What Makes You Attracted to Someone?

What Makes You Attracted to Someone?

Why do you keep dating douchebags? How come you can’t you get over your ex? Why do some relationship feel effortless, while others force us to try very hard? The answer to all of these questions lies in understanding attraction.

I’m not talking about sexual attraction, although what I’ll share will, to some extent, explain that too. I mean attraction as in: “Oh, I like that guy!” The kind of attraction that’s natural, effortless, and that you might feel towards a great deal of people, even if you don’t have any agenda involving them whatsoever.

It’s a good thing, this attraction. It allows humans to get along, which, in a world this crowded, becomes more important by the day. When you easily hit it off with others, you can seamlessly navigate thousands of relationships, no matter how microscopic their role in your life may be. Which do you prefer? A queue at the bakery in which everyone gives each other the death stare, or one with light banter and the occasional, “No way, I always go for the chocolate-frosted ones too!”?

As we shall discover, this last bit of “me too” is a key element of attraction: Likeness breeds liking. I mean, it’s in the word, isn’t it? “Josh likes Trina” indicates that, in one way or another, Josh and Trina are alike. This phenomenon is so universal, it lets Seth Godin explain marketing in a single sentence: “People like us do things like this.” For now, let’s remember that since likeness is easy to find, so is attraction — and that turns our superficial chemistry into a double-edged sword.

If you quickly relate to others, beyond forging genuine friendships, you’ll also connect with many people that, ultimately, don’t belong into your life. Sometimes, that connection extends far beyond a brief encounter at the bakery, and that’s when things get complicated: A shared love for jello shots becomes a six-month stint of endless arguments. A brutal assignment survived together makes you cannon-fodder for your coworker’s quest to get promoted. That’s attraction leading us astray, and the consequences hurt.

While it won’t prevent you from ever falling for the wrong person again, understanding why attraction forms is the first step towards getting better at knowing when to trust your attraction and when to double-check your gut.

“Knowing” is the key word here. That’s where the answer to the seemingly simple yet surprisingly complex question of “Why are we attracted to people like us?” begins. Given humans have been trying to understand each other since the dawn of time, it might come as a little less of a surprise that that answer can be found in a 2,000-year-old book.

The Grandest Sport of All

“All human beings by nature desire knowledge.” Thus goes the opening line of Metaphysics, the 14-volume magnum opus on philosophy by none other than Aristotle, one of the fathers of philosophy itself. With the hindsight of history, we might call Aristotle a genius, and, looking at his dozen other “father of…” titles, it seems that we have. If you had asked him back then, I’m sure he would have said some variation of what Einstein echoed 1900 years later: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

The premise of natural curiosity will be integral to our theory, so let’s state it clearly and then probe it for truth: You are curious. All of us are.

We may forget it from time to time, but if we think back to our childhood, it’s easy to realize curiosity drove virtually every step of our growing up. As a baby, you grabbed everything, licked everything, and constantly looked around in awe. Once you were able to crawl, you crawled wherever you could go, and you only went further once you were on your feet.

This is Aristotle’s first piece of evidence that to be human is to be curios: We love using our senses. We enjoy garnering data about the world, be it through our noses, mouths, ears, eyes, or hands. Do you ever stop and smell the roses? Your coffee? Your lunch? What about vibing to a new song? How about watching the sunset? Clearly, our senses can be the source of great pleasure.

When it comes to using our senses ferociously, we’re no different from any other animal. Many smart creatures, like dogs, crows, dolphins, elephants, and others, can even form habits from experience. That, too, is something we learn early on. “If I touch the stove, I’ll get hurt, so I’ll touch the stove no more.” Simple if-then-loops, however, are where our similarities end.

Once we hit preschool, our human uniqueness fully blooms: Unlike any animal, we can understand why the world works the way it does. We can see why certain actions in certain situations are the right or wrong ones to take, and we can do so even before we take them, before we’re forced to learn from experience.

If you’ve ever solved a crossword, fixed a home appliance, or figured out the right technique for your favorite sport, you know how satisfying it is to successfully employ your capacity for logic and reason. In fact, it is so satisfying, Aristotle claims, that most of human culture and civilization is based on our singular, omniscient desire for knowledge.

That’s his second piece of evidence: If we weren’t relentlessly curious, would we ever have ventured this far beyond mere survival? Why study nature? Why make art? What about science, religion, and philosophy? What about Formula 1, Microsoft, and the Taj Mahal? A simpler animal would have been content to eat, sleep, breed, repeat — but not us. Therefore, we must be curious.

We have turned knowledge into the grandest sport of all, and every human loves to play.

A 21st Century Psychologist — in 345 BC

The English language contains 171,476 words, of which we use about 3,000 to handle our everyday reading and interactions. Some might call this efficient. I call it a shame, because for many a word we don’t know, we use five more to describe what we mean. That’s everything but efficient.

While the precision of language always depends on the eloquence of its wielder, at anywhere from 1.6 to 6 million words, Greek suffers no lack of specificity — and the deeper you dig, the more vocabulary you’ll find that you wish you had at hand. One such word is tekhnê (pronounced “tech-knee”), a word Aristotle used to establish a hierarchy of competitors in the game of knowledge.

Tekhnê combines what we today call “skill” or “technique” with “art” or “craft.” It describes both the task itself as well as the understanding and craftsmanship one might attain from (or in order to) perform said task well. Cooking is a tekhnê. Studying recipes builds tekhnê. And a master chef likely has lots of tekhnê.

The core element of tekhnê is understanding. Can the task be explained in an intelligible way? Does it have its own rationale? What about the actor? Does she know why she’s doing what she’s doing? Or is she guided purely by instinct? Without understanding, there can be no tekhnê — not that that necessarily hurts the result. Even if the painter works in trance, the painting can still be beautiful.

In German, there’s a word called “Technik,” and it gets close to tekhnê. You might watch a documentary about “die Technik des Stoffewebens,” the craft of weaving fabrics, which explains the general process of weaving by hand or via loom. At the same time, you might commend your friend’s “Technik beim Tennis,” his technique in swinging his racket while hitting yellow balls.

Today all roads might lead to Rome, but in Aristotle’s world, all tekhnê leads to pleasure. After all, understanding satisfies our curiosity, and employing said understanding to make something engages our senses on top.

Here’s an example: While spending two years on the island of Lesbos around 345 BC, Aristotle extensively thought, researched, and wrote about animals. Among the many creatures he observed was the paper nautilus, a species related to the octopus. Aristotle noted that one of the male nautilus’ tentacles looked different than the others and, seeing how he inserted it into the female during courtship, concluded it must be the animal’s reproductive organ.

Aristotle had no way of verifying his theory as correct (it was, but we only confirmed that in the 19th century), but exercising his mind and senses provided him with a rewarding feeling. That, too, is tekhnê. If somebody had drawn an accurate representation of the nautilus for Aristotle, the artist would have enjoyed the drawing as much as Aristotle enjoyed analyzing the subject — at least he suggests as much in Parts of Animals. Finally, if a skilled art critic would have looked at said drawing, they, too, would have found joy in judging the artist’s skills.

