Crashing in the Right Lane

Looking back on eight years of Google Analytics data, I must admit: Four Minute Books had a pretty fortuitous rise to fame. For the first three and a half years, traffic only went up and to the right. Then came the hangover, and it would take another three years to surpass the prior monthly visitor-high.

The reason this was a special kind of luck is that, after year one, I didn’t work nearly as hard on it as I could have. I published new summaries weekly instead of daily. I hired people and outsourced the work, and in some cases, that led to lower-quality results. To still grow despite these failings was a gift — but of course it’s one I can only appreciate in hindsight.

I may be in a similar spot now, another hangover after a previous high, but this time, there’s a difference: I crashed in the right lane. Rather than flying blind, I was driving full speed ahead on the fast track. It just so happened that, like always, living in the fast lane can never last — but when I crashed, at least I was in the right place.

In the months leading up to the traffic drop, I published like a madman. I checked off milestones on Trello left, right, and center. I went all-in while the wind was in my sails, and now that the tide has turned, I can slow down. I can reassess. I’ll have to, quite frankly. And then, when smoother seas present themselves, the cycle can start anew.

We all hit walls at speed sometimes. Without rock bottom, there can be no top of the world. The question is were we on the right track to begin with? Did someone cut us off in traffic, brake too hard in front of us, or run a red light that forced us to suddenly stop? Or did we get hit en route to a dead end? Were we even driving?

It’s easy to blame misfortune no matter when it happens, but if you’re clueless about your situation too, the road to recovery will be much longer. Keep going in the right lane, and remember that crashing is just a part of becoming a seasoned driver.

Dreams Pop When We Blow Them Up Too Much

In Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, a young kid named David tries to make it big in a dystopian, futuristic world. One way people in Night City hope to do so is with “chrome,” cyberkinetic enhancements and body parts. Over the course of the series, David acquires more and more of these mods. Initially, they help him achieve his goals, but, by the end of the show, he is more cyborg than human — and pays a dear price for his unwillingness to stop.

Sometimes, dreams pop because we blow them up too much as we go along. Every time the balloon gets bigger, we think it can get bigger still. So we add more air, until, one day…pop! We attach enhancements left, right, and center. We modify our dream again and again, and by the end of it, it might be completely unrecognizable from what we started with. More cyborg than human — and the price we pay is regret.

The older I get, the more often I wonder if my dream, too, might be a balloon stretched too thin. I’ve simplified my work life significantly in the last year, and yet, sometimes, I still wonder whether I can hold on to everything I’m juggling. Whether it’s time to stop carrying the load, put a few more projects into a shopping cart, park them in aisle seven, and say goodbye.

2024 will mark the tenth anniversary of my dream coming to life: “I want to be a writer!” I’ve been a writer for every single one of those years, and I’ve achieved a lot in that decade, but I’ve also added a lot of attachments since then. Perhaps it’s time to get rid of some chrome and go back to the beginning.

Always remember where you started, and don’t forget to enjoy your original dream when you achieve it. It’s easy to keep moving the goal the more you score, but no football nor ballon can hold infinite air — and are warm words really worth risking your dream to pop?

It Gets Better

A few months ago, I tried an AI, text-to-speech tool that allowed you to clone your own voice. You had to upload some existing material, and in a few clicks, you could hear yourself speaking typed out words you never actually said. It was pretty cool — but not good enough to use on, say, this very blog as a regular solution for offering audio versions to readers.

In order to make the voice more accurate, I would have had to upload many hours of training footage, which I didn’t have at hand. I likely also would have had to fiddle with the settings for a long time to get the final adjustments just right, and the service was pricey, too. In the end, I did nothing. I decided to wait and see.

Jump forward eight months, and Adam, my Youtube collaborator, points me to a similar software. This time, it only takes a few minutes of demo footage to create a stunningly good replica of my voice. I can adjust style, clarity, and voice variability with just three sliders. And the service is more affordable than its competitor, too. We still might have to make minor edits, but I think the tech is ready for a small-scale test.

AI is an outlier example because right now, the amount of attention, money, and energy the industry receives has ratcheted the speed of progress up to ten, but the principle applies to almost any technology: It gets better.

Often, the problem with machinery is not that it’s not good enough. It’s that we’re unwilling to wait until it’s at the level we need it to be for our specific purposes. We start huffing and puffing and complaining about all the extra steps and customization measures we must take when, actually, we could just wait eight months — and time might solve the problem for us.

Unlike in a breakup, with technology, it often really is not you who’s at fault — yes, the tech is bad, and you deserve better. But that better will take a while to arrive, and if you don’t want to waste your life messing with shoddy tools, then sometimes, you’ll just have to wait until the tools are ready.

The next time you’re trying use an innovation that just won’t perform, ask yourself: “Do I have to do this now? Or can I just revisit in six months?” For some goals in life, the result is worth the fight, but most of the time, it’s easier to wait for the world to catch up.

