Piercing Moments

When I was 11, I walked into an electronics store and, as usual, checked out the demo station. Back then, stores always had a few PlayStation 2s set up, ready for you to sample the latest games. After watching another kid play this one particular game for no more than a few seconds, I got that tingly feeling of knowing you’re about to discover something special.

Once it was my turn, I stepped up and dove into a world I would never forget. You played as a teenager named Sora. Your companions were none other than two Disney legends: Goofy and Donald Duck. Together, the three of you had to fight off monsters made of pure shadow in a strange-looking town, and your weapon was a blade in the shape of a key.

It didn’t take much swinging and slicing, enemies going up in smoke, and little green and yellow reward-orbs falling to the ground for me to realize: This was the greatest game of all time, and I just had to play it. It was one of those rare, piercing moments you never forget — not because of what’s happening on the outside, but because inside, deep down, you just know something important is going on.

22 years later, Kingdom Hearts indeed holds a special place in the video game hall of fame. The original game sparked a series which now spans some 13 titles and has sold over 36 million units to date. But what I remember most about the four years I spent completely obsessed with that first game is not the fact that, apparently, I had a nose for what makes a good video game. I remember the many other piercing moments that happened along the way.

I remember completing a whole bunch of extra difficult challenges to unlock the game’s secret ending, which was a preview of the next installment. I remember chasing that movie down online, which was hard to find at the time (no Youtube yet), and watching it over and over again. I remember speculating with other people in the forums who its new mysterious characters were.

I remember playing table tennis in our basement with a friend whom I rarely had the privilege of beating. But one time, I imagined I was Riku, another main character from the game, and I played as if I had wings. I remember feeling like I triggered bullet time. I was completely in flow, and I saw myself in slow-motion reacting to his shots, perfectly returning this hit or that, neatly landing the next, and winning the game.

I remember downloading the game’s soundtrack and making my own CD cover for it. I listened to the title track over and over and over again. Sometimes, I spent 30 minutes just watching the game’s introductory music video a few times while listening to the instrumental version of the track.

I remember the Final Mix version of the game that was released only in Japan but had additional content, new enemies, and more information about the story and future games — including a new secret boss battle and a longer version of the secret ending. My PC ran overnight for weeks to download the files. Since there was no way to buy and play it in Germany, I had to burn the game on a DVD disc myself and get a special tool for the PS2 to even be able to play a Japanese game. I wrote down the Japanese characters in the menus and button descriptions with English translations, and over time, I learned to recognize what some of them meant despite not understanding a single word.

I don’t know why so many distinct memories of my time with this game are still available to me where others aren’t, but perhaps that is yet for me to discover. All I know is that one piercing moment made all the difference, and then many other meaningful, equally piercing moments followed.

We can’t always make sense of them, but the one thing we can trust in is that these special junctures in our life offer some kind of significance. What are your piercing moments — and what might they be trying to tell you?

Beliefs in Different Sizes

Everyone you meet in this life comes endowed with beliefs. Their beliefs will be different from yours, and, together, you’ll have to figure out where you can find common ground — if any — if you are to be friends, business partners, lovers, or even members of the same family.

My dad believes reality TV is relaxing. I believe everyone should write, even if no one ever reads it. My friend believes Xiaomi’s phones are better than Apple’s. Neither of us would agree with either belief of the other two, and yet, we all know each other and get along just fine. That’s because beliefs come in different sizes.

Some beliefs are as small as a talisman. No larger than a dime, they easily fit into your pocket. You can carry them anywhere, but you might also lose them as quickly as you picked them up. If you’re a chocolate aficionado, for example, your favorite flavor might change whenever you taste new product samples.

Other beliefs are the size of a little package. You can still take them around, but they’re not so simple to stow away. You may have to keep holding them in your hand or bring a basket made of other beliefs to carry them in. “German cars are the best” reveals more about you than just your preference for BMWs — that you value efficiency and precision, perhaps — and while valid, you might not want to bring this belief into a General Motors dealership.

Then, we also hold beliefs that can only fit in a suitcase. They’re bulky but important to us, so we lug them around, even if, sometimes, their weight takes a toll on us. How many people have dragged “a six-figure salary is essential to happiness” behind them for years, only to realize it won’t change all that much when they finally achieve it?

