Three Times to Perform

The first time you walk into new terrain, your senses can barely process the flood of information. “Look, a high-rise building! Listen, a new kind of bird! Smell the donuts from this shop?” Your brain is so busy staying on focused on your destination, it’ll shut most “commit-to-short-term-memory” functions down.

That’s why, the second time you walk around the same area, everything looks vaguely familiar yet “not quite right.” “Haven’t I been here before? Isn’t there an oak over there?” You’ll be happy to discover that here and there, your intuitive orientation will be right. Most of the time, however, it won’t be – but your mind is starting to get the joke. “Oh, looks like I’ll need to remember this. Let’s get to work!”

The third time you visit the same place, your brain still won’t ace the memory test, but it’ll be excited to take it. “This is where the donut shop is. I know the high-rise building is just up ahead.” If you close your eyes and try to visualize, almost “feel” your way around, you’ll recall large chunks of information and notice a new emotion: For the first time, you’ll feel at home. Familiar. A part of the world around you rather than just a particle passing through.

There’s a reason the “third time’s the charm:” Our minds require assimilation to hit their stride, and assimilation takes time. That applies to feeling comfortable in a new city, flat, or office as much as it does to finding a groove with new people, projects, and habits.

When you can’t retrieve 100% of your performance immediately, don’t worry. What in your environment has changed? Maybe, you’ve just wandered into unfamiliar terrain. Accident or not, give your brain time to gather its skills. Try once, twice, and by the third time, the only question you’ll have is why you didn’t make this wonderful trip before.

The Uber Trader

Stuck in London rush hour traffic, I noticed my driver tapping around on his windshield-mounted phone. “Is that Trading212?” He confirmed, and we started talking about stocks. By the time I got out of the car, he had told me his entire strategy for making intraday trades, which stocks had done well for him recently, and how he’d run up his stack to £10,000, then lost half on a single trade.

The most fascinating thing, however? He did it all on his phone while chauffeuring people around. “The Uber trader,” I thought. Not because he was so good, but because he managed to do two jobs at the same time, both of which would have been much harder to do – or simply unaccessible to him altogether – just a few short years ago.

Cab drivers in the UK must pass “The Knowledge,” an insanely detailed test of your memory of London’s streets, which takes most students “three to four years” to learn. Not exactly a job you can pick up tomorrow. Before Google Maps, however, knowing the streets was the only way. Good luck fiddling with a paper map while your client is late for her meeting.

More specifically, you need mobile access to Google Maps. A laptop wouldn’t do you any good either. You need high-speed internet on a small device you can keep in your periphery at all times, and then you need said internet to bring you accurate, real-time information about where you’re trying to go.

You also need permission to transport people from A to B, a privilege Uber has brought to millions of people who were barred from cabbing for some red tape excuse or other petty reason.

And then? Then you need the same kind of enabling technology and access again, this time to the global financial markets – all of which we have.

What a remarkable world we live in. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. We’ll never be perfect, and we’ll always have problems, but a civilization that conjures this kind of progress in such a short time can’t be all bad apples.

I guess my driver was “The Uber trader” after all – because even more so than the ride-sharing company, his stocks app, or his performance, the label alone tells us we live in times where the impossible becomes reality every day.

Inspiration vs. Accountability

I spent most of my 20s in college libraries. From Mannheim to Karlsruhe and from Boston to Munich, I have “librated” all over the place.

In the beginning, it was essential. There were many of us trying to survive our first semester, and the only way we’d be able to do it was together. Pool our brains, meet at the library, and then study, study, study. I think we all felt a sense of camaraderie and duty, and it was a big relief to know we weren’t struggling alone.

When I first started working for myself, the need for money drove me into all kinds of odd jobs – most of which I tackled in the library. Now, sitting among students had a different feel to it: It was me vs. them, the worker vs. the thinkers, the pragmatist vs. the theorists, and I wanted “to win.” There was nothing to win, of course, except financial survival, but the smugness of “I’m putting in the same time as you, but I’m making money, and you’re not” definitely helped me get through the first, mostly fruitless years, even if I never voiced it outright.

