These are some of my thoughts and lessons that I’ve learned over the years and want to share here. At some point, I might dig deeper into some of these topics and split this up into several articles. In the meantime, enjoy and do let me know if you have any thoughts of your own on these subjects.
The Meaning of Life
George Mallory, a mountaineer who led early British expeditions to Mount Everest in the 1920s, on the joy of climbing and meaning of life:
“People ask me, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is of no use.’ There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron… If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end goal of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”
I’m the type of person who is either all in on something, or totally out. While that has its advantages and disadvantages, I’ve designed my life around that trait and it works well for me.
Quite beyond my own personality, however, there are many things in life that by their nature only work when you commit very seriously to them.
The excerpt below is from an excellent Farnam Street blog post on the topic:
Commitment means all in, all the time.
It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that if you put in half the effort, you can get 80 percent of the results. While that might work for some things, it doesn’t work for anything important.
If you’re half trustworthy, you’re not trustworthy. If you’re often reliable, you’re not reliable. If you’re mostly consistent, you’re not consistent.
The key to doing anything well is commitment. Not only does commitment help you become better at what you do, but it also makes other people want to help you.
If you see your job as punching the clock, not only will you never be great at it, but your employer won’t invest in you. The best relationships are the ones where both partners go all in all the time to make the relationship amazing.
If committing sounds like a lot of work, it is. That’s why so many people are half-in. The problem with half-in and half-committed is that it doesn’t get you the results you want. If you’re not committed, get out.
The committed person gets both the opportunity and the results.
All in, all the time.
When I was a young kid I was brought up to always strive for excellence in academic subjects and in sports, although it applied to most other areas as well.
Perhaps the area in which this strive for excellence had the biggest impact on me is academics. Education in Malta when I was in school was very competitive, with exams being a do-or-die affair that determined whether you would advance to the next year or not.
Failing, especially in the year-end exams, was pretty much unacceptable as it would mean a ruined summer studying for the resits in September, potentially losing all friends if you fail to advance to the next year, and feeling like a total failure. Not to mention the scolding to be received from parents and teachers for not trying hard enough.
I’ve always been inclined to do things my way and on my own terms; my motivation to do anything almost always comes from within and very seldomly from outward expectations. It was therefore a big struggle for me to find the motivation to study for what I regarded as pointless exams. I had to study subjects that I was not necessarily interested in, and for which I saw no future utility. On the other hand, teachers and parents knew that I was no slouch and had the ability to excel in any subject, so anything less was deemed as me not trying hard enough, not being disciplined, keeping bad company, etc etc.
This created a serious internal conflict in me, and in many ways psychologically scarred me. I still have nightmares involving me the day before an exam, not being confident of doing well and dreading the consequences. Thankfully they are not frequent, but the feelings are the same ones I had twenty to thirty years ago, which is incredible.
Over the past few years, as I was working with a psychotherapist to improve several things, this was one of the topics that came up, and was one of the hardest ones for me to work through. The thing is, that that as I grew older, this strive for excellence became internalized, and I no longer needed teachers or parents to be bearing down on me with their expectations. I became the one to set those expectations for myself and to judge myself if I fell short of any of them.
I suspect that this made things even worse than when the expectations and judgment came from others. As an adult, I had now the full freedom to seek my own choices in life, and as I’m interested in many topics, by default I set up all these internal goals that I was expected to reach. With hindsight, this dangerous cocktail set me up for years of stress and unhappiness. I was never really aware of what was happening until I started digging deeper in my psyche with the help of the psychotherapist.
Even with her help though, I struggled to understand if this was really a problem or not. You see, this internal drive for excellence was also the catalyst to most of my success in life. My initial reaction was to feel proud of my drive to excel and be the best at anything I put my mind too. And I had a string of successes to prove it. At the same time, with time I had to admit that it was also the source of unnecessary stress, anxiety and pressure, that was also affecting my relationships with others.
Like many other things, an attribute has a positive and a negative side. I think one of the most important exercises in psychotherapy is that of realizing what attributes one possesses and where they came from. This first step of understanding who you are and why you are so is extremely important. I went into my psychotherapy experience with a list of negative things that I wanted to eliminate, but discovered that most of those things also had extremely beneficial things on the other side of the coin, and that I really didn’t want to eliminate them outright.
