Stay tuned for some upcoming changes to this blog.
Several months ago I started setting it up as a guide to goal-setting. That’s because (as you should know by now) I put a lot of faith into setting goals, and have enjoyed some huge accomplishments because of my goals.
My life has changed over the last few months, and my attitude has changed with it. I still find goal-setting a valuable practice, but I have realized it can get out of hand. As you’ve seen from reading my blog, I often have 2 to 5 goals at a time, and each of those goals may include a few different sub-goals.
At a certain point, goal-setting must be balanced with enjoying life as it is, and having some room to be spontaneous and forgiving when the unexpected happens. Allowing for a margin of uncertainty makes life much more enjoyable than planning every single detail in advance.
Enjoy the present
Often in the media we see messages about exercising and dieting to lose weight. People put themselves through unpleasant regimes to achieve a distant goal. Exercising and eating healthy food becomes a burden, and every moment of it feels painful – like a chore.
This kind of forced healthy lifestyle has never appealed to me. Exercise helps me de-stress, and I often feel euphoric after a sweat-sesh. Eating healthy isn’t a burden, it’s a pleasure, simply because I know that I will physically feel sluggish and grumpy if I repeatedly eat unhealthy food. I try to live a healthy lifestyle for the immediate benefits – not some distant goal. I’ve never understood the pressure and guilt other people experience when putting themselves through some kind of intense weight-loss program.
So the question is, why do I set goals in other areas of my life that make my daily life filled with pressure, guilt, and strife? I think it’s about finding balance.
Of course it’s nice to have a mission in life, and always take actions towards shaping your life to represent that mission.
And sure, goals come in handy from time to time. They can help you push yourself a little harder when you need to tackle a particular, temporary issue, like acing a job interview, or passing a test. But having a series of ongoing goals with no real reward and no relief in sight just, quite frankly, sucks.
This blog’s makeover has already begun, as I’ve changed the visual layout. In the coming weeks I’ll modify the content, to reflect a departure from goal-setting. I’d like to turn it into a blog where I can just share my thoughts and hopefully create a place that my readers and I can enjoy for its own sake.
This post originally published on Medium.com. Read on Medium here.
“Talk to you later,” I quietly urge my friend over the phone, “I’m at a coffee shop, writing.” Ending the call, I sip my latte and turn to my computer. Now it’s time to type my living through the ever-famed, digital nomad lifestyle that’s become my reality over the last two years.
The comforting hum of a brewing drink muffles light banter between friends at a neighboring table. I sure hope I can get some work done. About to type the outline for this article, a million clever ideas flow through my mind, when I’m suddenly assaulted by a polite blue notification:
Your battery is critically low. Plug in now.
Then it hits me: I forgot my laptop cord. Now I need to go straight back home. I can’t get any work done otherwise.
Despite the lessons I’ve learned as a remote freelancer these last two years, I still make plenty of gaffs. I’m here to share some of the lessons I’ve learned, with the aim of not sounding too prescriptive. I offer these tips simply as a heads up about what to expect out there on your own career adventure.
I never like tips without context, so before I get into them, here’s some background about how I found myself in this situation, running a micro-business a mostly remote freelance writer. If you’re an impatient reader like me, and want to get straight to the good stuff, feel free to skip down to the tips.
Welcome to the new work frontier
The way we work is changing. A rapidly growing number of professionals are leaving conventional employment and becoming solo (and largely remote) entrepreneurs. Though we benefit from an unprecedented independence, we can often feel lost, without the guidance and structure of a traditional work environment.
No one anticipated this. In our childhood dreams we saw ourselves as nurses, firefighters, or maybe teachers. Who knew that an economic crisis and tech revolution would create the perfect societal storm to swirl us away from the traditional career of the past and wash us on to the unknown shores of digital entrepreneurship?
Like many others, I work for myself and define my own working conditions. Now instead of commuting to the office in crowded traffic, we walk to the neighborhood coffee shop and plug in our laptops. Instead of cringing through company gossip at the water cooler, we pay money for co-working spaces, just to get out of the house.
We’re pioneering the frontier of a new work landscape. Along the way we get to learn firsthand what pitfalls await us on this professional path.
