If You Want to Be Happy, Learn to Love the Little Things Cover

If You Want to Be Happy, Learn to Love the Little Things

I’ll never forget the day I got to drive my friend’s Ferrari. I had been staring at Ferrari posters in my bedroom since I was five, so it was a dream come true.

I’ll also never forget what he told me a few years later: “The car now means absolutely nothing to me. I’ve grown 100% used to it. It’s sad, isn’t it?” He sold it soon after that.

The only car I’ve ever owned was a first-generation BMW 1 Series. Here’s a picture from the day I picked it up:

For many people in Germany, even people my age — and even back then — a car like this was nothing special. But to me it was.

I still remember the unique government program that made it affordable, the sound of the handles when opening the doors, and the feel of the materials inside. I remember the whirring of the engine, the vibration of the tires rolling around a corner, and the click of the locks opening as I pressed the button on my remote control key.

It was always a good moment, approaching the car. I saw it standing there, always in the same corner of the square in front of our house, always ready for another adventure. I knew we were about to embark on a new journey together, and that made me happy. Would it be a short trip to the gas station? A long drive back to college? Whichever it was, I knew I had my Bavarian companion to rely on. Music on, sunroof open, gears falling into place.

I only owned that car for two years, but I never got tired of it. I always enjoyed climbing into the driver’s seat once again. How can one person grow completely indifferent to a Ferrari, while another cherishes every second with their tiny BMW? “Well, you’re a car nut, Nik! It’s easy for you to enjoy any car,” you might say, and to that I can only respond, “You’re probably right.”

Then again, I’ve had that same, joyously-approaching-the-car-feeling many times since selling my BMW — and that was ten years ago. Therefore, I have a theory: I think I’ve learned to love the little things.


Every morning, I step inside the small, Middle Eastern café across the street. Beneath cannolis in a glass display, the counter bends and stretches towards the far end of the restaurant. Wooden chairs and tables rest amidst a sea of green. Plants on the wall, plants on the ceiling, plants on the floor. The king of this urban jungle casually leans against the counter. “Good morning! What can I do for you?” the manager asks. “One cappuccino to go, please!”

Then, the magic begins. Their device is no mere coffee maker. It’s a whole apparatus of alchemistic instruments; an Italian portafilter — the Ferrari of coffee machines. Dynamic displays show temperature and pressure. The coffee is ground on the spot, the milk freshly steamed. After a complex series of physical and chemical micro-processes, the prized brown liquid drips into a biodegradable cup. It may as well be gold. Without having to ask, the manager puts chocolate powder on top. “Here you go!”

£3.20 is an insane amount for a tiny cup of coffee. That’s $4.37. Or 3.83€. A few months ago, it was £3.00. That’s a near-7% increase. Then again, coffee beans now cost twice as much as they did a year ago. I guess 7% is not so bad.

There’s so much fortune in this interaction: My girlfriend living in a nice area with a nice restaurant across the street, the manager of which happens to know how to make the perfect blend of milk and coffee. Me being able to afford £3.00 a day for such a treat and not even needing to worry about a 7% price increase. Of course, we worked hard to get here, but just because you deserve something does not mean it’s not worth pointing out.

In fact, the longer you can appreciate something long after you’ve earned it, the happier you’ll be. Thankfully, the smell of great coffee never gets old.


Ding! “9th floor,” the robotic, female voice announces. Fresh, warm cappuccino in hand, I make my way to the rooftop garden.

Behind a glass door lies a beautiful maze of stone, wood, grass, earth, and plants. It’s not a huge space. A few shaded benches, a small patch of green, and a rectangular walkway that goes all around — but dropped into the middle of what feels like a roundtable discussion among a dozen high-rise buildings, it’s nothing short of a sanctuary.

London isn’t exactly known as the world’s tanning bed, so whenever the weather doesn’t look too much like Game of Thrones, I go to the rooftop for all of five minutes before starting my day. When the sun is out, I just stand there, shamelessly absorbing my dose of rays. When it’s a bit foggy, I test how far I can see. In the distance, Canary Wharf, London’s finance hub, presents me with its best LA impression. Seagulls are scanning the rooftops for scraps.

