Appleseed

When I was a boy, I once attempted to emulate one of my many namesakes and buried a few apples in the back, untamed area of a relative’s property. I was eager to reap the literal fruits of my labor and give my cousins and I some delicious apples in the future.

And sure enough, something sprouted in only a few short days! What fortune! Within a week it was quite a large plant and I proudly told all my cousins about the bounty we would soon receive due to my efforts. Based on the rate of growth, we’d have apples before the month was out! My cousins, similar in age to me, were quite impressed and eventually the adults discovered why.

They laughed for an hour before pulling up the weeds that were growing in the spot where I’d buried the apples.

Here was the problem I had as a kid, and it’s the same problem many adults have today – I didn’t understand the concept of the counterfactual.

See, I had a reasonable (if incomplete) understanding of how seeds and plants work – seeds go in ground, plants come up. I knew, to borrow a phrase, just enough to be dangerous. And I had reasonable (to me) evidence that my theory was correct – after all, I’d put a seed in the ground and a plant had started to grow! That’s exactly what I wanted and expected to happen, so why shouldn’t I assume I was successful?

Of course, it was the counterfactual that I had never even considered: yes, a tree might grow if I plant a seed. But that doesn’t mean a plant won’t grow if I don’t – which means I can’t be sure that this plant is from my seed without more information (such as, and this is just a start, how an apple tree might differ from a weed in both appearance and growth rate).

Adults continue to make this mistake all the time.

Watch it happen: “Yes, my kid is doing very well in kindergarten. It’s all because of that expensive pre-school we paid for.”

Watch again: “I owe all of my success to my time at college. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it.”

Watch once more: “My business is successful because of my decision to invest in this new technology. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be doing nearly as well.”

Here’s the pattern: you take a reasonable-sounding, plausible but simple theory of how the world works. Then you run exactly one experiment with zero control groups. If you get the result you wanted, you declare your theory correct. Bad science, easy rationalization. You say, “It makes intuitive sense that a good preschool would give my kid an advantage in K-12, and my kid is doing well in kindergarten, so I must be right.” What you’ll never get to know is whether your kid would have done equally well in kindergarten without the preschool. Maybe they’d have done better!

It makes intuitive sense that if I plant an apple, an apple tree will grow. Something is growing, so it must be an apple tree.”

The lesson here isn’t to never try things. Send your kid to preschool if you want, go to college if you enjoy it, invest in a new technology that seems cool. But be careful not to turn one anecdote, no matter how appealing, into an iron-clad life lesson that you try to impart to others. “Sales guru” shysters have been doing this forever – they succeed in one specific way, then capitalize much further than is reasonable on that success by selling their one-time anecdote as a “road map to success” or some other kind of fool-proof blueprint. That’s just not how it works.

In the garden of true knowledge, those are the weeds. Pull them and work hard on the real trees; that’s the only secret.

Out of the Woods

I’m tired, sore, and I have plenty of strained muscles. I think my right knee (always my bad one) is worse than usual. My hands are pretty raw.

All signs of a great time.

I just got back from a last-minute overnight backpacking trip. I just barely managed to squeeze this one in – the Spring season was shot as everything was closed down, and I really dislike hiking/camping in the summer months (too hot, too many bugs). So even though this was already too late in the year to be ideal for me, I really didn’t want to wait all the way until fall to go, and since the state forests all reopened, I jumped at it.

I’m glad I did, bugs or no bugs.

These solo backpacking trips do a lot for me. There’s something awesome about the exchange of physical discomfort for mental discomfort. The whole time I’m out there, I’m sore and strained. Everything is difficult. The second you aren’t working, you’re getting cold, getting hungry, getting thirsty. And while you are working, you’re getting tired. But while all of that is happening, you don’t have time to be worried about anything beyond it.

My various problems and stressors that come from my modern life don’t get magically solved by a weekend in the woods. They’re still there, patiently and loyally waiting for my return. But they can’t follow me there, which gives me time to reset all the meters and measures of whatever internal reserves we use to combat those things. The problems don’t get magically solved, but my capacity to solve them is often replenished.

Everyone’s problems are different, and it’s impossible to compare the severity of two people’s situations objectively. No one truly knows if another person has it “rougher” than they do, or the reverse. But I think that’s asking the wrong question. I think the things that wear people down have less to do with what those things are, and more to do with the ratio of how often you can step away from them, clear your head, and return.

We see this in all sorts of study & work techniques, things like the Pomodoro Technique (where you work/study for 25 minutes, then break for 5, and so on). And while most people recognize the need for vacations and work/life balance, I don’t think those solutions directly address the root problem.

