Building Your Audience Isn’t Magic

San Fransisco, August 14th, 1921 —
A young Hungarian man had just rolled into town and was eager to let everyone know he had arrived. He needed to make friends with the press and he had an idea of how to make this happen.

Later that day, he walked into a building, climbed seven flights of stairs, put on a straightjacket, and promptly threw himself out of a window.

A little dramatic, yes, but the man wanted press. So he didn’t jump out of just any window, and he didn’t jump out of just any building — he jumped out of the window of the newspaper offices.

The next day, thanks to every journalist reporting their first-hand account, every person in San Fransisco knew the man’s name. Later that night, the man performed more magic tricks — this time to a sold-out crowd.

Fast-forward a hundred years and the name Harry Houdini is still the first association people make when they hear the word “magician” — for good reason; few people have done it better.

But don’t let Houdini fool you — as good as he was at magic, he was even better at selling newspapers.

Houdini was a master of deception. However, he was also a master at building an audience and driving sales. While most entertainers sat on the corner and performed tricks for every Tom, Dick and Sally in each new town they visited, hoping “word of mouth” would spread, Houdini took the time to identify the mouths that could speed up the process.

When others went general, Houdini got specific, and by doing so, ironically, his influence grew.

However, identifying his target audience was not the only thing Houdini took the time to do before throwing himself out the window. He also mapped out ways in which he could make their lives easier.

If you want to sell your products or services, it becomes much easier if you target the people who are already looking for them. Houdini understood this. As a result, he gave the press the one thing any journalist worth their stones always wants — a story.

Identifying your desired audience, then making their lives easier, put these things together and you have Houdini’s magic potion for growing his audience.

The good news is you can pull off the same trick.

Most people today want to make a dent in this world and have their work make a difference — it happens by identifying the ideal someone. Most influencers agree with this — “find your 1000 true fans,” in the words of Kevin Kelly.

The beauty of the world we live in today is that we don’t have to jump out of any windows to find our audience. They are a click away and, to quote Mr. Kelly again, “As far as I can tell there is nothing — no product, no idea, no desire — without a fan base on the internet.”

That means that the key to unlocking your influence is to stake your small piece of land and plant your flag. Then when your audience comes grazing, do whatever you can to make sure they leave well-fed.

In short, if you want to influence people, your job is to leave each person better than you found them. This is how you win attention. This is how you gain trust. This is how you move people towards the change you seek to make.

And this becomes much easier if you identify someone, instead of trying to please everyone.

The odds are high that you are good at what you do, but not so good you can’t be ignored. Hell, Houdini was that good, yet with each new city he visited, he still lugged a straightjacket up seven flights of stairs and hung himself out of a window.

He did this because he knew it would work. Because that August day, in 1921 San Fransisco, was the not the first time he had done it. In 1915, he did it for the first time in in Kansas City, and over the next decade, he did it again and again as he made his way across America.

Houdini was the world’s greatest magician. Houdini was also the world’s greatest newspaper salesman. But this was because Houdini was the world’s greatest tinkerer. For years he struggled to make a name for himself. He did card tricks on the street. He swallowed needles in front of people who passed him by. In each of these attempts he failed to get his name to spread.

What made Houdini, “Houdini,” was he never considered himself a failure; he adopted the mindset of a “tinkerer” — he knew with each failure, he would get closer to success.

Most people want their work to been seen by the masses. However, most people aren’t willing to do the work. They aren’t patient enough to work out who they are best positioned to serve and they aren’t determined and consistent enough to uncover how their best offering can help move the right people in the direction they want them to go.

If that is you, you have two options:

  1. You can be like most people, and play it safe by aiming for everyone, hoping you hit someone.
  2. You can be unlike most people and make a stand by putting your voice in front of the people who are waiting to hear your words.

I suggest not being like most people. Instead, I recommend following Houdini and take the time to identify your audience. Then taking it one step further by making their lives better for knowing you.

Seth Godin got it dead right — “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories and magic.”

Remember: magic always has a secret and, more times than not, it looks a lot like hard work.

Thank you for reading.
My best to you and yours.
— Michael

When People Try to Keep You Down, Remember This Story

This is a joke!” screamed an overly amped-up koala. “These trees are way too big! I don’t know a single monkey — let alone koala — who could possibly make it to the top!”

Shaking slightly with quickly growing self-doubt, the nine brave koalas attempted to claw their way up Lonely Eucalyptus —a patch of trees so tall the furry animals believed thunder was a result of their branches tickling the clouds.

And sure enough, the negative noise from the ground began to impede the positive advancement above as each minute that passed the faster the koalas began to drop.

“Ha ha ha!” belted out caffeine koala from the top of his lungs. “Ha ha ha!” joined in the others. “It’s called Lonely Eucalyptus for a reason! You’re all fools for even trying. No one has ever made it to the top and no one ever will!”

