Setting the Scene

“Which cup am I in the mood for today?” I ask when I open the cupboard in the morning. If I feel chirpy, buzzing and ready to tackle the day, I grab my yellow SocialBee cup, a gift from my friend Ovi. If I feel feisty, I take out my “Hands off, Nik’s coffee” mug, another dear present from a beloved friend. And if I feel more muted, perhaps even a tad grumpy, I’ll get an unbranded IKEA cup and pretend I’m a nameless peasant, shoveling shit for the higher-ups — but determined to do my job regardless.

One of the best things you can do for your productivity is to observe the constant interplay of time and energy. Yes, some deadlines must be met, and yes, picking tasks based on what you’re in the mood for is a great start, but there’s a lot more you can do. With the right tweaks, you can turn the ping pong game between these two forces into a beautiful, never-ending game. Making those tweaks is what I call “setting the scene” — and choosing my coffee cup in the morning is just one example.

Imagine your design sprint like a scene from a movie. Who’s present? Where does it happen? Is it a sun-filled room with whiteboards and cookies on the table? Or do you see yourself hunched over a laptop in the corner of a coffee shop at night? Picturing your life scenes as storyboarded moments inside a grand arc makes it easier to accept them as temporary, little adventures on the way. It also gives you an instant, clear vision of what this particular adventure should look like in order for it to go over smoothly in one take.

If I miss my reading slot in the morning, I can’t sit on my couch and read with a coffee in hand at 6 PM instead — too late for caffeine. What I can do is replace the coffee with tea and get the same scene and outcome, despite the time frame being a different one than I had originally intended. If I can’t bring myself to finishing a piece of writing at 4 PM because my creativity has run out for the day, I can switch scenes to an excited project manager, blasting EDM on his headphones, cranking away at his administrative tasks — and then I slip into that role.

You are the narrator of your life. Sure, the show must go on, but it’s a show you’re running at all times. Whether it’s a birthday dinner, a road trip, or mastering a mixtape you’re trying to bring to the big screen next, set each scene accordingly, and you won’t just have a smooth production. You’ll play the role of your life in each episode — and that’s what being a star is all about.

Swirling Inputs

Creativity is the result of mental connections, and so it’s hard to have too many ideas, concepts, and bits of inspiration one can connect.

I usually have more than ten books going at any one time, and I’m also likely watching more than one TV show. My “to read” and “to watch” lists are only growing. Some people might find this overwhelming. I find it leaves me with just the right amount of constantly swirling inputs.

Swirling inputs are like protective little gemstones orbiting around my brain. Whenever I’m facing a challenge, I can say, “Go!” and a handful of them will combine into a shiny solution. When you have a large pool of swirling inputs, you are always ready. Always creative. Never ill-equipped to handle what life throws at you.

This is especially helpful when it comes to making art, of course. If you can show me how A and B and C and D all add up to the same message despite being seemingly unrelated, that’s one hell of a cocktail of inspiration. But to do that, you need inputs. You need A and B and C and D swirling in your beaker by the time you sit down to rhyme, shoot, or compose.

Most everyday challenges, however, will gladly open their locks for you with the right A, B, or C alone. Here, too, however, the right concoction might lead to a more powerful effect. Why settle for unlocking a door when you can blast it open? Why take the stairs when you can take the elevator? A new PowerPoint template might wow the committee, but a YouTube video conceived specifically for your pitch might seal the deal in the room.

Only you can know the right dosage for your swirling inputs and where to get them from. Whenever you feel short on imagination, however, chances are, you have too few ideas floating around your lab rather than too many. Keep feeding your soul. Both your heart and brain will thank you for it.


Since returning from my 15 minutes of fame on Medium to relative obscurity, I’ve written over 600 posts on this blog. That’s almost as many as I’ve published on the platform, and boy, it’s been funonymous!

With only a few hundred people reading, perhaps as little as a few dozen a day, I don’t need to think about positioning. I don’t need to consider how this article will fit into my overall portfolio. And I definitely don’t need to worry about how much money it will make, how many claps it will get, or whether it will go viral. I just write what comes to mind, choose a headline that feels fun, and send my thoughts into the ether. Sometimes, a kind email comes back. Mostly, nothing happens — and it’s absolutely wonderful.

