Swissnex SF invited me to talk about my life without a home and just 64 things. I talk about why living with less is making me happier than I’ve ever been before and how I went from owning many hundred things to just 64.
Tonight I am still in San Francisco. It’s Friday night, the night before Fleet Week and I am at a place called Swissnex, i.e. a Swiss organization that helps bridge startups between Switzerland and the US, in this case San Francisco specifically here. They have a beautiful location by the water Pier 17 in San Francisco. They invited me to come and speak at their Swissnex Saloon, which is an art exhibition that starts today and will last for about two months. I was invited to come here and talk a bit about how digitalization, software, and technology have enabled me to live a life without too many things in my life.
Big Weakness for Questions
I have a big weakness. I have a big weakness for questions that on the surface might sound very simple but a lot of those had had quite impact on my life and I want to tell you about a few of those.
Do I Need a Home?
Back in September 2016, roughly two years and a month ago, I woke up one morning and for some reason this question was in my head, “Do I need a home?” I had just come back from New York the night before from a business trip and I was going to go back to the airport to fly to Amsterdam and I realized that basically only come back to Zurich, where I was living at the time, because I felt like if I’m paying for this place and it has all this nice couches and pillows, and knives, and everything in it, I might as well use it.
But then in that moment when I got up, I realized things should always be there for me and not the other way around. It does not make sense for me to spend time on maintaining my flat, if I feel it’s a one-way street. That was the moment when I said goodbye to having a home. I packed my bag, this is everything I owned, packed my bag and left my place. And for the past more than two years I have not stopped, I have not ever had a constant home since then.
If you were to describe my life in a few numbers, there’s a few numbers that stand out. Number one is probably 64. Back then when I moved out, that was the number of things that fit into my backpack. Right now it’s about 59.
Another number that deviates from the average is 3 days, that’s the number of days I spent on average in the same place last year. If you look at it on a map, it was roughly 120 flights. I covered about 80% of the distance between the Earth and Moon. Of course, the one question is, “Why? Why live such a crazy lifestyle without a home, without the comfort of having your own bed?” I want to tell you a few anecdotes of how it came to be and why that’s the way I’ve been living the last few years.
What makes me happy?
The first anecdote is titled “What makes me happy.” This is where I’ve lived and worked over the past ten years. I was born and raised in Switzerland. I studied at ETH Zurich and in Hong Kong. I’ve lived and worked for the first few years after I turned 18 or 19, I’ve lived in New York, Hong Kong, Berlin, Paris, and a few more places. I was always interested in startups. From the very beginning, I started my first company when I was 14. I really like this phase of going from zero to one of creating something sustainable from nothing or a discussion, a few drinks at a bar and an idea that had come up.
The only exception that I made was when I was roughly 24 years old, I went to London and I decided to go and take a job because I figured I only know the startup life, so maybe there’s something else on the other end of the spectrum that I might like even more. And a big mistake – I went into Investment Banking and did a technology project.
I’ll spare you all the details but I think this Emoji describes pretty well what I’ve seen there. I’ve arrived and I was so frustrated because I realized there were such smart and driven, and motivated people around me but they never took the time to ask themselves one question, which was, “What is it that makes me happy?” And if you think about it, it’s such a simple question. It’s such a fundamental question because we’re all driven by what makes us happy. We all in the end we don’t want to be it. That’s it, Jesus. I don’t think we want to be rich, I don’t think we want to drive fancy cars. I think in the end we want to be happy, we want to be happy when we get up and we want to be happy when we go back to bed. So it’s interesting, I finished my project after four months instead of six and got out of there. That was one of my big takeaways to think about what is it that makes me happy and the question wouldn’t leave my mind.
For the next four to six months after my banking experience, I tried to observe myself. Whenever I felt happy, I tried to figure out what was it that triggered that feeling? And one thing that I realized for myself is that just a number of things but the dominant one was I am happy when I learned; I am happy when I understand contexts, systems, concepts, how the world works, and especially applied to a particular area of my life which was building companies. So going from something that was like, little and tiny, just an idea, to something that is sustainable and works by itself and continues on itself.
Learn as Much about that Process as Possible
So at that point, it was really easy for me to optimize everything in my life for that one goal – to learn as much about that process as possible. And what I started doing is getting myself involved in as many interesting projects as possible. It started out with this company Mediasign, which was an advertising agency. That was the company that I started when I was 14 and it actually got sold last week. Then, it continued on my journey to Berlin and Zurich and Zug where I became part of a few projects.
Of course, at some point I got over to the US. I discovered a whole new world where things seem possible that in Switzerland, at least, at the time were not possible in terms of how crazy can you think, how crazy can get be and still get funding, and how crazy are the bets that investors and entrepreneurs are taking.
