Blog

Parody

If you want to spoof or lampoon something, you have to understand it perfectly. Understanding it perfectly also comes with the ability to make such a stunning homage to it that often the two intertwine.

Star Trek, as a franchise, has a lot of movies. The best Star Trek movie is a movie called Galaxy Quest, which isn’t a Star Trek movie. It’s a parody of Star Trek movies, but it’s done with such incredible conviction, respect, and heart that it absolutely became a pure example of the genre.

Within a given genre, creators need to constantly reinvent. They need, specifically, to vary their entries; to depart from the norm. They have to do that to stay relevant, or else their works become lost as “just another” example of the same old thing. But those deviations don’t always hit, and each one dilutes the pool of what that genre represents.

Then you get the satirist. The person who is lampooning an entire genre all at once. When Weird Al Yankovic parodies an entire group or even musical genre instead of just one specific song, the result is almost always the best example in the category. Terry Pratchett wrote better fantasy epics than virtually every fantasy author.

Because in order to parody an entire category of something, you not only need to understand what makes that category what it is to begin with, but you also have to strike directly at the heart. You can’t parody the outer edges; you have to go for the core experience. And on top of all that, you have to be charming – mean parodies are just bullying. Charming works that blend parody and homage thus become some of the absolute best examples.

All this is to say – if you really want to understand something, go look at why the parodies of that thing work. Galaxy Quest is a great movie even if you’ve never seen Star Trek, but it’s wonderful if you’re a Trekkie. And if you can see why, you can appreciate Star Trek even more than before.

Not every genre of every creative endeavor has its own Galaxy Quest. But even if it doesn’t, you can follow the patterns. Look for the pure, the things so iconic that you can lampoon them easily. Follow comedy. It helps you understand, and appreciate.

Will, Want, Get

Wanting something takes more effort than getting it. Hemming and hawing over a decision doesn’t get you closer to making it.

When you think you might want something, immediately start working towards it. The work will help sharpen your decision. You’ll either decide that yes, you do want it – and then great, you’re closer! Or you’ll decide you don’t, and oh no you made extra money or whatever.

So much of how to think better is just to do it less. Thinking is its own worst enemy if you waste its power on every little detail, draining its strength with minutiae. Stop forcing your amazing brain to manage all these little details that are beneath it. Put that stuff on auto-pilot.

Chores and details shouldn’t be the domain of the will. They should be outsourced. Write stuff down, keep a calendar. Put your habits in there and stop thinking about them. Don’t constantly battle yourself. Leave your brain the room to work with the good stuff.

Furniture Sliders

Imagine you move into a new house. You get your furniture into the correct rooms, and then you break out the hammer and nails. You nail down all your furniture, locking it into place in the first configuration you chose. Without great effort and perhaps even some damage, the configuration can’t change.

Seems silly, doesn’t it? Even if you’re perfectly happy with how your furniture is arranged (and why wouldn’t you be – you picked it!), you recognize that it might not always be so. It’s not even that you might change your mind, it’s that you might change your situation. You might get new furniture that’s a slightly different size and shape. You might get additional things, or no longer need something you now have. You might move again – or someone new might move in with you. In any case, you recognize that things may change in ways you can’t predict now.

One of the best small purchases I ever made were these little furniture slider things – basically small felt pads you put on the bottom of furniture to make it easier to move around without compromising stability. They’re great.

The configuration of the furniture in your place is a system. That system serves a purpose, but it also needs to retain some flexibility. All systems do. Otherwise, we have to entirely scrap them when even the slightest thing changes. But we forget to install “furniture sliders” on so many of our systems. We forget to build, in advance, the ways to make future change easy.

We save things as PDFs and email them to colleagues instead of sending them a link to a shared Google doc that we can continue to modify. We build an org chart for an exact headcount but don’t incorporate procedures for bringing on or losing team members. Stuff like that.

Any time you’re building a system that you intend to use for more than a month, especially if your timeline for using that system is “indefinitely,” make sure you put some sliders on it. Don’t nail it to the floor.

Page Collector

If you were to walk into the Library of Alexandria or the Library of Congress, some massive repository of books, you could select a volume of great wisdom. A book that contained incredible knowledge. With all those books to choose from, surely you could select one that was such a treasure that it would beggar a great many lesser works.

