Confidence Should Be the Norm

It’s true that confidence must be earned by forming real skills through long-term practice. But once you have it, why won’t it stick? A designer with 15 years of experience won’t suddenly become an amateur again overnight. So why won’t she constantly lean on her well-trained gut and move forward effortlessly in every new job and project? Because for all her expertise, she still doesn’t trust her gut, and that leads her into low-confidence environments.

If you gave me ten million dollars and told me to write whatever I want to write, I’d have a lot of ideas to choose from, but I know exactly which ones I’d want to work on and which ones I’d immediately drop for good. The question is: Why don’t I do that now? Why do I try to squeeze words into products with some ulterior motive that ultimately only keeps me second-guessing myself? Because I’m not trusting my gut.

When philosophers and martial artists talk about flow, about unity, about emptiness, what they mean is that when you trust yourself, you can flow with ease through any situation. Whatever’s going on, you’re instantly choosing an authentic response to each next moment. You know what’s right, what feels good, what’s going to work for you, and you act accordingly: with confidence, conviction, and empathy for yourself and those around you.

Whenever I get carried away into a low-confidence environment, a phase where I’m second-guessing every to-do on my list, waking up each morning wondering, “Why am I doing all of this again?” it usually means I’m not in sync with myself. I’ve forgotten my experience. When it comes to writing, that’s about ten years of daily practice. When it comes to being me, it’s 33 years of 24/7-living.

Early into a new journey, low confidence can be a sign that you simply need to practice more. But after a few years of following a certain path, it should be the norm — and whenever it is not, chances are, it has nothing to do with how good you are and everything with forgetting to trust your hard-earned intuition. If you need one, here’s your reminder: Allow yourself to trust yourself. Sometimes, you don’t need to paddle harder. You simply need to start swimming in the right direction.

The Problem Is the Answer

I have been racking my brain about how to fight my website’s declining traffic for months. But what if it’s a feature, not a bug? What if all there is to do is enjoy it?

Less traffic means less revenue. Okay, sure, that’s the part I, like most people, was focused on and immediately started worrying about. But apart from that, what do fewer website visitors really mean? It means there’s a smaller community. Therefore, it’s a smaller project. So why don’t I treat it as such? If something no longer wants to offer a full-time occupation, why don’t you just make it a side hustle? Perhaps that’s exactly where it’s meant to go.

“We shall find the truth when we examine the problem,” Bruce Lee once wrote. “The problem is never apart from the answer; the problem is the answer.”

A mentor of mine once told me that “your problem is someone else’s solution.” What you lack, someone else may have too much of. If the two of you get into a room together, perhaps you can both walk out with more than you had when you walked in.

But sometimes, as per Bruce’s words, the solution can stem even more literally from the problem. What if your challenge is something to be celebrated and embraced instead of defeated? “When the dream starts to fall apart or the formula we are using stops working, this can be a time of crisis,” Shannon Lee, Bruce’s daughter, writes in her book Be Water, My Friend. “Or this can be a time of coming back to oneself, back to your dream, back to your clarity.”

For a long time, I felt I had to publish a new book summary every week on Four Minute Books. That I had to send out a newsletter each Saturday, follow a certain format, and focus on popular titles. Maybe now that none of those things are no longer working, I can just do whatever I like. Only summarize books I personally enjoyed reading, and only after I’m 100% done with them. Change the newsletter to a more casual, personal format. Or write longer summaries whenever I feel that the usual four-minute format doesn’t suffice. Sometimes, what you lose in earnings, you gain in creative freedom!

The problem is never apart from the answer — but what if the problem is the answer? Whatever your current struggle, look at the challenge from a different angle, perhaps even through it instead of at it, and maybe you’ll realize there’s no struggle at all.

2 Definitions of Freedom

A few months into his stint on late-15th-century Japanese soil, English sailor John Blackthorne concludes he is surrounded by people who are trapped with no intent of escaping.

Local lord Yabushige’s allegiance sways with the wind, yet he never tries to get out from under the thumb of either of his demanding leaders. Great warrior Buntaro hates his wife and treats her accordingly, yet he’d never demand a divorce. And Mariko, the wife in question, would love to end her life as a statement about her complex family history, yet she consistently follows Buntaro’s orders not to do it, all while making his life, too, a living hell.

At one point, a drunken Buntaro badly beats Mariko. The next day, she pretends nothing has happened. John believes that, this time, things have gone too far, and he gives Mariko the best philosophical advice most Westerners could give in such a situation: “I see you. Your disgust for him. If you want to be free of that shitless coward, then be free of him.”

