“He who cares least wins.”

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We talked for four hours straight – totally unexpectedly and probably with no intention of speaking that long. Neither of us had the time or wherewithal to manage, but we did it anyway. I heard a lot of fascinating things in that conversation and got some food for thought in addition to finding reason to worry. He had just endured a major and expensive disappointment and a pile of bureaucratic shit shoveled at him, so I think the whole purpose was just to vent. But it ended up being about everything: Japan, Rambo, emotional and physical abuse, China, Africa, Iran, Libya, Lockerbie, chain of command, whether life matters, whether politics matters, Machiavelli, James Spader, the value of therapy, identity crises and unfortunate events unfolding one after another, doing what is ‘right’, sociopathy, cars, morality, comedy, winning and… well, everything.

He told me he had asked a colleague what advice he gives his kids about the world:

“How do you prepare them for THIS?”
“I tell them everyone is full of shit. Everyone. Even them.”

He told me about the total BS and bureaucracy of his work. When he cared, of course he got shafted time and again. When he stopped caring at all and decided to just milk it for all it was worth, naturally they did not know what to do with him:

“You guys have already bent me over the table enough times and fucked me. You didn’t foresee that I have really big balls and I just don’t care. I’m gonna do what’s right.”

Somehow in all the hours of talk, the conclusion is the same: neither one of us cares. He cares even less than I do – there is a part of me that still invests and hopes. But not him. What is there to get all agitated and worked up over? What is there to be fearful of? It’s all entertainment leading to inevitable death, and in some ways, as we concluded in discussing humanity, all humans are just beads on an abacus. They don’t matter except in tallying results.

Photo (c) 2011 Toshiyuki IMAI

Tax

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People in the US and a lot of the Americans I know talk a lot about how things are so easy and user friendly in the US. And you know what? They aren’t. Stuff like filing taxes can be a bureaucratic, paperwork nightmare. And it just isn’t here (or in Norway). It’s just about the easiest thing in the world. And most of the things Americans are told are backwards, socialistic, inefficient and on and on in nameless other places just aren’t. It’s just a brainwash.

Sin-o-matic (Okay – cinematic is what I meant…) and middle-aged sex lives

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To accompany a stack of bureaucratic kind of stuff I needed to do this weekend but had been shuttling off to some dark corner for “another day”, I decided to watch a bunch of films (or half-watch, as was sometimes the case). Strangely when binge watching in that kind of succession, I don’t remember everything I watched. The other night I saw a decade-old Japanese film called Quill, about the life and training of a dog that went on to be a service dog (and its eventual death). I can only remark that the Japanese make fascinatingly weird movies and observations, and I am always astounded by how much Japanese I actually remember. (It is definitely a use-it-or-lose-it language, but its grammatical simplicity lends itself to quick recall – at least for me.)

As for today’s viewing, I cannot even remember what I watched. I remember In a World because it just finished now. I expected to hate it because Lake Bell normally grates on me hard – and a vehicle that is written and directed by and starred in by HER – could I expect something positive? Expect, no. But be pleasantly surprised – yes.

But what else? I was in and out of the house all day, doing these bureaucratic tasks and baking some muffins – meaning that the films weren’t really my priority. And there were some tv shows thrown into it just to mix things up (and mix up my memory). I saw a German film called Lore (since World War II stories so ably buoy one’s spirits…). And a French film called Sexual Chronicles of a French Family. And then… what? There was something earlier that completely slipped my mind until I was semi-immersed (when I was not in the middle of making a frittata, anyway) in the Sexual Chronicles film – the discussions on middle-aged (and older) sex lives made me feel a kind of strange melancholy, made me think a bit of a poem from Howard Nemerov (“Reading Pornography in Old Age”*) and then took me back a few hours to the film I had seen earlier in the day – Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini (one of his, if not the, last roles). They are two regular, divorced, middle-aged people navigating the dating world, which – by their portrayal – makes it look just as awkward and fraught with missteps as dating at every other stage in life (even if things start out auspiciously enough – as though they have both gotten past insecurities and issues that tripped them up in earlier life). Yes, middle-aged, divorced dating movies, despite the sweetness of this one and its charming, funny and self-deprecating dialogue, depress me.

Hmm. And that’s enough said.

I leave you in Nemerov’s capable hands.

