Death Will Be an Interruption Cover

Death Will Be an Interruption

19 weeks into their pregnancy, Keri and Royce Young found out their daughter suffered from anencephaly. It’s a rare, prenatal disease, which prevents the child from developing a big portion of its brain, skull, and scalp.

The odds of survival are zero. Lives with anencephaly are counted in hours, days at most. After 48 hours of deliberating the impossible decision to lose a child or a pregnancy, they decided to go through with the pregnancy, so they could donate their daughter’s organs and save another human being.

“We decided to continue, and chose the name Eva for our girl, which means “giver of life.” The mission was simple: Get Eva to full-term, welcome her into this world to die, and let her give the gift of life to some other hurting family. It was a practical approach, with an objective for an already settled ending point.”

As pragmatic as it looks in a paragraph, think about how much respect this choice deserves. Such a noble decision, one most people could never bear. But decisions, good or bad, have no say in how time works.

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” 

— Woody Allen

Right when Keri hit the two-week window for Eva’s birth, the baby’s brain functions gave out. After life had cheated them out of their initial plan, death cheated them out of the backup. No daughter, no hello, no organs to donate, no goodbye.

In a lucky turn of events, Eva’s eyes helped save someone else’s sight, but the story just goes to show: we can’t prepare for the unpreparable.

The Prison We All Share

In The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, one of Stephen R. Covey’s key tenets is “begin with the end in mind.” He suggests a thought experiment called ‘the funeral test,’ in which you imagine what four speakers would say at your burial. One is family, one a friend, one from work, and one from a community.

“What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would you like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate?

What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? Look carefully at the people around you. What difference would you like to have made in their lives?”

These are all important questions. They’re great in helping us adjust how we behave today. What’s bad is that they inevitably trigger long-range planning and you can’t do that without estimating time. Even if we’re building our plans around the best intentions, they’re still built around a big construct of expectations.

In 2017, Scott Riddle was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. He’s a guy like you and me. A father, an employee, a husband, a friend. He is 35 years old. So far he’s recovering, but his plans? They’re all gone. Because no matter how smart it is to think about your own funeral, no one would put it just two, or five, or ten years into the future. That’s Scott’s big takeaway:

“Stop just assuming you have a full lifetime to do whatever it is you dream of doing.” 

The only guaranteed path we take in life is one we cannot control; we’re all hurling towards death inside our little cages of time. And to add insult to injury, life makes sure to knock on the bars along the way.

In 2008, we lost my grandma to lung cancer. She was 66. In 2016, my uncle died in his sleep. He was 52. Knock. Knock. Everyone loses someone. They need not be people we know, but they’re always people we care about. Like Chester. Or Tim. Time is the prison we all share. No reminders needed, but we get them anyway. Lest we forget.

A Stubborn Illusion

We go through life imagining that when death comes, we’ll somehow be ready. We’ll lie in bed at 103 years old, surrounded by our loved ones, say our final goodbye and then fall asleep. That’s a beautiful vision, and I wish it for anyone, but it’s really dangerous to get attached to it. We’ll never be ready. We’ll never be done. When the time comes, nobody wants to go.

This isn’t to say all long-range planning is useless. There’s a balance. But mapping out your life until the end, including the end, is a futile fight against time. Maybe a better way is to think of life in cycles, like Seth Godin does when he describes it as a series of dips:

“There isn’t just one dip. It’s not like ‘let’s get through that dip and we’re done.’ Steve Jobs helped invent the personal computer, helped launch the graphical interface, helped launch the mp3 business, helped launch computer animation at Pixar. He’s not done. Just like skiing, the goal is not to get to the bottom of the hill, the goal is to have a bunch of good runs before the sun sets.”

In 1948, Albert Einstein was diagnosed with an aneurysm in his abdominal aorta. A ticking time bomb, impossible to defuse. He chose to hold it patiently. Seven years later, just after his 76th birthday, his friend Michele Besso passed away. Aware of his own time running out, he shared an insight in his condolence letter to Besso’s family:

“He has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.”

