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We work to live; we don’t live to work. Most modern beliefs and conventions around work and life would agree this sentiment. We work so that one day, we don’t have to. We spend most of our days toiling over how we can get there: retirement. There are no shortage of routes, what is left unattended however is the thought of what we do once retired. If we are privileged enough to do so one day, we could spend more time with family, go to the beach more perhaps, and maybe read a little.
This is a narrative encapsulated in a famous short story written by German author, Heinrich Böll. The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman is a popular adaption of this story which you can read here – I recommend that you do as I make several explicit references to it in the following sections.
A businessman turned fisherman
Last year I closed the chapter on University. Now, five months into a gap year, I identify with the fisherman more than ever. This period is the first time I have veered off the all-too-familiar life script of school-university-career since adolescence. With that gone, there was nothing I had to do, I was and am only preoccupied with what I wanted to do.
I spent the first two months enjoying the New Zealand summer followed by a month with extended family in Jakarta. I was set to solo travel for six weeks before global Covid-19 lockdowns, and I managed three.
I got back to a locked-down New Zealand and I found it difficult to pass the time. The PS4 used to be a fun time-sink, but I couldn’t play more than 20 minutes without getting bored. The same for Netflix, it is hard to pay attention. Even going down YouTube rabbit holes has been tough. Compared to what I had been planning – a global travel odyssey – being back at home didn’t have the same appeal. Long-story short, this freedom from work and obligation became unsatisfying.
Life as a fisherman
This turned me towards reading and writing. Hobbies I have grown to enjoy and have filled most of my days since April. It is hard now to imagine a life where I didn’t spend a good part of the day reading and writing. Cheesy as it may sound, I am learning about myself through learning about the world. It’s crucial to highlight that without the lock-downs, I don’t think I would have been in the right mindset to make habits out of these hobbies.
These hobbies, nonetheless, have inspired me to write meditations like this piece. These habits have introduced me to new ideas, invited me to consider new realities, and challenged me to evaluate on my story so far against these. What did I enjoy? What did I learn? These are the nuggets that drive my writing. An inevitable by-product is that I am forced to contend with what I could change in my behaviour, attitude, or lifestyle moving forward. It has been a fun and challenging process, if it weren’t, the habit would not have stuck in the way it has. I am in love with the process, and with every new day that comes.
In the morning, I write. After I mentally peter out, I will cook then eat lunch. Then I turn to whatever book I’m in the midst off to recover. Around three o’clock, I will try to help where I can around the house. Whether it is preparing for dinner, sweeping the floors, or getting the laundry; doing chores gets me moving around and a nice change of pace to the mental gymnastics I do in the first part of my day. I usually chuck the speakers on with a playlist to fit the mood, and boom. It’s bliss. By 6, dinner is ready and I go eat. Post-dinner is when I let myself enjoy frivolous entertainment on YouTube or a TV show I would continue to watch until I become tired of it.
This would sometimes consume the rest of the night, but more often than not lasts an hour or so. During this time, I will also allow myself to check messenger and reply to people. If there is still time in the day, I’ll make progress on the online course that I’m taking. The final official act of the day is to do my daily reflection, after which I brush my teeth, set up my bed, and give myself permission to do whatever I want. Sometimes I continue writing or reading, more recently I have been teaching myself how to use Figma. Some days I would catch-up with friends via video call, and I look forward to these days.
This is the reality in which I have come to identify with fisherman in the story. I am not looking ahead to next week, month, quarter, or year. There is no need to when I find so much satisfaction in how I choose to spend my days. I must acknowledge that I am in a privileged position in having saved up enough money to not worry about it in the medium-term.
Life as a businessman
Prior to five months ago, I thought very much like the businessman. What changed? It’s not that I disliked my life when I had the businessman’s mindset, on the contrary, I was living as freely as I could have been. I had a challenging but fun internship, didn’t hate what I was studying, had fulfilling pastimes, was earning enough money to not worry over how much I was spending, and saw my friends regularly. But unlike the fisherman, I always had next week (month, quarter, year, five years) in the back of my mind. It was much more difficult to anchor myself to the present when there were goals I wanted to achieve (or more aptly, I had been conditioned to want to achieve).
Comparing the lifestyles
Those goals are now but a distant memory. In my life as a fisherman, I set vague goals but then quickly forgot them. Their value is in informing my daily habits. But after establishing these behaviours, there is no need to worry about the goals. Examples include meditation, writing morning pages and a daily reflection, reading for at least one hour, and publishing a post to this blog.
The habits are best explained through the analogy of a flywheel. Technically, you would describe a flywheel is a mechanical device designed to efficiently store rotational energy. In laymen’s terms, it is difficult to get a flywheel to start spinning but once you do, they pretty much rotate by themselves forever, for which you will continue to benefit from, or at least that is the idea. Most of the habits I listed share the same properties of the flywheel.
The effect of meditation on a random day will only have a transient effect; if you meditate everyday for 30 days, you are more likely to reap its benefits. Turn 30 days into 1 year of meditation and you will feel the effects much more profoundly. The same applies to reading, if you read 1 book it might have an effect on your beliefs. But if you read 100 books, it will definitely change your beliefs. The more books you read, the better your ability to evaluate and re-evaluate previous books you have read.
When I got back to reading last month, the first book I read Atomic Habits by James Clear. My understanding of the book is a lot more nuanced 12 books later. For example, I made several explicit references back to Atomic Habits which while reading Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the Art of of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, Anything You Want by Derek Sivers, and Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella. In fact, this transformation of mindset that has spurred the writing of this article is directly attributable to my reading (and writing) habits I have developed over the last month.
Writing is perhaps the habit that has catalysed the largest change in my thinking. I have a little about the impact it has had on me here. It has almost been a month between writing that article and this, the effects I mention have compounded significantly. So much so that I will probably write an update for how writing has contributed to my life. Aside from process my thinking on several aspects of my experience, it led me to strive to be more intentional. I have had a niggling sense of imposter syndrome for almost five years.
Only after reading and writing like a madman for a month have I been able to put the pieces together as to why I felt that way. This breakthrough has led me to write this de-facto mission statement for myself which will led to greater clarity and a renewed sense of purpose. This sort of breakthrough is what ‘flywheel’ habits have the power to do. The impact of the breakthroughs in thinking you will make will scale with the length of time they are practised consistently.
I want to underline, crucially, that I had previously read about the transformational effects of consistent reading and writing has. There is a reason that I didn’t take action until a few months into my gap year. The first part of the answer is phenomenon dubbed the GI Joe Fallacy. It describes the mistaken idea that knowing is half the battle. It states that “recent work in cognitive science has demonstrated that knowing is a shockingly tiny portion of the battle for most real world decisions.” The second part of the answer is, as I mentioned above, symbolic my exit out of a certain life script destined for most people: school-university-career.
In that life, my priority was never to read or write, it was to do well in school, then do well in university, followed by having a good career. If I were to read or write, it was in direct contribution to those goals. Now that I am goalless, concerned with nothing else but exploring and enjoying myself like the fisherman, I have become more open to trying new things. It is crazy how quickly my ambitions changed after exiting that life; it gives credence to the power of Mimetic Traps. The manifestation of this openness is the lifestyle I describe in the fisherman section.
It is as simple as a change of priorities. In my previous businessman life, I prioritised behaviours from the top-down e.g. what activity will get me closest to getting a better job? As a fisherman, I am building up from the bottom e.g. what can I do improve my well-being? What would a fulfilling day look like? I have been living day-to-day and it has been delightful. Eventually, however, I will run out of money and will need to find a job so I can’t think this way forever. The subject of the next section is defining a set of first principles about how I want to live my life which will inform my longer-term decisions.
My north star
I don’t have one in the traditional sense; there is not overarching goal I am striving towards. What I found a useful exercise, however, was writing a Personal Narrative Vision. The purpose is to describe, in vivid detail, a day in your life 10-20-30 years ahead. The beauty of this exercise is that it forces you to consider how you want to spend your day in an ideal world–there is no room for status games. It eliminates a lot of the fluff we may be preoccupied with and leaves us with some simple questions:
- What are we doing?
- Who do we spend time with?
- Where are we?
The most important thing, in my opinion, is to narrate how you are feeling through the events of the day. For example, when you wake up in the morning … what are you thinking about? You are going to your place of work, what would you be feeling? You spend time with family–how are you feeling in this social interaction? These details inevitably creep in as you write and helps to paint a picture as to why you are striving for this narrative vision in the first place. The only question left unanswered after this is how?
How will you get there? It is easy to focus on the what, whom, and where of your narrative vision. These things, however, are out of our immediate control. What we can do is tune our attitude to be alignment with how we see ourselves in the ideal world. After I wrote my narrative vision (January 2020), I arrived at three first principles for how I want to live: compassionately, thoughtfully, and fully. These have since served has the foundation over which I have made all of my decisions, especially on a day-to-day basis. It has one part of what spurred me to adopt the lifestyle of the fisherman.
The other elements of the narrative vision – with whom, where, and what – is best viewed as long-term goals. They inform my decision-making on broader timescales e.g. monthly, yearly, decennially. As we navigate through life, our ambitions and desires will evolve. That is why Tiago Forte recommends we perform this exercise yearly as part of an annual review. That way, when we plan for the year ahead, we can set our priorities and goals accordingly.
This is my base principle, and takes priority for me over the other two. For example, if I had the choice to live fully or thoughtfully or compassionately, I would like to think I’d choose the compassion every time. I have read several books and written several pieces that inspire this principle – you will find some of them below:
- A Force for Good by Daniel Goleman
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Siddartha by Hermann Hesse
- Wonder by R J Palacio
Never forget why you’re really doing what you’re doing. Are you helping people? Are they happy? Are you happy? Isn’t that enough?Derek Sivers in Anything You Want
Living thoughtfully is second in this hierarchy of three. It is inspired by my exploration into human behaviour, and why we do the things that we do e.g. why I was behaving like a businessman. I want to be in a frame of mind where I can trace back all my actions to either these first principles or my personal narrative vision. I want to be more thoughtful about the go-with-the-flow attitude I have cultivated over the years. Not that it’s been a bad thing, it would be nice for me to put a little more consideration before jumping into stuff. I will include below some of the books and pieces that has inspired this mindset:
- Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
- How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
- The Moral Animal by Robert Wright
- Anything You Want by Derek Sivers
The last principle is to live fully. This one came from purely hedonistic motivations, encapsulated in part by memento mori. My thinking around this crystallised after taking the Science of Wellbeing course on Coursera. According to the science, optimising for well-being is and necessary and sufficient for a full life. Granted that the other two principles are also informed by the science of well-being, living fully sole concern with the doing of cool stuff with even cooler people. I will include below some of the books and pieces that has inspired this mindset:
It is hard to include the nuance of experience into a written article, but I have tried my best in this piece. Writing this has been a labour of love, as it has encouraged me to reduce and distill the highlights of a transformative gap year-so-far. This piece is living and breathing, as my thoughts evolve, so shall this article. The last update was made on May 26.