On Juggling Work, Passion and Happiness

Passionate about something other than the thing you toss 40 hours down the drain for every week? It’s possible to balance them and be happy. 

Ta-da! If you are reading this on tumblr, then you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. Did I do a magic trick? Nope. Did I do a flip? Mosey over to this link and you will be enlightened. Now that you’re here…reading the same post… Over the past couple of months, I’ve been working on a massive overhaul of the good ole blog. Between teaching kids colors and various fruits in English and correcting horrible, glaring errors in textbooks – “May I play your ball?” – I’ve been slowly preparing what you see here.

Why?

Because I can. And tumblr is done-zo. I’m getting new followers everyday, and I love you guys for taking a second to click that button. Comparatively, I’m still a rinky-dink blogger, a drop in the ocean, and still I never thought I’d have this big of an audience. More followers create a problem that tumblr does not address so well: communication. I’m getting a few questions each week ranging from general comments on what I’m doing (which make me blush and keep me writing) to very specific questions regarding visas (thanks to China’s bitchy process).

Sometimes these are in the Disqus comments at the bottom of each post. I usually always reply to those. Often they are in tumblr’s own “reply” thingy. If I reply to those, it creates a separate post and sort of screws up the appearance that I’m going for, which sucks for me and isn’t fair to you guys if I don’t respond simply for that reason. Basically, it’s a headache to have any substantive dialogue with tumblr’s system that was so clearly designed for shorter attention spans. We’re better than that, right?

What’s new?

As I just mentioned, it will be much easier to comment, for me to see your comment, respond and get a nice discussion going. This month is going to be full of the things I dislike about China, so I’m sure I’ll get a lot of flak for that and it will be a great opportunity to put WordPress through its paces. I tried to keep the design as zen as possible to reflect my minimalist values and make it easily navigable now that there’s a few pages. Feel free to look through the archives and subscribe in the sidebar!

What’s next?

Okay, some of you may remember me shooting my mouth off about a future ebook. That’s still coming, even if by this point it sounds like I’m talking out of my ass. This upgrade to Spartan Wanderer 2.0 was quite impromptu and began with me just fucking around with WordPress during a break from lesson planning. I liked what I saw. Everything was put on the back-burner until this was finished.

Moving to WordPress means a new audience and I want to make it easy for them to get caught up with us tumblr veterans. They, too, should be able to see my early, mediocre ramblings. While there is an archive on WordPress, I will be making a downloadable, offline version. New followers will be able to download every post from the beginning in 2011 to the end of 2013 from the Kindle Store.

After the archive is easily digestible for the masses, I will resume going full steam on the ebook. That’s all I’ll say about it until I’m closer to getting it up on the web. I haven’t thrown up a T-shirt design in a while, so more of those will be coming to Skreened soon. As far as material goes…well, hehe…don’t you worry. I’ll be going to Harbin’s famous ice festival soon, and shortly after that, partying in Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year.

Welcome!

This is where I write about longterm travel and the minimalist lifestyle that makes it easier to pursue and enjoy. I write anything from personal travelogues, to articles on interesting cultural stufftravel advicerants and reviews for helpful things in my pack. If I get a lot of questions or comments about a particular issue, I’ll write about that. Minimalism is a huge thing here, but I am not part of the establishment that is going to tell you to throw out everything but 100, or 50, or 25 things – with many stipulations excluding cookware and underwear and whatever other mental gymnastics they need to do to sleep at night – in order to be happy.

My only goal is to show as many people as possible how positive a force for good travel can be, and how that lifestyle can be achieved by anyone who wishes to pursue it. Anything beyond that is just gravy. So kick back, open a beer and join the journey. I assure you, it’s still quite young.

I’m about to leave the United States for a year.  It stands to reason that I can’t take everything with me.  Throughout college, before I went to Sweden, and then Iceland, I’ve had manic purges of my material possessions, so I already don’t have too much.  I’m now at a point in my minimalist journey that my spider sense starts tingling with just a quick glance around my room or into the closet.  I know when it’s time to get rid of stuff, and I’ve grown pretty adept at cycling out the old for the new.

