Let’s Talk KonMari #2: The Day Books Blew Up The Internet

(Part 2 of my series delving into the “what I learned” from KonMari’ing my house. A why-to manual, not a how-to. The rest of the series is here: Clothing, Papers, Komono, Sentimental Objects, Storage and Cleaning.)

Holy shit did the Internet have a problem with Marie Kondo’s take on books.

Said problem was sparked in part by a misunderstanding of a line in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, in which Kondo mentioned that she, personally, limits her book collection to around 30 volumes at a time. But the Intertubes thought she was telling all of us to only have 30 books, I suppose. (Here’s a good summary of the drama.)

I tidied my books before this particular shit hit the webfan, so it wasn’t in my mind while working on my own stacks. I definitely kept more than 30 books.

Just as tidying my wardrobe got me thinking about our relationship to clothing, however, tidying my books got me thinking about our relationship to books.


Fear Me, Says the Lord

USians’ relationship with books is both weird and largely unconscious.

In one sense, we revere books. We’re all about book drives and filling schoolchildren’s hands with books and haranguing parents to read to their kids every night and positing reading as an acceptable alternative to nearly every childhood activity. Book burning ranks up there with flag burning on our list of things we find horrific, associated with a kind of social breakdown that surely presages the End Times.

Yet in another sense, we fear books. At least, we view their readers with a sort of skepticism. According to the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of US adults haven’t read a book in the past year. There are entire US subcultures where merely mentioning reading among your hobbies gets you sideeyed, if not outright ostracized.

So: We respect books, but we don’t respect people who read too many of them. And “too many” is, sometimes, “more than zero.”

With this in mind, the backlash to the idea that there’s a concrete number of books we “should” keep makes a lot of sense. It stems from two sources: Our general love of books in the abstract, and the particular experience of book-lovers that they’re already kind of weird, suspect or outside the norm.

Who Reads the Reader?

Then there’s the fact that, like clothing, we use books to mediate identity. Unlike clothing, however, we don’t consciously affirm or accept that this is what we’re doing.

Books mediate identity by becoming part of our identity through the process of reading. Even people who fell out of the reading habit as adults can often name at least one book they remember from childhood that affected them in some way. For people who particularly love books – who surround themselves with books and hang onto those they loved – being asked to toss out books feels very much like being asked to toss out the chunk of yourself formed by the experience of reading that book.

Kondo acknowledges this in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up when she points out that every book you read is now a part of you, whether or not you remember having read that book. She posits this as a way to encourage acceptance of the idea that “Does it spark joy?” should remain your operative question. What matters is that it sparks joy still – not that it did once but no longer does.

Perhaps the most baffling part of the book backlash, to me, is that Kondo’s animism is the closest I have seen anyone come to acknowledging the identity-enacting role that books play in our psyches. Kondo clearly understands that books have a life that interacts with our own. She understands this so clearly that she’s willing to talk about it.

Talking about it is something we don’t do in the US. That would make us even weirder than we are now for enjoying books in the first place. Our “right” way of thinking about books sees them as tools primarily for children. We love the idea that books for children are a “productive” means of teaching children to be good citizens.

For adults, however, reading quickly becomes dangerous. Books engage us in the process of constructing our own identities, and by so doing, they fill our heads with thoughts that might lead us away from the ever-increasing productivity demands of capitalism.

If you think I’m overrreaching, consider the role creative writing programs have played in our national consciousness since – and as a weapon of – the Cold War.

Combine books’ effect on our identities with the edge of defensiveness we already have about maintaining large collections of them, and you’ve got a recipe for one hell of a societal backlash to the mere thought that we might reduce the size of our collections.

What is a Book, Anyway?

Some of the backlash I saw in my own social media circles focused less on the “thirty books” idea and more on some of Kondo’s other advice, including:

  • Kondo’s recommendation not to open books or to start reading them when deciding whether or not they “spark joy”
  • Kondo’s assertion that the best time to read a book is when you first encounter it.

Both of these depend on unpacking our understanding of what a “book” is.

Books have three different “lives” or states of being. There’s the book-as-object – a stack of paper, ink and glue. There’s the book-as-experience – the process of reading it. And there’s the book-as-identity – our memories and feelings associated with having read the book.

When we talk about choosing which “books” to keep, we may be talking about any or all of these things. Since we tend to conflate all three, it’s easy to misunderstand one another when we talk about books.

Should You Open Your Books?

When Kondo cautions not to open a book in order to decide whether or not it sparks joy, it’s because she wants tidiers to focus on whether the book-as-object sparks joy. The goal of the KonMari process, after all, is to change our relationship with the physical objects that occupy our living space.

From this perspective, it makes total sense to avoid opening or reading the book, both of which enter into the domain of book-as-experience or book-as-identity.

Encountering the book as an object at this point in the process also solves problems like “But I loved reading this so much in college!” or “But do I really need two copies?” Okay, but does the physical object make you happy now? Does each physical copy, on its own, make you happy?

