Are You Free to Abstain? Cover

Are You Free to Abstain?

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have the freedom to abstain?

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

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

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

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

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

What Is Unconditional Love? Cover

What Is Unconditional Love?

Unconditional love is the only true love there is.

But, to be honest, I don’t really know what ‘unconditional’ means. I don’t think many of us do.

We know what’s not unconditional love.

Expecting someone else to fulfill your needs is not unconditional love. Neither is doing them favors if those favors are attached to that same expectation. Even hoping your partner will want all the same things you do isn’t unconditional love. That’s just delusion.

Blind trust is not unconditional love. When you see your girlfriend walking right into a trap, you must call her out on it. False pride isn’t unconditional love. Sometimes, our loved ones screw up. If your boyfriend is on the wrong side of an argument, tell him why and help him see.

But what is unconditional love? Here are some ideas.

Love is understanding

Will Smith’s house cost some $42 million and took seven years to build. Everything is custom-made, from the recording studio to the basketball court, and it looks like a Moroccan-style wonderland. The house is called “Her Lake” because Will dedicated the Herculean feat to his wife, Jada — or so he thought.

Dissecting the misunderstanding, Will remembers being devastated when he realized that, actually, he built the house for himself. Having grown up in an abusive household, a perpetual theme park mansion where everyone is happy 24/7 had somehow crept into his picture of an ideal family — and it didn’t matter whether Jada wanted the same or not.

Today, Will uses a little acronym to not repeat this same mistake: L.U.V. — Listen, Understand, Validate.

“There is nothing that feels better to a human being than to feel understood. The mission is to thoroughly and completely understand what the person is saying.”

In order to understand, we first have to listen. That’s hard when you’re just waiting to get out something you want to say. You have to “quiet your own mind, your thoughts, needs, and desires” so you can pay true attention, Will says. Then, make sure your judgments are correct by repeating — and validating — some of what your partner has just entrusted you with.

You won’t always succeed in understanding others, but you can always make the effort — regardless of the final outcome.

Listen, understand, validate. That’s unconditional love.

Love is help

Someone once asked a Navy SEAL instructor who makes it through the training for the most elite combat unit in the world. This was his response: “There’s no certain kind of person, but all the guys who make it, when they are physically and emotionally spent and have nothing left to give, somehow, they find the energy to help the guy next to them.”

We think of war as the polar opposite of love and, in many ways, it is. Ironically, being a good soldier — someone destined to fight — is not about being tough, smart, or fast. It’s about loving the person next to you and helping them succeed. As he recounts this story, Simon Sinek says:

“It’ll be the single most valuable thing you ever learn in your entire life: To accept help when it’s offered and to ask for it when you know that you can’t do it.”

Of course, to receive love when you really need it, you must have offered it to others before. It’s a circle. We all must take care of each other.

“The minute you say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m stuck, I’m scared, I don’t think I can do this,’ you will find that lots of people who love you will rush in and take care of you, but that’ll only happen if you learn to take care of them first.”

The primary reason to help someone shouldn’t be that they need it but that you can. After you cover your own basic needs, the easiest way to feel love is to offer it to someone in the form of mental, physical, emotional, or material support. It doesn’t have to be big. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself. Take a small step out of your way so someone else can take a larger one on theirs.

Will Smith agrees:

“At its core, I think love is help. Everybody is having a hard time. I think love is a deep desire for our loved ones’ growth, blossoming, and all around well-being.”

Look left. Look right. Who’s standing next to you? Those are the people who need your love right now. They deserve it as much as anyone. Who knows? Soon, you might be the one in need, and they too will give you a hand.

Love is help — and true help is unconditional love.

Love is acceptance

I saw Michael Bublé in concert once. After the first song, he told all 10,000 of us the following: “You know, I used to be so nervous giving shows like this. What if I forget the lyrics? What if I trip and fall? But when you go through something traumatizing, you realize: That shit doesn’t matter at all.”

At three years old, Michael’s son got cancer. He survived, but for a few years, Michael’s life was a living hell. What do you do when your child is about to die? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Except, hopefully, find acceptance, and then take life one day at a time. That’s what Michael did.

Today, Michael carries that same acceptance wherever he goes. Whether it’s talking about his trauma, a confession on a talk show, or singing in front of 10,000 fans, the man is as authentic as they come. He radiates love at every turn, carrying a sort of lightness — a seeming disregard almost — for whatever happens next, because he knows he can accept it and handle life as it unfolds.

Acceptance is not victimhood. It’s registering the status quo in its totality, no matter how pretty or ugly it might be, and then dealing with it head on. It’s the Stoic skill of differentiating between what we control and what we don’t, and then doing the best we can about the former while ignoring the latter.

This also applies to our relationships. In Me Before You, a father tells his daughter over a breakup: “You can’t change who people are.” She asks, “Then what can you do?” “You love them.” Like us, our friends, families, and partners will never be perfect — and they definitely won’t be exactly who we want them to be — but that’s not the point. The point is to love them.

Will Smith shares a great analogy:

“I think that the real paradigm for love is ‘Gardener-Flower.’ The relationship that a gardener has with a flower is the gardener wants the flower to be what the flower is designed to be, not what the gardener wants the flower to be.”

How can you support your loved ones in who they truly aspire to become? That’s the question. It’s not about tolerating every flaw or never pointing out when they’re wrong, it’s about accepting them for who they are at their core.

Accept people without giving up on them. That’s unconditional love.

Love is a verb and — therefore — a choice

Understand, help, accept. These are actions. Not concepts. Not feelings. Actions. If true love sums up these activities, then maybe love itself is also something we do rather than something we feel. A verb much more so than a noun.

