How to Not Waste Your Life Cover

How To Not Waste Your Life

If you’ve wasted your whole life, can you make up for it in a single moment?

This is the question at the heart of Extraction, Netflix’s latest blockbuster and, at 90 million viewers in the first month, biggest film premiere ever.

Following Chris Hemsworth as a black market mercenary trying to rescue the kidnapped son of India’s biggest drug lord, the movie is full of car chases, gun fights, and a whopping 183 bodies dropping at the hands of Thor himself.

At the end of the day, however, it is about none of those things. It’s a movie about redemption.

After freeing his target, 15-year-old Ovi, from the hands of a rival Bangladeshi drug lord, Hemsworth’ character Tyler shows true vulnerability in a brief moment of shelter.

When Ovi asks him if he’s always been brave, Tyler claims he’s “just the opposite,” having left his wife and six-year-old son, right before the latter died of lymphoma.

Sharing the kind of wisdom only children tend to possess, Ovi replies with a Paulo Coelho quote he’s read in school:

“You drown not by falling into the river, but by staying submerged in it.”


You’re not an ex-special forces agent. Your life is not a movie. There will be no obvious signs. No excessive violence. No rampant drug abuse.

Just a slow, steady trickle of days, each a little more like the last, each another step away from your dreams — another day submerged in the river.

The river is pressing “Ignore” on the reminder to decline a good-but-not-great project request. The river is saying, “When I’ve done X, I’ll start writing.” The river is postponing asking your daughter about her dance hobby because today, you’re just too tired.

The river is everything that sounds like a temporary excuse today but won’t go away tomorrow.

Trust me. I’ve been there. It really, really won’t. No matter how much you’d like it to.

At first, it doesn’t feel like you’re drifting. You’re just letting go for a bit. You’re floating. The river carries you. It’s nice. Comfortable. Things happen. Time passes. It’ll keep passing.

Eventually, the river leads into a bigger river. You’re in new terrain. You’ve never seen this place before. Where can you get ashore? Where will this river lead?

Soon, you don’t know what’s ahead anymore. You can’t see what’s next. The river could become a waterfall. It might send you right off a cliff. You’ll stay submerged forever.

There won’t be a big shootout at the end. Just a regretful look out the window. A relative visiting. “Oh yeah, that. I never did it. I can’t tell you why.”

All rivers flow into the sea. If you don’t push to the surface, if you don’t start swimming, that’s where you’re going.

No one is coming to save you. You won’t get an extraction. No one will beat you into writing your book or asking her to marry you or being a good mother. No 15-year-old boy will serve you the answer in a quote from a book.

The only way to not waste your life is to do your best to not waste today.

Write a sentence. Make a hard choice. Pick up the phone.

We all fall into the river from time to time. But we can’t stay submerged in it. Don’t let small regrets pile up in silence. Take one step each day. One stroke towards the surface.

You’re not a soldier, and no single brief can save you. No standalone mission will define your legacy.

Don’t hope for a shot at redemption. Redeem yourself with your actions.

Redeem yourself every day.

Bill Gates' Most Important Lesson Cover

The Most Important Lesson We Can Learn From Bill Gates

Bill Gates is fascinating for many reasons: his wealth, his habits, his ideas.

The new Netflix documentary Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates covers them all. It follows his extraordinary journey, from globalizing office software to building one of the world’s most influential companies, becoming its richest man, and now, leading its largest foundation.

But the reason I’m fascinated by Gates has nothing to do with any of that. It’s not his success, or his way of thinking, or his approach to solving the world’s most critical problems with tech. To me, the most interesting thing about him is what he teaches us about what it means to be human.

Throughout the Netflix series, an interviewer asks Gates silly, get-to-know-you questions in quick succession: “What’s your favorite food? What’s your favorite animal? What do you eat for breakfast?” But every now and then, he throws in some curveballs, maybe to catch Gates off guard and get him to veer from his canned responses. Or maybe the show is just edited to make it look like Gates is getting a low-stakes grilling. Whatever the reason, at one point, the interviewer asks this question: “What was the worst day of your life?”

Gates is a composed man. He’s reserved, but seems at ease answering all sorts of questions. But this one is different. He squints. He looks down. He appears to be thinking, but not really. He knows what he has to say — he just doesn’t want to say it. No one would. But finally, he says it:

“The day my mother died.”

There, sitting in the library of his $127 million mansion, is a man who’s achieved everything there could possibly be to achieve, whose life — at least to us outsiders — is defined by his business success.

And yet he didn’t say, “The day Steve Jobs accused me of stealing from him.”

He didn’t say, “The day I was humiliated by getting hit in the face with a cream pie during a visit with Belgian business and government leaders.”

He didn’t say, “The day we were forced to pay $1.3 billion in antitrust fines.”

No, the worst day in the Microsoft billionaire’s life was the day his mother died.

No matter who you are or who you aspire to be, at the end of the day, life is not about money or status or power. It’s not even about legacy.

Life is about people; the people you meet, the people you miss. Even the people you hate. Most of all, life is about the people you love. Some of them will die before you do. Nothing will ever bring them back.

Every one of us has limited time. But when it comes to spending it with those we hold dearest, we might have even less. Gates reminded me of this fact. It’s his greatest lesson of all.

The Only Way to Find Success Is to Relentlessly Forgive Yourself Cover

The Only Way to Find Success Is to Relentlessly Forgive Yourself

Last week, my sister came to visit. It was awesome. We saw Mike Shinoda, got ice cream, and tried lots of great food. I love her and I’m glad we hung out.

But for some reason, whenever I go to an event, a friend stops by, or the week is just generally slow, I still feel like I should get as much done as I usually do. Like I should create the same output, regardless of the time I take off.

That’s impossible, of course. But it creates guilt and that guilt is the real problem. Guilt is a useful emotion. As opposed to shame, it makes us want to step up. To rectify what we did wrong.

But when it comes to being productive, there’s nothing to rectify. It’s not like a crooked picture you can just push back into place. Your life is continuous and each moment is a small dot on a long line. Work is such a big part of that line that it’s impossible to see how each dot shapes it day-to-day, week-to-week, often even year-to-year. Unlike other things we feel guilty about, you can’t just go back to the café, pay the bill you forgot, and reset the karma balance to zero. Because there’s always more work.