Inside their glass boxes, people type, stitch, and talk. They fold, pace, and file away. Around me are hundreds of apartments, home to thousands of people. The garden connects two 20-story buildings — yet none of their inhabitants are here. Nine out of ten times, I’m alone on the rooftop.

“Where is everybody?” I wonder. Are they too busy for five minutes of beauty? Do they even know this garden exists? “I can always go there” is the death of every local. After all, how local will you truly have been if you were always physically present but never truly there?

It’s a fascinating thing, this temple in such a secular place — self-evident to those who can access it but rarely do, yet almost certainly a miracle to those who’ve never known the splendor of modern metropolitan compounds.

I sip on my cappuccino. Three more deep breaths. Ahh! Okay, time to go back inside.


If you want to be happy, learn to love the little things. If you want to love the little things, understand the following:

Gratitude is not a creativity exercise. It’s a gratitude exercise. You don’t need a new thing to be grateful for each day. In fact, the more you realize it’s the same things, over and over again, that make you feel warm, sheltered, and loved, the easier it’ll be to savor those things — and find true, lasting contentment in them.

Hedonic adaptation is the treadmill that adjusts its speed to keep us running after happiness without ever catching it. Making a habit of loving the little things is how you step off, step outside, and marvel at everything life has to offer, allowing you to come to just one conclusion:

You don’t need anything more than what you already have — because the little things are, actually, the biggest things of all.

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.

12 Lasting Personal Values for an Uncertain World Cover

12 Lasting Values For an Uncertain World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Calmness

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

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

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

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

2. Rationality

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

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

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

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

3. Commitment

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

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

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

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

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

4. Restraint

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

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

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

5. Humility

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

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

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

6. Vulnerability

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

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

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

7. Patience

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

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

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

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

8. Empathy

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

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

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

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

9. Compassion

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

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

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

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

10. Acceptance

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

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

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

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

11. Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. Love

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choose to See Projects, Not Problems Cover

Choose to See Projects, Not Problems

She was in her 50s, I think. A lady with red hair, seated across the aisle. For a brief moment in time, about 45 minutes, we shared the same destination — and thus the same train.

Except for her fiery mane, nothing hinted at her remarkable energy. She was plain and rather sturdy. But as soon as she talked, you knew she was fierce.

Unfortunately, she dedicated all of that ferocity to raising complaints, none of which her friend was in any capacity to solve. They might have been nurses; granted, a tough work environment by any measure. But the way she spoke of her workplace, it felt like a place wholly without solutions. Just problems.

“He promised he’d give us more people, but then he broke his word last-minute.”

“They can’t change the rules like that, that reporting policy is ridiculous.”

In many countries, mine included, being a nurse is a tough, underpaid job. There’s much to improve, no doubt. But in blowing off steam for the entire train ride, the redheaded caretaker fundamentally neglected her job: She merely exhausted both herself and her friend.

Often, venting is our habit of last resort. We feel helpless. As if we’ve tried everything. Like there’s nothing else left we can do. Of course, that’s never quite the case. There’s always something else we can do.

But, sometimes, we’re too close to the to-do list to see it. Sometimes, we have to take a step back — a step up, even — and find a new perspective.


Heidi Hetzer was a German entrepreneur, rally driver, and a symbol of empowerment. Long after her company was sold, her career done and dusted, she set off on a trip around the world — at age 77, in a car older than herself.

Source

For nearly three years, she ventured around the globe. She blew through not just two co-drivers, but countless breakdowns, customs issues, and language barriers. She also survived an accident in which she lost two fingers, her cancer diagnosis, and several robberies and threats.

As a result, she saw dozens of countries, connected with hundreds of people, and inspired thousands more. She had the time of her life. And at 81, she did it all again. After her passing on Easter Sunday, her final Instagram post reads: “I live no longer, but I have lived.”

The gap between Heidi Hetzer and the lady on the train is not a physical one. It’s not genetic and it does not depend on their financial background.

Heidi Hetzer had a growth mindset. The nurse’s point of view was fixed.

Whatever situation in life you look at, this distinction makes all the difference.