Make things that matter, yes, but remember to keep the making as frictionless as possible. Achieving higher ends is hard enough as it is, and the last thing you need is a poor-sounding copy of your voice to narrate the journey.

Open the Curtains

A good book is like a person walking into your room and opening the curtains: At first, the light is blinding, but once you let it in, the scope of what you can see broadens considerably.

Take my friend Kaki’s book Wa — The Art of Balance. It’s a book about health, covering four pillars of our physical and mental wellbeing: eating, moving, resting, and socializing. The number one way the book helped me improve those habits was by widening my understanding of what they can mean.

Exercise is not just a 30-minute run. A healthy meal is not just rice and broccoli. If a long walk can be part of your health regimen, and buying a gift for someone can be how you connect, suddenly, working out and socializing become more accessible. There now is a path through the maze where, before, there was none — but for those new ideas to light the way, first, you must let them in.

Even the right idea can only change our mind at the right time, and then still we must open the curtains and welcome it into our lives. That, too, is a habit. You can do it every day, and with far more than just books, but only if you get out of bed. Choose action over stagnation, and remember to open the curtains.

Find Something To Be Proud Of

After nine months of hard work on a traffic plateau, my website finally picked up steam. In month ten, Google released an update and hammered me back to where I started within a week. Queue That’s Life by Sinatra.

When I set it last year, I knew picking a traffic goal wasn’t ideal, since it’s a number I don’t control. But it was a goal worth chasing, and so I went with it. As long as you’re making incremental progress towards an external, luck-dependent goal, everything feels fine. But when fate reminds you that you’re not in charge, your motivation will drop hard. When that inevitably happens, shift your focus. Find something to be proud of that will keep you going in the meantime.

In my case, though I no longer have the traffic and revenue to show for it, but I do have a Trello board with hundreds of completed tasks. Every month without fail, I published new content, wrote newsletters, and released Youtube videos. I put out dozens of great, in-depth, free resources that deserve every single visitor they get. Since Google’s latest update doesn’t change any of that, I can still take pride in what I have done — and then, I can roll up my sleeves and get back to work.

What’s that anonymous line again that I included in one of the many things I made this year? “Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” Sometimes, that courage needs a little boost from looking back at the things you controlled and controlled well. When the path ahead looks rocky, turn around, realize how far you’ve come, and then do what you always do: go on.

Scaredy-Cats All Around

A few cats patrol my neighborhood. Two of them regularly show up at my balcony door, so every now and then, I have to enter a staring contest if I don’t want a stranger’s cat in my house. Usually, I win, and the little furball darts off. It always reminds me of what we tell children when they encounter new animals for the first time: “It’s more scared of you than you’re scared of it.”

When you are scared, it’s hard to imagine that what you’re scared of might be even more frightened than you. What would that even feel like? Can it get any scarier? But when the line works, it’s enough to calm you down. To approach the cat with equanimity, maybe even pet it, and realize: “Oh! This is not so bad!”

But what’s meant to help us survive small bouts with everyday animals also applies to humans and, if you’ll indulge the spiritual interpretation, even to life itself. In a coffee shop, everyone’s a stranger — and everyone is scared to approach anyone else. But when one person pets the cat, makes a joke, or breaks the ice with a remark about the weather, often, a whole group of people piles in on the conversation. If we remember that we start from equal instincts, we can be that person, and instead of driving away the neighbor’s cat, we’ll invite human connection.

Your bug reporting dashboard feels the same way. If our projects and challenges were conscious, they, too, would be more scared of you than you are of them. After all, you’re the one with all the power. If you show up with confidence and resolve, work and deadlines can’t help but melt away. It’s only in your imagination that they can grow into big shadows, dark and overwhelming and, well, scary. But your book can’t write itself. It has no life of its own — only you to hope for, hoping you’ll show up and complete it. That, too, is a staring contest you can win.

We’re all scared here. Every part of life is as frightened to go on, to step up, to say yes to the next challenge as you are. Remember this equality, and you’ll show yourself time and again: “Oh! This is not so bad!”

Walking Away

Every battle in your life is a battle you chose to fight. We love to say, “I had no choice!” but, actually, we always do. Fathers walk away from their unexpected sons all the time. People quit their jobs or do the minimum and wait to get fired.

It’s hard to see in those more severe, more consequential situations, but even then, sometimes, walking away is the best thing we can do. A child growing up without a father might become a happier adult than one with a mean drunk for a dad.

Ironically, we are sometimes less likely to back down in much smaller matters where, actually, the benefit of walking away should be much more obvious. What do you stand to gain from arguing with your spouse about where to keep the shampoo? What do you get out of being angry at your bank for rejecting your verification documents? Most of the time, the reward is just that — anger — and anger only knows one target: you.

