Why You Should Watch Great Movies Twice Cover

Why You Should Watch Great Movies Twice

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who love rewatching movies, and those who think it’s a colossal waste of our limited time.

If you’re the former, I have nothing to offer except validation. If you happen to be the latter, however, I’d like to present a piece of evidence that just might change your mind.

Five years ago, I watched Marvel’s Dr. Strange for the first time. In the scene that most stood out to me, Strange and his mentor, the “Ancient One,” are looking at a thunderstorm in slow motion. Knowing these are her last moments before she dies, she leaves Strange with a final lesson for the big fight that is to come — a fight he must now face alone. When Strange claims he’s not ready, the Ancient One replies:

“No one ever is. We don’t get to choose our time. Death is what gives life meaning. To know your days are numbered. Your time is short.”

“Death is what gives life meaning.” That hit me right in the gut. It hit me so hard that, a year later, I could still remember the scene and write an article about it.

Now, fast forward about 1,800 days, a long time by any standard. I’ve just recovered from Covid, which I got despite being vaccinated. I’m in a foreign country. My productivity had just gained momentum again after a slump, and now, I was back at zero, forced to start over.

The last night before flying home and rebuilding my routine, I need inspiration. I need a hero humbled by life, willing to begin again. For some reason, I remember Dr. Strange and press play.

Before becoming a hero, Strange was a neurosurgeon. Good-looking, successful, and arrogant to the nines. After an entirely self-caused car accident, his hands barely work, and they definitely don’t stay still long enough to be a surgeon. Thankfully, he finds a new gig protecting the universe.

As the movie reaches my favorite scene, I get excited, prepared to relearn a great lesson. Instead, I get an entirely different one. Seconds before her comment about death, the Ancient One reminds Strange he still has a long way to go:

“Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all.”

“Which is?”

“It’s not about you.”

Finally, the Ancient One explains the story of the man that led Strange to her in the first place, a man paralyzed from the waist down. She taught him magic, and he used it to walk.

Strange realizes he, too, could have his old life back. The Ancient One affirms that he could — “and the world would be all the lesser for it.” It is only here, long after he’s gone down the path of the hero, that finally, finally, Strange understands life is not about money and accolades. It’s about dedicating yourself to a bigger cause — and that, once again, hits me right in the gut.

“I have been self-absorbed lately,” I think. “I run laps around myself, pointing a spotlight at my own face.” Remembering I’m not so important is exactly what I need to kickstart my routine. “Let’s do some work, and do it as best as I can. Not for me. For others.”

In that spirit, I jump on the plane the next morning. It won’t last forever, of course, but it’s been a productive few days since.


At one point in How I Met Your Mother, Ted is engaged to a girl named Stella. When he tells his best friend Marshall she’s never seen Star Wars, the latter says a preliminary viewing is a must: “Star Wars is your all-time favorite movie, and whether or not Stella likes it is actually important. It’s a test of how compatible you guys are.”

After watching the movie twice in a row (again), Ted, too, is convinced of the idea. Some failed attempts at spying on Stella as she watches later, the two wait anxiously in Ted’s room to find out Stella’s verdict. “I loved it,” she claims, and Ted rushes to get the champagne. But Marshall can see right through her, and Stella admits she neither understood nor enjoyed the movie.

At this point, Marshall gives Stella the following speech, reminding her of the small responsibilities attached to the big commitment of marriage:

That is Ted’s favorite movie of all time. He watches it when he’s home sick with the flu. He watches it on rainy Sunday afternoons in the fall. He watches it on Christmas Eve. Ted watches Star Wars in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad. Do you really think that you can pretend to like a movie that you actually hate for the rest of your life?

Stella says she does, to which Marshall responds that Ted is a lucky guy. While their engagement will eventually fall apart, the latter remains true — and not just because his best friend always has his back.

Ted is lucky because he can find comfort in the familiarity of Star Wars whenever he needs it. We all go back to the things and people we love when we’re down, and there’s no reason movies can’t be part of that list.

Most of all, however, Ted is lucky because every time he watches Star Wars, he learns something new — because with every rerun, there’s an entirely new Ted watching. That’s why you should watch your favorite movies twice. Or three times. Or four. Or eight.

