Beans From Nicaragua

While inhaling the mild, sweet yet aromatic smell before taking my first sip of coffee this morning, it hit me: “The beans in this coffee came from Nicaragua. Nicaragua! But where even is Nicaragua?”

No longer the geographical savant I once was, I looked up Nicaragua on the map. Sandwiched between Honduras and Costa Rica, I learned that its capital is called Managua, and that the country is home to some six million people. Producing coffee is one of the main ways Nicaraguans earn their living, and some of them use a special “honey processing” method that leads to the sweet smell in my cup.

I also understood it would take me an 18-hour, 1,000-euro trip to even reach Nicaragua — yet I can buy the capsule that contains my coffee for just 50 cents. Astonishing!

We’re not always in the right frame of mind to realize what a long sequence of events we bring to its conclusion when we press the button on our coffee machine in the morning, but every now and then, it’s worth waking up before we’ve downed our first cup: Someone halfway across the world took care of a coffee plant until it bore fruit. Sometimes, that takes years. Then, they harvested the beans, peeled them, dried them, and carefully processed them until they went on a journey across the oceans. On a different continent, someone received those beans, ground them, and neatly filled them into perfectly portioned aluminum capsules. Those were then packaged, sealed, and, along with 10 other packages with 10 different kinds of coffee, shipped right to my house.

That last bit is, perhaps, the craziest part: When I open my kitchen cupboard, I don’t just see coffee from Nicaragua. I see coffee from Mexico, from Peru, and from Ethiopia. There’s coffee from China, Indonesia, and Kenya. Travel around the world in 80 days? How about in the span of an afternoon?

Every day, we hear about globalization in abstract terms in the news. “Africa’s exports are down.” “China-US relations strained.” We try to understand what they mean and how they’ll affect our future when, actually, we can see and feel the reality of globalization right in our homes.

Open your fridge. Chances are, almost nothing in it was produced within a 50-kilometer radius around your house. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a debate for another time. So is how many of those 50 cents I pay for my coffee the Nicaraguan farmer actually sees. But it is an amazing feat nonetheless for his beans to make it into my cup, and at the very least that I can respect and appreciate.

Look around you. Stop and smell the roses. Muse about where they came from, and cherish their arrival in your life. Despite everything being available, nothing is self-evident, and even the greatest cup of coffee doesn’t last. Let’s acknowledge it while it does.

The Right Minute

Bad sleep can lead to a cascade of consequences. When I wake up late, I feel groggy. I get annoyed that I start work so late, and then because I’m already aggravated, I’m more easily distracted. Another hour of pointless web browsing later I get even more angry with myself, and maybe, hopefully, eventually, after lunch I can reset and get to work. But it doesn’t have to work out this way.

It only takes a minute to go from angry to calm, to stand up and leave the house, to realize more time wasted won’t change the past. This minute, the right minute, can happen anytime.

When we pretend it can’t, our fate feels preordained. Ultimately, however, we’ll go down the wrong path because we chose to walk it. Of course we could have turned around at any point! We only decided not to because we didn’t believe it was possible. That was the only condition we were missing.

It only takes a minute to put out your cigarette and decide that it was the last one ever. That’ll make another minute soon very hard to get through, but neither is worth postponing.

It only takes a minute to lift your son’s house arrest, go to his room, give him a hug, and apologize because, actually, you were wrong. It’s never an easy thing to do, but it might pay emotional dividends for decades to come.

It only takes a minute to close all your tabs, take a deep breath, and start over on the task you actually meant to work on. Lost time always sucks, but no matter how late in the day you turn the ship around, if you do, you’ll go to bed feeling proud of having done your best.

The right minute can happen any time. It is not magic — especially when it most feels like it. You are writing your story, and we are just the audience. Believe in your power to change, and tell it exactly the way you want to tell it — one minute at a time, without ever giving away the ending.

