The Cost of Things

It’s amazing what we can get for twenty dollars these days. Sure, it sometimes seems like inflation just won’t quit, and the costs of living add up to a frightening sum, and a pack of gum could once be had for less than a dollar, but now costs several.

But this is mostly a slow-burn perspective; difficult to see clearly because it moves so steadily.

Our buying power for most things (in the developed and developing worlds) has been on an upward trend for generations, and our lack of appreciation for this fact stems not from a dearth of wielded purchasing power, but from the lack of synchronicity between that power and our expectations of how much power we should possess, as explained and reinforced by marketing messages. Demand isn’t created for a product or service unless you keep people aspirational, so it’s in the best interest of many to keep us wanting more than we have.

Beyond this dollars-and-cents cost for things, there are other, less obvious expenses. Price tags that we don’t tend to see unless we look closely, but which are worth acknowledging nonetheless.

Opportunity cost, for example, is what we give up in favor of what we choose to buy/consume/spend our time with. When I purchase a phone, for instance, the opportunity cost is every other phone on the market, and the possibility of not having a phone, and the software/networks/brand associations of those other phones and lifestyles. The cost of my phone, then, is not just the number on the click-to-buy button.

There’s also long-term monetary cost, which includes things like recurring payments and debt; not just for the item in question, but for interest accrued on other debt that you could have paid off instead of making your purchase (if I buy a phone instead of paying off debt, the cost of that phone goes up because of the extra debt accrued through my non-payment).

Or how about the resource and sustainability cost of our purchases? Smartphones are the end-result of a massive supply chain connecting all the components of the device, allowing them to be constructed by machines and people who must be paid and fed and housed and (in the case of the machines) maintained. These supply chains stretch far and wide, encompassing mines and roads and caravans of trucks and back-channel deals with politicians. This includes the technologies required to work with the materials and mold them into useful shapes, which makes use of scientific knowledge that’s been conceived and refined over many centuries — with the most core knowledge tracing back to the beginning of humankind, and the most small and specific going back only years or months. This all coalesces into something incredibly intuitive and valuable (aided by the millions of manpower hours that have gone into developing the software) and yet so common as to be barely noticeable.

Every single thing we buy has a price, and that price is typically far larger than we think while swiping our cards at the checkout terminal or one-click shopping online. This doesn’t make our purchases inherently harmful or wrong: if anything, it makes them all the more impressive for the chain of people and events and resources that have been linked up to make the end product available for common consumption!

But it’s valuable to understand that the simple act of buying a phone — or anything — has repercussions beyond the passive ‘buy and move on’ mentality we often adopt when procuring a new possession.

We consider how something will improve our lives, make us feel, improve the perception others have of us (and the perception we have of ourselves), and myriad other variables associated with the capitalistic exchange of value. It only seems prudent that we consider the bigger picture, the true cost of things, as well.

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It’s human nature to be reductionist.

By simplifying complex concepts, we’re more able to consider them quickly, share them with others, and move forward into a state of understanding from a state of ignorance. Our instincts are wired for this so that we might quickly assess which aspects of our environment could be dangerous or beneficial. The other parts of our brains aim for similar, metaphor-based comprehension. Symbolic grokking.

Unfortunately, when we lose details we also lose subtlety, and it’s within nuance that valuable fuzziness can be found. Lacking this fuzziness — this unclear, indistinct collection of ‘maybes’ and ‘sort ofs’ and ‘almosts’ — we’re forced to be more concrete in our thinking; more absolute. We’re more prone to deciding that things are absolutely a certain way, ignoring inconvenient grays in between the black and white.

I’m interviewed a fair bit these days, which is a lot of fun: I truly enjoy discussing travel and my work, and other topics that interest me. But the more I think about all the subtleties of my work, and of life as a whole, the more I find myself affixing addendums to my answers, distorting the clarity that one might expect to find when an ‘expert’ talks about their field.

No longer do I feel comfortable being prescriptive in an absolute sense. For every bit of advice I give, I find myself saying things like “Well, that’s how I do it,” and “At least, that’s what works for me and what I’m hoping to achieve.” A simple question about social media usage can spiral into a complex answer about personal preferences, professional background, intentions and goals, how habits might fit into your life (and ideal lifestyle), and myriad other facets that seem necessary to bring up, if I’m to give a complete answer.