The lesson here is that expertise is fun — both building it and using it once you have it. This is astonishingly congruent with 21st century psychology. It’s in line with Daniel Pink’s Drive, Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and dozens of studies on passion, grit, and deliberate practice, all of which come to the same conclusion: The better you become at something, the more fun you’ll have doing it. Obvious? Today, maybe. Yet, given we still so often fail to act on this knowledge, I think someone discovering this on a small island some 2,300 years ago is pretty impressive.

Well, okay, so much for the experts — the biologist, the painter, and the art critic — but what about the average Joe? Where are our rungs on the ladder of knowledge? Fret not, for there is another way to quench our curiosity, and it does not require tekhnê of any kind. In fact, it is accessible to all. The only demands it makes are the right vocabulary and, in the case of looking at Aristotle’s imagined octopus drawing, the realization that, “Yes! This is an octopus!”

The Second Time You Saw a Tree

If it takes an expert to appreciate the craft, how come even an amateur can enjoy watching one in action? What does the casual football fan get out of observing a great pass, and why can a child in the backseat gaze at passing cars for hours, content in silent wonder?

The answer, according to Aristotle, is mimêsis — another one of many Greek words worth adding to your roster. In Poetics, the book that shall answer our questions about dating and relationships, translator Malcolm Heath considers mimêsis a broadly defined version of the word “imitation.”

Unlike the imitation we know, mimêsis need not be literal. While it always indicates likeness, “an imitation need not be a straightforward copy of the object imitated.” A heavy metal song in which the singer screams can easily be linked to being angry, even if the lyrics never directly discuss the emotion. Furthermore, mimêsis is not limited to reality. To Aristotle, a play about a vengeful god starting a heavy metal band could be just as good as one about a vindictive carpenter doing the same. Finally, he saw mimêsis as an elemental human activity, one that pervades all the arts and many other, seemingly non-artistic activities, like making animal sounds or children playing house.

Aristotle’s contention, then, is that human beings are by nature prone to engage in the creation of likenesses, and to respond to likenesses with pleasure, and he explains this instinct by reference to their innate desire for knowledge. A likeness is (by definition) a likeness of something; to take part in the activity of making and responding to likenesses we must recognize the relationship between the likeness and its object. This engages and satisfies the desire to exercise our distinctively human power of understanding, and is therefore pleasurable. This exercise of our capacity for understanding is, to be sure, a rudimentary one. But Aristotle’s purpose here is to explain how poetry and painting are rooted in basic instincts shared by even the least intellectually sophisticated people.

The first time you saw a tree, you may have wondered what it was. The first time you saw a tree after your mom had pointed one out to you in a picture book, your eyes lit up. “A tree! It’s a tree! Mom, it’s a tree!” The key element here is recognition. You recognize the tree because you’ve seen one before. You understand there is a connection between the two, and understanding is what you were born to do — it’s what makes you human and uniquely so.

As a side note, this also explains taste and how it can be so subjective: Since everyone has different experiences, we don’t all recognize and connect the same things. If you’ve never seen a zeppelin nor know how rare they are, you might not care when one pops up in the sky — or even think it’ll usher in the apocalypse. Meanwhile, if you had lots of posters of red cars around the house while growing up, you’ll probably want your car to be red. The endless variety of mimêsis in our individual lives ensures: Not everyone likes what you like, but everyone likes something.

Returning to our little tree enthusiast, I’ll grant that the thrill of point-and-name soon wears off, but if you bring a little patience to the park, you can still summon that same spirit of awe and excitement decades later. Just sit on a bench and watch the willow for a while. You enjoy looking at it, don’t you? After all, you recognize it. The willow is familiar. At the same time, there are a million things you don’t know about it, and those are equally intriguing.

It’s fascinating how quickly fascination forms — and nowhere is this interplay of recognition and inquisitiveness stronger than in human relationships.

How Curiosity-Fueled Attraction Can Lead Us Astray

Let’s recap what we’ve learned so far:

  1. Humans have an undying, irrefutable desire for knowledge.
  2. One way of consistently fueling said desire is to become an expert in something and then rigorously exercise your expertise.
  3. Another, more rudimentary approach is to engage in imitation, and the most basic version of that is to simply recognize how two things are alike.

Once you put together curiosity, understanding, and likeness, you have everything you need to explain the magnetic pull of human relationships: Recognizing likeness feeds understanding, and understanding satisfies curiosity. That’s why attraction often feels effortless: Every time you discover another likeness-nugget, you get a little hit of dopamine. The more you realize you and your coffee date are alike, the happier you’ll be in their presence. Your understanding barometer goes through the roof, and since nothing feels better than “getting it,” you’ll soon be on cloud nine.

You’re using your senses to scan for likeness. Is her hair the same color as your celebrity crush’s? Does he have freckles like you? Your similarities-monitor is on. “Oh, I know that keychain!” “That sounds like the time I was in a band.” Your imagination is blossoming. “Where does her ambition come from?” “Was he cheated on as well?”

Now that’s great when you’re sitting across the love of your life, and it can make waiting at the DMV less boring, but, unfortunately, this process does not only work well when it’s supposed to. Your brain is so desperate for mental check marks, it’ll sometimes construe the flimsiest relation as a profound, shared connection — and that’s where the trouble begins.

“Oh, he loves Italy. I love Italy!” This implies a shared understanding of what “Italy” means to each of you — which, actually, may or may not be there. If your date associates “Italy” solely with translating Italian poetry from the 15th century into English because that’s what he spent half a year doing somewhere in rural Canada, that’s very different from you thinking about the pizza, ice cream, and beautiful palazzos you indulged in on your last vacation.

Your brain, however, rarely bothers verifying. Relying on its memory of other, equally shaky connections, it concludes there’s a decent chance your ideas of “Italy” overlap enough to warrant being excited — and up the dopamine hatches go. Even if your brain didn’t constantly jump to conclusions, you could still get away on a single, shared opinion about Italy. “The Italian language is beautiful” might be enough to get both of you to date number two. That’s how strong the pull of understanding others is. It’s the curiosity game on steroids — and that snowball will gladly roll downhill if we let it.

This also explains why, especially in unfamiliar settings, people tend to huddle together in ethnic groups. When I studied abroad, it took all of one day for all nine Germans to find each other and spend the evening in the same room. For better or for worse, likeness feels good and safe, so why not go where you know some likeness will be guaranteed? This is a trap, of course. In my case, it led to a lack of new ideas and perspectives — you know, the thing a college exchange is for. In others, it could lead to racism, bullying, and worse.

Unless…

The Slow-Burn Movie of Real Understanding

Going back to the dating game, our likeness addiction makes it easy to jump from similarity to similarity — and thus fall in love head over heels. But the question is not how many corresponding easter eggs you can find — it is whether you’re compatible in a few key aspects that matter.

If you’re looking for a long-term relationship, the three big Ws are a good place to start: What, where, and who? What do you want your daily routines to look like? How does work fit into living together? Where will you do said shared living, and who will you want close by? More than one divorce has been filed over living down the street from one’s in-laws.

