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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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.”

Hemingway Writing Tricks Cover

Hemingway’s 2 Best Writing Tricks

It might be Hemingway’s most famous piece of writing advice: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Unfortunately, people always leave out the part that matters most. Here’s the full passage:

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

Without the throwing-orange-peel-into-the-fire part, we can’t understand Hemingway’s advice. That was his one true sentence, the sentence that led to the one we all quote today.

Ironically, the situation it describes is quite the opposite of how Hemingway’s brilliant quip makes him look: Ernest Hemingway suffered from writer’s block. Thank God.

It was the only thing he knew to be true at the time: When I have writer’s block, I toss fruit into a fire. So that’s where he began.

Without realizing it, long before any scientist had ever researched the topic, Ernest Hemingway had made a great discovery: If you want your habits to stick, make them ridiculously small.


“We do not rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems,” James Clear writes in his million-copy bestseller, Atomic Habits.

In the 21st century, we know a lot about habits. We know they’re automatic behaviors that help our brains conserve energy. We know they follow set patterns and that, if we adjust those patterns, we can make them work for us rather than against us.

“It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write,” Steven Pressfield says.

Let me guess: 90% of your procrastination happens when you’re supposed to start writing or when you’re supposed to finish.

That’s why Hemingway’s advice is so brilliant: It allows us to start without pressure.

If Ernest freakin’ Hemingway gave himself permission to start with one measly sentence, why don’t we?

Do we think we’re better than Ernest Hemingway? That we should have higher expectations? If one sentence will do for the master, it should definitely do for us.

Just imagine that, for 30 days in a row, you would write down the truest sentence that you know. The result would be impressive. Sure, you’d take a while each day to think about your sentence, but you’d end up with good quotes, starting points for new articles, and a bunch of solid ideas.

You would also — most likely — have more than just 30 sentences. That’s the power of starting small — and a law that goes back to Isaac Newton: Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

James Clear has wrapped this idea into a simple concept he dubbed the 2-Minute Rule:

“To overcome procrastination, find a way to start your task in less than two minutes.”

If your daily goal is small to the point of being ridiculous, your ego will guilt-trip you into achieving it. “Write one tweet? Write 100 words? Write one true sentence? A monkey can do that! Let me get right to it.”

Ahh, the beauty of tricking yourself on purpose.


When a fellow author asked him for advice about leaving a legacy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby, simply replied: “When I was young, I asked myself that question everyday. Now, I ask myself, ‘Can I write one good sentence?’”

Focusing on one sentence a day is the ultimate antidote to overwhelm. There’s no time to worry about the height of the mountain when you’re looking at the ground to take your next step.

Fun fact: Hemingway and Fitzgerald had the same editor. Coincidence? I think not.

What’s also not a coincidence is that Hemingway used another, similar trick to both write better endings and have even more inspiration to sit down and write each day. In his own words, he always “left something in the well:”

I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it. I always worked until I had something done, and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.

To end a writing session, stop when you know what comes next.

It doesn’t have to be a half sentence. It can be a half paragraph, an unfinished dialog, or a new character’s first action after they enter the scene.

Whatever you do, leave something in the well. Don’t burn yourself out completely each day.

Have the courage to walk away while you’re winning so you can get back to winning the next day.

Hemingway’s well will train you to remember your best ideas. You’ll also come up with new ones. Who knows how you might finish that line the next day?

Most importantly, it’ll teach you to trust yourself.

Creativity is not a bookshelf. You don’t take off all your ideas, and then you run out. You can tap into your subconscious whenever, wherever. The shelf is never empty. Behind the scenes, the gears are always working.

Creativity is like a river. You can walk to any part of it, at any point in time, and fetch a cup of water.

When push comes to shove, when you stare at the blank page and don’t know what to do, remember Hemingway’s advice: All you have to do is write one true sentence. And you don’t even have to finish it.

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How to End an Email: Which Sign-Off Most Likely Leads to a Response?

For all the energy you put into your mails, you’re neglecting the one element that’s most crucial in determining whether you’ll receive a reply: the ending.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

You’ve spent hours deliberating over your email subject line and its content. Will this word get them to open my message? Am I rambling? How can I get my request across in the most concise and considerate way?

You’ve worried about the first sentence, the second, and you’ve re-written both of them a dozen times. And then? Then you hit ‘Send’ without spending one thought on which words your recipient will read right before they decide if they’ll respond or not.

