How to ROLL through stressful times

A hundred thousand sharp pieces to pick up. That’s what’s left of that Ikea plate. On top of that, a once delicious sandwich is now bleeding mayonnaise on the tiles, as the final act of a tragedy that started on the countertop and ended too early, on the floor.

Any other day it would be just fine, the plate was just a few bucks, and the sandwich can be replaced by instant ramen. But today, it didn’t just shatter the cheap mass-manufactured porcelain. Instead, our day is a pile-up of shattered plans and mayonnaise-bleeding circumstances.

A never-ending meeting with our boss, a product recall in the middle of a sales campaign, that pain in the lower back that’s not letting us sleep well for a few weeks, and now our lunch is on the floor spread across millions of razor-sharp shards that make it impossible to salvage.

I’m so tempted to take the rest of the day off, but I feel guilty already, just considering it.

So I’ll plow through, trying to stay on top of things as much as I can, looking forward to the end of this eternal day.

Have you noticed how days like these are considered exceptions? In the sense that we don’t have a plan for them. We just do what we can, with what we have, to get what we need.

The key to thriving under pressure is to eliminate exceptions and build systems that work under any circumstances. But instead of building systems that normalize exceptions and deal with them correctly, we design excellent processes that work magnificently under ideal circumstances and then crash against the harsh reality.

Instead of blaming the exceptions, I prefer to design systems to account for them, including my daily routines.

I came up with a system that I named ROLL, and it’s the acronym for Review, Orient, Lead, Learn. 

Review

When things go sour, and I feel stressed, I pause and assess my feelings. I set my devices to Do Not Disturb for a few minutes and let silence into my brain. It’s not meditation. I do nothing else but sit in silence, undisturbed, for 3 or 4 minutes. This amplifies my emotions and surfaces them.

I ask my body and mind how I feel. How’s my heartbeat? Am I scared, angry, hopeless? Or do I feel in control, strong, hopeful? Do my hands shake? Am I hungry? Am I thirsty?

Sometimes I feel nothing at all, and that’s OK too.

Orient

I put all my options on the table. Shall I plow through the day, or shall I take the rest of the day off? Shall I attend all the following meetings and pull myself together, or shall I cancel the optional ones? Shall I call a friend for a chat? Shall I put that bottle of white wine in the fridge for tonight?

All the options are good, but I’ll commit to just one of them.

Lead

Now that I know what to do, it’s just a matter of execution. No regrets, no FOMO, no drama. Especially for those plans that tend to be loaded with guilt. Taking half a day off is not the end of the world most of the time. But it cannot be every time!

For this reason, documenting ROLL is fundamental.

Learn

I take a brief note of all the steps. For example:

I felt overwhelmed, so I considered canceling all the meetings for the day. I decided to cancel only two of them because the other ones were time-critical to the current project. In the end, it was a good decision. #ROLL #YAY

Or

I was exhausted today, but I decided to plow through. The conversation with the client was awful, and probably I contributed to making it more difficult than it had to be. Next time better reschedule. #ROLL #NAY

Keeping solid documentation of ROLL improves the quality of my decisions. It tracks progress over time and refines my ability to cope with changes in plans. It mitigates guilt because when I consider taking a day off, I don’t judge myself on the current feelings, but I know how many days off I took in the last months because of stress. Was it zero? No need to feel guilty. Was it five? Red flag, let’s start looking for a more sustainable solution.

ROLL is a quick atomic routine that helps me make better decisions when the pressure is on. It’s easy to iterate, and when well documented, it boosts my productivity and self-accountability.


Thanks to Letizia Barbi, Fei-Ling Tseng, and Laila Faisal

The Stone of Clarity

When I was a kid, I used to live on a farm with my parents and grandparents. My grandfather worked the fields. Every day he left early in the morning only to come back when the sun was setting.

My grandfather had lived through the hardness of World War II. He had to leave his house in Sicily during the conflict and relocated to the north of Italy, where he worked as a farmhand until he saved up enough money to own his land and moved in with his family.

