Sumner Redstone died yesterday. The media called him a “fighter”. He said himself, “I like to win.” He won over $4B for himself. All that fighting and winning: still dead.
Yesterday I crushed the hillclimb on my bike ride and “won” the leader board. I felt elated by the win! Coming in the door my 5 year old was sitting on the toilet waiting for someone to wipe her. So much for winning.
Last week, I “won” an argument with my wife on the merits, but the distance between us noticeably widened for awhile.
In my experience, tactical “wins” tend to become hollow when inconsistent with the meta environment. The first company I took public added over $500M to my balance sheet. A couple years later I was divorced, alone in a huge house.
I no longer fight to “win”. I fight to understand.
My wife was not “wrong”, I didn’t understand how she came to a different conclusion that I did. In a second conversation that focused on understanding rather than the “win”, we figured out the stories and values behind our positions and found a way to bridge to understanding. We still have different views on many things because we are different people, but we don’t fight to convince each other, we fight to understand each other.
Yesterday I had to drive to the store and couldn’t find my keys. Of course, I used the Next Right Action worksheet to find them, but this note to myself is about a subset of the problem solving: the “call a friend” part. In this case, ask my wife, Jen. How to ask for help is a whole category of problems in itself and the key I have found is how the ask is made. Here are the hypotheses I formed for how to ask along with the Likely/Easy rankings.
“Do you have my keys?” (3,5)
“Have you seen my keys?” (5,5)
“You were the last person to use my truck, where are the keys?” (2,2)
“I can’t find my keys.” (8,9)
The first three press the urgency of finding the keys, but deliver some level of problem transference and responsibility to the person being asked for help. They could even be a trigger for offense. The last one also has urgency, but none of the transference or potential offense. It ask for help by stating my problem clearly and without blame or transference. I went with that.
Jen hadn’t seen my keys. I found them in the pocket of my pants yesterday. And avoided a fight. The fight wouldn’t have found the keys any faster.
Long before Enzo Ferarri made red famous or Morpheus presented his red pill, Paconius Agrippinus advised us to “be the red thread“. While Enzo used red to feed the ego, Morpheus used it to free the mind. “Agrippinus was a highly regarded Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher who was known for his ability to do what was right, even when it meant going against the popular opinion. Agrippinus was a man of action, not a man of words. That’s why we know nothing of his writing, and only of his character as it is described by others.” (Seneca, Epictetus, etc) (daily stoic). Epictetus recalls a story about Agrippinus:
Agrippinus used the red to share wisdom and light on those around him. To be true to his values so others could see the truth in the values.
Madison, my 9 year old yelled as she screamed by on her bike. We were on a camping trip and Madison was riding her bike up and down the path in front of our campsite. First time in months (thanks pandemic).
On her next pass by, this happened:
“A mosquito bit me and I crashed!” She managed through tears and trembling lips.
Torrents of crying, shaking and whimpering. I rushed over to pick her up as my wife and Harper (5 year old) hustled down the road to meet us. As I was running a recent Seed Crystal post title entered my consciousness.
“Well, here is the Disaster part.” I thought as I helped Madison up and over to the Airstream. Hello Disaster, welcome to our Journey. I started working the Next Right Action worksheet in my head.
Pause. Take a few breaths. Encourage Madison to take deep breaths. Wait for my wife to get here. Look around for any other dangers. Think.
Clarity: There are two major categories of problems here. First, the acute injuries, how bad are they, get them addressed. Second, any emotional injuries. Her overall motivation to ride bikes could be injured. Her risk tolerance overall may be injured. Separate these two and take one at a time.
Urgency: The acute injuries are immediate. See if serious enough for medical care. The emotional injuries can be addressed after the physical injuries are assessed.
Agency: Neither the physical nor emotional injuries were in my control. Madison’s body and mind must fix themselves. While I have zero direct agency to solve her problems, this is a perfect situation to apply guidance and wisdom to (hopefully) shorten her path to healing. And to reframe the event as an Adventure instead of a Disaster to be avoided in the future at all costs.
