I like the word “proof.” Apart from just being a fun word to say and spell and look at, it has such an interesting spread of definitions.

“Proof” can mean evidence of something – usually people use it to mean solid, undeniable evidence. To “prove” something means to remove all doubt, generally.

It can also mean a test copy – a “proof run” is a sample you make, often of written or other creative work, to examine closely for errors or flaws before committing to a larger run.

It can mean “defended from.” If something is waterproof, we say that it can’t be harmed by water. If your watch is waterproof, you can safely swim with it.

A bit more obscurely, “proof” is a measurement of how much alcohol is in something. If something is “80 Proof,” then it’s 40% alcohol (proof goes 0 to 200, so you halve the number to get the percentage, at least in the US – it varies by country).

Okay, so why am I using this nominally development-oriented blog to define a word? Well for one, because it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want. But more than that, I think this is a wonderful example of the beauty of the hodge-podge. People like to complain that the English language, constructed as it is from the stolen pieces of hundreds of others, makes no sense. That there’s no formal structure to definitions or even the sounds letters make. That the “rules” of grammar are obscure and arbitrary. That it’s impossible to figure out from some set of first principles.

This is all true! And that’s why English is amazing. English is a champion of new words, of stunning wordplay, of humor and poetry. We can break the formal rules and get our meaning across in how we break them. We can create clever allusions and analogies and never run out of configurations.

English is wonderful because it’s always changing – every sentence is a test run for the next one. There’s no final form, no matter how formal. It’s immune to becoming outdated because it’s so adaptable. The slang alone is evidence of it, undeniably. It’s pure, 100%, 200-proof chaos in the very best way.


There’s a lot of wisdom in being able to delay gratification. The inability to do so is such a common problem that we attribute ills of all manner to it. Rightly or wrongly, it’s undoubtedly true that some folks can’t seem to do it.

But other folks can’t seem to go the other way.

Sometimes it’s time for gratification. Time to let yourself be rewarded, to claim what you worked for. And just as some people can’t delay when the should, others (albeit more rarely) can’t seem to stop.

Memento mori. You’re going to die someday, and you need to be able to outlast your own effort.

Problem People

People are complicated. They’re a mix of a lot of things. No person on Earth exists solely to be a problem for you specifically, I promise you.

You know that too, but it’s hard to remember when you have “a problem with someone.”

So don’t have a problem with someone. Solve a problem with someone.

Problems exist independently of the people involved. Sure, some problems are severe enough that the right answer is to remove that person from your life entirely, but that’s rarely the case – and it’s rarely feasible as a first option.

Ask yourself this: “If the person I have a problem with was my only ally, and I started with the assumption that they also want this problem solved, what might I say to them then?”

Envision the problem as a separate entity. Mr. Problem is sitting on one side of the table, and you and everyone else involved are sitting on the other. You and your co-conspirators are negotiating against this entity, not each other.

Other people might not see that at first. But you do, so it’s your job to bring them along. And if you do, you’ll solve a lot of problems.

Assuming Perfection

I used to have a significantly larger ego than I do now. It’s still probably too big, but I can confidently say it’s smaller than it used to be. I was always terrible at humility, but I’ve learned a lot.

Part of that, I’m sure, is parenting. It’s a humbling experience; you rarely in life will get thrown into an environment where you’re expected to do so much with so little knowledge. Every day is a new thing you don’t know and have to figure out the best you can. Some of my lessons have come from other humbling experiences: maybe I was just unnaturally lucky for my first thirty years, but my 30s had more trials than the first three decades combined.

…or maybe it just seems that way to me now?

That’s the real thing that’s given me more humility. Examination. It’s hard to stay cocky if you’re always questioning, exploring, and committing to introspection. It’s hard to have a sense of awe and wonder at the mysteries of the world and a sense of excitement about growth and still think “I’m already perfect.”

But while that stuff makes you less cocky, it seems (at least to me), that it’s given me more confidence. In the same way a scientist gets more sure of the truth of their hypothesis with each experiment that confirms it, I get more strength in my values with each new experience I can examine. I long ago stopped assuming, by default, that I was good at anything. That I knew anything.

Instead, I look for ways to test and explore with purpose and intent. Ways to form and test hypotheses. Whether or not I’m right about the last ten years of my life being harder, I’m much more confident that I’ve learned more in that time.

Maybe those are the same thing.

Better to Learn Than to Know

You can be dumb in a smart way, and you can be smart in a dumb way. I’ve seen both. The former, as you might imagine, is way better for you.

