In today’s Wisdom for Men podcast, I review two of my favorite books that have helped me find meaning and purpose in this world full of chaos. The first book I had read years ago and it has influenced a lot of my thinking going forward. The second book I had read recently, and it has also been influential in helping me find my mission.
So, if you’re someone who’s confused about your life’s purpose and meaning, are wondering why you’re not getting anywhere else, or are just tired of the endless politics, fake news and culture wars, this podcast will help you find a purpose.
Enjoy the episode and I will talk to you next week.
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.
Miami Beach, FL
When I started blogging back in 2008, I wrote about anything that popped into my head. I wrote about travel, dating, relationships, language hacking, the best nightlife in Rio de Janeiro and, occasionally, what I had for breakfast, lunch, dinner, etc.
I never had a clear strategy or purpose. I didn’t sit down and think long and hard about my message and how I wanted to present it. The blog was really a blog—a daily log for my thoughts and ideas, as well as a tool for meeting like-minded people who happened to be around me.
I achieved both objectives. What was once a very modest blog, quickly gained traction and mushroomed in popularity over the years. It has also allowed me to meet lots of different people around the world that I otherwise would have never met.
I don’t say this lightly, but starting this blog has singlehandedly been one of the best things that I have done in my life.
Over the years, as I grew up and matured, I started to develop a certain outlook on life, a certain way of thinking, a certain philosophy. All of these thoughts crystalized into a manifesto that I’m about to share with you.
The future is unlimited
The world is made up of two types of people: those who think that everything is going to shit and that our best times are behind us and those who think that the future is replete with amazing opportunities. I’m firmly in the second camp.
It’s really difficult to be a pessimist. We’re living in the most peaceful and prosperous time in our history. We’re healthier, stronger and more capable than at any point in our history. There was a time when people needed to hunt for food, but today we’re more likely to die from obesity than from hunger. There was a time entire villages and cities were erased off the map because of things like famine or plague. None of this is a threat today.
Of course, things aren’t perfect and they never will be. We still have our share of problems, challenges and things that need fixing or outright overhauling. I’m not going to sugarcoat and tell we’re living in some kind of utopia. That’s far from the case. But think about this: just the fact that you’re reading this right now means that you’re probably doing ok.
We are all entrepreneurs
The Internet and technologies built on top of it have revolutionized the way we think, create and connect with others. They have revolutionized the way we create value and wealth.
Becoming an entrepreneur is laughably easy: if you’re connected to the Internet, you’re already an entrepreneur. If you’re reading this, you’re already an entrepreneur. If you have a blog with zero visitors, you’re already an entrepreneur. You just don’t know it yet.
The skills you need to be successful are very easy and straightforward to acquire. First of all, there’s a multitude of free information on just about everything at your fingertips. Great courses are available for those who need stronger guidance and a more organized curriculum. For those who need more, one can hire experts in any subject area and upload their knowledge into your brain in a fraction of the time it took for them to learn it.
Infrastructure can be set up in a matter of clicks and for almost nothing. Few more clicks and you have a storefront. Another click and you have a payment gateway. Managing this storefront, site or a brand is done with clicks. You can sell any products, whether they’re tangible or not, with, you guessed it, a few clicks.
In fact, sometimes I hate using the word “entrepreneur” because it evokes images of someone working 24-7-365 while trying to build million dollar businesses. This is definitely not the case. Many of the guys I know opted for a more low-key approach. They work a little and bring in several thousand per months. While this isn’t enough to live in a place like New York, it’s more than enough elsewhere (see below).
This brings me to my next point…
Traditional jobs are finished
From Amazon opening up a store with no cashiers to driverless cars to automation to outsourcing to endless discussions about “basic income,” (i.e., what to do with people who will be unemployable) the jobs the way we understand them now are becoming a thing of the past.
This is happening because the economies of scale ushered by the Internet typically favor those who’re comfortable creating their own value by mixing and matching the newly available tools of production: new capital, new labor (outsourcing), new technology, and so on. The industrial revolution commoditized labor and pitted workers against capitalists, but the new revolution we’re experiencing is making traditional workers obsolete.
Why would I work for someone as a programmer when I can build a boutique software company and hire developers in Russia or India?
Why would I work for someone as a copyrighter when I can launch my own store, write a sales page and sell products to 7 billion people in less than one hour?
Why would I work for someone as a marketer when I can launch a niche product and begin marketing it by creating laser-targeted campaigns to reach my target audience?
