The Right Level of Hum

There’s a new focus room at work. I love it. It’s explicitly dedicated to working in silence which, in a co-working space full of people stuck in all-day meetings, is a godsend for writers.

When I write something serious and challenging, I go to the focus room. When I want to think, I go to the focus room. And yet, I still don’t want to spend all my time at the focus room.

Noise is rarely a good thing, but for a certain type of work, the kind a bee might do, busily swerving from blossom to blossom, the right level of hum can work wonders. Why do people work in coffee shops? Why do tools like Noisli exist? Because sometimes, you want to know you’re not alone — and the business, the sound, the movement of those around you is the consistent feedback you need to stay consistent.

When I cold-pitch my book to journalists, I don’t need meditative silence. I need energy! Music. The clatter of other people typing. Who are they trying to convince? Regardless, I’m not the only one trying to change minds, and that keeps my mind on task.

Most of the time, noise is a distraction. A detour. A slowly unfolding poison. On just the right days, in just the right places, however, it can be a bed of flowers swaying in the wind — and if you’re a bee on those days, there’s nothing to do but to enjoy the sun and pollinate away.

I Could Do This Forever

Taking a field trip in the year 1389, Dream and his sister, Death, visit the White Horse tavern. Curious to observe the humans they otherwise so elegantly guide from behind the scenes, the pair overhears Robert “Hob” Gadling talking to his friends over some ale: “I’ve seen death. I lost half my village to the Black Death. I fought under Buckingham in Burgundy. I know what death is. Death is… stupid.”

And then, right under the nose of the very Death he mocks, Hob asserts a bold theory: “Nobody has to die. The only reason people die is because everyone does it. You all just go along with it. But not me. I’ve made up my mind: I’m not going to die.”

With every word, Death’s literal field day is turning into a figurative one, and she laughs almost as much as Hob’s friends, who try to convince him that death isn’t exactly optional. “You don’t know that!” Hob says. “I might get lucky. There’s always a first time.”

While Dream does not understand “how any sensible creature could crave an eternity of this,” he is happy to follow along with the experiment Death is willing to set up: Hob Gadling shall indeed not die, and he will meet Dream at the same inn every 100 years. The two agree, and in 1489, Dream finds a shocked Hob waiting for him, who nonetheless claims being alive this long has been “brilliant.”

By 1589, Hob has been knighted and made a great fortune, so of course, Dream finds him in high spirits. 100 years later, the wheels of luck have turned. Hob has lost his status, money, and, worst of all, his wife and son. He’s been down and out, hating every second of the last 80 years, and yet, when Dream asks him if he still wants to live, he only says: “Are you crazy? Death is a mug’s game. I’ve got so much to live for!”

Another 300 years later, the two get into a fight, and when Dream can’t make it to their scheduled meeting in 1989, Hob is, for the first time, seriously concerned. While it will take another 30 years for them to finally catch-up, when they eventually do, Dream apologizes for keeping his now-friend waiting and, after a good laugh and a beer, the two agree that Hob’s attitude is still the same: “I could do this forever.”

It’s a fun thought experiment, isn’t it? How long would you want to live? 500 years? 10,000? Forever?

“It’s all changing,” and that alone is fascinating, Hob says — that time referring to the invention of chimneys. “Your eyes aren’t watering all the time from the smoke!” A few centuries later, he claims safe streets and the wide availability of food are, “what I always dreamed heaven would be like.”

When would you have enough of observing the human story? Of getting to play in earth’s infinite sandbox? Would you be weary after a few generations of raising great-great-grandchildren? Or would you be more of a Hob, happy to do this forever?

Of course, unlike the fortunate Mr. Gadling, you and I will never get to discover our true, authentic answers to these questions. What we do know for sure, however — and if anything, Hob’s story reinforces this lesson — is that life is precious precisely because we don’t live forever.

And while he is enviable, there are some principles from which even Hob isn’t spared. Like the rule that you have to live your life one day and lesson at a time. At first, Hob is a sellsword, fighting for whoever will pay him the most coin. Later, he becomes a merchant and slave trader, but in time, he grows a conscience. At the time of their latest meeting, Dream sees a Hob vastly changed from the lowly bandit he initially came across. A man of morality, virtue, and principle. “Well, I may have learnt a bit from my mistakes,” Hob admits. “But that doesn’t seem to stop me from making them,” he adds with a smile.

