There are many instances in life when doing the opposite pays off.
This is one of those instances.
Day one of your PhD is the perfect day to start writing how it ends.
Create a new file and name it “Final Dissertation”. Write a basic outline of the idea you have today of what your PhD could one day be. Much to my regret, most of the writing done in academia follows the same structure; so this should be fairly easy even without a precise understanding of what any of the chapters are about or will entail.
Once you have a rough outline, skip the intro and main chapters, you will fill those over time. Now it is time to write the conclusions.
Describe how you envisage your thesis ending. Don’t rush, use your rigor and current viewpoint, and make it as detailed as you can today. Write it in the past tense as you would in your final dissertation: the experiments you did, the findings you made, the implications of your work, and your contributions. This is not just an exercise. This is your final dissertation.
This isn’t about forcing the outcome. You know nothing at this point. You are just hypothesizing based on your current understanding of what your PhD is about. To imagine what your contributions might be from a place of partial ignorance will help you stumble upon questions that will be hard to think of a couple hundred papers deep into a topic.
Starting your PhD by thinking, and consequently creating and purposefully educating yourself, instead of blindly consuming somebody else’s work, I believe, will set you off on the right foot.
This is the best chance you have to write the story of your PhD the way you want it to be. Let yourself wander. Be creative. No one is going to read this but yourself.
Write about how one of your findings shuddered an idea upheld by part of the academics in your field. Note what parts of your research ended up being published in a journal or presented at a conference. Imagine how the different aspects of your research, those that appeared independent and unrelated at first, connect in a perfect ending. Visualize the intricacy of years of research yet to be conducted.
As you write, think about the things that went wrong or that you struggled with, either due to personal or material limitations (i.e., motivation, money, time, mobility). Note them down. These should make up the list of things to avoid, your not-to-do list.
Be aware of the questions that keep popping up in your mind. The hows and the whys; these are your leads, your compass. These are the questions people struggle to find the most during their PhDs, when no one is around to ask for directions, and you seem to be facing the same void, over and over. Feel the excitement or vertigo that emerges within you with each new question. Note down the questions you feel most excited about. These should make up the main chapters of your dissertation, your to-do list.
Once you start reading, digging deep, and experimenting with some of the things you wrote about, you may find that your views on the topic have changed or the outcome no longer supports your initial hypothesis. This is the time to start filling the middle chapters. Use the initial conclusions and your new observations to describe what you have found and what has changed, why it is relevant, how it refutes or validates your early viewpoint, and how others can benefit from the process you followed and the outcome you obtained.
Once you finish writing the conclusions of your thesis, step away, and look at it from a (metaphorical) distance.
That is it.
That is all you need to do to finish your PhD. There, in front of you, are the wrong decisions, the bad questions, the struggles, the frustrations, all the things that you should remove from the actions you will undertake in the next 3, 4, 5 years; all written there, in front of you. In the same place, you will find the good stuff, the excitement, the good decisions, the right questions.
Of course, many times you’ll need the experience to learn to differentiate between the two. But how different of an experience would it be if we took the time to imagine the good and the bad from our current perspective and planned to act upon it? How would it affect the outcome?
It turns out you could do the exact same thing about any other professional or personal endeavor.
For a change, just do the opposite.
The amazing photo on the cover was taken by Alex Fu, check Alex’ s work here.
The mentors of shouldn’t are those voices that tell you to do or pursue the apparently irrational, the controversial, the uncommon. Sometimes you can also call them the mentors of must. They steer you toward the experiences you must try, the goals you must attempt to accomplish, the relationships you must build or break. Even if, most often when, common sense, friends and family tell you you shouldn’t. The mentors of shouldn’t are the ones you must listen to when you are not ready, when you fear the outcome, when you feel trapped. The mentors of shouldn’t are the storm you have to go through.
The mentors of should, on the other hand, are the ones that help you navigate calm waters, guiding your boat after the storm have passed, bringing you safely ashore. They provide the insights you need on stillness, joy and fulfillment. They teach you how to find sturdiness within you after months of emotional and physical cataclysm.
But you need the cataclysm.
Do you like the cover photo? Check Mikey Dabro’s amazing art here and here.
Una pandemia más contagiosa que el SARS-CoV-2 y más letal que la COVID-19. Una pandemia conocida, habitual entre personas de toda clase y condición, para cuya cura no existe vacuna y los tratamientos escasean.
En lo que a las redes sociales se refiere, me considero un mero oyente. En el pasado he participado de forma esporádica en esto del postureo. Como a la mayoría, me agrada sentirme escuchado y a mis neurotransmisores parecen seducirles de forma preocupante los corazones y los likes. Pero al cabo de un tiempo lo enmascarado de todo el asunto acaba por diluirme las ilusiones y regreso casi cabizbajo a mi puesto de vigía del comportamiento colectivo.
Pues bien, en estos días en los que el mundo se recoge en sus casas he observado patrones de comportamiento que, cuanto menos, me llaman la atención. Resulta que lo trending ahora es la filosofía. Una filosofía de tintes estoicos que llama a la reflexión y a la introspección, que plantea la opulencia como el enemigo público número uno, añadiendo valor a los aspectos más fundamentales de la vida, y planteando las dificultades más inmediatas como oportunidades latentes. Observo a clarividentes vaticinando que, cuando todo esto termine, cuando la soledad se apague y broten de nuevo de vida las calles, emergerán del confinamiento siendo mejores personas, despreciando materialismos, y valorando todo eso y a todos aquellos que sin saber cómo habían olvidado.