Building Against the Current

People worry about the competition, lawsuits, or someone stealing their ideas. Though all of these might cause problems, in the long run, they won’t matter. Other humans are not the enemy. The only true antagonist in our struggle to live the best life we can possibly live is time — and even that is hard to blame.

When you’re building a business around art or intellectual works, you’re erecting a monument in the river of time. The only challenge is its ever-flowing, unrelenting current. Can you release good books fast enough to not be washed away? Can you stack beautiful paintings high enough to weather the next torrent?

The same applies to running a sports club, starting a law firm, and raising your kids. Time, time, time. Time needs to go in, and time is constantly slipping away. Can you scoop enough hours into the thing you care about to withstand the slowly draining minutes carrying it into oblivion? At the end of the day, this is the only game we’re playing. The only challenger worth paying attention to.

Don’t look left and right. Don’t fret about what other people are doing, be it to you, behind you, or in front of you. You only have one force to reckon with, and though it does not care at all, it is the greatest force of all. You are building against the current of time, and while it is your only opponent, it is also the very weapon with which you must win the fight. Keep building, and never forget to watch the river.

Folding the Chaos

My web browsing routinely gets out of hand. New windows sprout like fungi from the ground. Tabs multiply like mutating zombies, growing new limbs faster than even the bravest hero can chop them off. My setup of various profiles and icons and bookmarks tries to keep the lid on, but in the end, it’s no use: Chaos rules.

Sometimes, the only way to fix chaos is to nuke everything and restart with a clean slate. Close all windows, kill all tabs, and start over. Often, however, the slow approach is just as feasible. You can fold down the flower of chaos, one petal at a time.

I start with one window. I close the tabs I don’t need. I do what must be done in the rest, then close that window. The next day, I pick another window. Then another. And another. It takes time and a lot of emotional endurance, but when you persist, folding chaos back into order feels extremely satisfying.

When your to-do list gets too long, your tabs are exploding, or the code is full of bugs, take a long, hard look at the chaos, and ask: “Do I need to reset this? Or can I fold down the chaos? Which one makes more sense?” If you climbed the wrong tree, there’s nothing wrong with jumping back down. But if each branch actually deserves your attention, it’s only a matter of attending to them in the right order.

Learn to hold your emotional breath. You can stay focused even in a sea of chaos. Summon your mental strength, and restore order through the sheer power of human will and creativity. Use your mind like a laser, and once every wooden target is burned, the calm sea will feel more soothing than ever before: You didn’t just reboot the system. You fixed it, and, therefore, your peace of mind is well-earned.

Thrash in Private

One of the downsides of being a creator is that you’ll leave behind a trail of dead bodies — bodies of failed projects. There’ll be projects that took too long to ship, projects that grew too much in scope, and projects you didn’t care about all that much. There’ll be projects you thought were awesome but the market didn’t, projects that became outdated and never received an update, and projects you had to shut down because one of your collaborators pulled the plug.

One of the greatest services you can do for your audience is to actually keep all those skeletons in your closet. That’s impossible, of course. Sometimes, your failures will be very public. But that’s no reason to not try in the first place. Sadly, this is what most creators now default to. They ship and ship and ship — and then they abandon, abandon, abandon. Actually, all of their “shipping” was just thrashing.

In his book Linchpin, Seth Godin explains thrashing as “the apparently productive brainstorming and tweaking we do for a project as it develops.” Features get added. Little tweaks are made. Sometimes, the whole thing is rebooted from scratch.

The trick, Seth says, is to “thrash at the beginning,” then hold people accountable to those decisions. No more changing the color two days before the launch. No more, “But our competitor just showed this new feature we should also add!” You decide, you build, and you ship — and if it becomes one of those fatalities that makes the 7 o’clock news in your world, then so be it. But at least you did it right.

“What you do for a living is not be creative,” Seth says. “Everyone is creative. What you do for a living is ship.” Many creators no longer know the difference. I know someone who started with an email course about marketing. Then, they wrote a book about sex. Next, some articles on their blog, a column with a magazine, an SEO agency, a course about note-taking, the list goes on. I was happy when they returned to weekly articles, but of course, that, too, only lasted a year. The one thing I can count on is that they’ll be on another platform, doing some other random thing, in a year’s time.

