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Launchpad

Rockets are cool. All sorts of awesome technology, a bunch of fire and noise, all the promise of what they’re after – what’s not to like?

If you get a bunch of space enthusiasts together and ask them to tell you all their favorite things about rockets, those are the kinds of answers you’ll likely hear. The different kinds of engines. The physics behind calculating the launches. All that stuff. Very few people would probably say that their favorite thing about rockets was the big concrete slab that they take off from.

But the launchpad is vital. The secure foundation, the level surface, the stability to hold everything in place while you get ready. These are critical components of a successful launch.

A launchpad isn’t flashy or fun. It doesn’t even look like it has anything to do with space when you’re first starting to build it. But you need it. Perhaps more importantly, you can build it once and launch a hundred rockets from it if you built it right.

The Other Half of The Wheel

If you only consider a very narrow frame of reference, then at any given time half of a moving wheel looks like it’s moving in the wrong direction. A single dot. painted on the side of the wheel and viewed alone, would appear to be moving against the direction of the vehicle.

In order to not be alarmed and view this as a problem, you need some context. You need to know the direction of the wheel as well as how every part contributes.

Don’t forget that when you’re the hub. You might know all the things that are happening and why, but other people might not. If they’re confused, they can’t help. They might even feel demoralized, like they’re failing. But at this moment, they’re just on the other half of the wheel.

Catchphrases

I’m a big fan of conversational gimmicks. Tricks of the tongue. Catchphrases!

My last name is hard to pronounce. For most people, especially non-Italians, it isn’t pronounced anything like it appears in print. It actually rhymes most closely with the way people say “gotcha!” For a long time, when introducing myself to someone new, I’d have to go through this whole dance of saying my last name multiple times while the other person repeated it, mispronouncing it differently each time, until finally when they got it they would smirk like I was hearing this for the first time and go, “Ahhhh, ‘gotcha,’ Roccia!”

Nyuk nyuk nyuk.

But after a while I realized… hey, that’s pretty good. It’s catchy, it’s memorable, and it does what I want it to do – teaches people how to actually pronounce my name. So I started using it myself. When I introduce myself now, my gimmick is to say “Hi there, I’m Johnny Roccia, rhymes with ‘gotcha‘!” And I do a little finger-gun thing because it’s cheesy but cheesy is also pretty on-brand for me.

Big win. I don’t have to hear other people spitting that back at me, and I make my name easier, and I make the introduction more memorable. All positive stuff!

But in addition to making things easy and memorable, there’s a benefit to a certain level of consistency in your words – especially written ones. You don’t want to become so predictable that you’re boring, of course. But you do want to be a little predictable because then you’re also referenceable. Don’t wear out your thesaurus looking for a new word each time. It’s fine to coin words and phrases because then it’s easy to both create shared communication tools and create shorthand for big concepts. If you write a lot (like I do!), you can’t possibly hold everything you’ve written in your own active memory. It’s nice to be able to search, and searching for past work on a topic is much easier if you’re pretty consistent overall in the terms you use for things.

And that little bit of consistency, that dash of predictability, makes you easier to interact with. It lowers the barrier for other people to get to know you, absorb your ideas. You don’t win extra points for fancy words and creativity if it makes it harder to understand what you’re talking about!

Until tomorrow, everyone – this is Johnny Roccia, rhymes with ‘gotcha!’

What, How, Why

Let’s talk about the stuff you do.

Stuff you do basically has three “levels,” and the understanding of that task at each level gives you different insights into what you can improve, what you can do better – or stop doing. Not everyone understands what they do at each of these levels, and especially when communicating about it with others, it’s valuable to do so.

“What” – This is the task. The physical components. If you’re mowing your lawn, the “what” is that you fill the lawnmower with gas, start it up, and push it around over the grass in straight lines so the blades cut the grass and blow the clippings into a bag, which you then empty into a trash can. “What” is detail-oriented. Talking about the “what” with other people will generally only be valuable if the other people also do this exact task and can transfer knowledge on this level. If someone else also mows lawns, you and they might get a lot out of discussing fuel types, blade brands, or what to do about hard-to-cut edges. You won’t get much out of trying to discuss the task at this level with the owner of the golf course who’s hired you to landscape it – and perhaps more importantly, that person won’t get much out of it, either. They won’t be impressed, because they generally won’t “get it.” So when you think about the “what,” think about solving problems or smoothing out issues and keep your chats to those who can help you do that.

