Satisfaction Versus Happiness, And Change And Finality

A theme for discussion between a good friend and I over the last couple of years has been the existence of a dichotomy between life satisfaction and life happiness. We have been debating whether there is a difference between being satisfied with life and being happy about one’s life. We have discussed whether happiness is possible, and, if so, whether it is a desirable emotional state over an extended period of time. A related idea is whether one should measure the moral quality of one’s life by the metric of happiness (ie, if I am happy, then I live a “good” life and if I am unhappy, then I live a “bad” life).

I can’t say we’ve come to any meaningful conclusions so far and part of the problem seems to be that we can’t even agree on any meaningful definitions. This probably is not a unique or original discussion but we’re not familiar with the literature on it or else skeptical about the approach of some who have made attempts. Normally I am hesitant to engage in philosophical inquiry without agreeing on terms ahead of time but this is too “meta” at this point to do anything but grope around in the dark for a place to start so I’m going to pen a few thoughts as they stand now, as they come to me.

One thing we’ve pondered is whether there is room for any negative emotions in a person who is happy. Does one have to feel and describe oneself as “happy” ALL the time, MOST of the time, A LOT of the time or just SOME of the time to honestly bear the moniker? Does being happy mean ignoring or even repressing the negative emotions one might experience (sadness, anger, disappointment)? This gets at the question of whether happiness is authentic and human– does being happy necessitate disconnecting part of your emotional apparatus and living a kind of emotional lie?

What are the necessary components of a happy person’s life? Can one be happy in poverty? In sickness? In loneliness? Can one be happy in a moment of failure, or a lifetime full of it? Can the stupid be happy? The incompetent? The mean? Are there different varieties of happy, or just one? Different qualities, or just one? Is the happiness of an accomplished, healthy adult the same as the happiness of a decrepit moron? Is a child’s happiness like an adult’s? (And is an adult’s even possible?)

Is happiness possible for everyone, or just a lucky few? Does it come with hard work and discipline or is it connected to the genetic lottery and inbred disposition? A popular idea is that everyone can find work they love that they’re passionate about, yet only few people seem to describe their jobs or careers as emotionally fulfilling. Is happiness like these wonderful jobs or social roles?

Another thing we wonder about is whether happiness comes from accomplishments and milestones, things achieved and earned or accumulated, material or otherwise, or whether happiness is an outcome of process, procedure and the act of living itself? Can one be making progress towards things one wants, without ever getting them, and be happy or does a goal need to be seized to secure happiness along with it?

My friend spent some time reading some Arthur Schopenhauer with his wife and while I haven’t read it, the synopsis I got from him is that life is a living hell and the best one can hope to do is get as far away from the flames as possible. This view of the world might seem reasonable for someone living with chronic hunger, crushing poverty or within an active war zone or communist regime. But is it a reasonable conclusion for a young couple in a major American city who are closer to joining the top 1% than the bottom 1%?

This is where the idea of happiness becomes a moral weapon. If we don’t suffer any particular hardships, but we also don’t find ourselves emotionally fulfilled by our lives, does this mean we are not happy and must compound our circumstances by heaping moral approbation on ourselves for this emotional failure? Could we allow ourselves to acknowledge we are merely satisfied with our lives and get on with living them?

I think about dying (hopefully decades from now) without happiness. Ignoring that death itself doesn’t seem to be a happy circumstance however you go about it, I wonder if reaching that point and having a final or recent thought being “I didn’t manage to achieve happiness over the course of my life” kind of takes whatever satisfaction you might have up to that point away from you at the last moment leaving you with truly nothing. Not your life, not your friends and family, not your wealth and not even a final happy thought before you blink out of existence. (For those who cherish the idea of an afterlife, what if you make it into the kingdom of heaven a moral saint but your soul is plagued by a Woody Allen-esque neurotic paranoia with regards to contentment and joy? I realize the very notion might be blasphemous or at least theologically untenable but work with me here on the existential problem I am grasping at.)