Unfortunately or not, we don’t have many lifetimes to experience every tiny detail of the universe — but we also don’t need hundreds of years to grasp the most important parts. Gandhi understood a lot of them in just 78 years, and he managed to capture the essence of it all in a quote that you and I, but even a man like Hob, can aspire to live by — no matter for how long:

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. 
Learn as if you were to live forever.”

— Mahatma Gandhi

65 Cents

Today is an improvement over yesterday: I left the house. After realizing that, when you have a stomach bug, eating one of those fancy bowl dishes full of tuna, beans, rice, sweet potatoes, and about 80 other ingredients isn’t the best idea — no matter how healthy and tasty they usually are — I decided to get some good old pretzels from the bakery next door.

While I was ogling the display in the somewhat dizzy state one is constantly in when sick, I understood I had a choice: Get the regular, plain pretzels for 95 cents and add the butter myself, or pay a whopping 65 cents more to get them fully furnished with a nice heaping of golden taste-enhancer.

There was no reason why I couldn’t save the money. I have butter. I have a big knife with which to neatly slice pretzels in half. And I know perfectly well how to spread butter on a pretzel. And yet…

Maybe it was the sickness. Maybe it was laziness. Maybe it was the worry that I’d cut my finger, or that I wouldn’t manage to make a pretzel as nicely prepared as the ones right in front of me. Regardless, I walked out of that bakery with two buttered pretzels. Total extra damage: 1 Euro and 30 cents.

Sometimes, you just have to treat yourself. Whether it’s as a relief from pain or as a reward for doing well doesn’t matter. There are days when 65 cents more for a little bit of butter are totally worth it, and on those days, you should spend and don’t look back. You just have to know which ones they are.

Careful Consideration

When Musashi Miyamoto wrote The Book of Five Rings in 1645, an instruction manual on the art of swordsmanship, after 30 years of rigorous training and reflection, at the end of each subsection, around every 50 words, he issued a reminder to the reader: “This should be given careful consideration.”

Time and again, Musashi cautions those eager to learn, prompting them that the words must be thought upon, and the actions must be practiced. At first, I thought, “Isn’t that obvious?” But apparently, even in 1645, a time when, at least during the brief periods of peace, there was little else to do but read and think, people still needed reminding.

In today’s ever-distractive world, of course, those reminders seem more than appropriate. You can’t grasp a sentence like the following by casually skimming it once: “The mind is not dragged by the body, the body is not dragged by the mind.” Nor can you master the skill of “being aware of opponents’ swords and yet not look at the opponents’ swords at all” without some serious hours of training. “This takes work,” Musashi wrote.

The world now offers us more ways and sources of learning than ever, but the fact that few methods are worth teaching — and few teachers worth learning from — remains the same. Often, we’d be better off studying the right few sources in great detail, meditating on them deeply and repeatedly, turning to them again and again when new situations call for it, rather than chasing one new quick-fix, band-aid, latest-podcast-book-video-approved-by-society’s-latest-starlets every time we encounter a new dilemma.

Learning is like swordsmanship: You can pick up a new weapon each week and never master any of them, or you can wield the same reliable tool over and over again, thus turning it into your irreplaceable, ever-dependable companion.

Make room for some novelty, sure, but most of the time, stick to a small, curated selection of the mentors that work for you. It might feel limiting at first, but in time, you’ll see that in reinterpreting their seeming rigidity, you’ll find all the flexibility you need.

It’s Okay to Be a Hobbit

When he presents Bilbo Baggins as the 14th member of the dwarf company hoping to reclaim their home — the mountain Erebor — from the claws of a gold-hoarding dragon, Gandalf faces much resistance. The dwarves don’t think Bilbo’s up to the task. He can’t fight. He can’t fend for himself in the wild. He’s not even a dwarf!

Eventually, however, Gandalf slams his fist on the table and settles the debate once and for all, particularly pointing out one quality: “Hobbits are remarkably light on their feet. In fact, they can pass unseen by most, if they choose.”

As it turns out, the traits that initially make him such an unexpected choice for a journey like this will eventually be the ones allowing Bilbo to most aid, sometimes even save, his company. Most of all the fact that, most of the time, no one cares about a hobbit passing by.

The point for you and I is that it’s okay to be a hobbit. To most people, you always will be. You’ll go unnoticed, and that’s exactly how it should be. It’s how we manage to live in a world too vast to comprehend.

Imagine you had to be involved in every situation of everyone you’re even vaguely familiar with. Whenever your neighbor comes home, they’ll keep you busy for ten minutes. As soon as you leave your house, a crowd of people follows you around. Doesn’t that sound exhausting?

