Self-Caring But Not Self-Centered

The best thing about living with other people is also the worst thing about living with other people: There’s always someone else around. That means someone to talk to, have fun with, and make dinner with, but it also means someone to be considerate of, to block the bathroom when you need it, and whose quirks you’ll have to learn to accept. In other words, there’s no room to be self-centered.

When we’re young, especially in college, we often share a flat with strangers. It’s rarely the best of living arrangements. For one, we know our roommates will only be with us temporarily, and for another, when you’ve left the comfort of your home for the first time, you really need to be self-centered. Your 20s are the time to discover, find, and invent yourself, and anyone else inhibiting that freedom gets in the way of that process — in case of roommates often literally.

Once you know what you need, who you are, and where you’re going, it’s easier to negotiate the terms of co-habitation. To compromise yet ensure your health and wellbeing are taken care of. And of course, if the person we live with is someone we have chosen, ideally, we’ll value their company more so than we’ll mind their kinks.

In its best-case scenario, living together not just won’t limit us. It’ll help us become the best we can be. When you live with family, there might not be space to be self-centered, but you can still be self-caring. In fact, it is your moral obligation to take care of yourself — maybe not always first, but often enough to maintain the energy to take care of others.

When your partner works in your living room, you can’t run around naked all day, but you can still take three hours to play some video games. When your children clamor for food, you can’t eat dinner at 10 PM, but you can still make the kind of meal you’ll enjoy at any time of the day. When your daily obligations extend beyond yourself, you’ll curb a lot of the unnecessary, be it expenses, activities, or habits, and in that pruning, you’ll find out what really matters.

Whether you’re providing for or just caring about them, being a good person for others gives us a standard to live up to, and when we measure our work and behavior against that standard, we can’t help but raise our own bar.

It’s okay to be self-centered for a while. We all need space to unfold. Once the wings of your origami have fallen into the right place, however, it’s much more important to be self-caring — not as a means to feed your ego, but as a way of accomplishing the mission that’s larger than yourself.

Swimming in the Sky

Nine years ago, I was in Tokyo. I had the privilege of staying at a fancy hotel, and one day, I went to their impressive, competition-length, 25-meter pool. As I was doing my rounds, the skyline outside the window blurred with the edge of the pool, and it felt like I was swimming in the sky. It was awe-inspiring. I’ll never forget that feeling.

Back then, I hoped I would “make it” so that I could have experiences like that more often. Nearly a decade later, I still don’t really know what “making it” means, but as I swam in a rooftop pool in Singapore, also paddling from skyscraper to skyscraper, I remembered that feeling.

While I’m still far from being able to casually globe-hop from infinity pool to infinity pool, what I do realize by now is that swimming in the sky is not the point. It’s only one of many things that can be an inspiring experience, and most of the time, you don’t need to go to Tokyo to have one. I’ve felt equally powerful moments sitting on a park bench in Munich under a big tree swaying in the wind, and in a random bar over a beer, talking to a stranger.

Inspiration may be a perishable good, but most of the time, it is also free to refill your cup. And while new experiences do so in a special, different way than routines we’ve already enjoyed many times, the best part about them is not their novelty but their potential to become one of those nostalgic sources of stimulation — regardless of whether we can repeat them.

It took me nine years and two nights in expensive hotels to learn this lesson, but as it turns out, you only need to swim in the sky once to forever unlock a new feeling. You may never return to the same pool, but you can always bathe in the memory of the experience, and on 99 days out of 100, that will be enough.

Pay Per View

In the 1990s, pay-per-view TV became a big thing. If you wanted to watch certain sports or adult content channels, sometimes also feature movies, you had to call a certain number and pay to unlock them. The concept wasn’t new, but for a while, it went mainstream. Today, of course, streaming itself is the main thing, and with the exception of some events, mostly combat sports, we prefer to pay a flat rate. But that doesn’t mean pay-per-view is dead.

