Not For Me

I sometimes see people blasting sales or marketing efforts with some variation of: “I would never buy this! What are these people thinking?”

My (internal) response: “What makes you think the goal is to get you to buy something?”

You aren’t the only person in the universe. If you see a marketing campaign that is completely uncompelling to you, remember that. My father was fond of pointing out that if people keep doing something, it’s probably working. If it isn’t working on you, then it might be an interesting exercise to try and imagine who it is working on.

There’s opportunity there.

My father would see an advertisement that didn’t appeal to him at all, and it would broaden his horizons. He’d say, “Wow, so there are people out there buying that stuff, huh? Could be money in that.” It didn’t matter that he didn’t see the lure himself. He knew a simple truth: If you spend $500 dollars on a billboard, it’s because you expect to make more than $500 dollars back in sales from it. And if you spend $500 dollars on a billboard a second time, then you did.

So the next time you see a billboard (or anything else) that seems so abjectly silly that you can’t imagine who would pay for such a thing, remember – the market of products, services, and ideas is great and wide, and you are but a tiny island. Get a ship.

Chaosherd

Sometimes our lives just get a little hectic. Lots of chaotic things happen. They might not even be individually bad things (though even good things can be stressful), but they might be rapid, unconnected, demanding of attention, unpredictable, and uninvited.

You like ice cream cake, right? Someone just dropped one off for you at your office! But your office doesn’t have a freezer. What are you going to do with it? Hurry up, it’s melting! But you can’t figure it out now, because your boss just asked if you have fifteen minutes to talk about a promotion opportunity! But you can’t leave the cake in the break room, it’ll melt everywhere. But you can’t keep the boss waiting, you might miss the opportunity. And the person who works across the hall that you like seems to be flirting with you about the whole thing and this is the first time they’ve shown interest, but you can’t chat now, you’re dealing with an ice cream cake that’s melting…

You see? All individually good things can happen, but they can happen in chaotic ways. The above example was a little sitcom-y, sure, but the same thing can happen on a scale of weeks or even months. Things can just get a little out of control.

Of course, bad things can happen too. But that actually requires a different solution: bad things are problems to be solved. Good things aren’t; you want to keep the good things, you just want to tame the chaos.

How do you do it? How do you herd the chaotic flock?

First, put some umbrella concept over the whole thing. Unite them. They have to be a flock before you can herd them. An “umbrella concept” could be a mindset shift, like: “These aren’t individual things happening to me, this is all part of the ‘Story of the Craziest Year of My Life’ that I’ll tell at the New Year’s party this year.”

An umbrella concept can also be a project that you use as a catch-all. The ‘Story of the Craziest Year of My Life’ can be a mental model, but it can also be an actual book you start collecting notes for, a vlog series you record, etc. Then all of the chaotic pieces have a place. If you just dumped a bunch of cardboard scraps on my clean table, that might stress me out. But if it were a jigsaw puzzle, the same scenario would make me feel very serene and happy. It’s all about what those elements are making.

Once you have everything under an umbrella concept, you can start making decisions for the good of that concept, and for you as a whole. Instead of focusing on each individual piece and trying to make decisions about it in a vacuum (decisions that keep being interrupted by realizations that they’re conflicting with the best decisions about something else, etc.), you’re making big decisions about one big thing. That can cut down on the total number of decisions you have to make, which is often very helpful!

So if your life is feeling a little chaotic but it’s all or mostly good things, don’t fret. It’s not a storm that will destroy you. It’s a flock that you’ll gently herd home. You got this.

New Month’s Resolution – September 2022

Happy New Month!

For September, I have a light goal. Not as in, an easy one. But my goal is to get more light.

During the best sunny hours, I tend to be indoors. I have open windows everywhere, but it’s not the same as really basking. This month, I want to bask while the baskin’s good. So my goal is to spend at least ten uninterrupted minutes outside with no agenda other than to be there. I don’t want my sunlight to always come through a window or to be stolen in the minutes between house and car to take the kids to school. I want to just sit in it, every day.

