Lesson 2: Don’t forget to live in the moment

For the last seven years or so, I’ve always been a planner and have been fairly organised with my life, especially after turning 30. It’s partly because I’m typically a big picture, optimistic type of thinker who is easily romanticised with what’s possible in the future. I’m always imagining about how my life will look like in five years, ten years, or twenty years from now.

My chaotic twenties really helped shape that type of mentality because I had no concrete, long-term plans and was always focused on just living in the moment. I was a drifter and it drove my Chinese parents insane because in their culture, there is always a large emphasis on long-term planning and things which didn’t support a long-term plan are usually frowned up or seen as quite wasteful of one’s precious time and resources.

What was their rationality?

You never know what may happen in the future and thus, it is both responsible and dutiful to only do things that will allow you to build a solid foundation or position of security. Normally, this is quite materialistic in nature and it involves wealth and finances. For example, I was regularly lectured by my parents to save money for a property deposit. Or to scrap and sacrifice in the short-term so I could possibly reap the rewards later on.

I remember getting into debates with my parents about travelling. My viewpoint is that you should travel as much as possible because it is both enriching and it also helps you expand your perception of the world and be exposed to all the different cultures that reside in it. I also want to travel when I’m able to participate in physically taxing activities, such as an arduous hike through a mountain range in South America or trekking through a lush forest in Borneo on foot. So essentially, I can’t be 75 years old with a nagging hip problem and breathing issues.

Their counter argument was that one should work hard during your youth, earn a lot of money, save it up, make smart financial investments, earn even more money, and then savour your success later on. From their standpoint, travel was a luxury, an expensive one, and like many luxuries, you should postpone enjoying them until you have the financial means to do so adequately.

At the time, financial stability was something which I both possessed (on paper, at least) yet I routinely threatened to jeopardise it as well. In all honesty, it was a rollercoaster relationship because I was fortunate enough to be employed in a very well-paid job in my early twenties, but I was also spending most of my income and savings on impulsive purchases and short-term pleasures. I don’t have any regrets about that phase of my life, but I can certainly understand why my parents would perceive it to be quite wasteful and meaningless at times. In summary, I had no long-term direction and I was just happy to ride out the wave and have a good time for as long as possible.  

The turning point occurred when I was 24. I observed some tremendous stress and frustration from people in my life that had no long-term plans or source of financial stability. They had either lost their jobs or witnessed their business go belly up and were struggling mightily due to how expensive their lifestyle choices had been. Their mental health also suffered tremendously, and all the stress led to breakdowns in their relationships too. Most importantly, they had operated with a mindset of only focusing on what was in front of them and giving very little thought about what would be best for them in the future. That approach had contributed to the dilemma that they were now facing.

Quite frankly, I was also exhausted from my “live-only-in-the-moment” lifestyle from my early twenties and both my energy and savings account were rapidly dwindling. My parents were also getting older and their health was gradually deteriorating. Being the eldest son in my family, it was my duty to look after them as they got older, and I couldn’t do that properly if I was just drifting through life without a focus on the future. And no long-term plans to guide me and help me progress towards achieving my dreams.

I needed to change or as I viewed it at the time, to grow up.

I completely changed my mentality and became determined to make progress everyday towards a long-term goal. I started making smarter financial choices, changed my lifestyle completely so that I wouldn’t be blowing funds impulsively. I learned how to cook and that alone saved me hundreds of dollars each week from not eating out all the time. I started using a planner, stuck notes on my fridge to remind me of what I had to get done daily, and even went as far as creating an Asana / Excel spreadsheet where I had all my plans grouped by day, week, month and year. For the next three to five years. I had to make noticeable progress each day, and it got to a point where it gnawed irritably at me if I went to bed without feeling I had done so.

I also bought into the concept of becoming a homeowner because I thought the idea of being shackled to a mortgage was symbolic of truly growing up. In addition, it plugged into a long-term plan, and it would accelerate my maturity and sense of responsibility through the process of being forced to manage these adulthood affairs. I started putting aside money for that purpose and eventually after three years of sacrifice, was able to save up just enough for a deposit for a small apartment in the Inner City area of Sydney. I was so ecstatic when I was able to formally purchase my first property in April 2018. I felt a great sense of pride and achievement. Most importantly, I felt I had made sizeable progress in my long-term plan.

