What’s Possible Now?

In The Financial Diet, Chelsea Fagan offers some otherwise uncommon, but in the financial world almost unheard of advice: Dream medium instead of big.

Where others keep yelling about million-dollar retirement portfolios and how to retire by age 40 thanks to beating yourself up over $3 coffee, Chelsea suggests simpler aspirations: How about paying off one of your credit cards this month? Instead of a cruise, is there a weekend trip you’d celebrate being able to afford? Don’t think about yachts, Ferraris, and retirement all the time! Keep your dreams where you can see them, and you’ll pressure yourself less — financially and otherwise.

The idea is good, but what’s fascinating is its underlying principle: Everything is possible, but not anything is possible at any given time.

If you’re a new, broke college student with zero real-world experience, you can read a hundred books on becoming an investment savant, but without any money to invest, your genius will stay on paper. If you’re a single mom of two, trying to make ends meet while paying off several loans, perhaps it’s okay to try and pay those loans off one by one instead of launching a startup you hope will be worth a billion dollars.

Be it your financial goals or others, don’t get stuck in your best-case scenario. Even the highest wall is built brick by brick. For most people, all it takes to retire well is to save and invest a little each month, and that’s almost always an option. It is when we get lost in overly ambitious and ultimately often expensive detours that we sacrifice the long and safe road to victory tomorrow for the cheap thrill of greater dreams today.

Don’t ask what’s possible. Ask what’s possible now, and you’ll find satisfaction in small daily steps.

Move Slow and Make Things

“Move fast and break things.” That was Facebook’s motto for its first decade. It worked, but it came at a price: With decade number two almost over, the company is still busy fixing what it broke in the first.

I’ve been a writer for eight years. I wouldn’t call my experimentation phase one of “breaking things.” Everything that didn’t work out — my very first book, the anti-stress course, my Patreon, and a million other ideas — feels more like something I failed to properly assemble in the first place.

Regardless of how I arrived here, I, too, am ready to recognize: I don’t want to move fast and break things. I want to move slow and make things.

When I start a new project, I try to think not in next month’s revenue but in next year’s joy of still working on it. “Is this something that adds value to others or mainly to me? Who am I really doing it for?” I don’t always succeed, but I try to grapple with these questions properly before jumping in head over heels.

For the amateur, trial and error is the right approach. For the professional, routine is the road to success. One needs to figure out what they want, the other already knows it. Chances are, if you’ve been part of the workforce for half a decade or more, you’re slowly transitioning from the former camp into the latter.

After a certain point, experimentation will provide misery instead of benefit. You’ll feel unsatisfied having your fingers in too many pots. “Thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread,” in Bilbo’s words.

There’s no telling when exactly you’ll pass that point, but when you do, it’s important to reflect and adjust course. From here on out, focus will define your success and happiness more so than variety. You’ll need to slow down. You’ll need to carefully piece each next milestone together. If you manage to make the transition, however, the rewards will be extraordinary.

Move fast and break things? Or move slow and make things? Only you can know the answer. Think hard, and whatever mess you make in the process, I hope it won’t take a decade to clean up.

Just Start

When I decided to start a free, daily blog on February 7th, 2022, I had no idea how I would do it. I didn’t know how long it would take each day, how I’d keep finding ideas, and how I’d manage on days when I’m sick, sad, traveling, or busy. I just knew I had to take Seth’s advice, and I had to trust that he was right: “The secret to writing a daily blog is to write every day. And to queue it up and blog it. There is no other secret.”

More than 365 days later, here I am, and as it turns out, Seth was right. I wouldn’t say publishing every day was easy, but I also wouldn’t call it hard. Challenging on some days? Certainly. Manageable on all of them? Absolutely. On some days, I wrote for five minutes. On others, I wrote for three hours. But every day, I showed up, and that’s the part that matters.

“I always come up with stories in my head. Should I try creative writing? Do you think there’s something there?” someone just asked me. “I have no idea,” I told them, “but unless you try, you’ll never know. Just start!” Two words. “Just start!” I think it easily qualifies as my — or anyone’s, really — best piece of advice. I give it again and again, because frankly, most of the time, I really don’t know. If I have no clue how I’ll execute my own plans, how can I know if yours are any good? No idea. Just start!

