The Story & the Audience

In the early 2000s, Ryan Leslie was the #1 voice in RnB. He produced. He sang. He rapped. And he lifted other artists to the top. His albums sold tens of thousands of copies, and he was even nominated for a Grammy. Then, he disappeared from the music scene.

Over a decade later, Leslie gave an update on his life in an interview, dropping plenty of wisdom along the way, like his analogy about the audience and the story: “You could be sitting in a movie, and you could say, ‘Oh man, I really don’t want that person to die.’ If the scriptwriter makes it so that that person’s gonna die, you will be sitting in that movie, and you might have to shed a tear — because that person’s gonna die.”

Leslie’s point is that the audience does not decide where the story goes, no matter how much they would like to. “The fans, sometimes being sort of just an audience, they’re spectators, and they have an idea of how they would like the story to play out for their own entertainment, or enjoyment, etc.”

Meanwhile, the actual course of the story is decided by someone else: “Your life is the aggregate of the choices you make. The story is always gonna be based on the choices that are made by the actual player.”

In Leslie’s case, he saw the limits of what he could achieve with and in music at the time, and he decided to take his eggs and put them in a new basket: technology. He learned how to code; he went to Silicon Valley; and he built Superphone, a company that allows businesses and creators to reach their fans in one of the most direct and personal ways possible — via text.

Ryan Leslie decided that he was the scriptwriter of his own movie, and he was not liable to the audience. He did not owe it to them to take the story where they wanted it to go. He could choose his own direction, and even if the audience shed a tear over it, that would be okay.

“Your life is the aggregate of the choices you make.” Even if those choices don’t get you the fame, the girl, or the money, they can still give you meaning, happiness, and contentment — and all the audience can do is watch.

When to Break the Rules

Yesterday, a situation I’ve imagined came true. I was standing at a red light for pedestrians. Next to me, there was a young family with three children. Across the street, a man in his 50s was waiting too.

Suddenly, a young, tall man with a backpack zipped past on our right, despite the light not yet having turned green. The elder man on the other side reprimanded him: “There’s kids here man, what are you doing? Be a good example!”

The reason I “foresaw” this scenario is that I was trying to figure out when it makes sense to break the rules — and one of my conclusions was that other people should factor into the equation.

I jaywalk quite a lot. Fines in Germany are small and rarely levied, and I believe it’s every grown adult’s own responsibility to check for traffic before they’re crossing the street. If anything, the light makes us careless. There’s no reason a rogue driver can’t hit you just because you’re crossing on green.

That said, I never jaywalk when children are around. In doing so, I would set an example for them, and it’s not my job to educate someone else’s kids. If the parents want to teach their kids to jaywalk, then they can do so — but it shouldn’t be me making that decision for them. In this case, the only way to stay out of it is to stick with the default, and so, unlike the tall man with the backpack, that’s what I’m doing.

When we think about breaking the rules, we mostly consider whether it’ll be to our own benefit. But our rule-breaking has consequences beyond ourselves.

It’s not like we should never encourage others to break the rules either. When people in China — a country known for its high level of censorship and political containment activity — take to the streets rebuking the oppressive yet inefficient measures their government takes to “protect their health,” every additional person counts. One might inspire two more, and that’s how a small group of rebels turns into a loud choir of thousands, singing with the voice of the people. In that case, you’d hope others will follow your rule-breaking example.

The most important rules to break are your own. Those usually won’t affect others. But when your decision to upend the status quo has a direct impact on those around you, stop for a moment. Weigh your personal gain against the consequences for others. Will they benefit too? Will it be to their detriment?

It’s never easy to put yourself second so someone else can gain an advantage they might never even know about, but rules are for protection, and so protect is what we should do — regardless of the rules. Whether that means crossing on red or staying put, only you can decide, but with time and practice, I’m sure we can learn to make the right call again and again.

Me and My Monkey

A lot of the status games we play nowadays are based on pretending we’re no longer monkeys. “Look at me! I despise money and power, and I have successfully suppressed my sexual desires for the last 97 days!” Of course, this kind of attention-seeking behavior is exactly what a monkey would do — except the monkey would go full throttle on getting rich and mating with as many partners as she possibly can.

In George Orwell’s 1984, people are trained out of their sexuality from a young age. Both women and men join the “Anti-Sex League,” take vows of chastity and celibacy, and if two people are physically attracted to one another, they can’t get married. Sex is to be a mechanical act, an uncomfortable duty with the sole aim of producing more members of “The Party,” the ruling body of the dystopian society Orwell describes.

