When the Roar of Youth Goes Quiet

Ten years ago, we used to stay out till the sunrise. We’d wait for the lights to come on at the club, and whenever we met at our little high school reunion summer festival, we didn’t go to my friend’s house to eat our customary after-hour cheese platter until at least 4 AM.

The last time we went, however, it was closer to 1 AM. At midnight, the first people moaned about being tired. At 12:30 AM, the streets seemed dead. Instead of an entourage of 20 people, only a core four of us remained. Most of us weren’t even hungry. We snacked on the cheese a bit, one guy passed out on the couch, another almost fell asleep in his seat, and the host could not wait to go to bed.

Had it been a movie scene, any viewer could have guessed the next line: “Yup. That confirms it. We’re no longer 20 years old.” Usually, such moments are accompanied by sadness, a sense of nostalgic longing for a past that’s no longer there. Personally, I found it liberating, not least because I still had a 30-minute drive home ahead of me.

When the roar of youth goes quiet, what are we really missing? Is it the time wasted at the pub, the dancing until our legs can barely carry us, or the hangover turned morning-pint, possibly with a quick throwing up interval? I don’t think so.

I think what we grieve when our youth sails into the sunset is the feeling. The feeling of having so much time, we could handily waste 12 hours at the pub and not lose a second’s sleep over it. The feeling of unlimited energy, of being able to bounce back from any hangover. Most of all, however, we miss the feeling of having our whole future ahead of us.

In our 30s, much of that future has already turned into our past, and usually, it all went very differently than we imagined. But how exactly did we imagine it? To be honest, most of us probably didn’t have a very precise vision, but everything seemed possible, and what reality can possibly live up to such high expectations?

The beauty of aging gracefully, should we allow ourselves to do it, is that the more reality you pile up, the fewer alternate futures you feel you need. It’s okay to be a lawyer instead of a painter, single instead of married, a little chubby instead of The Rock, because it’s never too late to go after those things if we really care about them — and if we don’t need them, all the better.

“Wisdom is knowing the long-term consequences of your actions,” Naval says, and as we get older, we tend to take those consequences more into account. We get comfortable planning on longer timelines, and if those timelines include going to bed at 12 instead of 4, that’s a good thing.

A roar feels powerful while you’re roaring, but as soon as there’s no air left in your lungs, the volume fades, and so does the feeling. The quiet ones, however, always have the option of speaking up. Better yet, they don’t need to use that option to feel strong. They trust in their tomorrow because they’ve survived a lot of yesterday, and they know that, as long as they’re having cheese with friends, today will always be enough.

A Clean Slate

On any given day, I have some 20 drafts sitting in a folder on this blog, another 60 or so on Medium, and hundreds of notes, bookmarks, and saved little tidbits from around the web, scattered across my laptop and various cloud storage accounts. In short, when I write something, I never have to start from scratch.

While it is helpful to have a big stack of go-to projects, at times, it can also feel overwhelming. Which of these hundreds of pieces should I finish first? What’s the most important one to ship? What if I waste a whole month finishing stuff that should have been abandoned?

As your career progresses, you build an ever-growing portfolio, not just of works completed but also of threads you’ve began to pull on. This web of threads can easily become the Matrix, a machine with countless cables, ready for you to plug in at any time. But should you? Often, we forget to ask the question, and swoosh, another year has passed.

After a few years in the working world, you too will likely never have to start from scratch. There’ll always be someone you can call, a project you can pick back up. But sometimes, grabbing a clean slate will still be the right thing to do.

You’ll approach problems differently when you can’t lean on what you already know. You also won’t feel any of the weight of your past, and yet, your past experiences will all find their way into your new pursuit, just more indirectly.

I can never undo the experience of having written anything I’ve written, but I can choose to leave my notes aside. To open a new tab and say, “Okay, what do I want to talk about today?” Even if I do, however, all of my past writings will still act as a sort of subconscious filter. Whatever I come up with next will run through many layers of stones before making it onto the page, no research needed.