A woman at my WeWork has been trying to start her own business for three years. “Where do I begin? What do I do? Which idea do I pick?” At first, I tried to help her sort through her options. Now, I’ve given up on strategy. Too soon for that. “No idea. Just start!”

A few years ago, one of my readers sent me an email. “I want to write more but I’m having trouble getting started. When did you start writing? What content did you start with? Did you hold off on publishing? How can I write a book if I don’t know where to begin?” You know where this is going. “No idea. Just start!” Two years later, he was working for me full-time as a writer.

After one year of daily blogging, I could talk about traffic, tactics, and lessons learned all day long. But right now, I feel there’s only one that matters: Just start! Whatever it is, just start. You’ll never regret going home to a project you deeply care about, and even the biggest obstacle on the path isn’t worth worrying about until you’ve taken the first step.

When Who Replaces Why

“What inspires you to write?” someone asked me. After eight years of daily writing, the answer is “Nothing and everything.”

I no longer need a “why” to write. I write whether I’m inspired or not. And when I write, everything can be inspiration, but nothing necessarily needs to be. If you asked me to write about screw caps, I could. Some days I write about soap. On others, I share loftier reflections.

When you do something every day for a long time, it becomes part of who you are. With some habits, that’s exactly what you want. “The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner,” James Clear says. At other times, our self-image may hold us back from dropping a no longer useful behavior.

Initially, action begets identity, and later, identity begets action. There comes a point when “who” replaces “why.” You’ll rarely be able to catch that moment in real-time, but it’s worth noticing once you’ve passed it — and making a conscious decision as to whether you want to turn back or not.

I am a writer, and so writing is what I do. Who are you, and what habits do you bring with you?

Fair Weather Collaborators

In the world of business, particularly online, people love to “collaborate.” Almost as soon as you start playing the game, you’ll find your inbox full of requests. “Can we write a free guest post for your site?” “Want to be an affiliate for us?” “Let’s cross-promote on Instagram!”

As a beginner, the attention is flattering. It’s tempting to say yes to every one of these “opportunities.” Ask anyone who’s done so for half a year or more, however, and you’ll find them exhausted — and usually no further in advancing their true cause. What happened?

What happened is that these “win-wins” were never aligned with your goals in the first place. They were lopsided propositions, and every time you agreed, you gave a little more than you got. Those asks will never stop coming, by the way. You’ll just have to learn to ignore them.

The second kind of collaboration is slightly better but still stands on shaky ground. You work together on an ongoing basis, but there’s little trust and commitment, and definitely no sacrifice. Most affiliate marketing relationships fall into that category. It’s in the word: You’re “affiliated” — but nothing more.

Big brands have hundreds, sometimes thousands of affiliates, and if you do something they don’t like, they’re happy to swap your face for someone else’s on their homepage. If the main brand you’re promoting cuts the commission rate in half, what are you gonna do? Can you afford to stop promoting them altogether? Once again, in the long run, you’ll find most long-term collaborations to be somewhat one-sided.

The funny thing is that everyone goes into business in order to take risk. They don’t necessarily realize it, but by definition, that’s what you’re doing. People are happy to invest $10,000 of their life savings into a restaurant or take a big gamble on the person they choose to be their cofounder, but then as soon as operations start rolling, they dial back the very behavior that got them into business in the first place. “How can we get something for nothing? How can we make as much progress as possible while giving up as little as necessary?” The result is a lot of fair weather collaborations, and in the long run, those never work.

Of course, the problem will always be the problem: Do you really want to place a huge bet on an affiliate partner you barely know? The main reward for taking the risk of starting a business is that you get to take to take even more risk in how you choose to run it. It’s a feature of entrepreneurship more so than a bug. But only if you do decide to take those risks — where real trust, commitment, and sacrifice are required — can your collaborations become joint efforts of the third and only fruitful kind: equal, long-term partnerships where both parties benefit in same measure, and where the stakes are high for all involved should any one collaborator fail.

There’s one party for whom this is always true, by the way. It’s easy for them to get lost in a sea of potential partnerships — but your customers? Your audience? They’re always counting on you, and, ultimately, they’re the ones you should try your hardest not to disappoint.

