Today, I played a bunch of retro video games from my own youth with my three children. In an age where the media they have access to is absolutely incredible and stunningly advanced, they were nonetheless totally enraptured by these 8-bit gems.

Was it just the infectious fun of doing something with your dad, everyone laughing and sharing energy? Or are some of these things, tested by time and found enduring, really that cool?

Who cares?

The Chips

It’s one thing to let the chips fall where they may. It’s quite another to hand your chips over to someone who has every reason to use them poorly.

The more agency you give someone else over your life, the less you retain. The further that person is from you, the less important you are to them. Therefore, giving someone very far away from you a lot of power over your life is an abysmal choice. You’re volunteering to be a pawn; to be treated as expendable and used for someone else’s gain.

Most of the time, when people fall for the falsehood that is someone else claiming to “want what’s best for you,” it’s because it isn’t a lie. That person might genuinely think they want that – but they have no idea what’s best for you. Only you can know that. They have their own world, and their own agenda, and of course everyone would be better off if they just fit into it. From generals to CEOs, from cult leaders to bossy members of your friend group, everyone thinks they have a Grand Plan that will work out for everyone.

Those people aren’t out to run your life poorly, necessarily. But they will run it poorly, if you let them run it at all.

Two Projects

If you’re working on something, it can be a surprisingly good idea to work on it twice.

Let’s say you’re trying to write a book. You’re not sure if you should do a lot of research, planning, storyboarding, collecting data, and outlining before beginning or if you should just “shoot from the hip” and do that stuff in the editing process later.

Here’s a thought: write two books. Start two distinct projects on the same topic. Use one method on one project and one method on the other. Devote time to them separately – split your original writing time in half.

Maybe you’ll find one method just works better than the other for you, and you’ll be able to know that firsthand. Maybe the combination will yield results greater than the sum of the individual efforts. Maybe you’ll just write two books!

But most importantly, the work on one will reinforce the learning from the other. Instead of wondering if you’re being too meticulous in your planning, you can just look at the other project. Instead of wondering if your writing would benefit from more planning, you look back at the first.

You can’t always build two houses – but a surprising amount of the time, if you stop to look, you can work on a duplicate without losing anything in the way of efficiency. And potentially gaining much more.

Stress Matching

Stress is often a barometer for problems, but rarely helpful in solving them.

Imagine that someone has a near-priceless collection of antique books that they keep in their home. One day, a water main breaks and their basement begins to flood, putting the entire collection at existential risk. They frantically begin grabbing as many volumes as they can and running outside with them, all the while witnessing the imminent destruction of their life’s work and passion, not to mention the bulk of their net worth (and the immense damage to their house, no less)!

They would be very stressed!

Now, let’s say you just happened to be walking by when this happened. You see a person in a frantic situation and, being a good human, you leap in to help. You might have a sudden surge of adrenaline, but you wouldn’t be 1% as stressed as they are. None of these things are emotionally vital to you, nor do they represent physical assets of yours. Ultimately, the fate of these books doesn’t matter to you outside of your desire to not have bad things happen to fellow humans.

You would, in other words, be much better suited to solving the problem.

You would be more clear-headed. You would be more likely to see solutions – maybe there’s an emergency shutoff for the water main just nearby, but in their desperation over their books the other person didn’t even think to look. Maybe there’s a way to transport the books more efficiently than just grabbing armloads at a time, such as a nearby box of relatively unimportant junk that can be easily commandeered for the purpose. The point is that the lower-stress person is more likely to see these things.

But stress is infectious. And many people view “being stressed” as “being serious,” and try to make you more stressed if they don’t think you have sufficient amounts.

For instance, you might spend no more than 30 seconds glancing around before you found that emergency shutoff, but it would only take 10 seconds before the other person was screaming “Stop standing around like an idiot and help me!”

And you might think, “that’s a really bad way to speak to someone who’s only trying to help,” and of course it is. But they’re too stressed to realize that, and it’s actually surprisingly easy for you to get swept up in it. Before you know it, you’re stressed and ineffective too – and it wasn’t even your problem to begin with.