It’s why, for example, I had no compunction whatsoever about saying goodbye to my boxed set of Little House books, even though they meant everything to me as a kid. The books in the set, as physical objects, no longer spark joy for me; in fact, they felt heavy, like a rock I’d picked up somewhere on the trail but didn’t think I could put down. The Little House books-as-identity will always be part of me, but I had no desire to encounter them again as books-as-experience, and the books-as-objects had become mere clutter.

On the other hand, I immediately moved each of my two copies of Moby-Dick to the “yes!” pile. Both copies spark intense joy for me as objects, and part of what I love about them as experience is the experience of reading these particular physical copies – which is why I do read them more often than I read the electronic version on my Kindle.

When Is It Time to Read Your Books?

The conflation of these three lives of books also, I think, makes Kondo’s statement about the “right” time to read a book more difficult to understand – and here, I think it’s because Kondo, who was so clear on the distinction when it came to the tidying advice, conflates the lives of the book herself.

Here, the truth I find in this statement is that the right time to incorporate book-as-identity is when we first encounter book-as-experience. In other words, it’s time to read a book when we first approach it, not necessarily when we first acquire it.

This is certainly commensurate with my experience. To cite a recent example: I’ve had an advance copy of Aric Davis’s Weavers on my bookshelf ever since it was sent to me by his publisher in advance of the book’s release – since 2013 or so. I didn’t get to it before it came out, so it’s sat on my shelves ever since, waiting for me to get to it.

I finally read Weavers last week. And though the timing was not at all convenient for Davis or his publicist, it was the exact right time for me to read the book.

If your goal with regard to your personal library is to avoid drowning your best friends in a crowd of strangers, it makes sense to shorten the time between encountering book-as-object and encountering book-as-experience as soon as possible. The quicker you make friends with the book, the sooner it stops being a stranger.

But if your goal for your library is to have the right voice available for consultation when you need it, keeping books-as-objects that spark joy even though you haven’t encountered them as book-as-experience yet makes sense.

The Cull and What I Learned From It

Like clothing, I also expected my own book tidying to go fairly quickly, but for different reasons.

I haven’t curated my book collection the way I have my wardrobe, with a ton of research and color-coded index cards and Pinterest boards dedicated to the topic. For one thing, there’s not a lot out there on how to curate a personal library to present a certain image to the world. Books are personal in a way that clothing isn’t. Janice in Accounting or Bobby the cashier aren’t going to see our libraries in the way they see our outfits.

I curated my book collection the way most book-lovers do: I acquired books and then I kept them.

We recently moved to a new house with considerably less storage space than the old one, which meant that I cut about a third of my books last July. So when I got to the “books” portion of the KonMari method, I believed that I wouldn’t do a whole lot of cutting.

Nevertheless, I’d enjoyed the process of tidying my wardrobe so much that I decided not to skimp on tidying books. I’d do it exactly the way Kondo recommended. So I piled all my books on the floor, held each one in my hands, and asked myself if it sparked joy.

…I ended up getting rid of about half of my remaining books, bringing the grand total in the house down to about 250.

Please Don’t Confuse KonMari With Minimalism

As I was cutting, I was having a Facebook conversation about the differences between KonMari and minimalism.

I posted this photo in the thread:


With it, I commented, “I dare anyone to look at this and tell me it’s a minimalist bookshelf, and it’s one of four.

It’s not about minimalism; it’s about making sure that everything you have contributes to the overall happiness of your household. I got rid of at least as many books at you see here, but I’m much happier, because everything I see on this shelf is something I love and want to read. I couldn’t see those books before because they were mixed in with stuff that just made me feel tired.”

Obligation Books

When I started, this bookshelf was full:


I estimate there were 60 to 80 books on it, total. The middle shelf was mostly mass-market paperbacks; the bottom was mostly trade hardcover. (The top shelf was and remains reserved for feline use, hence the towel.)

I kept five of them.

Everything else fell into a category I have started to think of as “obligation books.” I kept Obligation Books because I felt, well, obligated.

They were books other people had given to me that I felt I “should” read, or books I had purchased myself because I thought I “should” read them. I felt I should read the former because someone cared about me enough to give them to me; I felt I should read the latter because they were the sort of books read by the sort of person I thought I should become. They were homework from Past Me to Present/Future Me.

The biggest surprise wasn’t the number of Obligation Books on this shelf. It was that the number of Obligation Books on other shelves was zero.

Somehow, my subconscious had sorted all the Obligation Books onto the shelf in the least-used room of the house (this is our three-season porch). Not only that, it sorted them onto a bookshelf that was itself a gift that I keep primarily because it is useful and sturdy, not because it sparks joy.

If I needed any confirmation that Kondo’s advice to trust my instincts is right, I found it here.

