Over the past six years, I have steadily compacted my life into five bags and a suit case. One bag for business, one for gym, two to fit all my clothes and a 80L backpack and a suit case for adventure. Other than a few pieces of furniture tucked away in my mum’s garage, the rest of my stuff went to either charity or trash bins.
My current arrangement
I currently live minimally.
How did I get here?
In September 2016, Amy moved to Brisbane to begin her new career and for the first time in six years, I had to figure out where to live. The day I ‘moved in’, I didn’t think much of it. The merits and lessons came only later. I was curious to experiment and recall being fascinated by the lives of a young Elon Musk and Magnus Walker. When Elon started his first company, Zip2, he and his brother, Kimbal, shared a couch in the office, showered at the local YMCA and experimented with living on a dollar a day. Magnus Walker and his late wife, Karen, transformed a 2,400 sqm dilapidated warehouse in downtown LA into a stunning home complete with a multi-car garage, for pennies on the dollar. Thinking back, the seed of yearning to experiment with an alternative way of living had been planted early.
Has it been a fruitful experience?
Yes, for a number of reasons.
What began as an experiment in lifestyle design aligned well with my current priorities. With Amy away, I wanted to design a lifestyle that gave me more time to do what I enjoyed. What do I enjoy doing? On day 24, I wrote down a list of things that mattered to me the most and they included: fulfilling work, meaningful relationships, quiet contemplation, being in nature, driving with the top down and reading. Office living eliminated the usual distractions like TV and really encouraged me to hone my existing passions. I’m no saint of course, so there’s been the usual time wasted on Netflix ever so often. Overall, the amount of time saved from not having to commute to work is significant, at roughly two hours a day. With my office overlooking a busy intersection, I am grateful that I can begin each morning with meditation and exercise, rather than being stuck in traffic.
Recognition that separation of home and office is a cultural phenomenon
In Sapiens, Harari makes the point that ‘biology enables, culture forbids.’ This is an idea that I’ve since taken to heart, especially when I find myself on the side of the majority. In evolutionary terms, nature does not prohibit, whatever is possible is also by definition natural. Biology is therefore capable of accepting a wide range of possibilities, it doesn’t prohibit a female from being able to vote nor does it prohibit a male from having sex with another male. Biology doesn’t concern itself with where you sleep, only that you get the rest you need. Culture, on the other side, does. But culture is also highly subjective. In pockets of the world like Silicon Valley, people may not raise an eyebrow if you’d told them you live in the office. Understanding this distinction has given me the courage to swim imperturbably against the tide, to conduct my life in accord with my beliefs and value.
Tony Robbins teaches us that all human beings are fundamentally driven by the desire to fulfill six core needs – certainty, variety, significance, love, growth and contribution – and it is up to each of us to determine which of these needs matter to you most. For instance, a person seeking certainty or love may find my current situation odd or even unbearable. However, given where I am in life, variety (seeking challenges and novelty) and growth (constant emotional, intellectual and spiritual development) trump the remaining needs, so it suits me fine not having a steady home and having an abundance of time to myself.
Living in the office has also taught me to become more ‘antifragile‘, a term coined by Nassim Taleb. The basic idea of ‘antifragility’ is that trying to eliminate randomness from life is a loser’s game. I see fragility at play in my mum’s incessant attempts to balance life’s every equation, becoming frustrated when things turn awry. The reality is that things will always turn awry. Bills will never stop becoming due, household items will inevitably break down. Randomness is the rule, not the exception. In associating life’s variability with frustration and angst, my mum grows wearied and this is disheartening to see.
Through this, I have come to appreciate that depriving systems of stressors, like hunger and exercise, is not necessarily a good thing, and can be downright harmful. The game is not to attempt to eliminate randomness from life. Rather, just like working out, we ought to expose ourselves to acute stressors followed by ample time for recovery so that we can learn to thrive in chaos. Growing stronger with every unforeseen setback. Office living offers good training ground for becoming better at facing life’s serendipities. It introduces new stressors that you first learn to manage, then overcome. Take what happened on Day 135 for example (see below).
Similarly, I have found much joy and freedom in practicing misfortune, an idea originating from Stoic philosophy some 2,000 years ago. In the words of Seneca:
‘Set aside a number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare…saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.’
