“When you have one million dollars, that is your money. When you have twenty million dollars, you start to have problems - inflation, investment concerns. When you have one billion dollars, that is not your money. That is the trust that society gives to you; they believe that you can manage their money.” — Jack Ma
I think this would be a good time to go back and explain the difference between freelancers and entrepreneurs. What is a freelancer, anyway? A freelancer is self-employed, but does much of the work by themselves. Freelancers want to pursue work they love without a boss prying and telling them what to do every day. They are not interested in scaling and growing their business. To the contrary, most entrepreneurs start their businesses to sell them someday.
Seth Godin, bestselling author and arguably the most brilliant business mind of our time, explained that “freelancers get paid when they work, but when they don’t work, they don’t get paid. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, build a business larger than themselves so they get paid when they sleep. Entrepreneurs can sell their business easily because the business isn’t related to what they do all day.” However, most freelancers assured themselves they are entrepreneurs, until one day they realize there is no way to sell their business, because it is one hundred percent relied on them. I think people ought to know their intentions of becoming freelancers or entrepreneurs well ahead. It would save a lot of time and energy.
So how can freelancers stay in business long enough to accumulate enough money? Apparently, the way to make it as a freelancer is to be an exceptional one. If you are exceptional, people will find you. That has always been my subconscious philosophy from the beginning. I'd never knock on doors and advertise my services. There is no need for it because I’ve always relied on word of mouth, which only happens when you’ve served happy clients and customers. If you’re thinking of starting a freelancing business, don’t settle for average because the market outlook for such path looks gloomy. There is always someone cheaper if they’re looking for average.
I met with a dear friend last summer. We’ve known each other for three years. She asked me how my business was doing and I told her that so far, so good; I can’t complain. But then she started persuading me to expand. “Why don’t you start a small learning center so that you can earn more money and save the commute time?”
While her suggestion seemed realistic and logical, I was never interested in the whole idea. It seems to me that everybody wants the same thing: what’s appealing, what’s certain. I’ve had many experiences in the past where I’ve turned the wheels around, and had home-field advantage. But the outcome turned out to be worse than the least of my expectations. The game was rather different. For example, many of my clients didn’t like the hassle of commuting to my place of business. They didn’t like the fact that I had to increase class size in order to make ends meet. After all, rent payments are due each month. I had to shut down and close up shop.
There is a rather interesting story about the artists and the shopkeepers. People would rather be shopkeepers because they are more important people than artists. Shopkeepers have homes and fairly stable income, while artists struggle to sell their work. Also, parents would rather see their children marry shopkeepers than artists. The bottom line: freelancing is uncertain and unappealing, whereas shopkeeping seems certain and is quite appealing. But that is simply not true. Why?
I’m a firm believer that any business would survive when it serves the right customers. But a business would thrive when it could be positioned in the least crowded channel. If you place your business in a low supply but high demand ecosystem, you’d be at an advantage of being the top dog in the game, versus being in a high supply and high demand environment - where most businesses would resort to cut-throat price wars.
When there are less competitors, it means very few people are interested in jumping on the bandwagon. In a way, it’s a good thing, because you’ll be the big fish in a small pond. But it also means that you’re probably going to be different than most people.
If you stroll into any neighborhood within metropolitan Shanghai, you’ll literally find schools and learning institutes of various disciplines on every street corner. If you tap into the location-independent e-learning environment - aka the internet - you’ll find millions of teachers all over the world competing for the same big pie. Heck, you could be in the middle of the desert and get paid for talking to yourself in front of a camera - all you need is a fast internet connection. I don’t know about you, but it seems too crowded for me.
Look, it’s simple, position yourself in a market where no one else would, because it is not the norm and out of the ordinary. Doctors do it all the time: they would establish their practice in a quiet suburb where there are less of their kind. That way, you are fulfilling a need that is overlooked and underthought.
When you become “the one” of the many people out there, chances are you’d be the lone wolf, and you won’t be considered “normal” in the eyes of others. But that’s okay because nobody ever creates a plan to be normal. You only become normal by not having a plan. Normal is stress and struggle. Normal is discontent. Normal is unfulfilling. Please do me one favor: don’t be normal. It’s easy to be normal. Nobody will give you a hard time for being normal. Being normal doesn’t irritate those around you because you blend in easily. But impossible to stand out.
