Any Head Start Puts You Ahead

Nine years ago, when I started my big 2016 project in the middle of December 2015, I learned that I wasn’t a calendar: “You can start a new year any day of the year,” I wrote soon thereafter.

Today is the last day of 2023. It’s too late to begin half a month early — but it’s not too late to get a head start. When you wake up ten minutes before your alarm in the morning and get up instead of snoozing, those ten minutes can make a big difference to your day.

The same applies to what you do on Monday, the first of the month, the first week of the quarter, and, yes, even the last day of the year. Any head start, no matter how small, still puts you ahead — and when it comes to big goals and daunting challenges, being ahead is all that counts.

What’s one thing you can do today that your 2024-self will thank you for? There’s still time to put the New Year train on its rails — and come tomorrow, while everyone else turns on the light in their maintenance hangar, you’ll just hop in and start rolling.


That’s what I want to do in 2024. “Rise” is my one-word theme for the year.

Every morning, I want to rise out of bed, ready to meet each day as it comes. As it is. Not wishing for anything to be different, but instead rising to meet both life’s requirements and its opportunities as they are, when they are — one present moment at a time.

I want to rise to the occasion for my girlfriend, family, and readers. They deserve every ounce of care, time, and creativity I can muster.

I want to rise in my art. For the past few years, I haven’t pushed the boundary enough. I put my head down, focused, and made what was sensible. It has neither led to my retirement nor to more happiness, so I might as well unleash the inner nerd and watch what happens — if only in what little time I can spare.

I want to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of my hard work, which is what Google mostly left me with after nine months of toiling away. Focus works until it doesn’t, and serving any one master is like voluntarily entering a cage: You can’t soar with your wings clipped! Diversify, diversify, diversify — until it’s time to focus again.

In short, I want to rise above my former self. 2023-Nik wasn’t a bad guy, but I’m sure 2024-Nik can do even better.

Most of all, however, and forgive me that I will use the word rather extensively, I want to rise above the bullshit.

In a great video I keep coming back to, philosopher Harry Frankfurt defines bullshit as “saying whatever one has to say to get away with it.” “Bullshit is not a matter of trying to conceal the truth. It’s a matter of trying to manipulate the listener. And if the truth will do, then that’s fine. And if the truth won’t do, then that’s also fine. The bullshitter is indifferent to the truth in a way in which the liar is not.”

In other words, bullshit is everything for which there is kind of an explanation, kind of a justification, but that justification and explanation just aren’t very good — and if they’re not outright lies, they are flimsy interpretations of reality at best. Under that definition, my god, is there a ton of bullshit these days.

The internet is full of bullshit. Companies are full of bullshit. And sadly, many people have learned to play along — including me. I, too, am full of bullshit, and I’m ready to leave it behind like an eagle flying so high it has no clue where its tiny speck of poop even lands — if it makes it down to our beautiful blue planet at all, that is.

When you open a members-only article on Medium and see an ad for the author’s newsletter that’s as long as the intro, right after the intro, that’s bullshit. That’s not what you’re paying $5 a month for, and everyone knows it — including the author. Mute, goodbye, move on.

When the company you host your online course with reneges on that “Lifetime Pro Account” you won in a giveaway a few years back and tells you to start forking over $1,200 per year, that’s bullshit. You call them out, hold them accountable, and if they don’t keep their promise, you cancel your membership and take your course elsewhere.

When you stumble on a clickbait headline talking about some D-List celebrity’s drama with the staff in their five-star hotel, you know that’s bullshit. Don’t fall for it! It’s called bait for a reason. If you click, they win.

When someone tells you to promote your work a certain way or pick the monetization strategy they are using, that’s bullshit. They’re only handing out the advice that worked for them, and everyone must find their own path.

When an affiliate partner cuts your payout in half after you’ve made the sales under the previously agreed terms, that’s bullshit. You can swallow the affront, but you should probably find a way to replace that income.

Of course, the worst type of bullshit is the kind you produce yourself. Ultimately, it’s when you try to milk the reader, when you use corporate lingo to screw over a customer, when you clickbait, give otherwise motivated advice, and go back on your word that, in the long run, it hurts the most — not just financially, personally, or professionally, but emotionally, too. Bullshitting breaks the soul, and it never takes long before the first cracks show.

I don’t blame you. We can’t help it. After all, if bullshit is all around us, sooner or later, we’re bound to make some. We all produce bullshit from time to time. The tragedy is when we’ve lost all zest to fight it. When we cozy up to bullshitters and blend right into the world of half-truths and half-assery. That’s the part I can no longer stand, the bullshit I hope to rise above.