You are just as likely, if not more, to extract yet another valuable lesson from something you already love than from something you may or may not like.

Books, movies, songs — these things don’t change. We, however, do all the time. We barely recognize ourselves year to year, let alone decade to decade. Even if you watched the same movie 365 days in a row, I bet you’d still notice different elements each time (although I’m not sure I’d recommend that experiment). But if ample time has passed, say, five years, then even rewatching a straightforward superhero movie can deliver profound new insight. After all, just like the hero, you’ve evolved a great deal since!

The first time I watched Dr. Strange, I needed a reminder that time is precious. The second time, I had to get out of my own head. On both occasions, the movie delivered, and I got a free, third lesson on top: None of that precious time is wasted if you spend it rewatching movies you love.

How To Live Without Regrets Cover

How To Live Without Regrets

If you could vanish from society and start a new life, what would you do?

At 83 million viewers in the first month, 6 Underground is Netflix’ 4th most popular release of all time — and it asks us this very question.

Directed by Michael Bay, the movie sees six self-appointed action heroes toppling a cruel dictator in the fictional country of Turgistan. Led by a nameless billionaire, played by Ryan Reynolds, they do so in Bay-typical fashion: with lots of guns, cars, one-liners, and explosions.

Despite its over-the-top action and straightforward plot, there’s a deeper meaning behind the films flashy facade: It’s a movie about what it means to live your one life right.

To carry out their operation without getting nabbed at the first airport, the team must first fake their own deaths. Sitting in a diner, they muse over the benefits: No more DMV lines, Christmas shopping, or work email addresses. No more taxes, criminal records, or getting arrested for being drunk.

Having already faked his death in a plane crash, Reynolds’ character then schools them all: “You’ve got it all wrong, you know. When you’re young, you lock yourself into all these bad decisions. Marriages, mortgages, all that kind of stuff. But you die, it’s all erased. Poof! Gone.”

And then, casually inserting a profound insight into a charming yet obscene rant like only Ryan Reynolds can, he delivers the punchline:

“The best thing about being dead is the freedom. From that point forward, all that matters is what you choose.”


You’re not a sniper, stunt driver, or parkour virtuoso. No genius billionaire will recruit you for his spy unit. Your bad decisions will never be erased. If you let them pile up, they’ll keep piling up, and each day, the mountain of regret will grow a little taller.

Regret is saying, “I’m not ready to launch my startup,” and then hoping one friend agrees. Regret is backing out of the tournament at the last second and then finding you can’t laugh it off. Regret is missing your son’s first table tennis game and then realizing there’ll be no more firsthand firsts the day he moves out.

Regret is everything that you could, would, and should have done, were it not for [insert reasonable but invalid excuse].

I have many regrets. Do you? The weight of that mountain won’t go away.

It never feels like it in the moment. This decision? Nah. We couldn’t heap rocks onto Mount Everest! But we do. We do every day.

A tiny hill of sand — that’s how it starts. “Wow! It’s so light, this decision. What’s a little more sand?” Time feels good when it runs through your fingers.

Soon enough, one day becomes ten. One year becomes five. Before you know it, you’re shoveling opportunities into the fire — and what feels like air in the moment will later drop like a stone.

A train at full speed wants to keep going. The beast needs coal, and it will devour everything you offer. It won’t crash like a prop car, but the trail of regret it leaves behind? That can stack to the skies. In the end, you’ll only cower in its wake.

A clear slate is a fantasy. You don’t have the means to fake your own death. No dynamite to blow up the mountain.

What you do have, however, is the freedom to choose. It’s something you’ve always had, always will have, and what you choose is all that matters.

That’s the true lesson of the movie: Forget the rules! You don’t need to erase your past to take charge of your future.

The only way to live without regret is to realize you’re already free. You have one life and one life alone, and in that fact, you’ll find all the freedom you need.

The freedom to start before you feel ready. The freedom to try something new. The freedom to show up when you decide it counts.

Stop piling up regrets. Start living! Don’t wait for a chance to start over. Don’t wait for critics to change their minds. We all make mistakes — but we can decide to not let them define us.