That’s the problem with definitions: If we don’t come up with our own, we’ll passively adopt whatever society hands us. In love, these cultural definitions are especially messy. It’s a broad word, and it subsumes a thousand different things, from the expensive chocolates on Valentine’s Day to butterflies in your stomach to the connection between a son and his long-estranged father.

It’s easy to get confused, to lose yourself in the abstractions and emotions, and to forget that the verb — the action of loving — is the part that matters. This dichotomy of verb and noun torpedoes our understanding of love so much that, often, we go about the whole thing the wrong way.

We end up so hell-bent on seeking love outside ourselves, on finding the noun — the feeling — in another person, that we forget we hold power over the verb at all times — and that exercising this power starts with loving ourselves.

In that sense, love is a choice. It requires no one’s presence but our own, and we can choose it in all circumstances. We can direct it inward and outward, and, at the end of it all, our actions will show how much we really chose to love. The feelings and symbols may come and may go. Love anyway.

Love is a verb. Choosing to love, over and over again, is unconditional love.

Love is compromise — without the feeling of loss

In all the above, there is an element of sacrifice. When we listen to someone, we can’t speak. When we help someone, we might slow our own progress. Acceptance can feel like giving up. And when we choose to do one thing, it means not choosing another.

Going back to the gardener-flower analogy, Will Smith says:

“You want the flower to bloom and to blossom and to become what it wants to be. You want it to become what God designed it to be. You’re not demanding that it become what you need it to be for your ego. Anything other than all of your gifts wide open, giving and nourishing this flower into their greatness, is not love.”

When you compromise out of love, you don’t feel like you’re losing something. You see agreement as a win-win. You gain from it.

Like Will said: Everyone is having a hard time. No one’s life is free of problems. In fact, it consists entirely of making tradeoffs. As such, the ability to compromise is a strength, not a weakness. We need flexibility.

Most of the time, the only way forward together is one neither party would have chosen on their own. When you’re alone, a narrow road might suffice. When you’re together, you need a path wide enough for everybody. Finding and choosing this path is an act of love.

Love is compromise without the loss. Flexibility is unconditional love.

Your Habits Will Determine Your Destiny Cover

Your Habits Will Determine Your Destiny

I don’t know you, but I know this: You have habits. There are certain behaviors you repeat every single day of your life.

One of them I can guess right off the bat: Reading. But I know even more about you, despite you and I never having met.

Every day, you wake up, get out of bed, brush your teeth, get dressed, open a window or leave your house, eat and drink, use the internet through your phone or laptop, and then, later, repeat some variation of that sequence in reverse.

Whoa! That’s a lot of data for someone halfway around the world who doesn’t know your name. And even though the picture gets blurrier from there, it’s enough data to tell me something else about you, something you might not know about yourself or at least not be acutely aware of all the time:

The outcomes of your life are determined by your habits. Your behavioral patterns dictate your destiny. They’re patterns of action, patterns of emotion, and patterns of thought — but they’re all patterns. They repeat.

It’s this repetition that steers you, like a pair of invisible hands, towards certain destinations but not others. Your habits can lead you to fame, fortune, and success. They can carry you to meaning, love, and happiness. Your habits can also drive you into depression, loneliness, and anxiety. They can drop you into poverty, darkness, and push you right off a cliff.

You might not think much of your habits, not think much about them at all, but your habits don’t just matter — your habits are everything.

How happy you are is a result of your habits. How much money you make, have, and keep is a result of your habits. How healthy you are compared to how healthy you could be, how many friends you have, to an extent even how long you’ll live — it’s all a result of your habits — and if you don’t pay attention to them, if you don’t observe, assess, and consciously shape your patterns, they will drive you off that cliff.

Understanding this takes more than nodding and saying, “Okay, I get it, routines matter.” It’s about grasping, accepting, and truly living by the one thing I’m here to tell you:

Your habits are your only weapon in your lifelong struggle for meaning, happiness, and making the most of your time.

That’s a pretty big statement, and it comes with big implications. Yes, the breadth of challenges we have to address through our habits is stunning, but, thankfully, they’re also the only weapon we need.

Once you see the magnitude on which they operate, I’m sure you’ll understand.

Voting for Who We’ll Become

In the movie Yes Man, Jim Carrey plays a bitter divorcé — Carl — who stumbles into a self-help movement that’s all about saying “yes.” The leader of the movement forces him to make a vow to say “yes” to any and every request.

Instantly, it gets Carl into trouble. First, he must give a homeless man a ride to a remote place. Then, the guy drains his phone battery and asks for all his money. After walking miles to the next gas station, however, Carl’s luck begins to turn. A cute girl offers him a ride on her scooter — and even leaves him with a goodnight kiss.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear says, “True behavior change is identity change.” We don’t think of habits this way because, usually, we’re focused on goals — a certain outcome or measurable result. The reality, however, is that, first, we have to become the kind of person who can achieve said outcome.

“The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner.”

— James Clear

Over the course of the movie, that’s exactly what happens to Carl. There are 103 variations of the word “no” in the script, most of which drop in the first half of the film. What follows is a series of 94 yeses, by the end of which Carl has become a different person: A guy who says “yes” to what life has to offer.

We don’t expect our small choices to have much of an impact, let alone change who we are, but they add up. “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you want to become,” Clear says in an interview.

Having a cigarette once in a while isn’t bad because of the pinch of tobacco, it’s destructive because each one sends a tiny signal that says, “I am a smoker.” Sooner or later, you might find yourself buying a pack a day. In the same way, it doesn’t matter if you only write one tweet a day for a month when, actually, you want to write a book. The tweets turn you into a writer and, at first, that’s all that matters.

Just like new habits slowly change your self-image, slowly changing your self-image will lead to new habits. That’s why, initially, it’s best to focus your energy on a small identity change rather than a big behavior change.

