Analyze Your Past To Make Better Decisions

In three hours, I get on a plane to Bali, where I will live for the foreseeable future.

Since I began living on the road, I have lived in two cities for at least three months: Saigon, Vietnam (4 months total) and Chiang Mai, Thailand (3 months total). These cities were not random choices – they are the meccas of the “location independent entrepreneur” community.

I’ve made several decisions on how I am going to live differently in Bali, as I have repeatedly found that a change in location is a strong mental blank slate for me. But for these changes to make sense, I must begin with how I lived in Saigon and Chaing Mai.

The Saigon Syndicate

In early 2014, I sent an email to Jon Myers, a designer living in Saigon and one of the best known people in the “DC”, an invite-only community of location independent entrepreneurs. At the time, I was still (technically) enrolled in university, but had just landed my first large contract, which went on to fund the first eight months of this lifestyle.

I briefly explained my situation, and then asked him a simple question, “Where should I live first, Saigon or Chiang Mai?”

Now, anyone in the DC or who knows Jon is laughing their ass off right now, but let me explain for the rest of you.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, Jon almost single-handedly took Saigon from completely off the map into one of the top three or four “digital nomad” (I, and almost everyone who could be classified as a digital nomad, hate the term – but there’s not really anything better) destinations in the world.

He’s penned two massive sales-page type posts in the DC forum promoting Saigon. So, it’s not surprising that his response to my email was along the lines of, “Chiang Mai sucks, Saigon is awesome, come here.”

And he was right. Well, partly.

The more recent of his two forum posts promoting Saigon was titled, “The Saigon Syndicate”. In it, he explained the main reason anyone should come live in Saigon – the people are fucking awesome.

There are roughly thirty DC’ers living in Saigon at any given time. That’s a pretty big number in this circle, where people are dotted all around the world and, with the freedom to move whenever they damn please, do so often. But it’s not the number that’s terribly important. The caliber of person – both in regards to how big their business is, how wide their network, how interesting their history, how cool they are to hang out with, etc. – is incredible here.

I lived in Saigon for three months during my first stay, from late July until mid October 2014. In that time, I became close friends with many of the people there. In fact, roughly half of my current close friends I met and got to know in Saigon.

Masterminds happen every night of the week. You meet up for a quick dinner and it turns into a three hour conversation about retargeting ads, meditation, and psychology. You go party together, cracking marketing jokes and talking about new tech companies between drinks. You spend your afternoons daily cafe hustlin’, sitting across from someone building their own business while you build yours.

But as amazing as the network is in Saigon, the quality of life otherwise is pretty rough for my personality. It’s a loud, crazy, hyperactive city. That’s perfect if you grew up in New York, like Jon. But I grew up in mid-sized towns, and love nature. And the closest nature, the closest escape from chaos, is two hours away.

If you’re like me, the quality of leisure is terrible in Saigon. There are only really four things to do: work, hang out with friends, lift weights, and go out to eat or party.

Ultimately, this grinded down my senses. I could never recharge. By the time I left in October, I was yearning for the chill vibe and abundant nature of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai Chillin’

After a one-week stint in Bangkok for the DC’s annual conference (where I met tons of incredible people, including some that I had been following for several years), I landed in the Thai city, nestled in the mountains of the north.

From the moment I stepped off the plane and looked out the window at Doi Suthep, the big mountain overlooking the city, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I shared a tuktuk into town, and the German guy sitting next to me couldn’t quite understand why I had my head out the side like a dog, shit-eating grin plastered on my face as we drove along the moat that outlined the Old Town of Chiang Mai.

Everything was so green. There was nature, in the center of town…!

When I sat down for lunch, I could hear birds chirping, not motorbikes honking.

I splurged on a nice apartment that had a full western kitchen and a full glass wall, facing Doi Suthep. I woke each morning to a mountain view, and watched the sun set over the peak each night as my room turned golden.

I spent time climbing, both at the local gym, and at the crag forty-five minutes east of town, a drive that wove through small villages, rice patties, and breathtaking views.

I put a massive focus on my health, gaining 26lbs of muscle in a single, intense month.

But my work productivity plummeted. While my weight-gain experiment left me perpetually tired, my other two months had little excuse. The local vibe was just so relaxed.

Part of that relaxed vibe was the community in Chiang Mai. Despite being the unofficial capital of digital nomads, with at least two hundred of us here (roughly 20-30 from the DC), the community in Chiang Mai was a significant step down from Saigon.