Here’s how to be dumb in a smart way (and of course, I’m flippantly using “dumb” to mean “temporarily ignorant about something,” not casting aspersions on someone’s mental faculties): don’t try to pretend you’re not. Don’t try to fake knowledge or impress everyone. But don’t stay quiet, either! Own your ignorance, and you’ll own the path away from it. Ask a lot of questions! Be cheerful! Tell people what you don’t know and what you’re trying to learn. Experiment with new questions. Ask anything and everything of anyone and everyone. You’ll start out dumb, sure. But not only will you get smart fast – you’ll make a lot of friends. And none of them will ever think of you as “dumb” – they’ll think of you as curious, friendly, and excited, which are all hallmarks of intelligence.

Here’s how to be smart in a dumb way: use what you know as a cudgel. Don’t try to enlighten people or (heaven forbid) learn more than you already know. Instead, show off what you already know in a way that demonstrates that you don’t need to learn anything from any of the people listening. Put down information you’re unfamiliar with as unimportant. You’ll become dumb fast, because you won’t be learning while the world keeps making new information. And no matter how smart you are to begin with, people will view you as irritable, egocentric, and stubborn. None of which are things people tend to associate with a high IQ.

Don’t worry about what you know. Just focus on what you can learn.

The Traffic Light System

In a professional context, you are often asked to do things. Clients, managers, direct reports, peers – it can seem like a constant deluge of requests for your time and effort. How do you keep yourself from being overwhelmed?

I’m going to detail a tool here I call the Traffic Light System. This is a tool that helps you respond appropriately to requests, track those responses, and then turn them into a system for proactively controlling the flow of your requests.

Step 1: Build The Traffic Light

Take this image, print it out, and stick it next to whatever you use to communicate with your coworkers. Put it next to your computer, make it the background of your phone, whatever you have to do to give yourself a constant reminder that these are the three acceptable responses to requests.

Note: An unequivocal “YES” is not available as an option!

Why not? Because any task you’d say “yes” to, without any qualifiers, is already the base job that you’re already doing. Your day already centers around those tasks; you said “yes” to them when you took the job, and those tasks probably do a good job of filling your time. What you need to manage is the flow of everything else.

So what do these answers mean? “No,” means… well, it means no. It means that someone has incorrectly identified you as belonging on a certain task. You probably won’t use a pure, red-light “no” that often, but it’s a viable answer. If someone asks you something outrageous like “Hey, can you finish that project up on Christmas Eve and have it on my desk first thing Christmas morning, even though I won’t actually be back in the office until February,” it’s a perfectly reasonable response. Likewise for things like “hey, can you adjust the code to the customer’s specs for me,” when you’re in sales and don’t know the first thing about coding.

But for most other requests, you’re going to do some variation of the yellow-light “no, but” or the green-light “yes, if.”

“No, but” means that you can’t or won’t do the task, but you’ll give some help to the person asking so they can get their problem solved. If you’re going to be out of the office on Friday and someone asks you to come in for a meeting, you can say “No, but I can clear some space in my calendar Thursday or Monday for you,” or maybe “No, but Sophie is filling in for me that day and she knows how to work on that project.” You’re still helping, you’re just not sacrificing your own needs to do so.

“Yes, if” is when you agree to a request, but you initiate an exchange. If your week is already packed and you get a request for a task that you’d like to do (or think is appropriate to do), then you can say something like “Yes, if you can do a quick calendar review with me and let me know which of my other tasks you’re okay with me pushing back to next week in order to free up room.” Just as reasonable: “Yes, if you approve the overtime!”

The underlying principle here is that you need to provide signals to others in order to let them know what the traffic conditions are like. Otherwise, they don’t know! Most people aren’t trying to overload you with work, any more than motorists are trying to cause accidents. But without a little traffic direction, both can happen.

Step 2: Track the Traffic Patterns

Using that visual aid to help you respond appropriately, start tracking those requests. Each time you use one of those responses, make a note of which one and what the request was. Even if you only wish you’d used one of those responses – but guilt or timidity made you just say “yes” and pile one more thing onto your own shoulders – write down which one you wish you’d said.

Do this for a week or two. The goal is to start seeing patterns. Which things do you constantly get asked (incorrectly) to do, but aren’t really your job at all? Which things do you get asked to do far more frequently than you can handle? Which things do you want to do, but often don’t have the time or bandwidth?

Step 3: Direct the Traffic

If you’ve done Step 2 well, you should have noticed a lot of “batches.” Maybe you constantly get asked to handle customer escalations, even though you definitely don’t work in client success. Maybe you’re always being asked to join different meetings that should really be attended by other people, but the requesters don’t know the staff as well as you do. Or maybe you keep getting assigned new accounts but don’t have time because your other boss wants a bunch of stuff done, too.

