Ramen on Purpose

Every now and then, eat ramen because you can, not because you have to.

Sit down with the pack in hand. How much was it? $0.50? Feel the plastic. Let it sink in. Think about what it stands for.

Try to be present. Really be there so you can understand the miracle that is ramen. How does someone fit an entire meal into such a tiny packet? How can the process be so efficient that the result costs $0.50? It has taste, substance, and sustenance. Not a lot, perhaps, but enough to pass off as dinner.

Every day, somewhere on this planet, someone is willing to risk their life for a pack of ramen (or whatever its local equivalent). They would walk 20 miles, kill a lion, or, on the worst of days, a person. They wouldn’t care about the spices or the packaging. They wouldn’t even add water – probably because there is none. They’d tear away the plastic, bite off a heavy chunk, and chew on uncooked noodles. They’d devour the whole thing, and when the stomach ache sets in, they’d be as grateful as you are when you feel full from a $20 burger delivered right to the doorstep of your comfy apartment.

That’s 40 packs of ramen, by the way.

There is no trick to being grateful other than to notice. Noticing takes practice, so let’s make it a practice. That’s what this blog is for, among other things. When you notice habitually, you’ll recognize all kinds of things. Rather than just see, you’ll also observe.

Every now and then, you’ll find yourself with a pack of ramen in your hands. You’ll realize: You don’t have to eat them – but you can – and that makes all the difference.

Make It Believable

My friend used to play tennis in high school. He had a coach. His name was Felix Kerner*. Kerner was young, making the kind of mistakes young coaches tend to make: He would promise my friend to restring his racket, then forget to bring it the next session. He’d schedule back to back lessons in two locations that were a 10-minute drive apart. And so on.

Years later, my friend went to college. One day, he was flipping through the channels on his TV. A cooking show stopped him in his tracks. Was that…? My friend called for his roommate: “Yo, you gotta see this! That guy making eggs over there? He used to be my tennis coach!”

And the roommate said: “Is that Felix Kerner?”

When my friend had picked himself up after falling off the couch, they discovered the roommate had worked in a remote city for a while, a city where he played tennis on the side – and where Felix Kerner had moved, only to join the same tennis club.

This is a series of improbable possibilities. In our everyday lives, they make for great stories. When several unlikely but highly possible events line up, we get to go, “No way!” and have a good laugh.

When you tell an actual story, improbable possibilities make you look like you forgot to bring the racket back to the next session.

How likely is it that aliens will land on earth in the next five years? Most people would give this a less-than-1% chance. Basically impossible. Basically. Yet, we watch movies where aliens land right now all the time.

Once you’ve swallowed the pill that the aliens are here, you can see all kinds of scenarios unfold. The aliens have advanced technology and can hide in plain sight. They can adapt to the environment better than we can. They learn our language quickly. Some of the aliens are friendly, others not so much. As it turns out, the aliens are fighting their own war amongst themselves – they just got stranded.

That’s the plot of every Transformers movie, all of which were commercial successes if not loved by the critics (but what is?).

“A probable impossibility is preferable to an improbable possibility,” Aaron Sorkin says.

The word “probable” means likely, but if you take it apart, it also means “probe-able.” It’s an event we can probe. We can assess it. Critique it. Try to poke holes in it. “What would have to happen for aliens to land on earth in the first place?” We might wrestle with ourselves for a while, but, ultimately, we can argue ourselves into the logic we need to enjoy the rest of the film.

Filmmakers know this, of course. If they can get you to buy the first ten minutes, the rest will be downhill.

And if they can’t?

In Moonfall, the moon, well, falls. It’s the first of countless improbable possibilities in a 130-minute sequence of escalating, ever-less-likely events, which makes the entire experience maddeningly frustrating. Each event builds logically on the last, but since they’re all so damn unlikely, you stop buying in after the cast hits the third jackpot in a row.

Everything is explained away, which only makes it worse. There’s nothing to probe there! Sure, that’s how earth behaves if the moon comes too close. Sure, this dynamic will make up for the lack of fuel. But…really? You pulled it all off in one fluent motion? No way.

There is a saving grace for stories relying on improbable possibilities: Acknowledge them. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Do it with a smirk. Break the fourth wall. Make a self-deprecating reference. Show us you know we know.

But Moonfall? They do it all with a straight face. Only at minute 93 does one of the characters finally utter what has been on everyone’s mind all along: “This doesn’t make any sense!”

He looks a bit like Felix Kerner.

In our boring, predictable, everyday physical realm, a chain of unlikely events is satisfying. It’s karma. The exception that proves the norm. A little reminder that the universe is in order thanks to being in occasional disarray.

