Choose Hard Problems Cover

Choose Hard Problems

The restroom has been closed for months. There are others, of course. One downstairs. One upstairs. Which one do you go to?

Upstairs is nicer. Downstairs is closer. And, well, you walk down, not up. At least initially.

Most people go down, and it shows. The towels are empty. The room smells. In times of global sanitary crisis, it’s not where you want to be.

You decide to go up. Just once. Just to try it. You’re surprised. No one’s here. The sink is clean. There’s a window. It’s open. What a breath of fresh air.

If that’s the prize for going up instead of down, what else might be out there? You wonder — and then you venture. Endless hallways stretch in front of you. Here’s another nice restroom. And another. And another.

One day, you turn a corner and find a completely renovated part of the building. Whoa! Shiny white tiles, 15-foot-ceilings, fragrance sticks, what lavatory luxury is this? And all it took was another five minutes of walking.

“The long way is the shortcut,” Seth Godin says. We shy away from the extra mile because we think it’s long — but it’s just another mile. Plus, there are no traffic jams on it, according to hall of fame quarterback Roger Staubach.

Four years ago, I went to a library every day. The lockers were public, you chose at random, but I could always rely on mine being empty — it was at the bottom. The rewards for solving harder-than-average problems are often extraordinary, making them well worth the additional effort.

Another reason to go a little further, work a little harder, stay a little longer, is that it brings its own form of motivation.

The more time you spend on your application after everyone has sent theirs, the more used you’ll get to having — and satisfying — higher expectations — both your own and those of others. It’s a positive, self-reinforcing loop. Shoot higher, do more, want to shoot higher, want to do more. Meanwhile, the exponential rewards keep accumulating.

In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss said: “99% of the world is convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for the mediocre middle-ground. The level of competition is thus fiercest for “realistic” goals, paradoxically making them the most time- and energy-consuming.”

There’s a third reason to tackle hard problems, and it might be the most compelling: The easy ones are already solved.

We have AirBnB. And Uber. And Netflix. There are enough electric scooter startups. We don’t need another one. We don’t need another bubble tea store, another listicle, another dieting hack. We need someone committed to doing the work. We need you to show up — and not just when it suits you.

Once your ass starts to hurt, how long can you stay in the chair? How crazy are you willing to look before we realize you’re right? “Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life,” Jerzy Gregorek says.

The hardest part of solving a hard problem is rarely the problem itself. It’s deciding to go where no one else will. Because how’s that gonna look? How’s that gonna feel?

You might be lonely. You might be ridiculed. But you might also find the comfiest restroom in the building. You might feel more empowered than ever. And you might change the world for all of us.

Choose hard problems. Venture off the beaten path. You never know what you’ll find, but it’s the only way that can lead to true growth.

Why We'll Never Know the Origins of Success Cover

Why We’ll Never Know the Origins of Success

You can do anything. I know because I have no idea what you can’t do. You might, but in my book, anything is possible for you.

The funny thing is most people think that way about other people — it’s just us who do the self-limiting. We choose to focus on our shortcomings. But the truth is, as long as you keep doing things, anything could happen.

Take Andreas Illiger, for example. In 2011, he released a game on the iTunes App Store. It was called Tiny Wings. Helping a chirpy bird fly through an endless landscape with upbeat music was fun — so much fun that it generated millions of downloads and dominated the charts for weeks. At 28, Illiger became an overnight millionaire.

You can do anything.

Mark Cuban shared a 3-bedroom apartment with five friends when he was 25. All of his clothes were in one big pile on the floor. He was working as a bartender and living off beer and happy hour food. Then, he started selling software for PCs. He was fired after less than a year. But he stuck with selling software. He started his own company. He sold it a few years later for $6 million. He used the money to fund a company that broadcasted college basketball, which he loved. That company grew. He stuck with it. Eventually, that company sold to Yahoo! for $5.7 billion right before the dot-com crash.

You can do anything.

In 2016, I started a website called Four Minute Books. I further condensed 365 existing book summaries in a year. It was a stupid, harebrained idea. I made about $5/hr doing it. After that first year, I spent less time on it, but it kept growing. Now, I have someone helping me, and it makes a full-time income with about one hour of my work each week.

Do you see a pattern emerge here? No? Well, neither do I. And that’s why you can do anything. Life is random. All you can do is to keep trying your best. Some things will work out. Others won’t. It is only in hindsight that you’ll get to attach the label “success.”

We define success by outcomes. We see those outcomes — a fancy house, a cool car, a big company — and they feel like a specific result, created with fixed inputs over a fixed period of time. But they’re not. They’re the result of an entire person’s life, meshed with luck, timing, and other people’s lives.

Outcomes may happen suddenly, like for Andreas, or gradually, like for me, or first one and then the other, like for Mark Cuban. But there’s no such thing as fixed inputs or fixed periods of time.

All there is is your life and everything that’s in it.

Everything matters. And because it does, you can do anything.

Andreas made everything in his game himself. The graphics. The music. The mechanisms. The code. He’d been a developer and designer for ten years, dabbling in all these different fields beyond app development. It just so happened that, in this one game, at a time when everyone was looking for fun little distractions, it all came together.

Mark took a series of steps, constantly choosing to follow one path and abandon another. Was it his knack for trends? His gut? Coincidence? Whatever it was, he stuck with the right path at the right time several times and, in a historic moment of technology breakthrough, ended up winning big. He rode a huge wave all the way to the top, and then he picked up his board and went home right before it crashed. What all went into it? Who knows. Mark just kept doing things.

So did Harrison Ford, by the way. You know, the carpenter we all know as Han Solo. And Elton John. Henry Ford. Rihanna. Jackie Chan. J. K. Rowling. There is no straight line to success.

You can do anything.

Tolkien published Lord of the Rings at age 63. Ray Kroc franchised McDonald’s in his 50s. Judi Dench first showed up in a Bond movie in her 60s.

Success can only be measured and felt after it’s done, but it can never be judged in its entirety, because we never have a complete picture of any single human’s life.

Whether it happens suddenly or gradually, one day, someone will say something, and you’ll realize: “Oh. Yeah, I guess that did work out for me.”

You won’t know how you got there or why you got there or why you hadn’t seen it before. All you’ll know is that you kept doing things and that, yes, this is success.

You had never imagined it, but now you know it’s true:

You can do anything.

Anchoring Bias & Subconscious Mind Explained Cover

Anchoring Bias Explained: How Powerful Is Your Subconscious Mind?

At a football game celebrating their latest pickpocket haul, con man Nicky and his apprentice Jess get into a series of escalating bets with a Chinese businessman.

$1,000, $5,000, $10,000 — $100,000 — they keep increasing the stakes — and Nicky keeps losing. Finally, Nicky can’t take it anymore and goes into overdrive. He bets 1.1 million dollars.

