UNVALUE: Saying “no” starts with yourself.

A Soul Half Full

Catholic kids tend to have lots of Irish friends. In seventh grade my sister and I changed to a Catholic school named after Saint Brendan the Navigator. That last part is to distinguish him from all the other beatified Brendans you know.

In my class there was even a real live Brendan. We became fast friends. He was really proud of being 100% Irish. Perhaps annoyingly proud. Like people from Maine.

He said he was going to join the IRA one day. They sounded like colonial patriots but with an even holier cause. The captivating accents helped, too. Seventh graders don’t know shite.

I said maybe I’ll join, too.

He shot me down. “They only accept people who are Irish Catholic.”

“I’m half.” (I fibbed. I’m 33%, give or take.)

“Half’s not enough.”

Naotake Murayama (lic)

Key Word: Potential

I’m also Indian. Well, half Indian. Not give or take. Just half.

And half Indian is enough for a kid to value good grades and sheer intellectual horsepower above nearly everything else. From day one I followed what we’ll call the Six-Sigma Student methodology (3S):

Step 1: Show up. (Parents make you show up, so… check.)

Step 2: Absorb. (Try not to daydream.) [1]

Step 3: Regurgitate.

Step 4: Get treats.

Step 5: Recycle.

Above is a step-by-step guide to kicking ass and taking names — at least to the extent asses can be kicked on paper — until you’re 22 or so. In this world, intelligence is a value of its own. And when the 3S model works for you, you internalize this value — for good. A young mind has no notion of an expiration date on principles.

So “knowing stuff” can remain an end in itself for the rest of your life. You feel like you need to read everything. You click the Instapaper “Read Later” bookmarklet in your browser like you’re a rat giving itself morphine hits. You save magazines you’ll never read, even ones you secretly hate. I seldom make it through a complete National Geographic article. But since I like the idea of absorbing the knowledge therein, I still hold onto several issues from 1997 that I’m sure I’ll get around to reading someday.

You feel a dopamine rush every time you correctly answer a Jeopardy question. You feel invincible if none of the contestants got it. But once that micro-high is gone, you have nothing to show for it.

For this kind of person knowledge becomes an oil deposit, a store of potential energy that could power the globe if only someone would tap it. Did you catch the key word there?: potential. [2]

Introducing the Unvalue

I recently demoted intelligence to what I call an “unvalue.”

An un-value is something that is normally considered positive that you say no to — explicitly and in advance. It is not an unhealthy habit you want to quit. An unvalue is not immoral. It is something good that simply distracts from more important goods in your life. The key is that an unvalue is your unvalue, and a good test is whether it could make sense as someone else’s value and with no shame on anyone’s part.

So being late for work or drinking too much (or drinking too much and being late to work in quick succession) don’t qualify. But things like accepting every invitation or maintaining a spotless house make for fine unvalues.

I’ve concluded that, beyond a certain point, knowing more stuff doesn’t benefit me or the world. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with learning more about my industry or a few things in which I’m deeply interested. But I’m no longer a gluttonous information omnivore. (I almost said information whore, but I’m not even sure what that means.)

What’s the equivalent of intelligence above for you? Is it those extra miles you’re running? The social graces you’re exhausting yourself on? Always being in control?

The notion of focusing and saying “no” to things is not new at all. Entrepreneur and blogger James Altucher even wrote a book called The Power of No which provides a good counterweight to the “say yes to everything” crowd. [3]

But while the idea of rejecting unimportant things is powerful, how can you know what exactly to say “no” to? You could weigh the pros and cons of every whim, impulse, and opportunity in light of your priorities (assuming you’ve actually gone so far as to lay out priorities). But this kind of decision triage is physically, mentally, and maybe even emotionally taxing. A more efficient and reliable system to cut the fat is to identify ahead of time the booby traps that you already know you’ll have the most trouble dodging.

Guess what? By demoting intelligence to an unvalue, I didn’t immediately become stupid. But I have a ton more time on my hands. And I no longer let myself off the hook from important things on the basis of a supposedly noble pursuit. In some ways, petting my curiosity cat was insidious. At least when you think about drinking instead of writing that screenplay you’ve been dreaming about, you know it’s not in your best interest. But it would be comparatively easy for me to dodge writing this blog post by learning some Japanese or going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole.

But this post is done now. I’ve labeled my unvalues. What are yours?


[1] Paying attention is the hardest part, and keeping kids’ attention seems to be the most important job of a teacher. Separately, male daydreaming often follows a different kind of 3S pattern: superheroes, soccer, sex.

[2] In an article about grit, James Clear makes some great points about how intelligence is often squandered. Best line: “Talent is overrated.”

[3] Who’s James Altucher you ask? This guy: