Things No One Else Can Teach Us (2019) is a part-memoir, part-unconventional self-help book. Full of revealing personal stories and philosophical musings, it will inspire you to question your beliefs about failure, success, and what really makes life meaningful.
Introduction: Learn to live life on your own terms.
Life is finite, so guzzle all the joy you can while you can.
Embrace the freedom of letting go of people and things that don’t fit you anymore.
Throw away the map and follow your internal compass.
Get back in touch with the delight of doing something for its own sake.
Self-pity should be an occasional treat, not a default mode.
About the author
Table of Contents
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Motivation, Inspiration, Personal Development, Biography, Memoir, Psychology, Counseling, Happiness, Success Self-Help, Poetry, Spirituality, Philosophy, Cultural, Canada, Personal Growth, Personality
Introduction: Learn to live life on your own terms.
Humble the Poet has experienced plenty of setbacks.
As a Sikh spoken word artist who wears a turban, he’s no stranger to racism and discrimination. He’s also had to put up with fierce criticism from members of his community, who felt he was disrespecting his culture and faith.
To follow his dreams, he quit his day job as a teacher and went into debt. Along the way, he’s been lonely and full of self-doubt. He’s put his trust in scam artists and had lousy performances. He’s also had his heart broken numerous times.
You could say that he’s an expert in adversity. But today, he wears each of those setbacks and failures on his sleeve, because he knows that none of the triumphs in his career could have existed without those difficult times.
Humble’s wise and raw revelations about living an authentic life on your own terms have inspired his millions of fans. In this summary, you’ll get insight into six key teachings from his book Things No One Else Can Teach Us.
In this summary, you’ll learn
- why accepting death is the key to living a fulfilling life;
- how ping-pong can save you from yourself; and
- why indulging in self-pity is like eating at McDonald’s.
Life is finite, so guzzle all the joy you can while you can.
When you’re born, you’re born with a finite number of breaths. That’s right. You have, in a sense, an “expiration date.” Does that sound terrifying?
Well, death scares most people. Hearing that you, too, will die could make you want to hide under the covers and refuse to come out.
But pretending you’ll be here forever can be even worse. The truth is that as soon as you accept that everything is finite – even your life – you’ll be able to value what you actually have in the moment. Everything is temporary.
But you’re here right now.
Here to love and connect and hold your grandmother’s hands in your own, eat delicious food, drink in the faces of your children, and feel sand under your feet or the swish of your skirt as you walk down the street. You’re here to admire that tiny flower growing through the cracks in the pavement and to swoon as you listen to a beautiful song. The fact that it won’t last doesn’t make it less special. It makes it even more special.
So, right this moment, take some time to think about what’s important to you. Let your life flash before your eyes. Which parts of it light you up? Who really matters? What really matters?
Embrace the freedom of letting go of people and things that don’t fit you anymore.
Now comes the hard part.
When you’re identifying the people who light you up and support you, you’ll also identify people who don’t show up for you in the way that you need.
That means that you need to let some people go. You know who they are:
People who drain your energy and leave you depleted after you meet up. People who you Whatsapp out of obligation, but your heart’s not really in it anymore. People who pour scorn on your dreams. People who sabotage you while pretending to support you. People who say one thing while doing another.
There’s no space in your one brief and precious life for those people. They’re taking up space, energy, and time. All things that you have in very finite quantities. They’re taking time from your family, your dreams, and the friendships that do nourish and support you. The truth is that you need to let them go. You can do that lovingly and kindly. But do it.
Just like those clothes in your closet that don’t feel right on your body anymore when you put them on, some relationships just don’t “fit” you anymore. And that’s alright. They may have fitted perfectly at one stage of your life. You may have lots of beautiful memories together. But your past isn’t your future. At least, it doesn’t have to be.
So, it’s time to ask yourself: What parts of my past do I need to let go of? What do I need to leave in the past?
Throw away the map and follow your internal compass.
Charting a new future for yourself can sometimes feel like being stuck in the middle of a fierce storm. Visibility is poor and you don’t know where you’re going. The map that you’ve been following doesn’t apply anymore. So you’ve thrown it away.
That means you’re free.
But you’re also lost.
Some days this feels exhilarating, but sometimes it also feels completely terrifying. Where the hell are you going to end up? You have no idea. Remember, you threw away the map. It was leading you where society expected you to go. But that doesn’t fit you anymore.
When Humble the Poet quit his secure job as an elementary teacher, he was throwing away the proverbial map. The map said that he’d teach for the next 30 years until he could retire, and maybe dabble with music on the side in his basement.
The map said he had to hold on to his safe and respectable job with both hands and make the best of what he had. The map said that his parents had worked so hard to give him that opportunity, that he couldn’t possibly throw it away.
But, the creative life called to Humble. And the cries only got stronger. He knew he had to take the plunge, to back himself 100 percent. Even if no one else believed in him, he had to believe in himself. So he decided to quit his job as a teacher. At that stage, he had no idea how he’d pay his bills. There was no map to the path to becoming a successful artist. He had no idea what awaited him. He just knew he had to take the plunge and see what happened.
Now, the changes you need to make in your life might not be so drastic. You don’t have to turn your life upside down to live authentically. All you need to do is to tune into your internal compass. That compass is so much more important than any societal map you were following. It’s more important than what your parents, friends, or that hot person on Instagram think you should be doing.
So throw away the map and start to feel where your compass is pointing. The only thing that matters is that you follow that arrow – wherever it leads.
Get back in touch with the delight of doing something for its own sake.
Living in Los Angeles, Humble the Poet had bought into the city’s hustle culture. Everyone was ambitious and hard-working. He admired their grit and was determined to emulate it. So he forced himself to write every day, make music, post on social media to try and grow his audience, and try to get meetings with important people.
As he became more successful, he also became more strung out. He kept track of how many times his songs were downloaded; how many people liked his posts. He compared himself to even more successful and established artists, like Pharrell. He was desperate to have a massive hit and everything in his life became about working toward that goal. In the process, he lost sight of why he’d set out to become an artist in the first place. He stopped having fun.
Do you know what saved him? Ping-pong.
Between work sessions, Humble and his housemate would play a game to loosen up and get their creative juices flowing. It was exhilarating and easy. Everyone who visited the house inevitably joined in. Humble became the reigning champion. Which confused him. How on earth had he gotten so good at the game without ever trying to become good at it?
But then he had a revelation. In fact, over the last year, he’d been playing ping-pong every day. He’d been just as consistent at ping-pong as he was at writing songs. But there was one difference. Playing ping-pong had never felt like work. He never had to bribe himself to play a game. He didn’t stress about it when he wasn’t playing. He didn’t look up ping-pong champs online to compare himself to them. He just had fun. He enjoyed himself. And, in the process, he became good at it. It was the by-product of the fun, not the aim of the game.
Making art had been like that for him once, too. When he was a teacher, he’d always made time for writing and recording songs after school. It was pure joy. Something he did for the simple reason that he enjoyed it in the moment of doing it. But, when he decided to pursue art full time, all the fun was drowned out by the seriousness of his ambitions, by his determination to make it. Whatever that meant.
Humble realized that he had to bring that joyful ping-pong energy back into his music and writing. He slowed down and stopped measuring success in likes on Facebook. The only thing that mattered was that he liked what he was doing.
When was the last time you played a game like ping-pong or table football just because it felt good?
So, here’s an exercise for later. When you’ve completed this summary, just take a few minutes to play. You probably don’t have a ping-pong table in your living room. But you can throw a ball against the wall, or chase your kid around the garden. And when you’re done, close your eyes. Feel your heart beating faster. Feel the exhilaration radiating through your body. That’s the way you should be feeling as often as you can!
Self-pity should be an occasional treat, not a default mode.
Are you familiar with the character of Eeyore in the story of Winnie the Pooh? Eeyore is the sad donkey who always looks on the dark side of life. No matter how much everyone tries to cheer him up, he always sees the glass half empty. Eeyore is convinced that nothing will work out for him. And guess what: it doesn’t!
We all have an inner Eeyore.
Maybe you’ve gone through a brutal breakup. Or a friend betrayed you. Or your career isn’t going the way you want it to despite all your hard work. Or your parents don’t support you like you need them to. When you’re experiencing something difficult, self-pity is a natural response. It’s a way of connecting with yourself when you’re feeling low. It’s also a way of trying to get attention from the people around you. It can feel good to get hugs and sympathy from people trying to cheer you up.
But are you ready to hear the blunt truth?
Nobody wants to be around someone who feels sorry for themselves all the time. The Eeyore act gets very old very quickly. So if you carry on that way, your friends will start to avoid you. Which, of course, will only fuel your self-pity even more.
Self-pity is to emotional connection what McDonald’s is to food. It’s quick and easy – but it doesn’t last and it might well leave you feeling a bit queasy.
The thing is that everyone goes through hard times. You’re not special. Everyone around you is dealing with shit too. But self-pity will keep you stuck in your head and unable to be there for your community.
This might all sound harsh. No one’s saying that you can’t be down in the dumps from time to time. Of course, you’ll have hard days and feel sorry for yourself sometimes. You just have to make sure that self-pity doesn’t become your default mode for dealing with tough situations.
Stopping by McDonald’s for a burger and fries occasionally won’t damage your health. Having lunch and dinner there every day probably will. The same is true for self-pity. Make it an occasional “treat.”
For example, the next time you feel sorry for yourself, you could listen to a sad song and, while the song is playing, you can allow yourself to feel really, really awful. Call to mind all the people who’ve been unfair to you. All the times you’ve failed. All your disappointments. Let yourself give in fully to your inner Eeyore and gorge on self-pity. And when the song comes to an end, give yourself a shake and snap out of it. The self-pity show is over.
Now that you’re done feeling sorry for yourself, it’s time for some good news.
Your life is your responsibility – 100 percent of the time.
This might sound heavy. But really, think about it. You can’t control what happens to you. You can’t control how other people treat you. But you can control your responses.
Welcome to the school of life. You were enrolled at birth and the tuition is expensive. You’re going to make big mistakes, fail, and get your heart broken. Those heartaches and disappointments could make you shut down. Or you could choose to treat them as compassionate teachers here to give you valuable lessons. You could let them open your mind.
So stop fearing failure. Stop living small. Allow yourself to follow your compass. Fail hard – and proudly.
About the author
HUMBLE THE POET, AKA KANWER SINGH, is a Canadian-born rapper, spoken-word artist, poet, international bestselling author, and former elementary school teacher with a wildly popular blog of over 100,000 monthly readers. He has over 930,000 social media followers and his first book, Unlearn, is a Globe & Mail bestseller in Canada. He has performed at concerts and festivals including Lollapalooza and been featured in major media including Buzzfeed and Huffington Post. Visit him at HumbleThePoet.com.
