Enjoy Your Small Dreams

Yesterday, a friend came over for dinner. When I asked her what her weekend plans were, she said: “Sleep in and maybe, just maybe, I can clean up my room. That would be my dream.” It reminded me of the time my sister said the same about having an Aperol spritz to-go when visiting Munich.

While I jokingly told both of them the same thing — that they needed bigger dreams — I can appreciate the humility. Whenever we need it the most, small but meaningful aspirations can give us something our grandest visions can’t: an immediate sense of joy and fulfillment.

Whether it’s cleaning up your room, having a drink outside, or, in my case, looking at a bunch of Pokémon cards while the sun shines into your office: If a tiny dream is all it takes to make your weekend, that’s a wonderful thing. Don’t let your biggest goals take that way from you.

Wishes are valid in all shapes and sizes, and it doesn’t always take a visit from Santa for you to receive the gift you hope for the most.

The Kung Fu of Everything

Why do kung fu movies inspire us even when we’re not martial artists? Because the virtues embodied by the masters are universal. That’s not a coincidence.

Translated literally, “kung fu” means “skill achieved through hard work and discipline,” Shannon Lee explains in Be Water, My Friend. It refers to any ability earned with practice, effort, and patience.

Therefore, “it is possible to have good kung fu in anything,” Shannon says: “mathematics kung fu, mothering kung fu, public speaking kung fu.” You can even have “life kung fu” or “you kung fu.”

How many hours have you dedicated to learning how to navigate life’s many challenges? How much have you practiced being your true self? Everything is learnable, and in every skill, there is at least some learning at its root. That is the message.

While there is something to be said about picking your kung fu and fully dedicating yourself to it, there is also comfort in knowing you can get better at anything, even if you might not become the best in the world at it.

I was never a great nor a particularly eager cook, but since moving in with my girlfriend, I enjoy it a lot more. Cooking finally has a purpose that extends beyond feeding myself, and so I’ve started cooking regularly. I pick recipes, buy ingredients, and don’t mind if it takes me an hour or two to get everything right. Sometimes, I even improvise and it works out. In other words, I’ve come a long way from barely being able to make scrambled eggs. I now have some cooking kung fu.

Perhaps the best part about the ubiquity of kung fu, however, is that it allows you to appreciate skill in others. When your waiter serves you the cappuccino in one fluid motion off his tray, all while wearing as mile, your waiter has kung fu. When a cyclist shows the awareness to stop and let you cross the street, the cyclist has kung fu. And when your boss tells you to leave early because she can sense you have somewhere important to be, your boss has kung fu.

Everything is learnable, and in every skill, there is at least some learning at its root. That learning took practice, effort, and patience. Somebody showed up and brought those virtues, and that’s why you now get to admire said skill. Everything has kung fu — be grateful when you see it.

The Power of No Expectations

Once he becomes the king of Kattegat, Vikings-protagonist Ragnar Lothbrok quickly learns that everyone close to a ruler tends to have their own agenda.

His brother Rollo is jealous and would like to rule himself. The beautiful Aslaug wants to lure Ragnar away from his wife, hoping his power will protect her. For the next four seasons, Ragnar will suffer betrayal after betrayal, fighting one uphill battle after the next.

In the entire show, there is only one character who seems to go along with whatever Ragnar suggests: Athelstan, an English monk whom Ragnar hauled back to Norway as a slave. Of all people, Athelstan has the most reason to plot against Ragnar, yet he never does. As a Christian, he is a believer in kindness, love, and patience.

The more time he spends in Kattegat, however, the more Athelstan realizes that the ways of the Northmen are also fascinating. So are their many gods, from Odin to Thor, Freyja, and Loki. Wherever he goes, Athelstan listens. He asks questions. He meets people with understanding instead of prejudice.

Ragnar, too, notices that Athelstan seems to be the only one capable of looking beyond his own ambition. As a result, he frees him. Over time, Athelstan becomes a great warrior, well-versed in the Norwegians’ traditions and even their language. He fights with them, raids with them, and one day fathers a son, breaking his vows of celibacy.

Eventually, Athelstan returns home to England, where he once again becomes a monk, once again earning a king’s trust for so willingly upending his life. Athelstan illustrates holy texts and offers counsel to whoever asks for it.

