Make Sleep Your Priority

It took me 12 years and about 10 flats, rooms, and other sleep-damaging living situations to learn this lesson. The chain of causality is simple: If you don’t sleep, you won’t be healthy, and if you’re not healthy, you can’t do anything, least of all enjoy it.

Now, I can’t speak for the people deliberately going out of their way to avoid sleep because I don’t really know what that’s like. Besides the odd stretch of waking up early here and there, I’ve never been able to resist a good snooze, and although I’m not a nap man, I do try my best to get 7-8 hours every night, which seems to be ideal for me.

If you don’t sleep because you can’t, however, that’s a different story. Maybe you’re a light sleeper like me. Maybe you have sleep apnea or another condition. Whatever it is, address it, and do it sooner rather than later.

The older I get, the more I realize how unconducive big cities are to sleep and, frankly, happiness as a whole. The main thing humans do when they get together is make noise.

I’ve lived in flats where neighbors were yelling, flats where people rearranged furniture at odd hours, flats where drunks sang football anthems on the street, flats where people watched TV on full blast at 2 AM, and flats where my neighbor left town for two weeks without turning off his 6 AM alarm.

I have also lived in flats where the snow plow came on at 5 AM every morning, flats where I could hear sirens over 30 times a day, flats where the wind caused a nearby crane to make a horrific alarm sound for two hours straight, flats in front of which people preferred to show off how loud their exhaust system could get, and flats where construction noises where so ever-present, you felt as if you lived on the site itself.

It is either people making noises or people operating (or mis-operating) machines that make noises, and given the great variety of places and locations I have lived in, I now must come to the sad conclusion: It is never the flat that’s the problem – it is the fact that you live in a place where noise is the norm.

I’m sure there are some quiet places, even in a town like Munich, and I swear I’ll try my best to find one. But overall, the main rule for how much quiet you’ll get seems to be how far you can get away from the city center.

Case in point: My parents’ house is in a village of 1,400 souls – and it is sleep heaven. Who knew that putting 1,000 feet between you and every neighbor would help so much? That and the fact that, in a village, people actually sleep at night. When I go there, almost without fail, I wake up to the birds singing after a deep slumber.

I guess I’m just getting old. Then again, even as a 20-year-old I didn’t love it. All the mingling and clubbing and wasting the day away in favor of exploring the city at night. I had more important things to do, and I’m pretty sure you do too.

Sleep is more important than money. If you have to spend more on a place that allows you sleep better, do it. How rested you are before you go to work each day will directly affect how much money you can make. It is much easier to earn the extra money and then some when you’re well-rested than it is to cope with any meaningful workload while sleep-deprived.

Sleep is more important than work. If your boss is making you lose hours, you should probably lose your boss. Any boss in their right mind will tell you to get exactly as much sleep as you need to function at your best. No more, no less. Again: Without proper sleep, you can’t do proper work. That’s the only argument anyone should ever need.

Sleep is more important than making everyone happy. The temptation to stay up to meet this person or that one, to play one more game, to hang with your roommates will always be there, but none of them are worth it the next morning. In fact, when your sleep is impaired, you’ll start resenting them. If you need to cut a bunch of cords to get your sleep life in order, do it. You won’t regret it in the long run.

Sleep is your most important habit. Do yourself a favor and treat it with the respect it deserves.

Slow Down to Speed Up

On a particularly busy day, piano tuner Thomas Sterner decided that, since he couldn’t get a day off, he would at least go slowly. Just for the day. When he arrived at the concert hall, he walked to the grand piano slowly. He took his tools out slowly. He even tuned every string with deliberate slowness.

“Trying to work slowly creates funny feelings,” Sterner wrote about the experience. Your inner voice screams at you to speed up. Anxiety builds around all the work that lies ahead. “That is because working slowly goes against every thought system in today’s world.”

Unsurprisingly then, at first, Sterner struggled to slow down. “We spend so much time rushing everything we do. Rushing had become so much of a habit that I was amazed at the amount of concentration it took to work slowly on purpose.” He had to take off his watch and focus intensely on each small task.

