I Miss You (Kinda) – An Open Letter

Has it really been a year already? I still can’t believe you’re gone.

It feels like only yesterday that the doctor told me the terrible news. I’d rushed to the hospital, but it was too late. They told me they’d need to operate, but we all knew there was no hope left for you. It was all so unexpected, I didn’t know how to cope, but it hurt. The pain was like nothing I’d ever experienced before - a stabbing in my belly that left me completely debilitated. I was so messed up I had to be sedated.

When I finally came to my senses, I found out that my worst fears had come to pass: you were gone. Taken from me forever. I didn’t even get a final chance to see you. It hurt even worse than I’d anticipated. I didn’t know what to do next. I was in such a state that I had to take time off work; in fact for the first few days I didn’t even get out of bed. The whole ordeal left me permanently scarred.

But, if I’m being honest, I recovered pretty quickly. In fact, It only took a week or so before I’d pretty much returned to normal. These days I barely even think about you anymore. I guess you just weren’t that important. You never did much for me anyway.

Yep, it’s been a full year since I had my appendix removed. RIP you vestigial motherfucker.

Appendectomy scar - July 2015

July 2015

Appendectomy scar - July 2016

July 2016

The Joylent Experiment – How I (Almost) Gave Up Eating For Ten Days

Some people love food for its own sake. I am not one of them. Food, to me, has never been anything more than fuel, and cooking is an annoying chore that I only spend time on because I have to. If I didn’t have to eat to survive, I could happily go the rest of my life without thinking about food again.

Therefore, I am the exact target customer for Soylent, the all-in-one superdrink that’s been making headlines recently in Silicon Valley. Developed by 25 year-old programmer Rob Rhinehart, and backed by tens of millions of dollars of VC funding, Soylent purports to provide all of the human body’s nutritional needs in a simple high-calorie shake, and many, including Rhinehart himself, claim to have spent months in a row consuming nothing but the product with (so far) no adverse health effects.

I’m skeptical. But I’m also intrigued. And I really hate cooking. So I resolved to give it a try.

There’s one problem: Soylent doesn’t ship outside North America, and I live in Spain. Luckily, and unsurprisingly, a bunch of copycat companies have stepped in to fill the gap in the market, so after a very small amount of research I decide to take my chances with Joylent, a shameless imitator that ships from the Netherlands.

I pay sixty euros, and one week later a big cardboard box arrives on my doorstep containing 10 packets of Joylent. According to the printed nutritional info, each packet contains 2119 Calories, 267g of carbohydrates, 134g of protein, 53g of fat, and a long list of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients*, each in amounts that are supposedly 100% or more of my RDA.

rsz_img_0749

Pictured: everything the brain and body need (minus sex, drugs, rock & roll)

I’m still skeptical, but 10 days won’t kill me (I hope). And so it begins…

(DISCLAIMER: In case it’s not extremely obvious, I am not a health professional. Nothing I write here is intended to be taken as nutritional or medical advice, nor am I endorsing Joylent or any of its competitors. Consult a doctor before you… yadda, yadda, blah, you’ve heard it all before, just don’t be an idiot, and don’t sue me if you do.)

Day 1

I normally fry up some eggs for breakfast, but today I leave the stove switched off. Instead I grab a bag of strawberry Joylent (at the time of writing, the drink is available in strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, and banana flavours, and I’ve ordered a sample of all four) and up-end its contents into my blender. I immediately realise my mistake – the blender is now so full of pink powder that there’s almost no room left at the top to add any water. Not a good start.

The next ten minutes are spent recovering from my error with all the culinary grace of a five year-old making cupcakes out of Play-Doh. I add water, blend, pour some out, add more water, and blend again repeatedly until I finally have a concoction that’s thin enough to be drunk instead of eaten. In the process I predictably spill Joylent all over my kitchen counter in various stages of dilution. I spend another ten minutes cleaning up. So much for time saving.

As for the drink itself, it tastes exactly like strawberry Nesquik, if Nesquik had the texture of cement.

For something so calorie-dense, Joylent is surprisingly not very filling, and because it’s sweet, it’s extremely moreish. I sit down at my desk and start my workday, periodically sipping Joylent and refilling my bottle, until, before I know it, I realise I’ve drunk the entire day’s bag – all 2100 Calories – in less than an hour.

It doesn’t take long for reality to set in: I feel like I’ve swallowed a bowling ball. I take the first of what will be many, many trips to the toilet over the days to come.

I really could have thought this through a little bit better.

In the evening, some friends invite me out for dinner. I’m not very hungry, but I go along anyway. My intention had never been to only eat Joylent for the next ten days, and I’m not going to turn down social invitations just for the sake of some stupid dietary experiment. But I’m still feeling pretty bloated from this morning’s escapades. I barely touch my dinner, and what little I do eat leaves me feeling very full. It’s not a pleasant feeling.

Only nine days to go.

Day 2

Today, I opt for chocolate flavour.

It was a mistake to use my blender yesterday; I don’t need it. Yesterday’s delivery included a half-litre plastic shaker with the word Joylent printed on the side. All I need to do is pour some powder into said bottle, add water, shake it like a Polaroid picture, and I have a ready-to-drink serving in less time than it took me to write this sentence.

rsz_img_0752

When I’m done, I just rinse out the bottle under the cold tap. Theoretically, if I ate only Joylent, I’d meet my calorific needs with just a couple of minutes of prep and cleanup time per day. I could get used to this.

Unfortunately, any time I’m saving in the kitchen is being more than cancelled out by all the extra time I’m spending in the bathroom. I’ll spare you the details.

I Google “Joylent constipation” and discover a Reddit thread on the subject, which includes this charming excerpt:

(Warning! Not for the squeamish!)

 

i was three days into my joylent diet. i pretty much jumped into it head first. no slow integration of the liquid food, just straight up replaced my breakfast, lunch and dinner. everything was going well.. i did notice that my poo’s were starting to get a little rough to pass.

another day went by and now it started to feel like someone cut open a handful of hot peppers and rubbed them all over the raw skin of my butthole. excruciating to say the least. that burning sensation that feels like it’s never going to end eventually made it’s way up inside and was amplified by a very sharp, stabbing pain in my anus.

i was immobilized for about three days. i could barely walk nor stand up and move around for 8 hours so i missed work and laid in bed all day and was absolutely miserable. every trip to the bathroom was worse than the last one. the hot knives i passed as bowels took bits and pieces of my soul i’ll never get back. over those three days i did get my girlfriend to pick up some metamucil (psyllium husk) and after two servings a day for about two days i could finally have a somewhat normal shit.

Yikes. So far I haven’t experienced anything nearly as bad as the above, but is this what’s in store for me? Maybe solid foods aren’t so bad after all. I suspect that this is why humans have teeth.

I hedge my bets by drinking a ton of water (with the predictable result that I start pissing every ten minutes) going out for a hearty solid-food lunch with a friend, and spacing out my Joylent servings slowly throughout the evening. I still manage to get through the entire day’s bag.

My gut is rumbling so often and loudly that it could probably be detected on a seismograph. And at the other end of the digestive tract, my breath stinks - you know it’s bad when you can taste it yourself – and no amount of brushing will fix it.

I would not want to go on a date with me tonight.

Days 3-6

Despite the rough start, I’m actually quite enjoying Joylent. The taste is nothing special, but it’s okay, and I love the convenience and time-saving aspect. The only downside is the intestinal symptoms, but by about day 4, they’ve got substantially better. Could my body be adjusting? I’m still not feeling 100%, but at least I’m not farting so much that I’d be embarrassed to leave the house.

Unlike Soylent, which gets most of its protein from rice (and thus is vegan-friendly), Joylent’s primary ingredient is whey protein. I wonder if this could be the cause of my digestive problems? I do feel bloated and, ahem, flatulent when I drink a lot of milk. And for the last several days I’ve been getting 95% of my calories from what is effectively just “powdered milk plus vitamins”. Hmmmmmm… of all the Soylent alternatives on the European market, maybe Joylent wasn’t the best choice for me.

I definitely could have thought this through a little bit better.

I’m actually no stranger to a liquid diet. When I was 20, I had orthognathic surgery (it’s a long story), and for about a month afterwards my face was swollen up like the Grinch, and I subsisted on a diet of what can only be described as “hospital gloop”. It wasn’t the most enjoyable period of my life.

post-operation photo

Post-surgery

Joylent tastes almost exactly like said hospital gloop, but hey, it still beats cooking. I’m actually not looking forward to returning to my old ways when my Joylent supply runs out next week. Maybe I should order some more.

Days 7-8

I haven’t done any dishes, been grocery shopping, or even turned on my stove in over a week. I can’t say I miss any of these things.

As well as saving me money directly (a supply of Joylent costs roughly €5 a day, which is definitely less than I normally spend on food), Joylent saves me money indirectly by reducing my use of water and electricity. Not to mention that the extra time I save by not cooking can be put to all kinds of productive uses which earn or save me even more money. It pays for itself!

I wonder what other annoying chores I can eliminate from my life with technology? Laundry? Restringing my guitars? Trying to get dates on Tinder? The possibilities are endless.

That being said, I’m not convinced that my overall environmental impact is being reduced just because my utility bills are lower. Can it really be more eco-friendly to have my food manufactured on an assembly line (its constituent parts no doubt transported thousands of miles to get there) and shipped to me from the Netherlands, rather than growing it on a farm somewhere a bit closer to home?

I don’t know if Joylent has reduced my carbon footprint, but it’s definitely increased my methane output.

Days 9-10

In the last few days of my Joylent experiment, something strange happens – I start getting hungry. I usually finish the day’s supply of food-powder by 4 or 5pm, but by 7 or 8pm I’m feeling like I could eat another meal – and on some evenings, I do.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised – a regular pack of Joylent contains about 2100kcal, and the standard advice is that men require about 2500kcal a day. I’m an average-sized guy, and I get an average amount of physical activity, so if that 2500 figure is to be believed it probably applies reasonably well to me. Am I running a caloric deficit if I only eat one bag of Joylent per day? Well, I’m consistently getting hungry, so it would seem quite obvious that the answer is “yes”.

This, in my opinion, is a major (and extremely solvable) flaw in the way Joylent is served. It just doesn’t make sense to offer a “one-size-fits-all” daily bag for people of all shapes and sizes. Other products (including the original Soylent) do it differently, and come in smaller bags/bottles of, say, 400 Calories, meaning that rather than the simplistic “one bag a day” approach, you can just take as many servings per day as meets your needs.

(Yeah, I know you don’t have to eat exactly one bag of Joylent per day, but if you’re going to deviate from the norm then the “small bag” approach is much more convenient.)

Also, the shape and size of Joylent bags means that they’re hard to pour without spillage, even when you’re pouring into the special Joylent-branded bottle. Most days, my kitchen counter is left looking like I’ve been using it to snort vanilla-tinted cocaine.

They really could have thought this through a little bit better.

It’s not all bad. Other than the minor hunger I feel some evenings (easily remedied), for the most part I feel in tip-top shape. The nasty side-effects I was having in the first few days have almost completely disappeared. I’ve also gained a small amount of weight (muscle, not fat), and I’m happy about that. I’ve always struggled to make gains in the gym, and a big part of the problem is that I just don’t eat enough. (Have I mentioned how much I hate cooking?) Joylent seems to solve this problem; when eating is this easy, I do more of it.

Of course, I know that not everybody sees “gaining weight” as a good thing, but then most people I’ve talked to say they like cooking, love food, can’t imagine giving up mealtimes, and don’t understand why anyone would want to replace dinner with a protein shake. I don’t think I’m the normal one here.

Day 11+

I open my fridge for the first time in 11 days. It’s empty, and so is my belly.

In the supermarket, I wander around like a lost little boy from the countryside who’s experiencing the big city for the first time. Urgh, I think, I so can’t be arsed with this.

I miss Joylent already, not for what it is, but what it’s not. Now that I’ve experienced life without one of my least favourite chores, it’s painful to go back – so I barely do. In the next few days I eat out for almost every meal. And I don’t always pick the healthy option – the pizza joint down the road is making a lot of money from me right now. Any cash I saved in my Joylent days has probably been cancelled out already by all the extra money I’m now spending on takeaways.

Maybe I should order some more Joylent?

I’m glad I tried this experiment – not least because it’s kicked off some interesting discussions with friends. (I’m far from the first person I know to try Soylent or one of its competitors, but that probably says more about the kind of people I hang out with than it does about the popularity of meal-replacement drinks.) It seems that very few people have a “middle of the road” opinion on this topic. They’re either in love with mealtime, and see it as one of life’s great pleasures that they couldn’t possibly give up, or they’re like me in that they couldn’t care less.

I don’t deny the social value of food. Sharing meals is one of the most fundamental, primal ways in which humans bond, and in that respect I do enjoy mealtime very much, which is why I didn’t stop eating out with friends in the evenings even when eating Joylent in the daytime. But not every calorie needs to be accompanied by conversation. I can’t see the appeal of a 100% Soylent/Joylent/whatever approach, but then even the most diehard aficionado doesn’t advocate Soylent over socialising.

As for the health effects… well, I can’t draw any meaningful conclusions from a 10-day experiment conducted in an extremely unscientific manner with a sample size of one.** But at the very least, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Joylent won’t kill you. It’s also probably healthier, or at least less unhealthy, than the way most people eat, but then that’s not saying very much.

Some proponents of Joylent and its (m)ilk argue that these super-drinks have the potential to end world hunger, but to quote someone smarter than me, you should be wary of taking advice on gold prospecting from people who are in the business of selling picks and shovels. I’m not sure what to believe, but let’s not forget that a mere €5 per day is still prohibitively expensive for most of the world’s starving. (After all, if they had €5 a day, they wouldn’t be starving.)

Anyway, I just ordered another shipment of Joylent (this time the variant “Joylent Sport”, which has more calories per daily serving and a higher concentration of protein), as well as a few bags of an another alternative called Nano to try it out. When that runs out, I expect I’ll sample a few more alternatives like Biolent or Jake. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

To all my friends: let’s go out for dinner some time this week; I’m sure I’ll appreciate it more than ever. Just don’t expect me to cook you anything the next time you’re round my house.

 

 

* It occurs to me that I need to spend less time writing computer code, because when I read the word “Selenium” I think of the web testing framework before I think of the mineral.

** If you want to read about a more rigorous one-man Soylent trial, check out this guest post from Shane Snow on Tim Ferriss’s blog – the “Afterword from Tim” section is especially worth reading.

 

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Want to Work for Yourself? Get a Job First

I made £100 the other day while sitting in Heathrow Airport. My flight was delayed, and the terminal had free wi-fi, so I took the opportunity to take my laptop out and get some work done. By the time the call for boarding came, I’d easily made enough to cover the cost of my flight.

It doesn’t suck to be self-employed. I’m a freelancer, not an entrepreneur, but the much-toted benefits are largely the same: being my own boss, setting my own hours, choosing my own projects – in short, freedom, freedom, and freedom. I’m not rich yet, but I’m pretty much exactly where I was hoping to be by now when I got into this whole thing a couple of years ago.

So, what if you aspire to something similar? You’re interested in entrepreneurship and self-employment, you hate the idea of the dreaded “real job” and the standard life path, you think you might like to get into programming or another similarly portable skill, you give a shit, but you’re young, inexperienced, and don’t know where to start. Sound familiar?

Well, here’s a piece of advice that may surprise you. This is my opinion, and some of my entrepreneurial friends may disagree, but it’s what worked for me and I’m sure my experience is transferable:

If you’re young, inexperienced, and want to work for yourself, you may be better off delaying self-employment for now and just getting a job in the industry you want to work in.

I know, I know – start-ups, digital nomadism and the like are hopelessly glorified. And it’s abundantly clear that we’re shifting into an entrepreneurial economy, which is just a polite way of saying “good luck, because you’re on your own.” But the fact of the matter is, unless you’re really talented, gifted, or lucky, you’re probably not ready to jump straight into self-employment when you’re barely old enough to drink.

I’ve been freelancing for less than a year. Before that, I worked full-time for a software company for a year and a half. The pay was absolutely shite – less than minimum wage if I’d still been in the UK – but I didn’t mind because my skills were even worse, and I’d been hired more out of charity than business sense. I quickly realised that I barely knew how to program, and the embarrassing fuck-ups came often and early.

After a few months of trial by fire though, I finally started to get a grip (and a pay rise). I learned more in the average week on the job than I did in the average month on my Computer Science degree, and in the 18 months I worked for that company, I gained a better education in software development than I could possibly have asked for – the kind that, if my life were a movie, would be condensed into a 2- or 3-minute montage sequence with every shot showing me getting a little bit better, interspersed with brief glimpses of the other characters to remind everybody of the story so far.

And bear in mind, I was getting paid for all of this. Not very much, but it was sure as hell a much better deal than university, which put me £20,000 in debt for no discernible purpose.

Now that I’m freelancing, I’m beyond grateful that I had that experience as an employee to provide a gentle, easy introduction to the industry. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I’d arrogantly decided that I knew enough at 21 to go it alone, head-first. I’d undoubtedly have fucked up big time.

As a freelancer, you’ll probably earn a significantly higher hourly rate than you could as an employee. But think about all the stuff employees don’t have to do – stuff which management finds so tedious that they’re willing to pay big bucks to a freelancer so they don’t have to bother with it themselves: calculating and paying taxes, dealing with regulation, getting the right kinds of insurance, invoicing, marketing, chasing up payments, hiring, firing, buying equipment, and a probably a bunch more stuff that I’m missing because I’m still figuring all of this out for myself. It’s not easy, and I’m beyond grateful that I don’t have to learn all of this while simultaneously learning how to code, like I’d originally thought I could pull off without a hitch. Getting a job was the perfect stepladder into self-employment, and I’m sure it’s shaved years off my learning curve and saved me thousands of pounds in costly mistakes.

Obviously this advice doesn’t apply to everybody. Some people really are ready and able to jump into self-employment from Day 1, but I wasn’t one of them, and I take issue with the way that in a lot of entrepreneurial/startup/4HWW/digital nomad rhetoric, “job” has become a dirty word, as if “filing your own taxes” is a necessary step on Maslow’s Hierarchy and anyone who earns a fixed income is a lesser form of human.

Of course, all of this leaves the question, “how am I supposed to get one of these jobs in the first place?” I’m not just talking about any old paycheque – if the only jobs you can find involve stacking shelves or serving coffee (and there’s no shame in that), you probably are better off just going to university. The kind of employment I’m talking about could best be described as an apprenticeship - not in the narrow legal sense which that term holds in the UK, but in the more general, time-honoured sense of seeking out the people in your field who are more skilful and experienced than you are, and finding a way to provide them value in exchange for their tutelage and wisdom.

Some of these apprenticeship positions are filled in the conventional way – employer posts job advert, candidates respond – but many are not. In fact, of the two programming-related jobs I had before starting out on my own, neither company was even looking to hire at the point where I got involved. I just came along at the right time, asked the right questions, and we mutually discovered a way in which I could help, to both of our benefits. Partly I got lucky, but you can’t get lucky without actually rolling the dice in the first place, and, in this time of unprecedented freedom, wealth, and opportunity, it continually amazes me how few young people even bother to step up and play.

You know those successful, wealthy people who you like to admire from afar? Most of them would love to help you out. None of them got where they are without help, and only the arrogant assholes aren’t willing to “pay it forward” to the next generation. The problem is that they’re busy, have a bunch of more important stuff to be getting on with, and are bombarded constantly by annoying hangers-on who are all trying to get something out of them without offering anything in return. They’ve got better things to do than actively seek out an apprentice, but if you approach them in the right way, are humble, polite and don’t waste their time, and keep the focus on what you can provide to them without asking for much in return, you’ll be amazed at the kind of doors that will start opening up to you.

Just remember the most important lesson of all: no-one gives a shit about you. You are on your own. No-one is going to give you the things you want in life; you have to seek them out and take them for yourself. That’s so basic, so fundamental, yet it’s almost the exact opposite of the standard narrative we’re told growing up – that we’re all special, unique little snowflakes who deserve everything on Earth just for being born, and all we have to do to succeed is pad our CVs with extracurriculars to prove how “well-rounded” we are (as if anyone cares how good you are at the things that have nothing to do with the job at hand), format the whole thing nicely in 12pt Times New Roman and let the job offers come rolling in.

I could give more ideas on the how, where and why of apprenticeships, but they’d mostly just be stolen from other people, so I’ll link to those people instead. Read and apply all of the following and watch your life improve:

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The Awkward Moment When You Realise Your Parents Were Right

When I was kid, my parents never let me play with toy guns. All the other stereotypically male toys were okay – remote control cars, action figures, Warhammer, Pokémon – but guns? No chance. If it resembled something which real people were using in real life to kill each other, my parents weren’t having any of it.

I, of course, thought this was TOTAL BULLSHIT. I wanted war toys! I saw them in the shop or the playground or advertised on Cartoon Network, and they just looked so cool. I would scream and complain and try to get my way. You’re so unfair! All my friends have got  one! But it never worked. I wasn’t allowed toy guns, and that was that.

Twenty years later, I’m not exactly seething with resentment over this grave injustice. In fact, I’m rarely reminded of it. But I was reminded of it recently, while sitting in a pizza restaurant waiting for my food to arrive.

I was with my housemates. It was late, the place was small, and the only other patrons were a family sitting at an adjacent table. The youngest child, a daughter, was sat on her mother’s lap, and both parents were conversing without paying much attention to their son, who couldn’t have been older than ten – and he was running around the room with a plastic revolver in each hand, shooting up the establishment like he was Jesse James.

Pssh pssh pssh!” he hissed, firing invisible bullets at his own dad then diving for cover behind a chair. I watched him continue the battle. He could have been auditioning for a Michael Bay movie.

Our pizzas arrived. Sylvester Stallone had nothing on this kid. I wondered what imaginary enemies he was fighting. Cowboys? Robots? Gangsters? Nazis? Whatever the casus belli, he looked like he was winning. And it wasn’t a comfortable thing to watch.

“You know,” I said to my friends with a lowered voice and a mouthful of pepperoni, “when I was a kid I would never have been allowed to run around like that in a restaurant. Or at home, for that matter. I wasn’t allowed gun toys, and I remember thinking that that was so unfair. But looking at that kid makes me realise – holy shit, my parents were right! That’s horrible. Why would you let your son play like that?”

Yes, it turns out that, much to my annoyance, my parents were completely and utterly right. What possible reason could there be to let your children play with guns, replica or otherwise? I know that it’s all just play, and that that little boy in the restaurant wasn’t hurting anybody – but right now, as you read this sentence, real people all across the world are fighting and killing each other with real guns that look just like the plastic ones children play with. It’s not a game, and it shouldn’t be treated like one.

I’ve never really experienced violence – whether as a victim, a perpetrator, or even a witness – and if you’re reading this, chances are high that the same is true for you. But what I never appreciated as a kid is how lucky this makes us both. The history of humanity is a story of brutality, chaos, and suffering – and it’s only through extraordinary effort that, as a society, we’ve managed to suppress our most primal urges and establish a reign of relative peace. God knows we still have a long way to go, but we should never forget that we didn’t get here by accident. It took work, and it’s going to take continued work just to keep things where they are, let alone improve them further. Teaching children to treat weapons of death like harmless playthings is not going to help.

