Forget the Sword

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there’s a scene in which Elsa, Indy’s love interest, is hanging over the edge of a cliff. With the precious treasure they want to obtain on a ledge so close she can almost reach it, Elsa desperately tries to grab the golden object while Indy begs her to let it go. Without a second hand to hold on to, Elsa begins to slip, and then…

Many an action movie has a scene like this. “Forget the Sword,” we might call it. The hero is outnumbered, outgunned, or simply out of luck. Regardless, they still hope to accomplish their mission, and so, against all odds, they reach for the sword, jump for the gun, or try to snatch the treasure when, actually, it would be about time to retreat and recover.

Often, it takes a kind voice — though, in light of the immediate danger, it might be screaming — to remind the hero: “Forget the sword! Let’s GO!” Later, the friendly face will comfort our hero, telling them that it’s okay to not achieve everything on the first try, but for now, safety is the number one priority.

In our everyday lives, the danger is not a mortal enemy or a literal abyss opening beneath our feet. Our threats likely pertain more to our happiness than our livelihood. It could be a business proposal from a potential partner your gut tells you you shouldn’t trust, a serious cold telling you to slow down at work, or your pension account dwindling despite you doing your very best to feed it. In those moments, when defeat feels inevitable, recall your favorite movie. Forget the sword. Get yourself to safety, and take some time to regroup.

You can’t double down when you’ve got no energy, and especially if you’ve tried doubling down before, chances are, it’s time for a new approach. Let go of your ego. Abandon the idea of a silver bullet. Whatever the shiny thing that seems like the perfect solution, even if you could reach it, it would most likely turn out to be nothing more than a movie prop.

When prospects are dire and time is pressing, don’t be ashamed to look after yourself. Forget the sword, and remember: Every story has more than one act. Even if you retreat now, you’ll still be here tomorrow, and tomorrow, you’ll get to try again.

The Main Event

Every night, there’s a free light and water show in front of Marina Bay Sands, Singapore’s iconic “three skyscrapers with a boat sitting on top” hotel. It’s called “Spectra.”

When we visited the city, my girlfriend and I got lost in the mall beneath the complex, and once we found our way out, we barely made it in time for the show to start. Of course, by then, the prime viewing spots had all been taken, but we found a pier to the right of the main stage that not only had good visibility, it was even close to the fountain from which countless water columns had already started rising and falling.

We settled in, took some photos, and then let ourselves be swept away by the experience. The music swelled, and streams of water danced in perfect sync with it. What’s more, the spotlights sitting beneath the water jets covered the entire scene in an equally well-paced rainbow of ever-changing colors. It was a magical 15 minutes, and after the last note rang, that seemed to have been the end of it.

A few weeks later, after returning home, I wanted to find one of the songs that had played during the show. When I turned to Youtube, I found a good recording of the show, and a kind commenter had even mentioned the title of the song I was looking for already. As I clicked through the clip, however, I realized something: We had missed the main event.

The recording had been taken from one of the better seats looking square at the show setup, and from there, not only could you see the dancing water streams and beautiful colors, you also had the privilege of witnessing all kinds of shapes and creatures made of rays of light flying through the fog and spray the water fountains created. That was the actual show — and that’s why it’s called “Spectra.” It’s about the light more so than anything else.

To my surprise, I was not disappointed when I discovered we had seen the show from the wrong angle. If anything, I thought it was funny. But the wonderful feeling I had had when sound and images worked in perfect harmony right in front of me? That could not be diminished. I did not feel any worse off for missing the main part of the show, and if I hadn’t found out by accident, I’d never even have known I did.

That prompts a question: If you miss the main event without knowing it — or at least without regretting it — have you truly missed anything? Maybe for you, the main event was something else.

In the movie Tolkien, not-yet-famous inventor of The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien takes his future wife Edith Bratt to see Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung — or rather, he tries to. With no seats available and not enough money in his pocket, Tolkien takes Edith in through the back door, but they only end up next to props and costumes, a place from which they can’t see anything — but they can hear. When the music erupts, Edith grabs a shawl, and the two begin their own little show, which ends in their first kiss.

Even if they didn’t yet know that they’d be married for over 50 years, I’m sure neither of them regretted missing the actors on the actual stage. Had their visit been a more public one, they could never have been so intimate with one another. Maybe for Tolkien and Bratt, hanging out in a coat room was the main event. Just like for me and my girlfriend, seeing Spectra without the lasers was enough.

