I wrote last week about why I went to a Buddhist monastery. This week I’m writing about the experience itself.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I arrived at Plum Village, a mindfulness practice center and Buddhist monastery near Bordeaux, France, but I went in hoping to find some peace, to learn more about mindfulness, and to learn a little more about Buddhism. Originally, I had planned to spend one week in Plum Village. I was intrigued enough by the end of that week to extend my stay for a second.

My first week was peaceful and joyous. There were moments when I was legitimately nearly moved to joyous tears. I felt happy, safe, connected to others, and very deeply at peace. Though I had started practicing mindfulness years before even hearing about Plum Village, my first week showed me heights and benefits of mindfulness I hadn’t thought possible. I was humbled to realize that I had previously only just scratched the surface and simultaneously excited to discover how much I had yet to learn.

By contrast, my second week was turbulent and emotional. I cried several times. I spent more time alone looking deeply within myself, and began to better understand the nature of sources of pain I hadn’t even entirely realized I had been running from. There’s a still long way to go, but the beginnings of that awareness combined with the wisdom of some of my mentors in Plum Village started me on the path toward healing and armed me tools I’m sure I’ll need to see the journey through.

I will, however, be the last to claim that everything about Plum Village was rosy and amazing. In fact, parts of my experience were initially rather mixed–I recoiled from a distinctly church-like vibe I got from some of the activities, and can’t honestly claim to have been inspired by or impressed with every Plum Village monk or nun I met. Many of the people I met at Plum Village had been coming back for years or decades, and were clear raving fans. I couldn’t initially see myself becoming one of them.

Writing in my journal late at night by the light of the Bell Tower in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

By the end, though, I could see the value. When I left, I felt more focused, more mindful, more at peace, and more compassionate than I had ever been in my life. I left with a heightened awareness of my own habits and patterns and, thus, the power to change those that didn’t suit me. I also left with a new mode of relating to myself, others around me, and to the world at large.

It’s been just over 3 weeks since I left Plum Village and I have, admittedly, found it very hard to maintain many of those states of mind in the outside world. I still get swept up by some of my old habits and patterns, and I’ve noticed that I’ve returned to familiar ways of escaping from deeper pains I’m reluctant to face. In particular, I think I’m still learning how to approach the occasionally inevitably lonely moments while traveling–close friends and truly intimate relationships can be hard to come by when the cast in your life seems to rotates constantly. This loneliness is sometimes underscored by the still convalescing wounds from my less-and-less recent breakup. While in Plum Village I had no choice but to approach these emotions with mindfulness. Lately, outside, it’s sometimes all I can do to notice that I’m acting out of a habitual desire to avoid dealing with this before continuing to do so anyway.

Though I struggle to apply everything I learned, I’m grateful for my time in Plum Village and hopeful that some things have taken deep root in my consciousness. I would definitely go back and, as I may have the opportunity to head back to Asia later this year, I’m considering paying visits to the affiliated monasteries in Hong Kong and Thailand.

What follows is my nightly journal from my two weeks in Plum Village. It contains impressions, emotions, insights and philosophical musings brought about by the unique environment there. The contents herein have been edited only for clarity. I wrote it for myself and parts of it are rather personal, but I share it so others may benefit from my experience at Plum Village.

As it’s rather long, here is a table of contents and an index of a few of the highlights:

Journal

Day 1 – Saturday, July 7, 2018

I arrived at Plum Village in the late afternoon yesterday. Today is my first full day here. It’s… very peaceful here. The hamlet itself is well-integrated with the beautifully forested countryside, and is often kissed by the sun and caressed by the warm summer’s breeze. The lighting here when the sun’s rays peak through the trees at dawn and dusk is other-wordly.

The altar in the meditation hall of Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

With nature’s beauty all around and with the tranquil environment created by the community here, it’s hard not to find myself experiencing mindful moments and spontaneously enjoying the present. And yet, I am often restless here as well. The pace of everything here is calm and unhurried. Without realizing it, I often find that I’m walking faster than those around me. There’s also a bell they ring every so often as a reminder to return to the present. When they ring it, everyone goes silent and follows their breath for a few moments before returning to whatever they were doing. I’m often one of the last to notice the bell.

There are several meditation sessions of different varieties each day with the first starting before dawn at 6:00am. Despite years of meditation practice and experience with sessions as long as an hour, I’m often distracted and impatient. During breaks I tend to search for ways to occupy myself so I’ve been playing a lot of chess and Go with the other retreatants. As a practitioner of mindfulness, I know that occasionally getting distracted or impatient is natural and that I shouldn’t give myself a hard time about it. I’m also told by the veterans here that by the end of the week I’ll have adapted, but I have a hard time imagining myself slowing down so much at the moment.

I guess I’ve never had this much time every day dedicated to mindfulness before. We practice being mindful in almost everything we do, even walking, eating, and working. So much time with my thoughts makes it hard to hide from any difficult emotions I might be avoiding.

I’m making friends here and meeting interesting people, though it sometimes feels like my naturally extroverted nature is at odds with the intentions of the retreat. Today at lunch I made the mistake of carrying on a conversation while waiting in line for food. The dining hall is a “Noble Silence” area, which means we are meant to practice being present, silencing both our mouths and our minds.

I clearly have a lot to learn about mindfulness and I’m excited to learn over the course of the retreat! I wonder a little if one week is enough time to internalize what I learn here and if I’ll really be able to take mindfulness with me into the distracted and hurried world outside. I suppose only time will tell.

Day 2 – Sunday, July 8, 2018

A view of the lotus pond and bell tower in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village.

I’m quite pensive today. I suppose my overactive mind doesn’t take many breaks, even on a mindfulness retreat. After morning meditation and breakfast we walked down to the Lower Hamlet, which is, I think, typically where the single women stay. In some ways the Lower Hamlet is even nicer than the Upper Hamlet, where the men stay: there’s a large lotus pond in the center, and a peaceful grove of trees for walking meditation. We visited Lower Hamlet for a “Dharma Talk”1, which is perhaps the Plum Village version of a lecture or a sermon.

I’ve been drawing a lot of parallels between my experience here and my sparse childhood experiences at Christian and later Universal Unitarian churches. The community for practice here, the “sangha”, is much like the parish of a Christian church. The monks even seem to have a few songs which they lead us in before certain activities. Today, before the talk there was a performance of sorts with many of the monks and nuns chanting. I must admit that the comparison between Plum Village and a religious retreat makes me uncomfortable. I understand the powerful principles underlying the creation of a community of spiritual practitioners, and the way things are organized here makes sense, but I’m finding that I’m a bit resistant to some of the teachings here because of the format. I know that there is wisdom here, as there is in many of the world’s religions and spiritual practices, but I think the church-like format and strong devotion of many of the other retreatants has me on high alert for dogma. As is often my practice, I find myself questioning and examining everything, and I wonder if my habit of doing thi is diminishing my experience. There’s a common aphorism in Zen that goes something like “One cannot learn new things when the cup is already full.”

I wonder if my cup is too full. People often rave about their experience in Plum Village, and many of the retreatants are veterans who have been returning for years. While I certainly see the value, I’m not sure that I’m a raving fan yet, and I’m not sure what it would take for me to become one.

The poem inscribed on the large bell in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village.

On some level I think my personal philosophy is grappling with Buddhist precepts and finding a few places where there may be conflicts. In particular, Buddhism emphasizes slowing everything down and even just being OK with doing nothing for no reason. It also emphasizes the dual ideas of managing suffering while cultivating joy. While I’d agree that in our daily lives most of us are too hurried to mindfully enjoy the present, and that most of us struggle with the idea of having nothing to do and no stimulation, I believe in a balance in all things and have been wondering if the Buddhist work ethic as I’ve experienced and understood it so far is really the middle path. I also believe that some amount of stress and suffering is actually good and necessary, and that sometimes we should even seek it out (learning to face one’s fears, for example, usually has large personal benefit but could be argued to be a form of suffering). I have yet to see this conundrum fully addressed by Buddhism, though I’ve seen hints in the way my teacher talks about sitting for meditation (there is often pain, but one accepts and overcomes it and, in so doing, the pain bothers one less as they become practiced).

Anyway, today’s talk was about following the breath, finding joy/happiness in the mindfulness of doing so, and ultimately applying mindfulness to transform neutral and unpleasant experiences into pleasant ones. The core idea seemed to be that by applying awareness (rather than thought or avoidance) to these emotional states, we can take pleasure in the experience of acknowledging that we are bored (neutral) or sad (unpleasant). I think there’s truth in this though I sometimes feel skeptical of the somewhat mystic terminology of Buddhism. I suppose I’ll just have to try for myself sometime.

Day 3 – Monday, July 9, 2018

Fields of sunflowers litter the beautiful Bordeaux countryside.

I gave up my watch today. I was talking to one of the other retreatants and realized that my watch and sense of time were pulling me out of the present. Though I’m still somewhat skeptical of some of the Buddhist teachings, I’ve decided to do my best to embrace the spirit of the retreat. To this end, I’ve also given up chess and Go for the remainder of my time here as I was finding that my attachment to the games was distracting me–even in moments when I didn’t have down time I would look forward to the next time I’d get to play. I think perhaps I will make exceptions to this rule–the goal is to be present and mindful with myself, my surroundings, and my companions here. There are mindful interactions I can have with others over chess, but for now I will prefer conversation.

In the absence of other distractions, I mostly fill my time with walks and with talking to people. Many of the people here have followed similar paths or struggled with similar things and found refuge in mindfulness and Buddhism, so the conversations have been interesting and fruitful.

Today we visited New Hamlet via bus for another Dharma Talk. I decided to listen to the talk in French, and I’ll admit I was a bit tired–we sleep around 10pm and wake-up around 5:15am–so I only got the gist of the talk. Mostly it seemed to be about how Buddhists conceptualize the mind and human psychology. The analogy they’re fond of using is that the mind is like a garden with many seeds we can water to bring things into our consciousness. Focusing on the negative seeds causes negative thoughts and behaviors to grow, while focusing on the positive seeds does the opposite. Mindfulness, then, is tending a garden, and being judicious about which seeds to water and with what nourishment.

In the afternoon we learned about the 5 Mindfulness Trainings, which are a sort of code practitioners can commit themselves to. It includes things like mindful consumption and mindful interaction, and it implies that one make a commitment to vegetarianism and giving up substances like alcohol. Hearing these trainings felt a little like receiving the 10 commandments, and I could feel that comparison making me tense and less receptive. Though the trainings sounded rigid, the monks expressed two sentiments I really appreciated: 1) this is an ideal to work towards, and it’s not meant to be dogma–interpret them how you will while maintaining the spirit of mindfulness and 2) take what’s helpful to you and leave the rest with us. These sentiments really helped me to feel less like I’m on a religious retreat and being pressured to convert. We’re given the option to accept the trainings in a formal ceremony before we leave. I haven’t decided yet if I will.

The walking meditation path through the forest in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

I got into a bit of a debate with one of the other retreatants today which I felt illustrated one of my hesitations about the community here. Basically, I’ve observed that a lot of people here put a huge emphasis on “going with the flow.” This makes sense, as a lot of these people are recovering control freaks who were previously on high-stress career paths. They seem to have found in Buddhism an invitation to embrace the opposite extreme and now attempt to control nothing. The same pattern is observable about thought and intellectualizing–many of these people have experience stress, anxiety, or depression from being too much in their heads. They seem to now profess a total rejection of intellectualization and rational thought, preferring instead to feel everything out. My concern, and the kernel of the debate, is that these reactions are too strong and may lead one to a less-than-optimal path down the other extreme. In most things in life, I have found that balance is ideal because there are advantages and disadvantages to nearly every way of thinking and every way of being. In the cases here, following the other extreme does involve much less stress, which makes it potentially falsely attractive, but I think it may also lead to a state of under control, where one does not exert influence on things in life they actually can and should control (it’s knowing which is which that’s the real challenge, in my opinion). I can’t claim to know what the right balance is, but I have an intuition that the opposite extreme is not it.

On my way to write this entry, I was invited by one of the monks to join him for some late evening tea. Though it was getting late and I was eager to write down my thoughts for the day, I felt it would be wrong to decline. We drank tea by a lake, and he graciously offered to help untangle some of my internal knots. I shared with him some of the difficult emotions I’ve experienced in separating with my Vietnamese ex-girlfriend. He is, himself, Vietnamese, so I felt a little bit of a language barrier, but was appreciative of a compassionate ear. His advice itself confused me somewhat, however. He seemed to make a lot of assumptions about my ex- since she was Vietnamese, and he seemed to make a lot of assumptions about what and how I felt about her and about the depth and nature of our relationship. It struck me at points as a bit strangely ironic to be receiving advice on such matters from a man who became a monk at 17 and who likely had little actual experience in such matters, but I enjoyed the tea and the company and did my best to keep an open mind. This monk has suggested I stay in Plum Village for another week or two, and I’ve learned from  him that it may be possible to borrow a tent. There are a few other hurdles to staying longer, but I’m considering it. He claims that I should take more time to heal, not just from my ex-, but also from suffering I have from my parents. He thinks that in the outside world I’ll distract myself and run away from my suffering rather than sit with and understand it. I’m not sure, but he may be right–I certainly think I felt better about the break-up leading up to Plum Village because I was so busy I didn’t really have bandwidth to process my emotions.

I’m not sure what I’ll find if I stay another week, but regardless of my continued skepticism, I do know that I feel more deeply calm, relaxed, and at peace here than I have for a very long time.

Day 4 – Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The smaller activity bell in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village.

I have decided to spend another week here if I can make it work logistically. All day I’ve been playing with the question of whether or not to stay. For most people, I think Plum Village represents a place of refuge where they can escape from the stress in their daily lives and connect with the mind space to recognize and really deal with their deeper internal fears and issues (or, as Buddhists would say, their suffering). I’ve been struggling a bit to understand why my experience so far hasn’t matched up with others’, but now I think I see that it may be because I have made dealing with fears and issues a major focal point of my life.

The argument for staying in Plum Village is usually that doing so will help one to better understand themselves and their suffering so they can deal with them here rather than run away from them through distractions and consumption in the outside world. For me, though, I’ve been wondering if Plum Village is actually my way of running away from my problems: I deal with my fears and my problems every day, though I’m admittedly not always as mindful as I could be about how I go about it. Here in Plum Village, I am safe and can give myself a pass to not deal with the fears involved in walking my own path or the suffering involved in my close relationships. Though I recognize that staying here has value for most people living more traditional lifestyles, I have been trying to decide if I would get more value here or out there. Also, particularly because of some of my resistance, I’ve wondered if I should go.

What changed my mind today was a moving experience at the end of a talk today about “Beginning Anew.” “Beginning Anew” is a practice they have here for renewing, repairing, and strengthening relationships. It involves recognizing that relationships are dynamic, and cannot be expected to remain the same over time. It also involves recognizing that every fulfilling relationship has good moments (flowers) and challenges (compost), and that both are equally important in maintaining a strong relationship. Their process here has four parts: 1) flower watering, in which one recognizes, affirms, and appreciates what is beautiful and special about the other person, 2) expressing regret, in which one takes ownership of the things they wish they did better so the other person might suffer less, 3) expressing suffering, in which one describes how they suffer as a result of the other person’s actions, without blaming or any vindictive or harmful intent in order to simply help the other person understand you better and 4) asking for support, in which one asks the other for specific help to reduce one’s suffering.

All of this makes great theory, but what really brought it home was the monk inviting a couple to volunteer to actually go through the steps in front of all of us. At first, nobody volunteered. After many minutes, there was a woman who seemed interested, but her husband was visibly reluctant. She eventually got him on stage with the promise that perhaps they would just go through the affirmations.

Her affirmations were so heartfelt and tender that they brought her husband to tears. For some reason, I also couldn’t help but cry watching this–perhaps because the expression of love was so beautiful, and perhaps because it reminded me of something I had recently hoped for and lost in my ex-. She didn’t stop there, though. She ended up going through the entire process and when she was finished her husband, reminded of her love for him and of his love for her, leaned over and kissed her. Unexpectedly, he then got very into it and similarly walked through the process. We could actually feel and see their love for each other, and feel and see that their relationship had tangibly been healed by the exercise. It was a very moving and very human experience, and watching it feels as if it has healed something in me as well.

In the wake of that experience, I’ve come to the insight that though I will not necessarily agree with every teaching here, this is, indeed, a very special and very healing place. I don’t entirely understand how or why yet, but perhaps I don’t need to. There is much that I can learn and practice here, if I allow myself to, and for all I know I may never get another chance to come back. Tomorrow I will ask at the registration office if I can stay another week and I will take a friend up on his offer to borrow his unused tent.

Day 5 – Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The monks and nuns put on a small concert for us near Song Ha Temple, Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

Yesterday was lazy day which meant that there were next to no official activities and I had time to sleep in. Waking up for 6am morning meditation after such a day was a bit brutal. It was a fairly uneventful day, but I want to write about a few philosophical insights I’ve had. A few of these came up during a Q&A session with the monks and nuns during which I tried to phrase a few questions I had been thinking about only to find that I already had the answers, or at least that I had made progress since the last time I thought about them.

The first question is whether or not happiness equates to meaning in life. I ask this question because it’s almost cliché to look beneath surface-level desires (e.g. money, fame, power, etc.) and state that what people who want these things really want is to be happy and that they pursue these things because they believe having these things will make them happy. Buddhism teaches that the conditions for happiness are always present, and that a form of happiness is readily accessible through mindfulness. Empirically and experientially, this is true for me: being mindful helps to generate a wondrous sense of appreciation, gratitude, and connectedness, creating a joy that could be most likened to the joy children experience as they discover the incredible nature of even simple things in the world for the first time.

Happiness–become and staying happy–receives a lot of attention in the teachings at Plum Village, but I am increasingly convinced that happiness is, itself, another red herring in understanding what truly motivates and inspires people. I’m beginning to think that what we truly seek from life is not happiness, but meaning. Though they are related, they are not the same thing. I think that the existence of meaning generates happiness, and that being happy is meaningful and makes it easier for us to find meaning in our situations and surroundings. However, meaning does not necessarily require the presence of happiness: we often find meaning when we suffer, and we sometimes find meaning in relationships that at times give us more frustration than joy (e.g. family). If what we really seek is meaning and meaning does not equate to happiness, then the idea that our goal in life is to pursue happiness is an oversimplification. What we should pursue instead is meaning, which will commonly be found on the road to happiness, but which can be found through other paths as well (e.g. converting to a religion and accepting a dogmatic definition of meaning; suffering but suffering well also often leads to meaning).

The second insight is related: it’s that our goal in life cannot and should not be to eliminate suffering. I often hear people who have had some exposure to Eastern philosophies express an aspiration to “be liberated,” as if liberation implies an end to all of their pain and suffering for all of time. I’m learning, however, that happiness cannot exist without suffering anymore than light can exist without shadow. Furthermore, the balance and interplay of suffering and happiness is an important source of meaning. I think it’s possible, therefore, that the concept of enlightenment has less to do with not suffering and more to do with learning the perspectives and practices to suffer well–finding meaning in our suffering and therefore naturally reducing the suffering.

These ideas need more exploration and refinement, but if I’m right than I think my approach to life does change slightly to optimize for meaning in whatever forms I can find or create it rather than just optimizing for happiness. I wonder also what implications these ideas have for how we should structure our societies and define our societal goals as well: if the aim isn’t to eliminate suffering, is it still to lessen it as much as we can? Is there an amount of suffering that is actually good to have present? Should we even create suffering to achieve that if necessary?

