Be

Most of us are good at doing, but not so good at being.

Doing is fantastic. It’s how we create beautiful things in this world. It’s also the way most people know how to exist in this world.

Being is harder, because it requires that we do nothing.

The people I admire the most are not the ones who have achieved a lot in life, but those who are contented being nobodies. When you are contented to be a nobody, it tells me a lot about you. It tells me that you are secure and your identity is not hinged upon external validation. You are happy just being you!

We are used to celebrating successful people. But look deeper and you will see that sometimes successful people work so hard to succeed because of their inner wounds and fears. Their success is only a plug to stop their pain from oozing out.

All our life we have been taught to do, to work our ass off. But what if we learned to simply be?

Our careers, our daily pressures, and all the expectations to be somebody rather than nobody are worldly things dreamed up by worldly minds like ours. It’s not to say they are bad things, but maybe they are imaginary and not as real as we think they are.

I believe there’s more to life than life. Think of the ocean – sail upon its surface and you might think it exists only in one dimension, but dive into it and you can travel for miles and miles into the deep mysterious blue.

Life seems to have that kind of unfathomable depth. The only problem is that our minds are so used to being on the surface.

But learning to be is like diving into the ocean. You break into the depth and you find things you have never seen before on the surface.

When Buddhists talk about awareness or Christians talk about being with God or mystics talk about being at one with the universe, I think they are talking about this sense of simply being.

To be is nothing physical. It’s purely inner work.

To be is to accept yourself. To be is to stop wanting to be a better version of yourself. To be is to, in Zhuangzi’s words, “follow along with things the way they are” without resistance.

Some people might say that to be is a simple concept, but it is not easy to achieve at all.

Precisely. There is nothing to achieve. To be is to rest. It is the total lack of struggle. It is the putting down of your arms and your desire to achieve anything more with and in your life.

I was always an ambitious person. To me it has always been important that I become somebody rather than nobody. Sometimes I trace it back to my inferiority complex as a child or simply my Dad’s genes.

Now I can see that I was always only chasing after happiness and acceptance. I thought I’d be truly happy when I fulfilled all my dreams and found the freedom I so desired, but now I see that if you are not already happy, no amount of money or fame or any other worldly thing you can think of can ever give you that.

So my only urgent task, my biggest practice, is not how to be a more successful photographer or earn more money or do more exciting projects. It is not even about learning how to be a happier person.

My practice is simply to be. It’s not just a high-brow philosophical concept, but an idea that must infuse my every decision, action and thought. It must be lived.

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28

“Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.” – Zhuangzi

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Laozi

Becoming who I really am

I’d never seen so many stars in my life. I was on Mauna Kea – highest point in all of Hawaii – my fingers frozen, my head buzzing from the altitude (13,000 feet!).

Our guide had set up a telescope for us. Throughout the course of the night we gazed at Saturn and Jupiter and marvelled at twin stars. A distant galaxy, drifting 38 million light years away, was pointed out to us. Through the telescope the galaxy appeared as a wisp of light, only faintly discernible. We lined up constellations too and found improbable order in disorder, and I could only wonder what went on in our ancestors’ heads when they woke up to a world like this, at a time when there weren’t yet books written about the stars.

Standing under this glassy bowl of a hundred billion stars I was overcome suddenly by a powerful urge to become the person I really am. I cannot say where that feeling came from. But there it was, and I felt it profoundly. It was a mystical moment to say the least (and perhaps only to be found on top of a mountain, 13,000 feet above sea level).

In the milky dark night, in the midst of the mystery and wonder of my own existence – and the existence of everything in this universe – I understood something: If I could only become who I really am, I would be able to live a limitless life.

In that moment I understood also – or rather I knew – the utter pointlessness of success or achievements of any sort. I needed to pursue instead deeper spiritual growth, expansion of my consciousness, and a greater love for all things.

Call it a message from the stars.

On our way up to the mountain, our guide Gordon told us that he hadn’t originally applied to be a guide. He was a jolly good fellow – in his 50s, maybe – with a dry sense of humor and a chill vibe. Very Hawaiian.

“I applied to wash vans, actually. But the boss asked me, why don’t you be a guide for us? You have a degree in Geology! But I told him, I only want to surf, go fishing and wash your vans for two hours a day!”

Again the stars were talking to me. This guy – who only wants to surf, go fishing and wash vans for two hours a day – feels like someone who’s just being exactly who he is. Completely comfortable, non-competitive, at peace with wherever life brings him.

As for me, I have been trying to unpack what “becoming who I really am” means.

Fundamentally, I think, to become who I really am is to live out of love rather than fear. The root of my past misery has been my fear of not being loved and accepted and the fear of never being good enough. All my insecurities, desires and superficial goals stem from that fear. That’s why I always needed to be good at something; that’s why I always wanted to be successful; that’s why I always dreamed of achieving so many things. I was only afraid of not being loved.

But when I become who I really am, I am no longer afraid. I am no longer ashamed of myself, I no longer need outer validation, I no longer need every one in the world to love me, and I certainly don’t need to be anything the society expects me to be.

When I become who I really am, I move beyond my ego – which is my false self – and I stop wanting things and giving things for the wrong reasons.

