What I Learned from a Month of International Travel With Family

With our friend Fabrice and his mother in Dusseldorf.

This summer, my wife and kids and I did something that was literally a dream come true: we spent a month traveling internationally as a family in Europe. We went to Dusseldorf, Germany, Prague, London, Glasgow and Madrid. My wife and I used to talk about this, years ago: “maybe someday we can travel with our kids to other countries.” We have wonderful friends all over the world, from Tokyo to London to Scotland and Prague, who we wanted to go visit, and we wanted to do it once the kids were old enough to be good travelers and enjoy and remember the trip.

So this year, we decided to take the plunge and spend the money and go for it. We had friends in Dusseldorf and London who were offering us several weeks of free lodging; we had other friends in Prague and Scotland who wanted to show us around, and we found some affordable tickets on Iberia Airlines (the national airline of Spain) that made it financially feasible to fly all four of us to the other side of the Atlantic and back. We are very lucky in that we have an unusually flexible lifestyle, because I’m a freelance writer who can work from anywhere with WiFi, and my wife is a stay-at-home mom. And we happened to have a whole month free in June-into-July where the kids didn’t have school or summer camps or activities, so we decided to just go for it.

So from June 2-July 5, we left the country and stepped out of our everyday life. We spent a whole month away from America and away from home and we just soaked up the experience of living in Europe and seeing the sights and trying on a different way of living. And I’m happy to say that the trip was somehow even better than we’d imagined.

Beautiful countryside on the train from London to Glasgow.

If you want to travel abroad with family, but you’re not sure if it’s affordable or feasible, or you’re not sure if it’s worth the effort and stress and sacrifice, I’m here to encourage you: GO FOR IT. I can’t believe we ever considered NOT taking this trip. The good feelings from our month in Europe have lasted for many more months. It gave me a whole new outlook on life and a whole new appreciation for our family, and it was a priceless investment in giving our children some irreplaceable memories and a more expansive sense of belonging.

Here are a few of the biggest lessons I learned from a month of international travel with our family:

It Was Easier (and Cheaper) Than I Expected

Spending a whole month on international travel with family might sound daunting and cost-prohibitive, but the whole trip was far easier, more affordable and all-around “do-able” than I had expected. Here’s how we did it:

  1. Buy cheap plane tickets on Google Flights: We used Google Flights to book our plane tickets, and we managed to get tickets for approx. $700 per person round-trip from Chicago to Dusseldorf with a one-night stopover in Madrid on the way back. We also booked cheap flights within Europe on Eurowings, a wonderful low-cost airline – it’s often cheaper to FLY within Europe than it is to take the train. Google Flights is my favorite way to search for low-cost airline tickets because they combine lots of different search tools and international airlines and they make it easy to sort by flexible dates and multiple cities/airports. It was cheaper to book a longer trip (over a month), and since we had a lot of free lodging in Europe, that made the decision easier. Which reminds me…
  2. Stay with friends: We are incredibly lucky because we have some AWESOME friends in Europe. My friend Fabrice let us stay at his apartment in Dusseldorf for several weeks, and we spent a whole week in London with our friends Nanae and Hiro and their kids. So for our whole 33 days and nights in Europe, we only had to pay for 9 nights of lodging – and when we did pay for lodging, we had a great experience because of…
  3. AirBnB: When we weren’t staying with friends, we stayed in AirBnBs in Prague, Glasgow, Madrid, and the small Scottish seaside town of Troon. The AirBnB experience is ideal for international travel with family because you can stay in a real “home” with a kitchen and more living space and other amenities that are more comfortable than a typical hotel. We stayed in one hotel in Glasgow our first night there, and it was fine, but the AirBnB experience is even better when traveling with kids, plus you can save money on restaurant meals by…

    Plenty of good Milch in Germany!

