The Calendar of the Mind

You can schedule your body more easily than your brain.

You can live by the calendar and the clock. You can make sure that your physical form is where you want it, present and punctual, on some very tight timetables. You can be at school, work, an event, in your bed, at exactly the moment you want.

But that doesn’t mean your brain will follow.

You can be physically at work, but your mind can be miles away. Your head can be physically on your pillow, but the brains rattling around inside can be going a mile a minute.

That’s something you need to consider when you’re making your schedule. Which tasks require your mind to be completely present? And how long will it take your mind to catch up with where you’ve put your head?

Paintbrush in hand and canvas in front of you – it does no good if the mind’s eye is turned elsewhere. Check in with your mind when you make the schedule. Respect the natural flow of your best thinking, and work with it.

Sledding

When you’re at the bottom of the hill, deep in the valley with lots of work ahead of you, you question. You challenge. Mostly you want the obvious to not be true – you don’t want to be at the bottom. You want to be mistaken somehow – to somehow have your present circumstances be better than they in fact are.

Despite your desire to strategize, you have no advantages and very little information. You can’t see very far from the valley – barely to the next peak. So if you want to get anywhere at all, you just have to work and work and climb and climb until you reach the summit.

Now you’re finally there! You have vision for miles and an advantageous position. Do you take advantage of this new set of circumstances to do all the things you wished you could do from the bottom?

No way. You hop on that sled as fast as can be and race back to the bottom.

Wheeeeeeeeee!

That’s not just sledding. It’s life for many people. When times are hard and we don’t have the juice to plan well, we wish we did and we climb and struggle. Then we find ourselves through some combination of effort and luck on top of the mountain, but we don’t pause and linger. We just relish the fact that things got a little easier and we ride it out… until we’re at the bottom again.

There’s a saying I’ve heard once or twice, and maybe you have as well: “Tough times create strong people. Strong people create good times. Good times create weak people. Weak people create tough times.” It’s an interesting thought on the cyclical nature of macro-level events, but I think on a micro level it just applies to most individuals. Tough times make you work your butt off, but working your butt off makes you prosper, but prosperity makes you slack, and slacking gives you tough times.

Maintaining consistency of effort as the world around you and your individual circumstances change is very difficult. But the more you commit to it, the less those circumstances will change. The next time you’re at the top of the hill, linger. Scan the terrain, plan your route instead of just charging downhill. Heck, maybe don’t charge downhill at all – the top of the mountain is a great place to build a cabin. Enjoy the good times, for sure – but don’t squander them.

Not Bad At All

I spent another night out in the woods this weekend. As a hobby, I absolutely love backpacking – the time spent outdoors is incredibly relaxing to me in a way that feels very earned. It’s difficult for me to relax when I don’t feel like I “deserve” it, and in the hustle of modern life it can be difficult to feel that way. The physical exertion of camping is different – I hike for hours and miles, then exert a bunch of energy clearing and setting up a campsite, and by the time I sit down to just bask in it I feel like I really deserve it.

As a skill, it’s so very fun to learn.

When I first decided as an adult to just make this my hobby, I sort of did it with no real plan and figured I’d figure it out. And I did! You can learn just about anything by throwing yourself heedlessly into it. The things I was so proud of myself for figuring out of my own that first trip out are now second nature just a few trips hence. I just go do weekend trips, then come back and watch YouTube and read books and gather knowledge to fill in gaps I noticed I had with each trip. And so now I’m really starting to look like I know something:

I wouldn’t recommend this hobby to just anyone. First, no single hobby or activity is fun for everyone, and I know lots of people wouldn’t want the sore legs and stiff back and physical exhaustion as a price tag for the mental clearing that this does. Heck, it might not even do that mental clearing for you. So I don’t recommend this as a universal thing.