He was a peaceful man. He never had arguments with others. He never got himself in trouble. The difficulty of the war made him a generous person, always available to open his door to the next one who was asking for food or shelter.

One of our neighbors was quite the opposite. Ha had arguments with pretty much everybody in town. He owned land, but he was not a farmer. He inherited that land from his family, and for a long time, he tried to make money out of it in ways not just about sowing and reaping.

He tried to make his little lot into a trailer park, but the business did not pick up. 

Going against the local regulations, he decided to dig a big hole in the middle of his, and naturally, the hole filled up with water. After that, he planned to make a little sport fishing facility.  

The local government went into litigation, and soon enough, he had to fill up his pond, besides paying hefty fines.

One day, my grandfather came home early, and he was very unsettled. He sat in the kitchen and revealed the cause of his being upset. Our neighbor had stuck a pole five feet into our property with a sign on it.

The sign said that we were stealing his land. He claimed that the ditch was maliciously pushed towards his side over the years. His heroic act of sticking a wooden pole in the ground was a reaction to that.

Now imagine two men in their seventies, arguing around a wooden pole in the ground. It got ugly.

They went from yelling at each other across the fields to sending letters. In their minds, it was probably a more sophisticated form of quarreling, but it was upsetting for everyone nevertheless. They didn’t use regular mail, though. Instead, they started sneaking out of their houses at night, delivering their messages directly to the other one’s mailbox. It was funny if we forget the dramatic consequences of such a situation.

Both litigants had heart conditions, and the arguments that went on for weeks made us all concerned about our old man’s health. Then, finally, his doctor stepped in to make him understand he had to let go, but with little to no success.

We were all tired of the situation, and someone had to intervene. My dad was the man for the job.

He picked up a spade from the barn on a Sunday morning and went to the disputed ditch. He started digging, and two hours later, he had made a hole in the ground so big that he could hide a car in it. At some point, the digging stopped, and he yelled: “found!”

I peeked into the hole, and there he was, my father completely covered in dust, brushing up the top of what looked like a small tombstone. What was he doing? I had no idea.

When the county divided the land after the war and assigned it to farmers, they embedded milestones at every property’s border. It was usually unnecessary to resort to digging them up because there was no actual value in that land that would justify disputes about the boundaries. But two seniors who had spent their weeks yelling at each other was good enough of a reason to give that milestone a breath of air.

A little crowd gathered around the hole and gave a good look at my father’s finding, including the two litigants. Then, they stood in silence for a few minutes, and without even looking at each other, went back inside their houses for Sunday lunch.

A few days later, a new ditch lined up with the milestone, which, by the way, was actually a couple of feet into our neighbor’s not-his-anymore land.

Nightly letters ceased, our neighbor’s requests vanished into thin air, and my grandfather’s concerns too.

There are three elements for a conflict: disagreement, scarcity, and disputed property rights. If any of the three disappears, so does the fighting.

When my father found the milestone and the crowd had a look at it, it removed the third element from the equation: there was no more disputed property right as everyone agreed where the line was rightfully supposed to be.


Thanks to Letizia, Paolo, and Trisha for the review to this essay.

The Belgian Shuffle

In 2012 I was invited to speak at a conference in Brussels, Belgium. The event was held at the European Parliament building and I was honored to run a workshop for a student’s association.

I had never been to Brussels before, so I thought it was a great opportunity to taste Belgian beer and eat fries and mussels too!

I landed on a rainy evening, rushed my way to the taxi line, and jumped on the first yellow cab I could get. We headed straight towards my hotel. It was one of those old school taxis with a sign on the roof and a big meter on top of the driver’s dashboard.

The journey was short. In just fifteen minutes we arrived at the hotel. The meter was showing “11 Euro” so I prepared the cash right before leaving the car in the pouring rain.

However, the driver said: “Twenty twenty-five, ok?” in a strong french accent.

I did not understand so I asked again: “How much?”

“Twenty twenty-five” he repeated.

The meter was still showing a large red eleven on it, and I was confused.

The driver turned my way, and explained: “I give you a receipt for 25 Euro, you pay me 20 Euro.” I timidly offered a twenty Euro bill, getting just a piece of paper in return.