The twist with creating anonymously is that, like most things, we’ll only value it when we can no longer do it. We all start out as nobodies on the web. Naturally, we all want to get famous. It is only once relative fame has arrived that we realize how unburdened and joyful fiddling in private was. Perhaps, funonymity is worth revisiting. It doesn’t feel like it, but that’s a choice we get to make. Few do it, but for all I know, some of the best writers who’ve disappeared from Medium over the years are having a blast filling their journals.

But maybe the greatest irony of all is that from this state of dabbling in private, you’ll also have more fun when returning to your past arenas of glory and fortune. I might not have as much time to write whatever essay I want on Medium as I used to, but I have an archive full of posts no one on the platform has ever seen before. In fact, it’s almost as big as my existing body of work on the platform — and that’s exactly the kind of liberty that makes it fun to play again.

Every few months, I pick a handful of posts from the blog. I think about them. I change the headline. I add a picture, change a word, delete a line, and then I let them float out into the Medium sea from my profile — just to see what happens. Sometimes, a few kind responses come back. Mostly, nothing happens — and it’s exactly the same as on my blog. I’m not surprised. I’m not disappointed. I’m just having fun.

It’s good to get used to performing at a high level, but it’s another thing to do so under constant stress and expectations, if only your own. Would I have chosen funonymity if I hadn’t ended up in it by design? I don’t know — but I know it would have been the right choice to make regardless.

If you’re participating in the world of makers, you’re already doing us a great service. But if you’re in a hurry to succeed with it, stop for a moment, look around your empty comment section, and remember: One day, all of this might be a lot busier — and that will make it both easier and harder at the same time. Enjoy being funonymous, and know you can always return to the comfort of a quiet digital home.

No Time for Beauty

On some days, you’ll feel like there’s no time for beauty. No time to take the usual, winding path to the barn, and stop along the way to smell the roses.

You’ll just run over, feed the pigs, and move on with your busy day. But right as you throw in the last potato, the sun breaks through the clouds, hitting a little piglet rolling in the mud, oinking with joy.

You smile, take a deep breath, and grab your feeding bucket. The rest of the day will still be just as busy, but it will be peaceful nonetheless, all because of a little realization, a realization made right in the midst of that busyness, standing in the dirt: There’s always time for beauty — because beauty appears wherever we’re ready to see it.

This Virtual Soldier's Speech Explains How to Have True Purpose in Life Cover

This Virtual Soldier’s Speech Explains How to Have True Purpose in Life

Humans are agents of change.

From the moment we are conceived, our body begins to evolve. It grows until we’re born, and then it grows some more. Our bones, cells, muscles, even our brains — they constantly renew themselves. Day after day, month after month, year after year. It all changes until it can’t change anymore.

In time, we start to decay. Decay, too, is change. It’s not a bad thing, you know? As Steve Jobs said, “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

We don’t change just on the inside. Between birth and death, we change everything we interact with. We change nature, culture, and others. Throwing a rock is change. Discussing remote work is change. Patting a friend on the back is change. Even sleeping is change.

Change is the most human thing we do — and the most powerful way to enact change is through purpose.

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The Case for Realistic Optimism

In Zero to One, Peter Thiel outlines four ways one can look at the future. Based on your time horizon and personal disposition, you could be a definite or indefinite pessimist, or a definite or indefinite optimist.

An indefinite pessimist expects a bleak future but feels helpless in doing anything about it, Thiel explains. So he just sits around, waits, and enjoys his time. That’s all of Europe, by the way, according to Thiel.

A definite pessimist has a very specific idea of how and why the future will be bad, and so she works like hell to avoid it. Enter China, a country that has grown like mad in the last 20 years by copying what worked in the West, but where now many are trying to save, protect, and export what they have built — including themselves and their fortunes.

An indefinite optimist is certain the future will be great — he just doesn’t know what shape it might take, and so he doesn’t plan for any scenario in particular. In fact, he doesn’t make plans at all. He just moves around money, administrative procedures, senate seats, and existing products, often turning A into B only to revert it to A three months later. Welcome to the world of “lean,” “agile,” “iteration,” and “minimum viable product” — and the United States after 1982, Thiel claims.

