Why Being a Digital Nomad Sucks (And Why You Should Avoid It)

by Alexander Heyne · 38 comments

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Will You Really Be Happier Living on an Island in Thailand?

The past few years I’ve done the digital nomad thing that seems to be pretty popular these days.

I had a remote work assignment, I traveled whenever I wanted (about 3 months of the year).

A year or two ago I spent a month in the Philippines with my girlfriend, and then another month and a half traveling around Taiwan seeing an old friend and meeting new ones.

I would work a couple hours in the morning, and then spend my day doing whatever the hell I wanted hoping that this was the “dream lifestyle” I had always hoped for.

I always seemed to meet two kinds of people though:

I would meet the typical 9-5 folks who were on vacation and wished they could have my life (it really wasn’t that great, they often just wanted to travel more).

And then I would meet people who told reality to piss off, and just did the stereotypical “rasta living on the beach and smoking weed” type lifestyle. Aka people that never really wanted to work a real job.

In other words, it was VERY polarized.

Working a typical life + vacation.

Versus:

Totally shunning the traditional life path, not getting married, not getting a real job, just focusing on life enjoyment.

And it got me thinking…

If I had to polarize myself and pick just one of these, which one would I be happier doing?

Would I be happier with either of them?

The Real Truth About Life Satisfaction

It’s funny, when I’m sitting on beaches in Thailand, or when I’m on an extended vacation, I get the same feeling after a few weeks:

What the hell am I doing with my life?”

Maybe you’ve felt it too.

If you’re unemployed and have WAY too much free time, you might be craving purpose and meaning even more.

In other words, you’re looking for “that thing/job/activity/person” that will make you happier and feel like you’re living a meaningful life.

Once you’ve found that thing, it’ll allow you to finally relax and take a deep breath.

Here’s the thing: when I speak with people about this, it leads to the same revelation over and over:

You and I are often happiest when we’re WORKING on things we enjoy and find highly meaningful.

(Aka, not sipping cocktails on the beach).

We’re often happier out building a tree fort, a sand castle, a photo collage or a piece of art, than we are passively watching tv or consuming media.

You follow?

I know it can be tempting to just say “fuck it, I’m moving to Thailand” because you’re working 60 hours a week at a desk job that’s killing you.

But understand that you are only craving that because it’s the exact opposite of what you have.

Most of us are actually way happier when we’re working. In other words, actively engaged, in flow, in pursuit and investing time into activities or relationships we enjoy.

Picasso said:

“It is your work in life that is the ultimate seduction.”

He didn’t say:

“Sitting on a beach in life is the ultimate seduction.”

And that’s because work leads to two things critical for happiness: flow and contribution.

The very act of creation leads to discovering meaning in life: it’s powerful knowing that something would NEVER have existed if you weren’t born.

All I’m trying to say is this: besides the obvious financial situation, stop thinking not having a job and “ski bumming it” will make you happier.

… Research also shows that it won’t.

Even Doc C., in his book Flow mentioned that in the thousands of data points he collected, he found that people are almost always happier at work when their mind is occupied. When they’re in flow.

“A [Wo]man Without a Job is a [Wo]man Without a Purpose”

There’s an old saying, “A man without a job is a man without a purpose.”

You often see it in retirees, too.

I know many older men and women that were successful when they were young – they loved work, they worked a lot, and then they were “told to retire.”

Shortly after their retirement (because that’s just what you do, right?), they fell into a deep depression that no one could rouse them from.

I literally observed one man who was incredibly happy, friendly and bubbly before retirement go off his rocker once he was forced into retirement.

On my way to work one day, I saw him walking around the street over and over and over – and I called a neighbor because I assumed he had Alzheimer’s and wandered out of his house.

And you know what the neighbor told me?

“Nope, he’s just retired, and has no idea what to do now. He’s literally losing his mind.”

So What Now?

Sometimes I feel bad when I write articles.

I want to give you concrete steps for fixing many things, and although I have before, most of my articles have one purpose only:

To draw awareness to some of these key issues in life.

