Location-based philosophy

Location-based philosophy

Since moving to Colorado, I spend more time outdoors than before. On the flipside, I spend less time meeting new people, and less time making ideas happen. Why? Because living in the mountains influences what you think of and what you’re invited to.

Where you live defines how you live. This realization made me think back of the places I’ve previously lived. I realize that the definition of a good life varies for each location.

So what does it mean to live a Good Life?

Aspen, Colorado: a good life is … being outdoors

A perfect week for a Coloradan includes a climbing-adventure, rafting down a river, and backpacking—ideally all together with friends. Most men in Colorado grow beards, so I stand out perfectly as a beardless European. Work, for many, is second in priority for most to the life outdoors.

New York City: a good life is … chasing a dream

When you stand still on a NYC-street, observing the crowd passing by, everyone is going somewhere in a hurry. Each New Yorker seems to follow the Hero’s Journey: hearing a call to adventure, then following Joseph Campbell’s cycle to make it real. New York is the ultimate anti-Buddhist city, because attachment to goals reigns supreme.

Silicon Valley: a good life is … having an impact

When you meet someone at Stanford or at a Bay area meetup, the first question is often aimed at finding out whether you run a company. If not, the asker quickly loses interest, unless you can convince them that you are impressive otherwise. People (including me) are attracted to Silicon Valley because it’s a place where people discuss big ideas, and want to have an impact in the world—creating “a dent in the universe.”

Cambridge, Massachusetts: a good life is … learning together

In Cambridge, people seem to care less about what you do, and more about what you think. People—many of whom are graduate students at some of the world’s best higher education institutes—are curious to learn, and to explore topics together. I’ve learned about the way hummingbirds flap wings and how religions grow, all in a single conversation.

Amsterdam: a good life is … <many definitions possible>

It’s difficult for me to define a good life in Amsterdam. For some friends, a good life is defined by a promising career with a top-tier consulting firm or big corporate. For some friends, a good life is defined by starting creative projects. For some friends, a good life is defined by building a startup. One thing that almost all my Dutch peers value is travel—that’s why you see Dutchies everywhere around the world.

Bangalore, India: a good life is … spending time with friends

In India, more than in the United States or Europe, spending time with friends is important. When you walk the streets of Bangalore or Chennai, you see people everywhere chatting: at the chai-stand, while buying vegetables on the market, or simply standing outside. I think this culture will disappear as the country becomes more Western—Bangalore is already more “rushed” than a smaller city like Jaipur.

Have you experienced the places above differently? Which other places have distinct philosophies? Where do you live now, and does the local philosophy fit yours?


Of course, the local philosophies above are generalizations. In each city, you can find many different groups of people (i.e., tribes), each with their own philosophies. I still believe the location is important, though. In Aspen, the surrounding mountains call you to a life outdoors; in New York City, the never-ending bustle makes it natural to spend time with other people.

Book Review: Waking Up by Sam Harris

This is a summary of Sam Harris’ very insightful book Waking Up. I am editing this post as I’m reading the book. 

Chapter 1: Spirituality

“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages—but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out.”

“The experience [of using MDMA] was not of love growing, but of its being no longer obscured.”

“There is no other term [than spirituality] to discuss the efforts people make to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness.”

“Although the insights we can have in meditation tell us nothing about the origins of the universe, they do confirm some well-established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.”

“Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences.”

“There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eye, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished.”

“Most cultures have produced men and women who have found that certain deliberate uses of attention—meditation, yoga, prayer—can transform their perception of the world. Their efforts generally begin with the realization that even in the best of circumstances, happiness is elusive.”

“There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves; there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness. And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.”

“[A] true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease with the world for no reason, if only for a few moments at a time, and that such ease is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self.”

“[T]he teachings of Buddhism are not considered by their adherents to be the product of infallible revelation. They are, rather, empirical instructions: If you do X, you will experience Y.”

“The reality of your life is always now. And to realize this, we will see, is liberating. In fact, I think there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in the world.”

“The Buddha described four foundations of mindfulness: the body (breathing, changes in posture, activities), feelings (the senses of pleasantness, unpleasantness, and neutrality), the mind (in particular, its moods and attitudes), and the objects of mind (which include the five sense but also other mental states, such as volition, tranquility, rapture, equanimity, and even mindfulness itself.)”

“Eventually, [mindfulness] begins to seem as if you are repeatedly awakening from a dream to find yourself safely in bed. No matter how terrible the dream, the relief is instantaneous. And yet it is difficult to say awake for more than a few seconds at a time.”

