Off Color

Imagine that you took every physical possession you owned and put it in one big pile. That’s not a very useful way to store and organize those items! That possibility technically exists for you now; no one is stopping you from doing that. You probably just don’t want to.

Okay, so now imagine that after some prankster has done that to you, and you’re tasked with cleaning it all up and reorganizing it back into your house from the front lawn. Let’s look at a way you could organize things differently than you probably do now – let’s organize by color!

That room at the end of the hall? That’s now the Blue Room. Everything you own that’s blue is going in that room. The blue clothes you have, in there. Blueberries? In there. Your toothbrush goes in there, because it’s blue. One of your blankets goes in there, as does that set of blue dishes you own.

Now we get to the green room. Your plants go in there, and so do your toothpaste and a lot of the vegetables. Your cash goes in there as well as your favorite hoodie.

And so on.

This would be pretty horrible. Yet so organized! The rooms might even be ascetically pleasing, neat to look at. But that’s it. They certainly wouldn’t be organized for use.

That’s how you organize things – or at least, how most people try. They put stuff together based on what gets used together, and they put that stuff where it will likely get used.

You could store all your food, cooking utensils, and serving ware in the bedroom. It would all be together, which is nice, but it would still be mostly useless. You store that stuff in the kitchen because that’s where the stove is, so that’s where you’ll cook. I don’t keep my automotive tools in the basement, because I can’t get my car down there to work on it.

So things have to be both (a) stored in useful groups and (b) in useful places. Got it.

Now, think about how you store non-physical things.

Do they all go in a big pile on your front lawn? I’ve seen enough of other people’s desktops to know that the answer is “yes” for a decent number of people.

Do they all go somewhere that’s organized in a way that’s very pretty to look at and is utterly counter-productive for usefulness?

Or do you put things where you’ll use them?

(Inspiration credit: I’m currently reading the absolutely amazing book Building A Second Brain by Tiago Forte, and so should you.)

Go Fig

A very old monk, whose spine was bent and breath was short, knew that his days upon the Earth were numbered, and the number was low. With one of his last remaining days, he chose to walk along the path outside his temple, planting fig trees.

A young man saw the old monk and recognized what he was doing. He asked the old monk why he chose to plant fig trees, which will not bear fruit for at least five years. Surely the old monk will never taste the fruit of his own labors, but he might live to see the harvest of this year – so why not plant something that will produce fruit in that time?

“Because,” said the old monk, smiling wryly, “I do whatever the fuck I want.”

Willing to Lose

I often think that society tends to be bad at making positive trade-offs. Even setting aside how bad people are at correctly evaluating things like this, people will generally only support something that (they think) has 100% good effects. For instance, let’s say there are two health policies on the table and people have to vote for one of them: Policy A will save 10 lives per year from heart disease. Policy B will save 100 lives per year from heart disease but result in 1 extra death per year from cancer. People will vote for Policy A, despite the superiority of Policy B, because people focus way more on “causes 1 death” than “saves 100 lives.”

In other words, people are bad at trade-offs.

But you know what? This isn’t just about public policy stuff. People – and I’m absolutely including myself – are bad at this concept even in their personal lives.

I’m always looking for win/win scenarios. I love finding ways to improve multiple things at once. But you can’t do that all the time, and thinking you can will make you overlook even very beneficial win/lose scenarios. Those scenarios can be amazing as long as the win is bigger than the loss. Maybe it’s just fine to take some time off from your side business in order to build that deck that you want. Maybe it’s just fine to slow your personal reading pace in order to spend an extra afternoon with a dear friend.

You can’t win ’em all, as they say. But if you’re willing to lose a little, you’re more likely to get to pick how you do so. That’s a win all by itself.

There Is A Season

Sometimes you find yourself saying “now’s not the right time.” Usually, in response to some suggestion of an activity, you might say this because you have a general sense of unease about it. As a rule, “general sense of unease” isn’t a great lodestar without some refinement.

When someone wants to challenge you on that statement, they might say, “why not?” But that’s the wrong question. The right question is: “when is the right time?”