Yo les veo, les escucho, y les leo. A algunos incluso admiro. Pero no les creo.
Empatizo con ellos. Sus ideas me conmueven y las posibilidades, he de confesar, me ilusionan. Coincido con muchos en ver la solitud impuesta de estos días como una oportunidad, un privilegio del que no todo el mundo dispone. Una oportunidad para echarle el freno a esta vida que a algunos nos venía dando tumbos sin control desde hace ya un tiempo. Para dar cuenta de todo aquello que dábamos por sentado. Para reforzar, retomar, e incluso a veces reconducir aquellas relaciones y hábitos que habíamos olvidado. Hasta aquí, todo perfecto.
Pero hay una parte de mí que no puede dejar de comparar la situación actual con aquellas en las que uno es testigo de un accidente de coche o aquellas otras en las que uno recibe la noticia sobre la enfermedad de un amigo. Instantes posteriores en los que nos aferrados con ambas manos al volante, la mirada tensa y atenta a la carretera, vigilantes. Instantes en los que nos preocupamos por la salud y atendemos al bienestar de los que nos acompañan; lamentando todas esas conversaciones que jamás tuvimos, conscientes de la fragilidad de la vida propia y lo doloroso de la ausencia de la vida ajena. Un sentimiento que he visto durar minutos en el primer caso y unos pocos días en el segundo.
Y es por esto que no me fío de las reflexiones inertes. No me trago la meditación exagerada de la que se hacen eco las redes. Sé que en gran medida el problema es mío pues inevitablemente acojo las tendencias sociales con el mismo miedo con el que se alimenta mi introversión. Al fin y al cabo, qué decir cuando son miles o millones los que escuchan.
Pero observo el panorama y no puedo evitar preguntarme cuánto tardaremos en volver a maldecir la lentitud de los servicios sanitarios, la imprudencia de los transportistas, la inoportunidad de los servicios de limpieza, el desaliño de los obreros, o la dejadez de las cajeras.
Me pregunto cuántos de estos jaraneros rehabilitados continúan pagando las tasas a sus paseadores de perros, a sus limpiadoras, o a sus jardineros, aunque estos días no necesiten o no puedan hacer uso de sus servicios.
Me pregunto cuántos han dejado de descargarse ilegalmente películas y series y libros para empezar a valorar el trabajo que mucha gente hace con el fin de entretenernos.
Me pregunto cuántos dejarán de imponer sus carencias a profesores y educadores.
Me pregunto cuántos dejarán de disfrazarse de salvadores de la humanidad desde sus cuentas de twitter y empezarán a preocuparse por conocer primero el nombre de sus vecinos.
Me pregunto cuántos realmente aprenderán a apreciar lo bonito del silencio entre tanto ruido.
Me pregunto cuándo volverá a sacudirnos la pandemia del olvido.
Me encontraba hace un momento paseando por la playa de Katwijk, en uno de esos atípicos días de marzo en los que el sol se digna a salir.
Paseaba a solas persiguiendo mi sotavento. El viento, siempre álgido y recio en estas latitudes, no dudará lo más mínimo en lacerarte el semblante si se siente amenazado.
Hoy me apetecía pensar. Caminar y pensar. Dos de esas aficiones mías que el mundo de este siglo parece empeñarse en censurar.
Después de un tiempo caminando y ya con la retaguardia de las orejas enrojecidas por el frío, decidí sentarme en una terraza. Una de esas muchas alineadas a lo largo del eje que divide el fin del monte bajo del comienzo de la playa, una característica muy típica del paisaje de por aquí. Me senté en una mesa de madera arrinconada a resguardo del viento entre mamparas de cristal. Desde allí, el sol, tímido y tenue, me templaba el perfil con suficiente intensidad como para aliviar los efectos del viento, y al frente entre las mamparas aún podía divisarse la mar.
Una joven morena de ojos cristalinos, inocentes e indomables, piel clara y mejillas sonrojadas seguramente a voluntad del viento, se acercó hacia donde yo estaba. Le pedí un té — Verde está bien— le dije. Me sonrió, yo asentí pudoroso, y se fue.
El té llegó al cabo de un tiempo junto con la misma sonrisa que momentos antes se había marchado. Y fue entonces, ya con el té sobre la mesa, una ligera brisa rebotándome en la frente, el sol ligeramente abrazado a mi costado, y el Mar del Norte brotando en el horizonte cuando empecé a escribir.
Escribo en esta libreta en la que odio escribir. Es una libreta pequeña de unos quince o veinte centímetros pero de anillas tan grandes que hacen imposible escribir a gusto. Aún incómodo, en ella escribo casi a diario porque me la regaló mi mujer. En ella, y a veces para ella, escribo lo que pienso y lo que me gustaría dejar de pensar.
Entre línea y línea, oteo el horizonte y doy pequeños sorbos al té que me hace compañía. Me psicoanalizo de lejos y el verme me ayuda a pensar.
En la felicidad pienso, como tantas veces antes. Un tema convertido ya en una especie de desorden crónico para mí.
