A Special Treat: “Jack-O-Lantern-Of-All-Trades,” by Johnny Roccia, age 17

My grandmother (with whom I briefly lived at 17) was cleaning out her attic and came upon a printed essay that I wrote in high school. I have no idea what the assignment was, but the essay itself was complete and intact and I am reproducing it here in its entirety. More than half my life ago, these were the words I put to paper. Enjoy.


This morning I accidentally ate a can of processed pumpkin.

That’s right, I looked in my food cabinet, desperately searching for the fabled “midnight snack,” when amongst all of the possible edible foodstuffs, I spotted a can (clearly labeled “Pumpkin” with a picture of a piece of pumpkin pie) that I’m sure any 17-year-old male would think would contain something vaguely consumable at 12:46 A.M.

The picture of a pumpkin pie was, I will claim until my dying breath, the most flagrant piece of false advertising ever devised by the advertising industry (which is full of executives who, incidentally, now fill my dreams as highly skilled practitioners of the art of getting shot at). This picture was clearly designed to fool the unwary into thinking that the substance contained within would serve as a viable option for those seeking nourishment. This was not the case.

This illusion, however, was furthered by the fact that the matter I was represented with upon opening the can looked like, I kid you not, pumpkin pie! That’s right, it appeared in every way to be the filling of your average grandmother’s Thanksgiving dessert. And so, bravely assaulting this can with a most vorpal spoon, I triumphantly shoveled a large pile of the stuff into my food-hole.

And I nearly threw up. This was perhaps the most revolting thing my mouth had ever contained (and I was once the receiver of the fine privilege of consuming a large quantity of pork fat), and I barely choked it down (it was, in fact, not pumpkin pie filling at all, you see, but rather a fully processed cooking ingredient composed of 85% pure pumpkin and 15% yuck). But our story continued, for you see, I did it again. Now, you’re probably thinking, “Why would this moron go and do such a thing?” Well, just to prove I can read your thoughts, I shall tell you. You see, I was fully under the impression that the first spoonful was simply the “bad stuff” that had settled to the top, and the rest, as I ate my way lower, would surely taste like that sweet, sweet pie I salivated for (this is a perfect example of how 17-year-old males think at 12:46 A.M…. or at any other time, for that matter).

The next bite did not, in fact, taste any better than the first.

And neither did the rest of the can (which, yes, I ate).

For you to fully appreciate the disgust one feels at eating a full can of pumpkin, I offer the following experience for you to try. Next Halloween, as you go trick-or-treating, take a large bite out of each Jack-o-Lantern you see. By the end of the night, I think you’ll feel roughly the same as I did. You will, be warned, throw up quite a lot that night (it amazed me on that night that one who has only 40 oz. of food, all pumpkin, in his stomach would possibly throw up 17.2 times his own body mass).

And so, in conclusion, I wish to offer up this advice, may it be placed in the annals of history alongside the words of the great Socrates and his ilk: A great way to feel better about yourself is to throw a dinner party for a bunch of executives in the advertising industry, and for dessert, serve them a pie made of crust filled with the contents of a can of pumpkin. Then shoot at them.

Incidentally, I checked later – the can of pumpkin had been expired for two years when I ate it.

That Was Terrible

Here is a mindset I work hard to cultivate, and which serves me well: Right now, everything is awesome. Later, these same things can have been terrible, but right now they’re great. When I look to my past I can reckon with it honestly, and admit that there were times that I lived through that were extremely rough. But when I’m in those times, they’re not.

This isn’t just self-delusion. The present really is different than the past.

In the present, I have agency. In the past, I do not. The past can’t be changed, but it can be learned from. In order to learn from it, it’s best to be candid: “That was a really awful event, horrific experience, or truly challenging period. I survived it, and I’m stronger – now let’s make sure I ger smarter, too.”

The present can be changed, and in order to do that I have to not wallow in pessimism or despair. The current moment is awesome because I am alive and draw breath and the outcome hasn’t yet been established. We can’t know if this will turn out to be awful because I haven’t finished with this experience yet – it might be merely challenging.