“Double or nothin’, high card takes it all.”

Nicky has now bet not just all of his, but his entire gang’s money — on a single card draw. When he turns over the deck, he almost faints. Three of hearts. His opponent drew the five of spades. Nicky lost. Again.

Suddenly, his throat feels dry. He’s shaking. Nicky can barely see straight. Having watched the disaster from two feet away, Jess is furious. She yells at him. Pounds on his chest.

“Let’s go!”

But then, just as they’re about walk out, Nicky stops. He can’t quit now. Not like this. He needs one more. One final play. He turns around.

“Double it. I’m good for it.”

The Chinese businessman can barely believe it.

“Dude, what are you doing? You’re crazy.”

At this point, that sure seems like a fair assessment. Especially considering the bet Nicky offers next:

“Pick any player on or off the field. And I will guess the number.”

When you include backups and swap-ins waiting on the sidelines, a football team easily racks up 50 players. That’s about 100–1 odds. In other words:

“That’s f*cking crazy.”

And, as if that wasn’t enough, Nicky then says he’ll let Jess guess the number. Not one to pass on free money, the businessman agrees. Jess keeps begging Nicky to call it off as they watch him survey the field, but Nicky won’t budge.

Once he has made his choice, the businessman hands Jess the binoculars. She’s terrified. Obviously. There are over $2 million at stake — and she’s pretty sure Nicky doesn’t have the money.

“I don’t…I don’t know.”

At the last second, their opponent offers to let them off the hook. But Nicky is beyond hope.

“Just. Pick. A number.”

Desperately, Jess scans the field, looking for any sign of indication, of what player, what number to pick. And then, right before she’s about to give up and just guess, she spots…Farhad.

Farhad is a fellow gang member and Nicky’s best friend. He’s overweight, obnoxious, and his head is full of some curly mess you can barely call hair. But he’s also standing there, right in the middle of the field, casually sporting the number 55.

“Oh my god,” Jess thinks. As it dawns on her that the whole thing may have been a setup from the beginning, Jess says the number. Slowly.

“Fifty…five. Number fifty-five.”

The Chinese gambler shakes his head. Not in smug victory, but in loser’s disbelief.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no!”

Then, it’s his turn to lose his mind. But this time, in a good way.

“Holy sh*t! How did you do that? That’s right!”

He still can’t believe it. But he’s so in awe that he’s not even mad. He’s excited. He jumps up and down. He hands Nicky the money. Gladly. He even asks them to go to Vegas together. But, finally, Nicky declines.

When he and Jess leave the stadium, Nicky has turned 1.1 million dollars into more than four. And he did it thanks to the power of the subconscious mind.


In the back of the getaway car, Jess still can’t believe what just happened.

“How did you know who he was gonna pick?”

Nicky is pleased with himself.

“We told him. We’ve been telling him all day. From the moment he left his hotel room, we’ve been priming him. Programming his subconscious.”

And then, Nicky goes on to explain what scientists call anchoring.

“He’s been seeing the number 55 all day long. On the elevator. In the lobby. Even the stick pin on the doorman. Not only that, we loaded his route from the hotel to the stadium. He looks out the window, primers are everywhere.”

The road signs, billboards, a mob demonstrating for a group called “Local 55,” people wearing jerseys with the number — the Chinese businessman’s path is littered with the number 55.

“Now, he doesn’t see it, but he does. There’s no getting around it. He even sees Farhad. Suggestions are everywhere.”

What’s more, Nicky arranged for the song “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones to play in the victim’s hotel room all night. Why? The Mandarin word for ‘five’ is ‘woo.’ Therefore, “woo-woo” adds up to 55 — and there are 124 “woo-woos” in that song.

It sounds simple, primal, even stupid, but that’s how it works. Thousands of micro-suggestions that affect the human mind. And the result?

“Now, he’s not registering it, but it’s all there. So when he picks up those binoculars, looks out on the field, sees a familiar face with the number 55 on his jersey, some little voice in the back of his mind says: “That’s it.” And he thinks it’s intuition. And he picks.”


This scene from the movie Focus might sound like an exaggerated example, but if you watch shows running similar, real-world experiments, like Brain Games or Deception with Keith Barry, you’ll see: That’s the power of anchoring — and it happens to you and me every day, whether we like it or not.

Anchoring is when we rely too much on an initial piece of information to make further judgments and decisions.

Some of the first scientists to investigate this cognitive bias were Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, and it’s particularly evident with numbers.

In their initial study, they asked people to calculate a complex multiplication within five seconds and found that people’s estimates varied a lot depending on which numbers they first saw in the sequence.

If I show you 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8, you’ll start multiplying those first numbers, and when time runs out, you’ll probably guess that the end result is somewhere around 500. But if I show you 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 and you take the exact same approach, you’ll land at a much higher final estimate — likely around 2,000 — just because the first numbers were the larger ones.

The correct answer is 40,320, by the way. I know, crazy high, right? But it gets crazier: The anchor can be completely random, but will still work.

In that same study, Kahneman and Tversky showed participants a wheel of fortune that was set to always land on either 10 or 65. Afterwards, they asked them: “What is the percentage of African countries in the United Nations?” If people had seen the wheel stop on 10, they guessed 25% on average. If they had seen the number 65, their average guess was 45%. People knew the game they saw was based on chance. Yet, the result still biased their judgment. The correct answer is 28%.

But the anchoring bias goes further. As in the Chinese gambler’s case, it can literally make us choose differently.

Another researcher, Dan Ariely, asked students in his MBA class to write down the last two digits of their social security number (SSN). Then, he showed them some items, like wine or chocolate, and asked if they’d pay that amount for them. That was an easy yes-or-no question, but when he later asked them to bid on these goods, the initial number had become an anchor. Those with higher ending digits were willing to pay 60% to 120% more — for the same items! Just because their SSN had dictated a higher baseline.

But wait, there still is more. Beyond being random, powerful, and affecting both our judgment and our decisions, anchoring is also nearly impossible to avoid. For example, even if you know an anchor can’t possibly be on the spectrum of correct answers, it’ll still influence you.

One study asked students whether Mahatma Gandhi died “before or after age 9” or “before or after age 140.” Everyone knew both anchors were nonsense, but they still adjusted their guesses somewhat in that direction. The first group estimated he died at age 50, the second at age 67, on average. Gandhi lived to 78, by the way.

Other studies tried telling people about the anchoring bias before asking them to make guesses and paying them money to avoid anchoring — all to no avail.

There are several theories why anchoring happens, a favored one being selective accessibility. It suggests that, in an effort to make our lives easier, our brain wants an anchor to be the right answer, and starts testing for that assumption. But in trying to validate this hypothesis, it looks for ways in which new guesses are similar to the anchor — and thus sticks closely to it regardless.

