A long time ago when the web was still cool, there was a website named fray.com. It was ahead of its time, told cool stories and experimented with weird formats and layouts. The founder was twitter famous and he was also considered one of the best designers at that time. One fine day, he started a farm with goats, and almost never looked back.
Then, I was still a naive idealistic designer. I was like, WHAT? FARM? GOATS? How can someone who was so coveted, with so much talent quit and be content with goats??
Years later when working in tech was not so cool anymore, it turns out that quitting the industry, opening farms and/or living life as a hermit is a common fantasy:
Sometimes I forget that I am considered oldish in tech. I look at all these people in their twenties brimming with ambition and I forget I was once like that. I am now probably closer to the age of the person who made the decision to own farm with goats. There is probably something about mortality, a fraying body, combined with life experience that makes someone change their value system in a dramatic manner. I don’t really know when, but there was a lightbulb moment in my life when I was incredulously wondering why the hell did I put myself through so much just to be validated and approved of? Why did I care so much about what people thought of me? At the end of the day, it is just a thought in someone’s head. Isn’t it incredible how much suffering we go through to exist credibly in people’s minds?
I don’t own a farm. But I deliver food pretty regularly these days, and recently I started to deliver other items. It is a vastly different life from those days. When I had to quit tech I feared a lot for myself. I feared that I wouldn’t be able to withstand work that required manual labour. I was unfit and I was almost always sick. If I couldn’t even face a computer, what chance did I have with something that requires way more physical energy?
I still experience bouts of chronic illness, but I am way fitter than ever in my entire life. I had always lived a very digital life since I had a computer, and for long periods of my life my world revolved around the internet. It was a very humbling experience for me to discover how much of a klutz I was. I couldn’t ride a bicycle well, was scared to change a saddle, felt helpless when I had to lubricate the bicycle chain myself. I could probably make a website in 30 minutes, but I cannot change a tyre to save my life (I still can’t).
I didn’t expect myself to enjoy learning these things so much. People were always telling me how much they enjoyed using their hands to make or fix things, and I could never understand what they mean. I feared using my hands. I was only adept at manipulating a mouse cursor.
I’ve begun to notice how much less unhappy I have become. I am still a grinch, but I don’t have that crushing feeling I used to feel in my chest so often anymore. At first I thought it was because I was distracted from my actual feelings, but maybe in the vein of fake it till you make it, being distracted long enough made me realise how much power my thoughts had over me, how triggering the internet was for me, and more importantly, how much meaning I had assigned to these sources and how much the fabric of these meanings can radically change. They were triggering because I had, consciously or not, assigned disproportionate power to them. But once I was considerably distanced, I realised my life was capable of going on, thriving even, without them.
That was something similar to what I’ve learned when I lived as a semi-hermit. Without being exposed to what people think of me (actually more like what I perceive how they think of me), I was dramatically less unhappy. I wasn’t lonelier, because I didn’t feel stop feeling lonely with many people around me anyway.
In zen, they always talk about emptying your mind and being in the moment. For years I had no idea what they were talking about. Aren’t thoughts beautiful? Isn’t consciousness and the capacity to philosophise what makes it worth living?
Without my own thoughts distracting me, I feel like I am more capable of noticing what is beautiful ahead of me. There is of course still a lot of unpleasantness in this world, but that was all I ever saw. The ability to see, as John Berger would like to tell us, has to be cultivated, it is not a natural instinct. I had a narrow viewfinder and weak sensor (borrowing digital camera metaphors) and I didn’t know how narrow it actually was.
(yes, I know the ability to leave tech is an economic privilege, and I acknowledge the world is terribly unequal. But I do believe the world is made better even if one individual can be freer, and many a time people have only barely enough power to free themselves. Inevitably their increased well-being will positively impact the people around them too. I do strongly still believe we will never be truly free unless everyone else is free. And I will continue to type these disclaimers at the end of similar posts because I don’t want people to take me out of context. I do think it is important to share different ways of life because the world right now is biased to certain ways of living.)