On how to get the most out of life with a dose of reality

Lately it has become fashionable in the media to bash on millennials (people in their late 20s-early 30s today). To be fair, we are an easy target, at least most of us who were raised in developed countries.

We grew up being told that we’re unique and exceptional, that we can ‘make an impact’, or if we’re really special, ‘make a dent in the universe’.  We think there is such thing as ‘fair’ and ‘not fair’, as if there is some divine points system that means good things always happen to good people and bad things should happen to bad people. We think if we do our best and work hard we deserve the perfect life promised to us by our parents, the media, or Instagram.

This hasn’t translated well into real adult life. With our generation going into our 30s and 40s, we’ve had to learn some hard truths. Ambitions we had as children, of becoming  CEOs, celebrities, millionaires by the time we’re 30, of changing the world… we’re realising were just fantasies and it’s not going to happen for 99% of us. No, we’re not that 1%, and we’re not so special after all.

This is the reality check many of us need. We might try to blame our failures on our parents, teachers, managers, the government, the economy… but putting the blame on something external is just a way of shifting responsibility away from ourselves because we don’t want to admit that there are more things that are up to us than aren’t.

It’s up to us, individually, to decide if we’re going to lead happy fulfilling lives. We choose whether or not we are happy. Sure, there are things we can’t control, but in life you don’t get what you deserve, there’s really no such thing.

The universe doesn’t owe us anything. Instead, we get what we work for, what we negotiate for, and what we fight for. Most importantly, we get what we take responsibility for, including our own happiness.

And if we want to be happy we have to learn to be content with ‘normal’. This means being OK with a normal job on a normal salary, relationships with normal people, normal every day lives for most of us without vast fame and fortune. We have to accept that we’re only human, and life is just what you make of it.

This is not the same as settling for mediocrity. It doesn’t mean we don’t work hard to make changes for the better, or fight for the things that matter. But we need to learn that accepting what is good enough is OK, we don’t always have to strive for more and more. Once we let go of other people’s expectations and stop trying to be ‘busy’ all the time, we realise we don’t have to chase after something that is never going to be enough. We can stop the endless pursuit that doesn’t really take us anywhere.

A truly remarkable life is one that extracts the best out of it. This isn’t done by being rich and famous and successful in the sense that our generation thinks it means, but quietly and contentedly. Those who are the most successful at the game of life aren’t the ones who have collected the most money and possessions and are loudest about it, but are the ones who patiently found the most joy in the ordinary.

Book I’m currently reading: Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life

On Reality’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

Written by Jessica Dang
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How living in a scarcity mindset changes everything

As a child growing up in an immigrant family, I’ve always been taught to treasure every hard earned penny. Whenever I did make a big purchase, whether it was for something fun like going out with friends, or even for something I genuinely needed, instead of enjoying it I would feel guilty about it for days.

Looking back, I understand now that I was operating under a scarcity mindset. I was taught by my parents that you couldn’t be sure that there would always be enough, so you better make every penny count because one day you might really need it.

To be fair, this kind of attitude was true to their experience. There were times in their childhood when they genuinely didn’t have enough to eat if they didn’t work hard for it. So they did everything they could to set up a life where that wouldn’t apply to their children.

It worked, because fortunately I’ve never had to go hungry. But I inherited their scarcity mindset about everything, including their attitude towards money and possessions. Growing up, we would hang onto everything we had, including furniture, clothes, toys, everything and anything, and hardly threw stuff away, even if we didn’t need it anymore.

It wasn’t until I discovered minimalism as a teenager, and spent the next decade writing and developing my own life philosophy around it that I was able to change. I was motivated from being able to see that my parents weren’t much happier, even when they were surrounded by all the money and stuff they earned and saved over the years.

Thanks to discovering minimalism, I got rid of things I no longer used and didn’t feel guilty about it. I stopped caring as much about what people thought of me, so I no longer felt the need to buy things I didn’t need. With my savings, I was able to quit my job and start my own business. Now I never have to worry about not having enough, and that makes me feel more free than ever. I am thankful every day for that.

