Being Normal

“You’re not normal.”

Has anyone ever used those words to hurt you?

My high school experience was basically 3 straight years of this insult being shoveled onto me until I was buried so deep that I could barely see the light. It took me a long time to realize that I should actually be taking those words as a compliment.

Unlike many of my classmates, who could magically conform to whatever absurd fashions were trending at the time, I couldn’t seem to do it—even when I tried. I thought something was wrong with me, and I hated myself for it. Being different meant being a loner, and I thought I would never be successful until I learned how to fit in.

The education system rewards this type of conformity. You succeed in school when you follow the rules to a T and never dare to question authority.

But the real world doesn’t work like that. Especially as machines take over automated tasks and humans are left with the creative work, success awaits those who are able to break the mold and be brazenly different. You can’t change the world unless you’re willing to stand out from the crowd.

Don’t ever try to be normal. Figure out where you’re different, and then cultivate that area. Be proud of it.


I like to wander. I like to take untrodden or forbidden paths to explore new territory, where the travel is an end in itself, not the means of getting to a destination. If I come to a fork in the road, I can choose the most appealing path without worrying where it will end up or whether I will get lost. When you go places you’ve never been before, you open up your mind and realize that what you know is only the tiniest sliver of everything that’s out there.

My mind likes to wander too. To explore forbidden or eccentric ideas and see where they take me. To let curiosity guide me down unfamiliar trails where there is no end in sight. That’s where the best discoveries happen—you stumble upon them when you’re least expecting them. You don’t have a particular end in mind or a problem to solve, you just let your mind play around.

This type of exploration makes for the best conversation. You can voice the thoughts that pop into your head without evaluating them for appropriateness or fearing judgment, because you’re merely exploring the thought with another person. There’s no such thing as a wrong turn, because you’re not in a hurry and you can always circle back. You can follow the tangents and see where they lead you. Because you never know when you’ll come out of the woods to a stunning overlook of the world beneath you, where all the muddled pathways are laid clear.


To say that there are no secrets left today would mean that we live in a society with no hidden injustices. – Peter Thiel

When I look around at all the suffering and injustice in the world, it’s easy to let my inner pessimist take over and conclude that all hope is lost, that I’d be better off retreating to a Galt’s Gulch. I get discouraged and start to think that change isn’t possible.

Then when I look at history and see just how far we’ve come, hope returns. We’ve come a long way from a time when children were meant to be seen and not heard, women had to stay in the home, and blacks were segregated. And while some of the social changes may have been propelled by great innovators and influencers, the majority resulted from broad groups of individuals who decided to stand up for what they believe.

People call me idealistic when I paint a picture of what I believe the world could be. They tell me that a world without coercive governments, artificial borders, and socially acceptable child abuse will never exist. Had they applied that same framework 200 years ago, they would have been dead wrong. When you look back, you can see the power of individuals in aggregate.

What that means is that it starts with you. You have more power than you realize. Because it’s not the people in high positions who are going to change the world. It’s a bunch of ordinary people, all of whom are just like you. When you discover your personal truth and make it heard, you are adding to that force.

Raise your voice in harmony with the chorus of truth so that it echoes across the world.

Jumping Off

When I was 17 years old, I hopped on a plane with a one-way ticket to a country half-way around the world where I didn’t know a single soul. That country was Ukraine, and I was planning to live there for my senior year of high school as part of the Rotary foreign exchange program. Knowing nothing but a few phrases in Russian, I knew it would be a challenge to make friends and adjust to the new culture.

It turned out to be more difficult than I had ever imagined.

A few days before my arrival in the city of Dnepropetrovsk, the Rotary Club that was in charge of finding a host family for me fell apart. Thankfully, the ex-president of that club felt bad and agreed to host me with his family until they could find someplace better. They eventually found me another family with children my age who I could live with, but they only had room for me for a month while the father was away on a business trip. I kept moving on to new host families almost every month until by the end of the year, I had lived in 10 different places around the city. Although the constant moves enabled me to see all different perspectives on the local lifestyle, it made me feel homeless and unwanted, with no one I could rely on.

Making friends was even harder. After the first few weeks of novelty wore off, my classmates at school got sick of not being able to communicate with me. Only a few of the overachievers who wanted to practice their English with me pretended to be my friends. But I didn’t want to spend my year abroad tutoring people in English—I wanted to make real friends and understand what was going on around me.

I had no choice but to grow to face the challenges.

There was no one to give me formal instruction on the language, so I decided to learn it on my own. I spent countless hours memorizing vocabulary and studying Russian grammar (believe me—it’s not easy). I practiced speaking with anyone who was patient enough to listen. I wrote out essays and asked my host mothers to correct them for me.

After many tears and an entire year of diligent work, I was finally able to speak Russian nearly fluently. I returned home with lifelong friendships and a thorough understanding of Ukrainian culture, knowing I had made an impact on their community through my contributions.

My experience living abroad shaped my approach to life: I know that if I want to learn something new, the best way is to jump off the cliff and build my wings on the way down. I may still quake with fear at the drop below me, but I know that I will survive and be stronger for it.

