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.

This Is Why Most People Will Never Be Rich Cover

This Is Why Most People Will Never Be Rich

If you even remotely entertain the idea that one day, you might be rich, I want you to answer this question right now:

Which decade of your life are you going to sacrifice?

If you don’t have a clear answer sitting in your gut or can’t even look at the question with a straight face, I’m telling you right now: Find that spark deep down and extinguish it, because you’re lying to yourself.

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A Strong Vision Is the Best Way to Be Productive Cover

A Strong Vision Is the Best Way to Be Productive

Last week, some girl at school knocked over her juice and killed the power for a whole group of tables. As a funny result, I get to enjoy my friends’ confused looks whenever they enter the library, because they’re startled not to see me in my usual seat. I might as well carve my name into it, because every week, Monday to Friday, from 7 AM to 7 PM, I practice Charlie Munger’s version of assiduity: I sit on my ass and do stuff.

And yet, barring a few mini jobs, I never worked a day in my life until I was 19. You could say I’ve come a long way with productivity — or that I’ve become a workaholic. But I’m neither proud nor ashamed of either of those things. Because what’s changed even more in the past eight years than how I approach productivity is my perspective of what it means.

I’d like to share some of that perspective with you. Hopefully, it’ll help you find the right balance at the right time.

One Hundred and Twenty Pounds

In On Writing, Stephen King tells a great story from his childhood about the time he helped his uncle fix a broken window, using his grandfather’s toolbox:

“We finally reached the window with the broken screen and he set the toolbox down with an audible sigh of relief. When Dave and I tried to lift it from its place on the garage floor, each of us holding one of the handles, we could barely budge it. Of course we were just little kids back then, but even so I’d guess that Fazza’s fully loaded toolbox weighed between eighty and a hundred and twenty pounds.

[…] When the screen was secure, Uncle Oren gave me the screwdriver and told me to put it back in the toolbox and “latch her up.” I did, but I was puzzled. I asked him why he’d lugged Fazza’s toolbox all the way around the house, if all he’d needed was that one screwdriver. He could have carried a screwdriver in the back pocket of his khakis.

“Yeah, but Stevie,” he said, bending to grasp the handles, “I didn’t know what else I might find to do once I got out here, did I? It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.”

Productivity is a behavior. Humans tend to label behaviors as either right or wrong and most of us file productivity under ‘morally correct.’ Regardless if such categories even exist, this leads us to feel we should always be productive. We turn the behavior into an end when it’s nothing but a means. We collect as many tools, tricks, hacks, and tactics as we can, but ultimately, productivity is just a toolbox.

You can decide when to bring it and when to leave it at home. How big it should be and what tools you want to include. You can even take out certain tools temporarily and bring a lighter version. Clearly, there’s a lot of choice involved in productivity. But making it the default is not something you should do lightheartedly.

Because the nature of this relationship is not unilateral.

Another Uncle’s Advice

Unlike Stevie’s, my uncle isn’t too great at fixing things around the house. But he’s a partner at a big consultancy, and that’s pretty rad too. So when I asked him after graduating high school, he told me what degree he’d get at which college, and off I went. There, I first learned the meaning of hard work. The schedule and studying kept me busy a good 60 hours a week, especially during exam season.

Another part of the career plan he gave me was to study abroad, but in the US, college is different. More recurring assignments, less pressure to ace finals. Suddenly, I found myself in a small town in Massachusetts with lots of time on my hands. I didn’t need to work as much and eventually, I used my freedom to start questioning the map I had asked him for.

Even if you know your productivity toolbox inside and out, many of the choices about its nature, size, and contents, are choices you make elsewhere in life.

To a certain degree, you can influence how productive you are, regardless of your current task. You can figure out different behavior hacks, become more self-aware, and scour your work for shortcuts. But to a much bigger extent, the larger mission you’ve dedicated yourself to inevitably impacts how and how much you work. Most of all, it changes how much you want to work.

Your toolbox is a natural byproduct of the choices you make not just in your career, but in life. Therefore, the straightest path to changing how productive you are is changing your life. This may sound either obvious or really obscure, but for me, it’s a hard-earned lesson eight years in the making.

Let’s just say it took me a while to see.

Cedar Dell Lake, Umass Dartmouth

My Favorite Synonym

Besides wandering off into the woods and around the lake, I spent a lot of that fall in the US reading. Blogs, like James Altucher and Zen Habits, and books like The Alchemist. The more I read, the more I thought “why can’t I do that?” Read a lot, write a little, and make a living that way. It sounded easy. It felt like fun. And if I was gonna work a lot, I’d much rather do this than design slides to help some corporation squeeze 0.2% more out of their EBIT.

