Is It the End or the Beginning?

In the movie The Adjustment Bureau, a team of mysterious agents tries to prevent Matt Damon’s character David from being together with the love of his life. The agents have a book describing “the Plan,” the grand, cosmic scheme of things, supposedly written by God himself. According to this plan, disaster will ensue for David, his love Elise, and the entire world should the two be together.

Ironically, the agents use doors to keep closing gates for David. By wearing special hats, the agents can use any door to teleport to another location, thus thwarting David’s every move in trying to reach Elise. If fate has ever slammed the door in your face, you know what it feels like to have the Adjustment Bureau on your heels.

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us,” Hellen Keller once wrote. While forcing us to leave something behind, every door also leads to a new place. In David’s case, he would become the most powerful man in the world, and Elise’s future looks more than bright without him too. And yet…

“We never know what is on the other side of the door,” Matt Haig writes in The Comfort Book. “It may be a room similar to the one we are standing in, or it might be a room we have never seen before. It might not be a room at all. But we can never be sure.” That’s why doors are scary. We can’t see what we’re about to gain. All we know is what we’re giving up.

Sometimes, we look around the room we’re so familiar with, and we hesitate. We take our hand off the handle. “Do I really need to open this one? What if it’s Pandora’s box?” At other times, particularly those when we did find a wasteland rather than an oasis after taking our latest portal, we desperately cling to the handle of a door that’s long been closed. We rattle and shake and hit our flat hand against the wood, all to no avail. Like David, desperately trying to find his way back to Elise.

But was that door ever really locked? Haig believes few endings mean something is actually over: “Even though I have largely recovered from depression, the door is never quite closed.” It is “always slightly ajar,” he writes. Some doors are revolving. They transport us into the unfamiliar, but they still allow us to return. Sometimes, they even painfully try to pull us back.

Every ending contains a new beginning, because there are neither endings nor beginnings. Only doors. “Everything in front of us is defined by possibility,” Haig says. “And even if we end up somewhere we don’t want to be,” we should remember that “another door exists. And another beautiful handle, waiting to be turned.”

I don’t know if the Adjustment Bureau will breathe down your neck today. I don’t know where your next door will lead. All I know is that it is neither the end nor the beginning. It is a door to the future — and the only way to find out what’s behind it is to step through.

Optimism Trumps Fate

Maybe not today, but in the long run, it definitely will. I’m not talking about a specific instance here. “I was so sure we’d win the game, but the rain made it impossible to cover any ground with those new shoes we’d just bought.” That happens all the time.

What I want you to consider is your belief in the concepts of optimism and fate themselves. Let’s say you don’t believe in fate. The cosmos is full of randomness and indifference.

If you’re also an optimist, you’ll constantly expect chance to pleasantly surprise you, and you’ll work hard towards giving it as many opportunities as you can. If you’re a pessimist, however, everything you do will feel just as meaningless as random particles colliding in the cold darkness of space. Why do anything? It’ll all amount to nothing anyway.

Now, let’s assume you believe very strongly in fate. Everything is preordained, and there’s no way we can escape fortune’s grasp.

What would an optimist do under such circumstances? They would take pride in their accomplishments but never claim all the credit. After all, it was mostly fate! Similarly, they’d be unfazed by setbacks and forever look towards the next thing destiny might have in store for them. “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be today. Let’s see if fortune likes me better tomorrow!” A pessimist, on the other hand, would see doom and gloom wherever they turn. They’d expect the apocalypse to occur any minute, and they’d be convinced karma is out to get them every time they forget their keys.

Do you see it? How much you believe in fate pales in comparison to whether you choose a positive or negative outlook on life! Fate and chaos are the two extreme yet equally resigned ends of the free will–spectrum. If you think there’s even a slight chance we exist in-between, in the grey space where we control some things but not all, you’re also giving yourself room to choose hope.

Whether we are an optimist or a pessimist determines our life strategies and tactics much more so than free will, so if you at all believe you can, please, choose hopefulness. On some days, looking forward to the future will be the most important thing we do — let’s not leave it up to chance.

Shelve Your Rants

Yesterday, I had a bad customer experience. Instead of the declared maximum of 55 minutes, my food took over 90 minutes to arrive. There was no way to contact the driver. The restaurant didn’t pick up the phone. Two customer service agents did…nothing. In fact, one of them casually canceled my order just before the food arrived. Miraculously, it showed up anyway. Free meal after all, I guess?