You can’t take action to improve your life until you know what needs improving. You need awareness first. That’s half the battle.

My suggestion today is this: make finding a career you’re interested in, that pays you enough, your life priority. If you’re young, and aren’t in a relationship or married, put this as your #1 priority, above relationships, above hobbies, above anything else.

Go take those Thailand vacations, go sit on the beach, and if you don’t believe me, quit your job and do the nomad thing to see for yourself if what I say is true.

I think you’ll find what I found: people are often happier working, but only when we’re working on things that matter.

Remember: the right work leads to Flow, Growth and Contribution.  They’re critical to happiness and fulfillment. And they are things you won’t find on a beach in Thailand.

- Alex

Thoughts? Tell me below.

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

RebeccaLybn March 24, 2014 at 12:20 pm

I am currently on this search. I am 4 months from graduating with my MBA. I am a wife. A mother. I work a 8-5. I am not happy. I want to give my kids the gift of travel. I love working! I like making my own money. My quest is to find a job I can work remote, be happy and in love with my work while teaching my kids and giving them the world to learn. The key here – I want to work. This work will give me purpose and joy outside of my family. It will keep my mind working. But it will also give me the opportunity to travel. I don’t want to be on a beach drinking. I want to teach my kids about the history – the beauty of the world.

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Alexander Heyne March 24, 2014 at 2:42 pm

Rebecca,

I think you are definitely on your way to attaining this dream then, because you already know what you want from life. Have you brought up remote work agreements with employers?

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RebeccaLybn March 24, 2014 at 11:33 pm

I actually will be soon – I think the CFO may go for it but the controller is very much the type that thinks working remote is unacceptable. I have tested the waters already. I am an accountant and know that if they say no I can find work elsewhere. I have some leverage though as they have already lost two people. I am hoping it goes my way :)

N. Smith March 24, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Great, great post here. Holy crap, you are just blowing my theories about my own life right out of the water left and right. As someone who has threatened to leave it all behind and go live on a tropical island somewhere, I guess I need to see this and really take it in. Hearing a brutally realistic viewpoint from someone who’s been there is a good thing. But I’m definitely not finding the opposite path to be easy. (Will keep working on it.) :)

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Alexander Heyne March 24, 2014 at 2:41 pm

Hey Nancy,

Only one way to find out for sure :-). Ultimately you could take a sabbatical and learn for yourself first hand. At first it’s great, but 24 hours later that existential “WTF” fear creeps right back in…

Let me ask you this: what do you think it’ll give you, that your current life isn’t?

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Suzane March 24, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Alexander, you are so right. I’ve led a nomadic life, working as I go for decades and although there are times that I wish I didn’t work as much as I, it has been both the productivity, the people and experience that the work introduction has provided and ultimately the creativity of figuring out how the heck to work as I travel that keeps me just as inspired today as I was 20 years ago. I took a break from my work to read your blog during my two week stay in Sedona Arizona…next time your post, no telling where I’ll be but isn’t that part of the wonder. To see some of the ways we’ve made a living please visit http://www.itchynomads.com You do an awesome service in sharing your insights. It’s not all bliss all the time, but not knowing what’s around the corner both professionally and personally sure keeps life exciting. Happy Trails.

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Alexander Heyne March 24, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Suzane,

Thanks for sharing your experience on the Nomad path! What advice would you give to others who are considering it?

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Suzane March 24, 2014 at 10:49 pm

I am happy to share Alexander. We have mostly relied on being self-employed and created our own work like a solar electric business in the Baja and contract Disaster Inspectors for FEMA, but we’ve also painted a house in Mexico for $10 each a day ( local wage) for a week because we were so broke, taught school in Mexico, but another time made $150,000 a year traveling the world as a Sales Rep for a tech company. The key is being to flexible, positive and learn new skills. The more skills we master, the more opportunities we have. No one ever paved this path for us, it’s been hard at times, scary like pirates chasing us of at sea , hilarious, amazing , unsettling at times and 100% our own lives for better or worse….mostly better. The other thing is own your mistakes, learn from them on, have no regrets and move on. Support those that you love but don’t let their lives rule yours, they are living with their own decisions. They won’t have to live with your regrets when you didn’t live with the life you wanted. No one cares more about your own life, then YOU! We have no intention of stopping traveling, exploring, working as we go, why would we, we are living each day by our own choosing. It takes courage to do what you do Alexander. You’ve earned your right to share your story and inspire others. Great posting today!

