Is the Technology Good, or Are You Just Bad?

Three stories, one lesson.

Yesterday, a friend forwarded me a sample ad for a car seat, written by ChatGPT:

“As a young parent, keeping your child safe and secure is your top priority. That’s why you need a car seat designed by professionals who understand the importance of safety and comfort. Our car seats are engineered with the latest safety features and materials to provide the ultimate protection for your little one. From side-impact protection to easy installation, you can trust that your child is in good hands with our car seats. Don’t compromise on your child’s safety — choose a car seat designed by professionals. Order yours today!”

The creator’s comment? “Copywriters are screwed.”

Yesterday, I also overheard a conversation at work. “I had ChatGPT write like 80% of this thing for work, and when I read it out at the meeting, everyone was impressed. When I told them it was written by AI, they suddenly said: ‘Oh yeah, you can kinda tell.’ Then, they started criticizing bits of the text — but they were the bits I had written!”

Yesterday, I remembered a great article on Wait But Why: The Cook and the Chef. In the piece, Tim Urban tries to explain Elon Musk’s genius. “Yeah, Musk is smart and insanely ambitious,” Urban concludes, “but that’s not why he’s beating everybody. What makes Musk so rad is that he’s a software outlier. A chef in a world of cooks.”

Urban argues that, where most people try to follow other people’s recipes in all areas of life, Musk makes up his own. In the short term, that often leads to failure. But in the long run, it leads to what we think is genius when, actually, Musk simply applies logic and creativity from scratch.

Therefore, Urban argues, “the real story here isn’t Musk. It’s us.” Why is someone like Elon so rare? Why aren’t we all using our imagination and reason more deliberately? “The curious thing about the car industry isn’t why Tesla is focusing so hard on electric cars, and the curious thing about the aerospace industry isn’t why SpaceX is trying so hard to make rockets reusable — the fascinating question is why they’re the only companies doing so.”

“We spent this whole time trying to figure out the mysterious workings of the mind of a madman genius only to realize that Musk’s secret sauce is that he’s the only one being normal,” Urban concludes. Therefore, “in isolation, Musk would be a pretty boring subject—it’s the backdrop of us that makes him interesting” — and it’s the same thing with AI.

When a technological breakthrough happens, it is considered a breakthrough because, collectively, we were very bad at solving that particular problem for a very long time. Often, the breakthrough itself is less fascinating than why it took us so long to get there.

In the case of ChatGPT and writing, the fact that so many of us are amazed at its ability to form a few coherent, somewhat logical sentences with correct grammar says more about us than about the technology: Most people’s writing utterly sucks — and that’s why they’re thrilled at the prospect of never having to do any of it ever again, even if that prospect is only on its first set of diapers.

This is neither news nor surprising, but AI is beginning to expose how systemic of a problem this is. Traditional education turns writing into a dismal chore from the start, and so whatever linguistic skill it might imbibe on you will leave a bad taste in your mouth. Naturally, most people aren’t keen to pick up the pen later in life, and wherever they have to do it — and it’s a lot of places where we have to do it — they’d really rather not.

While it’s great that AI will help us solve the output-side of that problem — you’ll just be able to generate any text with a simple prompt — the question is what will it cost us, and when will we pay that price?

My personal nostalgia for writing aside, I think the real danger lies not in losing the skill of writing but in losing the ability of thinking. The biggest benefits of writing have nothing to do with the output. They’re about what happens inside the writer: You learn to structure your thoughts and process your emotions. At the very least, you learn to reflect on what you say before you blurt it out, and you understand that not all feelings must be acted upon. Stop practicing the hard skill you originally picked up to get some ulterior result, and those internal abilities will also go out the window. In that sense, it is easy to imagine the human species without writing as a species of blubbering, impulse-driven monkeys — and if you can make bananas rain from the sky at the push of a button, soon, pushing the button might be all you’re able to do. As for the when, schools and universities around the world are already scrambling to catch up with proliferating GPT-essays, and if people opt out of thinking in the institutions designed to teach you how to do it, what chance do other, more profit-driven organizations have?

The first time you read that car seat ad, it’s easy to be impressed. “Wow, how coherent! How logical! How grammatically correct!” Read it again, however, and ask yourself this: How much does this really make you want to buy a car seat?

If someone thinks “copywriters are screwed” based on this ad, that once again says more about them than about copywriters. It indicates they wouldn’t be able to write a better text themselves, but if, as a professional copywriter, that’s the kind of work of you deliver, then you’ve long been screwed already — you just haven’t been fired yet. Good writers will combine the A with their own I to ship newer, better, more creative work. Their hours won’t go down, and the amount of hard work required won’t change — it’s just the kind of work that will be different.

