The Benefit of Aging

“I wouldn’t mind living in a small town like this,” I said yesterday. I have officially come full circle from back when I was 13 or so, thinking, “I hate living in a small town like this. Can’t wait to get out of here.”

As a 13-year-old, it was hard to imagine a life so full that boredom doesn’t exist. Now, every waking minute could be dedicated towards doing important work, work that makes money, being a good boyfriend, son, or friend, or any of half a dozen hobbies — and those are just the things that matter. That’s to say nothing of paperwork, chores, and doctor’s appointments.

Back then, perhaps like every 13-year-old, I imagined life would always be full of only one thing — free time — and who wants to spend said free time in a village with just 1,400 souls? Nowadays, it barely matters where I am. Most days will look roughly the same, and if you have neither infinite time nor an infinite budget, a small town with a few restaurants and some nature close by will do as well as the most optionality-filled metropolis. In fact, it’ll likely do a lot better, since it won’t constantly dangle more things in front of your nose that you’ll inevitably miss out on thanks to life’s (or your) limitations. It’s easier to enjoy what you have when you’re not staring at a display of everything you don’t.

What I find most remarkable about all of this is not the change of heart but the fact that 13-year-old me just couldn’t imagine anything different. It takes real emotions for ideas to sink in, and unless we go through the experiences that makes us feel those emotions, our power to change our mind stays weak and superficial. Age takes more from us than it gives, but with life experience — and the manifold emotions that come with it — we gain the ability to not just project but feel what other realities would be like, and only then can we truly decide what we actually want.

Out of all our uniquely human skills, perhaps these two stand out more than most: The power to imagine something different, and the will to insist on using it.

Swap Seats

Our table was in the middle of a large, half-round section of the restaurant. Facing the seven slim but high windows surrounding us for most of our two and a half–hour dinner, I was stunned by the amount of people rolling in and out of the restaurant on a regular basis. All in all, the venue wasn’t that big, yet the window reflections kept revealing groups of six, seven, eight people walk past behind me.

Towards the end of the dinner, my girlfriend asked to swap seats, and, once placed on the bench facing the restaurant rather than the chair facing the wall, the truth hit me: There were no large groups swarming the place. What I had seen were simply mirror images of the same few people, repeated several times across the many windows. Most tables only sat two to four people, and two waiters took care of our entire section.

What’s more, beyond getting an overview of all the guests rather than just the two tables right next to us, I could also see my girlfriend in much brighter lighting. I had a chance to appreciate the design of the stylish lamps hanging from the ceiling, the bar set up in the middle of the room, and the candles placed in glass lanterns all around the restaurant. In short, once I changed my perspective, my whole world flipped upside down — and even though it was the tiny world of a single fancy dinner, that made all the difference.

The human mind is one of the easiest to fool, so when something feels off, swap seats. You may or may not be rewarded with the truth, but you’re guaranteed to discover something new — and when your heart is filled with wonder, your head won’t mind having to admit that it was wrong.

Your 30s Are For Arriving

20% of my 30s are over. Wow. That went by fast. And while time will only keep “passing faster,” it’s nice to feel those 20% truly being a part of something larger. Whether that something ends up being done by the time my 40s arrive, I have no idea. What I do know is that, unlike in my early 20s, I have a clear sense of direction.

Back then, I hadn’t even started writing. All I had was a list of stupid goals and no idea how to achieve any of them. Now, my goals are much more reasonable and arguably less selfish, and while I can see many ways to reach them, there are only a handful I’m willing to take. This kind of simplicity is liberating, soothing, and worth its non-existent weight in gold — and that’s why it takes the better part of a decade to find.

I used to think that your 20s are your defining decade, but while it’s true that experimentation builds self-awareness and that the skills I built then have become a solid foundation for my future, I can now see that my 30s are the time in which I’ll truly “arrive.”

