Overcoming Lack of Talent to Design my Ideal Lifestyle
Hi, my name is Richard and welcome to my blog!
Growing up, I didn’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body.
My friends had a sixth sense when it came to business opportunities, but not me.
It’s like that part of my brain was missing. I always ended up aiding other people’s schemes.
I’d read stories how Warren Buffet started a successful business as a child, and had all the neighborhood kids on board, and feel very inadequate.
It’s like they say,
“comparison is the mother of all unhappiness”.
By working in different fields like service, teaching, sales, and marketing, I slowly figured out what people want and how to give it to them.
It wasn’t magic. It wasn’t rocket science. It was just a matter of empathy and action.
One of the scariest things I’ve done is start a business.
Everyone knows the statistic, “50% of all businesses fail in the first 5 years”.
This demotivational sentence has killed more dreams than Simon Cowell.
Instead of asking yourself, “what if I fail?”, why not ask, “what if I succeed?”
This statistic terrified me so much I kept my business mostly secret, so I wouldn’t be embarrassed if it failed.
It turns out that starting a company is not that hard if you understand others and go the extra mile.
Plus, there are many ways to stack the odds in your favor.
The saying, “there’s plenty of room in the extra mile”, replaced that self-defeating statistic.
8 years later, my business is on auto-pilot.
I work 20 hours a week and have enough money to do what I want with my life.
Most importantly, I control my time. Because that’s the one thing you can’t get more of.
I’ve been slow traveling the world for 5 years with my partner, and have experienced things I never could have imagined.
Best of all, I learned about myself and conquered many demons.
I have time to stay healthy, while pursuing interests like this blog, which hopefully spreads some positivity.
This was only possible because I ignored my fear of failure, and general lack of business aptitude.
I want to share how I turned my job into a sustainable business. Because in our current economic system, you either have capital value, exploit it or have none.
And the best job is the one you do for yourself.
There are three sides to every story, yours, mine and the truth.
I’ll try to give every side of the story about me.
I believe if you’re going to show the highlight reel, you also need to show the bloopers.
Here’s my story – I hope it helps you get what you want out of life.
Growing up in the Suburbs
I was born in Orange County, California.
To some, it’s a paradise with beaches and idyllic living. But even from a young age, it always felt a bit off to me.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many nice things about living in the suburbs. Clean environment, safety, routine and a strong sense of community. These are things some people would kill for.
But, like the first utopian version of the Matrix, my mind rejected it.
On top of this, I was shy and introverted. Plus, the small talk and pretending to be happy all the time really drained me.
I always felt like an outsider, even in a group.
My parents had a hard life growing up and were strict, but stressed the importance of a good education.
Luckily, I also had a big sister, who was a full foot taller than me until high school, to teach me how great and terrifying women can be.
I was fortunate enough to attend nice public schools in Fountain Valley. The teachers were really supportive, and students came from all walks of life.
I liked learning but didn’t like the structured environment of school.
It was designed to produce well-adjusted factory laborers after all. And not everyone is suited for that environment.
I especially disliked PE and wanted to get out of it any way I could.
And I did when a friend of mine mentioned I could lift weights if I joined the wrestling team.
Getting Owned in Wrestling
I didn’t factor in the whole wrestling part of joining the wrestling team.
I was horrible at it freshman year. My record was so bad my team laughed at me during the year-end awards ceremony.
I didn’t want to be a walking joke, so I started taking it seriously.
By sophomore year, I won my league in junior varsity, and by junior year I made varsity and took league there.
Wrestling is a great sport for developing self-discipline and mental strength.
They would crank the heat up in the practice room to 90 degrees, and we’d train while starving ourselves of food and water to make weight.
I made many good friends and we bonded over our mutual suffering.
Unfortunately, I got injured halfway through my senior year and couldn’t compete.
Looking back, it was the right choice to let myself heal up. Even though the team somewhat ostracized me at the time for being a quitter.
