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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You Must Meme Your Dreams Into Existence Cover

You Must Meme Your Dreams Into Existence

Why is America “The Greatest Country in the World™?”

Unlike Italy (Caesar), Greece (Alexander the Great), and Mongolia (Genghis Khan), America never ruled half the known world. In fact, America is only 200 years old. It’s one of the youngest countries of all.

So why do they get that slogan? America gets that slogan because for all 200 of those years, they’ve been yelling it at the top of their lungs. When the founding fathers put their signatures on that document, they said: “This is what makes a country great.”

Ever since, America at large has been saying, “Look! This is what makes a country great. And we’re doing it! Look at us! That is why our country is the greatest.” It’s marketing — but it works.

“Which country is the best?” is a stupid question, of course, but let’s ignore that for a second. For any of the years it has existed, including this one, you could argue a thousand ways that America is not the greatest country in the world. You could use facts. You could use opinions. You could use ideas. What about originally taking the land from Native Americans? What about slavery? What about the problems with energy, finance, poverty, food, race, and a million other things? Every country has problems. America is no exception.

And yet, if you could put your ear on the global chatter-chamber, you’d find there’s no debate: By and large, people around the world agree that the USA are “The Greatest Country in the World™.” It might not be more than half the global population, but it sure is a hell of a lot more than just the 328 million people who live there. How many dream of moving to the USA? Billions.

USA wins, and it wins because when it comes to “the country reputation scoreboard,” Americans have made up a competition and declared themselves the winner. They’ve memed the outcome they wanted into existence, and even if the memes were just made up, the result is very much real.

Achieving your dreams works the exact same way.

The sooner you wrap your head around the fact that all large-scale change must — in large part — be memed into existence, the better. It’s not all of it but most of it.

Most people don’t want to accept this. People who don’t understand Bitcoin, the GameStop drama, or how Trump could ever win the election want logical explanations for why things work.

“But it’s not backed by anything.”

“But it’s not a good stock fundamentally.”

“But he’s not equipped to be president.”

The truth is most things work because we collectively decide they should. Much more so than with facts and figures, we back them with belief — and human belief is one of the most powerful forces in the world. The story matters more than the data.

If we could travel through time and be there for some of the big moments of history, we’d understand this much faster. Imagine how skeptical the first users of paper US dollars must have been. “What the hell is this? I can’t bite on it to verify it’s real. It’s just paper!” Imagine how freaked out people were by the first light bulbs. “It must be witchcraft! They should hang this Edison guy.”

Early on, Martin Luther King was just a hot-headed guy with crazy ideas. So were Newton, Steve Jobs, Lady Gaga, and Amelia Earhart. Then, the story changed.

When you actively try to change your story, you are taking back your power. You’re starting to meme your dreams into existence.

There’s a great scene in The Dark Knight where Alfred explains why Bruce doesn’t have what it takes to defeat Bane: “I see the power of belief.”

A few weeks ago, Jake Paul knocked out Ben Askren in the first round. How can a Youtuber (repeatedly) beat professionals? Training, circumstance, luck — sure, but at some point, you have to admit: “I see the power of belief.”

Ten days before the fight, one of Jake’s security guards died. That guard told Jake he had a dream of him knocking out Ben in the first round. Imagine what it feels like to fight for that. Imagine the power of belief. Can you feel it? Goosebumps.

Of course, Batman ultimately does defeat Bane, but not because of his renewed physical strength, better gadgets, or smarter ideas. He wins because he fights for something bigger, something he believes in so much that he makes all the above happen in the first place. Belief is a self-reinforcing loop.

If you want something, you need to tell yourself a story that leads to it. In that story, you must be the hero. Then, you keep telling it to yourself and everyone you come across.

“I’ll write the most popular young adult novel ever.”

“I’ll be the first person on Mars.”

“I’ll make green beans the most desirable food in the world.”

It matters not how asinine or unrealistic the story is. What matters is that it offers the power of belief — to others, but especially to you. You don’t need the facts on your side because if you persist with your story, the data will change over time.

When it comes to understanding what happens in the world as well as making your dreams a reality, the story isn’t everything, but it’s probably more than half. In today’s world of global awareness and instant story-spreading, don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do. Decide what the story will be, then insist on it with your words and actions. One day, it is bound to happen.

Just like, one day, someone decided America should be the greatest country in the world — and today, that’s a story billions of people believe.

How to End an Email Cover

How to End an Email: Which Sign-Off Most Likely Leads to a Response?