By his second piano of the day, however, Sterner noticed a shift in his inner state. “No nervous stomach, no anticipation of getting through the day, and no tight muscles in my shoulders and neck. Just this relaxed, peaceful, what-a-nice-day-it-is feeling.” “Blissful,” he even called it.

As it turned out, “anything you can do in a rushed state is surprisingly easy when you deliberately slow it down.” When you’re not frantic about finishing, you can gift yourself the time you need to complete any challenge – no matter how daunting – by simply taking it one step at a time.

The ultimate revelation, however, came when Sterner finished work on the second piano. He wrapped up his tools one by one. He walked to the parking lot slowly. He returned to his truck, and when its clock came on, he was dumbfounded: “I had cut over 40 percent off the usual time.”

Sterner could not think of any logical explanation, except perhaps the special forces mantra that “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” Still, the time savings felt extreme, especially given Sterner was doing a job he had done for many years. Needless to say, he no longer bothered trying to speed up.

“When you work slowly, things become simpler. If you want to simplify something, break it down into small parts and work more slowly at each part.”

When we work slowly, a whole host of negative self-talk disappears. Your inner critic needn’t remind you that “you’re not good enough” or harass you to go faster. No. You’ve decided: You’re doing the work slowly, and you’re doing it right. It’ll take how long it takes, but both while working at it and once you’re done, you’ll feel good about it. Chances are, you’ll also do each task just once, and you might save a whole bunch of time in the process.

Who knew? The easiest way to accomplish your goals faster just might be to slow down. It’s true that if you drive half as fast, you’ll still get there on time – but apparently, you might even reach your destination with plenty to spare.

Teleportation Without Flying

If I gave you the choice between flying or teleportation as your superpower, which one would you choose?

Flying has been a fan-favorite for decades, but teleportation does seem to one-up even Superman. I mean, why fly for hours if you can just zippity-zoom anywhere in the world? Compared with teleportation, flying feels like hard work.

But you know what’s funny? Without the skill of flying, the ability to teleport is not all that helpful. In fact, it is probably dangerous. You miss your destination by two stories, and you’re toast.

The real problem is that, when considering this choice, we imagine teleportation to include flying as a free bonus. After all, that’s how all the superheroes are portrayed, no? Dr. Manhattan can do both. The Ancient One can do both. So can Black Adam, Shazam, Darkseid, Apocalypse, and a whole barrage of other heroes and villains just pop up wherever they want to, then chill in mid-air. But that’s not the choice we were offered, is it?

In the movie Jumper, Hayden Christensen demonstrates what a life with just teleportation could look like. Still awesome, sure, but very different from what you might have had in your head, and definitely very dangerous.

The point is that in life, we often want to teleport before we can fly. We want the big reward, the big stage, the big opportunity. In reality, we would fail miserably if we got it because we’re not ready.

What good is a fast car if you’ve barely driven a slow one (or don’t even possess one at all?) Would you really crush the presentation in front of senior management, or would you just wet yourself because you’re out of your depth? If you now have 1,000 followers, you wouldn’t know how to handle 1,000,000 if they appeared on your account overnight.

Even Superman had to learn flying. It takes effort, and he must navigate well not to crash. But with every next flight, he is earning that power, and if one day, he can teleport, he’ll be prepared.

There’s an apocryphal story about Google’s founders, saying they were never worried about their early user numbers. If you were not using their search engine today, you’d have the chance to use a better version of it tomorrow.

“I will be better tomorrow.” That’s the spirit! After all, what good is arriving at the top of a mountain if all you’ll do is fall right off it? With “I’ll be better tomorrow,” you’ll need neither flying nor teleportation – but should you ever be lucky enough to attain them, I’m sure you’ll be ready.

Good Is More Important Than Great

It takes Sherlock Holmes a long time to warm up to Dr. Watson as more than an accessory, but eventually, the two form a deep friendship.