During my Masters, I did both, work and study, and so, once again, I landed in the library. Now I could pick either accountability or inspiration, whichever one I needed at any given hour. I’d take pride in the fact that I was earning money with what I was doing in the morning, then try to memorize leadership models from a bunch of ugly slides in the afternoon, like everyone else.

It’s been a few years since I’ve left behind the comfy confines of the library, and I have to say: The closer I get to defining my mission in the life, and the better I understand my purpose, the less accountability I need, and the more inspiration I feel.

In fact, I’ve reached a stage where being surrounded by other busy bees seems to hinder me more than it helps. It mainly feels like noise. I don’t need a visual guilt trip anymore. “Look! These people are all slaving away too! Never mind whether they enjoy it. Just do your work!”

When your accountability lies with an audience or group of customers, you no longer serve the master of “productivity for productivity’s sake.” There are real, human reasons to do the best you can do, and if those reasons don’t suffice, you’re in the wrong line of work.

Inspiration is a much better source of work energy than accountability via “you’re not working hard enough” reminders. The former is self-sustaining. Intrinsic. It flows from the inside to the outside. Therefore, it allows you to be productive wherever you go, ideally in a space you’ve designed; a place that directs, amplifies, and reinforces your natural inspiration rather than crush it with the distracting screams of “see what the rest of the world is doing, and by the way, most of them are unhappy.”

When you’re inspired, you don’t need to go to WeWork. Your mission is just as important to do from home. You don’t need to feel like a cog in the big industrial, consumerism-oriented machine. You can look out the window, think of the people you’re serving, and get back to work. This isn’t to say libraries, co-working spaces, and open floor offices are inherently bad – it is to say that you’ve hit your stride when you no longer need to rely on any of them to get things done.

Inspiration is the carrot to accountability’s stick, but it’s a carrot that, once you’ve eaten it whole, you’ll never have to eat it again. You’ll just keep going regardless.

Few of us start out inspired. If you’ve wanted to be a director since you were eight years old and became one at 13, more power to you. For the rest of us, it’s fine to start out at the library. Begin with accountability, but never stop looking for inspiration. Find your perpetual motion machine, and show us your truest, bestest work.

One Rule for Everybody

Talking about his insane quest to scale all 14 of the world’s highest, 8,000-plus-meters mountains in just seven months, Nims Purja says:

“The mountain doesn’t say, ‘You are Black. You are white. You’re weak. You’re strong.’ It’s one rule for everybody: If you give up, you die.”

Not everything in life is as equalizing as the indifference of a cold, rock-hard peak reaching into the sky at cruising altitude, but ultimately, whatever metaphorical Everest might separate us from what we want, there still is one rule for everybody: If you give up, you lose.

You might not have beauty, but could you be the first disabled supermodel? You could. You might not be the smartest in school, but you could still make it into the Hockey Hall of Fame. And if you don’t have the means to travel to every country in the world, you could still cook a meal from every one.

Whichever mountain you hope to climb, remember true equality is not found without but within: It is our power to be creative, resourceful, and persistent that unites us. No matter how far away the peak, it is one rule for everybody: If you show us focus, courage, and perseverance, one day, you will make it to the top.

The Default Is Regression – Fight It

There was a large, shallow water basin in the center of the courtyard. A three-year-old girl kept making her rounds. She took the three steps into the water, ran to the center, splashed around, then climbed back out. Then, a quick pit stop at her parents, and off again she went.

The girl tried all kinds of stomping in the water. Outside, she jumped from stone tile to stone tile in various ways. She waved at people and stared right at them. Sometimes, she’d wave her arms all over the place.

A friend said she learned that children know much more than we give them credit for. That includes hard skills like swimming or recognizing faces, but also soft skills like not apologizing for being curious and, most of all, not giving a damn what anyone thinks.

The little girl did not care whether she looked silly crawling, jumping, or flailing around her arms. If that’s what it took to get to the bottom of whatever sparked her attention next, then fine. So be it.