And so it may feel like focusing for one hour in the evening makes up for a bad day, but who wants to spend their entire life salvaging leftover scraps of time? That’s a surefire recipe for unhappiness. The solution lies on a higher level.

Who’s to say it was a bad day in the first place? Maybe you needed rest. Maybe you were affected by something in your subconscious. Why can’t we suspend that judgment altogether? Jim Carrey has a great metaphor for our moods:

“I have sadness and joy and elation and satisfaction and gratitude beyond belief, but all of it is weather. And it just spins around the planet.”

Shame, guilt, regret, these are also just weather phenomena. External conditions that’ll sometimes swing by your planet.

Of course, it’s hard to constantly practice this non-judgment in advance. To go into each experience without attachment or expectation. We’re human, after all. We fail. We let things get to us. And so we need to learn to pick ourselves back up. To realize when we’re complaining about the weather and stop.

The only way to do this over and over again, to keep moving forward no matter what happens, is to relentlessly forgive yourself. Forever and for everything. You won’t always do it immediately, but try to do it eventually.

Note that forgiving yourself is not about letting yourself off the hook. It’s not an excuse to not learn from your mistakes. It won’t guarantee it either, but without forgiveness, you can’t learn anything. Because regret is in the way. You must say: “Okay, that’s done, how will I move on and what will I change?”

This applies to all kinds of emotional weather you’ll experience, but when it comes to productivity, to using your time well, it’s especially important. Only forgiveness can remove the friction of guilt. The nagging that prevents you from picking up the pen again. From continuing to just do things.

We all have different definitions of success and that’s a good thing. For some, it’s raising their kids to exceed their own accomplishments. For others, it’s fighting for a cause or using art to change how we think. And some just want to live quietly and enjoy the little things.

But no matter what end work serves in your life, you’ll never do enough of it if you constantly kick yourself.

Forgiveness is the only way.

Why don’t we talk about this? When we’re looking for ways to move on, why do we encourage everything from resting to trying hard to having a purpose to proving someone wrong, but not loving yourself when all of these fail?

I don’t know. Maybe, it makes us feel like frauds. To say “alright, let’s move on,” when others had to pay stricter consequences. Maybe, forgiveness isn’t sexy enough. Not a compelling reason to continue. Or, maybe, it’s the hardest of them all to believe in. To actually mean it when you think it. Or say it.

I’d put my money on that last one.

It’s good to practice non-judgment. It helps me a lot every time I succeed. But often, I don’t. And then I’m wrestling with myself for forgiveness. I’d much rather learn to consistently win that second battle. The first one isn’t lost, but I know I’ll never reach perfection. Forgiveness, however, is always available.

It’s as if the healthiest option is right in front of us, but we’re too blind or stubborn to use it. Too scared to allow ourselves to move on. Well, I don’t know you, but here’s permission to forgive yourself. I hope you’ll exercise it. It’s time. Have courage. Move on. Turn the page. And don’t look back.

Maybe, life is not about finding the straightest path to success. Or the simplest. Or even the smoothest. Maybe, it’s about finding one, just one, that allows you to get there at all. But that requires letting go of our old beliefs.

Mike Shinoda is a lead member of Linkin Park. On his current record, he’s processing the loss of his best friend and band mate of 20 years. Imagine how much forgiveness that takes. It’s got sad songs, angry songs, desperate songs, helpless songs. But there’s also one that’s light. Optimistic. Forgiving.

Maybe, in our own quest for being kinder to ourselves, all we have to do is act on its lyrics:

And they’ll tell you I don’t care anymore
And I hope you’ll know that’s a lie
’Cause I’ve found what I have been waiting for
But to get there means crossing a line
So I’m crossing a line

Everything I Know Is True Cover

Everything I Know Is True – My Entire Life in 55 Lessons

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke once said:

“Death is being alive and not knowing it.”

I guess until 2012, I was dead. It’s not like I wasn’t living. I was trying my best and, most of the time, I was happy. But I didn’t realize it and so I was unable to appreciate the vastness of this incredible experience called life.

I didn’t know who I was. How much I could change. That I could shape life as much as it could shape me. So when I read something that hinted at these things for the first time, I began a lifelong journey: the quest to know myself.

Seneca said it takes a lifetime to learn how to live, just like it takes a lifetime to learn how to die. But with each new piece of the ever-changing puzzle you find, you get a little closer to your true self. To being alive and knowing it.

More importantly, you’ll develop the confidence to express that self. To not be trapped by dogma and societal doctrine. I’ve only just begun, and there’s infinitely more to discover, but here’s everything I know to be true right now.


