New Month’s Resolution – July 2022

Happy New Month!

It is not a coincidence that my resolution this month is to be more independent. In fact, before realizing that today was the 1st and thus I needed to make my NMR post, I was going to write a whole thing on how we undermine our own independence in ways we should learn to avoid – so look for that tomorrow. But for today, I will leave you with my steadfast resolution to find at least one new way to lessen my dependence.

And by the way, “dependence” is not synonymous with “connection!” There’s a frequent misconception that being “independent” also means being isolated, atomistic, and a loner. I disagree. I think it simply means what it says on the tin: you are less dependent on others for your safety, your wellbeing, or your happiness. And I believe, under those conditions, your bond with others strengthens. When you know that I’ve chosen to make you a part of my life despite not needing to do so, it becomes more sincere.

That is what I strive for. Independence and sincerity. May you all get a little more of the same.

The Result of Intent

You shouldn’t judge the outcome of an action by the intent when the action began. You should just it by… well, by the outcome. By the results. If you let your toddler play with the nailgun because your intent was that he would learn valuable trade skills, you should still judge whether or not to do it again by whether or not he ended up with a nail through his foot. Good intentions, as I recall, pave a road to a very specific destination.

But there’s a corollary to this that I feel is too often ignored. While we shouldn’t judge results by the intentions behind them, it’s also important to avoid automatically judging the intentions by the results.

Sometimes, this is so easy that we don’t recognize it as a lesson. If a friend you’ve invited over for dinner drops a glass on the floor, you certainly don’t assume their intention was to come over and destroy your stuff. It was an accident, and you probably never think otherwise.

When the subject is someone more removed from you, you lose that perspective. A company makes a move that costs them millions of dollars, and social media is suddenly full of people asking why the company would intentionally throw away millions of dollars, as if that was the goal – instead of just a blunder on the part of people trying their best. We lose perspective.

Between your close personal friends and distant companies are loads of people you’ll interact with in the middle ground. Potential employers. Providers of professional services. Colleagues. And sometimes, the results of the choices they make will be poor. In those moments, we’ll be tempted to think that they intended to reach those outcomes, especially if those outcomes directly affect us.

“The hiring manager said he’d email me back by Friday, but it’s Tuesday! He’s clearly pulling a power play and doesn’t care about his candidates; what a jerk.” Nah. Maybe he got sick? Maybe his kid did? And yeah, maybe he should have made sure someone else emailed you – but him being less than 100% awesome at his job isn’t automatically a sign that he intended to do this.

Don’t take things personally. Evaluate the results objectively, assume good intent until you have reason to believe otherwise, and don’t make the mistake of assuming one is the other.

The Ball’s In Your Court

And you should keep it there!

No matter what’s happening around you, you don’t have to decide to be passive and wait to “see what happens.” You always have the option to initiate something, to change your environment in your favor. Someone or something might interfere, and that’s fine – roll with those punches, play the game. But don’t start the game without a goal of winning it.

Permission to Ask Permission

The power to say “no” and the power to say “yes” should be bundled. In especially bureaucratic organizations, they rarely are.

You’ve possibly encountered this frustration. You want to get permission for something – maybe building a new deck, maybe starting a new project at work, whatever – and so you talk to the person you’ve been led to believe is who can grant you permission. They’re resistant. After some hassle, you finally convince them to allow you to do whatever thing you wanted to do. The frustration mounts as you discover that the only thing this drone is giving you permission to do is to ask the next higher-up person for permission!

“If you can’t give me permission, why am I even talking to you?” you ask. They reply: “I can’t say ‘yes,’ but I can say ‘no.'”

I don’t usually feel stabby, but there are occasions.

Organizations are all better if there are fewer points where people need to ask permission for anything. “Permission Points” are all friction, all speed bumps. They may sometimes be necessary, but they should be used sparingly; nearly every organization over-uses them. The easiest way to reduce them is to make sure that no one has the ability to say “no” without also having the ability to say “yes.”

Think about the typical hiring process. You interview with 3 or more people, any one of whom can deny you further advancement in the process, but none of which can actually hire you. The only person who can hire you is the Final Boss, who barely phones in the interview as a formality and mostly just trusts what everyone else has said about you. This is a dumb way to do things, and it hurts the organization in invisible (but dire) ways.

Trust people. Trust people to say “yes” if you trust them to say “no.” Reduce your permission points in general, and especially reduce the ones that only go one way and therefore serve no purpose whatsoever.

Crib Notes

Sometimes doing a good deed is harder than not doing it. I get that, and I’m not being sarcastic. We only have so much juice, and sometimes we just don’t have enough to get through all our responsibilities and still have enough left over for good deeds with high costs.

