The Mechanics of Happiness

I haven’t written about my last few days in Thailand, let alone any of the last month. I mean, I was busy having fun and stuff, but that’s not the reason I haven’t updated my blog. The reason is that in those last days travelling by myself, I went through a mental shift that I’m able to put into words only now.

It happened in Pai, that backpacker place in northern Thailand. One day I woke up and thought: “I don’t feel like talking to anyone. I feel like walking”. And I started walking. I soon left the hippy-hostel-hill and found myself in some fields, surprisingly alone. I was carrying nothing but a mango, which I ate once I felt hungry. When I was done eating, I came across a little pond in which I could wash my hands. And then, there was this big temple in a tiny village, and I meditated. I hadn’t drunk in a while but I was not worried. I wasn’t sure where I was going and whether I’d be able to return home if I walked too far. But I just kept walking, observing, breathing.

“The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention” (Julia Cameron)

There was a shop where I bought some water and food. There were some sad chained elephants, there were trees and little huts that looked like shepherd’s napping spots. After a few hours (two? three?), I was starting to feel tired. And then, someone stopped their motorbike and asked me whether I needed a lift. “Well, I’m not sure whether I need one, as such…” – “So, where are you going?” – “I don’t know, maybe the Pai Canyon [two more walking hours down the road] would be nice?” – “Oh, then you definitely need a lift.”

And so I had energy left when reaching the canyon, energy to climb around the sandy narrow tracks and listen to breezy music while looking down deserted landscapes. Hitching back to town was then very easy. Life as such was easy. I’d shifted from planning and worrying to doing and trusting.

Yes. Maybe travelling is special. Maybe it is not wise at all to take this exalted state of mind as a baseline for comparing all my other experiences to. And yet, I found it worth telling this story because I’ve been learning from it in the month that has passed since.

Life has not proven that easy, of course. But also not horrible. For New Year’s, I went to Oxford, the home I had until half a year ago, and I stayed for two weeks. I was pleased, because I didn’t miss Thailand’s hot springs and exploration tours – Instead, I was very excited seeing lots of friends and connecting to lots of other people (like when I organised a conversation dinner, which one of my attendees wrote about).

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I spent a whole day just working on my goals for the year, trying to distil my experiences (especially those after graduation) into an action plan, or at least a direction. Like many people who have finished Uni and don’t yet know what comes next, I have found thinking about the future quite daunting (and not just because I worry about humanity destroying itself).

More precisely: I spent half a year being overwhelmed by the task, and then went travelling to escape my own thinking. And, who would have thought: that was exactly the right thing to do. Suddenly, I was able to focus on the positives. I won’t starve during the next few weeks (probably months) if I don’t make a decision, and I’m free. If I really wanted to, I could literally just leave. Or do whatever.

At the beginning of 2018, I felt excited about the year to come. I mentally stumbled over my own excitement, because it was something I hadn’t felt in a long time. Buzzed by the energy of actually looking forward to things as opposed to reluctantly engaging in the things I felt I was supposed to be doing, I decided on my first goal for this year. Being excited to get up in the morning. I don’t only want to be excited in the mornings, but that was inspired by the image of a child waking up and running down the stairs in the morning, excited about the day to come. That’s exactly what I want to do. My other goals kind of contribute to that, because they, too, are aimed at making me feel good. I want to cultivate a social life that contains deep connection, I want to feel like my body is strong and trustworthy, and I want to be creative (that’s another thing I realised I enjoyed, but hadn’t done in a long time). And, crucially, I’m allowing myself time to not think about what I should be doing – most notably, jobs. My guess is that plans about the future will come to me once excitement about life in general has settled in. That’s reversing the dynamic I felt during the last few months, where I felt like making future plans was becoming impossible the more I tried to force myself, because I just got too stressed to really do anything. I’m giving Excitement until the end of March, and if life isn’t automatically easier then, I’ll just figure out another strategy.

So, I made these glorious plans. And then, I came back to Berlin. I was greeted by a minor snow storm that soaked me in ice. Making friends was hard, and exercising was an effort that felt far beyond me. My initial inner-child response was to sulk, and go like: “Oh, the problem is Berlin. I should just leave again”.

I spent a week making myself do things anyway, all of the things I knew were good. I did some creative writing every day (“You have to allow yourself to create badly in order to create at all” getting me through my self-criticism). I went out to do parkour with someone, but ended up dancing around on the stones instead because that felt more like playing, and I need play more than “serious exercise” right now. I went to a meetup without really knowing what it was about, and it turned out to be people organising techno parties for fundraising purposes. I couldn’t even tell what techno is when hearing it, but the people were fun and I congratulated myself for going anyway. I went contact dancing, learnt how to do animal moves at a workshop, had dinner with a group of law students, and made a summary of a chapter which I handed out at a group discussion on moral philosophy.

