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If Nothing Prevents Me

Many people get so focused on the things that can go wrong that they can’t even see what could go right.

Look, it’s fine to do a solid risk assessment. It’s fine, good even, to be cognizant of the potential hurdles and obstacles. But they’re hurdles and obstacles – they aren’t the main event.

Start by saying “If everything goes exactly right, if nothing prevents me from attaining my goal – what does that path look like?”

The reason this is so powerful is that 90% of obstacles don’t actually have to be dealt with. You can just go around them, because they don’t matter. You don’t have to fix all the potholes on the way to your destination. You can just drive around them and keep going.

Bravery & Kindness

Bravery is something difficult to define. To some people, simply having a high risk tolerance can look like bravery, but I don’t really think that’s it. It’s not brave if I do a bunch of stuff that I don’t think will impact me negatively, even if an outside observer does think those things are dangerous. I prefer the definition of bravery that says it’s when a person does in fact think something is very dangerous, but does it anyway.

Even that, though, is subject to some scrutiny. Let’s say there’s a burning building, which I am very very certain is very very dangerous to me. If my child is inside that building, I’m going in. That’s not bravery – that’s simply me valuing even a slim chance at my child’s life far higher than a high risk to my own. So I’m not sure I’d call that “brave.” Conversely, imagine I ran into the building for no reason at all – is that brave? Or is that just thrill-seeking – me being an adrenaline junky?

So that’s the thing about bravery. It’s tough to define, and it doesn’t simply measure our reaction to risk and danger. Deeper morals and values come into play, for certain. What I do know is that there is a spectrum of people’s willingness to face danger in exchange for benefit, especially “benefit to others” or “benefit to society at large.” So on that note:

If, for any given action, the risk to myself is high, the benefit to myself is marginal, the benefit to society is large, and regardless of my individual choice, someone will perform this action: it’s brave if I do it.

I don’t think it’s brave to do things that don’t need to be done, for instance. That’s thrill-seeking. I also don’t think it’s especially brave to do things of high potential value to you – that’s just risk/reward analysis. But those people that dig tunnels under mountains? Huge risk, huge societal benefit, crappy pay – but if they quit, someone else goes in anyway? I think of those people as brave.

One of the biggest positive externalities of bravery is inspiration in society. Brave people make us want to do better, reach higher, appreciate the world around us more. That isn’t what they set out to do – they set out to dig a tunnel. But as a fantastic side benefit, we hear their stories and we want to become better versions of ourselves.

If you are brave – if you face danger that helps society and does little to benefit you personally – then I applaud you. And you completely, utterly ruin it if you’re a jerk.

The bravest people do the most good if they are also the kindest people. Don’t chide other people for lacking your bravery – inspire them. Don’t push them away as if they were a class of people unworthy of you. Embrace them as if they were the very flock you’re being brave for. If you’re carrying the weight of the world upon your shoulders, shielding others below from having it crash all around them, don’t mock them because they aren’t up there with you. Inspire them, so they want to be.

Hey, Thanks

My oldest daughter, exploring science through technology, telling me facts about the cells of plants that I didn’t know – facts she discovered on her own, because she wanted to, outside of any structured or formal learning. No reward or punishment. Just exploring and sharing.

My middle child, laughing with hysteric delight as I pour a huge box of stuffed animals out onto her head – a box that is her “space ship,” her defeating the “aliens” and then rushing to hug me before we move on to more and more games, games which she plays so well and with such imagination.

My son, just now in that wonderous waterfall stage of language where new words and phrases come by the dozen each day, mastering the phrase “I love you,” and saying it to me at every opportunity just because he delights in the look on my face when I hear it, and embrace him.

There is breath in me yet, and things worth defending. That is enough.

Deep In The Well

When you’re in a bad situation for a long time, you may find yourself losing sight of anything else.

Imagine you’re deep within a well. Trapped down there. Down where you are is very dark and unpleasant. Sometimes you can see the sky, but only a tiny amount at a time and only straight up. You couldn’t tell what color the flowers were, even if they were right next to the well. You couldn’t tell how high the grass was or who might be walking by.