I found the first aid kit in the Airstream. Wet a washcloth. Got out the alcohol wipes. Gave Harper a doll to play with. As Jen worked on Madison, we kept finding more scrapes. Right knee (lots of blood and missing skin), left knee (not as bad), right elbow (bad), left elbow (smaller scrapes), forehead just under where the helmet was (very small, no blood). No broken bones, no mental confusion, no poor vision, no need for medivac helicopter. We concluded this was a clean up and patch job.
It became clear that the clean up would require more than a wash cloth though, so Jen took Madison to the shower. More screaming and crying, but we got her clean. I started some popcorn in the microwave. Harper played with her dolls and kept saying “I feel bad that Madison is hurt.” When Madison came out of the shower, Harper went over to hold her hand. I was awed by the instinctual sense of empathy and comfort Harper displayed. Harper had not seen much disaster in her short life, yet she instinctually knew how to comfort her sister. Thanks evolution!
As Madison started to calm down, Jen applied the ointment and bandages. I handed her a bowl of popcorn and sat down next to her. Time to turn this disaster into an Adventure through wisdom, humor and empathy.
“The scratch on your forehead is not so bad. Good thing you were wearing your helmet! Think how bad it could have been.” +1 for helmets.
“See this scar and big bump on my elbow?” my wife said. “It is from a motorcycle crash where I didn’t clean it well and didn’t tell my parents. The scar is much worse because I didn’t take care of it right when it happened.” +1 for cleaning the wounds immediately.
“I have crashed my bike more times than I can remember.” I say to Madison with my hand on her shoulder. “Want to see something?” I show her a dark spot on my right thigh. “I crashed my bike in Venice. There was sand on the path and when I went to turn, the tires slipped out. It was much deeper than your worse one and took about a month to heal. I was riding my bike the next day and while it looks a little funny it doesn’t hurt at all now.” +1 for you will get through this without permanent physical or emotional damage.
“If you have scars, think about the cool story you will have for your friends.” +1 for humor and assumptive close (imagine you are already over it).
“You are lucky walking will be painful. You can spend all day lying on the couch playing video games!” +1 for humor and gratitude for the disaster. Hello silver lining.
“More popcorn.” Madison asked calmly and with a slight grin. On the mend already.
I am happy to say Madison is healing quickly and back to her spunky, smiling self. She has not gotten on the bike but says she wants to.
Unattended Disaster = Trauma. Disaster reframed into Adventure = growth.
“What to do now?” is probably the question I ask myself the most in life.
Motorcycle won’t start?
I am hungry.
What supplements should I take?
I am sick, should I see a doctor?
What stock to buy today?
What to listen to on a long car ride?
What is the meaning of life?
These are all the same question. There is a problem and I have to decide what the next right action is.
WARNING: this is a very deep topic which will consume thousands of words, these being some of the first attempts toward consolidation of how I approach this problem.
I find that how I approach a problem is more important than the absolute answer to any particular problem. Having a good mental model is better than having all the answers. Asking lots of clarifying questions, tends to lead to better answers and a more efficient possible solution set. Here is my mental model to solve ANY problem in life in a handy worksheet.
“Some things are in our control and others are not.” writes Epictetus. We can control our thinking, our decision process, and our reactions. This worksheet is about upgrading your decision process.
While I am sure to spill much more digital ink, here is the 50,000 foot view.
I would argue than EVERYONE who is good at troubleshooting and solving problems uses a systemic approach similar to the one I outline here. Short cuts are the most common cause of bad decisions and unsolved problems. I will argue often here than any problem can be solved with this process given enough time and resources.
As I have used this mental model over the years and recently in a more structured way with a daily review of decisions using the worksheet two things have happened:
Get comfortable with probabilistic thinking. Everything in life is probabilistic. There is a 100% chance I will die. And a wide range of probabilities as to how. Some in my control (partially) and some not. In the 2016 election cycle Nate Silver projected Hillary Clinton had a 71% chance of winning and Trump 29%. Most of America conflated 71% with 100% and were shocked on election night when Trump won. Nate Silver was not wrong. 29% is actually a HUGE probability. 1 in 3 times it is going to happen. In a world of 7.8 Billion people 1 in a million chance events happen EVERY DAY (in fact 7,800 times a day). Getting comfortable with probabilistic thinking means making the right decision with incomplete information, size your bets accordingly and be ok when the lower probability events happen because they will happen. The trick to good decisions over time is to make the best risk adjusted decision you can with the information you have and keep playing.
