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 😉

Crafting a life that matters

All of last year I had a meaning crisis. I was shooting a lot and working with a lot of cool companies and brands, but I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing.

Things felt hollow, devoid of significance. True, I was earning money doing what I enjoy doing, I was self-employed, I didn’t have to work for a boss in an office, I had a lot of freedom to go wherever I want and whenever I want – these are all things I’d worked very hard to achieve over the last decade (yes, decade!).

But now that I’d “arrived” (not that it’s some big accomplishment, but it was a destination I’d dreamed of for awhile), I started asking myself, “So what?” And of course, “What’s next?”

At first, I wondered if this was a matter of me being never satisfied, of not knowing how to appreciate the here and the now. Perhaps it was just me wanting to be, as usual, somewhere else.

I was troubled.

I discussed this existential crisis with my friends and my family and then one day my sister said to me, “But what you do matter! The photos you took for me elevated my brand and helped me reach out to more people. Even though you don’t think that you are helping people with what you do, you are. You helped a small brand become more visible and allowed me to help more people lead a healthier life, and that’s something.”

(For those who don’t know, my sister runs the cold-pressed juice company Antidote.)

I’d never thought of things that way.

And then I realized something: For the last 10 years, all my efforts had been directed at achieving things for myself. I had spent years and years being introspective and asking myself:

“What do I really like to do?”

“What do I really want to become?”

“What will really make me happy?”

These are not bad questions to ask myself at all – in fact these were the very questions that led me to building a career with all the elements that I originally yearned for – freedom, money, enjoyment.

But it was all me, me, me.

I’d never actually thought of my work in terms of helping other people.

I had spent, on the contrary, a lot of time thinking about how to help myself: How to have more clients, how to have a better portfolio, how to get the attention of the brands I love so I could get commissioned by them to work on new projects, but I hadn’t focused on helping people.

In a book I’m reading now – “The Power of Meaning” – the author writes memorably about a group of people who devote their lives not to personal happiness but to a meaningful life that has, at its foundation, a service mindset:

“Though the darvishes led seemingly normal lives as lawyers, construction workers, engineers, and parents, they adopted a meaning mindset that imbued everything they did with significance – whether it was helping to clean up a dinner spread or singing the poetry of Rumi and Attar and living by its wisdom. For the darvishes, the pursuit of personal happiness was completely beside the point. Rather, they focused constantly on how they could make themselves useful to others, how they could help other people feel happier and more whole, and how they could connect to something larger. They crafted lives that mattered – which leaves just one question for the rest of us: How can we do the same?”

Nowadays, I too try to imbue everything I do with a service mindset. It’s not an easy thing to do for a person like myself who has been, all along, so self-centred about achieving and realizing my own goals, my own dreams, my own desires.

Looking outwards and trying to make other people’s lives better through my work as a photographer gives new meaning to what I do, and lifts me out of the sense of futility and purposelessness I’d been feeling over the last year.

It’s an ongoing process where I learn to put others ahead of myself (it’s truly not quite as easy I’d imagined).

And this spills over, naturally, to my personal life as well, where I have discovered just how important it is for me to be a better, kinder and more giving friend, sister, daughter and partner.

Living a life where I put others before me also means having the courage to make commitments. Being so obsessed with freedom, I have been actively shunning making new commitments for a long time, not wanting to be tied down to any project or any community.

But yesterday I met with a few new friends from the mindfulness retreat I attended a couple of weeks ago.

We had gathered to discuss coming together to build a mindfulness community made up of young people in Singapore, as part of the Wake Up movement inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh. The conclusion, at the end of our meeting, was to meet weekly as a group and eventually organise regular events, like a Day of Mindfulness, to reach out to more young people and help bring to them the joy, happiness and peace that can be the result of a mindfulness practice.

Leaving the meeting, I was both inspired by and in awe of my new friends – many of them don’t just talk about being compassionate but really walk the talk by already being involved in organizations that advocate for animals and tackle climate change; one of them has accompanied a doctor on trips overseas where they operate on children with cleft palates, and another has pledged to give 10% of his income to charity for life.

These are people who not just talk about putting others before them, but live this principle out through their own lives.

I have a lot to learn from them.

Lazy Day

In Plum Village, the mindfulness practice centre and monastery founded by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, one day a week is designated as Lazy Day, where everyone practices being, rather than doing.

On Lazy Day, there are no scheduled tasks, no one has to do anything, and the day is allowed to unfold naturally and with ease.

As a former, recovering workaholic, I love the idea of a Lazy Day so much. And I love, even more, the idea that it’s okay to sometimes do nothing in a world that has fallen in love with the notion of being busy all the freaking time.

At one point in my life, I thought work was everything. I was a productivity addict, addicted to the high of optimizing my days. And I worked and worked, all the time. I thought I was happy, but the truth is I was scared to death.

I was worried that if I stopped working I would find less success in life. And then life would be a disaster.

Then I almost had a burnout last year. That was when I decided to take two months off. During that period I found myself living in Taiwan for a month, in a hostel with many young people from all around the world.

I remember one of them was an American who woke up very early every day to meditate. He would then spend the rest of the day doing nothing but wander around Taipei admiring the city’s architecture. I asked him why he did that, and he said it was because he wanted to. It was as simple as that.