*Reading Pornography in Old Age

Unbridled licentiousness with no holds barred,
Immediate and mutual lust, satisfiable
In the heat, upon demand, aroused again
And satisfied again, lechery unlimited.

Till space runs out at the bottom of the page
And another pair of lovers, forever young,
Prepotent, endlessly receptive, renews
The daylong, nightlong, interminable grind.

How decent it is, and how unlike our lives
Where “Fuck you” is a term of vengeful scorn
And the murmur of “sorry, partner” as often heard
As ever in mixed doubles or at bridge.

Though I suspect the stuff is written by
Elderly homosexuals manacled to their
Machines, it’s mildly touching all the same,
A reminiscence of the life that was in Eden

Before the Fall, when we were beautiful
And shameless, and untouched by memory:
Before we were driven out to the laboring world
Of the money and the garbage and the kids

In which we read this nonsense and are moved
At all that was always lost for good, in which
We think about sex obsessively except
During the act, when our minds tend to wander.

The changing workscape: Going it alone

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Whether picking up freelance projects here and there as a kind of sole proprietor or doing something a bit more formal, setting up a company and running it, the current job market coupled with the difficulty of being “seen” by recruiters (even if you’ve got the experience, talent and skills required) are making more and more people choose to go it alone. Obviously deciding to work for yourself requires a kind of independence, confidence and belief in your skills and ideas that will give you the strength to persevere through lean times. The challenges of launching and marketing a new business – and the need to basically do at least two jobs at all times (the job/specialty you are selling and then the actual selling/marketing of those services) can be daunting. Never mind the bureaucracy and accounting work you will have to consider…

But going into business for yourself isn’t all risk, no reward – or people would not do it, keep doing it and loving it.

Beginning to see the light
The job search has been long and tough – very few interviews, or a lot of interviews that lead nowhere, and you start to think that maybe you would be better off – and much more in control of your professional destiny – if you strike out on your own. This initial “seeing the light” can be deceptive, of course, because on the surface it sounds a lot easier to just take matters into your own hands and go from there. If you’ve never started or run a business, though, you could be in for a few surprises in terms of how difficult it can be. Do your homework. But don’t let the challenges stop you. You will actually be a stronger person and may either become a successful businessperson, recognizing that this is where you belong – or you may just bolster yourself and gain insight and independence enough to know that you do belong in a regular job. But the experience of starting your own business and creating your own job has prepared you in whole new ways you could not even have imagined for the job you eventually seek. You are broadening your horizons no matter what road you take.

But first things first.

How did the “light” first come on that made you consider becoming your own boss?

The hard search – not being seen
The aforementioned “not being seen” in the job hunt is becoming more common. A recent, popular thread on LinkedIn discussed the increasing difficulty of differentiating yourself as a job candidate, particularly when you are something of a jack-of-all-trades. This inspired me to write on the subject of recruitment and HR and the foibles therein. A friend and former professor sent me another article about how HR has begun to embrace “big data” – and this is starting to influence hiring and retention decisions to, as the article points out, an almost creepy degree.

A true jack-of-all-trades, as many people pointed out in the comments to this post on LinkedIn, may be better off channeling all of those myriad skills into his or her own enterprise. If someone else cannot take in and appreciate the generalist, DIY, can-do approach to business, who better to benefit from your work than you – and the stable of clients you eventually cultivate?

When you have done your due diligence – and that means, really taking the time to tailor each application you submit (which may mean cutting back on the jack-of-all-trades theme to market yourself as a specialist in a few key areas, targeted for the specific job) – and you still find yourself getting nowhere, it might be time to apply the same efforts you make in the job search to assessing what kind of business you could do on your own using the skills in your toolbox that others have not seemed to cotton to. Do some market analysis – what needs exist that you can address?

This may be the best way to be seen and to make a mark.

The risk of self-employment 
Most things really worth doing do not come without any risk.

The biggest risk – you might fail. Many small businesses fail. It’s par for the course. But is failure in this case really failure? It’s a mixed bag. You may lose your shirt, but you know that there is always another shirt where that one came from. You will never learn as much as fast as you do in starting and running your own business – succeed or fail. If you fail, you take away valuable lessons and experience. You can either apply these lessons to your next business venture (the entrepreneurial bug is strong once you start) or apply the lessons to your next job. You are richer for it. “..a recent survey of 1,000 small business owners (conducted by Deluxe Corp and reported in Business Insider) shows that the vast majority of them are confident in their endeavors and say they’d rather embrace potential failure than never try at all”. Once you make up your mind, you’re pretty sure that you can live with failure – and need to be optimistic about success, regardless of the statistics, or you would not be likely to give the business your all.