It’s not a huge issue. And of all the ways you can screw up your kids, letting them fire a few pretend bullets at each other doesn’t exactly rank near the top. But the principle is there. Guns, violence, and war are serious matters that should be treated as such – and I want my children to appreciate that.

Of course, you could have told me all this when I was a kid throwing a tantrum in the toy shop - in fact, my parents probably did – and I wouldn’t have understood. But I understand now.

The next time I saw my mum, I told her about my revelation. This was her reply: “You know, when I was a little girl my parents told me I wasn’t allowed to get a Barbie, and they never bought me one or let me play with one. I was so annoyed by that, and I though it was so unfair! But you know what I realise now? My parents could not have been more right.”

She then starting listing all the usual feminist arguments against Barbie which you’ve probably already heard. None of them were new to me, but while I might have scoffed at them in the past, these days I couldn’t agree more.

Whether I have sons or daughters, I will not let them play with toy guns, nor will let them own a Barbie. I can only hope that they understand when they’re older.

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PS With that being said… guns still are pretty cool.

Fine, I Admit It, I’m a Digital Nomad

My mum cried when she dropped me off at the airport. It’s not the first time she’s done that. I’ll probably understand when I have kids.

That was two years ago. I was 22. I’ve been back to England a few times since then, but, while my true “home” will always be the rainy island I was born on, my time since that tearful farewell at Heathrow has generally been characterised by my spending as little time in the UK as possible.

More precisely: in the last two-ish years I’ve spent… 13 months in Vietnam, four months each in Germany and Thailand, one month in Cambodia, a week each in Lithuania and Latvia, and 24 hours in Poland. Phew! For most of that time I’ve been financially stable, working from anywhere with Wi-Fi, and raking in the millions with nothing but a MacBook.

(Well, “millions” only if you’re counting in Vietnamese Dong, but I can dream.)

It seems that I’ve officially become a digital nomad – a term which is kind of like “atheist”, in that it describes me accurately, yet I cringe every time I hear it. Alternatives have been offered , but until one of them catches on, I guess I’ll have to live with the label.

I don’t consider myself a travel blogger, nor do I want to want to spend too much time writing about “lifestyle design”, “location independence”, or any of the other Tim Ferriss-esque buzzwords that have already been done to death, but as my two-year travel anniversary approaches, it’s probably worth getting some thoughts into writing.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: despite whatever reservations I may have about the terminology, being a digital nomad is pretty frickin’ great. It’s not without its drawbacks (see e.g. here and here), but they’re pretty trivial in the big picture - I’m lucky, privileged, and grateful to have the opportunities I have.

Although it is a very weird existence, best summed up in song form by my friend Jeremy. (I’m in this video briefly, see if you can spot me,)


There’s an important caveat, however, and this is something I’m sure I did NOT appreciate before I got started:

Being a digital nomad is not the point.

The point is freedom, fun, growth, and contribution - and being a digital nomad is just one of many possible ways of achieving those ends. The Internet is polluted with TOTALLY AWESOME lifestyle design bloggers who are CRUSHING IT LIKE A BOSS, thinking they’ve been elevated to a higher plane of existence just because they earn $15k a year from Google Adwords and live comfortably in a cheap country. They give the rest of us a bad name, and that’s probably why I and so many other people have an aversion to the term “digital nomad” in the first place!

I totally missed the point of The Four Hour Work Week the first time I read it. (Give me a break, I was only 16.) I thought that joining Ferriss’s “New Rich” meant forsaking all forms of employment, setting up systems that would allow me to work as little as possible, achieving the mythical goal of “passive income”, and spending the rest of my days sipping proverbial cocktails on the beach while those deluded suckers I went to school with slaved away in their 9-5s. Don’t they realise that the world has changed?

Not pictured - everyone getting back to work.

Not pictured – everyone getting back to work.

Little did I realise that “work” was never something to be avoided, but embraced. If you aspire to being a digital nomad because you think it means working less, I can tell you now: you’re in for a world of disappointment. I know hundreds of digital nomads, and if there’s one thing they all have in common, it’s that they’re all Type-A, hyper-productive workaholics.

I am no exception. I work pretty much all the time – defining “work” not just as the things I get paid for, but the things I can do which are constructive and improve my and others’ lives. I find it easier these days to put in a full day’s work than I do to take a day off – and the harder I’m working, the better I feel.

(And of course, it’s become a tiresome cliché for journalists to point out that no-one who successfully follows the principles laid out in The Four Hour Work Week actually works just four hours a week. Tim Ferriss himself has stated that he never liked the title, and only chose it based on market research.)

Happiness is working and excelling. Fulfilling your potential. That’s our real job. Everything is part of that description and nothing is not work if you do it right.”Ryan Holiday

“Digital nomadism” isn’t part of my identity, just like “working online” isn’t part of my job title (who cares how and where I work, as long as I get the job done?), and “so I can say I’ve been there” isn’t the reason I travel. I like books, guitar, writing, programming, languages, and rock music. I’m interested in science, politics, history, technology, religion, health, and personal development. Freelancing, the Internet, location independence, business, blogging, and filling up pages in my passport, are all just superficial bullshit on top of the things that really matter – and every time I’ve lost sight of that (“travel for the sake of travel” being the biggest offender), the results have been at best, pointless, and at worst, a disaster.

At the end of the day, after two years on the road, the biggest lessons I’ve learned are still the ones that I figured out in the first few months - and I’ve already written about both of them:

First of all, travel is easy. If you possess the resources to be reading this blog post, you probably already have everything you need to start that long-term voyage you’ve been dreaming of. It’s easier, cheaper, and safer than you realise, and the only thing holding you back is your own excuses.

Secondly, and more importantly – travel is overrated. While I truly have had a fantastic time in the last two years, and I have very few regrets, it’s not like it’s been a non-stop mindblowing adventure of awesome. My day-to-day life is generally pretty normal – or as normal as it can be – and it’s not like I couldn’t have had fun if I’d stayed in England either. Whatever problems you’re facing at home, I guarantee you that hopping on a plane will make them worse, not better - and that’s another lesson that I had to learn the hard way. (And of course, staying at home and working a 9 to 5 are perfectly valid options for the vast majority of people – a point which the aforementioned “lifestyle design” loudmouths often seem to miss.)

Reservations aside, I’m a digital nomad for the foreseeable future. Bring on year 3.

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Programming a Faster Horse

When I was living in Berlin earlier this year, my sixteen year-old brother came to stay with me for a week. I was learning German at the time, but he doesn’t speak any, so for the duration of his visit I had to break my “no English” rule and put the German practice on hold.

A few days in, we were sitting on the U-Bahn, two people from England speaking English on a train full of Germans in Germany, when he revealed a surprising fact to me: although he hadn’t spoken a word of German since I’d met him at the airport, he’d actually studied the language for two years in school.

Me: Wait, so you know some German then? Why haven’t you been using any of it?

Him: I said I did it in school. That doesn’t mean I know how to say anything.

Me: Even after two years? You must have learned something.

Him: Not really. My teacher was so shit. It was such a waste of time.

Me: Come on, my Spanish teacher in Year 9 was the most incompetent person I’ve ever encountered doing any job ever, but he still at least taught me how to say hola, me llamo Jorge.

Him: Sounds like he did a better job than my German teacher.

Me: Can you even count to ten?

Him: No.

Me: Can you at least try?

Him: Okay. Um, hold on…. eins, zwei…. um…… dray? Fire… foyer… What was “four” again?

Me: Are you fucking kidding me?

The sad thing is, I wasn’t even that surprised. I don’t mean to disparage my brother’s intelligence (he shares most of my genes after all), it’s just that his story is depressingly common. Did anyone learn anything in the language classes we all had in school? Two years is easily enough time to reach fluency in just about any language, but if you’re studying that language in a British classroom, you’d be lucky if you reach “conversational” within a decade.

When I was in school (not that long ago), all of us had to learn a language, usually French, and there was no getting out of it until you were at least sixteen. How many people were actually able to hold a basic conversation by the time they were old enough to buy a lottery ticket? Not many. The USA’s Foreign Service Institute estimates that it takes about 6 months of study for an English speaker to learn a “Category 1″ language such as French or Spanish, but British schoolchildren study those languages for anything from five to ten years and mostly come out empty-handed.

True, native English speakers are uniquely lazy when it comes to learning foreign languages, but the problem is by no means restricted to the Anglosphere. All across the world, children are crammed into sterile identikit classroom prisons day-in day-out for years on end and forced to sit through a library’s worth of foreign language “education” – and, with perhaps the exception of ESL students in the Germanic countries, they pretty much all learn nothing.

Imagine if every major government in the world was spending a fortune on military training, putting their recruits through five to ten years of boot camp and firearms drills, and on the eve of battle it was discovered that 70% of the soldiers don’t even know which end of the gun they’re supposed to point at the enemy. This is the current state of language education.

Programming Children

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about teaching children how to program computers. In principle, I think this is a great idea.

The world needs more trained programmers. The digital revolution has barely begun, and no Western country is going to be able to compete economically in the near future if it doesn’t raise the next generation to be computer-literate techies.

It’s never been a better time to be a programmer. It’s one of the few skillsets left that that basically guarantees you a job, even at the early stages of your career, and the opportunities are expanding far faster than than the pool of people who are able to fill them. This won’t last forever – maybe only for another couple of decades – but right now it’s nothing short of a golden age. The ground is fertile, and there aren’t enough farmers.

Even if you don’t want to make a career out of programming (and as much as I enjoy my own career in programming, I’ll  be the first to admit it’s not for everyone), the skill is hardly useless otherwise. If you’re reading this, chances are good that you’re going to spend most of your working life sat in front of a computer, so might you as well learn how to use the goddamn thing so you can do your job better. The gap between the tech-savvy and the technophobic is only getting wider, and “computer literacy” is going to be the make-or-break factor in all kinds of career paths in the years to come. You don’t want to be left on the wrong side of history.

“Education is about more than getting a job!” True, but so is computing. The digital revolution has transformed far more than just the way we work – it’s spread its tendrils into almost every facet of human life, profoundly changing how we do finance, government, academia, economics, international relations, and war. I’m not an expert in how computing is affecting any of those areas, but I’ve learned just enough to realise how little I know, and the tiny amount I have learned has been mindblowing. If you want to understand the world, you need to understand computers. The reasons are intellectual as well as practical.

So yes, let’s teach children how to code. At the very least, let’s teach them some basic computer literacy, because it’s going to be as essential for life in the 21st century as regular literacy was in the 20th. Of all the possible ways we could be spending taxpayer money, this seems like as a good a candidate as any of them.

Of course, this is all nothing new. People have been calling for more computing and programming education for young people for years. What’s changing is that, finally, it seems like governments are starting to take notice. Estonia, Denmark, Israel, and France are getting with the times, to name but a few, and now the UK government is following suit. As we speak, curriculum changes are being rolled out in British schools, with the intent of teaching programming and other technical skills to children as young as five years old, compulsory up until age sixteen.

According to former education secretary Michael Gove, we’ll be:

teach(ing) children computer science, information technology and digital literacy: teaching them how to code,and how to create their own programs; not just how to work a computer, but how a computer works and how to make it work for you.

Whoop-dee-doo. Presumably these computing classes will take in between the language classes where children don’t learn how to speak a language, and the science classes where 50% of the children don’t learn that evolution is true. Is it really that cynical to suggest that Computer Science GCSE, period 3 on a Monday in between lunch break and teenage angst, might have a similar level of success as every other class on the timetable?