Reverse-Obligation Books

The five books I kept from the Obligation Bookshelf are in this photo:


They’re to the right of the dictionary on the top shelf: Redwall, Mossflower, and Mattimeo by Brian Jacques, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

I had a terrible time deciding what I felt about these books. I moved them to a “maybe” pile, then to a “are these really sentimental objects?” pile, then to the “no” pile before finally rescuing them from the box of books to depart just before I closed it. I put them on the shelf beside my bed and that was the exact right place for them.

I think of these five as “reverse-obligation books.” They’re not books I thought I had to keep; they’re books I thought I had to get rid of, either because I’d outgrown them or because, let’s face it, I have many feelings about Wuthering Heights but “joy” isn’t one of them.

These five books have been on my bookshelf for nearly thirty years now – even Wuthering Heights, which my mother bought for me long before I was old enough to actually read it. They’re part of what makes a place “home” for me.

Yet when confronted with whether or not to keep them, I struggled to accept that they are part of my home. I had put an obligation on myself to sever my attachment to these books, even though they do in fact make me happy, because I thought they didn’t match who I “should” be. Just as I thought the Obligation Books were books the me I should be should own, I thought these books were books the me I should be shouldn’t own.

Being able to name that internal struggle, through the process of sorting my books, has put it to rest for me. I own what makes me happy. I am not required to justify, argue, defend or explain my happiness.

A Note on Acquisitions

As a result of KonMari’ing my bookshelves, I also bought three new books. And I did it on Kondo’s advice.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo reminds readers that even if we make a mistake and discard a book we later wish we hadn’t, we can always acquire it again.

Several years ago, I discarded three textbooks that I had bought for myself during undergrad – not for a class (my university did not offer classes in this particular subject), but simply because I had a passion for it and wanted to learn it. I discarded them at the time under the “reverse obligation” theory – “you’re never going to use these again, it’s time you grew out of just studying stuff for fun, you need to be an adult now.”

I’ve regretted getting rid of them for ten years now.

So I replaced them. It cost me less than $50 and five minutes on Amazon. And I’m incredibly happy that I did.

It’s about creating bookshelves that contribute to the overall happiness of your house, whether that means you own three books or three thousand. You don’t need to limit yourself to thirty; just limit yourself to the number you know you can love.

Next time: Paperwork.


Let’s Talk KonMari #1: Clothing and the Social Self

If you’ve been checking my Twitter feed, you may have noticed that I too have jumped on the KonMari bandwagon. And I have very strong opinions.

This Netflix glitch conveys the gist.

This blog post series will stick to the same basic outline as the KonMari method itself:

What This Series Is Not: A how-to guide or a humblebrag about how great my space looks now.

What This Series Is: An attempt to lay out the various realizations I’ve had while tidying – especially the ones I had while actually doing the practice and simultaneously reading the backlash to Kondo and her method.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Kondo’s Netflix series “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” both lay out the how. Spark Joy and the Netflix series give plenty of examples of the what. I want to explore the why.


KonMari, Capitalism, and Several Yous

Hold each item you own in your hands. Does this item make you feel happy? If not, why do you keep it?

No, really: Why do you keep it?

That’s KonMari in a nutshell. But, like Hamlet’s, this nutshell creates you king of infinite space.

Margaret Dilloway has written an excellent piece at HuffPo about the Shinto roots of the KonMari method and how they give rise to many of the elements of the method that make us the most anxious. As far as my limited knowledge of Shinto will permit, I believe Dilloway is spot-on.

But it’s not Shinto alone that makes Westerners anxious about the KonMari method. It’s the way the method itself collides with some of our most fervently-held beliefs about labor, material goods, and the self.

Hating Yourself is Good for You (Now Buy More Stuff)

Here in the US, we’re not used to trusting ourselves. Our economy depends on us not trusting ourselves. Our relationship to our material possessions developed over decades of not trusting ourselves, of using things to build the “someone else” we need to be in order to be happy, because we are deeply certain that we are not already that person. (If we were that person, wouldn’t we be happy already?)

screenshot (2)
Fun fact: I only typed “ads that make” into Google Image Search. “ads that make you feel bad about yourself” was Google’s first recommendation.

It’s this dynamic that produces both clothing ads and the airbrushed models in them. It’s the cause of My Closet Is Packed and I Have Nothing to Wear Syndrome. It’s generated thousands of hours’ worth of commentary, of “just be happy with yourself!” pablum, and an entire industry of life-coaching, wellness products, and self-care in order to get you spend even more money on the “you” you’re convinced you are not.

In the face of all this ad-generating self-doubt, KonMari commits a massive sin: It doesn’t tell you that you need to be fixed.

Worse: It begins by having you do decision-making from your own inner sense of authenticity.

Worst of all: The standard KonMari gives you to make that decision is, in US material culture, extremely suspect.

“Does this spark joy?” is highly suspect because it is imminently personal. As Kondo reiterates multiple times in her books, the standard is whether an item makes you happy. Not whether you need it, not whether someone gave it to you, not whether you spend a lot of money on it or it’s hard to find or it makes Janice in Accounting turn green with envy when she sees you with it.

Does it make you happy? Does it make you happy? Does it make you happy?

