Fifth Best

A hugely underrated skill is knowing when a task needs to be done, but absolutely does not require “your best.” This is a hard skill to master, even harder to teach (especially to children), and most people can’t even wrap their heads around why it’s important. But if you do get a handle on this skill, your life will be much, much better.

Consider: in the majority of cases, there is no outcome difference between your best effort and your fifth-best. But your best effort might take a hundred times more juice than your moderate effort! That’s not a good return on investment, obviously.

Of course, sometimes your best effort is warranted, and there’s the rub. Telling the difference. There’s no universal rule, but here’s a good general one: your best effort should be reserved for the things you want to do, the things where there is no outcome except whether or not you enjoy it. If you’re planting a garden for yourself because you’d like to grow your own tomatoes, then your best effort is warranted. Your best effort probably won’t grow much better tomatoes than your fifth-best effort, but if you aren’t doing your best at your hobbies, why bother at all? What you’re really growing isn’t tomatoes.

Until you have the calibration down, “try your best at everything you do” might be good “starter advice.” But it’s also a recipe for perfectionist burnout if you don’t quickly get a handle on it. I’m definitely not suggesting that you should “phone it in” when the outcome actually matters. I’m saying that there are many scenarios where the range of outcomes is much closer to “pass/fail” than you initially think. Take the time to examine the potential results of your best effort versus your fifth-best, and ask yourself honestly: in this instance, does it matter?

Flowers Grow From Dirt

Today was a frustrating day with many challenges and setbacks. Yet when it was over, I played games and made cookies, taught lessons and gained stories. It was a good day.

These things aren’t unrelated. I didn’t have a good day despite the frustrations. I had a good day because frustrations stem from change, and change is the agent of progress. Sometimes things blow up – but then they settle in new places. With a little nudge here and there, you can make that work out really well.

The Advice Trap

Be careful! Sometimes people want to blame you for something, but they disguise their accusation as a genuine appeal for advice. Once you start dispensing advice, the trap closes – and you start to look like you’re defending the problem that you didn’t cause in the first place.

I am particularly susceptible to this trap because I automatically interpret all complaints as appeals for solutions. When someone says “I don’t make enough money,” I just sort of translate that by default into “hey, could you give me some advice on how to make more money?”

But often that’s not what people are saying! Sometimes they’re saying, “I don’t make enough money, and I blame anyone who supports the current economic system or any of its close variants” or something like that. So then we’re having two different conversations because the initial statement doesn’t actually track literally onto either of our interpretations. So then naturally they hear my well-meaning personal finance advice as some sort of political defense of a thing they wanted to complain about, and now we’re fighting and I didn’t even realize it.

That can happen by accident, but be careful when people do it on purpose. Not everyone wants solutions.

Where Things Grow

Your favorite things deserve to be someone else’s favorite, too. Things grow in the sun; let your best be visible. Talk about things, even to no one. Do things publicly. Let people see.

Tell stories. Share books. Give stuff away. Don’t hide things, because the dark is where the wounded animal goes to die.

You, But Faster

I think people often mistake intuition for emotion, and vice versa. They aren’t the same. Emotions are inputs; if we’re not careful we can confuse them for decisions and act accordingly, but that’s foolish. They’re sources of data; senses, like hearing and sight. Use them to collect information, but never let them drive.

Intuition is different. If tuned correctly, your intuition should reach mostly the same conclusions as your higher reasoning, just more quickly and without offering supporting explanations. Your early view of your intuition should be “trust, but verify.” Remember, it’s the same brain. It’s just jumping to the conclusions that you might have reached yourself more slowly.

That doesn’t mean it’s never wrong – but you’re not always right, either. And sometimes when we take too long to reach a decision, we overthink it to the point where we introduce errors our intuition didn’t encounter.

When you do end up going with your intuitive response and acting upon it, the most important thing you can do is still engage your higher reasoning after the fact to analyze the decision. Without the pressure of an immediate deadline, let your slower intellect puzzle out how the decision got made and whether it was a good one. Then retain that information (maybe even blog about it to really get it to stick) and help your intuition calibrate. The closer you can get to the point where your speedy intuition reaches the same conclusions as your slower deliberation would have reached, the better.

The Poop Truck

The world is specialized. That means that there is a golden area of opportunity for you, as a unique individual. All you have to do is find the stuff that most people don’t like but you don’t mind, and get good at it.