The truth is if you can deflect the big bullets, your differences are a matter of management, not elimination. That’s what rooms in houses are for. You do your thing, I do mine, and we’ll reconvene at dinner. Discovering how we are different can be just as satisfying as finding out we’re alike. Unlike the latter, however, the former is not a fast, dopamine-fueled carousel. It’s more like a slow-burn movie, the fruits of which we can only reap in time.

My girlfriend loves refunds. If there’s a damaged item to return, a hotel room sub-par, or a voucher that’s not being honored, she is your gal. I’m more timid. “Diplomatic,” I call it. On a bad day, I might perceive this difference as friction. “Why can’t she just let it go?” On a good day, however, I see this difference as strength. I can count on her playing bad cop at the front desk, and I’ll play good cop to go along. Together, we’ll deliver a convincing performance that gets us what we’re owed — and we have. Situations like these have happened, and they’ll keep happening in the future. So why not combine our talents?

The kind of understanding this cooperation requires does not come with a jolt of energy that feels like caffeine hitting the veins. Instead, it triggers a slow, long “aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh, that’s why she is like that.” My girlfriend grew up in a country where consumer rights don’t exist. Imagine living in a place where, in every economic transaction, you can expect to be ripped off, and the only question is how much. If you moved to a country where your purchases are protected by the law, wouldn’t you invoke the 30-day-guarantee? I would.

It’s a bit like mimêsis vs. tekhnê: Anyone can giggle over realizing they went to the same school, but the joy of being an expert on why your partner is who they are is a prize few can claim.

The Good Life — A Life of Good Relationships

If we want to build great relationships, we must understand why, when, and how we connect with others. Attraction is the spark that forges these connections, and it includes everything from a smirk at the cash register to a full-blown addiction to the devil in disguise.

While some baseline of attraction allows us to glide through society’s waters, too much of it too quickly can cause us great pain and misery. Once we know how the process of attraction unfolds, however, we are better able to pause, speed up, slow down, or even reverse it.

Let’s summarize the tenets of attraction we’ve discovered:

  1. One of our strongest, most fundamental desires as humans is to learn, know, and understand.
  2. Any activity that engages our mental faculties with the goal of understanding is, therefore, pleasurable.
  3. When it comes with a continuous cycle of learning new lessons and applying them in creative endeavors, being (or becoming) an expert can steadily feed our need for intellectual stimulation.
  4. One of the plainest, easiest, and quickest ways to repeatedly exercise our understanding muscle, however, is to simply recognize that two things are alike. That includes realizing we are like others, and others are like us.
  5. When we detect many similarities with another person in quick succession, our knowledge-guzzling brain sends us into a dopamine-induced stupor of attraction — even if those similarities are built on the shakiest of foundations.
  6. To not get carried away and into the wrong relationships, we must fact-check our gut checks, using logic and reason to discern which correlations matter, and which ones don’t.
  7. Once we look past superficial tit-for-tat comparisons, we’ll not only see ourselves more clearly reflected in others, we’ll even start appreciating the beauty in our differences — and see them for the complementing strengths that they are.

One of Aristotle’s main concerns was what it means to live a good life. While the concept of virtue, which we may summarize under the maxim of “be good, do good, feel good,” remained front and center in his answer, he was acutely aware of the role our relationships play in achieving the good life ideal — his idea of true friendship being only one of his most prominent examples.

Good relationships, like anything good, take time. We can’t rush into them over fleeting experiences or same-logo sweatshirts. Until the right person appears and reveals the right level of synchronicity at the right time, be patient. Enjoy the ease of light connections, but don’t let your dopamine glands fool you. When it comes to people’s behavior, consider all reasons, yet never take the seemingly obvious ones at face value.

After all, Lowell Bennion’s 1959 imitation of Aristotle was only slightly like the latter’s original phrasing: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Lincoln's Unsent Angry Letter Cover

Lincoln’s Unsent Angry Letter: Modern Technology Edition

In 2014, Maria Konnikova lamented the lost art of “the unsent angry letter” in the New York Times. The idea is that if you’re upset at something or someone, you write a detailed, liberal response — and then stick it in your drawer until you’ve cooled off.

US president Abraham Lincoln may be the most prominent proponent of “hot letters,” as he called them, but the stashed vent has a long tradition among statesmen and public figures. Harry Truman, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill — the list of admired characters to prove the tactic’s efficacy is long enough.

It serves as both an emotional and strategic catharsis, Konnikova noted. You can “let it all out” without fearing retaliation while, simultaneously, seeing what proper arguments you have on offer — and what’s just nasty, unhinged thought.

In theory, the tool is as intact as ever: When you’re angry, write a letter. Then, let it sit. By the time you revisit, you’ll be able to learn rather than suffer from it. In practice, however, 200 years of technological progress have undoubtedly left their mark on what used to be a pen-and-paper exercise. Konnikova writes:

Now we need only click a reply button to rattle off our displeasures. And in the heat of the moment, we find the line between an appropriate response and one that needs a cooling-off period blurring. We toss our reflexive anger out there, but we do it publicly, without the private buffer that once would have let us separate what needed to be said from what needed only to be felt.

Lincoln had neither a keyboard nor a Twitter account. 30 presidents later, we have witnessed the consequences of unfiltered, globally disseminated angry letters firsthand: Donald Trump sent so many of them, his carrier pigeon of choice decided to no longer be of service, and I’m sure he wished to un-hit “Send” more than once.

This is the first cognitive trap of social media: The ease of transmission lures us into venting more in public than we should.

The second is the accidental send, where a second of key-fumbling leads to an uncomfortable conversation you never planned to have.

The third, according to Konnikova, is that even if we do it anonymously, if venting is easy and fast, it’s not as restorative and purifying as its offline equivalent. The act of writing a letter takes time, and all that time becomes part of your healing. A tweet is sent in a jiffy, and so in a jiffy, you’ll be back to tweet more.

The fourth and final trap of digital hot-lettering is that places like r/UnsentLetters/, the letter section on Thought Catalog, and other semi-anonymous platforms lead to semi-public shaming with plausible deniability.

You yell at your friend for abusing your couch, and it’s specific enough for them to know if they read it, yet too generic for you to have to assume any liability. A blog post called To My Ex: A Letter That I’ll Never Send,” can’t provide a sacred dome of quiet reflection because, girl, you kinda did send it — except not to your ex, and so there’s no risk or closure but perhaps too much of the hope that made you type it in the first place. You can’t use not-really-unsent letters to coerce the people you feel have slighted you into magically changing and showing up on your doorstep once more.

What you can and should do is the only thing that works: Retain the unsent angry letter in its pristine format, even if the ink shall now be sparkled across your screen.

Let the email address field remain empty, take your new drafts offline, or fill your notes app to your heart’s content. If you still crave the satisfaction of hitting send, consider that many a chat now offers the great chance to talk to yourself. WhatsApp, email, iMessage, Slack — there’s nothing like your digital shadow parroting your own rants right back at you.