But to the amazement of the crowd, one young koala kept climbing. And climbing. And climbing. And after two hours, she’d done the impossible and was rewarded with a view no koala had ever seen before and quite possibly a view no other koala would see again.

“How’d you do it?” shouted the masses once the young hero had finally put her little paws on the firm ground. “We gotta know your secret!”

“You’re wasting your time!” replied her father while giving his daughter the two-thumb salute in typical koala fashion. “She’s deaf!”

I like to make up stories for my kids while we’re laying in bed at night. Most of them are pretty awful. But they like this one. So do I. It serves as a strong reminder that the ultimate form of personal slavery looks a lot like allowing the public to define what you can and cannot do.

If you want to be a writer, write.

If you want to be a designer, design.

If you want to be a teacher, teach.

This may sound obvious but during the eight years I spent as a career advisor I can’t begin to count the number of people I met who acquired a pair of cement feet due to the passing comments of others. “I heard this!” “Someone said that!” Much of the time it wasn’t even people who really knew them. But despite this, they allowed the words to shackle them.

The beauty of getting older is patterns begin to emerge. One of the most glaring is that the day you prioritize the words of others over your own internal signal is the very day you can kiss your dreams goodbye.

Maybe you don’t reach the top. You may not even come close to reaching your goals.

But that’s not the point.

Building your confidence or being able to sleep well at night isn’t only achieved by getting things right or what society defines as “winning”— it also comes from trying. You never know, you may find that by embracing that attitude you’re presented with opportunities you hadn’t even considered before as the opinions that matter come from those who understand the importance of consistent effort.

I recently got asked to give weekly lectures to MBA students on how to communicate with clarity and persuasion. I don’t have a fancy education. If I’d listened to the people who told me a guy with a speech impediment had no place in the communication world, I never would have left my house let alone put in the work to get to the point where I now attract the jobs I want.

The same thing happened when I began writing. “You’re embarrassing yourself!” I can’t count the number of people who told me this despite doing something as harmless as publishing articles online. It’s ridiculous when you think about it. I wasn’t hurting them. I may not have always gotten my message right, but I certainly wasn’t doing anything wrong. It’s true what they say that the only way some people feel big is by keeping others small.

I could go on and on about how many of the things I’m most proud of were met with criticism. Taking a sales job out of college with my stutter drew a particular amount of heat. The same goes for moving to Spain after being financially wiped out in Central America. People in my hometown in the US even had a bet going of how quickly I’d be back asking to sleep on their couch.

True freedom isn’t tied to money. It took me a long time to learn that. True freedom is found by having the courage to bet on yourself.

You gotta create your own green lights when others yell red.

You gotta give yourself permission to be bad so you’ll eventually get better.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting laughed at. In fact, it’s often a sign you’re on the right track as most people don’t have the stones to risk humiliating themselves. It may hurt. You may even get a few scars. But so what? If you take the time to dissect the multitude of things you got right that eventually led to a perceived wrong, you should identify loads of things worth building upon.

Plus, the older you get, the more you should begin to realize that it’s our scars that make us beautiful. They show you actually stand for something which is a helluva lot more attractive than spending your days tossing words at others from the sidelines.

Think hard about what you really want. Get clear on the one thing you’re willing to do even if it means being laughed at. Remind yourself that the last thing you want to realize when you’re old and grey is you sabotage yourself because of what other people say.

We have one shot at this life.

The next time you catch your internal self-doubt is a response to external noise, remember the story of the little koala. Then put your head down, block the noise, and do the one thing you already know how to do — climb.

Thank you for reading.
My best to you and yours.

You’re Allowed to Disappear

“You’ve been at this for six years. Throw yourself into something else. Your writing is a reflection of your living. You’re allowed to disappear.”

A friend said this when we were talking about the realities of making a pro-longed living online.

I followed his advice.

In the end, despite having a six-digit audience across platforms, I stayed away from the online game for nine months.

A fifth of my youngest son’s life.

Long enough for my normally pale skin to get a consistent tan, and then back to my default pinkish-hue again.

Most of my income relied on my writing. And just before stepping away, I signed a book deal.

Saying I needed a delay before I even started wasn’t an easy conversation. This is especially true since all the other publishing houses I had hoped to work with said no.

But it wasn’t a question of me asking for permission.

Life changed and my priorities had to change with it. Writing a book when writing an article felt like work wasn’t the state of mind I wanted to be in. A made a commitment to myself I’d only do it if I could find a way to make it fun.

But book deal or not, money wasn’t what got me into writing in the first place. Back in the forgotten world of 2017, that wouldn’t have been very smart.

Putting words down on paper helps me process the world and my role in it.

I write because it helps me see.

Plus, any money I’ve made from writing came from the stories that were rooted in looking back at my past.

But over time, without realizing it, I forgot reflecting and having stories to share demand one thing — actually doing something with your life worth reflecting on.

