Behind the Email

Sir Ken Robinson once said that university professors tend to consider their bodies mainly as “a form of transport for their heads.” “It’s a way of getting their head to meetings,” he said. Robinson was joking, of course, but today, especially with remote work on the rise, we can observe a similar pattern of disembodiment at work: People write emails as if they sent them to robots, not other people.

I run several newsletters, and you’d be shocked at some of the responses I get. To be fair, people often do expect to be heard only by bots and automations, but it’s a trend that is now spilling over into our peer-to-peer communication.

Just this week, someone personally insulted me and told me to “f*cking stop sending emails.” I get it. Everyone gets a lot of email. No one wants more, especially not the advertising kind. But how little responsibility we are bringing to the table here shows how thinly stretched our collective emotional capacity is these days.

After all, no one forced you to sign up to the newsletter. You did it. And if you don’t like it, you can also undo it, with a simple click on the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of every single marketing email sent in the last 20 years. I’m always surprised to see how many people do not manage this simple task yet try all kinds of “code words” in their responses to get the emails to stop coming.

The other, more important aspect, of course, is that behind every email address, there is a human being. Always has been, always will be.

Would you go to your bakery and call the man behind the counter an asshole and yell at him to give you “some f*cking bread?” Of course not. You can see the cashier. You must look him in the eye. His mere physical presence demands a minimum of decorum, and 99% of people are happy to comply with the invisible rules of societal interaction 99% of the time.

In an email, however, it’s easy for those rules to fly out the window. Typing a quick line or two feels more like hacking together a snippet of code for the command console than making a request to a person, but the latter is what all emails are, no matter how much you wish them to be as efficient as an order given to an algorithm.

Most of your emails go to strangers or people you don’t know all that well. This is not a reason to be rude. To the contrary: It is a reason to be extra kind. The person behind the email knows nothing of your troubles. They have no idea why are you writing to them today. Equally, you do not know whether they are having a bad day or a good one. What if their dog died this morning? What if they only slept five hours because their baby kept crying?

A good rule of thumb for writing any email is that you should treat the recipient like someone who just traveled a long distance to meet you: Make sure you get to business and value their time, but also cut them whatever slack they might need.

There’s a person behind every email address who’s as deep and complex as you are. Be kind when you talk to strangers.

Loyal to the End

In some ways, The Last Kingdom is what Game of Thrones should have been: A never-ending power struggle minus the completely irrational plot twists. Then again, despite being comprehensible, the changes of heart Uhtred of Bebbanburg must endure from those he serves are no less ridiculous than a boy-king killing a courtesan with a crossbow.

Uhtred wins a decisive battle for the king, both with his information and his sword, and is rewarded only with debt that ties him to the ruler for the foreseeable future. Uhtred defeats the leader of the Danes, and someone else takes the credit. He delivers another king from slavery and puts him in power, only for said king to ship Uhtred off as a slave himself.

On and on the cycle goes: Uhtred shows loyalty, and the world spits in his face. In that sense, he is not unlike Jon Snow, the tragic hero of Game of Thrones who, if you ask me, is the one guy doing everything right yet never seeing anything for it.

Both Jon and Uhtred are what a similar character, The Boss from Metal Gear Solid, would call “loyal to the end.” All three are so principled, so unyielding, that they will take their belief all the way to self-destruction if they must – and that is the drawback of this noble approach: If you act only from conviction, your loyalties must inevitably change, and they will likely change in a way that will often keep you from being rewarded for your dedication.

Uhtred sways between the Danes and the Saxons, Jon Snow flip-flops between the Night Watch and his family, and The Boss pits her truth against her country. As a result, the latter concludes:

“As long as we have ‘loyalty to the end,’ there’s no point in believing in anything…even in those we love. The only thing we can believe in with absolute certainty is the mission.”

Uhtred heals the king’s son and loses his own. He helps his lover become a ruler, but to be one, she must withdraw from the relationship. Loyalty born from principle is, by definition, loyalty that transforms with time. When we change, so do our values and, as a result, the causes we believe to be the right ones.

It is not an easy life, a life of loyalty to the end. There is no perfect resolution. You can sign up for a system you’ll eventually lose faith in by the time you collect its greatest rewards, or you can stick to your guns and have them be the only ones you can 100% rely on.

There is something, however, that even those loyal to the end can believe in: The example they will set for others. No matter how much hardship it comes with, loyalty to the end is awe-inspiring. Deep down, most of us wish we were half as principled as our heroes. But are we ready to persevere when those very principles will turn against us?

Only time will tell, but your show is not over yet. You are a long way from your last season, and it’s never too late to fight for what you believe in.

