On Changes

This month is the 10 year anniversary of Minimal Student, the original blog I first started to document my minimalist journey. A lot of changes have happened in my life over that time, but the one constant is that I’ve always tried to follow a life of minimalism.

I spent the better part of the last decade moving around and travelling. I never stayed in the same place for longer than a year or so at most, so I didn’t really have a choice but to travel light. It’s only in the last two or three years that I’ve finally started to put down some roots. I bought some furniture, a few nicer clothes, and for better or for worse, a lot more books.

So now I own a few more things than I did a few years ago. So what? Back then, it suited me to live out of a suitcase, now things are different. There are no set rules that qualify you to be a minimalist, its definition will naturally change as you, or your circumstances, change over time.

No matter how little or how much stuff I own, my intention to live minimally meant that I had the freedom to take the risk of quitting my soul sucking job to start my own business. I’ve been very fortunate that it has turned out well, and because of that, now I have the power to choose how I want to spend my life.

That power is available to anyone who takes responsibility for their lives. Although you can’t control everything that happens, at least you can say that you weren’t completely at the mercy of whichever way the wind was blowing. At least you can say you helped steer the way.

On Waking Up

Earlier this month, my mother was going about her normal life when suddenly she doubled over in intense pain. She was rushed to hospital and had to have an emergency operation. It was pretty serious, but the doctors were amazing and she made it in the end. She had to stay in hospital for several days, most of it in a daze falling in and out of consciousness because of the pain medication. 

As she was lying in the hospital bed, connected to tubes and drips, I spent several hours a day by her side. We talked deeply about the important things in life. Through something like this happening to someone close to me I could finally see that too often it’s not until you get close to death that you finally wake up. 

She told me as the pain took over her, all the priorities in her life narrowed down. The first things to go were thoughts of money and possessions. She would have traded all the money in the world to make the pain go away. For my mother, who was raised in a society that is intensely materialistic, this was a revelation. When it comes down to it, the things that were supposed to be important, like how much money you have or how big your house is, meant nothing at all. 

If something did happen to her, she thought, what a shame it would have been to have spent most of the best years of her life chasing after things that didn’t really make her happy, while neglecting the people and things that did. She could never get the time in the past back, but she was lucky enough to have a second chance going forward.

Of course, this is what practising minimalism has taught us from the beginning, that life is not about impressing others with your fancy clothes. Your net worth isn’t your life worth. Sure, it’s easy enough to agree in principle, but many of us dedicate our lives to doing exactly this—getting into debt or working long hours at jobs we hate to earn money to pay off the credit cards for things that don’t actually add value to our lives.

You don’t have to live like a monk, or go backpacking around the world, everyone has their own happy medium. Most people live on autopilot, going about their cycles of hedonic adaptation without stopping to question what kinds of things are most worthwhile. Unfortunately they don’t realise they’ve wasted their life until the very end, by then it’s too late to do anything about it.

If we’re lucky and open minded enough to discover minimalism before we’re near death, then we can count ourselves in the fortunate minority. Starting today, we can make wiser decisions on how we will spend our limited lives so that when we reach the end, if there is one thing we will have, it’ll be fewer regrets.

Book I’m currently reading: Time and How to Spend It: The 7 Rules for Richer, Happier Days

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On Writing

I just wrote a post on my blog Minimal Student (which is nearly ten years old now) about my thoughts on writing. You can find the entire post here: Why I Write – Minimal Student

For me, minimalism and writing have always gone hand in hand. They are both journeys that I started at the same young and innocent time in my life and have gone on to develop and improve. As I have grown, so has my view of minimalism and my skill in writing. But of course, I still have a long way to go.

Writing has helped me explore my minimalist philosophy. By articulating each thought, I figure out how I feel about things, and how I want to live my life. It has trained me to be better at being focused at the task at hand. It has kept me humble, yet hungry to be better.

Just as there is no such thing as a perfect writer, there is no such thing as a perfect minimalist. Everyone starts at a different place, and makes their own way to different destinations. There shouldn’t be any judgement of who is doing better than whom. We are all just human beings trying to be a little better than we were yesterday. That’s the meaning of minimalism, and the purpose of writing.

Book I’m currently reading:  Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

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On Reality

and how a healthy dose of it can help us get the most out of life

Lately it has become fashionable in the media to bash on millennials (people in their late 20s-early 30s today). To be fair, we are an easy target, at least most of us who were raised in developed countries. 

