The important work we do

Growing up, I was unaware of the world and the scope and depth of its problems; I thought they only happened far away, and to other people. But as an adult, like many of my friends, I feel complicit in the world’s problems today, even as I want to make things better.

We feel, I think, mostly guilt. Guilt, for our privilege. Guilt, for our ignorance. Guilt, for not doing more.

I’ve had to work through these feelings—not only guilt, but also sadness, grief, anger, anxiety—and talk myself through why this is not a healthy and productive way to be. I thought I’d write a little about my inner resolution here.

In a broken world (we must admit that we live in a broken world, and not continue to sugar-coat reality), we all have important work to do and things to rebuild.

But we see people like Malala and we think we could never be like her. The bar is too high. We see people who build NGOs, volunteer at Médecins Sans Frontières, work at the front-lines of hospitals to combat COVID-19, protest on the streets at the risk of being imprisoned, get into local politics in order to change legislations, and we think… these people are doing important work, and we’re not.

But I’m here to write, to propose, that we are all doing important work, and that we can all do important work without being stuck in the usual definition of what “important work” is.

My friend who runs a cafe is doing important work, by filling people’s bellies with coffee and people’s hearts with love. Her work is important because she chooses to infuse it with meaning, by building community and always striving to do right by her customers. Her work of brewing coffee and making sure her shop runs smoothly builds people’s faith in the goodness of other people, and that’s important work, even though it’s not grand.

I have another friend who spends most of her time helping her family and friends with chores and errands. People come to her with their problems and she helps to solve them. Sometimes it’s a website that needs to be done, sometimes it’s a social media post, sometimes it’s a relationship problem. She always finds time to help, and she always helps at the expense of her own time. Important work, but not grand.

Important work can be unnoticeable or below-the-radar, and it doesn’t have to pay. I think of my newsletter as important work, even though nobody pays me to write and I only have 500 subscribers. I believe this work is important because I get to help people feel better or see another point of view. Sometimes, not all the time, and not with everyone. But even though my audience (and my impact) is tiny, I see my writing as important work because it adds something positive to the world, rather than subtract from it.

The other important work we can do is to take care of ourselves. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that the way to build peace in the world is to build peace in ourselves first, because we are all inter-connected. If I am depressed, unhealthy, angry, I cannot help others. As they say, “Happy people help people.” And guess what? Even if a happy person doesn’t go out of her way to help others, she is already helping by not adding to the problems of the world.

Another important work we can do is to educate ourselves, to never stop learning. The more we learn, the more we can unlearn (and there’s much to unlearn). When we adopt an attitude of, “I really don’t know much of anything,” we become perpetual students and less inclined to force other people to adopt the same views as us, since we hardly know anything. Can you imagine a world where most people spend their time learning rather than fighting? I want to live in that world.

Finally, let your passion and your curiosity lead you to doing work that you care for. If someone tells you that passion doesn’t pay, that you’re wasting your time, ask in return, “Then what does a passion-less life pay?” Work fueled by passion and curiosity will always be important because it’s rooted in a sense of “right-ness”. No words can describe it; it just feels like the right thing to do. This important work doesn’t have to be a job; it can be something you do on the side. It all counts.

In summary: Dissolve the guilt. Do the work, whatever work it might be, and be proud of yourself, because you’re building and not destroying. No matter how small your work is, believe that it is contributing to a bigger chain of events that is making the world better. If we feel called to go to a war-torn country to volunteer our talent, we should do it. But if we feel called to do work that’s not as grand, that’s wonderful too.

I wish you courage and strength in continuing to do the important work that you’re doing.

(Originally published via my newsletter.)

There is no reward

Human beings are at our core deeply creative; it seems, even if we don’t fully understand why, that we are here to make things, conjure stuff from out of nowhere. The energy that arises from the act of doing creative work is life-giving, joyful, pure.

Some of us of course desire to be recognised for our creative work. We attach our identity, even our happiness, to the reception of our creative work by the outside world.

