Personal business plan: zooming all the way out

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on my personal business plan, I realized something awful. One of the main pillars of the plan – finding a part-time consulting gig “just to pay the bills” – was wrong.

I could tell it was wrong because the plan contains few details about it – I’m not excited about it, so I didn’t care to fill in the gaps properly. (Also, I woke up at 4:13 am, thinking about it with a sense of dread.) I didn’t want it in there. I didn’t want it to be part of my plan. Ugh. Now what?

This is the second time this has happened. The first time was last year, when I was doing research about “how to be a successful (i.e. money-making) travel blogger.” I read blogs, listened to podcasts, talked to people, started planning…and realized that I don’t want to be a travel blogger – at least not one who earns money primarily from blogging.

“Well, Koukkos, how do you want to make money, given that your lottery tickets never seem to win?” That’s the question that led to my personal business plan.

In other words, I had to zoom out. And now I have to zoom out again.

Think of it this way. Imagine that I’m trying to take a photo. I’m in the forest. I’ve got my 300mm camera zoomed all the way in, slowly panning across the thick green of the trees. I’m doomed – I’ll never get the right shot, because I don’t even know what I’m looking for, never mind where to aim.

That’s where I was with my vague “how to make a good travel blogging site” research. I had my equipment and a vague idea of what I wanted to accomplish, but no real goal.

So I let my camera hang around my neck and just listen. I hear something calling from above. I look up, and through the thick greenness I notice a spot of red. “I want to take a photo of that bird!” I say to myself. I reposition myself so that the light is behind me. I stand on a fallen tree to get a better angle. I contort myself to compose the shot, zoom in, focus. I’m about to take the photo when I realize…that red thing is just some mundane cardinal in a mundane setting. I definitely want a photo of a bird. I just don’t really want this photo of this bird. That’s where I found myself at the end of my personal business planning.

What I needed to do is to zoom all the way out – all the way into myself. I had to ask myself some fundamental questions. Continuing my hypothetical bird-pic, I asked myself things like:

  • Why do you like taking photographs?
  • Do you particularly like taking photos of birds in forests? Or animals in their natural environment? Or just birds? Or just things with contrasting colors?
  • Is it that you like forests – not necessarily taking photos in the forest?
  • Is taking photos (or walking in forests, or birds) something you want to do for a living?
  • If yes, how can you make a living from it?

…and on and on.

This exercise, guided by online “career coaching” resources and some material from The Five O’Clock Club – materials I got thanks to the disaster of my last full-time job – has been extremely useful. It’s helped me see my options more clearly, and given me a grounded, thoughtful strategy on which to zoom in to everything else – my personal business plan and eventually the specifics of executing that plan.

I don’t think I could have gotten here without all the struggles, diversions and failures of my life so far. And I definitely wouldn’t be here without my successes and achievements. So once again: Here’s to The “f” word!

Just to finish off the photo-taking metaphor…it will take all that work (and more) to find myself in the Central American rainforest, new Nikon D800 in hand (drool drool), tracking a Quetzalcoatl for National Geographic Traveler.

It’s never too late to start planning

Over the past month or so I’ve been doing something I should have done ages ago. I’m writing a personal business plan.

For those who don’t know, a business plan is an outline of an entity’s strategy and operations. It sets goals, defines a target market, describes broad tactics, and projects financials – profits, losses, and cash flow. It’s used, mostly by for-profit businesses, to document their goals and/or as an application to a bank or other source of capital for a loan or investment.

In short, it answers the questions “Where are you going?” “How are you going to get there?” and “What will your profit be?”, whether you measure profit in dollars, value to society, personal satisfaction (or sanity), or whatever.

I’ve never done any real life planning stuff before, because I never thought it would be relevant for me. I love serendipity. I thrive at making things up as I go along. I get a buzz from uncertainty. My disposition seems to preclude any sort of formal planning.

This approach has always worked for me. Why? Because there was always one stake in the ground, one tether, to control the swing of everything else. At different times the tether has been a steady job, a city or sometimes a set of relationships.

