Recently, my slight obsession with Lord of the Rings got a tiny bit worse and I dove into reading all the books from start to finish.
Right now, I’ve made my way through The Hobbit and half way through the first part of The Lord of the Rings “The Fellowship of the Ring”. Out of all tales that I have ever seen as a movie or read about in books, the Lord of the Rings seems to have one of the most majestic ones.
Especially the book (as opposed to the movie) is filled with hints and hints to dozens of other tales, stories and riddles, that flesh out the vastness of the plot even more. Those are the stories I like the most. They leave so many questions unanswered and pose even more ones you want to know and wonder about all the time.
The one thing that I noticed though was how few are really part of the tale: It is a handful of people that at the end of the day save the world. In the fellowship there are 9, then there are a few more people involved along the way, who shape events greatly, and that’s it.
After I realized this, I thought about any other story or event that had great meaning to lots of people. And really, I couldn’t find any where there were more than a handful of people involved that shaped everything. I pondered tales of all kinds from Star Wars, to the Bible, to the history of Google or the recent Mars Landing.
Of course, there are always tons and tons of side rolls and supporting characters. And even more people cheering on or greatly opposing of what’s happening. And even more people who simply happen to have lived at the time of the story happening. They are important too. It’s just, they aren’t really part of the tale.
That is the line, that we have had built into our heads since the very start. “What could go wrong?”, is what our ancestors asked themselves every day.
When they went into the woods to gather berries or find the next animal to kill, that was the one premise they went out with. That is what they accounted for, so that no predator could attack them or do them any harm.
In the most literal sense, the line “what could go wrong?”, deeply ingrained into our ancient lizard brain is what saved our ass.
In fact, I would go even further, “What could go wrong?”, is the one line that brought us to where we are today. It is the one sentence that helped us to outsmart any enemy, as we could pre-empt their attacks, built caves with better protection and make sure our children and theirs will make it through many summers.
It does seem quite ironic then, that in today’s world “What could go wrong?” has completely turned her back on us. The ones that keep thinking “What could go wrong?” are the ones who are plentiful, and the ones that bring very little value to the table:
“There will always be a surplus of people eager to criticize, nitpick or recommend caution.” ~ Seth Godin
In today’s world, “What could go wrong?” has little to no use. The ones that succeed are others. It is the people who dare. Who dare greatly. It is the Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musks, Barack Obamas, Jack Dorsey’s, Mark Zuckerberg’s and Larry and Sergey’s.
At first, it almost seems, that mother nature has turned her back on us. The one ingrained understanding of caution we are all born with is that one that will no longer see us through to arrive safely in the next generation. The one ingrained understanding that you, who are reading this carry within yourself burnt into your synapses. The one that I, as I write this, carry with myself.
Maybe though, so I think, it isn’t all wrong. Maybe it is just that we are continuing our course of evolution, where, after many years of good use, the tool “What could go wrong?”, finally needs to be put to (a well deserved) rest.
On behalf of “Yes!” and on behalf of daring, it is my sincere belief that thinking “What could go wrong?” can’t bring us any good (anymore).
Instead, I think it is of the highest importance to learn (and learning this I think we must, as none of us are born with it) to start asking ourselves and everyone else “What could go right today?”. And then, go do that right thing.
Let’s say you’ve grown up in a small town like me. Or a big town. It doesn’t quite matter so much. You went to school there, you made lots of friends there. You even found your first love there. Then you went on going to College there. You enjoyed some more time with your friends and family. And then, slowly, but surely, you realise something. You aren’t quite the person you want to be. You realise this:
You want to be a quite different person. And you are thinking of changing yourself. Ever so slightly. Then a bit more aggressively.
The shy guy, all of a sudden speaks up in a crowded room to express his idea.
The pessimistic girl starts to smile and talk about the great things of life every day.
The person who has always suppressed their emotions, expresses their feelings clearly and heart warmingly to someone.
And then, after our attempt to change comes the sentence. It is being told to us by someone we know so well, maybe our friends, maybe our family. And it hits us like a knife being stabbed into our stomachs:
“But that’s not the <name> I know. You are a different person now!”
What follows in many cases is ridiculing, laughing, disbelief of your new actions. Your surroundings, your friends, your family, who have come to know you as this or that kind of person won’t accept the new “you” that you are exploring. Change is always hard; for everyone.
And so, slowly the shy guy becomes more shy again. The pessimistic girl gets back to smiling less and complaining more about the hard life. The feelings are getting suppressed again.
We cannot change without the environment around us approving of us. As hard as this truth may sound, it is something that I have found more persistent than anything else.
So what we have to do, if we really want to reinvent ourselves is to change our environment. It is to find a place, where we can change and become a different person. The person we want to be or think we want to be. Where we can change our minds when we yet again, want to become a different person from the one we originally changed into.
Doing this is hard. It’s insanely hard. It takes all the courage we have as humans to do so. And yet the reward is greater than anything else: Freedom. The places where you can become the person you want to become are rare. In fact, they are extremely rare. And even if we are in such a place, it takes a whole lot more courage to find out about it.