Moving back home for ten months absent fear of not being able to get my rucksack on the plane without paying oversized baggage fees has left me complacent.  There’s a good deal I can part with before China, I just wasn’t ready for it before.  That’s the thing with decluttering; it has to be done in stages because there is always something you’re not willing to part with at any given moment.  Just give it time.  

I thought I’d give you an inside look at just how exactly I’m getting rid of my stuff this time around.  In my quest for carrying one bag into China I’ve risked the sketchiness of Craigslist, unloaded a few tomes at my local used bookstore, consigned clothes for cash, hocked old cellphones and even visited some pawn shops.  And of course, when I ran out of methods to achieve some personal gain for my clearing out, I reluctantly donated.

Craigslist

I have varying rates of success with Craigslist.  First of all, it really isn’t that sketchy.  Just use your brain.  If someone asks  you to meet them inside a condemned building at 11pm (not joking) it’s probably not a good idea.  You can usually judge by the wording of the emails if it’s a good offer.  I do usually discriminate by proper spelling and grammar.  This time around I’ve made off with about $100 from my CD collection and a few pieces of used hiking gear.  Not bad at all; just a few bucks shy of covering my visa fees.  

Used Bookstores

I frequent Edward McKay here in Greensboro, NC for my music and books, although recently I’ve been adding to my Kindle library.  Thanks to George R. R. Martin’s literary crack I have no time to trifle with going to a bookstore when more of Westeros is just a click away.  Ed McKay’s gives you the option of taking store credit or cash when you trade in books, CDs, DVDs and games.  If it’s a lot of cash, I’ll take it.  If it’s very little cash and a good amount of store credit, I’ll use the credit to get a book relevant to the country I’m about to go to.  Just search for used book stores in your area and I’m sure you’ll find something similar.  

Clothing Consignment

I try to be moderately fashionable, and I usually spring for higher-end clothing that I know is going to endure the rigors of travel a bit longer than cheaply made stuff.  It’s preferable to have one pair of super durable raw denim jeans over five pairs that are going to fall apart in a few months.  It does save money in the end.  Uptown Cheapskate is a high-end clothing consignment store in my area where I can buy as well as sell just the clothing I’m looking for. Right before I leave I’m going to exchange a big bag of clothes for store credit and hopefully pick-up an expedition-grade jacket from North Face before heading off to brave the -25 °F winter of Heilongjiang Province.  

Pawn Shops

In my experience, pawn shops feel even more awkward than a Craigslist transaction.  There are some that I would never venture into based on their exterior appearance.  And I guess there’s that connotation of desperation that’s rooted in their origins as an establishment where people who have fallen on hard times go to borrow credit by giving up their most prized possessions as collateral.  However, they’re still a great source of quick cash before a trip.  Before I went to Sweden I sold some old coins and a silver bar I had been holding onto for $400.  Not bad at all. I’ll definitely swallow my cynicism and paranoia to try this again before China.  

Old Mobiles

There are some mobile phone repair shops that will buy your old phone from you - even with a cracked screen and other defects - because they can strip them down for parts.  I sold my trusty HTC Incredible for a not-so-incredible $8, but there’s no use in having two phones, especially one with a cracked screen.  My little Razr flip phone from my roaring high school years fetched exactly $1.00.  I didn’t even walk away with a tenner but it’s the philosophy that counts.  Some of the shittier phones are spruced up and sent to troops overseas, so that’s nice.

Donation

I always save donation for last, not because I’m mean, but for the satisfaction of dropping off a bag of your last remaining excess stuff.  A weight is lifted and when you return home, and everything you see around you has some utilitarian purpose.  There’s no more useless fluff.  Also, you get that warm, fuzzy feeling from giving your things new life and knowing that someone that needs them much more than you will be able to use them.  

The Sensible Thing to Do

Predictably, I’m met with mixed reactions whenever I tell someone that I’m getting rid of all my stuff.  A lot of people understand immediately, because they themselves probably have a lot of clutter that needs chucking out too. But there’s always the other half, who are unaware or simply ambivalent to the rampant consumerism that is almost synonymous with the typical American lifestyle.  They ask “why” in a way that suggests they’re a bit confused or almost threatened in some way.  I’ll tell you why.

1. Everything I own has a purpose; there is no point to excess.  Life is easier when I know exactly where everything is for a given purpose.

