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

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.

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.

Just walk

Walking is the simplest thing on earth. We never give a single conscious thought to it when we are doing it, but what if we did?

Last week I stumbled into reading a book about walking meditation by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh, and I loved it.

“Walking meditation is meditation while walking… When we practice this way, we feel deeply at ease… All our sorrows and anxieties drop away, and peace and joy fill our hearts. Anyone can do it. It takes only a little time, a little mindfulness, and the wish to be happy.” – The Long Road Turns to Joy, Thich Naht Hanh

After reading the book, I too decided to go for a walk, and not just any walk, but a mindful walk, like Thich Naht Hanh had described. I wanted to experience for myself what he meant by, “When we practice this way, we feel deeply at ease.”

The first thing I decided to do was to leave my phone at home. Usually I would jog with my phone so I can record my speed/distance with my running app, but with walking, I figured that there were no goals. I didn’t have a timing to hit or a distance to complete. All I needed to do was to walk. So I set off with nothing but my keys in my pocket.

I started my walk around 7.30pm. The day was turning to night very quickly, and I was surrounded by a nice blue hue. It was also a breezy night. Perfect.

When you are doing walking meditation, all you are supposed to do is to focus on walking. When thoughts inevitably arrive, your job is not to push them away but to acknowledge them without judging or identifying with them, and then to refocus your attention back on the walk. You do that over and over again (since thoughts will arise over and again over).

Now that is the practice of mindful walking – not just walking, but being fully aware that you are walking. It is the act of being fully present, which we are so terrible at in our normal lives (since we are always wanting to be doing something else, or wanting to be somewhere else).

On this first walk of mine, it was hard not to keep the thoughts coming. But I acknowledged them and tried not to attach my emotions to them. (It was not always successful, of course.) And since this was supposed to be a mindful walk, I put effort into noticing the sidewalk I was walking on, the grass field by the side of the road, the buildings in the distance.

I tried to be fully in the now.

As I walked I could feel my mind clearing. It was almost a physical sensation.

The best part was, ideas started coming to me . And here and there, solutions to some problems that I was ruminating on earlier in the day also arrived, half or fully-formed. It was almost like walking mindfully allowed the wiser, calmer part of my mind to come up to the surface.

Happiness flooded my veins. (Sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s true.)

When I got home and checked the time, what I thought was a 30-minute walk (since I didn’t bring both my phone and my watch) turned out to have taken more than an hour. Time just flew.

When I thought back on the walking session, I realized time flew because I was deeply in the moment. Yes, there were countless thoughts in my head that came and went, but my focus was on just… walking.

It was a therapeutic experience (and one of my more successful experiences at “meditating”).

This set me to thinking: why don’t we do this more often?

Walking is free, and everyone – except for those with mobility issues – can walk.

Same for mindfulness. Mindfulness is absolutely free, anyone can do it, and it’s potentially life-changing. So why don’t more people do it?


What is mindfulness?

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;
On purpose,
in the present moment, and
nonjudgmentally.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness is one of those things that seems to make sense but actually makes no sense to most people.

I have actually been interested in mindfulness and meditation for years (think of mindfulness as an idea, and meditation as a method to bring that idea to life), but it was only in recent months that I began to have a more concrete concept of what mindfulness really means. (I also had zero idea how to meditate until recently, when things started to click.)

Mindfulness is simply like what Jon Kabat-Zinn is quoted as saying above. Its central tenet is simply to pay conscious attention to the present moment, without judging the moment. Almost like you are watching a movie of your life as a third party.

How can something like that be useful? Skeptics ask (that includes some of you right now).

But advocates of mindfulness – and nowadays even science (and nowadays me) – propose that mindfulness has the ability to make people happier, less anxious, feel more alive.

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn (who has helped countless people – even those who are seriously ill or in their last dying days – find strength and happiness through the practice of mindfulness), “Mindfulness is now more relevant than ever as an effective and dependable counterbalance to strengthen our health and well-being, and perhaps our very sanity.”

If that is all true, then we absolutely need mindfulness in our lives, but how do we actually do it?

It also doesn’t help that mindfulness, a word thrown around so carelessly these days, conjures up images of hippies with headbands meditating in the forest while doing yoga at the same time.

But after all these years of reading and thinking about it, and in recent months trying to actually practice it, I have first-hand experience of mindfulness as being nothing less than a positive life-changing force.


How to be here

Yes, yes, hyperbole doesn’t help. Especially coming from me the Mindfulness Novice That No One Has Ever Heard Of.

So try it for yourself.

A. Read some books about it. I highly recommend Dan Harris’ “10% Happier“. He was a skeptic but after having a panic attack that was caught on national TV, he went on a long, windy journey and discovered mindfulness/meditation, and now he is 10% (or more, I believe) happier, calmer, wiser.