The next time an event doesn’t go to plan, ask yourself: Might there be another, bigger plan? Go with the flow, make the best of the situation, and maybe tomorrow you’ll discover: You didn’t miss the main event. You were just meant to be somewhere else, and you ended up exactly where you needed to be.

Anger Only Knows One Target

I got back into Munich from Kuala Lumpur in good spirits. I had timed my flight perfectly and basically started my day at 7 AM on six hours of sleep. Not bad for someone who’s notoriously bad at sleeping — especially on planes.

My to-do list had been long before I left, and it was only longer now, but I was excited to tackle all the projects and writing that were waiting for me. Between some recovery, unpacking, getting a handle on my laundry, showering, the red tape in the mail, and ordering new light bulbs, however, it didn’t exactly end up being my most productive day.

I finally ordered groceries at around 5 PM, and then, misery crept in. I couldn’t find a coupon. I ended up paying almost 50 bucks for 20 items. Plus, the delivery took forever, and when the driver arrived, he took longer still to find my building. Almost an hour later, the doorbell finally rang.

I was still entirely lost in my grumpiness when I opened the door, but as soon as I did, my anger went away. Standing in the hallway was an Indian man in his 40s. He didn’t speak German, but he was friendly, and he smiled. He handed me my bags and went on his way.

Immediately, I felt stupid for being so self-obsessed. My grocery service uses bikes to deliver. It must be cold outside, driving around in the dark. Maybe my driver had just moved here and didn’t know his way around yet. He must have struggled to find my apartment which, given it is located in a hotel, can indeed be tricky to make out. I, meanwhile, can afford to drop 50 bucks on groceries that might elsewhere cost only 30, simply to have them delivered and get one thing off my plate.

When my irritation so quickly gave way to sympathy, I realized something: Anger only ever knows one target. It is ourselves that it comes back to. Always. We are the ones who lose. Others might suffer too because, in our anger, we might make them, but in the end, anger is not out to get anyone else. Anger is coming for us.

In this case, I was angry at myself for not making more of my day. I wasn’t as focused as I could have been. I got overwhelmed by the many things I had to do in many different areas. But what did I expect? To hop off a plane after a 16-hour trip and just continue business as usual post a two-week phase of intense travel? Didn’t I specifically plan to arrive on a Friday so I could take the weekend off and recharge, then come out swinging on Monday? Why the rush? Why punish myself?

Anger is often another emotion in disguise. It could be sadness, loneliness, or fear. Whatever its origin, that’s what we need to identify. What lies behind the anger? Why is it trying to distract you? Once we regain our composure, if only so briefly, we can try and figure out what our anger is really pointing at.

Usually, the more inclined you feel to dish out blame to other people, the more important and painful the underlying issue is. Dig deep. Find that issue. As soon as you do, your anger will disappear. You’ve now got a bigger fish to fry.

Anger only knows one target, and it is extremely efficient at clouding our thinking. Often, it’ll take someone else to snap us out of it, so whenever that someone else appears, let’s not waste our chance. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and remember: Your delivery driver is struggling just as much as you do or more, so when he smiles, there is no reason to be angry — and you can both still have a good day.

Fire FIRE

“FIRE is a lot of work,” my friend said. He had sent me a long Reddit thread, the kind that FIRE-pursuers — aka people who want to achieve Financial Independence and Retire Early — write on a daily basis, and that includes copious details about their pension plan, savings rate, health insurance, passive income sources, and, yes, even the coupons they might be able to use to pay for groceries.

The thread in particular was so meticulous and set on exploiting loopholes in Germany’s various financial systems that it bordered on satire, but my response was more general, echoing the underlying idea of my first book: You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to manage your money well.

They might not realize it, but many people get involved in financial movements in order to avoid facing the harsh reality that financial independence takes a lot of hard work. They get lost in spreadsheets, overthinking, and over-engineering whatever system they are using, and that feels productive — but constantly staring at your numbers won’t make your numbers go up. Instead of redoing them, how about you go and do some work?

As long as you do your best, don’t burn yourself out, and invest as much as you reasonably can, you can slowly dial back the number of “things you do for money” as you generate more income from your investments and then replace them with “things you do because you want to.” Sure, you need to pick those investments and diversify, but whether you get a percent more here or there doesn’t matter. What matters is that you keep going and enjoy the journey.

