The future looks blurrier than it did only a few days ago. For now, most of us are just trying to hold on to what we have. After the biggest stock market crash in all-time history, caused by a pandemic, our dreams are on hold. Food hoarding has become normal. We’re about to have a helluva lot more in common with our grandparents.
In fact, I bet a lot of us feel like this:
Just when you’re getting ahead, someone changes the odds.
Millennials like me were just now starting to buy homes and have kids, ten years later than our parents. Now we’re about to lose it all — again. This time, it comes with a side salad of death.
There’s no way else to say it, this sucks. Finally making your will has suddenly appeared on your to-do list.
As a kid, I used to watch MacGyver reruns when I stayed home sick from school. It was always on, always comforting.
MacGyver always knew what to do. And if he didn’t, he said so and then managed to figure it out just in time.
Right now the world is basically staying home sick. Some of us are praying we don’t get extremely sick. We’re all looking for an extra shot of inspiration, motivation, and meaning. If you’re like me, you’re probably not in the mood for ancient philosophy at the moment.
MacGyver makes a lot of sense.
Yeah, it’s a cheesy 80s show. It entertained dumb kids like me in the 2nd grade. It’s right up there with the “This is your brain on drugs” commercial. But also, it’s brilliant. Think about the birth of rampant consumerism in the 1980s. You can trace everything that’s wrong with us back to that decade. In the middle of that bullshit comes a bootstrapping Midwesterner with his duct-tape and paperclips, and his mullet, always quoting dear old grandpa, drifting through life, disarming bombs and saving the world.
He’s the opposite of James Bond.
And he’s very American—classic American. The kind of American that was weird as hell, but not for its own sake.
MacGyver was always risking his life to help a complete stranger. He wasn’t cocky or arrogant. He had a profound respect for science, and it usually saved his life — because he knew how to use it.
We all need to be a little more like MacGyver right now.
So here’s some pithy stuff he said:
“We’re all going to die. The trick is not to rush it.”
Acknowledgment of death, you don’t expect that from prime-time 80s television. It’s an odd thing to hear from a TV character who travels the world looking for problems to solve in dangerous places. But that’s just the thing. MacGyver lives on his own terms — without making other people pay for it. He takes risks, but they’re calculated. They’re always for someone else’s good. He’s a rugged individualist, but not the greedy kind.
MacGyver doesn’t do things out of fear. He understands — fear is the thing that gets everyone killed.
Trying to avoid death has an odd way of speeding it up, and ruining what’s left of our lives in the process.
Don’t live just to avoid death, and you’ll be okay. Or you’ll be more okay than if you give into panic. If you’re pretty sure you’re going to die: Don’t think about what you’ll lose, think about what you leave behind. And if you’re healthy, think about that every single day.
“The bag’s not for what I take, it’s for what I find along the way.”
So you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere — maybe a desert, or a jungle. All you’ve got is a burlap bag. A lot of people would throw the bag away. What good is it? MacGyver doesn’t.
He sees the potential in a burlap bag. A trash bag. Whatever.
A bag carries things.
When you carry a bag, it means you expect to find something that could be useful. It’s the embodiment of practical optimism.
Always carry a bag. And I do, for 15+ years. I also carry a few pens and some paper. Everywhere I go.
We can’t make too many assumptions about how bad our futures will get. We can’t give up out of mindless pessimism. When you do that, you throw away things that looking meaningless now, but could come in handy later. So do what MacGyver does.
Turn the bags in your life into something useful.
“Desperation tends to make one sort of… flexible.”
When you’re out of options, that’s not the worst place to be. We’re not talking about moral or ethical flexibility — but mental. When you’re desperate, a pipette becomes so many things.
Necessity forces us to look at reality from a different angle. It’s a skill, being able to think outside your habits and routines, to see objects and situations differently from how we’re conditioned to.
We all need to be a little more mentally flexible right now. We need to stay calm and look at what things are, not what we think they should be, not what we grew up thinking they were.
When you see something for what it really is, then you see how it can be so much more than what it looks like. That’s how we turn problems into advantages, and obstacles into opportunities.
“If you don’t have the right equipment for the job, you just have to make it yourself.”