And yet.

If I, instead, elected to take a single page out of every other book – the knowledge I’d hold in my hands would completely dwarf the knowledge you’d hold in yours.

All the knowledge you ever collect will pale in comparison to a single tidbit from every other mind in the world. Be intellectually curious. Collect pages; don’t try to live between the covers of a single book.

Capture & Experience

Some people take pictures of fireworks, or they pull out a smartphone and snap a few pictures of a bride walking down the aisle. I will never understand this.

Those are amazing moments! And I totally get the desire to capture amazing moments. You want to share them, perhaps you want to store them, but you want them. I get it! And I’m not one of those people who thinks you should never capture a moment, that you should always prioritize being “fully present” over taking a picture or a note. But I do have some easy heuristics, some basic questions I ask myself for deciding which to prioritize in that moment.

Question 1: Am I ever, ever, realistically going to review the captured moment? Have I ever once wanted to look at pictures of fireworks? Probably not. Certainly, no one else will, which obviously eliminates the “sharing” benefit. On the other hand, I often find great joy in looking back on pictures of my kids doing kid stuff, and my extended family loves being able to share in the joy of moments they can’t be physically present for. So as long as I’m not overdoing it, pictures of my playtime with my kids can occasionally interrupt the playtime itself.

Question 2: How accessible would captures of this moment be later if I’m not the one to capture it? Take the wedding, for example. Do you really think that on that day, your blurry cell phone shot from 2/3 of the way back in the church is going to be the best picture of the bride available later? Enjoy the moment. I promise you they’ll post the best pictures on social media later. On the other hand, if it’s a more intimate moment and you’re the only one who’ll reasonably capture it, go ahead. If you just climbed a mountain, feel free to take a picture of it, my friend.

So that’s it. We all have the urge to constantly collect every moment around us, as if any one might escape and we might find a particular emotion never returns. I promise, that won’t be the case. Many moments aren’t worth capturing (even if they’re worth experiencing), many other moments will be easily available anyway (you can seriously just Google pictures of fireworks any time you want). And some moments are just meant to be lived once.

Salon

The more public your speech is, the more diluted.

Sure, everyone wants their message to have reach. But top-layer, completely public messaging has almost no depth. It mixes with too much noise, and it becomes too generic to anyone who hears it. And the people who do latch on are often the ones you’d least like to.

There used to be this concept called a salon, where a host would gather together a curated group of people whose intellect the host respected. The group would then discuss particular topics; not for a specific aim, but because conversation is good. It’s a good way to increase knowledge – if the conversation is fruitful. Shouting into the “public void” is rarely so.

We still want to discuss things, as people. The problem is that we have mostly limited ourselves to two possible forums: the “public square,” which is a pretty terrible place to have fruitful intellectual discussions, and a variety of manufactured echo chambers into which we sort ourselves.

We very rarely join a group because the people are smart. We join a group because they already agree with us. The composition of the intellects of the group doesn’t matter, because we’ve already assumed “agree with me” equals “smart.” So if we want to have a real conversation, our choices are “shouting match” or “lockstep chorus.” Great.

It’s absolutely worth it to figure out how smart someone is before you know if they disagree with any of your substantial views. Once you know someone is smart, hang onto that – respect that. Invite that person to talk, respectfully, and let those conversations be fruitful. Engage in good faith, keep your emotions cool, and express your respect and gratitude for the other person for doing the same. Then do it again. Do it over and over, in fact. And along the way, invite others.

Viva la salon!

Position for Wisdom

You know the trope of the wise old guru on top of a mountain, dispensing timeless enlightenment only to those who can achieve the difficult physical feat of reaching his distant location?

Here’s the thing. I’ve done really difficult, strenuous long-term activities like mountain climbing. By the time you’re done – done the planning and preparation, done the mental readiness, done the incredibly difficult physical task itself – you are pretty much already enlightened. At the end of a journey like that, you’re in the best possible mental state you’re ever going to be in.

If, right at that moment, a figure with an air of wisdom and a little mystery says something cryptic and cool to you, it’s basically just hitching itself to that wagon. You’ll associate the resulting sense of divine spirituality to the “wisdom,” but really you feel that way because you just climbed a goddamned mountain, not because a dude in a robe told you to “turn the outer eye within” or some junk.