All of that was actually pretty hard at the beginning, because I find being around strangers exhausting, and activities continued being draining even while I was doing them. For example, at the dancing session, I’d dance for a few minutes and enjoy myself, and then curl up in a corner…until I was able to dance again. In the moment, I couldn’t even tell whether I enjoyed the experience as a whole, but I reminded myself that doing things is better than not doing things. And the positive effects have started arriving.

After a few days, I suddenly thought: wouldn’t it be fun to pretend I’m travelling through Berlin right now? You know, do all the random things that I really love when I’m on a trip, just being perceptive to opportunities and ending up doing something totally unexpected. To get started, I made a list of things I could do and then set off to do something else entirely.

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I cycled around and suddenly saw all these things, stopped to take pictures, walked along a bit of the Berlin Wall, and found myself in a free exhibition. In the evening, I went to a two-and-a-half hours training session, physically intense, but also requiring coordination, reaction, and weirdness. And instead of being drained afterwards, I asked myself: “What next?”. There was a radical-leftist space two corners further on, and they provided dinner on donation basis (VoKü, or Volxküche, as it’s called here). I’m not sure whether that was still the buzz of the travelling day, but I didn’t feel insecure walking into the dirty space with people I didn’t know anything about. Maybe I was just massively hungry. Over dinner, I started talking with an anarchist – new people, new views! I could have continued the night in some party I was invited to and I’m sure I could have turned my life from unexpected to surreal if I’d tried a bit harder, but I was pleased enough with the state of affairs as it was.

All of that made me hopeful that I can make the transition from travel happiness to settled happiness. I think – I feel – that this year still has the potential to be a great one for me. It might not happen by itself, but I am learning what I need, and I’m trying my best to do whatever will work.

And just now, I noticed that my blogging theme has shifted from what I called “the mechanics of fear” to what I might as well call the mechanics of happiness.


The Mechanics of Fear (and climbing gear)

I’m standing on about three centimetres of stone, pressed against the rock at about 18 metres from the ground, as Dave shouts up: “You have to turn around! Spin a few times – you know, like a ballerina!”. Seems like I don’t need to hitchhike to experience the thrill of the adventure.

I am at a climbing spot just out of Chiang Mai (called “Crazy Horse”), because climbers seem to know each other across continents, and because I was lucky. A cool local agreed to introduce me to the joys of outdoors rope climbing, me who has only been bouldering indoors a few times and occasionally gets on top of the odd wall. She brings along Dave, who leads the way up the twenty odd metres of rock, and then says: “You go next”.

I start climbing, slowly feeling the stone around me, touching it, stroking it. It is reassuringly solid and gives enough space to be gripped and to hold my body. Nice! Indeed, the difficulty is not the technical bit of the climbing (which is good, because my technique is very basic), but the ever increasing height. Several times, I stop to shake out my hands, which forces me to lean back into the rope and trust that my belayer down below has got me. When I reach the top, I turn around and look over the trees into the valley and I see the others down below, gosh, am I high. But – gosh – this is great!

Later, we try a second route. It’s meant to be as beginner-friendly as the first one, but it looks more difficult. Maybe it’s because the stone has had time to heat up, maybe I’m just a bit tired now.

When it’s my turn to go up, I am secured by a Dutch guy we met at the site. He is only hardly more experienced than me, which makes it even harder to trust in the rope that should prevent me from falling. Said rope also starts twisting as I climb which forces me to play ballerina at height. At about four or five metres from the top, I am not sure what to do. There is a ledge at about the height of my chin which provides good grip. If I managed to get my feet onto that one, I’d manage the rest of the route. My hands search for something to hold – after hearing Dave make some comments on proper technique, I repeat to myself “hands high, arms stretched, legs bent” (“aha, exactly like when you’re hanging on a wall before pulling yourself up”, my mind adds). The technical advice isn’t really helping: it feels as if upon leaving the instinctive auto-pilot (“get up this rock”), my mind suddenly offers me helpful comments like “Do you really think your hand can hold this grip for long?”.

Well, and every time I search for a grip higher than the nice protruding edge, I imagine my hands sliding over the surface, suddenly at a loss for things to hold, me falling backwards. After a few minutes, I shout down that I need a break. “Gotcha” goes the echo from below, but it takes a while until I loosen the fingers clamped around the saving edge. I stretch them, I breathe. That’s hard, because I can already feel the storminess inside (if it pleases you to imagine my mood like a deep sea, it is one now slowly set in motion). If I listen, I can hear something very primal trying to get my attention to inform me that nonononono, I don’t want to be here.

Instead, I look up and see that there’s only two more hooks left before the end, and I can picture how great it would be to be up there, to accomplish my mission.