When Carl seeks out the leader of the movement for guidance, that’s exactly what he tells him:

“[Saying yes to everything], that’s not the point. Well, maybe at first it is. But that’s just to open you up, to get you started. Then, you are saying ‘yes’ not because you have to, not because a covenant told you to, but because you know in your heart that you want to.”

Every action is a vote for who you want to become. You’re voting whether you like it or not. We all do. The habits we choose today will determine what actions we’ll take tomorrow. Make sure you use your right to vote.

Who Will You Be When You Can’t Help It?

At the beginning of the movie, Carl hates his boss, Norman. For one, he calls himself ‘Norm’ and Carl ‘Car.’ Also, Norm is way too upbeat for their boring jobs as loan officers. He’s quirky, full of bad puns, and invites Carl to cheesy costume parties all the time (which he never attends).

Once Carl starts saying “yes,” however, not just to Norm’s parties but also to showing up at work on a Saturday and taking on extra tasks, something inside him shifts. He starts joking around with Norm. He likes it. He likes Norm. Yet nothing about Norm had changed.

Carl hated Norm simply because he was “the kind of person who hates people.” In this case, Norm’s behavior had little impact on their relationship — it was Carl’s interpretation of it that dictated the outcome.

This goes back to our habits affecting our identity, and it has profound implications for how we interpret the events in our lives. If our habits change our identity, and our identity informs how we make sense of the world, our habits also decide how we see others, and how they see us.

By shutting himself in and avoiding work, Carl slowly became a loner which, in turn, made him perceive his boss as annoying. The small, daily actions he took ultimately decided how he explained to himself what was going on around him. Clear calls this “negative compounding,” in this case of thoughts:

The more you think of yourself as worthless, stupid, or ugly, the more you condition yourself to interpret life that way. You get trapped in a thought loop. The same is true for how you think about others. Once you fall into the habit of seeing people as angry, unjust, or selfish, you see those kind of people everywhere.

This sends an important message, a warning as well as a call to action: Even though it didn’t feel like it, through his habits, Carl was in control of his worldview — and so are we.

Your habits determine how you will interpret your life’s events. By the time they happen, it’s too late to throw in a quick change. You have to react based on who you are in the moment. If you’re not already “a non-smoker” when that Friday night cigarette is offered to you, you’re unlikely to turn it down.

On a long enough time scale, however, you can change what perspective you default to when confronted with any given situation — and you do so less by talking to yourself than by working on your habits. Riffing on a Charles Francis Potter quote, we could say:

What you do when you don’t have to will determine who you’ll be when you can’t help it.

Be the person you aspire to be when you can so you’ll continue to be that person even when you think you can’t. Or, in the words of Lao Tzu:

Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

Without Attention, Time Doesn’t Matter

Every morning, Carl grabs a coffee at the same cafe. Each time he leaves the building, there’s a guy handing out flyers for a concert. Of course, Carl’s canned response is “no.”

After starting his deal with the universe, however, he grabs the flyer and agrees. Lo and behold, who’s the singer of the band? The girl that kissed him after he got stranded.

Zat Rana argues that our most important asset isn’t time but attention:

The quality of the experiences in your life doesn’t depend on how many hours there are in the day, but in how the hours you have are used. […] Although time is indeed limited, with attention, it can be diluted to expand beyond what most other people get out of the same quantity.

What’s better? A life of 80 years, spent in a half-conscious daze, or a life of 40 years, spent in intense focus on what matters to you? Time is just a measure. Having and spending more of it provides no indication of quality. Without attention, time doesn’t matter.

In Carl’s case, his habits had closed his mind to such an extent that he wasn’t able to see anything. Not the good. Not the bad. Even what was right in front of him. He just passed through time, indifferent and oblivious.

Only once he changed his habits did Carl start perceiving again. Everything before was just a muffled thump of pain. It hurt here, it hurt there, it hurt everywhere — because he never paid attention and could thus never identify what hurt him and why.

In the interview, Clear says, “Habits are the portion of your life you can influence.” They’re also the portion that determines what happens with your time while you don’t control your attention — and how much of the latter you even have.

“Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.” 

Just like your identity shapes how you interpret what happens, your attitudes and beliefs — call them interpretation presets — shape what you perceive — and all three are greatly affected by your habits.

When Carl acted like an isolated atom, he couldn’t see life as something that contains opportunities and he couldn’t see his boss as a person. He had to accept his connection with the world, that he was an integrated part of it, as we all are, in order to get his attention back. This happened through many small acts — approving a loan, meeting his friends, taking that guy’s flyer — but it created an identity shift that rippled through his entire life.

The rest of the movie is really just one thing: Carl being mindful wherever he goes. He notices the stability of his tempurpedic mattress. He notices the offers to learn Korean, playing guitar, and flying an aircraft. He notices his crush having a hard time opening up, the wedding planner being sad, the guy on the ledge just needing a friend. His new habits maximized his attention to life and to watch it blossom is mesmerizing.

What’s more, instead of defaulting into pitying himself on the couch whenever nothing’s happening, he now follows through on his promises. He looks out for his friends. Even when Carl isn’t acting deliberately, he’s a better person, and that’s why time now works in his favor.

Pay attention to your habits because your habits direct your attention. Good habits maximize how much of life you can absorb and where you go when you’re not looking. Try to cultivate good habits.

You Go Where You Look

When I turned 18, my parents gave me a driver’s training along with my newly earned license. Little did I know that, a few years later, I would need it.

It was entirely my fault — I fiddled with my iPod — but, one day, I nearly veered off the road. As the tire hit the curb, I felt a vibration. I looked at the ditch, looked at the road and, instinctively, pulled the steering wheel to the left, returning to where I belonged.

Somehow, I had internalized it before, but, since that day, I have never forgotten the biggest lesson from my training: You go where you look.