The above is a truth (and story) I have come to understand over the past few years. I have completely changed my environment several times. I’ve changed the people I interact with and even the continent I lived on, twice. And I couldn’t think of anything else that’s more worthy of doing.
There is a question I’ve recently asked myself: When was the last time I’ve actually listened to music?
I don’t mean: When was the last time I walked somewhere and I listened to music. Or: When was the last time I was on the train and listened to music. Or: When was the last time I was working, whilst also plugging my headphones in and listening to music.
In fact, the above is not even listening to music.
Instead, I mean when was the last time I just sat down in a chair, picked a song I really enjoyed and listened to it intently with all my attention? Honestly, I can’t remember. I can’t remember when the last time was I just listened to music, for the sake of listening to music. It must have been at least 10 years ago, that I remember having that experience.
I’m drugging myself with music
What I’ve come to realise is that listening to music has the same effect as taking any kind of drug. It puts me into a better place and makes the time go faster. I drug myself when going for a walk, when riding my bike, when going on the train, when sitting in the plane. It doesn’t matter.
I do it, because I feel the moments are not worthy enough to be experienced by themselves. A walk to the grocery store? What a waste of my life. I better put some music on and drug the hell out of myself so I can make the time go by faster.
That was definitely something that I wanted to change.
Stopping the drugs
Gradually, over the past few weeks, I have made an effort to stop myself from being so drugged up with music all the time. I started with my bike ride to the office. No more banging beats in my head, instead a clear focus on the road as I cycle through beautiful San Francisco whilst the sun rises.
It’s a slow process, I catch myself very often still, where I just put my headphones in as I walk out of the office or my apartment. I let it happen. I’m not going to get off those drugs overnight. Instead I’m picking specific small reoccurring events where I stop listening to it.
It’s that life doesn’t need a background sound all the time. Music lets me drift off into my thoughts, fight dragons in my head and creates other imaginary stories where I’m the hero.
There are no ordinary moments
“There are no ordinary moments in life” ~ The peaceful warrior
That’s what this is all about. It’s about seeing every moment as what it is. And turning off the music is the first step of many, that will help me get there. I’m already feeling how each bike ride without headphones becomes a much more memorable experience.
I believe this was a great discovery on my path to happiness.
Every evening, or sometimes during the day, I’m writing to do lists. Or sometimes an Anti-to do list. I love these lists. Seriously, I think it’s a great feeling to tick things off and to feely mightily productive.
Yet, sometimes, these lists can build up. It can feel that I have to work through them, that it’s my “task”, that it’s my home work, that it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.
In these moments it’s important to remember that I’ve chosen to do this. Over many weeks and months I’ve come to the conclusion that this is what I want to be working on. It is in fact, first and foremost my privilege. It’s my achievement to be able to work on these “to do’s” that I’ve set out.
When we forget that. Maybe it’s time to cross of that “to do” and exchange it for an “it’s your privilege to”. Because truly, it is:
On my way to the airport this week, I’ve had an amazing conversation with Joel. It was about a topic I thought I had nailed for a long time and realized that actually rather the opposite was the case.
Joel told me something very inspiring along the lines of that whenever someone mentions the phrase “that’s not very realistic” or “if we are realistic about this, then” a magic sensor goes off in his brain. He aims to fight off every conclusion that was drawn from “being realistic” and get back to thinking what we could do, if we only were less realistic about things.
When I thought more about this on the plane, which is where I’m writing this, I realized that there are two very important things that are connected to this idea of “being realistic”.
Why it is so hard to work against the “being realistic” argument
Let’s take the sentence “Let’s be more realistic about this.”
If I were to substitute the word “realistic” for other words that would trigger the same meaning in my head, a few options come to mind. One is “logical”. So the sentence would be
“Let’s be more logical about this.”.
Another one would be “rational” or “think this through”. So we get
“Let’s be more rational about this.” Or “Let’s think this through”.
All of these substitutes are things that we would intuitively agree with. We want to be more logical, more rational and most importantly we want to think this through.
So without knowing, we are being drawn in to agreeing with a topic or point of view, purely because we want to be more logical, rational and thinking smart.
What I’ve realized though is that being realistic merely means this:
Being realistic = fear of failure
When I think back to every moment someone mentioned “being realistic”, I’ve actually realized, that it is merely an expression of fear of failure.
Being realistic purely shows that you believe something can’t be done. It means something isn’t in your reach or you are not capable of doing it. To put differently, the universe of your thinking, of the things you know and have done before, this or that idea can’t work within these “realistic” boundaries you’ve created.
Whenever this fear of failure overcomes us, when we can’t see this “thing” to be possible in our heads within the realms of things we know, there is one thing we have to remind ourselves of:
“We cannot solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it.” ~ Albert Einstein
Of course it is not realistic and of course you will fail with the knowledge and tools you’ve been using so far. That’s not the point. The point is that you’ll do things differently to go about this. You will choose the tools of risk and excitement that will get you to do things you’ve never done before.
