I love Farnam Street. It's an amazing blog to which I hope you already subscribe.
While I devour the weekly Brain Food newsletter, I can't say I've listened to many episodes of The Knowledge Project podcast.
I've been pretty burnt out on podcasts over the past few years. I think this is due to three main factors:
- A feeling of indifference to the shows I used to love.
- Covid. I got way more into music during that time, which was easier to consume around my family than a deep podcast.
- A feeling of guilt when I don't listen to every episode of a show. It's easy to fall behind when your favorite podcasts are weekly and 3 hours long per episode.
So while podcasts haven't been my favorite mode for consuming information lately, this episode of The Knowledge Project featuring Dr. Becky Kennedy caught my attention because of the Brain Food newsletter, so I decided to give it a go.
It was so good that I actually went back and listened to it twice.
Here are the elements from the podcast I took away, peppered slightly with my own commentary:
Respect your children like you would respect an adult
Your number one job as a parent is to keep your kids safe.
Those safety bounds, however, need to be defined with a fair bit of common sense respect.
When I'm building an app, it's my job to keep the user safe. I want to make sure that they are aware of what they are doing when they give me their data, and I want them to understand what could happen if they choose to make an adult decision to share that data.
Children often don't have that understanding of consequences yet, so it's my job to expose them to danger methodically and let them learn about consequences on their own.
But that doesn't mean I need to be a jerk about it.
On that same topic of actions/consequences, it's helpful to think through in which ways I'm trading long term skills for short term gains. If my kid forgets their homework at home, do I provide them with the short term gain of remembering for them, or do I provide them with the long term memory of the pain associated with forgetting to bring their homework?
I loved Dr. Becky's definition of a boundary:
A boundary is something I can tell someone else I will do that requires them to do nothing.
As an example, my wife and I struggle with keeping our kitchen counters clean because they're the place everyone just dumps their stuff when they come into the house. Mail, school work, and various toys start piling up.
I've made requests in the past like, "hey, can you kids please keep this area clean?"
These are just requests. They don't help define expectations.
Instead, I sat my kids down this weekend and said "okay gang, here's the deal: I'm going to clean these counter tops every night after you go to bed. If there is anything on these counters that isn't put away, I'm going to throw them away."
Unlike me requesting them to keep their stuff tidy, I've established a boundary that requires them to do nothing.
Get on the same side of the table
A common (probably basal?) way of communicating is advisarial.
Imagine a table sitting in a conference room. Many arguments feel like I am sitting on one side of the table and you are sitting on the opposite side.
A better way to communicate is to find a way to be seated next to each other on one side of the table, and place the problem we are addressing on the opposite side.
Dr. Becky gives an undeniably relatable example in this episode about her son and his towel. He kept leaving his towel on his bedroom floor, and she kept getting frustrated that he'd walk past it and do nothing about it.
She could've just done what most of us do: fly off the handle.
Instead, she framed the conversation as "us versus the towel." She said something like, "we both know towels don't go on the floor, what's going on here?"
Her son, to her surprise, said "you know, it's funny... I don't even see the towel on the floor."
That's me. I'm the son.
It took years of frustrated rants from my wife before I started noticing things like piles of dishes in the sink or scores of unfolded laundry baskets piling up.
Something recently started clicking in me, though, and I have been getting better about being a good house mate!
The lesson here: make it "us versus the problem." It's a lot more productive to attack a problem as opposed to a person.
A good measuring stick for the strength of your relationships
Ask yourself: "would they come to me with a problem even if it might get them in trouble?"
Confidence is not feeling good about yourself.
Confidence is about self-trust.
It's about being okay being yourself when you're not the best at something.
What to do when someone comes to you with deep feelings
When someone shares a feeling like shame, embarrassment, regret, sadness, disappointment, etc., here's a three step process for what to say:
"I'm so glad you're talking to me about this."
This one phrase shows you are interested in what they are saying, and it naturally invites them to tell you more.
"I believe you."
This helps build confidence. As we described earlier, confidence is about self trust.
Even if you don't necessarily agree with them, just the acknowledgement that they have feelings and that they are feeling them is a way to help them trust their own feelings.
"Tell me more."
Just let them share until they have nothing more to share.
And that's it.
Once you've done those three steps, you have, in the words of Dr. Becky, "crushed parenting." Or marriage. Or friendship.
Helping someone learn they can trust their emotions allows them to take the energy they'd otherwise use to process the feelings and use it to address the problem.
Why we shirk responsibility for our actions
People shirk responsibility for their actions when they equate the outcomes with being an indication of who they are.
Let's say you identify as a smart person. If you get a bad score on a test, that conflicts with the identity you've chosen. After all, smart people don't get bad scores.
Instead of being able to process why you got an F, you might seek external sources to blame. "The teacher never said this would be on the test," or "The teacher is out to get me," or something similar.
We do it as adults, too. "I'm sorry I'm late, traffic was terrible."
(You know what this feeling is called, by the way? Shame. More on that shortly.)
One way you can help deal with shame is to frame the situation like this: "you're a smart kid who got a bad score on a test."
