There Are Two Ways To Judge People — Both Are Useless

There Are Two Ways To Judge People — Both Are Useless

We all do it. You do it. I do it. Your friends do it. We judge.

At the grocery store, we silently judge people waiting in line. We secretly rate our family members by how much they support us, our friends by how fast they call us back and our coworkers by how cocky they are. But we also make more subtle judgement calls. Ones we’re barely aware of making.

When we eat, our gut signals to us what’s safe to put in our mouths and what’s not. When we meet someone new, we can instantly tell if they’re attractive or not, without having knowingly sorted them into either category. When we’re in danger, we make split second decisions about where to jump, which corner to turn. Much of this is natural. It allows us to exist.

Judgement, both conscious and unconscious, is a fundamental part of the human experience. We all do it around the clock because it’s a necessary function of moving, acting, and living in a dynamic world. And while we can’t do much about the beliefs we form without actively contributing, we all have our own systems of how we evaluate others.

Sadly, most of those systems are fundamentally flawed.

Actions or Intentions, Which One Is It Going To Be?

How we judge others is mainly affected by how we’re raised. The two most commonly ‘taught’ approaches are based on how people interact with us: one on their actions, the other on their intentions. The goal of either is to make human behavior comparable.

When you grow up in a home where little emphasis is placed on outcomes, where you feel that your best is always good enough, chances are, you will hold others mostly to their intentions too. Your boyfriend got you a terrible gift? No problem, it’s the thought that counts.

If you’re raised under the motto of “actions speak louder than words,” however, it’s usually the result that matters. No second-place trophies. You either showed up to your friend’s birthday, or you didn’t. You score the client or you don’t.

Both systems have their advantages and drawbacks, so it’s hard to declare one superior to the other. Placing importance on intentions allows you to be patient and kind, while focusing on actions is a great motivator to try hard and hold both people and yourself accountable.

Problems occur, however, when we accidentally mix the two. There’s a saying that we tend to “judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions.” This gap, if present, creates a double standard. When you criticize a coworker for being late to a meeting, but let yourself off the hook for ‘really trying hard’ the next time you’re stuck in traffic, the outside world will label you a hypocrite, maybe rightfully so.

Regardless of which philosophy you grew up with, the message is, when choosing your own system as an adult, be consistent. Judge others the way you would judge yourself. It is here that the real predicament begins.

Both systems, even if practiced to a tee, put you under constant pressure to remain rigid in a world of permanent change. No matter which basis of judgements you choose, you’ll quickly run into instances where you’ll want to change that basis. If only just for a single occasion.

Maybe your girlfriend cheated on you, but you really want to forgive her. Or your son played an awful match of tennis, but man, he tried so hard you’d love to give him credit. Whenever we are uncomfortable because we don’t want to contradict ourselves, it’s usually a sign that the arrangement we made with ourselves was too inflexible to begin with.

Maybe we need a new way to make sense of people’s behavior altogether.

What We’re Really Looking For

If we want to develop a more accurate sense of judgement, one that leaves us feeling more comfortable in our own skin, we first have to look at why we feel we need an explanation of why people do what they do. I think it’s to help us streamline our interactions with others and improve our relationships.

Life’s events are hard enough to navigate as they are, so by detecting other people’s desires and reasoning, we reduce complexity. We want to find out who to engage with and who to avoid. In a business negotiation, clarifying the wants of all involved parties is the quickest way to close a deal. Knowing the one person in class who likes you the least makes it easier to find your clique.

The problem with comparison approaches, like actions or intentions, then, is that they neglect that much of who we are is contextual. Because so is what we want and why we want it. By pinning a small sample of observations on other people’s character, we render the contrast void before we even make it.

In science, this is called the fundamental attribution error. It’s our tendency to point to people’s identity when explaining why they do what they do. I guess this kind of flaw is to be expected from a brain that runs on lots of heuristics.

