Stop pretending — about success and failure

A letter to my future self, originally written July 2014. Published two years later.

Dear future Mathias

I am writing to you in the future, so that when you read this, it will be from the past. While we are seperated in time we are quite similar. We have the same name and we share a common past. You, however, have walked further into life than me. You may have learned more. But you may also have forgotten one of the important lessons of our shared past. Therefore I’m writing this for you to remember what happened in the summer of 2014.

The story begins back in January 2012 when I was doing our taxes for 2011. You might remember this, because I wrote about it in our annual report for 2012 (p. 15). For the first time since moving to NYC in early 2011 I had to face the facts and it wasn’t looking good. I had been spending a lot more money than I had been making in the past year, and burning significantly into our savings. I got really scared. I realized that my business as it was had failed and I would need some help, but my pride and ego was yelling at me that nobody would like me if I was a failure. I knew they were lying, and so instead of staying quiet and trying to keep up appearances I decided to go face to face with my ego and I began sharing the story about how my business failed. I was liberated. I no longer had to pretend. I could just admit it and look at the facts.

With this new found freedom of thought I changed my inner question from “what can I make in the world?” to “what do I really want to be doing?”

While I didn’t immediately have a clear answer, I set out to discover it. I began drawing it and after a while I began to imagine a sort of consulting/coaching business where I would get to work with amazing entrepreneurs and help them tackle tough challenges.

Magically, this business became a reality within a few months and suddenly I was living that way. I was making money. Not a lot, but enough to get by and pay my bills. It was incredible. I’m still not sure exactly how this worked out, but it did.

Then came the summer of 2013. I lost a big client, and some other projects had come to a natural conclusion and suddenly I found myself without any work at all. Nothing. It was summer and I knew that getting new clients in New York over the summer was not going to happen. Also, my wife was eight months pregnant so I decided to take it easy until the fall.

Fall came around, but no new work was happening. Now, however, our spending had gone up significantly, and my wife had stopped working to take care of the baby so what we needed was roughly three times what I had needed for myself just six months earlier. I began to feel the pressure.

In the early spring of 2014 I finally began to get some traction, and for a few months I had enough work that our family cash flow was positive. But not enough to really save up anything for later, so when June came around I had almost no work lined up for the summer. I tried to be optimistic and look for the opportunities.

My cash flow in the past three years. Only for two brief periods did the revenue surpass the spending.

However, what I had failed to fully recognize was the fact that the past year’s struggle to get work and gain some sort of financial stability had drained me. I felt tired and exhausted from this constant pressure to develop a way of selling what was essentially a service that was based entirely on what I really enjoyed doing for myself, and which fundamentally didn’t want to fit into any boxes of needs that others might have.

I had seen hints of this, and I had even taken steps towards applying for a few jobs that seemed like a good fit for me. But none of these had happened. All the while, I was still trying to be upbeat and show that I was doing great. That there were opportunities and things to do.

But I was tired. And as I write this, I am still tired. I’m tired of this month to month struggle to make ends meet. The unpredictable nature of the amount of work. And that even when it was doing well, it still only exactly covered our costs.

Emotionally it was one long slide down. And what made it even more frustrating was that I was alone on this deroute. I got an e-mail from someone who had interviewed me about my work saying “So envious of your career!” and I thought to myself, if only you knew what I’m going through.

Two weeks ago I was in Argentina and for a panel discussion someone asked us: “how do you make your business sustainable?” My answer was that I don’t think you can force that. If your business becomes sustainable or not is beyond your control. You try to build it the best you can, and if it fits well with the world and the time, it may stick. But you can’t force it. It would take me a few more weeks to realize what this meant for my own business.

It finally really began to culminate this past weekend when my wife and I began discussing it in more detail. I got really scared when I began to finally see the facts. It really hit me in a soft spot: I felt like such a failure. Our explicit agreement is that I go and do work and my wife stays at home with the baby. She has done her part so perfectly, but I was failing on my end. My pride was hurting. I was hurting. We agreed that on Monday I would make a realistic budget for the summer to see more specifically how it was looking.

On Monday I made the budget and realized that we had roughly three months before we would really be hitting a hard stop with money. For some that might seem like plenty of time. As I am writing this, a part of me is afraid that you will laugh at me and say “haha, three months? Is that supposed to be scary? I’ve lived most of my life never having more than two weeks of buffer”, and if that’s true, I admire your courage. Three months for me does not feel like a long time. I’ve been used to having years of buffer, which has allowed me to always think long term. To build businesses with long term focus, and not to worry about the short term. But with the saving gone and a much higher burn rate with a family, and much less room for rapidly scaling down costs, three months scared the shit out of me that Monday.

These are the notes I began writing for myself:

This is what poured out of my hand yesterday when I was really falling apart. Just today it is already so far away that I can hardly identify with it.

It’s only been one day, and I already feel so much better, that I have almost forgotten how I felt. But I know that I cried. Tears were running down my cheeks. I was close to breaking down when I unexpectedly met a friend.

This became the real turning point. My friend sat down with me, and we talked through it. He asked me: “if money wasn’t the biggest issue, what would you want to be doing this summer?”

And then he said: “Mathias, I know you can get a job. Maybe not the perfect job that fits perfectly with your unique skill, but you can get a job. I promise. You’ve done UX work in the past. That may not be what you want to be doing right now, but it will give you a break.”

I thanked him and hugged him. I could finally see my way forward and I saw it clearly. I will do two things this summer:

1: I will do as much teaching as I can. I will find ways to get my existing online teaching content out to as many people as possible. And I will work towards setting up small classes and seminars and share how I work with anyone who is interested. If it doesn’t work out, then that’s ok.

2: I will prepare myself to really get a job. Not the perfect jobs as the ones I have applied for recently. But a job that I can get based on the skills I have. Either some UX/design and prototype development, or some business development.

There is no guarantee that this will work out, but it feels incredible that I have finally admitted to myself that it’s time to change course.

So did I really fail?

Yes. In terms of my business I failed to build it to a point where it was financially sustainable enough to support me and my family.

And now that we’re at it: I also failed to develop a proper way to explain the work I do in a way that is easy for others to understand. I failed at building a website that conveys what I do (I really hate the way my website is right now). And it feels amazing to finally admit this to myself. It’s ok. I tried it. I really did. I invested my own money and my efforts in it. But now I can finally admit that it didn’t work out as a business. Stop forcing it — just like I told the woman in Buenos Aires.

But I did succeed in finding, connecting and experimenting with the work that I truly love. The work that I was born to do. The work that gives me pleasure while truly creating value for others. The work that I, for the first time in my life can imagine doing for the rest of that same life. Of course the form and format might change and evolve. But the core part of showing up as a full human might remain.

And I even succeeded in building a business. I did make money. I did have clients and they were happy. I did get to do amazing work that has fundamentally altered someone’s lives. This I am very proud of.

What I’m not proud of is how I have tried to keep up appearances for too long. I have pretended that everything was going great. New projects were coming in. Opportunities. Which is not untrue. I have seen a lot of hugely exciting opportunities in the past nine months. But very few of them have come into being and the ones that have, turned out to be smaller than expected. And because of my pride and my ego, I wasn’t willing to admit this to myself or anyone else. I kept on trying to force success.

Now I’ve decided to once again stop pretending, and I feel so free. That’s what I want you to understand. That’s what I want you to remember.

With lots of love from your past, Mathias

Post script: This letter was written on July 1st 2014. On September 1st I started working as a Learning Designer at Hyper Island, a job that was a really good fit for almost two years.