What Makes You Attracted to Someone?

What Makes You Attracted to Someone?

Why do you keep dating douchebags? How come you can’t you get over your ex? Why do some relationship feel effortless, while others force us to try very hard? The answer to all of these questions lies in understanding attraction.

I’m not talking about sexual attraction, although what I’ll share will, to some extent, explain that too. I mean attraction as in: “Oh, I like that guy!” The kind of attraction that’s natural, effortless, and that you might feel towards a great deal of people, even if you don’t have any agenda involving them whatsoever.

It’s a good thing, this attraction. It allows humans to get along, which, in a world this crowded, becomes more important by the day. When you easily hit it off with others, you can seamlessly navigate thousands of relationships, no matter how microscopic their role in your life may be. Which do you prefer? A queue at the bakery in which everyone gives each other the death stare, or one with light banter and the occasional, “No way, I always go for the chocolate-frosted ones too!”?

As we shall discover, this last bit of “me too” is a key element of attraction: Likeness breeds liking. I mean, it’s in the word, isn’t it? “Josh likes Trina” indicates that, in one way or another, Josh and Trina are alike. This phenomenon is so universal, it lets Seth Godin explain marketing in a single sentence: “People like us do things like this.” For now, let’s remember that since likeness is easy to find, so is attraction — and that turns our superficial chemistry into a double-edged sword.

If you quickly relate to others, beyond forging genuine friendships, you’ll also connect with many people that, ultimately, don’t belong into your life. Sometimes, that connection extends far beyond a brief encounter at the bakery, and that’s when things get complicated: A shared love for jello shots becomes a six-month stint of endless arguments. A brutal assignment survived together makes you cannon-fodder for your coworker’s quest to get promoted. That’s attraction leading us astray, and the consequences hurt.

While it won’t prevent you from ever falling for the wrong person again, understanding why attraction forms is the first step towards getting better at knowing when to trust your attraction and when to double-check your gut.

“Knowing” is the key word here. That’s where the answer to the seemingly simple yet surprisingly complex question of “Why are we attracted to people like us?” begins. Given humans have been trying to understand each other since the dawn of time, it might come as a little less of a surprise that that answer can be found in a 2,000-year-old book.

The Grandest Sport of All

“All human beings by nature desire knowledge.” Thus goes the opening line of Metaphysics, the 14-volume magnum opus on philosophy by none other than Aristotle, one of the fathers of philosophy itself. With the hindsight of history, we might call Aristotle a genius, and, looking at his dozen other “father of…” titles, it seems that we have. If you had asked him back then, I’m sure he would have said some variation of what Einstein echoed 1900 years later: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

The premise of natural curiosity will be integral to our theory, so let’s state it clearly and then probe it for truth: You are curious. All of us are.

We may forget it from time to time, but if we think back to our childhood, it’s easy to realize curiosity drove virtually every step of our growing up. As a baby, you grabbed everything, licked everything, and constantly looked around in awe. Once you were able to crawl, you crawled wherever you could go, and you only went further once you were on your feet.

This is Aristotle’s first piece of evidence that to be human is to be curios: We love using our senses. We enjoy garnering data about the world, be it through our noses, mouths, ears, eyes, or hands. Do you ever stop and smell the roses? Your coffee? Your lunch? What about vibing to a new song? How about watching the sunset? Clearly, our senses can be the source of great pleasure.

When it comes to using our senses ferociously, we’re no different from any other animal. Many smart creatures, like dogs, crows, dolphins, elephants, and others, can even form habits from experience. That, too, is something we learn early on. “If I touch the stove, I’ll get hurt, so I’ll touch the stove no more.” Simple if-then-loops, however, are where our similarities end.

Once we hit preschool, our human uniqueness fully blooms: Unlike any animal, we can understand why the world works the way it does. We can see why certain actions in certain situations are the right or wrong ones to take, and we can do so even before we take them, before we’re forced to learn from experience.

If you’ve ever solved a crossword, fixed a home appliance, or figured out the right technique for your favorite sport, you know how satisfying it is to successfully employ your capacity for logic and reason. In fact, it is so satisfying, Aristotle claims, that most of human culture and civilization is based on our singular, omniscient desire for knowledge.

That’s his second piece of evidence: If we weren’t relentlessly curious, would we ever have ventured this far beyond mere survival? Why study nature? Why make art? What about science, religion, and philosophy? What about Formula 1, Microsoft, and the Taj Mahal? A simpler animal would have been content to eat, sleep, breed, repeat — but not us. Therefore, we must be curious.

We have turned knowledge into the grandest sport of all, and every human loves to play.

A 21st Century Psychologist — in 345 BC

The English language contains 171,476 words, of which we use about 3,000 to handle our everyday reading and interactions. Some might call this efficient. I call it a shame, because for many a word we don’t know, we use five more to describe what we mean. That’s everything but efficient.

While the precision of language always depends on the eloquence of its wielder, at anywhere from 1.6 to 6 million words, Greek suffers no lack of specificity — and the deeper you dig, the more vocabulary you’ll find that you wish you had at hand. One such word is tekhnê (pronounced “tech-knee”), a word Aristotle used to establish a hierarchy of competitors in the game of knowledge.

Tekhnê combines what we today call “skill” or “technique” with “art” or “craft.” It describes both the task itself as well as the understanding and craftsmanship one might attain from (or in order to) perform said task well. Cooking is a tekhnê. Studying recipes builds tekhnê. And a master chef likely has lots of tekhnê.

The core element of tekhnê is understanding. Can the task be explained in an intelligible way? Does it have its own rationale? What about the actor? Does she know why she’s doing what she’s doing? Or is she guided purely by instinct? Without understanding, there can be no tekhnê — not that that necessarily hurts the result. Even if the painter works in trance, the painting can still be beautiful.

In German, there’s a word called “Technik,” and it gets close to tekhnê. You might watch a documentary about “die Technik des Stoffewebens,” the craft of weaving fabrics, which explains the general process of weaving by hand or via loom. At the same time, you might commend your friend’s “Technik beim Tennis,” his technique in swinging his racket while hitting yellow balls.

Today all roads might lead to Rome, but in Aristotle’s world, all tekhnê leads to pleasure. After all, understanding satisfies our curiosity, and employing said understanding to make something engages our senses on top.

Here’s an example: While spending two years on the island of Lesbos around 345 BC, Aristotle extensively thought, researched, and wrote about animals. Among the many creatures he observed was the paper nautilus, a species related to the octopus. Aristotle noted that one of the male nautilus’ tentacles looked different than the others and, seeing how he inserted it into the female during courtship, concluded it must be the animal’s reproductive organ.

Aristotle had no way of verifying his theory as correct (it was, but we only confirmed that in the 19th century), but exercising his mind and senses provided him with a rewarding feeling. That, too, is tekhnê. If somebody had drawn an accurate representation of the nautilus for Aristotle, the artist would have enjoyed the drawing as much as Aristotle enjoyed analyzing the subject — at least he suggests as much in Parts of Animals. Finally, if a skilled art critic would have looked at said drawing, they, too, would have found joy in judging the artist’s skills.

The lesson here is that expertise is fun — both building it and using it once you have it. This is astonishingly congruent with 21st century psychology. It’s in line with Daniel Pink’s Drive, Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and dozens of studies on passion, grit, and deliberate practice, all of which come to the same conclusion: The better you become at something, the more fun you’ll have doing it. Obvious? Today, maybe. Yet, given we still so often fail to act on this knowledge, I think someone discovering this on a small island some 2,300 years ago is pretty impressive.

Well, okay, so much for the experts — the biologist, the painter, and the art critic — but what about the average Joe? Where are our rungs on the ladder of knowledge? Fret not, for there is another way to quench our curiosity, and it does not require tekhnê of any kind. In fact, it is accessible to all. The only demands it makes are the right vocabulary and, in the case of looking at Aristotle’s imagined octopus drawing, the realization that, “Yes! This is an octopus!”