So as I navigated personal issues that took up a great deal of time and headspace, I threw myself into other somethings like teaching seminars at universities and helping three people doing a lot of good in the world to get their books to fly.

Sure, I lost short-term traction for my own “personal brand.”

But long-term, it’s hard to see how pausing my own writing to help other people advance theirs while teaching storytelling to hundreds of people will hurt my future.

If anything, it’s the opposite.

My dad once told me the odds are high each of us will work for fifty years which means one year represents just two percent of our career.

I’ll never forget it.

It means to chill out and look at the big picture.

This whole creator economy thing is in its infancy.

The beauty of creating stuff for a living is there’s no such thing as retirement — we get to follow our nose until we don’t have a nose left to follow.

But this doesn’t mean we need to listen to all the people pushing the importance of consistency.

The key to long-term success isn’t consistently working — it’s consistently taking care of yourself.

If you need it, disappearing for a month is a blip on our lifeline.

The same goes for the time I took off.

It’s barely one percent of my career.

And I’d be shocked if choosing silence won’t allow me to say what I want to say for longer.

“If you don’t know the art of disappearance, learn it because you will need it every time you get bored of the society you are living in.”

Mehmet Murat ildan said that. I like it. The thing about creators is we’re all different. Some people live to write. They have zero problems knocking out 30 articles in 30 days month after month and year after year.

Other people though, those like me, live and then write. Sometimes we may push how much we publish to mix things up and test ideas and styles. But much of the time, quantity isn’t on our radar.

This isn’t a jab at the former and praise for the latter — it’s just a fact we all operate and thrive in different ways and troubles arise when we try to be like someone we’re not.

Stepping back allowed me to see the beauty in our everyday lives again.

It reminded me of who I am without my work.

Maybe you’re like that too.

Maybe the writing advice you need isn’t to cut more adverbs, delete the word “that” from your essays, and get obsessed with copywriting to drive clicks and sell online courses.

Maybe the writing advice you need is to step away from the noise and immerse yourself in the real world again to live stories worth later reflecting on.

Prior to taking the leap, my internal conversations were full of worry about all the bad things that would happen if I stepped away.

What pushed me over the edge though, was flipping the question on its head and asking myself — “What’s the worst that could happen if I didn’t?”

If you’re sick of the hamster wheel, opt out for a bit.

Arrows travel further the more you pull back.

You’re allowed to disappear.

Thank you for reading.
My best to you and yours.
— Michael

If You Want to Be a Confident Creator, Learn to Walk Away

The most important lesson I’ve learned about creativity didn’t come from something I read, but rather something I saw.

I was watching a profile on Christoph Niemann (the artist with the most covers gracing The New Yorker) when suddenly his office clock struck six and without hesitation, he stopped what he was doing, grabbed his jacket — and within seconds was breathing in the cold Berlin air.

Just like that, the clock made a ding and he stopped working. I was so surprised by his action I nearly woke up my newborn son to ask him if he’d seen it also.

“Why did he do that?

“Wasn’t clock watching only for people who hated their jobs?”

“Wasn’t he in his flow?”

“What if he couldn’t find his rhythm tomorrow?

This silent move made me question everything I’ve been taught about growing my creative muscle — the importance of pushing through and fighting the resistance.

However, Christoph’s discipline got me thinking about how important it also is to have the confidence to say to yourself every day when the clock makes noise — “Today I’ve done enough.”

Is what you are working on today going to be better or worse tomorrow?

Having the courage to know the answer to this question is tomorrow is the silent confidence that separates the true creatives from those who constantly doubt their abilities.

Do you want to know what spurs my best ideas? My wife. My kids. My friends. Good conversation. Green grass. Tall trees. A run. A book. Life.

Yet every evening when my energy is running down, and what I am working on will be better tomorrow — my wife still has to call my name three times before I finally sit down to eat a cold dinner that was once warm.

Christoph’s actions taught me that the best creatives don’t only ask themselves — “What have I learned that’s going to make this perfect?”

They also ask themselves, “What have I not learned yet?”

Then they allow life to slowly reveal to them the answers.

Over the last year, I’ve pushed through to find what I was looking for. I wrote in order to find what I was trying to say. And I’m glad that I did — constant creating has led to some of my best creations.

However, what I was lacking, and what I think separates the best from the rest, was a balance.

I’ve shouted from the rooftops the words made famous by Jocko Willink — “Discipline equals freedom.” But I’ve failed to realize that developing the discipline to stop is just as important as finding the motivation to start.

Rarely do I have the confidence to trust myself enough to say, “Today I have done enough and tomorrow I’ll finish what I’m working on — and it’ll be better for it.”

The more I study the creative process, the more I realize a perfect one doesn’t exist. There are times when I should indeed push through. When my body and mind are working in sync and I can tell I’m one keystroke away from great.

However, there are also times when life is the key to unearthing the next word. If I’m ever going to be a confident creator I need to trust this process. I need to give in when my body and mind say enough. I need to cultivate the confidence to understand that the experiences of tomorrow are the key to making my work better today.

