Page Collector

If you were to walk into the Library of Alexandria or the Library of Congress, some massive repository of books, you could select a volume of great wisdom. A book that contained incredible knowledge. With all those books to choose from, surely you could select one that was such a treasure that it would beggar a great many lesser works.

And yet.

If I, instead, elected to take a single page out of every other book – the knowledge I’d hold in my hands would completely dwarf the knowledge you’d hold in yours.

All the knowledge you ever collect will pale in comparison to a single tidbit from every other mind in the world. Be intellectually curious. Collect pages; don’t try to live between the covers of a single book.

Capture & Experience

Some people take pictures of fireworks, or they pull out a smartphone and snap a few pictures of a bride walking down the aisle. I will never understand this.

Those are amazing moments! And I totally get the desire to capture amazing moments. You want to share them, perhaps you want to store them, but you want them. I get it! And I’m not one of those people who thinks you should never capture a moment, that you should always prioritize being “fully present” over taking a picture or a note. But I do have some easy heuristics, some basic questions I ask myself for deciding which to prioritize in that moment.

Question 1: Am I ever, ever, realistically going to review the captured moment? Have I ever once wanted to look at pictures of fireworks? Probably not. Certainly, no one else will, which obviously eliminates the “sharing” benefit. On the other hand, I often find great joy in looking back on pictures of my kids doing kid stuff, and my extended family loves being able to share in the joy of moments they can’t be physically present for. So as long as I’m not overdoing it, pictures of my playtime with my kids can occasionally interrupt the playtime itself.

Question 2: How accessible would captures of this moment be later if I’m not the one to capture it? Take the wedding, for example. Do you really think that on that day, your blurry cell phone shot from 2/3 of the way back in the church is going to be the best picture of the bride available later? Enjoy the moment. I promise you they’ll post the best pictures on social media later. On the other hand, if it’s a more intimate moment and you’re the only one who’ll reasonably capture it, go ahead. If you just climbed a mountain, feel free to take a picture of it, my friend.

So that’s it. We all have the urge to constantly collect every moment around us, as if any one might escape and we might find a particular emotion never returns. I promise, that won’t be the case. Many moments aren’t worth capturing (even if they’re worth experiencing), many other moments will be easily available anyway (you can seriously just Google pictures of fireworks any time you want). And some moments are just meant to be lived once.


The more public your speech is, the more diluted.

Sure, everyone wants their message to have reach. But top-layer, completely public messaging has almost no depth. It mixes with too much noise, and it becomes too generic to anyone who hears it. And the people who do latch on are often the ones you’d least like to.

There used to be this concept called a salon, where a host would gather together a curated group of people whose intellect the host respected. The group would then discuss particular topics; not for a specific aim, but because conversation is good. It’s a good way to increase knowledge – if the conversation is fruitful. Shouting into the “public void” is rarely so.

We still want to discuss things, as people. The problem is that we have mostly limited ourselves to two possible forums: the “public square,” which is a pretty terrible place to have fruitful intellectual discussions, and a variety of manufactured echo chambers into which we sort ourselves.

We very rarely join a group because the people are smart. We join a group because they already agree with us. The composition of the intellects of the group doesn’t matter, because we’ve already assumed “agree with me” equals “smart.” So if we want to have a real conversation, our choices are “shouting match” or “lockstep chorus.” Great.

It’s absolutely worth it to figure out how smart someone is before you know if they disagree with any of your substantial views. Once you know someone is smart, hang onto that – respect that. Invite that person to talk, respectfully, and let those conversations be fruitful. Engage in good faith, keep your emotions cool, and express your respect and gratitude for the other person for doing the same. Then do it again. Do it over and over, in fact. And along the way, invite others.

Viva la salon!

Position for Wisdom

You know the trope of the wise old guru on top of a mountain, dispensing timeless enlightenment only to those who can achieve the difficult physical feat of reaching his distant location?

Here’s the thing. I’ve done really difficult, strenuous long-term activities like mountain climbing. By the time you’re done – done the planning and preparation, done the mental readiness, done the incredibly difficult physical task itself – you are pretty much already enlightened. At the end of a journey like that, you’re in the best possible mental state you’re ever going to be in.

