“Air without Water”


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So, this happened …

Some aspects of schooling for young children are really morbid.

I’m not talking about the awful fairy tales we tell to young children about wolves eating little girls, woodsmen cutting open the stomach of living animals, poison apples, and life-long imprisonment of the innocent.

I’m talking about actual education.

For example, I remember sitting in class and learning about what kills us, when I was really young. We were taught a rule-of-thumb, which although it’s wrong, was still useful as a guideline. And memorable.

“You can live without food for 3 weeks, without water for 3 days, and without air for 3 minutes.”

I think my teacher enjoyed teaching the topic more than she should have, because after repeating the sentence two or three times, she remained silent for what felt like an eternity, while a class of 30 children sat pondering horrible ways to die.

I don’t think I was particularly philosophical at that age, but when the teacher asked the whole class which of the three is most important, my classmates all shouted out “Air!”, but I disagreed.

I don’t care how much air and water you have. If someone doesn’t have food, they will die. Food is just as important as air and water.

OK, so water should be prioritized over food. If someone stumbles out of a forest after a few days, you should offer water before making them a sandwich.

And air should be prioritized over water. If you pull a drowned person out of the sea, you should breathe air into their lungs before you offer them a glass of water to drink.

The teacher asked which is more important. She didn’t ask which is more urgent. Everyone shouted out “Air!” but I fundamentally disagreed.

But I was a shy child, so I didn’t say anything out aloud. And I’ve been stewing over this disagreement for many years since then.

But I feel better now, because I’ve finally been able to get this off my chest, having now written an entire chapter on the idea 🙂

When it comes down to air or water or food, none is more important than another: if there is even one of them that you don’t get, you will eventually die. But in terms of priority, you should definitely make sure someone has enough air, before worrying about the water, with food coming in last place.

Simple Definition

Air without Water: This story reminds us that, just because something is less urgent, doesn’t make it non-essential. Don’t confuse priority with importance.

Summarizing what it means

Each #HYL chapter is designed such that you can either just read this summary (to appreciate the core concept), or you can read the full chapter (for a more results-driven understanding). More is better, but you decide.


I recently saw someone state this on Twitter:

     “Marketing is all about people, and not about profits.”


Can you see this is an “Air without Water” situation?

Yes, you do need to focus on people when marketing.

But no, you cannot ignore profits.

If, for example, you create a highly engaging marketing program, but the costs of that program are high and burn through your profit margin, then the more you sell, the more you lose. That’s not good marketing.

It’s essential that you take both people and profits into account. And I understand that your starting point could be to focus on people, before stepping back to make sure the profits are still taken care of.

But “all about people” and “not about profits”? That’s nonsense.

I get that they’re trying to make a specific point, but it’s hard to be convincing when your argument is fundamentally flawed. (This form of “trying too hard” is discussed in #[Blue cheese with apple ice-cream].)

And there really is no point in trying to create a counter-argument that dances around their flawed logic. The most effective response is simply to point out the “Air without Water” analogy. Simple.

When someone tries to trick you into confusing importance and priority (by the words they choose), or when you yourself are saying things which similarly confuse these two concepts, then stop. As soon as you label it an “Air without Water” situation, you will immediately have a much better appreciation of the nature of the flawed logic.

With the correct label, you become empowered to challenge, to tear apart the argument, and to progress your own agenda.

This is a great outcome.

Discussing what it means

The Illusion of Choice (important not urgent)

In the science of persuasion, there is a concept called the “Double Bind”, which is discussed in detail in the story #[Cash or Credit card]. Basically, when a salesperson asks you this question, they are in effect manipulating you!

You actually have three options, not just those two: you can buy with cash, or with a credit card, OR … you can choose not to buy at all. But as soon as they cleverly limit your choices to just “cash or credit card”, they are trying to exclude the possibility that you don’t buy. And as soon as you engage your mind on deciding between cash and credit card, you’re falling into their trap.

They create the illusion of choice, but whichever choice you make – you will be buying.

And so too it is with “Air without Water”. When they are asking you to choose between which of the two is more important, it’s a trap. They are both essential, and you cannot drop either.

“It can’t be both,” he insisted.

On Linkedin, someone posted the following challenge:

“When you are teaching selling to an audience, should you focus on educating them or entertaining them? It can’t be both.”

At first, I thought this was going to be an interesting discussion, and I felt my mind wandering as I tried to think which one should over-ride the other.

And then I realized it was an “Air without Water” trap. Both are important. Indeed, both are essential.

  • If you entertain without educating, you may as well be a comedian on stage.
  • If you educate without entertaining, you will lose a large portion of your audience, and your message will be forgotten by next Wednesday.

My instinct was to give him the benefit of the doubt, thinking he had just worded it badly by mistake, and that he just meant to ask which should be de-prioritized. But then I again noticed the phrase “It can’t be both”. It wasn’t a mistake, he really intended that only one of those should be used, and the other should be dropped.

