The Never-Ending Lesson of Pacing

Every day, I go for a walk. Usually, it’s a casual one. It takes some 30-40 minutes. Yesterday, I was back after 20. The sun was shining, the breeze was soft. Immediately, I felt like running. I took a few paces, then slowed down again. “Pacing, pacing!” It’s hard to not go fast when you feel like you can.

There’s a big staircase along my walk. It’s about 100 steps. I wanted to sprint up, but I decided to try and keep a steady pace. I put on some music and counted the beats. 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. Then, I took one step after the other. I marched up the stairs.

I could feel my pacing working. My heart settled into a beat. The exertion was steady, but I wasn’t overclocking. “Ahh, this is a pace I can keep.” Somehow, I must have lost that pace afterwards, for I was still home much quicker than usual, but the intention was there.

Earlier this week, something similar happened: I was on a roll at work. I wrote several blog posts and book chapters and just crushed my long to-do list overall. There was only one problem: The next day, I barely did anything. I was exhausted. In Effortless, Greg McKeown suggests the following: “Do not do more today than you can completely recover from today. Do not do more this week than you can completely recover from this week.” It’s a great idea but hard to do.

Pacing is a lesson we have to learn endlessly, like a song that’s on repeat forever. Why? Because even if we fall into the perfect rhythm in one area of life, we’ll likely skip too fast or miss a beat somewhere else. Our work flows smoothly, but we neglect our health for it. We sacrifice family time to exercise more, and so on.

Let’s say you do pull off the miracle of keeping your health, work, me-time, and relationship trains all going at the same speed. What happens next? One of them derails. A relative dies. You need surgery. Boom. Zero beats per minute. One of the trains has stopped dead. Well, that’s life! You’re gonna have to restart it.

Whether it’s your optimism carrying you away or a necessary reaction to what happens, your pacing will never be perfect. It’s a habit you’ll have to work on every day for the rest of your life.

That’s a big task, but it needn’t be daunting – because what pacing also means is focusing on your very next step. You’re not looking for the move eight beats out. You want to find your pace today, and to do that, it’s usually enough to start with a walk around town.

Moments in the Sun

There’s a big square outside our house. This morning, a crow strutted around like she owned the place. For a solid minute and a half, she walked from the edge of the square to its center, inspected a parked RV, and even paraded the sidewalk end to end. “Look at me! This is my kingdom. I can fly, but I choose to walk – and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

An old German saying is that “when the cat leaves the house, the mice dance on the table.” In the animal world, it really is about danger. What better time to examine a wide open area than when no predator seems around? The most obvious human equivalent is the teenager throwing a party when their parents aren’t home. There are, however, more evolved versions of this behavior.

When my friend handed in his thesis, for about a week or so, there was no stopping him. He’d walk down the street like a football team mascot, 120% smiles. It’s the explosive cocktail of relief and newfound confidence, and we get to order it whenever we ship a big thing, sign a big deal, or turn a hard corner.

Unlike the crow’s moment in the sun, my friend’s swagger stint was earned. He didn’t celebrate his advisor being on vacation. He worked for his endorphins – and he should get to enjoy every last one of them.

How often do we both feel and act like the successful people we, deep down, actually are? Those times are far and few between, but they provide us with much needed energy and courage for the next six-month slog of “nothing works until it does.”

There is nothing sadder and perhaps more damaging than such a spark-spangled moment in the spotlight ending too soon – and yet we’ve all been the downer friend that can’t help but quip: “Well, now the serious part begins! Good luck finding a job!”

There’s a time to point out problems and a time to keep your mouth shut. Post-achievement glow is the latter. Let your friends enjoy their restorative minutes in the sun. They’ll rejoin you in the dip soon enough.

Eventually, the crow took off from the sidewalk. She had to get back to the business of being a crow. Whether it’s your own celebrations or the ones of those you love, don’t blow out the candles too early. We’ll seek new heights in due time, and since we didn’t just steal our spotlight, we’ll soar higher than the phony crow ever will.

How To Get Hugs When You Need Them

Every grown man should have a large stuffed animal. Mine is a shark. I named him Chester, after my friend who used to sing for me. I just gave Chester a hug. In fact, nowadays, I do it every morning.

You see, Chester guards the other half of the bed. Whenever my girlfriend isn’t here, he makes sure everything stays as it is. In the meantime, he supports me with free hugs.

