August 11th, 2011. Chiba, Japan.
A mix of confusion and awe as I step off the platform.
I must have made a mistake. But maybe a good mistake.
Birds caw and cicadas click gently, filling the warm afternoon air with sounds of nature. The train platform is open to the air and on the other side of the tracks is a high fence. Beyond it, a bicycle and walking path leading to a park.
Children are running around and playing in the park, but surprisingly quietly. Very Japanese.
Where am I?
"Su mi ma sen... Kasukabe... doko... wakaru des ka?"
The girl looked at the board of times, and pointed the opposite direction I came from. I had taken the wrong train and happened to step off in the middle of a quite rural station.
It's early afternoon, but the light is low since it's cloudy. It feels like a sleepy evening and the air is heavy with condensation.
The train I'm supposed to take arrives, but I let it pass. I'll sit a while.
There's a vending machine. I get a "Georgia Black Iced Coffee" for 120 yen.
People drift back and forth across the foot path. Little kids, families, older people.
It's so simple out here. Everyone looks happy. An old woman, maybe 70 years old, passes by on a bicycle. The basket on her handle bars is almost overflowing with something in white plastic bags.
Another train arrives. Leaves.
The old woman is riding back in the other direction, her basket empty.
I wonder where she dropped the things off at. Perhaps her daughter's house? Maybe it was some food and vegetables, and she dropped it off at her daughter's a kilometer away, tussled one of her grandkids' hair, and then bicycled back to her home.
A family passes. Father, mother, pre-teen daughter, six-year old son. The father is a little goofy in a likable way. He swings his arms broadly as he walks and his son is giggling. Dad stops swinging his arms, takes out a cigarette, lights it, takes a drag. Starts swinging his arms again, cigarette in hand. Then they're gone.
Another train comes, leaves. I'm still here.
A big group of kids, all with full bags of gear. Tennis? Camping? I can't tell. Some athletics or outdoor recreation type stuff. There's like 15 kids, maybe 9 boys and 6 girls. They wind along the path and are gone.
The cawing bird has stopped and gone away, but now a little tiny bird is chirping. The cicadas keep rubbing their wings together.
A second iced coffee. Another train arrives. Leaves. I'm still here.
A pretty girl, maybe 23 years old. She's not beautiful, but she could be: she's a just little bit too self-conscious. She's wearing a summer dress that's a size too big, her hair is a little messy. But she's pretty and she's smiling and seems like a nice person. Without knowing anything at all about her, I guess she'll get married sometime in the next two years and be a very good wife for someone.
Apparently this area is a major rest stop for train conductors. I see many of them walking around, getting on and off the train periodically. Or some sort of officials, anyways, with hats and white gloves. Probably train-related, I guess.
Maybe a lot of them live out here. It does seem like a nice area to live.
I think, this is what I'm giving up.
I don't get to have this.
It's nice to have it right in front of me, fully on display. This is idyllic suburban life. The people who live here commute to their jobs in Chiba or Tokyo and come home to this at night. Parks, trails, birds, cicadas.
People here can broadly understand each other. Everyone's a little different, but most people aren't /that/ different. The people who live here probably have broadly shared values, their kids get educated in broadly the same way, they eat broadly the same sorts of food and do broadly the same sorts of things. They put in long hours at work, but have lots of stability.
The jobs tend to be repetitive after the initial learning curve, and the days blend in to each other. Wake early, walk through the clean country air to the station, ride to work, work blends together into long hours, come home and have a late dinner with the wife. Play with the kids if they're still awake, check in on them in their bedroom if they're asleep. Do picnics or go to a family restaurant or go to the movies on the weekend. Go to Tokyo Disney once a year.
Everyone here probably has 95% of their life make perfect sense to their neighbors. An eccentric hobby would be making your own fruit jam or woodcarving or having a home gym. And those aren't so eccentric... even the things that are unique about people here, their neighbors can understand. And they get along well and are happy and at peace.
Another train arrives. Leaves. I'm going to stay here for a while and think. I'll get a third coffee in a little bit.
Last night I was working with a friend of mine on a campaign to get him $1,000/hour rates in his profession, about 10x what he's making now. He's the most talented guy I know in his field, incredibly knowledgeable, empathetic, good at his job. We're looking at people who his work would have a major leveraged impact on and on the kind of people currently making those $1,000/hour rates, how they market and what credentials they have, and how my friend can systematically build those credentials and marketing channels.
