Never a Better Time
We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one. ~ Confucius
There's never been a better time to probe the foundations of everything we thought we knew but really just never thought about.
I moved to Nueva Andalusia in Spain three weeks ago. Often on my morning walks, I wonder whether I actually live here, or whether I'm just on an extended holiday. And then I realized, like so many things we create false dichotomies out of, the two shouldn't be mutually exclusive. On Zoom calls, it usually takes only 30 seconds for "why did you move?" to turn into "wait, why am I still here?"
During peak lockdown, I stayed in lower Manhattan while others fled to greener pastures. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to. In spite of the fact that everyone left. Or perhaps, because everyone left. There was an incisive clarity from long walks in those empty streets, a metaphorical springboard for the elusive blank slate we hope to "rediscover" but never actually find.
I did some of my best thinking during the "yin" months of quarantine. Yet, as the summer was winding down to a close, I was growing angsty to reconnect with the living world. Over the sudden resolve that only too much drink can bring, I decided on a whim to spend a weekend in Mexico City. What was supposed to be a 3 day trip turned into a 2 week one. Against a daily cost of carry, I had to earn my right to stay another day by living each as if were my last, the "yang" lifestyle -- and so I did, until I couldn't. And then I went home.
But what is home these days anyway? Sure there was the NYC apartment, but my lease would be up in another month. The easy decision would be to renew another year. Yet, there was something that sounded wholly unsatisfactory about that prospect. I felt the default decision would cause me to be stuck in the middle, losing both the yin (the calm, meditative elements) and the yang (the fearless opening of new frontiers).
I've found quarantine to be emblematic of how we live life, a constant shuffle between "half open and half closed", "there and not there", and ultimately less "alive" than "not dead". The middle ground sure seems like a road to nowhere, and so I try to emulate Taleb's "barbell" approach: if you pack your clothes for a trip to the desert guided by the average temperature, you'll be perfectly dressed for nothing.
What does the "barbell life" look like? One that brings hyper-presence in the physical world, and leverages Internet-scale in the digital world, maximizing operating, economic and social leverage in each.
In the physical realm, very few things can substitute for the visceral joys of new life experiences forged with friends and family. As remote work turned flexibility and improvisation into the default mode, my perspective on most topics has shifted from "why?" to "why not?". Having lived in New York for 10 years and London for 6, I concluded it was time for new environs entirely -- one that would strike the right balance between familiar comforts (natural beauty, great climate, refined cuisine, bountiful extracurriculars) and foreign challenges (that sense of discovery and satisfaction that comes from committing to a puzzle and leveling up through the maze). It was not hard to narrow the list to Portugal and Spain, before settling on the latter due to the ease of applying for a remote work visa. Sure, none of us speak Spanish, but that was very much the point. You don't really know what you're made of until your back's against the wall.
Within a month, we went from idea to execution, and had our visas and were ready to move. As we packed most of our belongings in storage, I was reminded of the joys of carrying only what you can bring with you on a plane. It's so easy to fall into the trap of letting your things own you, not in a metaphysical sense, but in a very real one: the constricted optionality that ownership carries, whether it's your home, your vehicle, your pets, or otherwise, is a real cost of carry. With the professional flexibility that mass interconnectedness has brought us, the cost of selling life options has never been higher.
The best part of moving to Spain has been the creative white space that the European mornings have offered. It's so easy to fill your day with a block of meetings feeling like you were productive, but if you ask yourself what you actually accomplished, well.... I find it necessary to constantly remind myself of one thing: we are what we output, not what we consume. Without time in the mornings for serious research and reflection, we cannot synthesize information overload. And if we don't post-process, can we really say that "but for" our efforts, the world would look meaningfully different? Most of us intuitively know this and nod our heads when we think about it, but proceed to do nothing about it.
This line of inquiry has led me to wonder, what are the other things that I know I know I haven't done? Writing stands out at the top of my list. Not only is it a great tool to force clarity of thought, it's also intellectual speed dating at Internet scale. From this forcing function comes so many other productivity-enhancing habits, made possible with the crazy scale you get from tools like Roam, Notion, Readwise. I don't need to reinvent the wheel, because people like David Perell, Nat Eliason and Tiago Forte have done it for me. And when you start digging into the wealth of information and resources made available from the "gift culture" on the Internet that Alex Danco writes about, you feel like it's Christmas every day, you just need to grab those presents.
Where this all goes, only time will tell. On top of the barbell, there is only possibility.