God knows there will be days when I tell my wife, “Just one more minute.” But Christoph taught me the value and necessity of sometimes not waiting for my name to be called.

Knowing when to stop is just as important as motivating yourself to begin.

This isn’t easy — but confidence never comes cheap.

Thank you for reading.
My very best to you and yours.

You’ll Never Get What You Want If You’re Too Scared to Ask For It

The woman sat at her kitchen table staring at the four names laid out in front of her. In this moment, despite her 83 years, she felt like a nervous teenager. She couldn’t believe what she was doing.

Months earlier, while walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek across northern Spain, she’d met a man. It seemed to be just another friendly encounter with a stranger, one of many she’d had since arriving in the country. The conversation had lasted only a few minutes, and they parted without exchanging names.

But when she eventually made her way back to her home in Norway, she couldn’t stop thinking about that man. There was just something about him… something kind, maybe. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but she knew she wanted to see him again.

When she’d originally planned her trip, meeting someone new was the last thing on her mind.

She’d decided to go on the walk to help her come to grips with the passing of her husband.

It was a way for her to reenter the world after being deep in despair for so long. Yet she kept replaying the exchange with the man in her head, until one day, she decided to do something about it

Following the advice of a friend, she called the information offices of the Camino de Santiago and shared the whole story. She explained how she met a man during the walk. She said she didn’t have much information about him, but she knew he was from the Netherlands. She laughed when she admitted she didn’t even know his name.

Fortunately, the person who answered the call had a soft spot for her situation. It took some digging, but by the time the phone call ended, the woman had the names and mailing addresses of four Dutchmen who finished the walk around the same time as her.

Later that day, after hours of trying to figure out what to do next, the woman hatched a plan. She spent the rest of her evening writing out four identical cards.

Years later, my father was walking the Camino de Santiago and stopped in a café outside of Leon, Spain. He began chatting with an elderly couple. After sharing a few glasses of wine together, my father asked the two of them how they’d met.

The couple smiled as the man explained that one day, he received a card from a beautiful stranger.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling stuck, I imagine that woman sitting alone at her kitchen table, thinking about the man she had met. I imagine her picking up the phone and then putting it down, wondering if the whole plan was absurd. I then imagine her thinking, “What have I got to lose?” and slowly dialing the number to the information center. I imagine her writing out the fourth letter with the same level of care as she did the first. I imagine the lines on her face shifting when she finally looks down at her mail one day and sees the man’s name staring back at her.

I can practically feel her heartbeat.

When I think about her actions, I’m reminded of the fact that we’ll never get what we want out of life if we don’t summon the strength to ask for it.

How many days do we waste living in a state of hesitation because we’re scared of being rejected?

How many opportunities have passed us by because we’ve given more power to our excuses than our possibilities?

I don’t want to live my life like that.

I want the courage to ask for what I want.

And I don’t ever want to stop treating my curiosity like a responsibility and giving myself permission to make my own green lights in life.

Everywhere we turn, we’re bombarded with advice on how to get the most out of life. All of it is worthless if you don’t make the decision to be brave in the moments that matter.

Maybe you’ll have to send out a thousand letters.

Maybe you’ll get rejected, and it will hurt.

Maybe you’ll find out that what you thought you wanted isn’t actually what you want, and you have to change your course.

It’s all part of the deal.

But when you default to asking, you open yourself to opportunities that can bring joy and meaning to your life.

I don’t know about you, but being told no beats the hell out of not knowing.

Thank you for reading.
My very best to you and yours.

What Happened When I Recorded Myself Speaking Every Single Day

I sat down on my couch, switched my phone to selfie mode, and hit record. Then I started answering the dreaded interview question: “Tell me about yourself.”

After what felt like the most awkward four minutes of all time, I played back the recording. It was painful to watch. My body was stiff and my eyes darted all over the place. I clenched up in some parts and rambled on in others. I said “like” about 4 billion times. Tell me I don’t really sound like that, I pleaded to an audience of zero in my empty living room.

In my head, I cursed my business coach for recommending this exercise after I’d mentioned I was nervous about possible upcoming job interviews. I’d always been anxious when it came to speaking with new people — as a kid, I grew up with a severe speech impediment. My coach had suggested that I record myself answering common interview questions every day, and see what happens. After that first sweaty episode, I wondered if there was another way to improve my speaking skills — one that didn’t involve staring straight at my mug, growing increasingly uncomfortable while watching myself be uncomfortable (it was all very meta). It turned out that sure, there are tons of ways to become a better speaker, but this one allows you to see immediate improvement, make changes as you go, and best of all, you can do it at home behind closed doors. I decided to stay with it.