  1. The most important part of figuring out how to live is asking the question.
  2. “I don’t know” is not an admission of defeat, it’s the start of empowerment.
  3. Most of the solutions to life’s challenges lie in sitting with yourself.
  4. The only person you’ll spend the rest of your life with is you.
  5. Imagination is our most powerful ability. It is also the most dangerous.
  6. If you run out of kind words for yourself, stop talking.
  7. Empathy is learning to look in the mirror and not hate what you see.
  8. The truth about ourselves is what we choose to believe.
  9. Freedom is always internal. Whether ‘to’ or ‘from,’ it starts in the mind.
  10. Having a choice matters more than whatever choice you make.
  11. Love is not a noun, it’s a verb. And it starts with loving yourself.
  12. We should believe more in what we create, less in what we emulate.
  13. We can’t choose what we’re raised to value, but we can choose to change.
  14. What we learn alone is what we carry into our interactions with others.
  15. All relationships in life have mutual effects. Everything is connected.
  16. Comparison is not just the death of joy, it is also the birth of misery.
  17. It’s better to be curious than judgmental and impossible to be both at once.
  18. Study the failures of those around you, not the wins of those far away.
  19. Our fixed point of view is an individual limit, but a collective strength.
  20. Changing your perspective is hard, but let it always be your first try.
  21. How much we learn is limited by how open-minded we are, not time.
  22. Aging won’t free you from stupidity. Only learning will.
  23. A mistake is only as valuable as the time you spend thinking about it.
  24. Minimalism is not about physical space, it’s about making room to think.
  25. Every lesson in life comes at the expense of unlearning another.
  26. Seeing clearly is holding different truths in your head at the same time.
  27. The more you listen, the smarter you get. Listening leads to learning.
  28. The smarter you get, the more you listen. Learning leads to humility.
  29. The best tools always put you in control, even when you’re not using them.
  30. Books are infinite. If you treat them right, they’ll keep on giving forever.
  31. We can’t delegate our responsible use of technology to technology itself.
  32. When we make technology our ideology, we let our tools form our identity.
  33. You don’t need an identity to have a life.
  34. The only way to stay true to who you are is to change every day.
  35. There is no right set of habits. Just the ability to adapt at the right time.
  36. Know how to build and break habits and you’ll always flow with change.
  37. Reality consists of subjects and verbs. We supply all the adjectives.
  38. The only place where we can truly live is the present. It all happens here.
  39. Peace of mind relies on having faith in present-you.
  40. Often, the easiest way is the hard way. More effort, but less competition.
  41. Few things that are risky are actually dangerous.
  42. Social acceptance is a bad metric for making choices and tracking success.
  43. When the outside world is loud, be quiet inside.
  44. Your work should reflect who you are, not what you want your life to be.
  45. Detachment bears authenticity, expectations cloud your thinking.
  46. The easiest way to attract what you desire is to deserve what you want.
  47. Wanting what makes you happy requires wanting the right things.
  48. Half of happiness is learning to love everything you don’t have.
  49. If you travel because you’re unhappy, you’ll never reach your destination.
  50. Happiness is a spontaneous byproduct, not a permanent state.
  51. Death will be an interruption.
  52. Your legacy will be determined by the perception of others. Not you.
  53. Everything that’s part of the grand circle is destined to die. Including us.
  54. What you do in your one life will be everything you ever do.
  55. If we act accordingly, life is long enough for most of us.
Death Will Be an Interruption Cover

Death Will Be an Interruption

19 weeks into their pregnancy, Keri and Royce Young found out their daughter suffered from anencephaly. It’s a rare, prenatal disease, which prevents the child from developing a big portion of its brain, skull, and scalp.

The odds of survival are zero. Lives with anencephaly are counted in hours, days at most. After 48 hours of deliberating the impossible decision to lose a child or a pregnancy, they decided to go through with the pregnancy, so they could donate their daughter’s organs and save another human being.

“We decided to continue, and chose the name Eva for our girl, which means “giver of life.” The mission was simple: Get Eva to full-term, welcome her into this world to die, and let her give the gift of life to some other hurting family. It was a practical approach, with an objective for an already settled ending point.”

As pragmatic as it looks in a paragraph, think about how much respect this choice deserves. Such a noble decision, one most people could never bear. But decisions, good or bad, have no say in how time works.

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” 

— Woody Allen

Right when Keri hit the two-week window for Eva’s birth, the baby’s brain functions gave out. After life had cheated them out of their initial plan, death cheated them out of the backup. No daughter, no hello, no organs to donate, no goodbye.

In a lucky turn of events, Eva’s eyes helped save someone else’s sight, but the story just goes to show: we can’t prepare for the unpreparable.

The Prison We All Share

In The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, one of Stephen R. Covey’s key tenets is “begin with the end in mind.” He suggests a thought experiment called ‘the funeral test,’ in which you imagine what four speakers would say at your burial. One is family, one a friend, one from work, and one from a community.

“What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would you like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate?

What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? Look carefully at the people around you. What difference would you like to have made in their lives?”

These are all important questions. They’re great in helping us adjust how we behave today. What’s bad is that they inevitably trigger long-range planning and you can’t do that without estimating time. Even if we’re building our plans around the best intentions, they’re still built around a big construct of expectations.

In 2017, Scott Riddle was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. He’s a guy like you and me. A father, an employee, a husband, a friend. He is 35 years old. So far he’s recovering, but his plans? They’re all gone. Because no matter how smart it is to think about your own funeral, no one would put it just two, or five, or ten years into the future. That’s Scott’s big takeaway:

“Stop just assuming you have a full lifetime to do whatever it is you dream of doing.” 

The only guaranteed path we take in life is one we cannot control; we’re all hurling towards death inside our little cages of time. And to add insult to injury, life makes sure to knock on the bars along the way.

In 2008, we lost my grandma to lung cancer. She was 66. In 2016, my uncle died in his sleep. He was 52. Knock. Knock. Everyone loses someone. They need not be people we know, but they’re always people we care about. Like Chester. Or Tim. Time is the prison we all share. No reminders needed, but we get them anyway. Lest we forget.

A Stubborn Illusion

We go through life imagining that when death comes, we’ll somehow be ready. We’ll lie in bed at 103 years old, surrounded by our loved ones, say our final goodbye and then fall asleep. That’s a beautiful vision, and I wish it for anyone, but it’s really dangerous to get attached to it. We’ll never be ready. We’ll never be done. When the time comes, nobody wants to go.

This isn’t to say all long-range planning is useless. There’s a balance. But mapping out your life until the end, including the end, is a futile fight against time. Maybe a better way is to think of life in cycles, like Seth Godin does when he describes it as a series of dips:

“There isn’t just one dip. It’s not like ‘let’s get through that dip and we’re done.’ Steve Jobs helped invent the personal computer, helped launch the graphical interface, helped launch the mp3 business, helped launch computer animation at Pixar. He’s not done. Just like skiing, the goal is not to get to the bottom of the hill, the goal is to have a bunch of good runs before the sun sets.”

In 1948, Albert Einstein was diagnosed with an aneurysm in his abdominal aorta. A ticking time bomb, impossible to defuse. He chose to hold it patiently. Seven years later, just after his 76th birthday, his friend Michele Besso passed away. Aware of his own time running out, he shared an insight in his condolence letter to Besso’s family:

“He has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.”