On some days, this is, ironically, the faster path to writing a daily blog. Where I might otherwise skip from draft to draft for hours, here I can take a breath, reflect, and then crystallize an idea in one fell swoop.

I know you have a lot to do, but remember: There’s always a clean slate waiting for you in the supply cabinet. All you have to do is walk over, pick it up, and you can color outside the lines.

What Others Remember

When I bumped into an old friend two days in a row, on the second day, he told me he had tried to remind his mom of who I was after seeing me the first time.

“It’s Nik, from fifth grade. Remember? Blond hair, glasses?” “Not a clue,” his mom said. “We used to hang out even outside of class, don’t you recall?” “Nope, nada.”

“Come on, mom,” my friend said. “He’s the guy with the video game.” Now at that phrase, her face lit up. “AH! The guy with the video game. Oh, I remember!”

As my friend relayed to me, I had loaned him my copy of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for Nintendo 64. It was a long game, and quite scary to play for ten-year-olds, we remembered. Therefore, my friend had spent forever trying to finish it. Every day, he would play for hours, hoping to beat the game before he had to return it to me.

Ironically, this exact behavior prevented him from doing so, because — as parents tended to do back in those days — his mom got so worried about his excessive playing that she forbade him from playing any more, and promptly made him return the game to me.

I laughed my ass off when my friend told me this story, but I had to admit: “I have no recollection of any of this.” It’s a memory that seems to have happened without me, and yet, I was there. It felt marvelous to have my friend repeat back the incident to me and get to laugh about myself as if I was someone else, a character in another story.

As adults, we often spend a great deal of energy trying to massage other people’s perception of us. We worry about it at night, and we get extremely frustrated if our efforts don’t fall on fertile soil. Children know no such habit as “cultivating a reputation.” They just do what they feel like, and if that happens to make them the subject of a funny story later, all the better.

You can feel sad about the fact that you forget, and you can desperately try to control what other people will remember from their encounters with you — or you can let life unspool and enjoy whatever comes back at you. “Wow, so that’s what you remember. Interesting!”

The human mind is fickle. We all sow plenty more seeds than we can harvest. If a few stray ones find their way back into your hand, don’t read too much into them. Enjoy the extra strawberries, and then lend the game to your next friend.

The Photos You’re Not In

After a covid-induced two-year break, 2022 marked the ten-year anniversary of a local festival tradition I share with some friends: After pregaming at one guy’s place, we all walk down to the festival — but not before taking a group picture in front of a bunch of dumpsters.

Every year, this picture has happened on the same weekend, in the same place, using the same method: We try to get someone driving by to stop, pull over, and take the shot for us. The only thing that keeps changing is the people.

Some people, like one of my best friends, appear in every picture, in the exact same outfit, in the exact same pose. That’s some remarkable consistency, and yet, he too has, of course, changed a great deal in the decade that has passed.

Others, like me, only appear in half the shots. That’s the price of starting your own business, of long-distance relationships, of traveling the world and a whole bunch of other choices: You can’t dance at every wedding, as we say in Germany.

Some people only appear once, then never again. Others show up every other year with a new partner. The tradition is both fun and highly emotional. You can’t scroll through those pictures without reflecting, and thankfully, our host keeps an updated feed on his website.

As someone who hasn’t been there for all the photographs, I can’t help but wonder: What happened in the years that I wasn’t there? Where was I and why? Ultimately, however, I’m just grateful to be part of something larger, even something as small as a group of friends taking a picture.

Just like every stranger’s photo album contains lifetimes of memories of people you’ll never meet, you can’t be in all the pictures of even the people you know and love. There’ll always be photos you don’t make it into, and that’s okay.

We each must follow our own path, and if they lead us to the same crossroads every once in a while, that will be enough — as long as we stop to take a group picture, of course.