Of course, in many cases, the interviewers are probably just looking for some basic tips, not a philosophical rumination. But such tips, lacking context, seem to be the root of a problem that you find throughout prescriptive works these days. It’s all about pro-tip lists and one-size-fits-all strategies that, if you think about it, couldn’t possibly work for every single person who thinks to give them a shot. If we’re all approaching social media marketing the same way, does anyone really benefit? Aren’t we diluting the pool while also making use of tactics that lead us all down the same path, toward the same (undifferentiated, non-personalized) goals?

My struggle of late has been reaching a balance between these two extremes: explaining in detail every last facet of a concept, and being so reductionist as to be delivering little more than words without merit. Not just in interviews and the professional realm, but across the board. In lifestyle, relationships, work, and play.

That’s what clear communication is, at its most essential: honing in on the core of complex concepts, and conveying them in an accessible way that doesn’t water down their message, meaning, or profundity. And it’s no surprise, then, that the vast majority of people are absolutely terrible at this. It’s far easier to just speak or write some impressive-sounding words and be done with it. To regurgitate phrases that we associate with meaning, and arrange them in such a way that they appear to be relevant.

That’s the easier path, but I’m going to keep working hard to express the details.

Because for me the most meaningful bits have also been the most subtle. The most valuable concepts I’ve been exposed to are the ones that I first encountered as tiny, barely recognizable seeds, but which have since bloomed into the most vital aspects of my life.

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The following is an excerpted chapter from my new book, Considerations. The book is made up of over 50 concise essays of this flavor on various topics.

We all serve as ambassadors for something, and in most cases we don’t even realize it.

“Why do you use that brand of computer?” someone might ask. Or, “What’s your city like?”

Whether you want the responsibility or not, you’re an ambassador for everything you do, have done, and believe. This may not be your perception of yourself and your relationship to these things, but to someone who is not you, the specifics matter very little. As someone who knows more than they do about a particular topic, belief, place, or whatever else, you’re the go-to person for expert information.

Remember that you needn’t share anything with people who ask about your choices or history or anything else. You aren’t a missionary, and if you opt out of proselytizing for whatever reason, you’re still in the right. If you carry a set of moral beliefs and don’t share them with others, you’re not doing an injustice to those moral beliefs. If you use a certain brand of phone and fail to tell those who use a different brand about why they’ve chosen an inferior path, you’re not failing to live up to the standards of your chosen brand.

But if you do choose to share, be careful how you approach it. To be an ambassador is to be a representative for this thing you’re championing, and that means your lifestyle, your actions, the words you use to describe it, all impact how everyone else sees this faith, product, or idea. If it’s a religion you’re sharing, you become an example of what people who follow this religion are like. If it’s a brand of clothing you wear, you are now the type of person who wears that type of clothing — at least to the people who see you wearing it.

I feel this ambassadorship weighing on my shoulders when I travel outside the US, because I know anything I do may be interpreted as ‘something an American did.’ Not just an action that I took as an individual, but an example of some greater cultural trait; some ‘American thing’ that expresses a more expansive norm.

Consequently, I go out of my way even more than usual to be kind and help people and be a good visitor wherever I end up. I like the idea that people might encounter me and extrapolate a larger impression — of my culture, my system of beliefs, of the brands I choose to associate myself with — in a good way. I hope people are better off for having met me, and as a result, might be more open to the things and people and ideas that I think are important.

This is not always possible, of course, but it’s an excellent course of action for someone who takes their ambassadorship seriously, whatever they might be representing, consciously or otherwise.

It’s important to note, too, especially if you walk an unconventional trail, or have blazed your own, people will sometimes want to have you as a guide. They’ll hope that, beyond just representing something, you might point them in the right direction, and help them navigate a trail you’ve created, or guide them down a path you’ve already walked.

Again, you don’t have to share anything. You can live your life and allow others to live theirs, unencumbered by active ambassadorship.

But if you do choose to help others along the way when they ask for such help, it can be immensely valuable for everyone involved. The interaction will be valuable for you, because you’ll live in a world in which more people understand your perspective, and it will be valuable for them because they may be able to go further, faster, as a result of your assistance.