The root problem is that if you’re worried about something, you can almost never willingly stop worrying about it. If something stresses you out, you can’t just say, “okay, for the next 4 hours I’m going to not be stressed, then turn it back on.”

So going on vacations and always clocking out by 5:00 PM might be good surface-level solutions, but they’re physical solutions to a mental problem. For the majority of people, you can’t stop worrying or stressing unless something physically prevents you from doing so.

That’s why some people turn to alcohol or drugs as stress relievers. The right application of them can make it physically impossible to worry or stress about certain things. Of course, they’re far more trouble than they’re worth, but at least I get it.

There are other, better solutions. Hard labor is one of them. Give yourself enough physical exertion and I guarantee you that’s all you can think about. That’s why I don’t do well with vacations or breaks based on “relaxation.” If my mind isn’t forcibly occupied by something else, it will naturally revert to its most frequent state, which is thinking about all the stuff that needs to be done. I can’t get around that by just changing the location of my body; I also have to engage my body in such a way that the mind is overruled.

All this is to say, I had a very nice time camping. My mind was quiet for a time. I even slept. Whatever you do to quiet yours, I wish you all the success in the world.

My Ideal Grocery Store

Pretty much every time I go grocery shopping, I have the same fantasy about how I would design my perfect grocery store.

It’s more or less the same as any grocery store until you get to the checkout lanes. There are ten of them, all in a row. The first five are “normal.” The sixth one costs an extra 2% surcharge to use. The seventh is 4%, the eighth is 6%, the ninth is 8%, and the tenth is 10%. If you use that tenth checkout lane, you have to pay 10% more for everything you buy.

The lanes are otherwise identical. There’s no additional benefit for using any of the lanes, not even the last one.

Before I explain why this would be WAY better than the current way grocery stores are set up, take a minute to think about it and see if you can guess. Why would this configuration be good? Why would you pay 10% more for your groceries for no reason?

Okay, I’ll tell you why:

Because each line past the first 5 would be shorter and shorter. The tenth one would usually be deserted. You’d be paying more for a shorter line.

Forget “express lanes,” they don’t work. Because there’s no real way to enforce them beyond social norms which don’t hold up well in big grocery stores. But if you only had one 8-dollar item and you were in a hurry? Paying 80 cents to get out fast and skip the line seems like a great deal!

If there were long lines, you’d be able to customize your experience. Imagine you approach the checkout area and it’s a crowded day. The first five lines are pretty full; let’s say an average of 8 people each with varying amounts of stuff. Ugh. So you look at Line 6, with its minor 2% surcharge. Well, 2% is minor enough that a few people have picked that line, but it’s only 6 people and on average they have smaller cart loads. Still not short enough for you, so you look at Line 7 with the 4% surcharge. Now there are only 4 people in this line with even smaller carts, so you step in line. Someone else wants to get out even quicker, so they go to Line 8 which has nobody in it; they’re willing to pay 6% to skip the line entirely. You could have done that, but you were willing to save 2% by waiting a little, just not a lot.

There’s no reason to even look at lines 9 & 10 of course, if 8 is empty. But the busier the day, the more those lines will fill. It’s like built-in surge pricing – which in turn encourages people to spread out their shopping a little more, lowering congestion.

Now, despite how amazing this grocery store would be in theory, it has one critical problem – people would riot. Most people, in my experience, aren’t great at seeing when a whole system benefits them unless every individual part also benefits them in obvious ways. Many people would see a system like this and complain that either wealthier people would be able to shop faster, or that it isn’t “fair” to charge them more just to use an unoccupied line. They wouldn’t necessarily grasp the deeper concept that people paying extra to shop in a different line benefits you directly, because now that person isn’t in front of you in your line, so they’ve actually paid to make both your waits shorter. They also might not grasp that even having the option to “pay extra for an unoccupied line” is only possible because the line costs extra to use; if it didn’t, everyone would use every available line and there’d be no way for people in a legitimate rush to move ahead.

And I’ll defend that phrase: “legitimate rush.” Yes, everyone is in a hurry. Everyone has limited time, and no one wants to spend more of it than they have to in the grocery store. But there are absolutely some rushes that are more important than others – but I can’t judge them! I can 100% maintain that some people have a more valid reason to hurry than others without being willing to pass my own judgement on those reasons. Instead, I’d like to see a system where everyone could weight their own rushes according to their own opportunity costs. This system allows that.

