Notes, September 2020 Edition

Hey everyone! I’ve got a little music I’ve been listening to that you might like. Some of this stuff has really been getting me through the days!

Psychic Warfare, by Clutch. Clutch is a weird band, because as awesome as they are they don’t seem overly concerned with sounding pleasant, which kind of feels like a prerequisite for most music. They sound good, but in a way that doesn’t allow you to fade them into your background. They’re meant to be loud, to drown out other noise, to grab you by the neck and make you listen. Their aesthetic is sort of like if George Thorogood was the front man for Rage Against The Machine, so you can imagine what I mean. Anyway, go listen to “Our Lady of Electric Light” and then the rest of the album.

Hozier, by Hozier. So I really, really disliked this album when I first heard it. But I’ve done a complete 180 on it and I think this just falls into “acquired taste” music. The sound is sort of similar to Leonard Cohen, very deep and spiritual, and I think you have to be open to it. “Take Me To Church” and “Foreigner’s God” are excellent songs in particular. Listen to one or both of them, and listen to the other the next day before forming an opinion. I think Hozier is better if you already know it.

Illinois (or: Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the ILLINOISE) by Sufjan Stevens. Hahaha, what a weird and cool album. I love a good concept album, and I also love “music meta jokes” (like the fact that there’s no Traveling Wilburys Volume II), so this being named Illinois after Stevens’ previous album was called “Michigan” made for an insinuation that he would do 50 albums, one for each state (which he sort of encouraged people thinking) before he admitted that he wasn’t. Regardless, the album itself has some stunningly good music along with the kind of weird experimentation similar to They Might Be Giants. “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is a particularly good track.

YNOT by Tony K. Tony Khnanisho comes to America from Iraq in the early 90s as a little kid, his family fleeing the violence there. They land in Detroit, where he grows up absorbing hip hop and becomes an outstanding artist himself. YNOT (officially a “mixtape” and not an album) is full of great contributions to the scene while still keeping a pretty unique and unusual sound compared to the genre as a whole. His sound is incredibly sharp and well-produced (owing to his awesome production skills) and his talent will definitely have you moving.

Goodnight Girls, by The Unwed Teenage Mothers. The Unwed Teenage Mothers are a bunch of fabulous dirtbags from Mississippi who sound like what would have happened if punk had been Dixie instead of Yankee. I caught one song (“Nothing Will Ever Get Any Better”) and immediately got the album. That song is one of my favorites, but “For Rhianna” and “Sunday” are also excellent. The whole album is great and really easy to listen to – give it a shot if you like fast, fun music.

That’s all for this month – keep listening, keep sharing, and may all your notes be high ones.

Something Different Today

A different kind of writing, today.

Thought #1: Promotion-as-reward makes as much sense as transfer-to-different-job-function-as-reward. Sales offices die by promoting their top salespeople to management positions. Different skill set entirely. Being good at marketing isn’t the same as being good at managing marketers. Hard to turn down a promotion, but sometimes your own career suffers if you accept.

Thought #2: When I’m processing a question that requires my creative input, sometimes I’ll turn off the filter that people have in their brains that keeps them from saying stuff. I’ll just dump every random thought I have on the topic out loud. Like dumping out Scrabble tiles, so I can look at them and then figure out what words I can make.

Thought #3: Stress prevents you from being productive, but being productive is generally the cure for stress. Saving a little bit of easy productivity for when you’re really stressed can be like having a secret quantum tunnel for those times.

That one. Okay, I like that one.

When you’re feeling stressed – when you are stressed? Is stress a feeling, or a state? Bridges don’t “feel” stressed, but put enough pressure on one and it collapses. What’s the difference between feelings, states, responses?

Everything is a chemical or an electrical impulse. Emotion/state/response is a categorization for convenience. Still helpful, though. So where does “stress” fall?

Is it external or internal? More internal, despite seeming like the opposite. Outside stimuli provoke stress, but your internal processing matters. Two people can touch the same thorn and feel wildly different levels of pain. Is it based on sensitivity of nerve endings – or discipline of the mind?

So let’s call stress a state. It isn’t an instantaneous response, like pain or anger. But it isn’t a long-term association like love. It’s more of a status that you hold based on how you’re processing things. It’s when you’re running hot, nearing capacity.

There’s a signal in that noise, definitely. Something to latch onto and read. But stress is unusual, in that the solution is sometimes counter-productive. Are you in pain? Remove the thing causing you pain. Are you angry? Remove the thing angering you. But if you’re stressed – sometimes you can’t just remove the stressor, because you’re stressed about balancing kids, a job, a mortgage. All things you can’t immediately discard. You have to mitigate and solve long-term, unless you always want to run from anything mildly difficult.