So viewed through the distinct lenses of past and present, it’s natural that the same events can take on different meanings. The result is that I grin and adapt in the here and now, and learn my lessons from when the time to grin and adapt has passed. I can say “that was terrible” a thousand times without ever having to cross over into “this is terrible.”

Because this? This is awesome!


A few days ago I was running some errands with my kids in the car. Mostly local things, so I was driving mostly along small side streets. As we were driving, I saw a woman with a walker begin to get into her car, and was slowly beginning the process of maneuvering herself from her walker-supported stance into her car.

Now, I’m an adult who’s been on this Earth for a few decades, so I know a thing or two. I quickly surmised that this woman definitely did not need anyone’s help – she was in her own driveway and clearly not in distress. She clearly had a system and had done this before. She was moving slowly but methodically. In no way did she need me to come to her rescue.

But I had my kids in the car, and I try not to miss these opportunities.

I pulled over and gave her a quick hello, asking her if I could be of any help or if I could hold anything for her to make it easier. I was slightly worried that she’d view my offer as condescending, but far from it – she was delighted that a stranger would offer aid even though she politely declined. We chatted for a moment and then I was on my way.

When I got back in the car, my kids had stars in their eyes.

That’s all I wanted. You can tell kids all you want that you should always help others, that you should in fact go out of your way to help others, but if you don’t live it they won’t. It’s often easy to say “yes” to obvious requests for help, but harder to train yourself to look for ways to help when you aren’t asked. But the latter are the more worthy – people don’t always know how to ask.

Group Discount

When I write, I write for individuals. Even if my audience were millions, I’d be writing in the hopes of helping individual people within that audience, rather than for “the group.”

Groups are separate entities, and I don’t generally care for them. I like individuals, even a lot of them. I think there is fundamentally an important distinction between “many individuals” and “A Group (TM)” and you can see in how people communicate whether they’re talking to one or the other.

The thing is, you can’t have a dialogue with a group. They’re inherently entities of emotion and you can’t reason with them. They become volatile and chaotic. So when I see someone addressing A Group, I’m seeing someone either attempting to score cheap points with their own tribe or possibly just grifting, but never am I looking at someone trying to have a constructive conversation.

Conversation makes the world go ’round, but I dismiss the shouting into the masses as unproductive. I’d rather talk one-on-one, even if it’s many times over.

Eight Hundred Pictures

My middle child, who is six years old, took a school field trip today to the Aquarium. She brought along a little digital camera that she has (they’re cheap now, and fun!), taking pictures of her trip. Including this beautiful shot that I am in love with:

Some people might argue that this is a difficult shot for a six-year-old to take. But six-year-olds have a power that most adults lack. You see, this was one of about twenty amazing pictures she took today, out of about eight hundred total.

And it does not bother her at all – the hundreds of blurry shots of nothing, the time it took to capture them, nothing bothers her at all. Adults don’t have that, mostly. They’ve lost the ability to do something eight hundred times in order to get one good example.

But that skill can replace all others. The ability to just roll the dice that many times is the ability to summon miracles at will.

The Gratitude Stairwell

You can thank your way to the top.

If you want to grow in influence and status in any organization, the formula is simple – and you can do it without being mercenary, underhanded, or “stepping on” anyone. In fact, just the opposite. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be tactical – but that just means being effective.

Here’s how you do it:

First, know what it is you want to do. What do you want to be known for? What things do you want to influence and be a part of? The introspection is important – you have to have a target.

Second, whenever anyone else does something that you’d like to someday do yourself, you have to thank them.

Not just compliment them! Not just praise them! Thank them!

You have to thank them for demonstrating what they did. You have to specifically thank them for showing you how to do that, for helping you learn more about that thing. And you have to do it as publicly as possible given the context.

So, not great: an email saying “That was an awesome job you did.”

Much better: During an all-hands meeting, saying “I want to especially take some time and say thank you to Betty for really demonstrating how to be effective during our business reviews. I learned a lot from that and I’m really excited for the next round, and I appreciate you so much for that. Thanks Betty!”

Why does this work?

Public expressions of gratitude reflect extremely well on your character. Everyone wants to work with the person that says thank you frequently, so you get more opportunities. That also helps the subject matter “stick” in people’s minds – they’ll have a positive association between “you” and “business reviews” in the future, making that task more likely to be open to you. It lays the groundwork for being able to advocate for yourself in many ways.

