Defusing all critics (including the voice in your head)
Go toward interesting: Nate Murphy's concise philosophy of how to choose a direction in life
We were on to drinking our second jarra, which in Spain is a bit larger than a pint, though just how much larger depends on the bar.
These jarras were quite large.
We were at the climber bar, Goma 2, in Cornudella de Montsant, in the mountains two hours west of Barcelona. Nate Murphy had driven to meet me and take a look at the renovation project that is my house there. I wanted his advice, not just as someone who has done his own Spain renovation, but as the clear-headed, practical thinker I’ve gotten to know him as.
Tomorrow morning, we would see the property, then go climb at Siurana.
But tonight, talk turned to Nate’s big book project. And my climber friends from Barcelona who were just meeting him for the first time had questions.
You see, Nate is many things: he’s lived full-time out of his van while devoting his days entirely to climbing; he’s renovated a near-total ruin into what is now his gorgeous home in the foothills of the Pyrenees; and along the way, he’s amassed some 400,000+ subscribers on his YouTube channel.
But one thing Nate is not, and does not claim to be, is an academic.
And yet, in what can only be described as a complete zag from what’s come before, Nate has spent the last several years working in relative obscurity to understand the roots of ideas and political ideology.
Nate has written an academic paper on this. He just came back from an academic conference about it. And now he is working on a book. Nate has no academic credentials and no apparent reason to devote years of his life to understanding political ideology (the professors at the conference were all very confused). He’s not getting paid. And no one asked him to do it.
And yet, Nate does have a reason. And it’s impossible to argue with.
When my friend from Barcelona asked Nate why he’s spending so much time on this, he replied: I find it interesting.
But let’s back up.
How to choose a direction in life
Three years ago, Nate published a video on his channel about how to choose a direction in life.
It is not one of his most popular videos. Not even close.
His most watched video is from seven years ago, and it’s about how to convert a van to an off-grid camper in 17 days. It has 12 million views. The next most popular is an hour-long summary of how he did his home renovation: 4.2 million views. Another dozen videos about van life have more than 1 million views, and more than 50 have hundreds of thousands.
The one about how to choose a direction in life: 11,000 views.
It’s this video I want to talk about. I call it the Go Toward Interesting video.
And it deserves more attention. That’s because in it, Nate tackles and provides an answer to one of the most difficult questions of modern life—important for everyone, but an especially difficult one for digital nomads. It’s the question of how to choose a direction in life.
As Nate says at the outset, he likes to think about this stuff a lot. I do as well—I think it’s part of why we’ve connected as friends over the past few months. What sets Nate apart though is his capacity to distill big ideas down into the practical, to make them real and tangible, and applicable to daily life, and then to actually live his life by them.
The pursuit of happiness
So, how should we live our lives? We are often told to pursue happiness, but as Nate points out, happiness is elusive, “quite hard to put your finger on.” And the reason is that happiness is “just a side effect of all the other things in our life and things we’re doing, and how we’re living, and of course how we think about it.”
That is the first crucial insight. You can’t just aim directly at happiness because happiness is a side-effect of how we’re living. It comes out of other things, such as what we do with our time, our labor, and our attention.
All of those things are finate resources. As I wrote last year in my annual strategic planning post:
…one of the great tragedies is that time only moves forward, inevitably and impersonally. It isn’t like money, a resource we can usually hoard until we know what to do with it; our time on this Earth ticks away whether we spend it awake or asleep, whether we spend it deliberately or carelessly. So we’d better figure out how we want to spend it.
How to choose what we should do with our time is one of the oldest questions in the books. You, me, and most everyone we know are answering this question for ourselves with every day, month, and year that we live—or we are ignoring it and letting others choose for us.
So, this is maybe the question of life.
My friend from Barcelona, an academic herself, told Nate that she’d been having a lot of difficulty writing the academic papers necessary to finish her Ph.D. Nate said writing is hard for him, too—but he planned to focus on the book to the exclusion of almost anything else over the next few months.