When I was a teenager, I saw a documentary about “The Scary Guy.” Scary is mostly frightening in appearance: Tattooed and pierced from top to bottom, he looks like a Hells Angels VIP member. Actually, he’s more of a teddy bear, and for over 25 years, he’s been a speaker going up against hate, violence, and bullying, particularly at high schools.

I’ll never forget the scene with Toby. According to science, Scary explains, each human being needs 16 hugs a day in order to go to bed on a normal, healthy emotional level. “Wow! I wonder how many normal people are on this planet,” Scary says.

After waiting for his 16 hugs a day and getting only three in six months, Scary decided to go out and get his 16 hugs a day. Then, he shows Toby how two boys can hug in the hallway without everyone pointing at them and whispering that they must be gay.

That’s the reason I said “every grown man” in the beginning: Of course every woman and, in fact, every grown adult should have a fluffy buddy of their choosing. It is especially for men, however, that hugging a furry panda might be considered weird. Imagine walking into a 30-year-old woman’s apartment and seeing a large stuffed dolphin on the couch. “How cute,” you might say. Replace the woman with a man, and you can see how easily “How cute” might become “How weird.”

Men commit most violent crimes. Men are the ones shooting up schools. Men are more prone to suicide. At the same time, men are less likely to show public displays of affection. Men constantly worry about both looking and actually being strong, and men are, unfortunately, quick to mock other men when they aren’t. I don’t know exactly how, but I’m sure all of this connects.

I don’t think the science Scary quoted actually exists, but I don’t need a study to know we need more hugs. In a nice trend among at least my group of friends, the men have started hugging each other more frequently in recent years. We’re not quite at 16 a day, but we’re moving in the right direction. Scary would be proud.

Until we get there, Chester will be happy to keep subbing in. No matter your gender, age, or profession, I highly recommend you secure a quiet yet fluffy friend. That way, you’ll always get your hugs when you need them – and it’ll never be too late for the saving grace of an honest embrace.

Living vs. Living For

“Realise the fact that you simply ‘live’ and not ‘live for.'” That’s one of Bruce Lee’s many Striking Thoughts.

To live for is to compress the vastness of life into a small, one-, maybe two-dimensional box. It is an act of contortion in which we try to steer the river of life, use force to bend it to our will. Usually, the river reacts by becoming a raging torrent. Whatever flimsy, three-garden-hoses-tied-together construction we’ve built slips from our hands, and by the end of it, all we have to show for is a wet face.

Living, on the other hand, is simple. It happens every day, whether we plan it or not, direct our actions or not, run around stressed or not. Living is what happens when we are engaged, when we are in life rather than thinking about life, somehow hoping to design it to fix the past or guarantee the future.

The Stoics believed that logos, an invisible yet material, ever-present, all-penetrating force guided life, and that this force was driven by reason, goodness, and meaning. I like to think of it as “the lifestream,” a similar power described in Final Fantasy VII.

Given there was a larger plan in place, a plan headed towards better despite all of life’s problems, the Stoics thought we could either go along with the plan or resist it, but eventually, the plan would unfold either way. The image they used was a dog tied to a moving cart: The dog can choose to walk next to the cart and match its pace, or it can refuse and be dragged forward anyway. Whether we believe in destiny or not, life serves us what it serves. We can either accept it or reject it, but today’s dinner won’t change.

Living for is the stubborn child sitting on the ground: It’ll only hurt its bum when the cart of life moves on. True living is flowing, going with life wherever it may lead us, and the more we can do that – enjoy what’s in front of us and adapt as best as we can – the happier we’ll be.

Take a break from living for. If only for a day, just live. Feel the power of the logos. Let the lifestream guide you. Who knows? You might find a new way to spend your limited time on this earth.

What the Box Wants You to Do

In our house, we have one of those decorative letter boxes on which you can put any message. My mom always updates it for various holidays, and sometimes just for fun. One day, I walked into the living room, and it said: “Think outside the box.”

Immediately, I looked at everything around the box. The plants on the window sill. The window itself. Our dining table. It was almost as good of a call to action as it was a clever turn of phrase. “Huh,” I thought, “even the box wants me to think outside of it.”

Life is like that, you know? It wants you to win, and it wants you to do it creatively. That’s why it puts all the pieces right in front of you. The creating, however, that’s your responsibility.

