Working From Comb

Covid did something for Germany that I was afraid would take another 50 years: It bumped the share of people working from home from 4% to 30%. Finally!

The flexibility is great, but it also puts our work in flux. Suddenly, there’s no physical separation. When are we supposed to work? When is it okay to rest?

Companies get a new set of rules in the form of more remote-friendly laws, but our personal rulebooks we’ll have to write ourselves.

There’s a lot to be said about pretending you leave the house every morning: You shower, dress properly, and walk to your office – even if’s just the next room over.

Yet, not everyone has an entire room to spare, and so where physical space wanes, we must get creative. I can do a lot sitting on my bed, if only I comb my hair. The feeling of the bristles on my scalp, the magic realignment from chaotic to straight – whatever does the final trick, it works. My vision narrows, my mind calms down, and I can do some work in my pajamas.

Probe your routines. Which elements feel most empowering? Focus on those. Sometimes, brushing your teeth is all you need.

Working from home can be wonderful. Don’t let the blur of boundaries get to you. You can straighten them, you know? Just like you do with your hair. Use your power. Pick up a comb, and go from there.

The Shortcut Is the Hard Way

Seth Godin says the long way is the shortcut, but – and this is not as obvious of a consequence as it sounds – the shortcut is also the hard way.

It’s not hard because the work is hard – after all, that’s the part you’re avoiding. It’s hard because you pay not with hours but with your peace of mind.

You might have to lie to consumers, your friends, and the world. You’ll have to exploit the weak or be unhelpful on purpose. Those things can feel shockingly easy in the moment, but they’re much harder to live with than even the longest of workdays.

Why not do it right the first time? Why risk losing your family, your possessions, even your sleep? You can run an operation that’s great for you but so-so for the customer – or you can run one that’s so good to people, it’ll inevitably have to be good to you too.

If the shortcut takes half as long but weighs twice as much, you won’t gain anything but stress. You’ll conclusively lose years that otherwise would have held not just the potential to be successful, but the potential to be happy too.

Think thrice about taking the shortcut. There’s more than one reason to walk the long path.

When “No” Is a Favor

Three weeks ago, the traffic analytics on one of my websites broke. Software can be like light bulbs: One day the fuse glows, the next it blows.

I checked the obvious places without luck. It was time to hire an expert. My go-to guy for web development said: “Sure, I can do it.” Except he couldn’t. He fiddled with the code, told me to wait a day, disappeared for two more, then came back clueless. “The code is there. It should work.”

More back and forth later than I care to admit, I created a new job posting, hired an analytics expert, and literally within five minutes, I was back up and running.

One lesson here is that $50 can have an infinite ROI if you measure it against the cognitive load you accumulate from a small problem over the course of three weeks. The other is that unless you’re convinced you can help both quickly and completely, you should probably say no.

My initial contact is great in moving websites, cyber security, and speed issues – but he’s not the king of analytics. “No, I’m not the right person” would have been a huge favor. I’d have found someone else immediately.

Once people see us as reliable, we want to maintain that status. It is false, however, to assume we’ll only keep it if they can rely on us in any situation. Boundaries are helpful when established early and communicated clearly. “I’ll edit any text you send me, but don’t bother calling me when you move.”

“No” often feels like you’re letting someone down, but if you turn it into a sign that points them in the right direction, it can be a true act of service – and it’ll always beat a half-hearted “Yes.”

In Case of Emergency, Keep Calm

That’s what it says in the elevator, because it must be the first step. It is always the first step. Often, it is the only one. Keep calm.

When you oversleep, keep calm. When your power goes out, keep calm. When your boss calls, keep calm.

Everything feels like an emergency when we have a habit of panicking. But what are we panicking for? Is panic a requirement for our project’s success? Does it say “should panic more” in your performance review?

Panic and action share four letters. That’s why we associate the two. Actually, panic mostly keeps us in place. Calm is what resets the cycle when we receive new information, no matter how left-field it may be.

Breathe, accept, orient, choose, go.

And when the elevator gets stuck, you do it again.

