The magic of thinking small

This week, I spoke to a friend on the phone. She’s not happy in her job and trying to craft a career change. Talented and engaging, I’m sure she could do most things she sets her mind to. But she doesn’t know where to set her mind – it keeps wondering.

She´s constantly thinking about what her perfect job would be – which elements to keep and which to let go of – , imagining the endless possibilities. Yet she feels stuck, unable to take a real step forward.
It feels like a heavy task. She wants to get it right: “I can’t keep shifting, can I?”

Then she starts talking about the film editing she’s doing for a family project and the mood in her voice changes: “I love it. It’s so creative and tangible, I love working towards the end product and am having so much fun along the way.”

We both notice the contrast of course, we’re not idiots. And the obvious question emerges: if you love this so much, why not pursue it?

She´s hesitant: “I guess.. it’s just.. What would it be like to do that for real, I don’t even think I’d want to do it full time, or where it would fit in my greater career plan.”

But, that´s the whole thing. There isn’t a greater career plan yet. The exact feeling she’s hoping to find in her future work is right here in front of her. In something small, yes. But what better place to start?

Why do we so often feel we have to figure out the bigger picture before we can start?

I recognize the stuck-ness. I call it Thinking Big Fatigue. Or the Thinking Big Mindfuck.

You see, we´re always told to think big – as a way of finding direction and success. Have a clear image of what you want to accomplish, then go for it. “If you can dream it, you can do it! Aim for the moon!” that sort of stuff. Even personal development guru Stephen Covey tells us to “begin with the end in mind”.

But what if that big and bold ‘end in mind’ is either so massive and far away that it completely overwhelmes you in the present moment, and makes any potential step towards it seem minor and insignificant?

Or, what if your ‘end in mind’ is still fuzzy, so that you can’t actually start with it in mind, because you don’t know what it is? You could spend all your mental energy worrying about what your ‘passion’ is, so you can finaly start doing something.

What if this idea of thinking big, of a perfect end state, is actually keeping you from taking imperfect, mundane, every day action?

It’s like wanting to write a brilliant novel. Then getting so intimidated by the idea that you don’t even get a first page on paper. It’s easier to dream about the glamourous life of an author, going on book tours and being all genius, than to get up early every day and write for 2 hours before work, consistently.

However, the only way to be a writer, is to write. The only way to be an artist, is to craft. The only way to be an entrepreneur is to do business – and take a risk.

People idealize their plans, then dread the action that’s required to achieve them. Because in your plans – in those big dreams – you are all sky high and successful and rosy. In the real action you could take, especially when starting something, you’re down in the trenches, muddling through, a beginner. It’s easier to keep fantasising and dreaming big, than to get something done. Something much less than perfect. But done.

So, fuck thinking big for a moment. Let go of the end result (for now) and ask yourself: what is the absolute smallest step I can think of in the general direction of awesomeness, today? You know what it is.

Then do it: make that call, put words on paper, invite somebody for coffee. Feel the effect this has on you. Smile. Then take another step. Think small for a change.

All these small steps will compound and strengthen your confidence. Then, somewhere on that path paved with small steps, you might change direction. Or your fuzzy, far away dream might come into fuller focus.

Sometimes direction comes after action, instead of before.

My friend pauzes. “OK. I know this editor. I’m gonna give him a call and see if I can work with him for a day. It’s worth figuring out I guess, why not.”

Maybe she won´t become a film editor. Maybe it´s something she´ll do on the side. Maybe while finding that out, she´ll stumble onto something else.

It doesn´t matter. The important thing is that she is moving – and in the moving, and stumbling, is learning, and progress. And in that progress, thinking small can actually make life pretty great.

Which small step will you take today? (Let me know!)

Life is so many things at the same time

The first time I approached Moria, I could feel it in my gut: not good, not ok.

This is not where you want to be.

I arrived by car, alone: I was a little late, after bringing one of our refugee team members to the police station, where he has to report to daily. Then I drove across the island over meandering country roads. It was a lovely view: orchards, old houses, fields full off sheep in the last warm sun of the year.

And then Moria. You see Moria before you see the camp itself, by the people walking alongside the road. Some in little groups, some alone, eyes to the ground. Then suddenly it gets busier, people and parked cars everywhere. Against the hillside lies the camp: a camp, with barbed wire over concrete walls, innumerable little tents, open fires and an overwhelming amount of people that have nowhere to go. The atmosphere is tense, there’s and undercurrent of unpredictability.

I take a big breath and climb the hills, towards the big blue tent where we will distribute winter coats the coming days, with Because We Carry and Movement on the Ground.