Finally, some beliefs are so large, they form the very ground on which we walk. They’re foundational, and we can’t go anywhere without our foundation. If you’re raised with the idea that food you didn’t cook yourself is not worth eating, that will empower you in the kitchen for decades to come, but it will also cause endless friction whenever your partner wants to order takeout or your boss sets up a team dinner.

Just as with physical objects, larger beliefs are more likely to clash, and when different-sized beliefs meet, usually, there’s a clear winner. Whether you consider it a steamrolling or a smart steering-around-each-other, this dynamic makes for smoother social interactions.

My dad’s reality-TV-belief is a package-one. When he turns on the latest fake family drama, I can start arguing about its benefits, or I can simply leave the room. My friend can easily agree that anyone would benefit from daily writing without taking up the habit himself. He cares less about my foundational belief than I do, and so the conversation just moves on. If you’ve ever shared a meal with a vegetarian despite being a meat-eater (or vice versa), you know that it’s easy to make room for other people’s beliefs where you haven’t yet brought any large luggage of your own.

Of course, you’re also familiar with the opposite: arguing fiercely with someone else about a matter of the heart, perhaps even while a group of bystanders looked on in disbelief. “How can these two care so much about which color we pick for our jerseys?” But if no one else brought a package-belief to the meeting, that’s how it goes.

What’s less obvious about all of this is that while beliefs come in different sizes, we’re the ones who pick how large we’d like them to be — and we can grow and shrink them according to the demands of each new situation.

My friend dislikes Apple products with a luggage-sized passion, and if I blew just a little more air into my package-belief into the company, we could argue about the best tech for hours. But I don’t. If anything, I shrink it. “A phone is just a phone, let everyone use the one that they like best.” I resize my belief for the situation and get out of the way.

Whether you minimize or expand your belief in order to get along with others often doesn’t matter. Both largeness and smallness can lead to magnanimity. Whether someone agrees or disagrees with my “everyone should write” idea, I know in my heart that it’s true — but that doesn’t make it my job to go on a crusade until every person on earth actually does it.

Your favorite kind of chocolate can be the flavor of the week, or it can be a singular, lifelong dedication to peppermint, fiercely defended at every turn. What will you do when “German cars are the best” lands you in a shitty Audi SUV that fails to meet any of your expectations? Will you double down or reconsider your belief? That six-figure salary aspiration may have been a heavy suitcase to carry for a few years, but once it no longer has a purpose, you can shrink it into a talisman any day. And even if you’ll forever cook every meal at home, perhaps at a potluck dinner, you might try someone else’s food — if only to see what other people come up with as a consequence of holding the same foundational belief as you do.

Everyone you meet comes endowed with beliefs, and so wherever you go in this life, you, too, will venture there with beliefs as your baggage. So every morning, as you leave the house and meet the world, ask yourself: Will bringing this idea be worthwhile?

Don’t be afraid to adjust your values to make room for others, and remember that any attitude has only as much power over you as you’re allowing it to have. Listen to life, and size your beliefs accordingly — that way, you’ll always travel with just the right luggage for your intended destination.

Greetings From Hawaii

For a few months in 2017, I documented my days via Instagram Stories. One time, I felt particularly feisty. The corridor connecting my college’s cafeteria with the study room is a literal gangway, taken from an actual plane. As I walked through it, I snapped a quick video, tagged it, “Hawaii here I go!” and uploaded it.

Later that day in early spring, I stepped out and shot some more video of me in the sun. When I showed up to a video call with a friend in the afternoon, the first thing he said was this: “You’re in Hawaii dude? Damn! How’d you get there so fast?”

I explained the joke, and we both had a good laugh about it, but the point is only more relevant today than it was back then: Don’t believe everything you see, especially if you’re only seeing it via a screen. My little prank happened long before AI voices, face swaps, and deepfakes. Today, scammers can create actual video footage of the US president and put any message whatsoever into his mouth.

Always verify your information, and unless you receive them via postcard, follow up before enjoying your greetings from Hawaii.