Every night, a bunch of us would gather aimlessly at the hostel’s living room to talk about random things. Someone would bake a cake and leave it on the table for everyone to share. We never had to fix a time to meet; everyone just wandered into the living room whenever they wanted to.

Sometimes we would spend an entire evening just sitting there, eating, chatting, doing nothing of much consequence.

There was no agenda, no project, no goal, but yet it felt nourishing to the soul.

There is a Plum Village song that goes like this:

“Happiness is here and now,
I have dropped my worries,
Nowhere to go,
Nothing to do,
No longer in a hurry.

Happiness is here and now,
I have dropped my worries,
Somewhere to go,
Something to do,
But I don’t need to hurry.”

That month in Taiwan taught me a lot about how to be happy doing nothing.

At the mindfulness retreat I just went to, time also lost its meaning there. We had a schedule to follow, but there was often ample time in between the activities. One morning, after eating breakfast by the sea, I even fell asleep under a tree. When I woke up, groups of other retreatants were still near me, talking and enjoying each other’s company and the breeze from the sea. It was magical.

And amazingly enough, even though I wasn’t replying to my emails or working during the retreat, the world didn’t end. In fact, to me, the world sparkled and glowed. In each present moment, I found something beautiful to live for (the early morning light, the bowl of porridge I was eating, or a kindred moment with a new friend), something that had nothing to do at all with my future success, or my future happiness.

Back in the real world, it’s a little hard to do nothing all the time. We are all so busy, and we all have responsibilities. That’s why I enjoy the idea of designating a Lazy Day, to remind us that it’s okay not to be buzzing around doing things all the time.

If you want to take it a little further, you can also spend your Lazy Day practicing mindfulness throughout the day. When you eat, only eat. Eat slowly and in silence, chewing each mouthful at least 30 times. When you wash dishes, only wash dishes. When you are with your loved one, only be with your loved one. Keep your phone away. Quit social media for a day. And remember, do nothing and let the day unfold naturally and easily.

Lazy Day is also an effortless day. No struggling, no striving, just being.

If a Lazy Day like this isn’t refreshing and nourishing, I don’t know what is 😉

Practice your way to happiness: 5 things I learned from attending a mindfulness retreat

I recently spent 4 days at a mindfulness retreat, waking up at 5am every day to meditate, eat in silence and walk mindfully.

I had no idea what to expect from such a retreat, but now that I have come out the other end, it’s safe to say that it’s one of the most inspiring and moving experiences I have ever had.

We human beings suffer. A lot. We also find it extremely hard to be happy and contented.

Mindfulness is the art of being fully present and awake to each ongoing moment. By being fully present, you will be able to taste the joy and sweetness of each moment in life. It is, when practiced, a powerful way to end individual suffering, and can lead to an enduring, deeply rooted happiness.

Sounds miraculous? I thought so too.

One day, sitting by the sea and eating dinner with the monk attached to our group, I asked, “Brother (the monks and nuns leading the retreat are all addressed as brothers and sisters), are you allowed to read books about subjects other than Buddhism? If so, what do you like to read?”

The monk smiled at me and replied, “Yes, we are allowed to read everything and anything after we become a more senior monk. I like to read about science, especially physics, and psychology. I also keep updated on the news. Do you know? Science is also now very interested in the positive effects of mindfulness.”

For me, that was a clear sign of what I already know to be true, which is that Buddhism is not simply a religion but a spiritual path tempered by inquiry, rationality, experimentation, intellectual openness, scientific soundness and psychological insight. Talking to the monk, I came to an understanding that he is on this spiritual path because it can be and has been demonstrated by science to be an effective way for human beings to truly understand their own minds and achieve true happiness.

As you already know, I don’t think it is possible (or desirable) to be a successful creative or entrepreneur without also being a happy human being. It is my personal belief that it’s healthier to create from a joyful place. The practice of mindfulness, I believe, will allow us to do better work and to do work that is better for the world.

Here are some of the practices I did during the retreat that gave me a glimpse into the powerful results of mindfulness. In those short few days, these practices had brought much joy and happiness to me. I hope to continue to practice in daily life (that, of course, is the hard part, but I am going to try). Over time, I believe the practice of mindfulness will transform my life.

1. Waking up at 5am every day

During the retreat, activities typically ended around 8 or 9pm. Lights out was at 10pm. I don’t usually sleep early, so this was a challenge for me. But I did manage to fall asleep around 11 or 12am every day, and thankfully, I also managed to wake up at 5am every day.

I thought I would hate it, but this turned out to be one of my favorite practices. The first thing we did after washing up was to sit in the meditation hall in silence. By 5.30am, about a hundred people would be there, sitting silently in a hall, surrendering themselves to the present moment.

It was wonderful and kind of awe-inspiring.

How to practice this in daily life: Waking up early is something I have tried and failed to do repeatedly. I want to wake up early because I genuinely enjoy early mornings – the cool silence, the world only slightly rousing, most people still deep in sleep, with hours of quiet moments still ahead of me. But it has been difficult to achieve for me.