It’s easy to understand why your email’s subject line is all-important: If it doesn’t get the receiver to open your message, all hope is lost. Similarly, it’s clear that if you waste the first few seconds of someone’s attention, they won’t give you any more of it. What’s less obvious but also true is that if your email leaves a bad taste in someone’s mouth at the end, that person won’t reply.

Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman found evidence across several studies for something he dubbed “the peak-end rule.” The peak-end rule suggests we judge and remember experiences mostly based on how they feel at their most intense moments and right before they end.

If you’ve ever gone to a great party only to have the night ruined by someone spilling their drink over you just before you left, you know this is true. Chances are, you still remember it as “a bad night,” even if everything leading up to the last-minute mishap was perfect. The peak-end rule affects all of us, all the time, and so a good rule for closing your emails is this: Don’t spill your drink on people’s shoes before you leave.

This isn’t to say you’re actively killing people’s vibe in your sign-offs. You likely don’t end your emails with, “So long, sucker!” (if you do, please stop.) But are you doing your best to not just not ruin people’s day but make it better and increase your chances of getting a response in the process? Probably not. You might even have a generic signature that attaches “Best,” or “Regards” without you even choosing a particular sign-off phrase for any given email — and it torpedoes your response probability for every email you send.

In 2017, the company behind the Boomerang plugin for Gmail analyzed 350,000 email closings. They found the following three phrases most increased the likelihood of a response, somewhere from 22% to 38% when compared to the baseline:

  1. “Thanks in advance” (65.7% absolute response rate)
  2. “Thanks” (63% absolute response rate)
  3. “Thank you” (57.9% absolute response rate)

Gratitude. Who would’ve thought? Adam Grant, author of Give and Take and psychology professor at Wharton, concluded in a 2010 study: “Gratitude expressions increase prosocial behavior by enabling individuals to feel socially valued,” which is a fancy way of saying what the title of the study suggests: a little thanks goes a long way.

In the experiment, college students received an email asking them for help with a cover letter, some of which ended on “Thank you so much!” while others didn’t. More than twice as many people offered support when gratitude was expressed in advance. This may seem like common sense, but, apparently, we’re often lacking it when closing our emails.

In Boomerang’s study, phrases that didn’t perform so well in eliciting a response were “Cheers,” “Kind regards,” “Regards,” “Best regards,” and — ironically worst of all — “Best.” While you may not want to lean on “Thanks in advance” too much — it’s a bit presumptuous and can feel passive-aggressive, a simple “Thanks” will get most people to respond to your emails.

Don’t waste your effort building beautiful digital paper planes by skimping on the last few characters before they reach the finish line. Think about how you end your emails. Last words matter, even here — and, often, a simple “Thanks” will do.

One Good Sentence Cover

Can You Write One Good Sentence?

In the early 20th century, the most important man in the world of American literature wasn’t an author. His name was Maxwell Perkins.

Perkins was an editor at Scribner, a publishing house in New York City. In 1919, he signed a young, unknown author, making a big bet on aspiring talent against the will of his seniors at the company. The author he signed was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who would go on to write and publish The Great Gatsby in cooperation with Perkins.

One year after Gatsby, which wouldn’t sell well for the next 15 years, Perkins met and signed another author of questionable status: Ernest Hemingway. After the two books they worked on together — The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms — found commercial successes, Perkins became the most sought after editor in the country.

The 2016 movie Genius tells the story of Perkins and another prodigious discovery of his: Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe was the son Perkins, who had five daughters, always longed for. He was poetic, passionate, and notoriously incapable of cutting a single word from his flowery prose. In other words, he was a writer through and through.

As an editor, one of Perkins’ main responsibilities was to cut the inessential. He did so for all of his writers but for none more than Wolfe. His first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, went from 294,000 words to 234,000 under Perkins’ guidance — and it sold like hotcakes. Taking the feedback of “write more” a bit too literally, Wolfe turned around and produced another manuscript: The 5,000-page draft for Of Time and the River, which him and Perkins fought over for two years before it finally saw the light of day.

Then, despite the book’s success, a trauma befell Wolfe that catches every writer at some point: Wolfe got writer’s block. For months, he was unable to put pen to paper. Eventually, he took a long, solo trip all the way to California, where, among other things, he visited Fitzgerald. I doubt the scene played out as depicted in the movie, but the advice he gave Wolfe — no doubt inspired by Perkins’ dedication as an editor — is priceless nonetheless:

Thomas Wolfe: “More and more I trouble myself with that, the legacy. Will anyone care about Thomas Wolfe in 100 years? 10 years?”