You don’t even have to love it! You definitely shouldn’t hate it, but “comfortably pleased” is a great bar. I’ll be honest with you: most people who operate septic tank trucks probably don’t love it. But they don’t mind it, and they probably do love money, which other people are happy to pay them in order to not empty their own septic tanks. Driving the poop truck may sound gross to most people, but there’s a subset of the population that doesn’t mind it, and that trait is worth a lot.

Way back when I was in sales, I noticed that most salespeople really hated doing any sort of recruiting or training, but most training in sales is “hands-on” and done via shadowing. Salespeople often really hate that, because it’s effort that takes away from the main thing they want to be doing (selling to make money) with no immediate reward.

I actually liked training, even though in the short term it cost me a little money personally in the form of lost sales. And in realizing that I liked it but my coworkers hated it, I saw opportunity. I started volunteering to take everyone else’s training rotations. I went from middle-of-the-road salesperson… to #1 sales manager in the company. I had my pick of people because I’d trained them all. Everyone wanted to work with the person who put effort into them when they started. I built teams, and in the long run, earned way more than the meager amount I lost initially.

That’s an example of how the diagram can apply in a micro level as well as macro. It isn’t just about choosing whole industries that other people don’t like, it’s about choosing your specific path even within one. There are infinite nested layers of complexity and specialization, and you can find your micro-niche even within the macro-niche you’re in.

Throw Your Socks Away

Do you have a sock drawer or other designated “sock spot?” Look in there now. How many different kinds of socks do you own? How many different pairs? If you put all your socks loose in a basket, how many would you have to pull out at random before you were guaranteed a matching pair?

For me, the answer is: two. All my socks are identical. Once a year, I throw away all my socks, and I buy a dozen identical pairs of new socks. This costs me all of twenty-five dollars, and I always have nice, new, matching socks.

People get so hung up on this idea that you shouldn’t throw things away that haven’t completely failed yet. So if your socks are all threadbare, mismatched, sagging – but still technically socks – then it’s wasteful to throw them away! Bah! Some things you should waste. All things are temporary, but some things are “good” for a year, and then “barely passable” for like ten years after that before they finally, actually break. You don’t need to be held hostage by your socks!

Scale Models

People have an internal frame of reference. They have a concept in the world that, whether it accurately maps onto the real world or not, is what they must operate in. We can try to improve the accuracy of our mental models of the world (and we should!) but they’ll never reach perfection, and they’ll never perfectly line up with another person’s.

One of the best things you can do for a person you love is to respect their mental model. Someone might tell you that something is very, very important. You might think it isn’t, but the point isn’t the disagreement: the point is that in their world, it is very important indeed. Their model may change – in the future, they may look back and think that thing wasn’t very important at all. But they will also remember whether or not you chose to believe them when they said it was, and wanted to share it.

Collaboration is bringing two or more mental models into better alignment. Love is just saying, “I believe yours.”

“The Sailing Ship”

Today I bury the greatest man I have ever known.

I’m afraid I don’t have anything more to say today, so I would like to take a rare turn and share the poem that my father asked me to read at his funeral. I will honor his wish today. It’s a good poem.

What is Dying? by Charles Henry Brent

What is dying?
I am standing on the seashore.
A ship sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean.
She is an object and I stand watching her
Till at last she fades from the horizon,
And someone at my side says, “She is gone!” Gone where?
Gone from my sight, that is all;
She is just as large in the masts, hull and spars as she was when I saw her,
And just as able to bear her load of living freight to its destination.
The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her;
And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “She is gone”,
There are others who are watching her coming,
And other voices take up a glad shout,
“There she comes” – and that is dying.

Anyone Can Do It

My father was one of the most talented people you’d ever meet. He could do a thousand things. If you expressed any wonder at all at his myriad talents, his response was the same: “anyone can do it.”

This wasn’t humility, false or otherwise. He truly believed anyone could do anything. Virtually all of his skills were self-taught; he had little in the way of formal education and I’m not sure he ever opened an instruction manual in his life. But he would listen to people, quite happily – especially if they were trying to teach something.

There was always someone trying to teach something, he would tell me. All you had to do was listen and try it. You could probably do it. He loved Bob Ross; many homes in our family are adorned with paintings my father did while following Ross’s directions.

Just pick it up, whatever it is. The paintbrush, the guitar, the hammer. Use your hands to find the tools, your eyes to watch what you’re doing, and your ears to listen for people trying to teach. You don’t need more than that, and you can do anything. And anyone can do it.