The Myth of Constant Growth in Relationships

In the How I Met Your Mother episode “The Exploding Meatball Sub,” Barney’s crazy sandwich concoction is far from the only thing to go up in flames.

Ted’s new girlfriend Zoey is both intelligent and pretty. Unfortunately, she’s also the head of the campaign trying to keep Ted’s skyscraper from being built in order to preserve an old building.

“Isn’t it hard for you guys to be on opposite sides of something like this?” his friend Lily, who sees eye to eye on almost everything with her husband and college sweetheart Marshall, asks. “Some of us want a partner who challenges us to grow and evolve,” Ted replies. As it will turn out, that’s baloney.

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This Virtual Soldier's Speech Explains How to Have True Purpose in Life Cover

This Virtual Soldier’s Speech Explains How to Have True Purpose in Life

Humans are agents of change.

From the moment we are conceived, our body begins to evolve. It grows until we’re born, and then it grows some more. Our bones, cells, muscles, even our brains — they constantly renew themselves. Day after day, month after month, year after year. It all changes until it can’t change anymore.

In time, we start to decay. Decay, too, is change. It’s not a bad thing, you know? As Steve Jobs said, “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

We don’t change just on the inside. Between birth and death, we change everything we interact with. We change nature, culture, and others. Throwing a rock is change. Discussing remote work is change. Patting a friend on the back is change. Even sleeping is change.

Change is the most human thing we do — and the most powerful way to enact change is through purpose.

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Omotenashi: How the Japanese Remind Us We Deserve to Be Happy Cover

Omotenashi: How the Japanese Remind Us We Deserve to Be Happy

On our last night in Tokyo, we missed the korot stop. It was nearly 8 PM, and we knew this was our last chance. “Dude! We have to turn around!” My friend and I got off at the next stop along the red Marunouchi metro line that connects Shinjuku and Tokyo Station, then hopped right back in to go the other direction.

I can’t recall whether it was Ginza, Kasumigaseki, or Shinjuku-sanchome station, but I still remember exactly what the tiny stall selling little pieces of heaven looked like. It was a 10-foot-long aluminum box with two glass displays, their bottom half straight, the upper half curved — the kind you typically see in bakeries and cake shops. “Thank god!” The single-pull metal shutter was still open.

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Sometimes, the Work Is Easier Than the Workaround Cover

Sometimes, the Work Is Easier Than the Workaround

When my favorite writer stopped writing, I decided to save all his articles, lest he delete them. I knew I could save them one by one in Evernote, but since he had published over 100 pieces, I thought there might be a way to avoid this tedium.

I asked a developer friend for help, and he referred me to another mutual friend of ours. I messaged that friend on Slack but didn’t get a response. A week later, I emailed him. A few more days went by, but then, he responded.

My friend suggested two scraping tools for the job. I started comparing their features and pricing. As it turned out, one tool would limit exports on a free trial, so I went with the other one. I downloaded it, installed it, and made an account.

The tool was pretty technical, so it took a while to grasp the basics. Eventually, I got it to load my favorite author’s index page, where all his stories were linked. Then, however, the tool required making complex workflows, and to top it all off, it only seemed to export to CSV, not PDF.

At this point, I finally decided the juice was no longer worth the squeeze. I sat down after lunch, sipped some coffee, cranked up the music, and went to work. One by one, I opened each article in a new tab, clicked the Evernote Web Clipper, chose the right output settings, and saved it.

Some pages took forever to load. Chrome groaned under the pressure. Evernote kept changing its settings, so I had to fiddle with them each time. After about an hour, however, I made it. There it was: My favorite author’s entire essay collection, preserved for future readings.

All in all, saving 100+ articles by hand was boring, tedious, and eye-roll inducing. I felt grumpy, annoyed, and frustrated at times. In short, it was exactly what you’d expect it to be. It was also, however, the 100% right thing to do — the shortest path to results, and thus the quickest way to satisfaction.

“Work smarter, not harder!” It’s a piece of advice cited like gospel in meetings, speeches, and job interviews. But how much time do you spend trying to out-smart the work? Isn’t thinking the hardest work of all? Thinking a lot without meaningful breakthroughs — there’s hardly a faster way to exhaustion.