Later that night in the hotel, while I was eating some takeaway fries washing them down with a can of Belgian beer, I tried to wrap my head around what had just happened. 

I was tired and still confused. Then it hit me.

I was wearing a suit, landing at the airport, and headed to a business hotel. During the ride, I had asked the taxi driver if the European Parliament was close enough to walk there in the morning. In the driver’s eyes, I was a politician or part of the entourage of a member of the parliament. In any case, I was traveling at someone else’s expense. 

With his game, he was getting 9 Euros more than the meter was showing, and still, I would “earn” 5 euros by submitting my expense report.

Before that night in Brussels, I was never offered to cheat on my expense reports. The driver was so confident in his offering, making me feel almost too thick for not getting his point at the first shot. He must have played that game so often that it was standard practice to him.

And this is how corruption starts. It all begins with a padded receipt and an individual with low integrity, or just tired enough not to think things through.

How is it possible that people who dedicate their lives to public service are sometimes caught red-handed cheating on taxi receipts, or hotel bookings?

Have you noticed how big cases of corruption often start from a couple of oddballs in the expense reports? Then the tax authorities start investigating, and they uncover a big mess in the books, that leads to people getting jailed for fraud.

Many of the bad things that happen in organizations are a function of impulsive behavior. People very seldomly plan to exaggerate profits, steal money from the till, or abuse power for selfish ends. Instead, an opportunity presents itself, and people with low impulse control just indulge in it.

Integrity, which is not only a personal virtue but also an organizational strength, is highly dependent on self-regulation, which is like a persistent inner conversation that frees us from being stuck in our feelings.

That night in Brussels I received a padded receipt and two lessons for life.

Lesson one: do not indulge in fries and Belgian beer for dinner if you are supposed to hold a 4-hour workshop in the morning.

Lesson two: when you are self-employed, make sure taxi drivers don’t think you are on corporate expenses. Those yellow-cab drivers speak with a forked tongue!

On Using Pronouns

When I was asked for the first time about my pronouns, I was confused.

English is not my first language, so I thought this was one of those subtle things they don’t teach in school, just like the correct use of “actually” or “literally.”

I am a white/cis/male. I grew up in Italy during the ‘80s and ’90s. No one ever questioned my identity, I never felt unheard, and before my 30s, no one ever took the time to introduce me to the concept of privilege.

I know now I was raised as a privileged person, and there is so much I don’t know I don’t know (yet).

This explains my confusion about declaring my pronouns.

<< Aren’t my pronouns clear? My developed facial hair says it all; why should I bother? >>

10-years-ago me

Dear 10-years-ago me, let me tell you why you should bother.

First and foremost, assuming the gender of another person based on appearance or name isn’t always correct. The act of making an assumption (even if correct) sends a potentially harmful message — that people have to look a certain way to demonstrate the gender that they are or are not.

Not every person who wears facial hair identifies as “He.” I know you have been raised thinking this way, but it’s just wrong.

<< What do you mean wrong? I’ve also been raised respecting others; was that wrong too? >>

10-years-ago me

No, the intention of respecting others is fine, but actions are more impactful than intentions. So all I’m saying is that culture evolves, and some of the things we thought were right, we now know they were not. But if your premise is to respect others, we are already on the same page.

The way to respect a person is to respect the language they use to refer to themselves. Transgender people, in particular, have been forced to find new ways in the language to make space for their very existence. Some choose new names for themselves; these aren’t “false,” “nicknames,” “aliases,” or “preferred” names—they are their real names even if they don’t have the resources or ability to make them their legal names.

A person’s correct pronouns are not a preference; neither are pronouns inherently masculine, feminine, male, female, or non-binary. For example, a masculine person could use she/her/hers, a female person could use they/them/theirs, and a non-binary person could use he/him/his.

Also, there are more than two, three, four, or five genders in the world. Therefore, there are more than two, three, four, or five pronouns. All are equally valid. Some people don’t use any pronouns at all.

<< Do you think that changing the language is enough to achieve equality? >>

10-years-ago me

No. But it’s a part of it.

