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The Hidden Scorecard Inside All of Us

Musician angels at Millesgården, black and white, Lidingö, Sweden

I’m always wary of miracle shortcuts, quick fixes, and no sweat-solutions. The human brain is a sucker for them, and I’ve learned the hard way to avoid them. There are no such things as a free lunch. 

So, when Jim Loehr, the American performance psychologist and author, told Tim Ferriss (in this podcast) about a simple exercise that has profoundly changed the lives of thousands of people, I was, you know, wary. What, write down eight words, and then another eight words? That’s it? What could possibly be that mind-blowing?

Well, it turned out he was right. How world-shattering it depends very much on who you are and how you live your life.

A black and white photo of a sunlit wall and the shadow of a curtain

The Exercise

1) Think about who you are when you are the most proud of yourself, when you are at your very best. Especially in stressful circumstances, when you faced considerable challenges and somehow managed to overcome them and be the best you could be.

Write down the six to eight words that would best describe you at those moments. Take five minutes to reflect on them. 

Please stop here and do this, it takes only five minutes. 


Done? Read on.

What Loehr learned through this first step of the exercise: most people come up with almost the same things. And these are not the things people chase, like making a lot of money, closing a huge deal, or winning titles. Instead, they talk about being kind, compassionate, fully engaged with others, and so on. So more moral and ethical things rather than material or external success.

2) Now write down six to eight words that you would like inscribed on your tombstone. These words would actually reflect who you truly were, representing who you were when you were here. What would you like inscribed most importantly in the highest priority on your tombstone?

Again, take five minutes to reflect on them.


Ready? Read on.

What Loehr learned through this step of the exercise: the list was almost identical for all people participating in his workshops.

People would write things like “loving father”, “loyal friend”, or “an optimist”. No one would write, “I made CEO of a Fortune 500 company” or “I won this title and this title”.

What they were actually referencing was the connection to other people. This is how they wanted to be remembered. A person who was kind, loving, and loyal, an optimist who brought joy to others. That was what mattered. 

3) Compare who you are at your best and how you want to be remembered when you’re gone.

Very likely, you are right there. The two lists are similar, and they contain few, if any, of the external status markers.

Ivy in a terracotta pot in black and white

The Hidden Scorecard

We spend our lives chasing extrinsic measures of success, even though we have this hidden scorecard inside of us. We work hard and sacrifice a lot of things and think that we would feel better about ourselves as soon as we’ve closed that deal, bought that house, or made director or VP.

But when we evaluate our life, we use this hidden scorecard that contains none of those things.

This is why focusing on external success measures only (better job, a bigger house, etc.) leaves us unsatisfied and always wanting more. As soon as we reached our goal, as soon as we’ve got that promotion or bought the house, the euphory, and joy of that event vanishes after a short while. We’re feeling no different than before, and we start chasing the next goal, and the next one. It never ends.

Does it mean that we shouldn’t strive towards certain goals in life, like finding a better job or a nice house? Not at all.

We should work both scorecards; become aware of the hidden scorecard, and ensure that we’re living a life with intention and aligned to those moral and ethical values. This brings a more lasting feeling of peace and contentment.

Even if we encounter setbacks and failures in reaching our external goals, living a life aligned with our values will help us get through those moments. It puts things in perspective.

How much would this customer who ruined your day or the boss who didn’t think you deserved a promotion matter in 20, 30, or 40 years? When you look back on your life, what would matter? 

Becoming a CEO, winning the “Sales Rep of the Year” three years in a row, always having the latest car model or iPhone? Or the time spent with your family and your friends, the quality of those relationships, the joy of spending time with like-minded people sharing the same hobby, the rewarding hard work on your charity?

Focusing too much on the external scorecard and ignoring the internal one can have dire consequences. Getting alienated from family and friends, for instance, or depression.

Black and white abstract photo

Evaluating Your Life

Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who worked in palliative care, wrote a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Tending to dying people, she noted that the things people regretted when looking back at their lives were those found in that hidden scorecard. They didn’t regret that they didn’t work harder or made more money, or that they didn’t make CEOs.

These were the top five regrets people had.

  • Regret 1:  I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • Regret 2: I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • Regret 3: I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • Regret 4: I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
  • Regret 5: I wish I had let myself be happier.

This may sound morbid, but since we’ve already tackled the tombstone … if you knew that you only had a short time to live, what would you do? What would your priorities be? Would you work harder and longer to attain your goal (become CEO!) or spend time with your family?

Deadlines have that quality of putting everything in sharp focus and clarifying priorities. Death is the ultimate deadline.

Black and white abstract photo


Allowing time for reflection and putting things into perspective is self-care. Give this exercise a try. Congratulations if you live your values and gain nothing from this exercise but confirmation that you’re on the right track! But if you’re not, you have so much to gain!

Good luck!

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Simple Steps to Improved Biodiversity in the Garden

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on echinacea

Every long journey starts with a small step; the easiest way to change is through tiny steps in our daily lives. Earth Day, celebrated today, can seem overwhelming when one browses their site. So much to do! How much would one person’s actions matter?

I feel disheartened sometimes when I look at the plastic debris on beaches or the garbage left behind by people in the woods. When I see how people buy houses and then cut down all trees and bushes, remove the flower beds, and build swimming pools instead. Or when the gardens consist of only perfectly manicured lawns, thoroughly cleaned up of any “weeds” or leaves.