If, right at that moment, a figure with an air of wisdom and a little mystery says something cryptic and cool to you, it’s basically just hitching itself to that wagon. You’ll associate the resulting sense of divine spirituality to the “wisdom,” but really you feel that way because you just climbed a goddamned mountain, not because a dude in a robe told you to “turn the outer eye within” or some junk.

There are two lessons here. The first lesson is that there will always be someone else who wants to capitalize on your hard work to pretend they had something to do with it, or to associate themselves with the results, or whatever. Most of your enlightenment will come from you trying hard stuff until you succeed.

The second lesson is that there really is something to be said for speaking when people are most receptive. You don’t have to use that power for evil – you can just be aware that the best time to give a speech is between everyone’s second and third drinks or right after they’ve just gotten some other reward, and not when they just stubbed their toe.

Just make sure you actually have something valuable to say.

Skip Steps

Do you have a process for doing something? Great. The next time you do it, skip a step.

I’m quite serious. Skip a step. Write down all the steps on paper and put them in a hat, pick one at random, and skip it.

Why? Because one of two things will happen: either the process will break, or it won’t. If the process breaks, then you may have figured out a weakness that you can improve. If the process doesn’t break, then you probably didn’t need that step.

Every process could benefit from a little streamlining. If you’ve been doing something the same way for a while, it’s very possible that some things aren’t needed anymore – or never were. Try skipping one. See what happens.

Bricks Without Clay

‘Data! Data! Data! I cannot make bricks without clay.’ – Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

I will often ask to observe things that I don’t understand, usually if I’m intending to get involved with that thing. If I’m going to learn a new skill, I like to see someone else using it a little first. When I’m asked to consult on a process, I want to see the process in motion a bit. People are usually pretty open to being observed, but a sort of conversational pattern almost always emerges after.

I will observe, and then someone will ask me what I think.

I feel pretty awkward in this situation. Because here would be my honest answer: “I have taken the thing I just watched and broken it a thousand different ways in my head, then took those pieces and re-assembled it ten thousand different ways. In my mind, I’ve demolished everything you’ve done and built empires on the ashes, only to see if they would crumble. And since I did all of that in the space of only a few minutes, absolutely none of it makes sense yet and there is a swirling orbital storm of chaos where coherent thought should be. From that primordial discord I will ultimately draw my ideas, but like the cooling of star-stuff into planets capable of supporting life, the process must take its course and cannot be rushed.”

What I actually say is: “Seems neat so far, I’ll let you know what else I think of!”

Early ideas aren’t ready to be implemented yet. If you give them too much presence, they’ll influence your thinking too much. There’s absolutely a cutoff point where you have to start shipping, but the very first observation isn’t that point yet.

Make yourself observe something a minimum of twice before you start forming solid opinions about how it might be changed or improved. Don’t form a hypothesis without data. You cannot make bricks without clay.


I’m fascinated by the ways we interact with ourselves. So much so that I’ve explored concepts of what it’s like to consider yourself multiple people on the same team, how to identify and defeat your own internal enemies, and how to consider yourself your own boss (and to treat yourself like a multi-person company).

But I’ve got a new one – you are your own landlord. You are your own tenant. You are renting your body from yourself.

And you have to pay the rent.

Here’s the upshot of this: your existence has maintenance costs. Every second you exist costs some amount of money. You are constantly using up calories, taking up space, and consuming resources. Those things aren’t free.

Now, a simple economic concept: in order for a voluntary trade to happen, both parties have to be better off. In order for me to willingly give you two dollars for a cup of coffee, you have to be better off with two more dollars and one fewer cup of coffee, and I have to be better off with one more cup of coffee and two fewer dollars. So generally, voluntary trades made without coercion improve the lives of both parties.

Now, the same is generally true when you rent out the capabilities of your body and mind to someone else. You give someone else 40 hours of your existence, and they give you a thousand bucks. They’re better off with 40 extra hours of your time and a thousand fewer dollars, and you’re better off with a thousand more dollars and 40 fewer hours.

So great, voluntary trades improve lives. Now imagine that you were both halves of that equation.

You can sit around, idly consuming resources for no real benefit. Or you can find ways to trade with yourself.