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Order Considerations

My new nonfiction book, Considerations, is now available as an ebook, paperback, and audiobook through various online and in-person booksellers.

Snag yourself the ebook:

Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, and Gumroad.

Or perhaps the paperback:


Or maybe even the audiobook:


Or ask your favorite independent bookstore to order you a copy, if they don’t have one in stock.

About the book:

Few of us take the time to consider. We act according to data acquired by viewing the world from a single perspective: our own. As a result, we don’t always think to ask certain questions that, when answered, may benefit us greatly. We don’t do important things because we never think them worth doing. We don’t assess unfamiliar facets of life, even though such scrutiny might change everything about how we live.

A well-curated collection of perspectives is one of the most valuable assets a person can possess, and the ability to filter those perspectives — to figure out which of them has value for us as individuals, and which are not relevant to our unique beliefs and goals — is vital.

Considerations is about asking questions, attaining new perspectives, figuring out what you believe, and determining how these beliefs can help guide your actions. The book is formatted as a series of over fifty short essays which are intended to spark ideas, questions, and thoughtfulness in those who read them.

30 Days of Doing

It’s important that we know ourselves and have an idea of which direction we want to go, and it’s vital that we act in such a way that we move in the right direction while continuously calibrating to ensure we’re hitting the mark most accurately, and not missing out on indications that we might be walking the wrong path.

30 Days of Doing was written alongside Considerations as a companion piece: the latter focused on asking the right questions and achieving new perspectives, while the former is about making course-adjustments a normal part of your day, and experimenting with your life to get the most out of the time you have.

This work is presented as a 30-day email series, and once purchased (for $2.99), you’ll receive a new email each day for a month. Each email presents a concept and action; something you can do immediately, or an experiment worth scheduling at some point in the future. Each piece is actionable, though, and intended to help spark some new way of seeing the world, or means of determining which path is most ideal for you and what you want out of life.

To subscribe to 30 Days of Doing, click here.

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Getting Lost

There’s a game I play with myself when I want to explore a city but don’t have a particular destination in mind.

I start walking and I follow the signals and signs provided along the way. I turn left and cross the street because the little glowing walking man indicates that I should. If I encounter an intersection without stoplights, I keep going straight, but at the next such intersection I go right, and at the next I turn left, and continue to circulate between the options at each new opportunity. When I see a coffee shop I’d like to try, or a museum I’d like to explore, or a shop I’d like to peruse, or a park where I’d like to sit and write for a bit, I pull myself from the game, starting again when I’m back on the street.

This is a great way to find new areas of a familiar city, or to push yourself out the door in an unfamiliar place; it’s easy to be overwhelmed by options, and this game gives you permission to just go. To discover without planning. To allow chance and circumstance to take the wheel for a while.

It also allows you to get lost. One of the more valuable ways to learn a city — to learn not just the colors and smells and pace and noises, but also how to read them, analyze them, and use them to get where you want to go — is to get lost, then figure out how to get back to your starting position.

It’s difficult to achieve true randomness. Generally when we head off in a ‘random’ direction, what we’re really doing is taking one side street from our usual route to a familiar part of town, or heading in the exact opposite direction from our default path, avoiding anything familiar at all. These can both be useful methods, but the former lacks the potential for extreme new-ness, while the latter eliminates your ability to see the familiar from a different perspective: a landmark from your usual route, viewed from across the street, for example.

After years of playing this game, I’ve found that the feeling of being ‘lost’ slowly becomes less of a scary jump into the unknown, and more an intentional reaching out into the world, looking for novel stimuli and finding it. Bringing it home to study in private. Wondering if it’s worth working in to your normal routine. Wondering if that normal routine should be shifted in some meaningful way.

That may mean identifying a better way to work. It may mean finding a coffee shop you like better than the one you usually visit. Or it may mean reinforcing that the commute you currently make and coffee you currently drink are still the best available options, based on what you’re looking for.

Consider how getting lost can be about more than just learning your environment. How it can be a means of pulling yourself out of your norms, habits, self-perceptions, and into a space where you’re less certain and more able to explore. More capable of taking a wrong turn and not worrying about it. More able to explore your myriad options and wonder whether this job, this lifestyle, this relationship, this responsibility, this goal, this whatever, is actually what’s best for you and your happiness.