All this has a terrible effect on the wildlife environment. Small animals like squirrels or hedgehogs, insects, and birds cannot find shelter or food in these sterile environments. For instance, dry leaves in the autumn may look unpalatable on that perfect lawn, but they offer shelter to overwintering insects and hedgehogs. Likewise, withered plants with their seed pods provide food for birds during winter.

Red Squirrel Among Flowers

But where to start? What to do? We can start here, where we live. Yes, the devastation in some faraway countries may be terrible, and we give money to organizations that help protect the environment. I won’t argue with that. But there are small things we all can do in our everyday life to make life on Earth better for others than human beings. We’re setting an example by our actions, not by what we are talking about. More people may be inspired and will follow our example. But it all starts with the steps we’re taking at home.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly
Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) on aster. Asters bloom in the fall and provide food to insects later in the season.

I love lists, so I’ve compiled one for you, small things you can do in your garden to attract wildlife and improve biodiversity. It’s good for nature and a lot of fun watching animals and birds go about their business. This is how I found myself sitting quietly for hours to photograph squirrels or small birds.

  • To improve biodiversity, try to create various types of environments in your garden: trees, bushes, thicket, sand, rocks, water, flowers for all seasons, berries, old logs, twigs and branches. They all offer shelter and food to various species.
  • Plant flowers and bushes that flower at different times so there’s always something in bloom in all seasons, from early spring to late fall so insects can always find soemthing to eat. Pollinators love yellow, blue and violet flowers.
Roe deer eating seeds from a bird feeder
Well, yeah, this can happen …
Squirrel on a bird feeder
… when you put out bird food.
  • Put out bird food during winter and place the food close to sheltering bushes and tress. Animals and birds are wary of open spaces.
  • Put out water for animals and birds. For insects, use a shallow container with a few colored pebbles on the bottom to attract them.
Bumblebee on Orange Marigold
Bumbleebee on marigold
  • Help the pollinators by planting flowers they love: lavender, thyme, borage, butterfly bushes, coneflowers (also called  Echinacea), daisies, goldenrods, marigolds, snapdragons, heliotrop, and sunflowers.
  • There isn’t a lot of food in early spring for insects and returningsmall birds birds so it’s a good idea to plant flowers and bushes that flower early, for instance crocus, snowdrops, wind-flowers, grape hyacinth,  willow, and hazel.
  • If it’s a cold spring, before the first flowers have appeared, put out some sugar water for insects. Mix 2dl sugar, 2 1/2 dl warm water, some colorful pebbles or glass beads at the bottom to guide them, as the flowers’ color would do.
Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) on heliotrope
Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) on heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens)
  • Don’t tidy the garden too much. If you prefer a formal garden, have a “wild corner” where dandelions and nestles can bloom. They’re loved by the insects. For instance, the small tortoiseshell butterfly (pictured in the photo above) depends on its host plant (nettles) for feeding their caterpillars. A heap of dry leaves will provide shelter for hedgehogs in winter while some twigs will house insects.
Red squirrel on the trunk of an oak tree
Red squirrel on the trunk of the big oak tree in our garden.
  • Bushes and trees offer shelter to small birds, they attract insects in spring with their flowers and provide fruit and berrie for birds and small animals in fall. Use rowan, oak, hawthorn, privet, and hackberry, or chokeberry. If you have fruit trees, pick them by any means, but leave some for birds and animals.
  • You can also plant sunflowers, the birds will love them.
Eurasian blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) collecting cat hair
Eurasian blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) collecting cat hair. It comes from our tabby, Minette.
  • Hang out small bird nests and insect hotels. You can build a hotel of what you have at hand. Include dead wood and bark, bamboo reeds, dry leaves and straws. DIY instructions are everywhere on the web.
  • If you have a dog or a cat, gather the hair in a bal land hang it out. Small birds will use it for their nests. Some bees use the plant “hairs” instead so include lamb’s-ear, geraniums, mullein or any other “hairy” plants in your flowerbeds.
  • Avoid using chemicals in the garden. If really needed, look for natural products.
A bumblebee on its way to a dog rose bush
A bumblebee on its way to a dog rose bush
  • Instead of a wood or iron fence, consider a natural hedge usch as dog rose or privet. I have a dog rose hedge that vibrates with insects during the summer months and its fruit provides food to birds in the fall. Small birds find shelter there, too.
  • Start composting. You’ll get natural mulch for free.

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Thinking About a Major Career Change? Here’s How I Did It.

My earlier post, about the life-altering decision to follow my heart and do what I love, seems to have struck a chord with many people. However, changing career, especially from a successful one to a more uncertain one like starting your business or becoming an artist, can be daunting. Fear sets in, and fear can be paralyzing. We know that we should act, do something, but we don’t.

“Why don’t I share what I did ?” I then thought. So here it comes, my career change guide!  I’ve outlined below the steps I’ve taken once I’ve decided to leave the corporate world. 

1) Start With the “Why”

Examine your motives. Take some time to reflect on why you’re thinking about such a major change in your life. For example, are you happy with the field you work in and the company, but your boss is a pest? In this case, it would be more helpful to change roles and work for somebody else.

Or you’re overwhelmed, and tired, and stressed out? Stretched at maximum and beyond, even though you love what you do, and your boss is an angel? Changing your career may not help if you don’t learn to manage your time and stress level.

