I don’t talk much about my past. I don’t like doing it. You could say I’m a private person. Besides, to me, ideas are far more interesting than I am. That’s why rarely use my stories in my writing. Yeah, I get they’re great literary devices. But there are enough tricks and techniques that I don’t feel the need to put myself on display like that.
Somehow, it feels exhibitionistic or self-indulgent.
Today I’ll make an exception. That’s because other literary devices won’t let me get my message across. After all, who is going to listen to yet another glib this-is-how-you-should-live-your-life post if I’m not personally invested? The internet is filled to the brim with those types of texts and most make about as much difference as digging in a desert.
That won’t do for this article. Here it is important to me I have an impact. Otherwise, I suspect a friend (and those like him) will follow the same path I did. For, as George Santayana’s said, “Those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.”
I came into this world on 1979. Yes, that’s right, around the time they invented the wheel. The first (but certainly not the last) time I whined about the unfairness of it all was when a nurse slapped my bum in the Netherlands. Hence the odd name that nobody who isn’t Dutch or knows me can pronounce correctly (It’s pronounced Yell-tuh).
My first nine years were normal enough. Then we moved to Japan for my dad’s work. I’ve been a vagabond ever since. We would move countries every few years. In the process, I got to see the insides of a lot of different international schools.
It sounds bad, but it wasn’t. Like my father and his before him, I wasn’t a well-adjusted child. People often ended up thinking I was weird with my strange perspectives and wild imagination. And so it was great I got to move and try again. That’s how I learned how to socialize.
Still, something like that affects you. In me, it created a restlessness that’s with me still. It’s like ants in my blood. When I stop moving, they start. Before long the itch becomes overpowering. Then I have to pack my bags and move on again. Since the age of nine, I’ve never lived anywhere for more than five years.
It hasn’t just been where I’ve lived, either. What I’ve done has been equally haphazard. I’ve been a waiter, prison assessor, technical manual writer, part-time model, university researcher, beach party organizer, English-as-a-second-language teacher, student supervisor, cold caller, editor, bartender, architectural concept designer, telephone researcher, TV scriptwriter, and even one of those dicks who harass you on the street for charity.
Here are some of the things I’ve done:
- Helped design a modern library that was actually built.
- While supervising bachelor theses, accused three students of plagiarism. (97% of the papers were identical). They had to redo the entire year.
- Almost finished a Phd in three years before quitting.
- Worked as a Chief Editor on an artistic startup called 200Rone before pulling the plug (on the startup, not the job).
- Written and directed a short film that was rejected by Sundance (The script is below the video).
- Wrote (but did not publish) two fantasy books (here’s a part of one).
- Wrote a season for a scientific documentary show.
- Co-wrote a chapter for an academic book.
- Had an idea for the skyscraper of the future included in a coffee table book (we didn’t win the prize we were going for).
- Nearly had an article published in a top-end peer reviewed psychology journal.
Now, you might think I’m bragging. In fact, I’ve put up that list for the opposite reason. The observant among you might have noticed something about it. Yeah, that’s right. They’re pretty much all near misses. I dabbled, did not immediately get the accolades I felt I deserved, and then quit.
And the people that put faith in me? The professors who went out on a limb to support my Phd program? The producer who financed the short film out of her own pocket? The designer and architect with who I designed that library and that skyscraper project? The people who I started 200Rone with? I don’t talk to most of them anymore. I’m quite ashamed of that, actually.
So if any of you are reading this, I’m sorry. Yeah, I know. It doesn’t mean much, but do know it’s heartfelt.
So why did I quit?
I felt unfulfilled. My whole life has been a search for meaning and that led me to make three big mistakes.
- Mistake 1: because something isn’t giving me fulfillment today it never will.
- Mistake 2: I have a destiny. It is just a matter of waiting till it arrives.
- Mistake 3: opportunities are like precious stones. If you keep looking around long enough you’ll find one.
For mistake one, take a bit of time to look at the following video, in case you haven’t. Yeah, it is a long, but well worth it. You don’t need to bother with the second interview.
It is filled with good points (and to its detractors – sure it doesn’t cover everything, but I’d like to see you do better in a 15-minute talk). For this article, I want to specifically focus on is the impatience he mentioned.
That was me. In an impressive display of the instant-gratification mentality, all my life I wanted to make an impact right now.
Add to that a serious sense of entitlement and you can see where this was going.
