Are the Birds Still Singing?

As long as they are, everything will be okay. To see if the birds are still singing, you must first open the window. Poke your head out, breathe in some fresh air, and realize you’re not the only person left on planet earth.

At some other time, in some other place, someone else, too, forgot about the birds. They did not know what they would wake up to in the morning, or if the night would ever end at all. Alas, eventually, they found themselves at the window, and against all odds, curiosity got the better of them.

“Is that really the chirp of a sparrow? Or am I just imagining things? Let me double-check, just to be sure.” It is a matter of survival, this can’t-help-it impulse, and once the glass swings open, the entire world comes to our aid.

Where there are birds, there are trees, and with trees come dogs and, usually not far behind, people. Oh, it is quite busy, this place you felt must be abandoned, and while business does not always signify good, it does always hold the potential for it.

Leave the window open. Get more rest if you need it, but don’t shut out the song of infinite tomorrows – for today you might be silent, but on one of those tomorrows you’ll be the one singing.

Honesty Is Not Always the Best Policy

But it is always the honest policy.

Sometimes, honesty creates hurt, and sometimes, that hurt is created for no reason other than being honest.

The question is will you still choose honesty if it’s not to your benefit? What if it, in fact, may very well lead to your demise? Will you choose honesty to help others over helping yourself?

That’s the true conundrum behind honesty as a policy – it is not always the best one but always the right one, and sometimes, what’s right is very bad for us.

Is There a Reason to Be Angry?

999 out of 1,000 times, the answer is no. This goes both for happy and sad moments in life.

Towards the end of launching a storytelling course we’d made together, my friend Mike was exhausted. He was happy with the results, but the many moving parts of the project felt overwhelming, as they do for any first-time course creator. “It’s good, but yeah, I need a break,” he told me on the phone.

“It’s okay,” I said. “There is no reason to be angry.” He laughed, and I hope in that moment, a potentially tilting balance of happy-vs-sad settled back into the happy side of the spectrum where, after a big project ending successfully, it should be.

Mike is the one who taught me that phrase, of course. Sitting in his favorite patatas bravas bar in Barcelona two years ago, a bustling place with people and waiters rushing in and out as fried potatoes slid across the counter at a 30-second pace, he said he’d once asked the waiter how he’d remained so cheerful over the ten years Mike had been a regular at the restaurant. His answer? “There is no reason to be angry.”

Many people I know would be angry at even being a waiter, for they would assume the very reality of this job to indicate they are a failure. Of course, as Mike’s server friend proves, nothing could be further from the truth. The reason to be angry is a fabrication inside our heads.

Whether you teach the brightest minds of tomorrow or bring simple meals to hungry families, “good enough” is almost always available if you try to vote for that option. Perfection never lasts, but why cut your victory dances short on purpose? Similarly, even trying times can be what you need once you elect to show up for them and eat the elephant in the room one spoonful at a time.

Look around you. Celebrate the big things as they happen and the small things whenever the big things lie down the road. Take a break. Eat a Snickers. Step outside, or have some tea. Tip the waiter. Surprise your spouse. Remember you could be in a prison cell when you’re in a court room, and that the sun chose to shine for you when it didn’t have to.

There is no reason to be angry, and there rarely will be.

Just Keep Driving

When Marshall’s dad dies from a heart attack in How I Met Your Mother, Marshall and Ted retreat to the Eriksen home in Minnesota – one to grieve, the other to catch his breath from a fast-moving relationship. After a few weeks marked by obscene amounts of both video games and snacks, Marshall finally opens up. “I miss my dad, Ted. I miss him so much.”

Marshall explains that when he was a child, the family would spend the summers camping at a remote cabin, usually driving all night to get there. Sitting in the middle seat in the back, Marshall could never see anything in the pitch black beyond the headlights. “But I always felt so safe ’cause my dad was driving. He was like some sort of superhero who could just see way out into the darkness. Now he’s just gone. And it’s pitch black. And I can’t see where I’m going. I can’t see anything.”