Last week shoes, this week a coat, as a thin protective layer in this wilderness that will soon turn into a cold, wet mud pool. It’s something, it’s important, but it’s not enough by a long way.

Inside, everything is set up to lead people through the tent effectively: crush barriers, helpers, tables, and behind those tables boxes filled with sorted coats. The fences are necessary – everything is chaos here, and panic and aggression burst out easily – but they enforce the idea of a prison: lack of freedom and dependency. How do you feel when you’re standing in line here?

The first day I work in the tent, is for the families. Lined up and then approaching one of us, together, to collect the coats. All of it feels like a big wave coming at me: the desperation, the anger, the frustration. The toddlers who apathetically let me put a coat onto their little bodies, the babies – so tiny at times that I cannot find a single thing that fits –, the overstrained mothers and fathers, their distress so tangible.

Sometimes I turn away from the table towards the piles of boxes and feel my hands shake. Stay calm, deep breaths, one by one. After hours I realize that I forgot to eat, forgot to take one moment to step back.

Of course people are grateful, but I soon feel here on Lesbos and especially in Moria that the word grateful doesn’t suit at all, is not right for this situation. These are people like you and me, not worse or better. Some may be more friendly or open than others. But all of them are pushed around, in survival mode: uprooted and unsafe.

All of them, day in day out are in an awful situation, in which no man wants to be, or lasts long as his best self for that matter.  You harden up and learn to fight for everything, to keep going in a hopeless situation. It fills me with sadness that this is their reality, especially for the children in front of me who don’t know anything else – and have to do their growing up surrounded by stress and anxiety.

I can drive away from here later, the same way I came, trembling with all the impressions. They stay behind in this jungle, with not even the most basic hygiene and safety. After that first day I call my boyfriend and start crying almost immediately. I want to explain how double it was: how besides all the ugliness, there was hope and kindness, both ways. But first the tears have to come out. Not good, not ok.

The next days I grow calmer and at times a bit tougher. This is a steam course in breathing deeply, in striking roots in the ground. Stay calm: I feel that people respond to my unclenching, as they did to my clenching before. It is the biggest thing I can give here, next to that winter coat: a moment of real and calm attention, one person to another.

Now the men who are traveling alone are in line, and strangely enough this goes more smoothly than before, with the families. I shake their hand, look them in the eye and say good morning. I stand upright. I find them a coat and find a balance between giving them personal choice and getting bogged down in endless discussion. We often end with a smile and another hand shake. Best of luck to you. To you too.

The last few nights have been without much sleep for me, due to the cold and the excess of impressions. At the same time I feel a certain strength here that I often missed at home. I can help, I can handle this, I can make a bad situation a little less bad, and I’m doing it.

“Do what you can, and then let go.” You háve to learn here. Focusing on the square centimeter you can affect. Then act. Then try to forget, stay away from the paralysis that can come with contemplation of our powerlessness to change everything.

With the team, we watch out for each other, we talk and laugh. In the evening we sit and eat and joke around like a group of out of control teenagers, blowing off steam of the day. The intensity of the experience is reflected in our connection. We’re in this together. Some moments you feel ice cold inside, other moments it feels like a school trip.

Because ‘luckily’ there is also Kara Tepe, where many families and other vulnerable refugees (after a short or long period) can go to. It is a better camp, with basic housing and necessities. Here we deliver breakfast every day with the team of Because We Carry (consisting of refugees and Dutch volunteers) and organize all kinds of activities for children and adults. We play and sing with the children, there’s school, there’s yoga for the mothers and every week there’s barber shop for the men and boys.

Compared to Moria, Kara Tepe is a breath of fresh air, an oasis of peace and calm. The families live in isolated boxes, sometimes with seven or even nine persons at the same time. The first day I find that hard to see, but the people moving in from Moria often cry of happiness to have their own place again where they can safely be together, something they can make into a home.

Of course life is still hard here: many parents are depressed and traumatized. Sanitation is very basic and it’s getting cold. And there is still the dependency, the waiting, waiting, waiting, until other people tell you how your life will continue. Which unknown future will be yours.

Every day we sing songs with the children about bananas and water melons. They imitate what we say to them in English – and call us team Bananas. They can be cheerfully playing on the big square, in the blissful forgetfulness that children seem to slip into easier than adults, then suddenly explode –  with fear and trauma shining through, or shutting off completely.

We use  wagon carts to bring the breakfast all around the camp, knocking on the doors, followed around by the kids. We drink coffee and eat cookies with the team. We play Justin Bieber during preparation and all join in very loudly: “Baby,  baby, baby ohhhhhh!!!!”