The Second Time You Saw a Tree

If it takes an expert to appreciate the craft, how come even an amateur can enjoy watching one in action? What does the casual football fan get out of observing a great pass, and why can a child in the backseat gaze at passing cars for hours, content in silent wonder?

The answer, according to Aristotle, is mimêsis — another one of many Greek words worth adding to your roster. In Poetics, the book that shall answer our questions about dating and relationships, translator Malcolm Heath considers mimêsis a broadly defined version of the word “imitation.”

Unlike the imitation we know, mimêsis need not be literal. While it always indicates likeness, “an imitation need not be a straightforward copy of the object imitated.” A heavy metal song in which the singer screams can easily be linked to being angry, even if the lyrics never directly discuss the emotion. Furthermore, mimêsis is not limited to reality. To Aristotle, a play about a vengeful god starting a heavy metal band could be just as good as one about a vindictive carpenter doing the same. Finally, he saw mimêsis as an elemental human activity, one that pervades all the arts and many other, seemingly non-artistic activities, like making animal sounds or children playing house.

Aristotle’s contention, then, is that human beings are by nature prone to engage in the creation of likenesses, and to respond to likenesses with pleasure, and he explains this instinct by reference to their innate desire for knowledge. A likeness is (by definition) a likeness of something; to take part in the activity of making and responding to likenesses we must recognize the relationship between the likeness and its object. This engages and satisfies the desire to exercise our distinctively human power of understanding, and is therefore pleasurable. This exercise of our capacity for understanding is, to be sure, a rudimentary one. But Aristotle’s purpose here is to explain how poetry and painting are rooted in basic instincts shared by even the least intellectually sophisticated people.

The first time you saw a tree, you may have wondered what it was. The first time you saw a tree after your mom had pointed one out to you in a picture book, your eyes lit up. “A tree! It’s a tree! Mom, it’s a tree!” The key element here is recognition. You recognize the tree because you’ve seen one before. You understand there is a connection between the two, and understanding is what you were born to do — it’s what makes you human and uniquely so.

As a side note, this also explains taste and how it can be so subjective: Since everyone has different experiences, we don’t all recognize and connect the same things. If you’ve never seen a zeppelin nor know how rare they are, you might not care when one pops up in the sky — or even think it’ll usher in the apocalypse. Meanwhile, if you had lots of posters of red cars around the house while growing up, you’ll probably want your car to be red. The endless variety of mimêsis in our individual lives ensures: Not everyone likes what you like, but everyone likes something.

Returning to our little tree enthusiast, I’ll grant that the thrill of point-and-name soon wears off, but if you bring a little patience to the park, you can still summon that same spirit of awe and excitement decades later. Just sit on a bench and watch the willow for a while. You enjoy looking at it, don’t you? After all, you recognize it. The willow is familiar. At the same time, there are a million things you don’t know about it, and those are equally intriguing.

It’s fascinating how quickly fascination forms — and nowhere is this interplay of recognition and inquisitiveness stronger than in human relationships.

How Curiosity-Fueled Attraction Can Lead Us Astray

Let’s recap what we’ve learned so far:

  1. Humans have an undying, irrefutable desire for knowledge.
  2. One way of consistently fueling said desire is to become an expert in something and then rigorously exercise your expertise.
  3. Another, more rudimentary approach is to engage in imitation, and the most basic version of that is to simply recognize how two things are alike.

Once you put together curiosity, understanding, and likeness, you have everything you need to explain the magnetic pull of human relationships: Recognizing likeness feeds understanding, and understanding satisfies curiosity. That’s why attraction often feels effortless: Every time you discover another likeness-nugget, you get a little hit of dopamine. The more you realize you and your coffee date are alike, the happier you’ll be in their presence. Your understanding barometer goes through the roof, and since nothing feels better than “getting it,” you’ll soon be on cloud nine.

You’re using your senses to scan for likeness. Is her hair the same color as your celebrity crush’s? Does he have freckles like you? Your similarities-monitor is on. “Oh, I know that keychain!” “That sounds like the time I was in a band.” Your imagination is blossoming. “Where does her ambition come from?” “Was he cheated on as well?”

Now that’s great when you’re sitting across the love of your life, and it can make waiting at the DMV less boring, but, unfortunately, this process does not only work well when it’s supposed to. Your brain is so desperate for mental check marks, it’ll sometimes construe the flimsiest relation as a profound, shared connection — and that’s where the trouble begins.

“Oh, he loves Italy. I love Italy!” This implies a shared understanding of what “Italy” means to each of you — which, actually, may or may not be there. If your date associates “Italy” solely with translating Italian poetry from the 15th century into English because that’s what he spent half a year doing somewhere in rural Canada, that’s very different from you thinking about the pizza, ice cream, and beautiful palazzos you indulged in on your last vacation.

Your brain, however, rarely bothers verifying. Relying on its memory of other, equally shaky connections, it concludes there’s a decent chance your ideas of “Italy” overlap enough to warrant being excited — and up the dopamine hatches go. Even if your brain didn’t constantly jump to conclusions, you could still get away on a single, shared opinion about Italy. “The Italian language is beautiful” might be enough to get both of you to date number two. That’s how strong the pull of understanding others is. It’s the curiosity game on steroids — and that snowball will gladly roll downhill if we let it.

This also explains why, especially in unfamiliar settings, people tend to huddle together in ethnic groups. When I studied abroad, it took all of one day for all nine Germans to find each other and spend the evening in the same room. For better or for worse, likeness feels good and safe, so why not go where you know some likeness will be guaranteed? This is a trap, of course. In my case, it led to a lack of new ideas and perspectives — you know, the thing a college exchange is for. In others, it could lead to racism, bullying, and worse.

Unless…

The Slow-Burn Movie of Real Understanding

Going back to the dating game, our likeness addiction makes it easy to jump from similarity to similarity — and thus fall in love head over heels. But the question is not how many corresponding easter eggs you can find — it is whether you’re compatible in a few key aspects that matter.

If you’re looking for a long-term relationship, the three big Ws are a good place to start: What, where, and who? What do you want your daily routines to look like? How does work fit into living together? Where will you do said shared living, and who will you want close by? More than one divorce has been filed over living down the street from one’s in-laws.

The truth is if you can deflect the big bullets, your differences are a matter of management, not elimination. That’s what rooms in houses are for. You do your thing, I do mine, and we’ll reconvene at dinner. Discovering how we are different can be just as satisfying as finding out we’re alike. Unlike the latter, however, the former is not a fast, dopamine-fueled carousel. It’s more like a slow-burn movie, the fruits of which we can only reap in time.

My girlfriend loves refunds. If there’s a damaged item to return, a hotel room sub-par, or a voucher that’s not being honored, she is your gal. I’m more timid. “Diplomatic,” I call it. On a bad day, I might perceive this difference as friction. “Why can’t she just let it go?” On a good day, however, I see this difference as strength. I can count on her playing bad cop at the front desk, and I’ll play good cop to go along. Together, we’ll deliver a convincing performance that gets us what we’re owed — and we have. Situations like these have happened, and they’ll keep happening in the future. So why not combine our talents?

The kind of understanding this cooperation requires does not come with a jolt of energy that feels like caffeine hitting the veins. Instead, it triggers a slow, long “aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh, that’s why she is like that.” My girlfriend grew up in a country where consumer rights don’t exist. Imagine living in a place where, in every economic transaction, you can expect to be ripped off, and the only question is how much. If you moved to a country where your purchases are protected by the law, wouldn’t you invoke the 30-day-guarantee? I would.

It’s a bit like mimêsis vs. tekhnê: Anyone can giggle over realizing they went to the same school, but the joy of being an expert on why your partner is who they are is a prize few can claim.

