The Current of Life Cover

Are You Swimming With or Against the Current of Life?

In his book The Cafe on the Edge of the World, John Strelecky tells the story of a man in a hurry.

The man, a busy professional also named John, is stuck in a massive traffic jam en route to his much needed vacation. When he tries to circumvent the roadblock, he gets lost and, running out of fuel, energy, and growing ever hungrier, turns in to a cafe in the middle of nowhere — The Cafe of Questions.

Inside the cafe, John gets a delicious breakfast, but he is also confronted with a series of uncomfortable, oddly well-timed questions, such as “Why are you here?” “Do you fear death?” and “Are you fulfilled?” The waitress, cook, and fellow guests seem to be able to read his mind, and they all make him reflect deeply on the path in life he has chosen thus far.

At one point in the book, the waitress, Casey, sits down in John’s booth and tells him the story of the green sea turtle. She too was once on vacation, she says. Snorkeling off the coast of Hawaii, she spotted a green sea turtle right next to her in the water. This being the first time she ever saw one, she was excited and decided to follow the little guy for a while.

“To my surprise, although he appeared to be moving pretty slowly, sometimes paddling his flippers and other times just floating, I couldn’t keep up with him. I was wearing fins, which gave me propulsion power through the water, and didn’t have on a buoyancy vest or anything that would slow me down. Yet he kept moving farther from me, even though I was trying to keep up. After about ten minutes, he lost me. Tired, disappointed, and a little embarrassed I couldn’t keep up with a turtle, I turned back and snorkeled to shore.”

The next day, Casey returned to the same spot, and again, she found and tried to keep up with another green sea turtle. As she realized that turtle too was about to lose her, she stopped paddling and just floated in the water.

“As I was floating on the surface, I realized something: When the turtle was swimming, it linked its movements to the movements of the water. When a wave was coming at him, he would float, and paddle just enough to hold his position. When the pull of the wave was from behind him though, he’d paddle faster, so that he was using the movement of the water to his advantage. The turtle never fought the waves. Instead, he used them.”

Casey, on the other hand, had been paddling the whole time. This was easy enough when the tide was in her favor, but the more she fought the incoming waves, the less energy she had to capitalize on the outgoing ones later.

“As wave after wave came in and went out, I became more and more fatigued and less effective. Not the turtle though. He kept optimizing his movements with the movements of the water. That’s why he was able to swim faster than I could.”

If you’re like me — and John — at this point in the story, you’ll wonder: That’s great — but what does it have to do with me and my life? Actually, a whole lot, as Casey will explain in a second.


Have you ever felt like you’re fighting an uphill battle? As if for every two steps forward, life somehow pushes you one step back?

It happens to all of us. We do our best to fulfill our duties as responsible adults, and yet, it seems we must fight tooth and nail to make room for the few people and activities that are truly important to us. Why is that?

Well, as the green sea turtle might tell us: “You’re swimming against the current of life. Why don’t you try swimming with it?

After Casey gives him some time to think about the story, John interprets it as follows:

“I think the turtle — the green sea turtle — taught you that if you aren’t in tune with what you want to do, you can waste your energy on lots of other things. Then, when opportunities come your way for what you do want, you might not have the time or strength to spend on them.”

Casey smiles, for she knows the power of grasping an important lesson out of one’s own thinking, and then she adds some more context to John’s insight:

“Each day, there are so many people trying to persuade you to spend your time and energy on them. Think about just your mail and email. If you were to participate in every activity, sale, and service offering you get notified of — you’d have no free time. And that’s just mail and email. Add on all the people who want to capture your attention for television time, online activities, places to eat, travel destinations…You can quickly find yourself living a life that’s just a compilation of what everyone else is doing, or what people want you to be doing.”

Casey then explains that since she observed the turtle moving effortlessly through the water, she has taken a new perspective on life: The incoming waves represent all the people, activities, and things that clamor for a share of her attention, time, or energy but don’t contribute to what she really wants to do in life. In essence, they block her from fulfilling her purpose. Meanwhile, the things and people that support Casey living in sync with her calling are like outgoing waves — they carry her towards her destiny.