Sometimes, it’s better to admit you’re not that good at it. Sometimes, the work is easier than the workaround.


“The long way is the shortcut,” says entrepreneur and author Seth Godin. When it comes to strategy, that’s easy-to-take advice. Of course you shouldn’t rush your novel, launch your business without a plan, or sell out your audience for a quick buck.

But what about tactics? What about the everyday chores life asks us to grind through? Here, we resist the high road for its seeming length when, often, it is not just the ethically sound but actually the shortest — albeit strenuous — path to success. That doesn’t make any sense.

This week, my year-long struggle with taxes came to a head: The government wants to see proper invoices, including names, addresses, and VAT charges. When you’re a German sole proprietor with strangers abroad buying your online courses based solely on an email address, however, that’s easier said than done.

I had spent months looking for a solution. I tried every accounting software, every table-formatting trick, and every bulk import tool I could find. In the end, what did it come down to? Me, sitting on a couch at WeWork, manually generating 400 invoices by hand to submit at the last minute — and you know what? Once I got started, it wasn’t that bad.

In fact, doing accounting — something I hate with a passion — the hard way, taught me several valuable lessons. For one, I learned that I can (still) focus on one task for five hours straight. For another, I realized that, despite hating it, I can take care of my books well enough for them to be presentable. Finally, and this is the big one, slicing through one tedious task gave me the courage to not shy away from another. I’m sure my article-saving stint had a similar, confidence-boosting effect.

We tell ourselves we’re being smart for avoiding the work, but the truth is that only applies in certain scenarios. When the work repeats endlessly, for example, or when it’s impossible to deliver it on time. If it’s a one-off project you are uniquely prepared to do well, however, wasting time on workarounds is a distraction. It’s a pseudo-justifiable symptom of what’s really going on under your skin: You are afraid.

You’re afraid of monotony, misery, and frustration. You’re afraid your ego might shatter when it catches you doing menial work. You’re afraid you might fail despite doing the right thing — what if you take the high road, the long road, and you still won’t reach your destination? You’re afraid you’re not cut out for the simplest solution. If you type the wrong thing on the invoice, there’s no software you can blame. Most of all, however, you’re afraid grinding it out will work. What if grunt work turns out to be smart? Terrifying! After all, there’d be no reason left to avoid it.

When he went skydiving, Will Smith learned that “the point of maximum danger is the point of minimum fear.” He had spent an entire day fretting, only to feel blissful and excited at the exact time when he had the most reason to worry — the moment he jumped out of the plane. He wondered: “Why were you scared in your bed the night before? What do you need that fear for?”

Now I don’t know much about extreme sports, but my recent bouts with banal tasks indicate Will’s lesson runs parallel to how we should approach our everyday jobs: “The point of maximum friction is the point of minimum fear.”

Once you get going, you’re going — and in the going lies peace of mind. Your unfounded worry disappears, and with each sigh-accompanied step, you’re accelerating towards your goal. It doesn’t matter if you walk slowly, if you think the work is beneath you, or whether you know someone else could have done it faster. What matters is you’re the one doing it, and you’re still here, so, ultimately, life can’t be that bad. It’s the kind of tangible proof no amount of thinking can conjure, and that’s why grunt work has value beyond its results.


There’s a scene in Game of Thrones where, after being taken in by a not-so-kind stranger, two members of the Night’s Watch, a once revered military order charged with protecting the world, are shoveling pig poop out of a latrine.

“When people talk about the Night’s Watch, they never mention the shoveling,” Grenn says. “Or the shit,” his friend Edd comments. “They tell you about honor, pardoning crimes, and protecting the realm, but shoveling really is most of it.” “And getting attacked, or killed, or worse.” “And that. But when you’re not getting attacked or killed, usually you’re shoveling.”

I haven’t watched all of Game of Thrones, but I doubt the fate of any one character in that show is preferable to whatever constitutes your everyday shoveling. Yes, work sucks sometimes. It’s not all collecting checks and after-work margaritas. Often, your biggest win of the day will be produced by shoveling a pile of shit — I mean, papers — from one side of your desk to the other. That may not be sexy, but it proves that, especially when we feel the most resistance towards it, shoveling is, usually, the right thing to do.