I remember: “bend your legs, then push. Your legs are stronger than your arms”. Since I cannot directly reach the edge with my foot, I put it halfway up and try to imitate what I’d do if this was a wall: push against it to get enough momentum to move my body up.

And then, my left foot slips. I don’t know if I dangle in the ropes for a second, nor what my hands do. I don’t even know whether I make the sound of some small, frightened animal. I catch myself again, holding on, leaning back just enough to remind myself of the reassuring draw of the rope that secures me. What before was a dark, but mostly calm, ocean, is now like a tsunami going in all directions simultaneously. There is no capacity for thought, just a nameless force making me want to not be here. But even going back down requires a minimum of coordination, and I panic because I’m not able to go down, and I have no breath to shout that I want to be lowered. I breathe, I’m okay. I try to take action, I’m not okay. The panic comes in waves and this time, I do hear myself producing strange little sounds when they hit.

And for some reason, I don’t want to go down because I am so close, because I’m ashamed of leaving this unfinished, and because I want to concede no points to this part of me that seems so uncontrollable. Maybe it’s that wish to take control that makes me try a third, and last, time.

In any classic story, this would be the moment where I succeed, where the tension resolves into bliss and accomplishment. But there is no way my stretched nerves would do any better than before, no chance to spot a previously unnoticed path. So I try, and I fail, and I hoarsely shout that I want to be lowered.

When I come down, I am shaky and a bit disappointed. For a while, my brain keeps generating anxious thoughts, which in turn annoys me. But then, I also feel a strange lightness. It takes me a while until I notice: This was actually a pretty scary situation. It’s fine if my body reacts that way in case of actual danger (my body doesn’t yet know that much about ropes, so it must have been as scared as you’d imagine unsecured climbing would be). And now that the situation is over, I can relax.

And then, I am pleased with myself: today, I tried something that was new and outside my comfort zone. I am excited about it for several days to come. Why then did I share the “failure” bit of it more lengthily than the “excitement” bit? Obviously: because I don’t think that we have to succeed at everything straight away. If I only did stuff for which success was very likely, I probably wouldn’t learn much at all.

Just like in my last post, which talked about my not-so-successful attempt at hitchhiking, I am starting to celebrate my tries more than my successes. And I think that’s a great thing for me to do.

Would love to hear your thoughts!

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10-minute-friends and floating thoughts.

I made six new random friends since I boarded the bus in Jaisalmer yesterday evening. Within a few minutes, I’d introduced myself to the guys across the corridor of the sleeper bus, and my plan of having locals handy in case I was confused worked out fabulously. Plus none of us got bored, and I was invited to stay at their desert school at my next visit. Facebook friend request: sent.

In my next bus, from Jaipur to Delhi, I was alone for quite a while, until two men (again, haha) joined me on my bench. I was first annoyed because that didn’t leave me much space, and I’m suspicious of situations in which I’m required to be physically close to men I don’t know. The ones next to me didn’t show any undue interest, though, and we sat in silence for a few hours, until we started talking about marriages. The three of us turned out to have travelled for a wedding, the two of them to their first Rajasthani one and I to my first one at all (although that had already been in Delhi). Anyway, we got along well and spent the afternoon together even after getting off the bus. We were joined by one more of their friends who turned out to like formal logic and had started reading “Gödel, Escher, Bach”, as well as watching lectures from Erlangen University (in Germany) online… we ceremoniously pledged to hold each other accountable for finishing the book.

What an improvement to sitting in the dust for hours by myself! More facebook friends: check. Plus, obviously, more nice people to visit in Delhi.

When the time came to reach the airport, one of them explained me how to get to the airport by metro, reassuring me that it would be no problem at all. Well, it got late, I got incredibly stressed, and so he took the metro with me all the way to the airport to make sure I’d be alright (I was filled with righteousness: “If you hadn’t reassured me, I’d left an hour earlier!”).

When saying goodbye, I gave him a stormy adrenaline-filled (and therefore probably tight?) hug, which left him visibly perplexed.

Woops, forgot Indian protocol – non-related, non-married men and women usually greet each other by waving/signing “namaste”, or shaking hands, or giving a very chaste hug selon occasion.

[Side note: not even married couples kiss each other in public; not that I’d wanted to try that].

I didn’t consider my potential faux-pas for long, but slid away. On my golden wedding sandals that provided no grip whatsoever on the shining floor; straight to check in, where I was greeted with a grin, considering my generous margin of 13 minutes before check-in closure and my inability of taking corners without looking like an overpacked surfing apprentice.

