One and a half years ago I started my life as a “digital nomad”. I stuffed my 40 Lt. backpack with the essential and I flew to the other side of the world, where I lived for 8 months, before moving somewhere else.
The idea of travelling and working remotely had always been fascinating to me: escaping the cubicle to work from tropical beaches? Hell yeah! However, I soon realized that the true reason I was drawn to this life was not to work from a tropical paradise sipping coconut on a beach, but rather to buy some time.
Time to learn about myself.
Time to learn about the world.
Time to learn about how to live my life.
Because seriously, what the hell is going on? The world is changing incredibly fast: a mix of economic uncertainty, technological innovation and unprecedented mobility is disrupting everything we know about life.
Many Millennials like me are finding themselves conflicted between meeting the expectations of their folks and facing the economic and spiritual challenges of our time. From jobs, to relationships, to lifestyle, everything is evolving: how do you find direction in such a chaotic landscape?
I’ll share some ideas in this article, but before we get there, we need to look back for a second. We need to understand the historical moment we live in and how we got here. The Agricultural and Industrial revolutions changed our lives dramatically, and before we enter the next one we should know what to take with us and what to leave behind. Let’s get some perspective.
If you ever live off just a small backpack for a while, you can experience an ancestral feeling: you intuitively remember how we lived for thousands of years in the past, when sofas and Netflix were not around.
As humans, we lived more than 95% of our history on this planet as nomadic hunter-gatherers owning no more than we could carry on our backs. Things then changed dramatically around 10,000 years ago with the beginning of the agricultural revolution, the shift to a sedentary life and the rise of civilization.
The Agricultural revolution served many purposes: it allowed us to reproduce exponentially, to develop specialized work (science, medicine, etc.) and create larger and more sophisticated networks of cooperation (nations, economies, etc.) At the same time, it had a profound influence on the way we live. As Yuval Harari explains in his bestselling book Sapiens, “[Farming] was a far-reaching revolution, whose impact was psychological as much as architectural.”
Farming dominated our history for the past 10 thousand years, significantly shaping many of our values around work, community and meaning that still govern our lives today. It is only in the last 150 years that we left our lands for the factories and offices, after the Industrial revolution generated an unprecedented economic growth for our society. Overall, many things have changed since our nomad ancestors decided to grow crops rather than hunting. Let’s see how.
One of the most important consequences of farming is that we started working much harder than ever before. In the nomadic days of hunting animals and gathering plants, we used to work on average only few hours a day and spent the rest of our time resting, bonding and learning. But farming changed everything since it involved many demanding tasks that dramatically increased our daily working hours. Ever since then, we worked our asses off in the fields for thousands of years.
Things didn’t improve with the Industrial revolution. With the average European working 60–70 hours per week, we eventually got to the 40-hour work week only in the beginning of the 20th century when Henry Ford and other industrialists realized that workers were actually more productive if they would get more rest.
Today most people still work on average 40 hours a week, with some even exceeding that number. Many employees stay at work until late, ordering food via apps and barely have the energy to reply to messages from their loved ones. It seems that collectively we have invested a lot of meaning into work, to the point we put it before important things such as mental health, relationships, or self-expression at the cost of burning out.
At the same time, we increasingly hear that we could find ourselves out of work soon, with research showing that within the next decade as much as 30% of jobs could be displaced by the adoption of automation, and that 15% of workers might have to switch occupational categories and learn new skills. It is time for our society to have a conversation about what is the true value of work and how we should organize our time if it stops being the cornerstone of our life.
Another important consequence of farming was the rise of urbanization. Soon after villages formed around farms they grew into small towns and people started living as neighbors. This gave birth to civilization, which evolved from the settlements on the Nile’s river bank into the modern cities of New York, Paris and Hong Kong. The development of cities led to many benefits: it allowed the exchange of ideas, it facilitated networks of interest, and it created more qualitative services and infrastructure.
However, it also had its downsides. For most of civilization we lived in low-density rural settings, but in the past 60 years urban living has grown exponentially and we are still learning how to deal with it. Shifting from living in small intimate communities to crowded anonymous cities highly affected our behavior and physiological well being.
Humans are social animals with a strong need to feel connected to others. This is how we evolved and survived over thousands of years: by cooperating and serving our community. In increasingly densely populated cities, it’s harder to feel that we belong. Our communities are far too spread and populated to intimately connect with the people around us.
Even though economically we deeply depend on one another, from taxi drivers, to doctors, to business owners, we most certainly don’t feel deeply connected socially. We have become much more self-centred, and as a result we often experience a feeling of isolation and depression which is hard to deal with.
Moreover, urbanization drastically changed our living environment. The urban world is a playground of companies competing to capture our attention: from bus stops, to LCD displays, to beautiful monuments we are persuaded to buy stuff that will finally unlock the doors to happiness. Over the past decades cities have become an echo-chamber that promotes consumerism and ignores important human needs. Few urban areas are dedicated to nature, sport, self-expression or for people to meet up and have a good time without the need to buy something.
Consumerism clearly drives economic growth, no argument about that, but it can be detrimental to our psychological well-being when taken too far. It often seduces us with things of little importance, making us feel insecure, and profiting from it.