The second time I mustered up the courage to hit record, something happened: I was less terrible. Not great by any standards, but my response began to resemble an answer rather than a jumble of words. Then I did it again the next day. And the next. After about a week or so, I noticed that I was able to maintain eye contact in the right moments, keep my responses to the point, and even look like I was having a real conversation. After two weeks, I stopped feeling so self-conscious and started showing glimmers of confidence. By week four, I was having fun.

Years later, I must say that keeping with this tiny exercise has shaped my career more than any other. Yes, I received job offers, but beyond that, I was promoted to management in my first year in sales, and when I moved to Spain, I became a communication coach and have been invited to teach presentation skills to politicians and business leaders.

Try it for yourself. If you want to improve your interview skills, print a list of the most common interview questions in your sector, then grab your phone, hit record, and start talking. Whatever you do, don’t stop recording until your answer is finished. Learning how to recover well is just as important as learning how to respond well. If you simply want to improve your speaking skills, you might try talking about the high and low of your day — or any other topic.

Give yourself a 30-day challenge. As you watch your recordings, look for areas where your body language, facial gestures, and tone can improve. Find spots in your responses where you can slow down or pause to drive a point home. The difference between the first take and your 20th will astound you.

Throughout your career, your interests will change and jobs will come and go.

However, strong communication skills will always be critical.

Hit record and allow yourself to be terrible.

It won’t be long until you’re not.

Thank you for reading.
My very best to you and yours.

How to Stand Out Without Showing Off

“What the hell am I doing here?” I thought to myself. “This place isn’t for me!”

Cigarette packs, coffee cups, and manilla folders were everywhere. I felt like I’d just walked into the set of a bad sales movie. The year was 2003. The place was Baltimore. The people who weren’t screaming into their phones were yelling at each other about how many deals they had going.

Just as I began to think about making a run for the back door, the corporate trainer stuck his head outside the conference room and shouted, “We’re in here, Mike! Let’s go!”

I hesitantly walked into the room wrecked with sweat. All the information the corporate trainer threw at me for the next few hours didn’t help to calm my nerves. But towards the end of his talk, he said something that stuck with me: “Your job is simple — pick up the phone 100 times each day. If you do that, I don’t care who you are, the rest will take care of itself!

Two months later, while attending the year-end party, the man’s words proved correct. Extrovert. Introvert. Ambivert. Young. Older. Single mom. Prep school kid. The numbers didn’t lie. Every single person who received an award that night for being a top producer picked up the phone more than the people who didn’t receive recognition.

As one of the more reserved people in the office, seeing this first-hand was super motivating. It opened my eyes to the fact that you don’t have to be someone who loves the spotlight to catch some rays.

Since that day, 17 years ago, I’ve been observing how quiet people stand out. In addition to choosing to be the type of person who shows up every day, below is a collection of my favorite lessons.

During the same job as mentioned above, whenever something went wrong, while everyone else in the office was in hysterics, my manager would be thinking instead of speaking.

Since he’d normally be the last to talk, we saw him as the voice of reason. People found this extremely comforting.

It’s amazing how attractive calm people can be.

We were at a sales seminar when the speaker said something that didn’t sit right. We all looked at each other, but no one said a word. That is until a normally shy and reserved woman from my office stood up in front of the crowd and told the man she wasn’t buying what he was peddling.

I’ll never forget that. Once she spoke up, everyone else did too. When the seminar was over, she was the person the audience wanted to buddy up with and not the man on stage.

Standing up for what you believe in is the definition of cool.

I thought for sure people would laugh at me when I enrolled in my first public speaking course. I grew up stuttering and I was scared to death I’d be made fun of. But the jokes never came. In fact, people embraced me and they thought I had a solid set of stones.

The best part about being shy is a lot of people don’t expect much. Doing just one thing that’s unexpected can turn a lot of heads in your direction and serve as a magnet for attracting the right kind of people. You may not always get it right. And at times, you may fall. But so what?

Few things are more beautiful than hard-earned scars.

“The fastest way to see your ideas become a reality is by giving them to someone else.” I love this thought from my friend Conor Neill.

You don’t have to grab a microphone to share your knowledge. Send a message to someone about an idea you had that can help them improve something they’re working on. Start a blog and give away your best ideas for free. Let other people run with them. Be proud of playing a role in seeing what they come up with.

The key to success is found in being persistently generous.

One of the best networkers I know is shy. But he understands the key to moving quickly is getting people to talk positively about him behind his back. The way he accomplishes this is simple: he brings other people together.

Could someone you know benefit from an introduction? Maybe your co-worker dreams of being a writer and your friend from college runs a successful blog. Or maybe a family friend is looking for a job and you know a woman in her sector. Connect these people. Put your name behind people you believe in.

The more you can get other people’s worlds to collide, the bigger your own world will become.

Most people talk to the same people. When it comes to standing out, a good rule of thumb is to not be like most people. Having diverse groups of friends and being proactive in learning about what you don’t know is a force multiplier.

Spend time sitting with the recent college graduate in your office. Get to know people who have been around a while. Show interest in those who’ve lived a different experience than you.

