Every year I make an intentional effort to take a month-long vacation, and every year I have different outcomes that I am hoping to achieve from such a trip. The intentions are all similarly themed, though: I want to rid myself of the ‘day-to-day’ tasks, meetings, and responsibilities, in an effort to give my mind the freedom it needs to see more clearly.
Last year’s goal was to find inner peace through meditation, which I wrote about in my blog post here (I’m still an avid meditator, by the way!). This year’s goal: to understand where my agitation and anxiety was coming from throughout 2020.
So, I hope to share with you, the reader, my life journey with nothing left out so that you too may be able to find the most important goal in life: joy.
If you want a run-of-the-mill self-help guide, Tony Robbins is your guy! However, if you want to hear more about my [international] DJ set at a pool party, the tattoo I got from a man in the jungle, how I found philosophy, my car almost being stolen, and how I found happiness, please, read on :).
2020, Forever Etched In History
I often wonder: what will 2020 look like when looking back on it 50 years from now? It was an unprecedented year in our modern era of the world, and one that will have a lasting hold on our memories for many years to come. For me, it was one with many unanswered questions seemingly unrelated to COVID-19:
- What’s the purpose of life?
- What’s the end goal?
- What will I look back upon and be proud of when I’m 80?
- Am I happy?
… and so many more that I had no answers to. I consider myself a driven businessman professionally, so to have no answers readily at my fingertips was increasingly consuming me.
I sought help from my amazing performance coach, Phil Towle, I tried increasing my meditation schedule, I took short 1-week vacations throughout the year, and I spent a great deal of time simply sitting on this thought in my head, but none of these were “clicking.” Something was missing.
Looking back at 2020, I realize that this void of answers was the cause of my increased anxiety and agitation. I experimented with and theorized many ideas about the cause, such as: blaming COVID-19 and the lack of social life, disagreements with my girlfriend, work being all-consuming, and an inability to travel (one of my greatest loves). None of these things were hitting the mark, so I kept seeking… and my anxieties kept increasing.
So, although I was in a weird place at this time, I booked my Costa Rica trip three weeks in advance and made the following plans for when I was there: do nothing.
Doing Nothing and Having No Expectations
Speaking with my performance coach, I asked him: ‘what intentions should I go into this trip with so I can hopefully resolve some of these unanswered questions?’. His answer was bliss: ‘Don’t go with any expectations. Let life take its course and enjoy each and every moment’. Easier said than done!
A year ago, I wrote the same problem in my meditation blog post: I can’t slow my mind down. There’s always another problem to solve, another dollar to make, another decision that could be better, and a future to plan for. So, like my daily life, I wanted this trip to be the same: well planned out, with some goal at the end. But, I refused and heeded (‘take heed of’ for you Office fans) Phil’s advice.
The timeline of events below brings you with me to my discovery of happiness.
I arrived at Jaco Beach, Costa Rica, on January 10. I woke up the next morning and immediately got to surfing with Tortugas Surf Camp. I surfed and I surfed and I surfed for the first seven days there. This picture was taken later in the trip when I decided to surf a little too much…
In between my surf times, I found a book that I’ve since recommended to probably every single person that has run into me 🙂 :
And wow, did this book change my life. It all sums up to the ‘Happiness Equation’ the author writes
“Happiness is greater than or equal to: your perception of Events minus your Expectations of how life should be.
Which means that if you perceive the events as equal to or greater than your expectations, you’re happy – or at least not unhappy. But here’s the trick: it’s not the event that makes us unhappy; it’s the way we think about it that does.”
After the first week my girlfriend, Georgie, showed up and we spent the following week… doing nothing! We read, cooked food, and swam in the pool, but most importantly, we didn’t plan anything out, and we certainly were not glued to our phones.
All the while, I am practicing the teachings the book above taught me, and I am starting to see some remarkable results…
A week of nothingness
After my girlfriend left, I moved onto a secluded beachside Airbnb to get away from society as much as I could. For this week, I set my mind out to do, quite literally, nothing for a period of 3 days (and again: no computer or phone for the majority of the seven days – super important!).
I ask you, when is the last time you sat with your thoughts and did not read, use your phone, write, talk, or do ANYTHING besides sit and stare? Have you done this recently for:
- 30 minutes?
