I couldn’t remember how long I’d been in this position.
I stretched out on the couch, rolling my head back. My neck responded with a satisfying POP. On my screen, fiery orange words stood frozen in time, flanked by a dragon, a wolf, a lion and a stag.
Glancing down at the runtime – goodbye, another 56 minutes of my life – I felt an all too-familiar pang of guilt. ‘Do you really want to do this?’ a scathing voice hissed in my ear, and despite the boa constrictor in my chest, I leaned forward and clicked ‘Play’ anyway.
After all, what else could I do?
I was lost. I was lazy. I was in “transition”.
That dreaded limbo in life
We’ve all been there. Graduating from school. Quitting a job. Getting fired. Leaving a lover. Transitions are always hard – especially if they were the last thing you were expecting.
Earlier this year, I stood on a balcony in Austin, Texas and called my mom. “Ma,” I said, my voice carrying over the rooftops. “What would you say if I dropped out?”
College just wasn’t working out for me. It was my second try at tertiary education; in 2012, I attended a 2+2 academic transfer program to the States, but I’d only finished the first two years before deciding that I’d preferred studying in the School of Life instead.
And being a young entrepreneur was glorious – I’d learned so much more than I could’ve hoped for in a traditional classroom setting. But the weight of that paper still weighed on the back of my mind; no matter what I did or how far I went, “going back to university” was still a valid option – one that quelled my startup and social anxieties as I lay awake at night.
And one day, I did it.
My ambition had grown too big for this peninsula to contain – it was time to leave the nest. And I’d found just the right place to go to: San Francisco had always been a faraway dream, but at this university, I would have the chance to bask in its eminence for a year.
So I hopped on a one-way flight, and never looked back.
Everything was fine and dandy for the first few months… Until it wasn’t.
I couldn’t pinpoint a single moment of realization; it started out as a niggling feeling in my heart, and eventually seeped into the rest of my body – a toxicity that depressed and debilitated me.
I felt stressed and uninspired. I felt like I wasn’t learning much; like my potential was being squandered away.
I felt like I wasn’t living the life I was meant to live at the age of 22.
So there I stood on that balcony, listening to the thrum of South by Southwest after-parties in the distance, and heard those magic words:
“I don’t actually mind if you do.”
That summer, I got on a one-way flight back home.
And I’ve been on that couch ever since.
Deciding to decide
When you don’t know what to do, it’s easy to not do anything.
Paralyzed by indecision, we slip into what’s most comfortable; what’s most familiar to us. And unless you’ve had the presence of mind to build a strong enough foundation, you’ll likely regress into old vices – first out of convenience, and later, dependency. Netflix can seem like a lifeline when you’ve got too much time on your hands.
It took me a long time to get off that couch.
Stuck in the throes of internal turmoil, I needed some sort of guarantee before I made any commitments. I felt like I’d wasted too much time; I couldn’t bear to waste any more on trying, and God forbid, failing again.
I didn’t realize that by refusing to try, I’d already chosen to fail.
And yet, try as I may, I couldn’t shake my need for certainty.
“There has to be something I can do that won’t screw my life up, even if I fail!”
So I set off on a journey to find that something.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
3 principles to live by
1. Check your bases
In transition, it’s easy to lose touch with yourself – your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses. The first principle is about checking in with yourself again: What do you love now? Does painting still make your heart sing? Have you moved past your Excel aversion? Is working with animals still your thing?
Spend some time thinking about this, or better yet, try it out for yourself. There are low-cost, low-risk ways to do this: volunteer, host a meet-up, call up someone who does this for a living.
Once you’ve found a way in, set some tangible, binary goals (“I will meet 5 colleagues I actually want to hang out with”) and a timeline (“I will keep at it for 10 weeks”). See what happens at the end. Assess. Report. Reflect.
If it works, keep at it. If it doesn’t, pick your next base to work on.
Self-discovery is a process, after all. 🙂
2. Trust in the process
In transition, you’ll have to do things that you’re unfamiliar with, and chances are, you’ll completely suck at it. That may seem like a failure in our outcome-oriented society. The second principle is about overcoming that mindset – by focusing on the process, instead of the outcome.
By releasing yourself from the need for validation from immediate feedback loops (“I got a Like on Instagram!”), you will be able to rise above your initial feelings of fear, insecurity and frustration, and instead dedicate your time and energy to practicing the discipline itself (“I’m here to improve my photography skills”).
Learn to put in the hours, and you’ll produce good work as a by-product of that commitment. As my mentor Sebastian Marshall said, “Trust that if you do things correctly now and you take care of the future, big opportunities will come.”
3. Make room for serendipity
It’s good to take time off for yourself while in transition, but be careful – stay a hermit for too long, and you might lose touch with the outside world. The third and final principle is about creating space in your life for happenstance – from attending strange events to finding friends in strangers. How do you actively and consciously open yourself up to that?
Create opportunities for new, unexpected things to come into your life. You can do this in two ways: (1) by sharing your truth, and (2) by doing things you wouldn’t normally do. Write a blog post about the past six months of your life, and share it on Facebook (I mean, you’re reading this, right?). Create a Calendly for people to schedule meals with you. Attend an Death Café. Solo travel to a rural village. Go on a blind date. Do things without a purpose.
Mark Manson, everyone’s favorite personal development satirist, said it best:
“Developing the ability to simply do things for no other reason than curiosity or interest or hell, even boredom — the ability to do things with no expectation for result or accolade or productivity or fanfare — will train you to better make these big ambiguous life decisions. It will train you to simply start on something without knowing where in the hell it’s going.
And while this will result in a thousand tiny failures, it will also likely result in your life’s biggest successes.”
There’s a time in life for everything, and now is the time in life for this. You’d be surprised what randomness can teach you about yourself. Open your ears, eyes and heart, and learn.
Based on these three principles, I’ve experimented with several habits, practices and exercises.
Here are four things that have worked for me.
4 foolproof ways to improve your life
1. Learn how to exercise
If you’re anything like me, going to the gym was synonymous to getting your fingernails pulled out with pliers. I’d never been a “sporty” person; I used to run track in high school and had a brief stint as a cheerleader in college, but that was about it.
I knew how important fitness was – “a healthy body begets a sound mind”, and all that – but I was terrified of pain. Of waking up with muscle aches and grinding my teeth on the gym room floor. Of not knowing how to use a barbell, and making an absolute fool of myself. Of losing my form and getting injured, or worse, of following arbitrary programs for months and not seeing any progress.
So I put my money where my mouth was: I got a personal trainer.
I didn’t do it to lose 10 kilos or get a six-pack. I did it to learn the basics. I didn’t care about short-term goals – I was in it for the long run.
Why invest in a trainer:
- Accountability: Can’t get off your ass to a gym? Knowing that you paid someone to wake up at 6AM for you might do the trick…
- Foundation: You’d be surprised what bad form can do to your body in the long run. I know several people who’ve lost their mobility because they didn’t put enough emphasis on mastering the fundamentals. Having an experienced trainer mitigates that risk.
- Identity: James Clear talks about building identity-based habits. Investing in a trainer puts you in an athlete’s mindset — so you no longer have to force yourself to go the gym; it’s just part and parcel of your training regiment.
Now, four months after I began my training, I understand why fitness is so analogous to success – because the mental fortitude you build when every muscle, every sinew, every breath is on fire carries forward into every aspect of your life.
2. Learn how to eat & sleep right
Exercising is what I’d like to call a compound habit – when you start, you naturally build a healthier lifestyle around it, so the benefits aggregate.
Sometimes, it’s for survival: if I don’t get enough sleep, I can’t lift as heavy at the gym and stand a higher risk for injury. Sometimes, it’s purely logical: exercise only contributes 30% to a healthy body; the other 70% lies in your diet, so you better eat right.
I find that experimentation helps a lot here. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to health, so you need to find out what works for you. Here’s what I’ve discovered for myself.
