Starting over with nothing at 42

Starting over with nothing at 42

Nearly 2 decades ago, only a few streets over from where I live now in Tainan, Taiwan, I had a panic attack about my future. What will I do when I’m OLD. What am I building and creating that will actually last; rather than all my efforts consumed in fire.

I could argue, looking back, that I had to struggle to keep the fire going (to continue this metaphor). It took a great deal of kindling and fuel to keep the fire burning at all. The winters were harsh, the nights cold and dark.

But as the flame grew, and burned a furnace into the forest floor, baking the mud to bricks, the fire becomes easier to sustain and tend.

A decade ago, I wrote a post that resonated; how to start over with nothing at 32… and I did it again at 38; along with a list of 2018 goals I’ve yet to accomplish.

Now, on the eve of the winter solstice, I turn 42. 

And I’m writing this post again.

In some ways, it’s not quite as true as it once was.

In some ways, it is more true than ever.

I wrote recently on the futility of setting goals this year, because the last two years have been pretty bleak and dismal for everyone. That’s a decent post to read if you’re looking for purpose, or hope. But maybe you aren’t. Maybe you aren’t searching for a way to keep going. Maybe you’re searching for a reason not to.

And no, I don’t mean, as in ending your life. I mean, maybe, a chance to stop and take stock of what you have and what you want. Maybe you’re on the wrong road. Maybe the vehicle you’ve used to come this far has run its course, and you’re now attempting to drag it behind you.

Let me start by doing an accounting. At 42, I make about the same as I did years ago (less actually), though because of the pandemic, and doing nothing for two years, I’ve saved a bit more.

Here’s what I don’t have:

  1. Most of my goals from two years ago I’ve yet to accomplish. I don’t work as much as I want or finish the plans I’ve made.
  2. No house, nor the close possibility of owning one, though it continues to be a fervent dream and aspiration; a cozy cabin filled with cats and candles and the soft strumming of a guitar. Friends around the campfire.
  3. A consuming creative purpose, that is so intoxicating I can’t help but purge my heart into my work; knowing it is richly rewarded and applauded.

I can forgive myself for all of these things. In fact, even the zeal of this desire is amusing. Why should I ask for these things; why do I deserve them?

I know well enough that these could be mine if I worked for them, that I probably don’t deserve them yet, nor do I expect anyone to hand me what I don’t deserve.

I’m aware as well that the desire for more creates feelings of less; complaining about my very comfortable but also very uninspired apartment.

Here’s what I do have – and some of this, I recognize, is something to celebrate:

  1. Today. I can enjoy and appreciate the simple, nice things and feelings around me. Today is all I really have, and it’s enough.
  2. I did manage some savings over the past few years; some in stocks, some in crypto. The stocks give me just enough security, the crypto gives me just enough hope (saving enough to afford a different kind of lifestyle isn’t very achievable, and even if crypto is gambling, it allows me to believe that maybe in 5 or 10 years I could have more money than I’m currently able to earn.)
  3. Passive income. Not a lot, and in truth, it’s been going down for the past few years; but on top of this I also have:
  4. A platform; my own sites that get traffic, which I’ve neglected and have always been broken and dysfunctional, yet despite that have allowed me to help thousands of writers and authors.
  5. Friends; it took 2 years but I feel like I’m slowly growing a small circle of friends even here (not a digital-nomad community, so the foreigners here tend to be odd and eclectic.) I also reconnected with some old friends this year.
  6. I’ve published, probably about a dozen novels and books in the last 2 or 3 years, which aren’t making me money. But they’re getting closer to making money.

So that’s about where I am. All things considered, I don’t feel terrible about failing to meet my goals for the past several years. Things haven’t exactly gone to plan, but honestly, I haven’t actually failed yet. I’ll have failed once I finish the work. And then I’ll keep going. I know I must fail a lot at first, and I need to finish the work before I can fail enough to learn, so that’s all before me.

At the beginning of this year I published a book I was very excited about; that project failed (despite having over 100 reviews now, I’m not actually confident that it deserves to be listed as one of the best books on writing as I’d hoped, because of issues the very harsh negative reviews pointed out.) In the future, one day, I might revise it and remove half of it. Or I’ll just let it exist as it is, and as it was meant to be – and allow it to be loved or hated on its own terms.

The novels have each been well-enough received, though I continue to give them away for free because it’s cheaper and easier than marketing. If I don’t have money it’s because I continue investing in them; investing in audiobooks which are expensive (5K per trilogy… x10 trilogies). Under the assumption I finish a few series next year and wrap those up, I may start to be in the profit towards the end of next year. 

So, I haven’t failed yet, I just haven’t finished yet.

I’ve also been investing in a cover design tool, which I’ve always wanted; and I feel left behind to see other people build better software, faster; to sell more courses at higher prices; to dominate amazon and crank out new books that are wildly successful.

I’m a curmudgeonly one-man team trying to do big things on a meager budget, that are just functional enough for now until something better comes along. I wish I was more charming and charismatic; more confident mostly – even though I’m squinty-eyed towards all those people charging so much more for things I know I could do better.

I wish I could say I’m happy, and at peace, but I don’t actually want that: if you don’t have something you want, something driving you towards change and action, then life *cannot* be satisfying (satisfaction is delayed pleasure).

