Do Self-Help Books Work? Cover

How Modern Non-Fiction Books Waste Your Time (and Why You Should Read Them Anyway)

When I first discovered non-fiction books, I thought they were the best thing since sliced bread. Whatever problem you could possibly have, there’s a book out there to help you solve it. I had a lot of challenges at the time, and so I started devouring lots of books.

I read books about money, productivity, and choosing a career. Then, I read books about marketing, creativity, and entrepreneurship. I read and read and read, and, eventually, I realized I had forgotten to implement any of the advice! The only habit I had built was reading, and as wonderful as it was, it left me only with information overwhelm.

After that phase, I flipped to the other, equally extreme end of the spectrum: I read almost no books, got all my insights from summaries, and only tried to learn what I needed to improve a given situation at any time.

So, do self-help books work? As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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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.

All These Flaws You See In Yourself Aren't Real Cover

All These Flaws You See In Yourself Aren’t Real

Right in the first Harry Potter book, J.K. Rowling introduces one of the most fascinating items in the entire wizarding world: The Mirror of Erised.

Erised is just ‘desire’ spelled backwards, which hints at what the mirror does: it shows you what you most desperately wish for in life. An Olympian might see themselves taking the gold, a steel mill worker might see a lavish lifestyle, and an orphan, like Harry, might see his parents.

We all have a mirror like that. A mirror in our head, teasing us with our desires. There’s nothing wrong with a little daydreaming, but when Dumbledore sees Harry gazing at the object, again and again, he tells him:

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Besides this oasis of wishful thinking, however, there’s a second mirror, tucked away in the depths of our mind. A mirror that’s much less kind, downright dangerous. It shows us everything that’s wrong with us.

I guess we could call it The Mirror of Swalf.

A 19th-Century Meme

Do you know where the word “okay” comes from? What may be the most universal, neutral affirmation in not just the English language, but cultures all around the world, actually started as a joke. A 19th-century meme, if you will.

Intellectuals in the 1830s intentionally misspelled two-word phrases, then abbreviated them to speak in code with other insiders. “KY” stood for “know yuse,” while “OW” was “oll wright.” The trend eventually faded, but one little quip unexpectedly made it from fad to phrase: “OK” or “oll korrect.”

US president Martin van Buren branded himself as “OK” — Old Kinderhook — during his 1840 campaign, hoping the phrase would rub off on his age and birthplace. OK clubs formed all over the country and if you were in, you were not just supporting van Buren, suddenly, you were OK. The telegraph later spread “OK” far and wide, using it to quickly confirm the receipt of messages, while the Old Kinderhook lost the election. But the phrase was a clear winner.

Because for some reason, we’re trying to get into the club to this day.

The World’s Most Sophisticated Pacifier

James Blunt isn’t just a great singer, he’s also a master of the Twitter troll:

“If you thought 2016 was bad — I’m releasing an album in 2017.”

He joins a long line of people believing 2016 was the worst year ever. There’s no evidence to this claim but it shows that perception at large has shifted.

Templates for fulfilling your desires have never been in short supply online, but while these stories make our goals sound attainable, we’re usually content with reading rather than living them. It’s soothing to learn “How I Got 2.3 Million App Downloads And Made $72,000.” It weirdly makes the goal feel less necessary. It shows us we’re okay. Even if we’re not a brilliant developer.

But, nowadays, our desire for comfort is a lot less subtle. Instead of hiding it behind lofty goals, we demand it outright. Screw my dreams, just tell me the world will keep turning. Tell me I’ll be OK. The tone on the web is a lot darker. We’re less driven by what we want, but by what we think needs fixing.

We need constant reminders that it’s okay to start small, it’s okay to be alone, it’s okay to not struggle. We ask why the internet makes us miserable, why our friends want to kill themselves and why our work isn’t good enough. We need someone to tell us it’s okay to quit Google, it’s okay to not want a promotion, it’s okay to not be an entrepreneur and, oh, by the way, laziness doesn’t exist.

All of these have merit. They’re understandable cravings and legit questions. But when the “it’s OK” lullaby so strongly dominates our global conversation, that says a lot about the state of humanity at large: it’s not OK. We’re turning the internet into a highly sophisticated pacifier for adults. Something for us to suck on to compensate for all the skills we never learned, but should have.

Skills like self-compassion, confidence, empathy, optimism, non-judgment, kindness, detachment, and resilience. Reasons are manifold, ranging from bad parenting to modern education to internet culture to omnipresent technology, but regardless of the causes, we must now deal with their effects.

We turn to our inner mirror and all we see are flaws. We see a version of ourselves that’s bloodied, battered, and close to being beaten. A version full of wounds, cuts, and scars. A human that’s incomplete. The mirror has poisoned our self-image and the cracks it shows us are destroying our sense of self.

James Blunt’s most popular song of 2017 wasn’t one from his new album. It was a standalone feature called “OK.” The music video shows him opting to delete his memories in a futuristic world. “It’s gonna be okay,” he sings.

