10 Crucial Lessons Learned on my Journey from Construction Equipment Salesman to Leader of a Nerd Rebellion
7:05 AM, August, 2009: “Steve, why haven’t you left your apartment yet? Your sales day begins at 7:00 AM.”
The call came from my boss at my construction equipment sales company; he was sitting at his computer, using the GPS tracking device on my company truck to monitor my location.
Not to be outsmarted, I simply drove from job site to job site, quickly made my sales pitches and usually got rejected, and then sat in my truck and read Harry Potter novels for 20 minutes before repeating the process until my work day was over. I couldn’t help but think about I was missing something.
On a particularly horrible day on the job, I walked into a book store on my lunchbreak and discovered Tim Ferriss’s Four Hour Workweek. I felt like Neo discovering the Matrix; my head exploded.
The concept made sense: Instead of working in a job you hate for 45 years and then retiring to live the good life, start with the end-goal in mind, reverse engineer the life you want to live. Although I didn’t expect to get rich quick or anything like that, I loved thinking differently about how I could live my life.
Within a few days, I had an idea for an eventual business and company: I’m a nerd, and spent my childhood growing up with Super Mario, Final Fantasy, Earthbound, and Legend of Zelda. I also learned the hard way how to get in shape after making years of mistakes, and I wanted to help others get started with living healthier lives too. So I bought NerdFitness.com, and then did what most people do when they have a great idea:
I continued to drag my feet on Nerd Fitness, until I went home for a family reunion and had a panic attack on the airplane on the way back: I hated my job, I hated my life, I missed my friends, and nothing seemed to be going right. I needed to do something.
I walked off that plane a different man, moved to Atlanta, and took a job with a company named Sixthman; I helped floating musical festivals on cruise ships, and it gave me a warm fuzzy feeling.
During the interview process, I was asked which movie had inspired me the most. I went on and on about the movie The Shawshank Redemption, in which an inmate refuses to let his prison walls beat him down or change him. As luck would have it, Shawshank also happened to be the favorite movie of the owner of the company, and I was brought on as a marketing assistant.
HALF-PAY BUT ACTUALLY HAPPY
Although I earned less than half of what I’d been making out in San Diego, I absolutely loved my work with Sixthman. On one cruise, the company tasked me to write about my experiences onboard: my first creative writing assignment. After sharing my work with the company, I was soon put in charge of the company blog, and I fell in love with writing.
I now had plenty of things in my life to look forward to, but I still felt as if there was something inside me that was undiscovered. I’d still done nothing with NerdFitness.com, until fate intervened again.
While playing a computer game, my homemade computer fried; because I lacked the money to fix or replace the computer, I told myself I couldn’t continue playing video games until I had actually done something with Nerd Fitness. I spent the next 18 months leading a double life; during the day I was the marketing guy for Sixthman, while at night I worked on Nerd Fitness — writing articles, connecting with readers, and helping others make healthier decisions. I didn’t get much sleep, but I spent most of my days smiling, happy, and freaking wired: I had finally found my path. True growth and adventure had thus far eluded me, but it was getting closer by the day.
It became clear to me that my future was with the website and community I was building. Eventually I made the brutally difficult decision to walk away from a great job and devote myself full-time to helping people live healthier lives.
I picked up odd jobs here and there to make ends meet while Nerd Fitness grew — I worked as a production assistant, manned a beer stand, and once painted the soundstage floor for one of Drake’s music videos from 1–5AM.
I quickly released my first fitness ebook to the Nerd Fitness audience, and managed to sell enough of them to provide a few months of income. I still hadn’t done any travel outside of the country, but after Nerd Fitness became my full-time gig, suddenly I had earned the thing I had been chasing for years:
Freedom of time and location.
LIFE IS A GAME
It was at this point that Tim Ferriss and another mentor once again altered my path. Chris Guillebeau published a guest post on the Four Hour Workweek Blog talking about his quest to visit every country in the world before he turned 35.
And then it hit me: instead of continuing to play EverQuest in my free time or dumping more time into games, books, and movies, I was going to turn my life into a game.