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. And if I had pushed myself, I might have been permanently injured.
It paid off in the long run because I still enjoy martial arts and have trained in boxing, Muy Thai and Jiu Jitsu.
I graduated with a decent enough GPA to get into UC Irvine. I thought I would have a great time in college, but the mandatory electives weren’t for me.
It turns out I really hate learning things I have no interest in.
Most importantly, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and wasn’t into my Bio major, so I checked out mentally.
I changed major 3 times and nearly dropped out.
I felt even more trapped in the suburbs, since I was living in Irvine while working at the Toyota dealership there too.
It put me through college and I was able to study a bit when there weren’t any customers. But it was way too much Irvine for one person to handle.
I wanted to be challenged and stimulated.
The borderline obsession with lawns, which shade of Irvine Beige your house was and what other people were buying didn’t interest me.
I barely showed up for class, even though some lecturers were superb.
I wouldn’t say I was depressed, but I definitely was just going through the motions.
I ended up graduating with a 2.9 GPA.
Sometimes you just have to get things over with so you can move on.
Going to college opened many doors for me.
In the end, it didn’t matter which major I chose, since I didn’t know what I wanted to do anyhow.
First Experience in the Labor Force
After graduating from UC Irvine, I worked in home loans at the now defunct IndyMac.
I became the top salesperson on my team by simply making more calls and working longer hours.
That was until they took away my accounts and gave me duds.
I had to start from the bottom again.
To whip my new clients into shape, I took a helping tone and listened carefully to what the customers needed. This automatically made me more likeable and helped develop relationships with them.
Within two months and some work on the weekends, I was the top salesperson once again.
After a while, the routine of commuting and sitting at a desk all day left me unfulfilled.
Also, their commission structure was not very rewarding, so I would only get hundreds of dollars for deals they made tens of thousands on.
It’s like companies have been set up for hundreds of years to win, while I just graduated college.
Nevertheless, I had the goal of buying a house and being rich like most good Orange County boys.
So I just saved my checks and didn’t buy a new BMW like some of my coworkers did.
The world is vast and diverse. There’s no guarantee that you were born where you belong.
I certainly did not belong in Orange County.
I bought a house in 2005 with help from my parents.
I thought it would make me happy, but after that, all I wanted was another house. And with the high mortgage payment, I couldn’t afford to live in it.
Trying to find fulfilment from material things is like pouring water into a leaky bucket.
It’ll never be enough.
You have to find enjoyment in moments.
After a year of making payments and not doing much else besides gaining weight, I quit my job for what I thought was a higher paycheck.
The owner of the new company misled me about the commission structure to get me to work there.
I had no one else to blame but myself for not getting it in writing before I jumped ship.
Feeling betrayed, I quit soon after and lived with my parents.
I’m not proud to say this, but for 6 months I played World of Warcraft and gained 30 pounds. Definitely one of the low points of my life.
I made up my mind that I could either live like this forever or I could do something interesting with myself.
I went online to Monster.com in 2006 and took the first job I could find overseas.
As luck would have it, they were hiring in Korea.
It was a 50% pay cut from my previous job, but I didn’t care. Money didn’t make me happy.
The interview was a 5 minute phone call to see if I could speak English. I sold my car and most of my belongings and was on a plane the next week.
Land of the Morning Chaos
When I arrived in Incheon, I was brimming with anticipation. The recruiter took me to Seoul and I met the employer’s son in a dark, seedy neighborhood.
When he showed me the basement level apartment I was going to live in for a year, I thought he was joking.
The room was a moldy hole in the wall that looked like it was built during the Korean War. Pretty much the same place from the movie “Parasite”.
My dreams of throwing parties and making friends with people from all over the world were dashed.
The only visitors I’d be having were centipedes and drunk people from the noraebang next door. I had made the same mistake of not doing my due diligence.