I don’t know why I got so worked up about it. I wasn’t all that hungry. There was no need to call and chat and pull all these levers to try and salvage the situation. I could have just waited, or cancelled, or made some food at home. But maybe I wanted to get worked up about something. Maybe I just felt like shouting. That’s the problem with anger: You rarely know whether it’s warranted, and even if it is, it is almost never productive.

As a writer, it is especially tempting to turn each perceived slight into a long rant lamenting an entire industry. I’ve recently noticed a huge drop in quality for the experience of flying. I have a 1,400-word piece sitting in my drafts folder, ready to go — but I think I’ll just hold on to it. Besides riling up other people, is it really going to change anything? Will it reach that 1 in 1,000 airline execs who’d really take it to heart?

Writers publishing a constant stream of doomer pieces often tell themselves they’re bringing attention to important issues. Actually, they just stir up thousands of people’s emotions, and they usually profit off the outrage. The issue itself almost always remains. Like anger itself, ranting in public is rarely productive.

In private? Have at it. Write that hot letter. Type that angry Slack message. Just pause for a moment before you hit send. Chances are, you’ll realize some words are better left unsaid.

Releasing your pain is important, but it is much better to scream into, or at, your pillow than in someone else’s ear. As with your memories of bad customer experiences, most of the time, the best thing you can do with your rants is shelve them.

Trapped

When you feel trapped in a situation, know that it is never the circumstances that trap you but your mind. You always have choices. In fact, you have a near-infinite number of them.

However, because only a small fraction of our options appear obvious to us for any given situation, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of “None of the paths in front of me will lead to a good outcome, therefore, I have no path in front of me at all.” This trap is entirely mental, not real. We feel trapped, but actually, we aren’t.

In an early Suits episode, a mean partner at the law firm where Mike Ross is a new associate tricks him into failing a drug test. When Mike goes to his mentor Harvey, he claims that he had no choice. “Oh, because you had a gun to your head,” Harvey says. “Yes!”

“And what are your choices if someone puts a gun to your head?” “What are you talking about? You do what they say, or they shoot you!” “Wrong. You take the gun, or you pull out a bigger one. Or you call their bluff. Or you do any one of a hundred and forty six other things.”

Corporate law is all about finding a way out of seemingly impossible situations. The other party will drive you into a corner with some weird, antiquated legal loophole, and then, with your back against the wall, it’s your job to find an even weirder one to break the wall down and keep playing.

The ethics of corporate law can sometimes get questionable, but the spirit of independent thinking is admirable. You too have this spirit. Everyone does. You just need to remember it when you feel “trapped.”

When you’re stuck in a bad job but need the money, you don’t have to stay. You can secure another job before quitting. You can get a second job on the side. You can start your own business. You can ask your friends for help. You can talk to your boss, to your coworkers, or even the CEO. You can move to a different country. You can run away into the woods and learn to survive on your own. You have a million options, but unless you’re willing to think outside the box, you won’t see the one that’ll set you free.

The same applies to a broken relationship, financial quagmire, or any other seemingly insurmountable situation. Sometimes, your biggest obstacle will even become your greatest stepping stone. But first, you have to get out of your own way.

The only traps in life are the ones we believe ourselves to be in. Use your imagination, and you’ll never be caged.

Practice in Public

That’s all this blog is. A daily practice, free for anyone to attend. Not that it needs spectators. But whoever wants to watch can. I’m just the guy doing sit-ups in the park. My reps may be blog posts, but the results are still plain for everyone to see.

You might not choose writing, but you too should practice in public.

In Munich, people dance in public. There’s a regular salsa class at Königsplatz. The hip hop kids hang out at the Pinakothek. When it comes to sports and exercise, we practice in public all the time, if only because the courts and gear we need are too large to fit into our houses.

When we start a business, we have no choice but to practice in public. Initially, the market may not pay much for our services, but with each gig, we can get better until, eventually, the whole world might want a piece of our delicious personal brand–pie.

Your job is something you practice in public. You can’t hide the second-quarter report from your boss because you don’t think it’s polished enough, can you? When the client calls, you better pick up the phone.