Your decisions will improve over time. By being honest about your process, and reviewing it often, you will catch common errors and they will become less frequent. It is Kaizen. Most people don’t participate in enough self analysis to get better over time. Daily decision process review (which I do with the worksheet) is a habit which has improved my decision making over time and will continue to in the future. You can manage what you measure, so measure your decision process.
To solve any problem in your life use this four step process:
PROBLEM: What is the Problem?
EXPLORE: Ask a bunch of qualifying questions about the nature of the problem.
HYPOTHESIS: Generate 3-5 hypothesis (theories) about the nature of the problem and possible paths to solutions. Rank each by how Easy it is to test and how Likely it is to be true.
TEST: Test each hypothesis one at a time starting with the most Likely + Easy. If problem solved, end, if not solved, move to next hypothesis. If you run out of hypothesis, go back to Explore, generate more hypothesis, test till complete.
I solved this problem in real time without the worksheet, but went back later and filled out the worksheet. Ok, I am nerd about problem solving, so I do shit like that. Reviewing the problem with the worksheet was a good check on the process and actually confirmed that the mental model worked as expected. Practice of the model and review of how you approached problems during the day will make this approach second nature.
Problem: My daughter, Finn, was playing the guitar and dropped the pick into the body. It was rolling around in there. She wanted to continue playing with the pick, so we had to get it out.
Explore: The Explore process is where you clarify the problem, explore urgency, systems involved and other aspects of the problem in a structured way in order to 1. develop hypothesis about the problem and possible solutions and 2. Help set priority of operations. I have a specific set of Explore questions which I ask for each and every problem, some do not apply but I ask them anyway.
Pause: The first step in troubleshooting any problem is to pause. Become Curious. Think. The old “count to 10”. “Take a breath.” Do not do the first thing you think of. Stop and think about the problem and possible solutions. A little planning goes along way.
When the pick got stuck, Finn started shaking the guitar and I literally said “Wait a minute, let me think.” And we thought.
Victor Frankl wrote “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” Make the space. In the military they have a saying “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” With most problems there is no prize for solving them first (they have likely been solved many times by someone else), so focus on solving them well. Solving problems well is the only thing that matters.
Clarity: Is the problem statement very clear ?
Many problem statements are not clear at all. “I feel bad about the weather.” Is the problem that you feel bad or the weather? You can’t do anything about the weather, so that is not really a problem you can solve.
Another clarity error is to have a hypothesis as a problem statement like “The battery is dead so the motorcycle won’t start.” The core problem is that the motorcycle won’t start. The battery being dead is one potential hypothesis. If you have a hypothesis in the problem statement, note it and save it for they hypothesis part later.
Another clarity problem can be conflating events with emotions. “My friend has not read an important email I sent them.” Can sound like a clear problem. But it is not clear at all. Is the problem that they have not read your email (outside your control – see below)? Or is the problem that you feel disrespected, ignored, put off (while emotions are not in your control – your reaction to them is). Likely with the email the clear problem is your emotions about the events, not the other person, so clarify it. “Because my friend didn’t open an important email I sent them, I feel ignored and put off.” is a much more clear problem statement. Focus on stating a problem over which you have some ability to solve, is in your control. You cannot solve problems outside your control.
Clarity is about getting to the core real problem which is within your control.
The guitar pick problem was super clear. Guitar pick stuck in body of guitar.
Urgency: Does the problem have to be solved right now? For business decisions I have often used the Eisenhower box.
If a problem is urgent and important, it must be solved now. Do not put it off. It is very interesting that fewer than 20% of the problems I encounter in a day end up in the “DO” box. Just by asking the Urgency question, many problems can be scheduled for another time (decide), delegated to someone else, or deleted completely from the to-do list. Turns out the best way to solve most problems is to not solve them now.