Después de años de sordos debates conmigo mismo, la conclusión a la que he llegado es que la felicidad son pequeños regalos que otorga el tiempo a aquellos que se atreven a rodearse de gente sin miedo amar de cerca; de esa gente que ama fuerte, sin piedad, que ama hasta hacerte sentir vulnerable. Conozco un palmo de esta gente.
La felicidad es, o parece ser, el producto de encuentros esporádicos; es un momento, a veces segundos, en los que uno se da cuenta de qué es lo que de verdad importa. Y estos momentos rara vez se olvidan.
Felicidad es para mí, en el hoy y el ahora, cerrar los ojos y que la brisa, el olor a sal, el azotar de las olas contra mis pensamientos, y el tintineo de la salida de humos del bar me recuerde al entrechocar de cuadernales. Y que todo esto me retrotraiga a tantos momentos que en puertos del levante español pasé de niño, y no tan niño, paseando de la mano de gente sin miedo a amar de cerca.
Felicidad es la sonrisa de la camarera cuando imagino que me la dedica a mí. O cuando sin cerrar los ojos fantaseo que encuentro el valor suficiente como para decirle que en realidad escribía sobre ella.
Suspiro a media sonrisa mientras pienso en lo absurdo del debate interno, a la vez que imagino convencerte a ti, el lector, de que de verdad sé lo que digo cuando digo que sé lo que de verdad importa.
Le doy un último sorbo al té, ya frío de oírme pensar, cierro el cuaderno de anillas grandes y reflexiono sobre la posibilidad de volver a casa.
Esa casa donde vive la gente que sabe lo que de verdad importa.
Desde hace un tiempo no paro de perder el sueño. Un sueño que se desvanece cuando pienso en qué se ha convertido mi vida. Me pregunto cómo he llegado hasta aquí, un pueblo pesquero del nordeste holandés, durmiendo sobre un delgado colchón echado al suelo por miedo al crujir de las lamas del somier al moverme. En la habitación, únicamente mi cara está iluminada por el teléfono con el que traduzco pensamientos para combatir el insomnio.
Como he dicho, últimamente me muevo mucho; especialmente de noche. Desde hace ya un tiempo, mi subconsciente se divierte situándome en la posición de un mero acompañante mientras él, minucioso y brutal, analiza lo que ha sido y es mi vida.
Me veo, de lejos, y no me gusto.
Pero esto no es nuevo, pienso. La mente que tantas alegrías me concede, me atormenta por momentos a partes iguales.
Me veo de lejos y veo a un hombre preocupado y vulnerable. Preocupado por las decisiones, preocupado por las opiniones, y preocupado por estar siempre preocupado. Veo un hombre vulnerable, abrumado por las opiniones de amigos y familiares. Un hombre atormentado incluso por las opiniones de muchos para quienes con total seguridad pase inadvertido.
Me veo de lejos y veo un hombre con miedo a preguntar ¿me quieres? por si la respuesta es no.
Qué mente esta que me hace testigo de las emociones más intensas y a su vez dueño de las noches más oscuras.
Me veo de lejos y veo un hombre cauteloso. Digo hombre por vanidad, por iluminar ligeramente la gruta emocional en la que me encuentro. Porque si soy sincero lo que de verdad veo es a un niño. Me miro de lejos y veo al mismo niño que con 12 años ocultaba sus infortunios y tapaba las lágrimas bajo las mangas de un jersey de lana gruesa; de esos tejidos por abuelas norteñas para rehuir al frío y revestir las emociones. Gracias a Dios o al azar nací hombre y un carajo le importa a nadie mis desperfectos, los de dentro ni los de fuera.
Veo un niño que camina despacio, navegando cauteloso las aguas de una vida en donde la confianza, como en la mar, se paga cara. Un niño con miedo a susurrar lo que piensa, aunque las entrañas griten hasta retumbar el bazo.
Me veo de lejos y me veo triste. Y la imagen me apena. La más afortunada de las vidas y la más amarga de las sensaciones. —¡Maldito desgraciado!— me grito, en bajito. Otra vez esa voz, interna, familiar, mi voz. Me pregunto si cambiaré algún día. Y no me refiero al yo visible, sino al yo detractor que aparece en duermevelas, el acompañante inquieto que analiza mi vida desde el innegable cobijo que proporcionan los sueños. El yo al que le cuesta disfrutar por congraciar a unos y a otros. El yo que pasa la vida amarrado a un muelle esperando a que pase la tempestad; pero que aún con la mar en calma, se aleja tan solo un palmo del noray.
Me veo de lejos y veo a un niño que duerme del lado del corazón para ayudar a la gravedad a abrazarlo con fuerza.
Me veo de lejos y me pregunto si alguna vez ese niño encontrará los ingredientes para eso que algunos llaman felicidad, pero que a mí, desde hace un tiempo, me gusta llamar Paz. En mi mundo, Paz es una chica de aspecto dócil pero carácter marcado. Aponia—ausencia de sufrimiento—es fundamental decían los griegos para intimar con Paz. Cuánta sabiduría en libros que probablemente jamás leeré.
Me veo de lejos y me gustaría agarrarme por las solapas, como mi padre me hubiera hecho de niño, mirarme a los ojos con la seguridad de quien predice lo peor del porvenir, y gritarme —¡Es hora de vivir muchacho!—pero mi padre jamás me llamó muchacho.