We grew up being told that we’re unique and exceptional, that we can ‘make an impact’, or if we’re really special, ‘make a dent in the universe’.  We think there is such thing as ‘fair’ and ‘not fair’, as if there is some divine points system that means good things always happen to good people and bad things should happen to bad people. We think if we do our best and work hard we deserve the perfect life promised to us by our parents, the media, or Instagram.

This hasn’t translated well into real adult life. With our generation going into our 30s and 40s, we’ve had to learn some hard truths. Ambitions we had as children, of becoming  CEOs, celebrities, millionaires by the time we’re 30, of changing the world… we’re realising were just fantasies and it’s not going to happen for 99% of us. No, we’re not that 1%, and we’re not so special after all.

This is the reality check many of us need. We might try to blame our failures on our parents, teachers, managers, the government, the economy… but putting the blame on something external is just a way of shifting responsibility away from ourselves because we don’t want to admit that there are more things that are up to us than aren’t.

It’s up to us, individually, to decide if we’re going to lead happy fulfilling lives. We choose whether or not we are happy. Sure, there are things we can’t control, but in life you don’t get what you deserve, there’s really no such thing.

The universe doesn’t owe us anything. Instead, we get what we work for, what we negotiate for, and what we fight for. Most importantly, we get what we take responsibility for, including our own happiness.

And if we want to be happy we have to learn to be content with ‘normal’. This means being OK with a normal job on a normal salary, relationships with normal people, normal every day lives for most of us without vast fame and fortune. We have to accept that we’re only human, and life is just what you make of it.

This is not the same as settling for mediocrity. It doesn’t mean we don’t work hard to make changes for the better, or fight for the things that matter. But we need to learn that accepting what is good enough is OK, we don’t always have to strive for more and more. Once we let go of other people’s expectations and stop trying to be ‘busy’ all the time, we realise we don’t have to chase after something that is never going to be enough. We can stop the endless pursuit that doesn’t really take us anywhere.

A truly remarkable life is one that extracts the best out of it. This isn’t done by being rich and famous and successful in the sense that our generation thinks it means, but quietly and contentedly. Those who are the most successful at the game of life aren’t the ones who have collected the most money and possessions and are loudest about it, but are the ones who patiently found the most joy in the ordinary.

Book I’m currently reading: Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life

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On Scarcity

As a child growing up in an immigrant family, I’ve always been taught to treasure every hard earned penny. Whenever I did make a big purchase, whether it was for something fun like going out with friends, or even for something I genuinely needed, instead of enjoying it I would feel guilty about it for days.

Looking back, I understand now that I was operating under a scarcity mindset. I was taught by my parents that you couldn’t be sure that there would always be enough, so you better make every penny count because one day you might really need it.

To be fair, this kind of attitude was true to their experience. There were times in their childhood when they genuinely didn’t have enough to eat if they didn’t work hard for it. So they did everything they could to set up a life where that wouldn’t apply to their children.

It worked, because fortunately I’ve never had to go hungry. But I inherited their scarcity mindset about everything, including their attitude towards money and possessions. Growing up, we would hang onto everything we had, including furniture, clothes, toys, everything and anything, and hardly threw stuff away, even if we didn’t need it anymore.

It wasn’t until I discovered minimalism as a teenager, and spent the next decade writing and developing my own life philosophy around it that I was able to change. I was motivated from being able to see that my parents weren’t much happier, even when they were surrounded by all the money and stuff they earned and saved over the years.

Thanks to discovering minimalism, I got rid of things I no longer used and didn’t feel guilty about it. I stopped caring as much about what people thought of me, so I no longer felt the need to buy things I didn’t need. With my savings, I was able to quit my job and start my own business. Now I never have to worry about not having enough, and that makes me feel more free than ever. I am thankful every day for that.

Living in scarcity feels like having a daily dose of fear. It helps you survive, and sometimes it’s what you need. It’s taken a long time, but I’ve learned now that it’s only by living with a mindset of abundance that you can thrive.

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On Appreciation

What phenomenon happens to every person on earth every day of their lives without anyone realising it or learning from?

The answer is hedonic adaptation. It’s the tendency of humans to go back to a stable level of happiness, even after something good (or bad) has happened to them.

If you’ve ever dreamed of doing or buying something that seemed unobtainable at the time, thinking, “I’ll be happy when I have that”, then after getting it you find yourself getting so used to having it that eventually you move onto wanting something new, you’ve experienced running on the hedonic treadmill.

You keep chasing bigger and better things, but you’re not really going anywhere. That’s how people who win the lottery revert back to the same level of happiness after a few years, and even billionaires have their own problems. In the end there is never enough money/stuff/fame/power/achievements/love that you can’t get used to eventually.

It may be in our nature to always be seeking more, but it’s a recipe for perpetual unhappiness.

What can we do about it? It turns out, insatiable human appetite isn’t a new problem. In fact, it’s a conundrum at least 2,000 years old because even in ancient times the Stoics were thinking about it. They may not have been pining for the latest smartphone or sports cars back then, but they had the same issues we do today—how do we find a balance between our unlimited wants with trying to live a virtuous and happy life?

Their solution was simple—imagine the worst that could happen. They called this negative visualisation. Essentially it’s an exercise where you take the things you value the most, it could be anything at all, and imagine for a minute not having it. You’ll realise just how much you take it for granted.

For example, think of a beloved spouse, family member, or child. It sounds horrible, but imagine they will die tomorrow. What will you do on their last day? Would you waste time watching TV or staying late after work? No! You would spend every moment you could with that person, savouring every minute of it.

Compare this with someone who takes the more common approach of banishing all negative thoughts from their mind. They think they’re better off but they are living in denial that their beloved could one day be gone. So they go about their daily lives as most people do, without realising that they’re taking the most precious things for granted. In the end, they will probably have more regrets about how they spent their time

You might think this is all quite morbid, but who do you think is the person who is happier and more grateful for their loved one? Is it the person who periodically thinks about the fact that nothing lasts forever so they better make the most of it, or the person who doesn’t think about it at all? Who do you think is more grateful? Who do you think will have the fewest regrets?

The same could be applied to anything—you could imagine for a minute losing your home, or your job, or your health, or specific things such as your eyesight, access to the internet, running water, or political stability in your country… there is an infinite number of things that would be terrible or uncomfortable to live without. There is so much to be grateful for.

The Stoics advised doing this kind of exercise every now and again, maybe a few times a week or daily at most. Imagining the worst isn’t supposed to make you worry or become a morbid pessimist. It’s a reminder to appreciate things while you have them, and mitigate utter disappointment when not everything goes your way.

Saying that, exercising negative visualisation doesn’t mean anyone wouldn’t be devastated to lose something that is important to them. It’s not intended to be a magical solution to all problems. But learning to be grateful for what you already have, even for a few moments, will give you a break from running on that treadmill. 

Indeed, often when I do this, when I realise I still have whatever it is I was thinking about losing, it feels like I’m waking up from a bad dream. I’m so relieved that it even makes me smile. So I encourage you to ask yourself today—what do you value most that you take for granted?

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On Saying No

Learning to say no is an essential part of living minimally.

Most of the things we’re asked to or recommended to do/see/try/buy etc. are rooted in other people’s desires, needs, and expectations, not from our own.

You only have a certain amount of time in life. It’s a zero sum game—the more you fill it with one thing, the less you have to fill it with something else. It’s a direct trade off. 

By saying no, you avoid wasting time and effort on things that distract you from what really matters.

It takes courage and discipline to say no, especially if people are relying on you. That’s when you have to ask yourself the hard questions about what’s most important to you, and then do what you need to do. 

If you’re not sure what to do then try this—if it isn’t a ‘fuck yes!’, then it’s a no. 

Go on, live your life protecting your time as if it’s your most precious resource, because it is. 

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On Parents

There is a lot that I owe to my parents for everything they’ve done for me. For Mother’s Day this year, I wrote an appreciation post (which you can read here via Minimal Student).

It’s good for me to reflect on topics like this because it makes me think about how far we’ve come as a family.

As I’ve grown older and have developed more of an equal relationship with my parents as a fellow adult — as opposed to having a childish idolisation of them— I’ve come realise that they have flaws just like anyone else.

We have our disagreements about things, and sometimes I get (very) frustrated with them but I should try to remember where they come from. It was a completely different world to mine, and they had to work extremely hard to keep up with it all.

My parents were never the affectionate kind. They always showed their love by doing things for me and my siblings. They loved us because they looked after us, and they looked after us because they loved us. I didn’t realise how much of an effect that had on me until I was in a long term relationship of my own and found myself doing the same for my partner.

As I look to a future where they are getting older, and I’ll soon be having children of my own, I find myself hoping that this next phase in our relationship is a fulfilling one. The years of hard labour are behind us now, but that doesn’t mean the hard work is over. Even from here I can see there’ll be other obstacles ahead of us, but as long as we stick together we’ll face them together as a family.

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On Tidying

Inspired by her Netflix show, I’ve been re-reading Marie Kondo’s books ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’ and ‘Spark Joy’ and decided to do a write up about it on Minimal Student comparing her method with minimalism.

It’s been a good exercise to question again what minimalism means to me. When I moved into my current home, I could fit everything in a suitcase and a couple of bags. Now, having settled in the same place for three years, I’ve accumulated a lot of things which has both added and subtracted from my quality of life.

On the one hand, I’m proud to have some furniture to call my own. To be able to have exclusive use of things that belong to me, that I’ve earned every penny to buy, is a good feeling. The same goes for my own clothes, books, and other stuff that I own. It’s comforting.

On the other hand, I can feel what were once empty spaces shrinking around me. Things are starting to gather and pile up in areas that used to be clear. We are still pretty minimalist on the grand scale of things, but one day we will have to move on from here and a lot of it will have to go.

For most things, I won’t mind gratefully saying goodbye. A big change for me was getting into the habit of saying ‘thank you’ to things before getting rid of it. And to be able to sell/give away things to people who live locally who want and need it. It makes letting go much easier.

The category I struggle most with is my books. I mainly read non-fiction so I like to get physical copies so I can refer to them often. Many of them border on sentimental as they’ve come into and helped me at different phases of my life. So much so, I’ve basically justified having them because getting rid of them means I’ll end up buying another copy again anyway.

This is where thinking of things that ‘spark joy’ really helped. Why should I get rid of something that makes me happy anyway? It’s already enough of a struggle to find happiness in life, there’s no sense in making it harder by chopping out things just for the sake of it.

So I would still call myself a minimalist. The main reasons why I have written about minimalism for almost ten years now is because I wanted to spread the word that life doesn’t have to be about stuff, and that everyone can have their own definition of what minimalism means to them. After all these years, my definition is still evolving and adapting to wherever I am in life, and I’m glad for it.

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Last Year Reflections & Resolutions for 2019

At the end of each year, I find it a helpful exercise to look back on different areas of my life to see how things have changed, for better or for worse. Thankfully, with time and deliberate effort, this year I’ve managed to make good progress in most areas of my life:

People/relationships—The biggest thing that happened to me this year is that I got engaged! My partner and I have been happily together for six years now, and we’re very excited to move onto the next chapter in our life. With my grandma passing earlier in the year I made a special effort to spend more time with my family, including going on two trips abroad with both of my parents, something they hadn’t done in years.

  • People lesson of 2018: Even though it’s always possible to change and improve, many people choose to see the world as they want to. Whether it’s as a victim of circumstance or an agent of change, it’s not my responsibility (or even within my ability) to help everyone. Also, there is such a thing as people who love you for you are, but at the same time make you a better person for being with them.
  • People resolution for 2019: Don’t waste time and heartache on stubborn people. Make time for those who make me happiest.

Health—Although I managed to train and complete a marathon in 2016 and 2017, with my business taking up more of my time this year I couldn’t fit in the training for another marathon and settled on regularly attending fitness classes instead. So I didn’t participate in any major running events but I have improved in areas such as strength and flexibility. In 2019 I plan to do a yoga teaching qualification—hopefully the anticipation of the course and the training itself will motivate me to get exponentially stronger and more flexible.

  • Health lesson of 2018: A healthy body isn’t just about being slim—it’s about being strong, flexible, durable, adaptable, fast, and eating well.
  • Health resolution for 2019: Inspired by this Instagram, I will do something that contributes to my strength and flexibility everyday, even if it’s only a few stretches. Also, I will try to get my yoga teaching qualification, finally after 5+ years of practising yoga.

Business—I’ve increased the size and net income of my investment portfolio by a third over the last year which is a great achievement, but I had originally aimed for a 50% increase. Circumstances at the end of the year meant that I couldn’t complete in certain investments before the end of the year, but I should be very grateful for what I’ve accomplished and keep the momentum going.

  • Business lesson of 2018: how important it is to not get involved with things that will cause unnecessary anxiety later on, and how often something that seems like a big deal now won’t matter in a week/month/year’s time.
  • Business resolution for 2019: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Keep better track of my net worth and focus on the bigger picture.

Self improvement—At the beginning of this year, I wrote a post about how I was often unable to concentrate on a single task for longer than a few minutes before being distracted by something else. So I reduced distractions in my life by not reading the news on a daily basis and turning off notifications. As a result, I managed to write at least once every month for this blog, and read 52 books this year.

  • Self improvement lessons for 2018: The power of setting a big goal, then breaking it down to yearly/monthly/weekly/daily tasks cannot be underestimated. Most things can be accomplished through discipline and hustle. Compare yourself upwards with people who you want to become to push yourself to improve, not downwards with people who haven’t done what you have to make you feel better.
  • Self-improvement resolution for 2019: Stay hungry, stay humble.

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