Thom March 24, 2014 at 1:59 pm

Just came back from Thailand and SE Asia. It was a way to process a break up. It was good to see some sights but there definitely was a lot of emptiness, lostness, anxiety and boredom. The partying and travelling lifestyle has its limitations. Eventually reflecting on what is important comes in and purpose is intrinsic to mental health. See also Carl Jung’s profound thoughts on purpose.

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Alexander Heyne March 24, 2014 at 2:38 pm

Thom,

Totally agree with you. There’s nothing wrong with using it to kinda rebound after a breakup. I know many who have done it, and it’s important for sanity.

I will definitely check out Jung’s thoughts on it – thanks for sharing. Any particular book you recommend?

- Alex

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Niki March 24, 2014 at 2:21 pm

“make finding a career you’re interested in, that pays you enough, your life priority. ”

Sounds good if that is really what you want and makes you happy. But keep in
mind that you may end up dragged into this priority that you’ll forget
everything else. What if you get that job that pays enough but you have zero
time to do other important stuff? What is it to do?

A few years ago when I was a student a colleague of mine was working like crazy to make money. So I asked him why is he working so much. No free time, no enjoying life. His answer was ” so I can enjoy life when I retire”
My answer was ” what makes you so sure you will?”

So I’ll say find a balance with work, relationships, family whatever is important for you. Life is short, today you are but who really knows what’s going to be in the future?.
Don’t postpone and don’t ignore other things in life thinking you’ll do them later. Keep your eyes and mind open…if you get a chance , no matter how small take it ! Finding balance isn’t easy but worth struggling. :)

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Alexander Heyne March 24, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Totally with you Niki!

There are all kinds of “ifs, ands, ors, and buts” around my statement. Take it for what it’s worth. Having zero time to do other things I generally would not consider a good thing :) But sometimes we have to do it to rebuild our life from rubble.

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Tyron March 24, 2014 at 6:08 pm

Hey Alex & Niki,

Great post and reply. If I could make one addition to Alex’s quote, that I think would solve Niki’s challenge, it would be this:

“make finding a career you’re interested in, that pays you enough and creates your ideal lifestyle your life priority.”

Having a career you enjoy is a must for happiness. Even better if it pays you well too. The best is when it helps you create your ideal lifestyle.

What I did was work out my ideal lifestyle – when I wanted to work, from where, with whom, doing what – then I built a business to match. There were some road-blocks and adjustments along they way as I got even clearer on what my ideal lifestyle actually was.

I ‘work’ way more hours in my business than my friends with 9-5 jobs. Yet, I enjoy my work more, earn more, have more flexibility and travel (while working) most the year.

Alex, what I took from your story is that the problem was not with your travel, rather how you choose to spend your time while traveling. I travel with my business, working 4 days per week, just in a different parts of the world. Then, I spend my free time exploring the area. For me, it’s a good balance of consistency, growth and contribution in my work and uncertainty/freshness in my play.

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Alexander Heyne March 24, 2014 at 8:14 pm

Spot on Tyrone:

“Alex, what I took from your story is that the problem was not with your travel, rather how you choose to spend your time while traveling. I travel with my business, working 4 days per week, just in a different parts of the world. Then, I spend my free time exploring the area. For me, it’s a good balance of consistency, growth and contribution in my work and uncertainty/freshness in my play.’

Bingo.

And great advice you shared for Niki.

Niki March 29, 2014 at 10:38 am

“Having a career you enjoy is a must for happiness. Even better if it pays you well too. The best is when it helps you create your ideal lifestyle.”