2. I don’t have to worry about where I’m storing everything when I travel.  At the very most I’m only leaving behind a small plastic bin.

3. I can travel lightly.  At the most, I’ll only be moving through the airports of the world with one checked bag and one carry-on, even for long-term moves.

4. I have a clear idea of what I need.  There are no random shopping sprees sapping my bank account unless I have a legit reason for replacing something.  More fun money!

5. In addition to being very “zen”, this way of living has a lower environmental impact.  Nature takes less of a hit and I can travel lightly to see it more easily.

These are five main reasons I subscribe to the minimalist lifestyle of having less stuff.  I’m sure I could think of more if pressed.  For now, go here and here to read more about this type of thing.  Later on I will write a post specifically about packing for China and what exactly I’m taking with me to get through the year.  Until then, if you ever feel sad, remember there are trillions of cells in your body, and all they care about is you.

@spartanwanderer

I was sitting cross-legged in the grass on top of a bald in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, surrounded by blue, hazy vistas on all sides.  Kate and I relished in the satisfaction of the 4-mile hike it took to get there, and in each other.  We were together for the first time in 3 months.  I bit into a crisp apple, and let the crunch, the sweetness, the wind envelop me in a profound snapshot of self-actualization.  I was completely happy, burdened by nothing in the moment.

It seems like some people can access moments like these on the fly, while the rest of us struggle for that obscure and elusive notion that is happiness for our entire lives.  Are some people just naturally more happy?  Yes, actually.  Happiness is in our genes.  A staggering 50% of our happiness levels are determined by genetics.  On top of that, outside circumstances that are mostly beyond our control determine another 10%.  Well, shit, if you’re naturally not a very happy person, where does that leave you?

Fear not, we still have another 40% to play around with that comes from our intentional activities.  We’re indeed the masters of our own destinies.  Along my personal journey down the minimalist path over the years I’ve been trying to pin down some of these intentional activities so that I may be more mindful of life’s journey and, of course, happier along the way.  These are a few things that I’ve been doing lately to maximize my happiness level.

Count your blessings.

Okay, cheesy advice, I know.  But whenever I get stressed out about some complete first-world problem, after a little bit of reflection on what I have and just how easily my situation could be much worse…I feel better.  A couple of images out of Syria are enough to make that annoying thing at work you have to do a task to be embraced.  A lot of us really don’t know how well we’ve got it, and taking a step back and actually looking at all the positives relative to the rest of the world really make the not so great parts of life seem trivial and almost shameful to dwell on.

Don’t let happiness be determined by benchmarks.

Even up until very recently, I let my happiness be dependent on how much progress I was making at any given moment with my massive to-do list.  While I love making lists, this is one of their drawbacks.  They create a sense of urgency if there’s many items yet to be checked off, even if you have all the time in the world to complete them.  Then you just feel guilty if you’re trying to catch up on Game of Thrones when you could be writing a blog post.  Use the list as a tool and nothing more.  There’s no point in rooting your happiness in achieving some huge benchmark far off into the future because our grand to-do lists will always be changing, and you will find more happiness living in the moment anyway.

Draw a firm line between work and leisure.

This is so important!  As soon as I leave my job on Friday, I sign out of the school’s Gmail account on all of my devices.  I do not bring work home with me.  Even my writing, which I love to do, takes a backseat to cracking open a few cold ones on at least one day during the weekend.  Establish one day of the week that’s full of things you love to do.  Knock back some beers, go out with friends, hike up a mountain, or stay in and read a book.  Just don’t work, and try to avoid errands if it can be helped.  It’s your sanity day, and a leap forward to achieving an ideal work-life balance, something that’s sure to make us all a lot happier.

Go for a run.

I try to go running as much as possible.  Apart from the obvious health benefits, it does actually get you high.  Running, as well as sex, food, and pain, send a rush of endorphins to your brain.  Endorphins are basically a natural drug in your body that trigger the brain’s opioid receptors to ease pain or reward you for things like eating ice cream and getting laid.  Also for running.  I feel much happier after an hour-long run.  Endorphins aside, it gives me time to think.  I’ve probably worked out some of life’s biggest problems on long runs while falling inadvertently into deep pits of meditation.  The inner-peace and free Vicodin from my body both make me happier.

Sit and meditate for a spell.