Sometimes though, people find themselves working extra, extra hard just to avoid a good deed! The good deed is actually the easiest path, and yet people avoid it. But if a high cost is a viable reason not to do a good deed on occasion, then surely we’re hypocrites if we don’t let high costs steer us towards good deeds when it works out that way!

None of my children have slept in a crib for about two years now. But I still had (until yesterday) a very nice one in just about perfect condition. It was tucked away in a corner and not in the way, so it was a low priority to do anything about it. Finally yesterday I got around to disassembling it and, with passing curiosity, looked up resale rates.

Baby stuff tends to resell very well, and from my research, I could have gotten between two and three hundred bucks for it. Instead, I packaged it up neatly with all the hardware and put it on the curb, and posted a “curb alert” in my local Facebook group.

Giving it away to someone who needed it was way easier than selling it. Selling it would have involved making posts or loading it into my car or any number of other hassles I just didn’t have time for. Giving it away was a good deed, and in this case, much easier.

Lazy altruism!

People are more responsive to the pain of loss than the pain of foregone gains. I’m no exception. Pulling two hundred dollars out of my wallet and giving it to someone would have felt much more of a sacrifice than just giving something away that I could have sold for the same amount. This is a flaw in human reasoning, but I truly believe that when known flaws in human reasoning can be harnessed for good, we should just lean into it. Today, that meant painlessly giving a crib to an incredibly nice lady who came to my door and thanked me so much on behalf of her daughter, who is a brand new mom.

I said, “No problem whatsoever,” because it really wasn’t.

Walking Together

I am proud of myself for an unusual reason.

This past week, I took a vacation. And this time, unlike almost every other time I’ve tried to do that… I was good at it.

I actually relaxed. I did things I wanted to do, at a pace I was comfortable with. I had lots of fun. I felt genuinely good and not overburdened when I came home.

This is much more difficult for me than it may sound. I’m awful at this sort of thing. But this time, a lot of things came together. I’m going to jot them down here, in the hopes that this might be something I can repeat.

One, the actual work I was taking a vacation from wasn’t onerous. I think that’s a big deal – if you’re taking a vacation because you “need” it because your work is horrible, then you don’t need a vacation, you need to quit. But if you have a great team and work you enjoy? If you can actually unplug for a week and have everyone wish you well and know that you’re not coming back to three weeks’ worth of extra work because you took one week off? That’s a great feeling.

Two, limited travel. We only went to the seashore, which is about an hour’s drive from me. So the travel itself was long enough to feel like I’d really gone somewhere but short enough that it didn’t take an entire day at either end of the vacation just to do. Travel can be stressful (especially with three young children!), so ending a vacation with a huge amount of it sort of works against the purpose of a vacation.

Three, timing. Sort of related to number two, but I didn’t end my vacation the night before returning to work. I came back on Friday night, but I don’t start work again until tomorrow (Monday) morning. Being able to unpack leisurely, still have home time (both for chores that would bother me otherwise and relaxation), and readjust to my own environment again before getting back into gear did wonders for my enjoyment of the whole trip.

Four, the trip itself didn’t deviate too much from my normal routines. I still wrote every day (obviously), didn’t push myself to the point of exhaustion to try to “maximize” my vacation (what a silly concept, I now realize), and still sang my children to sleep every night.

And five, of course, was the company. This was a larger family gathering (more than just my children in attendance), we were all on the same page about what we wanted to do, and of course, I love spending time with them. The highlight though was all the time I got to spend just playing with my kids. Beach trips and rides and games and attractions, all in the name of us just having a great time together.

So that seems to be the formula. I’ll do everything I can to remember it, because I want to keep walking together with my family like this for a long time.

Shameful

I think that shame is a powerful and important tool in maintaining honor and integrity.

My daughter and I were having a discussion on the subject of certain moral rules. More specifically, we were discussing whether or not it was ever okay to steal. First, of course, I made sure to define our terms – this is important with discussions of this nature! “Stealing” is when you take, without permission, something that rightfully belongs to another. The “rightfully” is important here; it’s not (in my view) morally wrong to steal money from a thief. (Of course, if you keep that money when you know who it actually belongs to, makes you no better.)

So, I told my daughter: “It is never ever right to steal from another. It may, on occasion, be necessary. There are situations I could imagine where I would do it. But it’s never right.”

She asked me to elaborate, and I gave her this example: “If you had been bitten by a snake and the only way I could get you to the hospital in time to save you was to steal a car, I would 100% do it. I would do it without hesitation. But that doesn’t make it right. Once your life was saved, I would accept a just punishment for my actions, which should include at a bare minimum fair compensation for use and potential damage to the car. I would hope that the circumstances would make my punishers a bit more lenient, but I wouldn’t say that those circumstances meant that it was right to steal. Just necessary.”