All of the consequences of owning it that I listed above might make you happy. You might really love having exactly what you need, or being the curator of thirty years’ worth of gifts, or owning things you paid dearly for, or showing off things nobody else has, or ruining Janice’s day.

But those considerations are secondary to the question: Does it make you happy?

All you need in order to tidy is the yes or no. Your happiness is reason enough to keep an item, and your unhappiness is reason enough to discard it.

The more backlash against Kondo and her method that I read, the more convinced I am that this cardinal sin against material culture – being told that our own happiness is good enough – lies at the root of it all. We are so used to being told we’re inadequate that hearing that our judgment can in fact be trusted feels like being told we’re inadequate.

How dare you tell me that the magic was in me all along! I’ve spent my whole life in pursuit of my ideal self – and I’ve spent a lot of money, too!

We bought the things in order to feel safer, more important, more confident – in a word, happier. Sometimes we did feel happier. And sometimes we made it harder to hear our own inner voice.

The Clothes Make the Man – And Everyone Else

KonMari’ing one’s clothes seems to have gotten less backlash than KonMari’ing books or komono, perhaps because we consciously leverage clothing to mediate our identity. Clothing is a malleable medium; through it, we can choose how others see us, and by doing so, we can also fine-tune how much of that image is the “inner me” and how much is a public persona.

And the pressure to use clothing in this way is immense. On average, USians own more clothes and wash them more often that at any previous time in our history. “Fast fashion” allows us to keep up with trends at (nearly) any price point. It also pressures us to keep up with trends: Doing so costs money, and it also communicates that you have money.

Even kids know that there’s a “right” number, type and combination of clothing to wear. I got bullied in elementary school for “not matching” (implying the need to buy/own enough clothes that your outfits always coordinate); in middle school for wearing in-style but “off-brand” jeans (implying there’s a correct amount of money to invest in your public body blankets slash identity markers), and in high school for wearing my favorite outfit, a pair of black corduroy overalls and a babydoll t-shirt, once a week (implying you should have enough clothes to make your outfits non-repetitive).

Image: A Tumblr meme by user opricat. Person: uhm didn’t you wear that shirt yesterday Me: Yea but there’s this remarkable invention called the washing machine Me: definitely didn’t wash the shirt

…As everyone who’s ever heard this comment before knows, the point isn’t to make you admit washing machines exist; it’s to make you admit that you wore a shirt frequently enough for everyone to know that your wardrobe is not infinity deep. What are you, A Poor?

What’s particularly pernicious about this example is the way it works directly counter to trusting that inner judgment. We tend to wear things we like more frequently than things we don’t…but every time we do, we increase the chances of hearing that we were wrong to trust that inner sense of joy.

The Cull and What I Learned From It

I thought starting with clothes would be a breeze, because I’ve already spent decades working on my wardrobe. I’ve owned dozens of books on “cultivating the perfect closet.” I’ve had my colors done. For most of the early 2000s I carried around a collection of index cards on a keyring so I could reference them while clothes shopping and make sure I was buying the “right” clothing: timeless, high-quality, and adhering to every rule about how people with my coloring, shape and stature were “supposed” to dress.

For years, my wardrobe was a hot mess.

In the months before I discovered KonMari, I’d whittled my clothes down to a capsule wardrobe so tightly curated I brag about it on Quora. As a result, I figured the clothing category would go pretty quickly for me.

…It did, but it still surprised me.

My initial pile was much smaller than the ones you see on the Netflix series:


(In this, as in every future photo, I did choose to keep the cat.)

What surprised me was that I did, in fact, end up throwing out two trash bags’ worth of stuff. What also surprised me was that it wasn’t easy.

I thought I was pretty unsentimental about my wardrobe. I don’t get attached to clothes because they remind me of certain life events or so-and-so gave them to me.

I do, however, get attached to clothes because they represent a version of me I thought I wanted or needed to be. I get very attached to clothes for this reason.

Notice I didn’t say I “felt joy” for these reasons. The attachment was entirely anxiety-based. Any “joy” I felt was actually relief as I put these items back in the pile, because then I didn’t have to face the anxiety of letting go of that way better version of myself I’m totally going to become as soon as I work up the courage to wear these leggings in public I swear.

Those items did get removed as I was putting clothes back in the drawers, though. I had trouble managing the anxiety as I held them, but when I saw them folded next to clothes I really do love, I realized they didn’t make me feel joy. They just made me feel tired.

Okay, But I Need Those Clothes

There was a time in my life, about ten years ago, when being able to get rid of clothing simply because “it made me feel tired” would have been an unimaginable luxury. Past Me would have scorned Future Me’s ass off.

Do you want to have to choose between being dressed and paying the electric bill? Because this is how you have to choose between being dressed and paying the electric bill.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo reassures the reader not to worry about throwing out clothes for security reasons. When you’re done sorting, she says, “You will have what you need.”

Kondo doesn’t explain this, but about halfway through sorting my underwear, it hit me:

You will have what you need because you already have what you need.

