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


We had a pandemic in 1918 – H1N1, then known as the Spanish Flu.  Between 3 and 5% of the population died, most of them healthy young adults.  The healthiest people died because they had the best immune systems.  It wasn’t the virus that got them, it was the full-on counterattack mounted by their immune systems that did them in.  Let’s look at that again:

The virus didn’t kill them, their body’s reaction to the virus killed them.

Kind of like how it isn’t the feeling that’s the problem, it’s your feeling about the feeling.

Just sayin’.

And before someone smarter than me starts explaining to me that this isn’t a universal lesson about viruses, and some viruses really are the problem and will kill you.  I get that.  The analogy still holds.  No one is saying to ignore the issues in your life.  Serious stuff is still serious, and requires the feeling and then some kind of decision about what you’re going to do to change your circumstances.  But we all have the feeling, then the feeling about the feeling.  The trouble is stopping there.

The feeling is the virus.  The feeling about the feeling is your immune system trying to excise that feeling.  Ideally, if you quit with the feeling about the feeling, accept the original feeling as it is, listen to the thing it is trying to tell you, and then use that information to come to some kind of a measured response that takes into account your values and purpose and addresses the thing the feeling showed up to tell you…  you’re in a better place than if you just get stuck between the feeling and the feeling about the feeling.


Bank on It

It’s been a long time since I talked about certainty and fear when it comes to making decisions.  Fear makes bad decisions (unless the decision is to avoid swimming with hungry sharks and an open wound).  That sounds simple enough to apply, but there are a lot of times when fear can sound like certainty, so how do you tell the difference? 

It’s a hard question.  Scared isn’t a good measure, because the choice borne of certainty is often terrifying.  Fear is always there in some part.  The best example I can come up with from my own life is the book.  I’ve been scared the whole way.  I’m still scared.  What if it isn’t good enough?  It almost doesn’t matter who likes it…  I can’t think of an external voice loud enough to cure me of the fear that it isn’t good enough. 

But if I had stayed there with “not good enough,” then I wouldn’t have pursued publication, and I for sure wouldn’t have decided to invest in help.  The thing is … I’m sure that I want to do for other people what my favorite authors have been for me: company, a different perspective, an imaginary friend that said the thing I most needed to hear.  I’m sure that is the most important thing I could possibly ever try to take on.  So between my fear (not good enough) and my certainty (this matters, even if I’m not good enough, it still matters), it is the certainty that makes the better decisions. 

Not that I’m not scared.  We always judge our insides by other people’s outsides, but I really can’t imagine that there exists anyone who is more of a chicken than me.  But what kind of a life will my fears lead me to?  Not any kind of life that I want.  

You could say that I’m afraid of who I’ll become if I don’t try.  So maybe that is a kind of decision made out of fear, but I’m not thinking about that as much as I’m choosing to focus on the certainty that I’ll like myself better if I try.  After all, if I fail miserably, it’s just failure.  I’ve failed before.  It didn’t kill me.   I’m sure I’d rather be the one that tried than the one that stayed where she was and cowered in a corner.  

It’s a thought experiment first, nothing risked in thinking.  Think through the possible outcomes of the choices in front of you.  The fear choices in one column, the certainty choices in the other.  Play them out in your head.  Take the perspective of yourself in five years looking back on this moment.  Which is the thing you are going to wish you’d chosen?  Where will one choice or the other take you?  Which one gives you more choices to work with down the line?  

Incidentally, I’m not ready sounds a lot like a certainty. 

I’m not ready is really “I don’t know if I’m ready, but I am scared I’m not good/smart/brave/attractive/strong enough for what’s next.  What if I screw it up?  What if I lose?”  Well, what if you screw it up?  Is that better or worse than watching the opportunity go by?    

Coming from the biggest chickenshit ever, this is how I manage.  I feel whatever it is and I let it have it’s voice.  And once I’ve heard the feeling part of me, I sit down and ask what I’m sure of.  I mean, unshakably certain of.  I ask what the evidence says.  I wonder what a brave person would do.  I ask my imaginary version of myself in five years what she wishes had happened here.  I don’t try and tell myself not to be afraid.  It isn’t like I listen anyway.  I’m allowed to be afraid, but I’m not allowed to let fear drive.  

As long as we’re talking about evidence, this decision-making heuristic started because all the evidence I’ve seen says that letting your fears run your life only gets you confirmation that your fears were justified.  Letting your certainties run your life also gets you confirmation that your certainties were justified.  I don’t have a good answer for how or why it works, but people that run their lives by the certainty that everyone is out to screw them only see the ways that they’ve been screwed.  The people who run their lives by the certainty that others are doing the best they can with what they’ve got generally see the ways the people around them are trying.  We live in the world we choose to see.  

I live in a world where trying is better than giving up.  In the world I live in, my fears make decisions I have cause to regret.  So me and my terrified little gut shake all we must, figure out what we know for sure, and proceed accordingly.