I quit video games a while back. I try to build things now, that's my video game. I like trying to make money for other people. Scratch that, I don't like the trying, I like the doing of it. I like making other people money... I think I enjoy it even more than making myself money, because I can stay distant from it. Buddhism encourages the center path - neither wanting nor aversion. Most people think Buddhism is about no desires, but they're kind of mistaken. It's about being very neutral about getting, but also about staying away from. It's easy for me to walk the center path with other people's objectives, very calm. Neither wanting nor aversion.
Everyone I meet and get along with, I try to make their lives a bit better somehow. Money tends to help, if a person is already running a business I can probably figure out a way for them to increase their volume or margins. I've got quite a bit of experience at it at this point.
Established businesspeople tend to take my counsel. I get paid pretty well.
But I also try to do it for free all the time. I want everyone who connects with me to better off.
You know what's strange?
80% of the people I draw up plans for - plans that would clearly work - don't act on them.
It's like everyone fantasizes about... whatever... but once their fantasies start to become reality, they piss their pants and self-sabotage.
I'm not being haughty about it. I do it too.
I met a good guy recently. He has a chief passion in life, and he has a day job. He doesn't quite care for his day job, but he's good at it and decently paid. I like this guy a lot, he's really a nice and good guy, so I drew up a complete business plan for him that'd get him 2x-3x what he's normally getting hourly and he'd control when he works.
I drew up exactly what the product, marketing, and delivery would be, and exactly how to do it. I volunteered to do a lot of the hard work, the "you don't know what you don't know" type stuff, I was willing to hold this guy's hand and really help him build another income stream and get him a lot of freedom and wealth.
I figured he could do his first run of it in 10-20 hours, but he'd get a lot faster once he learned the exact marketing channels, had the relevant accounts and contacts and marketing info, etc. I volunteered to do much of the hard work, said we could go 50/50 on the first run if he's interested (it would have only come out to a few dollars the first time, but it's more fun than playing video games) and he can just own 100% of the business and revenues after it's built.
Why not? It'd be fun.
He wasn't interested.
Well, he was, actually. Sort of:
"Still, I like your plan and I think it'd be a winner… if I were prepared to put that much effort in. I've often thought it might work if I grabbed a few of my colleagues and worked together, though they all have a similar attitude to it not being their passion."
But his day job isn't his passion either. And c'mon, it's 10 hours. We all fuck around and piss away 10 hours here and there all the time in all sorts of nonsense. This would be an opportunity to work hands-on with someone he likes, to make some money, to have more control over his income and schedule. In 10-20 hours spread over a couple weeks. That's like an hour a day for a short time, and I'm willing to do most of the hard stuff (actually, it's not so hard for me since I have experience in the marketing channels already, so the "figure it out" time is about 95% lower).
Another train arrives.
Third coffee...? Not yet.
I look up from my thought and writing. A 20 year old guy on a bicycle, black t-shirt, spiked hair, glasses, red backpack. He stops his bike, puts it on the rack, walks somewhere.... perhaps he's coming to this station to take the train?
No, he's taking his phone out. Meeting someone? Probably.
He's not 20. More like 17, I see his face now and he's young. But he carries himself quite maturely for his age.
A 14 year old kid in skateboarding clothes sits down two seats over from me.
It sure is nice out here.
The people here broadly understand each other.
If you start trying to be really enterprising and expansive, very quickly no one understands you.
I suppose everyone's unique, but y'know what? I think most people aren't /that/ unique. They have perhaps a unique mix of interests, but none of their interests are so crazy. If they are, it's 5% of how they live. The other 95% is normal and their neighbors would perfectly understand them.
If you set out building across multiple countries, continents, study constantly, and strike completely off the normal path, then how much of your life makes sense to people on it?
Last night, I was talking with my friend, the one I mentioned before about the $1k/hour rates for. I said, "If you did this, I'm pretty sure you could get your first client at $400/hour within 90 days." It would have to be his main thing for the next 90 days, but it would likely work.
Week 1: Research and list 10 people achieving at the target level he wants.
Week 2: Research all of their marketing channels and credentials.
Week 3: Figure out which channels/credentials might be attempted to build the fastest.
Weeks 4 and 5: Put in a couple hours each day trying to get those credentials.
For instance, make an amazing brochure with what you know in week 4, and then in week 5 print it on super high quality glossy paper at $30 per brochure. (High quality paper is a super hack to come across ultra-professional.) Send the brochure to the top 50 people you want as clients. Cost: $1500. Follow up with them relentlessly. Offer free services to all of them as a trial. Get a testimonial when one of them inevitably says yes. See if you can use that to approach a key person in their organization and get discount purchasing on your services, sell in bulk. Get a testimonial. Go pitch to people who need elite performance that you're the official supplier for this major prestigious organization.
