Your Problem Is Someone Else’s Solution

Decades ago, marketing legend Jay Abraham held a seminar in China. A man came up to the microphone and asked: “What do you do if no one wants to lend you any money to grow your operations?” The man had a small business making and selling motorcycles. He wanted to expand, but he was visibly frustrated having been rejected by many banks and lenders.

After calming the man down a bit, Jay said: “Your problem is someone else’s solution. You don’t need money. You need a partner who already has sales people, multiple locations, and a factory — they just have to be underutilized. Find someone like that, and your problem will go away!”

A year later, the man returned to Jay’s seminar and said: “I did what you told me. I went all over Asia. Eventually, I found a big lawnmower company in Kuala Lumpur. They had a big factory with spare capacity, sales teams, and representation in several countries. We had to bring our own tools, but in the first year of partnering up with them, we each made $20 million!”

Your problem is someone else’s solution. While you think your email list isn’t growing fast enough, there’s someone out there who’d love to send you new subscribers for a small price. While you lack motivation to go for a run every morning, your neighbor is waiting for a workout buddy to help them stick to their exercise regimen.

It’s good to consider problems in earnest so you can choose which one you want to have, but it might be better still to pretend your problems aren’t problems at all — and then ask who might need the solution you’ve already found.

Paying to Go to Work

After moving to a bigger apartment with a separate office, I canceled my monthly WeWork membership. Since then, I’ve only visited the space a handful of times, usually as a guest of a friend. Yesterday, I spontaneously decided to go the next day.

“Don’t you need your friend to be there to let you in?” my girlfriend asked. “Nah, I’ll just get the day pass,” I said. “How much is that?” “Around 50 bucks.” “Oh wow — paying to go to work! That’s dedication!”

That phrase struck me. “Paying to go to work.” It’s true. As employees, we take many things for granted. We expect our employer to offer a dedicated space to do our work and to furnish us with everything we need to do it, from a good laptop to a comfy chair to perhaps even food and other amenities.

On the one hand, those are perfectly reasonable requests to make. If you’ll sacrifice one of the most precious things you have — your time — to help someone else, they should make it easy for you to be efficient in helping. On the other hand, everything you might expect to “just be there” — before even asking for your salary — is something your employer has to pay for before any work gets done.

As an employee, you go to work, grab a coffee, sit in your chair at your desk, fire up your laptop, and start working. Cost so far? Zero. As an employer or freelancer, that same, simple sequence of events might cost you $3,500 the first time, and then another $500 each month to pay for your office space, hot beverages, wifi, and other necessities.

That money is money you’ll have to generate whether or not you are productive, whether or not your revenue is going up or down, and whether or not your baby son is screaming all night because of an ulcer. If you don’t have any starting capital, you’ll have to make those first $3,500 from your couch, at a Starbucks, or sitting on the floor at your university.

It’s one of the most formative lessons you can learn: How do you turn nothing into something? How do you get started with minimal resources? I’m convinced that if everyone had to learn this lesson, to actually earn their keep in hard dollars, if only for a single month, work would flow a lot more smoothly in corporations across the globe. Life’s a lot harder when you’re on the sales team, and in a way, everyone is.

Meanwhile, as a founder, freelancer, or solo creator, its important to remember: When you want others to work for you, your job is to enable them. There’s nothing worse than a cheap boss who holds back the resources you need because she can’t see “beyond the edge of her own plate,” as we say in Germany. This doesn’t just apply to full-time employees. Even if you hire someone on Upwork, you can make their life easy or complicated. Either way, their time ends up on your bill.

When you go to work today, remember: Someone paid for you to come here. If that person was you, you’ll know and feel it. And even if it wasn’t, it’s worth thinking about what it’ll take to make the entrance fee worth everyone’s time, including yours.

The Comfort of Knowing You’ll Meet Again

The last time I met one of my best friends, I learned that he had recently broken up with his girlfriend of several years. We were with some other old buddies, and while I intended to ask about the story, I forgot and eventually went home.

As all old friends tend to do when they grow up, we don’t see each other as often as we used to, so at first, I thought it was a real missed opportunity. But then I remembered the upside of going way back: You can trust that, sooner or later, you will see each other again, and whenever you do, you can easily pick up where you left off.

When the girl at the drive-through counter says, “Until next time!” that’s a transactional statement. It’s a rare privilege to hear it from someone who genuinely hopes to enjoy your company once more. We might not have certainty as to when and where, but there’s real comfort in knowing we’ll meet again — and if all it takes is remembering our questions until then so we can enjoy it, perhaps we should count pen and paper among those few, ever-recurring friends.