- The total amount of sleep doesn’t matter as much as the time I go to sleep. Any time after midnight, and I won’t be nearly as fresh come morning time, even if I theoretically get the same 7 hours.
- Sleeping in a completely dark room does wonders for your quality of sleep. Too much light pollution where you live? Try investing in black-out curtains, or a sleeping mask.
- If I snooze in the morning, I’ll feel groggy for the rest of the day. Not a good idea.
- Naps can be refreshing, but only if they’re kept to a maximum of 20 minutes. Any more and I oversleep, giving me headaches when I wake.
Until I found that magic combination of sleeping before midnight + getting 7 hours of sleep + working out first thing in the morning, I’d just accepted lethargy as my natural state of being. (I used to average 3 hours of sleep a day back in high school.) Not anymore!!!
- The Paleo diet – lean protein, lots of vegetables, little to no carbs, healthy fats – seems to work best for me, given my body type (Endo + Meso) and training intensity.
- I tend to eat relatively little during meals, but feel peckish soon after. I’ve learned that these hunger pangs are quite short-lived, and will dissipate if I ignore them long enough.
- If the hunger pangs don’t go away, I drink more water or snack on a couple of nuts. Those tend to do the trick.
- I avoid drinking tea later in the day – it seems to be the only caffeinated drink that bears any effect on my sleep.
Eating right affords you huge boosts in clarity, strength and energy… And of course, it helps that you look and feel great. 🙂
Next challenge: Figure out a way to integrate more healthy eating into my routine, without spending too much time or money. Any ideas?
3. Learn how to write publicly
While I sing laurels of private journaling, I want to touch specifically on public writing. I think too few people give it enough credit, because it really does have all the benefits of writing for yourself – and more.
Why write for the public:
- Learn how to write for an audience. From clarifying your stance to developing a voice, this is a skill that won’t go amiss in your repertoire.
- Increase clarity about life. Writing is a reflective process – you’d be surprised how much awareness you can build from continuously doing it.
- Build your thought leadership. By giving people an insight into your innermost thoughts, you’re developing trust, rapport, and your brand.
- Change your life. Remember Principle #3? Writing is one of the best ways to introduce serendipity into your life. Sharing knowledge freely and generously will open more doors than you can count, while increasing the authenticity of your relationships.
I love writing, but I’ve always had this mental block: “So many people have written about this, who would wanna read about it from me?” But once again, it’s not about the outcome; it’s about the process.
I want to make writing a habit, so when I do have something BIG and NEW to write about, I’ll already have the ‘platform’ for it.
At the very least, I can use it to share my story. 🙂
4. Learn how to build a community
Of course you’ve heard the Jim Rohn quote: “You’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” I’d like to take that a step further – you are the average of the 5 communities you surround yourself with.”
What is a community? Your group of friends from high school. Your business networking group. Your church. Your favorite Reddit thread. Your neighborhood basketball pick-up games. Communities come in all shapes and sizes – big, small, IRL, virtual, supportive, toxic.
We don’t typically put a lot of conscious thought into the communities we surround ourselves with. Most of the time, they’re pre-determined by our circumstances — you don’t get to choose your classmates in school, or your colleagues at work — so we just accept things as they are. Making merry and making do, always wondering if we could make more.
I was faced with a unique challenge when I first returned home: everyone I was close to had either migrated, lost touch, or moved on in life, so I hung out in solitude on Friday nights. I thought that all the good people had gone away, or they’d forgotten about me. Until I started building communities of my own.
Communities, like exercise, have a compound effect. They introduce serendipity into our lives, just as writing does, but they also satiate our human need for social belonging and interaction. I decided to add one more dimension to that:
I wanted my communities to be value-oriented.