This is hard to do, but amazing if you can: remember that when you’re super stressed about some major dilemma, someone who isn’t stressed but is trying to help you is just about the biggest blessing you can receive. Compared to you, that person has superpowers. But be careful – in the same way that knowledge given to others doesn’t lessen your own store, the same is true of stress. Rarely does making someone else feel more stressed make you feel less. So do everything you can to keep yours from infecting the people trying to solve your problem with you.

Slow Planning

Plans don’t help you finish things more quickly. They help you finish things more slowly.

That’s a very good thing if you have a tendency to make mistakes because you rush. Some people are generally slow at tasks, and other people have the propensity to rush. I’m the latter. I will power through a lot of things if nothing inherently stops me. Plans, schedules, agendas – these things all keep me measured. They keep me from trying to have everything done yesterday.

You’d be surprised how often you actually want something to take longer. Ultimately a lot of things don’t really have a time they need to fill at all, but you can certainly give yourself a lot of stress by trying to do too much in a day.

So plan for a week. Write down the steps. Be happy with them, and then be satisfied enacting them. Plan to be slow.

Study Buddy

One of the best ways to learn something very quickly is to forget about worrying if you’re properly demonstrating that you’re smart.

Back when you were a kid or young adult, you’d get together with other people who wanted to learn the same thing you wanted to learn. None of you knew anything more than the most basic concepts, but you’d learn rapidly as a group anyway. You’d connect ideas, team up on the literature, experiment together, whatever. And it worked really well.

It worked well because none of you were worried about demonstrating to the others that you already knew stuff. You weren’t worried about posturing, because you came into the scenario with the awareness that none of you knew anything – that’s why you were there!

As adults, especially oh-so-professional adults, this is really hard to do. If I want to level up my skill set, the best thing to do is find other people who also want to do that and say “wanna study together?”

Lots of people can’t do it. They can’t shake the facade long enough to just say “I want to learn.” They have to preen and prance and pretend that they’re already so knowledgeable that they’re above learning anything new. Some hidden fear exists that if anyone ever discovers that we aren’t infallible already – gasp – that this knowledge will be used against us, pointing us out as phonies. Our impostor syndrome keeps us from learning enough to not be impostors.

Well, nerts to that. I don’t know beans, but I want to. Wanna study together?

Bars, High & Low

There’s an interesting rhetorical trick that sometimes gets played on you. The trick is played whenever someone wants something from you and the exchange they’re proposing is very lopsided in their favor. Here’s how the trick works: if you refuse or even hesitate, the other person will indicate that there is some positive trait or character aspect that you must lack because, for anyone with an abundance of that trait, the proposed trade would not be lopsided.

Here’s an example: someone tries to sell you a plate full of disgusting, extremely spicy slop that does not look appealing at all, and they want you to pay them $40 for it. You make a face that clearly indicates your aversion to this deal, and the monger yells at you: “What, not tough enough to handle some real food?”

This is an old trick, but it’s lasted for so long because people fall for it. I’m tough! I don’t want anyone to think I’m not! So I’ll happily pay $40 and choke down this slurry just to show that guy!

That example might seem absurd, but you’ve encountered this more than once. It’s not always so obvious as a carnival barker insulting your manhood. Sometimes it’s much more subtle, like a tech company suggesting that you aren’t good enough to join their team if you aren’t willing to jump through a bunch of absurd hoops to get in. Surely a savvy professional would have no problem with these tasks?

Keep your eyes open – someone trying to sell you a high bar usually only has a low one, and you don’t want to get tricked into crawling under.

The Streetlights

My middle daughter, age five, watches an online makeup tutorial and applies her own lipstick and eyeshadow. It’s far from perfect, but much better than I would have thought, and she’s so proud. My son, age four, gets a nosebleed. Once upon a time, this would cause him great distress – but now he knows how to deal with it himself, pinching the bridge of his nose and laughing it off.

They want to go to the park. It’s only down the street, but so far they’ve never gone without me. I need to cook dinner, so I think it’s high time they go alone. I give them a quick rundown of the rules, and they’re so excited. My daughter asks when they have to be home.