I love my work. Even though, at times, struggles can be a form of hindrance, but that doesn’t stop me from doing what I love. I’ve learned that even if I try to avoid the struggles, they will find me. From the start, my philosophy is to find the work I love, not work solely for the money. I believe money is only a by-product of one’s values. Yes, you need money in order to make a living and become one responsible individual, but, you must create value for others before capturing values for yourself. It is clear that my purpose, your purpose, and the purpose of everything else is to evolve and to contribute to evolution in some small way. In the end, an entrepreneur’s net worth is merely the register of how much he has improved the lives of his fellow human beings. You don’t have to put on a Native American headdress and pray, hoping that things will be easier. Instead, you need to change the way you interpret things, and then take action to change your circumstances.
“We live in a world of instant gratification, the world of the quick fix.” — Rachael Taylor
Four years ago, one of my long time client had recommended a lead: someone who would be interested in hiring me. As we progressed into the conversation, she peppered me with questions about my business, how many students I have, and how long it took to built it up. It was obvious she was trying to dig into personal things as oppose to hiring me.
I asked her about her child’s learning experience. She pushed that question aside, and instead, pressed on how to “quickly” teach her daughter. I told her that I’m not the kind of teacher who believes in any quick fix, but if you want your kid to be intelligent, it helps if you have the right teacher. She then asked what my hourly rates were. After I told her, she asked me a question only someone looking for a quick fix would ask: “How many lessons before my daughter would be finished?”
“I’ve been teaching for seven years, and most of my students are still learning together with me since the beginning,” I responded. “I’ll let you know when we get there.”
To no surprise, I never received a response back. I saw her two years later on my way to a class, but this time she pretended to not look at me. I approached her and asked how her daughter was doing, and she told me that her daughter had been taking different classes from various teachers and institutions, and now she’s confused about what to do.
If you’re looking for a quick fix, find another teacher. Clients who hire me understand that learning is a long-term process. Everything takes time. Things don’t just fall into your lap whenever you want them. You need to have patience - and this is the problem. It takes ten years to build a career in anything. It takes ten years to raise a child. It takes ten years to firmly plant a business. Yikes! I’m not even there - yet.
The HBO documentary “Becoming Warren Buffett” tells the story of how the 86-year-old billionaire - who still lives in the five-bedroom home in Omaha, Nebraska, that he bought in 1958 for $31,500 - never spends more than $3.17 on breakfast. Each morning, before his five-minute drive to the office, he tells his wife how much his McDonald’s breakfast is going to cost and she puts the exact change in the cup holder for him to pay with. No, really:
“I tell my wife, as I shave in the morning, I say, 'Either $2.61, $2.95 or $3.17.' And she puts that amount in the little cup by me here (in the car),” he explains.
Each amount corresponds with a different option at McDonald's.
“When I'm not feeling quite so prosperous, I might go with the $2.61, which is two sausage patties, and then I put them together and pour myself a Coke,” he adds. “$3.17 is a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit, but the market's down this morning, so I'll pass up the $3.17 and go with the $2.95.”
Warren Buffett’s net worth is right around $84 billion. How is he able to climb up that amount? Patience and persistence, qualities that don’t usually come to the fore within the majority.
This reminds me of the motto: “Nothing is easy. Otherwise, everybody would be millionaires.”
Keep an Eye on the Oil
“Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.” — Aristotle
When I was fifteen, my mother had read me a story about a responsible father who sends his son to learn about the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world. The lad wandered through the desert for forty days, and finally came upon a beautiful estate, high atop a mountain. It was there that the wise man lived.
Rather than finding a saintly man, though, the boy, upon entering the main room of the mansion, saw a hive of activity: politician and statesmen came and went, people were conversing in the corners, a small orchestra was playing Beethoven’s ninth symphony, and there was a table covered with platters of the most delicious cuisines compiled by the most famous chefs all over the world. The wise man conversed with everyone, and the boy had to wait for two hours before it was his turn to be given the man's attention.
The wise man listened attentively to the boy's explanation of why he had come, but told him that he didn't have time just then to explain the secret of happiness. He suggested that the boy look around the palace and return in two hours.
“Meanwhile, I want to ask you to do something,” said the wise man, handing the boy a teaspoon that held two drops of oil. “As you wander around, carry this spoon with you without allowing the oil to spill.”
The boy began climbing and descending the many stairways of the palace, keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. After two hours, he returned to the room where the wise man was.