Einstein himself died a month later. In Einstein: His Life and Universe, biographer Walter Isaacson describes his last moments:

“At his bedside lay the draft of his undelivered speech for Israel Independence Day. “I speak to you today not as an American citizen and not as a Jew, but as a human being,” it began. Also by his bed were twelve pages of tightly written equations, littered with cross-outs and corrections.

To the very end, he struggled to find his elusive unified field theory. And the final thing he wrote, before he went to sleep for the last time, was one more line of symbols and numbers that he hoped might get him, and the rest of us, just a little step closer to the spirit manifest in the laws of the universe.”

Einstein’s last equation

What Einstein showed us, both in his words and behavior, is that there is no such thing as time. Just a giant current of the unknown that carries us into the wind. And all we can do is live our lives, whether we surrender to it or not.

Even if you’ve made your peace with it, death will be an interruption.

One day, you’ll be out skiing, working, reading, writing, skateboarding with the other kids and changing the world. The sun will set and you’ll realize “oh, I won’t be able to finish this today.” The question is can you go to bed and say “I’ll do it tomorrow?”

In the end, the Youngs learned a similar lesson:

“None of it went as we planned. We’re trying to rest on knowing we did the best we could. We always said we wanted to limit our regret, and I think in 20 years or so as we reflect on this, there’s not much we’d change. Because anything we would change was already outside of our control anyway.”

The only thing we can really do is accept not being ready. Accept being naked. Prepared to be unprepared. And maybe, just maybe, letting go won’t hurt so much.

“It’s a weird thing to say that in probably the worst experience of my life was also maybe the best moment of my life, but I think it was the best moment of my life. The timing of it all is just something I can’t explain. It wasn’t what we planned or hoped for, but it was everything we needed in that moment.”

No matter when it happens, I imagine a peaceful death will be just the same.

What Is an Identity? Cover

You Don’t Need an Identity to Have a Life

Dressed in a brown, too large sweater, a man is standing in an archway, elbows crossed. It’s snowing. Having waited for hours in the cold, the bank across the street finally opens. He walks in.

Inside the Zurich Community Bank, he writes down a 13-digit number on a piece of paper, which the clerk hands to a more senior employee, who guides the man to an elevator. Down in the vault, a security guard silently gestures him towards the fingerprint identification system. He passes.

As he sits down in a dimly lit cabin, another clerk retrieves a metal lock box, roughly the size of two shoe cartons, from the bank’s walk-in safe. He places it in front of the man, unlocks it, nods, and walks away. After the man’s made sure the cabin curtain is closed, he opens the box.

There’s nothing unusual inside. A bunch of markers, a flashlight, contact lenses, a watch, a credit card, his vaccination record, a USB stick. His eyes quickly scan the contents, resting on one item almost instantly: his passport. He opens it and sits down in the small cabin chair.

After what feels like a lifetime, he nods, but his face is full of doubt. As if to make himself believe, he utters:

“My name is Jason Bourne.”


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The Role of His Life

In 1942, Howard Hughes Jr. set out to build the biggest plane in the history of mankind. At a wingspan of 320 ft (97 m), the length of half a Football field, and towering eight stories high, to this day it remains the largest aircraft ever flown. The name of the colossus reveals as much about the man behind it as does the endeavor itself: the Hughes H-4 Hercules would be her father’s ticket into the annals of history.

“I put the sweat of my life into this thing. I have my reputation all rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it’s a failure, I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.” 

Even considering the already high stakes, Hughes still understated how invested he was into the project. Beyond his reputation, he had put something even more fragile on the line: his identity.

Born to Howard Sr. and Allene Stone Gano in 1905, the young man proved early to be nothing short of gifted. At eleven he built a radio transmitter, at twelve he constructed a motorcycle, and by his twenties, he played a handicap of three in golf. He would also turn out a brilliant pilot. However, none of that could prepare him for the adversity no child should have to face: losing both parents by age 19.

With almost prophetic vision, he used his inheritance to acquire the majority stock share of the business his father had founded, Hughes Tool Company. Thanks to the intellectual property it contained, this asset would make Hughes Jr. one of the world’s wealthiest men for the rest of his life. His father, while not as mechanically adept, helped pioneer and patent a drill bit for oil exploration. It used two cones, rotating against one another, which sped up drilling by a factor of up to ten.

Source

In as tragic a story as only life can write, this one move both gave his son all the freedom in the world and forever bound him to the shackles of a restless self. Hughes Jr. quickly left his father’s business in more capable hands and went on a long string of ultimately unsuccessful careers as a filmmaker, stock trader, pilot, real estate investor, aircraft manufacturer, and defense contractor.

The Hughes H-4 Hercules was the pinnacle of his failures. Nicknamed the ‘Spruce Goose’ by critics for its wooden materials, it racked up a staggering $23 million bill, almost $300 million in today’s dollars. After five years of development, it only took a single test flight, during which Hughes jeopardized the entire operation, by spontaneously accelerating and forcing a takeoff. The plane did lift, but only for a mile and a mere 70 feet above the water. After that, it was locked away in hangars and later museums, accruing millions of dollars a year in maintenance costs.

And so it goes that Hughes’s Wikipedia page reads he was “known during his lifetime as one of the most financially successful individuals in the world.” Readers of Ryan Holiday’s Ego Is The Enemy, however, know better:

“Howard Hughes, like so many wealthy people, died in an asylum of his own making. He felt little joy. He enjoyed almost nothing of what he had. Most importantly, he wasted. He wasted so much talent, so much bravery, and so much energy.”

Howard Hughes Jr. withered away an entire lifetime pretending he was a genius inventor’s son, when that role was never really his to play. And we all do that. Playing characters we weren’t cast for.

For what it’s worth, Hughes was onto something with the title of his first of many failed movies: Everybody’s Acting.

Mirror, Mirror…

Bourne runs his fingers along the edges of the iron case. His gut tells him there’s more. With a clicking noise, the inlay comes loose. What’s revealed underneath is beyond anything his passport could tell him. Horrified, he stares at a gun, another dozen or so passports, and what looks to be at least $100,000 cash, spread across a variety of currencies. Clearly, Jason Bourne is not an average citizen. But, having lost his memory, he has no idea why.

