Thank You For Being You Cover

Thank You For Being You

You know what I miss? Unconditional gratitude.

Not even unconditional support, which, if you’re really lucky, you might get from your parents, one friend, or your partner. Just unconditional gratitude.

Everyone always wants something. Most opportunities are disguised requests. Because even the people closest to you don’t think about your needs first. That’s human nature. We think about our own and then hope that, maybe, our needs will align with those of others. And, sometimes, they do.

But, most of the time, they don’t. So we’re not really helping. If I ask you to join me at an event, is it because you’ll benefit or because I don’t want to go alone? If I want to spend more time with you, do I want to infect you with my joy or hope you’ll soften my misery? We can genuinely want to help and think we do, but might still end up projecting our own fears and ideas on another.

The majority of even the nicest things we do is, ultimately, about us. Not the recipients of our generosity. Go through a couple of incidents in your head. It’s true. And it’s shocking how deep this runs.

Since this “feature” has been hardwired into our brains in times of ancient survival, it has lasted us all the way to modern office warfare and is, thus, almost impossible to rewire. But we can choose not to use it.

We can just say “thank you” instead. No further questions. Not this time.

That’s how I want to end the year.

Thank you for being you. For all the mistakes you made and the flaws you found that you wanna change. For the times you did and the times you could not, for one day they will all add up.

Thank you for showing up. To work. To sports. To parties, dates, and family events of all sorts. To your morning run, to your friend’s emergency, to anything fun, and to all kinds of catastrophes.

Thank you for trying your best. I know it didn’t always do, but it’s really nothing but a test. A test of courage, patience, grit, faith, perseverance, and humility. A test designed for all of us each day, including you and me.

Thank you for keeping it together. At least most of the time. We all struggle in bad weather, we all want the sun to shine. Thank you for not losing hope when it was gone, for hanging in there in the night, waiting for the dawn.

Thank you for choosing yourself. For saying “me first” to save your sanity and health. Sometimes, it’s hard to listen to the voice inside, but when we look back it’s what fills us with pride. You at your best is what best serves us all, so there’s nothing to gain from your playing small.

Thank you for supporting the groups you’re a part of. The groups you’re the heart of. Humanity is one big band but on few shoulders every day we stand. Thank you for gluing together those friends, for tough conversations, inside jokes, and lending a helping hand.

Thank you for shaping the future. For growing into it one day at a time. We need your contribution. We need yours as much as mine. It’s something we build as much as we find, to do either takes a present mind.

Thank you for losing your shit. For flying off the handle when life needed a hit. It might not always spin the right direction, but when it stops spinning we’ll drift into regression. Sometimes, to keep going you have to fall apart. Sometimes, it takes shattered pieces to reassemble a broken heart.

Thank you for feeling with all you’ve got. For living your emotions and trusting your gut. For embracing sadness, happiness, frustration, and joy. For leaning in when you could’ve leaned away.

Thank you for mourning what you’ve lost. Life has different prices, but in the end, we all pay a cost. A sacrifice, a bad encounter, a careless attempt or an honest mistake. Different reasons, different times, but no one gets around being, seeing, learning too late.

Thank you for spreading your light. For celebrating, sending out sparks, and shining very bright. For motivating, for inspiring, for pushing others without tiring. Our energy is plus or minus, thanks for ditching bad and choosing kindness.

Thank you for abandoning good in search of better. For breaking rules instead of following them to the letter. For leaping high outside the bowl, aspiring to some higher goal. You mightn’t score in the first round, but jumping helps catch the rebound.

Thank you for being you. I don’t even know your name. But forever be you regardless. Because without you, the world would never quite be the same.

Thank you for being you.

What Habits Does Your Best Self Not Have? Cover

What Habits Does Your Best Self Not Have?

“Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Success and self-improvement are two different games. They correlate, but only to a certain degree.

When I sleep eight hours, get up early, then follow a morning routine, that’s good for my well-being. It supports my physical health and aligns my day with our natural circadian rhythm. It’s also productive. I can start work earlier and capitalize on my high alertness in the mornings.

But when I then decide to stay up late to finish some of that work, that’s just productive. Not healthy. The former was a move in self-improvement with spillover benefits. The latter was a success play at my well-being’s expense.

The number of win-win moves is limited, so after you’ve made them all, finding the line between the two is important. You can then spend your time becoming ever healthier, fitter, smarter — or you spend it working.

What most of us do, however, is split ourselves straight down the middle. We think we’re optimizing, when, actually, we’re playing different games at different times. One day we leave work early to support a friend, the next we cancel dinner plans to write our novel.

Unless you deliberately take one side, which most of us aren’t ready to, there is no easy solution to this problem. We want to be rich and we want to be good. We want to have it all.

I’m still young and naive, still foolish enough to believe I can. And while I’m never quite sure about which habits to add, I realized I can do something else in the meantime: I can just take some away.

We might never find the perfect balance between success and self-improvement habits, but we can eliminate the ones that hurt both.

We can give up what was never our best self anyway.

1. Give Up Reducing Your Dimensions

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.”  —  Walt Whitman

Every time I say no to one thing, but yes to another that’s roughly the same, my head hurts. It shouldn’t. It’s our brain’s pitiful attempt to build a consistent identity in a world that’s anything but.

There are a million reasons to change your mind from one second to the next, but you don’t need a single one of them. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. Justifying your existence decision by decision is exhausting. It just keeps you from doing what matters right here, right now.

Stop compressing a thousand layers into one. You’re not a diamond. You don’t thrive under pressure. You crumble. Live large. Be multi-dimensional. Explode into one thousand directions.

“I am large, I contain multitudes.”  —  Walt Whitman

2. Give Up The Imitation Game

“We have more faith in what we imitate than in what we originate.”  —  Bruce Lee

When you copy, you’re always in good company. You’re never really alone, but, often, you also don’t stand for anything.

When you stand for something, you know. Because your legs are shaking. When’s the last time you chose to do something not because it’s cool or useful or even valuable? When’s the last time you said: “I’m going to do this because it’s me?”

There’s all this talk about reinventing ourselves, but most of us never invented ourselves in the first place. Creating your life is the scariest thing you’ll ever do. But it also breeds confidence. It helps you step up and speak your truth.

Slowly, then surely, until you do it all the time.

3. Give Up Looking In Favor Of Seeing

“Must there be a Superman?”  —  “There is.”  —  From Dawn of Justice

When we look, we look for things. When we see, we just see what’s there. Our best self never jumps to conclusions because there’s never enough context to safely land anywhere.

What if you could suspend all your judgments in mid-air? Let them hang there, like laundry on a line. And then, you’d turn back and see. See ideas, opinions, opposites, and superstitions. But you’d always see two sides of one coin. One reality.

And you’d realize truth and knowledge are often subjective. Even your own.

4. Give Up Living In Outcomes

“That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be.”  —  Saul Alinsky

Professional traders don’t know which direction markets will turn. They bet on one side and form a contingency plan. They don’t need the world to be a certain way because they act with what’s given. In the long run, probabilities ensure they win.

Once you stop judging what’s around you and stay flexible yourself, you won’t require life to give you the outcomes you hope for. You’ll just work with whatever outcomes you get.

That doesn’t make you weak or less determined. It grounds you in the present. It makes you strong.

5. Give Up All Happiness Outside Yourself

“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” — Dalai Lama XIV

James Altucher once told a story about Joseph Heller, who wrote Catch-22. Heller was at a fancy party in the Hamptons. Some guy pointed at a young fund manager and said: “He made more money last year than you’ll ever make with all your books combined.” To which Heller replied: “That may be, but I have one thing that man will never have.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that?”


Creating yourself, non-judgment, living in the present, these are all ways to find contentment in what you do rather than who you are.

At the end of each day, you should look back and be happy about whatever steps you took, even if they’re part of a struggle. Draw strength from how you deal with what you’ve got, rather than how close you get to who you’re not.

When you work only on deserving what you want, all happiness rests inside yourself. You will always have enough.

6. Give Up Waiting

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.”” — Kurt Vonnegut

Regret happens when we stop living — either because no one’s watching or because too many people are. Opinions and loneliness freeze us in time when there’s really no reason to wait. To do what you want to do. To be who you want to be.

The person who should be most excited about everything you do in life is you. And that should always be enough to start.

7. Give Up The Make-Pretend

“You should think of the word depressed as ‘deep rest.’ Deep. Rest. Your body needs to be depressed. It needs deep rest from the character that you’ve been trying to play.”  —  Jim Carrey

There’s a fine line between behaving like who you want to be and pretending you already are. One is changing into the best version of yourself, the other living out the parts of it you’re jealous of.

Of course, the latter only drives you away from it. It’s a shadow character, breaking out in cold sweat on stage. True liberty is being the guy or girl behind the curtain, putting in real sweat, because you’re not worried about taking the spotlight.

Credit always finds a way to those who deserve it.

8. Give Up Anything But Loving Yourself

“Love yourself like your life depends on it.”  —  Kamal Ravikant

Most of our life’s story is dictated by the one we tell ourselves in our head. What we often don’t realize is that when that story gets ugly, we can stop talking. We can wait for kinder words.

What’s more, we can practice finding them. We can work on our self-targeted adjectives because all adjectives are made up anyway. So you might as well love yourself.

The truth about ourselves is what we choose to believe. If you love yourself first, you’ll always build on the right foundation. From there, you can pick whatever belief most serves you right now.

Once you learn to do that without rejecting the limits of physical reality, you’ll have all the agency you ever need to flourish.

Success and self-improvement may not always go hand in hand and perfection is nothing we can ever reach. But your imperfect best self can do more good than a shadow version can imagine in its dreams.

Maybe, that’s what it’s really about. To find out wanting it all isn’t wanting all that much. At least not for who you were always meant to be. Maybe, this is our best source of hope.

Maybe, it’s the only one we need.

Do You Believe in Ethical Wealth? Cover

Do You Believe in Ethical Wealth?

In Germany, we have a saying: “Geld stinkt nicht.” It means “money doesn’t stink” and goes back to emperor Vespasian.

Urine builds ammonia over time, which can be used to tan leather. Therefore, the Romans collected it in public urinals. When Vespasian levied a tax on those, his son Titus challenged the ethics of this move. The emperor grabbed some of the money and held it under Titus’s nose. “Does the smell bother you?” “No,” his son replied. “And yet, it’s made of urine.”

Eventually, the phrase morphed into “pecunia non olet” — “money has no smell.” When we use it today, we usually mean the exact opposite. It’s code for “something’s fishy here” or “don’t ask where this came from.”

Given how old this story is, this meme has influenced our culture for a long, long time. That’s a problem because now, a lot of us think money stinks.

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Self-Awareness Is Not a Character Trait Cover

Self-Awareness Is Not a Character Trait

“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” — Edward J. Stieglitz

While this quote makes it clear that time is a bad way to assess the quality of a human life, it also begs a question: how do we best measure our lives?