“Pick your battles,” we say, and while that’s great advice, we usually think about the wars we actually care to fight when we share it. But what about the clashes we never wanted to wrestle out to begin with? Often, we can just drop them altogether. No consequences. No hurt feelings. Just more inner peace.

Every battle in your life only happens if you continue showing up for it. Choose to walk away where the only way to win is to let go, and you’ll have more energy to persist where it matters.

500 Pieces

Last Christmas, my sister gave me Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet — as a Lego set. The model has 500 pieces.

If even a small-scale replica of something immensely powerful — a glove that can wipe out half of humanity in one finger snap — takes half a thousand pieces to function, how many more parts must the real thing have? 1,000? 10,000? 100,000?

Even if the pieces just resemble small steps on a long journey, whenever I have a tough week in business, when the bad news keep piling up, I like to remember I’m assembling 500 pieces — and today, I can only put one in place. Or two, perhaps. Maybe, on a productive day, even three. But no matter how strong my output or how unsettling the mails in my inbox, crafting a 500-part masterpiece is a long journey, and I’ve always just begun.

Whether your masterpiece is a book about fly fishing, a model train landscape of Switzerland, or a happy family of four in which your kids actually like going to school, you, too, are assembling your life 500 parts at a time. Every so rarely, you’ll put the last stone in place, and, for a brief moment, you’ll get to celebrate. Pump your fist. Snap your fingers. And then? Then, you grab the next Lego set and do it all over again.

Life is not finishing. Life is building. The final touch is only the cherry on top, and that’s what keeps the building fun. Rewarding. Perfectly balanced, as all things should be. Pick up one piece, put it in place, and you’ll see: One brick at a time is always the right pace, and if it takes as long as it takes, all timelines are exactly long enough.

Looking in the Wrong Place

In Letting Go of Nothing, Peter Russell tells a story about Nasreddin, a Muslim folk hero. Dubbed “the wise fool,” Nasreddin is street-smart, often outwitting both his adversaries and his friends. Sometimes, however, he is too clever for his own good, thus becoming the butt of the joke. This particular tale is an example of the latter.

Nasreddin was “outside his house one night, kneeling on the ground under a streetlamp, looking for his key,” Russell writes. “A neighbor joins in, scrabbling around in the dirt. After a while he asks, ‘Where exactly did you lose it?’ ‘In my house,’ comes the reply. ‘Well,’ asks the neighbor, being as tactful as possible, ‘why are you looking for it out here?’ ‘Because,’ replies the wise fool, ‘there’s more light out here.'”

It’s easy to laugh at Nasreddin’s silliness, but when it comes to happiness, aren’t we doing the same thing? “We look for it in the world around us because that is the world we know best,” Russell continues. “We know how to change it, how to gather possessions, how to make people and things behave the way we want. We know much less about our minds; they seem dark and mysterious. And so we keep chasing things and experiences in the external world, not realizing the key to feeling better lies within.”

In Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, a young man has a similar realization. After decades of studying under the tutelage of his father, praying, sacrificing, following the rules and rituals, Siddhartha understands that the Brahmins can’t teach him what he wants to know. He ventures out into the world to become an ascetic, but that, too, falls short in satisfying his thirst. Even the Buddha himself does not seem to have any answers, but it is only once Siddhartha rejects his teachings that it finally hits him: No amount of studying anything external, no matter how rigorously, will show him what can only be found in his own heart.

We like to use happiness as an example because it’s an aspect of life where it is most tragic to miss the forest for the trees, but there are plenty of other arenas where we look for solutions in the wrong place. Anxiety cannot be calmed with alcohol. Health cannot be achieved solely with the perfect workout. And retiring in peace is more about knowing when you have enough than about picking the right stock.

Don’t start a witch hunt when you drop your keys. Simply bend down and pick them back up. Not everything in life has an unlock mechanism as straightforward as your front door, but then again, most things worth having aren’t things at all — and the passcodes to those you carry with you at all times.

Meaningful Extensions

That’s what, at its best, technology provides to humankind. A 3D-printed heart is an extension of a doctor’s ability to perform surgery and save a life. The internet is an add-on of talking. And an AI voice might allow a writer like me to narrate more articles than he could ever record with a microphone.

Even future technologies considered to upend the earth are, ultimately, continuations of what humans have always done. Brain-machine interfaces make communication faster. Space exploration is just another kind of exploration. And even eternal life is, well, just more life.

When we mistake these expansions for replacements, we abuse instead of use them. ChatGPT can only help you express yourself better. It can’t do the expressing for you. When you use an image generator to create a picture specific to your article that no one has come up with, that’s an extension of your creativity. When you use it to make an image that’s a perfect copy of an Andy Warhol print, that’s just noise.

Technology is an amplifier, not a savior. Remember its place, and you’ll always feel confident in reinventing your own.