I take a deep breath, relishing this moment.

“When the streetlights come on,” I say.

They skip down the street, laughing with each other.

My oldest daughter, age ten, returns home from her hair appointment. She’s decided to dye it purple, and it looks wonderful. I gush, of course. Her own decision, her own agency. She’ll have purple hair next week during her karate belt test, and I’ll be beaming with pride watching someone in charge of her own life in so many ways.

She asks where her brother and sister are, and I tell her. She wants to hang out with them, so she bounces off to the park to join them.

Time passes, and life is good.

Can’t Break It More

If you have a broken lawnmower, you’ve got a few options. You can try to fix it yourself, you can pay someone else to fix it, you can buy a new one, or (I suppose) you can just never mow your lawn again.

You should absolutely try to fix it yourself. Unless of course, you’re really, really sure that you absolutely will not be able to fix it yourself. In that case, you should definitely try to fix it yourself!

Look, it’s broken. You can’t make it worse than it is, because it’s at 0%. So you might as well learn something! Maybe you’ll learn why you can’t fix it. Maybe you’ll learn how you could have prevented the break. Maybe you’ll figure out what a better model would look like for the next one you get, or become knowledgeable enough to not get taken advantage of by a shady repair guy.

Maybe you’ll fix it.

But no matter what happens, the other options are still going to be there. Yes, you might waste two hours – except no, you can’t do that. You can spend two hours not fixing a lawnmower, but that’s not the same as wasting those two hours. You’ll learn, you’ll think, and with the right mindset, you’ll even have fun.

Life isn’t about taking the shortest route to a mowed lawn, after all.

The Impossible Dream

I don’t think all desire is harmful, despite my generally minimalist/stoic philosophy. I think that desire needs to be balanced by an equivalent level of commitment and realistic expectations about the world, but in those instances it can be a powerful force for good.

It might be shallow to dream of a fancy car, but if the desire for that car is what motivates you to work hard and improve your station, awesome. As long as your work ethic matches and you don’t let that desire drive you to foolish acts (like massive debt), great.

But there is a particular *kind* of desire that is so bad it’s ruinous. It’s spiritual poison, and without purging it from your mind you can never be happy or fulfilled. And that is the desire for that which does not, and can not exist.

In simple terms, desire for a car can be a healthy motivator. Desire for a functioning time machine is poisonous in exact proportion to the intensity of that desire.

Maximally driven people can accomplish incredible things if what they’re pursuing can exist. Maximally driven people who pursue impossible ends go mad. And yes yes, “flight was thought impossible,” etc. But I’m not talking about Unlikely Innovation.

I’m talking about tautology. I.e. trying to woo the girl of your dreams is fine, unless the girl of your dreams is the literal character Wonder Woman, who does not exist in the real world. If your desire to marry Wonder Woman persists, happiness is impossible.

The moment of realization that a desire is truly impossible is the most painful moment you can endure. Nothing else compares. The level of pain matches the level of intensity of the desire, which is why – past a certain point – it becomes impossible to face.

My desire to see my children thrive is worth working for. My desire to sit on the porch and have one last conversation with my father must be tempered, however painfully, by the knowledge that it can never be. If I pursued that desire as if it were possible, I would break.

Sometimes we harbor a desire for a long, long time before the reality becomes undeniable. It’s not always as straightforward as communing with the dead or marrying fictional characters. Sometimes the line between fiction and reality was a line we blurred in our own mind.

And letting go is so hard, because the image in our mind of what it’s going to feel like when we finally get what we want looks like paradise. Nothing is being taken from you; you’re just forced to admit that you were carrying around smoke in the shape of diamonds.

That is the most insidious trap the heart can fall into, because it builds it. The heart makes that cage out of pieces of itself, and those pieces are not recovered even if it escapes. Faced with the choice of staying whole in captivity or escaping in tatters, it’s understandable that many hearts can’t choose the latter. This is the greatest pain. Not loss, for loss means once you had. Not failure, for failure means you followed hope when hope was true. But the cruelty of a universe that cannot make all our dreams real.