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What happened when freedom became my core value

Live.April 13, 2018
By Niels Janszen
That tall Dutch guy with the rockstar looks. If not online, probably in the kitchen. Or in the swimming pool.

At it, again. I am riding my motorbike as my mind zones in. Emerald ricefields, golden temples, buzzing markets: I don’t see them. They all go by, as if someone has decided to press the fast-forward button of my life movie. Motorbike, in autopilot. Me, deep in my head, wandering places. Maybe I am not a mindful driver, but I like the place my mind is going to: a space when I am hungry to make a change in my life. And I smile, because I did it.

Until five years ago, I’d never really questioned anything about my life. I was still living in the Netherlands. I had a good job for a digital marketing agency. I lived up to the expectations. All according to the “plan.” Then, one day, I read something about eating ‘organic’ and ‘gluten-free’. No idea what it meant. But also, why was this new to me? If it’s as important as they say it is, why did no one ever tell me? And then, something sparked.

More and more questions popped up, every single day: Why do I eat what I eat? Why do we work 9 to 5? When are we most productive? Is what I wear ethically responsible? Why do we all hold on so tight to social norms? And, why am I conforming to them? And, above all, what am I really contributing to?

“In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”
The Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy

I felt very lonely in asking myself these questions. When you share such thoughts, some people think you are indirectly criticising the way they conduct their life. Indeed, while talking about a smarter and healthier way to live, work and learn, I encountered severe resistance. It was difficult to handle my emotions. Right there, more questions came to me: am I the only one doubting things?

If money didn’t matter, would I still be doing what I am doing now? And why?

But instead of bouncing back, I started to challenge the social norms with small, practical steps. Eating organic, conscious shopping, off-peak commuting. Still, it wasn’t enough for me. I was ready for the big leap: working remotely.

And then it happened. The end of the Summer was approaching. My girlfriend was about to graduate and I turned my office job into a remote job. We made the switch. We sold everything, we stepped out of the system and went off traveling. That moment I became part of a tribe I was looking up to: a group of location independent entrepreneurs.

That worked out.. for 2 months. I changed paths. Luckily Bali pulled us in and I became a tribe builder: giving others the opportunity to start their business from Bali.

People look at the Island of Gods through the eyes of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.” Well, let me give you a little heads up: Bali is beautifully overwhelming and intense. It took me one and a half year to get things straight. Better late than never, but still: what a transition!

Living in Bali has made me realise that I had a misconception of what freedom actually means. I thought that to feel free I had to embrace the digital nomad life, always on the move, a wanderer with a laptop and no roots. Instead, here I learnt terms like ‘slowmads’ (slow traveling nomads) and ‘flexpats’ (flexible expats). I found out that even when I lived in the Netherlands I could have had a lot of freedom… but I didn’t. I wasn’t ready. I needed a full blown Bali experience to shake and wake me up.

“We are driven by five genetic needs: survival, love & belonging, power, freedom and fun.”
William Glasser

It’s ok to be a little rebellious at first: “yeah, let’s be digital nomads, travel the world, ditch the system.” However, the more like-minded people I meet, the more I realise that there are many different ways of experiencing freedom, no matter if we live in the tropics or on a misty flatland.

Freedom DOESN’T MEAN

  • Continuous travel. I might live in Bali, but I don’t travel continuously. I jump on a plane for visa runs and that’s pretty much it.
  • You cannot own a house. Having a house can be a great way to feel safe and to know that there is always a fallback. I’ve met people in Bali that own a house and rent it out for a few months a year to travel. A great way to escape the winter.
  • Earning more money. What’s important here is not the amount of money, but the relationship we have with it. Often money is spent to compensate unhappiness and unfulfillment. I realised that when I am happy, I need less money!
  • All in or all out. No need to have a full “Breaking Bad” blow out to feel free….just a toe dip can be enough to start with.

 

Instead, I believe that Freedom MEANS

    • Appreciation of what I already have. I know it might sound cliche, but trust me this is the real deal! I have started to practice gratitude and mindfulness everyday. Every morning I state what I am grateful for, and even share it with my coworkers during our stand-up meetings. It does set a positive tone for the day and for the whole team! It helps us to differentiate challenges and actual problems. Try it out.

 

    • Understand and align with my core values. Back in the Netherlands, I felt I was adopting some behaviours just because they were socially accepted. However, deep inside, they didn’t belong to me. So…ditch social pressure! Took me a while to understand it but now I feel completely re-aligned with my values and path. I feel part of a tribe. I have no reason to find material compensations and I have no need to separate work and life anymore. Sustainability is my path. My fellow coworkers are my tribe. I am finally playing the game of life following my own rules: living without compromising our Planet and its inhabitants. Living free from social pressure. Free from buying stuff I don’t need. Free to be creative. Free to feel alive.

 

    • Working remotely. Being able to work online isn’t required, but it sure helps a lot. I started to develop my own routine that doesn’t follow the 9 to 5 office time rule. I work objective based, when I feel more productive and creative.

 

    • Meaningful and conscious travel. People believe that “travel makes them free.” That’s a very general statement. Sometimes vacations are seen as a “bandage.” A quick fix to feel in control again, to let others serve you for the time being. Before going back into the controlled system. I find more freedom in slow, sustainable, local and low-cost travel.

 

  • Minimal living. This doesn’t mean to live out of a backpack. It means to reduce the number of superfluous belongings. I now only keep and buy what I really need. I don’t associate happiness with owning stuff anymore. Less is better!

 

What helped me a lot was to create a mindmap: put freedom in the center, and build my life around it. For example: we love having dogs and cats around us. But instead of having our own dog(s) or cat(s), we do housesits. We stay at someone’s place for free and take care of their animals for a few weeks or months. Some things might be easier than others of course – but it does help to make conscious decisions that keep you aligned with your values.

So, here some final takeaways from my transition to freedom:

  • Wherever you are, don’t fall for social pressure: find like-minded people in your area. Coworking spaces are a pretty good spot for that
  • Rethink your vacations. Why not turn your holiday into a workation? Surround yourself with location independent entrepreneurs.
  • Stop compensating – be aware of the things that you buy. Am I compensating for something? Do I feel unfulfilled?
  • Get creative – with commuting when possible. If 9-5 is purely a social norm but not something you think is essential to get things done, challenge the norm. Why not start working at home and hit the road a little later?
  • Travel smart – be creative when money is limited. Do a housesit for free. Cook at home instead of going out. Exchange skills… so many options!

 

Careful though: freedom has its side effects. You might find yourself riding a scooter or a bike, or simply sitting on a balcony looking at the horizon. The surroundings could fade and you might feel like me when riding my motorbike that day: completely zoned in. Thinking of the happiness I found in my own freedom. I assure you though… it’s worth it!

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