I guess that 19th-century joke is now on us.

Scratching Until It Bleeds

In one of his many bestsellers, Linchpin, Seth Godin says there are two ways of dealing with anxiety. The first is to seek reassurance.

“This approach says that if you’re worried about something, indulge the worry by asking people to prove that everything is going to be okay. Check in constantly, measure and repeat. “Is everything okay?” Reward the anxiety with reassurance and positive feedback. Of course, this just leads to more anxiety, because everyone likes reassurance and positive feedback.”

This is exactly what we’re doing when we turn to the internet to comfort us as we face our many flaws. But this behavior only creates a never-ending cycle.

“Reassure me about one issue and you can bet I’ll find something else to worry about. Reassurance doesn’t address the issue of anxiety; in fact, it exacerbates it. You have an itch and you scratch it. The itch is a bother, the scratch feels good, and so you repeat it forever, until you are bleeding.”

In contrast to fear, which targets a real and specific threat, Seth says, anxiety is always about something vague that lies in the future. Anxiety has no purpose. It’s a “fear about fear” and, thus, a fear that means nothing.

What Seth is really saying is that these two mirrors in our heads are one and the same. Looking into it is always about reassurance. Reassurance that our dreams can come true and reassurance that we’ll be okay if they don’t. But, at the end of the day, it’s just a mirror. What you see in it isn’t real. Whether it’s the goals we haven’t achieved or the shortcomings we’re scared will hurt us, none of them even exist. Like the anxiety we feel from looking at it, the image we hold of ourselves in our heads isn’t there. It’s just a reflection.

So even though our focus might have shifted, the root problem has always been the same. The cracks are in the mirror. Not us. That’s why Dumbledore issued another grave warning to young Harry seeking so much reassurance:

“This mirror gives us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away in front of it, even gone mad.”

Hey Seth. Whatever your other way of dealing with anxiety, it better work.

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Bad Fathers Don’t Exist

In one of his last interviews before he died by suicide, late Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington gave us a heartfelt account of what it’s like inside the mind of someone who’s struggled with lifelong depression:

“I don’t say nice things to myself. There’s another Chester in there that wants to take me down. If I’m not actively getting out of myself, being with other people, being a dad, being a husband, being a bandmate, being a friend, helping someone out, like, if I’m out of myself, I’m great. If I’m inside all the time, I’m horrible. But it’s the moment where it’s, like, realizing I drive myself nuts, actually thinking that all these are real problems. All the stuff that’s going on in here is actually…just…I’m doing this to myself. Regardless of whatever that thing is.”

If you’re worried about being a bad father, that doesn’t make you a bad father, it just makes you worried. Bad fathers don’t exist. Only people who worry too much, who can’t deal with some experiences, experiences they forever live in their head and who, one day, might hit, yell at, or abandon their child as a result. That’s not a character flaw. It’s a chain of actions gone horribly wrong.

Reality consists of subjects and verbs. We’re the ones who supply all the adjectives. All of them. And we only do it to make reality feel more permanent. If you had a bad parenting experience, you might now point to the “bad father” memory whenever you make a detrimental decision. Drank too much? Bad father. Got fired? Bad father. Screwed up a relationship? Bad father.

The truth is, as much as that experience sucked and I don’t wish it to anyone, it’s not reality any longer. It’s in the past. When you drag it with you to the present, you’re twisting reality. You look in the mirror and see another wound that’s not there. Sadly, for some people, like Chester, these experiences compound to the point where they can no longer tell reality from reflection.

I can only imagine how hard it must be to even realize when that happens, but when it does and you do, please, go and ask for help. As much as you can get.

Meanwhile, Chester has left us with an incredible gift.

The Truth

Among Dumbledore’s many wise aphorisms, one of his most popular seems to contradict everything we’ve said:

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

This must be one of the most misunderstood quotes of all time, because Dumbledore isn’t suggesting that everything you imagine is real. Instead, he’s trying to tell Harry what both Chester and Seth have also alluded to:

The truth about ourselves is what we choose to believe.

Dumbledore shared this advice with Harry at a time when the latter could literally choose between life and death. Sometimes, the consequences of the words we choose when talking to ourselves in our heads are just as severe. That’s why this statement is as powerful as it is dangerous. We all get confused at times. We all blur the line. And we all spend too much time staring at that goddamn mirror. The ways we deal with this, however, are different.

For Chester, it meant happiness lay outside himself. If you run out of kind words for yourself, try to stop talking. Seek not to the stars, but to the ground beneath your feet. Look to reality. Look around. There’s no club to get into and there never was. You were always OK. Humanity is one big community and you’ve been a member from day one. Sometimes, focusing on that is all you need to change the conversation in your head.

For Seth, it means sitting with anxiety. Don’t run. Say hi. Welcome to reality.