The stuck guitar pick caused a complete stop to what we were doing so Importance and Urgency was NOW and it could not be put off.
What changed: At sometime in the past, the current problem you are facing was not a problem. What changed between then and now? The motorcycle won’t start. It hasn’t started since last summer. It was not on a battery tender all winter. What changed? Batteries lose their charge over time, especially in cold weather. This change raises the likelihood that something changing caused the homeostasis of the system to go out of whack. While many other catastrophic failures COULD cause the motorcycle to not start, the ones that change are MORE LIKELY to be the cause.
What changed was I dropped the guitar pick. Simple enough.
Emotions at play: We all have two brains, the emotional brain and the thinking brain. Sometimes psychologists call them “system 1 and system 2”. Daniel Kahnaman recently called it “Thinking Fast and Slow.” Mark Manson recently wrote that our consciousness is like a car with a driver and a passenger, our two brains. We like to believe our thinking brain is always driving, but more often than not the emotional brain is driving and the thinking brain is the navigator. Even in what can seem like purely logical problems, emotions are at play. The trick I have found useful is not to switch drivers in the middle of the journey, but to recognize both parties, pause and ensure they are talking. Back to the motorcycle that won’t start. Sure it is a purely technical problem, given all parts working to spec, the thing will start. But what does it say about me if I can’t fix it? What kind of an idiot will I look like to my friends and feel like myself if it is just out of gas? Yup, happened many times. Many times the feelings will influence the urgency question. “I have to fix this now or my boss will think I am an idiot.” But what if your fix is not optimal and you look like an idiot anyway? This part of explore is just about noting what emotions are at play, not arguing with their veracity or confronting them. Acknowledge what emotions are at play.
The guitar sat on my daughters lap, there were two people here, father and daughter. A father is supposed to help solve a daughter’s problems. What kind of a dad would I be if I can’t get a guitar pick out of a stupid guitar? Yea there were emotions at play: Fear, insult, frustration, stubbornness, disappointment (hers of me – mine of myself), doubt, perplexed, incapable, panicked, nervous, defensive and more. As well as potential positive emotions including victory, understanding, confidence, conection, devotion, admiration, gratitude, thankful, curious, amazed, focused, liberated, helpful, uplifted, confident, reliable, supported, and more. Yea I didn’t know there were more complicated emotions than “happy” and “sad” until I found these cheat sheets.
Agency: Is the problem under my control? Simple Y or N. You have more agency in more areas than you think. At least making a stab at troubleshooting is better than calling an “expert” most of the time. This is an area where I tend to take on more problems rather than less, maybe that is because I like hard problems, but trust me, you can do more than you think. While the ultimate solution may include external people or solutions (going to the store, asking a friend, etc.) managing the process is more often in your control than you may think. And more thorough troubleshooting by you before you go to “experts” will help them immensely (more on that later).
Getting the guitar pick out of the guitar was Definitely under my control.
Acute or Systemic:
Acute (adj) (of a bad, difficult, or unwelcome situation or phenomenon) present or experienced to a severe degree. Another way to think of acute, is a one-time problem. Not a result of a system failure or a structural problem with the system as designed.
Systemic (adj) relating to a system, especially as opposed to a particular part. A broken bone is an acute problem. Unexplained random pains not tied to specific events are likely systemic.
Acute problems need a different troubleshooting approach than systemic problems. Many problems have both an acute part AND a systemic part. Separate these two into two different problem statements with two different approaches. Your work will get much easier.
The guitar pick was an acute problem. One part stuck in one guitar. Get pick out, problem solved, system (guitar) works again. The systemic issues were immaterial and not urgent, so no problem worksheet was created for them.
What system is involved: Even if the problem is acute and not systemic, most problems involve some kind of system. Check for dependencies that could affect any possible approach. Are there other parts connected? Any obvious constraints? Very few things operate in a vacuum.
While the guitar pick was the problem, it was stuck in the system of the guitar with its body and strings. Gravity was at play as well as different tools for possible extraction. The other people in the room (my daughter) and my desire to look good solving the problem was also a system concern in the problem approach.
