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books contemplation ideas

Digital Minimalism

Cal Newport is probably the current “thought leader” whose convictions I am most sold on, but despite numerous rereadings of Deep Work, I’ve failed to live up to the practices he prescribes. In Digital Minimalism, Newport attempts to help people like me close the gap, providing mindsets and strategies for fighting back against the digital empires making a killing off our time and attention.

Instead of arguing for a black-and-white “just quit social media,” like he does in Deep Work, in Digital Minimalism Newport takes a more nuanced approach and provides convincing arguments to help you rethink your time on social media and the internet and evaluate how your online habits can best serve you.

What value does social media bring to your life and at what cost? If you are looking for social connections, you are much more likely to be satisfied by having real real-life face-to-face interactions. In fact, your brain has evolved to do such a thing. As Newport illustrates—going to see a new mother will do more to bring you closer to her than a hundred “so sweet!” comments on her Instagram photos. Newport recommends a zero-sum game: use social media for what singular benefits it provides, and don’t use it one second longer. Instead, spend your life on activities that serve your values best.

Newport argues that a lot of the reasons why we pour our time into activities like social media, online streaming, and video games is because we have failed to cultivate our leisure lives and we’re just defaulting to whatever requires the least amount of thinking.

I was always of the mind that, especially as an introvert, I needed a lot of unstructured downtime in order to rest and recharge. But with Newport’s insights, I’ve become aware of how, although I do feel rested after a weekend spent mindlessly browsing blogs and tweets, I don’t feel especially satisfied. While it feels nice to let my attention scamper freely, it feels draining to put so much precious free time into activities of such little consequence. (“What am I doing with my life? Why do my goals always feel reserved for ‘someday‘?”) The weekends that feel most satisfying are those where I do something new that’s a bit outside my comfort zone, make a significant contribution to a personal project, or actually do something to contribute to someone else’s day. Often the route to such satisfying activities is paved with thoughts like, “Oh, I wish I could just stay home,” and “maybe I can abandon this for Netflix.” So I’ve started putting conscious attention into figuring out what it is that I want to spend my free time on, being aware that I might need to overcome some internal resistance to make new activities happen.

Newport says doing “high-def” activities that use your body in 3-D space and/or in-person social activities are usually the most rewarding. (He recommends taking up fixing things yourself… I promptly ignored that recommendation.) For my first go at filling my schedule with high-quality leisure time that reflects my values, I decided to try the following:

  • attend a public speaking meetup twice per month (social and dedicates a few evenings to my goal of speaking publicly sans panic attack).
  • review other upcoming meetups each week. Attend one once per week (pursues my goal of learning and meeting new people).
  • replace Netflix with high-quality videos, podcasts, or board games several nights per week (pursues my goal of learning and spending quality time).
  • attend two writing meetups on the weekend (gives me the satisfaction of making progress on my writing projects, definitely one of my values).
  • use Duolingo on the tram (gives the feeling of a fun game while making progress on my goal to learn German. Deciding on just one activity for the tram saves me from the irritating habit of switching from reading to chat to email while I wonder what to do with my commute time).
  • replace idle evening and weekend blog and Twitter time with learning Python (harvesting wasted hours into pursuing a goal).

Newport also discusses the importance of solitude. Not physically being alone, but being alone with your thoughts—no podcast on your headphones, no blog in your face, no checking your phone (not even to find the next perfect track on Spotify!). Newport goes as far as suggesting taking long walks without your phone (the horrors!). I tried this and discovered that, while I usually dedicate my walking time to becoming more informed by listening to podcasts or audiobooks, without any input I would start to coming to my own answers and unearth my own wisdom. It was like the process of solitude was a way to find the backbone of my mind—the convictions of my own being.