Now what if I reach my point of universal departure and I am not happy, but I am confident my life was a satisfying one? I have no major complaints, I’ve got a few things I care quite a bit about and I learned enough about those things and how I relate to them to effect some kind of meaningful impact according to my values? Should I be disappointed at that point if that was the most I could manage?

I then try to follow this logic back from my eventual time of death to my present existence. Where am I “going”? I won’t know until I get there. What if where I am “going” is where I am right now? And I am not rapturous about life, but I am not miserable?

What if not much changes between now and then? I’m about who I am, I have about what I have, I suffer no major indignities, troubles or traumas and I just keep going about the routine I am in albeit as a slightly older person with each iteration? I dream and scheme, I work toward these goals but I don’t get “there.” Can I be satisfied with a satisfying life? Or must I start chastising myself somewhere down the line for my personal stagnation? Is life that much greater if it’s characterized by greater intensity and frequency over time of a particular pattern I’m engaged in right now? Is one happiness and the other only satisfaction?

I doubt anyone would want to read a book about my life right now. He ate this. He read that. He walked the dog. I might not live a life worth retelling by the time I die, either. Is that some kind of existential problem for me?

Incoming Library Additions, And Why I Bought Them

I recently purchased 13 books for my library. However, I already regret doing so because I recently finished Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and it helped me to realize I already had a lot of unread books on my shelf that I will realistically never get to read because I’ve lost interest in their subject matter since I purchased them. To add 13 more books to a pile of unread books is wasteful of money and subtly increases my stress as I subconsciously keep track of “my giant stack of unread books.” Instead of reading being a pleasure that I can do when I feel like it, with a book I am currently interested in, I have created the conditions of a never-ending treadmill of progress project. Going forward, I am going to work through as many of these books as I can maintain interest in until one of two things happen: a.) complete the entire stack, at which point I can purchase a new title I am interested in reading, at the time I am interested in reading it or b.) sell/donate/discard all books I have not managed to read before I am overtaken by the impulse to purchase something else, which would serve as a good indicator that I’ve reached the limit of my interest from this current stack.

I have noticed that despite having access to an Amazon Prime account, I almost NEVER use the Prime, 2-day shipping feature. I am always happy to wait 3, 5 or sometimes even more days for books to arrive because I am usually in the middle of several books when I order another, and I have another reserve of several titles unread as well so I never worry about lost reading time. That should’ve been a good indication to me that there was something seriously wasteful in my habit!

That is my plan going forward. In the meantime, I thought it’d be good to record the titles I purchased along with the reason I purchased them. I want to formulate my interest as a question or questions I hope the book will help me answer. After all, this is why we read books– to answer questions we have about the book’s subject matter. I would like to develop the habit going forward of being more aware of my own questions and perceived purpose in reading books, especially to compare against on the occasion that a book positively surprises me and gets me thinking about a question I didn’t have before I arrived at it.

Here are my new books due to arrive soon:

