Peace of Mind Analogy Cover

Use This Analogy to Cultivate Peace of Mind

China’s first north-to-south express highway is the G4. It is over 2,200 km long and you can use it to drive from Beijing all the way to Hong Kong or Macau. On a busy day, it looks like this:

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Your mind has more than a mere 50 lanes, but on a busy day, the level of traffic is just the same. Each car in each lane represents a different version of you. A version that would make an alternative choice, behave differently, or think another way. But there’s a catch:

Only one lane is called ‘the present’ and only one version of you can drive on it at any given time.

As a result, there’s a constant, massive traffic jam from all these alter egos fighting over who gets to lead the convoy. Each one is trying to squeeze into the present lane, shove itself ahead and cut off everyone else. When 50 cars clash, who ends up in front is anyone’s guess. It’s impossible to hand any one version the reigns with all these options, desires, and arguments pulling you in opposite directions. But that’s not the worst part.

Imagine how present-you feels with this huge, pent up mob in its back. Everyone trailing slightly behind is honking, shouting, tailgating, just waiting for their chance to overtake. How could present-you possibly focus on driving, let alone drive calmly or look ahead?

Too Much of a Good Thing

Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish 19th century philosopher and one of the founders of existentialism, developed a rather dark view of the world at a young age. Born into a wealthy family, he lived in constant fear of death and regret, both of which he saw waiting around every corner.

Eventually, he decided that humor was the only adequate response to life’s madness. He claimed that once he saw reality, he started laughing and hadn’t stopped since. In one of his most famous works, he also gave us a new word to capture the struggle with our own insignificance, a word that’s survived verbatim in both English and German to this day: angst.

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” he would remark. It perfectly fits the image of the mental traffic jam we’re faced with in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Not just because the car is the pinnacle of personal freedom, but because the sheer availability of all these lanes to drive on can literally make us dizzy. All these choices about who to be and what to do, we’re actually free to make them, unlike Kierkegaard and his contemporaries, who were much more limited, yet plagued by the same issue still. It seems it’s gotten worse.

So how can we stop being dizzy?

The Road Ahead

When I was younger, I would race my Dad on the 15-minute drive from the city to our home in the suburbs. Eventually, we realized that even if you go 50% over the speed limit on the highway stretch, you only save one minute. Imagine how much you save going through the toll booth two cars ahead in line.

Most choices in life are like that. You raise all kinds of hell to go 50% faster, only to end up one day earlier at the same finish line. Often, switching lanes feels much more efficient in the moment, but, ultimately, doesn’t make a big difference. Gauging the impact of your decisions beforehand like that is one way to dissolve the mind’s massive traffic jam. Another is realizing that part of each alternative version lives on in you, even if that car gets left behind.

But the best one, by far, is having faith in present-you. Don’t look left and right so much. Life is full of chances to look back and say: “Oh, I should’ve taken that exit.” But if you take them all, you can never focus on the road ahead.

In rallying, one of, if not the biggest determinator of success is how much the driver can trust the co-driver. The person in the passenger seat announces directions and the driver acts. That’s why, when talking about their greatest wins, rally legends like Walter Röhrl don’t mention times, but the state of flow, of effortless performance, they were in. Because if you trust present-you completely, the road ahead always looks like this:

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You might take a few detours, but eventually, that trooper will always take you home. For most of us, life is a long drive on a free highway. The anxiety is something we, like Kierkegaard, create in our heads. There’s no real need to rush. Cultivating this view takes time. But it helps to practice. Maybe that’s why later in his life, the angsty philosopher changed his mind:

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” 

— Søren Kierkegaard

Digital Nomad Cover

Digital Settler: The Healthy Alternative to Being a Digital Nomad

“If you need to take a vacation, never come back.”

— Joel Salatin

It feels almost weird to acknowledge it: I make a full-time income using nothing but a laptop and an internet connection. I wasn’t born to be an entrepreneur, so growth’s been slow, but for the past four years, I’ve made a very livable amount of money for a single dude in his 20s.

