Truant’s Law of Suck Relativity

Here’s me, two Saturdays ago, 5:30am, about an hour into an 18 mile run:

It’s pitch dark and it’s maybe 20 degrees outside. The cold irritates me (though I’m used to it) but the dark, save the light from my headlamp, is actually quite awesome. The world is almost preternaturally quiet. I’ve only seen a car or two so far, and everybody seems to still be tucked nicely into bed. There’s no street noise and no barking dogs. It’s like the world itself is on pause.

A lot of people hate running, but I’ve grown to love these long, early runs. I feel like I have the jump on everyone else’s day. I feel like I’m conquering something. A run this long is no longer precisely hard so much as it is simply long.

I hear a noise behind me. An engine. Headlights illuminate some reflective strips on a mailbox ahead of me. But the engine, the truck or whatever it is, stops. A while later, it starts again, but doesn’t quite reach me. It stops again. Pauses. Resumes.

It’s the garbageman. I didn’t know that garbage trucks ran on Saturdays at 5:30am, but apparently they do. And my thought, as the truck finally passes me and stops a few houses up to load a few more bags, is That poor son of a bitch.

He’s got to be angry. Anyone would be. It’s his Saturday, and he has to be out here, picking up everyone else’s shit hours before dawn.

But as I run past him, bracing myself for his disgust at the chipper go-getter out here on a fun run while he’s working his ass off, he’s out of the truck with some bags in his hands and he smiles and nods and says, “Good morning.”

Which is when I realize that he’s probably doing just fine… but that he’s probably feeling sorry for me. I’ve got to be miserable. Anyone would be. It’s my Saturday, and I had to drag my ass out of bed and into the freezing cold, sweating it out and huffing and puffing hours before dawn.

Being a garbageman does not suck.

My wife Robin reads these. Relax, dear. I have no plans to become a garbageman.

But think about something for a second:

No matter how well-adjusted and understanding we think we are, most of us are still prejudiced because most of us still think certain things suck. My son Austin thinks green peppers suck. Robin thinks Star Trek: The Next Generation sucks. I like both of those things a lot, but think that gummy worms (Austin) and General Hospital (Robin) suck.

A lot of people who signed up for Question the Rules thought that working nine-to-five in an office sucked.

And almost all of us think that being a garbageman would suck. Along with cleaning septic tanks, cleaning up medical waste, or mopping up at a porn theater.

But those things don’t suck. Nothing sucks.

There is no absolute, universal conception of time or location, and there’s no absolute, universal conception of suck. All three can only be defined subjectively, relative to where you are, where you’re going, and how fast you’re moving.

Sucking is relative

POSIT: Lima beans suck.

RESPONSE: Really? Compared to what? Do they suck compared to Pop Tarts, or do they suck compared to starving to death?

Give some shitty, mealy, disgusting and even overcooked lima beans to starving people and I’ll bet they love them. I’ll bet they declare that the lima beans absolutely do NOT suck, no matter how much you may abhor them next to your steak or mashed potatoes.

JON MORROW INSPIRED POSIT: Not being able to move from the neck down sucks.

JON MORROW RESPONSE: Compared to being the same in every way but now being able to run, skip, and jump? Or compared to being able-bodied but being a total fucking idiot?

Jon told me that everyone is disabled. Jon’s disability is physical, but he has a brilliant mind. I didn’t ask him this specifically, but I’d bet he’d take it every single time over being totally mobile but, as his mother put it, “unable to think.”

POSIT: Being a garbageman sucks.

RESPONSE: Not so sure anymore, are we?

It isn’t what happens to you that sucks. It’s what you do about it that determines if it sucks.

Quote totally adapted for suck purposes from W. Mitchell.

But think about it. I’d decided that this garbageman was having a terrible time. Poor, poor guy and his poor, unfortunate life. But what did I know? Maybe he liked the solitude of the job. Maybe he was working on a novel in the evenings, so he chose a non-cerebral, physical job to save his creative gas. Maybe he liked working before the sun came up because it gave him the whole “real day” off.