Obstacles along the digital entrepreneur path
With no business degree or prior experience running a company, the initial leap from employee to self-employed can leave you feeling lost. Remote working compounds that feeling since most of us work alone in an empty house, and unwittingly consume a flood of dubious business and productivity advice online every day.
I’m here to say if you feel this way at the start of your self-employment journey, you’re not alone. While the challenges seemed impossible when I first got started, they have helped me develop a resilience and adaptability that I’d like to pass on.
Unlike previous generations, as Millennials, we can’t expect to stick with the same job throughout our careers. Every day is an adventure where we try on different hats.
In the morning I write, during lunch I listen to marketing podcasts, and in the afternoon I deal with accounting. In contrast with the archetypal enterprising families you read about in Forbes, my parents are not businesspeople. For me, managing all of the different facets of a business is not a skill I learned at an early age.
I guess you could say I’m a first-generation entrepreneur, and I definitely did not inherit any sense of business acumen. Without those traditional support systems, I’ve had to learn how to make the most of my mistakes as a solo entrepreneur.
Here are three tips that have helped me along my own path.
Three tips for making the most of your mistakes
Start going, and keep going
Get some experience, even if you don’t have any yet.
In college I took a break from my studies to live in France, and spent the better part of two years studying French, trying to prepare. But when I finally showed up in France, anxiety overwhelmed me as I started speaking with real French people who weren’t my teacher.
Looking back, I still think that nothing could have prepared me for how nervous I’d feel those first few weeks in France. Any time a French person couldn’t understand me (or vice versa), I’d endure a horrible pang of self-doubt.
But I studied this for two years! Is my French really that bad? I’d wonder.
That’s why when I eventually moved to Italy, I felt comfortable showing up without a solid command of the Italian language. I decided to learn by ear. I used plenty of incorrect grammar, leading to an abundant number of misunderstandings. But I learned the language of the people, not the textbooks. Overall, I learned to accept that my skills weren’t perfect, and moved on.
You can prepare for the next step in your career with years of education, but until you start getting hands-on experience, you’ll never know what practical tools or skills you really need.
How does this tie in to entrepreneurship? Let’s take rate negotiations. Don’t know what to charge? Take an educated guess. Do some research first, but don’t overthink it. You’ll learn quickly if you’re bidding too low or too high.
Keep going — learn from the first mistake.If you undercharged last time, charge more next time. You’ll probably miss the mark a handful of times until you get it right.
Here’s what the opposite of this looks like: you don’t know what to charge, so you never ask for the sale. Or possibly even worse, your first offer gets rejected, leaving you feeling wounded and afraid to try again. If it gets rejected, you’ve got to keep going. Keep marketing yourself. Find new clients. Try again. And again.
Keep track of issues, and use them as your road map
Six months after I got started as a freelancer in the gig economy, I started getting referrals to side projects and needed to create proposals with my own price quotes. I’d heard the advice plenty of times — clients will pay a premium for services they value. Constrained by fear of losing the sale, I undercharged. Sure enough, this lead me to make a deal with a client who didn’t value my work, treated me like dirt, and paid late.
Without that mistake, I would not have internalized the advice I’d previously ignored. I have no regrets. I had to go through that experience to develop confidence to charge a premium. Otherwise I simply would have followed advice that I didn’t really believe in.
Maybe you can’t change your pricing model just yet, but you can keep track of issues and use them to make a plan for the future. Be honest with yourself and take a look at where you’re currently lacking. Then use that as feedback to shape the way you develop your business over time.
So how do you keep track of issues? Here are a few suggestions:
Trello has an excellent interface for tracking issues. Whenever there is a problem or some area for improvement, add it to a backlog. Keep your issues organized in columns and progress them along the path from Backlog > In Progress > Done.
Post-its make a great analog substitute for Trello, and is best for tactile learners. Write each issue on a Post-it and stick it on the wall. *Disclaimer: I take no responsibility from the interpersonal fallout this may create with your housemates!
Excel (or Google Sheets) can come in handy for tracking multiple projects or tasks. With a touch of Google-Fu, you can find plenty of project management spreadsheet templates to choose from. Or you can tweet me (@NewtonLanguages) and I’ll send you a download of the template I use. With this method, the key is to write a thorough description of actions you’ve taken, and make sure you document the outcomes. Keep track of everything, or else you’ll forget what works and what doesn’t!