When we, as a society, did realize that cars had a terrible social cost in terms of injuries and deaths, we started to roll out programs with the intent to make cars safer. Seatbelts that now we take for granted were seen as a terrible idea. 

The Wisconsin State Journal in 1957 argued the value of seat belts had yet to be proved, especially in cases of keeping people from “being thrown out of the car.” They argued that door latches could accomplish this without preventing speedy escape from an auto going into a stream or catching fire, which used to be not infrequent events.

As a result, some car owners cut the seat belts out of their cars.

In 1957, did anyone really think that seatbelts would make cars completely safe, eliminating the risk of injury or death? Not at all.

However, with the systematic introduction of safety features, in 20 years (from 2001 to 2020) in Europe, the death rate in car crashes was reduced by 63.40%. (source)

Moving away from a binary perspective on gender will take some effort and our language impacts how we think.

Adding your pronouns in the signature of your emails, to your online profiles, on your business cards is not the definitive solution for inclusion. Still, it signals respect, dignity, and alliance towards those who have to fight for their existence.

Sincerely,
Luca Sartoni (he/him)


This essay is the third assignment of Write of Passage, a cohort-based online writing course I’m attending.
I want to thank a few people who helped me edit my initial draft and provided valuable feedback during the creative process: Fei-Ling TsengLetizia BarbiLivia Iacolare, Simone Silverstein.

The living room effect: virtual togetherness

<< Dead? What do you mean dead? >>

Herbert was no more. A phone call broke the news, on a cold Sunday morning.

Herbert and I went to high school together. We used to ride our bikes along the shoreline, and we spent long afternoons together at the arcades. After graduation, we drifted off. I left my hometown, but we kept in touch, mainly on Facebook. We often sent memes to each other on Messenger.

I could not believe it. I had spoken to him just a few days before, or was it the previous week?

I picked up my phone and went through the chats. Our last message was 17 months old.

He didn’t even know I had a son. I forgot to tell him.

There are friends I can spend time with exploring a new city, hiking the mountains, or diving in the sea, or just sitting in the same room in silence for eight hours staring at our laptops. And for us, the level of intimacy is the same, regardless of which activity we chose for the day.

I call it “the living room effect”. As long as we have proximity, we are together.

In the most recent years, due to the permanent connected status, the same feeling extended from the physical to the virtual space; my list of friends started to give me that living room effect as well. But this time, the gaps are wider. I don’t actually know where my friends are, or what they are really doing. My brain fills those gaps, taking information from the edges, those chat statuses, and applying it to the less tangible parts of our relationships.

In neuroscience, there is an image called the Craik-O’Brien-Cornsweet illusion. It is a rectangular field of gray divided in half by a shaded middle border. The area to the left of the border appears brighter than that to the right. In reality, the brighter and darker regions exist only at the edge—the surrounding areas to the left and the right are the exact same brightness. The illusion causes the brain to apply the brightness and darkness it sees at the border to the left and right areas.

Craik-O’Brien-Cornsweet illusion – The areas to the left and the right are the exact same brightness.

The Cornsweet illusion is an example of edge induction—taking information from the edge of an object and applying it to the rest of the object. It demonstrates that much of what you perceive is actually a construction in your brain, and is not accurate.

Just like our brain falls for the Craik-O’Brien-Cornsweet illusion, I fall for the living room effect when it comes to my friends: it feels like people are in my same room just because I see them logged in the chats.

They show online, and I feel they are close to me. Our conversations never end. We don’t feel the gaps; we exchange a continuous stream of messages,  the same way we don’t feel the distance between our bodies. I can text from an airport in southeast Asia while they are shopping at CVS in Redondo Beach. Not even time zones matter anymore.

<< This is ridiculous, >> she said.

My mother, raised in the 60s, doesn’t get it. 

<< How can it be the same? How reading a message on a tiny screen is the same as touching skin, hearing voices, and laughing together? >>

She needs to listen to my voice to know I’m doing well, so we talk on the phone. We exchange messages, but with her, it’s not the same. She is from a generation that requires more bandwidth in their relationships.