  4. Shopping for Groceries: Grocery shopping in Europe is an adventure! We had so much fun just doing the mundane things like walking to the shops and carrying groceries home in a backpack. The kids enjoyed being helpful and reading the different labels on all the food. We ate a lot of meals at restaurants but we also ate lots of quick, easy dinners prepared “at home” in our friend’s apartment in Dusseldorf, or got easy takeout meals from grocery stores like picnic lunches of sandwiches and crisps at Tesco (one of the UK’s largest grocery store chains). It’s easy to eat cheaply when traveling internationally with family, and the thing is – the money you’re spending while traveling isn’t all “new money.” You were already going to spend lots of money on food and entertainment just being at home. Traveling internationally is not cheap, but with a bit of planning and effort, it doesn’t have to cause much more of an expense (beyond the airfare and lodging and tourist experiences) than what you’re already spending to just live life in your own hometown. Our regular old “boring” life in America is pretty expensive already!

I Didn’t Miss Our Stuff

The boys kept busy without TV in Europe.

One of the best parts of international travel with family is that it shows you just how little stuff you need to be happy. I lived out of a suitcase and a laptop bag for over a month and I was totally satisfied; I didn’t miss any of our stuff, or our house, or our cars. (And we love our house and neighborhood! But still.) The kids were happy with just a few things – a suitcase of clothes, their little Kindle Fire tablets, books and card games and papers to draw pictures on the train, and a soccer ball that we bought in Dusseldorf.

We lived a simple, carefree life that month in Europe! We walked everywhere, we didn’t drive a car the whole time, we played at parks and explored green spaces and hiked up a majestic hill near the Rhine River called “Drachenfels” (Dragon’s Rock – there is a mysterious medieval ruin of a castle at the top of this hill, that looks as if it was blackened by Dragon fire, with a restaurant with big windows where you can see for miles overlooking the Rhine River valley).

Big Ben(s)

We participated in a digital simulation of the Battle of Bannockburn and then had a picnic lunch on a rainy day with our friends in Scotland next to the William Wallace monument, a gorgeously imposing place that I had seen on Wikipedia years ago and had dreamed of visiting. We walked the grounds of gorgeous Scottish castles and heritage sites, and visited the Making of Harry Potter: Warner Brothers Studio Tour in England (which was a really expensive money-sucking tourist trap BUT was TOTALLY WORTH IT). We took a boat ride on the Rhine River, we rode the London Underground and Prague trams and Deutsche Bahn trains, and it was all marvelous; the kids were in heaven, just having new experiences every day and seeing new places and meeting kids in other countries.

Stuff doesn’t matter. Experiences and relationships and memories are all that counts, that’s all that we’re left with in the end.

It Was Good for Our Family

The train we took from London to Glasgow

I was afraid that traveling internationally with the kids might be too stressful – what if they were homesick, what if they got overtired, what if we got on each other’s nerves from being in too-close of quarters for too long, what if I couldn’t get any work done and we ran out of money and the trip ended up being more trouble than it was worth?

The truth could not have been more different: if anything, this trip helped bring us closer together as a family. We had a wonderful sense of togetherness from living in smaller spaces for a month. We spent lots of time together and watched almost no TV. We loved living in walkable neighborhoods and taking public transit. I felt like we had more time to just enjoy being together as a family, without the time-crunch and clutter and stress of our usual routine in America. (And we have quite a nice life in America, by American standards, but still.) I took the boys out for lots of gelato and they made me lots of coffee in our friend Fabrice’s Nespresso machine (after we got home, we even bought a Nespresso machine of our own; it’s the perfect souvenir, and every day when I’m making myself a coffee in the morning, I feel like I’m back in Europe).

Most of all, this experience of international travel with family made us feel like more of a team. The kids (age 9 and 7) are good little travelers; they enjoy wearing their own little backpacks and pulling their own wheeled suitcases through the airport. They love flying on planes, they love riding on trains, they were really open to the whole experience and we had very few moments of stress or unpleasantness. Your kids can handle more than you might expect – they will probably even thrive on the new experience and getting away from home for awhile.

