A Letter From My Future Self

In the opening days of yoga teacher training, our lead teachers instructed me to write a letter to myself. I would read it at the end of the training in three weeks. What did I hope to accomplish? Did I show up every day – why? What would I congratulate my future self for? An achievement? A feeling? A way of being? I thought, wrote quickly, folded the paper several times, and – hurried by their encouragement of me being last – tossed my wishes for myself in a bowl with the others.


We closed the last practice – as always – with savasana, corpse pose, the final resting posture of yoga. I lie on my back, arms at my sides, palms upward, legs resting wherever they fell. My neighbor sniffled, and I jealously imagined tears trickling from her eyes. My breath rose, held, fell, and slowed. I lay in complete relaxation, and my thoughts wandered until my mind settled in the dreamlike abyss.

Anton’s voice brought me to. I wiggled my fingers, toes, and lips. I rolled into a cross-legged seat and opened my eyes, surprised to see this letter resting at the top of my mat:

Dear Stephen,

You never could have imagined this three or four months ago, but wow, you are free and opened yourself to honesty and exploration of yourself, the human body, the emotions and intellect, and these strangers that became close friends.

Remember when Anton asked who thought they would soar without faltering? You found those places where weakness felt like the only form of strength, and you let it be, exist, and happen. On the night of the altar, you spoke about the potential for everything that is simultaneous with nothing, the balance of calm and chaos in your life. You’ve seen those counterparts compete and come together, balancing yourself in new ways. Physical, emotional, spiritual.

You played big. You impressed yourself, without wondering about what others think. You dreamt this day would come, and you, yes you, made it happen. Congratulations on making this happen.

And maybe you learned to say a few more things in five words,

❤ Stephen

I sat awestruck. My past mindset brought my potential to fruition. I conceived the reality that I desired for myself. I put it the work. I trusted the process. I’m grateful.

Why did I move to Berlin?

“After I studied abroad in Denmark, I knew that I wanted to live abroad again. I asked if there was an opportunity to transfer my work. They said, ‘yes.'”

“I moved around a lot while growing up, and I know that I’m stimulated by being in new environments.”

These are some of the truthful, common answers I’ve given over the past year and a half. In the back of my mind, I’ve tucked away a sustained curiosity, believing there’s a deeper meaning to my desire to move. I’ve asked myself: am I running away from something I fear or toward something I desire? People asked how long I was going for, and honestly, I never set a timeline. I don’t know the answers, but I’ve decided to ruminate and cut open my rationale.

Since my international move, I’ve discovered a previously misunderstood value of downtime and time alone. I didn’t spend time doing nothing, alone. Solitude is scary, right? I, like many of us, still distract myself from solitude with mindless scrolling on Instagram, Twitter, or whatever platform my subconscious can grasp to shield itself from silence. When was the last time you sat and patiently waited for a friend to arrive, that you rode a bus, train, or plane without picking up your phone, book, computer, a magazine? When was the last time you practiced being? (That’s not a typo.)

As my twin brother recently wrote to me: “How do you have time to contemplate all of this stuff?!” I have time, because I make time to be. [To be transparent, I also spend a lot of time distracted and avoiding the practice of being.] My German lifestyle has fewer priorities than my American lifestyle. Anecdotally, I think Germans create a notable amount of time and space in their lives for sitting with friends in conversation, walking in nature, vacationing, and being. Whether I’m German or not, I’m surrounded by their energy. There are few-to-no 24-hour grocery stores. Companies close for public holidays, not because they’re all religious, but because workism is not their religion. They embrace public parks, pools, and playgrounds, as well as bars, cafes, and restaurants.

In my go-getter American mindset, downtime used to be downright scary! There are numerous occasions where I’ve fallen into microdepression after silently spending hours at home alone. These are now balanced against the euphoria that I feel when I wake up rested, because I give myself the time to sleep. I feel the same balance when I leave work with no plan, no place to be, and no one to be late for; I am afraid and overjoyed by this freedom.

Being alone can be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. I’m learning not to push away or run from discomfort. Stress is not noise; in fact, it’s part of the signal, the communication that we’re meant to listen to. Pay attention to when and where there’s discomfort: physically and emotionally. I observe, recognize, and accept unoccupied quiet time, having no to-do list, and not speaking a word to anyone on a weekend morning. I am realizing that I don’t need anything other than myself to be me.

What is discomfort? Comfort comes from the Latin “confortare” (to strengthen) or com- and -fortis, with strength. Thus, discomfort is a weakening or perceived lack of strength. Our bodies protect us by struggling when we do not believe we are strong.