For all the energy you put into your mails, you’re neglecting the one element that’s most crucial in determining whether you’ll receive a reply: the ending.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

You’ve spent hours deliberating over your email subject line and its content. Will this word get them to open my message? Am I rambling? How can I get my request across in the most concise and considerate way?

You’ve worried about the first sentence, the second, and you’ve re-written both of them a dozen times. And then? Then you hit ‘Send’ without spending one thought on which words your recipient will read right before they decide if they’ll respond or not.

It’s easy to understand why your email’s subject line is all-important: If it doesn’t get the receiver to open your message, all hope is lost. Similarly, it’s clear that if you waste the first few seconds of someone’s attention, they won’t give you any more of it. What’s less obvious but also true is that if your email leaves a bad taste in someone’s mouth at the end, that person won’t reply.

Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman found evidence across several studies for something he dubbed “the peak-end rule.” The peak-end rule suggests we judge and remember experiences mostly based on how they feel at their most intense moments and right before they end.

If you’ve ever gone to a great party only to have the night ruined by someone spilling their drink over you just before you left, you know this is true. Chances are, you still remember it as “a bad night,” even if everything leading up to the last-minute mishap was perfect. The peak-end rule affects all of us, all the time, and so a good rule for closing your emails is this: Don’t spill your drink on people’s shoes before you leave.

This isn’t to say you’re actively killing people’s vibe in your sign-offs. You likely don’t end your emails with, “So long, sucker!” (if you do, please stop.) But are you doing your best to not just not ruin people’s day but make it better and increase your chances of getting a response in the process? Probably not. You might even have a generic signature that attaches “Best,” or “Regards” without you even choosing a particular sign-off phrase for any given email — and it torpedoes your response probability for every email you send.

In 2017, the company behind the Boomerang plugin for Gmail analyzed 350,000 email closings. They found the following three phrases most increased the likelihood of a response, somewhere from 22% to 38% when compared to the baseline:

  1. “Thanks in advance” (65.7% absolute response rate)
  2. “Thanks” (63% absolute response rate)
  3. “Thank you” (57.9% absolute response rate)

Gratitude. Who would’ve thought? Adam Grant, author of Give and Take and psychology professor at Wharton, concluded in a 2010 study: “Gratitude expressions increase prosocial behavior by enabling individuals to feel socially valued,” which is a fancy way of saying what the title of the study suggests: a little thanks goes a long way.

In the experiment, college students received an email asking them for help with a cover letter, some of which ended on “Thank you so much!” while others didn’t. More than twice as many people offered support when gratitude was expressed in advance. This may seem like common sense, but, apparently, we’re often lacking it when closing our emails.

In Boomerang’s study, phrases that didn’t perform so well in eliciting a response were “Cheers,” “Kind regards,” “Regards,” “Best regards,” and — ironically worst of all — “Best.” While you may not want to lean on “Thanks in advance” too much — it’s a bit presumptuous and can feel passive-aggressive, a simple “Thanks” will get most people to respond to your emails.

Don’t waste your effort building beautiful digital paper planes by skimping on the last few characters before they reach the finish line. Think about how you end your emails. Last words matter, even here — and, often, a simple “Thanks” will do.

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.

You Can’t Change The Whole World On Purpose Cover

You Can’t Change The Whole World On Purpose

I’m a writer. In my mind, my essays help people think. To see straight in a world that bends our perspective. Maybe they do. Sometimes, they probably don’t. And though I’m proud of the body of work I’ve built, I recently realized that one of the biggest aspects of my career is completely out of my hands:

Will it spark a movement?

This is true for any artist, entrepreneur, researcher and self-starter. Most of us have big ambitions. I know I do. We want to change the world. The problem is you can’t do it on purpose. All you can do is lead with intent.

Think about the word ‘movement’ and how often you hear it these days. Everyone seems to be starting a movement. There’s your neighbor’s arts and crafts community, your local micro-gardening Facebook group, and the new hip fusion restaurant everyone raves about. But those are not real movements.

They’re not real movements because they never go anywhere. There’s no cause, no destination. They’re brands and their followers merely tolerate their presence or enjoy it at best. A movement is about what people do after they come in touch with your brand. Do they say “okay” and open their inbox for you? Or do they grab a spear and volunteer to be your second-in-command?

The distinction is as much a matter of motivation as it is of communication. Changing yourself is hard. Changing others is even harder. But if you don’t tell them what change you’re here to make, why would they join? There’s nowhere to go to. No cause, no destination. And because cause is different from brand, most people and companies never consciously choose one.

