Smart Rules: Canaries and Alligators

The trouble with everything costs something is that you can only experience one set of consequences: the decision tree branches, you pick one or the other, and the not-chosen branch dies quietly.  Schrodinger’s Cat, once examined, is either one or the other.  You don’t get to play both out.

I have a supervisor.  My supervisor finds me disrespectful.  I find him intellectually incurious, and therefore limited as a manager of people.  You have to be interested in perspectives other than your own to manage effectively.  His response to my perceived disrespect has been distinctly bullyish.  I spoke up for myself.  And here we arrive at the rule for being smart for the day:

Don’t write a check with your alligator mouth that is going to break your canary ass.

I’m not saying that’s where I am.  Everything costs something: speaking up in your own defense is expensive.  Keeping quiet comes with its own expenses, and the truth is that, more often than not, the person who makes a problem known becomes the problem child and not the person who caused the problem.  Speaking up makes people uncomfortable.  Everyone would rather you do the safe thing, the comfortable thing, and talk bad about the schmuck, wreak havoc with everyone’s morale, complain bitterly and quietly, and then find another job.  The clean answer, the direct answer, raising your hand and saying no, this isn’t going to go down like this…

Both options have their costs.  The one is up front and immediate.  The other is a bit like paying by credit card.  Sure, you think that paying a little bit over time is easier on your finances, but one day you wake up like most Americans with $15,000 on the Visa and 22% APR, wondering how you could have ever been so stupid and what on earth you have to show for the debt.

There is no clear answer here.  In my case, Schrodinger’s Cat is dead and I don’t know how things would have played out if I hadn’t stood up to the bully, because I did, and now I’m the problem child.

Everything costs something.  There are times when that is both a certainty and a comfort.  I would have been paying for this anyway… at least that’s what I tell myself.  Besides.  I’m not sure I was constitutionally capable of keeping my mouth shut.  So there is that to consider as well.

Canaries and alligators.  Make sure your back end matches your front end before you assert yourself.  That’s all.

Smart Rules: Canaries and Alligators

Smart Rules: Doubt

Also known as the whackadoodle test, or don’t be the hubris guy.  

The most intelligent people in the world are painfully aware of how much they *don’t* know.  Doubt is your friend.  Doubt is one of the most valuable critical tools you have.  Doubt keeps you honest, and the honest conversation you have with yourself is everything when it comes to the business of smart behavior.  (Because how is anyone going to know you’re smart if you are doing dumb shit?)

People who are dealing honestly with you will respect your doubt, they will be fine with you asking questions, verifying details.  They won’t take it personally because they have nothing to hide and they want a partner who has asked hard questions and discovered solid answers.  

People who are are not honest will resent your doubt.  They will act outraged, they will rail and cry about how you are being so unfair, they will make it personal attack when it isn’t.  These people carry around their emotional needs like the cloud of dust that followed Pig-pen, and they want nothing more than to cloud your vision with all that drama.  

Doubt is another word for curiosity: how does this work?  How can it go wrong?  What don’t I know?  Doubt doesn’t have to carry emotional content.  It isn’t personal.  And it needs to be directed equally back at you.  What are the chances that I’m wrong about this conclusion?  Only a whackadoodle doesn’t allow for the possibility that they are wrong.

Absolute, unjustified certainty is also known as hubris.  The old Gods overlooked all kinds of sins.  The one thing they punished with regularity was hubris.  Doubt is your antidote to hubris, and will keep you from making a fool of yourself.  Or at least it is the best you can do to prevent falling on your face.  

Smart Rules: Doubt


I’m going to see a therapist tonight, which is a little odd because I think I’m doing okay, but I could be wrong.  This is the first therapy appointment I’ve made since 2006, when a racist cow of a licensed social worker told me all black men are misogynists.  I was dating a black man at the time in a situation that was, admittedly, ill-advised.  But not because all black men are misogynists.  I never went back.  And I didn’t try to replace the cow.  

Fast forward to this therapist, who is a member of a practice that I visit for my thyroid issues.  I met her a couple of weeks ago, liked her, and thought why not.

Except I’m not sure what I want to talk about.  I think I’m fine, more or less.  So I’m a little medicated, sure, but who isn’t vaguely depressed by 9-5 normalcy?  To quote Queen Bey…

The 9 to 5, just to stay alive

All the people on the planet

Working 9 to 5 just to stay alive

How come?