You vs. Infinity

There are more movies than you can ever watch, more books you can ever read, and more sports than you can ever master. You must make peace with this.

It’s hard. I know it’s hard. We’re finite players in an infinite game. But a bucket list will only wear you down.

I make those lists all the time. I save movies I want to watch, articles I want to read, and don’t even get me started on books. I even put them in notes all over the place only to have to consolidate them later. I create many buckets, and I put too many items in each of them. The result? I’m carrying a lot of heavy buckets!

The problem with to-do lists for the fun things in life is that when the time comes to have fun, the lists feel like work. Which of these thousands of movies should I watch? Which of these dozens of games should I play? If you’ve ever spent 30 minutes trying to pick a movie, a third of which you could have watched in that time, you know FOMO can destroy even the most joyous of activities.

The solution is to toss out the list or, at the very least, be disciplined in only using it when you really need it. Don’t grab three movies off IMDb to watch on the weekend. You’ll end up with five new ones on there by Monday, and it’ll make your weekend feel less relaxing. Anything can be strenuous if we make it so.

Whether it’s in the world of work, self-actualization, or fun, it is always you vs. infinity – a battle you cannot win, except by stopping to treat it as such. Go with the flow, do what you feel like, and enjoy the infinite game. Your bucket will always be there to glance into, but, most likely, you’ll find there’s always plenty to do even if you don’t.

The Last Times We Miss

My great-grandmother used to gargle with butter to stave off infections. One day, as my family and I were reminiscing about this and other fun quirks of our relatives, my sister said something remarkable: “You rarely know when it’s the last time, do you?”

She wasn’t talking so much about people dying, although that too can, sadly, happen anytime. It was more about the last time you sleep over at your grandma’s house, the last time you go to an after-school chess club, or the last time you see a friend because after that, they’ll simply no longer visit your town.

First times are always obvious. Our brains are extra alert, and we remember a great deal about them. Last times usually happen without our knowledge, so there’s no way we can try extra hard to commit them to memory. It is only years later that we might notice: “Oh yeah. I used to do this thing. When did I stop? And why?”

You can’t remember every last time like your first, but it helps to remind yourself that last times are always coming. Every now and then, consider that “this time might be the last,” and you’ll savor happy moments more, and with bad moments, you’ll be more forgiving.

One day you’ll no longer walk in on your great-grandmother gargling with butter, and whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it is a thing worth observing.

It’s Okay to Lose at Mario Kart

When I was eight, my dad and I played Mario Kart on Nintendo 64. Most of the time, I won. As I got a little older, the Mario Kart games kept coming, and I kept winning. Eventually, all of my family felt it was impossible to beat me. I was the king of Mario Kart, and for years, it stayed that way.

Today, we mostly play video games when my sister’s boyfriend is around, and I must tell you: It is impossible to beat him. I’m still a decent Mario Kart player, but he is just next level. And it goes beyond Mario Kart too. With the exception of trivia and the odd win here and there, he can handily beat me at almost any game.

What do I have to say for myself? Nothing, except: That’s life! Sooner or later, someone better will come along. Like on the race track, there is a time to floor it, and a time to get out of the way — especially when it’s Mario Kart, a game in which the top-ranked professional player earns $450/year.

We all feel sad when we have to hand over a crown, even if it’s just the one we got at Burger King. Like that piece of paper, however, most crowns aren’t worth all that much. We play games to play, and we should remember that in most arenas, we compete only for fun. Don’t ruin it by taking it too seriously, and don’t clutch your trophy when it’s time to pass it on.

When the next generation comes along, marvel at their level of skill. Learn from them. Remember it’s okay to lose at Mario Kart, and reserve your ambition for the races you truly want to win.

Knowledge vs. Knowing

In college, I first discovered the limits of knowledge. There was so much material to study, it was impossible to retain it all. I had to pick which buckets of information to focus on, and in more than one exam, I stared at questions to which I did not have the correct answers – or any answer, for that matter.

What I learned, however, was that even when you have little to no knowledge pertaining to a question, you can still have a go at answering it. Maybe you can derive a partial answer from what you do know or come up with a creative, out-of-the-box solution. Worst case, you can always take a stab in the dark and hope your subconscious will send up an idea that the corrector will look upon favorably.

Surprisingly, I often found answering the harder questions more fun. When you know you know the answer, you’re desperately trying to fetch it from the depths of your mind. There is nothing more frustrating than to know you have the information yet not be able to retrieve it. And for everything that was easily accessible, I would just scribble it down as quickly as I could, trying to save time for the remaining questions.