But I DO recommend finding a thing that meets that criteria for you. Something with a great learning curve and deep knowledge so you can continually improve (and thus practice at learning and improving on your own), that also gives you a sense of “earned satisfaction” when you do it. The tools to get there might be different, but the end result is good for the soul. I’m happy with mine – it isn’t for everyone, but I liked my 7 AM today:

And that wasn’t bad at all.

Perfect Day

There’s never a “perfect day” to do anything, except in retrospect.

Looking back, many days were perfect. Days that fit so well with the events that filled them that I wouldn’t change a thing. You never know in advance, though. So you can’t wait for them.

I do know this – a day can’t turn out to be a “perfect day for fishing” if you don’t fish. So just go fish. Maybe it will turn out to be the perfect day at the end, and maybe it won’t.

But there’s never a perfect day for waiting.

And there are only so many days at all.

The Nerf Gun Effect

When I was a kid, I had Nerf guns. If you’ve never heard of these… then I guess you live under a rock? On Mars? But just in case – they’re plastic guns that fire foam darts, and they make satisfying noises when they do so. Your little cousin also makes satisfying noises when you nail him right between the eyes with those little orange darts, it’s so cool.

Anyway, like I was saying, I had these as a kid. And truth be told, they were okay. Not particularly inspiring, but neat. They usually fired a few darts before you had to run around collecting them and reloading, they were pretty simple overall. But they were really fun fuel for the imagination and kids everywhere had a great time with them.

Well, pretty recently I saw a Nerf gun in a store. At first I was just pleasantly nostalgic about their continued existence. But then I took a closer look… and they were AMAZING. Way better than anything I had as a kid! Look at these things!

These are way, way cooler than the ones I had as a kid. I did a little digging, and found an interesting answer for why these toys suddenly got so good.

They’ve been around long enough that the people that are currently designing them were the kids who played with the first ones.

That’s the answer. We’ve hit second generation. It made me realize that happens with all sorts of things. I liked cartoons as a kid too. And they were totally fine! But I’ve also watched some series with my children, and they’re incredible. I’m not just talking the animation technology – I’m talking about the story, the characters, all of it. They’re just better shows than what I had.

When I was a kid, The Simpsons was the greatest show ever. The Simpsons is still on… and it’s pretty terrible. Why? The same people are still making it. They never passed the torch. The kids who grew up watching The Simpsons started making their own shows, and they’re standing on the shoulders of giants. The giants, meanwhile, are starting to stoop.

If you create something, and you really want it to thrive – at a certain point you have to give it to fresher minds. New blood. Willy Wonka really had the right idea – the person who loves what you’ve made so much that it practically defines their life is the right person to take it over from you. Give it to them, those eager souls. Let new minds into your creation, let them take it from you and don’t worry about it all.

Those guns are in good hands.

Twice As Hard

It takes twice as much strength to make up for weakness. You have to know that going in.

Everyone has a weak point. Something they aren’t good at. Some people are luckier than others in terms of which thing they’re not good at, but that’s the hand you’re dealt.

Working to improve your flaws is a good thing. But you’ll get a lot more return on investment by improving your strengths to super-heroic levels than you will by improving your weakest points to slightly-less-weak.

And there is more than one way, as they say, to skin a cat.

You might be really bad at climbing up rock walls. But you might be great at building ladders. If you want to get better at climbing rock walls, be my guest. But if your goal is just to get to the top, then you’re better off using your best traits than trying to worry about the “right” way to do things.

And by the way, don’t misinterpret the most common method as being the “right” method. There are no rules and the walls are made of smoke.

But the point is this: the most common path is usually the most common because it’s the easiest. That doesn’t mean “most effective!” It just means “requires the least effort.” Something can be easy and still not work. And if the most common path for you involves something you’re not good at, then it doesn’t work AND it’s hard, so just don’t go that way.

Take your own route and work twice as hard as the “normal” path requires. That gets results.