For one, though there are some very notable exceptions, the caliber of individual in Chiang Mai was much lower. Their businesses were smaller, their ambitions and goals smaller, they weren’t as interesting, and weren’t as fun to chill with. And as is inevitable with a community of it’s size, social life was rather cliquey. Whereas in Saigon you could post a message to the groupchat and have a few people meeting up some hours later, in Chiang Mai you’d get radio silence. You had to find your little group and just hang out with them. It wasn’t very open.

If I was the only one with this observation, I would likely discount it, but the same sentiments have come up in conversation after conversation.

Now, I’m not saying the poor community justifies my relative unproducitivity, but I certainly didn’t have the impromptu masterminding, constant go-go-go! push that made Saigon special.

By the time January came around, I was ready to get back on my grind. After a two week stint in Europe to see my family, I came back to Saigon, primed to hustle.

February, despite numerous bad events happening in rapid succession (the passing of a close friend, a motorbike accident that left me bedridden for a week, and my iPhone being stolen on the street), has seen more growth in my design business than the previous six months combined.

Fuck yea, right? It’s obviously working, just stay in Saigon, keep your nose down, and keep the growth up!

Well, except that just a couple weeks into being here again, the city is already wearing me down again.

Know Your Personal History

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” – Edmund Burke

At this point, I am left with two paths: stay in Saigon and keep my nose to the grindstone, or go somewhere else.

If I ignored my personal history, the obvious answer would be to stay and grind. “The past month has been the best ever for my business, if I keep at it the next one will be just as good!”

But I know what is going to happen if I stay here longer. The city will continue to wear me down. Despite working all day, I’ll hardly get much done. That’s what happened last time – I ended up just spinning my wheels at the end, running hard but going nowhere.

I need traction.

Chiang Mai was full of traction. With all of the high-quality leisure (climbing, waterfalls, hiking), my head was clear. I was able to take a step back, identify the things I was doing that weren’t working, and eliminate them.

But Chiang Mai was sorely lacking in drive. In horsepower.

I had all this traction and didn’t do anything with it (business wise – it was the most productive few months of my life fitness wise).

When I returned to Saigon, the drive kicked back in, and with the traction from Chiang Mai in place, I took off, having an incredible month of financial growth.

But the road is beginning to get slippery again. The city is wearing me down, and I’m losing traction.

So I have to leave. I’ve studied my personal history in these two cities, and I know myself better for it. It lets me make decisions that are good for me.

Why Bali?

At this point we’ve covered my life in Saigon, my life in Chiang Mai, and what I learned about myself from those collective seven months.

Saigon:

  • Amazing community: constant mastermining, great social life, collective hustle.
  • Poor leisure: the city wears me down and the lack of nature leaves me no way to recover.

Chiang Mai:

  • Great leisure: mountains, climbing, waterfalls, and more.
  • No drive: the slow vibe, cliquey community, and overall lack of gogogo! contributed to my general lack of hustle.

So, let’s find a place that has the best of both worlds.

Enter Bali

Bali has been called the “island of gods”. Located just east of Java in Indonesia, Bali is an island paradise. It has big mountains in the north, rice paddies all over the island, coral reefs, and black sand beaches featuring some of the best surfing in the world.

You can chill with the spiritual crowd in Ubud, doing yoga and meditation, or get completely shitfaced (no thanks) with the Australians in Kuta Beach. You can eat for a dollar with the locals or blow two hundred on dinner in the upscale restaurants and night clubs of Seminyak.

Epic leisure, traction: check.

But what about community?

Well, it’s pretty small…

DC Bali House

I’m not the only one lured by the beautiful mountains, quiet rice paddies, and world-class surf. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to is interested in either checking Bali out or returning.

But, historically, there’s been two things stopping a crowd of online hustlers from forming here. It’s generally hard to get set up with 1) short-term housing, and 2) consistent, fast internet (which until now has been absurdly expensive due to poor infrastructure).

In fact, one of the reasons Saigon and Chiang Mai are hubs is because of their abundance in both of those things.

So, I’m pretty screwed, yea? I’ll be down here all alone, with just a few people to keep me company. Requirement two, awesome community: failed.

Well, not so fast.

When there’s no good community, you create one. And that’s precisely what I’m doing. A local friend of mine, and fellow online marketer, has a great deal on a small hotel/coworking space hybrid opening up soon. It has only ten rooms, and blazing fast wifi. It’s close to the beach and gym, a 15 minute drive to good partying, but in a chill part of the island. (Cough cough, perfect, cough cough).