Why would I work for someone as a designer when I can put my work on designer portals and find new clients for my work in hours?
Why would I work for someone as a photographer when I can build a brand around my work and find customers without the middleman?
There’s little reason to give away your surplus value as a 9-5 employee when you can capture it all—and grow exponentially—as a solopreneur.
It’s outright dumb to trade time for money when you can create value and get much higher returns for your sweat and blood.
A generation from now the idea that someone needs to “work” from 9 o’clock in the morning to 5 o’clock in the evening would be a strange thought.
Even from my own vantage point, I have a hard time understanding why people choose to voluntarily enslave themselves for a meager wage when they can make much more by exposing their value to the world.
Own the platform
Okay, so you’re ready to become an entrepreneur. Now what?
There are two ways to do it: build your own platform or build products and services on someone else’s platform.
I’m a huge proponent of the first approach. It’s about ownership. Do you respect yourself? If so, take ownership of it. Build your own platform and make content that resides there. That means building your site or a blog on a server that you control. It means thinking hard about the things you stand for and the value you can offer to others.
There’s also another approach: “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks.” This approach is employed by people who love to work for free by creating content and distributing it on platforms they don’t own. They accelerate the other platform’s growth and enrich its founders while getting next to nothing in return.
Whether it’s making videos and uploading them on YouTube, putting up lots of photos on Instagram, or just tweeting random stuff without first thinking what they stand for, they hope that enough subscribers will somehow translate into decent revenue.
This is a poor strategy because there’s no strategy.
Do the opposite of the masses
One of my favorite sayings is, “If you want to be different from the rest, you must be willing to do different things than the rest.” When I first read that, I understood and never thought about it again.
Recently, I’ve seen that phrase again, but this time I realized that I didn’t really understand it the first time around. It’s actually very difficult to do things differently than others.
Think about it. What do most people do? They work 9-5, go to the gym every now and then, come home, put on Netflix, watch a few shows and then go to bed.
Although I work relatively hard, I have a bad tendency to slack off every now and then. (Instead of watching Netflix, I watch vlogs on YouTube). This meant that how I spend my time is eerily similar to how the masses spend their time.
This is a poor recipe for success. You don’t succeed by watching YouTube (unless it’s my stuff) or Netflix or hanging out with your 9-5 friends who have zero ambition. You don’t succeed by consuming crap. You succeed by being so determined that nothing else matters except the success of your business. You succeed by focusing on the business 100%. You succeed by having a tunnel vision.
Most people don’t focus on anything that hard and that’s why they live mediocre lives; after all, it’s hard to do hard things. So, if you truly want to be different, you know what you gotta do.
So, what do you do with your newly free time? You acquire knowledge and try different things. That’s called hustling. Hustling is the process where you endlessly experiment with different approaches in order to figure out which one is going to work. Think of it as “brute forcing” success.
Many people want to take the easy road. So, they spend their days, months and even years discussing various ideas and philosophizing instead of taking action and trying something—anything. The problem is that no one knows what will work or not. Nobody knows what’s good for my business except me. Nobody knows what’s good for your business except yourself. Nobody has the answer unless you test it out.
In my work, I wear many hats. But if there’s one verb that best describes my work, it would be experimenting. I experiment with different ideas, campaigns, models and plans on a daily basis. That’s the mindset you want to adopt. Instead of asking a question, try it. See if it works. The nice thing is that if you discover something that works, it will be something that only you know.
Location-independence is real
The world is getting increasingly interconnected. You can book a flight ticket, AirBnB, and catch an Uber to and from the airports almost anywhere in the world. There’s no place on earth that you can’t learn about right now. That certainly wasn’t the case even twenty years ago.
Once upon a time, the whole location-independence was like a mythical term that some people achieved and others strived towards for. “Oh, yeah you’re location-independent? How do I become one? What do I need to do?” Becoming location-independent was considered by many as reaching a higher level enlightenment or seeing God.
No longer. Now, it seems like it’s a choice people make, like, the type of burrito to order or deciding which socks to wear. All of my close friends are location-independent. All of my entrepreneur contacts are location-independent (one of them has been living in Thailand for two years, so I don’t know if that counts or not.) There’s really nothing sacred or interesting about becoming location-independent and living in various countries. It has become so mundane that even I barely talk about it even though it’s something what I do and what others I know do without even thinking about it.
