Home Wasn’t Built in a Day

You can’t furnish a three-room flat in a week, let alone a single day. Each piece of furniture presents a whole journey to be taken, from matching tastes to researching models to figuring out your budget, organizing the actual thing, and testing different placements.

You can skip all of that and bulk order pre-compiled sets from IKEA, but then IKEA is what your flat will feel like — and no matter how much they make it look like it, IKEA isn’t home.

It’s a different process on a different timeline, to go from being an individual in a tiny, borrowed space to being the owner, operator, and curator of a home, and if you want yours to be a space rather than just a place, you’ll have to lean into that process.

The older we get, the more timelines extend. It’s ironic that we must spend time to earn patience, but it’s also why the last symphony we compose may very well be our best. Like that famous city of great historic significance, your home won’t be built in a day, but the more days you spend creating it, the higher the chances it’ll become something more than bricks and stones.

Behind the Pain

The first run is always a bad idea. After my first 5K in three years, my legs hurt for three days. When your thighs and calves are sore, the temptation is to go lightly on each step. “No pressure. Let’s not upset these delicate little walking sticks right now.”

Ironically, the more careful you are to move as little as possible, the longer your muscles will hurt. It’s as if you’re reaffirming their right to be upset. Meanwhile, something interesting happens when you fully extend your legs, stretching them through the discomfort: Behind the pain, you’ll find power, even relief. The muscles settle into their fully engaged position, and while there is tension, there also is strength.

Repeat the process a few times, and you’re re-educating your muscles. Instead of handling them with kid gloves, you’re showing them: “Look! You can do this. It’s not that hard.” Soon enough, the soreness subsides, and you’re back on the treadmill.

Pain only doubles when we shy away from it. Lean into it, however, and it’ll quickly be cut in half. Find the power behind the pain.

Room for Art

A good friend of mine lives a normal life. He has a stable job, lots of spare time, and enjoys the same things most people do, from watching a good movie to playing sports for fun to having a drink or two with his friends.

In other words, my friend is not what you’d call an eccentric, but if you walk into his office, you’ll spot a glass cabinet that holds something special: From his first Pokémon card to his latest video game, my friend has kept all of his collectibles over the years, and now that he lives in his own flat, he has chosen to display and preserve them at the same time.

Between the tinted glass to protect the trading cards from sun damage and the neat arrangement of all the items, as soon as you see the display, you’ll know: Here lives a man who makes room for art — and in today’s average-cluttered world, that is by no means a matter of course.

Art is for everyone because it’s a form of human connection. When we look at art, however we may personally define it, we feel less alone. Unfortunately, in an ever-busy, almost fully data-driven world, art gets commoditized and marginalized, pushed to the sidelines in public and filed under also-ran in our private lives.

The problem is that art feels optional when it’s not. What’s obvious in our real-world connections — when we don’t interact with other humans, we become lonely and depressed — feels like a nice-to-have when that connection isn’t as tangible — but the connection still works when it’s a painting you’re looking at, and the emotional rewards are just as real.

When you can’t or don’t want to interact with other people — and we all do at times — you can still engage with something beautiful that’s human-made. It’s a different form of connection but ultimately another part of our social balance, and an essential one at that.

If you’re an artist, you’ll feel that “art is banned to the bench” almost wherever you go. Youtube is laden with productivity hacks, make money fast schemes, and formulaic-format videos in every niche. Offices, coffee shops, and AirBnBs all look the same. On writing platforms, you can publish a you can publish a run-of-the-mill listicle and get lots of likes, but post an artsy piece and… crickets. Even the music you listen to and the titles you see in airport bookstores all repeat the same words and themes, and if you’re the kind of artist who tries to make a living from their work, you’ll likely know why: What’s popular pays the bills, but supplying more of what’s popular rarely feels like making art — especially not the kind of art you’d be making if someone gave you enough money to retire and free creative rein.

