March 9, 2018
Tom Norman arrived in Slovenia a few years ago, and threw himself into the local scene with all the abandon and enthusiasm of a young man anxious to find a new life and follow a path whose endpoint remains unknown. Time spent in his company is like therapy for old bones, as he seems to lack any of the cynicism or studied cool one might expect from a UK-transplant who works online out of coffee stores in Ljubljana. An open enthusiast for people and life in general, one of his many current projects is How to be Human, in which he meets folk almost daily for coffee and a chat, just interested in how other people live in the world.
It was under those circumstances that we met in the Stow coffee store of the City Museum a week or so ago, an odd attempt at a two-way interview, in which your correspondent, camera-shy and fearful of revealing too much, answered questions on his own life while probing Tom on his. That side of the story, the one in which I speak too fast and say too much, is for another time and place, but for now here’s a heavily edited version of our conversation in which I appear to keep quiet and listen, in the hope of finding out who Tom Norman is, how he came to be here, and what he thinks is going on.
How did you end up in Slovenia?
I never went to university, because I really didn’t know what to study. When I left college I decided to become successful. I worked in a bank in Essex, with various side projects all as an attempt to find ‘success’. It was OK but essentially it was just a call centre in Essex.
So one day I quit my job and decided to travel in Europe for as long as possible for under £1000. I did that for two months, travelling to eight different countries, 12 different cities. Then I went back to England and self-published a book about travel, with the title How to Travel the Land for Less Than a Grand. I had really big hopes for this book, thinking that it would become successful, and lead to something great.
This was 2014. I wrote the book in three months, and tried really hard with it, but looking back it’s not a great book, and the whole thing didn’t go well. I became anxious about what to do next. I almost started to have panic attacks. At the time I lived near a school, and I remember vividly looking out my bedroom and being able to see all the kids and teachers and feeling so much envy towards them; their life was so simple and yet mine felt like a huge, anxious mess.
But I’d really liked Slovenia from day one. It was March when I first visited, and I remember sitting by the Ljubljanica with a book. I thought to myself that if I had to get another job in a bank, doing something I don’t like, then the biggest I’d regret is not coming back to Slovenia to see what happens. So I came back, with no idea whether it would be two weeks, two months, or whatever, and now it’s three years later and I’m still here.
Ziferblat's Facebook page
How long did it take you take get set up here?
Not very long. I was staying in a hostel, and I managed to start working there too. I believe that you don’t really need to know the whole path at the start. If you just start walking it, opportunities open up along the way. At least that’s how it’s been for me. You just have to have the confidence to start walking into the unknown. Quite often I just choose something that I think would be cool to create and usually it involves meeting cool people, and then I just go ahead and create it.
For the last two years I was working in Ziferblat too, meeting a lot people, doing a lot of things, and really just having the chance to create projects. That’s how I got the job at Microwork. The founder was using Ziferblat as an office, and I set up a breakfast event and invited him to be a speaker. From that he saw some of my writing and asked if I’d like to do something for his project too. In the beginning it was just a blog post or two but now it’s become my main source of work as community manager/content creator.
Ziferblat's Facebook page
It’s a start-up that’s involved in both cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. It provides micro-tasks that help to train artificial intelligence and you get paid in Ether for completing them. I do mostly blog writing, copywriting and community management. And I can that all from home, which is amazing.
Tell me about your How to Be Human project.
The story I learned about myself in the last few years is that I’m really curious about people, and I’ve figured out that I want to sit down with as many humans as possible to listen about what life is like for them, what it’s like to be you. I do that through daily coffee interviews, a podcast and events that I’ve created throughout Ljubljana, too.
I think people don’t get listened to enough, even by their own friends sometimes, so that’s a big part of it too, to be present and really listening to somebody’s story. Every day I meet someone and do this. It’s a lot of typing too because I post most of the conversations on Facebook. I do about five a week, and each takes about three hours.
Is there any final goal?
Maybe another book project, which might have a title linked to How to Be Human, or might have a title related to whatever I discover. But through all these conversations with people I’m getting a lot of ideas about how the world works, and I’m already brain dumping these down, and that might become something else one day. But I never want to write a book again with the intention of it becoming successful, I want to write it because I’ve got something to say.
What have you learned recently?
I’ve been reading a lot about Zen, actually, and the idea “you are not your thoughts.” When you’re born you just live in the world, its’ just pure observation. But after two or three years old, once you develop language, you spend the rest of your life with a voice in your head, a narrator, describing your whole experience. “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I’m tired. Why is that person looking at ME?” But for me the most powerful thing I’ve learnt is that you are not that narrator, you’re the one observing that narrator. Just that observation has been very liberating for me.
What else do you have coming up?
If everything goes to plan then I’d like to stay in Japan for a few months next year. Beyond that, I don’t know. Something will happen.