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)

A good day’s work

I’m kind of a productivity geek. Life is short, and there is a lot I want to squeeze into this short life, so I am constantly thinking of how to optimize my days.

(That also means I am always trying different productivity systems on for size, which is very fun and extremely unproductive, I must say).

But what, really, is productivity, and why does it matter?

According to Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, at the end of the day we’re all just looking for progress in our lives – each of us wants to move further along the path towards realizing our potential or achieving our most important goals. That’s why we want to be “productive”.

Note that it’s about having important goals, and not just any goal. Because being productive is not just about ticking off our to-do lists mindlessly. It’s not about doing busy work. It’s not about waking up and attacking our email inbox thoughtlessly, mechanically.

Good productivity is about doing a good day’s work, and I think Jason Fried is right – it’s about progress, it’s about becoming better, it’s about evolving, and these things must be done towards the right goals.

As Shawn Blanc – a writer and creative whom I admire very much – also said, “Meaningful productivity means consistently giving our time and attention to the things that matter most.”

So even before thinking about how to optimize my days, I must first be honest with myself about what I want to fill my days with and be extremely mindful of whether these things are even important in the first place.

So I’ve been thinking, what matters most to me?

Personal peace and a sense of emotional well-being. This is the foundation of everything for me. Hence the tools to create personal peace – like meditation, like prayer – are things I must prioritize doing every day. There should be no question about whether I should meditate/pray or not, since my peace and my well-being are dependent on them. Starting my days with meditation, ending my nights with prayer – surely that is a good container for a good day’s work.

My health and my fitness. I love feeling fit and healthy. But we are the stories we tell ourselves. All my life I have told myself – and have been told by others – that I am not a sporty person. So I spent many years of my life thinking exercising or sports isn’t for me, that I’m never going to be any good at it. But I slowly changed the narrative for myself, and have in the last few years enjoyed playing squash, running, rock-climbing and swimming.

I love the after-glow of exercising and I love how the lessons I learn while running or swimming cross-over into the other parts of my life. For instance, when learning TI Swimming, I realize very quickly that it’s not about becoming a perfect swimmer overnight. During every practice session, the focus is often on a mini-skill, a small part of one skill. With mindfulness and careful attention and pleasure, you work on that mini-skill. The next day, you focus on another mini-skill. At no time do you fixate on your end goal. Instead, you enjoy every moment of your practice. By slowly progressing through all these mini-skills one at a time, you are promised that everything will converge eventually and you will suddenly find yourself becoming a good swimmer. Like a caterpillar slowly transforming into a butterfly. Isn’t that a beautiful analogy for life too?

My relationships with people I love. This is extremely important to me. I am a recovering workaholic. Even though recovering, some of my workaholic tendencies have become firmly embedded in me. Sometimes I get really obsessed with doing work (because to me, work is actually fun) that I’d rather work than spend time hanging out with my friends or family. But because this is so important to me, my days would not be complete or meaningful if I didn’t also carve time out to be with my family and friends.

My work as a photographer. I consider my work as a photographer a life-time vocation. Maybe, in 20 or 30 years, I will not be shooting for money anymore, but I don’t think that will ever stop me from thinking of myself as a photographer. But now, while I am a professional photographer, there are important goals associated to it that I must pursue. For instance, my goal as an advertising photographer is to create personal work good enough that I am hired not just for my style, but for my creative vision. As an editorial photographer, I want to move towards doing fewer lifestyle stories and more substantial documentary work, with an eye towards social issues. I want to do photography work that is increasingly meaningful and interesting. This means it’s important that I dedicate a portion of my days to working on advancing these goals (doing personal projects, studying photography and the work of photographers I admire, contacting photo editors who can help me further my goals), instead of simply firefighting and riding on any work that comes my way. It is important that I actively sculpt my path as a photographer instead of simply allowing the current to push me forward.

My creative energy. There are a lot of other things I want to do besides photography. I am interested in books and writing and the mechanics of building a small business and technology and publishing and education. All of these things come with potential project ideas. It’s important that I spend time working on some of these things. That’s one of the reasons why I write this newsletter/blog – it’s an extremely important creative outlet for me.