If you’re not an artist, you might not notice the absence of art in your life for months, but sooner or later, you’ll feel it — and then miss it almost everywhere you go. You’ll yearn to see an indie movie for once instead of yet another blockbuster. You’ll start thinking coloring your own t-shirts with your kids is actually a good idea. Why throw more money down American Apparel’s throat? Whatever specific shape your creative oxygen tent might take, room for art is something you’ll have to make. It’ll rarely find its way into your life on its own, and even when it does, it’ll usually be in too short supply to really achieve its desired effect.

If you’re an artist, making room for art means giving the world what you want. It’s okay to pay the bills first, but if you toss your creativity off the wagon altogether, why choose the artist’s professional struggle to begin with? Every now and then, make something for the sole reason that you want to make it. Do not look up industry trends. Refuse to do research. Let something shimmering emerge fully from your heart and brain alone. Your wallet might not thank you for it, but your soul most certainly will.

If you’re not a practicing artist, making room for art means carving out life-space for your quirks. In one way or another, we’re all far from average, but if we don’t let our more strange ends breathe from time to time, we’ll emotionally suffocate altogether. That can mean going to Comic-Con dressed up like Pikachu as much as it can mean watching a four-hour video of someone painting the figurines for their Warhammer tabletop game, but it always means looking for, expressing, and satisfying the creative urges for connection only you seem to feel — because ultimately, it’s never just you. There’s always another soul out there who feels the same, and perhaps they have already created the art that’ll connect the two of you across time and space.

Whether you keep your Pokémon cards in a custom display, take a Sunday afternoon to write something few people will read, or go out of your way to visit an exhibition you’d not usually visit, please: Make room for art. It’s a more important part of life than we give it credit for, and the stakes have never been this high.


Where are you? Look around. What’s the weather outside like? Is there someone you know close by? Perhaps even someone you love? Are you surrounded by strangers?

Breathe. No, really. Breathe. Recalibrate. Slowing down is a choice you can make at any moment.

Thinking can be an escape, just like food, sex, drugs, entertainment, or exercise — and it’s just as poor of a remedy if relied upon excessively. When you lean on something too much, it breaks. So take a break from leaning!

Don’t open too many tabs in your mind. Don’t clog your cognition to the point where you have to do a full reboot. Recalibrate often. Let your RAM and processor cool down.

It might not seem like little one-minute-pauses matter, but they do. Once you get up from your mattress in the morning, within seconds, it’ll return to its original shape. Your brain won’t always decompress as quickly, but even if it takes a few minutes, the regained calm and focus is well worth the investment.

Free Time Travel

If you ever wish to travel back to simpler times, chances are, you can do it within three miles of your house — and free of charge. I just did it yesterday.

The restaurant was Italian, but as soon as I stepped in, I felt transported back to the tex-mex bar I used to go to when I was 16. The interior design of every “modern” bar in the late 2000s and early 2010s welcomed me with open arms, complete with the fake-everything elements we were so impressed by back then, from “white marble” stones to “oak wood” beams, all stuck to the same white plastered walls that were really holding the place together.

Cheap LED lighting strips ran along every offset edge, every side of the ceiling, and every level of the mirror-backed glass bar. The music playlist was firmly stuck between 2008 and 2012, and between IKEA stock photos on canvas depicting olive oil, tomatoes, and other Italian ingredients, a distorted copy of Da Vinci’s Last Supper failed to provide any further sophistication which, oddly enough, only added to the locale’s out-of-time charm.

The waitress was jolly and down-to-earth, well-used to the several men in their late 50s, eating alone, cracking jokes and making slightly inappropriate but good-natured comments before returning home to their wives and kids. There was a free postcard rack sitting on the wall next to the toilet, offering as many fun one-liners on cardboard as you could carry, including the typical “I ❤️ Munich” slogan you see merchandise for as soon as you get off the train in any medium-sized city.