In other news, I’ve confirmed that I can stay here another week. There’s a dorm bed available in Sơn Ha for 350€/week and, though pricey, I think I’m going to take it. I may see if I can use my tech skills to volunteer and receive a free or reduced rate in exchange.

I also had a few really interesting conversations today: one about politics and societal values (including a discussion of direct democracy, its merits and its flaws), and one about “the 7 chakras” and theories for personal philosophy and the progression of consciousness. A more in-depth recounting of those conversations will have to wait until it’s not super late at night before a 6am meditation, but suffice to say I have found very interesting topics on which to connect very deeply with some of the people here. I can’t help but feel that I’m making some good friends for life here, and this also motivates me to stay longer.

As a last note: my Dharma sharing family2 facilitator, a very wise, joyous, and entertaining Thay3 Phap Dung, says that he sees something different in me since I’ve been here and that he’s glad I’m staying longer. Something in my eyes, he says. I think I feel it, too: here I am very deeply at peace and experience a very deep joy which I think reflects in my face. The challenge when I leave will be taking that with me and maintaining it in the world outside.

Day 6 – Thursday, July 12, 2018

A collection of Buddha statues in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village.

Today was the last day of the first week of the retreat. The day started with kind of a weird ritualistic ceremony. Many people here opted to receive the transmission of the 5 Mindfulness Trainings (or, at least some of the 5). Rather than sitting meditation, we had the ceremony at 6:00am, which involved some chanting, reading the mindfulness trainings, bowing to the altar in the meditation hall, and ultimately receiving a certificate including the entire text of the 5 Mindfulness Trainings (to be reviewed and contemplated on a regular basis).

I have not elected to receive the 5 Mindfulness Trainings myself, though doing so is more a commitment to one’s self than anything. I’m still deciding how much of the text I agree with. Since I’m staying another week, I figure I have more time to contemplate the decision.

I continue to struggle a bit with the more ritualistic side of the tradition here. I suppose in part, this is why I stay so intellectually on guard: the difference between a community and a cult can be as small as the absence of independent rational thought and the presence of cyanide in the Koolaid… I am, however, learning not to let this get too much in the way of my absorbing useful insights from the rest of my surroundings.

I had some harder moments today. In stark contrast to the feelings of joy and peace I’ve had throughout the week, today I often felt tense and was visited by heavier feelings of stress, anxiety, or fear. It was nothing I haven’t learned to be familiar with, but it was a bit surprising nonetheless. I’d attribute these feelings to two sources. First, I had to turn on my phone and refill my SIM card. That was, itself, rather frustrating, and reconnecting to the outside world had a stronger effect on my ability to stay present and mindful than I expected. Suddenly, with messages to send, replies to receive, and potentially work to do, my mind became very occupied and I caught myself often thinking ahead to something I might need to do later. I think this all contributed to a loose sense of stress, heightened by the fact that it feels like such a long time since I last experienced stress.

At first, the idea of having to stay in contact with the outside world or working while here bummed me out, but I’ve come to realize that it’s a wonderful opportunity to begin to slowly integrate my mindfulness practice into my normal life while still keeping a foot in the safety and energy of Plum Village. My first week here was quite relaxing and I learned a lot about the joy of slowing life down. These conditions–no phone, no watch, no deadlines–however, were not terribly similar to my actual life. To really learn to be mindful outside of Plum Village, I will need to learn to change my relationship with technology and with work. I’m quite excited now for the challenge.

The second source of tension was a brief feeling of disconnectedness from some of my friends here. I had a pretty interesting philosophical conversation with a friend, but left feeling like I had perhaps not been mindful and may have pushed too hard. I really enjoy talking about some of these questions, but I think I have strong opinions and an intensity in asking the questions that can sometimes wear people out.

The topic of the conversation also left me feeling a bit down. As I alluded to yesterday, it seems as if happiness and meaning don’t exist without suffering. Yet, the paradox is that we often derive meaning from lessening the suffering of others. In an ideal world would we not, therefore, work to eliminate all the suffering we could? Is there any meaning in a world without suffering? If not… should we involve ourselves in the lessening of suffering at all or should we leave it be? Somehow it doesn’t feel right for there not to be any meaning to anything, nor does it feel right to not aim to spread joy/happiness while lessening suffering, so the implications of this paradox deflated me a bit. I’m still playing with it, but I think the way out of the paradox involves recognizing that even if our intent is to lessen suffering as much as possible, it’s likely humanly impossible to completely eliminate suffering–that would involve removing emotions, something that feels very integral to what it even means to be human. There seem to be two forms of suffering: the original pain that kicks up emotions, and the additional pain we kick up by getting overly involved in these emotions in unskillful ways. With practice, we can learn to transform the second type of pain into something positive (e.g. when we feel stressed we can either be stressed that we’re stressed or we can develop a healthy relationship with stress and learn that some amount of stress helps us to grow and evolve).

I think it’s unlikely that we can ever eliminate the first type of suffering without removing our emotions–and that’s OK because joy and happiness can often be found in the absence of that pain, but can also be found in the practice of making that pain an ally when it is present. So perhaps our goal as a race and an important way in which we find meaning is in helping others learn to suffer well. If we did this perfectly it would not mean the end of all pain, but it would mean the transformation of all negative affectations of suffering. Such a world would, indeed, be beautiful.

An incredible countryside sunset seen from a church on a hill near Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

I had two really beautiful high points today despite the introduction of stress. The first was during dinner when I looked around at the faces of everyone in my Dharma sharing family and realized that I really, honestly, wanted to help them all experience joy and suffer less and that I knew they all wanted the same for me. This is an important part of what they refer to as “True Love” here (only one part of what I personally consider important in romantic love). The realization that I feel a sense of love for all these people and from all these people was very moving and powerful. I imagine for some it’s also incredibly healing–it may be the first time in their lives they’ve experienced such a love.

The second was after dinner during a special tea meditation we had to close out the week. My small family hiked a ways to a church on a hill outside of the monastery. There we shared a delicious oolong tea, some inspired music from the talented musicians in our family, each other’s presence, and the beautiful orange light of twilight as the sun sinks over the hills and valleys of rural France. All of it came together to create what felt like a beautifully perfect moment full of joy and full of presence. I kid you not, it was nearly enough to move me to tears. It’s hard for me to describe why, but there’s so much meaning to a joyful moment like that shared with people I care about. I believe it may even have been one of the most beautiful moments in my life so far.

Day 7 – Friday, July 13, 2018

A small bamboo forest in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village.

I’ll try to keep this one short, as I’m trading sleep for time to write these sometimes and I did not sleep long last night.

It’s arrival/departure day for the second week of the retreat so there wasn’t much scheduled programming for the morning, but I chose to rise at 5:45am and meditate on my own despite having gone to bed past 1:00am.

Today was a difficult day, perhaps for a number of reasons. Not getting enough sleep didn’t help, but I also said goodbye to a number of departing friends today. I’m not terribly good at goodbyes. It’s been interesting, though in some ways alarming, watching the energy of Plum Village as one wave of retreatants leaves and another arrives. When I got here a week ago (feels like a lifetime ago) someone mentioned the hurried/excited/anticipatory energy of new arrivals and how it seems to change over the course of the week. Now that I’m on the other side I understand better. I think I’ve found this renewed sense of rush from outside a bit stressing and my lack of good sleep didn’t afford me the fortitude to normalize. It’s incredible how big a difference a good night’s rest can make.

I have found, however, that I seem to need less sleep here in general. On average I think I sleep 7 hours or less, yet I’ve often felt more energized here than I have in a long time outside.

I’ve had to stay in touch with the outside a bit as well today, and I found I had unmindful moments where I’d pull out my phone for no terribly good reason. I’m starting to get in the habit of leaving it in Airplane mode until I really need it, and am learning to check it a few times a day without feeling anxious to check it. Nevertheless, I’m sure this also had something to do with my darker moods today.

For my second week in Plum Village, I debated switching myself to a French Dharma sharing family so that I’d be forced to speak and listen in French. At the last moment, however, I decided to return to my original English Dharma sharing family because there are many younger retreatants there, I’ve gotten to know some of them quite well, and I think I’ll get more out of the group activities in English. I’m trying to make a commitment to engage more of the many French retreatants in French–I already get to speak more French here than I did in Bordeaux–and not give up and switch to English when I have trouble. I actually had a nice conversation with a French web developer for about 45 minutes before writing this :).

I honestly don’t know exactly what to expect from myself during this second week here. Will it be more of the same, or will I experience something totally different? I’m trying not to get too attached to an idea of it. I do, however, want to set the intention of using this time to learn to apply mindfulness to technology and my work and potentially to engage more with the suffering I know I still carry from my parents. I can’t expect too much, but it would mean a lot to me to be able to meaningfully mend my familial relationships. Up until now, I’ve often found I can’t muster enough compassion to view my parents’ transgressions in a truly forgiving and loving light, but perhaps I can make a breakthrough with support from the nurturing emotional environment here.

Day 8 – Saturday, July 14, 2018

I cried twice today. Once while I sat by the large bell and again during Dharma sharing when I recounted my personal insights.

Bell tower, Upper Hamlet, Plum Village

The bell tower where I spent most of my down time at the Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

I discovered today that I have been running away from much of my suffering, and I’m really glad I’m staying an extra week. This morning I woke up after a dream about a typical disagreement with my mother, which left me feeling tense all morning. I missed morning meditation because I woke up late, but I made it to the Upper Hamlet for the rest of my morning routine. Over tea, I had a long conversation with Hamish where he shared that Thay Phap Dung had given him an assignment to write a letter of gratitude to his parents about all of the great attributes they have that he has inherited from them. Of course, we ended up talking a lot about our parents and difficulties with them. Not long after our conversation I was sitting alone by the large bell with some tea and my Kindle as I often do. I had just resumed reading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse when I realized my pain was starting to surface. I closed my eyes and mindfully followed my breath and just let it come, and before I knew it I was crying. In these tearful moments, I had a few insights: that while I’ve been facing my fears and learning to deal with other forms of suffering, I’ve been running away from the suffering I have inherited from my parents and the suffering their suffering has caused me; that they could never have taught me to deal with my suffering since they have never known how to deal with their own suffering; that I’ve tried and failed many times to mend my relationship with my parents, and for a long time have sort of given up and decided to just keep my distance instead; that I’m incredibly grateful that my ex- helped me to gravitate toward Buddhism and Thich Nhat Hanh, grateful that she taught me to recognize my parents’ suffering with compassion, grateful that her last great gift to me was the knowledge that I have the capacity to forgive even when others have made me suffer greatly, and grateful for the knowledge that I have the capacity to transform my suffering and the suffering of others; that the way our relationship ended taught me about the same love, compassion, and forgiveness I must now learn to apply to my parents; that through my compassion I still love my ex very much, though I have learned that love and attachment aren’t the same thing so I believe I can continue to feel this way for her without desiring a romantic relationship with her or avoiding one with someone else someday; and that I must learn to listen with more compassion and master the art of suffering well.

I shared all of this during Dharma sharing. It was intense and cathartic. I wonder if it was a bit much since some people were attending their very first sharing session ever, but oh well.

I’m still wearing two hair ties my ex- had put around my wrist for me to remember her by. I haven’t felt completely ready to take them off yet, though sometimes noticing them has triggered a feeling of missing her or of residual anger about how things played out. Now I think that I’ll continue to wear them and instead use them as a frequent reminder of my capacity to love compassionately and to forgive, and of my gratitude in discovering that capacity.

Tomorrow I’ll start trying to bring my parents into my meditation, and perhaps do some writing about and for them. I’m nervous about facing my suffering, but I think I have the tools I need this time.

The Happy Farm, where volunteers help to grow food to support Plum Village.

On a different note, I visited the Happy Farm, where they grow many of their own vegetables, today. I helped them harvest beans and learned that farming is a great method for overcoming my fear of critters–they hide pretty much everywhere on the farm. While there I had some interesting conversations which once again got me thinking about the relationship between happiness and meaning. I’ve had a couple new key insights to explore on this topic: 1) happiness is personal and has to do with lessening suffering and cultivating joy in one’s self while meaning is usually realized in relation to others and has to do with lessening suffering and cultivating joy in others–the more compassion we feel for someone else, the more potential for meaning in the relationship; 2) most people seek a sense of both meaning and happiness ; we tend to feel something is missing without one or the other (this was the missing link before when I wrote about authenticity and integrity); 3) happiness is, in many ways, a prerequisite for most meaning, as we can’t help people feel joy if we don’t have it ourselves, and we can’t as effectively lessen suffering in others if our own burden is too heavy; 4) meaning often generates some happiness, but happiness by this definition cannot be meaningful on its own (e.g. I’m happy, but I long for someone to share it with); 5) authenticity perhaps maximizes both happiness and meaning; 6) there is, perhaps, a separate concept from happiness and meaning which is purpose; purpose and meaning may fulfill overlapping roles, but I need to think about this more.

Anyway, that’s enough musing for now–I need to sleep.

Day 9 – Sunday, July 15, 2018

An early morning shot of the meditation hall in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

The weather is changing a bit here. Occasionally, dark clouds crowd the sky and threaten to litter the hamlet with rain, though it has not truly rained during the day yet.

We spent the day in Lower Hamlet. I got into a small argument with someone new in my Dharma sharing family. A few of us were talking and I was amused to hear the newcomers expressing the same discomfort as I did with certain aspects of Plum Village (e.g. the singing). One even compared it to a cult-like experience as I did a number of days ago.

Someone mentioned that there were a few things they completely disagreed with during today’s Dharma Talk. When pressed, he said that the meaning he got from some of the talk was “Just breath and your problems will go away.” While I could see how he might interpret things that way, I jumped in very quickly and very forcefully to correct him because I knew that his statement was a gross oversimplification of the philosophy here. They don’t teach that breathing will make our problems disappear–they believe mindfulness and the breath can be used as invaluable tools to become comfortable being with and experiencing our more uncomfortable emotions rather than running from them or finding ways to distract ourselves from them. They teach that in learning to do this well we learn to deal with our pain rather than hide from it and that this helps us solve our problems and become happier.

My heart was in a good place–I didn’t want him to reject his experience here or the wisdom offered here over a disagreement with an incorrect interpretation of the teachings. However, I could feel that I had made him feel judged, lectured to, and unwelcome. I wish I had listened compassionately instead and perhaps have picked a more tactful way of making my point. I have a lot to learn about compassionate listening4–my intellectual instinct is to correct and advise when often someone just needs to feel heard. Learning to do this well would have helped me in my relationship with my ex and will certainly help me make peace with my parents. I ultimately apologized to the person I corrected–even though I know I was factually correct, I also know that I was emotionally wrong to do what I did.

Today I’ve felt better than the last few days. I’m still very aware of my suffering near the surface, but for the most part I’m experiencing joy and suffering simultaneously and it’s a strangely beautiful feeling.

The community celebrates in the large meditation hall as France wins the World Cup.

It was also the World Cup final today, and we turned the large meditation hall into a screening area. Apparently Thay5 didn’t used to allow this but since many of the monks and nuns would watch secretly he decided to just bring everyone together to watch it. We were advised to notice how we and the people around us were feeling, and enjoy the rare outbursts of excitement the monks and nuns would show whenever a goal was scored. I don’t normally watch football, but a friend explained some more of the strategy to me and it ended up being an exciting match. I feel fortunate to have watched France play in and win the World Cup while at Plum Village in France. What are the odds??

No progress today with respect to my parents, but I’ve loosely committed myself to spending my lazy day in relative solitude just approaching the suffering and trying to work through how I feel. No reading or other distractions (even people!!) allowed unless someone invites me to share some time with them.

Day 10 – Monday, July 16, 2018

A view of the bell tower in New Hamlet, Plum Village.

This morning I woke up to distant lightning. I nearly decided to go back to sleep rather than hike 10 minutes to the meditation hall in the rain, but when I went outside it was clear the storm was still a ways off. Almost immediately after I sat down in the meditation hall, however, it started totally pouring. It was actually quite a magical experience sitting and meditating to the rhythm of the drumming rain. I always hated the rain growing up, but I’m trying to learn to appreciate it–after all, they say life is about learning to dance in the rain.

After breakfast I finished reading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. It was a pretty profound read–I read it once in high school, but I don’t think I got nearly as much out of it. Finishing the book has me contemplating a lot about the tension between acceptance and action. I think the closest thing Siddhartha comes to attempting to explain the insight of enlightenment is the realization that time is a human construct, that everything that was will always be and everything that will be always was, and that the world is perfect in every moment despite present suffering. In this timeless sense, we become one with pretty much everything–what comprises my body may have existed in many forms: earth, animals, insects, elements, etc. and so I owe gratitude and reverence to all things. Everything on Earth is connected in this way by our complex ecosystem and the cycle of life.

What I’m struggling with, though, is that if truly loving the world and fully realizing this insight means accepting the perfection of its imperfection and recognizing my own and all other suffering as a beautiful part of the broader whole, then what motivation is left to us to change or improve the world or ourselves? In this context, if imperfection and suffering are parts of the genius of life, what does it even mean to improve the world? Thus far, I’m not totally sure what Buddhism has to say to this contradiction, and I keep coming back to it in one form or another. I hope to learn more about the Buddhist perspective here before I leave.

We went to New Hamlet today for another Dharma Talk. I’m still finding that this format isn’t for me–I never have been a fan of lectures. I’m realizing I gain more wisdom and insight reading about these concepts than by having a monk try to explain them. Every teacher has their own style, of course, but thus far I’ve felt that the way they’ve explained topics is logically brittle, trying to fall back on hearsay science at some points, and failing to skillfully back up their claims with good examples. I maintain that this is a failing of the teachers, not of the teachings, however. I’m grateful that these talks are not my first introduction to Buddhism–if they had been I might have been turned off to it. I wonder if my experience would be different if Thich Nhat Hanh still gave these talks himself–he does a reasonably good job explaining in his many books.

It’s now. A clock and watches from an exhibit about Thich Nhat Hanh in New Hamlet, Plum Village.

After the Dharma Talk, Thay Phap Dung offered to share an orange with me. I had been meaning to have a conversation with him for a few days and was very grateful for the opportunity to hang out with him. We talked mostly about our fathers and he offered me some guidance in navigating my emotions toward my parents. Much of what he said was both relatable and insightful for me, but one thing that really stuck with me was the concept of the “inner” parent.

Our parents and our ancestors are a part of who we are, both through their genes, and through the behaviors and suffering they have purposefully or inadvertently passed on to their children and their children’s children. In this sense, my father is within me as well. When I feel animosity toward my father I can’t help but also feel animosity towards parts of myself. Thus, to hate my parents is to hate myself and vice-versa. To love myself is also, in a way, to love my parents, and vice-versa. I can never truly love myself until I also learn to love my parents, and it’s difficult to truly love someone else without loving myself first. I’m learning to start small with my appreciation of my parents’ traits, and that I need to accept their love in whatever forms they can give it, even those forms are imperfect or cause me suffering sometimes. I’m also realizing that my taking care of my entrepreneurial fears (very similar to my father’s) and learning to deal with my wrong perceptions and difficult emotions (very similar to my mother’s) is not, in fact, a rejection of them or a trial to prove that I am better than them, but rather in a way is a very deep form of love: learning to transform the suffering passed to me by my parents so that I can help them both to heal and to suffer less. In this way all of the great trials of my life right now become connected…

The poem inscribed on the large bell in New Hamlet, Plum Village.