What you choose is all that matters. Choose what matters every day.

Don't Forget Your Light Today Cover

Don’t Forget Your Light Today

The Drink of Despair is an ingenuity of evil. Parching whoever drinks it until they’re desperate for water, this nasty potion will nearly kill its consumer. Naturally, it must be drunk to be overcome — and dark wizards use it to protect their important belongings.

When it comes to dark wizards, Lord Voldemort is the poster child rather than the exception, and so, in one of the series most tragic moments, Harry Potter must feed his headmaster and mentor, Albus Dumbledore, the nefarious concoction. The pair succeeds in sipping the cup, but their victory is short-lived: What they hoped to acquire is no longer there, and they now find themselves weak and defenseless — surrounded by, of all things, water.

It’s a trap, of course. An army of Inferi — spellbound corpses — is hiding beneath the surface. Inside the dark lake of what on any other day would be a welcome source of refreshment, they’ve been waiting to “welcome” the two intruders all along — and drown them.

Since Dumbledore is too frail to fight and Harry isn’t quite strong enough, the inevitable happens: The boy trips, the Inferi grab, and into the depths he goes. Just as it seems Harry’s number is up, with the last blink of his eyes, he spots a flash of red. It cuts through the darkness above. Warmth fills the water, and a second later, he can no longer feel the Inferis’ grasp.

Harry swims to the surface. When he pokes his head out of the water, he can see but one thing: Fire. Raging, burning, darkness-crushing fire.

A pale Dumbledore stands in a tornado of light. Wielding his wand like a lasso, the all-powerful magician directs the fire from its center, raining wave after wave of scorching inferno upon their opponents. Harry manages to reunite with his savior, and, together, they fend off the attack.

The boy can consider himself lucky: Dumbledore brought his light today — and it made all the difference.


I’m dancing with my demons
I’m hanging off the edge
Storm clouds gather beneath me
Waves break above my head

I’m not sure he ever saw the Harry Potter scene, but given these lyrics, Chester Bennington from Linkin Park may as well have been in it. Nobody Can Save Me is the first song on their album One More Light, the last record to feature Chester as lead singer before he died by suicide.

The song is upbeat, the lyrics encouraging. Walking on the edge between light and dark, it reminds us to bring our sunshine — to conjure our ring of fire:

If only I can save me now
I’m holding up a light
Chasing out the darkness inside
And I don’t wanna let you down
But only I can save me

Chester struggled with depression all his life. One day, he simply forgot his light. Having listened to him since I was 13, I’m glad he brought it for so long.

We all have a light. We are One More Light. That’s what Chester taught me. The light is deep inside ourselves, and only we may ignite it.

Been searching somewhere out there
For what’s been missing right here

It’s a beautiful gift he left for us. Thank you, Chester. One More Light. Don’t forget.


“Home,” the candle in our bathroom reads. “No matter when and where, it is a safe place. Whatever happened, it is a warm harbor.”

When I see the flame flickering in the glass, I remember: Home is where the light is — and the light is something we carry.

Wherever you go, let there be light. Hold it every day, be it a tiny spark on your shoulder or a wall of fire against the dark.

As long as you bring it, there will always be light. Put it in your pocket. Let it do its thing. But remember to take it with you.

Don’t forget your light today. It might make all the difference.

How to Not Waste Your Life Cover

How To Not Waste Your Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Redeem yourself every day.

One Good Sentence Cover

Can You Write One Good Sentence?

In the early 20th century, the most important man in the world of American literature wasn’t an author. His name was Maxwell Perkins.

Perkins was an editor at Scribner, a publishing house in New York City. In 1919, he signed a young, unknown author, making a big bet on aspiring talent against the will of his seniors at the company. The author he signed was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who would go on to write and publish The Great Gatsby in cooperation with Perkins.

One year after Gatsby, which wouldn’t sell well for the next 15 years, Perkins met and signed another author of questionable status: Ernest Hemingway. After the two books they worked on together — The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms — found commercial successes, Perkins became the most sought after editor in the country.