From 1980 to 1984, John McEnroe was the #1 tennis player in the world. He was also arrogant, entitled, and angry. His outbreaks on the court made half the show. He’d often yell at organizers over minuscule details, only for them to make the changes and then apologize to him.

“This is what it was like to be number one,” he says in his autobiography. In Mindset, researcher Carol Dweck examines his case further:

He goes on to tell us about how he once threw up all over a dignified Japanese lady who was hosting him. The next day she bowed, apologized to him, and presented him with a gift.

“This,” McEnroe proclaims, “is also what it was like to be number one.”

“Everything was about you… ‘Did you get everything you need? Is everything okay? We’ll pay you this, we’ll do that, we’ll kiss your behind.’ You only have to do what you want; your reaction to anything else is, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ For a long time I didn’t mind it a bit. Would you?”

As the saying goes, “better late than never,” but McEnroe’s insight sure would’ve been more useful back in 1980. Contrast that with Michael Jordan, an athlete known for his die-hard work ethic, and the the first billionaire basketball player in history. Dweck again:

“When Jordan was cut from the varsity team, he was devastated. His mother says, “I told him to go back and discipline himself.” Boy, did he listen. He used to leave the house at six in the morning to go practice before school. At the University of North Carolina, he constantly worked on his weaknesses — his defensive game and his ball handling and shooting. The coach was taken aback by his willingness to work harder than anyone else. Once, after the team lost the last game of the season, Jordan went and practiced his shots for hours. He was preparing for the next year.”

The difference between a fixed and a growth mindset is like the difference between success and failure, between winning and losing, between creation and waste: first and foremost, it’s a matter of perspective.

A fixed mindset will hold talent over everything. Whatever goes wrong, it’s genetic, it’s external, it’s permanent, everyone else’s fault, and can’t be changed. With such a worldview, anyone would try to look smart, avoid difficult situations, and seek approval rather than attempt to win big.

A growth mindset, however, is hell-bent on internalizing your locus of control. It insists that life happens for you, not to you. Therefore, even the bad stuff serves a purpose — and it is yours to turn into a stepping stone to some bigger thing. In this mindset, what goes wrong is just a detour, a distraction, a temporary setback you can handle. The only question is what you’ll try next.

If you have a fixed mindset, it may not feel like it, but, by definition, which of these two lenses you select is a choice. However, that choice is made one day, one habit, one small action at a time.

The best of those actions I found comes from a little farm in France.


After graduating college, Hannah and her boyfriend worked for a farmer in Europe. His name was Emmanuel. One day, this happened:

He took us to the greenhouse and showed us spots of brown mold that had begun creeping over the leaves on the tomato plants. “Ze tomatoes get sick sometimes,” he said. “It’s a big…how do you say…a big pr…”

“A problem?” I suggested in my mind, assuming that was the word he was looking for.

But then Emmanuel smiled and said, “Ah, project. It’s a big project.”

This slight change of language can lead to a profound shift in your trajectory. It might be just two words, but one leads to a fixed mindset, the other looks for growth and opportunity.

A project is a challenge. Something you can choose to tackle or not. A problem is a nuisance. Something you need to “make go away.” It’s not optional.

A project offers multiple angles from the start. A problem is a thorn in your thigh: before you can do anything, you have to talk yourself into even trying to pull it out.

A project is a game. It has levels. You’ll immediately look for milestones and ways to leverage what you already know. A problem is game over. You’ve already lost. You feel like you’re at square one, and so that’s where you start. You’re not considering your assets.

A project has stakeholders. There are several parties involved and if you get it right, everyone wins. A problem is yours and yours alone. “Oh no, why me?” It brings out your ego and makes you self-centered.

Completing a project allows you to advance. Resolving a problem only gets you back to zero.

Every time you want to say ‘problem,’ say ‘project’ instead.

Replacing this one word could change your whole life.


My unintentional travel companion came from a hospital full of problems. Heidi Hetzer lived a life made of projects. Two women, two perspectives.

No one loves to lose money on a business idea or enjoys the woes of chronic back pain. But it takes an open mind to deal with such setbacks.

Who would you rather be on the court? A furious McEnroe, who’s angry at an environment he can’t change, or a determined Jordan, who’ll settle for his best effort, nothing more, nothing less?