Einstein himself died a month later. In Einstein: His Life and Universe, biographer Walter Isaacson describes his last moments:

“At his bedside lay the draft of his undelivered speech for Israel Independence Day. “I speak to you today not as an American citizen and not as a Jew, but as a human being,” it began. Also by his bed were twelve pages of tightly written equations, littered with cross-outs and corrections.

To the very end, he struggled to find his elusive unified field theory. And the final thing he wrote, before he went to sleep for the last time, was one more line of symbols and numbers that he hoped might get him, and the rest of us, just a little step closer to the spirit manifest in the laws of the universe.”

Einstein’s last equation

What Einstein showed us, both in his words and behavior, is that there is no such thing as time. Just a giant current of the unknown that carries us into the wind. And all we can do is live our lives, whether we surrender to it or not.

Even if you’ve made your peace with it, death will be an interruption.

One day, you’ll be out skiing, working, reading, writing, skateboarding with the other kids and changing the world. The sun will set and you’ll realize “oh, I won’t be able to finish this today.” The question is can you go to bed and say “I’ll do it tomorrow?”

In the end, the Youngs learned a similar lesson:

“None of it went as we planned. We’re trying to rest on knowing we did the best we could. We always said we wanted to limit our regret, and I think in 20 years or so as we reflect on this, there’s not much we’d change. Because anything we would change was already outside of our control anyway.”

The only thing we can really do is accept not being ready. Accept being naked. Prepared to be unprepared. And maybe, just maybe, letting go won’t hurt so much.

“It’s a weird thing to say that in probably the worst experience of my life was also maybe the best moment of my life, but I think it was the best moment of my life. The timing of it all is just something I can’t explain. It wasn’t what we planned or hoped for, but it was everything we needed in that moment.”

No matter when it happens, I imagine a peaceful death will be just the same.

How To Survive as a Writer Cover

How To Survive as a Writer

Being a writer is hard. In an interview, storytelling legend and screenwriting teacher to the stars, Robert McKee, explains:

“Your job as a writer is to make sense out of life. Comic or tragic and anything in between, but you have to make sense out of life. You understand what that means? Making sense out of life? And this is why most people can’t do it. Because they can’t make sense out of life, let alone make sense out of life and then express it in writing.”

As writers, it’s our duty to live in our heads. And there’s no place more enticing, more exciting, yet at the same time more dangerous and more terrifying than the human mind. Time and again, we have to venture into this place from which some never make it back. Whatever we bring home we have to process, to shape, to form. Until somehow, something worth saying emerges, which often never happens. And so we have to go back.

For the times we do go “oh, that’s interesting,” we then have to chisel an arrow out of the marble block of messy information. An arrow loaded with emotion, dipped in reason, and wrapped in gold. Because otherwise, it’ll never land in the reader’s heart. And at the end of it?

After all the turmoil, the struggle, and the pain, the best we can do is fire the arrow into a sea of dark faces. Because even if we don’t play for the applause, in the end, our fate lies in the hands of the audience. Always. So the best we can do is show up, shoot, and pray.

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The Strange Law of Love Cover

The Strange Law of Love

I met my ex-girlfriend on Tinder. We matched, we met, we were together for almost two years. We broke up two years ago and I haven’t been with anyone since. What I learned is that even when you feel ready, you can’t skip to the end.

You cannot find love by looking for it.

The moment you start searching, you’ve already twisted yourself into a pretzel that’s nothing but a poor copy of the awesome you you actually are. That’s why online dating rarely works out in the long run. Because from the beginning, something felt ‘off.’

In 1951, Alan Watts wrote in The Wisdom of Insecurity:

“I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the ‘backwards law.’ When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. When you hold your breath, you lose it — which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, ‘Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.’”