That’s the right question because if you have a genuine answer for that, then that answer will include the answer to “why isn’t now the right time.” And if you don’t have a genuine answer for that, then you don’t really feel like now isn’t the right time – you have some other reason for not wanting to do it at all, or else you’re just letting fear or some other negative emotion get in the way.

So the next time you find yourself saying that you definitely want to do something, but “now isn’t the right time,” challenge yourself to specify when the right time is, and commit to doing it at that time. If you can’t – then just do it now!

Chopping With a Dull Axe

“I don’t have time to sharpen my axe. I need to chop this tree down.”

Most people encounter some version of this problem. I understand it completely. If you value the sentiment “you don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great” (as I do), then you’re usually pressuring yourself to get started. At the same time, lots of other people are pressuring you to do that same thing!

See, this is part of the problem. “Sharpening the axeabsolutely is starting, but it doesn’t look like starting. It’s less visible to others, and it’s less visceral to you. If you spend four hours of a six-hour project sharpening the axe, then at the three-hour-and-fifty-nine-minute mark, it doesn’t look like you’ve made any progress at all. Because people are looking at the tree, not the axe.

Getting paid only further complicates things. If someone pays you to chop down a tree and they’re a particularly short-sighted person, they might actually be upset to check in on you and find you sharpening your axe. After all, that benefits you (since you’re sharpening your own axe), and they’re paying you to work for them! They’re not paying you to sharpen your own axe!

You have to stand firm against this sort of short-sightedness. You have to remind people on occasion that chopping with a dull axe makes you a bad investment. You have to remind yourself sometimes, too.

The Middle of The Magnet

There are a lot of things I like. My favorite book is The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut. My favorite movie is The Royal Tenenbaums, and my favorite album is Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I really really like all three of those things. But I’ve also met lots of other people who liked them that I didn’t particularly get along with.

In other words, the single data point of “Loves The Wall” isn’t enough to guarantee that I’ll like someone. No matter what thing you like, the same is probably true for you – liking that same thing isn’t, by itself, enough to ensure that you’ll adore that person.

So why assume the opposite is true?

Look, there’s also stuff I really dislike. Lots of stuff! But someone else liking that thing shouldn’t be enough to guarantee that I’ll dislike this person, that they have no redeeming qualities that I might find enjoyable or beneficial.

I’m not one end of a magnet, perfectly repelling all of one category and perfectly attracting all of another. Neither are you. Neither is anyone unless they’ve taken great effort to become so. Don’t carve out humanity so swiftly.

Beware the Blanket

Imagine a person who really, really hates Thursdays. They think they’re terrible and want everyone else to believe it, too. In their ideal world, the week would have six days.

Now imagine that this person trips and breaks their arm on a Thursday. What do you think will be the first thing they blame? The loose carpet? The fact that they were distracted by an important phone call? The badly-placed bike rack that broke their fall?

Or the fact that it was Thursday?

No situation has a single cause. Surrounding every event is a swarm of causes, many of which interacted in exact ways to produce the event in question and many of which had (and this is the tricky part) no impact whatsoever.

This is a nuanced (read: unpopular) view, but it’s the truth. When something bad happens, you can’t pick the thing you already hate and declare that the only and ultimate cause, ignoring all other factors. Even if the thing you hate was a factor at all (and there’s no guarantee of that), it absolutely wasn’t the only factor.

If we want to reduce bad things, we have to make it about the bad things, not the factor we just hate for whatever reason. This is, for many people, super-duper hard. I get that you want to believe that every bad thing was caused by the singular factor you don’t like. But it wasn’t. And your life will be better when you get out from under that blanket.

Honey & Vinegar

It’s time for another exciting edition of “Johnny dispels a folksy truism.” Today’s entry: “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

This is wrong for two different reasons! Three, if you count the actual literal interpretation:

Credit: The wonderful Randall Munroe of xkcd.com

Funny as that is, it’s not the scientific inaccuracy I’m writing about here. I want to dispel the underlying concept. The advice embedded in the saying is this: you get more people’s attention and/or interest by being sweet than by being vitriolic.