The most interesting stories often come from getting to know diverse people.

No matter our title, we all share the same job: do what we can to make the people around us sleep a little better each night.

If you’re anything like me, you pride yourself on your observation and listening skills. Lean into these qualities. Go at people one-on-one. Learn about their dreams, aspirations, challenges, and fears. Be thoughtful. Listen. Being caring is the ultimate competitive advantage.

People are drawn to warmth.

The beauty of the world we live in today is that you don’t have to be out in front to be seen. Some of the most inspirational people I know are seriously reserved but they know how to spin a story.

But they just don’t tell any story. They tell the ones they’re scared to tell. They do this because they understand vulnerability is the great human connector.

Find just one medium you are comfortable with and tell us what you’ve learned.

The road to 1,000 true fans is built one emotional connection at a time.

The older I get, the more I believe that the future doesn’t belong to the smartest person in the room. Nor does it belong to the strongest or the fastest. The future belongs to those who choose to bring their focus into everything they do.

Listen as hard as you can right now. Write the best sentence you can right now. Give people your full attention right now. Heads down and phones out; that’s unfortunately how most people walk through the day.

All progress is made in the present.

“Stephanie, Happy 17th birthday! I found some really good quotes in here — add them to your book. And remember, there are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

My mom works in a book donation center. The message above was written on the inside cover of a tattered old book she sent me by a woman named Jessica who I can only imagine as cool.

Her words serve as a reminder that when it comes to standing out, more times than not, the best thing we can do is shine the light on someone else.

Kindness attracts just as much as confidence.

Thank you for reading.
My very best to you and yours.

How to Attract Beautiful People by Being Yourself

“What are you up to this weekend? Maybe we can hang out?”

What do normal people do in situations like this? Blink? I tried to keep blinking. But as I wrote down the number of the woman standing in front of me, my visibly shaking hands made it pretty clear that I was a 10 out of 10 on the frazzled scale.

“Sorry about that. I haven’t had a drink yet today,” I joked.

“Don’t worry,” she replied with a smile. “I’m nervous also. I never thought the first person I’d ever ask out would be an American giving a seminar at my office. But my friends told me I needed to be more proactive when meeting guys I think are interesting.”

On a Monday?
Before lunch?
Was this for real?

I’d moved to Barcelona six months earlier with the hopes that being the opposite of the tall, dark, and horribly ripped men around me would help me to stand out. Up until that point, however, that strategy hadn’t worked out very well as my eighth-grade height and easily burned skin hadn’t won many eyes. But this was my chance. And if you had asked me to draw my dream, the woman standing in front of me checked a lot of boxes.

Dark wavy hair. Check.
Dark eyes. Check.
Doesn’t seem to mind that I’m uncool. Check.

After we gave each other a surprisingly smooth kiss on each cheek in typical Catalan fashion — and caught each other turning around to get one last glimpse of each other as I walked away from her office — I thought for sure I’d have to screw up pretty badly to mess up this gorgeous opportunity.

So after getting some well-deserved shit for waiting until Thursday afternoon to reach out to her to make plans, we set a date for that Saturday at 9pm at a place I’d been a few times before with friends.

The rest of that evening, after getting confirmation that this wasn’t a cruel joke, for one of the few times in my life I stood taller than six feet. But this feeling of invincibility didn’t last long. By the time of our date, my excitement had officially made the turn to nerves and I’d run out of ideas for how to get my left leg to stop twitching so god damn much.

“What do Catalan women like?”

“What if I’m not it?”

“Oh God! I have to go back to her office Monday for work! What if I make a fool of myself?”

These questions flooded my head.

To make matters worse, when it came time to get ready, my roommate, Josh, in his sometimes charming but otherwise annoying Mississippi drawl, said over and over again with each outfit I tried on— “It’s going to take more than a clean shirt to make you pretty!”


“Best not be late, pretty boy!” Josh said with a smirk. “Death is waiting.”

And with that tremendous pep-talk, I gave myself one last look in the mirror, adjusted the safe solid black T-shirt I had decided to go with, and stepped outside to make the 100 meters walk to either meet — or destroy — my destiny.

As she made her way up the steps from the train station, a rare sense of pride washed over me when watching her walk towards me.

She smiled.

My eyes lit up.

We did the double-kiss cheek thing again without tripping over each other.

“You’re beautiful,” I said as my arm moved down her back after our embrace. “I’d wanted to ask you out since our first conversation. But since this is one of my first jobs I was worried I’d be fired for hitting on a client.”

She laughed.

I relaxed.

She looked up at me — still smiling — I thought for sure the look in her eyes meant that she was just as happy to see me as I was to see her. But just as my hopes began to touch the clouds, they were smacked down onto the pavement when she said the words that shatter more men’s dreams than any other — “But we’re just friends, right?”


Just friends? Did I really just hear that?

My mind raced trying to make sense of what had just happened.