The Good Life — A Life of Good Relationships

If we want to build great relationships, we must understand why, when, and how we connect with others. Attraction is the spark that forges these connections, and it includes everything from a smirk at the cash register to a full-blown addiction to the devil in disguise.

While some baseline of attraction allows us to glide through society’s waters, too much of it too quickly can cause us great pain and misery. Once we know how the process of attraction unfolds, however, we are better able to pause, speed up, slow down, or even reverse it.

Let’s summarize the tenets of attraction we’ve discovered:

  1. One of our strongest, most fundamental desires as humans is to learn, know, and understand.
  2. Any activity that engages our mental faculties with the goal of understanding is, therefore, pleasurable.
  3. When it comes with a continuous cycle of learning new lessons and applying them in creative endeavors, being (or becoming) an expert can steadily feed our need for intellectual stimulation.
  4. One of the plainest, easiest, and quickest ways to repeatedly exercise our understanding muscle, however, is to simply recognize that two things are alike. That includes realizing we are like others, and others are like us.
  5. When we detect many similarities with another person in quick succession, our knowledge-guzzling brain sends us into a dopamine-induced stupor of attraction — even if those similarities are built on the shakiest of foundations.
  6. To not get carried away and into the wrong relationships, we must fact-check our gut checks, using logic and reason to discern which correlations matter, and which ones don’t.
  7. Once we look past superficial tit-for-tat comparisons, we’ll not only see ourselves more clearly reflected in others, we’ll even start appreciating the beauty in our differences — and see them for the complementing strengths that they are.

One of Aristotle’s main concerns was what it means to live a good life. While the concept of virtue, which we may summarize under the maxim of “be good, do good, feel good,” remained front and center in his answer, he was acutely aware of the role our relationships play in achieving the good life ideal — his idea of true friendship being only one of his most prominent examples.

Good relationships, like anything good, take time. We can’t rush into them over fleeting experiences or same-logo sweatshirts. Until the right person appears and reveals the right level of synchronicity at the right time, be patient. Enjoy the ease of light connections, but don’t let your dopamine glands fool you. When it comes to people’s behavior, consider all reasons, yet never take the seemingly obvious ones at face value.

After all, Lowell Bennion’s 1959 imitation of Aristotle was only slightly like the latter’s original phrasing: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Do Self-Help Books Work? Cover

How Modern Non-Fiction Books Waste Your Time (and Why You Should Read Them Anyway)

When I first discovered non-fiction books, I thought they were the best thing since sliced bread. Whatever problem you could possibly have, there’s a book out there to help you solve it. I had a lot of challenges at the time, and so I started devouring lots of books.

I read books about money, productivity, and choosing a career. Then, I read books about marketing, creativity, and entrepreneurship. I read and read and read, and, eventually, I realized I had forgotten to implement any of the advice! The only habit I had built was reading, and as wonderful as it was, it left me only with information overwhelm.

After that phase, I flipped to the other, equally extreme end of the spectrum: I read almost no books, got all my insights from summaries, and only tried to learn what I needed to improve a given situation at any time.

So, do self-help books work? As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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The Current of Life Cover

Are You Swimming With or Against the Current of Life?

In his book The Cafe on the Edge of the World, John Strelecky tells the story of a man in a hurry.

The man, a busy professional also named John, is stuck in a massive traffic jam en route to his much needed vacation. When he tries to circumvent the roadblock, he gets lost and, running out of fuel, energy, and growing ever hungrier, turns in to a cafe in the middle of nowhere — The Cafe of Questions.

Inside the cafe, John gets a delicious breakfast, but he is also confronted with a series of uncomfortable, oddly well-timed questions, such as “Why are you here?” “Do you fear death?” and “Are you fulfilled?” The waitress, cook, and fellow guests seem to be able to read his mind, and they all make him reflect deeply on the path in life he has chosen thus far.

At one point in the book, the waitress, Casey, sits down in John’s booth and tells him the story of the green sea turtle. She too was once on vacation, she says. Snorkeling off the coast of Hawaii, she spotted a green sea turtle right next to her in the water. This being the first time she ever saw one, she was excited and decided to follow the little guy for a while.

“To my surprise, although he appeared to be moving pretty slowly, sometimes paddling his flippers and other times just floating, I couldn’t keep up with him. I was wearing fins, which gave me propulsion power through the water, and didn’t have on a buoyancy vest or anything that would slow me down. Yet he kept moving farther from me, even though I was trying to keep up. After about ten minutes, he lost me. Tired, disappointed, and a little embarrassed I couldn’t keep up with a turtle, I turned back and snorkeled to shore.”

The next day, Casey returned to the same spot, and again, she found and tried to keep up with another green sea turtle. As she realized that turtle too was about to lose her, she stopped paddling and just floated in the water.

“As I was floating on the surface, I realized something: When the turtle was swimming, it linked its movements to the movements of the water. When a wave was coming at him, he would float, and paddle just enough to hold his position. When the pull of the wave was from behind him though, he’d paddle faster, so that he was using the movement of the water to his advantage. The turtle never fought the waves. Instead, he used them.”

Casey, on the other hand, had been paddling the whole time. This was easy enough when the tide was in her favor, but the more she fought the incoming waves, the less energy she had to capitalize on the outgoing ones later.

“As wave after wave came in and went out, I became more and more fatigued and less effective. Not the turtle though. He kept optimizing his movements with the movements of the water. That’s why he was able to swim faster than I could.”

If you’re like me — and John — at this point in the story, you’ll wonder: That’s great — but what does it have to do with me and my life? Actually, a whole lot, as Casey will explain in a second.


Have you ever felt like you’re fighting an uphill battle? As if for every two steps forward, life somehow pushes you one step back?

It happens to all of us. We do our best to fulfill our duties as responsible adults, and yet, it seems we must fight tooth and nail to make room for the few people and activities that are truly important to us. Why is that?

Well, as the green sea turtle might tell us: “You’re swimming against the current of life. Why don’t you try swimming with it?

After Casey gives him some time to think about the story, John interprets it as follows:

“I think the turtle — the green sea turtle — taught you that if you aren’t in tune with what you want to do, you can waste your energy on lots of other things. Then, when opportunities come your way for what you do want, you might not have the time or strength to spend on them.”

Casey smiles, for she knows the power of grasping an important lesson out of one’s own thinking, and then she adds some more context to John’s insight:

“Each day, there are so many people trying to persuade you to spend your time and energy on them. Think about just your mail and email. If you were to participate in every activity, sale, and service offering you get notified of — you’d have no free time. And that’s just mail and email. Add on all the people who want to capture your attention for television time, online activities, places to eat, travel destinations…You can quickly find yourself living a life that’s just a compilation of what everyone else is doing, or what people want you to be doing.”

Casey then explains that since she observed the turtle moving effortlessly through the water, she has taken a new perspective on life: The incoming waves represent all the people, activities, and things that clamor for a share of her attention, time, or energy but don’t contribute to what she really wants to do in life. In essence, they block her from fulfilling her purpose. Meanwhile, the things and people that support Casey living in sync with her calling are like outgoing waves — they carry her towards her destiny.

That’s the lesson of the green sea turtle, and even though it’s a big one to swallow with his pancakes, John decides to chew on it for a while. I hope you will too.


When Casey leaves John to ponder her story, he asks her for pen and paper. On the back of his napkin, he calculates that if he spends 20 minutes a day flicking through unimportant mail for 60 years, that’s over 300 days of his life — almost an entire year, wasted on one incoming wave.

What about all the others? What about TV commercials, mindless radio listening, and people trying to network with him for their advancement? And those are just the distractions John didn’t choose. He too is human. He’ll distract himself as well along the way.

