Remembering the Little Wins

In many ways, 2022 was one dumpster fire of a year for me. I lost a ton of money on paper. I lost a lot of revenue. I published a book everyone loves to read but no one wants to buy. In other words, I was more than ready for 2022 to be over, and yet…

One day, I opened my Duolingo app and saw my 2022 year-in-review. Encouragingly, Duo informed me that I was a top 1% learner on their platform. A “world champion,” they called me. That felt nice. It also felt nice to realize that, per my statistics, I only spent five minutes a day on the app — but I did so every single day of the year. How inspiring, don’t you think? Five minutes a day can get you into the top 1% of something millions of people are trying to do.

That made me remember another thing I did every day, and that was to write this blog. I kept my promise! To myself and to you. That, too, felt rather encouraging.

It’s easy to forget our successes when our failures loom large, but once you start digging, you’ll unearth many tiny gems, even if, on the surface, it all just looks like dirt.

Celebrate the little wins on the days when they happen and you need them, sure, but, just as importantly, remember the little wins when the big picture is crooked — so you may steady first yourself and then, with time and renewed patience, the frame on the wall.

It’s Not You

Despite spending several thousand dollars on email software each year, I still talk to their customer support all the time. It’s a good tool, but, like any piece of tech, it has its problems.

Sometimes, I spend hours trying to make a certain automation work, and I get frustrated. “Why isn’t there a feature for this? Can’t I build a workaround?” Eventually, I realize: “Oh! I can just talk to support about this.” Often, they’re able to help, perhaps by adding some code in the backend or pointing me to a plugin I don’t know about — and inevitably, I’ll wish I hadn’t fiddled with everything by myself for so long.

In an interview, former Apple chief designer Jony Ive made a remarkable observation:

“If you eat something that tastes awful, you assume the food is bad. But when you use a product that you can’t use, you don’t assume it’s the product. You assume it’s you.”

Of course, operating a complex piece of machinery correctly isn’t the same as shoveling spoonfuls of soup into your mouth, but while we shouldn’t give up immediately when our technology doesn’t work, perhaps we should also have higher expectations.

How many times have you heard someone say, “Ahh, I’m just too stupid to use this thing. I’ve given up on it.”? How often have you felt that way yourself? Well, chances are, it is not you. It is the product — and while it often takes a long time for newer, better products to arrive, they’ll get here a lot faster if we make our voices heard.

The more you use something, the more apparent its flaws will become to you. Unless you’re building the superior alternative yourself, don’t hog that knowledge. Don’t dismiss it either. Share it! Let people know. Usually, they’ll be happy to hear from someone who cares enough to point out a flaw they can fix.

The next time sesame won’t open, don’t assume you forgot the password. Assume the door is stuck, and then call the mechanic to find out what’s really going on.


Somewhere, I can hear a woman yelling at her boyfriend.

Somewhere, I can feel a teenager getting punched in his belly.

Somewhere, I can see the door of a van fall shut, the girl inside of which will never see her family again.

Somewhere, I can hear someone hanging up on their mom, not knowing it will be the last time.

Somewhere, something bad is always happening.

Somewhere, I can taste a scoop of chocolate ice cream, given to a young boy free of charge after he scraped his knee.

Somewhere, I can feel hands shaking on a deal that will forever change the world for the better.

Somewhere, I can sense the quiet affection of two people, holding hands in the cinema for the first time.

Somewhere, I can hear a man say sorry, and I can see his wife giving him a hug.

Somewhere, something good is always happening.

Somewhere is where you are. Make something good happen.

Cereal Crumbs

When I was a kid, I used to care so much about my cereal being crumb-free. You know, the dust sitting at the bottom of every bag. Whenever I poured cereal into my bowl, I would make sure to not get any of those crumbs, and when the box was at its end, I’d pick the last proper cereal bits out by hand.

This morning, I also finished a bag of cereal. I emptied what was left into the bowl in one fell swoop, crumbs and all. As the last bit of cereal dust settled, I realized that I no longer cared about cereal crumbs. What happened?

Well, besides the fact that about 20 years have passed, nowadays, when I make cereal, I’m either hungry, tired, or thinking about a million things. I’ve got more important things to do, and, on the one hand, that’s a good thing. Of course, caring about cereal crumbs is silly in the grand scheme of things. My energy is better spent doing meaningful work, taking care of myself, or being a good friend, boyfriend, or brother.

