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Pay Yourself in Time, Not Money

I’m 33, and last year I earned $30,000.

Perhaps that should give me pause. Compared to other male college graduates who make $65,000 around my age—or my peers in tech who make much more—I’m seriously lagging.

I’m not that concerned. In fact, I feel utterly rich, because last year I took home another income: 8 months of my life.

To explain: I’m a self-employed travel tour leader. I work intensively for brief periods of time (e.g. leading a 6-week trip across New Zealand), earn a chunk of money, and then stop working. I’m also a writer who brings in roughly $600/month from two self-published books that largely sell themselves on Amazon. Occasionally I do paid speaking gigs and private education coaching.

In 2015 I earned my $30,000 doing the equivalent of 4 months full-time labor. The majority of that time was spent trip-leading; the rest accrued from the 1-2 hours of laptop work that I do most days of the week (business e-mails, trip planning, writing, coaching).

Another way to see it: I earn $90,000 per year, but I take two-thirds of my compensation in the form of unadulterated free time.

I choose to pay myself in time, not money, because it’s a better currency for obtaining what really matters to me.
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What I’m Doing in Guatemala

This summer I found cheap plane tickets to Guatemala, so I decided to spend my January in the city of Xela (a.k.a. Quetzaltenango).

When friends ask what I’m doing in Guatemala, my answers include:

  • brushing up on my Spanish with 2 hours a day of one-on-one tutoring
  • working on a new writing project, with fewer distractions than I’d have back in the U.S.
  • developing new Unschool Adventures trips
  • hanging out with my long-lost friend David, who lives in Xela, and making friends with other travelers and expats
  • enjoying living in my own 1BR apartment on the third floor of a nice building overlooking the city (price: $450/mo, which all my new Xela friends tell me is terribly expensive…ha! $450 would buy me a nice parking spot in San Francisco)
  • escaping the U.S. winter in favor of the sun, mild temperatures (high 70 / low 50), and longer days of Central America

But the real answer is: I’m doing the exact same things that I do back in the United States.

Something I love about my location-independent life is that work, travel, and vacation all sort of blend together. Here in Guatemala I don’t feel the need to “see the sights”, hike volcanos, go out every night, or check off any boxes. I’m not traveling around the region. I’m living the same life and doing the same work that I do when living in the U.S., with a few fringe benefits like inexpensive food, housing, and Spanish lessons.

I’m not traveling. I’m not on vacation. I’m just here, being Blake, in Guatemala. It’s really nice.

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My 1BR apartment overlooking Xela

2015 in Review

Welcome to my annual year in review post. (Here’s 201420132012, and 2011.)

2015 started with what would become a major theme: driving.

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Beautiful, snowy, desolate Central Utah

I found myself becoming very familiar with Interstate 80 and Highway 50 as I drove from California to Colorado and back multiple times this year, and later, all the way to the east coast and back.

What was I doing out there in Colorado? I summed it up in my mid-2015 year in review. Essentially, I spent much of the winter and spring in Boulder recording a new podcast, playing around with different ideas for online businesses (none of which panned out – here’s why), trail running, and taking some serious time to rediscover my creative muse and figure out my next steps. I often felt lost without a writing project or trip to lead. It was a challenging but ultimately necessary time. Continue Reading

What I’ve Learned (and Relearned) About Myself This Year

2015 has been a year of reflection. Here’s what I’ve learned (and relearned) along the way.

Work

I want to work to live, not live to work. To me, “living” means exploring interesting ideas and complex problems (like those of education), focusing on creative projects (like books), traveling, gaining new skills, enjoying the outdoors, staying connected with old friends, and making new friends. This is truly the stuff of life, and I only want to work as much as I need to enable myself to do these things and provide for my basic security and comfort (which includes savings and a Roth IRA; working to live doesn’t mean living hand-to-mouth).

I care about working with young people in an opt-in / consensual environment—but also one that challenges and pushes them. Serious challenges and hard work transform lives, but only when they are voluntarily chosen. Growing up successfully into adulthood is one of life’s greatest adventures and I want to contribute to that process. I want to treat the young people with whom I work with respect, as individuals, and as the adults they will soon become. Continue Reading

Success Story

A decade ago I stumbled onto this comic:

Success Story by Billy Burg

For reasons I couldn’t clearly articulate, the comic deeply affected me. Now I think I have an idea why.

Here in North America (and much of the Northern Europe), we subscribe to the protestant work ethic: the idea that salvation comes through hard work and deferred gratification. In general, I think this is a good thing, and I’d rather live in a North American or Northern European culture than a Latin American or South Asian one (to name only two with which I’m familiar).

But taken to its extreme, the protestant work ethic can lead you to work doggedly to climb the next rung of whatever ladder is placed in front of you, sacrifice all pleasurable and “non-productive” activities to the altars of career and “efficiency,” and end up with no life to truly call your own.

Success, it seems to me, involves a proper balance between future-orientation (a.k.a. planning, goal-setting, ambition, determination, “grit”) and present-orientation (a.k.a. following curiosities, indulging whims, hedonism, enjoying the moment, “flow”).

The first without the second becomes endless toil, asceticism, and martyrdom—and if you only have one life, what’s the point of that? You might die any day, after all.

The second without the first becomes aimless pleasure-seeking and willful disregard of the fact that tomorrow exists and your actions today will affect it. (Maybe in the cartoon above, Beatrice ends up destitute and unhappy a few years down the line because she never took a moment to stop playing with her puppy and making necklaces to consider her future.)

These ideas seem intricately connected to education. My biggest gripe with traditional high school has always been its massive waste of human potential: so many kids sit bored and listless and unengaged in school, prodded along by carrots and sticks to do problem sets and standardized tests that they resist at every turn. If we instead focused on the big, hard, messy, important questions like “How do we kindle voluntary engagement and buy-in from young people?” and “What kind of school would kids be heart-broken not to attend?”, we educators & taxpayers would better spend our time/money/energy. I believe we should more seriously consider what makes young people happy and engaged right here, right now, today. Hence my enthusiasm for unschooling and self-directed learning.

I’m clearly a skeptic of the kind of relentless future-orientation that traditional education promotes and a fan of present-orientation and the potential it holds for self-motivation. I love the idea of young people tackling the question “what will I do today?” instead of following some prescribed path. But I also find myself constantly nudging the young people with whom I work towards goal-setting, deeper self-reflection, and long-term commitment to their learning projects. Hmm. Balance seems to be the key.

[See also: My 2012 blog post defining success.]