Read to Feel

No one reads Eat, Pray, Love for the itinerary. Liz Gilbert could have spent her post-divorce year in Milwaukee, Dortmund, and Birmingham instead of Rome, India, and Indonesia, and the book would have been just as riveting. Why? Because we read Eat, Pray, Love to feel.

What does it feel like to go through divorce? What does it feel like to be lost? And to find yourself? Invent yourself? Maybe we already know some of these feelings. Maybe we don’t. Either way, we want to stew in a can of emotional romance soup, and boy, does Gilbert deliver. Naturally, we’ll learn something along the way – but that’s not why we came. Not really, anyway. At least if we’re being honest. The same applies to Hamlet, The Da Vinci Code, and Ready Player One.

They dynamic of “we read to feel” seems to be obvious and well-accepted when it comes to fiction titles, but for non-fiction? Not so much. I wonder why. How could one set of books have such a different societal standing than another when all books are written with feeling? As an author, it’s impossible to do anything else.

Reading non-fiction solely for information is like reading fiction only on Wikipedia: You get the plot but not the story, the map but not the adventure – a body without a soul.

Essentialism is not about asking a few smart questions for better productivity. It is about feeling at peace with your work. That’s not something a book summary can teach you, but a few quiet hours with Greg McKeown at your own leisure just might.

The next time a book’s idea or summary speaks to you, ask why. Does it emit the kind of feeling you seem to need right now? If so, pick up a copy. You may not land on Mars, but you’ll still emerge with much more than you expected – just like Liz Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love.

The Final Countdown

As a teenager, I had a phase where I listened to Europe’s The Final Countdown every single day. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something about it. The melody, the high-pitched synthesizer noises, the guitars – it was just epic, despite being basically five minutes of repeating one riff and line.

Nowadays it’s mostly a New Year’s song. It barely plays on the radio during the year. I annoyed a good amount of people with my Final Countdown frenzy. “How often can you listen to the same song?” my parents would say. Especially since on most days, there was nothing to, you know, count down to.

Looking back, I think I was on to something. There is a final countdown, and it’s ticking away for each of us – not just on New Year’s Eve but every single day. Maybe we should all listen to the song more often. It creates a sense of urgency.

10, 9, 8… What will you do today? How will you spend your good hours? 7, 6, 5… Will you choose the work that matters? The people you care about? 4, 3… Or trifles that won’t make a difference? 2, 1… Boom! Time’s up. Life goes fast, doesn’t it?

“Will things ever be the same again?” the song lyrics ask. They won’t be – at least not once you realize your final countdown has already begun.

Hidden Truth Theory

One of the most memorable concepts I learned in high school is the “Heisenbergsche Unschärferelation,” for one because it’s so incredibly wordy that it’s ironically easy to remember, and for another because it is simply incredible altogether.

Named after German physicist Werner Heisenberg, the Uncertainty Principle, as it is more commonly known, postulates we can never know both a particle’s speed and its position at the same time. The more accurately we aim to measure the particle’s speed, the less able we’ll be to predict its position, and vice versa.

When Einstein was first confronted with this new reality, he wasn’t very happy. He wanted the world to make sense, not be subject to the random whims of quantum mechanics. Einstein theorized there must be some hidden variable we are missing, a property we can’t yet observe but that, once we’re able to analyze it, would reveal each particle’s exact location and momentum.

In physics, such hypotheses are called hidden-variable theories, and, for the most part, have been disproven. Unlike Einstein famously claimed, it does seem like God plays dice.

Life, however, is bigger than the laws of physics. For us, it usually does pay to ask: What’s the hidden truth I’m missing? Because there’s always a truth we’re missing. It may not be an important one nor relevant to the matter at hand, but sometimes it will be, and in those cases, it usually makes all the difference.

Why is your significant other hesitant to move in together? Could she be worried about her career, afraid of your habits, or perhaps her own? Is there a simpler message to structure your book around? Can you say it all in one word, one theme, one act instead of three? Do your back issues come from the obvious – too much sitting – or are they actually driven by the flat feet you’ve had since you were born?

Think! That’s what good scientists do. They never stop chasing the truth because they know the whole truth has never been fully revealed just yet. Often, we can’t get there in our own lifetime. We’ll have to leave some uncertainty in the system. That’s okay. Even that we can account for.

Whether God plays dice is not up to us – but investigating why the dice have fallen the way they did is a choice we must make again and again. Look for the truth hidden from the surface. You won’t always find it, but even allowing chaos into the room will make your life, ironically, a little less uncertain.

Happiness Is Soap

The harder I pinch my fingers when trying to get the vitamin pill from the bottle, the less it wants to come out. With a gentle shake and a light push, however, it literally jumps into my hand.

