Beyond Anxiety, There Is Peace

There’s this quote that “everything you want is on the other side of fear.” Well, not everything. Inner peace is on the other side of anxiety — and the only way to get over that is to go straight through.

Week in point: On Monday and Tuesday, my productivity was great. On Wednesday, I didn’t feel so well, and most of the day went towards rest. That made me anxious about achieving all I wanted to achieve that week. On Thursday, instead of a quick morning doctor’s appointment, I ended up having a multi-location medical marathon, which initially made me more anxious, but by the time I decided to just do what I could in the breaks between appointments, the tide began to turn. “Health comes first.”

On Friday, in theory, everything could have gone back to normal, but instead of frantically rushing to work and trying to catch up, I woke up peacefully. I took my time, wrote at home, and only left the house around noon. In other words, when all signs were pointing towards the gas pedal, I put the thrusters in reverse and slowed down to speed up. Surprisingly, the world is still turning. That week has come and gone, and so has the anxiety. The wind may blow from time to time, but usually, when the storm moves on, we are still here.

Whether it was refusing to be bothered, a genuine concern for my health, or some other kind of clever argument for surrender, I cannot tell you — but I can say that, when you’re anxious, it is critical to hold out until you reach one of these points. Whatever will carry you through the tension, it’s coming, and no matter how barren the current landscape, beyond anxiety, there’ll always lie the lands of peace.

Functional Clothing

When you open your closet in the morning, do you ask, “What outfit will help me perform best today?” Or is it more along the lines of, “What outfit will make me look good today?”

When you go on a safari, you don’t wonder which kind of beige the lion would like. You pick the trousers with the most pockets and the vest that will best keep out the sand. Meanwhile, in our modern society where clothes are all but irrelevant as we all type away on nearly identical keyboards, we still spend a great deal of energy on dressing for opinions rather than functionality.

The problem is about as old as clothes themselves and, thankfully, turtleneck-wearing geniuses, billionaires in sweatpants, and the working-from-home revolution have already mellowed dress codes to some extent. But as long as the idea is in our heads — “I need to look good in front of strangers” — the battle is far from won.

“Kings and queens who wear a suit but once, though made by some tailor or dressmaker to their majesties, cannot know the comfort of wearing a suit that fits,” Thoreau mused in Walden some 150 years ago. “A man who has at length found something to do will not need to get a new suit to do it in,” he suggested. “Much of any necessary or important work may be accomplished without adding to [our] wardrobe,” Thoreau believed, and today, he’d be more right than ever in this line of thinking.

But if “the head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same,” or at least feel pressured to do so, we are no further than when Thoreau penned his words, no better than the kings and queens who wear a suit but once.

Sometimes, dressing for performance will mean looking good — and not just when the performance is one where you’re trying to impress other people. How you feel when you leave the house matters. Most of the time, however, it is enough to comb your hair, smell-check the sweater, and once again find comfort in the suit that already fits.

“Perhaps we should never procure a new suit,” the naturalist wondered, “however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles.”

If an accessory or routine aids you in accomplishing the important work you set out to do, by all means, use it. But if you find yourself dressing mainly to not upset others, you might want to give this century-old metric a try: New identity, new clothes. Same identity, same clothes. Now that’s some functional clothing.

The Value of Zero Thoughts

“So how much data are you gonna get on this new plan?” my friend asked. “I think it’s 20 GB per month,” the other friend said. “But do you really need 20 gigs? You’re never gonna use that, are you?” Then came the lesson: “Some things in life, I just don’t want to think about.”

Lately, my wifi at home has been super slow. So every now and then, to watch a movie or zoom with my girlfriend, I’d turn on my hotspot and use my phone’s data instead. I’m on a 10 GB per month plan, and a single TV show episode can easily take half a gig, so at first, I was constantly fretting: “How much data is this gonna cost? Should I try switching back to wifi? What if I run out halfway through the month?”