The point? You must be doing this for the right reason

It would be best if you went into a direction you’re interested in, rather than running away from something, like a bad boss. You’re just postponing the inevitable.

Find your call. Think about what fills you with energy during the day. What did you enjoy you doing as a kid? What do you do when procrastinating? What activities absorb you so completely that you forget space and time? All these are good indicators of the things you should be doing.

Steve Jobs quote

When I ransacked myself, I knew in my heart what I was burning to do. Art. Easy.

2) Do Your Homework

OK, so you’ve found your calling. You want to start a jewelry brand. A garden services company. You want to dedicate yourself to helping people in need and run a foundation. 

Whatever it is, don’t jump to the fun part like creating a fancy website (it’s so much fun, I know!) or ordering new business cards. You’d be setting yourself up for failure. 

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. - Benjamin Franklin. Share on X

Invest some time to research your new field. You could, for instance, join professional associations and look up more information on the Internet. Attend meetings and join relevant groups on LinkedIn or Facebook. Sign up for alerts and newsletters. Set aside some daily search time and gather information.

Connect with people. This is key. For example, once I started getting serious about photography, I joined the Swiss Camera Club on Facebook and went to a photo walk in Lucerne to meet other fellow photographer-wannabees. I even got a photo included in the local news coverage of the event.

Talk to your mentors, talk to friends, talk to your neighbors, talk to your delivery man – they all can offer insights and different perspectives. Then, you can prepare a 30 seconds elevator pitch outlining what you’re planning and asking for input and advice.

Surround yourself with positive people who believe in your dreams

Don’t be shy and put out feelers in your network, both in real life and on, say, LinkedIn. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people; most people are glad when someone is interested in their particular field and expertise and are more than happy to help.

Try it out! You can start on a small scale during your leisure time, weekends and test your approach as I did. I’ve built a website, created a professional Facebook side, joined Twitter and Instagram, all during evenings and weekends – and then started posting things, commenting on other photographer’s work in their social media, and following photographers that inspired me.

3) Prepare Financially

There’s no way around this: you need to think about money. A major career change is stressful, and financial uncertainty it’s likely to top the list.

Make an honest review of your financial situation and decide what you need to do to survive during the time your new career takes flight. Don’t assume money will come on the first day if you want to start your own company. It won’t. If you feel you don’t have the skills for this or simply want a second opinion (it’s an important decision, after all) – seek professional advice. It’s an investment well worth the money. Or ask someone you know and trust who has a successful track record in personal finance. 

Manage your debts. Ideally, you shouldn’t start your new life with debts. Clear any debts if possible or use help to create a debt management plan. For example, a mortgage is fine as long as you are confident you can keep up with the payments. Don’t take any loans, so you’d be in debt before you have even started. This brings me to …

Use free resources. Don’t invest a lot in the beginning; you can do that later when you feel confident that things are going well. There are many free options out there to get you started – you only need to do an Internet search. For instance, you can start with a free WordPress site, leverage the free themes and plugins; and look up copyright-free images and sounds. Later you can host in on your own domain if you wish, add more fancy plugins, and an online shop.

T Harv Eker quote about money

Save first, spend later. I would also recommend having a six to twelve months buffer saved. Things will happen, as things tend to do in life, and you want to be prepared when that happens. For example, say your heating system malfunctions during a frigid winter. You’d have no choice but to fix it then – you cannot wait until spring when your royalties come in. Knowing you have a buffer would alleviate the stress of the unknown.

Investigate options. Research whether there are any grants or scholarships you can seek. This way, you can get some funding without getting in debt.

Think about what you’d be gaining by earning less money. Things like more time for your family, a better work-life balance, a sense of peace, and personal fulfillment. 

4) Leverage Your Current Skills 

You may think that you’re starting from scratch in a new career. After all, you’d be doing something completely different. Right?


You have work experience in your current job. As a result, you can successfully apply some of the skills in your new career.

Do a skills inventory. What are you good at? What did you learn in your career? Examine your past and current roles, as well as any volunteer work. It could be communication, influencing people (all those corporate meetings selling new projects to executives, heh?), finance, marketing, or tech support. 

Say you work in marketing and want to be a photographer. You could use your marketing knowledge and experience to promote your photos. My friend’s husband, who did work in marketing, was inspired by my side photo project (at the time) and started a commercial photography business. Successfully I may add, the guy is a marketing wizard. 

I can't say it enough that learning how to learn is one of the greatest skills anyone can have. - Mark Cuban Share on X

At the same time, an inventory will show you what skills you’ll have to learn. For example, maybe you’re good at designing jewelry but have no idea how to transform the raw silver into the ring or the bracelet you can see in your head or put on paper. Therefore …

Bridge the skills gap. Need a course? Search the Internet. There are plenty of free online courses, YouTube tutorials on basically everything (learning Japanese? training your dog? how to succeed in business?), and nerd blogs answering the very question you’re asking. You could also enroll in an evening course or one-day seminars or workshops.

Sign up for courses while in your current job. Communications skills, project management, or influencing without authority can be of help in any career.

5) Create a Plan 

By now, you should have a pretty good understanding of what it is that you want to pursue (for the right reason), knowledge about that new field and people who can help on the journey, the financial impact, what you know, and what you don’t. 

Are we ready then?

Not quite yet. Just bear with me for a bit longer.