After our chat, Thay Phap Dung and I joined walking meditation and he asked me if I minded holding hands. I found that I didn’t, that I enjoyed the connection and his presence, that I could feel his love and compassion through his hand. It was a joyful walk, and we were soon joined by one of his many child friends. Thay Phap Dung never ceases to amaze me. He is at once so wise and so childlike, taking off running through the fields to play with a child. He is obviously wordly (and is thus more credible) but so joyful and so free. In his work as a monk I can see that he has touched many lives, including my own. I admire and respect him greatly.

Today after dinner was lazy evening, meaning there were no activities scheduled. The atmosphere of the hamlet changed greatly with many people singing and drumming and being merry in the dining hall. Some people even commented that it felt more like a music festival than Plum Village. For my part, I was challenged to a game of chess. I was also asked by a little girl and her mother if I might teach her how to play. I found that I enjoyed teaching her very much–she was clever and grasped the concepts quickly. I don’t want to stroke my own ego, but I also realized just how consciously competent I am at teaching. I’m able to connect to students on an emotional level, keep them entertained and engaged while presenting new material, can construct good exercises to test their understanding, and have the patience to allow them to think on their own and make mistakes. I think I also have a deep empathy for students and am able to explain things in a clear and relatable way at the right pace while also having good insight into why a student misunderstood something when they get stuck. I noticed the other adults lacked many of these traits–were either impatient or unclear and unengaging. I wonder, as I have once wondered before, if teaching may be one of my gifts. A young French boy has also asked me to teach him and I intend to teach him in French tomorrow.

Day 11 – Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The activity bell in the Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

Another lazy day. I woke up too late to make it to breakfast. My plan originally was to read through No Mud, No Lotus, Anger, and Reconciliation by Thich Nhat Hanh and then do some writing about my parents, but instead I kept finding myself in conversations with people. It was good, though, one conversation was with a Vietnamese monk who approached me while I was reading near the bell tower, another was with an aspirant in my Dharma sharing family who I ran into on my way out to go running, and two others were with friends who looked like they were struggling so I wanted to lend my ear.

The chat with the Vietnamese monk was interesting. It’s often hard to understand what the Vietnamese monks are saying because their accents are strong and their English isn’t perfect. At first, I thought he was trying to give me some unsolicited advice about balance and types of pleasure, but I slowly realized that he and I were having a philosophical dialog. He brought up the point that perhaps some ego is good or even necessary for many things which has me examining whether or not my strong and total rejection of ego in recent years is an overreaction–perhaps a little bit of ego to give us drive isn’t a bad thing? This isn’t exactly a Buddhist idea, however, so I was surprised to hear it suggested by a monk. We also talked about human “illusions” like the beliefs we can hold about society and purpose. He argued that illusion is sometimes necessary to bring people together (e.g. movements like communism). I argued that truth is always preferable to illusion and that truth, or an honest quest for it, can bring people together in more constructive ways as it seems to have in Plum Village.

Beyond this, many of my other conversations today gave me good opportunities to practice compassionate listening. I had another conversation with the person I had corrected and apologized to a few days ago, and I realized how uncomfortably like me he must sound. Despite what I know to be intent to the contrary, he comes off as a bit arrogant and closed-minded. He also self-identifies as an “extremely self-aware” person and I realized that often people who profess to be self-aware (myself included), may in fact have huge blind spots despite–or perhaps because of–this belief. Regardless, I chose not to correct him or offer my own opinion to compare to his–I could see that doing so would likely not have resulted in a terribly constructive conversation. I must reflect on this encounter and learn to change my own often arrogantly combative communication style.

Before returning to my lodging I taught that young French boy to play chess. It was late and I wanted to come home to sleep, but I felt I had promised him and I noticed him waiting for me at the tea house. My French has certainly improved–I succeeded in teaching him all the rules of chess without any English. There is a long way to go still, but having had so many French conversations here in Plum Village I have reached the point where I can hold a reasonable conversation, though I sometimes need things repeated or slowed down and sometimes have to ask how to say a word in French provided its meaning (which I can often describe in French).

Day 12 – Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The poem inscribed on the large bell in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

Today was a strange day. I decided to skip morning meditation when my alarm went off at 5:30am. I woke instead at 8:30am missing breakfast and a chance to pack a lunch as well. I was surprisingly exhausted–I think a few of my shorter nights have caught up to me.

I’ve been in a weird mood. At the same time I think I’m starting to feel ready to leave but I’m also a bit nervous about returning to the stressors and distractions outside. I’ve found much here in Plum Village–peace, joy, love, compassion, self-knowledge, wisdom–and I fear losing all that I’ve gained as soon as I leave. At the same time, I’m excited to try and perhaps a bit anxious to start applying what I’ve learned to my normal life. I think perhaps a third week would have been too much for me–I’m starting to get used to the pattern here so some of it is losing its novelty and magic. Perhaps at some point I’ll try 3 weeks at a different monastery (Asia?) regardless just to be with those new impatient emotions.

There was a Q&A today and I got to ask my question about the conflict between truly loving and accepting something (or someone) and the desire to change it. In this case, I’m particularly interested in how we can truly love and accept the world while reconciling that with the desires we often have to change or improve it. It seems to me that a true love and acceptance implies no need to change something–if we need it to be different we’ve failed to accept it by definition. I’ve been wondering what the Buddha would have said about this, but the answer I got from a young nun simply challenged my definition of love/acceptance and state that when we accept something, action is a natural consequence. I’m not really convinced by her argument, but I will reflect on the answer she gave me nonetheless. She also recommended that I read True Love by Sister Chan Kong.

In other news, I’ve decided to accept the transmission of all 5 of the 5 Mindfulness Trainings. The ceremony is early tomorrow morning. I’m not yet convinced I agree with all of Buddhism or even all of the text in the mindfulness trainings, but I acknowledge that it seems to have gotten some things right and I see my taking the trainings as a commitment to continue to reflect on Plum Village ideals and to at least be mindful of what I say, do, and consume.

We also had tea meditation today which was by far my week’s highlight last week. I don’t think quite the same energy was there today–it’s hard to top that evening of music, joy, good company, and sunsets–but I’m grateful to have shared the experience with wonderful people nonetheless. This time I shared my gratitude with the family and also recited one of the beautiful poems written on the sides of the bells in the bell towers. This was a bit embarrassing, however, as they’re all in French and my pronunciation needs work :P.

Day 13 – Thursday, July 19, 2018

Today was my last real day in Plum Village–I depart tomorrow after lunch. The close of my stay here inevitably comes with mixed feelings. I’m nervous about whether or not I will succeed in my endeavor to bring my learnings here back through the shroud to the real world. I’m sad to say so many goodbyes. I’m confused by how deep yet how shallow my relationships here are–many of these people have touched my life and I feel that I have touched theirs, and yet I’m truly not convinced I’ll ever see any of them again, or that I’ll succeed in meaningfully keeping in touch. I’m grateful for everything I learned, for joyous moments with friends, for renewed courage to face my challenges with integrity. I’m ever restless despite learning here to slow down and really enjoy the moment.

Group shot of the “Right Action” Dharma sharing family after the ceremony.

In the morning I participated in the ceremony to receive the transmission of all 5 Mindfulness Trainings. At the end of the ceremony I was given a certificate and the “Dharma Name” “Graceful Action of the Heart.” I can’t help but feel funny about how much like a baptism this felt, but I find myself oddly pleased with this name. I very much hope that my actions and my character will live up to it.

Aside from the ceremony, I skipped most of the day’s events, including the Dharma Talk. Instead, I opted to do some writing. I wrote a letter to my ex to whom I owe some gratitude for finding myself in Plum Village at all. I also started to write some things about my parents. There’s much to explore there and I am far from finished, but I think I have a good mental framework to follow.

I’m starting with gratitude. First I’m acknowledging all the things about myself that I appreciate, and then drawing a line between each of these and a similar attribute in my parents or ancestors so that I can express my gratitude to them for my gifts and see that they have them, too. After, I will acknowledge other things I admire about my parents or ancestors which I don’t find in myself but nevertheless appreciate. By starting with gratitude, I ground myself in the knowledge that my parents and ancestors have many wonderful strengths.

Next I’ll approach compassion. I want to acknowledge all the ways that my parents and ancestors suffer so that I can begin to feel understanding, love, and forgiveness for how their suffering has manifested. I will do this generally first, then zero in on how I specifically have caused my parents or grandparents to suffer. I will express my regret that I have caused this suffering. Then I’ll approach my own suffering and try, without blaming, to give voice to how my parents’ or ancestors’ actions or suffering have hurt me. It is important that I do this so that they can understand and have compassion and awareness as well.

Last, I’ll ask for support via specific actions that might help me suffer less and I’ll offer similar support the other way. It’s above all important that all of this come from a place of deep love and acceptance. I must not do it because I hope it will somehow change my parents or my relationship with them–I must truly do it for no other reason than that it’s the loving thing to do to acknowledge their strengths, express my gratitude, and take responsibility for the pain I have caused. This will all take time to get right.

The squad after our successful transformation into mud monsters and trolls in the Upper Hamlet lake.

In the afternoon, I went swimming in the lake with a few friends. We enjoyed fooling around and caking mud on ourselves in the hopes that (maybe) the mud would be good for our skin. I don’t enjoy swimming in murky water, but I must admit that it was quite a bit of fun and that I was glad to be peer pressured into it.

Not long after I got back from swimming, we had our last dinner in our Dharma sharing families. It’s sad to have to say goodbye, but I’m very much glad that I stayed in this family a second week rather than attempting a switch to a French family (which would have been a complete disaster). Someone passed a contact sheet around, so maybe I’ll get to stay in touch. I forgot to take the time to personally thank our facilitator, Thay Phap Dung. He’s been a really integral part of my experience here and has been a source of strength, joy, and wisdom. If not for him, I’m not sure I would have stayed a second week. He joked with me at dinner that I should stay a third–apparently that sort of thinking is how he “accidentally” become a monk himself 20 years ago–though doing so isn’t possible at this time. I told him I’ll try to visit the Plum Village monasteries in Asia instead if I end up heading back out that way this year.

There was a beautiful ceremony after dinner called the Rose Ceremony. It’s apparently a tradition for appreciating one’s parents that Thay stole on a trip to Japan many years ago. There was a recitation of what Thay wrote when his mother died, and an opportunity for children (and adults) to read love letters to their parents.

The tradition is sort of like mother’s or father’s day except that we pin a red rose to our shirts for each living parent we have and a white rose for each deceased parent. Walking around the hall realizing how many people I had gotten to know had one or even two white roses was a powerful moment of mindfulness for me. I shed a few tears of compassion for their loss and reflected on my gratitude to still have two living parents.

The Rose Ceremony ended with hugging meditation, a wholesome experience where we all went around hugging our friends and loved ones for 3 deep, mindful breaths each, really enjoying and appreciating their presence. I had many nice hugs with friends I made here, but the one that really touched me the most was the little French boy who I had promised to teach to play chess and for whom I went out of my way to keep that promise. He had such a happy and joyful look on his face when we found each other in the crowd and he offered me a hug. I knew in that moment how much my doing that had meant to him. I’m really glad to have touched his life.

I also had a similar experience a few minutes ago when a Mexican teenager to whom I had taught some opening- and mid-game chess strategy noticed me writing this by the light of the bell tower and came up to personally thank me. I offered him a hug and asked him to keep playing and maybe even win a few games for me.

It’s time to sleep now as I need to pack and depart tomorrow. I’ll be returning to Bordeaux for a few days of sightseeing before 5 weeks in Lyon. My experience here in Plum Village was powerful and memorable. I understand now why so many people here have come back year after year. Perhaps one day I’ll be the same. Perhaps I’ll meet these friends here again.

Day 14 – Friday, July 20, 2018

(This entry is written after the fact based on some memories and conversations I had before leaving Plum Village on Friday, but which I felt were an important part of this narrative.)

I left Plum Village today and am now back in Bordeaux. The morning went mostly as I’d have expected: lots of goodbyes with friends as people left throughout the morning. Then lots more goodbyes as I prepared to leave myself.

I’m going to miss many of my friends from Plum Village, especially the ones that I know struggle more with certain things that either I’ve seen myself struggle with, or that I’ve seen people I love struggle with. Many of my friends here have expressed hardship with difficult human emotional experiences like anger (towards self, towards others, towards the world), anxiety, depression, self-confidence/self-love. I am at least grateful that I had a chance to be in their lives, however briefly, to listen compassionately and offer my love and support. Many of them are staying in Plum Village longer-term, either for the entire summer retreat, or even longer as volunteers. I can’t think of a better place for them to heal.

Before I left, I had a really fruitful conversation with one of the aspirants, who came to find me and follow-up on the question I asked during the Q&A about the tension between love/acceptance and action/change. I always enjoy chatting with this particular aspirant because he and I actually share a very similar background–we both graduated from Stanford, I think not too long ago; we both graduated with technical degrees that led us to work for the US government for some time; we both got involved in tech in Silicon Valley. I’d be surprised if he and I didn’t actually already have some mutual friends. It’s one thing to meet someone who aspires to become a monk but is completely different from me, and quite another to meet someone who I realize could very easily have been myself.

Anyway, he asked me what I thought of the answer I received during the Q&A. Apparently he recognized the somewhat crestfallen and dissatisfied look on my face at the end of the answer–a feeling I’m sure he’s shared more than once during his long stay in Plum Village. We ended up having an interesting discussion, grounded first in concepts we had both learned about self-love, self-acceptance, and self-growth and then generalized from there to see if we could understand how those concepts relate to loving and accepting the world while also potentially transforming it.

One of the large conclusions we drew was that both in self-love and in loving the world a sense of total love and acceptance does imply letting go of the need for uglier things to change or disappear. We both agreed, however, that the act of total acceptance in this way has a very meaningfully and very powerfully changes those things, so acceptance itself is an action of sorts. The difficulty here, however, is that one cannot choose to love and accept themselves with the intent that doing so will effect change because that very intent carries with it a lack of true love and true acceptance. I think the same can be said of loving the world.

The other thing I took from our conversation is that this love and acceptance for the negatives need not necessarily conflict with our positive aspirations. Often, getting to where we want to go involves accepting and transforming what’s already within us while simultaneously cultivating something new.

Me with Thay Phap Dung, an incredibly light-hearted and wise Buddhist monk living in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

I was very appreciative of our conversation. I felt like it gave me the resolution I had hoped for in the Q&A. I should admit also that this was the first conversation after which I had the serious thought that perhaps the idea of becoming a monk could be appealing for someone like me. After all, someone who thinks very similarly to me is doing it and I now see that his commitment to monkhood has given him access to helpful things like a mentor who reads his journal and helps him to see where he is struggling in his development. It’s also clear to me that he, like I, is interested in understanding what the concept of enlightenment might mean in practice rather than just in theory. Becoming an aspirant and, ultimately, a monk effectively makes pursuing this understanding his full-time job. I am, however, not yet convinced that becoming a monk is the only way to create the space and time to pursue this understanding. For now at least, I think becoming a Buddhist monk isn’t in my cards.

I said goodbye to Thay Phap Dung today. I caught him on his way out of the dining hall with his lunch. I just wanted to tell him how grateful I was for him, for his kindness, for his compassion, for his joy, and for his teachings. He invited me to eat my last lunch in Plum Village with him. I hope to meet this man again somewhere and someday, and I aspire to learn how to exude joy and compassion from a place of deep centeredness the way he has.

I’ve been able to maintain my mindful state today, even in the outside world. I found that on the train and on the tram to get to my new accommodations I was very calm, very unhurried, and actually just happy to sit and enjoy the ride rather than feel the need to automatically pull out my phone and occupy myself in some way. Hopefully I’ll continue to be mindful in the coming days, weeks, and months.

In leaving, I am not the same person I was when I arrived and in subtle ways I see the world differently now. I didn’t love everything about my experience in Plum Village, but on the whole it was incredible and I very much want to continue practicing what I learned. It’s hard to say how the future will unfold and where I’ll go, but I think it’s likely that I will be back to Plum Village, if not to the monastery in France then perhaps to the affiliated ones in Asia or America. As Thay Phap Dung joked before I left, perhaps my stay in Plum Village wasn’t a break from the outside world as much as the outside world is now a break between stays in Plum Village.

Footnotes

Bell tower, Upper Hamlet, Plum Village

As a self-professed agnostic, I’m not a terribly religious, spiritual, or superstitious person. In fact, I’ve spent much of my life incredibly skeptical of both religions and religious practitioners. My skepticism was so strong that if you had told me 5 years ago that I would one day spend not one, but two full weeks in a Buddhist monastery, I think I probably would have done a spit take. And yet, in July of this year I did just that (minus the spit take) and, though I didn’t love everything about the experience, it was pretty incredible overall.

Of course, this change in perspective didn’t exactly happen overnight.

Meditation

It all started when my father discovered meditation while I was in college. He found it helpful to him in his everyday life, and introduced my mother to it, who also took a liking to the practice. Together, they practiced a form of transcendental meditation, which often makes use of the stereotypical mantra that most people think of when they picture meditation. As parents are liable to do when they find something they think is good for them, my parents started trying to get their kids–my little sister and I–interested, telling us about the researched positive side-effects of meditation such as reduced stress response and a resistance to mental conditions like anxiety and depression. As children are liable to do when their parents tell them to do something, my sister and I both did the opposite. We went so far as to make fun of our parents for the way they would meditate, repeating their mantras back to them in mocking tones.

I became very resistant to meditation and to the idea of meditating because the form of meditation my parents practiced was closely tied to Indian spiritual and religious practices. Over time, I had developed an automatically suspicious response toward anything remotely religious or spiritual. I used to think of religious faith and dogma as nearly synonymous, and I’ve always refused to accept ideas from people who are unwilling or unable to think for themselves or who might discourage me from doing the same. To me, if a belief or an idea is really worth keeping, it must survive the scrutiny of reasoned doubt, and it must continue to survive that scrutiny as new information becomes available. I could never have respect for, let alone faith in, a leader or a deity who might punish those who seek to draw their own conclusions or find their own answers.

For many years I boycotted meditation, unable to extricate its true value from the religious leanings of my parents’ practice. I saw meditation as a spiritual practice and wanted nothing to do with it. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I discovered an entirely secular form of meditation called mindful meditation. One of my acquaintances on Facebook had a spare coupon code for a free one-month subscription to a mindful meditation app called Headspace. To give away the coupon, he challenged his friends on Facebook to do Headspace’s free 10-day foundational series, and offered to raffle off the coupon to one of the people who did so and reported back to him. This was the first time I had heard someone other than my parents advocate for meditation, so on a whim, I downloaded Headspace to try it out.

To my surprise, I was really intrigued by my first 10 days of Headspace. In fact, I don’t think I would be exaggerating in claiming that those 10 days started me down a path that would drastically change my life for the better. That introduction framed meditation as a mental exercise rather than a spiritual experience, and helped to dispel many of my false preconceptions about the practice. Since the guy who issued the Headspace coupon challenge on Facebook was a mere acquaintance, I never actually told him that I was inspired by his giveaway, but I ended up buying myself a subscription to Headspace on my own and continued to practice.