The retreat has, thankfully, slightly reset my inner clock, and I hope to continue to wake up at 5am every day, and to spend those early morning hours in quiet contemplation or in sitting or walking meditation (see below), so that I can start the rest of the day with a clear and peaceful mind.

2. Walking meditation

Walking meditation was fun, but only if you don’t mind weird looks by people who pass you by in the park. When doing walking meditation, you are to walk slowly in accordance to your breath (you might look a little like a zombie, or a zombie who walks really slowly, so to prevent looking like an unfriendly zombie, remember to smile a little while walking so that you look like a friendly zombie).

We were guided to take about 2 steps for every in breath, and 3 steps for every out breath. But it’s up to you, really. While walking, simply be aware that you are breathing in and breathing out. When thoughts inevitably arise, let them. View them with no judgement. Soon the thoughts will fade away on their own accord. But even if they don’t, it’s ok. Just be with them gently.

You may also look at your surroundings and marvel at the miraculous nature of the leaves, the trees, the sky, the clouds, and realize that you are here, now.

There is nowhere you need to go and nothing you need to do to be happy in the here and now.

How to practice this in daily life: You may do walking meditation after breakfast, which is what we did during the retreat. Since you are going to be walking quite slowly, the walk might take about 45 minutes to an hour. It might sound long, but the after effects include glowing in happiness and having a rather peaceful mind. I personally think it’s worth it.

3. Eating meditation

I have never cried in joy at eating a bowl of vegan food before until I attended this camp (true story), but yes, it happened. During one of the meals, one of the monks picked up his guitar and suddenly started singing a song about how the food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard and loving work.

It was achingly beautiful. I looked at my bowl of rice and vegetables and tofu and my eyes filled with tears.

Even though we ate our meals together in the hall, every meal was eaten in total silence. We were also encouraged to chew 30 times for each mouthful. Again, about a hundred people eating slowly in total silence and enjoying their very humble bowl of rice and vegetables – it was awe-inspiring (I’m going to use this phrase too many times in this article).

Before each meal began, one of the monks would read The Five Contemplations, reminding us to eat with gratitude, to recognize the food as a gift of the earth, to recognize our greed and to eat in moderation, and to keep our compassion alive by eating in a way that reduces the suffering of living beings, stops contributing to climate change, and heals and preserves our precious planet. You may see the full Five Contemplations here.

Eating with these reminders in mind, the food becomes transformed into something magical.

How to practice this in daily life: In my daily life, I usually eat my meals while I read or watch a video. Sometimes it’s because I want to optimize my time, and sometimes it’s because it’s just a habit – I have been eating and multi-tasking all my life. After coming back from the retreat, I have decided to eat my meals mindfully. I chew each mouthful slowly and when I eat, I don’t do anything else. No reading, no videos. Just me and the delicious food in front of me.

Also, one of the tenets of eating meditation is to eat with compassion, so as to reduce the suffering of fellow beings. That means eating a lot less meat, and if possible to become a vegetarian or a vegan. The latter is very difficult to achieve for me at the moment, but I am certainly going to drastically cut down on my meat consumption.

4. Working meditation

During the retreat, we were split into groups, and each group took turns to do “working meditation”. For us, that meant cleaning the food trays and washing basins, and clearing the food area. When you work with mindfulness, even something as simple as washing dishes becomes an act of meditation. You wash a dish with love and affection, as if you were bathing a baby. So an activity that you normally view with annoyance gets transformed into a nourishing and even enjoyable one.

How to practice this in daily life: At home, I am always annoyed at having to wash dishes, to change my sheets, to do my laundry. I have always viewed these chores as, well, a chore, something that takes up my precious time that could be better used for working or creating or relaxing. But when you do working meditation, you transform your view of the work.

Now, cleaning dishes mindfully also means that you think of cleaning dishes as an essential activity that helps you to have nice, clean dishes, which you can use for your next meal. Doing chores around the house means you get to have a comfortable and clean house. By doing each chore lovingly, you get to enjoy the current moment and not waste the moment being unhappy and annoyed.

I am going to try that with my dishes later, haha.

5. Sitting meditation

Sitting meditation has a bad rep. For many people, it’s the world’s most boring thing to do. During the retreat, we often had to sit in meditation. Not just during the early morning meditation session, but also whenever they ring the mindfulness bell, or before our meals begin.

I was never bored. Whenever I had to do sitting meditation, I merely sat there and allowed my thoughts to arise. There was one morning when my back really ached – that was difficult, but not boring. I enjoyed being with my mind and watching my unruly and negative thoughts lose their power whenever I watched them with loving kindness.

It’s hard for me write about sitting meditation eloquently and intelligently, so I recommend reading books about it, and even better, practicing it yourself. Your experience will be a good teacher. Some good books to read includes Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever You Go, There You Are”, “The Miracle of Mindfulness” and “The Sun My Heart” by Thich Naht Hanh, and “10% Happier” by Dan Harris.

How to practice this in daily life: I don’t meditate enough. But after the retreat, I have a much deeper understanding of the beauty and power of meditation, and I have a renewed desire to let meditation become a daily part of my life. I suggest doing sitting meditation right after you wake up and before your walking meditation, but really, you can slot it in any part of your day. You can also meditate for any amount of time. For me, I am currently comfortable with about 30 minutes of meditation in the morning, and at night I meditate for a few minutes before I go to bed.