My desire to do meaningful things in this world. Life is not just about earning money and buying things and living the good life. All of that is great, but I want to do meaningful things with my time as well. What is “meaningful” differs from person to person. For me, meaning is an intangible feeling, a sense that I have lived a worthwhile life, one in which I have used my skills and talent to help bring something useful and beautiful to other people. I am currently in the midst of doing something (using photography) with a local foundation to help kids who have been touched by cancer. This is personally meaningful to me because my life has been touched by cancer as well – my aunt passed away from cancer when she was 40, a schoolmate of mine died from bone cancer when he was 14, and my good friend from Taiwan died last year at the age of 36 from metastatic breast cancer.

Reading and learning. I don’t know what I would do without books. Every time I feel stuck, sad, or lost, it is books that I turn to first. There is always someone somewhere out there who has experienced exactly what I have, and who has written a book about it. Being able to read and learn makes me feel invincible, like nothing in this world is too difficult to be solved. So it’s very important that there is time in my schedule to read and go to the library, which is my personal happy place.

That’s largely about it. At the moment, these are the things I want to consciously fill my days with. Knowing what truly matters also helps me to have some form of clarity about the shape my life should take, and what to be “productive” about. In the midst of life’s chaos, I guess this is my own way of finding some semblance of order.

The question of what tools I use to effectively organize my life and fit all these into my days is an article for another day.

But first, what is important to you? Have you ever given it any thought?

– – –



Swimming


“Swimming is simply moving meditation.” ― Cesar Nikko Caharian

I can’t remember when I fell in love with swimming. A part of it is nostalgia, I suppose. When I was a kid my parents used to bring me and my siblings to Bishan Swimming Complex, a local public pool, on the weekends. It was a rowdy and happy affair. I can still smell the chlorine, taste the cheap microwaved pool-side cafe food and remember how smooth my skin felt after my post-swim showers. It’s been 20 years since, but it still feels like yesterday.

When I grew older, swimming became a refuge. I swam whenever I was upset or depressed. And it helped – I was always left happier after each swim, and my head clearer. Sometimes I’d also have light-bulb moments in the pool, ideas bubbling up from seemingly out of nowhere. The pool, for some reason, inspires, elevates and is a great cure for many ills.


Bishan Swimming Complex, where my parents used to take me and my siblings.

About three years ago, I decided to go for proper swimming lessons. What I knew about swimming, I’d learned from my grandfather. I knew the breaststroke and how to trap water and float, but that was the extent of it. I wanted to learn proper techniques and to swim less like an amateur and more like a person who knows how to swim. More importantly, I desperately wanted to learn how to swim freestyle.

So I started taking lessons from Sue, a 65-year-old swimming coach I’d met serendipitously at a photoshoot. Sue has a fascinating life story. She started swimming in 1993 after she strained her back propping her sick husband up in bed. Visits to the doctor didn’t help, so heeding a friend’s advice, she started swimming 25 laps a day. Her back was cured after two or three months.

Sue rides a motorbike, travels once a month, wakes up at 5.30am to walk 5km a day, has done a marathon and several half marathons, and swims the same number of laps as her age on every birthday. Just this past October, Sue turned 68 and swam 68 laps at the pool.

How cool is she?


This is how my swimming coach Sue looks like – at 65! And yes, she got me to do a photoshoot for her. Haha.

This reminds me of another story Terry Laughlin – the legendary swimming coach who invented Total Immersion Swimming (TI Swimming), a method that teaches people how to swim like fish – told about his oldest student ever, Dr. Paul Laurie, who at age 93 picked up TI Swimming on his own through a DVD, and then showed up at the doorstep of Laughlin’s swimming studio at 94 requesting for lessons in swimming the butterfly stroke. At 94!

Before that, Dr. Laurie had spent 40 years as a Pediatric Cardiologist, and upon retirement, became an emeritus professor at a medical college for another 25 years.

Even without knowing the details of his life, I can already sense Dr. Laurie’s palpable zest for living.

About two weeks ago, Terry Laughlin, the inventor of TI Swimming and whose blog I have enjoyed reading (through which he muses passionately about the link between swimming and happiness and the joy of mastery) passed away. His passing made me pick up the TI Swimming book that has been collecting dust on my bookshelf. It made me think of why I’d stopped swimming when it was clearly something I enjoyed and wanted to improve at.