Finally, the shift from a nomadic life to a sedentary one also meant displacing a psychology of minimalism and communal sharing with one of accumulation and private property. For the first time in history we lived in a single place for an extended period of time and we had space to store things. So we started cluttering objects of all sizes that made it increasingly harder to leave our houses: when you own a lot of things, the idea of moving somewhere else — which in the past was so familiar to us — becomes daunting, difficult and costly.
Over time, the habit of cluttering has become psychological as much as physical, making us less inclined to change and mobility. We also lost our habit to share things like we did when living in tribes, and we adopted a system of property/ownership which only served the individual interest. Since it soon became clear that the people who had better “things” were usually in a better position to provide for their family, we started to value material goods as status symbols, as opposed to just their practical utility. This started a competitive race among humans to gain status by pursuing wealth. But we also started seeking material wealth, financial success and popularity to feel good about ourselves. In the process, however, we overlooked the simple fact that the human mind habituates fast to new standards, so whatever ‘good feelings’ we get through external achievements are always short lived.
As biology professor Robert Sapolsky brilliantly put it in his book Behave: "What was an unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won’t be enough tomorrow." Materialism and social validation fail to provide emotional fulfillment.
To make a quick recap, we live in a society in which:
Laying in front of us is an unsettling future to say the least. The question now is: as we move forward, which values should we keep and which should we leave behind? It’s a question I am personally trying to answer for a couple of years now, and to the best of my reflections and experiences there are a few things that I could recommend others doing. Without further ado, here they are.
In my experience, working for companies remotely is a great way to develop a more flexible and proactive mindset than one of an employee who just completes tasks. It is an opportunity approach work more responsibly and to become aware of the value you bring to the marketplace. Remote work is also an opportunity to enjoy free time more intentionally and fully because it gives you higher time management and location flexibility.
Although some data show that even with remote work the inability to unplug is still a big struggle, many are leveraging it to spend quality time with their friends and families, travelling or better meeting their personal needs. If work stops being alienating and overwhelming it becomes just one aspect of life and we can finally appreciate life from monday to sunday. The next step for our society is to learn how to find meaning outside of employment by cultivating subjective and collective wellbeing.
In order to deal with the feeling of isolation created by modern society, it is important to cultivate a strong sense of belonging. In my experience, the first step is to give up the small talk and gossip and having deeper conversations with our peers, both on an intellectual and emotional level. Intimacy is not easy to build, it requires openness, vulnerability, and patience, but it is needed now more than ever. The second step is to seek or build communities around specific interests, lifestyles or activities (i.e. music, spirituality, trekking). Investing in communities (both online and offline) where we belong to is incredibly beneficial for our personal and collective wellbeing.
As more people start working online and new coworking spaces open up, I believe many will move in less stressful environments, outside the crowded and bustling cities, to enjoy a better quality of life. Many hubs have been rising over the past years in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Portugal, and I feel this trend will only grow with many more developing soon. If this sort of de-urbanization happens, I believe it will encourage the creation of intimate communities and vice versa.
In fast changing world having the freedom to move is key. Considering that the economy is moving towards an access-based model, owning things is becoming a burden more than a benefit. I believe it’s important to start valuing things for their practical utility rather than the status symbol attached to them. Ultimately who cares if you don’t own the car you move around with if it’s cheaper and more convenient to rent it when you need it? In this sense I recommend embracing minimalism.
Minimalism is a value based on the fairly simple but counterintuitive idea that “less is more”. For example, if you embrace minimalism you believe that:
The core idea can be applied to many aspects of life, however it is when it comes to material goods that it is particularly liberating. Minimalism makes you realize how little you actually need to have a decent life.
In a society that incentivizes you to keep buying things to feel good about yourself, realizing that the opposite is true is a blessing. Minimalism also saves you from the monetary and psychological cost of compulsive consumption. When you seek to fit all of your belongings in a few bags, you are freed from many buying decisions that you’d be otherwise tempted to consider. You are also forced to invest more on your personality and ideas to impress others, rather than a new watch or a pair of shoes. More than anything, minimalism is empowering because it provides the freedom to move easily, to pack your bags and seek new adventures, job opportunities or inspiring communities whenever you want.
The best way to respond to the challenges of life is by improving yourself. One of the best ways to grow as a person is by seeking discomfort through new experiences. New experiences are valuable because they provide important feedback to reconsider our core values and belief system. Consumerism can’t help us with that: buying a new jacket doesn’t change you in the slightest. Hiking on an active volcano on the other side of the world probably will.
Instead of valuing “things” and comfort, I believe we should value experiences and growth. The process might start with studying or working abroad, but it can also be initiated simply by reading a book, travelling or having a good conversation with a stranger.
Becoming a better person doesn’t mean just improving your life, but also that of the people around you and hopefully the larger community too. It’s about having a positive impact on the world through your actions. This seems to me like a better receipt for personal fulfillment and long-term satisfaction.
In conclusion, I believe that over the next few decades the way we live will be continuously disrupted by increased social complexity. Dealing with this scope of change will not be easy, however there are a few things we can do.
On one hand we can try to learn as much as possible about the world around us to have a clearer picture of what is happening and why. On the other hand we can work on ourselves by cultivating skills such as emotional intelligence and mental resilience. Hopefully, the mix of both will be enough to smooth the transition and to tackle future challenges.
After all, this is what we do as humans: stepping yet another time into the unknown.