In the real world what happens is that we start to generalize our bad situation, believing it to be universal when in fact it might be quite specific to us. If you have a spouse that constantly puts you down, you might start to just think that’s an inherent feature of all spouses. If you have a boss that is thoroughly dismissive of your input for long enough, you might just start to say, “Bosses, amirite? They all just throw your ideas out the window!” Note the subtle switch – you’ve gone from complaining about your boss specifically, to making a broad statement about all managers.

It’s understandable. People often value “fairness” over absolute good. Because we’re good at comparing two things but bad at objectively evaluating one, we tend to find even miserable circumstances more bearable as long as we can’t see anyone who has it better than we do. So if we suffer from a particularly miserable circumstance long enough, our brain just starts assuming everyone is equally miserable in that sphere – everyone’s boss dismisses their ideas with a disdainful smear, right?! It’s a defense mechanism.

But it also eats hope.

You see, if you don’t think a circumstance better than yours exists out there, then it’s a very short mental leap to thinking that no better circumstance could exist. You resign yourself to your fate and cope in other ways, but you don’t try to make it better.

Climbing out of the well can be very hard. But it’s easier if you know how deep the well really is (as opposed to how deep you think it is), and it helps if you can put up a periscope and get a glimpse around.

Talk to people without imposing your view. Don’t start a conversation about careers by complaining about your own – start by asking neutral questions. Read positive accounts of other stories from within the sphere in which you’re miserable. Learn that the whole world isn’t trapped down in the well with you.

You may find someone who can lower a rope.

Start Where You Are

Some people want conditions to be so perfect before they start a project that it’s practically an even bigger project just to arrange those starting conditions. And that’s if they’re even actively arranging them at all – many people just wait for the perfect storm.

Look around you, right now. That’s the starting line. This is what you have to work with. There is no “pre-game.”

Do Yourself A Favor

As we enter into a busy season with lots of disruptions, there’s a small task you could set for yourself that would have tremendous benefits as you enter next year.

Here it is: Keep a list of every time someone asks you for a favor between now and the end of the year, and why.

Before you leap to any negative conclusions, let me put a fear to rest: this exercise isn’t about keeping track of the favors you do for people. This isn’t about getting some sort of repayment or keeping track of who ‘owes you’ in the new year. Perish the thought.

No, this is a private thing that you’re going to do for you and you alone, and here’s the purpose of the exercise: to find out what makes you valuable.

You see, people habitually underestimate the value of their contributions, especially when those contributions are made easily. We also pay attention to the things with Big Obvious Labels, like our college degree or our current job title. Stuff we do “on the side” or “as a hobby,” even if we’re really, really good at it – those things we tend to forget to list when we’re trying to figure out what we’re good at or what we might want or be able to do.

Tracking your favors is a good way to get an idea of what the world around you thinks is valuable. It’s like crowdsourcing your brainstorming on this topic. Maybe you’re in sales, but come December 31st you look at your list and it turns out that on 46 separate occasions someone asked you to “take a look at my computer because it’s being weird again.” Now think – why are they asking you? Is it possible that totally without realizing it, you’ve cultivated a reputation as a tech whiz because you always seem to know how to fix a computer problem? I’ve seen it happen. And I know what happens next! You say, “well, that’s not really a job skill – it’s so basic! Anyone should know it! I just happen to work with incredibly below-average people in this sphere.” You’ve said that about something you’re good at, I guarantee it.

Especially something you didn’t formally train for. You think everyone should be good at it because it was easy for you to learn, so over and over and over again you think of everyone else as uniquely bad at it instead of just realizing the obvious, which is that all expertise is relative and you’re relatively great at this thing.

Trust the favor list. If everyone you know asks you to cook during the holidays, that means they think you’re good at cooking – or that you’re reliable, or competent, etc. That’s why you should track what each favor was, so you can do a little analysis about why you in particular were asked. You should even track favors you don’t do – for this exercise, it doesn’t matter if you say yes or no, just that you were asked.

You know the phrase, “in the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king?” Imagine being the guy with one eye and saying, “well, I shouldn’t be king, because I can’t even see that well.” Of course you can’t – but it doesn’t matter if everyone else is much worse.

You, like all humans, are absolutely garbage at objectively evaluating one thing in a vacuum – in this instance, yourself. Humans are only really good at comparing things, and if the majority of people around you are bad enough at something that they’re always asking you to do it for them – as a favor – then listen to them. There’s wisdom in their request.

