A healthy life is a life of endless changes and transitions. Moving to a different place, changing your social circle, or even having something else for breakfast are all examples of healthy changes. But there’s one transformation to rule them all, one that encompasses all your skills, dreams and aspirations and makes you one with the world. In this article, I want to talk about how I underwent such a change and how you can do the same.
As many of you know, my background is in software engineering. I was very fortunate that getting computers to do fun things just happened to be a skill that was in high demand. That allowed me to easily land a lucrative job with all kinds of nice perks and benefits.
Nevertheless, there was always something missing. A certain unfulfilled void persisted in my life. Although I didn’t mind being told what to do if it included being compensated by a nice salary, I always dreamed of being in charge. I wanted to be the guy making deals and deciding what products will get built instead of the guy who translated people’s wishes into zero’s and ones. Sure, I was introverted, but I was willing to overcome it if it meant doing something that had actual meaning. Instead of working at a software company, I wanted to have my own software company.
My first software venture was a complete flop. At that time, I was living in tropical Miami Beach, but instead of enjoying the sun and partying, I locked myself in a local Starbucks and spent my days (and some nights) coding a new app.
It didn’t take me long to realize an important thing: even though I was really good at something, it represented a tiny portion of the overall toolbox of skills that I needed to succeed. I had a talent for building apps quickly—even rapidly picking up a new language, if needed—but I sucked at everything else, things like marketing, sales, and, most importantly, the knowledge of integrating these things together.
The problem wasn’t that I sucked at other things; everyone sucks at everything initially, the problem was that I didn’t even know they were precisely the things I needed to be good at. Essentially, I was surrounded by many “unknowns” that I had to first turn into “knowns” and then master them.
As expected, when I launched my new product, nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. Even though I could build a decent product, I couldn’t educate others about the product’s benefits and generate demand for it to save my life. Nobody cared about me or my product. It was a complete disaster, a disaster that left me depressed for a week.
My core skills—the skills that I had honed over many, many years—suddenly proved to be woefully inadequate.
Not being someone who’s easily deterred, I immediately jumped on Amazon and ordered every book on marketing and advertising I could find. I read a bunch of them in a weekend and began putting some of the ideas into practice.
Of course, I still sucked, but as time went on, I sucked less and less. Subsequent product launches were gradually getting better and better.
Later on, I began to understand not only how to build a great product but also how to connect with the people whose needs were being solved by the product I had built. There was more interest. Sales picked up. Profit began to slowly trickle in. It was the beginning of what would be a long process of endless trial and error.
Treading water in an open ocean
What I didn’t know while I was gainfully employed as a code monkey is that I was completely insulated from other functions of the company, functions that were actually responsible for putting bread on my table and making sure I could buy the latest gadgets on the weekends. It was almost like discovering that I was an adult who had spent all his life living in his parent’s basement without ever venturing on my own.
Most jobs are like this. Actually, not only jobs. The entire human race is like this. You’re given a very specific role that you’re expected to do, day in and day out. Naturally, over time, you get very proficient in that role.
The problem is that your expertise and skillset are only valid in the context of that structure. If the structure breaks down or disappears altogether, so do your skills and all the time spent building them. It’s like suddenly finding yourself in an open ocean, frantically trying to swim to shore, something that I felt after launching my first product in Miami’s Starbucks.
Generally, that’s not a bad thing. Our world is organized along “super structures,” things like private corporations and public bureaucracies that absorb people and, in exchange for their time and labor, furnish them with an artificial meaning of life.
These “super structures” enable you to live your entire life, from cradle to grave doing one thing and doing very well. I have a friend who’s finishing up a Ph.D. in some very abstract and theoretical area. Another friend is really good at quality assurance (QA) at a decently-sized software firm. The predictability and stability of knowing that every day will start and end the exact same way gives people a certain comfort. It shields them from the inherent chaos and instability of the world. They know that they can be at work at 8 am and then get home at 7 pm, right in time for their favorite Netflix sitcom.
But all of that is just a mirage. Risk and instability exist even if you’re shielded from them. If the structures that have absorbed them (i.e., companies they work for or universities where they do research) would collapse or drastically change, they would be left on the street with a shaken view of the world. It’s as though the world would go from orderly and predictable and disorderly and confusing in an instant. But this is the real world.
The real world is indeed disorderly and confusing. It’s erratic, random, disorienting, even more so with the rapid proliferation of the Internet. Our entire planet is quickly becoming a small village. This is fostering rapid change. Revolutions can be started with a simple Facebook campaign or a Twitter hashtag. Corporations can lose billions of dollars and lay off thousands of employees because of bad PR triggered by some random guy in Iowa, Cairo or Kuala Lumpur.
Although risk and instability will always be a fact of life, there are ways of mitigating it. The first is by admitting that they exist and understanding that words like “job security” is just a nice word and nothing more than that. The second is realizing that you and only you are able to furnish and guarantee your own stability and security. You are responsible for your well-being.
Most people think that by excelling in one skill and putting that skill to use in a company or bureaucracy, they’re more stable than someone who builds their own company. That’s another very common illusion. Work is simply a transaction of time for money and nothing else. Stability is never exchanged because it remains with the person who organizes this exchange—not you.
When I worked as a software engineer, I was rewarded with money, but I had zero overall security. When I left my job and decided to carve my own path and live in amazing countries all over the world, I realized that my extensive knowledge was useless now that I was on my own. I needed to fortify myself with new knowledge and experience.
This is the greatest transformation a human being can achieve. The path from dependency to independence. The path from slavery to sovereignty. The path from trading your valuable time for artificial meaning and the illusion of stability to real control and capital that prints money on demand. This trumps everything else out there. This is the only self-improvement that counts.
It’s the only transformation that matters because it furnishes you with real, tangible meaning that makes all other facets of your life come together in beautiful harmony.
Of course, your transformation will differ from mine. After all, we’re all different. But regardless if you’re a software engineer like me, or a biologist, a designer, a photographer, videographer or something else, you must find a way to encapsulate that skill into something that’s greater than yourself. One skill is not enough. You must find a way to become self-sufficient and independent—even if it means starting over with a clean slate and forgetting everything you thought mattered.
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