On top of that, they told me that I would be working the next day, but I could skip the 6:30 am class, so I could get some rest.
That night while I squatted down to take a hose shower, I promised myself two things:
- I’d give it a week and see how it goes. If I hated it still, I would leave.
- And that I would always check before signing on the dotted line.
After that I felt great.
It might have been the shock, but I felt alive. I could choose my own destiny.
It was like controlling a video game character.
I wanted to create a brand new version of me. It would be based on having unique experiences.
So I thought of ways to learn the language and meet people.
I kept a notebook of Korean phrases I heard.
Learned salsa dancing and cooking when I wasn’t exhausted from working 6:30am to 8:30pm.
I cleaned the hell out of my place and took pride in daily chores.
I even made it habitable enough for my sister and her friend to stay for a few nights before they threw in the towel and checked into a proper hotel.
In hindsight, I’m glad I had this experience. It gave me a much needed humbling and put things in perspective. To be honest, I was happier living there than in a nice house with a manicured lawn.
Life in Seoul
Seoul is crazy. 10 million people crammed into an area half the size of Los Angeles. That’s 45,000 people per square mile.
You have to be quick in order to grab a seat on the subway or you’ll be standing for an hour.
I dropped those 30 pounds in a few months naturally from walking around and eating healthier than I ever had.
Korean food is still one of my favorites for daily consumption. They make vegetables delicious without adding butter or cream. And there’s a whole category of food that cures hangovers called haejanggook.
There are things to do 24 hours a day. Palaces and temples all over to visit that are hundreds of years old.
It’s a far cry from the strip malls and endless freeways of my hometown.
Koreans are all or nothing. They will treat you like an outsider until they know you. Then you’re family.
The advantage of this is there’s no small talk. I could save my limited mental energy for people close to me.
Adapting to New Surroundings
My first attempt to speak Korean by asking the time was met with a gruff response and a gesture to the clock behind me.
These types of interactions motivated me to learn the language. Or at least stop being so awkward.
Arguing in Korean and dating accelerated my learning. I was conversational in a year.
The job was fun, and I was able to teach adults mostly.
I networked with the students until I met a bond broker who I got along with.
He let me crash on the floor of an empty room in his apartment for 8 months (yes, I was that guy for a while) after I quit.
I learned a lot about being humble and rolling with the punches.
When I moved out, I was able to pay my rent by teaching English to the new landlord’s kids.
I started doing odd jobs like acting in dramas and movies and teaching finance.
It was a really fun few years. I definitely got into a lot of trouble.
I even ran into a friend from high school on the subway who I became very close with.
One day at the gym in 2008, I was in the aerobics room stretching in the dark as I so often would, when a guy came in and sat across from me.
We eyed each other for a while and I was preparing mentally for the ensuing fistfight, until he asked me if I spoke English.
Turns out, he was looking for an English-speaker and offered me a job. I asked him what it was and it was teaching interview skills to prospective flight attendants.
Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.
I worked there for 5 years and was able to travel to interesting places like Dubai, the Philippines and Singapore.
I gradually took on more tasks like translation, conducting interviews, making curriculum and international sales and marketing.
It became my job to bring major airlines such as Singapore, Qatar and the holy grail, Emirates, to Korea to recruit our students.
The good and bad part of working at a Korean company is that you have to wear many hats.
I’d often finish work at 10pm and get home at 11pm for a quick scotch and angry shower.
But I learned everything I needed to launch a business.
After I landed the Emirates campaign after 4 years of trying, I thought I was due for a promotion.
The boss said it would make the other employees jealous, so I’d just have to wait until I turned 40.
I’m not the type of person who does the minimum to run out the clock. So I took on more tasks until I was able to build them a duty-free sales subsidiary from scratch.
They still didn’t want to promote me.
I had to find another way to get ahead.
How I Met my Partner
At the flight attendant academy, women would wear high heels, perfect makeup and stylish clothing.
