Four lessons I learned in the past five years

Here are four lessons – injected with a lot of information – I learned in the past five (and ten) years:

  1. What you manifested as a kid is your main guideline of your most important traits – whatever people tried to tell you later and whatever choice you made in your later life, what makes you go happy is the same kind of stuff you liked as a kid. If you feel unhappy, very likely you are doing something someone else thought was a good plan for you: “do not become a clown. Accountant is better for you and your career opportunities”. “Who am I?” and: “what do I really want?” is easier to understand once you remember what made you go: “Wow! Yeah!” when you were five and ten years old. Growing older has not changed you much.
  2. You can not escape your responsibilities – there are some things that might be a burden but are part of your main package of: “things to do”. You simply can not escape them as they will came back to haunt you at some point.
  3. Do not try to become someone else: be you – despite many courses and trainings trying to tell you otherwise, you can not become: “anything you like” as reality can be a very stubborn bitch. The best and most rewarding result to achieve is: “more of you” as fulfillment will automatically flow from that in ever increasing quantities.
  4. Smart people can make stupid mistakes: five keys to success – Regardless of how smart you are, you can fuck up. Especially when you want to move to fast or when you are not prepared. The scary thing is: the smarter you are, the bigger the mistakes can become. Out of my own mistakes I distilled five things I would advice my younger selves on hind sight.

This post is about 4200 words, which equals about 10 to 14 pages of printed text, so do not expect to be done in less than 10 minute, unless you like to scan the text for cherries to pick, which is completely OK too. For that purpose I made some neat little lists for you and emphasized things with bold.

Here we go.

1: What you manifested as a kid is your main guideline of your most important traits

As a kid I was a dreamer. A re-user of scrap materials to build stuff I liked, varying from model (fantasy) aeroplanes rockets and space ships out of lego and empty bottles to dart guns, rail guns and kites you can control with two wires. I figured out that one planet was missing in our solar system when I was 10 by using basic math and charting on paper on the distance between each planet and the sun. I was very on my own, very much in need of recognition, always nerding around, always bored by normal school life and never had a large group of friends.

I always thought I knew better, being notorious to my parents (and possibly other people) by correcting my teachers and people around me when I thought they were wrong.

I was shy. I never liked the attention of many people unless I created the situation. I also resented “performing tricks” – for instance repeating something funny I did before on request of others.

I lacked popularity and marketing skills. When I organized my own birthday party, nobody showed up as I skipped several crucial steps like: give a clear date, tell everyone, tell them were it is, get confirmations and commitments, repeat your advertisement until the day before.

I never cared about money or earning money unless I had a purpose. I spent most of my time reading or building stuff. Normal work bored me out of my mind. And as my father was part of the family company, growing flower bulbs, it must have drove him and my mother to pain and worries due to the fact that I always found ways to bail out of the work I was supposed to do.

I could spend hours and days in a row, without stopping – except for the necessary stuff like sleeping and going to the toilet – to do the stuff that I liked. Like almost obsessively book-binding 800 issues of Perry Rhodan in packs of 10 using nail and nylon thread. Or like spending days taking apart old television circuit boards for spare parts to build new stuff with.

Nothing much has changed.

I have tried several things, including trainings, to become a different type of person, but most of them did not work out.

Most of the conflicts in my work are caused by me being “unreachable”. Meaning that:

  1. My cellphone battery is dead for two or three days without me noticing
  2. I do not respond to e-mails for over one day as I am busy doing things
  3. I do not respond to all voice mails, for the same reason

The resulting message I seem to give to the people trying to reach me is that: “I do not give a shit” or that: “I do not respect them as client” or that: “you can not rely on him” of which the first two points – in a deeper way – are true, but not in the way as the other side sees it. The last one is dependent on your own perspective. If you – as my client – treat me like the type of person who should jump when you say: “jump”, or think I can be sominated like you are my boss and I am your slave bound employee, you have the wrong person.

Being unreachable from time to time has lead to potential long term clients not placing repeating orders and my bank accounts being frozen without any written warning (payment reminders) by my landlord and being preached to and threatened by.