It’s a little phrase that universally applies, as John P. Weiss recently noted in analyzing the work of Tim McGraw:

We go where we look. It’s such a simple truth. Just five words, but its wisdom holds the key to achieving greater focus. According to McGraw, we need to look ourselves in the eye, accept where we’re starting from today, push aside all the noise and negative self-talk, and go where we’re looking.

My near-accident was a literal reminder that, without attention, we can’t choose where we’re going — and we can fall off track pretty fast.

Identity, interpretation, attention. At the end of the day, your habits steer all three of these. They all work in tandem and mutually influence one another, but, together, they determine what you think, feel, and do — every second of every waking minute of your life. That’s why your habits are everything. Your habits will determine your destiny.

Clear called his book “Atomic Habits” because, like atoms, habits are small in size, part of a larger whole, and, yet, a source of tremendous energy. “Your outcomes in life are a lagging measure of your habits,” he says. Luckily, we have a great deal of control over our habits and, thus, all these lagging measures.

“You can be the architect of your habits rather than the victim of them.”

I wonder what Carl would have to say about this statement. Then again, I guess he’d only need one word: “Yes.”

Will Smith: The Semantics of Success Cover

Will Smith: The Semantics of Success

In the summer of 1985, the king of Philadelphia’s DJ scene threw down at a house party. That night, his hype man was missing. You know, the dude shouting around, getting folks excited, and prompting chants. Luckily, a local MC lived just down the street and offered to fill in.

The name of that MC was Will Smith. He and DJ Jazzy Jeff instantly hit it off. So much, in fact, that Jeff sent his former sidekick packing and the two joined forces. Less than a year later, they dropped their debut single “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble” just in time to take the 1986 prom season by storm and allow Will to graduate high school as a rap star. Jeff recalls:

“Once Will and I made a record, we killed Philly’s hip-hop and ballroom scene. Nobody wanted two turntables. Now they wanted one turntable, a drum machine and some guy rapping. It wasn’t about Philly anymore. It was about conquering the world.”

And conquer the world they did.

Changing the Game

As sudden megastars often do, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince broke through because they reinvented the game they were playing. First, they redefined what makes a cool party. Then, they updated the meaning of the word ‘rap.’

With their light-hearted, comedic, curse-free songs like “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime,” the duo took rap to an upper middle class, even prep school level and made it fashionable. So fashionable, in fact, that Will and Jeff received not one, but two Grammys for ‘Best Rap Performance’ in 1989 and 1991 — a category that didn’t exist before they first won it.

And even though the two eventually split up and went their separate ways, none of these developments are entirely accidental. This tendency to reimagine things is part of Will Smith’s identity. It’s who he is. He may have started as an MC juggling words, but, as it turns out, it’s not just his music career that’s built on semantics.

A Dedication to Linguistics

What’s the one thing all rappers love? Language. And while it’s right at the intersection of what both they and actors need to succeed, almost no one seems able to make the jump. There is no shortage of rap stars attempting to act, but next to Will, only Mark Wahlberg made it to the majors.

Maybe it’s because no actor other than Will makes it as clear that he is a man of words. His characters are often outspoken, almost blubbering, and they’re always full of clever lines. Like Alex Hitchens, Will’s character in Hitch.

“Never lie, steal, cheat, or drink. But if you must lie, lie in the arms of the one you love. If you must steal, steal away from bad company. If you must cheat, cheat death. And if you must drink, drink in the moments that take your breath away.”

In his own life, he loves to learn new words

“In this film, I read an interesting quote. Siddhartha Gautama — the Buddha — he said that ‘good people have to get out of the bed every day and try to empty the ocean with a ladle.’ I knew that was profound and I paused for a second and I said ‘alright, what the hell is a ladle?’ So then I touched it on my iPad and ‘oh, it’s like a big spoon.’ A big spoon, okay. So like a soup spoon. So trying to empty the ocean with a soup spoon, you know, as the the mentality of how you wake up every day to try to do good in the world.”

…connect existing ones…

“Loss is bound to joy. Pain and suffering are bound to joy. Being able to survive something is actually a big part of being able to find that next wave of joy.”

…and writes a mission statement every year. Basically, whenever he’s in front of an audience — live or on screen — he plays jumprope with semantic lines.

“Confucius said one time: ‘He who says he can and he who says he can’t are both usually right.’”

— In his NAACP Image Award acceptance speech

But Will Smith’s dedication to linguistics goes even beyond all that. If you look at his chronology of films, you’ll see that almost every single one is an attempt to reformulate either its own genre or a fundamental aspect of human life.

Independence Day took the scale of the word ‘disaster’ to a new level. I, Robot made us question what it means to be ‘human.’ Hancock broke the mold of the ‘superhero’ genre. Sometimes, the word at the heart of the movie is obvious, even makes the title, like in The Pursuit of Happyness or Focus. Sometimes, it’s a little harder to find. I Am Legend, for example, wasn’t as much about ‘death’ as it was about ‘loneliness.’ The word for Seven Pounds was ‘sacrifice.’ But even when it’s hidden, it’s always there.

And while this is representative of the insane work ethic he openly claims to have, Will Smith’s commitment to connotation runs deeper still.


Words to Mend Our Mental Health

Besides giving new meaning to old words and using them to wow audiences, Will also draws linguistic lines to sort out the biggest mess we all face: the one in our own head. For example, while he realized very early that he had a lot of talent, he also knew it would not get him anywhere without skill.

“The separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, that want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.”

What’s more, clear distinctions allow him to deal with even the strongest of headwinds in the industry.

“My wife and I were just having this conversation and we were going to the dictionary for prejudice versus racism. Everybody’s prejudiced. Everybody’s prejudiced. Everybody has their life experiences that make them prefer one thing over another. But there’s a connotation in racism of superiority. That you feel that your race, generally, just based on your race, is superior. And I have to say, I live with constant prejudice, but racism is actually rare.”