Es hora de soltar amarras, estibar las inseguridades, poner rumbo ceñido al viento para entre bordadas aprender a sentir sin miedo.
Sentir sin miedo.
Mi mente otra vez dando en el clavo. Pero a sentir sin miedo aún no me atrevo. Cuando me veo de lejos lo que realmente veo es un niño preocupado y vulnerable, con mucho miedo a sentir; a sentir fuerte. A sentir emociones de esas tan intensas que a la vida vuelque sobre su eje. Emociones de esas que definen vivencias por las que el presente se avergüenza pero el futuro recuerda melancólico. Veo un niño con miedo a sentirse diferente, miedo a sentirse único y miedo a sentirse solo.
Solo, esa palabra que desde hace un tiempo se siente como un uppercut en el esófago.
Me veo de lejos y veo a un niño preocupado y vulnerable, con miedo a sentirse vivo, caminando solo. La soledad que tanto valoro y que tanto me atormenta.
El caso es que me veo de lejos y no me gusta lo que veo. Y me pregunto si alguna vez miraré y sentiré que quizá la clave está ahí, en mirar de lejos. Oteando el porvenir para asegurar la arrancada. O quizá esté en mí, en ese niño, quien aún preocupado, vulnerable, cauteloso en sus emociones, y solitario en un mundo que a veces da miedo, anda con paso lento, asegurado. Un niño que explora el planeta en busca de algo que echa en falta.
Quizá sea a sí mismo lo único que ese niño realmente busca.
Quizá eso sea todo. O quizá no, yo qué voy a saber.
Voy a intentar dormir otro poco, que ya me duelen los dedos de pensar en alto. Ojalá tuviera mi cuaderno cerca. Pero me da miedo encender la luz y despertar a alguien. —¡Siempre con miedo muchacho!—, que jamás diría mi padre.
If you look up the word freedom in the dictionary you will find that freedom can be defined in more than a dozen different ways. Among these, freedom can be regarded as
the absence of or release from ties or obligations;
ease or facility of movement or action.
Now, based on these two definitions of freedom, tell me, are you really free?
I’ve been having a recurrent conversation with myself lately that I need to get out somehow. So here it goes.
You are constantly measuring life in the wrong units, and you are not alone.
It is almost as if in the process of converting your inner needs and desires into outer actions and behaviors you are falling into the common mistake of mixing up metric and imperial units — you are falling short. And that when thinking in terms of what you really want, the whys and for whats behind the things you do and pursue, only then you realize how misled you were with some of the decisions you made.
What do you want to get out of life?
Let me help you, the answer is freedom.
It is the conditions of those we consider ‘successful’ what most of us seek to replicate. It is their state of existence, not their means. It is their freedom.
Freedom to decide what to do, where to be, and how to spend our time.
It is not the fame, the money, the power, the privileges, the pats on the back, the stars in the chest, the laurel crowns, or the crowds of flatterers what you are after.
You want the freedom of not being held accountable. The freedom to leave everything behind without remorse or negative consequences. The freedom to love. The freedom to play. The freedom to fail. The freedom to save yourself from the calendar. The freedom of laziness. The freedom of apathy. The freedom to work nine hours a day inside a fiery kitchen, drenched in sweat, with pain in your feet and a smile in your face, not because you have to, but because you choose to; because in your endeavour of nurturing freedom you wanted to experience a new life and in so doing you filled yourself with an uncontainable joy.
I know it is hard to understand. It is equally hard for me to explain.
If you were to ask me, are you free? I would most certainly answer, yes, I am. At least in this present moment in time, I feel like I am.
I am writing these lines at 4:46 a.m. on a Wednesday. The things I do and the decisions I made are a direct consequence of my present frame of mind. I sleep when I’m tired. I work when I’m excited — just like about now — and I play when I’m frustrated. Do I have obligations and responsibilities? Of course I do. Are those meant to keep me busy while wadding my ego and providing my days with a false sense of importance and purpose? Most certainly not.
Why? Because I have come to realize that in my freedom resides the source of my tranquility. That wealth and means are just tools and methods that if used appropriately can set me free without all the busyness nonsense.
I have realized that the units we use define the outcome of what we measure. And that my tranquility is best when measured in terms of freedom of choice; and so it is towards creating freedom of choice where the majority of my efforts are directed.
Let’s talk about what you’re most likely thinking at this moment. Let’s talk about money.
Money helps, that’s common knowledge. We all know that.
But there is only under the right circumstances that money helps.
When money is regarded as a tool, we don’t need a lifetime to replicate the conditions of those we consider successful. We can easily replicate the outcome of their circumstances within a few months of work, discipline, and clarity of mind. Because remember, it is freedom we are after; no yachts, or feasts, or weekends in Kuramathi.
When money is regarded as a tool, it becomes an asset; when thought of as an objective, or a kpi for those in business, it becomes a liability.
I’m constantly re-evaluating the aim of my efforts to make sure that my wife and I live under very specific conditions. Conditions that allow us to turn our lives up-side-down if we so desire, to steer our days in the direction that we want, and to stop the clock whenever we feel is needed. The decisions we make is only but ours. It is in the execution however, when, well, some money is required.
