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.

Read More
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.”

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.

If You Want to Be Happy, Make the World Small Cover

If You Want to Be Happy, Make the World Small

One of my favorite scenes in Man of Steel is when young Clark first discovers his powers at elementary school. His senses are hypersensitive and, by activating all at once, trigger a seizure.

Suddenly, he can see not just people’s appearance, but their insides, bones, organs. He can hear not just loud noise, but every noise, even tiny ones far away. Overwhelmed with all the impressions, he runs away and hides.

The whole class gathers outside the closet he’s locked himself in, but, ultimately, his mom must come to his rescue. At first, he won’t let her in.

“The world’s too big, Mom.”

But then, Martha Kent shares a piece of advice that could only ever make sense coming from a loving, compassionate mother:

“Then make it small.”

The Good Thing About Fame

A few days ago, I was looking for gameplay clips from Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey because, you know, procrastination. I found theRadBrad. After watching a few videos, I realized he has 9.8 million subscribers. That’s more than the entire population of Austria, Honduras, or Hungary.

I’m a gamer at heart. I’ve used Youtube for as long as it exists. And yet, I had never heard of theRadBrad, one of the biggest channels in this sector.

I guess it’s true. The world has become a big place. Or, maybe it always was.

Christianity has remained the world’s largest religion for the past 200 years. But it still covers just a third of our planet’s population. That means one of, maybe the most famous person in history — Jesus Christ — is someone most people have never heard of.

I think that’s a good thing. It’s soothing. The problem is I keep forgetting it.

All It Takes Is Pancakes

In an early How I Met Your Mother episode, Barney shares one of his most memorable quotes:

“You know what Marshall needs to do? He needs to stop being sad. When I get sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead. True story.”

But, unless you can seamlessly switch from one irrational, emotional state to another, like Barney, that’s not so easy, is it? It sure wasn’t for Marshall. For 67 days after his breakup, he was a miserable, weeping puddle of his former self.

Every day, some new trigger would launch him into another nightmare about his ex. Where’s Lily? What is she doing? And with whom? Why that? Why now? Why there? Of course, none of his obsessive behavior gave any answers.

Eventually, after over two months, his roommates woke up to the smell of fresh pancakes. Marshall was over the hump. Why now? What changed?

The world was too big. And, finally, Marshall had made it small.

Pretend It’s an Island

I think most of my sadness is overwhelm in disguise. The world’s too big. I postpone all kinds of decisions until I do something stupid or extreme. As a result, I lose even more time, which only reinforces the cycle.

But it all starts with the fact that there’s too much of everything. Too many projects to tackle. Too many notifications to answer. Too many people to meet. Too many places to go. Too many shows to watch. Too many books to read.

I know I’ll never get to it all. So there’s always someone to disappoint. Even if it’s just myself. But it never fails to sting.

The only way I can ever move past this is by doing what Martha told Clark:

“Just focus on my voice. Pretend it’s an island, out in the ocean. Can you see it?”

“I see it.”

“Then swim towards it, honey.”

When the world’s too big, I have to forget it for a while. I have to start swimming.

The Only Thing We Can Do

On Nov 27th, 2006, Brad Colburn created a Youtube account. It had zero subscribers. Now, every time he launches another playthrough, he says:

“So guys it’s, uh, it’s kind of hard to start off these big games. ‘Cause I know that this series is gonna have a lot of people watching.”

No single human is meant to have an entire country follow them around. We’re tribal creatures. Not global citizens. No matter how much we wish we were. The sheer mental presence of more than a few dozen people is enough to cause serious anxiety. It’s a huge responsibility to shoulder.

So the best thing, the only thing, really, that RadBrad can do is to make another video. Just one. Pretend it’s an island. Start swimming. I don’t know Brad personally. But I can tell you, every time he forgets this, he feels sad and overwhelmed.

And when he remembers? He finds his way back to happy.

We’re All Clark Kent

The internet has made all of us hypersensitive. We’re all Clark Kent. We can see not just people’s appearance, but their insides, thoughts, emotions. We can hear not just loud noise, but every noise, even tiny ones far away.

And sometimes, it makes us want to run away and hide. When Marshall sifted through his ex-lover’s credit card transactions, his world was too big. Too many terrible fantasies. Too many alternatives to imagine. Only when he said “stop,” when he refused to engage with the noise, could he focus on what was right in front of him: two hungry friends.