So the next time someone or even you yourself mentions “realistic” in a sentence, listen carefully. Why? Because “It all always seems impossible until it is all done.” ~ Nelson Mandela
On this day, around 2 years ago, I’m about a few weeks away before I’ve had a brief Skype chat with Joel on a side project he was working on. He’d called it bfffr.com. It was a site that would let you queue up Tweets and release them well spaced out over the day.
The reason for chatting in the first place, was because I wanted to get some advice on a student survey site I was working on at the time. As the conversation moved on to how bfffr was doing, Joel said that within the first month he had already 4 paying customers and made a bit over $20. I was blown away. I had never made money online myself.
Joel said that now with a few users and good validation, it was time to switch over to do some marketing. That was my cue. “Oh, marketing? I can do that!”, I remember typing. At the time I had absolutely no clue what that meant. I was half-way through my second year in college and had just gotten the hang of using Google Chrome.
Fast forward two years, we had successfully created and grown a company to 7 awesome people, moved to San Francisco, raised a seed round and started to pull in revenues close to $1m per year. So, close before the year ends, I wanted to take some time out and reflect what and how this has happened over the past 2 years.
The move to drop out of college
It wasn’t actually until 2 months ago, that I’ve officially dropped out of College. After one semester working on Buffer and significantly neglecting my degree, I decided to first take a year out. I said to myself “I don’t know if this is going to work, so if I take a year out, give it a go and fail, I can always go back to finishing my degree”.
And so, Joel and I packed our bags and we moved to San Francisco that summer after my semester ended. It felt great, I had no pressure to succeed, as I could always just go back finishing up my degree. At the same time, this gave me a strange feeling of freedom. Without the pressure, I could push much harder than I had ever done before.
That summer, after a lot of sweat and tears, we managed to just about get into an incubator (AngelPad) that also gave us $120,000 in our first seed money. I had never seen that much money before, neither imagined being able to use some of it. We went on to raise a total of $450,000 which would allow us to quickly hire a few more awesome people to push Buffer (Joel had quickly changed the name from bfffr to Buffer) to the next level.
In short, from the beginning of that summer 2011 we moved to San Francisco until fall of 2012 when the new school year would start again, I had time to push as hard as I could and figure out whether Buffer was working or not. I was in a safe state, where nothing truly catastrophic could happen. It was great and eliminated a lot of risk.
When I eventually made the call that I won’t go back to studying, the odds were looking a lot better. We had stable monthly revenue, Visas to stay in the US, an office and a lot to look forward to. At this point, it was a very easy choice to briefly write to the University authorities “Hi guys, I won’t be coming back, please cancel my subscription.”
The one thing I like to remind myself of is that I didn’t drop out of college to work on a startup. I started working on a startup, which saw great traction, so I had to drop out of college. When I tell this story, I often get it wrong and mix up the causal relationship between the two.
All in all, I believe that, that first moment of asking Joel if I could help out with marketing at bfffr was the key turning point in my life as I knew it. And I’m incredibly grateful for it.
Every evening, before I go to bed, I tend to read 2-3, sometimes 4 pages of a book that I’m in the middle of.
It didn’t used to be like that, I would take time out of my day and spend a longer time reading a book, trying to soak as much in as I could. I would feel great if I was able to finish a book in an afternoon, gaining all this “knowledge” so quickly.
Recently, however, I’ve realized something. In the middle of reading “The 4 Agreements” (an incredible book, I’m glad Joel showed me), it took me over 1 week to just read the 1 agreement, which is maybe 20 pages.
After that, I stopped reading for a few days and just let the thoughts sink in – and most importantly, let them manifest as actions. Or to be more precise have those thoughts manifest as small experiments.
That is exactly where I think my problem with reading at long stretches used to lie. I would read dozens and dozens of great points and thoughts from the author and connect it with my own thinking.
What I would fall short of, most of the time is to test and experiment with some of the authors finding.
I started doing this much more and with the recent experience with the 4 agreements, it became a lot more clear.
Another example I’d like to mention is when I started to read “Peace is every step” from Thich Nhat Hanh. With this book I couldn’t even read more than 1 page. Not because it is so dense. But because every single thought Thich puts across is so extremely valuable, that I don’t want to rush through it.
That’s why I now limit myself to not reading too much in one stretch. One, two, three, sometimes a few more pages is enough to get insight into a great point the author has made.
Then it’s time to stop, to reflect, to let it sink in and most importantly – to start experimenting with that exact idea right away. Does it work for me? Does it not? It makes reading a much richer and more mindful experience. And it feels great.
How do you read?
How do you focus on daily positivity and happiness in life? You practice it every day, just like playing the violin or learning to ride a bike.
Here are some of the lessons we’ve learnt so far with Buffer and with general activities that helps become a happier self:
Would love to get your thoughts on happiness practices you’ve discovered or things that make you happy every day.
How do you start your day and why is it so important to take control of it? In the second episode of startup life, Joel and I are discussing the various benefits of having a clear and set daily routine:
It’d be great to get your thoughts on what the first things are you tackle as soon as you get up. Is it heading for the train or bus to work? Or do you have a different ritual you invented by yourself. Let me know your thoughts below!