On the other hand, I can’t help but miss what caring about cereal crumbs ultimately stood for: It was a simpler time. There were fewer obligations, less running around, and, perhaps most importantly, a universe of expectations that hadn’t yet been placed on my shoulders. I went to school, did my homework, was fed and dressed each day, and the rest was up for grabs. I had few things of importance — or at least of consequence — to think about, and so I had the time and wherewithal to care about things like, well, cereal crumbs.

To some extent, this is all part of growing up. You lose freedoms but gain meaning. Then again, a great chef will never place a plate in front of you that’s littered with crumbs around the edges. When we lose our ability to pay attention to the details, even minutiae, we also lose some of our capacity for excellence.

What this ability requires is space, both in time and of the mind. You can’t get lost in the little things without an extended stretch of relaxation, and you won’t find that peace of mind, even on a vacation, if you can’t clear your thoughts.

As an adult, you’ll always have something important to do. Raising kids is a 20-year, really a lifelong job. There’s always another promotion to get, another big step to take in your career. And your finances, family, and friends, will all deliver new challenges to your doorstep on a regular basis. Therefore, you must find a way to turn off, to wander, to blank out life’s constant demands and really get into something as silly as cereal crumbs.

Clearly, filling our breakfast bowls was not our highest calling in life, but on some days, remembering how exciting something so inconsequential used to feel just may bring us one step closer to it.

Paper Plans

As he wanders the streets of a desolate London, wondering who might have the power to overthrow his absolute, ever-watching, all-oppressing government, 1984‘s Winston Smith concludes that, “if there was hope, it lay in the proles.” The proles are a lower social class who, despite being neither very intelligent nor well-stocked in the arms department, could find strength in their numbers.

Earlier that day, Winston had even committed this conviction to paper, but now, walking among them, he finds it rather difficult to cling to it: “When you put it in words it sounded reasonable: it was when you looked at the human beings passing you on the pavement that it became an act of faith.”

“Paper is patient,” we say in Germany. You can write down whatever you want. Getting the words to detach from the paper and manifest into reality, however, that’s another story. As such, paper plans are cheap, and it is perhaps no wonder that a German, field marshal Helmuth von Moltke, coined the now-famous adage that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Making plans is easy. What’s hard is having faith in the plan when you’re wading through cold water, when the money gets tight, or when you feel too tired to write. The true value of your plan will only ever be revealed if you can manage to stick to it when you’re no longer sure it’s going to work. We all feel that way when we draft our plans, but it’s only after first contact with the enemy — or even just reality — when the wheat begins to separate from the chaff.

Hardest of all, however, is to have faith in the people supposed to execute the plan, even if the only person we need to trust is ourself. The way of the faithful is to trust that the end will be worth the means, but it also means trying our best to make the end worth the means.

So when Winston Smith looks at the proletariat and doubts their ability to succeed in an all-important mission, perhaps he should stop writing in his diary. Perhaps, he should pick up a club and join them.

How About Less?

In seven years of running Four Minute Books, people have suggested hundreds of ideas to me. “You should do a podcast!” “Why don’t you post stories on Instagram?” “It would be cool if you also had an app.”

Funnily, no one has ever suggested we do less. In seven years! Literally no one has said: “Why don’t you focus on your core business? Write good book summaries, and share them with people. Isn’t that enough?”

Well-meaning as they are, people tend towards more, more, more, and ideas are no exception. “Also.” We love that word. But for a business, it rarely spells anything good — and sometimes outright doom. “Also” almost always means “nice to have but not essential.” Sadly, whatever energy we then put into the “also” isn’t excess fuel we just happen to have left over. It’s energy we take away from the essential, and suddenly, we’re actually doing less of what matters. The irony!

In an interview, Jony Ive, Apple’s chief designer of over 20 years, mentions that Steve Jobs taught him the true meaning of focus. Jobs would routinely ask him what things he said “No” to recently, and Ive always presented him with some sacrificial lamb or other — a project he had declined but actually never cared about in the first place. Jobs saw right through this, and eventually, Ive learned that…

“Focus is not the sort of thing you aspire to or you decide on Monday. It’s something you do every minute. What focus means is saying no to something that you, with every bone in your body, you think is a phenomenal idea, and you wake up thinking about it, but you say no to it because you’re focusing on something else.”