The 2016 movie Genius tells the story of Perkins and another prodigious discovery of his: Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe was the son Perkins, who had five daughters, always longed for. He was poetic, passionate, and notoriously incapable of cutting a single word from his flowery prose. In other words, he was a writer through and through.

As an editor, one of Perkins’ main responsibilities was to cut the inessential. He did so for all of his writers but for none more than Wolfe. His first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, went from 294,000 words to 234,000 under Perkins’ guidance — and it sold like hotcakes. Taking the feedback of “write more” a bit too literally, Wolfe turned around and produced another manuscript: The 5,000-page draft for Of Time and the River, which him and Perkins fought over for two years before it finally saw the light of day.

Then, despite the book’s success, a trauma befell Wolfe that catches every writer at some point: Wolfe got writer’s block. For months, he was unable to put pen to paper. Eventually, he took a long, solo trip all the way to California, where, among other things, he visited Fitzgerald. I doubt the scene played out as depicted in the movie, but the advice he gave Wolfe — no doubt inspired by Perkins’ dedication as an editor — is priceless nonetheless:

Thomas Wolfe: “More and more I trouble myself with that, the legacy. Will anyone care about Thomas Wolfe in 100 years? 10 years?”

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “When I was young, I asked myself that question everyday. Now, I ask myself, ‘Can I write one good sentence?’”

For any writer, there are more ifs and thens and whats and whens to obsess over than hours in the day. What if no one cares about my idea? Will the book sell once it’s out? When can I make a living from my craft? What does it all amount to? Will I leave behind a legacy? There is no quicker way to obliterate your ability to chain words together than to hop on this never-ending merry-go-round of hypotheticals.

Instead, as Perkins drilled into his authors when fighting with them over every word, as Fitzgerald finally realized after years of failure, dedicate your obsession to the micro. Forget the book, the chapter, even the page and the very next paragraph. Ask one question and one question alone. The only question that matters: Can I write one good sentence?

Even if the encounter was fictional, even if Fitzgerald never said these words, there’s a high chance he had internalized them regardless. How do I know? Well, the other grand disciple of Perkins, Hemingway, left us with the exact same advice. It’s a famous line that’s been quoted countless times: “Write the truest sentence that you know.”

What did this mean for Hemingway? He explains it to us in the paragraph the quote is from — the majority of which most quoters omit:

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

As Nick Wignall notes, it is the throwing-orange-peel-into-the-fire part that is most crucial to understanding the advice. “That was his one true sentence that lead to his now famous ‘Write one true sentence’ quote,” Wignall writes. It was the only thing he knew to be true at the time: When I have writer’s block, I toss fruit into a fire. So that’s where he began.

Your next, first, final sentence being true is all nice and well, but, going back to Fitzgerald’s version of the tip, we now must ask: Is it also a good sentence?

Undoubtedly, Hemingway’s messy eating habits meet those criteria. There’s color, there’s fruit, there’s fire. Fire is dangerous. Fruit is a symbol of life. The colors change, and so does the situation. Feeding orange peel to the flames is not an everyday occurrence. See how many more metaphors we already extracted from this one line? You can imagine the scene as funny — an enraged Hemingway hurling oranges into his fireplace — or deeply thoughtful — the mindless flick of a finger causes a blue spark and loud crackle as Hemingway turns back to his desk. That is one heck of a sentence. Did Hemingway know when he wrote it? Doubtful. But he trusted the truth, and he deliberated on it long enough to stick with his decision — and that made all the difference.

Unfortunately for Wolfe, he never got to practice the advice he received from Fitzgerald. Weeks after his visit, he died of tuberculosis at just 37 years old. He did, however, leave behind a legacy — and a letter to his former editor, Maxwell Perkins:

I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that Fourth of July day three years ago, when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the cafe on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building, and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below.

Now that’s a good sentence. I think you should write one.

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.”

Bill Gates' Most Important Lesson Cover

The Most Important Lesson We Can Learn From Bill Gates

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

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

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

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

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

“The day my mother died.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compassion Is How You Free Your Past Selves Cover

Compassion Is How You Free Your Past Selves

After 33 years in hiding, Superman is forced to reveal himself to the world.