Then there’s one more company SendTask, which I worked planet earth. We’ll get back to this later but that mimics my lifestyle as a company. Once I’ve realized that if I want to expose myself to all these ideas and to these great people that I can learn so much from and being able to expose myself to different situations, different cultures that all planted ideas in my head and what to build next and how to build it, I realized I have to be traveling most of the time to expose myself to that many ideas.
That’s how I made the decision to leave my home a bit more than a couple years ago. The second anecdote I want to share with you is titled “White Bedding.” Another question I came up way before I started travelling that much was, “How much stuff do I own?”
Hands up who here thinks they could accurately answer that question. How much? Okay. And you? Less than a car load. Cool. But for me, back then, when this question first came up in my life, I was 22, 23, I had moved around a few places. I’ve already figured I don’t own too much stuff, but at the same time I had no idea whether that meant I owned 200 things or 2,000 or even more things. And being the left-brained person that I am, what’s the logical next step? I started creating a spreadsheet.
Spreadsheet of Belongings
I started going through my apartment and everything in my life and started indexing it – giving it a title, taking a note about what brand and make it was, how many. Also I find it interesting to collect how much cost there was. Then it became a game. So back then it was roughly 650 or 700 things that I owned which was impressive to me because at the time I already thought I had a lean or light footprint because I had been traveling a lot. How did I get from those 400? So after I first cleaned out, I got down to about 400. How did I get back to the 64 that would eventually fit into my bag when I left my place?
One system that I used this, I call it in 90-90, day process or thinking or assertion and I’ll talk a bit more about why 90 is such an important number in my life. But what I do basically is every 90 days I look at this list, now that I had a spreadsheet, it was much easier to keep track of what was added and what went from it. I asked myself, “What are the things that I haven’t used in the past 90 days and I’m most likely not going to use in the next 90 days?
Feel 90 days I have somewhat of an idea of what’s going to happen in the next 90 days. Also if you think about it a half a year covers a lot of situations in your life – there are warm days, cold days, there are days where you want to do sports, just formal days, weddings, family events. If you’re not going to need something within 180 days, there’s a very small chance you’re ever going to need it again.
What I found so interesting is how even I would call myself a very rational person; I had developed emotions for a lot of the stuff that I owned. It was very hard for me to just give stuff away. Even if I knew I hadn’t touched this shirt or this pair of pants in probably two years and probably wouldn’t even fit in it, it was hard for me to give it away, there was always just afterthought, “Maybe I’ll need it someday.”
What helped me to get over that this what I did is I would just put that stuff into a bag, put it into a corner at my parents’ place, and then coming back 90 days after and time for time realizing that I had never once gone back to that bag and picked anything out of it, was so liberating because I realized I can give it away and someone else is going to get more value from it than I do because for me it was just a dust collector. Then, of course, that’s something that I also started applying to my office setup where I had so many files and different laptops, and data spacing, and I won’t go into the details but it’s been such a liberating process for me.
But then we all like to give gifts, we live in a culture at least in my family and my friends, we celebrate Christmas or, let’s say the holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and so on and so forth. For the first roughly 23, 24 years of my life I would very often get something physical which, as soon as I realized, I could not carry it with me anyway, this quote really started to resonate with me.
Presence is the Best Present
I started telling people in my family or my loved ones that if they wanted to gift me something, gift me time, gift me an experience, gift me something that I can take anywhere. It’s been one of the best decisions of my life. There’s so much, so many seemingly simple but deep moments that I’ve collected instead of having things that can break, stuff as simple as spending an evening with my sister and cooking together instead of her gifting me an iPad that I cannot really bring anywhere, anyway.
If you look closely at the previous slide, you might notice that there’s a pretty boring or almost unnecessary column here saying color. I only own two things that are not black which are my two Swiss passports. If you travel a certain amount, you can get two passports, you can have one sent in for visas, and the other one for your current travel.
But the more important question is “Why Black”? It doesn’t get dirty. So I used to say that. Then, I was very quickly corrected that it doesn’t look dirty as quickly, but it still does get dirty.
Who has another idea? It looks formal, everything fits together. I never need to make a decision whether I’m going to wear the black pants with the white shirt or the green shirt. I was actually asked so that these shirts that I wear are also pretty pragmatic because it’s easier to iron them, I found an actual color. But there have been several instances at a place like this where I asked if I could bring another beer, these people thought I was waitressing. Thank you.
Eliminate Unnecessary Decisions
There are a few more practical reasons, one of them being when I started eliminating all the things that took unnecessary attention, I also started to eliminate all unnecessary decisions for my life because I believe that it always takes a little bit of brainpower that I could otherwise invest instead of a decision that it’s not really necessary or essential to my well-being.