Scrum Methodology is a project management method that helps you focus on one thing at a time and gradually make improvements without getting overwhelmed. Though it’s typically intended for product development, you can apply the same principles on a micro-level to your solo projects.
Taiga is my new favorite project management app. It provides the ideal set of tools for implementing Scrum Methodology. It has the same cards as Trello, but also includes a timeline that documents all of the actions you’ve made (automatically — less work for you). You can also keep an archive of all of your sprints and user stories. If this scrummy lingo is over your head, never fear! I recommend reading up on Scrum Methodology (http://scrummethodology.com).
Find a mentor (or a circle of mentors)
Before changing careers, the challenge of finding a mentor felt hopelessly daunting. I still couldn’t admit to myself that I needed one. But now that I’ve learned to set my pride aside, I can see how much greater my opportunities are when I’m open to learning from others.
Take, for instance, learning to code (which I’ve been muddling through since 2014). I find that I can spend five hours banging my head, trying to teach myself something in the safe anonymity of my own thoughts, or I can pick up the phone and call my dev mentor to get the simplified version in five minutes.
The same goes with different multidisciplinary skills where I’m (admittedly) lagging behind. Whenever I face my fear of looking dumb and decide to just ask someone for help, not only do I accomplish more work more quickly, but I establish more connections and build a stronger support system.
Mentoring goes both ways — you can reciprocate by lending your own skills and expertise to support your mentor in their weak areas. This doesn’t mean you have to become business partners, but you’re much stronger bouncing ideas off of someone else who can hold you accountable, rather than plodding along in isolation.
So, how to put this in action? If you’re extraverted, go to some networking events based around your career interests. Depending on where you live, you can probably find them on:
Look through the forums, and post discussion topics when you can. Depending on your industry, some groups may have a Slack Channel you can join. The more you get involved, the greater the odds you’ll meet collaborators with complementary strengths.
Mistakes are good
Mistakes are where experience comes from. They draw your attention to areas where you can improve. It’s on you to listen to what your mistakes are telling you, and turn them into actionable goals.
Your own experience and intuition overshadow any number of hundreds of tips you can read about online (even mine). While you’re exploring new territory and a living professional life you never prepared for, mistakes can be the basis for developing an intuition that is uniquely yours and can’t be copied.
As you progress and build your own business from the ground up, you’ll amaze yourself with how much you’ve accomplished. All the same, just don’t be too hard on yourself when you run out of laptop battery and realize you forgot the cord.
This post originally published on Medium.com. Read on Medium here.
I’ve spent the last week packing, as I prepare to move — prior to that I had writer’s block, and haven’t updated my blog for a long time. The fact that I didn’t have much to say felt like a problem at first, but packing has surprisingly changed my mind. Why?
It’s got me thinking about all of the different useless things (clothes, knick-knacks, emails, blog entries, applications, electronics, articles, statements, songs, commercials, ads, jingles, logos) that we as humans create, and how much simpler our lives could be if we all agreed to stop producing and holding on to stuff that has no value.
Join me on this mini-adventure as I explore my own bizarre relationship with stuff, things, objects, etc. . ., and how the universe conspired to help me draw these conclusions.
“If you can’t say anything nice. . .”
Forgive me for relying on tradition, but I figure it’s best to explore the matter from a chronological perspective.
We all heard it growing up:
If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
First of all, I don’t agree with this statement and I think we sometimes need to say things that aren’t nice. I suggest a revision:
If you can’t produce anything of value, don’t post it on the internet.
If you can’t produce something that will benefit someone somewhere in some way, don’t produce anything at all.
Because I feel like the opposite tends to happen. We publish blog posts when we have nothing interesting to say, or are afraid to write about issues that really matter. We manufacture cheap goods that break after one use and end up in a landfill. We buy things on whim and they get buried in a drawer.
My dad’s wisdom
As a kid I enjoyed volunteering at the yearly yard sale for my mom’s church. It was a huge sale that usually generated lotsa cash, at least from a kid’s perspective, because we had so many donations and could offer such a large selection that pretty much anyone could find something they’d want from it.
Despite the large volume of goods sold, we always closed the day with a sizeable surplus. So after the sale, someone or other would load up a truck or two and haul the extra, unwanted junk to the dump (or as the British would say, they brought the rubbish to the tip).