Living in scarcity feels like having a daily dose of fear. It helps you survive, and sometimes it’s what you need. It’s taken a long time, but I’ve learned now that it’s only by living with a mindset of abundance that you can thrive.

Book I’m currently reading: Scarcity: The True Cost of Not Having Enough

On Scarcity’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

Written by Jessica Dang
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How imagining the worst can make you happier

treadmill

What phenomenon happens to every person on earth every day of their lives without anyone realising it or learning from?

The answer is hedonic adaptation. It’s the tendency of humans to go back to a stable level of happiness, even after something good (or bad) has happened to them.

If you’ve ever dreamed of doing or buying something that seemed unobtainable at the time, thinking, “I’ll be happy when I have that”, then after getting it you find yourself getting so used to having it that eventually you move onto wanting something new, you’ve experienced running on the hedonic treadmill.

You keep chasing bigger and better things, but you’re not really going anywhere. That’s how people who win the lottery revert back to the same level of happiness after a few years, and even billionaires have their own problems. In the end there is never enough money/stuff/fame/power/achievements/love that you can’t get used to eventually.

It may be in our nature to always be seeking more, but it’s a recipe for perpetual unhappiness.

What can we do about it? It turns out, insatiable human appetite isn’t a new problem. In fact, it’s a conundrum at least 2,000 years old because even in ancient times the Stoics were thinking about it. They may not have been pining for the latest smartphone or sports cars back then, but they had the same issues we do today—how do we find a balance between our unlimited wants with trying to live a virtuous and happy life?

Their solution was simple—imagine the worst that could happen. They called this negative visualisation. Essentially it’s an exercise where you take the things you value the most, it could be anything at all, and imagine for a minute not having it. You’ll realise just how much you take it for granted.

For example, think of a beloved spouse, family member, or child. It sounds horrible, but imagine they will die tomorrow. What will you do on their last day? Would you waste time watching TV or staying late after work? No! You would spend every moment you could with that person, savouring every minute of it.

Compare this with someone who takes the more common approach of banishing all negative thoughts from their mind. They think they’re better off but they are living in denial that their beloved could one day be gone. So they go about their daily lives as most people do, without realising that they’re taking the most precious things for granted. In the end, they will probably have more regrets about how they spent their time.

You might think this is all quite morbid, but who do you think is the person who is happier and more grateful for their loved one? Is it the person who periodically thinks about the fact that nothing lasts forever so they better make the most of it, or the person who doesn’t think about it at all? Who do you think is more grateful? Who do you think will have the fewest regrets?

The same could be applied to anything—you could imagine for a minute losing your home, or your job, or your health, or specific things such as your eyesight, access to the internet, running water, or political stability in your country… there is an infinite number of things that would be terrible or uncomfortable to live without. There is so much to be grateful for.

The Stoics advised doing this kind of exercise every now and again, maybe a few times a week or daily at most. Imagining the worst isn’t supposed to make you worry or become a morbid pessimist. It’s a reminder to appreciate things while you have them, and mitigate utter disappointment when not everything goes your way.

Saying that, exercising negative visualisation doesn’t mean anyone wouldn’t be devastated to lose something that is important to them. It’s not intended to be a magical solution to all problems. But learning to be grateful for what you already have, even for a few moments, will give you a break from running on that treadmill.

Indeed, often when I do this, when I realise I still have whatever it is I was thinking about losing, it feels like I’m waking up from a bad dream. I’m so relieved that it even makes me smile. So I encourage you to ask yourself today—what do you value most that you take for granted?

Book I’m currently reading: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

On Appreciation’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

Written by Jessica Dang
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Learning to say no

…is an essential part of living minimally.

Most of the things we’re asked to or recommended to do/see/try/buy etc. are rooted in other people’s desires, needs, and expectations, not from our own.

You only have a certain amount of time in life. It’s a zero sum game—the more you fill it with one thing, the less you have to fill it with something else. It’s a direct trade off.

