Yes, But Is It Cloudy?

I’ve experienced Lisbon mainly above 30 degrees Celsius, and yet, the temperature I perceived changed all the time.

36 degrees with the sun in full view, zero clouds in the sky? That’s brutal. Siesta time. 36 degrees after the sun has set, with a light breeze as you walk along the sea? That’s lovely.

The most surprising, however, was 36 degrees in cloudy conditions. The sun was just as strong, but a layer of reflecting, absorbing white made the heat much more bearable than you’d think. Had I known this before, I’d have planned my activities differently. You never stop learning.

When we know what 36 degrees feels like at home, we tend to think we know what 36 degrees feels like everywhere, but that’s not true. There’s a lesson in there about not overvaluing statistics, but there’s also one about the difference a single variable can make. Slide a sea of clouds between you and the sun, and voilà, a barely traversable city becomes a joy to explore on foot.

The knowledge about the effects of such singular variables must often be painstakingly collected. It is a hard-won sap from the tree of life, and no one else can extract it for you. This knowledge won’t always be useful, but it’s a joy to share it with those for whom it might be.

Keep your mind open and your eyes on the sky. You never know how the weather might change, and you’ll only find out what those changes mean once you see them.

Travel Is Not a Competition

When I went to Sri Lanka with a college friend, we met a fisherman at the beach on the very first day. He had just caught a small squid and insisted on showing us around. He told us a bit about the beach, about how he was still trying to repair his boat from a tsunami that happened years ago, and we even ended up eating the squid at his house, that his mother prepared with some curry.

I felt a bit uneasy during the whole interaction, but my friend was a much more well-versed traveler than me, and he was always up for adventures like this. Unfortunately, at some point, we realized the inevitable: The fisherman would not leave us alone until we paid him some money. He followed us all the way to the hostel, and I would have been happy to give him, say, the equivalent of 20 euros – a lot of money in rupees at the time – for his kind if slightly misguided attempts.

My friend, however, took adventuring rather seriously: He did not want to pay the guy a dime. I don’t remember exact numbers, but let’s say it was near-impossible to convince him to even give the guy five euros. Ultimately, I ended up giving him a lot more than what my friend was willing to give him, and I paid it out of my own pocket.

If you ask me, it was the stupidest debate to even have. Here we were, tourists with a thousand times the economic means this guy would ever have, too cheap to give him what meant months of survival for him yet little more than two cinema tickets for us. Sadly, it was a debate my friend and I would keep having throughout our trip.

Maybe my friend was just a bit cheap, but I think he also succumbed to a pattern I still see in many people I know today: Everyone wants to be a traveler, but no one wants to be a tourist.

People love to think they’re getting a bargain, that they’re the ones seeing all the places “the masses” don’t see, eating all the food no one else but a local would find. In reality, we’re all tourists most of the time, getting nothing more than what locals have worked out makes sense to present to us – and, actually, that is perfectly fine.

You wouldn’t expect some random person from a foreign country to come into your office on Monday and tell you how to do your job, but when it comes to travel, we all like to think we’re experts before our plane has even landed – and the locals better treat us that way. How dare you show me the Taj Mahal? I want to see the little side street with that one special samosa shop 23 minutes away!

Travel isn’t a competition. How much fun you have is not determined by how local you can pretend to be. In fact, if you’re getting your sense of satisfaction from travel mainly from feeling smug about which activities you’re choosing vs what most tourist guides are suggesting, you’re missing the point entirely.

It is perfectly fine to be a noob in some areas, and guess what, a country you’ve never been to definitely qualifies. It’s a wonderful opportunity to let go of our anxious desire to look smart all the time, yet we often only use it to play more of the same games we play at home.

When you’re a tourist, be a tourist. Do whatever the hell you want to do, and if that’s going to Disney Land for the 17th time and paying eight bucks for an ice cream, so be it. If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford “spending big” in terms of another country’s currency, consider that the more you spend, the more you’ll support that country. You don’t need to throw money out the window, but you don’t need to haggle about every croissant and keychain either.