We cuddle Wallie, the tiny puppy of volunteer coordinator Roza, we laugh about his short legs and his deviation to the right as he runs. We high five when the rounds are done. We say goodbye to people and help them arrive and settle in.

It’s light ánd dark here. Life is so many things at the same time.

The light is created by ordinary people helping other ordinary people.

Do you want to help? You can do this by making a donation to Because We Carry. (I have a GoFundMe open for this specific goal, please contact me if you want to contribute) The money is used in the most practical and loving way, e.g. for creating places where people can warm up in the winter, for clean up and activities organized together with refugees and for getting more ISO boxes to Moria, as people sleeping in little festival tents in the cold, wet winter on the island is inhumane.

You can also go to Lesbos as a volunteer, help out directly and then spread your own story about your experiences and insights. For more information you can send an e-mail to


Het leven is zoveel dingen tegelijk.

De eerste keer dat ik Moria naderde, voelde ik meteen in mijn buik: niet goed, niet ok.

Hier wil je niet zijn.

Ik kwam alleen aangereden; ik was wat later, had net één van onze teamgenoten op en neer gebracht naar het politiebureau, waar hij zich elke dag moet melden. Daarna over kronkelweggetjes het eiland over gereden. Het was er lieflijk: boomgaarden, oude huizen, velden met schapen in de laatste warme zonnestralen van het jaar.

En dan Moria. Je ziet Moria voordat je het kamp zelf ziet, aan de mensen die langs de weg lopen. Soms in groepjes, soms alleen, ogen naar de grond. Dan wordt het drukker op straat, overal mensen en geparkeerde auto’s. En tegen de helling op het kamp: een kamp, met prikkeldraad boven betonnen muren, ontelbare tenten en tentjes, open vuurtjes en een overvloed aan mensen die geen kant op kunnen. De sfeer is gespannen, er is een onderstroom van onvoorspelbaarheid.

Ik haal diep adem en klim de helling op, naar de grote blauwe tent waar we de komende dagen met Because We Carry en Movement on the Ground winterjassen zullen uitdelen.

Vorige week schoenen, deze week een jas, als dunne beschermlaag in deze wildernis die binnenkort in een koude natte modderpoel verandert. Het is iets, het is belangrijk, maar het is bij lange na niet genoeg.

Binnen staat alles klaar om mensen door de tent te leiden: dranghekken, helpers, tafels waarachter dozen vol gesorteerde jassen staan. De hekken zijn nodig – alles is hier chaotisch en er breekt snel paniek en agressie uit –, maar ze versterken het idee van een gevangenis: onvrijheid en afhankelijkheid. Hoe voel je je als je in de rij staat hier?

Die eerste dag dat ik er werk is voor de gezinnen. Alles komt keihard binnen: de wanhoop, woede, de frustratie. De kleuters die zich afwezig in jasjes laten hijsen, de baby’s – soms zo klein nog dat er niets in hun maat te vinden is – , de overspannen moeders en vaders.

Soms draai ik me om van de tafel naar de dozen met jassen en voel ik mijn handen trillen. Rustig blijven, diep ademhalen, één voor één. Na uren bedenk ik me dat ik ben vergeten te eten, vergeten ben om één moment rust te nemen.

Natuurlijk zijn veel mensen dankbaar, maar ik voel al snel hier op Lesbos en met name in Moria dat dat woord dankbaar me niet meer past, niet klopt bij deze situatie. Dit zijn mensen zoals jij en ik, niet slechter of beter. Sommige misschien aardiger of meer open dan anderen. Maar allemaal opgejaagd, in overlevingsmodus, onveilig en ontworteld.

Allemaal dag in dag uit in een nare situatie waarin geen mens wil zijn, of het lang volhoudt als zijn beste zelf. Je verhardt en leert vechten voor alles, en om vol te houden in een hopeloze situatie.

Ik kan straks weer wegrijden vanuit hier, trillerig van de indrukken. Zij blijven achter in een jungle met niet eens de meest basale hygiëne en veiligheid. Na die eerste dag bel ik mijn vriend en begin meteen te huilen. Ik wil uitleggen hoe dubbel het was; hoe er naast alle lelijkheid ook zoveel hoop en vriendelijkheid was. Maar eerst moeten die tranen eruit.

De dagen erna word ik rustiger en soms ook wat harder. Een stoomcursus diep ademhalen is het, wortel schieten in de grond. Rustig blijven: ik voel dat mensen ook op mijn ontspanning reageren, zoals eerder op mijn spanning. Het is het grootste wat ik hier kan geven naast die jas: een moment van aandacht, van mens tot mens.