When you think back, do you recount how much you did? How much you made? How happy you felt on average? Me, I’m turning inward this year. The more external a measure, the lower my chances of living up to the standard I set. There’s no perfect tool, but I like this question for year-end reflection:

How much have I learned about myself?

It acknowledges outcomes as side effects and zones in on the parts you control about your character, identity, and behavior. Living in sync with your natural tendencies while adjusting to your life’s context is a good way to be happy and content, at least most of the time. You don’t stress about externals. You know you’ll get there by getting better. And syncing is how you’ll do it.

But when I tried to answer this question, I realized I was about to give not just a bad, but a completely wrong answer. Does that make it a bad question?

I think it’s something else. I think we have the wrong idea of self-awareness.

Woke Is Always the Wrong Word

I don’t like the word ‘woke.’ Used to create or point out a lack of awareness around societal and racial issues, it does much for the marketing of an important movement, but little to actually build the understanding this movement seeks to create. Because what it does is split the world in two.

You’re either awake or you’re asleep. It’s a binary state and so, for the people using words like ‘woke’ to identify with or isolate from others, it’s very easy to fall into a worldview that’s binary too. In reality, all of life happens on spectra.

I might be well-aware of some racial issues and completely oblivious to others. What’s more, I only have a chance of recognizing each one in its own context. Unless my mind is in the right place at the right time, I can mistake the cashier’s being unfriendly for being racist or vice versa. I’m not big on politics, but it’s easy to see this how this debate could get very ugly, very fast.

But it needn’t be. Maybe, we just have to reconsider our chosen language. What if we used words like ‘responsive’ or ‘sensitive?’ Words that live on spectra already. It’d make our efforts so much more productive.

When it comes to self-awareness, we have the exact same problem.

There Are Two Kinds of Dictionaries…

I’m not an etymologist, but I don’t think it’s foolish to assume the words ‘aware’ and ‘awake’ being in close relation. The German ‘gewahr’ means roughly as much as the former, ‘wahren’ equals ‘to protect,’ to keep in its current state, and ‘wachen’ literally means to stay awake and potentially guard something.

Clearly, some connection to our state of consciousness exists. But that’s not what we think of when we talk about self-awareness, is it? We see it as a character trait. A quality. And a rather permanent one at that.

Just like an aggressive social revolutionary, we want our world to be binary. To split neatly into two categories. We talk about “self-aware people” as if that call was as easy to make as “he talks loudly” or “her hair is curly.” It’s not.

And yet, even most dictionaries focus on self-knowledge as a feature:

The quality or state of being aware; knowledge and understanding that something is happening or exists.

But if you find a good one, like Wiktionary, they’ll include another definition:

The state or level of consciousness where sense data can be confirmed by an observer.

It might seem like I’m nitpicking, but when you try to better understand how you live and move in this world, the distinction between these two definitions makes all the difference. One describes self-knowledge as static, the other as a state of observation. Mere presence is enough. You’re self-aware long before you draw conclusions and file them away. Just observe and you’re there.

Self-awareness is not a characteristic. It’s a cognitive state.

Closing the Archive

When I try to judge my year by how much I’ve learned about myself, I’m making two false assumptions in one go:

  1. There is a fixed set of equally fixed elements to discover.
  2. Knowledge about those elements will serve me permanently.

The truth is that, besides my physical features and abilities, there’s very little about myself that won’t change. That I can’t change. I have no interest in learning to play the guitar, but if I did it anyway, maybe I’d enjoy it after a certain amount of practice. Accepting the status quo is only useful if I’m not looking to change it.

Instead of considering self-awareness to be this internal archive of facts about who we are, we should dedicate ourselves to mastering the cognitive state. To build the thought habit of being conscious of our actions and feelings.

Being self-aware is like being alert or attentive or quick-witted. Sometimes you are, sometimes you’re not. But the degree to which is measurable. We can design tests to measure how quickly you respond to stimuli or count how many puns you drop in an hour. In theory, self-awareness is the same.

Except there’s no device for this yet. Imagine you had a written list of all your thoughts for one day. You could scan it for observations about your actions and emotions, then calculate how much of the time you were self-aware. How much would it be? 1%? 3%? 0.1%?

In any case, it changes the nature of the big, year-end question.

A Simple Behavior Instead of an Elusive Quality

Having external goals can be useful. They’ll spur you on in a certain direction and, to some extent, reaching them can make you happy. But if they’re all you measure your years by, you’ll likely have a bad time.

Measuring your inner progress and drawing satisfaction from how much you did for what you actually control feels relieving and adds balance. Problems arise when we impose the same standards of false permanence of external goals on our development as humans.

The difference between self-awareness as a steady set of ideas about yourself and a cognitive state you can practice is the same as the difference between knowledge and intelligence: one leads to a never-ending struggle for more, the other provides a daily standard that’s possible to live up to.

It’s not how much self-knowledge we’ve accumulated, but whether we assessed our thoughts and feelings at the right times that matters. Don’t ask how much more you know about yourself now than you did a year ago. Ask:

How much time have I spent observing myself?

Of course, this is only one aspect of the grand puzzle, but self-perception as your default cognitive state — or at least for a large chunk of the time you spend awake — seems, to me, a battle worth fighting.

It’s not bent on perfection or pinning down what can’t be fixed in place. Instead, it allows adaptation and encourages deliberate change. It’s a simple if hard to attain behavior, not an elusive quality. And it can start small.