“What am I doing? Where am I going? Where do I even want to go, and how can I get there?” Those are questions for your 20s. In your 30s, chances are, you’ll know the answers — and even if they’re the wrong answers, you’ll confidently pursue them until you realize another change of course is in order. “Hello! Here I am! This is who I am, and this is where I’m trying to go. Here’s how I’ll get there, and you can either help me or get out of the way.” It’s nice to gain that confidence and proudly stand for something, even if — and by now, you’ll know with certainty — nothing in life is ever perfect.

I still remember plotting my 30s and realizing how short a decade feels now that there’s so much I want to do. I finally joined the writer’s endgame — publishing books — and I’m two for two thus far. Even planning my goals for Four Minute Books — making more money, sure, but also helping a whole lot of people read more and learn faster — I catch myself thinking: “If I could do this by the time I’m 35, I’d be pretty happy.”

None of this is to say that you can’t hit hard in your 40s or completely reinvent yourself in your 50s. Life’s not a straight line, and we are water, not trees. If you’ve done all the personality tests and sampled a few careers you didn’t like all that much in your 20s, however, there’s a good chance your 30s are for arriving.

Don’t be scared that you no longer want to travel or go out on every weekend. Don’t be ashamed to want to settle down, get married, or have kids. Most of all, don’t be afraid to fight for what you know you want your waking (and working) hours to look like. It’s fun to be a rainbow, but each individual color also has its meaning — and whether yours is the red of love, the blue of trust, or the green of hope, they’re all purposes worth championing.

Reminiscing in the Underworld

In Along With the Gods, recently deceased firefighter Kim Ja-hong is accompanied by three protectors on his journey through the underworld. Having lived a particularly virtuous life, Ja-hong is “a paragon,” a sort of golden ticket for his guardians should he pass all seven trials of hell and be reborn.

Needless to say, the adventure is far from uneventful, and yet, in a quiet moment in a cable car, assistant guardian Lee Deok-choon gets to make an observation. Having guided thousands of souls across the dangerous planes, she notes their stories all have something in common: “Even the most painful memories become beautiful ones when they talk about them here in the underworld.”

Sure enough, Ja-hong sounds nostalgic when he talks about his brother annoyingly pestering their mother to take them for a cable car ride when they were younger. As he attends trial after trial, rewatching scene after scene from his life, Ja-hong can’t help but prove Deok-choon’s point. No matter whether he sees himself losing a fellow firefighter in a burning building, working non-stop to pay his mother’s medical bills, or almost crashing his car because he falls asleep at the wheel, Ja-hong is all tears and smiles. It’s not hard to see the reason: Regardless of how much he suffered in the moment, in the end, his experiences always served a purpose — but now that he’s dead, those experiences have ended altogether.

After we die, we no longer get to feel anything. No sadness. No joy. No pain. No happiness. Perhaps, rather than just hoping for an afterlife in which we’ll still get to reminisce, at least every now and then, we should cherish our feelings, experiences, and memories — in their entirety, not just the “Greatest Hits Edition” — while we’re still here.

Safe travels, and remember: Even the worst moment can become a good story, but the only way to find out the ending is to keep walking until you’re back in good company, ready to tell it.

Problems Are Indefinite Guests

Imagine you’re running an inn. Every now and then, an odd guest shows up. They might not pay a single cent, burp loudly while sitting at the bar, or constantly hassle you with outrageous demands. For some reason, however, your boss always tells you that these guests have a right to stay. “Take care of them like all the others,” she says, and, begrudgingly, you oblige.

Every one of these guests displays some other form of irritating behavior, and sometimes, half a dozen of them show up at once. The worst part, however, is that you don’t know how long any one of these guests will remain at your inn. Some stay for a day, others disappear within a week, and others still have you grinding your teeth for months as they spill yet another glass of orange juice at breakfast.

That’s what problems are: Indefinite guests in the inn that is your little world. Your boss is life itself, and so, no matter how much you wish those pesky guests would all just disappear overnight, you’ll always have some problems roaming your living room.