Personally, I enjoy typing long, case-like arguments in a direct message to myself on Slack. It gives me the surge of passion I’d show in an attempt to convince the grand jury that is the #general-channel without the need to have my evidence debunked with embarrassing ease. Instead, I get to do that later, on my own, when I re-read my message and realize: It was full of emotion but devoid of rationale.

If anything, it becomes clear how much reason lies behind my feeling of being treated unfairly, if any at all. Should there remain a case to be made, I am now free to assemble it properly, point by point, and remove the emotion that had no role to play in it in the first place. I can reconsider who I might send it to if there is a recipient to be found for it, and I can reassure myself that, yes, now’s not yet the time to post it in public, and that time will likely never come.

Releasing your emotions is freedom, but so is choosing what you say to whom. Neither should be done carelessly, and it is only when we cultivate appropriate space to do either that we get to experience the utmost relief they can bring.

Go ahead. Write that hot letter. Send yourself a rant on Slack. As long as the format allows you to cool down to cucumber levels, the unsent angry letter will provide for you what it has for the 16th US president, Maria Konnikova, and many men and women since: “A deeper consideration of what exactly we should say and why, precisely, we should say 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.

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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.

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5 Phrases Caring Partners Use Often

The best way to have a caring partner is to be one yourself. This isn’t always easy, but it’s simple.

For years, I used to wish someone would make me feel cared for and thus safe and loved. They wouldn’t have to fix all my problems, just show real interest, concern, and actually listen. As it turns out, much of receiving these feelings of affection, understanding, and respect was in my hands all along.

I’m in a relationship now, and the number one thing I’ve learned so far is this: If you want to feel cared for, care deeply for others. Reciprocity is a powerful force. When the giving is honest, it feels natural to want to give back, not forced or manipulative.

Lately, I paid attention which phrases my girlfriend uses that make me feel cared for, respected, and loved. Now, I’m making an effort to use them more often. I’m not perfect, but it feels good to say and mean them — and to frequently hear them in return.


1. “Take all the time you need.”

In my last relationship, I constantly felt bad for wanting to work. I was just starting as an entrepreneur, and though I didn’t put in Bill-Gates-like hours, the usual 40 of a common job just didn’t cut it.

My girlfriend at the time was a student. She had more time on her hands, and she often asked: “When are you done? Can we hang out now?” I was always excited to spend time with her after work, but these constant check-ins made me feel guilty despite the fact that I loved my work.

In my current relationship, hearing the words, “Take all the time you need” gives me huge relief. Whenever one of us has to finish something before we talk on Zoom or make dinner together, the other tells them to move on their own schedule, and it’s liberating. It makes me want to get my work done faster — minus the guilt.

Being in a relationship doesn’t handcuff you to your partner, but sometimes, we put the shackles on ourselves — usually out of fear. We’re afraid we’re being selfish if we pursue our own interests, and that they might reject us if we don’t spend every second with them. Ironically, often, both partners have this fear, making it wholly unfounded.

Your partner is their own person. They’re busy. They want to do many things and, a lot of them, they’ll have to do on their own. Let them. In a healthy relationship, one of the best gifts you’ll ever give — and receive — is space.

Don’t incessantly text your partner with real-time updates, and don’t expect them to do the same in return. Only if you’re apart will you learn what it’s like to miss them. You’ll appreciate them and the time you spend together so much more if you allow yourself this feeling in healthy doses.

2. “Are you ok? You looked worried.”

In the music video for their song “Family” the Chainsmokers tell the story of Rory, their cameraman. Rory joined them when they were still unknown, and then, like the band, he became famous.

Eventually, he became so successful that he lost himself, and, after a bad car accident, he fell into a spiral of negative thoughts. The band, his friends, his family, they all continued to make time for him and helped him get back on track. Had they not, he might not be here today.

The video ends with a simple message: it’s cool to check up on your friends.

When it comes to your partner, checking in on them isn’t just cool, it’s necessary. When they appear or sound worried to you, tell them. Let them know you’re under the impression that they feel a certain way: sad, angry, scared, anxious — whatever the emotion might be, shine a light on it.

Notice how different this is from saying, “You’re angry.” The truth is you can’t actually know. You don’t know how anyone is feeling except yourself. But you can make an educated guess, and if you deliver that guess in kind, people will thank you for it.

Sometimes, it’s better to do this a few hours after the fact because it gives both you and your partner time to reflect on what’s going on, but “Hey, you looked worried earlier, you ok?” often goes a long way.

3. “Do you want to talk about this now or later?”

Making room for what’s important to your partner is a two-part job: First, you have to create a safe space for them to share how they feel. Then, there also needs to be time to talk through those feelings and, eventually, help them figure out what to do about them.

“Do you want to talk about this now or later?” is a great sign of commitment and dedication. It shows you’re willing to take a break from whatever you’re doing to listen to your better half.

The phrase also accepts that they might not be ready to talk about this problem, either because they’re busy or because they need to think more about it on their own. It signals you’re open and willing to help, not just now, but whenever they feel like they need it the most.

When it comes to not only our intimate relationships but also our friendships, few actions are more powerful than letting them know you have their back.

4. “How do you feel about this?”

I think on some level, everyone can relate to Rory’s story: Sometimes, I get so busy that I forget to even consider how I feel about things. That’s how we bottle up emotions. We don’t mean to. It just happens. That’s why it’s nice to get a reminder from time to time.

You can’t have a real-time check-in for every emotionally challenging situation, but making them a habit can prevent a minor situation from becoming a major headache. Like all things under pressure, we gain stability from letting off a little steam every now and then.

“How do you feel about this?” is a universal phrase. It doesn’t just allow your partner to pause and think about their feelings towards what they’ve just experienced, it can also be a chance for you to get their opinion on a story or idea you’ve shared.

Proactively asking your partner for their opinion or how they feel about your plans eliminates many uncomfortable conversations down the line. No one wants to tell the person they love that they think an idea of theirs is bad — but sometimes, we’ll have to. Them asking us this simple question first is a great sign of humility.

5. “How did you sleep?”

If you’re with your partner for 30 years, you’ll spend 10 years next to each other — sleeping. Just because you’re not awake does not mean that it’s not time spent together.

Asking your partner how they experience this time is a simple courtesy, but it adds up — and so does a lack of it. Imagine waking up with a huge headache, and all your partner has to say is, “I slept great, let’s go!!”

Rather than waking up and immediately facing our days alone, we should use our mornings to show up to the starting line as a team. After all, what does it matter if we arrive at the finish line when we don’t do it together?


As you may have noticed, all of these phrases are simple. That’s another lesson I’ve learned in my new relationship: Being a caring partner isn’t about using big words. It’s about using the right ones — and saying them at the right time.

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

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

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Show People You Love Them Every Day

The most common point of criticism my German friends have for US culture is the layer of politeness that’s slapped on top of everyday interactions.

America is a country of service, a place where you exchange pleasantries and, for the most part, say hi to your neighbors. Superficial or not, I quite enjoy it. It’s nice to be asked, “How are you?” or to receive a compliment every once in a while, even if the barista won’t be my best friend afterwards.