That’s the lesson of the green sea turtle, and even though it’s a big one to swallow with his pancakes, John decides to chew on it for a while. I hope you will too.


When Casey leaves John to ponder her story, he asks her for pen and paper. On the back of his napkin, he calculates that if he spends 20 minutes a day flicking through unimportant mail for 60 years, that’s over 300 days of his life — almost an entire year, wasted on one incoming wave.

What about all the others? What about TV commercials, mindless radio listening, and people trying to network with him for their advancement? And those are just the distractions John didn’t choose. He too is human. He’ll distract himself as well along the way.

John is shocked. He tells Casey about his discovery. While she reminds him that not all mail is junk — and not all distractions are wasted time — she does admit:

“It can get you thinking. That’s why my time with the green sea turtle made such a big impact on me.”

When you feel like all you do is struggle, ask yourself: “Am I swimming with the current of life? Or am I desperately paddling against it?”

Do you focus too much on distractions? Are you allowing the wrong activities and people to take up your time? If so, it is no wonder every hour you spend on hobbies and friends you love feels like an hour you must mine from the hardest rock with your bare hands.

At the same time, for every distraction you ignore, one ally will look your way. Wait for the right wave, the right circumstances to arrive, and then ride it with everything you’ve got. If the knitted beanie trend is fading, maybe wait a year to start your knitting business. If a friend offers you a small book deal to tell a story you’ve always wanted to tell, go for it!

After years of high-paying but also highly stressful jobs, John Strelecky decided to finally fulfill his childhood dream of traveling the world. When he came back, he wrote the book he needed to read; he gave himself the message he needed to hear.

Since then, that message has been shared millions of times around the world: Don’t swim against the current of life. Focus on the right people, the right activities, and the right things. Only then will it carry you to your dreams.

It’s just one of many metaphors in his book, but I have no doubt that, somewhere on the edge of the world, a green sea turtle once taught Strelecky that lesson — and from that very same turtle, we can still learn to navigate the seas of life today.

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.”

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If You Drove Half as Fast, You’d Still Get There on Time

When he lived in Santa Monica, Derek Sivers found the perfect bike path: A 15-mile round trip along the ocean with almost zero traffic. In his afternoons, he’d get on his bike and race full speed ahead. On average, the trip took him 43 minutes to complete.

After several months of arriving with a red face, a sweaty head, and feeling completely exhausted, Derek decided to take it easy for once. He looked at the scenery. He saw some dolphins. He casually pedaled along. It took him 45 minutes.

At first, Derek couldn’t believe it, but he double-checked his numbers, and, sure enough, he achieved 96% of the result with 50% of the effort. Reflecting on the experience, he writes:

When I notice that I’m all stressed out about something or driving myself to exhaustion, I remember that bike ride and try dialing back my effort by 50%. It’s been amazing how often everything gets done just as well and just as fast, with what feels like half the effort.

A few years ago, my Dad and I used to do something similar: We raced home in our cars. It’s about five miles from the city to the suburbs, and we too used to speed, catch yellow traffic lights, and overtake anyone in our way.

One day, we did the math: If you go 50% over the limit on such a short trip, you’ll save about one minute. We’ve been cruising ever since.

Life is like that a lot. You go all out to be 50% faster, better, stronger, only to arrive one day early at the finish line.

It’s easy to get caught up the everyday hustle. “Let me queue in the other line.” “I can cut a corner here.” “Maybe, I can get them to approve my application faster.” Switching lanes often feels efficient in the moment but won’t make a big difference in the end.

This applies to our daily to-do lists as much as it applies to our biggest goals. If you get the report one day sooner, the company can go public one day earlier — but all that means is that its shares will trade one day extra. On a 10-year-timeline, who cares about that day? No one.