Before the Egyptians built the pyramids, they were staring at a bunch of sticks and stones. Nature must have felt like a quiz show host who desperately wants to help but can’t. “Come on! It’s all right there! My hands are tied. Figure it out already!” Eventually, they put the stones on the sticks, and through that and a whole host of subsequent, more advanced techniques (many of which are still lost to us today), they did figure it out.

The box doesn’t want you to be in it. It takes no pride in keeping you in the dark. The box is cheering very hard for you.

Look at everything in front of you. What did life put on display, and why did it choose all those people and events at this very moment? There is a sense to the totality of everything in your life at all times, but the only way to see it is to step outside the box.

Sometimes, you’ll only need to take a few steps to find the right angle from which to glance at the box, and all of its puzzle pieces will fall into place. Sometimes, you’ll have to venture far, far away to a very high vantage point, and sometimes, you’ll have to abandon the box altogether because life has another one in store for you somewhere else.

Life is not set on making you its prisoner. The doors are always open. Step outside, and then keep shaking, analyzing, playing with the box. Make the quiz master proud.

The 50% Rule of Relationships

In every relationship you have, you own 50% of the responsibility. Not one percent more, not one percent less. This percentage is fixed. It never changes. Never.

If you approach every connection in your life this way, you’ll judge the people you love a lot less – but you’ll also stop blaming yourself for the full extent of whatever goes wrong.

When responsibility is split 50-50 for everything that happens, the question “Whose fault was this?” disappears. Instead, you’ll ask a better one: “What’s my 50%?”

If your partner doesn’t live up to their share of household chores, which behavior of yours might be enabling this pattern? Are they doing it on purpose because they’re angry about something else? Do they simply not know it bothers you? Or could it be a symptom of a much deeper, long-standing childhood trauma?

When you look for your 50%, there’ll always be a mountain of issues you are responsible for and can work on; a mountain so big it’ll make focusing on your partner’s (or friend’s, or boss’s, or parent’s) pile seem petty and vindictive – an act of chosen helplessness.

Problems come in various shapes and sizes, but when you agree that each one consists of half your and another person’s parts, the way forward no longer lies in a tennis game of deflection. “Who should fix it?” becomes “Why is this part here and that part there, and which ones do we need to remove or replace to get this thing going?”

The 50% rule may not always reflect reality, yet it is still the most realistic rule of all – the psychological, inter-human equivalent of Netwon’s third law of motion: “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”

Even when we feel responsibility is split unevenly, due to our biased little brains, we can only ever comprehend a small fraction of the full picture, and that fraction is never big enough to draw accurate conclusions about who’s to blame for what. What we do know is that for every drop of fuel we pour on a fire, anyone else who feels the heat will throw in one too. The reaction may not always come in the same form, but it will always be opposed and, in the long run, of equal importance to the issue at hand.

Let’s say you miss an event that’s important to your spouse. Whatever they feel about this situation, it’ll affect what they do next. They might sulk for a bit before telling you they feel hurt. They could retaliate by not picking you up from work. Even if they say it’s not a big deal and take it well, the pain might fester and bubble back to the surface later on.

It’s impossible to measure the full impact of this occurrence, but the fact that it has an impact is certain, and that impact could potentially stretch out into infinity. When will it reappear? You’ll never know – but it might and probably will – and that’s what makes the 50% rule our best bet for treating others fairly and with kindness.

In lieu of the exact, objective truth, the 50% rule allows us to move our relationships forward, stay focused on what we can do, and make peace with our actions and the behavior of others. It is a way of maintaining our balance and evening the scoreboard…to zero, because relationships are not a competition but a cooperation.

Sometimes, you need to trust in the view before you climb the mountain. Will it still be worth it when you get there? This conundrum is the essence of life. Own up to and then own your 50%. That’s how you’ll find peace, fairness, and optimism in all your relationships – because responsibility is freedom, but in order to feel it, we first have to accept it.

The Hierarchy of Personal Powers

In his book Escape Velocity, Geoffrey Moore outlines five kinds of power big corporations must keep replenishing if they want to stay in business. In order of importance, they are:

  1. Category Power: Are you in industries that are naturally growing a lot right now?
  2. Company Power: How strong are you vs. your competitors? Are you the team to beat?
  3. Market Power: Which customer segments are you going after, and are you winning them?
  4. Offer Power: How differentiated are your flagship offers? Do others struggle to catch up?
  5. Execution Power: How good are you at driving change in all of the above?

