The Best Way to Improve Your Thinking Cover

The Best Way to Improve Your Thinking

Every day, up to a million people pass over the intersection outside Shibuya Station in Tokyo. With a capacity of 3,000 people in one exchange, it’s the biggest pedestrian crossing in the world.

Whenever the light turns green, a little race starts. Who gets across the quickest? Who takes the straightest line? Who’ll wiggle through without bumping into someone? It may not be as big in your town, but every day, that very same race happens billions of times at intersections around the globe.

I’m always fascinated by all the different players’ attitudes. Some just stare into space, others are completely absorbed by their phones. Some are lost in conversation or thought, while others can’t wait to continue their morning run.

But almost without fail, the person who makes it to the other side first is someone who paid attention. I try to be that person. I don’t always ‘win,’ but when I do, I’m halfway across by the time my fellow players look up.

There are lots of ways to improve your thinking. Train your memory, set goals, think positive, eat right, meditate, the list goes on. But they all pale in comparison to relentlessly using your best asset: your attention.

If you really want to do your brain a service, fully dedicate it to the task at hand.

Even if it’s just waiting for the traffic light to change.

Say No To Free Stuff Cover

Why It’s Important to Say No to Free Stuff

Last week I got hoodwinked. Walking out of the school canteen, a friend and I passed a guy standing next to his car’s open trunk, handing out free drinks and note pads. Except they weren’t free. As soon as he’d offered us his ‘gifts,’ he made us sign trial subscriptions to a newspaper. To his credit, we didn’t need any payment info and he was a nice guy.

But he still blindsided us. Most of the time, however, I do it to myself.

Free Lunch All Over the Place

Whoever says there’s no free lunch has never been to a German college. We don’t pay insane tuition, yet there are still more freebies than anyone could handle. Drinks, food, events; young people will build the future and these are the things they covet. But that doesn’t mean we want our lives to be a 24/7 pitch fest in which we’re the prize.

So when yet another poor devil hands out flyers, the result is often the same: trash cans full of paper, littered floors, and shreds of parchment flying through the streets. 19 out of 20 times, 19 out of 20 people aren’t interested. And yet, we end up with an ad in our hands anyway. Why is that?

Sometimes, we get blindsided. We’re too startled to say no and boom, we agreed. Sometimes, we don’t want to be rude. And sometimes, it’s straight pity. It speaks volumes about your product if the best buyer motivation you can hope for is people wanting to eliminate some of the inherent discomfort in your sales process. A friend says she often takes flyers to make the other person feel better and help them get on with their unrewarding job.

That’s a noble goal, but I think there’s a hidden price we pay for it. Because now, the joke’s on us.

The Scales Inside Your Mind

Taking some stupid flyer doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is. Now you’re not just responsible for the piece of paper, but unless you really wanted to take it, which, let’s face it, almost never happens, you’ve also just broken a previous deal with yourself: “I will do what I trust is best for me.”

This deal isn’t explicit. It’s not one we sign and one we rarely voice out loud. But it’s built into us from birth and rightfully so.

Acting in our own best interest is, on a long enough timeline, the only way to act in everyone else’s best interest also.

Deep inside your mind, there’s a scale. Every time you break or live up to that deal, you throw a small stone in one of its trays. One side is confidence — complete and utter trust in yourself. The other is insecurity. A constant scratching at your decisions, full of self-doubt and second-guessing yourself. And whichever side is heavier tends to make your next decision.

Throwing the First Stone

Also last week, I went out to grab drinks with friends one night. Around 10 PM, our metaphorical Thursday night camel train wanted to move on. There was a midterm party hosted by the school, but the group wanted to go pregame at another place first.

I fancied the party, but what I didn’t wanna do was drive all across town to sit in someone’s apartment and drink first. Especially since I’m not in the mood for alcohol these days. So I decided to go home. Of course the usual ‘come on’s and ‘just an hour’s ensued. You know how it goes, you’ve been in that situation before.

See how similar this is to the people handing out flyers? Except it’s all intensified. Because now you’ve made an actual deal with yourself and it’s not a stranger pitching, but your friends. The scale in your mind, however, remains the same. It doesn’t matter what’s reasonable or what’s fun. The only important question is:

Which tray of the scale will you throw the next stone on?

Another friend says she once met someone who’d always joke she was “a weak person” when it comes to going with the group consensus. It’s a fun anecdote when you’re actually indifferent about an outcome, but I told her I’m worried about what happens if she tells it too many times. Humans work in funny ways. The more you tell yourself you’re the type of person who throws stones on the doubt-side of the scale, the more you’ll end up actually doing it.

For 99% of our decisions, it doesn’t matter all that much, but in 1% of moments, the state of the scale is everything.

Seconds of a Lifetime

There’s one last thing that happened last week. We were watching the Germany vs. Sweden world cup match at a burger place. For every goal Germany scored, we got free shots. I passed on the first one, because again, I don’t feel like drinking these days. But since we won in the last minute, we got another round.