Consider: would you be better off if you had two fewer hours of watching television, but a hundred more dollars? Yes – in both directions. So make that trade; pick up a little side hustle, sell something online, etc.

Pay the rent you owe yourself. Be both halves of the trade, and be better off twice.

Warning Signs

Recently, I saw an ad for a service that purports to enhance child safety by intrusively scanning the activity of children on electronic devices. The specific story in the ad: the software flagged something a teen was writing, then the people secretly monitoring the alerts looked at what the kid was writing and they determined it to be a suicide note. They immediately called the police, who showed up at the kid’s house and involuntarily committed him. The story then concludes with a rep from the company proudly saying “we saved a life tonight.”


It’s no surprise to you that I write, often as a way to work things out. Some of what I write ends up public, but plenty of it doesn’t. I did the same as a teenager. I wrote to vent, to manage my thoughts, as an outlet. If one day I was doing just that and cops showed up at my door because someone was secretly monitoring what I was writing and they decided that I needed to be committed, that would have been my supervillain origin story. When people would read in the history books about the atrocities I had committed, they would get to that story and go, “oh, okay, we get it.”

I have been involuntarily committed. It isn’t fun. It certainly isn’t a thing that heals you. What it does is teach you not to tell people anything. It teaches you to be afraid of sharing because it teaches you not that people will listen to you and support you, but that people will intervene.

“Okay,” you say. “But what were they supposed to do if they thought the kid was writing a suicide note? Nothing?” I’m so glad you asked. Well first, how about… calling the kid’s parents? Instead of the police? I mean imagine that Mr. and Mrs. Smith are sitting in the living room, they think Bobby is upstairs doing his homework, and suddenly the SWAT team bursts in and puts their kid in a straightjacket. You don’t think maybe there’s an intermediate step between “do nothing” and “dial 911?”

Cops are traditionally super duper bad as crisis intervention too, by the way. It’s not what they do. So in the middle of any mental health crisis of any kind, don’t call the cops.

But let’s go a step further. It’s not just that the service shouldn’t have called the cops in this instance. It’s that the service shouldn’t exist.

Everyone wants to know how to react to “warning signs.” You want to balance giving people their autonomy and independence versus reacting to potential emergencies. Or maybe you don’t care about balancing that, you just want to make sure you’re always ready to react. I’m telling you, it’s way too late.

Anything you do in response to a “warning sign” will be bad. It will be incorrect, not what the person needs, too heavy-handed, too intrusive, and do more harm than good. Sometimes in life you will have to do that, but it always represents a failure.

Because what you should have been doing is having those conversations their entire lives. By the time a kid is showing “warning signs,” things are really wrong. There are layers of pain and armor and your ham-fisted attempts will be too little, too late. You need to be having conversations about mental health all the time. You need to be building those bridges every day. “But my kid seems perfectly well-adjusted!” Great! I’m glad! But if you wait until they don’t seem that way, you’ve borked it up.

Best case scenario, the maintenance of a healthy bond helps prevent any emergencies while simultaneously strengthening your connection to your loved ones. Actually, potentially even better: your kid is fine because you’re an awesome and attentive parent, but some other kid is having a rough time and doesn’t feel like they can talk to theirs. So they confide in their friends instead, and one of those friends is your kid, and your kid says, “Hey, you should come over to my house. You can be safe for a while there, and my mom/dad is really cool about this stuff. They’ll listen without being judgy and they’ll keep it to themselves.”

The way to help your children isn’t to put them under 24/7 automated observation so you can safely ignore them until they get into the “red zone,” and get involuntarily committed by said automated observers. Like, duh. You don’t want an automated service to be snooping on your kid’s journaling, looking for red-flag keywords to call the cops over.

You want your kid to write because it helps them, and then voluntarily ask you to read it because that helps them, too. Make sure you build that open door every day.

Burning the Furniture

Imagine you have a short-term financial emergency. You’re cash-strapped and some bills are due. So you decide to sell your car.

Now in some instances, selling off assets is a perfectly reasonable response to a financial emergency. If you have a beautiful piece of art that you enjoy, it still might make sense to convert that into liquidity when the times are tough. It might even make sense to downsize your car – if you have an expensive vehicle and can sell it for enough money to buy a more sensible one with cash left over, that could be a good move.