Brand is what people see, what you can cultivate and create the appearance of. Cause is what people feel. What their gut tells them about why you do what you do. What changes they want to make because of you.

My brand might be about thinking, about learning, about new perspectives and self-improvement. But if a movement were to follow, it’d likely stand for itself. A separate, second entity with a life of its own. Because it’s not based on my brand, but a side-effect, rooted in the cause I stand for.

That cause might be defeating the stereotype of the starving artist. Or finding meaning in disciplined craftsmanship. Or speaking up for the necessity of art in a science-driven world. But it depends on what I’m doing more so than on what I’m creating.

If you follow me, where will I lead you to? It’s “do as I do,” not “do as I say.”

And so it goes that the culture of a movement is never fully intentional. Only the cause is. If anything, trying to dictate the character of a movement hurts your chances. It’s noble to want to leave the world better than we found it, but constantly announcing this takes away a large chunk of that nobleness.

That’s why no one likes the vegans plastering “meat is murder” across the cafeteria wall. Rescuing an animal, not eating one, these are actions that move animal rights forward. Telling everyone they should do the same doesn’t. It’s just presumptuous. You’re branding yourself. But you’re not moving anyone. Because you’re changing what we see, not how we feel.

Your cause is yours to live and yours alone. It’s on us to choose to follow.

We forget this. Partly because our noisy, internet-fueled, global conversations have made it seem like raising awareness is about talking. It’s not. It’s a matter of doing things worth talking about. The other reason we forget is that branding is a lot more comfortable than leading. Leading is lonely.

All you can do is take a stand. And, without the announcement, you don’t get any brownie points for it. You have to hold it. Day-in and day-out. And there’s no guarantee anyone will follow. That’s not fair. But it’s the right thing to do.

Look around and you’ll see it’s true. That that’s how they did it. The greats.

Gandhi promised to walk to Dandi and make salt. The thousands that followed did so of their own accord. Bruce Lee decided to create his own style of martial arts fighting. It was so remarkable that people said: “Teach me.” And if the first Harry Potter book had flopped, I’m sure JK would’ve published the rest anyway. She’d already gone through 12 publishers to do the first.

But the culture of satyagraha, of The Way of the Intercepting Fist, of what makes a Potterhead — that was never theirs to determine.

This is both intimidating and wonderful. It’s scary to admit something’s outside your control, yet keep working for it. But it’s nice to know that, as long as you stand up for what you believe, the world will fall into place.

The truth is most of us will never change the world. Or even a large part of it. Most of us will never start real movements. Because we’re not meant to. Because our timing’s off. Because the spark doesn’t catch fire. That’s okay.

But we all stand for something. We all represent a cause, conscious or not.

Choosing your cause and acting on it, leading the way there with intent, will always be a big service to some of us. We all have friends. Peers, coworkers, families. Don’t underestimate the impact of this service. It’s always worth doing, regardless of who chooses to follow.

But if you really want to change the world, leading with intent towards a certain cause is an absolute necessity. Because 90% of it isn’t up to you, and this is the 10% that is.

Go on. Think hard. It takes time. But when you find something worth standing for, plant your flag. Commit for the long haul. Stay on higher ground. Keep walking until you’re there.

And when you finally turn around, you’ll know if we chose to follow.

The Road Not Taken Analysis Cover

Why Is “The Road Not Taken” One of the Most Famous Poems of All Time?

I’m sure you recognize this fragment:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — 
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It’s from The Road Not Taken, written by Robert Frost in 1916, one of the most popular poems of all time. People read, talk about, and teach it in schools all around the world to this day. But in order to survive for over 100 years, the poem couldn’t just be popular.

It also needed enemies.

A Pitting Competition

There’s a saying that the best art divides the audience. Sure enough, much like the two roads in the woods, Frost’s poem offers vastly diverging interpretations of life.

One is that you should always take the less traveled path, make your own choices, and be an independent thinker. The other is that even trying to do so is nonsense. Maybe the narrator sighs not because he’s content to take an untrodden path, but because he regrets he can take only one, when, in reality, the choice doesn’t matter and both end up in the same place.

Whether it was a planned move on Frost’s end or just one of the many accidental fires started by humanity, the ambiguity was brilliant. The poem created two completely opposite camps, the freedom fighters and the nihilists, and pitted them against one another.

But there’s even more to the story.