What was with the all “interesting” talk?

What about the look back?

Not to mention the fact that she asked me if I wanted to hang out?

I stood there outside the metro station as cars whipped by completely and utterly stoned. How did I get all of her signals so wrong? So terribly wrong? I’m an idiot. My friends were going to love this one.

Oblivious to my confusion, the beautiful woman was still staring at me — smiling — and just as nonchalantly as she crushed my heart, she said, “What’s the plan? I’m starving!”

“Excuse me?” I stumbled, trying to give myself a bit of a buffer to better recover after being run over by the 5-foot 1-inch Catalan woman standing in front of me.

“What’s the plan? I’m starving!” she said again. “You said on the phone the reservation was for 9, right?”

After letting out what can only be described as a grunt, I did what I could to pull myself together and point in the direction of the restaurant.

Thank God I followed the advice of a friend and made plans to meet at the metro station instead of being trapped inside a restaurant in case we had an awkward moment.

As we walked down the shadowy streets we both laughed a little while I loosened up a lot.

By the time we got to the restaurant, something about knowing that I had lost the game before it had even started had put me at ease and I stopped being the “me” I thought she wanted me to be — and I started to act like myself.

I asked her about her life and was in awe of all the places she had been.

She told me about a breakup that happened a few years prior that she hadn’t seen coming.

She told me that she too felt alone in the big city despite it being an hour from her home.

When it came to talking about me, and what I was doing in Barcelona, instead of trying to be cool and telling her I wanted to see the world, I told her the truth.

I told her about how I had lost everything I had when my business partner’s dad stole $250,000 from me.

I told her that I had been in a bad place.

I told her I moved to Catalunya on a whim to try and find my smile again.

It felt good.

Talking to someone.

Letting someone in.

At times, I even thought that we’d made a connection. But with the thought of “We’re just friends” still beating through my head, I let it pass.

I continued to smile.

She continued to laugh.

Five hours passed.

After closing down the restaurant and having a drink at a dive bar next door, we made our way to the metro for her to go one way and me another.

The night had been perfect.

She was perfect.

I felt the biting urge to kiss her again as we stood next to the steps that led down to her train. But I didn’t dare. The last thing I wanted to do with whatever we had going on was risk being friends with this beautiful person.

The next thing I knew, just when I was about to walk away, she grabbed my hand, looked up at me, and with people shuffling past us on the corner of Passeig de Gracia and Corsega — she made the first move again by giving me a kiss that I can still taste today.




“I thought we were just friends?” I said, after coming back down from the clouds and tucking a loose strand of her wavy black hair behind her ear.

“Oh, No!” she laughed. “You thought I was serious? I was just saying that in case someone from the office saw us out together.”

In a few weeks, that beautiful woman and I will celebrate our ninth year of marriage.

I’m convinced — with every ounce of my being — that our magical lives together never would have existed if she hadn’t said that we were just friends when we started our date.

It shifted my thinking from looking for play to not thinking about anything else but having a good time together.

Just like men, different women are attracted to different things.

But from my experience, even if you’re lost and desperately trying to make ends meet, your best chance at getting who you want is by being yourself.

It’s who you’re going to be anyway.

So what’s the point in delaying the inevitable?

What Happens When You Finally Choose to Stop

If some Costa Rican wearing a “Pura Vida” t-shirt hadn’t stolen most of my money, we never would have met.

If some Italian hadn’t made a massive mistake and told her he needed a break, we never would have met.

If I hadn’t taken what little money I had left to buy a one-way ticket to Barcelona, we never would have met.

If she hadn’t gone to Dublin and worked odd jobs to learn English, we never would have met. 

If I hadn’t.
If she hadn’t. 

I think about that a lot. Our big decisions. The supposed bad things that happened in our lives. All those twists and turns that ultimately led to the two of us standing next to each other on the corner of La Rambla and Passeig de Colom that October day. 

It was grey outside. I’d just finished giving a workshop at her office. The streets were still wet. “Can I tag along for lunch?” she asked while hugging her jean jacket. “I know a nice spot.” 

So just like that, the two of us began to make our way through the narrow city streets. And as soon as we did, in between small talk and nervous laughter on my part, a few rays of October sun beat through the 48-hour wall of clouds, and when it did, in one fluid motion, this comfortable stranger stopped, tilted back her head, closed her eyes, and smiled.

It lasted only a few seconds. But sometimes that’s enough. At that moment, something told me that her story and my story would turn into our story. I had a feeling that my life would begin and end with her. 

I think about that a lot. Her power to speed up my heart while simultaneously slow down my breathing. The idea that the only way to experience the moments that stop the world is by taking the time to appreciate the world. 