Oh, and I have this feeling that, at the end of next year, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself when you look back.

Everything I Know Is True Cover

Everything I Know Is True – My Entire Life in 55 Lessons

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke once said:

“Death is being alive and not knowing it.”

I guess until 2012, I was dead. It’s not like I wasn’t living. I was trying my best and, most of the time, I was happy. But I didn’t realize it and so I was unable to appreciate the vastness of this incredible experience called life.

I didn’t know who I was. How much I could change. That I could shape life as much as it could shape me. So when I read something that hinted at these things for the first time, I began a lifelong journey: the quest to know myself.

Seneca said it takes a lifetime to learn how to live, just like it takes a lifetime to learn how to die. But with each new piece of the ever-changing puzzle you find, you get a little closer to your true self. To being alive and knowing it.

More importantly, you’ll develop the confidence to express that self. To not be trapped by dogma and societal doctrine. I’ve only just begun, and there’s infinitely more to discover, but here’s everything I know to be true right now.

  1. The most important part of figuring out how to live is asking the question.
  2. “I don’t know” is not an admission of defeat, it’s the start of empowerment.
  3. Most of the solutions to life’s challenges lie in sitting with yourself.
  4. The only person you’ll spend the rest of your life with is you.
  5. Imagination is our most powerful ability. It is also the most dangerous.
  6. If you run out of kind words for yourself, stop talking.
  7. Empathy is learning to look in the mirror and not hate what you see.
  8. The truth about ourselves is what we choose to believe.
  9. Freedom is always internal. Whether ‘to’ or ‘from,’ it starts in the mind.
  10. Having a choice matters more than whatever choice you make.
  11. Love is not a noun, it’s a verb. And it starts with loving yourself.
  12. We should believe more in what we create, less in what we emulate.
  13. We can’t choose what we’re raised to value, but we can choose to change.
  14. What we learn alone is what we carry into our interactions with others.
  15. All relationships in life have mutual effects. Everything is connected.
  16. Comparison is not just the death of joy, it is also the birth of misery.
  17. It’s better to be curious than judgmental and impossible to be both at once.
  18. Study the failures of those around you, not the wins of those far away.
  19. Our fixed point of view is an individual limit, but a collective strength.
  20. Changing your perspective is hard, but let it always be your first try.
  21. How much we learn is limited by how open-minded we are, not time.
  22. Aging won’t free you from stupidity. Only learning will.
  23. A mistake is only as valuable as the time you spend thinking about it.
  24. Minimalism is not about physical space, it’s about making room to think.
  25. Every lesson in life comes at the expense of unlearning another.
  26. Seeing clearly is holding different truths in your head at the same time.
  27. The more you listen, the smarter you get. Listening leads to learning.
  28. The smarter you get, the more you listen. Learning leads to humility.
  29. The best tools always put you in control, even when you’re not using them.
  30. Books are infinite. If you treat them right, they’ll keep on giving forever.
  31. We can’t delegate our responsible use of technology to technology itself.
  32. When we make technology our ideology, we let our tools form our identity.
  33. You don’t need an identity to have a life.
  34. The only way to stay true to who you are is to change every day.
  35. There is no right set of habits. Just the ability to adapt at the right time.
  36. Know how to build and break habits and you’ll always flow with change.
  37. Reality consists of subjects and verbs. We supply all the adjectives.
  38. The only place where we can truly live is the present. It all happens here.
  39. Peace of mind relies on having faith in present-you.
  40. Often, the easiest way is the hard way. More effort, but less competition.
  41. Few things that are risky are actually dangerous.
  42. Social acceptance is a bad metric for making choices and tracking success.
  43. When the outside world is loud, be quiet inside.
  44. Your work should reflect who you are, not what you want your life to be.
  45. Detachment bears authenticity, expectations cloud your thinking.
  46. The easiest way to attract what you desire is to deserve what you want.
  47. Wanting what makes you happy requires wanting the right things.
  48. Half of happiness is learning to love everything you don’t have.
  49. If you travel because you’re unhappy, you’ll never reach your destination.
  50. Happiness is a spontaneous byproduct, not a permanent state.
  51. Death will be an interruption.
  52. Your legacy will be determined by the perception of others. Not you.
  53. Everything that’s part of the grand circle is destined to die. Including us.
  54. What you do in your one life will be everything you ever do.
  55. If we act accordingly, life is long enough for most of us.
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How to *Really* Develop Self-Awareness

Born 5,000 years ago, Warren Buffett would’ve been some animal’s lunch.

“I can’t run very fast, can’t climb trees. I mean I could tell that animal that is chasing me: ‘Wait till you see how I can allocate assets!’ [But] it wouldn’t have made any difference. So here I am. I’m born now. Just very, very lucky.”

When Buffett says ‘lucky,’ he means having a mother who was great with numbers and very ambitious; a father who was a stockbroker, loved people, and valued integrity. Most of all, he means being a natural reader with an interest in money, born into the world’s largest capitalist society right after a major crisis. Born to think. Born…to become the richest man on earth.

Buffett’s scenario played out as an extreme but, one way or another, all successful people get paid to think. They amplify their decisions with leverage, such as labor, capital, and technology. And the more society values the outcomes of these decisions, the more leverage accumulates around these thinkers. In Buffett’s case, people are dying to give him more money to invest.

That must be fun because at 88 years old, he’s still working. Still thinking. 80% of his workday, five or six hours, is spent reading newspapers, financial reports, and then pondering the business world and the opportunities in it.