This trip was also a valuable learning experience for me, because one of the things I’ve struggled with as a parent, watching my kids grow up, is the fear of “losing” my kids as they get older. I sometimes miss the days when they were small and snuggly, even though of course there were lots of things about that stage of life that were exhausting and messy and stressful. But I worry about losing my kids as they become teenagers, I don’t ever want to feel like they’re slipping away from me, that they hate me or are indifferent to me, that they don’t want me in their life, that they become vulnerable to falling in with the wrong friends or making bad choices that will ruin their life. I sometimes have wondered, will our family ever feel as close again as we did when the boys were small, when we slept in the same big bed, when I read them sweet little bedtime stories every night? Am I already losing them?

Harry Potter Studio Tour! The kids were in HEAVEN. TOTALLY worth it. 

But this trip reminded me: no, I’m not losing my kids. And I don’t have to. We can create our own reality as a family that is bigger and more powerful than the societal forces of chaos swirling around our house out there in America. We can go back to Europe every year if we want to! And hey, maybe we will! This trip was so marvelous and perfect, but it doesn’t have to be a “once in a lifetime” thing! It gave me a bigger sense of possibility and autonomy in life, like: wow, maybe we really CAN do whatever we want in life as a family. Maybe we can take a “family gap year” and travel around the world. Maybe we can just sell our house and move to Europe for a few years. Why not? Why not just spend our lives where we feel most comfortable with people we care about, giving our kids the most amazing learning experiences possible, whether or not that happens to be in our “own country?”

America really isn’t the best place to raise kids. (No seriously, the U.S. ranks 19th in the world for best places to raise kids – lots of other countries do a better job of caring for and educating young people than America does; America treats “raising kids” like just another lifestyle choice to be privately funded, not a societal concern worth investing in. We spend more putting our troubled kids in prison than we spend on children’s education and health care.) Life as parents in America often feels frenetic and stressful and atomized; we so rarely see our friends here, everyone’s too busy on the nonstop slippery treadmill of individualistic American life. So why not move? Why not travel? Why not just spend as much time as we can with people we love, whether or not those people are family or fellow Americans?

Stepping Out of Life Felt Surprisingly Natural

Culzean Castle, Scotland

One of my friends asked me what was the most surprising thing about spending a whole month in Europe with the family, and I realized that it was this: it was surprising how NATURAL it all felt. We felt very much at home pretty much everywhere we went. Of course, there are a few little cultural shocks and language barriers from traveling in Europe as an American, and my wife as a Black woman felt a little less immediately “at home” in certain places than I did as a white guy, for the most part we were really amazed at how comfortable it felt to step out of our everyday life and relocate to another continent. In a way, it was kind of disorienting. Like, “Huh. We can feel EQUALLY at home in Europe as we do in America. So…why do we live in America? Why do we live anywhere? Do I exist? Am I a real person, or am I a hologram or a replicant or something??”

Life in Europe is Wonderful and Delicious

Germany: Land of Chocolate

Traveling in Europe, as an American, is quite embarrassing. Not just because of America’s current international disgrace of a “president,” but because Europe is a much easier place to live and get around as a tourist than most of America is for even our own people. We loved the walkable neighborhoods and public spaces and easy public transportation that we encountered everywhere in Europe. Their airports are better, their transit infrastructure is better, their cities are designed for people instead of for cars, their whole built environment has more character and charm and human scale, instead of the never-ending soulless sprawl of American suburbia. America is not a “society” so much as an “amalgamation of national brands.” (Yes, there are many complex historical and economic reasons why Europe is the way it is and why America is the way it is, but there’s a reason why life in Europe feels so good – people weren’t meant to spend their lives driving cars and hanging out in parking lots and sitting in traffic and shopping at the same characterless strip malls that can be seen in every major U.S. city.)