While I really wish Newport had commented on workplace chat (e.g., Slack), he did give me an insight that I found useful. Ever since reading Deep Work I’ve been struggling to get myself to stop checking work chat frequently. My cycle of constantly interrupting my work by checking chat destroys the periods of deep focus that I crave. Even with all notifications off, I find checking work chat really difficult to resist. Newport’s insight is that our brain is wired that when we receive a message from someone online, our brains interpret that as a tribe member at the campfire saying something to you. It would be rude—and risky to your survival—to not immediately answer that person. And I realize that this is how I feel. When I close chat with the aim to do a good chunk of uninterrupted focused time, even though I’m doing it to better complete the work I was hired to do, I can’t help but worry that there’s something urgent going on and people will think I’m not working or don’t care if I don’t answer them right away. I hope that having this understanding of why my brain is reluctant to being away from chat will help me be okay with keeping chat to predetermined time windows and protect the remainder of my work hours for concentrating deeply on one single task at a time.

Besides work chat, the other digital activity whose addictive nature negatively impacts my goals is Twitter. The problem with Twitter is that the barrier to entry is so trivial, and yet there’s some illusion that the witty comment that it took you almost no time to think up will get you ahead. Ahead of what, exactly? Sure Twitter can be helpful in getting a job or a book deal or influencing people, but you know what’s way more helpful for that? Spending that time, unfractured, doing hard work that cannot be replaced by any number of witty hot takes. If you want to actually be socially influential, take the time you would spend on Twitter and use that instead on actually developing relationships with people, learning what they’re working on, and helping them.

Despite my convictions on this, I’m still figuring out how to overcome my Twitter addiction. It would be easiest if I could just leave Twitter and never look at it again, but my job entails being on the social media platform, and having a personal account is helpful to promote tweets or interact with someone’s comments. (Also, like I said: I’m addicted.) Attempts to make my personal account for only work-necessary conversations quickly spins out and I find my time being edged in by Twitter’s endless stream of D-grade content. For now I’m hoping that filling my schedule with high-quality leisure activities will help me adopt new habits and edge out the Twitter grind, but I probably need to think of better techniques to prevent my time from being sucked up by the platform. If you have any suggestions for how to take advantage of Twitter’s benefits while mitigating its strong negatives, email me at alex at [this domain].

Anyway, those are my takeaways from the book. I highly recommend you read Digital Minimalism as well as Deep Work. They both have good audiobook versions, are well-written, and imho contain some of the most important ideas for anyone trying to do anything of consequence in our current digital age.

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contemplation

Some thoughts on travel

2017-2018 was the first time that I seriously traveled. When digital nomad blogs told me I could have a glamorous life working remotely and building a business from exotic locations, I made the leap.

Hong Kong

I felt both ashamed that it took me so long to dismantle my ignorance of the world and humbly privileged to do so—guilty knowing that it’s untenable for most people to travel widely, and if everyone were to spend so many days with their bodies propelled into the sky by gallons of jet fuel, the environment would be in even greater peril.

Dresden

There’s some perception in the American psyche that countries outside of the United States are unsafe. I was scared to leave home and travel alone. I ran through disaster scenario after disaster scenario, trying to figure out how to prepare myself.

Chiang Mai

While I traveled to relatively safe countries, it was interesting to notice that I never felt any more unsafe than I had in the United States.

Paris

Instead of dangerous situations, I found kind and helpful people wherever I went—like the couple in Chiang Mai who returned to me the two thousand baht I had somehow overpaid for my monthly room.

Poznań

Travel is a way to discover that the world is full of people you can be friends with if you take the time to get to know them. Most people are likable, clever, and have a new perspective to show you.

New York City

Another American perception is that everyone is trying to come to the United States. No. Everyone in the world is trying to find a better life, which often means going elsewhere.

Austin

European and American 20-somethings flee the cost or cold of their home cities and flood Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Lisbon, and Ho Chi Minh City. San Franciscan tech workers flock to Austin’s cheap rents. The children of rural farmers come to the cities for better jobs. The Polish come to Germany or the UK and the Ukrainians come to Poland.

Berlin

And people seemingly from every European country plus 20 more come to Berlin. Nowhere is staying the same, nor has it ever stayed the same for long, depending on your perspective of time.

London

There’s no culture to hang onto, everything has always been changing. The only decent thing to do as a country is lead the way in helping everyone become better educated, more able to create value for others, and supported to help the next generation thrive.