You got it right Tyron :)

Jade March 24, 2014 at 4:47 pm

This is a nice article, but keep in mind that you have to be in a somewhat privileged position to actually be able to chase those goals. My 60 year old dad got laid off from work 5 years ago and hasn’t been able to find a job since. He tried setting up his own little business, but that failed too. He’s got tons of experience but nobody will hire him because of his age. His unemployment benefits ran out a few years back so he and my mom (who has progressive MS) are basically piss poor right now.

I live at home to help out and try and save up but most of the money I make from my dead end jobs ends up being used to keep us afloat and pay off student debts. The field I majored in isn’t hiring so all I can get are bad jobs, but at least it’s work. My plan B was law enforcement or the military, but those aren’t hiring either. Am I happy? Well, being in this situation at age 26 sure wasn’t what I’d envisioned when I was younger. That said, sometimes you just have to suck it up and get on with it.

In short, the whole chasing your dream job thing is great, but it’s not always feasible. Sometimes you just have to accept reality and hope for the best.

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Alexander Heyne March 24, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Hi Jade,

You’re right, for sure i’m in a privileged position.

“My 60 year old dad got laid off from work 5 years ago and hasn’t been able to find a job since.” I graduated from a top university with a B.S. in Biology – a hard science degree – and couldn’t get a real job for a few years either.

“My plan B was law enforcement or the military, but those aren’t hiring either. Am I happy? Well, being in this situation at age 26 sure wasn’t what I’d envisioned when I was younger. That said, sometimes you just have to suck it up and get on with it. ”

Finding a job has nothing to do with luck or privilege though – “nobody is hiring” simply isn’t true. Most jobs don’t get filled through resumes, they get filled through the back door. So it’s time to do something different to find a job. If you’re doing what 99% of others are doing (sending in 100 resumes) your job prospects aren’t good. Be different.

“In short, the whole chasing your dream job thing is great, but it’s not always feasible. Sometimes you just have to accept reality and hope for the best.”

Wish I could agree, but I can’t! No one said it would be easy, I hustle my ass off to live the life I want. I haven’t worked less than 12 hours a day in the past 14 months, and this’ll continue for another 2-3 years. Friday night, working. Saturday morning, working.

Be different, work your ass off, and anything becomes a reality.

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Prez March 24, 2014 at 8:54 pm

One thing that came to mind while reading this article is that no matter what it is I seek, I am never happy. Like the grass always appears greener on the other side, but then when I get there the grass somewhere else is greener still. I am always searching and reaching for the next thing because I get bored so quickly and easily. Is there any chance you have a response to this you have already or could publish in the near future?

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Alexander Heyne March 25, 2014 at 8:24 pm

Prez,

This is a really great question.

I have some “suggestions” but ultimately only you will be able to figure this out. Here are my own observations:

A. Follow intrinsic motivation more. I know many many successful people that are always wired to be seeking the next level, and rarely are happy. Find 1 or 2 pursuits you do because you LOVE doing them – even if they don’t bring you anywhere in life.

B. Your work. Whereas I’m all for people having multiple passions, I’ve observed that people are often really happy with mastery – just picking one profession they want to get really good at and improve over the long run. In other words, “Your work” – like the artist’s obsession kind of work.

C. Flawed thinking. “One thing that came to mind while reading this article is that no matter what it is I seek, I am never happy” Every wise man since the dawn of time has cautioned against “having too many desires” and that “desire = the root of all unhappiness.” Aka, wanting too much. As long as there is a want to be filled, there will be a desire for MORE – no matter how much you’ve already achieved.

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ChrisA March 25, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Great article, your advice is becoming more and more profound.

It’s really bizarre how people crave beaches, retirement, and absolute freedom, when what we all really need is mental stimulation, and the structure to go around it.

This middle ground between excitement and complete absence of thought, is without doubt, the most rewarding place to be.

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Alexander Heyne March 25, 2014 at 8:20 pm

For sure Chris!

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poliz March 25, 2014 at 10:20 pm

Thanks for the post. Only thing that comes to mind, and maybe you have some thoughts on it – is what about monks or people who engage in mindfulness practices and seem to have a solid grounding and contentment with simply being alive.