Unfortunately, for most people, that very first part is the problem, and that’s why they turn to ideas like FIRE in the first place: They don’t like their job, they’ve probably never liked any job, and as a result, they think they hate work altogether. But humans are meant to work as in “have a purpose,” and without it, we’ll feel empty no matter how much money we have. It’s true that loving your job is one hell of an accomplishment: It’s a matter of finding, adjusting, and, to a large extent, learning to love what you do — and that process not only takes a long time, it is never really done.

Faced with such a sobering truth, it is no wonder people would rather spend weeks planning their retirement by 40, even if it means having to perpetually drive an RV through some remote country in order to minimize their expenses.

I do think it’s an honorable goal to think about retirement long before you are 65. We’re learning that it’s silly to wait to live until you’re 65, because who knows how much life you’ll even have left, if any? It is, however, just as silly to stress yourself so much over retiring at 40 that you may as well die on the way. Whether you’re slaving away faster or slower makes no difference. What does is finding something that doesn’t make you dread every Monday — because then it won’t matter whether you retire at 40, 55, or not at all.

Einstein supposedly once said that we “can’t solve our problems on the same level of thinking on which we created them.” In that sense, moving up the timeline on retirement is just another game played in the same box. We don’t have to think about the retirement we know earlier; we have to think about retirement differently. Personally, I choose to fire FIRE and focus on the work I do well and enjoy — long Reddit threads or not, I’m sure the rest will fall into place.

It Doesn’t Take Much to Be Kind

Just before my cab arrived, I got a notification: “Your driver is deaf. Please use the chat or other means of communication.”

When I got into the car, a quick thumbs up was enough to confirm my destination, and as we zipped through the busy Kuala Lumpur streets, I felt impressed by the driver’s good “sense” of where everyone was going despite lacking one of the most crucial when it comes to navigating — his hearing. He struggled a bit with motorcycles whooshing past out of nowhere, but other than that, he drove as if he’d never done anything else in life.

Realizing that my usual “Thank you” wouldn’t do much in terms of a goodbye, I quickly googled “how to say thank you in sign language” on my phone. I watched a 3-second video of a woman showing the gesture — you simply hold your hand straight, place it squarely on your chin, back facing forward, and then lower your forearm like a drawbridge in an “opening” motion — and then repeated it as I exited the cab. The driver broke into a wide smile and enthusiastically gave me multiple “that’s great!!” thumbs up signs.

I don’t know if our interaction made his day or not, but I am sure it at least brightened it. I feel those 30 seconds of research were well invested, and often, it doesn’t take much more than that to be kind. You may not always get an opportunity as obvious as this one, but even if you don’t, 30 seconds to think about what someone might enjoy or like can go a long way.

The other day, someone told me they keep a list of their connections’ likes in their notes, and that can come in handy too. When in doubt, however, it’s usually enough to say “Thank you” in someone’s native language. It might seem like a small thing, but so is taking a cab or reading this blog — and that’s why the small things are what life is made of.

Undividable

It is a Hindu wedding tradition for the couple to make seven vows to each other, each involving a certain aspect of the relationship, like strength, health, prosperity, and so on. To cement these vows and their commitment to one another, the couple makes seven circles around a sacred flame.

Why seven? A circle has 360 degrees, and seven is the only single-digit number by which 360 cannot be divided. Therefore, making seven promises should ensure that nothing can divide the couple either.

When we look at our relationships with the people we love as circles, they become more integrated. An indivisible whole instead of a web of loose and not-so-loose links. As a result, we will feel more integrated too. More engaged, and more likely to become more involved. We’ll think less in tit-for-tat transactions and more along the lines of “What meaning do we add to each other’s lives?”

That meaning does not need to be big to be significant. A childhood friend you only see once a year can provide more joy than a so-so colleague you see every day but whom you’ve mostly befriended to make work go more smoothly. Similarly, we needn’t show up every day for everyone. We can do it for a special few, but for others, we too can be that once-a-year-friend who nonetheless adds a lot of happiness.

At a wedding I recently attended, the couple also performed the saat phera tradition. The sacred flame was a candle on a tiny table, and the circles they walked were small, taking only a few steps each. That’s the thing about circles: They needn’t be big to be indivisible. Regardless of their size, the mathematical rules of 360 and seven still hold up.

Outside of your innermost circle (pun intended), don’t rank your relationships in some long list. Make them undividable, and consider each forever perpetuating loop on its own merits. See your life as a bigger whole, a circle of circles, and then be deliberate in who you invite into your spherical world.