One time I rode along with my dad to the dump and I remember him saying something really insightful. He said (though not in so many words) that it’s mind-blowing to think about how many people worked to produce this stuff — how much sweat and tears went into it, the deadlines and quotas and stress surrounding its production — and in the end, nobody wanted it! They wouldn’t even take it for 50 cents apiece! And its journey on this earth unceremoniously came to an end here, now, in a landfill.
Writer’s block and why (not how) I’ve overcome it
Now to bring us up to the present / recent past:
I’ve been a bad blogger — I haven’t published a new entry for months. That clearly goes against good blogging practices (side note: this is my first entry on Medium — woohoo!).
Strangely, I have to say that during these last few months I haven’t written because it didn’t cross my mind to. I had nothing in particular to share. And that’s OK.
So why did I overcome my writer’s block? Probably because it’s hit me that moving back to the USA in a few weeks and I feel inspired.
Going forward I’ll make the conscious decision to reserve space on the internet for the times I can produce my best work, and not try to crank out empty content, just to meet a quota. You’re welcome.
My husband is a far tidier person than me and he often expresses how much he hates clutter. As the sloppier half of the couple, I don’t have any conscious dislike of physical clutter, but the relief is undeniable as I wave goodbye to the sweater I used to wear to the office three winters ago, when I was itching for a career change.
Yesterday I held that sweater in my hands and felt immense satisfaction stuffing it into a bag with a bunch of other raggedy items, knowing that I could close that chapter of my life — my career has changed. I’m a new person. Goodbye, sweater.
Give it away
Whenever I move (which is often), I’m usually on my way to a foreign country, and end up purging about 2/3 of my stuff, giving it to charity (under the presumption that someone might actually want it). It’s become a purifying ritual for me, and a chance to reflect on all of the good and bad times I’ve seen during my stint in [insert location here].
Giving my stuff away forces me to prioritize:
What can I live without (just about everything)?
What do I actually use?
What do I hold on to, even though it’s been lodged in my closet for over a year?
Part of this may be influenced by an unlikely role model I stumbled upon at age 19, when I read the autobiography of Anthony Kiedis. In it he explains how The Red Hot Chili Peppers song, Give it Away is about, well, giving stuff away. I especially dig the following lyrics:
“Greedy little people in a sea of distress
Keep your more to receive your less
Unimpressed by material excess
Love is free love me say hell yes”
The point is basically that love, human interaction, and firsthand experience carry far more value than material possessions. And in a way, if you’re feeling very attached to a specific possession, you may find more satisfaction giving it away than keeping it.
Awesome people working to reduce waste
On a more serious note, there are people who have decided, precisely becauseof the world’s limited resources and space, to make daily efforts to reduce waste and promote conservation. Here are a few examples:
My closest confidant
Sometimes I’m tempted to role my eyes when my husband insists that we recycle. Don’t get me wrong — I understand the benefits of recycling, but sometimes I get lazy. Nonetheless, I find his diligence inspiring, and his passion for conservation has influenced countless other people (myself included) to adopt better habits.
The Tree House Bookshop
Here in Kenilworth we have a used bookshop with an intriguing mission. It’s self-described as a social enterprise, and the following quotes are taken from the About Us page of its website:
“The aim of the Tree House is to keep physical books on the high street, including books that are not easily available because they are out of print or out of the bestseller charts, and to promote the importance of literature in our increasingly anti-intellectual society.”
“A Social Enterprise is a non-profit, asset-locked organisation, with a focus on what it can offer to the community, and any profits are reinvested in the business or, when possible, given to charity. We love to support charities that support the conservation and preservation of trees and woodland, and we also support local charities when we can.”
I wish there were more bookshops actively aiming to recirculate used books so that fewer trees will be cut down, and reinvesting profits in their communities. I will miss this gem.
Finally, today on my trip to the donation bin, I came across an intriguing quote:
“Sainsbury’s and Oxfam working towards zero landfillI”
It wasn’t until today that I learned this about Oxfam — in addition to fighting global poverty, they also have an underlying goal of working towards zero landfill.
I guess if you think about it, why should some of us both produce and consume way more resources than we need (and generate excess waste), especially when other people in the world have access to way less resources than they need?
No, really — why?
Now let’s address the question I’m sure we’re all wondering: what does this have to do with anything?