To my surprise one day a girl showed up in a hoodie and no make up and could converse naturally in fluent English.
I didn’t fully understand at the time, but I had a feeling something special had happened.
We became closer and talked often on the phone.
We had so much in common and it felt like we had known each other for years, even though we were from different cultural backgrounds.
Even after knowing each other for just 3 months, I attended her college graduation and met her parents, which is unheard of in Korean culture.
I had never met a former girlfriend’s parents in the 6 years I had been in Korea.
Even when I’m not in a good mood, she can turn it around with just a smile.
I’m incredibly lucky because we complement each other in almost every way. I couldn’t imagine doing this with anyone else.
Starting a Business
8 years ago, we were in a rut. Working dead end jobs while stagnating.
The jobs themselves were great, since we had opportunities to travel.
But in terms of professional growth, we’d have to wait for the passage of time to be promoted.
Not to mention office politics and long commutes across town.
We decided to channel our mutual disdain for companies into starting our own. It would be a totally different animal.
No commutes or unproductive meetings that dragged on all afternoon.
After my previous mistakes, I made it a point to look before I leaped.
I started researching different industries and planning my business before quitting.
There were a few options. Café, English language study room and translation business.
I had friends who were doing the first two, so I observed them in their natural habitat.
Running a café was nice on the surface, but I learned it would take 5 years to recoup my investment.
Not to mention the fact that two more can sprout up next door overnight.
Plus anyone who walks in the door is automatically my boss. So that wouldn’t work.
English language study room would be the easiest to get going, because I had a competitive advantage built in.
But after observing my friend teaching kids who didn’t always want to be there, I decided against it.
It was basically herding cats 8 hours a day.
Also, he could barely take time off, because the parents wanted him around at all times.
He even had to limit his honeymoon to a few days, because he might lose students.
Translation it would be.
Now, translation isn’t exactly a sexy new industry that everyone wants to get into.
I consider this a good thing.
Work doesn’t have to make you happy all the time.
It doesn’t have to be your love in life.
I would even argue that doing what you love as a job can turn it into a chore.
It just has to be something you’re passionate enough about to stomach every day.
We would offer our services directly to our clients.
We’d essentially turn our jobs into a business.
In three months, I had nailed down the logo, name, and overall business plan.
This was all done during work hours and weekends.
Even though I was busy, I could still find time for my future.
Some might think this is disloyal to the company. And I would call those people suckers.
Companies don’t care about you.
I pulled my weight during this time and my coworkers didn’t have to pick up any slack.
Besides, my boss would replace me with someone cheaper/better in a heartbeat.
We invested 2,000 USD to turn my apartment into an office.
Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to start a business.
Literally anyone can do it. Even someone like me, without any business savvy.
Click here to find out how we did it.
5 Years of Slow Travel
After 2 years of running a successful translation business, we wanted to take our show on the road.
By then, we had a decent list of repeat clients who were too busy to meet up anyhow.
We did a test run in Taiwan and forwarded calls to our cell phones.
It was a surprising success as things went smoothly for the most part.
When we got back to Korea, we sold everything we couldn’t fit into a backpack.
We decided to start slow traveling on easy mode by going to Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2015.
Since it has the highest concentration of digital nomads, I thought I was finally going to find my tribe among like-minded people.
As nice and fun as the people were, I didn’t really connect with anyone on a personal level.
Surprisingly, you can have 90% in common with someone and be very different.
It might be because we’re too individualistic or always on the move.
So I prefer to identify as a slow-traveler, or location independent entrepreneur, or cyber gypsy.
One benefit of slow travel is that social anxiety all but disappears. The fact that you’ll never see people again unless you choose to really turns down the volume on interactions.
In the beginning, we went a little overboard with travel. After all, we didn’t know how long it would last.
We were planning of living in Sri Lanka then India until we saw someone getting their arm chopped off on the beaches of Colombo.
