Feb 03

Alligators and Kittens

I really like kittens. They are cute, cuddly, and in general good company. They are easy to take care of. Eventually they grow up into cats which are usually cute as well, although perhaps a little passive aggressive at times. They eat very little, will use a litter box with no prompting and will even hunt down and kill mice for you (again without you having to ask them). They are photogenic. There is a reason many people keep them as pets.


And then there are alligators. Alligators really suck as pets. They are not cuddly at all and are way more difficult to train. You can’t just go to Petco and pick up a cheap bag of alligator food. They eat much more than kittens and as far as I know cannot be trained to use a litter box. Then there is the inconvenient fact that if they get large enough they may consider you to be food.


Imagine your house full of alligators and kittens. This may be a little stressful for you. All of your attention and worry would probably be directed at the alligators. You may even forget you have any kittens (until the alligators start trying to eat them).


This is your life…



Right now you have metaphorical kittens and alligators running all around your house. The kittens represent the good things about your life, and the alligators the bad things. Now good and bad here are not absolutes. Alligators can have good traits and kittens can occasionally cause big problems. Maybe you have a really mellow small alligator that doesn’t like the taste of kittens that you keep around without too much distraction.

What do we do next?


There are really two choices.

  1. Get rid of alligators
  2. Add kittens


It seems silly when we frame it this way, but I constantly see people make the wrong choice. It is our natural instinct to add more kittens because they are cute, and cuddly, and fun to have around.


if you are trying to make your life better this is not the best approach. You need to start by getting rid of alligators rather than by adding kittens!* When I look around, often the most miserable people I know are the ones with the most alligators, yet they try and fix the problem is by adding more kittens. This doesn’t work. Alligators and kittens do not cancel each other out.


My life was full of alligators; things that required my time, money, stress or attention. For years I ignored these alligators and tried to become happier by either adding kittens or just pretending the alligators weren’t so bad. It didn’t work. After a while our lives were littered with alligators and kittens everywhere and we were getting tired of caring for them. We knew something had to change.


The first big alligator to go was Mrs. Happy Philosopher’s job. It’s incredible how much headache this alligator cost us with such little benefit. It took a lot of other little alligators with it. The house was more peaceful without that alligator which required so much time and effort. There was some space at last…


Although we filled that space with a few more kittens and the occasional alligator. Commitments slowly seeped into that space, although they were not nearly as bad as before.


A few years later I went part time and got rid of another big one. This time though, we went full-on alligator hunting. Once we started getting rid of them it became addictive. Once I could see this clearly they became much easier to purge. The worst ones added no value to our lives.


Over the years we have eliminated most of the nastiest gators from our house and we are much happier. We have added a few kittens here and there, but not as many as I thought we would need. It turns out the kittens that were here already were enough. I just wasn’t paying attention to them as all of my energy was focused elsewhere.


Subtract the bad things first


The most effective way to achieve happiness is usually through subtracting bad things from your life rather than adding more good things. We are not programed this way though. Through most of human history we have lived with scarcity, and it was to our benefit to keep adding stuff, no matter the emotional cost.


Not having enough kittens meant death, so we focused on addition. Most of us reading this live in obscene abundance. The marginal utility of adding more kittens is way past the point of a reasonable return on investment, but it takes energy to go against our programing.


Furthermore, everywhere we look we are told adding something to our lives will make us happier, better, more complete. Advertisers, politicians, parents, teachers and friends all tell us to do something or buy something to make us complete. Our entire culture and economy is based on the concept of more.


Many times we don’t need more. Sometimes we need less. Learn the concept of enough. Often the good things are already here, we just don’t notice them, in the same way we don’t notice our health or friendships until they are gone.


Sit down and list all the alligators in your life and figure out how to start getting rid of them.** Focus your energy here first.


Meow 🙂

*I apologize to anyone who was expecting a blog post about actual real alligators and kittens.


**Tell us what alligators are in your life, or ones you have managed to get rid of. How did you do it? How did your life change?











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    • VagabondMD on February 3, 2017 at 7:06 am
    • Reply

    I love this post! Once the alligator is in your house, he/she is really hard to eliminate. Additionally, no one asks specifically for a stressful job, a spouse with chronic disease, a child hooked on heroin, etc. Sometimes, we think we are bringing a kitten into our life (job, spouse, child), and it morphs into something that we did not invite (stress, chronic disease, addiction).