Some might argue that it is a risk to work for yourself because you are sort of taking yourself out of the workforce specifically in your field and thus might fall behind on new trends or technologies because you are not active in that field. I doubt this. If you’re leveraging your former experience, chances are, as a self-employed person in a similar field, you have to stay ahead of the curve on trends to be competitive. This is why companies will turn to you – as your own enterprise, you are expected to be on the cutting edge. You might ultimately end up ahead of the game.

Difficulties & hard times
Money, money, money
I think one of the major reasons that more people don’t go into business for themselves, which goes beyond the not knowing how or where to start is the cash flow situation. Not only do you not have start-up costs on hand, but you, like everyone else, have bills to pay. And many people are motivated in large part by the paycheck. A steady job, even one you hate, pays you and ensures that you keep a roof over your head and all the rest. But, while theory won’t keep the wolf from the door, the idea that you work just for a paycheck is the kind of mindset that you should work to change.

Learning curve
You have a lot of skills to apply to the work you eventually want to do in your business. But to get there, there’s a lot to learn about starting, operating and building a business. This kind of knowledge doesn’t come overnight, and you will have to work hard and be patient, embracing what may be a steep and possibly winding learning curve.

Overreaching & lack of planning
You might try to do too much, too fast and overreach. You can easily lose the plot by doing this – and burn yourself out. Be sure to have very specific goals – and don’t stray too far from these, even if you see opportunities to dabble in a bunch of different areas outside your core business. This can lead to trouble, especially in the early days when you struggle to find your footing. You need to have a good plan from the beginning and, while you can exhibit some flexibility, straying too far outside the guidelines can get you into trouble, mired in projects that you cannot fulfill your commitments to. The temptation to do this can be great, especially when money is tight in the beginning, but you’re better off in the long run if you stick to your guns and do not take on something you cannot handle. Does that mean you should not challenge yourself? No, but definitely evaluate whether a project is within the scope of what your business and your expertise can offer. You risk a big bundle of stress, financial losses and a potential hit to your reputation if you don’t manage yourself and your obligations carefully.

Legal trouble
Further on the previous point, if you are careless about making delivery promises or careless in taking care of all the required aspects of establishing a business legally (especially where it concerns intellectual property), you can quickly find yourself in legal trouble. This is somewhere you definitely do not want to go. Failing in a small business is one thing – getting tangled up in lawsuits is entirely another. Always put in the time to make sure everything is above board and legal.

The rewards of self-employment
Flexibility
One of the biggest bonuses of working for yourself is the flexibility you can build into your work life. Sure, you will probably be working most of the time – but it’s your business and your time. When you need to run out and do an errand, no one is looking over your shoulder and asking you to punch a time clock. Your time is your own, and you know that you get what you put into whatever efforts you are making. For me, the home office has been a boon – I have discovered that unknown levels of productivity are possible for me when I am working at home, so the readjustment to office life has just not worked well. Sure, I need to be flexible as well – but having your own business buys you this kind of freedom.

Nonstop learning
If you are anything like me, one of the battles of working in a regular job is that many of them have an initial learning curve (new company, new project) but then once you have mastered a few things, there is not a lot of brain stretching going on. This is not always true – there is always something to learn but you’ve got to be proactive about seeking it out. Sometimes the traditional work environment, even if you are like a sponge, picking up new knowledge and skills, just wants to pigeonhole you into whatever role you are doing, and the lack of growth that results from your gusto to learn leaves the learning less than satisfying. This is never a problem in your own enterprise. You have to learn to keep going, and you will apply everything you learn all the time. For those for whom endless curiosity is a constant nag, self-employment is one salve for the soul.

Building your network, building your reputation
Don’t give yourself a bad reputation! Building up your network of clients is the best way to get more clients. In my own experience, I have tried various types of advertising and marketing, and the single best way – that keeps paying off after literally years – is word of mouth. Former/current clients are asked by friends and peers for recommendations, and even if eight years have gone by, they will remember the work I did and pass my name along.

