LEARNING FROM MY GRANDPARENTS
This year Bubbie, my last grandparent died. I was very lucky to be 41 and still have a living grandparent. Bubbie was a very special woman, as I wrote in her eulogy, who loved us all so much. And even though (or maybe because ) I was 41, I had a number of complicated thoughts and spent a fair amount of time pondering and writing about them.
When she died, I was comforted by the words of the physicist Richard Feynman. In one video, his friend Danny Hillis said, “I’m sad because I realize you’re about to die.”
And Feynman said, “Yeah, that bugs me sometimes too. But not as bad as you think. By the time you get to be my age a lot of what is good about you has rubbed off on the people and so although I will be dead, I won’t be completely gone.”
And I realized that I’d learned so many things from all of my grandparents. I wrote about how they taught me to explore, love, work hard, have fun, and be kind to myself and others.
But something kept gnawing at me. I kept looking for ways to feel better. And while I had the old standards like exercise, friends, and mourning, something still didn’t feel right. Having been to business school and in the business world for many years, I thought that I could solve this problem with analytics. But as I started to read (actually listen on Audible) books like Billy Crystal’s Have a Nice Day and a Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, I saw that fiction was more helpful in wrangling problems of the human experience. I wrote a piece that Fiction is the Lie that Tells the Truth.
Finally, I realized that while it’s very sad that Bubbie died, every moment dies as quickly as it’s formed. I have the opportunity each day to have many great experiences, so many that it’s easy to take them for granted. Whether it’s spending time with my wonderful kids, walking through Central Park, or visiting the private garden of the Emperor of Japan, I have a decision to make. If I choose wisely, I can experience so much more in life. I tried to sum this up in Carpe Diem! How to Live Like a King.
At this point in the letter, I like to talk about happiness. We’ve got a clean slate for the new year, why not start it off happy?!
- Last year I took Yale’s Happiness Class, the most popular class ever given at the University. Here are my key takeaways from the online class.
- Drew Dudley gives a quick TED Talk about how a simple act like giving a stranger a lollypop can change someone’s life.
- Jonathan Rausch wrote a great book called The Happiness Curve which explains the unhappiness of mid-life (sometimes called a mid-life crisis) and how it goes away. He has a good summary of the book in The Atlantic.
- Choose the most respectful interpretation. It’s always best to assume people are doing the best that they can. For example, if someone cuts you off on the highway, it’s best to assume that they REALLY needed to get somewhere fast—instead of holding on to the anger.
- I wrote a piece on Edward Harkness, one of the world’s greatest humble philanthropists. He was a mediocre Yalie who donated a large fortune to Harvard and Yale in the 1930s so that other unexceptional students wouldn’t fall through the cracks.
The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny…’ — Isaac Asimov
The best humor goes beyond amusement. It can help people see the world from a new point of view and help people change the way they think. The humorist is a gadfly in the best sense of the word, one who annoys the powerful but provokes positive action. Even when kings wielded absolute power, they had the licensed fool or court jester to provide them with the truth in a humorous way. Considering how important humor is, it’s interesting that Donald Trump does not laugh. Below I have some humorous things that make you think and some things that are just funny.
- Some of my favorite humor takes something familiar and looks at it from a different perspective. If you spell American backward and you get “Narcirema.” In Body Ritual among the Nacirema, an anthropologist wrote about Americans from an outsider’s perspective. For some other funny perspectives look at: From C-3PO’s perspective, ‘Star Wars’ is a prolonged nightmare, It’s Time to Admit That Allowing Men Into the Workplace after WWII Was a Mistake, and Zach Morris is Trash
- Some funny videos make great points about work. For anyone who wants to show adding people to a project isn’t better, look at this video of 3 professional soccer players against 100 kids. And for anyone who tells you that kids are just better with technology, look at this video of kids trying to dial a rotary phone.
- Instead of naming their WiFi network something boring like “Schlaff WiFi,” some people have very funny names for their WiFi like “Girls Gone Wireless,” “Mom, Click Here for Internet,” “Definitely Not An FBI Surveillance Van,” “WeCanHearYouHavingSex,” or “C:Virus.exe.”
