“Temporary as of 6/26/90”

The year my younger sister was born, my parents did a lot of renovations to the house we lived in. At some point during those renovations, some of the permanent ductwork in the basement was removed because the heater was being repositioned. My father put up some temporary plastic ductwork, the kind that’s just a long grey flexible tube, to fill the gap. With a black sharpie, he scrawled on it “Temporary as of 6/26/90.”

For years and years, I laughed constantly at that “temporary” ductwork. It lasted until 2011 when the house was damaged in an unrelated fire – it would have lasted much longer otherwise, I’m sure. Every time I walked past it, I would chuckle.

One day I even told my father how much it made me laugh, and he said “Why do you think I wrote that? I knew the second it went up that it was as ‘temporary’ as anything else in the house. Made me laugh then, makes me laugh now.”

There’s a lesson here. Everything is temporary, and “temporary” doesn’t mean that there’s a plan to replace it. People get “temporary” jobs that they work for twenty years. Calling something “temporary” is a means of saying you don’t want it to last very long, but that isn’t automatically so just because you wish it.

The reality is that things are only as temporary as the willingness to put up with them. If you don’t make the plan to create something permanent in its place, “temporary” can last until the whole house burns down.

Break It Twice

Let’s say you have a machine with twenty distinct parts. The machine lasts about ten years before it breaks. If you pick one part and make that part a hundred times more durable, do you know how long the machine will last now?

About ten years.

See, if a machine has twenty parts, making just one of them better isn’t going to radically change the life of the whole machine – unless, that is, the part you’re fixing was significantly more deficient than average. If the rest of the parts in the machine all last twenty years, then yeah – you’ve got one weak link. Improving it will bring up the floor.

So how do you find that weak link? How do you isolate the part that’s so bad that it’s bringing down the lifespan of the whole system?

You’ve got to break that system. Twice.

Take the whole machine and – figuratively – drop it off the roof. See which part breaks. Then do it again. If the same part is what broke each time, there’s a very good chance it’s a weaker link than the rest. If a different part breaks each time, then it’s more likely that every part is roughly the same in terms of durability.

Stress-tests are good for any system. Don’t just randomly pick a part and improve it because you can – you might be wasting time if the rest of the system won’t last any longer as a result.


Scale and context are incredibly important, and humans are spectacularly bad at estimating them.

You hear of some particular evil. It’s purely bad in all forms, and so you want to rail against it. Should you?

Maybe! But maybe this thing, no matter how purely bad it is, represents such a minor ill in the grand scheme of things that your response is disproportionate.

You only have so much anger and effort to go around. Even if something is deserving of it in a vacuum, we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a world of connected, interdependent features and some of them might be “less bad” but affect far greater swaths of that world. Keep that in mind when you want to be mad.

No Apologies

The default, normal state of your existence is that you do nothing. Everything you do is an exception – and exceptional. By default, you aren’t flying to the moon and back every day, so if you actually did that it would be really amazing. The corollary is that it makes no sense to apologize for not doing that since not doing that is the normal state of affairs.

And yet, we do that all the time. We build enormous amounts of guilt around not doing things, to the point where we feel we have to offer endless explanations for inaction. We send out “no apologies” – that is, apologies for saying “no” – as if we were doing something wrong by doing nothing at all.

Here is the truth, as difficult as it may be to hear: you don’t owe anyone an explanation for your “no.” You certainly don’t owe anyone an apology. We live in a finite world. Even if you have infinite love in our hearts, the world does not provide us with infinite opportunities to express that love. Our minutes, our dollars, our attention spans, the very breaths of our lives are all limited, and that isn’t your fault.

I can hear your protest. “But Johnny, this isn’t the same as building boundaries in business. These are my friends and family, my loved ones. I have to do what they ask, because that’s how it works. How can I say no when these are people I care about?”

First off, I totally get you. This is a hard challenge, with a lot of emotional weight. How can we build and strengthen relationships when I’m pushing them away?

You aren’t.