Germans might complain about the lack of sincerity, but they also complain about grumpy service people — which we have a ton of — and not knowing what their neighbor is up to. Regardless of where you fall on the directness vs. politeness spectrum, I think everyone should admire this about US communication culture: Americans tell people they love them. All the time.

When my American friends hang up the phone with their families, they’ll say, “Love you guys, talk soon.” When they kiss their spouse goodbye at the grocery store, they’ll toss in a quick “Love you” before they leave. It’s never a big announcement, often a small add-on. It feels almost like an afterthought — but it’s always there — and that’s the part that counts.

In my family, we’ve never been super outspoken about love, relationships, dating, money, sex, and other sensitive topics, but we’ve improved a lot in recent years. We take small steps towards sharing more, often with a good chunk of humor to make parents-kids conversations less awkward.

The most notable and important change we’ve made is that we’ve started telling each other we love each other, something we never used to do. We might say it on the phone or in passing, before going to bed or in a group message if everyone’s in different locations. We hug more, and, even though it’s obvious to all of us, it’s nice to keep hearing “I love you” from time to time. Initially, I even set a reminder to do it once a week. Now, it comes naturally.

As silly as it sounds, you never quite know what’ll happen tomorrow. People have heart attacks. Accidents occur. “Thank you,” “How are you?” and, yes, “I love you,” are phrases you almost can’t say too often. It’s very hard to overdo it with those.

Valentine’s Day is one of the most commercialized holidays in the world. This year alone, sales are expected to rise some 30% to nearly $30 billion. A lot of that money will be spent on trying to make up for what we’ve failed to do all year: Showing people that we love them. The problem is a grand gesture can’t create something that must be built brick by brick.

Love is about trust, faith, freedom from judgment, confidence, reassurance, compassion, and hope. You can’t deliver those things in a box of chocolates. You have to form them. One day, one innocuous, after-thought-like interaction at a time. Telling people you love them isn’t the only way to do this, but it’s a hell of a start.

This Valentine’s Day, don’t buy flowers as a bribe. Don’t spend money when it feels like paying bail. Instead, do something small. Call your partner at lunch hour. Send them a voice message. Drop your best friend a note. Ask them how they’ve been. Whoever you come home to at night or every once in a while, tell them that you love them. Tell them you’re grateful to have them in your life.

Whatever you choose to do, make sure it can be the start of a new habit. Give yourself a break and a tiny, repeatable step. You don’t have to raise all hell to express your affection. It’s nice to do that on occasion, but it’s much more important to do it in small ways every day. So allow yourself to start small.

Valentine’s Day is like January 1st: A day like any other, as good as any to make a difference. Whatever extra motivation you find on it, don’t spend it all in 24 hrs. Use it to begin the rest of your life.

Some folks might make snarky comments, but if the people closest to you know you love them, who really cares what they think?

6 Paradoxical Truths of Life

The first paradox I ever saw was Waterfall by M. C. Escher.

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Image via Facebook

How does a four-year-old come across a perpetual motion illusion by an artist who died 20 years before he was born? Well, it hung in our hallway. Not the original, of course. The copy provided enough staring material for hours.

How does that work? Why does the water flow up and down at the same time? How fast must the wheel spin to make it all go round? Most importantly, why aren’t they staring? The people in this painting have no care in the world. To them, this magnificent delusion barely exists.

When you first encounter a paradox, your brain goes on the fritz. Which version is true? Why don’t they add up? And why do they feel like, somehow, they still kind of do? It’s easy to get stuck on this part. To obsess and try to cram the contradiction into a box labeled ‘consistent’ in your mind.

If you don’t however, eventually, something wonderful happens: Your brain turns off. It stops trying. Suddenly, you can, somehow, accept the idea at face value and, instead of dissecting it, appreciate its beauty.

If you’ve ever felt this way, if you’ve ever been mesmerized by something you could not understand, then you’ve witnessed not just the beauty of paradox but, actually, the essence of life: It’s a mystery, but it’s marvelous.

Just because we can’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s not there by design. This applies to the mechanical parts of your coffee machine as much as it applies to a breakup, a car accident, or, well, this painting. All of it was designed just for you, just for this moment. You might not “get it” at the time, but, later, you most likely will. “You can only connect the dots looking backwards,” Steve Jobs once said.

Deep in our subconscious, we know this, and that’s why our brains allow us to eventually gloss over the details and focus on learning, enjoying, and finding the positives. Yes. This is the paradox we need right now. If we accept it, it’ll give us peace of mind, a sense of ease, and freedom from worry.

If we appreciate it even, it’ll open a door to a new perspective: Maybe, both versions are true. What if the paradox combines two ends of the same spectrum? And what if we can stand on that spectrum and re-balance as needed? Might what looks like a flaw actually be an advantage?

Open your mind. Let the paradox in. Appreciate its beauty and accept its truth. It’ll prove useful time and again. It’ll prove to be part of the design.

Here are six of my favorite examples of paradoxes that can make your life a lot easier.


1. You didn’t come this far to only come this far

Dean Karnazes ran 50 marathons in 50 states on 50 consecutive days. Imagine being on day 49 of such a feat. “I can’t run another marathon. I just can’t.” Yes. But then, he did.

I’m sure there was more than one mile Dean hated. On the 30th marathon. On the 10th. Even on the first. But each time, whether it was mile two in race one or mile 17 in race 43, he remembered: You didn’t come this far to only come this far.

When you have trouble starting, remember how you got to the starting line. When you have trouble finishing, remember how you got close to the goal.

No matter how far you’ve come, no matter how daunting the obstacle ahead, there’s always a little more to go. This isn’t sad. It’s life — and simply a reminder of all the great things that lie behind you already — even if, sometimes, these great things consist of small steps.

2. Wherever you go, there you are

While life is a never-ending journey and we should always move on and strive forward, it pays well to stop sometimes and look around. “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Heeding Ferriss Bueller’s advice lets us take a breath, enjoy the scenery, and celebrate our accomplishments. It also affords us a chance to look at the path that brought us here. We didn’t take all turns deliberately, and not all deliberate turns take us where we want to go. Yet here we are. This is it.

Why did you send that careless email? How come you stayed in this city? Why did you tell her your embarrassing story? Maybe you know, maybe you don’t. But it led you right here. To joblessness. To friendship. Into love. And that’s all that matters.

3. The easiest way to getting what you want is learning to want less

Once you’ve arrived, the best way to be present is to not look too far ahead. You’ll hit your next obstacle soon enough. That’s a time for forward-thinking.

For now, again, look around you. Look at what you have. Isn’t that enough? Slowing down today makes tomorrow feel like we lived more yesterday. Like we had it yesterday. Enough. And if we start from enough, today is a gift.

“Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want,” Naval says. Wanting is powerful. It makes you do things. Doing without wanting is joyful. It makes you love things. You choose.

4. You can’t *change* the people around you, but you can change the *people* around you

How many of the people you’ve met made you think, “I wish they’d never change?” That’s rare. Wishing for others to be different is the norm.