Life in Three Words

Throughout his career, Frost received 40 honorary degrees, 31 Nobel Prize nominations, 4 Pulitzer Prizes and the Congressional Gold Medal. Clearly, the man had a lot to say. This clever line is now one of the most popular quotes on Goodreads:

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

— Robert Frost

Again, readers are forced to self-select into two camps: those, who feel some sense of relief and take it as a case for optimism, and those, who are turned off by this bland way of looking at the world.

But there’s something beyond that: It’s impossible to argue with this statement. It’s true. Period. With or without you, life goes on. Think about it. It’s all there. The short highs of your success. The long troughs of failure. The laughs and cries, love and grief, people and the weather. Even death. Its inevitability. Our helplessness in the face of the insignificance of our own existence.

It’s so depressing, so surrendering, that one can’t help but admire it. It’s beautiful. Or, you can react with rage and hate it to the core. Like author Michael Lewis once overheard in random conversation in a bar, somewhere in Washington, D.C.:

“Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.”

There’s nothing more divisive than the truth.

Finding the Kernel

There are many ways to make points that ring like truths that are hard to debate. Like stating an actual fact, as in the quote. Or picking an everyday situation literally everyone can relate to, like the poem — we’ve all had to choose between two options before. You could also be vague, obscure, or posit something absurd, or unverifiable.

But no matter how small or how hard to find, it’s this kernel of universal truth that makes Frost’s poems great art. Here’s the thing, though: There are two camps of everything. More, even. Five, twenty, ten thousand. And truth splits them all, right down the middle. This phenomenon extends not just beyond poetry to all art, but to all of life. Politics, family, relationships, business, school, work, health, you name it, whoever vows the world with the most elemental, poignant insight will take center stage.

And that’s why creating, succeeding — sometimes just living — is hard. Because the world pushes you to deliver your most honest, vulnerable self. All the time. Maybe that’s why people hate poetry. You have to stare at it all, the beauty and the trauma, until you can see through it. But looking is too painful, too overwhelming, or too difficult, so most people turn their eyes away too early.

And then they quote the people who didn’t.

A Lesson About Art To Remember

Besides the fact that art is hard, there’s another big lesson here. No matter how hard they worked to share it, the best art is never about the artist.

The best art is always about you.

It’s you and your version of the truth that make art, business, and life, really, things worth talking about, worth debating, worth fighting for. That’s the kicker, I think. Without you, it’d all amount to nothing. Like that fork in the woods, before whoever stands there chooses a road.

Even if you’re not an artist, you’re part of it all. You split the audience too. You’re a great work of art. And we really need you here. So remember, no matter how many people hate you, or love you, or just don’t care: Life goes on.

How To Survive as a Writer Cover

How To Survive as a Writer

Being a writer is hard. In an interview, storytelling legend and screenwriting teacher to the stars, Robert McKee, explains:

“Your job as a writer is to make sense out of life. Comic or tragic and anything in between, but you have to make sense out of life. You understand what that means? Making sense out of life? And this is why most people can’t do it. Because they can’t make sense out of life, let alone make sense out of life and then express it in writing.”

As writers, it’s our duty to live in our heads. And there’s no place more enticing, more exciting, yet at the same time more dangerous and more terrifying than the human mind. Time and again, we have to venture into this place from which some never make it back. Whatever we bring home we have to process, to shape, to form. Until somehow, something worth saying emerges, which often never happens. And so we have to go back.

For the times we do go “oh, that’s interesting,” we then have to chisel an arrow out of the marble block of messy information. An arrow loaded with emotion, dipped in reason, and wrapped in gold. Because otherwise, it’ll never land in the reader’s heart. And at the end of it?

After all the turmoil, the struggle, and the pain, the best we can do is fire the arrow into a sea of dark faces. Because even if we don’t play for the applause, in the end, our fate lies in the hands of the audience. Always. So the best we can do is show up, shoot, and pray.

See What I Did There?

If you’re a writer, there’s a good chance that whatever advice I was going to share next, you’d listen. You might not take it, but at least, you’d consider it. Why? Because from the first line, you empathized with me. I’m a writer too. You get that. You agree that it’s hard. You get me. And I get you. Empathy is the single most valuable reaction you can trigger in a reader.

We just established how tough a job writing is. Getting your reader to the point where they’d even consider what you have to say next? That’s the dream. In fact, if you can’t trigger empathy in the first paragraph, the first chapter, the first episode, your arrow will never hit its mark.

That’s the real lesson I learned from Robert McKee.