The Way of the Faithful

Returning home via ship after a war that left them broken, defeated, and full of despair, the queen and the general share a moment of vulnerability. In the battle that lies behind them, the regent has lost her eyesight, and the warrior has lost his son.

As they hold on to one another, the queen tries to offer some solace: “My father once told me that the way of the faithful is committing to pay the price, even if the cost cannot be known — and trusting that, in the end, it will be worth it.” The general agrees that the price is sometimes dear, and that, despite everything, they must continue to walk the road that they have chosen. “And I,” he continues, “will see to it that we make the end worth the price.”

There’s that saying that “everything will be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay, it’s not yet the end.” It’s noble to live under an aspiration like the queen’s, to keep the faith even when the road is dark. It is just as fair, however — and perhaps why such aspirations work in the first place — to double down on your commitment. To swear not to let the sacrifices you and others have made be in vain.

Life is a one-time rodeo. It may not feel like it every day, but the stakes are as high as they could be. Don’t let your regrets paralyze you, and make your losses worth their pain. You are walking the path of the faithful, and you know only the triumph of goodness can ever mark its end.

When Will You Pay?

If you go to the men’s airport toilet in Kuching, Malaysia, you’ll see a gigantic fan bolted to the wall at the end of the urinal line. As a result, you’re quite literally peeing against the wind, and while there’s a lot of movement in the air, you’re not really cooling down. If anything, you’ll get a cold.

To be fair, Kuching’s airport is not exactly the fanciest, nor the newest, but I couldn’t help but think that, with a few different decisions during construction, they could have saved a lot of the electricity they are now sending through those fans. This, in turn, brought to mind a question: When will you pay?

The idea is that, sooner or later, we’ll always pay, the question is just how much when. When you build an airport, you can pay for the more expensive air conditioning up front, or you can pay hefty electricity bills later. When you buy a house (and can afford it), you can pay the whole sum in cash, or you can pay twice as much over the course of 30 years. Even when you buy an iPhone, you can now front $1,000, or you can pay in installments, often with steep interest rates attached to them.

Of course, we don’t always pay in life with money. Sometimes, we pay with regret for changing too late. Sometimes, we pay with a missed opportunity that will never come back. All of those non-monetary costs are worth considering, but in my experience, even if you stick to the financials, you’ll come to strike many bargains over the years.

I always pay for my phones up front, and I never have to worry about getting ripped off in my monthly plan. I also pay a tiny bit more for the flexibility of being able to switch or cancel at any point, not just every two years. When it comes to my business expenses, however, I always go for annual if it means I get two months off which, at $500/month for some tools, adds up.

The list goes on and on, and I’m sure you get the idea. There is no free lunch in life, but you can swallow most bills in a way that makes them manageable. Which dosage is best will differ in each situation, but usually, if you can afford to pay sooner rather than later, you’ll save plenty — money, time, and energy — down the line.

If there’s a prize to be gained, there’s a price to be paid. The only question is when will you pay — and I hope your answer will never force you to bolt massive yet totally inefficient fans to the wall.

Vacationing for the Future

It’s easy to agree that travel is no competition. We all know someone who just frantically runs from landmark to landmark, and in doing so manages to visit a place without ever really being there.

What’s harder is to admit that, despite our best efforts to savor every second, some trips, vacations, and events, are for the future more so than for the present. Weddings, for example, especially the ones out of town.

A wedding is an event that runs on someone else’s schedule. Choosing to be there means choosing to go at the happy couple’s pace, if only for a day. That pace will be different from the one you would have chosen, but regardless of whether you can fully enjoy each moment, the memory of the event will last forever.

Sometimes, it is worth taking a 12-hour flight for a weekend you’ll never forget, even if you’ll suffer from the jet lag. Before you take off, however, it is always worth asking: “Is this trip for the present or for the future? Am I going for my wellbeing right now or for the memory when I’m old?” It might be hard to give an honest answer, but as long as it’s either of the two, it’s probably still a good idea to get on board.

When It Matters Most

I once had a roommate whom I remember little of, except this one sentence he said: “The days when you least feel like exercising are the ones when you need it the most.” Your art, work, or family traditions — whatever is important to you — is the same.

On some days, all you’ll have the time or wits for is to write one sentence. Those are the days when it matters most.

Life is not about winning or even finishing. It is about showing up.