No Less Than.

Learn, Make, Teach.

Better Than Your Worst

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Hi ,

Better Questions has hit 5,000 subscribers!

Thank you so much for being here. It means the world to me, and I hope you’ve gotten some value out of these emails.

I promised I would do something special to celebrate, and I’m working on it…watch this space. 🙂

In the meantime, let’s get down to business, shall we?

What’s the easiest way to get better?

Pick anything you currently care about:

Your career, your relationships, your art, a skill.

If you wanted to transform your performance on every level, what would be the easiest way to do it?

For most of us, we focus on being better than our best.

We work on beating our personal record: lifting more weight, running faster, getting a bigger bonus.

This does, in fact, increase our average performance.

But it’s also fiendishly hard.


Because your all-time best performance is a function of both skill and chance.

Ye,: your skill played an important role. Without your abilities, experience, and knowledge you wouldn’t have been able to get as far as you did.

But chance also factored in. Maybe you were just on that day. Maybe your competition fell apart. Maybe you had a particularly good night’s sleep.

Whatever the reason, both skill and chance conspired to make that particular performance your best.

This means that if you want to improve on that best-ever performance, you need to not only show up with improved skills…

…you also need luck on your side.

Getting both of those elements to line up simultaneously is rare. That’s why it’s so damn hard for us to beat our own personal records. It’s hard to be better than our best.

Luckily, there’s a much easier way to improve.

Let’s go back for a moment, and think again about your average performance.

Your average performance as a wife or husband, as a businessperson, as a musician, as a competitor…is made up of all your performances, good and bad, averaged together.

Let’s do some simple math to make this clear. Imagine that a great performance gets a score of +2, a good, but not stellar performance gets a +1, and a mediocre performance gets a big fat 0.

When we perform poorly, we get a -1; when we really screw things up, we get a score of -2.

Imagine that we practice everyday and give ourselves a score based on how we perform.

A given week might look like this:

Monday: +1
Tuesday: -2
Wednesday: +1
Thursday: +2
Friday: 0
Saturday: -1
Sunday: +1

Our best performance was on Thursday, with a +2.

Our worst performance was on Tuesday, with a -2.

Our average performance was .28.

We could try to improve on our very best day, but we know that’s going to be difficult. If we could somehow get that +2 to a +3, what would happen?

Our new average performance would be .42. Not bad!

But what would happen if instead of trying to improve our best-ever performance…..

All we did was turn our worst day into a mediocre one?

If we could change our -2 day to a 0 day, our average performance for the week would change to .57.

We’d get a bigger improvement by making our worst day a mediocre one than we would by making our best day even better.


Which do you think would be easier to do?


We’re often taught that getting better needs to be difficult.

That we need to push, and struggle, and hustle to get where we want to be.

In truth, it’s often far simpler than that:

Simply find the moments where your performance falls apart…

And find a way to be better than your worst.



Cool Stuff To Read:

“In the late 1940s, the British magician David Berglas started refining a trick that came to be known as ‘the holy grail of card magic.’ To this day, nobody is certain how he did it.”

This article gave me goosebumps. I highly recommend you check out the accompanying video, in which Berglas recounts how he made a concert grand piano disappear in the middle of a large group of people.


This post originally appeared on the “Better Questions” email list. If you’d like to get one email like this a week, please sign up at Thanks!

Hi ,

We’re getting very close to 5,000 active subscribers here at Better Questions!

I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you being here. It means a lot.

When we hit 5k I’ll do something – not sure what.

Maybe a weekly YouTube video?

A weekly links roundup?

If you’ve got an idea for something that would make the list better, hit reply to this email and let me know.

Let’s get to it!

Should I stop planning, and start Wayfinding?

If the “productivity industry” has a slogan, it’s this:

If you fail to plan, you must plan to fail.

As our lives become more complex, the demands placed on us more varied and erratic, the “plan” becomes our savior. “If I can just write everything down and slot everything into the appropriate time slow, I’ll be able to get everything done without this crushing anxiety.”

Of course, complex lives and complex demands require complex plans. If you’ve tried to make a plan in the past and failed, it’s because you didn’t plan correctly. This has led directly to the rise of the reemergence of the “Structured Planner” industry.

I used to linger in office supply stores, flipping through the pages of DayTimer and Franklin-Covey planners and fantasizing about how productive I would be if I only had the right system. Now, I’m targeted by companies like and Full Focus Planner and “The New Mindset Journal” via Instagram ads, promising greater clarity, greater motivation, and greater focus…if you only buy their planner.

All of these products promise to apply the rigidity and structure of the factory floor to the chaos of your personal life. They promise the luxury of a predictable world – a world you can plan for. They appear as nothing less than timecards for life, supplying the illusion that all you have to do is punch in, zone out, and collect your paycheck at the end of the week.

I certainly don’t begrudge anyone a complicated planner. I am an absolute sucker for them, myself – I’ve tried them all.

I don’t tend to use them for very long, however.


Because, as Mike Tyson once put it:

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.

Reality is not amenable to planning. Reality is complex, volatile, unpredictable. It is VERY unlikely that your plan will ever match reality, no matter how many boxes you fill out.

Planning does, in fact, work extremely well in stable situations that we understand. If you know how a system works – how it’s elements interact – then it’s predictable, and planning makes sense.

In situations of complexity, however, plans are quickly made obsolete, inaccurate or disastrous.

So – what do we do about it? Throw up our hands and let chaos sweep us away?


Instead of planning, we use wayfinding.

Wayfinding is simply that – a method for finding your way. In fact, to call it a “method” may be pushing it – it’s more like proprioception, our awareness of our bodies in physical space.

Imagine you are crossing a stream.

The water is shallow enough for you to walk across, but it’s deep enough that you can’t exactly make out the rocks below the surface.

How do you make it across?

If you just run across you’re going to break an ankle or worse.

If you sit on the edge of the bank, research the location of every rock, commit it to memory, and then draw up a map of the “perfect” route…well, you’re going to be there a while. The rocks may even move while you work, rendering your map useless.

None of us, in this situation, would do either of these.

Instead, we’d start at an entry point that appeared safe, then reach out a foot and feel around for a rock to stand on.

We’d test how stable the rock was by putting a little weight on it and feeling for a wobble. We’d sense how slippery it was before fully committing. When we felt comfortable, we’d commit and put our full weight onto the rock. Then we’d catch our balance, re-assess, and start feeling around for the next rock.

We know where we’re headed – towards the other bank. But we don’t expect to make a beeline for it. Instead, we make some lateral moves here and there, always doing our best to head in the right direction.

Slowly but surely, we’d make it across, no advanced planning necessary.

Simple, intuitive, straight forward – a process that anyone could use.

This is the beauty of wayfinding: it accepts and works with the inherent unpredictability of life.

We are fully in the moment, embodied, attuned to our senses, alive to all the texture and profound depth of the world around us. In this state – fully in our own context, fully alive – we find ourselves effortlessly navigating an environment we could never have planned for.

Most of the time, this is what our lives are like: far too complex to plan. But giving up on planning doesn’t mean we don’t choose a direction in life, or exercise our judgement, or make choices. Instead, wayfinding teaches us to keep our eyes on the opposite shore…

…But to accept that all we can really do is choose between the options that are in front of us.



Cool Stuff To Read:

Since only last week I was discussing my about-face on the Coronavirus Lab Leak Theory…

Here’s an excellent article in the New Yorker about that exact thing.

I’m always surprised whenever my own thoughts turn out to be part of the larger zeitgeist, which is strange, since we’re ALWAYS part of the zeitgeist.

Bad Priors: COVID-19 Edition

This post originally appeared on the “Better Questions” email list. If you’d like to get one email like this a week, please sign up at Thanks!

Hi ,

Straight into it this week!


What did I get wrong about COVID-19?


When I started this email list, all the way back in the beginning of 2020, I didn’t know what I wanted to write about.

I didn’t have to wait long.

When COVID-19 began to disrupt the world around me…

…when all the toilet paper was suddenly gone, and my friends were all staying inside to “flatten the curve,” and I wasn’t really sure if I’d have a job for much longer…

…I knew that I could use Better Questions to help me better understand the world outside my front door.

The resulting series on risk, uncertainty, and making decisions in confusing times was called “All Woods Must Fail.”

(You can read the series on my blog for free, or you can check out the nicely edited version on Amazon for $2.99 if you like.)

In that series I talked about priors, the past experiences we use to predict how likely or unlikely something is.

From Bad Priors:

“Every single moment of your life, you are amassing a database of information about the world.