(Side note: if you have a business that sells anything that takes time to produce, have a rush fee. That way, instead of endless back-and-forth with customers wanting things yesterday, you can just say, “Sure, for a 50% upcharge you can have it in half the time.” See how many people suddenly don’t really need it tomorrow, like they initially said.)

On a macro level, independent stores already do this. You pay a little more at Target so you don’t have to go to Walmart. The goods are more or less the same, but fewer people overall shop at Target and so the lines are usually shorter on average. It’s just that no store practices this internally. I’d love to see one try – I’d shop there every time.

Cultural Awareness

It’s weird to think of culture as mutable when you’re in it. You think of yourself as making informed choices or “following your heart” about everything from which music you listen to, who you find attractive, and what clothes you wear all the way to who you vote for and where you stand on social issues.

And you do! You do make those choices consciously, but there are two big factors that influence those choices. Firstly, you’re influenced by your peers; your “tribe,” however you define it. Social interaction choices have social side effects, and we care about those, for better or worse.

But secondly, you’re influenced by the range of available choices, and that’s mostly determined by your cultural surroundings, not by you. You can choose any music you like, but the range of what’s available is determined by what gets produced. You can vote for whoever you want… of the available choices. And so on.

That window changes over time, but the drift tends to be glacial. So when we’re in it, we usually view the range of available choices as all that’s possible.

It’s worth it sometimes to imagine beyond that. The people that do so are the ones that, an inch at a time, move the window.

One More

I remember the first time I gave a motivational talk in a professional context. It was early in my sales career, and I had been the top performer in my office for a while. The rest of the team wasn’t doing super well, and our manager asked me to say a few words in the next day’s morning meeting.

I remember what I said then, and (unlike a lot of stuff I’ve thought/said/written in the past), I think it holds up. I talked about sales goals specifically, but this applies to any goal. I said every day, I have the same goal for the number of sales I want to make:

One more.

See, you can’t make five sales. You can make one at a time. Then you can make another, but your next goal is always that next one, that one more.

And “one” is a very manageable goal. It’s realistic. It keeps you laser-focused on the short term strategy. You’re not distracted by a larger number nor demoralized by it.

So forget about sales now. You have one problem to solve, just one. One goal to achieve. You can only solve one thing at a time, but there’s no need to distract yourself with “at a time.” Simplify it.

You have one problem to solve.

This also gives you extreme clarity about that one problem. If you only have one thing to look at, you’ll truly see it.

It also means you get to succeed, over and over again. If you tell yourself “I have ten problems,” then even if you solve nine, you’ve failed in your own mind. But if you use the “one more” dynamic, then you get constant boosts of motivation that come from accomplishment.

I’ve been writing this blog daily for over a year now. How many more posts will I make?

One more. But then ask me again tomorrow.

Walking

I went for a walk early this morning, just past dawn.

A short walk. Cool air, sun on me.

I could have kept on walking, easily. Things to do today, back at the base. Had to head home.

The sun above me was nice. The ground below me was better. Feeling stones, grass, pavement rising up to meet my boots is a good feeling.

I like to feel heavy when I’m walking. Armored; prepared. Thick boots, a sturdy coat. Ready.

Something about the combination of motion and isolation makes you observant. Noting things, people, patterns.

I haven’t walked in a while. It was nice.

Don’t Go That Way

It’s hard to give negative advice. Harder still to take it.

What’s “negative advice?” That’s advice about what not to do. It’s much easier to give, take and evaluate “positive advice,” i.e. advice about an action. I can say, “I did X and got Y result; your situation is similar, and you also want Y, so you should do X.” And you can look at your situation and decide if it is indeed similar and you can examine my result and all that.

It’s harder to say “don’t do X.” For one, it’s harder to evaluate the effects of non-action. “I didn’t do X so Y didn’t happen to me” is harder to prove, simply because you can’t prove a negative. And you have a million possible counter-factuals.

On top of that, it’s harder to compare situations. Let’s say a successful person tells you that they wasted their time in a dead-end job for 2 years, and now they’re trying to tell you not to do that. Okay, but… aren’t they successful now? What if slaving away in that dead-end job contributed to that? If I admire your success, should I do what you say, even if what you say isn’t what you actually did?

Meanwhile, if I meet an unsuccessful person (by whatever standards I’m using for “successful”), and they say, “don’t do X; I did X and now look at me,” should I trust that? Sure, you did X and now you’re in a position I don’t envy, but why should I trust that you’re accurately evaluating your own failures? If you were a better judge of what actually led you down this path, wouldn’t you have avoided it and become successful, or at least recovered?