There are also multiple factors that affect how prone we are to the anchoring bias, many of which are contextual, like our mood, personality, experience, and cognitive ability. The studies show conflicting evidence but, supposedly, being sad as opposed to happy or in a neutral mood makes you more susceptible. So does being agreeable, conscientious, and open to new experiences. Having knowledge and experience in the field related to the anchor helps combat the effect, while general intelligence may or may not do anything.

Like most cognitive biases, anchoring isn’t something we can ever completely get rid of, but we also don’t need to. As long as we fight it when its consequences are most damaging, we can live our lives just fine. That’s not a skill you pick up in a day, but one that requires repeated practice and, above all, awareness.

Having the information is important, but having a story to tie it to will help you remember. Maybe, it’ll be the story of how Nicky hustled a guy out of two million dollars. Maybe, that’ll be your anchor.

But, regardless of which story you choose, one thing’s for sure about this one: it’s a great example of the power of your subconscious mind.

You Don't Need Authority Cover

You Don’t Need Authority – You Just Have to Care

Remember when you first learned how to draw? Oh, the artworks that you made! You didn’t even need a model or a scene — you made it all up from scratch, using nothing but your imagination.

A dragon looked how you thought a dragon should look. A house was a house in your image. What’s more, nothing had to be perfect, because you could always explain your picture to the audience.

“That’s you, mom!”

“Ah, of course, I see it now!”

The best thing about the pictures we paint as children, however, is that because they’re so self-evidently not about us, we’re happy to give them away. Every one is about something, but also for someone.

As a result, and I’m sure you remember this as well, we would regularly toddle over to our parents and say, “Look! I made this for you.”

“Aww, that’s so cute honey, this’ll go right on the fridge!”

The fridge?! Are you serious?! Ohmygodthankyousomuch!

We may not have shown it, but seeing our work “up there” felt special, didn’t it? Yeah, I definitely remember now. Good times.

What happened to this feeling? Actually, what happened to us?


Last week, I spoke to my friend Luke. When I told him about my daily mini-newsletter, he said he wanted to make one too. We even brainstormed a name: Better Parent. Sounds cool, right?

But then, somewhere between the excitement of starting something new and the joy of a self-paced, autotelic endeavor, Luke said something like this:

“Who am I to talk about parenting?”

I don’t know if my answer was any good, but it was meant to sound like this:

“Well, you’re a parent and you care. So why wouldn’t you?”

At some point between age 4 and 40, we get lost. We forget what our inner artist knew the day we were born — that creativity is an end in itself. There is no prerequisite for it, no list of required credentials, no “ you must be this tall to ride.”

All we have to do is care enough to make. Make something. Anything, really. A fortress out of mud, a picture done in chalk, a statue formed with clay. But instead, we turn to authority.

We ask, “Who will give me permission to make? Who do I have to please? What credentials can I go and collect? Please, tell me! I’m willing to go!”

That’s not how it works. That’s not how it ever worked.

Life will always be about the pictures on the fridge.


My friends don’t read my articles. At least most of them, most of the time. But every once in a while, someone will confide in me, usually after a few drinks, that they really connected with one of them.

One person phrased it in a way that struck me: “It feels nice to be seen.”

Ultimately, that’s what your most important work will always be about — and it’s the exact same message we send when we present some of our early scribblings to our parents.

“I see you. So I made this. Hope you like it.”

Your work is never just work, of course. Seeing isn’t a skill. It’s a decision. An attitude. A way of life. If you carry it, no matter where you go, you’ll show up with a picture — and hope it goes on the fridge.

When you talk to a stranger at the bar, if they feel seen, they’ll connect with you. When you send an email to a parent, if they feel seen, they’ll open the next one. When you explain the code to a colleague, if they feel seen, they’ll remember your name.

Waiting for authority is tempting. But it’s a cop-out. An excuse we like to hide behind. Because in our capacity as humans — not managers, painters, singles — humans, we waste little thought on demanding credentials. We’re not looking for authority. We don’t care where the pictures come from.

We want to feel seen. You made this for me? Wow! Let me put it on the fridge.

We want to feel humbled and cared for and trusted. We all need you to take the first step. Isn’t that our secret wish? That someone would reach out to us?

Now, you might ask, who really likes their children’s paintings? Weren’t they just doodles? Wasn’t the email kinda clumsy? Wasn’t the guy a nerd? Of course — but that’s not the part that matters.

The part that matters is that you cared. You cared enough to make, to show up, and to take responsibility without asking. You showed up and saw me and then you dared.

You dared to be vulnerable. To go out on a limb and make something for me. A joke, perhaps, or a painting, or even just a tiny moment of connection. But that was enough. And I can’t wait to put it on the fridge.

No, you don’t need authority. You need to keep drawing. And to do that, all you have to do is care.

Responsibility Is Freedom

Responsibility Is Freedom

Derek Sivers built a business empire by accident.

In 1997, he was looking for a place to sell his music album online. When he couldn’t find one, he set up his own little website with a buy button. Soon, friends wanted him to put up their CDs too.

Then, friends of friends came along, buyers started asking for new arrivals, and, ten years later, CD Baby had 85 employees, two million customers, and distributed 200,000 musicians’ work online.

Never having set out to be an entrepreneur, Derek felt done with it in 2008. He sold the company for $22 million in cash, most of which he gave to charity, and went back to his solo artist life.

Whether he was happy with this “little detour” or not, it worked out in the end. But that’s why, in a free class about the whole experience, Derek encourages us to start our own journey with a question:

Why are you doing what you’re doing?

And even though he outlines several options, it’s not an easy one to answer. Because the devil is — as always — in the details.

The Three Forces That Drive Us

In his book Running Down A Dream, another business owner turned independent artist, Tim Grahl, remembers the time he heard Sivers talk about our three strongest motivators: fortune, fame, and freedom.

None of them are right or wrong. You can get more than one. However, only one will drive you. I knew I wanted freedom. Not freedom to travel. I still don’t go many places. Not freedom to work whenever I wanted. I still work set hours [each] day. I simply wanted the freedom to make those decisions myself. I wanted to live a life where nobody could make a claim on my time without my approval.

That’s already a huge step up from how most people live their lives, which is by mere imitation. Who of us hasn’t seen someone doing things that impress them, and instantly started piecing together a poor copy of that person’s life? Often, the copy is not poor because our idol’s life isn’t worth living, it’s poor because we don’t question any of its parts. If we don’t at least adapt it to our own wants and needs, that’s an almost guaranteed descent into misery.

That makes freedom a viable alternative. It’s also the theme Derek chose when he sold his company:

“I really liked the idea of setting up my life in a way that, at any point, I could just disappear. Or I could just be antisocial and go read books for a month, or whatever it may be. So I had to set up my career in a certain way to delegate almost everything, make myself unnecessary to the day-to-day running of my company, so that I was free to go do other things.”

