Life Lessons from 1994 to 2018

Happy New Year from Colombia! Feliz año nuevo!

2018 has been an interesting year, full of high-speed personal development, ups and downs and new experiences…and as I slowly crawled out of my afternoon hangover earlier today, after far too many celebratory piña coladas out in the alleys of Cartagena, I felt like codifying what I’ve learnt so far into a series of life lessons for future me (and hopefully some of you!)

1) Nothing is bad or good, everything is expectation – and you can manually change your expectations

Completing Headspace’s Anxiety pack and reading Mo Gawdat’s masterpiece manual for happiness, Solve for Happy, I finally learnt how to apply something I had always known: nothing is inherently bad or good, everything boils down to our own subjective expectations/perceptions of how the world should be.

For instance, last night, the group of friends I was with grew increasingly frustrated as the wait for our food approached one hour. They were expecting prompt service and subsequently judged the hour long wait as bad service, leading to frustration.

I, however, was expecting bad service – it’s New Year’s f*cking Eve! Restaurants are understaffed, this particular restaurant was packed and they were trying to serve our entire table simultaneously. So the hour long wait was in line with my expectations and I was happy (while the rest of my table grumbled hangrily).

But only recently did I realise I could manually change my expectations: noting down my thought patterns, meditating and practicing mindfulness throughout the day, I’ve become aware of what expectations I’m setting and been able to let go of them.

This has helped me deal with some really tough personal shit and but here’s a lighter example from today to illustrate:

Automatic thought: fuck, it’s 2pm, I’m still in bed – great way to start the New Year, aimless and hungover. 2019 is going to be a disaster.

But rather than letting this thought fester or beating myself down, I noted it and identified the underlying expectation.

Expectation: everyday should be super productive and full of life, and you should start the New Year as you plan to go on.

After identifying this expectation, I manually changed it, I corrected my expectations to be more compassionate and in line with real life.

Manually adjusted expectation: actually, bro, everyone is hungover on New Year’s Day, you were out until 6am, you shouldn’t expect to get anything done today. It’s a day off.

With my expectations successfully lowered, anything useful or interesting I went on to do (like writing this blog or going for dinner) immediately became a win and a great start to the New Year! I’ll be writing a more detailed post on this technique later because it may have (quite literally) saved my life.

2) You are enough!

Therapist Marisa Peer argues that the root of all our first-world problems is the root insecurity that we’re not enough.

To compensate, we chase status (i.e. money, power, fame) to make ourselves feel “enough” (valued, loved, safe)…or chase drugs and alcohol to forget our insecurities.

Neither are sustainable long-term solutions because the insecurity is internal – you need to believe you’re enough, otherwise, for the rest of your life you’ll be at the mercy of external indicators of success and the opinions of strangers. Marisa Peer argues that the affirmation “You are enough”, repeated enough, can rewire your brain to eventually concede that you are actually enough.

People love you, you’re not in danger, you can be you and that’s enough!

3) You don’t need to be the best

If you know you’re already enough, you don’t need to be the best.

I’ve spent my whole life aiming for this illusory no. 1 spot – in academia, in fitness, in business, in everything! All because I needed external indicators of success to compensate for the internal insecurity that I wasn’t enough.

Letting go of this insecurity has cleared the way for me to do things just for me. I still want to do extremely well in anything I take on, being the best is fun, it’s a challenge…but I don’t need it, I’m enough as I am.

4) Life is a function of probability (i.e. shit happens, bro)

We grow up with an extremely romanticised, deterministic view of life. Study hard > graduate from good university > good job > get married > have kids > retire > be happy.

And when we’re younger especially, this deterministic view helps a lot.

It’s hard to motivate people with the probabilistic promise: “if you study hard, you might get good grades (unless you have a bad day on the exam, of course, or you misread the question, or you forget you to remove your phone from inside your blazer pocket and get disqualified for cheating)…and that might get you into a good university (assuming the university has place, the interviewers like you and your personal statement meets a bunch of unknown requirements)…and that might land you a good job (given other candidates don’t have nepotistic connections in the firm, the bus isn’t late to get you to your interviewer, and the interviewers think you’re capable).

It’s a lot more enticing to offer the simplified deterministic narrative: “if you study hard, you’ll get good grades, which will get you into a good university, which will secure you a good job that you love and pays well.”

But growing up with this romanticised, deterministic view of life leads us to believe that shit never “goes wrong”. So when probability kicks in and plans go amiss, we don’t expect it – and subsequently feel disappointed, depressed, even betrayed.

Where’s the goddamn job I was promised? Where’s the hot wife and the two kids? Why aren’t I happy yet?

Understanding that life outcomes are probabilistic – that shit happens and whatever effort you put in, the output can always go awry – and expecting shit to go “wrong” from time to time, can remove these feelings of disappointment and unfairness. Instead of looking at yourself as a tortured victim of the universe, you can see the bigger picture: shit happens to everyone because life is probabilistic, it’s not fair or unfair, it’s just life and we just have to roll with it.