But it’s not this kind of thinking that set him on his path.

One of Buffett’s most popular ideas is the circle of competence:

“I stay within that circle and I don’t worry about things that are outside that circle. Defining what your game is, where you’re going to have an edge, is enormously important.”

When it comes to stocks, this translates to only investing in industries he understands, businesses he can evaluate, and people he can judge accurately. Looking back on his stellar track record, it’s clear Buffett nailed this process of defining his circle of competence. How did he do it? Why was he able to?

Well, for one thing, he’s been working on it for as long as he’s alive.

The Math of Knowing Who You Are

Warren started studying math when he was less than seven years old.

“I like numbers. It started before I could remember. It just felt good, working with numbers. I was always playing around with numbers in one way or another. And it was fun to have a bunch of guys over and have them betting on which marble would reach the drain first.”

Math is a thankful subject to start getting to know yourself around because it neatly separates your hypotheses into right and wrong. With the right inputs, you can come up with reasonable guesses for who will win the marble race. Just like you can double-check your compound interest calculations.

Outside feedback on your decisions and behaviors is the first level on which you can develop self-awareness. That’s all your circle of competence is — an understanding of the larger context you live, move, and act in; where your limits are and what reactions certain choices will cause.

The good thing about developing it through trial and error is that the lessons are immediate and the data is guaranteed. Your environment and those around you will inevitably provide you with feedback. Sadly, this also means the “error” part isn’t avoidable. When failure is necessary, learning hurts. It also requires keeping an open mind and that’s something we’re really bad at.

If you make a habit of this state, however, it comes with great upside. Suddenly, each setback becomes an invaluable point of data. A brick in the wall that is the border of your circle.

For Warren, a profitable business could still be a lousy one, a young manager still one with experience, his strange breakfast still one that makes him happy.

And while he struck out with few investments, he learned from those too.

The Value of Character Snapshots

Today, Warren Buffett is known for investing in high-integrity teams and companies. But that’s not what he learned from his professor and mentor:

“I’ve been taught by Ben Graham to buy things on a quantitative basis. So I went around looking for what I call ‘cigar butts’ of stocks. The cigar-butt approach to buying stocks is that you walk down the street and you’re looking around for cigar butts. And you find this terrible-looking, soggy, ugly-looking cigar. One puff left in it. But you pick it up and you get your one puff. Disgusting. You throw it away. But it’s free. And then you look around for another soggy, one-puff cigarette. Well, that’s what I did for years. It’s a mistake.”

The pinnacle of this approach was buying Berkshire Hathaway in 1965, the company Buffett still runs today. He bought the stock hoping for a tender offer, but when that came in $0.125 short, he angrily grabbed a majority share and kicked out the management team. He later flipped his approach:

“Now, I would rather buy a wonderful business at a fair price, than a fair business at a wonderful price.”

Such change happens at the second level of self-awareness: your beliefs and attitudes. It’s about knowing which traits and patterns define your character and how you can map your behavior and decisions accordingly. Outside feedback might support these transitions but won’t originate them.

The best way to enable them, I believe, is to track your character over time. Whether you take these snapshots daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually, only you can decide. But a journaling practice helps. Reflected writing based on prompts makes your inner workings explicit.

Buffett does this with his annual shareholder letters. Each year, he must justify his decisions. He has to keep track of his reasoning, the thinking that came up with it, and make sure that thinking rests on values he feels comfortable living each day. If the values change, so will everything else.

Turning an Inch Into a Mile

When he was a teenager, Buffett ran away from home. After just a few miles, the police returned him and his two friends to their respective families.

“My dad never really gave me hell about doing this, but he finally said, ‘You know,’ he said, ‘you can do better than this.’ And, just saying that, I mean, I…I felt like I was letting him down, basically.”

Sometimes, a single incident shapes us forever. His father being his biggest hero, hearing the disappointment in his voice must’ve felt awful for young Warren. But instead of pushing those feelings aside, he tuned into them. The shift he initiated back then would go on to affect how he built his firm:

“We look for three things when we hire people. We look for intelligence, we look for initiative, and we look for integrity. And if they don’t have the latter, the first two will kill you. So it’s that third quality, but everything about that quality is your choice.”

Choices like that take place on the innermost level of self-awareness: observing your thoughts and feelings in real-time. It’s the most powerful because it’s the earliest in the chain of elements that determine how your life unfolds. Adjusting here will ripple indefinitely into the future; the values and beliefs you form over time and the actions you choose as a result of those.

It’s also the most taxing, the hardest to cultivate. But if you learn to seamlessly tap in and out of your endless stream of thoughts and feelings, you can pull out any one of them, hold on to it, face it, and cause massive, long-term change. Not because you’ll act big, but because you’ll act immediately.

There is no one way to achieve this mental presence, but the underlying habit is making time to observe. Hence, many approaches rest on paying attention to physical sensations for minutes at a time. You can start with your breath, skin, posture, or body language, then expand this to other activities, like walking, reading, or sports. Eventually, you’ll layer emotional perception on top of everything you do, making it your default mode of consciousness.

Buffett discovered all this early, but, just like his financial decisions, it needed time. That’s his big secret. Not compound interest. Compound self-awareness.

A Single-Thread Revolution

When we ask how to live a good, happy life, economic success is only one part of a much larger answer. It always requires luck and timing, but our modern society of networks disproportionately rewards thinkers armed with leverage.

To get there, we first have to figure out how, when, and where we think best. Why we think. And what shapes that why. That’s a job for self-awareness.