The commander of an ominous, alien ship demands the people of earth “hand over” their visitor…or else. But Clark Kent was raised a reasonable man, and so, to spare humanity the trouble, he volunteers.

Of course, nothing good happens inside the hull of that ship. Hailing from Kal-El’s home planet, the invaders plan to revive their race on earth, using his DNA. For good measure, they kidnap his love in the process and, ultimately, Clark has no choice but to try and escape.

Luckily, his father is there to help. A projection, at least. A holographic memory. As he shows his son a way out of the spacecraft, Clark inquires about the potential of his blood to re-erect Krypton.

“We wanted you to learn what it meant to be human first. So that one day, when the time was right, you could be the bridge between two peoples.”

And then, just as Clark spots the love of his life, hurling towards earth in a broken escape pod, Superman’s dad speaks his last words to his son:

“You can save her, Kal. You can save all of them.”

2D Characters in a 3D World

When I meditate, all bets are off. There’s no way to predict what my subconscious will send back to the surface. The only thing I know is that, sooner or later, every memory I have will make an appearance.

What they all have in common is a prior version of me, a version that’s long gone but whose hologram — like Superman’s dad — still lingers. Usually, each projection is one-dimensional. Focused on one trait, one idea, one action that defined me at the time — and thus the memory.

There’s the me who felt like a true Pokémon trainer, walking around with his GameBoy all day. The me that felt smarter than the other kids. The me who dreamed about changing the world but never did anything. These memories might be true, but they’re all just one part of me at one point in time. Flat. 2D characters in a three-dimensional past.

This week, however, another Nik showed up. A Nik from the future. I’m not sure he was Nik at all. He felt so…weightless. Dimensionless. There was no single fixture pinning him to the back of my mind. He didn’t need to be there. He just was. And even though he didn’t say anything, he still sent a message.

It was the same message his father’s hologram sent Kal:

“You can save all of them.”

No Hope Left

The men are locked high in the oil rig’s central tower. They’re on their last tank of oxygen, and the fire is closing in. There’s no hope left for them.

Two hands scrunch the door like it’s paper, and a shirtless, burning man steps in. Less than a minute later, the men board the chopper to safety. Superman has saved the day.

That’s what my past selves feel like. At least some of them. A group of children, victims, prisoners. Huddled together, sitting in a damp cell, waiting for someone to come and rescue them.

There’s the me that watched too much porn for all the wrong reasons. The me that cried over a girl that didn’t deserve him. The me that hurt his family over his own shortcomings. They’re all so pitiful, sitting there. Now, they do have reason to cry. They regret things. It’s too late for them.

But then, a sound breaks the silence. Heavy iron moving. A door opens and on the cold, hard floor falls a little ray of sunshine.

Who Is This Guy?

I don’t know where the other Nik came from. He wasn’t a person. More of a wave, just…flowing. A glowing wave of compassion.

Light floods the prison. It hurts, but it’s warm. “He sees us,” they think. And, for the fraction of a second, he does. Every single one.

The me who botched the relationship with my idol. “It’s okay.”

The me who fell off his bike and never wanted to ride again. “It’s okay.”

The me who first felt real empathy, listening to a lost artist’s songs. “It’s okay.”

“You’re all here because you can’t change. Your time is over. But you’re still worth loving.”

Damn. Who is this guy? And where has he been all these years?

All Bent Out of Shape

The school bully pulls Clark out of the car and throws him against the fence. Plato’s Republic still in hand, he’s too scared to react to provocations. But with adult bystanders watching, the gang decides to leave. Only one kid remains.

A tap on his knee makes Clark jump. A chubby, redhead boy with glasses extends a hand. Clark gets up. The fence post he held on to is all bent out of shape. Then, his human dad steps in, asking if the others hurt him.

“You know they can’t.”

“That’s not what I meant. I meant are you all right?”

“I wanted to hit that kid. I wanted to hit him so bad.”

“I know you did. I mean part of me even wanted you to, but then what? Make you feel any better?”

