Turn On the Magnet

There are more reasons to write than there are letters in the alphabet. Some are more inward-facing — it helps you reflect, filter your thoughts, and structure your emotions — others have more external affects on this material plane we call reality.

Someone recently asked me: “What’s the biggest advantage of writing online?” My answer: “You’ll turn on the magnet.”

When you put yourself out there, vulnerably sharing a piece of creative, original work on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, you take risk — but you also build a reputation. Reputation is like a magnet for power-ups: It attracts the help you need to achieve whatever you’re trying to do. The longer you keep the magnet “on,” the stronger it will become. Reputation compounds, and so the longer you share your thoughts, ideas, and creations online, regardless of the format, the easier your life will become.

The right path forward for big life decisions will seem more obvious. Career options will magically present themselves to you. You’ll have supporters rallying around you at all times. Of course, there is a price to be paid: The current that keeps the magnet going consists of honesty, transparency, and vulnerability. It must, for otherwise, the rewards won’t keep coming. Like attracts like, and if you don’t want power-downs to clip your wings mid-flight, you’ll have to continue showing up.

So go on. Turn on the magnet. Summon your creativity, commitment, and faith, and drive a stake into the ground so deep it’ll reach the Earth’s center right below where you stand; a stake for the dreams and ideals you truly believe in that will keep humming for all eternity, attracting support from every corner of the globe. It won’t be all gold and silver flying your way, but I’m sure you won’t regret it, and, sooner or later, your life will never be the same.

Full Circle

I recently summarized my own book, The 4 Minute Millionaire, on a website I started seven years ago to summarize other people’s books (and, often, pre-existing summaries of them). The irony is palpable, and the idea is as ridiculous as it has always been.

Why would anyone be interested in a summary of a summary of summaries, most of which were originally written based on…summaries!? The meta-ness makes my head hurt, and the level of abstraction is, quite frankly, insane — and yet, over 2,000 people have bought the book, and nearly 100 of them liked it enough to leave a review.

In the beginning, some people told me the whole endeavor was asinine, but I think those people were always missing a crucial part: It was never about just condensing other people’s work. It was about transforming it. I’m a writer. I started Four Minute Books to practice writing. As such, I always added a solid dose of “Nik’s creativity dust” into each summary, and I think that’s probably one of the things that ultimately made the project work out better than it would have otherwise.

The even greater irony, however, is that summarizing books taught me how to write books. I could not have started in a place further away from that final destination, and this is the part where the whole thing turns from ridiculous to astonishing. Bringing my own book back into the fold, sharing it in the same format from which it all started, really made me feel like I had come full circle. It made me feel proud.

Most importantly, however, it taught me a lesson: No matter how small you start, and no matter how crazy and laughable your ideas may seem, there is little in this world you can’t do if you set your mind to it. Stay flexible but persistent, chase the dreams you believe in, and trust that taking many small roads can still lead you to a big destination.

It always takes years to come full circle, but some round trips only life can plan — and even if the irony is palpable, the journey will still be amazing.

Friendship Is Like Toothpaste

Yesterday, a dear friend and former roommate told me a story: “For the last two weeks, I’ve thought about you twice a day, and every time, I had to laugh. Remember when we lived together and, at one point, we couldn’t fathom how, no matter how squished and mangled it already was, you could still get what feels like two months’ worth of toothpaste out of the tube? For some reason, I keep remembering this discussion every time I brush my teeth nowadays, and it always makes me chuckle.”

Naturally, like many other things I was around for, I couldn’t recall this interaction at all — but I sure do agree: It’s uncanny how much toothpaste is left in that last 10% of the tube behind the nozzle, and it still makes me mad how much huffing and puffing it takes for me to get it out.

What’s annoying in toothpaste, however, is wonderful in friendship: No matter how old the relationship, how little contact you have, or how different you have become, there’s always a little more joy to be squeezed out of it — if only you make the effort to press.

Round Trip to Obscurity

For the first few years, yes, years, I didn’t even know I had followers on Medium. It was only after someone pointed them out to me that I began caring about this number on a screen. I had around 20,000 followers when that happened.

I kept writing all the same, but suddenly, I found myself checking my follower count. The next year, I doubled them. Then, I doubled them again. And then…everything stopped. Money had come and gone. The followers had mostly come but never added up. And so I went back to the beginning — back to this little blog, where I write for perhaps 500 people every day, a tiny but tight-knit group of friends I might never know.