Going unnoticed is freedom, not misery. You don’t have to be an elf, constantly glowing, commanding the full attention of every room you enter. You’ll be much happier being a hobbit, minding your own business, going about your day as you please while doing the best you can.

And if you ever feel discouraged, remember that even Gandalf, who already believed in the power of hobbits, thought their lightness was far from the end of their potential: “You can learn all that there
is to know about their ways in a month, and yet, after a hundred years, they can still surprise you. Hobbits are amazing creatures.”

What Home Is About

“There’s this something that makes me ‘me,'” Casey says, talking to the camera. “And whatever that something is, it first came to light when I moved to New York City 20 years ago.”

I never understood why Casey Neistat moved from New York City to California. It felt like my favorite TV show character being axed from the show. Needless to say, when, 3.5 years later, he announced he was coming back, I was thrilled.

“I could feel that something withering, that sense of self was dying, in Los Angeles,” Casey continues. What’s more, his wife Candice, with whom Casey usually struggles to agree, felt exactly the same way.

“Candice and I weren’t born in New York City. We were adopted by New York City. It’s the place where we became ourselves.” Having both arrived in the Big Apple in their early 20s and then spent what may have been their most formative years there, both as a couple and as individuals, Casey calls NYC not their home by birth but their home by choice, “and it’s rare in life for two things to fit so perfectly together.”

That’s what home is truly about: fit. Feeling like you belong. As he waves goodbye to his house in California, Casey explains: “Home was never about a house, or a great yard, or good weather. Home is about a place that makes you feel like you.” And then, clicking two legos together, he says: “Home is about finding a location where you just…fit.”

When I walk around Munich, I feel like a fish in water. I can’t tell you whether it’s the weather, the people, the architecture, the restaurants, the geographical layout of the city, the nature, or any of a million other things — and it is probably all of them combined — but when I am here, I feel like, no, I know that I belong, and that’s worth more than gold.

Wherever you get this feeling, know that you needn’t justify it. You don’t have to be able to explain it. As long as you recognize it, that is enough. How you deal with the consequences? That’s another story. But for now, remember that feeling like you belong is priceless. It’s a feeling that’s hard enough to find as it is, so when you do, don’t dismiss it.

Your living situation may not work out perfectly, and it definitely won’t do so immediately, but no matter how rocky the road to home, it’s astonishing to be able to say something along the lines of what Casey said, and almost a miracle to then live by these words: “New York City — it’s the only place where I feel like I truly belong.”

There Is No Courage Without Fear

When her disabled father is called into war by the emperor for the second time — a death sentence — Mulan watches him prepare for his departure. The Hua family symbol is a phoenix and, according to Mulan’s dad, while not protecting him from death, will tell their ancestors that he was “loyal, brave, and true.”

“I wish I was as brave as you,” Mulan says, but Zhou Hua only shakes his head: “There is no courage without fear.”

When she later sneaks into his dressing room to steal his sword and take his place, Mulan will remember these words. When her newfound soldier friends muse that they might not live past tomorrow, she will pass on her father’s wisdom. And when she must ultimately give up her disguise and reveal her true self to the world, she’ll still hear his voice.

If we see someone proceeding where, before, no one dared to tread, it can seem as if courage is the absence of fear, confident superiority, or even complete victory over it, but none of that is the case — for were there no fear left in the hero’s heart, their journey would require no bravery at all.

Where there is courage, there must also be fear. Not every instance of fear is met with courage, but even those that are are accompanied by heavy gulps and shaking hands.

When duty calls, don’t be afraid to be afraid. Remember there can be no courage without fear, and grip your sword as tightly as you need to in order to take the next step. You may not win every battle, but rest assured that, no matter what happens, we will be here, reminding everyone that you were loyal, brave, and true.

The Most Important Building

If you walk down Victoria Street in Singapore, at some point, you’ll see a massive, two-winged, white building rise from the greenery. On one side, the two wings open into a square, almost inviting curious onlookers into the glass-covered foyer with incredibly high ceilings. On the other, a curved front reveals 16 stories, the floors of each wing connected via a skybridge. And inside? Nothing but books.

The building that looks like an angel that has landed on an 11,000–square meter site and now rests on one knee, protecting over half a million works of literature under his wings, is the National Library of Singapore. And here I thought the five-story KIT library where I spent so much of my undergrad was big.

