Above the Clouds It’s Always Sunny

Over the last two years, I’ve taken a dozen or so flights to and from London, a place where the weather is often dreary. As the sun rarely graces London with its presence, my planes going home would often take off amidst a slight drizzle, the kind of weather where it might be 8 AM or 4 PM, and you couldn’t tell the difference. Grey skies, gloomy clouds — whatever atmospheric setting might work well for a good crime novel, basically.

It was only after many flights, though, that I realized something fascinating: A few minutes after takeoff, it was always sunny. As soon as the plane penetrated the cloud barrier, there she was. Shining as bright as ever, presenting the loveliest of days to anyone willing to make the journey.

Even then, it took a while until it hit me: The sun shines every day. Just because the people in London, or the Eifel, or any other place shrouded in clouds can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. The sun is up there, doing its thing — and so should we.

The sun has been shining for about 4.6 billion years. We only have to do it for 30,000 days. Can we get up every morning and spread an equally warm glow? I think we can. Every day when we wake up, we are given a choice: We can adapt to the fog around us and bring our mood in line with it, or we can remember the sun is up there, beaming as bright as ever, and decide to do the same thing.

When you have a mission, a vision, or a dream, don’t let anything knock you off course. Apply effort little by little, no matter how small your progress each day. The setbacks, detours, and challenges? Those are just grey clouds and drizzle — they may keep you from reaching your target for a while, but in the face of your brilliant radiance, they can never subsist for too long.

Be kind and persist. You’re the sun, after all — and above the clouds it’s always sunny.

The Power of Making a Wish

Long before it was released, The Rings of Power was the subject of much controversy. Could a retail company like Amazon be trusted with the legacy of what might be history’s most popular fantasy franchise? Would they try to just throw money at it and glaze over a poor story with dazzling effects?

Hardcore Tolkien fans were skeptical. This didn’t improve when the Amazon executive team chose JD Payne and Patrick McKay as showrunners, two relatively unknown screenwriters. The more information was released, the nastier Tolkien OGs’ comments got. “There were no Black elves!” some yelled, causing a massive racism debate over casting choices before even a single second of the TV show had aired.

On September 1st, 2022, the first two episodes were released, and lo and behold…most people liked the show! Barring minor criticism for its pacing, reviews were generally positive. The plot was solid, the cinematography epic, and the visuals and music simply stunning. Each character serves a purpose, and most actors play their roles well.

How did they do it? Under all this pressure and negativity, how did the Amazon team manage to make the most expensive show in the history of television, set in the one of the most complex fantasy universes, and yet still (mostly) please fans across the board? The answer includes a lot of people making the right decisions at the right time, but it starts with nothing more than a wish.

Five years before the show was released, just after Amazon had bought the rights to make a prequel to Lord of the Rings, long-time fan and rights-auction winner Jeff Bezos was sitting in his kitchen. His son, a fellow Tolkien nerd, walked up to him, looked him in the eyes, and said: “Dad, please don’t fuck this up.”

Every decision that followed was the result of a father trying to make his son proud. That’s how the right people ended up in the right chairs, how storms of premature criticism were weathered, and how good decisions were seen all the way through to their conclusions.

Never underestimate the power of making a wish.

The True Power of Money

When we say “money is power,” we usually mean it in terms of “wealth accumulated.” Underlying this definition is the belief that money only retains its power as long as we don’t spend it.

As a simple example, we would say that someone who has $100 million can “buy or do anything they want.” They could own a fancy mansion, buy their way into a VIP table at an exclusive restaurant, or kickstart an influencer business much more aggressively than a non-wealthy person — but whichever of these moves they choose to make, each one would weaken their power insofar as it reduces their overall net worth. If that person spends the entire $100 million on a single real estate properly which ends up decreasing in value, we would say they’ve lost, or perhaps even wasted, all of their financial power.

This is a narrow but pervasive view of money, and it is why so many of us play the “get-rich-any-way-whichever” game. We equate money to potential, and we think the more potential we can rack up, the more powerful we’ll be.

The truth, however, is the opposite: The person who sits on $100 million but never spends it has zero power, and the person who spends their $1,500 deliberately each month has a lot of it — because they exercise their potential rather than just collect it.

