Why write?

Writing sucks (or at least the act of writing does), but I keep doing it anyway.

Didn’t the writer Dorothy Parker once say, “I hate writing, I love having written”?

She’s a total kindred spirit.

Writing is painful and torturous, but if you are like me, and Parker, you understand the bizarre satisfaction and joy of having written, of having produced words that somehow bring shape to your thoughts and help you build a more solid identity in this sometimes fluid world, in which we are so often lost.

Somehow, writing makes me feel more like a person. Or maybe I am already a person, but now I feel like I have told my story, and therefore I am better connected to the larger world outside of me.

In other words, I feel less alone.

Ever since I started writing regularly on my blog, I have also had a few friends come up to me telling me about how they too would love to start writing or to write more.

I do think there is something visceral about writing that draws a certain group of people irresistibly to it. And there’s no denying that in many people, there is this deep need to at least make some kind of noise, so that the world knows of their existence, and then they can feel like they have lived as a main character in this bizarre story of life instead of having just floated past, like a ghost.

I am of course talking about myself.

Crucially, I also have come to see how necessary writing has become in my growth as both a creative and a human being.

And despite the self-doubt (do my thoughts matter?) and the insecurity (who is even reading this?) and the lack of confidence (maybe I should leave the writing to people who are smarter than me!), I feel more and more certain that writing is something I need to do.

And certainly, starting to write regularly has been one of the best things I have done for myself in 2017.

Not only that, I have a strong feeling that writing consistently will pay off in more ways than I can imagine. How, I have no idea yet.

For now, I soldier on.

During my short blogging hiatus recently, I have had a lot of time to rethink my reasons for writing. Here are some of them.


Writing to learn

I’m a learning geek/nerd, and the best way to learn is to teach others. Some people like to learn the French language or American history or astronomy; I like to learn about how to live life to my fullest potential, and how to find true peace and happiness and meaning in my life. When I write about what I have learned – either through the experiences I have had in my own life or through books I have read – my learning solidifies, deepens, becomes a more permanent part of me. (Plus I have such a bad memory, so writing helps me to remember more of my life than my memory is capable of doing…)


Writing to understand myself

Self-knowledge is key. It is true that sometimes even I don’t know who I am or the reasons behind why I do the things I do. When I write, I open a door into a deeper part of myself. And if I give myself the opportunity to write honestly, without garnishing or covering up, then I also give myself the chance to see myself for who I am. And truly, I think, genuine self-understanding is the path to greater meaning and happiness, because if we don’t know who we are, how can we begin to contemplate how we want to live in this world, or what kind of a life is worth living? These are questions no one can answer except ourselves. And we must start to answer these questions by looking at ourselves honestly, even if it hurts.


Writing to organize my thoughts better

I’m not a good talker. It’s always hard for me to adequately express what’s in my head when I talk, because unlike writing, I cannot sit down and edit and re-edit and organize and re-organize, which is what I do with my writing. Writing allows me to sort through my thoughts and imbue them with some kind of coherence and clarity. I also sound slightly smarter when I write =]


Writing to help and inspire

I can’t tell you how many times an article or a book or even a single sentence has helped pull me out of a rut or shine a light through the cracks exactly when I needed it. My personal experience tells me that it is important for people to share their knowledge openly and generously, and writing is a great medium for that. Who knows when you can save a life with just one sentence in one entry on your tiny obscure blog that is read only by 20 people on most days? For me, if I can just make one person’s day brighter, I already have a good enough reason to write.


Writing to build a community

Ever since I started writing, I have been getting emails and comments and messages from total strangers. They write me to tell me that they are on a similar path to living life on their own terms, or that they have a similar view towards life, or that they appreciate that I have written about my struggles, since they share the same struggles, and I realize: Wow, we are all part of an invisible tribe. As virtual as this tribe is, it is nevertheless real.


Writing because it is hard

A part of me is stubborn and enjoys challenges a little too much. Writing is challenging. Writing one article a week is even more challenging. But I want to do it anyway because sometimes it’s fun to do things that are hard. And it’s also rewarding, because the harder it is to write, the better I am going to be as a writer as time goes by. It’s like going to the gym, only I am growing writing/thinking muscles rather than actual muscles.


Writing because I enjoy writing

I know I already said that I find writing to be a rather painful affair, yet it’s also true that I enjoy writing. On good days, the words flow. They come tumbling out of me. Writing becomes easy. But even on days when writing is tough, I do still enjoy doing it. I can’t really explain why, except that maybe it’s… true love?

Create

Everything matters.

One night, when I was 18, I hopped on a cab and fell in love with a song that was playing on the radio. I don’t remember the song title anymore but it changed my life. I became obsessed with music overnight. Suddenly my references were not writers anymore but musicians and singers and bands like Joni Mitchell and Chet Baker and Radiohead and Janis Ian.

I say it changed my life because it was just one song, but it planted in me a new desire to do something more with my life. Suddenly I saw that there was more to life than the well-planned path that lay ahead of me – doing well at my A Levels, going to a good university, successfully graduating, getting a good job, etc.

Now I thought to myself, maybe there are other options in life… Perhaps I could be a music producer? A band manager? Or something I have never even thought of before!

I began to dream.

And my life split and changed accordingly. (That night when I heard the song was the seed that led to me dropping out of university, starting a cafe, etc. And then here I am today. Now you know what I meant when I said it changed my life?)

Then there was that one time around the same period when I was on a travel forum and I saw post after post about people who had given up everything they possessed to travel all over the world, or people who had been on the road for years. I didn’t know it was possible to do both of these things.

My worldview widened again.

So many books and songs and articles have changed or affected the way I look at life. Or sometimes it’s just one sentence in a goddamn online forum. But they all have made me see new possibilities, feel less alone, or more able to live in this world.