Know Your Home

The first time I moved to Munich, I had the great privilege of only being called there for a duration of six months. Like my internship, my time there was limited, and it forced me to explore, learn, and see as much of the city as I possibly could in the time that I had. Actually, it didn’t — but I allowed it to, and the spots I discovered back then have now been paying dividends for years.

Today, many of the friends who went to college here with me after I returned have never walked up the “Old Peter” church tower. They’ve never been on the rooftop of the New Town Hall building or taken the elevator up 200 meters to enjoy the view from the Olympic Tower. They’re the kind of touristy places one might visit during an internship but that, as a local, you might never end up seeing because, you know, “I can always do that later.”

It’s nice to be well-traveled or know the best restaurant in town. But how much do you know about what’s right in front of your nose? If you and I stepped out your front door, how long could we keep walking with you pointing out this place or that one, telling story after story, reveling in the history of your microcosm?

Sure, learn about the world. Go on great adventures. But don’t forget the place where most of your life is actually lived. Know your home, and share it. Helping others see from a different angle can feel just as rewarding as scaling a new mountain — and often all it takes is a five-euro elevator ride to do it.

Choose and Walk

When you’re trying to get from A to B in the city, there’s no point in making a wrong turn. Google Maps has got you covered. Take the extra two minutes to look up directions if you need them.

Life itself, however, is still — and always will be — mapless. There’s no way to know whether you should work on your search engine game, a membership portal, or write another book. Each intersection is a mystery, and each path will come with its own ups and downs.

Which one is the best one? That’s a trick question — and the trick is to have faith that no matter which road you end up on, you’ll find joy, new lessons, and plenty of friends along the way.

When life presents you with incomparable choices, don’t spend weeks in analysis-mode without moving. Choose and walk. As long as you trust the universe, you’ll always end up at the right destination — regardless of where it lies on the map.

Subtract the Story

Shannon Lee was in an on-and-off relationship with the same man for years. He claimed to love her and made grand promises yet never came through. After she finally broke it off, she felt angry and hurt. She blamed him for not appreciating her, and she felt he had wasted her time.

But then, eventually, Shannon began to reflect on the bigger picture. In Be Water, My Friend, the daughter of Bruce Lee explains she had to face a difficult question: “Without making a story out of it, what actually happened?”

Once she managed to distinguish between herself and her feelings — and between both those things and the situation — she realized she had tried too hard: “I had this idea in my head that if I could model the care I wanted (without having to actually ask for it) and by example have him adopt it, then that would thereby prove my worth.”

Shannon had never really found out how much the man actually valued her because she didn’t value herself enough to simply ask for what she needed. As a result, he reflected the same lack of care right back at her. That doesn’t mean the man didn’t have a lot to learn and apologize for, but ultimately, there was a bigger lesson here to learn for Shannon — but she could only see it once she subtracted the story.

We tell ourselves stories all day long, and often, those stories are our greatest allies. But sometimes, especially in complex, interpersonal situations, they simply get in the way.

Here were two people, one who wanted to love the other but perhaps didn’t know how to do it, and one who attempted a show-don’t-tell when straight-up communication might have done the trick. As long as each of them told themselves a story about being misunderstood or mistreated, however, neither could see the situation as it was.

Stories are wonderful companions. Just know when it’s time to ask your ally to step aside. Subtract the story when only logical analysis will do, and soon, you’ll be writing the next chapter.

Thank You, Mr. Mailman

In 2022, over 4 billion packages were delivered to German households. That’s more than 50 for every one of the country’s 83 million inhabitants. It also means that somewhere in Germany, someone rang a doorbell, hoping to drop off a parcel, 11 million times — every single day. That’s 11 million walks to a front door. 11 million rings. 11 million “Here’s your parcel”s. Or leaving it at the front door. Or handing it to a friendly neighbor. And the next day? All of it — 11 million times again.

Most online shops here now charge less than five euros for a medium-sized parcel. For 4.50 euros, a shop owner will wrap my Pokémon cards, seal them tight, and hand the package to the mailman. Said mailman will take it to the depot, where someone else will process it, and yet another person might load it onto a van, train, or other vehicle. A fifth person will drive that vehicle some 400 kilometers and hand the parcel to another processing center where the same loop repeats. Eventually, yet another mailman (or woman) will complete the final stretch of the delivery and arrive at my doorstep.