So you have a few techniques. One is to raise your stress threshold. Self-management and organization can help. Another is to de-stress using an unrelated thing, whatever that is for you. A third is to change the way you’re actually approaching the thing you’re stressed about, reassign resources. Maybe you can’t get rid of your kids (I hope!), but if you get rid of a less important and unrelated thing, can you afford a babysitter more often? Things like that.

This was a glimpse at my writing process. I’m putting it here because I think it will be interesting for me to look at later. Start with a few thought threads, whatever I’ve been thinking about lately. See which one flows naturally into longer form. Jot down thoughts as they come. The last step, which I didn’t do today, is to go polish and align. Instead I left the thoughts as they fell.

Someone Is Looking For You

Right now, this very second, someone is looking for you. And you’d be happy if they found you, except they can’t.

There are more than seven billion people on this planet. Each one of them has, I would conservatively guess, about a hundred different wants and desires across any given day. That’s a lot of wishes being made, and there aren’t enough shooting stars for all of them.

With that many desires, it’s absolutely certain that you’re the right person to fulfill one of them.

Someone is looking for their next great employee, or their perfect boss, or their soul mate, or the owner of exactly the car they want to buy or something. The right person is looking such that you would be very happy if they found you.

Everyone is looking. Nowhere near enough people are trying to be found.

Some years ago a young man in the UK was out of work and pulled this bold and quite frankly genius stunt:

It worked! He got something like a hundred job offers after people went to the amazing website (it’s still up, you can visit it!) and then landed a great role. He even spent his first paycheck on a second billboard to say “thank you.”

He flipped the script. Instead of focusing on looking, he focused on being findable.

I’m not suggesting you buy a billboard – for one, copycat stunts are rarely as effective as the original. But I am suggesting you spend a little time reflecting on who you’re looking for – and then thinking about who they might be looking for, and where they might be looking. Why can’t they find you?

Fix that, and be found!

The Other Side of the Equation

“I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you.”
– Bob Dylan

The old adage that you should walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before you criticize them is true, but not for the reasons most people assume. I think most people miss the real wisdom contained here.

(Fun aside: my favorite follow-up to that bit of folk wisdom is “…because then when you criticize them, you’ll already be a mile away and you’ll have their shoes.”)

Most people seem to interpret the saying as meaning that you should take the time to understand people as individuals before you criticize them. However, I don’t think that’s actually true. I think you should mostly just not criticize people unless the criticism is warranted because it’s helpful, necessary, true and kind. If it’s not those things, keep your mouth shut. If it is those things, then someone’s individual circumstances have already been taken into account – literally every person on Earth has unique circumstances, so “having unique circumstances” can hardly be considered a prerequisite for being deserving of careful consideration. Everyone deserves kindness, even if you don’t know a thing about them.

Instead, you should “walk a mile” in their position relative to you.

Go to any restaurant and observe for a while, and you know what you’ll soon discover? You can tell which customers have ever worked in food service, and which haven’t. Same with a busy retail location. The people who are kinder (or at least more understanding) aren’t behaving better because they know anything about that specific server or cashier. They’re behaving better because they know what it’s like to be on the other side of that equation.

Former hiring managers make great job candidates, and people recently on the job hunt make better hiring managers. People who have been telemarketers are kinder to honest people just trying to make a living over the phone – and perhaps meaner to scam artists. In both cases, they understand the equation and what goes into both sides of it.

Any time you enter into an interaction where you haven’t been on the other side, tread lightly. You’re in unfamiliar territory. If you care about other people, you’ll be kinder than your default level, because your default level is probably too low. And even if you’re a cold-hearted misanthrope, you should still be wary. If you’ve never been on the other side, you’re at a disadvantage. In either case, it behooves you to seek understanding.

Don’t be a drag.

Brain Drain

If you aren’t programming your brain, somebody else is.

A lot of people hold what I believe to be an erroneous belief, which is that you have a set of beliefs that are natural and thus “genuine,” and any attempt to deviate from that set of beliefs is self-delusion. Or “not being true to yourself” or something like that.

Which is, of course, utter hogwash.

You don’t have any “natural” beliefs. What you have are inputs that you allow to hold sway over you. You’re a blank slate by default, but you can’t remain that way. As long as you can have beliefs, you will. You can’t hold empty slots. So if you don’t deliberately tend to which inputs become beliefs, your brain will just grab whichever ones present themselves.