You can stay up till 2 AM and post one extra article. But in your five-year-plan of becoming a writer, does it really matter? Sometimes, it will. Most of the time, however, it won’t. But if you don’t get enough sleep, you can’t see through your five-year-plan. That part always matters.

You can race to your friend’s BBQ and honk and yell at every other driver along the way. Or, you can drive half as fast and still get there on time.

You’d arrive relaxed, happy, and in a positive state of mind. You wouldn’t be exhausted from all the stress that took so much from your mind but added so little to your outcome. This is what Derek learned from his frantic bike rides:

Half of my effort wasn’t effort at all, but just unnecessary stress that made me feel like I was doing my best.

Sometimes, doing your best means having nothing left to give. Usually, it doesn’t. More often than not, feeling completely spent is a sign that you wasted most of your energy.

Energy is precious. Conserve it. Direct it efficiently. Take pride in doing your best in a way that lets you do your best again tomorrow. Life is short. Enjoy it. Don’t burn through it too quickly. Be content with the 96%.

After all, what good are two extra minutes if you can’t use them to gaze at the sea?

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Learn How to Meditate Properly in 2 Minutes

“Meditation is literally the art of doing nothing,” Naval Ravikant says.

You don’t need an app to meditate. You don’t need peaceful sounds or guided instructions. And you definitely don’t need a $299 headband.

All of these are distractions. By turning it into a billion-dollar industry, we’ve done to meditation what humans always do: We overcomplicate it.

“All you need to do for meditation is to sit down, close your eyes, comfortable position, whatever happens happens. If you think, you think. If you don’t think, you don’t think. Don’t put it effort into it, don’t put effort against it.”

The purpose of meditation is to “just witness,” Naval says. Concentration only helps insofar as it quiets our minds to the point where we can drop whatever we concentrate on, so you might as well go straight for the end game.

When asked if he focuses on his breath or uses a specific technique, Naval goes: “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.” That’s how much we’ve baked virtue signaling into mindfulness: If you don’t have any techniques to share or 1,000 minutes to display on your app, we’ll doubt how legit you are. We’re looking for gimmicks while you’re doing the real thing.

“It’s one of those things that everybody says they do, but nobody actually does.”

It’s true. We turn meditation into a sport because the real practice is scary. Who wants to sit in solitude, alone with their mind? Who wants to face the void? No one. And yet, if we actually did it, we’d benefit immensely.

Noticing and processing are not the same thing. Being self-aware, I thought I didn’t need meditation. I was wrong. For nine months now, I’ve meditated every day, often just 5–10 minutes. Finally, on top of knowing what goes on in my life, I also make time to acknowledge it, if only a few seconds. Like Naval, I just sit. I close my eyes, and whatever happens happens. That’s how to meditate properly.

Meditation won’t solve all your problems, but it’ll solve the problem of not dealing with your problems. It’s not about being spiritual or smart or chasing some fleeting state of bliss, and it’s definitely not about being better at it than your neighbor.

Meditation is about making peace with yourself today. If you have the courage to look inside, that really is an option. To not just find peace but to create it.

Tune out the noise, and give it an honest try. It just might change your life.

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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.

5 Good Things That Will Follow From This Pandemic Cover

5 Good Things That Will Follow From This Pandemic

The best way to stay calm amidst the coronavirus madness is to focus on the present moment. Accept reality as is, realize you’re okay, and then handle the challenge at hand with direction and resolve.

The second best way is to time travel to the future. What will happen after all this is over? Can you imagine a more peaceful tomorrow? What good will come from this? There will come some good from this. It’s hard to see it now, but making the effort will give you something to aspire to in these dark times.

Of course no one can predict the future, but when I think about what positive, long-term consequences we could see from this pandemic, I spot a lot of potential. Here are 5 predictions to provide some comfort while we’re all stuck at home.

1. Cashless payments everywhere

In Germany, half of all payments are still made in cash. Half. Can you imagine? Who wants to carry around clunky, dirty coins and bills, which you constantly have to re-stock from an ATM in an inconvenient location?

