Family Is a Choice

The best thing about going to a bar is that you’ll likely hear a stranger’s story. Yesterday, I heard someone I’d never met before explain how she and her mom became alienated from the rest of their extended family.

“They’re all from the same region, and some 10 years back, we went to a family gathering. Nobody would even come and talk to us. They stick to themselves. No outsiders tolerated.” Her mom became an outsider when she married someone from another state, and so after that one, very awkward event, they never saw any of their relatives again. “They always say you can’t choose your family, but actually, you can.” As I know from experience, you can also choose someone not to be your family, regardless of whose blood flows in their veins.

Think back to a school class you once were part of. How many kids were you? 15? 20? 30? Take any group of a dozen humans or more, and the odds are near-100% there’s one person in there you won’t like. Why shouldn’t the same apply to any extended family? However, that someone you consider a black sheep has family too — and whether they agree with your assessment or not, they must deal with them on a daily basis. Unless they decide not to, of course.

It is a great privilege to be born into a family you’ll still proudly describe with that therm 30 years later. Not everyone is so lucky, and not everyone realizes they can reshuffle the deck genetics handed them either. It’s a hard-won lesson, and in the short term, the pain of falling out with folks often feels greater than the long-term ties to a tribe that weighs you down. Years later, we’ll pay the bill either way.

Like brushing teeth, going to work, and being kind, family is a choice we make every day. Don’t make that choice lightly, and don’t let anyone tell you there are no other options. For anyone who really needs it, family can be found anywhere — even in a bar halfway around the world from where you were born.

It’s Already Green

A school friend once told me a story about someone pulling up behind a car at a red light. The group of friends was on their way to a night out, and everyone in the car was feeling a bit feisty. Suddenly, one guy opened his window and yelled (in German): “EY! Grüner wirds nicht!!” What translates roughly as “it won’t get any greener” is usually a playful way of letting someone know they’re falsely idling at a traffic light, but in this case, the person in front panicked so much, they just floored it and drove off — except the light was still red. Supposedly the intersection was completely empty, and everyone had a good laugh.

If not as a prank-gone-okay, I think we can most likely file this story under “never actually happened,” but the message transcends — and is actually much more useful in non-traffic settings. “You are ready in your starting blocks,” Julia Engelmann sings in Grüner wird’s nicht, a song taking our funny idiom a little less literally. “Tell me, what are you waiting for all this time?”

It’s true. Why wait? Why wait to approach the person you know has already noticed you too in the library? Why launch your blog in six months if you can launch it this weekend? Why save for a camera if you can start with your phone today? “You say others are blocking your happiness,” Julia continues, “but no one except you is holding you back.” In traffic? Perhaps. In life? It won’t get any greener. We might idle, but all lights have long been set to “Go!

“You have to live — you are not being lived,” Julia goes on. “You’ll only stand still if you don’t go, so just carry the rocks out of the way.” Not all roads in life are straight, but there’s a path to wherever we’re trying to go — and if we have to move some stones to clear it, so be it. Drive safely, and remember: The most important destinations in life can’t be reached by car, but the signal lights you’re waiting for are already green.

Home Above Gold

I’m sitting in a train, waiting to go home. I’m 32 years old, have lived by myself for the last 13 years, and recently moved into a nice, spacious flat with my wonderful girlfriend — but when I say “home,” there’s only ever one place I’m referring to.

It’s a simple house in the middle of nowhere in southwestern Germany. Nice but not extravagant. Unsuspecting. You couldn’t tell the difference between that house and the seven others in that street. Or any of the millions of houses across the country, for that matter. But I can — not because of its features, but because of the people bringing it to life for the past 20 years: my family. Mom. Dad. Sis.

It’s not the same house it was when my dad bought it in 2003. We renovated the bathroom. Installed new heating. It needs a paint job, and just last year, we took out an entire wall to unite the kitchen and the dining space. I no longer live there. My sister no longer lives there. My room looks different, and so does my dad’s office now that he works more from home. But that’s what it was and still is: home.

Will it always be this way? I think so now, but never say never. If my parents’ own story is any indication, at some point, I’ll have a house of my own. A kid or two running around, perhaps. Maybe then, that will be home.