Take Your Time

Once a year, there’s a big festival in a city I went to school in. Food stalls, bars, live music, the entire town center turns into one long stretch of eating, drinking, and catching up with old friends.

This year, I bumped into someone I hadn’t seen since high school, easily a decade or more. The guy in question used to be in my English class, and he would sit next to me and another guy on the other side. Let’s just say traditional education was for neither of the two. I tried to help them where I could, but while one of them managed to get his A-levels, the guy I bumped into didn’t.

“So, what are you doing now?” I asked him. Actually, he kind of volunteered the information. After meandering around the school system some more, he eventually managed to come out with some kind of college degree. In the meantime, he had started working part-time for a chain of shoe stores. As it turned out, he had a knack for selling kicks online, and when the CEO was looking for someone to take the lead while she would slowly step back from operations, she asked him to run the e-commerce side of the show. Today, he has some 100+ people working with and for him in some capacity, and they’re selling some 6,000 pairs of shoes a day, shipping them all over Europe.

“Man, I’m so happy that worked out!” I said, talking about the company’s transition to online retail, and the guy answered: “Yeah, I know, I really sucked in school.” Though that wasn’t what I had meant, I told him I was happy that that had worked out too.

And the other friend? The one who got his A-levels, but barely? He leads marketing at an online store for luxury watches, also doing well for himself.

When I got home, I looked through some pictures, and I found one with the three of us standing in the Tower Bridge engine rooms in London, where we went with our English class for a field trip in 2009 or so. Three guys that couldn’t have been more different in their habits, beliefs, attitudes, and results in the traditional education system, and yet, we all ended up in the world of online business one way or another.

Even back then, like most kids, we seemed to naturally grasp technology and the internet, always explaining to our parents how this thing or that worked. No one thought it would have such far-ranging consequences, least of all us. Yet here we are, doing jobs that didn’t exist ten or 15 years ago but which rely on those skills much more so than on anything we learned in school. Except the English language, perhaps. Turns out that was one of the most useful subjects of all.

We have a saying in Germany: There’s a lid for every pot. You may not know which lid it is until someone slams it in your face, and it probably won’t be a lid that aligns exactly with the syllabus of one of your high school classes, but eventually, your lid will find you.

Life is long, and it’s never too late to make something of it. Take your time.

Keep Your Big Goals to Yourself

It’s more fun that way.

There are two kinds of big goals: Selfish and unselfish. You should probably have both.

The selfish ones you’ve probably had since you were nine. It could be a fancy car, a big house, or a trip around the world.

Let’s go nuts with this: You want to buy the Empire State Building. It costs a billion dollars. What happens if you proclaim your goal at every chance you get? People will do one of three things. They will either commend you for your goal and cheer you on, laugh at you, or shrug and move on with their day.

The cheerleaders will show you respect. They’ll applaud you for tackling such a big challenge. Ironically, this praise before the achievement will make you feel like you own the Empire State Building already, and if you continue to receive and feed on it on a regularly basis, it’ll actually kill your drive to make your dream really happen.

Scientists call this a “social reality.” “Your brain mistakes the talking for the doing,” Derek Sivers explains in a TED talk, and considers the talking good enough. In a study, students who proclaimed their goal of studying did less actual studying but felt better about their progress than their quiet-keeping counterparts.

The haters, on the other hand, will become enemies you can set out to prove wrong. While those laughing at your goal might provide actual fuel to work, their inspiration will come at a high price: You’ll become angry, and angry people can’t think straight.

Worst of all, your newfound zeal will most likely be based on a false narrative. Despite making an offhand comment, the hater probably isn’t really a hater. Like the people who shrug their shoulders, they just don’t care at all — and you’re fighting a ghost.

The real question, then, is would you still want to buy the Empire State Building if you couldn’t tell anyone that you own it? Because if not, that’s a stupid goal to have, even for a selfish one, where the bar is already low.