“The more you sit, the worse it gets. Without water, the fire rages. Then, an interesting thing happens. It burns itself out. The anxiety can’t sustain itself forever, especially when morning comes and your house hasn’t been invaded, when the speech is over and you haven’t been laughed at, when the review is complete and you haven’t been fired. Reality is the best reassurance of all.”

Which one of these works for you at what time depends, but they both require our presence in the real world. Whenever the reality inside your head starts to look scary, it’s usually the one outside that can provide the answers. Maybe, you have to sit with it. Maybe, you have to forget it for a while. Until you can look in the mirror again and see yourself as you actually are: a human being.

Not flawed. Not incomplete. Human. With the ability to choose whatever belief you need. Even the best article can only help you so much in doing that.

Then again, I remember an OK wizard who once said:

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.”

 — Albus Dumbledore

Technology Break Cover

Why We Need Breaks From Tech To Use It Best

One of the funniest moments in the Iron Man films happens when Tony Stark finally answers a question that’s crossed every viewer’s mind at least once:

“How do you go to the bathroom in that suit?”

With a first slightly contorted, then visibly relieved face, he tells us at his 40th birthday party: “Just like that.”

While it’s great that Mark IV’s filtration system can turn pee into drinking water, it doesn’t bode too well for a public icon to showcase lack of control over his own bodily functions. Not that his mental faculties were any more capable, because he is utterly, completely drunk. Wasted beyond repair.

Tony Stark might be wearing the suit, but, in that scene, he is not Iron Man. Just a dazed, desperate man, stuck in a million-dollar piece of technology.

Even the biggest talent with the best set of tools can achieve nothing if their mind isn’t in the right place. Of course we aren’t genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropists, but there’s still a lesson here that pertains to us:

We, too, over-identify with our devices.

A Bubble Made of Algorithms

After revealing his secret identity to the public, Stark had to defend his unique, metallic property in front of the US Senate. A few days prior to his birthday bash gone off limits, he refused to hand it over to the state, claiming he’d “successfully privatized world peace.” Just imagine that pressure.

Actor Robert Downey Jr. commented on his character at the time:

“I think there’s probably a bit of an imposter complex and no sooner has he said, ‘I am Iron Man –’ that he’s now really wondering what that means. If you have all this cushion like he does and the public is on your side and you have immense wealth and power, I think he’s way too insulated to be okay.”

We might not fly halfway around the world in seconds to fight for what we believe in, but then again, we kinda do. Thanks to our smartphones, we now carry the whole world in our pocket. As with Tony’s suit, it is precisely the power they bestow on us that insulates us.

Tony’s resources are near-unlimited; so are our options to do, to be, to create with a few taps. He’s a fast learner; we can now teach ourselves anything. Tony’s got JARVIS to manage everyday needs, we’ve got Siri. The list goes on.

And yet, no matter where he goes, Stark is seen not as the man inside the suit, but the superhero it represents. Similarly, we, in many school yards, lecture halls, and offices around the globe, are often judged by the brands, the products, the tools we choose — and our phones top the list.

The comparison might be exaggerated, but, while we’re not quite as closed off from reality as Stark, we’re still isolated enough to be often busy celebrating our power instead of using it, let alone use it well.

In Amusing Ourselves To Death, written in 1984, author Neil Postman made one of the rarer, more accurate predictions about computers:

“Years from now, it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.”

While it’s hard to argue with the former point, the latter is a little more complex. We can now work anywhere, create anything, and access all the world’s knowledge. At the same time, we rarely tap into these possibilities, often spending our days chasing mindless distractions. The balance always changes, but we all know what it feels like when it’s off.

But where does this disconnect come from when it does? Why is there such a big gap between the power of our tools and our efficiency in using them?

I think it’s because of how we value them. Not too little, but too much.

The Huxleyan Warning

Postman’s timing in publishing the book was no coincidence. After discussing the issue at the Frankfurt Book Fair that same year, he dedicated most of its pages to answering a single question:

“Which dystopian novel most resembles our world today?”

Taking sides with Apple, he eventually concluded that 1984 wasn’t like 1984, but more accurately reflected the ideas in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

“As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. 
What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. 
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. 
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. 
Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.

In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. 
In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. 
Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

There are lots of arguments to be made for both sides, and which one comes closest depends heavily on the circumstances of your life. But while no book will ever describe our exact reality, if we at least consider Postman’s Huxleyan warning, we can ask another interesting question:

“What would the things we love ruining us look like?”

And today, we, the human species, love one thing above all else: technology.

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The Most Powerful Ideology of All

Commenting on Apple’s ad masterpiece, Youtuber Nostalgia Critic remarks:

“Yes, Apple will save us from the terrifying 1984-style future. For as we can clearly see today, no longer are people lined up like cattle for hours and hours on end! No longer will people dress alike in cold, colorless environments! No longer will any cultish-style groups gather to honor a grand, controversial leader! And, most importantly, no longer will we be brain-dead, lifeless zombies who plug ourselves into the machine of life we can also call ‘The System.’”