When children don’t want something, they will tell you – and they’ll do it loudly if they have to repeat it. They have no qualms about calling aunt May’s hair funny or telling one parent they love them more than the other. It’s a remarkable sense of honesty, and if we weren’t so busy dismissing it as cutesy child behavior, we would be both shocked and inspired by it.

If children can do so many things we secretly dream of being able to do as adults, maybe they know more than we do. Maybe we are born perfect, and what follows is slow decay.

When a plant stops growing, it dies. The same applies to humans. What we don’t see is how much of our struggle for growth is actually just fighting the default, fighting the regression from our initial, very well-rounded, if not perfect, state.

If you had a dime for every time you hesitated to say no when you didn’t want something, you probably wouldn’t have to work. The next time it happens, imagine a child declining to eat broccoli. It can be so easy, can’t it? “No. I don’t want this.”

Fight the default of regression. Don’t let your life become decades of decline. We’ll never be as perfect as when we were three, but if you ask me, the mere image of it is more than enough reason to try.

Guilty and Complaining

Between guilt and shame, supposedly, guilt is the better emotion. Guilt gets us to admit our mistakes and try to make up for them. Shame, however, only makes us want to hide. We keep to ourselves, worry about being found out, and when the inevitable happens, we pray we won’t be judged, for it’d only scar us more.

Clearly, guilt is the better option. Guilt gets you somewhere, if not always immediately. But what about feeling guilty for who you are, what you want out of life, and how you want to feel? Those aren’t mistakes. They just are. You are. When you start feeling guilty about things that don’t need justification, you’ll walk down a slippery slope.

In many court cases, the innocent complain about a lack of justice for the guilty. When we apologize for whatever we’ve learned about ourselves, we flip this upside down: Since we feel guilty, we’ll start complaining. “Why can’t I travel less? Why do I have to wake up so early? Why won’t my family support my exercise habit? Why won’t people respect my boundaries?” Well, it might be because you’re only complaining! If your schedule includes regular travel, but you want to fly less, work to change your schedule. Did you tell your family you need support for your workout routine? If you want to have boundaries, you need to establish them.

The problem lies not in a lack of options; it lies in you not accepting who you are. You’ve already done the hard bit! You’ve identified what you need. Instead of second-guessing yourself, find a way to see it through. It is a tough job, this separating what’s non-negotiable from what’s merely wishful thinking. Don’t let the results be in vain. Our gut is strong. It can be an incredible ally. Yes, every now and then, it leads us astray, but most of the instances when it fails us are actually just us doubting our inner compass. Guilty. “Why am I this way? Why can’t I want something different?” It is a lack of acceptance rather than of insight, and it leads to the detrimental guilty-and-complaining cycle.

When you’ve screwed up, please, do feel guilty by all means. Fess up to your mistakes. Try to do better. Self-awareness, however, is wonderful. You are who you are. The ways of the world are mysterious, and we’ll rarely get an explanation for why each part was put in its place. That doesn’t make any part meaningless. They’re all there for a reason. Trust in the reason, and help the parts work together.

Try this for a day: Don’t feel guilty, and don’t complain. See how that combination works wonders. Suddenly, you can’t judge yourself, and, therefore, you also can’t wallow in self-pity. What is this new aspect of yourself you have discovered? Fascinating! How can you integrate it into your life? Can you pour it in slowly? Or will it require some hard decisions? Either way, get on with it. Stay busy living instead of complaining about the life you’re not creating. May neither guilt nor shame get in your way.

Which Regrets Would Hurt Forever?

Minimizing regret is a noble, multi-stage game. First, you must identify potential regrets before making the decisions that’ll lock them in. Next, you must figure out how to avoid them, or if you can’t, estimate how much you’ll regret taking certain paths over others.

Finally, to prevent regret from leading to ruin, aka late-stage bitterness in life, you must do your best to feel out the disappointments that would never stop bleeding, and if you find one, nix it at any and all cost. Otherwise, it’ll become a slow-drip poison seeping in until the end – and if you want to look back at life feeling proud and content, you absolutely can’t have any of those.