I grinned back; relief! Relief! The best euphoria. Then, waiting at the passport controls, I started a conversation with someone I suspected might also go to Bangkok. The kind of East Asian face turned out not to be Thai at all, but from eastern Nepal. What a joy! Under normal circumstances, I already get excited when I meet Nepalis, but now, I must have looked like a very happy chicken or something, and completed all the relevant introduction (I worked as a journalist on Durbar Marg! – Really!? I’ve studied journalism in Kathmandu!!) in record speed. We lost each other at security checks, but then I saw him speed past me (he was also late) and lose a jumper. I saved it – film-worthy scene of me running after him, still in sandals – and we’d become friends by the time we’d reached our respective gates.

I felt like just jumping on his plane to Kathmandu; build on the foundations of my Nepali life that still feels strangely real (I still have dreams in which I am back, exhilarated, greeting everyone… and then wake up). For a moment, it was there; I had a cool job, like working for the UN or something, or opened the first real German bakery of Thamel among all the fake ones – and then I rushed on, go, go Thailand.

A conversation I had a few hours before, remotely.

Me: ” The disturbing thing is that I find myself wanting very different kinds of lives depending on what feels good in the moment”

Friend: ” when ‘living in the present’ goes too far ;P “

Will I also want to stay in Thailand? What would happen if I gave myself actual travel time, you know, the kind without return ticket; where you just follow whatever leads you get? Would I get lost? Build a life abroad? Return home? (Also: where’s that?)

I try to be patient with myself. I’ve left the clear path labelled “studies”, and then had some ideas I was pursuing while in Brussels and Berlin. Leaving even that fragile skeleton of a life plan plan behind puts it all up for questioning again.

Why not live on an island and write stories? I could literally do anything. There is some consistency in my wishes, but it’s hard to pin it down. One constant: wanting an environment in which to grow, in a healthy – not stressed – way. Writing and stories have also been a big part of my life for a long time, so much so that it feels like a sacrilege that I haven’t substantially invested in my passion since my two first attempts at writing novels age 8 and 12.

What keeps changing: the wish to “break free” (strong now, as you can tell) versus the one to advance, to get to a position from which to be of the most use to the maximum amount of sentient beings. I am terrified of ending up as a novelist, even a successful one, because I could have, I don’t know, saved a few hundred thousand people’s lives, or made it infinitely less likely that humankind extinguishes itself within the next hundred years instead.

I don’t see an easy answer, and yes, I am taking into account that I could do several things at once. But what to do, like, right now?

Is it even worth applying to jobs that I don’t find totally inspiring?

Thus are my thoughts in the air towards Bangkok, and while they are disorienting, I float above them, so to speak. I am glad that being abroad has this unexpected but understandable effect, and that I’m able to look at life from a different angle. Even just remembering what my core passions are (woops, did I really forget?) is great and will help in the overall decision-making.

For now, let me float, explore, write. Maybe that’s as much as I need. And hopefully, I’ll make some more friends along the way.

Orange Delhi night

I thought arriving would be more of a relief. Instead, it’s the middle of the night, and I’m wide awake and alone in a shabby dorm (which is either overpriced, or the exchange rate has changed dramatically since 2014, or the rest of the place really is that great to make up for it).

But! I am in India, once more, and unexpected memories and forgotten knowledge populate my mind. Like when I spontaneously want to say “sorry, I don’t have money” or “just a second” and catch myself in surprise because the words are suddenly there in Hindi.

Chatting to my taxi driver, back into the openness and confidence I used to feel. It is good to remember that there is a place where singing out loud is not all that strange, and a bit bewildering to receive all the tourist-reserved attention again. Most of all, however, this time I was less overwhelmed just by the country, and able to notice smaller things. The orange-patterned floor in the airport, the dusty sweet-ish smell that is very hard to describe, but immediately familiar. The orange-coloured night, in which the smog diffuses the light emanating from the lamp posts, the red street lights everyone ignores, magnificent temples in the most ordinary corners, oh, Delhi.

So, yes, I am full of wonder to be passing through this part of the world again, which for me feels like passing through a certain phase of my life again. Well, for now.

And I think I have decided on the theme I want to adopt for the coming days or weeks. It happened on the plane, when it suddenly clicked that I would land and be back, truly. I felt this joy, like vibrating with goodwill for all sentient beings, only better. Because there was this certainty that, at the core, there was nothing to worry about, as if anxiety wasn’t even possible, as if everything was just …good. It’s like having lost your compass and not noticing until you get it back. Which made it utterly obvious that the theme of, well, now will be to follow whatever this sense of direction indicates, just do what feels like the right thing to do, in the safety of a few weeks in which no decision will really matter anyway, and maybe learn to take some of this home. But because I’m starting to overthink stuff again, this is the right time to sleep, to then meet the wonder of the new day with a waking eye.

Noticing confusion: India? Again?