These people who create things – some famous, some anonymous – come from all over the world. They are you and me and everyone in between, really. They all write books or sing songs or make art or direct films and put them out there without knowing that their work would one day alter the life of some random stranger halfway across the globe.

Everything we create matters.

Sometimes we don’t know why we do what we do. Sometimes we don’t know how to go on creating. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like anything is worth working on. 

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing or taking a photograph because I can no longer remember what’s the point of doing anything at all.

I mean, who cares?

But then I remember that it’s happened multiple times in my life before, where something someone created – no matter how seemingly insignificant or obscure – has nudged me towards a better direction in life.

We must then always remind ourselves that maybe someday, halfway across the globe, some random person out there will stumble across our song or our poem or our illustration or our product or our short film and that thing will change – or even better, save – his or her life.

And that will be kind of enough.

We are all inter-connected, in more ways than we can understand.

And so I keep creating.

A list of life-altering books


Reading in Budapest… Good days! (Photo by my friend Camilia.)

I am a nerd. A big one. (As big as they come.)

What that means is that I read a lot.

When I am anxious, I read. When I am sad, I read. When I am confused, I read. When I feel like there is no hope left in this world, I read.

It is one of the core beliefs in my life that a book can save lives.

And it probably has saved my life, in more ways than I can imagine.

Here are some of the books I have read over the last few years that have shaped my thinking, altered my path, brightened my days, and made my life better.

I’m sharing them with you in the hopes that they might play the same role in your life.


Working well

4 Hour Work Week – Timothy Ferriss

I have always had different ideas about “work” and what it really means.

This book confirms my thesis.

I read this book on the plane and got whipped into such a frenzy I wanted to get off the plane immediately so I could start changing my life already, simply because Ferriss is such a motivating writer.

Not only that, he also really lives what he writes.

If you are hoping to get out of the rat race and build a life doing your own thing, this is one of the books you must read.

Think of it as essential reading for the “How to Get Out of the Rat Race and Live a Great Life 101” course that never existed back when we were in school (how we needed such a course!).


The One Thing – Gary Keller

One of the best books I have ever read on productivity. More than that, it goes right to the heart of how to live a good life. As an aspiring minimalist, I’m enamored with Keller’s almost zen-like, minimalist philosophy of the ONE Thing.

“What is the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

Stop doing what’s unnecessary and focus on doing what’s necessary, and you will be able to achieve 80% of your desired results with just 20% of your effort – that’s the central premise of this book.

In other words, FOCUS on the things that matter.

This is something I’m trying to out into practice in my life right now.


Anything You Want – Derek Sivers

I read this short book in one sitting in the library (yes I couldn’t even make it out the doors of the library without devouring it).

This book houses Sivers’ thoughts on what it takes to build a successful business in a human, uncorporate way.

One of his key ideas is that you should build a business that people are begging you to start.

Just this idea itself is enough food for thought for a long time.

It made me ask myself: What can I offer this world that people are already asking me to do for them? (It turns out that photography is one of them. So it seems like I am on the right path.)


Money

The Simple Path to Wealth – J L Collins

Money has become one of my pet topics.

From being disdainful of money to realizing its utter importance, I have come a long way. Books have been a huge part of my financial re-education (apart from the Internet).

There are a lot of books about money – and I have read quite a few – but very few are as heartfelt and easy to read (and understand) as this.

Collins’ advice is as old as time.

Read it, digest it, live it, and instead of being money’s slave – which most of us have become – you will learn to make money work for you.


Emotional well-being

At Last A Life – Paul David

If you suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, and you have tried everything and nothing has worked, please give this book a read.

I suffered from serious anxiety and frequent panic attacks some years ago. I made no real progress in recovering from it no matter what I did.

Until I read Paul David’s writing.

He also suffered from anxiety for 10 years until he stumbled into his own recovery.

I don’t want to paraphrase him – I’m worried that I won’t be able to express his ideas well – so go and read this book. You can also visit his website, which has plenty of information as well.

This is one of those moments when I can actually say, “this book saved my life”.


Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig

Matt Haig was so deeply depressed he almost killed himself.

But he didn’t.

He went on to live and write this book, that has in turn helped so many other people who almost, but didn’t, kill themselves.

This book always reminds me of the power and beauty of words to help change people’s lives.

And this book also is an ode to hope.

I loved it so much I gifted it to a friend who I thought needed it.

I hope you love it too.



Life lessons

Around the World in Eighty Days – Jules Verne

I really, really, really love this book and have a huge soft spot for it.

I first read it when I was maybe 12. It was nuts – I spent the whole night feverishly flipping the pages, lost in the story. Then I reread it many years later when I was maybe 25. I thought the story would lose its magic. But it didn’t.

This book imparts a sense of adventure and an appetite for life that is so vivid, it makes you want to hop on a train or a ship as well and see the world for yourself.

I also think this book is about passion and doing and dreaming.

I won’t go on and on – go and read and experience this book yourself.


Man’s Search for Meaning – Victor E. Frankl

A book that cannot be written about lightly.

A book that must be treated with respect, since it was a book that was written with great respect.

An honorable book.

About life. About suffering. About joy. About joy in the midst of life’s suffering.

I will come back to this book again and again throughout my life, hoping to learn and relearn its lessons.


Enjoy Every Sandwich – Lee Lipsenthal

Lee Lipsenthal loved life, even when he was dying.

Somehow, with a cancer diagnosis, and while facing down the throat of mortality, he was able to find light and joy and happiness and peace and humor.

He is my role model, and I hope to be like him when it comes to my turn to face death.

Also, this book has such a beautiful cover – one of my favorites.

I gave away my copy but I will buy one again for my library. It deserves a place on my shelf (and a re-read every few years).