There’s that saying about teaching a man how to fish instead of giving him one, but if you’re just visiting, the gift of a week’s worth of food is often more than enough.

Look Down

When Phil Rosenthal walks around a new city, he looks down a lot. Mainly because “he doesn’t wanna step in anything,” he says. In Lisbon, however, Phil found a better reason to look down: The sidewalk looks absolutely gorgeous.

Wherever you go, black and white limestones alternate to form beautiful patterns. Circles, squares, waves, even royal emblems and other elaborate images have found their way into Lisbon’s mosaic pavement. Originally said to have emerged so the king could parade around on his newly gifted rhinoceros care-free, 500 years later, “Portuguese pavement” is world-famous – and still free to marvel at for any visitor.

Sometimes, those visitors think rather deeply about the art beneath their feet. Like Phil, who ponders: “What does it say about a place [when even] the thing underfoot is beautiful?” If you ask this fellow sidewalk-observer, I think it says that love is in the details; that beauty is all around us; and that life happens everywhere, not just wherever we happen to be most engaged – and especially not just in our heads.

Don’t just look where you’re headed. Look up. Look around. And most of all, remember to look down. Sometimes, the best part of your day will hide beneath the soles of your shoes.

Silent Agreement

My dad once went to Portugal for work. Being the good German that he is, he showed up at the plant at 8 AM sharp, but no one was around. At 9 AM, the first people showed up, unlocked the door, and had some coffee. By 10 AM, they finally started discussing some work issue, but it was not the one my dad had come to help and solve.

Eventually, my dad started asking them when they would get to work on this thing, but by then it was almost 12, clearly time for lunch. After lunch there was a break and then more coffee, and around 4 PM, everyone finally, gloriously began to work – and then, work like hell they did. At around 9 PM, the employees dragged my dad to dinner, and at 11 PM, he fell asleep before his head hit the pillow.

Going in with a German attitude, my dad had simply missed the silent Portuguese agreement: It is too hot to work in the morning, so we work in the afternoon. And, after walking around the streets of Lisbon at 37 degrees Celsius, I can only say: I absolutely understand.

When nature gets too hot, it makes sense to push back social life a few hours. But if you don’t know about this convention or don’t allow yourself to give it a try, let alone settle into it, you’ll get left behind. Whatever resentment follows is on you, not the convention.

There are many silent agreements in many places of the world. Wherever you go, you’ll encounter them among teams, families, and nations. It is our duty to listen for these agreements, honor them if they make sense, and adjust as well as we can depending on how much adjustment the situation demands.

You can choose to be annoyed by your ignorance, or you can make discovering silent agreements fun. The decision is yours, but my guess is you’ll sleep better if you choose the latter – and you definitely won’t show up way too early for work.

The Kind of Quiet Money Can’t Buy

I’m not sure if it’s my age or the result of years of meditation, minimalism, and both mental and emotional decluttering, but the older I get, the more quiet I seem to crave.

When I was younger, I thought living in the countryside – the kind of place where only three buses come and go on any given day – was torture. I wanted to be mobile, and I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my friends.

Now, having lived in the busy, buzzing hearts of cities for over a decade, I think the countryside is a blessing that should probably never be traded – especially for what, ultimately, mostly amounts to more noise.

I desire outer silence, not least because I sleep better, and I realize in a city, there’s only so much of that you’ll ever get, no matter how well-insulated your apartment. I am also learning, however, that there’s another kind of quiet, and that no amount of money will buy: inner silence.

We each contain an ocean, and in that vast body of water, there swim our memories, experiences, sensory inputs, interactions with others, knowledge, feelings, and god knows what else. We are chock full of data, albeit not all zeroes and ones, and the more that data is in motion, the more restless we feel.