Whether you imagine an iPhone release queue, the architectural style of Apple Stores, their Genius staff uniforms, a furious debate about Steve Jobs, or people with AirPods, staring at their screens, the irony of history is clear.

It might not be quite as bad as an actual surveillance state, but 30 years later, the former leader of the empowerment revolution has managed to become the world’s first trillion-dollar business only on the back of evolving into the exact thing it used to despise. And regardless of where you stand on the issue, the comparison alone proves a point Postman also makes in his book:

Technology is ideology.

Historically, the most successful ideologies have been those with the best stories. Religion, politics, science, the narratives surrounding these world views have always, for better or for worse, dictated not just what we do, but how we communicate, even see ourselves.

So what ideology could possibly be more powerful than one embedded in our modes of action, of communication, and of self-perception themselves? Enter, the smartphone. The chief representative of tech. One tool to rule them all, enabling us to do, talk, and self-reflect, both in a literal and figurative sense.

How could we not have adopted it wholesale? The story is just too good.

Besides the smartphone, no other icon symbolizes this triumph of technology more conclusively than Iron Man. The fictional character is the smartest man on the planet, his weapon the pinnacle of tech. The real guy in front of the camera is one of the highest-paid actors, making some $200+ million from his work with Marvel, the most successful movie franchise of all time.

Back on earth, though not for long, Stark’s real-world counterpart Elon Musk is worshipped as the god of our tech startup movement, meant to usher in our civilization’s next age. But, as another famous comic book figure claimed:

“If God is all-powerful, he cannot be all-good. 
And if he is all-good, then he cannot be all-powerful.”

When tech becomes ideology, tools become identity.

This is the exact problem that befalls Stark in the movie. Once he can no longer separate the iron from the man, he is completely incapacitated, reduced to blowing up watermelons in mid-air with a suit that could save millions. That’s not what he built it for.

Just like we didn’t invent the smartphone to stop thinking. What good is a device that connects you to four billion brains around the planet if the best you can think of doing with it is playing Candy Crush, taking selfies, and ordering more toilet paper?

Tony Stark built the first Iron Man armor from scrap metal in an Afghan cave. Much less a suit than a pile of alloy plates, it was barely capable of protecting him long enough to face the crossfire, defend himself, and catapult him out of reach for his enemies. But it was an extension of his mind that saved his life.

With each future iteration, however, it became less of something he used and more of something he was. Until, one day, JARVIS couldn’t help but note:

“Unfortunately, the device that’s keeping you alive is also killing you.”

Unlike Tony, however, who has actual reason to fear for the arc reactor in his chest, we don’t depend on the functionality of our devices for survival. Not in the slightest. But you’d think we do. Because we’ve never been educated about technology’s ideological nature and the incapacity it produces when fused so irrevocably with our identity.

This education, may it come early from our schools or late from within the medium itself, is also the solution Postman proposes:

“For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are. It is not important that those who ask the questions arrive at my answers. The asking of the questions is sufficient. To ask is to break the spell.”

The most obvious of those dangers, one that could lead a society to be at the whim of its own tools, is its reliance on their ubiquity. And we? Well…

A tendency to overexpose ourselves to the available is in our very nature.

The Right We Must Claim Back

There is one big difference between Orwell’s Big Brother and Apple’s twisted fate: the pain modern consumers put themselves through is entirely self-inflicted, even voluntary. Talk to the first person in line for the new iPhone; you’ll find they couldn’t be happier.

It’s almost as if the promises of technology — the feelings about this great future bound to come — are more important than whether they come true. That’s why Postman turned to Huxley. Because unless we start questioning, smartphones are no better than soma, the legal drug we freely buy that keeps everyone satisfied, ignorant in bliss.

But despite having no apparent side effects, soma is still toxic. Anything is, if you’re immersed in it 24/7. This goes for any substance, matter, and physical item, but also for any thought, any feeling, any idea and state of mind. It goes for the use of your smartphone, your laptop, and your TV, as much as it goes for criticism, a new company policy, and even happiness.

At the end of Brave New World, one character sees behind the facade of controlled, poison-induced euphoria. As a result, he claims back his right to unhappiness. To danger, struggle, and pain. But with that, he also claims back his right to freedom. To goodness, art, poetry, religion, and change.

What we have to demand back is the right to be separate from our technology. To not be identified with our tools. The human self has always been a complex structure, made of millions of facets. It’s an armor alright — and, yes, it gets shattered — but it’s one we can always reassemble, as long as we pick up the pieces. If we neglect this fact, we lose our sense of distance between who we are and the tools we use to project that self onto the world.

Without this distance, life is one big blur, and then we die. Ask any struggling artist, any aspiring entrepreneur, any coping single mom and any ambitious manager. To get past, disengage. You are not your devices. You are not your tech-powered job. You are not a future citizen of a technology-fueled utopia.

You are a human being, alive today. Right here, right now.

That’s all you ever need to be. For the rest of your life.

How’s that for distance?

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Better Than Utopia

In the end, Stark had to lose almost everything, his health, house, reputation, even one of his suits, to rediscover who he was. A tinkerer at heart. All he was missing was distance. One hard look from afar and even his life-threatening problem was solved. That’s the beauty of clarity. It works instantly.

In Huxley’s book, two other characters are punished for their questions with exile. One laments the thought, while the other welcomes his new destiny. The villain himself, however, has always known distance to be a reward. For the same reason, our tech icons limit access to their products for their kids.

For us, the now-slightly-more-educated, the solution is as simple in theory as it is hard in practice. For it’s a solution we must not just plug in, but live every day. That’s what’s changed. Slowly, but steadily. Especially since 1984.

Being disconnected must now be a conscious choice.

It used to be our default state, because our devices wouldn’t permit our availability at every hour and location. Now they do, which means it’s on us to turn them off and be unreachable in the moments for which we should be.

Creating distance takes practice. But with patience and time, we can unwind what’s entangled. Separate, once again, man from machine. Let them coexist.

Only then can we build something better than utopia: a life true to ourselves.

Our Greatest Asset

I don’t know you, but I know technology has profoundly affected your life. May it continue to do so in the best of ways. But if you ever feel trapped, and we all sometimes do, look for the disconnect that comes from being too close.

The world has always been a forward-thinking place, but if we only believe in technology, we hand it the reigns to take on a life of its own. Sometimes, the life it takes is ours. And we might not even notice.

The truth we’ve forgotten is that it’s never too late for us to take it back. We exist not because, but in spite of everything. Always have. This is our greatest asset. The only reason we need.

Iron Man carries his name not for the metal plates surrounding his body, but for the mind of the man who builds iron things. Between the two must always be distance. Only when it vanishes does the entire construct collapse.

As users of modern technology, we hold a similar responsibility: We need a healthy separation from our tools to build authentic selves. In the fight against the odds that is our life, we must first turn off our phones, so that we may then use them to build meaningful things. What both these aspirations require is distance. The physical, as well as the mental kind.

A real bathroom break should not be where it ends, but it sure is a start.

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The Strong-Link Theory: How to Build a Successful Career

My favorite painting in Munich’s ‘New Pinacotheca’ is The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg. It shows a penniless artist in a crappy, run-down attic apartment.

The Poor Poet is one of Spitzweg’s earliest compositions after becoming a full-time painter in 1833. Today, it is his most famous work. Likely because in it, he managed to capture the ambiguity of his own life.

Spitzweg was born into a wealthy family and eventually launched his career off the comfort of a large inheritance. At the same time, his father forced him through a pharmacist education and he was entirely self-taught. All his career, he pursued humorous themes, contrary to the common-sense nature of art in his era, the Biedermeier period.

Like Spitzweg, The Poor Poet is a puzzling figure. He’s huddled up in blankets, covering a hole in the ceiling with an umbrella, burning his own writings to stay warm. But he doesn’t look flustered. Is he choosing his poverty-stricken existence? Does it inspire him? Did he end up there because society is misjudging his genius? Or was he just too much of a snob about his own art?

The answers to all these questions are left to the viewer’s imagination, which makes it a great painting. Another reason I like this picture, however, is that it’s a reminder that in today’s world, no artist must starve.

Life Is Full of Networks

Sometimes, the past deserves a second chance. That’s the tagline of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History. In one episode, he examines why philanthropy in education tends to center around the richest and most elite schools, as opposed to those that actually need it. To piece the answer together, he turns to a book about soccer.

Taking a page out of The Numbers Game, Gladwell frames education as a ‘weak-link problem.’ This means the overall outcome depends much more on giving access to those, who have none, than on providing high-class students with even better resources. The analogy in sports is that “a football team is only as strong as its weakest link.” Look at this year’s world cup results.

Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, all world-class, yet none of their teams survived the quarter-finals. Because soccer is not about having one or two superstars, it’s usually the team with the fewest mistakes that wins. Plus, even the best striker can only score if the ball makes it to the front. Basketball is a counter-example. One Michael Jordan can do some serious damage. He might singlehandedly win a game, regardless of how the other players perform.

The beauty of this concept is that you can use it as an almost universal lens to work on your perspective. Life is full of networks and all networks have links.

Your body is a weak-link structure; one tiny, but critical part fails, and the whole system shuts down. Traffic is a weak-link phenomenon; a single bad driver can block an entire highway for hours. School is a strong-link game; you only need the exact right answers to pass any exam. And so on.

But there’s one area where applying this idea is especially interesting: work.

The Difference Between Your Career and Your Job

When companies vie for job applicants, they love to promise that “with us, you won’t just have a job, you’ll have a career!” What intrigued graduates take that to mean is that the prospects of working for said employer won’t be limited to the current gig. Promise me I can grow, and I’ll take you to the sunlight. That type of thing. The reality, however, is often different.

Your current job may be a weak-link game. In Germany, for example, waiters often split tips. Whatever the collected total, everyone gets the same share. In this scenario, positive outliers matter, but the average is held down by the lowest contributions. If you’re a strong link, you lose. Most jobs are like that. Rewards don’t hinge on singular results, but on the team’s output as a whole.

That’s because employment itself is also a weak-link problem. It’s better to make sure everyone has a job than giving particularly great ones to a select few. Missing opportunities at their firms are one reason that nowadays, people change jobs around every four years. Here’s another:

Your job may not be a strong-link game, but your career always is.

Career Engine Optimization

The internet has largely democratized the resources of building a business. Since fewer people can do more with less, the number of small firms has gone through the roof. New kinds of jobs pop up left and right, so people sample.

That’s smart. It’s the equivalent of creating more links. And since you only need one great career move to potentially land where you want to go, people maximize their chances. Think of Youtube discoveries like Justin Bieber or the first employees at Facebook. Those are extreme examples, but on a micro level, your and my career will play out just the same.

Another thing you could do is to get a strong-link job, where you can drastically increase your income, fame, and whatever else with a few good results. All artists have this. But there’s also commission-based work, like real estate and most sales, or equity compensation, from working at a startup or handling investment deals. Those are good bets too.

But the best thing you can do, by far, does not depend on job modalities at all.

The Human Lag in Reacting to Change

Back in Spitzweg’s days, The Poor Poet was the norm. His painting was as much a caricature as it was a critical comment on society at the time. It’s easy to imagine Spitzweg wouldn’t have chosen the artist’s path, had it not been for his family money. With few options, small personal networks, and the excessive importance of local reputation, playing it safe was the way to go.

In the past 200 years, however, the world has changed more drastically than ever before. Another thing the internet has democratized is the ability to create links from the comfort of your home. Not just actively, but letting them come to you. It is 30 years old, but this most people still don’t understand.

When Spitzweg first presented The Poor Poet to the critics at Munich’s art club in 1839, they weren’t impressed. It took until two years after his death for the painting to make it into a museum. Imagine he could have posted it on Instagram. Or blogged about the process. Someone might have reached out.

I’m surrounded by young, smart, tech-savvy graduates all day, but most of their link-building efforts seem limited to updating their LinkedIn when they complete another internship. I’m sure most of them will do just fine, but it’s a little as if they insist on being poor poets in a world that offers every opportunity for that to change.

How to Have a Successful Career: As You Shout Into the Woods…

I wholeheartedly believe the single most valuable thing you can do to get everything out of your career that you want is this:

Create.

It may be easy to say for a writer like me, but I mean it. And you don’t have to be creative. You can just document your day. You’re interesting. So is where you live. If you love accounting, by all means, keep us posted on the news from that world. Or maybe you don’t feel like tinkering in public. Good. Tinker in your garage and then showcase what you made online.

Whatever you do, don’t limit your participation in the biggest network in the history of the world to lurking behind a screen. The German version of “what goes around, comes around” is “as you shout into the woods, so it echoes back.” Only those who put effort in will receive something in return.

Most importantly, if you want to have a successful career, treat it like the strong-link game it actually is. Don’t fall for the victim narrative of gatekeepers preventing change. They’re still trying, but you can choose to ignore them. That’s a modern-day luxury The Poor Poet didn’t have.

There’s one more reason I like the painting so much: It is a wonderful reminder to work hard and stay humble. As long as we do that, we’ll always be our own strongest link. And there’s nothing ambiguous about that.

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Digital Settler: The Healthy Alternative to Being a Digital Nomad

“If you need to take a vacation, never come back.”

— Joel Salatin

It feels almost weird to acknowledge it: I make a full-time income using nothing but a laptop and an internet connection. I wasn’t born to be an entrepreneur, so growth’s been slow, but for the past four years, I’ve made a very livable amount of money for a single dude in his 20s.

I first learned about this new-rich, digital lifestyle in 2012. Back then, I painted the same picture in my daydreams that must decorate millions of desktop backgrounds around the globe: a chair on the beach, an ice-cold drink, and a laptop on my lap. But then, something interesting happened: I got the travel without the work.

The New American Dream

From September 2012 to May 2013, I studied abroad in Massachusetts. While I was there, I traveled to Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, Las Vegas, and dozens of other cities. I went all around California, to Hawaii, Canada, and even Mexico. After returning home, I also went to London, Tokyo, Seoul, and Sydney. All in the same year. It was insane.

Especially because, thanks to a generous friend, we lived the high life wherever we went. We lived at the Bellagio in Vegas, drove around in a Mustang 5.0, rented a Jeep to drive up Mauna Kea, and enjoyed the skyline view from the indoor pool in Tokyo.

My view from the Marriott Waikiki Beach. Jealous already?

It was a glimpse into the life every digital nomad dreams of. A glimpse into a life I was as far away from as one could possibly be. I come from a German upper class family of academics. Most of the people I grew up around don’t even do digital and they’re definitely not nomads. On the trip, I thought a lot about the gap between who I was and who the new American dream was reserved for. And then another funny thing happened: Once I returned home to a cold, German winter, I didn’t want it anymore.