Mindfulness

Through meditating in the Headspace way, I’ve learned about mindfulness, which could perhaps best be described as the opposite of mindlessness. You know when you’re driving a car and you suddenly realize you’ve been on autopilot for the last 30 minutes while you thought about something totally unrelated and, often, really not that important? Or when you open a bag of chips for a small snack but before you realize it you’ve emptied the bag? Or the itch you get to pull out your smartphone anytime the world in front of you fails to provide the stimulating experience you’ve grown to expect? These phenomenons are good examples of what I would describe as mindlessness: a lack of awareness of and presence with wherever we are, whoever we’re with, or whatever we’re doing in the moment.

Benefits of Mindfulness

Without realizing it, many of us spend a large proportion of our lives in a relatively mindless state. While that’s not necessarily a terrible thing in all cases–multitasking, for example, can sometimes be beneficial though it necessitates a degree of mindlessness in dividing our limited consciousness–I’ve learned through practicing that there are appealing benefits to mindfulness as an alternative such as self-awareness of habits and patterns along with more initiative to change them; a resistance to getting caught up in the kinds of thoughts and emotions that otherwise lead people to anxious or depressive states; a heightened appreciation for the small things in life, leading to a higher average sense of joy and well-being; increased presence, which may correlate with charisma, focus, and flow among other things; and a greater sense of self-acceptance, and acceptance of others.

Sounds a little like snake oil, doesn’t it? Fortunately, there are a number of studies backing up the positive health and mental health benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Even without those studies, though, many of these effects make sense to me. At its core, mindfulness is about training our awareness so that we become practiced at recognizing when we’re distracted. Overtime as I’ve gotten better and better at noticing this during mindfulness exercises, I’ve begun to internalize the skill. With training, I find that I become distracted less often, and that when I do become distracted, I notice more quickly than I used to.

Cover of The Charisma Myth

Cover of The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane

As a result of this awareness, I’m more likely to notice, and have the wherewithal to stop myself, when I’m about to take a habitually self-distracting or even self-destructive action (e.g. opening Facebook or Reddit). I’m less prone to get caught up in the negative thought and emotional loops that lead to anxious or depressive cycles because I notice when the loops start and am able to make the conscious choice to refocus on the present when it’s clear the current line of thinking can’t possibly lead anywhere good. At the same time, I fear my negative emotions less because I have come to realize that, like my breath and all things, all of my emotions are transient, and will come and go in their own time so long as I don’t get overly involved in them. When I’m aware, I start to notice and appreciate more of the little things in life like how blue the sky is today or how green the trees are–sort of the mindfulness equivalent of “stopping to smell the roses”–creating a sense of profound gratefulness and joy just to be alive. I’ve also noticed that charisma, as Olivia Fox Cabane claims in The Charisma Myth, has its basis in being fully present with people–people like being around people who offer the gift of their full attention and presence, which makes them feel important, special, heard, and understood–that presence and focus are nearly synonymous, and that flow–that sense of being on a roll when we’re working–is a byproduct of creating a working environment where we’re able to be totally present with what we’re doing.

Mindfulness in Many Forms

Mindfulness comes in many shapes and forms. Yoga, rock climbing, martial arts, and other physical activities that demand the full presence of our minds in unison with our bodies are other common forms of mindfulness that many people practice without realizing it. Improv, acting, public speaking, and other mental activities that require us to be completely present in order to succeed are also hidden forms of mindfulness.

In reality, meditation is just one of the many forms of mindfulness, but it also turns out to be one of the most portable and readily accessible methods available to us. In its most basic form, meditation is mindfulness applied to our breathing. It’s the art of being as close to completely present with the act of breathing as we can–following the cool rush of air through our nostrils, the expansion of our lungs as we fill them, the natural extension of our abdomens with each breath.

Learning to be mindful while breathing may not sound terribly useful or fun in comparison to activities like yoga or improv, but the advantage is that if you are a living, conscious human being, you can always breathe. You may not always be in a place where doing yoga stretches is appropriate, or where you have people to play improv with, but you will always have your breath–if you don’t, you have bigger problems to worry about than reading this; please pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1 or your local equivalent :). Meditation doesn’t have to involve all these things people imagine like sitting in a full lotus position, or pinching your fingers into the stereotypical O-shape, or incessantly repeating “Om”, or even closing our eyes. It can be done virtually anywhere and virtually anytime by simply noticing and following our breath.

While we don’t really need to practice breathing the way we may need to practice yoga or improv–most all of us pop out of the womb as experts in breathing already–learning to recognize when we’ve become distracted or lost our focus is a very useful skill applicable to nearly everything we do. This is the primary skill that we train when we meditate, or when we actively practice mindfulness, and it turns out to be a pretty difficult skill for most people to master, especially as our attention spans grow shorter and our lives get busier in the digital information age.

Other Benefits of Meditation

Mindfulness is actually just one of many skills that we can train through meditation, and the others I’ve found are equally powerful and profound. For example, once we get more accustomed to being mindful of the breath, or even just being present with the act of meditation, we can learn to introduce things like visualization into the practice. As human beings, one of the mental super powers we have is the ability to replay past feelings and emotions through our memories as if we are experiencing them in the present. With practice, this means that we always have access to frame of mind we need for the task at hand. In my daily uncertain and sometimes anxiety-inducing life as a nomadic solo entrepreneur, I use this often to help me reconnect to a sense of hope, love, and optimism so that I can avoid making decisions out of despair, anger, or fear, which I know I’m likely to later regret.

But I digress. All of this is to say that mindful meditation was an important discovery for me, and that this discovery was a crucial first step in what led me to a Buddhist monastery. While I discovered mindfulness years ago, the other important developments are more recent.

Anger and Buddhism

I have and have almost always had a difficult relationship with my parents. They never got along with each other, and as a result I always had a hard time getting along with them. I picked up a lot of bad habits and emotional patterns from childhood as well. Most notably, my sister and I are the heirs to my mother’s temper.

After I quit my job in Silicon Valley, moved out of my house, and said goodbye to virtually everyone I knew, I moved back in with my parents for about 6 months before I finally pulled the trigger and started traveling. Though I took care of myself and did well in school, I was never a terribly obedient child, in part because I recognized my parents’ inevitably flawed nature very early in life and questioned both their authority and infallibility. Many of these old patterns resurfaced when I came home, and as one might expect, the occasional argument ensued.

In the wake of one particularly heated argument, I remember angrily shutting myself in my room. Desperate for answers and for a solution to what felt like a never-ending cycle of rage and hurt in my family, I went to Amazon’s book section and searched “anger” (I do this often when I identify sticking points in my life :P). I bought the first few results and was particularly drawn to Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Cover of Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh

The cover of Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh

Anger was one of my first true exposures to Buddhism and to Thich Nhat Hanh, who I would later learn is a famous Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master and Nobel peace prize nominee. Mindfulness turned out to be a central tenet of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, and it would not be far from truth to claim that the flavor of Buddhism he teaches is the natural philosophical extension of what it might look like if the principles behind mindfulness defined an individual’s entire way of life.

Through reading just the first few chapters of Anger, I was introduced to the beginnings of a few important insights, which I would eventually develop further during my time at the monastery: that I was angry because I was hurt; that my parents get angry and hurt me because they are, themselves, hurting; that because I am their genetic continuation, try as I might I’m not so different or so separate from them; that hurting my parents with my anger because I am hurt will only ever cause them to continue hurting me in turn; and that my parents are, themselves, victims of their parents’ and their parents’ parents’ pain, some of which has almost certainly been transmitted for generations as a kind of twisted, unresolved emotional heirloom.

In the first few chapters of Anger, Thich Nhat Hanh also mentions Plum Village, which piqued my interest. By the power of Google, I discovered that Plum Village is a mindfulness practice center not far from Bordeaux, France that Thich Nhat Hanh founded in 1982. I also learned that Plum Village opens itself to the public during certain times of the year for mindfulness and meditation retreats. Because I was impressed by Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing and his ideas, this knowledge would become the seed that sprouted into my 2018 goal to attend a 2-week mindfulness retreat. Though I didn’t entirely connect the dots at the time, Plum Village would also turn out to be a Buddhist monastery home to 100-200 monks and nuns hailing from all corners of the world–Vietnam, America, Europe, Eastern Europe, and many more. I, of course, went in with the image of “mindfulness practice center” in my head–had I thought of it primarily as a Buddhist monastery, I’m not sure I would have gone.

Love and Buddhism

The last step, which reaffirmed my commitment to make my way to Plum Village, was traveling to Vietnam and falling in love. (Yes, I am aware of just how cliché that is.) My Vietnamese girlfriend blew me away during our first date by self-professing to be both a Stoic and a Buddhist–two surprisingly similar philosophies that had recently captured my interest, and which I was also exploring. For me, the connection was instant and almost spooky–I felt there almost couldn’t have been a better match unless she had literally stalked me before we met.

Having been raised Buddhist in much the same way many Americans are raised Christian (i.e. a follower in name, but not really in spirit), she had a much longer history with Buddhism than I did. Recent events had led her to rediscover Buddhism on her own terms, so she had discovered Thich Nhat Hanh earlier than me and had already read most of his books. During our time together in Vietnam, she invited me to watch Walk With Me, a documentary about Plum Village narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch,

Movie poster for Walk With Me

The movie poster for Walk With Me, a documentary about Plum Village

and we passed many evenings talking about life and philosophy. Though Anger had given me a nice introduction and opened me up to Buddhist teachings, it quickly became true that I had learned almost everything I knew about Buddhism from her. What I learned fascinated me: Buddhism in its purest form is not a religion, but rather a philosophy that tries to unpack how the insights and practices that led the Buddha to enlightenment. In short, it’s a very practical philosophy that aims to provide framework for how to live a good life. Yes, there are more mystical components like reincarnation and karma ingrained in some Buddhist teachings, but even these can be interpreted in non-religious ways (e.g. reincarnation doesn’t necessarily occur in the literal sense that my consciousness will be reborn, but certainly occurs in the sense that all parts of what is “me” will be recycled and reused by the universe long after I am dead).

More than knowledge, though, my Vietnamese girlfriend taught me much about what Buddhism looks and feels like in practice. With her, from her, and for her I learned what it means to love someone with deep compassion and understanding, in the Buddhist way. While I had even been exploring books like Adult Children Of Emotionally Immature Parents and contemplating the idea of distancing myself from my parents as toxic influences in my life, she had acknowledged how and why her parents caused her suffering, and chose to love them anyway. When I returned to the States in May and was thrust into the middle of a vicious family conflict–this time between my sister and my mother–she was my guide in learning to view both sides of the conflict with compassion so that I might help them understand each other. Without her counsel, I know my instinct would have been to respond with anger, suspicion, and punishment rather than love, understanding, and forgiveness–I would simply have added fuel to the flames.

Though our relationship ended in a rather messy way and under complicated circumstances, I remain eternally grateful to her for what she taught me. I think it’s even fair to say I still feel that deep Buddhistic sense of love and respect for her, though I’m convinced that she and I have important growth needs that couldn’t be met by our relationship, so I try not to remain attached to it. This is, however, a longer story about love, suffering, forgiveness, and compassion which is not yet–and perhaps never will be–anywhere near ready to be told in so public a fashion.

When I finally made it to France, I made my way to Plum Village because I had promised myself I would; because it was a dream I had shared with my ex- to go; because I wanted to learn more about how to deepen my mindfulness practice; and because I knew there was much I could learn there about how to heal, both from the aftermath of my recent romantic relationship, and from the cycles of suffering extant in my familial relationships. I’ve made it part of my mission to end these cycles and learn to resolve my own suffering so that if I decide to have children someday I don’t unwittingly turn them into victims of my own, and my parents’ shortcomings. I’ve made it part of my mission to heal myself, and help the people I love heal, too.

Plum Village did not disappoint.

Stay tuned next week to read my reflections about my Plum Village experience. I plan to publish my journal from my time there in its almost-raw form, edited just for clarity and concision.

The last few months since my last entry in this series have been eventful, though, perhaps not terribly productive in a traditional sense. After a month of respite in California and then New York City, I have, at long last, made my way to France where I am endeavoring to reach conversational fluency in French while also making progress toward business profitability.

In the intervening months I have:

  • Become a licensed motorcyclist in the state of California

    A view of Half Dome in the distance in Yosemite Valley.

  • Organized a trip to Yosemite with many of my friends from Silicon Valley
  • Attended my sister’s graduation from NYU
  • Explored the wilderness in rural Pennsylvania
  • Stayed in Marseille, France for 2 weeks
  • Mastered driving a stick shift while driving thousands of kilometers across France to visit Lyon, Haut-Jura, Auxerre, Beaune, Dole, Dijon, Fontainebleau, Paris, Mont Saint-Michel, Tours, Amboise, and Chambord
  • Lived in Bordeaux, France for nearly 2 weeks
  • Taken on two small consulting projects with a potential third on the horizon
  • Attended 2 weeks of the summer mindfulness retreat at Plum Village
  • Gone from absolutely terrified to speak to anyone in French to being able to hold a reasonable conversation provided some effort on both sides

As is the nature of things, along the way many things have gone wrong including:

  • Having my prized Google Pixel 2 smartphone stolen while I watched the sunset in Marseille
  • Enduring a difficult and complicated breakup with my Vietnamese girlfriend (the circumstances of which, both for my privacy and out of respect for her, I won’t be elaborating on at this time)
  • Having my expensive and supposedly high quality Samsonite suitcase completely break in less than 6 months of—admittedly heavy—use

France

Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright house in rural Pennsylvania.

I, of course, have much to say about France in general, and the cities I’ve had the chance to get to know, but for concision—and for SEO :P—I’ve decided to separate these thoughts into a yet-to-be-written series of posts about what it’s actually like to be a nomad in different cities. In these posts I’ll aim to answer questions about the cost of living, finding internet and good places to work, securing housing, social outlets, and just cool things to see and do. I’ve found that there are lots of high-level resources like NomadList for nomads to choose new destinations, but there are never enough narratives to give life to the statistics, especially in less common and ostensibly less affordable destinations like the vast majority of Europe.

For now, it suffices to say that France is expensive and good internet is surprisingly hard to find. It doesn’t even begin to compare to how expensive it was in Silicon Valley, but it’s certainly 3-6 times more expensive than Southeast Asia, which I’m increasingly realizing has completely spoiled me. From a lifestyle perspective, I’ve found that since I’m not willing to pay 10€ for an average meal out, it’s advantageous to cook or buy simple picnic ingredients from grocery stores. In a funny way, I’ve been really pleased to find how much joy I can get out of a simple meal of bread, cheese, fruit, and a little bit of meat (<3€/meal). I find it liberating to learn how little I really need to be happy, which leaves me yet again questioning the typical American ethos of working hard for the sake of work or for the sake of money to purchase possessions which we often become convinced will somehow magically produce happiness and joy.

The view approaching Mont Saint-Michel during low-tide.

Despite its status as a first-world nation, internet infrastructure in France is surprisingly pitiful in comparison to Thailand and Vietnam. Perhaps this difference is more cultural than anything, but most French cafes are not very accommodating for those seeking a nice environment to hangout with coffee, power, and a good internet connection. Even those cafes which are more stereotypically configured for this use case (i.e. pretty much just Starbucks) have laughable speeds and questionable reliability. The coworking spaces are also typically much more expensive here (200-300€/month) than what I’ve become accustomed to finding in Asia (70-150€/month).

Learning French

I’ve spent much of my time on the ground here in France trying to take advantage of the immersive environment for learning French. On good days, I’ll find myself spending nearly 4 hours a day learning French with a mix of book studying, language exchange meet-ups, reverse and ladder trees on Duolingo, reading on LingQ (affiliate link!), listening to French podcasts (e.g. Coffee Break French), and re-watching my favorite Netflix series in French audio (sometimes with, sometimes without French subtitles).

Sometimes it’s hard to see the difference day-to-day, but reflecting on it I’ve realized my French has come a long way. When I got here, I experienced a sort of social anxiety around speaking to anyone because I was pretty terrified of embarrassing myself in French but didn’t want to speak English either. It used to be a big deal for me to even buy something small from a store in French and not go deer-in-headlights a little when someone asked me if I wanted a bag using a word for “bag” I had never learned before :P.

Now I’ve had a bit more experience and, though fast-talking native speakers still give me a lot of trouble, I’m finding I understand enough to hold reasonable conversations. I often have to stop and ask for a repetition or the meaning of a word or ask how to say a word in French, but I can do all of these things in French at this point. Sometimes I also still struggle with piecing my sentences together, but I’ve noticed that some sentences and sentence structures have become surprisingly fluent.

There’s a long way to go still, but I’ve been able to accomplish things like getting tourist information about a new city, teaching a child how to play chess, and holding a 45-minute introductory conversation with a fellow software engineer using nearly nothing but French. People are generally finding me understandable even when I struggle to express complex ideas. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve moved into a phase where I can now truly learn new words and phrases from real conversations with native speakers where we’re actually trying to get to know each other.

Plum Village

A close-up of the lotus pond in the Lower Hamlet of Plum Village.

I’ve just returned from 2 weeks at Plum Village, a Mindfulness Practice Center and Buddhist Monastery founded by the famous Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh, a Nobel peace prize nominee (nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr.!) and an important advocate for peace during the Vietnam War. I was fortunate to find space at Plum Village—when I had checked originally it was completely booked. I ended up finding a way to nab a one-week stay in Plum Village, and then once I was there I found a way to extend my stay by an extra week.

A full accounting of my experience at Plum Village is also going to have to wait until next week. For now I’ll say that it was one of my goals this year to deepen my mindfulness practice, which is the primary reason why I made my way to Plum Village in the first place. All-in-all, my experience there was magnificent and I feel as if I view myself and the world differently in subtle but very important ways. I feel as if before I had only just scratched the surface of what mindfulness could do for me and now I’ve been exposed to its full potential. I’m more focused, more mindful, and more present than I ever was before. I’m increasingly aware of my own unmindful and potentially self-destructive habits and aware of important sources of unhappiness in my life which I’m now committed to resolving rather than perpetually avoiding. I feel more competent in handling my emotions and anxieties, including the stresses related to my current occupational choices. Time will tell how long these effects will stay with me.

Where I Am Now

The obelisk at the Place des Quinconces, near the center of Bordeaux.

I have returned to Bordeaux for a bit of sightseeing before I take a train to Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France, where I intend to spend my remaining 5 weeks in France before my Schengen tourist visa expires and I’m forced to migrate elsewhere. I’m excited to have my own apartment in Lyon after successfully negotiating the price down by ~25% from its listing price on AirBnB.

I haven’t made much progress on my own projects of late, and my lack of a live product continues to be a source of frustration for me. In the States, my time was focused on things I could only take care of while there or spending time with family. Since coming to France, much of my time initially was spent on dealing with the emotional fallout of my recent relationship or on learning French. The few times I’ve taken the time to open my code editor and start to work on Serenity, I’ve found it overwhelming to consider the amount of remaining effort to launch the product along with the potentially low likelihood of a successful outcome.

I must admit that prior to going to Plum Village, my mood had been fluctuating and occasionally visiting some deep lows. The combination of emotional stressors from my recent breakup along with the anxieties involved with having to speak French and starting to get back into my own work was a lot to handle, and I’d guess that I came the closest I’d ever been to wanting to abandon my present course. I knew the emotions would pass however, and, somewhat serendipitously, in my lowest week I had two people reach out to me in the same day asking if I’d be willing to consider some short-term work on a consulting basis. I’ve agreed to one, and am still working out the details of the other, which may involve my returning to Asia later this year. I’m also currently helping my little sister implement an online portfolio for her creative work so that she can use it as a resource to send to potential employers. Helping her get situated in her post-graduate life in this way was one of the gifts I offered her upon graduating.