The law of reversed effort is universal, but it feels beyond unfair that it applies to love. The harder we work for it, the less we get. Back then, Watts said about his book:

“It is written in the conviction that no theme could be more appropriate in a time when human life seems to be so peculiarly insecure and uncertain. It maintains that this insecurity is the result of trying to be secure, and that, contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves.”

There are no degrees to truth, but if there were, his words would rank higher up the ladder today than they did some 70 years ago. In a world that’s always connected, opportunities to feel insecure and uncertain are infinite. And what better way to a sense of security than to commit to a relationship. Forever.

Or so it seems. Maybe the marriages that take the most effort to build are the quickest to fall apart. I don’t know.

It’s a sick, cosmic joke, this strange law of love. Facing its truth, you’re only left with one of two reactions: you breathe or you break. What I do know, however, is that this reaction is a choice.

Love starts with loving yourself. Only then can you give it freely and receive more in return. It’s one of those “when the student is ready, the teacher appears” kind of things. Like attracts like. And if you don’t think you’re awesome, work on it. Do something for yourself. Go to the gym. Start a business. Buy a book. Paint. Whatever gets you closer to being someone you would want to date yourself.

The only person you are guaranteed to spend the rest of your life with is you.

Make sure you’re in great company.

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Habit Tracker: Which One’s The Best? + 100 Habits To Track

“What gets measured gets managed.”

That’s a quote from Peter Drucker, considered the father of modern management. Contrary to what you’d think, he wasn’t a big fan of complex business models or convoluted strategies. He mostly talked about habits. Businesses are run by people and people run on habits. That’s why managing our habits is important. Measuring them, however, is hard.

That’s where habit trackers come in. Read More

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The Cost of Being an Employee

“Give me a lever long enough, and I shall move the world.” That’s Archimedes. It would take us another 2,300 years, but eventually, we invented the lever. The internet has changed our economy and society more than any other technology before. In The End of Jobs, Taylor Pearson explains how it’s transformed the job market in the past 20 years.

The book is divided into five sections, the first two of which describe the demise of traditional jobs; the last three make a case for being an entrepreneur. To me, it creates a picture of a scale that’s slowly moving from very imbalanced to almost tied, maybe even slightly tipped towards the new side. As such, I think the central message is this:

The gap between entrepreneurship and traditional jobs is closing.

Broadly speaking, Pearson describes this gap in three aspects:

  1. Value for the economy. Large corporations still pull their weight, but add less and less to innovation, especially in the tech, software, and internet space. Meanwhile, one-man shops and small startups unlock value in markets that weren’t profitable before.
  2. Value for the individual. Manual labor is automated or shifted to where it’s cheap, leading to salary wars among traditional firms. But with an internet connection, anyone can run a small e-commerce business on the side, yet still make an extra annual salary.
  3. Risk taken on by the individual. Corporations require neat CVs, expensive degrees, yet often only offer temporary positions. The cost of setting up a website is less than $100 and you can get most resources and services on demand, just in time.

For traditional careers, value goes down, while risk goes up. The opposite happens to entrepreneurship, because after the dot-com boom (and bust), it’s become the limiting factor in pushing humanity forward.

“1. The limit is shifting from knowledge to entrepreneurship. The entrepreneurial Complex and Chaotic domains are the ones increasingly in demand.

2. The dominant institution is shifting from Corporation to the Individual (or self). What used to require large companies, technology, and globalization has now been made available to the individual or micro-multinational.

3. The dominant player is shifting from CEO to Entrepreneur.”

But what does that mean for you and me?

Not All Entrepreneurs Make the News

If Pearson’s right and if the trend he describes continues, a lot of people are building the foundation of their career in the wrong sandbox. The internet has driven down the cost of producing goods and distributing them to almost zero, while good jobs are increasingly rare and harder to get into.

Pearson recounts a conversation with a business owner:

“He’d always loved cars and spent time at the race track growing up. He had a moment of realization when he saw that the only way he could ever race consistently was if he became an entrepreneur. In order to race cars, you need lots of money and lots of time. While a high-paying job in finance may get you the former and a beach bum lifestyle may get you the latter, it was only entrepreneurs that had both money and time.”

