I’m everywhere and nowhere. And I own nothing and everything.
They say give your best work away for free. This is the best work I’ve ever created in my whole entire life. This is my whole life…
This is for everyone who looks at the world from a different perspective. For everyone who still believes in his or her dreams. In a life worth living. This is for everyone who’s restless. For everyone who strives for change. For everyone who doesn’t accept the way things work today. Who don’t accept the status quo. This is for the ones who challenge the norm. The ones who break down existing barriers. The ones who make the impossible possible. This is for the ones most people would call crazy. This is for people just like you and me…
On June 29th I published a blog post with the title “I’m everywhere and nowhere. And I own nothing and everything”. I had so much more to say. But for some reason I just didn’t. Maybe I was afraid. Maybe I was too scared. I don’t know. And for some reason on July 31st I had to think about it again. And for another or the same reason I decided to extend this one blog post into an entire book.
A book I would write in just 30 days. So I did it. On August 1st I wrote and published the first part. And for the next 30 days I wrote and published one part of that book on my blog and here on Medium. And on day 31 I put everything together into an ebook and sent it out to everyone who pre-ordered it.
And today, a little over a month later I’ve decided to put it on Medium in its entirety. I know it’s long, but I feel that this is the best way to read it in its entirety here on Medium. Breaking it down into small pieces would destroy the whole thing and dumb it down.
I’m hoping you will share it with people you love and care about. With people who need to read this. With people who need to hear this. With people just like you and me…
1. Intro I:
I lived out of a backpack for the past 7 years. This is my story.
I never really had a place of my own. I never bought any furniture. The clothes I’ve been wearing for the past few months cost less than $20. The entire outfit. Including shoes.
I never owned a car. I don’t have a smartphone. My most valuable possession is this laptop right here on which I write these words. It’s a $300 Acer. That’s really all I got.
Am I a minimalist? I don’t know. I’m mostly just myself. To me, minimalism is just another way of selling us more expensive crap. Really, really expensive crap. Who needs a t-shirt for $60? I don’t…
I think that a real minimalist doesn’t talk about it. He just lives it. Oh, well, I guess I just broke that rule. Whatever.
Over the past few years I’ve lived in so many different places and cities that I can barely remember. And with living I mean a period of at least three months.
I just turned 32 a few weeks ago. I spend less than $800 a month including everything. Including food. And health insurance. Sometimes I pay even less. Right now in Malaysia I spend around $600 a month.
I have enough. More than enough.
I have access to everything. I have access to more food than I’ll ever be able to eat. I have access to more clothes than I will ever be able to wear. I have access to more water than I will ever be able to drink. While others don’t have access to any of this.
Here’s a question I’ve asked myself many times in the past few months…
Just because we have access to all of these things does that mean we really need to own or buy all of these things? I don’t know.
For the past few days I’ve been living in one of these container hotels. You know, where all you got is a bed in some sort of container tube. At the same time I’ve been working in a coworking space with 24/7 access.
The bed costs $8 a night and the coworking space is around $50 a month. I have less than 10 things with me.
I have enough.
And sometimes I’m more happy. Sometimes I’m less happy. But I’m mostly just grateful to be alive.
Am I privileged? Of course, I am. And as you’re reading this, chances are that you’re privileged, too.
I live the lifestyle that I’m living partly out of necessity and partly because it’s liberating.
Because it feels like freedom. At least sometimes. I can live, work, eat and sleep wherever I want to. All I have with me is a carry on bag with my stuff. And my laptop. And a Kindle. That’s all I really need.
Ok, maybe I couldn’t live in Manhattan anymore. Also, I wouldn’t want to. Who wants to live in a cubicle for more than $2000 a month? Heck, that’s my budget for 3 months. Including food. Including everything.
When I started this lifestyle a couple of years ago, I started it because I didn’t have a lot of money. All I had to my name were around $20,000 that I saved over the years working various jobs. I basically saved everything I ever got my hands on. For my entire life. Until I was 26.
That’s all I got when I started. I started this kind of lifestyle more than 7 years ago. Mostly because I was scared. I was scared of everything. I’m still scared. Sometimes.
I was scared that I would stay at the same job for too long and then they would fire me. And then no one would hire me because I was too “inbred”. And then me and my future family would have to starve. I was seeing myself living on the streets.
The thought of having to rely on someone that could simply fire me when he or she pleases to, scared the shit out of me. It also scared the shit out of me to depend on a single person. Or in this case one company.
So about three years ago I quit my job. To try my own thing, again. After having lived in multiple countries for the past four years. After having started a clothing company in China that failed miserable. After I went back to work a corporate job for two years to fill up my bank account. Again.
I basically quit my job to spread my risk. T diversify my life. And myself. To be less dependent. And more independent. The only person I wanted to depend on was me. And no one else. I only trust myself. And a few other people.
You can’t control or predict things. The only thing you can control or predict is the person you see every single morning in the mirror. That’s the only person or thing you can control or predict.
Heck, sometimes you don’t even have control over yourself. But that’s ok. As long as you’re trying to improve every single day. I say “try“ because most of the time it just doesn’t work out. And that’s fine, too.
So this is my story. This is the story of how I got to where I am right now.
Where am I right now? Who the hell knows? I don’t…
This is the story of a naive little kid who set out to conquer the world. A story that started 7 years ago. A story that probably just got started. A story that will probably never be finished. A story with many ups and downs. Mostly downs.
A story worth telling. A story worth writing down. Mostly for myself, so I don’t forget all of these things.
This is the story of how I lost money every single day for more than three years. This is the story about how I lived out of a backpack for the past 7 years.
I’m everywhere and nowhere. And I own nothing and everything.
2. Intro II:
Why would I write two intros? I don’t know. Why not? That’s just the way I roll.
On July 31st I decided to write a book. A month or so earlier, I wrote a blog post called “I’m everywhere and nowhere. And I own nothing and everything.”. It was a good post. A post I wanted to write for a long time.
So when I approached someone on Medium (the publishing platform) with a big audience of more than 150,000 followers and asked him if he wanted to feature it he said that I should include around 5–6 images and make it longer.
I added a picture to it and asked him again if he would be able to add it now. Why? Because that’s just the way I roll. I’m not quite sure what his response was but it never made it into that publication.
But when I thought about what he said. Why not make it longer? Heck, why not even make a book about it. And that’s what I decided to do on July 31st . I decided to write a book based on that one post. By the way you can read that post at the end of the book.
So the idea for this book was born. And on August 1st I started writing that book. And I decided to write one part of it every day for the next 30 days. And at the same time I would publish that one piece of the day on my blog and on Medium.com.
I don’t know if anyone has ever done this before. I don’t know if anyone has ever written a book in 30 days and then published it on day 31. I don’t know if anyone has ever written a book live in front of the whole world.
So that’s that. That’s the story of this book. That’s how I came up with the idea of writing this book. That’s how I wrote this book. In just 30 days.
I just did it…
Alright, enough intros for now. Let’s get down to business…
3. I stopped giving a shit a long time ago
We’re all going to die…
The one thing that’s holding most of us back is that we care way too much about what others think.
What they think about us. What they think about the things we do. What they think about the clothes we wear. The cars we drive. The food we eat. About everything.
We care way too much about what our friends think about us. What our parents think about us. Heck, we even care about what total strangers think about us that we’ve never met and will probably never meet.
I stopped giving a shit about all of this (and even more) back in 2007. As a matter of fact I probably stopped giving a shit a long time ago. But it wasn’t so clear to me back then.
I can still remember what one of my best friends wrote down in my high school graduation yearbook. “He does his own thing.” I guess he was right and he knew me a lot better than I knew myself back then.
So some time ago I (consciously or unconsciously) decided to not just live a life. But to create a life.
Here’s a funny story…
After I’ve sent out an email to let people know that I’ll be writing a book live in front of the entire world to see and that I’ll be writing and publishing one part of that book for the next 30 days, someone sent me an email.
She said that I’m everything she wants to become: Brave. Daring. Enthusiastic. Risk-taking and successful.
I don’t think I’m any of this. I just stopped giving a shit. A long time ago. And everything else is just a result of that decision. And when I say this I don’t mean hanging out at the beach, drinking beer and partying all night kind of stop giving a shit. No, that’s not what I mean at all.