When an unpleasant task stares you in the face, do look for the obvious detour. But when there’s none to be found, don’t keep scouring the digital forest for hours. Let out a “pfff” if you must, but then, like Edd and Grenn, relent with humor to your immediate fate: “Ah, look. More shit. I was starting to wonder what to do with the rest of me day.”

Step up to your role in the small scheme of things, and before you know it, you’ll see: Small roles are not to be feared. They give us strength to star on bigger stages, and without them, the shoes of our heroes will always feel too big to fill. Work smart, sure, but remember that includes knowing when working hard is the smartest thing to do.

Are You Free to Abstain? Cover

Are You Free to Abstain?

French scientist Pierre Fouquet was an early researcher of alcoholism. He broke the illness into three categories, two of which describe the circumstances of people we now describe as “alcoholics,” such as drinking in secret with the goal of blacking out.

The third, “alcoholitis,” is “the most common form of alcoholism in France, particularly among men,” Fouquet noted. The subject has a high tolerance and lacks serious psychological complications — they mainly drink beer and wine in social settings, just in too large quantities for it to be healthy.

“We drink to drink with others,” Fouquet said, but “the toxic effects of consumption are still felt.”

Our sneakiest addictions are those we don’t consider to be problems at all. If you drink with coworkers four nights a week and everyone has two beers, that seems like a perfectly normal thing to do.

The question — and this may be Fouquet’s greatest contribution to the world — is:

Do you have the freedom to abstain?

The loss of this freedom is the mark of an addict, Fouquet claimed. When we no longer feel free to abstain, when it seems as if there is no choice to be had, that’s when we should scratch our heads — because we always have a choice.

I love coffee. I usually drink two cups every day. Yesterday, I just had one, and occasionally, I’ll skip an entire day. Not because I want to, but because I must remember that I can.

It is nice to give yourself a break, even from things you love, especially if the break will prevent the thing from becoming a chain around your ankles.

It is also profoundly liberating to sit in front of a foregone conclusion, like “I will drink this beer,” and realize, “You know what? I’m free to abstain. I can just say no.”

Don’t let harmless habits become dictators. Innocuous addictions can secretly run your life. Use your freedom to abstain. It is something you’ll always have — even when you think you’ve already lost it.

The Rule of 70/20/10: Do Important Work or None at All Cover

The Rule of 70/20/10: Do Important Work or None at All

Ip Man, a Kung Fu movie about the legendary martial arts teacher of the same name, is rated a staggering eight out of 10 on IMDb and considered a cult classic among fans. The movie is almost two hours long, but if you skim through it, you’ll notice something: There’s not a lot of fighting.

Isn’t that what Kung Fu movies are about? Apparently not. You’ll see the master having tea, helping his friends, and struggling with everyday life. You’ll see him muse about politics, about war, and about philosophy. You’ll see Ip Man training and spending time with his family.

Why do people love this movie so much if, as it turns out, there are only three major fight scenes? They love it because each fight means something.

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The Japanese Art of Kintsugi: How to Practice Self-Improvement Without Judging Yourself Cover

The Japanese Art of Kintsugi: How to Practice Self-Improvement Without Judging Yourself

I still remember the commercials: “Clearasil Ultra Face Wash — and in three days, they’re gone!” “They” are the pimples, of course.

Each ad played out the same way: A teenage boy hides from his crush because he has acne. His friend reminds him of the party in three days. “You can’t go with that face!” The boy uses Clearasil, shows up, and gets to kiss the girl.

As someone who suffered three long years of intense acne in high school, those ads hit me right in the feels — first with hope, then with misery. After I tried the product and it didn’t work, Clearasil continued to erode my self-worth in 30-second increments by reaffirming a false belief I held about myself: As long as I have acne, girls won’t be interested in me, so there’s no point in even trying.

Every year, millions of teenagers share this experience, and it reveals a pattern deeply ingrained in Western culture: Find a flaw, worry about it, try a quick fix, and if it doesn’t work, go back to worrying. Repeat this cycle until some magic pill works or you find an even bigger inadequacy. While this may lead to some improvement, in the long run, it inevitably leads to self-loathing.