This leads to the next point – working for yourself, you are the show, so you have to put your best foot forward and manage your reputation. Clearly building a solid reputation with clients makes you memorable, keeps them coming back and will grow your business even without you exerting effort. The effort you make today can pay dividends later.

Satisfaction
You did it! Whether you stick with it forever and keep growing or just do the self-employed thing for a while, you did it. You stuck with it and now have this invaluable experience to show that you’ve got business experience, sense and acumen.

Seeing the signs Do it alone
The way things are going – both in the job market as a whole and in specific industries, and perhaps just in your own field – you should be able to read the writing on the wall to assess whether the time has come to strike out on your own and make a go of it.

It’s not that I am a vocal advocate of starting one’s own business – I have done it because I found myself unemployed and with few options living in a new country. And if it seems like a bureaucratic rat maze navigating the vagaries of legal, financial and other considerations in starting a business in your own city, imagine doing it in a foreign country in a new language. But the fact that I managed means that pretty much anyone can do it if you have a solid plan, a target clientele, a way to market yourself and a lot of patience – and networking skills don’t hurt one bit. It is hard work – perhaps even harder and much more time consuming than going to a regular 9 to 5 job, but it can be a salvation and even an addiction once you start to see positive results and the fruits of your labor.

You Don’t Understand Citizenship

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If you were born somewhere and lived there all your life, it is hard for you to understand the concept of citizenship. People in almost any country will talk a lot about defending their country, their patriotism, their sense of belonging in that place and culture – any number of ideas that are really taken for granted in addition to not being fully understood. Yes, perhaps most people are perfectly happy with their lives and do not question or think about the accident of their birth, of their citizenship. You are born with it and accept the rights (and sometimes duties and responsibilities) associated with it, but rarely know what it means because you never had to fight for it, never chose or did not choose it, never had it denied or taken away from you and, in many cases, have never lived somewhere that was truly oppressive or denied your basic human rights. When discussions arise about immigration and people from some unknown “somewhere else” wanting to come to your home country, the tendency is less openness and understanding about people wanting a different life and more wall building and protectionism.

Many argue that there are different kinds of “immigration” – and at least in the eyes of the law, this is true. Different countries’ immigration laws classify different types of immigration and immigrants into different categories. Some are skilled migrants (and most people aren’t arguing against them when complaining about hordes of immigrants – although the shortage of skilled migrant visas in the US would belie that point). Some are family reunification migrants – joining husbands, wives, immediate family. Some are refugees. The list goes on, and depending on the country, the levels of detail by which immigrant groups are classified are minute.

I don’t know what I would call myself, but my first move was to Iceland from the US. Sure, I came from the US – where a lot of people struggle to GET to – so my “struggle” is not quite the same thing as the struggle other people go through. I don’t deny that I came from a position of privilege to start with – having a cushy starting point going to something that just felt better. It makes a big difference when you have a choice in where you go and where you stay. Many immigrants do not have so many choices open to them but want to go somewhere to start over or find a better life. While I suppose that my personal choice was to “find a better life” (for me), it is entirely from a place of good fortune, independence and freedom that I could select the place that felt best for me.

Still, though, even with these undisputed advantages, the whole uphill battle of fighting against a system that always feels like it has been designed to keep you out is exhausting even in the best circumstances. The feeling that you will never quite get where you need to be to be a “permanent” resident (and eventually a citizen) never quite leaves.

Then the overwhelming relief – something like standing atop a mountain and looking at the panorama of what surrounds you after having scaled the terrifying and difficult heights to get there – when you are granted citizenship in a country after a long struggle is completely beyond words.

What is funnier still is the ease of forgetting the struggle. There used to be daily headaches before all the bureaucratic hurdles were cleared, before new passports were issued, back when bureaucrats in an immigration office somewhere held all the power, to the point that it defined my life, contributed tremendous stress to my existence. And now that all of that is a distant memory, the details of those struggles also fade. I remind myself not to let them all fade – I am reminded of them every time another friend mentions his or her own (often arbitrary) immigration woes. Understanding and appreciating citizenship, I think, requires more than just being happy that I have citizenship where I want to, and being happy that my path is free and clear. It also requires being fully aware, never forgetting the hard road that got me there.