We judge as a shortcut to make sense of the world. We label the lady who cuts in line at the grocery store as egoistic and add a checkmark. Understood. But actually, we’ve understood nothing. We’ve merely skipped the effort of even trying when it’s precisely that effort that would give us what we want.

What if, instead of adding a period at the end of “she is disrespectful,” we added a question mark? What if we replaced instant judgement with instant curiosity? Wouldn’t that allow us to interact with others based on what’s going on, rather than who we think they are?

Because the only way we can really understand why people act the way they do is by assembling a picture of the context that they acted in. Was their choice one they made voluntarily? Or one they were forced to make? Or maybe one they felt they were forced to make, even if it wasn’t so?

Getting a grasp on the many factors that went into other people’s choices is a process of discovery. A process impossible to start from a conclusion, because then you’d only select the information that fits your preconceived idea.

Just like it’s impossible to be curious and judgmental at the same time.

The Yardstick That Never Fails

Making assumptions is part of life. In most cases, nature does a good enough job at getting us to make the right call. But when it comes to interacting with other humans, our basic wiring often fails us.

A yardstick is only as good as the number of things you can measure against it. That makes both actions and intentions poor yardsticks for judging others. When we use them, we’re too quick to jump to conclusions rather than the right questions, and we’ll always feel uneasy about our own, inner conflicts.

Curiosity, however, is universal. In refusing to judge people, we’re prompted to judge their circumstances. And since the circumstances of even the smallest decision are vast beyond what we could ever perceive, we’ll often find ourselves unable to make any judgement at all. What a wonderful way to live.

Replacing judgement with curiosity forces you to keep asking questions. It allows you to react to the same act by the same person in an entirely new way, if the situation demands it. And it’ll never squeeze you into the discomfort of contradiction, because contradiction is condoned, even necessary.

We can’t choose what belief systems we’re raised under, but we can update those systems once we discover them. If we’re curious enough to figure out what they are, we might actually change them — and us — for the better.

How To Use Idleness To Combat Setbacks Cover

How To Use Idleness To Combat Setbacks

Around 300 BC, a wealthy merchant set out on a voyage from his home in ancient Cyprus, Phoenicia, to Piraeus, a harbor town close to Athens.

Having almost made it to his destination, his ship crashed and went under, including the precious cargo. Luckily, he survived. Eventually, he reached Athens, and, once there, decided it’d be best to not do anything for a while.

Enjoying his newly found spare time, he spent most of it walking around the city, exploring. One day, he came across a book store, went inside, and picked up the first book that spoke to him. Its title was ‘Memorabilia.’ In the book, a man named Xenophon described episodes of his mentor’s life and how he tried to help others. That mentor was the famous philosopher Socrates.

The merchant was so inspired that he asked the owner of the store where he could find more men like Socrates. As fate would have it, another well-known philosopher happened to walk by, so the owner simply pointed at him. The merchant approached the philosopher and they started a conversation. After a while, he decided to stay and study under the philosopher’s tutelage.

He never left Athens again.

The Dangers of Importing Philosophy

Throughout history, many ideas from the ancient East have permeated into the newer, Western parts of the world. The most popular one, one that seems to be inseparably tied to our modern culture, may be the Japanese ideal behind the phrase “nana korobi ya oki.” It roughly translates to “fall down seven times, stand up eight” and is a reminder of the value of resilience.

This idea is deeply embedded in our Western concept of what makes a good life. It is the sole topic of thousands of podcasts, has given birth to countless books, and is the central theme of most conversations around, even our very definitions of success. And yet, in this historic game of telephone, it seems along the line half the message was lost. One aspect we completely neglect.

The Japanese have always been equally as slow as they have been perseverant.

That’s not a bad thing. To the contrary, it allows for deliberate action, refined decisions and the utmost respect of others in seeing them through. As Roman poet Ovid would put it: Dripping water holes the stone. And when you fail, the speed with which you bounce back has big implications.