Apparently a lot of people — but even those don’t want to pay in cash right now. No matter how advanced your country is in terms of paying cashless, chances are, the share of those payments — and the options required to enable them — will only go up from here. Humans are creatures of habit. Even the most die-hard cash fan might be swayed by the ease of swiping a card if they have to do it for several months.

It’ll be good for our hygiene, tracking our spending, and saving time.

2. Remote work for everyone

On paper, 40% of German companies allow employees to work remotely. The reality looks different, and it’s likely one of the factors why Germans are particularly unhappy at work. But now, even my dad works from home.

Especially small and medium-sized businesses usually only condone remote work in emergency situations. Even if it’s officially allowed, shifting towards more work from home will often get you weird looks and canteen whispers.

Your country might already be more open to remote work, but now, with everyone being forced to make it work (pun intended), I think we’ll likely see much higher acceptance rates for working from home after the virus passes.

Given most of us only need laptops and internet access anyway, I think more autonomy is a good thing. It’ll make us happier, and save everyone time and money. My dad definitely agrees.

3. (Even) better on-demand services and delivery.

In Munich, quarantined life isn’t so bad. We have Amazon PrimeNow, which delivers everyday goods within the same day. Some of our large grocery store chains also offer home delivery.

But if you’re stuck in a small town like my parents, you still can’t get any food without getting into your car. That’s bad, and it especially affects the large concentrations of older people in more secluded areas. For an 80-year-old woman, driving is dangerous enough as it is. Now, buying groceries might be a matter of life and death.

With millennials and younger generations already being used to the online ordering life, the trend here has always been clear. Coronavirus, however, might accelerate widespread availability of on-demand services and delivery around the globe.

Your doctor, optician, hairdresser — soon, they might all come to you. After this crisis, at least your groceries most definitely will.

4. Less spending on needless consumer goods

Call me crazy, but I think right now, people will remember what’s really important. Suffering, be it our own or that of others, prompts us to think.

Who feels like buying fancy clothes now? Who cares about VIP tickets? When you’re forced to reduce your expectations and stop living large, you gain space to reflect. A common conclusion is, “Oh, I never needed this to begin with.”

Suddenly, it’s enough to watch your children play. To read a book or talk to a friend on the phone. If you can’t fill your spare time with distractions, the only alternative is to spend it on what’s meaningful.

Granted, all this reduced spending might not be prolonged, and it might look bad on paper for the world economy — but I think in the end, it’ll turn us into better humans. We might even use more our resources to the benefit of others once we resume business-as-usual.

5. Improved global crisis management

While this will likely go down in history as the number one crisis in terms of how fast information was generated and spread with relative efficiency, many analyses and reports show there’s also lots of room for improvement in preparation and prevention.

Italy is one of the most advanced nations on the planet, and its healthcare system collapsed in the span of two weeks. Restaurant chain Vapiano filed for insolvency just two days after being forced to close most locations. 200 scientists had to write an open letter to the UK government to finally get them to take action.

If this were to happen all over again, I assure you everyone involved would do one or two things differently. At the very least, we should see larger stocks and emergency reserves of basic hygienic goods, medication, and medical equipment. But I think we’ll see much more. Just like 9/11 changed airport security forever, after coronavirus, healthcare will never be the same.

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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?

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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.

The Perfect Couple for a Day Cover

The Perfect Couple for a Day

Girls don’t superlike me on Tinder. They just don’t. In fact, they don’t ‘like’ me much at all.

So when, once in an aeon, like a meteor entering the atmosphere and immediately going up in flames, I see that blue glow on my screen, I assume that, like the meteor, it’s an accident. But I don’t think this was. Whether it was or not, the name of this meteor was Bibi.

Bibi’s bio gave plenty of talking points (yes, men do read it), but her pictures sent only one of two possible messages:

  1. I have no idea how to take selfies.
  2. I know I’m beautiful so I don’t have to care about the pictures.

Having spent an entire day taking photos of her, I can now confidently guess it’s about 80% of the former and only 20% of the latter which, in an Insta-perfect world, is sweet and refreshing. We hit it off immediately.