John is shocked. He tells Casey about his discovery. While she reminds him that not all mail is junk — and not all distractions are wasted time — she does admit:

“It can get you thinking. That’s why my time with the green sea turtle made such a big impact on me.”

When you feel like all you do is struggle, ask yourself: “Am I swimming with the current of life? Or am I desperately paddling against it?”

Do you focus too much on distractions? Are you allowing the wrong activities and people to take up your time? If so, it is no wonder every hour you spend on hobbies and friends you love feels like an hour you must mine from the hardest rock with your bare hands.

At the same time, for every distraction you ignore, one ally will look your way. Wait for the right wave, the right circumstances to arrive, and then ride it with everything you’ve got. If the knitted beanie trend is fading, maybe wait a year to start your knitting business. If a friend offers you a small book deal to tell a story you’ve always wanted to tell, go for it!

After years of high-paying but also highly stressful jobs, John Strelecky decided to finally fulfill his childhood dream of traveling the world. When he came back, he wrote the book he needed to read; he gave himself the message he needed to hear.

Since then, that message has been shared millions of times around the world: Don’t swim against the current of life. Focus on the right people, the right activities, and the right things. Only then will it carry you to your dreams.

It’s just one of many metaphors in his book, but I have no doubt that, somewhere on the edge of the world, a green sea turtle once taught Strelecky that lesson — and from that very same turtle, we can still learn to navigate the seas of life today.

One Good Sentence Cover

Can You Write One Good Sentence?

In the early 20th century, the most important man in the world of American literature wasn’t an author. His name was Maxwell Perkins.

Perkins was an editor at Scribner, a publishing house in New York City. In 1919, he signed a young, unknown author, making a big bet on aspiring talent against the will of his seniors at the company. The author he signed was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who would go on to write and publish The Great Gatsby in cooperation with Perkins.

One year after Gatsby, which wouldn’t sell well for the next 15 years, Perkins met and signed another author of questionable status: Ernest Hemingway. After the two books they worked on together — The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms — found commercial successes, Perkins became the most sought after editor in the country.

The 2016 movie Genius tells the story of Perkins and another prodigious discovery of his: Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe was the son Perkins, who had five daughters, always longed for. He was poetic, passionate, and notoriously incapable of cutting a single word from his flowery prose. In other words, he was a writer through and through.

As an editor, one of Perkins’ main responsibilities was to cut the inessential. He did so for all of his writers but for none more than Wolfe. His first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, went from 294,000 words to 234,000 under Perkins’ guidance — and it sold like hotcakes. Taking the feedback of “write more” a bit too literally, Wolfe turned around and produced another manuscript: The 5,000-page draft for Of Time and the River, which him and Perkins fought over for two years before it finally saw the light of day.

Then, despite the book’s success, a trauma befell Wolfe that catches every writer at some point: Wolfe got writer’s block. For months, he was unable to put pen to paper. Eventually, he took a long, solo trip all the way to California, where, among other things, he visited Fitzgerald. I doubt the scene played out as depicted in the movie, but the advice he gave Wolfe — no doubt inspired by Perkins’ dedication as an editor — is priceless nonetheless:

Thomas Wolfe: “More and more I trouble myself with that, the legacy. Will anyone care about Thomas Wolfe in 100 years? 10 years?”

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “When I was young, I asked myself that question everyday. Now, I ask myself, ‘Can I write one good sentence?’”

For any writer, there are more ifs and thens and whats and whens to obsess over than hours in the day. What if no one cares about my idea? Will the book sell once it’s out? When can I make a living from my craft? What does it all amount to? Will I leave behind a legacy? There is no quicker way to obliterate your ability to chain words together than to hop on this never-ending merry-go-round of hypotheticals.

Instead, as Perkins drilled into his authors when fighting with them over every word, as Fitzgerald finally realized after years of failure, dedicate your obsession to the micro. Forget the book, the chapter, even the page and the very next paragraph. Ask one question and one question alone. The only question that matters: Can I write one good sentence?

Even if the encounter was fictional, even if Fitzgerald never said these words, there’s a high chance he had internalized them regardless. How do I know? Well, the other grand disciple of Perkins, Hemingway, left us with the exact same advice. It’s a famous line that’s been quoted countless times: “Write the truest sentence that you know.”

What did this mean for Hemingway? He explains it to us in the paragraph the quote is from — the majority of which most quoters omit:

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

As Nick Wignall notes, it is the throwing-orange-peel-into-the-fire part that is most crucial to understanding the advice. “That was his one true sentence that lead to his now famous ‘Write one true sentence’ quote,” Wignall writes. It was the only thing he knew to be true at the time: When I have writer’s block, I toss fruit into a fire. So that’s where he began.

Your next, first, final sentence being true is all nice and well, but, going back to Fitzgerald’s version of the tip, we now must ask: Is it also a good sentence?

Undoubtedly, Hemingway’s messy eating habits meet those criteria. There’s color, there’s fruit, there’s fire. Fire is dangerous. Fruit is a symbol of life. The colors change, and so does the situation. Feeding orange peel to the flames is not an everyday occurrence. See how many more metaphors we already extracted from this one line? You can imagine the scene as funny — an enraged Hemingway hurling oranges into his fireplace — or deeply thoughtful — the mindless flick of a finger causes a blue spark and loud crackle as Hemingway turns back to his desk. That is one heck of a sentence. Did Hemingway know when he wrote it? Doubtful. But he trusted the truth, and he deliberated on it long enough to stick with his decision — and that made all the difference.

Unfortunately for Wolfe, he never got to practice the advice he received from Fitzgerald. Weeks after his visit, he died of tuberculosis at just 37 years old. He did, however, leave behind a legacy — and a letter to his former editor, Maxwell Perkins:

I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that Fourth of July day three years ago, when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the cafe on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building, and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below.

Now that’s a good sentence. I think you should write one.

Assiduity Cover

Assiduity: Work Hard and Don’t Quit Too Early

In 2010, I dropped myself into a 60-hour workweek by accident: I started college with no idea what would hit me.

I remember adding all my lectures, tutorials, and seminars to my schedule and realizing: If I attend all of these, I’ll spend 40 hours a week just getting input — and I won’t have done any studying or assignments yet.

In our first semester, we had seven subjects, ranging from math to economics to programming to materials science and business, each with a big final exam that determined 100% of our grade. The pressure was on. While my friends and I didn’t know the first thing about these topics, we also had to code a new mini program each week, hand it in, and present it to a tutor. It was a lot.

None of us knew what to expect, and, facing such a crazy workload, we were, quite frankly, scared shitless. In order to cope, we did what most cornered animals do: we fought. Luckily, in Germany, attendance isn’t mandatory for most classes, so we skipped what we could and, instead, focused on getting things done.

Every day, we went to the library, sometimes as early as 6 or 7 AM, and worked like hell. We studied 13, 14, 15 hours a day. Alone. Together. Working on the same problems or completely different ones. We compared our notes, shared solutions, and stared at the programming console until the code finally worked. It was a nightmare, but in the end, we passed all of our exams.

That first semester was a real wake-up call. In the words of German singer Farin Urlaub: “Life is not Home Depot, and there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Having cruised through high school on little to no studying and with good grades, I had finally arrived in the real world — and it was tough.

If you had listed everything I would do and accomplish that year in advance, I would have said, “Impossible!” Looking back, however, as hard as it was, I feel incredibly proud of overcoming all these obstacles. With each long work day came a sense of accomplishment, and the more days I racked up, the more I started seeing myself as a gritty person.

Ultimately, I gained a lot of confidence from all this hard work, confidence that then helped me achieve bigger goals and exceed my own expectations — and that I rely on to this day.

What Is Assiduity?

The word ‘assiduity’ made its first appearance in the 16th century. It describes an attitude of great attention, care, and effort to what one is doing.