You can also read books about meditation by Thich Naht Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Joseph Goldstein, etc. There have been countless books written about the subject. Don’t be afraid to read more than one book about it, even books that are not so popular or critically acclaimed. Every book is useful in its own way and allows you to slowly understand in your head, book by book, what this whole mindfulness/meditation thing is all about. (And trust me, it takes time to sink in. But when it does… awesomeness ensues.)

B. Watch videos about it. You can start from this, this or this.

C. Go to a meditation class at your local yoga school. There are also meditation centers like Vipassana Singapore that holds free meditation retreats / classes.

D. Try Headspace.

E. Try meditating yourself. The following is an excerpt from Dan Harris’ “10% Happier”, as part of the instructions he included at the back of the book for people who want to try basic mindfulness meditation.

“1. Sit comfortably. You don’t have to twist yourself into a cross-legged position – unless you want to, of course. You can just sit in a chair. (You can also stand up or lie down, although the latter can sometimes result in an unintentional nap.) Whatever your position, you should keep your spine straight, but don’t strain.

2. Feel your breath. Pick a spot: nose, belly, or chest. Really try to feel the in-breath and then the out-breath.

3. This one is the key: Every time you get lost in thought – which you will, thousands of times – gently return to the breath. I cannot stress strongly enough that forgiving yourself and starting over is the whole game. As my friend and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has written, “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation.”
– Dan Harris


Try

Happiness is vital to our well-being. Actually no, happiness is not just vital. It is everything (not the superficial kind of happiness but the profound kind of happiness that is all mixed in with gratitude and joy and ease and being-here-ness).

I believe mindfulness is a great path towards happiness.

All we need to do is try (and meditation allows us to try our way towards happiness). It’s not an easy practice – in fact it might be the hardest thing you have ever tried to do – but when you put in the work, results will follow.

Have fun trying, my friends, and may you learn to be happier, less anxious, and more truly alive.

“What should I do with my life?”

I remember being 20 and completely not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. Ahead of me lay many paths: Which one would I take? Which one should I take?

Then I quit university, stumbled into opening a cafe, tried and failed at a whole bunch of things in between (publishing a magazine, starting an online publication, hosting a radio show, launching a travel bag, etc) and then ended up, six years later, unexpectedly becoming a professional photographer.

Never at any point did I stop thinking about what I would and should do with my life.

Even until today.

A few months ago I had a bit of a crisis. I couldn’t stop thinking about whether photography is THE thing I should do with my life. Yes, I love photography and I love being a photographer, but sometimes it does feel like there is something… missing. It’s almost like there should be something more, but yet there isn’t.

Photography is a great medium through which to make a difference in this world. That’s why many photographers work on documentary projects about issues they care about. But so far I haven’t been able to do the same. It’s not that there aren’t issues I care about, but which issue do I care about enough to base a documentary project on? Things just haven’t worked out in this aspect.

And as a commercial/advertising photographer, my work can be quite exciting, working often with big brands and sometimes celebrities. But at the end of the day, my commercial work is about helping my clients to make money. It’s not a bad thing – it can feel satisfying especially if it’s for a company I admire – but eventually, I have to be honest about the fact that doing this doesn’t give me a huge sense of purpose.

And so that’s how I fell into my little… existential rut.


Stumbling into purpose

When I started writing this blog three months ago, however, something changed.

I care very much about good photography, but on a daily basis I realize I care and think much more about issues intersecting creativity and business; I obsess about whether there is a path someone can take that allows him to go from zero to creative success; I think a lot about what it takes to live a rich, fulfilling life doing what one loves, on one’s own terms; I also think a lot about happiness and how to live a good life as both a creative and a human being; etc.

These are issues I care deeply about, even more deeply than how, for example, I can develop better photography techniques. Which is why when I started writing about these topics on this blog, I unexpectedly found a sense of purpose and meaning that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else.

Let me tell you, it’s a pretty awesome and magical feeling.


The beauty of purpose

Then you realize: purpose is on a whole different plane.

When you find something that gives you a sense of purpose and meaning, you wake up excited everyday wanting to jump out of bed and get started immediately (which is how I feel about writing here).

I think this comes from the fact that, with writing to share and help, it feels like suddenly I am no longer looking inwards but outwards at the world, and so now doing feels much more like giving.

When I receive emails and messages from people who read this blog who tell me about how some of my articles have influenced them or changed their life for the better or helped them to change their mindset or gave them affirmation to continue fighting for their dreams, I become even more convinced that giving is infinitely better than taking. (In many aspects of my life, I often feel like I am not good enough at giving. So in a sense, with this blog, I get to give in the way I know how.)

Suddenly it became clear to me why it was perfect that I’d quit school multiple times (a story I will surely write about someday), battled depression and anxiety, started a failed cafe, and become a photographer.