But over the past few years I’ve come to realize the old approach isn’t working for my new Range Life. With no steady tether, the relatively clean arc of my activities have turned reactionary and scatter-shot. I’ve replaced the careful curiosity of a cat with the yipping ADD of a puppy. I’ve seen this lack of focus in a company, and I know where it leads. More specifically, I know that it leads nowhere.

To get started, I’ve taken tremendous inspiration and guidance from Chris Guillebeau’s annual review over at Art of Nonconformity. He says it explicitly, but what I and thousands of others are trying to do is to prove that if you choose to do so, you can be successful outside of the traditional 9-to-5 (or 7-to-7!). You can – I can – live a Range Life.

In further testament to my ADD, as I write my personal business plan I get so excited about certain things that I set the planning aside and take a step or two towards one of my goals. But now I’m too impatient. I’m going to finish this plan by mid-week and let myself loose on the execution, which is the fun (and hard) part.

2011: Good riddance.
2012: Let’s do this thing.

2012: Let’s do this thing.

In typical fashion, I’m more than a week late posting my end-of-year wrap up.

“This is no way to run a blog!” say the experts. I wholeheartedly disagree. This is in fact exactly the way 99% of bloggers run their blogs: posting sporadically for a while, and then falling off the face of the earth.

This is, however, no way to run a blog and have more than a Tebow’s chance of gaining more readers than Lis, Henry and my mom.

So where have I been? What the heck is going on? Beyond the self-fulfilling prophesy of my laziness, I’m late posting because I spent the better part of 2011 hiding. When people have asked me about my next move, I’ve told them that I’ve been taking care of some family business. That’s kinda true, but mostly bullshit. I’m certain I’ve spent more hours getting angry about American politics, getting angry about Hungarian politics, getting angry about baseball politics, and playing Angry Birds.

Oh….fine. I suppose I did do some things of redeeming value last year.

In a nod to my old, money-earning life, I took on a few freelance Web-product and editing gigs. In so doing I was reminded that I really am pretty effing good at it, and even enjoy it…at least in small doses.

And then there was my new, non-earning life.

After publishing a few stories on Matador Network, I represented them on a fantastic press trip to Papua New Guinea, sponsored by the PNG Tourism Board. In the process I met fellow travel media types the Scuba Diver Girls, “Gonzo” Robin Esrock, and Bronwen Dickey, all of whom I continue to admire.

I was ignored by countless editors.

I pitched, repitched, repitched, repitched, got an assignment for, and reported, wrote and edited a story for a major regional glossy mag…only to have it killed at the last second. The good news: I was paid in full for the story. The bad news: I earned about $0.02/hour, and (worse!) didn’t get the clip.

I pitched, repitched, clarified, reclarified, got an assignment…and had the assignment retracted for a different story in a national glossy mag.

Through all this, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do next. Which is scary. Thus the hiding.

Do I want to be a freelance writer? (I do.) Do I want to be able to pay the rent? (I do.) Do I know how to make both things happen at the same time? (Well…)

My night dreams take place on creaky buses and dusty roads. There is a biking trip through the ‘stans. There’s a string of Greyhound bus trip rides to San Diego, then continuing southward for a few years. There’s a return to familiar SE Asia to get my PADI instructor cert and settling down in Thailand.

In these dreams it’s easy to forget the isolation of life on the road. I’ve been back more than a year now, and I once again take for granted the ease of conversation with a friend who really knows me.

My day dreams are slightly different. Walking the streets of New York, my brain is full of, well, New York. My brain sparks and whirs. I’m in New York. I’m alive.

This is a very different reaction from when I first returned last September. At that time, I eyed New York – the physical manifestation of my old life – cagily, like a trap, like the strangely seductive nothingness of sweet nothings. Sweet nothings, I suspected, from an insincere lover.

But slowly, slowly, the city has eroded my defenses with glimpses of what was and what could be again. Yellowing autumn oaks vying for luminescence against blue skies. The purposeful stride of the sleekly dressed along Fifth Avenue. The woman in Penn Station singing (opera) for her dinner. The easy availability of a bagel with lox and scallion cream cheese.