After I heard my friend’s take, however, I changed my approach. I decided that, at 31 years old, my mental space was too precious to be sacrificed over an extra 10 or 15 euros per month for more data. When I get home after a long day at work, I want to talk to my partner without the connection constantly breaking up, and I want to watch TV without tapping my fingers on the table every five minutes because the show is once again buffering.

So, new policy: “If my data runs out, I’ll buy more. Period.” I cannot tell you how liberating it felt to make that decision. More than it should have. But that’s the value of expending zero thoughts towards a topic: It’s not a little less than “a little.” It’s a lot.

It takes more space in your mind to create a new section dedicated to a novel issue than it does to think a little more about a problem you already have. Therefore, eliminating a single section entirely will bring more relief than dialing five challenges down to “I now only have to think about this once a week.”

Just like a bad habit is often easier to abandon than to practice in moderation, thoughts improve exponentially the more focused you direct them. Don’t short-shift yourself by wasting your mental power on trite problems. Remember the value of zero thoughts.

Forever Can Go Fast

In late 2018, the city of Munich started renovating its glyptotheque, the museum holding a variety of ancient sculptures. The scaffolding went up, the machines got to work, and around the construction site, a big banner read: “Reopening in 2020.”

Back then, I passed by the building almost every day, and each time I thought: “Man, this is gonna take forever.” Of course, life went on, and so did I. I wrote my Master’s thesis. I graduated. We had a tiny pandemic, and I entered a long-distance relationship.

When I next took a conscious stroll around the building with a friend, the year was 2022 — and despite a 6-month delay, the glyptotheque had reopened over a year ago. That “forever” went by pretty fast.

Don’t dread the long road that lies ahead. You’ll be 500 miles along before you know it, and by the time you remember to look back, you’ll find plenty worth missing that you’ve left behind.

Is the Technology Good, or Are You Just Bad?

Three stories, one lesson.

Yesterday, a friend forwarded me a sample ad for a car seat, written by ChatGPT:

“As a young parent, keeping your child safe and secure is your top priority. That’s why you need a car seat designed by professionals who understand the importance of safety and comfort. Our car seats are engineered with the latest safety features and materials to provide the ultimate protection for your little one. From side-impact protection to easy installation, you can trust that your child is in good hands with our car seats. Don’t compromise on your child’s safety — choose a car seat designed by professionals. Order yours today!”

The creator’s comment? “Copywriters are screwed.”

Yesterday, I also overheard a conversation at work. “I had ChatGPT write like 80% of this thing for work, and when I read it out at the meeting, everyone was impressed. When I told them it was written by AI, they suddenly said: ‘Oh yeah, you can kinda tell.’ Then, they started criticizing bits of the text — but they were the bits I had written!”

Yesterday, I remembered a great article on Wait But Why: The Cook and the Chef. In the piece, Tim Urban tries to explain Elon Musk’s genius. “Yeah, Musk is smart and insanely ambitious,” Urban concludes, “but that’s not why he’s beating everybody. What makes Musk so rad is that he’s a software outlier. A chef in a world of cooks.”

Urban argues that, where most people try to follow other people’s recipes in all areas of life, Musk makes up his own. In the short term, that often leads to failure. But in the long run, it leads to what we think is genius when, actually, Musk simply applies logic and creativity from scratch.

Therefore, Urban argues, “the real story here isn’t Musk. It’s us.” Why is someone like Elon so rare? Why aren’t we all using our imagination and reason more deliberately? “The curious thing about the car industry isn’t why Tesla is focusing so hard on electric cars, and the curious thing about the aerospace industry isn’t why SpaceX is trying so hard to make rockets reusable — the fascinating question is why they’re the only companies doing so.”

“We spent this whole time trying to figure out the mysterious workings of the mind of a madman genius only to realize that Musk’s secret sauce is that he’s the only one being normal,” Urban concludes. Therefore, “in isolation, Musk would be a pretty boring subject—it’s the backdrop of us that makes him interesting” — and it’s the same thing with AI.