Happened before: Y or N. This is simply a prompt to stop and ask yourself if you have ever seen anything like this has ever happened in your life, or if you have heard of a similar problem and likely solutions. Stop and browse your memory banks. Maybe there is nothing there, but do it anyway.
Never had a guitar pick stuck in the guitar. But I have often had small things stuck inside other things and came up with a couple ideas from those situations.
Exact, measurable outcome: What is the exact, specific desired outcome? Many problems fail this test. Problem: My friend is an asshole. Many issues here, especially how do you exactly and measurably quantify “asshole”. Many time judgement based problems don’t have a specific solution. They can be systemic. The point of this exploration is to ask yourself IF there is a specific outcome possible. Problems without a specific outcome can still be addressed, but give up the specific outcome expectation. It will relieve a bunch of stress and worry about the outcome. Some problems are simply intractable (adj) “not easily governed, managed, directed, relieved or cured.” Like Pi. There is no solution so deal with it.
The guitar pick problem was tractable. Easily measured result, pick out of guitar.
Call a friend: Or today, ask Google. Just paste your problem statement into google. You will be surprised how many people have had the problem and offer solutions. Or call your buddie who knows about the system the problem is in. Exploring the problem approaches others have taken will spark hypothesis and approaches you may not have thought about. This explore step is not to ask them to solve your problem, but to get more data for your own explore process.
The guitar pick problem was pretty clear as were possible approaches by now, so I didn’t ask google or call a friend. Although a later search of “guitar pick stuck in guitar” yielded a 91 second video with a helpful flip technique that is actually much simpler than the approach I ended up taking. I recommend even after solving a problem to go back and google it, maybe there is another approach. A key take away here is that there are many possible solutions to any given problem. Don’t get hung up on the “best”, just get it solved.
Root Cause: First principle thinking: What are the probable root causes? List as many as you can think of. Motorcycle engine won’t start possible root causes: An engine needs three things to run: Air, Gas, fire. Systems make each of those things work. Parts of those systems which could cause a system failure include: Battery dead, spark plugs broken, loose wires, lack of gas, water in gas, blocked air filter, clogged injectors, you get the idea. Work through the system components to find possible root causes. Another variant of this is first principle thinking. Elon Musk famously applied this to Lithium Ion Batteries. His problem was: Why do Lithium Ion Batteries cost so much? Well, what are the raw materials involved (the first principles)? The raw materials were something like 2% of the finished cost of the battery, so the problem was not in raw materials cost, it was in the manufacturing process and⑊or the supply chain to deliver the product. To solve the cost problem, attack the 98% cost.
With the guitar pick problem root cause analysis didn’t really apply. I wrote NA.
Turn it around. Many times assuming the opposite of your problem statement can shed light on you assumptions and give perspective. Byron Katie has a whole method around this (The Work) which I highly recommend. Tim Ferris suggests “What if you did the opposite for 48 hours?” I have found the time box helpful because there is a limited time investment on the strategy which is diametrically opposed to your instincts. Charlie Munger (Berkshire Hathaway fame) says “Invert, always invert.” The turn around is especially helpful for emotional problems. Girlfriend a pain the ass? What if you are the pain in the ass? Or specific tactical ones. Can’t reach anyone between 9-5 on the phone? Call from 7-9 and 5-7. Carrot doesn’t work, try the stick.
The turn around didn’t really help with the guitar pick, so NA.
Now comes the fun part. Take all the information you got during Explore, and start forming hypothesis about the nature of the problem and potential solutions. Sometimes the nature, root cause, is clear as with this guitar pick, so you just write possible solutions. In the motorcycle won’t start problem, each subsystem related to how the engine starts (air, fire, gas) could be a hypothesis with separate potential solutions under each category.
Here are the hypothesis I came up with for the Guitar Pick Problem.