What gets us to care about follower numbers is that, in theory, they’re not just a number. Every time that counter increases, a real human has voted to hear more from you, to be changed by you, to literally follow your journey through life. So much for the theory.

In practice, that connection often only exists on paper, and the number serves as little more than fuel for your ego to get anxious. On other social media, it’s somewhat expected, but on Medium, it’s a problem people have been complaining about for years: Your followers barely see your posts, and so that crowd of 50,000 curious onlookers quickly shrinks into a tiny huddle of 50 people who actually clap for your show. When the rewards are gone but the drawbacks remain, it’s time to question the status quo.

So here I am. No Facebook. No Instagram. No Twitter. And no more pseudo-fame on Medium.

The funny thing about taking a round trip from obscurity to popularity and back is that while the way down is undoubtedly less fun than the way up, how it feels once you’ve arrived at each station is often the opposite of what you had imagined. Fame wears us out. The same questions and the same demands, over and over again — until there’s little left of us that’s actually for us, let alone the people we love. Anonymity, meanwhile, is full of freedom. Fewer emails to answer. Less worry about opinions. And more time to make the things that made you famous in the first place.

I like where I am now. It’s quiet. Comfy. Money is a little harder to come by, but there’s more than one way to make a buck inside the great network.

Wherever your next round trip goes, make sure you enjoy the journey. It’s unlikely your next station will be your last, but even if you have to come back to Earth against your will, you’ll probably find it’s not a bad place — even if no one follows you around.

No Smartphone, No Party

There’s an Amazon Fresh store near my girlfriend’s house. The shopping experience is amazing. You scan your Amazon app to go in, grab what you want, and walk out. Billing happens automatically and, after some initial problems, now tracks what you took with stunning accuracy.

Yesterday, a traveler came to the store. He might have been homeless, and he had trouble talking to the staff. It took them a while, but eventually, they managed to explain to him: “You need the app to go in!” Since he didn’t have the app, nor a smartphone, it seemed, he left.

“What a crazy world we live in,” I thought, “where a store selling the basic necessities of life requires a $300 device to enter.” That’s how much a smartphone now costs on average. Many models cost a lot more. Of course, London is an affluent city in an affluent part of the world, but even here, not everyone has a smartphone.

Grocery shopping is only the latest in a long line of things that might one day be off limits to us if we refuse to play by the arguably expensive rules of tech.

If you don’t have a smartphone, you can’t use WhatsApp, which a quarter of the global population relies on to communicate every day. If you don’t have a smartphone, you can’t photograph, record, or otherwise document everyday experiences, nor share them on social media in real-time. If you don’t have a smartphone, you can’t plan or learn on the go. A 15-minute walk could turn into a one-hour detour. A question about a recipe will remain unanswered.

Clearly, smartphones have a lot of benefits. There are downsides too, and most of us are familiar with those as well. But what happens if smartphones lock us into those benefits without an alternative? For many people, their device is already an extension of their arm (and near-glued to it, too). Addiction is troubling but reversible. When you can no longer buy rice without a device, however, things get dicey.

For now, we’re a long way away from that reality — but the long way often seems longer than it is. No cash, no cards, no checkout. We readily accept convenience when it is offered to us, but if we live too close to comfort, whoever provides said comfort may one day force us to do something that’s not very convenient at all — like buying a $300 smartphone just to get some tomatoes.

Be careful what you wish for, and even more careful what you begin to rely on.

Training Wheels

Someone recently asked me about my writing process. “Do you have any specific routines? Techniques? How do you get your ideas down on paper?” The answer is underwhelming: I don’t. I just sit down and type.

Sometimes, I’ll pause typing to think, look up a word, or research, and yes, sometimes, I get lost in internet rabbit holes, like everyone else. All in all, however, I don’t need a lot of structure to write, and that’s because I’ve written almost every day for eight years.

The longer you do it, the less structure you’ll need. Structure is like training wheels: Once you know what you’re doing, it’s okay if they come off. I can’t write without pen and paper, a laptop, or a phone any more than one can cycle without a bike — but I can very well write without a certain kind of pen, coffee, or my favorite stuffed animal.

It’s not that structure is no longer helpful, just no longer necessary. I write every morning, and if I sit long enough, words always appear. It’s handy to be able to do that sitting at an airport, a noisy café, or in any other kind of less-than-ideal setting, but it doesn’t mean I don’t prefer to sit at home or at WeWork in my usual spot.

