You Only See the Grill

I’m not sure I’ve ever spent this much money in such a short amount of time. Increased rent, buying a bed, sofa, dining table — furnishing adds up fast. Of course, there are also the treats one might afford themselves after finally graduating to a new lifestyle. I haven’t owned a TV in 13 years, but now, I definitely want a big one. And since she loves BBQing, my girlfriend also bought us a new grill.

“My god,” I sometimes think when sharing these genuinely exciting updates with friends. “They must think I’m indulgent.” I’m even more hesitant to share such purchases online. Friends and family usually have an okay understanding of why we do things. They know our backstory, and it’s easy for them to be happy for us. But if and when you perform for an audience, well, they only see the grill. “That’s an expensive BBQ! Why does he brag about that? Meanwhile, I just lost my job!”

It’s much harder to have empathy when you only know the result, not the path someone took to get there. What makes friends happy for us might make strangers envious. When I tell you about my new BBQ, you can’t feel the ten years of hard work to get there. You don’t see the long hours, fiddling with tax calculations, or even the painful assembly process of the thing. All you see is the outcome: a shiny new grill, ready for some delicious steak action.

Of course, we are all the audience at some point or other. You only see my grill, and I only see my favorite car Youtuber’s garage. That’s normal. The effort worth making is to try and have empathy regardless. To try to at least imagine the long road it took to get there. That way, we’ll feel a little less envious, and a little more like a friend.

Don’t overshare when context is lacking, and don’t judge a book when you’ve only read one page.

Small Gestures

When I see a lonely speck on a big surface, I wipe it away. When there’s a stack of papers lying loosely on a table, I align them and put them into one of the corners. Some call this OCD, others call it “an eye for detail.” I’ve inherited this trait from my mom who, over 30 years of running a wonderful home, has made tens of thousands of small gestures part of the fabric that makes said home so wonderful.

Often invisible but never insignificant, it has taken me just as long to fully appreciate these gestures, and it’ll probably take me a lifetime to truly comprehend how much meaning they can add to other people’s lives. As a child, you barely notice your tied shoes, full lunch box, or dust-free toilet seat. Your job is to run, to eat, and to poop. You’re so busy soaking up the world and everything that’s in it, you have no time — nor the wits — to comprehend your caretakers paving your way. But every day, they do, and without them, you’d stumble, go hungry, or get stomach cramps.

Small gestures are most strongly felt once they are absent, and if we are lucky, we first might feel those gaps as teenagers, if only by means of our friends constantly asking us for a piece from our lunchbox — for they arrive at school without one every day, and we never go hungry. Next, you might try performing small gestures for someone you fancy, and if those go unnoticed, that too holds a lesson: At least every now and then, it’s nice, essential even, to feel acknowledged. As time wears on, you might realize small gestures open a lot of doors at work — or get scolded for not going the extra mile. You may collect bonus points on your exams for sharing knowledge none of the questions asked for, and slowly but surely, the insight trickles in: the little things are not so little at all.

The importance of details first hit me in a big way when I became self-employed. It was impossible to stand out by just “doing the work.” There were thousands of people doing it! All of the credit you wanted to earn was waiting in the extra hours — the screenshots you added to your blog post, the additional design options you provided, the second check-in with your client they didn’t pay for. Now that I am, for the first time, managing a home that houses more than just me, I’m slowly coming full circle. “Thank you for clearing out the dishwasher,” my girlfriend might say, and I’ll realize I’m not sure I said those words to my mom even once — yet she always thanks me or my dad when we do it. But there’s more than one way of contributing to family, and I’m also learning that we — the folk of small gestures — ultimately don’t do them just for the sake of others. We do them for ourselves.

If you really thought, “I’m sure she’ll be happy if I do this,” every time you wipe your girlfriend’s nightstand clean, yet nine out of ten times, she won’t say a word, you wouldn’t maintain this habit for long. No. The only way to arrive early at pickup time, get up to make breakfast, or refill the rinse aid in your dishwasher time and again, year after year, is to live and breathe the philosophy of the detail-oriented. To believe. To know, deep in your heart, that all of those tiny efforts will one day add up, even if you might not be there to see it — and that even where they don’t, they’ll still give you that warm, satisfying feeling of having done your very best.