*
Mindfulness is something to be “practiced”. It is not merely a concept or an idea, and in fact, it is meaningless as a concept and as an idea. It is only when mindfulness is practiced that it creates the happiness and the joy and the peace that it promises and that we all yearn for.

My suggestion – also my reminder to myself – is to keep an open mind and an open heart, and to not just think about mindfulness intellectually but to practice it with my actions in my daily life.

That’s how I intend to do it.

*

If you are interested in the retreat I went to, visit the Plum Village website. Plum Village is a mindfulness practice centre founded by Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Naht Hanh.

They have practice centres in France, Thailand, Hong Kong, New York, California, etc. The locations are all beautiful and near nature. You practice together with the monks and nuns.

Why write?

Writing sucks (or at least the act of writing does), but I keep doing it anyway.

Didn’t the writer Dorothy Parker once say, “I hate writing, I love having written”?

She’s a total kindred spirit.

Writing is painful and torturous, but if you are like me, and Parker, you understand the bizarre satisfaction and joy of having written, of having produced words that somehow bring shape to your thoughts and help you build a more solid identity in this sometimes fluid world, in which we are so often lost.

Somehow, writing makes me feel more like a person. Or maybe I am already a person, but now I feel like I have told my story, and therefore I am better connected to the larger world outside of me.

In other words, I feel less alone.

Ever since I started writing regularly on my blog, I have also had a few friends come up to me telling me about how they too would love to start writing or to write more.

I do think there is something visceral about writing that draws a certain group of people irresistibly to it. And there’s no denying that in many people, there is this deep need to at least make some kind of noise, so that the world knows of their existence, and then they can feel like they have lived as a main character in this bizarre story of life instead of having just floated past, like a ghost.

I am of course talking about myself.

Crucially, I also have come to see how necessary writing has become in my growth as both a creative and a human being.

And despite the self-doubt (do my thoughts matter?) and the insecurity (who is even reading this?) and the lack of confidence (maybe I should leave the writing to people who are smarter than me!), I feel more and more certain that writing is something I need to do.

And certainly, starting to write regularly has been one of the best things I have done for myself in 2017.

Not only that, I have a strong feeling that writing consistently will pay off in more ways than I can imagine. How, I have no idea yet.

For now, I soldier on.

During my short blogging hiatus recently, I have had a lot of time to rethink my reasons for writing. Here are some of them.


Writing to learn

I’m a learning geek/nerd, and the best way to learn is to teach others. Some people like to learn the French language or American history or astronomy; I like to learn about how to live life to my fullest potential, and how to find true peace and happiness and meaning in my life. When I write about what I have learned – either through the experiences I have had in my own life or through books I have read – my learning solidifies, deepens, becomes a more permanent part of me. (Plus I have such a bad memory, so writing helps me to remember more of my life than my memory is capable of doing…)


Writing to understand myself

Self-knowledge is key. It is true that sometimes even I don’t know who I am or the reasons behind why I do the things I do. When I write, I open a door into a deeper part of myself. And if I give myself the opportunity to write honestly, without garnishing or covering up, then I also give myself the chance to see myself for who I am. And truly, I think, genuine self-understanding is the path to greater meaning and happiness, because if we don’t know who we are, how can we begin to contemplate how we want to live in this world, or what kind of a life is worth living? These are questions no one can answer except ourselves. And we must start to answer these questions by looking at ourselves honestly, even if it hurts.


Writing to organize my thoughts better

I’m not a good talker. It’s always hard for me to adequately express what’s in my head when I talk, because unlike writing, I cannot sit down and edit and re-edit and organize and re-organize, which is what I do with my writing. Writing allows me to sort through my thoughts and imbue them with some kind of coherence and clarity. I also sound slightly smarter when I write =]


Writing to help and inspire

I can’t tell you how many times an article or a book or even a single sentence has helped pull me out of a rut or shine a light through the cracks exactly when I needed it. My personal experience tells me that it is important for people to share their knowledge openly and generously, and writing is a great medium for that. Who knows when you can save a life with just one sentence in one entry on your tiny obscure blog that is read only by 20 people on most days? For me, if I can just make one person’s day brighter, I already have a good enough reason to write.


Writing to build a community

Ever since I started writing, I have been getting emails and comments and messages from total strangers. They write me to tell me that they are on a similar path to living life on their own terms, or that they have a similar view towards life, or that they appreciate that I have written about my struggles, since they share the same struggles, and I realize: Wow, we are all part of an invisible tribe. As virtual as this tribe is, it is nevertheless real.


Writing because it is hard

A part of me is stubborn and enjoys challenges a little too much. Writing is challenging. Writing one article a week is even more challenging. But I want to do it anyway because sometimes it’s fun to do things that are hard. And it’s also rewarding, because the harder it is to write, the better I am going to be as a writer as time goes by. It’s like going to the gym, only I am growing writing/thinking muscles rather than actual muscles.


Writing because I enjoy writing

I know I already said that I find writing to be a rather painful affair, yet it’s also true that I enjoy writing. On good days, the words flow. They come tumbling out of me. Writing becomes easy. But even on days when writing is tough, I do still enjoy doing it. I can’t really explain why, except that maybe it’s… true love?