Accountability can be helpful, but not for a distant, lifelong dream. Only you can conjure the perseverance for that from the depths of your heart. Think of all that pressure from weekly check-ins for a finish line that’ll take years to reach. Regardless of whether those check-ins are well-meaning or not, they’ll amount to decades of passive-aggressive energy, and should you actually make it, the best you can hope for is, “Oh, you finally bought it. Good for you!”

Okay, but what about your unselfish goals? Well, you should figure them out. They’re the best ones to have. The dynamics, however, are similar. In fact, they might be worse.

When you’re trying to build a school, you’ll likely get a lot more compliments than sneer, and so you’ll feel even more like a big shot without doing anything. If you’ve ever donated ten bucks, then vaguely remembered you donated something at the end of the year, and promptly felt like a philanthropist, you know what I mean.

It’s fine to acquire all the help you can get for a charitable goal, but make sure the help is focused on helping — donating rice, shipping the goods, volunteering on weekends — not lulling you into complacency via premature praise.

I’ve been following Leo Babauta from Zenhabits over the years. In 2019, he said he wants to “change 100 million lives through his uncertainty training.” If Leo counts every reader of his blog, which are already in the millions, that might be feasible. But if he means the paid program with, three years later, I’m guessing not more than a few thousand customers, that flag he planted looks a bit odd there, sitting on his hill.

It’s an honorable goal, but, like everybody, Leo has changed his mind many times over the years. He used to write a blog called mnmlist, but he quit. He used to run the Sea Change Program, but he quit. That’s perfectly fine! We all do it! In fact, Leo does it less often than other big bloggers. But if he changes his mind five years into the journey, it’ll not only look like he failed to his audience (that part is acceptable), but worse, he’ll feel as if he actually failed.

“Well, I guess five million is good too.” Can you imagine saying that and actually feeling disappointed? It sounds crazy, but it happens. It is sad how depressing an extraordinary achievement can sound if you’ve set the bar at “impossible.”

OR, you could, you know, not tell a single soul about it. No matter what your goal is. Selfish. Unselfish. Silly. Come on! Be really selfish. Keep the dream only for yourself. See how long it’ll last, and if it does until you achieve it, you will enjoy the moment. I can see the headlines now: “Mystery Buyer Silently Snatches Empire State – Rumors of Batman Abound.”

A quiet smile is worth a million pats on the back and a million more of fist-shaking opponents. Learn to make new realities without much fanfare. Find the contentment you seek not in the trophy you’ll attain but in the journey you’ll have taken. As long as you take the right steps, you’ll discover that contentment on even the muddiest of roads — and even if you make your entire pilgrimage in silence.

Fate Is Binary, and Yet…

The beautiful thing about fate, should you choose to believe in it, is that you can’t possibly get it wrong. It’s fate, after all! Any mistakes you make along the way are as meant to be as your successes.

And if you don’t believe in fate? In that case, every outcome in your life will go back either to an unbroken chain of rational, logical conclusions or the cold, random indifference of the universe — but at least you get to exercise free will 100% of the time.

Humans have spent centuries arguing about which of these two ends of the same spectrum reflects the reality we live in, but you know what’s funny? Unless you consider fate to be a playful being, they amount to the same thing.

If fate was this grim, ruthless entity stringing up your life’s events in perfect sequence, it’d be no different from a robot. What’s the difference between your outcomes going back to logic and physics or a fate factory cranking out your journey in perfect, interchangeable Lego blocks?

This is a great irony: If you don’t allow for some element of chance in fate, a belief in fate is self-defeating. It’s the kind of paradox only life can write, and I think it is wonderful — because what it means is that fate is not a set of train tracks we are set upon, destined to go only one place and reach it via only one means. Instead, fate is more like a conversation.