Beyond picking better sides, such demarcation lines also give you the freedom to pick no side.

“I was just having a debate with a friend of mine and we got stuck on the difference between fault and responsibility. She kept talking about how something was somebody’s fault. It somebody’s fault! And I was like, it really don’t matter whose fault it is that something is broken if it’s your responsibility to fix it. Fault and responsibility do not go together. It sucks, but they don’t.

Taking responsibility, accepting responsibility is not an admission of guilt. You’re not admitting that you’re at fault. Taking responsibility is a recognition of the power that you seize when you stop blaming people. It’s not like you’re letting somebody who wronged you off the hook. Taking responsibility is an act of emotional self-defense. Taking responsibility is taking your power back.”

If you put fault on one side and guilt on another, responsibility ends up in the middle. This allows you to stay in your lane, the lane that’s not just the most useful to deal with the situation, but that even leads to feeling peaceful, rather than powerless and angry.

But the most fascinating word Will Smith gets real granular about is fear.

A Safe Space in Language

If anyone’s ever taken Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quote about the only thing worth fearing being fear itself to heart, it’s Will Smith. It’s easily the word he’s built the most synonym-fences around. There’s fear as motivation…

“I live in complete terror. Everything about this business and what I’ve been trying to build and what I’ve been trying to do with my life keeps me in terror. I am deeply motivated by fear.”

…fear vs. failure…

“It’s always a little bit frustrating to me when people have a negative relationship with failure. Failure is a massive part of being able to be successful. You have to get comfortable with failure. You have to actually seek failure. Failure is where all of the lessons are.”

…and even the fear of his own power. On the first day of ninth grade, he provoked a kid into knocking him out with a combination lock, which led to said kid being arrested and expelled.

“I was laying in my bed that night and I was just feeling like sh*t, and I had the recognition that I had caused this kid to throw his life away. He was kicked out of school and I never knew what happened to him, but I have a sense that it didn’t go well beyond there. And I felt a deep sense of regret and a deep sense that I had caused an emotion in a person that made them do that. And that feeling of regret turned into a sort of a fear of how much power I had. I was like ‘everything I say and do has that kind of effect on other human beings?’ And in that moment I decided that I would never walk into a room and do anything other than inspire and uplift and enlighten people.”

In addition to motivation, failure, power, and regret, Will has contrasted fear with danger, humility, loss, and even death. What he’s done here is build a safe space in language, with pillars holding off fear on all sides. Whenever he’s afraid, he can withdraw to that space, look around, and figure out which of the pillars fear is hiding behind this time. Is he afraid the movie will flop? That the next success might go to his head? That he might die? Whatever the reason, he can then replace the word ‘fear’ with another one and attack the problem from a new angle, one from which it may be easier to pass.

For all the benefits of mastering language, mastering your fears may be the most important one. But even that pales in comparison to one other thing.


Your Entry in the Dictionary

One of the few patterns Will Smith didn’t break is that of the unexpected, 21-year-old, millionaire rapper being an expected, 22-year old, broke rapper. But even after the IRS took all his stuff, he remembered that the words ‘rich’ and ‘famous’ usually go together. So he leveraged one into getting the other back. That’s why the show was called The ‘Fresh Prince’ of Bel-Air. It made use of the name he’d already established for himself. Semantics.

From 2008 to 2012, he had a rough patch and didn’t star in any movies. Eventually, he realized he needed a new definition of the word ‘acting.’

“I’ve always been really product-oriented. I want to win. When I do something, I want to win. I have a daughter and she really shifted my focus from product to people. It took a couple of years, but as soon as I’d gotten knocked off product and started shifting to people, the whole world opened up for me again. And acting opened up in a whole new way. To not go into day one of a movie, trying to figure out what everybody has to do so we win. I fell in love and then I couldn’t imagine what else I could do that could add so much to my life, other than acting.”

There’s one last, big lesson in that: all the definitions in the world don’t help if you don’t know who you are.

The Semantics of Success

When I look at Will Smith’s progression throughout the years, it seems to me his attention spotlight really has shifted inward. His mission statement has remained the same for the last few years. It’s ‘Improve Lives.’ And what better person to start with than oneself?

“In retrospect I’ve realized I had hit a ceiling in my talent. I had a great run that I thought was fantastic and I realized that I had done everything that I could do with the ‘me’ that I had. I really dived into me and then all of a sudden it was like ‘oh!’ and I found the connection. Your work can never really be better than you are. Your work can’t be deeper than you are.”

I think the work he’s done post-2012 reflects that. He seems happier, much less focused on outcomes, like box office numbers, and more fearless than ever. The themes of the movies he chooses are even more powerful. Themes like ‘truth’ in Concussion and ‘home’ in Bright. As with words, not every film has to hit its mark perfectly to mean something.

Lately, he also started a Youtube channel, posts Instagram stories, and documents his life in the occasional vlog. Finally, there’s new music on the horizon. I think it’s no coincidence that after 30 years, Will Smith is coming full circle, right back to rapping. Because he never really stopped. He’s on the same journey he started way back when. My guess is it’ll remain his true purpose to the day he dies. A mission to redefine himself.

A mission to reinvent the meaning behind the words ‘Will Smith.’

How To Control Your Mind Cover

How To Control Your Mind

One of life’s great trilemmas is the tradeoff between money, energy, and time. Maybe you’ve heard someone joke about how you can only ever have two of the three. The punchline inevitably comes with age.

When you’re young, you have time and energy, but no money. As an adult, you get some money, but lose all your time. And once you’re old, you might have cash and hours to spare, but no fit body to enjoy either.

We laugh at this, but at the same time, it scares us a little. Because we know it’s true.