Cash Out

Okay, so you’ve found a magic box. It has rules written on it, so you know how it works. Here’s what it says:

If you put exactly one dollar in this box and leave it, then every day the amount of money in the box will increase by 10%. Once this process is started, you may only stop it by opening the box and taking out all the money, and then the box will never work again.”

When do you cash out?

Delayed gratification is good. Delayed gratification is both good for you as a disciplined person in control of your life, and it’s good in the sense that gratification can almost always be increased by delaying it. Working hard today instead of indulging very frequently lets you indulge more tomorrow.

It’s like that famous marshmallow test where they gave kids a single marshmallow, but then told them if they could delay eating it for a certain amount of time they’d get a second one. The kids that delayed and got two marshmallows ended up having better life outcomes along a number of metrics later in their life.

Here’s the thing, though: you’re not immortal. You have a finite number of days upon this Earth, and you don’t even get the luxury of knowing how many. Which means at some point it’s possible to delay your gratification so effectively that you never actually get it at all.

Life isn’t really as “all or nothing” as that magic box. In real life, eventually you can start taking out 8% as your investments grow by 10% and still be gaining and having a nest egg. But the magic box hypothetical is a way of reminding you that there’s a cost to delaying your gratification – every day your investment grows is one day fewer that you can do anything with it.

Now of course, life isn’t Brewster’s Millions. You don’t have to spend everything you’ve earned before you die; you’re allowed to leave some behind to causes you believe in or your children or whatever else. A selfless life where you delay all or most of your own gratification in order to better others is definitely a fine thing. Besides, there’s only a certain level of “gratification” you can absorb before any additional won’t really do anything for you. Bill Gates gives 99% of his money away and still has more than he could ever spend; his lifestyle isn’t negatively impacted at all. Past a certain point that’s true for you, too.

But here’s the real point, the heart of the matter. In most cases, you don’t actually get more gratification just by delaying it. If those kids had waited 15 minutes before eating a marshmallow of their own, with no one around to give them a second one, it wouldn’t have increased their gratification at all. There needs to still be some input, something happening to push that gratification out. If you get $100 and instead of spending it on luxuries you decide to invest it in a used lawnmower and you start mowing lawns and then end up with $300, that’s delayed gratification. If you just take the $100 and put it in a box under your bed for a month before retrieving it to spend on the same luxuries you would have in the first place, that’s not doing anything productive.

And that means that “cashing out” isn’t about finally claiming your reward. It’s about eventually deciding for yourself that you’ve mowed enough lawns. Even if you then take all the money you’ve earned and give it to charity or your children and don’t spend a dime on yourself, you still gain something in that moment – your time, your freedom, your effort returned to you.

Some people never cash out. Not because they don’t intend to or didn’t want to, but because the process of delaying gratification got away from them and became more important than understanding what their real goal was. It can be really hard once you’re on a roll; if things are going well and you’re doing better every year it can be especially difficult to just say “okay, that’s enough.”

But for everything in life, there’s an “enough.” A time when you’ve had your run and it’s time to bask. A time to cash out.

Outlive

There’s a cheesy sentiment that I strongly dislike, which is the idea that it was good that various bad things happened to you because they got you where you are today.

That’s bunk. It’s of course better if fewer bad things happen. A life where nothing bad ever happens would be ideal! I mean, by the logic of the opening statement you should just be blindly walking into traffic all the time because bad things make your life better and put you in a better future position.

So yeah, a life with no bad events would be great. But that’s not going to happen.

Bad things will absolutely happen to you. So here’s what you have to do: you have to make the cheesy sentiment true.

I know someone who’s a trauma counselor. She entered that profession due to some very severe trauma that was inflicted on her. She would sometimes talk about that particular trauma and say that it happened to her for a reason, in order to prepare her to be a counselor that could help others. And that in that sense, it was good for her.