Later in the episode, the pair realizes they have to go home and face their messy realities. Since there’s a massive snow storm and thus no flights, they end up driving through the night with Marshall at the wheel. As he squints and stares into the darkness, trying to see where he’s going, his father appears in the back seat. “Here’s a secret,” he says. “I couldn’t see worth a damn, either, buddy. I just kept driving forward, hoping for the best.”

Sometimes, we march ahead for so long, we forget why we’re marching. These are times to pull over, have a sandwich, and recalibrate your navigation system.

Sometimes, however, life gets so dark and foggy, you won’t see anything. You’ll have no idea where you’re going. In those moments, all you can do is keep driving – and hope for the best.

Even in complete darkness, don’t lose faith completely. All roads lead somewhere, including the ones you don’t know. You might not end up at the right place, but you’ll still sit behind a steering wheel. You can always turn the car around and try a new direction. Sooner or later, the sun will come up, and the clouds will disappear.

Until then, just keep driving. It’s what billions before you have done, most of whom eventually reached their final destination.

Who Can Help With What?

When you’re lost in a sea of problems, that is the question. I used to just sit in my boat, trying to calm the waves with my thoughts. Usually, it’d end in shipwreck. After days of frantic deliberation, my tiny dinghy would crack, and I’d be washed ashore, delirious from all the circular thinking. Meanwhile, my sadness and frustration would remain intact, so whichever kind villager I’d meet first on my deserted island, I’d just yell at them for failing to provide the help I never asked for.

Nowadays, at least in a good crisis (the irony), I’ll stop clutching my knees after a day and a half, take out my phone, and call for help – not from the cost guard but from my friends. I’ll think about the theme or core of each issue at hand and ask: “Who seems well-equipped to answer this?” An “answer,” by the way, need not be a solution. It’s enough if it’s an idea that starts a discussion. Instead of banging my head against the wall, I’ll talk through the problem over ice cream, and that alone is often enough to make me feel better.

Most of the time, my friends don’t offer band-aid style solutions, and most of the time, they don’t have to because eventually, the problem disappears. One way or another, time re- or dissolves everything. In the moment, it’s rarely about finding the perfect way forward. It’s about finding a way forward, ideally one without hyperventilating.

You can curse the sea for doing what the sea has always done, or you can call your mates, fix the ropes, and wait for the storm to pass. The sea will be here tomorrow either way, but your ship needn’t wreck when you have a crew ready to hold the barge together.

Remember to Take Off Your Glasses

A feminist writes a book about burnout, and suddenly, the book is only for women, and it’s the patriarchy’s fault. You don’t need to don a PhD, which, in this case, she does, to understand what’s going on here: Someone forgot to take off their glasses, and it short-shifts their contribution.

Now, even if the science is sound, the methods helpful to humans of all kinds, the circle of trust has been broken – and it’ll take a long time to repair it.

Remember to take off your glasses. Your shades being blue does not make the sunlight green.

Stressors Wanted

The question is which kind when? Developing an electric helicopter taxi is a complex, multi-year stressor. Chances are, you’ll have to solve other, lighter problems in between.

Tweeting is easier than writing, playing video games easier than coding. Sometimes, a dose of more trivial stress is exactly what you need. You get to resolve a challenge, and your reward will be the conversion of chemicals in your body that leads to relaxation which, in turn, may spark the creativity you need to address the elephant still sitting in the room.

Whether you take bites out of this elephant with video games, exercise, or meditation doesn’t matter, although exercise is the oldest and most proven form of playing a different stress game. The task is to realize when mounting stress in one arena starts to feel like a crushing wave so you can drop your weapons, leave, and build sandcastles on a different playground for a while.

Choose hard problems, but when you get stuck, solve whatever you can get your hands on. We need you rested and ready for the next round.