It would work.
If it didn't work, go back to week 3/4/5 and pick a new channel and new credentials. Approach magazines or TV or get endorsements or work with someone in a complimentary business and offer them 100% of your first sale to them, or offer your services as a free bonus for anyone who makes a high end related purchase.
It would work.
SOMETHING would work. If you kept repeating this cycle, eventually it would work. Maybe not in 90 days, but certainly at some point. If you wanted it enough.
My friend, his core goal right now is total financial freedom. I laid out a plan that would get him there.
But will he do it?
I asked him.
"But will you do it?"
He cringes and says... "No. I won't."
"So, that's the million dollar question. Why won't you?"
He replies, "I don't know. I don't even like thinking about it really, but I'll try to. I don't know, fear? I have to confront my potential and the fact that I'm not living up to? It doesn't feel right? I don't feel ready? I don't think I deserve that much? I think I'd have to study for longer first? I don't know."
I nod. I'm the same way. I also see opportunities like this, but have a hard time going for them.
About six months ago, I started trying to make one major upside shot per month at millions of dollars. You know, writing a proposal to get $2 million from an enterprising government to build something amazing for them, or trying to start a bank, or trying to get a fast growth technology business funded type stuff.
One of those low-percentage/massive upside things.
A lot of times I want to throw up when I'm trying.
My buddy yesterday, we were talking about all of this at a Chinese restaurant, eating fried chicken, vegetables, and shrimp with excellent iced Chinese tea.
He said - "Sebastian, you're crazy but your logic works, the math works."
Yeah. I wonder if I'm crazy sometimes. A lot, actually. Why aren't other people trying? I keep layering success on top of success, my life is so weird and interesting and cool and crazy, but I don't have any particularly rare talent. I just do a bunch of stuff that might work, and won't hurt too bad if it doesn't work.
So why don't people do it?
Hell, I offer to make people money for free, draw up a simple clearly workable business plan, offer to help out. 80%+ of them don't take it.
A few months ago, a guy I'd been correspondong with for a while wrote to me. I had already asked him, "What are you working on? How can I help?"
He told me about a service business he wanted to start, and how it would have all these amazing benefits, and how he'd charge these ridiculously low rates to start to get his first clients, and then he'd be an entrepreneur.
I wrote back, telling him it was a great idea and giving him my thoughts on where to start, some points to consider, and otherwise just being really impressed. He's obviously thought this through and ideas were workable.
Another train... I want that third coffee now. One moment.
Ah, that's nice.
So I wrote to this guy who had this really wonderful set of ideas that were going to work.
I hit send.
Then I stopped and said to myself, "You know what? That really is a damn fine set of ideas."
And I wrote him a second email and said I'll be his first client, I'll pay exactly what he's asking, we can start whenever he wants, and I'll help him hammer out the concept a little bit too. He's a good guy and I think he'd have done good work.
He didn't write back.
Mind you, this is a guy I'd already known some, we'd swapped emails and chatted on the phone some. He just... I don't know, who am I to judge? But it seemed like he had a dream, but as soon as his dream was about to become a reality he kind of pissed his pants or something.
I do it too, you know. Metaphorically piss my pants sometimes in the face of opportunity. Though I'm trying to stop doing that.
But why is it so hard to stop? That's the million dollar question...
And maybe this little countryside area is the answer. The guy who said he's not willing to put in the effort to control his own income, to make more per hour than he's currently making, and improve his quality of life.
My buddy who said realistically, he's not going to follow up on that target plan to get him to $1k/hour rates. (Though, we'll going to try to do something about that and kick each other's asses.)
The guy who pitched me on his service business and I said I'd hire him for it exactly as he described and pay exactly what he was asking, and be cool about it as he worked the kinks in his business out.
You know what I think it is?
You won't be understood once you step off into the abyss.
The more you do it, the more people won't understand.
The second guy I mentioned, the effort guy? He's got coworkers right now he can commiserate with who understand him. The business idea I mentioned to him doesn't exist as far as I know right now, and there's a demand for it. I'm sure there's a demand for it. And his income is such that even with a low price point he could still make 2x-3x what he's making now and fulfill a market need.
But then what? Then he's the only guy doing this thing. No commiseration. People won't understand him as much.
And the more you do that, the more people don't understand.
If you keep taking all those edges that no one else will, pretty soon your neighbors don't understand you, can't understand you.
It's just you.
I didn't mention this earlier, but when I first arrived at this train station I cried for the first time in three years.
Normally I can't cry. Like, tears just won't come. I don't think that's a good thing. Control your emotions in public, but express yourself in private. Sometimes I've felt down and wanted to cry, but I never could, no matter what happened and even if the situation called for it. Last time I did was 2008.