But just selling your car outright is probably not the best idea. Your car is, among other things, a capital asset. It generates money – or at least, it can.

Don’t burn the furniture to stay warm. Be willing to do anything it takes to survive, but don’t rush to the most extreme versions. The last things you should ever cut from your life are the things that generate resources.

Always A New Tree

At the beginning of this year, I lost my father. As tends to happen in these circumstances, various people in my life did various things as gestures of sympathy and support. My amazing bosses did something very unusual – they sent me a tree.

More accurately, they sent me a sort of tree “kit.” It had a little acorn sapling about an inch high, a pot, a bag of nutrient-rich soil, instructions, etc. I liked it significantly more than flowers; in fact, it might be the best of these kinds of gestures I’ve ever heard of. When you look at things that are linked in memory to a loved one you’ve lost, they’re often static – old pictures, objects they possessed, etc. But it’s hard to be sad while looking at a tree, and having a project to focus on is helpful. It was very good.

So I planted this little tree and put it next to a window. I watered it every day and told my kids about it. They loved watering the “Pop-Pop Tree” and they loved what it represented; a symbol that life springs eternal, and that we can leave the world better than when we entered it.

My bosses didn’t know this, but my father and I planted a tree together when I was about seven. It was a big fun project for us. In the yard of my parents’ house, that tree is still there. It’s enormous now. It outlived my father; it will probably outlive me. So this felt good, it felt right.

After a few weeks, the thing had grown well up out of the pot. A tall thin stem, a few leaves, etc. It seemed to have grown to the extent of what the limited space of the pot would allow, and the instructions included said that about this time it should be transferred outside. (Yes, I needed instructions for a tree. I do not have a green thumb, and this was the first time since I was seven that I had planted anything at all.)

My children and I made a whole ritual of it. We found a suitable spot in the yard and dug it up. We gathered stones to surround the spot, and churned up the soil, and transferred the mass of dirt and roots and the little sapling from the pot to the ground. We told stories about my father, their Pop-Pop. The sun set.

For the next month or two, we continued to water it, though the normal rains of the season lessened the need. It continued to grow, bit by bit. Until it didn’t. Until disaster.

One morning I went outside to find that the little sapling had broken. There was nothing left but a slight twig in the ground, and the little stem and its leaves lay next to it. A million things could have happened – sharp winds, a stray rabbit taking a bite, perhaps it even looked insufficiently like a tree yet to the lawncare company. Whatever happened, the tree was gone.

I didn’t expect to be as upset about it as I was, but I was pretty distraught. My children noticed immediately and consoled me, but I wanted it to be something they could learn from. I told them that these things happen – to trees and to people. But we can keep up hope, because even though this tree didn’t make it, there will always be another. There will always be another tree, and there will always be more people to love and who will love you. We can miss them very very much, but the world turns, and that is good.

I’m glad I said the words, and I’m glad my children heard them. But my heart was very sad. My children were kind; my son in particular said “I’m sorry about your tree” about a hundred times a day while hugging me. But just as when my father passed, the days will keep pushing into you whether you’re ready for them or not.

And then.

One morning I looked into the yard, and there was a new tree in the circle of stones. The stem had broken, but the seed was still there. The roots were intact; nothing had dug them up. So the plant still lived, and as living plants do, it grew. What truly amazed me was how different it looked now – a heartier base, thicker and shorter, with many more leaves than before. It was growing in the wild now, against the elements, not in a pot in my kitchen where it never knew wind or strife. It was stronger.

There truly was another tree. Life is not so easily beaten.

My father was like that. I remember when the doctors sat us down as a family and told us we had to prepare our goodbyes and get our affairs in order because Dad had at most six months to live. That was about twenty years before his death. Things knocked him down plenty of times, but he was a fighter. He was resilient. Like the tree.

I’ve put some chicken wire around it now – even the most resilient of us can use some help from family – but it’s already stronger and taller than the first version. I have no idea if it will make it through its first winter. I have no idea if, like that tree my father and I planted together more than three decades ago, it will one day be taller than I am and outlive the humans that once looked down upon it. I don’t need to know those things.

What I do know, is that there will always be another tree, and there will always be people to love, and who will love you.