If Superman existed, how long would it take until the whole world knows him? A month? A year? In any case, he better master his senses. Unlike him, however, we can turn off the noise. Disconnect. Get quiet.

What’s more, we’ll never carry quite as much responsibility. If we’re really lucky, how many people will follow us? A couple thousand? A few million? Still, most of the world will never know who we are. We’ll always stay small.

Remembering this smallness is where happiness lies. Forget the vastness that’s out there. It does nothing for you. Just focus on one voice. One friend. Make one video. And then do it again.

The world’s too big. Even for the best of us. Let’s carve out our own space. Make it small. Find your island. And then swim towards it.

What Is the Future of Learning?

“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.” 

Bruce Lee

In the past four years, I have asked a lot of foolish questions:

Can I be a professional translator without any credentials?

If I want to be a published writer, should I still ghostwrite for money?

Do summaries of existing book summaries make any sense?

The seemingly obvious answer to them all is “no,” yet I did all those things anyway. And while some led nowhere, others now pay my bills. Often, the only way to get satisfying answers is to try, especially with foolish questions. The beauty of daring to ask them, rather than accepting the answers society gives you, is that you’ll have many more unexpected insights along the way.

Like that, today, the answers are always less valuable than the questions.

The Half-Life of Knowledge

In 2013, we created as much data as in all of the previous history. That trend now continues, with total information roughly doubling each year. Michael Simmons has crunched the numbers behind our knowledge economy:

You probably need to devote at least five hours a week to learning just to keep up with your current field—ideally more if you want to get ahead.

Bachelor’s degrees in most European countries consists of 180 credits (EU schools tend to use a quarter credit system as opposed to the semester hour system typical in the U.S.), and each of those credits is worth about 30 hours of studying time. That’s 5,400 hours. Sadly, what you learn from those hours starts decaying as soon as you’ve put in the time. Scientists call this “the half-life of knowledge,” a metric that’s decreasing fast.

A modern degree might last you just five years before it’s completely irrelevant.

Since new information is now generated more and more rapidly, it takes less time for said information to lose its value. Back in the 1960s, an engineering degree was outdated within 10 years. Today, most fields have a half-life much less than that, especially new industries. A modern degree might last you just five years before it’s completely irrelevant. Even with a conservative half-life estimate of 10 years (losing about 5 percent each year), you’d have to put in 270 hours per annum just to maintain those initial 5,400—or about five hours per week.

As a side effect of this global, long-lasting trend, both the time we spend attaining formal education and the number of people choosing this path have increased dramatically for decades. Years of schooling have more than doubled in the past 100 years, and in many countries, it’s common to study for some 20-plus years before even entering the workforce. In the U.S. alone, college enrollment rates have peaked at over 90 percent of the total population in the age group around secondary school completion already.

The larger our ocean of information, the less valuable each fact in it becomes. Therefore, the knowledge bundles for college degrees must get bigger and, thus, take longer to absorb. But the ocean also grows faster, which means despite getting bigger, the bundles don’t last as long. It takes a lot of time to even stay up to date, let alone get ahead of the increasing competition.

Instead of flailing more not to drown, maybe we should get out of the water.

A Scary Future to Imagine

While it’s important to dedicate time to learning, spending ever-increasing hours soaking up facts can’t be the final answer to this dilemma. Extrapolate the global scramble for knowledge, and we’d end up with 50-year-old “young professionals,” who’d retire two years into their careers because they can’t keep up. It’s a scary future to imagine but, luckily, also one that’s unlikely.

I saw two videos this week. One showed an unlucky forklift driver bumping into a shelf, causing an entire warehouse to collapse. In the other, an armada of autonomous robots sorted packages with ease. It’s not a knowledge-based example, but it goes to show that robots can do some things better than people can.

There is no expert consensus on whether A.I., robotics, and automation will create more jobs than they’ll destroy. But we’ll try to hand over everything that’s either tedious or outright impossible. One day, this may well include highly specialized, knowledge-based jobs that currently require degrees.

Knowledge is cumulative. Intelligence is selective. It’s a matter of efficiency versus effectiveness.