While the rewards of successful entrepreneurship have always been lots of money, meaning, and freedom, the risk to become one has never been lower. The first part is plain to see. Idols of entrepreneurship are all over the news. But there are no reports about the stay-at-home mom who sells Pinterest marketing services for $100k/year. This second part, the absence of risk, is much less obvious, which is why most people stay on their traditional path.

But however quietly, entrepreneurship, both part- and full-time, becomes the more attractive option with each passing day. And the question isn’t really whether you should start thinking about your options, but how long you can still afford not to.

Walking Up the Stairs

If you’re a startup founder, solo entrepreneur, or freelancer, you’re already taking some or all of the steps Pearson suggests to help future-proof your career. But if you’re a traditional employee, or on track to become one, slowly wading into entrepreneurship may be more appropriate for you.

“The entrepreneurial leap has become the entrepreneurial stair step. The latent demand and lower barriers to entry have allowed more people to become entrepreneurs by easing their way into the process. That’s not to say it’s easy — you still have to climb the stairs, but no longer in a single bound. Stair Stepping lets you build momentum behind your trajectory by developing the skills you need to run an entrepreneurial company.”

The stair-stepping approach Pearson refers to comes from Rob Walling, who built several SaaS tools, until he founded Drip, which was eventually acquired by LeadPages.

The idea is to launch a simple product, like a WordPress plugin, for a fixed price, and promote it through a single online marketing channel. Once you’ve hit a certain revenue threshold, let’s say $1,000/month, you can repeat the same process until eventually, you’re making enough to quit your job. Slowly adding channels and products will also help you build your skillset one step at a time.

The final step is to use your time, once you have all of it back, and any excess capital from your mini businesses to build whatever you want. This is a much better position to launch moonshots from than diving headfirst into a VC-backed venture or betting on a line of work that might soon be obsolete.

It’s 2018. The lever is long enough, but you must stand in the right place to apply it. Only then can you move the world.

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303 Life Lessons We All Learn But Keep Forgetting

I used to think beyond 7th grade math is only useful for physicists and statisticians. After the rule of three, which allows you to calculate discounts on prices, diminishing returns start to kick in fast.

I’ve remedied that view a bit; geometry and calculus have led to some of histories strongest philosophical insights, but I still like to imagine a world in which our high school table of subjects includes:

  • Human behavior.
  • Relationships.
  • Communication.
  • Body language.
  • Personal finance.
  • Etiquette.
  • Career discovery.
  • Work habits.
  • Creativity.

Until that happens, however, I’m grateful for people like Alexander J.A Cortes, who compile the curriculum of such a school of life for us to learn it now, as adults. On February 25th, he shared a tweet storm previewing his next book titled Untaught Truths of Adulthood, which went viral.

As I read through his nearly 100-tweet-long outpour of life lessons, many examples from my own life popped up in my mind. It’s only natural, for all of us learn many of these things, but we never articulate them. I reached out to him and asked whether he’d be up for a collaboration: The result is his treasure trove in long-form, with my experiences as backup to his insights.

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Use This Storytelling Framework to Craft Amazing Narratives

There is a class of entertainment that is underrated, in spite of its external success: stories about telling stories. Hit shows like How I Met Your Mother, Suits, or Gilmore Girls and blockbusters like Ocean’s Eleven, the Bourne movies, and Fight Club all thrive on their characters’ abilities to launch into enchanting monologues at a second’s notice.

Whoever asks Barney Stinson about his playbook, platinum rule, or Valentine’s Day can expect a full-fledged fake history lesson. Despite what the gang might say, they love it. Because who tells stories like that?

Sometimes, life throws us the same opportunity to tell a story however we want to tell it. It might be an essay for a job application, a speech to your old class, or a new acquaintance asking about a childhood experience. But we’re not a character in a movie, so we never have those stories locked and loaded and often butcher them as a result.

How can we change that?

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