The best people I know aren’t those with the most success, they’re those with the most meaningful journeys. Not all of this meaning can be found inside ourselves, but what’s on the outside largely depends on your point of view.

If you look at the world like a game of Tetris, you can spot projects everywhere, choose the ones you care about, and then make the pieces fit. If you insist it’s a labyrinth someone else designed, you’ll constantly feel lost.

You can’t always pick who you sit next to on the train, but you can decide if that person’s a friend or a stranger. You can’t win every match, but you can decide what the loss means. You can choose to see problems or you can choose to see projects.

It’s up to you to make up your mind, but until you do, let the train be the one to blow off some steam.

College Library Career Cover

I Spent My 20s in College Libraries and Came Out With a Career

I’d love to tell you that, to me, the library has always been a magical place – but it wasn’t.

Having grown up in a pile of books in a home where the walls were already lined with literature, library visits were rare and, often, disappointing. Our local, small-town book collection didn’t feel as refined as the one we had at home and due to funding issues, the place itself always seemed to teeter on the brink of foreclosure.

Today, you can get most books rather cheaply right from your couch, but there are still many reasons to go to the library beyond selection and price. Sadly, I never found those reasons when I was younger.

But when I started college, all of that changed. I’ve spent the majority of my 20s in campus libraries and, to this day, they’re the only kind of office I know. As it turns out, the library is more than a place of knowledge and wonder.

If you want to shape, even invent your own career, it’s a factory of dreams.


I had known I wanted to be an entrepreneur long before college, but I had no idea how to make that fantasy come true and no one close to me who did. And while it may not seem like the most logical next step, eventually, going to college taught me exactly what I needed to know.

Not the professors or the books or even the friends I found there, but the time I spent at the libraries of my academic stations. Each seemed to have its own theme, but they all welcomed me while I was figuring out yet another challenge in my quest for meaningful self-employment.

Here’s a short chronology of the ones that caused the biggest impact.

Source

The library at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology is open 24/7/365. It has over 800 work stations on three vast floors, a live feed of how many spaces are currently available, and a fully automated lend-and-return system. It is a testament to German efficiency as much as it is a breeding ground for workplace camaraderie.

My first-semester friends and I all joked about who could possibly be studying at 2 AM on a Saturday until, a few weeks later, we were. And even though no one seemed to make the choice voluntarily, everyone was always there, committed to not give up before even the first round of exams. Sometimes, the only comfort you need when you’re struggling is knowing you’re not struggling alone.

When you’re trying to understand complex algorithms, the basics of macroeconomics, or the behavior of liquid bodies, most of the answers you seek won’t be in books but in the people around you, studying those same topics. At the college library, there’s always someone you can ask. Someone slightly ahead of you, with just enough margin to remember what they needed to hear for things to click into place.

By the third semester, most of us had passed the initial terror of uncharted waters and with our library radius, so expanded our understanding of not just these college institutions, but our place inside them. We explored the math branch, the chemistry branch, the informatics branch, and with them the dynamics of each of these somewhat specialized working environments.

We made the library our office of choice, and with that we developed a sense of awareness of how we work.

You can’t professionalize your visits to the library without optimizing your own behavior, and so analyzing visitor traffic, break times, and the energy levels of those working around us ultimately not just made our time among textbooks a more pleasant experience, but also a more productive one.

Before I could build things, I had to figure out how to get things done. How I could get things done. When I work in teams. When I work alone. Whether I’m under pressure, or whether no one holds me accountable but myself.

The workload of those first few semesters may have provided the fabric of personal productivity, but the library was where I could sit down, pick up a pair of needles, and knit it into a methodology that works.

Source

The Claire T. Carney Library on the UMASS Dartmouth campus is a winding maze of glass, concrete, and bright yellow lights. Lined with red carpets and chairs, the color contrast makes for a fine, common thread. A guide not just to its many differently themed work areas, but to your own thinking process.

I studied abroad in my fifth and sixth semester and it was then and there that part of my desire to start something turned into regret about not having started anything already. As a result, the time I spent at the library was a time of intense brainstorming; a time full of ideas. My Bachelor’s program was coming to an end. I needed a plan and I needed it fast.