Considered a wanderer between cultures, Athelstan isn’t met with a friendly eye wherever he goes. One day, yet again home in Norway, a jealous viking can no longer restrain himself, and Athelstan meets his maker.

Years later, as Ragnar sits across King Ecbert of Wessex, there’s only one thing the two iconic rulers can agree on: They both loved Athelstan as their closest friend, and they miss him dearly. More than for lost wives, brothers, even children, they long for Athelstan. They see him in their dreams. He guides them on the right path where no one else can.

Why Athelstan? What makes him so compelling? The answer, I believe, is that Athelstan was the only one without expectations. Wherever life carried him, he would allow it. “I am to be a slave? Then let it be so.” “I am to be a viking warrior? Then let it be so.” “I am to love this woman? Then let it be so.”

In a world so corrupt, so full of betrayal and hidden incentives, how could anyone just go with the flow? By letting go of judgment. Just because Ragnar enslaved him does not make Ragnar a bad man, Athelstan believed. Where others applied case-closed-thinking and plotted their revenge, Athelstan kept his mind and heart open. Who knows what’ll happen tomorrow? And indeed, tomorrow always made for a surprise.

Despite having no claim to fame nor being the strongest warrior, ultimately, Athelstan held the most sway over those in power — because he himself wielded the greatest one of all: the power of no expectations.

Today, the world is less deadly but no less complicated. A lack of expectations is still as fresh a breath of air as it was in the ninth century, and perhaps also still the — maybe the only one there ever was — ultimate power.

Drop your assumptions. Let go of judgment. Love the world and live with open arms. It might not fall at your feet, but even if the road comes with many twists and turns, life is better without expectations.

Don’t Spend Your Time — Pass It

“Until the 1600s when clocks became ubiquitous, people rarely thought about time,” Paul Millerd writes in The Pathless Path. “English historian E.P. Thompson noted that instead, people thought in terms of activities. In Madagascar, a half-hour was a ‘rice cooking,’ and a brief moment was ‘frying a locust.'”

Only once clocks became commonplace did we start equating time with money, Paul explains. We stopped “passing” the time and started “spending” it. In doing so, “we can make trade‑offs, calculations, and coordinate global meetings, but we also decrease any sense of abundance.” We gain a better economical sense of our hours, but we lose our inner peace.

Nowadays, we say “time is money,” but actually, we’re just pretending — because that’s not true at all, is it?

Time isn’t something you can save, put away for a rainy day, and spend in larger quantities when you need to. You can’t stash away a week for when your parent gets sick or to take a vacation when you feel burned out.

Time isn’t fungible. The value of each additional unit depends highly on when we receive it. An extra day of life might be worth little to you if you’re stuck in a wheelchair in your 80s, but an extra day of watching your son grow up as a young mother could be priceless.

We routinely and casually trade money for time, from hiring an editor to ordering an Uber to buying ready-made meals, but when time is the thing we’re asked to give up, we tighten up and exercise extreme scrutiny.

Clearly, the two are not the same. Perhaps it’s time we stopped “spending” — and pretending.

Time passes with or without us. From time’s perspective, what we do — whether we even exist — is irrelevant. It will keep flowing. Under that paradigm, we can take a more relaxed attitude towards time. We’re paddlers floating in a river, and though we have some control of where we’re going, we can never go ashore. The river will keep carrying us regardless.

If time keeps passing no matter what we do, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing if some hours just pass us by. We sleep until we wake up. We idle and contemplate nature. Time still moves us forward, even when we’re not moving.

Absent the meddling force of money, even the question of how we can pass our time deliberately changes. Why shouldn’t taking two hours to cook a healthy, tasty meal for your partner be a perfectly acceptable way to pass the time? Why would a mid-day break to read an hour of fiction be a bad thing?

Remove the incessant guilt of “I should be using my time to make money,” and suddenly, work is just one way to pass the time — not in any way superior to all the others, let alone our only concern. Most of our scarcity complexes today revolve around money, so once we equate it with time, we project those same complexes on the clock, even if the dynamics are rather different.