“But how can the future get better if no one plans for it?” he asks. It can’t — and that’s why the last of his four options is the only one that truly works: A definite optimist believes in a better future, but she knows that future will only arrive if she plans for it and makes it happen. Hope and hard work, that’s all. What else is there? What else need there be? Not much, if you ask Thiel. And without those two things, everything else won’t matter much either.

People sometimes ask me how I can be so positive. Why I’m chirpy and upbeat most of the time. Definite optimism, or “realistic optimism,” as I usually call it is the best answer I can give. With regards to the outcome, the two terms are synonymous: If you always believe there’s a better future to be had if only you work hard for it, there’s always one of two things you can do in any situation: You can hope or you can work. On most days, you’ll choose both — and that’s why you’ll be happy.

When times are good, you know that this is the future you’ve labored to build. You’re not entirely sure whether, this time, it’s luck or a deserved reward, but you enjoy it because you know you’ve done your part regardless.

When times are bad, you might not know what to do or where your next breakthrough will come from — you might not be able to do much work right now at all — but you can take comfort in the fact that a good future is always waiting. Ready. Biding it’s time until you figure it out, catch a lucky break, or can get back to work. You might fret for a bit, but the fretting will never last long.

Realistic optimism eradicates both daydreams and despair. It keeps you calm. Centered. Aligned in the healthy, happy, smooth-sailing middle. It is forward-looking yet not past-forgetting, and it feels compelled to both justify its claims and back up its words with actions. It’s an empowering personal philosophy and a wonderful way to look at the world, for you’ll see the future not just for what it can be but for the essential part you’ll play in bringing about that vision.

Try realistic optimism. Something tells me you won’t regret it.

Covered in Luck

A few days after I had updated an article, I saw a surge of traffic to it. “Ha!” I thought. “Maybe changing the title worked wonders after all.”

The next week, a friend messaged me about that very article. “Dude, that list of Dumbledore quotes sure was timely!” In an instant, it dawned on me, and a quick Google search confirmed: Michael Gambon, the actor who had played Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter, had died.

Though not having grown as old as his magical counterpart, who lived beyond 100, Gambon reached the ripe age of 82. Still, his death means we’ve lost a wonderful human. It also means my cosmetic changes to a piece of writing did not work miracles. They simply happened two days before an organic rise in people searching for the topic.

In 1988, some 35 years ago, Gambon was interviewed backstage while rehearsing for a theater play. “I think I’ve always felt lucky — to be working at all, you know. My first job was at the Old Vic with Sir Laurence, which was, to me, like a dream. And it’s been good ever since. I’ve always felt covered in luck.”

Covered in luck. Perhaps, that’s what I was when an extra 15,000 people came to read my article. Not skilled or smart. Just due for a bit of luck.

If Gambon felt lucky long before the role of his life, how must he have felt after? Unlike the many crooks and villains he otherwise so often portrayed, playing Dumbledore would secure him a spot in the hearts of muggles and wizards around the world — and that, too, just fell into his lap.

After fellow acting legend Richard Harris died two films into the series, Gambon’s phone rang, and he jumped on the opportunity — famously without having read any of the books. “I have been in five Harry Potter films and never read a Harry Potter book,” he once admitted. “If you are an actor, all you have is the script you are given. If you read the book, you might get disappointed about what’s been left out.”

Sometimes, it’s better not to know. Was that luck? Genius? A deserved break after years of toiling away? Who knows? Just enjoy it! Give thanks, and savor. Keep reading the script you’ve been given, doing the work you’ve been called to do, and don’t worry about what’s been left out.

From breaking into the London Zoo as a boy to landing his first acting gig thanks to a CV filled with imaginary accomplishments, Gambon was always a misfit, ready to stir up a bit of trouble if only for his own entertainment. He was also, however, incredibly hardworking and dedicated to the craft.

Not fond of fame and intensely protective of his privacy, Gambon would also often lie to journalists in interviews, just to get them off his back. “I’ve always tried to be an actor who… I just plod on and try to keep my mouth shut, mind my own business,” he said.

