Out of the Blue

With every interaction you have with another human, you’re plunging them into a mystery.

You begin with a statement, and now the other person has this puzzle to solve: “Where is this coming from?”

Remember, in order for you to take the initiative to talk to another human, a whole lot of things had to happen. All of those events, questions, thoughts, and feelings that strung together to inspire you to go talk to Bob from Accounting or your Aunt Susan or whoever? You witnessed and experienced them. The other person did not.

So the other person has no idea what’s happening, they don’t know the context. And when humans don’t know something, they assume.

These assumptions are often uncharitable!

Masting the art of “providing context” is mastering the art of effective communication. If you want a little extra practice, consider asking yourself a few questions just before you start a new interaction with someone else. Imagine they ask you, right away, “Why are you asking/telling me this?” How would you respond? Build that explanation into your original statement and you’ll save a lot of time and effort.

A second practice question involves assuming resistance. What if they say: “I don’t have time to help you with this. Why should it be my priority?” Give that one a lot of thought, and build your response in as well. This one is extra good because it also helps filter out conversations that don’t value the other person’s time!

Try these exercises this week, and watch your interactions grow in effectiveness. Don’t let them just drop out of the blue.

Joyful Time

My yard was full of children today, an event that always brings me great joy. I genuinely love the hours when my home is the center of people’s fun. I love gathering friends around a table for a meal or for games, I love having children running through my house as they play, and I love when family laughs within these walls.

Joy is, almost always, chaos. I don’t love chaos – I love my orderly neatness, my quiet control. But I love these joyous moments of chaos more, all the same. I wouldn’t give them up; in fact, I work hard to foster them.

The beautiful thing about the joy of others is that it becomes your joy by simple proximity. All you have to do is let it wash over you, and you can have it all without diminishing it in others. That’s worth making the time for.

Can’t Help You

No matter how much you want this not to be true, there will always be some people you can’t help.

This is a painful experience. Some of those people actually want your help – or at least, they think they do. They’re the hardest ones. Some people need your help but don’t want it, and it’s a little easier there.

But in any case, grappling with the limits of your powers is never fun. You, however, are finite – you have a limited capacity to help. Regardless of the pain, remember that you have to put your time and effort where it will have the greatest impact. As hard as it is, identify and act, then move on. Do what you can, but don’t do what you can’t.

Unfair Trials

If you knew the odds, you wouldn’t play.

Imagine a great wheel for you to spin. ‘Round and ’round it goes, stopping on one of a hundred different sections. 99 of them contain a painful shock for you – the last contains all your dreams made manifest.

One in a hundred isn’t exactly great odds. If you knew them, it might be reasonable to be afraid of the shocks, avoid the pain.

It’s a good thing you don’t know them, then. It’s a good thing you think the odds are maybe one in ten or better – and the shocks aren’t that bad, anyway.

What you must endure in order to see your dreams become real is too much. Too much to bear… all at once. But you don’t have to do it all at once. Spin the wheel once, take your shock. Grow stronger. Spin again tomorrow.

Grow stronger.

Forget the odds.

Weird Ethics

We often catch “public people” like celebrities or politicians in breaches of ethics that seem absurd. Absurd for two reasons: not only because the actual behavior is atrocious, but because it seems like it should be obvious that it’s atrocious.

You’ve seen this happen, I’m sure. A public figure gets caught doing something horrible, but the manner in which they got caught is because they just talked about it openly to people or made no attempt to hide it (or at least, no attempt that would pass even the most basic level of investigation).

Why does this happen? Is it that some people are so horrible that they flaunt the most basic moral rules with utter disregard?

That might be a small percentage, but I think there’s a different force at play. I think the “obviousness” of ethical rules relies on a certain kind of life, and that life gets wildly distorted when you reach the outer fringes of publicity. In other words, I think some people just enter a world that’s so weird, and stay in it for so long, that the basic ethical rules stop being obvious.

A lot of “ethics” is us mostly trying to figure out how to live in a society in which we have relatively comparable (even if not actually equal) levels of power and authority with the people around us. In its most basic form, for example, you learn as a kid not to hit people primarily because you don’t want to be hit, and anyone you throw a punch at could throw one back. So we try to figure out the rules that keep us all safe and happy.

But imagine your life was such that it was actually impossible for anyone to hit you? For a really long time? And any time you even accidentally hurt someone, no one ever called you on it? And when other people in your world hit people, nothing bad happened to them? How long might it be before it was no longer obvious to you that you shouldn’t hit someone?

So then you might punch someone in the face and not try to excuse yourself or cover it up, not because you’re flaunting the basic rules of an ethical society, but because you don’t actually realize what those rules are.