I’ve spent the past four months reflecting on our relationship with technology. After exploring addictions, distractions, and enhancements, I recognize many of our efforts in the tech arena are spent trying to fix this impossible problem. While there are some improvements we can make, we’ll never get a perfect outcome.

And yet, the power to deal with this imbalance has been with us all along.

1 + 1 = 1

We usually think of time as a good way to measure a life, but it’s only a proxy for what we really mean: attention. Think of the wealthy heir, who wastes all his riches, and compare him to the artist who dies at 40, but leaves behind a significant body of work. The things we most want in life, be it money, health, family, status, or impact, are really just byproducts of deliberate attention.

To cultivate said attention, we need more than just time. We also need energy. Time without energy is not spent moving. It is just spent. Most of us start life with an abundance of both, meaning our capacity to synthesize attention is often greatest when we’re young.

Visually speaking, science describes attention like a zoom lens on a camera. If you try to see the whole picture from afar, it takes a while to focus. The more you zoom in, the smaller the segment and the faster you can process it.

If we translate this metaphor to attention the way we just defined it, you can think of your time as a flashlight and your energy as the batteries. You need both to turn it on and point it where you want to go. Yes, it’s true that more time and more energy lead to more attention, but that’s only half the picture.

Like on any good flashlight, you can also adjust the radius of the beam.

One Addiction to Rule Them All

One of the world’s leading researchers of attention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, wrote about the state of optimal performance:

“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”

Imagine you had $100 million and were perfectly healthy. What excuse would you have not to use your attention well? None. Chasing this imaginary state is the game most of us are playing. There will never be no excuses left, but blaming their existence is easier than dealing with them head on. It’s an addictive game too. You can play it your entire life without ever getting close to winning.

David Allen calls this our biggest weakness as humans:

“I think control is the master human addiction. To try to control the world.”

Often, in spite of having the right intentions, that’s what we’re doing. Less Facebook, more time, less email, more energy. They’re all small steps in the right direction, but by taking them we lose out on a much bigger one:

What if we just maximized the attention we can get from whatever time and energy we have right now?

This is a slight, but significant difference. Allen noticed it too:

“Not ‘be in control,’ because that’s something that we work with, something I think you need to develop, but trying to control externally the world is a big addiction.”

Deliberate attention is good. Aware attention is better.

Talking to Ourselves

Even if you’re loaded with spare flashlights and batteries, you can’t just point your attention once and then go straight forever. You’re going to get lost. Naval Ravikant calls this ‘monkey mind:’

“The reality is if you walk down the street and there are a thousand people in the street, I think all thousand are talking to themselves in their head at any given point. They’re constantly judging everything that they see. They’re playing back movies of things that happened to them yesterday. They’re living in fantasy worlds of what’s going to happen tomorrow. They’re just pulled out of base reality.”

He explains that as children, we’re very connected to the real world, a trait we lose as we grow older and start long-range planning. While some projecting is necessary and useful, we tend to go overboard rather quickly. We get stuck in our visions and wave our attention spotlight around uncontrollably.

So, to get where we want to go, it’s not enough to be deliberate in using our attention. We also have to observe it. Therefore, looking inward and reflecting on where you deploy your attention is equally as important, if not more, than how much you can muster.

This isn’t easy, but Naval has some ideas:

“I’ve taken on this idea that I want to break the habit of uncontrolled thinking, which is hard. If I say to you, “Don’t think of a pink elephant”, I just put a pink elephant in your head. It’s an almost impossible problem. It’s more something that has to be guided by feel, than guided by actual thinking or thought process. I’m deliberately cultivating experiences, states of mind, locations, activities, that will help me get out of my mind.”

Funny how that works, isn’t it? In order to get more control over your attention, you have to let it go.

Wrong Means, Right Ends

Csikszentmihalyi’s book is titled Flow. The name itself suggests the loose nature of the state.

“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.”

But it is not just letting go of external rewards. Flow also requires a certain degree of surrender to the task at hand. You don’t beat a hard level in a video game on first try, you beat it on the 17th attempt, when you barely care any more, but the gears magically click into place.

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”

Subconsciously, we know this. We induce chemical reactions in our bodies in hopes of controlling our attention all the time, according to Naval:

“In some sense, the people chasing thrills in action sports or flow states or orgasm or any of these states that people really strive to get to, a lot of these are basically just trying to get out of your own head. They’re trying to get away from that voice in your head and this overdeveloped sense of self.”

Food, alcohol, drugs, sex, exercise, these all rest on a choice to direct our attention a certain way and then let it drift for a while. We can use this same choice to recalibrate our attention flashlight, minus the escapism.

What blocks our way usually isn’t the obstacle, but our brain’s obsession with it. Once we let that go, we immediately regain internal control, even long after external control has gone. There are many ways to achieve this:

  • Meditating.
  • Taking a walk.
  • Visiting a place that triggers nostalgia.
  • Immersing yourself in a task that’s either repetitive, like washing dishes, or continuous, like reading, for an extended period of time.

Whatever the activity, if it puts you in a meditative state it helps you make this mental shift. Over time, you’ll see you can do almost anything this way. Allen agrees this is very productive:

“Being able to let go and say ‘wait a minute, let me just accept what’s going on, cooperate with what it is and then be in control of myself.’ But be aware of whatever’s new, whatever’s current, whatever’s present. Letting go is probably the idea that made the biggest difference in my life.”

The result is peace.

No Strings Attached

When you direct your attention once, but then adjust focus intuitively as needed, you get a calm mind. This is a state worth cultivating, Naval says:

“You can think of your brain, your consciousness, as a multi-layered mechanism. There’s kind of a core base kernel level OS that’s running. Then there’s applications that are running on top.

I’m actually going back to my awareness level of OS, which is always calm, always peaceful, and generally happy and content. I’m trying to stay in that mode and not activate the monkey mind, which is always worried and frightened and anxious, but serves incredible purpose. I’m trying not to activate that program until I need it. When I need it, I want to just focus on that program. If I’m running it 24/7, all the time, I’m wasting energy and it becomes me. I am more than that.”

No matter how much attention you can create, spend it right here, right now. Not up in the future, not down in the past. The most peaceful place on earth is always the present.

Be Water, My Friend

This is all very confusing and paradoxical, which is the perfect indicator that it’s natural.

Even if you had 100% of your attention at all times, you would choose to turn on the autopilot occasionally. Watching a movie, reading, music, or sensory experiences, like being outside, eating, swimming, you want your mind to wander during those. Creativity, inspiration, love, that’s when they happen.

At the same time, frantically chasing impulse after impulse, without any awareness of where your attention goes, would be equally disastrous. Who’s planning your goals, checking your direction, paying the bills, if you’re busy slinging feces at the other monkeys in the park?

So, what do we make of this imbalance? Let the pendulum swing, for true control comes from the inside. To lead an empowered life, you needn’t command what happens in it.

Know that while behavior change is helpful, it’s a pebble in the powerful river that is your mind. Remember to look inward and work with what you have. Choose where to go and when to flow. Don’t escape, exist.

Pay attention to your attention, and you’ll always be on your way.

This post is the last in my AntiTech series, where we use technology to fight technology in order to get back what we lost: our time and our attention. You can find an overview here.
The Fastest Way to Become Smarter Cover

The Fastest Way to Become Smarter

Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. They lit a candle as a symbol of their practice and began. By nightfall on the first day, the candle flickered and then went out.

The first monk said: “Oh, no! The candle is out.”

The second monk said: “We’re not supposed to talk!”

The third monk said: “Why must you two break the silence?”

The fourth monk laughed and said: “Ha! I’m the only one who didn’t speak.”

95% of all talking covers only two topics:

  • The person whose mouth is open.
  • Stuff that’s outside our control.

The first monk got distracted by an outside event and felt compelled to point it out. He could’ve just re-lit the candle.

The second monk reminded everyone of a rule that had already been broken. He could’ve just kept meditating.

The third monk vented his anger. He could’ve just stayed calm.

The fourth monk got carried away with his ego. He could’ve just enjoyed his success in silence.

What all four have in common is that they shared their thoughts without filtering them, none of which added anything to improve the situation. If there had been a fifth, wiser monk, here’s what he would have done: Remain silent and keep meditating.

In doing so, he would’ve shown each of the other four monks their shortcomings without a single word. The more you talk, the more likely you are to say something stupid. The less you talk, the more you can listen.

Listening leads to learning.

What’s more, when you’re not talking, you have time to observe the situation until you spot the moment when it’s actually important to say something. Only speak when what you say is likely to have a significant, positive impact, for wisdom is cultivated in silence.

The less you speak, the smarter you get. And, maybe not quite coincidentally, the smarter you get, the less you speak.

Self-Improvement Has Made Me Worse Cover

Self-Improvement Has Made Me Worse

When Batman meets Superman for the first time in Dawn of Justice, you instantly know who’s in charge and who’s in trouble.


After crashing the Batmobile and interrupting Bruce Wayne on his rogue mission, Superman tells him to ‘bury the bat’ and let it go, putting mercy before justice. Of course Batman doesn’t, swearing revenge.

Lately, I feel a lot like Superman in this scene. With a stern look on my face, I swoop in to try and fix other people’s mess, but don’t get much credit for it. This is a cause for concern, but not about those other people, about me.

A lot of us strive to become superhuman, but this pursuit has a shadow. It looms ever closer and if we don’t watch out, it’ll swallow us whole.

Despite our best intentions, self-improvement can make us worse.

When Mindfulness Isn’t Optional

Over the past three years, I’ve gotten really good at noticing things. Not just about myself, but others too. In fact, I now can’t not notice things.

I notice when 10 out of 10 people on the subway are on their phone, when the dude in front of me is switching only between his sports betting account and Tinder and when the guy four seats over wastes all his time instead of working. I notice people who are always late, always behind and always broke and I can pinpoint exactly what needs fixing.

Now, I finally noticed that all this noticing is driving me nuts. I’d love to say “I don’t mind” and mean it, but it’s never true. I do mind. I mind everything.

Mindfulness is a gift when it’s directed inward, but outward? Not so much. It’s a good thing to realize you’re biting your nails, but constantly observing other people’s behavior? That’s a curse.


Comparison Is the Road to Madness

Mark Twain remarked that “comparison is the death of joy.” But, and this is worse, it’s also the birth of misery.

Comparing ourselves is an instinct as fundamental as survival itself. If Gronk can outrun the bear, pick the right berries and get the pretty neanderthal lady, maybe you should be more like Gronk. In a modern society built mainly on and for individual freedom, however, this is useless.

And yet, every notice is a new chance to compare. He eats well, I should eat better. She wastes time, I’m more productive. Even if we rationally estimate our own abilities, comparing still hurts us, an Oxford study suggests:

“The findings potentially have implications for social interactions in the workplace as well as clinical disorders such as depression.”

Interesting, right? Confidence and clinical depression can have the same source: comparing yourself to others. Most of the time, the results of your comparisons don’t even matter.

You’ll land in a bad place anyway.

Judgement Is Never Just

Most people make poor choices. They don’t want to worry about money, or getting up early, or if what they do matters. They, however, would never consider these choices poor. That label is pure judgement on my part.

The problem is that with so much mindfulness, millions of mini comparisons, judgement itself becomes a habit. This is a common side effect of self-improvement. Since it’s all about getting better, you’re left with only two opinions of other people:

  1. They’re better than you.
  2. You’re better than them.

Whichever one you settle on, you lose. This is self-improvement’s dark secret.