The mind is powerful, to create both strength and weakness, comfort and discomfort. Ever feel like your mind is racing with negativity? Humans are disposed to sense weakness, to see threats in our environment, and to avoid danger. Perhaps this is why we run from tasks that are hard and challenge our strength. Running from discomfort takes energy, too. If we can learn to control our minds and our reactions in the face of perceived danger, in moments of discomfort, and in stress, we save energy, a strategy that fuels our survival.

So, I ran to Germany. And in Germany, my mind tries to run away from the discomfort of solitude. I’m embracing this fact of life, not as something hard, but as something new.

A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; … if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.

Schopenhauer, “The World as Will and Idea,” 1818

While I’m hardly alone in Berlin, I spend more time alone now than I have before. So, if this is true, I ran away to learn to love freedom, and that’s really not comfortable to admit.

Copenhagen… ❤️

I found some pieces of my heart in Denmark, scattered in every nook and cranny of Denmark’s celebratory air, in the cross-hairs of the two white stripes that adorn a field of red. The Dannebrog wavers on flagpoles against blue skies, spotted with clouds. She hangs neatly from a wooden stick, resting gently on the edge of a basket filled with freshly pressed waffles. A frosted-white cake, ready to be cut, each slice marked by paper banners on wooden toothpicks; the sugary canvas is a LEGO-sized memorial to the pride of a nation.

Danes love their flag, and not in a nationalistic sense. Whereas American patriotism has become a visual marker for conservative elitism, and Germans reserve their flag for occasional stately affairs and national sports events, Denmark has elevated their simple red and white banner to a symbol of intimate celebration. The Danish flag welcomes friends and family at the airport for their homecoming; peppers gardens and tabletops during birthday celebrations; stands gently on castles and seaside overlooks; drapes the compassionate hearts of her people, gently bundling them together with a strong white ribbon.

You can brag now. Thanks, Mom.

It’s 6:22 am. Steam billows over the top of my blueberry-adorned Maine coffee mug on the ledge of my balcony, the Earl Grey tea inside half-consumed. Gradually cooling to being drinkable, the tea pries my eyes open. The sun continues rising, shedding a plain of warm yellow light onto my face, forcing my eyes to squint. Car tires simmer on the street below, coming and going like ocean waves. Street trams and ambulance sirens join the symphony. The sputter of a motorcycle’s exhaust, now gone.

Ten years ago, all of my five alarm clocks would still be waiting to sound, waiting for my hand to begrudgingly reach and disarm. Thud. The floor interrupts the fall and finally triggers my brain awake. I crave more sleep, but time is up. A paper, two exams, a newspaper assignment… all due today. I dress myself, stagger across the chilly tile floor, and tap Mom awake.

“Will you proofread my essay,” I say, somewhere between a request and a statement. I needed her vote of confidence.

Despite knowing that I stood above my peers in schoolwork, I cringe. I’ve read that if you don’t cringe when you look at your past, you’re not improving. Advice that seems mildly wise – can cringing be good? – feels fully validating to acknowledge my parenting. Mom bragged about me, and I told her to stop. I needed comments that made me feel better, not stories that impressed adults. Change one comma. The essay is great. My heart slows.

Twenty-seven feels weird. I’m youthful but adult-like. I’m free to make my own choices, yet I still share them in search of agreement. I have my place in the world, and the world has many more places to offer me. I became, and I am becoming.

I smile when I look in the mirror, and it’s because I’m proud of who I see. Two brown eyes stare back, pried open by warm tea and forced closed by warm sunlight, ready to face the day. It’s 6:49 am. My mind spills off the balcony, thinking of my bike below. I know each day is mine.

You raised me, and I’m still growing up. You can brag now. Thanks, Mom.

Time and People

A note to my colleagues as I celebrated four years at Formlabs:

I’d like to have just two and half minutes of your time – rather, your awareness – to say thanks. I’ll do so by sharing what this occasion means to me.

Four years. Physics tells us that time is an illusion. The present moment is as real as the line on a beach that separates sand from water. The present is an illusory and transient concept between past and future. So, if time is theoretical, then what gives these four years any practical meaning?

You do. People create meaning of time. I cannot speak to everyone who matters to me simultaneously. Still, I can state with certainty that those of you who hear me have made a difference in my time at Formlabs. You and our interactions are the substances that separates the past from the future. I’ve had profound learning experiences at Formlabs, and I’m not at all the same person I was when I joined the start-up of 50-something people. I’m also not the same person I was when I moved to Berlin. I’ve changed, grown, transformed, struggled, succeeded, evolved, listened, learned. It wasn’t on my own. It was with your help.