Once more, I declined when the waiter offered, but as we were all about to toast, a friend noticed I didn’t have one, while another friend had ended up with two. I said it was alright and that I didn’t want it, but my buddy was adamant I take it. After a short, but suddenly intense “YES!”-“NO!”-yelling-match, he handed the shot over, I set it down and saluted with my Sprite.

Imagine how awkward that is. Twelve people with raised glasses, with two dudes arguing over who takes the last shot in the middle. Moments like these only take seconds, but unlike listening to sales pitches or deciding where to eat, they fundamentally impact who you are. And yet, the shots are just like flyers. You either cave and take the damn thing or stick to your guns and make things awkward.

No one will even remember, let alone care about the situation two weeks down the line. But you will. Because taking the shot, or the shitty job offer, or forgiving the asshole boyfriend who cheated is like ripping that trust contract you have with yourself to shreds. With a snap of your fingers, you’ve dropped an anvil on the scale. Self-doubt all the way.

What all of this comes down to in the end is this:

The reason I can say no to drinking in a room full of people with raised glasses is that I’ve practiced saying no to people with flyers for the past 10 years.

Getting ambushed by a guy selling newspaper subscriptions is bad. But blindsiding yourself is much worse. We tell ourselves these little, mundane decisions aren’t important, but they are. Because everything you do matters. Life isn’t a collection of fragments. It all ties together into who you are.

The choices you make when no one cares are the ones that determine what you’ll do when you care the most.

So, I’m sorry if you ended up with one of those crappy promotion jobs. I feel for you. But no, I don’t want your flyers.

The Most Valuable Skill in the World Cover

The Most Valuable Skill in the World

One day in the early 1920s, a four feet tiny man walked into a Ford plant near Detroit. His name was Charles Proteus Steinmetz. He was a mathematician and electrical engineer, called there to help fix a big generator.

From Smithsonian Mag:

Upon arriving, Steinmetz rejected all assistance and asked only for a notebook, pencil and cot.

Steinmetz listened to the generator and scribbled computations on the notepad for two straight days and nights. On the second night, he asked for a ladder, climbed up the generator and made a chalk mark on its side. Then he told Ford’s skeptical engineers to remove a plate at the mark and replace sixteen windings from the field coil.

They did, and the generator performed to perfection.

Henry Ford was thrilled, until he got an invoice from General Electric in the amount of $10,000. Ford acknowledged Steinmetz’s success but balked at the figure. He asked for an itemized bill.

Steinmetz responded personally to Ford’s request with the following:

Making chalk mark on generator: $1.

Knowing where to make mark: $9,999.

Ford paid the bill.

I’ve told this story before, but I can’t think of a better one to show:

The single most valuable skill in the world is judgement.

At first I thought great judgement would just make you rich, but that’s not true. It’ll also make you happy. Deciding who you trust requires judgement. Choosing who you marry is a judgement call. How you spend your time is a direct result of your judgement.

That’s why nature made it hard to get. The only way to good judgement leads right through experience, which you pay for in time, energy, and taking risk.

But, even more than all of those combined, you need courage. Because while life is one big judgement training camp, those who really embrace it must ask what the most important decision is, choose an option, and then see it through. Over and over again.

And that’s not a matter of judgement at all.

How to Be Kind in a World That Never Taught You to Be Cover

How to Be Kind in a World That Never Taught You to Be

“Well, some things you just can’t get for money.” The older I get, the more I think this is just something we, the not-yet rich and successful, tell ourselves to feel better. There is almost nothing money can’t buy. Because even for what you can’t trade straight for dollars, there’s almost always a proxy.

You can’t buy time, but not having to work 40 hours a week sure helps. You can’t buy health, but I bet your cancer treatment fares better if you can drop $2 million into it. You can’t buy happiness, but there’s a material sweet spot around $75,000/year.

Money makes the world go ‘round. I don’t think that’s bad, it’s just the way it is. Capitalism isn’t perfect, but it’s helped us do good things, and I believe for many, the struggle for money is the right choice. But I also believe in being kind along the way. Work hard, be nice, win. There’s enough to go around for everyone.

And that’s where the road forks, because most people don’t think you can do both at the same time. Not every struggle is a battle, but if your only options are competing and conceding, they might as well be the same. If you tend to view the world as this dark place that you have to fight tooth and nail against to get what you deserve, I feel for you.

We don’t agree, but I have an idea where it came from. And it’s not your fault.


The world doesn’t teach anyone to be kind. Throw a kid to the wolves, and if he survives, he’ll be a wolf himself by the time he does. No, passing on kindness is your parents’s job. Or was. One day you’re two, the next you’re 18, and whatever happened in between is in the past. You enter the real world, whether in working, dating, or elsewhere, and suddenly, you’re drowning in responsibilities. Of course now it’s much harder to develop what you didn’t bring along. That’s one thing money really can’t buy.

You’re only brought up once. No reruns.

You can’t just grab a box of ‘great upbringing’ off the shelf and even if you could, you would neither have the money nor the awareness to do so when you need it the most. Because what 3-year-old can ask her parents for the money to get, well, new parents?