Now that you have gathered the information, you need to create a plan. This will be your roadmap for the journey in front of you, the beacon of light guiding you along the way.

David Allen quote: Your head's for having ideas, not for holding them.

Make it a written planYour head’s for having ideas, not for holding them as “Get Things Done” David Allen puts it. Do you need any new skills (identified above)? Then plan for learning as well. Having a written plan makes it more real, reminds you of your commitment, and helps you track progress. 

Involve your inner circle. You may want to involve your partner, close family, and maybe a few trusted friends as this will likely impact them too. Listen to them and consider their input. But in the end, follow your gut. Don’t let others dictate your way.

6) Keep the Door Open

Don’t burn your bridges. Leave your job graciously. Hand over your responsibilities and train your replacement as you wish someone else would do it for you were the roles reversed. It’s tempting to focus on your new career and do the bare minimum before leaving. In two words: Don’t! It’s simple courtesy, and it costs nothing. Even more so if you’re not parting ways amicably, be the bigger man (or woman). You never know what happens, and you may need a way back. This is why you should …

Have a backup plan. Many people don’t want to think about failure, so they start the journey into the unknown with no plan in case things go south. Don’t do this! You know how they say, “Better safe than sorry.” It’s likely not what you want to think about, but it’s an easy investment in your future self. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’d go back to your old job, but for instance, you could come back as a part-time consultant to wait out the bad times. In the same spirit, keep up to date on what happens in your old field, renew certifications if needed, and so on.

You just need a good plan and then a backup plan! -  Katherine Kelly Share on X

Stay in touch. In all that excitement and thrill often brought by new beginnings, you may forget to keep the connection to your old world alive. Your former colleagues or business partners may not necessarily be part of your everyday now, but they can be your ambassadors or mentors. They can testify about your skills and provide introductions or advice. You could invite people for lunch, congratulate them on an anniversary or promotion, and send them tips about things you know they’re interested in (send me any good tips on how to get rid of snails in the garden, and I’ll be your friend for life!). Do this regularly, and not only when you need something – people see through that. 

Nurture your network today and it'll be there tomorrow when you need it.

Be present. Maintain a presence and be active on professional networks, e.g., LinkedIn, by appreciating and commenting on your connections’ activities and sharing articles on topics of general interest such as time management or creativity. Make it easy for people to remember you. For example, say that one of your former colleague’s cousins works at a fashion magazine, and she is looking for some hobo jewelry for a fashion feature photo shot. Your colleague now remembers that you left to start your own jewelry business; s/he’ll pass on your name to his/her cousin. It may or may not work out in the end, but it’s the first step. Maybe your jewelry is not hobo enough for this shoot, but s/he may like it and reach out to you in the future.

7) Have Faith in Yourself

Embrace your fear. All beginnings are a thrilling mix of excitement and fear, like a rollercoaster ride. Don’t let that fear overwhelm you. You know you are doing the right thing. Trust. Have faith. True success is being afraid and still doing it anyway. It’s OK to feel fear; I would be concerned if you didn’t. But don’t let that fear stand in your way. Acknowledge it (I am afraid of this unknown), look at it objectively (it’s normal to be afraid when you’re doing something new), and then act.

The meaning I picked, the one that changed my life: Overcome fear, behold wonder. -  Richard Bach Share on X

Feel the love. Know that you are never alone. There’s always help when you need it – but only if you ask for it.  Reach out to people in real life and online; ask questions when you don’t know how to do something, or things go wrong, and you need a solution. Talk it over with a friend. Reach out to formal support groups or organizations. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Marcus Aurelius quote: Because a thing seems difficult for you, do not think it impossible for anyone to accomplish.

Overcome the biggest obstacle. You. Very often, we are our own saboteurs. We compare ourselves to others, and not in our favor. We measure ourselves and find ourselves lacking. We don’t believe we have anything to contribute. We don’t believe we have what it takes to succeed. We find ourselves incapable of acting, frozen like reindeer in the headlights.

So … I’m giving you a push. Don’t just read this article; act on it. Now. Good luck!

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Keep Going: Cardio for Zombie Hunters and Writers

Digital art by Mihaela Limberea.
One of my early digital artworks.

As a writer, as an artist in any field, in fact, you need stamina. Endurance. Grit. Persistence. The equivalent of Rule #1 in Zombieland: cardio. Cardio for the brain. 

Laboring day after day, alone, with no other guidance than the vision in your head, takes its toll. You waver. You stumble and fall. You lose your way (even Dante needed a guide).

Self-doubt sets in. “Am I really doing the right thing? Should I have gone a different way? What if I fail? Is this good enough?” The inner critic gains on you; you start losing yourself, overwhelmed by his incessant, malicious chatter.

Patience wears thin. You look at the few lines you wrote and imagine the unfathomable amount of time it’ll take to stretch it in a book. A whole book. How would you ever get there? You can’t imagine it anymore.

Distractions attack your focus. You mean to check a synonym, and half an hour is gone, without a synonym to show for it. (But on the other hand, you know a lot more about the mating rituals of penguins).

Yet, somehow, you have to keep going. Keep working, keep realizing the vision in your head, despite, at times, crippling self-doubt, constant restlessness, and distractions.

How do you do that? How do you keep going when you feel you’ve spent yourself, and you don’t have anything left to give? When you can’t imagine writing one more paragraph, let alone a whole page or a whole chapter? 