One of the nice things about having a sustainable online income is that you can design your life however you want. This means there’s really little reason to be in a place that doesn’t match your values. Don’t like America, but want to live in Brazil? Move to Brazil. Want to spend six months in Russia? Move to Russia. Always wanted to live Bali? Move to Bali. Go where you’re respected. Go where you feel good. Go where you find more enjoyable. Just pick up and go.
Trade New York City for Bangkok
Although picking one country or city over another is a personal choice, there are some things that just make more sense from an economic/financial perspective. An example is living in expensive Western cities when you’re not actively creating wealth there.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s little reason to live in places like New York City or London unless you absolutely have to. There’s no doubt these are excellent cities. I won’t argue that the energy and variety that these great cities offer are truly second to none. Chances are, however, you can find the same kind of amenities in other cities around the world for a fraction of the price.
For instance, for the last few years I’ve been living in Kiev, Ukraine. While Kiev is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of New York, it’s certainly a great city in its own right (3.5M people), so if you’re a big city guy like I am, you’ll feel right at home. I have also lived in places like Chiang Mai and Bali. These were much smaller places with an amazing quality of life—and about 10-20% of the cost of living in NYC or London.
As far as I’m concerned, rich Western cities exist for two types of people: those who made it (e.g., $10M+ net worth) or those who are slaving way to make ends meet. If you’re making even as little as few measly grand from online sources, these types of cities offer you zero benefit.
The Internet and its accompanying technologies are busy upheaving the old order and rapidly changing the way we live, work and enjoy life. What remains is the right battle plan and the willingness to see it through.
If there’s one thing that I credit my growth and self-actualization over the years it would be books. A good book is nothing less than a conversation with a very smart person. Books have influenced my thinking and really made me the person that I’m today. I’m a voracious and a fast reader and read about 1-3 books/week.
Naturally, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is what kind of books I’m reading and whether I can recommend a book or two. So, instead of replying to each person individually, I’m embarking on a new experiment. Every week, I will do a podcast where I will review a book or two. I will discuss what the book is about, who is it for, the main argument of the book, and even relate it to some of my experiences. I will also discuss some action steps you can take that will improve your life.
Areas I will be covering includes business, technology, politics, entrepreneurship, philosophy, psychology, and more. I will not be reviewing fiction books.
In today’s inaugural episode, I discuss two of the most influential books that I’ve read. Although, there are many books that have influenced me over the years, if someone came up to me with a gun and asked me which two books I can recommend, it would be these two.
Enjoy the inaugural podcast and let me know what you think.
Although I’ve complained about the soulless feeling I get whenever I’m back in New York City, there’s one thing this city has that many other cities lack. While other cities and places where I’ve lived such as Kiev, Vilnius, Rio de Janeiro and even places like Bali are fantastic for relaxation, soul-searching and finding the meaning of life, New York City is about nothing of that sort; the Big Apple is all about the hustle.
The hustle is everywhere. It permeates the air. Everyone is rushing somewhere, creating something, building something, thinking about something. Of course, many people are busy for the sake of being busy (ie, the 9-5 sheeple), but they don’t concern me: I’m more interested in the self-made entrepreneurs who seem to be all over the city. Case in point: I’ve been frequenting random coffee shops all over the city and almost every time I met an entrepreneur who was heavily focused on building a new product or service.
The best part about being surrounded by other entrepreneurs is that it motivates you to work harder. Ever since getting back to NYC for the holidays, I’ve become much more productive and even completed a couple of long-overdue projects that were languishing on my to-do list for over a year.
As I’ve recently explained, America is a heavily consumerist society. Everyone seems to be talking about either about products they’re replacing, products they’re using now, or products they’re planning to buy next. I bought my sister an Amazon Echo for her birthday. And she loves it. Now, she’s using it to order more stuff on Amazon. While it’s a nice product, it’s hard to not wonder if the whole thing is really Amazon’s trojan horse, a way for consumers to buy even more products, both quicker and easier.
An army of entrepreneurs
Living in a consumerist culture with Amazon’s two-day prime shipping has its upside as well: they reduce friction. When looked from a pure consumer mindset, they allow you to purchase goods quicker. But, when viewed from a producer mindset, they allow you to acquire useful tools transform yourself from a mere mortal to an entrepreneur quicker and more effectively.
