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.

Lincoln's Unsent Angry Letter Cover

Lincoln’s Unsent Angry Letter: Modern Technology Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How To Not Be Gullible

In 1997, 14-year-old Nathan Zohner used the science fair to alert his fellow citizens of a deadly, dangerous chemical.

In his report Dihydrogen Monoxide: The Unrecognized Killer, Nathan outlined all the alarming characteristics of the colorless, odorless, tasteless compound — DHMO for short — which kills thousands of Americans each year:

  • DHMO can cause severe burns both while in gas and solid form.
  • It is a major component of acid rain and often found in removed tumors of cancer patients.
  • DHMO accelerates corrosion of both natural elements and many metals.
  • Ingesting too much DHMO leads to excessive sweating and urination.
  • For everyone with a dependency on DHMO, withdrawal leads to death.

After giving his presentation, Nathan asked 50 fellow students what should be done. 43 — a staggering 86% — voted to ban DHMO from school grounds.

There was only one problem: Dihydrogen monoxide is water.

Every day, people use facts to deceive you because you let them.

Life is hard. We all get fooled six ways from Sunday. People lie to us, we miscommunicate, and it’s impossible to always correctly read other people’s feelings. But facts? If we let facts deceive us, that’s on us.

When it’s hard to be right, there is nothing wrong with being wrong. But when it only takes a few minutes or even seconds to verify, learn, and educate yourself, choosing to stay ignorant is really just that: A decision — and likely one for which you’ll get the bill sooner rather than later.

If you know a little Latin, Greek, or simply pay attention in chemistry class, the term “dihydrogen monoxide” is easy to deconstruct. “Di” means “two,” hydrogen is an element (H on the periodic table), “mono” means one and “oxide” means oxidized — an oxygen atom (O on the periodic table) has been added. Two hydrogens, once oxidized. Two Hs, one O. H2O. Water.

When Nathan ran his experiment “How Gullible Are We?” in 1997, people didn’t have smartphones. They did, however, go to chemistry class. Nathan’s classmates had parents working in the sector, and they all had chemistry books. They even could have asked their teacher: “What’s dihydrogen monoxide?” But none of them did.

In his final report, Nathan wrote he was shocked that so many of his friends were so easily fooled. “I don’t feel comfortable with the current level of understanding,” he said. James Glassman, who wrote about the incident in the Washington Post, even coined the term “Zohnerism” to describe someone using a fact to mislead people.

Today, we have smartphones. We have a library larger than Alexandria’s in our pocket and finding any page from any book takes mere seconds. Yet, we still get “zohnered” on a daily basis. We allow ourselves to be.

“Too much sugar is bad for you. Don’t eat any sugar.” Yes, too much sugar is bad, but the corollary isn’t to stop eating it altogether. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, and they’re all broken down into various forms of sugar. It’s a vital component of a functioning metabolism. Plus, each body has its own nuances, so cutting out sugar without more research could actually be bad for you. But if I’m selling a no-sugar diet, who cares, right?

You care. You should. And that’s why it’s your job to verify such claims. It’s easy to spin something correct in a way that sends you in whatever direction the manipulator wants to send you. The only solution is to work hard in order to not let yourself be manipulated:

  • Say “I don’t know” when you don’t know. I know it’s hard, but it’s the most liberating phrase in the world. Whenever you’re out of your comfort zone, practice. “Actually, I don’t know, let me look it up.”
  • Admit that you don’t know to yourself. You’ll miss some chances to say “I don’t know.” That’s okay, you can still educate yourself in private later. Your awareness of your ignorance is as important as fighting it.
  • Google everything. When you’re not 100% sure what a word means, google it. When you want to know where a word comes from, google it. When you know you used to know but are hazy on the details, google it. Seriously. Googling takes ten seconds. Google everything.
  • Learn about your biases. Hundreds of cognitive biases affect our thinking and decisions every waking second. Learning about them and occasionally brushing up on that knowledge will go a long way.
  • When someone argues for one side of a conflict, research both. Whether it’s a story in the news, a political issue, or even the issue of where to get lunch, don’t let yourself get clobbered into one corner. Yes, McDonald’s is cheap. Yes, you like their fries. But what about Burger King? What do you like and not like about both of them?
  • When someone talks in absolutes, add a question mark to every sentence. James Altucher often does this with his own thoughts, but it’s equally helpful in questioning the authority of others. Don’t think in absolutes. Think in questions.

The dihydrogen monoxide play has been used many times to point people at their own ignorance. A 1994 version created by Craig Jackson petitions people to “act now” before ending on a truthful yet tongue-in-cheek note: “What you don’t know can hurt you and others throughout the world.”

Richard Feynman received the Nobel prize in physics, but he started his journey as a curious boy, just like Nathan Zohner. Like Einstein, he believed inquisitiveness could solve any problem, and so he always spoke in simple terms — to get people interested in science.

He also said the following, which still rings true today: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

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Learn Touch Typing in 4 Minutes

Here’s some simple math: If you type 30 words per minute, then a 300-word email will take you 10 minutes to write. But if you can type twice as fast, you can crank it out in five. That’s a lot of minutes saved if you write a lot of emails — or do anything else that requires you to type words on a screen.

With all the productivity hacks out there for managing your time — simplifying your inbox, time blocking, optimizing your meetings — typing faster seems like the obvious, low-hanging fruit. But it’s fruit that many people aren’t reaching for. As the MIT Tech Review has noted, touch typing has fallen out of favor and many schools are no longer teaching it. You probably type at the same speed that you did when you were in high school, and you assume that it’s working out for you just fine.

Trust me, it’s not. Your slowness is costing you. Dearly. You just never realized it. You don’t see the person at the other end of your email typing at twice your speed and therefore getting more done. But that’s what’s happening. When it comes to small tasks at work, speed matters.

As the writer John McDermott laid out in Mel magazine, if you’re an average typist at 40 words per minute (WPM) and you write about 2,000 words per day — whether you’re writing code, messaging colleagues on Slack, posting Tweets and Instagram captions — then by increasing your speed to an above-average 70 WPM, you can save yourself four whole days a year.

How To Type Faster: Typing Speed
My typing stats. Screenshot via

A couple studies that emerged over the past five years suggest that two-finger typers — the so-called “hunt-and-peckers” — can work their way to similar typing speeds as 10-finger touch typers. But as puts it, “hopping from one key to the next with the same finger is almost like trying to pedal a bike with one leg.” You could learn how to do it pretty quickly, but you’ll never be as fast as if you placed both feet on both pedals.

Luckily, if you never learned how to type correctly, you can get the gist of touch typing in about four minutes. Here’s a graphic to explain how it works:

How To Type Faster: Touch Typing Diagram
Image via OnlineTyping

This simple, color-coded keyboard is at the heart of every touch typing class. Print it out and hang above your desk. Study it for a few minutes each day, and use it as a guide.

The idea is that each finger is responsible for one diagonal column on your keyboard, with the exception of your thumbs, which only cover the space bar, and your index fingers, which cover two columns each. Place your fingers on the keyboard. Your index fingers go on the F and J button — there are bumps on those keys to guide you — the others in a row alongside them. Try to only move up and down with each finger.

There are also plenty of free typing trainers online, like this one, which cover the basics and provide short practice lessons based on the diagram. And it helps to play a typing game for five to 10 minutes each day (in TypeRush, you can virtually race cars and boats against others — it’s fun). Test your typing speed weekly, track your best WPM out of three runs, and watch your accuracy and pace increase over time.

The reason why I’m writing about this seemingly basic skill is that most people won’t take the time to learn it. Why? First, as I mentioned, your current speed and system probably feels good enough to you.

Then, of course, there’s effort barrier. Like learning a language, typing is a skill that’s much easier to master when you’re young, and you may not be sure that the work of picking it up now is worth the reward.

Finally, learning touch typing will at first slow you down. Not everyone’s willing to make that temporary sacrifice.