I first learned about this new-rich, digital lifestyle in 2012. Back then, I painted the same picture in my daydreams that must decorate millions of desktop backgrounds around the globe: a chair on the beach, an ice-cold drink, and a laptop on my lap. But then, something interesting happened: I got the travel without the work.

The New American Dream

From September 2012 to May 2013, I studied abroad in Massachusetts. While I was there, I traveled to Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, Las Vegas, and dozens of other cities. I went all around California, to Hawaii, Canada, and even Mexico. After returning home, I also went to London, Tokyo, Seoul, and Sydney. All in the same year. It was insane.

Especially because, thanks to a generous friend, we lived the high life wherever we went. We lived at the Bellagio in Vegas, drove around in a Mustang 5.0, rented a Jeep to drive up Mauna Kea, and enjoyed the skyline view from the indoor pool in Tokyo.

My view from the Marriott Waikiki Beach. Jealous already?

It was a glimpse into the life every digital nomad dreams of. A glimpse into a life I was as far away from as one could possibly be. I come from a German upper class family of academics. Most of the people I grew up around don’t even do digital and they’re definitely not nomads. On the trip, I thought a lot about the gap between who I was and who the new American dream was reserved for. And then another funny thing happened: Once I returned home to a cold, German winter, I didn’t want it anymore.

What’s the Opposite of a Digital Nomad?

Traveling full-time was a lot of fun. But, just like anything you do full-time, it inevitably turned into a job. We constantly had trains to catch, planes to book, trips to organize, things to pack, and rooms to get out of. If you do anything long enough, the boring parts catch up to you. Always.

You begin to think about your problems, flaws, and what you could have done better. Because no matter where you go, you are still you. The novelty of different places wears off quicker and quicker, until you find yourself lamenting the same issues you’ve had long before you left.

This problem isn’t new. It’s as old as man. From Seneca’s Moral Letters:

You should change your attitude, not your surroundings. You may have crossed the expanse of sea, and as our Virgil says, ‘lands and cities may grow distant’, but your faults will follow you wherever you reach.

This is what Socrates said to a man who was complaining: ‘Why are you surprised that traveling does you no good, when you are carrying your own state of mind around with you? The same cause is weighing you down now which drove you from home.’ […] You ask me why this flight is not helping you? Because you are in your own company.

And yet, traveling the world at 21 years old was the best thing that ever happened to me. Why? Because it gave me a sneak peek at the end result of the career path I was about to commit myself to. A chance to realize that, once again, the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.

Still, I was grateful for the experience. Because even though it showed me I had the wrong goals, it gave me a sense of calm when letting my travel desires go. I have seen more of this planet than 99% of folks ever will, and if I die seeing nothing more of it, that’s fine. That’s a powerful source to draw happiness from.

But there was still something about working for myself that wouldn’t let go.

Being a Digital Settler: An Unexpected Source of Happiness

As I was studying for my next set of exams after my trip around the globe, I noticed something: The allure of long-term travel was gone, but the attractiveness of a local, regular job hadn’t come back. It slowly dawned on me that maybe, being a digital nomad was a thinly veiled excuse to make the grind of entrepreneurship look more attractive.

I think that’s the big mistake aspiring digital nomads make. Like I did, they chase the right outcome for the wrong reasons. Thanks to my big trip, I can tell you that needn’t be the case: If you lift the veil, entrepreneurship is still beautiful. For as much as we overrate the joys of long-term travel, we’re also too quick to dismiss how much meaning we can draw from growing roots where we’re planted.

Nowadays, my friends commend me for the high-degree-of-freedom life I’ve built. I agree, it’s satisfying. Because just like I can relocate tomorrow, I’m free to go to the same café, sit at the same place, and do my work. In the past five years, I’ve only taken three round trip flights. I spend most of my time in Munich, where I live, and some of it with family back at my parents’ house.

I’m digital without the nomad. What does that make me? A settler? Whether saying no to travel is mad or wise, I don’t know. But I can wholeheartedly say: Most of the happiness you gain from working for yourself comes from having a choice, much more so than from whatever choice in particular you make.

And you don’t need to travel around the world to find the truth in that.