I’m serious. Imagine this: You’re standing next to your whole wardrobe, all nice and clean and folded. You’re not wearing anything you own: It’s all clean, ready for you to pick what you want.

You reach into the pile and pull out….

You already know. You know which shirt, jeans, skirt or dress is your absolute favorite, your go-to, the number-one thing you want to wear when it’s clean. You know which pairs of underwear cups your bits just right and which ones are a guaranteed all-day wedgie. And so on.

It’s okay to let clothes go when you avoid wearing them anyway.

A Note on Thankfulness

Kondo recommends that when you decide not to keep something, you thank it before relegating it to the trash/recycle/donation bin.

Thanking things before letting them go is one of the biggest “sticking points” I’ve seen among Westerners learning about KonMari. I can’t count the number of social media posts/comments/tweets I’ve seen along the lines of “I’m not thanking my clothes, that’s stupid!”

On the whole, we in the US struggle with gratitude. Gratitude runs counter to our bootstrap-pulling, pioneer-know-howing, “I built it myself”-ing ethos. Gratitude implies that we’re in a position of neediness, of subservience.

Thanking our clothes implies that we somehow need them. That we’re dependent on them to perform certain tasks for us or to help us meet certain goals. And thanking clothes can be particularly galling. How dare you imply that I couldn’t have finished school or gotten my job or had a baby or become the 51st ranked Fortnite player in the world without this sock?

I spent about five years in my tweens and early teens incapable of uttering the words “Please” or “Thank you.” It wasn’t that I was actually ungrateful; it’s that saying those words put me in a position of vulnerability that I, traumatized and mentally ill, could not bear.

After the first five or six times I did it with old clothing, however, I found that it felt weird not to do it. It made the entire process seem rushed. Worse, it made it harder for me to determine whether I was keeping things because I personally loved them or to allay that anxiety of “but I’ll become this person someday I swear!” or “but what if we end up homeless tomorrow?!” (NB: We are not going to end up homeless tomorrow.)

Since finishing my wardrobe about a week ago, I’ve also accepted: Yes, I do rely on my clothes. No, I wouldn’t have accomplished today’s tasks without my socks, or my shirt, or my winter coat.

It was -20F before wind chill here this week. Bootstraps notwithstanding, I’m not actually capable of not freezing to death in such weather on my own. I need clothes. And that’s okay.

So What Should I Do?

So much of the backlash has baffled me because The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up seems to go out of its way to tell the reader that Kondo can’t tell you what will make you happy. Only you can determine whether you find joy in one pair of underwear or ten, in thirty books or three hundred, in two spatulas or twenty-five.

In fact, the book devotes an entire chapter to discussing what Kondo calls the “click point,” at which people know that their space is filled with the right number of items for them. It devotes multiple pages to explaining that the click point is wholly and entirely personal.

Given the book’s repeated insistence that only you can know what and how much you need, it was odd to see people fight against the idea that Kondo “assigns quotas” (an actual phrase I saw one Facebook commenter use). But maybe it’s not that baffling after all.

We’re a society that spends millions every year on people, books, courses and objects that tell us how to fix ourselves. Kondo gently and persistently tells us that she cannot fix us because we were never broken.

Buying all that stuff that didn’t make us happy isn’t our fault. We did the best we could at the time with the tools we had.

But when that stuff comes in the door, it becomes our responsibility. To change the habits that accumulated it, we need to change how we respond to it. KonMari is one new way to respond.

We’re not wrong because we didn’t have this skill before. We were simply fighting to fix something that was never broken in the first place.

That message can be utterly enraging to hear. And rage often shoots the messenger.

Next time: Books.

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Why I Hate the Words “Should” and “Just”

I hate the word “should.”

I also hate the word “just” (as an adverb).

In my book, these two words are profane. They’re worse than any number of slang terms to describe the reproductive or execretory organs or their outputs. They’re shamey, they’re harmful, and they have no place in the vocabulary of anyone who cares about their own or anyone else’s mental health.

I would like to punt them both directly into the sun.

But here: Let me tell you how I really feel.

why i hate should and just


“Should” is the Borg Queen of unhelpful words when it comes to mental or emotional health. It’s worthless because it describes a place you are not at. It describes a state of being that you do not have. By definition.

“You should get out more.”

“You should quit worrying so much.”

“You should quit drinking.”

…No, see, that solution is for a different problem than the one I have.

Think of “should” in terms of a map. “Should” isn’t where you are. It’s a different place than the place you are. Maybe that place is awesome! Maybe everyone wants to be there! But you are not there.

“You should get out more” in response to depression, or my all-time favorite “you should get more sleep” in response to insomnia, are exactly as helpful as if you were standing on Woodward Ave. in Detroit and someone said to you, “You should be in Chicago.”

Okay. Maybe Chicago is great. Maybe Chicago has everything you could possibly want or need. But right now, you are in Detroit.