This, instead, allows you place the identity you've chosen in one hand, and the event which contradicts it in the other. It sort of frames it like the "get on the same side of the table" example I gave above.
If it's "you against your son" because he got a bad score, it's gonna be advisarial from the jump, and there's too much wasted energy on sorting through blame and feelings.
If it's "you and your son against the bad score," you can start to address the actual problem.
We often talk about "fight or flight" as a response to an external stimulus, but the "freeze state" is common for when someone feels shame.
This is helpful for me, personally, because I feel like I've been frozen for the past few months.
The frozenness is a response to me feeling ashamed and embarrassed with losing my job and not knowing what the next move is.
It feels like getting an F on a test. And frankly, I haven't gotten many F's on tests before, so I haven't really learned how to process and deal with shame constructively.
As I've reflected on this, I think about a story I often tell when giving my life story: the time I failed so spectacularly on a physics midterm.
My response to that situation was to give up and switch majors. I chose "flight."
And maybe that was the right response to the situation, and maybe not. But it's interesting to revisit these defining memories in our lives and evaluate them with new information like this.
I probably still would've dropped out of engineering school. But now, in my mid-thirties, I actually think I'd do a better job in college than I did in my early-twenties.
Feelings are like passengers in a car
We often have voices in our heads from sources like impostor syndrome, depression, anxiety, and so forth.
Imagine these voices as passengers inside a car. The car is our mind.
Our goal isn't to kick the passengers out of the car. There's no way to eliminate these feelings altogether; they're part of what makes us human. They belong in the car just as much as any other feeling like happiness.
The goal is to learn how to not let them take the driver's seat.
What's the "ideal" headspace to be in?
This is a question I'd like to explore some more. It seems like the point I just made serves to learn how to compartmentalize troublesome feelings, but we never really talk about compartmentalizing manic emotions like excitement which are often lauded.
So that begs the question: is there an equilibrium we should be striving for? Am I approaching this problem with a video game-like mindset of "winning" when, in fact, there is no game to be played here?
Kids learn to regulate their emotions through their relationship with their parents
When we shush our kids and tell them to get over things, we're not allowing them to feel those feelings. We're, instead, putting that bandaid solution on top of them, which forces them to learn other ways to cope with their feelings.
And yes, that means we, as parents, learned how to regulate our own emotions in the same manner.
This presents a great opportunity, and it's a tact I've taken with my kids: be honest and open about how you are processing feelings.
Repairing is the process of taking responsibility for your actions and apologizing for them to your partner or child.
This, according to Dr. Becky, is the most powerful relationship tool you can cultivate.
The first step of repairing is, ironically, to repair yourself. You need to say something like, "I'm not proud of what I just did, but it will not define who I am."
The second step is sitting down with person you've wronged, name what happened, take responsibility, and state what you will do different next time.
It sounds so obvious. All this stuff sounds so obvious. But I can't be the only one who struggles to do the obvious thing in the heat of the moment.
AVP is a technique you can do to learn how to build confidence and handle emotions.
- A is for Acknowledge. Name the feeling and greet it. Something like "Hey, anxiety!"
- V is for Validate. All feelings have a place in our bodies. It doesn't mean they need to explode out of our bodies, but it makes sense for them to exist in there, and it's okay for them to exist in there. Say something like "It makes sense that this feeling is here" or "I believe myself" (meaning you believe that you are, in fact, feeling that feeling)
- P is for Permit. Allow yourself to fully be OK with experiencing that feeling. (An added bonus would be to add "...and I can deal with it.")
I have been trying this technique when I've felt anxiety attacks come on this week, and it actually really helps to keep myself in the driver's seat, so to speak.
A large section of the podcast is devoted to dealing with kids and their addiction to cell phones or video games.
There are a couple of points that I thought would apply even to those without kids:
Equating phone use to tobacco use
As a society, we collectively determined that children cannot control themselves with other addictive products like tobacco, so we drafted legislation to protect children from purchasing tobacco.
It bums me out that we aren't able to have productive conversations about the addictive properties of social media or cell phones in general in the halls of our legislative branches.
Do as I say, not as I do
Before leaving JMG, I hadn't had a single vacation in my career where I completely unplugged from work and lived in the moment.
Even at Bionic Giant, I still felt myself compelled (obligated?) to have my laptop with me, just in case someone broke something and I was the only one able to fix it.
We've allowed cell phones to seamlessly invade and consume our lives. Besides perhaps when I'm going swimming with the kids, I can't recall the last time I wasn't within at least 10 feet of my phone. When I am with my kids, I can't go more than several minutes without impulsively checking my phone for some sort of update.
That's truly sick behavior, no matter how you slice it.
And I'm a 36 year old dude.
If I can't regulate my own behavior, how can we expect our children to regulate themselves around these things?
Of course, there's lots of angles to this problem, right? "Just because you can't handle yourself doesn't mean you have to punish the rest of us" is a easy retort to that. And I'm not here saying "let's let a bunch of legislators determine how to parent our kids" because, of course, I am an American after all.
But we aren't even at a point where we can have these conversations without resorting to attacking each other.
We're sitting on two sides of the table instead of both of us on one side focused on addressing the problem.