Sure I’m grateful that things are relatively easy. I would be absolutely crushed if I had to seek out a full-time job, but I’ve spent a decade avoiding that fate, and have built a very deep and wide funnel with multiple points of entry. It’s hard to picture all my income evaporating at once short of an EMP and global meltdown, and when things get tough I have a variety of ways to generate income, even if it means doing work I don’t enjoy (which is all *work* really, everything else is play, even if you get paid for it).

I’m also not starting over from scratch. Though, that idea isn’t actually frightening. I’ve been realizing recently that a lot of the things I do, don’t bring me joy – and I’ve started to consider moving on or giving up or starting something new, because chasing joy is invigorating, and a thousand difficult projects that my heart isn’t in anymore is exhausting. 

I need to be OK enough with moving on to keep an eye out for fresh opportunities; to measure my mood and energy. There’s a story about a challenge, I believe from journey to the west, about the monkey king being asked to open a flower – but each time he tries, the flower dies. The secret, is time – if he’d have waited, the flower would have opened itself.

I can’t rely on time to finish the work for me, but I also can’t force myself to work past the limits of my time and energy. In the genius of solitude, Alger writes of the importance of an absorbing object. Recently for me, that was rebuilding my website. It wasn’t something I had planned to do, and actually I postponed a book deadline to take a few weeks off. 

Sometimes what you do isn’t a decision, it’s a feeling; follow the energy and do what you can, what you feel inspired to do, because sometimes it’s better than forcing yourself to invest in something your heart isn’t in, which will provoke refusal and resistance.

My goals are unchanged. I am unchanged.

The world is different – but the same. 

We have slowed down. We see more clearly.

We are less likely to continue doing the things that we know will not bear fruit.

We are angry that our ambitions are so callously and effectively thwarted.

We feel powerless.

One thing we can do, that gives us both hope and purpose, is write.

Create. Give.

A friend of mine said she’s only giving experiences for Christmas and I resonated with that. Organizing is difficult work. For my birthday I wasn’t sure I wanted to try and have a party. What if nobody comes? I wanted to do something, because anything was better than doing nothing. But I didn’t want to ask, cajole, beg, nag, remind.

In the end, I decided to go bowling and found some people to go with me. 

I used to go with my grandfather, who died last year.

I jokingly said it was more exercise than we’d gotten in a year, and today my wife is complaining of sore muscles from the physical exertion.

I managed to bowl over 100 the first game, but by the second I was shaky and distracted with pain and nausea.
A kidney stone, I’m pretty sure – I tried to tough it out but in the end I did the thing most people do – went to the emergency room, which luckily is just across the street from us.

So I hobbled over, sweaty and shaky. The doctor told me my national health insurance wouldn’t quite cover the emergency room visit and said it would cost a dollar ($1!). They gave me shot for the pain and an ultrasound; I went back for a scan. My wife and I discussed how we’d have to change our lifestyle, if I lost a kidney.

But they couldn’t find anything – most likely the stone had already passed.

My wife said we should take a walk in the park the next day, get some sun. 

Instead we slept until sunset.

Our life is quiet, cozy and dark, but we don’t dislike it enough to make an effort to change.

If there’s any lesson here, it’s this:

By our nature, we embrace comfort and avoid challenges, except when absolutely necessary. Until they become so great they can’t be avoided; by which time it’s often too late.

But when we see memes like this that are meant to be inspirational, they fall short.

Of course we should be writing. But that doesn’t actually help us avoid the procrastination or find enough motivation to do the work. And sometimes the guilt and stress is enough to refuse us to enjoy even a moment’s rest.

So what if you’re starting over from nothing?

Here’s the good news: usually, the first time you try to do something, you’re filled with all-consuming, hopeful optimism that voids out any rational doubts or fears. This can be fine, as it helps you get the work done.

But it’s probably the wrong work.

You will most likely spend years and years attempting to achieve your dream and vision, while consuming positive thinking memes that thwart practical realities. Until, at SOME point, you give up.

I would argue that this is a normal part of the process, and that “starting over” is the perfect opportunity: it means, you’ve letting go of all the broken BS, but retaining all the knowledge and experience. You’ve put in your practice, now it’s time to Do Great Work with intention.

It can be a crisis point the first time, of course, but only because most people put their entire mental stability on avoiding a confrontation with the reality that they were wrong in their assumptions and conclusions, and this will force a personal shift in mindset. The bigger your resistance, the harder the *snap* will feel when it all comes crumbling down and you finally admit to yourself, “this isn’t working, and I’m not sure I want it to.”

Luckily for you, I’ve gotten really good at making simple, clear plans to help make your creative business successful; I talk with people all the time who are at this crisis point, who have built something that isn’t quite working and at the end of their rope – I can come in with a storm of brilliant ideas that will absolutely work. This is what I love to do more than anything, and it frustrates me *to no end* to give people an exact business plan that they don’t act on. So I’m going to be sharing it with you instead, probably in a little guide to building a creative business, that might come out next year. You can follow me and sign up to my newsletter for a free email course on becoming creativity independent, or just browse around (there’s a ton of content here, and I’m currently in the process of cleaning things up and getting organized).

Sometimes, the best work you can do is no work at all, but simply a cleaning and polishing and discarding. I feel like this is a great time for that.

What’s something you need to let go of?

What new, exiting projects will you focus on instead?

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