By saying no, you avoid wasting time and effort on things that distract you from what really matters.

It takes courage and discipline to say no, especially if people are relying on you. That’s when you have to ask yourself the hard questions about what’s most important to you, and then do what you need to do.

If you’re not sure what to do then try this—if it isn’t a ‘fuck yes!’, then it’s a no.

Go on, live your life protecting your time as if it’s your most precious resource, because it is.

On Saying No’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

Written by Jessica Dang
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Happy Mother’s Day

mothers

My mother came to England from Vietnam when she was about 20 years old. As the youngest in her family, she was left behind when all of her older siblings managed to get visas to live in the US but they couldn’t afford to sponsor her too. She ended up being adopted into her uncle’s family, and moved to England with them in search for a better life.

They had nothing when they arrived, and being an adult she missed the chance to have any British schooling, which meant that she would have to learn English by herself from scratch. She met my father who came from a similar background about six years later, they married, and moved into a small two bedroom flat in a run down part of London. My father worked long hard hours to earn money from his job sewing clothes in a factory while my mother saved every penny they could while struggling to raise three children. We never had any luxuries, but we were as happy as you could be as young kids who didn’t know anything different.

One weekend when I was about ten, my father drove us to the seaside in Kent. My parents had decided to take a huge risk and put all of their life savings into buying a new house for us to live, with enough rooms in it so that they could run a small guest house business. So my life was uprooted and we moved to what was a better neighbourhood but felt like the middle of nowhere to us. We’d hardly been outside of our tiny bubble in London before. My parents did their best to run the guest house as well as they could having hardly ever stayed in a hotel before themselves. When local tourism died down within a few years because of the rising popularity of cheap flights, they also started a restaurant business.

On top of all this, my father even continued to do sewing work for extra money, while my mother saved what she could on labour by doing all of the cleaning for all of the rooms and restaurant by herself. With regret, I can’t say we were too much help during those years. The only job I had was to look after my recently born baby brother. As kids, you don’t know what your parents do for you. We attended predominantly white schools, so we were more occupied with our own teenage insecurities and drama that felt so important at the time but are completely forgotten about now. Maybe it’s because they were busy, or maybe it’s because they wanted to give us a better life, but they never forced us to help them that much with the businesses, nor did they pressure us to get perfect grades in school, unlike other Asian parents.

It turned out to be the right thing to do for us, because we ended up doing very well anyway. We all graduated from good universities, and now have well-paying jobs. My youngest brother, who never knew much of the hardships, is also doing well. The frugal mindset that I inherited from my parents lead to the creation of this blog, and to me being able to save up basically everything I earned for 10+ years through working second jobs, my scholarships, and my career that lead to me starting my business, and several investments we made over the last few years have worked out well for us.

Nowadays, although my siblings and I still work hard, my parents can take it a bit easier and enjoy life more. We’ve made a special effort over the last few years to take them travelling so that they can enjoy themselves, try new things that they never got the chance to, and make fun memories of their own.

Only with the perspective of being an adult looking back almost 30 years, can I now see the huge sacrifices they made for us, and how much I owe them for everything I have and will have. Thank you Mum, thank you Dad, for everything. I love you.

Check out my personal thoughts/stories about this topic in my post ‘On Parents’ via Minimalist Meditations

Written by Jessica Dang
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Minimalism and the KonMari Method by Marie Kondo

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I’ve been a long time fan of Marie Kondo and her work, so it’s been great to see her gain so much popularity lately.

Over the past few months, I’ve witnessed dozens of people doing big clear outs, giving stuff away for other people to use, or donating bags to charity. It’s great to see the mindset shift towards having less stuff becoming mainstream.

One thing I get asked about a lot is what I think about her ‘KonMari Method’. Essentially, it consists of six basic rules:

  1. Commit yourself to tidying up.
  2. Imagine your ideal lifestyle.
  3. Finish discarding first. Before getting rid of items, sincerely thank each item for serving its purpose.
  4. Tidy by category, not location.
  5. Follow the right order
  6. Ask yourself if it sparks joy.