Halfway Goals

This week, I’m playing a stupid amount of a racing game called Asphalt. Why? It’s Ferrari season.

I have loved Ferrari since I was five years old. More than two decades later, I’m still a long way from driving my own. I can, however, virtually test-drive all kinds of Ferraris — and that may be just as satisfying. It definitely feels good enough for today.

Sometimes, you need a halfway goal. A little milestone along the way.

The best thing about halfway goals is that they’ll feel halfway even if you’re a good distance from the 50%-marker. If I were to spend 200 € on owning a virtual Ferrari (or waste several dozen hours playing the game to get it), that’d still be 1000th the price of a real one. Would you spend 0.1% of your dream budget on gaining renewed inspiration to achieve it for a week, a month, or even a year? That could be a decent deal.

When you can’t travel the world, plan a local weekend trip as a reward for doing well this quarter. When you want to lose 20 pounds, buy a pretty blouse after you’ve lost five. And when you want to save six figures, take $100 and treat yourself after you’ve invested $10,000.

While halfway goals are fun to celebrate, they also provide a chance to check in with yourself: Why do you want to reach this goal? Is it still the same reason from when you started? Have you outgrown your destination on the journey, or does the finish line feel as meaningful as it did on day one? There’s no shame in letting go of goals that no longer serve you.

Even in those cases, halfway goals will be worth it. After all, they’ll now have to stand in for the real thing! You can’t achieve it all, and that’s okay. Thanks to your halfway goal, you’ll move the finish line closer, say farewell with a ritual, and be at peace with the steps you’ll never take.

For now, however, it’s still Ferrari season. The game isn’t over, and you have both real and virtual races to win. Now if you’ll excuse me — I think it’s time to play.

Impractical vs. Impossible

In Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Stephen Hawking outlined what it would take for humans to reach other planets, particularly inhabitable ones. With existing rocket technology — the chemical combustion of fuel — we can reach planets in our solar system in an acceptable time frame: from 130 to 260 days to get to Mars, for example. But what if Mars isn’t habitable? What if none of the planets in our close vicinity are?

In that case, we’d have to go to another solar system, a group of planets congregating around another star like the sun, the nearest of which is Alpha Centauri. Unfortunately, at a distance of 4.37 light years, with existing rocket tech, it’d take three million years — one-way. Therefore, we’ll need faster rockets, rockets nearing the speed of light.

“Nuclear fusion could provide 1 per cent of the spaceship’s mass energy, which would accelerate it to a tenth of the speed of light,” Hawking wrote. “Beyond that, we would need either matter–antimatter annihilation or some completely new form of energy. In fact, the distance to Alpha Centauri is so great that to reach it in a human lifetime, a spacecraft would have to carry fuel with roughly the mass of all the stars in the galaxy.”

And then, in a voice I can only imagine but that sounds so much like Hawking, he said: “In other words, with current technology, interstellar travel is utterly impractical.” Impractical. Talking about humans traveling to another solar system, a feat that’d require an absurd amount of fuel we don’t have, the kind of which we don’t even know exists, Hawking used the word “impractical.” Not impossible. Impractical. 

Meanwhile, we don’t believe there’s a chance in hell Stan from accounting will give us a callback.

Hawking’s relentless hope is a recurring theme throughout the book. “So far, so possible,” Hawking comments on a theoretical, highly complex laser-propulsion of only-centimeter-big, unmanned spacecrafts set to reach Mars in an hour and Alpha Centauri in 20 years. Another phrase he likes to use? “Turning science-fiction into science-fact.” 

If we used the word “impractical” wherever we now use the word “impossible,” we might actually find the guts to tackle our dreams — even if they’re nothing but castles in the sky. We might even dare to break down our lofty goals into tiny impractical pieces, and then turn fictions into facts one page at a time.

If a man confined to a wheelchair for 50 years and forced to communicate using only his cheek muscles can show that kind of optimism, who are we to use the word “can’t?”

Leaving the Elevator

You don’t have to say anything. “Good morning.” “Goodbye.” Both are optional. Why say farewell to someone you’ve barely met?