Be careful what you say yes to, especially if it’s a win-win that seems too good to be true.

The Faster Elevator

Let’s say there are two elevators in your building. One is ten seconds faster than the other on each trip. If you take the slow elevator twice a day and live in the same building for 20 years, that’s 40 hours of time. An entire workweek, spent in elevator shafts.

The lesson here is that both privilege and productivity often rest in hidden places.

A food vendor who lives on the seventh floor of an old building in Mumbai — no elevator — will lose a lot more than those 40 hours. Meanwhile, a banker in the UK enjoying her daily ride in a Mitsubishi Electric probably won’t think about that ride at all — let alone consider that it’s something she is actually enjoying as in “benefitting from.”

If you’re closer to the food vendor than the banker, shaking your fist at her privilege won’t help, of course. What might is looking for other, similar tiny gains that are accessible to you. Perhaps there’s a way to lug less food up and down the stairs. Maybe you can shorten your commute by 10%.

When I’m staying at my girlfriend’s house, I barely look at my phone. Last week, my screen time was down 40%. That was half an hour a day not spent on checking WhatsApp, news, or other nonessential media. It’s also something I can easily repeat, if only I pay attention to it.

Notice your privilege. Notice your potential. Be thankful for both, and then make the most of it. Here’s to taking the faster elevator.

10 Kinds of Coffee

When I first went to America, I made a classic German mistake. I’d go to a café and say: “One coffee please!” Without fail, the barista would look at me and ask: “Well, what kind?” Now, I was the one getting confused: “Uhh, just…a normal one?” Inevitably, I’d end up with an Americano, and, to a German, that’s not “a normal coffee.”

Eventually, I discovered that “Kaffee,” the standard drink served millions of times a day in German cafés, restaurants, and office kitchens, is actually “caffè crema,” a long espresso exclusive to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and of course Italy, the place it originates from.

Unlike an Americano, which is an espresso topped up with about 450 ml of hot water, a caffè crema is made from around 200 ml of water, pressed directly through the beans. Essentially, you just keep the espresso running for longer, which makes it a less sizable but usually stronger drink than an Americano. If you hear a German complaining about “weak American coffee,” this difference is why.

Yesterday, I slipped into the old habit of ordering “just a normal coffee,” and, as I was explaining the whole story to a friend, our barista explained that in Malaga, where he was from, they had not one, or two, or five types of coffee but ten. “The smallest one is called ‘nube,’ which means ‘cloud.’ It’s basically all milk. The second-smallest is called ‘sombra,’ which means ‘shadow.’ It’s basically still all milk.” He confessed to us that, even as a local, he often couldn’t figure out the different proportions, but that most tourists didn’t mind.

In Malaga, coffee was a rare commodity after the Spanish Civil War. When customers ordered “a finger of coffee,” as they were used to, owners would often serve too much or too little, depending on the size of their fingers. Don José Prado Crespo, founder of Café Central, solved the problem with a little mural outside his shop, depicting ten variations of everyone’s favorite beverage and giving them names.

Now, if you wanted a coffee without milk, you’d order one of the first four kinds, and if you wanted something a little lighter, you’d order one of the remaining six — although the “no me lo ponga” aka “don’t bother” didn’t find too many takers (it’s an empty glass).

Whether your next order is a shadow, caffè crema, or Americano, remember that culture differs everywhere, but culture is also one of the best “things we do.” You can’t expect the world to function the same way in a foreign place as it does right outside your door, but there’s also nothing embarrassing about learning new ways while sharing your own.

May your next cup of black gold be as delicious as your last — and whatever you do, don’t order “just a normal one.”

Do You Know the Way?

Today, I learned a new phrase in Mandarin: “你认识路吗 — Nǐ rènshí lù ma” It means “Do you know the way?” Naturally, I thought of a culture with a slightly different name.

The Mandalorian is a TV show in which “Mando,” the protagonist, always knows the way, at least initially. Orphaned at a young age and then adopted into the Mandalorian culture — a Stoic, warrior-bred people — Mando later becomes a bounty hunter and follows his peoples’ creed to a tee.

