On Nature

Based on thousands of years of evolution, our bodies are biologically hard-wired to reward us when we feel pleasure, and punish us when we feel pain. If you do something that your body likes, it rewards you with a rush of dopamine, endorphins, and other chemicals making you feel happy. It hardly matters what the consequences are in the long term.

The major flaw in this system is that any pleasurable feelings that you initially felt for doing/eating/getting something will always fade away. This is so that you’ll go out of your way to get it again.

Imagine if a chimp ate a banana and felt happy about it for the rest of his life. He would eventually die of starvation whilst his chimp friends whose dopamine hits faded away would go on to seek the feeling again. The most well fed chimps would be the strongest and most likely to find mates, thereby passing on their dopamine seeking genes. Meanwhile our chimp who got everlasting happiness from his first banana wouldn’t be motivated to do much else, and would likely end up dying without having passed its genes.

Multiply this by thousands of generations of evolution and couple it with the fact that we can get dopamine fixes as easily as buying a new pair of shoes and we begin to understand why living a minimalist lifestyle is so difficult.

To intentionally abstain from the fun and flashy things that wins us social approval is basically going against human nature itself. Indeed, humans are especially difficult to please because it doesn’t take long for our brains to become normalised to the hit of buying the latest gadget before having it is no longer enough. At least chimps are happy with bananas—if they were human they would inevitably get bored and find a way to upgrade to the latest version.

What can we do about this? Unfortunately, short of reprogramming our evolutionary biology, we can’t do a whole lot about the way that our brains react to pleasure, or absence of pleasure. But as Homo Sapiens we do have the ability to override our biology using our intellect. We can look back into the past, come to conclusions about our decisions, and make predictions about the future.

We can look back and see that for almost every material thing we have bought in our lives, the ‘happiness’ we felt in that moment eventually faded. From this we can conclude that continually buying new things may not be an effective or sustainable way to obtain happiness. Instead, we can decide to concentrate on the kinds of things that make happiness last, such as our hobbies and achievements, memorable experiences, and close relationships.

Being human can be both a curse and a blessing. When I see how happy a pet dog is playing in the grass, or how satisfied with life a house cat is, I sometimes wonder why we humans have to make things so complicated.

Maybe if we spent half as much time and effort learning how to be happy as we do on buying stuff, we could actually do it. Just as we can choose to have carrots over cake, our biology can be overcome—it’s a factor, not an excuse. Perhaps the real determinants of happiness are how ready we are make the most of the situation we’re in, and our willingness to make the hard choices. That’s what makes a difference.

On Perspective

A meditation on how a stolen bike made me rich in more ways than one. 

A few years ago, back when I was still a university student, I bought a brand new road bike which I owned and loved for a couple of months before it was quietly stolen in the early hours of a grey rainy morning. There were no any security cameras, so the local police couldn’t do anything about it. I never got it back.

I was devastated. It was worth the equivalent of a few hundred dollars, which was a lot of money to me back then when I only working part-time around my studies for £8 an hour and was spending less than £20 a week on food. For months after that every time I thought about the money I wasted on a stolen bike I would kick myself for not being more careful.

I was so upset and angry that I made a vow to myself that one day I would earn enough money so that losing a few hundred dollars would never affect me so badly again.

Little did I know that over the next few years the incident would become fuel for my future growth and a valuable life lesson.

Over the following months I worked hard to finish my degree and was awarded prestigious internships in the public sector. I was offered good job opportunities at the end, but I turned them down because it wasn’t enough for me. I switched to the private sector because it paid more money. I’m not saying that the bike incident was the only reason (after all, I had been bought up by Asian immigrant parents who equated money with self-worth which took me years to get over) but I was definitely motivated by earning more money for the better part of my career.

Eventually I grew exhausted with corporate life, so I quit the conventional career path and started my own business so I could work less but still, of course, earn more money. To cut a long story short, now my investments are paying off and my business is growing every year. I’ve earned and saved enough resources in the last two or three years that I’ve noticed myself feeling more free about spending and giving money away.

So thanks to the bike thief, I made and fulfilled that promise to myself to earn enough money so that a few hundred dollars isn’t such a big deal any more. At least, it’s not worth getting so upset over because I can earn it back. But looking back now I can see that the original promise was a shallow reaction to losing money. The real question is, how can feel less stressed about money, and more happy about my life? Is it as simple as earning more?