And then, as he looks at his father with tears in his eyes, Clark hears the human version of what his real dad will tell him 20 years later:

“You just have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be, Clark. Because whoever that man is, good character or bad, he’s…

He’s gonna change the world.”

How To Save Your Past Selves

Who are we in that last scene? The bully? The victim? The friend? I think we’re all of them. Sometimes at the same time.

We shove our past selves into a corner and we yell at them, hoping we’ll get a response. Some kind of explanation of why we let ourselves down. Often, there isn’t one, or we don’t like the one we hear. Meanwhile, the victims are cowering against the wall. Further bottling up their pain and regret — bending the post out of shape. But then what? Make us feel any better? No. But we can also choose to extend a hand. To be our own, chubby, nerdy little friend.

Compassion is a lot of things. Sympathy. Empathy. Patience. But it always starts with acceptance. A non-judgmental, holistic view of who you are. That’s how you open the gate and free those prisoners. That’s how you save your past selves.

I don’t know how you’ll find your compassion, but whenever it happens, you’ll realize it was always there to begin with. Slumbering deep inside yourself. Sometimes, you need to meditate to wake it. Sometimes, you just need a friend. Or something else entirely.

What I know for sure is that the memories you hold hostage are memories of a person worth loving. They were never one-dimensional. That’s just a result of storage compression. You’ve always lived in a three-dimensional space.

It’s true that we sometimes make one-sided decisions. We’re not perfect. But in being our own bully or best friend, we decide who we grow up to be. Good character or bad. One day, one decision, one memory at a time.

That character may not change the world, but they will definitely change our world. Yes. We’re not Superman. We can’t save everybody. But we don’t have to. There are a lot of us. If we each free our past selves, that is enough. I know it doesn’t always feel like it, but I promise:

You can save all of them.

The 22 Best Yoda Quotes Cover

The 22 Best Yoda Quotes: How to Master the Art of the Perspective Shift

If you don’t know, Yoda is one of the strongest characters in one of the strongest stories of all time: Star Wars.

Yoda is a tiny, green creature of an unknown species, over 800 years old, and Grand Master of the Jedi Order. The best of the good guys, if you will. He has an incredible ability to wield the Force — the invisible power all Jedi rely on — and is a brilliant fighter with a lightsaber, their weapon of choice. He’s also the head teacher of all young Jedi and the first person everyone turns to when they need advice.

Despite his strength, Yoda’s true power lies in his wisdom. He speaks a little backwards and often in riddles, but every word he chooses is placed exactly where it’s meant to be. He says little, but what he says hits hard.

Yoda is not just a Jedi Master, he’s also a master of the perspective shift.

Most of the time, what he tells us completely flips the angle from which we were trying to approach a problem. Often, he shows us we’ve been focusing on the wrong problem altogether. This is incredibly valuable.

Perspective shifts elevate our thinking. They allow us to overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers, move a lot faster, and see the world more clearly. They also help us lift others by sharing what we’ve learned with them.

Since he’s a quiet character, there aren’t that many Yoda quotes to draw from, but I’ve assembled his best ones to show you how he architects perspective shifts. He frequently talks about teacher-student relationships, fighting, and what it means to be a good person. To give you enough context and get the most out of these quotes, I’ve structured them into one coherent narrative.

May they teach you to change your own mind and that of others.


When Luke Skywalker is first sent to Yoda’s planet to learn from him, he bumps right into the Master, not knowing who he is. He tells him he’s looking for someone, to which Yoda only says:

“Looking? Found someone you have, eh?”

Picasso supposedly said, “I don’t seek. I find.” In a 1923 book called The Arts, he gave an explanation of what he meant:

“I can hardly understand the importance given to the word research in connection with modern painting. In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing. Nobody is interested in following a man who, with his eyes fixed on the ground, spends his life looking for the purse that fortune should put in his path. The one who finds something, no matter what it might be, even if his intention were not to search for it, at least arouses our curiosity, if not our admiration.”

In the same vein, Yoda trusts the Force to guide our path in life. You can call it God, the universe, karma, or whatever you like — the point is to have faith. Keep your eyes open, stay present, and look, rather than obsessing over an idea in your head.