What I do know is that home isn’t a place. It’s a feeling. The comfort of knowing you belong. Our house had a price when we bought it, but that feeling no amount of money can purchase. At the same time, wherever you go with the people who give you that feeling, it will feel like home. A camping ground. A cheap motel. A five-star resort. The people make the place — not just literally but metaphorically.

Tolkien’s The Hobbit is about many themes. One of them is greed. After finally reclaiming the Lonely Mountain, his ancient home which happens to be filled with gold, dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield becomes corrupted by its treasures. But none of the people who used to make it a home are there anymore. The dwarves have a civilization to rebuild, not a heap of coins to protect.

By the time Thorin realizes his mistake, he too pays a price worse than money. It’s a lesson neither he nor his friend, to whom he gifts his insight on his deathbed, will ever forget: “If more people valued home above gold, this world would be a merrier place.”

Home is not a house you buy or a location you choose. It is a place you can erect anywhere with the people you love, because it is made entirely of emotions — and in the end, no matter what you call it, that is worth more than gold.

Go On

Every day, we go on for those who can’t.

We go on for those who can’t read, write, or work the Excel magic we can conjure with a few lines of code.

We go on for those who are sick, injured, or have been sidelined by an accident, if only temporarily.

We go on for those we lost to alcohol, an accidental drug overdose, or depression.

We go on for those whose creativity is not yet ready, whose passion has fizzled out, or whose brains have stopped working.

We also go on for those who can but perhaps can’t do as much as we can do. As fast as we can do. Who can’t go as far as we can go.

Every day you wake up healthy and active, ready to put energy into what you’ve been called to do, is a gift. Don’t waste it.

Go on.

Not Every Question Needs an Answer

“No answer is also an answer,” we say in Germany. Usually, a negative one. “Freddie never got back on our group chat. I don’t think he’s coming to the cinema on Wednesday.” That sort of thing.

Against better judgement, I still try to answer all of my emails. My hit rate is higher than it should be, but every now and then, messages still fall through the cracks. Sometimes, months pass, and I start wondering whether it has become too embarrassing to reply. Usually, I still do it. Every now and then, however, I re-read the message carefully, and I think: “You know what? I think this person is better off if I don’t respond.”

Maybe the issue they described was attached to a deadline, and that deadline has come and gone. Maybe it’s the kind of challenge no one can give you an answer to, and so whether I reply or not never mattered in the first place.

In almost all cases, however, I am sure of one thing: Writing the email is the most helpful part — and that they’ve done already. When you message someone and ask for help, you’re describing your problem. Maybe for the first time. You need to be succinct. That exercise alone is usually worth just as much, if not more, than any potential answer you might get.

When asked about his mentors, Derek Sivers says he only has three — and two of them don’t even know he exists. Instead of actually reaching out to them, he just drafts an email outlining his problem. Then, he pretends to reply from their perspective. He can keep that exchange going for as long as he needs to, but usually, by the third round, whatever initial challenge he had has long been replaced by a different, slightly better problem.

Not every question needs an answer, and not every answer proves its question was worthwhile. Plus, you’re only human. From time to time, you’ll miss a notification or be too tired to respond. It’s okay to not reply. No answer is also an answer, and it might not be a bad one after all.

Infinite Energy

During my first semester of college, we had to code and submit a Java programming exercise every week. For me, it was torture — and thus more work than my other seven classes combined. “Where is the bug? Why won’t this thing compile? Argh!”

A good friend of mine fared much better. He had what our professor used to call “the third eye.” My friend had some talent for using the various code elements, and he also had a knack for spotting bugs. As such, he was also willing to spend more time on the exercises, which, ironically, meant he was often done faster than me. In the end, I quickly concluded that coding was not for me and proceeded to copy his and other people’s solutions to make the workload manageable.

A year later, I was hell-bent on completing an animated music video project I had started ages before, and over the Christmas holidays, I finally finished the thing. I must have spent well over 100 hours in total on it, and one of the reasons I kept quitting was that the editing software I used kept crashing. It had all kinds of limitations, and that made the whole project feel like treading water. This time, I persisted, but I also never tackled an editing project of this magnitude ever again. Too many close calls of my laptop almost going out the window, I supposed. Again, I concluded: Video editing is not for me.

