In the beginning of this talk Derek Sivers mentions that when he was 14 he decided he was going to be a professional musician. He knew by making that decision he’d never have a “real” job or a pension or any of those other supposed perks. He was consciously shunning “steady” pay.
I made a similar decision at a similar age. Except I wanted to own a business. I didn’t know what kind, but I wanted to be a businessman. A pillar of the community. Someone women, children, and other men would look up to. “Hey that’s Karol, he’s a businessman, isn’t he great?”
I didn’t even really know what being a businessman meant, but it felt like some kind of freedom to me. Not that I knew what that meant either.
In 8th grade, my SAGE class at Davis Junior High (had to look that up: Special Activities in Gifted Education) had a fundraiser so we could go to Chicago for a weekend.
Our fundraiser was typical. We’d sell chocolate bars for a dollar and keep 50% to offset our individual trip costs. I opened up the Yellow Pages, called up local businesses, and sold boxes of bars instead of going door-to-door selling single bars like the rest of my “gifted” classmates.
Then my Dad had to drive me around to make deliveries and collect payments. (Ha, thanks Dad!)
I hated it. It wasn’t my natural state, but it was still intuitive. My thinking was,
“Why sell 1 bar when I can sell 30? It’s gonna suck either way, but at least if I sell a box I don’t have to make as many sales.”
I thought anybody who owned a business was rich, so in my 13 year old brain they could easily afford a box of chocolate from some punk kid. I didn’t know much, and that line of thinking is wrong, but it worked out OK.
This was one of my earliest experiences in sales. I’ve never considered myself a great sales person, but I think I’m better than most. If only because I’ll do it and that’s the predominant hurdle a sales person has to jump.
During that trip I got to play in a virtual reality simulator for the first time (felt like Tron) and a girl named Ann broke my heart. It wasn’t intentional. Probably (definitely) my fault.
Being supposedly “gifted” (come on, I could read, say words with my mouth, and find porn on BBSes – which many times resulted in scrambling to fix the viruses on our computer so my Parents wouldn’t find out) everybody jammed it into my head that I couldn’t fuck up and needed to get good grades so I could go to college. Or maybe I jammed it into my own head.
A fear of fucking up pervades my thoughts to this day. It’s a constant battle and you and I are probably on the front lines together.
Sadly, thanks to groupthink, arbitrary grades and accomplishments (and they are arbitrary) doled out by teachers who mostly don’t know jack are very important.
The plan was already in place by the time I was 15. I’d get straight As in high school and get a full college scholarship. In college I would study something that would get me a “good” job. And after college I would get that job, because that’s the only way to “make it.” You know the drill. I don’t have to explain it.
When you’re an insecure, depressed, adolescent it’s not easy to fight that kind of force feeding. I bought into it hook, line, and sinker. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d get a job and be normal and hate my life. A lot of people resign themselves to that. Misery loves company and that company is large.
Then, for some reason I can’t recall, I started the process of reconditioning my brain during my Senior year of high school. I read motivational books and listened to motivational CDs. Lots of Tony Robbins and Napoleon Hill. A lot of people make fun of that stuff, but a lot of people are also idiots.
I paid close attention to business people who had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. At the time what I wanted was money. It didn’t so much matter how I’d get it — although it wouldn’t be by playing the lottery, a fool’s game tragically preying on the downtrodden — I just wanted to get it. So I read about Gates, Jobs, Branson, Buffet, and the rest of them and dreamed about BMWs and Rolexes.
The reconditioning wasn’t easy. I didn’t have any real confidence. I feigned confidence. “Fake it til you make it” they call it. It’s mostly bad advice that far too many people follow nowadays, but I took it anyway. Whatever trick I could use to move forward was good enough.
After high school I started businesses (more like projects) and found ways to make money. I created websites. I tested. I learned things I wanted to learn as opposed to what I was told I needed to learn.
A couple years into college I stopped going to a lot of classes (except the really fun ones like music business law) and, as a result, I failed 4 or 5 of them. But there’s a trick to college. You can drop a class before you officially fail and it doesn’t count against your precious GPA, which you need to get that precious job.
So I played the game. I didn’t care. An academic scholarship was paying for it anyway and all I had to do was stay above a 3.0GPA to keep that scholarship. Computers and math (I was in the computer science program) were easy so this was mostly easy as long as I went in for tests and turned in assignments. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t.
I wrote that last paragraph because I want you to think I’m cool.
I wasn’t there to learn their “get a degree get a job” system anymore. Something had changed. The more I listened to and read about success & freedom the more I wanted it. Conversely, the more I went to classes the more I hated what teachers taught. I fought to figure out my own way.
In the beginning it was a struggle. I tell people I used to spend all my time at home in college reading and trying shit because I was motivated. I partied, sure, but not like most kids who go to college. Truth is it wasn’t strictly because I was motivated, which I was. It was because I had, maybe, $200 to my name. So instead of spending my last dollars on getting drunk I bought domains or books or stuff to resell on eBay. I didn’t mind failing their system, but I wasn’t going to fail my own system without going out hard.