This is what I’m listening to while writing:

I noticed that I’m confused. Wait? I’ll be in Delhi this Thursday? People had been asking whether I was planning on travelling (“now that you’re not doing anything, really”). I wasn’t.

Now it’s happening anyway.

I was preoccupied installing myself in Berlin, which has worked pretty well so far (“you know that you’re at home in a place when you have people to discuss with”). So I didn’t really notice that there was this mostly family-sponsored trip coming up, enabling me to see a good friend getting married and then join one half of my parents in Thailand. Now that I’m, on a gut-level, starting to realise that I’ll be far away in four days, I’m starting to wonder what the journey will be like. I’m all for tasting the adventure semi-prepared at most, but I also know that being completely aimless can turn into the kind of journey where you end up returning with a stale “what was the point?”. Which doesn’t mean that I want to plan, as such. It’s more like choosing which kind of mindset to adopt during the next month or so.

Option 1: Holiday?

I am very tempted to use the excuse to put all the projects that are ticking away at the back of my head on hold. Existential dread about the future, concerning my personal path as well as roughly the next hundred trillion years of humanity, if all goes well? Nah, I’m on holiday!

On the other hand, I’ve been finding it hard to adopt holiday-mindsets for the last year or so. First, there was no time for a holiday (finals), then, my whole life entered this in-between, where no clearly-cut “work-time” meant that every minute was a moment in which to figure out my life, or “get somewhere”, “get something done” (the vagueness of this “something”not exactly having been helpful either).

I’ve been getting better at this in Berlin, for example by picking up a not-directly-useful occupation like playing the violin again. I’m not all that stressed anymore about the fact that the violin (as played by me) does not make a relevant contribution to the world, nor getting me a job. Ah! I said the evil j-word! If anything, that’s a topic for a later post, since it doesn’t really fit in with this moment’s effort of not being stressed. So it seems like there are all the more good reasons for a holiday! (Counter-reasons, or more like counter-feelings, are that I don’t actually deserve one, that I’m not useful enough to be worth the investment, and that this money could actually have saved lives instead of sending me on a trip. But I might just have to shut out these thoughts for now, and pledge to be better in the future.)

Option 2: An adventure!

Adventures, or “going travelling”, are different from holidays. They are more focused on having experiences, and testing/developing yourself. Sleeping alone under a tin foil in some forest after crossing the whole country in a day’s hitchhike perhaps doesn’t make for a great holiday. But it’s amazing if you’ve always wanted to talk to a fox at night, or just learn how to shrug your shoulders at not knowing where to go, or sleep, next. I had thought that now might not be a great time to bring myself to the edge, because that feels like a place I’ve been occupying constantly for months anyway. But now, I’m starting to, very subtly, feel the thrill again (“I could be walking around the himalayas next week…”). Actually, exposing myself to directly adventurous situations could be a good idea. Swapping the diffuse threat and dread of trying to find a cosy little place in society for the very precise trouble of making sure you stay safe along the way sounds like an excellent plan.

Adventure-journeys can also contain a project, a question you’re trying to answer throughout the journey, a view you detail at the start and whose progress you track. These are nice for the narrative as well, and work to satisfy my need for meaning even while I’m having fun. Maybe I’ll come up with something in the next few days.

Now that I’ve presented this wonderful travel-holiday dichotomy, I’m of course going to tear it down again and announce that I should probably do a bit of both. Mwahaha. In any case, this post has served its purpose well: I’m starting to feel ready.

I hope you’ll accompany me on this journey!

(One way is to subscribe to get email updates, haha.)

Confidence, dread, and crisp-craving crises.

My final exams start in just under two weeks. Excellent occasion to write a blog post about confidence*.

I’ve been feeling quite anxious for the last week, and am currently recovering from the stress I wasn’t even aware I was feeling (seriously, my body had to tell me). One thing that helped in the process was meeting two of my tutors who basically took me by the hand and kept telling me that I did know stuff, and just needed to be more confident and say it. The part of me that is not my inner critic (according to whom I would probably not do anything at all for fear of not being good enough) largely agrees.

The thing is, I wouldn’t rate myself as generally under-confident.

*sorry, I won’t actually talk about crisp-craving crises. But I think you get it anyway.

To find out what made me confident in some and not confident in other situations, I made a list and identified a couple of factors that seem to play a role. Here we go:

“Intrinsic” factors: related to how I feel about the task

1) finding it easy

For example, for my German Linguistics paper, I found that I could complete the work without having an existential crisis in the process. Indeed, I was familiar with lots of the concepts and could apply native speaker intuitions – nice for a change.

2) finding it interesting

That’s kind of obvious, I hope?

