When I became a freelancer, I thought I was going to be one forever. I started because I thought I wanted to escape the drudgery of working fixed hours. I wanted to live, and going to the office was taking the life out of me.

It turned out my problem was not the hours—it was because I lost track of my purpose.

From an engineer to a writer

I studied engineering, and I spent 9 years of my career in various roles in tech: support engineer, integration engineer, and solutions architect. I'd spend my days learning new things and solving complex technological problems, all while sitting in an office chair or hunched in a freezing server room. There were many sleepless nights, but I didn't mind because I thrived for action even if it meant that my worries of breaking everyone's internet connection continued in my dreams.

When I started to burn out, I turned to writing as a hobby. On weekends, I traveled then wrote about my travels. Traveling and writing helped me reset my brain, and I would always get back to work on Mondays with a better perspective even when I lacked sleep.

Writing has always been a part of my job too. While writing was not the most important aspect, it was necessary. I wrote design documents that stakeholders read and agreed to. I wrote detailed procedures. I made sure there was no room for misinterpretation at 1 AM when we deployed to production.

I was enthusiastic about writing so I joined writing and blogging communities. Through communities, I found out that people were willing to pay me to write (what a shocker) and that I can earn a living as a writer. It didn't take too long for me to realize that I can travel and make money simultaneously; I didn't have to choose.

And so, after a year of getting paid to write on the side, I decided to leave the corporate world. I intended to take on all sorts of writing.

Not all kinds of writing are equal

In almost two years of freelancing, I took all sorts of writing contracts. I quickly realized that taking all sorts of jobs made me feel the same way as I did when I was going to the office, except now I have the Pacific Ocean as my view.

Some writing contracts sucked the joy out of me, such as those where I needed to:

  • Write only to meet a word count, peppered with keywords.
  • Write just good things (really, this is lying by omission).
  • Write without knowing if what I wrote was true.
  • Write content that I would never read.

At some point I realized it wasn't a problem of working hours or going to an office. What I was doing for a living was the problem. What I did didn't align with what I found important.

The right kind of role

Finally, I realized that at the very core, I am an engineer. My purpose has always been to solve complex tech problems.

Letting my experience guide me, I looked for writing contracts that aligned with my strengths. I found that I enjoyed:

  • Trying and breaking things before writing.
  • Writing to explain and clarify.

This kind of writing is called technical writing, meaning writing about technical things.

I did the same activities as an engineer: learn and understand how things work and try out solutions. The difference now is I'm doing these so I can write and explain these concepts in the clearest way possible to help readers solve problems. I think of the role as an engineer light version, where I still use the same skills but minus the stress.

And now a technical writer

At the end of 2016, I took a full-time technical writer role in a company in Vietnam. While I had no corporate experience as a technical writer and only had a small tech writing portfolio, my manager took a chance. I'm forever grateful that they gave me an opportunity.

After almost two years, I took another technical writing role in the Netherlands.

Every day I get to satisfy the engineer within, every day I get to work with a team of experienced technical writers, and every day I get to learn how to become a better writer.

Freelancing paved the way

Had I not taken the chance to be a freelancer, or had I not gone through soul-draining writing contracts, I wouldn't have figured out the exact role that fit my strengths. I may not be a freelancer now, but that experience helped me experiment and think about what I enjoy doing the most. Now I'm back working in an office and in a role that's anchored to who I am and what I find important.

Not that I needed an excuse to go anywhere, but in 2019, I had the perfect ruse to go to Athens for the weekend—the Stoicon 2019! Before you start thinking that it was a gathering of stoics and people with poker faces, let me set this straight. Stoicon is the Modern Stoicism Conference, where people who practice Stoicism (the ancient Greek philosophy), who are interested in Stoicism, or who are curious to know about Stoicism, meet for a weekend. I've never been to one and I had some doubts, but the thought of attending a Stoicism conference held right at the city where it first started was way too enticing to pass up.