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Alexander Heyne March 27, 2014 at 11:22 am

Poliz,

I think that’s the higher level we all should ultimately be striving for :-), no matter if we’re on a beach or living in New York City.

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David Browne March 25, 2014 at 11:29 pm

Most digital nomads we have met are pretty hard working. Mostly self employed and love their work in building their businesses.

I agree a life sitting on a beach in Thailand would get tiresome very quick, but this is almost never the case for the digital nomads we know. Maybe the post should be called ‘why retiring early sucks’.

Then, as I say, I do agree with most of what you have said. You find beach bums on nearly every beach in south EA, mostly guys who were originally travelling but then realised they could just stay there forever. Fair enough for those guys if that what makes them happy, but most people need goals to work towards to be really happy. Each to their own I think.

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Steve April 3, 2014 at 3:29 pm

Hey Alex, good to see you are getting lots of comments. I got your ebook from you a few weeks ago and, although, inspiring, there’s a couple of points I take issue with.

Firstly, I hope you mean by ‘work’ that you mean engage / create / produce / share rather than the typical definition ie work for the man.

Secondly, your solution is rather simple I find. What happens if you don’t enjoy anything? I don’t mean in a depressive way, I just mean that everything seems ummerr…what’s the point? I can’t think of a single thing I would like to do. It all seems enormous and pointless. I’ve written a blog – 1after99 job is a 4 letter word and i’ve ghost written a book ‘instant whips and dream toppings’ which is on amazon. buuut nobody is reading, nobody is buying, so, really WITP??

Thoughts and advice off you / people would be appreciated….

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Alexander Heyne April 4, 2014 at 10:57 am

Hi Steve,

“Firstly, I hope you mean by ‘work’ that you mean engage / create / produce / share rather than the typical definition ie work for the man.”

Yes, of course :-).

“I just mean that everything seems ummerr…what’s the point? ”

If you view nothing in life as having no point, it becomes that way. If you view everything in life as deeply meaningful, it becomes that way.

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Webdragon2013 April 18, 2014 at 4:38 pm

This article is true and untrue.
At the end of the day it’s all about expectations.

Flow is not equal to work.
Flow is an activity you absolutely love and which you are engaged in 100%.
Most work doesn’t qualify for that (sitting at a desk doing nonsense).

The thing is most people think they want to stop working for the wrong reasons. Again, expectations. For example, for me travel is a passion and I feel shackled by the 9-5. Whenever I have time off, I fly somewhere. I spent 3 weeks in Thailand and had an amazing time. Realistic expectations again.

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XXX April 22, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Hey Alex,

Thanks for the post.

I don’t agree that you should “your life priority” should be to “…finding a career that you’re interested in, that pays enough…”. Doing what you love and you’re are interested in, yes. The whole career thing, no. I do agree with the whole “relaxing on a beach in Thailand indefinitely” would not be particularly enjoyable.

I like the idea from the 4-hour Work Week of separating your income from your time. That is what I’m trying to do currently. I arrived at your website through your muse testing post, which is pretty much what I have been doing. I want to have enough funds, so I can do whatever I want, like learn to fly a plane, go to Antarctica, etc.

From your website, I took your recommendation and read Rich Dad, Poor Dad, which was eye-opening. Your website has also given me more interest in opening my own blog for my travels and other odd things that I randomly encounter.

Cheers.

Enjoy. Viel Spass.

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Bill Boteler April 22, 2014 at 2:03 pm

This really depends on the person but I will agree with you that people do not really flourish in prolonged leisure.

The idea of retirement due to age or great wealth has never appealed to me. I would rather be doing something creative.

Now there are probably all kinds of interesting projects in a place like Thailand. There is work supporting economic development, protecting forests and animals, etc. You could become a tour guide or (most obviously) teach English. Thailand has got to be a super cool place but I think prolonged leisure would get to you there just as it would anywhere else.