Wherever practicing in public is necessary, we don’t think twice about how our early, potentially clumsy efforts might be perceived. The publicity is just part of the deal. If I want to play tennis and do it well, I must accept that some people will see me while I am still a bloody beginner. If I’m not willing to do that, then I can’t learn how to play tennis. It’s that simple, and we are happy to play ball under these terms, pun intended.

Why can’t we do the same with art? Why is starting a Youtube channel a big deal? Why are teenage girls conceited if they make an Instagram and talk about makeup? Why do we think “poor schmuck” every time a coworker tells us he’s starting a personal blog?

Practicing in public does not mean you have to aspire to build an empire. You don’t think the guy doing sprints in the school yard is trying to beat Usain Bolt, do you? Then why must someone jumping on TikTok necessarily be desperate for attention? Why must a vlogger be arrogant or greedy?

You can practice mostly for fun even if you practice in public. Professionalism is not a requirement — although if professionalism is what you’re going for, that also is helped by practicing in public.

Art seems to be the one arena in which exposure isn’t a requirement to play, but that doesn’t mean the exposure won’t do what it does in all the other areas: help you improve. It’s much easier to take a few points of criticism on your painting to heart than it is to argue endlessly with yourself in your head about what to change. Even if you are the primary beneficiary of your art, aka you just like to make things and use them (or look at them), said beneficiary will still gain from the semi-publicness of your work.

For some reason, we think we need to be “good” in order to be allowed to reveal our art in public. But most of the time, nobody even knows what “good” means, and regardless, we can never get there if we don’t show the world our bad drafts first.

Art is like any job, sport, or business venture: You don’t need authority to do it, but if you want to get the absolute most from your pursuit, be it in meaning, satisfaction, or external rewards, you absolutely must practice in public. See you at the park!

Speak Slowly

It allows you to choose your words more carefully and, in fact, to choose your words in the first place. Often, we blurt out whatever first comes to mind when we most need to do the opposite. Emotions and eloquence rarely go together.

The most important part, however, is that speaking slowly gives you time to see how the person you are talking to reacts, and only when you empathize with their reaction can you adjust not just your words but also your tone. “The tone makes the music,” we say in Germany.

A harsh piece of criticism delivered softly can work wonders in getting an employee to try harder. A sad truth delivered calmly will open the door to a conversation instead of a shouting match.

In the movie Hitch, Will Smith’s character claims 30% of human communication is tone. That might be a stretch, but how you speak definitely matters a great deal on top of what you say.

Speak slowly so that, like in a good song, your melody and lyrics may always blend together. Let them walk hand in hand. In doing so, you will give us the gift of feeling calm, comforted, and inspired in your presence — and that feeling will last long after the last word has been said.

Something Beautiful Is Coming Your Way

“You can’t manufacture a miracle,” Robbie Williams sings. You can’t control when you’ll feel lost, hurt, tired, or lonely. Sometimes, all you can do is wait.

The waiting, however, is always worth it. The sun will rise again eventually. Something good will come eventually.

I want you to remember that that good thing is already on its way. It always is. Every day, somewhere, a miracle sets off, heading towards you. But miracles take a long road to reach us. They don’t all make it. That’s why we receive them so rarely. As long as we have faith in waiting, however, they’ll always get here just in time.

Don’t give up. Hold on a little longer. Something beautiful is coming your way.

Between Two Chairs

When you feel stuck between two chairs, the problem is not that you can’t sit down. You even have more than one option! The challenge is that we don’t know which seat will be comfortable enough for us to keep sitting in it. If we choose A, will we topple and fall over? If we choose B, will our butt hurt after 30 minutes?

The dilemma is exacerbated when other people want to recruit us for their respective recliner: It always sounds so good when they talk about it! But is their chair really the right one for us? A church group, a new division at work, the local chess club — they all want us on their team, but in sitting down on their bench, we might knock over another.

What if your dad leans right with his vote, and your mom leans left? Who will you support? What if you get along great with your roommate, but the best job opportunity is in another city? When the chairs are people, life really gets messy.

There are no perfect answers here. Sometimes, you’ll choose the exact right chair, and everyone will commend you for it. At other times, you’ll realize your mistake before your butt even touches the surface, and you’ll spend the next few months cleaning up the mess you’ve made.