Mindfulness & meditation

The Long Road Turns to Joy – Thich Naht Hanh

Thich Naht Hanh is a Vietnamese monk whose writing has deeply influenced me.

His voice is a balm and a calming presence in a noisy, sometimes scary world.

Any book of his is worth reading, but I particularly enjoyed this book because I also enjoy walking.

It is a most wonderful experience walking with his words in mind.

Try it.


10% Happier – Dan Harris

Meditation is hard.

Knowing how to even start meditating is even harder.

This book by Dan Harris (who suffered a meltdown on national TV and who later found great peace through meditation) demystifies meditation and successfully explains – or at least this book finally made me successfully understand – what meditation is and how I can start to meditate effectively.

Even if you hate airy fairy things like meditation, but want to have a quieter, more peaceful mind, give this book a read. You might be pleasantly surprised.


Writing

On Writing Well – William Zinsser

If you want to become a better writer, read this book.

It has never been particularly fun to read about writing, but Zinsser is such a good writer he makes a book about writing interesting, even unputdownable (how I love this word).

I have made it my personal mission to read all of Zinsser’s books. That’s how much I love him.


In closing…

I don’t know what I would do if books didn’t exist in this world.

In my darkest moments, books have been there, pouring light through the cracks.

Books have been a kind of true north for me.

They have been a friend, a teacher, a guide.

I sincerely hope that you too can discover the joy of being a life-long reader.

And the prime joy being… the discovery of an answer written in a book, to a question that is hidden in your heart.

Happy reading, my friends!

Be really good at one thing


Ivan Orkin in culinary school. I love this photo.

I love watching Chef’s Table on Netflix.

I love seeing how just one thing – cooking – can become the source of so much joy, frustration, achievement, failure. In other words, an entire universe.

For many (if not all) of these chefs, cooking is something upon which they build their entire lives.

In the recent episode I watched, ramen chef Ivan Orkin had a difficult childhood. As a kid, no one expected much of him. He drifted until, one day, he became obsessed with… ramen. This obsession was pivotal because it led to him unlocking the discipline and focus that were previously missing in his life. He later opened his own ramen shop in Japan and gained success as being “one of the best ramen makers on the planet”.

Just this one thing – cooking ramen well – has transformed Orkin’s life.

So, this week’s food for thought: Instead of wanting to do or be many things, why not work at becoming really good – single-mindedly good – at one thing?

Why not be an expert at writing about food (and only food)? Why not be so good at teaching cycling that you are at the top of people’s mind whenever anyone wants to learn to ride a bike?

Once you can be known for being good at one thing, this one thing can then become a platform, a stepping board, to other things.

What’s your one thing?

How not to have a full-time job ever again

The rat race sucks. It really does. Especially if you desperately don’t want to be in it.

Don’t make the mistake though of thinking you can never get out of it. You can – if you want it enough.

I don’t have a full-time job and haven’t had one in the last 10 years (except for 6 months in 2009, when I got a 9-5 job so I could test whether I was indeed allergic to it. It turned out that I was!).

I don’t ever intend to have one again.

My life goal is to always make a living on my own terms.

When I first started out on this whole “no full-time job for me” journey, I remember thinking to myself, “By hook or by crook, I am going to make this happen.”

And so it has. Today, I make a living by selling my creativity as a freelance photographer. Companies and brands pay me to take photographs for them, which they then use to sell their products.

The main perk of making a living on my own terms is FREEDOM.

Freedom to wake up anytime I want (on non-photoshoot days, at least), travel whenever I want (since I make my own schedule); freedom to work from home, or indeed anywhere at all; freedom to chart my own path in life, etc.

It’s of course not always a fluffy life and comes with its challenges, but I accept them as a natural part of this freelance life. I am not bothered by its unpredictability, nor am I fazed by its ups and downs – I accept them as a just price to pay for this sweet freedom.


Step 0: Decide that you want this and commit to making it happen

If you are reading this article, I assume this is a life that you want.

But before you read on, I want to say: Only people with a never-say-die spirit need apply.

If you are prone to giving up and doing easy things for your short term happiness, and are not willing to work hard for your long term fulfillment and success, close this window now. This piece is not for you.

But if you are not the sort to give up easily, then welcome to the club! Welcome to a life of sweet freedom that is also peppered by hard work and seemingly-insurmountable obstacles. But ultimately – trust me – there is no other way to live.


Step 1: Cultivating the right success mindsets

(A) Congratulations. You have a never-say-die spirit. You are going to go far because you are not good at accepting things for what they are. You have a dream and you will fight to make it happen. You don’t saddle yourself down with excuses like, “Oh, it’s time to stop dreaming, not everyone is lucky enough to be able to quit their jobs and do what they like.”

(B) Newsflash: Every successful person is a dreamer. Jack Ma is a dreamer. Elon Musk is a dreamer. Steve Jobs was a dreamer. We can’t all be Jack Mas and Elon Musks, but if we don’t allow ourselves to dream, we won’t even have a fighting chance. (Elon Musk is dreaming of bringing us normal people to space in the next few decades. No one is a bigger dreamer than him these days!)

(C) It’s not just about luck. Luck is the least important ingredient in success. Luck is winning $2 million in the lottery, but success is knowing the right things to do with that $2 million. Many lottery winners are lucky – most of them don’t end up successful.

(D) Hard work can create luck. Persistence can create luck. Saying yes and grabbing on to opportunities can create luck. Learning from your failures can create luck.

(E) The world is indeed big and scary but there is always a place for you. It’s not about conquering the world. Most of us are not going to be tycoons and superstars, but we do have the ability to conquer a small corner, build a small following, and make that corner our own little universe. In that little universe we can thrive and make our own living and live our own good life. There is a reason why, in the world of cheap furniture via IKEA, a small furniture brand like TRUCK in Japan can have such a strong cult following and become such a successful business.

(F) Don’t live in an imaginary prison of limiting beliefs. Don’t lock yourself in with the rules of society and throw the key away. There is more than one way to live. For example, you don’t need expensive equipment to become a good photographer; a $1,000 setup can do the job if you are good enough. Nor do you need to spend five years slogging as a photographer’s assistant before you are qualified to strike out on your own. Yes, these can work for some photographers, but they are not hard rules. So feel free to reject everything people tell you about anything – that includes this article right here. The only rule I follow is this: there are no rules, and anything is possible.


Step 2: What skill can you sell?

Now we come to the practical side of things.

If you want to not have a full-time job ever again, you need to find a way to sell something in exchange for money.

In a way, that’s all to it. What can you sell that people are willing to buy?

Since we are talking about becoming a successful freelance creative, we are talking about, specifically, skills.

Are you good at photography? Writing? Design? Making short films? Creating beautiful origami? Making plush toys? Drawing? Designing WordPress themes?

You might not be able to figure it out by merely thinking. Go and try doing it. See if you actually like it. Experiment, fail, try again. Rinse and repeat until you find that one skill you can sell for money.

If you think you are not good at any particular skill, go and become good at one. Borrow library books, find videos on Youtube. The Internet revolution is also an educational revolution. Nowadays you can learn anything for free, as long as you want to.

Pro tip: Remember, the whole point of quitting your job to do this is to be happy. You are not going to be happy doing something you don’t like. So the convergence of both passion and skill is important (you can’t just do something you are good at but don’t like, and you can’t just do something you like but are not good at).


Step 3: Save a year of expenses and quit your damn job

Some people make the mistake of pursuing their dreams with $0 in their bank. Don’t do that.

Most of you probably have a job right now. Don’t quit immediately. Save your salary radically – save enough so you can afford not to work for a year, if possible. That gives you the buffer to try and make your freelance creative life happen. It will also help save you all the stress and anxiety and despair and grief of being broke.

Once you have some savings, I suggest quitting your job as soon as possible, because a job is only a distraction. People think they can build their side hustle at night and during the weekends. That’s a delusion (not for everyone, but for most people). It’s the reason why many people fail to make a living as a freelance creative – they simply don’t have the time and mental capacity to go all in and devote enough energy to making their freelance creative life happen.

Pro tip: Don’t wait too long to start. Don’t spend 10 years trying to save enough money. Remind yourself that it’s also going to take time to build up your freelance creative life, so the earlier you can start the better. Once you quit, you can take on part-time jobs for additional income. That’s fine since it only takes up a small part of your time – the majority of your time should be spent hustling.


Step 4: Be so good they can’t ignore you

Cal Newport has written a classic book on this topic, but even if you don’t want to read the book, the idea itself is enough to inspire.

Yes, as we will find out later, being good is not enough. There are a lot of talented people who languish in obscurity (that’s where marketing comes into the picture), but yet if you suck at your craft…

Then why even pursue your craft at all?

Half the pleasure of making a living doing what you love is being good at it.

Furthermore, if you are terribly good at your craft, you will experience the Apple Phenomenon – their products are so good and so desirable people practically beg to buy them.

Pro tip: You don’t have to be the best in the world. But you need to be good enough. In other words, you cannot suck.


Step 6: Infuse your personality into your craft

Authenticity has become a buzzword nowadays. But it has never gone out of style. Just as with everything, realness attracts. By being true to yourself, you show the world that you are your own person. My favorite people on the Internet (who are also very successful – not by chance) are all super honest, quirky, and real.

That’s what separates you from the crowd.

Tweet or blog or Instagram or write copy or sell yourself in YOUR voice.

Whatever you do, don’t be cookie-cutter.


Step 7: Market yourself

Marketing is not just social media marketing.

A design studio that spends a year working on a travel guide as a side project and wins awards for it is doing marketing. When I started the photo project “Creative People + Projects“, I was doing marketing. Marketing is basically you allowing the world to know that you exist, and that you are good at doing this thing that you do.

When all else fails, don’t forget to ask for what you want.


Step 8: Build a network of relationships

No man is an island, and no freelancer, especially, is an island.

It’s important to build a network of relevant relationships.

In my industry, the people who give me jobs are photo editors, art/creative directors, designers, etc. To make sure they know I exist, I must find a way to appear in front of them. For instance, many of these creative types read magazines like Monocle and Wallpaper*. I must then try to shoot for these magazines – that’s how I give them the chance to see my work.

What really helped my career was also doing my photo project “Creative People + Projects“. I got many jobs from photo editors or art directors who said they found me through that project. And that’s because it’s the kind of project that naturally attracts the attention of creative people like them.

The beauty of growing a network of relationships is that one person can recommend your work to three of their friends, and each of these three can introduce to three more. If your work is good, word-of-mouth alone can help your network to grow exponentially.

All freelance creatives depend on this network. Build a strong one and you will never starve.


Step 9: Offer your services at a premium

Many freelance creatives fail because they charge too little for their services. So they end up not being able to feed themselves.

If you charge $20/hour for your work, you will get clients who have a $20/hour budget. But if you charge $400/hour for your work, you will get clients who have a $400/hour budget. Work less for more money. But provide true value. (Don’t be a fraud.)


Step 10: Know when to give up

By giving up, I don’t mean giving up on the dream of making a living on your own terms. But if something (say, becoming a singer-songwriter) is not working out for you after years of trying your best, maybe it’s time to give it up and move on to something else.

Perhaps, because of your experience in music, you also turn out to be a good producer. So now, instead of making your own music, you help other people produce their music, and in turn you get to earn a living and still be close to music.

This might actually allow you to find some unexpected happiness and fulfillment. (It’s not always about doing what you love – sometimes it’s about balancing doing something you kind of love with financial stability with a sense of purpose).


Step 11: Have no backup plan

Have no backup plan. Don’t tell yourself, “If I fail, I can always get another job.” No, you are not going to fail. And no, you are not going to get another job (because you will only be the same kind of miserable as you were the last time).

You are going to make it happen, no matter what.

Only when you have no backup plan will you not be tempted to fall back on it, and only then will you be literally forced into becoming successful (since your survival depends on it).

Take the example of Mark Wiens, the founder of the super popular Thai food blog eatingthaifood.com:

“… English teaching was not for me (it was a great experience, but teaching English is just not my passion).

But during that year, I set a personal goal that I would never teach again, and that I would find a way to make a living on the internet, so I could travel (and eat) and earn money at the same time.

It wasn’t easy.

Every spare moment I would blog and sit glued in front of my laptop until my eyes went crazy.

It took about 3 years of online work and experimenting before I really started making enough to live fully and support anyone other than myself.

But when you have a goal you’re working towards, you’ll do what it takes to get there.”

He didn’t stop until he made it happen.


Step 12: HAVE FUN!

To quit the rat race and make a living doing what you enjoy is more than just about not having to commute to work and being able to wake up anytime you want.

If you go deeper, it’s about living life to your full potential, stretching yourself and becoming the person you know you are deep down inside. When you live in connection with this true part of yourself, a whole new world is unlocked.

Being able to do what you are meant to do is a hugely positive thing not just for yourself, but also for this world. When your talents and creative energies and purpose align, wonderful things happen. Again, not just for yourself, but also for this world.

Most people never get there.

Don’t be most people.

And while you are it, don’t forget to enjoy yourself!


In summary

This is only a rough guide. There is no way anyone can tell you how to get from Point A to your destination. Every individual must find his own way through the thicket of confusion and fear.

But this article is meant to give you a much-needed kick in your ass.

It’s meant to open a door and show you that hey, there is a whole new world behind this door.

Go and explore.

Don’t be afraid!

And then come back one day to tell us about your adventures.

Help other people

There is an interesting truth about business success that many creatives don’t understand (or don’t want to recognize) – it’s not just about what you are good at or what you are passionate about; it’s about what people are willing to pay you for.

Why do people pay for things?

They pay when someone can help them solve their problems.

For example, when you are sick you see a doctor. You willingly pay your doctor because he helps you feel better by giving you a diagnosis and by dispensing medicine.

Or you are concerned about growing old, so you buy skincare products that promise to have anti-aging properties. Again, you are willing to pay good money for these products because they help you to solve your problem, which is an intense fear of looking old and haggard.

If you are thinking of doing your own thing – starting a small one-person business or becoming a freelancer – you must continually ask yourself: are you helping people to solve their problems?

Are you providing real value and making other people’s lives better?

If you are, then there is a good chance that you might succeed, because it means there is actually demand for what you offer.

A very good example of someone who hit the sweet spot of convergence between passion + skill + value is Brett Kelly. He is the creator of Evernote Essentials, originally a book but now a multi-format resource about how best to use the app Evernote.

He liked using Evernote, he was very good at it, and apparently, there is a whole bunch of people who really want to learn to become better at it. It is this huge demand that has made Evernote Essentials such a big success (over 75,000 people have bought the product).

I know creatives don’t like the idea that they exist in a market with supply and demand forces. It’s boring; they just want to create or make their art. But we cannot deny the reality that whatever we do, it is a form of economic activity, and we are subjected to the same forces that other businesses are subjected to, no matter how good our art or creativity is.

If we want to have some form of success, we must create value for other people. In other words, we must help others.

Another example I love of an awesome small business that combines passion + skill + value is Elmastudio, a WordPress theme studio run by a husband and wife team. Their income comes from selling the beautiful WordPress themes they create (passion + skill), but the main reason they can make a living off what they do is because their themes help people to create beautiful websites, even if they have no web design skills. Elmastudio solves a real problem in people’s lives.

Since we are on an example spree, here’s another one.

One of the best food blogs I have ever seen is eatingthaifood.com. It’s successful, I believe, because it’s not just a self-indulgent blog about the author’s favorite food. Its success must lie in the value it provides its readers. The blog is updated regularly with new eating finds throughout Thailand (a great resource for a foodie traveling there), and it has a wonderful recipe section – with great photography and easy-to-follow instructions – that teaches people how to cook authentic Thai food. The last I saw, there were 274 comments on his latest recipe. That’s a lot of demand!

So… in the work we do as a creative entrepreneur, it’s often not about us, but about our viewers, readers or clients.

By putting them first, by doing our best to give them great value and by doing everything we can to help them solve their problems, it’s hard not to be successful. In fact, our viewers, readers or clients might even beg to pay us.

Keep showing up

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I almost didn’t make this week’s publishing schedule, mainly due to an intense week of photoshoots, photoshoots, and more photoshoots. I’ve been super busy.

But somehow skipping this week’s article was out of the question. I’d promised to write one article a week for this blog, and I’ve decided that I am going to do just that, rain or shine.

In the department of blogging, I have failed, been inconsistent, and given up an embarrassing number of times – but this time I truly want things to be different, and for that to happen, I have to start showing up, no matter how busy I am with the other (always seemingly more important) things in my life.


The art of showing up

When life gets busy or tiring or overwhelming it can be hard to show up and do the work. Harder than most people imagine.

Gary Vaynerchuck is famous nowadays for being a loud-mouth entrepreneur who can be seen on viral Facebook videos teaching people how to hustle and market themselves on the internet… But before this he was the creator and host of WineLibraryTV, a daily youtube series about wine that went on for 1,000 episodes.

Yes, ONE THOUSAND episodes, one a day, for five long years.

This is the first episode of the now legendary series.

He showed up every single day and built a massive audience over that time (growing WineLibrary from a $4 million dollar business to a $45 million business).

And the amazing thing is, very few people were watching his videos in the first two years, but he kept at it.

Not many people can do that.

People ask how they can build an audience, start a successful freelance career, grow a small business – that’s how. By showing up and doing the work every day. Over time people begin to hear about you. It’s inevitable.


Focus

A few friends have asked me how I find the time and commitment to keep writing for this blog.

It’s all about focus.

Besides my work as a photographer, I have decided to make this blog my priority this year. Not one of many priorities, but THE priority.

The process of sharing everything I have learned (no holds barred) about creative entrepreneurship and how to live an unconventional, successful life with people through this blog has been very fulfilling (and even educational) for me.

It’s still early days, but I have an intuition that if I keep at this consistently over the next few years, wonderful things are going to happen. And that’s because sharing openly – and helping others live a better and happier life in the process – is a tremendously valuable thing.

And the second reason is… that I am just really passionate about it. I have many ideas for the blog and I’m very excited about what is to come. And I truly enjoy doing this. Even though no one is paying me to write at the moment, I am still happy to spend a lot of my time working on it.

So since my blog is my priority, it’s always at the top of my mind. I’m always thinking and brainstorming about what I can do to make this blog better. I also derive a great deal of purpose and meaning from it. Yes, there are still a hundred other things I want to work on (being me), but I have realized that this is one of the most powerful things I can do right now – sharing, teaching, giving, without asking for anything in return.

Which is why I’m saying yes to this and no to the hundreds of other possible things I could be doing.

I’ve laid out the path, all I need to do is walk it.

(But you do need to know what is the one thing you should focus on and show up for. Give yourself some time to find your focus. Don’t just jump into the first thing you can think of. I recommend the book The One Thing as a good starting point.)


Do

There is an almost perverse kind of pleasure in doing what you’d set out to do.

Planning to do something rocks. Dreaming of doing something rocks too. The actual doing… not so much sometimes.

It’s easy to succumb to laziness and to come up with excuses to avoid doing something we’d planned to do. Often we can even derive some pleasure from this avoidance. But it never lasts.

On the other hand, I have discovered that it can be fun to be, well, disciplined. Obviously, we can’t be disciplined all the time, but with things that really matter, DOING can be the most satisfying, fulfilling and happiest feeling ever.

(Fun tip: You don’t need to be disciplined about everything, just the essential things that, when done, can move you forward or nearer to your Big Goals in Life, caps mine.)

When you actually do something you’d set out to do, and you do that consistently over time, you are in a good place to make some very magical things happen in your life.

Don’t take my words for it. Try it for yourself.


A simple trick

Human beings are not good with abstraction. “I want to read more books in 2017” is a vague resolution that is probably not going to happen for most people, unless you use this little trick:

Be ultra-specific about your goal. Numbers and dates are your best friends.

For example, to make my blogging consistent, I have committed to writing one article a week every Thursday. It’s set in stone (except in the case of Extreme Calamities). It’s very specific – one article, not two. And it must be published every Thursday, not Monday or Wednesday or Saturday.

We humans work very well within constraints and limits (even if artificial).

Another example – you want to read a lot more books this year. Why not commit to reading at least 20 pages every week day? “20” is a number, “every week day” is a date.

Again, don’t take my words for it. Try it for yourself.

Do difficult things

Contrary to what we usually believe… the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times – although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. – “Flow”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I believe in doing hard things, even though I’m not always good at practising what I preach.

Quite a few years ago I got into a habit of doing things that I didn’t feel like doing.

For example, every time I wanted to swim but felt like the pool was too cold for me to jump into, I made myself do it. Or when I didn’t want to eat healthy, I would make myself do the opposite and eat healthy instead.

Then I realised something – most of the things I didn’t feel like doing were things that were good for me, and I didn’t feel like doing them because they felt like a chore. But if I ignored how difficult the activity was and simply did it, I would reap its benefits and feel really… happy.

That’s basically what Csikszentmihalyi’s talking about in the quote above. His two main points are:

(1) Happiness is actually something we can create.

(2) We can create happiness by immersing ourselves in doing difficult but rewarding activities.

He wrote an entire book on this topic, so you can be sure that it’s a much more layered issue than I’ve made it seem, but I think he’s right.

Like a few months ago when I did a pretty big photoshoot in Kuala Lumpur – three full days of shoot, a huge crew, shooting in the blazing hot sun, a long shot list – it was so physically and mentally demanding that by the time we were done with the shoot, the happiness level of the entire crew went through the roof. If it had been a simple one-hour shoot, I don’t think we would have ended it with a good dinner at a famous tze char place in KL and a round of beer and big hugs and a pretty good feeling in our bellies.

Or how like when you have had a long, hard day at work and you come home and you crash on your sofa and you watch a really good show on Netflix like Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul and you think to yourself, ahhhh, now this is heaven. It probably wouldn’t feel the same if you had already been lounging at home the entire day being a couch potato.

We all want to find happiness. Sometimes we find it staring into the eyes of someone we love. Sometimes we find it on an airplane traveling 500 miles per hour towards a new city. But sometimes we find it in a hard and dark place, and when we finally emerge out of it we are drenched with satisfaction, peace and something resembling… happiness.

Do you have 1,000 true fans?

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I’m a huge fan of this singer-songwriter guy from Hong Kong called Chet Lam.

As an independent singer-songwriter, he has never signed to a huge record label. You probably haven’t heard of him. He’s not world-famous. He doesn’t have millions of fans. Yet for many years now – since 2003 – he has been able to make a living from making music for a very small, niche market – the Chinese-language independent music industry in Asia.

Over the last 13 years of his career, he has released 15 albums, performed at countless sold-out live shows, released DVDs of his concerts, written books, acted in plays. He has even released his very own cookbook.

I buy almost all of the stuff that he releases.

I’m subscribed to his mailing list, his Facebook fan page, his Instagram, and every time he releases a new album or a new book, I buy it. Almost without question.

I’m what they call a true fan – a fan who laps up everything he does. Repeatedly. (Lesson number 1: You can sell to true fans over and over again.) And since he’s independent, every dollar I spend goes directly to him.

You see, we always think we need millions (or hundreds of thousands) of fans to make it as a creator. We don’t. What we need are thousands of die-hard fans who are willing to buy the things we put out – whether it’s an album or a book or a print or a t-shirt.

There is a name for this little phenomenon – the 1,000 True Fans theory.

Over the last decade Chet Lam has managed to build a tribe of true fans who genuinely adore him, who buy his every product, go to his every concert, read his every book, support every one of his (inevitably successful) crowdfunding campaigns. This tribe of true fans cannot be bought, like how one can easily buy fake likes on social media these days. To be effective, this tribe must be carefully cultivated.

Throughout his career, Chet Lam has kept his fans updated with news of his latest projects. The medium evolves constantly – it used to be a blog that he updated with some regularity, now it’s updates on his social media accounts like Instagram and Facebook. We move along with him through life. We watch him as he grows through his various projects. As fans we feel invested, engaged. So when he has a new project, we genuinely want to support him.

Yes, it might be called the 1,000 True Fans theory, but you can have 1,000 fans, or 500 fans, or 25,000 fans, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about the number. It’s about having genuinely engaged and interested fans.

They are the ones who can help you make a living as a creator.

So, do you have 1,000 true fans?

To ask a more important question: How are you going to cultivate your own 1,000 true fans?

“Do you make enough money to survive?”

In my long journey to escape this whole giant rat race, I have been asked this question multiple times.

When I was running my cafe, people – random strangers – would come up to me and ask bluntly, “So are you able to make money doing this?” (The honest answer? No.)

Later on, I’d had to deal with the skepticism of my family and friends about the inherent financial instability of my decision to find my own way in this world.

Meeting up with friends from school was painful sometimes. At that time they were all fresh university graduates and had all just secured comfortable jobs paying them $3,000 – $5,000 a month. They would openly and excitedly exchange their salary figures, but would look at me quizzically and ask, “So… are you doing okay? Surviving?”

It was a good time in their lives and I was truly happy for them, and it really wasn’t their fault at all that they would ask me something like that – they were just concerned about me.

Most people have this idea that freelancers cannot earn much money and don’t have much job security. When I was starting out, that was certainly true – I really was barely scraping by. For YEARS. To add on to everything was the interminable uncertainty, unlike my friends, who could look forward to their promotions and their bonuses.

But having come a little further along the journey, I want to dispel the misconception that freelancers cannot earn good money.


Fear, lots and lots of fear

Many people desperately want to quit their jobs and start their own small businesses or become a successful freelancer (just look around you).

They want the perks that come with the freelance life. The freedom. Not having to wake up to go to the office every day. Not having to answer to a boss or to have to do things that suck the joy out of their soul.

But they don’t want the sacrifices and the pain and the uncertainty that come with actually quitting their jobs to do their own thing.

Mostly, they are mortally afraid – of not having their salary automatically transferred to their bank accounts every month; of not making enough money to feed themselves.

Fear sucks.


Two truths

Truth number 1: Freelancers can make good money.

Truth number 2: Full-time employees are often underpaid.

I have a very talented friend working at an art studio who earns $1,800 a month. And another friend who’s a full-time designer who earns less than $2,500 a month, even though she’s an amazing designer.

That’s not cool.

They are clearly underpaid (for their talents). If they could just venture out to do their own thing, they might be able to earn more, and have more creative freedom at that.


Step into a world of possibilities

I want to show you a year-by-year highlight of how much money I have made since I quit university to pursue my own path.

I’m doing this to show you real figures that a real freelancer makes (and can potentially make), so that you are no longer in the dark about the financial possibilities of working for yourself.

It takes patience, lots and lots of hard work, and some creative thinking (and very thick skin – by that I mean a slight disregard for what society thinks of you). It can take years before you even start seeing any returns. And then it might take years for things to start getting stable.

But it’s all worth it.

No pain, no gain.


A rundown

2007 – A year after I quit university, I started running my cafe. Startup capital was borrowed from my parents (I’d like to acknowledge how blessed I am to have parents who were crazy enough to support me in whatever I wanted to do). Every month I paid myself about $300 in living expenses. This went on for about two years. In that time I barely went out (I spent most of my time working in my cafe) so I didn’t need that much money.

2009 – After my cafe closed, I decided to give a 9-5 job a try. I got a job at a local arts organisation. My take home pay was about $1,500/month. This went on for six months, then I quit.

June 2009 – I’d had my taste of a regular job, and I hated it. It confirmed my gut feeling: I’m not cut out to work for someone else. It was at this point that I steeled my resolve to make a living working for myself doing what I love. I didn’t know yet what that was; all I knew was that I didn’t want to work in an office. I wanted to create my own path, even if I didn’t have a roadmap. During this time I began trying to become a freelance writer (since, after some serious thinking, it was a skill I had and something I thought I’d enjoy doing). I started writing for free for a few publications. I survived on the money I’d saved from my job at the arts organisation.

2010 – Throughout 2010 I probably earned not more than $1,000 from all my freelance writing assignments. I realised at this point that freelance writing pays peanuts. I took on a translation project that paid somewhat better at $100 per article. It was a difficult time.