“Well,” asked the wise man, “did you see the vast array of vintage wines in the cellar? Did you see the Persian tapestry in my dining hall that took the interior designer a decade to put together? Did you notice the rare books collection in my library?”
The boy was embarrassed, and confessed that he had observed nothing. His only concern had been not to spill the oil that the wise man had entrusted to him.
“Then go back and observe the marvels of my world,” said the wise man. “You cannot trust a man if you don't know his house.”
Relieved, the boy picked up the spoon and returned to his exploration of the palace, this time observing all of the works of art on the ceilings and the walls. He saw the rooms, the mountains all around him, the beauty of the flowers, and the taste with which everything had been selected. Upon returning to the wise man, he related in detail everything he had seen.
“But where are the drops of oil I entrusted to you?” asked the wise man.
Looking down at the spoon he held, the boy saw that the oil was gone.
“Well, there is only one piece of advice I can give you,” said the wisest of wise men. “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.”
At some point in life, we all have the responsibility to pursue what we want and accomplish a more meaningful life. Wherever life takes you, never forget the things which are as important as the pursuit of happiness - such as your health and your family. Which brings me to the next topic.
The Illusion of Wealth
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” — Epictetus
Someone drove me home the other day. As he was driving down the road, he saw a fellow driving a shiny blue Porsche Cayenne. “There are too many rich people these days,” he pointed as his face started to dim. “Yet, here I am, still poor.” I wanted to say something, but I managed to hold the urge to speak because sometimes it’s better to leave things as they are. I was concerned that, if I said something, he would spend three days thinking about it, even though he had gotten used to the way things were.
Many feel that wealth has escaped them. Different triggers in our commercial society could easily drive people into a state of contrition and remorse. The constant sense of lack and gnawing belief that something is missing. If only I had a fancier car, a bigger house, a newer phone, a trip to Hawaii - or whatever - then I would finally be all set. If you feel that way, it’s probably because you are myopic towards this whole idea of wealth. Life doesn’t work that way. You can amass more and more materialistic things, yet find you’re still not satisfied. You have no sense of abundance.
You learn things in bits and pieces: you capture an ingredient from a book or two, another seeded from a seminar or a famous person’s website. Unfortunately, these isolated ingredients do not capture the “big picture” of wealth like a car stuck on the road with an empty gas tank and a dead battery. You’re focused on accumulating more money, but neglecting to care for the things that are equally as important. The continual pursuit of material success has made some of us lose the importance of relationships, of health, of peace of mind.
Too often, I see people who are wealthy but have distant or damaged relationships with their children. You see, they’ve invested in the wrong things.
I was talking to an incredibly wealthy woman at a club gathering event years back. It was held at her gorgeous, sprawling estate, overlooking a view that would envy any working man or woman. The moment I had a chance to talk with her, I asked if she had any piece of business advice she would share for a newbie like me. “Do you have kids?” she asked. I thought that was a bit odd considering my question, but I responded that Sandra and I are working to have our first child.
“If you’re looking to do what I’ve done,” she said. “I would tell you to pause for a moment, and ask yourself why you want more before you start chasing it.”
“You know, previously, I was the CFO of a multinational firm. I travelled a lot and I’d move from one office to the next, with little or no time to attend my son. I have bank accounts filled with money and I’m eating the same hamburgers you are,” she added. “I realized having more isn’t a bad thing, but if you keep chasing for more and don’t know why you’re doing it, you’ll be lost.”
“Do you know what I would tell my younger self?” this woman said in more of a whisper. “You already have it all. Right now. Stop working too much. Keep growing, but don’t ever let that become more important than your family. I let it become more important than my family. Now I have a big, gorgeous, beautiful home and a son I don’t even know.”
Perhaps, in a society as rich as ours, a sense of lack is merely a state of mind.
The Mongolian warrior-ruler, and notably one of the most famous conquerors of history, Genghis Khan, had the right idea when he warned his sons about the pursuit of a “colorful” life with material frivolities and wasteful pleasures. “It will be easy,” he explained, “to forget your vision and purpose once you have fine clothes, fast horses, and beautiful women.” In that case, “you will be no better than a slave, and you will surely lose everything.”
There was a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island. A gentleman named Kurt Vonnegut informed his pal, the author Joseph Heller about their mutual friend, a hedge fund manager. “Did you know that our dear friend had made more money in a single day than your wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history?” Vonnegut said.