At times, your humble abode will be peaceful. Everyone will sit quietly in their corner, enjoying a cup of tea. Every now and then, the place will be a flaming mess. Dishes on the floor. Stray cats pooping on the counter. A bar fight in full force across the entire room. That’s life! Problems come, problems go.

The trick is to not get so emotionally invested into any one problem that it occupies your every thought. Stay cool. Practice detachment. You want to be able to watch a problem cause mayhem with a chuckle while still servicing its needs. If you take good care of it, in time, it’ll leave of its own accord — and so will all the others.

Being a good host, like everything, is usually hardest when it’s most valuable. Stay patient, don’t give up, and who knows? The worst problem might also leave the most generous tip on its way out the door.

When You Can’t Win

There’s a saying in German that translates roughly as “I can’t reach a green branch.” It means that, no matter what you do, you can’t seem to win anywhere in life right now.

Sometimes, problems visit you from all corners of life at the same time. Work isn’t going well, your back pain demands more treatment, and of course right then your kids decide to be extra demanding. In other words, you can’t reach a green branch. Wherever you try to grab, brown leaves are falling, but if you stretch any further, so might you.

Before you tumble down from the treetops, take a moment. Sit on the top rung of your ladder. Think. Perhaps this down season of your life is just that. A moment in time. A temporary losing streak — and, though temporary, losing streaks are never about winning. They’re about surviving.

When Katniss ends up in the Hunger Games for the second time, she knows a different tune is in order. Not that the life-or-death tournament was ever about winning, but this time, she won’t be able to hustle herself to the top, no matter how clever she is or how hard she tries. Unless she finds a different path, she’ll never reach a green branch.

Change your perspective. Stop trying so hard, and, perhaps, try something else altogether. Lower the bar. You’re not going for gold right now. You’re not looking for evergreen. Climb down, and tend to your roots. Feel the comforting stability of rock bottom if you must, and remember that the strongest part of a tree lies at its feet. Take care of the basics, and soon enough, green leaves will surround you once more.

Beyond Anxiety, There Is Peace

There’s this quote that “everything you want is on the other side of fear.” Well, not everything. Inner peace is on the other side of anxiety — and the only way to get over that is to go straight through.

Week in point: On Monday and Tuesday, my productivity was great. On Wednesday, I didn’t feel so well, and most of the day went towards rest. That made me anxious about achieving all I wanted to achieve that week. On Thursday, instead of a quick morning doctor’s appointment, I ended up having a multi-location medical marathon, which initially made me more anxious, but by the time I decided to just do what I could in the breaks between appointments, the tide began to turn. “Health comes first.”

On Friday, in theory, everything could have gone back to normal, but instead of frantically rushing to work and trying to catch up, I woke up peacefully. I took my time, wrote at home, and only left the house around noon. In other words, when all signs were pointing towards the gas pedal, I put the thrusters in reverse and slowed down to speed up. Surprisingly, the world is still turning. That week has come and gone, and so has the anxiety. The wind may blow from time to time, but usually, when the storm moves on, we are still here.

Whether it was refusing to be bothered, a genuine concern for my health, or some other kind of clever argument for surrender, I cannot tell you — but I can say that, when you’re anxious, it is critical to hold out until you reach one of these points. Whatever will carry you through the tension, it’s coming, and no matter how barren the current landscape, beyond anxiety, there’ll always lie the lands of peace.

Functional Clothing

When you open your closet in the morning, do you ask, “What outfit will help me perform best today?” Or is it more along the lines of, “What outfit will make me look good today?”

When you go on a safari, you don’t wonder which kind of beige the lion would like. You pick the trousers with the most pockets and the vest that will best keep out the sand. Meanwhile, in our modern society where clothes are all but irrelevant as we all type away on nearly identical keyboards, we still spend a great deal of energy on dressing for opinions rather than functionality.