There are two lessons here. The first lesson is that there will always be someone else who wants to capitalize on your hard work to pretend they had something to do with it, or to associate themselves with the results, or whatever. Most of your enlightenment will come from you trying hard stuff until you succeed.

The second lesson is that there really is something to be said for speaking when people are most receptive. You don’t have to use that power for evil – you can just be aware that the best time to give a speech is between everyone’s second and third drinks or right after they’ve just gotten some other reward, and not when they just stubbed their toe.

Just make sure you actually have something valuable to say.

Skip Steps

Do you have a process for doing something? Great. The next time you do it, skip a step.

I’m quite serious. Skip a step. Write down all the steps on paper and put them in a hat, pick one at random, and skip it.

Why? Because one of two things will happen: either the process will break, or it won’t. If the process breaks, then you may have figured out a weakness that you can improve. If the process doesn’t break, then you probably didn’t need that step.

Every process could benefit from a little streamlining. If you’ve been doing something the same way for a while, it’s very possible that some things aren’t needed anymore – or never were. Try skipping one. See what happens.

Bricks Without Clay

‘Data! Data! Data! I cannot make bricks without clay.’ – Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

I will often ask to observe things that I don’t understand, usually if I’m intending to get involved with that thing. If I’m going to learn a new skill, I like to see someone else using it a little first. When I’m asked to consult on a process, I want to see the process in motion a bit. People are usually pretty open to being observed, but a sort of conversational pattern almost always emerges after.

I will observe, and then someone will ask me what I think.

I feel pretty awkward in this situation. Because here would be my honest answer: “I have taken the thing I just watched and broken it a thousand different ways in my head, then took those pieces and re-assembled it ten thousand different ways. In my mind, I’ve demolished everything you’ve done and built empires on the ashes, only to see if they would crumble. And since I did all of that in the space of only a few minutes, absolutely none of it makes sense yet and there is a swirling orbital storm of chaos where coherent thought should be. From that primordial discord I will ultimately draw my ideas, but like the cooling of star-stuff into planets capable of supporting life, the process must take its course and cannot be rushed.”

What I actually say is: “Seems neat so far, I’ll let you know what else I think of!”

Early ideas aren’t ready to be implemented yet. If you give them too much presence, they’ll influence your thinking too much. There’s absolutely a cutoff point where you have to start shipping, but the very first observation isn’t that point yet.

Make yourself observe something a minimum of twice before you start forming solid opinions about how it might be changed or improved. Don’t form a hypothesis without data. You cannot make bricks without clay.

Tenant

I’m fascinated by the ways we interact with ourselves. So much so that I’ve explored concepts of what it’s like to consider yourself multiple people on the same team, how to identify and defeat your own internal enemies, and how to consider yourself your own boss (and to treat yourself like a multi-person company).

But I’ve got a new one – you are your own landlord. You are your own tenant. You are renting your body from yourself.

And you have to pay the rent.

Here’s the upshot of this: your existence has maintenance costs. Every second you exist costs some amount of money. You are constantly using up calories, taking up space, and consuming resources. Those things aren’t free.

Now, a simple economic concept: in order for a voluntary trade to happen, both parties have to be better off. In order for me to willingly give you two dollars for a cup of coffee, you have to be better off with two more dollars and one fewer cup of coffee, and I have to be better off with one more cup of coffee and two fewer dollars. So generally, voluntary trades made without coercion improve the lives of both parties.

Now, the same is generally true when you rent out the capabilities of your body and mind to someone else. You give someone else 40 hours of your existence, and they give you a thousand bucks. They’re better off with 40 extra hours of your time and a thousand fewer dollars, and you’re better off with a thousand more dollars and 40 fewer hours.

So great, voluntary trades improve lives. Now imagine that you were both halves of that equation.

You can sit around, idly consuming resources for no real benefit. Or you can find ways to trade with yourself.

Consider: would you be better off if you had two fewer hours of watching television, but a hundred more dollars? Yes – in both directions. So make that trade; pick up a little side hustle, sell something online, etc.

Pay the rent you owe yourself. Be both halves of the trade, and be better off twice.