- Aziz Ansari had a great Netflix special that’s not only funny and thoughtful but tackles his #MeToo debacle head on.
- Chess Boxing is a sport that involves alternating rounds of boxing and chess.
- Spurious Correlations reminds us that just because two things are correlated, doesn’t mean that they have anything to do with each other (e.g., in the years that Nicholas Cage is in more films the number of pool drownings increases).
- This guy photoshops himself into Kendall Jenner’s Instagram with wonderful results.
I started putting together a blog a few years ago. It was a place to put my ideas between these year-end letters. It was also a way to explore some topics in a little more depth. You can see an explanation of the site and some of my favorite articles at the top of schlaff.com. If you want to stay up to date on my writing, you can subscribe to get emails of new posts.
Here are some of my favorite pieces this year:
- You Think You’re Better Than Me?! An Open Letter to the Grammar Police. An argument I had with my friend Bill Schwartz on grammar.
- Focusing on the Most Important Thing. The most important thing isn’t always obvious.
- Fiction is the Lie that Tells the Truth. I’ve learned that fiction provides better answers to hard emotional questions, like mourning.
- Carpe Diem! How to Live Like a King. I realized that all of the things I need to live well are all around me. I just need to appreciate them more.
ODDS AND ENDS
- The Best Magazine Articles. While it’s easy to get sucked up into the most recent news articles, it’s useful to take a longer view of the more important articles of the year. David Brooks does a good retrospective in his annual Sidney Awards. Longform.org also has a good annual list. You can get many of these articles (and others) in audio via the Audm app. If you want an even longer view of the best magazine articles, take a look at Kevin Kelley’s Best Magazine Articles Ever. Here’s my list of the best tech articles ever written.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is an incredibly powerful tool. To understand how it works, there’s an explanation for kids that’s pretty good for adults. Alfred Spector, the former head of Google Research, gives an insightful speech on the opportunities and perils of Artificial Intelligence. Also, take a look at the TED talks by Pete Haas (my friend from Yale) and Cathy O’Neil (author of Weapons of Math Destruction) to see where we should be suspicious of AI.
- Possible Future Dystopias. In our world where technology continues to give us more powerful tools, I think it’s useful to look at where technology might go wrong. In the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, which I’ve posted, Neil Postman writes that government and corporations will take power through apathy and placating the public (like Brave New World) rather than from fear (like 1984). Dave Eggers wrote The Circle, a modern-day tech dystopia where an unchecked company gains too much power. Black Mirror is a Netflix series that shows possible futures including that of social media (Episode: Nosedive) or digitizing your life (Episode: The Entire History of You). And then you have an actual dystopia from today in Celebration Florida where Disney convinced people to move to a fairy tale city and then let it decay.
BEGINNING OF THE ALMANAC SECTION
This year I’ve created a separate almanac section. According to Google, an almanac is “a handbook, typically published annually, containing information of general interest or on a sport or pastime.” I think that fits. I got the almanac idea from Mark Hurst who used to put together Uncle Mark’s Gift Guide and Almanac.
SOME OF MY FAVORITE THINGS
- Daily Newsletter. NextDraft by Dave Pell is a thoughtful and fun summary of the day in 10 mini articles. Pell does this as an unpaid side gig but takes this job as “Managing Editor of the Internet” seriously.
- Annual Event. Improv Everywhere does the MP3 Experiment in New York each year. Thousands of people download a 40 minute set of instructions and play them at the same time together in the same park, everyone morphing into a giant single group. The boys and I have been going for the last few years. I also posted my favorite Improv Everywhere videos.
- Truth Telling Site. Post Secret is a website where people send in anonymous postcards with secrets they haven’t told anyone else. What you get is brutal raw honesty. Founder Frank Warren has a great video summarizing the site. I saw Frank live and he opened the presentation with the music video Dirty Little Secret which used actual Post Secret cards.