We all understand this when it comes to our “personal” potential: It doesn’t matter what talents, skills, or good traits you might have if you don’t use any of them. “You’re wasting your potential!” we might implore someone who is hanging up their tennis rack too soon, but then we turn around and praise people who made fortunes only to hog them for three generations.

The true power of money lies in how you spend it. Some of the wealthiest people are starting to understand this. Bill Gates, MacKenzie Bezos, Warren Buffett — they have realized that their (financial) potential is growing faster than they can use it, and so they’ve begun making efforts to ensure all of it will actually be used, aka spent towards meaningful ends. Hence the giving pledge and massive charitable organizations in their names, employing thousands of people tasked only with finding good causes to give to and for.

If you’re living paycheck to paycheck or only have a very modest amount of savings and investments, it’s easy to feel as if you don’t have any financial power. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether you spend $500, $1,000, or $10,000 each month, each of those dollars is a vote. A vote for the person you want to become. A vote for the world you wish to see. A vote for which causes, companies, and people you are supporting. You can vote blindly, or you can spend your dollars deliberately — and that determines your true financial power more so than how many votes you cast.

Let’s say you believe a certain brand of goat cheese is bad for the environment. You want to stop buying it, but you don’t think your $10 spent on goat cheese each month will make a difference, and so, at least if the store doesn’t have any other kind, you keep buying it regardless. This is a true example of wasting your financial power. Because our own numbers are small, we stop believing in “strength in numbers” altogether. But if everyone who has these same feelings about that particular brand of goat cheese also keeps buying it because they don’t think they can make a difference, well, everyone will be right!

The opposite scenario starts with one person, and that one person may as well be you: You boycott the brand of goat cheese, and you tell your friends why you’re doing it. Before you know it, five more people also stop spending $10 on that brand, and then 50, and then 5,000. If a million people choose to not spend $10 on that goat cheese each month, that’s a $120 million hole in one company’s revenue. It could easily be the difference between record profits and bankruptcy. But we rarely think about what’s possible. We think about the size of our wallets and conclude they’re not big enough — and then we go back to trying to accumulate more money.

None of this is to say that saving, investing, and planning for retirement are inherently bad. As with your personal potential, you need to decide which parts of it to capitalize on when, and going all-in all the time is neither possible nor advisable. Up to a certain amount, it is reassuring and inspiring to save some of your potential. But what that amount is for you, only you can determine, and it’s probably less than you think.

Regardless of how much you choose to save, what’s important is being deliberate in how you spend whatever money you do choose to employ. Which electricity company are you supporting? Are you becoming a learner, for example by buying books, or are you just idling, entertaining yourself with silly movies? Do you support a friend’s art project with a $10 donation, or do you blow your weekend budget on alcohol? These questions will reveal more about your financial power than the balance of your bank account ever could.

As long as we accumulate it, money is nothing but potential, and we all know potential is an easy thing to waste. Wealth is not strength, and riches aren’t supremacy. The power of money lies in how you spend it.

Hope Is Never Mere

In The Rings of Power, elven lord Elrond must make a tough decision: Will he spill his dwarf friend’s secrets, or risk the demise of his entire race?

When his king asks him to reveal information about a special raw material the dwarves may have discovered, Elrond responds: “I swore an oath to Durin. To some, that may now hold little weight. But in my esteem, it is by such things our very souls are bound. I do not intend to let mine slip away on the basis of mere hope.”

While Elrond’s aspirations are noble, king Gil-Galad then reminds him of an important truth: “Hope is never mere — even when it is meager.”

On some days, we’ll have less of a silver lining to hold on to than others. When you get fired, broken up with, or laughed out the door, hope will feel far away. In times of despair, it matters not what reignites the spark of hope — what matters is that we capture it.

If the bartender tells a funny joke while you’re sipping your third whiskey by yourself, hold on to the laughter. If a stranger smiles at you on the bus, remember the gentleness in their face. And if a kind newsstand stand owner chucks in a bubble gum for free on your way home from yet another rejection, savor every bite of the minty flavor.