Whenever I give advice (and I try not to very often), I try to always give “positive advice.” I.e. I advise people to take action, not to avoid action. Usually I try to stay away from advice in the form of “don’t do this probably bad thing,” especially if I’ve done that bad thing.

Because I survived it, right? Hopefully I even learned something, got smarter, got stronger. I’ve done some weird stuff that in all likelihood I would have been smarter to avoid. I lived in a horse stable for a while… like with horses. Like, my roommates were horses. I also sold vacuum cleaners out of the back of a van for a week. I’m not 100% sure they weren’t stolen? I mean, I didn’t steal them, but I never saw my boss actually buy them or order them, so who knows.

The point is that these weren’t power career moves or even smart living choices. But they were experiences, and they didn’t kill me, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that I did them. So I wouldn’t tell someone else not to do them – to be honest, I can’t say with certainty that I know all of the effects they had. It’s better to share the experiences that directly generated a positive result that I have a high degree of confidence would duplicate if repeated.

Learn from other people’s successes – but make your own mistakes, my friend. It’s more fun that way.

How to Adapt

How do you change when circumstances change?

Don’t change everything. Don’t aim to alter something totally. Think of it like judo – you want to adapt to the incoming force using as subtle of a change as is humanly possible.

First, that means looking at the atoms that make up your subject. You hate your job – so you want to quit, change industries, move to a new city, scrap your whole career and start over. That’s not adapting, that’s scorched earth. Instead, look at the smallest changes first. Take a few days off, and when you come back request a new assignment.

Work your way up the leverage until you get the outcome you want. Big decisions are made of a hundred small decisions, and chances are you got most of those right. Destroying them all to get the bad ones is like burning down your house to kill a hornet trapped inside.

First, try opening the window to let it out.

The Soul of Wisdom

Lots of bad, incorrect advice is “obvious.” All else equal, simpler things tend to be more convincing. Much of the best, correct wisdom is non-obvious and sometimes complicated, because the world doesn’t always boil down neatly.

The best and wisest teachers can take the correct, non-obvious wisdom and condense it down to where it’s easier to swallow than the bad advice. That’s the real goal.

I want to start making that my real focus. My aim is to write less but say more. My writing is usually stream-of-consciousness; I write until I’m done and then hit “publish.” I’m going to work on editing more.

I don’t know what the perfect equilibrium will be, or if there is one. But I know I’m probably too verbose now; time to trim the fat a little.

Game On!

I’ve mentioned on occasion that I’m a fairly big board game geek. Well, that interest led me down a fascinating rabbit hole of information about the earliest board game historians know about. They call it the “Royal Game of Ur” after the city where it was discovered in the 1920’s or so. It’s an early precursor to backgammon and checkers, and it’s about 4,500 years old. Historians had to decipher the rules from old cuneiform tablets.

Of course, now you can buy a replica for like forty bucks!

So, obviously I did that. And I’ve already played it twice with my oldest daughter. Having a kid is so amazing from a build-your-own-friend standpoint. Without the massive pressures and responsibilities adulthood brings, they have enough time and mental bandwidth to both totally explore their own things and be really interested in all of your things too. So I get to train her to love my hobbies like board games and camping while she still has tons of time to explore her own, like karate and collecting snow globes.

When I was a kid, like all kids, I told anybody who would listen every thought that popped into my head in real time. I especially loved talking about my various interests and hobbies to anyone who didn’t get away fast enough. Then, some time in adolescence, I started being more guarded about who I shared with.

My hobbies and interests weren’t very mainstream. I always worried about what sharing them would say about me. That persisted well into my working years, as I was trying to prove myself to be competent and professional – the last thing I wanted was for anyone to associate me with anything other than work. I’d still talk about my hobbies, but only in circles where I knew people were already very likely to share them. Game shops or specific internet forums were great, but otherwise no.

But here’s the thing – that’s a lonely life. It’s so much easier, when someone asks “so what do you do for fun” to answer – “I find the most complicated board games I can and study strategy guides for them. I teach myself bush-craft skills and then go camping and mess them up. I write a weird daily blog. And I get my kids to like all that stuff too so I have permanent partners for all of it.”

I’ve met some great people that way. People who became really excellent friends, but at first the only thing we shared in common was some angle of one of these hobbies.

So listen – when you find a cool video late at night about an ancient board game they dug up out of a Mesopotamian ruin, if you think that’s awesome, tell someone about it. Buy a copy and ask them to play. Share your weird thing.

I promise, I absolutely promise, that if you have no one else to share it with you can share it with me. I’ll never judge, I’ll always be into it, and I’ll think it’s awesome.

Someone always does.