You estimate statistical likelihoods based on what you’ve experienced.

When I asked you to guess you considered how many Toms you know, or have heard of.

Then you did a rough calculation in your head – even if you were unaware of it.

That information you brought to the table – your beliefs about how many Toms there are – is a prior.

Your priors are all the information about the world that you bring to any decision making process…

What you believe before you see any specific evidence.

You consult that information before you make a prediction.

And of course, all decisions are just predictions about how things will turn out.

Your priors influence what you predict AND how you interpret evidence afterwards.”

It’s difficult for us to update our priors when presented with new information.

When something contradicts our view of the world – especially if that view of the world is based on real, yet necessarily limited, personal experience – we tend to ignore it or explain it away rather than incorporate it into future predictions.

It isn’t that people don’t want to revise their priors. Lived experiences feel more real to us than disembodied facts and figures. It’s hard to know who to trust in this world, but we can always trust ourselves…or, so we think.

Once an idea gets rooted in our brains it’s very hard to get it out. Doing so requires discipline and practice – a dedication to trying to live as rationally (and as compassionately) as possible.

None of us are perfect, but we can all be better.

I’d like to share some of my personal beliefs about COVID, the pandemic, and the world in general that have been challenged in recent months.

I will provide a brief summary of each issue and where I now believe I was wrong. I’ll link to the articles that changed my thinking, but largely I’ll let you come to your own conclusions.

One last warning: I’m not a scientist or a doctor. I’ve been wrong before, and I’ll be wrong again. My opinions are just that – please balance them with your own sources of information before drawing any conclusions.

“We need to be washing our hands, disinfecting surfaces and potentially even cleaning our groceries.”

Don’t get me wrong – washing your hands is awesome. After all, there’s a reason that we practically wiped out the flu in 2020 – social distancing and better hygiene really do combat disease.

The problem is that, despite initial statements from nearly everyone, COVID-19 is not primarily spread via contact with people or surfaces.

“If the importance of aerosol transmission had been accepted early, we would have been told from the beginning that it was much safer outdoors, where these small particles disperse more easily, as long as you avoid close, prolonged contact with others. We would have tried to make sure indoor spaces were well ventilated, with air filtered as necessary. Instead of blanket rules on gatherings, we would have targeted conditions that can produce superspreading events: people in poorly ventilated indoor spaces, especially if engaged over time in activities that increase aerosol production, like shouting and singing. We would have started using masks more quickly, and we would have paid more attention to their fit, too. And we would have been less obsessed with cleaning surfaces.”

The focus on surface-transmission led to the ubiquitous “hygiene theater” of 2020 – people in HazMat suits disinfecting every possible surface. No harm, no foul – a little bit of playacting never hurt anyone.

But it also led to a disastrous lack of focus on airborne transmission. “Stand 6 feet away,” as universal a recommendation as you could find, turned out to be based on almost nothing at all.

The story of how all this came about is fascinating, frustrating, and heart-breaking, all at the same time. I highly recommend you read this in-depth piece on some of the scientists who struggled to get public health authorities to revise their priors (as we all know, a far more difficult task than it may seem).

“COVID-19 almost certainly spread from bats to humans. The idea that it was created in a Chinese lab is a racist fever-dream used by Donald Trump to stir up his base.”

This may be the single biggest U-turn I’ve experienced in my adult life.

I was 100% convinced that COVID-19 was naturally-occurring. I believed it came from bats and likely spread to humans from a wet-market in China, either from someone eating a diseased animal or by a diseased animal infecting some intermediate host that was then eaten.

While this still seems to be the most common take, the evidence – in my completely non-scientific opinion – now seems to point to COVID-19 being created in a lab.

Sound like a conspiracy theory? Believe me, I get it. The single best article on this topic is here, for anyone who wants a very deep but very readable summary of the science involved. If you read anything from this email, it should be this.

If you still believe the lab theory was all about Trump and racism, you’d expect the Biden administration to quickly disavow the claim…but that hasn’t happened.

This is the most glaring recent example of my personal politics clouding my judgement.

Whether you buy the scientific arguments for a lab origin or not, it is certainly possible; there are multiple historical instances of man-made viruses escaping labs we can point to. Despite this, I would have argued that Trump’s claims were pure fantasy.

Why? Because Donald Trump said it, so it must be bullshit.

Trump simply lied so often, and distorted reality so brazenly, that I not only ignored everything he said but actively took the opposite stance whenever possible.

That’s still letting Donald Trump dictate my political opinions, which isn’t something I’m comfortable with.

“We need to wear masks outside. The kids should mask up on the playground.”

The CDC has repeatedly claimed that “less than 10 percent” of all COVID-19 transmissions occur outside.

10% ain’t nothing, right? So, I wore a mask on my walks around the block. We always made sure our kids wore masks to the playground or to play outside with neighborhood kids. We wore masks when my Mom dropped birthday presents off on the front porch.

The “wear-a-mask-outside” belief heavily influenced how I saw 2020’s surge in political activism.

If the protestors were right-wing, they were reckless, didn’t care about anyone other than themselves, and were anti-science. They were putting everyone at risk over nothing!

If the protestors were supporting Black Lives Matter, they were taking a personal risk, but only because participation in such a major civil rights moment was an ethical obligation. I wasn’t happy about it, but I was on their side.

As it turns out, nearly all of this intellectual-hand-wringing was based on false pretenses. As this article explains, the “less than 10%” number used by the CDC should have been “less than .1%.”

“Saying that less than 10 percent of Covid transmission occurs outdoors is akin to saying that sharks attack fewer than 20,000 swimmers a year. (The actual worldwide number is around 150.) It’s both true and deceiving.”

Outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is practically non-existent. None of the protests resulted in a significant spike in cases; ditto for people going to the beach. Knowing that might have encouraged me to get outside more, to let the kids play more freely, to be a little more willing to get together with family, friends, and neighbors.

“We still need to wear masks after we’re vaccinated – after all, you can still get the virus, the vaccination just stops you from being hospitalized. I don’t want to spread it to anyone else.”

The messaging around post-vaccination life from the CDC has been cautious since the beginning – appropriate, perhaps, since the effect of the then-new vaccines was still unproven.

But from what I can tell right now, while you can still contract and spread the coronavirus after you’re vaccinated, it’s incredibly rare.

From the New York Times:

“…The [CDC] effectively acknowledged it had fallen behind the scientific evidence: Even though that evidence has not changed in months, the C.D.C. overhauled its guidelines. It said fully vaccinated people could stop wearing masks in most settings, including crowded indoor gatherings.”

As another Times article puts it:

“Although no rigorous study has yet analyzed whether vaccinated people can spread the virus, it would be surprising if they did. ‘If there is an example of a vaccine in widespread clinical use that has this selective effect — prevents disease but not infection — I can’t think of one!’ Dr. Paul Sax of Harvard has written in The New England Journal of Medicine. (And, no, exclamation points are not common in medical journals.)

On Twitter, Dr. Monica Gandhi of the University of California, San Francisco, argued: ‘Please be assured that YOU ARE SAFE after vaccine from what matters — disease and spreading.'”

Despite this information, I find myself reluctant to give up masking altogether, even though I’ve been fully vaccinated for over a month.

Masking took on additional layers of meaning during the pandemic. For me, personally, it wasn’t just a way of decreasing the chance of getting COVID-19, although it was certainly that.

It was also a way of signaling to the people around me that I gave a shit. That I was willing to listen to what authorities were saying, that I was aware of the dangers of COVID-19 and was willing to experience some personal discomfort in order to ensure that the people around me were as safe as possible.

When I saw other people masking, it meant I could relax a little bit – and that feeling of communal responsibility was incredibly important to me.

We had so little control for so long. The little steps we could take – washing our hands, wearing masks, standing apart, avoiding our loved ones – could be painful, but they were also a way of asserting ourselves against the chaos of the wider world.

If we all do our part, we can make a difference.

It’s hard to let go of that, now.

I may be protected from this particular virus, but I’m still vulnerable – still unable to predict what will happen next, still dependent on the people around me to do the right thing, still watching, still waiting…

And still updating my priors.



Cool Stuff To Read:

How to Not Let Work Explode Your Life. This article tied so many disparate things I’d been thinking into a nice, tidy bow…a fantastic read for anyone trying to make their way through our increasingly-anxiety-producing world.

All Or Nothing

This post originally appeared on the “Better Questions” email list. If you’d like to get one email like this a week, please sign up at Thanks!

Hi ,

This week, we’re finishing up our series on Behavior Change!

And what treatment of change would be complete without talking about…


Am I failing as a hero?