I would have scoffed at that thought prior to meeting her. Tossed it aside as something a hippy would say. But it’s now the one thing in life I no longer question. That was our moment. Everyone else had disappeared. The taxi drivers stopped blaring their horns. The city shouts faded to mute. It was just the two of us. Her smiling at the sun. My eyes frozen open in awe of her. We’d both hit a few bumps. I’d definitely lost more than a few inches of footing. Shattered confidence. Broken relationships. Hiding behind chemical masks. But her choice to soak in all the good in the world led me to see all the beauty in the world. 

I think about that a lot. How fate isn’t a person or a destination but rather a choice. How it doesn’t take much to change your life. How none of the defining moments of my life came with a plan. How simple the best things in life can be. Someone said something or did something that anyone walking by would miss or deem inconsequential. But I was fully alive at that moment to see it and present enough to know I had to hold on to it.

A glass of water
A peach
Pockets of sun. 

Everything we need is right in front of us. 

It’s all there for the taking. 

All you need to do is stop. 

Thank you for reading.
My very best to you and yours.

On the Relationships You Can’t Quit

I didn’t understand what was happening the first time I was taken to see the man in the hospital. I was young. But I knew it wasn’t good.

I remember seeing him lying in bed. Him reaching for my hand through all them damn tubes. Me flinching. I remember the man looking me dead in the eye and asking me why I couldn’t talk to him. I regret not saying anything back. I regret just standing there. My palms sweat just thinking of that. I was probably led out of the room after doing that.

What do you say to someone whose red cape has been replaced with a sterile white hospital sheet? 

How’s a kid supposed to act? 

Is there anything an adult can say to help take all the pain of the world away?

I don’t remember much of the man when I was a kid. Orioles games. Willie Nelson. Me rockin’ my big wheel down the hill at warp speed to meet him at the bus stop. His perfectly pressed navy blue uniform with heavy medals on it. Overly burnt pancakes. Him running his black pocket comb across his even more perfectly parted strawberry-blonde-hair.

One thing I remember for sure is I never once doubted the man would be there for me. I was a shy kid. Timid. He made me feel safe. The kinda guy who’s six-foot-five when you close your eyes but five-foot-eleven when you open them. He was my protector. But as much as I was in awe of him, at times, his stoic resolve and commanding presence also scared me some.

I remember when the man got better the first time, he’d sometimes stand at my bedroom door at night. I remember lying there with my eyes closed pretending to be asleep. I think about that a lot. Days like today make me regret doing that a lot.

Why didn’t I let him know I was awake? Why didn’t I tell him to come in and tell me a story? Why didn’t I ask him to tell me about all the bad guys he’d caught? I wish I’d asked him to sit on my bed. I wish I’d told him we didn’t have to talk at all.

When I think about the first relationship I had with the man, I can’t help thinking the image of him standing there — and me just lying there — best sums up the story of us.

He was my shield.

But I’m not sure how much either of us tried to take off our armor.

People love to say other people don’t change. But I think that’s nonsense. I think people say that so they can feel better about themselves. So they can feel like their life matters. Like they’re superior. Like they’re the ones who are evolving.

We don’t always take the time to notice, but people change. The man I knew is not the man I know. It took some time, but the years made him softer while I got a little stronger. We started talking more. He’d laugh loudly, uncontrollably, at all things 1988 Chevy Chase. My friends stopped calling him sir. He’s the type of person who asks good questions. He listens. My wife and kids really love him.

I like this thought. I like the idea that no matter how different we were the man and I had no choice but not to quit. I like the idea that the best relationships take years to make.

We took different paths. Me on one continent. Him on another. But no matter how far apart we were and no matter how different we saw the world, we never once questioned if we’d stay together. When you walk with someone long enough, you’ll eventually meet somewhere on the long road to the middle.

I’m glad the man and I had our walks. I’m glad we started at different places. I’m glad we both took the time to learn how to grow on each other as eventually, we learned how to grow with each other.

Knowing we’ve had our walks means a lot right now. He built me up. I like to think I toned him down. Maybe we’ll get another chance to lace up our boots again. Or maybe today while we wait on opposite sides of the globe for the news we want to know but maybe don’t want to hear, we learn our walking days are coming to an end.

I don’t know much. And I don’t know when. But if the damn world ever opens up again the first thing I’m gonna do is run to him. I’d say something this time. I know I would. At the age of 43, I still have no idea how to act and I still don’t have any idea of what I could possibly say to help take all the pain of the world away, but I’d try this time.

I’d tell him he’s a good man.

I’d tell him I love him.

The images of him and me and me and him are coming back faster than before. Pitch and catch. Standing on the sidelines at my games. Cheering. Yelling. Standing together at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Him telling me to shut up and trust myself. I’d tell him I’m finally starting to do that. I’d tell him he gave me exactly what I didn’t know I needed. I’d finally admit his pancakes were pretty good.

I’m sure I’d mess up the words.

I do that sometimes when talking.

But I’d try.

And perhaps that’s the most important lesson the man has ever taught me — great things happen when we stick with people long enough and give them the space to try and get things right.

Thank you for reading.
My very best to you and yours.
— Michael