Work hard, focus on yourself and your contribution, and watch what happens. That seems to have been Gambon’s approach, an approach he found liberating — perhaps even more liberating than magic: “There’s no subtext in Harry Potter really; it’s all magic, anything can happen. It’s quite nice in a way. There is a real freedom to it. Doesn’t say much for acting, does it?”

What Gambon alluded to was that, at its best, acting is not so much acting as it is revealing yourself through your work. He never “played” Dumbledore. He became Dumbledore. A unique, personal interpretation of a character that was more Michael than Albus.

“I’m not really a character actor at all,” he once said in a Q&A, talking about the role. “I don’t have to play anyone really. I just stick on a beard and play me, so it’s no great feat. I never ease into a role — every part I play is just a variant of my own personality.” Well, if that’s not a great formula for being covered in luck — don’t you think?

Keep your head down, let the chips fall where they may, and enjoy whatever good might come your way. That’s how Michael Gambon survived for over six decades in the world of show business, a philosophy not just built for an impressive trajectory but for having fun along the way.

It’s a view on life you and I can learn from, whether we are performing Excel kung fu, breastfeeding while making sales calls, or writing quote lists of fictional characters. It might not always allow us to take credit for all our accomplishments, but if it makes us feel covered in luck about our career less than halfway through the journey, who are we to argue with the wisest, most powerful wizard to ever walk the earth?

How To Relax Your Mind

In Letting Go of Nothing, Peter Russell laments that humans primarily differ from all other species not because of intelligence, language, or our diametrically opposed thumbs — it’s our constant misery that sets us apart.

Russell describes “natural mind,” a state in which we are at ease. There are no immediate threats, our needs are taken care of, and we’re not worrying about the future. Of course, discomforts, problems, complaints, desires, and anxieties inevitably arise. That’s normal. But once those inconveniences pass, we should return to natural mind. It is in this return that we most commonly fail, Russell claims, holding on to suffering long after its root cause has passed.

“A dog with nothing to do will sit and watch the world go by, pricking its ears at a sound of potential interest. Then, if everything is OK, it will relax again,” he writes. But humans? When a potential challenge arises, we imagine all the ways it could go wrong for us. When we’ve survived an ordeal, we worry about how long the peace will last. And even when there’s absolutely no reason to be anxious, we find one.

“One would think that we humans — with all our understanding of the world and the many technologies we’ve invented to change it — would have taken care of our needs and banished most potential threats,” Russell asserts. “We should be even more contented than our pets. Where did we go wrong?”

Part of the challenge is that, unlike our faunal friends, we view relaxing as yet another task on our list instead of something that simply, naturally happens when we let go. “But we can’t ‘do’ letting go,” Russell explains, “however hard we try. To let go, we have to cease the ‘doing’ of holding on. And that requires a quite different approach.”

The word “relax” goes back to the Latin “re,” indicating a return, and “laxus,” the state of being loose. Think of shaking your limbs after a stretching session. That’s “re-laxing” — and that’s what we need to do with our minds, Russell explains. He uses the analogy of holding up a stone to show why our usual attempts don’t work: Tension in your muscles is what keeps the stone in the air. You can’t release it by sending even more tension through your arm and hand. You have to stop being tense. Re-lax the muscles, and let go.

“Holding on takes effort,” and only once we drop that effort, “we cease holding on, and letting go happens.” Whether the grip is a physical one or a mental one doesn’t matter. The underlying principle is the same. We stop tensing up about “some attitude, belief, expectation, or judgment,” and letting go naturally happens. The inconvenience fades from our mind, and we return to a state of peace.

“Letting go” sounds proactive. That is misleading. When you think about letting go as “stopping to hold on,” unwinding your mind becomes easier. Letting go is “not trying in any way,” Russell says. We are simply “un-doing the holding on.” We are “developing the internal conditions that help the mind relax, allowing the letting go to happen.” Once we’ve mastered those conditions, be it through meditation, art, or any other practice, who knows? We might be even more contented than our pets — no earth-shattering technology required.

