Living in a Problem

Since I started working almost exclusively on Four Minute Books, something fascinating has happened: I keep having ideas. Every morning, I wake up and, almost immediately, write down 3-5 things I should do, or fix, or at least consider going forward. I have ideas in the morning, ideas in the shower, and ideas late at night.

Shane Parrish would say I’m “living in a problem:” “When you commit to living in a problem, you understand things about it that the tourist cannot.”

If one third of your brain power goes to writing a book, another third to an influencer business, 20% to freelance work, and the last 14% to managing your life, chances are, you’re not gonna have many brilliant breakthroughs in any one arena. Thankfully, everyday life admin usually doesn’t demand those — but the rest? Phew. Those are tough without some pizzazz.

If you feel like you’re treading water in several different kiddie pools, try diving off the deep end. Pick a big, important problem and move in. Live in it. Make yourself comfortable. You’ll spot blemishes and details and connections no one else can see, and, as a result, you just might be the one to crack this nut many others have long given up on but that, once you manage to break its shell, will offer the sweet taste of victory.

Can You Afford to Ignore It?

It might just be everyone looking for scraps of money due to the economy slowing down, but this year, I have been screwed by a staggering number of platforms and services I use to run my online business.

For nine months, my email service provider overcharged me. As it turns out, they automatically upgrade you when you gain more subscribers, but they don’t downgrade you when you lose some. My payment processor and checkout platform casually near-tripled their fees. Meanwhile, the service I use to host my writing course informed me that my “free membership for life” I had won a few years back will now turn into a “pay up like everyone else” agreement — and those are just the issues from last month.

Every time I was confronted with such news, I got angry. I argued with customer support. I brainstormed what service to switch to. I fantasized about taking them to court. After half a day of stewing in misery, however, I always came to the same conclusion: “This is not a fight worth fighting. I can — and should — ignore this problem.”

Yes, I gave my email provider a few hundred dollars too many. Paying more fees on digital product sales sucks. And coughing up $1,000/year for what used to be a free service stinks. If I consider what it would take to rectify these situations, however, especially with respect to how much money I make using these services, the unfortunate reality of business kicks in: You only have so many hours in a day, and you need every single one of them to focus on your true mission.

I can keep arguing with my email service for hours, but I probably still won’t get any credit for what I overpaid. Finding an alternative checkout solution, let alone moving all my products, will take days. And don’t even get me started on moving a 130+ lesson online course. But you know what? None of these are where I make the bulk of my money — and so none of these problems are worth my mental energy.

One way to find focus is to say no to the million directions you could take your project in. That’s hard but necessary. What must follow, however, is maintaining that focus by also saying no to every little distraction that happens along the way. Even if it’s related to your project, it might still be unimportant. And so your job is to ignore every problem you can afford to ignore.

Will it blow up my business if I don’t fight tooth and nail over a few hundred dollars? No. Will it ruin my budget if I pay triple the fees on 10% of my revenue? No. And will I even sell my online course next year? I have no idea.

Problems like this are insidious. They feel important, and they get us to blow our fuse by pushing a sensitive button — the money one — but ultimately, they’ll just keep us from working on what we really need to work on.

Staying focused is one of the hardest challenges in life and in business. Don’t give up on this challenge prematurely by getting dragged into mud fights outside the actual playing field.

For every nagging problem that lands in your inbox, ask: “Can I afford to ignore this?” And if the answer is yes, go about your day as if nothing had changed. Recession or not, the birds are still singing, and you have work to do.

Asking vs. Earning

“You’re doing sales because you failed at marketing. You’re doing marketing because you failed at product,” Naval says. Despite all the naysayers in the comments, it’s true. Tesla has never spent a cent on marketing, and yet, it is one of the biggest companies in the world. It’s definitely possible to win on word of mouth alone — but only if your product or service is truly great.

What applies to getting more customers also applies to scoring an interview on a big podcast or landing a publishing deal with a big advance: In the world of business, what you have to ask for isn’t earned.

It’s not that you can’t ask for things. I once pitched someone for podcast interviews via cold emails, and he arguably deserved to be on every single one of them. But had he earned those spots? Probably not. He wasn’t active in that world, and so, naturally, those opportunities didn’t yet gravitate towards him.