But again, the math is simple. Another way to frame it: If you spend one hour a day typing, which is a conservative estimate, doubling your typing speed will save you 30 minutes every single day. So stick with the process, keep practicing, and follow the rules. The diagram might be coded in rainbow colors, but what lies at the end of it — more time — is better than gold.

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.

14 Life Lessons From and for a 28-Year-Old Cover

14 Life Lessons From and for a 28-Year-Old

The most memorable birthday wish I ever received was my dad’s in 2017:

“Stay as you are by changing every day.”

I’ve tried to heed this advice ever since, but it never seemed more relevant than today. 28 does feel different. At 27, I still thought of myself more as “a kid in his 20s” than “an almost-30-year-old.” But I don’t think it’s the numbers. They’ve never mattered to me all that much. I think it’s the experience.

In the past twelve months, cumulative growth has really kicked in. Personally, professionally, financially. I don’t feel like a greenhorn anymore, struggling to build a foundation. More like a survivor, sitting on a base plate made of concrete. Battered, but here to stay. Here to make a serious dent.

There’s much foolishness left in me, but it’s a lot less than it used to be. I now am, as Oscar Wilde said, “not young enough to know everything.” I am, however, old enough to realize I know very little, that it’ll always be very little, and that that’s okay. As I keep finding more dark spots on the map, I question which ones I need to shine a light on. If I really need to close all the gaps.

The following lessons have been 28 years in the making. They’re both from and for a 28-year-old. Reminders about which gaps to close and which ones to leave alone. Hang in there, kid. Stay tough. Keep surviving. Here’s to 28!

1. If it’s not easy to start, it’ll be hell to finish.

I believe in hard work. But I don’t believe in struggling just to struggle. All the best things in my life — work, hobbies, relationships — were easy to begin. Frictionless. But that’s why they felt worth enlarging, worth persisting through the difficult parts.

Writing, video editing, friends, girlfriends, fun carried me into them and grit carried me through. If that initial bit of fun is missing, however, that moment where you clench your teeth will never happen. It’ll just be pain all the way.

2. Less is room for more of what’s not there yet.

At 27, I would’ve thought I need 27 life lessons. At 28, I’m wondering if even 14 is too many. When I first explored minimalism, I loved the simplicity, the freedom, the feeling of less.

Eventually, though, I realized it’s not so much about what you subtract, but about what you make room for. Room to think. To add meaning by solving life’s big challenges one at a time. That’s where true equanimity lies. And whenever there’s no challenge, it’s still soothing to know you have this space.

3. The older you get, the slower you should decide.

At 28, my next year will only account for 3.6% of the entire time I’ve been alive. As their relative share gets smaller, we worry less about committing more years to singular causes as we get older. That’s a good thing, as long as you deliberately and slowly pick the right causes. But most people don’t.

They panic looking at an arbitrary number, like 30, or 40, or 50, and jump into huge obligations in an instant, not realizing how “quickly” they’ll find themselves wondering where they took a wrong turn ten years later.

If you’re 28 and haven’t found the right partner, wait longer. If you haven’t found the right job, sample more. And if you don’t like where and how you live, please, move. Don’t settle just yet. Step back. Think. Then decide.

4. Happiness is mostly about not being miserable.

For the last three times I was sick for more than two weeks, I can tell you exactly which source of stress caused my physical ailment. If you enjoy your work, money isn’t a big problem, and you keep your emotions in perspective, there’s quite little that can really throw you off your game.

I used to think I need to accomplish all these big things to be happy, but now I’ll gladly settle for not having to do things I don’t like. If you’re here for 30,000 days, 27,000 will be boring. Life’s about learning to love those days.

5. Deserve what you want and want what you have.

Besides overestimating how important it is to achieve our goals, we also tend to double-cross ourselves in trying to reach them. Instead of creating a moral contrast between who we are and who we should be to deserve what we want, we pretend we already are that person — and now we just need to wait.

In the quartet of being and having, now and in the future, we focus on the wrong ends: our now of being and our future of having. Flip that to what you have now and who you could be, and you’ll eliminate not just a lot of disappointment, and impatience, but the desire for many goals altogether.