“How” – This is the methodology. You physically mow the lawn as described under “what,” but the “how” is more strategic. It’s things like “I use a riding mower for the large open spaces, then I switch to the push mower for the more visible but smaller front spaces so there are no unsightly tire tracks, and then I do the edging with a hand-held weed wacker.” It’s also things like “I always mow early on a Saturday when I’m doing corporate landscaping because it doesn’t disturb anyone working and by the time anyone sees it again on Monday any uneven spots have had time to grow back in a little and the color will have returned some.” A lot of this is about context, fitting your “what” into a larger plan, a larger world. People who don’t know anything about mower brands will still be able to understand a fair bit of “how,” and therefore it’s a good communication tool for other people that don’t do the task themselves. The owner of the golf course doesn’t care what brand of weed wacker you use, but he appreciates that you’re smart enough to not schedule a mow on the day of the tournament.

“Why” – This is the level that many people don’t ever bother with at all, and that’s a shame. Because this is the level that can change your life. This is the level that can totally redefine your “how” and even your “what,” because it’s so fundamental. Why do you mow the lawn? And don’t say “because it needs to be cut.” I’m asking why you mow the lawn. Is it because you enjoy it, both the work and the end satisfaction, in a way that can’t be found anywhere else? Is it because you’re very good at it, and therefore it’s a valuable skill that allows you to earn a living on terms you enjoy? Or… is it because you mowed lawns last year and you didn’t really give any thought to whether or not you’d want to do it this year? I have a landscape guy who’s incredible. (Even though I actually really enjoy mowing the lawn, it isn’t worth it to me for a lot of reasons to do it myself.) He likes mowing lawns well enough. But his “why” was always “because this is a viable enterprise that people need and therefore is lucrative.” He’s in it as an entrepreneur, in other words. And once you land on that “why,” you realize that mowing the lawn yourself isn’t actually the best use of your time. It’s training others, securing business, and expanding the operation. And that’s just what he’s done. He no longer mows my lawn; one of his many well-trained employees does. I’m glad of it.

My original landscape guy used to talk to me about “how,” but never “what.” I didn’t really care “what,” and he knew I wouldn’t get most of it anyway, but we connected on “how” very well, which was more important to me as his customer. But he was also a great guy, so we connected on “why” – and I’m glad he talked to me about it. Now he talks about “how” with his employees so they’re better at their roles, but doesn’t talk too much about “what” because that level of micromanagement isn’t conducive to effective time management. They talk to each other about “what” to get better, too – because it’s good to have “shop talk” between experts on a task. And he thinks about “why” all the time, because that’s how he’ll grow.

Lawns are an easy analogy, but this is all about you, too. Go give it some thought.

White Brain Cells

White blood cells are a critical part of your immune system. They keep you healthy by attacking bad things that get into your body.

Oh, how nice it would be to have white brain cells! Keeping you safe by attacking bad things that get into your mind!

Of course, I don’t mean “bad ideas.” I think bad ideas are healthy, important, and even necessary. I think constantly encountering bad ideas trains us to be critical, dispassionate, and intelligent. I wouldn’t want them removed any more than I’d want to wrap my kids in bubble-wrap to keep them safe; that kind of safety is the most dangerous kind.

But I do mean noise. Things that just draw you in for no reason other than the fact that your very attention has become a form of currency. Outrage machines or drool-inducing flashing lights. These things are everywhere because they work, but fear not! White brain cells might not truly exist, but you can create something similar.

The first thing you have to realize is that you need to be aggressive in your resistance to these things. You need to do more than just “ignore and move on” in some cases. You need to prune and cultivate. Every platform you ever navigate online has robust options for controlling what you see, but most people never bother to learn them. But if something is just making noise for the sake of noise, block it out! Remove the source. Click the “block” button, adjust the settings. Get rid of the source. Because if you don’t, the very fact that you didn’t tells the algorithm that you looooooove that stuff and want more of it!

It’s not just bots and ads, either. Some people, nice though they might be, just seem to exist online solely to relentlessly share that same mindless garbage. I won’t begrudge someone else for what they want to watch (or even share!), but that doesn’t mean I have to subject myself to the same toxins. “Unfollow,” thanks muchly.

This even extends to the offline world. There was a convenience store that I used to frequent, but they installed this device that made it so that every time you opened their cooler door, a loud voice would scream ads at you for other products. As soon as they installed this device, I never shopped there again.

My life is better for it. A robust mental immune system helps filter out germs and leaves my brain able to contend with the higher parts of the world – good and bad ideas alike. But no noise!