Source

What’s most fascinating about the entire bank scene is that it manages to fill an eternity of five minutes of on-screen time with a mere nine lines of dialogue. It’s a thread that continues throughout the movie. The script is less than 7,500 words, whereas the average screenplay clocks in at almost twice that.

That’s because the story of Jason Bourne is the fictional equivalent of looking into a mirror for the first time in months: you don’t need words, you need context. Who’s that person? Why are they the way they are? Life is like that. We’re busy running around, checking items off lists, working towards some distant goal, and before we know it, we’ve changed beyond recognition.

Trying to make sense of ourselves, to shape a coherent picture, we each speak some 16,000 words a day, and oh, how we long for them to be definitive: “I’m bad at math,” “she’s pretty,” “he’s always been this way.” We’re tying up a parcel to then carry it around, like Bourne’s lock box. Or, as Naval Ravikant puts it:

“What we do is we accumulate all these habits. We put them in the bundle of identity, ego, ourselves, and then we get attached to that. I’m Shane. This is the way I am. I’m Naval. This is the way I am.”

It’s almost as if identity is antifragile. The heftier you shock the system, the harder the world pokes at the labels we so proudly sow on our souls, the more our identity crystallizes, refusing to change. The biases that cause this behavior are part of the human condition. Science confirms:

We are all Jason Bourne. We’ve played so many parts in so many movies that we’ve forgotten a whole bunch of them. And yet, they’re still there. Pieces of an incoherent puzzle. Every day, we build more towards assembling a self, chiseling an identity out of the marble, only to ultimately find we might not like what we’ve created.

Eventually, our roles will catch up to us. Especially if we let someone else write the script.

The Maze Inside Your Mind

Over the span of 14 years and five films, the Bourne movie series has been one of astronomic success, grossing over $1.6 billion. But if you draw a timeline of the full chronology and look at it closely, you’ll see the story ended after the first film. By the time the curtains close, Bourne knows who he is. Who he was. He then spends all subsequent movies trying to right yet another wrong someone else has dug up from his past. Always alive, but never truly living.

Bourne is stuck in what Ernest Becker would call an immortality project. An immortality trap, really. As Sam Keen writes in the foreword to Becker’s The Denial of Death:

“Society provides the second line of defense against our natural impotence by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth. We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to conquer an empire, to build a temple, to write a book, to establish a family, to accumulate a fortune, to further progress and prosperity, to create an information-society and global free market.”

We construct this conceptual self next to our physical self to infuse meaning into our lives, whether there actually is some or not. The reason this unconscious play always works is that it defers the result to when no one can hold us accountable to it: the time after we die. Becker’s big takeaway is that all of civilization is in a giant rat race for legacy, a race no one can really win.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

According to Bronnie Ware, palliative nurse and author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, this race for pleasing society, not living true to one’s self, but for what others expect, tops the list:

“Of all of the regrets and lessons shared with me as I sat beside their beds, the regret of not having lived a life true to themselves was the most common one of all. It was also the one that caused the most frustration, as the client’s realization came too late. “It’s not like I wanted to live a grand life,” Grace explained in one of many conversations from her bed. […] “But I wanted to do things for me too and I just didn’t have the courage.””

Whether you’re trying to build the world’s biggest plane or vindicate your former self, a life in service of such heavy legacy is a gamble. Whatever conceptual self you manage to assemble, it may not last, nor be perceived in any way as what you set out to make it. We’re always told our potential is limited by some piece missing from the identity puzzle. Supposedly, we lack discipline, or courage, or integrity, or all of them. I don’t think that’s our biggest hindrance.

Our biggest limiter of potential is that we don’t use the power to reinvent ourselves in any given minute.

Like Actors on a Stage

In 1979, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer gathered a group of men over 70 and arranged a five-day retreat for them in an old New Hampshire monastery. The only catch? They had to live, speak, and act as if it was 1959. More than an elaborate play, this study was supposed to resemble actual time travel. Each participant wrote a short biography of their 1959-self, the house was designed in contemporary style, magazines, newspapers, and books of the time were collected, and no talk of anything post-1959 was allowed.

When the men returned, they were not the same. In her account of the event, Counterclockwise, Langer writes:

“We retested all participants and found that indeed, the mind has enormous control over the body. […] On many of the measures, the participants got “younger.” The experimental group showed greater improvement on joint flexibility, finger length (their arthritis diminished and they were able to straighten their fingers more), and manual dexterity. On intelligence tests, 63 percent of the experimental group improved their scores. There were also improvements in height, weight, gait, and posture. Finally, we asked people unaware of the study’s purpose to compare photos taken of the participants at the end of the week to those submitted at the beginning of the study. These objective observers judged that all of the experimental participants looked noticeably younger at the end of the study.”

When they changed their identity, basically at will, their biology followed. Isn’t that against anything common sense would have us believe? But it’s not only science that shows how powerful flipping the script can be. Real actors sometimes do it too. Like Jim Carrey.

Source

When he was younger, he would visualize himself as a person of success in order to subconsciously steer his actions toward grand achievements. He once told Oprah about how he wrote himself a check for $10,000,000 and post-dated it five years, only to find out he would receive roughly this sum for his part in Dumb and Dumber, just before the deadline.

In recent years, however, he’s changed. Avoiding the spotlight, he’s picked up painting, directing, and often talks in riddles. When he does appear, he seems very present, but always enigmatic. What happened to him? In a 2017 interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, he helped us understand:

“I believe that I had to become a famous idea and get all the stuff that people dream about and accomplish a bunch of things that look like success in order to give up my attachment to those things.”

He then continues to explain that identity, like fame, money, or power, is nothing but a game:

“They’re all characters that I played. Including Jim Carrey, including Joel Barish, including any of those things. They’re all characters. Jim Carrey was a less intentional character, because I thought I was just building something that people would like, but it was a character. I played the guy that was free from concerns, so that people who watched me would be free from concern.