At the start of the next work week, it’s time to get proactive. The goal is to stop having to respond to those requests at all because you’ve communicated in advance what you’ll be doing.

Monday morning (or whatever your “Monday” is), send out a message to your team. Let them know, in advance, the common answers to the questions you tend to get. The message could look something like:

“Happy Monday, hope everyone had a great weekend! Just to let everyone know, I’ll be in the office Today, Tuesday and Thursday this week. Wednesday and Friday I’ll be working remotely, and I’ll be doing a deep-dive into our accounts receivable. I’ll have that wrapped by Friday but that means I’ll be out of pocket those days. If you need me on a live meeting, please send me a request for the other days. If you have any client success tasks that need to be done, reminder that there’s a new client success ticket system, accessible in your dashboards. Any other urgent matters, send me an email and I’ll check each day from 12 to 1!”

One quick paragraph, maybe 5 minutes to write. Probably saves ten hours of time over the course of the week. And the best part is that you appear more professional and more like a team player for being proactive!

If you’re feeling absolutely buried, try this out. You’ll thank me – and your team will thank you.

Turns of Phrase

I have a huge soft spot for a well-delivered but bonkers phrase. There’s just something about the slick pronouncement of utter nonsense that makes me giddy. From Val Kilmer’s awesome “I’m your huckleberry” in Tombstone to Warren Zevon’s slick tones musing: “I saw a werewolf drinking a piƱa colada in Trader Vic’s, and his hair was perfect,” I adore them.

Sometimes people complain that something lacking substance is nonetheless taken seriously because of flashy presentation, and I think that’s a valid complaint. But there’s a reverse – sometimes people think a line or lyric is well-delivered just because it’s good. So when the line itself isn’t, it’s all the more important that the delivery be absolute honey.

Style can be cool for style’s sake, and that’s worth appreciating.

A Measure of Freedom

Lately, in more than a few contexts, I’ve seen people really struggle with the balance between what freedom is when you have it and what freedom feels like when you don’t.

I’m pro-freedom. I want unconstrained choices, by default. Counterintuitively, sometimes the greatest freedom we can possess is the ability to restrict our own freedoms to our own benefit.

There are things that, while I could do them, would cause me great harm. I choose not to do them, despite the fact that overall I like having the option. Sometimes, however, the “great harm” is only possible because of an earlier choice I made!

Here’s a simple example: I own a house. If I don’t pay my mortgage, great harm will befall me – legal trouble, the foreclosure of my house, shaky living conditions, ruining of my credit history, bankruptcy, etc. When I simply rented, the consequences would be far less dire – I’d eventually get evicted and probably a ding on my credit history, but that’s it. Much lighter consequences, comparatively speaking. And way back when I just had an informal “under the table” rental agreement with some guys I knew, failure to pay would have had even fewer consequences.

So why then, did I willingly restrict my own freedom? No one made me go from “paying a dude for his spare room” to “signing a lease on an apartment,” and no one made me go from that to “buying a house.” All of the potential harms I’m subject to, the limits on my own freedom, were made by choice. That’s an important thing.

I made those choices, voluntarily limiting my own freedom because it allowed for boons in other areas. Despite the overall loss in freedom, I want to own this house. I like it. It gives me a lot of benefits – benefits that I have decided outweigh the drawbacks of not being able to just disappear if I want to (or at least, significantly raising the cost).

All that being said, here’s the difficult thing: there are times when I am frustrated. When I’ve been “cooped up” for too long, when I haven’t gotten into the woods for a while, when something breaks in my house, when I see someone else who lives in a less geographically permanent manner – I can get frustrated. And when I get frustrated in that way, it’s very very easy to say “Ugh, I should never have bought this house, I wish I could just live out of the back of my car on the road again.”

That is a very dangerous position to be in. Because ultimately, I do have the freedom to make that choice. I can just stop paying my mortgage, pile my kids into the car, and figure it out from there. Any level of good sense will tell me that’s a terrible idea with terrible consequences. But when you’re in that moment…

You can see this scenario play out a thousand times a day if you pay attention to it. Long-term relationships hit a rough patch and one (or more) of the people involved starts remembering how easy it was to be single. People in a job for a long time get stressed out and start remembering how easy it was to not have some boss telling them what to do all the time. Tales as old as time.