Slowly the bank balance rose. Except when it didn’t. I didn’t have to worry about too much though. My Parents weren’t going to kick me out while I was in school. (Thanks Mama i Tata!)
My feigned confidence became real confidence. I quit my job (my last job ever) a few months after I turned 19. I was actually fired the day I quit. Might’ve had something to do with telling my boss “hey, it’s been cool, but 2 weeks from today I’m out” and then going into the TV room and watching The Powerpuff Girls while on the clock.
Sometimes I’d feel it was all hopeless, but I didn’t allow myself to regress too far into a defeatist attitude. I utilized the “if they can do it I can do it” mentality as best I could. It’s a good thing to believe in, because it’s true. I probably got that from one of those motivational books people told me were stupid.
By the time I graduated from college in December 2003 (6 months late to make up for those failed classes) I was earning considerably more than the GDP per capita (which I believe was ~$40k in 2003). I may have failed their system, but my own seemed to be working.
A little more than year later, age 24, I bought one of those things I dreamed of that was supposed to bring me lots of joy. A gently used black BMW 530i with low profile wheels and chrome rims. For cash. Off eBay. Sight unseen. With the click of a mouse.
Nobody teaches you this is a stupid thing to do with your money when you’re growing up. And, let’s be honest, how could they?
I had essentially everything I thought I ever wanted, but it felt like I had nothing. I don’t remember much of the next 4 years. It’s mostly a blur of “should I end it today or keep going?” I slept a lot, watched a lot of Food Network, bought a lot of stuff, and played a lot of guitar.
Fast forward to now. I’m 31. Over the years I’ve failed a lot of projects and, worse, a lot of people. I’ve also succeeded with a lot of projects and, happily, a lot of people. I’ve lost a lot of money. I’ve made a lot of money.
I’ve learned a lot. My thirst for knowledge has never been quenched. When I was a youngster my Mom would take me to the library on weekends and I’d check out a stack of books that my little arms couldn’t even carry.
Knowledge is important, but I don’t know anything about anything except what I know. I try to learn more. To absorb what I’m reading I have to read slowly and it can be frustrating trying to get all the answers at a snail’s pace. I need to do it anyway. That’s why I don’t watch TV or waste time with people I shouldn’t waste my time with. There is too much to learn and not enough time. I just don’t know enough about enough.
I know I come across otherwise. I come across as some kind of smart business guy who knows a lot about a lot and works incredibly hard.
I don’t know if I know more than you. I probably don’t. I’m still learning every day. I won’t pretend otherwise so I can sell products or make you think I’m special. But if I want something? You bet I’ll go harder than you to make up for my lack of skills or smarts or confidence.
If I want something I can’t be beat, unless I want to be beat. But it’s not a zero sum game so you won’t lose either. Whew! The pie is large and it’ll keep growing if you add the right ingredients.
I’ve never kicked it at my full potential. Not somebody else’s idea of my potential, but my own. Maybe I hold myself to a higher standard. I don’t think enough of us hold ourselves to a high standard. We’re too lenient when it’s disruptive and not lenient enough when it’s destructive.
I put my head down and move forward. I work on projects that excite me and I do what I do. Sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes they work out phenomenally.
Truth is, if I thought I was working at my full potential I’d probably quit. There’d be nothing to move forward on or work towards. Maybe I only write that to convince myself.
I don’t know how to shmooze, network, or climb the ladder. (There’s an entrepreneurial ladder as much as a corporate ladder. Different dog, same shit, and they both stink.)
I hate going to conferences. The first conference I went to that I actually fully enjoyed was WDS last year. Other business-type conferences always seem to focus on the wrong things. Although I hear developer conferences are great, so I’ll probably head to some of those.
I don’t like meeting up with large groups of people. One-on-one or a handful? Yeah, I’m cool. A roomful? Nah, probably rather not.
Maybe that’s because I don’t get along well with a lot of people. Lots of people pretend to be introverted or anti-social, but sometimes I think it’s just a marketing gimmick. People who I get along with are maybe surprised by this declaration. Or maybe they’re not. I’ve never asked. (Feel free to tell me, I can take it.)
I’m not the type of guy who’s the life of the party. The guy everybody wants to know. The guy who is comfortable in any social situation. The Kool Kids Klub would never have me. But then, you can likely relate.
This is why I fight. This is why I keep at it. This is why I don’t allow shitty people into my life. This is why I might lie to myself and put on an air of confidence even if it’s not always there. This is why I always get what I want.
This is also why, no matter what you’re doing or where you’re at, you can do big things too if you want. You might get shot down today, tomorrow, and the next. People might try to lead you astray. They might say you’re not smart enough or good looking enough or talented enough. And you know what? That might be true.
But there’s one thing that nobody can take from you. They can’t take your hustle.
September 2017 update: Wow, I just read this again and it kind of surprises me. I’m not sure what was going on, but maybe it’s just age that makes me look at all this stuff with a different perspective.