Unlike words such as ‘diligence,’ ‘concentration,’ or ‘ambition,’ it includes a sense of stubbornness. Imagine a dog fighting to keep his bone — he’s unrelenting. He just won’t give up.

Merriam-Webster defines assiduity well with a three-word catchphrase: persistent personal attention.

The late talent agent and movie producer Jerry Weintraub provides a good example: For 365 days in a row, he called Elvis’ manager, asking to take the King of Rock ’n’ roll on tour. Eventually, he did, and the shows in large arenas he subsequently organized became the innovation that made his career.

Jerry mostly prided himself in his persistence, saying that, “The person who makes it is the person who keeps on going after everyone else has quit.” That’s true, but I think Jerry did more than that: He also showed great care and attention to what his target’s needs were. When you call someone for 365 days in a row, part of the magic is getting them to keep picking up — and that takes more than brute force.

Assiduity is deciding to do the right job the right way and then committing to stick with it until it’s done. Assiduity comes in two flavors: There’s the kind that makes you see through the first semester when you want to quit after the first week and the kind that lets you finish each slide deck, exercise, and class in order to do so.

Macro-Assiduity

Charlie Munger is the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s company. He’s 96 years old, a billionaire, and the person Buffett credits most for his success.

In a 2019 interview, he recounts a story he frequently tells young people who come to him, asking for advice on getting rich:

A young man goes to see Mozart, and he says, “Mozart, I want to start composing symphonies.” Mozart asks, “How old are you?” and the guy says, “22.”

Mozart tells him, “You’re too young to do symphonies,” but the guy retorts: “Yes, but you were 10 years old when you were composing symphonies.”

“Yes, but I wasn’t running around asking other people how to do it.”

What Charlie is trying to tell us with this snippy comment is: Don’t quit too early. If you don’t invest serious effort into mastering your craft, no advice from even the greatest in your field can make up for it. Until you’ve done so, don’t give up!

It’s the cliché millennial dilemma Simon Sinek frequently bumps into:

I keep meeting these wonderful, fantastic, idealistic, hard-working, smart kids. They’ve just graduated school. They’re in their entry-level job. I sit down with them, and I go: “How’s it goin’?” They go, “I think I’m gonna quit.” I ask why. They’re like, “I’m not making an impact.” I’m like, “You’ve been here eight months.”

Charlie began his career as a lawyer. Thinking he didn’t like it, he started working on investment deals in his spare time. Once he’d settled into a career as an investor, however, he realized he could’ve just stuck with being a lawyer:

I think this flitting-around business is something not everybody should try. I think if I tried it again, it might not have worked as well.

Passion for your work isn’t a one-way street: Any job will become more fun as you get better at it. Yes, you might have to make a big change later, but be honest with yourself: So far, have you even tried? Like, really tried?

Humans are bad at understanding the concept of time, but we’re even worse at estimating and managing it, especially as the numbers get larger. If you count back one million seconds, you’ll land 12 days ago. A billion is 1,000 times larger. You know the difference, right?

Well, if you turn the clock back one billion seconds, you’ll arrive… 30 years ago. In the same way, we tend to overestimate how much we can do in a year but underestimate how much we can pull off in ten. “As a result of our short-sightedness, we are overfeeding the present by stealing from the future,” Jim Brumm writes in Long-Term Thinking for a Short-Sighted World.

Don’t quit too early. Have some macro-assiduity.

Micro-Assiduity

In 2007, Munger gave the commencement speech at the USC Gould School of Law. Among many other bits of wisdom, he shared the following:

“Have a lot of assiduity. I like that word because it means: Sit down on your ass until you do it.”

Sounds real simple, doesn’t it? You have the work. You know what to do. So you get on your ass, sit down, and do it. Ass. Sit. Do it. As in Jerry Weintraub’s story, however, I think there is a second part to this: You don’t just sit until you start. You also sit until you finish.

In college, we didn’t know how long we’d need to get our algorithm to draw a Pythagoras tree. We just sat there until we figured it out. We even have a word for this in German: “Sitzfleisch.” Taken literally, it translates to “seat-meat,” the metaphor being that you have a strong butt — a butt that can stay in a chair for a long time. Ass-sit-do-it-y.

Analyzing the science behind this staying power, Thomas Oppong writes:

Finding the ability to embrace your work, no matter how difficult, as a challenge instead of a threat can be one way to overcome the emotional challenge of finishing what we start.

Next to sound, music, and managing your internal and external triggers, reframing problems as projects can help you convert at least some of your stress into inspiration. Furthermore, the same long-term thinking that’ll allow you to stick with a one-year project can also make the short-term decision to keep working on a strenuous task easier.

For the most part, our day-to-day tasks are well-defined. If you have a job, are getting a degree, or have been freelancing for a while, chances are, your list of objectives is long enough.

For more nebulous, self-driven career paths, a good rule of thumb is to follow the verb that goes with the noun of what you’d like to call yourself. That’s the part that can’t be compromised. A writer must write. A speaker must speak. A runner must run. And so on.

Find the tasks essential to your long-term goal, sit on your ass, and do them.


Life is not a straight line. Sometimes, you have to work late to deliver on a promise you made to a customer. This isn’t to say you should sacrifice your health for your job, but if you’re unwilling to show up when you’re needed the most, especially if it’s uncomfortable, you’ll never be able to take on the amount of responsibility required to also gain the benefits that come with it: self-determination, unlimited financial upside, and freedom of time.

While your attitude to work directly impacts these tangible results, it also builds a set of strong, indirect benefits over time. Sitting with tasks until they’re done comes with a sense of accomplishment and trust in your ability to overcome obstacles. You’re proving yourself to be gritty, one day at a time. Eventually, you’ll form genuine confidence and achieve more than you ever thought possible.

Life may not be Home Depot, but it’s a great feeling to take pride in your work — even without a free lunch.

Aristotle on Friendship: 3 Kinds, 1 Lasts a Lifetime

Aristotle on Friendship: Only 1 of 3 Kinds Will Last a Lifetime

When was the last time you hung out with your best friend from grade school? The one you told all your secrets to, had inside jokes with, even did a blood oath with? It’s probably been a while. Maybe a couple decades. Despite all the #rideordie hashtags and our massive collections of Facebook “friends,” most of the friendships that we form throughout our lives will dissolve. It’s inevitable, but why? To answer that question, I looked to a 2,000-year-old text.

The writings of Aristotle have shaped the course of history, influencing everything from political theory to economic systems to Western aesthetics. But the Greek philosopher also had profound thoughts on matters of everyday life, like our friendships. In Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle described “three kinds of friendship” that people form under different conditions, and why some bonds are stronger than others. Here, he laid out the first two: utility and pleasure.

“There are therefore three kinds of friendship, equal in number to the things that are lovable. Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other. So too with those who love for the sake of pleasure; it is not for their character that men love ready-witted people, but because they find them pleasant.”

Friendships of utility and pleasure are similar — and they’re both fleeting. Aristotle observed that friendships of pleasure are most common among the young. Today, we can see that these friendships often form as a byproduct of shared phases — high school, college, or the first job search. As the next life chapter arrives, these friendships come to an end.

Friendships of utility often form between people who are more established, those who have learned that life consists of many tradeoffs, those who accept relationships that are more transactional in nature. A couple with small children might form a friendship with another young family in their neighborhood, and trade babysitting duties, for instance. Or a first-time founder might rely on a seasoned expert in his field. These relationships are also short-lived in nature because as soon as the benefit disappears, so do we. Aristotle writes:

“And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful, the other ceases to love him.”

I’m in my late twenties, and can already feel my relationships becoming more utilitarian. People are busy, or they don’t want to overstep their boundaries, and it takes much more effort just to go grab a beer. People think: There better be a good reason for this.