Nick Drake was a very talented singer-songwriter who was active in the 60s and 70s, but during his lifetime, neither of his records sold more than 5,000 copies. This lack of success drove him to a dark, unrelenting depression. He died of an overdose of antidepressant medication in 1976, at the young age of 26, his talent buried, his name barely known.

In 2000, “Pink Moon” — the title track of one of his albums — was used in a Volkswagen advertisement and his songs began to explode in popularity. Posthumous sales of his records far exceeded those in his lifetime. He had made it. His talent was finally being recognised. But he was now dead for 24 years.

If Nick had become popular during his lifetime, would he have continued to be depressed? Does being popular, being accepted by the mainstream, have any bearing on whether he made good or bad music? Should he have stopped making music while he was still alive, since the reception was so bad (or rather, nonexistent)?

These questions are mostly unanswerable today but they are good food for thought. They help us to ask ourselves similarly difficult and confronting questions about art-making, success, money, public opinion, and the meaning of life.

We are made to create — I believe this is a self-evident truth. (And remember, “create” is a word that spans categories; one can create songs and paintings and novels as much as one can create connections, create spreadsheets, create businesses.) But must we connect our creativity to success? To financial rewards? To our self-esteem?

Is it possible to create in the purest sense of the word, which is to create for the sake of creating, without hoping for any reward to come our way?

This is what I propose, that we — creators of all stripes — learn to move forward on our creative paths with a sort of harmonic duality.

We create because we want to, because we are made to do it, because it is our calling.

If it is our desire to be conventionally recognised for our work, we must then be willing to treat our creative work as a profession, as a business even, and learn to market ourselves, do consistent work, connect with our audience, build visibility and relationships, etc.

However, if it becomes apparent after some years that our desire to create doesn’t seem to square with public recognition or any kind of viable financial reward, we must learn to be at peace with it and realise that not every singer becomes a Lady Gaga, not every painter becomes a Picasso, not every writer becomes a Neil Gaiman.

Maybe we are more of a Nick Drake — talented but without an audience in our lifetime. And it’s fine. (It’s interesting to note though that Nick Drake was famously resistant towards self-promotion and would shy away from performing his songs on TV, hence losing many opportunities to grow his fan base while he was still alive.) Our work might find an appreciative audience 24 years after we’re six feet under. But that doesn’t mean we’re not doing good work NOW. The joy, the life-giving force, the meaning of creative work — that is all already present every day in our lives, as we work to make things from out of nothing.

There might be no reward from the outside world, but there is already a reward, in and of itself, in the act of doing the work we are called to do. And that must not be taken lightly. This internal reward is a great gift, since it is self-sustaining and independent of external forces. It is real, rooted, and most importantly, ours.

I want to add a quick footnote: Creative work doesn’t need to be our profession in order for it to be valid. We can be a banker by day and painter by night. We can be a tuition teacher who writes in the mornings. We can be working a boring admin job but lead a wild life online as an indie app developer. But that doesn’t stop us from thinking and seeing ourselves as a painter, a writer, an indie web developer. If very few people are willing to pay us to create, we can still pay ourselves to do it by working a day job.

Another footnote: Chances are, if you really enjoy the creative work you do and you do it in a consistent manner and you are willing to put your work out there for people to see, an audience will build over time. It is almost a law. You might not end up becoming world-famous, but it’s not hard to eventually have 1,000 true fans. And that, most of the time, is more than enough.

And enough is plenty.

Learn to meditate

If there’s a good time to learn to meditate it would be now, thick in the woods of a global pandemic. This is THE moment to start noticing your monkey brain and the misadventures it can get up to.

If you’re a total beginner it can be hard to really grasp what meditation is and whether you’re doing it “right” (you can’t really do it “wrong”, by the way — more on that in a future post). One of the books that really helped me gain a better understanding was 10% Happier by Dan Harris. But feel free to grab any book about meditation that appeals to you. It will take a while for all the different information to coalesce and for the ideas to really sink in (it took quite a few years for me actually).

In a nutshell — and this is my own crude definition — to meditate is to notice that you are thinking.