That and getting charged multiple times what locals pay for everything from hotels to breakfast soured our experience.
The kicker was getting bitten by ants all over, because the hotel staff forgot to clean chocolate that was smeared on our bed.
It turns out, these unique experiences happen a lot when you’re living out of a suitcase.
We realized we didn’t have to like or visit every country in the world, and noped out of there in a week.
Our plan to visit India was replaced by the Maldives.
In the past 5 years, we traveled to 40 countries, all while running our business.
Believe it or not, it’s easier than having a job.
Sick days are a given, since I often work in my pajamas.
Any overtime is paid directly to us and our freelancers. And the best part is being able to fire toxic clients.
But after 5 years, we hit a similar rut.
There is no permanent happy ending. You can get used to anything, good or bad.
And the lifestyle we dreamed of became our new normal.
We didn’t want to grow our business, because we would just be focusing on money, and we already had enough to do what we wanted.
Making more would just be adding to the pile that we don’t spend anyhow.
We did learn to appreciate the simple pleasures in life like people watching in parks, spending time in nature or fostering animals.
Those are pretty much free, but we can’t do them all the time.
Our original goal was to build a large company with many employees. We gradually found that managing is not our thing as it takes a lot of time and energy.
You really have to love it. And we’re not looking to micromanage or seek validation from having a big company.
Our translation business was running smoothly, but it was repetitive.
It’s a good industry for a steady paycheck, but it limits creativity and autonomy, since we have to work on what’s given to us.
We wanted a new challenge. The excitement of the unknown and the exhilaration of being creative.
My Turning Point
I’m pretty average when it comes to having a social conscience.
I care about things around me, but no one would describe me as “woke”.
That has changed slowly as I’ve traveled the world.
Beautiful beaches and rivers choking with garbage, stray dogs starving in the street and once pristine air filled with smoke leave a lasting impression and can change your priorities.
This culminated when we rented a house in Kotor Bay, Montenegro with a beautiful view of the water surrounded by mountains.
One day after a hard rain and a visit from more than a few cruise ships, I noticed that garbage had piled up on the shore. This unfortunately, isn’t a rare sight in most countries.
What made the situation different was when I noticed a majestic heron wading through the trash, looking for lunch.
I felt horrible that this lovely creature was relegated to dumpster diving in the mess we made.
Even though I didn’t personally generate that particular trash mound. I was responsible for others around the world just by being a consumer.
I grabbed a trash bag and went to work picking up everything that was within reach.
It was surprisingly easy and fast. In a matter of minutes, the amount of garbage was greatly reduced.
At least until the next storm and wave of cruise ships.
It then became a goal of mine to leave the world a little better off.
I believe that if you don’t keep moving forward, you’re stagnating.
If we were going to start a new business, money would not be the main goal.
Sure, we could make a travel blog and throw up a bunch of affiliate links to Amazon, but there are already many talented people doing that.
And that alone wouldn’t motivate me to share my private moments.
We wanted to do something that we could be proud of.
I like looking in the mirror at the end of the day and feeling good about myself.
We needed to do something with a positive impact on the world, whether we made money off it or not.
Why not have it all?
It’s hard to affect change in the world.
Reading the news is like watching a car crash in slow motion.
But we can start by changing how we consume.
We saw that there was room for improvement in this field.
You can’t expect companies to not be evil. The only thing you can do is not buy it.
Our goal is to help people find ethical companies and avoid bad apples when possible.
I will spend my time finding ways to shop consciously and shift power back into the hands of consumers.
Thank you for reading my life story so far!
I hope you enjoyed it.
I wasn’t planning on it being so long, because I like to keep things private.
It was supposed to be brief and impersonal, but it became an enjoyable experience. And self-reflection is generally a good thing.
Your lifestyle can be whatever you want if you take a chance.
Mine isn’t for everyone, but it’s works for me.
I recommend writing your own story.
And if you don’t like how it goes, you can still change how it ends.