Knowing who I really am – already perfect and wonderful as I am – I then have the courage to go out into the world and live a deep and true life out of love, and not fear.

I have always known this, all that I’ve just written about, but standing on a million-year-old mountain and being so close to the stars had a way of drilling the message in deep.

Finally, I think, knowing is not enough. Now I have to live this knowledge through every decision I make every day of my life. And that is the mammoth task. But there is no other way to live.

I love my job

Yes, Hawaii is beautiful, but this is not a photo of Kualoa Ranch, as we were not allowed to take photos while riding an ATV. This view is of the magnificent Na Pali Coast in Kauai, where I was last week. But it does give you a pretty near approximation of what I was surrounded by this morning.

Today a thought hit me: I really love being a photographer.

The precise moment this thought arose in my head, I was riding an ATV through the valleys of Kualoa Ranch, admiring the views in front of me. The magnificent mountain ridges were to my right, the Pacific Ocean to my left. Everything was blue and green and breathtakingly beautiful. I was doing nothing remotely photographer-ish (since both my hands were preoccupied with trying to not steer my ATV off the mountain).

But there it was. A thought that hit me like a jolt of electricity. I guess maybe being in Hawaii and riding an ATV through some of the most awe-inspiring scenery I’ve ever seen in my life played a small part, but… I don’t know. I cannot begin to analyse or decipher why such an epiphany would hit me at that particular time, but that’s how epiphanies go right?

It’s not that I hadn’t thought this thought before, of course. I am often filled with gratitude at the fact that I can make a comfortable living as a photographer, at a time when the world is saturated with people who want to become photographers. But the truth is, I am often caught thinking negative things about my work.

“I HATE pre-production meetings.”

“Why hasn’t the client paid up yet?

“I hate immigration.” (Whenever I travel overseas for assignments.)

“Why is the weather so hot? I’m going to get so tanned!”

“Must I really hike all the way up the mountain just to get that one shot?”

“Maybe I am getting bored of photography. Maybe I should start a *insert random business idea*.”

But today’s epiphany reminded me that I love my job to death, despite all the things I complain about.

Here’s a list of some of the things I love about being a photographer:

  • I am able to set my own schedule, accepting and rejecting work depending on when I want to slot my holidays.
  • I can choose my clients.
  • I don’t have to go to the same office every day.
  • I get to travel overseas for assignments.
  • I love the process of editing my photographs after a shoot.
  • I love when my images get published.
  • I love that I am creating for a living.
  • I love the high whenever I manage to create a great image.
  • I love that there is no limit; I can always become a better photographer and there is always more learning to do.
  • I love helping small businesses and others elevate their visual presence. (Cue link to LITO, a related side business that my friend Daniel and I started.)

*

Being a photographer is, at this moment, one of the best — if not the best — ways I can use my time, talent, character disposition to create something of value to the world. It is by no measure perfect — there is no such thing as a perfect job in this world — but it is good enough for where I am in life currently. More than good enough.

Maybe one day I might want to start a business in an entirely different industry. Maybe one day I will stop being a photographer. But till then, I fucking love my job, and I do not, for one moment, expect it to be perfect.

“The easiest way to gain happiness is to want the things you already have.” — William Irving

Bourdain

Photo from Anthony Bourdain’s Tumblr

I was a fool to have found Anthony Bourdain’s work so late. But now he is dead.

There is something I enjoy about Bourdain, but it’s hard to write about without — in Bourdainesque language — fucking it up.

But okay. Okay.

It’s the idea of Tony Bourdain, alright?

Imagine him, sitting on the back of a scooter in Hanoi, the traffic roaring. There is exhaust and smoke everywhere. CHAOS. Cut to another scene — he is eating dinner by the roadside on a low red plastic stool, adding with abandon fish sauce and chilli into his piping hot Cơm Hến and slurping it up. Then he’s riding across Myanmar on a crazily jumpy train — almost under threat of derailment — sleeping right through the journey. An old-school Chinese song plays, and suddenly he is walking through Chungking Mansion in Hong Kong, cool as ice. Another cut again brings us to him, knife in hand, killing chickens for stew in the dark (with much difficulty, it must be added) as a boat brings him slowly downriver into the jungle of the Congo…

You can’t deny that he is full of… swag.

But he is also king of the kind of seductive, beautiful, sordid imagery that paints the world as it is. He knows that the world is complicated, so he doesn’t try to package it. He tries simply to be a part of that complexity. Maybe we can say that the final products of No Reservations and Parts Unknown are still well-packaged, highly edited, biased works of one man’s views and imagination, but if there is anyone out there who’s trying his hardest to cut the bullshit, it’s Tony Bourdain.

Then there is the other idea of him — 44 but still broke, behind on rent, living in a rent-stabilized apartment, without health insurance, with little to no hope of ever realizing his dreams of traveling the world. This other Tony Bourdain decided to write Kitchen Confidential — the book that lifted him out of obscurity — for other cooks and waiters who were as angry and self-loathing as he was. “Fuck everybody else,” he thought, and wrote the book that he thought no one else would read.