Building a business around fickle algorithms and fair weather collaborators is bullshit — but it’s my bullshit, and so I’ll have to be the one shoveling the dirt out of my driveway. Will I succeed? I have no idea. But I invite you to try and rise with me.

Wings can be heavy. When they’re hurt, constrained, or soaked in water, we might not be able to take off. But wings are still wings, and we were not born to hop around in a tiny sandbox. We are meant to fly.

In 2024, whatever your one-word theme might be, I hope you’ll mend your wings and rise — not just above the bullshit, but about whatever else is holding you back from accomplishing your dreams in this one miraculous life.

Parcum Opus

The phrase “magnum opus” has survived from the times of ancient Rome until today. We use it to describe someone’s best work. The antonym of the word “magnus,” which means “big” or “great” in Latin, is the word “parvus,” which means small. There’s a design studio called Parvum Opus, for example, hoping to allude to their focus on details instead of grandeur.

Unfortunately, the word “parvus” has mostly negative connotations. It’s not merely “small” as in “physically small.” It also means “puny,” “cheap,” “unimportant,” and “trifling.” Clearly, parvum is not the other opus we are looking for.

But why is there no expression for the small yet significant pieces? The little details and milestones we also work on with great care and thoughtfulness along the way? Probably because the Romans didn’t have one — because the Romans, like we are today, were obsessed with greatness and history-defining moments.

Ironically, now more than ever, the only way to such greatness, to a magnum opus, leads through the little things. If you create a portfolio of thousands of art installations over several decades, trying your best to make each of them meaningful, perhaps a handful will stand the test of time.

Of course, there’s more than one word for “small” in Latin. Not all of them mean “scant” or “insufficient.” “Parcus,” for example. It means “little,” yes, but it also means “frugal” or “thrifty.” “Resourceful.” Perhaps, in a world where a large body of work is table stakes for playing in the big league, that’s what “magnum opi” are really about: finding the courage and persistence to continue, to ship little pieces of a large puzzle every day, until they add up.

It is rare to have done your best work and know it. Often, what turns into a boon years later seems to have been a waste of time at first. But even when you feel like the work is bigger than the world realizes, you’ll have to go on and make the next thing. This was just a parcum opus, and though it’s filled with thoughtfulness, thrift, and care, it might just be one of many steps along the way.

Parcum opus. Put your best foot forward in little ways, and perhaps someday, we’ll admire the size of the shoes you left for us to fill.

Praise in Public, Probe in Private

One of the most powerful blog post archetypes is the rant. Done well, it is extremely engaging, pulls at your heartstrings, and makes a compelling case. From the first sentence, you’re swept up in a wave of emotion, and by the end, you’re ready to co-sign a lawsuit with the author.

Good rants have a decent chance of going viral, and that’s why some writers aim to the master them. I know people who have. Personally, however, I’ve only posted a handful in my career — but not for a lack of opportunity.

There are countless things I get riled up about. Shady business practices. Being taken advantage of in a partnership. Pretty much everything airlines do. But if it’s profitable, interesting, and I have plenty of topics to be angry about, then why don’t I rant-post more often? The reason is twofold.

For one, there’s a real chance that mastering the rant will also make you a miserable person. I know people who have. Become bitter, always-angry folks, that is. If rant is all you do, your writing metrics might go through the roof, but at what cost? A corporation sadly can’t lose its soul by injecting emotional clickbait into its users’ veins, for it never had one to begin with — but you, the individual creator, definitely can.

For another, I have a philosophy I’m trying to uphold: Praise in public, probe in private. By and large, I’ve managed to practice this philosophy for almost a decade of interacting with hundreds of people, platforms, and products. The reason is as strong as it is simple: If it was me screwing up, I’d much prefer to be reminded in private so I can fix my mistakes without any public drama. In fact, plenty of times I have been, and I’m grateful for every one of them. Each confidential complaint was a gift, because it could just as well have been a widespread one, no matter how small the issue at heart. You know how the internet gets.

It’s hard to live this philosophy. Especially right when you feel slighted, the publish-button feels a lot closer than the inbox. It takes less time to fire off an emotional response than to craft a thoughtful email. The relief is stronger, too. But then comes the fallout — and what if you’re wrong? At the very least, it is almost always worth to probe in private first. You can still air your dirty laundry in public if you find the recipient of your complaint to already be combative behind the scenes.