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Table of Contents
Fortunately/Unfortunately, Nothing Lasts Forever
1. Everything Is Temporary, so Appreciate Those You Have While You Have Them
2. Patience Is Making Time Your BFF
3. You Are Going to Die, and Remembering That Can Be a Good Thing
4. Don’t Cry Because It’s Over, Smile Because It Happened
Knowing Yourself Makes All the Difference
5. We Can Survive a Lot
6. Service to Others Is Also a Great Service to Ourselves (Sewa)
7. When We Know Our Why, Our How Gets Easier
8. We Gotta Pay Tuition for Life Lessons
Don’t Focus on the Pot of Gold, Enjoy the Rainbow
9. Focus on the Fun, and Everything Else Will Fall into Place (and If It Doesn’t, at Least You’re Having Fun)
10. The Pot of Gold Rarely Makes the Journey Worth It
11. Give Yourself Permission to Dance on Different Rainbows
12. We All Have Different Rainbows
13. Often, There Is No End to the Rainbow
14. Try to Relate to the Bad Guys in Your Story
15. Chapters End, but Our Story as a Whole Keeps Evolving
16. Judge Less, Understand More
17. You Aren’t That Special, Embrace It
18. We Don’t Own a Crystal Ball, so Stop Assuming the Future
19. Are You Being Pushed by Fear, or Pulled by Love?
20. Life Isn’t Black and White, There’s Plenty of Gray in Between
21. Don’t Be So Hyperbolic (That’s a Big Word for Dramatic)
22. Detach Your Self-Worth from Your Choices
Limit Your Self-Pity
23. Caution: Social Media Is a Playground for Self-Pity
24. Self-Pity Is Easy and Convenient like Fast Food (and Just as Unhealthy)
25. We Don’t Scream “Why Me?!” During the Good Times, so Don’t Scream It During the Bad
26. Turn Rejection into Invitation
27. Self-Pity Feeds Our Insecurities (and That Leaves Us Bitter and Angry)
28. Getting Offended Is a Form of Self-Pity
There’s No Win or Lose, There’s Only Win or Learn
29. Stop Calling Them Failures, Start Calling Them Teachers
30. Not Everyone We Lose Is a Loss
31. We Can Lose More Trying to Wi; n
32. Freedom Is Having Nothing to Lose
33. There Are No Time Machines, so Fix It Next Time
The rapper, spoken word artist, poet, blogger, social media influencer, and international bestselling author of Unlearn delivers unorthodox lessons for shifting our perceptions and learning to create silver linings from our most difficult moments.
Every one of us endures setbacks, disappointments, and failures that can incapacitate us. But we don’t have to let them. Instead, we can use these events as opportunities for growth. In Things No One Else Can Teach Us, Humble the Poet flips the conventional script for happiness and success, showing us how our most painful experiences can be our greatest teachers.
Humble shares raw, honest stories from his own life—from his rocky start becoming a rapper to nearly going broke to being the victim of racial prejudice—to demonstrate how a change in mindset can radically alter our outlook. This shift in perspective—one that stops seeing the negative and starts seeing the lesson or positive spin—is what no one else can teach us. We must figure things out on our own, often through difficult and heartbreaking experiences.
Humble inspires us to create these silver linings ourselves, preparing us to better handle any challenges that may arise. From a breakup to going broke to losing a loved one, our hardest moments can help us flourish, but onlyif we recognize and seize the opportunity. By doing so, we will become more self-aware, grateful, and empowered.
Simple yet profound, Humble’s message is clear. While we can’t control the vagaries of life, we have the power to control how we react to them. Things No One Else Can Teach Us reminds us all that we have the power within us to transform the way we respond to everyday challenges and ultimately be our best selves.
Humble the Poet (Unlearn), a Canadian rapper and spoken word artist, blends memoir with standard self-help advice in this uneven work. Having previously worked as an elementary school teacher, the author taps the informal vibe of a cool authority figure as he casually reveals his hardships, low points, and unflattering thoughts to demonstrate how “you can’t be yourself if you don’t know who you are.” Each chapter opens with an anecdote, including accounts of difficulties producing music videos and stories of working with Pharrell Williams, that segues into general insights meant to guide readers away from negative thinking: “Purpose is not one-size-fits-all… the more deeply we dive inward, the more clarity we’ll have about what tickles our fancy.” The author asks readers to admit when they are being greedy and selfish, and provides poetry and pull quotes to punctuate his lessons. Conversations with colleagues and friends (including a particularly affecting discussion with a friend fighting cancer), as well as with his famous acquaintances, are often the vehicle by which wisdom is imparted, lending their voices an all-knowing quality. While the personal stories of brushes with fame and fortune provide the most entertainment, the unspecific lessons (“There’s no fun waiting for us after the work; there’s just more work”) feel unnecessarily tacked on. Fans of the author’s work will enjoy this peek into his life, but readers looking for solid advice will be disappointed. (Oct.) – Publishers Weekly
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In 1998 Snoop Dogg released his third album, Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told, and I remember seeing the ridiculously blinged-out album cover and thinking to myself, “What does that mean? Why can’t you just tell me Da Game? Why do I have to buy it?”
I’ve always loved hip hop, and as a youngster, I soaked in as much of it as I could, reading the lyrics and jumping on internet forums to share my thoughts and immerse myself in those of other aficionados. Those early years made me realize how amazing writers and hip hop artists were. I knew then if I wanted to explore my talents as a writer, it needed to be through rap.
So I spent the first years of adulthood writing my own hip hop songs, giving myself the name Poet to make me sound smarter, classier, and more acceptable. As the journey of sharing my work with the world began, my written words began to connect much more than any song I recorded. That’s when I began to flirt with the idea of becoming a writer, well, a REAL writer.
I dreamed of the day I’d become a full-fledged real writer. You know, the type of writer who was published with a major publisher. The type of writer who spent most of his time traveling the world, having promiscuous sex, finding inspiration in cloud formations, and somehow interpreting all those experiences into words* that would be celebrated beyond my life.
How romantic it would be to live the life of a real writer. Early morning writing sessions with a typewriter by a lake and perfectly developed ideas floating from my head onto the page. I would see a leaf fall from a tree and convert that moment into an epic chapter about change, expectations, and the circle of life.
I told myself that if I ever got the opportunity to become a real writer, I would take the money the publishers gave me and find a quiet apartment in a quiet city in a quiet corner of the planet and write my epic first, and last, novel. Then I’d go into hiding like J. D. Salinger, live off the royalties, and once in a while reply to letters from high school students who were forced to study my book for their English independent study projects.
Instead, when I signed my contract with HarperCollins, I wrote the bulk of this book on my mother’s dining table at home in Toronto. I walked around the same neighborhood I grew up in, taking familiar routes where the nostalgia fades and gentrification continues to thrive. I politely avoided my wonderful editors’ recommendations to write an outline* and spent an entire summer free writing. I then spent the rest of the fall and winter rewriting from scratch, after failing to find a thread that joined all my summer jumbles together.*
Being a full-time creative came with other unglamorous challenges. Poor posture and neglecting to do the most basic stretches flared up a preexisting lower back injury, so sitting for more than an hour, whether at my dining room table, in a movie theater, or on a private jet, resulted in pain for the rest of the day. Irony never loses its sense of humor. Sitting down to write became more taxing on my body than my previous life as an elementary school teacher, when I stood all day in front of a class.
I experienced profound creative moments during the writing process late at night, only to forget them in the morning. I began to keep a notebook to flesh out ideas when they struck, but I couldn’t understand my own chicken scratch when it was time to revisit.
Yeah, the glorious life of “real writer” continues to elude me, or maybe I just overly romanticized it in my head. When those romantic ideas didn’t match the life I had in front of me, I began feeling disappointed, betrayed, and generally crappy. In order to feel better, I had to let go of the expectations I had and open myself up to finding, discovering, and creating beauty in the circumstances in front of me and not the fantasies between my ears. And that’s what this book is about.
That’s probably what the story of all of our lives is about.
We all know that great moments fade quickly and bad moments seem to last forever. We promise ourselves that hitting that next milestone will make us feel better, but after a few days, we’re off chasing the next high.
We’re always waiting for that day when everything we’ve struggled with, everything we’ve suffered for, everything that’s ever left us feeling empty is finally magically fixed and we can live happily ever after. We forget that this sparkly moment in our fantasies always has a day after, which presents us with new challenges and problems all over again. It’s a cycle we don’t want to acknowledge, and one that leaves us feeling either lost and hopeless or numb and unmotivated.
We look to others to help “fix” these problems and feelings—maybe a wellness guru who combines common sense with encouraging words on how we can use our personal power to make it all better. The guru’s words feel good as we’re reading them, but they don’t last long enough to keep us away from the bookstore, where we chase a new fix of hollow hope.
There’s a reason we keep finding ourselves in these patterns. When we continue to expect our problems, our mindsets, and our situations to get solved by something, or someone, other than ourselves, we are always going to be disappointed. The truth is, we are responsible for ourselves, and that includes the way we see things. This sounds like tough love, and maybe it is, but it’s also hopeful.
You are the only person capable of creating real change in your life. And you can feel that real change only when you can feel it within you.
I’m not a real writer because I have a book published by a major publisher, or even because you’re reading my stuff, or even because I’m good at it. I’m a real writer because I shifted my perspective about that definition. It’s not about the quiet writing corner or the fancy publishing contract or the stereotypical promiscuous lifestyle of a tortured genius. It’s about the fact that I sat down and, despite my insecurities, lethargy, and short attention span, I wrote. That’s what real writers do: they write.* But I realized this only once I recognized my ability to see things differently. And here’s the important part: I had to figure that out myself. No one else could do it for me, and no amount of advice or number of wellness gurus and motivational quotes could have taught me.
I had to explore, experience, and face the things no one else could teach me.
The beauty of changing the way we see things is that we find ourselves in a position to discover and create the beauty we seek, no matter what’s happening in our lives, no matter how dark those moments feel.
In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.
—Albert Camus, “Return to Tipasa”
So let’s talk about those dark moments—the heartbreaks, the losses, the embarrassments, the contradictions, and the moments when everything blew up in our faces. Let’s treat them like that leaf falling from a tree and see whether we can find moments of magic, silver linings, lessons, and beauty in them.
Let’s talk about the things no one else can teach us, particularly the big one that it’s possible to start seeing things differently. Like Camus, we can all find the invincible summer within even the coldest of winter nights.
These are my stories, my darkest moments, my happiest of accidents, and my journey to see beyond what was right in front of me. I, like you, have made some bone-headed mistakes, and then repeated them a half dozen times before noticing a pattern and trying to learn from those mistakes. The purpose of these stories isn’t to show you how to live or to tell you what to do like the wellness gurus I just scoffed at. It’s to help you realize you’re not alone in the challenges you face and to help you remember that you can transform those challenges with a new perspective. It’s possible to see the treasure that was always hiding among the trash.
We see ourselves in the stories of others and can free ourselves by writing the story of our own lives. I share my stories not only to help you figure out yours, but to also continue to make sense and find beauty in mine. A voice in my head continues to tell me that my stories aren’t worth sharing and that it’s egotistical to assume anyone would care to read them. But another voice is emerging, a voice that reminds me that we’re all in this together and that sharing my challenges and experiences, and the lessons I have learned from them, will contribute to a world beyond myself. After all, storytelling has been an essential tool for our evolution as a species.
Maybe being a great writer doesn’t include money, sex, fame, and travel. Maybe, just like a construction worker or a Starbucks barista, my skills are best used in service to others.
The more deeply we dive into our own stories, the more we feel like we’re going through it alone. But I’m here to remind you that you’re not alone, even though we each have to do the work ourselves. The deeper we dive, the more beauty we can discover as well. No one else shares our unique experiences, and therefore no one else can show us the light at the end of the tunnels we dig; we can only share our stories and remind ourselves that we already have everything we need to find that light.
These are the things no one else can teach us.
We all have the unlimited power to shift our perspective, and with that, the unlimited power to change the way we feel about life. This isn’t a manual for fixing your life; I couldn’t write one for you even if I wanted to. I can only share how I learned from the experiences I had, and how they taught me to better my life. Through my sharing, I hope you think back on your moments of good, bad, and boring to find, discover, and create something of value from them. Many of those experiences weren’t pleasant, and you may not want to revisit them, but the discomfort, pain, and overall shitty feeling that came from those experiences is the price we all have to pay to gain that wisdom. In some circles, that wisdom is referred to as game.
Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told
All the experiences we go through in life are our lessons, all the people we meet are our teachers. What we learn is what we earn from those experiences, and this book is here simply to help you see, discover, and create the silver lining that’s always been there so you don’t discard the unpleasant moments as things you want to forget. Everything we go through is important and puts us up on game to better ourselves and the way we feel moving forward. Wisdom can’t be told or taught by anyone else; only we can mine the jewels of wisdom ourselves. That’s what Snoop was getting at, and that’s what Albert Camus celebrated before him.
That invincible summer doesn’t require us to have certain experiences; it requires us only to open ourselves up to life in a certain way, to see things beyond what’s on the surface.
I can’t promise you “happily ever after,” and that’s not something you should expect or promise yourself either. I can, however, share my stories of figuring shit out on my own by changing the way I perceived things. I encourage you to use a new lens—one not of blind optimism but of empowered opportunism in which you recognize that you have the ability to turn any situation that appears to be shitty into something much sweeter. Once you’ve embraced that power, you won’t be as afraid to face new challenges and setbacks that life will undoubtedly present to you. Simply having a better attitude toward them will show you the sugar among any shit.
WE ALL HAVE THE UNLIMITED POWER TO SHIFT OUR PERSPECTIVE.
Fortunately/Unfortunately, Nothing Lasts Forever
Summers seem shorter
Winters get longer
Friendships end with the seasons
And we won’t always welcome spring
Time stops standing still for us, and the happy-ever-afters never happen
Everyone I know and love will be dead
Everyone I resent and hate will be dead
How can we have something everlasting
In a world where nothing ever lasts
Everything comes to pass
Everything is temporary
How fortunate and unfortunate for us
Death is the only promise
It’s frustrating to know that the new outfit you just bought, the one that brings you so much excitement and confidence, is one day going to sit unloved at the back of your closet. When you get around to spring cleaning, you’ll look at it, embarrassed, and wonder, “Why did I buy that? What was I thinking?” Shit gets old very quickly; nothing stands the test of time anymore. Companies make stuff to break so we’ll buy the next generation of stuff, which will also break. This makes the world, and life, feel that much more temporary.
Mother Nature also created us with a form of built-in obsolescence: death. We have an expiration date, and that also makes the world, and life, feel that much more temporary. The longer we live, the more we experience death, in and around us. Many of my childhood heroes are dead, like my grandmother, Nani. I’ll never get to feel her leathery, wrinkly hands again. Growing up, absorbed in her cuddles, I thought she would be here forever. But she wasn’t, and as I stood in the hospital room staring at her lifeless body, I thought of my mother and father and how, if everything plays out as it should, I’ll be watching them pass away too one day.
Nothing lasts forever.
The fact that life is temporary—the happiness, the joy, the hope, the fear, the pain, the sorrow, the victories, the defeats—is the most comforting and terrifying fact of existence.
It always feels like the bad shit pauses at its worst moments, while all the good stuff crumbles into the everyday.
“Nothing lasts forever” sucks when we think of the good stuff, but it’s oddly comforting when we think of the bad. You’ve fought the urge to get up to pee during a movie, knowing the credits will eventually roll and you’ll be free to leave your seat without missing anything. You’ve sat through boring lectures, silly arguments, and never-ending weddings, knowing that these, too, will at some point wrap up. The temporary things in life have brought you peace before. Your heartbreaks have been temporary, your injuries have been temporary, your confusions, resentments, anger, and fears have all been temporary.
Still, realizing that nothing we know and cherish today will last forever can be difficult. We’re on borrowed time. My mother says our number of breaths has been predetermined.* Irrespective of the allegory, analogy, or belief, we’re not going to last. Not in the short term or the grand scheme.
That realization might make us want to hide in the nearest corner, assume the fetal position, and scream, “Why bother doing anything? What’s the point if it’s all going to end?”
So now that I’ve massaged your existential dread, I’m supposed to teach you to find beauty in this world of temporary, right? Wrong. You’ve had your near-death experiences and promised to live a new life, only to fall back into your whack habits a few days later. You’ve lost things that mattered to you, people who mattered to you, and you’re still here, knowing that one day you’ll also be lost; no one makes it out alive.
What I can do is help you see how recognizing that everything is temporary can take a lot of the pressure off and help you jump headfirst into life, finding more reasons to be grateful, to connect with others, and most important, to connect with yourself. In the past I’ve written about letting go to gain more. This time, let’s talk about how much we lose from holding on. Let’s talk about the gifts we receive when we lose, and how all of this can help us clean out our closets and keep only what’s most important. Let’s talk about how we should value something because it’s temporary, including our own lives.
Looking at life through the lens of time shows us how patience is a superpower. Loss feeds love and encourages us to look at the bigger picture.
Nothing lasts forever, and that’s both tragic and comic, depending on how we look at it—so how we look at it, our perspective, is the thing we can, and should, control. We can give ourselves a facepalm when we look at that old outfit, or we can try it on and dance around the room summoning up the spirits and smiles of yesterday—a beautiful reminder of how far we’ve come.
Everything Is Temporary, so Appreciate Those You Have While You Have Them
Shit had hit the fan. My rap career had launched, but not at the rate I’d expected. I had moved into a condo I couldn’t afford the prior year, planning to pay for it with future funds I assumed would come pouring in. Suddenly I realized I’d spent twelve months sitting in smoke-filled studios, making music whenever inspiration (or the weed) hit me, having no idea how to pay my mortgage. I was broke and uninspired.
Things needed to be different. Not only did I have to audit my bank account, but I had to audit the people I spent my time with. We all go through these times in life, when we have to slow things down, reevaluate, and do some spring cleaning. Yet for me, this spring cleaning was less about holistic renewal and more about clearing my professional path. I decided that if someone wasn’t helping me get to where I needed to be, then that person most likely was getting in my way. I didn’t make any proclamations or write anybody a Dear John letter, thus liberating myself from their harmful clutches. I didn’t say a thing to anybody; I just stopped engaging with people who I felt were standing in my way rather than helping me and I began to focus more on myself.
I started with the people in my life who were less than inspiring, even toxic. The ones making decisions that didn’t feel responsible or sustainable to me. You know the people I’m talking about: the ones who feel like more of a chore or an obligation than a friend.
Purging these kinds of people from my life had immediate benefits. It freed up my time and energy so I was able to spend time with people and things that actually excited me, rather than drained me. Slowly, I cleansed my personal life of all the whack people I was spending time with. It was instantly liberating for me, but shedding friends also became addictive.
I didn’t stop there.
After getting rid of all my bad friends, I started looking at my good friends. The ones who were pleasant sources of energy yet sought out comfort through conformity and avoiding risk at every turn. They were well meaning but expressed their worry whenever I shared my nontraditional thoughts and ideas about taking risks and coloring outside the lines. I was on an entrepreneurial journey, and as sweet as those people were, I realized that I no longer had things in common with many of them. I decided I needed to surround myself with people I wanted to be like: self-employed, empowered, risk-embracing. In other words, I wanted to be around people only if they could help and inspire me on my journey.
No friend’s feelings were harmed in the making of Humble the Poet, at least not in my self-indulgent, apathetic eyes. Because of my financial strain and the slowdown in my inspiration, I felt like I was in “sink-or-swim” mode, and even the good people in my life were slowing me down.
If you want to go fast, go alone . . .
I wanted to go fast. I wanted out of the hole I was in. I wanted fresh air. I was sick of being broke, sick of losing, sick of being betrayed by people after believing their empty promises. I needed to figure things out by myself.
Fuck everybody else.
Everybody else, unfortunately, included Boomerang.
Boomerang was a friend of a friend. Though that friend disappeared abruptly after being caught making uninspiring decisions, Boomerang remained.
Boomerang and I soon got to know each other on a deeper level. He was a sweet guy, and we had a lot in common. He was making beats as a side hustle and loved a lot of the same music I did, and in the later stages of our friendship, we bonded over the betrayal we both felt from our former friend.
But Boomerang worked in insurance, or finance—something to do with money and sales. I didn’t take the time to understand because none of it sounded like it was beneficial to me, the aspiring rapper and artist.
We wouldn’t hang out one-on-one often, yet Boomerang came to every event I threw, alongside our ragtag band of creatives. He was always there, front and center, alongside other artists who were integral to the creative moment we were all a part of. He put in the time and the effort.
Every so often he would send me a message asking me to hang out with him, and I would be either out of town or too busy working on something to be social. I always told him I would get back to him soon, but never did.
Boomerang never took it personally. He still showed up at the events, still showed love, and still regularly reached out to check in.
One cold January night, right before I was headed to LA for a few weeks for work, I contacted him at the last minute to hang out. I was in his neighborhood and figured it was convenient to stop by. We spent less than an hour shooting the shit and catching up. I didn’t stay long because I had to prepare for my trip, and I was basically squeezing him in before heading to the next thing. But we had a good time: he loved hearing stories and always asked the kinds of questions that made me know he was genuinely interested. I realized that Boomerang’s only intention was to hang out with good people. Just as he reached out to me regularly to catch up, he made efforts to stay in contact with all his friends. He, like everybody else, just wanted to be around great energy.
Even though I enjoyed the short time I spent with him that January night, at that point in my life I felt I couldn’t afford to be around people who weren’t directly serving my ambitions.
I would get daily requests from people to sit down for a coffee to discuss a new project or idea or to pitch me a business venture. Some people just wanted to show their social media followers that they knew me. I viewed these requests in one of two ways: either I didn’t feel those people were helping me to get where I wanted to go, or I worried they were trying to use me. I got bit in the ass a few too many times, so I developed a generous layer of paranoia when trying to figure out people’s intentions. These two reactions to people approaching me—for business and for friendship—led me to avoid most people, and I focused my energy on spending time with creatives and people in my industry, who I felt were going to help me get my own stuff off the ground. Boomerang had some creative ideas, but he never pursued them on a serious level. So even though the time I spent with him made me happy, I didn’t prioritize him. I didn’t see the point.
The irony was, in my relentless pursuit of the right kind of people to surround myself with, I ended up becoming the kind of person I was trying to avoid.
In July of that year, I put out the music video for my song “H.A.I.R,” and Boomerang was one of the first to message and congratulate me on the release. He sent nothing but love and asked whether we could link up soon. I told him I was out of town until late August. I never followed up with him when I returned.
“Congrats on the new Video man, it’s Fire!”
“Thank You man”
“Are you back in the city? we need to hang out and catch up”
“I’ll be back in a few weeks, near the end of August, I’ll hit you up when I am”
“Okay cool, we’ll do the weekend, weekdays are busy for me”
Those few texts would be the last time we connected.
In September, Boomerang suddenly collapsed at home and was admitted to the ICU. After a short stint in a coma, he passed away.
He was gone.
There was no second chance. Boomerang always got the short end of the stick from me. I couldn’t appreciate that somebody might be thinking about me and might actually want to spend time with me, regardless of any networking or professional currency I had. I could make a list of all the famous people I went out of my way to be around, hoping to extract some wisdom, opportunity, or introduction to something or someone that would further me on my journey, but very few of them felt awesome to be around. Boomerang felt awesome to be around, but for some reason that wasn’t enough for me.
I was a terrible friend to someone who was nothing but wonderful to me, and I don’t want that to happen again, not to me, or to anyone reading this book. I still have those last texts from my phone, and when I look at them, I know I could have contacted him when I got back at the end of August, but I didn’t, and now he’s not here anymore.
We forget/ignore/avoid mortality for so many reasons, and when those close to us pass away, we wake up, but only temporarily, before we reset to our unappreciative defaults.
I don’t want to blame Los Angeles for all of this since I’m the one who didn’t make my friend a priority, but I do know that the LA environment contributed to my decisions at that time. The “what can you do for me” mindset is dripping out of the palm trees. In Hollywood, I saw the rewards of success, and like everyone else, I wanted a piece of it. I smothered this greed in good intentions and elaborate justifications, but the truth is, I really just hoped achieving success would make me feel better about myself.