Academic culture in America is more encouraging to self-starters than its German counterpart. The bustling energy of student groups solving problems — often real-world problems — through fruitful discussions was just the vibe I needed to grow the seed I was cultivating into something that would soon push me over the edge. It was refreshing to see people go to the library not only to read or study or do assignments, but to lay the foundation of what might become their career and ask important questions about their future.

Even more so than great sounding boards and encouragement, though, what I found in that space was the comfort to dare ask these questions myself.

One of the many potential answers I tossed around in my head back then was to become a writer. Guess what I am today.

Source

Mannheim’s humanities library branch truly offers room to think. The large, centered stairway with its modern, airy design counts over 100 steps across three floors. Little desks fan out left and right while the book shelves are neatly tucked away into the hall’s giant wings.

You can truly feel everything being ‘under one roof’ and even though I was only a guest there for about a year, I still found you could carve out your own space. I was trying to make self-employment work during a two-year college break and the modern, somewhat cold architecture added to the isolation I felt, probably needed.

I was an antibody among students and yet we were flailing all the same. Like the lockers in the lobby, the bathrooms on various floors, and the tables with PCs and without, everything was optional, but, without decisions and discipline, wouldn’t amount to a thing. Here, I learned to do things the hard way even when I didn’t have to, because great careers don’t fall from the sky.

I chose the locker on the bottom, the seat on the top floor, the bathroom in the basement and, with those things, the path of the lonely freelancer over that of the comfortable employee.


When you say ‘library,’ you might think of a place hosting leathery covers, stacks of old classics, and a neat filing system. To me, that place is home.

When I say ‘library,’ I think of wide, open spaces full of desks, rattling keyboards breaking the silence, and textbooks. I think of colleges around the world, of fun times, of shared times, of good times and of hard times. I think back to the stages of my career, and I think about what each of those stages meant.

When I remember the fact that I spent most of my 20s tucked between books and bathrooms, between people and PCs, between knowledge and work —I smile. The library — the institution, not the building — is my universal staple of meaningful work.

Even if it’s the only office I’ll ever know, from now on, it’ll be a magical place.

Digital Nomad Cover

Digital Settler: The Healthy Alternative to Being a Digital Nomad

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

— Joel Salatin

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

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

The New American Dream

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

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

My view from the Marriott Waikiki Beach. Jealous already?

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

What’s the Opposite of a Digital Nomad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being a Digital Settler: An Unexpected Source of Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

6 Unwritten Social Rules Everyone Should Know Cover

6 Unwritten Social Rules Everyone Should Know

When you drive into Area 51, past the sign that says “Restricted Area,” you know what rules you’re violating. You’re trespassing on secret government property, you can be searched, photos are forbidden and boy, you better not launch any drones.

But there’s also a set of unwritten rules of Area 51. Nobody knows exactly what they are, but they’re what leads to all the rumors and myths surrounding the place.

  • Will you never come back?
  • Will you come back, but not be the same?
  • Can you ever talk about what happened?

Every place on this earth is like Area 51. There are rules, written and unwritten, and they depend on the time, the people, the country, the culture, the politics, and a whole lot of other values.

Following these rules as best as you can is less a sign of being a blind follower than it is a gesture of respect for others. Adapting can be a way of being kind. That said, sometimes you can also lead by making your own social rules and hoping others will follow.

  • When you enter a quiet room, be quiet. When you enter a lively room, be lively. Read the room.
  • When your opposite is talking to you, don’t use your phone. Don’t even touch it. When your opposite is on their phone, don’t be on your phone also. Maybe you can bring them back.
  • When people pass you in the street, acknowledge them. Look, nod, be part of the world. Don’t stare at the ground. Don’t be an antibody.
  • When you love someone, don’t tell them all the time. Just show them. Look at them, be attentive, listen. They’ll understand, even without words.
  • When you disagree with someone, ask: “Does it really matter that I disagree with them?” Is it worth starting a fight? Most of the time, it’s not.
  • When you can help people without really going out of your way, do it. Including, but not limited to, holding doors, standing up and giving exact change.

These are some of the ones I try to follow. So far, I haven’t ended up in Area 51.