There were GIFs, there were jokes, there were interesting lessons about the places we were from and the people we’d become — and it all flew around in this cosmic storm of coincidence inside a tiny chat box that soon moved from Tinder to WhatsApp thanks to Rule #1 in Nik’s Weird Book of Dating Vol. 1: Try the opposite of the stereotype.

Instead of asking for her number, I just gave her mine. If she wanted to, she would message me. I don’t know why men often feel like they have to break through the barriers around all kinds of firsts with brute force. I like making it easy for a woman to just say, “Yes, let’s take this next step together.” If it doesn’t work, I can always directly state what I want later.

Regardless of why it happened, it’s been a while since I smiled so much and laughed so hard while looking at my WhatsApp screen. Before we knew it, we had more inside jokes than we could count. They involved pandas and stereotypes and Kinder chocolate, everyone’s favorite, legal, European drug.

Getting to know Bibi was like spinning a diamond and then putting my finger on it, stopping it by grazing one of its countless, tiny edges. Every edge came with a new fact, a new attitude, a new little piece of the Bibi-puzzle. It was easy to get addicted to this game.

One of the edges was that Bibi was from Brazil. Actually, she was in Brazil, some 5,000 miles away from Munich and me. But not for long: Bibi was about to go on a 3-month Euro trip, partly for work, partly for vacation. In about a week’s time, she would land in Munich. Her original plan was to hit Paris and then Berlin much later, but what’s a plan against a conspiring universe, right?

Through the remaining week’s chatter, we agreed to meet for breakfast on Saturday and, as is possible only in a world as small as ours, a few days later, I walked into a cute little cafe, looking for an angel standing in the corner.

I’m not a tall guy, 5’7″, but, despite hating the stereotype, I have to admit I think it’s sweet when a girl is a bit shorter than me, which Bibi was. She was petite and light-skinned and, with green eyes and blond hair, otherwise not stereotypical at all.

Supposedly, guys always check boobs and booty first. That’s not true. While these things jump at my stupid, reptilian brain early on, maybe even first, they’re never what I double-check at first sight. It’s the face.

A few hours later, I would take a picture of Bibi in front of one of Munich’s many Christmas market stalls, pointing at a pair of feathered, decorative angel wings. I don’t think she realized they were hers, but her face made it clear the second I first saw it, and it’s the only adjective I’ll use to describe it: angelic.

I’m not sure if it was me or her or if it’s a matter of person-to-person fit, but I think it’s mind-boggling how easy it can be to fall into someone. Not for. Into. How easy to connect, to trust, to share. To feel warm, accepted, safe. Here we were, two people who had never met before, yet would easily have convinced anyone watching they’d known each other for years.

Over a pile of delicious pancakes, we continued right where we left off. Jokes, smiles, questions, thoughts, it all poured out of us and off we were. Two people in the same boat on the river of life, a boat labeled ‘Perfect Strangers.’ And then the current just swept us away.

Through the crowded streets, we made our way to Marienplatz to see the famous Glockenspiel at noon. “Don’t lose me,” she said. I had to smile when I took her hand. Seems like she read Nik’s Weird Book of Dating Vol. 1. Nothing around us was unfamiliar to me, but everything was new and strange to her, and yet, somehow, we still felt perfectly familiar to each other.

The temperatures weren’t bad for December, but standing atop the city hall tower in freezing winds probably still equates to an Everest climb if you’re used to an annual low of 15 degrees Celsius. Bibi started shaking more and more, so I held her tighter and tighter, and then we kissed for the first time.

Throughout the day, Bibi repeated some variation of the following: “This must be so boring for you, doing all this touristy stuff with me! I bet you would never spend your Saturday like this.” She was right. I never would spend my Saturday like this. But she was also wrong. I loved following in her tourist steps. There was an invisible cloud of curiosity in front of her, and it was a blast to see her follow it wherever it went. We were two particles in a chaotic universe, one following the other, and the other following the spirit of the universe itself. It was magical.

