Inner compass

(Image by my favorite Nicholas Stathopoulos)

I’m sure I am not the only person on earth who is always thinking to herself, “Oh my god, oh my god, I’m alive! Against all odds, I’m here. Wow, wow, wow.”

This confused wonder at my sheer existence started when I was a kid. Today a lot of the energy that I put into my life comes from this deeply-rooted amazement at the fact that I am alive – not juat that, but I am an actual human being who lives on a little rock called Earth. This rock doesn’t just spin on its axis, it also rotates around the sun at the freaking insane speed of 30km/sec.


My body, and everything else in this world, is made up of atoms. The general consensus is that the particles that make up an atom – protons, neutrons and electrons – were first formed out of the Big Bang, an event that also created time and space and Earth itself. I’m amazed, but I’m only pretending to understand what that means, because how does anything create time and space? How?!

And atoms, when you further split them, become particles called quarks that behave strangely and are so mind-blowingly tiny they measure 10-15 meters wide, meaning one millimeter of space can contain a trillion quarks.

Take a moment to let that fact sink into your consciousness.

So the world is not as mundane as we think it is.

Our lives are not as mundane as we think they are.

Sometimes when I get tired of life (there are certainly moments haha), I find myself thinking of all these and some perspective returns, and I’m reminded: Life is a delicious mystery and everything is weird and strange and yet,

I’m here. You are here.

That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?

Spiritual leaders like to ask us to wake up. But they might be right – we need to wake up to just how cool it is to be a human being.

Because we’re here, we can do things. We have a mind (another weird thing) and we can think. We have time (weird, so weird), which is a sort of concept/idea, but it feels so real that our entire lives are anchored upon it.

(Does time exist? I don’t know. The world’s smartest people are still debating about it.)

When we walk, we walk through this wonderful thing we call space, which is actually made up of atoms, with atoms themselves made up of mostly space, so can someone tell me what the hell is really going on?

And while here, we can fall in love, despair, dream, imagine.

The most epic thing of all: We can use our free will and actions to create change both in this world and within ourselves. We are small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but we’re far far far from powerless. In fact I dare say we’re pretty magical beings, because we can alter reality (although we don’t usually think of it this way).

So that’s the basis of my thought process when it comes to contemplating about how to go about this whole life thing. I can’t help but lean towards the idea that I am very privileged to be here to experience all of this magic, and since I am here, I  might as well have a decent go at it.

But how? How do we know we are doing life right?

If you ask me, at this moment in time, with my limited, limited wisdom, here is what I understand: We all have an inner compass. When we listen to it and act accordingly (the key point here is to act), we are guided in the direction towards wherever we need to be.

It sounds really frilly, but let me use Darius Foroux’s definition of a good life to further illuminate my point:

“To me, living properly means that I’m satisfied with my life. That I can look myself in the mirror, and genuinely say, ‘I like my life.'”

Without knowing it, I realized I have also been navigating and measuring my life in this rather simple and clear-cut way.

Thinking about whether my life is satisfying to me and whether I like my life helps me to find my way through life, even if as metrics they feel vague to others. Perhaps some things cannot be properly measured, but if we can be genuinely honest with ourselves when answering these two questions, we will somehow find the answer from deep within our hearts. This is how I activate my inner compass.

Did I like my life when I didn’t know what I was good at? No. I didn’t like my life either when I was working in a job I didn’t like. I didn’t like my life when I didn’t understand how I fit into this world. I didn’t like my life when I had no savings and had to live hand-to-mouth.

And I don’t like my life when I don’t have the time to create. I don’t feel satisfied when I don’t have good relationships with the people I love. I don’t like my life when I go too fast and forget to fully taste the current moment. I’m not satisfied when all I do is work and earn money. I don’t like my life when I don’t get to read or go to the library. And I certainly don’t like my life when I try to be happy all the time.

Whatever I didn’t like, I changed. Every time I changed, I moved in a direction I was supposed to go. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t foresee what was going to come next. All I knew was that I had to change, so I took action. If I didn’t like that I didn’t have time to create, for example, I would try to find time, or acknowledge that it’s really my excuses that are stopping me from creating, and not because of an actual lack of time.

My inner compass would do its job, and I would listen and act accordingly.

For me, it’s very simple – I change until I am living a satisfying life that I genuinely like. It’s a direction I’m always trying to move towards. (It’s a work-in-progress, of course, and I fail more often than I succeed.)