Create

Everything matters.

One night, when I was 18, I hopped on a cab and fell in love with a song that was playing on the radio. I don’t remember the song title anymore but it changed my life. I became obsessed with music overnight. Suddenly my references were not writers anymore but musicians and singers and bands like Joni Mitchell and Chet Baker and Radiohead and Janis Ian.

I say it changed my life because it was just one song, but it planted in me a new desire to do something more with my life. Suddenly I saw that there was more to life than the well-planned path that lay ahead of me – doing well at my A Levels, going to a good university, successfully graduating, getting a good job, etc.

Now I thought to myself, maybe there are other options in life… Perhaps I could be a music producer? A band manager? Or something I have never even thought of before!

I began to dream.

And my life split and changed accordingly. (That night when I heard the song was the seed that led to me dropping out of university, starting a cafe, etc. And then here I am today. Now you know what I meant when I said it changed my life?)

Then there was that one time around the same period when I was on a travel forum and I saw post after post about people who had given up everything they possessed to travel all over the world, or people who had been on the road for years. I didn’t know it was possible to do both of these things.

My worldview widened again.

So many books and songs and articles have changed or affected the way I look at life. Or sometimes it’s just one sentence in a goddamn online forum. But they all have made me see new possibilities, feel less alone, or more able to live in this world.

These people who create things – some famous, some anonymous – come from all over the world. They are you and me and everyone in between, really. They all write books or sing songs or make art or direct films and put them out there without knowing that their work would one day alter the life of some random stranger halfway across the globe.

Everything we create matters.

Sometimes we don’t know why we do what we do. Sometimes we don’t know how to go on creating. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like anything is worth working on. 

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing or taking a photograph because I can no longer remember what’s the point of doing anything at all.

I mean, who cares?

But then I remember that it’s happened multiple times in my life before, where something someone created – no matter how seemingly insignificant or obscure – has nudged me towards a better direction in life.

We must then always remind ourselves that maybe someday, halfway across the globe, some random person out there will stumble across our song or our poem or our illustration or our product or our short film and that thing will change – or even better, save – his or her life.

And that will be kind of enough.

We are all inter-connected, in more ways than we can understand.

And so I keep creating.

A list of life-altering books


Reading in Budapest… Good days! (Photo by my friend Camilia.)

I am a nerd. A big one. (As big as they come.)

What that means is that I read a lot.

When I am anxious, I read. When I am sad, I read. When I am confused, I read. When I feel like there is no hope left in this world, I read.

It is one of the core beliefs in my life that a book can save lives.

And it probably has saved my life, in more ways than I can imagine.

Here are some of the books I have read over the last few years that have shaped my thinking, altered my path, brightened my days, and made my life better.

I’m sharing them with you in the hopes that they might play the same role in your life.


Working well

4 Hour Work Week – Timothy Ferriss

I have always had different ideas about “work” and what it really means.

This book confirms my thesis.

I read this book on the plane and got whipped into such a frenzy I wanted to get off the plane immediately so I could start changing my life already, simply because Ferriss is such a motivating writer.

Not only that, he also really lives what he writes.

If you are hoping to get out of the rat race and build a life doing your own thing, this is one of the books you must read.

Think of it as essential reading for the “How to Get Out of the Rat Race and Live a Great Life 101” course that never existed back when we were in school (how we needed such a course!).


The One Thing – Gary Keller

One of the best books I have ever read on productivity. More than that, it goes right to the heart of how to live a good life. As an aspiring minimalist, I’m enamored with Keller’s almost zen-like, minimalist philosophy of the ONE Thing.

“What is the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

Stop doing what’s unnecessary and focus on doing what’s necessary, and you will be able to achieve 80% of your desired results with just 20% of your effort – that’s the central premise of this book.

In other words, FOCUS on the things that matter.

This is something I’m trying to out into practice in my life right now.


Anything You Want – Derek Sivers

I read this short book in one sitting in the library (yes I couldn’t even make it out the doors of the library without devouring it).

This book houses Sivers’ thoughts on what it takes to build a successful business in a human, uncorporate way.

One of his key ideas is that you should build a business that people are begging you to start.

Just this idea itself is enough food for thought for a long time.

It made me ask myself: What can I offer this world that people are already asking me to do for them? (It turns out that photography is one of them. So it seems like I am on the right path.)


Money

The Simple Path to Wealth – J L Collins

Money has become one of my pet topics.

From being disdainful of money to realizing its utter importance, I have come a long way. Books have been a huge part of my financial re-education (apart from the Internet).

There are a lot of books about money – and I have read quite a few – but very few are as heartfelt and easy to read (and understand) as this.

Collins’ advice is as old as time.

Read it, digest it, live it, and instead of being money’s slave – which most of us have become – you will learn to make money work for you.


Emotional well-being

At Last A Life – Paul David

If you suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, and you have tried everything and nothing has worked, please give this book a read.

I suffered from serious anxiety and frequent panic attacks some years ago. I made no real progress in recovering from it no matter what I did.

Until I read Paul David’s writing.

He also suffered from anxiety for 10 years until he stumbled into his own recovery.

