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.

Ask Better Questions

Why me? What will happen if I pursue this project? How could I have prevented this failure from seven years ago?

These are not good questions.

How can I help now that I’m here? What does this project need given who it’s for? Why am I doing what I’m about to do?

These are decent questions.

Ask better questions. Better answers, better results, and better living will automatically follow.

On Making Masterpieces

My dad received a special picture for Christmas. It’s a circular frame filled with water, sand, and just a hint of air. How does it work? You turn the frame until the sand is at the top, separated from the water by a line of air bubbles. Then, you wait.

As the air bubbles slowly pop one by one, the sand starts trickling into the water. A bit on the left side. A bit on the right side. Perhaps some more in the middle, and then it’s back to the left. Since the sand comes in black, white, and gold, shapes begin to emerge. A white desert. A black mountain. A golden coastline.

If you’re lucky, enough sand remains above the air bubbles to form a second landscape. One time, we ended up with a range of three, increasingly larger black pyramids at the top, and what looked like two mountains by the oceanside at the bottom. A true masterpiece!

Turn the frame too fast or too slowly, however, and all the sand will fall down in one big slump. Thump! Here’s your unrecognizable mess of sand!

It’s funny. In a way, this frame allows you to create perfect artworks on demand — and yet, it’s just as easy to screw up the process. Plus, even if you time your turn just right, there’s no telling what you’ll end up with. It’s almost as if beauty refuses to be framed completely, let alone be mass-produced.

Whatever the masterpieces you’re hoping to create — paintings, books, human connections or a snug, protected home — remember there’s no way to force the universe’s hand. You might fail a thousand times, but on that one thousand and first attempt, flowers will rain from the sky. And if not? Then you can always take another turn, and the sands of creativity will start flowing once more.

Great art is not about whether the stars align in the end. The true masterpiece is showing up.

The Silent Narrator

Last year, I hired a narrator to record the audiobook for 2-Minute Pep Talks. The project began in late September, officially commenced in October, and was supposed to wrap up in early December. After one last email in November, I received zero communication until January.

Two months of radio silence might not tell you too much about someone, but when that person happens to talk for a living, it highlights an interesting lesson: talking is not just talking, and an expert in a particular skill might still be very bad at even the most closely related abilities.

In Moonwalking With Einstein, Joshua Foer explains that great chess players have so-called “chess memory.” They perceive the board differently than amateurs, focusing only on the most important parts. They can imagine move sequences before they play out, and they might even have a visceral gut feeling for where a piece is supposed to go.

If someone’s a grandmaster in chess, we tend to think they’re just generally smart, but as Foer points out, at least when it comes to their ability to remember positions, move sequences, and board patterns, their expertise is limited to chess. Once they leave the table and take a memory test, they won’t score any better than other participants. Nor will a chess genius automatically be a great wartime general. Real battlefields are, after all, much different from wooden figures on a board.

Don’t expect too much from experts, and remember to add complimentary skills to what you’re already best at. A chess player might survive forgetting his phone number, but even if she’s recording in the studio, an otherwise silent narrator is rarely a good look.

33

Today is my 33rd birthday. I’m now old enough to know that if you need to learn one more lesson each year for your annual listicle, you simply haven’t been paying attention the year before.

Those posts are fun for the audience but of little help for the writer, and on your birthday, you absolutely deserve to be the center of attention — even if it’s only your own. That’s a lesson my girlfriend taught me, by the way.

Perhaps it’s better to write down a lesson for every single year you’ve been alive and then repeat those lessons to yourself on an annual basis forever. My addition to the list this year? Big changes don’t have to be scary — as long as you are ready for them.

After two years of a long-distance relationship we started right before Covid-19, I was ready to move in together. It’s a commitment that scares many people, but given our positive experience of being together in our small flats for weeks at a time, I felt in a bigger space it could only get better still. I just knew it was the right time — but the universe disagreed.

My girlfriend had just started a new job, and she could not relocate within the first 12 months. So we waited. Ironically, even though the finish line was perfectly in sight, this one turned out to be our hardest year yet. Perhaps the very promise of it ending made all the travel feel more tedious, and so we skittered about a good deal more than we had before, not least because of several mini-crises I made up for us to “enjoy.”

That’s a related lesson about big changes: When you do have the privilege of feeling ready to make them, make them. Don’t let your readiness expire. Like fresh milk or the latest rush of inspiration, it never lasts, and by the time you do get to live out your transformation, perhaps you’re wholly unready again — and a great deal of potential goes to waste.

Thankfully, for us, moving in together worked out just the way we thought it would, even with a year’s worth of delay. The next big change? Who knows. Actually, I do — except it’s not relationship-related. Because right now, I’m going through another massive shift. But this one, I wasn’t ready for, and I’ve been in a tailspin ever since.

In 2023, I really had my roadmap figured out. I was going to publish lots of new content on Four Minute Books. That content would rank well on Google, bring in new traffic, and I’d finally reach a million monthly readers with that project. The income from the ads would take care of the rest, and then I’d write my next book. That all worked well enough for nine months. But one day, Google updated its algorithm, and the next morning, it really didn’t.

Unlike for moving in together, I was not ready to lose half of my traffic, and that’s why, four months later, I still don’t have a clear plan on what to do next. Time solves all problems eventually, but this corollary adds even more emphasis to the original lesson: If big changes are extra scary when you’re really unprepared for them, you should jump on the ones that feel ripe for the taking with absolutely everything you’ve got.

Let’s see what my 34th lap around the sun will bring. For now, all I know is that if there’s a big revolution floating by, as long as it feels right, I’ll be happy to reach out, grab it, and don’t look back!