Coincidentally, this also happened as I neared my 30th birthday. For that milestone, I decided to throw a big party and invited all my friends to celebrate with me. There were friends from all chapters in my life, from school, from both current and former workplaces, and good friends I met whilst travelling overseas. I was very appreciative of the fact that most invitees attended the party and were sharing this special moment with me, plying me with copious amounts of alcohol and dancing the night away with me until dawn.

Although the subsequent hangover was probably the closest experience to hell I’ve ever encountered, the pain was numbed by how grateful I felt for my friends and the excitement that came with reaching a new milestone in life.

I was truly happy to be turning 30. It was a real coming of age moment.  

It wasn’t always like this though. When many of us were children, we all thought that turning 30 was the equivalent of becoming a fossil. A boring one as well. One that was saddled with greyscale attachments such as a mortgage, a gazillion bills, life insurance, and I daresay, a receding hairline. Basically, someone who resembled Kevin Malone from The Office. Growing up, I certainly did not look forward to turning 30 as well. Heck, I even dreaded turning 21.

However, as I got older, entered society and started having my own life experiences, I realised that I didn’t actually feel that much different as I got closer to the dreaded, big 3-O. Sure, I was getting older and gradually not being able to jump as high or run as fast as before, but I was encountering a multitude of situations that taught me a lot about the world we lived in, about people in general, and most importantly, about myself. My twenties were confusing and utter chaos at times, but I managed to learn a lot and hopefully became wiser as a consequence.

I was also positively influenced by people I met who were well in their thirties or even in their forties, living such incredible and fulfilling lives. They were extremely interesting individuals, and I relished at every opportunity to hear about their journey and how they were living their lives in the present. They also did not look like Kevin Malone from The Office either, which was highly encouraging.

I remember working with a guy from Germany who had moved to Sydney with his partner after spending the prior decade living in five different countries. He was a Digital Marketing guru and his partner worked for Google as a Sales Director. They were both in their mid-thirties at the time. They rented out a beautiful apartment in North Coogee and were creating wonderful memories together as they explored Australia and continued building a life in Sydney. To me, they were an inspiration and epitomised my changing perception of what it meant to be in your thirties. I was further encouraged when they all told me how wonderful it was to be in your thirties and live a certain lifestyle that allowed them to work hard towards their goals but also have a tonne of fun along the way.

During my 29th year, I found myself thinking repeatedly “Come on, let’s fast forward to my birthday.”

“I want to be 30”.

“I want to be 30 so bad”.

And then it finally happened.

I turned 30 and I felt on top of the world. I was filled to the brim with exuberance about what could be achievable in the decade ahead.

This was because I genuinely believed and still believe that my thirties will arguably be the most important decade of my life. The things I experience, the people I meet and the situations I encounter could determine how the rest of my life plays out. I could fall in love and get married. I could become a father and raise a family. I could change careers, move to Spain, build an app, write a book. Or even fall into massive debt. I really hope not.

The point being, you never know what may happen, right?

This was potentially going to be a game-changing decade. I knew I had to approach life with conviction and purpose. As a result, having a long-term plan was more prevalent now than ever before. Possessing that plan would help guide me and allow me to hold myself accountable on making consistent progress.

The weekend before my 30th birthday, I spent both days drawing up that plan. It had to be perfect. It had to make sense. Most importantly, it had to contain certain milestones and checkpoints at five years, ten years and twenty years down the line. I really went to town on this one. I scribbled down notes, tore up post-its, and re-wrote everything over and over until I was satisfied. There was so much I wanted to do. There was so much I wanted to see, feel and experience.

When Mum called me that weekend to catch up, she was delighted to hear that I was creating such extensive plans for my future. At that moment, she probably felt I was exhibiting qualities of a “good Chinese son”, someone who didn’t just live day-by-day with no goals and was on a journey with a clear destination in mind.

As my plans expanded, so did my expectations. 2020 in particular, was going to be a vital year. This was heightened by the fact that it was the start of a new decade and that gave me extra motivation to start the year on the right foot. In all facets of my life as well, across health, career, love and personal development.

And then COVID-19 struck.

In a period of weeks, I lost my main source of income and all my travel plans went out the window. I saw friends, both old and new, struggle mightily as their plans were also derailed by the pandemic. Like many of us, I had entered 2020 on a massive high and I crashed turbulently when most of my key goals for the year would be delayed until at least 2021.