I don’t want to paraphrase him – I’m worried that I won’t be able to express his ideas well – so go and read this book. You can also visit his website, which has plenty of information as well.

This is one of those moments when I can actually say, “this book saved my life”.


Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig

Matt Haig was so deeply depressed he almost killed himself.

But he didn’t.

He went on to live and write this book, that has in turn helped so many other people who almost, but didn’t, kill themselves.

This book always reminds me of the power and beauty of words to help change people’s lives.

And this book also is an ode to hope.

I loved it so much I gifted it to a friend who I thought needed it.

I hope you love it too.



Life lessons

Around the World in Eighty Days – Jules Verne

I really, really, really love this book and have a huge soft spot for it.

I first read it when I was maybe 12. It was nuts – I spent the whole night feverishly flipping the pages, lost in the story. Then I reread it many years later when I was maybe 25. I thought the story would lose its magic. But it didn’t.

This book imparts a sense of adventure and an appetite for life that is so vivid, it makes you want to hop on a train or a ship as well and see the world for yourself.

I also think this book is about passion and doing and dreaming.

I won’t go on and on – go and read and experience this book yourself.


Man’s Search for Meaning – Victor E. Frankl

A book that cannot be written about lightly.

A book that must be treated with respect, since it was a book that was written with great respect.

An honorable book.

About life. About suffering. About joy. About joy in the midst of life’s suffering.

I will come back to this book again and again throughout my life, hoping to learn and relearn its lessons.


Enjoy Every Sandwich – Lee Lipsenthal

Lee Lipsenthal loved life, even when he was dying.

Somehow, with a cancer diagnosis, and while facing down the throat of mortality, he was able to find light and joy and happiness and peace and humor.

He is my role model, and I hope to be like him when it comes to my turn to face death.

Also, this book has such a beautiful cover – one of my favorites.

I gave away my copy but I will buy one again for my library. It deserves a place on my shelf (and a re-read every few years).



Mindfulness & meditation

The Long Road Turns to Joy – Thich Naht Hanh

Thich Naht Hanh is a Vietnamese monk whose writing has deeply influenced me.

His voice is a balm and a calming presence in a noisy, sometimes scary world.

Any book of his is worth reading, but I particularly enjoyed this book because I also enjoy walking.

It is a most wonderful experience walking with his words in mind.

Try it.


10% Happier – Dan Harris

Meditation is hard.

Knowing how to even start meditating is even harder.

This book by Dan Harris (who suffered a meltdown on national TV and who later found great peace through meditation) demystifies meditation and successfully explains – or at least this book finally made me successfully understand – what meditation is and how I can start to meditate effectively.

Even if you hate airy fairy things like meditation, but want to have a quieter, more peaceful mind, give this book a read. You might be pleasantly surprised.


Writing

On Writing Well – William Zinsser

If you want to become a better writer, read this book.

It has never been particularly fun to read about writing, but Zinsser is such a good writer he makes a book about writing interesting, even unputdownable (how I love this word).

I have made it my personal mission to read all of Zinsser’s books. That’s how much I love him.


In closing…

I don’t know what I would do if books didn’t exist in this world.

In my darkest moments, books have been there, pouring light through the cracks.

Books have been a kind of true north for me.

They have been a friend, a teacher, a guide.

I sincerely hope that you too can discover the joy of being a life-long reader.

And the prime joy being… the discovery of an answer written in a book, to a question that is hidden in your heart.

Happy reading, my friends!

Be really good at one thing


Ivan Orkin in culinary school. I love this photo.

I love watching Chef’s Table on Netflix.

I love seeing how just one thing – cooking – can become the source of so much joy, frustration, achievement, failure. In other words, an entire universe.

For many (if not all) of these chefs, cooking is something upon which they build their entire lives.

In the recent episode I watched, ramen chef Ivan Orkin had a difficult childhood. As a kid, no one expected much of him. He drifted until, one day, he became obsessed with… ramen. This obsession was pivotal because it led to him unlocking the discipline and focus that were previously missing in his life. He later opened his own ramen shop in Japan and gained success as being “one of the best ramen makers on the planet”.

Just this one thing – cooking ramen well – has transformed Orkin’s life.

So, this week’s food for thought: Instead of wanting to do or be many things, why not work at becoming really good – single-mindedly good – at one thing?

Why not be an expert at writing about food (and only food)? Why not be so good at teaching cycling that you are at the top of people’s mind whenever anyone wants to learn to ride a bike?

Once you can be known for being good at one thing, this one thing can then become a platform, a stepping board, to other things.

What’s your one thing?

How not to have a full-time job ever again

The rat race sucks. It really does. Especially if you desperately don’t want to be in it.

Don’t make the mistake though of thinking you can never get out of it. You can – if you want it enough.

I don’t have a full-time job and haven’t had one in the last 10 years (except for 6 months in 2009, when I got a 9-5 job so I could test whether I was indeed allergic to it. It turned out that I was!).

I don’t ever intend to have one again.

My life goal is to always make a living on my own terms.

When I first started out on this whole “no full-time job for me” journey, I remember thinking to myself, “By hook or by crook, I am going to make this happen.”