By day, I could be rebel leader of NerdFitness.com, spending hours at my laptop writing articles and connecting with people. By night I could become adventurous Steve Kamb, actively planning crazy experiences that would take me out of my comfortable hobbit-hole and away to far-off lands, into life-changing moments of growth and adventure.
I drew inspiration from all of my favorite movies, videogames, and books. I developed a system that allowed me to gain experience points, accomplish quests, complete missions, and literally level up my life. I created a list of things that would challenge me physically (for example: completing a handstand push-up or learning a martial art), challenge me mentally (learning a new musical instrument or language), push me outside of my comfort zone (eating exotic foods like crocodile or visiting a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language), create financial independence (building my own business and paying off my student loans), and even helping others (volunteering my time and donating to charity).
Whenever I gained enough experience, I leveled up. Ultimately, I modeled my life and free time off the game mechanics that used to keep me chained to my desk. Instead of leveling up in EverQuest, I could level up in real life. And then I did.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY
I’d become so inspired by the games and movies I loved that I decided to go on a life-changing, globe-trotting quest of my own to see if this whole “Life is a Game” idea could truly be actualized. I sold almost everything I owned, packed the rest into a backpack, and set off on a trip around the globe using some clever travel hacking tricks. The article I wrote about it, “How to Travel Around the World for $418” was picked up by Hacker News and syndicated by Gizmodo, and became their #2 how-to article of 2010 (I see you, “How to unlock your iPhone”).
On my trip, I hit over a dozen countries, completed a few dozen quests, and returned home a changed nerd. I spent my nights staying in hostels and sleeping on couches, cooking meals with fellow travelers, and growing Nerd Fitness from anywhere with an internet connection.
I also did this:
Thanks to my frugal lifestyle, travel hacking, and commitment to grow the company, I actually returned home from my trip more financially stable than when I had departed. I returned from my 11 months on the road having lived the life I had initially envisioned when I first picked up the Four Hour Workweek all those years ago.
Today Richard Branson’s Losing My Virginity helps inspire me continue to build Nerd Fitness. In fact, I now live a life not unlike a poor man’s Branson; by day I build a business helping people, and by night I am planning my next adventure.
I’m not sure when I’ll be able to buy a tropical island, but it’s on my list!
WHAT I’VE LEARNED
To say the past eight years have been chaotic is an understatement. I feel like I got a chance to follow a path that gives me a good perspective. I have been a:
- Well-paid employee in a massive company full of red-tape and micromanagement.
- Low-earning employee in a small company that I loved to be a part of.
- Solo-entrepreneur that lived the Tim-Ferriss Lifestyle for 18 months.
- Boss and CEO of a 8-person remote team (and growing rapidly).
Along the way, I learned a few things:
- You don’t have to “suck it up.” When I got to the real world, I was in a job that sucked. Most will tell you “be thankful you have a job in this economy,” or “you’re just being an entitled millennial.” I felt guilty for being so unhappy with my job, but the reality was I was horribly matched and in a company that stifled growth and creativity because it was a well-oiled machine. I berated myself for not being a good-fitting cog in the machine, until I realized I wasn’t supposed to.
- There are companies that don’t suck. My time at Sixthman was some of the most fun I have ever had. I worked on amazing events, I met great people, and whenever I had an idea we tried it out and quickly adapted based on the results. Although I had to go to an office, I worked on things that aligned with my strengths, allowed me to grow, and gave me a chance to be challenged. I worked with a small company that could pivot quickly and I was happy. You don’t have to start your own company, but it doesn’t mean you have to work for a mismatched company either.
- Start with the end in mind. I knew that if I was going to travel and live this epic life, I needed one thing above all else: freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted. Because that was the end goal, I had a singular goal to work towards: build a community and create a business that could run while I was sleeping/traveling/etc. Your goals might just be to spend more time with your kids, to move to a new state, or simply not hate life. Identify the type of life you’re looking to live first, and then you can reverse engineer what you need to do to get there. It might take YEARS, but it’s a small price to pay if it results in a lifetime of feeling proud and fulfilled.