Naturally, everyone wanders around thinking about sex all day long, desiring one another yet equally despising each other for everyone’s mutual inability to pursue what they really want. Needless to say, that doesn’t end well.

In The Chimp Paradox, elite-athlete coach Steve Peters describes the most recently developed part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, as “our inner human,” and the limbic system, the oldest, most instinctive part, as “our inner chimp.”

When balanced well, it is a wonderful system. The monkey gets us to take action, to go with our gut, and to not let obstacles send us into endless spirals of meaningless thought. The human takes care of long-range planning, can second-guess our initial assumptions, and is good at practicing patience and delayed gratification.

Problems occur when the two are constantly fighting each other, or when one side always wins. Of course we are more than monkeys. Life has so much more to offer than food, sleep, and sex. Creativity, cooperation, intellectual work — these things can be sources of deep meaning and lasting fulfillment.

At the same time, our inner monkey is still there. It wants to be fed. It wants to sleep in. And it wants some hanky-panky. If we pretend the monkey no longer exists, sooner or later, it will get angry. It will throw stones and shout at us, and, as a result, we’ll likely shout at others. No matter how hard we might try to suppress it, eventually, the monkey will break through.

The people I admire manage this dynamic with an almost casual equanimity. They accept their inner monkey, but they also don’t let it boss them around. The monkey is a companion, a friend on their shoulder, and if they keep it happy within reason, it’ll reward them with energy, optimism, and fun.

If, collectively, we valued this honesty more than the make-pretend of what perfectly moral, supposedly enlightened beings we are, we could all have more productive conversations. Rather than constructing some facade, we could admit that we want to be rich or famous or sexually active and attractive, and, perhaps, we might even find ways to help each other achieve those goals while we’re also working together on something bigger and more important.

I’m an artist. I set high standards for myself. But I am far from perfect. I depend on ads and online courses to keep making art. I don’t know about you, but me and my monkey, we’ll keep working at it until we no longer have to — and even then, we’ll still have plenty of fun en route to making the world a better place.

The Benefit of Ignorance

When I pulled together last year’s revenue numbers for Four Minute Books, I was shocked. Overall, revenue had grown 15% or so, which was nice. But when I looked at how that growth came about, I almost threw my hands up in despair.

One of the main sources of revenue for the past seven years had dropped by a whopping 30%. At the same time, a new income stream, which we had only introduced in August the year before, now accounted for 46% of the total, overtaking the other one in the process.

In theory, that is good news. In practice, it’s also terrifying. What if we hadn’t set up that income stream? What if it hadn’t grown so much? What if I had seen the other revenue decline in real-time? My big takeaway from this accounting session was that, sometimes, it’s better not to know.

If I had a constant, acute awareness of how our differing income streams rise and crash, constantly meandering into different compositions, all I would do is fret all day long. “What if this doesn’t recover? What if that doesn’t work out? What if, what if, what if?

Meanwhile, if I just spend my time working, doing, trying, things usually work out in the long run. There’ll always be a few “that was dumb” and “that was smart” moments at the end of each year, but as long as I stay focused, I’ll be okay.

The benefit of ignorance is that you can’t worry about what you don’t know. In fact, there’s enough to worry about looking at everything you don’t know, and in today’s, “here’s some anxiety with your breakfast” world, the Stoic practice of “focus on what you can control” seems more relevant than ever.

Ignorance comes in many flavors, but the best one by far is when we treat it like an art: Most of the time, it’s okay not to know, and, actually, only when you don’t know can you still pursue your ideal goal in its unbroken state.

Don’t let knowledge shatter your dreams too early. Keep your head down, try your best, and enjoy both the shock and wonder when you finally look at the numbers.

Lower the Heat

I love hot chocolate. Especially in winter, I’ll make a small cup every day at work. One of the first times I did so, however, I ruined the microwave. I cranked it up to full blast, set the timer to two minutes, and walked away. Needless to say, I returned to a boiled over cup and ended up cleaning the entire microwave.

Yesterday, I made Maultaschen. It’s a German sort-of dumpling. They’re really nice when you slice them and fry them in the pan for a bit. Often, I’m impatient. I’ll turn the stove to the maximum setting, and some of them will come out burned.