And so it has. Today, I make a living by selling my creativity as a freelance photographer. Companies and brands pay me to take photographs for them, which they then use to sell their products.

The main perk of making a living on my own terms is FREEDOM.

Freedom to wake up anytime I want (on non-photoshoot days, at least), travel whenever I want (since I make my own schedule); freedom to work from home, or indeed anywhere at all; freedom to chart my own path in life, etc.

It’s of course not always a fluffy life and comes with its challenges, but I accept them as a natural part of this freelance life. I am not bothered by its unpredictability, nor am I fazed by its ups and downs – I accept them as a just price to pay for this sweet freedom.


Step 0: Decide that you want this and commit to making it happen

If you are reading this article, I assume this is a life that you want.

But before you read on, I want to say: Only people with a never-say-die spirit need apply.

If you are prone to giving up and doing easy things for your short term happiness, and are not willing to work hard for your long term fulfillment and success, close this window now. This piece is not for you.

But if you are not the sort to give up easily, then welcome to the club! Welcome to a life of sweet freedom that is also peppered by hard work and seemingly-insurmountable obstacles. But ultimately – trust me – there is no other way to live.


Step 1: Cultivating the right success mindsets

(A) Congratulations. You have a never-say-die spirit. You are going to go far because you are not good at accepting things for what they are. You have a dream and you will fight to make it happen. You don’t saddle yourself down with excuses like, “Oh, it’s time to stop dreaming, not everyone is lucky enough to be able to quit their jobs and do what they like.”

(B) Newsflash: Every successful person is a dreamer. Jack Ma is a dreamer. Elon Musk is a dreamer. Steve Jobs was a dreamer. We can’t all be Jack Mas and Elon Musks, but if we don’t allow ourselves to dream, we won’t even have a fighting chance. (Elon Musk is dreaming of bringing us normal people to space in the next few decades. No one is a bigger dreamer than him these days!)

(C) It’s not just about luck. Luck is the least important ingredient in success. Luck is winning $2 million in the lottery, but success is knowing the right things to do with that $2 million. Many lottery winners are lucky – most of them don’t end up successful.

(D) Hard work can create luck. Persistence can create luck. Saying yes and grabbing on to opportunities can create luck. Learning from your failures can create luck.

(E) The world is indeed big and scary but there is always a place for you. It’s not about conquering the world. Most of us are not going to be tycoons and superstars, but we do have the ability to conquer a small corner, build a small following, and make that corner our own little universe. In that little universe we can thrive and make our own living and live our own good life. There is a reason why, in the world of cheap furniture via IKEA, a small furniture brand like TRUCK in Japan can have such a strong cult following and become such a successful business.

(F) Don’t live in an imaginary prison of limiting beliefs. Don’t lock yourself in with the rules of society and throw the key away. There is more than one way to live. For example, you don’t need expensive equipment to become a good photographer; a $1,000 setup can do the job if you are good enough. Nor do you need to spend five years slogging as a photographer’s assistant before you are qualified to strike out on your own. Yes, these can work for some photographers, but they are not hard rules. So feel free to reject everything people tell you about anything – that includes this article right here. The only rule I follow is this: there are no rules, and anything is possible.


Step 2: What skill can you sell?

Now we come to the practical side of things.

If you want to not have a full-time job ever again, you need to find a way to sell something in exchange for money.

In a way, that’s all to it. What can you sell that people are willing to buy?

Since we are talking about becoming a successful freelance creative, we are talking about, specifically, skills.

Are you good at photography? Writing? Design? Making short films? Creating beautiful origami? Making plush toys? Drawing? Designing WordPress themes?

You might not be able to figure it out by merely thinking. Go and try doing it. See if you actually like it. Experiment, fail, try again. Rinse and repeat until you find that one skill you can sell for money.

If you think you are not good at any particular skill, go and become good at one. Borrow library books, find videos on Youtube. The Internet revolution is also an educational revolution. Nowadays you can learn anything for free, as long as you want to.

Pro tip: Remember, the whole point of quitting your job to do this is to be happy. You are not going to be happy doing something you don’t like. So the convergence of both passion and skill is important (you can’t just do something you are good at but don’t like, and you can’t just do something you like but are not good at).


Step 3: Save a year of expenses and quit your damn job

Some people make the mistake of pursuing their dreams with $0 in their bank. Don’t do that.

Most of you probably have a job right now. Don’t quit immediately. Save your salary radically – save enough so you can afford not to work for a year, if possible. That gives you the buffer to try and make your freelance creative life happen. It will also help save you all the stress and anxiety and despair and grief of being broke.

Once you have some savings, I suggest quitting your job as soon as possible, because a job is only a distraction. People think they can build their side hustle at night and during the weekends. That’s a delusion (not for everyone, but for most people). It’s the reason why many people fail to make a living as a freelance creative – they simply don’t have the time and mental capacity to go all in and devote enough energy to making their freelance creative life happen.

Pro tip: Don’t wait too long to start. Don’t spend 10 years trying to save enough money. Remind yourself that it’s also going to take time to build up your freelance creative life, so the earlier you can start the better. Once you quit, you can take on part-time jobs for additional income. That’s fine since it only takes up a small part of your time – the majority of your time should be spent hustling.