For most people, however, AI will mostly make a part of their lives easier that they don’t care much about but need to get done: writing. The real questions, therefore, are not who will be replaced first and when we can stop learning how to write altogether. They are…

Is the technology really that good, or are you just bad? And what’s the skill you really need to improve?

The break is far from through, and hope is never lost — but perhaps every now and then, think about the subject, not the prompts. You never know when that computer between your ears might come in handy, and it better be ready when you need it.

Wait and See

One of my favorite zen stories is “The Farmer’s Horse:”

One morning, the old farmer’s horse ran away. The neighbors expressed their sympathy: “What bad fortune!” The farmer replied: “We’ll see.”

The next day, the horse returned with a whole flock in tow. The neighbors were over the moon: “How lucky you are!” The farmer replied: “We’ll see.”

The next morning, his son tried to tame the horses. He fell and broke his leg. The neighbors showed consolation: “Such bad luck!” The farmer replied: “We’ll see.”

One day later, the army drafted soldiers. They skipped the farmer’s son. The neighbors were delighted: “What a blessing!” The farmer replied: “We’ll see.”

When my girlfriend was fretting over whether she’d get the job after the interview, I told her: “Just wait and see.” When we were trying to plan our Christmas travels amid covid-rules-confusion, I said: “Just wait and see.” And now that we’re suspended in mid-air between visas, flats, and jobs that may or may not materialize as we’re trying to move in together, I keep saying: “Just wait and see.”

“You always say, ‘wait and see!'” she told me at one point. “It’s like your default policy.” I think at first, she thought I was delaying decisions. Most of the time, however, I use it to ward off judgments. If the other shoe hasn’t dropped, why pretend it’s already on the floor? Our short-term conclusions are often too narrow-minded, biased to the downside, and, well, wrong. Better to wait and see.

If you’re waiting for an important test result, don’t assume it’s going to come back negative. Just wait and see. If you’re worried about how an application will go, don’t throw shade on your performance. Just wait and see. And if you don’t yet have the confirmations you need to book your next vacation, just wait and see.

I don’t know when it started, but at some point, when life poo-pooed all over our plans, my girlfriend sighed and said: “Ah, just wait and see.” I think she’s coming around, and perhaps, if you remember the farmer’s horse, you will be too. We’ll see.

The Only Space That Matters

A few weeks ago, there was a little kerfuffle in a new WhatsApp group a friend had set up. The group was for a small circle of friends, all trying to grow their businesses. Some had begun doing regular Monday check-ins for accountability, others wanted to use the group more casually, and others still wanted to move to Slack. I was in the second camp.

One morning, I woke up and, for the first hour of the day, debated what to do. Should I just skip the voice-note check-ins? Could I? Would I have to formally “sign off?” Did it even matter? Could I just do what I wanted, and everyone would be fine with it? Finally, I resolved myself to “waiting and seeing” because, most likely, none of the other members thought as much about this as I did — if at all.

I glanced at my calendar as I was about to leave the house, and in an instant, all fruitless mental gymnastics stopped: It was my mom’s birthday. Holy cow! The day my mother was born, and I had to look at my calendar to remember it. That made me sad.

I’m good with birthdays. For close friends and family, I usually remember right after waking up. It’s a useful ability, but what’s more, I like being someone who remembers important people’s birthdays without having to check their phone. It’s important to me. Needing an external reminder could only mean one thing: My brain was too full.

I like minimalism because it increases the chances you’ll have the mental space you need to tackle the important questions in your life. It does not, however, guarantee your brain won’t be full. You can fill your mind with ideas, tasks, worry, rumination, nostalgia, and daydreams just as easily, perhaps even more quickly, than with needless documents piling up on your desk or dusty memorabilia hogging your shelves. Unlike decluttering, defending your inner territory against these invisible culprits is a daily duty that never ends.

Whether you curate a house full of possessions or travel light wherever you go, remember that your most important battles will not be fought on the plane of material existence. The space in your mind is the only space that matters. Protect it.

A Try-Hard or a Friend?

Have you ever met someone you desperately wanted to be friends with, but they just didn’t feel the same way? Every now and then, it happens. For me, it might be a writer who’s further along in their career — close enough to feel like a peer, yet far ahead enough to admire. I’ve come to know several of them over the years.

Sometimes, it saddens me when one of those connections fades before it has even begun. What are they up to? What are they thinking? Why aren’t they interested in a more regular exchange? Months pass. Emails stay unanswered. Sooner or later, reality sets in: I’m trying way too hard, and I must learn to be okay without being able to call that person a friend.

It’s not a nice thing to realize that you’re a try-hard. That you’re not wanted where you’re hoping to go. But some people don’t want your friendship as much as you want theirs — and that’s probably proof enough that they don’t deserve it.

