The Path Through the Clouds

A few times a year, Sahara sand lands in Germany. Usually, we don’t notice it, but when the sky looks like we live on the desert planet Dune, we will. Dyed in an orange hue more pronounced than what even the most picturesque sunset can produce, this time, we witnessed “blood rain” and “blood snow,” two rare consequences of an event that, locally, only takes place every 10 to 15 years.

People’s first worry was air quality, but in most cases, the dust poses no threat. In fact, Mother Nature gave the sand clouds a purpose: Thousands of years ago, the more frequent dust drops nourished European soils with fresh nutrients, particularly those needed to grow wheat, strawberries, and asparagus.

How about that? Among all the ways the planet could nurture our fields, it chose to stir up a sand storm in the Sahara, lift kernels the size of only 100,000th of a meter up to five kilometers in the air (where they can remain for six months), and then use the wind to send them 3,000 kilometers across the globe to where they’re needed. Nature chose the path through the clouds. In the Amazon and Caribbean, tropical rain forests still receive their nutrients this way today.

When SpaceX’ neighboring companies blocked a proposal to connect all facilities via high-speed, fiber optic connections, a small crew (illegally) hooked up their buildings via a telephone pole overnight. They figured out the permits later. When the Vandenberg Air Force Base wouldn’t welcome them and give them a reasonably close launch window, they went to Kwaj, a tiny, remote island, to conduct their first launches. Most of the equipment was lugged there via Elon Musk’s private jet. When the rocket’s capacitors were found broken on a Saturday night, a team member flew to Minnesota on Sunday to buy spare parts in a hardware store, tested them in California the day after, then returned to Kwaj and restored the electronics within 80 hours. Three problems, all solved via the path through the clouds.

The saying goes “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” but for the way to unfold, there must also be creativity. Nature has it. You have it. Use it. Sometimes, the only way that works will be unusual, but don’t shy away from a detour through the air. The magic of the destination is proportional to the twists and turns in the road we take to get there. Don’t be afraid to take the path through the clouds.

Open Space Is For the Mind

In the movie Office Space, cubicle worker Peter Gibbons is desperately unhappy with his job. As part of a hypnosis-induced streak of little (and not so little) acts of revolt, he tears down one of his cubicle walls and is rewarded with a nice view of the outside world.

Below a video essay about the film, one commenter remarks: “I’m in my 40s. I remember not liking cubicles. Today, it’s impossible to find a cube. Every office is ‘open,’ and it truly is hell on earth. Everyone ‘knocked down’ their wall for a better view, and well, it turned out to be a far worse scenario. Getting rid of cubicles was a dream we all lived to see become a collective waking nightmare.”

Where four tiny, gray-fabric-clad walls may have cut us off too much from nature and each other, thus making us depressed, removing those walls has made us hypersensitive, barraged by a non-stop torrent of noise, chatter, and data, thus overwhelming us in a different way yet overwhelming us all the same.

In reality, open space is for the mind. That’s where we need it. The brain is the part that must run free, more so than our body. We can sit at home, in a cubicle, or in a bean bag amidst a busy crowd — if our mind is calm, we’ll have all the space we need. The space to think, to invent, and to process. A room where we can create, build, and restructure, before translating the result into the physical world.

Meditation is one way, but it sure isn’t the only one. Maybe hypnosis is another, which is why in the movie, Peter is zen’d out no matter what happens at work. Our path to calm we must find ourselves, but when we do, we’ll realize: The number of walls in our office is irrelevant as long as we tear down the ones in our minds.

Equanimity Is a Choice

Sometimes, it’ll elude your grasp. But it’s a choice worth chasing. Worth diving for, sliding the last few meters on your belly, arm extended, hoping to snatch it at the last second before it goes off a cliff.

Your arm won’t always be long enough. Occasionally, you’ll watch your peace sail away, unknowingly yet begrudgingly falling into your anger. You’ll tear customer support a new one, yell at a friend for no reason, or dish out harsh criticism where your mirror-self would have needed compassion. Like the bumper sticker says: (Sh)it happens.

The question is what will you do when you awake from your trance? When the stupor fades and thinking sets in again? Will you mull over the valve that broke, causing you to blow off steam? Kick yourself for tripping? That’s how people fall over completely.

Alternatively, you can put on some balm. Apologize to who deserves it, then call it a day. Most of the time, those involved will. After all, everyone loses their nerves on occasion. By the time you’re still wondering which wires crossed where, the world has moved on – and so should you.

Equanimity is an honorable choice. A noble pursuit worth making as much as we can. But while every knight loses some of their battles, only the best waste no time in getting back on the horse. Look forward. Choose progress. Keep your eyes on the horizon – so the next time equanimity slips out of your hand, you can once again jump and try to save it.

High School Doesn’t Have to End

I hated waking up at 6 AM, but I loved shooting the shit with my friends for 40 minutes on the bus. You’d never see me not wearing headphones. Music and I had a symbiotic relationship. Still do. I’d sit on the tarmac of our sports field and listen to music for 30 minutes, waiting for school to begin. I soaked in the atmosphere, waving at the folks I knew as they passed by.

High school was learning. It was engaging. With ideas. With people. There was a room for each subject and, more importantly, room to breathe. To eat. To take a break. To connect. And when you went home? You were pretty much done. At least I was. It was life on a schedule, and it was a good one.

Of course, high school was not without troubles. There were spats, fights, and heartbreak. Growth rarely comes without pain. But it was all so…idealistic. Each disagreement, each reconciling, and every stand we took – as a class against a teacher, as friends against one another, as individuals for a dream – they all meant the world to us because, whether we had life figured out our not, and usually we didn’t, we took those stands for the right reasons.

Looking back, the one word I can think of is “innocent.” Its synonyms also apply: Honest. Pure. Virtuous. That’s what we were. We weren’t perfect, but we’ll never be, so high school was, as best as I can tell, as good as it gets. My head and heart were in the right place, and I rarely had to stop to consider what’s just and honorable. I don’t think my gut has grown weaker, I just second-guess it more than I used to. If that’s what growing up is, I’m not sure we should do it.

I have a million heroes, most of them fictitious, and the more I think about them, the more I believe the teenaged ones are the strongest. There are Harry, Ron, and Hermione. There’s Ash Ketchum, the DigiDestined, and the Elric brothers. There’s Santiago from The Alchemist, Peter Parker from Spiderman, Katniss from The Hunger Games – all teenagers, not always lighthearted but forever determined – to live true to themselves, make their dreams come true, and help everyone around them along the way.

I have decided to go back to this life, at least in spirit. Less fretting, you know? More music. “No one can predict the future, so it’s pointless to fear the unknown,” Yoh Asakura from Shaman King says.

Grown-ups always tell us we have to grow up, but maybe they’re just saying that because they did and found it was a mistake, so now they don’t want to be alone in their mistakenness. I, for one, prefer to choose love, dreams, and the idealistic shades of youth. Who says those can’t last forever?

That’s another thing teenagers don’t believe in: Good things ending. “If you start to think it’s impossible, then you’ve already admitted defeat,” Yoh says. And then he goes and does the impossible. And so will I. See you tomorrow morning on the bus.

Forced to Play

A Hans Zimmer concert is not about Hans Zimmer. It’s about some 20 musicians, each of which gets their time in the limelight. When he introduces Tina Guo, the star cellist glueing the band – and much of the show – together, Zimmer recounts a conversation they had years ago:

“Tina was born in China. Her parents had a music school. She started playing cello at the age of seven. One time, she told me: ‘My life was so hard. They forced me to play six to eight hours every day.’ I said: ‘You know Tina, that doesn’t sound so bad – after all it’s still playing.’ Thank god she never stopped. Today, she still does it and does it brilliantly. Maybe we should all play a bit more. Live life more playfully. Just watch how Tina does it.”

Gamers play games. Writers play with words. Musicians play instruments. A project manager plays with the elements of a project. People, deadlines, tasks – it’s a puzzle they get to solve. Even a street sweeper can dance with his broom if he chooses.

There’s more play in life than we think. Not always literally, but often figuratively, and even if we are forced sometimes, it’s probably not so bad. After all it’s still playing.

You, Yourself & You

That’s all you need. To live. To love. To be happy. But also to show up, ship the work, and change our perspective.

You don’t need an editor. You can proofread yourself. You don’t need a publisher. You can use Amazon. You don’t need an agent. If the work is good, people will come to you. You don’t need a developer. You can code the software yourself. You don’t need a team. You can provide the service, first for one person, then ten, then 100.

There’s beauty in staying small as long as you can. Sometimes that’s forever. Collaboration is impressive, but it’s also complex. Each next person has a life as full and intricate as yours. If you think managing one brain is hard, what about two? Twenty? 5,000?