Then there were the drugs. He wrote all about it in his books. There was no attempt to hide. The addiction, the depression, the suicide attempts, the desperation. It was all out there, like barely healed cuts on one’s inner arm.

So I guess I appreciate Bourdain because he was many things —all the good (his success, his talent, his vision) and all the bad (so broken, so afraid of the world and so fucked up), but mostly because, he always tried to be true.

And not to mention the swag. The swag.

Strip naked

Writing reveals who we are — it’s like that steamboat voyage Charles Marlow undertook that brought him riding straight into the heart of darkness.

There is always something to be found in our hearts — some true part of ourselves — that is revealed when we journey inwards, putting pen on paper. Or fingertips on keyboard. Whether we like it or not, whether we try to present the truth as something else or not, something slips out. Always.

The whole process of writing, for me, is to be okay with that. Wanting to be seen as cool is a thing of the past. That was when I was 20 and still wrecked with debilitating insecurity and a sort of damaged ability to love myself. Back then I thought everyone was better and more lovable than me, and I’d better have a talent or be good at something so people would love me a little more than I deserve.

But now I am older and I just want to strip naked. Come and see my heart if you want. Explore the dark bits and the bright parts and see that it’s all me. It’s all me.

Today they call it “living with authenticity”.

They can give it whatever label they want but it’s okay, I am gonna strip naked anyway.

I want to get real. I think getting real helps with my writing. Being honest means that I don’t have to come up with things to write about — they simply bubble up out of me because that’s the way things are.

Mostly it’s just a relief. A weight off the shoulder, not having to pretend to be someone I am not.

What can I say? You’re gonna see a lot of that here.

Loneliness kills

I do believe loneliness kills.

One year I was in Sapporo. I went there because I wanted to run away from myself, but at that time I didn’t know yet that you can’t outrun yourself.

I rented a private room in a hostel. The first few days were hellish. I fell sick, suffered a few panic attacks, ate kombini food in my room, and walked through wind-swept downtown Sapporo alone, a lost soul. I didn’t know anyone in the city. Not a single person in the whole of Sapporo knew my name.

One day I got talking with one of the owners of the hostel. I’d tried to avoid talking to anyone (I thought being alone would help me better run away from myself), but it was hard because my room was just right beside the hostel’s reception area.

That was the day my trip changed from a slow-moving heavy-hearted indie film dripping with a kind of end-of-the-world emotional darkness to a light-hearted summer flick filled with friendship and laughter, I kid you not.

I was promptly invited to join them for dinner the next day, during which we made some kind of Japanese wrap together and were joined by not only guests but the hostel owners’ friends from the neighbourhood. There were sake and stories shared. A good night.

One morning I went with a bunch of them to the riverside for yoga. They held yoga sessions once in awhile for their guests and friends. My new Japanese friends had woken up early to make onigiri from scratch (still the best fucking onigiri I’ve ever had in my life) and brought tables and chairs to set up a coffee station. The sky was a soft but brilliant blue. After the yoga some of them sat around talking and eating, while others started kicking a ball around. The breeze was sharp and cold, but not painfully so. It was so damn idyllic.

From then on I had friends. More than a few people knew my name now in Sapporo. I volunteered to photograph their hostel for their website, and I spent a short morning doing some portraits for the three owners of the hostel. Some afternoons we’d sit together in the living room and the owners’ friends would be there, playing guitar and goofing around.

I befriended one of these guys, Shiraki, and spent one evening at his tiny apartment. He told me all about his dad and showed me his records. He chain-smoked all the way as we shared our life stories with each other.

My time in Sapporo would have been very different without these people. Whenever I recall my time there, I don’t think quite so fondly of the nights I ate alone in my room. I think instead of the time I spent together with these new friends, and my heart feels all warm and fluffy.

Not only that, I saw how beautiful the whole Waya Guesthouse community was (go to the landing page of their website and you will see the photo I took for them!). Started by three friends who had come home to Sapporo after some years of working in cities like Tokyo, the trio dreamed of bringing their community together. The hostel was built literally by hundreds of friends and neighbours who saw Waya’s Facebook posts and came out to help. Every bit of wood was drilled by a friend or a neighbour.

I was inspired – and my heart warmed – by that. It planted a seed in me that took years to germinate, but now I am a firm believer in community.

In my view, everyone has two tribes – one, your personal tribe made up of family and close friends with whom you can eat and laugh together; two, a bigger tribe made up of a group of like-minded people you genuinely enjoy being with and with whom you can collaborate, make things, work towards a cause together. I urge you to cultivate both tribes with equal commitment. After all, these are YOUR people who will journey with you through this life.

2017 annual review

Happy new year my friends!

Before we know it we have already stepped into 2018 – another chance for a new beginning! Always grateful.

I’m going to keep this year’s annual review simple by answering a few questions my inspiring friend Samantha came up with. I hope you will give these questions a try too, and if you’d like, feel free to share your answers with us. I’d love to have a read!

Look back

1. What would you say was the theme for your 2017?

Learning to love myself for just who I am.