I mainly hope we can come to an agreement:
I wait to write my next blog entry until I’m ready say something I genuinely care about — something that might have a positive impact on someone’s life.
We all take a moment to reflect on what kind of impact we’re having on our communities (and even our world) before the next time we write an email, go shopping, or ship something to the dump.
Let’s ask ourselves if we’re creating value or just more clutter.
During my second year of college I remember watching a documentary about Yo-Yo Ma in class, in which he stated that he loves teaching because he always learns so much from his students.
I saw this before I ever started teaching, and I guess it’s always echoed in the back of my mind as some kind of romanticized talking point that I haven’t really connected with until recently.
My first professional teaching experience came halfway through college when I took a year off to live in France. As an English teaching assistant at a high school, I did not feel impassioned by my work. Call me crazy, but there’s just something about working in an institution with resistant youth that makes me want to run and hide.
While my first teaching experience was’t the most satisfying, I’ve strangely found myself pulled back into teaching again and again throughout my career.
Most recently, my teaching tendencies have lead me to instructing English as a Foreign Language in an e-learning environment. From my first lesson I knew this was a better fit for me. All of the issues that turned me off in the high school setting were absent – I was teaching adults one-on-one, and only working with professionals who were so motivated to learn English, they were willing to pay money for lessons.
Looking back, I think it’s safe to say that my students taught me more than I taught them, and in a way they even became my unintended career mentors.
I’ve coached some of the most driven, motivated, successful career people I’ve ever met. I’ve coached doctors through their academic writing projects, and helped corporate managers prepare for job interviews and conferences. I’ve accompanied students alongside gruelling journeys as they’ve strived to earn language certificates and get accepted to academic programs.
I guess you could say they’ve taught me how to pursue a challenging, yet rewarding career.
Before I started this most recent teaching gig, I was in a very frustrating place, career-wise. I found myself in a dismal workplace where there was little hope of advancement, and a feeling of being on the outside looking in when it came to the small, elite group that were eligible for some kind of upward movement or enjoyable work responsibilities. There was a sense of futility when it came to striving for higher-level goals, and this is one of the main reasons I knew it was time for a change.
Back to the point, I just want say, I couldn’t be happier with how everything has unfolded. My students have taught me – nay, showed me – what ambition, resilience, drive, and courage look like, during a time when all of those traits seemed most elusive.
Now I’m moving on again, away from teaching as I focus on what I love most: writing. But I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the positive impact this teaching experience has had on me. I might not have reached this point if it weren’t for my students.
Sometimes it’s not until looking back that you realize how much you’ve learned, and who you’ve learned the most from. So, just saying, maybe take a look around to see who your greatest teachers are. You may just surprise yourself.
We all know at least one – you know who I’m talking about. The twenty-something who interned in Paris last year, moved to Beijing last week, and spent the summer volunteering in Lima.
We all know at least one (but probably more than a handful) of these globetrotting millennials who seem to live in a new place every other month, who post beautiful pictures of exotic destinations on Facebook, who make us jealous and deeply perplexed, as we wonder,
“How can she afford it?”
“Why can’t he just settle down?”
“Does this person have any kind of plan for the future?”
Speaking as an offender, myself, I’m here to shed light on what’s going through our over-stimulated minds as we make such mind-blowing decisions.
To start things off, let me share a weakness that’s followed me since childhood: daydreaming, mind-wandering, spacing out, whatever you like to call it.
Let’s go all the way back to testing days in elementary school. Rather than the standard classroom lesson, that day my teacher came bearing stacks of flimsy testing booklets and scantrons, so the state could assess my aptitude at being a fourth-grader so far. The scantron came with specific instructions on how to fill the boxes correctly. Following those instructions artfully became the most enjoyable part of taking the test, until my eyes drifted to the window.
That window called to me – the flowers in bloom, other kids playing hop-skotch on the playground, an occasional cloud against the blue sky. . . My mind wandered as I twirled my hair, and before I knew it, old Teach up there was giving the 15-minute warning. Time was almost up! The test results came back ok, all things considered. Of course they may have been higher if I had tried harder. But in spite of all the good reasons I had to concentrate on the test (good grades, promising future) I cared less about the test and more about the possibilities the outside world had to offer.
Fast-forward 20 years to the same girl in an adult body, making adult money, and with an infinite amount of data and options available at her fingertips.