In doing so, Nate was following his own rule from the video:
What is the simplest way to choose what you do with your life that will lead you towards a life of happiness, fulfillment, and when you come to the later part of our life, a life without too much regret? …simply: to direct your life by doing what is interesting. By pursuing interesting above basically everything else… If I don’t find it interesting, I try not to do it. If I do find it interesting, that’s where I’m going.
Here, Nate has highlighted another important life goal, one that I’ve been thinking about since I was a teenager: avoiding end of life regret.
It was then when I first read about the regrets of the old. The top one, catalogued in a a well-known book on the subject, is this: I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
Easier said than done.
But then again, Nate seems to have fully absorbed that fear of future regret, and is living his life accordingly:
I think you never spend your life doing interesting things and then at the end of your life look back and regret it. I think that’s impossible…
I think having an interesting life is a great goal because it strips money out of the equation. and it creates a personal view on what success is and what it isn’t.
By tying your measure of success to what is interesting to you, you separate it from metrics that society typically imposes, usually money and status.
Many of us look around our whole lives trying to find the right example to follow of what constitutes success in life. We look to family, mentors, heroes, or maybe colleagues.
But this is starting your search in the wrong place.
Passion lies on the end of interest
Right now you might be thinking that Nate’s advice sounds a lot like, “follow your passions.” But follow your passions has always struck me as almost as nebulous as “pursue happiness.” The problem is that many of us either don’t have a single overriding passion, or have too many of them.
I very much envy those who discover their life path early on—they saw a ballet class when they were a child and knew immediately this is what they wanted to do with their life.
But most of us aren’t like that.
We might have had things as a kid that interested us, or that captured our attention at some point. And yet we let those things drift out of our life. We let them drift because pursuing them is usually hard, or takes time, and often doesn’t earn us any money, at least not at the start. Some times we give them up because social values and expectations convinced us out of it.
Then as adults, we bumble around in the dark, encountering various pursuits or activities and wondering to ourselves whether this is it, whether it’s something we should take further.
Here, Nate has great advice:
Imagine if you’re just exploring all of these different interests, or things that tug you in a certain direction, and imagine there are lots of little pieces of string these little interests, and you pull on them and eventually you keep pulling on one and at the end there’s a huge passion which can consume you or give you a real focus in your life.
But you have to follow those interests first. You have to make space in your life to follow these interests and prioritize it. Because if you do that, you’ll bring home a passion. I’m pretty sure of that. Because everyone will have something that gets them, but discovering what that is, and going along that journey to find it is not always easy, you have to actually allow yourself to do it…
Often people will question what you’re doing. And maybe you feel like, “Oh I’m wasting my time, I shouldn’t be doing this.” But what you can just use then, is, “Oh no, because in my life, I do what I find interesting, and I find this really interesting,” and your naysayers will melt away because often they just fear trying to do the same thing.
Defusing all critics (including the one inside your head)
When I was interviewed last week for the Digital Nomad Summit, host Manuel Krapf asked me how I thought about the rent vs. buy dilemma. I told him the debate about whether it’s better to buy a house or rent really didn’t interest me.
What does interest me is the challenge of the renovation.
It could be that I would come out better financially if I rent more often, as opposed to investing in the old New Hamphshire farmhouse, or the abandoned Cornudella townhome. But no matter—I’m pursuing what’s interesting to me.
As Nate said, when you tell someone that’s your reason, the naysayers melt away.
And it’s not just to appease others.
I am, and always have been, my own harshest critic. All the seeds of doubt about my decisions in life are typically sowed inside my own head. But if the rule is go toward interesting, and it’s a rule you yourself are bought into, this goes a long way toward silencing even the voice inside your head.
Crazy not to
Nate points out that when you are doing something you find really interesting, that usually means you are working in a state of flow, which is good for your mental health, and generally conducive to being happy.
It also means you will be doing something you value.