“You have to feel there’s a shared humanity. Without empathy, there’s no involvement. Empathy is so powerful, it builds in long form. Season after season, these people become your friends. You worry about them. You think about them more than you do [about] your friends.”


A Bed in a Corn Field

There’s an old, famous German pop singer. His name is Jürgen Drews. In 1976, he had his big breakthrough with a song entitled ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld’ (‘A Bed In A Corn Field’). It was a cover of the Bellamy Brothers’s ‘Let Your Love Flow.’ Right after the original hit’s five-week #1 run, his German adaptation topped the billboard charts for another eleven weeks. He performed the song all over the place. A star was born.

In the 80s, Drews tried to break through internationally, but never took off. He had a few minor hits, but mostly, people still wanted to hear ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld.’ In 1995, he re-recorded the song, and again, it was a big hit. Since 1999, he’s known as the ‘King of Mallorca,’ German tourists’ #1 party destination with lots of cheap beer, light entertainment, and forgettable events.

Drews still goes there every holiday season, where he performs ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld’ every night. He gets up to $20,000 for as little as 20 minutes of showmanship. And he hates it. He’s 73, on his third wife, and he looks tired.

Jürgen Drews never managed to spark his audience’s empathy.

He built his entire career on one cover song. ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld’ is the only thing we’ll ever remember him for. Jürgen Drews is famous, rich, and successful. But he’s also miserable. Because he couldn’t make sense out of life.

Divide and Prosper

Here are the first lines from some of my latest articles:

None of them are perfect, but all of them offer the reader a chance to empathize. They’re opinions, experiences, quotes. A few of which you may relate to, some of which you might recognize, but all of which you can agree or disagree with.

Rick Rubin says the best art divides the audience. The point is not to hook the most readers possible. The point is to not end like Jürgen Drews.

No Such Thing as Writing

McKee says his seminars are no walk in the park. He wants it that way:

“One of my missions in these lectures is to drive dilettantes out the door. There’s a certain kind of person who would teach a subject like this and pretend anybody can do it. ‘Anybody can do it, all you have to do is some formula,’ and that’s just bullshit. Hardly one person in a hundred can do it, truth be told. And I make that really clear to them. You’re in over your heads. You’ve got no idea how difficult this is. If you love the art in yourself, you will survive.”

To love the art in yourself is to have empathy when you look into the mirror. Because that’s where it starts. An old industry adage says there’s no such thing as writing, just rewriting. What it really means is forgive yourself.

Stephen King once wrote a sports column for his town’s weekly newspaper. When he submitted his first piece, the editor crossed out a few rumors, fixed some facts, and removed most of the adjectives. Then he gave King the best writing advice he ever got:

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

You can’t make sense out of life in a single story and you certainly can’t do it on the first try. It takes compassion to accept that. If you can’t do that, the best you can hope for is ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld.’

Being a writer is hard. But it beats telling the same story for the rest of your life. Cut yourself some slack. Love the art in yourself. And if you don’t feel empathy in the first line?

Then you rewrite the intro.

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Use This Storytelling Framework to Craft Amazing Narratives

There is a class of entertainment that is underrated, in spite of its external success: stories about telling stories. Hit shows like How I Met Your Mother, Suits, or Gilmore Girls and blockbusters like Ocean’s Eleven, the Bourne movies, and Fight Club all thrive on their characters’ abilities to launch into enchanting monologues at a second’s notice.

Whoever asks Barney Stinson about his playbook, platinum rule, or Valentine’s Day can expect a full-fledged fake history lesson. Despite what the gang might say, they love it. Because who tells stories like that?

Sometimes, life throws us the same opportunity to tell a story however we want to tell it. It might be an essay for a job application, a speech to your old class, or a new acquaintance asking about a childhood experience. But we’re not a character in a movie, so we never have those stories locked and loaded and often butcher them as a result.

How can we change that?

The Universal Principles of Storytelling

Steven Pressfield laid out a framework in Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t. He calls it the universal principles of storytelling:

1) Every story must have a concept. It must put a unique and original spin, twist or framing device upon the material.
2) Every story must be about something. It must have a theme.
3) Every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Act One, Act Two, Act Three.
4) Every story must have a hero.
5) Every story must have a villain.
6) Every story must start with an Inciting Incident, embedded within which is the story’s climax.
7) Every story must escalate through Act Two in terms of energy, stakes, complication and significance/meaning as it progresses.
8) Every story must build to a climax centered around a clash between the hero and the villain that pays off everything that came before and that pays it off on-theme.