It’s not just these physical things. It’s also the intellectual stimulation – of conversation beyond hostels and bus schedules and schemes and scams and cultural perplexities and the precise location of the new frogfish spotted at Artificial.

Slowly, insidiously, my latest affair with New York spread its roots. And then, sometime in early 2011, amidst the jackhammer of weekly snow storms, it sprouted new buds. Love, or deep affection, sprang from 10-foot snow banks. I was once again smitten. Stuck. Damn.

So what to do? Stay or go? Listen to my dreams or my daydreams? Or instead listen to the sucking sound coming from my savings account?

In these situations, some people pray. Others visit a life coach. Still others talk to their friends, family, bartender, or strangers on the bus. I write. And writing, like other types of therapy, requires time to produce understanding.

So far, just one thing has become clear. My next thing will finally recognize and make explicit the unheralded force behind my life so far: cultural anthropology. It’s why I couldn’t escape my generic suburban hometown fast enough. It’s why I moved to Hungary on (basically) a whim. It’s why I love cities (and why I fell particularly hard for New York). And most vitally, it’s why I need to explore new places and new cultures in order to feel sane.

I even have a new name for my blog: Taking the Fork. The name is inspired by one of many wise teachings from the great (despite his Yankee-hood) Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

So. 2012. The year of taking the fork.

Floating at top speed

A few days ago I had a drink (or two…) with an old friend. “Let’s see,” she said. “What have you done since I last saw you?” It’s been a month.

The answer is that I flew halfway around the world to dive Papua New Guinea for Matador Network, courtesy of the Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority.

Then, after a few days back in New York, I quick-hit Orlando/Cape Canaveral to watch my friend Al get shot into space aboard Discovery. Back in New York, I was glued to NASA TV on Ustream, watching Al become to 200th human ever to perform a space walk (or EVA – extra-vehicular activity – in NASAspeak).

Fabulous, right?

Now I’m back to the mundane stoking of fires around various irons.

Over the past 6 months I’ve gone at one of two speeds: full tilt or brick wall. It’s a change of pace from my traveling life, which was more like a long trip on the highway: Most of the time you’re at a fast but steady pace, though occasionally you speed up to pass, or else pull over to eat or pee or just stretch your legs.

So. Is this a range life, or just life?

My dysfunctional relationship with books

A tale in three parts.

Back in November, when my coming-to-back-to America was still new, I went to the Swampscott Public Library with my mom. She was going to return some books, and I was going to borrow some – the disease of anti-accumulation, nomadic ways were still coursing through my blood. The American “buy, don’t borrow” ethic had not yet been reintroduced.

Here’s what happened:

From the bright, chilly November afternoon we step inside the fluorescent dimness of the library. Behind the desk, two middle-aged checkout managers (I’m sure they’re not actual librarians) sit, gossiping. My mom turns into the room on the right, where the pulp and other fiction lives. I go in the other direction, to nonfiction. I am looking for a reference book about travel in Mongolia, a “how to start a home business,” and…well, when I’m in a bookstore, I just like to browse around, to let books surprise and delight me.

Standing on the threshold of the reference room, I’m disoriented by wave of nostalgia, of musty stacks, of card catalogues. Worse, like a flashback to a fumbling, pre-adolescent first kiss, I recall that there’s a code-like numbering system at work here. The Dewey Decimal System, used by libraries to organize nonfiction books, represent what navigating the internet would be like using only IP addresses. Looking for a book at Amazon? Visit (or, or 3, or…) Bob’s BBQ Shack? 221.54.342.6. Easy, right?

As I search in vain for the giant, well-lit sign that will show me to the business section, a spunky librarian approaches and chirps, “Can I help you find something?”

No! I don’t want to explain what I’m looking for. I want to browse, to engage in a leisurely stroll through the aisles, to happen upon the right book, plus a half-dozen others. I want to run my eyes along the crisp spines of the books, drinking in their titles, guessing their cover art from the font and spine design, scan for familiar names or compelling titles.