Simple. Small steps. 

Forget the goal (a whole book!), just focus on the task for the day. Writing 500 words. Or 1,000. Then forget them as well. 

Write one sentence. Just one. Then the next one. Then the next one.

Don’t think, just write. One word at a time. Pebble by pebble by pebble, as Donna Tartt says*.

Successful writers are the ones who keep working, not the ones who have talent or write beautiful sentences. Yes, there may be more talented writers, and yes, some may write better than you. But this means nothing if they don’t persevere and actually finish the project. What matters, in the end, is the end result. 

So, you write one word, and another one, and another one. Day after day after day. There’s no other way.

* It is just pebble by pebble by pebble by pebble. I write one sentence until I am happy with it until I go on to the next one and write that one until I am happy with it. And I look at my paragraph and if I am not happy with that I’ll write the paragraph until I’m happy with it and then I go on this way. And, of course, even writing this very slow way, one does have to go back. One does start off on the wrong foot sometimes and a whole scene has to be chopped and you have to start over again. Generally, you know that pretty quickly though. You realize you have painted yourself into a corner and you think, “Okay I am just going to trace my footsteps back to the last solid bit of ground that I know. Look around start again and take a different tack.” It’s the way that William Styron writes and he said, when he was about my age, that he realized that he had maybe four or five books in him—the way that he worked—and he said he was fine with that. I’m fine with that too. It’s okay by me.Donna Tartt

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How to Create a Project Plan for Writing a Non-Fiction Book

A pile of books, an open book, and a cup of coffee on a table.
Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

I should probably have started my book writing log with this post, but hey, better late than never!  This post is about creating a project plan for writing a non-fiction book.

At Microsoft, I used to manage large global projects, and I always used a project plan. So, when I wanted to write my first non-fiction book, my first step was to figure out what I needed to do by when. 

I spent quite some time on this. Managing large projects has taught me that careful planning is essential. It’s well-invested time. Later on, when you have a lot to do, and life starts whirling around you at lightspeed (as it will do), you’ll be thankful that you don’t have to think about what’s next. You’ve done all thinking in the planning phase, so you can just have a look at your plan and go do the next tasks. Easy.

How to Create a Project Plan for Writing a Non-Fiction Book

I used these two books: Robin Colucci, How to Write a Book That Sells You and Tucker Max & Zach Obront, The Book In A Box Method; they complement each other well. 

Robin Colucci offers a checklist on her website, and I used that as my foundation. It didn’t include the research part, even though she talks about gathering your research etc., in the book. I’ve read a lot of books on writing non-fiction, and not one mentioned research at all. 

I searched online, and Cal Newport’s article on how to build a research database was best in its simplicity. Read my earlier post about my research database; you can download my database template if you’re interested.

Anyway, I built on Colucci’s template, added the research part, more on editing, and created new sales and marketing sections. Her book didn’t look into that at all since she assumed you’d want a publisher. I’m not sure which way I’ll go, so I’ve added those sections but didn’t go into great details. At this point, I’m focused on writing the book, not dreaming about sales. There’ll be time for time once I start editing.

I’m still wrestling with the research part. I feel it should come before outlining the book because, although I’m clear on what I want to include in the book, changes may be needed once I’ve read the research books. I’ll update the template once I’ve been through the process and learn more.

Here’s my template. With a column for Comments, of course. Feel free to use it. And do let me know if you have any questions or feedback!

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Being an Artist Is an Act of Daring

Withered grass in the snow. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
“Is this good enough for my portfolio? Should I try taking more photos tomorrow?”

Being an artist is an act of daring. Daring to bare your soul to the world.  A creative person does his work at home and keeps it at home, away from critical eyes. An artist sends it out in the world for all to see, to enjoy it, and criticize it. This is what separates amateurs from professionals.

You know all those modern art pieces you sneered at, saying, “I could do that!”, “I could do that better!”. Well, why didn’t you? Why don’t you? 

Maybe you could. But that artist didn’t stop at talking about her art, how she was going to create this great piece, how innovative it was. She didn’t dream about creating that beautiful artwork while waiting to have more time or take another course. She acted on it. Intention and follow through. That’s why they say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions and roofed with lost opportunities.” 

Good intentions and great plans will get you nowhere very fast. You get an excellent idea and think, “I have something here. This would be a perfect start for a novel.”. And so, you toy with the idea, dream about writing that novel, maybe even find it a catchy title. You can see the cover, with “a splendid debut”-blurb splashed over it. You write the opening lines.

The morning the first undead burst into the city, Mats woke up in a dilapidated garage, his head pulsing with the mother of all headaches. A dog stared at him, tail wagging furiously back and forth. Where the hell was he? What was he doing in this, this…place? With a terrier? If it was a terrier, Mats didn’t know much about dogs and, frankly, didn’t care. Of course, had he known about the undead, his view of things may have been slightly different.

The new genre-renewing zombie novel! And you will write it! As soon as you’ve finished that new book about writing horror, and you have a little more time to think about the plot. Days, weeks, and months go by, and you’re still re-working the first paragraph, slowly turning into Joseph Grand in the process. 

A field of ice. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
Field of Ice. Good enough?

The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (C. S. LewisThe Screwtape Letters).

A true artist dares to send out her imperfect creation in the world. She wasn’t ready to; no artist ever is. But at some point, she’s made her peace with the work. It’s not as brilliant as she can see it in her mind’s eye, but she accepts that this is the best she can do right now. 