Whether you’re a loving parent, dedicated caretaker, or other-conscious artist or entrepreneur, I want you to know: Your small gestures matter. All of those swapped toilet rolls, tiny gifts, and extra chapter breakdowns on your slides have not, are not, will not be made in vain. Not everyone will always see you, but in the long run, the people from whom it matters most most certainly will. But even if the road is lonely and praise is scarce, there’ll always be that sense of contentment when you go to bed at night: You’ve done your part. Your spark is out there, and it is glowing as strongly as it can.

Believe in small gestures.

Still Got It

I can’t freestyle like I used to. My hip rotators begin to hurt the moment I even think about doing some of the football tricks I once pulled off with ease. But that doesn’t mean I can’t freestyle anymore at all. After years of inactivity, a few days ago, I bought some soccer shoes and a ball. So far, I went out twice and tried some moves. Just for the feeling. It’s nice to see the basics are still there.

Will I ever get back to the golden days? Eight out of ten orthopedists would say it’s unlikely. Aside from the required training, which I lack the time for to begin with, the lower half of my body would not thank me for wandering too far down memory lane. But a little exercise and nostalgia? Both of those can go a long way.

There’s a great How I Met Your Mother episode called “Unfinished,” in which the characters find themselves confronted with the tough reality that they are no longer the people they once aspired to be. Even if Lily still keeps her karate instructor’s number in her phone years after she took her last class, she is not “someone who trains karate” — but as long as she holds on to the number as a token, she still gets to feel like she is.

“Labels expire,” Derek Sivers says. “Be honest about what’s past and what’s present. Retiring outdated titles lets you admit what you’re really doing now. And if you don’t like the idea of losing your title, then do something about it!”

In the end, each of the gang members must let go of a romantic but extinct identity — or double down on it and re-earn their title. No matter which option they choose, however, they all find a sense of peace from their decision. Marshall is no longer in a funk band, but he can still sing to himself while he vacuums his apartment. Ted did not become an architect to build corporate headquarters, but if he takes on the Goliath National Bank project, at least he’ll get to create a skyscraper. And Lily? Well, let’s just say there was an oddly tall student in the next young adults’ karate class.

It’s true that we must keep earning our titles, but if we retain little artifacts from identities long past, we can still enjoy the people we once were, even if we can no longer fully access them. Don’t take your labels so seriously, but don’t underestimate the confidence and happiness boost from a little bit of reminiscing either. Your grasp around your once-favorite habit might no longer be as strong as it was, but you’ve still got it — and that’s as great a reason to look forward to tomorrow as it is one to celebrate yesterday.

Tolerance Is a Superpower

I just spent an hour being the big spoon without getting any shut-eye. The cuddling is always nice, but the position is not the most comfortable. Since my girlfriend slept like a rock, however, I decided to muscle through. In fact, I turned not moving into a game: How long can I tolerate this position without disrupting her sleep? I managed to stay still all the way until she woke up on her own.

After she’d had a severe concussion that forced her to maintain bed rest for weeks, Jane McGonigal did something similar: She turned her illness into a game. Instead of being depressed at her immobility, McGonigal became “Jane the Concussion Slayer.” She fought bad guys, like bright lights, and collected power ups, like taking short walks, until she recovered. She named her game “SuperBetter,” and it eventually became not just a bestselling book but also an app helping over a million people with their mental health (disclosure: I invested in their crowdfunding campaign).

Whether it’s meditation, being the big spoon, or sitting in your chair for extended periods of time, it’s easy enough to understand the value of tolerance when it comes to physical discomfort, but the more I thought about it as I was lying perfectly still, the more I realized: Tolerance applies to almost everything in life. Even when you’re asked to do something instead of nothing, you’ll still need to tolerate that activity until it’s done.

How fast I can finish my next big post is a question of how long I’m willing to sit with it each day. Yesterday, I quit around lunch time. Can I work on it until the afternoon today? Are you willing to tolerate boring research papers? Will you stare at the blank canvas until inspiration strikes? Or do you fidget and hop to Twitter as soon as the first inkling of self-doubt appears?

Tolerance enables focus, and, in the long run, focus is the only thing that works. That’s why it’s a superpower, and if you look deep inside yourself, perhaps in a moment of stillness — forced or otherwise — you might be surprised at how much of it is already there.