Telling people about Chicago while they are in Detroit isn’t helpful. Here’s what would be:

  • Asking about their satisfaction with their current location. (“Do you like it here in Detroit? Would you rather be in Chicago?”)
  • Helping them identify the steps needed to get to Chicago. (“You’re headed east, and Chicago is west of here.”)
  • Working out a strategy to get to Chicago. (“You can get on I-94 and go straight there, or Amtrak also has trains that go that way.”)
  • Providing resources to help them get to Chicago. (“Do you have a car? Can you afford a train ticket?”)

The same is true when talking to someone who is struggling with their mental or emotional well-being. Saying “you should….” doesn’t help. If they were already where your “should” is trying to send them, they wouldn’t be struggling in the first place.

Instead, find out where they want to go, and see if they want your help to find ways to get there.


“Just,” the adverb, often rides along with “should.” Whether it’s together or alone, though, it’s crap.

“You should just get out more.”

“Just stop worrying.”

“You just need to get more sleep.”

If a mental or emotional health hurdle has gotten big enough to negatively affect someone’s ability to function – and I guarantee you aren’t hearing about it unless it’s distressing them in some way – they’re already past “just.” “Just” is somewhere on the other side of the horizon.

If fixing it were “just” that easy, they’d have fixed it already.

To return to the previous analogy, if I’m standing in front of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on Woodward Ave. in Detroit, and I’m distressed by how badly I want to eat some Church’s Chicken, I can “just” walk two blocks and solve my problem. Walking two blocks is not a problem for me, so chances are good that by the time you’re done saying “you can just walk down there,” I’m already in line ordering my lunch.

But if I’m standing in front of the cathedral and nothing will satisfy me except a giant bowl of ice cream from Margie’s Candies in Chicago, telling me to “just walk down there” is not helpful. That’s a 273-mile walk, or about 90 hours, assuming I don’t get hit by a car on M-60.

Instead of “just”:

  • Ask how they’re doing. (“Are you hungry? Do you need lunch?”)
  • Find out what might help. (“Does chicken sound good, or are you in an ice cream mood?”)
  • Offer ways to get it. (“We can drive there, but it’ll take a few hours. Are you up for the trip?”)

I’ve been dealing with mental illness literally as long as I can remember, and one of the hardest parts of recovery for me has been eliminating the words “should” and “just” from my internal and external vocabularies.

They’re tempting to reach for in tough times, because they’re easy. They feel like helping without actually doing the work required to be present in the moment, to understand the problem, and to find and implement adaptive responses.

That’s also precisely why they suck.




What I’m Reading: St. Lucia Day Edition

Folks of a certain age will remember St. Lucia Day as “that thing Kirsten got to dress up as in Kirsten’s Surprise.” Like so many holidays at this time of year, it involves feeding people and questionable uses of candles.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading during various seasonal Festivals of Lights.

Learning and Creativity

To Learn, Students Need to DO Something,” Jennifer Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy

“Every day, for the most part, information is delivered to them in some really basic way—usually PowerPoint—and the kids copy down what the teacher tells them to from the slides. Then they have some sort of worksheet where they’re basically regurgitating what was on those slides. After this cycle repeats four or five times, they have some kind of test. And that’s it.

This is not good. If we want our students to actually learn the facts and concepts and ideas we’re trying to teach them, they have to experience those things in some way that rises above abstract words on paper. They have to process them. Manipulate them.

To really learn in a way that will stick, they have to DO something.”

How Exercise Reprograms the Brain,” Ashley Yeager, The Scientist

“Researchers have long recognized that exercise sharpens certain cognitive skills. Indeed, Maejima and his colleagues have found that regular physical activity improves mice’s ability to distinguish new objects from ones they’ve seen before. Over the past 20 years, researchers have begun to get at the root of these benefits, with studies pointing to increases in the volume of the hippocampus, development of new neurons, and infiltration of blood vessels into the brain. Now, Maejima and others are starting to home in on the epigenetic mechanisms that drive the neurological changes brought on by physical activity.”

Laziness Does Not Exist,” Devon Price

“I’m a social psychologist, so I’m interested primarily in the situational and contextual factors that drive human behavior. When you’re seeking to predict or explain a person’s actions, looking at the social norms, and the person’s context, is usually a pretty safe bet. Situational constraints typically predict behavior far better than personality, intelligence, or other individual-level traits.

So when I see a student failing to complete assignments, missing deadlines, or not delivering results in other aspects of their life, I’m moved to ask: what are the situational factors holding this student back? What needs are currently not being met? And, when it comes to behavioral “laziness”, I’m especially moved to ask: what are the barriers to action that I can’t see?”

No More ‘Struggle Porn,’” Nat Eliason

“Entrepreneurs devour this message like doughnuts at a WeWork because most of them are failing. I think Vaynerchuk would want them to hear “If I work hard at the right thing I can succeed,” but the message is easily misinterpreted as “if I’m struggling, I’m doing the right thing.”

