Silos & Soapboxes

If you don’t brag about your work, your work will be worse.

People hate this; they hate self-marketing, they hate “bragging,” they hate living out loud. Some people are the opposite and like it all a little too much, but most people would rather fail than talk about their success.

But if you aren’t talking about your work, then you’re missing out on the greatest resource ever, which is the brainpower of other people. You’re living in a tower all by yourself and not only will your work have less reach, it will also be worse overall. Since I want this to be practical, I’m going to give you some tips on how to “work out loud” in ways that don’t feel like shameless self-aggrandizing.

  1. Ask questions. If you’re building a soapbox derby racer, even if you’re amazing at it, ask questions of a broader community. Share a picture of the thing in progress and say “what does everyone think of this wheel choice?” Post another picture next week and say “thanks for the wheel suggestions – now does anyone have any thoughts on spoilers?” You’re not only tapping the vast network of people with additional knowledge, but you’re also sharing what you’re working on. And you’re staying humble while you do it.
  2. Answer questions. Other people are doing #1. Join those conversations wherever you find them. When someone else asks about building material weight versus durability, answer them with what you know. You’ll be helping other people (in a way that they specifically asked for!), and you’ll also be sharing that you’re doing something similar. Especially if the platforms are connected (i.e. answering questions in the same forums or communities in which you ask your own).
  3. Give stuff away. You’ve been building that thing for a while now, and you have some leftover materials that you don’t need but are perfectly good. Post that you’ll give them away if anyone wants them. Or maybe you won the derby and you want to give away the blueprint of the final model so other people can build them. Whatever! Giving stuff away is great and helpful and fun, but it also lets people know what you’re doing in the first place. And you can feel good about it.
  4. Mentor someone. You feel bad about promoting yourself, but you probably feel awesome about building up someone else who’s doing great work – especially if they did you a big favor, right? So find someone else who’s doing what you’re doing, and offer to teach or share with them. Do that enough times and you’re not only helping the world and your own community, you’re also creating an army of cheerleaders for the work you do.
  5. Join a club. Look, there’s a club for everything. And the purpose of pretty much every club in existence is to promote the primary topic and the work of the members on that topic. So if you build soapbox derby racers, just go ahead and sign up for your local Soapbox Derby Club. It will definitely give you more opportunities to do #1-4, at least, and probably a few other things too.

If you do all of those things on a regular basis, then congrats! You’re engaging in self-promotion without ever having to be overly braggadocious. You can find fun, community-building ways to talk all about your soapbox derby racer without ever having to stand on a soapbox.

New Growth

My children have grown tomatoes.

For many people, this is an ordinary thing. But I have never grown anything edible in my entire life, and now my children have successfully brought edible food into the world from a seed in a packet. They dug the garden, they planted the seeds, they watered and nurtured. And then they ate the absolutely delicious fruits of their labor.

I am so very glad they did it. The lesson isn’t about gardening (although that’s great). The lesson is that we have the power to put things into the world that were not there before. We are not passive participants in a life that carries but does not include us. We lay our own path, brick by brick, unless we yield that power.

Don’t. Use your own hands, and your own feet, and your own brains. Use your own eyes and your own heart. Grow your tomatoes because it is good to remember that you can.

Not Succeeding is Not Disaster

Here is a skill: knowing when the worst outcome from a failed attempt is simply a return to the status quo versus when a failed attempt will result in a major loss.

You’d be surprised how often people do not make that assessment correctly. You’ve probably gotten it wrong many times; I know I have.

If you try a high jump to touch a high ceiling, you might make it or you might not. But you end up back on the ground either way. If you try to jump over a ravine and you don’t make it, you don’t end up safely back on your original side – you end up in a ditch.

That’s an obvious example, but plenty more are less obvious. This is a valuable skill because, by default, we all assume that “disaster” is the natural state of failure. We don’t even attempt things that wouldn’t have any negative consequences for failing because all we can picture is being in a ditch. This makes us avoid low-risk opportunities when we should be embracing as many of those as we can.

The next time you decide not to try something because you might fail, stop yourself. Ask yourself what failure looks like in this case. If it’s your body in a ditch, then sure – don’t do it. But if it’s just you back where you started – jump!

Apologies to Cheap Trick

There are a lot of “movements” and groups and things that, over the years, I’ve joined and left. Little (metaphorical) membership cards left discarded in my wake. Yet my preferences, values and desires have been largely very consistent for a long time. So why the mercurial associations?

Let me explain what happens. I think “One of my values is that I want more of X, both in my life and in society at large.” So I look around and I see a group of people who also want that! Great, I join up. Often this isn’t any sort of official “joining” (I almost never do that anyway), but rather I start thinking of myself as belonging to that group, I start joining in their conversations, etc.

Then, inevitably, I look around and I say “I want more X, and this group wants more X, but me belonging to this group isn’t actually getting me more X.” So I leave.

I love tacos, so I join a group that loves tacos. I join thinking that I will get more tacos as a result of joining this group, because they also want tacos. But it almost always turns out that what the members of the group actually want, is to want tacos.

They want the group more than they want the tacos, in other words. I get it, groups are important – we’re social creatures. But when you join a group because you want to join a group, but you say it’s because you want tacos, you’re creating all sorts of weird problems down the line.

All groups ultimately morph into a group whose only purpose is self-sustainment. Along the way, if you’re lucky, the group might solve some problems. It’s just that solving the problem won’t dissolve the group – even if they got tacos, they wouldn’t call it a day and disband their “Association of People Who Demand More Tacos.” So you should view all of these memberships as temporary – bind to solve a problem, then escape. When you make your groups, make them honestly. Make them just because you like the group.