- Inspirational Speaker. Brene Brown has a great Netflix Special The Call for Courage and a recorded seminar The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage. To take a quick bite, check out her animated shorts on Empathy and Blame and her TED talks on The Power of Vulnerability and Listening to Shame. Bonus! My favorite inspirational talk is Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, a wonderful summary of how to live a life.
- Internet Artist. Ze Frank is my favorite Internet artist. Here’s a great retrospective of his work. If you like that, the first half of an early TED talk is equally entertaining (the first 5 minutes is one of my favorite things ever). I also wrote a piece about how Ze has helped me understand how social media really works.
- Card Game/Corporate Prank. You’ve probably played Cards without Humanity, the adult card game of association. Each year on Black Friday, they do a publicity stunt. It’s probably the most fun thing I buy each year. This year was the battle between Artificial Intelligence and their human writers (spoiler alert: humans won and get to keep their jobs.) A few years ago was Eight Sensible Days of Hanukkah where I and 250,000 other customers received 8 gifts, 3 of which were socks.
HACKING YOUR LIFE
- Memory Hacking. It’s not as hard to build up a great memory as you would think. For a narrative of how a reporter became the US Memory Champion, read Moonwalking with Einstein. If you want to go deeper into memory building, check out The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne.
- Mood Hacking. At my kids’ school, they are taught Emotional Intelligence skills using RULER, an Emotional Intelligence program from Yale. We never had this education when I was a kid so I was excited when the creator of RULER wrote a book on the topic. They also have a Mood Meter app where you can track your emotions. I found it helpful to track my emotions throughout the day. I found it mind blowing to use the app to understand how my kids are feeling.
- Priority Hacking. Marshall Goldsmith’s key insight from Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts is that we react to our environment far more than we’d like to admit. He found it beneficial to plant reminders each day to keep us on track. I’ve been using Way of Life to remind me of the things I need to focus on and what I want to be better at.
- Rain Hacking. Dark Sky is a “Hyperlocal” weather app. It basically tells you if it will be raining in your exact location within the next hour. It’s most useful in the middle of a rainstorm when you don’t have an umbrella. The app can tell you “Is it worth it to make a run for it or wait 5 minutes?”
- Reality Hacking. While I enjoy daily meditation to calm my mind, it’s amazing when you mix meditation and the real world. Just walking down the street doing this Walking Meditation you can see the world in a whole new way. I listen to the audiobook of On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz and focus on various different perspectives of the world from different experts. And there’s nothing as tasty as eating a ShackBurger from Shake Shack while doing the eating meditation from Headspace.
- Tools for Lifehacking. Cool Tools is a great site to learn about new and useful tools. I wrote a review of the OXO Sink Strainer a few years ago that became one of their top sellers of the year.
- LetGrow is a “Free Range Parenting” site (the opposite of helicopter parenting) that supports parents in raising more independent and resilient children.
- The Chompers Podcast was created specifically for kids to listen during their morning and night tooth brushing. It’s engaging and exactly the right length to brush their teeth.
- Valance and Chemistry Fluxx are fun games for kids and adults that also teach basic chemistry concepts.
- The Kid Should See This is a weekly collection of videos that are inspiring for kids and parents. They also have a great holiday gift guide.
- I’ve been a big fan of Richard Feynman for many years. I’m so happy that Jim Ottaviani did a graphic biography of Feynman that captures Feynman’s essence.
- Penny Magic is a set of strong magnets, British pennies, and an instruction guide that you can use to do some pretty awesome things.
- We’ve using instructional placemats at home for years. My favorites are maps of the continents. The placemats all look similar but everyone gets a different continent. I also like the periodic table, the Presidents, and country flags.
- Dragonbox makes a set of iPhone games that teach kids algebra, geometry, and addition. The games are very intuitive and my kids were able to learn algebra and geometry concepts in early elementary school.
THINGS TO STOP DOING
- Stop Paying for Things You Don’t Need. When buying a subscription on the iPhone App Store, they often default to auto-recurring. This means you can be paying for things forever and never use them. I immediately turn off the recurring subscription. Then, when I need to use the subscribed service again, I renew it.