We’ve all gone off track, and we’ve all experienced the power of thoughtful feedback and forgiveness. Even if they could be turned into serious coin or attention, shelve your rants. Praise in public, and probe in private. That way, you’ll spread sunshine wherever you go — and if there’s one thing that deserves to go viral more than even the best tirade, it’s a few rays of hope, always loaded with the potential to change someone’s life forever.

The Same With More Ads

In 2012, I was in New York City with two friends. One night, we were beat from all the exploring. We decided to get two massive pizzas, stay in bed, and watch TV. We landed on the Syfy channel, where Troy was on. At first, we were excited. Then, the ad breaks started rolling. One. And another. And another. “Dude, I swear, this thing has more ads than movie scenes!”

At one point, we began to time it. I think there was a five-minute commercial break for every eight minutes of film footage. We did the math and concluded that what was already a three-hour movie would turn into a five-hour torture experience — and so, less than one hour in, we decided to turn the whole thing off.

In the decade since, a lot has happened. Streaming has entered the mass market. Youtube has more content than any TV channel ever could. Cable is slowly dying. And yet…

Youtube is free, but it’s full of ads. What used to be Netflix’ affordable standard tier is now a version with ads. The lowest tier on Disney+? Hello ads! My favorite, however, are Freevee movies on Amazon Prime Video. A few months ago, I scrolled through my options, when I saw the following button on an Ip Man movie: “Free with ads.”

But wait, am I not already paying for Amazon Prime? I sure am. So nothing about this is free — yet I still get the ads. Some 20 sets of them in a two-hour movie, in fact. I sat through the whole thing, and I concluded: This is worse than the Syfy channel from ten years ago — because now, not only do I get more ads per movie time and can see them coming via the scroll bar, I’m even paying for the damn service to throw them in my face.

Corporations one, humans zero. By and large, the internet has turned out to be the same merry-go-round we’ve been on for 40 years — except with more ads.

There’s no perfect solution that I can offer on a silver platter. In fact, I’m part of the problem. I’ve tried everything, and guess what? People really don’t want to pay for stuff. Not even the good kind. But especially not writing. For every item I try to sell directly, I lose 80% of people at each of the seven interactions it takes me to convince them. That means not a lot of buyers are left. But hey, I put ads on Four Minute Books, and voilà, every visitor contributes to the bottom line.

The saddest part is not that we haven’t changed, it’s that ads are a universal remedy mostly because we refuse to do so. Then again, even if everyone paid their five favorite creators directly, chances are, a lot of folks would still go hungry. Like the odds in the Hunger Games, the math is not in our favor, and this is not an easy problem. But ads? Really? Is that still the best thing we can come up with?

Sometimes, I wonder: What would happen if all I did was make the art I care about, ship it, and kindly ask for payment in return? Would I end up poor and on the street? Or would my business blossom? I don’t know if I’ll ever find out, but man, as the creative, stardust-blessed beings we are, we have to think of something better than the same with more ads.

Bamboo Curtains

I always found them a bit scary. Bamboo curtains, that is. I’m sure you’ve seen one before. Comprised of countless, tiny bamboo sticks forming many strands, they usually hang in doorways. They’re often colorful, specked with beads and other decorative elements, and they rattle and click every time you pass through.

When I was eight, our neighbors had one. Walking through it made me feel uneasy. I’m not sure whether it was the sounds, giving away my approach, the surprising weight of individual strands when they hit you as the curtain fell back into place, or something else, but without fail, I got an eerie feeling each time.

Nowadays, I stand before a bamboo curtain on a regular basis, not literally but figuratively. On days like today, I stare at the many different strands, each one unique, each one colored just a little differently. The strands are the ideas for what I could write about, and sooner or later, I’ll have to pick one, and make my way through.

This morning, there was a strand glistening with mortality. It reminded me that I personally know two people who lost a loving parent before they were 30, that even the world’s richest man lost his first child, and that life can change very drastically very quickly.

There was a strand full of passion, glowing red hot, insisting that most writing courses, challenges, and other handholding exercises are bullshit. That no one can truly teach you how to write — except you — and that “atomic essays,” “one line, one sentence,” and other nonsense concepts from marketers will turn you from a competent writer into a bad one instead of a good one.