In reaction to the total failure of schools to teach anything to anybody, the answer you’ll hear from the average bureaucrat is “more of the same.” School is failing, and the answer is “more school” – more funding, more classroom time, more teachers, more training, more micromanaging and curriculum changes, more Ofsted inspections and standardised report cards. These are the same bureaucrats who advocate dropping bombs on other countries to make them more peaceful. I wonder if they also drink to cure their hangovers?

The problem is that no-one ever questions any of the assumptions – and there are some gigantic assumptions built into every aspect of how our education system works. Why should children be segregated by age and often gender? Why should they all be forced to learn at exactly the same pace, with no possibility for racing ahead and no tolerance for those who fall behind? Why should they sit at identical desks in identical classrooms, all facing the same direction towards an adult writing on a blackboard? Why should they be fed a top-down, standardised curriculum with no hint of variation or self-determination, and no incentive to learn beyond its boundaries? Why should the world be neatly divided into arbitrary, non-overlapping academic disciplines, with all lessons being exactly the same length as each other and following roughly the same format? The list goes on.

These questions rarely even get asked, let alone answered – yet they all represent a completely arbitrary way of arranging things, and they all deserve scrutiny, given the last 150 years of human development – a period in which almost every public institution, from the police to the army to the hospitals to the roads – has been unrecognisably transformed, yet schools remain more or less completely unchanged.

How Did We Get Here?

Our education system, a product of the Industrial Revolution, was created to fill two needs.  Only one of them still stands.

Firstly, it provides childcare. Children need to be given something to do in the day, if only to keep them busy while their parents go out and do something productive. That reason is more relevant than ever.

Secondly, it fulfilled a crucial need of the 19th century economy – that for obedient, compliant factory workers, with just enough self-determination to man the assembly lines, but no more. It’s no coincidence that school resembles an assembly line itself, converting raw materials (energetic, creative young humans) into finished goods (identikit, replaceable corporate drones) through a fixed and rigid process with no hint of variation.

That second reason died around the same time as Elvis Presley, but people are still insisting that the King is alive. Meanwhile, the assembly line keeps on rolling, and the finished goods are piling up at the far end of the conveyer belt, unable to find their way out of the factory.

When your car needs repairing, you don’t take it to the blacksmith. When you’re filling in your tax return, you don’t do your calculations on an abacus. When your roof springs a leak, you (probably) don’t call a thatcher. So why is that that, when we want to educate our children, to give them the skills they need to survive and thrive and build a better world for their own children yet to come, we’re still sending them to schools?

Henry Ford, the poster boy of the the Industrial Revolution, is said to have remarked that, if he’d given the people what they wanted, he’d have made a faster horse.* That’s what schools are – a horse, in an age of manned spaceflight and supersonic jet planes. All this talk about fixing the curriculum – whether that’s teaching kids to program, making certain subjects optional and others compulsory, tinkering with budget allocations, and raising the school leaving age, is nothing but an attempt to increase the speed of a four-legged equestrian mammal.

Exporting Bad Ideas

Not long after I escaped from school myself, I spent four months in Kenya on a volunteering scheme, as part of a misguided attempt to do something “meaningful” with my gap year when really I should have just been taking the opportunity to do more drugs and screw more girls. When I wasn’t busy updating my Facebook status, the “work” I was doing mostly consisted of manual labouring. From Monday to Friday every week I mixed cement, painted walls, and posed for photos with smiling Kenyan children, who were being educated in the adjacent buildings while my fellow wazungu (white people) and I built new classrooms for their school.

This will get me loads of Facebook likes!

This will get me loads of Facebook likes!

Let’s leave aside what a farcical, neocolonialist piece of condescension it is to send untrained and unskilled 19 year-olds off to the developing world, dressed up in heroic language about “service” and “making a difference”, just so they can take jobs away from the locals and do them badly. None of that occurred to me at the time.

Similarly, it didn’t occur to me that the classrooms I was building probably weren’t the most effective way to bring education to these children who so desperately needed it. In fact, we weren’t bringing them education at all – we were just bringing them schooling, which is kind of like trying to improve Kenyan roads by sending the country a shipment of horse-drawn carriages.

An interesting thing about Africa is that much of the continent has basically skipped landline phones and gone straight to mobile. I don’t know anything about how telecoms works, but I’d imagine that, in some ways, the lack of pre-existing telecom infrastructure has actually been a good thing when setting up the cellular network. After all, the engineers didn’t have to worry about breaking anything, or making the new system compatible with the old one. I experience this every day in my work as a programmer – writing new software is hard, but not nearly as hard as adding new bits to old software. Sometimes it really is better to start from scratch.

When I was in Kenya – 2010 – the hot new thing over there was M-Pesa, a mobile banking service which allows people to transfer money and pay for goods and services from their SIM cards. In countries where most of the population is too poor or remote for a traditional banking approach to make sense, M-Pesa and similar services have proved revolutionary.

Mobile banking is one very successful example of how abandoning old assumptions can result in drastic improvements over the old system. Yet when it comes to education – undoubtedly the single most important task if we want to build a better future, for children in Africa and everywhere else – we’re not being nearly as smart. In countries which don’t have a well-established school system already, we’re free to build anything we want - taking into account the century’s worth of technological and theoretical advances that we’ve seen since the current system came into effect. And, of course, this is all being completely ignored – we’re just taking the broken and outdated existing model we have in the West and duplicating it elsewhere, without ever stopping to think if maybe things could be improved.

What Next?

“The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” – William Gibson

Clearly, the existing system isn’t going away any time soon. Michael Gove’s successor and his counterparts across the world are determined to make the horse run faster, and I hope they succeed, but I’m not holding my breath.

My libertarian friends will probably argue that the problem is not with the individual governments who are creating crappy schools, but with the very idea of state-run education altogether, which means we should… oh, I don’t know, but something to do with Ludwig von Mises. While they may have a point, I don’t think we can ever remove government from the picture completely, if only because of all the deluded crackpots out there who would happily fill their (and everybody else’s) children’s minds with poisonous anti-scientific nonsense if it weren’t for the governmental gun pointed to their head.

Whatever the case, the question of “school reform” misses the point entirely, because schools don’t need to be fixed, they need to be replaced. I don’t know what they should be replaced by, but the good news is that credible alternatives are finally starting to emerge. While they’re still small, they’re growing fast, and they have the potential to be as revolutionary to education as M-Pesa has been to banking.

The important thing is, you don’t need to wait for the revolution to spread to the wider population before you can take advantage of it yourself. If you’re diligent and motivated, you can teach yourself almost anything online these days for free, and it’s never been easier to prove your skills to a potential employer (or to get those employers’ attention in the first place) without needing an academic institution to vouch for you – not to mention the possibility of bypassing employers entirely and carving your own path.

Whatever is you want to learn, be it a foreign language, a programming language, or almost anything else, a world-class education is already available to you. Just stop acting surprised when you don’t get it from school.

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PS If you’re still in school – and even if you’re not – do yourself a favour and read Dumbing us Down by John Gatto. I read this a few months ago, and my mind is still reeling. It’s a good thing for the mental health of my parents and teachers that I didn’t read that book before the age of 18, because the results would likely have been explosive.

—————–

*Actually, I Googled this quote to make sure that I had it right, and discovered that it’s in fact very questionable whether or not Henry Ford ever actually said it.   Apocryphal or not, though, his point still stands.

Self-Help Sacrilege – Why You Shouldn’t Set Goals

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Quick quiz: what’s the first and most important step the average person should take if they want to get better results in life?

If you’ve ever read a self-help book, and especially if you’ve written one, you probably answered that they should start setting goals. Everyone knows about the power of goal-setting. You’re not taking life seriously until you’ve defined your goals clearly, written them down, made sure they’re SMART, posted them all over your bedroom walls and social media profiles, and come up with a detailed twelve-step action plan for achieving every one of them. 50 million Tony Robbins fans can’t be wrong, right?

I believed it. I really did. I tried so, so hard to drink the goal-setting Kool Aid. I’ve set, written, abandoned, and occasionally achieved enough goals over the years to fill a medium-sized library. But try as I might, I just can’t escape an uncomfortable conclusion: goal setting doesn’t work.

Sure, sometimes I get what I want. Sometimes I don’t. But whether or not I specifically wrote down my goal in advance or followed all the common advice (action plans, visualisation, meditation, daily reviews, ritual sacrifice) seems to show almost no correlation with whether or not I achieve it.

Is it My Fault?

Goal-setting advocates would probably argue I’m just doing it wrong. The problem is with me, not with self-help’s sacred cow. Clearly I just lack the correct goal-setting strategy, and there’s some secret trick I’ve missed amongst all the thousands of words I’ve read on the subject. Goal setting works because it works, and we know it works, and everyone says it works so who am I to question whether or not it works?

I can’t help but think that goal-setting is to self-help what prayer is to Abrahamic religion. We already know that writing down our goals makes us more likely to achieve them, so why waste our time testing that hypothesis? If goal-setting doesn’t help you get what you want, that just means you’re not doing it right! I set 10 goals for myself last year, and said 100 prayers, and by the end of the year I’d achieved three of my goals and five or six prayers got answered! Therefore goal-setting is effective. Goal-setting works in mysterious ways.

What I’m about to say is tantamount to blasphemy in certain circles, but I’ve been into this kinda stuff for a loooong time, and I’m still yet to see any convincing evidence that setting specific, written goals for myself has any bearing on how likely I am to achieve them. And anyway, even if goal-setting does work it’s certainly not necessary, as my life keeps getting better and better and I spend less and less time and energy worrying about what my specific goals are.

At this point someone usually brings up the oft-repeated fable of the Yale class of 1953. You’ve probably heard it already, given how often it gets blindly repeated without anyone bothering to check the facts, but I’ll tell it again anyway in case.

In 1953, so the story goes, a nameless group of researchers at Yale (or was it Harvard?) conducted a survey of that year’s graduating class, and found that only 3% of the students had set written goals for themselves. Then when the same researchers surveyed the same class again ten years later, those 3% who had set written goals were earning more money than the other 97% combined.

Hooray! Score one for goal-setting. Where can I register for your seminar? Oh wait, except that study didn’t happen. Again and again and again the story is told (I’ve read several books that repeat it with total credulity), yet it’s been shown repeatedly and conclusively that no such study ever take place. Yale even have a page on their own website debunking the myth, so many requests do they get asking for details.

I have no doubt that people who set written goals for themselves are, on average, more successful that people who don’t. But, as you’re surely smart enough to have figured out for yourself, that doesn’t imply any kind of causal link between goal-setting and “success” (a hopelessly vague term in the first place).

I think it’s much more likely that the kind of people who set written goals for themselves tend to be smart, ambitious, and driven people anyway – the kind who are going to succeed regardless of how SMART their goals are.

Maybe goal-setting does work for you, in which case, congratulations! By all means continue. I’d just encourage you to test the “goal setting works” hypothesis with scholarship a little less sloppy than just a) writing down your goal, b) achieving your goal, then c) concluding that (a) was a necessary and sufficient cause of (b).

Focusing on the Wrong Things

My real beef with goal-setting isn’t to do with whether or not it works. The more important lesson I’ve come to realise is this: goals don’t matter. They’re totally the wrong thing to be focusing on! And if you want to enjoy and improve your life, goals are more likely to hinder you than help.

At the start of 2014, I wrote out 10 goals for myself for the year ahead. Now, two-thirds of the way through the year, looking at the list I see that so far I’ve achieved a grand total of ONE out of those ten, and realistically I’m only on track to achieve another two or three of them in the next four months.