At Cé La Vi in Singapore, a cocktail costs $20. You’re paying not for the drink but for the view. The bar sits in the bow of the “ship” that is the architectural marvel sitting at the top of the world-famous Marina Bay Sands hotel, and people don’t go there to drink — they go there to see (and perhaps be seen). From the city’s impressive financial district with its skyscrapers to the futuristic “supertrees” in the Gardens by the Bay to the countless cargo ships waiting in the water just under the horizon, your eyes will feast on your surroundings — and that’s why a bottle of 21-year-old Japanese whisky costs $8,000.

Are the prices justified? Of course not. But it’s worth thinking about how they ended up on the menu.

In some parts of the world, where nature is generous and socioeconomics are not, the tourism industry charges remarkable sums for what should be, by all accounts, free. Why does it cost money to see the Niagara Falls, Mount Fuji, or Grand Canyon up close? They were here long before us. Then again, for natural wonders, we usually pay people to maintain them more so than profit off them.

When it comes to man-made structures, however, their creators often ask us to reach deeply into our pockets. “Want to go up this tower? Walk on that bridge? Enter this castle? That’ll be $50, thank you very much.” We make something worth looking at, and then we charge per view.

Like everything, the strategy has its ups and downs, the model its hot and not-so-hot seasons. In a world of abundance, at least when it comes to entertainment, charging $20 for a movie will not work for everyone — and when I can watch amazing travel videos for free on TikTok all day long, maybe asking me to pay $30 for a 20-minute experience is no longer the best way to get me to go.

If you ask me, the largest and most ridiculous chunk of the cost, however, is the social one, not the entertainment factor. Spending $10,000 on a bottle of champagne will not make the view any better — but it will show people you can afford to spend $10,000 on some bubbly, which…what is that for again?

Whether it’s on the TV, at the club, or at an UNESCO World Heritage site: Sometimes pay-per-view will be justified, and sometimes it won’t — but it’s always worth asking what you’re paying for.

Waiting for the Lightning

When Benjamin Franklin tried to catch lightning in a bottle, he couldn’t just wave his arms and shout at the stormy sky. Instead, he hid in a shed, patiently waiting for the hemp string of his kite to transfer some electricity to a house key attached to the string. Eventually, he held his hand to the key — and voilà, a tiny spark jumped from it to his hand.

When we hope to accomplish something big, it can be harder to wait for inspiration to strike than to supplant it with a lot of uninspired toiling. We think the grind will earn us the lightning, and sometimes, it does. Often, however, the weather just isn’t right. Where there’s no storm, there can be no discharge, but in time, nature always supplies another storm. Why not simply lie and wait?

You can’t write a million-copy bestseller without a brilliant idea, and you can’t grow a movement without a meaningful cause. But these things are hard to find, and so it’s okay to take your time to find them. Just like giving up is still an act of giving, it can be more generous — to yourself, others, and the world — to wait for inspiration to strike than to rush an unfinished project out the door.

If you want to catch sparks in a bottle, you must hold out until the clouds conjure a storm — and if you hope to do something great, it’s best to wait for the lightning.

The Language of the World

“Are you queuing for the toilet as well?” I asked the bald-headed man in the red shirt. What a weird question to ask at a height of 30,000 feet, I thought. “No, I’m just eating a pretzel,” he said, munching on the German delicacy he had probably obtained before we took off.

And then, out of nowhere and perhaps due to his slightly inebriated state, he dropped some wisdom that hit as hard as it would have if it had fallen the entire 30,000 feet back to earth: “The language of the world is a smile.”

He continued: “My university professor taught me that ten years ago. It’s the only thing I remember from college, to be honest. Just…smile. No matter where you are, people always understand a smile.”

In some countries, people shake their head when they mean “Yes” and nod when they mean “No.” In the UK, what constitutes a peace hand sign elsewhere can go for “Screw you!” Not every gesture is universal — but a smile? That suggests joy, openness, and a well-meaning attitude everywhere around the globe.