A lawyer in 2050 could still be called a lawyer, but they might not do anything a 2018 lawyer does. The thought alone begs yet another foolish question:

When knowledge itself has diminishing returns, what do we need to know?

The Case for Selective Intelligence

With the quantity of information setting new all-time highs each year, the future is, above all, unknown. Whatever skills will allow us to navigate this uncertainty are bound to be valuable. Yuval Noah Harari’s new book asserts this:

In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all, to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.

The ability Harari is talking about is the skill of learning itself. The 2018 lawyer needs knowledge. The 2050 lawyer needs intelligence. Determining what to know at any time will matter more than the hard facts you’ll end up knowing. When entire industries rise and fall within a few decades, learning will no longer be a means but must become its own end. We need to adapt forever.

Knowledge is cumulative. Intelligence is selective. It’s a matter of efficiency versus effectiveness. Both can be trained, but we must train the right one. Right now, it’s not yet obvious which one to choose. The world still runs on specialists, and most of today’s knowledge-accumulators can expect to have good careers.

But with each passing day, intelligence slowly displaces knowledge.

The Problem With Too Many Interests

Emilie Wapnick has one of the most popular TED talks to date—likely because she offers some much-needed comfort for people suffering from a common career problem: having too many interests. Wapnick says it’s not a problem at all. It’s a strength. She coined the term “multipotentialite” to show that it’s not the people affected but public perception that must change:

Idea synthesis, rapid learning, and adaptability: three skills that multipotentialites are very adept at and three skills they might lose if pressured to narrow their focus. As a society, we have a vested interest in encouraging multipotentialites to be themselves. We have a lot of complex, multidimensional problems in the world right now, and we need creative, out-of-the-box thinkers to tackle them.

While there’s more to it, it’s hard to deny the point. After all, some of these thinkers work on some of our biggest problems. And we love them for it.

Jeff Bezos built a retail empire and became the richest man in the world, but he also helped save an important media institution and works on the infrastructure we need to explore space. Elon Musk first changed how we pay and then how we think of electric cars, and now how we’ll approach getting to Mars. Bill Gates really knows software, but now he’s eradicating malaria and polio. The list goes on.

The term “polymath” feels overly connoted with “genius,” but whether you call them Renaissance people, scanners, or expert-generalists, the ability they share stays the same: They know how to learn, and they relentlessly apply this skill to a broad variety of topics. In analyzing them, Zat Rana finds this:

Learning itself is a skill, and when you exercise that skill across domains, you get specialized as a learner in a way that someone who goes deep doesn’t. You learn how to learn by continuously challenging yourself to grasp concepts of a broad variety. This ironically then allows you to specialize in something else faster if you so choose. This is an incredibly valuable advantage.

Beyond learning faster, you’ll also innovate more, stay flexible, stand out from specialists, and focus on extracting principles over remembering facts.

To me, that sounds exactly like the person an unpredictable world needs.

A Curious Boy

In 1925, one year before he entered school, Isaac Asimov taught himself to read. His father, uneducated and thus unable to support his son, gave him a library card. Without any direction, the curious boy read everything:

All this incredibly miscellaneous reading, the result of lack of guidance, left its indelible mark. My interest was aroused in twenty different directions and all those interests remained. I have written books on mythology, on the Bible, on Shakespeare, on history, on science, and so on.

“And so on” led to some 500 books and about 90,000 letters Asimov wrote or edited. Years later, when his father looked through one of them, he asked:

“How did you learn all this, Isaac?”

“From you, Pappa,” I said.

“From me? I don’t know any of this.”

“You didn’t have to, Pappa,” I said. “You valued learning and you taught me to value it. Once I learned to value it, the rest came without trouble.”

When we hear stories about modern expert-generalists, we assume their intelligence is the result of spending a lot of time studying multiple fields. While that’s certainly part of it, a mere shotgun approach to collecting widely diversified knowledge is not what gives great learners special abilities.

What allowed Asimov to benefit from his reading, much more so than what he read or how much, was that he always read with an open mind. Most of the time, we neglect this. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how we learn.

In order to build true intelligence, we first have to let go of what we know.