In an accompanying talk from 2011, Moore names Apple as the golden example. Having just launched the iPad, they were in mobility, music, and media, all fast-growing markets. Competing smartphone and computer manufacturers all looked to Apple for what’s next. They had so much market power, people queued in front of their stores at midnight to get an iPhone in a new color, and their integrated ecosystem with the App Store, iTunes, and more made it hard to catch up in providing a similar offering. Finally, they had done all this in less than a decade.

Now, I’m not a multi-national company, but as I was thinking about how to apply this to my small business, I realized: To some extent, Moore’s hierarchy also applies at the personal level.

When I started freelancing, I offered translations. No one wanted translations, because even back then, computers were already doing a good enough job in most cases. Translations is a dying market, but content marketing? That was a rocket ship headed to the stars. By switching categories alone, I got more customers, more money, more relevant experience, and so on.

For Company (or Individual) Power, if you perform a certain service well, you’ll become people’s go-to reference. Just think about the one electrician in your neighborhood you know will get the job done. That’s company power. It’s Nike on a much smaller scale.

Part of unlocking your Individual Power resides in your Market Power: Choose to go small and specific, and it’ll be easier for people to self-select into working with you. Imagine a real estate agent who only works with people under 30. It’s a unique challenge, given those people tend to have less money than older folks – but if you pay attention, you’ll learn every nuance of what those people need, and they’ll come to you in droves.

Your Offer Power is another chance to niche down and/or think outside the box. If Four Minute Books were to offer the same text and audio book summaries in an app that every other player also has, we wouldn’t stand out. But what if we did video only? What if we made the service free and monetized otherwise? What if we did customized learning journeys for the individual? And so on.

Finally, Execution Power at the personal level is about productivity. Can you focus? Are you working on one coherent vision of power? Or is it all fragmented bits and bobs? One product here, another service over there, and none of them relate to each other. Are you wasting time on email, social media, and other looks-like-work-but-isn’t activities? Or can you set relevant targets and pull them off?

The kicker, I think, is that the hierarchy of personal powers extends well beyond the economic realm. What about charity work? What about your relationships? Why do people confide in you? Who are you most suited to help? If you dig a little, you’ll find a plethora of questions that’ll help you increase your personal power.

Power is not a bad thing – unless you think about using it for the wrong ends. Crushing the world in your palm? That’s not a good use of power. Drawing people into your world of help, love, and happiness, however? That’s the kind of magnetic power every one of us could use more of.

It’s a noble goal to have noble goals, but to achieve them, first, you’ll need power. Don’t be afraid to build what you need to do good in this world.

Three Times to Perform

The first time you walk into new terrain, your senses can barely process the flood of information. “Look, a high-rise building! Listen, a new kind of bird! Smell the donuts from this shop?” Your brain is so busy staying on focused on your destination, it’ll shut most “commit-to-short-term-memory” functions down.

That’s why, the second time you walk around the same area, everything looks vaguely familiar yet “not quite right.” “Haven’t I been here before? Isn’t there an oak over there?” You’ll be happy to discover that here and there, your intuitive orientation will be right. Most of the time, however, it won’t be – but your mind is starting to get the joke. “Oh, looks like I’ll need to remember this. Let’s get to work!”

The third time you visit the same place, your brain still won’t ace the memory test, but it’ll be excited to take it. “This is where the donut shop is. I know the high-rise building is just up ahead.” If you close your eyes and try to visualize, almost “feel” your way around, you’ll recall large chunks of information and notice a new emotion: For the first time, you’ll feel at home. Familiar. A part of the world around you rather than just a particle passing through.

There’s a reason the “third time’s the charm:” Our minds require assimilation to hit their stride, and assimilation takes time. That applies to feeling comfortable in a new city, flat, or office as much as it does to finding a groove with new people, projects, and habits.

When you can’t retrieve 100% of your performance immediately, don’t worry. What in your environment has changed? Maybe, you’ve just wandered into unfamiliar terrain. Accident or not, give your brain time to gather its skills. Try once, twice, and by the third time, the only question you’ll have is why you didn’t make this wonderful trip before.

The Uber Trader

Stuck in London rush hour traffic, I noticed my driver tapping around on his windshield-mounted phone. “Is that Trading212?” He confirmed, and we started talking about stocks. By the time I got out of the car, he had told me his entire strategy for making intraday trades, which stocks had done well for him recently, and how he’d run up his stack to £10,000, then lost half on a single trade.