The only missteps you can truly avoid are those leading you in a circle around your vast array of seats. Life isn’t a game of musical chairs. In fact, the music will only start playing once you sit down. Don’t hesitate for too long. Don’t stand around until your legs hurt. Chairs are like buses — they come and they go — but you need to sit in one in order to focus and do your best work.

I know. I, too, wish life was easier. I wish we didn’t have to choose so often. It’s rarely fun when life forces our hand, but at least that way, we know we’re still playing. And sometimes, magic unfolds! So pick a chair, sit down, and hope for the best. The next intersection will soon appear, and unlike on a plane, you can always change your seat.

Which Concerns Are Worth Voicing?

When it comes to my career, I know exactly what I want. I want to write books that inspire millions of people — to make a change, to inspire others, or even to pick up the pen and write their own.

Despite this, I constantly doubt myself. Is this the right book to work on? How much time should I spend on other, more money-oriented projects? What if this chapter isn’t well-received? What if I can’t get my point across in this paragraph?

When it comes to concerns, we all have thousands more than we can reasonably address. Fortunately, most of them never come to pass, and out of the ones that do, only few will prove to truly be worth worrying about. So which concerns should we bring up? Which ones do we focus on, share with others, and commit to resolving before we move on?

If we voiced every little concern we might hold about our relationship, for example, we wouldn’t do our future a good service. “She forgot to put the soap back where it belongs.” “He never cooks.” “What if we don’t get along after we move in?” Were we to point out all of the small and big issues in real-time, our partner wouldn’t thank us for it. They’d say we’re a complainer, and they’d be right. After all, we’re spending all of our time pointing out problems and none of it solving them!

The problem with problems is that you can solve only one at a time. Once you go into the realm of real time and energy, there’s only so much you can spend on any given issue before you run out of steam, another becomes more important, or it escalates to the point of rendering the solution moot.

The best thing we can do under these constraints is to pick the problem that seems most important and pressing and go all-in on it while keeping our mouths shut about the rest — at least for now.

Yes, sometimes, you’ll choose the wrong challenge. Sometimes you won’t make it in time, and your situation will change altogether. But to try and fail at eliminating the real consequences of a concern is still far better than to spout “Fire!” left, right, and center without running for any of the extinguishers on the wall.

The truth is that we’ll rarely know in advance which obstacles will break our backs. Half the reason they do is because they come out of left field! Still, most of our time is far better spent addressing whatever important issues we can see with real blood, sweat, and tears than lamenting on and on about the million ways it might all go to hell.

It’s hard to swallow your concerns, and yet, it is often the right thing to do. Don’t swallow all of them. Think carefully about which ones you’ll voice. Do force the most critical seeming ones into the spotlight, but then get right back to work. There are books to be written and meals to be cooked — and whether they’ll be our first, last, or one of many does not matter nearly as much as completing the one right in front of us.

You Don’t Have to Do It All in a Day

There’s a funny scene in Stranger Things where Mike and Dustin argue about whose girlfriend is cooler.

Having just had his computer whiz sweetheart hack into the school’s admin system to turn his D- in Latin to an A, Dustin feels like he has the high ground: “Look, I’m not saying that my girlfriend is better than yours. It’s just that Suzie’s, like, a certified genius.”

Mike’s girlfriend El, on the other hand, is the main hero of the show and, therefore, does all the heavy lifting when it comes to keeping evil demons at bay. “You do realize El saved the world twice, right?”

“And yet you still have a C in Spanish,” Dustin retorts.

There are two lessons in this little tiff among friends. The first is that even if you save the world today, it will keep spinning tomorrow like nothing ever happened. Most people will never know, and you’ll still have to go to third period math. Sorry! No first class seats in this life.

The second is that you can never do everything, and, therefore, you don’t have to do it all in a day — whatever important goals “all” might contain for you. Mike was busy helping his girlfriend save the world. As a result, he didn’t have time for Spanish. So what? He can get a better grade next year!

Whether you’re the kind of person who wants to save the world, help someone else do it, or merely build a nice little life for yourself and your family, remember: Be it world-saving or building a tool shed, you don’t have to do it all in a day — and even if you could, tomorrow would still be another one.

It’s okay to have a C in Spanish.