Daily Helicopter Rides

Every morning, I blow-dry my hair. I hold the dryer above my head and wiggle it from side to side, so as to not burn my head. When I pay attention, I can hear a familiar sound. Flap. Flap, flap, flap. It’s a sound I know from the movies, and from opening the car window just a little when going at high speed: The sound of a helicopter.

If I imagine the air was a little colder, the wind a little stronger, and the noise a little louder, within a second, there I am: Grand Canyon.

The view is magnificent. Mountains, rocks, crevices, it all stretches as far as I can see. I can hear the steel bend under the strain of the mechanical forces propelling the machine. I can feel my stomach jump as the open side tilts towards the ground. Is that a group of hikers down there? No, they have horses!

I lean back on the small bench. I hear the white noise in the bulky headphones they make you wear. I feel the wind ripping through the open sides of our gravity-defying device. And all the time, that hammering sound that becomes calming once you let it in: flap, flap, flap.

I open my eyes. I’m still in my bathroom. Still 30 years old, not eight. Or am I?

My dad and I have been planning to go on a real helicopter ride for six years. Sometimes, life happens. That’s okay. I can ride helicopters each day. So can you, by the way.

Your imagination is stronger than you think. Don’t let anyone tell you how to use it. Create joy out of thin air – or the one coming out of your blow dryer.

If a child would do it without hesitating, it’s probably the right thing to do.

Do You Trust Your Brain?

In matters of creativity, you must. It’s impossible to hold on to everything. You’ll lose ideas. Great ones. Bad ones. You won’t have the energy to pull on every thread. To sit until you can sync it all into one coherent picture.

This can be frustrating. We want to write down every thought, bring every spark to perfection immediately. Alas, not every fish needs to be caught. How many treasures can an explorer lift from the sea?

An average explorer spends most her time at the tavern, drinking, planning, conjuring her next great voyage, if only in stories for her fellow dreamers at the bar. Her grandest feats remain the ones she never got around to doing.

A true explorer sails every day, not for the expectation of finding treasure any minute, but for the faith that if she keeps exploring, treasure will sometime appear – if only by some divine deviation she could not have found at the bottom of even the deepest wine jug.

Your creativity is infinite. Your ability to tell good from bad is not. Your judgment is more akin to a hand-drawn map squiggled by a drunk. Trust in your creativity more so than in your judgment.

As long as you exercise it every day, your brain will deliver when you need it. Letting go is hard, but once she’s out on the water, it’s the only way for the adventurer to get the right wind behind her sails.

Going Home

The latest Spiderman movie is called “No Way Home.” It’s a movie about being lost geographically, sure, but, more importantly, it’s a stark reminder that the past is – and forever will be – gone.

When I started writing, I set the goal of typing 250 words a day on this very blog. I tracked my progress feverishly using various apps. For the most part, I had so much fun that it was easy, often exceeding my goal, and soon, I managed to build a streak that lasted seven months.

In 2016, I wanted to write as much but ship more. That’s how Four Minute Books was born. I had to fill in a few gaps here and there, but eventually, I managed to post 365 times that year.

In 2017, I took my daily writing habit to Quora, where I answered at least one question every day for nine months.

Next, I turned my attention to Medium, working on longer articles daily and posting a few times each week. That lasted for three years.

Another 18 months later, I still write almost daily, but since choosing to prioritize books, I can’t help but feel a little lost. I’ve been on a seven-year-trip around the world of writing platforms, and it’s time for me to go home.

Calling 20 years of daily blogging one of the “top five career decisions” he’s ever made, Seth Godin’s biggest surprise on day 5,000 (year 14!) was…”that more people aren’t doing this.” To everyone “hoping to shape opinions or spread ideas,” Seth says: “Don’t do it because it’s your job, do it because you can.”

“You don’t win an Olympic gold medal with a few weeks of intensive training.” Seth has known that since day 1,500. “Every great company, every great brand, and every great career has been built in exactly the same way: bit by bit, step by step, little by little. If every element of an organization gets a little better every day, then that organization will become unstoppable.”

For one, shipping every day will inevitably cure your writer’s (or creator’s) block, a phenomenon Seth called “a myth, a recent invention, a cultural malady” on day 6,000. The intention behind each creation matters, but even more so “that you show up. The act of doing it every day.” The point of the practice is not for some number to go up – it is to, over time, make something remarkable.