Once I had filled in everything obvious and given up on what I decided I could not remember, however, the blissful part of the exam began: Now I was free to dare, guess, imagine, and learn. There was no baggage of existing knowledge holding me down (at least none that I knew of), and I could take my sweet time in simply trying to craft the best answer I could.

In other words, I was no longer trying to pass an exam. The test had already taken place, and from here on out, any further points were a matter of fate. I was just learning, and, like most people, I enjoy learning very much. Or, as Bruce Lee sometimes called it, “knowing.”

One of Bruce’s greatest contributions in the realm of not martial arts but education was his distinction between knowledge and knowing: “Knowledge is always of time, whereas knowing is not of time. Knowledge is from a source, from an accumulation, from a conclusion, while knowing is a movement.”

In Bruce’s view, “knowing” does not simply mean retrieving previously gathered knowledge. It is its own activity, and it can happen even without the presence of knowledge. Bruce used the words “learning” and “knowing” synonymously: “Knowledge is of the past; learning is in the present, a constant movement, in relationship with the outward things, without the past.”

Bruce was a practitioner. He knew you could study the martial arts for decades in the abstract yet never be able to land a single punch. Knowledge sits in the realm of theory, but knowing can only happen in reality.

Bruce was also a student of Zen. He believed that true understanding only happens when the mind shuts down, not when we are deeply entrenched in thought, digging for facts. Knowing is being present. It is the state of perfect synchronicity with life. Call it flow, if you like. Just like a martial artist executing a sequence of movements perfectly, you are fully engaged with the material, eager to absorb and connect rather than trying to dissect it conceptually by bombarding it with your thoughts.

Unlike knowledge, knowing is not rigid. “The additive process is merely a cultivation of memory, which becomes mechanical,” Bruce says. “Learning is never cumulative. It is a movement of knowing which has no beginning and no end.” When you focus on learning more so than knowledge, you stay adaptable. You keep an open mind, ready to adjust to any situation.

Knowledge is cumulative. Intelligence is selective. Learning means only taking what you need to handle whatever is going on right now. No more, no less. It is a matter of effectiveness – dispensing with everything unnecessary – over efficiency – acquiring as much as possible and neatly organizing it.

In today’s world, knowing displaces knowledge by the day. There is ever more information being created at an ever increasing speed, and it is no longer feasible, nor necessary, to keep up, for new insights replace the old ones faster than we can remember either.

You can’t always “know” as in “have knowledge,” but you can always “know” as in “learn.” Don’t be obsessed with knowledge. Let old facts go freely so you can focus on learning in the present. When you’re in the habit of knowing, you can handle anything – even an exam full of questions to which you don’t have the textbook answers.


When you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re asking people the wrong questions.

Everyone you’ll ever meet knows something you don’t. It may not be a hard fact, and it may not be something related to the subject at hand. It may not even be information at all. It might be a social skill, emotional resilience, or an admirable attitude earned over years.

The problem is if you don’t look for what other people can teach you in the periphery of why you got together, you’ll think they can’t teach you anything at all – and that’s never true. Worse, you’ll treat them accordingly. If you approach everyone with the respect you’d show a mentor while waiting for them to drop some valuable knowledge, however, any interaction will flow as smooth as a river, regardless of the occasion.

Yes, maybe John can’t help you fix the code for your plugin, but if you go into the meeting expecting just that and nothing more, how inclined will he be to try hard and help? Maybe John can’t fix the code now, but maybe John is much more likely to become able to fix the code than you are, if only he looks up and learns a few new things. If you afford John the courtesy of assuming he knows something you don’t, code-related or otherwise, there’s a higher chance he’ll make sure of it – even if it means he’ll only help you tomorrow, not today.

“Oh, you know how to set up a tent? I’ve always wanted to learn, but my parents weren’t big campers. Maybe you can teach me sometime.” How would you leave a meeting in which you got such a compliment? Probably thinking something along the lines of, “What a nice person! Let me go and try to help them.” If all they said was, “No no, you can’t help with what I need,” well, then why would you even keep thinking about the problem? That’s right – you wouldn’t.

Stay humble, nice, and curious. When you think you’re the cleverest person in the room, usually, the only one you’ve out-smarted is yourself.

Spontaneous Time-Compression

In The 39 Steps, an early spy novel from 1915, protagonist Richard Hannay is on the run for three weeks. Blamed for a murder he didn’t commit, he must stay in hiding until a certain event will give him a chance to redeem himself.

The first seven of ten chapters barely cover the first few days and nights of the story. It is only on page 70 of 100 that the magic sentence appears: “For the better part of ten days, he did all the rough nursing I needed.” Banged up and beaten, Hannay finds shelter and care with an unlikely ally – and just like that, the story moves along.