There is so much that I love about her method. While I’m not able to sustain the rigorous folding rules of individual clothing items, I do agree with a lot of her philosophy:

Tidying as a reset button

In her book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’, she says, “The moment you start you reset your life”. This is so true. Imagining your ideal lifestyle while committing to having a big clear out makes you rethink your relationship to stuff. You can address your anxieties and begin a new phase in your life where you don’t put as much emphasis on buying and having things. Kondo is careful to say that tidying is not a magic bullet that solves all the problems in your life, but since clutter naturally induces distraction and anxiety, getting rid of it is a good way to start.

Storing is not tidying

Tidying, done properly, should not be mistaken for simply making a house neater. “Putting things away creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved”, she writes. I’ve seen many people make the same mistake—just because things are hidden in drawers or organised in boxes it doesn’t mean it’s gone, and it doesn’t mean the underlying problem has been addressed. First, one must be willing and able to discard the unnecessary, then they can sort out the important items that are left. Hiding things is a way of not being honest with oneself.

Thank something before you get rid of it

It sounds silly but this has actually helped me say goodbye to things that I otherwise would have found hard to give or throw away. If it’s something that I used or wore a lot, it’s nice to say something like, “Thank you for the memories”. If it was something I didn’t use, at least I can say, “Thank you for teaching me that I didn’t need/suit this”. It helps to think that every item has played a role in my life, whether large or small, but nothing is forever and when it’s time to move on I can still be grateful for it in some way.

Tidy by category in the right order

Her method is clear that the best way to address stuff is in the order of clothes > books > papers > komono (a.k.a. Miscellaneous Items) > sentimental items. The rationale is that it goes from easiest to hardest, so that people can start with momentum, and by the time they get to the end they would have honed their ability to sense what sparks joy and won’t find it as difficult to get rid of sentimental things at the end. I do agree with this reasoning, and she does allow a lot of flexibility, which is just as well because people will differ greatly on what they have a lot or a little of, and what they find easy/difficult so the order might change. (See my personal meditations about this).

Keep the things that make you happy

Kondo isn’t a traditional ‘minimalist’ as most people think of the word. The criterion she uses to decide whether or not to keep an item is whether or not it ‘sparks joy’. Put simply, if it gives you a good feeling, then keep it. It doesn’t matter if the item is something that is regularly used or not, which is how ‘minimalists’ tend to decide. This way, you look to keep more happiness in your life, instead of chopping stuff out just because it doesn’t get used.

Minimalism and the KonMari method aren’t opposing ideals if you understand that minimalism isn’t about decluttering for the sake of it. Having a tidier house isn’t what’s important—it’s about getting rid of distractions so that you can focus on what matters most to you. It’s not about the number of things you own, but how much they make you happy.

If you think of it like that, minimalism and Kondo’s method have a lot in common. In the end, they both have the same noble goal—to find happiness beyond stuff.

Check out my personal thoughts/stories about this topic in my post ‘On Tidying’ via Minimalist Meditations

Written by Jessica Dang
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Last Year Reflections & Resolutions for 2019

At the end of each year, I find it a helpful exercise to look back on different areas of my life to see how things have changed, for better or for worse. Thankfully, with time and deliberate effort, this year I’ve managed to make good progress in most areas of my life:

People/relationships—The biggest thing that happened to me this year is that I got engaged! My partner and I have been happily together for six years now, and we’re very excited to move onto the next chapter in our life. With my grandma passing earlier in the year I made a special effort to spend more time with my family, including going on two trips abroad with both of my parents, something they hadn’t done in years.

  • People lesson of 2018: Even though it’s always possible to change and improve, many people choose to see the world as they want to. Whether it’s as a victim of circumstance or an agent of change, it’s not my responsibility (or even within my ability) to help everyone. Also, there is such a thing as people who love you for you are, but at the same time make you a better person for being with them.
  • People resolution for 2019: Don’t waste time and heartache on stubborn people. Make time for those who make me happiest.