Go and Prepare and Do It

Having grown up on and around boats, when she was 13, Laura Dekker decided she would sail around the world — all on her own. Her parents supported the idea, but the Dutch courts didn’t, and so it was only a year later, at 14, that she finally got the go-ahead. More than 500 days after setting off, at the age of 16, Laura and her two-master, the Guppy, arrived back home safe and sound, making her the youngest person ever to solo-circumnavigate the globe.

Now in her 20s, Laura still gets interviewed on a regular basis about the experience. In one conversation, she is asked what helped her “feel ready” for the adventure. “Now that I’m older, I do realize the process is different for children vs. adults. That’s the beautiful thing about children. They have something adults have lost. A curiosity. A spark.”

Back then, Laura didn’t really think about her decision. She didn’t think about “being ready.” She just felt like going on this adventure, so she said she wanted to, and then she did. “As a child, you think very simple — and it is very simple, in fact. You just go and prepare and do it. It’s not that difficult.”

Most of the obstacles children face when trying to do something special are the stones we as adults put in their way. For Laura, it was a court order. For most kids, it’ll be their parents. Once we’re grown up, we lay those same stones into our own path. But the truth is, life still can be simple. You just go and prepare and do it. Your hurdles will be different ones, some inner, some outer, but if there’s something you care about doing, as soon as you set foot on the path, you’ll be on your way.

“This feeling of ‘when I’m ready,’ deep in your heart you know it, and all the rest of it is just making excuses,” Laura says. Don’t let those excuses bury your dreams. Remember your inner child. Channel your simple thinking. And then, whatever your version of a sailing trip around the world is, go and prepare and do it.

What Makes a Hero

If you could travel back in time to change the past in your favor, would you do it? What a question! Of course you would! Who wouldn’t want the right lottery numbers when the jackpot is high, a winning stock tip just before the bull run, or a second chance to ask their crush out properly this time?

When we phrase it in terms of what’s in it for us, free time travel seems like a no-brainer. But what about the other people? What about the consequences of our “adjustments?” If Marvel has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t mess with time without turning the world upside down — not even a little bit.

Perhaps your lottery win takes it away from someone who really needs it, and then that person’s daughter becomes first an orphan, then a politician, and, eventually, a dictator throwing an entire country into misery. What if our sudden insider knowledge of the market triggers an SEC investigation — not into us but into the company — and then what was supposed to be a billion-dollar business employing thousands of people and helping millions goes bankrupt before it can ever flourish? And your crush? Maybe they would go out with you, fall in love with you, even marry you — but if that marriage ends in a bitter divorce seven years later, I doubt either of you will think the time tinkering was worth it in the end.

In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the stage play set 19 years after the original saga ends, the main characters — the children of Harry, Draco Malfoy, Ron, and Hermione — are forced to grapple with such moral dilemmas in real-time (pun intended). So is everyone’s darling, “The Boy Who Lived” himself.

Faced with a chance to undo the tragedy that has haunted him all his life, Harry must decide: “Am I going to try and stop Voldemort? Or will I just sit here and let the last 26 years unfold exactly as they have?” We, the audience, already know the right answer — and so does Harry’s son: “There is something you could do — to stop him. But you won’t.” And to that, even the most hesitant of friends, Draco Malfoy, can only respond with two words: “That’s heroic.”

Sometimes, the bravest thing we can do is to do nothing at all. To let the past be the past and not rush to undo mistakes which, for all we know, ultimately set us on the right path. The next time someone offers you free time travel, think long and hard before meddling with the clock. Chances are, you need neither superpowers nor magic — only to look ahead and keep walking the road that’s in front of you. That’s heroic, and in the real world, it’s the everyday heroes who save the day.

The Bench and the Book

Yesterday, I came across a bench sitting on a patch of green, dropped into the leftover space at an intersection where three small roads crossed. The long, also-green slabs of wood would have made for a nice rest all on their own, but there, lying unsupervised on the side, was a novel, just waiting to be read.

I’d love to tell you I just sat down and read the whole thing in three hours, but life had other plans for me. I did reflect, however, on the fact that a world where things like this still exist can’t be so bad.