It was the kind of place where you could hold on to a single beer for eight hours, and no one would bat an eye. I read an entire car magazine while I was there — magazine stand, check — and my meal consisting of a salad, a beer, and a pizza still cost less than 20 euros. In other words, it was magical. No fancy jungle-themed interior. No influencers more obsessed with taking selfies and food shots than actually eating what’s right in front of them. No try-hard waiter hoping to sell you another 12-euro-cocktail. Just good food, honest people, and nothing else to do. It was exactly what I needed after a busy week of being fully immersed in modern life, the perfectly sized escape to remind me that each season has its time and that, actually, I’m usually in the right place at the right time.

On Apple computers, the built-in backup system is called “Time Machine.” When you open it, your screen blurs out, and your computer seems to enter a space between different worlds. On the right-hand side, a timeline will let you jump however far back you’d like to go, and a long line of windows will hover in the middle, like an endless row of files in a folder, ready for you to browse at your convenience. Your brain has the same capacity, you know? Except it’s even better. More visceral. Less than half as accurate, perhaps, but at least twice as compelling — and all you have to do to unlock a memory in all its glory is visit a place that’s connected to it.

Whoever you are, wherever you live, and whenever you were born, those places still exist. Not everyone gets to keep their grandma’s house, but the street you grew up on? Chances are, that’s still around. What about the taverns you used to frequent? Or similar-vibed places where you live now? It could be a familiar forest clearing, an institution you once attended, or a landmark you passed on a daily basis. You’ve inhabited this planet for decades — there’s no way you haven’t left your mark. Set your brain on the right scent, and it’ll lead you right back to those moments, in 3D and technicolor.

Perhaps, physical time travel doesn’t exist because we already have the best time machines sitting right between our ears. If we use them in the right doses, they’ll provide us with whatever we need in the moment, ultimately reminding us that, actually, we’re always exactly when and where we should be.

Love People, Use Screens

Six years ago, I changed the wallpaper on my phone, and I haven’t changed it since. It’s a greyscale picture of a desert, in the hot air of which floats a single question: “Why am I in your hand?” The idea was to become more mindful of when and why I use my phone. The effect is not as strong as it once was — phone wallpapers aren’t immune to the visual blindness we develop for all things we see on a regular basis — but every now and then, it still catches me off guard and helps me find clarity.

When I pick up my phone to text my girlfriend good morning, check the weather, or scan a letter, that’s a deliberate action requiring a screen as a tool. About 20% of the time, though, I grab my phone only to immediately do something other than I intended. I’ve already neutered notifications, vibrations, and the like more than most people, but at this point, I don’t think my phone’s interruptions are any longer required: My mind has been conditioned to get distracted all on its own, and the phone itself is just the trigger for this habit.

But who am I telling this? Wasting time on our phones is a disease more widespread than coronavirus, and though it hurts to add up the hours, it is still one of the more innocuous byproducts of the technology-infused times we live in. Where it gets dicey is when screens manage to unhook us from reality altogether, if ever so briefly.

Every day, millions of people use words on Twitter they would never speak in real life. It’s easy to type “You dumbass” with your thumbs, and if you get a bunch of likes for it, it might even appear like it was a smart, commendable thing to say — but 99% of the time, it’s not.

Never mind the hurt feelings, however, if we can do real damage in numbers — literally, in CryptoKaleo’s case. Kaleo is one of the more rational and ever-positive voices on Crypto Twitter. He’s also a good trader, but in 2021, even he lost touch, and not just his own. In the span of five weeks, Kaleo grew his trading account from $30,000 to $12 million — and back down to zero. Round trip to obscurity. In a thread sharing his wins and losses as well as some reflections, he admits: “It happened so fast, I don’t think it ever felt real. I didn’t spend on much physical [items] like I should have, so I treated it more like a video game than I did real balances.”