3) being passionate about it (thinking it’s important)

That mostly applies to stuff I do with charities. It was a big driving factor in my community-oriented volunteering (at the Oxford Hub), and one of the factors that balances my low confidence in effective altruist circles.

“Extrinsic”/Group-related factors

4) getting positive feedback

The hub committee is a great illustration of this: more often than pointing out mistakes, and certainly more often than elsewhere, people pointed out when someone did something right. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be critical, but reflecting on it, I kind of miss that positive and encouraging atmosphere.

Academically, it’s tutors telling you that you’ve done well, or getting a good grade. However, in low-confidence constellations, it’s easy to think that this was accidental, or that they are trying to be nice. For example, me getting a first in statistics didn’t change my belief that I’m bad at maths.

5) being good in relation to others

See also (4); somewhere in 4+5, there is also something about not feeling judged, but encouraged in the group situation.

Conversely, there is nothing worse for my confidence levels than being in the room with people who either are better or who I think are better than me. They’d have to be exceptionally nice for me to think that they are not judging me.

6) and a difficult and fuzzy one: identifying with it

Is that about past experiences? And how much of that is social conditioning? And why do I not stop believing that I “can’t do” maths or logic? And should I be worried about the fact that I would rate myself as less analytical now than I did at the start of my degree?

I don’t have more time to think about this (there is finals waiting for me), and this seems too complex to just blame it on gendered social conditioning.

Also, crisps…

Yet, quoting one of my tutors:

“you know, if stereotypical white males are allowed to say things they are not sure about with confidence, then you should allow yourself to do so, too”.

I always like to take lessons from my thinking, so what is the lesson now? Just act more confident?! Yeah, lol.

Trying to remember for the future:

  • It did help to remove myself from group situations that convinced me that I was inadequate >> by telling my tutor about struggling and getting one-on-one tuition
  • It did help to seek out people who are good at being encouraging, and stressing that I do know things, as well as showing me how to use them in an exam situation.
  • I’m lucky enough to find most of what I study interesting anyway. YAY I LOVE MY STUDIES (*makes mental note*)

What I’m not sure about yet is whether I should think more about what lies behind “identifying myself” with something, since that might be a phrase I use to plaster up insecurities (“It’s okay to fail, this is not my thing anyway”) or false (and possibly gendered) beliefs… and whether that is something to tackle in the long run.

For now, I’m happy enough that in this moment, I feel sufficiently confident to go through the next weeks and that in the worst case, I have enough vague knowledge on everything to at least make up something. Another tutor quote:

“And when you look at the paper and think that you can’t answer any of the questions, you might as well take that to mean that you can answer all of them”.

Have any thoughts? Just pop them below! Especially if they provide an easy and quick answer to all of this! 😛 

DEUTSCH: Effektiver Altruismus auf den zweiten Blick

For those who don’t understand German: I’m planning (and hoping!) to write an English post about Effective Altruism soon, especially about the problems I (still!) have with it and the things I nevertheless agree with in there. But seen that there’s lots of English material out there already, I encourage you to look for yourselves in the meantime 🙂 

Das hier ist eine Antwort auf Sabrinas Post über Effektiven Altruismus.

Als Hintergrund: ich würde mich selber nicht unbedingt als Effektiven Altruisten (EA) bezeichnen, vor allem nicht, wenn es dabei um bestimmte Organisationen geht. Ich finde aber die Idee, unsere Ressourcen möglichst gut einzusetzen, sehr sinnvoll, und habe in der Unterhaltung mit EAs (vor allem auf der EAG Global Konferenz) viele interessante Anreize mitbekommen. Ich werde erst versuchen, ein paar deiner Fragen aufzugreifen, und dann meinen eigenen Senf dazugeben 😉

[Entschuldige, dass alle meine Links auf Englisch sind, ich kenne leider die deutschen Materialien (noch) nicht so gut]

1.) “Aber was, wenn ich den größten Teil meines Lebens mit wohltätiger Arbeit verbringe? Sollte ich dann wirklich genau dort arbeiten, wo ich am meisten bewirken kann, selbst wenn es mich unglücklich macht?”

Ich kenne keinen EA, die/der denken würde, dass ein Burn-Out irgendwem hilft! Speziell wenn es darum geht, den Großteil deiner Zeit wohltätig zu sein, ist 80.000 hours wirklich hilfreich. Was sie “personal fit” nennen, ist teilweise eine Antwort auf deine Frage: Wenn man nicht glücklich in seinem Job ist, ist man wahrscheinlich nicht so gut wie man woanders sein könnte – die ganze Kunst besteht also darin, die Beschäftigung zu finden, in der der eigene Charakter am meisten erreichen kann. (Mehr dazu auch hier, wo es explizit darum geht, sich erst mal um sich selber zu kümmern, bevor man anderen helfen kann).