When it comes to romantic relationships, it’s easy enough to understand that one-sided partnerships don’t work. With friendships, the stakes might be lower, but that doesn’t make it reasonable to spend years chasing someone like a door-to-door salesman.

How many coffee invitations must someone decline before giving up on them is the kinder thing to do? The answer will differ in each case, but there’s always a line where we go from extending a hand to begging on our knees, and beyond that line, your self-worth is in danger. Did they agree to meet out of pity or genuine interest? Are they tolerating you now because they need something? Can you trust their change of heart? The longer your persistence must persist, the muddier the relationship waters become. Until, one day, we wake up and wonder: What is this? Why am I here? How did I end up in this place?

The stars don’t always align, and not all magnets attract one another. That’s okay. Letting go is as valuable a skill as being a good friend. Don’t try so hard, and remember: If you’re not valued, you’re just in the wrong place.

How Big Is the Wheel?

Going to MediaMarkt was always a thrill when I was younger. It’s a German electronics retailer, and in their huge stores, you used to be able to find everything. They had computers, cameras, CDs, TVs on display, and, of course, video games. Often, if you wanted a new game or music album, MediaMarkt had to be your first stop. I still remember the excitement of checking out a game at the counter, or jumping up and down with joy when my dad brought me the latest The Rasmus album after work.

Of course, by now, MediaMarkt has gone the way of almost all retail. The last time I went there was years ago, because nowadays, the internet has more selection, cheaper prices, and if you can find your way around it, you’ll often know more than their employees.

During the great lockdown of 2020, I stumbled upon MediaMarkt’s latest annual numbers. The result? After making over 20 billion in sales, the company conglomerate made a profit of 236 million. That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s just over 1%. One percent! “That’s a big wheel you’re pushing,” I thought, “for very little water coming out of the pipe at the end.”

Imagine: 50,000 employees. 250 euros of revenue for every single one of Germany’s 80+ million inhabitants. And at the end of the day, what’s left? 2.50 euros per citizen. Is that really worth it?

Think about the effort it takes. The time. The energy. The waste that’s created along the way. It’s not a question people running a profit-making business usually entertain, but perhaps, if your margin is down to 1%, it’s time to do something else. Would anyone really care if they just…stopped? If those 50,000 workers were presented with other, perhaps even more exciting, opportunities, wouldn’t they gladly take them?

Livelihoods matter, of course, but in business as in life, ask yourself: How big is the wheel I need to be turning? Not all companies can do a lot with little, but the ones that can, shouldn’t they? Especially as a solo entrepreneur or small business owner, moving more with less means better resource management, more sustainable operations, and, for an added bonus, a lot more peace of mind.

In engineering, gear ratios help optimize efficiency. A small gear can turn a big gear if the setup is chosen well. At the same time, just because a big gear is moving does not mean that your machine is operating efficiently. Think about your output in relation to your input, and don’t be afraid to start over when your operation no longer makes sense.

The Great Thing About Stories

The more crime movies you watch, the better you’ll get at spotting the culprit in advance. Having watched Tatort (“Crime Scene”), the longest-running German TV drama, for over 30 years, my mom usually knows within a few minutes. She’s the Sherlock Holmes of watching Sherlock Holmes, if you will — and yet, decades later, she is still watching. Why?

Well, you never know for sure, do you? The only way to really find out is to watch until the end, and then, you’ll either get the satisfaction of being right or the joy of being surprised. Stories are a win-win situation.

And after you’ve seen the whole thing? Why watch something twice? For one, it might teach you something new, not because the story has changed but because you have. “You can never step in the same water twice, my friend,” Bruce Lee used to say.

For another, however, since you now know how it ends, you also know how it makes you feel. Therefore, the story will go right into your roster of “use in case of…” medication. Emotional medication, that is. Stories help us heal because they help us process. I can watch Star Wars a million times and still feel inspired, if every time for a different reason and on a different occasion.

So actually, a great story is win-win-win-win. There’s always an element of novelty and an element of comfort, and though we often don’t know which one we’ll get, the prospect of either is usually enough to keep us returning, be it to a new story or a familiar one.

Stories are how we make change, but they are also how we change. Sometimes, the change is just a smile, and sometimes, it is a whole new identity. But whatever change we seek, there’s a story out there to guide us through it. Choose a life of stories.

Something to Hold On To

When the two teenagers return hand in hand, the world is restored to balance. Months of the scientist’s work couldn’t do it — but love…

“They did this!” she exclaims. “Is that really all it took? Something so small and ordinary?” For once, she’s the one who needs explaining, and it takes an angel to do it: “Love is never small to those that discover it for the first time.”

