I was raised to be an asshole. Not on purpose, of course. It’s just that I’m the only child of a woman who made her way out of a dysfunctional family by being an over-achiever. She gained acceptance through achievement – by setting herself apart from her peers – and she taught me to do the same.
On its own, being achievement-oriented isn’t a bad thing. But it usually requires a heightened tendency toward criticism of others. After all, gaining space on a ladder can be accomplished by climbing faster than the other guy or by kicking him off. The latter is usually easier, and I’m nothing if not practical.
But being an asshole has a high price: Good people will eventually avoid you, or they’ll keep you at arm’s length, which means your options for close personal relationships are limited to sycophants and other assholes. That’s a real problem if you’re hoping for an awesome funeral. Fortunately, things have mostly turned around for me.
I can’t say I’ve completely solved the problem. I’m still an asshole, particularly to the people closest to me, but I’m better than I was five or ten or even twenty years ago, and I’m hopefully still improving. Having kids helped a lot, and not just because they softened my harder edges. They did, but I’m talking about something very specific, a seemingly insignificant gift.
The year my youngest son was born, we were given a book which has come to be one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It literally changed my life, and it’s only 31 pages long – with nothing more than a sentence or two per page. The book is called Have You Filled A Bucket Today: A Guide To Daily Happiness For Kids by Carol McCloud.
The gist of the book goes like this…
- Everyone, including you, carries around an invisible bucket.
- Your bucket’s purpose is to hold your good thoughts and good feelings about yourself.
- People feel happy and good when their buckets are filled, and they feel sad and lonely when they are empty.
- So we all intuitively want full buckets, but they only work a certain way. You need other people to fill your bucket, and other people need you to fill theirs. You cannot fill your own bucket.
Things that fill buckets include:
- Showing love and kindness to people.
- Saying and doing things that make people feel special.
- Doing as simple as giving someone a smile.
People who do these kinds of things as a normal part of their daily lives are what you call “bucket fillers”.
As you have probably predicted, there are things that can be done that dip into a bucket and take out good feelings. Examples include making fun of people, saying and doing mean things, and pretty much anything else that results in bad feelings on the part of the receiver. One who regularly engages in these kinds of activities is known as a “bucket dipper” (or asshole).
Aside from the concept of a bucket and filling versus emptying it, the most powerful idea in this book is the notion that you cannot fill your own bucket (at least not directly). Indeed, many activities aimed at filling one’s own bucket often result in nothing more than dipping into someone else’s bucket. I know from personal experience – being supremely critical of others, thinking I was somehow elevating myself. I got nothing out of it, and the object of criticism certainly didn’t either. Pushing a lose/lose strategy for years is kind of hard to imagine, but many people (including myself) do it or have done it.
The good news is that you can, however, indirectly fill your bucket. This is done by simply filling the buckets of others. Your bucket gets filled in two ways. For one thing, saying and doing things to help people feel good about themselves makes you feel good inside. Beyond that, bucket fillers attract and beget bucket fillers.
That brings us back to time, our new lens for looking and navigating life. If we want good relationships, we have to spend our time filling the buckets of other bucket fillers. More to the point, we cannot waste our time with bucket dippers.
There’s a really important thing to notice about what we’re talking about here. As I stated at the outset of this series, the goal is to adopt time as the basis for our decisions in life, and this means we have to reject the method the vast majority of us are currently using. That method centers on social dynamics – what the people in our lives will think about what we say and do.
Right now, there’s a good chance that more than a couple of bucket dippers hold sway in your life. Their opinions of you and what you say and do matter, and your behavior reflects that. Maybe it’s a family member, a partner, your boss, or a co-worker. Bucket dippers come in all shapes and sizes, but they have one thing in common – they bring down the people around them. If you want to kick ass in this life, you have no choice but to abandon these people. One of the hardest things about adopting time as your lens is having the courage to sever these bad connections.
The fact is that we must objectively qualify the people we give power in our lives. Self-help gurus for years have been telling us to get rid of negativity in our lives. People who always see the glass half empty and spend all their time complaining drain our energy and inhibit our ability to get the most out of life. But a bucket dipper brings a special kind of negativity to the game – negativity about YOU. They are, therefore, that much more destructive. Cut them loose.
And if you’re a bucket dipper, consider that you are severely limiting your options for good relationships. Pay attention to the spirit of what you say to other people. Are you criticizing or encouraging? Do they respond with things like, “Thanks!” or do they get defensive, sad, or angry? Like mom used to say, “if you can’t say something nice, shut the fuck up.”
What this doesn’t mean…
Since Have You Filled A Bucket Today is a children’s book, it is necessarily simple. If you took the 31 pages as the full gospel of interpersonal discourse, you’d still have problems. Some things are left unsaid—things that we adults need to keep in mind.
1. We don’t need to go around blowing flowers and sunshine up people’s asses.
This is not a mandate to be disingenuous. We all know that a faked compliment or kind word is only slightly less undesirable than an overtly critical statement. Being someone who says nice things but doesn’t mean what he says guarantees a lot of pleasant superficial connections. Your funeral may be well attended, but not with the kind of people you want.
2. We can still be truthful when we need to be without becoming bucket dippers.
The key is being constructive with our criticisms. “You’re a terrible artist,” is an obvious bucket dipping comment. But saying, “You’re a great artist” to a beginner painter is not very much better. Focus on improvement and potential. Think back to the teachers and coaches who meant the most to you and chances are, you’ll recall a person who told it h0nestly – even if it was bad – but you still walked away feeling good. Those were good bucket fillers (and I bet they had good funerals.)
3. Joking is not bucket emptying – as long as all parties know you’re joking.
Ripping on your buddies jocularly has to be in-bounds in any good philosophy of life. And it’s not about being offensive or mean, it’s about trust and shared experience that makes a good ribbing redeemable.
I could go on for days about the types of things that yield good relationships, but the aim of this series is simplicity—simple concepts that have lots of power. Filling a bucket and surrounding yourself with bucket fillers is transformational. Try it.
This is a post by one of Neil’s readers from 2012. If you want to be on the inside, and learn the latest tools and techniques we are using here to improve our lives and the lives of others, then you’ll want to be part of this limited email distribution list. Click here while we’re still doing this.