2011 – I began teaching tuition. I worked quite hard and had quite a few students so I began earning about $1,500/month. I didn’t really enjoy it but it helped me to survive while I continued finding my own way as a freelance creative. At this stage I was winding down on my freelance writing (although there wasn’t much to wind down haha) and trying to figure out my next step. Going back to a 9-5 job was definitely not an option for me.

2012 – I started part-time hosting a radio show. It paid a few hundred dollars a month. I was still teaching tuition to survive at this point, so I was earning about $1,500-$1,800 a month. Early 2012, I decided I would try to become a freelance photographer (something I’d always wanted to pursue but hadn’t dared to, since it felt like an impossible goal), since I’d failed to gain any traction in freelance writing. I started doing my personal photo project Creative People + Projects and began telling everyone I knew that I was now “a photographer”. Began shooting free and low-paying photography jobs for all sorts of different people.

April 2013 – After about a year of shooting, directly because of my photo project Creative People + Projects, I got my first 4-figure ($5,000) photography job and another 4-figure job ($3,500 to shoot a magazine cover) within a month. I consider these two jobs together as my first big break. The income I earned from them gave me the confidence (and the financial buffer) to keep persisting. I also started doing editorial (magazine) work that paid a few hundred dollars a shoot after I decided to ask.

April 2014 – This was a huge milestone for me: I got my first 5-figure photography job. I was jumping with joy when the job was confirmed. It was a commercial shoot for a private bank’s publication that paid about $13,000 for 3 half-day shoots.

June 2014 – From this point onwards, I began getting a steady stream of photography jobs. Most of them were 4-figure and 5-figure commercial jobs. I continued to shoot editorial work at the same time.

July 2015 – Another milestone: I got paid $20,000 to shoot an advertising billboard. 2 days’ work.

Dec 2016 – I recently got represented by a photo agency who will now help promote me and help me get bigger commercial/advertising jobs. It’s been 3 years since photography became financially viable for me, allowing me to pursue it full time; 10 years since I quit university to pursue my own path in life. In between, 7 years of self-doubting, uncertainty, searching, failing. In the last 3 years as a photographer I haven’t stopped working.


Some questions

The most important question in your mind – how does a freelancer get 4-figure and 5-figure jobs?

The grossly simplified answer – by working with corporations who have money. Companies are all about the bottom line. If you can help them earn money, they tend to pay well. So think of how your skills can help a company or a brand earn money.

Creativity is a much-needed skill in today’s society because it helps a company stand out from the noise. Example: If you are good at miniature food styling, you could have been hired by Singapore Airlines to consult for this brilliant advertisement that features… miniature food:

For photography, since it is so tied up with the commercial needs of companies and organisations (almost every brand in the world needs photography to tells its story), it becomes something that is highly valued.

If you want to be pragmatic, find a skill that the market needs (this is very important if you want a lucrative career as a freelancer) and that you enjoy, and become good at it, then use it to help companies earn money. Example: Aaron Nieh, a designer from Taiwan, is so good at what he does that he practically designs the album covers of every singer in Taiwan with good taste – his design helps them to sell their CDs; even the Taiwanese government engaged him to do design work for them. (In future articles I will write about how to attract the attention of companies and brands. According to Cal Newport, one way is to be so good they can’t ignore you.)

Still, generally, all kinds of freelance work has the potential to give you more income than if you were working a normal job (unless you have climbed to the upper levels of the corporate ladder, then that’s a different story).

Can a freelancer have consistent income?

There are always going to be ups and downs. Some months you earn more, some months you earn less. But at the end of the day, if you can get big jobs, the bigger jobs can make up for the bad days.

Does freelance work ever become stable?

Yes and no. There is no inherent stability in being a freelancer. One day you might be busy fending off potential clients, another day you might be sitting at home refreshing your email, hoping for a job request. And that’s okay. That’s a truth you need to live with if you want the other (good) parts of this life. To counter this, learn to save as much of your income as you can for rainy days (an important lesson that I learned that will be the topic for a future post).

Do you need to be the best in your field to earn a good living as a freelancer?

No. Is anyone really the best in their field? There’s always someone better. I definitely don’t think that I’m the best in my field, but I think I’m good enough. I have also built relationships over the years, giving me access to a network of opportunities. These people in my network think of me when they want to hire a photographer. That’s how I get many of my jobs.

At which point does one consider oneself a “successful” freelancer?

When there is more or less a constant stream of work; when you have more job requests than you can take up; when you need to reject jobs.

Is freelancing a good path for everyone to pursue?

The honest answer is… no. Or at least it can be much more challenging for people who have dependents and who have to support their family. Or if they already have a massive college debt to pay off. Having said that, nothing is impossible in this world. If this is what you want, nothing should stop you (or at least give yourself the chance to have a go at it before throwing in the towel).

The economy is really bad now. Should I still pursue my dream of being a freelancer?

Any time is an okay time to pursue your dream. It’s not about the economy. The economy will go up and down. But you can control how little you need. The less you need, the less you can afford to earn. That gives you some buffer to experiment with your life (especially if you are still young right now). So go and try. If you die tomorrow, would you regret the life you didn’t dare to live?

In closing

This was a long, slightly unnerving post to write. I’m a little nervous about putting it all out there like this, but I have learned that, if one wants to share effectively, honesty / total transparency is always the best policy.

I also wrote this to encourage the many people I know – including many of my friends – who want to quit the rat race and live life on their own terms. I hope this gave you a view of the possibilities of a freelance career and a strong push to pursue the life you want.

As always, I hope this article proved helpful and encouraging to you!

Got any more questions? Feel free to ask in the comment section below.