After a whole lot more of this and capturing some of it through the lens of her phone, we settled in at Starbucks. Me, disappointed I couldn’t find a better cafe that wasn’t crammed, her, excited because Starbucks isn’t quite so ubiquitous in Brazil. You’d think that after five hours, you’d at least get tired a little bit of talking, but I can’t remember that feeling. What’s Brazilian law like? Why do you like history? How do you say ‘bird’ in Portuguese? I can be a know-it-all, but I definitely want to know it all.

Having warmed up, we slowly made our way back to one of the main squares. Around that time, a few lines from Sam Smith’s Stay With Me started repeating in my head, over and over and over again:

Oh won’t you 
Stay with me 
Cos you’re 
All I need

I didn’t know how or when or why, I just knew I didn’t want this day, this feeling, this connection to end.

Back at Karlsplatz, I showed her the mini Christmas village they always build this time of year. It has food, Glühwein, and even a small ice-skating rink. I hadn’t done that in ten years and Bibi had just learned how to do it so, obviously, we were good to go. Unfortunately, they were just redoing the ice, so we stuck with Bratwurst and fruit punch.

It was getting late and I was supposed to be at a Christmas party, but then, between a long hug, a stolen kiss, and a light touch that gives me goosebumps just thinking about it, Sam Smith decided to speak through me: “I want you to stay with me.”

No matter how romantic you are, this is the part where you can’t help but think, “I know where this is going,” and I now have to tell you that you have never seen a crazier romantic than me — and you don’t know where this is going.

At this point, it was obvious that I was crazy about this girl, yet I had no intention of sleeping with her on our first date. It’s hard to believe both of these can be true at the same time, but they can and, in my case, always will be. There are many reasons for this, all worth explaining in the future, but for now, all you need to know is this:

Every time Bibi stroked my cheek, played with my hair, or lightly touched my temple, the weight of the world just fell away.

Notice I’m not talking about making out. I’m not talking about a pre-sexual rush of chemicals. I’m talking about the thing I — and a lot of other men — want, crave, and need way more than sex: safety. A sanctuary of unconditional love and zero expectations, hidden in the faintest physical gestures. And even though the gestures are physical, the result is entirely emotional. Emotionally speaking, I haven’t felt safe in over three years.

This lack of safety has nothing to do with money, fear of violence, or health concerns. It is the result of a harsh competition for not physical but emotional survival that takes place entirely in men’s heads 24/7/365, whether it’s at work, in sports, or masked as social gatherings. It is the result of a crushing load of expectations under which men silently allow themselves to be buried each and every single day. Imagined, real, new, old, socially accepted, socially condemned, it doesn’t matter — the weight is there and it’s not going away. It is the result of a lack of honest communication all around, whether it’s men talking to men, men talking to women, women talking to women about men, and, most of all, men talking to themselves.

I can only speak for myself, but the combination of all these has conjured a fear so paralyzing, it comes with its own list of “unspeakable lines for men,” a list so long it’s impossible to breathe let alone feel safe under its rule. Here are some of the items on that list, things you feel you “just can’t say” as a man, almost regardless of age:

  • “I don’t want to have sex.”
  • “I’d rather have a girlfriend than date many women.”
  • “I’m a virgin.”
  • “I feel ashamed.”
  • “I’m hurting.”
  • “I feel alone.”
  • “I had to cry.”
  • “I need help.”

And, of course, and this might be the biggest: “I just want a woman to hold me in her arms and make me feel safe.”

I’m not sure I even fully realized this at the time, but now I can see it all over my subconscious. That’s what I need most in the world — and that’s why I asked Bibi to stay with me. I was thrilled when she asked whether I expected anything of her if she did, and I said, “No, not a thing.”

Eventually, we arrived at my apartment and, for a while, for the faintest of moments, I felt the safest I’ve felt in years.