In a world we enter to escape from said realm, the impossible must become the norm. Anything else is dissatisfying. The point is not more of the same. The point is to show us a situation we’ll never find ourselves in – and then make us believe we could do what the hero does.

Whether it’s an anecdote you’re sharing, a screenplay you’re writing, or a last-minute face-saver for your boss: Make it believable, and do it the right way. The improbable rarely works. Choose the impossible if you can. See how far you can get.

Like my friend from high school who, even then, knew that, “Aliens are holding my textbooks for ransom” is a much better excuse than “My dog ate my homework.”

*Name changed

Refuse to Start Until It’s Easy

I hate buying groceries. I’m thrilled to pay someone to deliver them. We constantly trade money for time. We value convenience. We choose more hours over more dollars.

Why don’t we do the same when time is the thing we have to give up? The side project is a distraction, but it looks to be a quick buck, so we jump in with both feet. Writing the book will take forever, but adding a week up front to think about how to compress “forever” into six months? Nu-uh. No dice.

For the first four years of writing, I did not feel compelled to make an online course. Then, one cold September morning, I woke up and it was easy. I had a complete outline in my head. All I had to do was write it down, refine it, make bullets for each lesson, and hit record. Did it take effort? Of course. But the initial inspiration and structure carried me all the way.

When the result is more money or more time two years from now, don’t do it the hard way. Pay for convenience by abstaining. Refuse to start until it’s easy. Wait until downhill is obvious. Then, get on your sled and enjoy the ride.

Think More, Work Less

Unless you’re chopping wood, you are not paid to work. You are paid to think.

“Oh, but I design social media graphics for $15 an hour!” Well, if you made one that generated $1,000 in value for your client, I’m sure they’d notice – and so would you. Either way, you wouldn’t be on hourly pay much longer.

Maybe they don’t need a bolded quote for every tweet. Maybe they need a comprehensive infographic. “Here. I made this. Try it. Let’s see if it works.” That’s a thinking challenge, not a work challenge. The effort comes later.

Your output is just the proof of your thinking. It shows what you do when you’re not swinging the axe – and it better be mulling over how to chop more wood without sharpening more axes or, better yet, how to do the thing without needing to cut down trees at all.

If Da Vinci was right and “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” then simplifying is the ultimate skill.

Think first, work second.

Which Way Is Downhill?

Every building has a door, and every project has a downhill direction. An angle from which, if you tip it, it’ll fall over like a domino, creating – and sustaining – its own momentum.

Unfortunately, downhill isn’t marked on the map. There is no map. We live in mapless times. Therefore, your compass won’t zip to point north in a second. Finding downhill takes time.

When you can’t see the door on a building, do you assume it has none and go home? Of course you don’t. You walk around, check the back, or try a higher vantage point. “It’s gotta be somewhere!” It might take 15 minutes, but eventually, you’ll find the entrance.

Just like, if you’re patient enough, you’ll always find downhill.

Which Problem Do You Want to Have?

You can choose any problem you want, but you’re gonna have a problem. I can write the book where I might need months to figure out the structure, but once I do the writing will be easy. Or I can write the book for which I already have an exact structure, but where I know each chapter will have to be painstakingly assembled with lots of research. Which problem do I want?

It’s the essentialist – and therefore more honest – version of our default response to any conundrum: “How can I do all of it?” Usually, we can’t, and if we try, we’ll do half of everything and do it poorly.

Life consists entirely of tradeoffs. Why not make them deliberately?

Choose a Life of Stories

You want to make a change. A very small change: You want to have coffee. Coffee is how you start your day.

If you were to have coffee just for the caffeine, you could take caffeine tablets. No taste, no hassle. Just swallow and drink some water. You could drink a shot of an energy drink. It won’t taste as nice, but you’d get the kick. Hell, you could get a caffeine IV! You probably wouldn’t be the first.

Instead, however, you go to a café. You open the door, and there it is: a story.

You look around the place. How high are the ceilings? What’s the architectural style? How is the ambience? Is it a busy place, stirring with the quiet yet excited hum of busy commuters grabbing their latte to go? Is it a morning oasis, where the unhurried read their newspaper as the sunlight falls through big, arched windows, making visible the steam that’s rising from their porcelain cups?

How many people are in the café? What do they look like? Where might they be going? How about the barista? What kind of coffee machine do they use? Which sounds does it make? Do they add up to a vibrant symphony or the scattered cacophony of, say, a manufacturing plant?