What we tend to emphasize is how fast a person can stomach a setback, rather than how strong they return. Each defeat is supposed to be followed with an immediate, new attempt. On to the next one. Isn’t that how we say? But when you rush to recover from failure, springing from rock bottom like a jack-in-the-box, you’re likely to run into the same concrete wall, just faster. You’re not just too distracted to see what went wrong, you’re too busy to even look.

And, especially today, there’s a lot to be said for looking.

The Fortuitous Castaway

The name of the merchant was Zeno. Zeno of Citium. Once he dove into the ideas of philosophy, he found them to be so important that he saw no fate but one in which he spread and taught them for the remainder of his life.

To better understand the teachings of his master, he practiced discourse while pacing up and down a prominent, public square in Athens. As he became more articulate, people eventually gathered to hear him speak. When he parted ways with his teacher some 20 years later, his own pupils would come to be known as Zenonians.

Today, however, we call those people Stoics. Zeno is the founder of Stoic philosophy. 2,000 years later, it is one of the fundamental pillars of Western history. An entire branch of education is dedicated to studying, interpreting, and understanding its ideas. We teach Stoicism to children in schools and every month, over 300,000 adults turn to Google to learn more about it.

Ultimately, all of this goes back to one man’s decision to bounce back slowly. Instead of racing to recover his cargo, make the next trade, or return home with the next ship, he allowed the dust to settle. Once it did, he was able to see a new path and step on it with confidence.

I’m sure he would agree that sometimes, idleness can lead to amazing things.

A Chance For Quiet Observation

I’m not a boxer, so I can only imagine how much strategy follows being knocked down, but even if you know you can get up again, wouldn’t it be smart to stay down till the count’s at nine? They’re just seconds, but seconds of recovery nonetheless.

What’s more, they’re seconds of quiet observation. They give you a chance to catch up on your environment. Get a feel for what’s going on. Of course, life is not a boxing match. You can stay down for a while. Take some time to think. Even look at the stars. And, once you do come back, you’ll come out swinging.

But when we respond to setbacks with ever more aggressive attacks, we rob serendipity of the space it needs to unfold. It’s impossible to contextualize individual events when they’re inches from our face. We need time to process, to let our guts digest the experience. So that they may lead us in the right direction going forward.

Whether it’s the same direction we used to have or an entirely new one, we can’t know in advance. But I have a hunch that those, who take a deep breath and stay idle for some time, will often quote the words of Zeno looking back:

“I made a prosperous voyage when I suffered shipwreck.”

Will Smith: The Semantics of Success Cover

Will Smith: The Semantics of Success

In the summer of 1985, the king of Philadelphia’s DJ scene threw down at a house party. That night, his hype man was missing. You know, the dude shouting around, getting folks excited, and prompting chants. Luckily, a local MC lived just down the street and offered to fill in.

The name of that MC was Will Smith. He and DJ Jazzy Jeff instantly hit it off. So much, in fact, that Jeff sent his former sidekick packing and the two joined forces. Less than a year later, they dropped their debut single “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble” just in time to take the 1986 prom season by storm and allow Will to graduate high school as a rap star. Jeff recalls:

“Once Will and I made a record, we killed Philly’s hip-hop and ballroom scene. Nobody wanted two turntables. Now they wanted one turntable, a drum machine and some guy rapping. It wasn’t about Philly anymore. It was about conquering the world.”

And conquer the world they did.

Read More
Your Smartphone Will Make You Miserable Cover

Your Smartphone Will Make You Miserable

Do you remember the first day you owned a smartphone? I do. In the fall of 2010, I was about to start college and Apple had just launched the iPhone 4. It was a quantum leap in the evolution of phones, nothing less.

We had it sent to a friend in France, because it was a bit cheaper, if that word even applies to a 700 € piece of technology. When my Dad brought it home, I couldn’t wait to take it out of the box and set it up. Afterwards, me and my family examined it in amazement. No buttons, crystal clear colors, great photos. High resolution, fast surfing, tons of apps, and, again, the screen!