It didn’t. It wouldn’t. How could it?
I didn’t realize how much being in Los Angeles affected my priorities until I left and took an active break from that environment.
The uncomfortable reality is that any connection with a friend could possibly be the last. But that uncomfortable reality is also a good lens for viewing the world: if we kept this in mind, we would treat the people in our lives with more care. Remembering that the people in our lives won’t be here forever is the best way to motivate us to be as wonderful to them as possible, while they’re still here. It’s tricky, since we’re not really wired to remember this fact, but when we make the active effort to keep it in mind, beautiful choices come from that effort.
But we don’t.
When we chase ambition, we focus on what we don’t have and spend less time appreciating the things and people we do have. As a result, we further isolate ourselves from each other, assuming that everything we experience and everyone we know will always be here. The people we have won’t always be here, so let’s not deprive ourselves of their presence simply because we’re too caught up in wanting more of some other stuff. That other stuff won’t last either—nothing does. So let’s appreciate who and what we have while we still have it. If we’re not happy with what we have, we won’t be very happy with all that we get.
I made time to beat myself up after Boomerang’s death. I was unforgiving, frustrated, and unkind. I said a lot of mean things to myself, but more important than needing to hear it, I needed to say it. At that point it was the closest thing to tears I would let flow out of me.
Once I got it out, I started making a list of other people in my life who, like Boomerang, may not have been well versed on my hustle but were wonderful for my spirit. I took that list and put reminders in my phone to reach out to those people every fifty days. Inspired by Boomerang, I started with a simple, “Hey, how you been?” I would listen to the answer, ask more questions, and then speak some more.
As time went on, life consumed me again, but those reminders still buzzed, dinged, and beeped, encouraging me to reach out to friends I’ve made around the world. The more I do this, the better life feels. I put our hangouts into my calendar because if something’s not in my schedule, it’s not a priority. I no longer said, “Sorry, I’m headed to LA.” Instead I said, “Hey, I’ll be heading to LA in eight days, let’s squeeze something in.”
This has slowed down my output just a bit, but what am I working for if I have no one in my life worth sharing it with? Focusing on less has also allowed me to dive deeper into things that excite me instead of simply trying to keep my lips above water with an overwhelming TO-DO list.
“What can you do for me?” always leads to isolation. And that isolation can’t be helped with a juicy bank account. If anything, success will only amplify the loneliness. We all want connection, and we think being desirable will finally scratch that itch, so we chase things like success and accolades to make ourselves more desirable to others. The problem with that is, if we don’t improve how we feel about ourselves, it won’t matter how many others desire us. We’ll start thinking less of them for wanting to be around someone like us.
After Boomerang died, I realized I didn’t want to play that game anymore. What for? What other people can do for me will rarely get me out of bed, because there’s no meaning and purpose behind it other than stroking my feeble ego. I realized that I felt connected, significant, and seen by others when I took the time to ask, “What can I do for you?”
Although my time with Boomerang was temporary, his impact won’t be. Boomerang’s life gave me a model for how to make time for people I care about, and his death gave me a sharp reminder of how much prioritizing friendship matters. His approach to friendship wasn’t a deep secret or anything revolutionary, but it took his passing for me to take the steps to implement it in my own life.
Boomerang’s death challenged me to find real, sustainable solutions to problems I only talked about in the past. Words mean nothing if actions don’t follow. Instead of selfishly chasing my ambitions, now I make time for the people I care about.
. . . if you want to go far, go together.
—The rest of that African proverb
If I could say one more thing to my friend Boomerang, it would be: I miss you man. I’m sorry I wasn’t a better friend and didn’t make more time for you. I’m going to learn from my past and make a better future for anyone who crosses my path. I think about you every day, and thoughts of you make this life feel a little less lonely. I will honor your beautiful memory through action and service and hold myself to a standard higher than my old self-indulgent ways.
Thank you for setting that bar.
* * *
REMEMBERING THAT THE PEOPLE IN OUR LIVES WON’T BE HERE FOREVER IS THE BEST WAY TO MOTIVATE US TO BE AS WONDERFUL TO THEM AS POSSIBLE, WHILE THEY’RE STILL HERE.
* * *
Patience Is Making Time Your BFF
I had started visiting New York regularly for work, and it was love at first sight. The energy, the people, the endless sources of stimulation and distraction—everything about the city was exciting. I felt like I was becoming a cooler person just by being there. But then I was violently robbed on a small street between Brooklyn and Queens in the middle of the night, and that love affair ended abruptly.
The trauma from that experience stayed with me. Once the cuts and bruises healed from the attack, I still found myself tensing up and freezing whenever people got physically close to me.
I hated that this experience changed me: I felt like I had lost a part of myself. I was constantly anxious and often involuntarily relived the experience. So many things were triggering. It felt exhausting.
So when I was approached by a stranger in the New York subway at midnight several years later, I had the choice to either freeze and not engage or to do something different.
I had just finished my first sold-out performance in Manhattan and was taking the subway home after dinner with a cousin. Subway stops in New York are full of character, and full of characters. Most people drown each other out with the music in their ears, and I did the same. I was waiting for a train at a station that was particularly old and run-down. I thought of the Ninja Turtles as I saw rats scurry across the tracks.
As I stared at the rats, singing the “Turtle Power” theme song in my head, an older gentleman approached me, wearing clothes out of 1990s Harlem. Instead of walking by, he stopped and said something to me. I didn’t hear him with my headphones on, and as I took them off and was about to ask him to repeat what he’d said—since I thought he might be asking directions—he continued speaking.
“I see angels and demons around you.”
The postattack anxious voice inside me said, Umm, okay . . . I’m uncomfortable.
“I see them all around you, you’re an angel,” he said, before turning away.
It was close to midnight at a subway station in Harlem, so what else could I expect? I didn’t think much of it, but I still had my guard up, because, as I had already learned, anything can happen.
The train arrived and I got in and took a seat. The older gentleman walked around the empty car and then sat down across from me. He stared at me, eyes wide, mouth half open, like a child absorbed in a favorite TV show. He looked at me intensely, but I didn’t feel any uncomfortable energy. Although I felt confused, I gave the man a smile, which prompted him to speak again.
“They’re all around the car, angels and demons, I can see them, you don’t see them?!”
I spoke out loud for the first time. “I don’t,” I replied honestly.
“You need to know you’re an angel, you have to watch out for those fucking demons.”
I have a few exes who would disagree with that assessment, but thank you?
Some passengers tried to ignore what was happening, while others peeked over their phones, finding our exchange interesting. I was still fifteen stops away from my destination, but something inside me trusted this stranger enough to ask him a question, to start a conversation. There was something genuine in him, and something in me that made me less afraid than I’d felt in months.
“How do you know I’m an angel?” I asked, feeling less fearful. The anxiety was still there, but what had also been growing was frustration from being so closed off to everyone. It was isolating and suffocating. I never wore my trust issues as an identifying marker. I never wanted to have any trust issues to begin with, but it was hard to be open to others, even when I tried. This night, however, and this gentleman for some reason, was making it just a little bit easier.
“See the light around you? It’s a different color, a different color from the rest of these fucking demons. Can I sit beside you?”
My internal anxious voice returned, Why did you say that?
He sat down in the seat next to mine, his eyes sincere and purposeful.
“There are so many evil beings pretending to be angels, but they can’t change the color of their light. They pretend to preach the truth, but they’re liars, robbing people blind. You have to protect yourself from these people.”
“I will, man,” I replied. I felt I needed to reassure him, but I also still strongly felt the need to protect myself.
“Can I hold your hand?” he asked unexpectedly.
“Sure,” I agreed, surprising even myself.
The anxiety was coming back. C’mon Kanwer, use your brain, he’s going to ask you for money any second now.
As he held my hand he closed his eyes and said, “I need you to be safe from these demons. They’re afraid of your light and will come after you. I pray for your protection.”
How many strangers are praying for my protection? He seemed sincere, and I felt safer and warmer than I expected. He gave me the feeling I had when I was four years old, sleeping nose to nose with my grandmother, kissing her wrinkled cheeks and cuddling her until I fell asleep. When she spoke to me without her dentures, it was as unclear as this man’s Harlem accent. Yet his energy felt familiar, it felt nice. I don’t want to say I felt his love, but I did feel his calm.
Other passengers were invested in our story as well. No one else seemed concerned, only intrigued.
As the train slowed at the next stop, he kissed my hand, told me to stay safe, and to keep my eyes open. Then he disappeared through the closing subway doors and out of my life. I was overwhelmed at that moment; I put my headphones back on and instinctively took a deep breath. Surprisingly, I still felt calm—no anxiety, no awkwardness, just peace. The two remaining riders on the train gave me a look that I took as a giant “Whoa!” as they exited the car at the next stop.
The moment was over. The man hadn’t asked me for anything, other than to stay safe. I had spent that whole trip to New York on Defcon 5, keys clenched between my knuckles, back against the wall, overly paranoid, and that all melted away, with one kiss on my hand.
Maybe it was a fragment of my grandmother’s energy, or maybe that man could see angels and demons, or maybe it was all bullshit. But it wasn’t bullshit to me.
My experience with that man made me feel calm, and my anxiety hasn’t returned since. As someone who doesn’t dabble too much in the supernatural, I do respect energy and vibes, and that man, with his nineties throwback outfit and heavy Harlem slang, had some of the purest, most authentic energy I’ve ever experienced from a stranger.
I believe his purpose wasn’t to make me feel calm, but rather to show me that I had healed from the past trauma of the robbery and could now push my limits a little bit more and open myself up to others once again. I’d chosen to ask him a question, which was a step—putting myself out there—that I’d held off on taking for months.
I didn’t walk away from that experience thinking I had to protect myself as some prophetic being. Instead, I walked away pleasantly surprised, and proud that I’d regained a sense of my old self, the guy who wanted to continue exploring the universe through everyone he met. Getting beat up and robbed had temporarily suspended those adventures, but after a few years, I was ready to open myself back up to the world.
My real guardian angel in this story was time. We never fully get over traumas, and as much as we heal, scars will remain. That doesn’t mean we need to view those scars as reminders of our injuries; instead, we can see them as proof of our resilience.
We don’t have to trust others when they come into our worlds; we just have to trust ourselves to handle whatever happens. I’ve been cheated by people I loved, scammed by those I considered family, and beaten up and robbed by kids. But I don’t want to lose the opportunity for magic moments of connection to occur, and that means I must be open and welcoming to them. Beautiful winds won’t take us anywhere if we don’t have our sails open.
Time was the friend that helped me heal, slowly but surely, and time showed me I could get back to who I was and that I didn’t need to define myself through my past traumas. All I needed to do was be patient and know that my choices in the meantime could make things better or worse.
I could have told that gentleman to fuck off, gotten up and changed seats, or even passively kept my earbuds in, pretending not to hear him. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t. Sometimes when we’re injured, we have to lean in to the pain a bit to get stronger.
* * *
BEAUTIFUL WINDS WON’T TAKE US ANYWHERE IF WE DON’T HAVE OUR SAILS OPEN.
* * *
You Are Going to Die, and Remembering That Can Be a Good Thing
I believe that even when we are in moments of misery and self-pity, the universe will offer us totems—lessons that pull us out of our selfish orbits and help us see the bigger picture. The most recent totem gifted to me was a puddle. The puddle found me as I worked on a very ambitious six-month music video for a track I recorded titled I Will.
The video features multiple tableaus, each telling a different story. It was inspired by the visual images of gangs in the 1979 film The Warriors, but I threw a little twist on it, with one gang being represented by the toughest group of people I know: cancer thrivers. I use the word thrivers instead of survivors because the women I worked with are doing much more than just surviving. They are fighting a daily battle against a horrific disease, but also confronting the reality that many of us work so hard to avoid: the fact that time is running out. We put out a call and found four strong women who were willing to show their battle scars on camera. While we were setting up, I spoke with them all, and my curiosity trumped my discretion and tact.