People talk about depression all the time. […] Depression is your body saying ‘fuck you, I don’t want to be this character anymore. I don’t want to hold up this this avatar that you’ve created in the world. It’s too much for me.’ A friend of mine who’s a spiritual teacher has a really good take on this. His name is Jeff Foster and he says that you should think of the word depressed as ‘deep rest.’ Deep. Rest. Your body needs to be depressed. It needs deep rest from the character that you’ve been trying to play.”

Right now, Jim Carrey is done playing the identity game. He knows he can pick it up whenever he wants and become whoever he wants. Like the men in the study, he’s not bound to the reality he lives in. He creates his own. But to do that, he doesn’t need to play a character:

“I have sadness and joy and elation and satisfaction and gratitude beyond belief, but all of it is weather. And it just spins around the planet.”

Nothing has happened to Jim Carrey. He has always taken himself apart and reassembled in new ways. The fact that we haven’t is what makes us feel weird about it.

Jim Carrey has, once again, happened to us. And now the ball is in our court.

Source

The Most Dangerous Drug in the World

“You move, you die.”

As Bourne confronts his persecutor at gunpoint, he finally gets to ask the question he’s been dying to get answers to:

“Who am I?”

His former supervisor isn’t too happy about Bourne’s loss of memory.

“You’re U.S. government property! You’re a malfunctioning $30 million weapon! You’re a total goddamn catastrophe!”

What Bourne suspected all along, his worst fears, they all seem to come true. He’s an assassin. And not just any assassin.

“I don’t send you to kill. I send you to be invisible. I send you because you don’t exist.”

Suddenly, a flashback hits Bourne. He remembers. The location. The target. The reason for his failure. His ex-boss can tell. And then, something fascinating happens.

“I don’t want to do this anymore.”

The second Bourne gets closure on his past identity, he abandons it, choosing his own side. Viewers jump in their seats. For the past two hours, they’ve watched Bourne at his best: being a chameleon with a fluid self, a man who can adapt to any circumstance. Through four languages, multiple break-ins, close quarters combat, wide range shooting, and a car chase, he’s proven situational awareness is his strength. And in that, you can’t afford to have a rusty identity.

Beggar or bellboy, detective or assassin, he must switch between these characters from one minute to the next. For him, it’s a matter of life and death. For us it may not be, but that’s what real antifragility looks like. In order for the system to grow from disorder, parts must be allowed to break, fast and often.

Out of all human ideas, identity might be the most overrated and, in fact, the most dangerous. It’s as addictive as other figurative drugs, like money, status, power, but you don’t have to get a hold of it first. It’s ever-present, already in your grasp, always on top of your mind.

And yet, every time you enter a room full of strangers, you get to reinvent yourself. You can choose to be fluid. Limitless. So much more than your passport. Use that power.

Like the man in an overly large shirt, who walks into a tiny scooter store in Greece, and, when asked if he has ID, only shrugs and says:

“Not really.”

Everything Popular Is Wrong Cover

Everything Popular Is Wrong

We remember Oscar Wilde as a poet, a playwright, a player who’d write. Most of us associate him with drama, both in his work and life. The Picture of Dorian Gray, a few pithy lines, an early death.

But when I look at the sea of thoughts that unravels when you click on the author of the most popular quote on Goodreads, I see none of that. I see a philosopher, full of contrarian ideas, paradoxes, and lots of new angles to look at life from.

They remind me of the beliefs of a philosopher we can still talk to: Naval Ravikant. After reflecting on an interview he did with Shane Parrish, I can’t help but notice that some of the most popular sentiments floating around Medium and the web are, well, just sentiments.

“Everything popular is wrong.” One of Wilde’s many polarizing statements. It may be hyperbole, but it’s a starting point for originality. In the echo chamber of self-improvement, some ideas have been circulating for so long, we’ve stopped questioning them.

What if we considered the possibility that these ideas are false?

1. Diversified Learning

The general consensus is that you should learn as much as you can, from as many sources as you can. When it comes to money, food, work, and material possessions, we all readily agree that more isn’t better. Why shouldn’t that apply to books? Illacertus thinks it should.

We rage against materialism, but we condone mental overstimulation. If you want to read 52 books each year, isn’t that just as much of a rat race as assembling a huge shoe collection? Why not pick your sources carefully and deeply understand them?

Maybe some of history’s greatest and time-tested books — the Bible, Tao Te Ching, Don Quixote, each hold all the advice you could ever need. Maybe, you just have to keep re-reading them. For almost all modern bestsellers, you can find a book that’s 50, 100, 500 years older and says the same thing – except it usually does it better.

The same applies to people.

2. Surrounding Yourself With Great People

We’ve all heard it a thousand times: “You are the average of the five people you surround yourself with.” We’re encouraged to keep running around, trying to find the best five people.

In reality, the only person you’re surrounded by 24/7/365 is you. Life is a single player game, as Naval puts it.

“Socially, we’re told, “Go work out. Go look good.” That’s a multi-player competitive game. Other people can see if I’m doing a good job or not.

When it comes to learn to be happy, that’s completely internal. No external progress, no external validation. 100% you’re competing against yourself, single-player game. We are such social creatures that we don’t know how to play and win at these single-player games anymore. We compete purely on multi-player games.

The reality is life is a single-player game. You’re born alone. You’re going to die alone. All of your interpretations are alone. All your memories are alone. You’re gone in three generations and nobody cares. Before you showed up, nobody cared. It’s all single-player.”

How many of your greatest insights, your most blissful moments, your most trialing challenges, how many of your “holy shits” and “oh my gods” and “I don’t knows” have happened in group sessions?

Mentors, teachers, motivators, these are all overrated. Learning to be with yourself and compete against yourself? That takes a lifetime.

3. Constant Growth

If you’re now scared because you think “Really? Living in my own head? Fighting my demons, all the time? Won’t I go mad?” then that’s an indicator for another common piece of advice gone awry. Because there’s so much motivation out there, we feel like we constantly have to keep working on ourselves.

But you know what? You don’t. You don’t need to move forward all the time. You can stand still, too. It’s just that no one tells you that’s okay. But maybe you want to take care of your kids, or your spouse, or help a friend. Or even do nothing for a while. What’s wrong with that?