No, the answer is more complex. Certainly earning more money helps (and I do appreciate there are people who don’t have a lot and would be horrified at the thought of working hard for something expensive and having it stolen—see above, I’ve been there) but as I get older and I naturally cycle through more things over time, I’ve also noticed myself getting less and less attached to things in general.

Whereas when I was a child the few toys and clothes I had were precious to me, nearly three decades later I’ve gone through hundreds of possessions which have come into my life, been used, and then donated or disposed of. It’s not that I’m much more wasteful than the average person (in fact as a practising minimalist I have less than most people) but it’s just a natural result of living a normal life—clothes wear down, favourite mugs break, books get read, gadgets die… eventually things get replaced. Repeat the process a few dozen times for everything I’ve ever owned and naturally one becomes less attached to each thing. Heck, I’ve even gone through another 1-2 bikes since that one was stolen (before you judge, I cycle everywhere, I don’t own a car). It hasn’t escaped my notice how extremely rich and privileged I already am to be able to live like this.

However, the most important factor is gaining an awareness of time passing, and having more important things in my life to occupy me as I grow older. My business, my health, my relationships with my partner, family and friends… they all take time and mental energy to maintain and grow but they are the things that matter to me the most. They make my life worthwhile and I would pay any amount of money to have them. It just doesn’t make sense to waste energy worrying about buying/keeping material stuff or fretting about small things that don’t matter in the long run.

All of this, I realise, is what a minimalist lifestyle is supposed to be about—not having less stuff for the sake of it, but having less because it means worrying less and enjoying more.

Minimalism gives us the freedom to separate the trivial from the vital, to let go of stuff so that we can get over one stupid stolen bike and go on to lead a a rich and meaningful life anyway.

On Quiet

We tend to measure life by our memories. The most joyful or devastating, exciting or stressful, interesting or hard fought for milestones, from one to the next, they stand out the most in our minds.

These are the things we go out of our way to do, to plan for, to work for, to pay for. Advertising encourages us to fit as many ‘experiences’ as we can cram into our lives. When the big moment arrives, we take photos on our smartphones, upload to social media, even journal or tell our friends and children about it.

We remember these events for years, but everything else in between is forgotten.

What did you do on an typical Tuesday afternoon? Or a quiet Thursday evening? Or a routine Sunday morning? It may seem unimportant, but what if the ordinary in-between moments are just as powerful as the extraordinary ones?

Who knew that a regular day sitting on the sofa with my grandmother, half watching TV while sharing some fruit would be the last time I saw her alive? Nothing lasts forever, not even the mundane. Everything will pass, whether you notice it or not.

Indeed, it is a practice to be as grateful for the journey as the destination. It’s not easy to give our limited attention to the unremarkable moments, but they probably make up about 90% of our daily lives. If we live a good life with multiple journeys to multiple destinations, what kind of fulfilment would we have if we only appreciated 10% of it?

So maybe in a month’s time I won’t remember this moment—sipping my coffee as I write this, the smell of it waking me up to the sound of the city going by outside my window on this sunny July morning—but I can enjoy it right now, thoroughly and gratefully, for everything it’s worth.

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On Maturity

It was my 27th birthday this month. Although I don’t feel that old yet, almost every day I’m reminded of memes I don’t understand, trends I haven’t heard of, or technology I didn’t know existed. I feel a big difference between myself and ‘kids these days’. In fact, I have a brother who is 11 years younger than me, but it often feels like he’s from a different generation.

Amongst all of this change in the world, I realise there has been a lot of change within myself too. I wasn’t always so comfortable with not being up-to-date on the latest fashions and gadgets. Like most teenagers, I overcompensated for my self-confidence issues by trying in my own way to be as cool as possible. For me that meant having cool stuff like the latest iPhone or laptop to show off with. People would gather around me and it would make me feel better about myself, but only for a while. Obviously buying stuff wasn’t a long term fix for my insecurities. Those times sowed the seeds for the minimalist lifestyle I developed soon after.

