Eid holiday, June 2017. Maybe it was the spirit of cleansing in Ramadan or the Netflix documentary Minimalism that I had recently watched. But during this Eid holiday I’ve been massively cleaning up my e-mail inboxes, to create my own definition of Inbox Zero. That is, neatly archiving the important e-mails into several folders, deleting the junks, following-up the forgotten, with the target of having no e-mail in the main inbox whatsoever.
The objective is pretty simple, with a clean and organised inbox (or analogically a clean and organised room, house, workspace, mobile phone app arrangement, etc) we’ll have a clear picture of our priorities. We can then easily get rid of the things that aren’t important, and clear up the time and space for those that should be a priority and require a dedicated focus.
Now, when I first started to clean up my e-mails it was supposed to be a normal task, but something happened along the way: I began to read my old e-mails. And in the age when WhatsApp, Line, Instagram, Twitter, Path, Facebook, etc haven’t been invented yet, we sure talk a lot in e-mails, where nothing was instant and we had to make effort to have a proper conversation to tell our stories to friends and family.
The thing is about our hopes and fears is that we seldom get the immediate answer to our questions, and instead we often grow into the answers without fully realising it. But as I re-read around 13 years worth of conversations, receipts, concert tickets, travel itineraries, picture video attachments, and trashy jokes, I got the chance to re-live the many different lives I once had, reading my (and my friends’s and family’s) hopes and fears, with the full advantage of knowing exactly what’s going to happen after that. And it was so much fun.
There were conversations between two unbreakable best friends who no longer talk to each other today. A bubbly person who had a traumatic experience and now has a completely different personality. The uptight coversations with my now-best-friends when we weren’t that close yet. A flirtatious hint from a gorgeous blonde that I totally missed back then (!)
I also found one picture attachment of me and my 2 idiot friends wasting one whole day in a reggae bar. A story when I sat down alone in the park eating my sandwich, and ended up talking for 1 1/2 hours with a Lebanese refugee that sat near me, talking about his war stories. The pictures of some McDonald’s breakfast (every time we had an epic night, we ended up staying up till the morning and have a McDonald’s breakfast. There’s almost always a McDonald’s in any UK cities).
There’s a time when I exchange e-mails with a multi-millionaire, with some best-selling authors. That low resolution video of us going to ASDA supermarket at 2 o’clock in the morning and ride the shopping trolley “Jackass” style. That time we always hang out til dawn in a friend’s place who owns a PlayStation (we only play Pro Evolution Soccer). That one e-mail from a flatmate panicking that the kebab trailer guy outside our building was going home to Turkey for the summer (“man, what are we going to eat?!”)
The salsa lessons I took with an idiot friend, just to meet and dance with girls. The student protests and letter writings at Amnesty International, and accidentally joining the anti-Iraq-war rally when I was walking to the city centre. The organisation I created myself. The Islamic society I joined (filled with some of the funniest – shariah-compliant funny – people I know). The Krishna Consciousness Society that I also joined.
There’s the Japanese society I joined, even being the only non-Japanese playing a football match representing Japan vs South Korea. That half-Japanese-half-British cute girl that I met in one of the society’s gatherings that I hit it off with, until this Vietnamese dork forced himself into our two-way conversation, ruining my momentum (years later I went to Vietnam on my honeymoon, God does have a sense of humor).
A hint that I totally missed back in 2007, and only realise it today 10 years later when reading the e-mail (yeah just realised that I wasn’t very good at hints). An e-mail with an attachment of picture of a friend bringing a girl for the first time to our group, and years later an e-mail with attachment of his divorce papers with the same person. A date to science seminars just to get close with a girl who loves that kind of stuff. That one e-mail about the long list I like / want / need / don’t like /can’t tolerate / etc from a girl (152 points, to be exact), in which my friend replied are you nuts?! That one time I was introduced to a girl by a friend, and immediately knew I can’t be with her just seconds after we shake hands (152 points, hey a man knows what he’s looking for).
There were the many long conversations I had for more than a decade, with a good friend whom I only physically met 3 times in my life (2 of those are in my wedding and reception). The many follow up conversations I had with someone I met on the plane. That late night talks with my historian hall-mate that sparked my interest in history. That one time I was “trapped” by a girl I was dating on having my ear pierced (she literally left a mark in my life).
That one extensive e-mail talking nothing but Tarkan’s song “Dudu.” That MP3 file attachments of the greatest band in the world (Venezuela’s Los Amigos Invisibles). That CD of an exquisitely weird band I found in Utrecht’s hippie store (Gogol Bordello). That independent picture house that always shows artsy European movies or activism documentaries.
That time when my good Pakistani friend showed some videos of his sick car drifts on a desert. The worry of my Kenyan friend when riot broke off in 2007, a fear of my Yemeni friend’s life when Saudi started to bomb Sana’a, the despair my Greek friend had to go through after austerity, that long conversation with a Turkish friend about Erdogan and “that coup.” The Canadian backpacker I met at a bus trip in South Vietnam, and we talked for hours non stop. The abundant emails from everyone around the world when the Aceh Tsunami 2004 occurred.