In fact, not only should you pursue interesting above almost anything else, for the sake of your happiness, to avoid regret, and because it means you’ll be working on something you personally value, but you would be crazy not to. The crazy ones, Nate says, are the ones who spend their lives doing something which bores them, or which they don’t really care about:
By committing to interesting, you’re actually being more responsible and more focused… Because what you’re essentially doing is following an examined life. You’ve got to look at things frequently, and if you’re like, “This job or this thing I’m doing is now routine, it’s not very hard, I’ve gotta take it to the next level or I’ve got to find how to make this more interesting, or move to a more interesting area of it. That’s disrupting, that’s change, that’s difficulty, that’s challenge.
By following interesting, it’s less secure, it’s less easy. But overall you’re going to have a better life, you’re probably going to be happier, and when you come to the end of the your life you’re probably not going to have so much regret.
If it feels like I’ve been quoting a lot, that’s because the whole video is packed with wisdom. You should watch it—you’ll get the full cinematic experience, cutaways of Nate climbing, Nate renovating his house, sweeping mountain vistas, all paired with that sweet, sweet inspirational soundtrack music.
You don’t have to agree with Nate, but on the other hand when he finally gets to the part where he lists what he finds interesting, it’s kind of hard not to.
So, what is interesting?
Here’s a starting point:
…taking risks, ideally calculated, is usually interesting. Audaciousness is interesting. Failure is interesting. Getting up again is interesting. Resilience—resilience—is interesting. Loving intensely, that is interesting. Being kind is interesting. Changing the world, or just changing the world for another person, that is interesting. Taking up a fight for a worthy cause is interesting.
The common thread, Nate says, is usually struggle, trying, and effort.
Opposed to that are things which are boring, routine, and easy.
For example, if a job you’re doing is boring, routine, and easy, that doesn’t mean you have to quit to pursue your passions—it just means you have to figure out how to move that job to a different level where it is more interesting to you.
But of course, we have to be careful about the word itself:
…if you’re going to pursue a life of interesting we have to be a bit careful how we use the word, interesting.
If you look how a lot of people use the word interesting they’ll be using it to describe something they don’t find that interesting. Like, “Yea my job it’s really interesting and it challenges me.”
But when people say that and it’s a trope, you know it’s a trope and you accept it because what they mean to say is “I’m bored of my job, I don’t like it, I wish I could do something else, but it’s kind of hard.” And it is, often.
So be careful how you use it. Look at it as like, really interesting, deep down interesting, not superficially, “Oh i guess that’s kind of interesting and they do pay me, I guess that’s interesting.”
When they pay you, it’s always tempting to say it’s a bit more interesting than it actually is. Plus, no one wants to admit (to others, or themself) that they are spending the best years of their life laboring at boring work that they don’t care about—so instead we convince ourselves that something we’re getting paid to do is interesting when in fact it’s really not.
That’s why it can be so clarifying to strip money out of the equation. If you won the lottery tomorrow, what would you then do with your time?
But of course most of us can’t strip money out of the equation. And in this, Nate essentially counsels to trust the process. He doesn’t pretend to offer a way for everyone to pursue interesting and make “loads of money.” But he does rightly point out that there are plenty of interesting ways to make loads money—starting a business, building something, creating something—all the ways we know about but which feel hard and risky.
Nevertheless, you have to find the space to pull the interest threads, to see what passions might be on the other end.
After the second jarra, we split a third, then decided to call it a night. There was climbing tomorrow, after all.
But first, in the morning, we visited my property. We walked each floor, looking at the cracks in the concrete below us and above. I told him my plans for a main bedroom suite on the top floor, and to add a rooftop terrace. We looked at the wood beams, holding up the existing roof, which seem to be in pretty good shape.
Nate noted the difficult access, and the many tons of brick, concrete, and other construction debris I would need to somehow cart out to the dump with only the narrow street outside.
I don’t envy you all the work coming up, he said.
I know, I replied. But for me, right now, this is the most interesting thing I want to do.