What I mean is that I took the decision of doing whatever I feel like doing and trying out as many different things that might enable me to live the life I truly want to live. Doing the things and living the life that I know deep down inside of me I should be living.
So I’m doing things like writing and publishing one post every single day for the next 30 days and then making a book out of it. That’s something I wanted to do and then I just did it. Whatever the consequences. And maybe it will help me get to where I have to be. Maybe it won’t. But it doesn’t really matter that much.
Many people say that an entrepreneur jumps off a cliff and then finds a way to build a parachute on the way down. This is complete BS. I don’t believe in this. At all. It’s probably the worst advice ever. 99% of the people will die. If you have no clue about what the hell you’re doing you’ll probably crash and burn.
So why start with jumping off a cliff? Why not start a bit smaller and less life threatening? Why not start on the trampoline in your back yard?
Look. Most of us just aren’t Mark Zuckerberg. Or Steve Jobs. Or Elon Musk. And that’s totally fine. Or maybe you are. I don’t know you. I’m clearly not.
I think for most of us it’s a way better idea to just exercise a bit in the garden on that trampoline before jumping off that cliff. To make many small bets. Before making that huge bet. Instead of jumping off the cliff right away. And once you’ve mastered that one thing you can go on to the next thing. One step at a time.
So for example, instead of quitting your job without any money in the bank, start something small on the side. Try to make your first few bucks on your own. And then once you see some cash rolling in, go do some more. Go from that trampoline to paragliding.
And once you master that, once you master the first small steps, start working at a company that manufactures parachutes. And once you know how a parachute works and how they’re built, you can jump off that cliff. Or you don’t. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you don’t kill yourself. And jumping off a cliff will most likely kill you when you don’t know a thing about parachutes.
Look. Many people talk about doing this or doing that. They talk about writing a book. Many people even say you just need to write 500 or a thousand words a day and at the end of the year you’d have written two or maybe even three books.
And you know what? No one ever does that. People just talk about it. But they never do. It’s always easier to just talk about it. Doing is a whole different story. Because you might fail. And people might laugh at you.
And you know what? I don’t care about any of this anymore. That’s really the only thing that sets me apart. The ONLY thing. If there’s something that sets me apart. Because I’m really just an ordinary guy. An ordinary guy who stopped giving a shit a long time ago.
I’m not overly smart. I’m not talented in anything. I’ve almost failed high school because my essays were so bad. People laughed at me the first time I gave a talk in English in front of a larger crowd. I’ve written and published more books than I would like to admit. Mostly because none of them was a success.
So how do I do it? How do I keep going? What keeps me alive?
The simple fact that I just don’t care anymore.
And I strongly believe that you shouldn’t care about all of this stuff either. The one thing you should really care about though, the one thing that really matters is that you do your thing. And be yourself. And start doing the things that will help you live the life you always wanted to live. The life you have to live. No matter what.
And if you don’t know what these things are, then think again. You probably know exactly what those things are. It’s usually the things you’ve been trying to ignore. The whole time. These are usually the things you should be doing. The things you were running away from. The things you know deep down you should be doing but were too afraid of.
But without jumping off a cliff. Without killing yourself. Please, don’t kill yourself. The world needs you. The world needs to hear your story. So just be patient. And start putting in the work. And try to always get back up again. Go one step at a time. Don’t go thirty steps at a time because the only thing that’s going to happen is that you’re going to stumble and fall. Go one step at a time instead. Because getting back up again after falling down a cliff after you’ve skipped 30 steps is almost impossible. Not to say deadly.
Look. Life is just a game. And we’ll all be dead at the end of it anyway. So you might as well try to live for as long as you can. And try to not kill yourself while at the same time you should try to not live in fear all the time.
Here’s a little trick I follow…
I try to constantly remind myself that I won’t be able to get out alive of this whole thing anyway. And then I try to remind myself that I don’t want to spend my last breaths thinking “what would have happened if I did…”
And instead, I just do it. No matter what. But always try to remember that parachute story. Try to avoid everything stupid. Try to not kill yourself. And go one step at a time.
That’s really my entire philosophy. A philosophy that gives me superpowers. The superpower of fearlessness. Of not giving a shit. Because I know I can’t lose. Because whatever I do, it won’t change the simple fact that after 80 or so years I’ll be dead anyway.
Is this a depressing thought?
For some people it is. For me it isn’t. For me it is the fuel that keeps me going. It is the air I breathe that keeps me alive. It is the food I eat to be able to keep moving.
It’s about time.
It’s about time to stop giving a shit.
So you can finally start creating your own…
4. I had the chance to save the world. But I blew it…
I didn’t want to start working. I was freaking out…
It was 2009. I was 25 years old and I had no clue about what to do next. I was studying something that I was barely interested in, just to keep as many doors open as possible.
I had no clue about what I wanted to do with my life. So I thought keeping as many doors open as possible might be the best choice.
To this date I don’t know if that’s true. But when I take a look at what I’m doing now, it might really have been the best choice. At least for me.
I studied business so I could literally become everything and nothing at the same time. Nothing was really tangible. Everything was highly theoretical and I didn’t really have any practical skills. I wasn’t really able to do anything. I felt like a total fraud.
But what I didn’t know back then is that 99% of the people with a university degree aren’t really able to create or do anything. Back then I didn’t know that we’re all part of a big fat ponzi scheme built on power point slides, business jibber jabber and other things that no one really understands.
And at the end of the day you’ll become the manager of everything and everyone just because you’re constantly talking about stuff no one really understands and people assume that you must be smart and know what you’re talking about. When in reality no one has any clue about anything they’re talking about. Including me. Especially me…
Don’t believe this is true? You don’t have to. Here’s a little story. Here’s the story about how I predicted the financial crisis in 2008. Or could have. But I didn’t…
Back in 2008 I attended a class that was called futures and options. It was about a lot of stock market mumbo jumbo that doesn’t really help anybody. And one day there was a guy from Lehman Brothers coming into class and he gave a guest lecture. They do this from time to time when they’re looking for interns. So for about two hours I saw hundreds of graphs and hundreds of lines going from left to right. From right to left. From the top to the bottom. And I didn’t understand a damn thing.
And I’m sure the guy explaining it didn’t understand a damn thing either. And once those two hours were over, the guy finished up saying “and this is how we guarantee our customers a 100% safe return of 10%.”
And I was like, “how the heck is that even possible? This can not work! This is a total scam.”
Ok, I never said that out loud. But I told my classmates that I didn’t understand a damn thing what this guy was even talking about for the past two hours. I said this can’t be possible. Maybe it really is possible. I don’t know. I almost failed that course.
And the only thing that I can remember from that course is that everything this guy said didn’t make any sense to me at all and that Lehman Brothers went out of business a few months later. So that was that.
I had the chance to save the world. But I blew it…
Still, I had no clue about what I wanted to do with my life. I was scared. I was scared about making the wrong decisions. Just a short year before my graduation I had thousands of thoughts racing through my head. Thoughts like..
What if I end up at a job that I don’t like? What if I’ll be stuck there for the rest of my life? What if I get depressed? What if..? What if..? What if..? Aaaaaaah!
All of these thoughts were killing me. I was scared of the future. I was scared that I would never be able to support myself. Layoffs everywhere. How will I ever be able to find a job that I like that pays enough to feed me and my future family and my unborn kids?
So I did everything a sane person would do in such a situation…
I just walked away. I left the country. And went to China. As an exchange student. Not because I thought China is the new promised land or because I wanted to learn Chinese. No, not at all. I went to China because I always wanted to go to Japan.
Doesn’t make any sense? It sure doesn’t. Nothing makes any sense when we look at it right now. It only makes sense in retrospect. When we’re able to put all the pieces together. When we’re able to put all our puzzle pieces together and they form a beautiful picture.
Alright. The reason why I didn’t go to Japan is a little less philosophic. It’s just that at that year when I wanted to go to Japan my university didn’t have any exchange program going on with Japan. So the only choices that were left were Israel, Russia or China. And because I had no clue about anything back then (and still don’t), I thought China is as close to Japan as it gets. So that was that.