5) Meditate every day

Still doing this. Everyday I get up, head to the toilet, and meditate on the loo with either Headspace or (if my phone is dead) a deep breath count up to 100. I expect to get distracted, I expected to get flustered by unsettling negative thoughts from the past – but the objective of meditation isn’t to control or stop unwanted thoughts, it’s to acknowledge them and then return to a point of focus (e.g. the breath). In doing so, we’re able to better see our thoughts as they come and go, so that rather than getting swept up by the voices in our head, we can hear them out peacefully but return to presence.

6) Exercise every day

Still doing this, but definitely my least consistent habit – hitting it only 70-80% of the time.

I want to get better at this so I’ve spent some time looking into the root causes. Numero uno is travelling – when you’re moving around all the time or you’re in the middle of a Colombian jungle, a gym membership is hard to come by. No gym, no workout.

I’ve got round this by lowering my expectations from a full gym workout to a shorter home work out, consisting of push up variants – great for my chest, shoulders and triceps. But still need to find something for my back, biceps and cardio (maybe my legs, too, lol jk).

I’m planning to buy some resistance bands and start skipping again – this should be enough to hit back, biceps and cardio but also sufficiently portable/easy-to-execute that I’ll be able to complete a workout wherever I go.

7) Have one focus

For too long I’ve tried to do too many things.

2016 I was President of the LSE Entrepreneurs society, working 30 hours a week as a tutor, studying the four hardest Economics modules at university, and trying to start two separate companies.

2017 I was working as a teacher at LSE, Co-founder at Up Learn and the CEO at VIP Health.

Then when I finally took some time off  in March 2018, I got sucked into the same trap: tried to start a summer school, learn Spanish, boxing, complete a data science degree at Harvard, travel the world (and take some time off…lol)

I now operate with one focus – right now it’s Spanish. I’ve got another 3 months to finish my 6 month Spanish learning project (with the aim of reaching C1 level native fluency).

Obviously, I’m still doing other things: writing this blog, bits of work here and there, learning to salsa and travelling…but the big difference is focus. I don’t care if my salsa isn’t progressing as I want, or if I haven’t uploaded enough blog posts, because my focus is Spanish: everything else is secondary. This takes off so much pressure but also auto-prioritises my life so I’m making the most progress towards my most important goal (the one I’ve put my focus on).

8) Don’t do things half-half

There’ve been several times in 2018 where I’ve done things half-half: for instance, I attended the Forbes 30 Under 30 event in Israel and also invited my girlfriend. This meant I couldn’t fully enjoy the event, but also couldn’t fully enjoy the company of my girlfriend.

Part of my reasoning for this was risk-averse hedging. If the event turned out to suck, I would get to spend time with my girlfriend. But actually it was because I was spending time with my girlfriend, I didn’t get fully stuck into the event to enjoy it.

Same when I started at a Spanish school in Málaga. Instead of staying at the school like everyone, I stayed at an Airbnb. And instead of attending 5 days a week I attended 3. And instead of committing to a term, I did 3 weeks. Again, I didn’t get fully stuck in so I didn’t fully enjoy the experience.

For 2019, I want to commit to things all out. No hedging: if it turns out to suck, fine, I can always quit…but if I never commit, I’ll never get the full experience.

So later this month when I start learning salsa in Cali, I’m going to find a course, sign up to all the classes, stay at the accommodation they provide, and (hopefully) have a fucking great time.

9) Carve out periods of deep work to pursue your goals

15 minutes here and there on a project is rarely enough to reach momentum or realise a goal.

But carving out a full three hours of deep work (without distractions) each day for my Spanish has been enough to make crazy progress. And in 2019, I want to continue this habit of consistent daily deep work – and if I’m not willing or able to put those hours in, I’m going to ditch the goal (instead of making ity-bitty progress that will probably amount to not much at all).

10) Install f.lux

Reduces blue light, improves sleep, simple.

11) Say NO, more

The urge to do everything is compelling but playing a simultaneous jack of all trades = getting fuck all done.

Saying no to big opportunities is really difficult, but when a new opportunity comes at the cost of sabotaging your current plan of action, my default response is to say NO and continue with what plan A. (Unless a very, very good plan B turns up.)

12) Your weaknesses make you stronger and more relatable

When I was a teenager, I would go to the ends of the earth to convince my classmates that I was “naturally clever”. I would hide how much I studied, pretend not to care in class, and turn up late to exams that tested “natural IQ” so I could blame my poor scores on a lack of effort (vs. an IQ deficit).

All of this to hide a weakness: my IQ isn’t that high…

But actually, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that weaknesses can make you not only stronger, but also more relatable.