La Cité du Vin, an ultra-modern museum all about the history and culture of wine in Bordeaux.

Having outside work recently has helped a lot to remind me that I have a valuable skill set in high demand and that I’m good at what I do. I’ve found it comforting to have a few more concrete and complete projects to show for my time (now almost a full year!) being self-employed. Combined with the emotional bolstering of my experience in Plum Village, I’m back in a good place and am excited for the challenge of learning to apply mindfulness to my unorthodox lifestyle.

The “Plan”

In my remaining 5 weeks in France, I’m hoping to wrap up work for my sister (her dream job was just posted, so we’re now operating on a clock), potentially take on another small project for an existing client, work out details for another potentially larger project for a new client, and attempt to launch Serenity to at least friends and family if not to public beta. All the while, it will continue to remain a high priority to make use of my time in France to improve my French.

I’m still exploring the possibilities, there’s a possibility that an opportunity will bring me back to Asia after France in mid-September or early October. I’m thinking that in the intervening time I may go to Morocco as originally planned, though I haven’t chosen a city yet (Essaouira maybe?). If I end up back in Asia, it probably makes sense to stay for a number of months, so I’m considering returning to Thailand, visiting India and Nepal, spending some time in Hong Kong or Malaysia, or even living in Taiwan or rural Japan for a few months to learn languages. If the opportunity doesn’t shake out the right way, I’ll likely spend 3 full months in Morocco continuing to work on my French before considering a return to France or moving on to South America.

I’m finding I plan less and less far ahead travel-wise, and this no longer makes me anxious the way it would have last year. In fact, the flexibility this sort of seat-of-pants traveling has afforded me seems to have far outweighed the possible price increases from last-minute bookings (at least on everything other than air travel).

Vietnam is a country with a rich but turbulent history. It’s lived through occupation by the Chinese, the French, and the Americans as recent as two generations ago. Foreign cultural influence and scars from not-yet-forgotten conflicts blend to make Saigon, known at its peak as the “Pearl of the Far East,” a complex and deeply interesting city.

Amongst digital nomads, however, its southern capital, Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City), is a polarizing and controversial place: some love it enough to settle here for months or years at a time, while others leave quickly and never give it a second thought. A short walk down any street obviates the reasons for this: one’s senses are swiftly overloaded–motorbikes whiz around, narrowly missing each other and any uninitiated pedestrians who dare to cross; the sounds of horns and honking are present at all hours of day, as are the clarion calls of street side vendors; smells of delicious meals from any number of amazing local joints waft through the air, mixing with and ameliorating the common odors of waste, vomit, and urine; heat and humidity compound with dust and debris to create an often hot, dirty, and uncomfortable environment.

To an outsider, Saigon can look and feel like untamed, unfettered chaos. And yet, in the time I’ve lived here I’ve found myself mesmerized by the energy of this city. It’s chaotic, yes, but it makes me feel alive. So much so, in fact, that I decided early in my stay here to skip spending the month of April in Penang, Malaysia, and instead extended my time in Saigon to two months. (There are, of course, other good reasons for having done this: the time, financial, and mental costs of switching locations every month turn out to make 2-3 months a more ideal amount of time to spend in each place when also trying to get work done.)

Unlike Chiang Mai, which, despite being the second largest population center in Thailand, had a distinctively “small town” feel to it, Saigon is a true, full-blown city, and it turns out to be the first city I’ve ever lived in for any real amount of time. I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy the city lifestyle here–in the past I’ve always preferred sleepy college towns and quiet suburbs with easy access to nature. While Saigon doesn’t have much to offer tourists passing through for

Bánh xèo–a savory crepe-like Vietnamese dish

just a few days, it does have a slew of interesting coffee shops, bars, and live music venues for the slower-paced traveler or longer-term expat to experience. There’s also a lush variety of foods to sample from all over the country–Vietnamese food is, as it turns out, much more diverse than the typical phở and bánh mì sorely under representing this cuisine in the States–certainly more than one could experience in weeks, months, or even years here.

 

Contents:

Cost of Living

Despite being a city, Saigon is quite affordable, making it a prime location for potential expats and digital nomads. A month’s rent in a serviced apartment close to the city center runs typically between $300 and $400/mo, while meals can be found for anywhere between $.75 (street food) and $30/meal (an upscale restaurant). A membership at a good coworking space with a flexible desk runs $90/mo. Braver travelers can rent a motorbike for ~$60/mo or purchase and re-sell for around $250. By my estimation a nomad really looking to save, or an entrepreneur seeking to extend her runway could live a decent life in Saigon for under $700/mo (less, even, if you’re willing to pinch pennies).

People and Community

Frustrated and angry bloggers sometimes give Vietnam and the Vietnamese people a bad wrap. Personally, I’ve had a lot of great experiences with both Vietnamese locals and the expat community in Saigon, so I feel I have a responsibility to set the record straight.

Locals

Some people hear stories about swindlers and hustlers in Vietnam–people who will overcharge tourists because they don’t speak the language, for example–and imagine that all Vietnamese people are liars and cheats. Of course, as is the case anywhere one might go in the world, these people do exist, and one should exercise caution and common sense when traveling. These people are, however, far from a majority. Most Vietnamese people I’ve met–business owners, students, Viet Kieu–have impressed me with their kindness, their generosity, their work ethic, and their optimism. One student even befriended me, showed me around, and came back to help me when my motorbike broke down during a long road trip back to Saigon. I would honestly not have known what to do without his help.

As an American, I find it especially encouraging how little animosity anyone ever showed me despite the fact that the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War) happened so recently–if anything there was a distinctly pro-American sentiment, especially among the younger generation. Though war is terrible, I find myself hopeful knowing that in just a few generations two peoples that were previously in conflict can so easily forgive and forget the transgressions made by their forebears.

To be fair to all involved, however, as an Asian American I likely have a different experience in Asia than other Western travelers do. Everywhere I’ve visited in Asia so far I’ve been mistaken for a local until I opened my mouth to speak, and since most Asian cultures have similar customs and values, my pseudo-Asian upbringing helps me relate to these people more naturally.

Entrepreneurs and Expats

One of the initial reasons I chose Saigon is because I read that it has more of an entrepreneurial community than some of the other hubs for digital nomads like Chiang Mai. Saigon is, indeed,  home to an up and coming tech scene in one of the fastest growing economies in the world. There is, however, still much room for the entrepreneurial scene in Saigon to grow and evolve–it doesn’t yet have the same energy, infrastructure, or prevalence as it does in Silicon Valley.

Nevertheless, there are at least a few pockets of very interesting people. In my opinion, Start Coworking Campus, where I chose to both live and work for the majority of my time in Saigon, is one of those places. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Start when I booked my room there in December–I chose them because I wanted to try something new with coliving, and because their marketing promised a heavy emphasis on community, which can be hard to find while moving around. I was super pleasantly surprised by Start, and I honestly can’t rave about them enough. They deliver well on their promise of community, with daily community lunches and plenty of events throughout the month.

Most, but not all, of the people I met at Start were somehow related to tech, though not all of them were actually nomads. Saigon is home to quite a few long-term expats–sometimes former nomads–many of whom form a consistent backbone for community at Start despite a constantly rotating cast of travelers. After just a few weeks there, I really felt that I knew all of the regular faces, and after two months I felt that I had made some cool friends with whom I hope very much to keep in touch. Over lunch and during random breaks throughout the day, I’d often find myself engaging in deeply interesting conversations about a wide variety of topics, including political theory, global economics, philosophy, and current trends in tech. I can’t be sure because I haven’t yet seen that much, but I have a strong hunch that communities like this are pretty rare to find.

Dating

Just as I’ve been searching for a sense of community while abroad, I’ve also been experimenting with dating and romantic companionship. When I left the States to become a nomad, I expected that doing so meant I’d realistically have to put romance on hold until I settled back down in a single place. I felt that the odds of finding someone right for me while abroad, and the difficulty of pursuing something serious or long-term while moving around simply left real romance out of the question, but perhaps there was no reason not to experiment anyway. Much to my surprise, this turned out to just be the latest in what’s becoming a long string of false assumptions I made about traveling and the nomadic lifestyle–it didn’t take me long to fall in love with a beautiful, intelligent, and deeply reflective local Vietnamese entrepreneur.

When I landed in Vietnam, the differences in the dating scene struck me almost immediately–whereas in Chiang Mai and Silicon Valley I’ve often found dating frustrating, I quickly had four dates scheduled for my first week in Saigon. For the first time in my life I felt like I had more dating prospects than I could possibly have time to talk to, a complaint I normally only ever hear from my girl friends. It also felt easier than ever to open conversations and get dates scheduled.

Some of the difference could perhaps be attributed to me and a general mindset shift on dating: in the interest of putting myself in uncomfortable situations and learning more about dating, I decided to be more open-minded about first dates and made it a goal to quickly push for an in-person meeting with any girl I messaged back and forth with. Most of this, however, is likely attributable to Saigon and its particular dating pool: I tend to be more popular with Asian women, and densely populated international cities tend to have more young single women who speak English confidently enough to communicate. (By contrast, Chiang Mai was a much smaller city notably lacking in English-speaking confidence.)

Despite having more options than ever, I met the woman who would become my girlfriend on literally the second night I was in Saigon. In fact, she was the first date I went on in my new city, and probably the first local Vietnamese woman I’d really interacted with.

As is becoming more and more cliché these days, we met on Tinder. My expectations were pretty low, and our pre-date conversation barely had an ounce of substance to it, but I wanted to push myself out of the comfort zone so I asked her on a date anyway. To my surprise, she agreed to a hastily scheduled date for later that same night, and not two hours later I found myself walking anxiously to a craft brewery in the center of town.

I remember being terrified on my way to our first date–not because I felt nervous about impressing her, but because a couple of things she had said and done left me super confused about what to expect. Most of my pre-date anxiety centered around the fears that she wouldn’t look like her photos (this happened to me in Chiang Mai), that I’d get stuck in an awkward conversation with a weirdo or, worse, that I’d somehow get murdered. (Hey, I’m not proud of that thought, but I was in an entirely new city and my brain was running wild with catastrophic worst-case scenarios :P.)

When I walked in I was pleasantly surprised to find a woman whose beauty and personality would be hard to fully and accurately portray in still photography. She was funny and made me laugh easily (she’d later tell me that she thought I was laughing way too hard at her shitty jokes, but I honestly found them that funny). It turned out we’re both tech entrepreneurs–her as a designer and a product manager, me as a jack-of-all-trades software engineer–and could understand each other’s careers and daily job struggles. She shared a lot of my interests as well, and it quickly became apparent that we had extremely congruous mindsets, perspectives, and worldviews.

In short, I wasn’t sure what to expect at first but I was totally and completely blown away by the time I parted ways with her nearly four hours later. In fact, I was so blown away that I was almost scared in the opposite sense from before–things just seemed too uncannily similar and way too good to be true. I felt like either I had been super thoroughly stalked or the perfect woman had somehow just manifested before my eyes.

For awhile now, I’ve professed my belief in the law of “fuck yes or no”–if my gut doesn’t scream “fuck yes” about someone I don’t pursue them further. At that point, however, I’d never experienced a true “fuck yes” after a first date with a total stranger, and I’d been on enough first dates to begin to wonder whether or not the bar for going on a second date had been set too high–after all, maybe sometimes one just needs a couple of lukewarm experiences before a deeper connection can occur. My first date with this girl proved to me that the bar for second dates was, in fact, not set too high. She was a total and complete “fuck yes,” and now that I know that that’s possible I don’t think I’d ever want to settle for less.

Though I did go on dates with a few other women, I very quickly lost interest in anyone but her. She continued to be a “fuck yes” for me for many, many more dates and I’m now proud and excited to call her my girlfriend. She understands, challenges, pushes, and inspires me all in ways I didn’t know I could expect from a partner. Meeting her and choosing to enter a committed relationship with her has also tested some of my self-perceptions and my worldview.

Some of my past dating experiences left me questioning both my adequacy and my competency to meet and charm a potential partner through the silly, awkward dance we call modern dating. In particular, the last time I dated someone with serious intentions, through no purposeful fault of either party, it left me feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing, and like experiencing the kind of connection I hoped for with someone I found extremely attractive might be impossible for me without further growth. With my new girlfriend, though, I’ve come to realize that I am already enough, and that, with the right person, it should always feel that way. I shouldn’t need to feel like I have to constantly pursue someone to win their approval–the attraction can and should be mutual enough that a connection develops smoothly and naturally on its own.

Wanting something real and serious with my new girlfriend does leave me with new questions about where and how love fits into my larger worldview, however. Much of my personal philosophy centers around maximizing authenticity and growth. These are easy things to solve for independently, when one has no responsibilities or other people to consider, but they become complicated when a romantic partner enters the picture. Prior to coming to Saigon and meeting my new girlfriend, I thought that I might travel around the world and work for myself for a few years, chasing growth and adventure wherever it waits to be found. I thought I’d have at least a few years before I might meet anyone serious (I never expected to fall in love on the road).

Having found her though, I find myself faced with the serious question of returning to Saigon to spend more time with her in the near future. I know that successful relationships occasionally require sacrifice and compromise, so I find myself asking what I can and can’t authentically compromise on. If being with her means sacrificing some amount of travel and exploration, can I justify that at this point in my life? But even as I consider giving up on growth from exploration, I find myself wondering how our relationship might allow us to help each other grow and become even more authentic versions of ourselves. If we’re not careful, though, could it do just the opposite?

I also find myself asking questions about the implications of falling for a foreign woman in a land far away from where I previously called home, though I know it’s too early to be thinking super long-term about such a young relationship. Before meeting her I always just assumed I’d probably meet a nice American woman some day, and we’d probably settle down in the States. I never really had a good reason to think this, it’s just one of those assumptions that fills a space and goes unchallenged for a long time. Now, however, that idea is being questioned and replaced with a more globally inclusive idea of what it might mean to settle down with someone someday.

Some of these questions frighten me, and I don’t have great answers to most of them. I am, regardless, excited to find myself and my perspective being pushed in new and completely unexpected ways–ways they never could have when I was just an unattached solo traveler. My girlfriend and I are long distance right now, as I’m back in the States and still have plans to travel to France for at least 3 months before I might consider returning to Asia. Though I know the distance will be hard, and relationships are an art, I’m very much hoping that she and I will have a chance to explore answers to these questions together, one step at a time.

Exploring

Saigon is a large city, organized into 12 numbered districts and several more named ones–this sometimes gives running around the city an oddly Hunger Games-like feeling–but even so is less of an adventure-driven place than Chiang Mai, with fewer grand, iconic, and touristy things to do. It does, nevertheless, make for a great homebase to explore the South of Vietnam, and if you’re willing to dig a little bit there are fascinating and beautiful remnants of a culture extant in Saigon before much of its recent history, which hauntingly feels as if it is slowly slipping away as the younger generations forget. Since I spent a lot of time dating in Saigon, I also found that it can be a very romantic city, though many of the city’s best spots are hidden away off street level, and would have been very difficult for me to find without a local.

The many districts of Saigon

Live Music

Saigon turns out to be a city full of music, and there are quite a few cool places to go for different kinds of music. My personal favorites were the places where they’d sing old Saigonese songs from before the War. Most of the music in this time period is incredibly beautiful even not being able to understand the music, and really creates the sense of haunting nostalgia I alluded to earlier.

Cafe Vừng ơi, Mở ra

17 Ngô Thời Nhiệm, phường 6, Quận 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

In English, the name of this place translates to “Open, Sesame.” My now girlfriend brought me here on our fourth date and it blew my mind. To find this place, one has to walk through a pretty sketchy alleyway, then through a rather nondescript door and up several flights of stairs. I like to joke with my girlfriend that she brought me here to murder me, but then thought better of it and took me to hear some live music upstairs instead. Step through the door here and you’ll be transported to a different world, full of candle light and beautifully romantic music. The artists and the music here are top notch and they play a mix of beautiful Vietnamese classics and popular romantic songs in English.

Le Saigonnais

9 Thái Văn Lung, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

This one’s hard to find because it’s not actually listed on Google Maps, but it’s in the same building as the Bâng Khuâng Café at the address listed above. This place is truly a window into old Saigon, even down to the furniture and decorations. Many of the patrons here are Saigonese people who either lived in the old days themselves, or remember them wistfully. There is almost an underground resistance-like vibe to this place, as if this is where people would meet to plan the second coming of Old Saigon. The music here is, of course, beautiful, and they play mostly classic Vietnamese songs from Old Saigon.

Craft Breweries

Saigon has a burgeoning craft brewing scene, which is heavily influenced by American expats and packed with loads of interesting, delicious beers. My favorites were:

Heart of Darkness

31D Lý Tự Trọng, Bến Nghé, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

I’m biased because I also met my girlfriend here, and we went back to hang out a few times, but it does have the most cozy, intimate, and well-decorated vibes of any of the breweries I visited in Saigon. My personal favorite here is th Eloquent Phantom Imperial Stout.

East West Brewing Co.

181 – 185 Lý Tự Trọng, Phường Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

I actually had their beers here a couple of times before I went to visit their brewery. The venue is nice–a well-decorated and mood lit warehouse with seating on the roof for those willing to climb the stairs. I’m not usually that into Belgian beer styles, but their Belgian Blonde and Belgian Darks are both very good, and their Independence Stout is fantastic.

Pasteur Street Brewing

144 Pasteur, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

Pasteur Street is iconic in Saigon as one of the first craft breweries to crop up there. There beer is quite good, and they try some interesting things there–I tried a dark beer here with jalapeno and other distinctly Mexican flavors. The place itself, though, is, unfortunately kind of sterile, so I wouldn’t personally recommend hanging out here.

Weekend Adventures

Some of my favorite memories from Vietnam are from riding long distances on the back of my trusty motorbike on my way to some weekend adventure somewhere. While I didn’t spend all of my weekends in Vietnam off on adventures, there were quite a few memorable ones.

Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta actually describes a very large region in the South of Vietnam. Many people, myself included, initially make the mistake of thinking that it’s a single place or attraction that one can visit. In reality, you could drive for nearly 8 hours from Saigon and still not reach the end of the Mekong Delta.

That said, one of the most popular attractions in the Mekong Delta are the floating markets–markets run on clusters of small boats in wide rivers connecting trade between villages that until very recently had no easy road access to each other. The most widely publicized place for tourists to see the floating markets is Cần Thơ, though many of the locals will express that they feel the markets here are overly commercialized for tourists.

I personally didn’t have time to venture further into the Delta than this–Cần Thơ is already a 5 hour drive out of Saigon–but I enjoyed both the drive there and the tour I took of the markets. I would love for my tour to have spent more time moving in and through the market itself so that we as passengers could participate in it a little bit more, but it was nevertheless a very cool experience to have coffee and phở made and then served to me on a boat.

If I had more time, I would have considered going to An Giang province, further into the Delta, in search of a more local floating market and the Trà Sư forest.

Đà Lạt

Đà Lạt is an old French vacation spot nestled in the mountains to the East of Saigon. It’s a ~7 hour bus ride to get there from Saigon, but it’s a worthwhile break from the city routine. Temperatures in Đà Lạt are usually quite a bit cooler than Saigon, and this time of year a typical day in Saigon is humid and hot (90+ degrees F). People are much more laid back in Đà Lạt, and if you plan for it there’s plenty of nature to explore.