When Mariko claims John doesn’t understand, he doubles down on his speech: “Honestly, you’re shuffling around with your manners and your buried self, for what? My life is mine and yours is yours. If you can’t see that, you’ll never be free of this prison.” “No, John,” Mariko responds. “It is you who is imprisoned. If freedom is all you ever live for, you will never be free of yourself.”

Naval Ravikant is a modern-day philosopher aiming to unite Eastern and Western approaches. One of his big perspective shifts was to change his definition of freedom: “My old definition was ‘freedom to,’ freedom to do anything I want. Now the freedom that I’m looking for is internal freedom. It’s ‘freedom from.'” Whether it’s freedom from reaction, from feeling angry, or from feeling sad, whereas Naval used to look towards agency, now he is looking towards tranquility. This is the gap between John and the people around him, and it’s a tough one to bridge.

If he had a chance, John would be back on his boat and out on the sea in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, his Japanese friends mind less where their lives are going, nor how long they will last, and more which purpose they’ll ultimately serve. As long as the overall mission is the right one — and by and large, they trust that it is even if they can’t see it — they’ll gladly settle for “freedom from” instead of “freedom to.”

Of course, both approaches have their limits. Over the course of John’s story, plenty of his friends lose their lives for ultimately no reason at all. At the same time, John constantly feels trapped despite having a meaningful life right in front of him. As it turns out, we can have both too much freedom and too little at the same time — they’re just different kinds.

Don’t live for freedom alone, yet don’t sacrifice your agency altogether. Balance “freedom to” and “freedom from,” and you can follow both your own purpose and the one the universe has set out for you. Ultimately, John and Mariko are two halves of the same idea, and if that’s what it takes, you can be all the pieces it takes to solve your own puzzle.

It Might Loop Back Around

Sometimes, you’re walking through a new city and realize you are lost. You don’t know the streets yet, and the path you thought would lead you to a square ended up right in front of a building. Of course, you can turn back any time — but you can also keep going.

When you choose the latter, not always but every so often, you’ll walk only a few minutes more until you recognize something you’ve seen before. You pushed through the uncertainty, and you learned: “Wow. Okay. Actually, this loops back around.”

Life is the same. What feels like a failure might be a new beginning. What seems like a dead end could be the final stop before your big return. And when you’re out of your depth, you may be only a few steps from looping back around.

Don’t judge too early. Whatever situation you are in, it’s not a trap. Only a new reality, and like the queen on a chessboard, you can move in any direction — including the one that’ll bring you right back to where you started.

A Different Kind of Brainwashing

“Empty your mind. Be formless. Shapeless — like water.” Chances are, you’re familiar with this Bruce Lee quote. Even 50 years after his death, the famous martial artist’s “Be water” analogy is still making a splash. In her book Be Water, My Friend, Bruce’s daughter Shannon recommends the line as a guided visualization.

“I picture my mind like a sacred bowl filled with all my thoughts and feelings of the day, and as I say or think the words I picture all those thoughts emptying out and washing down through my body like a gentle waterfall. I let the worries, the to-do lists, and the stress just filter down through my being and drain into the earth.” Wow! What a powerful image!

“Then,” Shannon continues, “I sit quietly as the bowl of my mind refills with clean, clear, still water or white light or whatever feels good. You can also view your empty bowl as an invitation for it to fill with whatever you need to see or feel in that moment. The important thing is not to force a vision or a feeling. Just allow. And if nothing comes, then fill your bowl with clear water or light and wash it down your body once again.”

Collect. Drain. Refill. Rinse. Repeat. Having tried Shannon’s exercise many times as part of my daily meditation, I can say it makes for a great “brainwashing” indeed.

I imagine a trap door in the bottom of the bowl, and sometimes, as it opens, the many oddly shaped objects representing my thoughts resist falling out. Usually, there are specks of dust and dirt left after everything is gone. So naturally, I must rinse the bowl with water. As I see the elixir of life pour into the bowl made of glass in front of my inner eye, I might even get goosebumps from the “coldness” of the water. And by the time that, too, washes down through the trap door, my bowl is nice and clean — and so is my brain, ready to start the day with a little less bias and a good deal more calm.

Try it! Wash your brain. Be formless. Shapeless — like water. Empty your mind, and start the day with a clean slate.