While it’s a nice trick for writers, this one-line, spontaneous time-compression, it’s also a reality of life. Sometimes we feel like the days won’t end, slowly morphing from one into another. At other times, two weeks feel like they passed with a snap of our fingers.

We may be the ones writing our own story, but we are still its hero, not its narrator. We don’t get to choose when time suddenly contracts or expands. A fun period might feel surprisingly long. A nerve-racking one might pass faster than we’d imagined. Or vice versa.

The only protection? To enjoy every moment as it is. You’ll never know whether your inspiration will fade in a flash, so it’s best to savor it while you have it. Similarly, you’ll want to extract lessons from pain while you can still feel it. Once it subsides, the learning will no longer seem necessary – but you might still need it later.

To “enjoy” a moment does not always mean to feel blissful. It simply means you accept its purpose, regardless of whether you can see it. You won’t find it every time, but it is almost always a good idea to slow down and look for it – even when you’re on the run, waiting for time to compress so you may finally get your turn.

The Best Time to Chase Your Dream

It’s today. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not after you’ve gotten the promotion, renovated your kitchen, or made a million dollars. Today.

“I don’t believe in the deferred life plan,” Sam Altman says, criticizing people who say some version of the following: “‘My life’s work is to build rockets. So what I’m going to do is make $100 million in the next four years trading cryptocurrency with my hedge fund, because I don’t want to think about the money problem anymore, and then I’m gonna build rockets’ – and they never do either.”

2020 was the year I made the most money so far, but it was also one of the years in which I was the furthest away from my dream. For a few years now, I’ve wanted a life where I get up, write, do a few admin things in the afternoon and clock out. Back then, I was doing all kinds of random stuff to make money, but my writing wasn’t going anywhere.

Now I make less than half of what I made that year, but I’m finally graduating to writing books. I spend my time working on the projects I care about, building the career I want to build, rather than some proxy that supposedly will make my dream come easier down the line.

“Doing anything worthwhile takes a long time,” Sam reminds us. “It takes a lot of emotional trauma, a lot of people telling you you’re an idiot, or wrong, or whatever, and if you’re not willing to sign up for that, you’re not gonna succeed. And people can also kind of sense when you’re not willing to sign up for that.”

When I talk to my writer friends, many of whom make enough money to sustain themselves one way or another, they often tell me they “just want to write.” They want to spend the majority of their time writing, and they want to write what pleases them, what excites them, what they are passionate about, even if it might not be the most commercially viable or popular piece of text.

That’s a fair dream to have, but especially given that it’s hard to get paid to “write what you want,” why don’t they start right away? What follows is often some explanation of how they’re only doing this online course business, or coaching business, or freelance work to make enough money to retire – and then write what they want.

Do you see how backwards this is? How can you expect to achieve your dream if you treat it like a second-rate hobby, if that? When it comes to your dream, success is a much of a trap as failure is, maybe even worse.

Going back to the “$100 million vs. rockets” dilemma, Sam says: “I believe if these people would just pick one thing or the other, they would succeed at either.” But if you’re not committed, if we can’t feel the authenticity of your dream, why would anyone support you in accomplishing it? If your dream is one you can’t achieve alone, the deferred life plan goes from bad to impossible.

But even if your dream is a dream you can chase all on your own, I suggest you stop delaying. Stop telling yourself a story that doesn’t serve you. There is never a good time to go after your dream, which makes today the best day there’ll ever be. Don’t wait. Start today.

Double Sinks

When people build a new house, at least in Germany, they often choose double sinks for the master bathroom. His and hers. Simultaneous teeth-brushing. That’s the idea, at least.

In my family, we’ve tested double sinks in practice for over 20 years. Even with four people, we’ve only used two sinks at the same time a handful of times. Realistically, two people will rarely have the exact same schedule, let alone the exact same routines – and yet, it is still double sinks all the way.

Is this a trend from 300 years ago? The emperor and his empress, washing side by side? Or a wistful illusion young lovers fall for, successfully peddled by bathroom marketers to sell more sinks? Whatever its source, the standard has become one we no longer question, and that is the challenge.

In fact, building a house in and of itself holds a similar status in German society. It is many people’s ultimate dream, and yet, after a decade or so, they’ll find the same gripes with their custom-built house they would have found in any preexisting one.

The standard is not to be rejected merely for being the standard, but it deserves your thorough examination. We live in a world ready to accustom to almost any individual tendency. Make use of that freedom. Don’t follow the standard just to comply, especially where compliance yields no added benefit.

The next time you make a heavily socialized decision, ask yourself: Is this truly the way to go – or are those just double sinks?