Where Good Writing Comes From

In the 1738 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin advised his readers to “either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.” In contemporary writing circles, the adage sometimes gets twisted: “In order to write something worth reading, first, you have to do something worth writing.” That’s nonsense. The kind of thing someone might say to discredit writing altogether, perhaps because they can’t do it well or lack imagination.

Imagination. German folk hero Baron von Münchhausen certainly had that in spades. He was a nobleman who fought in the Russo-Turkish war. After he returned home, he grew a reputation for telling tales on the tall end about his arguably already great exploits of his military career. People started visiting him just to hear his stories, and some sneakily wrote them down and published them. Today, everyone knows Münchhausen as “the man who rode on a cannonball across the battlefield,” a metaphor that has become synonymous with being a notorious liar.

The real Münchhausen never pulled himself out of a swamp by his own hair, fought a forty-foot crocodile, or traveled to the moon. He was mostly upset at his “Baron of Lies” reputation and being turned into a literary caricature. He likely saw himself as a man who “did things worth the writing,” and though his enthusiastic author-friends undoubtedly “wrote things worth reading,” the two were clearly distinct from one another.

One time, feeling the despair of having failed at yet another novel, Steven Pressfield decided to write a screenplay for a prison movie. “I have never been to prison,” he writes in Turning Pro. “I didn’t know the first thing about prison. But I was so desperate that I plunged in, slinging bullshit with both hands and not looking back.” When he was finished, he showed the script to other writers. “More than one tugged me aside and asked in a whisper, ‘Steve, where did you do time?'”

It’s called “creativity” because we are creating. Nowhere does it say that the ingredients of a creation must be preexisting materials. We can mesh the known with the true, sure, but we can just as well mix fact with fiction or fantasy with more fantasy. If real-world accomplishment were a requirement for writing, I’d have little to say and much less to show for. Most of my most popular stories are about other people, and often, those people don’t exist. They’re superheroes, video game characters, and scripted movie roles. George R. R. Martin never rode a dragon, and yet, whenever you read the word “Dracarys,” it still sends chills down your spine.

Good writing comes from boundless imagination and strong empathy. Truth is optional and might, in fact, appear only after we follow a long trail of well-intended lies. Just like Baron von Münchhausen, flying high above the battlefield on a cannonball, looking for the intel he cannot find by traversing the realm of mortals on foot.

You can write things worth reading, and you can do things worth writing. Just remember that, sometimes, the very best trait of those two ideals is that they’re two distinct opportunities to shine.

Catching Up

The German film director Werner Herzog was born in Munich in 1942, the middle of World War II. Two weeks into his life, the city was carpet-bombed, and his mother grabbed him and his brother and fled to a small village near the Austrian border. For the next three years, they had nothing. No running water, no electricity, and almost no food. The three of them had to share one loaf of bread per week. Given such a rough start, Herzog’s life story was, in a way, delayed.

The first time he used a phone — a very common technology even back then — he was 17 years old. Herzog had always dreamed of making movies, but it was only at age 15 that he stole his first camera and actually got to shoot any material. His first little film? 19 years old. Only when he was 30 did a feature film he made on a shoestring budget get him noticed in the community.

Today, Herzog is a legend in the business, directing everything from feature films to TV shows, documentaries, operas, theater plays, and even acting and voice acting on occasion. Werner Herzog was late — to everything — and yet, now 81 years old, he can look back on a wonderful life.

Catching up happens at your own pace — and it’s never too late to start walking.

The Weight of the Future

Tim Urban draws pictures that help him understand the world. In one of them, he shows a gray line, vertical line, “Today,” separating the past from the future. In the past, there are a lot of black, meandering lines. Those are all the life paths we haven’t taken, Tim says. Then, there’s one — only one — green line: the path we have actually taken to get to today.

The future, however, looks very different. There are no black paths yet. After all, the future is not yet decided. It is, instead, full of possibility. Full of meandering, forking, dividing green lines — all life paths we could, might eventually take. Of course, in the end, as before, only one line will truly be green. The rest will turn into black ashes, just like all the other untaken life paths in our past.

Urban thinks we should think more about the green lines, less about the black ones. The future is where we’re headed, the past is nothing we can do anything about. But if I’m honest, I get more vertigo from the green sparks of potential than I get bitterness from looking at the tarmac of roads unridden. In fact, I’d prefer to reverse the colors. What lies ahead looks like an endless maze, whereas what’s behind has been let go and can rest in peace.