I went to study in China for a semester. And that semester turned into almost two years. And it lead to me starting a company in China and miserably failing at it. As well as a short side career as an English teacher at a Chinese and a Japanese company. And to me learning a bit of Chinese. A tiny little bit.
Oh yeah. And I finally learned something tangible. I learned how to use illustrator to design t-shirts, how to screen print and how to use a sewing machine. Not because I thought it was a lot of fun. It was out of necessity and a lack of cash. And because of one of the most important lessons that I had to learn the hard way doing business in China. A rule that probably applies to making business everywhere.
You can only rely on yourself. And no one else…
Look. All of this didn’t help me to change the world. It didn’t do much. But it was one piece of my puzzle. A piece that would lead to many more seemingly unrelated pieces that would ultimately lead me to the stuff I do right now.
What is it that I do now?
I don’t know. I’m still busy collecting pieces.
I’m busy collecting pieces of my puzzle that might maybe one day form a beautiful picture that might maybe change the world and portray one of the most beautiful pictures the entire world has ever seen.
A picture we’re all capable of painting. A picture that needs courage. A picture that needs patience. A picture that needs confidence. And faith.
A picture of a life well lived…
5. The thing that helped me to go from just living a life to creating a life
A while ago someone asked me if one of my books was available as PDF. He wanted to read it on his tablet. I realized that I didn’t offer it as PDF. Stupid me!
He told me he’s currently on a sabbatical, traveling the world and thinking about what he could do next in life.
He said he was trying to think about what work he could do so that when he wakes up every single morning he’d feel energized.
He was trying to figure out what would make him smile every single morning.
But he couldn’t figure it out. There are just way too many things going through his head. Too many things to think about. To worry about. And not enough time. Never enough time! Arghhh!
I think that’s a problem many people have. A problem that I had myself for a long time, too. A problem I still have every once in a while. And I strongly believe that the only way to solve this riddle, to solve your riddle, to solve my riddle, to solve all our riddles is to stop thinking.
Constantly thinking about things won’t do anything. You will never find a solution just by thinking about it. Especially when it comes to something complex like finding your passion. Finding your calling. Or finding something you might enjoy doing. Something that makes you smile when you get up every single morning.
The simple truth is this…
We don’t know what we enjoy doing, what our calling or our passion is, what we should be doing, simply because we stopped trying. We stopped experimenting. We stopped searching. And most importantly we stopped doing.
Some time in our early twenties or maybe even earlier we stop experimenting. Because everybody tells us that we need to know what we want to do with our lives. “You have to be something. Or someone.” is what everybody tells us.
But the truth is that no one is able to know what to do for the rest of their lives at that age. At any age as a matter of fact.
Now in my thirties, I start to realize that you will never really know what you’d want to do for the rest of your life. Simply because the rest of your life is a hell lot of time. And you know what? That’s totally fine.
What’s not so fine though is the fact that we were and are being pushed into a system, into a way of thinking that kills pretty much everything that defines most of us. It kills the explorer. The hunter. The gatherer.
A system that wants us to choose what we want to do for the rest of our lives. When our lives have barely even started yet. It’s just impossible.
So instead of continuing to explore, we settle. We settle for the things society and people expect from us. And then somewhere along the way some of us, not necessarily all of us, get stuck.
And some of us just don’t know what they’d love to do so they’d be able wake up in the morning with a smile on their faces. Some of us need more time to explore. Not more time to think. But more time to do.
And I think that’s the only way out. You need to give yourself some time. Some time to try things out. To test new things. To figure out what you enjoy doing. And getting away from all the thinking.
Too much thinking never solves anything. Only doing does. And thinking every once in a while about what you’re currently doing, what you might have done wrong and what you could do to improve what you’re doing might also help.
Look. You can think about things for years and years and years. But if you never do anything, then you’ll still be stuck at the exact same spot you’ve already been a few years ago.
Just like they say, it’s your best thinking that got you here.
And the one thing that’s responsible for all the thinking, for all the fear based decision making, for making all the decisions that ultimately hold us back from doing, from experimenting and experiencing life is the so called lizard brain.
That part of the brain that’s responsible for our survival instinct. It’s been there for tens of thousands of years. Maybe even more. I’m no expert. But today, we call it the amygdala.
Even though we gave it a new name, it’s still pretty much useless these days and only holds us back from living the life we truly want to live. The life we deserve to live. To be able to tap into our strengths and to unleash our potential.
The lizard brain has been responsible for our survival for the past tens of thousands of years. It’s an instinct guided part of the brain that starts to kick in whenever we are in a potentially dangerous or life threatening situation.
And back in the days when we were still cavemen and cavewomen pretty much everything was life threatening with all the wild animals out there. So we really needed it. But today, not so much anymore.
Back in the days we needed it because whenever there was the tiniest bit of uncertainty about what that sound back there in those bushes could have been, it pushed us to run away. After all, that sound could have been a tiger. Or any other large animal that wants to eat us.
But today, most situations aren’t so life threatening anymore. But it still operates like this. And to increase its chances of survival that lizard brain still wants us to avoid every situation that’s even just a tiny little bit filled with uncertainty. It feeds on certainty. And craves safety. And that’s why we’re always shooting for the safe thing. Because the lizard brain is playing its trick on us. It wants to survive. It wants us to think about the negative part of everything. To protect itself.
And the only way I’ve ever been able to tame my lizard brain was by doing what I like to call “the grandpa test.” It has helped me over and over again to get the lizard brain to shut up and get going. It has helped me to stay focused on my end goal. Over and over again.
And the first time I used it was when I decided to go to China, instead of looking for a job like all my fellow classmates did back in 2009. It didn’t make a lot of sense back then and I wasn’t sure if it was the right decision. Some part of me said I should be reasonable and look for a job. It was probably the lizard brain trying to protect itself.
I don’t know how I came up with the grandpa test back then. I certainly did not read about it in a book. Simply because I read less than 10 books in total back in my first 27 years of living on this planet. So it must have been something else. Anyways.
So here’s how the grandpa test goes…
In every situation I find myself in and am in doubt about whether or not I should do something, I imagine my 80 year old self sitting on my veranda (or the street corner, who knows?) reflecting about my life. About all of the things I’ve done. And all of the things I didn’t do.
And if that thing I’m currently not sure about doing is something where my future 80 year old self might ask himself “How would my life have looked like if I did it? Would it be any different?”, then I just do it.
Simply because I don’t want to look back on a life full of regrets. A life where I didn’t do many potentially life changing things, just because I couldn’t get that damn lizard brain to shut up.
Look. I don’t know if this is a good way of living life. I don’t know if it will work for you. Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. But it worked for me. Over and over again. And that’s really all I do to get going. Over and over again. That’s all I do tame and fight my lizard brain. To do the things I’m scared of doing.
And that’s what got me to China and ultimately to where I am right now.
That’s how I went from just living a life to creating my own life…
6. Nothing really matters. Until it does…
He was spitting all over the place while he was trying to talk. He couldn’t talk properly anymore. I couldn’t understand a single word he was saying. And then I just left the dinner and went home.
I went home to the flat where I lived with four other people. During those two years in China I probably lived together with 20 different people or so. In 3 different places. Maybe even more. So I went home and one of my room mates was smoking a joint. He was some sort of drug dealer before.
I gave it a try. But I never really feel anything. The only thing that happens is that I get sleepy. So I went to bed. And the next day I walked two hours across the whole city to eat one of the best burgers I’ve ever had in my entire life. The burger place was called Munchies. So now that I think about it, maybe it did have an effect on me…
I was at that dinner the other day because I was invited to have dinner with the family of one of my students who I taught English for a while. Yes, I also taught English for a while. And yes I’m not an English native speaker. And yes, it didn’t make any sense at all back then.
The dinner was really great until her husband got a pretty fancy looking bottle with alcohol in it out of somewhere. It was Baijiu. That’s some sort of Chinese rice alcohol. It basically tastes like gasoline. Probably even worse.
But this one was quite different. It was actually really good. He told me that you can’t buy this one in any store. It’s a special kind that’s reserved for politicians or something like that. I don’t know if that was true. But that’s what he said. He had a business and was doing something with the government. So it could be true.