The broader lesson here is to be very aware of how our circumstances can affect what we view as correct moral behavior. Be aware of your own biases – and the biases of others. Don’t let your weird world go to your head – or poison your heart.

Struck a Chord

I am strongly, massively in favor of emotional regulation. I think it’s the ultimate skill; I think pretty much everything else flows from it. I think it’s one of the most important lessons to teach children; in fact, it’s so important that if it’s the only thing you teach you’re probably a great parent. I think many parents don’t teach it, and as a result lots of adults don’t know it, so it’s good for everyone.

Because of this stance, many people who interact with me regularly think that I’m anti-emotion; that I’m cold or repressed because I don’t fly off the handle even when things upset me. But nothing could be further from the truth. I think our emotions are incredible; they bring us the joy that makes life worth living. I don’t think we survive despite them; I think we thrive because of them.

But I want you to imagine something for a moment. Imagine a piano, but someone has tampered with it. They’ve gone inside and they’ve taken every string and moved it, so that instead of all 88 being in order they’re essentially random. There’s no correlation between which key you hit and what sound gets made. And every other day or so, this prankster goes inside while you’re sleeping and moves them around again.

No matter how carefully you pressed the correct keys, the piano would never make the sounds you wanted. The beautiful melodies would be replaced by discord.

Emotional regulation isn’t pulling out the strings entirely. It’s putting them back in the right order so that the actions we take produce incredible music, instead of cacophony.

It means aligning our actions and the emotions we want, and understanding how our emotions drive the next action we take. It’s putting ourselves in harmony so that we can enjoy our emotions, rather than letting them torture us until we run from them. It’s turning noise into rapture.

Like playing piano, it takes practice. Like the most beautiful song, it’s worth the effort.


The best time to reflect on what you’ve accomplished is before you get to work on it in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong – I believe in reflection, even if I’m not great at it. But if you’re trying to specifically reflect as a learning exercise, then it’s not worth very much unless you’re comparing it to a prediction. Remember the scientific method? First you form a hypothesis, then you experiment. If you experiment first, you’re exposing yourself to all sorts of bias.

So if you’ve just accomplished something and you want to reflect on how you did – don’t. You don’t have a counterfactual, you’ll attribute to skill what might be luck, and you won’t know how to repeat it yet. Instead, form a hypothesis about how you might do it again – and how you might repeatable-ize it. Then when you’re done, you’ll have something to compare it to, and your reflection will be worth far more.

The Actions of Nature

You cannot change your nature. You can only change your actions, but your actions can change your nature.

If you find yourself saying “I wish I was [insert quality here]…” Stop. Immediately ask yourself the question: “What do people with that quality actually do?”

Commit then to doing that thing, over and over until it becomes habit. Only then will your nature change.

Up To No Good

Each individual bad thing I did in my youth was probably a net negative, yet taken together my life of mischief yielded incredible superpowers as an adult. I wonder about this.

Once I jumped off a roof and broke one of my fingers. Rather than get in trouble, I set it myself. I got lucky that it was a clean break and wasn’t much trouble, but it certainly could have been a more severe injury. I don’t even recall now what I did that night (I was sneaking out), so surely it can’t have been – individually – worth the trouble. But the additional knowledge of my own capabilities was valuable, and I wouldn’t want to give it up.

Every piece of mischief in our lives is an extra thread in the net. We have to have something to fall into even as we try to do good – and mischief makes friends, too. Mischief gets you out of ruts.

Go get up to something.

Water, Clay, Stone

I like to operate in dynamic, flexible environments. When I’m working, I want to know that the rules that surround me have some give, that I’m able to shape my environment to suit my needs. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

If your environment is stone, then nothing can be changed. You can’t easily make upgrades (or at all, perhaps). You can’t change when new information becomes available. You can’t adapt. You have to do certain things because “they’ve always been done that way,” or even because “everyone else does them that way” (ugh, barf). You don’t want a stone environment; you want clay.

But if you go too far in the other direction, you don’t get clay – you get water. Clay is helpful because it’s flexible and moldable, but can hold its shape when you need it to. Water won’t hold any shape you give it. A “water” environment is one with so few rules or so little structure that nothing can get done. It’s having no tools, no support, no direction.

You want to ask questions early about an environment to determine whether it’s a Water, Clay, or Stone environment – especially before you commit to engaging there. If no one seems to be able to give you a specific answer about anything, it’s a Water environment. If the answers you get are rigid, inflexible, and do not invite your input, then it’s a Stone environment.

But responses like:

“This is how we generally do things, and these are the tools we use. We have a few different options depending on the specific challenge, and I’m curious to hear what you’d like to see added to that list.”

…are great indicators that the environment is a Clay one, and you can shape it to your needs.