What’s more, even when it comes to your bad habits, sometimes, you can just accept them. Make tradeoffs. I bite my nails while writing, all the time, but at least I write good stuff. I’m not gonna stop writing, even if it means I never stop biting my nails.

But maybe one day, I’ll stop both. It’s not like…

4. You Need an Identity to Have a Life

The reason we’re so easily sold on perpetual self-improvement is that we’re assembling a puzzle of who we are, and personal development feels like we’re filling in the gaps. With each new habit comes a new label you can put on yourself.

“What we do is we accumulate all these habits. We put them in the bundle of identity, ego, ourselves, and then we get attached to that. I’m Shane. This is the way I am. I’m Naval. This is the way I am.”

But that’s really all habits, goals, accomplishments are: Labels. The more proudly you wear them, the less you’ll be able to take them off when you need to.

Just because I’m introverted does not mean I can’t walk into any room and be the life of the party. I’m writing right now, but that doesn’t make me a writer for life. The more pieces you add to your identity construct, the easier it breaks. Identity is fragile. You aren’t.

If you put down the labeling machine, you can stay flexible and change your mind at a moment’s notice, if that’s the best option.

Who was this man? We’ll never really know.

5. Leaving a Legacy

Now, you might say “But who I am is important, because that’s what the world will remember me for.” It’s the ultimate reward for constantly growing, for shaping an identity worth admiring: legacy.

How ironic. We jump through all these hoops to get more control, to focus more on the knobs we can turn, to shape who we are, only to try and shoot for something that is completely out of our grasp. Isn’t that absurd?

No one cared about you for thousands of years before you were around and no one will thousands of years after you die. What difference does it make whether your book sells for 10 or 50 or 0 more years after you’re dead?

Imagine you couldn’t leave a legacy. Wouldn’t that allow you to focus more on what we need right here, right now? The only thing that’s guaranteed is the time that you’re here. Nothing that happened before, nothing that’ll happen after.

Maybe not even that.

6. Freedom Equals Happiness

If we’re not hustling for legacy, we’re hustling for freedom. Freedom to spend our time where we like, how we like, with whom we like. I’m guilty of this. We think all we need is money, health, and maximum choice, and then we’re free.

But maybe that’s just another self-constructed prison. Maybe there are diminishing returns to freedom. As Barry Schwartz explained, we experience anticipated regret whenever our pool of options grows too big. It hurts us even more than regretting a bad decision:

“Anticipated regret is in many ways worse, because it will produce not just dissatisfaction but paralysis. If someone asks herself how it would feel to buy this house only to discover a better one next week, she probably won’t buy this house.”

So mostly, we’re looking for the wrong kind of freedom. In the long run, travel won’t make you happier. First class seats won’t make you happier. An empty schedule won’t make you happier. But maybe not desiring those things will.

Naval says that’s because we can’t find true freedom on the outside:

“My old definition was ‘freedom to’, freedom to do anything I want. Freedom to do whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like. Now I would say that the freedom that I’m looking for is internal freedom.

It’s ‘freedom from.’ It’s freedom from reaction. It’s freedom from feeling angry. It’s freedom from being sad. It’s freedom from being forced to do things. I’m looking for freedom from internally and externally, whereas before I was looking for freedom to.”

You could be a wage slave or an actual slave, but still find happiness. Don’t put your discontent on a lack of external freedom. But maybe, even getting rid of that inner resistance is a mirage.

7. Happiness Is the End Game

I don’t like the word ‘happiness’ because it conjures such a distorted image. We connect it with excitement, with passion, with euphoria. It’s a state, a feeling, ‘happy,’ but turning it into a noun makes it feel permanent.

We now think we can reach a stage where we’re always in that state and that’s just not true, nor would we want to live that way.

“Happiness to me is mainly not suffering, not desiring, not thinking too much about the future or the past, really embracing the present moment and the reality of what is, the way it is. Nature has no concept of happiness or unhappiness. To a tree, there is no right or wrong. There is no good or bad.

Nature follows unbroken mathematical laws and a chain of cause and effect from the big bang to now. Everything is perfect exactly the way it is. It is only in our particular minds that we’re unhappy or not happy and things are perfect or imperfect because of what we desire.”

I think we should replace ‘happiness’ with ‘balance.’ It’s not about constant positivity, but about cultivating the belief that nothing’s missing. And there’s never anything missing.

The Only Thing That Remains

Sir Ken Robinson once explained why all children are geniuses:

“Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

“Everything popular is wrong.” No wonder we love kids. They misstep all the time, but they do it with bravado. What’s genius about this is not that they come up with so much original stuff. It’s that their default behavior remains the same in all of life’s situations: be true to yourself, whoever that is in any given moment.

What you learn, who you’re with, how fast you’re going, what people know you for, who will remember you, how free you are, and even whether you’re happy, none of these things matter.

What does is the one thing no one can ever take away from you: You are. Right here, right now. And it’ll always be this way.

Why Life's Biggest Limitation Will Make You Happier Cover

Why Life’s Biggest Limitation Will Make You Happier

One of Gandhi’s most popular quotes is this:

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Once we’ve gotten some much needed distance to whatever our education system forced us to remember, most of us rediscover the joy of voluntary learning at some point. Whether you like to research stocks, tend to your garden, or read books, self-improvement has many benefits.

Beyond satisfying our curiosity by regularly spending time in flow, we can use it to become better people, get what we want and solve problems. It seems so universal a tool that its usefulness feels limitless.

But that’s not the whole story. No matter how much we’d like it to, self-improvement isn’t a magic wand we can wave to cause whatever change we want to see. That’s because no amount of reading, learning, or even discipline can ever change that life still consists entirely of tradeoffs.

It’s like that line: “You can have anything you want, but not everything.” Choosing one thing always means not choosing another, so even if you’re the most dedicated person in the world, you still have to decide what to dedicate yourself to.

No idea highlights this problem better than The Four Burners Theory.

Two Out of Four

Imagine a stove with four burners on it, which represent the big aspects of your life:

  1. Family.
  2. Friends.
  3. Work.
  4. Health.

Now, the theory says that in order to be successful, you can only turn on three burners at a time. If you want to be exceptional, it’s just two.