6. The “next big thing” is still the internet.

A side effect of dreaming intensely about the future is missing the opportunities to create it with the tools you have available in the present.

The internet exists since 1990. If you were born in a 40-year-span around that, this is your shot. This whole web thing is 30 years old. New technologies take decades to fully reach the globe. Half the world isn’t even online.

Yet most people bank on VR, AR, AI, blockchain, and a dozen other trends, instead of leveraging the single-greatest tool that’s not just proven, but bound to stay. Don’t wait for the next big thing. It’s already here. Now’s the time.

7. Reinvent your industry by reassembling yourself.

Everyone wants to be a pioneer, but no one wants to let go of what’s working. Historically great companies have successfully disrupted and cannibalized themselves. Apple went from computers to music to phones to wearables. Netflix sacrificed DVDs for streaming and licenses for original content.

Reinventing yourself before you need to is hard, because in order to reassemble, you need to tear yourself apart. The good news is if you do it, it creates a positive, reinforcing cycle of humility. And the more success you rack up, the more important this becomes.

8. Money is a habit just like health, love & happiness.

I guess it takes making a lot of money in a short time to see, but a full bank account is the same as a fit body, a rewarding relationship, or an optimistic mind: it’s easy to lose if you’re not careful, but with the right habits, you can always get it back.

Again, I’m not sure how to show this, but I know it breeds a lot of confidence. It’s a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-card for our lifelong scarcity mindset with money.

9. Forget completion, make progress amidst chaos.

I only ever accomplish long-term goals by the date I initially want to when I set them and completely forget them. The more targeted my effort, the less likely I’ll be on point. It’s just human nature. We misjudge time all the time.

Therefore, focus on minimum stress, not maximum output. Manage your expectations, not your calendar. Track good-enough days, not just complete victories. Make progress amidst the chaos of life. Eventually, you’ll get there.

10. Low standards now beat high standards later.

Accounting for chaos means making room to fail. A low, but meaningful, achievable standard for today goes so much further than a high, powerful, challenging one for tomorrow. Or next week. Or the end of the year.

Do stuff. Do stuff. Do stuff. Then look around. Chances are, you’ll like what you see behind you. Gazing at the top of a mountain only exerts pressure.

11. If it’s not up to you, it’s up to you to change.

Since we control so little, most of our work should be done on the inside. Sometimes, it’s our attitude we need to change. Sometimes, our actions. But when the outside world won’t comply, we’ll always, always, need to update our perceptions.

Did you do everything right? Is this a slog to push through? Or is your tactic not working? What obvious aspect did you miss? “What can I change about myself here” is a question almost always worth asking.

12. Don’t hate anyone. Just don’t.

Will Smith is a big hero of mine. On Christmas, he said: “Love is help.” He also said that “everyone is having a hard time.” If that’s true, then peace is, at the very least, the absence of harm. And we all need peace of mind.

This means beyond not harming ourselves, we also can’t afford to harm one another. Life is short. And, until we offload it, our anger is our pain. I think the best we can do is skip it altogether. Ignore toxic people, share your frustration, get curious, do what you need to do, but make sure it leads to forgiveness.

13. Trust yourself first.

Because everyone is struggling, everything is chaos, and no one really knows what they’re doing, you might as well trust yourself. I know it’s a cliché, but he put it so succinctly, I always keep coming back to this Steve Jobs quote:

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”

More often than not, what we accept as given reality is only one of many possible outcomes. You can create your own options, but only if you run your own experiments. Your unique experience is the only data that matters.

14. The only person who can truly forgive you is you.

For every one thing you get right, ten others will go wrong. But everyone is busy fixing their own mistakes, so they won’t have time to hold your hand while you cry about yours.

Ultimately though, none of that matters, because you’re the only one who can grant yourself the power to continue. To move on and reject regrets. Think of it this way: you can survive everything except death. And that, none of us can.

I wonder how many lessons I’ll see when I’m 29. I hope less than 14. For now, this is all I’d like my 28-year-old self to know. If he comes back to this on occasion, I think he can stay who he is — and change every day.

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.


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