But how much money would you pay for your own freedom? How much money are you already paying while craving for that eventual unoccupied, unrestricted future?
For us, freedom is found exactly at the expense of six months without income — that’s our “freedom threshold”.
We’ve found that we need, in the worst case scenario, a maximum of six months to be able to generate new opportunities for ourselves. In the course of making sure that we created an environment in which the latter was possible, we decided to set aside part of our salaries until we hit that goal — well, mostly her salary, I work in academia remember? — and then we breathed. How much is that depends on you and your desired way of living. At that point, our assets became tools and our living conditions became the foundation that help us live wherever we want, however we want. Beyond that point, there are no goals, no long-term plans, no ladders, no debts, no dreary jobs, no end of the road.
I may sound delirious and only time will tell whether I am remarkably and publicly wrong. But I can’t help but notice how most people work their ways towards undefined goals, wasting their lives in worthless routines and harmful behaviors. How most people don’t even know why they do what they do; while the source of their tranquility lies within their reach.
We all want to live a good life, a happy life.
And although most of these terms lack of any meaning without definition, in my opinion a happy life starts the moment you hit the road towards your freedom.
Because in freedom resides the source of your tranquility.
Be prepared. Grab some tea. Take a deep breath, and go for it. I should have thought that before sinking myself on the couch. You are about to read one of the most challenging posts – if not the most – I’ve ever attempted to write.
I work surrounded by numbers. Equations, hypotheses, and predictions comprise the basis of my day-to-day life. There is some math in this post as well. Don’t be scared; it is not complex math – it’s just painful math.
The following lines contain the toughest, most distressing numbers I have ever had to run. This post is, without any doubt, the one that has taken me the longest to write. Not because of its complexity or the amount of research required, but because of the reflection and affliction that went into each and every new estimation. In the lines below I find out how much time I have left in this world. But what is even more important, I estimate how much time I have left to spend with some of the most important people in my life. It is striking; it is revealing, and at this present moment in my life it was awfully necessary. So grab some tea, take a deep breath, and dive with me into what is left of the rest of our days.
Oh and mom, you can stop reading here.
The vanishing asset
If there is a statement that almost everyone would agree on is that time is the most valuable currency. Time doesn’t cost us anything and its value tends to increase exponentially over time. I would partly agree by adding that in reality time is also the most volatile currency. When talking about money almost everyone has a well-defined list of spending priorities. Shelter, food, health, clothes, books, tech, the list goes on and on. Our wealth grows, ideally, as a result of our efforts and we know, or should know, exactly how much money we should be spending on each one of these categories. But unlike money, time is given to us at no cost. There are only two conditions: time is limited and you’ll never know how much you’ve been given. Hence, we take it for granted. Even though most agree that time is invaluable, sometimes – more often than most of us would like to admit – we spend it in ways that make it seem otherwise.
While reflecting on the topic of time I found myself re-reading The Tail End by Tim Urban. A highly recommended read to anyone who wants to get a more visual interpretation of a lifetime. In his post, Tim states
“When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life.”
Thanks Tim for a few nights of insomnia. Following this statement, he moves on to estimate the amount of time he may have left to spend with some of the most important people in his life. As shocking as these numbers are, I couldn’t help but make a similar estimate based on my own life, laying out how I’m speeding and, more important, how I’m wasting my time on things that lie at the very end of my list of priorities.
The painful math
I am 27. Just as a reference, today’s life expectancy in Spain – luckily one of the countries with the highest life expectancy in the world – is of 79 years for men and 85 years for women. Life expectancy increases between 3.5 and 4 months every year, which means that I will live almost 9 years longer than my dad.
My own life expectancy is 88 years – around 32,142 days (based on Julian years).
Remember that this is not about how much time I’ll be around but about how I am using this time.
Let’s assume, similarly to what Tim does in his post, that between my birth and the age of 24 I spent at least 90% of my days with my parents. After graduating from college and moving abroad I’m spending on average around 20 days back home, among which 75% of the time is spent with my parents. That’s 15 days per year. A total of 60 days as of today, which summed up to the total days spent with my parents yields 7,950 days.
If we assume this will be my modus operandi for the rest of my life and that I am lucky enough that both of my parents live their lives to their fullness,
I have 450 days left to spend with my Mom,
and 345 days left with my Dad
Here is where you can use the deep breath. As of today, I would have already spent 95% of the total time I have left with my parents. These numbers drop even lower in the case of relatives and close friends I don’t get to see that often. While staring at these numbers, it is almost impossible not to wonder how my life would change and how I would make things differently if told that a year – a year! – is all that is left for me to be with some of the people I love the most. What kind of new behaviors and habits would I adopt? How my relationship would change with the people I care about? What aspects of my life would I completely sideline to make room for new, more wealthy time? Would I still be living 10,500 km away from my parents? A realization that is damn hard to swallow. My pragmatic brain forces me to find out how I am spending my time and what are the things that I’m unconsciously prioritizing over the really important ones.
It is about quality not about quantity
We spend a big part of our lives working. This isn’t new, we all know that. But let’s see how big in reality this part is. Assuming that I would retire at the age of 67 and excluding weekends, 20-day vacations and about 10 days of public holidays per year, that’s about 9944 working days over the course of a lifetime (just as a side note, 36.7% of the year is made up of non-working days). This means that a little over 30% of my life is devoted to work. It is funny how we let this part of our life set the course for the other two-thirds.