Upon returning ‘home’ to your norm from some great adventure, whether external or internal, you might realize that you’re more at home elsewhere. It could be that getting lost is the only way to find your way back to a home — a more ideal life — you didn’t even know existed.

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Calibrate for Travel

A massive misconception I try and stomp out whenever possible is that you have to be wealthy to travel.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’m not wealthy. Most of the people I know who travel regularly aren’t wealthy. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have more money to spend on travel, but it’s not a requirement. It opens up more options, but in some ways also makes a person less likely to find the really good stuff; more on why, below.

Unfortunately, money isn’t the only misperception most people have about travel. It’s these misperceptions that I want to tackle as concisely as possible, and in hopes that more options will seem viable; the world a larger, more accessible place.

I Don’t Have Enough Money

This may be true. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, or can’t afford to eat, I would recommend taking care of that situation before you start perusing for discounted plane tickets. Travel might be the goal you need to pay off some debt that’s been hanging over your head, or to pursue a better paying job.

If you’re able to pull together a few hundred dollars, though, you have the means to travel. Maybe not to one of those places people go on their honeymoons, but certainly to some city beyond the one in which you live. And the whole purpose of travel is to expose yourself to something new: to experience novelty and a different perspective for a time.

Overland travel is generally both cheaper than flying, and more of an adventure. It allows you to see the spaces between places, and those spaces seldom adorn postcards and are seldom found in guidebooks. It’s there that, so long as you leave yourself open to such things, you’ll find opportunities and adventures.

Adventures are seldom found along a pre-prescribed path (though there’s nothing wrong with guided tours, either: they just tend to be more expensive and predictable), and restrictions on how you travel (say, you can only afford a bus ticket) tend to also force you to be more creative and put you in the position to encounter more than you would otherwise (can’t afford a hotel, so you stay with a local and see what only the locals see).

Consider that we live in the future, as and such have access to all kinds of tools that make travel cheaper. Communities like Couchsurfing are oriented toward finding locals who have spare furniture you can sleep on, and who may be willing to show you where the locals eat and drink.

Facebook and Twitter and Instagram can be equally useful for this task — more and more I find myself making local connections through friends of friends, rather than through sites like Couchsurfing, and I think that speaks to the evolution of social networks and the mainstream social acceptance of such communities. As time goes by and our parents become comfortable with social networks, we suddenly have more access to people who aren’t backpackers or adventurers; just friendly folks who live in Chattanooga who wouldn’t mind at all if you slept in their spare bedroom, and who would love to take you out to their favorite coffee shop. Who want to make sure you leave their hometown with fond memories and new connections.

I Don’t Have Enough Time

This is a more difficult hurdle in some ways than feeling that you don’t have enough money, as there are any number of ways to reduce the cost of travel or save more money for it, but fewer that can reduce the time-cost of a given lifestyle.

That being said, it is possible to orient your life toward travel, the same way you would to incorporate any other hobby into your habits. If you were planning to start swimming in a serious way, you would free up more time by reducing the amount of time you spend playing video games, watching TV, or out drinking with friends. “I’ll pass on the bar tonight,” you’d say, “I’m going to hit the pool, instead.” You work it into your schedule, even though that schedule seemed full before you tried.

Likewise, if you brush aside life’s inessentials — particularly the habits that exists purely as a means of de-stressing or decompressing after work or your other responsibilities, or just as a means of killing time — you might be amazed at how much time you have available to take an overnight trip to the town a few hours away, or to hop a bus for a weekend at the Grand Canyon. The more you incorporate travel into your lifestyle, the more you make time for it. Your goals will change, too, and you’ll find yourself saving a few bucks here and there for your next jaunt, and the whole rigamarole will become quite easy and passive.

You needn’t travel full-time to make travel a regular part of your life. I know people who work full-time jobs and have kids, and who still manage to visit cities they’ve never visited twice a month for a few days at a time. If you want it enough, you can make it happen. It’s just a matter of prioritizing your time and saying “I’m going to do this,” then figuring out how to make it work using the tools and resources you have available.

Travel Is Dangerous

Like driving or walking to the store, travel can be dangerous, yes. But like those other two activities, the risk is worth it, and is generally not too severe, so long as you aren’t consistently drunk, high, or rude to locals.