There is nothing wrong with these kinds of friendships. But if they’re all we ever experience, two things will happen: 1) All of our relationships will eventually fade because our wants, needs, desires, and wishes keep changing until the day we die. 2) We’ll always crave something more — a deeper, more honest, more meaningful connection.

This deeper connection is the third kind of friendship that Aristotle described. He called it “perfect friendship:”

“Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good-and goodness is an enduring thing.”

Writer Zat Rana penned a great piece about this type of relationship, which eloquently sums it up: “In this kind of friendship, the people themselves and the qualities they represent provide the incentive for the two parties to be in each other’s lives.”

These special kinds of friendships aren’t based on what someone can do for you or how they make you feel — they simply exist because you value who they are. Maybe you love your friend’s dedication to hard work. Or perhaps you deeply respect their courage to step up during conflict. Whatever pleasure and utility you get out of the relationship are merely a side effect of that love.

“Perfect friendship” is rare — even Aristotle believed this to be true. So how does this kind of friendship form? With time.

Writes Aristotle:

“Further, such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, men cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together;’ nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each.”

There is no hack or shortcut to accelerate the formation of true friendships. Think about it: Your closest friends are likely the people with whom you’ve shared the most intense phases of your life. All-night study sessions in college. A cross-country road trip. New jobs. The loss of loved ones. Bouts of depression. Moments of joy. If you’ve shared a series of experiences like that someone, and stayed friends throughout ups and downs, you’re on your way to perfect friendship. Only with time do we learn to appreciate people as they are. Aristotle writes:

“Those who quickly show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they both are lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.”

If we never venture beyond utility and pleasure, we’ll miss the relationships that give us real meaning and happiness. The only way to build these rare friendships — the perfect friendship — is to spend time together, traverse our ups and downs, and learn to value each other as human beings along the way. It won’t always be easy and it won’t always work out, but if we commit to valuing virtue over comfort and pleasure, we’ll look back at the end of our lives and see the faces of a few people we’ll call true friends.

Choose to See Projects, Not Problems Cover

Choose to See Projects, Not Problems

She was in her 50s, I think. A lady with red hair, seated across the aisle. For a brief moment in time, about 45 minutes, we shared the same destination — and thus the same train.

Except for her fiery mane, nothing hinted at her remarkable energy. She was plain and rather sturdy. But as soon as she talked, you knew she was fierce.

Unfortunately, she dedicated all of that ferocity to raising complaints, none of which her friend was in any capacity to solve. They might have been nurses; granted, a tough work environment by any measure. But the way she spoke of her workplace, it felt like a place wholly without solutions. Just problems.

“He promised he’d give us more people, but then he broke his word last-minute.”

“They can’t change the rules like that, that reporting policy is ridiculous.”

In many countries, mine included, being a nurse is a tough, underpaid job. There’s much to improve, no doubt. But in blowing off steam for the entire train ride, the redheaded caretaker fundamentally neglected her job: She merely exhausted both herself and her friend.

Often, venting is our habit of last resort. We feel helpless. As if we’ve tried everything. Like there’s nothing else left we can do. Of course, that’s never quite the case. There’s always something else we can do.

But, sometimes, we’re too close to the to-do list to see it. Sometimes, we have to take a step back — a step up, even — and find a new perspective.


Heidi Hetzer was a German entrepreneur, rally driver, and a symbol of empowerment. Long after her company was sold, her career done and dusted, she set off on a trip around the world — at age 77, in a car older than herself.

Source

For nearly three years, she ventured around the globe. She blew through not just two co-drivers, but countless breakdowns, customs issues, and language barriers. She also survived an accident in which she lost two fingers, her cancer diagnosis, and several robberies and threats.

As a result, she saw dozens of countries, connected with hundreds of people, and inspired thousands more. She had the time of her life. And at 81, she did it all again. After her passing on Easter Sunday, her final Instagram post reads: “I live no longer, but I have lived.”

The gap between Heidi Hetzer and the lady on the train is not a physical one. It’s not genetic and it does not depend on their financial background.

Heidi Hetzer had a growth mindset. The nurse’s point of view was fixed.

Whatever situation in life you look at, this distinction makes all the difference.


From 1980 to 1984, John McEnroe was the #1 tennis player in the world. He was also arrogant, entitled, and angry. His outbreaks on the court made half the show. He’d often yell at organizers over minuscule details, only for them to make the changes and then apologize to him.

“This is what it was like to be number one,” he says in his autobiography. In Mindset, researcher Carol Dweck examines his case further:

He goes on to tell us about how he once threw up all over a dignified Japanese lady who was hosting him. The next day she bowed, apologized to him, and presented him with a gift.

“This,” McEnroe proclaims, “is also what it was like to be number one.”

“Everything was about you… ‘Did you get everything you need? Is everything okay? We’ll pay you this, we’ll do that, we’ll kiss your behind.’ You only have to do what you want; your reaction to anything else is, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ For a long time I didn’t mind it a bit. Would you?”

As the saying goes, “better late than never,” but McEnroe’s insight sure would’ve been more useful back in 1980. Contrast that with Michael Jordan, an athlete known for his die-hard work ethic, and the the first billionaire basketball player in history. Dweck again:

“When Jordan was cut from the varsity team, he was devastated. His mother says, “I told him to go back and discipline himself.” Boy, did he listen. He used to leave the house at six in the morning to go practice before school. At the University of North Carolina, he constantly worked on his weaknesses — his defensive game and his ball handling and shooting. The coach was taken aback by his willingness to work harder than anyone else. Once, after the team lost the last game of the season, Jordan went and practiced his shots for hours. He was preparing for the next year.”

The difference between a fixed and a growth mindset is like the difference between success and failure, between winning and losing, between creation and waste: first and foremost, it’s a matter of perspective.

A fixed mindset will hold talent over everything. Whatever goes wrong, it’s genetic, it’s external, it’s permanent, everyone else’s fault, and can’t be changed. With such a worldview, anyone would try to look smart, avoid difficult situations, and seek approval rather than attempt to win big.

A growth mindset, however, is hell-bent on internalizing your locus of control. It insists that life happens for you, not to you. Therefore, even the bad stuff serves a purpose — and it is yours to turn into a stepping stone to some bigger thing. In this mindset, what goes wrong is just a detour, a distraction, a temporary setback you can handle. The only question is what you’ll try next.

If you have a fixed mindset, it may not feel like it, but, by definition, which of these two lenses you select is a choice. However, that choice is made one day, one habit, one small action at a time.

The best of those actions I found comes from a little farm in France.


After graduating college, Hannah and her boyfriend worked for a farmer in Europe. His name was Emmanuel. One day, this happened:

He took us to the greenhouse and showed us spots of brown mold that had begun creeping over the leaves on the tomato plants. “Ze tomatoes get sick sometimes,” he said. “It’s a big…how do you say…a big pr…”

“A problem?” I suggested in my mind, assuming that was the word he was looking for.

But then Emmanuel smiled and said, “Ah, project. It’s a big project.”

This slight change of language can lead to a profound shift in your trajectory. It might be just two words, but one leads to a fixed mindset, the other looks for growth and opportunity.

A project is a challenge. Something you can choose to tackle or not. A problem is a nuisance. Something you need to “make go away.” It’s not optional.

A project offers multiple angles from the start. A problem is a thorn in your thigh: before you can do anything, you have to talk yourself into even trying to pull it out.

A project is a game. It has levels. You’ll immediately look for milestones and ways to leverage what you already know. A problem is game over. You’ve already lost. You feel like you’re at square one, and so that’s where you start. You’re not considering your assets.

A project has stakeholders. There are several parties involved and if you get it right, everyone wins. A problem is yours and yours alone. “Oh no, why me?” It brings out your ego and makes you self-centered.

Completing a project allows you to advance. Resolving a problem only gets you back to zero.