Of course, most people don’t change quickly, easily, or at all, let alone according to your wishes or because of anything you did, and so, eventually, you’ll leave most of them behind. That’s okay. It’s necessary. But when you find someone who makes it easy to stay, think long and hard before you leave.

How many true friends do you need to be happy? Five? Three? One? It’s easy to wander through life, hopping from circle to circle, always meeting people, always hoping for better but never quite connecting.

What if we stuck with those to whom we feel connected already? Let’s leave behind who we must leave behind but cherish the people we never want to change.

5. Don’t try to find people you’re willing to be with — be willing to try with the people you find

As little as you can do to change others, as much there is to be done inside yourself. Meeting the people who fit into your life like perfect puzzle pieces takes inner work — especially in love.

Bring out the best in yourself, then let those parts act like feelers, just waiting to register a signal from someone else. In the meantime, the strongest signal you can send is showing up.

Don’t wait for someone to open your eyes, mind, and heart. Choose to go through life this way. Hand out trust advances. Be willing to try, and you’ll be surprised how many people will extend you the same courtesy.

6. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others

If our lives didn’t end, they’d be meaningless. That’s another example of a paradox. Maybe the biggest. Most of us want to spend this limited time in the most meaningful way, and that usually means taking care of others.

Whether it’s being a mom, a great husband, a kindergarten teacher, a writer educating readers, a coach helping entrepreneurs, at the end of the day, life revolves around people. One of the hardest commitments to make is to hit pause on that carousel, step back, and take care of yourself. It’s also one of the most important.

The only way to bring the most and best of your time and energy to the grand human table is to ensure you have time and energy to spare. It’s not egoistic to put yourself first. It’s generous.


The guy gazing at the sky. The lady hanging her laundry. The reason the people in Escher’s painting don’t care about the waterfall is that they’ve accepted it. They rest easy. They don’t mind the inconsistency.

Paradoxes can seem like they’re here to make our lives harder. Little puzzles to keep our heads banging against the wall. They’re not. Paradoxes give us more options for truth because the truth always has more than one version.

Pulling from opposite ends of different spectrums lets us navigate even the most challenging situations with relative ease. Ironically, we can’t see this when we try to explain everything away.

To live life is to live inconsistently. To love life is to love inconsistency.

So smile at contradictions. Grin wide as you take on their challenge. Appreciate the beauty in life’s many little discrepancies.

It may take you a while to see it, but once you do, you might even think life’s better when the water flows both ways.

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Your Failed Relationships Hurt Because You Think They Ended – But They Never Will

Why does it hurt to lose someone you were never meant to be with?

Often, after a relationship falls apart, we realize it’s for the better. We spot the flaws in ourselves and the other person, and we accept there’s work to do for both of us. Work we’ll have to do alone.

Like Ted Mosby says, “Sometimes, things have to fall apart to make way for better things.”

Whether it’s a romance, a friendship, or a relation with a colleague, as much relief as this realization brings, it rarely absorbs even a fraction of the pain that comes with cutting the relationship rope. Like a steel cable snapping in half, there’s a bang, an echo-y sound, and then, somewhere, a slash wound that runs deep.

Why is that? Why doesn’t the score feel settled when everyone agrees it’s time to leave the court? I think the answer lies in how we look at relationships.

We tend to define the success of a relationship mostly by how long it lasts. At least, I used to do so. Now, I’m not so sure that’s right.

Throughout life, we all start many relationships. We work hard to maintain, cultivate, and cherish them. That’s honorable, but when our efforts fail — and, occasionally, they do for all of us — we assume the relationship has failed too. We couldn’t hold on to that person. Oh no! What did we do wrong?

Chances are, we did nothing wrong, except making that assumption. If all relationships that fade are failures, wouldn’t all relationships inevitably fail? We all die one day, so, really, there’s no relationship we can hold on to forever.

Ugh. What a depressing way to look at the world. I’m not sure I want to play that game. Even without the death barrier, I’d be a terrible player. I’m sure I’ve lost 90% of “total relationships started.” Not a great stat on my profile. You probably have it too.

Maybe, we need a new way to look at relationships. Maybe, we need to play a different game. And maybe, in that new game, time isn’t part of the rules. In any case, one thing is for sure: Just because you and your former connection left the field does not mean the game is over.


When I walk past a wall, I love running my hand along the stones. It makes me feel connected. Earthly. As if I’m leaving an invisible trail of paint that says, “I was here.” No one can see it, but someone might feel it. Maybe, a thought will hit them. A thought I left there years ago. Like this one:

What if our relationships never end?

What a comforting one. Every human connection ripples out into infinity. Can you imagine? Yeah, feels good. Maybe, I’ll leave that thought here.

Have you ever placed a coin upright on a table and then flicked it so it spins? That’s what meeting a person is. The second you collide, momentum changes. The movement may not last, the coin may stop spinning, but the shift in direction can’t be reverted. It’s etched into the marble of time, and it’ll stay there forever.

You might not get a second date, your best friend might move away, but the flicks you gave each other? The tiny pushes towards all kinds of paths? You can’t take those back. Their effects will compound in that person’s life. Even once they’re gone, the effects of effects will persist. Who did they flick because you flicked them? You’ll never know, but the energy was there.

What if relationships aren’t meant to be collected? What if they’re not stamps we can put in an album, store away on a shelf, and then feel good about knowing they’re there? Maybe, all we have is the coin flick.

Your boyfriend left you. Your favorite colleague quit. But they didn’t stop playing. The game is still on. It’s called life. It’s called being human. You’re in it as much as they are. And the plays you made together will always have been. No one failed. Nothing has ended. It’s just the coin that’s no longer spinning.

When we declare our relationships broken and finished, we disrespect the compound interest of our actions. We take more credit than we deserve.

Who says you won’t meet again? Who says they won’t think of you each year? No, no, this ain’t over. The rope didn’t snap because there was never a rope to begin with. That’s not how humans connect. The rope is cut when we’re born. From then on, we’re individuals. Individuals made of atoms, and all we have is particles. Little sparks we can eject and hope they’ll react with one another.

Those reactions can happen anytime, anywhere. Like infinite rows of dominoes, each one falling over at its own pace. I like that. None of my relationships have failed. They’re all out there, meandering, and, at some point, I flicked my finger at each of them. I spun the coin.

I don’t know if my touch made them better or worse, but I think it’s always too soon to say. What I do know is this: Instead of trotting through life, thinking I’ve failed at most of my relationships, I’d rather flick more coins. I want to leave sparks everywhere. Paint every wall and fence I pass.

Your relationships never end. They may take a turn you can’t follow. That’s okay. You can celebrate at the intersection. Wave at the person. Be grateful you caught some of their spark. Its imprint will always glimmer on your soul.

One day, maybe you’ll meet them again. Maybe, you’ll stick with the memory. For now, know that you did your best. That it’s time to keep moving. Keep touching the walls.

Soon, you’ll bump into a new person. Another player full of sparks. Like a coin sitting on a table, they’ll be waiting just for you. There’s no telling when you’ll arrive, but whenever you do, promise me one thing: Promise me you’ll flick it.