There’ll be criticism; there always is, of course. While nobody is ever ready for it, she moves on; she releases her soul’s child to the cold eyes of critics. Her work is done.

Creative people keep their creations close; anguished, they protect them. Artists release them to fend for themselves.

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Time Cannot Exist in the Zone

A little more than one year ago, my life was a frenzy of conference calls, online meetings, e-mails, projects, and what have you. It felt like being on a bullet train, the landscape whooshing by at such speed that all you could see was a blur. Time was speeding up more and more every day. It was Monday morning; then I blinked, and it was Friday again. I was barely aware I was living. Weeks and months flew by, growing into years faster than I wanted to admit. 

And I was wondering whether this was how my life would continue, years and years flying by faster and faster, and me barely able to tell them apart.

I managed to jump off the hamster wheel of my corporate job eventually. I had realized I couldn’t continue living at lightspeed. 

And you know what? Life slowed down. I slowed down. Time slowed down.

It did take a while, and a lot of soul searching. But once I’ve done that soul work, looking at my values, thinking about what was important for me, and deciding on a course of action, everything changed.

Living intentionally, with a purpose, based on values that were important to me, slowed down time. 

I’m in my bubble every morning, writing my morning pages as soon as I’ve completed my morning ritual (I’ll write a separate post on my ritual). The outside world ceases to exist. It’s only me and the sound of the pen moving across the paper. I lose all track of time. Time ceases to exist. Time cannot exist in the zone

I lift my eyes to the oak tree I see from my window. A woodpecker stares back at me. The little red squirrel that comes by every few days flies graciously from branch to branch. This irritates the woodpecker, and it flies away. 

I go out and put out walnuts, peanuts, and sunflower seeds for the squirrel who was waiting for me. She’s stopped raiding the bird feeders. She waits for me. The camera is irritating, I know, so I try to give her time to eat before I start clicking. I toss her a few nuts, and she walks, ever so cautiously, closer. No more than 1.5 meters for now, but my 300mm lens gets the job done at that distance. I didn’t invest in a wildlife telelens; I’m not a wildlife photographer. But there’s magic happening in my backyard, and I’m trying to catch these ephemeral moments.

Another bubble wraps around me. I forget the time when I’m taking photos. I have to set the timer on my Apple watch to remind me to get back for lunch.

Writing (morning pages, blog posts, poems, my book), taking or editing photos, gardening, reading, watching the birds and small animals in my backyard – this is my new life.

Marveling at this amazing world makes time disappear. Time doesn’t speed up; we do.

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A Highly Personal List Of Best Dystopian Novels

An abandoned car under a tarpaulin in the woods, an illustration for dystopian novels. Black and white photo by Mihaela Limberea.

It’s no secret I love a good dystopian novel, and if it’s science-fiction, even better. It seems that I’m not alone: almost all of these novels have been turned into movies or TV series. Although, after living through 2020, I’m not sure how popular dystopian books or movies would be. But who knows? Maybe we’ll still watch them and find solace in their misery; our world is still better. (Is it? Here you have some food for thought to last you a while).

Ranting done, here’s my highly personal list of best dystopian novels.

I’ve been a longtime fan of Stephen KIng’s novels (and his On Writing is my writing bible). I like all his books, but some I love a bit more, and The Stand remains my favorite; the best Sci-Fi/Horror and the ultimate Stephen King book. It’s huge (around 1.400 pages, and I love to lose myself in long books) and spellbinding, sucking you in and never letting go. If you haven’t read it, I envy you that first reading.

I’m looking forward to watching the new series, although the reviews have been lukewarm. It seems Stephen Kind doesn’t have any luck with the film adaptation of his novels. The Shining is the exception that proves the rule. Cell was…decent, but that’s about it; unfortunately, because King’s novels are made to be brought to the screen. Bonus: Stephen King ranks the best and the worst adaptations of his books.

Station Eleven is a deeply melancholy haunting book, a page-turner and a poem at once, set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse. Think Cormac McCarthy meets Joan Didion. 

Twenty years after a flu pandemic that wiped out most of humanity, a small group of actors and musicians – The Traveling Symphony – travel in a caravan to various communities to play music and perform Shakespeare plays in a post-apocalyptic world. “Because survival is insufficient.” says on the side of their caravan—storytelling as a means of spiritual survival, hope, and connection.

A mini-series based on the book is in production. In an eerie coincidence, it began filming in Chicago in mid-January, the same week the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the U.S.

  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road.  A deeply unsettling, post-apocalyptic novel about a father and son’s fight to survive, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a simple and short melancholic book, with a raw emotional pull that offers nothing to comfort.

A father and his son walk alone in a post-apocalyptic, devastated America, where nothing moves but the gray ashes of the snow and the unforgivingly cold wind. Sustained only by their unconditional love, they move slowly and cautiously towards the coast, a beacon of hope in a land that lost all hope.

Starring Viggo Mortensen in one of his best roles, the 2009 movie is an excellent adaptation; visually compelling, grim and desolate and terrible as you’d expect from the book. Depressing too, I won’t lie; The Road is not one of those end-of-the-world movies with lucky escapes, unlikely action scenes, and a happy end.