Because of my own background, I am often asked by would-be entrepreneurs seeking escape from life within huge corporate structures: ‘How do I build a small firm for myself?’

The answer seems obvious: buy a very large one and just wait.

How Most Things Fail, Paul Ormerod

Everyone hates to fail.

But we all do it, all the time.

In fact, you are guaranteed to fail, no matter what you do.

If you push past your comfort zone, expand your boundaries, and attempt to do something great…

You wind up in complex, difficult situations…and will eventually fail.

If you don’t push past your comfort zone, do only the bare minimum, and never seek to grow…

Then you are already failing, if only by omission.

No matter how successful you may be, eventually your body will fail. Your organs will shut down one by one, the neurons in your brain will go dark, and the collection of experiences and relationships and beliefs that is “you” will cease to exist.

In case you were unclear on the matter, death remains undefeated.

Living, then, means failing.

The only choice we have is whether we fail while trying to do something great…

…Or fail by simple inaction, passivity, and cowardice.

Our fear is heightened when we encounter the world around us, the world with us, and the world within us. We fear rejection, failure, and mistakes. We are afraid of what others may think of us and, therefore, we are afraid to be ourselves. We are afraid of death and, therefore, we live in fear.

The Psychology of Courage, Julia Yang and Alan Milliren

If failure is universal, why is it so painful?

I can only tell you what I experience:

When I fail, I take it as evidence.

Evidence that I am not enough.

Evidence that I am weak.

Evidence that I lack the strength, or the good looks, or the ability, to do what’s needed.

If only I could follow through…

If only I could focus…

If only I had better genetics…

Each failure seems to prove that I won’t ever be successful.

That I’ll always be unhappy.

That I don’t have what it takes to make it on this strange, hostile planet we live on.

And if I don’t have what it takes, it could all end at any time.

I’m unfit. I’m unwell. I’m not enough.

Failure feels like a death sentence.

Afraid to be myself.

Afraid of death.

Living in fear.


We’re all afraid of death (even if you think you’re not)…

And so we’re all afraid of failure.

But, as I mentioned at the beginning, failure is universal and inevitable.

Our only choice is whether or not we want to fail while trying to do something great.

How do we overcome our fears of failure and move towards what really matters?

By eliminating all-or-nothing thinking.

All-or-nothing thinking is when you believe that you either are or are not.

Your state of being is clear, sharply delineated, and obvious.

You are either successful or unsuccessful.

You are either a failure or not a failure.

Black and white. No gray. No middle-ground.

All-or-nothing thinking is fully a creation of the human mind. There are no straight lines in nature – no clear delineations, no well-marked boundaries. The broader universe doesn’t care at all about how you define one thing vs. another.

Instead, nature is liminal; a smooth transition between states, in constant flux, neither one thing nor the other, but both and neither.

Take the color gradient below

We can all agree that the color changes from orange to read; at the extremes, the differences are clear.

But what about in the middle?

At what point, exactly, does the orange become red?

It must happen. We can all see that it happens.

But it’s impossibly to pinpoint the exact moment at which the change occurs.

That space – the space between states, the mysterious and ineffable and undefinable middle ground – is liminal space.

And while our rational minds, trained on logic and Platonic Ideas, years to define and categorize and split this from that

Our lives are much more like the liminal space between orange and red than they are anything else.

We are always in flux.

Neither one thing, nor the other –

But both.

And neither.

We’ve been talking about behavior change for a while now.

We started off with Ironic Processes, discussing what happens when we try to “stop” ourselves from thinking “bad thoughts.”

In Dominant Thoughts we explored “priming,” a method for programming our subconscious.

In Sustainably Successful we contrasted maximum achievability and maximum sustainability…and discussed why confusing the two can be so disastrous.

Finally, we discussed Barrett’s Rule: no goals without systems, and went over some of the different systems we can put in place to make change easier.

Throughout each of these essays, I’ve shared my progress as I’ve used these behavior change tactics to help me through a particularly difficult phase of my diet.

I’ve been both cutting calories to shed fat AND changing the types of foods I eat – switching entirely to a low-inflammation diet consisting mostly of ground turkey, chicken, cabbage, cucumbers, blueberries, olive oil, etc.

Doing either one on it’s own would have been difficult; doing them both simultaneously was a big commitment.

How did it go? With all my tools, and techniques, and knowledge…how did I do?

I failed.

I cheated on my diet plan. Not only did I not eat the types of food I was supposed to, I ate nearly 3,000 calories more than I was allowed.

My initial goal was to eat only anti-inflammatory foods for 30 days, after which I was promised higher energy, better focus, a more appealing physique, etc.

I started on April 20th.

I made it to May 5th, about halfway to my goal.

After the high of the junk food wore over, I was pretty despondent.

Not only did I break my commitment to myself and to my nutrition coach, now I would have to go another 30 days before seeing any benefit. I had sabotaged myself and ruined my progress.

This, by the way, is an excellent example of all-or-nothing thinking.

Let’s examine it, for a moment. Is it really true that I had sabotaged my progress? Is it true that I say no benefit?

Well, let’s look at my 7-day average weight over this period (the red dot shows the week I cheated):

Not only did I not gain weight that week, I still lost weight – just slightly less than normal.

What about if we look at the bigger picture?

This chart shows my weekly weight trend for the year, with the week of the failure marked in red:

If I hadn’t marked that week in red, would you be able to tell where I had failed?

It seems fairly clear that, regardless of my failure, my overall progress remains more or less the same.

What about the lost benefits of the anti-inflammatory diet? They say that eliminating something from your diet requires a minimum of 28 uninterrupted days to have an effect.

It’s true – I seem to have screwed up that process, and I won’t know what I’d be feeling like if I had stuck to the plan.

But is it true that I received no benefit?


For one, I actually do feel better, and though I’ve had one or two mess-ups, the vast majority of my meals have been 100% anti-inflammatory.

After all, “28 days” isn’t written anywhere in nature. Someone, somewhere, set that as the average length of time required…but it isn’t like absolutely nothing occurs for 28 days, and then WHAM, benefits come rolling in. The process is likely to be a gradual one. That means that I accrued some partial benefits before my failure.

Secondly, there were positive side-effects I hadn’t expected. Eating this special diet required me to prepare my food ahead of time for the week, a process I was really dreading. Once I got going, however, I found it to be relatively painless. Not only that, I saved a ton of money from not eating out, AND discovered that I actually like eating these meals the vast majority of the time. As a result, I plan on continuing to eat only anti-inflammatory foods for breakfast and lunch after my initial experiment is over.

Finally, learning where something breaks is itself useful information. We stress-test bridges for a reason. While I was highly motivated in the beginning, I discovered pretty quickly that eating special meals separate from my family was more of a drag than I anticipated. I missed the social aspects of eating, and found the complete discipline required to be too demanding.

While that sounds like an admission of defeat – and it is, in a way – it was only through that process of trial and error that I discovered what really works for me. I know now that I could easily eat an extremely healthy diet for 2/3 of every day without trouble. I know a lot more about feeding myself in a productive way that also allows me room to relax and enjoy what’s on offer.

And, I look better than I ever have. At 41, that’s something I’m quite proud of.

The point here isn’t to pat myself on the back for eating like an adult.

The point is that my failure, while extremely painful in the moment, had very little practical effect.

All-or-nothing thinking would say that because I fell short of my original goal, I am “a failure” and therefore received no benefit from the work I had put in.

But that isn’t true.

I lost weight.

I felt better.

I learned a lot, both about eating and myself.

While I failed to achieve what I set out to achieve, I ended up much closer to my ultimate goal.

And that is a far more common story among successful people than it might appear.

Remember: if you want to do something great, you’re going to have to push beyond that which makes you comfortable.

You’re going to have to stretch.

To do difficult things.

To confront your fears of rejection, failure, and death.

And ultimately, no matter how hard you struggle…

You’ll fail.

You will fall.

Just like everyone else.

But when you pick yourself back up…dust yourself off, and survey your surroundings…

You’ll find yourself further along than you were before.

A little bit closer.

A little bit wiser.

A little bit better.

Add those failures up over the years…over a life time?

They look a lot like success.


You will fail.

But it’s better to fail as a hero…

Than to succeed as coward.



Cool Stuff To Read:

A great essay on one of the most common ways people self-destruct when trying to get good at something: they mistake long feedback loops for lack of progress.

“Long feedback loops, by their very nature, cannot be pleasurable in the way short feedback loops are. Basically: the thrill will disappear. And that’s okay.”