Long story short. He got pretty drunk. Luckily, I didn’t. And we talked about all sorts of stuff before I wasn’t able to understand him anymore. We also talked about Chinese zodiac signs. He told me that he was born in the year of the dragon. And that I was born in the year of the rat.
I liked that.
Sometimes I really feel like a rat. I can survive pretty much everywhere and get used to pretty much everything really fast. I don’t need a lot to survive. Just the basics. Just like a rat. So maybe all of this zodiac sign stuff does make sense after all.
I really don’t know why I even started teaching English in China. I’m not even a native speaker. It didn’t make any sense at all. Just like starting a clothing brand in China for the Chinese market without having any clue about clothing or being able to speak Chinese. None of it didn’t make any sense at all. But that didn’t really matter that much. Nothing really matters.
One day a guy at school asked me if I wanted to teach English. I said sure, why not. But I’m not a native speaker. And he said that it doesn’t really matter. He’ll just tell the agency that I’m from Canada. I said I’m in. Looking back, maybe he didn’t think I would say yes. And why would I? I really don’t know. But I just did.
So I started teaching some English on the side while trying to finish my master’s degree, while trying to start a business and trying to learn Chinese. All at the same time. Not surprisingly, none of these things really worked out. But that didn’t really matter that much either.
Oh and by the way, please don’t tell anyone about this. Because I might end up in jail. And I don’t want to go to jail in China. Maybe they’re already looking for me. I have no clue. So please, don’t tell anyone about this.
What I think matters though is that you use your twenties or thirties, heck maybe even your entire life to do things. To experiment. To try as many different things as possible. To not get stuck along the way. To do as many things as possible that don’t seem to make any sense at all. Just because right now nothing makes any sense at all. Nothing really makes sense when you’re trying to predict the future. It only makes sense in retrospect.
I don’t think your twenties, heck your entire life is there for winning trophies. For perfecting your CV or anything like that. Or maybe it is. I don’t know. I did all of it, too. But didn’t really end up using any of it. Nonetheless, it’s always good to have a backup plan.
What I think it’s all about at the end of the day is to collect as many different pieces of your puzzle as possible. A puzzle you have no clue about how it’s going to look like once it’s one. Maybe it will look like the Eiffel Tower? Maybe it will look like the Great Wall? Who knows? No one knows…
And when you’re collecting pieces for an unknown puzzle it really is all about saying “yes“ more often than saying “no“. Especially when you’re starting off. Especially when you’re young. To make sure that some of the pieces you picked up along the way match your final puzzle.
Sure, some people are geniuses and get everything right the very first time. Some people end up marrying their high school love. Some people end up starting Facebook.
But most of us just don’t. We need to collect more pieces. We need more time. More time to find our own personal Facebook. More time to find our high school love.
Here’s the thing…
When you’re trying to predict the future, nothing will really make any sense.
Nothing will really fit the puzzle you have in your head.
But what if the puzzle in your head isn’t your puzzle? What if your puzzle doesn’t even look anything like the puzzle you imagined? Think about it…
All of this stuff only makes sense in retrospect.
And not when you look at it right now.
That’s why nothing really matters.
Until it does…
7. About that one time I started a company in China
I never thought about starting a company. I never thought about going to China. And not even in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would end up starting a company in China. But that’s exactly what happened.
It just happened…
Back in 2009 I didn’t even know what a startup was. I had no clue about anything. But I liked the thought of not having to go back to Germany because I didn’t want to start looking for a job. So starting a business seemed like a great idea.
It was a total coincidence and not planned at all. Most of the good things in life just happen. Most of the good things can’t be planned and are usually a total coincidence. And most of the things you try to plan and map out usually turn into something horrible. Or into things that don’t work out.
That has at least been the case for me pretty much all the time. For pretty much everything. So I stopped planning.
Here’s the thing…
To me it seems that most people wait for that perfect set of cards to go all in. Most people wait for that one big idea. That one big master plan. That one person who’s going to save them. But this never really happens. This only happens in Hollywood.
That perfect hand to go all in will never come. Because that perfect hand doesn’t really exist.
That one big idea will never come. Because that one big idea is the result of many small ideas.
That big master plan will never come. Because that big master plan doesn’t really exist.
Just like no one is ever going to save you. Because only you can.
Most things in life are a coincidence. Most of the hands you’re played are not worth playing. Still, you’ve gotta try to make the best out of every hand you get. No matter how good or bad.
And it all start with a first small step. When you take a step without really knowing what could happen next. When everything and nothing is possible.
Even me writing this right here is a total coincidence. I never planned any of this.
It’s a coincidence that started when I first met my business partner in China in 2009. We totally randomly met in a hostel in Shanghai. And it turned out that we were in the same exchange program. And then it turned out that we were in similar courses.
And then one thing lead to another and boom! two years later I was almost broke and had to go back home to Germany to find a job to fill up my bank account.
And it all started with a first step. Without really knowing what could happen next. Everything and nothing was possible. And without that first step I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading this.
And that’s the magic of it. Of what? Of life!
And then again, when I came back to Germany one thing led to another and I ended up working in venture capital for a bit in Berlin and then in New York. Until I decided to quit my job. And then I wrote a book about it.
And because that book wasn’t a success and I didn’t have a job anymore and every time I checked my bank account the numbers were getting smaller and smaller, I knew I had to come up with some more ideas. And then some more.
Until all of this somehow led me to writing 7 books and more than 500 blog posts and publishing one part of a book for 30 days and releasing it on day 31.
Everything started with that initial coincidence. It all started with that one step that could mean nothing and everything. That one step that led to everything.
So what’s my point here?
I guess there is no point. There are just coincidences. And how you play the set of cards that’s handed to you. No matter how good or bad. It’s also about recognizing and grabbing opportunities when they show up. Instead of hunting them down. Because what happens when you want something so badly that it hurts is that you’re going to end up nowhere.
It’s like the universe and everybody around you can feel your desperation. It’s like they can smell it. And in our world, no one really wants to deal with someone who’s desperate.
And that’s the story about that one time I started a company in China.
How one coincidence led to another.
And how one step led to many more steps…
8. It’s time for me to quit
I lived in China on and off for almost two years trying to build that company.
And what I had to realize back then is that quitting is hard. Really, really hard. It’s a lot harder than starting. Knowing when to quit is probably the hardest thing out there.
Admitting failure, even if it’s just temporary, even if you’ve learned a hell lot is never easy. It’s one of the toughest things out there. Telling yourself “Yupp, that’s it, I’ll have to pack my things and leave“ is a lot harder than it sounds.
So here are a few things I’ve learned back then. And over the following years. Here are the things that made me realize that it was about time to pack my things and go. Over and over again…
a) GETTING SICK
When you’re constantly sick, getting sick or jumping from one sickness to the next, then your body wants to send you a message. It’s your body telling you that it’s time to stop. That it’s not worth it. That you should be doing something else. And when that happens then you know that it’s probably a good idea to pack your things and go. Health is more important than anything else.
Because what’s going to happen when you’re constantly sick, when you don’t get enough sleep, is that everything else will stop working. You won’t be able to think straight anymore. You’ll constantly be making the wrong decisions and most importantly you’ll stop seeing clearly. And from there everything will get worse and worse.
I was constantly sick. My body was constantly sending me signals. And I tried to ignore them for as long as I could. One time when I went back home to Germany some of my friends told me that my face was yellow. That’s how sick I was. And that’s when I knew that I had to get the hell out of there. That I had to pack my stuff and leave…
b) EATING JUNK FOOD
When you’re constantly eating junk food and drinking unhealthy soft drinks it’s your body trying to send you a signal. Heck! Again? What’s up with all of these signals?
Your body wants to tell you that something is wrong. That something is missing. And whatever that is, your body wants that feeling to go away. Your body doesn’t want to feel bad, so just like a drug addict, your body is telling you to inject as much trash into your body as possible so you can feel a bit better for a bit.
But after that quick high it will be even worse than before. It’s a vicious circle. A circle you need to break out of as fast as you can. The sooner the better…
c) DRINKING ALCOHOL
Here’s why most people go out and party like crazy and get drunk on the weekends. Or as a matter of fact buy all sorts of crap they don’t really need.