And when they didn’t immediately get the keys to the penthouse? Then I was affronted. Because somehow deep down inside I felt that I should get the reward before I’d done any of the hard work. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t allergic to hard work. I just didn’t want to start off doing it. First, you give the respect. Then I’ll earn it.
Of course, on its own wouldn’t have been that big of a problem. There are plenty who feel entitled that still do well in life. They use it to have high expectations and then work hard to fulfill them.
But my first mistake was then compounded by the second one.
You’re not giving me the fulfillment and the impact that I seek? Well, then this must not be that opportunity that I’ve been waiting for. Time to move on! My destiny awaits! There is only one way and that is up.
Besides, if I stay, I’m locking myself in! Then, when the real opportunity came along, I won’t be able to go after it because of the commitments I’ve made.
You might recognize that. It’s called a ‘fear of commitment’. Almost all such fears are born out of the hope or belief that soon enough a better option comes along. And who wants to be tied down when it does?
Living and understanding
That’s also where that third mistake comes in – the one about opportunities being like precious stones. That’s not how opportunities work. Heck, when opportunity comes knocking, you might not recognize it for what it is!
I only have to look at life to see the truth of that. How many people get to make a short film with a full professional film crew and actors without any film experience? Who gets a paid Phd offer without actually having to apply? And how many people get to work with a skilled architect and designer to actually build stuff when all they’ve got is a big mouth?
And yet, I didn’t recognize those opportunities. What’s more, there were always good reasons for me moving on. I was going to get a master degree. I was depressed. We weren’t winning any prizes.
You’re probably expecting me to now moan on about my youthful stupidity and say, “if only I had been more aware. If only I hadn’t been so blind to my surroundings.”
But that’s not what I’m saying at all. That would be making that third mistake again. You don’t find opportunities. Nor can you recognize them like flawless diamonds. It doesn’t work like that.
Søren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” In other words, you often only recognize an opportunity for what it is when you see it in the rearview mirror.
That’s because opportunities often don’t sparkle. Life is sneaky. It disguises them. Sometimes an opportunity is wrapped up in hard, thankless work. Sometimes it masquerades as a disaster. Or sometimes a disaster pretends to be an opportunity.
And sometimes you’re so busy staring out at the horizon that you miss what is right in front of you.
Besides, opportunities aren’t independent. They’re not some free-floating phantasm that occasionally crosses your path. Instead, it’s an interaction.
Opportunity = what comes along X the effort you put in.
That’s why you need to stop waiting around for that opportunity to present itself. That’s not what they do. You might think you heard a knock and while you go open the door, the opportunity has snuck in (or out) through the window.
So what should you do instead?
Louis Pasteur, the guy who figured out pasteurization, said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”
And he was right. To do that, you need to let go of two of the worst habits of modern times. These are the hunt for instant gratification (I want meaning today) and that sense of entitlement (and I deserve to have it).
Instead, you must embrace their polar opposites: patience and humility.
Yes, I know, I’m not the first to say that. In fact, people have been talking about them since antiquity. And yet, the lesson still does not seem to have sunk in. Probably because many nowadays think that history has nothing to teach them. They think technology is changing too fast for that. And sure, technology is changing fast.
But we’re not.
Defining patience and humility
Let’s make sure that we’re on the same page about these two.
Patience is where you take the time to stick around to see how things unfold. It means that when you start something, you finish it. If most of your projects peter out without actually getting anywhere, then you’re not patient. Either you’ve leaped before you’re certain it’s a good idea, or you didn’t stick around long enough to find out if it really was. In either situation, you’re selling yourself short.
After all, we are not judged by the things we try. Nor is the world made better by the things we don’t finish.
What I do not mean with patience is inactivity and passivity. That’s not patience but laziness. You should always be working on and towards something, even if only in thought. You just need to give it enough time to see it through to its end. Yes, even if it’s boring and you don’t want to. In fact, especially if you’re bored and you don’t want to. Because if it is all fun, somebody else has already done it.
With humility I mean you ditch that sense of entitlement. Stop taking what you’ve been given for granted and stop expecting people to celebrate you for your potential and your capabilities.
Instead, measure yourself only by what you’ve done.
Humility means that when you do something – whatever it may be – you do your best. You can’t do anything more than that. And if you’re doing anything less, then through your actions you’re saying ‘I’m better than this’. First of all, that isn’t humble. More importantly, it means that your closing the door on what opportunity might come down the line.