But I arrived here and I hear the birds and cicadas, and I see all the wonderful green land and clean air, and I see these wonderful nice kind people living their lives, and that all really harmoniously truly understand each other.
And I got it.
I don't get to have this.
I don't get to have this.
I get something else. Something pretty amazing. But I don't get to have normal life.
And it looks really, really nice. A lot less neurosis and conflict and striving and fighting forwards.
They say the law of diminishing returns on money kicks in around $60k or so.
I think they're crazy. They must be thinking only about their happiness as individuals.
I want $40 million before I slow down. $40M is enough that you can drop $2 million on building something - a school, a bridge, an orphanage, a shrine, a monument, a massive work of public art - and it's only 5% of what you've got. If you see a deal of a lifetime, you can put $10 mil into it and it's only 25% of what you've got.
I think I'll get there. I'll keep identifying the currents and ways forwards, building my skill, being useful, and I'll try to hit the required channels and deliver the value. And I'll just keep going. And it should work. Maybe I'm crazy, but the math and logic seem to work. 1) Identify what makes people succeed at a massively high level. 2) Do that. 3) If that's not working, go back to step 1 and try again.
But the further ahead you go, the less people understand you.
What a fitting ending to my writing - a young suburban mom and her little daughter have arrived and are joking around and having fun. They look so happy and lighthearted.
I've done a lot and I'm really just getting started. But the more you do, the further away you get from being understood, from the joys of normal life, from being understood by your neighbors and backing each other up and living together harmoniously.
I cried for the first time in three years when I realized it.
The million dollar question... why don't people take the large opportunities in front of them? Why don't they allow their dreams to become realities?
Because it means you won't be understood. And we need to be understood, fundamentally, it's so important to us.
Maybe that's not the whole answer. But a big part of it. I cried when I realized that's what it was.
Mostly happy tears... well, it was a strange sort of emotion. Like when a hero dies at the end of the movie while succeeding in their quest. It's sad and joyful at the same time. There's loss, but what's being done has gotten done.
I don't get to have a normal life. I don't get to be fully understood by everyone around me.
Stop crying. Start smiling. Keep building.
The train arrives. I get on.
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Fantastic. Read the whole post without being distracted. Had vivid images on my mind. Can't believe you nailed such a big part of it. By being unconventional and doing the opposite of most people, we become less & less understood.
Last night, I had a 2 and a 1/2 hr skype conversation with my best friend. We're very like-minded. We had to force ourselves to hang up the conversation 'cause we wanted to keep chasing those crazy good opportunities we have right now.
During those 2 and a half hours, I felt understood. It felt fantastic. I was happy.
It's kind of frustrating to realize that people just won't ever take the very first step, even though it is so easy/small. I mean litteraly sitting down and doing the first 30 seconds of a task seems SO impossible to them, they have to over-analyze everything and wait for the perfect conditions, which never come (see the best procrastination tip ever here: http://zenhabits.net/tada/).
However, when you actually do meet people that are very like-minded, I mean REALLY REALLY like-minded, you gain some of that joy back. You become understood again.
Seb, you must be getting quite a lot out of your blog on this subject. We can feel it too in your writings.
Keep rocking it up brotha, we love reading the conclusions from your self-talks.
I really enjoyed this post! There is one other thing I think maybe you didn't take into consideration, though. While people may say they really want this thing, sometimes it's more the idea of being able to do it that has become the dream—once they start putting in the work, it's work, but prior it's fun and dreamy. Just a thought :)
Brilliant, I think its about being alone, being left alone because you're not understood and the fear of being isolated from others..this is the best article i have read in quite a while, awesome, thank you, I will now print it and reread it many times over because it touches exactly a dilemma I have been experiencing for the longest time...
Honestly I think 90% of it is just complacency. I suffer from this all the time. At the moment I have no problems, not real responsibilities, go to class, get A's. Other than that its just go to work, don't get fired, take care of the kids then do whatever. When it comes down to it, it just isn't really that bad. I mean really think about it. If you live in a first-world country you never really have problems, all of them are man made. unless of course it a serious health problem. But other than those life is simple.
Sometimes I think, why start a business and travel when i could just graduate, get an executive job, and earn 100k and play video games when I'm not working? go to restaurants or nice bars on the weekends? then rinse, repeat. It would relatively effortless, the path is already drawn out, the income is steady, my only responsibility is to not get fired.