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “When I was young, I asked myself that question everyday. Now, I ask myself, ‘Can I write one good sentence?’”

For any writer, there are more ifs and thens and whats and whens to obsess over than hours in the day. What if no one cares about my idea? Will the book sell once it’s out? When can I make a living from my craft? What does it all amount to? Will I leave behind a legacy? There is no quicker way to obliterate your ability to chain words together than to hop on this never-ending merry-go-round of hypotheticals.

Instead, as Perkins drilled into his authors when fighting with them over every word, as Fitzgerald finally realized after years of failure, dedicate your obsession to the micro. Forget the book, the chapter, even the page and the very next paragraph. Ask one question and one question alone. The only question that matters: Can I write one good sentence?

Even if the encounter was fictional, even if Fitzgerald never said these words, there’s a high chance he had internalized them regardless. How do I know? Well, the other grand disciple of Perkins, Hemingway, left us with the exact same advice. It’s a famous line that’s been quoted countless times: “Write the truest sentence that you know.”

What did this mean for Hemingway? He explains it to us in the paragraph the quote is from — the majority of which most quoters omit:

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

As Nick Wignall notes, it is the throwing-orange-peel-into-the-fire part that is most crucial to understanding the advice. “That was his one true sentence that lead to his now famous ‘Write one true sentence’ quote,” Wignall writes. It was the only thing he knew to be true at the time: When I have writer’s block, I toss fruit into a fire. So that’s where he began.

Your next, first, final sentence being true is all nice and well, but, going back to Fitzgerald’s version of the tip, we now must ask: Is it also a good sentence?

Undoubtedly, Hemingway’s messy eating habits meet those criteria. There’s color, there’s fruit, there’s fire. Fire is dangerous. Fruit is a symbol of life. The colors change, and so does the situation. Feeding orange peel to the flames is not an everyday occurrence. See how many more metaphors we already extracted from this one line? You can imagine the scene as funny — an enraged Hemingway hurling oranges into his fireplace — or deeply thoughtful — the mindless flick of a finger causes a blue spark and loud crackle as Hemingway turns back to his desk. That is one heck of a sentence. Did Hemingway know when he wrote it? Doubtful. But he trusted the truth, and he deliberated on it long enough to stick with his decision — and that made all the difference.

Unfortunately for Wolfe, he never got to practice the advice he received from Fitzgerald. Weeks after his visit, he died of tuberculosis at just 37 years old. He did, however, leave behind a legacy — and a letter to his former editor, Maxwell Perkins:

I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that Fourth of July day three years ago, when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the cafe on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building, and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below.

Now that’s a good sentence. I think you should write one.

Creativity & Breathing Cover

To Stay Creative, Remember to Breathe

“I sometimes disappear for weeks or even months at a time. When I do this, I’m not abandoning my work or being lazy. I’m just trying to breathe.”

So writes Matthew Inman, creator of the web comic The Oatmeal, in a post titled Creativity is like breathing. To explain the analogy, Inman writes: “When you make stuff, you’re exhaling. But you can’t exhale forever. Eventually, you have to breathe in. Or you’ll be dead.”

That’s why Inman spends lots of time reading books, being outdoors, and jumping from project to project, he says. They’re all forms of breathing, and they don’t just make him better at his job, they’re also reasons why he loves his job. It’s the beauty of being a creative: Everything you do is fuel for your work.

When your job is to make things, your whole life is your canvas. You can have a brilliant idea over a bowl of cereal, write about what happened on vacation, even the bad stuff, like going through a breakup, you can work into your creative output. In fact, you’ll both have to and want to.

Whatever happens in your life impacts your emotions, your thoughts, and, as a result, what the outcome looks like when you put those thoughts and emotions on paper — or any other medium. Why do you think I just used “a bowl of cereal” as an example? It’s because, for the past two days, I’ve been staring at a comic called The Oatmeal. That’s how the human mind works.

While there’s nothing you can do about your intelligence running under the influence of many biases, you likely won’t mind once you realize there’s an active benefit on top of this more passive dynamic when creating: You consciously get to work through the events in your life. Writing about a positive experience makes it better. Sharing your business failure on a podcast mellows the pain.