The next thing Luke says is that he’s “looking for a great warrior.” Once again, Yoda flips the notion on its head immediately:

“Ohh. Great warrior. Wars not make one great.”

There’s a saying that is often credited to US president Herbert Hoover in various forms:

“Wars are always started by men too old to fight in them.”

It depends on the country, but many have a culture of decorating their war heroes. It serves us well to honor these men and women, but it makes it easy to forget that the most honorable thing would have been to never send them into battle in the first place.

As Grand Master of the Jedi Order, Yoda also holds a position similar to a general. Most of his power in that position is spent trying to maintain peace and avoid fighting, because he knows wars only create losers on both sides:

“No longer certain, that one ever does win a war, I am. For in fighting the battles, the bloodshed, already lost we have.”

In that same spirit, being a Jedi is much like learning Kung Fu, Yoda explains:

“A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

I can’t think of a more humbling thing than to learn how to fight in hopes of never having to use it. Rigorous physical training has many benefits, like discipline, fitness, and patience. But in order to attain them, you don’t ever have to raise your fist against another human being. The training is enough.

Of course, sometimes, war is inevitable. In case of the Jedi, they are usually hopelessly outnumbered by the vast armies of the Galactic Empire. But again, Yoda knows there’s more to life than physical strength:

“Smaller in number are we, but larger in mind.”

There are countless examples from history of small groups outwitting large enemies. The 300 Spartans. The Trojan Horse. Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. A great strategy can make up for a big lack in firepower.

This lesson also applies at an individual level, and it’s one of the first Yoda teaches Luke when he becomes his apprentice. He tells Luke to use the Force to telekinetically lift his spaceship from a swamp. When Luke fails, claiming it’s too big, Yoda retorts:

“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is.”

At first, Luke dismisses Yoda and walks away. But when he sees Yoda single-handedly lift the ship on his own and hover it to safety, he can barely trust his own eyes. He tells Yoda he can’t believe what he just did, to which Yoda says:

“That is why you fail.”

This is Yoda reiterating the very first thing he told Luke: it’s about believing before you can see. Not the other way around. This ties into what might be Yoda’s most famous quote of all:

“Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”

Yoda combines immense faith with a strong sense of realism, of grounding. Those two might seem like opposites, but they’re not.

If you surrender to life and are fully in sync with what the universe wants to tell you, you’ll rarely attempt anything that’s not already meant to become a reality. This is why Yoda spends so much time thinking and meditating. He needs to listen; tune in to the Force. Once he emerges, the path of action is so clear to him, it might as well be done already. This is Yoda’s job much more so than charging headfirst into every battle:

“Secret, shall I tell you? Grand Master of Jedi Order am I. Won this job in a raffle I did, think you? ‘How did you know, how did you know, Master Yoda?’ Master Yoda knows these things. His job it is.”

This job of knowing is what unites all of Yoda’s roles. Be it as a politician, general, or teacher. It would take Luke many years to finally understand this. In a conversation decades later, after Luke has become a Jedi Master himself, Yoda still needs to remind him that passing on his knowledge is his job. One of the best ways to do so is through failure:

“Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery, hmm… but weakness, folly, failure, also. Yes, failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.”

There’s a quote by Tom Bodett about the difference between life and school:

“In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”

Great teachers know this, which is why they don’t lecture as much as they pose challenges to their students, then let them figure out the answers on their own. If they fail, they fail, but either way, they’ll truly learn something rather than just parrot the master’s words or follow instructions.

For example, when Yoda sends Luke into a dark cave to confront his fears, Luke asks him what he can expect in there. Yoda says:

“Only what you take with you.”

Luke is utterly confused and feels abandoned at first, but after he faces his demons, he realizes the only way for him to succeed was to rely on his own mind. Yoda couldn’t help him, just point the way. This theme ripples through every great teacher-student relationship until its very end:

“Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.”

Failure is not just the way great teachers teach — it’s the master’s own, ultimate goal. If their disciple surpasses them, it means they’ve raised them well. Besides the rigorous training, the number one way Master Yoda aims to accomplish this is through ethics. What he’s most concerned with, even more so than their skill level, is that his students become good people.