Oh dear, what a terrible question. And therefore, what a terrible outcome he was creating.

That confusion produced a messy discussion

Looking through the debate which followed, I saw that many people instinctively knew that the question didn’t make sense. But because they didn’t have a label for what they were seeing (“Air without Water”), they struggled to push back against the question in a meaningful way. Almost no one correctly identified the nature of his flawed construct.

That’s why it’s essential when you see such an argument being presented, that you immediately recognize it for what it is – an “Air without Water” scenario.

Trapped into a bad purchase

I’ve had salespeople trying to use this technique on me.

A few years ago I wanted to buy a new laptop, at a time when hard-drive technology was shifting from spinning drives (SATA) to solid-state drives (SSD). The latter class was faster, but also more expensive, and so the storage on those SSD-based computers was small in comparison with the then-current technology.

I wanted a laptop that was both fast and with a large hard-drive, so I resisted buying the much-more-expensive model that he wanted to sell me. He noticed my resistance and tried to trick me into dropping one of my essential criteria.

“If you could only have one of them, either speed or space, which one is more important?” he cleverly asked me. And at first, I fell into the trap, emphasizing my need for speed, and trying to convince myself therefore that storage space wasn’t important.

Until I remembered that I don’t have to choose just one. That was just a presupposition that he had created in my mind, through a clever framing of the question.

Even though storage might have been less important than speed, it was still non-negotiable. And I could get exactly what I wanted by buying a cheaper laptop.

“Air without Water” I reminded myself, as I firmly steered him away from what he wanted to sell, towards what I wanted to buy.

Seeing how this applies to your to-do list

Where most people fail in conquering their to-do list is they confuse urgent with important. They prioritize the items that are due soon, without enough attention to the question of whether those are the important actions. It’s better to get your most impactful item done, even if it causes the less important items to miss their deadlines.

In this chapter, we know that air, water, and food are all important (read: essential), although – priority-wise – we of course need to focus on getting air before water before food.

Within our to-do lists, finishing a client project due next week (but time is tight) should be prioritized over completing your yoga-teacher homework which is due tomorrow. One is essential, the other is nice-to-have. Of course, if you can first finish the non-essential urgent one and still have enough time to do the essential less-urgent one, then great. But given how much is on our to-do lists, there is a good chance you’re doing a lot more non-Essential-but-Urgent things than you should!

And let’s be clear, no matter how important it is to find out what happens in the last episode of a series you’ve been watching on Netflix, that is neither important nor urgent. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it, but at least do so in the knowledge that it’s an indulgence not an essential.

Let’s come back to Air, Water, and Food. If we imagine these three are actions on your to-do list, it’s clear in what order you should deal with them. But be clear that these are all essential, and even if Food is less urgent than your yoga-teacher homework, you cannot drop Food off your list. At some time you will have to eat (or face the consequences).

Over time, the Essential-but-not-Urgent items eventually become Essential-and-Urgent. If they are truly essential, they can never come off your to-do list. So get them done before they become urgent. That’s how you win with to-do lists!


Two people will have two sets of needs and wants. What’s essential for one might be optional (or even unacceptable) to the other. What’s urgent for one could be put on hold by the other forever.

Do not read further – stop reading now. Before you see what I write below, please pause for a moment to think how “Air without Water” can be used manipulatively in a relationship.

In The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman, he explains that people basically have five needs: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, physical touch.

So let’s imagine a relationship where we focus on just two: Acts of service and Words of affirmation …

For the one partner, both of these are essential. She needs both of these to feel the love from her partner. For the other, he thinks that Words of affirmation are empty, and would prefer to give using Acts of service only. So they have a serious talk, and he uses the “Air without Water” wrapper to ask which of the two is more important to her (so that he can justify using only one of those two, making it seem that she was OK to limit it to just one).

By answering this question, she will be falling into the trap of deprioritizing and thus eliminating something that, to her, is also essential. The “Air without Water” label is a very effective way of communicating that one might indeed be less urgent, that doesn’t make it non-essential.

Making it personal

This is a simple chapter, that identifies a simple concept, providing you with a simple tool for instantly being able to recognize an “Air without Water” scenario when you see it.

So today, there are just two simple questions for you to think about:

  • Can you think of any situation you’ve been in where you have (or someone else has) implied that something is not essential simply because it’s less urgent?
  • If that’s an ongoing situation (for example, in a home or work relationship), how can you use the “Air without Water” #hashtag-story to communicate this point in future?


Make sure you don’t miss any future chapters, each of which provides you with similar tools for simplifying your life and winning arguments. Subscribe to the #HashtagYourLife newsletter today – you’ll find plenty of material that doesn’t appear anywhere on this website.

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#[Cash or Credit card]

#[When the middle doesn’t exist]

#[The wrong right answer]

#[Cup vs Glass]

#[Blue cheese with apple ice-cream]

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