Past Tense

There’s this certain sub-genre of science fiction that I always loved. Stories where the main protagonist suddenly wakes up in a completely different identity than their own and has to make it work. Usually, that’s how the story will begin – the point of view will be the narrator’s, and they’ll describe hearing an unfamiliar name called several times with increasing urgency until they realize that the shouter is calling them. They won’t recognize anything about their surroundings – even their body will be unfamiliar. They’ll have no idea how it happened, but suddenly now they’re General Bashar of the Fourth Space Army or whatever instead of their “true” identity. And then the rest of the story will be about them making it work, achieving their ends, etc. instead of ending up in the loony bin or being executed as an impostor.

The key central theme of these stories is that of initial acceptance of the situation. That’s what makes the stories heroic. The protagonist could easily just yell “Wait! I’m not General Bashar! I’m just some nobody who is suddenly and improbably thrust into his life!” And if the main character did that, not only would it probably not end well for the character but there also wouldn’t be much of a story. Even if that’s what they want to do initially, they always quickly realize that their only hope is to play along. Though they had absolutely no control over the life they stepped into, they have to do what they can with it, looking for opportunities to get what they want out of what they’ve been handed.

Okay, that’s a weird intro, but here’s the point: you’re living this, every day. Every day you wake up in an identity whose past you cannot affect. The fact that this identity was created by earlier versions of you is totally immaterial. The point is that today, right now, you’re waking up in this identity and you have to figure out how to maximize it. How to get what you want out of what you’ve been given. You have to put the clues together about what this life is all about and then pilot it around until you successfully achieve your goals.

The protagonists in this story always have a very specific but subtle superpower that gives them the ability to win: they care 0% about their past, and 100% about their future. Since the past of this identity doesn’t “belong” to them, they don’t care about it. They don’t consider themselves beholden to the opinions of the “real” General Bashar from yesterday, they only act like him in order to move forward towards their goals. If General Bashar spent every single day of his life lovingly tending to his rock collection, the protagonist is totally okay never looking at another rock unless it brings him closer to his current goals.

That’s a power we should aspire to! The past is nothing more than the starting conditions of our adventure. It gave us the current setup, but it is now unable to affect us and we’re unable to affect it. If we want something new, that new thing is in the future, not the past.

But instead, we carry stress. Stress, regret, fear. We’re tense over things that already happened, that we cannot change and which don’t matter. They’ve already done their damage, even if the damage hasn’t happened yet.

If our enemies have launched the missiles but they haven’t yet arrived, then what happened in the past is certainly going to affect us. But we can’t change the launching, we can only prepare for the arrival of the missiles. The starting conditions can lead to all sorts of conclusions, and you can affect those paths. But you can’t affect the starting conditions at all, so don’t try. Remove your attachment to them. Think of yourself as a new arrival in your own life, every single day. Make your decisions accordingly.

Case of the Don’ts

You can’t create nothing. But that’s what you attempt when you tell someone else not to do something: you attempt to create a vacuum.

Nature abhors a vacuum. This is an old trick, but try this: don’t think about pink elephants.

You thought about pink elephants, didn’t you? Of course you did. What else could you think about? But you didn’t think about gold-plated tire swings. If I didn’t want you to think about gold-plated tire swings, I’d say something like “don’t think about pink elephants.”

Because you can’t create a vacuum. You can’t create an absence of something like that.

Okay, let’s go deeper: if you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard of the concept of “screen time.” Maybe even if you aren’t one! The idea is that too much time spent in front of electronics is probably bad for developing brains and the habits that they’re forming, so maybe you should limit how much time kids spend on things like tablets or whatever. And the parents who adhere to this theory do that by putting maximums on screen usage – like, “you can’t be on your tablet more than an hour a day,” or whatever. There are even built-in parental controls for most tablets that let you automate this feature; your kids’ screens will just go dark after whatever pre-set daily limit you create.

I have never done this. I have never limited my kids’ screen time… at least, not directly. Because I try very hard to avoid parenting through “don’ts.” Kids encounter far too many don’ts, in my opinion – adults, too. I eschew them in favor of “elses” – as in, “something else.”

It rained today. A lot. My kids, after dinner, had picked up their tablets to wind down a bit; the day was nearly over and it had been full of fun activities like painting and other crafts. There was maybe an hour or an hour and a half before I was going to send the kiddos to bed, and I didn’t really want them spending all that time on their tablets, especially right before trying to sleep. So instead I said “Hey kids. take off everything but your shorts and you can go run around outside and get as wet and muddy as you want. When it’s time to come in, I’ll dunk you in the tub before bedtime.”

I have never met a kid that would pick tablets over “parent-endorsed, unfettered mud play.” They were out the door like a shot. They were having so much fun, in fact, that they ended up staying awake almost an hour past their normal bedtime (gasp!), but those days are too short as it is.