There were also e-mails about when I got poisoned by the Henna ink from a fake tattoo. That time I had a concussion at my new workplace after only working for 5 days. The many subscriptions and memberships to some websites that don’t exist anymore. That time I just finished shopping my groceries in Cambridge and got “kidnapped” to London, and ended up going to a London night club bringing groceries. That time we spend 5 hours at a friend’s house in Kingston (near London, not Jamaica) making my Rasta haircut while listening to Bob Marley, naturally. That picture attachment of when I dyed my hair red, to look like Hidetoshi Nakata.
There were e-mails of when two of my friends had a thing back then but nothing ever happened, and now they’re good friends and happily married to other people. When my best friend’s fiance passed away just few months before their wedding. Few dilemmatic emails from a friend who had to choose between 2 person (she’s married to neither one of them today). That airport chase scene I refused to do. Twice. That other airport chase scene with me as the one who’s getting chased, but was too late.
That pictures and video attachments on when I saw God…… (Robbie Fowler) in an FA Cup Match between Birmingham City v Liverpool. When we watched 3rd division match for Cambridge United and f*cking love the brutal match. Championship match for Leicester City. A friendly match between Brazil and Portugal. A pre-season tournament in the Emirates Stadium. A crucial Champions League match between Man Utd v AS Roma.
There were e-mail conversations with the most inspiring person who taught me to read everything, to refuse to have my perceptions restricted, and taught me how to drive a fisherman’s boat, among others. My review of a brilliant book that he gave me, and that time years later when I finally understood why he gave me that particular book, after he passed away. A Buddhist funeral I attended in Thailand of another great mentor, a Caucasian US citizen mourned by a lot of Thais. That dinner I had with my friend’s grandparents, whose very inspiring British grandad was the most knowledgeable person who knows a lot of things from a lot of things. That accidental heart-to-heart conversation I had with a homeless person, just after I step out from an epic end-of-term party.
That time I had to sell my tickets to see Oasis in a large open field concert! That time I had an advanced law exam the following morning but still went to London to see Incubus concert that night and thought I could still ace the exam (I got C). That time I queue 1st in line to see Maroon 5, only to be informed that the concert was cancelled. That time we went for a roadtrip just to see blink 182 concert up north. When I first knew the band Placebo when watching them at their concert.
There’s a time when we watched Green Day concert and that concert was recorded for DVD (Bullett in a Bible). That time Travis made a surprise concert out in the streets of Cambridge, and I got an autograph and what appeared to be a selfie (which hasn’t been invented yet) with their lead singer Fran Healy. That time me and an idiot friend watched Sophie Ellis Bextor concert, just because she’s hot.
There were also the university group works, oh the many university group works. That one group work that consist of 3 Nigerians and me (it was so much fun). That Spanish language class we took, so that we can someday blend in with the people when we travel to Latin America. All the late nights spent in the library. All the Red Bulls we consumed so much that at one point we became immune from the caffeine. All those Chartered Institute of Marketing meetings we piggy backed (there were only 4-6 students among 40-50 professionals at each meeting – we’re mainly there for the free food).
All the time also spent in pubs watching football matches. That one time I went out with an Arsenal fan girl to a pub just to watch a football match (wait, was that a date?) That time we went to our friend’s house to eat dinner, and we all talked and debated and joked around for more than 12 hours straight (and proceeded to McDonald s for breakfast, naturally). That time we went pub hopping, club hopping, that one summer we ate nothing but Indian food in a quest of finding the perfect biryani in Leicester (the winner was an all-you-can-eat place, naturally). The epic Summer Balls. The mechanical bull I rode at the Summer Ball (it wasn’t a pretty sight). The incredible amount of money we waste on paying for pool tables in between lectures. That park bench that I always ponder to jump over for 4 years, but never did.
The morning when I got the e-mail that my close uncle has died, and later in the same day I met, for the first time, a beautiful girl that would eventually become my wife (one of the saddest days in my life turned bitter-sweet – oh my uncle would’ve loved her). A video attachment of me and an idiot friend got into a Slurpee drinking contest in front of her (she wasn’t impressed). One attachment about the “battle plan” to get her (2 pages long) after she almost ticks all the boxes in my 152 points list.
That period of time when all we (jobless people) did in our flat were playing Xbox, eating Chicken Cottage and always having some visitors crashing in. Those times we often play football with random people at Parker’s Piece (the place where football was invented). The many writings for my blog, the unpublished drafts. The many seminars I took – from a grand one in a posh race horse track to a small damp room near the airport -, the few times I pretended to be a potential investor just to learn about finance. The struggle (and effort) in job seeking. The amount of effort given to few business startups. The offers that I got rejected. The job offers I didn’t take. That heart-to-heart conversation I had with a taxi driver (who once was a millionaire) on the very last day of my undegraduate years.
That time when 5 people who live in 5 different cities were planning to perform a band gig (Vocal: Oxford. Guitar: Leeds. Bass: Cambridge. Drums: Leicester. Keyboard: London) in a 6th city (Nottingham) without a proper rehearsal, with discussions about the songs and our parts in an extensive e-mails. And we still nailed it. A video attachment of me joining the street dance during Diwali festival. A video attachment of me performing the ceremony of the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket. That time I dressed up “the Gulf way” during a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, and got several discounts by the locals because they like how I dressed.