Maybe because “barely” means “scantily,” but scant is not zero. Some addition has happened, but will the sum be more than its parts? That’s up to you.

What if “barely” means “only just,” and you don’t yet know where that train is going? Well, you’re already on it! You may as well get to know your fellow passengers.

The best reason to say “Ciao,” however, is that your courageous step into uncertainty might make a stranger’s day. A pioneer rarely sees her work come to full fruition, but she trusts that it will – and we’re all the better for it.

Your Main Feature

When you buy a new TV, you buy it mostly for the screen. What distinguishes that screen from the others? Maybe it’s a curved one, the one with the highest-ever resolution, or the first one using OLED technology.

Whatever attribute you care about most, there’s a main feature – a feature that makes all the others mere add-ons. Sure, good sound and extra HDMI ports are nice, but you’d never upgrade your TV for those alone.

If someone contemplated whether to buy “a dose of you” and add it to their life, what would be the main feature? What’s the trait they’ll be intrigued (or turned off) by? The one that stands out above the others? It could be a past accomplishment, a skill, or your behavioral default – something you do more (and maybe better) than most of the people you know.

If you’re “the bestselling author of X,” that might get me to buy into you, but how long will it last? Like TV technology, your past success will become dated. You’ll have to do something new to stay in my living room.

If your main feature is a behavior, it better be a good one. “Patty? The one who always complains?” That’s not the kind of credibility you want.

The best main features are skills. Connection is a skill. Sometimes, it’ll look like yapping, ranting, or gossiping, but if the outcome is connection, each word will have been in service. Is the laughter annoying or genuine? Tune in, and you will see. Identifying main features isn’t much harder than watching TV.

Every main feature has its price. As best as I can tell, my main feature is to think. It means I am thoughtful – but also that I overthink. It’s all two-for-one deals when shopping for relationships.

One word I think a lot about lately is “noise.” Noise might be the worst main feature. There’s already so much of it. Noise in the literal sense: Do you think before you talk? Are you in meetings just to meet? But also noise in a figurative sense: Do you consume just to consume, both information and stuff? Will your reaching out benefit me, or is it just more noise in my already loud life?

What’s your main feature?

You are not a TV, of course. If you look in the mirror and don’t like your strongest suit, change it! Wear another one. Weave it if you have to. Building new habits, achievements, and skills takes time, but it doesn’t take forever.

There’s another way life’s different from the electronics store: The goal is not to sell out. It is to make your main feature one worth not discounting. You are priceless. Act like it.

Loosen the Belt

It sucks to be en route. The goal is the destination. But there is choice in how we arrive.

You can run a marathon in shoes below your size. It won’t make finishing feel any better, but it might prevent you from running the next one.

It hurts to realize you have a few pounds too many. Can’t the image in the mirror just…change? No, but you can loosen your belt. Let it out a notch, and get on with your diet.

Huffing and puffing won’t make the bike go faster. Breathe calmly, and arrive with something left to give.

The Curse Is in Your Head

The road sweeper is the bane of my existence. Who knew a golf-cart-sized vehicle with two rotating brushes could make as much noise as a Boeing?

I have woken up way too early many times thanks to the road sweeper. Today, one woke me up, and another passed me on the way to work. Then, he circled around and drove past me again. Sped ahead, did a loop…and passed me again.

Have you ever had a fly whizz around you just to taunt you? This felt the same. Until, after five minutes of “Really?” I had a different thought: “The curse is in your head.”

The road sweeper sweeps roads. That is his job. The city does not send him out to wake people, but some always will. A tree does not break up with its leaves when they turn brown. Gravity is what gets them.

You didn’t curse yourself on purpose, and yet, your head is where the curse resides. Can you unfurl your mind and find it? Open the window and let it out?

Stop wrapping your brain so tightly around external stressors. They don’t mean to stress you. Most likely, they don’t think about you at all. Can you do the same?

When you realize the curse is in your head, you take the first step towards healing. You might not be able to immediately clear the air, but at least you can start looking for the sun. Stop focusing on the noise, and you will notice the streets are clean – even early in the morning, and that’s a beautiful thing.