As he explains this, he shows a little slide that says:

Refuse responsibility. Delegate everything.

I think that’s where we should start splitting hairs. Because I don’t believe true freedom is the absence of responsibility. I think it’s something different.

And I’m not alone. Just ask my friend Shaunta.

Rejecting the Zero-Task Lifestyle

I first watched Derek’s class in 2015. Now, next to money, stardom, and independence, he also mentions prestige (try getting a table at Masa) and legacy (there are 2509 Carnegie libraries) as purposes we can choose.

Still, like Tim, I felt freedom spoke the most to me, and so I chose to adopt Derek’s definition of it wholesale. I spent all of 2016 building a passive income business and I’m glad that, today, I control my time, who I work with, and what projects I tackle. But I also have more responsibility than ever. Now, thousands of people expect me to deliver. Readers, partners, customers.

That very much contradicts “not having to do anything,” but I still feel free. Maybe, there’s more nuance to it than “delegate everything.” Reflecting on these same ideas, Shaunta Grimes can’t imagine the zero-task lifestyle either:

Sometimes I think about the possibility of a totally passive income and what it would be like to spend the day on the beach, doing whatever the hell I want to do. But the absolute truth is that I wouldn’t last very long. I’d attract responsibilities like a magnet. It’s just how I am. And, I also find myself rebelling against the idea that freedom only means fewer responsibilities. I guess I’d say I’m partially driven by freedom — but my own interpretation of it. But the truth is, I often willfully make decisions that restrict my freedom.

I think this is true for most, if not all of us. We get bored when we idle for too long. We need a purpose. We want to solve problems. And so, the further I go in my own journey as a solo creative, the more I realize:

Freedom is not about shedding your responsibilities, it’s about choosing them.

When I first struck out on my own, I wasn’t worried so much about the pressure to deliver, to get clients, to make money. I was running away from having a boss, being bored at work, and owing my time to one person, one place. Because those were responsibilities I couldn’t stand having.

I felt much more comfortable with setting my own deadlines, coming up with ideas, and asking people for work, despite having to first learn all of those things. This distinction of what you’ll feel comfortable shouldering might have external consequences, but it comes from an inner place.

Responsibility is freedom, as long as you choose a labor of love.

A Burden We Can’t Shed

Why do people become soldiers? Because they love serving their country. It’s a responsibility they don’t just feel comfortable with — they enjoy bearing it.

Now, passion is tricky because it’s part talent, part love, and part just sticking with it. But if your recurring duties at work constantly make you feel like you’re bouncing around in a pressure cooker, they’re the wrong kind of duties.

The obligations of being a mom are different from the accountability of a CEO and have little in common with the burdens of a remote freelancer. No, you won’t get insta-rich from nailing this choice, but making it will make your life easier. Because we’re all good at being responsible for different things.

We often underestimate the negative impact a responsibility mismatch can have. A lot of us are running around like chickens, work always feels like work, and oh the stress of it all. But if we don’t learn to love the boring days, the exciting ones can never fill this huge hole in our everyday happiness.

The question, “why are you doing what you’re doing?” has many complex answers. But even if we aggregate them into high-level themes like fame, fortune, and freedom, at the end of the day, they all come down to this: “Because my goal comes with responsibilities I feel good about carrying.”

Think about it. Everything is accountable. And — for better or for worse — you’re the one getting all the credit. At the end of your life, you’ll either regret many things or just a few, but it’s all a reflection of how much responsibility you took in deciding what you did with your time. That’s a burden we can never shed, no matter what goals we dedicate ourselves to.

And so it’s not the absence of responsibility that makes us happy, but choosing the right set at the right time — picking duties we love fulfilling and that we feel confident we can deliver on. Maybe, why we do things isn’t as important as those things feeling light enough for us to not crack under their pressure.

Maybe, the better question is:

What kind of responsibility feels the lightest in your mind?

If we answer it correctly, we’ll always feel free. Regardless of our obligations.

Freedom From Within

Socrates supposedly said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” If all we do is imitate those we admire, we might one day wake up and wonder what it’d feel like to truly be ourselves.

But nowadays, a lot of us pondering this idea associate it with complete and utter freedom — financial independence and a total lack of responsibilities. This isn’t just unrealistic, it’s delusional. Because the concept of responsibility itself will never vanish from our lives.

Only once we accept that we’ll always carry some degree of duty — that, as humans, we’re meant to — can we start choosing our obligations deliberately. These choices will dictate what we channel our energy into and how we design our lives, but they should ripple from the inside out.

Whatever we stand for should make us feel proud, and we should want to approach it with love and care, because when we do, we won’t mind the pressure our goals often put on us. We’ll enjoy our routines and our pace.

Most of all, we’ll learn to be happy and free, no matter how many hats we wear or whose expectations we need to fulfill.

And there’s nothing accidental about that.

How to Communicate Better Cover

How to Communicate Better: 7 Simple Lines to Express Your True Thoughts, Beliefs & Feelings

Good communication is always simple.

What’s hard is having the courage to let it be. To say “I don’t love you,” rather than concoct some elaborate web of intricate, lesser truths — or even outright lies — hoping the other will stumble into it, trip, and fall over all on their own.

In the movie Hitch, titular character and communication expert Alex says:

“60% of all human communication is nonverbal; body language. 30% is your tone. So that means 90% of what you’re saying ain’t coming out of your mouth.”

It sounds intriguing, but I think it grossly underestimates the importance of truth. Even our subjective one. If you’ve ever sheepishly confessed something, shaking like a wet poodle, you know what I mean: A powerful sentence uttered poorly may be weaker than it could be, but it doesn’t turn the truth into a lie. People can tell what we tell. And they’ll react accordingly.

When I fail to communicate clearly, to say what I want to say, it’s almost never because of some complex combination of circumstances. It’s that I’m too afraid to say what I really — like really — think and believe. I have wiggled my way around questions, nodded my head when I should have shaken it, said “yes” when I meant to say “no,” shied away from asking for help, neglected giving compliments, and hated saying “sorry.” All in hopes of the truth magically finding its way to the light, which, of course, it never does.

Because it’s my job to take it there. The job, really. A job for all of us. The only one that matters. I’m not sure how much of what we’re saying comes out of our mouths, but I know that 90% of what does is a weak version of the truth. We may soften it to be polite, censor ourselves to maintain our image, or ask for less than we want because it’s more than we think we deserve, but, at the root of it all, there’ll always be fear.

There’s no way for me to bestow the power to act in spite of this fear upon you or even myself. It’s a war fought in countless battles over one’s lifetime, and you’ll need to summon the courage to be honest time and again. But it helps to keep some truths at hand. A little vial filled with beacons, all but ready to release. You’ll still have to uncork it each time, but at least it’s close by.