The idea is simple. Set aside a few days, live on nothing but bare necessities and see what happens. Usually, nothing. Over the past 270 days, I’ve experimented with doing 24-48 hour fasts, taking cold showers, sleeping in all sorts of odd places and living life out of a few backpacks. These were all experiments I conducted in fortifying against Fortune’s violence, while Fortune remains kind. I like to remind myself that ‘slavery resides under marble and gold.’ While we should take every opportunity to embrace life’s luxuries, be wary of becoming dependent on them, lest you be imprisoned by them. A good way to see if you’re a prisoner of luxury is by living without the very thing you think you cannot live without. Can you go without food for 24 hours? What does that feel like? Give it a go and see for yourself. The answer may surprise you. It may set you free.
Getting pass novelty & more to come
Once you get pass the novelty of it, office living isn’t a big deal, something I discovered on day 44, when the internal dialogue inadvertently switched from one of ‘I’m going to sleep in the office tonight’ to ‘I’m going to sleep.’
Over the past nine months, I’ve discovered much about myself, what it means to be happy and the art of living well. Some of these discoveries came as a direct result of my living situation, some owing to external factors and some as a result of having had more time to reflect. I will share with you what I discovered in due course, so stay tuned for that.
Curated journal entries
I kept a journal to document my experiences. Here are some of the more peculiar entries:
- Day 1: Motion sensor lights work great until you wanna go to sleep. This confines the sleeping area to the meeting room where the light controls are manual.
- Day 2: 5 minutes walk to the station. 2 minutes drive to the shops. 5 minutes drive to a national park. Shower, kitchen, WIFI, gym, it’s got the lot.
- Day 3: Lifestyle Design makes me happy. I was paying $300 a week in rent excluding internet and utilities and spending 60-90 minutes each day in traffic. Everyday, office living earns me an extra $55 of play money and 60-90 minutes of play time. I’m most happy having eliminated commute time. Never had such an abundance of time at my disposal. Now to figure out how to spend this time wisely.
- Day 4: It’s quiet. Too quiet even for an introvert. I can hear the tick tock from the wall clock.
- Day 9: On a good day, I wake up early and meditate. Eat breakfast. Work is challenging but not to the extent that it’s overwhelming or paralysing. I learn something new, make a new observation. I exercise. I eat right. I read. I write. I go to sleep. On a bad day, work is autonomous. I don’t have an original thought. I get distracted by shit on the internet. I eat junk food. I don’t brush my teeth before bed. I can’t get to sleep, partly owing to the chocolate sundae I just devoured, partly owing to thinking about my wasted day. Today was a bad day. Let’s try to have more good days.
- Day 15: Mustered up the courage to tell my bosses that I’ve been living in the office for the past two weeks. Took 20 minutes to draft up a rather delicate email that was sent at 10:16pm. Prompt response back at 10:20pm read ‘…’ They’re away on business but I’ll be joining them soon. Will talk it out with them then.
- Day 62: Boss brought a blender to the office. A Nutri Ninja. My food options have just doubled. It’s a bit hard to blend spinach by hand using a protein shake bottle.
- Day 124: Discovered the bike room, a car washing bay and indoor parking. The gift that keeps on giving.
- Day 135: Fatal error night 1. Locked myself out at 00:30 wearing gym shorts and flip flops. Fighting a cold too. Panic and frustration ensued. Only internal staff have access to the office and everyone was fast asleep. No way back in. What to do? Resorted to sleeping in the disabled toilet. It got worse. Had an awkward run-in with the janitor at around 01:00. He was startled to see me. I was frightened to see him. Why was he still there so late? Anyway. After explaining the situation, the janitor left me to my own devices. He just wanted to make sure the toilet was clean, which thankfully it was! I didn’t sleep well. Woke up early and treated myself to a gym session and big breakfast the next morning.
- Day 163: Fatal error night 2. Locked myself out once again at 01:00. This time, I was bare foot but otherwise in warm clothes. Mentally, Stoicism has prepared me well on this occasion. I didn’t get nearly as emotional compared to night 135. Seneca’s advice had put me to ease. Slept great and woke early to meditate. The wait for the first person to rock up to work felt like forever though.
- Day 266: Fatal error night 3. Locked myself out once more at 00:00. When will I learn? This is far from being antifragile, time to add redundancies to avoid history repeating itself. Think I’ll leave my spare car key in a secret location for starters.
- Day 273: That’s today!