“How does life feel different now?” I asked, unsure whether I was being too forward or insensitive.
“Well, cancer taught me how to fall in love with puddles,” replied a woman named Anne Marie. “I never noticed puddles before my diagnosis. I was too busy worrying about all the other useless shit life throws at us. The moment I found out it all might go away, I started noticing beauty in the simplest things, like the reflections in a puddle.”
Anne Marie’s cancer took a lot from her, but she had an amazing partner who was by her side during recovery and at the shoot; their love inspired me beyond words. It was almost as if the cancer had done some reorganizing with her life, leaving only what really mattered, with room to notice all the beauty that was hidden before.
The type of beauty found only in puddles.
We all experience loss and tragic news. Many of us are fortunate that those situations aren’t as intense as cancer, but it’s not about comparing our suffering; it’s about the perspectives we have when that suffering hits us. When everything is going well and according to plan, we often sleepwalk through life, focused on our repetitious days of routine and boredom. When something unexpected strikes, we’re suddenly jolted out of our comfort zone, often ill prepared, unsure of what just happened, heart racing a mile a minute.
Facing death is a great alarm clock. Being aware of our mortality, even when things are going well, is a great way to avoid pressing the snooze button.
I had spent that day running around like a chicken without a head, and Anne Marie’s words stopped me in my tracks. We stress about things because we think they’re important, but are they really that important when it’s all said and done? I had so much going on that it was impossible for me to see any light at the end of the tunnel; I was caving myself in. I started taking an inventory of all the things I was spending my time, energy, and focus on, and I asked myself, “Would this be worth it if today were the last day of my life?” Then I went even deeper and asked, “Is this a better use of my time than enjoying a sun-kissed sky or beautiful puddle?”
I stacked my life up with useless shit only because I forgot I wouldn’t be here forever. The important stuff was supposed to happen “after”—but after what? There is no better time to enjoy life than the present, because that present is all we have. We create imaginary timelines and assume we’ll still be here to see everything play out. Anne Marie’s words inspired me to reevaluate my timelines and priorities. I acknowledged that if something wasn’t bringing me joy, then it needed to take a back seat in my life.
People with serious health conditions, like cancer, have to shorten their timelines for the things they want in life. Goals can no longer be left to “someday,” because that day may never come. But this rule applies to us all; even eighty years is a short period of time in the grand scheme of things.
For people like Anne Marie, cancer lights a fire under them to value their time and spend whatever amount they have left on their own terms. It gifts them a perspective we all could benefit from: to focus only on the things that really matter to us and to abandon playing it safe. The sky is always painted beautifully before the sun sets, but we rarely make time to enjoy it, unless we plan an elaborate vacation to a sandy destination, pretending that the sun is somehow different there, more deserving of our attention.
Things aren’t black or white, good or bad, positive or negative—a lot of space exists in between, and when it comes to birth and death, our existence is that in-between space. While we’re alive the possibilities are enormous, but culture, society, and tradition have us thinking that life has to be lived a certain way. Will any of that matter if we remember our days are numbered? Sometimes it takes great loss to remind us of what we have. That loss also makes room for us to see more things that matter, like puddles. Anne Marie helped me see this, because although she prioritized the beauty of puddles, she still participates in life’s regularly scheduled programming—but she’s now doing it wearing a new set of glasses, finding beauty in all the small things while still getting the biggest things done. She doesn’t allow self-pity to prevent her from being in the game.
I don’t know what it feels like to have such a deadly disease. I’ve never had to take cocktails of medications just to get out of bed, and I haven’t lost my beard* to chemotherapy. Those experiences sound very difficult, and I wouldn’t dare disrespect these thrivers by even trying to imagine how it feels.
But you don’t have to get cancer to be a thriver; you can thrive right now. None of us is going to make it out alive, and remembering that helps to put things into perspective.
Cancer forced Anne Marie to remember she was going to die and inspired her to notice something as simple as the beautiful reflections in a puddle, which in turn reminds her that she’s still alive. If we all remember our mortality, we’ll find more in life to celebrate, and the things that cause us the most stress may lose a bit of strength.
A friend once said to me, “Our problems are only real because we forget we’re going to die.” I’m not going to ask you to be dramatic and assume that today is the last day of your life, so you can figure out what’s really important. We don’t need to stare death in the eyes to realize that. We just have to sit down for twenty minutes with a pen and pad and make a list of what’s important to us.
Sometimes when things feel too heavy, I ask myself, “Will this matter in three hundred years?” and I think about the fact that no one I know will be around then—none of their judgments, opinions, debts, or grudges—and that I should enjoy this journey while I’m still healthy enough to do so. In three hundred years it won’t matter that I wasn’t invited to this or that event or included on this or that list or was able to connect with this or that person. It won’t matter that I showed up wearing a mustard stain on my outfit or that I didn’t proofread my text message before I hit “send.” Figuring out what will matter in three hundred years results in a much shorter list—almost next to nothing.
It’s great to have ambitions for the future, but let’s add some short-term and immediate things to look forward to as well so we’re not deferring our entire life to “someday.” Let’s enjoy the puddles, our loved ones, and all the roses we’d like to smell. Anne Marie didn’t quit her day job and become a nihilist; she embraced life even more and dedicated more time to helping others do the same. She didn’t find a silver lining in her diagnosis; she discovered a puddle—and created one from it: after she was in remission, she founded TheseAreMyScars.com to share her cancer experiences to inspire and educate others.
I’m not going to pretend that staring at a puddle on the street engulfed forever me in a Zen state. I still stress over petty and impermanent things. But I have received renewed inspiration to take more control when those stresses become too much, and instead of drowning myself in a bottle, or pills, or another person, I dive into a puddle, and things feel a little better. A little better is a step up from a little worse, and those baby steps can add up, so splash your feet.
* * *
THINGS AREN’T BLACK OR WHITE, GOOD OR BAD, POSITIVE OR NEGATIVE—A LOT OF SPACE EXISTS IN BETWEEN.
* * *
Don’t Cry Because It’s Over, Smile Because It Happened
In the ninth grade, I put it out into the universe that I wanted a dog. A week later, I received a call from my uncle.
“Kanwer, I found a puppy for you,” he said.
“What’s the breed?” I asked excitedly. I had been researching different breeds for a while. Fourteen-year-old me was very particular about the type of dog I wanted.
“I don’t know . . . he’s black. Let me ask.”
I waited until he returned with an answer. “He’s a German Shepherd.”
“Does he come with any shots?”
“He comes with four legs, that’s all I know. Do you want a dog or not?”
And that’s how we got Himmatt. The owners of a gas station near my uncle’s home had purchased two very expensive German Shepherd show dogs and used them for security. Those guard dogs hooked up, and Himmatt was born in a litter of what I could only imagine were higher functioning puppies. My cousin, who had joined my uncle to visit the litter, explained that while the other dogs were running around play-fighting with each other, Himmatt sat quietly by himself staring at the floor. My uncle figured he’d be the least of a headache and chose him.
I was excited to get a puppy. I imagined him to be a cute and innocent little guy, but Himmatt was none of the above. He was all black with a little brown on his nose, and he was much larger than I expected an eight-week-old puppy to be.
Himmatt is a Punjabi word that loosely translates to courage and strength. He was goofy-looking and had oversized paws that he’d trip over as he walked. His ears drooped and never pointed in the same direction. When we were out on a walk together, people would stop their cars to get a closer look and pet him. They’d tell stories of their former dogs as they searched for them in his eyes. At the time I thought these people were weird and creepy, but the more it happened, the more I realized how easily dogs bring smiles into people’s lives.
Himmatt grew to be a large and handsome dog. He grew to 140 pounds and could jump and catch something six feet in the air. His show dog parents passed down show dog genes to him. He was a smart guy and knew enough to know when he didn’t have to listen. He knew who in my family would share dinner scraps with him. He knew the best routes for walks and would ignore anyone who wasn’t going where he wanted to go. He knew when to be nice to little kids and little dogs, and he knew he wasn’t allowed on couches, so he waited until we fell asleep to jump on them.
Himmatt grew up with us and was there for both of my sisters’ weddings. He had friends and enemies in the neighborhood, could sit on the porch without a leash, and was trustworthy enough to even leave the mailman alone.*
When he was ten years old, he developed problems in his hips and struggled to walk. We had been warned that this could happen with German Shepherds, but we had hoped we wouldn’t have to face this situation. First, he began to walk on only three legs, leaving one of his hind legs up. Then, the second hind leg started to give out as well, leaving him immobile. He would have accidents in the house, and we watched him deteriorate. German Shepherds have a life expectancy of nine to thirteen years, and, by the time he was eleven, the severity of his hip problems no longer allowed him any independence.
Just as I had researched information before getting a dog, I started researching what signs to look for when it was time to let him go. It’s extremely difficult to make a decision about another being’s life. I read heartbreaking stories from pet owners about their experiences with trying to figure out the “right” time—if that even exists. One person wrote that they asked their dog directly whether it was time, hoping for a sign. They said they felt that their dog gave them permission to let go, but more important, permission to forgive themselves.
Desperate, I began to talk to Himmatt. I asked him whether he thought it was time to go, but I didn’t get any type of response. I kept asking him over and over, crying, hoping for anything—a nod, a bark, a whimper, anything. His eyes would widen if I offered him ice cream or asked him whether he wanted to go for a walk. But when I asked him whether he thought he was going to be alright, if we should hold out hope that he remain with us a little longer, he just looked away.
One early morning, my father woke me up and said that Himmatt couldn’t get up anymore. He’d had another accident and was struggling to move. My father told me I needed to call the veterinarian and make arrangements.
That call was the heaviest thing I had ever dealt with, and in a painfully symbolic moment, Himmatt found the strength to get up and walk to the backyard while I was calling the vet. I hung up on the receptionist and ran to him. He sat there casually, as if everything was okay. I gave him a hug, and he groaned, letting me know that he wanted his space. Then he struggled to get up again.
I took a picture of him for the last time.
We went to the vet that afternoon, a place he always hated; it made him anxious and turned him—this giant dog—into a big baby. In hindsight I wished I had explored other options, like bringing the vet to the house and releasing Himmatt in a place where he was most comfortable. It still haunts me to see him on the cold steel table, whimpering, looking at me, wondering why I wasn’t helping him. I could have made his last moments better; he deserved that much. I failed him there.
When dogs are euthanized, they’re first given a drug that puts them to sleep, and then a second drug stops their heart. I hugged him and sobbed as he shook and whimpered.
I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I love you so much, I’m sorry!
Nothing else would come out, not a “goodbye,” not an “I’ll miss you,” only “I’m sorry.”
After the first needle, his whimpers began to fade, and his eyes got heavy. As they began to close, I got one final glimpse into them before the lights went out. He wasn’t putting up a struggle anymore, he just lay there, so still and so calm.
When the vet gave him the second drug, I screamed.
I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry!
I buried my face into his and sobbed, his body still warm, fur still soft.
My guy, my buddy, my big dummy, I’m sorry I ever brought you here, I’m sorry you had to go like this!
He was gone.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry!
I spent eleven years with him, and it’s been eleven years since he’s been gone, and my eyes still well up with tears every time I think of him.*
To this day, I always stop to pet people’s dogs, and I tell the owners my stories of Himmatt. I’m always checking the dogs’ paws to see how big they’ll grow, always staring into their eyes, looking for my big dummy.
