In the summer of 2009, I was at a crossroads.
My business was not doing well. At all. In fact, it was the worst it had ever been to that point - over a year into freelancing full-time.
My clients were drying up, and projects were few and far between. I went from making thousands of dollars every month to making hundreds - or sometimes less.
Credit card bills were hanging over my head. Student loans were put on forbearance, racking up interest. Fewer groceries could be bought. I drove around with one burned-out headlight (and, eventually, two burned-out headlights).
I forgot what it was like to put in a full tank of gas. I found myself rationing things like laundry soap or shampoo, just so I wouldn’t have to buy any more. I shaved less often.
The sky was falling, but I refused to admit it to myself.
To me, success was just right around the corner. It wasn’t that my business was failing, I thought, I just need to do a better job of selling myself. Actually, maybe I need a SALESMAN! Yeah, that’s the ticket!
I hired a sales firm to help get the word out about my company. We went back and forth for 4 months, thinking we were on the cusp of a deal - and we wound up not working together.
So I wasted 4 more months, and my income dwindled further.
Instead of seeing the obvious - I need to get a full-time income coming in again - I thought that I just needed to “supplement” my income.
Yes, even though I literally had a month where I made less than $300 while living in a $545 a month apartment that did not include utilities, I thought supplementation was the answer.
I spent a few nights a week bartending at a hotel. Turns out, that wasn’t the magic pill either. It actually made things worse, because it tied up my time and I didn’t make any money there.
After ignoring the obvious signs all year long, I finally took a full-time seasonal customer service job with a department store at the end of October.
Of course, the damage had been done to an incredible degree, and by Christmas, I was trying to coordinate a move thanks to an ultimatum from my landlord. I was in my parents’ basement by the end of New Year’s Day.
I’m not a dumb guy. I consider myself to be fairly intelligent. I know how to work with numbers.
However, I am a stubborn guy also. And this stubbornness is what caused me to think about my financial situation in terms of what “should” be versus the reality of the situation.
I ignored practicality.
I had dreams of steady client work, producing awesome copy and getting paid thousands of dollars for it. I had seen it happen! Why couldn’t it happen again?
I was pursuing that dream, and that wasn’t a bad dream to pursue.
However, the mistake I made was not looking practically: in the immediate future, I needed a lot more money. By focusing on what “should” be reality and what made sense to me, I pushed facts aside.
Today, as I write this, is the one-year anniversary of when I lost my biggest client. We worked together for almost two years, and I made a boatload of money with them. This client transformed my career, and my family’s lives.
In the past year, I’ve worked project-to-project, gained clients and lost clients, and pursued different business opportunities.
Through it all, we haven’t missed a rent payment. In fact, we navigated a very messy move at the beginning of summer.
We’ve survived, even though we’ve largely been in the same position that I was in back in 2009. I even had a month earlier this year where I only made a few hundred bucks.
The reason we survived is because I focused this time on practicality: I took work as I needed it and continued to hustle for any client I could get my hands on.
I didn’t worry about what I wanted or what was “beneath” me. I set my pride on the back burner and kept on working.
To get out of this situation, of course, I need to build something better. I need to build something bigger. I need to build the business I want to have.
But the reason I haven’t forced us to start rolling loose change to fill our gas tanks is because I’ve been building these things on the side while I still hustle up the unpleasant work that pays the bills.
I’m being realistic - and practical - about my situation.
What are you willing to bet?
Often, ignoring practicality is a one-way ticket to failure - and a mess.
We dream of those success stories where somebody worked for the job they “wanted” instead of what they “needed” and came out unscathed.
Unfortunately, those are in the minority. If you want to achieve something, you’re going to have to sacrifice.
If you want to go “all in” with your chips and bet the house without being practical, you better be ready to lose.
That’s not because you automatically will lose, mind you, but because you have a very strong chance of losing and need to be able to face that reality.
So, when you’re out there trying and failing to put it all together, always envision your worst case scenario and have a plan of attack for it. Don’t flounder and deny its existence while you spiral down the drain.
In 2009, I should have started taking on lower-paying work immediately when some of that big work started drying up. I should’ve built something on the side to keep me sustainable while I repaired my business.
Instead, I got desperate and lost it all.
What are you willing to bet? If you can’t make big bets, then start having a side game plan to keep you going in the event of failure.
Then, failure can be a valuable learning experience instead of a painful point of desperation.