Each month we post conversations we have with cool people who live mindfully whether it’s living with less or being healthy without doing harm to others. This is not an interview series but more a down-to-earth catchup over a casual cup of tea.
We’ve been bouncing off the walls with excitement since we had a tea with one of our favourite mentors Leo Babauta from Zen Habits. We already knew that Leo was humble, but wow, when you actually talk to him, it’s next level! You would never know that this guy runs one of the most popular blogs on the planet. He’s not only humble, he’s also refreshingly open and honest. This is a conversation we will always remember and we’re so grateful to be able to share it with you.
In this conversation, Leo shares why he became vegan, how he deals with the social pressures of being a ‘weirdo’, homeschooling as well as some projects that he’s been working on.
Here it is!
When somebody meets you for the first time and asks you what you do for a living, how do you typically respond?
I tell them that I’m a writer. If they want to know more, I tell them that I write about changing your life through habits and mindfulness. Then if they want to know even more, I will tell them that I have a website. Then from there it gets a little more complicated.
People often get shocked that I make a living from my website. Not only that, I support six children. And in all honesty, I’m pretty shocked to.
Does that conversation get any easier over time? Or do people still not quite understand what you do?
People don’t seem to understand more over time but that’s ok. If they really want to connect with me about what I do, I just talk to them about how I changed my life and how I’ve affected other people.
People seem to really resonate with the struggle of changing habits and wanting to do better with their lives.
But as for the mechanics of how the business works, I don’t expect people to really understand right off the bat.
In terms of what you’re working on. Is there something you’re really excited about at the moment?
I have two main focuses at the moment which is double my favourite number of focuses. I wrote a book last year as a distillation of all of the things I’ve learned and really care about which is called Zen Habits (the same name as my blog). I put it out on Kickstarter as a special edition and it did really well.
However I’ve always wanted greater distribution with it. Then I remembered something Derek Sivers, another blogger wrote about how people always want to know, the gist of the book.
“Just do this”
That’s all readers want. They don’t necessarily want to read all of the explanations. So that’s when I thought about writing a book that was simplified down to step-by-step instructions. So it’s been interesting trying to find that balance between giving enough context whilst distilling it down to the most essential.
Note: Since we caught up with Leo in December has released his latest book called Essential Zen Habits. It’s a compact powerful read.
The other thing I’m really excited about is an online program I run called Sea Change. I have a new vision for it. Instead of starting a new habit each month on a continuous 12 month cycle, I’m going to guide you through how to master each habit going from white belt to black belt. I’m also working with a developer and designer to create an app to help people to stay engaged with their habits.
We personally struggle with divided attention. Do you normally like to work on one project at a time?
I find that I work best when I’m laser focused on one project. But at the same time I do find that it’s hard to stick at one thing because there are always opportunities coming up. In fact, I recently started another blog. Did the design and coded it up to the point where I actually published my first post. Then I thought, “This is dumb Leo. You know you can’t run two blogs at the same time. You’ve tried it before and it didn’t work”. But you know, you get excited, and it’s hard to stop yourself.
What are your thoughts on decision making? We found that this is something many people struggle with. Making a decision then committing to it without thinking so much about whether it’s the best possible decision.
I think it comes back to uncertainty and in my experience that feeling never goes away. Even when we think we have eliminated all of our uncertainties, it finds a way of coming back.
You’ll always have that nagging question in the back of your mind, “is this the right thing to do?” Over time you learn to sit with it and not let it cripple your experience.
It’s actually an area I’m really interested in. One of my favourite authors in this space is Pema Chodron. She’s a Buddhist teacher and she’s written some great books. One of my favourites is When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. She talks about the idea of groundlessness. Imagine that you’re in full control of your life and something tragic happens like your father dying. What I thought was solid below is now gone. It feels like there’s no ground beneath me.
So we can be as organised and as disciplined as we like but there’s always going to be something that comes along to remind you that it’s all just an illusion.
It doesn’t have to be some life-changing event to make you feel like the ground has caved in under your feet. It could be a series of small unexpected situations. The practice here is learning how to stay with that feeling of groundlessness. Be curious about your uncertainty or even intimate as Pamela explains it.
So why did you become vegan?
For me it was a gradual progress, like it is for many people. I became increasingly aware of where the food I was eating was coming from. It just made me think, do I really want to support that? What would it be like to not eat this way? So I started exploring deeper and I’m really happy with looking at my food as an ethical choice. It’s simple for me. Do I want to support suffering or compassion?
That said I try not to judge how anyone else eats. This is how I want to live my life. If I can help people to reconsider how they eat and bring it to their consciousness, then of course I’d be happy to do that. But not in a judgemental way.
What kind of results have you seen in terms of physical and mental change since becoming vegan?
Well when you cut out the meats and cheeses you lose a lot of calories. So for me, when I was overweight, going vegan was very helpful. It started off as a change for my health but my motivation changed over time. Having said that, I think you can be healthy in many different ways. I think if you eat a lot of processed meats and cheeses, you’re not going to be healthy. If you can cut that down to a moderate level and eat more plants, than that’s better.
I know people who eat fish and they’re super healthy. So I’m not going to deny that there are multiple paths to health. But for me, I’ve seen some big health improvements since going vegan.
Beyond health it’s about feeling good about being aligned with your values. For example, some people may not buy sweat shop based goods because they don’t want to support that. I think that’s a really good ethical choice and you feel in alignment if you do that. So for me veganism is another version of that. And that makes me happy knowing that I’m making that ethical decision.
Have any members of your family taken on your values specifically veganism or minimalism?
We are eight people including my wife and we all have eight different lives and eight different views on things. When I first became vegan, my wife wasn’t. Over time she started cutting out animal products and she’s now vegan. It’s been awesome to have my partner in life to be fully aligned in a key core value. I think it can be difficult if the two of you have really different views on that. At the same time I made sure that she knew that it was my choice and I wasn’t going to judge.