Woe is me! What a terrible, miserable, underachieving year I must be having! Except my 2014 has been fantastic. Easily the best year of my life so far, and that’s at least the third year in a row I’ve said that. The last couple of months in particular have blown my mind, and October to December is shaping up to be a very memorable quarter too.

Reading that list of unachieved goals makes me feel bad. Look at all the things I want which I don’t have! It distracts me from all the awesome things I do have, many of which I could never have predicted in January – and half the things I thought were important in January are things I barely even care about anymore. Goal-setting distracts from gratitude and reminds you of what you lack – hardly a healthy outlook on life.

Goal-setting focuses our mind on the future, but really, the future doesn’t exist. What matters is the present moment – that’s the only place we have any control over anything, and that’s where we get to enjoy the benefits of our goals once we’ve achieved them.

Why wait? Instead of fussing over a future which I can’t predict, I’d rather focus on the things that make me happy now. Who cares whether or not I’ve achieved goal X or Y by January 1st 2015? What matters is the things I do and experience along the way.

Let’s get specific. I recently moved to Berlin. Six months ago the only German phrases I knew were “Arbeit macht frei” and “mein Kampf”, but I’ve been studying and practicing pretty intensely since I got here (June), and I do want to eventually become fluent.

I could set myself a big, fat, juicy goal about how fluent I want to become. I’d define exactly what I mean by “fluency” (have 10 minute conversation with a native with no difficulties? Pass a certain exam?), write it down, set a deadline, and follow all the usual advice such as reviewing my goal regularly and breaking it down into action steps. But what’s the point?

Firstly, it wouldn’t help, as we’ve already discussed. When I’m out at a party trying to avoid speaking English and not screw up my case endings, whether or not I’ve written down “my goal is to become fluent” in a notebook somewhere won’t make any difference to how much I learn or remember from a given conversation.

But more importantly, why does it matter whether or not I reach my specific goal? Say I set myself a deadline to be “fluent” (however I define that) by December 1st, then on December 1st I wake up and I can read Nietzsche in the original text, watch Der Untergang without subtitles, and stop accidentally asking people if they’re single (bist du frei) instead of if they’re free (hast du frei)? What does that actually mean in the bigger picture?

December 1st is just one day out of the (hopefully) thousands that I have left to live. I don’t see the point in narrowing my focus to my level of German (or whatever else) on that one particular arbitrary day – that’s an all-or-nothing mentality that will either make me feel like I set my sights too low, or discount whatever I do manage to achieve by that date because it’s not as much as I’d hoped for.

What I care about is not just December 1st, but all the days between now and then, and all the days after it. It’s not really “fluency” that I care about – what I care about is enjoying my time in Germany more. So far, learning the language has been doing a pretty good job of that, and by focusing on the present I get to enjoy the rewards every single day instead of waiting to cash them in (or not) once I’ve reached my arbitrary deadline.

A Better Way

So, here’s my antidote to goal-setting. Firstly, I still keep one eye on the future, but I don’t worry about the specifics too much. I can’t possibly predict all the opportunities, setbacks, serendipity, and randomness that’s going to befall me over the next few years, so I’m not going to stress about it. What happens, happens, and I’ll make sure I’m antifragile enough to handle it when it arrives.

Secondly, I keep a general idea of the areas of my life I want to improve – health, work, and relationships, to name just a few – and rather than setting specific goals, I set general ones. “Be healthy,” “increase my income,” “improve my German,” “spend more time writing,” – these are all hopelessly vague and wishy-washy from the point of view of a seasoned goal-setting professional, but I find they work for me just fine.

Thirdly, when I’m planning my day or my week, I pick one or two things I can think of that will help me achieve the above generalities, and I get to work on them NOW. “Be healthy” might be vague, but it’s never hard to think of something I can do (or stop doing) TODAY that will make me healthier, and today is all that matters.

The beauty of this approach is that it keeps me moving and improving, but it doesn’t come with the inherent dissatisfaction of goal-setting. As long as I’m a little bit healthier, wealthier, and wiser than I was yesterday, I’m winning, and I don’t have to feel bad about the big lofty aspiration that’s still off in the distance.

But whether I’m focused on the ground beneath my feet or the ten miles of pathway in front of me, as long as I’m moving in the right direction I’ll get to my destination eventually.

Right, now I’m off to meet some German friends and enjoy the rest of today.

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A Farewell to Facebook – You Shall Not Be Missed

Kaboom!

Kaboom!

Aaaaargh! I can’t go on like this anymore.

After iffing and maybeing about it for months, I’ve finally decided to quit all social media. As of this morning, my accounts on both Facebook and Twitter have been permanently deleted. Destroyed. Wiped out. Nuked from orbit. Terminated with extreme prejudice. And damn, does it feel good.

A few people are probably rolling their eyes – “oh no, not this again” – because I quit Facebook with some fanfare at the beginning of 2012, and kept it up for maybe 10 months before caving in and rejoining. A year and a half since creating that new account, it’s clear that I made a terrible mistake. The grass really was greener on the other side. Time to hop back over the fence.

Looking back, 2012, the year when I went on a low-Facebook diet, was also the year when I began my current career, hitch-hiked across Europe, quit drinking (the biggest turning point of my life), started this blog, met several of my now-closest friends, read nearly 70 books, and, towards the end, finalised my plans to drop out of university and move to Vietnam (my second biggest turning point). All in all, a pretty significant year for me. A few things went wrong, but far more went right, and I’m sure that the fact that I didn’t have Facebook weighing me down was a contributing factor.

(Disclosure: I actually did have a fake FB account for a lot of that time which I rarely used; it had 0 friends and I just used it to check up on a few groups and events that I otherwise couldn’t access. I don’t plan on doing the same this time round; I’m sure I’ll find a way to manage without it.)

I’ve been pussyfooting around the idea of re-quitting for an embarrassingly long time – I wrote over a year ago that I’m “probably going to delete my account again soon” – but never could quite bring myself to do it. I’d tell myself that Facebook’s not completely useless, I need it every now and then, it does come in handy sometimes, I can’t do without it. No matter how badly Facebook treats me, I keep on forgiving its flaws. Is this what it feels like to be a battered housewife?

Fuck it. The negatives clearly outweigh the positives, and it’s not even close. I’ve dumped a lot of deadweight from my life in the last couple of years, and it’s time to add social media to the ever-growing junk pile.

Quitting Cold Turkey

The clincher for me was reading this post by my hero Steve Pavlina, who recently made the exact same decision to nuke all his social media accounts. As is usually the case with Steve’s writing, I agree with every word.

(Well, except the part about Walden. Am I the only one who hated that book?)

Here’s a quote:

Moderation works for some things, but that approach doesn’t work so well in certain areas, especially not after years of regular usage where the addictive patterns have already been trained.

I’ve seen people do 30-day social media opt-outs. They see great improvements in their lives during those 30 days. Then they return, and within a week or two, the old habits are fully restored.

Imagine a smoker who stops smoking for 30 days and then goes back to smoking afterwards, but with the intention of smoking less than before. That rarely works for anyone. The previously trained neural patterns will simply re-engage, sometimes within just a few days.

That one hit home because I actually did take a month-long break from social media earlier this year, as a new year’s resolution. It was a big win – I really did see huge benefits – but within a week of firing up my news feed for the first time in February, I was already back to my old ways and wasting just as much energy as I had been in December. It seems like social media really is an all-or-nothing proposition for me, and of those two options, I can’t say it’s a difficult decision.

Yeah, I could keep my account and just try to use it less, but what’s the point? For one thing, I’d be fighting an uphill battle against Facebook themselves. The company’s entire raison d’être is to keep you addicted, distracted, and coming back again and again so you can look at more and more adverts. Facebook is a terrible communication platform, but its flaws aren’t the result of incompetence – they’re deliberately engineered to keep you hooked and dependent.

It’s like the relationship between a junkie and his dealer. Should I work on improving my relationship with my dealer? Buy in bulk, so I don’t have to visit him so often? Install a fancy app like SelfControl that prevents me from visiting him more than once per day? Are you serious? The answer is to stop putting the goddamn needle in my veins!

Plus, by having an account at all I’m giving people expectations that I don’t want them to have. Even if I check Facebook only once a month, other people on the site have no way of knowing that, and are going to message me and expect a reply. I don’t want to have more than one inbox. Email me, people. It’s not that bloody hard.

That’s just another example of how Facebook is designed for user manipulation, not user satisfaction.  If it was possible, I’d make my profile nothing more than a static page, impossible to comment on or message, but of course Facebook won’t let me. I have every possible notification turned off, and my account cranked up to all the most closed and private settings I can find, yet I just can’t stop Facebook from bombarding me constantly with shiny little digital trinkets scientifically formulated to waste my time.

Even if I do check my messages, I have to deal with all the fuss about whether or not people can see that I’ve “seen” their message, and if they’re annoyed when I take more than 5 minutes to reply (grow the fuck up, seriously). Then there’s the group chats I’ve been added to which I have no interest in but it would be rude to leave, the friend requests from people I’ve barely met who are apparently insulted that I clicked “ignore” (get over it), the people I’d rather forget about but don’t want to cause a stir by deleting, and Christ, just all the drama, I can’t even describe it. You’d think people would get past this playground nonsense by the time they’re 15, but apparently not.

Twitter and the rest

The only other social media service I use actively is Twitter, and that decision was slightly harder, but I figured it needs to go too. At the end of the day, it’s just another distraction, and there are far better things I can be spending my time on.

(Edit: I rejoined Twitter, but only because this blog gets a fair portion of its traffic from there. If you see my account tweeting anything that isn’t an automatically-generated link to this website, you have my full permission to punch me in the face the next time you see me.)

Google+ I’m keeping because I never interact it with anyway and am rarely reminded of its existence, so it’s a non-issue. Plus I use Gmail, and I imagine that the two accounts are inextricably intertwined so that I can’t quit one without quitting the other. I’ve been a Gmail user for years – since long before G+ existed – and it’s a great service, but if Google ever start using it to shove G+ down my throat (which wouldn’t surprise me as this is the direction that they’ve started taking with YouTube), I guess it’ll be time to say a sad sayonara and find a new email client.

G+ might be a damp squib so far, but Google clearly aren’t giving up on it, and I can’t predict what the future has in store. I see no reason to get too excited about G+ though, even if it does become more widely adopted. I can’t think what need I have that it would fill.

I might as well mention Snapchat, which I downloaded earlier this year at the insistence of a friend, played around with briefly, then ended up deleting after a month or two. Yeah, I guess it’s an interesting concept, but do I really need another distraction in my life? What problem do I have that Snapchat actually solves? I was doing fine for 23 years without it, and I can’t remember ever once saying “damn, if only I had a way of sending someone a picture message that would delete itself after 10 seconds!”.

Cal Newport puts it well: you wouldn’t buy a garden tool if you had no idea what to use it for, so why doesn’t the same apply to a piece of software?

Technoskepticism

This is going to sound ironic because I’m a programmer, but when it comes to technology I’m generally an extremely conservative guy. I rarely download new apps - scanning the list of apps I use regularly, I can only spot one, Vitamin R, that I’ve “discovered” within the last year – and I’m very hesitant to buy new gadgets or devices unless I have a clear and articulate idea of what I need them for.

When it comes to the latest Apple gadget, computer accessory, or hot new social app, people tend to only consider the financial cost before signing up. This seems like a stupid approach to me, because money is the least important cost of all. Far more valuable are my time, energy, and mental clarity, three things which electronic gadgets are very good at draining, and which are much harder to replenish than my bank balance.

I can’t think of a single reason why I’d want to own an iPad, for example, or any other brand of tablet. The thought of buying one has never even remotely occurred to me. I’ve expended more energy in my life writing this paragraph than I have comparing tablet models. Raving to me about the latest innovations in the world of tablets is like trying to sell me on your new brand of lacrosse stick or clarinet or flavour of cat food. Yeah, maybe the new version is 5% shinier than the old one, but why should I care when I’ve never had any need for one in the first place?