Maybe he lived in a really nice house. Maybe he had grand goals. Maybe he wanted to become a supervisor in the same company, or maybe he wanted to leave sanitation soon and pursue a post-doc degree or start his own business or become an architect. Or a city engineer, who designed more environmentally friendly landfills. Who could know? I certainly couldn’t. And it’s pretty damn unfair to assume that the fact that he was picking up garbage meant that his life sucked, or even that his job sucked.

Maybe he was right where he wanted to be at that moment. Maybe he was headed toward right where he wanted to go. And maybe he was happy.

And from his perspective, maybe that poor son of a bitch out running at 5:30 was doing it because he wanted to, as ridiculous as that notion was.

I asked myself, If I found myself in his job, would I totally despair? Would it totally bum me out, ruin my worldview, crush my spirit, and turn me into a miserable person?

And the answer was, Only if I let it.

It would depend on what the job meant to me. It would depend on whether I found I liked it or not. It would depend on how long I thought I’d be there, if I had goals, if I was moving toward those goals. I’m an optimistic person, so when I put myself in his shoes, the notion didn’t disturb me at all. I don’t think I’d want to be a garbageman, but if I found I didn’t and wanted to change it, I know I could. And even if I couldn’t, I know I could find other ways to be satisfied than to put all of that responsibility for my happiness on my job. So why should it bum me out?

Does being a garbageman suck?

Compared to what? Does it suck compared to having no job and living in a box? For that matter, does it suck compared to being rich and living on an island… but also having a family who hates you, or having a terminal disease?

I’ll take the trash job, thanks.

How to determine what sucks

Just answer and address three questions:

  1. Where are you now?
  2. Where do you want to be (in terms of true, root desires)?
  3. How are you doing at closing the gap between #1 and #2?

So. If you’re a garbageman and want to be a garbageman, then congratulations: You have zero gap and it doesn’t suck. If you’re a garbageman and want to be a senator, then you may be discontent, which is another word for suck. And if you’re making no progress, then that’s even more suck.

But this is important: If you have a shitty car, that car only sucks if you really, truly, deeply want a better one. If, when you think about it, you only think your car sucks because all of your friends have better ones but you’re otherwise fine with it, then it doesn’t suck at all.

(I’ll note here that I’ve prattled on WAY too long to go into how to determine your “true, root desires” at this point. I’ve got a ton more around in bits and pieces here on the blog, and we beat it to death in the “How to Determine Your Real Goals” module in Question the Rules. Suffice to say that often you think you want something or have a goal when in fact you don’t. [Can of worms open.])

And if you think your job or house sucks, ask what you’re comparing it to. Get some perspective. And then, if there’s a gap between what you have or where you are and what you truly want or where you truly want to be, ask what you’re doing about it and how it’s going.

And only then can you say if it sucks.

I guess this post is going to just kind of end rather than finish with some grand lesson. It’s more about an epiphany than instructional anyway. The question of how to eradicate true suck from your life is way too large to answer in one post, so for now, just determine if things really suck, or if you’re playing the comparison game in a way that’s making things harder.

And I guess the real question as you go forth in life is: Do you want to work on fixing the real suck that you find, or waste time on the phantom suck?

Oh, and don’t assume your garbageman or septic tank guy has a shitty lot just because he’s a septic tank guy. Maybe he likes it. Maybe approach him with an open mind instead of all sympathetic-like. Maybe he’s in a good spot. Maybe he feels sorry for you. You never know.

(Except that I guess in that case, even if he likes it, a septic tank guy still has a “shitty” job. I guess that’s kind of baked in.)


  1. Ricky Ferdon says:

    Great post – speaks directly to perspective. Our happiness can so be affected by just our perspective of this, that, or the other regarding our own lives, let alone another’s. It also comments on attitude: our superiority compared to someone else’s life or vocation. And, quick to judgement, that rides along with the rest.

  2. The septic tank guy not only has a shitty job but, if he’s doing it right, it also sucks.

  3. Karen says:

    It’s all in the attitude and perspective. Just because it’s not your cup of tea, doesn’t mean it’s not the other person’s.
    I don’t love my job, but I choose to be content with it because of the other things it allows me to do in life. Some people look at me and have said “Wow, I feel so sorry for you.” Mr response is that I’m ok with things. I approach my job with a decent attitude because I’m destined for bigger/better/different. So they can feel sorry for me, but I don’t feel sorry for me.

    A good lesson in perspective and keeping an open mind!

    • Johnny says:

      Now I’m curious what job you have that people feel sorry for you!

      • Karen says:

        Haha! I work in Human Resources. But it’s more the company than the job (I actually like HR). My company is run by the boy’s club that still thinks it’s 1970. Progressive, forward thinking is not encouraged. My HR friends feel sorry for me because they don’t have the challenges I do.

        Meh, I don’t love it (or even like it), but it gives me the time and money to work on my own blog. So I look at it as a necessary evil. πŸ™‚

        Bet you thought I was going to say something a lot different, eh? πŸ™‚

        • Johnny says:

          “Everyone feels sorry for me because of my job.”

          “Do you shovel manure? Deal in grotesque sexual favors?”

          “No, human resources.”

          Yeah, not the answer I was expecting. πŸ™‚

          • Karen says:

            Fully aware of how stupid it sounds! I assure you, LOL πŸ™‚

          • I thoughts that’s exactly what HR was.

          • Karen says:

            A 1970’s boys club? Maybe it’s more common!! God, I hope not. But if I were in charge? Employees would be empowered over their jobs. Communication would be important, equality and fairness would be applied (not favouritism). And a lot of other things that I think about.

            Perhaps I’m a bit of an idealist? But it works for companies like Zappos. They did it, other companies can too. They just need to change their mindset (and decade!!).

  4. Christopher Gunn says:

    I believe society has trained us to think in terms of what we have sucks. It’s a marketing tool used to create needs and desires in our minds. Keeping up with the Jones, climbing up the corporate ladder, etc.

    It’s nice to see a bit of a dismantle on your part, Johnny.

    I know everyone (myself included) succumbs to these impulsive desires to varying degrees, but the explanation of true desires is a refreshing reminder.

    I know this is a bit off topic, but I would be interested in hearing the garbage man’s perspective on his job, ambitions, etc. Does he like “non-cerebral” work? Surely he’s happy about something if he is tossing out “Good mornings” to an earlybird runner. What’s his secret?

    • Johnny says:

      Well, I didn’t stop to talk to the guy and I don’t know if I’ll see him again as I vary my route constantly, so we may never know… but I think you’re dead right about discontent being a marketing tool.

      I guess there’s a fine line. I’m not a fan of complacency, either… I think that we shouldn’t settle and just give up on stuff because we should be thankful for what we have. But there’s no point in being unjustifiably disgusted just for the hell of it, either.

  5. Dr. Pete says:

    I’ve been thinking this way a lot about work. Why do we think work sucks? I don’t mean why do we think a crappy, dead-end job sucks. I mean why do we think that moving our arms and legs and expending effort automatically sucks? Asking that question has turned my perspective around on a lot of things.

    • Jenny Foss says:

      We think works sucks because we are culturally conditioned to that formula.

      (thanks, in part, to my man Fred Flintstone. I digress)

      Seriously, most people have this equation ingrained in their brains from an early age:

      work = suck

      We’re subtly and overtly conditioned to live for 5 o’clock, or Friday, or our summer vacations. We’re encouraged to stop at average, not rock the boat, and not live outside of the lines of what the world expects.

      I’m a career consultant and a recruiter. I talk with these people all day long. And it makes me sad.

      I love the persepective you provide here, Johnny, especially the “How to Determine What Sucks” exercise. I want to email this to everybody I talk with who gripes about life’s suckitude and unfairness, yet never does anything to close the suck gap.

      Well done. Well done.

    • Johnny says:

      I think it’s because we have a definition of work that goes like this:

      “Work sucks.”

      And that’s not just restating your question. I think that we think that if we’re not suffering in some way, we’re not working. I’ve written a lot about this in other posts… the idea that we’ll think that if we’re enjoying ourselves in doing what we’re doing, then we’re doing something wrong and should “get back to work.”


      • Dr. Pete says:

        “Stupid Puritans” πŸ™‚ I guess I was looking at a different angle on it, though. Passion is critical, but it doesn’t magically make everything fun. I don’t really enjoying invoicing, for example – except as part of the big picture of getting paid to do what I love doing. I have a baby daughter and I love her, but I don’t love changing diapers and washing bottles.

        The thing is, I don’t hate those things either. I used to, and then I decided just to get over it. They take effort – so what? They’re part of my life and getting to where I want to be, and that’s a good thing.

      • For a long time I thought I was lucky because I didn’t have the “money issues” or “self-worth issues” a lot of people I know had/have. But, hey I am human, I got me some issues.

        I realized last year that the limiting be lief that I absorbed was about work and the whole notion that if you’re not suffering, it’s not “real” work. I know I saw/heard/felt that growing up from the people in my family.

        Once it really clicked that I was really bought into that garbage, well then the rest of me started moving forward too.

        Love your blog, it freaking ROCKS.

        • Johnny says:

          Yep, I hope you read the link I gave to the “Have more fun” post because it’s about this exactly! I know it’s hard for us to believe nowadays, but you can actually ENJOY YOURSELF and actually DO GOOD THINGS!

  6. Kazia says:

    I love this post! Love it!

    Sucking is all in the eyes of the beholder. And it all depends on the attitude you bring. And you’re right, if what we’re doing sucks, we have the power to change that.

  7. Your comment about working on the “phantom suck” struck me. I was talking to a friend about this recently, and he pointed out my tendency to get hung up on problems that aren’t really problems.

    When I’m heavily avoiding something, I can create a maelstrom of chaos around a completely tangential, irrelevant issue. Why? Because it’s the lazy, easy way out. On a subconscious level, this phantom problem either can’t be solved (“So hey, don’t blame me when I don’t end up getting what I want,” says the whiny inner voice) or it’s quickly solved with zero effort, unlike the hugely terrifying, incredibly vexing real issue.

    Closing the gap between want and desire often requires change. Change isn’t always fun. Change involves its own amount of suckdom before the good stuff even begins to glimmer beneath the surface.

    And solving the real issues, actually *getting* what you truly want, living up to your own potential, is scary shit for many of us. Success scares me far more than failure. When I truly apply myself, I rarely fail. But this is true of everyone, isn’t it?

    I’ve developed a habit of asking myself, “Is this really the problem? Because you’re wasting an awful lot of time fiddling around. Will spending a week tweaking this html get you closer to your next national byline? Or will shutting up, applying butt to chair, and (cue horror movie music) pitching a new story get you where you want to be? Oh? What’s that? Writers write? THEN WHY THE HELL ARE YOU SPENDING ALL DAY ‘NETWORKING’ ON TWITTER???”

    Real problems. Phantom problems. I’m convinced that knowing the difference, and slaying the right dragons every day, is the main thing that stands between winners and wannabes. (Which reminds me, I have two stories and a photo essay due. WHY THE HELL AM I HERE?)

    Thanks, as always, for the insightful post and the shot of motivation. You are my personal anti-suck antidote. {Skittering away now to write and be outstanding instead of choosing to continue to suck. And yes, to reference another favorite post, it IS a choice. Always, always a choice.}

    • Johnny says:

      This will seem to be an unsatisfyingly short answer to that comment, but:



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  1. my review here

    TruantΒ’s Law of Suck Relativity