  1. The School Revolution, by Ron Paul; we plan to homeschool our children, but could there ever be a (private) group schooling solution which would meet our family and social needs? I am interested in building alternative educational institutions that can “compete” the state and quasi-state institutions out of existence, is there merit to this idea and has Ron Paul thought through potential models for this that I could consider in my own efforts?
  2. How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell; I read and enjoyed Studwell’s Asian Godfathers and I want to know more about the managed economy models of southeast Asia, what is the true extent of “free market” influence in these major economies and how does it factor in to their growth stories since the 1960s?
  3. Elevating Child Care, by Janet Lansbury; I am interested in “Respect For Infant Education” as I have seen how transformative it is for parent-child relationships and child development after observing friends who use it in their families, what are the principles of RIE and what solutions and strategies does it offer for common parenting situations with infants?
  4. Before The Dawn by Nicholas Wade; what role did genetics and evolution play in early human history and what kind of evolution or genetic change is occurring in modern times and populations? What is the significance of race, genetically?
  5. The 10,000 Year Explosion, by Cochran and Harpending; how have changes in human technological know-how and social organization influenced human genetics at an individual or population level? What feedback loops exist such that genetic changes might result in further changes in technology and social organization?
  6. The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley; I am often mistaken for a pessimist and surely there is a lot to worry about for anyone who is rational and pays attention, but what is there to be optimistic about and why? What is the philosophical relationship between economic development and evolution?
  7. The Secret of Childhood, by Maria Montessori; what is childhood “really about”? What kinds of things are children capable of that we take for granted? How could I parent my future child with greater empathy for their capabilities and individual purpose?
  8. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, by Gordon Wood; was the American Revolution truly a “revolution”, politically and intellectually? What were the principles of government the “Founders” were truly after and why did they think this was an improvement over historical despotisms and English parliamentarism? If republicanism represents a true break with the political past, why isn’t it more common in history?
  9. Hive Mind, by Garrett Jones; is it more important to be part of a high IQ community, or to have a high IQ yourself? Can culture impact IQ (and raise it)? Could one consciously build a community or culture of high IQ people? What kind of outcomes or behaviors might be predictable in such a circumstance? Are IQs increasing or decreasing in the modern era and what is the consequence? Should I try to emigrate to a high IQ place and if so, where is that?
  10. The WikiLeaks Files, by WikiLeaks/Julian Assange; what are some of the high-level takeaways from the major WikiLeaks cable collections to date? How does one effectively search and scrutinize these cables for ones own research purposes? What does the information contained within these cables imply for the actual practice of global governance and foreign policy?
  11. Anarchy, State and Utopia, by Robert Nozick; is there a logically-consistent philosophical case for a minimalist government? Why is it intellectually superior to a private property society?
  12. Invisible Wealth, by Kling and Schulz; why do political borders and different legal systems seem to have such disparate impacts on economic development? Which follows which, the culture/political system or the economy? How sound is the idea of “competition amongst governments” and why don’t we see more countries’ policies moving toward a “developed” mean?
  13. The Logic of Collective Action, by Mancur Olson; what does the logic of collective action say about corporate governance structures in private companies? What warnings or limitations does it reveal for the conduct of public governance?

Review – The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

by Marie Kondo, published 2014

This is a work of philosophy under cover of personal organization and household habit. The question at the center of the book is “Why do you own what you own?” Put more bluntly, it is, “Why do you have so much stuff you don’t use and never will?” If those don’t seem like profound questions, maybe you don’t live your life and enjoy your material existence in a thoughtful way.

The book’s weakness, ironically, is in the specific tidying, folding and organizing methods Kondo advocates. Reading on Kindle, I did not find any helpful pictures or diagrams (but thankfully, there is a wealth of videos on YouTube where people have demonstrated her techniques) and I found the text-explanations of how to fold or where to store different things in a closet generally confusing. I believe my confusion will be relieved with some practice and patience in experimenting with different techniques over time. But if you’re hoping to learn the “KonMari Method” for folding, storing and the like, I don’t think this book is the best resource.

Instead, the book’s strength is its principles– always key to the strength of any philosophical work. Kondo suggests a general method for tidying one’s living space– start with your own possessions, then move to shared possessions; begin with clothes, then work through to other easily accumulated items such as books, kitchen and toilet supplies and finally to trinkets and trash; when tidying by category, locate ALL such possessions throughout the home and dump them in a pile on the floor before sorting. Anyone can grasp the principles of this method regardless of their specific circumstances. Her criteria for keeping things (note: this is a positive criteria, NOT a negative criteria for determining what to eliminate) is to hold the object and ask oneself, “Does this spark joy?” It seems ambiguous, emotional… subjective. But that’s the point! It’s a deeply individual approach to tidying. Neither Kondo nor anyone else can tell you what objects bring happiness to your life and which you can do without, you have to sense that on your own.

As a rational person I was alarmed by this at first. It seemed goofy and mystic, maybe not even serious. “Spark joy”, I don’t think in those terms. But I gave it some time and realized it made sense. I started thinking about shirts and sweaters and pants I look for an excuse to wear. I have a pair of corduroys, for example, that almost make me excited for cold weather. And then I have articles that are just taking up space in my dresser and closet, items that I can never seem to find a good opportunity to use them but nonetheless I keep holding on to them because they still fit and they are nice and in good condition. But every sweater I have that I don’t wear and won’t get rid of is another sweater I can’t acquire that I might actually enjoy.

When Kondo pointed out the cost of storing all this useless stuff, I was floored. I would never pay for a “self-storage” unit somewhere, or turn my garage into anything other than a place to put my car. In fact, I regularly shake my head when I peer into neighbor’s open garages as I walk past with my dog seeing them bulging with stacked crap all the way up to the door. What on earth are these people thinking? They’re never going to use this stuff!!

But then I realized that all the items I keep around my home that I have no use for is effectively absorbing part of my rent each month– I am paying to store these items! And what’s worse, as Kondo points out, much of the time these are items I bought in bulk to “save money” but which are in such significant supply that they will last me multiple months if not years. I am effectively floating the manufacturer’s inventory and parking part of it in my home, or thought of another way, I am subsidizing his production by buying several items I don’t really need and won’t ever use with each one I do need. Rather than saving money, I am costing myself– once for buying more than I needed and twice for paying to store it in my home. For me, I’d argue a third time with the emotional cost of being aware of and surrounded by these unused possessions that continually fail to “spark joy.” Just the other day I bought a pack of 12 pens for annotating books as I read. I was unhappy with my previous pens and wanted to try something new. I didn’t need 12 pens, I needed 1 or 2. But I bought 12 for around $10 because I was “saving” money over buying a pack of 3 for $5. The problem is, it turns out I kind of hate these pens and now I have enough to last me a couple years at my current rate of use. Kondo made this so clear to me!

Another startling revelation was the way I’ve shifted some of my own tidying burden to family members. It’s hard to visit my childhood home at times because my parents have a bad case of hoarding. But I’ve had no problem storing my finished or unread books in an unused room of the house I used to occupy when I occasionally stop by. One part of me has been mentally scolding my parents for hoarding and not cleaning up their living space. But another part of me has been dumping off my own clutter on them, completely unaware! I have resolved to go over there and dump a bunch of the stuff that remains.

While I am excited to declutter clothes (and look forward to the opportunity to purchase new articles I might actually enjoy wearing with the newly freed space), hallway closets, linen storage, bathroom and kitchen cupboards and more, one area I struggled with was her suggestion for decluttering one’s library. I love books. Or, rather, I love the idea of reading my books. But Kondo helped me clarify another meaningful point– many of the books I purchase and do not read were meant only to gratify my own ego, ie, “It’d be so great to know more about X.” When I purchase a book and don’t read it for months, I probably won’t read it ever. The inspiration and desire to study that topic has come and gone. I have made the mistake, time and time again, of purchasing far more books than I could ever hope to read and that I will ever be able to sustain an interest in. It’s wasteful.

There are a few books I really do enjoy and which I will read again. There are books I’d like to keep which I may not read again, but which I believe my children will gain a benefit from studying at an appropriate time in their life as I did. You can argue that it’d be better to buy them their own copy at that time, which is true, but this is a limited case in which I am okay holding on to a few titles for them in the meanwhile. But most of the books I own that I haven’t read yet, won’t get read– they’ll remain as costly monuments to an ambition not realized. And many more which I have read and absorbed from them what I can will similarly sit on my shelves unused as a monument to the hope that there is more juice to squeeze. But the pulp is dry at this point. I have made another resolution, which is to keep the few titles I know I will re-read because I’ve re-read in the past, the few titles I want to share with my kids and the few titles I am excited to read in the next month or two at my normal pace of reading. Everything else (read, unread) is getting sold or donated. I want to have a limited library of titles that “spark joy” and feel good to see on my shelf and not a stack of paper that I subconsciously feel a burden to get to as some kind of project.

Marie Kondo’s “Life Changing Magic” invites us to live our lives more consciously and to purchase, use and store with purpose. Any book that helps me to resolve logical contradictions in my own thoughts and actions is valuable to me. I took far more away from this book than I thought I would going into it given that I already have a reputation for being a neat freak!

 

Quotes – Living A Purposeful Life

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.

~Viktor Frankl

The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.

~Frank Wilczek

Why do we travel? 4

This may be the last in the series as our trip is coming to an end and my interest in blogging about it may be as well, I fear.

Today we got a late start. We work up around 7 but didn’t really get our act together and find food until around 830. We ended up picking up some bagel sandwiches and cappucinos (called a white here, as opposed to a black or straight coffee) from Two Men Bagel House. The bagels were outstanding, crispy on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside as promised in the reviews and the sandwiches themselves were creative and filling. Our quality coffee escapades continued, I found my cappucino extremely satisfying as did the Wolf.

We ended up watching the rest of “Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark” on Netflix with breakfast and by the time we finished it was almost 1030. The day was fast getting away from us and we hadn’t decided what to do yet and were seriously considering just staying back and relaxing. But somehow this felt like a copout. We came all this way and we still knew so little about the city. The Gardens by the Bay and Cloud Forest seemed interesting but we just didn’t feel much excitement about potential sun and heat exposure… It’s really, really warm here.

We were working on narrowing down a short list of air conditioned history and art museums when my friend from LA started texting me. It led to an interesting exchange which I thought I’d partially relay here as its relevant to the subject of why we travel.

The first thing he asked is if I think this is Asia’s century. I’m borrowing some logic from a book I read on the way over, “[amazon text=Asian Godfathers&asin=0802143911]” by Joe Studwell, but my answer is not really. Taipei is an industrious, commercial environment but I didn’t see much in the way of economic trends noticeable back home and I didn’t see any brands or businesses I could imagine dominating the US or Europe. It seems their role in the value chain is to add manufacturing technology exports to branded finished products and serve their domestic markets with largely unconsolidated product and service businesses, at least for now.

When it comes to Western brands in HK and Singapore, financial services dominate but there are also some inroads being made most conspicuously by McDonald’s, Starbucks and purveyors such as Marks and Spencer. Global fashion brands have done an outstanding job of penetrating all of these markets. There is a 3story Apple store in HK in the IFC Mall but I don’t know where one is in Singapore or Taipei, probably somewhere though as I saw authorized resellers.

Again in HK and Singapore, I don’t see anything that looks like it could become an emergent global brand. So this is Studwell’s point– these economies are dominated by raw materials monopolies granted to local cronies and their near captive financial institutions, and none of these businesses face competition from global firms which also means the local entrepreneurs aren’t being challenged to produce brands that are exportable.

No exportable brands mean no “Asian century”. The demographics may be on their side but the political systems are trapped in the mercantilist past. That’s weird to say as a person who is skeptical of the idea that the West in general and the US in particular have not seen their power and prestige eclipsed.

But for now I’ll say, based off the limited experiences of this trip the Asian century is not upon us. But I don’t know what is. It also doesn’t mean I’m calling for stagnation or economic collapse in this part of the world (China the possible exception, that place is weird.)

I also was raving about some of the food we had had so far, here and the previous locales and my friend asked if I’d consider it best in the world or how I’d rank it. I think that question kind of misses the point. We decided to skip an opportunity to eat at one of the “Top 50” restaurants in the world here in Singapore despite securing a reservation months before our trip. That kind of restaurant caters to food innovation and the experience of dining. I’ve been to places like that– they’re amazing, you often feel entranced and delightfully confused about how food can be what it is on your plate or in your bowl or what have you. But that isn’t about eating so much as it is about imagining, in my mind. There’s a time and a place for it but I wouldn’t judge a place and its food culture by trying to rank it against experiences like that.

What I am after in eating is intensity of flavors and simple food made from timeless, cultural recipes that speaks to the incrementally developed genius of a people and their place and how they turn their culture into what they eat. I’m talking about the stuff people eat day in, day out, that I’d be happy eating with similar frequency. Some people call this “local”, whatever you call it, it’s not cuisine and it can’t be ranked.

Some of the meals we’ve had in this sense have been superb. The purveyors aren’t trying to impress or win accolades. But they sometimes do both in the course of making their traditional dishes.

Another thing we discussed was the purposelessness of this trip. We didn’t come for work. We didn’t come to see friends or family. We really don’t know much about the history or culture of these places. It is a bit of an existential crisis initially to arrive somewhere without anything to accomplish besides “seeing” it, and then, not knowing much about what you’re seeing or what you might keep an eye out for.

Having visited these three cities now and noticed their similarities and differences, both compared to one another and to places and ways of life back home, I feel confident in saying we could live here if we wanted to and we’d be quite comfortable. I’m sure of that. But at this point I’m still not certain why we’d want to move.

There are some things that are far ahead of where were from that are wonderful– the cleanliness and efficiency of mass transit, the cheapness and ubiquity of mobile communications technology, the attitude of cooperation and community. And there are some things that are unique, like some of the food spots that it will just be hard to find something of similar quality back home even in a diverse place.

But other than that, I haven’t seen anything that really appeals to me in some deep way, that I can’t get where I come from. These places aren’t freer. It isn’t any easier to start a business. Or even to grow wealthy– no El Dorado here, as far as I could see. Why pack up and go across the globe for what would essentially be an economic and financial reset?

P and I have remarked several times how fun it would be to raise children in a foreign place and let them learn new cultures and languages from their friends. But it would also be great to raise them in a uniform culture were familiar with, hopefully amongst a community of like-minded progressive parents like us (not big P progressive, mind you!!) Those are tradeoffs to pick one over the other and I’m not sure why we’d come all this way for that particular trade-off.

Living and working in Hong Kong and Singapore in particular seem like a young man’s game. If we turned back he clock ten or fifteen years and I was just about to make a go of it, and I knew of these places, I’d probably head this way and try to make my fortunes on my own, especially if there was greater opportunity for a Westerner looking to take that risk. Without a spouse, without family obligations and without a routine and a financial basis for myself back home I’d quickly set out for a place like this and see if I could try. The only reason I didn’t when that was the case was that these places simply weren’t on my radar.

But now, it makes less sense. Without some compelling economic reason, why come here versus continue on roughly where we are? That choice seems rather arbitrary.

One of the reasons we travel, and here in particular, is to see if we feel like we could make a go of it some place else. And I guess I’m a little disappointed to realize these last few times that we could, that we’d be happy, but I can’t find a compelling reason to jump.

Why Do We Travel? 3

The curiosity continues.

I took a look through the archives of this blog and saw that I addressed this question somewhat when we first started writing about our travels in 2013. Some of the reasons I cited then we’re the opportunity to gain new experiences and perspectives, to learn about new foods, to practice speaking a different language and to gain exposure to different cultures and customs. That’s all fine, and those are some of the things you can accomplish on your travels, but WHY those are valuable and worth traveling for remains a question to be pondered. Here are some more thoughts.

There is something of a difference between travel and vacation. Travel implies some kind of purpose to the trip and it can be business travel or personal travel. The purpose of the vacation is to relax in a different place than your home environment. It is not necessarily to see anything or do anything in particular but to simply get away from the normal of life, wherever and whatever that might be.

How are travel and tourism related? Tourism has a very low opinion amongst people we’ve met who consider themselves “travelers”. When they think of tourism they think of your groups, tour buses, people shuttling on and off to snap a few photos of something they’re supposed to think is amazing or wonderful and then move on. There isn’t much thinking going on and the point of the exercise is maybe to get it all over with quickly so one can hurry home and show others what you saw.

Tourism also has the connotation of a logistical exercise, and involves efficiency of time. Most tourists have a short itinerary, cram too many locations, stops, transfers, etc. Into their plans and are always rushing about to be on schedule. The traveler has more of an attitude of a Flaneur, he has time to follow his fancy wherever it may lead and however long it might take to get there or accomplish it’s satisfaction. He might set out to travel for a few weeks but end up travelling for a few months.