  • Marlen Haushofer, The Wall, written in a stream of conscious style that never becomes monotonous, is a haunting survival story, disturbing and beautiful, by the Austrian author Marlen Haushofer (1920 – 1970).

The book is a journal kept by a never-named narrator, a middle-aged woman, the only survivor of an unknown event that killed everyone and sealed her off by a transparent and impenetrable wall somewhere in the Austrian Alps.

It’s a reflective book, going very slowly, and if you’re looking for a fast-paced, action-filled end-of-the-world novel, this is not it. It’s more like The Road, terrible things happening in an unforgiving world, narrated in a slow and desolate way, to become unsettling and heart-breaking stories.

There’s an Austrian movie based on the book, Die Wand (2012), but it’s not largely available outside Austria and Germany. It’s on Amazon Prime in some locations; sadly, not in Sweden. Here’s the trailer. And an interview with the director, Julian Pölsler, talking about the book and challenges in making the movie.

The hero, Robert Neville, seems to be the only human left in the world, the rest being killed or turned into vampires. He spends his nights barricaded indoors, praying for dawn; and his days, killing as many vampires as he can while they’re sleeping.

Matheson combines science-fiction and horror (including vampires, decades before vampires became fashionable) into a fundamental piece about humanity; about loneliness, survival, and prejudice in a plague devastated world.

The movie is fine but has little to do with the book. It’s good to know if you’ve seen the movie and want to read the book.

I don’t want to spoil your discovery of this gem of a book. Suffice to say that there’s indeed a dog (in danger), a loving human desperate to save the said dog, all in the background of a post-apocalyptic world.

It’s a young-adult book, but don’t let that fool you. It’s a thrilling and heartwarming book, and I didn’t want it to end. And when it did, I hoped Fletcher would come back to this world and give us more.

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How To Take Better Photos With Your Phone

Anse Victorin beach on Fregate Island in the Seychelles. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
Anse Victorin beach on Fregate Island in Seychelles.

Continuing the theme from my previous post on mobile phone photography, I wanted to show more photos taken with an iPhone and share a few tips to help you take better photos with your phone.

A beach sign warning "Strong currents" on Anse Victorin beach on Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
Anse Victorin beach. The current was strong indeed.

These are some of our vacation shots from Fregate Island (Seychelles) in the summer of 2018; they are all taken with an iPhone. Considering how the world looks like today, Covid-19 et al., I’m grateful for all experiences we’ve had; it’s something to hold on to these days. I’m sure we’ll be able to travel the world and only worry about photo quality at some time in the future. Maybe not in 2021. But in 2022? We need to keep dreaming about better days.

Marina beach on Fregate Island in Seychelles. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
Marina beach
Anse Victorin beach on Fregate Island in Seychelles. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
Anse Victorin beach

All photos in this post are taken with an iPhone X and the only processing is using the phone’s auto-enhance function i.e. what most people would do with their images. No filters, no post-processing. No expensive, heavy camera, tripods, or filters.

Villa, palms trees and infinity pool in on Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
Our villa, photobombed by a bird.
An infinity pool with view over the sea and palm trees on Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.
The beach bar on Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.
The beach bar

In full light, there’s hardly any need for further processing unless you’ve taken a fancy to one filter or another. Just point and shoot.

Some tips for taking better photos with your phone

  • Try shooting in the morning or late afternoon for a milder light. You may have heard about “the golden hour”; this will make any photo pop.
  • Wait for a passing cloud to take photos if you have to shoot in the harsh midday light.
  • Position yourself so that you have the sun at your back. Be careful when shooting portraits, though. If you have the sun at your back, it means that people will very likely squint (if you’re quick) or close their eyes as they’ll face the light. What you can do to avoid “The Others“-like portraits is to position your subjects with their backs to the sun. As you’ll be shooting against the light, you’ll need to use the flash to lighten up their faces.
  • Use available natural light. Avoid using the flash (except for the above scenario). Flash creates a cold, unnatural light with heavy contrasts, and the result is unflattering photos.
  • Set the focus right. Phone cameras automatically set focus on the foreground, but this may not always be where you want it to focus. To make sure the intended subject of your photo is in focus, tap lightly on the screen. This will set the focus on that spot.
  • Don’t use the zoom; move closer to the subject instead. Zooming in makes the photo appear pixelated or blurry.

More Examples of Phone Photos To Inspire You

Beach and flowers on Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.

Using the Portrait mode: good background blur, perfectly fine photo.

A coconut on the beach, Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.
A coconut tree in the making

Choosing the Portrait mode in your camera app gives your photos a nice background blur. It was meant for shooting portraits, but you can do so much more with it. Try it!

Beach panorama on Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.

Using the Panorama mode – not bad! The horizon is slightly uneven (maybe the photographer wasn’t fully awake, maybe it’s the camera, who knows?), but the photo is acceptable, considering the alternative. I.e., carry a heavy camera to the beach, and do a lot of post-processing on your computer, stitching together the panorama. Did you try creating a panorama on your phone?

A blonde woman seen from her back and holding a camera at Anse Victorin beach on Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.

One of the rare shots with me in it. You know, the shoemaker’s children …luckily, not a bad hair day! Tips: taking photos of other people taking photos is always fun.