    1. Good point Vagabond. Sometimes the alligators in our lives come from places where we least expect them. This is why we must always reassess. At times there are no good solutions and we must make very difficult choices. There are a couple of alligators at my doorstep right now, in fact. I’m not sure how much they will impact my life, but because I recognize them I can choose to be more thoughtful in how I react. Thanks for the comment.

  1. Well it was a little about kittens and alligators. You did present some real, solid facts after all and even pictures. :O)

    I don’t have any real gators, thank goodness. I do have some metaphorical gators but need to finish taxes first before one can be named. There are some disagreement gators running around, but not sure we will ever actually agree on some of those things. Brokenness from child years can raise up in the adult years. And FYI – you can’t really treat the alligator like a kitten either. The gator will never purr. And I’m pretty sure, the gator will always just want to eat you. A bad day with a kitten may mean throwing out a towel that was peed on. A bad day with the gator, well you are dead.

    1. Agreed. 🙂

  2. Ah yes…when I lived in New Orleans we had alligators, both figurative and literal…they are cuter than you make out here.

    Getting rid of the negative is clutch. My wife leaving her school program and taking a Master’s instead of a PhD was a difficult choice but increased overall happiness. Us leaving one job with a higher burn out rate for the one in Sunny (though not lately) California was another big one. I love these posts. Finances are fun but total well being is even better.


    1. Thank you EJ. I love to write about finance, but there are so many that do it much better than me. I will leave the bulk of the work to them.

      And for the record…there is nothing cute about an alligator!

  3. I like to focus on getting rid of the alligators nowadays. Often we have extra kittens hiding under our beds that we don’t learn to appreciate until they’re gone. It’s much easier to appreciate the good things I already have and eliminating the horrible, alligator-like things instead. Happiness grows in the absence of evil.

    1. I guess my follow up post will be to recognize and appreciate the kittens 🙂

  4. Love it!
    Yes, a lot of happiness is actually pretty simple: do more of what you like and do less of what you don’t like. Implementing it can get challenging. This metaphor will undoubtedly provide a mental model for people to make changes in the right direction.

    1. Thank you. A lot of what I discuss is in the “simple, but not easy” category. Unfortunately much of life is like this. We tend to complicate things way to much.

    • RocDoc on February 3, 2017 at 9:42 am
    • Reply

    This post is such a great and easy way to think of life. Well done Happy Philosopher! Where was your website twenty years ago when my husband and I were just starting our careers?!! We’ve prepared ourselves financially and have finally decreased our workloads to a more manageable level. Now we’re working on getting mentally prepared for retirement and this post came at a great time. Getting rid of alligators and stopping ourselves from adding too many cute but potentially time consuming kittens is an important thing to remember as we start to have more free time. Fantastic analogy!

    1. Twenty years ago I was too busy making all of the mistakes that now lets me write about this stuff 😉

      Sounds like you guys are on the right track. Thanks for the comment.

    • Hatton1 on February 4, 2017 at 4:50 pm
    • Reply

    I am a sucker for any post about animals. My big gator was obstetrics. It has been gone for two years and people still ask me if I miss it. Ha……

    1. OB is a tough lifestyle. I really loved delivering babies in medical school, but I just wasn’t tough enough for that kind of life.

    • Christy Bayes on February 5, 2017 at 8:12 pm
    • Reply

    This blog post reminded me of the typical approach the medical community takes to burnout. Just add more kittens; take vacation, exercise, meditate; when what we really need to do is get rid of alligators. Thanks for another great post. I am motivated to get rid of some of the alligators in my life.

    1. Good analogy. You can meditate, but the alligator doesn’t care…his teeth are just as sharp! Not that we shouldn’t do these things, but they don’t get to the heart of the problem.

  5. You make an excellent point, Philosopher. I like to envision snapping turtles rather than alligators, because we encounter them much more frequently. Also, their mouths continue snapping long after your father beheads them, which is really spooky.

    But enough about my childhood.