Bank on It

Q & A

Wouldn’t it be nice to find the grand unified theory to everything?  The one answer that pulls everything together and, once it’s discovered, changes everything that follows?  It’s the same fantasy we have about moving or traveling: this one thing is going to change, and everything will be different after that.  As a middle-schooler, I was convinced that if I just went away for the summer and came back skinny, everything would be different.  I’d go spend the summer with an aunt, but I’d take myself along for the trip.  I never came home skinny: it isn’t like they keep a supply of motivation to take up running and it can only be found in Michigan…  And it isn’t like there is something in the air in Michigan that makes you suddenly lose your taste for ice cream.

I digress.  

In some ways, any small change means that everything after will be different, but not in the way that you think, and never as fast as you think.  Because whatever changes in knowledge or circumstance, you still carry yourself with you.  Your habits, your body, your history, your fears. 

More important than the grand unified answer is how you choose to live with the questions.   The questions you can be sure of.  They don’t change with circumstance or location.  You’re always stuck with wondering how to be the best person you can be, how to achieve balance, how to best serve a purpose.  The answers?  They change with time, perspective, location…  the answers are unreliable.  It’s the questions you can count on.

So can you create a peacable co-existance with your questions?  Personally, I recommend approaching them with curiosity rather than judgement, but that’s just me.

Q & A


The tv-to-person ratio in the house I’m living in is at about 2:1.   When not living in a roommate-situation, I don’t really pay attention to the TV.  It sits there forlorn and dusty waiting for movie night while I go along my merry way doing other stuff.  What that other stuff is, I don’t exactly know.

Recently, however, I find myself turning on HGTV while I’m in the kitchen, and have gotten sucked into love it or list it, a Canadian renovation/real estate porn show.  So there I was, sitting in the kitchen because I’d finished what I was there to do but I just *had* to know which apartment a nutritionist from Silver Spring was going to pick in Paris.

Wait.  Hunh?

And the thought came to me…  why am I investing my time in someone else’s life when there’s my own life that could use the investment.  So I turned off the TV and I’ll have to live the rest of my life not knowing which Parisian flat the lady chose.

Seriously.  Invest in your own life before you invest in the lives you see on TV.


Faith & Fragility

My ex husband and I had a cross cultural, intra-faith relationship.  And by intra-faith, I mean he identified with one of the big 4 religions and I have my own idiosyncratic belief system.  He hated it when I asked questions.  I made him feel stupid.  At least that’s what he said.  I think it’s more likely that my questions made him uncomfortable.

Because what ever my question (usually starting with “why”) the answer was always that someone else – namely a religious figure of whatever stature or influence – had said this was the way it was.  He had read his holy text, but he’d never thought it through for himself.  And my questions about his belief system did not help in the effort to stay married.

It didn’t help when, standing in the shower together, I asked him if he would face judgement when God came back.


“And you’ll get asked about your life and your choices, right?”


“And is your religious authority of choice going to raise his hand from the back of the crowd and say ‘wait, wait, God Almighty, I got this one’ and speak for you?”


“Well, if that isn’t how its going to go down, don’t you think you’d better come up with answers that you can stand behind?”


Yeah.  We’ll call that a nail in the coffin of the marriage.

He could have asked me all kinds of questions about what I believe, and I could have answered them.  It wouldn’t have bothered me, because he couldn’t have pushed me any harder to come up with a defensible belief system than I pushed myself.  I know why I believe what I believe, I know why I do what I do.  My belief system isn’t so fragile that it can’t withstand a reasoned discussion.  If I had a holy text (which I don’t) you could burn that if you felt the need.  What does your act of rage have to do with my faith?

I think the more degrees of separation we have standing between ourselves and the things we believe – people, interpretative texts, cultural norms, traditions that no one questions – the more anxious and defensive we get about our faith.  When you’re confident that you can stand at judgement day (or any other day for that matter) and take complete ownership of the path that you’ve taken, then it really doesn’t matter what other people do or think.  Your direct connection to the divine/universe/source/G-d/Allah/whatever is not dependent on an external entity.

When your connection is based on rumor, hearsay, tradition, interpretation, etc…  how can you not be anxious?  If your belief system is dependent on any number of unknown external entities, then maybe the guy’s opinion down the street is a legitimate threat.  Maybe this book being burned, or that film being made, or that gay couple getting married, maybe all of that is relevant.  How would you know what mattered, or who could upend your world if your relationship to the divine wasn’t a monogamous arrangement?

Maybe it’s judgmental, but whenever I hear someone squawking about what other people are up to, I pretty much assume that the reason they’re so bothered is because their connection to their belief system isn’t intrinsic and organic, it’s a super-imposed structure that they can neither inhabit, defend, or explain.  When your belief system is organic and intrinsic, then what other people do with their free time isn’t relevant.

The further you get from owning your faith, the more fragile you are.

Just my two cents.

Faith & Fragility