Right now, you’re either listening to me or you’re not. If you’re not listening to me, that’s great. You’re thinking about something important and meaningful to you. It’s hard to pay attention when you have your own ideas. We hire smart people, so I trust that your thoughts are significant and their impact is imminent. Thinking is the personal economic process when we decisively construct meaning from experience. Maintain your focus. If you are actively listening to me, I want to recognize your voice and your impact, too. Four years hasn’t given me any more voice than what you can offer. If I’m special, you are, too. Again, this time is meaningless without the people. Chances are high that your thoughts and your opinions represent a meaningful customer or colleague’s sentiment, and they deserve to be heard. You deserve to be heard. Therefore, once your thought is complete, don’t wait to ask a question, to give feedback, or to initiate.

I’m thankful for your wisdom, your effort, your energy. I want you to speak up. Be honest. Own your ideas and your voice. Contribute. I want each and every one of you to know that you matter. I value you. I believe in you. You have made the past four years, four months, four days, four hours… matter to me, and you will make the future matter for all of us.

So, thank you for giving meaning to these four years. Without you, time would be incomplete and incomprehensible.

16 is 60: Celsius to Fahrenheit and Back Again

It’s cold. How cold? Well, it’s below freezing, but that’s not exactly a number, and usually when people talk about temperature, we talk numbers. Math might be a universal language, but my blood still flows at 98.6 °F, and I’m trying to get it to 37 °C.

There’s a big difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit. While, they’re both made up, one makes significantly more sense, except when you grew up most of your life in a numerically illogical measurement system. (Dear America: Canada and Australia switched from imperial to metric measurement nearly 50 years ago, and we can, too!)

When Europeans rave about their mid-winter getaway, it’s something like, “we had 28 degrees every day!” And this, to an American, doesn’t sound all that appealing. 28 Fahrenheit is the below-freezing-skeleton that I’m trying to stuff back into the closet in anticipation of warm spring days. The daylight hours are noticeably brighter and longer, but Berlin is fighting one final (I hope) cold front. 

I’m smart enough that I know the equation for converting temperatures: it’s roughly Celsius-times-2-plus-30-equals-Fahrenheit, and it’s precisely Celsius-times-9/5-plus-32-equals-Fahrenheit. I can do it in my head, but I don’t want to. I want to know the temperature when I step outside without feeling like my brain is doing foreign math, and to be able to answer without hesitating when a colleague asks me the temperature in Spain when I went swimming in February. Answer: the air hit 15 °C (58 °F) but the sunshine made it feel oh-so-much-warmer.

Every mobile weather application and website gives the option to switch between Celsius and Fahrenheit, so I can certainly check for myself – and feel incompetent. Initially, I ideated an app that showed two measurements side-by-side. With this, any time I checked the weather, I could know what it meant to me – which jacket, shoes, gloves, etc to wear – and also know the number that everyone else would chat about. I want to learn so that I simply know.

I found a better way. I’m learning to tell the temperature using references that mean something to me, and here are some examples:

  • Below freezing is below freezing. People usually stay indoors. I’ll add references if I go on any winter mountaineering adventures in the metric world.
  • 0 °C is 32 °F. This is the freezing point of water, of course.
  • 5 °C is 41 °F. It makes sense that 5 is half way between 0 and 10, and 41 is halfway between 32 and 50. Not all of the conversions are so sensible.
  • 10 °C is roughly when you can switch to a lighter jacket. This is 50 °F. 
  • 16 °C is 60 °F. Sixteen. Sixty. Easy to remember. I realized the ease of this conversion when we were surprised with a warm Sunday afternoon this past weekend. Tempelhof (Berlin’s abandoned-airport-turned-public-park) was swarming with post-winter-pedestrians.
  • 20 °C is 68 °F. Room temperature-ish! Also probably a comfortable temperature to consider wearing shorts.
  • 28 °C is 82 °F. I think that we can all agree above 80 is “warm,” so this is worth remembering. It’s also the temp from most of my days in Thailand, so easy to “feel” from recent memory.
  • 35 °C is 95 °C. That has a ring to it, no?
  • 37 °C is 98.6 °F. Feeling sick? Take your temperature. Average human body temperature is important to know, and relevant for the weather, too!
  • 175 °C is 347 °F. This is important for using an oven. It’s almost exactly half/twice, and the starting place for many recipes.
  • 200 °C is 392 °F. Also almost half/twice, and worth knowing in the kitchen.

Have you struggled with similar temperature conversations? Do you have another meaningful reference for me to know? Leave an idea in the comments below!