Being me also lead to clients being completely happy because after countless disappointments in people unable to deliver what was dreamed up, they found someone who could: me.

I give a shit, especially if the client is small potatoes and idealistic about his or her company. I have been working many late hours for clients like that, without charging anything more than the amount we agreed upon because I liked them.

On the other side: I do not give a shit beyond the scope of the assignment if the client is full of shit. Which happens occasionally. I suck at Public Relations in general because I am pre-occupied with what is happening in my own mind. Still: assignment is assignment and deadline is deadline.

My pre-occupation with my own ideas is the main reason for me being unreachable and – in a way – untouchable. What is happening in my mind is generally more interesting than many commercial projects I have been working on.

In many ways I am still the same person as I was as a kid. Many of the traits and “flaws” are still here. Regardless of how hard I have tried to change them or how desperate I was due to having these: “dysfunctional and self-sabotaging behavior patterns”.

There is a lot of nonsense going on regardless “discovering yourself” and they all involve a lot of work and a lot of unclarity.

So if you are in doubt, asking: “who am I?” and: “what is it I really want?”, look at yourself as a kid. Look at what you manifested to the world around you. Look at your determinations, your response to your environment. Whether you were an obedient kid, rebellious, artistic, creative, funny, boring, a bully or very sensitive: It is your base guideline and the key to your personal fulfillment.

As most of our schooling systems are not aimed at you and your personal development, but at you and your role as a part in a Industrialized society it might be that you – like me – lost track of this for a long time, thinking something was “wrong” with you.

I found and find it hard to break with some concepts. One is: “when you have an awesome idea, you should make a company / business out of it”. It is partially cultural. Very similar to the children-question. Not to make a business out of a good idea is like: “yeah, we will not have children. Ever. Because we like out freedom.”

2: You can not escape your responsibilities

When I started my adventure with the building and my “soon to be great” company in 2006 I committed to several responsibilities. One was to make sure it would not kill me financially.

Below you will find my personal list of responsibilities. If some of the items are relevant for you too, do not hesitate to reap the content and use it for your own personal good.

Earn money / pay the bills – Whatever you do, you can not escape your financial responsibilities. If you do, the end of the road is to lose your house and anything you own. Earning money is on half of the deal. If you do, all is OK. If you do not, things will suck at a certain time. Paying bills is another. You can earn money and not pay bills, but at a certain moment, bailiffs will start to establish very intimate relationships with your doorbell.

Respect your clients needs – I wrote already about my main weakness towards my clients: being unreachable from time to time. Brief: it is bad for business when the client loses confidence in you and decides to quit due to your crappy client management. It is your responsibility to give your client the feeling that you respect his or her needs. Below you find a short list of things I learned in the past 10 years. I tried to keep it as short as I could:

  1. Do what you promise – If you say to deliver “A”, deliver “A”. If you are not able to deliver “A”, make that clear to your client. If “A” becomes “B”, make sure this is communicated and put into a new contract excluding “A”. If “A” has to be delivered and you think you can not, either do more your best and exceed yourself, or terminate the assignment with mutual consent to allow the client to find someone who can deliver.
  2. Do what has been requested – If the client wants “A”, do not deliver “B” or “A and B”. If you feel “B” is required, confer with the client and pitch “B”. If “B” is relevant, it will become part of the trajectory. If not, drop the concept for this client.
  3. Do not betray – In some cases it can be tempting to betray your client by leaking inside information or program code or whatever it is. It can be to friends, people in the middle who brought you there in the first place, other people in the same company you also own allegiance to, to other clients, to competitors or to start your own business. The world is all kinds of shades of grey and people pure of heart exist mostly in story books. It can be that you do not like the client or whatever. The thing is: it is just like smoking but quicker. Do it long enough and it will damage your reputation, as you are potentially damaging your client. If you are in a situation like that, shut up or step out.
  4. Be clear – If you want to say “no”, do not say “yes, maybe”. In the end you both suffer and lose. If you mean “green”, state “green” and not “some shade of yellow or blue”. In the past 10 years I have worked with independent agents and freelancers who – for whatever reason – had difficulties being clear and direct to their clients, leading into making promises they regretted and agreements they actually disagreed with.
  5. Be precise – It is easy to slack down, become bored, sloppy and forget stuff. In my case, taking short creative breaks and using lists helps. Not using lists means that I will forget.
  6. Be clear about your price and value – If you undercharge, state that you undercharge. If you think or know your value is XYZ, state to your client that your value is XYZ. Make choices what you want to do with hours you are productive (like: building stuff) for the client, hours you do research (which can be for your own benefit as well) and hours that are blocked (like: traveling to the client) by the client. If the client is not willing to pay your price, evaluate the client and their value to you. If they allow you to cover yet another few weeks of living, accept. If they upgrade your portfolio or open doors to new business (for real and not as a false promise to get cheap labor), accept. If there is no added value, reject your client respectfully.
  7. Make contracts / clearly define boundaries – It is OK to offer your services below price or even for free if it is a new client, but make clear that this is an exception and your normal price is XYZ. Write down what you will do, but also state what is NOT included. The client is always surprised to learn that whatever you deliver for 5.000 euro is not exactly the same as that other thing that costed 50.000 euro, due to the budget, unless you tell him / her. See “be clear”
  8. Restate contracts / boundaries when things change – Things change. Clients forget what was discussed and changed. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes due to lack of focus. As a project progresses, new insights come. Using e-mail is helping you in two ways: to document what is agreed and – in most cases – by covering the legal requirements to prove your right for when a (legal) dispute starts afterwards. Make sure you:
    1. Document the agreements in clear words – for future reference and confirmation by the client
    2. Mail these new agreements to the client – to be confirmed
    3. CC the mail to a trusted 3rd party if you lose trust – To have a “witness”. Such a party can be your accountant
    4. Recieve a confirmation from the client – to close the new contract / boundaries
  9. Respect deadlines – whether the deadlines stated by the client are realistic and real or not, they are part of the agreement. If you are unable to meet them due to whatever reasons, make that clear as soon as possible instead of the last moment. It will allow you and / or your client to take effective measures instead of having to do last minute improvisations to save the day.
  10. Be reachable / available – Make sure your phone is charged, read your e-mails at least: when your day starts, when you return from lunch and when you close your day. Respond within one hour after reading. Being reachable / available also means stating when you are NOT available. “We are closed after 18:00 and open at 9:00” is also being reachable. “I am on holiday until June 22” is also being reachable, even though it is not “now”. “I do not listen to my voice mails, please send an SMS or an e-mail” is also being reachable. As you state what does not work and how your clients can reach you. (As stated before: my main weakness.)
  11. Understand that you can be wrong even when you think you are right – This is not the same as “making a mistake”. This is about your opinion. You can think that the client, the concept, your fellow workers or the assignment completely suck, but that is completely irrelevant. If you do not like it, leave. If you stay (in the project) accept that people not always play the game according to your rules and shut the fuck up.

This list of eleven items is the bottom line of my work to maintain a clean, clear and respectful Client / Supplier Relationship. They are my prime responsibilities as a person and professional. If I slack on any of these eleven (which has happened on each), I will face repercussions sooner or later in the process, varying from simple misunderstandings to angry clients (happened), legal disputes (did not happen), wasted time (happened) and loss of income (happened) due to a client feeling mistreated (happened), abandoned (happened) or tricked by my work and behavior (happened).

The amount of damage done is always in the eye of the beholder. You will always find people who feel that you done them wrong. In some cases they are completely right. In some cases it is very subjective.

I think when you are able to execute all these eleven items in a consistent 90% of all time manner, you are close to saintly-hood. A halo should be showing any time around your head, if it is not already there.