In this conversation, we are like a child talking to an adult, trying to learn the language. Initially, the child has no idea what the words mean, why they sound like they sound, and which ones go together when for what reason. The adult, however, has spoken the language all their life, and so, sooner or later, the child will get the joke. Even if the adult must explain things over and over again, eventually, something will click.

Of course, some ideas land faster than others. Easy words the child can pick up quickly; certain idioms might take decades to understand. And if an important phrase won’t make it to the child’s neocortex? Sometimes, the adult gets fed up. “Well, that just means what it means, and you’ll have to get used to it.” Not everything will be explained. Those are the times when fate hits us over the head with an event we can barely comprehend, like a business partner betraying us or, if we’re lucky, a lottery win.

The point is that fate gets to have fun. It knows infinitely more than we do, and it won’t just hand it all to us on a silver platter. On some days, fate feels mischievous. It will deliberately taunt us to see if we’ll get the joke. On other days, it knows you must come to the realization on your own, and it’ll just sit there waiting, bored out of its mind.

Regardless how long and winding the road, however, fate will never stop talking to you, for it is also infinitely patient. It knows there is no chance in hell a puny human like you can prevent the ultimate outcome it has planned for you. So why rush? Let’s enjoy the journey.

Now, a child learning a language from an adult has two options: She can trot along, drag her feet, and take every lesson with slouching shoulders, or she can play along, literally. What do you think a child would do? She would participate, of course! She would answer fate’s playfulness with her own, doing her best to understand, have fun, and express herself originally — and only then would the conversation ever truly get going.

Personally, it took me a quarter of a century of no longer being a child to finally remember what I already knew: I’m a tiny human, and I usually don’t know which parts of life are fate and which ones I caused entirely on my own. But it also doesn’t matter, because every day, I just try to do the best I can with what I have — and to have as much fun as possible along the way.

Whether you believe in fate or not, please do believe in this: The key to a joyful life is playfulness, and it is never too late to join the game.

When You Grow Based on Love, You Can Only Expand

If you love someone and they inspire you to grow — to try new food, to travel, to be kinder, more patient, or go to the gym on the regular — that growth can only be additive. It won’t take anything away from you or who you are. You and your life will simply expand to accommodate your new hobby, habit, or attitude.

This is true even when the growth consists of letting go. Dropping a bad habit together with (or because of) someone you love does not feel like you’re losing anything. Neither does spending less time at work to have more quality conversations with your partner. If you’ve ever gone through a transition like this, you’ll know: Despite having or doing less, it still feels like your life expands. As if you yourself are “growing bigger.”

When you try to change something out of fear, however, every step will feel like a giant sacrifice. That’s because fear-based growth is not growth at all. You’re not creating space or expanding your consciousness. You’re shrinking. You want to protect something you already have. Your ego, usually. It might disguise as the reputation you have among coworkers or friends, maybe even hide in a set of material possessions, but ultimately, it is when we cling to the self we have that we fail to become the self that is waiting for us.

While it is nice to grow out of love for someone in your life, it is not necessary to have anyone in your life to evolve based on love. You may just as well love yourself, and when you do, any change is not only a change you can manage, but a change from which you will expand.

The Undetermined Flight Paths of Bees

When you take a bee and release it at a random, unknown location, it will follow a three-step process. First, it’ll fly straight or whatever course it was on before you captured it. Second, it will fly slowly to orient itself, frequently changing direction. Finally, it will zip straight back to the hive as soon as it has figured out the terrain. Fascinating, right? Bees seem to have a spatial memory similar to ours.

The study in which this pattern was discovered even includes graphics of the bees’ flight paths. Whether you look at those squiggly lines or a fly zooming around beneath your ceiling, you can’t help but wonder: How much of these paths is predetermined? They fly so fast! Do they know where they’re going in advance?

Without turning this into a big argument about the existence of free will, if you had asked the late Jamse Carse, author of Finite and Infinite Games, he’d have given you a resounding “No.” Nature is “irreducibly spontaneous,” Carse contended, a phenomenon humans deeply struggle with.