It also flushes out snakes.

In every organization, most people are great and a few people aren’t. The over-the-top gratitude takes the strategy of “assume everyone is good, but make it uncomfortable if they aren’t.” If someone’s intentions aren’t good, then thanking them in public will make them distance themselves from you or find ways to take cheap shots – and it will be obvious. So as a nice side benefit, this method specifically makes you more popular with the good people and not with the bad eggs.

Try it today. Find something you want to do, and thank your way to the next step closer.

The Mix

While it is technically possible to create a food slurry containing exactly the right mix of nutrients for your health such that you never have to consume anything but that again, very few people do that. (Not zero people – I know a few who do, but it’s not many). Even people who don’t eat for indulgence much still eat different foods at different times. A high protein breakfast or a veggie-heavy lunch can both be healthy, but you want them in their respective spaces for a reason.

Okay, now shift gears for a minute. Imagine you have two part-time jobs available to you. One is utterly enjoyable, rewarding, fulfilling, and enriching. It’s a blast, you’re appreciated, and you work with wonderful people doing things you want to do. This job pays minimum wage. There is also a job available to you that you hate and makes you miserable; it isn’t anything immoral or illegal, but it’s unpleasant in the extreme. This job pays you a thousand dollars an hour.

If you could work both jobs in whatever amounts you wanted, what kind of mix would you create?

There’s no right answer, of course. But there is a recognition: we don’t have to get everything we need from one source. We don’t need one friend to share every activity and interest. We don’t need one food to provide all of our sustenance. We don’t have to spend all of our time in one location. And we can split up our vocational efforts to get different needs met.

Secret Shopper

If normally available information is missing, then the information is bad.

If you see a job ad with no salary listed, then the salary isn’t good. If you see a dating profile with no close-up pictures of a person’s face, then the person isn’t conventionally attractive. If you see a house for sale with no pictures of the kitchen, then the kitchen sucks.

This isn’t rocket science, but people really do trick themselves. They either “fill in the blank” with an average model from the category or (even worse) they tell themselves that maybe it’s going to be wonderful when they finally see it.

Neither of those are true. It isn’t going to be wonderful; it isn’t even going to be average. It’s going to be the absolute worst. Because if it wasn’t, you’d show it!

There are two lessons here. One: be savvy as a shopper of any kind. If there’s normal information you can’t obviously find, assume the worst until you confirm otherwise. A used car for sale with lots of pictures but no mileage listed? Assume it has half a million miles until you can confirm otherwise.

Two: when you’re the seller, get it all out there. When you hide the information, you only get two possible outcomes: either a savvy shopper avoids you entirely, or a foolish shopper engages and then gets mad and backs out when they discover the truth.

Obligations to Yourself

I find it’s much easier to break promises to myself than to other people. It makes perfect sense, of course; we’re social creatures who care about our reputation within our tribes and we don’t want to let our fellow humans down, mostly. We face no such incentives when it comes to ourselves.

This is why public commitments are shown to increase how long you’ll stick to a task. People who make public declarations about their goals, especially to groups they value, are more likely to follow through than people who simply set goals for themselves in secret.

Treat yourself as a person worthy of the same kind of tribal loyalties you give to others. Join forces with other people you care about, and confide these obligations – even the ones that seem frivolous. Make your tribe small but powerful, and keep your obligations to yourself.

More Than a Feeling

There is old wisdom that says that life is about the destination, not the journey. This is comforting advice when you’re striving for something that seems distant. It’s a reminder to enjoy the striving.

You know when this advice is less comforting? When you’ve reached the destination. When you’ve secured the prize, and you’re happy. Then, the wisdom – though no less true – seems almost foreboding. “Enjoy it while it lasts, but keep your shoes nearby.”

It’s important to listen. Every day that you’re happy with a location instead of happy with a journey is a day you dig a few inches under yourself. And if you forget how to move, someday you’re just in a pit with no way out, and happiness is long gone.

You can be happy every day of your life, if you remember how to chase it. Because it’s always moving.