Humility is not to be confused with cowardice. When you say, ‘I can’t do that so I’m not even going to try’, you’re not being humble. When you allow somebody else to take credit for your work that isn’t humble either. Humility is accepting your failings and then pushing yourself to overcome them.
By practicing patience and humility you will be ready for the opportunities that life gives you – however they’re packaged. This is because you will work hard and actually stick around long enough to recognize them for the opportunities they are.
What’s more, because so many people have embraced instant gratification and entitlement, you will stand out and be noticed.
Nobody ever said, ‘hey, this guy can’t hold down a job for six months. Let’s get him involved in my personal passion project so that he can desert me when I need him most’. Similarly, people don’t say, ‘she feels so entitled that she will never be able to follow instructions or make the necessary sacrifices. Let’s make her a manager because I love working with people like that!’
That’s not what they need. Instead, they’re looking for people they can trust to stick around and work hard. And before they draw you into those cool projects and world-changing events, they want proof that’s what you’re capable of.
And as patience and humility are the way to demonstrate that, they are creators of opportunity.
My latest opportunity
I learned these lessons the hard way when I started writing full time. I got another opportunity, though it was a little different from the others. In fact, some might argue it wasn’t much of an opportunity at all. I disagree. By the end of this next part, I hope you will too.
When I started out as a freelancer, I did what everybody does. I asked my network of friends and family if they knew anybody looking to get any writing jobs done. And you know how many leads and offers I got?
None. Zip. Zero. My request for a leg up was met by the sound of crickets.
Now I’m not saying that it was because of all the opportunities I’d passed over before. Maybe they didn’t know anything. Maybe it was because my connections had weakened due to me moving around so much.
But if it was because they didn’t trust me to make the best of it, I don’t blame them. I was like the boy who cried wolf. Eventually, people no longer listen.
And so, I had to begin all the way at the bottom. I started writing for a penny per word and for ungrateful clients who often tried to rip me off. Because it really is true in writing – the worse they pay, the worse they are.
To give you a painful example, once I was commissioned to write a 20k ebook in 10 days for 200 dollars. When I was done, the client tried to only pay me half. You’re not a native speaker, he said. That hurt. At least I was proud of what I told him. I said he could keep his money and I would keep my words.
Of course, that didn’t help our financial situation, which already wasn’t that good, to begin with. We were so poor we could only afford the rent on what amounted to windowless cement box. It was in a bad neighborhood. One neighbor would wake up at 5 AM and turn on Spanish Christmas Carols at full volume. It was November. Another one didn’t feel they needed to do anything about their dog barking the whole night.
It was bad. And yet, I’m glad it happened. It forced me to confront myself. It showed me what my sense of entitlement and my need for instant gratification were worth.
I finally took the time to learn how to write. I had to. How else was I going to get better clients? I mean, I wasn’t a terrible writer before that. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I thought I was much better than I was. And when you think you’re great, you don’t take the time to get better. But now, I had no choice.
I would succeed or fail based on the words I wrote. So I focused and actually got better. That was reflected in my pay.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t always a gentleman about it. I wasn’t some noble recluse, suffering in silence. If anybody deserves that title, it’s my girlfriend. I cursed, moaned and often acted like that nurse from the Netherlands was slapping me on the bum again. You might empathize if you could see some of the crap I had to write. It wasn’t fulfilling or meaningful. Quite the opposite. It was garbage and it was soul destroying.
But it was mine. I built my reputation, with my own fingers, typing out hundreds of thousands of words. And though the progress was slow, it was still progress.
So I kept going and finally learned humility and patience. right there, at the bottom, in the trenches, where the cacophony of struggling writers is so loud nobody can hear you scream.
Or maybe it was that the neighbor had their music on again.
That’s where I finally found what I had been looking for
And when I climbed out of there, I realized I had finally found that thing which had for so long led to humility and patience eluding me. I had found meaning. I didn’t manage to find it in my Phd defense, in the credits of a film, or at the top of a skyscraper. Instead, I found it through this ten-fingered tap dance that I perform – in relative anonymity – ever day.
What I realized was you can’t find fulfillment by flittering from thing to thing without direction, purpose or effort. There is no shortcut to meaning. Instead, it is something that you build, over time and through hard work. It lives inside you. It comes forth from effort and a life well lived.
Or, as Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
And therein lays my latest opportunity. And in many ways, it was better than all the rest. My only regret? That I got there pushing forty. Hopefully, with my story and my warnings, you can learn it a little younger than that.