Teach Upon Teaching

The vocabulary of my son (age 2) is coming along nicely. He can repeat many words, and will gleefully point at things he knows the word for and call it out. So we do a lot of reading together, with him pointing out words and so on.

My daughter (age 3) took over this duty tonight. She guides him through words, encourages him, and with great and genuine exuberance calls out “great job” when he repeats after her.

As soon as she began, I backed off. She was doing an absolutely wonderful job and I couldn’t improve on it. I watched, proud as could be, as my three-year-old taught my two-year-old to read.

She leans on the shoulder of her big sister, my 8-year-old, as the big sister reads more advanced books out loud for her younger sister’s benefit.

Ripples upon ripples. You never teach one person – that’s why passing knowledge on to someone else is so good. It keeps going, keeps spreading. It’s a good deed you can do in the world – just share a piece of learning with someone, and watch it grow.

What Iffy

No matter how confident we want to be about a course of action, we can all sometimes feel a little “what iffy.” It’s natural, because before we collapse the wavefunction, there are anywhere from dozens to even thousands of plausible choices and their outcomes, yet we’re going to move forward down but a single path. You stare at the fork in the timeline and it’s only natural that your mind asks “what if?”

Let’s say someone offers you a bet: roll a single die, and choose either the group of numbers 1-5 to bet on, or the number 6. Pay a dollar to bet, win a dollar if you win. If you choose to bet on 1-5 and the die comes up 6, you were still correct to have bet on 1-5.

Why? Because you can’t change the past nor predict the future. Knowledge of present outcomes can’t be handed backwards through time, so it was correct when you made the bet to make the choice that most likely led you where you wanted to be. There will always be outliers. Don’t let that frighten you – instead, let it comfort you. Things are just as likely to randomly work out in your favor as not, so when it comes to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune you might as well just take it as it comes.

Productively use your “what ifs.” So many people ask that question, but don’t actually try to answer it! “What if I don’t get this job,” someone says, wringing their hands and sweating profusely. But they stop there, totally paralyzed. Well… what if? What would your next step be? Go that extra few paces in your mind and the worry often vanishes.

The answer to “what if” is always the same. The universe will continue on, and you with it. You’ll make new decisions and choices and the endless pattern of your life will stretch out to the horizon, just as it always has.

Boredom

I cannot remember the last time I was bored.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been bored. Given access to everything I normally have access to, I have virtually unlimited future projects. I even have several Evernote files of projects I want to do categorized by how unlikely it is that I’ll ever do them.

Even if I didn’t have access to my normal arsenal of boredom-crushing projects and activities, I have an active imagination and lots of things I want to think about – I’ve been able to comfortably think to myself without an ounce of boredom many times.

(In fact, true story – my father and I went on a long road trip, just over 8 hours, when I was ten years old. I didn’t make a peep the entire time, just stared out the window. Never slept, didn’t bug my dad, didn’t play with any toys. Even then, I was perfectly comfortable in my own head for extended periods of time.)

So when I read this story, I was really amused. Here’s the short version: psychologists left people alone in a room with no source of distraction whatsoever except for a device they could use to deliver electric shocks to themselves. They only left them in there for 15 minutes, and yet a quarter of the women and more than 70% of the men shocked themselves at least once during that time. Some lots of times!

Now, you may be thinking what the authors of the study are thinking – humans are highly affected by boredom and would rather shock themselves than be bored even for a short time.

I disagree with that conclusion.

You see, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated, I am practically immune to boredom. I’ve never encountered a circumstance where boredom would affect me negatively. At the same time, I can tell you right now that I would shock myself within 30 seconds of being in that room.

Not to alleviate the boredom! But because I, like apparently 70% of my fellow men, am curious about novel experiences.

Let me imagine myself in that room, and then tell you what I’d be thinking: “Hmmm, all alone in a room with just this shocker, huh? Well, since I’m in an environment where they’ve hooked me up to this thing, I can guarantee it won’t really hurt me. So at worst it’ll give me an interesting but harmless sensation, and at best it won’t do anything and someone is just trying to see if I’ll do it. I’ll get a better story either way, so I’m definitely pushing this button and–“ BZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!

When we don’t have anything else to do, we seek out new experiences. But we seek out new experiences even if we do have something else to do. Curiosity trumps boredom every time.