Like Dr. Laurie, I too have the Total Immersion Swimming videos downloaded on my computer, but unlike him, I never had the self-discipline and will to commit to the programme long enough to see any huge improvement in my swimming. I did learn to swim a very beginner’s version of the TI freestyle, but it’s nothing to boast about.

I am lazy and inconsistent, but deep in my core, I want to be as cool and awesome as people like Sue and Dr. Laurie, and anyone else who dedicates themselves to a sport or an activity or a craft. But in particular, a sport. There is something about moving and training your body that intrigues me. I was never an athlete and never thought of myself as a sporty person, but TI Swimming preaches exactly the fact that you don’t need to be young or athletic or particularly strong to become good at a sport like swimming.

It is also true that I feel best when exercise is a big part of my life. When I was running a lot, when I was swimming regularly, when I was rock-climbing two or three times a week (right before my jaw surgery), I felt good, and both stronger and lighter. Sometimes it would strike me that that’s all it takes to be happy – one good session in the pool, one long run around my block, one challenging climb up the wall.

So I have a renewed desire to make sports and exercise a big part of my life. And hopefully by doing that I can age as gracefully and healthfully as Sue and Dr. Laurie and Terry Laughlin.

More importantly, I want to start doing the things I want to do. For real. And to quit simply thinking about doing them. And sports/exercise on a regular basis is just one of the many things on my list.

I guess you could say that I want very much to squeeze every drop out of this short but sweet life, and I’m not going to let my laziness and inconsistency stop me from doing that. Even if I fail (at anyone of those things on my list), I’m going to try again and again.



Swimming and watching the sun set counts as one of the best experiences one can have in life.

But yes, TI Swimming. As much I want to run and hike and rock-climb and play table tennis, what I want to do the most at the moment is to master TI Swimming. That’s because I’ve been talking about learning it for the longest time. It’s not that I’m going to stop running or rock-climbing, but for now, I want to put a lazer focus on swimming.

In Terry Laughlin’s last podcast interview, he talked about how, to master something, there are two keys: pleasure and attention.

It sounds obvious but it’s not. Too few of us find joy in the things we are doing or learning to do, and even fewer of us pay careful attention to the task at hand.

If I want to master swimming, then, I must first enjoy the hell out of swimming (which I do). Then I must engage with it, pay close attention it, learn its theory, practise its skills. I must engage with it at a deeper level. In other words, I must not be mindless about the process.


One of my favorite places to swim in Singapore – a pool that overlooks the city.

I think we can also apply the principles of pleasure and attention to almost every other aspect of our lives (but I can attest as to just how difficult it is to do that).

So, what is it that you have been wanting to do but have never gotten down to doing? Are you going to finally start doing them? Share your stories with me if you want by replying to this email. I receive all the replies directly and appreciate every email and story, but might take 2 million years to reply. Even so, I will get back to you eventually.

Now enough talking, let’s start doing.

PS: If you are interested in seeing TI Swimming in action, check out this video titled “The Most Graceful Freestyle Swimming by Shinji Takeuchi”. It’s a short 3-minute video of a 40-year-old Japanese man swimming… like a fish. Shinji Takeuchi also self-taught himself TI Swimming through a DVD. In this video you can see that there is so little splashing of water, so little evidence of effort, and yet he cuts through the water as if a line were pulling him forward. That’s the magic of the TI Swimming method.

PPS: TI Swimming in open water is just as graceful and beautiful.

“If you want to get unstuck, don’t use your mind – use your body.” – Turia Pitt

The art of self-education and the art of insane possibility

I’m back! I was gone for awhile but I’m… back. And it’s about time too.

In July I underwent a jaw surgery (not life-threatening, but still a pretty major surgery) and I got knocked off my path for a while, as you might have noticed. The physical recovery after was intense, but the emotional aspect was worse. To be honest, I dipped into a dangerously low place for a bit, and that’s why it was quite impossible for me to keep up with writing this newsletter/blog.

In other words, I was down in the dumps. Depressed. Very depressed in fact.

Ironically, my last article was about positivity and how I am often “too positive” for my own good. This episode with my post-surgery depression reminded me that I am made of quite fragile stuff, and that I am not immune to depression (even if I have kicked its butt once before). It also goes to show that we human beings are more complicated than we can ever imagine ourselves to be. Turn a bend and there it is, a side of you that you never knew existed. Turn another bend, and you are unrecognizable.