People do it because they tell themselves that they deserve it. That all week long they’ve been doing things they didn’t enjoy doing. Things that didn’t make them happy.
“Screw this. Now is “me time”. Now is the time to be happy and pack all the fun that was missing during the week into a few short hours. Let’s get all the fun and happiness from that week back.”
What people don’t realize is that every time you get super drunk, you’re pretty much stealing happiness from the next day. Or the following day. And depending on how often you do this, you might end up stealing all of your life’s happiness. Only to end up being an unhappy shell of what you’ve once been…
Alright. Alright. Here’s something more positive. Another sign that it might be a good time to quit is that you’ve done everything you can. And I don’t mean that you’ve tried hiring people to do the job for you but couldn’t find anyone to do it for you.
What I mean with doing everything you can is to literally do everything you can. And not hire other people to do it for you. And not to just drop it if you don’t have enough money to hire someone to do it for you. No, I mean that you’d have to learn and then do everything yourself. And if that fails, then move on…
When we couldn’t find a designer because everyone was charging us a ridiculous amount of money, I started learning Illustrator and started designing t-shirts. And then I designed all our products.
When we couldn’t find a factory to produce in small quantities, I went out there and learned everything about screen printing and printed the shirts myself.
I also learned how to use a sewing machine to sew the tags on the shirts. So if you’ve done everything you can and it still doesn’t work out then just pack your things and leave…
When it’s just no fun anymore at all, then just quit. Life is too short to do things that aren’t fun anymore. But try to remember d)…
If you feel like you don’t or can’t learn anything anymore because you’ve already learned everything you can and don’t see how you could progress any further, then just quit.
Too many people get stuck in dead end jobs, projects, relationships or whatever because at one point they stopped progressing. And then lost all of their momentum. And losing momentum is the worst thing that could ever happen to you.
When you’re standing still for just a few short days, weeks, months or even worse a few years, then you’ll almost never be able to get that momentum back. It’s super hard to get momentum back going. It’s not impossible. But very, very hard.
That’s why so many talented and smart people get stuck in life and end up in dead end jobs. They’ve missed the point of moving on to the next thing. They’ve lost their momentum.
Never lose momentum! And when you start losing momentum, you have to get out of there as fast as possible…
At my first job I usually came home around 5 or 6pm. Sometimes even 4pm. But still, I felt so tired every day I came home it was insane. I felt like I ran a marathon. I couldn’t do anything anymore when I came home. All I could do was to turn on the TV. Only to wake up at 3am in the morning with my work clothes still on. When you’re constantly doing things you don’t really want to be doing, you’ll always feel exhausted. It’s your body telling you that you should quit…
As soon as a better opportunity comes along, take it. It doesn’t make any sense to keep doing that other thing when all you secretly want is to to that new thing. That thing that might be better for you. And everybody else around you.
But what about loyalty? There’s nothing more loyal than leaving or quitting when you get a better opportunity. Because when you stay you’ll only destroy other people’s opportunities. Be it in a relationship, a business or whatever.
If you want to take that opportunity but you don’t take it, you’ll only feel miserable and make everyone else around you feel miserable as well. Not only this. You’ll also be constantly thinking about that other thing. Which will in the mid to long term hurt your performance…
If you don’t sleep enough your mind will always be weak. And when your mind is weak you’ll constantly be eating junk food or drinking brown sugar water. Or alcohol. You need to be well rested to be able to resist all the temptations out there.
Again, it’s a vicious circle. If you’re not able to get enough sleep for a period longer than you’d like to admit to your friends or your family then get the hell out of there…
But even more importantly when you start to realize that the things you’re doing don’t really have an impact, that no one really needs what you’re doing, that someone else could easily be doing the exact same thing you’re doing, when you realize that you’re easily replaceable, then just pack your things and leave.
Because what that means is that you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. That you’re not doing that one thing you were sent here to be doing. That one thing only you can do.
And you need to do everything you can to do the thing you were sent here for. You owe it to yourself. And the people around you. Heck, you owe it to the entire world. So get going…
9. Building someone else’s dream is totally fine (for a while)
You don’t always have to be building and working on your own dreams.
As a matter of fact I didn’t even know until I was 28 what my dream was. Even right now I’m not sure what exactly it is that I want to do for the rest of my life. I don’t really know what I was sent here for. And that’s totally fine.
Right now I enjoy writing. Tomorrow I might enjoy teaching. And then maybe next year I might enjoy doing something else. Who knows? Everything around us is changing so fast. And so are we.
Over the past seven years I’ve gone from entrepreneur to employee, from employee to author, from author to entrepreneur and then from entrepreneur to blogger, author and I don’t like to admit it, but I somehow also got into digital marketing. And who knows, maybe next year I’ll take on a job. Who knows?
Nothing is forever…
And when I got started with all of this, the first thing I ever worked on was building someone else’s dream. Simply because I didn’t have any dreams. It’s not that I wasn’t ambitious or didn’t have any goals in life. It’s just that I had absolutely no clue what I wanted to do.
And sometimes it’s not about knowing what you want to do. Sometimes it’s about waiting, getting ready and grabbing opportunities instead.
So the only thing I really knew back then was that I didn’t want to start working a full time job. I didn’t want to be stuck in a cubicle for the rest of my life.
So I grabbed the opportunity and joined my partner and helped him build his dream. The kind of business he wanted to build. It wasn’t necessarily the kind of business I wanted to start or to build.
But you know what?
Looking back, this might have been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.
Not only did I learn a hell lot from him, but it’s also the main reason why I’m doing what I’m doing now. If I didn’t join him I would probably not be sitting here and writing these lines. And instead I would probably be sitting somewhere in a cubicle.
Which, by the way happened right after we had to shutdown that company. Which, by the way might have been the second best thing that ever happened to me. Working a corporate job for almost two years taught me more than I’d like to admit.
And I’m very grateful for every teacher and real life lesson I learned in those two years. It helped me to understand how big companies really work. But even more importantly I learned a lot about how people think and the psychology behind the smallest things out there.
And without both of these experiences I would probably not be where I am right now. And in both situations I worked on building someone else’s dreams. So I think building someone else’s dream isn’t that bad after all.
Sometimes it’s not about working on your dreams. Sometimes it’s about working on someone else’s dreams. To get you ready for your own dreams. To observe, see and learn.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s not such a bad idea to put your dreams on hold for a while. It’s not such a bad idea to work on building and making other people’s dreams come true first. Because then you’d know how to build your own dreams.
When you’re working for someone else, when you’re working on making someone else’s dreams come true, you’re basically getting paid for learning. You’re getting paid for learning how to make your own dreams come true.
Which to me sounds like a pretty good deal.
And once you’ve learned enough you can go on and start working on your own dreams. Either on your own or with the support of the person or the organization whose dreams you were working on before.
Building someone else’s dream is fine as long as you see it as what it is. As an opportunity to learn what it takes to make your own dreams come true.
But try to make sure you don’t get too comfortable building other people’s dreams. Because sometimes that safety net might turn out to be a spider web with a big fat spider on it waiting to suck all the life out of you…
10. Everybody was laughing at me
Everybody says that you’ve gotta know your strengths. You’ve gotta know who you are. And you’ve gotta be authentic. Talk and write in your own voice. That’s what they all say.
But how the heck do you even know what your strengths are? How do you find your strengths? How do you speak in your own voice when you constantly feel like you don’t even have a voice at all? When you constantly feel like you’re just not good enough.
Look. Here’s something most people won’t tell you. To find your strengths, to find your own true voice, to figure out who you really are deep down, you’ve gotta take a look at your weaknesses first. And not your strengths. I strongly believe that to be able to find your strengths you’ve gotta look at your weaknesses first.
Here’s the thing about your strengths. About the things you’re already good at. Well, you’re already good at it so there’s no real need to put in a lot of work to improve. And that’s the problem. Because you’re already good at it your learning curve will be very flat. Simply because when you’re already good at something you’ve gotta put in a hell lot of work to get just a tiny little bit better at it.