I hope your days are just as bright.

Who’s Listening?

Whenever you have the opportunity to speak, the most valuable ten seconds you can possibly spend isn’t spent on collecting your own thoughts or deciding what phrasing you want to use. It’s the ten seconds spent taking a quick mental inventory of who can and will hear you.

You will save yourself enormous headache and heartache by knowing who’s listening when you speak (or who’s reading when you write). Sometimes you’ll realize the answer is “nobody,” and you’ll save yourself time. Other times you’ll note that there are far more people within literal or figurative earshot than just your narrow target. All of these things matter, and they matter far more than just what you were so keen to express.

Just as you should never fire a gun without knowing what’s downrange, you should never speak without getting an idea of who’s listening.

The Old Wisdom

Innovation is good. If we didn’t invent new things, whether actual “things” or new ways to do things, we’d be in unlit caves dying as soon as we’re born. It’s easy to recognize that innovation is good, and innovation means carving out the new ways, and so it’s thusly easy to trick ourselves into thinking “new ways” are always good.

That’s a bad, bad trick. There’s a thing called “survivor bias,” which is where you judge whether it’s a good idea to do something based solely on the examples of the people who were successful in doing it. Every zebra on the other side of the river is fat and happy, so we should try to cross the river, too! That line of thinking ignores that four out of five zebras get eaten by crocodiles on the way over.

When you see a successful new thing, what you don’t see are the 999 other new things competing in that same space to be the best new thing in that category, all of which were enormous flaming disasters. The one left behind displaces the old, solidified way of thinking and turns out to be better, so we think “duh, of course, new is always better.”

Here’s the about that old way, though. The people who have been using that old way for a long time can usually tell you a lot about why a particular new way won’t work. But people ignore the old timers, thinking of them as relics of an antiquated way of thinking. Because those fools are stuck thinking that there’s one old way and one new way, and those are the competing methods.

But that one old way beat out 999 others to become the old wisdom. And your new way is just one of a thousand competing to do the same. The old timers, if you stopped to ask, can tell you where to put your bets.

Ultimatum

What a scary, negative word – “ultimatum!”

I don’t mean it’s scary to hear one. For most people, it’s far scarier to give one. No one wants to be the big meanie that breaks the final relationship by giving an unreasonable ultimatum.

But look at that sneaky word – “unreasonable.”

It’s not unreasonable to explain your circumstances. If I say, “hey, I can’t make the meeting on Friday because my kid has surgery, so we either have to reschedule the meeting or I’ll have to sit out,” that’s not an ultimatum. That’s just me telling you what’s up. You can change the meeting or not.

Sometimes you have to bend around another person, and sometimes another person has to bend around you. That’s just life, not a series of ultimatums. So don’t be afraid to tell someone what’s what.

Points

Any sufficiently complex system can be gamed. Often, that should be your goal.

When I was in 7th grade, my math teacher told us on the first day how she was going to grade the class – what things counted for what percentage of our grade, etc. I studied that more intently than I studied any other piece of math in the entire class. I figured out that as long as I maintained a 90% average on tests and got a checkmark every day for class participation, I wouldn’t have to turn in a single homework assignment for the entire year and I’d still get an A for the class.

Sometime around halfway through the class, my teacher called me in for a one-on-one. She expressed concern that I simply hadn’t done any homework all year. Her exact words were “you’re barely getting an A.”

Most of the kids in the class who worked very diligently on the homework also had a 90% or better test score average and participated in class every day anyway, so they were gaining nothing from doing more work. Some number of kids scored low on the tests but diligently did the work; as a result, their test scores improved. That was good, but if their test scores hadn’t improved, the homework wouldn’t have helped them get a good grade. So it seemed to me like the system was working as intended: if you needed to do the homework, you should do it. If you didn’t need it (as evidenced by getting good grades on the tests anyway), then there shouldn’t be a penalty for not doing it.