Since reading the book, I have run nearly all my articles through this framework. This has led to some of my biggest hits so far. I’ve gathered the cornerstone elements into a template you can copy:

Act 1 - Hook:
Inciting Incident:
Act 2 - Build:
All is Lost:
Act 3 - Payoff:

But how do you use it?

Photo by 贝莉儿 NG on Unsplash

How to Not Forget the Books

There’s a How I Met Your Mother episode in which Ted starts his own architecture firm, Mosbius Designs. One afternoon, Robin walks into Ted lost in thought, who responds to her prompt with the following:

“What if I don’t think of the books?”

“Excuse me?”

“There’s this famous architecture story about an architect who designed this library. It was perfect. But every year, the whole thing would sink a couple inches into the ground. Eventually, the building was condemned.

He forgot to account for the weight of the books.

This company, it’s just me. What if I don’t think of the books?”

Like the library in Ted’s example, any story that doesn’t rest on the foundational pillars of Steve’s framework is bound to crumble. And even though accounting for the principles of storytelling doesn’t guarantee it’ll be well received, a story built this way always ‘works.’

Case in point, here’s what the screenwriters might’ve put into the template for Ted’s five-sentence story:

Ted's Library Story
Theme: The flawed nature of human short-term thinking.
Concept: A project is never just about building what you set out to build.
Hero: The architect.
Villain: His narrow, short-term perspective.
Act 1 - Hook: An architect designs a beautiful library but forgets to account for the statics of the building once it's in use.
Inciting Incident: The plans pass all stages without the mistake being noticed.
Act 2 - Build: A year after the grand opening, problems begin to show up in the basement, which keep getting worse every year.
Escalation: Year after year, repairmen and investigators return to figure out the problem.
All is Lost: Eventually, a report shows the building is sinking into the ground.
Breakthrough: The architect realizes the sinking is caused by the weight of the books.
Act 3 - Payoff: The building is condemned and the architect is right back to where he started.
Climax: An official tells the architect the building will be shut down. This leads to the architect sitting over his original plan at night, all by himself, having a drink and facing the pain of his short-term thinking.

It might have collapsed into a few lines, but since this kind of thought went into it, intuitively the story still makes perfect sense. It feels right. And while there are no hard rules here, this is what I think about for each element:

  • Theme: The underlying topic of it all. The bigger the theme, the more powerful the story. Love, time, identity — every human has to deal with these.
  • Concept: Look at the topic from a new angle, one that few people would ever consider on their own.
  • Hero: Who rides the rollercoaster of hook, build, and payoff? This needn’t be a person.
  • Villain: Who puts the hero on that rollercoaster and tries to throw him or her off during the ride? This can also be a mistake or the state of the hero’s mind.
  • Act 1 – Hook: The overarching sequence of events that pulls the reader or listener into the story.
  • Inciting Incident: The event that officially kicks off the story. It usually involves the hero and the villain, and the climax will bring them right back to it.
  • Act 2 – Build: The overarching sequence of events that escalates the hero’s trauma, known to them or not, until they’re forced to do something.
  • Escalation: The villain’s main act of the show.
  • All is Lost: The hero’s lowest point.
  • Breakthrough: The moment of insight that forces the hero on the only possible path: to fight the villain. This could be a brilliant idea or a sobering realization. It doesn’t indicate the hero will win.
  • Act 3 – Payoff: The overarching sequence of events that resolves all the conflicts built up to this point by forcing the hero and villain to face one another.
  • Climax: The hero and the villain clash. Whatever the outcome, it must close all the boxes that have been opened up to this point.

Whether you sit down with this template before you even begin a story, think of it as you’re telling it, or use it to review one you’ve already shared, it will allow you to condense the story into one coherent web of reason and emotion that connects right with your audience’s soul.

For example, when I wrote Why Losers Will One Day Rule The World, I watched and read a ton about The Gambler. Then, I filled in the template before I started writing.