Cu Chi Tunnels

The tunnels are an old remnant of the war located about an hour north on the outskirts of Saigon. It’s interesting to experience, and it’s one of those

A cramped entrance to the Cu Chi Tunnels

things that you “should” do while you’re in Saigon, but I honestly felt a bit

underwhelmed by them. I got the idea pretty fast after 20 minutes, did find the engineering behind the intricate tunnel systems fascinating, but then was quickly over it. If traveling on your own by motorbike, however, one can keep driving north to find more interesting and less staged things. I ended up at a very colorful buddhist temple overlooking a large lake and had a good time.

Work

Having fewer touristy things to do in Saigon did help to make it a more productive setting, though this was perhaps balanced out by wanting to spend time on my new relationship. My overarching goals have not changed much over the past couple months: the aim right now is to launch a functional product and create product offering that might net me recurring paid customers or money in the bank. As expected, my previous consulting engagements have mostly wound down, leaving most of my time available for my own projects.

On average,

Serious mode: engaged.

I spent about 6+ hours working each day, and though I do think I’ve accomplished some important things in the last couple months, I am feeling more and more behind on the actual feature development required to launch my initial product offering.

I had a Facebook Ads credit expiring at the end of March, so invested time in a marketing experiment to spend the credit on. My goal was to create the marketing site that I think I will use when the MVP of the product launches–past versions of the site advertised moonshot feature sets that likely would not exist for many months past my initial product offering. Doing this required me to think very critically about what will and won’t be in my MVP, and raised a lot of concerning questions for me about how I will differentiate my product from my competitors in its early stages. (I won’t have a mobile app for some time, and don’t plan for one in the MVP, and whether or not to include some of the cool differentiating features before launching the product has been a topic of some internal debate.)

In the process of doing research on my audience to improve my marketing copy, I concerningly learned that the potential market for my product is much smaller than I originally thought. Unfortunately, in total, the number of people interested in Getting Things Done on Facebook in the US is below 50k. For English-speakers globally, that number is still only about 200k. Unexpectedly, the largest market segment for my product appears to be Italian women

Facebook Audience Insights for GTD in the USA

(600k), so I may actually want to consider translating my product into Italian in the future. (For those wondering, I used Facebook Audience Insights to find this information.)

Given the success of Getting Things Done and David Allen, I previously just assumed that my total market was somewhere in the millions, which meant I hadn’t been thinking super critically about market saturation for my ads or other experiments. With millions of people potentially interested in my product, I didn’t care much if I alienated a few thousand in the process of refining my product offering. My thought has also always been that I would really only need Serenity to hit 1000 paying customers for it to be a huge success, a number which I previously thought would be a very small percentage of the overall market. Now that I know the market is an order of magnitude smaller than I thought it was I need to think more carefully about how I expose the product to the market at every stage, and I’m a bit more pessimistic about the lower and upper bound earning potentials for this project.

Regardless, once I had a pretty a good idea of what my product roadmap looks like, I completed a design overhaul of the Serenity marketing website, split tested some of the information on the page, and added pricing information to the email sign-up page to loosely validate the price point I’ve proposed for my product. I wish I had thought of enticing people to give me their email addresses in exchange for a free month of hypothetical product usage before–this has turned out to be the simplest and most effective way to test my early pricing model.

The results of this experiment were positive–the ad click-through and on-page conversion rates were very reasonable, and I collected a fair number of email addresses despite the inclusion of pricing information. In retrospect, however, since Serenity is a product in an already crowded space, I could probably have just trusted my competitors’ pricing models (most of them do have recurring paying customers) and foregone explicitly validating pricing myself.

At this point it’s clear to me that I can make some money off of Serenity, but it’s not clear how much money, and it’s also not clear how much time I’ll need to invest in the product before the cash starts to flow. Even so, I’ve decided to move forward with the product for a few reasons: 1) the main investment I’m making in the product is my time and runway, both of which are still abundant 2) even if Serenity can’t get me to my income goals by itself, some relatively passive income is better than none and 3) I am actually very excited about the future of the product, and think it could have an important role to play in a larger suite of products I hope to create to help people set and achieve their goals.

My next milestone is to launch the product in public beta. Since the market is small and I don’t want to alienate potential customers, but I do want to start collecting signal about what is and isn’t working, I’ve decided that positioning the product as a free beta is more prudent than just slapping a payment portal on the thing and letting the market decide when it’s worth something. I will, however, be offering beta users the chance to pre-purchase subscriptions for the product at a significantly discounted rate, which should help me detect when the product is truly providing enough value that people are ready to pay for it.

By my current estimates, I’m a few weeks away from being able to launch the first beta version of the product in production. This month is going to be hectic, since I’m taking care of administrative things and spending a lot of time with friends and family while I’m briefly back in the States, but I am hoping to find a way to push to this milestone before the end of May. I’ll probably start reaching out to close friends and family to try out the product and give me feedback soon–if you’re reading this and that sounds interesting to you, please reach out :).

Sanity

Things have been pretty good lately. For the most part, I haven’t experienced much fear related to self-employment in the last couple months. The low cost of living in Vietnam, has helped me to realize that if I live in the right places, I could continue working on my own projects almost indefinitely. While this revelation does wonders for any money- or survival- related anxieties I might have felt, it’s tended to have the opposite effect on self-discipline and self-motivation. Not having external deadlines and not having any real external pressure to deliver means that my motivation really has to come from within. Connecting well with my deeper, internal drive still doesn’t happen consistently, but I think it’s slowly getting better.

Meeting my girlfriend has, for the most part, helped here. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve certainly found myself sacrificing productive time to be with her, and she and I are trying to learn to balance that better going forward. But her belief in me does sometimes help bolster my belief in myself and, more importantly, some of the ideas she’s introduced me to–mainly the more secular sides of buddhism–have forced me to think a lot more about my fear of death.

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of myself as someone who fears death, but when I really examined it I realized that my attitude towards the brevity of life is usually to shrug it off in a way that’s so dismissive it’s almost denial. In truth, I think that this is probably how most of us deal with the question of death, but it’s not necessarily the most healthy. Through buddhism, and to some degree through stoicism as well, I’m learning to embrace and accept the reality of my own impermanence, and the reality of the impermanence of any ego-driven legacy I might want to leave behind. While it is terrifying to remember that life is short, and that my stay here on Earth is really just a blink of an eye, it does provide a sobering reminder that, while I am still young and there is still time, there is no time to waste. There is a very real cost to spending my time doing or not doing something even if my savings could last me a decade or more some place in the world.

I’d say I’m optimistic. Most days, fear doesn’t visit anymore, and I do have some good tools for kicking myself back into disciplined focus when I find myself goofing off. Hopefully I can build that into a habit and use it to deliver my first product, and maybe many more.

It’s been about a month since I left the States, and, though I expect there will be many more twists and turns on my journey, I think I can already confidently say that leaving to travel was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Learning to balance work, tourism, and new friends has, indeed, been challenging. While overall productivity has slowed a bit, I can’t help but feel that my sense of growth and fulfillment have both accelerated.

Despite being on the learning curve, I think I did decently on my goals for the month. My consulting engagement has, unfortunately, stretched on a little bit, and I’ve only just recently reached a point where it no longer needs my focus full-time. I had hoped that I’d get back to my own projects and start making some non-consulting income in February, but alas that hasn’t been the way of things. I did, however, make a lot of great friends and a lot of great memories in Chiang Mai. Here are some of my favorites, pulled from my vlog:

Meet Squeaky, my trusty pink steed. See us in your rear view mirror and be afraid.

I’m in Ho Chi Minh City–aka Saigon–now (though I’ll wait until next month to write in-depth about this wonderful new city), and my plan for March is to buckle down and finish releasing my first product into the world. I’d ideally like to have my first paid customer before I leave Southeast Asia at the end of April, and more ideally would love to have my first paid customer before the end of this month. As was the case in Chiang Mai, however, while work is a high priority, I’m also hoping to find time to really experience Vietnam, and discover new ways to push my comfort zone. In particular, dating, which didn’t end up being a huge emphasis in February despite some of my efforts, seems likely to be a focus area for me in March.

Moving abroad has done wonders for my morale. Before I left, I had a lot of fears about traveling, especially while still trying to get my business ideas off the ground. I worried that I’d be isolated without friends out here, that it would be impossible to form meaningful relationships with people on such small timescales, or that living abroad would be devastatingly unproductive.

The reality has been almost completely the opposite of my fears. Though I was nervous about meeting new people abroad at first, I found that my fear of isolation really motivated me to push my social comfort zone. I’ve never been the social traveler hanging out with strangers in hostel lounges, so I arrived in Chiang Mai with the self-perception that I’m not the kind of person who usually meets other travelers. When I left Chiang Mai, however, I did so feeling confident in my ability to start new conversations, and connect with new people everywhere I went. It’s become something of a habit to make eye contact with people when I walk into a room, to smile, and even to ask them where they’re from.

Despite my short length of stay in Chiang Mai, I got to know some people very well. I’ve left feeling like I now have friends all over the world, who I hope to meet-up with as I make my way through and around the world. My roommates, Richard and Kat, in particular, have become close friends whose company and counsel I value very highly. I’ve also met, and gotten to know, other nomads from all over the world, working on various interesting things. I’m beginning to open myself up to the idea that, even in a short length of time, it is possible to create a meaningful and valuable connection with someone, and that it is worth my time to invest in these relationships despite their semi-transient nature.

Productivity has been up and down while traveling. Since I’ve been consulting an hourly rate, I’ve been tracking my time very carefully, and have found that I usually work about 6 hours on an average day. At first, I found this number disconcerting: I normally expect that I’m getting at least 8 hours of work done each day. In reality, however, with all of the breaks modern knowledge workers take for lunch and other things, 6-7 hours is probably closer to right for a business day. For me personally, being abroad has definitely meant more time spent out at lunch, especially when meeting new and getting to know new people. It’s also meant less time spent working after dinner, which is also prime time to be spending with new friends. For the most part, I’ve been able to find enough of a routine to stay on task–usually I’d work out of a coworking space for the entire day, or out of a coffee shop for the afternoon.

I have, however, taken a good amount of advantage of the flexibility that being self-employed provides: where necessary to accommodate travel activities, I’ve taken impromptu 3-day weekends or half days off. Calibrating my balance of all of this is something I certainly want to continue working on going forward. I think that as an explorer, the first time I visit a new place, there’s likely to be some overhead in my wanting to really experience and get to know the place. At this point, though, I feel that if I ever return to Chiang Mai (and I really hope to), it will be easier for me to focus on work.

Through traveling, though, I’ve also been exposed to a wealth of new people and perspectives. Chiang Mai is, itself, a very laid back place–the locals tend to live simple lives and prefer it that way, and the nomads are often also a little more chill in their working mindsets than I’m used to coming from Silicon Valley. Many of the Europeans I’ve met have helped me to understand how the American work ethic is often perceived by the rest of the world: there’s a subtle belief that Americans are willing to commit kind of a frenetic and, potentially, ill-conceived trade-off in quality of life against the desire to be productive and accumulate wealth. Some have even considered moving to the States for work, but thought better of it after learning of the insane hours and work expectations often implicitly upheld by employers in places like Silicon Valley and New York City. To be fair, I’m learning as well that American salaries are also often much higher than their global counterparts, but I’ve also heard enough to begin to question whether or not our quality of life improves proportionally. In fact, I’d say that my early conclusions are so far that we Americans may actually have disproportionately low quality of life when plotted against our wages–an average worker making minimum wage in America is actually making more than some of the highest paying jobs in some places, but isn’t able to afford many of the basic amenities that some people value. This, among other things, has deeply challenged my perspective, my worldview, and my workview.

Of course, it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses abroad. On my third or fourth day in Chiang Mai, I experienced an extreme amount of anxiety around my situation and my decisions–so bad, in fact, that I felt it necessary to do some research on remote therapy solutions, so I might be able to unpack my experience with an expert. I couldn’t believe that I’d left the States. I couldn’t believe that I was in a new country. I was scared that I couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt, that I’d find myself alone in a strange place. I was afraid that I’d just bet my career against the house, and that I’d never recover.

By the end of my first week, however, the crisis had passed. Quite counter to my fears, as time goes on I’ve been finding that travel has produced many of the growth side-effects I had hoped it might. I can feel myself becoming more comfortable with uncertainty, in part because I’ve placed myself in more unplanned scenarios, and gained more confidence in my ability to figure things out. Meeting other people like me–nomads and entrepreneurs making a living while traveling the world–who share my values has also helped me internalize a deeper sense of acceptance and contentment with my decision to leave the normal bounds of society behind. I think much of this still has yet to play itself completely out, as I am also still riding on the stability of a cash influx from my recent consulting project, but I’d like to think that my fears have started to quiet themselves, and that the way is becoming clear to achieve some of my business goals for the year.

Saigon promises to be a very different experience from Chiang Mai. The energy here is chaotic and frenetic–frenzied, even–but it makes me feel very alive. This month, I’m trying a stint in a co-working and co-living space in the heart of the city called Start, sort of an experiment for me with a new type of living situation. My experience has already been very positive, and I’m looking forward to new friends, new foods, and new avenues for growth!!

The adventure begins! (Not that everything before this hasn’t been its own sort of adventure.) I’m actually writing this while en route to Chiang Mai, Thailand, the first of 3 destinations in South East Asia. I’m going to be in Thailand for an entire month, and now that I’ve actually had time to stop, think about it, and do a bit of research, I’m really excited. Chiang Mai sounds like an adventure-seeker’s paradise: scenic hikes offering both cultural immersion and physical challenge and a flourishing food culture complete with street vendors in bustling night markets. So many new things to see and experience!!

I have to admit, though, that the jump abroad is bittersweet–most beginnings are also endings. While I’ve never found it terribly sexy to say out loud, I lived at home with my parents for a full 6 months. I hadn’t originally planned to spend that much time at home, and I had also mentally prepared myself to go a bit insane moving back in with my parents. While it wasn’t always perfect, and it did occasionally test the limits of my sanity, I’m surprised to find myself incredibly grateful for the experience. A wise friend pointed out that most people have already spent the vast majority of the time they’re going to spend with their parents by the time they leave for college, so getting to spend another 6 whole months with my parents was a rare opportunity to build a deeper adult relationship with them, and really get to know them better at a time in my life when I’m starting to be able to contextualize their experiences and their choices. While I’m excited to forge ahead, and ready for a new chapter, I can’t help but feel nostalgic that my time at home has, yet again, come to close.

So, how did I spend my time in January? I obviously completed my travel preparations, as I’m (finally) safely on my way to Thailand. I set up an LLC, opened a business bank account, and took care of a bunch of other little logistics to make everything work. It was a bit of a mad dash, and I was honestly packing and prepping virtually up until the last few hours before I left, but I’m off :). I also made significant progress on my first consulting project. I unfortunately wasn’t able to finish it out completely in January, but I’d say it’s 80% done. Now I’m kind of just hoping the last 20% doesn’t take 80% of the time as they say. I didn’t get around to slapping a payment portal on Serenity, but I did spend a few hours setting up a couple of unrelated experimental projects that will exercise my long-dormant artificial intelligence expertise (I have a Master’s degree in AI and Computer Security, but haven’t done much with either in a few years). In all honesty, dabbling with some new projects probably wasn’t the most objectively smart way to spend my time, but I’m nevertheless feeling really excited about the discovery that my AI fundamentals are strong enough to teach myself more and potentially to apply to future products.

Consulting has had an interesting positive effect on my morale. Working on a project for someone else temporarily removes a certain amount of the uncertainty and anxiety around being self-employed: there’s no question as to whether or not I’m wasting my time since value for work has already been pre-negotiated with the client. Knowing for certain that I do have a way to make money if I ever need it is also very comforting–I knew that consulting was a possibility in theory before, but now it’s more tangibly true.

There are also some really useful processes I go through when consulting that I think could be useful for my own projects. I’m finding that the drive to complete a project quickly, and to impress a customer has naturally re-activated some of the skills that I honed at Palantir, but which I haven’t been disciplined about applying when working for myself. In executing at a professional level for a client, I have to be good about planning, designing, and estimating the various project tasks, and then need to execute high quality work and show progress on a regular basis. Going forward, I’m hoping to treat my own projects as sort of mini-consulting engagements where I am my own client–I’m curious to see if doing so enables me to produce higher quality products more quickly.

February promises to be an action-packed month. With a little luck, this consulting project will only occupy me full-time for about another week, and past that will likely require my occasional attention as the project winds down. Once that’s done, my top priority remains slapping a payment portal onto Serenity and getting it out into the world. On top of all that, I have a hefty bucket list of things to do and eat before I leave Chiang Mai on March 4. It’s becoming increasingly clear that my biggest challenge in the coming months will be to successfully balance building a business with taking as much advantage of my exciting new surroundings as possible. I’m not entirely sure how this is going to work yet, but I’m excited to find myself naturally contemplating how to get things done more efficiently so that I can feel good about spending time adventuring. While there were sometimes troughs and crests of productivity at home, I think the call to adventure will apply constant positive pressure to make the most out of my limited time.

Should it interest anyone reading this, I’ve started to record some short vlogs about my adventures. My thought is that I’ll generally keep these short (~5 min max per day) and will do virtually no editing or post-processing on them. I’ll still be posting a broader update with reflections here on my blog once a month, and may start to do more in-depth travel posts about places or things I find really interesting, but for those interested in a video format at a (probably) higher frequency, consider finding me on YouTube. No hard feelings if not–both those videos and this blog are more a form of personal but public documentation of my journey for posterity than anything else.

In December I set out to get my first product, Serenity, off the ground and prototyped to a point where I’d feel comfortable putting it in front of close friends and family. I also wanted to complete my annual goal review and goal setting exercises for the New Year. It was a fairly productive month despite the holidays; I published my 2018 goals, and I ended up writing a lot of code. However, I didn’t quite get my end of year review into a publishable state (I did go through the entire exercise before writing out my new goals) and I’m still a little embarrassed to show Serenity to friends.

Unexpectedly, I also had a huge marketing breakthrough for Serenity in December,  managing to gather 80 email addresses with a $250 FB ads credit over ~a week. Even better, these numbers came from a split test, where I intentionally spent money on poorer performing ads to establish a baseline for comparison–running the best ad in the experiment over the entire budget will probably yield better results. This success provides clear signal that what I’m marketing addresses a need that people want solved, and that I potentially have an efficient channel to reach them. However, it doesn’t validate how much (if anything) people might pay for a solution.

Now that I have potential customers waiting for my product, I’m realizing that I’ve fallen into a common entrepreneurial trap: I don’t know how much product I need to build for it to be “enough”, so I keep delaying throwing something over the fence out of the fear that the product will be missing important features my potential customers will want. Left unchecked, I could easily build the product in a vacuum for months, extending the time needed to find my first paying customer while building features that may or may not provide real value. The answer to this trap is a slight execution strategy shift: rather than guess at what customers will want, or guess at how much product I need to provide before customers will pay, I should let the market decide. This means that my priority now is to create a “free trial” period and slap either a real or a mock payment gateway on the product. I can spend ~$50-$100 in ads to pay for a new cohort of potential customers, measure how long they stay engaged in the free trial, and see if anyone actually pays or indicates that they would pay at the end of the trial period. I’ll risk alienating some potential customers in the process, and I don’t want to throw buggy or unpolished pieces of the product over the fence, but I can and should post the product before it’s strictly “ready” in my own eyes.