So as I’m wandering the corridors of my workplace, I’m trying to decide what I am going to talk about.  And I notice that I’m already curating.  How can I present myself so that I can be perceived as sardonic, smart, and reasonably sane?  Strong too.  I spend a  reasonable amount of effort arranging myself to show these traits off.  Which isn’t to say that I am a farce and deep down I’m a kicked puppy with my own personal rain cloud and no sense of humor.  But don’t we all try to do this?  Arrange our presentation so the things we like the most about ourselves are obvious?

But then I have to ask…  what am I hiding?  The facts of my life – my recent life in particular – aren’t a secret.  I’m not particularly ashamed of my failings.  We don’t get to pick to be all good and no bad, all light and no shadow.  So why the half-formed attempt to arrange it all so carefully?  

Maybe because I’m pretty sure nothing is wrong.  I’m tired and don’t have myself together to swim regularly anymore and my exercise time has disappeared and the yard is kicking my ass, but I love my little house and I love the company that I keep and my job pays the bills comfortably and I have so little to complain about, sitting down with a therapist seems indulgent.


Smart Rules: Don’t Buy Your Own Bullshit

You have a persona.  You perform a polished version of yourself to the world.  The real you is an animal that farts with relish, burps like a champ, scratches at will, and has been known to consume an entire box of krispy kreme donuts in a single sitting.  In your performance of you, your hair is enhanced by product, your socks match, and you eat with a fork and knife.  

The two are not the same.  

Your performance of you is sexless (sexy, yes, but sex is sweaty and funny and awkward.  The performance you is never undone).  The performance you is a fluidless mannequin that always smells of Abercrombie and Fitch.  Or lavender.  Or patchouli.  Or Jo Malone.  Or Axe.  Or whatever.  

But.  Always the but.  

It is incumbent that you never confuse the performance you with the animal you.  Bad behavior happens when these two things get confused.  Dishonesty happens when you no longer recognize the difference between the two, and not just that you become dishonest with others…  I’m talking about the inability to tell yourself the truth about yourself, which is intellectually fatal.  

Your ability to *do* smart (rather than be smart) depends on the honest internal conversation with yourself about yourself.  Also known as being self-aware.  This is how you know your weaknesses and your strengths, this is how you know exactly how grateful you should be, this is where you squash your own pretentiousness before it gets out of control.  This is how you know when you should say sorry.  This is where you invest in the relationships that matter most.  This is how you remain someone capable of introspection, course correction, and intimacy.  This is how you retain the ability to be great.  

Look at the people who have bought their own bullshit.  You don’t want to be these people.

  • John Mayer.  Incredibly talented.  Bought his own bullshit.  Is a totally unironic twat.  
  • Lindsay Lohan.  Incredibly talent.  Got up her own ass about how talented and special she is.  By all accounts, a complete ass.  
  • Johnny Depp.  Beautiful.  Talented.  Completely unaware that he’s become a parody of the aging actor; as of this writing, an alleged domestic abuser;has disappeared into the quirks (also unironically); and is gradually becoming more and more ridiculous as the days go by.

People who seem to have avoided buying their own bullshit.  You want to be these people.

  • Helen Mirrin.  Talented.  Beautiful.  Sense of humor still intact.  Aging exquisitely.
  • Mark Ruffalo.  Avenger.  The boy next door.  Hasn’t lost touch with the world the rest of us live in.
  • Bruce Springsteen.   Really, there are no words.  Also doesn’t seem to have lost touch with the real world.  

Don’t buy your own bullshit.  

Smart Rules: Don’t Buy Your Own Bullshit

On the Theme of Everything Costs Something

Words that will never be written about me in the New York Times: Ms. Williams’ debut novel is an astonishing tour de force.

Every once in awhile, someone suggests I pursue an agent and a traditional publishing deal.  There’s part of me that longs for acclaim, that aches for that line in the NYT book review, breathless articles about the fairy godmother tale of my discovery.  Bidibidobidiboo.  (Spell check knows the word, which is a fun surprise.)

But everything costs something.  And fame and fortune are no exception.  Of course, I’d love to sell more books.  I’d be okay with not having to go to work, at least in theory.  I’d be ecstatic if I had the money hanging around to buy a streamlined insert for the gas fireplace.  But I’m okay doing my own gardening (you should see the size of the wild grape roots I ripped out last night.  Like wrestling with a 6-foot black snake with tentacles.)  I’m good with the limits my life gives me.  Okay, so I could have stayed in bed another hour this morning, but isn’t discomfort what gives pleasure meaning?  If I could wake up whenever I wanted, what joy would there be in sleeping in on Sunday?  

(Random curiosity: what does Kim Kardashian dream of?)