Did I really want to get rid of my internal drive to excel? Would it make me a couch potato with no motivation to do anything? I had to come to terms that you just can’t have perfection in life. You can have the efficiency and productivity of northern European countries, but then you can’t also have the joie de vivre and friendliness of the southern ones. I realised that I’ve been trying too hard to optimise things and pick and choose attributes in myself and in my surroundings. I was on an impossible mission that would only bring internal strife and unhappiness.
I’ve been setting up many small and big goals that are not really that important, but I’ve been judging myself and feeling bad for not reaching them. We are surrounded by blogs and books that promise to teach us how to be more productive and achieve more success etc, and they all come with a long list of todos in order to reach the promised state. I think I’ve read enough and have enough todos to last me 5 lifetimes; what I really need is to let go and start enjoying the simpler things in life.
The coronavirus lockdown has been a great teacher for me this year. It came at a point where I was really maxing out my energy chasing several goals at once and the first two weeks were an absolute relief as I was forced to relinquish some of those goals and focus on fewer things. But then in the following weeks, I realised that I was again running out of time and feeling like I have too much to do every single day. It made it super clear to me that the problem was in my mentality rather than anything else.
It become crystal clear to me that the number of goals and things on my to-do list was hilariously impossible to achieve. I had been pretending to do all the things I had listed before the lockdown and aiming to achieve them, but even after being forced to stop training (which took up a good part of my daily routine) and several errands I still could not fit everything into my day. It was pretty obvious that I was taking on too many things at once. This has been a perennial problem for me and it is time to call an end to it.
Here’s one example. I decided to start waking up at 6 am and sleeping at 10 pm. It worked for a few days but I soon started shifting the hours again after the hour change due to the new season. I became frustrated that I was not disciplined enough to stick to the plan. The problem is the plan itself, however. It’s a much better idea to set a goal to sleep between 10 and 12 and wake up between 6 and 8 in the morning. The Spanish lifestyle and timezone make the evening much more active than in other countries, thus it doesn’t always make sense to sleep at 10, and even midnight feels early in seasons like summer. So why not be flexible and go with the seasonal rhythms instead?
As for me, my resolution is to let go of many arbitrary “goals” that I’ve set for myself, simply because they have been doing more harm than good. I look forward to enjoying more of every moment instead of continuously pushing myself harder and harder while the goalposts keep on moving.
Enjoying the Process
One of the main reasons why I get too stressed is that I am always too focused on the goal. That’s also been part of my childhood, as the thing that mattered most was always the result. Anything in between the start and the end was just there to be criticized and refined further until the final desired goal would be reached.
We all know that 99% of any journey consists of a process, and the rest of the 1% is the very start and the very end; minuscule parts in the great scheme of things. The beginning typically brings excitement and happiness, while the end can bring emotions such as relief, satisfaction and a sense of triumph over all the odds encountered.
But really, those two moments are very fleeting.
The excitement of the start of a new project almost always quickly takes a back seat as the hard work of whatever I’m working on becomes the new reality, with many challenges, obstacles and setbacks to deal with.
Once I finish something, I’m thinking about an improved version of whatever I’m working on, or moving on to a new project in no time.
Looking at it this way it seems very obvious why I’m setting up myself to be unhappy most of the time, even if I’m doing things that I enjoy. In recent years, there has been no clearer example of this taking place than during my padel journey. I was so focused on the objective I had set for myself that I lost touch with the amazing reality that I was improving and having a great time playing the sport and meeting people as well as learning about life as an athlete. In retrospect, I can see what a great journey it was, but at the time I wasn’t enjoying the process as much as I should have.
That’s a lesson I’ve learned and I now keep it in mind in my day-to-day activities.
Enjoy Life in Your Twenties
Looking back at this decade and all the things I’ve done, I’m really amazed by how much I managed to fit in and the diversity of my experiences. In my view, the twenties are a time when you have maximum freedom, and you should make the most of it. If you haven’t started working after finishing your studies, why not take a year off to travel and get new experiences? Even if you do get a job, make sure you take regular time off and explore distant places to get a good idea of how other cultures work.
