Do the Pufferfish. Leverage your virtues without fear.

October 4, 2011

Let’s say you have an problem that’s been sucking your soul dry for a while now. It could be a condition of your life or a person who wears you down. External or internal, it won’t go away, and you know it.

The people you discuss it with say “Well, maybe it’s time to try something new.” That makes you bristle. Trying a new strategy gives the problem a new degree of respect and acknowledgment. It’s combative: You vs. Problem! Tactics vs. attrition! Dramatic and distasteful.

The other hang-up you have with Doing Something about a problem is that you fear it will change you to do so. Most people like to consider themselves as going about their daily lives exemplifying or striving for the following traits:

Kind, gentle, generous, peaceful, mellow, humorous, thoughtful, contemplative, magnanimous, merciful, reasonable, sane, steadfast, tolerant…

If these aren’t working for you, it’s logical to horrifically assume that the problem can only be solved by abandoning them. That paralyzes you into inaction. “I’m going to have to do something crazy! I’d rather just live with it. I don’t want it to be a big deal. I don’t want to lose control.”

What control? An unscathed problem will cast spells of illusion on you. Let’s say the problem is a person with a lot of presence in your life who is also one of your worst critics. “Thinking about how to deal with him is exactly what he wants – he wants to be on my mind!” Of course, your critic would also love it if you took a quiet approach because the passive can be bullied for free.

If you are still addled by fear, you will probably make one of these two fascinating decisions – the one closest to how you are normally:

“I’m going to stand up and do something about this.” (Internal argument: I believe I can change!)

“I’m going to meditate and civilly disobey and let this problem roll off me like water on a duck. I won’t cave to provocation, besides, in a roundabout way, pacifism counts as standing up and doing something.” (Internal argument: I just need to accept my surroundings and myself!)

Obviously this fails because you’re not doing anything new, you’re just thinking harder about what you’re doing and giving yourself a headache. It comes down to this: everyone wants to be The Bigger Person. Whether you consider The Bigger Person to be a fighter or a monk, you end up being either “not strong enough” to be The Bigger Person, or convincing yourself that aping The Bigger Person is worth making zero progress toward solving the problem or healing your damage from it. This is quite a dilemma. Your integrity and self-identity is at stake, not to mention you’ve still got this problem.

This is actually a porcupinefish. Deal with it.

Enter the pufferfish. The pufferfish is generous, reasonable, and most of those other traits I listed above. He is also possesses one other key quality: prudence. Prudence is how skillful you are at using your skills.

The pufferfish has watched Dead Poets Society like 20 times. He really loves the part where Robin Williams’s character, a romantic, transcendentalist teacher, says “There is a time for daring and a time for caution, and a wise man knows which is called for.” The pufferfish knows that sometimes he can be daring like a warrior and sometimes he can be cautious like a monk, and he acknowledges the nominal degrees of caution present in warriors and daring in monks. He also knows that regardless of whether he chooses daring or caution, he will still be wise. And wisdom may be among the best qualities around, because a wise person is trusted to take action, teach, and rule. (Indeed, the sapiens in Homo sapiens means wise. Back in the day, humans had no problems about running or fighting when necessary.)


When the pufferfish has a problem, he deals with it shamelessly. He has the wisdom and prudence to decide “If someone is eating me, and I have the convenient ability to turn into a ball of spikes and choke him, then by God I’d better do that.” He doesn’t worry about it being drastic. When he swims away from a predator, he doesn’t think “maybe I should have puffed that guy up.” It’s just what he does to solve problems. We don’t call him the prudentfish or the drasticfish. We call him the pufferfish. He puffs.

The verb is more important than the adjective. It wasn’t always like this. A lot of human surnames originate from what that human did (Fisher, Weaver, Cooper, Smith), and yet a lot of leaders’ titles originated from what they were or said they were. If Ivan was terrible or Alexander was great, you weren’t going to mess with them. It’s right there in the name. They’ll wreck you.

But now we live in a society where action is more important than condition and may even predicate it. More and more people are starting to realize it. A common tenet of self-help is that if you act like the person you wish you were, you will actually start becoming that person. Our society’s infrastructure, technology and perception of individual importance is now great enough for us to verify and admire acts rather than just trusting claims of conditions.

You are not just generous, you donated your time to me when you were busy and got me out of a jam.

You are not just smart, you creatively helped me even though your idea seemed unconventional.

You are not just strong, you followed your dream in spite of everyone’s cynicism.

In this day and age, prudence and wisdom are more important than ever, so you can leverage your amazing personal qualities at just the right times and in the right ways in order to do great things. This means that when you have a problem, sometimes you will have to leverage a quality that makes you uncomfortable or scared in order to solve it. That’s okay. That’s why they’re problems.

The saying goes “you gotta do what you gotta do”, not “you gotta be who you gotta be”. Do what you have to. Do. Choose to puff up.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Neha October 22, 2011 at 10:29 pm

loved this piece. Just what I was looking for at this point of time in my life.


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