We’re all given lots of chances to develop this capacity in the form of real-world feedback. When reality and our expectations clash, we find out if we’re right or wrong, but learning requires lots of wrongs — and being willing to.

Deeper change happens when we monitor the fundamental aspects of our character over time. Regularly assessing our beliefs and attitudes reveals which ones we’ve merely adopted as opposed to those which serve us best.

Our strongest reinventions, however, begin at the primal level of thoughts and feelings. Those who learn to dive into their own psyche during transformative experiences will form the power to change every single thread of the self. These slight tweaks compound into revolutions of character down the line.

All of these begin as habits of action, but what we’re ultimately looking to improve — the habits we want to compound — are our habits of thought.

“It’s the habits that you generate now on those qualities. Or those negative qualities. In the end, those are habit patterns. And the time to form the right habits is when you’re [young]. Someone once said: ‘The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they’re too heavy to be broken.’ I see people with habit patterns that are self-destructive when they’re 50 or 60 and they really can’t change it. They’re imprisoned by that. But you’re not imprisoned by anything.”

This may be the one aspect on which he and I disagree. I’d stick with that last point: You’re not imprisoned by anything. It might not get you wealth or fame or beauty, but compounding your thought patterns will make you a better person. In a world where animals don’t eat humans, that’s always worth it.

It’s never too late to stop being your own brain’s lunch.

How To Avoid a Life of Regret Cover

How To Avoid a Life of Regret

I’m sitting alone in my apartment. It’s Sunday night. Too late to be productive, too early to sleep, and I’m too hungry to do either. A flash of insight reveals my immediate fate: dumplings.

I don’t know where the gods of culinary inspiration sent it from, but the thought instantly grows roots. As they wrap around my stomach, squeezing it ever tighter, I message some friends to see if anyone wants to go.

One said he was out of town. Another on a date. Some didn’t reply and one already ate. With “no”s piling up faster than even the speediest cook could fold and fry the delicious dough bags, I began to think.

“Maybe, I should just stay in.”

“I still have food at home.”

“It’s cold out anyway.”

But then, another observation — not sent by a god but my gut — hit me. It took some mental debating, but, eventually, I snapped out of it.

“Screw it. I’m getting dumplings.”

I got dressed, walked to the restaurant, went inside, sat down, ordered, and, within a few minutes, I was munching on a dozen of a Chinese delicacy called wonton. The owner even gave me a free mango pudding for dessert. Score!

I won this round, but the conversation that had to happen earlier in my head for me to do so was just one of the many encounters we all have with a dire, devastating force called ‘potential regret.’ What was really going on was this:

I was afraid of doing what I wanted because I was alone.

A Feature We Can’t Turn Off

Being alone is a weird state for a social animal. First, there’s the physical discomfort, from the silence to the goosebumps to the sensory triggers our brains begin to manufacture. Then, there’s the psychological toll.

If you’ve ever sat with emptiness for a while, you’ll have noticed that, at first, your mind continues to tell the story it always tells. Maybe, it’s the one about work or the one about the friend you just dropped off or the one about what you should eat. Maybe, you’ll even flick through a couple of those. But soon you’ll realize — and this rarely happens in everyday life — that you are telling yourself a story. That most of what you do is just fighting your inner silence.

We’re having this big, public discussion about our technology fostering a culture of escapism, but if we’re honest, that’s nothing we needed devices for. It’s built into the human experience. A feature we can’t turn off. We say we ‘think,’ but mostly we’re just letting whatever thoughts come wash over us.

To some extent, this is normal. Permanently squeezing your gray matter with pressing questions — “Who am I? Why am I? What is life’s purpose? What’s mine? Who am I meant to be? And why am I not there yet?” — only drives you insane. But if we shut them down every time they creep up, we stand to lose our minds just the same.

The way we architect this second, equally inevitable collapse, however, is a lot more fascinating.

Agency Over Accomplishment

When she asked 90-somethings what they regretted most, Lydia Sohn made a fascinating discovery: old people don’t get nearly as much satisfaction out of their past careers than young people expect out of their future ones.

“Their joys and regrets have nothing to do with their careers, but with their parents, children, spouses, and friends.”

As it turns out, it’s not their work, but their relationships that contributed most to their happiness. They didn’t crave a longer list of accomplishments, but more quality moments with their loved ones. This finding contradicts the popular idea that our life’s happiness curve shapes like a U-bend, with spikes early and late and a big trough in the middle. People felt their best while being hard-working fathers and busy housewife mothers (and vice versa).

Bronnie Ware, a palliative nurse, regret researcher, and author of a popular book on the topic, identified a different, but equally powerful source of remorse: living a shadow-life.

“Of all of the regrets and lessons shared with me as I sat beside their beds, the regret of not having lived a life true to themselves was the most common one of all. It was also the one that caused the most frustration, as the client’s realization came too late. ‘It’s not like I wanted to live a grand life,’ Grace explained in one of many conversations from her bed. ‘But I wanted to do things for me too and I just didn’t have the courage.’”

Everyone is different and no one person’s experience can dictate your own best path of action, but when it comes to aging, the advice of those who’ve done it already is sure worth considering. These two insights are interesting all on their own, but if we piece them together, we can learn even more:

  1. We may be our best self when we’re not focused on it all that much.
  2. In order to feel like we are, we need to decide some things on our own.

Whether they were happily married or not, these people’s relationships with their partners took a back seat as their family grew. But for those where either ended up suppressing their own desires altogether, a busy life turned into an estranged one — and that’s not something we’re fond of looking back to.