“Where are you being generous – completely selfless and generous – so that an organization or person you care about has changed for the better?” That is Seth’s yardstick.

“What is it for?” That’s the question that lets us beat the Resistance. It’ll have selfish elements. Personally, I simply don’t know how to express myself any better than I can do in writing. It’s text that wants to come out, not dances or speeches or graphic designs. I also believe it is easier to buy a book from someone you “talk to” every day (or at least engage with on occasion) than from someone who shows up at your door once a year with a new thing to sell. But there’s also the connection.

I want you to smile when you look in the mirror. I want you to give yourself a break when you need it. I want to help you see the world differently, walk down the street like you own the block, and always go to bed thinking tomorrow can be a good day.

I don’t think that’s something I can do daily – but if I don’t try to do it daily, it might not happen at all.

Besides, for a writer, what could feel more like home than a daily blog?

“We now live in this world where you don’t need to be picked,” Seth says. There’s a difference, however, between not needing to be picked and choosing you don’t want to be. Seth has quit book publishing more than once, and he’s on record calling bestseller lists a scam. Why? “[It] frees me up to do what I want to do, what I need to do – not get hung up on seeing the world the way it used to be.”

The blog is just another way of picking himself:

“I don’t need anyone’s permission. I don’t need to go out and promote it. I don’t use any analytics. I don’t have comments. It’s just: ‘This is what I noticed today, and I thought I’d share it with you.'” The secret is that there’s no secret; the tradeoff that you can’t say it all in one go.

The truth is the internet changed the game forever, but most of what came after has eventually become – or will soon be – “the way it used to be.” Social media, platforms, aggregators: intermediaries, rent-seekers, expropriators. We can chase the attention wave as it washes over ever more beaches, breaking into ever smaller ripples, or we can sit content on our patch of rocks, weaving ideas, hoping to earn some attention from our craft.

Home is where the heart is, and for our heart to be fully in it, it must be something we fully own. That, too, requires refusing to be picked.

Addressing millions of listeners on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, Seth says:

“Everyone who can hear this has more power than they think they do. The question is, what are you going to do with that power?”

And then, as if he’d known that six years later to the day, some guy would write about his latest cinema visit, he added: “Because it comes with responsibility, right out of Spiderman, but that responsibility is you’re going to make change happen or you’re going to ignore it.”

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

It is in this line that everyone in Spiderman finds their way home. My power is to notice. To feel. To imagine. To venture into another world using the vessel of my mind, return from it with new materials, and mesh it all into something brand new.

Stories are my power. Sharing them my responsibility. This blog is my home. It is where I’ll try my best to exercise my power responsibly each day.

I am here. I am home. Thank you for visiting. Tomorrow, the world will not be the same, but I hope you’ll come back anyway – for there’s always another lesson to learn from Spiderman, another story to tell.

Let us choose a life of stories. Welcome home.

Pick Yourself

You are the star. You can rent the Twitter theater, but what if it shuts down? What if their lights break and you can no longer see the audience? You could rent a different theater, but then you’d lose half your fans along the way. Not everyone can get to the new location. Some won’t realize you’ve moved until it’s too late. And what if the next social media stage breaks? Will you just keep moving?

You are the star, but the show you run is not a circus. It’s a serious service, and people should know where to find you. They need a door they can knock on, a mailbox to drop feedback in, a fence to yell over, “Where is it?! Where is the thing you promised?”

The circus moves because after a while, everyone in town has seen the show. The town now houses eight billion people, and you’ll be lucky if a fraction ever comes to watch you perform. In a town this big, it’s best to stay in one spot. Easier for people to find you.

Plus, it gives you time to work on your show. There is no point in moving around pulling off the same tricks. Your show is the thing that must keep moving. Evolving. Attracting people from all parts of the town with a different theme for each crowd, a new idea for each suburb.

You are the star. Don’t rent someone else’s platform. Take the time to build your own stage. It’ll be slow and small at first, but at least no landlord can kick you out, and you’ll embrace your responsibility from day one, a responsibility that includes – but goes far beyond – fixing your own lights.

Why Don’t I Just…?

You want to be a painter, but your sister thinks it’s stupid. You want to show her you have a plan. You study all the great painters. You put in extra hours at work. One raise follows another, and you invest every cent you can spare. The plan? Retire early, and paint. Maybe drop down to part-time at 40. That might be enough.