It’s easy to be a hot-footed creator. To launch things and promise, “This is it! This is the one guys!” then leave your audience hanging 90 days later. Focus applies to work as much as dating. You can always jump ship, but new is just different — and will rarely make you any happier. Unlike finding love, however, when it comes to projects, you can thrash in private. You don’t have to throw everything out there. You can keep ideas on your shelf until you’re sure of them. Sometimes, finding that confidence takes years.

I have concepts for some ten or more books, and I’ve started working on at least half of them. But I stopped announcing which book I’m working on when. Only when I’m in the final 30% stretch will I start piping up. When I can see the thing rolling across the finish line. I don’t like to make promises I can’t keep.

In a TikTok world where the algorithm expects you to throw out new bait at least once a day, it’s easy to thrash entirely in public. The pressure of “more output faster” makes you release nothing but half-assed work. But whereas that pressure isn’t real, our disappointment in you when you inevitably abandon us will be.

Think harder about what you put out there. “Is this thing actually finished? Is this a logo I really want on my résumé?” If you change your mind three weeks after release, just because you shipped it doesn’t mean it wasn’t thrashing. “Oh crap! That was more soul-searching than service, wasn’t it?” This realization can come at a heavy price: the trust of your fans.

Do us a favor, and thrash in private. We can forgive the occasional change of heart, but if change is all you do, you’re not helping us. You’re using us — and that’s not what being a creator is about.

It’s Harder When You’re the Sales Team

I once had a consulting call with a marketer in the magic space. He helped popular magicians sell prop cards, card decks, and other gadgets.

He was good at what he did, but he had recently discovered Medium and found some success on it. A few of his articles did well, and he was earning a few hundred bucks per month. Looking for a job that allowed him to fully embrace his creativity, he asked me: “I’m making around $80,000 per year now. How long do you think it’ll take me to make the same money on Medium? Should I quit and go all-in?”

I gave him the honest answer: “Absolutely not. You will most likely never make that kind of money on Medium, and if you do, it’ll take several years at least.” That year, I actually did make around that amount on the platform — but I did so after six years of writing, four years of writing for Medium’s Partner Program specifically, and it would also not happen again.

The next year, the algorithm changed, and so did the payouts. My lifetime earnings would go on to look like a perfect bell curve, and while I didn’t know that yet, I did know my client likely wouldn’t be able to replicate my best year quickly, let alone indefinitely.

Entrepreneurship teaches you a wonderful lesson most employees will forever miss: how hard it is to make a dollar. If a company pays you a fixed yearly amount to sell magic gadgets, that money seems to indeed appear out of nowhere. What’s more, you don’t care where it comes from. You only care that it ends up in your account.

But how many card decks do you have to sell to justify your $80,000 paycheck? Let’s say the cards are $20 a pop. That’s 4,000 card decks, just for your salary. Do you know where to find 4,000 people who’ll fork over that kind of money for some paper? What story will you tell them? How would you sell 4,000 sets of playing cards without incurring any additional expenses?

My client had an intuitive understanding of this. Given his experience, devising a campaign to sell that number of card decks was easy for him. At his company, he could easily justify his cost. Convincing strangers to read your work and then get paid based on a black-box algorithm? That was an entirely different task. Thankfully, he stuck to his firm — and later became the CEO! Phew. I’m glad I didn’t tell him to quit.

If you work at Microsoft and get paid $100,000 per year, Microsoft has to sell 1,000 licenses of their Office package at $100 a piece to keep you on. If you work in automotive, it might be just one car, but cars are not something we buy every day, nor very easily.

Companies are efficient because some folks bring in the money, and others focus on making the product. As an entrepreneur or a freelancer, you have to do both. How much harder would it be to make your salary if you also had to sell every dollar worth of product that funds it? Chances are, you couldn’t do it on your own — at least not at first, and not to the scale of payment you are used to.