When it comes to the social experiment that is “a country,” Singapore is one of the world’s most successful examples — and I think this building has a lot to do with it. After some initial turbulence during the first colonization periods, Singapore eventually became a major global trading hub and, subsequently, financial center. It has the third-highest economic output per person, very low tax rates, and a high quality of life. It is safe, healthy, efficient, and despite being expensive, 88% of people own their homes.

If you want your city to be one of peace and prosperity, make the library the biggest building. That seems to be the lesson. At least make it bigger than the biggest pub, casino, or cinema. Big enough to make reading fun, studying interesting, and the pursuit of knowledge cooler and nobler than the pursuit of money, fame, or success.

Of course, Singapore has skyscrapers much taller than 16 floors. The main event is a hotel. And yet, the presence of an angel sitting in the midst of the island, extolling the virtues of curiosity, steadfastness, and restraint, seems to have just the right effect for everyone to keep their heads on straight.

The next time you find yourself in an unfamiliar place, don’t look for the station. Look for the library, and if not in there then at least from there, you’ll find everything you need.

Adventures Must Be Shared

As he looks out on the horizon, to the place where destiny calls him, away from his friends, the wizard resigns himself to his fate: “Betimes, our paths are laid before us by powers greater than our own. In those moments, it’s our task to make our feet go where our hearts wish not to tread.”

“Sounds a bit like an adventure,” his most loyal companion remarks.

“Oh, alone it’s just a journey,” the wizard says. “Now adventures — they must be shared.”

It’s an invitation for his friend to join him, and though reluctantly and against her better judgement, eventually, she will.

As one of his last acts as a bachelor, Barney Stinson imbibes a piece of wisdom upon two newfound fans of his: “Whatever you do in this life, it’s not legendary unless your friends are there to see it.”

Journeys can be wonderful and transformative. They are an important tool in finding not just ourselves but also our place in this universe. Adventures, however, are where the joy is wed to our journeys. Where our sorrows are halved for being shared, and our cheers multiplied for being divided.

Without them, whatever places we find to accommodate who we are — be it locations, feelings, or people — won’t serve much of their purpose at all. It is only in sharing ourselves that we truly become ourselves, only in our adventures that we can advance a cause larger than ourselves.

Going on an adventure can be scary. There’s no telling what might happen. Thankfully, you won’t have to do it alone. Chances are, wherever the road will lead you, when you look back upon it later, you’ll tell us of the legendary stories that transpired — if only because your friends were there to see them.

The next time a wizard knocks on your door, don’t try to shoo him on his way. Listen to his petition. Consider taking his hand. He may lead you far beyond the borders of your comfortable village, but what’s life if not a chance to follow your nose?

Forget the Sword

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there’s a scene in which Elsa, Indy’s love interest, is hanging over the edge of a cliff. With the precious treasure they want to obtain on a ledge so close she can almost reach it, Elsa desperately tries to grab the golden object while Indy begs her to let it go. Without a second hand to hold on to, Elsa begins to slip, and then…

Many an action movie has a scene like this. “Forget the Sword,” we might call it. The hero is outnumbered, outgunned, or simply out of luck. Regardless, they still hope to accomplish their mission, and so, against all odds, they reach for the sword, jump for the gun, or try to snatch the treasure when, actually, it would be about time to retreat and recover.

Often, it takes a kind voice — though, in light of the immediate danger, it might be screaming — to remind the hero: “Forget the sword! Let’s GO!” Later, the friendly face will comfort our hero, telling them that it’s okay to not achieve everything on the first try, but for now, safety is the number one priority.

In our everyday lives, the danger is not a mortal enemy or a literal abyss opening beneath our feet. Our threats likely pertain more to our happiness than our livelihood. It could be a business proposal from a potential partner your gut tells you you shouldn’t trust, a serious cold telling you to slow down at work, or your pension account dwindling despite you doing your very best to feed it. In those moments, when defeat feels inevitable, recall your favorite movie. Forget the sword. Get yourself to safety, and take some time to regroup.

You can’t double down when you’ve got no energy, and especially if you’ve tried doubling down before, chances are, it’s time for a new approach. Let go of your ego. Abandon the idea of a silver bullet. Whatever the shiny thing that seems like the perfect solution, even if you could reach it, it would most likely turn out to be nothing more than a movie prop.

When prospects are dire and time is pressing, don’t be ashamed to look after yourself. Forget the sword, and remember: Every story has more than one act. Even if you retreat now, you’ll still be here tomorrow, and tomorrow, you’ll get to try again.