I think with age, our inner ocean only gets bigger. As you keep living, more and more information floats through the sea, and the more is in there, the higher the chances that bits will collide – and cause a raging storm in the process.

What you want is for your inner ocean to be calm. A smooth surface rippling along as the sunshine falls on its expanse. Outer silence supports this kind of quiet, and not only because it gives you the space to calm the storms. It is in physical quiet that we can most comfortably face this ocean, even marvel at it without feeling threatened.

You need silence to listen for what’s going on inside, and if you don’t know what’s going on inside, you’ll never be able to have any positive effect on it. Sure, it’s an ocean, and there’s only so much you can do, but you can absolutely learn to calm yourself, to not cause more bad weather than however much nature has deemed necessary.

The more I chase external quiet, however, the more I’m also grasping yet another lesson: When the peace of daily life goes out the window, you can’t throw your inner harmony right after it. We’ll never have the perfect, forever-tranquil environment, at least most of us, most of the time. Where there’s bars and people and cars in the city, there are chainsaws, lawnmowers, and Home Depot fanatics in the countryside.

It is a hard thing to admit – that your inner life is yours to manage – and harder still to concede you’ll never be the perfect boss. But awareness brings light to everything, and so, in time and with practice, both you and I shall preside over the kind of quiet money can’t buy.


Transparency Is a Trust Advance

The Munich housing market is ruthless. Hundreds of applicants vie for a single apartment listing only minutes after it is released. If you can’t play the insider’s game, trawling the usual marketplaces might take months – unless you find a way to stand out.

When I applied for my current flat, I put together a little PDF file. It included my CV, an excerpt from the German debt register, my passport, and even some income and tax statements. I uploaded the file to Dropbox and included the link in the message I sent via the contact form. This way, instead of the usual “Dear Sir or Madam, my name is… I would like to apply…” bla bla, potential landlords would get all of the data they’d need right away.

“But Nik, that’s risky! What about your privacy? Now every landlord in town has a lot of your data! How do you know you can trust them?” I can’t – and that is exactly the point.

In business and in life, transactions require trust, and the only way to build trust is to show vulnerability.

When it comes to financial deals, vulnerability often takes the form of transparency: People want to know what they are buying, and the more expensive it is, the more they want to know. There is no better way to build trust with a potential buyer, or landlord, in this case, than to give them all the transparency they need up front. You’ll have to open your kimono anyway, and doing it before they ask you to shows you’re willing to be as transparent as you’ll need to be to get things done.

That little link I included in my messages acted as a trust advance. I show you some vulnerability, and you’ll know it is safe for you to show me some as well. That’s how the world works. We all understand, appreciate, and to some extent even expect this when others are forthcoming with us, especially if they want something from us. Often, however, we are reluctant to do the same when it’s our turn.

Transparency is a great trust advance, and not just when it comes to money. If you raise your hand at work and say you’re going through a tough time, your boss will take it easy on you. They’ll trust you to handle your situation in time. If you tell your partner you’re struggling with a task, they won’t rush you to get it done.

Trust is a capacity we must build again and again throughout life. Transparency is a great way to get out in front of it. Life flows more smoothly when we can establish trust quickly. The next time you move, buy a car, or make a big purchase, be sure to hand out some trust advances.

Don’t Chase the Wind

In a part of the Old Testament supposedly written by King Solomon, he warns his followers of the futility of ambition: “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity, a pursuit of the wind.”

When he quotes this line in The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle notes how frustrating of a realization this must be: “If nothing can give you true fulfillment, what is there left to strive for, what is the point in anything?” Ultimately, it is a crossroads we come to, he believes: “When you reach this point, you are one step away from despair and one step away from enlightenment.”

Imagine a child, literally chasing the wind. What a laughable endeavor! “Stop, child,” you might say. “Don’t you know the wind is so much faster than we are? You can never catch it!” While the child is at least having fun, however, when we chase the wind as adults, we usually do it with gritted teeth. We take it very seriously, despite knowing deep down that it is “a laughable endeavor.”