Once, I spotted a German Shepherd that looked exactly like Himmatt—so much so that I froze when I saw him, hoping he’d recognize me, hoping he’d come running to me, jumping at me, almost knocking me down every time. It felt too real to even go near him. My eyes filled with tears until I couldn’t see him anymore. I wiped away the tears and, as clear as day, I saw Himmatt in his eyes.
I promised myself never to get a dog again. Even if they live long and healthy lives, it’s still only a fraction of my own. That’s painful to know. Having to say goodbye to Himmatt was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and I’m starting to realize why.
We can’t control death; we can manage or delay it, but we can never outright avoid it. Even modern science focuses on lifespan over healthspan, as we create suffering just to avoid the inevitable. The thought of a new dog pushes me to the thought of those last moments, when I’ll have to make that decision again one day, to decide that a beloved dog no longer gets to exist.
Nicht weinen, weil sie vorüber!
Lächeln, weil sie gewesen!
[Do not cry because they are past!
Smile, because they once were!]
This Dr. Seuss–esque idea has been floating around forever, but clichéd quotations lose meaning if we forget why they are clichés in the first place.
All of our relationships are seasons. Some last longer than others, and even at their best, a relationship will still change and fall. It’s our fear of not being in control that makes us bitter and greedy in the face of the truth that everything is temporary . . . including us. It’s an inconvenient truth that we never want thrown in our faces, so we do everything and anything to avoid or disguise it. Some chase legacies beyond their years, others lean on science, others on religion. Whatever it may be, all lives play out the same: we will lose others, and others will lose us.
Life is going to be full of tough decisions, and some questions will never have clear answers. Did we put Himmatt down too early? Could he have had a few more days? Who would have benefited from those few days? Did we wait too long? Such questions won’t deliver any answers that will bring peace to my mind. It happened, and should I choose to get another dog, it’ll happen again. The important question, the one we can answer through our actions is, Was having eleven years with Himmatt worth the pain of losing him?
The answer is an astounding, absolute yes. In my unapologetic, biased opinion, there are two types of people: those who love dogs, and those who haven’t owned a dog. It was an amazing experience, and like all experiences, it came to an end. The fact that it ended is one of the reasons it was so valuable. I learned responsibility, love, and affection and experienced the magic that is having a four-legged best friend.
Here’s why this matters: We will all suffer loss. It’s a guarantee in life. Some losses are easier to bear over time; others permanently affect who we are and the direction we move in life. But the pain of loss, much like the pain of anything, is a part of the natural cycle in this beautiful thing called life. Our fears tell us that we should avoid long-term enriching experiences because they may end in loss. But when we give in to those fears, all we do is close ourselves off to an endless well of magic.
I don’t know whether I’ll be able to open my heart again to a dog. I don’t know whether meeting that woman on a blind date will lead to a life-long relationship. I’m unsure whether devoting a year to writing a book is worth it. But fear won’t do anything other than hold me back from finding out.
I’m not here to promise you that everything will work out. I don’t own a crystal ball. That person you started dating may betray your trust next week, month, year, or fourteen years from now. That puppy you bought may drain your bank account with veterinary bills. Sharing your work with the public may blow up in your face. I’m not here to sell you affirmations. I’m here to remind you that despite all the things that can (and often will) go wrong, it’s worth going for it. Holding yourself back from experiencing life will leave stains on your spirit that may never come out.
Of course, sometimes, going for it has negative consequences. But I’ve always come out the other side. I have tattoos I don’t like—so what? I’ve spent my life savings on projects that failed—so what? I’ve loved with my eyes closed and was torn to shreds—but I’m still here. More important than my stories of surviving the worst-case scenarios are your stories. You’ve suffered and will continue to suffer loss, and often it’s out of your hands. But you do hold the power of deciding whether you can handle more loss and whether the journey is worth it despite the loss.
I cried writing this chapter because I miss Himmatt with all my heart. A new dog wouldn’t replace him; it would only be a new experience and adventure, with its own ups and downs, problems and solutions, beauty and horror. I’ve given myself permission to be fearful, but I won’t allow those feelings of fear to decide my actions moving forward. My fear of loss doesn’t have to stop me from having relationships with dogs that my friends’ live with or dogs I pass on the street.
For you, fear might mean taking that baby step toward a first date, or even having a conversation with your crush. Maybe it’s spending time in a new city, or actively searching out new people to connect with. We don’t have control over how 99.999999 percent of things turn out, but we’ll always have control over our efforts and our perspectives, and that counts for something. If we go in with an open heart toward the possibility of loss, then maybe the blow won’t feel so traumatic. As someone who’s NOT Winnie the Pooh once said: “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
All of our emotions have value, and as unpleasant as some are, they’re reminders that we’re alive and have a whole lot going on inside. Why not approach life with curiosity and wonder, instead of dread and fear. We don’t avoid movies because we know they’ll end. We enjoy the journey they take us on. Our journey is life, and no one makes it out alive; the finish is death, so let’s enjoy life while we can, with those we love, while they’re still here.
Eleven years with Himmatt was most definitely better than never having him at all. Every day was a gift, and now being grateful for that gift is my priority. It’s okay to make room for the fear and self-pity; just be mindful that they don’t overstay their welcome.
* * *
IT’S OUR FEAR OF NOT BEING IN CONTROL THAT MAKES US BITTER AND GREEDY IN THE FACE OF THE TRUTH THAT EVERYTHING IS TEMPORARY . . . INCLUDING US.
* * *
If things lasted forever, would we be able to appreciate them?
I’m writing this while I sit in first class flying to LA from NYC, eating a warm chocolate chip cookie, which was a great follow-up to Dessert Part 1: a hot fudge sundae. This is my first, and maybe last, time flying first class, and no, I didn’t pay for this ticket. To get it, all I did was agree to attend an event. I napped, watched a few reruns of 30 Rock, and ate every piece of food I was offered, because I don’t know whether this will ever happen again. I know that the people sitting beside me consider this an average day, and because of that, they don’t appreciate it the way I do.
I can appreciate this humble brag only because I’ve learned that as quick as it comes is as quick as it goes. The fact that nothing lasts forever is a double-edged sword, and we have to be careful. Just because nothing is going to last doesn’t mean we can abandon our responsibilities. Statistically speaking, if you’re reading this, then the odds are in your favor that you’ll be here for a solid three-quarters of a century, and that means you have to plan accordingly. Our circumstances last longer than our feelings, but it’s those feelings that have a massive impact on our circumstances. I’m only a kid in a candy store on this flight because I’m aware that this experience is a short, rare one and so I should make the most of it. Most of the wonderful things and people we have in our lives are just like this first-class flight: temporary, rare, and worth our highest levels of gratitude. Letting go is never easy when we get used to things.
This flight won’t last forever, and that’s important, because if it did, I wouldn’t appreciate it. Despite the comforts, extra accommodating flight attendants, and their magical ability to keep the ice cream cold, I wouldn’t want this flight to last forever. I want to have other experiences, and those will also come with an expiry date. The challenge is, we want the good stuff to last and struggle to believe that the bad stuff will ever end. The heartbreaks, regrets, pain of loss all seem to tattoo themselves into our beings, but just like this flight, they won’t last. Sometimes the only reason these feelings stick around is because we don’t let them go.
Nothing remains forever, and that idea scares and excites the shit out of me at the same time. It’s that rollercoaster of our life in the theme park we built, and it’s fun only because it makes us feel butterflies in our tummies. The glory of our victories and the disappointments of our defeats all become memories. When we realize this, we’re free to choose dread or gratitude when facing them. Gratitude is the only thing that will make us smile, so if smiling is your jam, lean in that direction.
Everyone wants to avoid the reality of death and how temporary everything is. We’re coded to survive, so it makes sense that we have our blockers on; it wouldn’t make for much of a life if we viewed everything as simply temporary, and thus not worth our time. But we don’t have to choose to see the world one way or the other. Life is a spectrum of experiences, and we can dance in between them, because between is all that matters. Life is what happens between birth and death—that little hyphen that shows up on our gravestones between our birthday and our death day. It’s the between that allows me to goof around and get work done on this comfortable six-hour flight. It’s that in-between period in life that opens up endless possibilities for what our lives can become.
One day the star we call our sun will burn out, the galaxy we call the Milky Way will fade, the universe we call home will cease to be, and there will be nothing. Before any of that happens, we’ll become nothing too, and that’s okay; it just means we should appreciate who and what we have, while we have them, for however long we have left.
I hope someone is reading this well after I’m gone and is scratching his or her head about what a first-class flight is.* I’ll take comfort in knowing my thoughts outlived the mind that manifested them, if only for a few extra millennia.
You won’t return like the sunrise
But I’ll feel your warmth
What did I do to deserve the few moments we had
When you brought me pain, you brought me rain
And a seed of wisdom came to sprout
Your voice vibrates with a half-life of infinity
Everything will be said, will be said forever
Until there’s no one left to hear it
And then it won’t matter
In a temporary world, it matters that you shared your temporary time with me
I’ll see you in forever
Knowing Yourself Makes All the Difference
Roses are red, violets are blue
Listening to your parents
Means you don’t have to decide what to do
Sugar is sweet, syrup is sappy
Stick to the script
and keep everyone happy
Decisions are exhausting, and everybody likes to blame
So don’t rock the boat
And you won’t have to worry about them
Life is confusing, someone’s got to have the answers
And if they’re amusing, let’s make them our mentor
Let’s avoid the mirrors and allow others to paint our pictures
Of who we should be, without ever knowing who we are
The cost of being yourself, is being by yourself
And that’s a pretty penny I can’t afford
But staying in line has its cost
Keeping everyone else happy but ourselves
What do you want to eat?
I don’t know, what do you want to eat?
I’m too tired to decide, just pick anything.
Making decisions takes energy, and it gets exhausting. There’s a term for this. It’s called decision fatigue, and it’s the reason that Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, always wore the same black turtleneck and blue jeans. It’s the reason Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, expects himself to make only three good decisions a day. These high-functioning individuals understand the importance of every decision they make and what it takes from them, so they reduce the number of decisions they make. Jobs did it by wearing the same clothes, to avoid that first decision of the day. Bezos understands that he can make only a finite number of good decisions each day, so he aims to make only three.
The rest of us have found our own hacks, like packing our lunch and laying out our clothes for the next day the night before. But in the bigger picture, with the big decisions in life, we’re either too overwhelmed with the options or constrained by the rules that society, culture, and friends and family have placed on us. The decisions we can’t make with confidence end up being made for us. That’s why so many of us are in school studying something we don’t like; getting an education is a realistic way to plug ourselves in to society and earn a living, allowing us to feel accepted by everyone else—and also to not embarrass our families.
That template isn’t just related to our careers; it’s related to our beliefs, values, and pursuits of happiness. Go to school, get a job, get married, have 2.5 kids, put them through school, get them married, have 2.5 grandkids, and retire, wait for death, while you reminisce about how horrible you were at math.
For those few of us who decide to go off-script, we’re leaving a zoo to enter the jungle. Sure, there’s an abundance of freedom when we choose to go against the template, but with that freedom comes new challenges. We have to trade feelings of safety and security for uncertainty, and we have to learn how to be out on our own. All the decisions that were previously made for us now rest solely on our shoulders.
And that’s fucking exhausting.
Many people give up and rejoin the templated life, where the path is so beaten, it’s paved with pretty lines and streetlights, which is much nicer than the dark dangerous uncertain jungle. There are fewer decisions to make and more guidelines for how it all works. Hit that benchmark at work by this age. Have kids now. Wait to travel the world.
Sticking to the script saves us from having to make a lot of tough decisions, but tough decisions still find us, often when life doesn’t go according to plan. The beauty in those tough decisions is that they teach us about ourselves.