Take care of your personal, mental- and physical health – The bare basics are: sleeping well, eating well (fresh food, not too much / too fat / too high on calories) going to the doctor when you feel that something is taking too long to heal or is returning way too many times and taking enough excersize (like walking and moving around) to keep your body in shape. Mental health is a bit more extensive and more tricky. Let me split eleven aspects out for you:

  1. Disappointment – Whatever you do, you will have expectations towards people and possible outcomes of actions taken and to be taken. Especially when everything “goes wrong” it becomes a challenge to remain optimistic.
  2. Negative feedback from others – Negative feedback can be anything, from a bad review to people not being satisfied with you or your work to people shouting at you and blaming you for stuff you did ir did not do.
  3. Negative self image – Almost unavoidable for most people on this earth. Bottom line: get over it. Write down what you are good at, find out “who you are” and do what you do best. Avoid and stop trying to become something or someone you are not.
  4. Injustice – As people are people, stuff will happen that is unfair and injust. False accusations and blame games are two to mention.
  5. Pressure – Pressure and stress are related, where pressure is the cause and stress is one of the outcomes. Pressure can be deadlines but also client expectations you might not meet and things with an unclear outcome that can result in either your success or failure.
  6. Greed – Greed can manifest in many ways. What I refer to is “the fear to lose / the fear to miss an opportunity”.
  7. Mistrust – You will work with other people. Will you trust them, or think they are idiots? Will you trust them to be OK, or backstabbing assholes, waiting for the moment of your downfall? Will you trust them to pay, or did you already start up legal procedures? In most cases people are OK. In most cases clients will pay. (Anbd if they do not, they simply are not your client anymore, regardless of any future promises.) In most cases people (including you and me) are stupid and there are no deeper motivations than short term satisfaction of ego or the senses.
  8. Fear – At some point in your life you will meet with fear. Fear goes hand in hand with with many things, including a negative self image and pressure. In the basis short term fear helps you by kicking your butt to move from a place that is not working to a place that might. Long term fear will kill you.
  9. Pride – To be proud of what you do is a good thing. To not do things due to pride (like not forgiving your parents for not living up to your childhood expectations) is arresting your development. Sometimes the only way out of “being stuck” is to re-evaluate what is important to you. Should you hang on to the image you once created to the world, or simply accept that some things will not bend to your will? Pride can lead to very lonely places as – at a certain point in your perception – you can become the only one who is right where the rest of the world wronged you.
  10. Impatience – To be able to wait for things to happen is a strength. Again: things will not happen your way and people will not always be as fast and effective as you might be or you expect them to be. Impatience – at the end – will close your opportunities as you either: “will try to force it to happen” “will do it yourself” or “do not trust other people to do it” leading to either no action or too much time wasted on your side. Seeds need time to grow. Seasons happen at their own tempo. Plans need time to evolve. Things need time to be built and arrive. New ideas need time to be materialized. To be able to wait for the right moment and the right people to arrive in your life will save time, money and a lot of loss.
  11. Frustration – Frustration happens when your expectations are not met by reality. It is the very next step after repeated sets of disappointment, injustice and pride. The only thing to get past it is to come into terms with your expectations. Either adjust them, or change your environment by moving somewhere else (other company, other clients, other colleges). Realize that a very important component in your frustration is you: your expectations to your environment, but also the things inside yourself you have not coped with yet. Everything you do not like in your environment reflects what you do not like in yourself.

Each of these eleven elements are simple human traits everyone has in some degree. In extreme situations they lead to stress, daily fear (building up to a period of 2 successive years), burn out (7 times) bordering depression (over 15 years, from age 16 to age 30) a broken sleep pattern and exhaustion (2 years) and giving up on yourself and ideas you have and had.

Learn to deal with your shit – To learn to deal with each of these eleven has been a key responsibility in my life. Without that increasing mastery (reducing more and more the impact of these eleven items)  I would never be able to establish what my internal drive is pushing me towards. And like anything, there is no constant. It is a road full of bumps, stops, taking wrong turns and starting again.

3: Do not try to become someone else – be you

It is tempting to think that “if you do like X, you will become just as successful as X”. The: “7 habits of successful people” is bought by many people for that very reason. Because they think they can repeat the outcome by imitating the behavior.

You are you. Not Britney Spears, Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet. I am not Jack Vance, Bill Gates or my cat.

