Worth a Splinter

I felt nostalgic on my walk, so I plucked a stalk of wheat from the field. I used to do it a lot when I was a kid, pretending to be a farmer and chewing on grain. It also made me appreciate the plant that forms the foundation of German food — bread in particular — a lot more.

What is it worth to reconnect with that feeling? My girlfriend told me not to play around, and of course, as if to prove her point, I got not one but three small splinters from a single stalk of wheat. However, I also hadn’t pulled a splinter out of my thumb in years, and, oddly, even that was kind of fun. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

No risk, no reward, they say. If you play outside, you might catch a bruise. But if you don’t, you also don’t get to have fun, reconnect with nature, or draw inspiration from your nostalgia for simpler days — and if, as on most days, the worst we need expect from our adventures is a splinter, aren’t those rewards well worth the chance?

Find the New in the Old

When my girlfriend and I visit my parents, she sometimes joins my dad and me on our walk around the village. Recently, she pointed out that each house seemed to have a different clay animal “protecting” its door. Over the course of just one walk, we spotted turtles, mice, dogs, cats, sheep, birds, elephants, and more.

I have taken that same walk hundreds of times, yet I never noticed this pattern. Individual figurines, perhaps, but never the totality of “Germans love to put spirit animals on their front lawn.” That’s a completely new lesson, learned from an extremely old routine.

It is never too late to find the new inside the old. You can look at the same painting a thousand times and still see something new. You can write 7,000 blog posts and find you still haven’t run out of things to say. And you can still discover a better way of watering your plants after doing it 500 times.

We all have an eye for innovation, ideas, and inspiration. All we have to do is keep looking. It’s the secret of aging gracefully, of converting boredom into fun, and of focusing until you succeed. And when your eyes are tired? Then you simply invite someone along for your walk — after all, two explorers will likely spot twice as many animals as one.

Brush With Your Eyes Closed

Ever since my dentist told me to put my electric toothbrush on each tooth individually, then just let it work its magic for a few seconds, I’ve been obsessed with seeing my teeth. Did I get the inside surface properly? The outside? What about the top?

One day, however, I was tired, and when I closed my eyes while brushing, I made an astonishing discovery: It is much easier to feel my teeth than it is to see them. I can brush more accurately if I don’t try to look and instead put my energy into using my sense of touch.

To most of us, sight is our most important sense, and likely also our strongest. It delivers a plethora of information on a constant basis, and it is arguably the most helpful in navigating the world. Naturally, we rely on our eyes by default — but that doesn’t make our eyes the best tool for every job.

The same dynamic applies to tools in every other category: There’s nothing wrong with favorites and defaults, but every now and then, we must be flexible enough to put them aside. Running shoes won’t get you very far when the ground is frozen, and if your stove top looks like a war zone each time you fry a piece of chicken, why not try grilling it in the oven?

You won’t always seek out new approaches right when you need them. It might take weeks until you randomly stumble on a better way of doing. But when you do, will you listen? Are you ready to receive? That’s more important than exactly nailing the balance between innovation and tradition.

Sometimes, a smack-the-forehead idea will land in your lap two hours before the deadline, and sometimes, your eyes will fall shut after years of looking in vain — but if that’s what it takes to finally see clearly, then it doesn’t matter that you’re late. All that matters is that you adjust when adjusting is the right thing to do.

Focus = Conviction

One of the many reasons that focus is hard is that it requires conviction. It’s easy to hedge your bets. To start three side gigs you each barely believe in, and hope at least one pays off. At the same time, starting multiple projects at once is the best way to make sure all of them will fail — but the same thing could happen if you focus, and then you’d have fewer excuses.

If you spread your efforts evenly as part of a diversification strategy, not putting in 100% is part of the design. If you go all in on a venture that fails, your entire faith is on trial. So is your work ethic. Did you really give it your best shot? Or were you just lazy to begin with?

It’s true that our conviction will be under constant attack when we choose to prioritize a single outcome, but like most dynamics in life, the focus-conviction highway is a two-way street: Putting our eggs into a single basket is also a great incentive to have more faith in that basket.