Now I’m really glad I decided to go eat those dumplings.

Miserable Always Does The Job

A friend of mine is currently trying to settle on a topic for her thesis. But, as she says of herself, she’s not very decisive. After researching multiple angles and approaching several faculty members, it came down to two options. When she got accepted for only one, I congratulated her. I was wrong.

Having had no clear preference for either topic before, she was now sad about one road being blocked — and back to brainstorming more options. This may sound silly, but it’s not uncommon. A very real struggle for a very real group of people, particularly those around my age. We know we have a wealth of options, so we try to look at them all, and, without ever deciding, feel bad about the ones we miss, the ones we might have missed, and the perfect ones we think should exist somewhere, even though they never do.

We know abundance does this to us from science. Barry Schwartz wrote The Paradox of Choice about this. The more choice, the harder it is to choose and the easier to make mistakes. And even though finding ‘perfect’ is as impossible as it ever was and we know it, we’re still disappointed if we don’t.

What my friend is doing — what most of us are doing — is not distracting ourselves with meaningless entertainment or existential problems.

We do it with an abundance of good options that don’t reflect who we actually are.

For a lot of us, life is too easy. We know we’ll get dinner. A date is just a swipe away. Our work may be boring, but it pays. At worst, we’ll cancel Spotify. But instead of using all this amenity and time to figure ourselves out, instead of saying “this one feels like me” and running with it, we choose whatever outcome we get to be the one that makes us feel miserable.

But, as we learned from those senior to us, being happy is not about choosing the best, but about loving what you have chosen. How much you dictate the outcome won’t matter nearly as much as having had a say. Whatever agency you have, as long as you don’t second-guess yourself, you’ll likely be content.

And sometimes, that is as simple as eating the first food that comes to mind.

Everything Starts Small

Maybe, you really want to try a new style of pasta. Or to go see that movie. Or just get ice cream. But then you ask around and find out no one wants to go. They might be busy. Maybe, they’re not around. Not hungry. Or they don’t want to hang out today. That’s okay.

What’s not okay is what we usually do next: we stay at home.

We choose to feel sorry for ourselves instead of doing what we want, even if no one’s stopping us.

We do it because moving in a state that’s already uncomfortable when you’re still is extra disconcerting. We do it because we pressure ourselves to optimize among a sea of options despite secretly knowing most of them are irrelevant to us. And we do it because of what people would think; what they would say if they caught us being happy on our own.

I love sharing. I love doing things together. But when your support goes down the tube, you can’t just throw your life right after. Don’t stop living when no one’s watching. Have pride. Get dressed. Show up. Not for others. For yourself.

The person who should be most excited about everything you do in life is you.

But if you can’t live true to yourself when no one’s around, how do you expect to do it in the face of a growing set of responsibilities? How do you expect to do it with more and more agents thrown into the picture? A partner, two kids, an elderly parent. A team you’re leading, a host of fans, or a stubborn boss?

What we want is rarely impractical. Eating alone doesn’t make the food taste worse. But sometimes, it is uncomfortable to be authentic. To act on what you know you want. And yet, we can’t let that prevent us from going after it.

Because it starts with dinner or a movie, but that’s not where it stops.

One day we resort to frozen pizza, the next it’s going back to our shitty job. All because we were too scared to be the lone fighter for the right cause. Yes, your friend should not have chickened out on that startup idea. Yes, finding a great job takes time. But you were never meant to face those struggles unprepared.

Because staying true to yourself, like everything, starts small. It’s not about nailing your Ph.D. or choosing the perfect partner. It’s about listening to your gut when you want to eat dumplings.

Even if it means that, sometimes, you’ll have dinner by yourself.

What Are the Habits of Successful People?

What Are the Habits of Successful People?

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one of the best-selling books of all time. The advice is solid, but there’s one huge problem with it: the title.

Having sold some 25 million copies and still spreading at over 100,000 searches per month, it forever continues to etch four ideas into our minds:

  1. There is an ideal combination of habits that causes success.
  2. That combination is finite.
  3. That combination is timeless.
  4. That combination is the same for everyone.

Sadly, none of these ideas are true. Let’s address them one by one.

What We Look For in Habit Bundles

In late 2016, 13-year-old Danielle Bregoli went on Dr. Phil with her mother. One sassy line later, she was a media sensation. The internet abounds with viral case studies like the “Cash Me Outside” girl, which is the first thing that should give us pause when relating success to habits.

Was it really her continued, bad behavior that led her to 15 million Instagram followers and a record deal? Or the fact that said behavior was on national TV at the right time? Maybe, it’s not so much the combination of our habits, but of our circumstances, that turns our efforts into hits and misses.

And yet, our habits do influence these circumstances. What’s curious is that we insist on bundling them when determining how much.

Imagine a writer’s perfect routine was to wake up, brush her teeth, then write. If it’s the overall blend that’s ideal, each deviation would lead to work that’s worse. But it’s easy to imagine that if she skipped brushing her teeth, nothing would change. It’s the writing that counts. At the same time, she might one day add a habit, like an afternoon run, that does improve her performance.

Most of the time, what we look for in habit bundles is support for the one constant that matters. But in doing so, we add complexity that soon clouds the importance of the very thing that works. One day you wake up earlier to write more, the next you do a 7-step morning routine, but forget the writing.

The more variables you consider together, the less likely it becomes that your hypothesis is right. Be happy if you find one habit that works. That allows you to push for better and better circumstances. To change the odds in your favor.