The Price of Self-Improvement

When you constantly compare yourself and decide you’re worse, you spiral into depression. But what happens when you think you’re better?

Imagine you’re Superman. You don’t need to compare, you have actual proof: you can’t die, you know everything and you’re physically stronger than anyone. You’re the ultimate success in self-improvement.

Unlike most of us, Superman didn’t choose his superiority, but he paid the same price: loneliness.

Sebastian Marshall perfectly described it in an essay 6 years ago:

You know what I think it is? You won’t be understood once you step off into the abyss. The more you do it, the more people won’t understand.

The second guy I mentioned, the effort guy? He’s got coworkers right now he can commiserate with who understand him. The business idea I mentioned to him doesn’t exist right now and there’s a demand for it. His income is such that even with a low price point he could still make 2x-3x what he’s making now and fulfill a market need.

But then what? Then he’s the only guy doing this thing. No commiseration. People won’t understand him as much. And the more you do that, the more people don’t understand. If you keep taking all those edges that no one else will, pretty soon your neighbors don’t understand you, can’t understand you.

It’s just you.

The higher you climb on the mountain, the thinner the air gets. More success, fewer fellow climbers, until you’re left with only one truth:

You’re the best, but you’re alone.

The internet is full of posts telling people how they can become the best. Be more creative, more productive, more aware. But once you achieve that, once you’re better, faster, stronger, how do you blend back in?

Even if you become superhuman, you’ll still spend your life among mortals. How do you deal with that? I see no posts about this issue.

We’re so worried about acquiring power — over our minds, our bodies, our time — that we forget learning how to use it responsibly to serve the world we live in.

And so, often, by the time we get it, we’re victims of our own success.

Running From Mediocrity, But Where To?

It all happens slowly, of course. One day you opt out of binge drinking, the next you tell your friends to get their shit together and two years later, you run your own dev shop while they extended yet another semester.

You notice, you compare and through the years, you silently collect millions of judgements until you conclude you’re alone. You might succeed in self-improvement, but fail in being human.

This is the dangerous path many of us are on. I know I am. I must find a way to turn off my comparison machine, because it’s been running too long already. That’s the big, wicked twist of the story.

In that scene from the beginning, I’m not Superman. I’m Batman.

A lot of us are. The frustration from the loneliness of our path makes us bitter, impatient, and angry. So we abandon our true mission, one comparison at a time, until we can retreat only into our lonely cave of judgment. Not despite, but because we come out on top.

You may feel you’re ready to pay the toll of self-improvement, but you still might not like who you turn into. We think we’re improving ourselves, when actually, we’re becoming the villain of our own story.

If you run away from mediocrity, but right into malice, what good does it do?

On Sweeping

For Clark Kent, the option to compare went out the window when he was a child. The moment he pushed the first school bus out of the river, any doubts were gone: if he goes rogue, we all die. Lucky for us all, before putting on his cape, Superman turned his powers inward.

That’s what we must do and it’s much more important than how much power we have. The problem is neither other people’s indifference to, nor our obsession with self-improvement. It’s the comparison that stinks.

Be better for the sake of being a better you, not better than everyone else.

There’s not much to gain from Pomodoro timers and dollar cost averaging for the people who enjoy their lives precisely for the lack of those things. It just so happens that because I care about self-improvement, I care about you-improvement too. Because then we could nerd out together. But we can’t and so I feel lonely.

It is my duty to deal with that loneliness and make sure it doesn’t drag me down. There is no ‘other people’s mess’. Just my mess. Nothing to swoop in for. The dirt is in front of my own doorstep, waiting for me to sweep.

You have a dirty doorstep too. Only if we all sweep will our streets be clean.

Superman Is Dead

When the world asked him to, Superman turned himself in. When the world asked him to, Superman appeared in court. Knowing full well the rules did not apply, he abided by them anyway, for the sake of the greater good.


In a sick twist of fate, meeting the renegade bat led to his doomsday. As the ultimate of human evolution, Superman paid the ultimate price. It’s what makes it so hard to get out of the trap: You can be a saint and still lose.

That’s why the movie is beloved by hardcore fans, but commercially, far from the success it should have been. We don’t want to see the hero do everything right and then die. We know life’s not fair, but we hate to be reminded of this reality.

And so, as he tries to build a new team of heroes in a post-Superman world, Batman is too late when he realizes it was never his turn to judge:

Alfred: “You’ve got a team here!”

Bruce Wayne: “Superman could bring this team together better than I ever could. His strength…”

Alfred: “Doesn’t matter how strong you are or what abilities you
might have…”

Bruce Wayne: “He was more human than I am.”

— Silence —

Bruce Wayne: “He lived in this world. Fell in love, got a job. Despite all that power. The world needs Superman.”

Finally, Batman learns a true hero is not defined by the superiority of his power, but by the times he chooses to wield it. This moment is called a Harajuku Moment. Coined by Chad Fowler, Tim Ferriss defined it in The 4-Hour Body:

“It’s an epiphany that turns a nice-to-have into a must-have. There is no point in getting started until it happens. No matter how many bullet points and recipes I provide, you will need a Harajuku Moment to fuel the change itself.”

We all need such a moment in our quest for self-improvement. You have to acknowledge you’re not a hero to start acting like one. I had mine when I read this quote in The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday:

“When philosophy is wielded with arrogance and stubbornly, it is the cause for the ruin of many. Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.” — Seneca

Superman is dead. We must become our own heroes, or his sacrifice was in vain. I don’t know where you’ll find your Harajuku Moment, but you need one. Until then, until we learn to use our powers, the best we can do is ask:

What would Superman do?

Most of the time, he would probably just keep sweeping.