There are two primary ways to live your life: become free or become someone else’s slave by operating inside someone else’s walled garden. As far I’m concerned, the choice is easy: be free. That’s why it’s crucial to always be striving towards sovereignty and independence. When I say independence, I’m referring in terms of everything: knowledge, finances, residency, and the general mindset that dictates everything you do.
Interestingly enough, writing this article a hundred years ago, or merely twenty years ago, would’ve been extremely difficult if not outright impossible. Fortunately, the world has changed quite a bit since. The world is rapidly interconnecting into one giant market made up of producers and consumers.
These forces are weakening central authorities and strengthening individual members of the society. It’s making the individual sovereign. As an example, let’s look at how the mass media is structured. Before the Internet, newspapers, and magazines had a lockdown on distribution; since you needed large economies of scale to deliver that morning newspaper or broadcast a news program to your house, only really big companies with established distributions channels were able to do it. In the Soviet Union, where I was born, you had one TV channel and one newspaper that did all the thinking you for (obviously some pro-Soviet propaganda about how communism is awesome and capitalism is evil).
Thanks to the Internet, information has been completely democratized and decentralized. Right this moment, each one of us has seemingly unlimited access to information and knowledge. No single authority has a monopoly of what you’re able to watch, what you can watch, and what you can’t watch. No one is forcing you to watch a specific channel with its own narrative; just hop on YouTube and you can watch whatever you want. Nations and borders are blurring more so with each passing day. Not only do you have access to another country’s news, music and politics, but it also means that unless you have a North Korean or Somali passport, you can get on the plane and visit any country in the world. As I write this, I’m currently listening to a Russian radio station here in Kiev, Ukraine. But, with a few clicks, I can listen to any radio station anywhere in the world. And you can listen to the exact same Ukrainian radio station that I’m listening to now without getting on a plane.
This confluence of events is giving a rise to the truly autonomous and sovereign individual. As the world opens up, my passport, my citizenship and residency are becoming less important as they once were because the opportunities that benefit me aren’t necessarily in the same jurisdiction as my citizenship (i.e., Silicon Valley or Wall Street), but are also growing in Ukraine, Switzerland, Brazil and elsewhere. The development of crypto currencies and technologies—such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, which are themselves fully decentralized—are the perfect example of this.
Here’s how you can become a truly sovereign and autonomous individual:
Learn crucial skill(s)
If you want to be rewarded for something, you must be able to provide value in some shape or form. With increasing outsourcing, automation and AI just around the corner, your only edge is being an expert in a skill where you have a comparative advantage.
This is by far the most important thing you can have in your arsenal. It literally defines you. What you do is who you are. Specialization matters. The more specialized you are, the more prized your skills will be on the global market. If you can do something that millions of others can do without much effort and investment, it’s not a valuable skill. Packing and routing packages in an Amazon.com warehouse is not a valuable skill. Selling ice cream or cold water in a city park is not a valuable skill. Anyone can learn either of these skills relatively quickly and even do it better than you.
Examples of good skills are online/affiliate marketing, software development, graphic design, copywriting, brand building, e-commerce, freelancing, etc. With the crypto currencies rapidly gaining wider adoption, there would soon spawn an entire ecosystem of developers, evangelists, philosophers and others thriving in this area. In fact, I believe we’re only at dawn of what’s possible in this area in the near future.
While specialization is important, you must also understand the bigger picture and concepts. In fact, many successful people closer resemble jacks of all trades than super specialized workers. One of my old school friends who now runs a successful hedge fund started out building websites for clients. He dove head first into the technical aspects of these technologies. He thought himself things like HTML, CSS and PHP. He needed to know everything because it gave him an edge when brainstorming the best ways to serve his clients. While he doesn’t need to know all that now (his employees do the work for him), he still has an intimate understanding of all the technologies that are being used and what problems they’re solving. This allows him to better sell his work to prospective clients.
Having a skill is important because it allows you to build capital. You do that by primary building a business. Even the word “business” is slowly becoming an oxymoron. The truth is that unless you’re working exclusively for a salary (in America, “W2”), you’re already a businessman—you just don’t know it yet. Even when you start something as simple as a blog, consider yourself a business proprietor because you’re automatically building an audience and have an opportunity to market various products and services to that audience. It’s a win/win situation for both because someone out there is looking for a specific service/product and you’re willing to provide it.
The golden rule is that if you’re not building anything for yourself or providing a packaged service to another entity (e.g., business), you’re not building a business. You’re not building capital and therefore are doing one of the greatest sins possible: trading time for money.
In terms of core skills, there isn’t much of a difference between a guy working 9–5 for a software company, a guy freelancing for other companies, and a guy who’s building his own software company. The core skill (programming) is the same in all cases; the main difference is the willingness to build something of your own as opposed to working in an environment that someone else has already built. A lot of that is rooted in your belief in yourself, that you’re capable of building something as great or better than what’s already there.