When you run alone, you just have to find a path for yourself. When you run together, you have to find a path wide enough for both of you. Naturally, you’ll hit more, different, hard-to-pass obstacles together. After about 12 hours, Bibi and I hit the first of ours. We took a few wrong turns on the relationship river that had turned into a highway, and, in the end, we wanted, didn’t want, wouldn’t, and then couldn’t have sex, most of which we share responsibility for, but the last one being entirely on me.

There is a lot more to unravel here, but for now, suffice it to say that, the next morning, I woke up alone. Not that you could call two hours “sleeping.” It was hard to collect myself and my clothes off the floor, but, eventually, I did it anyway. Self-love is strong with me; a balancing force I’ve painstakingly built throughout the years of staring down the abyss of emotional un-safeness.

The day before, I couldn’t remember all the lyrics to Sam Smith’s song. Just those few lines. In the morning, I listened to it. And then, right with the first verse, all of it — all of this — hit me like a truck:

Guess it’s true
I’m not good
At a one night stand
But I still need love
Cos I’m just a man
These nights never seem to go to plan
I don’t want you to leave
Will you hold my hand

I don’t know if I’ll ever see Bibi again. I hope so. I’m not ready to give up on her just yet. If you knew me, you’d already label me crazy at this point, as you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who moves on faster from the things, events, even people in his life, good or bad. I don’t know why, but this one, I have to fight all the way until the end.

I hope you find this kind of earth-shattering optimism in your life. The kind that lets you look at a 48-hour period, 36 of which were a complete mess, and still say, “Hope dies last.”

Even if it dies, however, there’ll always be the memory. The perfect “dayte,” we called it. One of our insiders. And for a day, it really was. We were. The perfect couple.

Somehow, we compressed a lifetime of love into 12 hours flat. When the love is pure, aren’t the two the same, really? Maybe. Maybe not. But when push comes to shove, when the chips are down and the curtain is about to fall, it’ll always be the one thing we forever struggle to find: enough.

The 3 Kinds of Overthinking Cover

The 3 Kinds of Overthinking

Overthinking comes in two flavors: ruminating on the past and worrying about the future. Both offer endless avenues to create a downward spiral of negative thoughts, but, at the end of the day, they resemble two simple fears we all have: a fear of regret and a fear of uncertainty.

Of course, it’s impossible to completely avoid regret and uncertainty in our lives. Therefore, the overthinking outbreaks that result from us being afraid of them are, generally, our most unproductive.

We can’t change what we could have, would have, should have done better, slower, faster, not at all, or not quite the way we did it. We can’t assess the flaws, success, or even likelihood of countless scenarios and eventualities that will never come to pass.

All thoughts in either direction are a waste of mental and physical energy. As soon as reality knocks on our senses or we snap out of our thought bubble and return to it, they go up in flames, having cost us dearly, but gained us little.

There is, however, a third kind of overthinking: Obsessing over solutions to present-day problems.

We source these problems from our recent past or immediate future, then frantically assess options to combat them. If you find yourself musing about 17 different strategies to mellow your explosive temper after lashing out at someone or flicking through book after book to find the best business model for the startup you want to launch, that’s present-day overthinking.

This type of compulsive thinking can often be productive, which is why it’s the hardest to get rid of, to diagnose, and to accept as a problem in the first place.

In fact, as a society, we often celebrate people for performing mental ultra-marathons. We call them successful entrepreneurs. We shower them with money and status and tell them to never stop.

Ask the world’s richest man what his worst fear is, and he’ll say he doesn’t want his brain to stop working. That’s how embedded overthinking is in our culture. But it’s still overthinking, still eating away at our peace of mind and happiness.

To some extent, our problem-solving nature is just that — nature. Our brains are wired for survival and, for the better part of 200,000 years, surviving meant being creative.

Not just in the literal sense of procreating and producing food and shelter from our surroundings, but also in being crafty in planning our next move. How can we cross this field without being exposed? What’s the best way to avoid being seen by the tiger? Those are creative problems. They require immediate thought, strategy selection, and subsequent action.