I partied hard in my early twenties and have no regrets. The party scene at the university in Loughborough, as well as the Maltese summers were just amazing. I made a lot of friends and explored their outlooks on life, from which I learned a lot. Use alcohol if it helps you enjoy the partying more and loosens you up, but don’t get drunk. There’s no fun in not remembering what you did last night or spending the night vomiting and the next day with a bad hangover. Whatever you do, don’t take up stupid habits like smoking that will damage your lifelong health. I never used drugs myself so I can’t comment on that topic, although psychedelics are experiencing a revival lately. I would only consider using them in controlled environments and later on in life.
Travel and live abroad
I lived in several countries, and every one of those experiences was incredibly formative. It helped me learn new languages, deepen my spirituality and explore other religions, as well as truly understand the global nature of humanity. It helped me let go of the notion of pride in my nationality or country of origin, and feel more like a global citizen, essentially breaking down the walls we tend to build to separate ourselves from people who look or act differently from us.
By all means, try to build a business of your own. Even if it’s just a side hustle that goes along with your day job, it is an incredibly enriching journey to start from zero and build a business that gives you income every month and delivers value to other people. I was lucky enough to be successful in building a business that provided my main income and allowed me to travel and work remotely. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur, but I think everyone can try to have an entrepreneurial mindset.
Another alternative to building your own business or side hustle is to be intrapreneurial. This means that you can look at the processes of the company or institution in which you work and try to introduce a new way of doing things, or suggest the creation of some new product or service. If you have good bosses, they will appreciate your hard-working and creative attitude and possibly put you in charge of leading the changes, which can be just as rewarding as building your own business and provide similar lessons and value.
Continue Learning and Reading
Most people stop learning once they graduate from University and start their work lives. I can honestly say that I accelerated my learning after graduating instead, and it made a huge difference in my outlook on life and decision-making abilities. The difference becomes really apparent from the thirties onwards. I can clearly see the difference when I talk to people my age who haven’t read a lot and continued to study on their own after finishing formal education.
Can Money Buy Happiness?
Yes. To a certain extent. Money solves a lot of problems although it doesn’t directly bring you happiness. Those problems that money eliminates can definitely cause you a lot of unhappiness, on the other hand. One of the big leaps, as you make more money, is that you start focusing on quality more than price. I feel that that is a huge leap in quality of life and affects the most essential of things such as our health and our food choices, not to mention education. These elements are crucial in living a good life and being in a position to achieve a state of happiness.
You Will Get Screwed
Life isn’t fair. The sooner you accept that the better.
An important step towards finding happiness is to accept that fairness is an artificial human construct.
You can either complain about all the ways you’re being screwed and point fingers at people and situations or focus on stacking the odds in your favor. Your choice.
Am I Lucky?
Ever since my childhood, I remember friends remarking about how lucky I am. I’ve never believed in luck one bit and always felt it was just a different mindset that created this effect. What I do acknowledge is the obvious element of chance that determines where we are born and who are parents are.
I recently came across this podcast that very accurately discusses this topic; Dr Bush perfectly articulates my feelings on the question of luck. Looking at all the “lucky” moments in my life, almost all if not all of these moments were the result of an optimistic growth mindset and careful long-term strategies that I chose to follow.
Struggling with Perfection and Choice
According to Aristotle, happiness consists in achieving, through the course of a whole lifetime, all the goods — health, wealth, knowledge, friends, etc. — that lead to the perfection of human nature and to the enrichment of human life. This requires us to make choices, some of which may be very difficult.
One thing that I struggled a lot with before I made an important realisation, is the quest for perfection as well as a struggle of deciding between many things I could do.
Here’s a quote lifted from the amazing Sam Berns, which perfectly sums up the problem I had and the solution:
Be OK with what you ultimately can’t do, because there is so much you CAN do.
Time is Our Scarcest Resource and Ultimate Wealth
An abundance of time is extremely hard to achieve, especially combined with the pursuit of money. Having time on your hands in our society seems to be associated with being lazy and comes with the pressure to do “something useful” or “work harder”. The default is to fill every minute with being productive and working.