For example, let’s say you want to create youtube videos either to increase marketing reach for your own existing brand or as part of a brand new brand. It’s not that hard. For around $400 you can purchase a decent entry-level camera that takes excellent video, slap on a $100 lens, a budget $70 lightning kit, and for around $500-600, the quality of your videos will be better than 99% of the people out there.
Of course, you’ll also need to learn the right skills to create great videos, but that can be fixed by enrolling in a few courses, taking live workshops or hiring a marketing consultant. Creating quality and engaging content is no longer some secret that only “few” people know—it’s a commodity that anyone with the desire can readily learn.
This is nothing short of astounding. Can you imagine creating quality video content 30 or even 15 years ago? Back then, it was something that only huge television networks were able to do, but now anyone can spend $500 and have a decent video studio where they can produce high-quality content.
All of this is happening as a result of the democratization, decentralizing and commoditization of several key things. First, you have the commoditization of quality products. Quality creator gear such as laptops, cameras or high-quality microphones has become super affordable thanks to the economies of scale. Since almost everyone in rich Western countries can afford a $500 camera, it’s also having a further downward effect on prices, and manufacturers are motivated to create new and better technology at a quicker pace.
Second, thanks to the Internet, the way people create stuff is being democratized. YouTube and other platforms are enabling everyone to become a creator, essentially an entrepreneur. I don’t watch regular network TV and, although I do have Netflix, I generally spend more time on YouTube consuming content from regular guys like you and me rather than a movie produced by a huge Hollywood studio. Thanks to the Internet, everyone is a click away from becoming an entrepreneur.
And, last but not least, as the result of the first two, more people are becoming motivated to carve out their own path and become entrepreneurs. This means that more and more people are choosing to step up their game and ascend to the next level, and thus need products and services created by other entrepreneurs just like them. It’s a win/win for everyone involved.
As an entrepreneur myself, I’m always on the lookout for new products and services that can help me become more productive and increase my output. Just recently, I picked up a new camera. Although the iPhone usually suffices, I wanted something nicer for YouTube videos as well as for other business projects.
Since I’m a completely new to photography, I spent hours and hours on YouTube learning all there’s to know about operating a semi-professional camera. I also purchased a couple of great courses on making quality videos. Although I’ve learned my camera’s endless settings mostly inside out, there’s one thing I still can’t do: take great pictures. I know how to focus my camera and set proper exposure, but I just can’t create a great shot even if my life depended on it.
Unlike learning the camera’s manual mode, taking great pictures is obviously something that will improve only through experience and endless trial and error. But I don’t want to go through the painful process of trial and error. I know that if I spend even a day with someone who has tons of experience, I will learn many useful things that will otherwise take me months and even years to learn on my own.
What I really want to do is compress the one thing that I’ll never get back: time.
So, I had a random thought the other day: wouldn’t it be a great idea if a pro or amateur photographer does a workshop in New York City and teaches me street photography. The idea would be for me to walk around with another human and take pictures all over the city. That way I can spend time with someone who knows what they’re doing (thanks to years of experience) and learn lots of valuable things. And I would be more than happy to pay that person for their time a fixed price. Being able to compress time is a true superpower.
This would be a win/win for both parties. I would compress my time and learn a valuable skill. The amateur photographer would earn a little cash on the weekend that he would otherwise not have. Then, he could use that cash to compress his own time. And I would leverage my new skill to make someone’s life easier and better.
Entrepreneur’s greatest weapon: specialization
This brings to another important point: to become successful, you must specialize in something. Being the jack of all trades is nice, but you can’t make a dent in the universe if everything you do is merely average; you must also carve out a niche and do it better than most people.
Specialization either means an arduous process of trial and error, where you’re learning all the general skills that you need to master your specialized skill, or you just focus on the one thing that you feel you do better than others (and you enjoy) and bring in very smart people who’re good at other skills that you need to make your own skill shine.
Many years ago, I was stubborn and preferred to do everything myself. I was essentially a jack of all trades; I could do a bunch of different things decently and some better than others, but I didn’t have a single skill that really defined me. So, I became an expert in everything. I learned Photoshop, video editing, programming, server administration, security, and tons of other things. I also thought myself marketing, advertising, copywriting, writing and a bunch of other things. As a result, I could do a bunch of new things, but everything I did was average at best.
Nowadays, I would never spend time mastering things that aren’t part of my core skillset. Thus, I wouldn’t touch things like design, Unix administration and even programming with a ten-inch pole. Working on these things just distracts me from working on the things that move the needle and make difference. Now, I just focus on what I’m good at and delegate everything else to people that are good at other things.