Barrett’s Rule

This post originally appeared on the “Better Questions” email list. If you’d like to get one email like this a week, please sign up at Thanks!

Hi ,

We’ve got a legitimate (accidental) series on our hands here!

It didn’t start off this way, but we’re nearly done with a short series on effective behavior change.

If you missed any of the earlier emails, here’s a quick rundown:

We started off with Ironic Processes, discussing what happens when we try to “stop” ourselves from thinking “bad thoughts.”

In Dominant Thoughts we explored “priming,” a method for programming our subconscious.

In Sustainably Successful we contrasted maximum achievability and maximum sustainability…and discussed why confusing the two can be so disastrous.

Now that you’re all caught up, let’s get started with this week’s question:

How do I reshape the system?

I’ve long had a fondness for eponymous laws.

“Eponymous Laws” are pronouncements tied to a particular person, usually the person that coined the law in the first place.

The most famous example is “Murphy’s Law”: what can go wrong, will go wrong.

This fondness led me to coin “Barrett’s Law”: the most ironic outcome always happens.

More useful, however, is Barrett’s Rule.

In fact, Barrett’s Rule is the single most significant tool I have for long-term self improvement of any kind.

Internalizing it has led directly to all of the breakthroughs I’ve had in my life, modest though they may be.

It’s important enough that it’s written at the top of all of my Weekly Check Ins (a process detailed in The Difference Engine) as a reminder.

It’s simple. It’s relatively straight forward.

But it’ll change your life, if you let it.


Here it is:

No goals without systems.


This is not an original idea.

In fact, W Edwards Deming, a process improvement specialist and philosopher who lived from 1900 to 1993, put it this way:

“A bad system will beat a good person every time.”

Here’s what that means:

Each and every single one of us is embedded within a complex series of systems we call our “environment.”

There’s our living space, the people around us, our health, our education, our personal experiences, the political system of the country we’re in, our genetic programming, economic policy, our instincts….on and on and on.

These systems all interact, creating an incredibly complex and unpredictable series of outcomes.

Look around you: whatever behaviors, outcomes, and events are frequently occurring? Those are what’s being encouraged by the systems surrounding you. Our default reality is dictated by our systems.

No matter how lofty your ambitions, no matter how strong your will…if you are constantly struggling against a system that seeks to defeat you, eventually you will crumble.

Go with the “flow” of the system, however, and you will go further – and faster – than you could have ever dreamed.

If human kind were simply animal in nature, this email would stop here. Instead, we’ve been given the gift of rational analysis: we can imagine the world being different than it is. We can begin to pry apart the cause and effect relationships that affect our environment.

In short: the system doesn’t just change us…we can change the system.

And since systems can hurt us, delay us, and stunt our growth…

It stands to reason that systems can help us, as well.

Utopia and dystopia alike are defined by their systems.

Your own capability – for growth, love, change, achievement, whatever –

Is the result not just of your efforts…

But of your efforts plus all the systems you put in place.

That ends up being quite the difference.


Truly internalizing Barrett’s Rule means accepting the idea that success in life is far less about willpower than we have been led to believe.

It also means looking outside of your self for the causes of failure when it happens.

This is a more difficult transition than it may seem on the surface.

We are used to beating ourselves up when we fall short. In many ways, we like. If we accept full responsibility for every shortcoming, that means that success was possible – that ultimately, we have total control over what happens to us, that we’re not at the mercy of systems we can’t being to understand. Berating yourself because you cheated on your diet plan or didn’t get that big promotion is one way that we reaffirm our autonomy in the world. “I am all powerful, therefore this is all my fault.”

But of course, we aren’t all powerful. We are, in fact, at the mercy of systems we can neither understand nor control. We are far less independent, and far weaker, than we are comfortable accepting.

Ironically, however, it is exactly this acceptance that allows us to start making progress.

When you accept that the problem is often not internal, but rather an issue of the systems you find yourself embedded within, you approach the problems of success and failure differently.

You start viewing your problems as largely mechanical.

You begin asking, “what systems encouraged this behavior?” rather than “why did *I* do this?”

You start wondering, “what can I change to improve my chances of success?” rather than “what is wrong with me?”

As someone who has a WEALTH of negative self-talk ricocheting around my skull at all times, this change in mindset has been profound.

And, as it turns out, it makes it a LOT easier to get what I want.


“No goals without systems.”

What does systems mean, exactly?

When we’re thinking about behavior change (and all goal achievement starts, at some level, with behavior change), there are a few basic types of interventions that will do most of the work. I’m sure there are many more, but these are the ones that consistently work for me:

  • Pre-commitment
  • Stakes
  • Friction
  • Feedback
  • Social pressure


You’ve heard people talking about “burning the boats,” right?

“In 1519, Captain Hernán Cortés landed in Veracruz to begin his great conquest. Upon arriving, he reportedly gave an order to his men to burn the ships in which they arrived in. In essence, he gave them no other option but to succeed at the goal of conquering.”

While that’s certainly a dramatic example, the core concept is fairly simple:

Go all in and make it hard to back out.

Want to quit smoking? Throw all your cigarettes out first thing.

Want to go on a diet? Get all the junk food out of the house.

Want to limit social media? Downgrade to a flip phone.

These are all commitment devices – getting your skin in the game early, while your motivation level is high.

With any significant behavior change, it’s safe to assume that you’ll feel differently about it halfway through than you do at the beginning. Commitment devices harness that early enthusiasm by reducing your options later on.


If you want to encourage change, raise the stakes.

We hate losing. In fact, winning feels less good to us than losing feels bad. We’re wired to avoid losses whenever possible.

If you want to change, you can use that tendency by making failure extra painful.

My personal favorite way to do this is to put money on the line. Beeminder and Stickk allow you to track goals and pledge real money if you fall short. If you want an extra nudge, you can even nominate that money to go to someone you hate – Biden, for example, if you’re a Trump fan, or vice versa.

We don’t need to bet large sums to benefit from these effects. I tend to pledge just enough money that losing it would be painful.

In fact, I’m currently using Stickk to help me rebuild my faltering exercise habit. You can check out my current status here.

I consistently underestimate the effect that wagering money will have on my success rate. It’s almost irritating at this point.


If you have a behavior you want less of, increase friction.

If you have a behavior you want more of, reduce friction.

If you’re looking at your phone too much, put it in the other room, or on the top of the fridge, or lock it in a jar with a timer on it.

(Yes, that thing is real and it is amazing).

If you want to stop ordering takeout, delete all the apps from your phone, give all your debit cards to your partner, or move to the middle of the woods.

If you want to read more, have books in every room of the house, get rid of your TV, and block off time every day.

If you want to be more loving towards your partner, set a reminder for every morning, put Post-It Notes everywhere to remind you, and subscribe to a flower delivery service.

Your brain is lazy. It’s always looking for the easy way out. Make a behavior even slightly more irritating and that behavior will become much less likely.


Your mileage may vary, but I benefit alot from real-time feedback.

For example: I weigh myself every single morning. It’s useful to me to know whether my weight is up or down each day. It provides feedback I can use to assess my own behavior.

Similarly, if you’re working on saving money, having a big old scoreboard posted somewhere prominent showing your current savings balance will let you know how you’re doing.

The more immediate the feedback, and the more in your face it is, the more effective that feedback will be in driving your behavior going forward.

However, data can be dangerous. A point is not a trend. A single data point tells you very little; the average over time tells you far more.

Focus on your trend over time – variability is everywhere in nature and if you obsess over randomness you’ll make yourself sick.

Social Pressure

We love to imagine ourselves as captains of our destiny, making decisions and seeing them through all by our lonesome.

But, for me?

Nothing’s more effective at changing my behavior than worrying about letting someone down.

We’re social creatures. We’re highly attuned to how other people see us, and we don’t want to appear weak or foolish if we can help it.

Use that tendency to your advantage. Hire a coach to check in on your progress. Get a workout buddy that expects you to be at the gym at 9. Post your progress and encourage people to follow up (notice how I linked to my workout page up there?)

Sometimes there’s nothing more powerful than simply having someone you have to report to. Even if they never give you a hard time about slipping up, just knowing you have to face the music can be enough to keep you on track.


Whenever you’re seeking to change a behavior or achieve a goal, remember:

No goals without systems.

Even better, ask yourself: “How many of these systems can I utilize?”