While it is possible to deserve things, ask for them, and sometimes succeed in your asks, in the world of business, this behavior is also utterly exhausting. When I published my first book, I emailed some 50+ media outlets and people with relevant audiences to help promote it. I got almost no responses, and none turned into anything substantial.

If you spend a lot of time asking for things, you’ll also spend a lot of time feeling depressed after getting rejected. Why not focus on your existing customers or audience instead? Why not just write the next book?

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. If you’re an employee, chances are, you will have to ask for everything, be it more pay, a promotion, or a better working-from-home arrangement. Few companies now have structured career ladders you can climb, and fewer still are full of great managers who’ll see your potential and lift you to the next stage whenever it’s time. In the world of working for a business, asking for things seems to be the only way to get ahead.

The great irony in all this is that many people who get fed up asking for things in their job eventually quit — only to start a business and then ask for more things. The whole point of launching your own enterprise is to have more of a say in your conversation with destiny. Don’t waste that power by continuing to play a role you no longer hold. Get the product right, and sales and marketing will follow all on their own.

The Rewards Grow Where You Work For Them

Some of the best relationship advice I’ve ever received came from my grandma, who’s been married for almost 60 years: “There were always moments when one or the other could have left, but what better thing might follow?”

What she meant was that, most of the time, an easier relationship won’t just magically fall into our lap just because we’ve decided our current one is too hard to maintain. Therefore, unless something absolutely fundamental is off, chances are, you’re better off working on your existing relationship. No partner will ever be perfect, but almost any two people can get along if they figure out the how and keep adjusting it.

Relationships might be the most obvious example, but the older I get, the more areas of life this principle seems to apply to: The rewards are right in front of you — but only if you choose to work for them.

Nine out of ten times, it is not necessary to abandon what you’re doing. Sometimes, it will still be the right choice to give up and try something else. Most of the time, however, a shift in perspective, and perhaps a little extra patience, will do.

When your side hustle’s growth is stalling, it means you’ll have to be a little more creative in getting to the next level. If your flat has a bunch of racked up problems, that’s a challenge to up your DIY skills. And if you’re family is in conflict, it might be time to start mediating.

It’s always harder to face adversity in the moment. You know exactly what you’re getting if you choose to stay, and initially, it’ll be nothing but a fat stack of problems. In the long run, however, the satisfaction of figuring something out after committing to it runs much deeper than the shallow joy of being a beginner yet again.

In life, the rewards grow where you work for them, and without work, there won’t be any rewards, no matter where you are. Therefore, you might as well look around, pick up a shovel, and start digging. After all, you could always leave, but what better thing might follow?

Sartre’s Take

In season three, Emily in Paris proved that a light show can still make a deep point. While constantly torn between her boyfriend and her job, Emily is asked to translate a quote from existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in her French class: “Ne pas choisir, c’est encore choisir” — “Not choosing is still choosing.”

Being the quirky, relentless American that she is, Emily naturally asks for an answer to an impossible question: “But how do we know we’re making the right choice?” Surprisingly, her teacher actually provides one, and it might be the answer not just to Emily’s question but to all of life: “To Sartre there was no right or wrong. You simply choose with conviction and live your life.” Of course, later in the episode, Emily fails to do just that, and, as expected, consequences still ensue.

In a world where choice is infinite, choosing can be the hardest thing to do. Yet, since we know that, in an endless sea of options, there must be one that works for us, choosing is also the right thing to do. There is nothing worse than standing between hay and water, unsure whether to eat or drink, ultimately starving.

Making a decision, any decision, will always incur a loss of freedom, but being able to pick our responsibilities rather than having them handed to us is the ultimate luxury.

Choose with conviction. Live your life. Whether you’re an existentialist philosopher or a young expat trying to make it in the world of fashion, happiness is reserved for those who choose to choose.

Give Your Art the A, But Don’t Forget the I

With OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT making not just a splash but a tidal wave in the news in recent months, people have fallen into a pattern as old as humans themselves: proclaiming the death of something tried and true at the expense of a new, utopian future. In this case, writing is the victim, and AI will be the murderer — or so the story goes.

“I just tried an AI-powered writing app, and I am so so so hilariously out of a job,” Nat Eliason says, talking about Lex, an editing tool infused with OpenAI’s GPT-spirit. The use cases are pretty cool: You can ask it to complete a paragraph for you when you run out of steam, generate headline ideas on command, or provide counterarguments to your line of reasoning.