I call this “struggle porn”: a masochistic obsession with pushing yourself harder, listening to people tell you to work harder, and broadcasting how hard you’re working.

Current Events

Why Did Fans Flee LiveJournal, and Where Will They Go After Tumblr?“, Heather Schwedel, Slate

“For as long as there’s been an internet, fans have used it to connect with like-minded fans, first through fledgling services like Usenet and email lists, and more recently, on sites like Tumblr and the fan fiction hub Archive of Our Own. … So how do they know when it’s time to vacate one platform and decamp for a new one? Earlier this month, Casey Fiesler, an information science professor at the University of Colorado–Boulder (and Slate contributor), posted her initial findings from a survey she conducted on the popularity of different fan platforms over time. Fiesler, who is working with graduate student Brianna Dym to synthesize the data for an academic paper, spoke to Slate about fandom migration patterns, whether anybody still uses LiveJournal, and where fans might be going next. ”

Do Not Let Tumblr Frame Their Adult Content Ban as ‘Positive,’” Miri, Brute Reason

“The disingenuity of Tumblr’s statement starts very early on, when they describe their position on posting child porn: “Let’s first be unequivocal about something that should not be confused with today’s policy change: posting anything that is harmful to minors, including child pornography, is abhorrent and has no place in our community.”

That’s nice, but if you don’t want this policy change to be “confused” with banning child pornography, you might try not instituting it in response to getting criticized for allowing child pornography.”

Gifting Holiday Joy

The 100 Best Pens, As Tested By Strategist Editors,” Karen Ioria Adelson and Lauren Ro, The Strategist

“We consulted a panel of experts, picked through personal favorites, and mined our own pen coverage to determine the top contenders. Then we called in and tested dozens upon dozens of gels, rollerballs, felt-tips, ballpoints, and fountain pens, and put them to the test. The resulting list is a ranking of the top 100 pens, according to Strategist editors and writers.

One note: A lot of what makes one pen better than another is completely subjective.”

Are We Doing STEM Teaching All Wrong?


When I was in high school, 20-odd years ago, I remember hearing a family friend say that “our schools are preparing kids for the best jobs of thirty years ago.”

It was, of course, not a compliment.

It’s also not entirely untrue. The statistics in this article are sobering – less than a third of high school students nationwide graduate at grade level proficiency in reading and math, while just over a quarter manage to complete the 4-year degree that 93 percent of them say they’re after. Career and tech ed may not be providing actual job skills.

Preparing kids for jobs that don’t exist yet is a challenge. After all, 20 years ago when I was sitting in high school English classes, my current means of making money – writing tech content – didn’t exist.

In 2009, when I started writing content, the job was radically different than it is today. Back then, repeating “panda underwear” 500 times was the guaranteed way to show up first on a Google search for panda underwear. Today, the best way to do it would be to turn out consistently interesting 1500+ word articles on pandas, underwear, and the myriad connections between the two.

In response to the fact that it’s tough to prepare anyone for jobs that don’t exist, many schools have turned to simply shoving kids toward STEM classes and careers. “Go into STEM,” is the advice. “Learn to code. Get interested in tech.”

Okay, but why?

It reminds me of the dot-com bubble that hit just as I was leaving high school: if it had “.com” in its name, folks were lining up to throw money at it, certain that it would be the next huge thing. It had to be, right? It had “.com” right there in the name!

I see the schools I coach for treating STEM education much the same way. Don’t ask if it’s a viable business model; don’t ask if it’s at all interesting or relevant to their actual lives; just throw the kids in that general direction and everything will be fine.

Fast-forward to today, in which I just spent a few hours writing 1500+ well-researched, consistently interesting words on the use of technology to improve agility in the insurance industry.

My takeaway point after reading thirty or forty articles on insurtech and agility:

The tech itself won’t save you. The tech itself won’t do anything. The tech is a tool you use to get where you wanted to go in the first place.

And I’m wondering: What are we doing by pushing kids toward tech – and STEM in general – without showing them how to figure out where they want to go in the first place?

I had this problem myself as a teenager.


As a kid, I owned an Apple IIGS. If you booted the IIGS without a floppy in the drive, it’d kick you directly to a blue screen of death with a warning message and a little flashing cursor.

The little flashing cursor would run anything you instructed it to, as long as you did so in BASIC.

For years I hated the blue screen of death and the little flashy cursor. Sure, I knew BASIC, but I didn’t know what I could do with BASIC. I’d been taught to use BASIC to program computers to solve math problems, which held less than no interest for me, since it was faster to solve the math problems on my own than it was to type a set of instructions to do it. Back then, I only knew I had to shut down the whole machine and restart it (a process that took approximately six geological ages) because I had forgotten to put the disk in the drive before I hit the on switch.

Then one day, when I was 13 or so, I realized: I could use BASIC to write text adventure games.

And I was hooked.

Throwing me in the general direction of the tech did not help; my IIGS was just a clunky gaming system to me. Throwing me in the general direction of coding classes did not help; BASIC was just a more elaborate way to do something I could do more easily in my head.