Two and Together

I always wonder what makes it likely for two people to connect. The “secret sauce” that causes two (or more!) people to really vibe together.

I’m not talking romantically, either. I just mean “connect” in some way that causes a more-than-casual relationship. I’ll see two people that I know, but that don’t know each other. I’ll think, “wow, these people have such a similar vibe; they both like A, B, and C and incorporate those things into their lived values – I should introduce them!” And I often will, but… nothing. They’re happy to have met, thankful of the introduction, but nothing really happens.

In my head, I was imagining grand partnerships, new business ventures, joint projects, maybe even deep friendships.

“Having things in common” simply isn’t enough for all of that (or any of that) to reliably manifest. Of course, it’s also quite possible that I’m simply wrong in my limited perception of two people “having things in common,” but even if I’m dead-on it wouldn’t be enough. So what is?

What is it that makes people “click?” What makes two people think that their lives would be sufficiently enriched by the other to the point where they put in the required effort to create a sustained reaction?

I don’t have the answers to this, but I love the question. It’s something I want to pay attention to more closely.

Hunger

Imagine that you haven’t eaten in a few days. You’re really hungry. Your blood sugar is low, you might pass out at any moment, and you’re definitely not at your most clear-headed. Suddenly you are presented with two options for food.

Option 1: A bowl of probably-rancid meat. It’s certainly out of date, it isn’t cooked well. It’s something not especially healthy even at its best, and it’s certainly not at its best. It may make you sick; at the very least, it won’t improve your overall health. But it’s food, and it’s available right now.

Option 2: A delicious and healthy meal, balanced and nutritious, cooked to perfection. It has all your favorite foods, but the meal itself is centered around maximum nutrition as well. This meal will take you about 6 hours to prepare; maybe only a coupon for the ingredients is provided and you’ll have to shop for the ingredients and prepare the meal, etc.

Many people pick option 1. In fact, it’s often correct to pick option 1; if you’re about to literally starve, don’t be picky. Picking option 1 isn’t the mistake people make. The mistake people make is that they’ll often pick option 1 and then instead of eating exactly enough to stave off starvation and then move on, they’ll eat it all. They’ll keep ordering it. That will just be the thing they eat, maybe for years.

The point is that sometimes you’re in truly dire straits and you have to make a call. That’s fine; make it. But don’t then make that bare minimum, that survival choice, your default. If you’re completely broke and you have to take the first job offered to you in order to make rent, okay. Zero judgment. But recognize that you made that choice under duress and as long as that choice is active, you should be altering your lifestyle until that choice is no longer necessary.

That means take four bites of the rancid meat, choke it down, and then stop. Move immediately onto the better healthy meal now that you’re not literally going to starve in the next six hours. Or, while you’re working whatever terrible job you have in order to make rent, make sure you’re spending every extra hour you can banking money and learning skills until that’s not the case.

Survival choices are fine. Allowing them to become permanent will kill you.

Borrow A Ladder

Let’s say you’ve got a sinkhole in your yard. That’s a pretty big problem, but it’s possible for you to solve. After all, you’re smart and capable. You have access to a modern world full of resources. You’ve got everything you need to fix this problem.

But now imagine the same problem, except you’re in the hole. This problem suddenly got much more challenging. While you’re down there in the hole, you’re still smart and capable – but your access to resources just got significantly more limited. You don’t exactly have a lot of options.

If, in order to get out of the hole, you need to borrow a ladder – do it. Even if you definitely wouldn’t need a ladder to solve this problem normally. Even if you already have a ladder, you can’t access it (because you’re in a hole). Don’t get salty about the circumstance. Just borrow the ladder.

Problems are easier to solve from the outside. In fact, the difference in difficulty (and therefore total resources needed) is much greater than the cost of renting a ladder or getting a small favor to get out of the hole.

Some people refuse to do it. Those people tend to stay stuck in a hole.

Self-sufficiency, as a default, is a good thing. You should be able and willing to solve your own probems. But part of being competent in general is knowing when you’re burning way more resources than you need to by using self-sufficiency as an absolute, rather than a default. Just borrow the ladder.

Hunker

When a storm is coming, you batten down those hatches. You prepare to weather the storm. But there are all different manner of storms. Paying attention to the signs that one is coming and preparing accordingly can save you.

Two major signs of storms that people tend to ignore: a major storm has just happened, or you’re planning for something very good at some point in the near-ish future.

If a storm has just happened, your resources are depleted. You used up provisions during the storm and you tapped resources to repair after. That means you’re vulnerable now until the stores are replenished. Tighten the belt, work more, and be cautious with risks.

Likewise, a major good thing (or project) that you plan to do will tap those same resources in the future. That means if those resources vanish due to a storm now, the storm does even more damage than it otherwise would. So be careful.

Pay attention to the trends in your life. There will be ups and downs, but they’re manageable. Know when to harvest, and when to hunker.

The Hardest Fight

The hardest fight is not against the strongest opponent. It’s against the opponent so small and so weak that its only defense is to convince you that it isn’t worth fighting.

That very first dark thought. That insidious little seed. You have to fight like hell against that.

Once it’s big, it’s not a fight anymore. You won’t have it in you, because all its strength came from you.

Carve Up

When you finish with a project, destroy it.

Okay, don’t annihilate it. Don’t remove it from existence and erase it from history. I just mean that you should take a copy and break it down. Carve it up. Look at the parts.

Not only are those parts potentially helpful as starting points or components in future projects, but if rearranged the right way, they might be an entirely new project – already done!

Any finished work isn’t just the components, but the arrangement thereof. So if your components are good, there’s a good chance that other arrangements will produce something of value, too.

So don’t always go on to a new blank page. Carve up what you’ve already finished a little, first.