London and Prague of course are amazing, rightfully beloved international tourist destinations and I could write a book about each of those cities, and Glasgow and Scotland were friendly and charming and hauntingly gorgeous – I had wanted to visit Scotland for years and it was a dream come true, but Dusseldorf is underrated and we had a fantastic experience there as well. Dusseldorf was a surprisingly livable, comfortable, prosperous, diverse, hospitable, international city, full of sidewalk cafes and authentic Japanese restaurants where I got to speak Japanese with the staff (Dusseldorf is home to one of the world’s largest Japanese communities outside of Japan). Out of all the places we visited as a family, I think we could most readily see ourselves living in Dusseldorf.

And everywhere we went, we loved the food – we had some of the best Indian food and Chinese food of our lives in London, and we had some amazingly inventive Vietnamese fusion and vegetarian cuisine in Prague, and of course plenty of delicious authentic German food, but even when we weren’t eating at “nice restaurants” we never had a bad meal the whole time, not even when we were eating cheap sandwiches and bags of crisps from UK grocery stores.

Hiro and me! Friends since 2001.

And perhaps the most amazing thing was when our son injured his hand while playing soccer in London, and we had to take him to the emergency room at a local hospital – he got X-rays (they were negative) and a doctor visit, and when we asked the checkout desk about the bill for the medical services, they looked at as as if we were crazy. “Bill?” they said, “There is no bill.”

That’s right – we had to take our kid to a hospital ER in London, and we didn’t have to pay ANYTHING for it. It was FREE. We were AMAZED. It was like we had just witnessed a David Blaine magic trick, but without the creepiness – we got FREE HEALTH CARE in the UK and we’re not even citizens there; we had better health insurance as “illegal immigrants” in London than we do in our own stupid country where we pay $1,000 per month out of pocket on health care costs. Can you imagine if foreign tourists had to go to a hospital ER in America, with no insurance?? That story would end in bankruptcy and deportation! Not even “real Americans” can get affordable health care most of the time in America.

Prague. City of overwhelming beauty.

Europe has more of a social safety net, and you can feel it. People there seem to have more free time, more space, more sense of enjoying everyday life, even simple things like drinking beer in the park in Prague. People there live life with less fear and a greater spirit of interdependence. Life in Europe just feels a bit more comfortable and communal, and less isolating and precarious, and no, it’s not just because we were “on vacation.” Yes, Europe has its problems and I don’t mean to say that Europe is unequivocally “better” than America; Europe has its racism and its xenophobia and its peculiar arrogances and insularities. But in lots of important ways, life just feels a bit easier and more family-friendly there. Sure, you have to pay higher taxes in Europe but you also never have to worry about going bankrupt from medical bills or getting murdered in a mass shooting or dying in poverty. Everyone has health care, no one has guns.

We’ve even considered emigrating to Germany – I have a lawyer friend there who can help us figure out the paperwork. Considering that America seems determined to ruin the individual health insurance market that small business owners like me use to get health care for our families, we might have to become “health insurance refugees.” Hell, I’d do it! I’d rather move to Europe and learn a new language and keep doing what I want to do for a living, instead of having to go get another stupid corporate job in America just for the insurance. (Ugh. America is awful. We’re not really “richer” or “paying lower taxes” than Europe, we’re just “underinsured.”)

I Love Our Friends

“Date Night” in London with Nanae and Hiro, Fabrice and Luise. What a wonderful night!

The older I get, the more grateful I become for my friends. We have wonderful friends in Europe: Fabrice and Luise in Germany, Justin and Melanie in Prague, Iain and Kathryn and their son Alex in Scotland, Hiro and Nanae and their kids in London, who truly made this trip possible. I’ve been friends with Fabrice since high school – he was an exchange student from Germany at my school when we were 16 years old; I’ve been friends with Iain since 1999 when he was living on my dorm floor at Iowa State, and I’ve been friends with Hiro and Nanae since 2001 when we all met at Rice University; I am grateful to have been able to keep in touch with all of them over the years because of Facebook – and in fact, I ONLY know Justin and Melanie because of Facebook.