What tools like Lex hint at is that, rather than replace writers altogether, AI will be the their arm extension. Think Thanos’ glove, loaded with an increasing number of infinity stones as AI’s capabilities expand. Lazy writers will use AI to produce a thousand times more drivel than is already out there, and disciplined writers will stand out even more in a sea of mediocrity by putting their creativity on steroids…I mean, AI.

So far, however, AI can’t yet mash its powers together into a creative, metaphor-laden tour de force that will leave you inspired and enlightened. That still is — and always will be — the writer’s job. So no need for Nat to switch careers just yet. As of today, AI writing is still pretty stiff. Everything you ask it to do comes out like a Wikipedia page, and, for most fact-oriented queries, that’s fine.

But for the kind of writing that not just infuses but creates a character like Yoda, AI will have to do a lot more studying. It’s good at rehashing ideas but not expanding on them. In the case of pretending to be Yoda, ChatGPT returned the following quote and advice, for example: “‘Size matters not.’ Don’t let your limitations, whether physical or mental, hold you back. Believe in yourself and your abilities, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem.” That’s a good tip and, unlike a lot of writing, grammatically correct, but it’s also nothing seasoned readers haven’t heard a million times before.

Of course, sooner or later, AI will get there. It’ll sound just like an Italian notary’s son born in 1452 who became a famous painter, or the guy writing about that painter 565 years later, or the main actor in that guy’s daughter’s theater play — and yet, none of it will be real. That’s the one thing AI will never be able to do: Tell you a story won from experience. And while in many cases, that won’t matter, there will be purists, nostalgics, and literature fanatics who, at least on occasion, will insist their words come from a human brain, not a synthetic one.

What happens as the world moves to electric cars? Vintage vehicles with naturally aspirated engines become more valuable. Why do people pay more for wine treaded with human feet, unique art painted by hand, and limited edition leather bags assembled manually? Because they value the sacrifice of human time and effort that went into it.

In writing, many people choose to not make that sacrifice even today, or at least short-shifting it. Why come up with your own allegory if you can copy someone else’s? Why reword if you can just quote? Why spend one year on a book if you can hack one together in a month? The answer is a matter of principle, but it also shows on bestseller lists around the world: Because people care how much you care — and while AI can become another building block in your masterpiece, another way of showing you care, it could also be your greatest excuse not to — and thus your demise.

The better AI gets, the more we will learn who really cares about writing. Who always did it for the joy of it, and who used it as a means to an end? Who will leverage AI to reinvent themselves, and who will use it to make a million cheap copies? Who will become a vintage classic, and who will get washed away by a tsunami of text? AI will give us the answers, not through a chat interface but through its growing skills and availability, but none of them will mean you’re out of a job — unless you want to be, and in that case, perhaps your art was already about the A, not the I.

Science-Factum

My dad got a levitating lightbulb for Christmas. Hovering inside a magnetic field above a wooden base, the lamp slowly spins, suspended in midair, fully lit, as if plugged into a socket. Everyone says the same thing when they first see it: “WOW!”

Less than 30 years ago, this was the kind of accessory you might have spotted in the background in a sci-fi movie. I imagine if you had showed this to someone in the 1950s, there’s a reasonable chance they might have passed out or thought you had some kind of telepathic powers. Yet here we are, able to casually buy a floating lightbulb for less than a hundred bucks on Amazon.

On a day-to-day basis, technology always seems to progress slowly. The new iPhone is only slightly better than the last one. The next car looks almost like the last. On a life-to-life basis, however, technological progress is incomprehensibly fast. Science-fiction becomes science-factum faster than we can digest it.

My grandparents both learned stenography. You might know it as shorthand. In essence, they had to learn another language, complete with its own alphabet and symbols, to be able to write down everything someone says in real-time. “But that’s all gone,” my grandma said. There’s no need for it anymore.

Nowadays, you can record any conversation on your phone. If you upload it to Youtube, they’ll even automatically generate a transcript for you. No note-taking needed. No typing. No stenography. From someone’s mouth to readable text in a matter of minutes — and that’s just one of thousands inventions my grandparents have witnessed in their lifetime.

My grandparents do fairly well with new technology. My grandma now sends voice messages. My grandpa uses Word to write his newspaper articles. But it’s easy to see — and, honestly, totally understandable — that some things have passed right by them. Like floating lightbulbs, perhaps.