In the first round, I came up with three and started with “shake it out”. Now I hadn’t yet seen the youtube video advising to get the pick on top of the label under the strings before carefully flipping the guitar, so I just started randomly shaking the guitar. It remained stuck. As the shaking was chaotic, I became worried about banging the guitar on something (it was a very expensive guitar). So we stopped. Hypo 2 and 3 seemed to risk damage to the strings or body, so we went back to explore. Upon review I remembered losing a quarter one time behind the washing machine and getting it out with a doubled over piece of tape stuck to the bottom of a stick. Ah, something sticky. Less potential damage and it had worked before. We doubled up some tape and stuck it to a chopstick (thanks hypothesis #3) and stuck it between the strings. Being light the pick stuck and came right up where I could grab it. Problem solved.
Ok, there you have it, my longest post in some time. A topic I am sure to refine and spill many more pixels on. A worksheet for your own use and my own process on one problem. I have done hundreds of these worksheets and hope you do too. After a couple dozen times it will likely be second nature and your decision making will be upgraded across the board. Whenever you find a decision error, review your process. You likely skipped a part or didn’t go back for a second or third round.
Google said the paved biking trail was about a mile away. Stu and I parked in the parking lot and got on our road bikes expecting pavement the whole way. About 200 yards out the pavement ended. “Let’s follow the map anyway.” Our skinny road tires snapped on the rocks and the thin wheels stuck in the soft dirt. My buddie got off to talk a couple times. I cursed Google with my outside voice. After about another mile the gravel ended in an overgrown forest with the old railroad grade choked with brush, grass and a couple wild beasts. “Fucking Google!” Heading back up the gravel road required bike portage (carrying) and more cursing.
Journey + Disaster = Adventure
I recently read Kevin Kelly’s 68 pieces of unsolicited advice, where he wrote “A vacation + disaster = adventure”. It occured to me that the concept applies at the meta level too. Any kind of journey, life, travel, a relationship, a career, spiritual, etc. when hit with disaster can be framed as an adventure. It is easy to frame disastrous vacations as adventure because the people we tell about them can relate (and the stories can be made funny). The truth is all in the remembering. Do you remember the disaster or the fun of the adventure? To frame and remember as an adventure, can be liberating. How about these recent ones (which have all happened to me recently)…
Life + Covid 19 = New path in life Adventure!
Hot start up in the middle of fundraising + Pandemic = Restructuring Adventure!
Profitable Company + frivolous lawsuit for millions of $ = Bankruptcy Adventure!
Family life + Covid quarantine = New family activities adventure!
Profitable full service restaurant + Covid lockdown = Take-out adventure!
My reaction to events is all that matters. Events are neither good nor bad, my impression of the makes them so. Sure swearing at Google felt good for a second, but it didn’t help the journey. In fact it caused negative feelings which upset my physical body just like an injury. By reframing the experience as an adventure, I am able to remember the interesting, funny, learning parts and not the negative parts.
Jeff Bezos had a problem. He had a very well paying job with a promising career track, but this “internet thing” had caught his interest and overtaken his dreams. Should he leave the good job and start an internet book seller? He told everyone around him. Most counseled to stay with the “sure thing”. That didn’t feel right to him.
As with all emotions, the problem is not their existence in our consciousness. That we have little to no control over. The rub comes in our reaction to the appearance in consciousness. Do we ascent to and identify with the emotion? “I am regretful.” “I regret that.” “You did a regrettable thing.” Once you attach an emotion to a thing, it can become deeply colored by it. While regret is generally an adjective/adverb modifying some “thing” or action we are regretful about, it can become a noun when consciousness identifies very closely to it “I am…” Existence of the emotion doesn’t tend to cause problems, identification, attachment, personalisation tends to.
Yea, yea, Martin I know all that shit, get to your point. The upside comes in the wisdom of the difference between recognition of the existence of an emotion and ascent/identification/attachment to the emotion. Understanding the destructive, disruptive power of a negative emotion like regret can be powerful wisdom to take right action TODAY to avoid future regret. This “regret minimization framework” is how Jeff solved his problem. Of course it has been studied by other choice theory researchers also. As Bezos puts it:
“I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried.“
Knowledge of the massive negative power of regret was useful to Bezos. It gave him confidence to take a big risk. He calculated the damage of regret from not trying was greater than any damage from failing at the venture. Now this regret minimization framework didn’t cause the success of Amazon, but it was the spark. Likely this mental model has been applied continuously to new projects at Amazon as they moved beyond books to groceries, web services, payments, and more. Continuing to apply the framework likely has kept them on the leading edge.