- Stop Asking People “What Do You Do?” at Cocktail Parties. In New York, everyone likes to ask “What do you do for a living?” as their cocktail party question. I’ve found that “What are you passionate about?” to be a much more fruitful question to ask. In fact, Amazon puts this question on the internal phone directory for everyone to share.
- Stop Using Q-Tips to Clean Your Ears. Did you know that Q-Tips are absolutely not for cleaning your ears? Take a look at the strange history of Q-tips, the most bizarre thing that people buy.
- Stop Tying Your Shoes Wrong. Watch this old three-minute TED Talk shows the right way to tie your shoes. For the courageous, here’s a video of how to tie your shoes super fast. As another bonus, here are a number of different ways to tie a scarf.
- Stop Refrigerating Your Butter. I always envied how the bagel stores and delis managed to have such soft spreadable butter. I learned that if you leave your butter out on the counter in a butter dish you can do the same thing at home. According to the USDA, butter can stay on the countertop for a few weeks with no problems. We used this butter dish for the last year which worked great and have recently been trying a Butter Bell. The Bell is much cooler and prettier but sometimes the butter falls out when the room is warm.
- Stop Forgetting Items. This is a simple but easy trick. When you need to remember something, put it in your way as a reminder. If you want to remember a bag, put it on the doorknob before you go to sleep. Put documents you need to read tomorrow morning on your chair before you leave. At a hotel put your phone in your bag when it’s charging so you don’t forget the charger.
THINGS TO START DOING
- Get Your Guests to Put Their Phones Down. It’s not fun to have friends and family over with everyone on their phones. Use this charger and phone holder and have people put down and charge their phones in a classy way.
- Play with Your Kids and Not Against Them. When I was a kid, we always played video games like Super Mario Brothers against one another, seeing who could get a higher score. The new Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe on the Nintendo Switch has everyone playing together to beat the level—which is lots of fun. If you’re into physical games, Ari’s become a big fan of Pandemic, where everyone works together to save the world. Wil Wheaton and his friends play a demo game that’s fun to watch.
- Choose a Better Book or Movie. This one is a tip from my friend Seth Gilbert. If you’re going to watch a movie “From the People Who Brought You Movie A” you should probably go see Movie A. It’s going to be at least as good as the new movie.
- Get Your Kids to Evenly Share. In my article Game Theory for Parents, I write about how you can have one kid divide a pie and another choose the most preferable piece. Then there’s no arguing about fairness!
- Communicate Better About Your Dishwasher. Let’s get to one of the most important questions in a marriage, “Is the dishwasher clean or dirty?” My friend Quentin introduced me to the Clean|Dirty dishwasher magnet that elegantly solves this problem.
- Use Smaller Plates. It’ll convince your brain that you should eat less and you can always go back for seconds. It works great at buffets and salad bars.
HOW TO DO THINGS
- How to Serve “Fresh Squeezed” Orange Juice from a Carton. I learned that some restaurants make “fresh squeezed” orange juice by pouring Tropicana Pure Premium into cups and letting them sit over ice. Good orange juice isn’t meant to be served super cold. Let it sit out a bit and you’ll think you squeezed it yourself.
- How to Avoid Losing Your Laptop at the Airport. Put your business card and cell phone number on your laptop to avoid losing them at the airport.
- How to Have More Fun on Roller Coasters. I’ve started taking Bonine (generically meclizine) before going on roller coasters. Now I can go on twisting looping roller coasters or spinning rides like Disney’s Mission Space without having a sweaty, nauseous feeling. Bonus tip, it can also work for stomach bugs which cause nausea.
- How to Fall Asleep While Learning Something Fulfilling. Everyone has heard of students being put to sleep with boring books. But before bed is a great time for me to read dense books. I learn something hard and I know when I need to go to sleep when my eyes … get … really … tired. Some great books for this are How to Read a Book, The Edge Question Series, Super Thinking, and On Writing Well.