For my own current fitness goals, I have several systems in place at once:

  • 1. I joined a nutrition program and purchased some workout equipment (pre-commitment).
  • 2. I put money on the line via (stakes)
  • 3. I put the workout equipment in my backpack, so I have it available whether I’m at home or at the office (removing friction)
  • 4. I track my weight daily, summarize that data weekly, and take weekly photos of my progress (feedback)
  • 5. I have a coach I check in with every week; I posted my Stickk commitment publicly; I told my wife what my goals were and told her to give me a hard time. (social pressure)

While having all these systems in place is no guarantee of success (nothing is, especially with deeply-ingrained habits), they make it far harder for me to go off course.

And that’s really what this is all about:

Stacking the deck in your favor…over time.

That last bit is important, but we’ll get to it next week when we finish up this series by talking about….


See you then.


Cool Stuff To Read:

Authenticity is a Sham. For a concept that is literally everywhere (at least, everywhere for a kid that probably read The Catcher In The Rye far too young), I hadn’t really read anybody tussle with it in a serious way. Really interesting read.

Sustainably Successful

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Hi ,

Hope you’re having a great week.

Let’s get to it.

Could I do this forever?

Over the past few weeks we’ve been discussing some of the mental aspects of behavior change.

In Ironic Processes we explored how the mind is drawn to that which we focus upon…even if that focus is “negative.”

In Dominant Thoughts we discovered “priming” – a simple method for programming our subconscious to engage in the behavior we want.

I shared some of my own experiences using priming to adhere more closely to my nutrition plan.

Before we move away from behavior change, though…

(Do we ever really move away from behavior change?)

…I’d like to deal with a critical component of all effective change:


Before and after pictures are pretty amazing.

There’s a reason these images are the cornerstone of ALL health and fitness marketing:

They work.

You look at the image and think “Hey…look at what they were able to do. If they can do it, so can I!”

Never mind that there is an entire industry dedicated to faking before and after photos, or that you can engineer a seemingly “miraculous” transformation in an hour or so with the right lighting.

We know all this, and we fall for it anyway.

And so we buy the DVD, or the class, or the program, or the diet, and we’re off to the races.

And a few weeks later?

The material lies unopened.

The diet is back to what it was.

And the change we hoped for never occurs.

It’s very common, in this situation, to start beating ourselves up.

You’ve done it, I’ve done it.

“Why can I get it together? Why don’t I have the discipline? Why can they do it, but I can’t?”

There’s much to be said about the abuse we heap upon ourselves…

But in this email, I’d like to focus on two concepts that will help us make sense of what’s happening here.

Those concepts are:

Maximum Achievability


Maximum Sustainability.

Credit my friend Nic for that specific language, by the way.

Imagine any goal that you want to achieve.

Maybe you want to be financially free.

Maybe you want to have the marriage of your dreams.

Maybe, like me, you’re looking to establish a healthy relationship with food.

No matter what the goal is, there are any number of ways you could try to reach that “finish line.”

Those different methods are going to vary in intensity, difficulty, and effectiveness.

For example, if I wanted to lose 20 pounds there are any number of ways I could it:

  • I could go onto a strict diet, like Paleo or Keto.
  • I could run 5 miles every day.
  • I could wrap myself in a garbage bag, sit in a sauna, and sweat it out.

Each of those different plans is going to have a different timeline for hitting my target:

  • Paleo and keto will take 6 months to lose 20 pounds.
  • Running 5 miles every day will take 3 months to lose 20 pounds.
  • Garbage bag and sauna will take me just two days to lose 20 pounds.

Each of those different plans is also going to have varying levels of difficulty for me personally:

  • Maybe I’m already mostly paleo, so switching my diet is no big thing.
  • Maybe I’m not in particularly good shape, so running every day will be hard on me.
  • As for the garbage bag/sauna thing…well, UFC fighters cut weight all the time and it does not look very fun at all.

Despite all these varying timelines and levels of difficulty, it’s safe to say that I could do all of these things.

I could change my diet; I could run every day; I could cut weight in a sauna.

All of these things are within range of my maximum achievability, the upper bound limits of what I’m capable of.

Anything you could do “if someone put a gun to your head” is within the realm of your maximum achievability.

But what happens after you lose the 20 pounds?

Are you going to stay strictly paleo….forever?

Are you going to run 5 miles a day…forever?

Are you going to sit in that sauna…forever?

Truth be told, probably not.

That’s because something that’s within the limits of your maximum achievability is not necessarily within the limits of your maximum sustainability.

Think of sustainability as your ability to maintain a habit or behavior…forever.

Not just for a little while, not just until you hit your goal…

But forever.

After all, you don’t just want to hit your goal – you want to stay there, right?

No fun to be financially free for a month and then suddenly need to get a job.

No fun to lose 20 pounds for a month and then gain them right back.

Our problems tend to emerge when we look at proposed solutions to our problems and think “Yes, I could do that,” instead of “Yes, but could I do that forever?”

If we shift our focus from what is achievable to what is sustainable, we will be an interlocking network of habits and behaviors that will not just maintain our gains but magnify them beyond our wildest imaginings.


Because positive behaviors and habits compound over time.

The most wildly successful among us tend to be people who have engaged in positive behaviors consistently over a long period of time.

In other words, they were engaged in sustainable behaviors.

Obviously, not everything needs to last forever.

You might want to experiment with a potential change, and thus pick a specific start and stop point.

Or, like the “cut phase” of the diet I’m in, you might cycle through different periods where you engage in behaviors you couldn’t sustain over the long haul.

I’m currently in a 600-calorie deficit. That means I’m hungry all the time, I have low energy, I’m tired, etc. It sucks, and I would never try to do this forever. However, I know it’s temporary, and that the process will end with me consuming more calories than before.

So no, I couldn’t be “on a cut” forever.

But – and this is the critical point – I could be on my current diet plan forever.

My nutrition plan is flexible. It allows me to eat a wide variety of foods that I like. It accounts for occasional lapses. And it helps me move, systematically, towards better health outcomes.

As a result, the current cycle I’m in is within my realm of maximum achievability but not within my realm of maximum sustainability, while the diet plan as a whole is safely within both.

Whenever you’re seeking to change a behavior, it is critical to consider both maximum achievability and maximum sustainability.

No matter how much progress you make early on, the majority of your gains will come over time. That’s as true of your body as it is of investing or of your relationships.

Good behavior compounds – and so time is a critical factor in your success.

Therefore, before you take on any new project, habit, or program, ask yourself:

“Could I do this forever?”



Cool Stuff To Read:

Ayn Rand, Live From Los Angeles.

I tend to think that Rand gets short shrift from people who have never actually read her or tried to grapple with her ideas. Whether you agree or not (and I generally don’t), she’s the most influential female philosopher…ever? At least in the states, it would be hard to imagine our current politics without her influence.

This article is an interesting exploration of her early days in L.A. It also ends with an absolutely wonderful mic-drop moment that I really appreciated.

Dominant Thoughts

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Hi ,

(A brief word of warning. While there is nothing salacious in this letter at all, it does include a shirtless photo. If that’s inappropriate for wherever you’re reading this, be aware. Cool? Cool).

What’s the positive opposite?

Last week, we discussed “ironic thought processes” – the idea that our minds will inevitably turn towards that which we seek to avoid.

If we can’t avoid or stop our thoughts – and if thoughts are the beginning of action – how do we control our actions?

By focusing our energy on what we want.

And we do that with “priming.”

The process for this is simple. The urge, for someone who loves complexity like me, is to over-complicate it.

I’ll do my best to avoid that today.

(The following approach is taken from the excellent Priming: Programming the Mind for Habit Change and Success, by Dr. Clifton Mitchell. If you’d like a far more in-depth exploration of this topic, complete with some theories on why it works, I’d recommend picking it up).

Let’s say you want to break a habit – or build a new one.

Let’s say you want to move towards a goal with your subconscious mind helping you along the way, rather than fighting against you.

There are four steps to making that happen:

  1. Define what you are currently doing that you dislike, or is moving you in the wrong direction.
  2. Precisely define the opposite of what you are currently doing.
  3. Create a present-tense statement that states you are doing the new positive opposite behavior.
  4. Repeat to yourself hundreds of times a day.

That’s it. That’s priming.


If you are anything like me, your initial response to this was “Bullshit.”

Life is complex and I expect anything effective to be complex as well. Saying something to yourself over and over feels like new-age feel-good pseudoscience.

Could this possibly work?

I like testing things, and since this was an easy one to test (with no possible side effects other than boredom) I decided to give it a go.

I’m in a nutrition program that relies on accurate weighing and tracking of your food intake. I noticed that my accuracy in measuring had declined since the end of 2020.