“Mindfulness is a technique for achieving equanimity amid the flux, allowing us to simply be aware of the quality of experience in each moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant. This may seem like a recipe for apathy, but it needn’t be. It is actually possible to be mindful—and, therefore, to be at peace with the present moment—even while working to change the world for the better.”

“The traditional goal of meditation is to arrive at a state of wellbeing that is imperturbable—or if perturbed, easily regained. The French monk Matthieu Ricard describes such happiness as “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind.” (And a healthy body, I would add.)

“Just recognizing the impermanence of your mental states—deeply, not merely as an idea—can transform your life.”

“It is your mind, rather than the circumstances themselves, that determines the quality of your life. Your mind is the basis of everything you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.”

“In my view, the realistic goal to be attained through spiritual practice is not some permanent state of enlightenment that admits of no further efforts but a capacity to be free in this moment, in the midst of whatever is happening. If you can do that, you have already solved most of the problems you will encounter in life.”

Could technology supplant meditation?

My first-ever Vipassana meditation was in Amsterdam. Sitting on a little pillow, our teacher told us that the key to Vipassana meditation is to observe your own thoughts without attachment.

In the following weeks, I invited several friends to those Vipassana sessions. After 90 minutes of meditation, we’d go for a drink and wonder: what happens to your brain when you meditate?

In his TED-talk, Mathieu Ricard answers this question. He shows pictures of Buddhist monks lying inside big fMRI machines. The monks are subjects in a research study to understand the influence of meditation on the structure of the brain. The research showed that the brain structure changes through meditation: monks show more neural activity when they look at images that raise our sense of empathy.


After seeing this image, I wondered if a Buddhist monk would agree to use a technology that instantly creates the effect of meditation, without the many years of practice it typically takes to create a truly tranquil mind. In the last month, I learned that the first signs of such a technology exist. Called transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS); it’s so simple that you can build a setup for less than $50.

I first learned about tDCS in The Economist’s Technology Quarterly, and by listening to a fascinating podcast by Radiolab. In the episode, a journalist for New Scientist explains how her performance in a military simulation game improved from sub-standard to perfect, simply by running a bit of electricity through her brain. (She participated in a military training simulation; her goal was to survive a danger situation in Afghanistan. Without tDCS, she shot 3 out of 20; with tDCS, she hit all targets.) When she performed the exercise without the brain stimulation, she felt extremely stressed; when she used tDCS, time seemed to slow down, decisions were much simpler, and, at the end of the game, the journalist asked the supervisor why they had skipped the hard part of the simulation. Effectively, tDCS creates an effect that meditation can create too: it brings you into a state of focus—letting go of doubts, worries, and peripheral thoughts.

What could this mean for our future? Will baseball-caps provide electric shocks to our brain to keep us in a constant state of “flow”? Is it possible to keep the brain in a constant high; or would our neural cells set the electric current as the new normal, requiring a higher power-flow? If technology can create a focused mind, would a monk use it, or would using it fail to complete the deeper goal of non-attachment?


(After I listened to this episode, I ordered a tDCS device myself. I’m very curious to see what it does.)

The most important questions in the world?

The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer

—Rainer Maria Rilke

Last weekend, I had breakfast with my dad. I explained that I feel particularly satisfied on days when I create something—a blog, a drawing, or a beautiful graph—and share it with someone. My dad smiled. Then, he replied, “I have a good day when something unexpected happens.”

As he said this, I realized that how you evaluate your days determines the person you become.

There are many questions we can ask ourselves daily, such as:

  • Did I create something meaningful?
  • Did I learn something new?
  • Did I make someone smile?
  • Did I get better at my craft?
  • Did I meet someone new?
  • Have I become a wiser person?
  • Did I encounter something unexpected?
  • Did I help somebody?
  • Did I do something that scared me?
  • Did I work on something that can change the world?
  • Did I invest in the people around me?
  • Did I work with amazing people?

It’s worth asking yourself: am I asking the right questions? There is no one-question-fits-all, but each question reflects certain values. Asking, “have I helped someone?” means you value compassion and kindness. Summing up what you’ve learnt at the end of the day indicates a commitment to personal growth.

Which questions do you ask yourself at the end of your day? Do they reflect what you truly care about, or are they merely a product of your environment and the past?

Thanks to Jan Overgoor for reviewing an earlier version of this post.