Once time becomes money, there can never be enough of it, and the endless chase begins. That’s a foolish game to play with a resource whose supply is already fixed. You’ll have as much time as you’ll have on this earth. Not a minute more or less. Money, on the other hand, is a means you can generate infinitely more of or at least replenish on a regular basis. In fact, as you get more skilled at making money, you’ll be able to create more of it faster. Your capacity to earn more money goes up over time, whereas every minute passed in the river has forever flown down the stream.

Before time was money, working more than you had to was frowned upon. Idleness, deep thought, beauty, and relaxation took precedent over running the grindstone. This isn’t to say that, today, work can’t add meaningfully to our lives, but if we spend all our time in hopes of making more money — or even fretting about why we’re not using our time to make more money — the best things in life will, ironically, pass right by us.

Don’t spend your time. Pass it. Don’t let the coins bully you in a way the clock never would, and remember: Time is not money.

Piercing Moments

When I was 11, I walked into an electronics store and, as usual, checked out the demo station. Back then, stores always had a few PlayStation 2s set up, ready for you to sample the latest games. After watching another kid play this one particular game for no more than a few seconds, I got that tingly feeling of knowing you’re about to discover something special.

Once it was my turn, I stepped up and dove into a world I would never forget. You played as a teenager named Sora. Your companions were none other than two Disney legends: Goofy and Donald Duck. Together, the three of you had to fight off monsters made of pure shadow in a strange-looking town, and your weapon was a blade in the shape of a key.

It didn’t take much swinging and slicing, enemies going up in smoke, and little green and yellow reward-orbs falling to the ground for me to realize: This was the greatest game of all time, and I just had to play it. It was one of those rare, piercing moments you never forget — not because of what’s happening on the outside, but because inside, deep down, you just know something important is going on.

22 years later, Kingdom Hearts indeed holds a special place in the video game hall of fame. The original game sparked a series which now spans some 13 titles and has sold over 36 million units to date. But what I remember most about the four years I spent completely obsessed with that first game is not the fact that, apparently, I had a nose for what makes a good video game. I remember the many other piercing moments that happened along the way.

I remember completing a whole bunch of extra difficult challenges to unlock the game’s secret ending, which was a preview of the next installment. I remember chasing that movie down online, which was hard to find at the time (no Youtube yet), and watching it over and over again. I remember speculating with other people in the forums who its new mysterious characters were.

I remember playing table tennis in our basement with a friend whom I rarely had the privilege of beating. But one time, I imagined I was Riku, another main character from the game, and I played as if I had wings. I remember feeling like I triggered bullet time. I was completely in flow, and I saw myself in slow-motion reacting to his shots, perfectly returning this hit or that, neatly landing the next, and winning the game.

I remember downloading the game’s soundtrack and making my own CD cover for it. I listened to the title track over and over and over again. Sometimes, I spent 30 minutes just watching the game’s introductory music video a few times while listening to the instrumental version of the track.

I remember the Final Mix version of the game that was released only in Japan but had additional content, new enemies, and more information about the story and future games — including a new secret boss battle and a longer version of the secret ending. My PC ran overnight for weeks to download the files. Since there was no way to buy and play it in Germany, I had to burn the game on a DVD disc myself and get a special tool for the PS2 to even be able to play a Japanese game. I wrote down the Japanese characters in the menus and button descriptions with English translations, and over time, I learned to recognize what some of them meant despite not understanding a single word.

I don’t know why so many distinct memories of my time with this game are still available to me where others aren’t, but perhaps that is yet for me to discover. All I know is that one piercing moment made all the difference, and then many other meaningful, equally piercing moments followed.

We can’t always make sense of them, but the one thing we can trust in is that these special junctures in our life offer some kind of significance. What are your piercing moments — and what might they be trying to tell you?

Beliefs in Different Sizes

Everyone you meet in this life comes endowed with beliefs. Their beliefs will be different from yours, and, together, you’ll have to figure out where you can find common ground — if any — if you are to be friends, business partners, lovers, or even members of the same family.

My dad believes reality TV is relaxing. I believe everyone should write, even if no one ever reads it. My friend believes Xiaomi’s phones are better than Apple’s. Neither of us would agree with either belief of the other two, and yet, we all know each other and get along just fine. That’s because beliefs come in different sizes.