Another strand glowed with empathy. It wanted to retell a tiny piece of Walter Isaacson’s Elon Musk biography about how his brother Kimbal downloaded a game to bond with his brother, one of the lessons of which was that “empathy hurts in business.” He later deleted the game because it was “destroying his marriage.” If empathy is essential in relationships, might there be a way for it to be beneficial in business as well?

In the end, I wrote none of those stories. I picked a different strand altogether, and now, you’re reading this. Will I ever publish them? Who knows? But the act of seeing, deliberating on, and choosing strands is essential. You, too, must do it every day. Not with stories, perhaps, but with people, tasks, and communication.

It’s easy to stare at the strands all day long. To look at the many colorful options, yet act on none at all. Often, choosing sooner is better than later. Time won’t stop ticking wether you stand or move, and clicking beads provide their own type of stimulation and insight. Once you decide and go, subsequent choices might get easier.

Don’t be afraid of bamboo curtains. Picking strands is a privilege, but in the end, options are just decor in the doorway. In order to see what comes next, you’ll simply have to grab one and step through.

Cheaper Ingredients

After the son of a famous chocolatier took over his mother’s multi-generation business, he called in his CFO and looked at the numbers. “Hmm, why are we spending this much on cocoa butter?” he asked. “If we get it from Côte d’Ivoire instead of Peru, I think we can cut costs by 15%.”

Of course, chocolate is a taste-sensitive business, and so, before making the change, the new CEO ran a test with a focus group of existing customers. They swapped the Peruvian cocoa butter for Ivorian product, and consumers liked the chocolate just the same. Pleased with the results, they kept the cheaper ingredient, and moved on.

The next time the CFO was in the CEO’s office, once again, his boss looked at the numbers. “Why are we using brown sugar from Paraguay? That’s so expensive! If we buy the normal kind from Brazil, I think we can save another 7%.” Once again, they ran a taste test, consumers still loved the product, and they kept the cheaper ingredient.

Given his success in bringing manufacturing costs down, the CEO steered the course. He changed the source of their milk and cocoa mass. He imported nuts and cinnamon from far away instead of continuing to buy from local suppliers. And month after month, quarter after quarter, costs came down, and profits rose — until, one day, sales started plummeting.

A down week became a down month became a down quarter. The average review score went from 4.8 to 3.7. “This used to be great chocolate, but for some reason, it now tastes like sand,” a chocolate influencer issues his crushing verdict on Instagram, demonstratively tossing a bar into a literal sandbox. That year, the company lost half its revenue, and much more of its profits.

Unable to spot an obvious reason for the sudden downturn, the CEO dug into the marketing, sales process, and inventory management. He revisited every ingredient and re-read every focus group report. In the end, he couldn’t find anything.

One night, after spending a good amount of time sitting at his desk with his face buried in his hands, he watched the movie Chocolat, something he hadn’t done since he was a little boy. Seeing a young mother try to build a life for her daughter while making a special kind of art in her chocolaterie, he finally learned a lesson his own mother could have simply told him had she still been alive: The best things in life are more than the sum of their ingredients — and sometimes, that little bit of “extra” that makes the magic is impossible to measure.

The next morning, he picked up the phone, called his old suppliers, and went back to his mother’s recipe. Within less than a year, the family business’s reputation and earnings were restored to their former glory, ready to expand into a new era with the same, age-old set of ingredients: High-quality cocoa mass, fresh milk, Peruvian cocoa butter, Paraguayan brown sugar, and, most of all, love.

First-Time Magic

“In every beginning, there lives a bit of magic,” Hermann Hesse once wrote. It’s true. For example, I’ll never forget the first time I saw this line. It was in a tiny booklet my best friend gave me when we graduated high school.

“First-pack magic” is what Nick and other Pokétubers pray for every time they sit down to open another stack of booster packs filled with Pokémon cards. There’s nothing quite as special as the first pack in a video, the first pack of a set, the first pack you’ve ever opened. It’s what made you — and continues to make you — a collector.

Find trailers and clips of a movie classic on Youtube, and inevitably, you’ll see this comment appear again and again: “I wish could watch this movie again for the first time.” Each time Batman shows up out of nowhere, it feels a different kind of awesome — and while we can learn something new again and again, it never quite reaches the special place our first viewing holds in our hearts.

Out of all days in the year, Christmas offers perhaps the most unique kind of first-time magic. Based on the first appearance of a special fellow, it is filled with awareness of the old year inevitably ending — but it also already brims with January 1st’s potential. It might be the first time we see our family all year, the first time a new member joins, or at least the first time without snow, without grandpa falling asleep, or where the Christmas tree falls over. Each present is a first, and so is each of the one-too-many meals we’ll eat surrounded by our loved ones.