Cotsen Hall, American School of Classical Studies, Athens - Venue of Stoicon 2019

The Stoicon weekend experience

Before Stoicon 2019, I've never actually met anyone in real life who practiced Stoicism. From 2013 when I first read about Stoicism up until the Stoicon, I've considered myself as an interested party, one who reads about Stoicism and occasionally applies what she's read in real life. Being in an auditorium full of people who knew about Stoicism and who probably knew all of Marcus Aurelius's and Epictetus's words by heart felt intimidating, but it also felt like I was finally meeting all my classmates.

My fellow attendees (AKA classmates) were artists, writers, psychologists, educators, tech people - you name it. The conference reminded me of how important it is to be part of a community where you not only geek out on ancient texts but also learn from how others apply Stoicism in their personal lives and in their field of work. I also realized that over the years, I have grown in my Stoic practices and that it is time to stop thinking of myself as a dabbler in Stoicism.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus

In between sessions, I got to meet other attendees who gave tips on how I can find and start my own Stoic community in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, I didn't make any immediate action. Marcus Aurelius probably has something to say because even emperors dealt with procrastination.

More about Stoicism

The first thing that you need to know about Stoicism is that the philosophy is not about being emotionless (the meaning of the adjective stoic). My definition of Stoicism is it's a philosophy that helps me navigate life by being aware of my judgments and perceptions, figuring out whether something lies within my control, and applying a set of virtues (or at least try) to the things that I do.

The internet is a wonderful place, there are plenty of resources if you want to learn more. If you're interested in knowing more about Stoicism, check out the following:

It's been three years since my last solo journey.

In 2016 I wandered through Visayas for a month. Good friends joined me on some legs of the trip, interesting strangers shared my journey through the rest.

I clearly remember when it happened. It was a beautiful day and I was sitting in front of the beach right outside the cottage I was renting, when this slow, sinking feeling crept in. I don't know why I was doing what I did.

My view in Bantayan

Maybe the feeling was aggravated by the scenery - the turquoise sea, waves gently lapping on the shore, surrounded by the quietness of it all. I was sitting in the middle of all this beauty and still there was that nagging question, "What the hell am I doing this for again?".

"Because I can", along with other reasons that I came up with, were all unconvincing.

It made me feel guilty. For all the freedom that I wanted and finally had, the location independence I dreamed of, longed for, and worked so hard for, I was ashamed to acknowledge that there was a tinge of unhappiness, and that I did not feel fulfilled.

I trudged on for days but that trip still ended well. Thanks to friends who flew in and joined me for the last leg in Bohol.

Figuring it out

I didn't have a plan when I got back to Manila, but I knew I had to start somewhere. Hearing the phrase Finding your purpose still makes me cringe, as it's almost always followed by cliché advice - travel, explore, go somewhere. It's as if having no purpose can be solved by escaping. However, finding a purpose was exactly what I needed to do.

Coming to terms with my aimlessness was a gentle awakening. I was lucky that I didn't go into a downward spiral to depression. It was more of a shake of hands, a nod of agreement - an acceptance that something had to be done. Maybe it was Stoicism, or S.N. Goenka's words, or my mom's constant prayers that pulled me through.

I went in and deep. I started by always asking why am I doing things. I became ruthless in pruning connections and activities that didn't help me. I sought friends and contacts with whom conversations always left me full of insights, and sometimes made me question my own views on politics, economics, religion, and all other things. I realized how important it was to expose myself to diverse ideas, to learn before I form my own thoughts on issues, and to not be stuck in an echo chamber.

It took a couple of months before I figured out my why. I'm here and I exist to help sort out confusion. I'm good at thinking things through, at being rational, at attempting to simplify convoluted ideas.

Realizing this made me understand why I cringe every time I have to write fluff, why I lose my focus as soon as the conversation stops being factual, and why I struggle reading and listening to ideas that have no execution plan. It helps me keep an eye on my lapses too - to know that sometimes I only need to listen and not dish out obvious and practical advice, that it's okay to do things just for sheer fun and nothing else.