Peaceful indeed. That’s how deliberately blocked off life paths feel to me. The future with all its endless choice? That does little for me — especially because I know most of those winding new ways are not the right ones to begin with.

Do you struggle more with picking a lane or with loving the lane you have chosen? Are your future paths green, your past ones black, or vice versa? I can imagine we all struggle with both at times, but there seems to be a natural tendency towards one more so than the other. The difference is worth knowing. If the potential of the future weighs heavier than the losses of the past, you need more simplicity than variety. A person with the opposite tendency, meanwhile, might want to add ice, color, or any other form of open-mindedness into their life.

Knowing yourself today is the best remedy against both tomorrow and yesterday — and that’s a cup worth drinking from no matter which path you’re on.

Don’t Interrupt the Tangoing Bear

Having tried so hard to bring her old friend out of retirement, mystery author Ariadne Oliver is starting to regret her decision: Hercule Poirot may be a brilliant detective, but he is also insufferable. Did Oliver manage to drag him to a Halloween Party and a seance? Yes. But now that a real murder has occurred at the latter, the old Poirot is back in full swing, and as a result, the eye-roll moments start piling up fast.

First, he dared put her on the suspects list, if only momentarily. Next, he locked a group of strangers in the perhaps haunted mansion where the murder occurred and started bossing them around. And now, worst of all, he did the thing he always does: He pretended to know more than everyone else in the world.

“I, as yet, know nothing,” Poirot claims with a smirk that says he has intuited a lot more than that so far. But when Oliver gives him her best “Really? This again?” look, all he has to offer is one of his many not-so-famous sayings: “You woke the bear from his sleep. You cannot cry when he tangos.”

After she reminds him that “that’s not an expression in any language,” Oliver can’t help but admit: Poirot is right yet again. The relentless willingness to entertain every possibility, the refusal to let anyone out of his sight until the truth has come to light, and, yes, even the made-up expressions — she knew what she was getting into when she interrupted his breakfast, and Poirot’s idiosyncrasies might just be what makes him so brilliant.

If your high school clique is an impossible group to have a serious conversation with, perhaps serious conversations aren’t what you should hang out with them for. Maybe it’s exactly the lack of seriousness that has kept you glued together all these years — so enjoy it for what it is! You’ve awoken the bear, so now let him tango if he wants to.

Similarly, you, too, have a right to bring your quirks and oddities wherever you go, and whoever wants you to denounce them is setting themselves up for failure, not you. Be a tangoing bear, proud intellectual, or catchphrase-inventing detective — and remember that our uniqueness is better celebrated than celibated.

If You Can’t Make It New, Make It Special

This week, I remembered the TV paper. Every two weeks, we got a catalog in the mail that outlined exactly what show or movie would run on which channel at what time. Can you imagine? Scheduled programming, printed on paper. In times of “watch whatever you want, whenever you want,” it feels like a relic that may as well be buried with dinosaur bones — but in fact, our specific magazine, TV Spielfilm, still exists. Its print circulation is down 80% since 1998.

The German retail group Otto built a billion-dollar empire on mail order catalogs. In 2018, it sent out the last one. Now, everything happens online.

When I ordered some mangas last year from a small shop specializing in comics, they, too, sent a catalog. Hundreds of thin pages describing their inventory. But why? I can go to their website any time, search what I want, and see if they have it in stock.

There is, however, one catalog I receive worth remembering. After buying an old, first edition book from them a few years ago, every year, Sumner & Stillman, an antique bookshop in Maine, sends me their Literary First Editions catalog. It’s a simple but beautiful booklet with personally taken photographs and individual descriptions of every book they have for sale at the time. I always flick through it.

Time often washes away the status quo faster than we can blink. As an artist, business owner, or service provide, it can be exhausting to keep up. If you started a Youtube channel in 2006, you had one outlet to post your videos on. Now, you have at least half a dozen. Different formats. Different algorithms. Different audiences. No one can go hard on every platform — but you can make your channel special. Stick to Youtube. Stick to long-form. Post videos in a contemporary style, sure, but sprinkle in a few gems that celebrate the olden days. Van Neistat’s channel takes me back with every video, and it’s a wonderful place to visit.

Otto decided to build a good online shopping experience instead of doubling down on a dying medium. For a company with tens of thousands of employees, all aimed in one direction, that’s a special move to pull off. TV Spielfilm and the manga shop, meanwhile, are doing the new while maintaining the old in the same format. For whom and how long? Nobody knows. But only Sumner & Stillman took an action that beats both the pivot and the split: They reinvented the catalog. They made it smaller, not bigger. More thoughtful, less flimsy. They turned the status quo into the status novus. By making something special, they actually made it new.