Initially, Holmes barely uses Watson as a sounding board, for there is nothing the latter could tell him that he doesn’t already know. Eventually, however, he realizes Watson has traits to offer that go beyond mere perception and assembling a chain of undeniable logic. Watson is loyal to a fault, never refuses help when it is needed, and will, if need be, go beyond the law to ensure true justice is served.

It is heartwarming to see a cold, calculated Sherlock turn into a human being over the course of the BBC show, and it is of course at the very end of it that it culminates in Holmes throwing many of his principles overboard to be there for and do right by his friend.

In one of the show’s final moments, a new police officer spots Holmes standing across the street. He asks inspector Lestrade, who has witnessed Holmes’ transformation from beginning to end, whether he really is looking at the famous detective.

Lestrade asks the officer if he’s a fan, and the officer says, “Well, he’s a great man, sir!” Lestrade looks at Holmes and says, “No, he’s better than that. He’s a good one.”

Many an empire has fallen because good people lost themselves in trying to be great. Greatness inspires delusion, greed, fear, arrogance, neglect, and a whole host of other problems.

In Holmes’ case (pun intended), it is his incessant need to show off his skills, his restless mind requiring drugs if there is no case to solve, and his complete lack of empathy in handling the human consequences of what may be a perfectly logical crime.

For Holmes, letting go of these behaviors to help, and in some cases save, his friend is not an easy feat – and that is the point: A good person will make sacrifices for others where a “great” person won’t, because the “great” person is so obsessed with the grandeur of their vision that the only acceptable sacrifices are the ones furthering the cause, not human life in general.

When you have a choice – and we almost always have a choice – choose good instead of great. Great might last a century or two, or even a millennium, but the spirit and impact of goodness, like a person choosing to not abandon their friends, will ripple through the ages forever.

Your Death Is Not Yours

Your entire life, death is with you. You know it’s coming. It knows it’s coming. It’s just a matter of when.

Death is your neighbor, and one day, he’ll come over. The funny thing is when he does, you’ll be the least affected.

“Interesting expression, ‘taking your own life,'” Sherlock Holmes once remarked. “Taking it from who? Once it’s over, it’s not you who’ll miss it. Your own death is something that happens to everybody else.”

We tend to think death is the worst thing that can happen to us, but actually, it is the worst thing that can happen to the people we love. Our death, that is.

When we live in fear of death, we often try to take ridiculous precautions, like working hard to build “a legacy,” whatever that means, or amassing a fortune we’ll never get to spend. Ironically, we might neglect the very people who’ll bear the brunt of our departure in the process.

Death is what gives life meaning. If our time wasn’t limited, it wouldn’t have any value. And yet, if we spend our entire lives preparing for our death, we’ll be the only ones prepared when, in fact, we’re the ones who least need to be. How will everybody else feel about our death? Will they be ready?

We can’t guarantee how other people will handle our passing, and it’s not our job to manage other people’s minds and feelings. Still, it’s worth considering how you split your time between things you want to do for yourself before you die vs things you want to do with and for others.

After you die, you’ll no longer be around to regret the things you haven’t done. The people who love you, however, will miss every minute they didn’t get to spend with you.

Your death is not yours. Your life is the part that matters. Make it count.

Someone Else’s Journey

I’m taking a break from coffee. Despite years of consumption, it seems my caffeine tolerance is so low that, even at just two cups a day, it messes with my sleep. There is only one problem: I love coffee. Love, love, love it. Not for the effect but for the taste.

Naturally, I have been racking my brain about what else I could drink, and so far, no satisfying answers have emerged. Hot chocolate? Too sweet. Tea? Different flavor. Caffeine-free? Well, it’s never really caffeine-free.

This morning, however, I had an idea: What if there was a cocoa-based drink that tastes mostly like coffee? Cocoa beans are bitter. The sugar is what makes it sweet. I’ve had not-super-sweet hot chocolate before. Couldn’t you make a thick ganache, then use that as a base for a coffee-style drink? You could even make “cocoaccino.” The whole lot of milk-based coffee variations, basically.

