Do you ever feel differently towards a problem depending on your mood?
I have. Take, for instance, my writing process. My attitude towards the blank page changes along with my mindset, most prominently before and after exercising. Ditto pre- and post-alcohol as well.
But the circumstances themselves don’t really change, do they? Only your point of view does. It’s a miracle, really, how difficulties can change just with a slight shift in perspective.
And that’s what today’s post is about. To explore my limiting perspective, and perhaps yours. Because who knows? Someone may need to read this. Maybe even future me. So let’s jump right into it.
1) I only cared about goals
When I graduate college (at the age of 29), all my troubles would be over.
That was one of the worthless yardsticks I had stuck in the mud that was my life. For some reason, I thought that graduating automatically meant the end of all my problems. Spoiler alert, it didn’t.
I had tons of goals, all scrawled onto pieces of scrap paper, but what that ever did was encourage me to keep my eyes on the horizon, and to ignore all the other blessings I had in the present.
I was young, healthy, and didn’t have many responsibilities. Why was I looking into the future? So that I could get a piece of paper to land a job that I hated?
Of course, you could flip the script and call me a useless, broke, and lost thirty-year-old. And you’d be right. In fact, that’s what I thought of myself the entire time I was in college.
Looking back from a different angle
Now I see the error of my ways. I see the youth I had wasted, and all the free time I had squandered, even when it seemed like I was living through a low-grade hell at the time.
I had my sights set on my arbitrary goal, and once I achieved that, I was promptly shoved into the worst year of my life. So much for that, eh?
This theme would repeat as I’d create one goal after another—finish writing that novel, actually publish it, get interviewed on the radio. But you know what I felt after I crossed each goal off my list? Nothing.
Seeing my book in print didn’t delight me as much as I thought it would. Hearing my voice on air did nothing either. The worst part was, every completed goal left me with an emptiness that I now needed to fill. And that’s when I realised I needed to change the way I looked at life.
If not goals, then what?
I’ve since looked at my days as opportunities to build the foundations of my future. So instead of focusing on goals, I now have systems that I can act upon.
It’s no longer sufficient to write down ‘become a prominent Malaysian novelist’ in a notebook. Instead, I work backwards and determine the steps that lead to said goals.
Being a novelist involves pitching, which requires books, which need words. And so, what it all comes down to is to write every day.
I may not be able to control the slush readers’ moods, or the progress of another talented writer, or whether or not a publisher rejects me because of a genre quota they need to fill. But I can write every day.
This new perspective has changed the way I look at my future in general. Goals are great to keep you oriented and all, but it’s the systems that’ll actually get you there.
And through my systems, I’ve learned the importance of judging ourselves daily by the seeds we’ve sown and not the harvest we’ve reaped.
2) I was all about the easy life
I had been a travel writer for a bit, which sometimes meant staying in five-star hotels in exchange for a good word or two. To say I got sucked into the lavish lifestyle was an understatement.
Bathtub overlooking the lively cityscapes of Shanghai? Check. Yoga retreat in Koh Samui? Nama-stay! Warmed futons in the calm winters of Hokkaido? Ariga-totally. At least once a month, I got to experience what luxurious living meant.
Couple that with pain avoidance and you had all the trappings of a lazy life. All my free time was spent playing video games, drinking, or just watching the days go by.
Work? That could wait. Goals? I could always get started the next day. Exercise? Hah. Why try so hard? We’re all going to die anyway. Might as well enjoy my time on Earth. Besides, hadn’t I suffered enough going back to college as an adult?
It’s taken a while to come to this conclusion, but I’ve since learned that pleasure doesn’t necessarily mean happiness. All those days spent bingeing on Netflix series actually felt worse than a busy day at the office.
All the playing, the eating, the substances, they didn’t feel good, despite their initial allure.
Turns out, relaxing isn’t as fun when you haven’t earned it. As Jocko Willink would say, discipline is freedom, and no truer words have ever been spoken.
So, should you suffer?
The truth of the matter is that life is suffering, regardless of your social status or genetics.
Rich people have rich people problems, and poor people have their own set of issues as well. A loved one is going to die, we might contract a disease, our friends could betray us.
So essentially, a happy life isn’t one that’s free from pain. Instead, it’s the ability to withstand anything life throws at you. That’s the true meaning of gaining freedom through discipline.
And you don’t get that by sipping Mai Tais or waking up whenever you please. You do that by seeking challenges that interest you (because purposeless labour is equally silly).
Yes, said challenges might involve some discomfort, but anything worth pursuing often involves a little pain. You wouldn’t want the easy stuff after all, would you?
After having stuck to something as simple as an earlier wake-up time and an everyday workout routine, I can safely say that challenging myself really does allow me to enjoy my recreational time more.
3) I let others determine my worth
I used to be a pretty shy person—still am, actually—and I could never look anyone in the eye. In fact, my happiness relied heavily upon what others thought about me. I would constantly fish for praise, letting even the slightest of slights keep me up at night.
Everybody else always had their say in group settings. Me? I was content to lay low and just follow the crowd. And don’t even get me started on confrontation. It’s more like non-frontation for me.
Is it because I can’t stand the thought of people disliking me? Or is my self-worth so low that I’ll always think I’m lesser than everyone else? I don’t know. I still can’t find the answer.
But what I’ve learned is that the amount of self-worth I rightfully deserve depends on how much I can prove myself… to myself.
Does looking within really work?
All my life I’d looked outward to rid myself of this affliction, of hating being around others because I hated myself. But you know what? Sometimes you need to be proud of yourself before others can do the same.
So how exactly did I do that? I started doing things that I couldn’t do.
I’d always been a lazy person—still am, too—so I started my journey of self-improvement by waking up much earlier than I typically would, and I used that time to write, exercise, and contemplate my day.
Even during my workouts, I made sure to blast past the finish, always adding extra sets to my previous record. The harder the task I overcame, the better I felt about myself.
The thing is, you’ll always know if you’re cheating yourself. You know how much you have left in the tank, or if you’ve truly made full use of the day. So if you find yourself not feeling worthy enough, it’s probably because your conscience knows you’ve cut corners, and it can’t respect someone who does that.
Didn’t mean to get all motivational guru here, but I’ve learned that the more honest I am with my efforts, and the more I’m willing to do things people aren’t, the more confident I become.
A monk called Nick Keomahavong once said that you shouldn’t seek to change the world. That you should instead seek to change yourself, and by doing so, affect the world around you.
In essence, you need to light your own candle first.
The basics always work
You’ll probably have noticed that the one thing tying all this together is hard, introspective work. But it’s not just that. It’s the pursuing of hard things that mean something to you, and we all have our own way of doing that.
Some people like Wim Hof find it by walking stark naked on the ice caps of Mount Kilimanjaro. Others, like Courtney Dauwalter, run 100-mile races.
Sure, those things may seem silly to you, but I’m sure that you have a hard pursuit that’s uniquely you. One that presses all your buttons, checks all your boxes.
Your purpose in life is to find what that is, to spend as much focus and effort as you can in pursuing your purpose. Because in those hard things, lies the confidence of overcoming yourself.
And once we do that, we gain the best outlook we can ever hope to achieve in this life, that is the realisation that we’re much stronger than we give ourselves credit for.
The best thing? We don’t need much to get started on this journey. All we’ll need is a slight shift in perspective.