2. What’s one new thing you discovered about yourself this year?

I don’t have panic attacks anymore! I used to have bad panic attacks for years but ever since one night about 2 or 3 years ago, when I got fed up with yet another anxiety attack and woke up in the middle of the night and found this website, I have learned to deal with the anxiety and panic attacks with what I can only describe as fully-embodied, radical, total, nonchalant acceptance. So even through the most stressful moments of my life now, my body/mind simply doesn’t respond with panic attacks anymore. Hallelujah.

3. Tell us a happy and an awful thing that happened between Jan-Jun.

Happy: I was surprised in February with a birthday trip to Bali… on business class! I was at a cafe with a friend but suddenly got “kidnapped” to the airport blindfolded; when the blindfold was taken off I was standing at the business class booth, being handed a ticket to Bali. That was truly awesome!

Awful: Nothing really awful happened in the first half of 2017, I think. It was pretty awesome actually! I started the year off with a shoot for The New York Times, then Tokyo (my favorite place) for another shoot, and then Design Hotels flew me to Taipei for yet another shoot. Got to do my first two big Singapore Tourism Board campaigns too, so early half of 2017 was epic! Oh and I also went for a Plum Village meditation retreat that greatly inspired me.


Plum Village meditation retreat

4. Tell us a happy and an awful thing that happened between Jul-Dec.

Awful: I’ll start with the awful first. On 7 July I went through a double jaw surgery. It was not really that difficult physically (I was on GA, and because of nerve injury, I didn’t feel much pain at all after the surgery and took only one pain-killer), but emotionally I was a wreck. In my post-GA state of confusion and my post-surgery state of vulnerability (I was so swollen I looked like a completely different person and since my teeth was completely sealed shut I had to eat through a syringe – only soups and finely-blended food – for a few weeks), I fell into a bad depression for awhile. So that was awful awful awful.


What an experience!

Happy: Even though the second half of 2017 started off awful with the surgery and the depression, these events reminded me of how blessed and loved I am. Being so vulnerable meant that I had to be taken care of by others, and the people around me did a great job of doing that. Things started picking up when my housemate dragged me to Tasmania a few weeks after the surgery so I could take my mind off things. Tasmania was beautiful and helped in lifting my mood slightly. After that, as swelling began to go down, I began to feel much better about myself. In September I went to Japan twice, and on a whim I decided to go to Boston to visit my friend who’s studying there and just spend two weeks there reading, writing and thinking. It turned out to be one of the best trips I ever went on. Other happy things included finally upgrading to medium format (for the camera nerds, I’m using the Fujifilm GFX 50s now) and fully switching to the Fujifilm system from Canon; learning Total Immersion swimming; discovering the joys of rock-climbing; continuing to write for this blog. Come to think about it, I did so much in 2017!


Reading under a tree in Harvard Yard and pretending to be a Harvard student


Glorious New York City… although I still like the quieter Boston more!

5. A worry that turned out to be completely unnecessary.

I was worried mainly about my face in 2017. I thought I would be no longer be loved by my loved ones since I now look a little different after the surgery. But obviously that has been an unfounded worry!

6. Any random thing you’ve missed telling us because life moves faster than fingers?

Even though I rant about social media and its pervasiveness, I’m actually grateful for Instagram and my blog and my notes and diary entries on Evernote for reminding me of just what happened this year. Sometimes life does move faster than fingers, so I think it really is important for us to keep recording the moments of our lives, so that we will never forget.

Look ahead

1. What do you want the overarching theme for the next year to be?

Open-ness.

I am prone to thinking errors. I have been fooled by my thoughts before into thinking that A must be A, B must be B. But in reality, life can be anything. One big lesson I have been learning – and want to continue to learn – is how to be completely open to what life has to offer. This means planning less, having fewer goals. Being less rigid. In a way when I am traveling I am already doing this. When I went to Boston earlier this year, I booked a ticket and simply went there. I only knew I had a place to stay and I knew I had to visit Harvard and MIT. Everything else was fluid, and it of course turned out to be a magical trip. I ended up spending days sketching under a tree in Harvard Yard, eating ramen with a Japanese lady, stumbling into an art festival in the middle of downtown Boston, etc.

The other thing that relates to living an open life is to spend less time seeking for meaning or happiness in such rigid terms. This is about coming to terms with the fact that meaning or happiness does not have a specific shape. It doesn’t always look like what I think it’s supposed to look like. They can come in the most unexpected forms. One thing to remember is that life is already meaningful right now – everything I do contributes to the giant web of interconnected life. In my work, in my writing, in my day-to-day interactions with both strangers and people I love, how I behave or what I choose to do are already opportunities for me to find meaning and happiness. Again, I want to listen to my inner compass. I think that will lead me to where I need to be.

So yes, wide, wide open-ness.

2. Which personal quality do you want to develop or strengthen?

Love for others and learning to give more.

I know I am very flawed in this aspect. I have limited time and sometimes I don’t know how much to give or how to give. That’s why this is a consistently big theme in my life. Even in my love for solitude, I understand that I sorely crave and need companionship, friendship, relationships. I know at the end of the day, when all is said and done, it’s people who matter the most. Everything else is secondary and will fall away.

3. Name three goals for the next year (resolutions).

Continue to be obsessed with photography.
Be always exercising.
Be open to the possibilities of life!