The bench and the book. It was an open invitation, and everyone who passed by understood its terms. No one rushed past me to grab the free book and run. No one lay there and just took a nap. Life said, “Here’s a book and a bench. Please sit and read, or be on your way in peace,” and people honored the deal.

The best part, however, is that the magic still works even if you don’t take up the offer. “That sounds lovely, but now that I think about it, I’m actually already pretty relaxed and rested. Thanks for the reminder!” Perhaps, if there were more books sitting on more benches, the world would altogether be a more harmonious place.

You might not find a magical recovery station today, but remember: Rest is always available. Slowing down is a card you can play any time, and whether you ultimately choose to or not, it’s usually a far better joker than any of its alternatives.

Tradition Colors Perception

When we got our hot beverages this morning, my girlfriend asked whether the tiny glass of water that came as a side was for drinking. “Haha! Of course!” I said. “What else could it be for?” “Well, when I went to Hong Kong, they gave a glass of water with each cup of tea. I downed the glass because I was so thirsty, and the waiter was horrified. He told me that water was only for rinsing the cup. So now, I thought I’d better ask!”

Perspective is everything, and perception — the tool we use to assemble our perspective — is colored by tradition. Present the exact same situation to two people separated by a few thousand miles, and you might get two very different interpretations.

To someone raised in Europe, a glass of water next to a hot drink will always mean, “Enjoy after consuming your beverage.” Fly 9,000 kilometers to the east, and almost everyone you meet will assume that very same water is good for little more than washing out their cup before they use it.

Everyone relies on tradition. We can’t not be shaped by our past and the pasts of those who surround us. Often, tradition is both wonderful and helpful — but sometimes, it gets in the way. Every now and then, look at the plate or person in front of you and ask: “Is this really the thing I think I am seeing? Or might I be looking at something different entirely?”

Sometimes, the water next to your cappuccino is for drinking, and sometimes, it’s only a means for cleaning your cup. You needn’t expect a new interpretation each time you’re served with a coffee, but imagining new meanings for known situations from time to time will keep your mind open for moments when a closed one won’t do.

Keep Stacking Little Wins

I easily get annoyed when I don’t have enough white space on my calendar. Most of my projects that move needle require long blocks of deep work, and so it’s easy to feel that “if I can’t put in four hours, why even start?”

The same thing can happen on bigger time frames. I catch myself fretting about having two big vacations back-to-back. Part of that is just being self-employed, but another part is, I think, a bias many of us succumb to: We think we’ll have more time as time goes on.

Career-wise, we tend to expect that the further we get, the more time we’ll have to spend on work we enjoy. To some extent, that’s true. As you build up seniority, you gain autonomy. As your income increases, you don’t need to fret as much about every additional dollar. But especially when you’re still young, in your 20s or 30s, the buildup of these buffers is often offset by something else: Your personal life will only get busier, and that, too, takes time.

Let’s say that, at 35, you finally have your ducks in a row. You make enough, and you control your schedule and projects to a large extent. Yay! But then, over the next five years, you get married, buy a house, and have two children. Oops! So much for that big art exhibition you wanted to host just for the sake of it.

There are many versions of this fallacy. It doesn’t have to be your personal life that’s eating your work hours. It could be the other way around — something that’s occasionally happening to my dad in his 50s — or a medical issue sapping your energy altogether for months. The point is that we can’t neatly silo life into various categories, let alone protect those categories from affecting one another. The hours you’ve earned back at work might go straight into quality time with your partner, and your minor car crash might find its soft landing in your unexpectedly large year-end bonus. That’s life!

The lesson is that we shouldn’t expect our lives to magically get easier, and we shouldn’t wait for better times to do big, important things. Instead of hoping we’ll have more time, we must use the time we have.

Chances are, I won’t be able to make a big dent in a 10,000-word piece in just an hour. But I can make a small one, and that’s better than no progress at all. Equally, just because working hours are cut short by a vacation does not mean the whole month goes out the window. That only happens if we throw out our attitude first — but if we keep stacking little wins, we’ll likely still be proud at what we can do in any given 30-day period, no matter how torpedoed by outside forces it may have been.

Don’t wait for the perfect stretch of open road. Use today. Keep stacking little wins.