You can not: “become anything you want to be”. Even when you set your mind and your soul to it and read any book you will find and make a telepathic soul-merge with super-coaches. Because you are human. Because you have habits and belief systems that work against you. Because you grew up in a society that supports mediocrity. Because you are limited in many ways.

Many people who try to become like someone else end up with a dependency towards anti-depressants as it really takes a lot of effort to “be” that someone else. On the other side, once they start to discover what it is to be themselves, life changes. From chasing a career as a “high potential” they find that tending children or public gardens as a volunteer, or run a cafe with delicious foods grants much more satisfaction as it is closer to what is “them”.

I had to spend 200.000 euro and being stuck to a 5 year contract and waste almost all my revenue on bills on stuff and services that supported everyone and anyone except me to really understand that:

  1. I should not try and have a company with personnel – as, in the end, I completely lack any internal motivation to play that type of game
  2. My strength is in being that dreamer, making beautiful stuff – as it makes me happy. It is an unstoppable force. And – luckily for me – people like that are quite hard to find when you find the right type of niche to work in. Furthermore, by finding the right niche and being forced by financial demands bigger than me, the by-products from that process have enabled me to reach an earning capacity between 10.000 and 18.000 euro per month.
  3. I waste my time when I try to make a business out of an idea – as I care more about creating new stuff than making a business out of the old stuff.

Yes: from a Harvard Business School point of view, my potential is bigger than what I will be doing in the next years. I have the smarts to build a wonderful company that will produce awesome products in the same league as Apple and Bang & Olufson. With what I can create, I can generate more money on the long run than with a “gun for hire, paid by the hour” approach as I can only sell myself once, but I can sell products many times.

I once believed that to pursue that road would bring me a lot. Financial independence being one. Proving my capability being the second. But it simply is not in my wiring. My pre-occupation with my own ideas is my main fuel. It is the source of what makes this life interesting to me. Take the possibility to execute these ideas away from me and I lose energy. I become down. I start creating escape strategies. I start trying to undermine and destroy what blocks me as the alternative is like death.

4: Smart people can make stupid mistakes – five keys to success

Stupid people can make mistakes. Smart people can make stupid mistakes on a really large scale. I lost a lot of money due to a chain of stupid choices.

Being smart is not a warranty for not fucking up. Nor is being smart a warranty for success. Nothing is, as there are too many factors you do not control, including the patterns that have formed inside your self.

To reach success – in the most recent case avoiding bankruptcy – the following key elements were a returning pattern:

  1. Only do stuff when you are motivated from the inside – forget: “running 5 kilometers per day to build stamina” if you lack a deep conviction. After two weeks you will start to slack down. After a year your running shoes will like fat cats, lazily rolling over in the sun to warm the other side of their bodies. Inside motivation is like an unstoppable force. You will recognize it by three main markers:
    1. You are already doing it – even if you do not take it seriously (as other people might have told you that other stuff is more relevant)
    2. It makes you feel happy and good about yourself (regardless of other emotions that might have been added later)
    3. You have to force yourself not to do it – as it is your prime drive
  2. Take it easy – Stuff needs time to develop. Take your time. Give it time. At a certain moment it will come to you.
  3. Find your niche – The stuff you will base your income on might not necessarily be the stuff that makes you go happy. But it can be closely related. It can be an aspect of that thing that makes you go: “yeah!”
  4. Become an expert – Whatever it is, become better in it. Read about it, do experiments, build experience. As it is (close to) what you like to do, it will be exciting.
  5. Make it work – Build a basic plan, start putting that plan into reality, grab opportunities and use whatever works in your benefit.

I ended up being a programmer. something I started doing when I was 14, quit when I reached the age of 20 and picked up again when I stumbled into it five years later. I could have become an art-director but honestly said I lacked the talent and motivation for that in a very competitive market.

I could have become a writer or an illustrator, but both money and motivation lacked there as well.

Bottom line: stuff will turn out differently from what you will and can imagine. But that – as well – is the charm of living on this planet.

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