Now, more than a decade hence, I’ve had to update those lessons several times. The “third eye” my programming professor was talking about was merely a well-trained gut, and the reason my friend had more patience was that he had a head start in terms of skills. Editing was more fun because I had a similar head start, and it was mostly the external limitations that made it frustrating. But if I had continued to practice either coding or video editing, both patience and expertise would have arrived well in time.

Instead, I chose writing — because apparently, when it comes to putting words together, I already had enough of both of those things. Almost from day one of my writing journey, I’ve had more ideas than I can ever write about and more excitement to do so than anyone could reasonably expect. I have infinite energy to write, and I plan to draw on it every day until I die. That energy only seems to have grown in the decade that I’ve been doing it. The more I write, the more I want to write. It’s paradoxical and more than just the enjoyment of hard-won skills, but it works.

95% of your passion is built, not found. The 5% where you can be smart in picking is about that little bit of patience and talent that’ll give you a head start. Find your infinite energy, grind through the dip, and never look back.

Flashback Triggers

The other day, I sat on a swing for the first time in 15 years. Beyond the obvious lesson on the surprisingly strong physics of this simple device, I felt transported back to the many times I had used it before.

I remembered the white rope and bleached orange seat of the swing I used to jump off of when I was eight. I also recalled how much it hurt when my arm got twisted in said rope, and how it stopped my swing-jumping career dead in its tracks.

I remembered sitting idle on many swings in playgrounds in my teenage years, feeling lonely, sad, or rejected. I would stare at my phone, hoping another text would come from a girl I liked, or that a bad situation would resolve itself in a better way. Maybe the minimal physical movement was comforting.

In thinking about these things, I remembered the swing rides at fairs and amusement parks. How high they go sometimes, and how free I felt letting my hands and feet dangle in the wind whenever I rode them.

I remembered Devin Graham’s video of “the world’s largest swing,” where he and friends basically just tied some ropes to a huge rock arch in Utah, then jumped off the top of it. How excited I felt seeing that video when it first came out, and how far video production has come since then.

If you want proof that your brain stores every single experience and that nothing ever gets lost, touch an item you were once familiar with but haven’t used in years. Grab your old tennis racket from the basement, open a high school textbook, or go sit on a public bench. Press the “flashback trigger,” as I call them, and see what comes out. The flood of information they can release is astonishing.

Flashback triggers are everywhere, because as we keep growing, we also grow apart from many people and things. But just because you no longer call your high school bestie every day does not mean your shared past is erased. All it takes is one look at their picture, and a wealth of memories will come back.

Flashback triggers are a bit like Forrest’s box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get. Sometimes, the memories will be sad. Sometimes, they will be full of joy. But it’s good to remind yourself that your hard drive is never full, and that what once was will not always be.

Honor the power of flashback triggers. Use it, if only from time to time. And if you’re ever sitting heartbroken around a playground, remember: One day, this will only be a memory — and at least you’re still swinging.

It’s Not Time That Heals All Wounds

After what can only be described as the most gruesome bonding experience in history, Joel and Ellie make it to Salt Lake City, where a post-apocalyptic organization hopes to find a cure for the fungus turning humans into zombies en masse.

Over the previous 9 episodes of The Last of Us, we’ve seen Ellie the orphan forced to kill her best friend, almost eaten by a cult of cannibals, and stabbing a would-be rapist to death. We’ve seen Joel’s daughter die in his arms, his girlfriend sacrificing herself to save him and Ellie, and him getting stabbed, beaten, shot at, and nearly impaled a dozen times, trying to protect what he initially saw only as “his cargo.”

Perhaps, by the time they catch some relief at last, it is no surprise they have grown as close as any real father and daughter ever could. They have definitely earned it. So when Joel is finally ready to discuss his suicide attempt, he doesn’t need to say much at all. “I know why you’re tellin’ me all this,” Ellie cuts him off. “Yeah, I reckon you do.”

Ellie’s conclusion? “So time heals all wounds, I guess.” But here she is wrong. “It wasn’t time that did it,” Joel says. There’s a long silence, a knowing look, and then we know: Time isn’t the universal remedy. It’s love. Finally, Ellie points at Joel’s gun and head: “Well, I’m glad that…that didn’t work out.” “Me too.” And just like that, the pair is once again on their way.