3 cool tools to learn how computers work

1. Kano: a $150 kit to build your own computer. Kano ships you a beautiful package with a Raspberry Pi, a case, a small speaker, a keyboard with trackpad, and a WiFi module. Using Pi’s linux operating system, you can download existing games, or build your own.

2. littleBits – a library of magnetic electronic blocks that allow you to create and invent. littleBits is an ever-growing library of electronic modules that snap together with magnets so you can invent anything without the need to solder or connect wires. LittleBits’ library has 60 modules, including temperature sensors, microphones, buttons, motors and many more.

3. arduino is an open-source electronics platform that provides the raw material for anyone making interactive projects. At MIT, several of my friends used arduinos to prototype their solution. After teaching at MIT’s medialab India Design Initiative, I was so interested that I bought an arduino as part of a SparkFun kit. I used the kit to build several designs, and then I created my own thermostat. It wasn’t connected to my heating system, but the output (a light) would switch on if the boiler had to switch on.

The thermostat I built with my arduino-kit. When the temperature would be below the setpoint (21 C), the output (an LED, in this example), would switch on.

The thermostat I built with my arduino-kit. When the temperature would be below the setpoint (21 C), the output (an LED, in this example), would switch on.


Do you want to understand the basics of computers? Get Danny Hillis’ terrific book “The Pattern on the Stone”. The book details through clear examples how computers work, without going into unnecessary details and all the time nurturing curiosity.

Lessons and Impressions from Beijing

I spent last week in Beijing, my second visit to the city after a short visit with my father and brother in 2009. I was in Beijing to work on “Reinventing Fire: China”, a collaboration between Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, China’s Energy Research Institute, and Rocky Mountain Institute to model a deeply efficient energy future for China up to 2050.

I enjoyed Beijing tremendously, and I was struck by how different an impression the city made just a few years after my first visit. Below are some of my impressions.

Public infrastructure

We mostly used the subway to get around the city. For 2 RMB (less than $0.30) you can ride the subway wherever you want. Trains arrive every three minutes, are spick and span, and there’s enough space not too feel like a sardine. Riding Beijing’s metro was a far better experience than taking the BART in San Francisco, and it rivaled the best European subways I’ve been in.

(The subway is also much quicker than taking a taxi: Beijing suffers from heavy congestion, despite (or because of?) the five-lane roads throughout the city.)


Anyone who walked around Beijing in the last few years will know that the air is typically full of smog. People check air quality on their phone, just to see how many times the limit of the World Health Organization is hit. Fortunately for me, the air in Beijing was exceptionally clear this week: we had blue skies every day.

The streets were also very clean. Returning to my hotel after dinner one night, I walked through a series of Hutongs, traditional Chinese urban settlements, and noticed that there was no trash or dirt anywhere. Several Hutongs also had public toilets, a piece of infrastructure you don’t see even in financially rich Western cities.


Diet and health

Most days I would get breakfast, typically an egg sandwich, from small carts on the street. For lunch and dinner we would frequently have big, warm meals. (To deal with the after dinner dip our Chinese collaborators would take a little nap face-down on their desks.)


Despite the big meals, most Beijing inhabitants were quite fit. I did not see any of the gigantic bellies you spot in the United States. (Hopefully this will not change as American fast food and soda spreads in China.)


Outdoor exercise equipment was installed in multiple public spaces. Chungliang Huang, the Tai Ji master who taught at Esalen this weekend, said it was normal for Chinese people (at least traditionally) to start the day with movement. I forgot to ask my Chinese colleagues if they typically work out before coming to the office. (One day after lunch, our Chinese colleagues were in full battle gear, playing ping pong in the hallway.)



The palaces of the Forbidden City and the buildings around the Temple of Heaven had a beautiful color scheme: dark red, gold, deep green and ocean blue. I love the simplicity of many of the temples, and the order of the floorplans when you look at the old palaces (and Hutongs!) from above.



One goal of our work in China is to define what the maximum potential for energy savings for different industries is (e.g. for production of cement). It has now happened multiple times that agreed upon analyses are changed the night before a big presentation by “expert adjustment”. The reason for this seems to be that our research colleagues want to tell a message that their bosses will agree with. This hierarchy creates challenges for scientific rigor (and innovation).

Our team now has several Chinese nationals on board, who can communicate directly with our Chinese colleagues and clients (most of whom do speak English). That said, having an interpreter often take the flow out of the conversation. I look forward to the day when spoken word can be instantly translated, so that both parties can engage in interactive conversation.