You wouldn’t think a pimple commercial reveals so much about a nation’s culture, but if you watch a few Japanese skincare ads for reference, you’ll see — because unlike Clearasil, they do clear things up.

The Japanese Perceive Problems Differently

The first thing you’ll notice about Japanese beauty commercials is that they’re not directed at teenagers. There’s no Justin Bieber claiming zits are intolerable, no before-and-after pictures, and no shrill voice prompting you to “get acne out of your life.”

All you’ll see is adults going about their day, feeling good because — and this is the part the commercials focus on — every day, they practice their skincare routine. Pimples aren’t presented as a flaw to be overcome, just a part of everyday life. “If you consistently take care of your skin, acne might still happen, but it won’t have enough power over you to ruin your day.” That seems to be the message.

This is radically different from how we approach obstacles in the West, and it’s no coincidence. The Japanese perceive problems differently. They don’t view them as stumbling blocks to be eliminated. Instead, they see them as stepping stones on a never-ending journey. They empathize with problems.

The Japanese cultivate this worldview at an early age, thanks not just to their commercials but also their teachers.

“He did it!”

Jim Stigler is a psychology professor at UCLA. He once observed a fourth-grade math class in Japan. Surprisingly, the teacher called the worst student, not the best, to the board. The task was to draw a three-dimensional cube.

Every few minutes, the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid had gotten it right, and the class would look up from their work and shake their heads no. At the end of the class, he did make his cube look right! And the teacher said, ‘How does that look, class?’ And they all said, ‘He did it!’ And they broke into applause. The kid smiled a huge smile and sat down, clearly proud of himself.

Imagine this scene in a Western classroom. Based on 13 years of going to school in Germany, I can tell you: It would not have gone this way.

Usually, if a student is called out and doesn’t immediately get it right, they are branded as stupid — if not by the teacher, then at least by the other students. They’ll return to their desk with their head lowered in shame and, instead of discovering the solution, go back to worrying about their pimples.

In Japan, mistakes are seen as valuable. There’s not just something to learn, there’s something to learn for everyone. Instead of being left behind, people who struggle are pulled into the light. Solving the problem becomes a joint effort, and if the student succeeds, everyone wins.

You might say, to the Japanese, mistakes are worth their weight in gold — sometimes literally.

Kintsugi: Don’t Fix — Integrate

Kintsugi is an old Japanese art. It is the craft of repairing broken pottery using seams of gold. Instead of trying to hide the object’s cracks, it accentuates them. The message is simple but meaningful: Our trials and flaws are not scars on our character — they are the very fabric that makes us human. Each obstacle, each mistake becomes a building block of a better tomorrow, thus making us a little more unique and beautiful.

In the West, we tend to throw things away when they break. Each year, millions of perfectly usable products end up in landfills. To some extent, we do the same with people. This is sad but unsurprising, given the perpetual message in our education and media: If you struggle in even the slightest, you’re not good enough. You can buy some Spanx, muscle supplements, or an online course to fix it, but until you have, don’t bother, and definitely don’t bother others with your problem.

But what if our mistakes are just for learning? What if our flaws aren’t flaws at all — just puzzle pieces that make us different and, thus, lovable?

There’s a difference between fixing and integrating: One is done to compensate, the other to move forward. When we obsess over correcting our flaws, we may succeed, but we’ll never feel content. It takes a general appreciation of life’s transience to focus on learning, accept what we can’t change, and even see beauty in our little imperfections.

The Japanese call this appreciation “mono no aware” — an empathy toward things, a sense of impermanence. Mono no aware is at the heart of kintsugi, and it can make the difference between a laid-back, joyful pursuit of growth and a never-ending spiral of self-flagellation — just like a golden thread can make a repaired plate look more beautiful than it was before it broke.

Summary

From your skin to your mind to your bank account: A desire to improve your life is a wonderful thing. It’s less wonderful if that desire leaves a constant taste of “I’m not good enough” in your mouth.