Here’s my calorie intake from January of 2021 through the end of February:

My plan was to eat around 2000 calories a day. The blue columns represent the amount I ate, the empty or very low days represent days I forgot to track.

While I’m more or less on point, you can tell there’s a significant amount of variation around that 2000 calories mark.

You can see this reflected in my weekly rolling average weight over this period:

(This graph is log scale for clarity; each point on the line represents 7 days worth of weigh-ins, averaged together. The bottom point is a starting weight of 161.94; I ended February at a weight of 164 lbs).

From experience, I knew that the closer I ate to plan – the more painstakingly I weighed, measured, and tracked my food – the more effectively I could control my weight.

So I went through the process above and came up with a positive statement:

“I effortlessly eat on my diet plan every single day and I love it.”

I then proceeded to repeat that statement to myself as many times as possible each day.

On my bike ride into work.

At work.

In the shower.

While brushing my teeth.

Any time I had a spare moment, I made sure to repeat the statement.

What happened?

Here’s my calorie tracking from March 1st (when I first started priming):

While there’s still some variation around the 2000 calorie mean, there is far less than in the prior period.

How did that affect my weight?

From our peak on March 1st of 164 lbs, we have dropped down to nearly 2 lbs below our previous low.

While I’m not able to measure body fat percentage, I do think you can see the difference in these photos (left was taken in January, right was taken at end of March):

What I found most interesting, however, was the feeling that things had gotten easier.

Admittedly, this is not an easy thing to quantify or track. Nor did I bother to isolate the variable of priming in this case (I also, for example, am experimenting with avoiding all social media).

But subjectively, I certainly experienced the process of weighing and tracking all my food very differently. There was less of a struggle over the process, and far less temptation to stray from the plan or “cheat around the edges” the way I did at the beginning of the year.

Based on the strength of the results in this test – and due to the fact that priming costs nothing and carries little to no risk of adverse effects – I’m going to continue using it as a tool for behavior change.

From my experience so far, I’d like to point out a few final points:

Choosing the right action is paramount. I like the idea of pinpointing the negative and then inverting it. Make sure to pick something that’s both actionable (i.e., it’s a thing that you can do, not a state or feeling) and impactful (really spending some thinking about the thing you can do that will make everything else easier. I knew that focusing on accuracy in measurement was a cornerstone habit for me – yours will vary).

Rhythm makes repetition easier. My priming statement had a certain rhythm that made it very easy to sing ad nauseam. I actually tried to change it mid-way (I wanted to swap in “easily” for “effortlessly”), but found that, because the rhythm didn’t work as well, I reverted to the classic version almost immediately.

Don’t look for any obvious change. It’s tempting to constantly check yourself to “see if it’s working.” Just do it without any attachment to the outcome. If you like, arrange an experiment in the way that I did – with a clear start and stop date, and clear measurements of success or failure. That way you can check in at the end of the testing period and see what happened. Otherwise, the effects are subtle (possibly even placebo, who knows?), and see to work best when you just things happen naturally.

And that’s it. That’s how you tap into your subconscious mind and make it work for you:

  1. Define what you are currently doing that you dislike, or is moving you in the wrong direction.
  2. Precisely define the opposite of what you are currently doing.
  3. Create a present-tense statement that states you are doing the new positive opposite behavior.
  4. Repeat to yourself hundreds of times a day.

Give it a shot, and if you do, let me know how it goes!



Cool Things To Read:

Really enjoyed the article “How to Think Like a Detective.” While it’s ostensibly about investigation, everything boils down (as things tend to do) to cognitive biases and our awareness of them:

“If you learn how to systematically shift focus and rewrite your understanding, you’ll increase the chance of discovering a quick and simple solution to your problem. In more complex and high-risk matters, following the expert-detective approach will help you reduce the risk of prematurely jumping to conclusions and therefore avoid serious blunders on your way. With practice, we can adjust the brain’s automatic wiring, unveil our inner detective, and improve our decision-making. This is like any other skill. The more you practise, the better you’ll get.”

Ironic Processes

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Hi ,

Hope you’re well. 🙂

Straight into it this week…

How do I not think of an elephant?

Let’s start with a common self-help bromide:

If you want to change your life, change your habits.

But changing our habits – especially ingrained habits – is far more difficult than it seems.

After all, a habit isn’t just something you do…it’s something you do regularly. That repetition embeds the behavior into your subconscious, resulting in the occasionally disconcerting experience of finding yourself in the middle of a behavior you didn’t consciously start. “I didn’t mean to get off this exit, I was just on autopilot.”

How do we change behaviors that live in our subconscious? Since all subconscious behaviors, like balancing while walking, were once conscious behaviors…

And all conscious behaviors start as thoughts…

We’ll need to start with thoughts.

Which is most of us go wrong.

“All successful mental programming is contingent upon the successful management of unwanted thoughts.” – Clifton Mitchell

If you’ve ever tried to suppress a thought, you’ve likely experienced a strange phenomenon:

Attempting to suppress a thought results in the undesired thought becoming stronger.

Even worse, in times of stress – say, when you’re struggling to change a deeply-ingrained behavior – the intrusive thoughts seem to gather momentum.

As you grow weaker, they grow stronger.

You may have run across a variation of this principle in a psychology class, where it’s commonly posed as the “don’t think of an elephant” problem.

If I tell you to not think of an elephant, an image of an elephant will almost invariably pop into your mind, even if only for a split second.

Why is this the case? There are a few different theories, but my favorite is “ironic process theory,” put forward by Dr. Martin Wegner.

Wegner’s theory states that:

“…Attempts to influence mental states require monitoring processes that are sensitive to the failure of the attempts and that these processes act subtly yet consistently in a direction precisely opposite the intended control.…when efforts to implement the intended mental control are undermined in any way, the monitoring process itself will surface and ironically overwhelm the intended control to yield the opposite of the mental state that is desired.”

What does that mean?

In order to comply with your instruction to “not think” of something, your mind has to imagine that thing in order to be sure you’re not thinking about it.

I picture an old-time sheriff, walking around town with a sketch of a wanted criminal, checking passers-by to see if they bear a resemblance. Without the sketch, the sheriff can’t be sure who’s the wanted criminal and who isn’t; without an idea of what thought needs to be suppressed, your mind can’t suppress the thought.

This process seems to ramp up when your defenses come down. It’s like your mind summons the undesired thought to make sure you aren’t thinking about it, realizes you’re thinking about it and then starts to rub it in your face to make sure you get the message: “NO, YOU FOOL! I SAID DON’T THINK ABOUT THIS THOUGHT, RIGHT HERE!” The undesired thought starts to dominate your conscious awareness, even as you specifically struggle to eliminate it.

Thus, the more we try to suppress a given thought, the larger and larger that thought looms inside our minds.

As Clifton Mitchell writes in the book Priming:

“Stated another way, ironic process comes down to this: The mind cannot consciously avoid, it can only intentionally focus and attend.”

Let’s add one more wrinkle:

You now know that simply struggling to suppress a thought will ironically result in that thought becoming stronger.

But what about affirmations?

Adherents of affirmations will say that they don’t try to suppress thoughts at all – instead, they replace unwanted thoughts with new ones.

For example, imagine a smoker who wants to quit smoking.

Instead of trying to will himself to stop smoking, perhaps he takes to telling himself everyday:

“I don’t enjoy smoking anymore.”

He repeats this to himself every day, hundreds of times a day:

“I don’t enjoy smoking anymore.”

What does his mind do with this information?

Ironic process theory applies here, as well. If your brain wants to understand whether you enjoy smoking or not, it has to have a clear picture of what “enjoying smoking” is.

“You don’t enjoy smoking? Got it – so this, right here? Standing outside with friends, taking a slow, relaxing drag off the cigarette, feeling the smoke fill your lungs, laughing, feeling the stress melt away? This? You don’t enjoy this? Got it. You definitely don’t enjoy that. Nope. Not standing outside with friends, taking a slow, relaxing drag off the cigarette, feeling the smoke fill your lungs, laughing, feeling the stress melt away….”

This is simply a more sophisticated version of thought suppression, with the same unfortunate results.

We are entwined with what we struggle against. This is unavoidable. By directing your mental energy towards something, you are feeding that thing – whether you mean to or not.

Understanding ironic thought processes is the first step towards mastering them.

Releasing our struggles, instead of fueling them, is the second.

The final step – replacing our negative thoughts and habits – is the subject of next week’s email.

Until then,


Cool Stuff To Read:

While I was struggling to fall asleep the other day I was struck by the sudden urge to watch No Reservations, the classic food/travel show from Anthony Bourdain.