4. Give a one-liner to motivate, inspire or encourage yourself in 2018. (e.g.: Don’t worry be happy)

I’m fucking perfect, and so are you!

Inner compass


(Image by my favorite Nicholas Stathopoulos)

I’m sure I am not the only person on earth who is always thinking to herself, “Oh my god, oh my god, I’m alive! Against all odds, I’m here. Wow, wow, wow.”

This confused wonder at my sheer existence started when I was a kid. Today a lot of the energy that I put into my life comes from this deeply-rooted amazement at the fact that I am alive – not juat that, I am an actual human being who lives on a little rock called Earth. This rock doesn’t just spin on its axis, it also rotates around the sun at the freaking insane speed of 30km/sec.

30km/sec!

My body, and everything else in this world, is made up of atoms. The general consensus is that the particles that make up an atom – protons, neutrons and electrons – were first formed out of the Big Bang, an event that also created time and space and Earth itself. I’m amazed, but I’m only pretending to understand what that means, because how does anything create time and space? How?!

And atoms, when you further split them, become particles called quarks that behave strangely and are so mind-blowingly tiny they measure 10-15 meters wide, meaning one millimeter of space can contain a trillion quarks.

Take a moment to let that fact sink into your consciousness.

So the world is not as mundane as we think it is.

Our lives are not as mundane as we think they are.

Sometimes when I get tired of life (there are certainly moments haha), I find myself thinking of all these and some perspective returns, and I’m reminded: Life is a delicious mystery and everything is weird and strange and yet,

I’m here. You are here.

That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?

Spiritual leaders like to ask us to wake up. But they might be right – we need to wake up to just how cool it is to be a human being.

Because we’re here, we can do things. We have a mind (another weird thing) and we can think. We have time (weird, so weird), which is a sort of concept/idea, but it feels so real that our entire lives are anchored upon it.

(Does time exist? I don’t know. The world’s smartest people are still debating about it.)

When we walk, we walk through this wonderful thing we call space, which is actually made up of atoms, with atoms themselves made up of mostly space, so can someone tell me what the hell is really going on?

And while here, we can fall in love, despair, dream, imagine.

The most epic thing of all: We can use our free will and actions to create change both in this world and within ourselves. We are small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but we’re far far far from powerless. In fact I dare say we’re pretty magical beings, because we can alter reality (although we don’t usually think of it this way).

So that’s the basis of my thought process when it comes to contemplating about how to go about this whole life thing. I can’t help but lean towards the idea that I am very privileged to be here to experience all of this magic, and since I am here, I  might as well have a decent go at it.

But how? How do we know we are doing life right?

If you ask me, at this moment in time, with my limited, limited wisdom, here is what I understand: We all have an inner compass. When we listen to it and act accordingly (the key point here is to act), we are guided in the direction towards wherever we need to be.

It sounds really frilly, but let me use Darius Foroux’s definition of a good life to further illuminate my point:

“To me, living properly means that I’m satisfied with my life. That I can look myself in the mirror, and genuinely say, ‘I like my life.'”

Without knowing it, I realized I have also been navigating and measuring my life in this rather simple and clear-cut way.

Thinking about whether my life is satisfying to me and whether I like my life helps me to find my way through life, even if as metrics they feel vague to others. Perhaps some things cannot be properly measured, but if we can be genuinely honest with ourselves when answering these two questions, we will somehow find the answer from deep within our hearts. This is how I activate my inner compass.

Did I like my life when I didn’t know what I was good at? No. I didn’t like my life either when I was working in a job I didn’t like. I didn’t like my life when I didn’t understand how I fit into this world. I didn’t like my life when I had no savings and had to live hand-to-mouth.

And I don’t like my life when I don’t have the time to create. I don’t feel satisfied when I don’t have good relationships with the people I love. I don’t like my life when I go too fast and forget to fully taste the current moment. I’m not satisfied when all I do is work and earn money. I don’t like my life when I don’t get to read or go to the library. And I certainly don’t like my life when I try to be happy all the time.

Whatever I didn’t like, I changed. Every time I changed, I moved in a direction I was supposed to go. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t foresee what was going to come next. All I knew was that I had to change, so I took action. If I didn’t like that I didn’t have time to create, for example, I would try to find time, or acknowledge that it’s really my excuses that are stopping me from creating, and not because of an actual lack of time.

My inner compass would do its job, and I would listen and act accordingly.

For me, it’s very simple – I change until I am living a satisfying life that I genuinely like. It’s a direction I’m always trying to move towards. (It’s a work-in-progress, of course, and I fail more often than I succeed.)

So these two very simple questions…

1. Am I satisfied with my life?
2. Do I genuinely like my life?

… are at the core of my inner compass.

I remind myself constantly that there is only the individual path and no universal path. I don’t have to be like anyone else, and I have to always discover my path for myself.

And this is all things go: My path gets clearer over time. Then it gets muddled. Then it gets clearer again. The struggle is the path; it’s okay. Half the time I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m still trying and life is still glorious and I’d still rather be alive on a small rock in the middle of nowhere than dead.