That’s not what a “no” is. A “no” is a building block, part of what shapes the pathway of the “yes.” The strongest rivers flow in specific spots, while water that spreads out everywhere spreads shallow and weak. The “no” is part of the channel, which helps create the space for a deep and meaningful “yes.”

If you want to be able to give a strong and healthy no that actually builds rapport instead of eroding your own self-worth, try this:

  1. Do not apologize. Strike the language of “sorry” from your vocabulary. You have nothing to apologize for, and carrying guilt in your heart turns into resentment, which makes you want to push the other person away. It also plants the seed in the other person that you have done something wrong, even if they didn’t think that to begin with! Far from making your relationships stronger, needless apologies make them weaker.
  2. Offer no explanations. It’s hard, but we immediately default to giving excuses – even if they’re true, we feel like we owe this expansive description of our circumstances in order to justify the no. But that’s not only untrue, but it’s basically inviting the other person to try to “solve” this for you as if you were giving them a puzzle with your “yes” locked inside.
  3. Instead, if you truly care about this person and you want to build rapport, offer an alternative.

Here’s an example: your cousin, who you love but barely see, invites you to an expensive destination wedding. It’s way outside of your budget and also lands smack in the center of your busiest time with your children’s activities. Here’s an unhealthy way to say no, but it’s what most people would do:

Oh, I’m so so sorry! I feel terrible, I really want to be able to go, but I just can’t. We just had to fix the downstairs bathroom and the kids have a huge run of rehearsals and ugh I’m so sorry.”

You think you’re “making up” for the no (which you don’t have to do!), but you’re not even doing that. You’re saying, “here’s a list of all the things I think are more important than you.” That’s what they hear, anyway. Instead, try this:

That sounds fun! I won’t be able to make it, but when you land back in the country, let’s go out and have a big celebration dinner! My treat, and you can tell me all about it and show me the pictures. Love you cuz, have fun and can’t wait!

See what happened? You celebrated, you encouraged, you invited – all with a “no!” No apologies or explanations were given because none were needed.

You only have so much life to hand out. Don’t waste it on needless apologies; spend it on joy.

Be the Bear

Everyone has a little fight in them. Everyone can pull up some righteous rage when they want to. But it helps immensely if you’re on the right side of the conflict. It doesn’t always seem that way, but right really does make might.

Consider a mugging. Someone tries to grab a woman’s purse off her shoulder and she puts up more fight than he expects. In the ensuing conflict, she has more power than she first realizes. You see, that fight is part of a larger world, a larger context. The mugger would love to believe that she’s alone, but she isn’t. If even one person sees this happening, that person is on her side. The witness might not be able to intervene, but they’re undoubtedly on her side.

If the woman loses the purse, falls, gets hurt – everyone will rally to her. If the mugger slips while running away and cracks his head, very few people will have much sympathy.

And all of these things are part of the greater conflict. Which means they’re all giving power to the person on the right side of it.

Have you ever heard the expression “don’t poke the bear?” That’s good advice, but you don’t need it if you are the bear.

If you stay in the right, that doesn’t mean you’ll never have conflict. Some people are bad, and will start conflicts because they think they can benefit from them, right or wrong. But as long as you stay in the right, you will be stronger. You will be harder to defeat. You will be the bear.

Method is Measurement

Imagine you polled a thousand people on the street and asked “where do you get your groceries?” Looking at the results, the vast majority, over 90%, say “Acme.” Wow! So Acme is the preferred grocery store of 90% of Americans?

Wait just a minute, you say. Is that a representative sample?

You check the data and discover, shockingly, it is. Somehow the pollsters have collected a thousand responses that exactly mirror the same demographic proportions of the country at large. Race, religion, gender, socio-economic status, it all perfectly reflects the broader social fabric of the country. So surely the polling is accurate!

And then you discover that the pollsters set up their station right outside of an Acme.