Happiness is a bar of wet soap: The harder you squeeze to hold on, the faster it slips through your fingers. If you don’t try too hard, it’ll glide across your skin – just long enough until you’re clean.

Careful! Don’t cram life into your schedule. You can’t force it to go as you please. Push too much, and you’ll choke it. Nip the meaning in the bud before it can emerge from its seeds.

If life is one long shower, the water must keep flowing. Drops come, drops go – and so do bars of soap. Let go easily and you’ll receive generously. Hold on – but not too tightly – so you may surf instead of fall.

Congratulations, You’re a Fraud

“There’s always someone with more money,” KSHMR sings. “Someone who goes to better parties in a faster car.”

The problem is not wanting more money or a nice party or a fast car – it is wanting to be the “someone” KSHMR sings about, the someone others envy. Is that who you want to be? That’s the question you must ask when you see success (or fame or happiness) personified rolling by.

Instagram only shows us the best parts of people’s lives, but we can’t just absorb those parts and not the sacrifice they require nor the fallout they create. It has to be an all-in exchange. In his Almanack, Naval Ravikant says:

“Do you want to actually be that person with all of their reactions, their desires, their family, their happiness level, their outlook on life, their self-image? If you’re not willing to do a wholesale, 24/7, 100% swap with who that person is, then there is no point in being jealous.”

Whether you like it or not, if you chase after someone driving a Lamborghini down the street, the only way to catch them is to become them. You might succeed in the succeeding, but you’ll fail in being you. You’ll cease to be yourself.

“If I fake it till I make it, all I made is a fraud,” KSHMR continues. That’s why “I put myself before my dollars – because being me is easier than being something I’m not.”

There is only one way to win, and it’s your way. Otherwise, it’ll be someone else holding the prize – and what good is the best party if you can’t attend it?

The Wrong Arena

Common sense dictates you should “pick your battles,” but the advice often comes at the expense of a much bigger, even more important decision: picking your battlefield.

From Nixon to Mandela, Brené Brown to LeBron James, it has become popular – and somewhat cliché – to quote the “Man in the Arena” bit from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” speech, delivered more than 100 years ago to French academics, soldiers, and citizens at Sorbonne University:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds.”

It’s hard not to feel inspired by these words, but against the backdrop provided by Ryan Holiday in The Daily Stoic, Roosevelt’s words leave much to wonder about: Roosevelt was a workaholic, desperately chasing often life-endangering thrills in his spare time, even begging to go to the battlefield at 59 years old. “We choose to be at war—in some cases, literally—when peace is in fact the more honorable and fitting choice,” Holiday wrote.

Life is not the Hunger Games. No one pulled your name out of a hat, handed you a trident, pushed you out some gate and said: “There you go. Now fight for your life.”

You don’t have to study like crazy to get good grades. You don’t have to graduate summa cum laude. You don’t have to slave away for 80 hours each week to look good in front of your manager. All of these are choices, and you can choose a different path whenever you find none of your current battles are battles you’ve deliberately decided to face.

Yes, effort matters. True courage followed by real actions is admirable – which makes it all the more tragic when said courage and actions are committed to the wrong ends. Once you find something worth fighting for, give it all you’ve got. Until then, make sure you don’t end up in the wrong arena. There’s nothing worse than holding a prize you were never meant to win.


When we find ourselves in a state of ecstasy, we want it to become the new normal. Of course, new and normal are opposites. As soon as the novelty turns into a routine, the ecstasy disappears. The first time was a happy accident, but now we’re unhappy until we get to repeat what can’t be planned. A vicious cycle begins, and one day, years later, we scratch our heads, wondering how we ended up on this witch hunt for something we weren’t looking for to begin with.

Hedonism’s sneakiest trick, however, is when ecstasy doesn’t make us ecstatic at all. It might be a moment of serenity while overlooking the mountains at dawn, or a wave of gratitude for a privileged dining experience. “I should feel this more often.” Unfortunately, the path to more good feelings is rarely more of the same.

It is a rare commodity, the ability to stop eating before you’re full. But it is a skill you can learn. Drain the bath before the water gets cold. Let the fading tide expose your skin to the air. Inch by inch, you’ll return to your non-elevated state. Grounding, I hear it’s called.

That’s where we must return. The ground. One day it’ll be in a box, but until then, let’s practice it many times over – first with our feet and then with our minds – so the only ones left wanting in the cold will be the fallen angels of pleasure in excess.

Hope Is What You Do at the End

One of the most common questions we had in tenth grade German history class, which mainly covered Nazi Germany and WWII, was the following: “Why did no one do anything?”

Do you know how many times someone tried to assassinate Hitler? 42. At least 42 times, a courageous individual or group of people said: “This far and no further. This man must be stopped. He is a monster, and there is no other way.” And at least 42 times, they failed. Sometimes, evil slips through – just like miracles do.