12 Lasting Personal Values for an Uncertain World Cover

12 Lasting Values For an Uncertain World

On May 1st, 2019, an event took place in Japan that hadn’t happened for over 200 years: The Emperor abdicated in favor of his son.

When a new emperor is crowned in Japan, he is presented with the Imperial Regalia as part of the ceremony. The regalia are three sacred treasures, meant to both legitimize and empower the ruler of Japan. They consist of the Sword of Courage, the Jewel of Benevolence, and The Mirror of Wisdom.

The ceremony isn’t public, and only priests and the emperor see the regalia, so no one knows what they look like, and no known photographs exist. However, when Emperor Naruhito succeeded his father this May, the press was allowed to document a brief, silent, public-facing variant of the handover process.

Emperor Naruhito takes possession of the jewel, sword, and two state seals — Image via NBC

If you look closely at the image, you’ll see one of the three holy items is missing: The Mirror of Wisdom, Yata no Kagami. As with their appearance, no one knows the exact location of the regalia, but the mirror is guessed to be hidden in a shrine some 300 miles away from Tokyo.

There are over 150,000 shrines in Japan. According to the 22 ranking system, the Ise Grand Shrine in the Mie Prefecture is the highest, holiest of them all. Supposedly, this is where the Mirror of Wisdom resides.

As if all this wasn’t fascinating enough, the shrine itself is also shrouded in mystery — and a singular tradition: Every 20 years, the people of Ise tear down the shrine’s two main buildings and rebuild them. The underlying idea is that “rebuilding renders sanctuaries eternal,” and that the impermanence of everything is nothing to be feared.

Of course, such a monumental undertaking comes with a plethora of problems. For one, there are only 500 miyadaiku — the kind of carpenter who can build such ancient structures — left in all of Japan. Then, there’s the issue of getting not just enough wood, but the right wood and having it available in time. In times of economic crisis, financial aid is a problem, as are criticisms of the whole thing being a waste of time and money.

Most of all, with 20 years between each reconstruction, a whole new set of problems will have arisen by the time the shrine is next rebuilt — and a whole new group of people will have to deal with them. It all begs the question: When will it end? When will the people of Ise reach a point where holding on to their tradition just isn’t possible anymore?

The answer — and this is where you and I can learn something — is never. As long as the people choose tradition, they will find a way. They have done so for the past 1,300 years. Until today, the Grand Shrine of Ise has been rebuilt 63 times. Every rebuild was different, and each came with its own set of problems, but the process is not about rebuilding some wooden hut — it’s about the values the people of Ise uphold and how there’s always a way to do so if they’re flexible in how to live them.

This is why having values is so important. Why you and I must choose our values. Values provide us with a sense of continuity in a world where none exists. They allow us to make sense of, form, and tell a story bigger than ourselves, and that story fends off the chaos of a world that attacks us with unfairness, irrationality, and lack of meaning.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about my values. I’ve come up with 12 that are dear to my heart, that provide me with a sense of stability in both the best and the worst of times.

I can spot many of them in the good people of Ise and their tradition, and, while each of them stands on its own, stacking them together creates a foundation that makes it easier to embrace all of them at once.

Courtesy of Japan’s most fascinating tradition, here are 12 lasting values for an uncertain world.

1. Calmness

Earth has always spun around its own axis at the same speed. Time doesn’t accelerate, but we do. Life feels much faster than it did 10, 20, 30 years ago. This is a function of both our own age and civilization. As the two progress, more and more unknowns pile up in our lives, and it feels less and less possible to keep up.

The answer, I think, is to not try to keep up at all. It’s to celebrate slowness. Revel in it. Cultivate it as an antidote to the modern cult of busy. Sure, there will always be situations demanding you act quickly and decisively. But those are far and few between.

What’s more, even fast moves are best prepared in a moment of calm. Calmness is where it all starts. Always. In Ise, the wooden logs used to rebuild the shrine rest at the bottom of a pond for two years in a process called “underwater drying.”

Likewise, focusing your energy, breath, vision, and thinking on a daily basis will set you up for better decisions. It’ll also provide an aura of peace — and that’s invaluable in a restless world.

2. Rationality

Rebuilding the Ise Grand Shrine is a $500 million undertaking. With much at stake and a long time horizon, whoever calls the shots better think straight.

Being calm alone won’t always lead to rational decisions, but I rarely manage to do what’s reasonable if I’m not calm to begin with. Note that being rational is not the same as being consistent.

Most people are risk-averse. They confuse habit for common sense. Seeing the world clearly, however, is different from seeing it as it used to be. “Be reasonable,” they might say when, actually, they mean, “Don’t change.”

Many forces work against our rationality around the clock, but continuing to fight them is one of most noble, rewarding, and meaningful pursuits you’ll ever engage in.

3. Commitment

It takes a commitment to rationality to see what else is worth committing to. Study where the world is headed and figure out your place in it. Once you do, you’ll feel confident, happy even, to let everything that doesn’t match your narrative fall by the wayside.

The only guaranteed path to misery is committing to nothing at all. We fear missing out so much that we let optionality toss us about like a small sailboat at sea. If we don’t snap out of this meandering rhythm, we’ll one day find the river of life has carried us to a destination we never wanted to visit — but by then it’ll be too late.

In a world of endless possibilities where whatever we master will provide us with passion and meaning, committing to the wrong quest is near-impossible. Often, it’s that we give up too soon, that we fail to bring purpose to our task, not that we weren’t compatible with our aspirations.

A commitment is empowering. It resolves many of our fears and doubts and gives us the confidence to stand our ground, even in the face of criticism.

Many have called out the Ise tradition as a waste of time, money, and precious resources, but for centuries, the large bill has been footed by a combination of private donations and tax money. As long as the Japanese government and its people believe in the tradition, it’s a price they’re happy to pay — and they don’t care what you and I think.

4. Restraint

Commitment feels liberating, but it’s not always easy. Time and again, you’ll have to choose what’s right over what’s convenient. As long as you believe in your commitment, however, deciding to do the right thing will come easy even when the act of following through is hard.

In the rebuilding of the Ise shrine and its treasures, the same methods have been applied for 1,200 years. Power tools are forbidden on holy sites in Japan, it’s all manual labor and ancient craftsmanship. The artisanal skills required are passed down from generation to generation, so each next group must acquire them anew. The young must practice discipline and restraint in learning from their older, more experienced peers to keep the tradition alive.

I’m sure many a Sunday was, is, and will be spent studying woodwork that might have been spent otherwise. But, at the end of the day, the people of Ise take comfort in knowing their sacrifice allows them to be part of something bigger than themselves. It’s the right thing to do — and that’s why it’s worth it.

5. Humility

When I set out to write 365 pieces for Four Minute Books in one year, I didn’t know whether I’d succeed nor if my efforts would bear fruit. Despite my commitment, restraint, and conviction that I was on the right path, stuff went wrong all the time. I put in 3–4 hrs of work each day, but momentum took months to kick in. I tried many promotion techniques that failed. Everyone told me I was wrong.