Health—Although I managed to train and complete a marathon in 2016 and 2017, with my business taking up more of my time this year I couldn’t fit in the training for another marathon and settled on regularly attending fitness classes instead. So I didn’t participate in any major running events but I have improved in areas such as strength and flexibility. In 2019 I plan to do a yoga teaching qualification—hopefully the anticipation of the course and the training itself will motivate me to get exponentially stronger and more flexible.

  • Health lesson of 2018: A healthy body isn’t just about being slim—it’s about being strong, flexible, durable, adaptable, fast, and eating well.
  • Health resolution for 2019: Inspired by this Instagram, I will do something that contributes to my strength and flexibility everyday, even if it’s only a few stretches. Also, I will try to get my yoga teaching qualification, finally after 5+ years of practising yoga.

Business—I’ve increased the size and net income of my investment portfolio by a third over the last year which is a great achievement, but I had originally aimed for a 50% increase. Circumstances at the end of the year meant that I couldn’t complete in certain investments before the end of the year, but I should be very grateful for what I’ve accomplished and keep the momentum going.

  • Business lesson of 2018: how important it is to not get involved with things that will cause unnecessary anxiety later on, and how often something that seems like a big deal now won’t matter in a week/month/year’s time.
  • Business resolution for 2019: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Keep better track of my net worth and focus on the bigger picture.

Self improvement—At the beginning of this year, I wrote a post about how I was often unable to concentrate on a single task for longer than a few minutes before being distracted by something else. So I reduced distractions in my life by not reading the news on a daily basis and turning off notifications. As a result, I managed to write at least once every month for this blog, and read 52 books this year.

  • Self improvement lessons for 2018: The power of setting a big goal, then breaking it down to yearly/monthly/weekly/daily tasks cannot be underestimated. Most things can be accomplished through discipline and hustle. Compare yourself upwards with people who you want to become to push yourself to improve, not downwards with people who haven’t done what you have to make you feel better.
  • Self-improvement resolution for 2019: Stay hungry, stay humble.

On Values’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

Written by Jessica Dang
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Best posts of 2018 and giveaway

While I’ve been travelling over the holidays, I’ve been working on a post about my reflections for 2018 and resolutions for 2019. In the meantime, here are the best posts of 2018:

January: The most important thing to minimise in 2018

February: On Vanity — how valuable things can actually be worthless

March: On Maturity — What would I tell myself if I could go back 10 years?

April: Dear Grandma

May: On Productivity — the difference between efficiency and effectiveness

June: On Productivity II — the power of focus

July: In Praise of Quiet Moments

August: How a Stolen Bike Made Me Rich

September: Minimalism and our natural biology

October: On Materialism

November: How our values change the course of our lives

December: Best posts of 2018 and giveaway

Giveaway!

What are your resolutions for 2019? Comment below, or on Twitter or Facebook . One randomly chosen winner will be sent a copy of the latest book I’ve read, My Morning Routine by Benjamin Spall and Michael Xander (I’ll ship worldwide). Comments close at the end of January.

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Wishing you all the best for 2019!

Written by Jessica Dang
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How our values change the course of our lives

compass
Ask people what is most important to them—what they think is the foundation for the best kind of life—and most would reply, “love, happiness, and good health.”

They’re not wrong. There’s lots you can live without, but if you don’t feel anyone cares about you, or fulfilled in any way, or if your body is failing, it’s hard to imagine life being that great.

On top of those, there are many other things that people value in life, such as:

  • Security (the feeling of safety and stability)
  • Intimacy (feeling connected or close to others)
  • Adventure (seeking fun/thrills, wanting to try out new things)
  • Freedom (being independent, ability to make own choices)
  • Contribution (making a positive change or difference)
  • Success (feeling accomplished)
  • Passion (doing enjoyable things)
  • Growth (learning new things, self-improvement)
  • Integrity (being honest and having strong moral principles)
  • Comfort (seeking pleasure, avoiding pain)
  • Many others…

What each value means and how important they are varies between each person. How you rank these values can affect everything from what kind of job or career you have, to who you choose for a partner (or, at least, what/who you would be happy with in the long term). One might value passion over security, and choose a job or person they love over one that earns more. Another might be horrified at that idea and do the opposite.