Let’s say, like it’s my case, that you spend around 1.5 hours commuting every day. Well, that’s 14.45 days a year that you spend just traveling to and from work. Almost the same amount of time I spend with my parents every year. This is just but one example of how we unconsciously use our time without taking into account the things we value the most.
How much time am I taking away from the aspects of life that really matter to me? How much time am I wasting being worried, upset, frustrated, or simply complaining about things I can’t control? What are other things I’m spending a great deal of my days on that if summed up would make the really valuable ones appear to be at the bottom of my list of priorities?
Living abroad one of the hardest things I have to deal with is guilt. I find especially difficult to face missing birthdays, my sister’s successes, friends’ weddings, and overall not being part anymore of the lives of those I care about. Even more so, what I find really painful is knowing that I’ll not be there during the not-so-bright times. And the worst part of it all is to know that this feeling is nothing else but the result of my own decisions. I love my life, don’t get me wrong. This may be the only part of it I haven’t yet completely learned how to deal with – well, to be honest, there are plenty others I haven’t figured out yet. But over time, I have somehow internalized this part of my life as the price to pay to chart my life in the course that I want.
At the same time I know that there is so much more I could do to reduce the amount of pain this generates me. And there is definitely so much more I could be doing with that 66% of free time, most of which I’m certainly wasting on plenty of unimportant, irrelevant, and nonessential things, rituals, and habits. Instead, I could make an effort to be more present around the people I love. I could devote this time to develop habits and behaviors that really help me feel better and improve as a human being. I could pre-arrange short trips with my family every year, which not only means I would get to spend more time with them but also satiate my need for being surrounded by unfamiliar territories. I could once and for all learn how to draw and paint and sculpt, which I’ve always wanted to and for some reason I’ve never done. I could spend less time worrying about how my thesis goes and instead use that same time and effort to solve other people’s problems and to reduce other people’s suffering. Because in the end, time is all about quality not about quantity.
Stoics wrote a lot about how we waste our time until it’s too late. In the wonderful essay On the Shortness of Life, Seneca wrote
“It’s not at all that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well. But when it’s poured down the drain of luxury and neglect, when it’s employed to no good end, we’re finally driven to see that it has passed by before we even recognized it passing. And so it is – we don’t receive a short life, we make it so.”
The pace of the elder
I came up with this apparently unrelated title after witnessing the actions and routines of an old man. We both commute by bike at around the same time every morning. Most days I overtake him without even noticing but this time I decided to stay behind. I remember seeing him enjoying every bit of the cool morning breeze, of the early sun rays hitting his time-worn face, looking up at the hunting glide of hawks and down trying to pick up the peaceful sound of the river. Most people, as I do almost every day, pass by him rushing to get underway with their daily routines. In our world there is no calm, no breeze, no birds or peaceful water. Time is precious and this old man in his old bike treated it like a treasure; a concept that seems to take a lifetime to fully understand.
The pace of the elder is the realization that all that matters in life is the decisions we make on how to treat the present. Making the most of every minute doesn’t mean making most things at once but making just those that really matter. It means squeezing every last minute of those 15 days I spend back home every year. It means saying “I love you”, “I’m sorry”, and “I’m here” more than we say “I want”, “I wish”, and “I will”. It means saying no to the things that don’t bring you any value. It means being caring instead of selfish, grateful instead of demanding, and humble instead of pretentious. Time is our most valuable asset, and most often than not we should be reminding ourselves of the importance of stopping the clock to assess how we’re investing our time and who are the people we should be spending better time with. There is no better time than the present to adopt the mindset of that old man who decides to arrive late in a world that races to treat time as we treat money, showing up first, fast, and cheap.
On emotional intelligence and how to get along with your unpredictable self.
Today was an interesting day.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you have completely lost control of your emotions right before realizing how much damage you have caused, how much time you have wasted, and how badly sorry you feel for what just happened? I bet you have, or at least you have been affected by this happening to someone close to you. Allow me to introduce you to our own Mr. Hyde.
Sendai, Japan, 09:45 A.M.
It was raining as it had been for the past two weeks. The atmosphere was gloomy and humid, covered with this now familiar morning haze. One could barely walk outside without getting all drenched in sweat, begging for the light breeze of a fan or an air conditioner. Coming from a country where the sun is one of our most esteemed allies, constant grey skies and stormy weather affect my mood in ways sometimes hard to predict.
We had the usual breakfast before heading out: a bowl of cereal, a smoothie of some sort, and a cup of Chinese red tea, which, given the fact that I do not drink any other caffeinated drink at all, provides just the right amount of stimulant to keep me on my toes throughout the day. We needed to run a few errands on that day. We were going on a trip to Tokyo in two weeks and we still had to book the bus tickets and pick up a couple of museum passes. We had been planning this trip since we moved to Japan almost five months ago and we couldn’t wait to get on that bus. After finishing breakfast, having read the morning news, cleared up our inboxes, and checked each and every social network, we were finally all-systems-go to hit the road. It’s amazing how fast you can catch up with everyone else when you live seven hours ahead of the rest of the world.