I also learned that when shit really hits the fan, and nothing anyone says can help make you feel better (and I mean not even a psychiatrist, whose words can ring pretty empty at times like these)…

And no amount of self-help works or amounts to anything remotely meaningful…

You pray. You pray hard. And you let time do its magic.

So my major lesson has been that I am weak, but that I am also – strangely, bizarrely – strong. Who the hell even knows what that means? But there is a mystery to it all – this falling and breaking and healing and becoming stronger – that I am still trying to digest and understand.

It’s an ongoing process.

After an ordeal like this, I can’t help but notice that life begins to take on more shades. Don’t ask me why. But the world seems filled with more blues, more greens, more reds. And mostly more grays.

Not quite so black and white anymore.

I started this newsletter/blog to share my thoughts about what I think makes a good life. I also started it because I needed and wanted an avenue to write, to practise writing.

As a wannabe writer, and a person who wants to think hard about what it takes to live a “good life”, it is a blessing – however unwanted – to be able to meet with disasters and unexpected difficulties. That’s when I bump up against the limits of my old views, and I begin to see more clearly and inch somewhat closer to the truth.

So overall, it’s always a good thing when bad things happen, because we learn. Unless we don’t learn, then the bad thing just becomes a pointless tragedy.

I wanted to jump right into today’s topic – “self-education” – which is something I have been pondering over, but I thought it would be good for me to explain my absence over the last 3 months. After all, I had promised to write one article a week. You don’t make such a commitment and just disappear for 3 months!

So I’m back writing. And thinking. And hopefully writing and thinking with a little more nuance, a little more maturity.

Right. On self-education.

Recently I have been toying with the idea of going back to university. As you know, I never did graduate. I was an English major at NTU (a public university in Singapore) for exactly one year, then I dropped out. That’s the extent of my higher education.

As a photographer, and as someone who intends to be a photographer for a long time, I have no need for a college degree. But sometimes I think about how wonderful it would be to go back to school again, to be surrounded by books and ideas and people who love learning as much as I do.

When these thoughts appear in my head, they often come tinged with a purplish dreamy hue.

I think that’s because I have been dreaming of a false and idealistic image. I was a university student myself back in those days, and I hated school. I had zero appreciation for my privileged education. All I wanted then was to be let loose onto the big wild world out there. What learning? What knowledge? What I yearned for was the world out there, that seemed ever so enthralling and full of wonders and bright lights. I wanted to be a music producer. I wanted to write. I wanted to meet people who were doing amazing things with their life. I wanted to create, make a name for myself… so get me the hell out of here right now!

That was my 20-year-old inner monologue.

Now, at 31, after having taken a spin in this “big wild world”, I want increasingly to go inwards instead. Enough of the crazy noisy world out there, I want to know the answers to some big questions. Like who am I? What am I made of? What is a cell made of? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? Does my mind affect my body or does my body affect my mind? Why do countries go to war? How does history affect our lives as citizens today? Why are people not as moral as we want them to be? What is the implication of artificial intelligence? Where will technology take us in a few decades? And do we want to get there?

The more I thought about it though, the more it seemed that maybe going back to university won’t cut it. I love my freedom, and my job requires me to travel at short notice. So short of going back to a physical university, what can I do to effectively educate myself?

Enter MOOCs.

MOOC is basically short for Massive Open Online Course, courses put online for anyone in the world to participate in, learn from. Some of these courses were originally taught in some of the best universities in the world – Harvard, MIT, Yale, Stanford – and now they have been put online, in platforms like Coursera and EDx, for free or at an extremely low fee.

So instead of going back to university and slogging through four years of academic sludge, I now get to learn from some of the best university curriculum in the world. For free or next to nothing. And I get to design my own education by making my own decisions on what I want to learn, based on the questions that I am currently obsessed with.

I’m enrolled now in a few courses. “Minds and Machines” is one – it’s an Introduction to Philosophy of Mind course offered by MIT to its first year undergraduates. “Philosophy and Critical Thinking” by University of Queensland is another one. As you can see, I’m interested in, amongst other subjects, philosophy. But there are courses in hundreds of other subjects – music, the history of the western civilization, biology, law – whatever you can think of, whatever you might be interested in studying, I have no doubt there’s something for you.