Yesterday, I spent two hours copying and pasting code snippets to embed our last six months’ worth of Youtube videos on the Four Minute Books website. It was boring, mindless work, and it’ll have a small impact on our traffic at best — but it was a dedicated act of focus, and that gave me conviction.

Any great result comes from countless little steps, each one almost imperceptible, and yet they all add up over time. We can draw faith from each of those steps — not because we’re so sure of where we’ll end up, but because while everyone else is stuck at a crossroads, trying to decide where to go, we are already walking.

So what if we don’t make it to the top of the mountain? At least we chose a mountain and started to climb. Sometimes, you’ll have to shut down your business. Try a new way of sharing your art. Completely change your style of parenting. But if you put your whole self into any given one of these, you won’t feel too bad even if they fail. You’ll be proud of your conviction, and you’ll get to refill that conviction with small acts of focus on a daily basis.

Have enough conviction to dare and focus, then focus enough to keep nourishing your conviction. It’s a cycle that works even when your efforts don’t, and at the end of the day, that’s more important than success.

Simplicity Is a Mindset

Years ago, I went to a pedicurist because the nails on my big toes kept chipping. She recommended I file them down straight instead of clipping them at an angle. Her method worked like a charm, and so until today, every few weeks, I file my big toenails.

Whenever I do it, however, I usually start off on the wrong foot (pun intended): I furiously saw back and forth with the file in short, quick motions — and that barely reduces the nail size at all, let alone does it in a uniform matter. Maybe it’s my way of testing the waters, or maybe I’m just anxious to get the task done, but inevitably, I’ll catch myself and remember: “Ah! Slow, steady motions. Seesaw, not chainsaw.” As soon as I change my rhythm, I can see the nail getting shorter with every stride, and on my second toe, the process takes less time.

Simplicity is, first and foremost, a mindset. We think it’s a result or an action, but unless you approach life from a simple point of view, you’ll neither take simple actions nor get simple results. You can solve complex problems with simple solutions. You can feel at ease in stressful situations. But it all starts in your head.

When I’m in a simple mindset, I won’t rush to attack the mountain of to-dos that never shrinks. I’ll take my time, do what I can, and the next day, I’ll do it again. When I’m primed for simple, I notice the little joys and feel grateful for a good cup of coffee and some sun. I’ll also cut through the clutter and focus on what matters — and that applies to big project plans as much as it applies to filing my toenails correctly from the get-go.

Why cut something that can be groomed? Why do something fast if doing it slowly is the faster option? In order to ask such piercing questions, we must first be in a simple state of mind. Cultivate simplicity in your life. Make room for it. And know that, with a little pause and reflection, it’s an option always ready for you to choose.

Now, if only we could update the definition of “simple-minded” — but perhaps that’s a project for after cutting our nails.

Trimming the Frills

Every six months or so, I freak out a little bit. I feel that I am too busy, that my life is too full, and that I need to cut things away. Simplify. “Hack away the unessential,” as Bruce Lee would say.

I like my life calm and quiet. Peaceful mornings. Few meetings. A handful of bigger, longer projects rather than a million uncorrelated tasks. The calm life makes me happy, but it also enables focus, and in a world where focus gets rarer by the day, it’s also increasingly valuable.

But calm is hard to find and harder yet to maintain. Whether we start with an empty calendar, phone, roster of habits, or all of them, they inevitably fill up quickly. You begin a project, but daily operations get in the way. An enticing proposal lands in your inbox, plus you have another idea, and soon, you find you have no time for the job that was supposed to be the only job. You subscribe to one channel on Youtube, then another, then another, and suddenly, you watch videos for 45 minutes every day. That’s why, from time to time, we need to trim the frills.

One morning, I’ll wake up and realize: “I feel overwhelmed.” I take action immediately. I’ll stop tracking some habits. I’ll delete some apps, change the wallpaper on my phone, and close all the browser tabs I’ve had opened for weeks that I’m not going to act on any time soon. I might delete some notes with ideas that I know I won’t (or shouldn’t) pursue, and I’ll likely also cancel a subscription or shut down some efforts related to a project that’s not going anywhere.