Some people will look at those without training wheels and say they’re just lucky, or that they’re lying and simply won’t reveal their secrets. The truth is that climbing without ropes is a hard-earned privilege, and most people aren’t willing to practice long enough to attain it.

Life doesn’t get any easier when you no longer need a guidebook every time you pick up the guitar. It’s just a different kind of struggle, but a struggle nonetheless. There’ll be less fretting and less complaining, but no easier rewards. This mentality, however — the mentality of the professional — is worth a lot.

Where are your training wheels? What can you do without them? Which skill is worth the long slog before you’ll need less support? Questions over questions. Answering them, too, is a process — and it, too, is underwhelming. You sit and ponder a little every day, and that’s all there is to it. If you do it long enough, however, perhaps one day, someone will ask about your training wheels, and all you’ll do is shrug — for you no longer remember when they came off, just that structure is optional, and that’s a good thing.

Purpose vs. Friends

“When you have purpose, you don’t need friends,” the captured villain says to the politician. Of course, that only lasts as long as she isn’t threatened with harm to her daughter. Still, bad girl or not, she has a point: When we’re on a mission, work becomes its own reward.

Most of us go through a phase in life when — usually in our 20s — we don’t yet know who we are or what we want to do. As we’re figuring it out, we tend to plaster relationships across the hole, hoping they’ll fill the void. We attend every barbecue we’re invited to, sign up for hip-hop class, and will gladly sacrifice an hour to meet even the flimsiest of connections.

The longer we do it, however, the more we realize: What works as a temporary replacement can’t replace the real thing. Over time, each next round at the pub becomes less satisfying. We find ourselves going back to friends we’ve held since the early days, and we wish we had a bigger picture to serve that doesn’t depend on our latest LinkedIn connection showing up to the introductory call.

Purpose is something you can find. It’s also something you can pick. The more scales you can improvise with on the piano, the more you’ll enjoy playing. Purpose is often a matter of sticking with something long enough until it becomes fun enough to keep doing it forever.

For some of us, that thing will chiefly involve other people. If you’re the one organizing the book club, hosting the annual Gatsby party, or match-making couples for a living, relationships are your purpose. If your mission is a more solitary adventure, however, it’s okay to use Friday nights for resting or tinkering rather than hanging out with friends — and especially with “friends.”

Purpose is the fuel that will never cancel on us last-minute. It is elusive but attainable and, once you have it, usually sustainable. Nothing in this life will completely absolve us of the need for friendship, but when you have your own reason for being here, you’ll jump through a lot fewer social hoops, and you’ll be glad you no longer care whether you’ll stick every landing.

Pick purpose. Cherish friends. May either one carry you where the other won’t go.

Reversible Mistakes

I once had the privilege of promoting someone. Unfortunately, I promoted them from a role they were great at into one they weren’t ready for. To some extent, this is just getting promoted. After all, if it’s not a challenge, why call it “leveling up?” In this case, however, the gap between the two roles was too large, and so, just half a year later, I had to let them go.

In the online world, most mistakes can be reversed — often without a trace. Tweets can be deleted. Headlines can be changed. It’s just one of many benefits of being a creator: Making errors is inevitable, but the cost of erring is low. Your last blog post didn’t hit? Write another one. Your channel’s not growing? Just keep uploading.

In my case, however, fixing my mistake cost me two years, a lot of inner peace, and several thousand dollars. Firing someone is one thing, and that’s already not pretty. However, since the position I promoted them to was none other than CEO, I also tried to do right by them: I gave them a piece of my company.

If I have five apples and give you one of them, I can ask to have it back, but whether you’ll return it is another matter. What if you already ate it? What if you really like the apple? Maybe you hope to sell the apple to someone else in the future. Ownership is as important as it is emotionally complex.

It’s not like I didn’t think about the decision beforehand, but perhaps I should have thought more about it still. Thankfully, we remained on good terms and worked out a solution. Eventually, the misstep was fixed, the error completely reversed — but it was a far cry from the usual “let’s take a few hours to cancel this project, scrape the data, and start anew.”

Most people think about potential failures in advance. That’s valuable, but it’s not enough. We must also ask how much it will cost, in time, energy, and money, to reset the figurines on our Monopoly board. As long as 80, maybe 90% of your mistakes are easily reversible, you’ll have the luxury of continuing to play almost regardless of what happens. But if 30% or more will set you back six months, two of those in a row might kick you out of the game.