The first step in this process is recognizing that just because you believe something now, doesn’t mean that it’s some sort of “natural” or “genuine” belief that you’re in any way beholden to. Your mind is a factory that converts stimuli into actions, with “conversion to beliefs” as the central engine. But you have control over every aspect of that factory.

I don’t mean to imply that it will always be easy. It won’t. If you were badly injured by a dog when you were at a young and impressionable age, then your belief that “dogs are threats” may feel very core to you. It’s been around for a long time, driving your actions for many years. The machinery of that belief may be rusted into place. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no function by which you can change it – just that it would be difficult.

Unfortunately, too many people adopt the belief that “beliefs aren’t changeable” too early in their life. They simply become a product of whatever easy sensory input is sent their way. They become slaves to whim and impression rather than agents of reason and will.

Start with that belief. Change that one. Then the rest of your beliefs, old and new, will have to meet a new standard in order to be worthy of space in your mind. And many will fail to meet that standard, and you’ll have the power to let them drain away.

Worthy Opponents

We don’t pay enough respect to our opposition. In general terms, I think most people would be better off if their default reaction to adversity was respect rather than anger or hatred.

Anger is a response. Base and biological. It’s not worth basing a philosophy around.

Hatred is just long-term anger. It’s anger that crystallizes, metastasizes. Anger is to hatred what “the pain of getting a nail through your hand” is to “never pulling it out for the rest of your life.”

Anger and hatred don’t teach you anything substantial. The only conclusions that anger and hatred can lead you to are “avoid” or “destroy.” There’s no nuance, no true wisdom contained therein.

But respect – that’s a choice. A belief. An important one.

My father was a fighter. Strong as an ox, but more importantly, quick like a fox. When my friends and I were late teenagers, 16-17 and at the peak of both our physical ability and our desire to prove it, my dad used to let us all take turns trying to land a hit on him. Dozens tried. No one could touch him before he put them on their backsides. Then one day, one managed to. Got a hit right across the bridge of his nose.

I froze. I expected my dad to be furious. I expected his stung pride and bruised ego would make him angry and he’d lash out, scream at us, something. That’s not what happened at all – he laughed. Then he shook the guy’s hand, told him it had been years since anyone could tag him, and spent the rest of the day sparring with him.

My father reacted with respect. Hatred and anger make you weaker. If that had been a real fight with something on the line, anger would have made him sloppy and predictable. The simple truth is that as good of a fighter as my dad was, anyone capable of hitting him was also someone worth studying. Worth learning from; hence, the afternoon of sparring.

This isn’t just about fists. It’s anything in life. If you think of yourself as strong, capable, competent, smart, and adaptable (and I hope you do!), then anything capable of giving you trouble must also be something with considerable power. Weak problems won’t trouble you. Only worthy opposition will give you any pause at all.

So if something hinders you or troubles you, then it’s worth studying. Learning from. Respecting. Life will give you many opponents – and not all of them will be other people. Anger and hatred will make you sloppy and predictable, and you’ll lose. But respect will open the door to learning, and then you will become even greater than you already are. And you will overcome even the worthiest of opponents.

Victory Condition

Are you winning or losing today? This month? This year?

How do you know?

Most people can’t tell. They have a vague sense of whether or not they’re doing “well,” but even that is often based more on society’s standards than their own. They have no sense if they’ve progressed towards any real goals, because they don’t have them. They make short-term decisions that they hope are good, and similarly hope those decisions will congeal into some sort of happy life.

Disaster. Disappointment. Heartbreak.

The good news is that you don’t have to be the victim of such tides, forever having your life served to you by luck and chance. The good news is that you can succeed or fail on your own merits instead.

All you have to is pick a target.

Declare a victory condition. Declare, concretely, what your goal is and your timeframe for achieving it. Then you’ll succeed or fail – but even if you fail, at least you’ll know that you’re failing and can change your actions accordingly.

Otherwise you may fail your whole life and never realize it. Always wondering why you aren’t quite as happy as you think you could be.

The Reed and The Rock

I hate to argue.

That being said, if I have to, I want to win. So I care about strategy.

There are fundamentally two kinds of arguments: ones where you win by default, and ones where you lose by default. Or to put it another way, there are arguments where you have to convince someone of something in order to get the result you want, and arguments where someone else has to convince you of something in order to get what they want.

Or to put it another another way: who has the ball? As in, “take my ball and go home?”

If it’s your ball, then other people have to convince you. You can win just by not arguing, as long as you’re okay with the “and go home” part. You can be the rock – you don’t have to be flexible. You’re the person being sold to, so you don’t have to be flexible.

Meanwhile, there are arguments where you have everything to lose if the argument just doesn’t happen at all. You don’t have a ball, so you have to convince the kid who does that he wants to stay. You have to maneuver, be flexible, be the reed. You need tact and diplomacy.