Complacency is Huge, In my opinion its whats killing first world countries and allowing third world and emerging countries to rapidly progress. They have something to strive for, their work is their life, they know they have to devote there time and energy to standing, out, they know they have to work twice as hard to make up for it. Alas, its as george leonard says in the book mastery the concept of Plateau. In the first world, the amount of effort required to advance in terms of freedom or anything is more and more unseemly because one can be comfortable relatively easily.
in spanish theres a proverb that says "es mejor diablo conocido que por conocer" better the devil you know that one you need to get to know. A similar proverb in english is "better rabbit in hand that in the bush". most of these people have their rabbit, they really don't need to, or want to push themselves to risk one not being in the bush
Coming in real late to the party here but I think Andrew is on the right track regarding the 'other components' of why most people don't take optimal opportunities. Most of the 'normal' people (like myself more or less) I dare say are simple and purpose driven. Simple in that the happiness * income graph does start showing diminishing returns at 60k or however much it costs to have a stable life in their neck of the woods. Purpose driven in that unless we need to do something we will ought not to do it aka complacency.
Comfort zones play a big role as well. As much as people "complain" about how they're not wealthy they don't hate it enough to do something about it. In fact in their point of view the risk of going outside the comfort zone far outweighs the cost of staying inside it (even if the fears keeping them in are unfounded/dumb/illusory etc). In the first world getting the basic levels of comfort are easier than in the third world. Though I dare think in the third world if they reached a certain level of comfort (that they deemed 'satisfactory' for them) then their bullheaded relentlessness and ambition would suddenly be sapped as well.
It is an interesting thing to think about. Sebastian says in his post he won't be happy until he hits the 40M marker. Let's say he does achieve that. Would he go on to aim for something higher or would he just collapse and become 'normal' like the rest of us?
I think it only makes you more confused if you're not the type of person to look for opportunities and someone like Sebastian Marshall tells you they're everywhere. Of course they are. But does that mean everyone should take them? Each of us has different values and understandings of life, what's important for them etc., and also different fears. Sebastian's values are, at least right now, look for opportunities, think big, produce, serve. Sebastian's fears: fear of lost opportunity, not trying hard enough, losing his credentials. But that's not the whole world - that's just Sebastian.
I'm reading a lot about ego these days, so excuse me if I'm a bit biased but I think lots of the issues we're talking about here have to do with ego. The values and fears we're discussing are ego-driven - me, me, me. I want to be / appear successful, the best version of me, live life to the fullest, etc. An opportunity we don't take is not something we simply didn't take - we say it's *lost*. How can something be lost if you never even put any value to it? The guy simply didn't take it, that's it. You're the one putting value to it, not him.
I'm not sure if you really want to go the Japanese suburb path though. The thing is, even though you probably wouldn't admit it, you see yourself as something *more* than these people; that you have more and deserve more and strive for more and will achieve more than them. You have money and credentials and skills and connections and inspirations - quite a lot of resources, at least in your world. But the resources you have and the resources the Japanese have, have nothing in common (like different currencies, or speaking different languages) - so I don't think you can even compare the two situations.
The drama is, once you're exposed to the information and resources and opportunities, and you've grown up with these values (talking about the Western culture), there's pretty much no going 'back' - simple rural life just doesn't fit your mindset anymore. But the rural people who never get to find out about these things, they only know about what's around them - and live with it happily. There's no more they could ask for - of course they're happy they have most of what they know. We're the ones exposed to too much information - which makes us want more, set higher expectations, and be easily disappointed when we don't get it.
The more we read, the more we think, the more disconnected we are from the present - thoughts are either past- or future-driven (I read that somewhere). I think that's the difference between the people living close to the nature (living in the now) and the urbanized culture - studying past concepts and future ideas, but often forgetting about the present.
damn, this was a super intense post. reminded me when a friend said, "people are more afraid of success than failure (or complacency)."
yeah i been alone since elementary school, don't have any friend(close friend), people think i am weird, but i am working on something, now i know, now i really know, thanks a really enjoyable post
This was a great reflection Sebastian, cheers. Looking back on this post from where you are now, what's changed? Anything?
I'm 72 with a PhD in Nuclear Physics. I've been a researcher, a tech manager, a president, president and CEO of a small space company and since 2010 a senior tech consultant.. Every Friday i hold a videocon with three fellow grad students to discuss difficult physics concepts, but it's a way to waste time. We know this country aches for experienced folks like us, but we no longer get any phonecalls from the young 'uns that control the tech world.. They'd rather, I think, make their own mistakes. We dont want to get into the 8 to 5 ratrace and feel very comfortable working fron our home offices and go to the required occasional meetings, wherever they may take place.. Any suggestions for us?