My priorities for January, however, have shifted away from Serenity. I’m taking my first consulting project this month, and it’s likely this project will take most of my January bandwidth. Those who read my 2018 New Year’s Resolutions might be remembering how I said I’d be generally avoiding consulting projects this year and thinking me a hypocrite, so I feel the need to justify why I’m taking this project. Though the project is paying a decent sum of money, money isn’t the only consideration here. This project is actually for a friend, and is in the healthcare space, which is one of my stronger interest areas. I think this project provides some useful exposure and credibility-building experience in an industry I care about (and may get more involved in longer-term) while also bolstering my war chest. Also, while I do have enough money in the bank to potential weather no profits from my business for a year or two, even while traveling around the world, I’d be lying if I claimed that having a little extra cushion doesn’t put my mind a bit more at ease.

Since I’m also slated to depart for South East Asia on February 1, my priorities are as follows:

  1. Make sure all of my affairs are in order before I leave the country. (This includes things like making sure I’m happy with the legal structure for my business, taking care of my taxes, getting vaccines, and other logistics which I either cannot take care of while abroad or really must happen before I leave.)
  2. Execute on this consulting project. Try to wrap it up this month, if possible.
  3. Stretch: polish Serenity up a little bit, slap a free trial/payment flow onto it, and run my first cohort through the product to see if anyone bites.

I’m also making it a goal to get back to more consistently writing these updates closer to the actual beginning of the month, since I know I’ve been slipping on that.

Sanity-wise, there were some moments of fear in December, but mostly I stayed focused. Even through the fear, I stayed productive by maintaining a few touchstone habits like waking up early, meditating, exercising, and making my bed. I think my larger fear right now is less that I will fail, and more that I’m wasting my time or doing something that might not lead me to where I ultimately want to go.

Unlike much of the working world, I’m not really on the rungs for any predefined career ladder, and I know that some things do require that one build a track record and earn experience over time. I have been trying to think critically about what my narrative is and where what I’m doing leads me (or leads me away from, since every choice inevitably means not choosing other things). Some reflection on this has led me to the conclusion that taking some limited consulting projects tied to industries I care about helps me to continue to build a story for myself for working in those industries even if I don’t ultimately do tech in those industries (law or policy have been ideas I’ve played with for a little while).

I’m also realizing that entrepreneurship is and always has been one of the primary skill sets I’ve wanted to develop. I believe at our core, many entrepreneurs are passionate, empathic problem solvers. We’re the kind of people who get excited about making the world a better place by solving problems through the creation of businesses, services, and products. I think there are a lot of problems that can be solved this way (Elon Musk has inspirationally pushed the limit on this), though there are also some that can’t (e.g. policy).

For me, entrepreneurship is one tool in what will hopefully become an arsenal for a life spent working on the problems I care about most. I also believe that cracking the value creation cycle means that I won’t ever need to be tempted by money from sources outside myself, which I’m hoping will mean that I can maintain a higher level of personal integrity and authenticity (this is particularly important to me if, for example, I were ever to go into politics).

I mastered the technical implementation and execution aspects of software entrepreneurship a long time ago, but I still need to work on some of the surrounding skill sets, including learning to steer my own ship with confidence, crossing the marketing chasm between value and delivery of value, and designing products that people will love to use. Though it sometimes feels like I’m wasting time when I’m not writing code, or like I’m failing when I find myself gripped by fear, these are actually the moments when I’m learning and experiencing exactly what I need to right now.

Being honest with myself, I think I missed the mark in 2017–and that’s OK! I had some pretty ambitious goals and I had a lot of goals. I stretched myself attempting to complete them, and learned a lot in the process. A lot of great things also happened as a result of the intention behind this set of goals, even though I didn’t even come close to hitting them all. There were some confounding factors like deciding to leave my job earlier than I thought I otherwise would (I had hoped to go to Paris through work, but those opportunities didn’t materialize, so I advanced my timeline), but even so I think I’m willing to admit that I bit off more than I could chew. I’ve learned that there are only so many things I can effectively focus on at once, that I should define my plans for goals in terms of sustainable habits rather than just one-off events, and that I could give myself a little more flexibility to adapt and improvise. All-in-all, I’d have to give myself a D+ this year. I’m not quite comfortable giving myself a passing grade, but quitting my job was a big deal and all the work I did conquering other fears definitely helped me get to that point. I’m taking my learnings into 2018 so I can keep improving the process as I go forward :)!

Detail

  • Conquer my fears and insecurities by cultivating courage.
    • Do at least 150 things total that scare me this year. (Does not have to be 150 unique things if appropriate level of fear is still present.)
      • Honestly, I did a terrible job of keeping track of this. I’d guesstimate that I did on the order of 75-100 of these, but didn’t keep a good record. Off the top of my head here are some memorable ones:
        • Quitting my job. I could probably argue that this counts as multiple since this has regularly exposed me to a lot of fear, which I’m still learning to process effectively.
        • Learning to lead climb. This is a form of rock climbing where the rope comes up behind you as you clip it into the wall to save your progress. When you fall, you can fall as far as 10-15 feet. It took me awhile to get over the fear of falling.
        • Scuba certification. Open water still scares me, and the idea of vulnerability while diving worried me. At this point, diving in a group doesn’t scare me at all, though I’d probably shit myself diving alone.
        • Completing an Alcatraz swim. There be sharks in these waters ._.
        • Rejection. There was a decent amount of rejection this year :). Those double count here, but I’ll leave a longer accounting of them for below.
    • Conquer my fear of failure.
      • Figure out what I would do if I weren’t working at Palantir.
        • I’m now doing it :)! It’s not entirely clear exactly how long I’ll continue to do what I’m doing now, or what I’ll do after this. Most likely I’ll continue for as long as what I’m doing now feels like the best way to grow, or until my priorities change.
      • Stretch: Take a leave of absence from work or quit and do my own thing for 3-6 months or leave my current job to work on something more risky.
        • I ultimately couldn’t get Palantir to send me to France on a timeline that made sense to me, so I went with the last option and left. What I’m doing now is much more risky, and much more self-directed, which is both amazing and terrifying. Can’t say I’ve totally beaten my fear of failure yet, but definitely on the right path.
    • Conquer my fear of rejection.
      • Get rejected at least 100 times trying 100 different things.
        • I didn’t do a great job of tracking this one either. I probably hit ~50 with scattered rejection challenges earlier in the year, and then 30 challenges in November.
      • Complete at least Foundation Level 2 improv at BATS.
        • I got this one done real early! And I’ve fallen in love with improv in the process. When I left the Bay Area, one of the first things I did was find a new place to go to continue improvising. I’m not sure how I’ll keep it up while I’m abroad, but someday I think it would be really fun (and frightening) to participate in an improv performance.
    • Conquer my fear of sharks.
      • Go swimming in a shark cage.
        • This didn’t happen. Logistically this was difficult as there weren’t many local opportunities for this in the Bay Area, and most of the services I found were prohibitively expensive. If I can find an opportunity for it, I may end up doing some version of swimming or diving with sharks while I’m abroad in South East Asia though!
      • Unfortunately, didn’t do much for this despite some risk mitigation steps outlined during my mid year review. The Alcatraz swim ended up being the closest thing I got to facing my fear of sharks.
    • Conquer my fear of spiders.
      • Hold a tarantula in my hand without freaking out.
        • I got nowhere close to this.
      • Unfortunately, didn’t end up doing much for this despite some risk mitigation steps outlined during my mid year review. I still hate spiders :/.
    • Conquer my fear of falling.
      • Go bungee jumping.
      • Go rock climbing outdoors.
      • Stretch: Go lead climbing outdoors.
        • Lead climb certified! Never logistically got around to organizing a group to climb out doors, let alone lead climb outdoors, though.
      • I didn’t end up getting to all of the key results here, but I honestly don’t feel that irrationally afraid of falling anymore. The idea of going bungee jumping or sky diving doesn’t really bother me. I know there’s inherent risk in doing things like this, but I’ve learned not to overly worry about things like equipment failures, which are unlikely and relatively out of my control. (By contrast, the first time I went sky diving I mentally prepared for that day to be the last day of my life :P.)
    • Conquer my fear of open water.
      • Complete an Alcatraz swim.
      • Complete scuba certification.
      • Stretch: Go on 2 additional dives after certification.
      • Hilariously, I completed all of the key results for this one, but am definitely still irrationally afraid of swimming in open water. I think this is because the fear wasn’t properly defined here: it’s becoming more and more clear to me that I’m afraid of swimming alone in open water, but most other cases are fine.
  • Become confident around attractive women.
    • Ask out at least one woman I find attractive each week in person.
    • Go on at least one Tinder date.
      • This is a terrible key result. But I did go on a Tinder date this year, and I did go on a Coffee Meets Bagel date this year. In the bigger picture though, I’ve pretty much completely divested from dating apps at this point–would really prefer that I learn to get comfortable approaching and talking to women I find attractive. Plus, I honestly suck at texting strangers and kind of don’t see the point.
    • I noted in my mid year review that the key results for this goal weren’t planned well. I still believe that’s true. I did go on a record number of dates this year, but I think that was 5 or 6 dates total. All first dates–for either logistic or compatibility reasons I didn’t really ask for second dates.
    • I think I could have done a lot better on this. I did learn a lot this year, and my anxieties around going on a date have mostly disappeared now that I’ve experienced it a few different ways (ask me about the time I crashed a sailboat over a beer sometime :). I won’t argue that I’m amazing at dating, but I do think I’ve gotten a lot better at listening to how I’m feeling during an interaction with someone and acting authentically based on that (rather than feeling like I need to act like I’m having fun, feeling like I need to impress them if they’re not also making an effort to impress me, or feeling like I should do this or that at a particular point in the date). I still have a lot of approach anxiety, though, and the idea of making a special effort to put myself in situations where I have to approach and talk to a stranger I find attractive with the intent to get to know them and maybe ask them out still scares the crap out of me. I think I should have done more to force myself out of my comfort zone for approach anxiety. This is something I’ll need to continue to actively work on, perhaps by doing some dating-oriented version of my rejection challenges. Technically, this falls under the umbrella of “fear of uncertainty” for 2018, but I’m not sure how realistic it will be to pursue romantic interests while abroad.
  • Read more
    • Learn to speed read.
      • Read a book about speed reading.
      • Watch speed reading lectures I have saved.
      • I failed to make practicing speed reading a consistent habit, despite recognizing mid year that this was what was needed. I have some decent software which, if I used regularly, I’m fairly confident would get me to where I want to go. I just haven’t.
    • Read at least 40 books.
      • Looks like I actually only read 39 books this year -_-. I think I got complacent here–I expected that my normal reading habits would easily get me to 40 books, but apparently not. I did start and not finish a record number of books this year, which doesn’t help. I have also been doing less reading since being self-employed, in part because I accidentally broke my Kindle… now that I have a new one, I need to get back into the habit of reading at night!
      • My top books of 2017:
        • The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama XIV, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams
        • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
        • The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
        • Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
        • Little Princes by Conor Grennan
        • The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee
        • Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
  • Become a polyglot
    • Become fluent in French.
      • Spend at least 1 hour each day learning French.
        • Definitely didn’t make this! I did have some regular French habits for awhile, but they fell off when work got busy, and I definitely didn’t re-establish them when I became self-employed.
      • Earn the DELF B2 French language qualification or higher.
        • Didn’t end up registering for a test or making a concerted effort here. This fell off the priorities list once I became self-employed, and I also realized that I’m trying to learn the language so that I can communicate with real people, no so that I can pass a test. As noted in my mid year review, I did pass a diagnostic claiming to be rated at a B2 level, however (by the skin of my teeth).
        • Stretch: Earn the DELF C1 French language qualification or higher.
      • Read Harry Potter in French.
        • I have the first book in both French audio and on Kindle! I don’t have a good excuse. I can’t quite read all of it without pausing to look up some words on a regular basis, but most of the gist makes sense. I just never got much further than the first chapter. I think my weakest areas in French are speaking and listening, however, which is maybe why I de-emphasized reading.
  • See the beauty and strength of which my body is capable.
    • Qualify for the Boston Marathon.
      • Injuries earlier in the year, and then after I became self-employed I decided to double-down on the gym since I don’t know if weight-lifting will be a real option while I’m abroad. Ultimately, I could probably have made progress toward this, though actually qualifying for the Boston is going to take at least a few attempts. I think after my injuries I mentally knew this wasn’t going to happen this year and let myself slack. I’ve recommitted for 2018, however!
    • Develop a 6-pack.
      • Not much progress here from mid year. Still 4 up top, and no sign of the other 2.
      • Get down to 9% body fat.
        • Closest I got was 13%, which is pretty laughable since I think I started at ~14% or 15%. Palantir fed me 3 meals a day and I had trouble getting myself to be disciplined about macros and calorie restriction. I tried meal planning after I left Palantir, but keep finding reasons to cheat which sink me. The meal plan did seem pretty effective however–I think if I really committed to a well-designed plan for 3-6 months, this would happen. I just like food a lot >_<.
      • Do an abdominal workout three times a week.
    • Stretch: Lift weights three times a week.
      • I lifted weights regularly when I got back to San Diego, but can’t say that I did this often enough to give myself credit. This wasn’t really the priority.
  • Improve my ability to regulate and compartmentalize thoughts and emotions, especially negative and anxious thoughts and emotions such as fear or insecurity.
    • Meditate for 20 minutes every day.
      • I definitely didn’t get every day, but I think I did this enough to feel that it made a difference, which is good.
    • Write in a journal at least once a week.
      • Once a week is pretty excessive–I don’t always have anything useful to journal about on that schedule. I do have a decent number of journal entries from 2017, but there isn’t a consistent pattern to when. Sometimes I’m very regular, other times I’ll go months without thinking to write.
  • Become more politically active.
    • Become more politically informed.
      • Read at least 2 books about healthcare issues.
      • Read at least 2 books about global warming and environmental issues.
      • Read at least 2 books about education issues.
      • Read at least 2 books about immigration and globalization.
      • Read at least 2 books about economics.
      • Read at least 2 books about political theory and political philosophy.
      • This is something I’d like to do, but I keep not actually taking the time to read books that get me closer to it. I think it’s not the highest priority right now–when trying to figure out how to feed oneself, one doesn’t worry as much about politics.

Reflection

2017 was another interesting year for my goals. I can’t quite call it an equivocal success, but it certainly wasn’t a total failure, either. In the first half of the year, I accomplished a decent amount of what I had set out to do, and was looking reasonably on track to hit the majority of my goals with a little bit of extra effort. In the second half of the year, however, I shook everything up by quitting my job and starting to actively work on my broader fear of failure. Doing so has, inevitably, led to a bit of a slow down on the rest of my goals.

Interestingly, this is the second year in a row where, in the second half of the year, I’ve decided to take a major leap toward a larger goal that I hadn’t otherwise been planning to tackle in the current year. (2016’s leap being making an attempt at an Ironman triathlon many months earlier than expected.) In both cases, I took action because I recognized that my largest growth opportunity lied in a direction that perhaps didn’t completely align with my yearly goals. While I’m proud of both of these steps, I think that this trend is symptomatic of my goals not being focused enough, my motivations not being clear enough, or not having enough flexibility allowed by the set of goals I’ve chosen.

I also wonder if I really would have been able to complete everything on my goals list had I been more committed to doing so. Last year I argued that I probably would have. This time I’m actually not so certain.

Most of my goals are not things that are immediately achievable, so they require longer-term, consistent effort. For these goals (e.g. learning a language, speed reading, running a marathon), it’s less about big pushes and spurts of effort, and more about the little habits that slowly but surely push me toward where I want to go. Ultimately, my ability to create sustainable habits is integral to accomplishing these goals.

If I’m being totally honest with myself, I think in 2017 I struggled to create and maintain new habits in support of many of my goals. I’ve had success with new habits in the past, so I definitely know how to do this under certain conditions. Training for my first marathon, and later for an Ironman, for example, required that I build the habit of exercising 5 or 6 days out of the week.

So why did I struggle this time? I think one of the major factors here was focus. I had a lot of goals this year, and there were times when I think I probably threw too much at myself at once. Creating new habits isn’t too hard if I have just one or two to focus on, but I overwhelmed myself a little with the sheer number of habits I wanted or needed to create all at once. I think I might have been more successful if I had chosen a smaller number of things to focus on or if I had organized my goals into “phases,” giving myself a couple of new habits to focus on at a time until each had set. Willpower is finite.

Another factor was my environment and a failure to either change it or adapt to it. When I was working a full-time job, there would sometimes be busier periods where I wouldn’t have the time or mental bandwidth to keep up a habit, so my progress would be lost. Adding in a frequent coast-to-coast travel schedule also made it challenging to establish habits and routines without more thought or effort. Again, here I think focusing on one or two things at a time could have helped. I trained for my first marathon despite traveling coast-to-coast every week by running on treadmills in NYC hotels after work. I was able to make this happen through the establishment and prioritization of a single, very important habit. When the shit hits the fan, it’s much harder to do the same with 5 or 6 different things.

There are two other major factors differentiating some of my past successes from the goals I’ve been struggling more with: 1) a sense of consistent, measurable progress and 2) a plan which, when followed, provides relative surety of making it to the goal. When training for an Ironman or a marathon, it’s hard not to notice myself getting stronger each week as the workouts get harder or longer and I still manage to complete them. This feeling is exciting and motivating in and of itself. I’m also usually following a workout plan put together by someone else whose had experience with the event, allowing me to reasonably safely assume that if I can complete the workout each day, then I’m on track to actually complete the goal. I’ve found it harder to establish both of these conditions when working on a goal like learning a language, for example. Sure, sometimes I have a sense that I’m a bit more fluent, or can understand a little more, but this is nowhere near as measurable or granular as having completed a 10-mile run last week and 12-mile run this week. I’m also finding that plans for many of my non-fitness goals are much less cut and dried–at the end of the day 3 miles is 3 miles no matter how fast or slow you run it, but what’s the equivalent metric for language training?

Despite the struggle to establish habits, I did learn a few useful things to carry into the future. I was having only sporadic success with rejection challenges before I decided to crowdsource challenges from friends and publicly commit to doing one challenge a day for 30 days. From that experience, I was reminded how helpful it can be to get friends involved in goals–they can serve as both an accountability check and a support network. I was also reminded of how powerful it is to have a “streak” doing something. After 10 days of doing rejection challenges, the momentum was enough to keep me from quitting even as the challenges got increasingly uncomfortable.

All-in-all, I think my big takeaways from 2017 goals were to focus more on a few things at a time, to re-frame my goals in terms of sustainable habits I can create that will ultimately get me where I want to go, and to leave myself the flexibility beyond that to pivot when necessary–committing to the spirit behind a plan is sometimes more important than following the exact letter of the plan. I’ve incorporated these learnings into my strategy for 2018, where I have notably fewer different goal threads, and have left things a little bit more vague. There are still some strong themes for growth areas, and while there are a few key results I intend to hold myself accountable to, I was overall a lot less specific this year, hopefully giving me a little more space to adapt and improvise.

At the end of each year I take some time to reflect and to write out new goals and resolutions for the coming year. This exercise is about more than just the goals themselves, though–it’s about really taking a moment to check-in on my growth and to find alignment between my values, how I choose to spend my time, and my overall life direction. These words were written to inspire a future, struggling version of myself to stay the course and keep pushing to grow despite bouts of discomfort or laziness (both of which are natural parts of the journey).