Every time you want to say ‘problem,’ say ‘project’ instead.

Replacing this one word could change your whole life.


My unintentional travel companion came from a hospital full of problems. Heidi Hetzer lived a life made of projects. Two women, two perspectives.

No one loves to lose money on a business idea or enjoys the woes of chronic back pain. But it takes an open mind to deal with such setbacks.

Who would you rather be on the court? A furious McEnroe, who’s angry at an environment he can’t change, or a determined Jordan, who’ll settle for his best effort, nothing more, nothing less?

The best people I know aren’t those with the most success, they’re those with the most meaningful journeys. Not all of this meaning can be found inside ourselves, but what’s on the outside largely depends on your point of view.

If you look at the world like a game of Tetris, you can spot projects everywhere, choose the ones you care about, and then make the pieces fit. If you insist it’s a labyrinth someone else designed, you’ll constantly feel lost.

You can’t always pick who you sit next to on the train, but you can decide if that person’s a friend or a stranger. You can’t win every match, but you can decide what the loss means. You can choose to see problems or you can choose to see projects.

It’s up to you to make up your mind, but until you do, let the train be the one to blow off some steam.

We're All Just Diamonds in the Rough Cover

We’re All Just Diamonds in the Rough

Imagine you’re going to an art gallery. The exhibition is called “Unfinished.”

In the lobby, Schubert’s Symphony №8 of the same name swells in the background. You get your ticket and enter the first room. The strings mount into their first crescendo, and there she is: The Mona Lisa. Well, the Mona.

Because Lisa is still kinda missing. You can see her shape, her arms, and her hair, but only half her face. Only half of that mysterious, enchanting smile. The backdrop isn’t done either. A blurry mix of blue, brown, green, and grey.

In the next room, van Gogh’s Starry Night feels off too. There’s a town and a tree, but where are the stars? Where’s the brightly lit crescent moon? Where are the swirls and the clouds that make you feel dreamy and moved?

A little confused, you continue to make your way through the exhibit. Dalí, Monet, Picasso, they’re all there, but…their paintings aren’t done. Slowly, it dawns on you. This isn’t about up and coming artists. It’s about you.

The sole purpose of the exhibit is to show you: Once upon a time, everything was unfinished. Even the world’s greatest masterpieces. And so are you.


On September 3, 1783, the United States finally signed a peace agreement with Great Britain that recognized American independence.

Contemporary painter Benjamin West aimed to capture the moment on canvas. After he’d sketched the American commissioners, however, the British delegation refused to pose. The painting remains, to this day, unfinished.

Right in the middle of the incomplete action sits none other than Benjamin Franklin. In his biography of the man, Walter Isaacson calls him “the most accomplished American of his age.”

But Franklin himself would never have accepted that kind of praise. After all, ‘accomplished’ pretty much means ‘done,’ and with Ben, that was never quite the case. He treated his life like a perpetual work in progress.

Towards the end of his career, he was elected as the governor of Pennsylvania, a position he held for three years — longer than any other — and well into his 80s. Even in his last year of being alive, he wrote essays about the cruelty of slavery and lead the local society supporting its abolition.

This is a trait he shares with many historic figures we call genius today. Einstein scribbled equations on his deathbed, Schubert completed 50 works in his last year, and Dante barely finished the Divine Comedy before he died.

Some might look at these people and see an addiction to work, delusional grandeur, and exaggerated feelings of self-importance. I see quite the opposite, actually. A laissez-faire approach to life that surrenders to the fact that we’ll never feel like we’re finished. Because there’s always more to do.

At just 20 years old, Franklin wrote down 13 virtues he committed to keep practicing throughout his life. Again, what might seem like strict rules at first turn out to be rough guidelines. In his autobiography, Franklin noted that he focused on just one value each week, leaving the others up to chance, and admitted to failing many times.

But he wholeheartedly believed the mere attempt of following them made him a better, happier, more successful person. What a forgiving approach to self-improvement.

He also penned the following quote, recognizing what a tough job it was:

“There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.”


When a diamond emerges from the earth, it looks bland at best and is impossible to recognize at worst. Without the long refining process — the cutting, the shaping, the polishing — no one would want to buy one. It may have been created under pressure, but now it needs a softer treatment.

I think our lives are the same. We’re all just diamonds in the rough.

The hardest part of being human is to be born in the first place. That’s where we need the pressure. That’s where we defy the incomprehensible odds.

But now that we’re here, applying more of it won’t help. It’s time to stop beating ourselves up. No matter what we do, we’ll always remain a work in progress. We’ll always be ‘unfinished.’ But we’re still diamonds.

Once we let go of negative self-talk and accept this, we can focus on what we really need: Refinement. Incremental progress. Polish.

Polish is sticking to your values in the chaos of everyday life. It’s letting go of the big picture to take the next stroke of the brush. Polish is rolling up your sleeves and saying: “What good can I do today?” It always feels small in the moment, but in hindsight, you’ll see it’s what makes your life shine.

Most of all, when we accept our roughness, we’ll learn to enjoy life regardless. Because if you never arrive, celebrating the journey is the only way.

I wish we could visit the houses of history’s greatest artists. The Da Vincis and Dantes and Franklins. If we rummaged around in their attics, I bet we’d find tons of partial works. What’s true for all of them is that, somewhere along the line, they figured out how to live with that burden. How to go on despite never being finished. At least some of them enjoyed what they did anyway.

I also wish we could ask them to show their drafts in an exhibition. Because knowing all of this, first they would laugh, and then they would agree.

Happiness Is Loving the Boring Days Cover

Happiness Is Loving the Boring Days

Out of all the great TED talks that exist, Barry Schwartz’s is easily the best. He talks about what he calls The Paradox of Choice. I’ve gone back to it countless times for countless reasons, but my favorite part is when he shows this comic:

Ask anyone how they feel about their life from ten years ago, and they’ll likely tell you that “those were simpler times.” Less to worry about, more to enjoy. Somehow, everything was easier. Today, it’s all complicated. Always.

“Everything was better back when everything was worse.”

It’s more than a good chuckle. So simple, yet so instinctively true. But why does our gut want to agree so badly when we hear this? Barry explains:

“The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that when everything was worse, it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise.

Nowadays, the world we live in — we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation — the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be.

You will never be pleasantly surprised, because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof.

The secret to happiness — this is what you all came for — the secret to happiness is:

Low expectations.


I turned 28 a few days ago. I thought about what lessons I’ve learned so far in life. Barry’s is one that’s stuck with me throughout the years. What’s changed since I first heard it, however, is how I’m trying to live it. There’s a twist to it.

“Low expectations” sounds daunting. Shouldn’t we hope for good things? Optimism being a self-fulfilling prophecy and all.

Sure, it helps to dampen your excitement before any event whose outcome you don’t control, like a presentation, job interview, or publishing an article, but if you demand so little of life that you don’t even attempt any of these, you’ll soon walk around with a perma-long face. Most of us aren’t saints, so wanting literally nothing isn’t a practical everyday solution.

Avoiding misery, however, is. That’s what I’ve made my happiness about.

Long-term, everyday happiness lies in not being miserable.

Each day when I’m not sick, not stressed, there’s no drama, and I don’t have to do a lot of things I don’t like, is a good day. We think we need to accomplish our biggest goals to find happiness, but the truth is having a life with enough room to obsess about and chase them is more than enough. And yet, when we use this freedom to obsess, we often forget taking care of the basics.

Am I healthy? Is something psychological causing problems with the physical? Do I have a fit mind and a fit body? Or is one breaking the other?

Am I living below my means? Or slowly veering off track? Is paying the bills becoming a hassle? Or does it work out okay if I don’t splurge too much?

Do I enjoy my work? Am I spending my workday with good people? Or do I dread getting out of the house? Am I commuting 2 hours into a toxic place?