We can access any kind of information at any time. We can book a flight to (just about) any location in the world with the click of a button. We’ve waited longer to have kids than our parents did, meaning that whatever money we make is ours, gloriously ours! To top things off, we’ve witnessed millions of people lose their retirement savings in an instant, so have never had much faith in the traditional work-for-the-same-company-till-retirement archetype.
We find ourselves once again caring less about forcing ourselves into a box, and more about exploring the endless possibilities the outside world has to offer! Sometimes we even want to want a more stable, traditional, life path – but on a visceral level we’re excited and enlivened by the alternative opportunities available. In the end, genuine excitement and passion win.
Still feel mystified by a millennial in your life? Leave a comment!
Keep an eye out for my next entry: Millennial bloggers and the personal branding dilemma, where I’ll cover how we manage to afford our lifestyles, and the dilemma we face as we try to lay groundwork for the future.
Christmas is on the way, and you see decorations popping up all over the beautiful, exotic locale you’ve chosen as your expat destination. But when your colleagues start complaining about Christmas shopping in November, you’re reminded that these poor folk don’t know the joys of celebrating humble Thanksgiving before the glitz and commercialism of Christmas really take hold.
This year will be my fourth celebrating Thanksgiving abroad. It goes without saying that the tradition is worth exporting, so every year I take on the challenge of celebrating it without the abundant Thanksgiving paraphernalia the USA has to offer. Results so far have been something of a mixed bag. My first Thanksgiving abroad took place in Toulon, France. It was amazing, if not sort of a haze. The second was a on the impersonal side, celebrated in the midst of a huge expat community of over one hundred people in Aix-en-Provence, France. Last year I celebrated Thanksgiving in Padova, Italy, surrounded by Italians, with a pair of whole chickens instead of turkey, making it was the least American-esque of the celebrations so far.
Back to the point: I find myself at this juncture once again, feeling out of my depth without a fellow American by my side to help coordinate. What’s an expat to do, with a turkey to buy, a party to plan, and expectations to set with local friends? I want to write a guide not just for other expats, but also for myself, so I can tackle this head-on come next year.
Here’s my guide so far (please remind me if I’m forgetting anything):
Two months in advance, start asking around town (local markets, butchers, etc. . .) if they sell whole turkeys or know where a whole turkey can be purchased. Trust me: you will not find a turkey if you put this off till the week of Thanksgiving. Furthermore, if you happen to find a place that sells turkey, you may need to start saving up for it well in advance, since turkeys don’t come cheap outside the US (at least in European countries).
One or two months in advance, decide what day to celebrate Thanksgiving. Since you and your friends probably have to work on the actual holiday, that leaves either the Saturday before or after. Take your pick.
Send invites at least a month in advance. Try to paint a picture for your local friends about what to expect on the day of Thanksgiving. Most of it seems like common sense for us – eating in the middle of the afternoon, reserving time for games, taking seconds and thirds until you stuff yourself silly, and so on. But if you don’t let your friends know what the big deal is, they may not share your excitement about how awesome Thanksgiving is.
Find a foodie amongst your friends and enlist his or her help. When you don’t have a big group of extended family members volunteering to help out with this or that dish, the responsibility of planning the entire event falls on your shoulders alone. Make sure you find a helper who loves food and has a passion for planning. Trust me here: if you don’t have at least one other person to help, it can take the fun out of organising the event.
Once you have your RSVPs, assign a dish for each guest to cook. Run the menu by a family member during a Skype chat to make sure you’re not forgetting anything.
A week in advance, make your final decision about a turkey alternative (since you probably ignored #1). Make sure you have enough supplies, like plates, bowls, cups, silverware, casserole dishes, table clothes, and especially chairs to accommodate your guests.
One or two days in advance, go grocery shopping! Since you don’t have to compete with other Thanksgiving shoppers, you’re probably safe waiting till the last minute. Of course if you have any specialty ingredients on your list, buy those earlier as they could be hard to find in standard supermarkets.
On the big day, be ready to welcome your guests warmly to your makeshift Thanksgiving celebration abroad! Who knows, maybe the locals will even adopt the tradition if you make sure they have an amazing time and a tasty meal.
There you have it! That’s the expat’s Thanksgiving planning guide. Dear future self: you’re welcome.