Yours truly, aiming for the surface, which looks like the direction for the year to come. 📍 Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Dropping acid, launching startups, moonlighting for the future, overthinking the past. Finding a hack to happiness.

And other things I don’t write about.

So far, I have posted exactly one blog post. When I first published, it somehow got me a feature and 600 followers on Medium. I thought, “Balls. Well then I guess I’ll start blogging now”.

But then you know, there are other things to do in life, and so I haven’t, until now. The story below wraps up 6 months since that last post. Half a year of travel & work, madness & beauty, success & failure, fear & happiness, love & heartbreak; and finding a real life superpower.

A lot, but I’ll keep it short. I found something important, that I’d like to share it with you all. The path has been windy and it’s a story with curves, but that’s how it went. Let’s get to it.

6 months and 50,000 miles of travel, life & work.

In the 6 months since my first post a lot has happened:

  • I gave away large most of my stuff to charity and sold the rest, including my beloved sound system and the Grey Moose (my limited Jaguar XJS Convertible)
  • I downsized all I need to two suitcases, bicycle and a longboard
  • I traveled ~50,000 more miles and 12 new countries
  • I joined the famed Remote Year to travel with 70 digital nomads

And also:

  • I dropped out of Remote Year
  • I downsized to just one backpack and a camera
  • I started taking some pictures again
  • I build that digital product agency on the move (!)
  • I co-founded a new startup
  • I climbed, hiked, dove, kite-surfed, learned surfing some more, cycled, scooted, motorbiked, boated, jetskied, dated, partied and even read books
  • Looks like I found a trick for inner happiness
Wait. Stories! Stories?! He said stories? 📍Mt. Popa, Myanmar

Each of the above is a full story, but for the sake of sharing what I feel is the most important, let’s stick to two:

  1. I built a digital agency while traveling the world
  2. I think I found a hack for inner happiness

These two stories are as close together as they can only be for a travelling startup guy, so let me intertwine. I promise there is something there for you too.

The Fear

This past year meant a lot of anxiety. Insane anxiety. I lost control of my startups in a nasty back-stab. I suddenly lost all elements of my career. I lost people I considered friends. I didn’t know where to go next, who to trust and who to be with.

I had to start from 0, or even from below 0 — and almost every morning I woke up hating life, and in fear. This mix encapsulated some of my feelings:

The live mix I recorded in June had my current mood in its title — and my seeking for a solution in the choice of tracks.

Looking for solutions, I embarked on a journey where I’d travel around the world, while building a new digital agency. I wrote about that in my previous post. Since then, I slowly started having glimpses of happiness, but I couldn’t come close to sustaining it and so I kept moving, reading, meeting people and working.

I found some incredible places along the way. From a hike in📍West Papua, Indonesia

HOO KOO E KOO, my digital product agency is an experiment in many areas (decentralised, nomadic, multidisciplinary, project-based, overhead-free) and despite all that risk, it started very strong. The company grew like crazy in the first 6 months, we had interesting projects and stable clients for months ahead.

But then Brexit happened. I lost a couple of really big accounts that relocated their focus from the UK, and at the same time a (great) startup we worked with didn’t secure further funding. By July, we were almost without work. In August people are generally chasing beachballs and since September I was set to live in Southeast Asia, starting my Remote Year experience. How does one find new business from there?

Things looked very scary.

A quick relocation to change course of things.📍New York, USA

After spending two weeks in London, I moved to New York to try my chances there. During that month I met a ton of incredible people, had some of my best events, brunches, jogs, concerts and parties. And somehow, nearly by the way, I managed to find just enough clients to start going again.

Running the Williamsburg Bridge, from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back was my daily morning routine. 📍New York, USA

During that time my fear was so overwhelming I had to run every morning just to get my head straight. Without running or working out I felt like I couldn’t leave a room. I guess I was showing clear signs of depression, I found it hard to talk to anyone about my problems and so I didn’t.

The Bottleneck

While during the summer HOO KOO E KOO struggled with new business, a couple of weeks later we became booked up till the end of the year. Things looked good again — if somewhat hectic. We had more work than we wanted and I had to stop accepting new projects entirely. The anxiety of uncertain future was replaced by anxiety of a hectic one.

Around that time I was based in Kuala Lumpur with the Remote Year crew and we had the opportunity to teach refugee kids math, english and biology at an improvised school. I made it through the bees talk with a bunch of stranger kids, nothing can be a really big challenge since. 📍 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

And then. Then Chester Chipperfield, the Global Creative Director of Tesla asked if we have some availability.

“Sure, we can make some space”, I said.

What I thought though, was rather along the lines of: “Holy fucking shitballs! Tesla!!! If you want us cut grass in your front yard overnight while performing a ballet piece set to “Electric Feel”, we’ll be there man!”. We are a small agency in our “Year 0” and Tesla is one of the coolest gigs you can get.