My vote for the grand unifying theory of everything is that the Universe demands balance.  Whatever is given to you comes with a cost.  I don’t fly all that high, all things considered.  This month’s excitement was getting a new sink and faucet in the kitchen.  Next month, there will be an overnight train trip with a sleeper car.  But the lows aren’t that low either.  I know who my people are.  I don’t worry that my friends are only there for the access, for the drugs and the swag bags and the view and the piles of cash laying around.  The love in my life comes with expectations: reciprocity, loyalty, consideration, mutual assistance, honesty…  but the expectations aren’t monetary.  No one is walking away from me because I can’t pay their car note.  No one is disappointed because I’m not making it rain.  

Too often the cost of material gain is in the quality of your relationships, and if that’s the choice– love for money–I’m sticking with love.  So the NYT hasn’t noticed me.  I’m not an astonishing tour de force.  I’m a slow writer with an infestation of wild grape and a crazy dog and a family that is both crazy-making and indispensable, and love deep enough to swim in like friggin’ Scrooge McDuck.  I think I can make my peace with that.  

On the Theme of Everything Costs Something

Smart Rules: Fear

Don’t trust anyone who is attempting to increase your fear.  

Fear is well-known among those who want something as an effective way to get it.  Salespeople are taught (or learn on their own) that the fastest way to close a deal is to convince the buyer that, unless a decision is made right now, the buyer is going to miss out.  (Salespeople tend to dislike it when you call them on this: try it with a salesperson at a gym sometime.  I brought this up to a salesman at Gold’s Gym and he got super huffy with me.)

The reality is that they want your money more than you want whatever item they have in front of you.  The salesperson will want your business just as badly tomorrow as they want it today.  You are in the position of power unless you allow them to make you afraid, in which case the power dynamic shifts over to their advantage.  There is always another car, another house, another way from point a to point b.  

Don’t give away your power.  Fear shuts down your capacity for thinking critically and without prejudice, and that makes you vulnerable to bad decisions.

There are no exceptions to this rule.  

Shut out anything that seeks to increase your fear: news programs that are breathless with manufactured danger, advertisements that raise your anxiety about whether you are rich/smart/sexy/pretty/skinny/young enough, politicians pointing their fingers at an “other” who is out to get you.  

If you hear a claim that scares you, first ask what the claimant has to gain from your fear.  Then do your own research.  Read both sides of the argument.  Look for hidden motives.  Follow the money.  Figure out who gains from your fear.  Find the evidence.  Perform the whackadoodle test: ask what the chances are that the person selling the fear is wrong.  A whackadoodle will tell you that there is no chance that they could be wrong about whatever they claim.  A reasonable, considered person will allow that there is something that they don’t know that would change their conclusion.  Go with the reasonable person’s assessment of the evidence over the whackadoodle.  

Now you can decide if fear is a reasonable response and what constructive thing that you can do with that fear.  The constructive thing probably doesn’t require that you spend boatloads of money.  It may not be as satisfying because real solutions are usually boring and incremental and require sustained attention and hard work.  

Bonus thought: get rid of your TV.  Its primary function is to mainline anxiety into your brain.  Think of how many advertisements want to make you afraid…  if you don’t have a viagra-enhanced package, she’ll leave you.  If you don’t take this anti-psychotic drug on top of your regular anti-depressant, you’re going to be miserable forever.  If you don’t call your Congressman to make sure we don’t bail out Puerto Rico, you’re going to get a huge bill in the mail for your medical costs… it’s a domino effect (that doesn’t follow logically from one thing to the next).  There isn’t that much news on a given day to justify 24 hours of CNN, and there is even less news that you can actually do something about, so worry about the stuff you can do something about, and CNN won’t be able to tell you about those things within your sphere of control.  

Smart Rules: Fear

Smart Rules: Everything Costs Something

It is my grand unified theory of everything: everything costs something.  Every cost comes with a benefit, every benefit comes with a cost.  You will have to pay one way or another.  Nothing is free.  

There is no point in getting worked up about this, it is a universal law.  There is no emotional content here, it isn’t personal.  Your highs will be countered by lows.  Both bring their lessons – the darkness carves out depth, the light provides strength: you will need both to grow into who you were meant to be.  Do not rail against the costs any more than you complain about the benefits.  Find your gratitude and apply it to the fact that the joys didn’t cost you more.  Apply it to the fact that every joy provides double the strength that every sorrow requires.  

And complaining about the fact that everything costs something makes you a whiner and a twat.  Don’t be a whiner and a twat.  

Also: don’t believe anyone who offers you a benefit without a cost.  They are either lying or stupid.  

Smart Rules: Everything Costs Something