This is the most apples-to-oranges comparison you can make, but we make it so easily. Yeah, it was sweet when I didn’t have a boss telling me what to do, why did I ever give that up? Oh, that’s right – I was broke, I had no prospects, and that in turn also kept me from building the life that I truly want, so I willingly restricted my own freedom a little in order to get all these other benefits. Oh man, remember how when I was single I could run around and do whatever I wanted? Yeah, and come home lonely to an empty home and watch my life slip away without building it with someone or raising a family.

So yeah, sometimes I look at the cost or effort of maintaining my home and long for the life of a wandering vagrant. But then I see my children, joyful in the safe and warm space that they use as a foundation for their growth. I see them thrive, and I remember why I gave that freedom up.

Now, here’s the final key to this puzzle. Sure, we can – and should – sometimes voluntarily restrict our own freedoms for our own benefit (important point: our own; this is a world away from someone else making these choices for you). But that doesn’t mean we always land perfectly on the right balance, nor does it mean that even if we do strike that balance, we can avoid the itch, the yearning for the greener grass.

So, here is how to avoid that.

You have to still give yourself the freedom you miss, in small doses. You need to. If you feel cooped up in suburbia, as I sometimes do, it is crucial that you do things like take road trips, go camping, or even crash with friends sometimes when you don’t have to. If you are in a long-term relationship, you need to – on occasion – go out and party with your friends, maintain other connections, and have a little “you” space. If you have a stable, long-term job, you need to do a little freelance/consulting work, take vacations, and say “no” to stuff; maintain healthy boundaries.

You need to do these things for two reasons:

One, because doing so will keep the itch down. It will remind you that you’re not actually trapped – you’re just making choices and trade-offs, as any human must do. Many people are like me and will fight against even a very good situation if they feel like it’s one that’s being forced on them. That’s a form of self-sabotage that it’s good to control. “Microdosing” freedom helps maintain that because you also get to “microdose” the consequences and remember that they exist.

Two, because doing so will help you make accurate and true observations about your current circumstances. Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – you really should sell that house, quit that job, or leave that relationship. But the only way to know is if you have a realistic comparison to make. You can’t compare your actual current living situation with the rose-colored nostalgia of how you remember your life twenty years ago. You can’t compare the job you have now with an imaginary, idealized job you invent in your head. You can’t compare your real, human relationship with what you think is out there.

Freedom, at its core, is good. To truly exercise it, you must have a steady hand and an even heart. You must learn and observe, especially yourself. You must know when to maximize on what you can do, and when to invest in what you should do. Freedom isn’t about never choosing the smaller possibility space over the larger one; it’s just about always making that choice for yourself.

Watching In

No one is more capable of harming you than you. If your internal machinery is functioning well, you’re practically invincible. But minor cracks can become major flaws in short order. With the same level of attention you give to potential external threats, watch for the following:

  1. Threats to your mental stability. That means practicing good mental habits, strengthening your emotional resilience, refining your reasoning process, and keeping good notes (or maybe blogging).
  2. Damage to your health. You’re in no condition to do battle with the forces of evil if you’re in the grip of addiction, being eaten away by poisons, or letting your heart wither.
  3. Harms to your virtues and principles. When you’re truly up against the wall and in dire circumstances, the last line of defense will be the man in the mirror. Make sure that’s someone you want on your side.

You are not simply a frail body you inhabit, piloted by a flawed brain. You are a life, and you are the sum total of the actions taken in that life. That means “you” cannot be destroyed, except from within.

Horse & Carriage

Imagine you are in a carriage, but there are no horses attached. You’re in complete control, but you’re not going anywhere anytime soon. So you get yourself a horse, and you hitch the carriage to it. Now you’re moving, but you also have to contend with the will of the horse. Add a few more horses and you have much more power, but now you must contend with multiple wills that not only don’t match your own, but also might not match each other’s. That forward momentum will collapse quickly if some of those horses want to go left, some want to run faster, and some want to pull off to the right and stop.

In this analogy, “horses” are the resource inputs in your life. You need them to move forward, but each one is also trying to do its own thing.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch – or a horse without a mind of its own. So while we often think that more resources are what we need in life, we also have to contend that resources are not mindless. You will never just have a big pile of money dropped in your lap without an agenda attached to it.

A big part of this game is finding horses that are either easier to tame (even if they’re less powerful) or that already tend to do what you want a horse to do. That’s definitely more beneficial to you than just finding the most powerful horse (or horses!) that you can, attaching them to your carriage, and hoping for the best.

Going in the wrong direction is bad, even if you go there quickly. And fighting with your own horses never made anyone happy.