Chiang Mai

Having settled in Berlin, I am so grateful for how hospitable the city is to its English-speaking immigrants. I think often about how truly challenging it would be to come to the United States without knowing English. I have the greatest respect for countries who help immigrants and refugees make a home in their lands.

Amsterdam

Travel is a way to dispel any ignorance about there being a best city or country. Each has its own virtues and shadows. Each has its own spirit that’s so palpable those first few weeks, but after months simply becomes a part of you—the air oxygenating your blood. And I think most places can become home, if you give yourself enough time for everything to become familiar.

Barcelona

Slow travel is vastly better than a week-long sightseeing blur. Staying for months in one place allows your immediate perceptions to mellow and the place as it really is comes to live inside you. In some ideal life, I would love to live in one new place every year, seeing the place dressed in all its seasons.

Kowloon

But despite the amazingness of travel—moments like standing in Hong Kong streets gaping up at the mile-high apartment complexes, a tower of dirty AC units, thinking about all those lives and at last seeing the absurdity in your sense of significance—despite experiences like that, there’s that cliché about how changing your outer environment doesn’t make you happy.

Tenerife

(Apparently part of getting older is kicking yourself over the decades it took you to learn the wisdom in the clichés you’ve brushed aside all those years, arrogantly thinking you understand or that they don’t apply to you.)

Tachileik, Myanmar

As I watched the outer landscape change from city to city, sometimes getting what I wanted and sometimes not, always my mind was there, looking for problems, seeing dissatisfaction in any landscape.

Barcelona

The photos don’t show the exhaustion of trying to find an affordable roach-free, quiet bedroom during peak tourist season, or the gnawing anxiety of trying to figure out what it is you’re doing searching from place to place, or the homesick feelings that surge at every sight of a plane overhead.

Prague

And so I think it’s ideal to travel extensively both outside own’s home and inside own’s mind. Yet I also have come to appreciate not doing any of that and just treading water in the mundane. The scared animal of my being likes routine, security, a sense of purpose in a tribe.

Paris

And I find that when I have a stable home and get into a routine, I start making progress in my life, using the momentum of the days to fight my bad habits, and slowly shape the weeks and months into something that might be helpful to someone.

Rome

And I guess that’s what inner and outer exploration is about to me: gaining perspective so that you can better see reality and understand how to make use of yourself and your time here.

Puck, Poland
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contemplation

When the years tamed me

I used to think that a strategy for success was throwing every ounce of my being at something. And so I’d live off caffeine and sugar and spend every waking moment working at something. And what I focused on would slowly become successful, but I as a person would not be successful.

Begrudgingly, I’ve come to accept I’m the parent to a body that I never asked for and don’t particularly want. And this body wants rest and movement and routine and nutrition and sleep and being with people, and it throws tantrums if I disobey its needs.

Life is easy the hard way and hard the easy way, or so they say.

And so I reluctantly accept the responsibility of being a parent to myself. So I show up at the gym and do the exercises promised to make my back stop hurting. And I try to resist checking for notifications and incoming messages and let my dopamine-addicted monkey mind sustain periods of concentration long enough to get something done. I try, again and again, to get up the will to prevent desiring sugar by not eating sugar, simple and stupid as any addict trying to trade desire for peace. I put time and energy and care into being in a relationship because I realize that my fantasy of being perfectly fine alone is… a fantasy. And I make myself sit still and watch my breath, inhale and exhale, inhale exhale, inhale exhale, inhale exhale, inhale—oh look at this amazing thought, wow let’s think about that—wait no! Inhale exhale, inhale exhale, inhale exhale… and I detach a bit and I stop being this annoying, wanting self, at least for that moment.

And I start thinking that getting old might not be that bad if this is what it is, releasing the fantasy of what life could be if only, and finding contentment in the ordinary struggle of what is.

Categories
contemplation ideas the truth about life

Surrendering self-cherishing

A little while ago I had the striking realization that all of my suffering—all of my hopes, cares, and tears—are private only to me.

I guess it made me feel like… why do I care so much about myself? If all of my desires to have a nice life are only going to affect me… why strive for it?