Regardless what you decide to build, let the world know about it. One of my former mentees recently told me that he’ll be quitting his job and moving to Mexico. He’s a polyglot and a cryptocurrency trader. His goal is to live around Mexico, hopping from city to city while networking with other cryptocurrency enthusiasts. My advice to him is simple: in addition to whatever you’re doing, document what you’re doing for others to see. The most direct way of doing it is by starting a blog and writing about your experiences. Even if you’re successful in other endeavors, the blog will allow you to build a community and capital around your interests and passions. It never hurts to build another form of capital.
Wrap yourself in legal/tax armor
I’m not a tax or legal attorney, so the following shouldn’t be taken as professional advice. Since you’re operating as an autonomous individual, it’s important to “wrap” yourself inside legal and tax armor. This allows you to better “interface” with other legal entities such as governments and other businesses. It gives you a professional image when dealing with customers or third party services. Plus it helps to shield you when dealing with customers or third party services like merchant processors.
It’s important to familiarize yourself with tax laws so that you’re aware of your liabilities on tax day. Because tax laws are erected by nations, it can get very complicated when you’re a resident of one country but doing business in another. A simplistic way of looking at it is that every country potentially wants to get the maximum amount of money from you and will try to do so unless you can prove that you don’t owe them money.
When you’re starting out, you probably don’t need a full blown corporation. If you’re an individual, most countries have something like an LLC (Limited Liability Corporation) or equivalent legal structure.
Furthermore, if your income goes above a certain threshold, it can be helpful to register yourself in a low or no tax jurisdiction. For instance, countries like Georgia (the country, not the US state) have something called “territorial taxation” which means you’re only taxed on income that’s generated inside Georgia. So, if you’re living in Georgia, but your income comes from outside the country, that income is tax-free.
Exploit geo arbitrage
One of the most rewarding things about leaving the West and settling somewhere in the so-called “third world” is the drastically reduced cost of living and fewer hassles. When I lived in Argentina, I spent around $10 for a delicious steak (Argentina is famous for its amazing beef) combined with a nice glass of wine. In Brazil, I had mouth-savoring churrasco (bbq beef) for a third of the price of what it’d set me back in America. In Lithuania and Bulgaria, I worked in co-working places that set me back few dollars a day. In Serbia, I trained Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for only $35/month (it costs about $200–300+/month in NYC).
My life here in Kiev, Ukraine, where I’ve been spending the majority of my time, is amazing in every way. I have everything that I need and it only costs me about one fifth of what it’ll cost me in a comparable American city. My apartment here in Kiev runs me about $500/mo. It’s a spacious apartment, right in the center with walking to distance to all the nice attractions, restaurants, coffee shops and bars. Why I’d spent $3,000-$4,000 for a comparable apartment in New York City or San Francisco is simply beyond me.
To be sure: there are lots of opportunities in NYC or SF, but if those opportunities aren’t applicable to you (i.e., your startup isn’t in the process of raising $100M+ in the second round), then there’s really no need to put up with such a high cost of living.
Obviously, in order to exploit geo-arbitrage, you must be earning for your skill in dollars or other another hard currency (euros, pounds, etc). In other words, your skill needs to be marketable to the world economy, not the local economy. It might mean doing business with international clients who pay you in dollars or euros or working for a business with customers who pay in dollars or euros. If you’re working as a waitress in a Ukrainian restaurant or installing air conditioners in offices, then you’re operating exclusively in a local economy and your monetary reward will be in (devalued) local currency. On the other hand, if you’re marketing consultancy services in crypto-currencies to Western businesses, your monetary reward will be correspondingly higher.
Internationalize your finances
Two years ago, I arrived in Odessa, Ukraine, settled in my new apartment and decided to walk around the neighborhood. I needed some cash, so I walked to the nearest ATM, put in my card, typed my pin code and waited. A few moments later, the ATM spat out some receipt but didn’t give me money. Thinking the machine was broken, I tried withdrawing money from several ATMs with no success.
I came back home and called my bank. The teller explained that my funds have been frozen and would only be unfrozen when I leave Ukraine. The explanation she gave is that the entire country of Ukraine was blacklisted because of US government’s financial blockade of Crimea, the disputed peninsula in the south of the country. I told her that I wasn’t even close to Crimea, and I’m not planning to go there. She refused to budge. That bank account was as good as dead.
Fortunately, I was able to get some funds by exchanging the dollars I brought with me from the states. Nevertheless, this experience underscores a crucial point: you need to be ready to deal with situations where you might not have any access to your much-needed funds.
One of the best banks for US residents/citizens is Charles Schwab. Not only does it work worldwide (including in Ukraine), they also reimburse your ATM fees. Typically, foreign ATMs don’t usually charge fees, but, lately, I’ve been noticing a trend where more and more banks are charging fees. In Thailand, I was charged $5 per withdrawal. Here in Ukraine, my fees usually range anywhere from $1-$3 per withdrawal. Thankfully, my bank refunds all my fees at the end of the month.
Before going abroad, it might be helpful to check with your bank for a list of countries on their blacklist. The list includes the usual suspects that are under US or international embargo such as Syria or North Korea, but you still can’t be too sure.
If you’re planning to live in a country for an extended amount of time, it might be worth to open a local account. Having a local bank account certainly makes banking a lot easier, especially if you need to send/receive payments within the country or even as a strategy to diversify access to your accounts. However, not all local banks allow non-residents/non-citizens to open accounts. This is why having a residence (see next section) can be helpful.