Nu zijn de alleenreizende mannen aan de beurt en gek genoeg gaat dat soepeler dan de gezinnen. Ik geef ze een hand, kijk ze aan en zeg goedemorgen. Ik sta overeind. We eindigen vaak met een glimlach en nog een hand. Best of luck to you. To you too.

Al een paar nachten slaap ik slecht door de kou en de overdaad aan indrukken en tegelijkertijd voel ik een zekere kracht hier die ik thuis vaak heb gemist. Ik kan helpen, ik kan dit aan, ik kan een slechte situatie íets minder slecht maken, en dat doe ik ook.

Doen wat je kan, en dan loslaten. Je móet het hier leren. Focussen op de vierkante centimeter die je kunt beïnvloeden.

Met het team letten we op elkaar, we praten en lachen, ’s avonds zitten we als uitgelaten pubers te eten en slechte grappen te maken: afreageren, stoom afblazen van de dag. De intensiteit van de ervaring uit zich in onze verbondenheid. We maken dit samen mee. Op sommige momenten voel je je ijskoud van binnen, en op sommige momenten voelt het als een schoolreisje.

Want “gelukkig” is er ook Kara Tepe, waar veel gezinnen met kinderen en andere kwetsbare vluchtelingen (uiteindelijk) naar toe kunnen. Hier verzorgen we elke dag met het team van BWC (bestaande uit vluchtelingen en Nederlandse vrijwilligers) het ontbijt en activiteiten voor kinderen en volwassenen. Er wordt gespeeld door de kinderen, er is school, er is yoga voor de moeders en elke week een barber shop voor de mannen en jongens.

Vergeleken bij Moria is Kara Tepe een verademing, een oase van rust en vredigheid. De gezinnen wonen er in ISO-boxen, soms met wel zeven of negen mensen. Dat vind ik de eerste dag nog slikken, maar de mensen die uit Moria komen, huilen soms van geluk dat ze weer een eigen plek hebben die ze tot hun huis kunnen maken, waar ze met elkaar kunnen zijn.

Natuurlijk is het leven nog steeds hard; veel ouders zijn depressief en getraumatiseerd. De afhankelijkheid is er nog steeds, en het wachten, wachten, wachten, totdat je weet hoe je leven verder gaat. Welke onbekende toekomst de jouwe wordt.

En elke dag zingen we met de kinderen liedjes over bananen en watermeloenen. Ze praten ons na in het Engels.

We brengen ontbijt rond in bolderkarren. We drinken koffie met het team voor en na het ontbijt en eten koekjes. We draaien Justin Bieber en zingen hard mee: “Baby, baby, baby oh baby!”.

We knuffelen met Wallie, de puppy van vrijwilligerscoördinator Roza, we lachen om zijn korte pootjes en zijn afwijking naar rechts als hij rent.

We high fiven als de ronde er weer op zit. We nemen afscheid van mensen en helpen ze met aankomen.

Het is licht én donker hier. Het leven is zoveel dingen tegelijk.


Het licht komt door alle gewone mensen die andere gewone mensen helpen.

Wil je ook helpen? Dat kan door een donatie over te maken naar Because We Carry. Dit geld wordt op de meest praktische en liefdevolle manier besteed, nu bijvoorbeeld om zo snel mogelijk wat plekken te creëren op Moria waar mensen kunnen opwarmen en opdrogen. Of door zelf mee te gaan als vrijwilliger en een liefdevoller verhaal en werkelijkheid te verspreiden.

Het rekeningnummer van Because We Carry is NL85 TRIO 0391 0737 96.

Voor meer informatie over vrijwilliger worden mail naar

My Thirty-Something Life & Two Lists that Inspired it

How did you find yóur “life, inspired”? I will be asking this question to a bunch of exciting people that choose their own path and are rocking it.

How did they figure out where to go? And then, how did they make it happen?

They’ll share their insights & life lessons, and most importantly: how they put that wisdom into practice. Enjoy!

— Guest Post by Portland entrepreneur Margot Feves —

Dream big…
Do what you love…
Ask for what you want…
Be present!

Sounds like a series of inspirational quotes found in a wall calendar or Facebook post, right? These tid bits of wisdom may seem generic, but in fact they are the back bone of my journey to finding the best version of my thirty-something self.   It took me some time (a decade or so) to figure out how to put these expressions into practice.