Soon, you’ll process your whole life in real-time through the lens of creativity — and it’s one of the most powerful forms of self-healing there is. You’ll constantly learn, evolve, and challenge yourself to accept your past by creating something others can use in the future. As wonderful as it is to find this kind of outlet, there’s a downside: Your work can become addicting.

When everything is input, it’s natural to consistently want to form output. You’ll feel like you should shape and release all your experiences and ideas, which, of course, is impossible. What’s more, not all input is created equal. Some stories will have more value to your audience than others. This is another, less appealing part of the artist’s job: You have to curate your work and select what’s most worth sharing. This is where it helps “to breathe.”

As Zat Rana put it in The Philosophical Argument for Working Less, part of respecting your work is accepting that it’s “just one part of life, not the whole thing:”

Even if you love your work more than you love anything else, you are likely to find it more complete and fulfilling if you step away from it, time to time.

Eventually, you have to breathe in — or you’ll be dead. If you’ve ever hit creator’s block after a long stretch of releasing a lot of work, you may have realized: It’s not that you can’t publish daily, it’s that your posts start to feel stale. You’re panting. Short, choppy breaths, out, out, out. You need time to breathe in — literally, and then figuratively. Beyond our own desire to insta-journal about our lives, there’s also a component of societal pressure, Zat says:

There seems to be a certain guilt in our current culture associated with just taking time to do nothing, to relax, to leisure, to waste time, and to simply have no plans. But the truth is that, without these things, you are not going to get the most out of your work anyway.

When you feel tired, sleep. When you lack good analogies, watch a movie. Don’t feel bad about taking a vacation from time to time. Leisure creates its own form of productivity. If you allow your experiences to ripen, more of them will mix. Your subconscious will add its own kind of seasoning, and, soon, it’ll send a powerful insight back to the surface.

Once that great idea strikes like lightning, you won’t be able to not act on it. A breath of truly fresh air is so empowering, you’ll have to direct it somewhere. Well-rested and fired up, you’ll rush back to your chair, ready to put out the next comic. Who knows what brilliant metaphor you’ll write about. Maybe something like, “Creativity is like breathing.”

What's Your Best Thought Today? Cover

What’s Your Best Thought Today?

What’s your best thought today? You should write it down. Maybe not for the world but definitely for yourself.

You can put it in a diary. Or on Twitter. You can flesh it out and turn it into an article. Scribble it on a scrap of paper. Put it in a jar. 30 days, 60 days, 365 days later, take it out and look it over. You can remember. You can ask questions.

Is it still a good thought? Is it worth thinking again? Has it served its purpose? Did it help you through a bad day? Was it one of your best insights? Or one of your worst? Did the thought accompany you all this time? Has it stuck with you? Or does it feel like a distant dream?

It could be a simple thought. “I’m okay.” “Coffee is delicious.” “Don’t argue when you’re hungry.”

Maybe, it’s a deep one. “I hate cycling because I fell when I was nine.” “I’m still in love with him.” “I’m more afraid of success than failure.”

Sometimes, it’s an idea. “Coffee should taste like chocolate.” “Can I use my phone to make a TV show?” “What if umbrellas were less clunky?”

One thought. One thought can change everything.

If you feel ambitious, or if you want to change not just yourself but the world, you should share it. You can take your time. Work up the courage. At first, no one will see it. Then, a few people will. Eventually, a few more, until you have a captive audience.

What if they had the same thought? What if they go back to their jar, pull out a note, and read the same sentence? Suddenly, you’re connected. Two humans, one thought. That could change everything.

10,000. 50,000. 100,000. No one really knows, but you have a lot of thoughts each day. What is your best one? Think! You just need one thought to help mold your future.

Write it down. Record it. Type it. Pin it. You might not remember it tomorrow. You might never look at it again. You won’t notice a difference next week or even six months from now. But eventually, you will.

You’ll look back through your pile of one-liners. You’ll stand under a waterfall of ideas. Some will hit hard. Some will feel refreshing. Others will roll off your shoulders.

“Oh, that’s where my belief came from. That’s why I did this thing.” You’ll understand. Think. Reflect. Act. You’ll curate your curated thoughts.

One day, you’ll wake up, and life will never be the same. It didn’t feel like it when you started, but then you’ll know: One thought. One is enough.

One thought can change everything.