Learn a bit about the place you’re going, and treat the area the same way you’d treat the home of someone who’s invited you over for dinner. Respect the house rules and be polite. Don’t get drunk and start breaking things, and don’t be condescending or argue that your house is better.

If you find that the house rules are morally abhorrent to the point where you can’t stomach them, don’t make a scene — just thank your hosts and leave the house. Simple as that.

There are places where crime is more of an issue than others, and there are simple precautions you can take to reduce the likelihood of being victimized, like keeping your wallet in your front pocket, avoiding crowded tourist-heavy areas, and not leaving your purse unattended where someone might snatch it and run off. Be aware of your surroundings and hang out with locals, when possible, as they’ll know best which threats are genuine and which are just our own internal warning sensors going haywire due to the unfamiliar setting.

Meeting and learning from locals is the secret weapon of any experienced traveler; figure out a means of making such a connection, respect them and their time, and try and make the experience just as rewarding for them, whether it means buying lunch or offering to show them your city, if they want to come visit.

Remember that in most cases, the threats back home are just as real and likely as they are elsewhere. I was more likely to get robbed in Los Angeles than I was while traveling South America, but the latter seemed like the larger threat because I was more familiar with the former. Keep this in mind and don’t let concerns over things that are unlikely to happen keep you from exploring and making the unfamiliar, familiar.


Calibrating toward travel is really about recalibrating away from things that are less important to you. It’s about prioritizing the freedom of movement and exploration, rather than spending all of your time, money, and other resources on the perceived security of possessions and locked doors.

It requires that we put more trust in others, invest in ourselves and our own ability to roll with the punches, and pull apart the traditional view of travel: that we see it not as a luxury item suitable only for honeymoons and holidays, but a common aspect of life we consistently invest in, like any other hobby or happiness-inducing necessity.

Travel isn’t for everyone, but for those who love it, want it, desire it, are set afire by it, there’s no reason not to do it more often. Look out into the world, figure out where you want to go, and then determine how you’re going to get there. Cobble together a plan and take the first step immediately. Do this frequently enough, and the hurdles — what hurdles there are, anyway — will get lower and lower until they disappear completely.

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Expert Sleepist

We spend a lot of time trying to improve our tennis swing. And our abdominal muscles. And our capacity to make money.

There’s nothing wrong with these things. It’s a good idea to know how to make money so that you can support your craft and buy food, and it’s nice to have fitness and athletic goals to work toward.

Unfortunately, in the pursuit of greatness in some aspects of our lives, we neglect other, sometimes quite vital aspects.

Sleep, for instance, is more than just a little important. It defines everything else that we do, keeping our brains primed to form memories and think abstractly. Regularly and completely clearing the adenosine from our systems (the chemical that builds up over the course of a day and makes us tired, and which we disperse by sleeping) has also been connected with the prevention of age-related conditions like Alzheimer’s, and helps us maintain a dependable level of hand-eye coordination, lessening the chances of our getting in a car accident or stumbling down a set of stairs.

Being good at sleep, then, seems like a fairly worthwhile endeavor. But how many of us put the same amount of effort into learning to sleep well as we put into learning how to make money? How many of us exert the same amount of time and energy pursuing sleep mastery as we spend on tennis mastery?

We don’t all need to be expert sleepists: it may be that you’re getting plenty of sleep already, and it’s wonderful if you are. The point is that we focus on a few important things to the exclusion of other, sometimes more fundamentally important things.

A lot of the problems we face societally, but also individually, could be remedied with more focused attention on our health, our sleep, our ability to calm ourselves and relax, a trained tendency to look both inward and outward for answers, and the confidence to filter the answers that we find. Can you imagine what the world might be like if we were all capable of calming ourselves when necessary? Capable of seeing the world from another person’s perspective for a moment, before making a decision about who they are and what they want?

There’s nothing wrong with making money or playing tennis or having washboard abs. But such pursuits are a coat of paint on a house that’s falling apart if the rest of your world is brittle, due to lack of sleep, mental fitness, or social stability.

Consider the payout of investing more in these fundamental assets. A predictably deep, restful sleep every night may not be the simplest goal in the world to attain, nor the sexiest to pursue, but the benefits of the effort would positively impact just about everything else in your life. Including your tennis swing.