I wish we could do a podcast. I’d love to have an app. If I had the resources for Four Minute Books to post on every social media platform every day and be available in every possible format, it probably would — but I don’t, and, thankfully, I don’t have to. I can just focus.

Focus means choosing to prioritize what matters most at the expense of everything that matters less — even if those other things are also good and valid.

Forget “more.” How about “less?” What’s the thing that really matters? The thing that you should focus on? Choose it. Commit to what’s truly important and don’t look back — regardless of how many well-meaning ideas people will present to you over the years.

The Story & the Audience

In the early 2000s, Ryan Leslie was the #1 voice in RnB. He produced. He sang. He rapped. And he lifted other artists to the top. His albums sold tens of thousands of copies, and he was even nominated for a Grammy. Then, he disappeared from the music scene.

Over a decade later, Leslie gave an update on his life in an interview, dropping plenty of wisdom along the way, like his analogy about the audience and the story: “You could be sitting in a movie, and you could say, ‘Oh man, I really don’t want that person to die.’ If the scriptwriter makes it so that that person’s gonna die, you will be sitting in that movie, and you might have to shed a tear — because that person’s gonna die.”

Leslie’s point is that the audience does not decide where the story goes, no matter how much they would like to. “The fans, sometimes being sort of just an audience, they’re spectators, and they have an idea of how they would like the story to play out for their own entertainment, or enjoyment, etc.”

Meanwhile, the actual course of the story is decided by someone else: “Your life is the aggregate of the choices you make. The story is always gonna be based on the choices that are made by the actual player.”

In Leslie’s case, he saw the limits of what he could achieve with and in music at the time, and he decided to take his eggs and put them in a new basket: technology. He learned how to code; he went to Silicon Valley; and he built Superphone, a company that allows businesses and creators to reach their fans in one of the most direct and personal ways possible — via text.

Ryan Leslie decided that he was the scriptwriter of his own movie, and he was not liable to the audience. He did not owe it to them to take the story where they wanted it to go. He could choose his own direction, and even if the audience shed a tear over it, that would be okay.

“Your life is the aggregate of the choices you make.” Even if those choices don’t get you the fame, the girl, or the money, they can still give you meaning, happiness, and contentment — and all the audience can do is watch.

When to Break the Rules

Yesterday, a situation I’ve imagined came true. I was standing at a red light for pedestrians. Next to me, there was a young family with three children. Across the street, a man in his 50s was waiting too.

Suddenly, a young, tall man with a backpack zipped past on our right, despite the light not yet having turned green. The elder man on the other side reprimanded him: “There’s kids here man, what are you doing? Be a good example!”

The reason I “foresaw” this scenario is that I was trying to figure out when it makes sense to break the rules — and one of my conclusions was that other people should factor into the equation.

I jaywalk quite a lot. Fines in Germany are small and rarely levied, and I believe it’s every grown adult’s own responsibility to check for traffic before they’re crossing the street. If anything, the light makes us careless. There’s no reason a rogue driver can’t hit you just because you’re crossing on green.

That said, I never jaywalk when children are around. In doing so, I would set an example for them, and it’s not my job to educate someone else’s kids. If the parents want to teach their kids to jaywalk, then they can do so — but it shouldn’t be me making that decision for them. In this case, the only way to stay out of it is to stick with the default, and so, unlike the tall man with the backpack, that’s what I’m doing.

When we think about breaking the rules, we mostly consider whether it’ll be to our own benefit. But our rule-breaking has consequences beyond ourselves.

It’s not like we should never encourage others to break the rules either. When people in China — a country known for its high level of censorship and political containment activity — take to the streets rebuking the oppressive yet inefficient measures their government takes to “protect their health,” every additional person counts. One might inspire two more, and that’s how a small group of rebels turns into a loud choir of thousands, singing with the voice of the people. In that case, you’d hope others will follow your rule-breaking example.

The most important rules to break are your own. Those usually won’t affect others. But when your decision to upend the status quo has a direct impact on those around you, stop for a moment. Weigh your personal gain against the consequences for others. Will they benefit too? Will it be to their detriment?

It’s never easy to put yourself second so someone else can gain an advantage they might never even know about, but rules are for protection, and so protect is what we should do — regardless of the rules. Whether that means crossing on red or staying put, only you can decide, but with time and practice, I’m sure we can learn to make the right call again and again.

