Oh, like Wall street? No, think bigger.
The last time I was in Europe was in 2019 when I went to Web Summit Lisbon: the world’s largest tech conference.
I have the chance to be back in Europe this summer, funnily enough, in Lisbon again.
Turns out I really like coming back to places. I’ve got to reflect on the (massive) personality changes I’ve had since 2019… as well as the things that really haven’t changed (spoiler: I still get really loud when I am enthusiastic. And I have a very low bar for things that make me enthusiastic… things within life are just SO worth raving about).
My recollection of Lisbon in 2019 was entirely fantastical. I didn’t have one bad thing in my memory… I even forgot about all those stairs. Youthful bliss.
Adulthood comes with new features: some are good (wine at lunch) and some are not so good (an adult culture of complaining). This second time in Lisbon has me reflecting on my sense of adventure and open-mindedness from before. While places do have their downsides, overall, I think the big picture of life is generally quite positive; it’s something that adults lose track of among the millions of opportunities to be negative.
For example, Lisbon has many (many!) stairs/hills, but it’s also filled with stunning view points. I could complain about the stairs or I could appreciate the sheer fact that you can see the ocean, castles and millions of portuguese roofs from the centre of Lisbon.
Anyway, this is the start to yet another ramble about how great it is to be an optimist: to see the world for all its amazingness. While this is not a complex sentiment, it can be overruled with our primitive software (i.e., our brains looking out for danger) or the primitive software of other adults looking out for danger.
Let’s remember that the commodities of the 21st century are things the wealthiest of the 19th century couldn’t even dream of buying.
I’ve used the phrase zest for life over the last few years to ground my optimism for the world. I’ll attempt to inject this zest within the 5 lessons I learned (or re-learned) after my recent last 9 days in Lisbon.
Happiness <> Attentiveness
While I was walking up a huge hill towards Jardim do Torel I noticed a very peaceful grandma sitting on a bench with her feet dangling and her hands doodling. The skies were perfectly blue and she was all cozy on the cobblestone road tilted 45 degrees.
There’s something so pleasurable about watching someone pursue their life for themselves, despite other expectations or limitations from terrain.
Similarly, my friend Jake writes a great and intense newsletter about golf, and while I am the furthest thing from a golf fanatic, I love reading his newsletter. He is so passionate and unapologetically a golf nerd that it’s just refreshing. It’s cementing to see someone else pursue their interests so boldly.
I like spotting the bullet-journaling grandmas and Jakes in the world.
It’s an art to pay attention and find these gems. But, if you look close enough, you’ll see many happy people and their passions flowing through their veins.
Our brains get easily flagged down by negative, ugly or scary things. I think the world is more kind than it is mean (re: Factfulness) but our minds have a huge distortion to notice the few mean things rather than the many kind ones. But with the art of attention, you can see beyond this distortion.
I’m a big fan of spotting cute things. Cute puppies in strollers, cute families with grown children… all wearing matching bucket hats, cute cartoons on fancy menus, cute babies with fat cheeks. It’s like a renewable resource of serotonin.
I even feel happy running around Lisbon in circles. Recognising spots from last time and places I’ve walked around a bunch this time.
Attentiveness allows me to log a street I’ve walked on such that when I walk on it again, it gives me a dose of familiarity: a very popular neutron-firing-pattern for the human brain.
I try to be attentive to all the Portuguese words, to recognise sounds and phrases, let them become familiar tunes instead of being drowned by the foreignness and communication barriers.
Essentially, there’s always a positive twist on my surroundings if I’m attentive enough. I derive a lot of happiness from hunting.
The Skill of Wishing
I’ve noticed a lot of people phrase their wishes in the past-tense:
- I wish I knew how to knit
- I wish I went to bed earlier yesterday
- I wish I was at uni that was in a happening major city
These “wishes” are just regrets rebranded. I think the utility of regret is its ability to learn for or reframe the future. Why not reflect on regrets briefly, and then make wishes for the future?
Have wishes that aren’t regrets but plausible ideas:
- I wish to learn how to knit
- I wish to go to bed earlier tonight
- I wish to move to a happening major city after uni
Better yet, make these wishes more specific so that they’re not just theoretical.
- My wish is to learn how to knit so I’ll sign up for a 2h knitting class every saturday
- My wish is to sleep earlier tonight so I’ll eat dinner at 6:30 and brush my teeth by 8:30.
- My wish is to live more in the centre of action so after I graduate from uni I will only apply to jobs inside major cities
Other than reflection, I see no reason to wish from the past. I see no reason to hold grudges. I’d like to learn from the past & pay it forward without dwelling.
The Skill of Opinions
One of my lowest points during this trip was when I was really tired and made a snap judgement about someone else. It’s inexcusable and not something I do often (thankfully), but also not something I’m immune to. It was a low point because I was really disappointed in myself.
I reflected and realised that I have my snap judgments in moments of desperation or insecurity. It’s not a them problem, it’s a me problem.
eople live lives with different compasses. They might achieve things in their lives I wish I could emulate or have, but instead of looking within myself for why I don’t achieve those things, I judge them to compensate for their gains with a loss. Basically, I will lower one element of themselves to feel less jealous.
I think this is a really rotten mentality. Lessening someone else to feel more secure yourself.
I believe I should appreciate subjectivity, i.e., respecting other people’s lives to co-exist with mine. Realising my beliefs are not objective and binarily correct, enjoying my life but not at the expense of how others want to live theirs and supporting other humans without being too pushy on my agenda.
Part of this journey has been internalizing that every human has something I can learn from. Everyone. They may lead vastly different lives than me but surely I do not have it all figured out.
Philosophically, my higher mind agrees with the notion of subjectivity and respect. But my monkey-mind can uncontrollably judge when it feels in danger.
I’ve been reading Tim Urban’s book “What’s our problem” and it’s undoubtedly inspiring these reflections of higher and primitive minds. The architecture of our brain is soooo ancient while the world is sooooo new; having a deep understanding of both is vital to co-existing in them sustainably.
Ancient = hunter-gatherers running from lions. New = can use a device built in 40+ countries to connect to the world wide web to click a button to borrow a bike for 10 minutes. These are very different scenarios!
The monkey inside my brain can mistake good, kind, different people with a lion trying to eat me. It will panic, judge, run, scream and desire a banana for extra running energy. And when it turns out that the person is in fact uninterested in having me for lunch, the monkey will be embarrassed it was wrong so it will use cognitive dissonance to rationalise how the perfectly fine human was actually a lion 10 seconds ago through the magic of animal-morphing technology that obviously the monkey catalyzed to relieve the threat.
I hope that’s enough of a vivid scenario to illustrate how silly our minds can be. Hence, I am working on a three-pronged approach to combat monkey-mind judgement:
- Have fewer specific opinions, especially things for which I have no experience in; instead, frame intentions or criteria. I recently was thinking about the question “where don’t I want to live after uni graduation” and I caught myself judging specific places I’d never been to. If I’d never been to Frankfurt, how do I know that there is no scenario where I could live there? Instead, I tried digging through my lived experiences for specific places that are yeses and nos, and then generalising criteria to apply to places that are not part of my lived experience. Intentions are great because you can choose places based on what you value without having specific opinions or biases. While these opinions may be inconsequential when thinking about where to live in 2 years, it’s the principle I care about practising. I want to have well-informed opinions, and frameworks with an open-mind when I have no cemented take. Keen where it’s warranted, open-minded where it’s not.
- Value subjective experiences. Through appreciating other people’s lives and ways of life, I don’t rely on validation for my own life. For instance, knowing people with different belief systems, and respecting them for it, makes me feel like I don’t need to find validation within the adoption of my belief system. Essentially, because I respect other beliefs, I don’t need others to convert to mine for them to be valid. Getting to know a mosaic of ‘how to live’ answers has been very impactful in reducing my judgement.
- Learn from anyone. Believing that any human could teach me something is a philosophy I really care about. I always remember the part of “Why fish don’t exist” where the author Lulu Miller drags out notion that Anna (a woman victim of the US eugenics movement who cannot have children so instead cares for a doll and her friend’s children) does have value by providing a refreshing taste of happiness to the people she interacts with. I very much recommend the read, but that is besides the point: humbling myself to appreciate anyone, among our differences, is challenging for my mind’s cognitive dissonance, but rewarding as my monkey mind can chill out when faced with a person who is differently successful.
Your friend’s earning high-end internships… Oh, like Wall Street?
During a conversation at Bahr Bairro Alto with Ula and João, we chatted about a random person pursuing a wealthy life in the more ‘traditional’ route. We’re a group of people who thrive on the unconventional route, so it was interesting to discuss someone with similar ambition but a different approach.
I just assumed this person was pursuing wall-street… because that’s what most people I know who want to make a lot of money do. But then they were both like no: think bigger.
I didn’t know there was something bigger than wall street? Turns out there’s a category well beyond wall-street that takes more insider information. Wall Street just has a good brand. Like Gucci (known luxury) vs Zegna (less known, but more luxury) or Rolex (known luxury) vs Patek Philip (less known, but more luxury)…. It’s a luxury so luxury that it’s off the market.
I liked learning this a lot since I get such a high off of learning about less-mainstream paths and more rare experiences.
This concept of thinking beyond the ceiling is so appealing. Our conversation added a new anchor within my pursuit for an interesting and status-quo-challenging life.
The Portuguese Way: Helpfulness and Anti-Stinginess
I have a very Serbian dad which means after his obedient medium-sized dog comes his stick-shift 2010 car with nearly 300,000 km logged. He taught me how to drive a manual car.
However, it turns out that driving on flatland & wide Canadian roads is VERY different from hilly, 1800s cobble-stone, windy, tiny Portuguese roads!
But you know… I did it and learned a lot.
There were many miracles along the way. Like how our Peugeot managed to go 120 km/h in 5th gear without falling apart, only getting a handful of honks and successfully avoiding all instances of parallel parking (big miracle, you have no idea).
We also had not 1, not 2, not 3 but 4 Portuguese people actively get in the car, demonstrate some of their manual car life lessons & help with hill-starts or parking. 3/4 were complete strangers who stopped everything to get in the driver seat, not kidnap us, and share their wisdom. Their helpfulness was such an asset and is one of the things I’ll really remember about this trip. It’s an energy I’d like to share more in life too.
Another thing I’ve noticed in Portugal that parallels my Serbian culture is how much people like to feed each other! Contrast to Asia, portions are VERY generous. It never feels like someone is optimising their margin. While this isn’t the most business-forward, life-wise, I really enjoy the vibes of the anti-stinginess. Essentially, I don’t want to make my wealth by selling the least amount of salmon for the highest possible price.
It’s been a really beautiful time… and in what feels like another full circle, I’m off to London, the place I was supposed to go in April 2020… :)
I’m grateful for the strings of the world and for your attention… now go enjoy something around you :)