That’s why in any given year, I typically spend several thousand dollars on various courses. Quality courses allow me to ramp up a skill very quickly instead of spending hours and hours on sites like YouTube watching random videos.
Talking to smart people helps too. Throughout my travels, I’ve met lots of self-made men, men who were running six- and seven-figure businesses. Sometimes, even a thirty-minute conversation over lunch helped my businesses substantially. When I can’t find a smart guy, I hire one. The consultations I’ve done in areas where I was stuck with an expert was easily one of the best ways I’ve spent money.
I also mentor aspiring entrepreneurs once or twice a year. It’s a program where I teach you everything I’ve learned, fully customized for your specific situation and objective. Since I don’t do it very often, the waiting lists are almost always full. I once received an applicant who seemed very interested, but after I forwarded him the program structure and enrollment fee, he declined. He decided he’d rather learn it via trial and error. Nothing against that approach, but knowing what I know now and possessing the experience I possess, I would never embark on something that might take me years and years of fruitless trial and error. It’s always more pragmatic to buy experience instead of wasting time.
Once upon a time before the Internet, entrepreneurship and things like location-independence were either very difficult or just not viable. If you wanted to start a business in 1960, you’d have walk door-to-door to sell your wares or cold-call a ton of people. That kind of hustle certainly wasn’t for everyone.
Nowadays, not only are people actively looking for products to make their lives easier and better but building those products and finding customers for them similarly requires nothing more than a few clicks. We’re in an era where everyone is a potential builder and creator of value and everyone is a potential consumer of that value. The key is specialization. Acquire the right skills, focus on what you excel at, and bring in other smart people to fill in the gaps.
I was out with an old friend the other day. We’ve known each other since high school days but then lost in touch. Somehow he discovered my site through one of the articles I wrote and contacted me to meet up. I agreed.
We sat down in a coffee shop and ordered coffee. He asked me what I’ve been up to these past years. I replied that for the past couples of years I’ve based myself in Eastern Europe and that last year I spent half a year in Asia. I also told him that I’ve been nomadic ever since quitting my job back in 2008 and making ends meet by running various websites that sell different products and services.
“You’re lucky,” he responded.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, you were able to start it back in 2008. I’ve been thinking about starting something myself, but it seems it’s much harder to do it now than ten years ago,” he answered solemnly.
I nodded my head in agreement. I didn’t really have a response. He had a valid argument. Perhaps things were “easier” back in 2008. After all, there were a lot fewer travel/entrepreneurial blogs than they’re now. There were also fewer people competing for your attention, so it was a lot easier to get noticed.
After all, maybe he did the right thing by sticking to his safe and comfortable job instead of risking it all by starting a business.
In the subsequent weeks, I couldn’t stop thinking about that conversation. Something about it bothered me. It was as though there was a little rock stuck inside my shoe that I couldn’t get rid off anyway I tried. I was deeply affected and didn’t know why.
Finally, about a month later as I was coming back from a coffee shop after an especially productive day, I had an epiphany.
The first thing I realized is that my friend was wrong. In order to understand why my friend was wrong, it’s important to understand the concept of capital and how it works both in an economic and personal sense.
I read lots of books, and one of the more interesting books I’ve read in the last five years is The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Trumps in the West and Fails Everywhere Else by Hernando De Soto. De Soto’s main argument is that everything (or almost everything) in the West can be turned into capital and serve as financing for something else. For instance, the house you’re living in can be turned into financing for your new venture by getting something called a “home equity line of credit” or “heloc.” The bank is happy to give you credit because if you default on your payment, they can simply repossess your house.
This doesn’t just apply to houses—it applies to everything. That’s because in a modern Western country, all assets—whether it’s a piece of land, a house, or a business—have a title of ownership on them. And, thanks to a modern system of property rights and a legal system that enforces those rights, there is never any confusion who owns what and who will repossess the asset if the lender doesn’t pay the creditor.
In the rest of the world, things aren’t so clearcut. If I gain ownership of a piece of land in a country like Ukraine or Russia through inheritance after my grandmother passes away, I may have problems capitalizing that asset because I gained ownership of it when Ukraine was still part of Soviet Union and property laws may have changed significantly now that each republic is an independent state. Or, if this specific law is crystal clear and rich with precedents, a related law or a proposition that isn’t might still make my life miserable later on.