I remember what it felt like, too. To now be part of this new, shiny, ever-connected world. It felt like I was joining a revolution. Rebellious. Enough with the old, it’s time to disrupt! Little did I know how right I was.

It didn’t happen the way I expected it, but life would never be the same.

Through the Hedge

I grew up in three different places, but each of them was a dead-end street. Ten or so houses, lined up in a perfect little row, ours always being the very last. To this day, my favorite remains the smallest one we lived in.

My home until 1999.

There was a tiny, square patch of grass attached to our back porch. You could barely call it a garden, but it connected to that of our neighbors, separated only by a tall hedge. Luckily, there was a huge hole in it, so us kids always snuck through to surprise each other and play games.

Another thing we did, which is rather unheard of today, is whenever we were looking for company, we walked down the street and rang the doorbell. You know, to see if our friends were home. A decade after Apple made smartphone history, I feel this is the part of the story that’s most dramatically changed.

A Strange Place Indeed

When sat navs made it into serial production, paper maps disappeared from the glove compartments of our cars. So did our ability to read and interpret those maps. To some extent, smartphones are doing the same to our communication skills. They allow us to get any message across with minimal effort, so after a while, minimal effort is all we’re capable of.

Sometimes, when friends visit me, they will text me that they are at the door. That is insane. And if I don’t see it, they might call me before considering to ring the bell. To you, that might be as obviously nuts as it is to me, but to kids growing up today, it’s probably the norm. They don’t know any other way and if we don’t teach them one, they never will.

I’m no exception to all this. For example, I was never strong in face-to-face confrontations, and if anything, owning a smartphone has made me weaker. But more than that, people’s reactions to those making an effort have also changed. I miss the days when I could call someone or show up at their doorstep unannounced and it wasn’t weird. Nowadays it’s mostly voicemail and awkward smiles. So on top of lacking fundamental human skills, many of our rewards for becoming better at them have disappeared.

It’s funny. Those things are considered creepy and annoying when at the same time, we get excited about strangers adding us on LinkedIn or following us on Instagram every day. It seems the joys of human attention now heavily depend on the medium that attention is received in. Being asked for coffee is terrifying, but getting a random comment on your Instagram story about being hit on is cool. Huh. Okay.

Smartphones hurting our capacity to talk to one another isn’t a particularly new or unobserved issue, but so far, that hasn’t stopped it from being a problem. It’s also only half the story.

Back in the Old Days…

Though unverified, Albert Einstein supposedly once said there are only two ways to live your life:

“One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”

It’s a quote about curiosity. About exploring, adventure, and imagining something new. But since technology has exploded so much in the past three decades, I think we‘re now suffering from miracle-fatigue. New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress captured it brilliantly with this quip:

Barry Schwartz expands on the idea in his acclaimed TED talk:

“The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that when everything was worse, it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in — we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation — the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof.”

As much as I love Apple products, I can’t shake the feeling that the iPhone, the smartphone in general, really, has been the greatest catalyst in exponentially raising our expectations. It’s the perfect weapon against surprise. You can use it not just to eradicate surprise from your interpersonal relationships, but also from those you maintain with yourself. Think about it.

Any experience you even remotely suspect you might have, you will prepare for using your phone. We look at purchases through the eyes of thousands of reviewers in advance. We read accounts of other people’s vacations, once-in-a-lifetime adventures, restaurant visits and what it’s like at work. And no matter what emotional state you’re in when you look into the mirror, the world will gladly explain to you what feeling comes next.

As a result, we’re used to everything but surprise itself. For this same reason, we’d rather send a signal to a tower miles away, that then sends another one to our friend’s phone upstairs, than to press the button that makes a piercing noise. We’ve come to hate the unexpected so much, we go out of our way to not impose it on others.

The day we turned on those phones is the day surprise died. And while it’s come to haunt us in a great many ways, the following may be the worst.