I hit the jackpot in that sense. I come from the most cotton candy sunshine rainbow family you can imagine. We’re not perfect, but my childhood was as close to it as it could have been. It equipped me with all the right tools. Optimism, determination, care, love, and discipline. Frugality, joy, gratitude, self-awareness, work ethic and responsibility. Now that I think about it, maybe there are things money can’t buy and some it even makes harder to attain.

None of the above can guarantee I will live a happy life, but I feel that so far, they’ve allowed me to live a good life. And that’s worth plenty on its own. For one, they’ve spared me from many a millennial struggle. Like financial irresponsibility, unrealistic career expectations, and immature relationships.

Of course I’m not immune to problems. As Ryan Holiday noted: “The world is undefeated.” It breaks everyone, it just does so in different ways. And yet, a loving family and a good upbringing is something I truly wish everyone could have. I’m painfully aware that’s not possible. Maybe you’ve had tough parents, no parents, or, let’s face it, downright shitty parents.

I can’t snap my fingers and turn back time any more than you, but I’d like to at least share what I’ve observed about how my own kindness transpires. Maybe there’s a process you can copy and it’ll ooze out just the same.

But to do that, we first need to talk about a topic dear to every German’s heart: rules.

Two Kinds of Two Kinds

Besides being German, I’m also an Upholder. It’s a personality type that thrives in meeting both inner and outer expectations. This means I don’t just abide by the rules, I love them so much that, if there aren’t any, I’ll set up my own, just so I can have a lane to drive in with bumpers along the side.

Whether you share my love for rules or not, you too have lots of experience with them. Making rules, taking rules, faking rules, breaking rules. But next to the rules you set for yourself and those the world pushes you to follow, there’s another dichotomy here. Some rules are stated clearly, others implicit.


Case in point: Area 51. When you drive past that “Restricted” sign, you know there are laws you’re about to violate. You’re trespassing on secret government property, you can be searched, arrested, shot, photos are forbidden and boy, you better not launch any drones. Those aren’t all of them, but enough for you to break a sweat.

It’s the second set, however, the unwritten rules of Area 51, that make venturing there a trip worth taking for thousands each year. Nobody knows exactly what they are, but they lead to all the rumors and myths surrounding the place. Because the only way to find out is to go there. What am I getting at?

Every situation in your life is like entering Area 51.

It might not be as exciting and, thankfully, not as dangerous, but wherever you go, there are rules, written and unwritten. They depend on the time, the people, the country, the culture, the politics, and a whole lot of other values. Unlike the government’s secret military facility, however, finding out what those unwritten rules are isn’t just encouraged, it’s your job.

And if you do it well, you’ll automatically be kind to others.

Mirror, Mirror…

We’re always told to break the rules, but I think there’s often a huge caveat missing: it’s advice for how to do things, not how to treat people. When it comes to social interactions, let the written rules inform your behavior while you figure out what the unwritten standards are. Following such rules as best as you can is less a sign of being a blind follower than it is a gesture of respect for others.

Adapting is a way of being kind because often, the two are one and the same.

We are a social species. It’s not just animals, we too mimic each other’s behavior. Subconsciously in conversation, on purpose to be part of the group. I tend to get along well with all kinds of people and I now see a big part of it is doubling down on that trait. Call it diplomatic, call it manners, but no matter how you feel about rules, showing a little flexibility helps us coexist.

Here are some of the unwritten ones I’ve discovered so far:

  • When you enter a quiet room, be quiet. When you enter a lively room, be lively. In other words: Read the room.
  • When your opposite is talking to you, don’t use your phone. Don’t even touch it. Chances are, you both can’t multitask.
  • When people notice you in the street, notice them too. Look, nod, be part of the world. Don’t stare at the ground. Don’t be an antibody. We get little of it these days, so acknowledgement is almost synonymous with respect.
  • When you meet someone new and notice them using certain words, pick up their vocabulary. An easy way to bond is meaning to say the same thing.
  • Whoever tells you a story, recap it as a question. “Wait, so you ran out of gas and the station was closed?” It’s called active listening, but it’s empathy.
  • When you disagree with someone, ask if they think you disagree. Often, it’s not the case. Let them explain again.
  • When someone shows you they like you without words, show them too. Look at them, be attentive, listen. They’ll understand, just like you.
  • When you can help people without really going out of your way, do it. Including, but not limited to, holding doors, standing up, and giving exact change.

Money, fame, happiness, success, it’s our right to fight for these things, but you’re not fighting against one another. We’re all in this together. Ultimately, either everyone wins or none of us.

Photo by Joshua Clay on Unsplash

Everyone’s Favorite Movie

I don’t think it’s a coincidence Germans are considered a nice people. We love rules. A little too much, maybe. That said, compliance is far from the only way of adapting.

Sometimes it’s your turn to reflect, sometimes it’s your turn to be the mirror. The most important rules are always the unwritten ones, because no one has dared articulate them yet. Let alone be the first to follow them and set an example. Imagine you treated everyone the way you would be treated if your life was a Hollywood movie. You’d constantly exceed everyone’s expectations.

I wish we could have nothing but perfect childhoods, wealthy families, and kindhearted humans. But a lack of the first two must never come at the expense of the third.

The world is only as dark a place as we allow it to become. So let’s not let it.