At the age of 27,  I was living in Chicago, and my post grad life was very different than I’d expected. After my college years in San Francisco I pursued my dream career at a renowned advertising agency. But I háted the lack of creativity and absent upward mobility in my first job as an ‘assistant account executive’. So I changed industries to a distinguished catering company.   There, the company politics were overwhelming, (it’s true that sometimes a job, just like a boyfriend or an apartment, just isn’t a good fit) and ultimately I was let go for having a “bad attitude”.

In that jobless and frustrated moment, I needed change. I made the decision to pack up my chic downtown apartment, say goodbye to friends and celebrate a last night out at my favourite club.  I moved 2,000 miles cross country to “temporarily” live with my sister, her husband and their new born baby (they will be referred to as The Levs).  What was supposed to be a month or so turned into a year!

I thought making this move would allow me a better space to find a sense of direction, sort of like a clean slate.   My family, a very talented therapist, and endless career guidebooks helped me work through my frustrations. And two simple exercises were surprisingly effective to push me to live a more inspired life.

Here’s what I did:

  1. I made a list of my dream job – and I was relentless!
    1. What do I wear to the office? A suit, flip flops, a space suit…?
    2. Who are my colleagues & clients?  Do I call them, text them, write to them…?
    3. Do I travel for work?  Using a private plane or my company car…?
    4. What time of day do I work? Early morning meetings to late night parties…?
    5. How do I get to the the office? Walk 20 minutes, take the bus, drive…?

If you want to do this, DREAM BIG and believe if you ask for what you want, it’s possible you will get it.  In your list, include everything from formalities (dress code) to lifestyle preferences (walk to work).

As I reflect on a few of my grander asks, “flexibility to work remotely” was a very important one. And now, I write this article upon my return from spending 3 months living on a beautiful Caribbean island!

margot at little corn island

  1. I made a list of what I love to do during the normal weekly schedule.
    1. Are you one of those people that loves to fold laundry?
    2. Do you wake up to a sun salutation?
    3. Is baking bread or cookies your favorite passtime?
    4. Do you constantly peruse the internet for good airfare?
    5. Are you checking the stock market and following CNN?

If you want to do this, be attentive to what makes you excited during the week.  I suggest taking a couple days to formulate the list including both the mundane (sorting socks) and the fun (trying a new recipe).

Using the second list exercise, I realized I was loving taking on the role of “The Levs House Manager” which mainly included cooking.  I loved menu planning, preparing a grocery list, doing the shopping, assembling the meal and then the sigh of relief when the Levs walked in the door and dinner was ready.   Considering I had never cooked in my life, it was the list that made me realize how much I loved it and how I could create a business plan around helping people with one less night to prepare dinner!   I could be my own boss and start to check off things from list one, ultimately creating my dream job.

I used the Levs kitchen as my testing ground for what was later incorporated as Dinner At Your Door (DAYD). Within a few months I had a client base, preparing and assembling 30+ meals each week.  I signed a kitchen lease and moved the growing business to a more professional space, which the Levs were thrilled about! I had already broken the garbage disposable and ruined countless pans, but they were so supportive.

In 4 years, my dreaming big paid off.   With my entrepreneurial imagination running wild I worked with a programmer to write code for the online checkout, employed a team of 3 to execute the meals, hired an ad agency to create branding and then a pivotal moment of expansion came in the Autumn of 2012.  I believed the only way to grow DAYD and ultimately sell was to expand!   I boldly asked for what I wanted…my own kitchen property which turned out to be so much more!

With the support of my family I purchased a vintage building.  At the time of sale it was operating as a restaurant with four apartments upstairs.  DAYD moved operations to the new location and I was conceptualizing a unique use for the restaurant space.  Five months later I hosted an official grand opening party for Opal 28a boutique event space, vintage accommodations & commercial kitchen.  I was working 80 hour weeks but living out my dream job based on the attributes of that list way back when.

At 32, I proudly sold Dinner At Your Door to focus solely on Opal 28.  Everything was coming together—combining my work experiences in Chicago, my entrepreneurial endeavors with the dinner service, and the bullet points of both of the lists!

Now at 34,  Opal 28 just turned 3 — My team is a trusted family bound together by loving what we do; working with blushing brides,  bartending, cooking, preparing event contracts, decorating for the next party; it’s what we refer to as “Opal Stoke.” I recently purchased my team custom Nike Air Maxs—if your feet are not happy at work how could you be?

Margot Opal team

So, if you think making lists sounds boring, remember this: I recently came across both of my lists, which I had not looked at for 5 years.  Nearly everything on both lists had been checked off! Those lists were fuel for overcoming frustration and re-directing my subconscious towards my definition of success.