Or, you could take out your iPad in the morning and paint for 15 minutes. They even have brushes for it now.

The only label I have been willing to consistently – and happily – accept over the last seven years is “writer.” The specifics keep changing, but the joy of the practice does not. I can send myself into a stupor over using this platform or that, posting daily or weekly, writing fiction or non-fiction… I have had many an internal debate over the years, and I’m sure my most recent trip down doubt lane won’t have been my last. It did come, however, with a curious question:

Why don’t I just…write?

That’s what a writer does, isn’t it? The act is enough to make me…me. To align my aspiration with my day and make me feel at peace.

It is a tremendous gift to know who you want to be. Don’t waste it in a world without barriers.

The 3 Stages of Ignorance

Ignorance is eternal. We are born knowing nothing and die knowing very little still.

Our evolution happens in how we handle our ignorance. I see three stages:

  1. Ignorance is bliss: Amateur means “lover of.” That’s what you do when you start: You love it. Your mind is open, your intention is pure, and your curiosity is genuine. You have too much fun to realize how bad you are. Pray for this stage to last as long as it can.
  2. Ignorance is crisis: You finally realize you’re not Mozart. You’re in deep. Shit! How could you have so little to show for after so many years? Was this the right path after all? Maybe, it’s time to jump ship. Join a new crew. Think harder this time. Reinvent yourself one last time.
  3. Ignorance is art: The crisis was a scam. There is no “one last time.” The reinvention was to accept ignorance as part of the deal – and then keep reinventing. You have more confidence than ever in not knowing what you’re doing. You understand “not knowing” is what gives work a chance to have meaning. Without ignorance, there can be no art.

Your feet will be up in the air with every step you take. That’s life for all of us, but will you try to dance? That’s a choice you get to make.

Ramen on Purpose

Every now and then, eat ramen because you can, not because you have to.

Sit down with the pack in hand. How much was it? $0.50? Feel the plastic. Let it sink in. Think about what it stands for.

Try to be present. Really be there so you can understand the miracle that is ramen. How does someone fit an entire meal into such a tiny packet? How can the process be so efficient that the result costs $0.50? It has taste, substance, and sustenance. Not a lot, perhaps, but enough to pass off as dinner.

Every day, somewhere on this planet, someone is willing to risk their life for a pack of ramen (or whatever its local equivalent). They would walk 20 miles, kill a lion, or, on the worst of days, a person. They wouldn’t care about the spices or the packaging. They wouldn’t even add water – probably because there is none. They’d tear away the plastic, bite off a heavy chunk, and chew on uncooked noodles. They’d devour the whole thing, and when the stomach ache sets in, they’d be as grateful as you are when you feel full from a $20 burger delivered right to the doorstep of your comfy apartment.

That’s 40 packs of ramen, by the way.

There is no trick to being grateful other than to notice. Noticing takes practice, so let’s make it a practice. That’s what this blog is for, among other things. When you notice habitually, you’ll recognize all kinds of things. Rather than just see, you’ll also observe.

Every now and then, you’ll find yourself with a pack of ramen in your hands. You’ll realize: You don’t have to eat them – but you can – and that makes all the difference.

Make It Believable

My friend used to play tennis in high school. He had a coach. His name was Felix Kerner*. Kerner was young, making the kind of mistakes young coaches tend to make: He would promise my friend to restring his racket, then forget to bring it the next session. He’d schedule back to back lessons in two locations that were a 10-minute drive apart. And so on.

Years later, my friend went to college. One day, he was flipping through the channels on his TV. A cooking show stopped him in his tracks. Was that…? My friend called for his roommate: “Yo, you gotta see this! That guy making eggs over there? He used to be my tennis coach!”

And the roommate said: “Is that Felix Kerner?”

When my friend had picked himself up after falling off the couch, they discovered the roommate had worked in a remote city for a while, a city where he played tennis on the side – and where Felix Kerner had moved, only to join the same tennis club.

This is a series of improbable possibilities. In our everyday lives, they make for great stories. When several unlikely but highly possible events line up, we get to go, “No way!” and have a good laugh.

When you tell an actual story, improbable possibilities make you look like you forgot to bring the racket back to the next session.

How likely is it that aliens will land on earth in the next five years? Most people would give this a less-than-1% chance. Basically impossible. Basically. Yet, we watch movies where aliens land right now all the time.