- 6 hours?
- A full day?
… I underestimated how often I had done this: never
Yes, I meditated for seven days without reading, writing, talking, but there’s something important to note about meditation: it’s not ‘doing nothing,’ but instead you are focusing on remaining in the present moment (by focusing on your breath, or other techniques similarly). This contradicts ‘doing nothing,’ which requires you to be with your mind and let it do what it pleases.
When I was approaching these three days of nothingness (one of the days was a full day meditation with the same group I meditated with last year), I experimented with the “30 minutes of nothing” to taste it. Wow… when I realized I couldn’t do it because I wanted to: pick up my phone, go to my book, stand up and do some random chore… or just do anything, it became clear to me that I had a problem. I couldn’t sit still with my mind!
So, I encourage you all to pause here in your reading and put a timer on your phone for 15-30 minutes. And sit there. Stare at your wall, look at your interior decor, close your eyes, or whatever suits you, but be sure to do nothing. Reflect on this exercise afterward and ask yourself: how uncomfortable was it? If you did it with no sweat and those 30 minutes went by fast, then you’re in great shape! Like me, if you found it extremely uncomfortable, then I hope you see the same concerns I had when I saw it.
Why this occurs, I can only speculate: social media (check out The Social Dilemma on Netflix if you haven’t already), American culture for achieving more, more, more, physiological, or a number of other stimulations that have entered our lives in the modern era. Whatever it is, I am out to solve for it and be less reliant on external functions and stimulations to make me happy and instead be happy with just being.
In my last days of this Airbnb, I started reading a book recommended by our COO, Derek Knorr: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.
And alas, this was the final piece of the puzzle. To trace back briefly, the following has happened up to this point in my journey:
- I found the book Solve for Happy and had been practicing its teachings regarding our perceptions of events vs. our expectations of how life should be.
- I identified a lack of calamity in my mind that had to be tackled head-on through an intense, or lack thereof, three days of nothingness.
- And finally, I found philosophy through Stoicism.
I am by far not the best person to speak about ‘what is Stoicism’ and such questions, so I highly recommend signing up for this email newsletter (free) to catch you up to speed: https://dailystoic.com/new-start-here/.
It is, to me, though, the final cherry on top of my journey on this trip. The Stoics, thousands of years ago, say the same things that Solve for Happy is saying: it’s not the event itself that affects us, but rather how we perceive it. <- read that again!
Once I truly understood this meaning through these two books, everything started to click.
My unhappiness was being created by none other than myself!
Putting It Into Practice
Two monumental events occurred that allowed me to practice the teachings I had just learned. The Neil before this trip would have handled them very differently, but the Neil now had one job left: prove that these ideas work in reality.
[International] DJ Set
I dabble in the art of DJing. My partner, Forfeit (Reed Hanke), is by far the better musician, but we enjoy our DJorts sets when they come around :). So, on this trip, I decided to bring all of my DJ equipment with me and had some great time playing at the beachside Airbnb mentioned above:
On the last week of my trip, my friend, Seth, joined me, and we went to a hostel in Puerto Viejo. One day we were eating, and we overheard a couple of people saying the DJ the hostel lined up couldn’t make it and that they were looking for a new DJ. And, what a coincidence, I have my equipment with me! What a great and fun opportunity that it would be for me to play a show at a poolside party in Costa Rica, right?!
I’m an introvert by nature (some people are surprised by this, but I promise it’s true!). So, the opportunity to play a solo set that I had less than 24 hours to prepare for was the opposite of what I wanted to do! As my friend prodded me that I had to seize this fantastic opportunity, my anxiety to perform grew more and more.
And that’s where my teachings came in. I went to the place where Stoics know best: journaling.
Below you’ll find the raw notes I wrote to myself leading up to the moment I told the hostel staff I’d do the set. These notes were not intended to be shared, so they are as raw as they can get:
Anxiety: I am nervous to DJ -> why?