So these two very simple questions…

1. Am I satisfied with my life?
2. Do I genuinely like my life?

… are at the core of my inner compass.

I remind myself constantly that there is only the individual path and no universal path. I don’t have to be like anyone else, and I have to always discover my path for myself.

And this is all things go: My path gets clearer over time. Then it gets muddled. Then it gets clearer again. The struggle is the path; it’s okay. Half the time I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m still trying and life is still glorious and I’d still rather be alive on a small rock in the middle of nowhere than dead.

As a way to end the article, I’d just like to note that happiness is not the point at all. I know we all instinctively seek happiness, but to be happy, we cannot make happiness a goal; happiness can only be a by-product of living a good and meaningful life.

As for what good and meaningful entail, that will take us a whole lifetime – or more – to find out, but that’s the whole point of this grand adventure we call life, I think.

How to read for two hours a day

Reading is one of the fundamental activities of my life.

I go to the library at least once or twice a week and order used books at great discounted prices from Better World Books about once a month. My dream is to live among books, which I already am doing in a way, whereas my life-long dream is to be the owner of a bookstore 😉

Home or library?

But for the longest time my problem has been, “too many books, not enough time”. People who love to read will be familiar with this problem. There are so many books you want to read, ten lifetimes won’t be enough. And there are always so many other things to do and deal with in life. How to find time to even read?

Then it hit me. It isn’t that I don’t have time to read, it’s that I simply don’t spend enough time reading. Instead I spend 2 hours here watching Netflix, 1 hour there aimlessly surfing through social media. Why not spend all that time reading instead?

So I quit my social media habit. I still post stuff, I still need my social media accounts to market my work as a photographer, sometimes I check the accounts of my friends and family to see what they are up to, but I don’t scroll through the feeds anymore. Mainly because I find the activity pointless (not to mention super boring), and also because that time can be put to so much better use.

Now I have an additional two to three hours a day to read, which I can then use to plough through the many, many thick, solid, intimidating titles that have been on my to-read list for the longest time: “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, “An Intimate History of Humanity” by Theodore Zeldine, “Einstein: His Life & Universe”, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, etc.

Having so much more time to read a day also alleviates my I-will-never-be-able-to-read-everything anxiety. Sure, I still can’t read every book in the world, but at the very least I can get through many more books than if I were reading for just 30 minutes a day or every other day.

I am hugely inspired by Joseph Campbell, who famously spent 9 hours reading a day for 5 years.

And Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, who is undoubtedly ungodly busy but still has time to read voraciously and write about what he has read on his reading blog, gatesnotes.

My ever expanding bookshelf, organised into different categories: Religion, Philosophy, Psychology, Personal Development, Travel, Science, Memoirs, English Literature & fiction, Design, Photography, Sports, Personal Finance & Business…

As you might have figured out by now, I’m a nerd.

I read not only because it’s enjoyable to read (and it is, because words are delicious) but also because I want to understand more about myself and the world.

I want to know more about my brain, my body, my behavior, my compulsions. I want to learn more about what money is, how governments work, what the economic machine really means in our lives. I want to dive into big history, learn about how human beings came to be human beings, and gain a tiny morsel of knowledge about things like quantum physics and DNA. I want to go into the fascinating heads of Nina Simone, Elliott Smith, Joni Mitchell. I want to see how all things connect in this world.

I think I am so hungry to learn because I am hungry to live. My excitement for life feeds directly into my quest for knowledge through the simple act of reading.

The practical side of me also likes to read and pick up knowledge that I can directly apply to my life.

Reading was my gateway to meditation, swimming, running. Believe it or not, I started by reading about these activities rather than doing them. Why? Because when I can understand their philosophy and history, these activities become richer, more enjoyable and even more interesting to me.

To end, here’s a quote about how to read by fellow nerd Joseph Campbell:

“Reading what you want, and having one book lead to the next, is the way I found my discipline. I’ve suggested this to many of my students: When you find a writer who really is saying something to you, read everything that writer has written and you will get more education and depth of understanding out of that than reading a scrap here and a scrap there and elsewhere. Then go to people who influenced that writer, or those who were related to him, and your world builds together in an organic way that is really marvelous.”

PS: Follow my reading adventure on Goodreads. I’m also thinking of reviewing the books I have read on my blog like Bill Gates does, so look out for that if you are into this type of thing!