Because even if you do it forever, it’ll still take luck to make it on Dr. Phil.

Thinking Is an Infinite Habit

Being paid by the hour sucks. Besides making me feel like a machine, it also assumes I am one. That everyone doing that task delivers the same, uniform output of equal quality. Worse, it neglects that knowledge compounds.

If it takes me an hour to write an article, was that an hour or an hour plus four years of writing? Actually, it was all of that plus 27 years of life experience.

“In the same way that we form habits of action relating to our environment, we also form habits of thought when it comes to how we think about the world.”

What Zat Rana hints at is not just that thinking is habitual too, but that our patterns of thought cascade, informing everything we do, as well as how we process each experience. And while we sometimes get stuck in these mental loops, the brain is in a constant state of change. Thinking is an infinite habit.

We want to believe that, if only we did the same three, five, ten things each day, we’d inevitably find success. But that was never an option in the first place. Because even if we did, the way we think about these things, and, thus, do them, would change. The only mind that doesn’t evolve is one that’s dead.

The question is if yours is getting better.

Habits Are Both Causes and Effects

When I first learned about habits, I thought I would run some experiments, then, eventually, settle on one of the many finite, ideal sets we now know don’t exist. But while each habit mattered for a time, I’d always find myself in need of another one. Or had to let one go. Because it didn’t serve me anymore.

What I learned was that habits are both causes and effects. Deliberately adopting a habit will alter the outcomes of your life, but some of these altered outcomes will also change which habits you’ll want or have to adopt. Just like the right combination only exists at fixed points in time, so do the ideal moments of when to adjust it. If our writer is about to catch a cold, even the most inspiring afternoon run will negatively impact her output the next day.

Trends change how business works. History changes how the world works. Time changes how we work. And all of it requires changing our habits. So rather than trying to extract timeless practices, we should focus on being malleable. On not resisting our brain’s desire to upgrade itself.

Take a snapshot of any successful person’s current habits and ask: how many times must that set have changed to get them where they are? By the time you answer, it’ll have changed again.

Our total amount of data now doubles each year. In such a world, learning isn’t optional. It’s necessary. Day by day, adaptation replaces information. And as intelligence overtakes knowledge, old behaviors must make way for new ones. They’ll either stop working for you or the world you live in, but they will.

The person who’s unfazed by that is the person who can shape habits at will.

Why Polar Opposites Work

Richard Branson had no intention of starting Virgin Atlantic. As a ruse to impress his future wife, he claimed wanting to buy Necker Island, which they were promptly thrown off of when the owner found out they lacked the money. Their return flight was canceled, so he chartered a plane, sold out the seats, and the rest is history. Jack Ma, however, had every intention of reaching every single Chinese citizen when starting Alibaba.

Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Warren Buffett are avid readers. Gary Vaynerchuk, Steve Jobs, and Kanye? Not so much. Edison trashed 1,000 experiments, James Altucher 18 businesses, and Marylin Monroe both her pin-up and her modeling career. J.K. Rowling went to over ten publishers, Bocelli played at bars till age 33, and Tolkien released Lord of the Rings when he was over 60.

To quit or not to quit? To read or not to read? To set goals or to have fun? The reason all of these work despite being polar opposites is the truth we’ve been building towards with this article:

There is no such thing as the one, ideal, timeless set of habits of successful people.

Take Arianna Huffington’s habit of sleeping eight hours per night. We can observe that habit only because it’s pronounced. Noticeable. The same goes for all distinct behaviors and character traits we see when we look at our idols.

If an attribute endures, it’s because at some point that person decided it was either a strength of theirs they should double down on or a weakness they shouldn’t bother trying to resolve. We can’t know which is which, but we can point to one trait and corresponding behavior that facilitates such insights.

That habit — the one all logic and data point to — is practicing self-awareness.

A Task Designed Uniquely For You

Ideas being wrong has never stopped our culture from growing around them.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is just one of many books, people, and trends that the $10 billion self-help industry is built upon, but it’s an epitome of the world we now live in: The demand for common behavior patterns leading to worldly success is sky high, and educators are happy to supply.

And while the 200 million search results for “habits of successful people” are, for all intents and purposes, 200 million different ones, maybe they should be. At least this mess forces us into independent inquiry. If we summarize our four refutations of those initial ideas, it seems that’s exactly what we need:

  1. You’ll still need luck before and after, but if you find one or two behaviors that move you into the right direction, those are usually enough.
  2. You can’t possibly maintain the same habits forever based solely on the fact that your thinking keeps changing. Focus on trying to make it better.
  3. Your habits are cause-and-effect relationships between you and your environment. Keep analyzing both to know when to change and how.
  4. Separating your habits into useful and not useful is a task bestowed uniquely on you and only doing it will reveal the right consistencies.

Even in humans, self-awareness is a rare trait. Children develop the basis of this ability, self-perception, only at 15–18 months old. In cultures less focused on the individual it happens much later still, sometimes not till age six.

Our Western concept of success is far from perfect, but it comes with a lot of freedom and room for self-expression. If that’s what you want, self-awareness is one of few catalysts that has a meaningful chance of helping you get there.

Practicing to observe your own existence and its interaction with the world can take many forms, such as walking, reading, and meditating. You could keep a journal, engage in thought experiments, or track your behavior.

The underlying task, however, is regularly setting aside time to think. As long as you do that, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, too, will be a great read.

Just do yourself a favor and ignore the title.