I don’t even own a smartphone – I ditched my HTC last year for a Nokia 1280, and that black-and-white beauty is my favourite phone I’ve ever owned. People are usually shocked to find this out (not least because I work for a mobile app company), but I have no intention of going back, and I’m yet to hear a convincing argument for why I should.

The one single thing I miss about having a smartphone is the maps. If someone invented a phone that does nothing but call, text, tell the time, and tell me where the hell I am when I get lost, I would use it for the rest of my life.

99% of the time, I find that when I have a problem or frustration or a way in which my life needs improving, a new piece of technology is not the answer. The real problem is usually in my head, not in the way that the 1s and 0s are arranged on my hard drive, and an elaborate software solution is just a way to procrastinate and distract myself from the real issue.

My favourite productivity apps are a pen and a piece of paper. I’ve tried a few of those fancy to-do apps like Things and Remember The Milk and I’ve found that they just don’t work, for me at least. Keeping an exercise log? I can’t beat a pocket notebook. Organising my schedule? I manage my life through the Calendar app on my MacBook, a program that’s remained largely unchanged since the version I used 10 years ago on the first Mac I ever owned.

Writing? Well, I’m writing this particular blog post in Evernote, but I do most of my writing (and all my coding) using Vim, a piece of software that’s approaching its 23rd birthday and still kicks the ass of every newer “advanced” text editor I’ve ever tried.

And I still find that the best way to get focused when I want to get some serious writing done is to shut the laptop lid and grab a paper and a pen. Many of the posts on this blog began their life in an A5 notebook. I remember writing my entire 2013 post by hand in one sitting while relaxing on a beach in Cambodia – without any Internet to distract me or LCD lights to tire my eyes, the words just flowed from my hand effortlessly and enjoyably; the post practically wrote itself.

That’s a state of mind I’d like to achieve as often as possible, and electronics are usually a barrier, not a facilitator.

All this is leading up to my main point:

What is Social Media For?

What purpose does social media actually serve? If you’d never heard of Facebook and someone tried to sell it to you today, would you get all excited and enthusiastic and whip out your credit card? I think it’s more likely that you’d furrow your brow. “What the hell would I need that for?” There’s no functionality Facebook provides – messaging, group chat, sharing photos, advertising, communicating with an audience – that a different service doesn’t already provide better anyway. Why complicate things, especially given Facebook’s GIGANTIC cost to my time, concentration, and overall happiness?

The only exception is maybe if you’re having a party, Facebook is a good way to quickly invite all your friends, but that’s not enough to justify the cost to me. 95% of the event invites I receive anyway are just promo-spam from horrible club nights I wouldn’t attend if you paid me, usually in cities that I don’t even live in. When it’s actually an event I’d be interested in, someone usually tells me even if I already saw it on Facebook, and if they don’t, I’m not going to lose much sleep over it. There’s more than enough cool stuff going on where I live to keep me busy; I don’t need Facebook to find it.

Junk Socialising vs. Healthy Socialising

Social media is to socialising what junk food is to healthy eating. I didn’t invent that analogy, but it’s better than any I can come up with myself. I used to eat at McDonald’s semi-regularly and even enjoyed the taste; these days I wouldn’t eat a Bic Mac if you paid me $500. The last time I tried I felt so physically sick afterwards that I could barely stand. Facebook gives me a similar feeling of queasiness. Junk food makes you unhealthy, but I think it’s equally true that being unhealthy makes you eat junk food. The times when I was “junk socialising” – pissing away hours a week clicking around on Facebook, commenting, “liking”, posting incessant fucking status after status – were the same times when my offline social life SUCKED. These days things have improved and social media just doesn’t do it for me anymore. I’ve simply found better alternatives.

Twitter provides a handy outlet for my wit, but I suppose if I have a thought that I really want to share with the world, I can always post it on this blog. If it’s not worthy of the time and effort required for a full blog post (and my average post is over 1500 words long), it’s probably not worth sharing anyway. I still get random strangers emailing me on occasion to say nice things about blog posts I published months ago. Does anyone even remember the hilarious Tweet I posted last week?

This blog costs me roughly £80 a year to run, and gives me a lot in return. As a low estimate, Facebook costs me 20x that amount in terms of lost productivity, and gives me pretty much nothing in return. Facebook loses.

Privacy, Shmivacy

As a quick aside, the reason I’m quitting has nothing do with “privacy”. I’d obviously rather that Facebook don’t share my data than they do, but that’s a pretty stupid expectation. The entire point of using Facebook in the first place is to share information about yourself! And you go in with the expectation of privacy?

Facebook privacy is an asinine non-issue that journalists only drum up on slow news days so they can feel relevant. Here’s an idea guys: IF YOU DON’T WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT YOU, DON’T POST IT PUBLICLY ON THE INTERNET. Revolutionary, huh?

“Keeping in Touch” – Who Cares?

The same friend who convinced me to check out Snapchat (which I downloaded to my iPod, by the way, for those who are confused after reading above that I played around with Snapchat but don’t have a smartphone) told me that the app is a great way to keep in touch with people she doesn’t see so often. Some people back home, she told me, she basically wouldn’t communicate with at all anymore if it weren’t for the Snapchats they send each other.

So? I’d argue that if I don’t have anything to say to someone that can’t fit into a stupid impersonal little Snapchat message which I’m sending out to half my contact list, then the relationship probably isn’t worth maintaining in the first place.

All the Snapchats, Tweets, Likes, PMs and status updates in the world can’t add up to a single minute of face-to-face conversation. And that’s all I really care about. Nothing beats real life.

An afternoon spent hanging out face-to-face with a smart, interesting, positive person or group of people – even if we don’t know each other that well yet – leaves me recharged and invigorated and ready to take on the world. A long conversation on Facebook Chat usually leaves me drained and exhausted, no matter who it’s with or what we discuss. More personal forms of electronic communication, like say video chat via Skype, fall somewhere in the middle, and are usually worth the effort, but if it’s a choice between meeting in person and any kind of electronic communication, I’m always going to choose the former. You could say I’m a digital introvert.

With the amount of travelling I’ve been doing lately, there are many people who I’d consider close friends who I barely ever get to see anymore. I’m fine with that, and so are they – I guess that’s part of why we get along. It makes the time we do spend together that much more worthwhile. I’d rather communicate with someone once a year if it means we can meet up in person and have an honest, heartfelt, meaningful catch-up, than communicate every day if it has to be by social media. If that’s not your style, Snapchat away, but don’t take it personally when I don’t want to join in.

Anyway, the people I know who use social media the least are generally the smartest and most interesting people I know, the ones who I care the most about staying in touch with in the first place. With a few exceptions, the social media addicts tend to be the people I’d rather avoid, which is hardly surprising given that most social media sites are deliberately designed to encourage the worst qualities in everybody – immaturity, attention-seeking, bragging, posing and posturing, narcissism and vanity. I don’t want that in my life.

Facebook does come in handy as an address book, but once again, it’s just not worth the downsides. Before deleting my account I went through my friends list to make sure I still have contact details for anyone I’d actually want them for. I hope I didn’t miss anybody, but even if I did, in this age of 24/7 connection, it can’t be that hard to find them again. If anyone wants to find me, well, this blog isn’t going away any time soon, so I guess my contact details will always be just a quick Google away.

On the Shortness of Life

Here’s another quote from that Pavlina post:

I basically asked myself which scenario seemed best over the next 10 years — going social media-free vs. continuing to use it. It wasn’t really a difficult choice to see which alternative was best. The thought of investing another decade in those services made me cringe.

Damn right. Something I like to remind myself of is that my time on this Earth is limited. I’ve got maybe fifty years left (that’s less than 20,000 days) if I’m lucky – for all I know I could get hit by a bus tomorrow – then I will cease to exist for all eternity. So, given the indescribable preciousness of time, the one thing I have that I can never replace once it’s gone, why would I possibly want to throw it away on anything except the absolute best that’s available to me?

Bear in mind that if you spend just five minutes on Facebook a day, which I’d wager is far less than the average person my age, that adds up to 30 hours a year – nearly four full working days. If you came into work on Monday and did nothing but refresh your news feed all day until Thursday afternoon, would you still have a job on Friday morning? Would you feel like your week had been well spent? Would you feel happy about the direction your life is headed? I’d probably feel physically sick and borderline depressed.

Really, when you say “no” to social media, you’re actually saying “yes” – to all the other things you could be doing instead. The time’s going to pass anyway no matter what you do, so you might as well make good use of it. And it’s hard to think of single less useful or worthwhile way I could be spending my time than idly browsing social media sites.

It’s for the same reason that I pretty much never watch TV anymore, or play videogames. (Although in both cases it wasn’t so much of a conscious choice to stop, I just gradually lost my interest – and I got more than enough TV and gaming in for one lifetime by the time I was 16.) Sure, there are some great TV shows out there, but it is really worth sifting through the haystack to find a couple of needles when I could be spending that time doing something that actually matters? I highly doubt I’m going to lie on my deathbed filled with sorrowful regret at all the things that could have been if only I’d watched The Wire. The same applies to social media.

Antisocial Networking

Let’s take a brief detour to talk about porn. I promise this is relevant.

Y’see, humans have been using visual stimuli to get off ever since the first frustrated Neanderthal scratched a big-busted stick figure onto the wall of his cave. But it’s only in the last decade or so that, thanks to high-speed Internet, porn has advanced in ways that our horniest ancestors could never have even dreamed of, with HD, close-up, multi-angle footage of men and women of every size, shape and colour doing it in any position, available on-demand for free to anybody anywhere. (So I’ve heard.) No matter what your kink or perversion, it’s available instantly at the touch of a button, no credit card required, and boy, are we indulging.

It should hardly come as a surprise that all those digital dicks and virtual vaginas are having an impact on our collective psychology. Feminists will be pleased to hear that the scientific evidence is mounting: porn is reshaping our sexual psyches, and the only question is how badly.

Compounding the problem is that the topic is extremely difficult to study, because everyone (well, at least every man) grows up with porn now, and it’s practically impossible for researchers to find men who haven’t watched porn who they can use as a control group in their studies.

It used to be the case that teenagers would learn how to have sex by fumbling around and figuring it out for themselves. These days they usually learn by consuming gigabytes of hardcore porn before they ever get any first-hand experience, and that sets up a lot of assumptions and expectations that, to put it mildly, probably didn’t exist 100 years ago. Is porn changing the way we have sex? I don’t know for sure; I’m too young to remember life before the Internet and I have nothing to go on but anecdote, but it’s an interesting question to say the least.

I’m not on a moral crusade against porn, but I can’t help but wonder if sites like Facebook are doing to our social brains what sites like Redtube are doing to our sexual brains. Social media is to socialising what porn is to having sex, in that it’s a hollow imitation of the real thing, and it might satisfy you briefly in the short term, but in the long term it’s deeply, profoundly unfulfilling. And the long-term effects both on individuals, and on society as a whole, are still barely understood, and surely negative.

(I highly recommend the book Virtually You if you want to learn more about how the Internet is reshaping our minds for better or worse – not just in regards to sex.)

Pretty much everyone has Facebook these days. I don’t know a single person under the age of 30 who’s never had an account, even if they’ve since deleted it or hardly use it. Social networking didn’t really hit it big until I was about 16 (anybody remember Bebo?), but nowadays kids are growing up with Facebook from their early childhoods, and the implications are depressing.