That’s a chain of eight people, some of which spend hours on their tasks, whom I pay 4.50 euros — yet none of this is the crazy part. That would be the fact that the entire sequence of events takes place literally overnight. I can send an order after lunch and open my package the next afternoon. My god. What an accomplishment! A true logistical masterstroke.

Chances are, you currently have a parcel on the way to you. Open the tracking. Look at the times. Look at the locations. Behind every number hides a human being, working hard to get your desired goods to you safe and sound. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, someone woke up at 4 AM to deliver your package, and all I can say to that is: Thank you, Mr. Mailman — and everyone who stands behind you.

Like a Fish in Water

14 years ago, we jokingly called him “Dr. Formula.” He wanted a pattern for every subject. “Is this the right order of the steps?” “What if I use this scheme to solve the algorithm?”

“Well, it depends,” we used to try and tell him. When you must take exams in seven different subjects, sometimes, even the best formula stops working. “You need to understand why you’re taking the steps. That way, if the question changes, you can still solve it.” One friend in particular made this point over and over again. I’m not sure to how much avail.

This week, the student formerly known as Dr. Formula made partner at one of the top three consulting firms in the world. I am so happy for him! For as much as we could tell that college was just something he had to get through, even back then most of our friend group also agreed that the consulting industry would likely be a perfect fit for him — and it was.

Then as now, he always worked his butt off. The difference between barely passing grades and becoming partner in record time, however, is that he went from being a penguin in the desert to finally finding his water. He landed where he belonged, and the result was as natural as a plant’s reaction to being watered: he bloomed.

When you’re struggling through something you instinctively know is still part of your path, remember: Just because you’re not top of your class right now does not mean you’ll never end up at the peak of a tall mountain. Take your time, find your element, and one day, when you feel like a fish in water, your old friends’ proud claps will only be the confetti swimming on top of the ocean that is your beautiful life.

Does the Number Need to Go Up?

It’s nice if you have grown your Twitter account to a million followers, Seth Godin said in an interview years ago, “but what is it for? Can you eat more fancy restaurant dinners? Will it get you an even better table than you have now?”

But what if you couldn’t see your number of followers? “If the number was just hidden from the universe, you couldn’t make the number go up. But just because you can see the number, is this something that we need to go up?”

Former consultant turned independent writer and creator Paul Millerd is familiar with this dilemma. In his book The Pathless Path, he writes: “I spent ten years on a path where making numbers go up was always the way forward. Now I’m on a path where that is one option of many.”

I, too, spent most of 2023 trying to make a number go up: the monthly visitor counter on Four Minute Books. That worked, didn’t work, then really worked until it really didn’t.

This year, I, too, am realizing that that was only one option of many. Since I’m not busy cranking out content, I can make the site easier to navigate. I can improve the product for new and existing customers. With some luck, I’ll even be able to do a complete visual overhaul.

Will these things make the number go up? I have no idea — but even if they don’t, the traffic going up is only one of many good things that could happen.

As soon as there’s a number, it’s easy to default into trying to increase it. Resist. Math is useful but counting is trivial — and we all know that the most important things in life can rarely be counted.

The Hawaii Connection

After belaboring his doctorate supervisor for weeks, my friend finally got the green light to present his paper at a conference in Hawaii. As I was looking at his pictures sent from Waikiki Beach, another friend from a different part of the world, with a different career and completely different story, sent a message to our mastermind group: “Greetings from my vacation in Hawaii!”

“That’s funny,” I responded, “someone I know is also there right now, but to attend an academic conference.” “Which conference? My wife is also here to attend one!” My friend’s wife is a professor of economics, and so, when I checked the event schedule, inevitably, it showed both her and my other friend’s name. When I told them, we all had a good laugh.

What are the odds? Two people from two different countries, at different ages, studying different topics, united at a niche academic event in Hawaii in early January through coincidence, a connection with a friend, or a little bit of both.

Sometimes, it takes finding the unexpected in an unexpected place to start feeling familiar in a new location — but wherever we do discover it, the familiar, especially the familiar ones, can fill us with joy and appreciation.

The world is smaller than we think. Keep your eyes open. Connection happens everywhere, but only if we’re truly there to see it.