As I was already thinking about how you might have to roast the beans, what kind of mixtures you might have to try, and whether it was possible to get the bitterness-to-sweetness ratio just right to match coffee’s taste, I realized: This is someone else’s journey. It’s a fun idea, but not my path to walk on.

Done right, this could be a big business. There must be plenty of people who’d like to keep coffee’s taste minus the caffeine, and I mean zero caffeine, not the pseudo-decaf we have today. Done right, however, this would also take years to do. It would probably require a good amount of money, too. Now, I love coffee, but I don’t love it that much. I can cope with water and peppermint tea. I’ll be just fine.

It is hard sometimes, letting go of the journey’s that are not meant for you – but the sooner you can do it, the better.

It’s okay. Someone else will take care of it. And if they don’t, the world will still keep turning. You stick to your path. You already know what you came here to do.

Don’t go on someone else’s journey. Set your ideas free so they can make someone else’s day.

The 4th Self

I have this theory that our inner experience, our thought process or stream of consciousness, if you will, is actually three entities fighting for the spotlight. Well, two of them fight. The third one just watches.

There’s the Talker, your loud ego calling most of the shots, the Listener, trying to act authentically but often failing and thus just following the Talker, and the Observer, the quiet third party seeing everything without judging any of it as good or bad.

Most of us spend most of our time wearing the masks of either the Talker or the Listener, when the Observer hat is the one that would bring us the most joy and equanimity. There is, however, a fourth self, and it lives beyond the realm of any of the other three.

We could call this fourth self the “Be-er.” The Be-er just exists. It is not even observing, because it is so fully engaged in life, 100% synced, that there is no inner dialogue – peaceful or disturbing – at all.

The Be-er is the surfer fully experiencing the magic of catching and riding the perfect wave. It is the archer completely engrossed in drawing the bow while taking aim. The Be-er is the person exhaling while looking at a sunset, and with their breath their thoughts leave the brain altogether, if only for a few seconds.

The Be-er is the version of you you might glimpse through meditation or in moments of complete silence. There is no thought, but there is consciousness. You are fully integrated into life. You are no longer a separate entity moving through the world. You are the world and all of its inhabitants. All of its wonders, inanimate or alive. You are life itself.

I know this must sound wishy-washy if you’ve never felt it, but if you’ve ever had a flow experience, most likely in sports or while practicing some art form, like painting, writing, or playing the piano, or even newer creative skills, like video editing or graphic design, you’ll know at least roughly what I’m talking about.

The reason this fourth self is not worth focusing on, in my opinion, is that it is not ours to control. The Be-er will show up when it wants. Flow is the result of the perfect conditions coming together, and they are not conditions we can manipulate, let alone sustain forever.

While some people might have experienced extended periods of being the Be-er, those cases are extremely rare, and anyone telling you they walk around in flow all day most likely doesn’t know what they are talking about – if only for the fact that walking around does not constitute enough of a challenge nor enough stillness to bring about flow in the first place. Can you feel happy while strolling through the city? Joyful? Even blissful? Absolutely. But I doubt you can keep the Talker and the Listener silent for a long amount of time.

Therefore, it still stands that the Observer is the most practical self to “wear” as you go about your everyday life. It is calm, unburdened, rational, and peaceful. It is a great state to be in and makes the business of living about as joyous as it gets. You won’t fret about your problems. You won’t spend hours ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. You’ll simply stay in the now, take each next action as it arises, be it by necessity or by opportunity, and enjoy every moment as much as you can by savoring it rather than rushing to get to the next one.

Whenever the Be-er shows up, enjoy it. It is quite the feeling, this “existing as one’s true self,” maybe the only self there is, the one we all share. But don’t be sad if it doesn’t last for more than a few seconds. You have three other selves to take care of, and life is still a miracle even if you don’t become the Buddha.

The 3 Selves

Being human is an insane experience based on sensory input alone. Every day, trillions of data points rain upon us, and our brains somehow find a way through the chaos. Are they flawed? Certainly. Do they steer us into mistakes? For sure. Yet, it is nothing short of a miracle that our minds manage to navigate us the way they do.