The most fascinating thing, however? He did it all on his phone while chauffeuring people around. “The Uber trader,” I thought. Not because he was so good, but because he managed to do two jobs at the same time, both of which would have been much harder to do – or simply unaccessible to him altogether – just a few short years ago.

Cab drivers in the UK must pass “The Knowledge,” an insanely detailed test of your memory of London’s streets, which takes most students “three to four years” to learn. Not exactly a job you can pick up tomorrow. Before Google Maps, however, knowing the streets was the only way. Good luck fiddling with a paper map while your client is late for her meeting.

More specifically, you need mobile access to Google Maps. A laptop wouldn’t do you any good either. You need high-speed internet on a small device you can keep in your periphery at all times, and then you need said internet to bring you accurate, real-time information about where you’re trying to go.

You also need permission to transport people from A to B, a privilege Uber has brought to millions of people who were barred from cabbing for some red tape excuse or other petty reason.

And then? Then you need the same kind of enabling technology and access again, this time to the global financial markets – all of which we have.

What a remarkable world we live in. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. We’ll never be perfect, and we’ll always have problems, but a civilization that conjures this kind of progress in such a short time can’t be all bad apples.

I guess my driver was “The Uber trader” after all – because even more so than the ride-sharing company, his stocks app, or his performance, the label alone tells us we live in times where the impossible becomes reality every day.

Inspiration vs. Accountability

I spent most of my 20s in college libraries. From Mannheim to Karlsruhe and from Boston to Munich, I have “librated” all over the place.

In the beginning, it was essential. There were many of us trying to survive our first semester, and the only way we’d be able to do it was together. Pool our brains, meet at the library, and then study, study, study. I think we all felt a sense of camaraderie and duty, and it was a big relief to know we weren’t struggling alone.

When I first started working for myself, the need for money drove me into all kinds of odd jobs – most of which I tackled in the library. Now, sitting among students had a different feel to it: It was me vs. them, the worker vs. the thinkers, the pragmatist vs. the theorists, and I wanted “to win.” There was nothing to win, of course, except financial survival, but the smugness of “I’m putting in the same time as you, but I’m making money, and you’re not” definitely helped me get through the first, mostly fruitless years, even if I never voiced it outright.

During my Masters, I did both, work and study, and so, once again, I landed in the library. Now I could pick either accountability or inspiration, whichever one I needed at any given hour. I’d take pride in the fact that I was earning money with what I was doing in the morning, then try to memorize leadership models from a bunch of ugly slides in the afternoon, like everyone else.

It’s been a few years since I’ve left behind the comfy confines of the library, and I have to say: The closer I get to defining my mission in the life, and the better I understand my purpose, the less accountability I need, and the more inspiration I feel.

In fact, I’ve reached a stage where being surrounded by other busy bees seems to hinder me more than it helps. It mainly feels like noise. I don’t need a visual guilt trip anymore. “Look! These people are all slaving away too! Never mind whether they enjoy it. Just do your work!”

When your accountability lies with an audience or group of customers, you no longer serve the master of “productivity for productivity’s sake.” There are real, human reasons to do the best you can do, and if those reasons don’t suffice, you’re in the wrong line of work.

Inspiration is a much better source of work energy than accountability via “you’re not working hard enough” reminders. The former is self-sustaining. Intrinsic. It flows from the inside to the outside. Therefore, it allows you to be productive wherever you go, ideally in a space you’ve designed; a place that directs, amplifies, and reinforces your natural inspiration rather than crush it with the distracting screams of “see what the rest of the world is doing, and by the way, most of them are unhappy.”

When you’re inspired, you don’t need to go to WeWork. Your mission is just as important to do from home. You don’t need to feel like a cog in the big industrial, consumerism-oriented machine. You can look out the window, think of the people you’re serving, and get back to work. This isn’t to say libraries, co-working spaces, and open floor offices are inherently bad – it is to say that you’ve hit your stride when you no longer need to rely on any of them to get things done.

Inspiration is the carrot to accountability’s stick, but it’s a carrot that, once you’ve eaten it whole, you’ll never have to eat it again. You’ll just keep going regardless.

Few of us start out inspired. If you’ve wanted to be a director since you were eight years old and became one at 13, more power to you. For the rest of us, it’s fine to start out at the library. Begin with accountability, but never stop looking for inspiration. Find your perpetual motion machine, and show us your truest, bestest work.