Values can be opposing or overlapping. Contribution might be synonymous with success for some, whilst others believe sacrificing security is necessary for success, in their startup for example.

What’s more, some people have higher values in one area, and a different value in other areas. Someone might seek security above all else in their relationships, but go all out adventurous in their travels.

The whole topic of values can be quite complex, but the main point is that you’ll hardly find two things on the anyone’s list that the majority of people in the modern world are spending most of their waking life on—money and material things.

Money and material things are not really values, but are means to get some of the feelings we do value. Money may give people a sense of security or freedom, and having nice things gives some people comfort, or a feeling of accomplishment.

Rarely are money and things actually valuable to people, deep down. Yes, money can afford you basic necessities and healthcare, but it can’t buy you love and fulfilment. Ask anyone who has bought something that they’ve long dreamed of buying if they would happily die now, you’ll hear a resounding no.

Living minimally is a reminder to focus on our values. Instead of being caught up with keeping up with the latest trends on Instagram, or what people think of us, we instead try to minimise distractions and bring our actions back in line with what’s really important to us.

Would you buy the biggest house on the street if you didn’t have time to spend in it with your family? That depends if you value love over what the neighbours think. Would you get into debt for the latest gadget or designer shoes? That depends if you value security and freedom over appearances.

Our values don’t make us who we are but how we rank them influences everything we do. Our actions should be aligned with our values, but you’ll be surprised by how many people haven’t even thought about it, or spend years ignoring the signs, or even doing the complete opposite of what would actually make them happy.

If we can agree that the best life is spent dedicated to what mattered to us the most, then let’s not waste any more time. Cut out, pare down, simplify. Clear the path ahead. By deciding what we value the most, we create our life compass, pointing us in the direction we want to go.

On Values’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

Written by Jessica Dang
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On Materialism

An often misunderstood part of minimalism is that it is an all or nothing deal.

With popular books, articles and videos showing ‘minimalists’ living in white boxes with just three shirts, two plates, and one pen, it’s no wonder why most people get the wrong idea.

A minimalist lifestyle is defined by each individual’s own terms. For some, owning less than 100 things is their definition. It’s not wrong, but it’s doesn’t fit every aspiring minimalist. Rather than being defined by how much you have or don’t have, it’s about being mindful of the things we introduce and keep in our lives.

Sometimes things have a use, and that’s okay.

A case for stuff

It has become fashionable to demonise acquiring material things as a waste of money and a pointless exercise. Most of us know that buying more won’t keep us happy in the long term, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it.

The feeling of satisfaction or superiority that comes from buying certain things is superficial, which is why the rush doesn’t last long. But some possessions can actually be meaningful to us.

A new suit gives us a much needed confidence boost at work, a set of paintbrushes reveal our creative side, a language course booked to learn something new, a tablet computer connects us to family and friends, a skiing holiday pushes us to take risks, a photo album full of memories makes us smile, a full bookshelf reminds us of how much we’ve learned over the years…

Things like this are needed as part of a life well lived. It may be an unpopular conclusion to come to on a blog about minimalism, but perhaps sometimes buying stuff is not a complete waste after all.

Importantly, however, is the realisation that just having useful possessions is not enough by itself to transform us for the better. Even religions like Zen Buddhism which encourage the use of mindfulness bells acknowledge that a bell by itself is not enough to make us paragons of calm. But for many monks and laypeople, every ring feels like it’s tuning them little by little into the kind of person they aspire to be.

Approached in the right way, material goods can help us become happier people, but achieving the right balance can be difficult. Here is where minimalism as a practice comes in—helping us become more disciplined with our desires and mindful of distractions that tempt us away from the kind of life we want to live.

On Materialism’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

Written by Jessica Dang
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