When a technological breakthrough happens, it is considered a breakthrough because, collectively, we were very bad at solving that particular problem for a very long time. Often, the breakthrough itself is less fascinating than why it took us so long to get there.

In the case of ChatGPT and writing, the fact that so many of us are amazed at its ability to form a few coherent, somewhat logical sentences with correct grammar says more about us than about the technology: Most people’s writing utterly sucks — and that’s why they’re thrilled at the prospect of never having to do any of it ever again, even if that prospect is only on its first set of diapers.

This is neither news nor surprising, but AI is beginning to expose how systemic of a problem this is. Traditional education turns writing into a dismal chore from the start, and so whatever linguistic skill it might imbibe on you will leave a bad taste in your mouth. Naturally, most people aren’t keen to pick up the pen later in life, and wherever they have to do it — and it’s a lot of places where we have to do it — they’d really rather not.

While it’s great that AI will help us solve the output-side of that problem — you’ll just be able to generate any text with a simple prompt — the question is what will it cost us, and when will we pay that price?

My personal nostalgia for writing aside, I think the real danger lies not in losing the skill of writing but in losing the ability of thinking. The biggest benefits of writing have nothing to do with the output. They’re about what happens inside the writer: You learn to structure your thoughts and process your emotions. At the very least, you learn to reflect on what you say before you blurt it out, and you understand that not all feelings must be acted upon. Stop practicing the hard skill you originally picked up to get some ulterior result, and those internal abilities will also go out the window. In that sense, it is easy to imagine the human species without writing as a species of blubbering, impulse-driven monkeys — and if you can make bananas rain from the sky at the push of a button, soon, pushing the button might be all you’re able to do. As for the when, schools and universities around the world are already scrambling to catch up with proliferating GPT-essays, and if people opt out of thinking in the institutions designed to teach you how to do it, what chance do other, more profit-driven organizations have?

The first time you read that car seat ad, it’s easy to be impressed. “Wow, how coherent! How logical! How grammatically correct!” Read it again, however, and ask yourself this: How much does this really make you want to buy a car seat?

If someone thinks “copywriters are screwed” based on this ad, that once again says more about them than about copywriters. It indicates they wouldn’t be able to write a better text themselves, but if, as a professional copywriter, that’s the kind of work of you deliver, then you’ve long been screwed already — you just haven’t been fired yet. Good writers will combine the A with their own I to ship newer, better, more creative work. Their hours won’t go down, and the amount of hard work required won’t change — it’s just the kind of work that will be different.

For most people, however, AI will mostly make a part of their lives easier that they don’t care much about but need to get done: writing. The real questions, therefore, are not who will be replaced first and when we can stop learning how to write altogether. They are…

Is the technology really that good, or are you just bad? And what’s the skill you really need to improve?

The break is far from through, and hope is never lost — but perhaps every now and then, think about the subject, not the prompts. You never know when that computer between your ears might come in handy, and it better be ready when you need it.

Wait and See

One of my favorite zen stories is “The Farmer’s Horse:”

One morning, the old farmer’s horse ran away. The neighbors expressed their sympathy: “What bad fortune!” The farmer replied: “We’ll see.”

The next day, the horse returned with a whole flock in tow. The neighbors were over the moon: “How lucky you are!” The farmer replied: “We’ll see.”

The next morning, his son tried to tame the horses. He fell and broke his leg. The neighbors showed consolation: “Such bad luck!” The farmer replied: “We’ll see.”

One day later, the army drafted soldiers. They skipped the farmer’s son. The neighbors were delighted: “What a blessing!” The farmer replied: “We’ll see.”

When my girlfriend was fretting over whether she’d get the job after the interview, I told her: “Just wait and see.” When we were trying to plan our Christmas travels amid covid-rules-confusion, I said: “Just wait and see.” And now that we’re suspended in mid-air between visas, flats, and jobs that may or may not materialize as we’re trying to move in together, I keep saying: “Just wait and see.”