As a way to end the article, I’d just like to note that happiness is not the point at all. I know we all instinctively seek happiness, but to be happy, we cannot make happiness a goal; happiness can only be a by-product of living a good and meaningful life.

As for what good and meaningful entail, that will take us a whole lifetime – or more – to find out, but that’s the whole point of this grand adventure we call life, I think.

How to read for two hours a day

Reading is one of the fundamental activities of my life.

I go to the library at least once or twice a week and order used books at great discounted prices from Better World Books about once a month. My dream is to live among books, which I already am doing in a way, whereas my life-long dream is to be the owner of a bookstore 😉


Home or library?

But for the longest time my problem has been, “too many books, not enough time”. People who love to read will be familiar with this problem. There are so many books you want to read, ten lifetimes won’t be enough. And there are always so many other things to do and deal with in life. How to find time to even read?

Then it hit me. It isn’t that I don’t have time to read, it’s that I simply don’t spend enough time reading. Instead I spend 2 hours here watching Netflix, 1 hour there aimlessly surfing through social media. Why not spend all that time reading instead?

So I quit my social media habit. I still post stuff, I still need my social media accounts to market my work as a photographer, sometimes I check the accounts of my friends and family to see what they are up to, but I don’t scroll through the feeds anymore. Mainly because I find the activity pointless (not to mention super boring), and also because that time can be put to so much better use.

Now I have an additional two to three hours a day to read, which I can then use to plough through the many, many thick, solid, intimidating titles that have been on my to-read list for the longest time: “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, “An Intimate History of Humanity” by Theodore Zeldine, “Einstein: His Life & Universe”, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, etc.

Having so much more time to read a day also alleviates my I-will-never-be-able-to-read-everything anxiety. Sure, I still can’t read every book in the world, but at the very least I can get through many more books than if I were reading for just 30 minutes a day or every other day.

I am hugely inspired by Joseph Campbell, who famously spent 9 hours reading a day for 5 years.

And Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, who is undoubtedly ungodly busy but still has time to read voraciously and write about what he has read on his reading blog, gatesnotes.


My ever expanding bookshelf, organised into different categories: Religion, Philosophy, Psychology, Personal Development, Travel, Science, Memoirs, English Literature & fiction, Design, Photography, Sports, Personal Finance & Business…

As you might have figured out by now, I’m a nerd.

I read not only because it’s enjoyable to read (and it is, because words are delicious) but also because I want to understand more about myself and the world.

I want to know more about my brain, my body, my behavior, my compulsions. I want to learn more about what money is, how governments work, what the economic machine really means in our lives. I want to dive into big history, learn about how human beings came to be human beings, and gain a tiny morsel of knowledge about things like quantum physics and DNA. I want to go into the fascinating heads of Nina Simone, Elliott Smith, Joni Mitchell. I want to see how all things connect in this world.

I think I am so hungry to learn because I am hungry to live. My excitement for life feeds directly into my quest for knowledge through the simple act of reading.

The practical side of me also likes to read and pick up knowledge that I can directly apply to my life.

Reading was my gateway to meditation, swimming, running. Believe it or not, I started by reading about these activities rather than doing them. Why? Because when I can understand their philosophy and history, these activities become richer, more enjoyable and even more interesting to me.

To end, here’s a quote about how to read by fellow nerd Joseph Campbell:

“Reading what you want, and having one book lead to the next, is the way I found my discipline. I’ve suggested this to many of my students: When you find a writer who really is saying something to you, read everything that writer has written and you will get more education and depth of understanding out of that than reading a scrap here and a scrap there and elsewhere. Then go to people who influenced that writer, or those who were related to him, and your world builds together in an organic way that is really marvelous.”

PS: Follow my reading adventure on Goodreads. I’m also thinking of reviewing the books I have read on my blog like Bill Gates does, so look out for that if you are into this type of thing!

Interview: Daniel Lim, Serial Entrepreneur

[Editor’s Note: If you don’t know Dan or this is the first time you are hearing about him, you might get a little intimated by his sheer energy and productivity. But hold on tight – he is going to inspire you and make you want to go out there and do more, a lot more, with your life. Enjoy this first ever interview on rebeccatoh.co!]

Can you tell us a little about yourself, Daniel?

My name is Dan. You can call me DannyBunny. I am a cereal entrepreneur – which means I do things for the love and not the money. I am Singaporean. I am a coffee addict. I am a reformed shopaholic. I love Akina Nakamori.

You inspire me a lot. It’s really nice to see that you are doing so well as a creative entrepreneur. Can you share a bit about the businesses that you are currently running?

Oh yes! I am super blessed! Making good money doing what I love which allows me to do more of what I love. I run a few businesses.

My main biz is in digital publishing, digital content creation. Also web design and development. The third piece is brand development.

This year has seen me starting my coaching practice (dannybunny.co).

How did you make your first leap to quitting the rat race?

I would not have been able to do this on my own. [My partner and I] discussed and agreed that I would give myself two years.

I asked myself – Dan, what was your last drawn pay in the office cubicle? $3500. Okay, so can you make $3500 a month consistently by the end of two years? If you can, great! Let’s do this. If you can’t then… let’s do this too to prove you can’t. Then you can go back to corporate. You can take these two years off. You have hands, legs, a good head, willing to work hard, excited about it, and am pretty good at what you’re doing, plus reading micro-trends – the Internet was gonna explode! So ai zo or mai zo (dialect for “Do you want to do it or not?”)?

So I said ZO (hokkien for “let’s do it!”)!!!

Then I made 10 times my last drawn salary by the end of two years.

Can you briefly tell us about how you first started out as a creative entrepreneur?

I started out with my web design company Magic Mushroom and I did what everyone else would do who had to start from zero. I turned to Yellow Pages and started cold calling.

During that era, even fancy name cards were a novelty. Nobody understood the Internet, websites, this new breed of marketing. So I had a lot of trouble and resistance, but there was this uncle who was so nice.

He listened to my drivel on the phone, didn’t understand anything, but he said in Chinese, “I don’t know what is the Internet, but I know it’s tough starting out. You have the heart. I support you.”

I didn’t know how to price my work, so I told him, let me make the website. He can take a look after it’s done and if he likes it, he can pay me however much he feels is fair. If he doesn’t like it or if he doesn’t feel it’s gonna be helpful then he doesn’t have to pay me.

Then I proceeded with making the BEST MOST KICKASS WEBSITE I could make for him. I put in everything I knew back then. Time and effort were no issue. I did it like it was my only job I was gonna have.

Uncle saw it.

Still didn’t quite understand how he would use it. But I assured him it’s yellow pages on steroids.

He liked it and he gave me my first $500.

One of the problems many creatives face is “how to make a good living”. Do you have any advice for these aspiring and struggling creatives?

Define what “good living” entails for you and not what the world has prescribed.

Do you feel free? Joyful? Connected? Most importantly, does your life feel the way you want it to feel? Are you making a living on your own terms?

You’ll be surprised how much of the daily stressful madness is a direct result of chasing after things that we’ve been brainwashed to believe we need and to show for the world.

Good living comprises of an aspirational side and a practical side. We’ve still got to pay the bills. Yet, how we go about paying the bills is equally important.

When we realise that we can make a good living with a whole lot less (enough is plenty), and on our own terms, a lot of the struggling that is needless melts away.

How do you stay productive and do so much?

It’s just in my DNA! I’ve always been an Energizer bunny. I am a perpetual ideation machine with more ideas than I have time and energy to execute on and I feel there’s so much I wanna do and there’s too little time. This keeps me motivated and rah rah at all times.

I am also wired to be 100% nocturnal and I dedicate the time block of 11pm to 5am (where I experience peak performance) for my most creative work. Undisturbed. No phone calls. No meetings. No social events. I get seriously into the flow zone.

That said, here’s a mini listicle.

If It’s Not A Hell Yes, it’s a Hell No!
I only work on the things that light me up. Be highly selective about what you choose to spend your currency of time, energy and love on. Master the art of saying “no” gracefully.

Edit Ruthlessly
Edit, edit, edit. Cos overwhelm. Curate, curate, curate. Cos noisy world. This applies to everything from relationships (personal and business) to your social media feeds. Remove all forms of toxicity.

Surround Yourself With Good People

You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. It’s important to hang out with people who inspire you to be the best version of yourself.

What is one day in your life like?

A fulfilling one where I get to spend my day at the intersection of creativity, business and happiness!

A few other tidbits:

  • I natural wake without an alarm. I need 7-8 hours of sleep to function at my best.
  • I am nocturnal. I wake up at 3pm. Go to bed at 7am.
  • One full glass of water immediately after I wake up.
  • Meditation. 10 minutes. Set intentions for the day.
  • I work in my lounge clothes. Yay!
  • Loads of good strong coffee throughout the day.
  • Gym. I have a really great personal trainer who’s been taking care of my fitness needs for over 6 years now. Our focus this year is for me to build stronger pins and hit 65kg. I’m at 64.4kg now. Sooooo close. We can smell it!
  • Lots of reading and learning. I’m a lifelong student. The learning never stops.
  • Check in on existing businesses with my teams. Fight any fires they can’t handle. They have been trained well so thankfully that doesn’t happen often.
  • Have plenty of fun working on my play projects.
  • Some Netflix indulgence.
  • I put down 3 things in my gratitude journal first thing I climb into bed.
  • Read until my Energizer battery runs flat. Then I call it quits.
  • Switch off bedside lamp, climb under the covers and say “Fankeow Universe for a good day.”

What are the apps, software, or tools you can’t live without?

Pen & Paper – I’m old school. I call these my magic tools.

iPhone.

Infinity in the palm.

MacPro – 工欲善其事,必先利其器。

A blazing fast internet connection – I actually know people who choose the internet over their family.

Nespresso machine – I actually have one RIGHT NEXT TO my monitor! That’s how essential caffeine is to me.

Air conditioner – Didn’t the late Lee Kuan Yew say that this was the best invention of the century that allowed quantum leaps in productivity?

Photoshop – I used to prefer Fireworks for web graphics. But ever since Adobe bought over Macromedia and neglected it, I’ve switched over to PS.

Evernote – We all need a dedicated place for brain dumping.

Bear – I do all my writing in this app.

Basecamp – Team and project management.

Milanote – The latest darling in my toolkit. For research, planning and building out my play projects.

PS: I technically wouldn’t die if you took away everything listed above. I can adapt. I swear I can. But please consider leaving me a pen and some paper.

Do you have any books to recommend that are life or mindset-changing?

Of course!!! There are so many but here are some that are top of my mind.

For the Mind

4 Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki

For the Heart

The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte
Firestarter Sessions by Danielle LaPorte (Can you tell I’m a fan?)
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

For the Soul

Conversations With God by Neale Donald Walsch (It’s a trilogy and I highly recommend reading them all.)
The Power Of Now by Eckhart Tolle
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron

What are you working on now?

Quite a few things!

It’s a mix bag of “play” projects, doing more of what I enjoy, and tuning into my inner calling.

Coaching Practice

Personal and performance coaching for creative individuals and corporations.
I recently ran a full day corporate retreat for the DesignSingapore Council called #HowToHuman and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s certainly a personal highlight for this year.
The retreat was very well received (bless the good folks at DSG for having me!) and that has led to more doors opening. The Singapore Ministry Of Communication & Information has invited me to be their in-house performance coach. We’re working on the details right now but it will take the format of a weekly “open clinic” where staff members get to work with me on their areas of concerns and untie those icky inner “knots.” I’m calling it “FWD: Friday With Dan!”
There’s a Netflix series called “Billions” (highly recommended btw!) and there’s a character in it called Wendy who is a supernova kickass in-house performance coach for all these high-functioning, high-performance, high net worth traders. These guys go to her when they are feeling kinda “funky”, she performs one or two mindset shifts in a very exact manner, and send them out of her office blazing trades again in 5 minutes! When I saw that I was like “I WANT TO BE WENDY!!! I WANT TO THE MALE VERSION OF WENDY!! I WANT TO BE THE WENDY FOR SOME COMPANY!!”

So you can imagine how SUPER excited I am about this opportunity when MICA came calling. I look forward to invading cubicles and bringing more joy to corporate warriors.

B-Hive

A community of budding / struggling / seasoned creative entrepreneurs committed to building smart purpose-driven businesses that will build true wealth and freedom.

Online Courses

Building two e-courses on my favourite topics. One on “starting the right business”. The other on “how to human.”

Lifestyle Products

Crafting a small range of hand-poured candles and energy-infused jewelry with MIZU Brand. Also working on a fragrance.

Digital Stickers

Developing two series of original characters for distribution on LINE app.

A Photography + Apparel project

A joint-venture based in Brazil which will be launching in May.

Happy Boot Camp

A seasonal podcast of bite-sized wisdom bombs for happier living.

LITO
A joint-venture with a super talented photographer whose work and zest for happy living I so adore – Rebecca Toh!

Think of it as a portrait photography + web design + copywriting boutique in one. We aim to be a one-stop shop to elevate the online presence of solopreneurs in the new economy.

I keep an updated list of my shenanigans here. I’m always ticking things off and birthing new ones!

Do you have any dreams that you haven’t fulfilled yet?

A super strange thing just happened when I tried to answer this question! I drew a blank and the blinking cursor stared right back at me for minutes. It’s still staring at me now.

What’s happening???

In the past, I would have had a huge list of items for you.

[Sidetrack]

Lately, I’ve started a mindful practice to observe how I feel and respond to things, people, events and that includes munching on reflective questions like this one. So while I am reacting or thinking, I observe my reactions and thoughts. It’s like a second level of awareness. Woohoo!

This is especially fun when applied to those pre-frontal cortex moments. There’s no faking it because your amphibian brain just takes over. I enjoy observing and picking apart my amphibian moments.

There is so much reprogramming which we can do to manage and adapt our cavemen operating system.

[End of sidetrack]

Ok, back to answering your question.

I just realised I don’t have any unfulfilled dreams! I have every non-negotiable that I need. The rest are mere wants and good-to-haves.

I have shifted from what I want (things, events, validation through external material wealth) to how I want to feel everyday. Then I set out my intentions. Inner clarity first, then outer action. Inner attunement before outer attainment.

We’ve got the procedures of achievement upside down. We are not chasing a goal. We are chasing a feeling we think we’ll get after reaching the goal.

So I have been getting creative about how I want to feel and the ways I go around pursuing those feelings.

For example sky diving has been on my bucket list for a long time now but I haven’t done it yet.

I’ll think – Why do I want to sky dive? What is it that I want to feel by sky diving?

I want Adventure. I want Thrill. I want Excitement.

And guess what? I can absofrigginlutely get all the above by giving a talk to a group of 200 people! I feel the same adrenalin rush when I give my Facebook Live Sessions to my B-Hive FB group or when I run a corporate retreat/workshop. So I do more of those.

Et voila! We don’t have to be fixated with the things we think we want once we shift the focus to how we want to feel.

In a happy, shiny nutshell – I guess I am living the dream? 🙂

*

More of Daniel at:
DannyBunny.co (coaching practice)
Happy Boot Camp (podcast)
DannyBunny.shop (online store of happy goods)
LITO (photography + website design boutique)