I recently hired a business coach to get some “career therapy” to help me clarify some things about what I’m doing with my work as a writer and what I want my next steps in my career to be, and I have come to realize that my purpose in life, my “mission,” is this: I am here to build relationships with writing, and to try to make the world a smarter and happier place. I just want to spend the rest of my life doing the same things that this trip was all about: building relationships with writing, being in a community of good people all over the world, and spending time with the people I love.

Iain and me! Friends since 1999. At University of Glasgow, est. 1451

This trip felt like the culmination of a lot of things that I’ve been working toward and caring about and hoping for, over many years. I’m so glad we did it! I can’t believe we ever considered NOT doing it. This is the kind of trip that people regret NOT taking when they’re on their deathbeds. I wish everyone could have the equivalent of this trip in their life – whatever that means to you, whether it’s some goal you want to achieve, or some experience you want to have, or some big move you want to make. DO IT.

Lots of Americans are feeling stuck and trapped and helpless right now. Too many people feel like life is a treadmill that just keeps speeding up, and they feel held back from really doing what they want with their lives or really being able to reach their potential. I know that I’m very privileged and fortunate and lots of people don’t have my advantages in life; I’m sorry for that. But I also believe that most people are not really as “stuck” as they might think.

If there’s some new experience you want to have in life, if there’s some massive change you want to make in your life, whether it’s quitting your job or starting a business or even moving to another country, I really hope you will go for it. We dreamed of taking our kids on an international trip, we dreamed of seeing London as a family, we love and value our international friends and we wanted to stay better connected with them, and we decided to take the plunge and go for it. Hell, maybe we’ll go back to Europe next year!

And we’re not done having international travel adventures as a family – we’re going to Tokyo later this month!

5 Mind-Blowing Epiphanies I Got From Quitting Facebook (for 24 Hours or So)

Actual photo of Ben Gran being bombarded by addictive digital clutter on Facebook

I have a complicated relationship with Facebook: Facebook is the bane of my existence, and it’s also one of the best things to ever happen to me. I’m addicted to Facebook, it destroys my productivity, and it’s also been the source of some of my best friends and favorite experiences. Facebook gives me inspiration for creativity and it gives me ideas for new stories and new ways to be productive, and it also drags me into other people’s negativity and depression and hateful political troll fights. I’ve met some of the very BEST and some of the very WORST people in the world on Facebook.

And I post on Facebook A LOT. Facebook is kind of my primary social outlet, because I work from home and I tend to be socially awkward in real life – Facebook is ideal for me because I’m a freelance writer who is good at building relationships with writing. And I’ve gotten lots of great things out of Facebook! I’ve built up a bit of a side hustle as a standup comedian – hundreds of people in Des Moines have come to my shows, and I’ve had video clips of my standup act licensed for money, all because of contacts I made via Facebook. I’ve done fundraising comedy shows for progressive causes – I’ve raised $3,500 so far in 2017. I’ve made amazing new friends in my own home city and all over the U.S. and overseas, and I’ve stayed in touch with old friends who I otherwise would have lost touch with – and that’s wonderful, because my family and I got to go visit some of these friends in Europe this summer. Facebook has in many ways broadened my horizons and given me a more expansive sense of what I can offer the world; it’s helped me make friends and be influential in ways that are deeply meaningful to me, that might never have been possible without social media.

So I’m grateful to Facebook! But I also hate it.

Clearly, something needs to change in the way I relate to Mark Zuckerberg’s stupid website, right? How can I get more of the “good” stuff from Facebook without ruining my whole day in the process?

I’m in the midst of working with a business coach and making some big moves behind the scenes in the way I manage my career. Ever since Labor Day, I’ve cleared my calendar. I’m barely leaving the house. I’m not going anywhere or doing anything or seeing anyone; I’m not watching TV or going to movies or going to bars. I am 100% LOCKED IN on work right now – and that’s good! It feels really good and I don’t regret or resent a thing I’m doing right now, because it’s all for ME and my family’s financial well being. So as part of that newfound sense of focus, I’m trying to re-evaluate the way I relate to Facebook.