Why Losers Will One Day Rule The World
Theme: Learning to accept our insignificance so that we can start.
Concept: If you don’t know what you want, starting with something arbitrary will ironically help you get there.
Hero: The reader who says “screw it, I’m already a loser, I might as well go for broke.”
Villain: The voice in your head that wants us to settle for mediocrity.
Act 1 - Hook: If you’re not a genius, should you really just give up?
Inciting Incident: Gregor Mendel found out that genetics favor certain traits over others. As a result, life is naturally unfair.
Act 2 - Build: Some people win the genetic lottery twice, while others lose twice. That's depressing, but there is a stabilizing element that somehow makes life fair again for all.
Escalation: Examples of genetic lottery winners and losers.
All is Lost: In face of mediocrity and a sea of mediocre options, some people choose nihilism. That’s a bad solution.
Breakthrough: Both the genius and the generalist have to gamble to make it. No one really wins the lottery.
Act 3 - Payoff: If you have to gamble anyway, choose an arbitrary goal, so you can at least start going somewhere.
Climax: We all have to gamble, so we’re all losers in a way. Only when we accept our loser status can we be free.

For others, like You Don’t Need An Identity To Have A Life, I started writing with a blank slate. All I had was the theme. Then, I used the template to fill in gaps as I went, move around sections, and drop in ideas. I didn’t have a concept until the very end, and I didn’t use some ideas at all.

You Don’t Need An Identity To Have A Life
Theme: Identity is dangerous. You’re stronger without it.
Hero: Jason Bourne.
Villain: The voice in your head that says, “I am this way and I always will be.”
Act 1 - Hook: Howard Hughes wasted his entire life playing a genius inventor’s son when that role was never really his to play. And we all do that. Playing roles that we were never cast for.
Inciting Incident: Jason Bourne finds out his name, but he has no idea who the person behind that name is.
Act 2 - Build: Every day, we’re building more towards assembling a self and hardening our identity, only to ultimately find out we might not like what we’ve created.
Escalation: Bourne finds out he’s a killer.
All is Lost: Quote from Denial of Death. Wasting your life in service of building a conceptual self that may not last, nor be perceived in any way as what you set out to make it.
Breakthrough: We're like actors on a stage (Counterclockwise Study). Our identity is like the weather (Jim Carrey).
Act 3 - Payoff: Bourne’s fluid identity is his strength. Justin Timberlake’s too (muted). More examples? Frank Abagnale! How far he got! Ending: Bourne says “not really.”
Climax: Bourne abandons his former identity the second he finds out what it was, choosing his fluid self over any sort of crystallized version in an instant, in spite of having worked so hard to find out who this former self was.

I’m far from an expert in using this template and I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything there is to know about telling stories. But at least now I don’t forget the books.

Photo by Sylvia Yang on Unsplash

Everything Is a Story

We might not be film characters, but if you think about it, our opportunities to tell stories are not rare. They’re omnipresent. We tell stories all the time. In fact, we do little else. A phone call is a story. A sales pitch is a story. Dinner with friends is a story. And so is this post.

When Harvey Specter, Rory Gilmore, and Tyler Durden raise their voices, we listen. Not because they know how to talk, but because they know how to lead. That’s what storytelling really is. Human communication 101. We’ll never run as smoothly as characters on a script, but if we fail at the basics, if we forget to account for the books, we miss out on a whole lot more than the corner office. We miss out on making change.

And isn’t that all we’re here to do?

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How To Improve Your Writing With 6 Questions

A writer’s job is to bring order to chaos. It’s our duty to descend into the cluttered world of ideas and then structure whatever insight we manage to wring from its hands.

Therefore, writing is by definition a messy process. The goal of this post is not so much to get you to adopt my version of it — although I will give you the tools if you wish to do so — but to get you to examine your own.

When I recently did, I found I constantly ask myself six questions about writing. Before, after and during. All the time. They’re definitely not a checklist. More of a blurry circle my mind spins in.

I want to show you those questions. Show you you’re not alone. Seeing my lose structure should help accept your own. Then, you can set out to find the little that’s there. So you can build on it. That’s the plan.

Let’s go.

1. What Do I Care Enough to Say?

When I’m staring at a blank page, which is often, this marks my starting point. I think about the last few days and weeks.

  • What was important?
  • What did I think a lot about?
  • Did anything life-changing happen?
  • What have I learned?
  • What’s an issue worth addressing?
  • What made me angry?

This keeps me from talking about topics only because they’re popular. I find I end up there often enough, even if I don’t do it on purpose. This time, I noticed myself in front of the same writing questions over and over again.

I’m rarely alone with my problems. The people who have the same ones usually show up once I start talking.

Plus, if I care, it’s easier to get others to.

2. Is It Real?

I don’t always ask this second, but I should. The sooner I can catch myself structuring a fake idea, the better. What do I mean by fake?