I’m only 27, but I’ve had — or would’ve had — to use all of these hundreds of times already. Here’s hoping that, in the future, you and I both will.


1. When you don’t know something, say:

“I don’t know.”

People will respect you for it. It’s a chance for them to say “I don’t know” too. And then you can figure it out together. We think of this line as an admission of defeat, but it’s actually the beginning of taking your power back.

2. When you don’t understand something, say:

“I don’t understand.”

People will explain again. Actually, most of the time, they’ll be happy to. It means they can double-check that they understood what they told you themselves. If you think about how comfortable you are with explaining things multiple times yourself, you’ll see why others will likely be too.

3. When you don’t agree with something, say:

“I don’t agree.”

People will respect your opinion. At least tolerate it. At least most of the time. Don’t launch into an immediate defense. Just plant your flag. Stand your ground. Stay still and watch what happens. Will they stand theirs? Start an attack? Or even join your side? Very few things in life can neatly be separated into right and wrong, which means very few ideas really need justification.

4. When you don’t want to do something, say:

“No, thank you, I don’t want to do this.”

People will find a way without you. They always have in the past and they always will in the future. No one is indispensable forever. Just like time heals all wounds, it makes everyone replaceable eventually. Spouses. Neighbors. Parents. Bosses. Leaders. Friends. You’re never too important to say no.

5. When you have a hard time going it alone, say:

“Excuse me, can you help me with this?”

People will be happy to give you a hand. Like “I don’t know,” asking for help makes people more likely to trust you, not less. After Benjamin Franklin borrowed a book from a rival legislator, they became lifelong friends. In fact, showing vulnerability is probably the only way to truly overthrow animosity.

6. When you like someone, say:

“I like you.”

People will like you back. Maybe not as much. Maybe more. But, when in doubt, most people opt to be friendly. They might not like you enough to kiss you, or to give you a job, or to go on holiday together, but they won’t stand in your way. And even if they thought about it before, now, they won’t cross you.

7. When you know you made a mistake, say:

“I’m sorry. That was my fault.”

People will forgive you. The word ‘default’ is made from ‘de,’ which means ‘out of,’ and ‘fault,’ which means ‘guilt.’ When we ‘default’ to doing something, that’s a safety mechanism meant to cover us in advance. We hate admitting mistakes more than making them and so our default reaction is to shamefully sweep them under the rug. True guilt, however, is too painful to just shake off. So we fess up and fix our mistakes. Therefore, it’s a feeling worth embracing.


In a world full of information, sending signals through the noise is more important than ever. In a world full of devices, it’s enough that the medium twists the message. And in a world where technology dominates everything, communication is a uniquely human differentiator. But only if we keep it real.

May the above sentences help you do just that. Oh, and whenever you find the courage to speak them, leave some room for one more thing: listening.

I don’t think the following communication expert had as much research as Hitch to back up his statistics, but then again, the numbers of nature never lie:

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” 

— Epictetus

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How to *Really* Develop Self-Awareness

Born 5,000 years ago, Warren Buffett would’ve been some animal’s lunch.

“I can’t run very fast, can’t climb trees. I mean I could tell that animal that is chasing me: ‘Wait till you see how I can allocate assets!’ [But] it wouldn’t have made any difference. So here I am. I’m born now. Just very, very lucky.”

When Buffett says ‘lucky,’ he means having a mother who was great with numbers and very ambitious; a father who was a stockbroker, loved people, and valued integrity. Most of all, he means being a natural reader with an interest in money, born into the world’s largest capitalist society right after a major crisis. Born to think. Born…to become the richest man on earth.

Buffett’s scenario played out as an extreme but, one way or another, all successful people get paid to think. They amplify their decisions with leverage, such as labor, capital, and technology. And the more society values the outcomes of these decisions, the more leverage accumulates around these thinkers. In Buffett’s case, people are dying to give him more money to invest.

That must be fun because at 88 years old, he’s still working. Still thinking. 80% of his workday, five or six hours, is spent reading newspapers, financial reports, and then pondering the business world and the opportunities in it.

But it’s not this kind of thinking that set him on his path.


One of Buffett’s most popular ideas is the circle of competence:

“I stay within that circle and I don’t worry about things that are outside that circle. Defining what your game is, where you’re going to have an edge, is enormously important.”

When it comes to stocks, this translates to only investing in industries he understands, businesses he can evaluate, and people he can judge accurately. Looking back on his stellar track record, it’s clear Buffett nailed this process of defining his circle of competence. How did he do it? Why was he able to?

Well, for one thing, he’s been working on it for as long as he’s alive.

The Math of Knowing Who You Are

Warren started studying math when he was less than seven years old.

“I like numbers. It started before I could remember. It just felt good, working with numbers. I was always playing around with numbers in one way or another. And it was fun to have a bunch of guys over and have them betting on which marble would reach the drain first.”

Math is a thankful subject to start getting to know yourself around because it neatly separates your hypotheses into right and wrong. With the right inputs, you can come up with reasonable guesses for who will win the marble race. Just like you can double-check your compound interest calculations.

Outside feedback on your decisions and behaviors is the first level on which you can develop self-awareness. That’s all your circle of competence is — an understanding of the larger context you live, move, and act in; where your limits are and what reactions certain choices will cause.

The good thing about developing it through trial and error is that the lessons are immediate and the data is guaranteed. Your environment and those around you will inevitably provide you with feedback. Sadly, this also means the “error” part isn’t avoidable. When failure is necessary, learning hurts. It also requires keeping an open mind and that’s something we’re really bad at.

If you make a habit of this state, however, it comes with great upside. Suddenly, each setback becomes an invaluable point of data. A brick in the wall that is the border of your circle.

For Warren, a profitable business could still be a lousy one, a young manager still one with experience, his strange breakfast still one that makes him happy.

And while he struck out with few investments, he learned from those too.

The Value of Character Snapshots

Today, Warren Buffett is known for investing in high-integrity teams and companies. But that’s not what he learned from his professor and mentor:

“I’ve been taught by Ben Graham to buy things on a quantitative basis. So I went around looking for what I call ‘cigar butts’ of stocks. The cigar-butt approach to buying stocks is that you walk down the street and you’re looking around for cigar butts. And you find this terrible-looking, soggy, ugly-looking cigar. One puff left in it. But you pick it up and you get your one puff. Disgusting. You throw it away. But it’s free. And then you look around for another soggy, one-puff cigarette. Well, that’s what I did for years. It’s a mistake.”

The pinnacle of this approach was buying Berkshire Hathaway in 1965, the company Buffett still runs today. He bought the stock hoping for a tender offer, but when that came in $0.125 short, he angrily grabbed a majority share and kicked out the management team. He later flipped his approach:

“Now, I would rather buy a wonderful business at a fair price, than a fair business at a wonderful price.”