Unfortunately, that creed includes a lot of outdated rules and misconceptions which, eventually, Mando gives up on one by one in order to navigate his ever-changing reality. Maybe not all bounties should be completed without asking questions. Maybe there are more Mandalorians out there than Mando initially assumes. Perhaps, “this is not the way.”

It is comforting to have a fixed set of rules to live by, a faith of any kind. But even the best rule only lasts so long, and so it is normal, even necessary, to admit that “Yeah, okay, I no longer know the way.”

Our best skill isn’t rote memory. It’s wayfinding. That’s what we were born to do.

Like a certain bounty hunter navigating a vast galaxy, we don’t need to remember every phrase of a new language. What we need is the courage to admit we’ve gotten lost, enough optimism to keep walking, and a little flexibility in where we want to go. As long as we bring these with us, we’ll always find our way.

Idea Clouds

Early on in Dragon Ball, a young Son Goku receives a gift from his master: Flying Nimbus, a golden cloud that will carry the young warrior wherever he wants to go. Initially, Goku takes Nimbus for a spin, soaring up into the sky, dashing through deep canyons, and zipping across lakes. Eventually, however, he learns to rely on it as dependable companion, a friend that’ll get him from A to B.

Ideas are like Nimbus. They’re fluffy clouds, ready to carry us in a million directions. All we have to do is jump on, and zoom, off we go. Unlike Goku, however, most of us can’t lean on a golden idea handed to us by our master. We must pick our own partners, and that’s where it gets tricky.

Will this green Nimbus bring us to the money faster? Where is this orange one going to lead us? Should we choose the blue cloud, the red one, or stick with good old white? Spoiled for choice, we get fidgety. We jump from Nimbus to Nimbus. We swoosh north one day only to turn around and head south on the next.

If we look at our clouds closely, however, we’ll notice they all have the same shape, and it’s a shape we’re quite familiar with. Clouds look like brains because, actually, all we have is one companion. One buddy to carry us wherever we want to go. Ideas are just the color we dye our brain clouds in, and if we’re too busy trying to cycle through all the facets of a rainbow, we’ll never jump on, soar into the sky, and see a real one.

Wait for your golden idea. Sit. Think. Ward off the glitter the world constantly wants to blow into your eyes. Reject shiny object syndrome until your cloud itself is shiny. What’s the true destination you want it to take you?

Cherish your Flying Nimbus. Recognize it as a dependable friend. Don’t jump on until you’re sure of your goal, but once you’re in the air, ride your brain until you’ve reached your final station. You don’t need a master to hand you the gift of focus, but like Goku, once you have it, you’ll achieve all your dreams and more.

Game Over

When I first played Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I encountered my first “Game Over” screen early in the game. My character made a terrifying “huarkkk” sound and dropped dead as the world turned black. To a ten-year-old, it was terrifying. So terrifying, in fact, that I shelved the game and didn’t play for months.

I lent the game to friends. I read about it in magazines. I talked about it with my parents. But I didn’t play. Anything not to have to see that horrible “Game Over” screen ever again.

I don’t remember how long it took, but eventually, I found the guts to play again. “It’s just a game!” I realized. “If I hit ‘Game Over,’ I can just keep going.” I’m glad I learned this lesson, because otherwise, I never would have enjoyed the vast world, characters, and music of the highest-rated video game of all time.

Life is like that. It’s a big world full of wonderful art, characters, and things to experience. Sometimes, you hit a “Game Over.” Your exhibition is a failure. Your robot doesn’t work. Your company doesn’t pan out. In those moments, we can decide: Will we shelve the game and give up? Or do we press “Continue?”

Sometimes, giving up is the right choice, if only for the moment. We won’t like all the games we try. Most of the time, however, a good night’s sleep and a new approach will do the trick. You don’t press “Continue” to run into the same wall in exactly the same way you did before. You do it so you can see whether jumping from a different platform, attacking from behind, or slowing down before a corner is going to work. If you give up on playing altogether, you won’t have to keep coming up with new strategies — but you’ll also miss out on all the joys to be found in our big world.

20 years after I first learned this lesson, I put a controller into my girlfriend’s hands. We now regularly play the latest Zelda together. Sometimes, we hit a “Game Over” screen. Whenever we do, we just press “Continue” — and I suggest you do the same.