Relief Through Reflection

There are many ways to handle stress, but few of them actually handle it. Most are distractions, and while those too serve a purpose – they allow your subconscious to gnaw at the problem – it is in moments of clarity that stress truly vanishes.

That clarity is brought on by reflection, and it rarely helps to reflect while inebriated. “Write drunk, edit sober” may have worked for Hemingway’s novels, but to decide whether you should switch jobs, break up, or have children? You might want to have your head on straight for those.

Reflection, too, can happen in many ways, and you need only one that works for you, although more glasses through which you can see properly don’t hurt. Some problems you might want to talk through with friends, others you’ll want a more distanced professional’s eye on.

Regular, individual reflection, however, can be a habit that acts like a valve: Every time you sit down to journal, you let out some steam. Relief becomes routine. I cannot recommend this enough.

For one, you’ll get better at reflecting. You can’t summon master thinking skills right when your child gets expelled from school. You’ll already need to have them. For another, it provides reassurance that relief is always coming. Even if shit hits the fan in a big way, you’ll know some reprieve lies ahead, and you’ll be familiar enough with the feeling of a big wave of it washing over you that you’ll trust the wave will eventually come, as it always does – especially given you’ll keep reflecting.

Reflection differs from coping in that coping keeps you in place, whereas reflection inches you forward. Sometimes, the difference is so tiny we can barely notice it, and in those times, it’s easy to choose more coping instead of more reflection.

Once you get too comfortable with taking painkillers after banging your head against the wall, however, painkillers will be the only solution you know. You’ll no longer see the small cracks forming in the wall, and you’ll become a keeper of your obstacle rather than its destroyer.

There’s a reason what we see on the surface of water is called “reflection:” Reflection makes us adaptable. Like water, we can use it to flow around obstacles, to slip right through them, or even crush them with sheer force if we have to.

And what happens when water is done? It rests. No matter whether it slowly crawls to a stop at the edge of the beach or finds perfect stillness in a glass, once water has adapted to its surroundings, it finds relief – and so will we if we choose to wield the power of reflection.

Fate Is a Conversation

There’s a time to listen and a time to speak. You have to know when is which.

Usually, we are busy speaking through our actions. “Look fate, this is what I want! Here, I’m doing all this stuff to get there! Will you help?” Fate aspires to be a kind fellow, and so if he sees us working hard towards something, generally, he’ll not only get out of the way, he’ll sweep a little, like the players in curling hoping to ease a rock’s path to its destination.

When we get too carried away, however, we forget listening altogether. Every time it’s fate’s turn to speak, we just keep blubbering. If this goes on for too long, fate gets angry – like anyone would. He might have to hit us over the head to make us stop and look up. “Hey! Listen, you idiot! You’re not paying attention. You’re chasing the wrong thing!”

Blows of fate rarely hurt for what they are; they hurt because we didn’t see them coming. But often we could have, if only we’d stopped to listen.

It’s not easy to put down your shovel when you can sense the gold is just inches away, but sometimes, feeling the wind on your face is more important, because if fate is the one blowing it your way, there’s a good chance he dropped an important message on its wings.

Fate may be a conversation, but the best managers tend to speak the least in their meetings. If you want to bring out the best in your ally named Destiny, keep your eyes up, your heart open, and mind your turn.

Inertia Is Better Than Waste

When I look at a $12 pack of cereal sitting in the corner of an office loaded with gadgets, an office in which people are building a software that does exactly the same thing as its three next-biggest competitors, except slightly cheaper, I can’t help but wonder: Do we need all this momentum?

Is this making anyone better, happier, or even just different? The customers? The employees? The investors? Or would the world still turn if all of this effort collapsed into inertia by tomorrow?

Doing solves everything, but most things don’t need to be solved. Inertia is preferable to waste until you’re certain your effort won’t be wasted. Hold out for that certainty. It can be painful and trying at times, but it’s a whole lot better than spending someone else’s $12 on cereal no one will eat.