Hope may sometimes elude us, but it is never really gone. Even if the only light we can find is a tea candle, it is still a flame worth kindling — for hope is never mere, and it only takes a candle to ignite the biggest fire.

Creative Freedom Must Be Earned

It is probably a mistake that we instruct children to do whatever they want with the majority of their time for the first 18 years, then tell them that’s no longer how it works. What if we afforded adults that same creative freedom? Would the economy collapse? Would it thrive?

I think it could work. The world would probably look a lot different than it does now. We’d have more writers and fewer plant managers, more Youtubers and fewer farmers, and perhaps that pressure would actually lead to faster innovation in industries like food, transportation, energy, and other critical infrastructure. After all, some people are deeply interested in those, too, and they’d get to work on them full-time!

Alas, as it stands — and perhaps I am wrong to assume it could be any other way — creative freedom must be earned. You can earn it with an unrelated, full-time job, or you can earn it by compromising what you work on, but anytime you say, “I will do this exactly the way I want to do it,” there will be a price to pay.

Ironically, exercising your creative freedom to its full extent is usually the fastest path towards pursuing it full-time — if that is your goal, and if there is a path to financial sustainability in the first place.

Let’s say you work a job in accounting, but in your spare time, you showcase your woodworking skills on TikTok. If you stick to your guns and make the figurines you like to make, the world may or may not like them, but if they do, you might have a business on your hands. The advantage here is that it’s easier to be authentic because there’s no financial pressure on your woodworking hobby to begin with. The drawback is that you only have a few hours a week to both perform the hobby and document it.

For the full-time creator, the tradeoff is a different one: How many videos will you make to pay the bills, and how many will you make because you want to make them? Chances are, the stuff you want to create and the stuff people want to buy won’t 100% overlap. In most cases, that percentage is much closer to zero than 100, and so the full-time creator can quickly find herself in a situation that’s similar to that of the employee, ghostwriting article after article with no time left to work on her own book. On the plus side, she gets to write all day long, and to the cubicle worker dreading to return to yet another spreadsheet, that too can seem enticing.

Regardless of the specifics, the time you spend creating the way you used to when you were nine will have to be earned with blood, sweat, and sometimes tears, and so you better not waste it. There are few things more saddening than to shovel free an entire Thursday only to realize you spent it chasing dumb get-rich-quick schemes two days later.

When you choose creativity, choose creativity all the way through. Insist on doing things your way, and let the chips fall where they may.

Until the world realizes children had the right approach all along and organizes itself around it, we may have to struggle for our creative freedom, but if we use what we earn well, it’ll be one of the few battles in life truly worth fighting.

Thinking Just to Think

When I told my grandma that I stopped drinking coffee because I’ll sleep a lot better, she immediately pointed at the true root of the problem: “You think too much.” Perhaps she knew because it’s an affliction she and my mom and I all share, or perhaps it was just the wisdom of age. Either way, grandma was right on the money.

I’ve always been an overthinker. It’s hard for me to turn off the gears whizzing away in my brain. I can lie in bed for hours, be it at night or in the morning, just thinking away. Becoming a self-employed creative has exacerbated that trend. There’s always another article to write, another project to tend to, an admin problem to take care of, taxes to file, or, finally, some free time to be filled with meaningful activities.

Given there are a million things that feel like they should rightfully occupy my mind at any given time, it’s easy for me to think just to think. My thinking sessions under my comforter rarely lead to a brilliant insight. Sometimes, I’ll take a note or two after I get up, but most of the time, I realize: Those two hours would have been better spent elsewhere. Doing things, perhaps, or at the very least not fretting, which is often synonymous with “thinking.”

Meditation has helped a lot. I can catch myself thinking away and say, “Oh, that’s not useful. Let me get up and do something instead.” At first, this felt almost wrong. In a society that values thinkers so highly, criticizing the very act of thinking is a contrarian take. “What do you mean, thinking isn’t useful? What about Einstein, and philosophy, and J. K. Rowling?” But not all thoughts are created equal, and almost all thoughts are squandered potential if we don’t act on them later — if only by writing them down.