“You always say, ‘wait and see!'” she told me at one point. “It’s like your default policy.” I think at first, she thought I was delaying decisions. Most of the time, however, I use it to ward off judgments. If the other shoe hasn’t dropped, why pretend it’s already on the floor? Our short-term conclusions are often too narrow-minded, biased to the downside, and, well, wrong. Better to wait and see.

If you’re waiting for an important test result, don’t assume it’s going to come back negative. Just wait and see. If you’re worried about how an application will go, don’t throw shade on your performance. Just wait and see. And if you don’t yet have the confirmations you need to book your next vacation, just wait and see.

I don’t know when it started, but at some point, when life poo-pooed all over our plans, my girlfriend sighed and said: “Ah, just wait and see.” I think she’s coming around, and perhaps, if you remember the farmer’s horse, you will be too. We’ll see.

The Only Space That Matters

A few weeks ago, there was a little kerfuffle in a new WhatsApp group a friend had set up. The group was for a small circle of friends, all trying to grow their businesses. Some had begun doing regular Monday check-ins for accountability, others wanted to use the group more casually, and others still wanted to move to Slack. I was in the second camp.

One morning, I woke up and, for the first hour of the day, debated what to do. Should I just skip the voice-note check-ins? Could I? Would I have to formally “sign off?” Did it even matter? Could I just do what I wanted, and everyone would be fine with it? Finally, I resolved myself to “waiting and seeing” because, most likely, none of the other members thought as much about this as I did — if at all.

I glanced at my calendar as I was about to leave the house, and in an instant, all fruitless mental gymnastics stopped: It was my mom’s birthday. Holy cow! The day my mother was born, and I had to look at my calendar to remember it. That made me sad.

I’m good with birthdays. For close friends and family, I usually remember right after waking up. It’s a useful ability, but what’s more, I like being someone who remembers important people’s birthdays without having to check their phone. It’s important to me. Needing an external reminder could only mean one thing: My brain was too full.

I like minimalism because it increases the chances you’ll have the mental space you need to tackle the important questions in your life. It does not, however, guarantee your brain won’t be full. You can fill your mind with ideas, tasks, worry, rumination, nostalgia, and daydreams just as easily, perhaps even more quickly, than with needless documents piling up on your desk or dusty memorabilia hogging your shelves. Unlike decluttering, defending your inner territory against these invisible culprits is a daily duty that never ends.

Whether you curate a house full of possessions or travel light wherever you go, remember that your most important battles will not be fought on the plane of material existence. The space in your mind is the only space that matters. Protect it.

A Try-Hard or a Friend?

Have you ever met someone you desperately wanted to be friends with, but they just didn’t feel the same way? Every now and then, it happens. For me, it might be a writer who’s further along in their career — close enough to feel like a peer, yet far ahead enough to admire. I’ve come to know several of them over the years.

Sometimes, it saddens me when one of those connections fades before it has even begun. What are they up to? What are they thinking? Why aren’t they interested in a more regular exchange? Months pass. Emails stay unanswered. Sooner or later, reality sets in: I’m trying way too hard, and I must learn to be okay without being able to call that person a friend.

It’s not a nice thing to realize that you’re a try-hard. That you’re not wanted where you’re hoping to go. But some people don’t want your friendship as much as you want theirs — and that’s probably proof enough that they don’t deserve it.

When it comes to romantic relationships, it’s easy enough to understand that one-sided partnerships don’t work. With friendships, the stakes might be lower, but that doesn’t make it reasonable to spend years chasing someone like a door-to-door salesman.