Time heals a great many things. True loss is rarely one of them. Some holes only love can fill. In the real world, there’s no zombie apocalypse to knock some emotional sense into us. We must find the capacity to love within. Luckily, that well never runs out. At the risk of alienating an already-great poem: There is always love, if only we’re brave enough to feel it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.

The 64 Hands of the Gong Family

While visiting his fellow masters to train for an important fight, Ip Man meets a man who mixes various kung fu styles.

“The 64 hands of the Gong family can be combined in an infinite number of ways,” Master Yong explains. “Your Wing Chun only has three techniques. Do you think you can win with that?”

“I’m sure it’ll be enough for you,” Ip Man counters — and promptly proves it in a fight. Where Yong switches from fists to fancy finger poses and from one stance to another, Ip Man retains his traditional style.

Flexible arms, flat hands, and quick feet is all it takes. The techniques may be straightforward, but they break through his opponent’s kung fu firework in a heartbeat. Less than a minute later, Master Yong admits defeat, and the sea is calm once more.

Knowing more is not the same as knowing better. When we accumulate, we usually do so because the excess comforts us. We feel that with more options, we’ll be prepared for anything. But a small number of choices we can execute to perfection will give us the same confidence — and lead to quicker, more efficient results in most situations.

You don’t need the 64 hands of the Gong family to be a kung fu expert. Three techniques are enough. Pick your tools and master them. When you make do with less, chances are, you’ll do better because of it.

The Creative Mind Never Runs Out

Château d’If prison, a fortress off the coast of Marseilles, only holds “the ones they’re ashamed of,” even its warden admits: those who are innocent but showed up at the wrong place at the wrong time. Edmond Dantès is one of them.

After rotting away in his cell for seven years, Dantès finally receives a surprise visitor. As it turns out, his fellow inmate Abbé Faria spent five years digging his escape tunnel in the wrong direction. Where Dantès is apathetic, almost disgusted at the sight of another human being, Faria is in good spirits despite his “minor” navigational error.

Having nearly lost his ability to speak, the first sentence Dantès manages to utter is this: “There are 72,519 stones in my walls. I’ve counted them many times.” To which a smirking Faria can only say: “But have you named them yet?”

It’s truly an “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry” moment, and while initially, Dantès starts weeping, eventually, Faria will convince him to come around. “Let’s dig together,” he suggests. “This time in the right direction.”

As part of their cooperation, Faria, a former priest, teaches Dantès everything he knows. How to read. How to write. Knowledge about science, economics, and mathematics. Even a little philosophy.

Will they make their great escape? At this point in The Count of Monte Cristo, no viewer knows, but the lesson is abundantly clear: There is always more to do for the creative mind.

The concept of prison is to break humans spiritually more so than physically. For an innocent man in a hellhole, the goal isn’t to get out without a scratch on his back. It is mental and emotional self-preservation — and what better way to achieve both those things than to keep yourself occupied?

To Faria, it doesn’t matter whether his endeavors are made up, logical, or completely fruitless from their inception. What matters is staying busy. Have you counted all the stones? Great! Now name them. Have you memorized all the numbers? Wonderful, let’s run some calculations. Dug your tunnel towards the wrong end of the prison? Whoops — let’s turn around and keep digging!

I haven’t been bored in a long time, but with every passing year of my writing journey, I discover more books, essays, and posts I want to write. The only limit I know is that there’s not enough time to live all this life I want to live. That is its own kind of problem, but it’s a lot better than the alternative: Sitting in a dark room by oneself, disengaged and demotivated.

The most rewarding activities are the ones we pursue for their own sake. When ideas spring from our brain like flowers out of a meadow, ideas that we maybe can’t justify but know we must pursue, that’s when we are truly alive — and this state is no less accessible to us in a damp, lonely prison cell than it is in the middle of Times Square, one of the most energetic, pulsating places in the world.

There’s this saying that, when you think you’re bored, actually, you’re just boring. Perhaps sometimes, that is true. Most of the time, however, it is an entirely different set of emotions running underneath the superficial phenomenon. You might be afraid, depressed, or disconnected. You could be grieving a loss or hesitant to start a new adventure.

Whatever it is, once you pull it out into the light, accept it, and process it, the clouds will clear away, and the path forward will appear. Let the past pass so new imagination may flow in. There is always more to do for the creative mind — even if it means digging a tunnel for the next eight years.