It seemed to me, in other words, that my teacher had deliberately designed the system to work this way, and for some reason, no one else in the class had figured it out. Why else would she have told us how she graded at all?

It turns out I was very wrong about how the world worked. She told us which things were worth points not so that we would carefully balance our efforts, but so we’d do everything on the list.

That’s counter-productive nonsense, but it also turned out to be how most of the world operates.

Most of the world presents you with a system and then expects you to jump into the spirit of that system with both feet, regardless of whether you agree with the intent or whether you gain anything by doing so.

If someone puts a cage around you, they want you to stay in it. But if the bars are so widely spaced that you can walk through them, you should do so. You shouldn’t stay in a cage you can escape just because someone else wants you to.

You should consider all rules as requests, and you should consider all the pros and cons of obeying. You should figure out what’s actually worth points (and how many) and what isn’t. And then you should make your own decisions. But understand the system you’re in first!

Immediate Physical Impact

When I was young, especially in my adolescence, the advice I received about my physical health was spectacularly bad. Not because it told me to do bad things (although let’s not talk about the Food Pyramid…), but because it was always presented as a long-term thing. “You need to make these healthy choices in order to live a long life or avoid heart disease in your fifties,” things like that. That’s not especially compelling to a 15-year-old, and so it often got ignored.

I wish I knew then what I know now, which is that the actual impact of healthy choices is that they make you feel immediately better.

Like, try this: drink a big glass of water, do ten pushups, and then relax for ten minutes in the sun. That’s a total of 15 minutes, tops. You will feel absolutely amazing all day.

The long-term impact is just a bonus.

Writers & Editors

I used to think that needing an editor was a sign that your writing was terrible. I viewed all edits as criticisms – harsh ones. If my writing was good, I wouldn’t need to change it. And if you were any good at writing, you’d be a writer instead of an editor!

Poppycock, of course. These are totally separate skills. Creative ideation and thoughtful execution are totally different in any context. But at the same time, there are some misconceptions – just like I had.

First, creative ideation isn’t better than thoughtful execution. People get that wrong all the time. It’s like saying the left wheels of a car are better than the right ones. Neither is better because you need both.

Second, these things aren’t always separate. Some people really can both write and edit their own writing. Some people can’t do either. Some people are 80/20, or 30/70. The myth that everyone is always exactly one of those things is fiction.

And lastly, there’s a pervasive myth that being good at one or the other correlates perfectly with enjoying one or the other, and also in turn correlates with all sorts of other personality traits. Creative writers love creative writing and are all artsy hippies, while all editors are nerdy accountants who love sharpening pencils.

Here’s really the only thing you really need to know: both are valuable, and if you’re primarily one of them you should value the other. Creative ideation and thoughtful execution combine to make great things, but they don’t substitute for each other. Find your mix.

The Fire Alarm

It isn’t your job to put out every fire you ever see. But you shouldn’t feel like you can’t pull the fire alarm.

When you see a fire, your first instinct is probably to either ring a bell or put it out, depending on the kind of person you are. Even if you’re a natural problem-solver, some fires will simply be out of your ability range, and you’ll alert the experts. But what would you do if the experts yelled at you?

What if they told you to put it out yourself, and stop bothering them? What if they blamed you for starting the fire? Well, you’d rapidly learn to stop pulling the fire alarm. Unless it was your problem directly, you’d at least hesitate next time, wouldn’t you?

We want people to alert us to problems. We want people to act as our early warning systems, but they won’t do that if we punish them for it. So if someone brings a problem to your attention that truly is your problem, don’t get upset with the messenger. They did you a favor.

And if you’re on the other side of that, remember – there will always be people who will appreciate you pulling the fire alarm for them. Those are the relationships to cultivate. They’ll do the same for you.