To wit: several days ago the weather was poor and we decided the best use of our time would be to sit in a tea house across the street from our apartment and read books for several hours. We could do this at home and in fact we generally don’t (go to a tea or coffee house to read that is). This egregious use of time would be unheard of for a tourist. But for us on this travel, it was one of the more wonderful things we’ve done so far and was fully worth the time invested.

Wrapped up deeply in the idea of traveling is the notion of learning. And it is not just learning about a place or the people, it is about learning about yourself in a different way than you might if you had stayed home.

Thinking about why were traveling this time and what we hope to learn, I think one explicit question we had was “Could we imagine ourselves living in and being happy in one of these cities?” With several reservations the answer so far is yes, in fact we spent some time scheming about how we might do this in each place although we have no immediate plans and haven’t decided to cancel our flights home to stay.

Another thing were exploring is, “what’s really important to us in life? What do we feel we need more of? And less?”

Spending time “aimlessly” reading seems like something I want more of; my experience at Ozone left me confident I don’t yearn to be able to drink in the best bars in the world.

Yesterday we spent the afternoon with another of the Wolf’s friends from school, another Hong Kong native. He, too, enjoys traveling and we learned about his recent experiences and approach to travel. There were many similarities in terms of places to visit, the opportunity to learn new languages, the desire to explore a lifestyle in another place.

We also discussed routine– is it valuable to have a routine to return to, can travel fit into it, and could travel BE the routine? We all inhabit a privileged position where we have the freedom, personal and financial, to even consider such alternatives for ourselves. We also have the opportunity to think critically about our economic choices and the value of adopting a routine that involves “staring at a cubicle” for the rest of our working lives.

I thought the Wolf’s friend made a good point that I plan to dwell on further which is that, most people can not do what we are considering doing but would like to be able to do so. If you have the freedom to consider alternatives, why wouldn’t you do so? Why would you just automatically do what everyone else is doing with less freedom without thinking it through and exploring your options?

So maybe the meta answer to the question “why do we travel?” Is that travel is a means of exploring the optionality of personal freedom with the goal of finding an optimal pattern of existence for one’s remaining life.

Why Do We Travel? 2

I still don’t know the answer but I think I’m slowly getting closer. But I had this thought and I think it’s relevant.

On our walking tour yesterday afternoon we met a couple from Chicago who had recently gotten married. The wife is ethnically Chinese and is a medical resident. The husband was ethnically Indian and works for PwC as a consultant in the healthcare industry. They had come to this part of the world on their honeymoon. It sounds like they were married in India and went to Hong Kong and now Taipei on their honeymoon. A Taiwanese friend who was in the wedding party was accompanying them on the tour (and helped my wife buy me an umbrella when it started to rain, apparently Western tourists sometimes pay different prices, an interesting form of price discrimination).

The husband described his 8 years so far in the consulting world as not terribly enjoyable. His routine is to leave home on a plane on Monday morning and come back Thursday evening. He is compensated well, but doesn’t find the work satisfying.

Now, if he essentially travels for a living, why does he travel on his honeymoon?

Here is another question: he and his wife are clearly highly intelligent and well educated people, how come with all his intelligence he can’t figure out a way to earn an income he’s satisfied with, in a manner that he enjoys and finds fulfilling?

This is not a criticism by the way! I am not about to claim I’ve necessarily figured that out myself, if it even can be figured out. I have a feeling there’s a flaw in the premise of the question itself.

I’ve never met a consultant who likes his work. So why do they do it? And why do I always meet them when I’m traveling?

Why Do We Travel?

Why do we travel?

Meeting other travelers, it’s often the first thing you ask, and are asked in return.

In many cases, travel fulfills that common desire to investigate whether the grass is greener, what some term “wanderlust” but which is really no more glorious than being convinced despite the evidence that if you just search a bit further and farther you’ll eventually find a place that is significantly better for you than where you are, if it isn’t perfection itself.