Take the humble paperclip. It looks like a worthless office doodad. And yet, it’s a bendable piece of metal. A paperclip can pick a lock, or hold two things together. It can poke holes. It can conduct electricity.
You can magnetize a paperclip.
No matter what’s going on in your life, or how bad the world gets, there’s always a few ways to get what you need. You have resources that might look meaningless by themselves, but could be just what helps you out at the right time. Maybe you don’t have all the resources you want, but you can almost always use what you have access to.
“The tighter you plan, the more likely you are to run into something unpredictable.”
So many of us get stuck in our plans and drown in them when they turn sideways for no predictable reason — like a pandemic and ensuing stock market bonfire. The trick to thriving is breaking up with the outcomes you started with, and working with what you’ve got.
MacGyver is all about using the environment at his disposal. He doesn’t need everything to go a particular way. He doesn’t have huge plans.
He has small ones.
He doesn’t sit around all day trying to think out everything that could conceivably go wrong. He comes up with a plan, and prepares himself to improvise. Granted, it always turns out okay for him because he’s a TV character. But he’s okay with the idea of dying in a meat locker while trying to save someone’s life.
He would just rather not.
If MacGyver can use a light bulb to melt ice, and then bust a lock when the water refreezes, that’s what he’s going to do. It wasn’t part of his original plan. But it’s what works now.
The best thing we can do is make tentative plans, and then put ourselves in a mental state to improvise.
“The best way to beat a problem is to make it work for you.”
Problems are full of hidden opportunities — not just the selfish kind. The MacGyvers of the world simply know how to leverage obstacles in ways that enable them to keep going.
They don’t do this just for themselves, but for the greater good. They’re not out there selling toilet paper for $5 a roll from their van.
A lot of us are stuck in a situation now that feels pretty rotten. Even food is hard to get in some places. But there’s paperclips and trash bags everywhere, waiting to be turned into something else.
“If you try hard enough to make the best of a situation, the situation won’t get the best of you.”
Things can get worse than usual — sometimes for long stretches. A lot of us are suddenly faced with rocks and hard places and emergencies that are going to take everything we’ve got.
We’ll have to find resilience we didn’t know we had.
Making the best out of it sounds a little Pollyanna, but it matters. If you’re not looking for the best in any situation, even the worst ones, then you’ll never find anything good. You’ll only find reasons to quit. A Pollyana says, “Everything will be okay!” A MacGyver says, “There’s gotta be something I can use.” Feel no shame in dying a MacGyver. They keep trying until their last breath leaves their bodies.
“The past is a strange country. You go back; it doesn’t recognize you.”
Almost all of us are clinging to the past right now. We want things to go back to the way they were a few years ago — or even just a few days. Even if we could reverse time, we can’t erase what’s happened from our heads. Things have changed. They’re going to keep changing.
The past doesn’t change. But we do. We don’t always ask for it, or enjoy the process. And once you’ve changed, you can’t un-change. You have to push through to the other side.
Don’t get stuck in the middle of a change.
That’s a bad place to be.
“Never laugh at what you don’t know.”
MacGyver has a sense of humor, but he takes knowledge seriously. He wouldn’t chuckle at a pandemic, or shrug it off on his way to dinner at Ruby Tuesday. That’s laughing at what you don’t know.
There’s a lot of hubris in the world.
There’s a lot of people who aren’t just acting calm in order to stay functional. They’re hiding their deep fear with brash confidence. It’s a big mistake, no matter what you’re dealing with. Always figure out what you’re dealing with first. Then deal with it. Laugh later.
“A fellow’s life isn’t worth mentioning if he hasn’t shared it with some folks along the way.”
People still matter. It’s more important than ever to share your life, and not fall down the well of doomsday predictions. Doomsday could be on its way. None of us can deal with it alone.
Live. Don’t just avoid death. The bag is for what you find along the way, not what you want to take with you. Desperation sparks ideas. Make your own equipment for the job. Don’t fall in love with your plans. Don’t cling to what used to work, if it doesn’t work anymore. Leverage your problems to serve you, not block you. Improvise. Do the best you can in whatever situation you’re in. Everything depends on looking for the small upsides. Don’t blind yourself to the present. Deal with your unknowns instead of laughing them off, or they’ll deal with you. Share your life with people. All things considered, that’s not half bad for an 80s TV show.