What’s the Opposite of a Digital Nomad?

Traveling full-time was a lot of fun. But, just like anything you do full-time, it inevitably turned into a job. We constantly had trains to catch, planes to book, trips to organize, things to pack, and rooms to get out of. If you do anything long enough, the boring parts catch up to you. Always.

You begin to think about your problems, flaws, and what you could have done better. Because no matter where you go, you are still you. The novelty of different places wears off quicker and quicker, until you find yourself lamenting the same issues you’ve had long before you left.

This problem isn’t new. It’s as old as man. From Seneca’s Moral Letters:

You should change your attitude, not your surroundings. You may have crossed the expanse of sea, and as our Virgil says, ‘lands and cities may grow distant’, but your faults will follow you wherever you reach.

This is what Socrates said to a man who was complaining: ‘Why are you surprised that traveling does you no good, when you are carrying your own state of mind around with you? The same cause is weighing you down now which drove you from home.’ […] You ask me why this flight is not helping you? Because you are in your own company.

And yet, traveling the world at 21 years old was the best thing that ever happened to me. Why? Because it gave me a sneak peek at the end result of the career path I was about to commit myself to. A chance to realize that, once again, the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.

Still, I was grateful for the experience. Because even though it showed me I had the wrong goals, it gave me a sense of calm when letting my travel desires go. I have seen more of this planet than 99% of folks ever will, and if I die seeing nothing more of it, that’s fine. That’s a powerful source to draw happiness from.

But there was still something about working for myself that wouldn’t let go.

Being a Digital Settler: An Unexpected Source of Happiness

As I was studying for my next set of exams after my trip around the globe, I noticed something: The allure of long-term travel was gone, but the attractiveness of a local, regular job hadn’t come back. It slowly dawned on me that maybe, being a digital nomad was a thinly veiled excuse to make the grind of entrepreneurship look more attractive.

I think that’s the big mistake aspiring digital nomads make. Like I did, they chase the right outcome for the wrong reasons. Thanks to my big trip, I can tell you that needn’t be the case: If you lift the veil, entrepreneurship is still beautiful. For as much as we overrate the joys of long-term travel, we’re also too quick to dismiss how much meaning we can draw from growing roots where we’re planted.

Nowadays, my friends commend me for the high-degree-of-freedom life I’ve built. I agree, it’s satisfying. Because just like I can relocate tomorrow, I’m free to go to the same café, sit at the same place, and do my work. In the past five years, I’ve only taken three round trip flights. I spend most of my time in Munich, where I live, and some of it with family back at my parents’ house.

I’m digital without the nomad. What does that make me? A settler? Whether saying no to travel is mad or wise, I don’t know. But I can wholeheartedly say: Most of the happiness you gain from working for yourself comes from having a choice, much more so than from whatever choice in particular you make.

And you don’t need to travel around the world to find the truth in that.

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Habit Tracker: Which One’s The Best? + 100 Habits To Track

“What gets measured gets managed.”

That’s a quote from Peter Drucker, considered the father of modern management. Contrary to what you’d think, he wasn’t a big fan of complex business models or convoluted strategies. He mostly talked about habits. Businesses are run by people and people run on habits. That’s why managing our habits is important. Measuring them, however, is hard.

That’s where habit trackers come in. Read More

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How To Make Better Decisions

In 1970, economist George Akerlof published a paper called The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism, in which he described an idea that would keep researchers busy for decades: adverse selection.

The concept describes a type of market inefficiency. When buyers and sellers have different information about the goods or services being sold, whichever party knows more can dictate the outcome of the transaction.

For example, sellers of used cars know whether their vehicle is of good quality or breaks down every ten miles, (a so-called ‘lemon’) but potential buyers don’t. As a result, sellers overcharge. Akerlof dubbed this phenomenon ‘asymmetric information’ and predicted a market death spiral in which, theoretically, no one would want to buy a car.

Of course the real used car market is very much alive, however inefficient. While measures to mitigate information asymmetry have been introduced, such as extended guarantees, inspections, and certifications, people still get ripped off every day.

But why? Akerlof received the Nobel prize in economics for his discovery and today, almost 50 years later, every US state has its own variant of the ‘Lemon law’ to protect consumers. Yet, we still make bad decisions, not just in purchasing goods, but everywhere.

And we really have no excuse to.

Avoidance Is Expensive

There are two types of capitalism: the kind that solves real problems and the kind that peddles placebos. The latter thrives on information asymmetry. In fact, it’s the only reason it works.

While con artists and scammers have been around for millennia, they’ve had to be a lot more creative since the rise of the internet. The wide dissemination of information at no cost has shrunk the gap a lot. Or rather, it’s increased how much we can shrink it ourselves. What used to be mostly a game of luck has now become a game of effort, but we avoid it just the same.