For others it is to gain a new perspective on people, places, history or culture. What is the food like and why do people make it like that? How are people dressed and what makes that customary or comfortable? How do people behave toward one another in their community and why? How do they get around and where do they go? Sometimes these become notches on the travel belt– “Oh I’ve been there, here and over there… I’m very worldly and can appreciate others in a way you’d only dream of if that was the kind of thing you yearned for for some reason.” The really psychotic ones almost make it like a race, “I’ve been traveling for X months and I’ve seen Y places, I’m way ahead of you on the quest to see it all and make myself comparatively more enlightened.”

We’ve only been at this for a few days on this trip but already we’ve been asked several times, and we’ve asked several times as well. This would include ourselves, I’ve been wondering, why are we traveling, and to these places in particular?

One gentleman we met on tour yesterday has been traveling, on his own, throughout southeast Asia for the better part of a year and change. He’s middle aged and a friendly fellow but the fact that he is alone and doing this relatively late in life makes you wonder if he’s looking for something, or simply lost. Why did he come here?

On our second tour last night we met several more travelers, all younger, female and apparently traveling on their own. They were each on an itinerary similar to ours– several weeks to a month total, visiting major developed economy cities, college educated (world travel doesn’t seem to be for the uneducated these days, which seems strange) and each seemed to have some personal heritage, identity or family connection to the region. But again, in the short time we met I couldn’t tell, why were they here?

It isn’t enough to simply ask the question. It is too philosophical and most people will reply with something shallow and obnoxious “to eat the food” or “to learn more about history”.

So, why do we travel? And why did we travel here?

I’m still formulating my thoughts on this, but I will attempt a response in the near future.

In the meantime, here is a picture of a handmade candle we found at a local designer mall. The young saleswoman told me it was called the “melting baby head”. I almost bought one but I think a picture will suffice and I didn’t feel like lugging it around the rest of the trip.

Why We Travel

The Wolf and I¬†were kicking around a few links via e-mail the other day as we (she) put the finishing touches on our South America excursion. We were reading something from one of Tim Ferriss’s guest writers about “how to travel”. The guy was a little sanctimonious in the beginning but ultimately offered some tips I found valuable for getting the most out of my upcoming travels.

I say it was a little sanctimonious as if I am displeased. But as a sanctimonious person myself, I mostly took interest. What the guest author was on about was “good” and “bad” reasons to travel. As I read it, I have to say I couldn’t figure out how anyone could have a “good” reason… it all seemed to boil down to restlessness borne of subtle, unaddressed displeasure with one’s usual circumstances.

I thought about why I like to travel. I noticed a lot of my reasons boiled down to this nagging insecurity and unhappiness thing. I haven’t found a way to rationalize my way out of that bag (and maybe I never will), so in the meantime I thought I’d “invert, always invert” (erroneously attributed by naive financial market philosophes to Charlie Munger) and pose it this way:

Why wouldn’t you want to travel?

I came up with a short, condescending list, in no particular order:

  • You’re completely unaware there is a world of other people and experiences outside the narrow confines of your everyday life
  • You can’t afford it (ultimately because you don’t prioritize the experience highly enough to take the steps necessary to produce enough for others in exchange to pay the cost)
  • You’re a racist
  • You’re intimidated by foreign languages and awkward some-English interpersonal encounters
  • You don’t like the food
  • You realize churches and temples are bizarre no matter where they are in the world and, seeing as how most travelers eventually wind-up staring at a place of foreign worship at some moment or another in their trip, you decide to skip it and stay home
  • You are a Zen-like being of perfect self-knowledge and self-control and there is no felt uneasiness you feel the need to relieve yourself of by journeying beyond your present place and state; in fact, you are so consumed by your enlightened presence that you don’t even travel into the kitchen for a snack… ultimately you stay right where you are until you sublimate into supreme nothingness (aka, you die and leave a smelly mess for the neighbors to find)

I think when you put it this way, it’s pretty clear why we travel and it’s really hard to come up with a reason why you wouldn’t live life exactly as we are (take THAT, Zen master!)