If it’s not an idea I have truly lived, experienced, or researched deeply enough to publish my own account of it, then I won’t share it. Period. The process I’m sharing with you today is what I actually go through.

Why self-publish if you’re not gonna be yourself? It’d defeat the whole point of giving us your unique perspective.

People can smell fake stories from the headline, because they already stink when you write them. How honest you are correlates to how easy it is to write.

This is a one-strike policy. If only I always caught myself before it’s too late.

3. Is It Useful?

Ironically, a piece of advice from a billionaire helped me obsess less about becoming one. In an interview, Elon Musk said (emphasis mine):

Well, first of all, I think if somebody is doing something that is useful to the rest of society, I think that’s a good thing. Like, it doesn’t have to change the world.

Then, talking about his own story, he proceeds:

You can get a doctorate on many things that ultimately do not have practical bearing on the world. And I really was just trying to be useful. That’s the optimization. It’s like, “What can I do that would actually be useful?”

And, to help estimate the usefulness of your aspirations:

Whatever this thing is that you’re trying to create, what would be the utility delta compared to the current state of the art times how many people it would affect?

That’s why I think having something that makes a big difference, but affects a small to moderate number of people is great, as is something that makes even a small difference, but affects a vast number of people.

If you want to serve the greater good, usefulness is the optimization. But that doesn’t mean you have to serve a single, great good.

Think about how microscopically deep the change you cause can run. Yesterday someone emailed me about restarting a practice from one of my posts he’d picked up a year ago.

  • Is what you’re sharing practical, even at a subconscious level?
  • Can you coach people through the process in an empathic way?
  • Even if it’s a small change they might not immediately realize, how much could that amount to?
  • Can you be okay with never finding out?

The questions I ask about writing could be useful in shaping yours. Hence, this post was worth a shot. Even if I can never measure its full impact.

One more benefit of being useful? It’s the ultimate antidote to being fake — because it’s really hard to give practical advice when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

4. Will This Inspire the Reader?

People think rationally, but act on emotions. If you can take a useful idea, attach it to an arrow of inspiration and send it right into the reader’s heart, change is more likely.

I could have just talked about the usefulness of being useful, but I told the Elon Musk story instead. Usefulness determines how far people read, inspiration what they do after they stop.

You can tilt the balance to one side, but having both increases the probability of your seeds falling on fertile soil.

5. Has This Been Said Before?

Everything’s been said before. The question is how and how often.

I see many step-by-step-writing posts on Medium, but few that talk about the mayhem of their process and even fewer that dig deeper into it.

Being different doesn’t guarantee being original, but there can be no originality without difference. So I’ll take my chances.

Similar to inspiration, being original makes it more likely to be noticed. Again, writing is a game of probability.

6. Will This Entertain the Reader?

Now would be a good time for a joke. Luckily, making people laugh isn’t the only way to entertain. Entertainment is really just another word for engagement.

Can what you write hold the reader’s attention? Or, in Seth Godin’s words:

In a world with infinite choice, where there’s always something better and more urgent a click away, it’s tempting to go for shorter.

In fact, if you seek to make a difference (as opposed to gather a temporary crowd), shorter isn’t what’s important: Dense is.

Density can be of many kinds. Of emotion. Of insight. Of mystery. Seth puts it in a nutshell:

Long isn’t the problem. Boring is.

If you found the string of insights I presented so far useful enough to read until here, then I guess you’ve been entertained.

How Can You Remember This Model?

I didn’t number the questions because I never answer them in sequence. But lists are so much easier to remember! How can I structure this fuzzy model just enough so you won’t forget?

Six questions, six corners. That’s a hexagon. So much for the visual. My favorite mnemonic device is the acronym. Sometimes you’ll be lucky and the letters form a normal word. This time, I wasn’t.

Thus, meet your new favorite Youtuber: iCuber. His or her videos are inspiring, full of Care, Useful, never seen Before, Entertaining and Real. Here’s their logo:

Imagine the kind of videos you’d like to see from iCuber. By the time you know what he or she looks like, you’ve already remembered the symbol. Now you can walk along the edges and pick up the questions when you want to.

There. A little less mess.

The Real Takeaway: Question #7

That’s the beauty of chaos: no rules. Each writer can come up with their own. Has to. The goal of sharing my process isn’t for you to adopt it. It’s to start observing your own.

The real idea is to begin asking this question:

What goes on in your mind about your writing?

Descend into the chaos. Grab an idea. Structure it. Bring order.

You’re a writer, after all. That’s your job.