So you’ll never be able to build up momentum. And without momentum everything is a thousand times harder. When you’re already naturally good at something the effort to reach the next level seems to outweigh the potential benefits. Also, when you’re already good at something you feel like you know everything already and don’t need to put in more work. And when I say you, I’m basically talking about myself.
I was always pretty good in sports. I was always one of the best in my class. But I never really continued any of it. Simply because I thought I was already good enough. And I thought I didn’t need to learn more about techniques, training programs and so on. The needed effort to improve seemed to outsize the results. By far. The learning curve would have been pretty flat. Building momentum to keep going would have been just too damn hard. So I never really continued doing sports when I got older.
On the other hand, if you take a look at your weaknesses it’s a whole different story. It’s so much easier to build up momentum, to see first results and the learning curve in general is a lot steeper. As long as you’re understanding, accepting ad embracing one simple thing.
No one is good at anything when they start. We all suck when we start something new. Your first 100 blog posts will suck. Your first 50 YouTube videos will suck. Your first 20 talks in public will suck. Your first 10 books will suck. It is what it is. And that’s totally fine.
As long as you keep putting in the work. As long as you keep pushing. As long as you see skills as what they are. They are build over time. They don’t have anything to do with talent. Skills are the result of hard work, persistence and resilience. And never giving up. No matter what.
Most of the people you see at the top right now, no matter what area in life we’re talking about, started from the exact same spot you are right now. Where I am right now. They started from the bottom. And worked their way to the top. And that’s how they found their strengths. Tapped into them and unleashed their potential. That’s how they found their own unique voice. By putting in the work first.
So if you don’t know what your strengths are, if you don’t know who you are or what you stand for, then take a look at your weaknesses. In many cases these things aren’t even real weaknesses. Mostly, it’s just people telling you that you’re not good at it. Your teacher, society, your friends, your family, heck the entire world.
But you know what? You teacher, society, your friends, your family and the entire world, they all believe in the concept of talent. They all believe that to be good at something you need a god given talent. And this is BS. There’s no such thing as talent. There’s only putting in the work. And building skills over time. By doing. And not by talking.
And that’s why all of these people will tell you that you don’t have what it takes. And when you’ve heard it often enough you’ll believe what they say. And what’s going to happen then is that you don’t even try to put in the work it would take to become better at something you might maybe enjoy doing.
Look. There are no talented singers. There are only singers who put in the work for many, many years and singers who didn’t.
There are no talented writers. There are only writers who put in the work for many, many years and writers who didn’t.
There are no talented artists. Or designers. There are only artists and designers who put in the work for many, many years and the ones who didn’t.
Sure, you might say that you need to be tall to become a professional NBA basketball player or something else where it’s primarily about physique.
And you know what?
You might be right. But that’s a whole different story. Because we’re talking about physique here. Being tall is almost like a requirement to become a professional basketball player. But that doesn’t mean that every tall person will automatically be a professional basketball player.
They might have an advantage, but they’d still have to put in the work. Probably even more so than anyone else. Simply because when you’re taller than the average person then it’s a lot more likely that you’re going to have problems with your back or have some other problems related to your physique. Simply because our bodies and the world are made for shorter people.
On another note. Height isn’t a necessity to become a professional NBA player either. Muggsy Bogues, who is only 1,6m (5ft 3) tall played very successfully in the NBA for 15 seasons. He put in the work. Maybe even more so than anybody else probably. He turned his weakness into his own unique strength.
Let’s take a look at some of the folks out there who are rightfully preaching that you need to find your strengths to be able to unleash your potential. It’s always interesting to see how they started. Just take a look at Gary Vaynerchuk’s first videos on YouTube. They were very, very different from what he’s doing now.
I’m not saying they were bad. But they were also not very good compared to what he’s doing now. They were just ok. He didn’t seem very talented. He also didn’t seem to have any special skills. He seemed like a totally regular guy who made a bunch of videos. A regular guy just like you and me who put in the work over many, many years.
What got him to do be able to do the mind blowing type of videos he’s doing today is that he consistently put in the work. He has probably done more than 1000 videos before he got this good. Heck maybe even 2000 videos. And the same golds true for his talks. He has probably given a few hundred talks already.
Or the Beatles who played thousands of shows in shitty clubs in Hamburg before they became famous. Or Bill Gates who had access to computers before anybody else had. They put in the work first. And that’s their biggest competitive advantage. When they appeared on stage, when they appeared in the spotlight, they already had thousands of hours of training.
And that’s what people tend to forget. When you see someone or start using something that you have never heard of before, that something or that someone already went through years and years of hustling. Of putting in the work. Of getting better every single day. Of improving features. Or what not.
And the moment you see those things, the moment they hit the spotlight and you start using these things or start following these people, the really hard work was already done.
So it might look like overnight success. Or god given talent. When in reality it’s the result of years and years of putting in more work than anybody else.
Just like Pokemon Go was a huge success when it first came out. It looks like an overnight. But when you look close enough you’ll realize that it was a story in the making for many, many years.
The folks who did Pokemon Go were working for Google for many, many years. They were even part of the team building Google Maps. So what you looks like an overnight success is really the result of years and years of engineering experience and knowledge from some of the most talented engineers from one of the most successful companies in the world.
And that’s why I think when you’re trying to find your strengths and your true voice you’d have to take a look at your weaknesses first. The things you’re not so good at, yet. The things you can can still improve rather easily and build up momentum to then be able to carry that momentum further to get past the roadblocks you’ll encounter along the way.
Let me tell you a story here real quick. Well, actually two stories. And it won’t actually be quick…
The first time I gave a talk in front of a larger crowd of more than 40 people or so everybody started laughing when it was my turn. It was so humiliating. And I had no clue what was going on. Nobody wanted to tell me what was going on. Not even the people I was presenting with wanted to tell me.
So after a few minutes the laughing stopped. Those few minutes might have been some of the worst few minutes of my entire life. I thought I peed myself or something like that but couldn’t find any evidence anywhere.
As you might imagine, I never wanted to give a talk ever again for the rest of my life.
And it took me more than five years before I gave a talk in front of a larger crowd again. And that was a talk in front of a crowd of more than 120 people. It was the first stop of a speaking tour I organized myself for myself in 2013 with 10 talks or so.
I was scared of doing it. But I knew that this would be the only way that I would ever get over my fear and turn my “weakness” into a strength.
In case you’re wondering what happened back in 2008 when everybody was laughing at me, here’s what happened…
I basically said the exact same thing the guy before me said. I was so nervous that I didn’t even pay attention to what he said. Or what I had to say. That’s how nervous I was.
It was a group presentation and because I designed the whole presentation for the entire group I was familiar with the entire content. So that was that. Looking back, I have to admit that it was pretty funny and I would probably also have laughed. A lot.
And since 2013 I gave more than 30 talks. I have been invited to speak at dozens of conferences. I was mentoring at dozens of events for hundreds of young entrepreneurs. I guess it turned out ok. And you know what? I really enjoy giving talks now. And people have even paid me a few times to give talks.
Even though, no, probably because so many people laughed at me the very first time I gave a talk in front of a larger crowd…
When I was in high school I almost failed 10th class because my writing was so bad. I constantly got Ds, Es and sometimes even Fs on my essays. I was one of the worst students in my class.
And you know what? I was really bad. It wasn’t the teacher’s fault. It was all my fault. How do I know? Because not too long ago I found an essay I wrote in high school. And it was horrible. I deserved every bad grade I ever got.
And the reason why I was so bad was very simple. I never read books until I was 28. I never put in the work. And now just a few short years later you’re reading one of my essays online. In just a few short years I was able to build an audience online I would never have thought would even be possible in my wildest dreams.
And I got to where I am now simply because I started putting in the work. Because I thought that writing might be something I might maybe enjoy doing. And then I just did it. And never really stopped for the past three years. And for the past year or so I’ve written and published one article a day. Because if you want to get better at something you like, you’ve gotta put in more work than anybody else.
I also published 7 books in those 3 years. This is the eighth. Sure, none of the 7 books was a huge success. But every book I write, every article I write gets me closer to it. And every article you write, every book you publish will get you closer to it.