The lesson here is twofold: First, it’s easy to see the world in black and white when you look back at events that happened 50 years before you were born. Germany was never split into complicit criminals, resigned bystanders, and a handful of heroes. Life is more complicated than “hero or Nero.” Many of us live in the grey, by choice or by chance, and most of us trade thousands of labels for one another throughout our lifetimes, never thinking we might end up in history books which have room for just one.

The second lesson is illuminated brilliantly by Jannis Niewöhner’s line in Munich: The Edge of War: “Hoping is waiting for someone else to do it.” I don’t agree with what he says next: “We’d all be much better off without it.”

There’s a saying that “hope dies last,” and I think that’s important. Even more so, however, I want to remember that hope comes last – it’s the thing you do at the end. Only when you’ve exhausted every resource, summoned all the courage you can possibly muster, and spent every last ounce of attention, willpower, and energy on whatever matters so much to you, only then can you let go and say, “Thy will be done. The rest is in the universe’s hands.”

Few of us will turn into still images looked at by 16-year-olds through the biased spyglass of history, but life offers all of us millions of small chances to say the right words, be in the right room, or do the right thing. Let’s use these chances while we can so we may hope not just on behalf of the dead in history class but at the very end of our best shot.

Your truest life is yours to live. Don’t wait for someone else to do it.

Anthropic Questions

The anthropic principle states that our explanations of life, earth, and the universe are inevitably limited by the fact that humans are only around to ask questions thanks to the universe we have. It took a long sequence of sometimes very specific, very unlikely events for humans to emerge after billions of years, and now, in our trying to understand our own emergence, we can only analyze what we see. We can only work with the foundations we have.

The anthropic principle is somewhat self-evident: Of course it takes a universe with a star that has a planet full of carbon and oxygen for DNA to form, evolution to begin, and intelligent life to emerge. On the other hand, if we forget this obvious truth, our questions about the universe start going down a narrowing path – a path that might close our minds, lead us astray, and deliver us only to the dead end that is survivorship bias.

Our personal lives are less complex than the origins of the universe, but not so simple as to warrant taking most developments for granted. “Which mess will my boss make me clean up today?” That’s an anthropic question. It assumes bosses that hand their messes to others are the only bosses we have. I assure you they are not the only kind.

An anthropic marketer tasked with allocating Tesla’s marketing budget would have asked: “Do you want to spend it on billboards, guerrilla marketing, radio, podcasts, content marketing, or social media ads?” Tesla asked something else: “What is marketing?” Then, they answered from scratch. Existing universes not factored in. “Well, marketing is how people find out about our products. Why can’t they all find out from someone else? A personal recommendation? It seems that they can. So if we spend all our money on making the best car we can make, enough people should tell other people that they bought our car. Therefore, we need $0 for marketing – but we need more $ to develop our cars!” To this day, Tesla does not pay for marketing. They refused to ask anthropic questions.

The opposite of an anthropic question is an imaginative question. It entertains a reality not yet perceived, a future that doesn’t exist but could.

Don’t settle for anthropic. Don’t pick your options only from the world you already know. When you see a left-or-right fork in the road, imagine a path that keeps running straight. Ask not what can be in the life that you have, ask what could be in the life that you want.

Our universe has just one history, but our decisions only seem obvious when we forget what could have been.

The Message Without the Mess

Many moons ago, I auditioned for Germany’s Got Talent. My talent? Soccer tricks. I bombed the performance and never heard back. What I did do was start to pay attention: Who do they pick?

As it turned out, the participants who made it on TV weren’t only talented, they always seemed to have the craziest backstory. They were raised by wolves, had sailed around the globe in a canoe, or had survived falling out of an airplane. I’m exaggerating, of course, but you get the point.

I realized I would never be picked. A boy with good grades, from a small town in which nothing ever happens, with a normal, intact, nothing-out-of-the-ordinary family? Forget it. Where’s the mess? Where’s the chaos to put on display?

There’s a saying that you should “make your mess your message,” and I agree. If you struggle with something and reveal that struggle to the world, the universe will support you. You’ll no longer fight alone, and you’ll inspire others to win their own, similar battles. But what if you don’t have a mess? Does that mean you don’t have a message? I don’t think so.

Comfort and discomfort are equally powerful gifts. You can share both of them. Extend them to others to make them see the world in a new light.

If I’m calm and happy, I have time to put myself in your shoes. I can buy a friend a cup of coffee, call my grandma to ask how she’s doing, or send a few words of inspiration your way. That too is worth a lot. It’s not messy, but it does send a message: I care about you. You’re not alone. It’ll be okay.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t have a messy message. Struggle is not the only path to growth. Healing and comfort are always in demand – and the stick only works if some of us hand out carrots.