Success looks good in hindsight, but building it is a humbling experience. We control much less than we’d like, sometimes too little, and often nothing at all. Realizing this while doing your very best can be frustrating, but it’s the foundation of both: True success and true humility.

The Ise rebuild is one big humble-cycle. No one can really achieve anything on their own in such a big construction project. Everyone must work together. No individual stands above the mission; it’s all in service of the shrine. Even the sanctuary itself is only a vessel. A symbol with a 20-year-expiration date. Soon, it’ll be cleared away and have to make room for the new.

6. Vulnerability

With the world looming so much larger than you even when you’re at your best, all you can do is show up and be yourself. That’s scary. Every day, you’re exposing some part of yourself that you’re worried someone else might see.

What will they say? Will they laugh at you? Judge you? Detach? Sometimes. Most often, however, people will be too busy worrying about their own flaws to even notice. Better yet, a select few will take your courage as an invitation to be vulnerable themselves. They’ll see you for who you really are and offer you the same chance in return.

Tradition is always vulnerable, never perfect, and constantly under attack by younger generations. But it spans a bridge across the ages, all to connect humans with one another. That bridge is worth crossing, even if we have to tread lightly.

7. Patience

On a 20-year journey, nothing happens fast. As one lucky guest in the Ise traditional events recounts:

I saw one elderly person who probably has experienced these events three or four times, saying to young people who perhaps participated in the event as children last time, “I will leave these duties to you next time.” I believe that this is how traditions, culture and skills are preserved over time.

Imagine an 80-year-old’s smile when her daughter leads the parade that transports the timber to the renovation site. Or the pride of a father whose son will be on the on-site team of carpenters. Think of the disappointment if their children hated the festivities. Every time the elders put themselves out there, they have to wait for the youth’s reaction. Handing over tradition is a slow endeavor — and might not always work.

Being vulnerable and living to tell the tale is what enables patience. Whether you hit rock bottom or the highest highs after revealing your true colors, each time you do, you’re reaffirming your ability to survive, learning to wait what tomorrow will bring in the process.

8. Empathy

Once you’ve accepted that life is long, and that, in spite of our smallness, we’ll live to see a good future if we show up honestly, dutifully, and with reason, you’ll find you even have time to contemplate the fortunes of others. With all of us riding in the same boat, why not get to know your fellow travelers?

Without ever talking to them, you can imagine what people feel. You can think their thoughts, visualize their experiences, and see the world through their eyes. None of this has to match reality to be valuable. Sometimes, it is even more so if it doesn’t.

Beyond getting to know their neighbors, elders, and youths, with each iteration of the Ise tradition, every participant gets to ponder the lives of their ancestors, some dating back over 1,200 years. What did they do? How did they feel? What were their struggles?

We’re all humans facing the same demons. Empathy is how we remember.

9. Compassion

The procession moving the logs to the rebuilding site takes several hours despite covering only a short distance. The carrier carts are connected with ropes, and children and participants walk in between them. Every few meters, a good-natured tug of war erupts.

People push the ropes from either side, trying to force the other party to move away from them, the younglings scurrying about in the middle. People sing, laugh, and compete. It’s a resilience exercise.

Of course, sometimes, people get hurt. A child might fall over, a cup of tea might spill. These are chances to practice compassion. To help keep the parade going, to lend a helping hand.

Like the ropes tying the carts together, empathy and compassion are deeply connected. Once you make an effort to know someone, you’ll see they’re not so different from you — and that makes it easier to be kind and forgiving.

10. Acceptance

Rebuilding the Ise Grand Shrine takes about 17 years. Preparations start 6–7 years before the ceremonies, renovations take another 8–10 years after. That means there’s only a brief period of time with no preparation or construction before the next renewal begins. Along the way, countless things go wrong.

After WWII, the rebuilding had to be delayed for four years due to bad economics and uncertain politics. 90 years ago, shrine officials had to craft a 200-year forestation plan to combat the declining supply of wood. Finally, each member participating for the third or fourth time must face the fact that this might be their last rebuilding.

The only way to deal with all this is acceptance. Empathy and compassion are two great enablers of this value. Understanding that everyone else is similar to us in one way or another is how we forgive. And only if we learn to forgive others can we start forgiving ourselves. Our values form in cycles. Similarly, outward compassion makes it easier to turn that same virtue inward.

At the end of the day, we’re all human. We all make mistakes, and we can’t fix everything. Remembering that we share this vulnerability is comforting.

11. Hope

The symbol on Superman’s chest means ‘hope.’ As his father once told him:

“Embodied within that hope is the fundamental belief in the potential of every person to be a force for good.”

Acceptance breeds hope. Once we acknowledge the status quo, no matter if it’s good, bad, or we can’t put our finger on its meaning quite yet, we can imagine something different.

Hope is another word for ‘faith.’ When you value hope, you trust that you’re not alone, and that whatever you’re going through is part of something much larger than yourself, even if you can’t see it.

Hope is the highest value of religion. Different religions have different ways of getting there, but, ultimately, they all aim to provide hope.

In case of the Ise rebuilding, roughly 30 Shinto rituals span an arc of hope across a 20-year-period. It’s not about rules or beliefs or even tradition. It’s about embracing the circle of life, the impermanence of everything, and trusting in a beautiful tomorrow, even if you might not be there to witness it.

12. Love

Calmness, rationality, commitment, restraint, humility, vulnerability, patience, empathy, compassion, acceptance, hope.

Love is an amalgamation of all the above. It’s a single word, noun, verb, that contains all of the best concepts a human can embody. Why does love rest on top of hope? Love allows you to see future versions of yourself and others and cherish them even though they’re not here yet.

Love is not loud, yet it is our greatest strength. Love is invisible, but everyone can feel it. Love transcends time. Love is when we take our memories and our imagination and use them to reach out. Forward. Backward. And then, as a species, we chain it all together to create a forever forward-stretching motion.

Love extends the circle of life. Love is the best thing we do.


Soon, the 2013 rebuild of the Ise shrine will be completed. Not too long after that, preparations for the 2033 rebuild will begin.

We don’t choose lasting values to stay rigid. We choose them to instill a sense of continuity in a world that demands constant change.

Change happens with or without our consent, but if we want to thrive — not just survive — in a dynamic, often even chaotic environment, we must embrace that environment. Welcome it. We must learn to love change.

Values are the foundation of managing this transition well. They’re a tapestry on which you can pin your many transformations.

Choosing your values is picking your own story. Once you do, you can weave everything that happens in your life into one, coherent, infinitely extending thread — even the parts that don’t make sense, defy logic, or feel unfair.

Whether you choose a really old story, like the people of Ise, or a brand new one, like the list of 12 values I just gave you, does not matter. All that matters is that you choose.

Like you, your list of values will keep changing. The point is that you uphold them to your best knowledge and ability at all times.

As long as you do that, like the people of Ise do with their shrine, you’ll gladly rebuild yourself again and again. You won’t even want to wait 20 years each time you do it.