Look around your living room. Think about the history of some of the items you now take for granted. Think about what it took to turn them from science-fiction into science-fact. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, and it’s okay if, sometimes, the height makes us feel dizzy.

A Different Kind of Luck

In Bullet Train, Brad Pitt plays a rather unlucky assassin. From freak accidents spoiling his jobs to getting chased, stabbed, and shot for all the wrong reasons, code name “Ladybug” seems to stumble from one mess into the next.

When he tries to explain the irony of being named after a supposedly lucky animal to an old man on his Shinkansen train, the elder offers a different perspective: “Do you know what they call a ladybug in Japan? ‘Tentoumushi.’ As a boy, I was told there is a spot on its back for each of the seven sorrows of the world.”

The Japanese kanji for “tentou” spell “heaven path.” It is an allusion to the path traveled by the gods — fate. “You see,” the old man continues, “tentoumushi is not lucky. It holds all the bad luck so that others may live in peace.”

What if your good luck is just bad luck avoided? What if your bad luck is a service to someone else? Perhaps it’s all destined to unfold exactly as it does. That’s the lesson Ladybug learns from the stranger on the train: “Maybe it is just about how we frame it. Like, how do you know it’s a bad thing?”

If you think you’re having bad luck, give it a day, a month, or a year. What seems like a tragedy at one point might prove to be a blessing at another. What feels like being a beetle stuck on its back might prove to be a disaster averted.

As for Ladybug, chaos may ensue wherever he goes, but in the end, he usually comes out unscathed. “Maybe there’s no bad luck or good luck,” he eventually concludes. “Maybe we’re all just agents of fate.”

In Praise of Praise

When I talked to my friend Brian about 2-Minute Pep Talks, one theme that kept coming up was knowing your value and standing up for it. Brian mentioned that the Irish have a saying for taking someone down a peg when they’re trying to get credit for something, a saying often used in a derogatory way. In Germany, we have a similar expression: “No criticism is praise enough.”

If you wandered the hallways of nearly any company, however, within a single day, you would see that, clearly, a lack of admonition does not equal inspiration. Long faces in search of a compliment, starved of appreciation for months at a time, do not make for a workforce that likes to come in again on Monday.

Germans often overthink praise. They believe it must be substantial and, therefore, about something substantial. Better to only hand it out once a year, ideally along with a raise. No! The contents of your compliment almost don’t matter. If you tell me I’m wearing nice shoes, that might make my day — and while that has nothing to do with my performance at all, it might inspire me to perform well regardless.

Kindness is the lubricant that makes societal interactions run smoothly. Praise does the same for business. When people run on small doses of positive feedback, they are more inclined to try harder, more likely to tackle challenges with vigor, and more willing to go out of their way to help one another.

Be generous with your praise, and don’t stay silent when you think someone did something good. You never know what your compliment might inspire someone else to do, and you’ll gladly receive the return karma when you next need to hear something better than “no criticism is praise enough.”

The Living Room Inside Your Mind

There’s a great interview with Ryan Leslie that I keep coming back to. The only problem? The interviewer. Ryan wants to talk about technology, about business, and about how young people can do something good with their lives. In other words, Ryan wants to talk about the future.

Host Charlamagne, meanwhile, keeps prodding him about the past. Why did he disappear from the music industry? How does he feel about a love triangle that ended years ago? What exactly “threw him off his game?” To Ryan’s credit, he stays cool as a cucumber. He answers all questions but keeps returning to the topics that matter, like the very thing he is doing: defending his mental space.

When asked whether he feels happy that his former girlfriend broke up with the man she left him for — P. Diddy — Ryan says: “There’s always a cost of everything. There’s a cost of time. There’s a cost of space. If you have a house, and you got a nice living room, and you decide, ‘Hey, I want to put this massive sculpture in the middle,’ there’s a cost of that space.”

“I think of my mind in the same way. I don’t want to put some massive sculpture of pettiness or anything in there. I want to always make sure that I have as much mental space to be a visionary as possible.”

When you’re trying to do something important — and you’re always trying to do something important — you can’t afford to clog your mental attic. You need open space up there. Room to think. Whatever — or whoever — wants to get you to erect a massive sculpture of anything in the middle, they’re the one trying to throw you off your game.

Protect your mental space. Keep your inner living room clean, and you’ll always have headway to deal with the stretch of road that’s most important: the one that lies ahead, not behind.