My ass is frozen. I sit on the side of a mountain, skis wedged into the snow, as I take a momentary breather at the head of a steep chute overlooking North Lake Tahoe. An expansive horizon dotted with snow-capped peaks frames the lake, clouds riding the currents through and around the sentinels. My breath floats inside the wind eddy that shelters me from the gusts roaring around the peak. My muscles attempt to stem an onslaught of lactic acid. My thighs are basically telling me to fuck off.
A single question occupies my thoughts—the most difficult, yet simplest question anyone can ask of himself:
Am I happy?
VILE Inc. An idea takes shape
For years, I’d wanted to take another crack at creating a business focused exclusively on my illustration work. In fact, I’d tried and failed to carve out a meager living with my pencil twenty years earlier. Over the ensuing two decades, I would spend countless hours brainstorming ideas for such a business, emptying innumerable beers with one of my best friends. But now, with my combined growing disenchantment with running a service-based business and ongoing frustration with the web-design community, I felt the time to make a change had finally arrived. However unceremoniously.
I would become the illustrator I was meant to be. And I was scared shitless, despite my twenty years of experience running a business, and despite the steadfast encouragement of family, friends, and colleagues.
I began stepping through the basics: reserving a company name, paying for a corporate name search to make sure it was available, eventually incorporating the name, purchasing URLs, setting up hosting and email, establishing bank accounts, and getting the legal and financial foundations established. I even took it a step further by seeking legal advice on trademarking the name in the broadest category set I could afford at the time in order to protect the business and set it up for expansion.
While all this was going on, I created new artwork and coerced a friend to build the business a splash page to help collect mailing list subscribers, drive interest, and promote it on social media. I started to get the word out on Twitter, Facebook, and Dribbble. I began work on a marquee illustration for the site and seven weeks later it was completed and gracing the home page of my new website.
Within a few months, VILE Inc. was a living entity. And the initial response was promising. The passion I felt coursing through my veins helped soothe the butterflies performing barrel rolls in my stomach.
I dove into my work and before I knew it, another blisteringly hot Atlanta summer had passed and I found myself floundering again. I could feel the discomfort and trepidation begin to creep back into the base of my neck. I’d been working with all of my web clients to keep the doors open at 16toads, my UX/UI consulting studio, to varying degrees of success. But it wasn’t the same any longer. My heart just wasn’t in it. I was still putting the needs of my clients well ahead of my own. Turns out, the after effects of burning out are PTSD-like. It sticks to you like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth. I hate peanut butter.
Despite the progress I was making, my life remained in a state of disarray. And every single professional and personal trial over the course of the previous year began to feel like a lesson that was funneling me toward something specific. All signs were directing me somewhere. Somewhere not yet obvious to me.
The final straw broke around the time when Atlanta’s greenery turned briefly into a cacophony of color. One evening, when I was enjoying a finger of scotch on the rooftop of the loft I was renting and watching a brilliant orange and red sunset create a silhouette of downtown Atlanta, I had a moment of absolute clarity. It was time for me to leave Atlanta for good. This decision to uproot my life would prove to be the second most difficult I’ve ever made. It was also a very easy decision because I had always known that Atlanta was not where I belonged. I’d leave behind beloved friends and family, but I’d have to do it—for me. To begin again with a clean slate.
I set a soft date to move by the end of March, three months away. My client workload was minimal, which gave me the opportunity to work on a lingering personal project.
One afternoon, while taking stock of all of my belongings, making mental notes of what I would be packing, donating, and throwing away, I began rummaging through my flat files. Toward the back of one of the drawers, I found a manuscript to a story I’d written thirteen years earlier. I read it through, then sent it to a handful of people to see what they thought of it. The responses I received were overwhelmingly positive. Without knowing precisely how I would accomplish the task, I decided I was going to get the story published.
I challenged myself to simplify my drawing technique enough to get the work done in an accelerated timeframe. I’d be redrawing details forever if I didn’t set strict limits for myself. I don’t do simple, ever. Eight weeks. I would need to complete twenty-three spreads in eight weeks. Simplifying my drawing style would prove to be among the most frustratingly difficult tasks I’ve ever attempted. For the next two months, I drew day and night, taking long breaks to pack my belongings and make arrangements for the upcoming move. I completed the last illustration during the third week of February. Amazingly, I’d also gotten the majority of my packing completed and wound up with three weeks to complete the final moving arrangements and relax prior to my departure. I spent my final night in Atlanta surrounded by my dearest friends listening to the unmistakable clink of appreciation for their inestimable presence in my life.
I felt a giddy optimism I hadn’t felt in a very long time watching Atlanta vanish in my rearview mirror as I drove away with a manuscript, a pile of illustrations, my worldly possessions, and my ski gear.
Your expectations can go fuck themselves. Lock them in a wooden box, set it on fire, and dump the ashes in the toilet.
I’d spent the previous week traveling across the country for the second time in 393 days. Jackson, Wyoming, welcomed me with a spring blizzard. Few things are more enjoyable than the last week of ski season—soft snow, warm temps, a conspicuous absence of tourists, and a carefree attitude encapsulated by Gaper Day (a ritual observance at ski areas across the country on the last day of lift operations, when locals dress up and ski like the tourists/gapers they love to hate).
I left Jackson with a smile as wide as the Grand Teton is monumental. It wasn’t until I was driving across the I-90 floating bridge into downtown Seattle, coastal air wafting through my nostrils, that reality finally hit me. I had just moved 2,638 miles from one corner of the country to the other. This was happening.
Siri was barking directions in her confident monotone, helping me find my way to Phinney Ridge, where I would be staying with two of my best friends, who had graciously offered up their guest room while I looked for a place to live. Due to an incredibly hot rental climate, my search would wind up taking three months. Eventually, I found a place to rent, had my POD delivered, and began settling into my new life in Ballard.
Unpacking my office and getting all of my basic business operations squared away were my highest priorities. I hired a new accountant to help me get my books straightened out after a disastrous experience with my previous accounting firm in Atlanta. Through a local referral, I found a lawyer who specialized in intellectual property law and had extensive experience working with artists. Finally, I had both of my corporations and all of my bank accounts transferred to Washington.
Paying the bills
I had anticipated that I would lose a significant portion of my 16toads business with the move due to the fact most of my clients were located in the Southeast and would cling to the silly notion that their web consultant should be nearby. My national clients were inconsistent enough that I wouldn’t be able to rely on them to pick up the slack. I was also very aware that I was an unknown in the Seattle marketplace and getting established would take time.
So, what do you do when you lose approximately 85% of your business in one fell swoop? Panic, momentarily, then pat yourself on the back for socking away enough money in your emergency fund to get by for a little over a year. Then start looking for work with earnest.
Design didn’t change because we suddenly had more “data” to draw on for our solutions. Design changed because people saw an opportunity to profit off of our clients’ ignorance.
I had this crazy notion I would be able to find a part-time job that would bring in enough business to pay my living expenses and free up time to continue building VILE. Early luck was on my side, I found the perfect arrangement when I managed to land my first client within a month of arrival—an outdoor products manufacturer that produces many of the tools I carry in my camping kit. I began working with them on a part-time basis as their UX/UI Design Director, helping them improve the online presence of their eight brands.
Things were looking up. I woke up smiling every day in one of the most beautiful places on earth, despite the lack of its famous rain. I’d moved, in part, to get away from the sweltering Atlanta heat and save my lungs from the seasonal scrubbing of pollen. My first summer in Seattle turned out to be an unusually hot, sweaty Atlanta-like summer. And I wasn’t happy to be sweating in places I had hoped would never involuntarily sweat again. I went so far as to go out and buy my first hoodie, hoping it might persuade Mother Nature to turn on the air conditioning. No such luck. But I did create my own recipe and brew my first-ever batch of refrigerator pickles. And I’ll be damned if they aren’t fantastic on a hot day, or any damned day.
A Fowl Love Story
Amidst the tumult of my first summer in the Northwest, I had also started hunting for a publisher for my book. After a few possibilities turned into dead ends, I stumbled upon a local publisher who specialized in working with self-published authors.
I’d done my research and came to the conclusion that self-publishing was the best way to go. The decision to self-publish is not one to be taken lightly. Especially if you aren’t a celebrity. Major publishing houses are a one-in-a-million shot, rarely include a substantial advance nor comprehensive marketing, and typically take up to three years from the time of acceptance to the time your book rolls off the presses. Self-publishing means everything is on your shoulders. Everything. Writing, editing, layout, cover design, promotion, marketing, and printing. And it probably won’t surprise you to learn that self-publishing still costs a small fortune to get done well.
My publisher interviewed me prior to taking me on as a client and asked me point blank, “Why do you want to publish?” I thought for a moment and answered, “For me. I want to do this for me.” He smiled, relaxed his shoulders, and nodded his head in approval. We talked at length about the probability of success, post-publication marketing efforts, and the hard reality of walking the path of an author. He loved my book’s story and saw its potential, but made it clear that he wouldn’t take my money if it would hurt me financially. I answered honestly at the time, “No, it wouldn’t.” The ball started rolling.
It’s hard to describe the emotional high of holding a prototype of your own book in your hands. I’d start with surreal. The millisecond the cut-and-pasted sample touched my fingertips, I felt the familiar tingle of goosebumps popping up on my arms. Pop, pop, pop—just like a cartoon. This was one of the most exciting moments of my life. As rough as the sample was, I was turning pages printed with my words and my illustrations. I was holding my book! My mind started racing.
“This looks SO good!”
“Oh my god! This is going to be huge—I’ll sell every copy!”
“People will love this story!”
“Here I come, Ellen!”
My publisher sat next to me and told me how thrilled he was with the page design of the initial draft, then got down to brass tacks. I listened to him counsel me once again about the reality of the business. “Authors are the world’s biggest gamblers,” he stated plainly.
Eight months later, after numerous rounds of revisions, hours upon hours of design tweaks, many thousands of dollars, and limitless patience, I received a call. My book was ready and an advance copy was waiting for me at his office. Later that evening, I held a hard-bound book with the words “Written by Paul Burton” on the cover as my publisher slapped me on the back with hearty congratulations. I stood there without saying a word for what seemed like an eternity as, I’m fairly certain, at that moment, an aura of brilliant light encircled my body. It was the proudest accomplishment of my life. I’d done it. I’d finally followed through on a promise I’d made to myself years earlier. The entire shipment would be delivered by freight to my door three weeks later. All nine hundred pounds of it.
I was now an officially published author. My website had been updated and the brand-new e-commerce store, VILEGOODS, I had spent two months building was ready for business. Excitement coursed through my veins. Little did I know how true my publisher’s statement would turn out to be.
Fewer than $150 worth of books were mailed to customers over the course of the first two months, despite my efforts to get the word out in the weeks and months prior to publication. Facebook ads proved to be useless and my email marketing campaigns were largely fruitless. Social media, in general, may as well have been a vacuum chamber. Among the many things I did to promote the book was pay for professional reviews through an organization called Reader’s Favorite, as it turns out that the New York Times Book Review will only review books prior to publication. Lesson learned. It appeared that I wouldn’t be getting a call to appear on Ellen after all. I managed to get a number of fantastic reader reviews and Quack! even won an award for illustration in fiction at the 2015 Reader’s Favorite Awards Contest. Overall, reader reactions and feedback have been overwhelmingly positive.
The question is: how do I turn that positivity into sales? Getting published is the easy part. All it takes is the willingness to embrace risk. Devising and implementing a workable marketing strategy is the mountain I will have to climb. Getting Quack! in front of a larger audience will be one of my primary challenges in the upcoming year.
My publisher’s words continue to provide a counter balance, “If you believe your book will be a bestseller, don’t self-publish. In fact, don’t even try to get published. You’ll only wind up getting frustrated and disillusioned and eventually give up altogether. The odds are simply against you.”
Fact: Most self-published authors earn less than $500 from the sale of their book(s).
Halfway through that first summer, I received a notification that had me doing inept cartwheels down the street. I’d been accepted as a vendor at the 2015 Emerald City Comicon. This was a bombshell opportunity.
The Emerald City Comicon is the second largest comicon in the country, an event that draws upwards of 70,000 attendees itching to part with their hard-earned income. I was thrilled VILE had been accepted as a vendor. ECCC in March 2015 would be the official launch of my illustration studio.
I had nine months to prepare and broke my lengthy to-do list into pieces with due dates attached to each item. I needed to create the perception of a viable (professional) studio for Comicon as economically as possible without cutting corners on quality. More to the point: I needed to create an inventory. Researching potential solutions and lining up vendors to produce my products was how I spent a great deal of my time. FYI, it turns out that screen printers who specialize in printing posters are a dying breed.
I would have my book, this much I knew. And while it wasn’t superhero or fantasy related, I was certain it wouldn’t be the only picture book being peddled by hopeful authors. Quack! would be the centerpiece of the VILE booth at ECCC.
My only goal at ECCC would be to raise awareness of the brand and introduce the studio to a massive audience. This would be a huge marketing opportunity and I needed to fill in some gaps in order to gauge what types of VILE products would capture people’s attention. To this end, I convinced an excitable friend (it didn’t require much effort) to dress up her daughter as the main character from Quack! and walk the event floor pushing around a 24-inch tall wooden toy duck I had enlisted my talented brother to build for me. A magnificent duck with an animated bobbing head just like the classic wooden paddle duck toys, only four times the size.
In addition to my book, I planned to produce a number of short-run products to test the waters:
- Beanies with custom logo tags
- A branded T-shirt with a custom illustration
- A few posters with original artwork
- Screen-printed, limited-edition prints of spreads from Quack!
I also purchased a package deal for sponsors that gave me an ad in the ECCC magazine and representation on the event website. I would also get 3,000 inserts in the event tote bags. I had numerous marketing materials printed, including flyers and info sheets. Promotional materials included beer coasters and custom square business cards. Finally, I was raffling off a GNU snowboard skinned with a custom VILE illustration.
I didn’t expect to sell much merchandise, but I needed to make a solid impression. I simply could not half-ass my presence and expect attendees to take VILE seriously. I had four distinct illustration and design approaches represented in my product offerings and could only hope that they were enticing enough to get people’s attention. Personally, I was excited to finally have printed the first custom-designed t-shirt in what I envisioned would be a line of VILE branded apparel. This investment would be a trial by fire. One thing was certain, even though I made great efforts to keep my costs down, opportunities like this did not come cheap.
I wound up selling about $500 worth of merchandise. And thanks to the volunteered efforts of a handful of very generous friends, approximately 5,000 pieces of marketing materials found their way into the hands of attendees. In the end, I learned more in three days than I could have learned in two years of trial and error by pumping ungodly amounts of cash into marketing, got amazing exposure, and received numerous compliments from event producers, fellow vendors, and many dozens of attendees.
I was exhausted after the three-day event but drifted on a natural high. VILE would be successful. Of this much, I was certain. Even though my sales hadn’t been enough to break even (not by a long shot), ECCC was a tremendous success and my efforts paid dividends with an invitation to return in 2016.
I took a month off to recover from ECCC. Despite all the planning, the work required to prepare for an event like that is monumental. I was wiped out. And I was already planning for ECCC 2016. I would do things differently. But, thankfully, it was a long, long way off.
One afternoon, I was writing a movie review on my movie review Tumblr and noticed a link in the “suggested links” in the right-hand column of the control panel. I ran my mouse over the link, clicked the button, and blurted out, “WHAT THE FUCK!” before the page had even finished loading. I was looking at a virtual clone of my VILE website. The company name was nearly identical, the illustration style was similar, the tone of the writing and the nomenclature were all VILE. Even the goddamned site platform and design template were identical. But what had me panicking was the fact that this doppelganger had a product in their store… a branded T-shirt.
At this point, I was barely thinking straight—wild-eyed and cursing and wishing doom on this unoriginal, plagiarizing thief. I had no way of knowing if this company had, in fact, ripped me off, but the parallels were too striking to ignore. The truly bad news was yet to come.
A short web search confirmed my worst fears. This “company” had applied for a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office in every conceivable apparel category. I lost my shit.
My lawyer listened patiently as I explained the horror of this discovery in a stream-of-conscious string of expletive-laden gibberish, then asked me to send him an email summarizing what I’d found. He would do his own research then get back to me with his findings and advice.
The most stressful week of my life would pass. I had a pit in my stomach resembling the Great Pit of Carkoon. Mentally fabricated tendrils reaching out to ensnare my every positive thought. Fours years of my life were suddenly up in the air. Every one of the innumerable hours I’d spent developing the brand and the marketing strategy for VILE and VILEGOODS was rendered moot. Every dollar of my expenses had been wasted. And my success at ECCC the previous month suddenly vanished in a puff of sheer panic.
I received an email from my lawyer with a calendar appointment. One long day and one interminable night later, I had him on the phone. And I knew what he was about to tell me. I knew too much about intellectual property rights and trademark law to bother kidding myself.
After walking me through his research, he said, “You have two options. One, we can contact the other companies with name Vile and ask them if they’d share the trademark, or, two, you can rebrand.”
Note that he said, “companies.” Turns out that there are actually four other companies named Vile. Two in the United States and two outside of it—none of which appeared in the two-hundred-page document that prompted me to incorporate VILE Inc. This meant that if I wanted to pursue option number one, I would be sharing a trademark and trying to promote a company with a meager 20% market share of the word “vile” on internet searches.
He hadn’t even finished his explanation when I interrupted him with a rhetorical question in what I can only imagine was the most defeated tone of voice he’d ever heard. “I have to rebrand, don’t I?”
He replied, “That’s what I would recommend.”
This was a curveball I simply couldn’t hit. And I knew it. Thwack! “Strike three!” I shuffled back to the dugout with my head dangling off my shoulders like one of those vintage wooden toy figurines that collapse when you press the button underneath. Button fully depressed, my forehead sunk to the desktop and found itself at rest on my keyboard with a mild “thud.” The familiar plunk of a Mac IOS error chime echoed in my headspace.
Lessons from striking out
I was suddenly back at ground zero. And it was my own fault. Entirely.
It did not matter that neither one of the other local U.S. companies with “vile” in their names were not incorporated. It did not matter that both companies had launched their websites in 2014, two years after I’d launched VILE Inc. It did not matter that, years before, I had paid a company a lot of money to do an exhaustive corporate name search prior to taking the name. And it did not matter that I had trademarked the name VILE.
I was shit out of luck due to one very simple fact: the only thing that matters, it turns out, is when a company claims to have brought a product to market. Both companies, again, despite the fact that their websites were only a year old, claimed to have started selling their apparel merchandise in 2008 and 2010—years before either sold their products online. They don’t have to prove anything. In other words, your only real protection from intellectual property and trademark infringement occurs when you first release your product to the public for purchase. And it doesn’t have to be proven beyond your claim in order to register a trademark. Well, I had just learned something new, but I wasn’t terribly happy about the lesson.
The circle closed when my new lawyer informed me that I had gotten poor legal advice when I’d applied for my trademark. I had been assured that the categories I had staked out were of the broadest protection I could get without spending thousands more to reserve apparel categories. I’d been under the impression that VILE would have room to grow. I had also been told that a logo mark wasn’t critical. Both pieces of advice were laughably wrong. You get what you pay for. Funny how true this time-worn phrase really was. I actually laughed.
Square one. Hello, again.
I allowed myself three days to be pissed off at every living thing, wallow in the pointlessness, and repeatedly ask “Why me?” Square one never looked so desolate.
My thought process went something like this: “Fuck, what do I do now? Four years of work, gone … My savings, gone … I have to come up with a new name for my company, shit … Okay, all that is changing is the name, my work is still my work … Damn it, VILE was so fucking perfect!” Repeat.
My lawyer recommended coming up with a made-up word for a name, like KODAK, and I thought to myself, “Great, that doesn’t exactly make this process easier.” I spent countless hours researching dozens of possibilities and endless nights lying awake prodding my brain into turning the proverbial lightbulb on. Weeks dragged on and none of the potential names I was considering were unique enough to stand out among dozens of similar names that appeared in a basic Google search result. Not so much as a flicker of potential. Desperation was creeping into my conscious. There were moments when I felt like giving up.
I eventually discovered a fake-name generation tool that creates pronounceable fake words of various character lengths from multiple languages. One morning, at around three AM, bleary-eyed and worn out, I found an available fake name. I’d had enough. The name had no relevance for me, but it would work. Fake name number 1,138 would have to do. I purchased the URL without a second thought and sent the new name to my lawyer for review.
The rub was this: everything I’d done, including my book, is tied to VILE Inc. And this simple reality will make it very difficult to sell my book on consignment in local bookstores (assuming I can get it accepted). Changing my company’s name shortly after publication is not only puzzling to consumers but makes the online purchasing process incredibly confusing. Christmas was barely a month away, I decided it would be wise to wait to make a formal announcement, revise my website, print up some kind of notification or sticker to put in the books, incorporate the new name, and get my banking squared away—again.
Letting go of a name that had become part of my identity has proven to be the most difficult part of this process.
It’s also been the most liberating.
Rethinking everything: 16TOADS
My dream local client has become somewhat less dreamy—as much as I love working with them, they’ve been unable to maintain the hours promised, despite it only being a part-time gig. Revealing the downside to being highly efficient at my job. And I’ve landed precious few jobs to supplement the resulting loss of income. I’m now scraping by month-to-month, for the first time since 1997.
I’ve never had such a difficult time finding work. There’s no doubt that the move to Seattle and my relative “unknown” status in the local market have played a huge role. But there’s also no doubt that my work experience and the current environment of the web industry have also played a role. Unbelievably, I’m too experienced. And based on the raised eyebrows I’ve encountered during interviews, I’m also far too honest for the absurdly passive-aggressive nature of this town. For the first time in twenty years, I’m actively looking for a full-time job.
How is it possible that a “senior” level employee now needs only three to five years of experience to be considered a veteran in this industry? There is far more to “experience” than an ability to follow web trends. And I find the over-hyped, marketing-inspired nonsense behind the segmentation of “design” to be among the most egregious examples of an industry struggling to remain relevant. When I decided to move, I never once thought that I’d be starting from scratch as a design director too, and I’d be lying if I said that my emotions surrounding this turn of events were “no big deal.”
I still love what I do for a living. But I do feel that the industry has lost its way in its efforts to survive the ever-changing technological landscape. I am of the opinion that the web/tech industry is generally a shit-show of egos pushing inspired snake-oil like “UX design” in order to justify the “value” of their services. And I haven’t yet figured out how to operate in an environment that enables the need to manufacture “services” that we’ve always provided in order to convince clients to sign on the dotted line. Design didn’t change because we suddenly had more “data” to draw on for our solutions. Design changed because people saw an opportunity to profit off of our clients’ ignorance. Honesty has always been a tenuous thread in the web and tech industry, but it’s our continuing lack of confidence in our value as professionals and the abject dearth of self-awareness that will be our ultimate undoing.
My goal, which is the same goal I’ve had since I became an independent design consultant twenty years ago, is to, in some small way, make my clients lives easier by helping them make smarter decisions through design. I still believe I can, and that’s enough for me. I’ve repositioned 16toads three times. 2016 will mark the fourth rebirth. Time will tell whether or not I can breathe new life into a career I started shortly after Al Gore introduced legislation that helped create the internet as we know it.
Rethinking everything: The new VILE
Hindsight is a rapacious bastard. Being forced to rebrand has its benefits, but that comes with a healthy dose of introspection at the bottom of quite a few bottles. During the months I spent trying to create a new name for my illustration studio, I stepped back, sifted through the rubble, and reassessed all of my decisions. ALL of my decisions.
I came to the tortured, but obvious conclusion that I’d done it all wrong from the very beginning. I can chide myself for not understanding sooner—twenty years sooner. I can be upset with myself for not sticking with illustration when I first got into the business and barely made $18,000 my first year as a self-employed comp artist. I can be upset with myself for not moving to a better market or for not forcing myself to paint regularly. I can spend hours second-guessing the path I took and the decisions I made that took me away from following my true passions. I can apply every one of these thoughts to both of my businesses. And it would all be for naught.
What I finally realized is that I started building VILE from the top down, business and brand first, instead of from the bottom up with a product and a plan to get that product to market. I allowed my focus on branding to cloud a basic reality: the essence of any product is me. The physical products I create are nothing more than representations of my passions. And the name of my company is nothing more than a container … and that is all it needs to be until my work gains traction. Keeping things simple is sometimes the most difficult task.
I’m choosing to accept an annoying old adage as my personal conviction: Better late than never. I’m also working my ass off to make up for time I consider lost.
I think it’s safe to say that self-employed people possess an inner drive foreign to most people. I also believe it’s safe to generalize that those of us who followed the path less traveled still wish we had the time and money to do something different, something more meaningful than schlepping design or code for unappreciative, penny-pinching clients (as obtuse as this statement is, many of you will know exactly what I am talking about). Most small businesses fail—not because the passion for succeeding isn’t strong enough, but because they can’t afford to succeed. It’s comparatively easy to be successful when failure won’t ruin you financially or destroy your personal life. However, it’s incredibly difficult to succeed when financial destitution is one imperfect decision or unforeseen circumstance away.
Optimism isn’t a character trait. It’s a decision. You make a choice not to make excuses. You must make a conscious decision to stop convincing yourself that you’re “just a realist” in your efforts to protect yourself from risking anything. We don’t all have the benefit of a trust fund safety net nor the greased palms of mommy and daddy’s established business connections. You make a choice to wake up smiling and be thankful for the one life you have to live. You make a choice to continue forging ahead against all odds, appreciating the little victories along the way, even if you do it cursing and screaming. Perseverance means nothing without the belief that you can turn your passions into reality. And the only way to stoke your optimism is by taking one step at a time, completing one task at a time, until you reach your goal.
Your expectations can go fuck themselves. Lock them in a wooden box, set it on fire, and dump the ashes in the toilet. You have to accept whatever reality you are presented with and adapt your goals to the current situation. Then adapt again until you find your perfect balance. Understand that expectations and goals are two very different things. Expectations prevent you from being nimble. Goals keep you striving.
I still struggle with the after effects of burning out. No matter how excited I get about a new project or a new idea—or a new anything—motivation is an ongoing battle. The second I feel stress start to build, I have to shut down and regroup. I no longer possess the mental stamina to work for endless hours and my attention is easily distracted. It’s almost like I have an internal circuit breaker that trips whenever my stress starts to redline. Exercise is only a temporary reprieve from the ever-present specter of complete creative paralysis. Balance is more difficult to achieve than most self-employed people realize.
Looking back over the past two years, I often wonder how I’ve managed to patch together a living … My nest egg is gone, my bank accounts are hemorrhaging, the word ‘debt’ has reappeared in my vocabulary, and my company will, once again, be unknown. I didn’t expect to have to change the name of a company I’d spent four years developing. Nor did I expect to have such a difficult time finding work after two decades of building my consulting business. But my goals haven’t changed. If anything, my goals have crystallized. I have every reason to be optimistic. And I have exactly zero regrets.
Despite the multitude of business and financial challenges lying ahead, my only immediate concerns are doing everything I can to get my Kickstarter campaign funded and figuring out how to scale my pickle making operation for canning season later this summer. You have seriously never tasted a tastier pickle.
My goal for 2016 is to focus as much as possible on one project at a time, share my progress with anyone who cares to listen, and build interest day by day. I’m no longer concerned with the big picture, only with what I can do to maximize each incremental step. My masterpiece will eventually paint itself, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.
One way or another, I will make this work. Better late than never.