How many coffee invitations must someone decline before giving up on them is the kinder thing to do? The answer will differ in each case, but there’s always a line where we go from extending a hand to begging on our knees, and beyond that line, your self-worth is in danger. Did they agree to meet out of pity or genuine interest? Are they tolerating you now because they need something? Can you trust their change of heart? The longer your persistence must persist, the muddier the relationship waters become. Until, one day, we wake up and wonder: What is this? Why am I here? How did I end up in this place?

The stars don’t always align, and not all magnets attract one another. That’s okay. Letting go is as valuable a skill as being a good friend. Don’t try so hard, and remember: If you’re not valued, you’re just in the wrong place.

How Big Is the Wheel?

Going to MediaMarkt was always a thrill when I was younger. It’s a German electronics retailer, and in their huge stores, you used to be able to find everything. They had computers, cameras, CDs, TVs on display, and, of course, video games. Often, if you wanted a new game or music album, MediaMarkt had to be your first stop. I still remember the excitement of checking out a game at the counter, or jumping up and down with joy when my dad brought me the latest The Rasmus album after work.

Of course, by now, MediaMarkt has gone the way of almost all retail. The last time I went there was years ago, because nowadays, the internet has more selection, cheaper prices, and if you can find your way around it, you’ll often know more than their employees.

During the great lockdown of 2020, I stumbled upon MediaMarkt’s latest annual numbers. The result? After making over 20 billion in sales, the company conglomerate made a profit of 236 million. That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s just over 1%. One percent! “That’s a big wheel you’re pushing,” I thought, “for very little water coming out of the pipe at the end.”

Imagine: 50,000 employees. 250 euros of revenue for every single one of Germany’s 80+ million inhabitants. And at the end of the day, what’s left? 2.50 euros per citizen. Is that really worth it?

Think about the effort it takes. The time. The energy. The waste that’s created along the way. It’s not a question people running a profit-making business usually entertain, but perhaps, if your margin is down to 1%, it’s time to do something else. Would anyone really care if they just…stopped? If those 50,000 workers were presented with other, perhaps even more exciting, opportunities, wouldn’t they gladly take them?

Livelihoods matter, of course, but in business as in life, ask yourself: How big is the wheel I need to be turning? Not all companies can do a lot with little, but the ones that can, shouldn’t they? Especially as a solo entrepreneur or small business owner, moving more with less means better resource management, more sustainable operations, and, for an added bonus, a lot more peace of mind.

In engineering, gear ratios help optimize efficiency. A small gear can turn a big gear if the setup is chosen well. At the same time, just because a big gear is moving does not mean that your machine is operating efficiently. Think about your output in relation to your input, and don’t be afraid to start over when your operation no longer makes sense.

The Great Thing About Stories

The more crime movies you watch, the better you’ll get at spotting the culprit in advance. Having watched Tatort (“Crime Scene”), the longest-running German TV drama, for over 30 years, my mom usually knows within a few minutes. She’s the Sherlock Holmes of watching Sherlock Holmes, if you will — and yet, decades later, she is still watching. Why?

Well, you never know for sure, do you? The only way to really find out is to watch until the end, and then, you’ll either get the satisfaction of being right or the joy of being surprised. Stories are a win-win situation.

And after you’ve seen the whole thing? Why watch something twice? For one, it might teach you something new, not because the story has changed but because you have. “You can never step in the same water twice, my friend,” Bruce Lee used to say.

For another, however, since you now know how it ends, you also know how it makes you feel. Therefore, the story will go right into your roster of “use in case of…” medication. Emotional medication, that is. Stories help us heal because they help us process. I can watch Star Wars a million times and still feel inspired, if every time for a different reason and on a different occasion.

So actually, a great story is win-win-win-win. There’s always an element of novelty and an element of comfort, and though we often don’t know which one we’ll get, the prospect of either is usually enough to keep us returning, be it to a new story or a familiar one.

Stories are how we make change, but they are also how we change. Sometimes, the change is just a smile, and sometimes, it is a whole new identity. But whatever change we seek, there’s a story out there to guide us through it. Choose a life of stories.