Presence Is Most Keenly Felt in Absence

In the period drama Shogun, set in 1600s Japan, at one point, English sailor John Blackthorne must sit through an awkward tea ceremony at the local brothel. A night with the best courtesan in town was a gift from his lord he couldn’t refuse, but it was also one he — however surprisingly — didn’t actually want.

Mariko, his translator, is the woman John really desires — and the fact that she is present for the entire occasion doesn’t help smooth things over one bit. As Kiku the courtesan prepares and elegantly pours tea for John, which he can only clumsily compliment in Japanese, she teaches her apprentice a lesson.

After moving the teapot, she calls out to Hana, a young courtesan-in-waiting. “Look where the flask just was. What do you see?” “I see nothing, elder sister,” Hana responds, and for Kiku, that is exactly the point. “You see where the flask is no longer. Presence is felt most keenly in absence.”

Noting both John and Mariko’s suffering, Kiku tries her best to comfort them and encourage their genuine romance. Whether she succeeds, we, the viewers, are not entirely sure. Still, sooner or later, the night ends, and life goes on.

Several episodes later, John returns to the village from a trip to Osaka. This time, alone. He knows he won’t see Mariko again, and neither will his consort Fuji, the woman appointed to run his household. In a moment mirroring the tea ceremony, John awkwardly tries to give a compliment: “Fuji, you look…healthy and strong.” Fuji thanks him, and then the two of them take a long, longing look at the empty mat on John’s right. He only has two words left in him, but they’re also all he needs: “No translator.”

The scene only lasts 30 seconds, but it’s more than enough to take us back to Kiku’s lesson: “Presence is felt most keenly in absence.” It’s the kind of echo we’ve all felt in our lives at some point or other. A photo of an estranged friend. A sweater left behind by an ex. A deceased loved one’s favorite belonging. Without the remnants to remind us, we’d have no sense that what’s now gone was once actually there. They amplify both the pleasure and the pain.

That’s why, like life, great art often rhymes — and to use that technique to make that very point, well, hats off to Shogun‘s creators. It’s not 100% clear whether the show is finished after its first season or not, but whenever it ends, I know I’m going to miss it. After all, presence is felt most keenly in absence — and what gives us beautiful if complex moments in reality also makes for great TV.

Are You Taking the Bait?

In the first episode of Narcos, narrator Steve Murphy, an officer of the Drug Enforcement Agency, describes Pablo Escobar’s rise to power. One day in the 1980s, Escobar walked into a cocaine lab in the Peruvian jungle, took a few kilos back with him to Columbia on the spot, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As Escobar came up with more and more smuggling routes to get the addictive white powder into the United States, Murphy, who was used to chasing weed dealers in flip-flops through the streets of Miami, seriously had to step up his game — and he did.

“When I started, a one-kilo grass bust was cause for celebration,” he reports. But after Escobar? “Before long we were seizing 60 kilos of coke a day.” As Murphy explains this, we see him confiscating several pallets of decorative plants in the Miami harbor, hidden under which are, well, “other plants” — except the latter come as powdery white bricks.

While Murphy is busy busting the containers, however, two unsuspecting divers approach the ship from which they’re being unloaded. They jump into the water, unscrew the caps on some of the ship’s anchoring weights, and lo and behold, out comes…more cocaine. There are more bags. Longer bags. Bigger bags. And suddenly, the plant pallets ten meters above look like a joke.

“We thought we were making a huge difference,” Murphy admits. “The truth is, we weren’t even making a dent. They let us have 60 so they could bring in 600.”

At the height of his power, Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel smuggled several dozen tons of cocaine into the United States every month. 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 kilos. That’s two tons a day — so who cares about the DEA seizing 60 measly kilos? And of course, for far too long, the officers took the bait.

Even if you’re not trying to chase down drug lords on a daily basis, chances are, somewhere, you too are taking the bait. Which small catch are you celebrating while the big fish might be swimming loops right under your nose? Is the bait your level of distraction? Your useful-but-far-from-essential role at your company? Or a trophy too small to celebrate for the amount of effort you put in?

I hope we won’t have to catch another Escobar for a long time, but chances are, your big feat will be no less difficult. Don’t take the bait.

Every Offer Needs a Market

“I’ll give you 30 bucks for all of it,” Charlie says as she drops the spare car parts on uncle Hank’s desk. “30?!” Hank protests. “I can get twice that much for the coil alone.” But Charlie’s counteroffer is pretty convincing: “From who? I’m the only one that comes in here.”