Why You Can Do Anything Cover

Why You Can Do Anything

In the 1970s, there was an electrician in Philadelphia. The man’s job was to install freezing cases in supermarkets. You know, the long aisles with glass doors where you pick up your milk and frozen pizza. To set up his own little workshop, the man bought an old bakery.

One summer, he decided to rebuild the front wall. It was made of bricks, about 16 feet high, and 30 feet long. After he had torn down the old façade, he called his two sons to the site. They were twelve and nine years old. He told them they were now in charge of building a new wall.

The boys’ first task was to dig a six-foot hole for the foundation. Then, they filled it with concrete, which they had to mix by hand. Clearly, this wasn’t just a job for the summer holidays. For the next year and a half, every day after school, the boys went to their father’s shop to build the wall. To the young brothers, it felt like forever. But eventually, they laid the final brick.

When their dad came to audit what they had done, the three of them stood back and looked at the result. There it was. A brand new, magnificent, 16 by 30 feet wall. The man looked at his sons and said, “Don’t y’all never tell me that you can’t do something” — and then he walked into the shop.

The electrician’s name was Willard Carrol Smith. It’s the same name he gave his oldest son, the 12-year-old in the story. Today, we know him as Will Smith.

“Brick by Brick,” as we might call it, is a story about the value of hard work. It’s also a story about what it takes to sustain hard work in the first place. When Will told it on Charlie Rose in 2002, he said it affects how he works to this day:

I think, psychologically, the advantage that that gives me over a lot of people that I’ve been in competition with in different situations is: It’s difficult to take the first step when you look at how big the task is. The task is never huge to me. It’s always one brick.

Is single-mindedness a competitive advantage? Probably. But in a world of abundance with enough room for millions of creatives, entrepreneurs, and entertainers, it pales in comparison to the ability to win the fight with who you’re really up against: yourself.

The market won’t stop you. Fear will stop you. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of being feared and fear of fear itself. Fear will concoct all kinds of convenient, well-disguised symptoms, like boredom, laziness, and purely psychological fatigue. Those are the real enemies you’re up against. A set of abstract concepts in your head.

Just for second, imagine it was gone. Remove all fear from your mind, and what can’t you do? Barring physical limitations, I can think of few things. I guarantee you Will can’t either. Rapper, TV actor, Youtuber, Hollywood superstar — his many labels defy our expectations of what one person can do.

The way Will built this long list of achievements is one goal, one wall, one brick at a time — because when all you do is lay one brick, fear won’t bother trying to get to you. That’s exactly what Will’s been doing all these years:

You don’t try to build a wall. You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say, “I’m gonna build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built. You don’t start there. You say, “I’m gonna lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. There will not be one brick on the face of the earth that’s gonna be laid better than this brick that I’m gonna lay in these next 10 minutes.” You do that every single day, and soon, you have a wall.


When I first started writing, I wanted to cover one topic in depth so people could come to know me for it. I chose productivity. It made perfect sense. I would learn how to write more and better while teaching people something they’re already interested in.

In the course of writing a 5-post series spanning some 15,000 words, I came across every productivity book and system you can imagine. Getting Things Done, The One Thing, Deep Work, Essentialism, Eat That Frog, you name it, I’ve seen it.

What I realized was that all these systems work — but only if you stick to them. Therefore, if a system was hard to stick to, it would be hard to make it work. That’s why the system I ultimately designed for myself and tried to teach people was mostly designed to be easy to stick to — and that’s why it greatly resembles the above story about the wall.

I used a set of questions to figure out the ONE goal — yes, just one — that mattered most to me. Then, I broke it down into little chunks, and from those chunks I derived a set of small tasks I could work on each day. These small tasks were the bricks.

With those bricks neatly lined up, I then optimized my routine for good nights, good mornings, and minimal distractions so I could actually “lay [each] brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid,” to quote Will again.

It’s been four years since I came up with my system, and my routines have changed countless times thereafter, but, at its core, the same idea remains:

Whatever goal I choose to go after, I build that thing brick by brick.

I’d like to think I can credit at least some of the millions of words I’ve written and some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that have come my way to that system. I suggest you give it a go.

What’s your biggest goal? Can you imagine it? See yourself clearly as you hold the result in your hands? If not, think hard until you can. This is the first trap you might fall into: Thinking you can build more than one wall at a time.

Once you’ve settled on one, the only one that matters, don’t get lost in the mental image of the wall. It becomes daunting really fast. Instead, tear that fantasy down. Scrap it. Until there’s nothing left but a six-foot hole in the ground. Good. Now you can build your foundation.