Remember that every dollar you make is a dollar that someone had to convince someone else to spend. Just because you didn’t do that convincing doesn’t mean you didn’t earn it, but it sure puts money into perspective. Making the big bucks gets a lot harder when you’re the sales team, and whether we are on it or not, the magic of making a sale sure is worth appreciating.

A Problem a Day

Problems are like Pokémon: They disappear out of nowhere and challenge you to a fight. Sometimes, the problem is actually shy. It’ll run away at the first sign that you intend to fight back. Sometimes, it’ll be like an aggressive stray animal. It’ll move in with you and stay for weeks, uninvited. And sometimes, it’ll make you put up the fight of your life.

Back when I started playing Pokémon, it took forever to catch all 151 of them. Today, with over 1,000? Good luck. You can’t solve all your problems in a day, but every day, you can solve a problem. Sure, apples will boost your health, but it’s a problem a day that, ironically, keeps unhappiness at bay.

Often, the harder the problem you choose, the happier you’ll be. Why? If you’re a seasoned Pokémon trainer, you’ll know the toughest fights — trying to catch a legendary bird, for example — feel the most rewarding when you finally win. Humans made to solve problems, and the more complex the creative solution we get to build, the prouder we’ll be once it works.

At other times, it’ll be you fleeing from the fight. Trainers, too, can run away. Just because apples are healthy doesn’t mean you’ll want to eat one every day. Problems, too, are something we can take breaks from, if only for a little while.

On most days, however, you won’t live in either of these extremes, and that’s as it should be: A Pokémon trainer roaming the world, encountering a few new monsters a day, fighting some, fleeing from others, and perhaps catching no more than one a day. It’s the spirit of journeying that matters more so than the result: Can you stay excited for the next challenge? Are you able to balance struggle and recovery?

Just like Pokémon inhabit the whole world, everyone has problems. Perhaps, like the little monsters many of us love so much, they’re not something we must seek to eliminate altogether. Maybe, it is just about getting along. Live in harmony with your problems, not against them, and life will be more fun than any game could ever be.

Risk the Awkward for the Amazing

Yesterday, I told a man 13 years my senior that I was proud of him. He’s also the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company. Meanwhile, I run a one-man writing show. Awkward much? Maybe. But I thought I’d risk it. After all, I have known him for nine years. And though we don’t talk much, a compliment you feel strongly about is always worth making, isn’t it? Only one way to find out…

“You are one of the only people that can truly understand,” he responded a few minutes later. Phew! Not only am I not crazy, he actually appreciated my comment. What a relief! He even had some nice words about my book.

Sometimes, you must risk the awkward to uncover the amazing. The best things in life are usually behind doors we’re not 100% comfortable opening. You’ll have to trust first and hope for the best. The best won’t always happen, but whenever it does, it provides double the reassurance you longed for before you took the leap.

That’s the tradeoff we make when life asks us to be courageous: There’s no comfort up front, only twice the reward if we win.

Be courageous. Risk the awkward for the amazing. You won’t always land in Wonderland, but even when you don’t, there’s always another step to be taken, another compliment to be made.

Life is not a casino. The house doesn’t always win. Sooner or later, the balance will shift in your favor — and the treasure you’ll find will be worth more than gold.

When You’re Tired of Starting Over

In 2015, Shia LaBeouf broke the internet. Green screen clips of him giving an exaggerated, Nike-style motivational speech, originally recorded for a London art school’s student projects, were just too good fodder to pass up. Within days, Shia was everywhere — and every-how.

There was auto-tune Shia with explosions, Shia multiplying every three seconds, Shia motivating Batman, and, you guessed it, more auto-tune Shia. But the best jokes are usually the best because, somewhere inside, there is a truth we can’t deny.

Eight years later, people still regularly leave comments under the original video — only a fraction seems to be there just for the laughs. The line that gets them? The very last one: “If you’re tired of starting over, stop giving up.”