It made me want to change my endeavors from improving my life to improving the lives of others. The Dalai Lama speaks to this:

“Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”

But trying to change course to selflessness is difficult. It’s like jumping into a marathon fat with ego. So I’m starting with some exercises that are within my selfishness level:

The first exercise is to give up my vices. I figure, if I am going to help others, I should at least have myself in order. That whole “put your oxygen mask on first” bit.

The second exercise is to start to become conscious of self-cherishing. I’ve been trying to witness myself when I define myself as bad or good, when I become defensive or vain. I don’t try to change anything, just notice it without judgment.

The third exercise is to reorient my thoughts of others. When I think of someone, I try to redirect my thoughts to appreciating them and envisioning them happy.

It’s not a lot, and nothing that affects anyone but me. But it’s what I can do for now, and hopefully the beginning of a sea change.

Categories
contemplation

That time I traded a comfortable life for a one-way ticket

One year ago, I traded a comfortable life for a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Hong Kong. I had no idea what was on the other side, just that I needed to leave everything to grow into whatever was next.

Travel reminded me that life is a single player game. I had a backpack, some health, some coins, and an unknown amount of time left in the game.

Who am I? What is this world about? What should I do in it?

Stripped of defaults and routine, I was forced to consciously choose every aspect of my life: work, relationships, and identity.

1. Work

At first I approached work as a means to make money, because if I had money I could do anything. I started a passive income project. I tried to get rich with crypto. But the more I worked on those, the more I grew empty, greedy, and sad. I stopped liking myself.

I questioned my pursuit of getting rich:

What would I do if I were rich?
I guess I’d probably want to put my energy into something meaningful with people I like.

Well, doesn’t that sound like a job?
Hmm…

I stopped pursuing money and started working on interesting projects. Life got better.

2. Relationships

In my first six weeks of solo travel, I spoke to almost no one. After all, I was an introvert who didn’t need anyone. I could spend all my time alone, so I did.

But then this new feeling, loneliness, came in. It ate away at my sense of cool, untouchable independence.

So I started showing up at events and meeting people.

Something about the humbling realization that I needed people made me willing to be vulnerable. I said what I really meant. I asked questions, even if they were rude. I wanted to connect with people with how I really was, not how I perceived they thought I should be.

I made friends and let them know me, as I am. Life got better.

3. Identity

I had been successful in my last job. I let that success define me, in part because it was a more flattering story than other parts of my life, like a marriage that went badly.

Now wandering aimlessly down Chiang Mai’s temple-studded streets, I felt like there wasn’t really a self there at all. Just a consciousness thinking, feeling.

I was but one of the zillion extrapolations of the big bang. I was but one consciousness driven by a primate body’s motives. One consciousness hoping its thoughts, tears, and carbon could positively impact something.

With less of a persona to defend, I gained the courage to ask dumb questions. I reached out to people I found interesting. I spoke when I had something to say.

While I hadn’t dissolved my ego, I started acting in accordance with a new mindset–one that felt like authenticity trumps protecting some false identity.

***

Settling into a new life, I finally see what was on the other side of the decision to leave everything. I’m glad I took a chance on what seemed like a crazy idea at the time.

We’re all going to be dead soon, there’s no point in playing it safe. Might as well explore. Might as well live from the truth of your being.

Categories
contemplation ideas

7 things I learned in 2017

  1. If you can’t repress a desire to change course, just trust it and let go. Check out what’s on the other side.
  2. Fight anxiety with curiosity. Both are valid responses to new situations. One is fun.
  3. The insights from travel can be more valuable than a year of staying in and reading.
  4. Possessions are weights binding you to your current self-construct. The fewer and simpler possessions you are content with, the easier it is to metamorphose.
  5. Marketers who create successful marketing solutions for a variety of businesses are better than marketers who find one solution for one company and sell the strategy as a cure-all.
  6. The world is full of intelligent, interesting, and kind people. Stop your introvert excuses; find them and be friends. Life is a richer adventure when shared with good company.
  7. Twitter is social media for people who have things to say. Not sure why I didn’t learn this in 2007.