The other thing about those who think for a living is that they do it in a focused, contained manner — at least if they’re good at it. A philosopher might spend three hours each day in deep focus on her topic, then take some notes and go grocery shopping. If she can do all her “work thinking” in the morning, why add more later when her brain is less capable of performing?

The problem isn’t thinking itself; it’s thinking just to think. When thinking becomes an end instead of a means, thoughts become the disease instead of the cure.

Think as much as you need to, then stop. When you hang up a painting in the morning, you don’t carry around your hammer all day either. But thinking is deceptive. As long as there’s any kind of activity in our brain, we feel like we’re using it and using it properly. Even if that’s not the case — if our thinking doesn’t go anywhere — our brain tells us we’re smart, and we get all gooey inside. It’s the equivalent of continuing to hold your hammer just because it feels so good in your hand.

Are you thinking with a purpose, or are you thinking just to think? Separate the two as best as you can — and if it takes a lower caffeine intake to do it, I think that’s a price well worth paying.

Work Is a Relationship With Strangers

Writing books is about as solitary a job as one can find, and yet…

Psychologist Alfred Adler, one of the “three greats of the 20th century” next to Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, saw only three “life tasks,” as he called them, for each human being: tasks of work, tasks of friendship, and tasks of love. You might look at this trifecta and think, “Oh, sure, that makes sense. It is our relationships and our work that matter most,” but actually, Adler thought work, like the other two, is just another form of relationship.

You see, Adler also believed that “all problems are people problems.” Whatever our challenge might be, in one way or another, it would inevitably come back to our connection to other human beings. Someone who’s lonely is only lonely because they feel as if they don’t fit in with others — a group of friends, at work, or society at large. Addiction might be a way to rebel against one’s parents, and so on.

From this perspective, work is just a set of relationships with people you know a little (or a lot) less than your friends or your family.

Going back to writing books, on the surface, it seems like it’s the most solo gig there ever was, right? You’re sitting in a room, alone, trying to come up with words, alone, and then structuring it all in a way that makes sense, also alone. Forget editors, sources, or being a journalist. I’m talking about a hardcore self-publisher. Someone like Steve Scott, who, for a while, published a new, short book every month. What does that kind of work have to do with relationships? Actually, a whole lot — because at the end of the day, who are the books for? People.

As soon as I had finished my first blog post, I couldn’t wait to see what people might think. I showed it to my parents, my sister, and my friends. I posted it on Facebook and other social media. I’ve enjoyed writing from the first second I took it seriously, but from that same second, I also wrote so people might one day read my work. At first, I only had a tiny audience, but it was an audience nonetheless.

Today, a few hundred people read my work every day, but little has changed: I still write hoping more people will read my work, but I now also write so the people who already do may have something to read. I want people to say, “Oh, that’s a typical Nik post!” It’s the highest compliment.

In your work, the necessity of relationships might be more obvious than in mine, but the point is that, whichever relationships lie at its core, work has no purpose without its human element. Work is always for something — and, in turn, that something is always for people.

If all of our “life tasks” relate around people, and if work is nothing more than the tasks involving those with whom our ties are the loosest, that raises an important question: Do you really want to spend more time working? In essence, whenever you are working, you are working on your relationships with the people you might have the weakest connection with.

In my case, most of the time, it is a connection with literal strangers. I don’t know most of my readers. I know some, and they’re wonderful, but at the end of the day, I’m writing books for people halfway around the globe whom I’ll never meet, see, or hear from. There are also colleagues and peers, of course, some of which I’ve come to call friends, but none of whom are as important to me as my family.

Even if you’re very familiar with the people at work — after all, you spend close to a third of your time around them — chances are, you don’t dig as deep in your conversations with co-workers as you do with your best bud from high school or your wife. Whenever you choose to work more, to put in another hour, you are essentially prioritizing those people over the ones closer to your heart.

This isn’t to say that working more is always bad. It feels great to make something useful for others, and sometimes, especially the fact that those others are strangers adds to our sense of accomplishment. You can feel a sense of camaraderie with your co-workers, too, and some may even become friends. But it is worth reflecting on this dynamic.

All you have in life is relationships. Work is just one of three flavors — and most likely, it’s the least important kind.