And Heller replied: “Yes, but I have something he will never have ... ENOUGH.”
You just need enough. You need enough money, enough time, enough food, enough sex, enough courage, and so on. What is enough? That is for you to decide. I realized that having the basics - a good home, good relationships, good meal, and good sex - is most important, and those things don’t get any better even when you have a lot of money, or much less when you have less. Once you stop worrying about what you don’t have, a lot of things become much easier.
Confessions of a Simple Man
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” — Confucius
When I was in college, I’d always go to the campus gym at eight a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday for my morning workout. Each time, I would see this middle-aged fellow reading the newspaper with weird glasses on his face. As the day progressed, he would teach a group of exercise majors, using one equipment to the next, going around the gym. Later I found out that he’s a sought after strength and conditioning coach for the Boston Bruins Hockey Team. He has written a number of books ranging from strength anatomy and physiology to exercise methods and techniques.
One day, I was pulling some weights off the floor, and to my surprise, he suddenly approached and used me as a model to lecture his students, explaining them how to use the equipments properly. After he finished, I overheard he was asked to describe what his best day ever would look like.
For someone like him, you might think the possibilities are endless. But his answer might surprise you.
“My best day ever,” the coach responded, quickly and confidently, “would be reading the newspaper with a cup of hot coffee, and then teaching you guys. That would be a perfect day.”
His response was more valuable than anything I learned throughout two decades of schooling. Quite possibly, it was the most valuable education I have ever learned. Two months after that day, he became my mentor. A year later, he took me under his wings as his assistant.
It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary. The sooner we learn to be happy with the simple things in life, the better life will be.
At the beginning of this writing, I’ve mentioned that financial independence is merely psychological. However, financial experts would argue that in order to be free, financially, one needs to have a net worth of some arbitrary number. An absurd number of about $1 million dollars, right? Wrong.
A sweatshop worker in rural China, living with no mortgage could practically well be financially independent - today - if she chooses to reframe how she interprets things, and then take action to change her circumstances. Of course, don’t expect her family to dine-in at a Michelin starred restaurant anytime soon. Similarly, a candy shopkeeper who is debt-free, who meets his daily income, and is not saving any money to travel around the world someday, is free financially than the business man with three luxury car payments and a hefty mortgage for his five-bedroom mansion.
How is that even possible? Broadly speaking, can we all agree that financial freedom is gained when our income (active and/or passive) is at least equal to our expenses? And the moment we start to have cravings and desires, the more financially dependent we become towards them? Of course, what I think doesn’t really matter because it is rarely in accord within the majority. Many people would rather mindlessly chase after more money, more power, more position, more things - or whatever. That is why, every day, a man, who has a family, goes to the office for the next forty years, day after day, doing drudgery work without much meaning, wasting his life endlessly about nothing because he has to, not because he wants to.
You can put my words to the test. A lot of students asked: “William, why are you working so hard?” And I said, “I’m not working. I’m having fun.”
Of course, some of the brightest ones would say words like: “So you’re getting paid to have fun? My parents told me that is impossible to do.”
“The knowledge you seek is already within you, right here, right now. Of course, that you already knew. The truth is, you don’t need me or any other teacher to teach you something you already knew.” I replied. “But I had to insist on payment because I helped you point in the right direction.” Unfortunately, that is how the world works now. I can’t expect free rent from my landlord, nor anticipate free food on the table.
In the end, the duty of a true educator is to point and guide, not to persuade and assure one’s mind.
Now let me summarize what you need to get started on your journey towards financial independence:
- Identify your most important thing.
- Be creative and develop an alternative solution instead of conforming to the gatekeepers.
- Don’t be afraid to be different.
- It takes time to accomplish anything great.
- Wealth is an illusion and money is just a number; take what is enough.
You decide the rest.
I would like to close by telling an old story about a shaman with tremendous reputation for curing insomnia. A busy stock broker who has trouble sleeping tracks him down deep within the wilderness, and the shaman agrees to help. The shaman sends detailed instructions, and a few weeks later, the stock broker sends back a note that he’s been cured. “It was a miracle! I’ve been sleeping like a baby. Thank you so much!” the message reads. The shaman sends his own letter: “Glad to be of service. Come see me whenever you’re ready to wake up.”
Are you ready to wake up?