Not always but often, Western self-help wants you to feel self-conscious. The industry points out your problems, twists the knife, and then happily sells you a plethora of quick fixes to combat them. Whether they work or not, in the long run, this will damage your self-image.

While it’s good to confront our problems head-on, the Japanese aim to do so without negative connotation. They stress consistency and effort in their marketing, parenting, and education. Mistakes are a valuable source of learning for everyone, and our flaws are not just not so bad, they make us unique and beautiful.

The next time you spot a pimple or give the wrong answer, remember the art of kintsugi: Don’t fix. Integrate. As long as you make them steps to something bigger, not a single one of your obstacles will go to waste.

If You’re an Intellectual, Act Like One Cover

If You’re an Intellectual, Act Like One

In seventh grade, my history teacher asked if anyone knew what the huge, fancy, painting-like carpets covering the walls of the Palace of Versailles were called. His question was met with silence and puzzled faces.

Eventually, I raised my hand and said: “Gobelin.” My teacher was thrilled. So was my neighbor. “Ooooh, go-be-liiiiin, Mr. I-know-everything.” The class erupted in laughter.

There’s something to be said here about shaming intellectuals and about a system in which being fun is cooler than being smart, but at 13 I was oblivious to both of those things — so I too erupted in laughter. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?

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If You Drove Half as Fast, You'd Still Get There on Time Cover

If You Drove Half as Fast, You’d Still Get There on Time

When he lived in Santa Monica, Derek Sivers found the perfect bike path: A 15-mile round trip along the ocean with almost zero traffic. In his afternoons, he’d get on his bike and race full speed ahead. On average, the trip took him 43 minutes to complete.

After several months of arriving with a red face, a sweaty head, and feeling completely exhausted, Derek decided to take it easy for once. He looked at the scenery. He saw some dolphins. He casually pedaled along. It took him 45 minutes.

At first, Derek couldn’t believe it, but he double-checked his numbers, and, sure enough, he achieved 96% of the result with 50% of the effort. Reflecting on the experience, he writes:

When I notice that I’m all stressed out about something or driving myself to exhaustion, I remember that bike ride and try dialing back my effort by 50%. It’s been amazing how often everything gets done just as well and just as fast, with what feels like half the effort.

A few years ago, my Dad and I used to do something similar: We raced home in our cars. It’s about five miles from the city to the suburbs, and we too used to speed, catch yellow traffic lights, and overtake anyone in our way.

One day, we did the math: If you go 50% over the limit on such a short trip, you’ll save about one minute. We’ve been cruising ever since.

Life is like that a lot. You go all out to be 50% faster, better, stronger, only to arrive one day early at the finish line.

It’s easy to get caught up the everyday hustle. “Let me queue in the other line.” “I can cut a corner here.” “Maybe, I can get them to approve my application faster.” Switching lanes often feels efficient in the moment but won’t make a big difference in the end.

This applies to our daily to-do lists as much as it applies to our biggest goals. If you get the report one day sooner, the company can go public one day earlier — but all that means is that its shares will trade one day extra. On a 10-year-timeline, who cares about that day? No one.

You can stay up till 2 AM and post one extra article. But in your five-year-plan of becoming a writer, does it really matter? Sometimes, it will. Most of the time, however, it won’t. But if you don’t get enough sleep, you can’t see through your five-year-plan. That part always matters.

You can race to your friend’s BBQ and honk and yell at every other driver along the way. Or, you can drive half as fast and still get there on time.

You’d arrive relaxed, happy, and in a positive state of mind. You wouldn’t be exhausted from all the stress that took so much from your mind but added so little to your outcome. This is what Derek learned from his frantic bike rides:

Half of my effort wasn’t effort at all, but just unnecessary stress that made me feel like I was doing my best.

Sometimes, doing your best means having nothing left to give. Usually, it doesn’t. More often than not, feeling completely spent is a sign that you wasted most of your energy.

Energy is precious. Conserve it. Direct it efficiently. Take pride in doing your best in a way that lets you do your best again tomorrow. Life is short. Enjoy it. Don’t burn through it too quickly. Be content with the 96%.

After all, what good are two extra minutes if you can’t use them to gaze at the sea?