While I haven’t had the chance to revisit the show, you can check out Bourdain’s first published piece, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This”, from The New Yorker.

No Time

This post originally appeared on the “Better Questions” email list. If you’d like to get one email like this a week, please sign up at Thanks!

What takes time?

Joseph Roth, the brilliant Austrian journalist and novelist who moved to Berlin in 1920, said at the end of the decade that he could at times no longer distinguish between a cabaret and a crematorium. What was supposed to be amusing made him shudder. Death, correspondingly, could make him laugh.

Modris Eksteins, Solar Dance

Woke up in the middle of the night last night with a premonition of death.

I had gotten vaccinated two days earlier and had spent a long night feverishly tossing and turning.

So maybe it was some residual weariness, my body imagining what might have been if the temperature kept rising.

Or maybe it was my mind engaging in its deep tendency towards irony and reminding me that the shot only protects against one potential source of mortality – and that there are many, many others.

In any case:

Woke up in the middle of the night last night with a premonition of death.

There wasn’t a scene, per se; it wasn’t a premonition of the manner of my death (which would have been useful).

It was simply a full-on, deeply-felt, full-body realization that death is inevitable, and that it is rushing towards me right at this very moment, like I’ve been pushed down a slide and am hurtling towards the earth without the slightest hope of doing anything to slow my fall.

With that as context:

Let’s talk about time.

I wrote last week about how I had decided to experiment with giving up social media.

Partially, that was because I’d been thinking alot about time.

Both how I spend my time…

And how that’s related to how other people spend theirs.

To begin, let us start with the atomic element of my personal social media experience:

The Tweet.

Here is a perfectly great tweet, selected more or less at random from my liked tweets.

It’s funny. It’s got some deeper meaning to it. It’s relatable.

It’s a perfectly bite-sized morsel of a thought. I like it alot.

How much time do you think it took to make it?

And what does that say, if anything, about it’s relative value?

I certainly don’t think that everything that was quick or easy to create is bad, necessarily. I’m sure we can all think of a few.

But everything you consume carries an opportunity cost – while you are consuming that thing, you cannot be consuming something else.

I call this the Haiku Problem.


I majored in Japanese Language and Literature in college because…well. It was complicated. But I did it.

I vividly remember sitting in a Japanese poetry class, learning about the history of haiku (the famous poetic form that, as Wikipedia descri) “consist of three phrases that contain a kireji, or ‘cutting word’,[1] 17 on (a type of Japanese phoneme) in a 5, 7, 5 pattern, and a kigo, or seasonal reference.”

Our teacher told us that Matsuo Basho, the most famous haiku author, wrote over 1000 haiku in his lifetime.

We pondered this in suitably respectful silence for a moment until a classmate of mine raised his hand.

“If he wrote 1,000 of them,” he asked, “how good could they possibly be?”

There are three ways I’d like you to think about time in regards to what you consume:

  1. What takes time to create?
  2. What stands the test of time?
  3. What lasts the longest of all?

Let’s take a look at these in turn.

  1. What takes time to create?

Let’s examine the written word as it currently exists.

Say we divide all our written content into a few different categories:

  • social media posts
  • short articles
  • long form articles
  • books

(Yes, these divisions are arbitrary and I’m sure I’m missing lots of stuff).

Social media posts generally take the least amount of time to create. You can dash one off in a few moments, or on the toilet.

What would you say are the qualities of this kind of material?

They can be very funny, yes – witty, amusing, relatable.

They can also stir up strong emotions…typically negative ones. Anger is quick to rise up, as is indignation.

Because we can toss them off quickly, we don’t tend to censor ourselves, or to think too hard about the potential consequences. People have had their reputations destroyed (often rightly) by their questionable social media posts.

Compare social media posts with books.

Books, as you will know if you’ve ever tried to write one, are very hard to write.

They take a lot of time. They take a lot of effort. There is editing and re-editing, and then editing again.

Compared to a social media post, it is very hard to accidentally toss something inflammatory off in a book. You have more than enough time to rethink, reconsider, and change your tone.

Correspondingly, the quality of the thought inside the book is significantly higher (on average) than the quality of thought inside a social media post….even when they’re written by the same person!

The ideas inside books undergo a trial by fire; lots of time elapses from the time they are first written down to the time when they are finally released to the world, and that means lots of time to think of revisions. The ideas that end up on the printed page tend to be the strongest version of those ideas that the author can produce, for good or for fill.

Here we see a basic principle emerge:

The longer a piece of culture takes to create, the stronger that piece of culture tends to be.

Not always. But very often.

  1. What stands the test of time?

Want new ideas?

Read old books.

This is simply a rephrasing of the Lindy Effect. See this wonderful description from the blog post How Substack Became Milquetoast:

“Imagine you’re a book written in 1920. You know that some books become classics while others have a mere flash-in-the-pan success. Naturally, you’d like to know where you fit on the spectrum. But note that survival in this sense is closer to power-law than normal, only a tiny minority of books can endure, least the canon bloat endlessly.

So with each passing day, rather approaching an impending expiration date, you approach the possibility of longevity. Conditional on being alive, it becomes increasingly likely that you are part of the privileged cohort of immortal classics. Paradoxically, the longer you live, the longer you can expect to continue living. This is the Lindy Effect, a kind of near-magical aging-in-reverse enabled by survivorship bias.”

The idea of the Lindy Effect is that the vast majority of cultural works – books, music, films, you name it – fizzle out immediately into nothingness. A very select few will experience fleeting, temporal success…people enjoy them while they’re current and then quickly forget about them.

The “classics,” then – the books and films and songs that have been around forever, have remained culturally relevant, have retained a sense of importance – these are the rarest of the rare. For something to survive over long periods of time, almost by definition, there must be something profound about it.

Of course, simply being profound in some way doesn’t make something good; Mein Kampf certainly had a profound impact on the modern world, but it’s still a pile of dog shit.

But the fact remains that, given a choice between something new and as yet unproven, and something classic that has stood the test of time…you are far more likely to choose wisely by choosing that which is classic.

Again – not always. but very often.

  1. What lasts the longest of all?

If you adopt, as I’ve been asking of you in this email, the mindset that time is the proving ground of any idea or cultural artifact, where does that lead us?

I would argue that ultimately, we end up here:

We must be unattached to theory, while inclining towards experience.

As Nassim Taleb writes in Antifragile:

“We are built to be dupes for theories. But theories come and go; experience stays. Explanations change all the time, and have changed all the time in history (because of causal opacity, the invisibility of causes) with people involved in the incremental development of ideas thinking they always had a definitive theory; experience remains constant.”

First, it was evil spirits;

Then, it was imbalanced humors;

Now, it’s germs and viruses.

At each stage in that theoretical evolution, the people involved believed that their explanation was the right one.

At each stage in that theoretical evolution, they scoffed at those before them for being so ignorant.

The world’s a complex place; our explanations are never going to perfectly align with the way the world works.

That means a continuous process of creative destruction, of theoretical foundations destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again.

Nothing wrong with that – that’s how human knowledge progresses.

But during that entire destructive cycle, experience remained constant.

We all get sick.

We all get old.

We all lie in bed, anxious about dying.

And then, at the moment when we least expect it –

(because we never expect it)

…We die.

The explanations change.

The experience never does.

And so if you want to truly learn about this world of ours –

If you want to see the deep truths of life, and to understand the people around you….

We must be unattached to theory, while inclining towards experience.

Where does all this leave us? This weird-ass email about time?

Here’s the practical take away:

If you’re making a choice about what parts of the culture to consume or engage in…

Try to pick the forms of culture that:

  1. Take the most time to produce;
  2. Have stood the test of time;
  3. Are unattached to theory and inclined towards experience.

And for the no-less-practical, but more philosophically-inclined among you:

Choose well how you spend your time.

We don’t have much left.



Cool Stuff To Read:

A very watchable HBO documentary on Warren Buffett’s life, available in its entirety on YouTube.

I love Buffett, though Charlie Munger, his partner, is my personal hero. I’ve tried to make their philosophy of “doing the simple things well” a guiding force in my life (and have mostly failed, but that’s life).

The Product Is You

This post originally appeared on the “Better Questions” email list. If you’d like to get one email like this a week, please sign up at Thanks!

Hi ,

Hope you’re having a killer week.

How do I subtract?

“What’s it going to take to fucking change
If these habits are ingrained?
When everything comes apart gradually
We ignore what comes to us naturally
If you don’t know what the product is
The product is you.”

Incendiary, “The Product Is You”

We typically think of happiness as being about what we add.