Why is this an important concept?

I think there are quite a few reasons why it’s vital that we never let “necessary” automatically assume “right.” First, “necessary” is a matter of personal circumstance and judgment; it can’t be clearly defined. So we can’t make policy around it. You can’t have a moral code that says “it’s right to steal if you need to,” because… well, who decides?

And that’s the next reason – “necessary” is also very, very slippery. Snakebite, hospital 20 miles away, only car in sight? Maybe few people would argue. But how about someone who’s really cold, and might die of exposure, so I steal them a nice jacket? It edges and edges.

So look, use your personal judgment. Steal the jacket if you really think, in that moment, that it will save a life. But accept the punishment. That will keep you honest.

That’s the point of the shame. You need to shoulder a little bit of burden, something that says “at least part of why I needed to do this is because I didn’t find an alternate solution, didn’t prepare for this, etc.” That, like the honorable acceptance of punishment, also keeps you from abusing the temporary hall pass that “necessary” might otherwise give you.

Don’t take pride in the low road, just because you may have to take it on occasion. It’s still the low road, and you should be inclined against it. If you start to justify it to the point where you don’t see a moral difference, then you’ll never take the high road again.

Rush Big, Wait Small

I shake my head when I see people speeding along the highway, weaving through traffic like a race car driver. I shake my head not only because it’s dangerous, but because it’s dangerous for so little gain. If you manage even 20 MPH faster, you save what, 60 seconds on most drives? Wiped out by one red light.

The point is, people tend to rush and be reckless when there’s virtually no gain. In those moments, a leisurely drive or stroll will do so much more for you.

Huge projects that have multi-year timelines can benefit enormously from a 5% efficiency gain, but these are the very projects where people don’t rush. The same people who push past others at the airport in order to board, 30 seconds early, a plane that will still take off at its appointed time (if you’re lucky), are the people that don’t want to contribute 5% more to their investment account.

On a day to day basis, slow down a little, and live a happier life. On a year-to-year basis, speed up just a tad, and live an easier one.

Cavalry

Imagine you had a choice between pressing two buttons. If you press Button A, then nothing happens. If you press Button B, then one hundred random good things of varying magnitude happen to one hundred different random people, none of whom are you. Which button do you press?

I don’t mean to come off too strongly here, but I think if you push Button A then you’re kind of a jerk. Pressing Button B makes you pretty awesome.

Okay, now let me throw a little harsh reality your way: no one is coming to save you. In your time of need, you will be on your own. The problems in your life will be solved by you or they will be unsolved. You have to tackle it all alone. There is no cavalry.

Except… there’s you. You’re the cavalry. Just because no one is coming to save you, doesn’t mean you can’t go out and save others.

Many people hit this point of realization and get bitter. They say, “well, if no one else is going to save me, why should I save anyone else?”

Remember that thing about the buttons? No one is coming to save you, that’s a given. But you have an active choice between a world where nothing good happens to anyone, or where something good happens to a lot of other people. Being the cavalry is good.

And sure, actually being someone else’s cavalry takes more effort than pushing a button. But so does everything. There’s no easy road – everything in life is hard. But you can take a hard road that doesn’t save anyone or a hard road that saves a bunch of people.

And maybe the next time someone says, “I won’t bother to save anyone else, because no one ever saved me,” they’ll have to catch themselves. They’ll have to reconsider, because there was that one time… that one time that you saved them. And in so doing, you took away their last excuse to push Button A. Maybe they’ll go save someone else themselves, then. Let the cavalry cascade start with you.

Doing Well by Doing Good

I’ve noticed a strange sort of fallacy in the professional world. People are afraid to say or do things that are wonderful, simply because they might gain the slightest personal benefit from it. Or, more accurately, because they might be perceived as gaining a slight personal benefit from it.

We should want to reward people who do good things. Our job is to do good, but part of doing good is incentivizing good. Which world do you think will produce more good overall: the world where every good deed is praised and rewarded, or the world where every good deed is met with derision and scorn for being “self-promoting?”

So yes, sometimes someone else will do a good thing and they’ll – gasp! – actually gain some personal benefit. Believe it or not, it’s possible to do very good things for the world without having purely altruistic motives. In fact, it’s possible to do good for the world without a shred of altruism at all.

This means that we definitely shouldn’t create a world where only “purely altruistic” good is encouraged (as if such a thing could even exist). The closer we get to that end of the spectrum, the less overall good we’ll have.

So if you do a good thing – please, talk about it. And if someone else does a good thing, praise them. Thank them, Encourage them. People who do good should do well. What’s the alternative?