Dass das Thema auch in der “EA Community” viel diskutiert wird, kann man zum Beispiel in diesem Artikel sehen.

2.) “Aber wäre es nicht noch effektiver, einen Wandel auf gesellschaftlicher Ebene anzustoßen?”

EAs diskutieren viel über gesellschaftlichen Wandel, gerade weil es so eine spannende Frage ist und potenziell viel effektiver sein könnte als Geld zu geben. Ein paar Punkte, die ich aus Gesprächen mitgenommen habe, ist, dass es hilfreich ist, genau zu definieren, was man mit gesellschaftlichem Wandel meint – zum Beispiel, ob es darum geht, die Ansichten von Leuten zu ändern, oder vielleicht gleich den ganzen Kapitalismus abzuschaffen. Ich habe mich noch nicht genügend mit dem Thema beschäftigt (kommt hoffentlich noch!)

Wie man es bei so einer bedachten Bewegung erwarten kann, gibt es viele verschiedene Antworten auf deine Frage! Viele EAs versuchen momentan, genau das herauszufinden. Eine Liste kannst du in diesem Artikel (“Effective altruists love systemic change“) finden.

Allerdings habe ich auch ein Gegenargument (“Beware systemic change“) gefunden.

Der Artikel ist etwas Arbeit zum Durchlesen, deswegen unten ein paar Ausschnitte. Die generelle Idee scheint zu sein, dass wir potenziell mehr Schaden anrichten, wenn wir nach “systemic change” rufen, und dass “man vs. nature” (also zum Beispiel Krankheiten bekämpfen) sicherer ist, als “man vs. man” Konflikte anzufangen. Auch hier finde ich es wohl hilfreich, im Hinterkopf zu behalten, worum es uns bei “systemic change” geht (ich habe so das Gefühl, dass das bei dir anders aussehen könnte als bei ihm – würde mich über eine Erklärung freuen!)

“Highly educated people used to studying science might just be more likely to fall for the streetlight effect and go with the side that promises more quantifiability, rather than the side more likely to be right.”

“A quick run through the history books shows that smart people trying to effect systemic change have an imperfect track record. I won’t say that they’re unusually bad compared to other demographics, but certainly nothing as stellar as the “let’s just not be morons” theory might lead one to expect.”

“There are many more ways to break systems than to improve them.”

“if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, it would be more than enough to end world poverty, cure several major diseases, and start a cultural and scientific renaissance. If everyone became very interested in systemic change, we would probably have a civil war.”

3.) Ein letzter Punkt, der mir besonders am Herzen liegt! Erst als ich auf der EA-Konferenz war, hatte ich das Gefühl, den Anreiz der Bewegung zu verstehen. So lange mir spezielle Antworten präsentiert wurden (zB “Spende Organisation X”), fand ich das nicht besonders spannend, und ich hatte immer ein bisschen das Gefühl, dass damit auf mich herabgesehen wird (“Sobald du erstmal wirklich rational bist, wirst du das auch sehen”). Dann, als ich EAs wirklich kennen gelernt habe, hat sich mein Bild verändert – ich habe gesehen, dass sich EAs in vielen verschiedenen Bereichen engagieren und neugierig und offen auf meine Bedenken reagiert haben. Ich habe sogar auch dazu eine tolle Zusammenfassung gefunden, und zwar den Artikel “Effektiver Altruismus als Frage, nicht als Antwort“. Damit bin ich voll und ganz einverstanden, genau wie mit der Grundauffassung, die ich bei allen EAs angefunden habe. Ich formuliere das als “Deinen Verstand benutzen, um (so viel wie möglich) Gutes zu tun”. Es ist zu erwarten, dass spezielle Moralprinzipien unterschiedlich aussehen, und zum Beispiel dass wir unterschiedliche Prioritäten haben (zum Beispiel denke ich nicht, dass ich plötzlich nur noch nach Afrika spenden und nicht in der eigenen Gemeinde oder an mir selber arbeiten sollte).



All of us know these moments when we look at what someone is doing and think “this is great! I wanna do that, too!”. This ist he first time that I am consciously in the position of that someone. A friend of mine (Alex) just told me that he is going to hitchhike across Germany next week, his first ever solo hitchhike!

Without wanting to take ownership … (well, okay, I’m proud)…just saying: the only time he ever hitched before at all was this July, when we both travelled back South from a Parkour gathering in Edinburgh. Admittedly, there are more impressive ways to have an impact on other people’s lives, but, well, hitchhiking is pretty cool already and I hope he won’t be the last person I can persuade to give it a go!

The good thing about inspiration is that it travels in all directions. In the same chat in which Alex told me about his travel plans, he made a joke about putting on a hitchhiking-badge. And I thought “What hitchhiking badge? We need a bitchhiking badge!”