The first time I showed my family the picture of my long distance girlfriend. The first time she showed her family my picture (to my horror, she chose a picture of me pretending to screw a statue of a Birmingham bull from behind, at around 12 at night, complete with the perverted expression). That time we slow dance in a packed train from Belgium to Netherlands, listening to Nat King Cole on iPod.
That time I physically met John Pilger in London. That time I literally bumped into Mohammed Al Fayed in Harrod’s. When I almost got hit by Colin Firth driving his car. When I tap Claudia Schiffer’s hand at a night club, asking for a photograph together (she said no). That time we waited for more than 1 hour to see the Queen of England. That time me and an idiot friend had 3 hours to kill in Central London, and decided to stand right beside BAFTA award red carpet (and pointlessly saw many celebrities).
The many backpacking planning and itineraries. That one time 4 of us who lived in 4 different cities tried to conquer Western Europe, sleep in trains, train station, backpacker hostel above a bucher shop, the many bunk beds. That “shower incident” occured on that hot American bunk-mate. That time we (a peniless student) tried to cook a frozen food in a hostel that has no microwave, using a pan and a water (there’s no cooking oil either). That time we slept at a Scottish haunted castle. In an ex Swiss jail. That time we arrived at a Florence hostel at 3am, and was greeted with “oh you’re from Indonesia, did you guys know? I’m sorry to hear what happened….” (it was Boxing Day 2004).
The many long distance romance and fights. The late night talks. The webcam dinners. The slow dance we had next to the River Cam. That time I only had less than €3 left in Amsterdam and bought her a Haagen Dazs caramel ice cream using my last pennies, learning about selfless love. The meticulous wedding preparation. The happiest day in my life (no, not my wedding day, but Istanbul 25 May 2005). That time I invited Jim Rogers and John Pilger to my wedding (they didn’t come).
The Indochina honeymoon itinerary, the German family we met in Halong Bay and never get back in touch, the dodgy dark hotel behind a car dumpster in Bangkok, our super-cool tuk tuk driver in Cambodia. All of the planning and reservations to India that we never got to go through. A video attachment of the moment I first met my newly-born son (the most nervous day in my life). A video attachment of the moment my son first met his newly-born sister.
And I realise something. Some of the most legendary stories that I had were the ones occurring off-script or completely unplanned. I also realise that I went through all of these adventures with a little bit more worry than I should have. I always believe that fear is good, it keeps us alert and focus, and visioning ahead of the possible worst case scenarios is a good risk management practice. But as I read the hopes and fears in the e-mails (and knowing exactly what’s going to happen afterwards), I realise that although it’s good to stay alert, worrying things that are beyond our control is just wasting our time, our energy, and also keeping us from really enjoying the moment.
Because, in hindsight, the majority of my worries in those 13 years never actually happened. And for every setbacks and heartbreaks that did happen, they open up another new road to something better and totally unexpected beyond my wildest imagination. After all, it’s just like what Mark Twain said “good judgments come from experience, and experience comes from bad judgments.” And bad decisions make good stories.
I also learn that no matter how strong a relationship is, it CAN break apart if we don’t maintain it well (and it’s so easy to maintain if you’re really close). Some of our good friends can turn out to be only friend for a reason and/or a season. Sometimes the most unexpected person can ended up becoming our good friend, even those we initially don’t like. Big events like tragedy can either strengthen a relationship or break them. And [post script] sometimes great friends can just pick up where they left off, even though they have been separated for more than a decade.
There’s a Turkish proverb that perfectly sums up how I perceive all the people that have come and go (and stay) in my life, “no road is long with a good company.” Because without all of them – the nicest, the nastiest, the most competitive, the most selfless, the backstabbers, the most helpful, etc – I wouldn’t have a story to tell. And what is left of us in the end of the day is just the stories that we share with others.
By the way, none of us ended up where we thought we would be in 10 years time. Now, almost in a glimpse of an eye since our time together, that historian hall-mate is now an archaeologist digging ancient tunnels in Greece, that Arsenal fan girl is now somewhere in the coast of West Africa studying dolphins, my Pakistani friend is working for a Saudi prince, my best friend whose fiance died is now in a new relationship and they’re getting married, a friend who introduced me to the Japanese Society is now a patient in a mental health institute in Japan, that idiot friend I went to salsa lessons with… well, he suddenly died this year. Yes, life is too damn short.
Now that all of the “evidence” of my fun and bizarre 13 years have been sorted, organised, and stored, my inbox is officially a clean slate.
And as you can guess, Inbox zero works like a charm. It has affected so much more than just cleaning up my e-mail inbox, it has also inspired me to simplify every aspects in my life: my priorities have become much clearer, I got rid of the things that aren’t useful, I enhanced efficiency in those I decide to keep, and most importantly, inspired by my own adventurous stories, I now re-embracing my inner idiot.