So I decided to quit Facebook. For 24 hours. Secretly, silently, just for a day. Some people go through a big show of saying that they’re going to quit Facebook, and they’re going to deactivate their account, etc. and then they come crawling back. Some people just go ahead and disappear from Facebook for days or weeks or months at a time while leaving their accounts active. I decided to take a different approach: I tried to go 24 hours without posting any new posts on Facebook. Here’s what I learned:

I Don’t Have to Post on Facebook to Be Happy

Did you know: Facebook will go on without you! The chaos and clutter and human misery of the Internet WILL continue, whether or not you contribute to it! Facebook doesn’t “need” you at all! No matter how funny that joke was that you wanted to write on Facebook, chances are, thousands of other people already had that same thought and posted it without you. The Grand Ballet of the Human Experience will go on, even if you don’t contribute.

And that’s okay! That’s wonderful! Just spend some time living in your immediate world instead of constantly grappling with the infinite gushing fire hose that is the Internet!

I Feel More Focused

Facebook is an interruption machine. It chops up your day into hundreds of useless pieces as you feel like you have to keep “checking in.” And I don’t even have Notifications on my phone – I still check Facebook 900 times a day even without the stupid little Notification bubbles popping up on the front of my phone. If I can just go 24 hours without posting on Facebook, I don’t get sucked in to as much of that sense of neediness – I can just focus on my actual real life in the real world instead of getting distracted by 1,000 pieces of impersonal online content! Amazing!

Visual depiction of Ben Gran’s mental state within 12 hours of quitting Facebook

I Feel More Calm

(DISCLAIMER: I absolutely despise Donald Trump – you should know that about me; not to get all “political” on my “business brand” website, or whatever, but I really really hate Donald Trump and everything he represents, I think he’s the worst thing to happen to this country since the invention of Slavery, and I don’t want to work with anyone who loves Donald Trump. So if you love, support, or even “mildly like” Donald Trump, stop reading this and go away and never contact me.)

Facebook is an anxiety machine. Especially since the election, I had started to follow lots of political sites and local progressive activist groups, and all day long on Facebook I was getting dozens of increasingly hysterical headlines and ACTION ALERTS to CALL YOUR SENATORS and COPY AND PASTE, DON’T SHARE and it all creates this constant sense of low-lying anxiety and dread, like the world is ending, and you have to stay glued to your screens – it makes you feel simultaneously helpless and transfixed, like there’s too much to do, like it’s all happening too fast, it’s all too late, but here, you have to sit here and watch the apocalypse unfold in real time.

And I don’t want to live like that! So I’m changing the way I relate to political activism. I’ve quit and unfollowed most of my groups on Facebook. I’m still going to be involved and give money and maybe even do another fundraiser comedy show in 2017 or early 2018, but I can’t bombard my brain 24/7 with too much distressing news. You can’t stick your head in the sand and ignore what’s going on in politics, but you also can’t let yourself get deluged by too much alarming information that you’re helpless to do anything about. Manage your information diet; no one else gets to decide what goes on in your own mind.

I Make More Money Without Facebook

I’m not like most people with office jobs, who get paid to sit in a cubicle and screw around on Facebook all day – I only get paid for DELIVERING WORK. I know, this is a radical concept, but I have to WORK to GET MONEY, and the more work I do, THE MORE MONEY I MAKE. So I can’t let myself get paralyzed by Facebook, because it’s literally COSTING ME MONEY.

This is how much money Ben Gran made by quitting Facebook for ONE day

Facebook Is An Unpaid Part-time Job

One of the things I dislike the most about Facebook is how you get dragged into lots of other people’s crap. Everyone has to comment on your posts, and then you have to sit there and decide whether/how to reply to their comments. It’s insane. It’s like an unpaid part-time customer service job, where the new Customer Support Tickets just keep coming in. Sure, it can be fun to have lots of conversations with people all over the world who are smart, funny people who have worthwhile things to say, but lots of Facebook is just useless clutter. I block people on Facebook all the time because they annoy me. I don’t have time! Why should I let some random jerk on the Internet waste 45 seconds of my life? I had to block a guy one time because, even though he posted funny stuff and was smart in lots of ways, he kept coming on my posts with negativity and cynicism, and I said to him, “Your cynicism and hostility have grown tiresome. Good luck in life!” and I blocked him.