I started by thinking about the kind of values I cared about, and what I wanted to see more of in my life. This is a work-in-progress, but I’m really enjoying the few I’m leading so far:
- Tribeless KL. Values: Authenticity, connection, intimacy. I’ve always felt like I fit in, but I didn’t belong. Turns out, there’s a bunch of people who feel the same way. Tribeless is a dinner series for young 20-somethings to come together, share stories, and be themselves. We’re onto our third session – we host one on the last Thursday of every month – and so far, it’s been a support group, a friend finder, a fear factor, a story collector, and my savior. RSVP for our next one in KL, or reach out if you want to bring Tribeless to your city.
- Written Weekly. Values: Creativity, humor. What started out as a fun get-together with my coding/writing friends has since grown into a homegrown mission to instill creative confidence in our fellow countrymen. You get a writing prompt and 30 minutes – come up with anything you want, and share it with the group. We’ll be writing on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of every month. Prompts on our FB page.
- Type-A Breakfast KL. Values: Productivity, discipline. Started in Melbourne by a friend, this movement is based on a simple premise: wake up at 6AM, meet in a cafe, and focus on getting a full day’s work done from 7.30AM to 9.30AM. (That’s where I started this post – turns out I do my best writing in the morning!) The triple-whammy of planning + early rising + peer pressure works. Join us in PJ, or start one wherever you are.
- Project Serendipity. Values: openness, learning, connection. This isn’t a community, but I’m throwing it in because it’s effective. The premise is simple: create a 60-min Calendly link, clear your schedule for two weeks, and open up 3 slots every day – one for lunch, one for coffee or Skype, one for dinner. Watch your life change: I’ve had heart-to-hearts with total strangers, found new BFFLs, and received business opportunities.
People intrigue, excite and inspire me, and this has offered the perfect mix of interaction and stimulation these past couple of weeks. I can’t wait to do more.
Other foolproof ways to improve your life
They say you shouldn’t try to build more than one habit at a time. I started with exercise, diet and sleep; now I’m focusing on writing and community building. But these are a few other things I’m looking at for the future:
Recently, I sent out a call-to-arms for recommendations on books, people and resources that could help me figure my life out. I received a bunch from several smart, ambitious, well-meaning lads – thanks to a Facebook shoutout by aforementioned mentor, Sebastian.
Some of their suggestions include:
- Stoic classics. Letters from a Stoic and Meditations are a must.
- Decision making systems. Check out Taylor Pearson and Ivan Mazour.
- Overcoming naysayers. Read David and Goliath and The Fish That Ate The Whale.
- Short, life-changing concepts. Just to taste: Effectual vs. Causal Reasoning, Attachment vs. Happiness, and The Minority Rule.
I try and sit with myself for a few minutes every morning, just focusing on my breath and my thoughts. I will make a dedicated effort to turn this into a 10-minute daily habit.
For guided meditation, try the app Headspace.
– Running a business
I’ve had the Silicon Valley “users-before-revenue” mindset for too long, and it’s no longer serving me. Next year, I want to build a business. A real business. It could even be service-oriented, or contract-based. Doesn’t have to be a nifty, product-based “tech startup”.
I want to apply my existing skills, pick up ones I don’t have, earn some money on the side, and get good at the fundamentals.
This doesn’t just apply to business, but to everything else as well.
Fitness. Nutrition. Communication. Community.
I want to take my time with life. Savor my wins, and pore over my losses. Do proper experiments. Set proper deadlines. Beat them. Win.
I want to build that elusive “strong foundation”, so that when disaster strikes again – and I know it will – I will be rooted and ready.
When will I ever have the chance to do this again?
“To have an indomitable spirit is not to be undefeated.”
A stranger left me with that, and I shall do the same for you.
It’s been a rough year. My roughest yet. But I’ve learned so much – about charting my own path, about understanding my limitations, about doing what’s right for me.
About rising again with grace, and an open heart.
This guide is a result of that. I hope it is a light in the darkness for you.
As always, thank you for reading.
• • •
Author’s note: If this has been of any help to you, please share it with someone else who might need it, or send me some love at me[at]gwenyi[dot]com. I read – and appreciate – every email.
Special thanks to Isaac, Gary, Matthew, Charles, and Johnathan.