Does that mean that older generations are less inclined to fill the gaps in their perceptions when emotions are involved? Quite the opposite.

If my mother finds it impossible to feel the living room effect via text messages, people in her generation are inclined to other types of virtual togetherness.

In 2013, researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand discovered that a robot companion could benefit senior adults similar to that of a living animal.

They concluded that a robot companion had benefits for older people in nursing home care and it was a positive addition to this environment. The robotic pet may address some of the unmet needs of older people that a resident animal may not, particularly relating to loneliness.

Since Herbert passed, I started reflecting more on avoiding the dark side of the living room effect. Relational laziness can keep us apart even if we feel close to each other. For this reason, I resumed a few chats buried in my apps, and I now call people on the phone more often.

I can’t beat the living room effect, but I can refurbish the living room so the chairs face one another and make it easier to have more frequent conversations.


This essay is the third assignment of Write of Passage, a cohort-based online writing course I’m attending.
I want to thank a few people who helped me edit my initial draft and provided valuable feedback during the creative process: Fei-Ling Tseng, Florian MaganzaLetizia BarbiPaolo Belcastro, Stephen Samuel.

From Good to Great: the One Piece of Advice on Public Speaking by Carmine Gallo

Carmine Gallo is a three-time Wall Street Journal bestselling author, internationally popular keynote speaker, Harvard instructor, and leadership advisor for the world’s most admired brands. Carmine Gallo’s books have been translated into more than 40 languages.

At the beginning of 2011, I was in San Francisco to speak at a tech conference, and after the exchange of a couple of messages on Twitter, he agreed to meet me at his office in Pleasanton. I could not believe it. I was messaging one of my favorite authors, and not only was he replied, but he also offered to meet up!

The following day I drove one hour east of San Francisco and showed up at his desk. We spent the day together, and over the years, we had the chance to connect and become friends. Some of the pictures in his book covers come from my camera lenses, and every time I swing by the west coast of the United States, I try to arrange a quick visit. 

Carmine Gallo in Livermore (California)

During one of my visits, we were hanging out at his favorite winery, which happens to be next to a golf course. We enjoyed our glass of California Cab, and I asked him how to step up my public speaking, which I felt had reached a plateau. Carmine finished his glass and pointed at the green grass around us.

He said: “It’s just like golf: you learn the basics, and then practice is the only way to proficiency.”

Looking at Carmine’s body of work, you can find this advice pretty much everywhere.

In his book “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs,” he writes:

“Steve Jobs is a master showman, working the stage with precision. Every move, demo, image, and slide is in sync. He appears comfortable, confident, and remarkably effortless. At least, it looks effortless to the audience. Here’s his presentation secret: Jobs rehearses for hours. To be more precise: many, many hours over many, many days”.

Also:

Evangelist said Jobs rehearsed for two full days before the presentation, asking for feedback from the product managers in the room. Jobs spends a lot of time on slides, personally writing and designing much of the content, along with some help from the design team. “On the day before showtime, things get much more structured, with at least one and sometimes two complete dress rehearsals.

In his book “Talk like TED,” Carmine dissects the presentation techniques of the most remarkable TED speakers. He points out:

“If your goal is to deliver a memorable presentation that will leave your audience in awe, then you have to practice. During your practice sessions, you must pay attention to how you sound (verbal delivery) and how you look (body language).”

More recently, in his book “10 Simple Secrets of the World’s Greatest Business Communicators,” he writes:

Practice relentlessly and internalize the content so you can deliver it as comfortably as having a conversation with a friend.

Carmine Gallo rehearsing a presentation

Carmine Gallo does not just invite his readers to practice more; he often teaches how to practice effectively.

In his article “Avoid This Common Mistake Most Speakers Make in Virtual Meetings,” for example, we find:

“Start a new meeting with no audience, look into your webcam, and record your presentation. Watch the recording. You might catch yourself breaking eye contact more often than you think. Once you do, you’ll know what to fix in the next practice session.”