Speaking of meditation, this is another action we can take to increase our happiness.  In fact, it’s actually been proven to rewire our brains to experience more positive emotion.  Now, there are several different types, from simple meditation of just focusing on your breathing or specific area of the body, to more complex states of analyzing your thoughts and emotions.  Ironically, hardcore meditators get worked up over what is and isn’t meditation.  Some say if you think too much, you’re doing it wrong, but I disagree.  I could write a whole post on meditation, and you know what?  I think I will next week.  Right now, just know that it will make you happier.

Rationalize life’s problems.

Stress can definitely eat away at our happiness, and we should keep it in check before it snowballs into something that creates frequent tension headaches.  Like most things, I prefer to use logic and reason to acknowledge the stuff I can control and the stuff I can’t.  I put my problems in their appropriate boxes.  Make a list.  One side has negative things (relationships, projects at work, diet, anything) that you can change, the other has things you can’t change.  Jot down ideas for how you will change the things you can, and how you can at least improve the situations that you can’t.  Systematically snipe away your stress in this way and become happier.

You Are in Control

So maybe we’re somewhat at the mercy of our genes when it comes to happiness.  But there are still so many things we can do to augment that 40% we have control over.  Think about what you have, even if you don’t have much, odds are you have more than you think.  Get out of your planning books for a while and worry only about the present day.  Learn how to separate your work from your downtime.  Chill hard when you can.  Running gets you high and meditation gets you enlightened.  Rationalize what stresses you out instead of letting it rule your world.  Try working some of these things into your life slowly and perhaps the filter you perceive life through will begin to gradually brighten.

For more on the science and different factors behind happiness, check out the super interesting documentary Happy on Netflix.

 

I’m concluding Minimalist Month with a post that is going to seem really cutthroat and make me look like a cold dude, but I promise there is virtue in it.  What’s left to cut out of our lives after excessive material things and unnecessary, time-consuming obligations?

Relationships.

Unnecessary, unproductive, unfulfilling, time-consuming, toxic relationships.

We’re social creatures, and Maslow argues that one of our core needs is love. Friendship, a sense of belonging, sexual intimacy; stuff I would never say is a bad thing.  They’re all great things.  Which is precisely the reason we go rushing in, head down, into relationships without thinking.  We crave them to get us over the next ladder rung on the way to self-actualization.

The result is a few great relationships, several moderate meh’s, and some outliers that provide little reward in exchange for a lot of work.  The minimalist should be mindful of who he or she decides to give his or her time to.  The aim is to clear the chaff until we’re left with great relationships, and to continue to pursue relationships that have the potential to be great.

Do not enter into or continue a relationship with an individual (friend, buddy, bro, significant other or otherwise) if…

…they create or facilitate drama.

Drama.  A lot of people secretly love and crave it.  I personally hate it.  It’s a time-waster, especially if it arises out of some pseudo-problem that is commonly generated to satiate someone’s need for drama in the first place to make their life interesting.  Every time I have offered to listen to what sort of drama a friend has gotten themselves into, a pattern emerges that breaches all genders and age groups. It’s all self-inflicted.  Sure, we all have our problems, but going on about the juicy details, developing a cast of characters without even hearing their side of the story and subsequently praising them or demonizing them is far from a productive solution.  Find some friends that value more in life than this petty he-said, she-said shit.

…you need them to be a source of validation.

Basing your actions on the approval or disapproval of others is a great way to limit yourself.   If you told your entire network of friends that you were moving to China to teach English for a year, how would they react?  Hopefully, regardless of how crazy they thought you had become, they would encourage you, because that’s what a true friend would do.  Asking for advice is one thing, but letting your big decisions and goals in life depend on the weight of someone’s words is not healthy.  Requiring their approval for whatever reason will crush your potential and hold you back from major achievements in life.  If you can’t break your dependence on their opinion, it’s best to sever the relationship.

…they’re a black hole of negativity.

This type of person can take on many shapes and forms.  It could be the average Debbie downer, negative Nancy, or Dolorous Ed, or they could be as hostile as a black hole of negativity that strives to hold everyone around them down their level.  These sorts of people are the embodiment of the old adage, misery loves company.  Stay away from them.  Negativity and minimalism simply do not go together.