That’s the thing: NO ONE ON FACEBOOK is PAYING YOU MONEY to be there. We’re all just on there making more money for Mark Zuckerberg. You are under ZERO obligation to tolerate any nonsense or negativity from ANYONE. Banish all toxic people from your life – online or offline. As a freelance writer, my only true “stock in trade” is my time and my positive mental energy – anyone who wastes my time or tries to drag me down into their cesspit of cynicism is taking bread out of my children’s mouths.

Lots of media commentators have bemoaned the rise of Facebook because they think it’s making people more isolated and lonely; like real-world interaction is being shortchanged because of all the time we spend on Facebook. I totally disagree! Facebook hasn’t made me more “lonely,” it’s made me feel spread too thin! It’s almost given me too many people and causes to care about and worry about; I only have so much mental bandwidth and sometimes it gets overwhelming to see all the distressing news and GoFundMe fundraisers and heartbreaking stories about people dying of cancer and everything else. Sometimes I have to disconnect and just take my mind off of the never-ending stream of updates that make me feel like I’m living inside of thousands of other people’s heads.

Because that’s the thing about Facebook and social media and The Way We Live Now on the Internet: at it’s best, you have the reassurance of being constantly connected to great people who can make your life better. But the downside is, it gets overwhelming and you have to be able to give yourself permission to take a break.

I don’t think I’ll ever “quit” Facebook entirely – it’s too valuable and I really love the friendships I’ve made and maintained because of it. As a writer, it’s a wonderful way to put your ideas out into the world and make an impact. But we’re all living inside of each other’s heads now! We’re living in the future! We’re just a few steps away from becoming a telepathic global hive mind! And I don’t think we’ve fully grasped the magnitude of that; the technology has outpaced our ability to cope, and it requires new standards of etiquette and new methods of self-care and setting boundaries that lots of people are still figuring out.

I love the Internet, I love living on the Internet, it’s given me so many wonderful experiences and relationships. But sometimes you just need to shut off your phone and go for a walk.

Why You Should Start a Blog

I’ve been writing blog posts for money for other people for years, but I hadn’t been updating my own blog on a regular basis – in fact, I hadn’t updated this blog in 2.5 years. There are several reasons why I wasn’t blogging; part of it was that I was too busy doing paid writing work for other people. But more importantly, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to blog about. I was afraid that blogging was “over” and tired and done to death, like maybe people don’t have the attention span anymore to read entire blog posts and I should just move to Instagram instead. I worried that there was no point in me further adding to the clutter of the Internet. (“What am I supposed to blog about, how to be a freelance writer? Write about writing?” I grumbled to myself. “Ugh, that sounds awful. And what’s the point? Lots of other sites are already doing that; I don’t have anything new to say.”)

But ever since I started working with a business coach to clarify my next steps in my career, I have felt a new wellspring of inspiration and I’ve been blogging up a storm, and the other night, in a fever dream of blogging, I realized that I’ve finally discovered what blogging really “is.” If you’re a small business owner or solo-preneur or freelance writer or consultant or anyone who wants to make money by doing business online, you should really start a blog RIGHT NOW.

Why? There are several reasons; some obvious, and some profound:

Blogging Helps Your Customers Find You

It sounds simple and obvious, but it’s true, and lots of companies are still figuring this out: content marketing is one of the best ways to find new customers online. Every day, billions of people all over the world are using the Internet to search Google (and other less-popular search engines) for information about questions or problems that they need to solve. By writing blog posts targeted at certain search keywords that are relevant to your business, you can reverse-engineer your website to GET FOUND by the customers who are already looking for information about what your business does. This is a total role reversal of most traditional marketing, which is focused on helping you go out and “find” customers – instead of this traditional outbound marketing, having a blog is a form of inbound “content marketing.” Instead of buying advertising and using a megaphone to reach new customers, your blog serves like a silent magnetic bread crumb trail to attract customers to your site.