What challenge are you afraid of? You don’t have to travel across the world. You can make the plunge right here and now, doing whatever it is that scares you most.

Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

-Steven Pressfield

Stop Being So Polite

Whenever I’m expressing heartfelt thanks to you, I don’t want you to tell me it was “no big deal”—not if it was a big deal for you to help me.

Whenever I’m genuinely apologizing to you for something hurtful, don’t tell me not to worry about it.

Whenever I give you a compliment, don’t thank me for my “kind words” or tell me you “feel flattered.” If what I express is genuine, then I’m not saying it out of kindness or flattery—I’m saying it out of honesty.

Whenever I’m confiding in you about something that’s upsetting me, don’t tell me that it’s nothing to worry about, even if it’s the most trivial thing in the world. Don’t tell me that you’re “sorry to hear that” either, just because that’s what you’re supposed to say.

If you’re going to do nothing but regurgitate pre-programmed responses, then I might as well be talking to a robot.

I want to know how you really feel about it. Tell me that you’re glad I noticed how much work you put into something. Let me know that you felt warm and fuzzy when I told you that. If you felt hurt or sad, express that too. If you forgive me for having hurt you, then let me know. If you’re unable to forgive me because you think I’ll hurt you again, tell me that too. You can even tell me that you’re at a loss for words.

All of the above responses have one thing in common: they dismiss my emotions, treating them as misguided and insignificant. The thing is, there’s no such thing as a wrong emotion. All genuine feelings flow naturally from events and causes. While they can be expressed in unhealthy ways, on their own there is nothing wrong with them. Dismissing them doesn’t make them go away, either. It merely shoves them out of your path so they can resurface in some other way.

So when you tell someone that what they feel strongly about is “no big deal” or nothing more than “kind words,” that communicates that what they feel doesn’t matter. It will likely discourage them from sharing their feelings with you in the future if they feel that they won’t be valued.

Being guilty of this myself, I understand that most people don’t respond like this with bad intentions. I think there are two reasons people make these mistakes.

1) It’s hard to respond with sincerity, because it puts you in a vulnerable position. The listener might dismiss your emotions or use them against you.

2) Etiquette. As children, we learn that we can only express certain sentiments if we want to be accepted. In the name of politeness, we are taught that we must censor the feelings we have that are inconvenient to those in authority. Thus we fall into ruts of predictable conversation in order to protect ourselves from punishment.

But as adults, we no longer have to live to appease authority figures (assuming you’re not in a job where you do—if you are, get out.) We can now escape the shackles of our history and cultivate the habits that serve us best. When speaking with people who are close to us, we can make the effort to abandon the Script of Etiquette and choose to speak from the heart.

The world would be a much better place if we could simply express our true feelings.


morning-riverLife is full of choices. If you have to weigh the pros and cons of each option every time you make a decision, you’re going to drain your willpower and miss out on a lot of opportunities. That’s why it helps to develop habits that streamline your life and free up your mental strength for more important things.

These are the habits I’m currently working on building:

1. Going for a walk or run first thing every morning. This wakes me up and gets my blood flowing, and it gives me a chance to focus myself and plan out my day. I use the time to remind myself of my goals, take note of my feelings, and (recently) to plan out my daily blog post. Sometimes I even record my thoughts as a note on Voxer.

My favorite thing about my morning walks is that they keep me connected to my environment. My body attunes itself to the changing of the seasons and I feel more at peace with the weather. Right now I live less than a mile away from the point where the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers meet at the heart of Pittsburgh. There’s something about the flowing water and the crisp morning air that makes me feel more alive.

2. Being kind to strangers. Just because city-dwellers have armored themselves with blank stares of stoicism doesn’t mean that I can’t say hello—or at least smile—and make a fleeting connection with someone I will never see again. Whenever possible, I strike up a conversation. At the very least, I can make my day more interesting, and at best, I could make a new friend.

We’re all going through this same whirlwind we call life, so we might as well acknowledge it.

3. Hugging people. I’ve been in way too many of those awkward situations where you’re parting ways with a friend, and you’re not sure whether it’s appropriate to hug or not. Usually, I end up just walking away with a wave and a regret. So instead of putting myself through that dilemma every time or waiting for the other person to initiate, I’m going to just assert myself and do it. And not one of those lame side-hugs either—a full embrace that shows how much I care about the other person.

Human touch doesn’t have to be sexual, and it angers me that so many people see it that way. Along with numerous other therapeutic benefits, hugging releases oxytocin and serotonin, and it helps you to connect with people in ways that words can never do.

4. Meditating every day. I like to do this right before bed. It helps me wind down from my day and sleep better.

5. Standing while working. This is hard to get used to, and I’m only able to do this when the task isn’t very mentally challenging, but I’ve noticed that I feel more energetic afterward.

6. Being more sensitive to my own and others’ feelings. I’ve been learning recently that a lot of conflicts arise simply because one or both parties are not aware of their own feelings. I’m trying to get in the habit of asking myself and others what they are feeling at the moment so that I can make sure that whatever is being said is not just a result of feeling invalidated or hurt in some way.