Nobody asked what I was interested in. Nobody ever thought to show me, the kid who regularly got yelled at for reading and writing fiction while she was supposed to be programming, that the technology could be used to do what I was clearly already into.

It wasn’t until I learned on my own that I could use these tools to do something I was already interested in that I even began to care about coding…and by then, I had so thoroughly associated coding with “useless tasks you are made to do by adults who don’t want you doing what you are interested in” that I never did pursue it any further.

So here’s my question: Why do we still throw kids at the tools?

Why aren’t we throwing the tools at the kids?

Why aren’t we encouraging kids to try everything they can during their teen years, so they can learn what they do and don’t like, and then showing them which tools can help them tackle both fun and not-fun tasks more efficiently?

I’m seeing a great many app developers take this approach. MIT’s Scratch assumes that kids like cartoons and shiny objects, then uses that as a way to encourage coding: here’s how to put the building blocks together to make the cute sprites do what you want. Soundation leverages an interest in music to teach basic theory in a similar way.

But I’m still seeing schools push “tech! STEM! coding!” with zero sense of application or purpose. It’s like watching teachers tell kids to “take a screwdriver class” or “get really into chainsaws.”

Sure, those tools are great – but very few people make chainsaws their life’s work. Most people are into chainsaws for what they can do. They’re into chainsaws because the chainsaw is, somehow, relevant to their interests or passions. It’s not “a thing you do,” it’s a way forward.

And if “showing kids the way forward” isn’t the definition of “teaching for the future,” it should be.

Image credit: jarmoluk at Pixabay; AppleIIHistory.org

Help an author/artist/academic out: buy me a coffee.

PUNCH THE SUN!: Maximizing Your Future Today

Image: silhouette of a colorguard performer with flag, PUNCHING THE SUN.

This morning, I taught seven eighth-graders–none of whom had ever touched a flag before–how to drop spin.

As everyone in the colorguard world knows (and everyone else can deduce from seeing it done), drop spinning isn’t a World-class skill. In fact, it’s a fundamental. It’s darn near the first thing everyone learns to do with a flag. In the world of colorguard, drop spins aren’t so much PUNCHING THE SUN as they are TAKING A BREATH: you’re gonna do thousands of them just as a basic function.

These kids have a week to go from “never touched a flag before” to “can compete with the veterans in the high school guard” for six open slots on that team.  So why did I start with drop spins?

Simple: It was the ONE element I could teach today that would have the biggest impact on their performance one week from today.

Colorguard instructors put a lot of emphasis on the drop spin because it teaches a lot of fundamentals at once: pacing, hand and arm placement, muscle isolation, and (when done marching or while marking time) hand/eye/foot coordination and rhythm.  It also looks good when it’s together, which is why so many parade routines are centered on it.

Granted: I wrote their parade/tryout routine, so I know that it’s chock-full of drop spins. I’m also choreographing the fall show, so I know they’re going to need the skills drop spins teach.

I’m also not interested in wasting time.

Between coaching colorguard, taking on freelance projects for clients, editing several books a year for Autonomous Press (the first of my 2017 batch, Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamberis out now), writing a novel a year, and spending time with my awesome family, I don’t have a lot of procrastination time. And I don’t get any more time than everyone else gets (believe it or not, I also eat three meals a day, exercise daily, and sleep eight hours a night).

What I’ve learned to do is to use the time I have more efficiently, by asking this one question: What can I do RIGHT NOW that will get me closest to X goal?

“X” is always the goal in question, whether that’s increasing my freelance income, getting a bunch of newbies spinning together, tapping my creativity or expanding my readership. This morning, that was skipping basics like the 27 points in favor of teaching my new colorguard candidates how to drop spin. This afternoon, it’s going to be sitting down and writing a thousand words.

(For authors, “what can I do now that will get me closest to my goal?” is almost always “SIT DOWN AND WRITE.” The fact that “sit down and write” is also the hardest thing we do is not a coincidence.)

For solid long-term growth, start by setting your five-year goal. Write it in present tense: “I make $50,000 per year in book royalties.” “I have an agreement to turn my novel into a film.” “I am the director of a Scholastic Open-class guard that just placed in the top five at Dayton.” Whatever your goal is.

Write it on a Post-It note. Stick it above your desk. Or on your dashboard. Or on your treadmill. Someplace you’re going to see it every day.

When you have to decide how to spend your time–what project to do next, whether to say “yes” to an offer, and so on–ask, “Is this the one thing I can do today that will get me closest to my goal?” If so, get on it.

Ask yourself:

  • “If I could do only one thing today that would get me closer to my goal, would this be it?”
  • “If I can only spend 30 minutes today on my goal, what will get me closest to that goal in that short amount of time?”
  • “If I doubled my goal (make $100,000, turn two novels into films, direct a World class guard, etc.), what one thing today would get me closest to that goal?”

There’s a place in life for Netflix and chill–but to reach your goals, make sure it’s after you’ve done that One Thing.