Video game sounds about right. What Kaleo has done with millions, I have done with a few zeros less, and Sam Bankman-Fried, the notorious founder of went-down-in-flames crypto exchange FTX, has done with billions. “We sometimes find $50m of assets lying around that we lost track of; such is life,” SBF once joked with his team. When it’s all numbers on a screen, it’s hard to imagine let alone feel real-life consequences, but that doesn’t mean those consequences won’t happen eventually. What’s the difference between having a million rupees in Zelda or a million dollars in your crypto portfolio? Nothing — until you cash out the latter and pile it up on your living room floor in singles or buy a house with it.

How does what happens on our screens connect to the real world? That’s the question we must always have an answer to. There’s that saying that you should “love people and use things, not the other way around.” Unlike in an addiction to materialism, we don’t find our displays themselves gratifying to look at, but when we get so hooked on what flickers across them that we sink ever more hours into staring at them — far more hours than we spend staring at human eyes, the real world, or simply out the window — they are no different from excessive drinking, gambling, or drug use — an affliction separating us from the people we care about.

Love people, use screens — not the other way around.

Speak Your Achievements

When I do my sit-ups in the morning, I lose count all the time. I’ll start thinking about what I dreamed of at night, what I want to write about later, or what’s on my to-do list for the day. “Am I on 44 or 54? Dang it!”

Last week, I made one simple change, and it is already making a difference: Instead of counting solely in my head, I yell out every tenth number. “10!” “20!” “30!” “40!” Yell is an overstatement. In the little air that’s left between reps, it’s more of a whisper — but it’s enough. I haven’t lost count once since implementing this tweak.

People wonder why Tesla is so highly valued, why Harry Potter succeeded after being rejected by 12 publishers, and how Trump ever became president. Things like this happen because, as a species, we meme our dreams into existence.

The same dynamic applies on the individual level and for much smaller goals and milestones. “I will run before breakfast tomorrow. I will run before breakfast tomorrow. I will run before breakfast tomorrow.” Repeat anything out loud three times in front of your mirror at night, and watch what happens. It’s a silly little quirk, this whole affirmation thing — almost a loophole in our brain circuitry — but it works.

Just like you can use words to change reality, you can use them to cement it once it’s there. “50!” “60!” “70!” Fitness is an obvious example, but it works in other domains too. The more frequently I tell people I’m an author, the more inclined I am to work on my next book. It’s manufactured accountability when you reaffirm things to others, but a lot of the time, it works even if the only party listening is yourself.

“80!” “90!” “100!” Try it. Speak your achievements. It’ll feel good, keep you accountable, and, most importantly, it’ll help you not lose count of the many steps you’ll have to take until you reach the real top of a mountain that was once nothing more than a meme.

One Year, One Mission, One Focus

150 years ago, focus was easy because it wasn’t optional. Everyone was a farmer, and if you weren’t busy tending to your crop and livestock as the seasons demanded, you spent your downtime with family and the leisure activities of the time. Work itself was hard, physical, and sometimes grueling, but focus? That was a given. You either farmed or you starved.

Today, at least in my and probably all subsequent generations, focus has become the hardest task in the world. I’m not talking about the everyday focus of sitting down and working on something, although that, too, is being increasingly bombarded by ever more technological interruptions at an ever faster pace. In the long run, whether you work for three, five, or eight hours on any given day doesn’t matter.

What matters is which “long” you are running to, and this big-picture destination of yours is under attack from everyone you know, including your spouse, your boss, your mentor, and your best friends. It is under attack from every source of information you come in touch with, and it is an attack the size of which we have never witnessed in history — because it’s not an “attack” in the conventional sense but a combination of side effects of “that’s where we are” as a society.

If you’re an entrepreneur of any kind, you’ll feel the opposed gravitational pulls on an everyday basis, and if you let your guard down for so much as a second, they’ll tear your focus apart. The creator’s bane is hopping from side project to side project, never arriving, never finding meaning, never making it financially. And yet, your partner only wants the best for you when he tells you to try a new direction with your Etsy shop.