And it’s not just about meetings. You can improve virtual presentations too. For example, in the article “This Astronaut Training Strategy Can Help You Manage Your Fear of Public Speaking,” he writes: 

“If you have an upcoming virtual presentation, dress up and deliver your presentation in the same room and with the same computer equipment that you will use on the day of the event. Record it and play it back. How do you come across? Are you fidgeting excessively or looking away from the webcam? You can even invite a peer or family member to watch it live to increase the stress of the real event.”

Carmine Gallo taking notes
Carmine Gallo working on his notes

You’ve probably heard of the 10,000-hour rule, which Malcolm Gladwell popularized in the book “Outliers.” The rule goes like this: it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve proficiency in complex skills, like playing the piano or getting as good as Tiger Woods at driving golf balls into the holes.

Regarding public speaking, Carmine strongly supports this theory. For example, in his book “Talk like TED”:

“I strongly believe it […the 10000 hours rule…] applies to the skill of public speaking, too. A lot of people tell me they’ll never be as polished as Steve Jobs or other great business speakers because they’re simply “not good at it.” Well, neither was Steve Jobs at one point. He worked at it.”

If I look at my journey as a public speaker, I cannot agree more. Over the years, I accepted that the only way to feel at ease when stepping on stage is to have solid preparation behind. So many hours invested repeating the exact same words over and over until they flow smoothly, delivering my key messages.

Next time you have a presentation, dedicate two to four hours to proper rehearsals. 

It will feel awkward if rehearsing is new to you. Over time, you’ll find the process that works best for you, but you’ll notice that most of the time spent obsessing around slide design can be redirected to rehearsing. Give it a try. 

The results will surprise you.


This essay is the third assignment of Write of Passage, a cohort-based online writing course I’m attending.
I want to thank a few people who helped me edit my initial draft and provided valuable feedback during the creative process: Artur Piszek, Danny Naz, Karyn Flynn, Letizia Barbi, Paolo Belcastro, Simone Silverstein.

The Art of Letting Things Go

“Do you really want to go?” He asked. We had been in that room for four and a half hours. He had pulled every rabbit out of his hat to have me stay at the startup that we had founded together just the year before.

The summer was brutal. My team crumbled under the unnecessary pressure of my business partners. Fighting for them was not enough, and besides empty promises, I could not get myself out of the mud of a failing business.

Should I stay, or should I go? If I stay, there will be trouble, but if I go, there will be double, just like the song.

I left the company with no money, no plan, and nowhere else to go.

The same evening, I called my dad and broke the news.

<< Again? Did you leave again? >>

It was not the first time I was quitting something. I was 33, and by then, I had left several jobs, a bunch of relationships, and infinite hobbies, among many other things.

Have you noticed how society constantly reminds us how perseverance is key to success? How should we endure pain to get some gain? How is stubbornness often confused with discipline?

You enter the office of a successful CEO, and there is a poster on the wall yelling: “never give up!

Even on mugs, they write: “keep calm and carry on.

While sipping coffee from one of those mugs in a cozy coffee house a few blocks away from the office I had left so suddenly, I wondered if it was perseverance the way to real success. Quite the opposite! I concluded that quitting things is the real key to a prosperous life.

We would be better off in many situations if we just had the strength to quit before it’s too late. Friends pushing us to pour yet another shot when we are already wasted. That partner who is not respectful of our boundaries, of our culture, of our desires. That concert we bought the tickets for, but then it’s four hours away; nevertheless, we drive in the blizzard to get there. It’s not even our favorite band!

In behavioral economics, they call it the “sunk cost fallacy.” In my book, it’s just another name for “you need to know when it’s time to give up!”

When I was a teenager, probably not older than fourteen, my father said, “you start a lot of things, but you don’t finish many of them.”

For a long time, I felt that comment as a critique of my character.

I now believe it was a compliment.

Over the years, I realized how by allowing myself to quit, I could accomplish much more.

I let go of dozens of hobbies, which allowed me to find the ones I deeply love. I quit hundreds of books just because I couldn’t go past page 20. It gave me the time to read many others. I left movie theaters in the middle of the projection; I didn’t care if I already paid for the ticket. I could spend that half an hour eating popcorn somewhere else instead of boring myself to death in a chair with a sticky floor.