The kids are a mix. Three of them are vegetarians. One at a time, they decided on their own that they wanted to do it. We didn’t push them.
At first we used to cook different meals (including some animal products) because we had a mixed family but now we just cook vegan in the house. When we’re out, we buy some vegetarian meals at restaurants. But when they go out with other people they can decide what they want to eat.
Three of them stay vegetarian all the time and the other three are omnivores.
In terms of simplicity, it’s a mix as well. We do a lot of family challenges and share little experiences where it feels like I’m not trying to steal all of their stuff or all of their food. We find the games that peak their interest and starts a conversation around what’s really important.
Another thing we like to do is travel experiments. We set family challenges to see if we can travel light with one bag each, and they’ve all found that to be great. I mean their bags are much bigger than mine but hey, it’s a start!
Are you homeschooling as well?
Yes we do. We do a version of homeschooling called un-schooling which basically throws out all of the rules of education out the door. We currently home school three of our kids.
Out of the other three, one of them graduated from university. Another one is in high school. And the third one graduated as an “un-schooler” and he’s going to “un-college” now. He’s travelling the world and he’s currently in South East Asia building the career that he wants.
That’s what un-schooling is about. Being curious and educating through exploring your own experiences. Not making any rules. Kind of like what the three of us are doing right now with life. So I think it’s great if you learn that at an early age.
Having said that, you can learn to self-teach and build confidence through traditional school systems it just depends on the child and what they want to do.
When you look at your lifestyle, you’re a vegan, a blogger and a minimalist. Whilst you’re a hero to us, what you do might be a little strange for others. How have you navigated the social challenges of being “different”?
It’s definitely been a struggle but at the same time I embrace that struggle because I love the life that I’ve been creating. If I just gave in and went the way everyone else did it would be different. There’s a a lot of societal pressure to be normal and when you’re not, you get judged from others.
For example, when you’re vegan, others feel like that’s a judgement on their lifestyle and they can start becoming defensive. And that can be tough particularly with close friends and family. You go to a party and that’s all that they want to talk about. But I will talk about it, because I believe it’s a great opportunity to have a conversation but sometimes you just want to relax and not be judged.
Having said that, I made a decision when I changed my values that I was going to be different. Even minimalism makes people feel uncomfortable. They start feeling judged when you give up all of your stuff and they don’t. Or they worry about you coming to their house because you will see all of their clutter.
Un-schooling is another one. People feel judged because they choose to send their kids to school. And honestly I think they should live their own path and I’m not going to judge them but it would be great if they didn’t judge me. But it happens and you have to live with that.
Is it easier to live a life when you’re not judged and you live life like everyone else? Or would you rather live in alignment with your values in a way that makes you happy but everyone else thinks you’re a weirdo and nobody understands you?
But look at us now, you both have similar values to mine and your half way around the world. So no matter how weird you are there are other people who are weird like you in your own little way and understand what you’re going through. And that’s what blogs are about. It’s a way to build a community and connect with people who are going through similar things to you.
That’s part of the reason why I moved my family from Guam to San Fransisco. I was one of the only vegans in Guam and definitely one of the only minimalists. So I wanted to build a support network around me that encouraged me to be different and not bring it down all the time.
It’s an amazing thing when you can do that. But not everyone can break away from their current situation and find their “people”. But at least you can find it online.
When you first started talking about minimalism and simple living, there was barely anyone else doing it. Now there’s a growing interest. Where do you see this movement going? Is it here to stay?
When I started Zen Habits there wasn’t many people talking about minimalism and simplicity. It really wasn’t that big of a topic so I thought I would write about and see if other people like me resonate with it. But actually it tapped into something that people really felt.
It was clear that people felt overwhelmed with what was going on in their lives. Not only by the amount of stuff, but with all of the information out there and all of the things they had to do.
So it turned out that there were a lot of people who wanted to talk about it and read about it.
In relation to minimalism, there was information out there but you really had to go searching for it. They were talking about it but they didn’t really have a term for it. I started another blog purely about minimalism to help get the message out there.
Other people have come along and taken it further and I think it’s great. The only problem I see at times is people’s competitive nature. Instead of saying that I have more than you, it’s the conversation about how I have less than you. Instead of owning 100 things, you want to own 50 things.
It’s not about that. Sure it’s good to push back on mainstream media in relation to a consumerist culture, but it’s about living consciously within your means.
I don’t see people’s feelings changing in the future. In fact, there will only be a stronger culture of more (consumerism) and therefore a culture of less (minimalism).
What has been the biggest benefit to you as a result of starting Zen Habits in 2007?
It’s changed my life in so many ways. But here are the three main points.
- I now get to live a life that I love. Writing and working in a way that I’m passionate about. It’s pretty hard to top that.
- It’s forced me to reflect on my life. Now that I’m writing for an audience and they’re listening, I have to think things through before publishing. I’m constantly experimenting and meditating on things. This has affected me in a fundamental way that I could not of predicted. I’m constantly being changed by this process.
- The most important thing has been able to connect with other weirdos. It’s strange because sometimes they write me an email or they send me a tweet. But every now and then I get to meet them in person and I find out that their lives have been changed as a result of something I’ve written. It’s crazy because I just publish ideas that I’m excited about and people take the idea and use it in a way that I could of never of predicted. And maybe they set an example for their children or co-workers so that has a ripple effect. When you can see that you’re making a difference, it touches your heart and there’s no way I can put a level of value on that. So that’s the most important thing. Even if I didn’t get to do this for a living or to get personal development out of it. To know that I’m helping and connecting people who share similar struggles is so profound to me.