Useful: regret minimization framework
Not useful: Attachment, personalization, ascent, identification with regret.
A “girls only” sign hangs on the matte black doorknob to my daughter’s bedroom. Three $1 bills hang half out of my back pocket as I silently turned the handle. I cringe as the floorboards creak under my weight.
“Should have made coffee first.”
9-year-old girl chaos invades my eyes. Everything was strewn randomly about. A cluttered computer desk with paper everywhere, pens, a fan, and stuffies guarding the monitor. A bowl with potato chip crumbs and a can of Spindrift sit atop the keyboard. This morning, in addition to the normal debris of life, in the middle of the room lies a blow-up mattress with a tangle of Troll’s blankets. The head of Harper, my 4-year old, peeks out of the blankets on a rainbow Unicorn pillow. Mermaid PJs snuggle up against a cat stuffy. Sleepover night. Another tangle of grey and black “grown-up” unbranded blankets mound up from the raised Queen bed hard against the window on the far side of the room. The older Madison is in that tangle with her eye mask on. Her head rests on a stack of gray cotton pillows under which is a molar she lost last night. The floor creaks again as I make my way through the chaos. Is this going to be the day she learns the tooth fairy is her father? Man, I wish I had that coffee
“She woke up” I say sitting down on our bed.
“Shit, no way,” my wife says.
“So, it’s my fault?” I say defensively.
The second the words come out of my mouth I get a pang in my chest.
“Regret is a waste of consciousness” my friend says in my ear. So why the pang?
Is Madison the problem for waking up?
My wife for being frustrated and combative?
My own defensiveness?
Lack of coffee?
Mercury in retrograde?
My mind rushes through possibilities and mental models for solutions. Dammit, I should have had the coffee.
“Sorry for being defensive, it’s not your fault” I say.
“I’m going to make coffee. Maybe she’ll fall back asleep.”
I hand her the tooth in its tiny plastic jar and head downstairs to make coffee hoping the tooth fairy didn’t die today.
I experienced a stark reminder yesterday of how insidiously ugly regret can be. A major internet influencer posted a video about a topic which trending up and to the right lately. Lots of people are talking about it, writing books and companies are building specialty apps around the concept. While this guy was one of the first to talk about the concept over 10 years ago, he is not one of the current media darlings around the topic. The concept, while trending today is also as old as the world, it is something humans have been doing since the dawn of time. It is something many religious practices teach and ascetics practice. The current discussion is basically a popularisation for the masses. And the guy in the video was pissed off that all these people weren’t giving him credit for talking about it for 10 years. His regret at being left out of the current popularity oozed through every frame. It was not a good look. Half way through, I stopped listening to what he was saying and just felt bad for the guy. His message was not getting through all the regret.
You can’t change the past. So regret is a completely wasted emotion. And when you have it, it can completely change the character of your present. Like a video on a subject you care deeply about. The message of the video was completely lost on me, hidden behind all the regret. The guy’s present moment was destroyed by his ascent to regret about the past. The problem is not that he felt regret. Feelings come into consciousness all the time from who knows where. The problem was his ascent to and identification with regret so that someone watching a video could clearly see and feel it. The regret was passed on with other things he was trying to say and reduced the effectiveness of his message. I doubt that was his intent.
Turns out I have been using this all along to manage my closets and sort my to do lists of “someday” tasks. The term comes from computer buffer (cache) management. There is a limited amount of fast cache memory in a computer. To manage what is close at hand in this fast memory, the computer needs an algorithm for what to keep and what to replace. Turns out Least Recently Used is the best to get rid of when a choice has to be made. Get rid of the least recently used thing. Same with clothes. This is much better than a static algorithm that says something like “if it is more than x years old”. I also use this for “someday” to do list entries. When I put something on the to do list if when going through it again, the ones i have not considered or remembered recently get thrown off. Regardless of the length of time they have been there.