The real kicker, however, is not how we deal with the outside world. It is what’s going on inside that serves as ultimate proof that humanity is truly a species surviving against all odds.

We all know what it’s like to “talk to ourselves.” There’s some inner back and forth, usually leading up to a decision. But when you are talking to yourself, who is doing the talking, and who is doing the listening? There must be at least two parties!

Let’s say you’re debating whether to order a pizza. You’ve already had more than enough food for the day, but you just love it, so you’re considering munching on a few slices for dinner. How might that conversation go?

“I should order a pizza! I love pizza. Pizza is great! It will be delicious.” Enter, the Talker. The Talker is the loud, instructive, demanding voice that starts – and steers – most of our inner conversations. The Talker is the leader in any internal dialogue. It is your ego, the self-oriented, instant-gratification-seeking, ancient survival machine.

The Talker would do well in 10,000 BC. “Danger! Run!” “Food! Eat it all!” “Safe environment! Sleep!” But today? Not so much. In our modern, basic-survival-mostly-guaranteed world, the Talker only gets in the way of higher human aspirations. Okay, but what’s the response to the Talker’s pizza plan?

“Mmmm… pizza. I like pizza! Pizza is great! But I’m kinda full. I don’t think I want pizza now. Are you sure? I don’t really know what I want, honestly. I don’t think I want anything. I just wanna play for a bit, then decide later.”

Enter, the Listener. The Listener is the quiet, submissive, contemplative voice that ponders your ego’s blaring declarations. It is the follower in most internal conversations. The Listener is your inner child. It may not be your true self, but it is a version of yourself that’s much more in tune with the modern world, because the Listener is drawn to the now, the present. It is in a state of constant wonder about the world, and it wants to adapt as best as it can. Unfortunately, the Talker often gets in the way.

Since the Talker is so loud and abrasive, the Listener doesn’t want to cause any trouble. Therefore, the Listener will often falter and go along with the Talker’s ludicrous plans. Have you ever felt yourself shaking your head or nodding along internally to one of the Talker’s scathing rants? That’s your Listener saying, “Hey! I’m here too! Don’t ignore me!” Sadly, being a yes-man is, most of the time, all the Listener gets to do.

“No! I said pizza, so we’ll have pizza! I’m ordering. I bet you’ll love it when it’s here. You know what? You’re ordering. Now shut up and dial!”

Aaaand that’s how you end up with a thousand extra calories for the day.

Now, if you’ve read this far and agree with me that this inner back and forth, or, often, inner steamrolling, takes place in some form, something fascinating follows: There must be a third party! After all, how else could you and I possibly observe the Talker arguing with the Listener? Enter, the Observer.

The Observer is the silent, higher form of awareness that merely witnesses both the Talker and the Listener as they keep unspooling your inner dialogue. It is a bystander to your internal conversations. The Observer is, figuratively speaking, the most human version of yourself, because the Observer does not differ in any of us. Its behavior is always the same. It sits, watches, and observes. The Talker and the Listener can take a million forms, but the Observer only has one job: objectively perceive what’s going on, without judging any of it in the process.

The funny thing is that when the Talker or the Listener can feel the Observer watching, their inner bickering immediately stops. It is a bit like the quantum Zeno effect, a principle in physics, which roughly states that while you observe particles, their state will not change. Think of a person sending a distinct look to another person in a crowd. When the looked-at person realizes they are being looked at, if only for a second, they will stop in their tracks. That’s what the Observer does as you’re talking to yourself.

Why does this happen? We might carry three selves around in our minds, but we can only ever slip into one role at any given time, so naturally, to become the Observer, we first have to drop the role of Talker or Listener.

The beauty of being the Observer is that “it” is not fussed about what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter whether you’ll have the pizza or not, whether you have to work late, whether you’re stuck in traffic, or whether someone is giving you some bad news. After all, you’re just observing! You’re not here to judge.