I also realized that quitting is an art. It does not have rules, but just a few principles I follow:

I force myself to be rational, defining boundaries before any engagement, especially with myself. Business agreements are usually in place between the different parties, but I also commit to a contract with my future self: I write down a few different scenarios that would break the deal. For every item on the list, I make an exit plan. I also keep those plans up-to-date along the way. When the alarm goes off, I press the eject button, executing the plan ruthlessly—no hesitation and never looking back. 

I preserve my integrity in the process, so I make it graciously when it’s time to leave. There is no room for ego. There is no need to be cruel. I just look at reality and go, ready to face the consequences of my decisions.

At parties, for instance, everyone loves to welcome you, but no one likes to say goodbye. For this reason, I strongly avoid those mannerisms about “please stay another 5 minutes, the real fun hasn’t started yet…” – No way, I’m out of here, and I’m out of here now!

I go out for a smoke, and I never get back in. By the way, I don’t smoke, so I cannot use that excuse around my close friends.

I don’t like to break other people’s hearts, and most importantly, mine; I try to be respectful of all the feelings involved.

I’m aware that not everybody may agree with my decisions. But, have you noticed how usually in breakups, the one left behind is getting hurt? They will be upset, and you can bet they’ll let you know. It won’t change your mind, but be respectful of their feelings. Acknowledge them, maybe say a few words — no need to apologize. Just don’t be unnecessarily cruel to them. Be firm but kind.

After I left that company almost a decade ago, with no money, no plan, and nowhere else to go, I struggled for a few months; then, I pushed myself to apply for an impossible position at a dream company, which I got.

I have had a taste at more hobbies than I can even recall, dropped an entire floor of books, and I have no idea how dozens of movies end. However, my current employment has been the longest I’ve ever had in my whole life: 7 years and counting.

I cannot say what would have happened to me if I had stayed where I was, but I’m so happy I left that room with no regrets, a light heart, and empty hands. 

The only way to grab an opportunity is to have both hands open and both hands empty.


This essay is the second assignment of Write of Passage, a cohort-based online writing course I’m attending.
I want to thank a few people who helped me edit my initial draft and provided valuable feedback during the creative process: Chris Wong, Clarke Read, Karena de Souza, Mitchell Cohen, Paolo Belcastro, Sam Millunchick, Siobhan Bamber, Vishal Srivastava.

The Magic Cube Resolution

In 1974, the Hungarian mathematician and sculptor Ernő Rubik invented a surprising puzzle, “The Magic Cube,” that became the best-selling toy of 1982. You probably know it as the Rubik’s Cube.

After more than twenty years from its inception, I met my first cube while lazily wandering in a department store. It was standing there, shiny, glowing, untouched, on a tiny pedestal, not really fit for its real glory.

We met, and I adopted it, flipping it through my fingers without any specific technique, just for the sake of seeing it mutate at every move. I knew full well that there was nothing magic about it, and I trusted my ability to dominate its secrets.

At first, I tried to reverse engineer it, but it didn’t work out, so it ended up sitting on a shelf, hoping it would solve by itself. Then, a few months later, while dusting that shelf once again, I resolved to apply a more solid methodology to it: Google.

I downloaded a step-by-step guide, and two weeks of daily practice later, I knew that guide by heart. A year later, I was fast enough to solve any position in less than 90 seconds, which is the average time between two tube stations in London, Vienna, or Paris. 

The real fun started when my cube and I started traveling the world together. 

We’ve all seen travelers on public transportation staring at their phones. Still, wonder ensues when we see a popular toy from almost 40 years ago being scrambled and solved at light-speed in between two stations of a subway train.

It might be the retro flair, the magnetic look of a multi-colored plastic puzzle, or the irresistible attraction for someone else’s business, but the Rubik’s cube attracts more stares than flowers attract bees.

My cube isn’t a one-trick pony. It doesn’t just glow underground; it’s an ace in the air too. We can be chilling out in an airport lounge, taxiing on the tarmac, or waiting in line at any checkpoint in the world; if the “Magic Cube,” pops out of my pocket, we’ll catch other people’s eyes, and might strike up a chat too.