As long as you’re healthy, like your work, have a few friends, and money kind of works out, there’s quite little you really should be worried about. If one of these implodes, however, you should raise all hell to get back to your baseline.

It’s the same idea, just flipped on its head. Sure, low expectations are great when you’re buying a pair of jeans but, when it comes to the big stuff in life, you’re better off cultivating a high aversion to misery.

Once you’ve achieved your own little standard, you can settle into your base camp of being healthy, calm, and not having to do stuff you don’t like. From there, you can explore, try, learn, fail — all in hopes of higher things.

I think that’s how you really win. By remembering you’re a finalist long before the end game has begun. Wanting to do more, better, greater is honorable, and achieving big goals always gets you a burst of endorphins. But they’re not everyday occurrences. And so they can’t serve your day-to-day happiness.

If you live to 82, that’s 30,000 days. 27,000 will be boring. Life is about learning to love those days. Happiness is enjoying the little things.

Finding Yourself Won't Make You Happy Cover

Finding Yourself Won’t Make You Happy

I have spent the last seven years finding myself.

It all started with my semester abroad, which created two breaks. One voluntary, from my emotional connections, the other necessary, from my material possessions. My usual environment of friends, school, and family turned into a small room, space to think, and a blank social canvas.

Thus began my journey of self-discovery. First I weeded out some bad behaviors, then I explored new ideas. I dove headfirst into blogs, books, travel, and events. I learned random skills like Persian, SQL, and the Gangnam Style dance. Like on a scatter plot, each dot shaped the line.

The line was my life, and the more I tried, the clearer its trajectory became.

At a fairly young age of 21, this turned out to be one of the most productive things I’ve ever done. Having a purpose is important, and finding it is one of the biggest challenges most of us face in life. But I also became obsessed with it. I used to think the line was all that mattered. That, as long as I knew who I was, I could care less about the rest of the world. Now, I’m not so sure.

Finding myself has helped me in countless ways and I wish I could’ve embarked on this adventure even sooner. But, ultimately, it’s not what contributes most to my happiness.

That requires something else.

An Intuitive Promise

Years ago, Kamal Ravikant was down in the dumps. He’d built a track record as a successful entrepreneur, but then his last company failed. Too depressed to leave the house, he spent weeks in the dark, bed-ridden and barely moving.

Eventually, however, he got sick of himself. His chosen helplessness and resignation. He decided he’d get out of the hole or die climbing. On the day he did, he wrote down a vow: the promise to love himself. Without an idea of what it meant or how it felt, he built a practice around this vow.

Kamal’s life improved. First slowly, then surely, but at an ever-accelerating pace. His mind cleared. He took care of his body. He engaged with the world again. Over time, Kamal’s good thoughts, decisions, and habits compounded.

Good things started happening, some of which he couldn’t possibly have controlled or anticipated. I can only judge from afar, but today, he seems calm and happy. A thriving author and investor, but one with few wants and needs.

When now asked why he thinks his simple idea worked so well, he says he intuitively built it around the best piece of advice he ever received:

“Life is from the inside out.”

Miraculously, both science and philosophy agree.

Unraveling the Existentialist Brain

One of my favorite German words is “Trampelpfad.” It describes a path in the woods that’s not quite a paved road, but well-trodden enough to make it the obvious choice. I like this word because it resembles neuroplasticity — your brain’s ability to physically change throughout your entire life. Donald Hebb summarized how you can use this to your advantage with a simple rhyme:

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

For every action you perform, your brain takes a picture with vast amounts of information. Which neurons fired, what was the context, how did you think of yourself at the time? Keep choosing the same actions in similar situations and your brain will start remembering it took a similar picture before — and make another one just like it. Actions become reactions, efforts become habits.

Neuroplasticity — the trampelpfads in your brain turning into highways — is what makes habits hard to get rid of. But it’s also what allows us to change them in the first place. All you need is to create new snapshots. You might not believe the line “I’m not a smoker” the first 100 times you use it to decline a cigarette but, over time, your mind will make it so. Until your brain is rewired.

That’s exactly what Kamal did. By insisting on loving himself long enough, he literally altered his mind, updating it with a new belief. Life is from the inside out. Beyond making biological sense, this idea is right up an existentialist philosopher’s alley.

For over 5,000 years, going all the way back to Plato, essentialism dominated our view of philosophy. It suggests we’re born with an inherent purpose, an ‘essence’ we must align with. But in the 20th century, a few bold individuals, like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and others, challenged this notion, asserting that:

“Existence precedes essence.”

Existentialism rejects the inherence of meaning. It says that first and foremost, you are. You exist. Discovering your essence, figuring out a purpose, all that comes second. In fact, doing so is not just your job, it’s the whole point of life.

So while both philosophies agree that “life is from the inside out,” only one leaves you with a say as to what that inside is. One is bent on finding yourself, the other allows you to invent yourself.

An essentialist Kamal would likely have concluded that, after a big failure, being an entrepreneur wasn’t who he was. And only an existentialist Kamal could have chosen to love himself in spite of not believing it at the time.

In a way, existentialism, like neuroplasticity, is the ultimate move towards gaining agency. If you believe you can create meaning from nothing, meaning is always just one thought away. That’s all fine and wonderful, but how does it contribute to your happiness? You’re right. It won’t. At least not on its own.

Life may be from the inside out. But happiness is from the outside in.

The Final, But Never-Ending Destination

Today, most people know Kamal as a founder and venture capitalist, but his first self-paced endeavor was to publish a book. A memoir of what he learned traveling the world after laying his father’s ashes to rest. Of course, no one wanted to read an unknown, unpublished author, so he kept rewriting it ten times over the course of a decade, collecting rejection letters along the way.

After his last, colossal failure as an entrepreneur, however, a friend urged him to self-publish a short account of how he’d recollected himself. Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It became an instant bestseller. Funny enough, he now had the credibility to tell his other story. Rebirth was published in 2017.

Kamal has a third book, published in between the other two. It’s called Live Your Truth. The title perfectly encapsulates not just the story of his life, but also its biggest lesson: Finding yourself is the starting point, but continuing to share your discoveries is the final if never-ending destination of a happy life.

Life is from the inside out. Before he could enjoy the externals, the accolades, relationships, financial freedom, Kamal had to rework his inner wirings. But only when he shared his self-created essence did his bet on neuroplasticity really pay off. There’s finding your truth and there’s living it. Two sides of the one coin that is your life. “Live Your Truth” is pulling from both directions.

Managing your mind, loving yourself, confidence, keeping your promises to yourself, minimizing regrets, all of these are important. But once we have them, once we find self-love, self-belief, self-compassion, we must share them with others. Turn back outside. Return to the world. Live your truth.

And you can’t do that in a vacuum.

Don’t Forget the Second Half

At some point in our lives, self-improvement catches most of us. I get it now. It’s attractive. Immediate. Change one thing, one habit, one pattern, and you might change your whole life.

But learning to live from the inside, to reassemble the infrastructure in our mind, is just the first step. Rewiring our brain is a waypoint on our larger path.

As the existentialist worldview takes over, we slowly learn to deal with the vastness of freedom we’ve been afforded. To be less trapped by religious dogma or political doctrines. But as empowering as it is to infuse your life with self-created meaning, it’s still one step shy of happiness.

Because unlike life, happiness is from the outside in.

Whatever we find inside ourselves that brings us joy, only sharing it can get that joy to multiply. Seeing our truth is not enough. We must live it. That’s a job that lasts a lifetime, but one with infinite space for new discoveries.

Change your habits, but let them serve something larger. Find a purpose, but fit it to something larger. Live your truth, but live as part of something larger.

Dive into yourself. May life flow from the inside. But do it with an open heart. Allow happiness to visit. Don’t forget the second half. Don’t forget…

…to engage with all of us.