The Secret to Happiness

Isn’t it ironic? As a result of being equipped incredible communication technology, we’ve become hard to talk to and even harder to please. Because our new, default expectation is to always know what to expect.

While it’s bad that we’re not willing to be pleasantly surprised by serendipitous events, rejecting the notion of surprise altogether is what’ll really make us miserable. If we do that, we won’t just miss out on happy coincidence, we’ll also forever overreact to negative developments. How can we deal with life’s curveballs if we can’t even handle a sure home run pitch?

One obvious answer to address many of these problems is to just use your phone less. A lot less. Don’t google everything. Delegate and let people sweep you off your feet. Show up unannounced. Bring flowers. Be a nice surprise.

And in all that, mind what Barry Schwartz said next:

“The secret to happiness — this is what you all came for — the secret to happiness is low expectations.”

Maybe, we’ll even dare go a step further than that. Maybe, the secret to happiness is no expectations. Whatever you do, make room for surprise in your life. Give good things a chance to happen and wait for bad things to actually arrive. I hope that some day, we can all say we were indeed part of a revolution.

It just wasn’t the one we thought it would be.

Why Silver Linings Playbook Is One of the Best Films About Love Cover

Why Silver Linings Playbook Is One of the Best Films About Love


She almost runs into him as she cuts him off, then chases him down the street.

“How do you know when I run?”

“I wanted to clarify something. I just want us to be friends.”

He keeps running.

“Did you hear what I said? Why are you giving me such a hard time?”

“No, I’m not giving you a hard time.”

“I don’t know how to act with you when you do this shit.”

After a few more strides, he finally stops. On the building in front, it says ‘Llanerch’ in bright, red letters. He turns around.

“You wanna have dinner at this diner?”

The first time I watched Silver Linings Playbook, I was alone in my room. The second time was yesterday. Once again, it was just me, myself, and I.

In the five years between now and then, a lot’s changed. I’m about to finish my second degree, I make my own money, and I’ve finally upgraded the room to an apartment, even though it took moving eight times. The fact that I’m single is one of the few things that’s stayed the same.

Not that I didn’t have any relationships. There were some short ones, some long ones, and a great deal more that never really left the ground. It’s just that after this part of the journey, I’ve landed back in a familiar place. And yet, I’ve come a long way.

When I first saw one of 2012’s biggest surprise hit films, I was instantly swept away. But I couldn’t have told you why. Now I know. By taking us through the love story of two people with mental problems, Silver Linings Playbook lets us view the world through the eyes of the ideal lovers we all aspire to be.

More so, it shows us the price we’d have to pay: the world thinks we’re insane.


The Delusional Optimist

Pat Solitano is the embodiment of the American Dream. He’s sharp, he’s honest, he’s upbeat. He’s a perpetual optimist and he always has a plan. Striving ever higher, even his personal motto is engraved on the official New York coat of arms: Excelsior!

Sadly, Pat suffers from bipolar disorder. In a fit of violent temper, he beat his cheating wife’s affair half to death. And so he returns from his stint at a mental hospital with a massive stigma: society has branded him insane. But Pat isn’t swayed. Neither this, nor his wife’s restraining order are going to keep him from making things right. From getting the love he deserves.

Pat is the hero of the movie because as lovers, most of us start out in his place.

We indulge in all these delusions about what we’re gonna do, about who we’re gonna be. How we’re going to be united with people we barely know and how our lives will play out. I know I sure did. I would fantasize about life with a girl I had a crush on and then go to bed high on that feeling. Even though most of the time, I never actually did anything.

The one thing Pat’s got going over most of us is that the world already knows he’s out of his mind. He’s free to say what he wants, to live his crazy plans, and to call out everyone else on their own. Because he’s the purest form of the delusional, optimist lover we’ve ever seen.

Until he meets Tiffany.


The Broken Realist

Tiffany Maxwell is a more grown up version of Pat, who’s hopelessly lost in his dream. Her bubble popped just as suddenly, but in a more definite way. After her husband died, she became depressed and went on a hookup spree. She was fired and force-medicated, so now people believe she’s deranged.

Having been broken ten ways to Sunday, Tiffany is so sick of love, she doesn’t even want to try. Zero expectations. That’s why the second Pat meets her, his optimism cracks. From that moment on, he clings to his plan like a tempted child. Because he too feels the chemistry, but her realism pulls his focus away.

Tiffany is the lover we become when life strikes us down.

We learn the same, hard-earned lessons. Maybe not as rapidly, but also through countless mistakes. And sometimes, we get so frustrated that we too resign. That’s it, I’m out, no more dating, I’m sick of this game. But at least, because of her stained reputation, Tiffany is also free. If you have no expectations, there’s no one you need to please.

She’s the broken realist that’d rather live with nothing than die for a lost cause. Despite her capitulation, Tiffany knows true love is built, not found. So while Pat keeps talking about a silver lining that’s not there, she can see he’s hers.

That’s why she starts literally chasing him down the street.


The Fine Line Between Genius and Madness

Watching these two crazies is marvelous, because their social outcast status allows them to do and say everything we’re afraid to let ourselves be.

We’d love to swear whenever we feel like it, live our sexuality, call others on their bullshit, ignore people’s opinions and bluntly, relentlessly demand what we want. But we don’t. Because what would our friends and families say?

If even just for a few brief moments, Silver Linings Playbook allows us to escape. But that’s not what makes the movie so great. Its message is bigger than that. Occasionally, the two even allude to it. Like when Tiffany says that they’re “not liars, like they are.” Or when Pat suggests that “maybe we know something that you guys don’t know, okay?”

As it turns out, they do.


Catching Up

To top the madness off, Pat and Tiffany briefly switch roles near the end of the film. Hope carries the broken realist away, while reality finally punches Pat in his face. The key scene, however, is not what you’d expect it to be.

After achieving a self-imposed, somewhat arbitrary score at a competition, the whole Solitano family celebrates. It’s when the puzzled looks of observers extend beyond our two heroes that we’re given a chance to understand:

Every character in this film is already insane. Crazy. Every single one.

There’s Pat’s friend from the hospital, who’s obsessed with his hair and constantly tries to escape. His OCD, choleric, superstitious, illegally bookmaking dad. The neighbor suffocating in a needless, crushing debt spiral. His wife, Tiffany’s consumerist sister. Even Pat’s mom, his straight-A brother and his therapist. The list goes on and on.

I fell in love with this movie not because of who it showed me I could be, but because it gave me the comfort that, in a world where everyone’s an idiot, staying true to yourself isn’t such a big deal. Life itself is mental. It is an absolutely crazy experience that no one survives anyway. Silver Linings Playbook reminds us that regret, not being different, is what’s insane.

We must love with all our heart and live life to the fullest. Because there are no normal people. Just those, who are crazy in similar ways. That’s the big lesson. One everyone — the characters, the audience, even the film’s creators — can take away. It’s also why in the end, it’s Pat’s turn to chase Tiffany.

Like him, the only thing I’m sorry about is that it took me so long to catch up.

The Simplest Way to Improve Your Life Cover

The Simplest Way to Improve Your Life

Two men visit a Zen master.

The first man says: “I’m thinking of moving to this town. What’s it like?”

The Zen master asks: “What was your old town like?”

The first man responds: “It was dreadful. Everyone was hateful. I hated it.”

The Zen master says: “This town is very much the same. I don’t think you should move here.”

The first man leaves and the second man comes in.

The second man says: “I’m thinking of moving to this town. What’s it like?”

The Zen master asks: “What was your old town like?”

The second man responds: “It was wonderful. Everyone was friendly and I was happy. Just interested in a change now.”

The Zen master says: “This town is very much the same. I think you will like it here.”