This kind of “spring cleaning” is neither very sophisticated nor very organized, but it gets the job done of making me feel better. Lighter. Calm again. In the end, not much will have changed. I’ll still do most of the same routines, work on mostly the same projects, and use mostly the same tools to do it — but I’ve trimmed the frills, and that makes my life feel a lot smoother. There’s less clutter around the edges. Usually, it’s that clutter that makes us feel overwhelmed.

A full life isn’t a bad thing. Many people wish they had a vocation to pursue or deep friendships to nourish. It’s the bells and whistles we slowly attach to these causes that eventually get in the way of pursuing them, and that’s why, every now and then, a good frill-trimming is in order.

If you only need to calibrate your life once and then can maintain the same setup for a decade, hats off to you. But if you can’t, know there’s no harm in realigning. Just whip out your scissors, and start trimming the frills.

Not Every Problem Is Yours

As an employee in a company, this is easy to understand. It’s a rule that drives thousands of dedicated workers nuts every day — because they refuse to accept it and want to do more than what’s asked of them — but it also lets billions sleep peacefully at night, knowing they’ve done all they should and no less.

But what if you run a small business? What if you’re flying solo? Can the same logic still apply? After all, there is little to no one to hand things off to, and as the founder or head of a company, at the end of the day, every problem is yours, even if less than half of them are your fault.

Then again, not every problem needs to be solved. Some, you can ignore forever without consequences. Others should fall into someone else’s purview but needn’t. If your marketing person can’t do Facebook ads, do you really need to hire someone external? Or can you just grow your business without Facebook ads? Find a way that plays on that person’s strengths. Don’t insist on one that forces them to start fixing weaknesses.

If you’re a solo operator, ask whose problem it would be as if you had a staff of 100 people. Is this an issue that would land all the way down the chain? Then you can probably take care of it later. When someone tells me my website lacks a certain feature, I can think: “Well, that would be a developer’s task. I’m not a developer. Do I want to wear that hat so I can solve this problem? Or should I ask an actual developer? Or will most people be fine without this to begin with?”

Businesses draw lines between people so that everyone can do their job and feel satisfied about their quota. We rarely bother verifying these lines, applying them to our own work, or extending them outside of business hours — but interesting insights appear when we do.

Not every problem is yours. Make sure each challenge stays with who it belongs, even if, often, that’ll mean no one will tackle it at all.

You’re Used to Failure

…but that doesn’t make winning wrong. That’s a lesson I learned from Nathan Barry’s “Secret Money Newsletter.”

If you run a small business or fly solo as a freelancer or creator, this will probably intuitively ring true: You’re always responsible, and everything that goes wrong is your fault. But even as an employee at a bigger company, you’re probably not used to being buried in heaps of praise. Most of the time, most projects need to be slugged out. There might be the occasional win to celebrate, but then it’s right back to solving the next problem.

But what happens when you become a star? When everyone wants to work with you, and the money suddenly starts rolling? Being an overnight success is everything we want, but since it takes ten years or more of hard work, it is utterly disorienting once it happens.

“You’re used to failure,” Nathan says. “To grinding it out with little return. You’re a founder, a creator, that’s what you do. It’s uncomfortable to be the person who has ‘made it.’ Often that discomfort turns into self-sabotage.”

When I started growing Four Minute Books late last year, I told myself I’d try different types of content until I find one that works, then double down on that. The second kind of post I tried worked like a charm, and of course I was on the verge of pivoting to something else long before I had written every post in that category that I could think of. “No! Stop it! Keep doing what works.” I really had to force myself. It’s nuts.

Shiny object syndrome is real — but not just because objects are shiny. The allure of “new” can give us an excuse not to succeed as much as it can protect us from the disgrace of continued failure. “I did this, and it worked, and it was awesome. Now let me try something else I have no experience in.” Especially after you’ve done it many times, it’s comforting to go back to discomfort. The struggle is what you know — but it’s not the only way you can grow.