That’s why many of his lessons revolve around the subject of not succumbing to the dark side of the Force — the evil path some Jedi choose and thus become corrupted. These lessons always have a Buddhist flair to them:

“Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.”

In order to practice his combination of faith and presence and dedicate most of his time to thinking, Yoda lives a very minimalist life. He can’t afford to be distracted or pulled around by every impulse and desire rising in his heart. Therefore, letting go is the most important skill each Jedi must master:

“Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”

Yoda knows fear is the true enemy of all Jedi. Fear is what pulls our minds to the past or the future. It is what creates attachment, and attachment leads to the emotions that, in turn, cause us to make dark choices.

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

The way we deal with our fears and return to the present is to face them and hold out as they try to penetrate our minds. We don’t fight them as much as we resist giving in to them. This is exactly what Yoda had Luke do in that cave:

“Named must your fear be, before banish it you can.”

Of course, this isn’t a one-time event. We must face many fears in our lifetimes and no one is immune to them. Not even Yoda. He, too, admits being afraid:

“Yes, afraid. Hmm, surprised are you? A challenge lifelong it is, not to bend fear into anger.”

In his famous inauguration speech, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt said:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

This principle is a maxim of Yoda’s teachings, as he personally witnessed the terrible consequences of allowing fear to fill a Jedi’s heart.

Once upon a time, a young boy named Anakin was brought before the Jedi Council. He had great potential, but Yoda sensed much fear in him, and so he didn’t want the boy to be trained in the Jedi arts. Yet one of the other Council members said he would train the boy anyway, and Yoda let it pass. Over time, the boy’s fear of losing those he loved only grew. In Yoda’s words:

“When you look at the dark side, careful you must be. For the dark side looks back.”

Eventually, Anakin’s fear had such a strong grip on him that the only path he saw was that of the dark side of the Force. In the same way Anakin was pulled over one day at a time, so do our fear-induced choices cause a vicious cycle. We take a shortcut to get out of one jam which only leads us into a bigger one, which, of course, requires an even more extreme, even less ethical shortcut. Sooner or later, the person we once strived to be feels like our own worst enemy. Anakin literally became this enemy, and it is with great sorrow and anguish that Yoda reveals to Anakin’s former teacher:

“The boy you trained, gone he is. Consumed by Darth Vader.”

Of course, we’re not the only ones facing this danger. Others are affected by it too. And sometimes, we still chase after them. Still hoping, wishing we could get them back. But the person we once felt connected to is long gone.

This brings us back to the war the Jedi were about to lose. They didn’t see that one of the politicians among their own ranks had gone through a similar transformation, and when they relied on his help, they found out he double-crossed them. After retreating and meditating, Yoda once again emerges with a perspective shift that has the power to turn a hopeless situation around:

“Yet, open to us a path remains. That unknown to the Sith is. Through this path, victory we may yet find. Not victory in the Clone Wars, but victory for all time.”

By simply changing the timeline from “how can we win this war?” to “how can we achieve lasting peace for everyone?” Yoda has elevated everyone’s thinking. A more generally applicable version of this idea is this:

“If no mistake have you made, yet losing you are, a different game you should play.”

Focusing on a different aspect of the bigger picture is another very common move in both war and politics. A group on the defense might try to go around the enemy and attack their flank, and an old adage in strategic thinking is:

“When everybody’s playing checkers, play chess.”

But this extends to many more aspects of our lives than the conflict-driven ones. When you fail to get promoted time and again, maybe it’s time to look for a new job. When discussing a problem with your spouse doesn’t work, maybe it’s time to talk about how you talk to each other. And if writing two posts per week won’t cut it, you could try publishing daily or not at all for a while.

The point is — and this is the biggest lesson we can learn from Yoda’s way of thinking — there’s always something different you can do. Something else you haven’t tried. Learning how to shift your perspective is one thing, but, like Yoda’s reliance on the Force, it first requires having faith in new perspectives in the first place. That’s why I can’t think of a better line to end on, a quote that more encapsulates Yoda’s spirit than this:

“Many of the truths that we cling to depend on our point of view.”

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.