Take this picture of a turtle, for example.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? While it’s a fantastic way to elicit emotions and get you to daydream about your next vacation, you don’t know where I took it from. But you could find out, thanks to Google Image Search.

With some more effort, you could even determine what kind of camera was used, where it was taken, who the photographer was, and ask them for more details. The question is, if I used this picture to try and sell you an all-inclusive trip to the Bahamas, would you?

Most of us don’t. We’re happy to comply when others prompt us to make decisions with as little context as possible. We form opinions based on headlines, pass judgements after reading tweets, and glance at pictures without demanding the frame they came in.

That’s what information asymmetry is at its core. A lack of context. It’s baffling how often we choose to decide under its influence, despite having all the tools we need to fight it.

Here are three that help you define, set, and leverage context to improve every single one of your decisions.

1. Knowing What You Know

One of Warren Buffett’s most popular mental models is the circle of competence. In a 2017 documentary, he describes it as follows:

“I can look at a thousand different companies and I don’t have to be right on every one of them, or even 50 of them. So I can pick the ball I want to hit. The trick in investing is just to sit there and watch pitch after pitch go by and wait for the one right in your sweet spot. And the people who are yelling ‘swing, you bum,’ ignore them.”

Knowing what you know increases the probability of your assumptions being right and thus helps you decide with confidence. Whatever lies outside of that circle is nothing but smoke and mirrors, but you can afford to ignore it, because you’re not going to take shots in the dark.

What’s remarkable is how small a circle we can get away with, yet still be successful. You could specialize in producing, selling, or investing only in tetracycline antibiotics, and that’d be more than enough to keep you busy for a lifetime.

To find the border of that circle early, we must walk to the edge, peer over, and maybe run a few low-risk experiments. But once we’ve set the perimeter, we can build a huge web of context inside it, while ignoring all the noise on the outside.

2. Knowing What You Don’t Know

In video games, it’s very common for the map of the terrain to be unknown when you start playing. Only as you move around do you uncover patches of the area, which then slowly begin to form a complete picture.

No matter how many black spots are left, keeping track of where they are allows you to shine your proverbial flashlight on them later, but not go there before you’re ready. There’s lots of smoke outside your circle, but that too is finite, at least for any particular decision. Knowing that boundary has value.

The more you optimize your life, the less you’ll have to step outside your circle of competence, but sometimes, life forces you to. It’s impossible to pick the perfect job when completely switching career fields, but being aware of how little you know, you can consult with experts, steer clear of big responsibilities at first, and prioritize what you’ll learn.

Even saying “I don’t know” out loud provides relief, makes it easier for others to empathize, and is more often seen as a sign of professionalism, rather than weakness.

3. Knowing How Much You Need To Know

Once you’ve determined where your wisdom ends and how much there is to attain for your specific decision altogether, another question presents itself, and it makes all the difference: how big is the gap between the two?

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell placed the ideal amount of information needed to make an educated decision between 40% and 70% of the total that’s available. Ideally, he says, you’d always keep waiting for more context at less than 40%, but never procrastinate after you’ve got 70% of the data.

No two situations are alike and this isn’t a hard rule, but thinking about whether you can push the edges of your circle of competence, and how far you’d have to drive them to avoid complete failure, is worth your while.

For example, if a stranger passes you in the street and doesn’t return your smile, your gut might tell you “this person’s arrogant.” However, armed with nothing but their appearance, you clearly have less information than you need to make that call.

Similarly, spending two whole afternoons to decide which out of three $50 backpacks you buy might be overdoing it, especially if you make $50/hr or more.

These are oversimplified, but the principle stands. Don’t let perceived urgency pressure you into sub-par decisions. Ask, search, and wait for what you need to pick not just an option that will do, but the option that’ll do best in your circumstances.

The Diet of the Wise

When Warren Buffett first took an interest in financial markets, there was no internet, yet he chose to fight information asymmetry regardless. It surely must have been an uphill battle, reading all those books, complicated financial reports, and whatever else he could get his hands on.

Yet here we are, history’s entire knowledge at our fingertips, often failing to google, go beyond the headline, or read the blurb of a book, let alone the whole thing. We’re too lazy to read and too busy to think, when that’s the diet of the wise. Better yet, it’s close to free.

In a fully connected world, information is only as asymmetric as you allow it to be. You have all the tools you need. Use them to build context. Avoid environments that force your hand. Know what you don’t know. Resist the temptation to move too quickly.

If your good decisions compound, maybe we’ll read about you someday.

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The Future of Work: Hard Work, Working Hard & Being Creative

On June 1st, Jason Fried shook up the entire Medium community:

“Hard work is picking lettuce 8 hours a day in 90 degree heat. […] Rule of thumb: If it’s hard you’ll have trouble finding people who want to do it. There’s no shortage of people who want to be programmers, designers, strategists, social media consultants, entrepreneurs, investors, etc… But try finding people to work the farm. Hard work is doing the work other people don’t want to do.”

My first thought: “Do I claim to be doing hard work?” Read More