This morning, after I came out of the shower, I set the hair dryer to high heat, but after a second, I had an epiphany: “No. Lower the heat. Take 20 seconds extra.” Naturally, my scalp didn’t burn, and my hair was much more tidy after I was done.

What all these things have in common is that intensity leads to a quicker result, but it’s not the result you truly want and, in some cases, outright disaster.

If you fire up the microwave all the way and stop watching it for a second, your milk will boil over. If you throw dumplings into a searing hot pan, they’ll burn on the outside but stay cold on the inside. And if you dry your hair in a 100-degree wind tunnel, your head will hurt and your hair will look fuzzy.

So lower the heat. Take 20 seconds extra. Or two minutes. However long it takes.

Some things in life can only be done slowly — building a career, attaining mastery, forming a relationship — but that’s not a good reason to take out our frustration on the little things by cutting corners wherever we can. In the end, even those shortcuts often come back around to bite us.

Lower the heat. Give yourself time. Do things once but right, and try not to spill the milk.

Stewing in the Question

I’m trying to redesign a newsletter. Not as in “make it look pretty” — I’m no longer foolish enough to believe I can do that. That’ll be for a pro to handle. No, what I’m trying to do is come up with a new, hopefully more engaging structure, and it’s eating me alive.

“Should I put the quote section above or below this other one? Do I make the buttons big or small? How many sections in total? What order? How often will I send it? Aaaaaaaahhhh!!”

Yesterday, I spent something to the tune of five hours on this project. As I was walking home, thoughts still whirring around margins and layouts and titles, I wished I could be done. I wished I had answers. “I just need a final structure! Why is this so hard?”

It’s hard because it’s a creative decision. There are no right and wrong answers. Eventually, I’ll just have to settle on a structure and see how people react. But as I was coming to terms with the fact that I’m not yet ready to make that decision, I remembered something else: Time solves everything. So what if I just allow myself to stew a little longer in the question?

For the rest of the day, I took it easy. I didn’t brush aside new thoughts about the project, but I also didn’t zone in on them when they came. It felt like I could have worked another 48 hours straight on it and wouldn’t have made any further progress. But lo and behold, eight hours of sleep later, I had new ideas — but also a new willingness to wrestle with this issue.

Time answers every question. Sooner or later, it will provide a response. Sometimes, the best thing you can do in the meantime is admit that you don’t have one yet. Keep stewing in the question. Even if it’s a little too hot to be comfortable, we all know a good broth needs to boil a while before it’s done.

Where Family Begins

“We want to start a family.” How many times have you heard young couples say that sentence? It’s a bit weird, if you think about it. Who decided you’re only family once you have kids? Shouldn’t you consider your partner family already? What about married couples who choose to not have kids? Are those not families?

Family can be a rollercoaster, but it’s not a theme park ride. “Must be at least three people to enter.” That’s not how it works, but, as partially evidenced by divorce rates of nearly 50% and higher, many people forget or gloss over this fact. How many couples get married because they happened to get pregnant? How many try to save their marriage by having kids? There are no precise numbers, but these things occur every day, and they often don’t end well.

Reserving the concept of family for “a group of at least three or more” is like skipping a rung on a ladder: It might work, but you might also fall. Why not put one foot in front of the other?

When you’re in a multi-year, committed relationship, treat your partner like you’d treat a cherished family member. Take anyone who works for you as a proxy. Your dad. Your sister. Your nephew. If you bring them a gift from your travels, pick up one for your partner too. In some ways, treating your partner like family will be obvious and easy. In other situations, it’ll be hard and easy to miss.

How will you go out of your way to treat your partner well? What will you give up to make time for them, to balance your relationship with all your other obligations? Because heads up: This will only get harder after you have kids. Don’t wait to learn juggling until you have three balls in the air. Practice with two for as long as you can.

I imagine this problem is exacerbated for couples in which one person wants to have kids more so than the other. Unless both are happy to sacrifice a lot for their child, one will now really feel left in the dust. And I think this breaks many couples’ backs. If you can’t think and move as a unit before your “team” grows, it’ll only get harder with each additional member.

This is a new idea for me, but it immediately made sense when it first struck me. Being a good boyfriend is as important as it will be to be a good husband or a good dad. The stakes may increase as our roles change, but in reality, they already start out high enough to warrant our very best effort.

Family is a birth-right but also a birth-obligation. Most importantly, however, it is a choice. People choose families they have no blood-ties to all the time — and for most, that process starts when they decide who shall be their life partner.