I am now unapologetically confident in my entrepreneurial endeavors and started truly living the inspirational quotes mentioned in the introduction.  So I challenge you to make those lists! Dream big, ask for what you want, do what you love…. And then, when you find yóur success, allow yourself to be present: lean back a little and enjoy what you created… before making another round of lists!

Margot profile shotMargot Feves (34) owns and operates award winning boutique event space Opal 28 in Portland Oregon. She splits her time between Portland, Oregon and Little Corn Island, (Nicaragua), travels the world and is contemplating new ventures.



The Perks of Becoming a Minimalist

I’ve always been a restless person. Easily excited, curious about life and very eager to learn – in my good moments. Unsettled, chaotic and fidgety, a lot of other times. Always wondering, always looking, always dreaming of and striving for more. My friends used to tease me with this: “If you’re still searching your soul, Peanut (my nickname), you may want to try the last place you still had it.”

Still, a lot of great things came from my wandering mind. I attained degrees in different fields, travelled around the world, lived in different countries. I met a bunch of wonderful and strange people I would have never encountered otherwise. I worked at different companies, found out what makes me happy (and miserable) at work, and devoured books that opened my mind to new ideas. I did a LOT, took in a lot.

Under all the excitement and curiosity however, there was a slight but recurrent sense of discontent. With myself, with everything I was always not achieving or getting done. This undercurrent influenced a lot of my experiences and decisions, and probably more than any single activity caused the burn out I experienced in 2015.

It’s not just me, though, I can see that. Our whole economic model is based on continuous growth, and the obsession with constant progress, expansion and (self)improvement is driving us to the point of exhaustion. It’s in everything around us. It’s in pursuing that promotion in a job you don’t even like. It’s in filling our houses with stuff, in needing to achieve something new always (You just ran a marathon? Why not go for a triathlon!), in filling our heads with news and information. Even on my travels I meet so many people that speak of an inner push to keep moving on, to keep pursuing that ultimate place or experience. We get so scared to become bored or useless (a FOM0- fear of meaning 0), that we fill up every moment with goals, impulse, people, noise, with stuff. With that one more thing that will finally be it, and make us content.

Not to sound too paranoid, but I found out it’s a trap. Or at least it’s a loop we trap ourselves in, going something like this.

loop of discontent

The irony is of course that the solution we use, to try and solve the discontent, only confirms and feeds back to it. As long as you think you always need something more to be content, it’s impossible to ever actually reach that state.

We’re probably designed as human beings to permanently be slightly dissatisfied: there’s a clear evolutionary benefit to it. One can imagine our worried and overactive ancestors, with a inconsumable focus on collecting more berries and hunting more game, had a better chance of survival and feeding their offspring than those happily living in the moment – chilling out under a tree, taking long siestas… and probably eaten by a lion before sunset.

Good thinking, ancestors. However, we’re using this constant pursuit not as a tool for survival, but for getting something else: happiness, and a fulfilled life. That’s not working, it’s not working at all. We now have more stuff than previous generations could even dream of, more freedom to purchase whatever ‘more’ we want, and still numbers of depression are rising –the WHO indicates that by 2030 depression will be the leading cause of disease burden globally. The catch with evolutionary benefits is that they were designed to make us live, no to make us happy – they couldn’t care less about our wellbeing. That’s our job to settle here, in our own time, safely and comfortably at the top of Maslows pyramid.

So, how to get out of that loop of discontent? The simple answer is to revert the equation: we actually don’t need anything more to be happy. We need less.

It makes sense: a lot of moments we are supposedly happiest in life – like our holidays, or our college years – are defined by a certain simplicity and absence of excessive stuff. The promise of that simplicity is so alluring that Marie Kondo sold millions of copies last year of her book The life changing magic of tidying up in which she basically tells you to get rid of everything in your house that doesn’t spark joy. Instagram and magazines are filled with ‘lifestyle porn’ pictures of nearly empty lofts with white walls and floors and just a bed in it, and one stylish piece of decoration: a tree, maybe. We dream away at a fantasy life that’s clear, serene and uncluttered.

Of course it’s not the absence of stuff in itself that will make us happy – and trying to create a life that resembles Instagram perfection is a recipe for the exact opposite, I would say. It’s the space you can create by taking away (or simply not adding) the non-essential. The space for the essential to be prominently present in your life, instead of buried in stuff and business. What is essential, is up to you – I’d assume it’s those things that give you joy, that make you feel fulfilled and proud.

To me, that means time to be reflective and creative. To really be there with, and for, somebody else. And quietness at times – to recharge, get new ideas. That, to me, turns out to be essential. Ironically, these were exactly the things I was not giving myself before; with my constant rush forward, my quest for more and better.