Some people feel compelled to tell me how much they hated that toy when they were young because their friends were good at it, but they weren’t. Others want to see if I can solve it or if I’m struggling with it.

Once, someone asked me if I had bought it at the duty-free shop because it would have made the perfect gift for their son once they were getting home from that long business trip.

But no matter where, and no matter what, I will always get “the question.”

It’s the question people have asked me the most: “what’s the trick to solve it?”.

Should I tell them the truth? That it’s just about learning a sequence, an algorithm, and obsessively applying it to the letter until the puzzle is solved? Shall I tell them that’s just about practice, that you go from 15 minutes down to 90 seconds?

The first few times, I tried to tell the truth, only to see the light dim in my new friend’s eyes. 

Then it hit me – when they ask that question, people don’t want the truth; they want something extraordinary, inspiring, and wonderful. They believe there is a well-kept secret about it, they want to catch that classified piece of information, and join the club of the cube solvers.

However, the cube and I are in the business of killing time, not in the business of shattering dreams, so I made the resolution of being gracious with strangers.

I now answer: “It’s magic; I have no idea how it works; it just happens.”

I wink, they smile, and we part ways.


This essay is the first assignment of Write of Passage, a cohort-based online writing course I’m attending.
This piece is a remix of a previous article on this blog, which I translated and reworked. I want to thank a few people who helped me edit my initial draft, and provided valuable feedback during the creative process: AAkash Gupta, Alexandra Zamora, Chris Wong, Christin Chong, Danny Oak, Ellen Muench, Joojo Ocran, Nico Choksi.

The opposite of noise

A few years ago, I was writing on this blog. Very often, let’s say, at least once a day. At that time, blogs were a few platforms where ordinary people could publish their thoughts without incurring unnecessary costs. For the first time ever, your journal was coming out from the depth of that drawer, projected out there into the world, available to everyone.

I moved my website to WordPress in 2006. That was one of the few platforms that allowed complete control of your content, publishing your website on a cheap hosting somewhere, and pretty much put you out there. 

There were groups of people who were interacting a lot, and there were a few tools, which allowed to build the first blogging communities. Tools like MyBlogLog, a little widget on the sidebar that showed who visited the blog in the previous 24 hours, helped make blogging a little more addictive.

Feedburner allowed you to take the RSS feed from your blog and then syndicate your content in many different ways, from emails to social channels. Feedburner was also keeping stats of the daily views of your feed, creating a sort of celebrity contest about who was hot and who was not.

At that time, I didn’t know many people online. I didn’t have a professional network at all.

When I started writing every day, I was commenting on the news and everything trending on that day. I didn’t actually have a plan.

But something unexpected happened; people started writing back commenting on my blog posts. It also happened that they were writing on their own blogs referencing me as the source of their thoughts.

This was primarily happening because we wanted to grow our page rank on Google. It was a good practice to link others so they would reciprocate at some point.

It was pretty easy to position yourself on Google through this intricate system of reciprocal links. 

At the beginning of 2007, events around blogs started to happen. In Italy, we went from minor local events to larger ones attracting people from all over the country.

I made a lot of friends back then. Friends who are still my friends right now.

What I most regret about the latest years is giving away our position in favor of services that felt easier to use to build our social networks.

Social networking sites have a clear advantage in distributing inflammatory content, creating a more polarised information consumption.

In recent years, I decided not to engage in online conversations, especially when they were happening on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, because I thought that getting myself involved somehow supported the distribution of inflammatory content.

But more recently, after long thoughts and reflections, I reconsidered. If I consider all of these inflammatory discussions as noise, I need to contribute to the opposite of noise.

The opposite of noise is not silence.

The opposite of noise is signal.

As you might have guessed, I’m trying to revive this blog.

I’m not making promises, but if you stay tuned, you’ll read more frequent and deeper content from now on.

I never really understood people who were signing their blogposts, but I feel about ending this post with:

Yours Truly.