Don’t wait for the official label. Don’t listen to what society prescribes, especially when it’s not working for half the people. You choose who you love, and that’s where family begins — let’s make it count.

Keep Your Umbrella Open

This morning, there was a slight drizzle hanging in the air. Not enough to be called proper rain, but not so little as to not warrant an umbrella either — or so I thought.

On my way to work, out of hundreds of people, only a handful had their umbrellas open. At every next intersection, I was the odd one out. “Am I crazy?” I thought. I closed the umbrella. Drip, drip, drip. “Nope, still getting wet here.” And flap, back open it went.

At some point during my 20-minute walk, it hit me: “I have no idea where these people are going. Maybe they’re only walking 100 meters to get a pretzel, across the street to their office, or somewhere else where they don’t need an umbrella.” When I, on the other hand, walk a mile to work, I don’t want to do so in a constant drizzle — and so I’ll keep my umbrella open, regardless of whether it makes me look stupid or not.

Life is like that, you know? You have no idea where other people are going. So don’t worry about how your journey looks.

Maybe you’re wearing gloves in September, because your hands just get cold faster than most people’s. Maybe you ride your bike even when it’s snowing, because you love it and every minute counts. Or maybe your career looks like a jumbled mess to most employers, but for you each next job was the right piece of the puzzle, and they’re slowly starting to fall into place.

If you don’t want to get wet, keep your umbrella open. And even if the whole world is dancing in the rain, you’ll be dry and happy.

The Price of Love

When Cassian returns from a dangerous heist in a dangerous place to a home he’s no longer welcome in, a planet crawling with the spies and soldiers of the Empire, most of whom are looking for him, he makes an uncomfortable discovery: Despite finally having all the money in the world, his adoptive mother Maarva won’t escape with him from this wretched place.

Maarva is old and tired, but she’s also tired of waiting. She chooses to stay and fight, to help the Rebellion however she can. Gracefully, however, she does not try to hold Cassian back. “You have a different path, and I am not judging you. Take all the money, and go and find some peace.”

It is then that Cassian realizes the money never really mattered: “I won’t have peace. I’ll be worried about you all the time.” And to that, Maarva only says: “That’s just love. Nothing you can do about that.”

When my girlfriend is out late at night, I am worried. When she takes a plane, I am worried. When my dad has a doctor’s appointment, I am worried. And when my sister is ill, I am worried. That’s just love.

The price of love is worry. You’ll worry about your partner drinking one too many, about your kids’ bus ride home from school, and about your best friend’s happiness at work. Love is the purest admission of caring there is. Without caring, there can be no love, but wherever there’s caring, there’s also worry.

When it comes to love, worrying is not a sign that something’s wrong. It’s a sign that everything is going right. You should be worried about your loved ones, and there’s nothing you can do about it — except learn to accept it.

The next time you wake up at night, fretting about someone you love, don’t let your brain run off into some horrific fantasy. Appreciate that worrying means caring, that life is big and you’re small, and that, wherever they are, whatever they are doing, deep down, they’ll always know their love is with you — and that is, always was, and forever will be enough.

Thoughts Are Raindrops

Some will hit you. Others won’t. Even if a thought misses you by only half an inch, it’s still an idea you’ll never have. A sentence you’ll never write. An apology you’ll never make. And the ones that do make contact with your brain? They’ll be a potpourri of potpourris — and you’ll have little say in its ingredients.

The only thing we know for sure about rain is that, eventually, it is going to end. These thoughts, too, will pass. Meditation is learning to stand in the rain without running from it. To not need to find shelter. When you meditate, you bathe in the awareness that thoughts are temporary and that, for every single one, we have a choice whether to engage with it or not.

When a raindrop falls on your skin, you can feel it. Its physical impact is undeniable. But whether you get upset at it, whether you lean into the feeling that “you’re cold” or “wet” or “there’s now a stain on my favorite sweater,” that’s up to you. You can’t deny the impulse — but you can choose how you’ll react to it.

Sometimes, the rain keeps falling longer than we’d like. When that happens, as in that song lamenting this very phenomenon, we can either yell at the sun for “sleeping on the job,” or we can admit that we’re “never gonna stop the rain by complaining.”

Whether it takes you a week of meditation, a decade, or only a little thinking, once you see that thoughts are as temporary as everything else in this life, you’ll also conclude that, “crying’s not for me — because I’m free, nothing’s worrying me.”