Around me, retirees are checking email on old Dells with flesh-colored CRT monitors. Another librarian plods behind a wooden cart of books to be re-shelved. When I was in the third grade, I volunteered as a re-shelver in my elementary school library. My skill at filing away words based on a system of numbers was a source of great pride at the time.

“I’m looking for the business books?” I sputter, so flummoxed that I add the question mark. Thirty years on, my brain is trying to dig up old Dewey. But he lies hidden beneath layers of real life. It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve even been in a library.

“Oh, those are downstairs,” she explains, leading me to what looked like a fire door tucked into a corner. I peek through the wire-mesh reinforced window. A sad little stairwell, the kind you would find in an elementary school in the 70’s, leads to the basement.

Two months later, I spent $43 on books at – mostly in the used/discounted section. At least one of my purchases was an impulse buy – my version of a candy bar (“Everything Bad is Good for You,” by Steven Johnson). The rest were in some way related to Papua New Guinea. I swear.
Just before I left for PNG, I spent part of the afternoon in one of my favorite places, the Barnes & Noble on Union Square in New York.

I went to do some research – to pull books off the shelf, sit in one of the reading chairs lined up by the floor-to-ceiling windows, and read. I did more than that, of course. I couldn’t resist pausing by the tables at the front of the store, browsing the latest fiction and non-fiction. I wandered the travel section – a terrible habit that has had life-changing consequences for me. I finally sat, with a stack of travel lit and diver porn (glossy, photo-heavy fish-ID books). As I worked my way through the pile, the sun dipped below the NYU buildings on Union Square West. At least three homeless people (who come in to get warm and sleep), were evicted by impatient but kind B&N staff. I’m lost in my world, in a sea of books, with my people around me – fellow NYers who are also using this place as their library. Not many leave with books they intend to buy, but a few do. I didn’t.

Along the deep window ledges, stacks of books left by the B&N readers sit, waiting to be re-shelved – alphabetically, within clearly labeled sections.

Hammerheads, nudis and grrrrlz

Hello from Tufi, Papua New Guinea. Makes my head spin just to say that!

The journey here was insane – 38 hours, 4 flights and 2 hours of sleep took me to Port Moresby, the capital. My intention had been to check out the town when we arrived, but since I couldn’t complete a coherent sentence I figured it’d be a bad idea to wander alone in a town where so-called “rascols” troll the streets and carjack anyone who looks like they’ve got money. Instead I stayed within the confines of our hotel, surrounded by 8-foot high walls and patroled by a guard weilding some sort of large machine gun. I hit the pool, took a shower, failed to connect to the internet, and passed out by 9.

The following morning we flew to Tufi, on the north side of the main island. I’m delighted to report that my fellow travel journalists and I have gelled into a nice little group. No complainers, no egotists, no assholes. There are the Scuba Diver Girls, Margo and Stephanie, who run a dive shop in San Diego and run the fantastic SDG website. Then there’s Bronwen, from North Carolina, on assignment for Sport Diver. Finally there’s Robin, the only non-diver and only man in our crew. He’s the man behind Modern Gonzo, so it didn’t take much for us to convince him to get certified and join us under water. We’ve got plans to haze him mercilessly.

Today (Wednesday) is our third day of diving. The first day was about small stuff – loads of nudis – and yesterday was the big stuff, including my first ever hammerhead (see pic on FB). Woot! I saw two hammerheads, plus loads of white tips, a black tip and a few small grey reef sharks. We also saw a bat ray, shoals of fuseliers, snapper, unicornfish, etc. The Big Stuff dives yesterday reminded me a lot of Sipadan.

OK, gotta run for my next day of diving. We’re here until Friday.

Metaphysical range life

Holy crap, what a week this has been.