If my life hadn’t unfolded the way it did, I wouldn’t have been able to write the articles I write today. I would have no experiences and no stories of failure to share. I wouldn’t be able to write about the path that took me here, and the painful lessons I have learned along the way that I can now share as a gift with the rest of the world.


The beauty of knowing where to go

No, I’m not about to hang up my camera and transform into a full-time writer, but if I was utterly lost as a 20-year-old, now, some ten years later, I can safely say that I am much more certain about which path I should be on in life.

Now I know for sure that I should keep working at my photography. I’m (pretty) good at it, it puts bread on my table, I am still excited about getting better at it, and I do genuinely love the feeling of holding a camera in my hands and making good photographs.

But I also know now what gives me a sense of purpose and meaning beyond taking good photographs, and that is to give freely.

Specifically, to give freely by writing for this blog and teaching you, my readers, everything I know about how to live an awesome life on your own terms doing work you love.

I think of this as my mission.

(Not that I will not embark on other journeys in future, but for now, this feels like a good path to be on.)


How to find your purpose in life

“What should I do with my life?” is a question that is open-ended and has as many answers as there are people in the world.

But here’s a few things I learned:

(1) Having a Big Vague Goal in the long term is important. Having a Big Vague Goal is to have a vision of the kind of life you want to live. Maybe, ultimately, what you want is freedom to chart your own path, wake up whenever you want, not having to answer to a boss. Now all you need is to do whatever you can to pursue this Big Vague Goal. But try not to…

(2) Set a concrete 5-year or 10-year plan. I honestly think plans are a myth, especially long-term ones. We have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. We also don’t know if one year later – or even just six months later – our feelings about something might change. As Bruce Lee said, be like water. Allow yourself the space and flexibility to change your plans as circumstances arise.

(3) 6-month to 1-year plans are cool though. It allows you to break your dream or your Big Vague Goal down into concrete, doable tasks; knowing exactly what to do also allows you to move forward instead of becoming paralyzed by inertia (due to the despair you feel at how seemingly far away your dream is).

(4) Set goals and put all your mortal resources into achieving them. Say you want to become a successful freelance designer. Your interest is in UI/UX, but you have no portfolio. Why not set the goal of getting at least 3 clients in the next 6 months, so you can start building your portfolio? I don’t know how you are going to do it, but you are going to find those three clients. Remember, whether you are starting a business or trying to become a successful freelancer, it’s fundamentally about getting clients – people who are willing to give you money in exchange for something valuable you can offer them. Can you find just THREE people in six months who fit that bill? If you can’t, perhaps you should consider moving on to doing other things. (Or you’re not trying hard enough.)

(5) Passion + skill + the value you can give others. Keep this holy trinity in your mind. All the time.

(6) What if you don’t even know what to pursue? Maybe you are passionate about five different things and you want to pursue all of them. I am a huge fan of the “try and fail and try and fail” theory. Feel free to pursue each of them. Enjoy failing. That’s how you test if one of them fits the passion + skill + value holy trinity I mentioned in the earlier point.

(7) Don’t have the illusion that you can only be happy making a living doing what you love MOST in the world. A lot of the world’s happiest people have hobbies that they are passionate about outside of their work. It’s possible to be the happiest lark in the world if your third biggest passion allows you to build a successful and profitable freelance career, giving you lots of freedom to do what you are most passionate about on your own time. That is sweet, sweet balance.

(8) Whatever it is, your journey to figuring out the question “What should I do with my life?” is surely not going to be straightforward. Don’t give up. If you ever give up, you do yourself and you do life a disservice. I believe successful/happy people are successful/happy because they have this Big Vague Goal in their head and they don’t give up until they get there. Of course, by the time they arrive, their Big Vague Goal has often evolved and now looks very different from what they had first envisioned. That’s because it’s been refined by their life experiences, like a raw diamond now polished to reveal its stunning beauty. What doesn’t work has been filtered out, leaving behind what works.

(9) Have faith. Faith/belief is also known, more commonly, as positive thinking (doesn’t sound quite as mystical, does it?). I have always believed that I can do whatever I set my mind to doing. I also have always believed that anything is possible and achievable. This positive mindset actually warps reality because it modifies my actions (never forget that, with our free will, we are actually Superheroes in disguise who can create and move things and change reality, as if reality were… play dough). If I don’t believe that I can achieve the goal of eating five bowls of ramen in a row, I won’t even try. But if I believe wholeheartedly that I can do it, I will try. And that’s how I will realize I have the potential to be a professional competitive eater. Who said our minds can’t alter reality? (But if I try and fail, that’s okay too. Then I move on to my next dream of becoming a professional pole dancer.)

(10) Finally, like my yoga teacher said, there is no goal. Our life journey is the goal itself. Understand this and you will arrive at a whole different plane and realize just how awesome sauce life already is.