Hornet ghost crab on the sand, Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.
Close up of a hornet ghost crab on the sand, Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.
Horned ghost crab
A close up of a Aldabra giant tortoise on Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.
James the Aldabra giant tortoise.
Fairy tern chick sitting on a tree branch on Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.
 Fairy tern chick
Fairy terns in flight, Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.
 Fairy terns in flight
A close up of a Wright's skink, Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.
Wright’s skink

Some animal photos. The last one, the skink, would have been better with a blurred background (using the portrait mode), but animals usually don’t wait until you set up your camera. Shoot it, or you lose it.  Overall, not bad considering animals rarely pose and are always on the move.

Sunset on the beach, Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.
Sundown over an infinity pool and palm trees, Fregate Island. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.

And lastly, two photos in low light – taken at 6am and 6pm. All phone cameras struggle on these conditions of course. But in this size for a photo album, Facebook or Instagram they are perfectly fine.

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What 2020 Taught Me … So Far

I’ve been struggling to make sense of the world lately, like many others, I suspect. Burying my head in the sand and trying to carry on with my work as nothing had happened. While, of course, the world around me continued spinning faster and faster.

I’ve missed two family anniversaries that I was looking forward to. Before what now seems to be the second Covid-19 wave, I thought I could attend, observing all restrictions, of course. With family and friends scattered in several countries on four continents, it’s been a trying time, to say the least.

Abstract B&W  photo
Untitled from my latest photo project.

As for my work, my new book and some photo projects, well … slow progress. I’ve reached an all times low in terms of creativity. I had all this time on my hands and no lust to do anything. I forced myself to show up and do the work because I know that in the end, there’ll be something. A shitty first draft. A few photos worth including in the series. But it’s not a solution.

How to keep going? Retreating into a shell and ignoring the world is not a life strategy; it’s escapism. As always, writing clarifies things for me. As Joan Didion once said, I write to find out what I’m thinking.

Here are a few things that I’ve learned this year of the plague. So far.

Accept the current situation. No amount of wishful thinking will make Covid-19, and its restrictions go away. I’ve come to accept that I cannot travel, for example, not only in 2020 but very likely not next year either. Would a trip be possible in 2022? I hope so. But if not, I’ll accept that travel would have to wait a while longer. If I cannot go to Australia for my planned photography project, I’ll try doing it in Sweden. If nothing else, this would be an exercise in creativity; creativity thrives on challenges. 

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Acceptance is key to get through this trying time. Humans don’t do well with uncertainty, and Covid-19 is the biggest uncertainty of them all. Accept that there are things that you cannot control.

Technology can be friend or foe. When I moved to Sweden, I was still writing letters (yes, real letters, handwritten et al.); compared to that, it’s never been easier to stay in touch. One of the small things that made a great difference was using a private cloud service where all family members can upload and comment on photos and videos. We can follow what’s happening in each other’s life in real-time, and can easily call each other or have several parts conference. Technology became my friend.

A sleeping tabby cat on sheep fur
Minette broke her leg and the whole family could follow her convalescence and provide moral support (mobile phone photo).

However, technology can easily become your foe. Like everyone else, in the beginning, I’ve spent a lot of time watching the news and reading everything about pandemics and viruses, antibodies and vaccines, intensive care and protection measures. How could I not? Everything was so readily available. The whole world at my fingertips, everywhere I turned. But the more I learned, the less I knew; even the experts had more questions than answers. The news reports became harbingers of doom. I was sucked into a maelstrom of catastrophic news reports (when it’s the last time you’ve seen good news?), comedy sketches, and cliffhanger series that made me even more depressed.

With no end in sight, the pandemic, combined with the recent changes in my life, was getting to me. I realized that I needed to make some drastic changes in my life. Covid-19 clarified my priorities.

I’m watching less TV now, especially the news. I keep informed, but that’s about it. I (no longer) binge-watch series but decide what really matters to me and stick to it. I didn’t watch Games of Thrones or The Crown. I did watch Stranger Things and Chernobyl. I have limited time and more important things to do.

Doing things around the house and crossing off tasks on my To Do-list make me feel good, as I had accomplished something (which, in fact, I had) and helped silence the monkey mind.

A sunny room
The guest room is ready! Unfortunately, no guests due to Covid-19.

Since we moved into our new house last year, we had a lot to do, and boy did we do it! We still have a few pictures to frame and the home office to figure out, but everything else is pretty much done. All that work did take my mind off things, and, in the process, I knocked off almost all items on my moving to-do list. Note to self: keep busy; keep busy; keep busy; keep …

Doing things I love with no ulterior purpose is relaxing; do more of them. I’ve started drawing again for the first time in several years. My drawings don’t look like much yet, but the concentration they require and my pleasure in what I’m doing make me forget the world. Right now, that’s a good thing.

A tabby kitten with a teddy bear
Minette and Patrick the teddy bear

Photography is work, of course, but taking photos of my cat or my garden just for us, for the family album, with no pressure, doesn’t feel like work and allows me to get into the zone and shut off the world.

A foggy forest in the autumn
A photo I didn’t post on Instagram. I was too busy scrolling.

Spending too much time on social media is counter-productive. Using Facebook to stay in touch with friends or YouTube for tutorials is one thing; spending hours scrolling through Instagram mindlessly and calling it “staying updated” is just wasting time. And likely to make me feel inadequate. Ask me how I know.

If you’re struggling as I did, I hope you’ll find this post helpful. I found that knowing you’re not alone is one step towards feeling better.

Stay safe, stay healthy, stay calm and soldier on. And don’t forget to laugh. 

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