That feeling of disappointment was exacerbated by being in isolation with no job and all this free time. Normally, one would embrace having all this extra time to go and have some great experiences and do things you’ve always wanted to but didn’t have the time for. However, you couldn’t because of the lockdown – nothing was open, you couldn’t spend it with friends, and you couldn’t do any travelling both internationally and interstate.

I remember days where it was difficult to wake up in the morning and feel inspired because you knew it would just be like Groundhog Day. Often, you weren’t making any progress for your plans and you fretted for hours about such universe-shifting events such as to what to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was challenging to fill in the gaps and to fill up your day with ways and activities to substitute your original plan.  

My biggest realisation was that the downside with having a detailed plan is that you find yourself feeling quite inflexible and rigid when things are derailed. That happens because you’ve put so much hope and expectation into those plans being implemented. You’ve invested a lot of emotion into the process because of how passionate you felt for these goals and how sweet it would taste when you had reached them. It’s a mental conundrum and being a natural perfectionist, I struggled mightily in the beginning. It took roughly two to three weeks for me to accept the truth and slowly make peace with reality.

And the reality was that my original plan for 2020 had been compromised.

This shift in mindset was ultimately derived from the fact that I’ve always been an optimistic individual who unabashedly refuses to lose hope and give up. Most of my inner circle also have the same approach, and they are a regular source of inspiration for me. I decided that instead of whining and feeling disheartened about everything, it was better use of my time and energy to focus on making the most of what was within my control and capitalise on all opportunities that were presented before me. To me, it’s not so much about jump-starting your comatose plan, rather, it’s about being comfortable with taking whatever may come your way and being appreciative of that.

Furthermore, what became even more crystal clear was that there is so much you can’t control in life. Things will happen and life will throw multiple spanners at you. The sooner you realise that and become more flexible, the less grief and frustration you will experience. You can keep your plan, but you have to accept that it will be amended by the unexpected, and it will do your head in if you are always intense and protective of the original blueprints.

To help me adapt to the new circumstances, I decided to adopt my former mindset of living in the moment. This time however, I had been moulded by life experiences since then to be a lot more appreciative of what was before you and the small things that life will offer you.  There was no point stressing about things not going according to plan and creating unnecessary disappointment and deeper valleys.

I had to clear my mind and let it go.

One afternoon, I ventured outside and took my dog for a very long and socially distanced walk from Bondi to Coogee. It was wonderful – the weather was beautiful, and I was surrounded by sweeping views of the ocean. I had done this walk numerous times before, but I had never realised the true beauty of my surroundings until that particular moment. I put away my phone and fought back all urges to take a photo or post something on Instagram. I closed my eyes, breathed in the aroma of sea salt and felt the warm embrace of the sunrays on my skin. I heard the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks and my heart was imbued with new vitality. I stayed there until sunset and was moved by the gorgeous red and orange brushstrokes that adorned the evening sky.

I felt so alive, so present, and so grateful to just exist.

It was exactly what I needed.  

I returned home feeling reinvigorated. I had unshackled my former self, an approach that I had kept locked away to inject some vitality into me. I had just focused on living in the moment and had temporarily said “¡Hasta luego!” to my long-term plan. The beautiful irony was that it had rescued me and given me newfound hope and inspiration. The difference between then and now was that I now have a vision and I wasn’t just coasting along in life. Most importantly, I had learned how to not automatically categorise living in the moment as being something which was negative and pointless. There’s a fundamental distinction between just drifting through life and being able to decompress, unwind and focus on appreciating the moment before you.  

I don’t need to imprison my former mentality anymore. Instead, I wish to embrace it and use it to complement my goals and create a healthy balance. I don’t want to get hung up on the detail anymore and I am content just to directionally have key goals. I am becoming increasingly comfortable with imperfection and I know my plans will never turn out to be 100% or even 80% of how I expected them to turn out.

And that’s okay.

I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve my goals because life is full of variables, but I am not going to give up and most certainly I am not going to stop chasing my dreams. Instead, I will overlay my approach with plenty of days where it’s fine to not stick to the plan, appreciate the moment, and embrace just being alive and able to have experiences, especially the ones that are unexpected in nature.

So, what do I want you to take away from this post?

Have a plan but be flexible because there is so much you can’t control in life. Try your best to adapt to changing circumstances and be open to living in the moment when those opportunities present themselves.  

Embrace it.

Appreciate it.

Live it.

You will feel fantastic.

*The following post is part of a 12-part content series revolving around life lessons that I learned during my twenties.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *