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You’re Already Doing It

The difference between achieving a particular goal and not is often just a matter of organizing and structuring the activities you’re already doing.

Every once in a while someone will comment on the fact that I write here every day, along with a sort of sentiment that they couldn’t do the same. But in almost every one of those cases, that person already writes something every day!

I can almost guarantee that you write something every day. Social media posts or comments, text messages, work emails. In some capacity, you’re probably typing words onto a screen at least once between each time you wake up and each time you sleep.

Deciding to do that in a slightly different context is all it takes.

This is true of a lot of things you might want to do! You’re already moving and lifting things. You’re already taking money from one place and putting it in another. You’re already buying food. The actions themselves aren’t alien to you – they only haven’t become exercise routines, saving regimens, and a healthier diet because you haven’t organized them as such.

Trained Mistakes

Just a little trick for you today – train yourself to make certain kinds of mistakes automatically.

Train yourself to guess too high when estimating how many calories are in a piece of food you want to eat. Train yourself to ask the question, and be wrong. Not by a wide margin, but enough.

Train yourself to think that things will take a little longer than they do. Tell yourself “the round trip to the grocery store takes 2 hours” even if that’s a little high.

Train yourself to guess that things are more expensive than they are.

Most people chronically underestimate those things. They have subconscious, motivated reasoning – they want to believe that the desert they’re about to eat is fewer calories, or that they have time to squeeze in a trip to the nail salon, or that they’re not really spending that much on their shopping. They want to believe it, so they do – and then they’ve overindulged, or are late and stressed, or over budget, or whatever.

Instead, deliberately over-estimate. Round up, and then round up again. And repeat the claim in your mind many times. When you know it’s wrong, act as if it’s true. Because of your natural tendency to underestimate these things, you’d be surprised at how often your intentionally-deliberate overestimation actually hits really close to home.

Personal Policies

When I was not yet even a teenager, I had this very early DOS-machine computer that could basically only save text files and run text adventure games. The first file I ever created on there was titled “Roccia’s Rules for Life,” and it was basically every little nugget of wisdom I ever picked up. If someone said something clever, or if I read a particularly pithy fortune from a fortune cookie, or if I learned some life lesson the hard way – it would all get a number and go onto this ever-growing list.

I’m pretty sad that somewhere along the way that computer – along with all of those Rules – was lost. I know at some point I had over 200, and I would love to go back now and discover what ten-year-old me thought were such vital nuggets of wisdom.

But the core concept has stuck with me, even all those years later – create personal policies as you go through life.

Life should change you. Yes, some things are just flukes, but most things that happen may happen again, and you should adjust your expectations accordingly. My father always told me to try to avoid repeating mistakes. New mistakes are inevitable, but repeated ones just means you’re taking more knocks than necessary to learn your lesson. As you go through life, the experiences you have should absolutely shape the way you behave, the expectations you hold, and the methods you use.

I mean, there are only so many times Dick Van Dyke can trip over that ottoman before it’s his fault, you know? At a certain point you either have to move it or start coming in by the back door. That’s a lesson you can write down.

Notes, Semi-Regular Edition

Hey everyone! I haven’t talked about music in a little while. I’ll keep it short and sweet for you, but here are five albums to go check out:

The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down, by The Reverend Shawn Amos. I love blues rock. The Reverend Shawn Amos is sort of like if The Blues Brothers were a serious group.

Outrun, by Kavinsky. This has got to be one of the weirdest electro-prog-rock concept albums I’ve ever heard, about a musician whose soul binds with a car. It’s awesome.

The Slow Wonder, by A.C. Newman (who was the front man for The New Pornographers). This isn’t a super-polished album, but it’s fun to listen to and I like it. It’s chill.

The Cult, by Crystal Viper. This is metal the way metal should be done. If you don’t like the genre, you definitely won’t like this – but if you’re an old fan, it’s a must-listen, especially for the King Diamond cover.

Internet Breath, by Hey, Ily. This is such a great “indie-electronica” sound. It’s unique and interesting, but doesn’t just lean on that – it’s also well-played and proficient. Go make them less unknown!

Music is the fuel for the engine of the soul. Share it if you got it.

Smart Aleck

My least favorite compliment (to be on the receiving end of) is “smart.”

It happens occasionally that someone pays me that exact compliment. I don’t want to begrudge anyone that says something nice to me! If you’ve ever thought of me in such terms or voiced as much, please don’t think me ungrateful. It’s just that in my whole life, that’s never been anything but a hindrance.

Being smart as a kid is such an terrible curse, especially the way the average American school is set up. It completely kills your work ethic as a kid, because if you’re smart enough that the normal work is easy, all the adults in the room just pat you on the head and move on. You’re left with the impression that life will be easy just because you were genetically gifted with a few extra IQ points than the average. But life absolutely doesn’t care about that. At all.

I don’t think I’ve ever done the following with my own children, but I hear other adults do this all the time: they tell their kid that they’re smart as an accusation. In so many parent-child interactions, being smart is the precursor to an exasperated question about behavior or performance: “You’re so smart, why did you fail this history test?” Or maybe “You’re so smart, why did you get in that fight?”

Or even, “You’re so smart, why are you unhappy?”

I’ve dedicated a huge, huge part of my adult life to self-improvement. To shedding the bad habits I learned as a child, adolescent, and young man. More than half of the posts on The Opportunity Machine are dedicated to that theme, and in addition to my own thinking and philosophizing on the topic I’ve consumed seemingly endless books, articles, speeches, lessons from mentors, and other pieces of content on how to make the various aspects of your life better. How to improve your health, how to reach your professional goals, how to raise a strong family, how to improve your interpersonal relationships. How to be happier. I’ve read a lot of great advice and thrown out a lot of bad advice, and done my best to be wise about the distinction.

Absolutely zero percent of the good advice has ever been: “Be smarter.”

The keys to all of these things aren’t intelligence. You don’t need to be smart to be healthy, successful, happy. You need to be diligent. You need to be moral. You need to be kind.

I don’t know that being smart has ever helped someone become those things. I think it often makes you think that intelligence can replace work ethic, thus killing your diligence. I think it gives you the tools to rationalize and justify bad behavior, thus killing your morality. And I think it can breed pride and contempt, thus killing your kindness.

The great answers to the questions of life aren’t undiscovered – they’re just obscured. You don’t have to be smart to find them, you just have to dig through a lot of noise that the modern world throws your way. You don’t have to be especially smart.

Extreme Influence

Shift your personal Overton Window in the direction of self-improvement. Don’t let it slip in the direction of self-harm.

Let’s say that you find the concept of killing other people and taking all of their stuff to be personally abhorrent. You would never do such a thing, never consider anything close to it, in fact. But because you’re intellectually curious about the mindset of people that advocate for such wicked behavior as a way of life, you read their manifestos. Blog posts and articles from the pro-murder-and-theft crowd. YouTube videos. You’re not looking for instructions! You’re just interested in what makes such minds tick.

So you read them… a lot. And you remain critical, and absolutely none of them convince you that murdering someone and taking all of their stuff is something you’d like to do.

But then one day, you come across an essay written by a more “moderate” member of that crowd, and it suggests that murdering and looting is extremely bad, but just beating someone up who deserved it and taking a portion of their stuff to compensate for whatever they did is acceptable, or even encouraged.

“Ah ha,” you proclaim. “Finally someone reasonable.”

But of course that’s not reasonable at all. It’s just that you’ve spent so long reading (and rejecting!) extreme claims that a less-extreme claim seems reasonable by comparison. You let your personal Overton Window shift without realizing it, even as you were firmly grounded against the extreme stance.

That’s why critical absorption of material is necessary but not sufficient. You also need context. You need broader moral philosophy, opposing claims on the other end of whatever spectrum you’re exploring, and a wider view of the influences on your influences.

Truth isn’t democratic, of course. Everyone in the world can believe that two plus two is five, and that doesn’t make it so. But you aren’t guaranteed to be the arbiter of truth, either, and the wisdom of crowds is a thing. Even if your only reason for exploring an extreme that you reject is to satisfy your intellectual curiosity (and by the way, let me say here that I think it’s very good to do that), you should be careful about who’s staring into who, you or the Abyss.

Of course, you can use this to your advantage!

When I first started trying to work out and get healthy, I read a lot of blogs, watched a lot of videos, etc. on exercise routines and mental habits to get into, etc. As is often the case, the most prominent examples were the most extreme body-transformation things advocating for wild, Gerard-Butler-in-300 level engagement. I soundly rejected all of those as being unrealistic, firmly in my position that real exercise was a scam for only people who didn’t have jobs or kids, etc.

Then one day I caught a video of a “ten-minute upper body workout” and thought “ah ha, finally something reasonable.”

The reality is that I was lazy and unmotivated. If I had found that video, I’d have made some excuse about how even that was too hard. But because I was now comparing it to all of these other much more extreme versions, it became reasonable in comparison. And so I did it, and then that ten-minute routine grew and now I’m in much better health and shape than back then.

So even if you don’t ever plan to do P90x, maybe it’s worth it to watch videos just to push some other workout just a little closer into your reach. Or maybe it’s okay to admire very wealthy people even if you don’t think you’ll attain that much wealth, because maybe it will make some other goal feel more attainable to you.

This is similar to the concept of The River, only with sources of information instead of people. If you only ever absorb information that tells you that you can only expect outcomes similar or worse to what you’re already getting, you’ll believe it. The Overton Window of your belief in yourself will shift downward. Look to the sky instead. Look for the giants whose shoulders you can stand on – or at least reach, where before you might have believed you could only reach the ankles.

New Month’s Resolution – May 2021

That’s three times in a row that the NMR post is going out on the 2nd instead of the 1st. In addition to being a funny pattern, it also means that last month’s resolution can safely be called a spectacular failure.

Seriously, last month I resolved to be able to view April as a whole, to see what happened as a result of it, and to be conscious of the passing of time. Here’s what happened in reality – I didn’t even notice the entire month.

That’s my blind spot. Individual days – great, solid. I usually rock those; rarely do I go to bed feeling unaccomplished. On the other end of the spectrum, my 5- and 10-year plans are going great. I can look back on the last 5 years and say I’ve moved in the direction I wanted, at the pace I wanted. There have been unusual turns and missteps, but I’m definitely five years ahead of where I was five years ago.

But on that middle scale, the months fly by.

My father, a brilliant musician, once let me in on one of his secrets as a drummer. He said if he was improvising a drum solo and he made a mistake, he’d just deliberately repeat it eight measures later, and then it looked like a creative choice rather than an error. His broader lesson was sometimes just leaning into your mistakes and not fighting the natural pattern can be helpful, especially if the mistake is mostly stylistic anyway.

So maybe I’ll just keep putting out the NMR posts on the 2nd, because I’m choosing to. But also maybe I’m going to give being cognizant of the month one more shot. I can have the same resolution two months in a row, because these are my rules and who’s going to argue?

Did You Get The Memo?

When someone makes a mistake, it can be hard for an outside observer to know if it’s a tactical mistake or a philosophical mistake. The reactions to either should be very different, so this is important to know!

Not that this applies strictly to parenting, but I’ll use a parenting example: my oldest daughter sometimes leaves dishes in her room. I don’t want this to happen, obviously. But is it a tactical mistake or a philosophical one?

If it were a philosophical mistake, that would mean that she didn’t understand the reasons why it was important to make sure her dishes made it to the kitchen. That she didn’t understand the importance of it, or the consequences of not doing it. Assuming that she’s otherwise a responsible and prudent young lady (which she definitely is), then the only reason she would be making this mistake is that she isn’t aware that it’s a mistake. Clear communication that emphasizes the above points is the solution.

A tactical mistake, on the other hand, means that she understands perfectly well the why behind the “no leaving dishes in your room” rule, and just is having trouble executing on it. That could be for a ton of reasons, none of which are relating to understanding why the rule is important or the severity of the consequences.

We often fall into the mental trap of believing that people only make mistakes regarding things they consider unimportant. So if someone forgets your birthday, it could only be because they don’t truly care about you – or so the misguided voice in our head tells us. But the reality is that people are just fallible and sometimes make errors that don’t reflect their overall investment in the sphere in which the mistake was made.

It’s natural, when I find a dish in my daughter’s room, to want to sit her down and explain to her for the umpteenth time why the dishes need to get back to the kitchen, how I won’t let her take food out of the kitchen anymore if she can’t comply with the rule, etc. But that’s treating a tactical problem like a philosophical one. She already knows this stuff, and she isn’t forgetting because she doesn’t agree with it. She’s just nine, and sometimes forgetful.

Treating it like the tactical problem it is meant putting a little note on the inside of her door that says “DISH!” so she remembers to grab them on her way out.

I’ll leave you with another absolutely classic example of treating a tactical problem like a philosophical one:

General Intelligence

There is absolutely no such thing.

Every skill is specialized, all knowledge is acquired, and there is no such thing as “common sense.” If you want to be really, really frustrated your entire life, ignore that statement.

Everyone is good at something. What a lot of people are not good at, is knowing what that something is. Not because it’s some hidden talent they never use! It might be something they do twenty times a day, flawlessly. That’s not why they don’t realize they’re good at it.

They don’t realize, because they think everyone is good at it. That it’s just a sort of general competency that comes with being alive.

There is absolutely no such thing.

If you’re good at something, I guarantee you that lots and lots and lots of people will be bad at it. This knowledge can help you in two tremendous ways:

  1. You can stop being frustrated when other people aren’t good at it. You get frustrated because you think that person is the exception, but they’re not. They’re the general rule – you’re the exception.
  2. You can realize that this gives you an amazing opportunity to be a value-add in other people’s lives, by either doing that thing for them or showing them how to do it.

Day after day, I see people that generalize from the self and make this assumption, and watch them get frustrated as a result. Watching that used to frustrate me – but it didn’t take me long to realize exactly what I was doing. Now, I take my own advice.

And I write this blog post for you!

First-Place Champion Digger

Once upon a time there was a really, really good digger. Nobody could dig like this person – they were like the John Henry of digging holes. They would just dig and dig and dig.

And so they were in a pretty deep hole. And they looked around and said, “I don’t really want to be in this hole, to be honest.”

So the digger called up a friend and said that they didn’t want to be down there any more. And the friend offered what felt like pretty obvious advice: “Okay, then stop digging and start climbing.”

But the digger replied: “But I’m really really good at digging. I’m not very good at climbing, in fact I’ve barely done it before.”

The friend said: “Well, sure you’re really good at digging. You’re the best! But you don’t want to be in a hole. You can’t dig your way out. So you have to decide which is more important: doing a thing you’re really good at, and everyone praises you for, and is comfortable to you, and that you’ve built habits around…

“Or not being in a hole.”