Life Is Not a Recipe

You don’t have to do the steps in sequence to get the same result.

When you make carbonara, pouring in the cheese before the egg can be disastrous. It changes the consistency of the sauce. In life, changing it up may be the very thing allowing you to maintain consistency rather than destroy it.

In your daily routine, it sometimes pays to take out a step and do it later. I rarely work out early on weekends. The mornings are my recovery time. Today, I looked into the mirror and saw it was time to shave. But I don’t have to do it before I shower. I can skip it in the morning, then use it as a quick afternoon break.

In cooking, accounting, and a dance choreography, too much leeway compromises the results. Most elsewhere, flexibility is our very source of stability.

Don’t feel bad for going off script. Rewrite it as you need to keep walking your path.

Beauty and Madness

This is my blog. I can write whatever I want. Any word, any phrase, any sentence. Any sentence! Picture this freedom. Try to imagine it for a second. I can’t. Can you? It’s too big! Where do I even begin imagining? The vastness of it is overwhelming.

On some days, the freedom of what to write about drives me mad. The choice is a great burden. How do I pick among thousands of topics and trillions of word combinations? At the same time, it is only from this chaos that beauty can emerge. If I pick the right words, if I make the letters sing, it’s a feat for the ages. “How did he wrestle those lines from infinite possibility?” Usually, I’m the one least inclined to have an answer.

Beauty is what happens when we look square at the madness and bring something back. Without madness, there can be no beauty — and vice versa.

You don’t have to wear old rags and live in the woods to be a great painter, but if you want the potential for beauty, you must also accept the potential for madness. Will the painting you imagine make it onto the canvas? Or will your mind distract you too much with its constantly moving images?

Every day could be the day a sprinter breaks her personal record. It could also be the day she trips, falls, and will never run again. Where there’s beauty, there’s madness.

Humans aren’t built to run organizations with thousands of people. Does the CEO go with this proposal or that, this schedule or that one, her gut or her trusted advisors? She must get thousands of tiny decisions right in sequence, but if she does, the resulting product will be astonishing.

Chaos, chance, and choice all start with the same two letters. Coincidence? Maybe they’re the madness side of the equation. The oppressors trying to get the best of us. But a chance can also be a break. A gap in the chaos. An opportunity.

Composure, conviction, and compassion. Those also start with the same two letters. Are they the stewards of beauty? We need to be patient, passionate, and forgiving. That’s how we fly through the hole in the chaos, first to steal from it and then to return home safely with our loot.

When you see beauty, remember that, at some point, a sacrifice was made to attain it. And when you’re making beauty — and, every day, you are making beauty — don’t step too close to the madness.

Because We Can

A friend of mine does a lot of cycling. He recently did a long tour with two of his friends. Let’s call them Björn and Barbara. For some reason, Barbara was cycling as if the devil himself was chasing her. At one point, my friend caught up with her and asked: “What are you cycling away from?”

Barbara thought about his question for a second. There was a lot going on in her life. She was moving flats, had a busy job, and struggled with some health issues. But she didn’t feel unhappy.

Barbara relayed the question to Björn, who was even further ahead than she was. “Hey Björn, why are we cycling 200 kilometers in a day like madmen?” And Björn only said three words: “Because we can.”

You don’t need a reason for everything you do, and you especially don’t need a reason to do something great. What a magnificent achievement of the human body, to cover 200,000 meters in a day, using nothing but one’s legs and a simple device. How awe-inspiring that we can do that! So why wouldn’t we?

Later in the day, Björn elaborated on his stance: “We are free. We are here. We are awesome. We have the power to pull off this feat, and that’s why we’re doing it. To have fun. To enjoy the challenge. To remind ourselves that we can.”

“Because we can” is the best motivation there is. It is not clouded by incentives or worries or regret. It acknowledges the infinite genius, inspiration, and creativity of the human spirit. It reminds us to be playful, to stay curious, and to not prematurely give up on things that have never been tried.

The next time you catch yourself chasing the wind, don’t doubt your intentions. You’re not doing it for some ulterior motive. You’re doing it because you can — and that’s the best part about it.