The Value of Integrative Complexity

Had Asimov learned to read in school, he likely would’ve done it the way most of us do: memorizing or critiquing things. It’s an extremely narrow dichotomy, but sadly, one that sticks. Rana offers thoughts about the true value of reading:

Anytime you read something with the mindset that you are there to extract what is right and what is wrong, you are by default limiting how much you can get out of a particular piece of writing. You’re boxing an experience that has many dimensions into just two.

Instead of cramming what they learn into their existing perspectives, people like Asimov know that the whole point is to find new ones. You’re not looking for confirmation; you’re looking for the right mental update at the right time.

With an attitude like that, you can read the same book forever and still get smarter each time. That’s what learning really is: a state of mind. More than the skill, it’s receptiveness that counts. If your mind is always open, you’re always learning. And if it’s closed, nothing has a real chance of sinking in.

Scientists call this “integrative complexity”: the willingness to accept multiple perspectives, hold them all in your head at once, and then integrate them into a bigger, more coherent picture. It’s a picture that keeps evolving and is never complete but is always ready to integrate new points and lose old ones.

That’s true intelligence, and that’s the prolific learner’s true advantage.

A Matter of Being

Your brain is like a muscle. At any moment, it’s growing or it’s deteriorating. You can never just keep it in the same state. So when you’re not exercising your mind, it’ll atrophy and not only stop but quickly reverse your progress.

This has always been the case, but the consequences today are more severe than ever. In an exponential knowledge economy, we can’t afford stale minds. Deliberately spending time on learning new things is one way to fight irrelevance, but it’s not what’ll protect us in the uncharted waters of the future.

The reason the wise man can learn from even the most foolish question is that he never assigns that label in the first place.

Beyond being carriers of knowledge, we need to become fluid creatures of intelligence. Studying across multiple disciplines can start this process. It has many advantages—creativity, adaptability, speed—but it’s still not enough.

If we focus only on the activity of learning, we miss the most important part: Unless we’re willing to change our perspective, we won’t grasp a thing. It’s not a matter of doing but of being. The reason the wise man can learn from even the most foolish question is that he never assigns that label in the first place.

And so it matters not whether we learn from our own questions or the insights of others, nor how much of it we do, but that we always keep an open mind. The longer we can hold opposing ideas in our heads without rejecting them, the more granular the picture that ultimately forms. This is true intelligence. It’s always been valuable, but now it’s the inevitable future of learning.

Bruce Lee undoubtedly possessed this quality. By the time he died, he was a world-renowned martial artist, the creator of an entire philosophy, and a multimillion-dollar Hollywood superstar. All at only 32 years old. Long after his passing, one of his favorite stories captures both the essence of his spirit and how he became the cultural icon we still know and love today:

A learned man once went to visit a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher talked, the learned man frequently interrupted to express his own opinion about this or that. Finally, the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full, then kept pouring until the cup overflowed.

“Stop,” said the learned man. “The cup is full, no more can be poured in.”

“Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions,” replied the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty your cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

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.

Source

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.

Source

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?

Source

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.

Your Smartphone Will Make You Miserable Cover

Your Smartphone Will Make You Miserable

Do you remember the first day you owned a smartphone? I do. In the fall of 2010, I was about to start college and Apple had just launched the iPhone 4. It was a quantum leap in the evolution of phones, nothing less.

We had it sent to a friend in France, because it was a bit cheaper, if that word even applies to a 700 € piece of technology. When my Dad brought it home, I couldn’t wait to take it out of the box and set it up. Afterwards, me and my family examined it in amazement. No buttons, crystal clear colors, great photos. High resolution, fast surfing, tons of apps, and, again, the screen!

I remember what it felt like, too. To now be part of this new, shiny, ever-connected world. It felt like I was joining a revolution. Rebellious. Enough with the old, it’s time to disrupt! Little did I know how right I was.

It didn’t happen the way I expected it, but life would never be the same.

Through the Hedge

I grew up in three different places, but each of them was a dead-end street. Ten or so houses, lined up in a perfect little row, ours always being the very last. To this day, my favorite remains the smallest one we lived in.

My home until 1999.

There was a tiny, square patch of grass attached to our back porch. You could barely call it a garden, but it connected to that of our neighbors, separated only by a tall hedge. Luckily, there was a huge hole in it, so us kids always snuck through to surprise each other and play games.