The second you hear this theory, you know it’s true. Take a moment to think. Which burners have you cut off? For me it’s friends and health. If I had to put percentages on it, I’d say work is at 80%, family at 15%, and friends get a crippling 5%. Almost out of oxygen. Ouch.

This theory explains why we’re frustrated, no matter how much we improve. Sooner or later, we find out self-improvement isn’t the universal remedy it is often claimed to be, and we want answers. Why can’t I have everything? Why?

Of course we never could, we’ve just fooled ourselves into believing we can over time.

The Four Burners Theory was originally just mentioned in passing in a New Yorker article, but James Clear popularized it. He also offered different views on what you can do about this problem.

  • Be imbalanced. Sacrifice your health, or friends, or work and say “screw it, that’s just what it is.”
  • Be mediocre. Do turn up all burners, but just enough to get by. As a result, you’ll go long in life, just never far.
  • Outsource stuff. If you make more money, you can hire a chef, or a trainer, or pay a nanny to take care of your kids. All of these have limitations of their own, of course.
  • Set constraints. “I’ll work 70 hours a week on becoming a millionaire, but not a single one more.” “Monday night is date night.” And so on.

All of these feel like weak attempts at bypassing the problem. If you’re a dedicated self-improvement nerd like me, you want a solution. Luckily, it seems there is one.

A Life for All Seasons

James says our default in which burners we turn up is to imitate the inspiring figures in our lives. If your boss is a workaholic, you’ll likely turn into one too and if your fellow students mostly hang out with one another, so will you.

That’s nice if those burners happen to match the ones you would’ve chosen, but if not, you have a problem. Life forces you to choose either way, but if you’re not the one picking, you’ll end up with a lot of regrets.

Besides starting to make the choice, Nathan Barry suggests living your life in seasons. Yes, it sucks to compromise, but no one said you have to stick with one compromise for the rest of your life.

In high school, my friends and family burners were turned up all the way. In college, that shifted to friends and work, then work and health and now, I’m on work and family. Next year? Who knows.

It’s a little tweak to that line from earlier, but it makes all the difference: “You can have anything you want, maybe even everything, just not all at once.”

Right now, I’m laying the foundation of the rest of my working life and spending what little time I have with the people I care about the most. In exchange, I can’t see my friends every day and I might not be in perfect shape.

I can be okay with that. And that’s the whole point.

Half of Happiness

When you work hard in your career, on your body, for your relationships, you can achieve a lot. You should. But if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

Don’t expect your dedication to becoming better to absolve you of all problems. Self-improvement, like all tools, is imperfect. Embracing the Four Burners Theory can make you happier, because it allows you to not fret over what you’re temporarily missing out on.

That’s the solution, I think. We don’t need to look for a bypass. We can just accept the problem and that’ll do.

Half of happiness is being okay with what you don’t get.

Sometimes, it helps to remember that, in spite of what Gandhi said, tomorrow will be another day.

Death Is What Gives Life Meaning Cover

The Biggest Paradox in Life

In Marvel’s Dr. Strange, there is a scene where he and his mentor are standing at a window, looking out on a titanic thunderstorm.

The Ancient One, who’s lived for hundreds of years, gives Dr. Strange a piece of advice for the final challenge he must face.

Dr. Strange: I’m not ready.

The Ancient One: No one ever is. We don’t get to choose our time. Death is what gives life meaning. To know your days are numbered; your time is short.

Almost a year after seeing the film, I still remember this scene most vividly.

The only reason our lives have meaning is that they end.

From the moment we’re born, we’re thrown on to an unstoppable curve of momentum, slingshotting towards the only definite event in life: death.

Think about it. Everything that makes life great is fleeting.

  • Your ice cream tastes so good because it’s about to melt.
  • Time with your partner is precious because you can kiss them only a finite number of times.
  • Your grand mission to change the world is urgent because you don’t know how long you have to accomplish it.

Every single experience that makes our time here worthwhile goes back to that time being over soon. No one wants to live forever once they’ve lived long enough. And yet dying is what we’re most afraid of.

It’s the biggest paradox in life.

The next time your ice cream falls on the floor, your heart is broken or you have to let go of a dream, remember this:

Death is what gives life meaning. We don’t get to choose our time.

But each second passed is a second that made it more precious. No matter how you spent it.

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The Painful Truth About Art

On July 20th, 2017, Chester Bennington died by suicide. He was 41 years old. You may not know who Chester is, but you might recognize this picture:

It’s a bit old, here’s a more recent one with his friend Mike:

He was my friend too. Chester wasn’t the kind of friend you could call on a Thursday and grab a coffee with. No, he wasn’t like that.

But whenever you needed him, Chester would sing for you.

When I was 13, I was angry a lot. I was angry at my parents, angry at my friends, but mostly angry at myself for not knowing who I was.

I think that’s normal. I think all 13-year old boys are angry. When he sang, Chester was angry a lot too. You could hear it in his voice. And somehow, every time he was done singing, I didn’t feel so angry any more.

My friends from school were angry a lot too. Andy and Flo and Nils and Max. Whenever we’d saved some money, we’d go to the store and buy some of Chester’s CDs. I even remember the plastic bag I carried them around in.

If you still have CDs somewhere, maybe you have some of Chester’s CDs too.

A lot of people have the top left one. Chester’s band has sold more records than any other band in this century. They just released a new album and were supposed to go on world tour next week.

Today I realized that a lot of the greatest art we have the privilege to feel, breathe and live comes from a dark place.

Sometimes, the artist doesn’t make it back from that place. For more than half of my life, Chester went there so I and millions of other people wouldn’t have to.

Only this time, he didn’t find his way home.

I wish I could have just told him he didn’t have to go there any more. That it’s okay if he wanted to stay home a little longer. But that’s not how the world works.


Another great artist recently said you die twice:

“Once when they bury you in the grave and the second time is the last time that somebody mentions your name.”

I hope that’s true.

I’ll tell my children about Chester. I’ll ask him to sing for them when they’re angry. Maybe they’ll tell their children too and he won’t really die for a long time.

But today my friend Chester stopped singing and that made me sad.