Starting over

As if on cue, after I figured out what I'm here for, the universe held out a lifeline. In 2017, I took a full-time job as a technical writer. I've never questioned my purpose since then. I'm lucky to have found a career that aligns with what I'm here for and I know it's not the same for everyone. It's hard enough to figure out your purpose, even harder to make a living that stays true to your main WHY.

In a recent conversation with a friend, we spoke about how we both used to think that work is just work and that you can always do whatever you like doing in your free time. We both agree that now in our thirties, we've changed the way we think about it - it just so much better to spend 40 hours of your week doing what you were made to do.

Fast forward to 2019, I went on a solo trip to Lisbon, Portugal. This time I had no questions. I knew exactly why I was doing it: because I wanted to bask in the sun and to eat my way around the world.

It's a gloomy February on this side of the world.

If you identify as solar powered AKA a person from the tropics, you should know that it's a struggle to be a functioning human in northern Europe at this time of the year. Endless gray days, zero sunlight, and if you live in Amsterdam, you'll get a bonus serving of wind and rain.

While there are ways to trick your body into getting that much needed vitamin D and serotonin, sometimes the only solution is to get it from the real thing. Luckily, cities in the southern part of Europe offer a quick escape from the gloom.

Why choose Málaga?

Málaga was not on the top of my list for a weekend getaway until someone who knows me all too well presented the idea. It became the escape of choice because:

  • It's affordable and easily accessible from most main European cities.
  • It's less crowded than most Spanish cities.
  • It's a coastal city, swimming is optional. It's still way too cold for that.
  • It's Picasso's birthplace.
  • Spanish food! Realluy, what other reason do you need.

Tip: Go to Skyscanner and put your destination as Everywhere. Chances are you'll get some affordable sunny destinations way up on the list.

What you need to know

The beach area

Málaga is in the south of Spain, facing the Mediterranean Sea. As with most coastal cities all over the world, Málaga also has that laidback, I'm almost too lazy for anything vibe. Cruise ships and yachts line the port, facing restaurants and shopping boutiques on the promenade. Walk over to the other side of the promenade to go see the beach. It's not exactly my idea of a beach holiday (I prefer a deserted beach) but it was entertaining to see people bask in the sun, a tad friendlier and less grumpy than usual.

Arts and culture

If you're into arts, history, and architecture, you might find yourself stretched thin over the weekend. There\'s a couple of museums (Museo Picasso Málaga and Museo de Malága to start), there\'s the Alcazaba and the Castle of Gibralfaro, and there's the town center, proof of millennia of history in itself.

Tip: If you don't like crowds, start your day early. The streets were empty up until 11AM and lines at the museum were non-existent until afternoon.

Food

If you would like to go on a culinary exploration, do your research and place reservations ahead of time. All tapas are not made equal so if you like food and you don't want to end up somewhere mediocre, give it some planning. One thing that you don't have to think about though is the wine! Spanish wines are always a win, regardless of the time of day or the tapas that go with it.

My personal dining favorites are:

DIY walking tour

If you just want to see random things in the city (like I do!), either find the guy with a free tour umbrella or do it the old-fashioned way: go for a walk and see where your curiosities will take you.


On that weekend, the Spanish people went out for a mini-parade at the city center. We never found out the reason for the patriotic gathering but it was likely a football match.

Lastly, enjoy the city the way the Spanish do: indulge in leisurely lunches, al fresco dining, and end the night with tapas bar hopping.

You'll be a better person by Monday.

The weather was never a subject of concern.

Until late 2018 when I moved from the tropics, where you can trust the sun to shine brightly every day, to Amsterdam where sunlight is best described as erratic in the winter.

If you are from the tropics and are facing your first winter, this post is for you.


Why is the winter tougher for us Pinays?

Finland on a -10C day

It's all about the sun.

Most people tend to avoid the sun in the Philippines. It's scorching hot, it can't be helped. Yes, too much time under the sun is harmful but if you slather on sunblock, you can still soak up all of the sun's goodness without damaging your skin.