You must go with the times, but you don’t have to follow every trend. If your resources are limited, don’t try to make everything new all the time. Just make it special. Special is more than enough — and often just as good — or even better than — new.

Closure vs. Peace

Mere hours after declining a great job to save her relationship, Robin is devastated: Her boyfriend Don took the very gig she was offered first — and will now leave her for a new career in Chicago. In the How I Met Your Mother episode that keeps on giving, aptly titled Unfinished, she struggles to find closure, leaving angry message after angry message on Don’s answering machine.

No matter how much Lily tries to help her, Robin just can’t move on. Eventually, she realizes:

“I am never going to have closure. Closure doesn’t exist. One day, Don and I are moving in together, and the next thing I know, he’s on a plane to Chicago. It just…ended. And no matter how much I try to forget that it happened, it will have never not happened. Don and I will always be a loose end. We’ll always be…unfinished.”

We all have relationships like that, don’t we? I’ve been rejected by many women in my life. Plenty of those interactions ended in ways that felt like Robin’s relationship crashing and burning — as if the other person just got on a plane and never came back. Unfinished.

In a dream the other day, I had a closure conversation with my high school crush. It was marked by all the usual oddities of a dream — first and foremost that we were two grown adults sitting in class — and yet even in this imaginary setting, we didn’t manage to see eye to eye before I woke up.

In fact, while still dreaming, I noticed I would never run out of things to say. About how I felt. About what I had wished for at the time. About what I thought of her actions, how I would change mine in retrospect, and on and on I could go. The mind will be an endless well for as long as you keep digging — and you can always keep digging.

The incident made me realize that, often in life, closure indeed escapes our grasp. We usually don’t get to nicely wrap up our last project on the job, say goodbye to everyone before we move, or find perfect harmony with an ex as we part ways. Like nature, life likes to leave loose ends, and we must learn to live with them.

But if closure isn’t really built into the system, perhaps it’s also not essential. After all, we do move on from imperfect situations all the time, don’t we? That’s the right keyword, too: time. Time is the universal remedy. We can’t apply too much of it. We can’t fake it. We can’t speed up its passage. But we always move through time, and after we’ve done so long enough, eventually, we’ll feel…open. Healed. Ready for something new.

Not thanks to closure, perhaps, but whatever the force that drives us to mend, to forget, to move on, eventually, it will bring us to a viewpoint from which we can look at the future, take it in fully, and simply enjoy the breadth of the road ahead. Just like Robin when, after nobody-knows-how-many months, she once again tries to call Don’s number, and a lady answers the phone in a foreign language. “Huh. Well… Finished with that, I guess.”

Closure may be a unicorn, but peace comes to all who are willing to wait for it. Don’t let loose ends hold you back for too long. Only the universe knows what’s unfinished, and it will gesture you to all the right starting lines soon enough.

Polish, Polish, Polish

The dream is to find the dream when you are eight years old — and many of us do. The problem is we forget it five years later, and then it takes us another 17 to remember it. Every once in a while, a unicorn manages to hold on to it. He’s the kid obsessed with space who actually ends up becoming an astronaut. The little chef who cooks every day, opens a Michelin star restaurant, and runs it until the day she dies.

For most of us, however, finding our purpose is less of a straightforward affair. We spend a decade from 20 to 30 purposing all over the place, and sometimes, we still emerge without an answer. That’s okay, of course, but even once we do pick a cause to hold on to, we might spend the next 50 years cleaning up the mess we created in the last ten. That’s certainly how I feel about my journey lately. I have this burning desire to just polish, polish, polish.

I want to polish my writing portfolio. Reunite every piece I’ve ever written on this blog, and make it the central and first place where everything appears. I want to polish my past creations, old courses that deserve to be bundled and improved. I want to polish Four Minute Books, from its design to its content and product offerings. Polish, polish, polish.

Everyone leaves a trail as they find their way through life, but if you want to climb at least one big mountain in your limited time, at some point, you’ll have to stick to a certain path. If you’ve found that path already — whether at 8 years old or at 30 — chances are, the daily work it requires looks less like a county fair and more like a professionals everyday routine. Polish, polish, polish.

The more polishing I do, the more shocked I am at how much there is left to yet make shiny. We’re all part of infinite systems offering infinite occupations, but it’s the few we stick to and push to the very boundary of their potential that will make all the difference. Godspeed on your pilgrimage towards purpose — and remember to polish, polish, polish.