As humans, we have a fundamental, almost desperate need to make sense out of life. Our brains are obsessed with putting order to all things. One result of this is that we tend to sort problems by magnitude. While it allows us to get on with our day-to-day, it’s also one of our biggest flaws. Because all we have is our own little measuring stick.

Sometimes, those measuring sticks look similar. They might overlap among people of the same geography, status, or age, but not a single one works everywhere, all the time. People’s problems in affluent countries seem petty compared to those in places struggling to secure the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But to the billionaire, the premature death of his child may be just as life-threatening as the scarce availability of food to the man in a third-world country. His ailment might not be physical, but it’s still there.

That’s the thing. We don’t know. We can’t. All we can do is entertain that idea. That’s called empathy. If you pair it with the will to accept other people’s problems as real, regardless of where they land on your personal, arbitrary scale, you make room for your perspective to change. You throw out the stick.

Take the story of the two men, for example. The Zen master shows us that how you approach an event will significantly impact its outcome. Even if you want change, it’ll be hard to achieve if it doesn’t come from the inside. But what if the two men came from the same town to begin with? What if their opinions are as random as their reasons for wanting something different?

There are many more twists to the story you can imagine and learn a new lesson each time. But the one I can see clearest is this: Often, changing your perspective is the simplest way to improve your life. Not the easiest. It’s hard. But the most straightforward. Does that always make it the best way? I don’t know. Probably not.

But it sure should be the first thing you try.

The Strong Link Theory: How to Build a Successful Career Cover

The Strong-Link Theory: How to Build a Successful Career

My favorite painting in Munich’s ‘New Pinacotheca’ is The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg. It shows a penniless artist in a crappy, run-down attic apartment.

The Poor Poet is one of Spitzweg’s earliest compositions after becoming a full-time painter in 1833. Today, it is his most famous work. Likely because in it, he managed to capture the ambiguity of his own life.

Spitzweg was born into a wealthy family and eventually launched his career off the comfort of a large inheritance. At the same time, his father forced him through a pharmacist education and he was entirely self-taught. All his career, he pursued humorous themes, contrary to the common-sense nature of art in his era, the Biedermeier period.

Like Spitzweg, The Poor Poet is a puzzling figure. He’s huddled up in blankets, covering a hole in the ceiling with an umbrella, burning his own writings to stay warm. But he doesn’t look flustered. Is he choosing his poverty-stricken existence? Does it inspire him? Did he end up there because society is misjudging his genius? Or was he just too much of a snob about his own art?

The answers to all these questions are left to the viewer’s imagination, which makes it a great painting. Another reason I like this picture, however, is that it’s a reminder that in today’s world, no artist must starve.

Life Is Full of Networks

Sometimes, the past deserves a second chance. That’s the tagline of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History. In one episode, he examines why philanthropy in education tends to center around the richest and most elite schools, as opposed to those that actually need it. To piece the answer together, he turns to a book about soccer.

Taking a page out of The Numbers Game, Gladwell frames education as a ‘weak-link problem.’ This means the overall outcome depends much more on giving access to those, who have none, than on providing high-class students with even better resources. The analogy in sports is that “a football team is only as strong as its weakest link.” Look at this year’s world cup results.

Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, all world-class, yet none of their teams survived the quarter-finals. Because soccer is not about having one or two superstars, it’s usually the team with the fewest mistakes that wins. Plus, even the best striker can only score if the ball makes it to the front. Basketball is a counter-example. One Michael Jordan can do some serious damage. He might singlehandedly win a game, regardless of how the other players perform.

The beauty of this concept is that you can use it as an almost universal lens to work on your perspective. Life is full of networks and all networks have links.

Your body is a weak-link structure; one tiny, but critical part fails, and the whole system shuts down. Traffic is a weak-link phenomenon; a single bad driver can block an entire highway for hours. School is a strong-link game; you only need the exact right answers to pass any exam. And so on.