Want a fast car? You’re chasing the wind. How about a big house? You’re chasing the wind. Do you wish to be famous? You’re chasing the wind. Desperately craving a relationship? You’re chasing the wind. Think perfect abs will get you respect? You’re chasing the wind. Longing for an island vacation? You’re chasing the wind. And if you believe more money would fix all your problems, you are also chasing the wind.

“Things and conditions can give you pleasure, but they cannot give you joy. Nothing can give you joy,” Tolle writes. “Joy is uncaused and arises from within as the joy of Being. It is your natural state, not something that you need to work hard for or struggle to attain.”

You’re already perfect. You have all you’ll ever need. Enjoy everything under the sun, but don’t chase the wind.

The Problem With Mindfulness

It’s the wrong word. You don’t want your mind to be full. You want it to be empty.

When I first got deep into improving my life one habit at a time, I eventually ended up in a rabbit hole of constant judgement, both of myself and everyone around me.

“I’d love to say ‘I don’t mind’ and mean it, but it’s never true. I do mind. I mind everything,” I wrote when I finally noticed. If you’re in a state of constant awareness but use said awareness only to fuel the relentless judgement machine that is your mind, your presence is totally wasted. It does not bring peace at all.

When we speak of mindfulness, we mean presence as in “fully accepting the moment,” but in that state, our mind is far from full. We don’t mind anything as in “be annoyed by,” and we are definitely not mindful in the way people mean when they tell us to “be mindful” of certain things, usually dangers and threats. We’ve got the terminology entirely backwards.

What we really mean is actually mindlessness. Not mindlessness as in “carelessness,” as in being totally ignorant of our surroundings. The mindlessness we seek is one where we are in absolute unity with the present moment. We are so “here,” alive in the now, that our mind finally shuts up for once. That’s the state we want, and it’s much closer to mindlessness than mindfulness.

Then again, what can we expect from a species that sells each other $200 headbands to meditate, an activity that is, by its very definition, about doing (and needing) nothing at all?

Don’t try to be mindful. You’ll only drive yourself nuts. Learn to be mindless. Update your definition of the word, and you’ll see the true path to inner peace more clearly than ever before.

Spying 101

The first rule of being a spy is that you must not be noticed.

In The 39 Steps, Richard Hannay finds himself alone in the Scottish countryside, with no one around but the gangsters on his heels. When he finds a lone road worker, he offers to take his position for a few hours. With great effort, Hannay adjusts his attire down to the laces on his shoes. He even throws dirt into his eyes to make them less recognizable.

“A fool tries to look different,” Hannay asserts. “A clever man looks the same and is different.”

This very principle will later help Hannay uncover the mastermind behind the evil operation he is attempting to thwart, and it behooves us to honor it as well.

We are not spies, of course. We are individuals realizing a dream, and most of the time, the world won’t care all that much what it is and why we do it.

Every now and then, however, we do bump into a societal wall. Some of these encounters we can’t avoid, and in those, we must stand our ground. At some point, you’ll have to tell your parents you want to be a dancer, not a doctor.

Most of them, however, we can just slide right by. Go unnoticed, like Richard Hannay, the inconspicuous road worker. You can be a fly on the walls of society, then return to your basement and keep tinkering on your dream.

Unless telling the whole world about your dream is part of your strategy to make it come true, for example to give yourself an extra push of accountability, don’t take the rebel role too far. Some people lose themselves in it. They start caring so much about looking like a rebel, about making sure they proclaim their individuality at every turn, they forget about the dream. Originally, the rebelliousness was just an attachment. Now it has usurped the dream itself.

Most of the time, there is no use in looking flashy, arguing with strangers, and causing a scandal at every party. Don’t be a clown. Be a spy. You know your goals, and that is enough.

May your mission be your greatest success.

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.