We went down street no.2 in the neighborhood no.3 by the Sunmall shopping area (don’t blame me for the Japanese addressing system). Street no.2 is a small but lively alley in which all kind of independent stores, craft shops, and fast-food restaurants piled up on both sides of the street. Even though the smell conveyed the most pleasurable and exotic food of all, I was feeling something was off since we left home. I’d been feeling this way for weeks now. It was as if a volatile mix of frustration and apathy was growing inside of me, patiently waiting to be released. I was constantly living on the edge between anger and defeat. This was not me, nor it matched with the climate of excitement and joy I thought I was living in.
‘What’s wrong with me?’
It might be this never-ending filthy weather I thought. There is actually a rare disease that only seems to happen in Japan during the summer called reiboubyou or ‘air-conditioning disease’, associated to being constantly exposed to extreme changes in the ambient conditions; from the dry and chill environment of your house, public transportation, and stores, to the stifling heat and humidity of the outside. Symptoms associated with this disease range from fatigue and apathy to migraines and even depression. So it matched.
Without reflecting too much on these feelings we finally arrived at our destination. Here is were things started to go astray. A few misunderstandings, things that didn’t turn out as planned, and my whole ecosystem began to fall apart. Depite the level of enthusiasm and excitement caused by the upcoming trip, I couldn’t help but experience a profound sense of discomfort against newly arising aspects that felt completely out my control. Tension was spreading through my jaw, pain was rising in the back of my neck, and my mood was turning dark and irascible as if it was trying to merge with the miserable weather. The day was not coming through as planned and I ended up feeling anxious and vanquished, once again.
The reason for my recent behavior, which by the way had nothing to do with the weather, was clear to me after reading a chapter from Dan Ariely’s NYT bestseller Predictably Irrationaltitled “The influence of arousal”. By revisiting the state of my emotions and what I had been spending time on for the past few weeks, I realized how interrelated some of the concepts presented in this chapter were to the situation that had been driving my life lately. A situation that you may be quite familiar with too.
It seems that as humans we bear multiple personalities, which in essence can be pruned down to two. On the one side there is our, let’s say, steady-state personality. This personality encompasses our fundamental believes, values, and ethics. This is intimately related to the image we hold of ourselves, how we behave in social environments, and how we consciously respond to external stimulus. We are pretty familiar with this version of ourselves to the point that one could say this is our true selves.
On the other side there is a second personality that seems to be buried deep inside us. This personality is characterized by being the part of us taking over under specific situations, usually those in which high-intensity emotions are involved.
The amazing thing about this concealed personality is that most of us seem to fail in predicting how this pseudo-version of ourselves will behave under specific situations.
Its behavior goes against the foundations of our true selves. Those values we so proudly stand by just fall apart on the presence of a given set of emotions. This is our unpredictable self, our Mr. Hyde.
One could associate the fact that we are so bad in predicting how we will behave when this inner self takes control to the reason why high performers and elite military forces train themselves under distinct high-stress situations. They could not expect their steady-state personality to behave properly during a crisis. Instead, they force themselves to become familiar with this alternative personality – they train their unpredictability.
This second personality can have an even greater impact in our lives. Just as happened to Dr. Henry Jekyll in Stevenson’s novel, its manifestation could not only become temporally unpleasant but permanently destructive. When the unpredictable self takes control of our emotions and actions we set free our deepest self-destructive behaviors. Behaviors that often lead us to make the worst decisions we could ever make.
Today was an interesting day because I realized my unpredictable self can be unleashed as a result of the most mundane of the situations. I also realized that we are not just bad in predicting its behavior but also in reading the feelings that precede the appearance of such an injurious personality in the first place. Too often we will think of the wrong reasons for our feelings, reasons that point out to things that lie out of our control. It turned out that we, as humans, are damn good at this. I blamed the weather when the actual reason for such a pitiful behavior was something I had complete control over. For weeks I’d been spending a great deal of my days in something that wasn’t practical or exciting, something that wasn’t bringing me any value, and the objective of which was not quite clear. I was caught up in this life stream I so hard try to avoid, letting myself carried away by routine, passively expecting my state to change. This situation negatively affected my environment, damaged my relationships, and ultimately diminished my performance to the point of emotional cataclysm.
It’s time to get to know each other
The existence of this shadowed version of ourselves is almost undeniable. In the course of our lives we have all found and we will find ourselves coping with overwhelming situations. Situations that bring the most harmful feelings out of ourselves.
I’ve realized that understanding and being aware of the presence of your own unpredictability is extremely valuable. Some of our inner trouble is just a sign that something has to change on the outside, on the way we live, on the way we treat others and in turn on the way we treat ourselves. We need to learn how to better read our feelings and emotions. Embracing what this alternative personality is telling us can become an incredible asset. It makes us more aware of our shortcomings and helps us to be present in each and every moment. The ability to understand the motives of our personality can help us dispel the cloud of fake reasons and complaints that so often prevent us from changing the state we live in, ultimately getting that detrimental personality and our own lives under control.
“Here then, as I lay down the pen and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
A rant on human behavior and life-lasting benefits.
The percentage of people graduating from college is steadily increasing every year. Although some of the latest economic successes led by college dropouts have made an impact on the mentality towards educational attainments, data reveals that trends are still on the rise. Almost 40% of the US population between the ages of 25 to 34 holds some type of post-secondary educational degree. While this percentage goes up to over 50% in countries like Canada or Japan. Looking at these data and with the experience of having been a recent graduate not so long ago, I felt the need to write about an aspect of post-university life that really troubles me these days.