Such change happens at the second level of self-awareness: your beliefs and attitudes. It’s about knowing which traits and patterns define your character and how you can map your behavior and decisions accordingly. Outside feedback might support these transitions but won’t originate them.

The best way to enable them, I believe, is to track your character over time. Whether you take these snapshots daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually, only you can decide. But a journaling practice helps. Reflected writing based on prompts makes your inner workings explicit.

Buffett does this with his annual shareholder letters. Each year, he must justify his decisions. He has to keep track of his reasoning, the thinking that came up with it, and make sure that thinking rests on values he feels comfortable living each day. If the values change, so will everything else.

Turning an Inch Into a Mile

When he was a teenager, Buffett ran away from home. After just a few miles, the police returned him and his two friends to their respective families.

“My dad never really gave me hell about doing this, but he finally said, ‘You know,’ he said, ‘you can do better than this.’ And, just saying that, I mean, I…I felt like I was letting him down, basically.”

Sometimes, a single incident shapes us forever. His father being his biggest hero, hearing the disappointment in his voice must’ve felt awful for young Warren. But instead of pushing those feelings aside, he tuned into them. The shift he initiated back then would go on to affect how he built his firm:

“We look for three things when we hire people. We look for intelligence, we look for initiative, and we look for integrity. And if they don’t have the latter, the first two will kill you. So it’s that third quality, but everything about that quality is your choice.”

Choices like that take place on the innermost level of self-awareness: observing your thoughts and feelings in real-time. It’s the most powerful because it’s the earliest in the chain of elements that determine how your life unfolds. Adjusting here will ripple indefinitely into the future; the values and beliefs you form over time and the actions you choose as a result of those.

It’s also the most taxing, the hardest to cultivate. But if you learn to seamlessly tap in and out of your endless stream of thoughts and feelings, you can pull out any one of them, hold on to it, face it, and cause massive, long-term change. Not because you’ll act big, but because you’ll act immediately.

There is no one way to achieve this mental presence, but the underlying habit is making time to observe. Hence, many approaches rest on paying attention to physical sensations for minutes at a time. You can start with your breath, skin, posture, or body language, then expand this to other activities, like walking, reading, or sports. Eventually, you’ll layer emotional perception on top of everything you do, making it your default mode of consciousness.

Buffett discovered all this early, but, just like his financial decisions, it needed time. That’s his big secret. Not compound interest. Compound self-awareness.

A Single-Thread Revolution

When we ask how to live a good, happy life, economic success is only one part of a much larger answer. It always requires luck and timing, but our modern society of networks disproportionately rewards thinkers armed with leverage.

To get there, we first have to figure out how, when, and where we think best. Why we think. And what shapes that why. That’s a job for self-awareness.

We’re all given lots of chances to develop this capacity in the form of real-world feedback. When reality and our expectations clash, we find out if we’re right or wrong, but learning requires lots of wrongs — and being willing to.

Deeper change happens when we monitor the fundamental aspects of our character over time. Regularly assessing our beliefs and attitudes reveals which ones we’ve merely adopted as opposed to those which serve us best.

Our strongest reinventions, however, begin at the primal level of thoughts and feelings. Those who learn to dive into their own psyche during transformative experiences will form the power to change every single thread of the self. These slight tweaks compound into revolutions of character down the line.

All of these begin as habits of action, but what we’re ultimately looking to improve — the habits we want to compound — are our habits of thought.

“It’s the habits that you generate now on those qualities. Or those negative qualities. In the end, those are habit patterns. And the time to form the right habits is when you’re [young]. Someone once said: ‘The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they’re too heavy to be broken.’ I see people with habit patterns that are self-destructive when they’re 50 or 60 and they really can’t change it. They’re imprisoned by that. But you’re not imprisoned by anything.”

This may be the one aspect on which he and I disagree. I’d stick with that last point: You’re not imprisoned by anything. It might not get you wealth or fame or beauty, but compounding your thought patterns will make you a better person. In a world where animals don’t eat humans, that’s always worth it.

It’s never too late to stop being your own brain’s lunch.

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Why You Should Trust People First

We used to be best friends. Now, I hadn’t heard from her in six months.

My last “Hey, how are you?” had disappeared in the vast nothingness universe of unanswered WhatsApp messages.

Eventually, I thought she didn’t care anymore. That she had silently deleted me from her life, just like we now nuke our relationships by unfriending people on Facebook. You know, without ever telling them.

I was sad for a bit, but these things happen. Friendships die. Connections fizzle out. The shared culture you’ve developed takes on a life of its own and, once you stop tending to it, spins out of control. It slowly circles from meaning into emptiness, ultimately landing right next to that last WhatsApp message.

Ironically, one of our last talks had been about just that. The fact that losing touch is a sad, but sometimes healthy and necessary, part of life.

Then, two weeks ago, I stumbled over some old Tinie Tempah songs. Instantly, my mind slingshotted into a nostalgic flashback. I remembered the time we spent raving in clubs with the gang. I remembered how we yelled “tsunami!” all the time for no reason. I remembered how we blasted his songs driving around in the summer.

And so, in a moment of vulnerability, I sent a message:

You’ll always be the first person I think of every time I hear Tinie Tempah.

She replied:

That’s the best message I got all week!! So glad to hear from you!

We started chatting and caught up. Before I could even start to wonder why she didn’t message me all this time if she were so excited about talking to me, she said something that perfectly explained it.

That same week, she had met a mutual friend of ours, who, like her, had recently entered the workforce. After the usual “how’s your job,” “fine,” and “what else is new,” my friend confessed she was having doubts. That not all was great at work. That she was having second thoughts about her choice.

Suddenly, the girl she talked to opened up. She too wasn’t happy.

And then my friend said the sentence that stuck with me: “I think she just needed a trust advance.”

As it turns out, so did my friend.


A trust advance is reaching for a stranger’s heavy bag on the bus and saying “let me.” They might flinch, but they’ll usually be thankful for your help.

A trust advance is shouting “hold the door” and hoping the person in it won’t take your out-of-breath-ness as a threat. They’ll rarely shut it in your face.

A trust advance is admitting that you just don’t feel like it when someone asks you to join their spontaneous soirée. That you’re not in a good place.

A trust advance is not deflecting the “why” that follows. Because the only way to find out whether they meant it or not is to give an honest answer.

A trust advance is being the first to say that “some things about my job really suck,” to deliberately turn off the highlight reel and start with the real stuff.

A trust advance is picking up a loose end even if someone else left it hanging.

A trust advance is saying “I’m sorry” before you’re sure you screwed up.

A trust advance is texting “I miss you” without context because feelings don’t need one. They’re true the second you have them.