Children as young as eight years old are creating online shrines to themselves where they can broadcast unfiltered messages to everybody they know, project false images of themselves, be under constant scrutiny, and publish things that are, in all probability, going to remain online, public, and identifiable with their real name, for the rest of their lives. Instead of going outside after school and playing together in the sun – y’know, like kids, like humans are supposed to do – they’re spending the same time reblogging each other’s Tumblrs, tweeting about Justin Bieber, and downloading app after app after app which makes them think they’re “socialising” when really they’re not in the slightest. How can this possibly be a healthy way to grow up?

Yeah, I know that this kind of “the kids aren’t alright!” scaremongering has plagued every generation, and I don’t want to sound too alarmist. Really, I love living in 2014 and am generally grateful for the technology of our time. But still, I remain firmly unconvinced that social networking has, on the whole, been a net positive for our social lives.

Facebook clearly isn’t going to go away any time soon, but I’m sure its days are numbered, simple because, to quote Taleb, “bullshit is fragile”. What’s yet to see is whether it will be replaced by something new entirely, or by something equally insidious. My hopes aren’t high.

Until then, if my words make sense but you can’t bring yourself to ditch Facebook just yet, I highly recommend the Chrome extension News Feed Eradicator as an intermediate step, or SelfControl if you’re a Mac user. I’ve heard good things about other blockers like RescueTime and StayFocusd too, but at the end of the day the best blocker will always be the power button.

If you want to reach me from now on, you can find me somewhere far away from all social media, probably curled up with a book, writing a riff on my guitar, sat on my laptop in a Berlin café working on something I care about, or spending quality time with quality people, face-to-face – all things that actually matter to me and make a difference in my life, which is more than I can say for any interaction I’ve had with social media, ever.

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Vietnamisation – Reflections on my 15 Months as a người nước ngoài

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382 days.

By my reckoning, that’s the exact amount of time I’ve spent  in Vietnam. I’ve been in and out of the country a few times since I first moved here in February 2013, but from the stamps in my passport it was easy to count the days and come up with 382 – and the number isn’t likely to increase by the time you read this, as I’m boarding a plane back to the UK  this evening.

Ah, Vietnam. To many people, the name is still closely associated with a poorly-understood war that ended 39 years ago, and not much else before or since. Mention the country and the first, and possibly only, thing people picture will be camoed-up GIs sweating in the jungle, Huey helicopters blasting Ride of the Valkyries and William Dafoe throwing his hands in the air as he’s shot in the back.

Not too long ago, I was one of those people. The only thing I knew about Vietnam was that I barely knew anything about it, and I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I first stepped off the plane at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, Ho Chi Minh City.

Partly I was too busy reeling in surprise from the turn of events that had brought me here in the first place. I’d been making grandiose travel plans for years but never taking much action to achieve them, and Vietnam was never particularly high on my list of countries to visit. I ended up here pretty much by accident – but what an accident it’s been, and I wouldn’t trade the last 15 months of my life for anything.

After 382 days, I’m leaving for no other reason than I feel like I’ve been here long enough, and I fancy a change. After a brief visit home, my next destination will be Berlin – but it’s certainly not my last destination, and I’m excited about the future.

One thing’s for sure: I will definitely be back.

So in the vein of my 2012 and 2013 roundups, here’s another multi-thousand-word outpouring of all the things I want to say about this latest chapter of my life. May the brain-dump commence:

Sài Gòn đẹp lắm, Sài Gòn ơi, Sài Gòn ơi!

Ho Chi Minh City is the new name for Saigon (written “Sài Gòn” if you’re Vietnamese, or pedantic), and the old name is still in common usage, for example in the classic Vietnamese nationalist song “Sài Gòn Đẹp Lắm”, whose title means “Saigon is very beautiful”. I find this ironic, because for all of the city’s positive qualities, beauty is definitely not one of them. It’s a loud, dirty, polluted sprawl of concrete and chipped paint, full of potholes, flashing lights and tangled telephone wires, and not for the faint of heart. I love it.

Run-of-the-mill.

Run-of-the-mill.

And it’s big. Even from a mile in the air as you fly in, the city stretches to the horizon in every direction. 100 years ago it was just an insignificant little fishing town on the farthest reaches of the French empire, but today it’s the 44th largest city in the world, and its explosive population growth isn’t showing any sign of slowing down.

If you’re not a fan of big, bustling conurbations, then I wouldn’t touch Saigon with a 10-foot punji stick, but as someone who grew up in an uneventful market town in the heart of middle England, I can’t get enough of the big city vibe. Saigon is fast-paced, energetic and full of excitement, and those are three things I want to be myself, so it’s a good environment to be soaking up.

Vietnam has been through a lot of hardship since the war ended (not to mention during it), but things have turned around recently to say the least. After a disastrous decade of recession, stagnation and hyperinflation, in 1986 the Communist Party adopted its policy of doi moi (renovation) and set rolling the first few snowballs of growth that today have developed into an avalanche.

Much like China, but on a lesser scale, Vietnam has seen an explosion of development in the last few years, and we’re only at the beginning. It’s written on Saigon’s skyline. Parts of the city feel like one big construction site, and all the tallest buildings are only a few years old. I’d love to set up a timelapse camera in the empty land on the outskirts, come back in 2018, play the tape back at high speed and watch the fields erupt into skyscrapers.

Vietnam is still a poor country in a relative sense – I’m reminded of this when I get out of the big city and into rural areas –  but the future trends are looking good. It’s just one part of the gigantic shift in power from West to East that’s going to define the 21st century, and it’s been exciting to be in the middle of it.

Of course, some would argue that the current growth is unsustainable. And the Communist Party might be doing a good job with the economy, but… well, as much as I’d love to carry on with that thread, I don’t want to harm my chances of getting back into the country one day, so for now I’ll keep my mouth shut.

(The book Vietnam: Rising Dragon is an interesting read if you want to learn about Vietnam’s uncertain future and the challenges that the Communist Party is going to face if it wants to keep its grip on power. But it’s banned in Vietnam so of course I haven’t read it. Ahem.)

Vietnam Syndrome

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Notable attractions in Saigon include the Reunification Palace (untouched since NVA tanks came crashing through its gates in 1975), the Cu Chi tunnels just outside the city, the hilariously one-sided War Remnants Museum (which was originally called the “Museum of American Atrocities”, and contains plenty of information about the My Lai Massacre but not a whisper about the Massacre at Hue), and, just down the road from my house, the Thich Quang Duc Memorial – constructed on the spot where the Buddhist monk and noted Rage Against the Machine fan Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death in protest against the religious persecution of his people. (Although I like to think it was because he’d seen a vision of Tom Morello’s guitar playing while meditating, and the sheer badassery of the riffs made him spontaneously combust.)

I'd set myself on fire for the chance to be on a Rage Against the Machine album

I’d set myself on fire for the chance to be on a Rage Against the Machine album

As a British man, it’s not often that I can travel to the developing world and be in a country that was fucked up by someone other than my direct ancestors. I used to think Vietnam would be one of those rare places, but then I picked up a history book. Turns out that, while we weren’t the lead villain in the story, the UK wasn’t exactly a neutral bystander either in the tumultuous history of 20th-century Indochina.

As Nazi troops were rolling into Paris in 1940 and hanging a Swastika flag from the the Arc De Triomphe, the Japanese were busy smashing their European enemies in Southeast Asia – driving the British out of Malaysia, the Dutch out of Indonesia, and the French out of Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina, the three territories that roughly cover the area of modern Vietnam.

Five years later, after inflicting untold suffering on their new subjects, including facilitating a famine in the north that killed as many as 2 million people, the Japanese were vanquished at home, and in the power vacuum that followed, many among Vietnam’s burgeoning independence movement reasonably believed that their time had come.

Sadly, the old powers of Europe weren’t so keen on that idea. After losing so much in their home terrorities, they’d be damned if they were going to let their foreign possessions slip away too, and if French Indochina gained its independence, what kind of precedent would that set for the rest of the colonies? But the French army was too crushed to take back Vietnam on its own, so it fell to the British and Chinese to restore order, setting back Ho Chi Minh’s ambitions of independence by another 30 years (which, incidentally, was six years longer than Ho himself lived to see).

It’s been interesting to learn that Allied heroes like Churchill and de Gaulle, at the same time they were fighting valiantly to protect Europe from the conquerous ambitions of an aggressive imperial power, were also expending a lot of energy on protecting their own countries’ imperial interests, apparently without seeing any double standard. The hypocrisy is staggering, and it’s added new colour to my ever-developing understanding of World War II.

In fairness, I suppose that criticising men from the 1940s for being imperialists is like criticising men from the 1640s for having bad teeth. I wonder how many of the things we all believe unquestionably today will be seen as barbaric by our own great-grandchildren? Probably most of them, assuming that we don’t manage to wipe ourselves out in World War III or IV before our great-grandchildren have a chance to be born.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I immersed myself in Vietnam’s history in the last year, and I’m extremely glad I did. I’d view the city and the country so differently if I hadn’t taken the time to learn as much as I could about what made things the way they are. Like learning the language (much more on that later), it’s been a lot of effort but the payoff has been huge.

The main reason I learned all this is because I couldn’t bear not to. Saigon is dripping with history, and living here made me acutely aware of my ignorance in a lot of important areas. There’s just no way I could have spent 15 months here without working to fix that ignorance.

My friend James wrote a very cool blog post about this, seeking out the locations of iconic photos taken in Saigon and finding out what they look like today. When it comes to everything I’ve learned about Vietnam and the world in the last year, I can’t put it any better than his final paragraph:

There are many places in Ho Chi Minh City which make me think about what these streets have seen. And there is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about how easy my life is.

The Scene

It’s all Jon’s fault.

I’m talking about Jon Myers, former punk rocker, current web designer, friend of mine and all-round badass. About two years ago, he posted a piece on the DC, followed by a post on Medium, about why he loved living in Saigon, inviting his fellow entrepreneurs and nomads to come and check out the city for themselves. A few people took the bait, which turned into a few more people, which turned into an influx of entrepreneurial expats by the 747-load, and now Saigon is bursting at the seams with MacBook-wielding weirdos (I mean that in a good way)  seeking to conquer the world over coffee shop WiFi.

At the weekly "Paleo Power Breakfast", one of my favourite staples of Saigon life.

At the weekly “Paleo Power Breakfast”, one of my favourite staples of Saigon life.

So much has been written about this already and I can barely add to the  tons of great articles already out there. The short version of the story is this: if you want to start on online business, join the ever-growing ranks of Four Hour Work Week-reading lifestyle entrepreneurs and “digital nomads” (a term I hate but have yet to find a better alternative to), or just generally be surrounded by cool and inspiring people who are doing interesting work that matters, you can hardly pick a better place to be than Ho Chi Minh City.

I’m writing this from the top floor of a café overlooking a busy intersection 5 minutes from the city centre. I’ve spent hundreds if not thousands of hours over the past year holed up in places like this hacking away on my laptop, trying to create something I’m proud of. Many of those hours, I’ve been sat a table full of my fellow workaholics, all slogging away on our various projects, helping each other out and keeping each other in check. It’s a self-help cliché that if you want to make a change in your life, you need to surround yourself with people who are on the same path, but it’s a cliché because its true, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it in the last year.

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Saigon coffee shop, or Apple Store? Sometimes I can’t tell the difference.

My entrepreneur friends are all extremely unusual people, but that’s not a criticism. What’s funny is that, despite being several standard deviations away from the norm, we’re mostly all weird in the same ways. If you like to read about offshoring and sleep hacking over a cup of bulletproof coffee whilst waiting for your IF window to open so you can eat some paleo food, then doing a speed test in your coworking space and writing an SOP for your VA – and if the previous sentence made any sense to you whatsoever, you’re going to fit right in here.