Nightly Expectations

When I think about my goals for the week, I naturally find myself reflecting: “I wonder how many of them I will actually be able to do.” Like most people, I have some level of awareness that days can — and will be — disrupted.

From sickness to low energy to sudden administrative emergencies, we generally appreciate that life sometimes throws our plans out the window, and while we might not put an exact time buffer on our calendar to account for them, we usually adjust well enough to them up to a certain degree.

So much for days and weeks — but what about our nights? When I wake up with a headache, I’m inclined to feel genuinely rattled. When I spend a good chunk of the night lost in thought instead of dreams, that can reverberate throughout the entire rest of the day.

But even though less happens at night than during the day, a night, too, can go badly. The fact that the plan — to sleep peacefully for around eight hours — doesn’t change will not protect said plan from occasionally going up in flames.

Nobody expects to wake up from a nightmare, or with a pounding head, or too tired to get up at the time they intend to. Yet these things, just like rush hour traffic, slow checkout ladies, and unexpected phone calls, happen every day. Perhaps we should adjust our nightly expectations.

You’re a trooper when it comes to navigating the entropy of everyday life. You fight distractions, swerve around obstacles, and shoulder detours like a pro. Take your bedtime disturbances in equal stride. Don’t let a groggy return to the real world detract you from your mission, or at least not from the spirit with which you intended to approach it when you went to bed.

Lower your nightly expectations. Plans are cheap at any time of day, and the important part is that you keep driving — even when it’s dark.

Against the Odds

The breath you are taking right now is a breath taken against the odds. Whether it’s one in 400 trillion or 400 quadrillion, the chances of you ever existing were close to zero — and yet, here you are!

The job you have to show up for today is a job you found against the odds. Out of millions, why this company? Why at this time? Why you, not someone else competing for the gig? It all magically lined up, and now, you’re in charge.

The girlfriend, partner, or spouse currently waiting for your next hug is a person you found — or will find — against the odds. Eight billion people on the planet, and you hope to pick just one? Good luck. But we do it every day.

If you have kids, you’ve once again beaten the odds. We call giving birth a miracle for a reason. One spermatozoon out of 200 million, finding the perfectly conditioned egg cell, followed by nine months of constant adversity. And yet, you can hear their footsteps as they run down the hallway.

The comfortable home you’re running, curating, and maintaining for your family is an uphill battle against the odds. From financial problems to logistical chaos to dysfunctional relationship dynamics, a million things could torpedo your sanctuary any minute, yet everyone still sits on the couch, watching a movie, laughing together.

In almost everything you do, you are up against unfavorable odds, yet you keep persisting. Existing. Even succeeding. You don’t realize the million microscopic ways in which you defeat chance every day, but you do — so why not call out the odds some more?

Be grateful for the countless miracles bringing you to every next moment, and then shoot for the moon. You’re a winner against the odds, and your greatest reward is yet to come.

Thoughts Are Made Up

If someone asks you whether you have a present for your brother’s birthday yet, in German, you might say, “Oh, da muss ich mir mal Gedanken machen!” which roughly translates to “I’ll have to think about it.”

But what does it translate to exactly? “Sich Gedanken machen” literally means “to make oneself thoughts.” Given the reflexive nature of the word “sich,” those thoughts are made both by oneself and for oneself. In other words, they’re entirely made up. A manufacture of the mind.

This applies to all thoughts, of course. Not just brilliant ideas and birthday gift ruminations but also the fears we refer to when we use “sich Gedanken machen” as in “to worry,” another common meaning of the phrase. Could it be that whoever worries themselves sick is merely making too many thoughts?

No matter how much it feels like it, thoughts don’t appear out of thin air. Every single one of them is made, and for 100% of your thoughts, you are the maker in question.

Your thoughts can’t live rent-free in your mind. Unless you offer them space after you make them, they won’t continue to exist. Even when you feel as if you’ve provided that space involuntarily, you can still withdraw it. Unmaking thoughts might be your greatest power.

Use that power wisely, but use it. Thoughts aren’t natural disasters. Only when we make them — by ourselves, for ourselves — can they role-play in our heads — and if we’d rather be alone, all we have to do is will them away.

Questions Beat Answers

I’ve spent thousands of hours learning — about myself, my work, my business, and plenty of other things. One gradual shift that’s been happening is that questions seem to have become a lot more valuable than answers.

I rarely go “Eureka!” anymore when I have an idea, or even when I decide that idea is the right course of action to pursue. To be fair, I also don’t jump up and down with joy when I think of a better angle to look at a problem from — but a good question always does come with a sense of curiosity and wonder, and often, it is that sense that seems to be guiding me in the right direction. More so than, “I’ve got it! I will launch an online course!” or other epiphanies.

Answers are easy. My brain spits out an answer to every question instantly. Not because it knows all the answers, but because giving answers is what it likes to do. As a result, our error rate for answers is incredibly high — not just for factual questions but for subjective ones too. Sitting with the question, stewing in it, is much harder, but that’s the kind of deliberate practice that pushes our brain to deliver its best performance.

A question offers multiple new paths without forcing you onto one. It provides room for creativity without demanding judgment. From a question, you can let answers evolve. An answer shuts down the conversation and pushes you in a fixed direction. Sometimes, the latter is exactly what we must do, but in a world where there’s often no right or wrong, allowing your answers to slowly evolve as you go is a kinder, more flexible way of navigating.

When you’re a tiny pinball in a giant machine, it’s more important to bounce off every surface than to aim for a particular hole. Answers are enticing when we are young, but after we butt heads with a few metaphorical walls, we become wary of them — and perhaps that’s as it should be. In the long run, being well-attuned to questions is just as, perhaps more important than, listening for answers. Mind — and enjoy — your questions.