The next trap that stunts wall-builders is choosing bricks that are too big. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. My first goal was to write 250 words a day. Often, I ended up writing 1,000. For you, maybe it should be to write one sentence. To send one email. To run half a mile. The task can never be huge to you. It always has to be one brick.

Finally, remember that it’s normal to feel like building your wall will take forever. Imagine how it must have felt for two pre-teen boys to work on one project for one and a half years. That’s more than 10% of their whole lives up to that point. In fact, Will remembers “standing back, looking at that wall, saying, ‘There’s going to be a hole here forever. There will never be anything but a hole here.’” Of course, eventually, there was.

That’s the final and worst mistake many people make in their quest to accomplish their dreams: they stop laying bricks. They have everything they need. The foundation. The vision. The right size for each block. And then they stop. Because they get tired. Or forget. But it’s just self-sabotage. Fear. Again.

If you have no idea whether your next brick could be the final one, then please, I implore you, keep going. Soon enough, you’ll be standing in front of a magnificent wall. Not because anyone told you to build it, but because you chose to. Just like you chose to send yourself a message — the same message a Philadelphia electrician once imparted to his two little boys:

“Never tell me that you can’t do something.”

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You Don’t Need Authority – You Just Have to Care

Remember when you first learned how to draw? Oh, the artworks that you made! You didn’t even need a model or a scene — you made it all up from scratch, using nothing but your imagination.

A dragon looked how you thought a dragon should look. A house was a house in your image. What’s more, nothing had to be perfect, because you could always explain your picture to the audience.

“That’s you, mom!”

“Ah, of course, I see it now!”

The best thing about the pictures we paint as children, however, is that because they’re so self-evidently not about us, we’re happy to give them away. Every one is about something, but also for someone.

As a result, and I’m sure you remember this as well, we would regularly toddle over to our parents and say, “Look! I made this for you.”

“Aww, that’s so cute honey, this’ll go right on the fridge!”

The fridge?! Are you serious?! Ohmygodthankyousomuch!

We may not have shown it, but seeing our work “up there” felt special, didn’t it? Yeah, I definitely remember now. Good times.

What happened to this feeling? Actually, what happened to us?


Last week, I spoke to my friend Luke. When I told him about my daily mini-newsletter, he said he wanted to make one too. We even brainstormed a name: Better Parent. Sounds cool, right?

But then, somewhere between the excitement of starting something new and the joy of a self-paced, autotelic endeavor, Luke said something like this:

“Who am I to talk about parenting?”

I don’t know if my answer was any good, but it was meant to sound like this:

“Well, you’re a parent and you care. So why wouldn’t you?”

At some point between age 4 and 40, we get lost. We forget what our inner artist knew the day we were born — that creativity is an end in itself. There is no prerequisite for it, no list of required credentials, no “ you must be this tall to ride.”

All we have to do is care enough to make. Make something. Anything, really. A fortress out of mud, a picture done in chalk, a statue formed with clay. But instead, we turn to authority.

We ask, “Who will give me permission to make? Who do I have to please? What credentials can I go and collect? Please, tell me! I’m willing to go!”

That’s not how it works. That’s not how it ever worked.

Life will always be about the pictures on the fridge.


My friends don’t read my articles. At least most of them, most of the time. But every once in a while, someone will confide in me, usually after a few drinks, that they really connected with one of them.

One person phrased it in a way that struck me: “It feels nice to be seen.”

Ultimately, that’s what your most important work will always be about — and it’s the exact same message we send when we present some of our early scribblings to our parents.

“I see you. So I made this. Hope you like it.”

Your work is never just work, of course. Seeing isn’t a skill. It’s a decision. An attitude. A way of life. If you carry it, no matter where you go, you’ll show up with a picture — and hope it goes on the fridge.

When you talk to a stranger at the bar, if they feel seen, they’ll connect with you. When you send an email to a parent, if they feel seen, they’ll open the next one. When you explain the code to a colleague, if they feel seen, they’ll remember your name.

Waiting for authority is tempting. But it’s a cop-out. An excuse we like to hide behind. Because in our capacity as humans — not managers, painters, singles — humans, we waste little thought on demanding credentials. We’re not looking for authority. We don’t care where the pictures come from.

We want to feel seen. You made this for me? Wow! Let me put it on the fridge.