Right after graduating from college everybody seems to be up for the world. We feel enthusiastic, resourceful, and open-minded; unceasingly seeking any opportunity that would make the effort worthwhile. We are thrown into real life blindfolded by a deep-rooted belief of entitlement after having worked hard for the last 4, 5, 6 years, and totally committed to make of the world a better place. At least, I felt that way.
“Now is when the real life begins” we used to tell to ourselves to make the scenery even more Homeric. However, for most, life doesn’t change that much. At some point between the epic narrative of our academic accomplishment and the present, we find ourselves devoting eight hours a day to a dreary job, having to deal with mortgages and loans, and spending the weekends raking leaves out of the porch and watching Game of Thrones. So I wonder,
what is it that make us change that promising envision of our own future for the latter?
I have come to realize that too often we choose the path that is predetermined or, even worse, expected for us to choose. Our environment, that is our family, friends, and the perception that we want others to have of ourselves, dictates in many cases the boundaries of our own decision making process. The outcome of which usually defines the easiest, often less intimidating, roads of should (“The Crossroads of Should and Must” by Elle Luna). Breaking those walls and forcing yourself to look at a bigger picture never comes with ease.
Somewhere down the road we were told that our professional career should be the driving force of our decisions. Searching for the professional upside in almost every choice we make has become a common practice. This has generated a lot of misunderstandings among students who early on were taught to overvalue the consequences of their decisions. To get a better job, to get promoted, or to get a raise is often being perceived as the holy grail of everlasting success. A statement that couldn’t be more wrong.
By travelling the world I have come to realize that by doing the opposite, that is to diminish the professional upside and, as a consequence, to undervalue the effects that your life decisions have on your professional career, I have allowed myself the opportunity to live the most personal, emotional, and professionally beneficial experiences.
I have lived in incredible places, met amazing people, done the unimaginable and tried the unexpected. I have learned and I have grown. I keep learning who I am, what I like, and what I’m good at. I have talked to and met so many different people over these years. Through many conversations I have developed empathy for the unfortunate, admiration for the ordinary, and care for the miserable.
But, how can you do this? How can you break those socially imposed barriers and start to think on your own terms?
Well, let me tell you beforehand that I am not the most resolutive advice giver out there as I’m still figuring things out myself, but I can tell you what I’ve done so far and leave it up to you whether or not to give it a try.
I have simply made enough time to ask a few basic questions and granted myself permission to not be afraid of the answers. Questions such as: who do you want to become? How and where do you want to live? With whom do you want to share it? What do you want to do, try, experience, learn, or create? Is this the life you want to live? If not, what is it? What does the life you want to avoid look like? What variables and values define your good life? Who is actually living this life and what he or she is doing or has done before? Questions that, although trivial, are not being pondered or revisited enough by most of us.
The years that follow college are the perfect time for you to define your own questions and find those meaningful answers that will help you make the best possible decisions to shape out the life you really want to be living. It is just a matter of stopping this frenetic life we all live in, lifting your sights, and looking at your values and priorities from the point the view of an outsider. Assess yourself as you do with others, allowing enough time for you to realize what it is that you want to accomplish. Think of what you would like to be doing compare to what you have done for the last few days, and how you would like the story of your life to be told. Keep in mind, however, that the most important thing is not to ponder forever and instead go be the one who writes that story, find new ways of learning, experience, be curious, build new relationships, try new things, work hard, improve, be happy, but also allow yourself to be sad at times, to fail, to struggle, as it is the best path for improvement.
By doing so you will instantly begin to think and act at a totally different pace; you will start placing your professional ambitions within the grasp of your personal priorities; you will set the long-term above short-term rewards, and oddly enough, you will eventually find your life moving slowly while new opportunities and accomplishments come faster. Forget about the effect that your decisions will have on your career. There is no such thing as a ladder that should be climbed off to be successful, as well as there is definitely not a single definition of success.
Once you realize this, you will understand that by seeking a professional upside on every decision you make, you are dooming yourself to the yellow brick road towards failed expectations and limited opportunities.
I truly believe that college makes us more prepared than ever for whatever life has to offer. It makes you an opportunity seeker, and if you don’t hold onto external expectations, it also makes you an opportunity maker. It is the perfect time for you to try things out and not be crippled by that job you should be after. The good thing about your twenties is that you don’t need a lot of things to be satisfied and there is little at stake. You can make a good living off a scholarship, you can live almost everywhere, eat almost anything, and find fulfillment on the mundane. So go design the life you desire by making of the latter your main asset.
From someone who has wandered around without having had any type of “formal” 9 to 5 job since graduation, I can tell you that no professional experience will teach you more or provide you more personal benefit that the experience of seeking your callings, living by your terms and off your own decisions, work, and effort. I can assure you that other’s expectations is what makes your decision making process sink from the very beginning. As humans we tend to give too much credit to our environment for the things that happen to us. Lack of self-awareness is the Achilles’ heel of most recent graduates. It is hard to put in words the things you learn and the person you become when you turn away from what you should be doing, and commit to go down the road of personal development.
“If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else”