satisfying because some part of you knows that you could have given in to baser instincts and lashed out, either verbally or even physically, but you didn’t. You get to be proud of yourself, discharge your anger safely, and live a good life.

Because of this, personal encounters that may make you angry aren’t necessarily something to be avoided! Each one is a chance to grow, learn, and improve your conflict resolution skills.

Now consider a different situation. Something makes you angry, yes. But it’s neither a singular entity nor directly in front of you. It’s a distant “other,” an outgroup, a news item. You can look away, but you can’t discharge your anger. There’s nowhere for it to go. You can’t be proud of your choice not to lash out, because you can’t lash out even if you wanted to – a news item can’t be screamed at, can’t be struck. So you’re left with poison in your heart all day, maybe longer.

In an attempt to expel this rage, some people do lash out or scream. But since, again, the source of the anger itself is something distributed and not wholly real, the only targets for their umbrage are people. These people may be good or evil, distant or close, but they’re never the right targets for this kind of outburst. You poison yourself more fully and you poison them, too.

You can’t even apologize when you’re done. A barfight is better than a Facebook rant. At least when a barfight is over and you realize that you’ve let yourself make a bad choice, there’s a person to make amends to. A way to move on.

Move away from the very sources of this incoherent anger. Don’t even let them in. Read books and talk to people instead. The rest clouds your mind.


If you want a tree to remain in the shape you find most pleasing, you have to constantly prune it. You have to limit its growth. You have to stunt it.

This is true of everything, not just trees. Your perfect children will keep growing up, your perfectly structured org chart will expand as the people in it change, and the soccer club you started will expand to people you don’t even know.

Put the shears down and enjoy it. You’ll be better prepared to grow with it.

Get Through

If you’re not careful about how busy you let yourself get, then a terrible thing happens. All of the things you do stop being things you do because you want to and start becoming things you have to get through.

This happens even to the enjoyable things. You’re thinking about the next five things you have to do, worrying about timing, not present in what you’re doing. Each thing becomes worse. The things you’re doing because they’re valuable start producing less value because you’re not effective. The things you’re doing because they’re fun start becoming less fun because you can’t enjoy them.

In turn, this starts shortening your time horizon. You look at things in short bursts because there’s always a next thing. You can’t see the future past all the fires you have to put out.

Here is the only solution: let it burn.

You can’t build a fire-prevention system while you’re inside a building that is currently on fire. All you can do at that point is fight the fire, but if you’re not gaining any ground against it, then you’ll be fighting it forever. The correct solution, far more often than we think, is to just let it burn, build anew, and do it better.


A snowglobe has a few ounces of water in it. Somewhere between 50 and 100 little flakes of fake snow. You shake it, and the little flakes swirl around.

You know what’s interesting? None of those components change. It’s completely sealed; a closed system. The water doesn’t change, the flakes don’t change. Nothing new is ever added, nothing is ever removed.

And yet, every single time you shake it, something slightly different happens. The swirl of the snowflakes is never exactly the same. The movement of the water is unique each time. Shake it a billion times, and that will always be true.

When we feel like we’re stuck in a rut, we so often want to rush out and pull all these new things into our lives. There’s nothing inherently wrong with new things, mind you, but they need space – physical space for physical objects, time for experiences, attention for interests. All things you have in finite quantities. If you don’t have a solid system to clear out as much as you bring in (and few people do), you end up with clutter and chaos, causing you even more stress. Stress you feel like you need to escape, so you look for something new…

You don’t always need that. Rearranging the things you already have can be wondrous. Give your life a new shake – go to the same places in a different order, move your furniture around, call three of your existing friends from different circles to all hang out. Before you try to cram more into your existence, let what you already have swirl a few more times.

Shedding the Chains

When you’re trying to prioritize a to-do list, especially one for a packed but short period like a busy day or week, there are plenty of ways you can go. You can prioritize the things with the highest impact first. You can put the most urgent things at the top; those with the shortest time horizon. A particularly bad but oh-so-appealing method is to prioritize the things that the loudest people are yelling at you about.

But here’s the method I prefer: prioritize the things that are weighing on you the most. The things that are causing you stress.

Here’s why: imagine that you have to run a hundred-meter dash, but with special rules. You have to carry 10 heavy objects, each of different weight from 1 pound to 10 pounds. Every ten meters of the race you can put one object down. Which would you choose first?

Of course, you’d go in descending order of heaviness. If you ditch anything other than the 10 lb. weight first, that’s extra weight you have to carry for more distance for no reason.

Stress is a physical weight, and don’t let anybody tell you differently. Shed the heaviest chains first, and free yourself to gain strength and momentum as you go.

Wrong My Whole Life

The last time you learned some amazing new way of doing things – a new skill, maybe a new mindset, something – you might have said “holy cow, I’ve been doing this wrong my whole life!”

Look at the insidious way negativity tries to take over even your most joyous moments! You discover something that changes the trajectory of your whole future in a positive way, and the first thought is how it retroactively makes your past worse.

Okay, a quick aside. Imagine some genie offers you a bargain. The genie will rewrite the memories of your own past such that you are in chronic pain for every moment before the present. Nothing will actually be different – all the same stuff will have happened, including your own actions – but you’ll remember being in pain along with everything else. That change only applies to the past up to the moment of the bargain, and in exchange, all your future moments will be marked by an equivalent amount of joy on top of whatever else the moment would have produced naturally.

Let me tell you: that is a ridiculously good bargain, and I would take it in a heartbeat. Which is to say: even if I could make my past retroactively worse in exchange for increased future happiness, I would do so – because I’m already done with the past. Of course, no such bargain exists. Your past is immutable.

You weren’t doing something “wrong your whole life.” You were doing what you knew how to do in a universe where humans aren’t born omniscient. There are a million things that, if I had done them or learned them sooner in my life, would have made my current life better. So what? I didn’t know those things then, maybe I couldn’t even have learned them until I knew other things. Maybe there really was no way for my path to have shaken out except for the way it did. We’ll never know, so it’s not worth dwelling on.

Instead, take your joy! Look at the vast, uncountable days of your future and how they are now bending ever higher towards sublime inspiration with each new door you unlock, each new piece of wisdom you claim. No matter how dark the clouds of your past may be, do not let them darken you once you’ve left them! You have escaped their shadow into today and tomorrow, and no power on Earth can force you to carry their darkness with you unless you choose to.