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Sentimentality and the Present

We calibrate our actions to happiness. That is to say, we generally do the things that we believe will bring us the greatest net happiness over time.

Unfortunately, the actions we take can result in less happiness and more discouragement, dissatisfaction, and despair. This commonly results from a misunderstanding of the relationship between sentimentality and the present.

Sentimentality is a prediction of how we’ll feel in the future. We prime for nostalgia by making a guess about the wants and feelings of a future potential self; one that maybe misses this restaurant or perhaps regrets leaving that relationship. We take photos to assuage these maybe hurt feelings, and cling to mementoes to ensure possible future longings have something on which to center.

A focus on the present, on the other hand, manifests as a greater concern about the here and now. It’s an embrace of the short-term experience — what’s actually happening, versus what may happen at some point — and makes no predictions. It’s the result of feeling, doing, and experiencing, rather than assuming, anticipating, and worrying.

It’s that last word in particular — worrying — that I associate most with sentimentality. People collect and maintain and stress over the strangest things, all in the pursuit of some potential happiness; some unknowable ‘maybe’ that will justify the storage space rented, the hours lost, the stomach acid churned.

And this is a shame, because such concerns inherently result in less attention available to spend on the present. Sentimentality often means ignoring those you care about now in hopes of having the right people around you someday. It means missing out on fully experiencing a moment today, in order to take the right series of photos to remind yourself what’s happened, tomorrow. It means collecting souvenirs of events at the expense of actually taking part in the action.

It’s no wonder, then, that sentiment is often a grossly distorted image of the past: it’s a picture taken by someone who wasn’t truly there; wasn’t fully experiencing that which they were photographing. It’s a xerox of a moment, lacking the fidelity of a true memory, and warping our perception of each new ‘present’ as a result. Because what ‘now’ could possibly compete with a blurred ‘then,’ with all the blemishes and scars softened by time and flawed remembering, all the context blinked away?

For me, a happy life is more about the present and less about sentiment. Reminders and keepsakes can still be acquired, but ideally only after the fact, not as a primary goal. To reverse that order is akin to photographing food without ever tasting a bite.

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Stack for Serendipity

I’m sometimes told that I published a piece of work at exactly the right time. A new book, blog post, or newsletter arrived at the very moment a reader was thinking about the same topic, and I helped provide the right words, insight, or even just a kick out the door to motivate them toward their next step.

I love when this happens. Not because I think I had much to do with them taking those next steps — I might help strike a spark, but they provide the fuel and stoke it into a fire — but because it’s an example of how we can perform what seem to be feats of magic just by approaching communication in a certain way.

‘Serendipity’ refers to a chance circumstance or happening that bears positive results. A blog post about minimalism published at the exact moment you’re thinking of simplifying your life can seem quite serendipitous, as if the world is trying to tell you something; to help you make some kind of decision.

I would argue, though, that there’s nothing mystical about such an alignment. It is, if anything, practical magic, in that you can calibrate yourself to catalyze more fortuitous flukes, and to garner more of your own. It’s all a matter of how you communicate and how you listen.

I try to stack the deck for serendipity by reaching out to people in myriad ways, though most people will only ever see one or two of these communication channels: the ones that apply to them. But by spreading messages in which I believe via different media, and even revamping the messages to be expressed at different lengths (a book and a tweet are very different delivery systems, but can achieve similar ends), I’m able to plant far more seeds in far more places, increasing the chance that some of them will grow.

Similarly, I work hard to follow and connect with people who I believe have something to offer me, in terms of knowledge, life experience, perspective, or even just entertainment. The result is that I find myself benefiting from seemingly serendipitous moments all the time. There’s nothing magical about it: when I’m thinking hard about a particular topic, chances are someone in my carefully cultivated network has thoughts on the subject that can help me break through to some new inspiration or revelation.

That serendipity is not magic means we can stack the deck if we like, and benefit from such moments more frequently. It’s not something you can control in an absolute way — sometimes inspiration never comes, and sometimes it only arrives at the wrong moments — but you can adjust the odds so that the right ideas end up in the right places at the right time more often than seems likely.

Consider how you might stack for serendipity, and then make the investment. Not only will you hear the words you need to hear more frequently, but you’ll more often say the words someone else needs to hear, when they need to hear them, as well.

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