Chuangliang Huang, Amory’s co-teacher at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, explained that a single Chinese character can hold many different meanings, depending on its context (the characters that surround it.) Amory speculated that this leads native Chinese speakers to be more comfortable to hold in their mind ideas that seem paradoxical to Western minds, a helpful quality for anyone who wants to study quantum physics.


Overall, I was really impressed by how quickly Beijing is developing. I realize that living in one city for a few days do not represent life in a country of 1.4 billion people. That said, working in Beijing during a period of clean skies felt more like living in London than like living in Bangalore. Culturally, Beijing feels different from Bangalore too: if life in India is chaotic, colorful, and emotional, Beijing is much more organized, clean, and productive.


If you’ve been to Beijing, what was your experience? For some of my Chinese friends, how do they think about this? Should a Chinese government stimulate urbanization, or incentivize people to stay in rural towns so the deep social disruption between elderly people doesn’t take place?


4 Dutch projects you should know about

Now in Beijing, I spent the last two weeks in the Netherlands. Here are four Dutch projects that inspired me.

1. Ocean Cleanup
Boyan Slat’s ocean cleanup addresses a truly super-national problem (floating waste in oceans), with no direct commercial benefit to the founders. Supported by a young founder who combines a hacker-ethic with deep skill in involving the public (the team raised $2.1M through crowdfunding) , you see why it’s easy to be a fan. Boyan would fit well between the Thiel fellows.

2. Vandebron
Vandebron is a platform for Dutch citizens to buy renewable power from local farmers with excess electricity production. The idea of decentralized electricity sharing is promoted by many, but Vandebron is the first company I know that has successfully created a platform through which individual citizens can sell and buy power, becoming an “airbnb for electricity” as Matthew and I wrote on RMI’s blog.

3. Smart Highways
During the Singularity Summit in Amsterdam last week, Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde showed the audience two of his latest pilot projects: a bicycle-path inspired by Van Gogh’s “Starry Nights” and a glow-in-the-dark paint that can illuminate highways without overhead lighting. Roosegaarde’s ability to apply natural inspiration to objects in our physical world like roads, churches, and public parks in an artistic way fascinates me. Watch his excellent Zomergasten video here. Highly recommended!

4. Stroomversnelling
During a visit to Shell with Amory, Maaike Witteveen told me about this project to reduce energy consumption of Dutch residential buildings, called “rijtjeshuizen”, by 80 percent, by adding insulating wall panels, superwindows, solar PV, an air source heat pump. Led by BAM, a Dutch developer, and financed by housing cooperatives, incentives between tenants and the housing cooperative align: tenants reduce rent when using less energy; housing cooperatives reduce costs. Maaike and I will soon post a blog describing the potential of the concept on RMI’s blog. For now, here’s a description from the Guardian.

Mastery: the path to success, one skill at a time?

It’s common wisdom that being good at something is valuable. Is it wise, then, to optimize for learning one skill compared to building some proficiency in multiple skills?

I am naturally interested in many things. During a typical week at work, I write and review articles, structure arguments, do analyses in excel, create graphs, code, and more. Add to that the reading, sports, music, and drawing I pursue in my free time, and you start to see the wide variety of my activity. I sometimes wonder: is it smarter to focus on becoming very good at a single skill, rather than doing a little bit of many things?

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You Cal Newport suggests that focusing on a single skillset is more valuable than pursuing multiple interests.  Cal argues that, follow your passion” is poor advice. He suggests you increase your chances of success by building rare and valuable skills. Cal calls this the ‘craftsman mindset’, a relentless focus relentlessly on what value you’re offering, using deliberate practice to grow. He recommends that you stop asking yourself “am I doing what I love?” and start asking yourself “am I building a valuable skillset?”

After reading Cal’s book, I noticed myself thinking “Should I focus all my effort at mastering a single skill?” I hesitated to answer this question with “yes”. I can’t remember a time where I focused on mastering a single activity and I do not aspire to be a deep domain expert, spending decades working in one discipline.

Shortly after finishing the book, I listened to a podcast by Tim Ferriss, The Top 5 Reasons to be a Jack of All Trades. (Blog version here.) Tim Ferriss acknowledges that being very good at something is valuable, but he says it’s a false, commonly held assumption that you can only be very good at one thing. Tim suggests instead that you can become very good at anything after a few months of focused and smart learning, and because of that you can be very good at many things.