Thoreau felt wealth was proportional to “the number of things we can afford to let alone.” Humans aren’t things, but they’re the biggest additions we make to our lives, often without thinking. Sometimes, it pays to leave them alone – for only once we look inside may we discover: Everything we need is already there.

Now Is New

In Effortless, Greg McKeown muses that “the word now comes from a Latin phrase, novus homo, which means ‘a new man’ or ‘man newly ennobled.'” The etymology may differ, but the essence is true: Now is new. Actually, now can be new.

Sometimes, now is new without our doing. One second we have a job, the next we don’t. One moment the sun shines, the next it rains. More often than not, however, new is neutral because we choose it to be. We could wear a different mood, pick a new identity, or throw away or phone – but we don’t.

We don’t because we’re comfortable, afraid, doubtful, stuck, hurt, or stubborn, but it’s not uncertainty we’re stealing time from. The seconds we take when playing it safe come out of our own pockets. And tomorrow, the uncertainty will still be there.

“Each new moment is a chance to start over,” Greg says. “A chance to make a new choice.”

Make sure now is new.

The Value of Nothing and Everything

The only difference is the lens.

Give a child an unlimited budget until they’re 18, and they’ll demand a last-minute, $2,000-haircut on a Sunday, thinking nothing of it and making snarky comments at the disgruntled beautician’s face.

Give them a $2/hour paper route, a job at McDonald’s over the summer, and a hard-earned degree they’ll have to support with a side gig, and they’ll show compassion to the stressed waiter spilling a $10 glass of wine.

There’s a saying that rich customers are the best customers because they won’t care about mistakes nor ask for refunds. That’s not true. Often, the difference is whether they are rich by design or by default. One might know the value of everything, the other the value of nothing.

Some lenses only take seconds to switch. Others form over decades, made of layers upon layers of perception, sometimes so many we can no longer see through the glass. It might require a hammer to smash such a lucid prison, but once the spectacles are shattered, we’re free to start anew – and it’s never too late to buy a new pair of glasses.

First Is Better Than Youngest

In 1906, 33-year-old Fred Marriott broke the world record for highest land speed in a wheel-driven vehicle. Driving the steam-powered “Stanley Rocket,” it was the first time a car exceeded the 200 km/h limit. When I was 18, I could easily hit 220 km/h in my parents’ 8-year-old BMW. Does that mean I’m better than Marriott? No. It simply shows the power of 100 years of societal and technological progress.

The world may spin ever faster, but can we take credit for its acceleration? “The author is the youngest person ever to be named an ambassador of French culture in Argentina.” And? Would an older one have done a worse job? Teenage millionaires are the result of technology and inflation more so than of some innate genius.

Culture is obsessed with who does it quickest, but often, titles like “30 Under 30” only say you did something worthwhile faster than someone else. How do we know it was worthwhile? Because that someone else did it first, and chances are, many people young and old will keep doing it regardless. The cause has been established, its purpose is well-served.

Youngest is stressful. First is daring. Anyone can play CV bingo. Going ahead when “this might not work” takes courage. Forget youngest. Choose first. There’s no guarantee you’ll do something worthwhile, but at least you’ll never have to worry about your top speed.

Chase the Racing Line

In Assassin’s Creed, the player must synchronize his mind with the memories of an ancestor to become enlightened in the way of the Hidden Ones. The anime Shaman King requires the best shaman fighters to achieve 100% integration with their ghosts. Dance Dance Revolution, one of the most successful video game franchises in history, is all about perfectly mimicking a sequence of dance moves.

Flow is synchronization. When we chase the perfect line across the track, be it virtually or in Formula 1, we are sweating to achieve an ideal. We show up and ask the muse to descend, for we can never achieve full sync by our own hand alone. Sometimes she does. Sometimes she doesn’t. The game remains the same.

Extended perfection is a myth. A carrot dangled from Mount Olympus by the gods, just beneath the clouds so we can see it, yet forever out of reach. Occasionally, the carrot drops from its string, and we glimpse a miracle. Senna laps four drivers in one wet-track opening lap. Chris Martin elevates 100,000 Brazilians to a higher plane in one song. These are flukes. Glitches in the Matrix. They’d only lose their spark if they weren’t.

The impossibility of flawlessness is no reason to slump in your seat and let go of the wheel. It is reason to try very hard, for the fun lies in the chase, and to be human is to feel the flow of synchronization – the kind of sync that, even when achieved only partially, leads to the shareable blessing we call art.