False. Like… obviously false, for anyone who’s spent ten minutes around people.

If you want to attract a lot of attention and/or interest, acid is the way to go. Being horrible. Mean-spirited. “Controversial” is the most charitable way to say it, but it goes deeper. The people who tend to gain the most attention and interest are often very, very rotten. Most of the time they’re just tactical enough to be rotten to someone else besides the people they’re trying to attract. Demagogue politicians that constantly decry “the other,” social media influencers who pick a straw man to mock, or false prophets claiming doom and gloom is just around the corner and don’t we just deserve it.

So yeah, Senator Xenophile, Facebook Bully, and Fauxstradamus all get a lot of attention. More than the people who are just… nice. Saying things that are true, and helpful, and kind. But here’s where we get to the second thing inherently wrong with the advice.

The saying “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” implies that whatever the method, it’s somehow good to catch flies.

I don’t know about you, but my goal in life is not to be the center of a giant buzzing swarm of flies all the time. We do not generally associate “things flies want to be around” with, you know, positive qualities. In fact, I’m guessing that a particular substance came to mind that was neither honey nor vinegar.

The attention of flies isn’t doing anything for you except obscuring your view of the light of the world. Don’t try to catch them. Try to avoid them. Use honey specifically because it doesn’t catch as many flies. And because a life of sweetness is better, no matter what.

Borrowed Independence

When someone refers to something as a “house of cards,” they usually mean that while it looks impressive, it could collapse at any moment with even the slightest disruption. People often build their lives (or at least elements of them) this way – on borrowed independence.

When I was a teenager, one of my dearest friends was a homeless kid; a drifter about my age who I met in the weird ways kids meet. We became very fast friends and he grew to become like a brother to me. In many ways, he became like a literal brother because my saintly parents insisted that he live with us rather than on the street. We spent the final years of our adolescence together under one roof, and during that time he taught me many lessons that I might not have otherwise had cause to learn, due to my own more fortunate circumstances.

One of these lessons came in how he ate.

He was one of the family and every bit as much access to the household food supply as I did, but he ate exceedingly simply and consumed very little. One day I watched him make a very sparse peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then he cut it in half – putting one half away in the fridge and only eating half himself. I asked him if he wasn’t hungry, and he responded that he was very hungry, but that was all he was allowing himself. I misunderstood his motivations and said: “You know Mom and Dad don’t mind if you eat more!”

He laughed and said he knew, but that wasn’t why. He’d learned a hard lesson, which was that anything given could be taken away. At first I was insulted, but he explained that he didn’t mean that my family’s love was transient, but rather that the circumstances weren’t under his control. He had no way of guaranteeing anything, recognized that he wasn’t owed anything, and so he didn’t want to grow used to more and put himself in danger.

“In danger of what,” I asked. “Of having it taken away again?”

“That,” he said, “and of having to make bad deals to keep it.”

His reality was such that he could never be sure where generosity was coming from. What if he allowed himself to become comfortable on someone else’s generosity and then something turns south – what would he have to do in order to keep his stake?

In my adulthood, I’ve seen this happen again and again. People get a benefit from someone else, and they allow themselves to incorporate that into their lifestyle as if they’d earned it. Then, it either gets taken away and suddenly you’re in real trouble, or the source starts asking for more and more in order to keep it up, and you’re stuck. It’s a form of control, and it can be a form of abuse.

If you’re a young adult, first striking out on your own, don’t let your parents pay a thousand bucks towards your rent every month. Find roommates, live in a worse apartment, whatever it takes to not borrow that independence. If they’re kind and good people, let them put that same amount of money towards an emergency fund for you instead, but don’t let other people be responsible for part of your base lifestyle costs. You need that to be yours in order to grow, to change, and to make choices for yourself.

And as you age, keep it up. Find your own way in things, even if the path seems harder. Better a harder path on solid ground with your own feet and brain making the choices than a house of cards someone else has built.