Once you’ve swallowed the pill that the aliens are here, you can see all kinds of scenarios unfold. The aliens have advanced technology and can hide in plain sight. They can adapt to the environment better than we can. They learn our language quickly. Some of the aliens are friendly, others not so much. As it turns out, the aliens are fighting their own war amongst themselves – they just got stranded.

That’s the plot of every Transformers movie, all of which were commercial successes if not loved by the critics (but what is?).

“A probable impossibility is preferable to an improbable possibility,” Aaron Sorkin says.

The word “probable” means likely, but if you take it apart, it also means “probe-able.” It’s an event we can probe. We can assess it. Critique it. Try to poke holes in it. “What would have to happen for aliens to land on earth in the first place?” We might wrestle with ourselves for a while, but, ultimately, we can argue ourselves into the logic we need to enjoy the rest of the film.

Filmmakers know this, of course. If they can get you to buy the first ten minutes, the rest will be downhill.

And if they can’t?

In Moonfall, the moon, well, falls. It’s the first of countless improbable possibilities in a 130-minute sequence of escalating, ever-less-likely events, which makes the entire experience maddeningly frustrating. Each event builds logically on the last, but since they’re all so damn unlikely, you stop buying in after the cast hits the third jackpot in a row.

Everything is explained away, which only makes it worse. There’s nothing to probe there! Sure, that’s how earth behaves if the moon comes too close. Sure, this dynamic will make up for the lack of fuel. But…really? You pulled it all off in one fluent motion? No way.

There is a saving grace for stories relying on improbable possibilities: Acknowledge them. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Do it with a smirk. Break the fourth wall. Make a self-deprecating reference. Show us you know we know.

But Moonfall? They do it all with a straight face. Only at minute 93 does one of the characters finally utter what has been on everyone’s mind all along: “This doesn’t make any sense!”

He looks a bit like Felix Kerner.

In our boring, predictable, everyday physical realm, a chain of unlikely events is satisfying. It’s karma. The exception that proves the norm. A little reminder that the universe is in order thanks to being in occasional disarray.

In a world we enter to escape from said realm, the impossible must become the norm. Anything else is dissatisfying. The point is not more of the same. The point is to show us a situation we’ll never find ourselves in – and then make us believe we could do what the hero does.

Whether it’s an anecdote you’re sharing, a screenplay you’re writing, or a last-minute face-saver for your boss: Make it believable, and do it the right way. The improbable rarely works. Choose the impossible if you can. See how far you can get.

Like my friend from high school who, even then, knew that, “Aliens are holding my textbooks for ransom” is a much better excuse than “My dog ate my homework.”

*Name changed

Refuse to Start Until It’s Easy

I hate buying groceries. I’m thrilled to pay someone to deliver them. We constantly trade money for time. We value convenience. We choose more hours over more dollars.

Why don’t we do the same when time is the thing we have to give up? The side project is a distraction, but it looks to be a quick buck, so we jump in with both feet. Writing the book will take forever, but adding a week up front to think about how to compress “forever” into six months? Nu-uh. No dice.

For the first four years of writing, I did not feel compelled to make an online course. Then, one cold September morning, I woke up and it was easy. I had a complete outline in my head. All I had to do was write it down, refine it, make bullets for each lesson, and hit record. Did it take effort? Of course. But the initial inspiration and structure carried me all the way.

When the result is more money or more time two years from now, don’t do it the hard way. Pay for convenience by abstaining. Refuse to start until it’s easy. Wait until downhill is obvious. Then, get on your sled and enjoy the ride.

Think More, Work Less

Unless you’re chopping wood, you are not paid to work. You are paid to think.

“Oh, but I design social media graphics for $15 an hour!” Well, if you made one that generated $1,000 in value for your client, I’m sure they’d notice – and so would you. Either way, you wouldn’t be on hourly pay much longer.

Maybe they don’t need a bolded quote for every tweet. Maybe they need a comprehensive infographic. “Here. I made this. Try it. Let’s see if it works.” That’s a thinking challenge, not a work challenge. The effort comes later.

Your output is just the proof of your thinking. It shows what you do when you’re not swinging the axe – and it better be mulling over how to chop more wood without sharpening more axes or, better yet, how to do the thing without needing to cut down trees at all.

If Da Vinci was right and “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” then simplifying is the ultimate skill.

Think first, work second.