When we’re at a true dead end, giving up can be an act of kindness. But life is not a neighborhood full of cul-de-sacs. There’s almost always a way to go on, and even if we proclaim otherwise, deep down, we know we’re just bolting.

It’s easy enough to forget in the moment. We’re not quitting! We’re starting! This new job, new platform, new partner is sure to be everything we’ve ever wanted — until we realize nothing on this earth can fill a void we ourselves created, and the cycle repeats.

In the beginning, all new ventures are fun. But the quick learning and novelty never last. Such are the rules of “the Dip.” The slog is where the wheat separates from the chaff, and even if we only feel chafed after many rounds of dipping and running, the realization will stay the same: We took a long time to tire because starting over is thrilling where persisting is not, but in the end, we still gave up.

We return to Shia because, in his literally evergreen one-minute speech, he reminds us: On a long enough timeline, flitting around and staying in place are equally hard — but only one allows you to water your plants and still be there when you can harvest their fruits.

Compound interest works almost anywhere, but it only works if you stay put. It’s okay to burn out, to need rest, to stop posting videos for a month and then return. But return to the same channel, the same team, the same partner you must, because where perseverance might one day lead to a dead-end, jumping ship is failure admitted before it has happened.

Shia LaBeouf has had a rough couple of years. He, too, gave up some of the right things too early, too often. Almost exactly seven years after his meme moment, he resurfaced in a two-hour interview, seemingly a reformed man on the right track. Time will tell if he can “just do it.” In the meantime, perhaps even for him, his words will stay worth revisiting: “If you’re tired of starting over, stop giving up.”

Everybody Sees Through Their Own Eyes

This year, for our elementary school friends’ annual city festival gathering, we had a special guest: a friend from Bavaria came to visit. Let’s call him Ken. Spending time with Ken is always both fun and enlightening. The guy loves to party, but he also wears his heart on his sleeve.

After a few beers, he’ll tell you about his complicated family history. They are operating a car parts business in the fourth generation, and Ken and his brother now supposedly run the show. Their dad, however, a patriarch par excellence, won’t let go of the reins, and family relationships are strained at best as a result.

Talking about one of their difficult interactions, Ken used a phrase that would repeat all throughout the weekend: “Everybody sees through their own eyes.” Whenever there were differing opinions, “Well, everyone sees it through their own eyes.” When we were talking about some crazy event that was hard to believe, “Everyone must see it through their own eyes.” If he was telling us to “wait until we get there,” “You can only see it through your own eyes.”

That last one really captures life, doesn’t it? It’s an experience you make entirely from your own perspective. That perspective is both limiting and liberating. It’s our capped little worldview that makes us prone to bias and misinterpretation. At the same time, our unique take on things is a singular source of creativity and insight.

Sure, your perspective is not limited to visuals. You have ears, a mouth, and a nose and skin, too. But it’s all filtered through your perception. Sometimes, that leads to irreconcilable differences. Unlike any other animal, however, we do have a sixth sense that allows us to, at times, transcend our perceptional limitations: imagination.

We don’t know what’s around the next bend while driving, but we can assume different options, from a truck to a car to a bicycle, and slow down accordingly. We can’t fly like birds, but we can picture a bird’s-eye view of the landscape that surrounds us. And while Ken can’t know what life feels like for his father, he sure can imagine it.

Using our imagination won’t always change an outcome. Sometimes, we’ll arrive at the same conclusion after showing empathy. We’re still seeing the world through our own eyes, after all. But it’s almost always an effort worth making. The balancing yin to our ego-driven yang.

Often, of course, we’ll forget to use our most powerful sense altogether. That, too, is part of life — and that, too, is okay. In the end, we can only be free by accepting the very limits that make us feel we are not.

Your perspective may only be one of billions, but that’s exactly what makes it valuable. Don’t worry about right and wrong so much. Share. Tell people how you feel, and work with them and their limited perspectives instead of against them. Like that one friend I’m lucky to have, who keeps reminding me that “everyone sees life through their own eyes.”