Another thing we did, which is rather unheard of today, is whenever we were looking for company, we walked down the street and rang the doorbell. You know, to see if our friends were home. A decade after Apple made smartphone history, I feel this is the part of the story that’s most dramatically changed.

A Strange Place Indeed

When sat navs made it into serial production, paper maps disappeared from the glove compartments of our cars. So did our ability to read and interpret those maps. To some extent, smartphones are doing the same to our communication skills. They allow us to get any message across with minimal effort, so after a while, minimal effort is all we’re capable of.

Sometimes, when friends visit me, they will text me that they are at the door. That is insane. And if I don’t see it, they might call me before considering to ring the bell. To you, that might be as obviously nuts as it is to me, but to kids growing up today, it’s probably the norm. They don’t know any other way and if we don’t teach them one, they never will.

I’m no exception to all this. For example, I was never strong in face-to-face confrontations, and if anything, owning a smartphone has made me weaker. But more than that, people’s reactions to those making an effort have also changed. I miss the days when I could call someone or show up at their doorstep unannounced and it wasn’t weird. Nowadays it’s mostly voicemail and awkward smiles. So on top of lacking fundamental human skills, many of our rewards for becoming better at them have disappeared.

It’s funny. Those things are considered creepy and annoying when at the same time, we get excited about strangers adding us on LinkedIn or following us on Instagram every day. It seems the joys of human attention now heavily depend on the medium that attention is received in. Being asked for coffee is terrifying, but getting a random comment on your Instagram story about being hit on is cool. Huh. Okay.

Smartphones hurting our capacity to talk to one another isn’t a particularly new or unobserved issue, but so far, that hasn’t stopped it from being a problem. It’s also only half the story.

Back in the Old Days…

Though unverified, Albert Einstein supposedly once said there are only two ways to live your life:

“One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”

It’s a quote about curiosity. About exploring, adventure, and imagining something new. But since technology has exploded so much in the past three decades, I think we‘re now suffering from miracle-fatigue. New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress captured it brilliantly with this quip:

Barry Schwartz expands on the idea in his acclaimed TED talk:

“The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that when everything was worse, it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in — we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation — the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof.”

As much as I love Apple products, I can’t shake the feeling that the iPhone, the smartphone in general, really, has been the greatest catalyst in exponentially raising our expectations. It’s the perfect weapon against surprise. You can use it not just to eradicate surprise from your interpersonal relationships, but also from those you maintain with yourself. Think about it.

Any experience you even remotely suspect you might have, you will prepare for using your phone. We look at purchases through the eyes of thousands of reviewers in advance. We read accounts of other people’s vacations, once-in-a-lifetime adventures, restaurant visits and what it’s like at work. And no matter what emotional state you’re in when you look into the mirror, the world will gladly explain to you what feeling comes next.

As a result, we’re used to everything but surprise itself. For this same reason, we’d rather send a signal to a tower miles away, that then sends another one to our friend’s phone upstairs, than to press the button that makes a piercing noise. We’ve come to hate the unexpected so much, we go out of our way to not impose it on others.

The day we turned on those phones is the day surprise died. And while it’s come to haunt us in a great many ways, the following may be the worst.

The Secret to Happiness

Isn’t it ironic? As a result of being equipped incredible communication technology, we’ve become hard to talk to and even harder to please. Because our new, default expectation is to always know what to expect.

While it’s bad that we’re not willing to be pleasantly surprised by serendipitous events, rejecting the notion of surprise altogether is what’ll really make us miserable. If we do that, we won’t just miss out on happy coincidence, we’ll also forever overreact to negative developments. How can we deal with life’s curveballs if we can’t even handle a sure home run pitch?

One obvious answer to address many of these problems is to just use your phone less. A lot less. Don’t google everything. Delegate and let people sweep you off your feet. Show up unannounced. Bring flowers. Be a nice surprise.

And in all that, mind what Barry Schwartz said next:

“The secret to happiness — this is what you all came for — the secret to happiness is low expectations.”

Maybe, we’ll even dare go a step further than that. Maybe, the secret to happiness is no expectations. Whatever you do, make room for surprise in your life. Give good things a chance to happen and wait for bad things to actually arrive. I hope that some day, we can all say we were indeed part of a revolution.

It just wasn’t the one we thought it would be.

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

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.