Most of us spend our entire lives walking around thinking we are our thoughts. When you learn to meditate, you learn to discover the you behind the thinker. You learn to notice the incessant thinking that goes on in your head. And you learn, in the process, that if you can sit back and observe your thoughts, then your thoughts are not you, and therefore you don’t always need to be yanked around (like a fool, I must add) by them.

A quick way to start:

Sit down somewhere.

A couch, on your yoga mat. Anywhere is fine.

Sit up if you can and keep your spine straight. This is so you can maintain a sort of alertness / awakeness and not fall off into sleep (that’s why we don’t usually try to meditate lying down).

Relax your eyes and eyelids. You can look down without focusing on anything in particular. Or you can close your eyes. It’s up to you. (I prefer the former.)

Start by noticing your breathing. You don’t have to breathe in any particular way. Just notice how you are breathing.

Inevitably, thoughts will arise. An angry or anxious thought. Or thoughts about the errands you need to do later. Trivial thoughts. Serious thoughts. It’s easy to go with them, to get carried away.

The work of meditation is to notice that you’re getting carried away by your thoughts.

The moment you notice that you’re thinking of this and that again, come back to noticing your breath.

It has been said that every time you do that (remembering to come back to your breath), you are doing a bicep curl for the brain.

(Our brain has plasticity. That is the basis of why meditation works — the idea is that our brains can be trained to change over time.)

Continue to sit. Start with one minute if you cannot sit for long. Or you can do ten minutes, twenty. Whatever is comfortable for you.

(You can use a meditation timer like the one on the Plum Village app or any other app you like.)

Sit. Think. Notice. Come back to your breath. Repeat.


That’s one way to start meditating. There are lots of different ways and traditions, but the core idea is the same, which is to train your brain to better notice your thoughts and therefore gain a larger awareness of your true self — the observer of the thoughts.

Meditation is not a quick fix solution to our problems. A lot of times, all we achieve while meditating is that we get to sit with our suffering. The pain doesn’t go away every time you practice.

But the ultimate promise of meditation is that there is a constant blue sky behind the clouds. Your thoughts are the clouds. The blue sky is your natural state of mind, one that is healthy and clear and calm and that just is.


Another book that is really helpful and delightful to read is Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s “The Joy of Living”. He writes a lot about the science behind why this all works. Check it out!

The definition of slothhood

I’m beginning to understand “slothing” not as doing nothing but as doing things at a comfortable and relaxed pace, without feeling like you’re “chased after” by the world.

We actually do go soft and lazy if we do nothing for long periods of time. Our willpower goes to mush. Inertia builds. In the end we’re too lazy to do things and we’re rolling around in our beds mindlessly for days on end and before we know it, precious time has passed us by.

There can be no relaxation without first experiencing stress. There is no happiness that can feel like happiness if you haven’t first experienced sadness. The concept of things don’t stand on themselves in this world; they exist only in contrast to their opposite value. Light is not light if we cannot grasp the idea of darkness. And so life itself is not life if death is not real. That’s just the way things are.

But let’s come back to the idea of being a sloth. The central idea of slothhood, to me at least, is living life on your own terms and not the world’s. A sloth does whatever the hell she wants to do whenever she wants to do it, with zero guilt. But it doesn’t mean a sloth simply sits on her armchair and does nothing all day.

Doing nothing is nice. We should never be afraid to do nothing. In fact we should do nothing fearlessly and whenever we want to, to hell with what the world thinks. We are not obliged to do anything at all in this world. But doing things feels good too and makes the days of doing nothing feel even better. In Buddhism they talk about the Middle Way — taking the path between two extremes, we find virtue and enlightenment. I’m a believer of this truth.

There is joy to be found in both doing nothing and doing something. When you do nothing, you meet yourself. When you do something, you meet with the world. Whether it’s yourself or the world, there is a whole universe to explore and take delight in.

So do or not do, it’s up to you. But always tread the middle way and always be true and kind to yourself.

(The problem only arrives when we do things for the wrong reason — to impress, to invite compliments, to ignore the real issues that are at the bottom of our psychological distress, to avoid confronting ourselves, to run away from life, to fill that unfillable hole in our heart.)

The above are just some of my evolving thoughts on life as a sloth.