If you’re an employee, I feel for you, because while it’s not your fault, you have even less control over your long-term goals. You’re at the whim of your boss’s boss’s whims, and so if anyone higher up in the chain loses focus, so will you. I can’t blame you for resigning — not on paper but in your mind — and resorting to business as usual with nothing unusual ever crossing your schedule. Your boss, too, tries her best when she reads Twitter and the 138th clever “how we did it” thread finally gets her to capitulate and change course. So does her boss and every Fortune 500 CEO. “The market wants this. The market wants that.” And so your company scrambles from quarter to quarter, each one’s finish-line-flag hoisted on a different mountain, covering all four sides of the compass, and round and round the strategic planning process goes each year.

The attack on your biggest dreams and long-term focus has been underway for a few decades, and it will neither slow down nor stop any time soon. Every year, there are more fads than the last. More trends one “should capitalize on now.” It has always been hopeless to try and keep up with them, but at their current, somehow-still-growing breakneck speed, you might spend hours each day half-assing the latest TikTok hashtag only to wonder what’s left of your soul at the end of the year — and with little to show for it in the follower-department to boot.

Perhaps it’s just my age, or maybe I was always old-fashioned, but the faster the world seems to spin, the more I want to slow down. There are always exceptions to confirm any rule, but by and large, everything I’ve jumped into on a whim has turned to ashes sooner or later, while the most rewarding projects and relationships are the ones I’ve worked on the longest — and almost perfectly in order of how much time I’ve spent on them too.

There is so much more pride to be found in not giving up on something than in nailing the latest viral craze or making your company look good on the earnings call, and every day you continue to not give up on it will only make those feelings of meaning and contentment grow stronger. The problem is that you need to run through this positive, self-reinforcing feedback loop a good number of times before the effect kicks in, and with so many opportunities to go do something else instead, it’s probably a conservative guess that 90% of the people in my generation and younger have never had this particular sense of fulfillment, and most of them won’t ever attain it in their lifetime.

If you’re waiting for the world to give you permission to focus, to direct your mind to a singular, difficult but meaningful end, you’ll never go to bed at night knowing you made a sacrifice that was worth the cost even if it doesn’t pay off tomorrow — or ever. Your boss won’t allow you to build a crazy prototype race car in the company garage. You’ll have to do that in your back yard. Your Instagram feed won’t remind you to make breakfast for your kids every morning. It’s something you’ll just have to get up early for and do. And the countless partnership requests in your inbox won’t add up to a product your customers will love. You’ll have to build that step by step, day by day, complaint by complaint.

If you’re tired of riding the fad carousel, you can get off any time. For me, everything changed when I dedicated myself to one project for a year. One year, one mission, one focus. Since then, I’ve done it again and again — not always on the same theme or project, but I’m still learning too, and the more I do, the more I come back to things I already own — own as in “feel a sense of ownership in,” a stake, a responsibility worth trying to live up to. Whether it’s a daily blog, a moonshot annual goal, or a promise to myself to meditate every day, it is the targeted, steady, soon-but-not-too-soon milestones from which most of my happiness springs, but only if I make the effort to show up for them every single day.

It’s ironic that, beyond the tried and true perseverance arenas like marriage, parenting, and relationships, the internet, the hype machine responsible for our being pulled in an endless number of directions, responds to commitment the same way a farm did 150 years ago. When you contribute consistently in a specific direction, the wave of connection we’re all swimming on will carry you there. At least in the ten years I’ve been in business, in the third-ish decade of widespread internet availability, that seems to have been the case. You water your crops, you tend to your flock, and slowly but surely, your farm will grow and expand. Unlike a real pasture, it’ll never leave you with the sense that there’s nothing left to do but go to the movies, but it still offers the kind of happiness we can only attain from knowing we’ve done an honest day’s work — if only we can ward off the shimmering mental torpedoes and focus.