Some beliefs are as small as a talisman. No larger than a dime, they easily fit into your pocket. You can carry them anywhere, but you might also lose them as quickly as you picked them up. If you’re a chocolate aficionado, for example, your favorite flavor might change whenever you taste new product samples.

Other beliefs are the size of a little package. You can still take them around, but they’re not so simple to stow away. You may have to keep holding them in your hand or bring a basket made of other beliefs to carry them in. “German cars are the best” reveals more about you than just your preference for BMWs — that you value efficiency and precision, perhaps — and while valid, you might not want to bring this belief into a General Motors dealership.

Then, we also hold beliefs that can only fit in a suitcase. They’re bulky but important to us, so we lug them around, even if, sometimes, their weight takes a toll on us. How many people have dragged “a six-figure salary is essential to happiness” behind them for years, only to realize it won’t change all that much when they finally achieve it?

Finally, some beliefs are so large, they form the very ground on which we walk. They’re foundational, and we can’t go anywhere without our foundation. If you’re raised with the idea that food you didn’t cook yourself is not worth eating, that will empower you in the kitchen for decades to come, but it will also cause endless friction whenever your partner wants to order takeout or your boss sets up a team dinner.

Just as with physical objects, larger beliefs are more likely to clash, and when different-sized beliefs meet, usually, there’s a clear winner. Whether you consider it a steamrolling or a smart steering-around-each-other, this dynamic makes for smoother social interactions.

My dad’s reality-TV-belief is a package-one. When he turns on the latest fake family drama, I can start arguing about its benefits, or I can simply leave the room. My friend can easily agree that anyone would benefit from daily writing without taking up the habit himself. He cares less about my foundational belief than I do, and so the conversation just moves on. If you’ve ever shared a meal with a vegetarian despite being a meat-eater (or vice versa), you know that it’s easy to make room for other people’s beliefs where you haven’t yet brought any large luggage of your own.

Of course, you’re also familiar with the opposite: arguing fiercely with someone else about a matter of the heart, perhaps even while a group of bystanders looked on in disbelief. “How can these two care so much about which color we pick for our jerseys?” But if no one else brought a package-belief to the meeting, that’s how it goes.

What’s less obvious about all of this is that while beliefs come in different sizes, we’re the ones who pick how large we’d like them to be — and we can grow and shrink them according to the demands of each new situation.

My friend dislikes Apple products with a luggage-sized passion, and if I blew just a little more air into my package-belief into the company, we could argue about the best tech for hours. But I don’t. If anything, I shrink it. “A phone is just a phone, let everyone use the one that they like best.” I resize my belief for the situation and get out of the way.

Whether you minimize or expand your belief in order to get along with others often doesn’t matter. Both largeness and smallness can lead to magnanimity. Whether someone agrees or disagrees with my “everyone should write” idea, I know in my heart that it’s true — but that doesn’t make it my job to go on a crusade until every person on earth actually does it.

Your favorite kind of chocolate can be the flavor of the week, or it can be a singular, lifelong dedication to peppermint, fiercely defended at every turn. What will you do when “German cars are the best” lands you in a shitty Audi SUV that fails to meet any of your expectations? Will you double down or reconsider your belief? That six-figure salary aspiration may have been a heavy suitcase to carry for a few years, but once it no longer has a purpose, you can shrink it into a talisman any day. And even if you’ll forever cook every meal at home, perhaps at a potluck dinner, you might try someone else’s food — if only to see what other people come up with as a consequence of holding the same foundational belief as you do.

Everyone you meet comes endowed with beliefs, and so wherever you go in this life, you, too, will venture there with beliefs as your baggage. So every morning, as you leave the house and meet the world, ask yourself: Will bringing this idea be worthwhile?

Don’t be afraid to adjust your values to make room for others, and remember that any attitude has only as much power over you as you’re allowing it to have. Listen to life, and size your beliefs accordingly — that way, you’ll always travel with just the right luggage for your intended destination.