In times when our words miss their targets more frequently than ever, any clear expression that can do without them is worth a lot. Kindness is a language we all speak from the day we are born, and a smile is the greeting that can get us off on the right foot with almost anyone.

When you smile, doors will magically open and bridges will build themselves. Just…smile.

I Bought a Feeling

As Cheung Wing-sing marvels at this latest innovation called “a gramophone,” a handsome man also seems interested in the American vendor’s magical music box. Unfortunately, the cute stranger spoils the romantic moment by accidentally scratching the record, and the salesman demands to be reimbursed.

Since she can afford it, Wing-sing squares the bill in his place. All she asks in return? To take the broken record home. When her sister later asks her why she bought a record that can no longer be played, Wing-sing says: “I did not buy a record, dear sis. I bought a feeling.”

I’m always fascinated by how far money goes with people as opposed to personal goals. If you want to save $10,000 as a safety cushion, $10 will feel like almost nothing. That same $10, however, can buy a friend a meal and make their day or even their whole week. It can buy flowers for someone you like or love, or a little toy for your children, getting them to beam with excitement and joy.

The kind of investing we do for ourselves — buying a house, saving to start a business, growing our stock portfolios — feels big. That is as it should be, for it is only in the long run that this kind of investing even works. Investing in people, however, is incredibly cheap, because it doesn’t take much to show someone you care. It is about the gesture — the feeling — more so than the amount, and the fact that you do it matters more so than how which, in turn, matters more still than what you ultimately buy.

In Cheung Wing-sing’s case, the wrong record bought at the right time would eventually lead to a lifetime of happiness. For you, it could mean a better relationship with your coworkers, more support from your family, or the undying loyalty of a friend. There’s no saying what any given investment will have to look like, but I’m sure you’ll recognize it when the opportunity presents itself.

What’s important in life rarely comes with a money-back guarantee, but sometimes, the best thing you can buy is a feeling.

Angel Is Just a Job

In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, angels are ominous creatures. They look the way you’d expect them to — strong, big, humanoid beings with powerful wings — but they seem to have their own agenda. They intervene when they shouldn’t and don’t when they should. They pursue their own goals, and they’re not always ends of pure virtue alone.

When a researcher first discovers angels in both an unexpected place and form, she remembers the words of Saint Augustine: “Angels are spirits, but it is not because they are spirits that they are angels. They become angels when they are sent. For the name angel refers to their office, not their nature. You ask the name of this nature, it is spirit; you ask its office, it is that of an Angel, which is a messenger.”

Maybe angels aren’t meant to take sides. Maybe they’re just playing a role, like all of us.

When a young boy helps a grandmother across the street, and she says, “Aren’t you an angel?” she is pointing at the role the boy is performing, not who he is. In fact, calling someone an angel may do more damage than good. What if the pressure to live up to this label ultimately drives that kind boy into madness and despair?

Humans have a vast potential for goodness, but just because we have said potential does not mean all of our actions will turn into said goodness. We become human through our behavior, and that process of actualization happens every day for as long as we live. Some will be good. Some will be bad. On some we’ll be good. On some we’ll be bad. We are both the yin and the yang. Both the light and the dark.

“Angel” is just a job description, and while it’s nice to be reminded that you’re performing your duties well, we mustn’t let the praise go to our head — for Saint Augustine knew one more thing about angels, and that was that pride changed them into devils, whereas only humility could make humans deserving of said label in the first place.

All Roads Lead to Destiny

In my last semester of my undergrad studies, just before writing my thesis, I was obsessed with starting a business. I had just come back from America, and one of my professors there had been raving about Tim Ferriss. I read The 4-Hour Workweek and spent half my time planning, thinking, trying to come up with ideas.