You sit down and order your coffee. Can you smell it? Can you feel the warmth of the cup? How about the taste? Is it hearty with a note of hazelnut? Mild like the cocoa powder you used to make hot chocolate with as a child? As you sip on your coffee, a warm feeling flows from your heart. Is it the heat of the drink? The slow buzz of caffeine entering your bloodstream? No! It is the all-powerful, serene, cosmic energy of a story.

You could have made the change mechanically, but you chose to make it beautifully. You could have taken the path devoid of meaning — but you picked the human road of the story.

Coffee is a microscopic change in an infinite universe. Most of the big ones won’t work without a story. There’s no pill to forget the pain of an accident; no cab to the peak of a rewarding career; no tonic to overcome the death of a loved one — but there are stories. Stories to inspire. Stories to heal. Stories to empower. No matter which change you want to make, internal or external, for yourself or for others, there’s always the right story at the right time — you just have to find it or, sometimes, invent it.

In that sense, all writers, creators, storytellers, are baristas. We run the cafés. All day long, we stand behind the bar, pulling levers, pouring milk, polishing cups. We do it for the space. That’s what we provide: a safe space. A space for you to change. You can enter this space at will. You don’t have to. No one forces you to go to their café. You can choose whichever one you like, and you can leave at any time. You can stay out of cafés entirely — but when you feel sad, or frustrated, or bored, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to come back. Maybe your favorite café is a bar, the opera, or a hot dog stand on the moon. That’s the beauty of stories: There are no limits. All customers and all changes served. And if you like none of the cafés around you? Well, then you must open your own one! After all, there’s a story missing from the scene, a safe space someone longs for — and most likely it’s not just you.

Stories are bridges across time and space. They allow humans to connect, learn, remember, exchange, and love throughout the ages. Stories are how humans push forward — and they keep humans pushing forward. Stories are how we change. Stories are how we cause change. Stories are beautiful. Stories are the result of living, and they can make life worth living.

Stories are the strongest force in the universe.

Choose your cafés wisely, but, most of all, choose a life of stories.

If You Want to Be Happy, Learn to Love the Little Things Cover

If You Want to Be Happy, Learn to Love the Little Things

I’ll never forget the day I got to drive my friend’s Ferrari. I had been staring at Ferrari posters in my bedroom since I was five, so it was a dream come true.

I’ll also never forget what he told me a few years later: “The car now means absolutely nothing to me. I’ve grown 100% used to it. It’s sad, isn’t it?” He sold it soon after that.

The only car I’ve ever owned was a first-generation BMW 1 Series. Here’s a picture from the day I picked it up:

For many people in Germany, even people my age — and even back then — a car like this was nothing special. But to me it was.

I still remember the unique government program that made it affordable, the sound of the handles when opening the doors, and the feel of the materials inside. I remember the whirring of the engine, the vibration of the tires rolling around a corner, and the click of the locks opening as I pressed the button on my remote control key.

It was always a good moment, approaching the car. I saw it standing there, always in the same corner of the square in front of our house, always ready for another adventure. I knew we were about to embark on a new journey together, and that made me happy. Would it be a short trip to the gas station? A long drive back to college? Whichever it was, I knew I had my Bavarian companion to rely on. Music on, sunroof open, gears falling into place.

I only owned that car for two years, but I never got tired of it. I always enjoyed climbing into the driver’s seat once again. How can one person grow completely indifferent to a Ferrari, while another cherishes every second with their tiny BMW? “Well, you’re a car nut, Nik! It’s easy for you to enjoy any car,” you might say, and to that I can only respond, “You’re probably right.”

Then again, I’ve had that same, joyously-approaching-the-car-feeling many times since selling my BMW — and that was ten years ago. Therefore, I have a theory: I think I’ve learned to love the little things.

Every morning, I step inside the small, Middle Eastern café across the street. Beneath cannolis in a glass display, the counter bends and stretches towards the far end of the restaurant. Wooden chairs and tables rest amidst a sea of green. Plants on the wall, plants on the ceiling, plants on the floor. The king of this urban jungle casually leans against the counter. “Good morning! What can I do for you?” the manager asks. “One cappuccino to go, please!”

Then, the magic begins. Their device is no mere coffee maker. It’s a whole apparatus of alchemistic instruments; an Italian portafilter — the Ferrari of coffee machines. Dynamic displays show temperature and pressure. The coffee is ground on the spot, the milk freshly steamed. After a complex series of physical and chemical micro-processes, the prized brown liquid drips into a biodegradable cup. It may as well be gold. Without having to ask, the manager puts chocolate powder on top. “Here you go!”

£3.20 is an insane amount for a tiny cup of coffee. That’s $4.37. Or 3.83€. A few months ago, it was £3.00. That’s a near-7% increase. Then again, coffee beans now cost twice as much as they did a year ago. I guess 7% is not so bad.