Having struggled to pick up topics quickly at school, to lose weight, to make friends, to deal with negative thoughts etc. I’ve had to overcome so much – and in doing so, I’ve learnt way more than anyone naturally talented in these areas and often exceeded their performance. All of this learning has made me a much stronger person, much more able to help other people in a meaningful way.

And even better, opening up to people about these weaknesses, rather than scaring them away (like I’d imagined), actually warms them to you. “Hey, I’m normal…I have blindspots and struggles just like you” vs. “Hey, I’m superhuman…we have nothing in common, you’re not on my level.”

13) Take a 200mg pill of caffeine when you need to get shit done

I’ve avoided coffee since forever: expensive, addictive, withdrawal symptoms. But actually, cycling caffeine pills works a charm.

Firstly, taking an unbranded caffeine pill (unlike drinking coffee) keeps you safe from the Starbucks-Pret-Nero marketing elephant and, secondly, cycling off and on keeps you free from addiction.

14) Send messages to everyone

I’m so bad when it comes to messaging people and staying in touch, so for 2019 I’ve blocked out an hour every Saturday as part of my Weekly Review to message friends and family.

15) Reply to messages

I’m so bad when it comes to messaging people and staying in touch, so for 2019 I’ve blocked out an hour every Saturday as part of my Weekly Review to reply to messages from friends and family.

16) Expect a negative or indifferent reaction

When I speak to someone new, I always feel some fear of rejection.

I realised recently this is because I go into the encounter wanting or expecting a positive reaction – but people have shit to do, not everyone is interested in you and your life, so when I get a negative or different reaction I feel low.

So now I’ve changed this to expect a negative or indifferent reaction…I no longer have anything to lose!

17) Start conversations with everyone

Imagine how full of life your day would be if you spoke to everyone you passed on the road. So many conversations, stories, emotions – I’m trying to move towards this in 2019 by starting conversations with everyone.

18) Sleep sex

19) Protect your morning routine

Too many times I’ve let bullshit interrupt my morning routine and the rest of my day falls apart as a result.

If I haven’t meditated, worked out, studied, read and journalled yet, I do that first before getting swept up in the rest of the day. Learning to protect my routine and say NO to morning distractions has been hard, but that daily morning routine consistency is the foundation of my personal development.

20) Estimate the time required to do something before committing (using my system)!

It’s so tempting to say yes to big opportunities that sound straightforward on the surface, but hide hours of extra work and frustration.

To get better at estimating the time requirements of new commitments, I am now spending much more time looking into the details of opportunities before signing up (by walking through the full activity from start to finish – literally if possible, or mentally) and using extreme time estimates (e.g. 4x expected time required) when dealing with unknown/new opportunities (because if you haven’t done a job before there are just bound to be a bunch of hidden time-suckers awaiting you). I then compare my final time estimate in hours against the opportunity cost of time to see if it’s something I should pursue.

21) Play Nintendo Switch more

Nintendo games (unlikely stress-inducing Call of Duty and Battlefield) take me back to my childhood and help me destress with casual puzzle-solving and goofy fun. Nintendo games are also so much more social: I can play the new Switch anywhere and with anyone. Turns out Mario Kart is a great way to connect with people.

I also have all my games in Spanish – so I’m secretly studying while I play.

22) Find a workspace immediately

Travelling around the world, finding a desk/workspace is super important if I want to continue making some progress while taking time out from “real life”. Scouting a desk first thing when I move to a new destination is a new habit and keeps me from losing productive time to aimless distraction.

23) Stay in hostels to make more friends

24) Read one chapter of a book per day

25) Protect your weekends!

Stop working on the weekends! You need time off to chill and people understand this, too!

26) Mentor more

Mentoring is extremely gratifying and every new mentee I welcome helps me develop myself, too. Understanding their problems and thinking about how to solve them very often gives me ideas on how to develop myself and work through my own problems.

27) Help others whenever you can

Go out of your way to help people! Every opportunity you see, take it, add value to someone else’s life.

29) Use melatonin to combat jet lag and correct sleep patterns

29) Be honest all the time

It’s easy to white lie to protect people’s feelings (and your own) but recently I’ve found that I’m just doing more harm than good by protecting people (and myself) from reality in the long run.

Being just completely fucking honest, like factually honest, is so much more straightforward – but also makes any bad news so much easier to deal with. It’s hard to get angry with facts.

30) Buy clothes that make you feel good

31) Listen to more podcasts

If you’re not talking to someone or appreciating the environment, plug in your headphones and listen to a podcast. I forgot how much you can learn from a good episode.

32) Travel more, meet new people

33) Don’t be boring! Ever!

I used to compartmentalise my life into times of “hard work” and times of “fun”. The hard work was meant to be hard, dull at time, difficult, but pay off in the long run…where I would be able to grab life by the horns and live 110%.

But why!? You can do both at the same time! There’s never an excuse to be boring.

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