The fact is we do have precedent around establishing guard rails for behaviors our society deems destructive. We should be relying on the opinions of the experts who research these topics and drafting rules that protect the most vulnerable in our population.
Alright, that was a pretty long recap. If any of those topics sound interesting to you, I highly recommend checking out the episode!
If we think of creative introspection as having three levels, level one is just noticing that you find an idea interesting or exciting.
Level two is noticing that your longing to be accepted can fool you to get excited about an idea that you are not actually excited about.
Level three is Andrei Tarkovsky.
In his diary, during preproduction of his masterpiece Solaris, the Soviet filmmaker writes that he has met a sound engineer that he considers brilliant. The sound engineer told Tarkovsky that they shouldn’t use Bach in the film because “everyone is using Bach in their films at the moment.”
In the diary, Tarkovsky makes no further note, but in the film, the music is—Bach.
Tarkovsky realized it didn’t matter that Bach was a popular choice that people would praise him for. It was just the right thing.
This is very hard to do, so most creatives stay on level 2 and learn that what is popular is a trap. This does lead to good ideas being needlessly killed. But likely more would die if they had let what is popular kill unpopular ideas.
This whole essay is mostly an ode to solitude and its importance for cultivating creativity, which is something I’ve been embracing lately to be sure, and also was enough to share this article on its own.
But what really made me want to share this article was this section on creative introspection.
I’ve mentioned how much of an impact the When We Were Young festival had on me last fall, and I think this section is a helpful illustration of why.
I vividly remember a bus ride back from a marching band parade in the summer of ninth grade. A group of girls were raving about this new album by a band called Yellowcard.
For some reason, I started making fun of them in my own head. I didn’t even listen to the music, save for occasionally coming across it on the radio and reflexively tuning out.
When we purchased our tickets for this festival, I started going back and listening to albums from these musicians. Musicians who, like Yellowcard, I derided and dismissed in my head for decades.
Musicians like Sum 41, Green Day, Simple Plan, Avril Lavigne, Something Corporate, Rise Against, Good Charlotte, and Thrice.
I purchased the tickets in October, and for the twelve months leading up to that festival, I almost exclusively listened to music by artists who were performing at the festival, mostly so I didn’t feel stupid when I heard them perform.
The more I listened, the more I realized I wasted two decades of my life dismissing an entire genre of music because I thought I was too good for it. Because I never even gave it a chance. Because I came to a conclusion about popularity in middle school and never revisited it.
What WWWY gave me was a chance to, in just one single day, repair two decades of mistakes and broken assumptions. It granted me an opportunity to redo my childhood, something we very rarely are afforded.
The experience showed me that while the popular thing can be wrong, it isn’t inherently wrong.
And as I keep looking for things that make me happy, that being joy to my life, that stop my heart from physically aching from anxiety, I’d be foolish to dismiss an idea because I solely evaluate it against what some cool girls liked in ninth grade.
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As people keep trying to make Twitter 2 happen, we are now in a period that I'm calling Eternal Woodstock — every few weeks, users flock en masse to new platforms, rolling around in the mud, getting high on Like-dopamine, hoping that they can keep the transgressive, off-kilter meme magic going just a little longer, even though social-media culture already been fully hollowed out and commercialized.
I haven’t signed up for any of the new Twitter clones. I do have a Mastodon account that I created back before Twitter got terrible, but besides a futile one week attempt to get into it, it too has sat dormant.
Maybe this is just part of progressing through life, progressing through society and culture.
It’s something I’ve noticed now with having kids: as a kid, you are extremely tuned into social status. Everyone else listens to the ZOMBIES 3 soundtrack? Now you have to be into it. Your little brother likes it now? Now you have to be too good for it.
But for that brief moment, you feel like you’re ahead of the game. You’re a tastemaker.
The times where I’ve genuinely been the happiest in my life have been when I’ve done something just for myself. If it makes those around me impressed or weirded out or indifferent, it was of zero consequence to me.
The short list of things I can think of that fit that bill: this blog (which has existed in some shape since I was in sixth grade), making clips for television production class, learning something new, 90s/00s pro wrestling, running, and playing the guitar.
It’s only when I start to look around at others when I start to get depressed.
And maybe that’s a key insight into why I feel like I feel right now. I don’t have a job at the moment. At my age, your social status is determined by things like the vacations you go on, the home you have, and the title you hold.
But really, none of that stuff matters. What matters is the stuff that brings you joy.
It just so happens that those things, in fact, do bring me joy. The vacations I’ve gone on in the past 12 months have been the happiest I’ve been in ages. I spent all morning deep cleaning several rooms in my house, and it feels incredible.1 Building software and solving problems for people is what makes me happy, not being a director of this or a chief whatever.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: I should stop feeling guilty about not posting a whole lot on social media.
My home is this website. People can come here if they wanna hang out.
Sure, I’ll poke my head up and see what’s going on with others around me on occasion, but I don’t need to feel compelled to chase the feelings that come alongside taste-making.
Those feelings are like capturing lightning in a bottle, and ultimately lead me to my deepest forms of depression.
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