Therefore, the house that I’m living in is essentially “dead capital.” Sure, I can live in. But I can’t squeeze money out of it unless I sell it. It’s illiquid. I can’t use it as a hedge for some ambitious venture because no one can be completely certain who’ll get the money when the shit hits the fan, and I can’t repay my loan.
The success of the West is really about turning everything and anything into an asset that can quickly and easily finance something else and create even more capital. When the rules of all the participants are straightforward to understand, money is able to move from one area to the next with ease. The result is economic growth.
Dead human capital
The concept of dead capital is also applicable to people. If you have a skill or knowledge in a particular area, but you’re not exposing that skill to the world in the form of products or services that help others achieve their objectives, then you’re essentially dead human capital. You have a skill that you’ve spent lots of time acquiring, honing and perfecting, but you’re not getting any use out of it. (Unfortunately, working as an employee doesn’t count because you’re still trading your time for money and not leveraging your skill to the max.)
This applies to each one of us, including my friend. As a result of his 33 years on the planet, he has amassed a certain level of knowledge and experience. He has certain hobbies and interests. He has particular things he enjoys and particular things he detests. For instance, one of his hobbies is photography; he knows a ton about all the cameras on the market and how to get that perfect shot.
And this is precisely why my friend was wrong: he was wrong because he wouldn’t be starting from scratch. Unless you were just born, there’s no way you could start from scratch. Nobody really starts from “scratch.”
When people say they’re afraid of starting from scratch, they’re automatically discounting the skills and knowledge they spent many years acquiring. As a result, they’re discounting the most important weapon in their arsenal.
Lately, I’ve become interested in photography and video-making. I figured making videos would nicely compliment my brand and content. (After all, I travel all the time). Naturally, I’ve been scouring YouTube for tutorials on how to make the perfect video.
As someone whose job it’s to grow businesses, I also pay close attention to the size of a particular channel and how quickly it has grown. What I’m discovering is, that the people who were able to build their channels quickly are those who are already pretty good at their core skills. Most of these guys have been doing photography for many years before starting a channel.
So, although they may have recently started their channel (or brand), they were able to grow them fairly quickly because all they were doing was exposing their comprehensive existing skills to the world. This allowed them to quickly build a following of loyal fans.
This is why your thinking is completely wrong. Your problem is not that you would be starting from scratch; your problem is that you don’t know how to package all your existing knowledge and wisdom in ways that it’ll reach the people who care (e.g., your target audience). Your problem is that you don’t know how to package all that knowledge and experience in ways that’ll appeal to someone else.
Your problem isn’t that you somehow missed some mythical “Internet wave,” it’s that you simply don’t know how to make your skills appealing to people besides your annoying boss who signs your paycheck every two weeks, which isn’t saying much anyway.
Let’s say you’re really into photography and videography. Your preferred camera for stills is the Canon 80D (or the Canon 70D), but your preferred video camera is Panasonic GH4/GH5. You mostly shoot in aperture priority but switch over to manual mode for those quick-moving action shots. You love the micro 4/3 system but are now contemplating moving to a bigger image sensor in order to have clearer low light shots without having to boost the ISO every time. While you love your GH4 to death, its annoying autofocus is making you consider the Sony A6500 with its always-reliable 49-point autofocus system. Oh, and, lately you’ve been considering the new Fujifilm X-T20 exclusively for street photography for its small form factor and excellent JPEG reproduction.
Most people will have no clue what I wrote above. That’s fine. But if you read the above paragraph and nodded your head after every sentence (or disagreed with it), congratulations: you probably have the knowledge and experience that many people do not. The problem is that if you’re not leveraging that knowledge to help others — you effectively have “dead personal capital.” That’s not good. You should find ways to turn it into “live personal capital.” Whatever you decide to do, it’s physically impossible to start from scratch.
This is applicable to virtually any domain of knowledge, whether it’s helping others master landscape photography, helping them learn a new foreign language rapidly, or assisting them in starting a new life in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Shenzen, China or Bali, Indonesia. Doing any of this wasn’t even possible even twenty-five years ago, but, now, thanks to the Internet, turning the knowledge packed in your head into “live personal capital” is pretty much down to a science.
The Internet revolutionized distribution making us all on an even playing field. So, unless you were born yesterday or have lived a sheltered life and possess zero marketable skills because you have zero interests in anything (hard to believe with the world’s information at our fingertips), you have zero excuses to not leverage the greatest weapon in your possession.