There is no universal remedy to help us find this big-picture focus. It is a relentless battle we must fight every day, just like the staring contest with our screens that determines our daily output. It is, however, the sturdiest path to meaning, job satisfaction, and overall contentment I have discovered in 32 years of life, and once we tread on it, each next step will fall a little lighter than the last.

Parallel Trains

There’s a subway stop in Munich where two lines share the same platform. They always arrive at the same time so people can switch from one to the other, depending on where they’re trying to go. It’s always fascinating to watch the people in your car as it pulls into the station. Who’s going to switch? Who’s going to stay? Why are they making those choices? Where are they hoping to go?

The real magic, however, happens when everyone has made their bet. “Rien ne va plus! This is the seat you have chosen,” an invisible announcer might say. And then, as the parallel trains leave the station in perfect sync, for a few seconds, your eyes survey all the people in the other car, but before you get to wonder about any of them, they find the eyes of a stranger, and in that moment, you know: The game has ended, and destiny has arrived. Rien ne va plus indeed.

“You’ve made your choice, and I have made mine,” you telepathically communicate to one another. “May this train bring you safely to your destination, and perhaps, in another life, I’ll see you again.” And then, with the slightest tilt, one train moves up, the other down, and both vanish behind concrete walls.

You’re still sitting in a sea of other people, but in that instant, you know you’re alone. Not in a depressing, “it’s me against the universe” kind of way. Just in an, “I’m on my own path, and I know where I must go” sort of way. Back in life’s single-player game.

The world is a maze, and your path is determined by your decisions. It’s a unique path no one else will ever take, and though you and I might meet in the maze, even run in parallel behind concrete walls, the center we each long to reach will never be the same.

Enjoy the magic of singular connections, but don’t veer off course. Remember your journey is yours alone, and take whichever train you need to take to see it through.

You’re a Coin With Two Sides

Beth is nine when the car crashes. The wreckage lies on a bridge — at the end of it lies the orphanage.

The janitor, Mr. Shaibel, will teach her how to play chess. A few rounds in, she’ll start teaching him, and one “simultaneous” against 12 high schoolers later, Beth will know her destiny: The chess board never lies. It’s a battlefield, and she was born to control it. But not all her battles will be fought there.

Years later, the first female US chess champion loses her adoptive mother at a tournament in Mexico. She drinks. She cries. When the pharmacist puts the narcotics on the counter, she says “más” — more. More of everything. More wins; more fame; more money. More loneliness; more alcohol; more anger.

Back in the dimly lit basement, Mr. Shaibel prophesies what no nine-year-old could understand: “People like you have a hard time.” He holds up a quarter. “Two sides of the same coin. You’ve got your gift, and you’ve got what it costs. Hard to say for you what that will be.” Balance, he warns her. Delicate balance required. “You’ll have your time in the sun, but for how long? You’ve got so much anger in you. You’ll have to be careful.”

Whatever caution Beth may once have exercised, all too soon, she’ll throw it to the wind. Then, all that’s left will be more — more of everything — and with each episode of The Queen’s Gambit, one thing will grow clearer: Beth Harmon is a black hole of “more,” and we can only guess where it ends.

“Don’t burn too bright too fast,” Mr. Shaibel seemed to say. “Watch out. Keep your balance.” Chess prodigy or high school dropout, US champion or second-draft reject — we’re all two sides of the same coin. We’ve got our gifts, and we’ve got what they cost. Competitiveness brings both wins and frustration. Gentleness invites honesty but also abuse. 

A coin is tallest when it stands on its edge, but the balance that requires is fickle. Be careful. No one knows which side they’ll fall on today. Not even the genius child, sitting across the board with unblinking eyes. All she — and we — can do is make our next move with poise and humility, but before that, we must invite the unknown with those darned two words: “Let’s play.”