After my last post about dropping out of uni and moving to Vietnam became somewhat of a hit, plenty of people have emailed me wanting to know more, and asking questions. My answer is always the same: if you’re thinking about moving here and getting involved, just do it. It’s easier than you’d believe, and if you’re seeking what I’m describing, it’s practically impossible to hang around here and not get involved in the scene. Hell, I’ll put you in touch with some friends if you want. I’m sure they’d be happy to help; in fact that’s how I ended up here myself.

I shouldn’t single out the entrepreneurs. They’re actually the minority here; most expats are English teachers or work for foreign corporations. Expats are a diverse group, but the one thing they have in common is that they tend to to be pretty cool people, and that’s saying nothing of the 99.9% of Saigon’s population who didn’t grow up in another country, and who have just as much you can learn from as your fellow globetrotters. The community here is fantastic and it’s what I’m going to miss the most.

Above all, if there’s one thing I’ve gained from my time here, it’s a sense of opportunity, possibility, and excitement. I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life, but the picture it’s the clearest it’s ever been, and I’m feeling optimistic.

My time in Saigon has been one of growth, education, adventure, exploration, mentorship and freedom.

In other words, it’s been everything that university should have been but wasn’t.

And as I pack my bags, I dig my old student card out of a drawer and notice that it expires on June 6th, 2014 – tomorrow. In other words, I’m (completely unintentionally) returning home from Vietnam on the exact same day that I’d be graduating if I’d stuck it out with my bachelor’s degree. Which of those two experiences would have been the most valuable? It’s not even close.

The Language

After I accepted the offer to come to Vietnam, the first thing I did was to open up my laptop, type “learn Vietnamese” into Google and start teaching myself some basic phrases. (Here’s the first video that I ever watched, if I remember correctly.) In the weeks before I left, the language became an obsession.

I studied from a textbook I bought off Amazon, downloaded a ton of audio courses, and installed Anki on my phone for memorising vocabulary. I had a few lessons via Skype with teachers I found on iTalki, and I even managed to meet up with some Việt Kiều in Manchester who graciously taught me some of their language for free. (Thanks guys!)

So by the time I arrived, my Vietnamese level was low, but I had a solid grasp of the fundamentals and could communicate in basic situations.

Turns out that this meant I spoke better Vietnamese before I even arrived in Vietnam than most foreigners who’ve lived here for upwards of two years.

I gradually lost my interest in studying and haven’t made active effort to improve my Vietnamese for months, although I still use it often enough to maintain the level I have. These days, my Vietnamese is still very far from fluent. By the CEFR ranking system I’d say I’m an A2.

That being said, I still speak better Vietnamese than almost any other foreigner I know. I say that not to brag about how smart I am, but to illustrate how low the bar is set. If you can count to ten, know the words for “big”, “small”, “hot” and “cold”, and know what “nguoi nuoc ngoai” in the title of this post means, you are easily in the top 5% of Saigon expats.

I don’t mean this a criticism; I’m just telling it like it is. Everyone has different priorities, and it’s so easy to get by here without learning Vietnamese that I can see why so many people do just that. If there’s anything I feel towards Saigonese Anglophones I guess it would be sadness, because they don’t know what they’re missing.

My low level of Vietnamese has completely transformed my time here, and I can’t imagine how differently I’d see Vietnam if I hadn’t made the effort. It’s opened up the country and its people to me in a way I couldn’t have got anywhere else, and has led to more memorable experiences and conversations than I can count. I have no idea why anyone would want to live somewhere without making an effort to learn the language, and I don’t plan on doing it for any future countries I spend more than a few weeks in.

Out in the middle of nowhere with my Brazilian buddy Felipe, our mutual friend Dang, and her younger sister. Felipe and I are possibly the only English speakers in a 100-mile radius.

Out in the middle of nowhere with my Brazilian buddy Felipe, our mutual friend Dang, and her younger sister (or cousin? I don’t remember). Felipe and I are possibly the only English speakers in a 100-mile radius.

This was really hammered home for me when I left Vietnam – to Thailand and Cambodia, twice each – and had to start using English again for everything. I hate speaking English when I’m in a non-English-speaking country – it feels like a there’s an invisible barrier between me and everyone I talk to, dehumanising our interaction and blocking our chances of making a connection. If you think this barrier exists only in my head, and is only there because I expect it to be, you’re probably a monoglot.

People ask me all the time how I managed to learn Vietnamese “so quickly”, which baffles me because I’ve easily been living here long enough to become fluent and my level isn’t impressive in the slightest. My answer is always “because I actually studied it,” which most people haven’t, and which doesn’t seem like much of an “a-ha!” to me, but apparently it’s a revelation to some people.

99% of discussion about Vietnamese is about how “difficult” it is (the Vietnamese themselves are very proud of this and happy to remind you of it), which means that beginning learners usually receive nothing but discouragement. I always try and provide some of the opposite. Really I don’t think Vietnamese is as difficult as everyone keeps saying. The only difficult thing is the pronunciation – everything else, especially the grammar, is laughably easy.

With six tones and a plethora of strange consonants and vowels that aren’t close to anything we have in English, the pronunciation is challenging at first, and it stops most people dead in their tracks. But the fact that it’s seen as such an insurmountable barrier says less, in my opinion, about the inherent difficulties of Vietnamese itself than it does about the disastrously broken way that languages are taught in school, where they’re treated like academic subjects (presented in the most boring manner imaginable) instead of what they really are, which is a physical skill. I’ve never taken a single classroom lesson in Vietnamese and would never waste my time with them for any language. But I’ll save the rest of that for another post.

Speaking good Vietnamese is so rare among foreigners here that it can actually get you on TV – as is the case with Canadian Joe Ruelle (aka Dâu Tây), who’s been living in Vietnam since 2002 and (so I’ve been told) speaks Hanoi Vietnamese indistinguishably from a native. I actually met Joe randomly in a café in Saigon a few months ago, which is a pretty weird coincidence when you consider that he’s literally the only remotely famous person in all of Vietnam whose existence I’m aware of, or who I’d have recognised if he sat down next to me.

Joe Ruelle (Dau Tay) & myself

This was one of maybe only five times in my entire time here that I’ve spoken Vietnamese with another white person. It always feels a little bit surreal.

I must confess though, if there’s one thing I did that accelerated my language learning it was, clichéd as it is, to date a Vietnamese girl for five months. She spoke fluent English, but for some reason we almost never used it, and communication was not a strong point in our relationship. My Vietnamese certainly improved though.

Disclaimer: This worked for me but I make no guarantee that it will work for you, because pretty much all my straight male friends here have dated local girls, and none of them speak any Vietnamese.

My coworkers have been a big help too, and at this point I’d like to publicly thank Hien, Trung, Khoi, and the rest of the gang for all the useful vocabulary and phrases they’ve taught me, including but not limited to “shut the fuck up”, “fuck off you cunt”, “I don’t give a shit”, “I hope you die of lung cancer” and, of course, “you were born because the condom broke.” I’ll miss your banter, you wordsmiths you. Á đù!

It’s not just my non-native languages that have been affected by the past year. My native one has been shaken up too, mainly as a result of spending too much time hanging out with Americans, Canadians, Australians, Irishmen, New Zealanders and South Africans, or with non-native speakers who learned American English in school. Most of them don’t understand me if I ask where the bin is, if the post has arrived, where I put my mobile or if anybody has seen my trousers, so the American alternatives have been gradually infecting my speech to a point which would really irritate my grandparents.

(Incidentally, where in sod’s name are my trousers? I think I left them with my trainers in the petrol station next to the dual carriageway on my way from the chippy to the offy. They had my fags in the pocket. Bollocks!).

I wasted my childhood watching Cartoon Network, so I thought I was pretty clued up on all the, like, totally awesome ways Americans, like, speak differently, dude, but there have been more than a few times this year when I had no idea what the other person was saying. Memorable head-scratchers include “having a conniption fit”, “we got dipped”, “clutch” used an adjective, “a game of telephone” (turns out this is the American name for Chinese Whispers), and “erb”, which I eventually realised is how Americans pronounce the word “herb”. Bloody hell mate!

In the opposite direction, words and phrases I have confused people with recently include “done and dusted”, “I can’t be bothered/arsed/fucked”, “taking the piss”, “taking a slash”, “I’m not too fussed”, and my personal favourite (or should that be favorite?), “Bob’s your uncle”. “Who’s Bob?” was the reaction I got the first time I said that. I had no idea how to explain.

And no, when I say something “isn’t my cup of tea”, that doesn’t mean I’m literally searching for a cup of tea. Stop overthinking this.

Anyway, two weeks from now I’ll be in Germany. Time to lernen some Deutsch!

Motorbikes

Every teenage boy has at some point asked his parents if he can get a motorbike. As the son of two medical doctors – one of whom works in a spinal injuries unit full of former bikers in wheelchairs – I never had much chance of my wish being granted.

Well, Vietnam is possibly the most two-wheeled country in the world, so four years out of my teens I’ve finally scratched the motorbike itch. And to any teenage boys reading this, I have a message your parents don’t want you to hear  (actually, I have several of those) – motorbikes are awesome! They’re dangerous, reckless, stupid, and potentially catastrophic, but, like guns, that doesn’t make them any less fun to use. Try this at home, and while you’re at it, run with scissors and stare directly at the sun.

But definitely wear sunscreen.

But definitely wear sunscreen.

Like the language, you don’t need a motorbike if you live here, but you’re missing out if you don’t have one. I walked or got taxis everywhere for my first three months, but when I finally got around to renting a bike, I immediately regretted not getting one in my first week, because the city suddenly quadrupled in size.

Everyone’s first comment when they get here is how crazy the traffic looks, but once you’re out in the middle of it, you find that there’s a method to the madness. Saigon is actually an extremely easy city to get around – one of the easiest I’ve been in. The traffic is always flowing, and I can usually get on my bike and be anywhere I need to go in under ten minutes. That’s just one of many freedoms I’ve found in Vietnam that are hard to find back home, and I’m going to miss it.

(Also, if you think the air in Saigon is polluted, wait until you get into the middle of a crowded highway and you’re surrounded on all sides by rickety old rustbuckets blowing carbon monoxide in your face! No wonder everybody wears face masks.)

Last July I got invited on a road trip to the mountain town of Da Lat, which is possibly the only place I’ve been in all of Vietnam where I can remember feeling cold. From Saigon it’s an eight-hour drive, but we stretched it out to a day and a half with frequent stops and sightseeing:

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Not to mention occasional roadblocks:

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Taking a long trip by bike is a completely different experience to taking the same trip on four wheels – there’s no more vivid way to soak up your environment and the countryside. One of my few regrets from Vietnam is that I didn’t explore the country more, and at some point I definitely want to come back and make a longer motorbike trip. Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh sounds like a reasonable goal. Looking forward to it.

Tạm biệt and hẹn gặp lại

I’ve just written 4,500 words on Vietnam and I could probably write another 4,500  more, but I’ll save that for my next visit. I have no idea when that will be, but fingers crossed, it will happen. (Just don’t cross your fingers when you’re in Vietnam, because the gesture is considered offensive here.) I could happily stay here longer, but when I think long-term I know it’s time to move on, and I’m feeling pretty ready to leave.

Two weeks from now I’ll be in Berlin; in August I’ll be visiting Lithuania and maybe some of the other Baltic states, I imagine I’ll be back in the UK for Christmas (just as long as I don’t have to give or receive any presents), then who knows? If all goes according to plan though, my travels are very far from over, and Vietnam will have been just the first in many chapters. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my adventure, and I can’t begin to express the gratitude I feel to those who made it possible.

Now, off to catch my flight!

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