We want to feel humbled and cared for and trusted. We all need you to take the first step. Isn’t that our secret wish? That someone would reach out to us?

Now, you might ask, who really likes their children’s paintings? Weren’t they just doodles? Wasn’t the email kinda clumsy? Wasn’t the guy a nerd? Of course — but that’s not the part that matters.

The part that matters is that you cared. You cared enough to make, to show up, and to take responsibility without asking. You showed up and saw me and then you dared.

You dared to be vulnerable. To go out on a limb and make something for me. A joke, perhaps, or a painting, or even just a tiny moment of connection. But that was enough. And I can’t wait to put it on the fridge.

No, you don’t need authority. You need to keep drawing. And to do that, all you have to do is care.

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3 Lessons From 4 Years of Writing

I published my first article in November 2014. I had no idea what I was doing, but I had fun. Ironically, the only way to keep this fun around long-term was to consider writing the most serious job I’ve ever had. So I committed.

Now, over four years later, nothing is the same. Except that part. The fun’s still here. I even have a slightly better idea of what I’m doing. But writing online is different from anything I’d ever imagined or associated with that word.

Here are 3 lessons I rarely see others mention, but that helped me get to now.

1. People aren’t waiting to change their perspective. You have to do it for them.

No none walks around saying: “I wish someone changed my mind about productivity.” That’s not how humans work. We’re intensely focused on our day, ourselves, our next task at hand, zipping through everyday life with tunnel vision. Browsing the web and reading online are no different.

If anything, we hope to bump into ideas that confirm our worldview, not challenge it. This onus lies entirely on you, the writer. People don’t just underestimate it but, often, abandon this challenge altogether, going the easier route of telling people what they know they’ll want to hear.

This works for a while, especially when you’re just beginning, but it gets old really quick. Readers don’t know they’re driven by these biases, but from feeding them, even subconsciously, they still get bored. And that’s a feeling they know. So they move on.

What they might not know they want — but need — is an idea that cracks their perspective. A tiny fracture, just big enough for them to raise their eyebrows. To blink twice. To scroll up again. Presenting this idea is what I try to do in most of my headlines. The article is just the fulfillment center.

The line between offending people and making them think is infinitely small. But learning to dance on it is one of the most important skills you’ll ever learn.

2. The only agenda that works is to have no agenda.

That sounds weird. Of course I have an agenda. Everyone does. I want dollars. Followers. Views. However, the single greatest way to maximize all of those in the long run is to not care when you’ll get them and in what order.

Because that’s the only way you’ll be free to overwhelm the platforms you write on with generosity, consistency, and genuine care. It’s not about you. Great work never is. The sooner you can act that out, the earlier you’ll take off.

What does the host want? What do readers want? What does the platform want for its readers and what do readers expect for giving their invaluable time and attention to this place? Notice how absent you are from all these important questions. I know it’s counterintuitive, but it’s also liberating.

No one cares about what you want, but then you also don’t have to care about your own mess-ups. You can just try again. Whatever you do, if you start from integrity and maintain it above all else, you’ll never be in a rush to get yours.

Because you’ll know it’s coming to you. Maybe not tomorrow and definitely not today. But it’s coming — and you’ll know what to do with it once it does.

3. Change before you need to or you’ll adapt too late.

If you were to browse through my entire history of articles, you’d think it’s a collection of writing from at least five different people. Everything changes, all the time. Style. Voice. Content. Vocabulary. Structure. Formatting.

Sometimes, it’s me reaching the next level. Sometimes, it’s me adopting a trend early. Most of the time, however, it’s me experimenting on purpose. Changing for the sake of change. To set trends, rather than wait for them.

At first sight, this is a stupid strategy. Why give up what’s working? Why mess with a winning team? It means I’m alienating my fans. Or forcing them to grow with me. I’ll lose the people who just got here and I might not win over those who are about to. But it also means I’m staying true to myself.

Who wants to be one-dimensional? Who actually is? No one. Consistency of character is a myth. Just like content that confirms our views, it’s attractive on the surface, but boring and inauthentic underneath.

If you embrace your contradictions and allow them to flow freely, you still won’t get every shift in context right each time, but you’ll learn to keep an open mind. It’ll be easier to write more game changers (see #1) and reduce friction when you have to adapt (see #2). Most of all, it’ll keep writing fun.

And isn’t that what we truly want?