A trust advance is choosing to show your private self in public, even if it means you’ll be exposed. But maybe you’ll get others to show theirs.

A trust advance is tearing down a wall without knowing what’s on the other side. You might be carried away by the wind, but you also might make a new friend.


By and large, we live in a world where our biggest concerns are our careers, our relationships, and our happiness. Most of us are not running through the wilderness trying to survive. More people in the world die from too much food than too little. More from self-harm than violence.

As a result, cooperation now carries disproportionately greater reward than competition. It’s what allowed us to create this world of abundance in the first place. We haven’t figured out how to allocate it best, but we’re getting there. And while the world isn’t perfect and never will be, cooperating humans win.

Therefore, most of the risks we take are risks of rejection, of being exposed and vulnerable. But they’re not risks of survival. They’re problems of ego, not existence. Being laughed at, being told “no,” being rejected romantically—these are not matters of life and death.

Trust advances multiply. You hand out one, and they’ll hand out five more.

We forget this. Our brains haven’t caught up. They still equate “I’m sorry,” “I miss you,” and “I need help” with “I’m gonna pet this tiger.” But they’re not actually dangerous. We fear these things because we can’t control them. That they’re really unlikely to happen doesn’t register. We’d rather have a definitive threat we can respond to than a vague improbability that’s out of our hands.

When I reached out to my friend I felt weak — but actually, I was the strong one. Sending that message felt like caving, like giving in. In reality, I was the one showing up—the one saying “here I am.” Yes, I exposed myself. Yes, I was vulnerable. But it was an act of courage, not defeat. And in today’s world, at least most of the time, courage is rewarded, not rejected.

The best thing you can do to be of service; to be a good friend, partner, parent, even stranger; to be the person we all want to be around, is to be vulnerable.

There’s this popular line that “everything you want is on the other side of fear.” But fear is nothing I can act on. I think everything you want is on the other side of being vulnerable. That’s something I can do. I can always hand out more trust advances.

No one spends their day obsessing about having to buy toilet paper. We’re all thinking about deep stuff, all the time. Let’s use our time to talk about these things. You might still get hurt, but the risk pales in comparison to the reward.

Being vulnerable tears down walls between humans. Behind those walls are trust, love, honesty, joy, resilience, friendship, and lots of other magical things. What’s more, each wall that crumbles hands more people a hammer. Trust advances multiply. You hand out one, and they’ll hand out five more.

Give trust first, and the world will shower you with trust in return.

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Don’t Imitate Successful People – Learn From Your Mistakes

Do you feel let down by all the advice—books, articles, interviews, podcasts—from and about successful people? Of course you do. These people have an additional 10, 20, 30 years’ experience—even if you’re the same age. You can’t make up the difference by reading a few articles. You have to invest years of time and cultivate the right habits. But here’s the thing about habits: They are both causes and effects.

Take Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, who is known to start his day at 3:45 a.m. Maybe he has always woken up at this hour, and eventually that habit played a role in his achieving his current position. Or perhaps it’s a habit after the fact; simply a coping mechanism to stay on top of his 800 emails per day. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. Cook rose through the ranks and changed his alarm so he would rise earlier. Little by little, one day at a time. Sometimes it may have been a preemptive move and other times a more reactive one.

Our advice culture has imposed a singular, narrow view on a question that has as many answers as there are people on this planet: How should you live?

Life isn’t a straight line. Most relationships are bilateral. Two things that are connected tend to influence one another. It’s rarely as simple as X leads to Y. We see Banksy shredding their own painting and wish we had the courage to pull a creative stunt like that. But maybe bold Banksy is the result of hundreds of much smaller, less significant creative acts. Maybe Y led to X.

Our advice culture has imposed a singular, narrow view on a question that has as many answers as there are people on this planet: How should you live? This view is like looking at an iceberg through a telescope. You see only what’s on the surface, but it’s a focused picture, so you think you are seeing everything. The view confuses specificity for entirety. With habits, there is no entirety. You have to keep adapting, honing, changing.

There is no one uniform set of habits that leads to success. It has never existed and it never will. We can find many unique habit sets that correlate to success, but that doesn’t mean any one has a higher cause-to-effect ratio than another. Plus, whatever set you choose will continue to change and evolve. Instead of listening to the people who hand us a telescope, we must think independently. We must look at ourselves.


Striking Thoughts is a compendium of 825 aphorisms from Bruce Lee. It’s a collection because, unlike many sources of advice, Lee didn’t believe it was necessary to follow one correct set of ideas in order to live a good life:

Independent inquiry is needed in your search for truth, not dependence on anyone else’s view or a mere book.

This may sound daunting, as we tend to want simple solutions to difficult problems, but according to Bruce, neither actually exists. There are only questions and answers, both of which are hard-won products of thinking, and neither can provide universal solutions that last forever.

In science, all hypotheses must be falsifiable. If you can’t disprove a claim, you can’t test it. Even the best theories are just constructs made of hypotheses, waiting to be proven wrong, waiting for you to provide evidence that will make them collapse.

What’s unfortunate about mistakes is you have to make them.

In our lives, that evidence is mistakes. A mistake is valuable because it falsifies a prior assumption. Unlike a successfully cultivated behavior that may or may not lead you where you want to go, a mistake gives you a single raw point of actual data as to what not to do. Mistakes make you think.

What’s unfortunate about mistakes is that you have to make them. The only way to the data leads through failure. There is no way around this. We will all make many mistakes in our lifetimes. What differentiates us is whether we’re willing to learn from them. Are we willing to think? To sit with the mistake until we’ve extracted the data?

Lee describes the archetype of the person willing to think in “The Parable of the Butcher”:

There was a fine butcher who used the same knife year after year, yet it never lost its delicate, precise edge. After a lifetime of service, it was still as useful and effective as when it was new. When asked how he had preserved his knife’s fine edge, he said: “I follow the line of the hard bone. I do not attempt to cut it, nor to smash it, nor to contend with it in any way. That would only destroy my knife.” In daily living, one must follow the course of the barrier. To try to assail it will only destroy the instrument.

In other words, never learn the same lesson twice. You will only lose your edge.

The simplest way for a child to learn not to touch a hot stove is to touch a hot stove. The pain is powerful and immediate, and so is the lesson, but it also leads to a burned hand. If you hold your hand just above the stove, your hand might still hurt, but you’ll learn the lesson without burning it. This is following the course of the barrier.

To a certain extent, you can learn from other people’s mistakes. You can think about their burned hands and extract some data. But the further you move away from your own life, your own circle, the higher your hand lingers above the stove. At some point, you won’t feel any heat, so you can’t learn. While it’s better to study the failures of the people around you than the successes of distant or unknown people, nothing beats independent inquiry. Gather your own data. Falsify your hypotheses. Dare to make mistakes.