Nature is “perfectly indifferent” to our culture, to everything humans think, believe, assert, or do, yet it is not chaotic either. There are rules and patterns in nature, some of which we can even observe — like the flight paths of displaced bees — but how those rules and patterns come together, what their next outcome might be, is totally unknowable.

Initially, this might sound depressing. Like we are powerless pawns, living on a hostile planet, floating around in indifferent space. Actually, however, nature doing its own thing is our very source of freedom, Carse asserted: “Our freedom in relation to nature is not the freedom to change nature; it is not the possession of power over natural phenomena. It is the freedom to change ourselves.”

Our freedom is not a freedom over nature, Carse said, but “the freedom to be natural, that is, to answer to the spontaneity of nature with our own spontaneity.” Only if we surrender to nature’s nonchalance can we truly engage with it, seeing our interactions with it as a playful back and forth of two parties intending to both listen and speak, each taking their turn. “The more deeply a culture respects the indifference of nature, the more creatively it will call upon its own spontaneity in response,” Carse wrote.

In that sense, our lives are not questions. It is not a matter of finding our purpose, slotting right into the perfect place reserved for us by the universe. Life is a matter of creating our purpose, of saying, “Wow, that’s awesome, nature! Now it’s my turn. Look what I’ve got to offer!” Not like we do in a contest where the goal is to win, but the way we might dance to a wedding band, hoping each song will lead to yet another. Our lives are a game in nature, and the goal is to keep playing.

So no, no one knows where the bee will fly next. Not even the bee. Until it makes a call in the moment, the entire universe will be watching — yet it will always find its way home in the end.

The Vacation Was Too Short

When I picked up some pizza the other day, one of the waitresses had just come back from vacation. “How was it?” a fellow waiter asked. “Too short, like always,” she replied.

The vacation was too short. If every employee received a dollar every time another employee said this phrase, ironically, no one would have to work at all. It is the German post-holiday response, and though it will at times be uttered playfully, it almost always contains a kernel of a sad truth: Most of us don’t like their jobs enough to look forward to going back to them.

Forget loving your job. That’s a unicorn at the end of a rainbow. But shouldn’t we at least enjoy our work enough to not want to actively avoid showing up for it?

I’d love to run a study that lets people extend their vacation ad infinitum. If you could forever tack on another week at the beach, playing golf, or hiking through the mountains, would you ever stop? I think most people would never come back to their job at all. They’d simply find other things to do with their time. They wouldn’t just laze around, but they’d choose activities very distinct from their current job.

“If you need to take a vacation, never come back,” Joel Salatin said. But quit your job just because the vacation wasn’t long enough? That’s not feasible, is it? You can, however, watch out for it. “The vacation was too short.” The phrase is a great indicator of your relationship with work, and if you keep finding you do not want to return to the office (be it physically or digitally), you might want to consider pushing for a change.

How long is long enough? What’s a reasonable vacation? Well, however long it takes for you to feel excited to get back to work! And if that’s never the case, then it most likely means you’re working on the wrong thing to begin with.

As one of those rare unicorns who absolutely love their job, I can get antsy quite fast. Three days, four days, five days, and I’ll surely have come up with some new idea I want to tackle. That’s the other end of the spectrum. The line past which we become workaholics. Most people, however, will never get there, and the ones who do so because they are anxious about work rather than excited by it have yet another set of problems entirely.

Plus, it is easier to contain your excitement, to patiently wait a few more days, than it is to hide your misery and disappointment. The former will shine nearly as brightly when you do get back to work; the latter will slowly poison every minute of every day.

I know the world isn’t perfect. We can’t all be figure skaters and painters. But it is possible to find joy in whatever you do, even while you wait for something better to roll around. Be mindful of “too short” vacations. Unlike your holidays which never seem to be enough, their effect will one day add up.