7. Living more simply.  A few months ago I went “no poo”—I stopped using shampoo and conditioner and any other synthetic chemicals on my hair. After several weeks of overpowering greasiness, I finally reawakened my head’s natural mechanisms of self-regulating oil production. Now I can go much longer without washing my hair and can bask in my newfound independence from toxic chemicals.


Everyone needs friends who will be there for them when they’re suffering heartbreak or despair. You need people who will listen to your sorrows and embrace your vulnerability—people who will validate your emotions and let you know that it’s okay to feel upset.

But the best friends will do even more than that. They hear you out and comfort you, and then they challenge you. As an impartial bystander, a friend may have greater insight into your situation, identifying the sources of conflict better than someone who is caught up in the storm. A friend who has the courage to point out where you’re wrong might be the only thing that prevents you from stumbling into a grave mistake that will affect the rest of your life.

This kind of relationship requires incredible trust. It’s not easy to build. If you have something so rare, hold it close and never let it go.

I would be a much different person if not for friends who cared about me this much. You know who you are, and I’m eternally grateful for you.

How to Change Your Life

When you hear a new idea, particularly one that conflicts with your preexisting beliefs, there are two ways you can respond:

1. You can argue against the idea and point out everything that’s wrong with it. Then you can move on with your life with the peace of mind that you don’t have to worry about anything that makes you uncomfortable.

2. You can take some time to consider the idea and suspend judgment until you fully understand it. You can explore the possibility that it might just be a good idea and maybe even try it out in your own life. If it doesn’t work, you can move on with the confidence that you didn’t miss out on anything. If it does, you’ve now made your life a little bit better.

It’s hard to admit when you’re wrong. But unless you want a stagnant soul that’s overgrown with the putrid filth of tradition, you have no choice.

While ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.

Dismissing an idea is so easy because it doesn’t involve any work. You can scoff at it. You can ignore it. You can puff some smoke at it. That’s easy. The hard thing to do is protect it, think about it, let it marinate, explore it, riff on it, and try it. The right idea could start out life as the wrong idea.

Jonathan Ive/Jason Fried

My Goals

Being abstract and didactic is fun and all, but now it’s time to get practical. Starting a company didn’t work out for me, so I’m turning to focus on another dream that’s been tugging at my sleeve for a few years—to become a freelance writer and translator.

Why would I pursue such an unstable career, you ask?

Several reasons:

1) Independence! I’m not built for the corporate life. Few things suffocate my productivity as much as the mind-numbing routine of slathering toxic chemicals all over my face, squeezing into starchy clothes, and sitting in an excessively air conditioned office for 8 hours straight surrounded by people I don’t like.

2) There is a Muse inside me who’s desperate to be heard. She’s full of creativity and ideas, but she has no way to get out—so I need to hone the craft of writing and pave the way for her to shine.

3) I have a monstrous fear of writing that rears his head every time I sit down to an empty document. As Steven Pressfield explains in The War of Art, our biggest fears (“resistance”) often block the path that will lead us to a higher level of self-actualization and internal freedom. I believe I can master this fear through practice and study.

While I’m on the subject, I’ll share a great quote from The War of Art:

Sometimes we balk at embarking on enterprise because we’re afraid of being alone. We feel comfortable with the tribe around us; it makes us nervous going off into the woods on our own.

Here’s the trick: We’re never alone. As soon as we step outside the campfire glow, our Muse lights on our shoulder like a butterfly. The act of courage calls forth infallibly that deeper part of ourselves that supports and sustains us.

This blog shall serve as a testament to my dedication to the Art of Writing. I hereby intend to chart my progress through books on the subject and write about whatever else comes to mind.

Wish me luck, Internet. I know you believe in me.

Live an Experiment

What do you do when the unexpected happens? You had the perfect life path laid out ahead of you, and you realized it wasn’t going to be easy, but at least you knew where you were going and how to get there. And that summit would be glorious with the thrill of achievement.

But then the ground beneath you begins to crumble, and you discover that you can’t continue on this path. Well—you could continue, but you know deep in your bones that it’s not right. Maybe you discovered that the summit isn’t quite the paradise you imagined. Or maybe you realized that the bruises you’ll suffer along the way won’t outweigh the benefits of the climb.

Some people keep plodding forward even when all the signs tell them to change course. There’s this pervasive narrative saying that perseverance on its own is a virtue. Don’t give up. But should you keep driving if there’s a cliff up ahead?

Abandoning one goal for a more worthy one doesn’t mean your efforts were in vain. It doesn’t mean you should regret the work you put into it. It simply means that you’re moving on.

Just because a certain path isn’t right for you now doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right decision in the past—only hindsight is 20/20. And if you berate yourself for going in the direction all your instincts pointed to, then you’ll be afraid to try anything new in the future. It’s okay to justify your past decisions even when they end up not working out. You learn what you can, and you move on to something better.

If you see life as a series of experiments to discover the best way for you to create meaning in the world, then you don’t have to feel guilty about changing trajectories. You’ll never figure out what you want just by sitting and meditating—you have to go out and do things. And then don’t be afraid to give up when it doesn’t work out.

You never know until you try. So go try something.