It Takes as Long as It Takes

After finishing a quote list, I was two thirds into the month yet only 12.5% to my publishing goal. With ten days left, I decided to tackle a book list keyword that would get me almost 75% of the way there. As often, the post was ambitious in its scope but routine in its requirements. I thought it would take me two days, maybe three. Ten days later, on the very last day of the month, I hit publish.

In writing, almost everything takes longer than you expect, and even what gets shipped on time will take longer than you’d like. That’s not a bad sign. It shows vision and flexibility. If you can scope each piece of writing perfectly ahead of time, chances are, you’re not creative enough. Not open-minded enough to adjust when new information and ideas arrive. J. K. Rowling might have known how Harry Potter would start and end from day one, but she didn’t know everything that would happen in-between.

Of course, not every creative project is a seven-book saga, and not every missed deadline can be claimed as a badge of honor. Once you’ve blown past your first target, however, it might be worth switching gears. Instead of entering rush mode, slow down. Clearly, you’ve underestimated this beast. That doesn’t call for a frantic flurry of unfocused attacks. It calls for directed, deliberate action — and that requires a new mantra: It takes as long as it takes.

In The Practicing Mind, Thomas M. Sterner tells a story from when he was a piano tuner, a trade that has lots of demand for only a few experts and requires a keen eye to detail. On a particularly busy day with about two and a half times the workload of an already “full” schedule, Sterner was too frustrated to keep chasing the clock. Instead, he decided to slow down. He took off his watch. He carefully opened his tool bag. He directed all his attention to the job at hand, and when he was done, he slowly packed up his tools again. The first time he looked at the clock was back in his truck. The result? He had finished the gig in almost half his usual time. He had slowed down only to speed up — not by design but by accident. As he later found out, however, even when done deliberately, slowing down can have the same effect. It takes as long as it takes — and when we approach a task with this attitude, “as long as it takes” will be not a second longer than it needs to be.

Once I realized my book list would require a lot more research and reflection, I decided to take all the time I needed. I read, I browsed, and I summarized my findings. I’m happy with the result, and if it does what it’s supposed to — rank on Google — then who’s to say taking 3x the initially calculated time wasn’t worth it? Even if not, I’d still rather have work out there that I’m proud to have my name on. That, too, takes as long as it takes.

“If you are aware of what you are doing, then you are probably working at the appropriate pace,” Sterner says. “The paradox of slowness is that you will find you accomplish the task more quickly and with less effort because you are not wasting energy.”

Rushing is a game you can’t win because by virtue of rushing itself, you’ve already admitted defeat. Go slow. Take your time. As much as you need. Often, but only ever in hindsight, you’ll discover you’ve arrived at your destination much faster than you thought you would. It takes as long as it takes.

Bland Coffee

“How does this taste again?” Last week, when I found myself reaching for the green coffee capsule, this question stopped me in my tracks. I counted. Seven out of ten left. “How do you not know how this tastes?”

At first, I wanted to blame my memory. A look around the other flavors proved me wrong. “Well, the golden one has hints of honey in it. The Shanghai variation smells lemony, and the Tokyo flavor tastes hearty yet flowery.” What was it about Nespresso’s Peru Organic variety that kept it firmly out of my grasp to describe it?

One cup later, I had my answer, and it was as simple as it was disappointing: It just tastes bland. Lifeless. Forgettable. Nothing more than slightly flavored water.

As a long-time Nespresso customer, that’s not what I’m used to. It’s one of the few bad kinds of coffee among a sea of great ones. Usually, each variety comes with a distinct, memorable aroma — so for Nespresso, a coffee that would blend in perfectly with other, cheaper, lower-quality beans actually stands out.

But not every business is Nespresso, and not every brand has dozens of products to save their butt when one is subpar. If your first offering is bland, there might not be a second one.

For most of us, in life and in business, it’s better if people remember us the first time — and for the right reasons, too. Don’t be bland coffee. Don’t make us sample your kindness, humor, or generosity multiple times. Show us properly, and show us right away. If you’re lucky, we’ll come back for more.

Don’t be the green capsule. Don’t make us ask, “How does this taste again?” You don’t come in packs of ten, and that’s one of the best things about you — but only if you leave a meaningful first impression.