The Observer can most easily enjoy “the process,” as Thomas Sterner calls it in The Practicing Mind, whatever particular process you might be going through at any given time. Slipping into the Observer role takes practice. Meditation helps. Self-awareness helps. So do slowing down, simplifying, and making your tasks short and small. The book is a great place to start.

The point is that, as you go about your life every day, you are carrying around not one, not two, but three selves inside your head, selves so different from one another, they might as well be different people. That’s a lot to manage, and when you combine it with the external barrage of sensory inputs flooding your brain every waking second, it is no wonder that, sometimes, it can all feel like it’s a little much to bear.

Being alive is the miracle of miracles. There is no experience so unique as the privilege of being human, but it does come with a lot of responsibilities. Don’t feel bad when you fall down. It is one hell of a job. Let one of your three selves pick you back up, and together, you’ll manage whatever might come your way.

The Opposite of Love

It’s not hate. We’ve all seen this movie: Two friends constantly bicker. They agitate one another in escalating ways. Eventually, they have a huge fight, then go their separate ways – only to end up as a couple by the time the credits roll.

“There’s a thin line between love and hate,” we say. Well, if they’re so tightly paired that we constantly mistake them for one another, they can’t really be opposite ends on a big spectrum, can they? They must be rather closely related. How else could we jump from one to the other within a single conversation?

In 1921, Austrian psychologist Wilhelm Stekel postulated that “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.” Why? Because there can be no love without the potential to hate – and vice versa. “The opposite of feeling can only be the absence of feeling,” Stekel wrote.

What do love and hate have in common? In order to show either of them, you first have to care. When we care a great deal about someone, we give them power: the power to make us feel ecstatic and the power to drive us insane. That’s the crux, isn’t it? Your wife can put you on cloud nine with her reaction to her birthday present, but she can also annoy the hell out of you by leaving her makeup all over the place.

Indifference breeds no such potential. If you were indifferent to your partner, you’d just shrug no matter what they do, and they probably wouldn’t be your partner for very long. Like a bullshitter disrespecting the truth by ignoring it altogether, someone displaying pure apathy where they were once so involved is the worst punishment for anyone who still cares. Ergo, the opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference.

Elie Wiesel was a holocaust survivor and author. After WWII, he continued speaking up for the Jewish and other minority communities, both in his books and on stage. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In an interview following the award, he said that…

Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.
And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.

When you care so much that your emotions become nearly unbearable, don’t step into apathy. Try stepping back instead. Take a break. Go on vacation. Give yourself the gifts of time and space.

Make room to process your feelings, and let the heaviest clouds shed their rain. Sooner or later, the sun will return, and you can get back to the business caring – and all the love and hate that might come with it.

Anger Is Fast, Compassion Is Slow

The next time you want to send a scathing email to customer support, try this: Before you start typing, take a second and say to yourself, “Okay, I will take as long as I need to write this email.” Make a mental note to allow yourself time. To think through each sentence.

When you start writing without the burning desire of hitting send as quickly as possible, a funny thing happens: Your yelling turns into talking. Accusations turn into suggestions, and statements turn into questions. Anger sat down at the keyboard, but compassion is what comes out.

That’s because anger is always fast. It can’t sustain itself once you get time to think. Anger doesn’t want you to think. It wants to throw the first stone it can find.

Compassion just wants to imagine what it’s like to be on the other side, and that image takes a moment to form. Not long, but long enough that anger sometimes gets the better of us.

The lesson here is that you don’t need to let go of your anger. You just have to slow down, and the anger will make way, at least enough for you to keep the peace. There’ll still be feelings to process, resentment to dissect, and difficult conversations to have, but at least you won’t have set the building on fire prematurely.

It’s easy to imagine an angry runner, huffing and puffing as their muscles strain in agony. A slow runner, however? What would that even look like? Are they walking? How will they win any race?

Most of the time, life is about people, not trophies. When the only true prize is what company we get to keep, we might want to walk slowly enough that we have time to slip into another pair of shoes along the way.