As a teenager I dreaded getting older, but a decade later I’m in a much, much better place. The biggest lesson I learned is to not give a f*ck. Who cares where I live, what job I do, or whether I have the latest iPhone? No one! Or at least, no one cares nearly as much as I thought.

Realising that and being okay with it has been huge. Once I let go of other people’s expectations of me, I was free to do whatever I want—it’s unlikely people care enough to judge me for it, and even if they did, who cares! Certainly not me.

Hence living minimally to avoid debt and save up enough to be able to quit my job in my mid-twenties to start my own business. Could I have done that if I was concerned about what people thought of me? Probably not. I would have felt too self conscious to say no to spending $100 on a night out, worrying about what outfit I was wearing, or which car I was driving, or staying in a luxury hotel so that I could instagram it, instead of saving up the start up capital I needed to be free of those kinds of traps.

Two years on, I only work a couple of hours a week but earn twice as much as I did in my soul-sucking job. I have the freedom to pursue anything I want to. I can sleep/read/travel whenever I want, and thanks to not being tied to a desk all day, my health is better than ever. On top of that, I can give more to people and causes I care about, because I have more to give.

It wasn’t easy getting here, but neither was it that hard to be honest. It was a series of small sacrifices and good decisions that paid off. I only wish I started started sooner. That is, if I could go back ten years and give advice to my 17 year old self, or indeed to my younger brother now, I would say, “Hey, you. Stop worrying so much about what other people think, they don’t know all the answers themselves. Breathe. If you do what you feel is the right thing, you’re going to find happiness. I promise.

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On Sundays

Sunday is my favourite day of the week. I don’t schedule any plans if I can help it, and I don’t check my phone or emails.

After a long week, I can finally get around to the things I’ve been neglecting, and I can take the time to do it slowly and mindfully.

I tidy the apartment in peace and quiet, then in the afternoons, I love to sit down with a good book and a cup of tea while it’s raining outside.

In reality, the big exciting life changing moments are few and far between. Far from being boring, these moments of small, daily pleasures are what life is all about. 99% of life happens in the quieter, unmemorable moments, so why not make the most of it?

As Annie Dillard says,

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

There are times when we have so much to do in so little time that we charge head first into the tasks of the day, answering calls as they come and working with such intensity that the day passes before we even realise.

But in order to fuel these times of productivity, we need to take the time to recharge our batteries. Sometimes we need to dawdle and daydream, and get bored and get lost, and very importantly, get enough sleep.

Stepping back also gives us a chance to reflect on what we’re doing, and make sure it’s actually what we want to be doing. Too many people live their lives on autopilot, cruising through their days without questioning the purpose of it all. Weeks pass, then years, and soon the kids are grown up and we’re old and grey, wondering where all the time went.

We should take the time to reflect and recharge more often. Take a long look at ourselves and where we’re going. I suggest at least once a week, perhaps on a rainy Sunday afternoon like this one.

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On Distractions

What do the following have in common:

  • getting rid of, or not buying stuff
  • simplifying your schedule
  • downsizing your needs
  • reducing commitments

Answer: they are all ways of getting rid of distractions.

The point of minimalism isn’t to have a tidy house. The point is to find freedom and focus to do things that matter. 

What matters to you? Here are some clues — they are the kinds of things that you used to dream about, that make you laugh, that you would jump out of bed for, that you’ll think about in five years time with a smile on your face, and that people will be proud to know you for doing.

These are the things that matter, and when it comes to them distraction is the enemy. Too many things in life take our time, energy and resources away from doing things that are worthwhile.

Think about it, what percentage of your time each day are you spending on meaningless tasks? 20%? 50%? 80%? Most people go through their lives without stopping to think about what they’re doing (or not doing) and then making changes so that they’re not wasting their precious days doing pointless things.

Minimalism is the practice of taking away distractions, so you’re left with room to breathe, to focus, to do.

Remember, most things worth doing are hard, and hard things need your whole heart in it to do right. You can’t do things properly if you’re always worrying about work, or if you’re checking your phone every hour.

Nobody said it would be easy, but it’s all worth it in the end because when you do things that matter, with everything you have, well, that’s what happiness is made of. 

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On Expectations

A lot of suffering in life comes from things failing to meet our expectations.

These days, most people expect to have things like six figure salaries, big weddings, and expensive homes. If they don’t get what they want, they think they’re not good enough, or they’re a failure compared to everyone else’s Instagram-worthy lives.