This is, of course, an impossible game to win, let alone with a perfect score. Much tallying and estimating and going back in forth will happen in your head, and yet sometimes, you’ll have to flip a coin or go with your gut regardless. Some shots you can only take in the moment, and your test scores might need a while to arrive.

Still, “Which regrets would hurt forever?” is a helpful question, if only for the few times in life when the answer will be obvious. Those answers will inevitably lead to hard choices, but at least your direction will be clear.

No one gets through life without scars and scratches, but if we can prevent a terminal diagnosis before it happens, we must accept our grave responsibility: Swallowing the bitter pill may spoil our appetite for now, but it’ll set our stomach straight in time for dessert.

Give It a Google

That’s what the tour guide said. He no longer has to explain everything. You don’t need to ask for his phone number in case you have follow-up questions.

Curiosity has always been optional, but today, it is no longer dangerous. You can fall down any rabbit hole in the private comfort of your phone. That’s a tremendous power. Often, we don’t use it because of its very ubiquity. We expect we’ll always have it. Why google today what you can google tomorrow?

Well, tomorrow, googling might no longer be as private as it is today. I know “private” is relative, but I guarantee you googling is more private than “baiduing” – using its Chinese equivalent. What about the people in Ukraine? War comes to your doorstep, and the power goes out. No internet, no smartphones. Poof. The world library is closed.

Googling has become a basic privilege, but that doesn’t mean it no longer qualifies as one. Don’t wait. If you want to know, give it a google. Remember the power in your pocket, and use it while you can.

The Purpose of Backup Plans

It’s not that you can switch lanes seamlessly when something goes wrong. Life isn’t an airplane. There’s no exact sequence of steps to take under certain conditions so you’ll land safely amidst turbulence.

Have you ever executed a backup plan precisely the way you planned it before you needed it? If not, it’s probably because the scenario you devised it for also didn’t happen just as you imagined. Chances are, you went to your backup plan as an initial source of consolation, but the actual solution to your problem? That likely looked very different from what you thought you might need.

The true benefit of a backup plan is that you don’t blow your lid when your original scheme falls apart. Instead of panicking, you get to keep calm. “Ahh, the backup plan. Thank god I’m prepared!”

In reality, you’re not that well-prepared. You might only be five, maybe ten percent more equipped to handle the crisis than you would be without a next best alternative. The fact that you did prepare at all, however, makes all the difference. You have a place to go to, and even if it’s not the perfect one, it is a place to start from, and in moments of crisis, that’s worth more than gold.

When it comes to failing softly, six sigma is for mass manufacturing, but for our humble little lives, one layer of reinforcements usually does the trick. After all, once you’re back on your feet, you’ll just have to get back to doing what you do best anyway: Think on those very feet, and invent your way forward.

So Far, So Good

In The Magnificent Seven, a few brave cowboys volunteer to protect a small town from the gruesome exploitations of a predatory industrialist. Hopelessly outnumbered, they stare at the village they’ve vowed to defend and muse about their minuscule chances of victory. One gang member asks Josh Faraday, a skilled gunman, what he thinks about their odds. Faraday responds with a story:

Reminds me of this fella I used to know. Fell off a five-story building. As he passed each floor on the way down, people inside heard him say: “So far, so good!

He’s dead now.

The scene makes for a good chuckle among the rest of the gang and the audience, but it also holds a piece of advice that’s much deeper than a grim sense of humor: As the saying goes, hope dies last – but it must not die before you do. It is the last thing to enter the picture, but once it does, it must never, never run out – right until the very, true, actual end.

Sometimes, life will push you into unwinnable battles. No one likes the prospect of losing, but we mustn’t let prospects become prophesies. Many a foregone conclusion has been turned around, and while, yes, hope is what you do at the end, that does not mean you get to stop hoping before you hit the ground.

Considering his impending doom, Faraday checks in with Sam, a friend he is indebted to. “Have I made good on my horse yet, Sam?” Keeping his eyes on the horizon, Sam simply says: “So far, so good.” And off into battle they ride.