For better or for worse, however, the world no longer presents us with a single, constant survival problem, framed in a great variety of differing challenges. For the most part, we’ve got that covered.

Instead, we’re now tasked with moderating an entity that’s much harder to maintain than the human body and that we know next to nothing about despite decades of research: the human mind.

Rather than run down the simple 3-item checklist of “food, sleep, exercise,” we now face vast, open-ended questions, like “How do I find meaning?”, “What makes me happy?”, and “How can I best manage my emotions and attention?”

These aren’t simple problems. There are no clear-cut answers. They’re lifetime projects, and we slowly craft their outcomes through the habits and behaviors we choose every day. That’s the thing. We choose. We get to. There’s no pressure to think-pick-act. Only freedom in near-limitless quantities.

As a result, our problem-seeking, survivalistic simulation machine turns on itself. In lack of real, pressing issues to tackle, it finds some where none exist or crafts one from its own imagination. That’s overthinking type I and II. The dwelling on regrets and anxiety about the future.

Or — and this is the brain’s ultimate self-deception — it latches on to a tangible, relatable, available challenge and goes into brainstorm overdrive.

How can I go from zero running experience to completing a marathon in nine months? What podcast are people dying to listen to that doesn’t exist? Is there a way to improve or replace the umbrella? Questions like these make our synapses light up, but whether they find graspable answers or not, it’s easy for them to become self-perpetuating.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting meaningful work and finding happiness through self-improvement, but when these endeavors and the productive thoughts that go into them become ends instead of tools, we quickly drift into self-loathing and misery. So how can we stop at the right moment?

There is no shortage of tactics from science to help us address our past- and future-oriented overclocking. Most of them involve replacing the negative thought with a more positive one, for example by looking at different angles of a situation to make the bad scenario less believable or reframing problems as challenges.

Instead of blaming your soggy shoes on bad luck, you could look to the rainy weather or inattentive driver who splashed you as he went by. Similarly, you could focus on wanting to feel fitter rather than lamenting that you’re out of shape.

There’s also the idea of simply writing down your thoughts for a sense of relief, distracting yourself, and learning to stay present so you can focus on whatever’s right in front of you.

From personal experience, I can say that last one is particularly powerful. Meditation helps me stay aware throughout my day, not just of the negative consequences of overthinking, but of individual thoughts themselves and whether I want to further pursue them or not.

None of us can turn off our inner monologue for extended periods of time. It runs right through each of the 16 or so hours we’re awake each day. But we can decide which thoughts deserve to be chased and which ones don’t. We can learn to let go and return to whatever we we’re doing.

But what do we do when our positive and well-intended thoughts spiral? How do we deal with our entrepreneurial, creative energy when it runs wild?

That, I think, requires one more step: Knowing you are valuable even when you don’t do anything. When I meditate, I constantly remind myself that, “I don’t have to think about this right now.” Lately, I even tell myself: “You don’t have to think at all.”

For me, this realization gets to the heart of the problem: Even when you don’t think, you’re still a valuable, lovable human being.

In a world that guarantees the survival of many but provides existential guidance to none, doing, thinking, solving problems, it all matters little in comparison to us being here in the first place. Right here, right now. It’s a wonderful, rare thing to have been born and be alive today. Enough to be grateful and more than that to be enough.

Type III overthinkers define themselves by how much they think. How many problems they solve, how useful and busy they are, and how many of their own faults they can erase. But even when you don’t think — can’t think, as nature sometimes reminds all of us — you’re still a valuable person.

You might be afraid that people will laugh at you, isolate you, throw you out into the cold. That won’t happen and it’s something you should take comfort in again and again.

Mindfulness is an excellent tool to combat all kinds of overthinking. What allows you to exercise it in the first place, however, is remembering we’ll still love you, even if your mind doesn’t always run like a perfect, well-oiled machine.