“If only I had a…

new car, or

a better job, or

a kinder partner, or

six pack abs, or

a PlayStation 5, or

a week to myself…

…I’d be a lot happier.”

That need for addition causes us to expend energy, to stress, to struggle. We have to do in order to make so that we can add.

And addition is great, don’t get me wrong. Building things is what people do.

But we can also find happiness through subtraction.

When we examine what we mean by happiness, we often find it to be primarily defined by what is missing.

There’s a quote from Nassim Taleb that I review every quarter that gets to this point:

“If true wealth consists in worriless sleeping, clear conscience, reciprocal gratitude, absence of envy, good appetite, muscle strength, physical energy, frequent laughs, no meals alone, no gym class, some physical labor (or hobby), good bowel movements, no meeting rooms, and periodic surprises, then it is largely subtractive.”

The constant accumulation of tasks, projects, objects and stimuli amplifies our sense of stress rather than reducing it. Instead, we should focus on removing the things that complicate our existence…allowing us a more free and unfettered experience of our own lives.

I mentioned in last week’s email on Avoiding The Golden Mean that I was dedicating this quarter to subtraction – to focusing on the things which work and winnowing away everything else.

Here’s where that starts:

Quitting social media.

Many of you will be aware of the fact that I am a note-taker. I spend most of my days, in one way or another, writing things down, typically inside Roam Research.

(If you’re curious as to my methodology for doing that, I detailed my entire approach in Ultimate Idea Machine. To say that that workflow has been life-changing would be an understatement).

One of the most common refrains I noticed in my notes from the past few months was the vague sense of ill-ease and foreboding I got from using social media.

Here are just a few examples:

“I find myself getting upset at random shit on social media. I need to just get rid of everything that doesn’t feed into my best self.”

“Social media scrolling. I mean, I don’t mind it, but is this really how I want to spend my leisure time? How can I consciously spend that time? Reading comics would be better!”

“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it now – social media is a poison, at least for me. Why am I letting the reactions of these people I don’t even know dictate my actions, or even enter my brain?”

One of the benefits of journaling and then revisiting what you wrote is that patterns tend to be far more obvious in retrospect.

While there’s a lot to love about social media, I would consistently notice myself being upset or distraught after using it – never too overtly, always juuuust at the surface of my conscious awareness. It was enough, in aggregate, to change the color of my days.

As Taleb would say, if happiness is mostly about subtraction than it seemed clear that social media would have to go.

Easier said than done, of course. The habit of picking up my phone at the slightest moment of mental downtime is deeply ingrained at this point. I had gone through attempts to quit before (by, say, deleting the Twitter app on my phone), only to self-sabotage (by just loading Twitter on my browser instead).

I have long lived by a personal rule: No goals without systems. I knew that, if I was serious about quitting social media, I would need to put systems in place to ensure I was successful.

I’m only about a week in, but so far I’ve completely abstained from social media…and I feel incredible.

Below, I detail the systems I used to make that change. While you’re welcome to simply use those systems if you want to take a break from social media, what’s more important is the thinking behind them.

“A bad system beats a good person every time.” – W. Edwards Deming.

If you’re going to go after a goal, make sure you have good systems backing you up.

The systems I used for this particular goal fall into three general categories, both of which are powerful determinants of behavior.

Introduce Friction

As a general principle, we do what comes easily.

Our brains like to conserve energy. You never know when a tiger might leap out of the bushes; you never know when we might need to sprint like our life depends on it. As such, your brain will attempt to conserve energy whenever possible.

This is one of the reasons we tend to default to habitual behaviors. Habits happen along well-developed neural pathways; they don’t require valuable conscious effort to enact. If something is habitual, it’ll happen unless you consciously will it not to happen, and that takes energy.

Using social media is certainly a habit of mine, so how do we counteract that? Make it difficult.

Whenever you introduce friction into an act you make that act less likely.

So – how do we make using social media more difficult?

Here were the steps I took:

  1. Delete all social media apps from my phone.
  2. Delete the web browser from my phone.

This was a tougher decision – obviously, a web browser is used for a lot of things other than social media – but I have a computer if I really need the web. I have Google Maps and Uber and so on as stand-alone apps. The benefit of removing the browser outweighs the costs in this case.

  1. Block social media sites on my computer.

I use RescueTime to track my computer usage and productivity. RescueTime has a wonderful feature that allows me to block all distracting websites on my computer at set intervals – for example, during the workday.

I set this once and can then forget it (requiring me to re-set this every day would be introducing friction, which would make it less likely – better to automate wherever possible). I can turn it off temporarily if I really need to – say, if I need to view Twitter for work – but otherwise it requires a computer restart to circumvent.

These three changes make viewing social media sites FAR more difficult, introducing enough friction into the process to make it unlikely.

Raise the Stakes

Raising stakes means putting “skin in the game” – establishing some sort of penalty for falling short.

This can take a variety of forms – the simplest of which would be telling your friends to embarrass you if you fail.

(By the way – me writing this to you is a form of that!)

I find a convenient way of introducing stakes to any goal is to use allows you to define a goal and then establish a “pot” – mine is $1,000.

I check in every week on their website to report whether or not I hit my weekly targets (in this case, “no social media use”). I can self-report or set a “referee” who will validate my progress.

If I succeed, I get a nice digital pat on the back.

If I fail, my bank account is automatically debited for the pre-set amount.

I find the threat of financial penalty, while not really enough to make a huge difference in my quality of life, to make a real difference in how much I think about my goal during the week.

We’re all programmed to avoid loss whenever possible. A little goes a long way.

Deal with the Downsides

The final set of systems have to do with dealing with the downsides of pursuing this goal.

Everything we do has a cost. Even seemingly “free” activities carry an opportunity cost – while you’re doing this thing, you can’t be doing something else.

One of the issues people running into while pursuing goals is that they fixate on the benefits of what they want to do – say, losing weight – without thinking about the costs (not being able to eat your favorite foods, not being able to dine out with friends, having to cook more often, etc).

These costs are real, and they’ll provide VERY handy levers for rationalization down the line when pursuing your goal feels less glamorous. The moment things get tough, those costs will seem enormous and it will be “only rational” to fall off the wagon.

Better to identify and deal with these costs upfront.

For me, there were a few clear costs to cutting out social media:

  1. I won’t be able to post pictures and videos of my life.

I often use Instagram as a kind of “visual diary;” I look back on it a lot, checking out pictures of the kids and reminiscing. Losing the ability to do that would be a real cost.

To counteract this, I invested in some tools that allow me to post to social media sites, but not view other people’s content..

For example, I use Hypefury to post to Twitter without reading Twitter.

Similarly, I can use apps like MeetEdgar and HootSuite to post to Instagram and other social media networks without interacting with other people’s content.

  1. I use social media extensively for work.

Specifically, I use Facebook Groups quite a bit for marketing, sales, etc. Losing access to those would be a major problem.

To deal with this, I found the Newsfeed Eradicator plugin for my work computer. This allows me to log on to Facebook to check my groups and provide client support, but not be able to see what people are posting on my general feed. It also works for Twitter, Reddit and Hacker News!

  1. What if I’m bored? What will I do in the bathroom?

I’m the kind of person that obsessively reads the cereal box if that’s all there is.

To make sure I have plenty of stuff to occupy my mind (heaven forbid I should ever sit for a moment and actually think!), I’ve been sure to populate my phone with high-quality, in-depth content.

I signed up for MailBrew to keep track of a number of newsletters I want to keep up with and keep tabs on a small number of Twitter accounts while staying off Twitter.

I use Feedly to keep track of a large number of blogs and publications I want to read.

I subscribed to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Yorker to keep my current events bases covered.

And, of course, I’ve got Marvel Unlimited in case I want to check out what’s happening in the Marvel Universe.

That’s more than enough reading material to keep me occupied in those little down moments throughout the day.

As I said, it’s only been a week (I’ll update you on how this all went at the end of the quarter)….


So far? The impact has been instantaneous and very noticeable.

I just feel….lighter. I’m not experiencing those little moments of outrage. I’m reading more long-form content. I’m more productive at work. I’m a little more present at home, a little less tied to my phone.

And I’ve had almost zero desire to look at social media.

Ingrained habits can be very hard to break….but good systems can make that process a lot easier.

Next time you want to raise your own quality of life?

Remember two things:

Sometimes we need to subtract, rather than add….

And no goals without systems.

Let me know how it goes!



Cool Stuff To Read:

Inside a Viral Website. This write up from the person who created is a fun and fascinating story of someone going viral and trying to figure out how to capitalize.

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