I enjoy being under the sun probably way too much so as expected, the effects of lack of sun exposure were amplified. I first thought that my lack of energy was the consequence of moving to a strange, new continent, but further research showed me that I just probably need the sun (or at least serotonin and vitamin D).

Serotonin

Sunlight triggers the release of serotonin, a mood stabilizing hormone. Symptoms of serotonin deficiency include low energy, poor appetite, and a depressed mood. There is a reason why SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) affects almost a third of the adult population in countries experiencing winter.

Vitamin D

Even while wearing sunblock, the sun's UV rays can still penetrate through to your skin and you'll still get a good dose of vitamin D. Lack of vitamin D can result to low immunity causing you to get sick more often than usual and again, a depressed mood (what a bummer).

I didn't make these up. Go research about the benefits of the sun here, here, and here.


How to survive the winter

I'm halfway through my first winter with single digit temperature days in the Netherlands and a week in below zero temperature in Finland. Here are some survival tips:

Rethink food

Salmon and cheese are not common in Pinoy dishes but these seem to be a basic staple at least in Amsterdam. I know most people tend to still stick to the dishes they know well but you'll miss out on reaping the benefits from the basic food staples. It turns out that salmon and cheese are good sources of vitamin D. Eat them as it is or pair them with some rye bread.

Tip: Forget about your love of rice for a while and be smart about your food intake. Load up on cheese and salmon. Other sources of vitamin D are mushrooms, oysters, and eggs. 

Induce serotonin

There will be days when you just want to wrap yourself in a warm blanket and be a living burrito. The challenge is to see if you can boost your mood. As it turns out, serotonin can be induced by doing things that you know you love, despite not having the energy for it. This works like Mark Manson's "Do Something" principle, where you trigger your motivation by acting on something first, just doing the smallest thing that you can.

Beach on a cold, winter day

Of course this only applies when you are absolutely aware that your mood is something you can work on. If you think things are getting out of hand, see a doctor.

Tip: Go for walks, stretch, read, and explore hobbies to keep your serotonin levels in check. 

Hydrate

I don't sweat as much as usual in the winter (surprise!) so my brain does not send that thirsty signal as much as it did back in humid Saigon. Also, because it's cold, I am always tempted to consume more alcohol to get that warm, fuzzy feeling. Less water consumption plus an increased alcohol intake lead to dehydration in the winter.
I've walked around in Amsterdam with a dull headache. Only later when I chugged half a liter of water did I figure out that I was dehydrated.

Tip: Always bring a reusable water bottle with you. The best part is tap water is safe to drink in most of Europe. There's no excuse to not drink water in between your endless wine consumption. 

Keep your moisturizers and lip balm within reach.

Cracked heels, chapped lips, dry skin. Winter is here.
My skin care used to be fairly simple. Sunblock, moisturizer, and my favorite sunflower oil. That was it. I turned into a sweaty, sticky mess on some days but at least my skin wasn't dry.

However, when its colder, I put on insane amount of moisturizer and lip balm. Dry skin is itchy and chapped lips sting. At -15 degrees temp, I put on moisturizer 4-6 times a day even while indoors.

TipBring your favorite brands with you. I found that the formulation of most products are different here than the ones I used back home. Get just enough stock that will last you for a month, while you research and look for new formulas that will work for you. 

Dress to stay warm.

Bundle up with your overcoat, hat, gloves, and thick scarf.

You can be fine 2 minutes out of the house but extremely cold in the next 10 minutes while waiting for the tram. Layer up and just peel them away if you start sweating. Aside from the temperature, wind and humidity contribute to the actual chill that you feel. Dry, below zero temperatures in Finland are more pleasant than 1-degree, humid days in Amsterdam.

Not the most fashionable, but hey it works!

If you are traveling in the middle of the winter, get your warm clothes in the Philippines. You will have more options once you get here but you would not survive the first few minutes out of the airport.

Tip: For the budget conscious, find fleece and wool jackets in ukay-ukays. If you have less time to rummage, Uniqlo is a good place to shop for merino wool clothing and thermal underwear.

Share your tips on how you are surviving the winter!