…it’s just out of habit.

I can’t think of many worse reasons to continue a relationship that has ran its course.  Different people experience personal growth and evolution at a varying rates, and it’s only natural that we sometimes outgrow our friends.  It can be a painful thing to realize, but it happens.  Pursuing continuity in stagnated relationships will burn your time as you try to feign interest in interests that have diverged from your own over the years.  Luckily, these things usually come to a natural termination as you lose touch over time because of your growing apart, but it may be up to you to end your association and seek out more like-minded individuals.

The Great Facebook Cull

The easiest way to start untethering from toxic or simply outdated relationships is to thin your herd of Facebook “friends.”  First of all, how many of these people are actually your friends?  The last time I had a Facebook culling, I even found people I rather disliked on my friends list.  Social media is great, but it has begun to redefine friendship and reduce it’s meaning down to a very disingenuous level.  It’s a great tool to keep in touch with friends abroad, as well as friends back home, but our friends lists should reflect our attitude towards relationships in the real world.  Simply pare it down to meaningful relationships, even ones that exist solely online.  A great time to do this is during any major election.  Keep Facebook open; the ones that fell through the cracks will slowly reveal themselves.

Less People More Enrichment

The crux of minimalism is less is more.  This concept works with virtually everything, including the amount of people we spread our time across at a given moment.  If we strive for a concentrated network of people who value us as much as we value them, support us, encourage us, and hold us accountable, all the while engaging us in stimulating, thought-provoking conversation, then we are on the right track.  

But I guess I could just be a cold bastard that doesn’t have time for petty bullshit.  I’m going back to my cave now.  Have a nice day!

Remember Myspace?  Say what you will about it now, but when it first debuted, teenage Seth was all over that.  Fast-forward only a few years into the future and no one uses Myspace anymore, but social media sites are a dime a dozen.  They’re making the world smaller, revolutionizing professional relationships, and even changing how we define friendship.

It’s almost dizzying how quickly social media has risen from an instrument of teenage drama on the web to a tool so powerful that it can spearhead movements like the Arab Spring.  In addition to their prominence in our daily lives, they seem to have multiplied in number on a massive scale.  Perhaps I’m not speaking for myself alone when I say it can be overwhelming at times.

That’s why I decided to take a moment (more like days) to declutter my digital self this week.  To achieve social media zen, if you will (omg that’s the title).  I set a few standards for myself before taking this on, frankly because I didn’t really know where to begin.  Let me be clear that this was pretty time-consuming, and I’m still not completely finished, so good luck if you decide to take this on as well!

1. Be Friends with Friends - For all of the utility of social networking sites, I really hate the way they have basically redefined friendship.  That’s not just my opinion either; friend as a verb is now listed in Merriam-Webster.  The first standard I set for myself was to be friends with people I actually care about on Facebook, only follow interesting people on Google+, and connect only with people that share my professional interests on LinkedIn.

I went from about 360 friends to about 230.  It was amazing to find people that I actually rather disliked in my friend list.  If you go through your friends, I’m sure you’ll find the same, along with complete strangers, people from high school that you’ll never see again, and the sources of all those annoying status updates and app requests that you could really give a flying blue truck about.  Clear out the chaff and enjoy a more entertaining, relevant, and interesting feed.

2. Bury Lewd Photos - There are some nights out that we frankly feel proud of the amount of debauchery we’ve achieved.  The next morning, you see an ominous notification, “So And So tagged you in a photo.”  You click your mouse with fingers full of dread.  I have had such photos pop up from my time in Sweden and Iceland, photos with an assortment of drinks in front of me and an expression of unrestrained joy on my face.  I downloaded them for a nice memory and promptly removed the tags.

We live in an age where some Joe at a company you may be planning to work for is paid to check out your digital self.  Freelancers, we are not immune.  Partying is fun, and is awesome when done in moderation.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of buzz kills out there that don’t feel the same way, so these photos have a high potential to damage your professional appearance.  I think I hold future employment in higher regard than cred.

3. Digital Facelift - Someone once told me that they only filled out the bare minimum when it came to forms on social media sites.  She said that if someone important was looking at her digital self, then she wanted as little room for strikes against her as possible.  First, I think this is lazy.  Second, I think the opposite is true.  Completing your profiles essentially provides future employers with more information, information you may not have been able to fit on your resumé.  You never know, the fact that you like Sígur Rós might give you a competitive advantage.