    1. An image I did not need in my head PoF!

    • Jacq on February 12, 2017 at 7:42 pm
    • Reply

    My last job was an alligator. It almost killed me in several ways. I think if I had stayed the stress would have given me related diseases. It drained my energy like a dementor, so I was doing the bare minimum (eat, shower, laundry), so no one would suspect how miserable I was. My parents had run out of advice to give me, and friends have said I was such a mess from it, having tried to give advice, they had to step back for their own sake. I sort of knew I was toxic and made excuses as to why I wasn’t dating, but I didn’t like living with me, why would anyone else even entertain the idea? The day my boss set a 430 pm meeting I got number cold, but my pro / con list if I was being let go was heavier on the pro side. It still took a few nights before I slept better, but instantly I felt lighter, like I had gotten rid of a several hundred pound alligator. I never want to be in that place again, because I don’t know if I could make it out a second time.
    One of the things that sticks with me is my friend who likes Snoopy had twins, one with a medical condition. A local store had Snoopy stuffed animals and I wanted to send them to her. But work was too crazy to get out for a lunch time trip to the post office, and I didn’t think it was unreasonable to want to leave work before it closed at 5, but there was always something that came up. At some point I was in tears because I wanted to do this nice thing, to send stuffed animals to 2 sweet little boys and the concept of work life balance was complete bs if I couldn’t get to the felling post office. Not only was it robbing me of joy, but the job was robbing me of my ability to give / share joy.
    It’s been just about 2 years since that place put me on an ‘improvement plan’, & this is the first time I’ve really admitted I thought the job might be the death of me. Thank you.
    My current job is a company with values that align with mine. They mean work life balance, and this time of year I keep hearing bosses tell their employees to go home if they are under the weather. My boss shrugs when I say I need to leave early to sub a yoga class. 🙂
    Having my friends back, kitten! The pic my friend sent of the boys with their Snoopys, kitten!
    I am planning to get actual kittens this year too! My mom and sister have had cats with medical issues, and at alligator place I never thought I’d have the time to do vet trips, now I am confident it won’t be a problem. I am making literal space in my life for kittens.
    Thank you for this epic analogy.

    1. What a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing. Sounds like you made some real positive changes in your life.

      It is funny how such seemingly small things tip us to act, or at least stand out in our mind such as not having the time to send a gift. Sometimes the small things are the big things though. Good luck with the kittens 🙂

  6. Now I’m going to have nightmares about alligators and beheaded snapping turtles. Great.

    We weren’t sure whether having a kid was going to be a gator or kitten and frankly, the jury’s still out on that, but in preparation for it becoming gatory, I’d been steering my career toward a path that had enough seniority and autonomy that I could be a star performer AND a present parent on my terms.
    We still compromise quite a bit, as every couple and parents must, but the flexibility gained by working my way up and ditching the regular 9-5 was the best and biggest gator to catapult from our lives.

    And of course we never let the debt gators in the door at all, outside of a mortgage. Best to avoid them in the first place rather than attempt extermination while being chased by a half dozen angry, agile meat eaters.

    1. I’m sure Physician on Fire meant no harm with that snapping turtle comment 😉

      Debt alligators make all other problems in life much worse so they are best to be avoided.

      You mentioning children got me thinking a bit. Children are much more complex and some days I’m not sure how to classify them. I sort of take them out of the equation because the decision to bring another life into the universe is an irrevocable one. They are not like a job or a marriage which can be ended. Many times children are mirrors, reflecting ourselves back onto us. The more I love them the more I feel love. The more I smile and laugh at them the more joy comes back at me. It took me years to realize this unfortunately.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

      1. Sure, he didn’t! 🙂

        Kittengators? It’s true, we can never really truly classify most children as either because they’re complex small humans and the average decent human cannot opt out of being a parent after having chosen to bring them into the work and raise them.

  7. This reminds me of a sculptor who chisels away the unnecessary substrate until a master piece is created.

    1. I love the analogy!

    • b on July 9, 2017 at 10:44 am
    • Reply

    Very, very good.

  1. […] Unless you are a SI you are probably wasting your time on social media. There is nothing inherently terrible about wasting time; in fact it is one of my favorite things to do. But unless it makes you happy or serves a useful purpose, it is clutter.You are not actually doing anything meaningful by consuming and spreading this garbage. In fact, you are probably doing less than nothing because it is taking the place of something more useful.  If your life is not optimized get rid of social media. It is an alligator. […]

  2. […] Subtracting things from our lives is much more powerful than adding things. They do not balance each other out like a mathematical equation. The bad things in our lives make the good things…not as good. […]

  3. […] I was thrilled when I saw that a newer model of my exact shoe was on sale for around $75 (to make room for an even newer model) so I snapped them up in spite of the fact that they were about the ugliest shade of green someone could have come up with. It was like someone melded together one of those fluorescent yellow glow sticks with an alligator (and you all know how I feel about alligators!). […]

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