But what really happened was more meaningful. What really happened was that something very happened for her for no reason at all other than that the world can sometimes be very, very cruel. But then, she refused to accept that. She gave her misery a reason to have happened, choosing to do the thing it had prepared her for. She wasn’t destined at the beginning of her life to be a trauma counselor and needed that catalyst event to set her on that path. No, she made her own destiny, by living better than the misery had wanted her to.

To outlive doesn’t just mean to live longer. It means to live better. Better than the crushing weight of all the unavoidable bad things that a cruel universe will inflict on you. Those things don’t happen for a reason. But you can make one.

Everyone I Know

You have absolutely no idea just how much of a bubble you live in.

People have very little idea of how homogenous their concentric circles of friends, family, and close acquaintances are. If the full spectrum of how different humans can be is represented by a football field, then the full range of your circle occupies about half a yard.

It’s a really, really easy thing to forget. By nature, you don’t interact much with the people you never interact with, right? So how would you know that your circle is so monotone?

You can rarely tell it about yourself. But if you know what to look for, you can see it in lots of other people. And then if you maintain a little logical consistency, you can infer that you’re probably not the one cultural polyglot in the whole world.

Here’s a clue to watch out for, something that I’ll prime you for: the phrase “everyone I know.”

Oh, what chuckles that phrase now solicits from me!

Whenever someone says “everyone I know,” they’re almost always trying to infer a universal fact from this particular demographic certainty. For instance, someone might say “Everyone I know loves avant-garde music,” and thus be implying that love of avant-garde music is universal. But of course it’s not – instead, the fact that you like weird tunes means you probably hang with a crowd that likes weird tunes and people with more mainstream musical tastes are tired of talking to you, so you’ve reduced “everyone you know” to only Thinking Plague fans.

This, in turn, creates some pretty major blind spots for you. It might be comforting to think that your opinions and values represent the Vast Majority and only a few crazed or vicious outliers disagree with you in any substantial way. Comforting – right up until you’re proven wrong in a sudden shock. Me, I prefer to have a good sense of how people will react and behave, and that means trusting that they won’t necessarily think like me.

Just remember, “everyone you know” is about a few hundred people at most. The world has seven billion. Your country might have a few hundred million. Heck, “everyone you know” probably isn’t even 10% of the people that live in your Zip code.

Holes In Your Theory

I absolutely love this picture:

Here’s the story: in WWII, the RAF was losing a lot of planes to German anti-aircraft fire and they wanted to increase the armor on them. But increasing armor over the whole plane would hinder their ability to fly well and also be really costly, so they were trying to be efficient by only armoring the places where a little extra armor would have the highest impact.

The way they figured out where to armor was to look at every single plane that came back from a battle and make a graph of where the bullet holes were. They’d then only armor those spots.

If you don’t see the hole (ha!) in this plan, don’t worry – the entire project team didn’t either. Only a mathematician named Abraham Wald spotted the error. You see, they were charting the bullet holes on the planes that came back. They couldn’t look at the ones that didn’t, of course. But that means literally every single bullet hole they charted was non-fatal. Where they needed the armor, Wald pointed out, was any place on their chart that didn’t have any bullet holes. Because that meant that shots to that area were fatal every time.

This is symptomatic of a larger blind spot we tend to have, which is that we measure what we can measure, and then draw conclusions from the measurements without realizing what we didn’t or couldn’t measure that may be really, really important.

This is what I was talking about just a few days ago when I wrote about companies that say that every person on their sales team is hitting quota. Sure, every salesperson on your team is making their numbers – just like how every plane that comes back has no bullet holes in the middle of the wing. You’re not measuring the planes that don’t come back – or the salespeople who get fired.

This is also the reason why a LOT of polls, on just about every topic from politics to consumer preferences, are garbage. If you ask people to reach out to you if they like a particular thing, and then say “nearly 100% of people who reached out to us said they liked X,” then you’re not measuring the people who didn’t reach out – and thus probably don’t like X. Or the reverse.

Don’t accept partial information. When making a decision you really need…

…the hole story.