Sacrifice Must Hurt

After four years of working like a madman to survive as a self-employed creative, it first dawned on me that, “Damn, this making money thing is actually really hard.”

For most of my life, I had been told that I was special, mostly for having an above-average IQ and getting good grades with little effort. Now that I had stepped into an arena I had no experience in, and where the audience didn’t care one bit about who you were, only what you could do for them, it was clear that I was not special, nor would my talent magically carry me to the heights I had once been so sure I would reach.

I always knew that success takes hard work and diligence, and I quickly adjusted to both of those after choosing my own career path, but what I didn’t know and wasn’t prepared for was the amount of sacrifice greatness demands. So. Much. Sacrifice. And I wasn’t even halfway where I hoped to go yet!

That lesson first registered with regards to making money, perhaps because that was the most immediate task on my plate. If you start from scratch, you can’t just make a million dollars in six months and go lie on the beach for the next five years. That’s not how it works. Four years in, I finally realized — and accepted — that at least a decade of hard work is in order, perhaps a lot more. I also realized that, for most people, myself included, the hard work wasn’t the problem. Many people work hard every day. That can be its own reward. On most days, I had fun doing, writing, learning, even if the hours were long. What makes people quit is the sacrifice. Not doing other things, that is what hurts. It’s also the only thing that works.

One of the very first things I did as a writer was to write a book. I took what should have been a series of blog posts and, within a week, turned it into a short book I published on Kindle. I could have stopped right there. I had everything I needed. A craft to master. A way to monetize it. And so much to learn about both. What did I do? I went on to the next thing. I started coaching. I tried making online courses. I launched a website. Instead of taking the pain of sticking to one thing and grinding it out until the exponential rewards kicked in, I kept shopping around for various ways of making money. I just couldn’t sacrifice all the opportunities in front of me, and that’s why, four years later, I still had mediocre results. That, too, caused pain. In hindsight, a kind that is worse.

Back then, I summarized that insight for myself: “If your sacrifice doesn’t hurt, it is not working.”

It’s easy to confuse hard work and sacrifice. We tell ourselves the long hours are the pound of flesh we bring to the table. But if we don’t have focus, if we’re unable to kill our FOMO, to make the true sacrifice of letting go of opportunities left, right, and center, those hours aren’t worth very much. They can’t add up because we’re all over the place. I used to think that hard work was enough, but it’s not. I wanted to try out all these different ways of making money, and so I allowed myself to get distracted. I forwent the sacrifice, and I paid the bill years later.

That’s the crux of the sacrificing matter: In a world full of choices, you can choose not to do it. Especially the emotional kind of sacrifice which, in most cases, is the one that truly counts. For most of us and the big dreams we have, physical sacrifice is the exception, not the norm. Here, too, of course, the same rules apply: Working out twice a week instead of four times is not a sacrifice. Not going to the gym at all and gaining weight or losing fitness because you’re working so much, that is a sacrifice. One is merely an inconvenience, the other actually hurts.

But the emotional sacrifice of not pursuing jobs, projects, or other people you could date? Phew. That is the big one. We love hoarding ideas, dabbling in projects, and keeping our feet in all kinds of doors just to make sure they don’t fall shut on us. We could just use salt and pepper for our eggs, but we prefer to throw in half the spice rack and call it haute cuisine. Variety may be the spice of life, but it is also the death of achievement.

It hurts to eliminate variety. To let go of past identities. Of ideas you could execute, places you could go, and versions of yourself you could become. Those are the true, painful sacrifices success actually demands. Those are the emotional burdens we must sit with if we want to be great husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, or brothers and sisters. The itches we mustn’t scratch if we want to get rich and retire young, become a pioneer in our field, or lead a company that changes the world.

No one will be there with us at our desk when we feel the pull of a new idea, the temptation of an enticing proposal in our inbox, or the lure of some other distraction about to torpedo our dreams. It is on us to make the hard choices, to let those emotions linger and pass without acting on them so we may stay en route to the destination that truly matters, and we’ll have to make those choices time and again before we arrive.

That’s the true nature of sacrifice. It goes well beyond hard work, and it only works when it hurts — but in the end, unlike the easy path, which is guaranteed to end in misery, it may, with a little luck along the way, be well worth the price.