Pause when you’re winning. Take in the scene. This is it. You’ve worked long for it. You’ve worked hard for it. It feels different than you’ve imagined, and there’s no guarantee life will stay this way. But please: Don’t shoot yourself in the foot two minutes after you’ve collected your award. Winning isn’t immoral. Winning isn’t wrong. You deserve to win. Don’t cling to failure for old time’s sake.

1,000 Days Should Do It

After 1,136 days, I stopped tracking my daily workout. Not doing. Tracking.

“The goal is not to run a marathon,” James Clear says, “the goal is to become a runner.”

When you pick up a new behavior, tracking keeps you accountable, but if, after three years of daily practice, you still need it to be a box on a list to get it done, perhaps it was never the right habit for you to begin with. Not a good fit for your identity.

Scientists always argue about how long it takes to build a habit. Is it 21 days? 66 days? 90 days? Well, do it for a thousand, and then you’ll know for sure. If you can do it for 1,000 days, you can do it forever — and if, by then, you’ve decided you don’t want to, no one will argue with your conclusion.

How To Look 15 Years Younger

Our tour guide sprinted off with such vigor, I was wondering whether we’d be able to keep up. And she wasn’t just quick on her feet, the elderly lady with short hair. “54 hectares, 872 soldiers, 8 battle stations, and up to 90 days 35 meters below ground without going outside once,” she told us about Ouvrage Simserhof, one of over 140 grand bunkers along the Maginot Line. The Line is a series of over 5,000 fortifications set up by the French military after World War I, running all the way from the North Sea to Corsica, and this was its fourth-largest installment (and second-largest in terms of firepower, as Madame Klein let us know).

For the next two-and-a-half hours, she showed us over three kilometers of the bowels of what was, essentially, a fully functional underground city. She shared with us more facts than I could even write down, let alone remember, and she always darted from sight to sight with a spring in her step.

She loved to ask us why we thought certain elements had been designed the way they were. “Everything had a reason. Not a single thing left to chance.” Why are there tiles in the engine room but nowhere else? Because diesel seeps into concrete and turns it into an ember that burns for months once set on fire. Why did the soldiers get beef six days of the week? Because beef is the only meat resistant to salmonella.

Madame Klein was proud of her knowledge of this historical place, but she was even prouder to have met some of the people who had once worked to keep it alive. “You won’t find this in any book. Ten perfectly cut pieces of toilet, well, newspaper for each soldier — and if you had diarrhea, then, tough luck!”

“But wait a minute,” I thought. “If she knew people who worked here, a place that was built from 1929 to 1938, and manned only for a year until France surrendered in 1940, she must be…” “Guess how old I am,” Madame Klein said right that moment. Of course, minding our manners, none of us dared making a suggestion, except for a young lady: “72!” “72?!” I thought, “That woman looks not a day older than 65 to me.” But Madame Klein could only chuckle. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’ll be 80 come December. Allez!”

As we learned after the end of the tour, Madame Klein had never intended to be a World War II bunker tour guide. Her husband was, and one day, he simply suggested she come along. “Et voilà, here I am.” But Madame Klein’s husband died in 2006. That was 17 years ago. Yet, she never stopped giving tours. Approaching 80, with children who are close to retirement (!), she’s still going strong. Still walking briskly, dragging unsuspecting visitors into the fascinating story of Simserhof.

I’ve seen many an anti-aging recipe, from special diets to biohacking to rejuvenating creams — but so far, I’ve only ever witnessed one that actually works: Live. Live fully and without hesitation. Show up for every day. Be present for the moments that don’t seem to count — because it’s our presence that makes moments matter. Care. Care for someone. Care about something. Invest into it. Own it. Make it your responsibility, and then live up to it in front of all of us. Show us you care. Show us what’s important to you. It doesn’t matter what it is. As long as you take pride in serving a cause, we’ll take pride in being close to you. You’ll never lose the spring in your step, and even if you ask us, we’ll probably think you’re 15 years younger than you actually are — because unlike history, age is rarely about the numbers, and the passionate will always stay young at heart.