Think ahead, and then think ahead some more. Most blunders can be reversed, but if the price of doing so is too high, they might as well be fatal — and there’s little worse than losing a game you love before it has even begun.

Is It an Interruption or the Point?

I’m usually the first one out of bed. By the time my girlfriend gets up, I might have brushed teeth, done some push-ups, meditated, and written a blog post. Whenever she does wake up, however, I take a few minutes, go back to bed, and say good morning.

Sometimes, when I hear her yawn while I’m halfway through typing what I think is a good sentence, I catch myself thinking, “Uh-oh. Why now?” But then I remember: This is not an interruption. It is the entire point. A big reason why I wanted to work for myself is so I could take time for the small moments which, in reality, are the big moments anyway.

For every one time parents roll their eyes when their kids run up to them with yet another discovery, there should be at least two when they remember: “Oh. Right. This is why we had kids in the first place, and, actually, it’s awesome!” Not always, but sometimes, what starts as an interruption turns out to be the magic you were hoping for all along.

It’s easy to feel rushed when you know something else is coming. When that something else is important, however, it should also be easy to let go of that feeling. Plus, there’s usually enough time to finish your sentence, type out a few notes, or at least mentally say goodbye to whatever you were doing — which is exactly what I’m doing now so I can say good morning to something, or rather someone, else.

The Creator’s Bane

In 2020, everyone on Medium started raving about a new platform: NewsBreak. Branding itself primarily as a local news app, the company was lush with new funding, and now, they offered $1,000 per month for three months for writers to consistently post on their platform.

Needless to say, Medium writers signed up on NewsBreak in droves. Hundreds of articles started popping up, and in my chat group, everyone asked questions around how to get accepted (you had to apply to the Creator Program), how to republish their Medium stories for more dollars, and how to grow on this new platform.

I took a big pass on the whole thing. “I’ve seen that movie before,” I said. “After three months, the easy money will run out, and you’ll be right back where you started,” I thought. Sure enough, two years later, I don’t hear anyone talking about NewsBreak. Not in my immediate circle, and not much outside of it either.

When NewsBreak announced its Creator Program, it boasted 45 million users. Two years later, that figure has only grown slightly. The leadership and team have a strong Chinese background despite the app operating mainly in the US, and in the current political environment, that adds tension. When I do see reports about NewsBreak now, they’re mainly stories of writers sharing at least clickbaity, if not outright false, articles in order to make $300 there instead of making $100 on Medium.

The red flags were there all along. First, if you’re a blogger, not a local journalist, what are you looking for on a local news platform? Second, writers complained about NewsBreak’s vile comment section from the start. Third, anyone having witnessed a wave of money coming and going on Medium should recognize a rodeo when they see one: If you get on a mechanical bull, you can’t be surprised when it throws you off after a short ride.

To everyone’s credit, I think a lot of writers knew what they were doing. “I’ll just take the $3,000 and run.” The question is, even if you venture to a new pasture without the expectation of grazing there for long, what does it cost you? When it comes to NewsBreak, most writers saw free money in an industry that’s notoriously hard to make a buck from. But what about time? What about energy?

“All of the energy that goes toward anything that is not the most important thing comes at the expense of the most important thing,” Shane Parrish wrote. Your little NewsBreak detour might have replenished your bank account, but if it temporarily bankrupted your dream account, was that really worth it?

This problem is much larger than writing and NewsBreak. It’s the bane of most creators. Like the digital nomads they often are in real life, their online identity, too, is a ghost haunting platform after platform. They leave behind a trail of sometimes great, sometimes not so great creative litter wherever they go, and by the end of it, they somehow survived the game but have no home.

Making money as a creator is always hard, no matter which platform you’re on. Why not build your own? I don’t have a perfect solution, but I do know that I don’t want my digital after-life to look like the room of a three-year-old: toys all over the floor, one half broken, the other half abandoned. I want my digital estate to look like a small library. A few carefully chosen works, arranged neatly for any passerby to browse. Not that the focus helps only after you’re dead. I’m pretty sure it’s the right choice for the living too.

A creative writer on a local news platform is like a penguin in the desert: You can try sand instead of water, but the odds of it working are low. Don’t chase the easy money, because the easy money never lasts. Remember that the shortcut is the hard way, and don’t give in to the creator’s tempting bane.