Back when a lot of polling was done by telephone, a lot of data was skewed or misinterpreted because people didn’t understand the way “patterns of interacting with the telephone” would impact data that seemingly had nothing to do with the phone itself. A classic example from the era before cell phones: if you conduct all your phone polling during the day, only retired people are home to pick up, so the results are going to skew enormously towards the general views of the elderly.

Nowadays, polls are often conducted via online responses. But oh boy is that going to skew things, even if it’s still overall the best collection method.

But it gets even worse when you try to measure things that directly relate to being online.

“90% of Americans spend 10+ hours a day on their phone!” …say the results of a poll that you could only access if you were online enough to see it. People on nature hikes don’t answer the poll in the negative – they don’t answer at all.

When you use your little magic box to look out of your tiny bubble, you think you’re looking out at the world. But you’re actually just looking at a very slightly larger bubble. Keep it in mind.

The Part

As much as you will hate it, it is extremely good for you to not always get what you want.

My daughter just got the news that she didn’t get the part. She practiced, she rehearsed, and she auditioned her heart out – but it went to someone else. It went to someone else totally reasonably, too: the other girl has been with the theater company longer, is a bit older, has more experience overall, and had a stronger audition. There’s nothing wrong with the decision, except that my darling and precious daughter didn’t get what she wanted and therefore I am a burning ball of rage and despair.

But I’m holding it back.

Because this is good. It’s probably breaking my heart a thousand times more than it breaks hers, honestly. The hardest thing for me right now is to avoid trying to fix – to immediately leap in with ham-fisted attempts to give her actionable advice that she won’t take and doesn’t need. Instead, I told her I loved her, that she’s going to crush the performance in the chorus, and that undeniably I will be there no matter what.

She’s ten. When you’re ten, you need ten-year-old disappointments. It builds your tolerance. The worst thing that can happen to you as a kid is if nothing bad happens to you as a kid. Because then you’re going to have a really, really rough time as an adult.

She’s resilient. She’s incredible. She will grow and thrive – and sometimes she won’t get the part. But that’s what will make her whole.

Emotional Processing Power

You might know a lot of stuff. You might be very smart. But the operating system that stores all that knowledge is very emotional.

Your brain is a boiling soup of chemicals held, usually, in a precarious balance. If something upsets the pot, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to add new knowledge to your database or to access what’s already there. In a real way, the software might be logical, but the hardware is as irrational as it gets.

There’s nothing you can do about that, but you can plan for it. You can make sure you’re aware of it and not try to deny it away.

I often tell my clients that the best thing they can do before a big interview isn’t to cram – it’s to meditate. Or swim, or eat, or listen to their favorite music. The point is, a final few scraps of data won’t do anything to change the outcome, but your stress level has a big impact. Getting yourself emotionally ready is the way to make great mental strides.

If I could have taught myself one lesson early in my life that I instead had to learn the hard way later, it would be that one. The various features of your total character aren’t separate. Usable intelligence relies on emotional stability, which relies on physical health, which relies on usable intelligence. You don’t have separate stats like a video game character. You can’t neglect entire facets of your being and hope that the others will be maximized.

You are a soul, and you have tools to navigate the life that soul will live. You cannot maintain only some of them.

Obstacles & Bridges

Tonight, my middle child complained of a headache around dinner time, and it persisted until bedtime. I gave her medicine, to no effect. An ice pack did nothing. Cool water, rubbing the nape of her neck, a variety of other home remedies – nada. Nothing dried her tears to let her sleep. Out of ideas, I just curled up with her and snuggled.

And within ten seconds, she was out like a light, sleeping peacefully.

It was a good reminder of one of my biggest flaws.

Whenever there is an obstacle in your path, you have many choices. You can try to destroy the obstacle. You can choose another path. Or you can build a bridge over it.

I almost always do the first one. If pressed, I do the second. But bridges – things you build together – are harder to see when they aren’t there yet.

Sometimes though, you just have two people on opposite sides of an obstacle and all they need is to get together. Building the bridge is the very thing that makes the obstacle disappear.

Not everything has to be solved. Some things just need to be snuggled.