Putting life at the center


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I chose to have less so I can be more.

So… questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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?

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.