The problem is that most people in the world are very poor, have to work until they are unable to do anything but possibly die, and find leisure to be a welcome respite from all this toil. Ennui is a problem that was, until recent history, reserved for the elite class. But it is a legitimate problem.

Apropos to Thailand, the Buddha (I know he was in India) was born into wealth and leisure and decided to give it all up and first became an ascetic then decided to found a religion to free humans from unhappiness. So our era has not got the answers it thinks it has.

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Mike Harrington May 1, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Hi Alexander-

I just found your site and read your manifesto a few days ago – resonated deeply with many of the thoughts and new beliefs I am cultivating.

I am currently doing the “digital nomad” thing – although I am mostly settled into one place (in South America) where I have gotten to work on my new projects, post Corporate life.

While I have seen some of the polarized views you speak of (smoke weed on the beach doing jack shit vs. people on their one week vacation from corporate hell) – I have also come across many of these “digital nomads” or expats or whatever the hell label you want to attach to them making an impact.

Whether they run great travel blogs, inspiring others, working as a life/business coach, writing their next book, designing websites, building mobile apps that will change the BitCoin game, or consulting – There are a lot of happy, fulfilled people out there living this lifestyle.

I like to consider myself one of these people, as I continue to write and build valuable content at my site, where I have a strong desire to free people from many of the same limiting beliefs and circumstances that I faced myself, just in the past year.

Where does that leave me and the people I mentioned? Does it matter if we are on a beach in Thailand, a jungle of South America, or sitting in mom’s basement in Denver? I think that’s the beauty of it – we can go wherever the hell we want to!

And, as long as we are creating something of value, that serves others, we can be pretty damned content in the process!

Thanks for your writing, man.

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Alexander Heyne May 1, 2014 at 6:21 pm

Hey Mike,

You bring up some fantastic points- and yeah, that’s just my writing style – I’m very sarcastic and very polarizing on purpose :-).

I just try to argue contrarian points sometimes, when I think people are too hooked on a certain belief or lifestyle, thinking it’ll fix their problems.

Where are you in South America and how are you finding it?

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Mike Harrington May 1, 2014 at 6:23 pm

Currently in Medellin, Colombia.

If you speak Spanish, I’d encourage you to head this way.

Where are you currently?

Elizabeth May 3, 2014 at 5:00 pm

I love this article! It’s so true. Creating in any form is so much more satisfying than consumption.

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Reyna May 13, 2014 at 7:53 am

I totally agree with you in this article. When I was in high school, I took only the classes I enjoyed and ended up graduation top of my class. I had a science mentor who hated the fact that I was in the music program because it took away time from my research. I told her I’m most productive when I’m happy and having a bit of music in my schedule makes me happy. It made my college career a whole lot easier when I decided to switch from the pre-med track to the teaching track. Hey we have one life, might as well decide to live it how we want!

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Mike Harrington May 21, 2014 at 7:18 pm

Ahh-

The old potential mentor reach-out.

Such a dicey game. Yet, so necessary to develop the relationships that will help propel you to the next level of whatever you’re creating – doubly so online.

I made every mistake in the book when I started out. Asking for advice. Handouts. Somebody’s time I hadn’t earned. All without once asking “What can I offer of value to this busy person that I admire?” Fail.

My new policy is simple.

If I resonate with someone’s work, and its had an impact on me, I reach out and let them know. I offer genuine appreciation for tangible value I’ve gained from their work.

Most people WANT to know that their words and work are having an impact, and it can be more gratifying than money.

I’ve found, when I reach out from an authentic place, people respond. People want to connect. People want to help, if they can.

If I find a book, post or resource that can help that person in any way, I try to offer it up.

Offer value. Then offer more value.

When the time is right to ask for something, you’ll know.

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Alexander Heyne May 22, 2014 at 10:12 am

Totally Mike. I made this mistake for years and years too. But once I started my own business, it became even more apparent.

You live and learn…

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Alexander Heyne May 8, 2014 at 1:52 pm

Hey Mike,

I’m moving into Brooklyn, NYC currently.

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