So what if you drive a nice car, the real question is are you a good person? Who cares what you wear, do you feel like a whole person without all of your possessions? Even though you can’t control people’s feelings and actions, are you happy with yourself?

Here’s the hard truth. In our modern world, our expectations are too high, too materialistic, and are almost always things we cannot control. It’s a recipe for constant disappointment.

But what if I told you there’s a switch you can flip to change it all. What if instead of expecting so much from life, we learn to appreciate it more? 

Have you ever lived a day without electricity or running water? If you had to, when it came back would you be bemoaning that it went off, or would you be happy that it was back?

What about things like good health, democratic rights, the internet, a loving family, a roof over your head, and enough food to eat so you never go hungry?

A lot of the time it takes losing something to appreciate it. Ironically, by the time it’s gone, you can’t really be grateful for having it.

Minimalism isn’t just about decluttering, it’s about learning to lower your materialistic expectations in life and being more grateful for the things you do have. That’s a recipe for happiness.

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On Greed

The other day, I was having a conversation with my friend about which of the seven sins we felt we would be if we had to choose one.

I knew my answer straight away—I would be greed.

It may seem surprising, a self-proclaimed minimalist being guilty of greed out of all the sins, but that is exactly why I was attracted to a minimalist lifestyle in the first place—to keep my greed in check.

I don’t mean just material things. After a few years, it’s relatively easy for me to not desire new gadgets or designer clothing, but it’s less easy for me to not want to keep doing more.

It has happened to me many times in the past. Once I reach a goal, I don’t really stop to appreciate what I’ve done.  Instead, I’m already looking for the next challenge, and I push and push until I get there. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I succeed. Either way, it’s not long before I want to push something else to the next level, or take on a new project. I’m usually not content to just sit there and do nothing. It’s endless.

This mindset of wanting to do more and more isn’t greedy in the traditional sense, but it is a kind of greed. I’m glad that I’m mindful of the fact that I should be more grateful for what I’ve done, but it’s not always a bad thing to want to accomplish more in life.

Where do you draw the line? Maybe this is why I write so much about success because I’m trying to define it in a way that I can be both satisfied with what I’ve done, but still strive to do better.

There is no clear answer, and even if there were, it would be different for everyone. We all need to find our own definitions for success, discover our own self worth, and learn how to balance all the forces that pull us in different directions. This is what it means to know thyself.

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On Opportunity

Minimalism isn’t just about having less stuff. That’s only the beginning.

The reason why we get rid of things is to make room for opportunities that come our way.

Just think, if you were less burdened by stuff, you would realise that every day is an opportunity, a gift, and you would be able to make the most of it.

If you spent less you would work less. You would have more time, energy, and space to think clearly, to be creative, to be your best, to flourish, and to be happier.

You would grow into the mindset that every place is an opportunity to discover something new, to open your mind, and expand your horizons.

You would learn that every person you meet is an opportunity for friendship, intimacy, and love.

You would be grateful for every moment as an opportunity to live.

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On Money

There are two ways to be rich—to get everything you want, or to want everything you have.

It doesn’t matter how much money or how many possessions you’re talking about, the same rule applies to everyone.

Believe it or not, there are people who earn $100k salaries but live pay check to pay check (I have met them). These are people who are deeply unhappy even though they can afford to buy anything they want. What they don’t realise is that it’s not about how much you have, it’s about how much you appreciate what you already have.

The key here is gratitude. This part of minimalism is often forgotten about. You’re not getting rid of stuff because it looks neater, or because it’s fashionable. You do it because:

  1. With fewer things, you appreciate each thing more.
  2. You don’t spend as much time and energy working to buy more things, instead you use your resources on things that matter.

There is nothing wrong with working or having money. Money is a tool for freedom, and for people to do great things. It is not the root of all evil, rather it’s a magnifier that makes you more of who you are. If you’re already unhappy and selfish, you’ll be more unhappy and selfish with lots of money. If you’re content and kind, you’ll be more content and kind with lots of money.

So, you want to be rich? Good news, there is such thing as a ‘get rich quick scheme’. The secret is to be grateful for everything you already have. You’ll be richer than any millionaire.

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