There’s so much fortune in this interaction: My girlfriend living in a nice area with a nice restaurant across the street, the manager of which happens to know how to make the perfect blend of milk and coffee. Me being able to afford £3.00 a day for such a treat and not even needing to worry about a 7% price increase. Of course, we worked hard to get here, but just because you deserve something does not mean it’s not worth pointing out.

In fact, the longer you can appreciate something long after you’ve earned it, the happier you’ll be. Thankfully, the smell of great coffee never gets old.

Ding! “9th floor,” the robotic, female voice announces. Fresh, warm cappuccino in hand, I make my way to the rooftop garden.

Behind a glass door lies a beautiful maze of stone, wood, grass, earth, and plants. It’s not a huge space. A few shaded benches, a small patch of green, and a rectangular walkway that goes all around — but dropped into the middle of what feels like a roundtable discussion among a dozen high-rise buildings, it’s nothing short of a sanctuary.

London isn’t exactly known as the world’s tanning bed, so whenever the weather doesn’t look too much like Game of Thrones, I go to the rooftop for all of five minutes before starting my day. When the sun is out, I just stand there, shamelessly absorbing my dose of rays. When it’s a bit foggy, I test how far I can see. In the distance, Canary Wharf, London’s finance hub, presents me with its best LA impression. Seagulls are scanning the rooftops for scraps.

Inside their glass boxes, people type, stitch, and talk. They fold, pace, and file away. Around me are hundreds of apartments, home to thousands of people. The garden connects two 20-story buildings — yet none of their inhabitants are here. Nine out of ten times, I’m alone on the rooftop.

“Where is everybody?” I wonder. Are they too busy for five minutes of beauty? Do they even know this garden exists? “I can always go there” is the death of every local. After all, how local will you truly have been if you were always physically present but never truly there?

It’s a fascinating thing, this temple in such a secular place — self-evident to those who can access it but rarely do, yet almost certainly a miracle to those who’ve never known the splendor of modern metropolitan compounds.

I sip on my cappuccino. Three more deep breaths. Ahh! Okay, time to go back inside.

If you want to be happy, learn to love the little things. If you want to love the little things, understand the following:

Gratitude is not a creativity exercise. It’s a gratitude exercise. You don’t need a new thing to be grateful for each day. In fact, the more you realize it’s the same things, over and over again, that make you feel warm, sheltered, and loved, the easier it’ll be to savor those things — and find true, lasting contentment in them.

Hedonic adaptation is the treadmill that adjusts its speed to keep us running after happiness without ever catching it. Making a habit of loving the little things is how you step off, step outside, and marvel at everything life has to offer, allowing you to come to just one conclusion:

You don’t need anything more than what you already have — because the little things are, actually, the biggest things of all.

There Are Only 3 Ways to Live a Happy Life Cover

There Are Only 3 Ways to Live a Happy Life

What happens after you die?

In his book Sum, neuroscientist David Eagleman provides 40 different, often contradicting answers to that question — some harrowing, others hilarious. What if God allowed everyone into heaven, but then we’d all complain about being stuck there with one another, concluding it is, in fact, hell? What if God turns out to be a microbe, completely unaware humans even exist?

Maybe you’ll continue life in a world inhabited only by the people you already know or be forced to live each moment again, grouped by similarity. Four months of sitting on the toilet followed by three weeks of eating pizza, after which you’ll have 24 hours of nonstop stomach cramps before sleeping for 30 years straight.

Despite conjuring stories that happen exclusively in a place from which we can’t return, (and that we therefore know nothing about) Sum holds profound implications about what we might choose to do in the here and now. The mere idea of accidentally becoming a horse in your next life, realizing only in the last second how great it was to be human, could be the exact hoof kick you need to finally start writing your novel, for example.

Sum is Derek Sivers’ single-favorite book of all time. Whichever specific tale it may have been that spurred him into action, one day, he decided to write a book just like it, except he’d answer a different question — a question even more important than what’s beyond death, with even greater indications: While we are on this earth, how should we live?

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Don’t Set Goals This Year

The more New Year’s resolutions you set, the faster you’ll feel like a failure.

I used to pick five, seven, ten new goals each year. Sadly, making it from New Year’s Eve to January 1st never turned me into Superman. I was still the same old me, still hopelessly overwhelmed with trying to change too much all at once. Within a month or so, I failed and had to start over. Smaller. With lower expectations.

For a few years, I gave up on resolutions entirely. Then, instead of a barrage of targets, I tried setting one goal, and that worked a lot better. The real game-changer, however, was using a different concept altogether. That concept is a theme.

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