I’m usually pretty good about this, being a little neurotic about putting everything in its right place occasionally.  Things do get stale, however, and I’m working on updating everything, especially my personal statement on just about every site and my portfolio on Behance.  There are some sites I don’t even use anymore, and I’m working towards getting those accounts deleted.  I prefer not having a part of my self floating around in the information super-highway if it’s not being used.

Social media has rooted itself into our lives, whether we like it or not.  Checking Facebook and email in the morning is not far off from brushing your teeth or putting the coffee on.  While self-control is a topic for another day and a battle I still fight myself, cutting out the digital chaff is important now, and something we should all focus on.  Cleanliness is next to godliness after all.  Who says that can’t apply to our digital space as well? 

NOTE: To clarify, in this post social media includes networking sites, email, and content-sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo, as well as music sites such as Pandora, lastfm, and Spotify.

Cycling through Lund at night (4pm) is nothing short of bewitching.  Maybe it’s the sound of friction as my tires bounce over the cobblestones, or being transported back in time as I pass the imposing cathedral.  I jolt back to the present when a SJ-2000 screeches along the tracks of the bridge I am currently gliding under.  Probably coming back from Malmö or Copenhagen.  Surely it will be picking up revelers eager to celebrate lilla fredag.  I’m craving a drink myself, but not one containing ethanol compounds, no, not tonight.

Tonight I’m after a different compound, one that has been near and dear to me since before alcohol had passed my lips: glorious caffeine.  Tonight is my regular social fika.  I think I’ve only missed one since I’ve been in Lund.  And why would I?  Coffee, sweets, good company and music are to be had, and on a bitterly cold night with icy rain in the forecast, I can’t think of a place I’d rather be.

The sheer novelty that this particular fika is hosted by a metal band only improves the atmosphere.  There is slew of international students here, comprising an eclectic group of Chinese, Germans, Austrians, Slovenians, Americans, and of course, Swedes.

Everyone brings something to contribute.  Dark Times impresses by pouring darkness, death, destruction, and love into a different Swedish baked good every week.  The coffee is as black as the music they play, but as sweet as their hearts.

The iPod is passed around, but only after the inaugural playing of “Rockin’ in the Free World” at 17:30 sharp, every week.  We swap different tastes in music as we talk about our days and study each other’s differences.

The coffee, the sweets, music, stories, languages, and laughter come together to fuel an amazing microcosm of cultural exchange I have come to love and enjoy every Thursday.  The Facebook event gives the night a 2-hour time slot, but everyone always stays late.

I don’t know if Dark Times intended to create such an institution to further international understanding, unity, and friendship, or if they simply wanted to be the most unique metal band in the world.  One thing is certain: x number of years from now when they’re famous, every face-melting note I hear will remind me of kaffe, kanelbullar, and kompanionship.  See what I did there?

But Seth, What is Fika?

I can brag on Sweden all day.  Rather, I have, if you’ve been reading at all.  What’s not to like about free healthcare, zippy public transportation, and the joy of actually seeing your tax dollars go to work?

However, the enigmatic Scandinavian atmosphere would be lost without the coffee culture.  Sweden trails behind only the other Nordic countries when it comes to coffee consumption per capita.  I’ve never consumed caffeine at such a rate as when I was living in Lund.  This is mostly due to an awesome social institution known as fika, or kafferep in some circles.

Similar to the Spanish siesta with opposing results, the goal is the same: take some time in the day to decompress, get your shit together, and start the latter half of the day with a clear mind.  

Between 1 and 4pm, the coffee houses are packed and Swedes are chilling in the park with the sweet, caffeinated goodness.  This is in addition to your lunch break, I should add.

Lazy Europeans, right?  Oh contraire.  While Sweden has its fair share of companies that are doing poorly in these crazy economic times, they are doing so well right now that economists and entire nations are studying them as a model to figure some way out of the Eurozone crisis.

Everyone needs a sanity hour, and it seems to work for the Swedes.  Maybe if more employers recognized the perfectly human need to power down for a bit, we could be more productive as well.  HINT, HINT.

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