The problem is about as old as clothes themselves and, thankfully, turtleneck-wearing geniuses, billionaires in sweatpants, and the working-from-home revolution have already mellowed dress codes to some extent. But as long as the idea is in our heads — “I need to look good in front of strangers” — the battle is far from won.

“Kings and queens who wear a suit but once, though made by some tailor or dressmaker to their majesties, cannot know the comfort of wearing a suit that fits,” Thoreau mused in Walden some 150 years ago. “A man who has at length found something to do will not need to get a new suit to do it in,” he suggested. “Much of any necessary or important work may be accomplished without adding to [our] wardrobe,” Thoreau believed, and today, he’d be more right than ever in this line of thinking.

But if “the head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same,” or at least feel pressured to do so, we are no further than when Thoreau penned his words, no better than the kings and queens who wear a suit but once.

Sometimes, dressing for performance will mean looking good — and not just when the performance is one where you’re trying to impress other people. How you feel when you leave the house matters. Most of the time, however, it is enough to comb your hair, smell-check the sweater, and once again find comfort in the suit that already fits.

“Perhaps we should never procure a new suit,” the naturalist wondered, “however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles.”

If an accessory or routine aids you in accomplishing the important work you set out to do, by all means, use it. But if you find yourself dressing mainly to not upset others, you might want to give this century-old metric a try: New identity, new clothes. Same identity, same clothes. Now that’s some functional clothing.

The Value of Zero Thoughts

“So how much data are you gonna get on this new plan?” my friend asked. “I think it’s 20 GB per month,” the other friend said. “But do you really need 20 gigs? You’re never gonna use that, are you?” Then came the lesson: “Some things in life, I just don’t want to think about.”

Lately, my wifi at home has been super slow. So every now and then, to watch a movie or zoom with my girlfriend, I’d turn on my hotspot and use my phone’s data instead. I’m on a 10 GB per month plan, and a single TV show episode can easily take half a gig, so at first, I was constantly fretting: “How much data is this gonna cost? Should I try switching back to wifi? What if I run out halfway through the month?”

After I heard my friend’s take, however, I changed my approach. I decided that, at 31 years old, my mental space was too precious to be sacrificed over an extra 10 or 15 euros per month for more data. When I get home after a long day at work, I want to talk to my partner without the connection constantly breaking up, and I want to watch TV without tapping my fingers on the table every five minutes because the show is once again buffering.

So, new policy: “If my data runs out, I’ll buy more. Period.” I cannot tell you how liberating it felt to make that decision. More than it should have. But that’s the value of expending zero thoughts towards a topic: It’s not a little less than “a little.” It’s a lot.

It takes more space in your mind to create a new section dedicated to a novel issue than it does to think a little more about a problem you already have. Therefore, eliminating a single section entirely will bring more relief than dialing five challenges down to “I now only have to think about this once a week.”

Just like a bad habit is often easier to abandon than to practice in moderation, thoughts improve exponentially the more focused you direct them. Don’t short-shift yourself by wasting your mental power on trite problems. Remember the value of zero thoughts.

Forever Can Go Fast

In late 2018, the city of Munich started renovating its glyptotheque, the museum holding a variety of ancient sculptures. The scaffolding went up, the machines got to work, and around the construction site, a big banner read: “Reopening in 2020.”

Back then, I passed by the building almost every day, and each time I thought: “Man, this is gonna take forever.” Of course, life went on, and so did I. I wrote my Master’s thesis. I graduated. We had a tiny pandemic, and I entered a long-distance relationship.

When I next took a conscious stroll around the building with a friend, the year was 2022 — and despite a 6-month delay, the glyptotheque had reopened over a year ago. That “forever” went by pretty fast.

Don’t dread the long road that lies ahead. You’ll be 500 miles along before you know it, and by the time you remember to look back, you’ll find plenty worth missing that you’ve left behind.