He didn’t ask for gardening. He asked me to help design the brand and digital experience for perhaps my favourite music/art/thought festival in the US: Further Future. Further Future is an event where you dance with Astro Teller, stand next to Eric Schmidt 🙃, listen to inspiring talks, party, mingle, talk about future of humanity and camp on a desert. I was stoked.

Yours truly (half nude) with some of the speakers at FF001 in 2015. 360 selfie by my friend Jimmy (on the right)

The Further Future project has everything: the mission to turn it into a public benefit organisation and to truly impact the world by extension of their mission, a great inspiring team behind it and loads of beautiful ideas. Of course we accepted it — and slapped it on top of everything else we had to do.

Things in Thailand can be fairly low tempo. 📍Koh Phangan, Thailand

It was mid October, and I was based on the Thai island of Koh Phangan, in a bungalow on a beach. The timing, in an ugly way, was great. I just had a bike accident, while teaching a friend how to ride one… we both failed when we flew out of a curve right into a Thai massage establishment. I damaged my knee and I couldn’t swim or kite surf for over two weeks. I had some spare time.

But the workload called for even more. So I reached for a new level of performance optimisation: a Silicon Valley’s infamous trick I’ve wanted to test for years: microdosing acid— yep, that drug from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

In short, you take about a tenth of a regular dose of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) to improve your performance and creativity, without the jitters of caffeine. This Wired article explains the idea pretty well.

To push through the bottleneck I dosed about a tenth of a regular dose of acid every other day for 2 weeks. It worked. It kept things going and creativity flowing. Occasionally it also added occasional pixel animations onto still Illustrator graphics.

Thailand has many faces. 📍Karen refugee village, near Chiang Mai, Thailand

Hacks for happiness

Considering I was sleeping right on a paradise beach, that time was weirdly hectic and dark. I was still waking up with anxiety every day. One day, sticking to my old routine, I tried running in bandages and damaged the wound on my knee some more. This added several days of hospital visits on top of existing itinerary and locked me in even harder for days to come.

I got stuck in a triangle between that bungalow, my scooter and a co-working space where I’d stay till 4am. Frankly, I hated life.

I was overworked, unhappy, feeling isolated from most of the Remote Year group that was all around me. I was thinking a lot about everything and nothing. Again, I didn’t know how to talk to others about it, but a couple of friends — who made their effort to check on me and I’m incredibly thankful for it.

Technically, I should have had nothing to complain about. This was our work space in October. 📍Koh Phangan, Thailand

Inside that mixed bag of a situation, something suddenly just changed.

One day when another anxiety attack came, I didn’t run or keep myself busy with something else. I just looked right at it and started breathing. I felt the emotion, but it didn’t take over, I controlled it. Boom. I won!

This felt important. Very important. More important than perhaps anything else I’ve learned.

I realised what happened was that I was simply in the moment, absolutely present and thus controlled the situation. Like, you know, all the mindfulness stuff everyone has been talking about.

Some would say it’s mainly the outfits. 📍Chiang Mai, Thailand

So I started reaching deeper into mindfulness (or “being in the now”). At the time I was in a Buddhist country and whether you call it a religion or a “way of life”, Buddhism is heavily focused on being present. I knew that and not much more, so I started reading some more.

Meanwhile work was still demanding, but I was able to deliver. During that time HOO KOO E KOO delivered 3 projects and another 2 soon after. I found and hired a great new UX design team to help in the future. I was able to delegate enough work and start moving around gain. Soon we moved with Remote Year to Phnom Penh, Cambodia — for about 5 days.

Shooting a bazooka in Cambodian farmland was hardly the hack. Worth trying though. 📍Somewhere near Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Another important truth of Buddhism is that attachment leads to suffering. So, I decided to make a new leap and travel back to Thailand.

In mid November, together with some friends I travelled to the ancient city of Ayutthaya in today’s Thailand to receive a sacred tattoo from a legendary master I have heard about from a former Muay Thai fighter I met a month earlier.

Ayarn Kob’s son inking the intricate pattern.
The result.

Sak Yant (“tapped yantra”) is a magic symbol. It is selected by the sacred artist and inked in a place of his choice. I thought of it as a good way to break the anticipation of getting bored with my own design in the future — after all, I don’t even choose the spot, or the design. I just let go. An idea that sounded silly to me just months before.

Master Kob blessed the tattoo (inked earlier by his son) with several chants and tapped my back. I made an offering and left the spot. I laughed about new rules I should live by now, such as “you can’t ever walk under female underwear” — and I was done.

Since then, something has changed even more. What was empty inside of me started filling up, what I couldn’t make a decision about, became clearer. Whether I get “lucky” or shit really hits the fan, as it often does — I feel fine and just move forward. Boom two! The magic worked.

A Burmese buddhist hermit with that emanating peace I could really learn something from. 📍Inle Lake, Myanmar

What is that magic really? I think getting the tattoo simple gave me what I’ve been trying to learn for years now: ability to let go.

It doesn’t mean to abandon your possessions and get on the road (that I did preemptively for other reasons), it doesn’t mean to simply forget or neglect. To me, it means to understand all things are temporary and passing. They only really matter if they are right now. Plans only matter if you focus on them. The past only matters if you need to focus on it. It means forgiveness and acceptance. It means, as my friend would often say, chilling the fuck out. At last.