I’ve been doing this for a few years now, and for the last couple I’ve chosen to make my goals public here on my blog. I don’t publish these to show-off, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers–if you spend 20 minutes reading this blog you’ll quickly realize that, while I have some strong convictions, I’m very much a work in progress. In fact, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that not every goal I’ve ever written down here has been accomplished. (Fortunately, though, many of the really important ones have.)

I publish these in the hope that, if I’m lucky, my journey to improve myself and an account of what I learned along the way will inspire or enlighten even just one other person. I hope that by writing about living my ideals and leading by example–with all of the bumps, blemishes, and bloopers left in–I may lend someone else the courage, the discipline, the perseverance, the authenticity, or even just the awareness to start living their own. Life is about the journey, and this is how I make the most of mine.

 

* * *

 

2016’s theme was discipline, concluding in an Ironman triathlon. 2017’s theme was courage, culminating in leaving my job to pursue my own path. 2018, in a sense, is going to be a combination of the two. There are two main areas that I really want to work on:

  1. Learning to deal with uncertainty, and to fight against my instinct to plan and control everything.
  2. Learning to identify, trust, and follow my authentic inner voice.

Learning to Deal with Uncertainty

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
–The Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr

We spend the first two decades of our lives with an abundance of externally-defined structure. Grade school, high school, and college all provide relative rigidity with our parents, our teachers, or our majors delineating a path forward and giving us a definition of success to strive for. Then we graduate, and suddenly all of that structure evaporates. In the vacuum, the game becomes about defining meaning, purpose, and success for ourselves, before learning to apply them in the face of life’s fundamental uncertainty.

There are two primary ways we learn to cope with uncertainty: 1) creating, finding, or borrowing structure so that we have control over what we can control and 2) learning to let go of the need for control over things we fundamentally cannot control. Both methods are important, and they involve different and opposite skills: the former requires that we learn to be a proactive and creative force in our own lives, the latter that we learn to go with the flow and not burden ourselves with what we can’t control (e.g. the past, the vast majority of the future, how others think and act).

In my limited experience, most people I’ve met excel at one of these strategies, but not both. In fact, in a funny way, those who naturally excel at one strategy are often awful at the other–when you have a hammer, everything kind of looks like a nail. Personally, my hammer has always been proactivity and control (that’s why I started writing these goals in the first place); acceptance and going with the flow has always been a weakness. Ideally, one masters both of these strategies. Once that’s done there is a third challenge: learning when to apply each strategy for maximum effect.

In the past, I’ve written a lot about courage and discipline. In fact, last year I wrote, “I believe that I need two main virtues in order to accomplish everything I want in life: the courage to dream, and the discipline to execute.” I don’t think I realized it then, but those virtues map pretty well to the methods of dealing with uncertainty I just described: discipline involves creating and following through on structure, while courage requires a learned acceptance of the things we cannot control so we can function despite fear.

Though I still have a lot to learn about both courage and discipline, and though I’ve made a lot of great progress in the last couple years, I’m realizing now that a piece has always been missing from my thesis: learning how to use courage and discipline together, and when to apply one over the other. As it is, my instinct is still very much to control, plan, and analyze. I think in 2017 I learned a bit more about how to let go, but I still struggle with when to let go. Finding or creating opportunities to practice this skill is one of my top priorities in 2018.

Learning to be Authentic

Learning to deal with uncertainty is a little like learning to sail a boat: you have to learn how to trim the sails and weather different conditions at sea. Ultimately, though, you could be the best sailor in the world and never get where you’re trying to go without some means of navigation. Authenticity is our means of navigation on the capricious sea of life; it’s the compass needle subconsciously guided by our deepest values, and the north star that lights the way to who we’re meant to be and what we’re meant to do. I believe authenticity is one of the highest pursuits in life, not because there’s some pot of universal truth or meaning at the end of the rainbow, but because it’s the path that maximizes individual long-term happiness realized through integrity and self-actualization.

Sometimes, however, the compass spins or the night sky is cloudy, and we can’t seem to find our way. This is because the concept of authenticity is complicated–certainly more complicated than “just being yourself,” as the platitude goes. There’s a multitude of different influences in our lives–our parents, our peers, our significant others, the culture or environment we grow-up or live in–that can passively or actively push our internal compasses away from true north. Completely avoiding any of these influences on our lives is impossible, and not entirely desirable: sometimes pieces of external influence create resonance, shedding some light on what we truly value. Other times, though, our internal compasses point us in directions that lie in direct conflict with where external influences would have us go. When this happens, one of two things occurs: we choose to go someone else’s way, thereby learning to wear a mask; or we follow our inner voice, moving us closer to our authentic selves.

That process is, of course, also not as easy as it sounds. The more external voices there are and the louder they are, or the meeker our inner voice–if, for example, we aren’t very secure about ourselves–the harder it can be to identify, trust, and listen to our inner voice. Ultimately, I think the goal is to be able to remain true to self especially in the presence of strong external influences. Personally, this is something that I’ve struggled with quite a bit in my life to date, and there have been a few key points where I’ve caught myself walking a potentially inauthentic path, not the least of which led to my leaving Palantir and Silicon Valley.

I’m very much still learning to trust myself, to feel internally rather than externally secure in who I am and who I choose to be, and to follow my internal compass. I think that these are among the most important things I can learn in life, both because I believe it’s the path to truly internalized happiness, and because life is full of stories about the archetypes played out by the alternatives: the entrepreneur or creative who regrets never believing in herself enough to take a chance; the ego-driven playboys, businessmen, and politicians who believe attention or money lead to happiness only to find themselves feeling hollow inside; and the go-getters who climb the corporate ladder in a desperate desire to “get ahead” without ever stopping to wonder what it really means to be ahead.

Goals

How will I pursue the two priorities outlined above?

  • Running my own business
    • Uncertainty
      • As I’ve been learning for the past few months, trying to get a business off the ground is sometimes overwhelmingly uncertain. By continuing to pursue this path, I think I place myself in an environment where I have no choice but to apply both courage and self-discipline, and where I must learn to accept the occasional inevitable negative outcome that I cannot really control.
    • Authenticity
      • Being self-employed means that I’m solely responsible for setting my priorities, giving me the freedom to pursue work, growth, and meaning the way I want and at my own pace.
      • Learning to create value on my own will help me to learn to trust myself (or, perhaps, require that I learn to trust myself). I think there’s also no baser sense of personal security than knowing that if I have to fend for myself in this world, I can.
    • Key results:
      • As hard or as scary as it gets, stick with it for the entire year. Don’t take on consulting projects unless they’re actually really interesting, or I somehow really need the money (I shouldn’t this year).
      • Launch 4-6 (more ideally, 8-12) different projects this year. These don’t all have to be of the same magnitude or significance, but they should all have some monetization plan from the beginning. Learn to scope projects well, learn not to be afraid of throwing something over the fence before it’s perfect, and really get the process down to a science.
  • Travel
    • Uncertainty
      • I’ll be moving around a lot in 2018, and I think doing so will help to create an environment chock-full of uncertainty. I expect to encounter situations I couldn’t predict, and I think this will challenge me to learn to find the balance between acceptance and proactivity.
    • Authenticity
      • Traveling around to new places, meeting new people, and encountering new perspectives will give me opportunities to learn more about what I’m drawn to.
      • Pulling myself away from past influences, including my parents, my college peer group, my existing friends, Silicon Valley’s culture and environment, and all past and current romantic interests will help to turn down the volume on the external voices that sometimes drown out my own voice.
    • Key results:
      • Meet new people and have adventures wherever I go. Try to spend every weekend doing something exciting, new, or terrifying. Don’t get so singularly focused on running a business that I become a shut-in.
  •  Mindfulness
    • Uncertainty
      • Mindfulness has and continues to be one of my most important mental tools for learning to deal with uncertainty. My mindfulness practice has taught me skills to accept my thoughts and emotions, as well as other external situations that I can’t otherwise rationalize away or control.
    • Authenticity
      • Many of the same mindfulness practices useful for accepting external situations are also very useful for accepting myself. The more I accept myself, the stronger my inner voice becomes.
    • Key results:
      • Attend a 2-week mindfulness retreat.
      • Complete the Headspace Pro series in one continuous streak.
      • Meditate for at least 20 minutes every day.
  • Reading
    • Uncertainty and Authenticity
      • Books exist for pretty much every topic imaginable. Some books I’ve read have addressed topics relating to uncertainty and authenticity directly. Others have characters and plots that explore questions and themes that are central to my own life, and so are inspiring, or instructive, or at least thought provoking. Still others, simply introduce me to new ideas and new perspectives I might not have otherwise considered (and some of which I’d never have found by just meeting people). The more of these I’m exposed to, the more I get to see what I do and don’t resonate with, refining my internal compass.
    • Key results:
      • Read or listen to 52 books this year.

I have just a few other goals unrelated to this year’s primary objectives:

  • Compete in the Boston Marathon
    • Why?
      • Exercise is an important part of my health and happiness, but I’ve found that I honestly don’t do well with just exercising 30 minutes a day to stay healthy. I need something larger than that to work toward, or I don’t end up putting my heart into it. I’ll also be moving around a lot next year, and though other exercise equipment may not always be readily available, running is pretty much always an option. As a runner in high school, and now a post-college amateur endurance athlete, qualifying for the Boston Marathon represents a huge accomplishment in speed, not just endurance. (Qualifying times for my age and gender require running a full marathon at an average pace of 7:00/mi.)
    • Key results:
  • Become conversationally fluent in French
    • Why?
      • This is part of a larger desire I have to learn several foreign languages. This time, though, I actually have a one-way ticket to France in May 2018, and I’m going to need to work on my French both before and during if I want to survive/thrive while I’m there.
    • Key results:
      • Spend at least 3 months in French-speaking countries in 2018.
      • While in French-speaking countries, actively push to have a conversation in French every single day, no matter how uncomfortable, awkward, or broken my spoken French is.

I’m purposefully trying to keep my list of goals leaner and more focused this year, so I’ve cut several threads from 2017 that weren’t totally completed. Rather than overtax my focus and willpower, this year I’ll narrow in on a few larger things, and will consider throwing in more if I seem to be totally crushing it with lots of time left in the year.

October marked the beginning of the part of this journey through the “Trough of Sorrow.” It was like sailing into a section of the map ominously labeled “Here There Be Monsters…” True to analogy, October was littered with what felt like small failures–early marketing experiments flopped, there were moments when I let my fears consume me, and it didn’t seem like I made tangible progress toward having any working products. By contrast, November was a month of small victories–not enough to banish my fear, but enough to start learning to be curious instead of just afraid.

In a sense you could say that in October I saw the tip of an iceberg and, thinking myself clever, gave that iceberg an extremely wide berth, believing that it must extend for miles below the surface. In November I dove below the surface to find that the iceberg was exactly as it seemed from above, and that I put myself through a lot of extra misery for a false assumption.

In October, I had run a set of ads on a test marketing website I built for a product concept called Strive. I had launched some ads on Google AdWords and Facebook Ads and got exactly 0 email subscribers. When I actually examined the results in November, I realized that I had spent less than $10 between both ad platforms, and had only gotten ~25 actual clicks–not nearly enough data to draw conclusions from. I decided to up the ante and spent 10x the money on ads, hoping to get enough data to reach the truth. My new campaign performed much better. Without changing the test marketing site at all, I ended up with 6 email addresses for $59.18 in ads, which was surprising to me because the marketing copy is vague and the site has no screenshots to make the product real in any way. While it’s hard to quantify the value of the email addresses themselves, and hard to predict how many email subscribers will ultimately convert to paying customers, this did loosely validate the market need, and reset my expectations on how difficult it should be to get someone to leave an email address.

Despite some marketing success with Strive, I chose to divest from the project early on. I realized that the product wasn’t well-defined enough for me to have a sense for what to build and what would actually provide value, and I was coming to realize that the scope of the product was nebulously expanding to include other potential products. Instead, I broke Serenity off of Strive and started working on that, loosely piecing together a library of reusable code for marketing websites and web applications. Contradicting my October declaration that I would focus more on building than selling and designing, I actually found a good groove in November for designing with Figma. Wanting to improve on the marketing materials for Strive, I actually spent a good amount of time designing a few mock screenshots for Serenity to make things look a little more real. (App Launch Pad’s mockup generator was also invaluable here.)

I finished the Serenity marketing site in time to pour a friend’s unused Facebook Ads credit into the site to see how it would perform. Somewhat discouragingly, I found that $250 in Facebook Ads led to only 4 email sign-ups, with dismal click through rates and dismal on-page conversion rates. Rather than despair, however, this time I got curious and started designing some new experiments, including a salvo of Google AdWords ads to test different text copy.

When my AdWords experiments came back at a 3.61% click-through and a 10%+ email sign-up conversion, I started to realize something was up with my Facebook Ads. Though I’m still inexperienced, I’m coming to the conclusion that the kind of test marketing I’m doing works much better on AdWords than it does on Facebook. Part of this may just be a failure to target the right people with the right ads on Facebook, but it’s clear to me now that a user searching for a keyword on Google right now is a way stronger signal of potential interest than a user having liked some page in the entirety of the lifetime of their Facebook account. I’m also learning that Facebook is a more complex and harder to master ads platform, as there’s an order of magnitude more options to try and compare for any given ad, often making it difficult to declare a clear winner (e.g. where does the ad get placed? what image do you use? what specific audience do you target? what text copy do you use for your ads?).

I had a few other wins in November as well. While I’m still far from having a full MVP that I’d be willing to show-off here, the product for Serenity is beginning to take shape, and I’ll hopefully have something useful enough to show to some close friends before December is out. I also successfully finished all of my November rejection challenges!! It’s still on my list of things to do to write a longer debrief and reflection about my experience, but I think the most important thing I internalized is to get curious rather than upset when things don’t go my way.

Being honest though, despite November wins, I’m sometimes still finding much of this really difficult. It’s easier overall when things are going well, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenging days. I share this not because I want pity–remember, I chose this, so save your pity for someone who didn’t–but because it’s an important part of my truth. The world has enough manicured stories where the protagonist tries to air brush his past and pretend he was stronger in every moment than he really was. This is not one of them.

In my darkest moments, I’m frustrated and impatient. I’m now four months in and, while I do have some good learnings, the beginnings of a reusable library of code, and a few loosely validated ideas to show for it, I can’t help but feel like I should already have a complete product out and done by now, perhaps even have found my first paying customers. I keep expecting myself to fly, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that I’m just now learning to crawl.

In my darkest moments, I also worry about everything. I sometimes worry that I’m wasting my time and the best years of my life. I worry that my growth thesis is wrong, and that in the name of chasing growth, I’ve run away from other important things like commitment or responsibility. I worry that after a year or two of doing this I won’t have enough to show for it, and that I won’t know how to recover. I worry that I’ll lose touch with the people in my life who matter, that I’ll miss out on important events in their lives, and that I’ll fail to be there for them when they need me. I worry that while I’m out exploring the world and the depths of my own soul, the dating pool will thin and that I won’t ultimately find someone to share my life with. Trust me, if there’s a way to worry about something, I’ve worried about it.

The darkness sometimes leaves me feeling a little like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde–like there are two versions of me, and I don’t always know which I’ll be when I wake up in the morning.

One version seems fearless, unafraid, and undaunted. He embraces uncertainty, excited for the adventure of discovering his life one page at a time. He is optimistic, but not naively so. He understands that risk, pain, failure, and mistakes are all a natural part of the journey of life. He accepts them without worrying about them or overly identifying with them. He knows he can handle whatever life has to throw his way, and he trusts himself to make the best decisions he can in each situation. He has a will and a zest for life that is infectious–inspiring, even–to those he meets. He acts from a place of hope, not one of fear. He is unquestioningly the captain of his own soul.

The other version is anxious, fearful, and constantly worrying. He seeks certainty through a fragile sense of control over the future he’ll never truly find. To paraphrase my own words: the quest for certainty biases him towards defining things in blacks and whites, towards over planning and overthinking, and keeps him from fully embracing life which can so often be beautifully messy, gray, and uncertain. He fears that failure and mistakes imply that he is incapable or fundamentally flawed, and therefore doesn’t handle them well. He worries he won’t be able to handle what comes his way, he doubts himself, and he agonizes over every decision. He is terrified and his fear taints his experiences and his perspectives, desperately seeking comfort instead of adventure. He acts from a place of fear, not one of hope. Fear consumes his soul.

The fearless side of me knows that no adventure comes without struggle and unexpected challenges. He knows that hardship often means one is headed the right way because few things worth finding in life come easy, and that very few stories worth reading feature a perfect protagonist who experiences no hardship. By contrast, the fearful side sees hardship as a sign that he’s made a mistake. He sees monsters in these waters, not realizing that he is, himself, the only monster that might sink the ship. He thinks about turning back before he can no longer see the shore, forgetting that, in the words of Christopher Columbus, “You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

That’s why my last major update for the month is that I’m forcing myself to lose sight of the shore. For better or for worse, I’ve booked myself flights to spend the majority of next year abroad, and in a sense there’s no turning back from that, at least not unless I feel good about abandoning a small wealth in cash and travel points. I leave February 1 for Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia, each for a month), returning only very briefly to the States in May before continuing on to France (most likely Marseille) for 3 months, then likely Morocco for 3 months.

While the fearless side of me smells adventure and can’t help but be excited, the fearful side of me is terrified by this. It’s not that I don’t love travel–I’ve been all over the world and experiencing new places and cultures is still one of my favorite things to do–but that I know this isn’t exactly the most sane business decision I’ve ever made. I don’t have a product yet. I’m not making any income yet. My pace is likely only to slow when presented with a new place to get used to, especially if there are interesting things to explore and I’m moving around every month. Sure, some of these places are cheap to live in, but they’re nowhere near as cheap as living at home. However, as I mentioned when I initially set out to do this, this has never been as much about starting successful businesses as it has been about personal growth and conquering a set of fears that clearly controls me. That obviously isn’t to say that I don’t intend to put my all into my business ideas, but it is to say that financial success has always been secondary to self-mastery (I don’t always remember this in my darkest moments). That this scares me so much tells me that I’m moving closer to the heart of my fear–the heart of the monster. In the end it will be me and the monster, and either I learn to tame him, or perhaps he and I will sink together.

Given the facts above, my goals for December are pretty simple. First, while I clearly believe some cliffs just need to be jumped off of that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in checking, double-checking, and triple-checking my parachutes before doing so. Tangibly this means taking the necessary steps to prepare to leave the country including figuring out how to find cheap long-term rentals abroad, acquiring visas, renewing my passport, getting all of the proper vaccines, and gathering supplies/equipment I’ll need abroad. Second, since time is clearly running short and I really would like to have a real product before I leave the country, I’ll be putting my nose to the grindstone to make progress on Serenity. I’m aware that there are still clear open questions about the market viability of Serenity like whether or not people will actually pay for what I build and whether or not I can establish any sustainable growth channels. At this point, I’m going to build it anyway and if it fails I’ll learn, pivot, or work on something new. Lastly, I’ll need to find some time to write this month, at the very least to reflect on the year, my growth, and progress towards my 2017 goals so that I can define a new set of goals for 2018. If there’s time, I’d also like to reflect more thoroughly on what I learned from my November rejection challenges.