For me, this year, the most precious Christmas-firsts are the ones I observe my girlfriend gets to have. Watching her marvel at the first drop of 50 cm of snow, the food selection at her first Christmas market, and the crisps she pulls from her advent calendar are all a kind of first in their own right: When you do together what you once used to do alone, sharing only multiplies the joy and happiness. That, too, is a first worth celebrating — and not just on Christmas.

Pay attention to your firsts, and remember: Every day offers the space to create more of them — if only you’ll supply a bit of magic.

Pardon Yourself

The latest trend in the newsletter industry is to serve a popup right after people subscribe, suggesting other email lists to them they might also enjoy. The idea is that more newsletters can grow faster together, and that readers will discover more interesting publications.

When I first set up the system on Four Minute Books, I strategically chose a bunch of big-name creators to promote. My goal was to send them a certain number of subscribers, show my work, so to speak, then reach out and ask if they wanted to consistently cross-promote one another.

One person I picked was a productivity guru who’s all over the internet these days. His newsletter was similar enough to mine, so I figured I’d send him 1,000 new readers, then message him. I tried sending an email to his team right at the start to get a conversation going, but no response. Later, I learned that even his account manager at the email company never heard from him directly.

It took a few months, but eventually, I did it. 1,051 new readers for Mr. X, yay! Except the more I looked at what he did and how he did it, from his Youtube channel to his newsletter, the less confident I felt about promoting him at all, let alone setting up some kind of ongoing relationship.

Instead of offering a clear, focused system for helping you get things done, this guy just reviews tool after tool, sending you into a meaningless spiral of “buy more stuff to fix nonexistent problems.” He started talking about money, making websites, even writing — all topics he has no real expertise in but that he can monetize well and easily. Plus, some of his advice is just outright bullshit. Spoiler alert: Watching anime on 3x speed until you catch an interesting moment will neither save you time nor make you any happier.

When I looked at the completed subscriber counter, my heart sank. “Okay, time to find the right person’s email address, I guess…” Thankfully, my good sense came back to me, and I realized: “You know what? I can just let this go.” I removed him from my recommendation popup, and that was it. No more new readers. No cold outreach email. And for all I know, he’ll never even realize I sent him so many subscribers, if only because to him, 1,000 people must look like a rounding error.

It’s easy to think you’re locked into a certain path once you’ve made a decision. To believe that sunk costs are dragging you down — and sometimes, they are. Most choices, however, are quickly and easily reversible, with few to no consequences. Once you wrap your head around the idea that letting go is okay and, in fact, the best thing to do, dropping a set of bad directions is easy. It’s giving yourself permission that feels hard but needn’t be.

Pardon yourself often and generously. Correct course gently whenever it is needed, and don’t let false idols distract you from what you know is right and true. It’s always kind to give credit, but if you can’t point people to friends and products you really believe in, newsletter or not, it’s okay to not recommend anything at all.

Pick Your Overlord

I’ve had many overlords in my life. In high school, it was a collective of some 30 or so teachers, all of whom I had to please in some year or other. In college, that number grew larger and extended to professors, teaching assistants, exam graders, and fellow students affecting group work evaluations — except I knew most of them a lot less than I knew my high school teachers.

As an intern at BMW, I had 4 bosses, all of them kind but one of them difficult. When I became a coach, I had up to 50 overlords at any one time: my clients, all of them wonderful but every one with different needs and expectations. On Medium, Quora, and Four Minute Books, my overlords became individual algorithms no single individual could fully understand. Whether it was a recommendation or a search engine, fickle machines are always hard to satisfy.

The list goes on and on. From platforms to editors to customers, there’s always someone you’ll have to make happy in order to get your money. The question is who — or what — is it, and how fragile is the system of feudality you find yourself in?

While it comes with its own challenges, I’ve always enjoyed the diversity and control of selling my own products. Whenever a customer wasn’t happy, I could always refund them. Whenever a customer was rude, I could not do business with them. Often, having many overlords is better than having just one. Everyone is moody, including algorithms, but that way, it takes more than any one entity’s bad temper to crush your spirit and wallet.

There is no life without overlords, mind you. The point is to find one, or some, that don’t oppress you. A master can be a beautiful friend. Pick your overlords wisely, and if you find you’ve picked wrong, well, then go out and pick again. It’s all hard work around here, but some bosses deserve our dedication more than others.