- How to Order a Chicken McGriddle. I’m a big fan of chicken and waffles so I was excited when McDonald’s started selling a Chicken McGriddle sandwich. They’ve stopped selling the sandwich but you can combine a chicken patty and two McGriddles from the all-day breakfast menu. If they are confused, show this receipt to the cashier and have them type it in.
- How to Remember Things with Your iPhone. On an iPhone, you can have Siri remind you of something at a certain time just by speaking the sentence. For instance, just say “Hey Siri, remind me at 8 AM tomorrow that I need to file my taxes.” The reminder will come up tomorrow and you’ll have it right on your phone.
- How to Avoid Being Stuck Without an Umbrella. This one is from Mark Hurst. Buy two umbrellas, and keep one at home and the other at work or school. (Perhaps store another in the car.) Then grab an umbrella whenever it’s raining—and this is the only hard part—remember to put the umbrella back in its place afterward. I find it best to leave the umbrella with my bag or whatever I’m taking back in the other direction.
SOME OF MY FAVORITE WORDS, NAMES, ETC.
You can find my full list of my favorite, words, names, and concepts, but here are some of my top picks.
- If you’re into wordplay, The Allusionist is an etymological podcast with episodes on cursing [NSFW], Mountweazels (fictional words used in dictionaries for copyright purposes), portmanteaus (combination words like “brunch”), and eponyms (words named after people).
- Ancient words like abecedarian (alphabetical) and zeugma (using more than one meaning for a single word in a sentence like the phrase “Last week John lost his wallet and his life.”)
- Here’s a couple of great foreign concepts. In the early 20th century the Soviet Union implemented a continuous 5 day work week by eliminating weekends called Nepreryvka. I also like the Japanese word Tsundoku which is the acquiring of reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them.
- And a couple of really interesting names. David Dollar is a former employee of the U.S. Treasury. Catarina Fake was the co-founder of Flickr. That’s her real name. Sol Price was the founder of Price Club which later merged with Costco. FYI, there wasn’t a Mr. Cost. M. T. Lott was the name of a shell company that Disney used when assembling parcels to create Walt Disney World. Sound it out. And there’s always Thomas Crapper the plumbing magnate who held many toilet-related plumbing patents and Otto Titzling (again, sound it out) a fictional character said to have created the bra and immortalized by Bette Midler in Beaches.
IDEAS NAMED FOR PEOPLE
Any good Almanac needs some clever ideas to help its readers get through their lives. I’ve realized that many of my favorite ideas are all named after people. You can check out my entire list here but here are some of the best—some because they are useful, others because they are just fun.
- Devil’s Advocate. We all know what this is, but I never knew it was named for The Devil. The advocatus diaboli (Latin for Devil’s advocate) used to be a position in the Catholic Church. That person would take the position of The Devil and argued against canonization (sainthood) to uncover any ungodly traits or misdeeds of the candidate.
- Dunning-Kruger Effect. The term comes from the article “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” It’s a scientific description of someone who is too dumb to know it. Here’s John Cleese with a video explanation of the effect.
- Hanlon’s Razor. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.
- Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. Organizations give disproportionate weight to the most trivial issues. For example, Parkinson discussed a budget committee discussing a nuclear reactor and a bike shed. The reactor was complicated and esoteric so no one wanted to discuss it. Everyone had an opinion on the bike shed, no matter how unimportant it was.
- Streisand Effect. The phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely. It is named for Barbara Streisand who in 2003 tried to get the picture of her house deleted from an environmental study of 12,000 coastline photographs. The lawsuit and the ensuring coverage raised the viewership of the photo from 6 to 400,000. You can see Barbara’s house here.
Thanks for making it through all of this! As I sign off from this email, I wanted to leave you with one of my cards. There’s a story behind these cards that you can read, but the message stands by itself. Thanks for being my friend. You’re Awesome. Let’s Talk.
My Card (There’s Some Good Background Here)
And if you know of a cool job where I can help a great company do awesome things, let’s talk soon.