Last, but certainly not least, you can also transact money in bitcoins. Bitcoins are a type of currency that lives on a distributed network (called blockchain) and can be sent to another Bitcoin user or exchanged for fiat (regular currency) via online or offline exchanges. Once you have bitcoins in your “wallet,” you can access them pretty much anywhere in the world regardless of your specific bank’s or government’s policy. This would’ve been extremely helpful when my bank locked me out of the entire country. (I will talk more about Bitcoin in the future post).
If you decide to leave your country of citizenship and settle somewhere else, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with different visa and residency rules and regulations. In most countries around the world, tourists are typically allowed to stay for 90 days. In the Europe Union, it’s 90 days within 180 days. That means that if you spent 90 days in Poland, you’ll need to leave the entire Schengen Zone for 90 days before being allowed back for another 90 days.
Mexico is a great option for Americans and many other tourists thanks to their generous visa allowances; most tourists are allowed 180 days in the country without needing a special residence permit. In Georgia, you’re allowed to stay 360 days (an entire year) before needing a residence permit.
Getting citizenship can be an option as well. If one of your parents (in some cases, grandparents) was born in another country, you may be eligible for that country’s citizenship. When I lived in Argentina, I noticed that lots of people had Italian last names. It made sense because Argentina is the most Europeanized Latin American country with the majority of citizens there having Italian (or Spanish) ancestry. Most of them can easily obtain an Italian citizenship, giving them the right to live and work anywhere in the European Union.
One of my friends who lives in America has an Irish passport (his father was born there). While he has zero interest in ever visiting Ireland, he’s planning to relocate to Spain next year.
If citizenship isn’t an option, getting a residency is the next best thing. Although obtaining a residency varies from country to country, a country will gladly allow you to live within its borders if you can prove that you’re somehow valuable to its economy. Getting a job gives you instant residency. For those who want to remain sovereign, there are even options for those who can show they have some incoming coming in. In Germany, there’s a special “freelancer visa” where you can live in the country by showing that you have a certain income. Other countries have their own rules.
Since I’ve been spending so much time here in Ukraine, it became annoying to deal with the 90/180 day requirements. I solved this problem by getting a resident permit. This allows me to remain in this country indefinitely without bothering with the annoying 90/180 day rule. Not only can I come and go as I please, I can also open local bank accounts and buy property.
Choose markets over states
The best way to summarize the philosophy is that you should strive to go where you’re treated best. This means always favoring markets over states. That sounds complicated, so allow me to explain further.
The world is organized by markets and states. States are countries ruled by governments. Markets occur when groups of people congregate in order to buy and sell various products and services. In my former homeland of Soviet Union, the State (government) had a dominant position and markets didn’t really exist. (That’s why it was very common to have food shortages everywhere). In the capitalist countries, production is mostly organized by markets. There’s no government committee that tells bakeries how much bread or muffins to bake for that day or week.
As the world interconnects and information becomes available to everyone who wants it, the world opens up and becomes more democratized. Thus, markets are gaining control over states. Essentially, the world is becoming one giant market.
Choosing markets over states means letting go of old stereotypes that are no longer true. When I told people that I’m moving to Brazil, everyone warned me that I’ll be robbed at gunpoint by some shady guys from favelas (shanty towns). When I was boarding a flight to Colombia, everyone told me that I would get kidnapped as soon as I stepped off the plane. When I moved to Ukraine, everyone tried to discourage me from living in “some ex-Communist shithole.” What’s funny is that all these warnings were made by people who’d never stepped foot in the respective countries. None of what they said was true.
In fact, I now realize that the more people think that Ukraine is “some racist ex-Communist backwater,” the better it is for guys like me. Fewer tourists mean less money being pumped into the economy, which means less trade with other countries, which means a lower cost of living. This isn’t particularly good for Ukrainians, but it’s great for someone who earns in hard currency from abroad. So, what I’m really trying to say is this: don’t visit Ukraine, it’s just a shitty ex-Communist backwater. BTW, don’t visit Colombia because you’ll be robbed as soon as you step outside the airport.
Thanks to the decentralizing effects of the Internet, you can market your services/products to anywhere in the world for the same exact price—regardless whether you’re residing in Soho, NYC, Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Kabul, Pakistan. Your value is derived from your skills (that are determined by markets)—and not your country (the state). Of course, some governments get in the way: Venezuela’s economy is imploding, so the government has limited the number of dollars that you can bring into the country. That means if you’re working in Venezuela as a freelancer for an American company, you would have a hard time getting those dollars inside the country or exchanging them fairly for the local currency.
Chasing favorable markets doesn’t mean chasing more money. If that was true, then no one would want to leave their developed country such as England, America or Australia and move to Brazil, Colombia or Bali. The human factor matters. If a certain country’s ideology or beliefs connect better with your own, that might be all that matters.
Ultimately, given the immense opportunities presented to you by this rapidly decentralizing world, you’d be foolish to organize yourself around a centralized authority, whether it’s a specific country or dogmatic belief.
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