But there’s one area where applying this idea is especially interesting: work.

The Difference Between Your Career and Your Job

When companies vie for job applicants, they love to promise that “with us, you won’t just have a job, you’ll have a career!” What intrigued graduates take that to mean is that the prospects of working for said employer won’t be limited to the current gig. Promise me I can grow, and I’ll take you to the sunlight. That type of thing. The reality, however, is often different.

Your current job may be a weak-link game. In Germany, for example, waiters often split tips. Whatever the collected total, everyone gets the same share. In this scenario, positive outliers matter, but the average is held down by the lowest contributions. If you’re a strong link, you lose. Most jobs are like that. Rewards don’t hinge on singular results, but on the team’s output as a whole.

That’s because employment itself is also a weak-link problem. It’s better to make sure everyone has a job than giving particularly great ones to a select few. Missing opportunities at their firms are one reason that nowadays, people change jobs around every four years. Here’s another:

Your job may not be a strong-link game, but your career always is.

Career Engine Optimization

The internet has largely democratized the resources of building a business. Since fewer people can do more with less, the number of small firms has gone through the roof. New kinds of jobs pop up left and right, so people sample.

That’s smart. It’s the equivalent of creating more links. And since you only need one great career move to potentially land where you want to go, people maximize their chances. Think of Youtube discoveries like Justin Bieber or the first employees at Facebook. Those are extreme examples, but on a micro level, your and my career will play out just the same.

Another thing you could do is to get a strong-link job, where you can drastically increase your income, fame, and whatever else with a few good results. All artists have this. But there’s also commission-based work, like real estate and most sales, or equity compensation, from working at a startup or handling investment deals. Those are good bets too.

But the best thing you can do, by far, does not depend on job modalities at all.

The Human Lag in Reacting to Change

Back in Spitzweg’s days, The Poor Poet was the norm. His painting was as much a caricature as it was a critical comment on society at the time. It’s easy to imagine Spitzweg wouldn’t have chosen the artist’s path, had it not been for his family money. With few options, small personal networks, and the excessive importance of local reputation, playing it safe was the way to go.

In the past 200 years, however, the world has changed more drastically than ever before. Another thing the internet has democratized is the ability to create links from the comfort of your home. Not just actively, but letting them come to you. It is 30 years old, but this most people still don’t understand.

When Spitzweg first presented The Poor Poet to the critics at Munich’s art club in 1839, they weren’t impressed. It took until two years after his death for the painting to make it into a museum. Imagine he could have posted it on Instagram. Or blogged about the process. Someone might have reached out.

I’m surrounded by young, smart, tech-savvy graduates all day, but most of their link-building efforts seem limited to updating their LinkedIn when they complete another internship. I’m sure most of them will do just fine, but it’s a little as if they insist on being poor poets in a world that offers every opportunity for that to change.

How to Have a Successful Career: As You Shout Into the Woods…

I wholeheartedly believe the single most valuable thing you can do to get everything out of your career that you want is this:


It may be easy to say for a writer like me, but I mean it. And you don’t have to be creative. You can just document your day. You’re interesting. So is where you live. If you love accounting, by all means, keep us posted on the news from that world. Or maybe you don’t feel like tinkering in public. Good. Tinker in your garage and then showcase what you made online.

Whatever you do, don’t limit your participation in the biggest network in the history of the world to lurking behind a screen. The German version of “what goes around, comes around” is “as you shout into the woods, so it echoes back.” Only those who put effort in will receive something in return.

Most importantly, if you want to have a successful career, treat it like the strong-link game it actually is. Don’t fall for the victim narrative of gatekeepers preventing change. They’re still trying, but you can choose to ignore them. That’s a modern-day luxury The Poor Poet didn’t have.

There’s one more reason I like the painting so much: It is a wonderful reminder to work hard and stay humble. As long as we do that, we’ll always be our own strongest link. And there’s nothing ambiguous about that.