If you’ve ever tried to sell a rare item, you might have encountered this dynamic: Every offer needs a market. You can look up your grandma’s rare china and see that there are only a few sets of that particular tableware left in the world — but if nobody wants to buy them, that rarity is worth very little.

After I started collecting Pokémon cards again, I discovered several cool, old, limited edition boxes. Far from their original retail price of $20, some of these rare sets now sell for $100, $500, even $1,000 and more.

However, since they are so scarce and expensive, not many people want to buy them. So even if there are only ten boxes for sale, as long as there’s only one buyer, that’s still a 10x overhang in supply vs. demand. If you track listings for some of these boxes on eBay, you might see only one, maybe two selling in any given month.

As a result, whoever wants to move some of these boxes will have to compromise on one of two things: the timeline or the price. You can wait until a buyer coughs up the number you’re technically entitled to given the data, or you can speed up the process by lowering your ask. Especially if you’re trying to sell multiple items at once, you might have no choice but to do the latter. That’s why, as a buyer, it’s always worth asking for a deal.

If you’re used to buying and selling major stocks or common household items on Craigslist, you’ll never encounter this problem. There’s always plenty of both supply and demand. But if you one day find yourself holding an illiquid cryptocurrency or NFT no one wants, or struggling to sell what you believe is a cool collectible, remember that scarcity does not create value on its own. Every offer needs a market.

As a collector and investor, make sure you enjoy what you own. And as a customer, never forget that while monopolies can dictate prices, so can you if you’re the only one in the store.

Not Motivated

To do what? That is the question. You’re always motivated to do something. But when our inspiration and our goals don’t align, what do we do?

Over the last six months, I haven’t been very motivated to work on my business. I’m still grieving a past failure, spinning my wheels as to where to go next. But I have been very motivated to start, build out, and seriously invest in my Pokémon card collection. I have bought cards, boosters, boxes, sleeves, and binders. I have made new friends and traded with them. I even made a master spreadsheet, started tracking everything, and began to consider the investment side of things on top of the just-for-fun hobby.

Should I spend more time working and less time collecting? Absolutely. I could kick myself for it, and sometimes, I do. But I never gave up on my business altogether. I still work on it every day. And whenever the motivation pendulum swings the other way, both it and I will be here, ready for another season.

There’s a balance between acting only on inspiration and relying solely on pressure to marshal yourself forward. Sometimes, what’s fun and useful will align perfectly. At other times, you’ll need a fun distraction to carry you through a rough patch. Don’t worry about it too much. Life has its own agenda. What feels like wasted time in the moment might later turn out to be training for the right opportunity.

Not motivated. To do what? You’re always motivated to do something. The only question is what is it, and how much will you allow yourself to follow your nose?

It Doesn’t Matter Where They Come From

For the first eight years of Four Minute Books‘ life, the only real source of traffic was people organically searching for book summaries on Google. More and more folks kept coming my way that way, and so there was no need to change anything.

Then, the growing flood of traffic stopped overnight. My visitor numbers dropped 70%, and for the first time, I had to ask myself a hard question: “Where am I going to get readers from? Fans? Subscribers? Customers?”

When you depend on one source for something for a long time, if that source dries up for whatever reason, your natural inclination is to fix it. “Why is this well no longer giving me any water? Is it the bucket? Did the rope tear? What’s going on at the bottom?” But unlike hope, no natural spring is eternal, and so when the water runs out, chances are, it’s run out for good.

Whether I could get my traffic back or not, several months into the decline, it was clear that it wasn’t coming back overnight. The only sane thing to do was to ask that same hard question, except this time, instead of defaulting to “I’ll fix my traffic,” like I had done the first time, I’d have to seriously consider every answer, not just the obvious one.

“Where am I going to get readers from? Fans? Subscribers? Customers?” I came up with a plan, and I’ve been acting on it ever since. Will it work? I have no idea. But in the process, thanks to that question, I learned a valuable lesson: It doesn’t matter where they come from. The customers. The dollars. The deals. The suppliers. The resources. The partners. The solutions to whatever problem you are trying to solve. It takes humility to accept this.

Will you take a bailout deal from your competitor to help you through a crisis? Will you accept the same goods from a smaller shop if your usual vendor is out of stock? Will you try paid advertising if organic acquisition is no longer working? All of these are questions of humility first and foremost.

It’s not a universal rule, but by and large, in life and in business, get what you need where you can get it from. Being picky comes later. First, make sure you can play another round tomorrow — and for that, it doesn’t matter where they come from.