Another inspiring friend – Susanna, who happens to have a history in feminist jewellery making – then drew this super cool logo for me:



Wahoo! I can already see feminist travelers carrying it into the world. Love being inspired.

How it began II

Well, okay, I’m back already.

My post last week made me remember an article I wrote in Morocco but never published anywhere. Going back a bit further back, this will introduce and expand on one of my big themes: trust. Enjoy and discuss! (Seriously, I’d like your views: do you think I’m being stupid doing what I do?)

Morocco: tales of trust

Sexual assaults and terrorist attacks – these and other fear-laden buzzwords pop up in the minds of many when talk is of anything Arab. This is why I decided to hitchhike and couchsurf my way through Morocco, all alone and female and suchlike. If not a rational way of convincing others, this journey was meant to at least confront and hopefully overcome the creeping fear of the unknown within myself, by countering my own distrust with openness.

Hitchhiking – from the Sahara…

My solo journey began in the Sahara, on a long and unnaturally straight road with view on bright orange dunes. From there, I started hitchhiking all across Morocco, through heat, rain, and snowstorms. On that first day, the director of a youth centre picked me up and gave me something of a guided tour on the way to his destination, including views of the most extensive oasis in the world, wedged into a landscape of red sandstone. A young man, who I was first very weary of, surprisingly did not try to rape me, but instead helped me find a café with an internet connection. That night, I was adopted by a family who shared their enormous plate of couscous with me, bathed me in generosity, laughter, and music, and urged me to stay a little longer and to bring my family the next time.

…into the snow.

The following day saw me stuck in a snowstorm when trying to cross the Atlas mountain range. While still waving my finger Morrocan-style on a spot where road conditions weren’t too bad, I was approached by a man about the age of my father who convinced me in his native-like French to take the bus instead. For the two hours we spent on the bus, we talked about the bombings in Brussels which had happened that same morning, but also about apple trees, painting and life philosophy. He encouraged me with these words: “good things always attract good things, so if you believe in the kindness of others, you will be met with kindness yourself”. One view he held was that to be a proper Muslim, one had to be kind and generous towards others – something I saw implemented throughout my journey, be it with me, the elderly, or beggars on the street.

After the Atlas experience, I spent some days getting lost in the labyrinthine alleyways that make the medina, the old city of Fez, the biggest of its kind, to then move on to the sky blue lanes of Chefchaouen. After two whirlwind weeks, I finally left the country on a ferry towards Spain, clutching my last Moroccan oranges as if to keep them as souvenirs of this place and the new friends I was leaving behind.


There also were moments when I did not feel at ease, like when I was spoken to in Arabic while the car seemed to take strange back roads –  moments which always resolved themselves when I safely reached my destination.

Assaults and conclusions.

Only one encounter, on the last of all days, was able to intrude into my picture of a place filled with openness and generosity. Just before leaving his car, a middle-aged men started groping my butt, which didn’t end with me being physically harmed, but left a strange aftertaste. I was baffled about this even more since he was the only person who kept telling me “you know, it’s dangerous to hitchhike!”. I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was a link between this distrust and his own behaviour, as if believing in the badness of other people somehow made him feel licensed him to be disrespectful himself.

He left me on a tiny roundabout, and while I watched the cars driving, a question started circulating in my head: Can I still trust? I decided that I could, and that I had to. Risks are real, but fear would ultimately result in me adopting a worldview way too similar to the one of this guy.

If nothing else, the heartfelt generosity I encountered in Morocco convinced me that trust is something we need if we don’t want to drown in a world of fear. I decided that I want to be one of these who trust, and hopefully inspire trust. And so I set off to hitchhike the 2.500km to Strasbourg.

[….which brings us back to last week’s story. I start liking retrospect-storytelling]

How it began (maybe).

With University having kicked in, I probably (realistically) won’t write anything much anytime soon. And even if there’s lots of stuff to talk about (my first time coaching Parkour, and my four Couchsurfing guests last month, for example), it’s not the same as travel storytelling.

I’ll use the chance to return to the origins of “Bitchhiking”, that article I wrote on my journey hitchhiking non-stop from Morocco to Germany.

Those who haven’t read it through Facebook (or fancy a re-read), here goes.

We should be able to retell stories (as opposed to always expecting new output) and look at them in the light of recent experience. If anything, I am more convinced of the need to spread trust, even by what some people might regard as reckless methods.

Anyway, instead of reading my waffles, I suggest you watch this video by Inna Modja instead. And her other videos. I just read about her as “representing the self-conception of a new generation of migrants”. Make of that what you want. Her feminist rap in Fula (a language spoken in around 20 West and Central African countries) is also pretty cool.