So black just happens to be the default color for everything. So once I decide I need a Fitbit, usually there’s a black version so there’s one last decision I need to make. If you remember the title of this anecdote, I often stay in hotels and Airbnbs. It’s much harder to you to lose a black shirt on white bedding than a white shirt. Sit-ups and push-ups. So everyone get out pull do a bit. I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding. All right.
New Year’s Resolutions
Who here has ever made New Year’s resolutions? Now that’s the second question. So I want to see the hands go up first, and who’s been able to keep them? Yes. I found it pretty frustrating experience beginning of I don’t know which year it was but I was up on January 1st and, I was, “Alright this year it’s going to be so different, I’ll leave my baggage with all my old problems back in the last year and this year I’m going to be fit and I’m eating healthy, and I’m starting three new companies, and going to be a better boyfriend, and so on and so forth. And the end of January I was still going to the gym every day, February – I may be skipped every second day, March – I tried to convince myself that I only made half of those promises and then in April it was over.
I didn’t like that because I like that energy that January 1 planted in me. It’s a new start let’s go and do it. So I started to think about that process, “Why is that I cannot turn this positive energy into something better? And what I realized for myself is just 12 months, 365 days – it’s just a way too far down the line, I have no idea what I’m going to be in 365 days, how I’m going to be feeling and what my priorities are. And that’s when the number 90 or 91 became more important in my life.
90-day Review and Preview Process
I decided to instead of set annual goals to just set quarterly goals. I started doing this process what I call my 90-day review and preview process. It’s pretty simple. I sit down every 90 days and I write an email to my future self. Now you could use a service for this, you could of course just use a notes application or you could use a task manager, whatever fits your needs. I start writing and I write about twelve areas of my life.
12 Areas of My Life
At that point also, I ask myself, I kind of interview myself which is weird but no one was watching. I asked myself if I had to describe to someone what does my life look like if I have to describe it in areas, what would those areas be. I came up with this twelve. Now they do change over time and what works for me might not work for you. But I think it’s also an interesting question to think about; if you had to explain your life to me in areas, what would it be? So you see here. I try to be very wholesome; I tried to cover social aspects, monetary aspects, fitness, health, and so on and so forth.
Then what I do in my review, so I have this email and I write down these twelve areas of my life and I start writing and I ask myself a bunch of questions. Again, this is usually when no one’s looking. For example for friends, I ask myself a bunch of questions – the first one is, “How do I feel about this area of my life? Again I think in the end we all just want to be happy, so I think it’s important for me to become clean with myself about, “Is there something that’s been on my mind for a while, that’s bothering me, but that that I haven’t taken the time to actually look into in face?” Then, I tried to have a set of questions for each area that helps me analyze if I’m being true to myself or expose potential vulnerabilities or areas where I should make a change.
Am I in line with the priorities I want to have in my life?
So here’s a bunch of questions. I’m going to pick one of them; for example, “Who I not spent enough time with? Something that’s very important to me because I’m away very often my family, my parents, my sister, my fiancée – they live in Switzerland, so it’s important for me to ask myself like, “Am I in line with the priorities I want to have in my life? Do I spend enough time with the people that I value and love in my life? And I write it down. That usually takes me about two to three hours and it’s not an easy process and I push it every time. So I’m not exactly doing it at the end of the quarter but usually within the first week off of the next quarter I do find the time.
Then 90 days after what happens is I get an email back. I get an email back showing me black and white, what I felt like and what was bothering me at the time and what I was happy with. And that concludes the review part.
Preview Part: Looking Forward
There’s a second part to that email which is the preview part looking forward and in a preview part that’s taking over what I used to do with New Year’s resolution. So I set one or two things that I’m going to change within the next quarter. Now it doesn’t sound like a lot but it allows me to focus on ideally just one thing that I’m going to change within the next 90 days.
It helps me to achieve that. I make it very measurable. For example, let’s go back to the example with, “Do I spend enough time with someone that I love?” So my sister is a great example. We’re very different, like day and night. I realized there was certain disconnect between two of us; we had fallen out of touch.
One change that I’ve made for the next 90 days every day I would think of her and send her a message. It has been such a positive change in both of our lives because we feel a lot more connected as brothers and sisters even though we don’t spend that much time together. It’s very measurable –every day I could tell whether I did it or not. It didn’t take me a lot of time but it brought so many good emotions and so much good change to my life.
I guess not everyone here is local and might also travel a lot, when I started traveling a lot, at the beginning it always felt as soon as I sat down in the airplane and I left Zurich airport or wherever I was leaving, it felt like I was going on vacation. What do I do on vacation? I don’t work out, I don’t eat healthy, and I don’t get enough sleep. Now that I think that’s fine if you go on vacation twice a year but if you’re on 120 flights per year, suddenly the days that I would spend not on vacation mode were like down to a few months. And at the same time I had all these excuses. I couldn’t get gym membership for the twelve places that I was visiting within the next few months, being between India and Australia, and Singapore, and Miami, all within two weeks meant I couldn’t just go for the one same healthy meal every day and I had to constantly pick something.So I thought about that, “How am I going to fix? How am I going to be healthier?”