It’s mental as well as physical space I’m talking about. My journey to becoming more minimalist is still in full swing, but I can share some of my experiences and goals with you. This is how I put minimalism into practice (and it’s still practice).

  • An important step for me was to not bring a TV into my new house and to put away my phone as much as possible. To not fill the silence at night, after work, with a steady inflow of information and entertainment, but to embrace it. Stare into the fire for a while, read, drink a cup of tea. See what happens if I actually give myself the chance to maybe get bored. I do still have internet and watch Netflix occasionally, but all in all it feels more intentional.
  • My new mantra is: I already have everything I need. Truly believing that, and feeling it in your bones, is an empowering and relaxing experience in itself. Practically it means I’ve gotten quite strict about things entering my house and life. This doesn’t just apply to big things like a car, fancy furniture or gadgets (not really interested in any of those). My focus is on clothes and books, because those are the most tempting to me.
    > I got rid of all books that weren’t either favourites or still on my wish list to read. Then I stopped buying books. I go to the library now – very oldskool -, read a book, then bring it back. I don’t have to own it or keep it around.
    > As I have enough clothes in my closet to last me the better part of a decade, I really don’t have to buy anything.  I’m no saint though, and sometimes I really want to. So I have two rules: I pause before I buy (and then I often don’t): do I really want this? Is this worth more to me than (X amount of freedom)? And, I fixed the amount of clothing I can own: so when I do decide to get something new, another thing has to go.
  • Last on the list is taking it slow: being as frugal with spending my time as with spending my money. It’s the most valuable thing I have. Unlike with money, you can never make any more, you can only choose to spend it differently. I used to say YES to anything that seemed fun, or with people I liked. Or things I felt I couldn’t say no to. Now I savour weekends with a blanco agenda, when I can just see what happens – if I want to go out or curl up on the couch. Doing nothing now and then, I think is highly underrated.

The amount of time and space (and money, to be honest) those simple measures freed up was substantial. On top of that, it made me appreciate the things I dó choose to have in my life much more. A cup of strong coffee in the morning, reading the entire newspaper on Saturday, going out for a walk. By tuning it down a bit, I allowed myself to feel the luxury of the present moment again – and realize it already holds everything I need.

I’m writing this on the shores of Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake in Nicaragua. I made time (well, I chose time) and am living out of a backpack once again. No stuff, just me, some old shorts and the laptop I’m writing this on. The decision I finally made to quit my job – to spend my time on things that feel more valuable to me- , is starting to sink in (more on that later). Looking out on the waves rolling onto the black sand, on the immensity of the nature around me, it’s hard to imagine that space was once something that needed to be made. It’s omnipresent here, and I am breathing it in: trying to store some in my cells for when I get home. I am still that same curious and chaotic person as I was before. But here I am, not making plans – a more peaceful and spacious version of myself. And that’s as happy as I can get.

The sunny day that changed my life

It was a bright and beautiful August morning when I felt myself undeniably freeze up. The sun was already high in the sky, warming the streets. I had just finished an early business meeting in town and was ready to get on my bike, rush to the office. Get on with stuff.

But I wasn’t ready. I was staring at my bike lock in an intense, blind panic: suddenly having absolutely no idea how I was ever going to do all those things I was supposed to. Because, in that moment, I didn’t even know how to open the lock. My mind was completely blank. And the idea of having to cycle anywhere through the busy Amsterdam traffic made me want to burst out in tears. Everything made me want to do just that, because I felt too tired to come up with anything else.

I didn’t know what was happening to me. All I knew is that I had never felt more raw, and weak, and scared. Like that secret suspicion I had had all along, the little voice whispering “You can’t do all this. You’re not as good as they think” was finally catching up with me.

That was the day that forced me to change. It took the company doctor about 10 minutes to diagnose me as burned out. My first urge was to prove him wrong but I didn’t have the energy. I soon learned that burned out meant I couldn’t just go back to where I was a few weeks before; quickly recharge, pick up my life and choose differently. This was it for now, and I had to deal with it. Even if I really didn’t know how to. How do you deal with a complete feeling of standstill in life, when all you’ve been doing for years is trying to speed things up, be better, do more? When the whole world around you is still moving fast, and you can’t go along anymore?

Luckily, the standstill was only external – like in winter when everything seems cold and dead, but underneath life’s still simmering, repairing and preparing for a new season.

So, what changed?

Just before that break down, I was on top of the world. I could do anything. You could find me either working my full time corporate job where I’d just started at a new department, at my full time study in Applied Psychology, my side project for the University of Amsterdam, house hunting in a very stressed market, actively socializing with friends or colleagues, or working out in a personalized fitness program.