I don’t exactly remember why, but after my last exams, I applied to some internship programs. Perhaps I thought it was my duty to at least sample the job market before jumping into entrepreneurship with both feet. And so, on a cold November morning, I sat on a train to Munich, wearing the one suit that I had, freezing my butt off. The interview went well, but I had no expectations.

Miraculously, a few days later, the phone rang: I would be spending five months in the marketing department of BMW M — the company making the cars I had adored since I was just a toddler, barely able to point them out from the backseat of our car as they went by. It was a dream come true.

The work was fun. No one took themselves too seriously. I even got to drive all the cars! Plus, it was spring and summer — in Munich! They also took us to some really cool events, like the 24-hours race at the Nürburgring. I really enjoyed every second of it, and yet…

By the time the internship was ending, several key people were leaving the team, including my mentor and now friend, the person who had hired me. They told me I was “their best intern ever” but somehow bungled getting me into their fast-track program for Master’s students. Most of all, however, after less than six months, I felt there was nothing left for me to learn. It was all routine, and the cars practically sold themselves. While it was fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes look, the best part was still driving them, not selling them.

When I returned to Karlsruhe to complete my thesis, I bolted through most of it in just a week. I was more driven than ever: I would become an entrepreneur. That winter, I registered a sole proprietorship, and I never looked back.

When Master Oogway confesses to Master Shifu that he had a vision of their arch enemy breaking out of prison, Shifu instantly instructs the prison to “double the guards, double the weapons, double everything!” Remaining calm as Shifu gets more and more agitated, Oogway only says: “One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.”

What if I had gotten a job after my internship? What if I had enjoyed my comfy life at BMW? Maybe, I was secretly hoping for it. To not have to go down the harsh road of self-employment. Of course, in the end, even the best job I could possibly get only solidified my initial decision. No matter how many fancy cars I drove, the road always led right back to my destiny.

In the grand scheme of things, control is but a persistent illusion. If something is truly meant to be, there is nowhere we can run to escape it. You won’t always know that’s what you’re doing, and you’ll only ever find out in hindsight what was planned and what was only a deviation, but in the end, all roads lead to destiny — and there’s no reason to ever believe you’re on the wrong track.

Happiness Should Be Simple

Looking at the neon signs of all the bars from the balcony of the one she works in, Julia says: “When the lights over the bar street come on, that is my sunrise. I can forget all the bad stuff in my life.”

Cheung is half-impressed, half-skeptical: “You can find joy so easily. You can be so…simple.”

And then, Julia, a lowly singer in one of the bar streets many bars, dropped into some random place in the three-million-people urban jungle that is Hong Kong in the 1960s, casually reveals the secret of life: “Happiness should be simple. If I can do the things I enjoy every day, I am very happy.”

As long as she can sing and dance, Julia is happy. There is no need for more. “Once you find the place where you belong, you don’t want to leave, no matter what happens.” For Julia, the Gold Bar is her home.

Yes, some customers are difficult. Yes, not everything is perfect. But every day, she gets to sing. To dance. To play. And that is enough.

When life feels complicated, it’s only because we make it so. Find your singing. Find your home. And then enjoy simple happiness.

You Are Not Your Work

Despite appearing in 50 action-packed movies, many released to both critical and commercial success, martial arts legend Jet Li has never used his skills in the real world. “I have never been in a fight in real life, nor do I wish to be in one,” he says.

Li practices wushu as part of his Buddhism. He does it for health and inner harmony, not to dish out more powerful punches faster. His work may be full of violence, but Jet Li is not, and he proves it by putting down his weapons when he leaves the set.

You are not your work. If you dropped all of your professional responsibilities today and disappeared from your team, your audience, or your company, the world would still keep turning. You can have inner harmony with or without the kung fu battle that is your career — perhaps sometimes more during a break from the fighting.

Remember to take off your work hat from time to time. Even Jet Li thinks that “the strongest weapon is a smile and the best power is love.”