It would be another two years before I ever put pen to paper, but that was the first time I dared to imagine something different. I found the courage to dream. Whether you call this fantasizing, career planning, or crafting a vision doesn’t matter, as long as you remember it’s the most powerful way you have to control that toolbox.

The strength of your vision is the single greatest predictor of your productivity.

Vision is a wonderful word, because it contains two things: what you can imagine and what you can see. If you’re really honest with yourself about what kind of work you want, no matter how ridiculous it may sound, you get a clear image of your dream job. Maybe for the first time. And if you’re then really honest about how far away you are from that image, or that you might be headed in the wrong direction, gears start to click.

Of course, there are cases where the fog won’t clear. Sometimes, you can’t see ahead more than a year, or it might take the better part of a decade to figure out ‘your thing,’ but that’s okay. Because if you let your productivity follow your vision, you bake life’s imbalances into your expectations of work.

This is not only natural, it’s healthy. It’s not about always being productive, it’s about always being productive enough. Enough for that current stretch of the road, wherever it may lead.

Here’s where mine lead me.

One More Tool in the Box

When I finally started writing in 2014, I set goals left and right. Write 250 words a day, publish once a week, get 10,000 subscribers, make $1,000 in a month, whatever you could quantify, I would put on some physical or digital sheet and pin to the wall. As a self-starter, this helped me a lot at first, but eventually, I realized goals are just another measuring stick. One more tool in the box. But it’s no good to bring your hammer each time, when sometimes, your vision requires nothing but screws.

Gradually, my goals transformed into themes. This was a subconscious process and to this day, I still use goals, though I do it much less and they quickly wander to my mind’s back burner. But looking back, I can pinpoint that in 2015, my theme was ‘commit.’ I learned to stick to things and see them through, even though no one told me to do them. In 2016, my theme was ‘invest.’ I wrote daily summaries of book summaries, and while that may sound stupid, I somehow felt the returns would come later. They did. In 2017, my theme was ‘grow’ and in 2018 it’s ‘leverage.’

None of these indicate anything about my level of productivity, because instead of dictating desired outcomes, they help me cultivate a mindset. A mindset that lets me deal with my work in whatever way makes the most sense at the time. And whenever my vision changes, which is about twice a year, so do my themes and what they mean. Sometimes the changes are small, sometimes they’re big. But they always come from a good place.

I’m not in a rush anymore, and even though I work a lot these days, I feel calm while I’m doing it. For example, I took a ten-minute break between that last sentence and this one. Not because I needed it, but because it’s good to get fresh air and talk to a friend. It’s in line with my theme, because once I publish this post, it’ll be out there forever, working for me. That’s the leverage part, the part that matters. Not whether I can finish this ten minutes earlier. And while the theme itself is just another tool, it helps me lift the box.

Because now I can approach it from the right angle, even if that angle is different each time.

My father’s toolbox

Two Handles

My dad has a toolbox too. Just like Stephen King’s grandpa’s, it’s old, leathery, and sealed shut with big latches. But it only has one handle. So whenever he let me carry it when I was little, I was struggling, because I could only grab it at one end with both hands. Life isn’t like that. Your toolbox is different.

In 2,000 year olds words, written by ancient philosopher Epictetus, translated for modern times in The Daily Stoic:

“Every event has two handles — one by which it can be carried, and one by which it can’t. If your brother does you wrong, don’t grab it by his wronging, because this is the handle incapable of lifting it. Instead, use the other — that he is your brother, that you were raised together, and then you will have hold of the handle that carries.”

I’ve spent a lot of days working hard on things I didn’t care about and I’ve wasted a lot of days not doing enough for the things I love. There were seasons when I was always on and seasons when I was always off. But no matter whether I did too much or too little, each time was a result of trying to lift the toolbox at the wrong handle.

What I’ve learned about productivity in the past eight years is that it’s mostly a consequence of the choices you make about life. The only thing that should inform those choices is your vision, your big dream, your future so grand you barely dare to imagine. Once it does, this vision will trickle down into your every behavior. First in goals, then in themes, but it’ll sink in deeper by the day. Until your vision not only shapes how you do things, but who you are; who you’ll become. The person you were meant to be.

To this day, I’m my dad’s assistant when we fix stuff around the house. But now, carrying that toolbox doesn’t feel so heavy. Maybe, it’s because I’ve grown so much. Or, maybe, it’s because your productivity is a reflection of your courage to imagine.

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.

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