- Because I don’t have a lot of practice
- I’m afraid of being humiliated by messing up
- I don’t want to be ‘rejected’ by peers
Step 1: Factual: ‘I am going to DJ at 1’
Step 2: [in regard to the 3 points above]
1 – So what? It’s an easy set and even good DJs (Big Bootie) have shitty transitions
2 – What next? -> I’ll be awkward around Selina [hostel] because it was bad -> What next -> Seth and I will hang out by ourselves anyways, or could always go to a beach -> then we check out super early in the morning and I won’t see these people again – good practice before a real show!
3 – Peers I will never see again! I couldn’t ask for a better time to practice and strengthen my fear of rejection!
Step 3: How can I use this to strengthen my character?
- Facing things I normally hide from (public embarrassment) which will tell my mind that I can do it!
- Continue to fight my fear of rejection: who cares what others think?!
Why do I care? That I won’t have friends or they’ll laugh at me -> but I’m leaving tomorrow anyways and it doesn’t affect my friends back home
- could be a funny story on how bad it was 🙂
- Best DJs even mess up and have bad sets – it’s normal!!
- have fun and don’t let Unhappiness take that away -> 1 life to live -> pura vida.
(click here to see full screen)
And what happened after this? I told them I would perform, I prepared the set in less than 6 hours, and in my humble opinion, I crushed it!
Lost keys; Stolen car
The second instance of applying my teachings happened a short few hours after the DJ Set. Like many Americans, I indulge in the excitement of the Super Bowl. So, to no surprise to many who know me well, I had a fun night at the bars with various hostel friends from around the world.
Seth and I had to be on the road by around 8 am to make it to get our COVID tests so we could fly back to the States in the following days. As we rolled out of bed around 7:30, I looked around and told Seth: “Uhm, I think I lost our keys last night.”
The old Neil would have processed things this way:
- “We’re not going to be able to get our COVID test and will have to skip on our rafting tour the following day to get it – grrr!!”
- “I’m going to have to pay Alamo a ton of money for a replacement key.”
- “We’re going to be stuck in this town for another day and miss out on our Airbnb in the other city, costing us more money!”
- “Someone could have taken the keys, and as a worst-case scenario, stole it!” (someone I talked to a couple of months ago said this actually happened to them, so it wasn’t impossible!)
But, I was primed and ready for this moment.
Solve for Happy teaches us the following, which I broke down this way:
- Your perception of Events
- I perceived the event as it was (I’ll go into more detail on this below): it is what it is. There is no changing that I lost my keys, and thus there is no reason to fret.
- Your expectations of how life should be
- Do keys get lost? All the damn time. Why am I so special for it to be any different? Shit happens, and life moves on!
Stoicism teaches the following, which I applied accordingly on top:
You can’t change the past, so why fret over it? The keys are lost (fact). We will get new ones (fact). We will get our COVID test and still make it home (fact). Why cause further unhappiness by applying emotions to all the “what ifs” and the “this sucks!!”?
… and off we went, hiking over a mile into the city where the car was parked from the previous night, not a worry in the world. We were in paradise, what could possibly be bad!?
We approached the lone car in the parking lot, and, as the Happiness Equation would teach us: as long as our expectations are low, our chances of happiness are increased…. And there they were, the keys left in the center console with the doors unlocked.
Pura Vida, Baby!
Costa Ricans have a term they’re widely known for: pura vida, which translates to “pure life” or “simple life.” This site explains it best:
“Costa Ricans (Ticos) use this term to say hello, to say goodbye, to say everything’s great, to say everything’s cool. However, it is not the words that reflect the true meaning of ¡Pura Vida!. Pura Vida is the way Ticos live. Not surprisingly, Costa Rica has been named one of the happiest countries in the world, mostly because its inhabitants don’t stress about things the way most foreigners do. Ticos have a very relaxed, simple way of looking at life. No worries, no fuss, no stress—pura vida to them means being thankful for what they have and not dwelling on the negative.”
Throughout my trip, I was bombarded with this saying everywhere. Billboards, locals talking, toll booth operators were saying it to me, and more. Yet, even though it was in plain sight, it wasn’t until the final days of my trip that I realized: this is what I was seeking all along. Phil was right. I needed to let life take its course, and everything would work out.
And this saying was the final gift I received from this trip. I finally had a clearer (although not complete) picture of what life should be:
Simple and pure. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Life moves on.
(tattoo from a random WhatsApp artist in the jungle…)