Every painting you paint gets you closer to it. Every talk you give gets you closer to it. Every email you write gets you closer to it. Every date you go on gets you closer to it.
Closer to what?
Closer to the life you want to live.
To the life you have to live.
To the life you deserve to live…
11. Nothing lasts forever
Over the past 7 years I went from being an entrepreneur to employee, from employee to author and then to blogger and public speaker and then back to being an entrepreneur.
So what do I do now?
I don’t really know. I now do all of the above things at the same time. And when new people I meet ask me what I’m doing I usually just tell them that I do Internet stuff. For most people that’s enough. Because most people don’t know a lot about Internet stuff.
I don’t know what I’m going to do next year. Maybe I’ll start working at a company. I really enjoy all of this digital marketing stuff that I’ve started doing recently. It’s pretty much the backbone of everything.
So my point is this…
Nothing lasts forever. Today is today. And tomorrow is a new day. And tomorrow you could already be doing something else entirely. Something you’d never even thought possible in your wildest dreams.
Sure, it doesn’t happen just like that. You need to constantly be creating opportunities for yourself and the people around you. And maybe one day one of the seeds you planted grows into a strong enough tree. Into an opportunity worth taking a closer look at.
But to me it seems that lot of people think that if they take that one job that their life is over. That they’ll have to work at that company for the rest of their life.
Or when they quit their jobs, start their own thing and for some reason it doesn’t work out that they’re doomed for life. That they’ll never ever find a job ever again. That they’ll be unemployable. That they’d have to live on the streets.
I think this is BS. A a matter of fact if you’ve started something on your own, if you’ve created something out of nothing then you’d become a lot more valuable for most companies out there.
Simply because most people have never created something out of nothing. Most people have no clue about how to create something out of nothing.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
And the more things you have to show, the more things you’ve created, the less people will care about your CV. Or what you’ve done in the past.
Here’s something that many people underestimate…
The skills you learn when you’re out on your own are all marketable skills. Skills that will help you get a job. They’ll expose you to even more opportunities. Simply because most people out there don’t have any skills at all. I didn’t have any tangible skills when I started three years ago, either.
And now I know quite a lot about digital marketing (real hands on stuff, not some fluffy strategic stuff), copy writing, building an audience and many more things. And these are all valuable and marketable skills. Skills that will set you apart.
Sure, some companies won’t hire people who’ve failed when they were out on their own. But these are the companies you wouldn’t want to work at anyway. If you work for or with small minded people, you’ll become small minded yourself.
‘Each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”,’ wrote the British neurologist Oliver Sacks, ‘this narrative is us’. Likewise the American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner: ‘Self is a perpetually rewritten story.’ And: ‘In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’ Or a fellow American psychologist, Dan P McAdams: ‘We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.’ And here’s the American moral philosopher J David Velleman: ‘We invent ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.’ And, for good measure, another American philosopher, Daniel Dennett: ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best “faces” on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’
So say the narrativists. We story ourselves and we are our stories. There’s a remarkably robust consensus about this claim, not only in the humanities but also in psychotherapy. It’s standardly linked with the idea that self-narration is a good thing, necessary for a full human life.
I think it’s false – false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing. These are not universal human truths – even when we confine our attention to human beings who count as psychologically normal, as I will here. They’re not universal human truths even if they’re true of some people, or even many, or most. The narrativists are, at best, generalising from their own case, in an all-too-human way. At best: I doubt that what they say is an accurate description even of themselves.
What exactly do they mean? It’s extremely unclear. Nevertheless, it does seem that there are some deeply Narrative types among us, where to be Narrative with a capital ‘N’ is (here I offer a definition) to be naturally disposed to experience or conceive of one’s life, one’s existence in time, oneself, in a narrative way, as having the form of a story, or perhaps a collection of stories, and – in some manner – to live in and through this conception. The popularity of the narrativist view is prima facie evidence that there are such people.
Perhaps. But many of us aren’t Narrative in this sense. We’re naturally – deeply – non-Narrative. We’re anti-Narrative by fundamental constitution. It’s not just that the deliverances of memory are, for us, hopelessly piecemeal and disordered, even when we’re trying to remember a temporally extended sequence of events. The point is more general. It concerns all parts of life, life’s ‘great shambles’, in the American novelist Henry James’s expression. This seems a much better characterisation of the large-scale structure of human existence as we find it. Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.
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The tendency to attribute control to self is, as the American social psychologist Dan Wegner says, a personality trait, possessed by some and not others. There’s an experimentally well-attested distinction between human beings who have what he calls the ‘emotion of authorship’ with respect to their thoughts, and those who, like myself, have no such emotion, and feel that their thoughts are things that just happen. This could track the distinction between those who experience themselves as self-constituting and those who don’t but, whether it does or not, the experience of self-constituting self-authorship seems real enough. When it comes to the actual existence of self-authorship, however – the reality of some process of self-determination in or through life as life-writing – I’m skeptical.
In the past 20 years, the American philosopher Marya Schechtman has given increasingly sophisticated accounts of what it is to be Narrative and to ‘constitute one’s identity’ through self-narration. She now stresses the point that one’s self-narration can be very largely implicit and unconscious. That’s an important concession. According to her original view, one ‘must be in possession of a full and explicit narrative [of one’s life] to develop fully as a person’. The new version seems more defensible. And it puts her in a position to say that people like myself might be Narrative and just not know it or admit it.
In her most recent book, Staying Alive (2014), Schechtman maintains that ‘persons experience their lives as unified wholes’ in some way that goes far beyond their basic awareness of themselves as single finite biological individuals with a certain curriculum vitae. She still thinks that ‘we constitute ourselves as persons… by developing and operating with a (mostly implicit) autobiographical narrative which acts as the lens through which we experience the world’.
I still doubt that this is true. I doubt that it’s a universal human condition – universal among people who count as normal. I doubt this even after she writes that ‘“having an autobiographical narrative” doesn’t amount to consciously retelling one’s life story always (or ever) to oneself or to anyone else’. I don’t think an ‘autobiographical narrative’ plays any significant role in how I experience the world, although I know that my present overall outlook and behaviour is deeply conditioned by my genetic inheritance and sociocultural place and time, including, in particular, my early upbringing. And I also know, on a smaller scale, that my experience of this bus journey is affected both by the talk I’ve been having with A in Notting Hill and the fact that I’m on my way to meet B in Kentish Town.
Like Schechtman, I am (to take John Locke’s definition of a person) a creature who can ‘consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places’. Like Schechtman, I know what it’s like when ‘anticipated trouble already tempers present joy’. In spite of my poor memory, I have a perfectly respectable degree of knowledge of many of the events of my life. I don’t live ecstatically ‘in the moment’ in any enlightened or pathological manner.
But I do, like the American novelist John Updike and many others, ‘have the persistent sensation, in my life…, that I am just beginning’. The Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s ‘heteronym’ Alberto Caeiro (one of 75 alter egos under which he wrote) is a strange man, but he captures an experience common to many when he says that: ‘Each moment I feel as if I’ve just been born/Into an endlessly new world.’ Some will immediately understand this. Others will be puzzled, and perhaps skeptical. The general lesson is of human difference.
According to McAdams, a leading narrativist among social psychologists, writing in The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (2006):
Beginning in late adolescence and young adulthood, we construct integrative narratives of the self that selectively recall the past and wishfully anticipate the future to provide our lives with some semblance of unity, purpose, and identity. Personal identity is the internalised and evolving life story that each of us is working on as we move through our adult lives… I… do not really know who I am until I have a good understanding of my narrative identity.
If this is true, we must worry not only about the non-Narratives – unless they are happy to lack personal identity – but also about the people described by the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson in Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968):
various selves… make up our composite Self. There are constant and often shocklike transitions between these selves… It takes, indeed, a healthy personality for the ‘I’ to be able to speak out of all these conditions in such a way that at any moment it can testify to a reasonably coherent Self.
And the English moral philosopher Mary Midgley, writing in Wickedness (1984):
[Doctor Jekyll] was partly right: we are each not only one but also many… Some of us have to hold a meeting every time we want to do something only slightly difficult, in order to find the self who is capable of undertaking it… We spend a lot of time and ingenuity on developing ways of organising the inner crowd, securing consent among it, and arranging for it to act as a whole. Literature shows that the condition is not rare.