It all started Tuesday. That’s when I embarked on my new part-time consulting gig with She Writes, an online network that helps writers connect with each other and gain access to professional services and guidance. So far it’s been terribly exciting and overwhelming. Another startup web company, full of ideas and promise, determined to get it right, collaborating with idea-a-minute founder Kamy Wicoff and our CTO consultant on how to get it all done, funding, design, social media, marketing….this scrambles my brain as well as any drug. It’s so nice to be back in a “let’s do it!” culture, instead of “that sounds good. but let’s check to hear what these 12 people think first.”

While I was getting buried under the nor’easter of She Writes on Tuesday, little did I know that another storm – let’s call this one a tropical monsoon – was sitting in my inbox (and on Facebook). Everyone I know at Matador Network was trying to get in touch with me. “URGENT! Do you want to go on a press trip to dive Papua New Guinea?” they asked. Um, WHAT? Is the pope Catholic? Does a bear shit in the woods? Does a manta ray eat plankton? Suddenly I had about a day to come up with a compelling story idea or two. Good thing I wasn’t busy or anything. (I’m not officially in yet – fingers crossed!)

And the editor of another publication wanted a revised story pitch. And another story of mine was published on Matador Trips. And I met a terrific fellow travel writer at a mediabistro networking event.

It’s as if just stepping onto the island of Manhattan makes things start to happen.

Last night I related all this craziness to my amazing friend Andrea DiCastro McGough (over lots of drinks and a little dinner). She quite astutely pointed out that all this chaos, my triple life as freelance writer and online product consultant and member of a family that requires lots of attention at the moment, not to mention my lack of fixed address, is simply a different face to my Range Life. Maybe it’s not so much about stamps in my passport, but about always trying something new, or at least different.

Is that a metaphysical range life? Or am I soothing my nerves at the prospect of staying put for a while?

Taking a risk

I just had lunch with a good friend who is in the middle of trying to raise money for her startup business. Her description of the fundraising process sounded exactly like a freelance writer trying to get published. In fact, she used the term “authorpreneur” in describing one aspect of her business. That’s me!

What both she and I are trying to do is to get someone else – in her case, an investor; in my case, an editor – to take a risk on our story.

Luckily, we both have connections and networks from our past lives that can help us get in front of the right people. But what then? In her case, her story doesn’t have the sexiness of a 19-year-old boy-genius geek with hot new technology that will change the world, man. (In fact, there are no boys at all in her story.) She’ll have to find a different hook.

We talked about how most people are followers, even if they imagine themselves to be leaders. In her case, she’s trying to get few *real* risk-takers on board, after which (she hopes!) it will become easier to get the ones who imagine themselves as risk-takers to follow. In short, she’s looking for her big break.

To be successful, both of us need to be very well prepared, create a measure of luck for ourselves, and above all, be tenacious as hell. It’s not easy to get a relative stranger to take a risk on you.

Writing, nostalgia and details

My article on diving Malaysian Borneo is up on Matador Networks. Enjoy.

Writing this piece was at once cathartic (the first draft exceeded 3000 words!) and nostalgic. I just celebrated my one-year anniversary of becoming a divemaster (Nov 30) and starting work at Scuba Junkie (December 10, I think). Last year at this time I was a newbie DM sharing a shitty little room with Rob, a sweet guy who helped me build up my confidence as a DM. Thanks, Rob!

Just a few weeks later I was a badass DM, guiding freshly-minted divers at Sipadan on Xmas day wearing a Santa hat.

Pulling together the info for this piece and the others I’ve been working on has only reinforced a lesson I learned from James Sturz during a travel writing course I took at MediaBistro a few years back: Great writing is about details. You must write travel pieces immediately, or you’ll forget all the important colorful stuff. You’ll lose immediacy. It’s better to know what story you will write *before* you go somewhere, so you know what details to take down. Etc. Etc.

I’ve discovered that I’m not delighted with what I write from my pitiful notes and memory. It isn’t bad, but it’s not as great as I want it to be.

All this makes me want to go back out into the world again.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to this weekend’s snowstorm. If it’s going to be freezing cold, we might as well have snow!