In his introduction to Lee’s book, John Little notes that we are encouraged—and often choose—to look outside ourselves, to anyone but ourselves, to find answers to our biggest questions. He points to one of Bruce’s aphorisms: “We have more faith in what we imitate than in what we originate.”

When it comes to the premier human inquiry, the issue of how we should live, imitation isn’t just a terrible answer. It’s a way to avoid asking the question. As long as we do that, it won’t matter when we get up. Even if it’s at 3:45 a.m.

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The Strong-Link Theory: How to Build a Successful Career

My favorite painting in Munich’s ‘New Pinacotheca’ is The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg. It shows a penniless artist in a crappy, run-down attic apartment.

The Poor Poet is one of Spitzweg’s earliest compositions after becoming a full-time painter in 1833. Today, it is his most famous work. Likely because in it, he managed to capture the ambiguity of his own life.

Spitzweg was born into a wealthy family and eventually launched his career off the comfort of a large inheritance. At the same time, his father forced him through a pharmacist education and he was entirely self-taught. All his career, he pursued humorous themes, contrary to the common-sense nature of art in his era, the Biedermeier period.

Like Spitzweg, The Poor Poet is a puzzling figure. He’s huddled up in blankets, covering a hole in the ceiling with an umbrella, burning his own writings to stay warm. But he doesn’t look flustered. Is he choosing his poverty-stricken existence? Does it inspire him? Did he end up there because society is misjudging his genius? Or was he just too much of a snob about his own art?

The answers to all these questions are left to the viewer’s imagination, which makes it a great painting. Another reason I like this picture, however, is that it’s a reminder that in today’s world, no artist must starve.

Life Is Full of Networks

Sometimes, the past deserves a second chance. That’s the tagline of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History. In one episode, he examines why philanthropy in education tends to center around the richest and most elite schools, as opposed to those that actually need it. To piece the answer together, he turns to a book about soccer.

Taking a page out of The Numbers Game, Gladwell frames education as a ‘weak-link problem.’ This means the overall outcome depends much more on giving access to those, who have none, than on providing high-class students with even better resources. The analogy in sports is that “a football team is only as strong as its weakest link.” Look at this year’s world cup results.

Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, all world-class, yet none of their teams survived the quarter-finals. Because soccer is not about having one or two superstars, it’s usually the team with the fewest mistakes that wins. Plus, even the best striker can only score if the ball makes it to the front. Basketball is a counter-example. One Michael Jordan can do some serious damage. He might singlehandedly win a game, regardless of how the other players perform.

The beauty of this concept is that you can use it as an almost universal lens to work on your perspective. Life is full of networks and all networks have links.

Your body is a weak-link structure; one tiny, but critical part fails, and the whole system shuts down. Traffic is a weak-link phenomenon; a single bad driver can block an entire highway for hours. School is a strong-link game; you only need the exact right answers to pass any exam. And so on.

But there’s one area where applying this idea is especially interesting: work.

The Difference Between Your Career and Your Job

When companies vie for job applicants, they love to promise that “with us, you won’t just have a job, you’ll have a career!” What intrigued graduates take that to mean is that the prospects of working for said employer won’t be limited to the current gig. Promise me I can grow, and I’ll take you to the sunlight. That type of thing. The reality, however, is often different.

Your current job may be a weak-link game. In Germany, for example, waiters often split tips. Whatever the collected total, everyone gets the same share. In this scenario, positive outliers matter, but the average is held down by the lowest contributions. If you’re a strong link, you lose. Most jobs are like that. Rewards don’t hinge on singular results, but on the team’s output as a whole.

That’s because employment itself is also a weak-link problem. It’s better to make sure everyone has a job than giving particularly great ones to a select few. Missing opportunities at their firms are one reason that nowadays, people change jobs around every four years. Here’s another:

Your job may not be a strong-link game, but your career always is.

Career Engine Optimization

The internet has largely democratized the resources of building a business. Since fewer people can do more with less, the number of small firms has gone through the roof. New kinds of jobs pop up left and right, so people sample.

That’s smart. It’s the equivalent of creating more links. And since you only need one great career move to potentially land where you want to go, people maximize their chances. Think of Youtube discoveries like Justin Bieber or the first employees at Facebook. Those are extreme examples, but on a micro level, your and my career will play out just the same.

Another thing you could do is to get a strong-link job, where you can drastically increase your income, fame, and whatever else with a few good results. All artists have this. But there’s also commission-based work, like real estate and most sales, or equity compensation, from working at a startup or handling investment deals. Those are good bets too.

But the best thing you can do, by far, does not depend on job modalities at all.

The Human Lag in Reacting to Change

Back in Spitzweg’s days, The Poor Poet was the norm. His painting was as much a caricature as it was a critical comment on society at the time. It’s easy to imagine Spitzweg wouldn’t have chosen the artist’s path, had it not been for his family money. With few options, small personal networks, and the excessive importance of local reputation, playing it safe was the way to go.

In the past 200 years, however, the world has changed more drastically than ever before. Another thing the internet has democratized is the ability to create links from the comfort of your home. Not just actively, but letting them come to you. It is 30 years old, but this most people still don’t understand.

When Spitzweg first presented The Poor Poet to the critics at Munich’s art club in 1839, they weren’t impressed. It took until two years after his death for the painting to make it into a museum. Imagine he could have posted it on Instagram. Or blogged about the process. Someone might have reached out.

I’m surrounded by young, smart, tech-savvy graduates all day, but most of their link-building efforts seem limited to updating their LinkedIn when they complete another internship. I’m sure most of them will do just fine, but it’s a little as if they insist on being poor poets in a world that offers every opportunity for that to change.

How to Have a Successful Career: As You Shout Into the Woods…

I wholeheartedly believe the single most valuable thing you can do to get everything out of your career that you want is this:

Create.

It may be easy to say for a writer like me, but I mean it. And you don’t have to be creative. You can just document your day. You’re interesting. So is where you live. If you love accounting, by all means, keep us posted on the news from that world. Or maybe you don’t feel like tinkering in public. Good. Tinker in your garage and then showcase what you made online.

Whatever you do, don’t limit your participation in the biggest network in the history of the world to lurking behind a screen. The German version of “what goes around, comes around” is “as you shout into the woods, so it echoes back.” Only those who put effort in will receive something in return.

Most importantly, if you want to have a successful career, treat it like the strong-link game it actually is. Don’t fall for the victim narrative of gatekeepers preventing change. They’re still trying, but you can choose to ignore them. That’s a modern-day luxury The Poor Poet didn’t have.

There’s one more reason I like the painting so much: It is a wonderful reminder to work hard and stay humble. As long as we do that, we’ll always be our own strongest link. And there’s nothing ambiguous about that.