Erikson and Midgley suggest, astonishingly, that we’re all like this, and many agree – presumably those who fit the pattern. This makes me grateful to Midgley when she adds that ‘others, of course, obviously do not feel like this at all, hear such descriptions with amazement, and are inclined to regard those who give them as dotty’. At the same time, we shouldn’t adopt a theory that puts these people’s claim to be genuine persons in question. We don’t want to shut out the painter Paul Klee, writing in his diaries in the first years of the 20th century:
My self… is a dramatic ensemble. Here a prophetic ancestor makes his appearance. Here a brutal hero shouts. Here an alcoholic bon vivant argues with a learned professor. Here a lyric muse, chronically love-struck, raises her eyes to heaven. Here papa steps forward, uttering pedantic protests. Here the indulgent uncle intercedes. Here the aunt babbles gossip. Here the maid giggles lasciviously. And I look upon it all with amazement, the sharpened pen in my hand. A pregnant mother wants to join the fun. ‘Pshtt!’ I cry, ‘You don’t belong here. You are divisible.’ And she fades out.
Or the British author W Somerset Maugham, reflecting in A Writer’s Notebook (1949):
I recognise that I am made up of several persons and that the person that at the moment has the upper hand will inevitably give place to another. But which is the real one? All of them or none?
What are these people to do, if the advocates of narrative unity are right? I think they should continue as they are. Their inner crowds can perhaps share some kind of rollicking self-narrative. But there seems to be no clear provision for them in the leading philosophies of personal unity of our time as propounded by (among others) Schechtman, Harry Frankfurt, and Christine Korsgaard. I think the American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald is wrong when he says in his Notebooks (1978) that: ‘There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people if he’s any good.’ But one can see what he has in mind.
There is, furthermore, a vast difference between people who regularly and actively remember their past, and people who almost never do. In his autobiography What Little I Remember (1979), the Austrian-born physicist Otto Frisch writes: ‘I have always lived very much in the present, remembering only what seemed to be worth retelling.’ And: ‘I have always, as I already said, lived in the here and now, and seen little of the wider views.’ I’m in the Frisch camp, on the whole, although I don’t remember things in order to retell them.
More generally, and putting aside pathological memory loss, I’m in the camp with the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, when it comes to specifically autobiographical memory: ‘I can find hardly a trace of [memory] in myself,’ he writes in his essay ‘Of Liars’ (1580). ‘I doubt if there is any other memory in the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is!’ Montaigne knows this can lead to misunderstanding. He is, for example, ‘better at friendship than at anything else, yet the very words used to acknowledge that I have this affliction [poor memory] are taken to signify ingratitude; they judge my affection by my memory’ – quite wrongly. ‘However, I derive comfort from my infirmity.’
Poor memory protects him from a disagreeable form of ambition, stops him babbling, and forces him to think through things for himself because he can’t remember what others have said. Another advantage, he says, ‘is that… I remember less any insults received’.
To this we can add the point that poor memory and a non-Narrative disposition aren’t hindrances when it comes to autobiography in the literal sense – actually writing things down about one’s own life. Montaigne is the proof of this, for he is perhaps the greatest autobiographer, the greatest human self-recorder, in spite of the fact that:
nothing is so foreign to my mode of writing than extended narration [narration estendue]. I have to break off so often from shortness of wind that neither the structure of my works nor their development is worth anything at all.
Montaigne writes the unstoried life – the only life that matters, I’m inclined to think. He has no ‘side’, in the colloquial English sense of this term. His honesty, although extreme, is devoid of exhibitionism or sentimentality (St Augustine and Rousseau compare unfavourably). He seeks self-knowledge in radically unpremeditated life-writing, addressing his writing-paper ‘exactly as I do the first person I meet’. He knows his memory is hopelessly untrustworthy, and he concludes that the fundamental lesson of self-knowledge is knowledge of self-ignorance.
Once one is on the lookout for comments on memory, one finds them everywhere. There is a constant discord of opinion. I think the British writer James Meek is accurate when he describes Light Years (1975) by the American novelist James Salter:
Salter strips out the narrative transitions and explanations and contextualisations, the novelistic linkages that don’t exist in our actual memories, to leave us with a set of remembered fragments, some bright, some ugly, some bafflingly trivial, that don’t easily connect and can’t be put together as a whole, except in the sense of chronology, and in the sense that they are all that remains.
Meek takes it that this is true of everyone, and it is perhaps the most common case. Salter in Light Years finds a matching disconnection in life itself: ‘There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.’
And this, again, is a common experience:
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.
It’s hard to work out the full consequences of this passage from the essay‘Modern Fiction’ (1921) by Virginia Woolf. What is certain is that there are rehearsers and composers among us, people who not only naturally story their recollections, but also their lives as they are happening. But when the English dramatist Sir Henry Taylor observed in 1836 that ‘an imaginative man is apt to see, in his life, the story of his life; and is thereby led to conduct himself in such a manner as to make a good story of it rather than a good life’, he’s identifying a fault, a moral danger. This is a recipe for inauthenticity. And if the narrativists are right and such self-storying impulses are in fact universal, we should worry.
Fortunately, they’re not right. There are people who are wonderfully and movingly plodding and factual in their grasp of their pasts. It’s an ancient view that people always remember their own pasts in a way that puts them in a good light, but it’s just not true. The Dutch psychologist Willem Wagenaar makes the point in his paper ‘Is Memory Self-Serving?’ (1994), as does Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich on his deathbed.
In his poem ‘Continuing to Live’ (1954), Philip Larkin claims that ‘in time/We half-identify the blind impress/All our behavings bear’. The narrativists think that this is an essentially narrative matter, an essentially narrative construal of the form of our lives. But many of us don’t get even as far as Larkinian half-identification, and we have at best bits and pieces, rather than a story.
We’re startled by Larkin’s further claim that ‘once you have walked the length of your mind, what/You command is clear as a lading-list’, for we find, even in advanced age, that we still have no clear idea of what we command. I for one have no clear sense of who or what I am. This is not because I want to be like Montaigne, or because I’ve read Socrates on ignorance, or Nietzsche on skins in Untimely Meditations (1876):
How can man know himself? He is a dark and veiled thing; and whereas the hare has seven skins, the human being can shed seven times 70 skins and still not be able to say: ‘This is really you, this is no longer an outer shell.’ (translation modified)
The passage continues:
Besides, it is an agonizing, dangerous undertaking to dig down into yourself in this way, to force your way by the shortest route down the shaft of your own being. How easy it is to do damage to yourself that no doctor can heal. And moreover, why should it be necessary, since everything – our friendships and hatreds, the way we look, our handshakes, the things we remember and forget, our books, our handwriting – bears witness to our being.
I can’t, however, cut off this quotation here, because it continues in a way that raises a doubt about my position:
But there is a means by which this absolutely crucial enquiry can be carried out. Let the young soul look back upon its life and ask itself: what until now have you truly loved, what has drawn out your soul, what has commanded it and at the same time made it happy? Line up these objects of reverence before you, and perhaps by what they are and by their sequence, they will yield you a law, the fundamental law of your true self.
‘Perhaps by what they are… they will yield the fundamental law of your true self.’ This claim is easy to endorse. It’s Marcel Proust’s greatest insight. Albert Camus sees it, too. But Nietzsche is more specific: ‘perhaps by what they are and by their sequence, they will yield… the fundamental law of your true self.’ Here it seems I must either disagree with Nietzsche or concede something to the narrativists: the possible importance of grasping the sequence in progressing towards self-understanding.
I concede it. Consideration of the sequence – the ‘narrative’, if you like – might be important for some people in some cases. For most of us, however, I think self-knowledge comes best in bits and pieces. Nor does this concession yield anything to the sweeping view with which I began, the view – in Sacks’s words – that all human life is life-writing, that ‘each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”, and that ‘this narrative is us’.
This essay is excerpted from On Life-Writing, edited by Zachary Leader and published by OUP in September 2015.
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is a British analytic philosopher and literary critic. He is a consultant editor at The Times Literary Supplement, and a professor in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.