So I’m doing the only logical thing: marketing the hell out of this deal to my friends to bring them down to Bali with me and fill up this house. And while March will be a smaller group, April and May will be very busy.

With everyone living in the same house, it will be impossible to not have tons of random masterminds and great conversations. And with the coworking space in the same building, the collective hustle will give me the energy Chiang Mai lacked.

Awesome community, drive: check.

We’re in business.

But Wait, There’s More!

At this point I’ve optimized, to the best of my ability, some core factors of my life in Bali, based on what my personal history has taught me. If I made no other changes, the move would still likely be a success.

But alas, trying new shit is how true progress is made.

In that light, I’ll be learning to surf and speak Indonesian. And perhaps most importantly of all, I’ll be structuring my days around flow.

Enter Superman

In the past two weeks, I read Steven Kotler’s incredible book, The Rise of Superman, where he uses extreme sports athletes as case studies to decode how flow, or “optimal experience”, works.

Flow deserves it’s own post, but the gist of it is thus: flow is when you are so engrossed in something that the rest of the world no longer exists. Time speeds up. We get lost in whatever we’re doing. The “I” in our heads shuts up, and we lose conscious thought. You probably know the type of experience that I’m talking about – and you probably know that it’s one of the states that causes the most happiness in life.

But did you know that not only does flow make us happy, but perform (MUCH) better, learn faster, make perfect decisions instantly, and have our brains flooded with a potent cocktail of the strongest neurochemicals our brain has – including dopamine (cocaine), serotonin (ecstasy), endorphins (heroin), norepinephrine (speed), and anandamide (marijuana)?

Basically, the more time you spend in flow, the happier, more productive, and smarter you are.

Along with understanding of how the state works, there are hacks to get into flow faster, which of course I will be trying out.

I’ll write a full post when I have a system nailed down, but for now, my days will generally consist of…

  • 3-4 hour stints of uninterrupted hyper-focused work (ideally, in flow)
  • 2 hours of surfing (time spent actually on the wave will be in flow)
  • 3-4 more hours of work
  • being social, learning the language, and reading

By focusing on flow, I will be able to get high fun-density leisure and high-productivity work done in the same day. In theory – again, this is an experiment, and I’ll write about it once I have the results.

Saya sedang belajar Bahasa Indonesia

In both Thailand and Vietnam, I made no attempt at learning the local language. I know less than ten words in each language.

Beyond the girls I dated and the staff at spots I frequented, I had no local friends.

That’s about to change.

I’ve spoken to friends who learned Vietnamese or Thai, and they all say that it completely changes your experience in a country, for the positive. It’s one of those, “you don’t know what you don’t know” instances.

Like most Americans, I’m a life-long monoglot – meaning I only speak one language. And beyond three half-assed years of Mandarin in high school, I’ve never really tried to change that.

But unlike most Asian languages, Thai and Vietnamese included, Indonesian is non-tonal, meaning it’s not ridiculously difficult to pronounce each word. And like most Asian languages, Indonesian grammar is stupid easy – no genders, no verb conjugations, and no tense or tense conjugations. In addition, Indonesian is a mutt language, pulling thousands of words from Chinese, English, and Portuguese, and over ten thousand words from Dutch, who colonized Indonesia.

So it’s not surprising that Indonesian is considered one of the easiest languages to learn. I expect to like Bali, I expect speaking the language to radically improve my experience and give me local friends, I’m interested in language learning, Indonesian seems pretty easy, and it’s the 7th most spoken language in the world. That’s my thought process right now. And frankly – and I’m pretty stoked (for both this and surfing).

As far as how I’m learning it, I’ll be following the method Gabriel Wyner lays out in his extraordinary book, Fluent Forever. This article is a great rough outline of his system. I’ll write a longer post on this subject once I’m conversationally comfortable in the language.

How to Make Better Decisions

This post isn’t so much about Saigon, Chiang Mai, or Bali as it is about knowing yourself, looking at your personal history, and making decisions based on the person you know you have been recently, not the person you imagine you are.

Now excuse me, I have a flight to catch!

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Update October 2015: I had to leave Bali after a month for a family emergency at the end of March 2015. I didn’t find what I was looking for in Bali. But – I am now in Medellin, Colombia, and this place is EXACTLY what I was looking for. Read all about it here.