- Cash flow first. These days, when you think of a startup or new company, you think of a company with a boatload of capital that takes on investors and gets as many free customers as possible, hoping to get acquired before they actually have to figure out how to be profitable. If you’re building a micro business, start with cash-flow. Cut your expenses to the bare minimum, and find a way to generate revenue. If you can do that, then it’s just a matter of scaling the business. I lived on very little for months to become cash-flow positive, and this allowed me to maintain 100% ownership in my business and never have to take any loans. It also ensured I never got in over my head or had to make decisions that would jeopardize my future.
- Be your own gatekeeper. These days, more and more people seemingly are trying to build businesses on the backs of giants. Chasing SEO, gaming Facebook’s likes, building a following on YouTube for ad revenue, or schilling products on Instagram. Whenever the giant decides to change its policies, the little guy gets stomped. I’ve seen businesses go belly-up overnight due to a change a giant made. If you are building a community or business on those platforms, make sure you are ALSO capturing your fan’s email address so you can connect with them directly.Your list of customers is your lifeblood — not a single platform.
- Haters gonna Hate. I think The Four-Hour Workweek often gets a bad rep for creating an overabundance of “lifestyle designers” who sell people the dream of being online business owners while living in Chang Mai for $400 a month. It’s a modern day pyramid scheme for people looking to get rich quick by hooking the next sap below them on the pyramid. However, I can’t say enough good things about the book, and I’ve gifted it to more people than I can remember. The two main points I took from the book — that you can live a different life than everyone else by carving out your own market niche — changed my life. Plenty of people tell me “must be nice to [insert something backhanded about me or my life]” or “this won’t work for me because [insert some excuse that lets them off the hook].” That’s fine — they don’t know me or the amount of work that went into creating my company and life. Plenty of people will tell you you’re crazy if you try to start a company or leave a comfortable but unfulfilling job. That’s okay! Haters gonna hate.
- Don’t just chase your passion. A lot of people are quick to tell you to “just follow your passion and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Reality begs to differ! The reason Nerd Fitness worked is because I was providing a product and service to an underserved market that needed help. If your passion is “catching butterflies,” unless you can find somebody to pay you money for that hobby, it’s not a business. Start by solving somebody’s problem and see how you can create a business there. My passion wasn’t in health and fitness — it wasn’t until I started helping people that I got passionate about crafting articles and building a community.
- Get the “suck” out of the way. If you’re looking to start a blog/community/app/business, there’s never a better time than RIGHT NOW. More information isn’t going to necessarily help more — what will help is practical experience from starting immediately. Go back and read the first 9 months of content on NerdFitness.com (the old articles are still there) — they make me cringe. But I had to learn, and make several pivots along the way. If you are trying to make an app, build 10 crappy ones and learn, instead of going all-in on one app before realizing nobody wants it!
- Traveling and 4-hour workweeks aren’t for everybody. I lived the four hour workweek life for all of 2011, and I’m really glad I did. I had amazing adventures, made lifelong friends, and have a brain full of memories I will never forget. These days, I am having an absolute blast building a company, creating jobs, and trying to turn Nerd Fitness into something that helps as many people as possible. Everybody will play this “game of life” differently.
- If you’re not having fun, what’s the point? I get it. We all need to pay the bills and take care of our families. However, it doesn’t mean you need to spend the majority of your existence doing stuff that you hate. If you are miserable at your day job, or just unfulfilled, take action: start learning a new skill in your spare time or building your own business each morning. Tomorrow is no guarantee, and life is freaking short. I lost two friends earlier this year who were 31 and 32 years old. Fortunately, they both spent their lives doing what they loved; most people aren’t so lucky and have to look back on their lives with regret.
I spent the past few years writing a book discussing all of the above (incorporating game mechanics and behavioral psychology) to help people live better lives. It’s called Level Up Your Life, and it’s out now.
I’m hopeful this book can be the fork in the road for a new generation the way the Four Hour Workweek was for me. Thanks Tim Ferris, Chris Guillebeau, and Richard Branson!
Oh, and thanks to Captain America, Link from Legend of Zelda, and Harry Potter too.
photo: happy faces