Greetings From Hawaii

For a few months in 2017, I documented my days via Instagram Stories. One time, I felt particularly feisty. The corridor connecting my college’s cafeteria with the study room is a literal gangway, taken from an actual plane. As I walked through it, I snapped a quick video, tagged it, “Hawaii here I go!” and uploaded it.

Later that day in early spring, I stepped out and shot some more video of me in the sun. When I showed up to a video call with a friend in the afternoon, the first thing he said was this: “You’re in Hawaii dude? Damn! How’d you get there so fast?”

I explained the joke, and we both had a good laugh about it, but the point is only more relevant today than it was back then: Don’t believe everything you see, especially if you’re only seeing it via a screen. My little prank happened long before AI voices, face swaps, and deepfakes. Today, scammers can create actual video footage of the US president and put any message whatsoever into his mouth.

Always verify your information, and unless you receive them via postcard, follow up before enjoying your greetings from Hawaii.

Know Your Home

The first time I moved to Munich, I had the great privilege of only being called there for a duration of six months. Like my internship, my time there was limited, and it forced me to explore, learn, and see as much of the city as I possibly could in the time that I had. Actually, it didn’t — but I allowed it to, and the spots I discovered back then have now been paying dividends for years.

Today, many of the friends who went to college here with me after I returned have never walked up the “Old Peter” church tower. They’ve never been on the rooftop of the New Town Hall building or taken the elevator up 200 meters to enjoy the view from the Olympic Tower. They’re the kind of touristy places one might visit during an internship but that, as a local, you might never end up seeing because, you know, “I can always do that later.”

It’s nice to be well-traveled or know the best restaurant in town. But how much do you know about what’s right in front of your nose? If you and I stepped out your front door, how long could we keep walking with you pointing out this place or that one, telling story after story, reveling in the history of your microcosm?

Sure, learn about the world. Go on great adventures. But don’t forget the place where most of your life is actually lived. Know your home, and share it. Helping others see from a different angle can feel just as rewarding as scaling a new mountain — and often all it takes is a five-euro elevator ride to do it.

Choose and Walk

When you’re trying to get from A to B in the city, there’s no point in making a wrong turn. Google Maps has got you covered. Take the extra two minutes to look up directions if you need them.

Life itself, however, is still — and always will be — mapless. There’s no way to know whether you should work on your search engine game, a membership portal, or write another book. Each intersection is a mystery, and each path will come with its own ups and downs.

Which one is the best one? That’s a trick question — and the trick is to have faith that no matter which road you end up on, you’ll find joy, new lessons, and plenty of friends along the way.

When life presents you with incomparable choices, don’t spend weeks in analysis-mode without moving. Choose and walk. As long as you trust the universe, you’ll always end up at the right destination — regardless of where it lies on the map.

Subtract the Story

Shannon Lee was in an on-and-off relationship with the same man for years. He claimed to love her and made grand promises yet never came through. After she finally broke it off, she felt angry and hurt. She blamed him for not appreciating her, and she felt he had wasted her time.

But then, eventually, Shannon began to reflect on the bigger picture. In Be Water, My Friend, the daughter of Bruce Lee explains she had to face a difficult question: “Without making a story out of it, what actually happened?”

Once she managed to distinguish between herself and her feelings — and between both those things and the situation — she realized she had tried too hard: “I had this idea in my head that if I could model the care I wanted (without having to actually ask for it) and by example have him adopt it, then that would thereby prove my worth.”

Shannon had never really found out how much the man actually valued her because she didn’t value herself enough to simply ask for what she needed. As a result, he reflected the same lack of care right back at her. That doesn’t mean the man didn’t have a lot to learn and apologize for, but ultimately, there was a bigger lesson here to learn for Shannon — but she could only see it once she subtracted the story.

We tell ourselves stories all day long, and often, those stories are our greatest allies. But sometimes, especially in complex, interpersonal situations, they simply get in the way.

Here were two people, one who wanted to love the other but perhaps didn’t know how to do it, and one who attempted a show-don’t-tell when straight-up communication might have done the trick. As long as each of them told themselves a story about being misunderstood or mistreated, however, neither could see the situation as it was.

Stories are wonderful companions. Just know when it’s time to ask your ally to step aside. Subtract the story when only logical analysis will do, and soon, you’ll be writing the next chapter.