You can’t create a vacuum, but you can fill space – by and large, you can fill it with whatever you want. Whether it’s children or adults, don’t list off the things they can’t do and then wonder why they seem to keep coming back to those things. Give them a few encouraging ideas for what they can do and watch them fly.

Tiny Language, Big Impact

What’s up?

You’ve probably heard that a thousand times or more. It’s a pretty standard greeting, and it has a sort of formulaic answer: “Nothing much, how about you?”

You probably give that answer (or something very close to it) as reflexively as you’d say “who’s there” when someone says “knock knock.” Let me offer you a powerful tool: change up the reflexive language. Turn it into something meaningful, and watch your world change.

Early in my career, I had a manager who, when asked “what’s up,” would enthusiastically answer: “Everything!” It was a superpower. Immediately, the whole tone of the conversation would shift. He’d have their attention, their excitement. They’d break out of dull, automatic conversational ruts and ask him what he meant – and they’d genuinely care about the answer. He’d be able then to talk about anything he wanted: new projects, exciting ideas, whatever was on his mind at that moment.

That simple change turned a poorly-used corner of human interaction and transformed it into a real connection.

Just today, as my co-workers and I were parting ways from a large team meeting, one of them said “Create a great weekend, everyone!” If she had said, “have a great weekend,” that would have been perfectly fine, perfectly nice – and everyone would have forgotten about it instantly, as you always do with pleasant but standard conversation cues. But by changing that one word, she turned it into a meaningful statement. It carries the same pleasant kindness, but also shares a value, highlights a philosophy. It gives meaningful advice and illustrates something about her, as well. In short, it’s a thousand times more impactful, using the same number of words, in the same conversational corner.

A hundred times a day you have little exchanges like these; pleasant but meaningless. There’s nothing wrong with them, of course. But if you want to try a little something new, this is an easy change – with a big impact.

Spare Moment

You do not have any spare time. Ever. And neither does anyone else. Keep that in mind when you ask things of people. Anything you ask someone to do must necessitate them not doing something else, and that “something else” was already on the docket.

Opportunity Cost is real, and doubly so for time over any other resource. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever ask someone for a favor without feeling guilty about it. It just means to be respectful of the fact that you’re really asking two favors: you’re asking them to do something, and you’re implicitly asking them not to do something else.

Your Weird Friend

Imagine your weirdest friend or acquaintance. That person who has some pretty “out-there” worldviews and opinions, lots of unusual interests, and maybe grew up in a bubble that’s pretty different from yours. They’re not a bad person, but they’re definitely strange. They also have a pretty high opinion of their own importance and intelligence. Lots of people know someone like this – if you don’t, just imagine it.

Now imagine a world where all of your information about things that happen outside of your own sphere of direct observation comes from this one person. Other than what you see and hear with your own eyes and ears, all the rest of your news and information comes from your weird friend. They decide what to tell you about, and they tell you about it through the lens of their own personality, experiences, and objectives.

That would be super strange, right? They’d only tell you what they thought was important, which would probably be very different from what you’d objectively like to know. You’d be getting everything filtered through their value system, all the narratives that surround the facts would be from their perspective (even if the facts themselves were faithfully reported), and all context would be dependent on the other stories they told you. You would have no way of knowing what else was happening or other perspectives; you wouldn’t even know there were other perspectives. Since you’d have no way of knowing what anyone else was interested in, you’d be led to believe that this was what everyone was interested in. And if your weird friend presented themselves as just someone giving you information, you’d never even realize how much of your worldview was being shaped to match that of this one very odd person. They’d become neutral in your eyes for lack of any reason to believe otherwise.

So if you’re imagining your entire worldview being shaped by your one weird uncle’s Facebook feed, that’s the idea. You probably think that would be very weird, indeed! But you only think that because you have a counterfactual to consider – you’re comparing this weird hypothetical situation to the world as it actually exists. But the point I’m making is… well, that’s the point. You currently live in that weird hypothetical. You just don’t know it’s weird, for exactly the reason that you’ve always lived in it.

The weird friend isn’t necessarily malicious. They might not be lying to you deliberately or intending to manipulate you. But they don’t need to! They’re just weird, and you’re getting all your info filtered through that strangeness. That’s all it takes.

However diverse you think your sources of external information are, they are not diverse enough to avoid this. They couldn’t be, unless you were getting your information from at least a few billion sources. Lots of information can be wrong, and everyone is essentially someone else’s weird friend with their own agenda. So diversify your friends more, trust each one less, and most importantly, don’t ever let someone else become the “neutral” source in your mind. There’s no such thing.