We’ve been fed messages of how to know ourselves throughout our lives. The corny after-school specials always half-heartedly encouraged us to be ourselves. Social media found a way for us to sell an idea of our authentic selves. But the truth is, we have to go through bullshit in order to learn who we really are. When we get those moments, we realize one simple truth:
You can’t be yourself if you don’t know who you are.
So how do you know who you are? Everyone is a gooey batter of both nature and nurture, and every time shit hits the fan in our lives, we have an opportunity to get to know ourselves a bit better. It’s an exhausting experience, but it’s enriching.
We learn about ourselves through all of our interactions with the world, both good and bad. This is the reason your fourth-grade teacher taught you about rocks—not because it’s important to know the difference between sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks, but because a little dabble on a subject may awaken something in you to help you become the next Charles Darwin or Ross Geller.
So with everything you do, think about how it shapes who you are, and think about how who you are shapes your experience of everything you do.
The more you know yourself, the more you can live a life that feels right for you. The life you want to live will rarely be one-size-fits-all. Society, culture, and all the people you care about will try to make decisions for you, accidentally reinforcing their own desires for your conformity. But with conforming comes the kind of stress that can’t be meditated away ten minutes a day using an app on your phone.
The journey to know yourself better isn’t paved and doesn’t come with a map. That’s why you often feel like you’re lost or broken. Every moment when you’ve discovered something new about yourself likely happened the hard way, but it was worth it.
There’s nothing more important than being self-aware, and although it takes more brainpower than simply falling in line, it’ll save you so much more heartache, headache, and tension in the long run. That type of tension is what has us chasing fixes and distractions, avoiding the very inconvenient truth that stares us all in the mirror every day:
I’m not happy where I am right now.
Every promise broken, every heart-breaking moment, and even the random glimpses of hope can teach us about who we are, and what we want. Knowing these things will make all the difference in the life we have, the life we want, and how to bring the two together.
We Can Survive a Lot
It was every dweeb’s dream—a message from a very pretty girl acknowledging the dweeb’s existence: “I know you’re the brains behind the operation.”
The operation she spoke about was comedy YouTube videos I put out along with a few friends called Harman The Hater. I wasn’t in the videos, but I directed, edited, and provided color commentary for them. I was a voice behind the camera, known only as Kman.
She noticed that, and she noticed me.
And she was gorgeous.
She had the most dangerous eyes, and she spoke with such assertiveness. We’d talk online, and then on the phone. After one long conversation lasting the entire night, we met at 6 a.m. on a dare.
Our second date was at a Christmas party thrown by the elementary school where I was a teacher. She introduced herself to everyone as my fiancée; she was fearless and bold, like Angelina Jolie’s character in any movie she’s ever done.
By the third date, we had already planned a trip together: Thailand for three weeks. It didn’t matter whether either of us was uncomfortable with the idea; we wouldn’t dare admit it. We fed each other’s rebellious sides. Our families weren’t from the same country, language, or faith. Every decision we made had to be an adventure.
She probably got fired from four jobs while we were together, most often for talking back to her superiors. She was very entitled, but stood up for herself, and every time she lost a job, she’d find another—something more interesting and exciting.
For a while, she was working at a small cafe in Toronto that was a front for the illegal gambling machines kept in the back. She was paid cash to serve coffee, but mainly to keep an eye on the special clientele and watch out for cops. She fawned over work stories of simply sitting by the window, reading the newspaper, drinking a cappuccino, kissed by the sun, as regulars greeted her and then headed to the back room to lose money.
We explored the world, life, and ourselves together. She was the first person to tell me “the world needs to hear your ideas,” but at the same time, she saw my infancy celebrity as annoying. She didn’t want to wait an hour after my shows as I took pictures with fans; it bored her and made her restless.
Our relationship worked when our priorities matched, and that usually centered around our shared desire for adventure, but also the stability of having each other. Our phone conversations lasted for hours, even after a year of dating, because we were both curious about ideas and subjects beyond ourselves.
When I spoke to her in person, she stared at me with those dangerous eyes, scanning my face, twitching her little rodent nose, as if trying to interpret abstract art. She told me I had the most beautiful forehead and that no other girls were allowed to see it.
When we fought, it was intense. She was the first woman I’d ever met who said things she didn’t mean when she argued.
“Oh, you fucked up now! This is over! You fucked this up so bad, you’re going to regret this for the rest of your life!”
And I would sit there, with tears filling my eyes, trying to figure out how I’d fucked it up so bad. Hours later she would console me and tell me she didn’t mean it.
Except the times she did.
People would compliment me on her, as if she were a trophy wife, and I remember not knowing how to reply when someone told me how beautiful she was.
Thanks, she gets it from me.
Thanks, but I think I’m better looking.
Umm . . . thanks.
Obviously! That’s why I’m with her!
One dude even told me that he was proud to see a fellow Singh* with such an attractive woman, because it was a “good look.”
Although I dismissed a lot of the comments, they affected me, and I began to think I was with someone who was out of my league, and I couldn’t do better. Her beauty was intimidating, and it magnified my insecurities.
As our arguments got harder and my list of insecurities got longer, I felt the relationship going downhill. She always noticed me, until she didn’t, and the moments she didn’t (often on purpose), I would boil in frustration.
Our first breakup broke me.
I stayed in bed for two days, trying to figure out how I could continue existing without her in my life. She was all I knew, and the best part about me. When she left, so did the life I dreamed about, along with my self-worth and any enthusiasm I held for the future. I cried and blamed others for creating a wedge between us. I refused to speak to anyone, while simultaneously soaking up any pity that came my way. News of our breakup spread quickly through the school where I worked, including my pity party reaction to it.
When I got back to work, a colleague sat me down and gave me The Chat: “I’m divorced with two kids, and watching my marriage crumble was the hardest thing I ever had to endure. I’m not the only person at this school who’s gone through hardships, and neither are you. But one thing we have to remember is, the world doesn’t stop for our tragedies; it keeps moving, and we have to keep moving with it. Stop handling your tragedies like a child, and deal with them like an adult. Adults show up for work, children stay in bed.”
Those words didn’t affect me immediately, but they were a sleeper cell. It wasn’t until after another on-again, off-again drama and we broke up a final time that I started to accept what it meant to “deal with” this.
She had left Toronto to teach English in South Korea, and a few weeks later she messaged me to say things were too heavy and she didn’t want to be in a relationship anymore. I didn’t crumble in heartbreak like I had so many times in the past. I went to work and had a productive day.
It wasn’t easy, but it was necessary. I channeled my frustration over her into my work and let the pain live for a purpose beyond me.
There were still tears, hard nights, and the urge to send her messages, but I didn’t let those things affect my day-to-day life this time. I handled it like an adult.
If you had you asked me, even six months before, to think about losing her, I would have contemplated suicide. I had no faith in myself or my ability to move past any heartbreak. What changed when we broke up for the last time? Maybe it was a little of my seeing it coming, a little bit of my understanding that I couldn’t do much since she was halfway around the world, and a little bit of my being relieved that the rollercoaster ride was over.
I realized what I was capable of surviving. I’d already experienced so much pain in our numerous other breakups, and I made it through because I took my colleague’s advice to take things one day at a time. None of us knows how strong we are until being strong is the only option we have left. We spend so much of our lives avoiding discomfort that we don’t realize that in those uncomfortable situations, our best selves emerge.
I had feared for months that I would lose her, but that vision of how bad the breakup would feel existed only in my head. The reality was different. Our worst fears are rarely realized, and even when they are, we’re still standing.
Just as there’s a day following the good news, there’s always a day after the bad news. As my colleague said, “The world doesn’t stop for our tragedies,” and neither should we. So, when you’ve cried all you can cry and complained all you can complain, remember there’s going to be another day after all of that, and you just have to keep going to see it.
I’d love to tell you that was the end of our story, but with her, there may never be an end. As I got more popular, ironically, I became more of a global citizen than she did, and our paths crossed a few times. We agreed to keep each other company in Bali, I crashed on her couch in Birmingham, she brought friends to watch my show in Dubai; and when I was living in Los Angeles and becoming more of a mainstream character in the world of entertainment, she called me to say, “What the fuck are you doing? You’re above this, your purpose is more important than being famous.”
She was still loving me from afar.
Years after this love story ran its course,* the lesson that the world doesn’t stop because of our tragedies has saved me. This painful experience showed me that I’m much tougher than I thought and that I should give myself more credit than I do. I have a feeling that applies to you as well.
We can survive a lot. Surviving things in the short term may be very unpleasant, but in the long term, we will gain in character, strength, and wisdom. I’ve kept that message with me as I face new challenges in life, knowing that no matter what happens, I’ll be able to claw myself out of the holes and come out stronger.
Fear keeps us in line, and the moment we realize how much we’re capable of enduring, the fences that hold us back start to disintegrate.
The freedom that comes with moving despite the fear is a liberation we would all benefit from.
I’m grateful she and I are on healthy-ish terms; it couldn’t have been easy for her to end things when she did, and how she did, and it must have been just as difficult for her to try to come back.
Let’s stop avoiding painful situations, because that’s where all the growth lives.
After our relationship had faded, and much to the chagrin of her new beaus, she still talked about me and shared my work with people in her life. Girls in my life told me that I was still in love with her, and I laughed and simply said, “It doesn’t matter if I am; love isn’t enough to put up with her shit.” Sometimes it’s best to love someone from afar.
Her last message to me was, “Let’s revisit this when you’re seventy and no other girl wants you.” Look out for us—one day we’ll be a rebellious cute old couple sitting at the park, up to no good.
* * *
FEAR KEEPS US IN LINE, AND THE MOMENT WE REALIZE HOW MUCH WE’RE CAPABLE OF ENDURING, THE FENCES THAT HOLD US BACK START TO DISINTEGRATE.
* * *
Service to Others Is Also a Great Service to Ourselves (Sewa)
Sewa (n.): Sikh term for service.
Dharmendra is one of the biggest names and most recognizable faces in Bollywood history, and he’s Punjabi—like my family. Punjabis make up less than 3 percent of India’s population, so when I had a chance encounter with Dharmendra one evening at a film festival, it was like encountering royalty and I knew I had to take a photo with him to send to my parents, who grew up watching his movies.
I sent the picture to my mom, thinking she’d get a kick out of it. Instead, I got a call from her immediately, her voice sounding shocked and upset. “I wanted to see him in real life at that same film festival,” she told me, “but your dad didn’t want to go.”
Score one for married life.
I felt horrible. I hadn’t known my mom knew about the festival, let alone wanted to go, and then I’d met her hero by accident and rubbed it in her face. I felt bad and decided to be mindful of how I share memorable moments of my life without triggering whatever version of FOMO Punjabi moms have.
When I told my father, his response was much different from my mother’s: “Wow, I’m so proud my son got to meet my hero.” He was smiling ear to ear, regaling me with stories about how he and his friends skipped school to watch Dharmendra’s movies as teenagers.
“He was never too famous to go back to his village,” my father told me. “He would just have to sneak in at night, so no one would notice him, but he would always go back and hang out with his friends. He hasn’t changed a bit.”
My mother interrupted, “And you won’t take me to see him at the festival awards show.”
“We should go!” my dad said, the excitement giving him a change of heart.
Inspired by my father’s enthusiasm, and feeling like trash for rubbing it in my mom’s face, I decided I needed to make this happen. I connected with the friend who had taken me to the event the night before. “Listen man, I’m willing to put my fingerprints on a murder weapon for you—you have to help me get my parents to meet Dharmendra.”
After a little bit more poking and persistence, he agreed to try. A few minutes later he called and told me to come with my parents to a hotel in a few hours. I told my mother I had a business meeting with some older Punjabi men and I needed her to come with me to this hotel to translate. At the same time, I called my dad and told him that I was stranded at a hotel and needed a ride home. Neither knew the other was going to be at the hotel.
The wonderful thing about my parents is that whenever I call them for any type of help, small or big, they show up, no matter what. This was a reminder of how sweet they can be—and also how easy it is to trick them.
At the hotel, my mom and dad were surprised to see each other, but that was short-lived as I hit them with the bigger news: we were going to meet Dharmendra!
My mom was speechless, and my dad simply said “No!” and began walking back to his cab. I ran after him asking “What’s wrong?” and his only reply was “No” as he tried to get into the cab. I stopped him and again asked what was wrong. He pointed down to his sandals, track pants, and dress shirt and said “I can’t go looking like this.”
I understand where my dad was coming from. It was both a beautiful moment where I saw his vulnerability, but with the clock ticking, it was more an unnecessary roadblock to a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I harshly replied, “Dad, this is happening, let’s go!”
As we headed up to Dharmendra’s suite in the hotel, I caught a glimpse of my father adjusting his shirt in the reflection of the elevator door. I had never seen him so frazzled and adorable at the same time; my heart melted. My mother was simply quiet—a little too quiet.
We knocked on the door, and to our surprise, Dharmendra answered. An even bigger shock was that it was just him and a friend in the suite. He invited my parents in, sat them down, and offered them tea. He was so warm and welcoming to my parents, and very sweet and down to earth, just as my father had described.
They told him the story of how I had surprised them with this encounter, and he praised me for being a good son.* What was even more beautiful, and the icing on the cake of the whole experience, was that nobody rushed the moment. Dharmendra was attentive and interested about my parents’ villages back home, and his friend seemed to enjoy the reminiscing as well.
We took some pictures,* and then we headed on our way. As we walked out of the hotel lobby, my father said something I didn’t even think an immigrant father could ever say, “You made my dream come true.”
And I didn’t just hear what my father said; I felt it in my chest. I didn’t even know this man had dreams. I’m not sure he did either, until this happened. This is important, because seven years later, this still stands as the most memorable moment of my career, if not my life.
As the world progresses, we’re going to get opportunities to build upon what people before us created, and because of that, our default days are lived beyond what most of them expected life to be. I was two years into my full-time journey as Humble the Poet, still not making any money and unsure whether I could stick through the tough time, until I helped my parents meet their hero. Hearing my father say those words gave me a feeling that reshaped my purpose and resolve to continue this journey.
We all have a higher need to contribute to things and people beyond ourselves, but so few of us act on that need, let alone recognize it. For me, meeting Dharmendra meant taking a cool picture, but for two kids who grew up in villages that didn’t have electricity, there was nothing bigger. Giving this gift to them was also a gift to myself: it gave me perspective, a sense of gratitude, and a reminder of where I came from. I spend the majority of my life pursuing my ambitions and goals, hoping that passing milestones will somehow make me feel better about all the challenges in my life, but it doesn’t. Putting my personal priorities to the side and devoting a day to making my parents happy provided me with a goal that was not only energizing to work toward, but also felt so much better than anything I had done to simply scratch a selfish itch. Doing for them, and the feelings it gave me, encouraged me to continue doing for others, especially if I wanted to feel good about myself regularly.
I don’t think I have any dreams as big as my dad’s. I grew up as the youngest child, witnessing my parents’ journey from new immigrant to middle class. There are very few things on this planet that I could selfishly enjoy on that level. My parents didn’t wake up that morning expecting to have their wildest dreams fulfilled. The immigrant narrative dictated that their dreams should be modest and realistic, which is what they tried to pass down to their kids. I was just the son who decided that “modest” and “realistic” weren’t my glass slipper.
The gift this experience gave me was the realization that nothing I do for myself will ever match the feelings that come from doing things for those I care about. My ambitions will always reinforce that what I have isn’t enough, and the experiences I have will often feel like mere stepping stones to the next big thing. So in my moments of feeling unfulfilled or, on a basic level, unhappy, I remember that making things happen for the ones who own real estate in my heart always gives me a sense of joy and gratitude.
Remember: We’re not chasing the goal, we’re chasing the feeling that we THINK will come from hitting the goal. Doing for others will always feel better than doing for ourselves. We’ll also realize there’s much less resistance and fewer obstacles when we choose to serve others versus when we choose to do things selfishly.
Being a full-time artist is fantastic, but no matter how many amazing gigs I get or people I meet, none of it compares to those six words that came out of my father’s mouth:
“You made my dream come true.”
This moment taught me that I care about making people feel seen and loved. That I gain a sense of self from that experience. Specifically, it pushed me to think about bigger questions, like what it means to have a wild, unlikely dream. I’m now obsessed with knowing whether these old folks have any more dreams. My father wanted to see Kenya, so we went there.* My mom wants to see Venice and the Great Wall, and both of those trips will happen, too.
We come to points where we think we know our purpose, and even though the impact of the big moment can fizzle or evolve, it makes a lasting impression if we pay attention. So ask yourself: What did you learn about yourself in those moments when you helped others? What did you figure out about yourself when you did a favor for a friend or surprised your family with something? How can you use the challenges you have faced to add value to the life of someone else? When was the last time you focused your energy to help someone you cared about? How did that feel?
The day I introduced Dharmendra to my parents, I realized that my purpose was beyond myself. Focusing on making seemingly impossible things happen for those I care about is something that will always get me out of bed and keep me working, even on the toughest days.
Let’s focus on what we can do for others and pay attention to how that makes us feel about ourselves. Service may save us from a lifetime of chasing happiness in all the wrong self-absorbed places.
Note: The friend who made this moment happen for us, the one whom I offered to put my fingerprints on a murder weapon for, never asked for a favor in return. He did me this solid back in 2012, and he did it selflessly. Thank you!
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DOING FOR OTHERS WILL ALWAYS FEEL BETTER THAN DOING FOR OURSELVES.
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When We Know Our Why, Our How Gets Easier
When I started at university, I had no idea what I wanted to study. Really, no idea. In high school, I had read an article on the top-paying jobs: apparently architects made a great living, and so did computer programmers. Maybe that? I wasn’t sure. To me, the reason to go to school was to keep my parents happy and find a job.
My first year of university, my advisor recommended that since I had no real direction or interests I should take all my elective courses during the first year. Normally, people spread out the fun classes throughout their four years, but her logic was to do them first, giving me a year to figure out my shit. Ironically, I experienced the exact opposite.
That first year was great—my classes were interesting, and my grades were good. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that I had no friends at school, and my classes were all at night. But by my second year, my social circle grew and my interest in academics shrank. I had an A average during my first year, which then turned to Bs and then Cs by my second year after I found friends, school clubs, parties, and girls.
By my third year, I started skipping classes regularly, and the Bs and Cs fell to Cs and Ds. But I wasn’t too worried, because my plan was to figure things out eventually, take the Graduate Management Admission Test, and go for an MBA. A family friend who had done that had two prestigious internships at Ford and Nike. That sounded cool to me, so why not? Besides, at the time, I was doing well for myself as a club promoter, making extra cash by persuading my friends to throw their birthday parties at various clubs, which got me more friends and VIP treatment at all the cool parties.
It became a regular routine: I would show up at the library to study with some classmates for a math test the next morning, only to find myself, afterwards, at another party, and subsequent after-parties, barely making it to class in time to write the test—and fail.
A few of my friends ended up on academic probation. I, on the other hand, was safe, thanks to my high first-year grades. Still, I was three years into a three-year degree with no completion date in sight.
One evening, I was eating dinner at home with my sister, as we watched Boston Public, a dramedy about the lives of teachers at the difficult Winslow High in Boston. At some point during the show, I blurted out, “Wow, it must be so cool to be teacher.”
My sister replied, “Why don’t you become one?”
“Why not? You’d make a great teacher. You grew up attending all those camps, and you’re so good with kids.”
I grew up attending youth camps, and by age sixteen, I was facilitating them. But the idea of teaching had never crossed my mind.
She recommended I talk to a friend who was working as an elementary school teacher. I visited him in his classroom one evening, and he sold the entire lifestyle to me in an hour.
This job is so much fun.
No two days are alike.
The money’s pretty good.*
If you don’t like the classroom, just become a gym teacher.
The hours aren’t long.
The benefits are great.
You have plenty of time to do a side hustle if you want.
You really work only nine months a year, with two months off in the summer, Christmas break, March break, and other random long weekends and P.A. days.
The ladies love a guy who teaches, especially those who teach elementary.
He spoke about the promise these young kids held, recounting stories of a refugee Afghani student he had in the second grade whom he helped acclimate to Canadian society.
I was in love. Not only was this a space I was actually interested in, it also didn’t seem like too much work to attain. One additional year of university and I would get another degree; two degrees in five years didn’t seem so bad. What I didn’t know at the time was how competitive Canadian teachers’ colleges were. They had a higher rejection rate than some medical schools, as the application numbers far outweighed the spots the schools had.
But for me, things were different: I actually cared about something. With the excitement of this new opportunity, coupled with an ignorance of all the hurdles, I dove headfirst into the application process. The deadline was a month away, and what normally takes a few months to complete, I finished with a week to spare. And I was accepted.
Armed with this new goal to become a teacher, I began to attend classes regularly, as well as the additional tutorials. My fourth year of university was the first time I learned how to study—mapping out chapters, making a plan, and reviewing regularly. It was shocking how well I did on tests and exams. The rust had been shaken off my brain after applying some effort, and I ended up getting As in all my classes—the same math-based programming classes that I had struggled with the year before. Only one thing had changed: I had a purpose.
When I finally became an elementary school teacher, I was thrilled. I’d made it happen. Though the romance of being a teacher didn’t last long,* I’d realized how much it mattered to care about something.
I had always been capable, but without motivation ability didn’t matter. I’d gone to university with the pragmatic goal of helping me find a job, which would have made my parents happy, but it wasn’t enough to keep me going. When I discovered elementary education, my excitement in school was rekindled, which pushed me into action. Moreover, that discovery provided me with an opportunity to be a lifelong learner again. This has stuck with me through my journey to becoming Humble The Poet: I made progress only after I decided my purpose.
He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
We can debate forever about whether our purpose is given or chosen in life. Personally, I don’t think that debate matters as much as identifying what that purpose is. As we get older, it gets more and more difficult to find people who speak about anything with their eyes wide and full of life. When we find people talking about things that excite them, we become filled with the same enthusiasm.
I’m not going to promise you that discovering your WHY will instantly energize you for the rest of your days. Unpacking our purpose and discovering why the things that excite us do so is a process. The prospect of becoming an educator got me back on track in school and allowed me to bear any challenge to get where I wanted to be. Then my interests changed, and when my energy and enthusiasm for teaching were slowly sapped out, I started to chase another shiny purpose: becoming an artist.
Our purpose can change, and that’s okay. The WHY isn’t always a fixed thing. Our job is to know ourselves better every day so we can identify the WHY to better equip ourselves to deal with any HOW.
When we find a direction we’re enthusiastic about, we don’t have to rely on motivational sayings to keep us moving; the journey itself naturally becomes the reward. When we’re doing what feels right, it doesn’t feel like work. It takes us back to our childhood.
It is a commonplace among artists and children at play that they’re not aware of the time or solitude while they’re chasing their vision.
—Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Society, religion, and shitty self-help books all have opinions on what our purpose should be, but none of those voices matter if they don’t agree with what we’re already feeling inside. The more deeply we dive inward, the more clarity we’ll have about what tickles our fancy, and we’ll quickly realize that purpose is not one-size-fits-all.
We’re all capable of more than simply flying by the seat of our pants and spending calories on what we think is important but really may just be urgent. Finding out what’s important to us may be the most vital thing we ever do, but that process will always start with knowing ourselves.
I was inspired by watching a television show, but it was also my sister’s comment and recommendation that started me on my path. Who knows where I would be if it had not played out that