Like many problems, you’re halfway to solving it if you can categorize it correctly. A surprising number of people can’t. They argue like a rock when they should argue like a reed, and vice versa.

Imagine someone’s selling a house and despite the best advice of their real estate agent, they’ve massively overpriced it. They’re convinced that their house is worth this inflated price tag, and they refuse to come down on price or do any property improvements. They’re arguing like the rock, as if it’s other people who need to adjust their expectations. “If someone wants this house, they’re just going to have to cough up the cash!”

But… no one does want the house, at that price. You need to be the reed. Change the price, make improvements to the property, or at the very least be super super charming as you hold open houses. You can’t win via stubbornness.

Meanwhile, I once knew someone who had quit his job because he got a much better offer and honestly didn’t like where he worked. His current employer made him a counter-offer to stay. It wasn’t enough, but this guy felt awkward even saying so – as if he owed it to them to accept the offer! He was arguing like the reed when he should have been the rock. He should have made up an offer that would genuinely have gotten him to stay, no matter how high it was, and told them “this or nothing.” He already had all the cards, why debate at all?

Identify your starting position, and whether you need to dig in or bend. If you get good at that, not only will you win more arguments, but the best benefit of all is that you’ll have a lot fewer to begin with.

A Minute Late

I remember one particular work meeting I attended many many years ago, near the beginning of my career. It was extremely early in the morning, and my boss at the time had a well-known habit of locking the door to the meeting room at the exact minute the meeting began. He was a stickler for punctuality, that one. Interestingly, one time a co-worker arrived nearly half a day late, without having called or anything, and the boss just helped him get caught up and didn’t say anything else about it. Privately, I asked him about it later.

He told me: “An hour late, and there’s a story. A minute late is just disrespectful.”

I don’t manage like he did, but there are definitely some elements of wisdom in that story.

First, I think it’s good if early in your career you have someone who pushes you on the fundamentals – punctuality, personal presentation, etiquette, etc. There are times when it’s appropriate to be more lenient on those things, but before you flaunt those rules you have to know them.

Next, I think it’s true that easily-correctable mistakes are, when the consequence thereof falls upon another’s shoulders, the most disrespectful. If you’re an hour late because you were in a car accident on the way to work, that’s understandable – and likely rare. If you’re a minute late, it feels more likely to be because you simply didn’t manage your time well (and also likely to be more common).

And of course lastly is the vital piece of wisdom that when someone else has the keys to the meeting room door, they’re the ones calling the shots. If you don’t like it, find another meeting room – one where you have the keys.

100 to None

More options usually means more power. More choice, more freedom, right? It’s true, but it’s not complete.

Thinking that “more choices is better” leads to an incomplete philosophy; the desire to always have more choices. Recently I was talking to someone about negotiating power with an employer – certainly you have more if you have a hundred employers who want to hire you versus just one, right?

Seems true in relationships, too. If you have a hundred people who want to date you, you’re better off than if you only have one option, right?

Even shopping. If you can only shop at one store, you’re stuck with whatever they sell – but if you have a hundred options you can probably get exactly what you want.

These are all true – to a point. On your side, choice is important – and on their side, your choice means “they” (whoever “they” are) have to compete, making each individual option better than it would be in a vacuum.

But there is a way to have this power without relying on the universe to have multiple options for you. You have to control the Ultimate Option.

Opting out.

If you don’t need a job, then you have as much negotiating power with one employer as you do with an array of hundreds. You get to set all the terms, because you can walk away if you don’t like the deal. If you’re comfortable with your own company, then you don’t have to compromise and take a romantic partner you don’t really want.

Now, some of that is admittedly Utopian. We’re not complete societies as individuals. Most of us need external income, and romantic partners are great, and friends are awesome, and stores have lots of great stuff to buy, and so on. The point isn’t to completely isolate yourself from the world.

Rather, this advice should remind you that “walking away” is always on the table if the remaining deals are bad enough. It’s a reminder to build yourself a life where you have a reasonable amount of independence – maybe most people need a job eventually, but your own level of saving and frugality can be the difference between needing one tomorrow and not needing one for twelve months. Sure, many of us want a long-term life partner, but your healthy personal habits and hobbies can be the difference between being so desperately lonely that you ignore red flags and being comfortable being alone long enough to make good choices. And not waiting until you’re on your last roll of toilet paper to buy more can be the difference between getting robbed at the cash register and waiting for a sale.

Patience is a virtue. Walking away takes strength. Strength and patience are both rewards of a life lived with care.