Me and My Monkey

A lot of the status games we play nowadays are based on pretending we’re no longer monkeys. “Look at me! I despise money and power, and I have successfully suppressed my sexual desires for the last 97 days!” Of course, this kind of attention-seeking behavior is exactly what a monkey would do — except the monkey would go full throttle on getting rich and mating with as many partners as she possibly can.

In George Orwell’s 1984, people are trained out of their sexuality from a young age. Both women and men join the “Anti-Sex League,” take vows of chastity and celibacy, and if two people are physically attracted to one another, they can’t get married. Sex is to be a mechanical act, an uncomfortable duty with the sole aim of producing more members of “The Party,” the ruling body of the dystopian society Orwell describes.

Naturally, everyone wanders around thinking about sex all day long, desiring one another yet equally despising each other for everyone’s mutual inability to pursue what they really want. Needless to say, that doesn’t end well.

In The Chimp Paradox, elite-athlete coach Steve Peters describes the most recently developed part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, as “our inner human,” and the limbic system, the oldest, most instinctive part, as “our inner chimp.”

When balanced well, it is a wonderful system. The monkey gets us to take action, to go with our gut, and to not let obstacles send us into endless spirals of meaningless thought. The human takes care of long-range planning, can second-guess our initial assumptions, and is good at practicing patience and delayed gratification.

Problems occur when the two are constantly fighting each other, or when one side always wins. Of course we are more than monkeys. Life has so much more to offer than food, sleep, and sex. Creativity, cooperation, intellectual work — these things can be sources of deep meaning and lasting fulfillment.

At the same time, our inner monkey is still there. It wants to be fed. It wants to sleep in. And it wants some hanky-panky. If we pretend the monkey no longer exists, sooner or later, it will get angry. It will throw stones and shout at us, and, as a result, we’ll likely shout at others. No matter how hard we might try to suppress it, eventually, the monkey will break through.

The people I admire manage this dynamic with an almost casual equanimity. They accept their inner monkey, but they also don’t let it boss them around. The monkey is a companion, a friend on their shoulder, and if they keep it happy within reason, it’ll reward them with energy, optimism, and fun.

If, collectively, we valued this honesty more than the make-pretend of what perfectly moral, supposedly enlightened beings we are, we could all have more productive conversations. Rather than constructing some facade, we could admit that we want to be rich or famous or sexually active and attractive, and, perhaps, we might even find ways to help each other achieve those goals while we’re also working together on something bigger and more important.

I’m an artist. I set high standards for myself. But I am far from perfect. I depend on ads and online courses to keep making art. I don’t know about you, but me and my monkey, we’ll keep working at it until we no longer have to — and even then, we’ll still have plenty of fun en route to making the world a better place.

The Benefit of Ignorance

When I pulled together last year’s revenue numbers for Four Minute Books, I was shocked. Overall, revenue had grown 15% or so, which was nice. But when I looked at how that growth came about, I almost threw my hands up in despair.

One of the main sources of revenue for the past seven years had dropped by a whopping 30%. At the same time, a new income stream, which we had only introduced in August the year before, now accounted for 46% of the total, overtaking the other one in the process.

In theory, that is good news. In practice, it’s also terrifying. What if we hadn’t set up that income stream? What if it hadn’t grown so much? What if I had seen the other revenue decline in real-time? My big takeaway from this accounting session was that, sometimes, it’s better not to know.

If I had a constant, acute awareness of how our differing income streams rise and crash, constantly meandering into different compositions, all I would do is fret all day long. “What if this doesn’t recover? What if that doesn’t work out? What if, what if, what if?

Meanwhile, if I just spend my time working, doing, trying, things usually work out in the long run. There’ll always be a few “that was dumb” and “that was smart” moments at the end of each year, but as long as I stay focused, I’ll be okay.

The benefit of ignorance is that you can’t worry about what you don’t know. In fact, there’s enough to worry about looking at everything you don’t know, and in today’s, “here’s some anxiety with your breakfast” world, the Stoic practice of “focus on what you can control” seems more relevant than ever.

Ignorance comes in many flavors, but the best one by far is when we treat it like an art: Most of the time, it’s okay not to know, and, actually, only when you don’t know can you still pursue your ideal goal in its unbroken state.

Don’t let knowledge shatter your dreams too early. Keep your head down, try your best, and enjoy both the shock and wonder when you finally look at the numbers.