Do you remember your first love? How warm it felt? How overwhelming? As if the world itself were about to stop turning. In His Dark Materials, it does. The lesson for us, however, comes without magic, daemons, or a multiversal war: Hold on to that feeling. Not the person, perhaps, but the glowing of the heart that seems to outshine even the sun; a power so strong it would move mountains only if planets weren’t available.

How old are you? How many years have passed? Ten? 20? 50? You still have the capacity to feel this feeling. You still have access to that power. I’d tell you to be careful, but I don’t believe you can use it for evil. To make mistakes, sure, but not for ill-intent. After all, it’s love.

On most days, however, you won’t rearrange the stars. You won’t have to. The faintest dose of glow in your bloodstream, and your face will break into a smile. On a Tuesday, that’s usually all it takes. Go on! Draw on it! Your supply won’t run out. The power of planets in the palm of our hand, and yet, we choose to micro-dose it for maximum effect. Now if that’s not magical…

Two teenagers, holding hands. It can throw even an angel off guard. After all, it’s not just the first time: Love is never small to those who cherish it.

When the Gods Aren’t Generous

A recurring theme in The Last Kingdom is that Uhtred, Danish orphan raised as a Saxon, refuses to accept his English friends’ insistence on there being only one, namely the Christian, god. Whenever he says “gods,” plural, all hell breaks loose. It’s a tempting fantasy, isn’t it?

Be it an array of Norse gods, the Graeco-Roman god family around Zeus/Jupiter, or a variety of Hindu deities, imagining a higher power as more than one entity somehow makes it seem more human. If God really was all-powerful, then why all this suffering? Plus, seems like a lot of work for one…guy? Girl? Being?

If the gods are a family, on the other hand, well, that would explain a lot of things. Families bicker all the time, and different folks have different agendas. One day, Apollo might overdo his sun-shining business, and suddenly, the crops are up in flames. Naturally, Demeter will be angry.

Of course, you can have just as much faith that your trials will one day make sense if you believe they all come from the same architect, but it feels a little easier, and perhaps even a little more comforting, to blame it on the gods being caught up in their own, equally muddled affairs.

So, if today is an extra hard writing day, the bus drives off in front of your face, or the sun just won’t shine, think of it like this: The universe isn’t trying to slight you. It just happens to be busy taking care of something, or someone, else. When the path is muddy, it may not yet be your turn to take that step — and when the gods aren’t generous, perhaps they are just fighting.

The More You Talk, the More You’ll Say

That’s obvious. What inevitably leads to your foot ending up in your mouth at work, however, can be a boon in relationships.

When you talk a lot to someone, a lot of things will eventually come up — if only because you’re running out of things to say. Conversations take unpredictable twists and turns. Suddenly, you might find yourself discussing your need for better trash management organically, without having to make it a formal affair.

Increased communication reduces friction points because you end up addressing them before they flare up. It also offers more space to be vulnerable. If you and your spouse routinely talk a lot, it’s easier to more casually insert what’s actually a big item. Like small grievances getting some spotlight because everything else is already covered, big ones will become talking points because you’re already on their subject. “How was work today?” can turn into a full-blown discussion about your partner’s career trajectory any time it is needed — but only if you ask the question every day. That, too, reduces friction.

In any conversation, there’s a time to speak and a time to listen. With the people you care most about, however, there’s no point in being on guard: They’re not trying to attack you. So ramble away, hold nothing back, and encourage your loved ones to do the same. We don’t always realize the power of our words until they already hang in the air, but sometimes, that’s the very best thing about our ability to speak.

Someone to Make Proud

“It’s been the best relationship, except family and so on, that I’ve had,” Warren Buffett says of his business partner of over 40 years, Charlie Munger. “He’s been the person, subsequent to my dad, that I least wanted to disappoint.”

“It’s good to have somebody in your life you don’t want to disappoint,” the 91-year-old Buffett continues. In fact, “it’s enormously important” for one simple reason: “It makes you a better person.”

Selfish motivations are weak. Deep down, we know there are only so many margaritas we can drink, so many cars we can drive, so many parties we can attend. Serving someone whom you truly, sometimes even desperately, want to see happy and prosperous, however? That will put nearly infinite fuel into your tank.

It’s a fickle thing, fulfillment. It should not depend on other people at all, and yet, it must. Making someone you deeply care for proud is the line: You can’t just do everything for yourself, but you also can’t be a people-pleaser waiting for affirmation that might never come either.

The trick lies in being satisfied with the actions you take for others without taking the consequences of those actions too much into account. Not every birthday present will be a hit, but if you put a lot of thought and love into each one, what does it matter? They’ll know, and so will you — and that is enough.

Pick your idols carefully, and then do the best you can to make them smile. Maybe, when they’re in their 90s, someone will ask them a question, and all they’ll say is, “It’s been the best relationship that I’ve had.”