Means of Being Healthy
And there are two simple choices that I came up with – one is I do a lot of sit-ups and push-ups, and squats. There’s never an excuse not to do push-ups because you barely need two square meters – same for squats. If you do it first time in the morning thirty minutes, you can get quite a few of them done. I got exhausted. I usually do about 300 of them every morning and this can be pretty worked out.
The second rule that I try to adopt this very often if I feel I’m not even eating healthy by default, I just leave everything out that has carbs in it – bread, anything sugary and so on. These are just two months of the year. Alrighty. That’s the 90-day review and preview process.
The fourth anecdote I want to share with you is starts like a bad joke, a Russian and Armenian, a Macedonian, a Hungarian, and a Swiss walk into a bar. The idea here was once I got accustomed to my life style, this review process and being on the run or on the road all the time. The idea got originated in a different company called SendTask. We’ve now shifted focus into this company called DFINITY. DFINITY is one of these blockchain decentralized infrastructure startups that brings the Wikipedia or Wikimedia idea to the infrastructure layer. So you’re not dependent anymore on a server provider or a domain provider, and so on. I won’t go too deep.
We will have time for questions afterwards. So if anyone’s interested, we can dive into that but we built SendTask in a completely decentralized way. There were originally 13 people working with me from 12 different countries before we shifted into DFINITY. I just want to share a few notes of what went well and what didn’t go too well with that.
The question that sparked it was also, “Does a company need an office?” If you think about it, I’m sure all of us have different experiences, were all involved in different jobs, different businesses, they might work very differently for different types of businesses. There are a few obvious cons and pros. The pros might be: you save electricity and you save infrastructure cost and everyone has a lot more flexibility because my personal experience is I’m not always productive from 6:00 a.m. in the morning till 10:00 p.m. Very often it’s like, I’m either early in the day and productive or late night or vice versa. I want my employees or people I work with to have similar experience and freedom.
But there are also obvious downsides. We all value our co-workers and the culture that we have because we meet them at the water cooler and that’s when we talk about which movie did you watch last night and how do you think about it? That’s not something we bring up via email or slack or any sort of Instant Messenger. But we decided to run the experiment and see if we can circumvent its downsides and turn them into positive.
Focus on the Important versus the Urgent
This is how my office usually looks, it’s just my laptop very often, it’s also in a plane, sitting on my lap, and all I really need to be productive is Wi-Fi and electricity. And, luckily, you can get that in most places of the world although that’s also been a bit of a challenge sometimes, getting decent Wi-Fi still. Just a few lessons I’ve learned from this, being away from my team for most of the time has allowed me to do one thing really well which is focus on the important versus the urgent.
What I’ve realized is if I sit in the same offices with all my team, it’s so easy for them to come over and tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, can you help me with this? Can you do this for me? Can you explain me how this works?” And while at the beginning it might look like a slow start because we have to document everything and there’s a bit of an overhead and creating all these systems and processes, but I’ve learned it’s extremely easy to on-board people afterwards once you’ve created that documentation.
Two Roles as a Leader
Another thing that I’ve learned is that my role as a leader is really only two things – one it’s to be a pilot and make sure the ship is going the right direction, we stay on path; and the other thing is to create a good working environment for everyone I work with, to create the best possible foundation for them so they could be successful.
Very importantly, I talked about culture but, for me, building a company is always about the company you’re building with. I think there are no great ideas, there are no great markets, and there are only great teams. In the end for me that’s all that matters. With my past experience, when something failed it was always because of the team and when something succeeded it was always because of the team.
The way we battle or we work with that is well usually this is how we work and meet, every three months, so in other 90 days usually, we bring everyone together and we work from one place. In this instance here, we were in Armenia and during that week when we work together, we focus on all the long-term stuff: we define roadmap, we make sure everyone knows what they’re going to be doing the next 12 weeks and then the other half of the day we focus on getting to know each other, and we do fun stuff like hiking or, well, the other thing, I also took them surprise skydiving. So one afternoon I said we’re going to go and picnic. We drove to the airport and everyone got on a plane, we jumped out. It was extremely fun for me, not everyone liked it as much, so the next time we decided to go hiking instead.
The Secret of Happiness is not Found in Seeking more but in Developing the Capacity to Enjoy Less
All right. I’m almost at the end, so this is a quote that has really inspired me, “The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” Well, I think, in other words, to just value what we have and make the best out of it, and what it might sound very applicable to my lifestyle of owning very few things, what surprised me is who said or wrote this. I guess it was Socrates a few hundred years before Christ.
With that, I think we have time for questions. Thank you all for paying attention.