Step 4: Be so good they can’t ignore you

Cal Newport has written a classic book on this topic, but even if you don’t want to read the book, the idea itself is enough to inspire.

Yes, as we will find out later, being good is not enough. There are a lot of talented people who languish in obscurity (that’s where marketing comes into the picture), but yet if you suck at your craft…

Then why even pursue your craft at all?

Half the pleasure of making a living doing what you love is being good at it.

Furthermore, if you are terribly good at your craft, you will experience the Apple Phenomenon – their products are so good and so desirable people practically beg to buy them.

Pro tip: You don’t have to be the best in the world. But you need to be good enough. In other words, you cannot suck.


Step 6: Infuse your personality into your craft

Authenticity has become a buzzword nowadays. But it has never gone out of style. Just as with everything, realness attracts. By being true to yourself, you show the world that you are your own person. My favorite people on the Internet (who are also very successful – not by chance) are all super honest, quirky, and real.

That’s what separates you from the crowd.

Tweet or blog or Instagram or write copy or sell yourself in YOUR voice.

Whatever you do, don’t be cookie-cutter.


Step 7: Market yourself

Marketing is not just social media marketing.

A design studio that spends a year working on a travel guide as a side project and wins awards for it is doing marketing. When I started the photo project “Creative People + Projects“, I was doing marketing. Marketing is basically you allowing the world to know that you exist, and that you are good at doing this thing that you do.

When all else fails, don’t forget to ask for what you want.


Step 8: Build a network of relationships

No man is an island, and no freelancer, especially, is an island.

It’s important to build a network of relevant relationships.

In my industry, the people who give me jobs are photo editors, art/creative directors, designers, etc. To make sure they know I exist, I must find a way to appear in front of them. For instance, many of these creative types read magazines like Monocle and Wallpaper*. I must then try to shoot for these magazines – that’s how I give them the chance to see my work.

What really helped my career was also doing my photo project “Creative People + Projects“. I got many jobs from photo editors or art directors who said they found me through that project. And that’s because it’s the kind of project that naturally attracts the attention of creative people like them.

The beauty of growing a network of relationships is that one person can recommend your work to three of their friends, and each of these three can introduce to three more. If your work is good, word-of-mouth alone can help your network to grow exponentially.

All freelance creatives depend on this network. Build a strong one and you will never starve.


Step 9: Offer your services at a premium

Many freelance creatives fail because they charge too little for their services. So they end up not being able to feed themselves.

If you charge $20/hour for your work, you will get clients who have a $20/hour budget. But if you charge $400/hour for your work, you will get clients who have a $400/hour budget. Work less for more money. But provide true value. (Don’t be a fraud.)


Step 10: Know when to give up

By giving up, I don’t mean giving up on the dream of making a living on your own terms. But if something (say, becoming a singer-songwriter) is not working out for you after years of trying your best, maybe it’s time to give it up and move on to something else.

Perhaps, because of your experience in music, you also turn out to be a good producer. So now, instead of making your own music, you help other people produce their music, and in turn you get to earn a living and still be close to music.

This might actually allow you to find some unexpected happiness and fulfillment. (It’s not always about doing what you love – sometimes it’s about balancing doing something you kind of love with financial stability with a sense of purpose).


Step 11: Have no backup plan

Have no backup plan. Don’t tell yourself, “If I fail, I can always get another job.” No, you are not going to fail. And no, you are not going to get another job (because you will only be the same kind of miserable as you were the last time).

You are going to make it happen, no matter what.

Only when you have no backup plan will you not be tempted to fall back on it, and only then will you be literally forced into becoming successful (since your survival depends on it).

Take the example of Mark Wiens, the founder of the super popular Thai food blog eatingthaifood.com:

“… English teaching was not for me (it was a great experience, but teaching English is just not my passion).

But during that year, I set a personal goal that I would never teach again, and that I would find a way to make a living on the internet, so I could travel (and eat) and earn money at the same time.

It wasn’t easy.

Every spare moment I would blog and sit glued in front of my laptop until my eyes went crazy.

It took about 3 years of online work and experimenting before I really started making enough to live fully and support anyone other than myself.

But when you have a goal you’re working towards, you’ll do what it takes to get there.”

He didn’t stop until he made it happen.


Step 12: HAVE FUN!

To quit the rat race and make a living doing what you enjoy is more than just about not having to commute to work and being able to wake up anytime you want.

If you go deeper, it’s about living life to your full potential, stretching yourself and becoming the person you know you are deep down inside. When you live in connection with this true part of yourself, a whole new world is unlocked.

Being able to do what you are meant to do is a hugely positive thing not just for yourself, but also for this world. When your talents and creative energies and purpose align, wonderful things happen. Again, not just for yourself, but also for this world.

Most people never get there.

Don’t be most people.

And while you are it, don’t forget to enjoy yourself!


In summary

This is only a rough guide. There is no way anyone can tell you how to get from Point A to your destination. Every individual must find his own way through the thicket of confusion and fear.

But this article is meant to give you a much-needed kick in your ass.

It’s meant to open a door and show you that hey, there is a whole new world behind this door.

Go and explore.

Don’t be afraid!

And then come back one day to tell us about your adventures.