The other thing I’m trying to teach myself to do is writing. Yes, I know you wouldn’t be reading this if I didn’t know how to write. But that doesn’t mean I’m a good enough writer. I want to teach myself to be a better writer. That’s why I started this newsletter/blog, so that I have an audience to write for. And with the help of writers like William Zinsser, who published the famous “On Writing Well”, I am learning slowly to become a better writer.

Already Zinsser has influenced me profoundly. He was the one who said, “the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” So nowadays, all I do is cut, cut, cut. Instead of trying to create a style deliberately, I simply say what I want to say and cut the fluff out. It makes writing 200% easier.

I get excited just thinking about the things I want to learn in future.

One of the joys of learning, I think, is simply the joy of learning itself. Learning reminds us that we are indeed alive and changing. We are not static and can transform our bodies and our minds. And that’s good news.

To be able to teach ourselves new skills is also to have the means to be anything we want to be. We can learn to code, to sketch, to argue better, to build a house (if we are so inclined), to play the cello – anything at all. The internet is our best friend. But the fuel must come from us in the form of our urge to learn.

And of course, a measure of discipline and a sprinkling of will.

What are you interested in learning? Please swap learning stories with me! Would love to chat more about this. You can just reply to this email and I’ll be able to get your message.

Till then, happy learning.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Putting life at the center


“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” Jack Kerouac, On the Road”

July, August and September were spent traveling. I went to Tasmania and drove a couple of hundred miles across the island, accompanied by Jason Mraz’s smooth voice drifting out of the stereo singing, “Drive a little slower / not ready to go home / I’d rather stay with you…”; In August I was in Japan, traveling in Shikoku, hopping between the Setouchi art islands; after that I came back to Singapore, took another short trip to Tokyo, and then flew directly to weather-perfect Boston, where I stayed for about 2 weeks.

It’s kind of insane when I type it out like that, but for some time now I have been living this way, traveling for months out of a year, so it doesn’t seem that unusual to me. But people are always telling me, “You really travel a lot!” or “You travel too much!” To which I routinely reply, “But I like traveling!”

I guess this is how I want to live my life right now, doing more of the things I like and lesser of the things I dislike, and to work less and live more.

There is a constant tension within me: Part of me wants to be and enjoys being a productive, useful member of society (creating / working / hanging out with people is a lot of fun and often makes me dizzy with excitement); another part of me yearns very much to be alone with my books and music and solitude for long periods of time, preferably at somewhere beautiful and surrounded by nature.

I need this swinging between the two states (40% connection, 60% isolation) in order to feel balanced, happy, sane.

So I work hard for months, and then drop out, go somewhere far enough, and try to disconnect.

I like this kind of life. I have always wanted to live this kind of life.

Of course, to live such a lifestyle also means having to unlearn many of the ideas fed to me while I was growing up. Like the idea that the best thing for us is to find a stable job and work hard and retire at the age of 65 or so. Anything less is considered irresponsible, lazy.

Well, I’m a freelancer. I’m a photographer. I’m everything my father told me not to be. Maybe I’m irresponsible and lazy, but I’m happy. I work hard when I want to. I reject jobs when I need to focus on other parts of my life. I don’t see the need to constantly feed the economic machine. I earn money and I save my money. I don’t need a lot of material things. Maybe I will never get to buy a private property or a fancy car – that’s totally fine with me. But I want to always have time to read books and see new places and listen to music and be with my cats and learn how to be an urban sketcher and take swimming lessons.

I chose to have less so I can be more.

So… questions:

Why can’t we retire at the age of 35? Why 65? Or what’s to stop us from redefining the terms “retirement” or “work” or “play”? Why can’t work be play? Why can’t play be work? Why can’t life be work + play + do nothing in particular at all in equal measures? And why are we so scared of leisure?

Why can’t we build our life around… life, as opposed to building it around work? Think about it – if your life is at the center, as it should be, then work becomes just one component, along with all the other things that matter – your relationships, your hobbies, your travels, etc. Wouldn’t that be absolutely cool?

Then instead of blindly heading to work and coming home every day, seeing your bank account increase by a fixed amount every month, by putting your life at the center, you force yourself to constantly think about what matters, how you want to live, and what makes a good life. Then when you are able to attempt to put all these philosophical meditations into real-life action, you begin to live an embodied life, not one where half of your life happens only inside of your head.

Since I dropped out of university 11 years ago, I have pondered and wrestled with the following question. It’s a very thorny question and is at the heart of life itself. How do I get to live life the way I want to live life, without being sucked into the machinations of society?

I haven’t figured everything out, but in my mess, I feel like I have succeeded somewhat in proving my own thesis – at the very least to myself – that it’s possible to live life with some degree of freedom. Of course, that’s because “freedom” is something I value a lot. You might not value it as much as I do, so the shape of your life is probably going to look very different from mine.

But the point is, we must individually overcome the fixed ideas we have been burdened with by society since our birth, whenever it makes sense. And we must find our own true north through this laborious process. It is in this questioning and through years of trial and error (which means we must go out and try doing things at the risk of failing at them) before we can slowly create a life whose shape is pleasing and satisfying. That’s when you can begin to know what the center of your life even looks like.

And – in a more practical sense – we must learn to want less, lest we get strangled by the money monster.

And maybe, just maybe, we can then die without too many regrets.

Isn’t that what life is all about at the end of the day, this eternal struggle to find your own comfortable place in the world?

Too positive?

A friend told me that she finds my writing “too positive”, and the moment she said that, I kind of got what she meant.

Looking back at the articles I have written, I get how there just might be a tad too much “life is good and everything is going to be alright” sort of vibe to my writing.

So I feel the need to put out a disclaimer today: I am not happy all the time, and life is not all rainbow and fluffy clouds for me 24/7 (and no, I am emphathically not a unicorn).

Perhaps I just need to be a better writer so I can more fully express not just the brightness of life, but also its shadows and its dark corners.

But my friend’s comment made me think.

While it is true that I have bad days and sometimes horrible days, it is also true that generally, I see the world in a positive light.

I have my fears and worries and insecurities and sadness, but at my deepest core, I know that there is always a way out of my suffering.

It’s this conviction that has led me to work at trying to understand what it takes to be “truly happy”. If I didn’t believe that such a thing were possible, I would not have continued to search for it.

And yet I don’t know where this faith or confidence comes from.

Could it be that I was born positive? And if it were only a matter of genetics, then aren’t those who are born negative doomed to a life of darkness?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but maybe science can offer us some insight.

Matthieu Ricard is a Tibetan Buddhist monk who is known as “the world’s happiest man” (although he dislikes the title). He earned this title after a 12-year scientific study, during which he was hooked up to fMRI machines while he meditated.

His brain scans showed that whenever he was meditating, areas of his brain would light up with excessive activity, as compared to a normal person. These areas are usually linked to happiness “and a reduced propensity towards negativity”.

Years of skillful meditation have altered his brain and made him experience greater happiness.

In “The Joy of Living”, Buddhist monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche describes what it takes for our brains to create thoughts or memories: Neurons (a specialized nerve cell in our brain) transmitting electro-chemical signals to one another. Every time neurons connect, they form “a bond very much like old friendships”. The more they connect, the stronger the bond.

So if I grew up in a broken family where my parents were always quarrelling, everytime they fought, the same signals would be passed from one neuron to the other. Over time, the bonds between these neurons would be so strong that any small thing would trigger these bad memories of my childhood. It is very likely then that I would grow up with a propensity towards more negative thoughts.

This is basically what is known as neuroplasticity, which is the scientific consensus that our brains are not static, and that they can change over our lifetime.

What this implicates is huge.

If our brains have the plasticity to change for the worse (i.e. childhood experiences leading to a more negative personality), then it means our brains also have the plasticity to grow towards greater happiness.

Maybe it is an uphill task by the time we try to change our brains as adults, but I still think it is worth a try.

To end this article, I must say, I do get sick of saying/typing the word “happiness” over and over again. I don’t even like that word much, because it’s so vague. What does it mean when someone says she is happy? Can we be sure that what she is feeling is true happiness?

“Happiness” as a word has lost its meaning because we have over-used it, or we have misunderstood it.

For me, happiness is not just a mood, but a kind of peace and non-resistance that sometimes has nothing to do with merely pleasant feelings. Happiness, to me, is also the full acceptance of all my emotions, whether good or bad. It is the result of constant honest self-reflection, constant self-discovery, and the growing ability to see life for what it truly is. It is, finally, the taking off of my mask that I have put on all my life, and now, in my nakedness, I am finally free to be myself, warts and all.

It is truly a life-long journey of self-education.

So what is happiness to you? What have you done to achieve it? And are you happy now?

I would love to hear from you.

Downsizing

My life keeps getting smaller these days. Just today I got rid of a calendar, a photo-holder and a book whose author I no longer hold in high regard. Every day I feel the urge to get rid of a few more things in my life.

In fact, I want to do it until I am left with only the things I need. The essential things. It’s a high ideal, and one that requires constant mindfulness. After all, it’s easy to think that we need an extra pair of scissors at home, when the truth is we can survive just as well on one (true story: I have two pairs of scissors in my kitchen and I can’t make myself get rid of one of them. Yet.)

But I have been getting better at getting rid of a whole bunch of other things – clothes I don’t like, decorative pieces around the home that don’t quite spark joy, random things I bought from my travels overseas.

I’m not quite a minimalist yet but you can definitely say that I aspire towards being one, or at least have the inclination of one.

Although, I have to say, I used to really enjoy buying things.

I have tasted what I thought was true happiness when I walked into a store and bought an iPad mini on the spot. Or when I was buying a $1,000 bicycle just one day after the thought of buying a bicycle drifted into my head. (I have barely used both the iPad mini and the bicycle since. The joy of buying both of them wore off in less than a few days after the purchase.)

It used to be that I would walk into a mall and think of things to buy (not that I needed anything in particular). I’d feel my body awash with the pleasure of the anticipation of spending money on something, anything. It was almost primal. Nowadays, sometimes, when I have had a long day, I find myself dropping back naturally into the habit of wanting to walk into a mall and look for things to buy, but I have learned to dismiss the thought.

(Actually, now I sometimes feel not just zero urge to buy things but a slight discomfort at the number of things that are on sale in a mall. Imagine the amount of resources it must take to produce all these things.)

As time went by, I began slowly to suspect that my things were a barrier towards more happiness in my life. Firstly, I was spending so much money on them, money I could have invested or saved. Secondly, even though I owned all these things, I never did learn to savour each of them. I would buy something and move on to the next thing or gadget I wanted to buy (I was always looking out for the next version of Kindle, for example).

So I began the process of wanting not just to buy fewer things and save more money, but also to look deeply into why I wanted to do this. And I realized it was because I wanted to have the opportunity to see clearly, for myself, what are the truly important things in my life.

These days I make myself own one pair of sandals, one pair of sneakers, and one pair of track shoes. One for every possible occasion. I like all of them, and I don’t question any more if my footwear fits my outfit – my sandals are black and my sneakers are white, so they fit almost anything!

I also got rid of my Spotify and New York Times subscriptions (and a bunch of other superfluous subscriptions I signed up for on a whim), deleted Uber off my phone (saving Grab for the really dire moments when I absolutely need to pay $20 to get a ride home, as opposed to less than $3 if I take the train home), trimmed down my insurance policies, cut my spending on books by 90%, stopped buying new clothes, etc.

In the last year I have managed to save quite a lot of money, way more than I have ever saved throughout my entire life. Having saved this much money means I now have the freedom to ride out the tough times of my freelance career if it ever comes to that, start a side business, or even better, not work for awhile if I want to, without having to worry about money issues at all.

Also, I don’t spend precious time battling my craving to shop online anymore, nor do I waste time researching on the best, for example, wallet or bag to buy. I’m happy enough with the wallet and the bag that I already own.

That’s the beauty of being a more minimalist lifestyle – you learn to enjoy and savour what you already have.

Freedom and time – now those are things that are truly important to me.

As I said, I am merely an aspiring minimalist. I don’t live in a clutter-free home yet (although I try to keep my living room neat, my store-room and study room are still piled with clutter that I hope to clear some day).

But I don’t think there’s any turning back. I have enjoyed the benefits of buying and owning fewer things too much to morph back into a maximalist again.

And I certainly hope to one day live in a home as cool and awesomely minimalist as this guy’s 😉