A month later, just to be sure, I also made trips to places like this one (and white-duded for pictures with locals). 📍 Schwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar.

I finally let go of all the outdated plans I was clinging on to, the anger and disappointment. The image of myself. Those things were either in the future or in the past, but barely mattered in the present.

I finally started making space for whatever new may come, in relationships, work and every other aspect of my life.

The Superpower

The two findings (being present & letting go) gave me something great: less stress. And less stress leads to less procrastination and this in turn made me and HOO KOO E KOO more productive.

HOO KOO E KOO headquarters for 5 days. 📍Yangon, Myanmar

In the past months we’ve worked on a sophisticated financial planning app, communication platform, collaboration platforms, mobile games, furniture 3D shopping experience, websites and a couple of brands, including the one for Further Future. The company turned over more than I expected and delivered more than I hoped for.

For Further Future for example, firstly, in collaboration with Chester and then together with Jason Swamy, the creative director of the organisation we came up with an awesome concept. We designed a ton of assets from a brand system to animations, websites, app, interactive art, structures, clothes, sunglasses and even touched drone swarms… It’s all secret for now, but I can’t wait to reveal our work later this year.

I passed through the mad Bottleneck and we have not only survived Year 0 of building an agency on the go, but I feel like we really smashed it. Without needing investors, constantly exploring the world and despite some serious setbacks, we generated a solid 6 figure revenue and delivered some work we’re all really proud of.

But it is the secondary effect which arrived at that time that feels even more important for me : the hack for happiness.

We could only aim to be as happy as WahWah though. 📍Bagan, Myanmar

The hack could have several elements:

  • Learn how to be truly present
  • Learn to let go
  • Say yes and build on situations
  • Bad things lead to great things
  • Relationships are the most important

And I live by those commandments now. But my general lesson — even if I sound somewhat new age here — is that the only thing that really matters, ever is that you are. The rest is extras that are not you. If you are, things are already well. And, as I take it, you always are.

This is the ultimate hack.

You cannot be unhappy if simply being is what makes you happy. This is my inner happiness hack. Something I’ve only heard about and treated like a myth for years.

“If you are depressed you are living in the past. 
If you are anxious you are living in the future. 
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
Lao Tzu

We often stress and overthink stuff that doesn’t really matter. This doesn’t ever bring us to a conclusion, instead just stops us from actually taking care and experiencing things that matter right in that moment. Anxiety can stop you from achieving things, from using opportunities, making new friends, from finding love.

But then sometimes you feel like you’re getting close. 📍Schwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar

I soon found another quote:

“Compulsive thinking has become a collective disease.” — Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

I read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle after my Thai adventures and findings, but I wish I had done that 10 years ago.

The book somehow talks about almost exactly what I came to realise in the past months on my own — and much much more.

Had I read this book years ago, perhaps I wouldn’t need to go through pain to find my lessons. Or perhaps this is just the way for most of us — on which the author touches as well. If you’re struggling with anything, especially anxiety and constantly running thoughts that don’t let you sleep, give it a go.

Perhaps for you it makes for a better introduction to Being in the Now, than dropping acid on an island, getting tattooed, overthinking the past and moonlighting designs for the future.

In my journey I found something that’s invaluable and far beyond any money. As we agreed with Cameron, a fellow traveller and a CEO of a Portland-based digital agency: the skill to “be present” feels like a superpower.

People close to me know that things of course still go wrong for me — but I just move forward and it looks like there’s nothing that can make me truly unhappy again.

I’ve got a superpower.

This very relaxed Cuttlefish, which we just found in the Great Barrier Reef also has superpowers. It changes colours and patterns to match its surroundings as it swims around using jet propulsion. Not the same as being present, but at least as awesome.📍 Great Barrier Reef, Australia

What now

From a “torch in dark depths of the sea”, my company became something that made me independent, mobile and helped me save money every month. I became a truly free (let’s slap that label) digital nomad. Something I’ve wanted to try being since I was a teenager.

Flying balloons over 3000 temples of Bagan was a solid attempt, but not the actual hack. 📍Bagan, Myanmar

My friend Toby recently (even if drunkenly) said that I “live a lifestyle of a retired billionaire”. What’s best I’m not retired and if I become a billionaire all the money will go towards cleaning up the seas anyway. Things are stabilising, and I can just continue moving around.

I’m close to finishing the Stage 1 which I set out for HOO KOO E KOO in my original post and approaching Stage 2: Stabilisation. This will be a fun ride too, I have a feeling and I’ll be sure to keep you posted. Plenty more to learn, and I’ll keep you posted.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is. ”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Thank you and a very late (writing isn’t the priority on the road, eh) Happy New Year everyone! I have a feeling it will be a good one.

This marks my Blog Post Two, I hope you enjoyed the meanders of the path and that there’s something in this story for you too. Comment and hit the heart icon if you like!