Or, more and more, you could find me lying in bed directly after work. Completely exhausted, guiltily skipping a yoga class – but that wasn’t a picture of myself I wanted to really look at.

Of course I was tired, but I didn’t want it to affect me. Actually, I found myself in essence to be quite lazy, so I did a lot to avoid giving in to that nature.  I did not want my laziness to lead to ‘not amounting to anything’, and so I pushed myself.

I used fear of failure as motivation.

I felt shame about feeling tired, lazy or sick.

This may sound quite depressing, but these mechanisms were so ingrained into my system that I barely noticed them. And I felt I needed them to stay motivated, thinking that without these psychological ‘whips’ I would just lay on the couch all day and do nothing.

I think the core of it was I desperately wanted to feel meaningful – and gravely feared the opposite. If only I made enough of an impact, if I would just do enough, it would matter I was here. I would live up to something. The problem was, it was never enough. I wasn’t suffering from the FOMO* us millennials are so often accused of, but of a deep FOM0: Fear of Meaning 0 [nothing].

And there was a nasty catch to this fear: it completely blocked my creativity and ability to follow my heart, thus setting me up for even bigger failure: in life. I so franticly needed to succeed, to ease that feeling of slumbering discontent, that I only felt free doing things I already knew I could succeed in. But everything worth doing, you can fail at.

The thought of truly committing, to take a risk and do something real and exciting, scared the hell out of me. That’s not a recipe for inspiration, I can tell you. I would start things that inspired me, like writing, and stop again – feeling blocked. Then resent myself for being such a coward and push to work harder. But will power does not make for creativity and passion, and I was getting exhausted and fed up with myself.

I think to a certain extent I even used my avid traveling as a way to sustain this pattern: by stepping out of ‘real life’ for a while, I could finally live in the moment and accept myself while not being productive. I could still feel like I was doing something deeply personal and adventurous. I felt happier and more in sync when traveling. But I never found a way to translate this into everyday life.

So I was failing anyway I could look at it, despite all my efforts. Despite the superficial success.

I think I needed the break down to break out of the cycle. With energy, it would just have been too tempting to keep running and numb the fear. Then, burned out at home, I was forced to look it in the eye: I was finally where I was always trying to get away from: on the couch all day (watching Netflix, yes), not amounting to anything. I finally, officially, failed. But I didn’t disappear, and people still loved me. Apparently, being meaningful didn’t require that much work and achievement after all, but was something that was just given to me.

Also, in that break down, I felt that the pain of not listening to my own voice, of constantly giving into fear, had become so much bigger than the pain of failing at something could possibly be. It had probably always been irrational, but now this system of motivation was not even working anymore. That meant I had to come up with a new way of motivating myself. This was new territory. For months I handled my burn out the same way I had handled other projects: with ambition and dedication. I would slowly recover, then try to get more active, and feel my energy implode again. It was very frustrating.

So I had to start believing that there was another way of creating things in the world: a more natural way that doesn’t depend so much on pushing but on a natural flow of inspiration and growth. Like how a fetus grows into a baby, or a seed turns into a plant. They just do, without trying hard of forcing anything, because it’s what they’re meant to do. There is an incredible creative energy in the universe and I felt if I could tap into that, I would be ok. I could do and create things without losing all my energy. And if I could lean back a bit more, I would find a way to do it. I needed trust for that, as it felt very unnatural to try less instead of more: feelings of guilt for not working hard enough would reappear often. But somehow I kept getting back to it. Undeniably because the idea of feeling inspired and working from flow had a grand appeal after all that struggle. And because I knew I could not get back to my old ways.

I wish I could conclude by saying I found the magic key and am now in a constant state of flow and divine inspiration. I didn’t, and I still struggle with some of my old thought patterns at times. But something, in my core, has changed. I now trust that some things happen in their own time. I trust my own voice a lot more, even when I feel insecure or vulnerable. And I’m taking steps to align myself more with what’s in my heart. That is, in fact, how this article came into being: I wrote it from a deep desire to put some of this experience onto paper and share it with others. Truly honest and thus quite scary. But I know now that’s the only way to make something. So that’s OK.

I look back on that sunny August day in gratitude. I wish I could tell my terrified self then that I would be fine even if things were falling apart. How much I’d learn about myself, how much courage I’d find to do things differently in the end. Today I look outside – it’s bright light and sunny yet again. Almost a year has passed (winter is over) and a new season has started.

*  FOMO = Fear of Missing Out