I’ve managed to always have an abundance of time to do things I want to, by building income streams that do not require daily work. This is something I’ve focused on right from the early days of my working life. It’s an uncommon state to be in, and I wish more of my friends had more time so that I could do more things with them.
I also appreciate having time because it is essential for me to fulfill the most important mission in my life at the moment – that of raising my children and enjoying as many intense experiences as possible with them.
If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much. – Jackie Kennedy
It’s sad to see so many parents having to outsource the upbringing of their children and send them off to daycare or schools at early ages. I believe this lack of time for parent-child connections is having a very damaging effect on our society.
One intermediate step to being time-wealthy is to have flexibility on when you work. Since most people work during the week and have the weekends free, there are so many opportunities to have fantastic experiences during the week and during mornings, for example, but people lose out on them due to being at work or busy with other things.
Money is the biggest problem for most people. It’s not a well-understood topic, and society pressures you to always want more of it. Our financial systems are built in such a way that it’s hard to save, meaning that you’re constantly in a rat race to earn more and more money to keep up. Bitcoin promises to solve this problem. Learn about it if you haven’t already taken a deep dive into that topic.
Some people are lucky enough to make money when they’re young and make it quickly – this oftentimes leads to cockiness and a know-it-all mentality. Making money is not that hard in the grand scheme of things, it’s keeping it over the long run that is the bigger challenge. If you strive for wealth according to my definition, you’ll enhance your chances of doing well over your whole life and not only for a few wild years while things are smooth sailing.
To sum it up, money is a real problem whether you have too little or too much of it. Too little and you can’t aspire to higher goals, while with too much of it you’re likely to unbalance yourself either by working too hard to keep that level of money or income, or by getting high on the money and doing stupid things with it.
Freedom is an even higher goal.
I’ve always chased freedom ever since I was young, and in my mind wealth and freedom are very close relatives.
I wouldn’t consider myself free without the wealth component, but freedom incorporates one very important key aspect to the true quality of life. It’s knowledge. This statement needs some more unpacking.
To be truly free, you need to understand yourself at a very deep and intimate level and accept everything you are. The ultimate aim is to not only accept yourself but to learn to love yourself. That’s the first pillar of knowledge.
Second, you need to understand the world around you. This will enable you to see things how they truly are, free of indoctrination and the powerful forces of popular media, religion and politics.
Things you can do to seek this understanding of the world:
- Study history – you’ll learn to recognize patterns in people’s behavior.
- Travel – different cultures will teach you what the history books can’t.
- Keep educating yourself on a daily basis
You’ll know when you’ve attained the required base level of knowledge, because you’ll realise that you have much deeper perspectives on many different topics than most people around you. You’ll also start to immediately spot the bullshit in mainstream media and political and corporate propaganda. People might also start labeling you in pejorative ways and accusing you of things. This is a good sign that you’re well on your way to become a free and independent thinker.
Finding Purpose and Meaning
Something worth reading is Hunter S. Thompson’s Letter on Finding Your Purpose and Living a Meaningful Life.
I truly believe in breaking the conventions, doing something you love and that you are passionate about. Only by doing this will you ever be happy in your life.
I believe in playing throughout life, trying and failing over and over at the many things that pique my interest.
Don’t you have a feeling, like me, that most people spend their lives chasing a highly paid job or career promotion? That might give you more financial security, but what are you sacrificing?
Think about it.
What about the stress, being forced to fit into a system, the office politics, and going against your core values. All these are daily features of corporate life. At one point you will end up asking yourself: what am I doing with my life?
Life is not about how much money you have, or the heights you’ve reached in your career. It is about you and your talents, and how you are going to use them as best as you can, doing something you truly love.
Everyone has to find his own ingredients for a happy and fulfilling life, but some of mine are:
- Exercise and keeping healthy
- Having a close and valued circle of family and friends
- Spirituality and an inner life
- Fulfilling work
- Enjoying good food and travel
Of course, it’s also true that you need money to be happy. It’s not something that will make you happy, but it will solve many problems that make you unhappy and prevent you from pursuing your dreams.