That idea—that mastery is valuable, but does not need to be limited to a single skill—was music to my ears. Upon reflection, I found this is only possible under two conditions: take one skill at a time, and use deliberate practice to improve.

Learn one skill at a time

Learn different skills in series, not in parallel. In a good week, I may create a drawing, play a bit of piano, and code for an hour or two. I focus on learning many things at the same time. As a result, I do not experience the intensity to get really good at any of them. The solution, I am finding, is to adopt one or two skills you want to learn this year, and commit to learning only those. Although this focus is difficult for me (I have not built the habit of doing so), I commit to spending two hours every day on one skill for the next three months, building websites, because I notice it’s a combination of design and engineering that I enjoy.

Practice deliberately

Learning skills in series is insufficient—you need to learn skills effectively too. Taking drawing as an example, I experience no peer pressure to produce a drawing every day, and there is no teacher who evaluates my sketches. Even when you focus on one or two skills at a time, you need deliberate practice (another concept from Cal Newport’s book) to grow. This stretching yourself to perform uncomfortable exercises. This means stretching yourself to uncomfortable exercise (for instance, drawing a portrait if you’ve never done so), and asking for direct feedback on your work.

The question is: can I stick to this framework to learn one to two skills each year. Do you agree? Was there a time where you learned to master many skills at the same time? What is the path you follow?

And, considering our changing world: how valuable is specialization in a world where more work is automated?


Thanks to Franziska Becker, Ted Gonder, Giles Holt, Philo van Kemenade, Marin Licina, Tobias Rijken, and Max Song for reviewing this blog.

How Apple’s Watch Could Save Energy

On September 9, Tim Cook unveiled the Apple Watch, “the most personal product” Apple has ever made, says the company, “because it’s the first one designed to be worn.” The watch joins other products like bracelets from Fitbit and Jawbone in a category called “wearable technologies,” or wearables.

Beyond decorating your wrist, these products are primarily worn to send, receive, and process information, through cellular networks, WiFi, Bluetooth, or—unique to Apple’s Watch—near-field communications (NFC). The Apple Watch can monitor your heart rate, track your location (through an accelerometer, gyroscope, and GPS), and recognize your voice.


Smartphones and their apps have already been doing great things for users managing their energy (and much more, including fitness), for example through connected thermostats, electric vehicle charging, solar panel output monitoring, sharing-economy services, and much more. So why would you wear Apple’s Watch when you have an iPhone? What extra value do wearables unlock that already isn’t accessible through other technologies?

First, wearable technologies can collect biological data, such as your heart rate and body temperature—that a phone in your pocket cannot. These data sources can tell a more complete story about your physical state than data from your phone. Second, wearable technologies are less likely to be separated from the user. Unlike phones, most users will wear their Apple Watch in the shower or in bed. In other words, it’s always with you.

This connectedness between wearable tech and the wearer opens up at least three categories of energy management opportunities: at home, at the office, and personal.


Wearable tech can help better match our homes’ energy use—especially heating and cooling—to our needs. For example, Nest’s Learning Thermostat has a built-in motion sensor. It’ll put your home’s HVAC system into an energy-saving “away” mode after a period of inactivity. But imagine how much energy could be saved if a device on your wrist signals your thermostat to go into “away” mode the moment you leave your home or neighborhood.

Similarly, programmable thermostats can be set to pre-condition your house so that it’s a comfortable temperature when you wake up and roll out of bed in the morning. Some smart thermostats even detect when you typically wake up during the week and create a fixed start-up time for your thermostat based on that. But wearing a device on your wrist—which is either connected to an alarm to wake you up, or which detects your sleep cycles and learns when you’re likely to wake—can more accurately tailor your home’s pre-conditioning to match your actual wake-up time, rather than a weekday thermostat program set to the same time, on average, you’re likely to get up.


Have you experienced working in a ridiculously frigid office in summer, because the building control system does not know how people feel? Or an overly hot office in the winter? Even an office that’s conditioned well to a target temperature could feel too hot and/or too cold (even at the same time!) given one person’s preferences vs. another.

Wearable technology can provide information like body temperature, heart rate, and respiration, giving a more complete picture of physical comfort. Voice recognition software could even detect when people are complaining about feeling too hot or cold.

Even more, wearable tech and other more personalized devices can help to condition the person, rather than the entire space—in fact, that’s the very principle behind heated seats and a heated steering wheel in the Nissan LEAF; it’s more efficient to make the person feel comfortable, rather than heat or cool the entire cabin. In an office setting, think of office chairs with heating elements, wristbands that cool your wrist like that from Wristify, or vents that determine personal air flow like those from Ecovent.

Beyond the office, wearable tech can have other applications when out and about, too. At the product launch, Cook described how the Apple Watch can replace a hotel keycard to unlock your room as you approach the door. Similarly, your watch can connect to your hotel room’s thermostat, to delay room cooling until you have checked in. No energy is wasted cooling an empty room, while ensuring a guest’s room is comfortable as they enter.


In a coming era when energy use becomes not just highly personalized, but attached in fact to individual people, it’s not hard to imagine developing personal energy profiles of our individual demand and consumption. And that could open the door to personal energy bills. Usually we bill our energy use to our energy-consuming assets—electricity and natural gas billed monthly for our home, for example. But imagine if instead of assigning energy consumption to our assets we re-assigned that energy consumption to ourselves? Gone could be the arguments between roommates about how to equitably split the utility bill (one of the top sources of friction among roommates in places such as New York City).

Or what if wearable tech, in addition to sending personal information out to the systems around us, could also receive signals back to us, such as from your utility. Could wearable tech further open the door to a personal version of demand response? For example, similar to how utilities use demand response to cycle off air conditioners during times of exceptionally high peak demand in summer, could they instead signal a Wristify bracelet to cool a person instead of an AC unit cooling a whole house, or could your Apple Watch receive a signal from the utility asking you to have an ice-cold tea instead of turning up the AC at 4:00 p.m.?


Many of the comfort-improving, energy-saving features above are enabled by more information about you being shared with computers. This of course opens up another set of issues around Big Brother watching and the privacy of potentially very personal information, who can “see” that information, and how will they be allowed to use that info. Whether having the option to turn such data sharing on or off, or another solution such as anonymizing the data, the face remains that wearable tech could be another front line in the grid’s evolution toward more distributed energy resources. Those DERs could now include not just things like rooftop solar panels and batteries in your garage, but also wearable technologies and the people who wear them.

This blog was originally posted on RMI’s blog. 

A Warrior’s Mind: must-listen interview with Paulo Coelho

On the plane from Aspen to NYC, I listened to an On Being podcast in which Krista Tippett interviews Paulo Coelho. It was so good, I listened to it twice. Download the podcast here.

Achieving your goals does not result in joy.
It is compelling to think that completing your goals will result in joy, but it’s often not true. Getting closer to goals—being on the path to fulfill a purpose—creates joy. Reaching the end goal can lead to sadness, because your journey is over, completed. Paulo Coelho describes how he experienced sadness when he completed his pilgrimage, reaching Santiago de Compostella.

“If I knew, in the first hours of the morning, what I was going to do, what was going to happen, what decision or attitude I should take… I think my life would be deadly boring. […] What makes life interesting is the unknown. It is the risks that we take every single moment of our day.”

Start every day without expectations.
Being a pilgrim means being open to life, being open to what the day brings you. “Every single day we have the chance to discover something new. Get rid of things that you are used to, and try something new.” This is a very powerful concept for me—seemingly opposite to the idea of having daily to-do lists and big hairy audacious goals.

“From the moment I was not scared of manifesting my love, my life changed, and changed for the better.”

Follow your personal legend.
Your personal legend is your dream. It is something that gives you joy. The word “legend” does not refer to a heroic tale necessarily—your legend can be any story you are proud to live. Your personal legend can consist of gardening; raising a family; writing a book; creating a safe space where people can convene and grow; making paintings.

“Either I move forward, or I die. I die probably not physically, but spiritually.

The hardest choice in life is to fulfill what you are here to do.
“You want to do something that is against the plans that other people have for you. There you face a very hard choice. Either you start living the dreams of someone else, or paying the price of your dream.” In his books he describes the process of not following your dreams as one of “spiritual death”. That’s something to fear.

Try many different paths.
Coelho says he was a Buddhist, a Hare Krishna, a hippie, and a Christian. This is also what pilgrimage means: trying different things. That can be hard to embrace for young people—that following your personal legend includes uncovering your path. The only way to do so is to try a lot. This relates to Deepak Malholtra’s thought-provoking HBS speech on quitting (added at end of post).

“Who am I?” is an eternal question… you will infinitely struggle with it.
At the end of the interview, Coelho confesses, and then laughs about, the fact that even at his age he does not really know who he is. Powerful to keep in mind.


Malholtra’s HBS speech: