Maybe I did it all wrong?
ASTORIA, NYC- I could have spent the past couple of months traveling — chasing countries that are opening up, fleeing those that are shutting down, doing whatever I could to not get Trevor’ed. But I did something else instead.
I just couldn’t get the numbers to work. Travel had transitioned from a hobby to a business. For each trip out I would weigh the potential expenses against the potential earnings, and I’d usually come out a little ahead. My product was stories — articles, films, and speaking engagements — and I’d just let these endeavors guide me around the world. It went well for a number of years, and then Covid wiped everything out.
Having to pay for my travels was something I only had to do periodically over the past couple of years. I was like a nomad going to where the pastures were greenest (where other people would pay for me to go), and I would pile other projects and money making opportunities onto these trips. Now with this model blasted, I was left with the grim scenario of having to pay for all of my travels, which severely altered my P/L, to put it mildly.
On top of that, my product was based on face-to-face interaction, with meeting people, with going out and checking things out for myself. In a world where people are working from home, who’s going to welcome in a traveling journalist for a face-to-face interview? I could have sat in my room in NYC — or taken on a proxy office in Mexico or somewhere — and worked over Zoom … but that’s just not what I do. I’d rather get another job entirely than be that kind of journalist.
A couple of months ago I looked at my bank account, ran the numbers, and concluded that I had enough to fund a year of travels. I could go out, do whatever projects I could, and try to make enough to keep me a float until next year, when the world might be back to business as usual.
Then a thought hit me:
What if things are not back to normal by then?
What if your industry doesn’t recover enough to allow you to go operate on the same business model?
What if you go out, squander your resources, and then find yourself in the same position as you are now … only broke?
It was at that time when I began to seriously harbor the idea that it could be over.
It was a good run …
In travel you’re always thinking three to five steps ahead. You rarely ever enter a country without some sort of notion of what country you’re going to next. A good traveler doesn’t think in terms of places, but in terms of paths. There’s a zillion contingency options built into this planning — if you can’t go here you go there, if there sucks you go here — and world travel becomes a proverbial circuit where you go where the current freely flows. This is part of what makes travel fun.
My financial strategy revolved around funding the next trip with the proceeds from the previous trip, and I hand no plan for what I would do if this chain was ever severed. Sure, I’d still have my passive income, but that wouldn’t be enough to subsist off of for the long term. I realized then that I set up my tent without firmly staking it to the ground. It was liable to blow away in the first gust of wind.
And blow away it did.
Covid showed me how tenuous my profession is. One day I’m traveling all over the world on someone else’s dime, giving talks, doing journalism projects, and working on documentaries, and the next day it’s gone. I had no plan for not being able to travel. My business model was stripped down to the studs.
Media is a hustle, it is a passion. It is not a career. I got this impression early on in my work when I’d consistently meet marketers, PR agents, and logistics operators who would be like, “I used to be a journalist.” Then I’d be like, “What happened?” And they’d reply with something that amounted to, “I wanted a real job.”
But I didn’t lament this fact as much as I probably should have. I was living a dream, yes, but deep down I knew it wasn’t sustainable. I had this sinking feeling for a long time that I’d eventually have to strengthen my position or do something else … It was that annoying kind of feeling, like wearing a pair of boots that are a little too big. Most days you don’t notice it, but on the chance that you do you can’t stop feeling your heal sliding up and down.
But logical conclusions about probable future positions are rarely enough to move the lever of a lifestyle change. I continued on for the next year feeling as if I was on occupational life support.
Like a criminal on the run who finally gets caught, Covid was almost a relief. I probably would have otherwise just kept going the way I was, focused on the path underfoot rather than the cliff that it was leading towards. Not being able to travel and, subsequently, not having any work woke me up to the volatile chain of dependency that stood between myself and my sustenance:
Me <– Editors <– Audience <– Traffic sources (search / social media, etc.) <– Publication <– Advertising revenue <– People buying products <– Status of broader economy
I set out at the onset of the pandemic to make myself more financially bulletproof, and this meant cutting down my chain of dependency. I looked at the end points of this chain, and began thinking about ways to cut out whatever I could from the middle.
I began trading again. I’ve always like trading and always figured I would do it more if my work in media ever went belly up. What I didn’t previously plan for was the possibility of using trading as a mechanism to bankroll media projects.
Almost paradoxically, what has been holding me back from my objectives in media over the years was the fact that I endeavored to make a living from it. This meant taking on time consuming jobs that were just for the pay and writing endless amounts of articles when I should of been writing books. As with most creative pursuits, what you make money at is rarely what you’re known for. To get paid well for art projects is a good thing, but only a fool would expect to do so.
It became clear that I would never accomplish my goals if I continually had to keep focusing my efforts in media on making money, and I eventually had to ask myself a question:
If it doesn’t lead to me obtaining what I’m after would I still want to work in media?
I had to answer with a resolute no. It it was only about the money then I may as well go into marketing or logistics like everybody else.
I wanted time to work on big projects I would need to try something different.
At some point I realized that I’d done things the wrong way. Rather than building up a pile of money or arranging operations to continuously bring in respectable amounts of income that could fund my travels and media projects, I just went out and started writing. It worked out better than I probably imagined. I can’t have any regrets. However, when I start thinking about the other ways that I could have done things …
For some reasons I never thought that I should bother trying to make real money. I’d never known anyone who had any money. Where I come from people work, they get paid, they spend their money, and they work some more. The idea of acquiring more money than you could readily spend was a foreign concept. But then I began meeting people my age who did things different — they started companies, they invested more than they spent, they prospered, and then they began traveling full time working on media projects.
This wasn’t something that I didn’t think I could do or something I thought was out of my league. I just never considered it.
Around 15 years ago a reader of this blog left I comment that I’ve never been able to shake: “You’re thinking too small.”
While I readily denied it at the time, somewhere deep down I always knew this guy was right.