Kind of a cheesy bit of clip art, but hey – it was Free!

And sure, it’s not always easy: the content writing game has changed a lot over the years, and many, many sites are competing for traffic on the most-searched keywords, and there’s a constant re-shuffling of content marketing best practices as search engines re-draw the rules of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to keep their search results from getting cluttered with spam and junk sites. Just starting a blog and putting up some keyword-stuffed articles is not good enough to generate enough traffic to build a business on anymore; you might need to buy some Google ads and invest in other paid marketing and “content amplification” to support your content marketing and get it in front of a bigger audience.

But the basic idea here is still relevant: blogging helps your business “get found.” Instead of buying a bigger megaphone to shout at customers (by spending more on ads), blogging lets you build a smarter magnet to attract the right customers who are already interested in (and searching for!) what you offer.

Blogging Helps Customers Get to Know You

Perhaps more importantly – blogging is an ideal way to let your customers get to know you. Blogging is a way of building relationships with writing. This is crucial for any professional services business, whether you’re a freelance writer like me, or running a PR firm or marketing agency or a law firm or a consulting firm or a coaching practice, or anything else where you sell your ideas and expertise.

For example: here’s what I’m trying to do with my blog – I’m trying to share my point of view on how I work and why my work matters and what I care about as a freelance writer. I’m trying to show my readers that I have good ideas, perspectives, experience and expertise that can help them with their content marketing writing needs. Ideally, people will read what I have to say and think, “Wow, this Ben Gran really knows his stuff! This is the kind of person that I’d like to hire for freelance writing projects!”

The best blog articles help your customers get to know you better and develop a more intimate idea of what you’re like – how your mind works, how you approach problems, how you perceive your world, and how you present yourself to your audience. Blogs should not be bland and generic – they should be crackling with personality and ambition and a unique point of view!

Blogging Gives You Something to Share With Customers

Even if no one ever “finds” your blog, even if you never get any new customer inquiries based on search engine traffic to your website, having a blog is still worthwhile because it gives you some great content – that you wrote and published yourself – to share with your prospective customers. Every blog article becomes your permanent little mini-brochure for yourself on that particular topic – you can share it on social media, send it via email, and show it to new prospective customers again and again.

For example: is there a frequently asked question that prospective customers tend to ask you about? Is there a recurring objection or bit of skepticism about your business or industry that prevents people from buying from you? Write a blog post about it! Use the blog post as your own little “sales person” to help educate your customers and overcome objections. Or write a “thought leadership” blog post with your ideas for where your industry needs to improve or how things should change or something you’re excited about – blogging is a way to share your passion for your business and your industry.

It might seem overwhelming to start a blog in a world of millions of blogs all competing for clicks – but the thing is, you don’t NEED millions of people to read your site! You just need to have some good content up and running and ready to go so you can make a good first impression with the RIGHT people – with blog articles that are focused on exploring topics that are relevant to YOUR audience. Even if only 5 people read your new blog post, what if all 5 of them turn out to be new customers for you? Don’t worry about what the mass audiences are doing; worry about what you’re offering right here in your immediate world.

And speaking of “your own immediate world…”

Blogging Helps You Clarify Your Own Thoughts and Vision!

This is maybe the most important reason to start a blog: blogging isn’t just good for finding customers, it’s good for YOU. Even if you never get a SINGLE customer from your blog (which is unlikely), blogging is still worth doing because of what it helps you learn about YOURSELF. Blogging is a journey of self-discovery. It helps you clarify what’s going on in your own mind. It helps you focus on what you really care about as a business person, it helps you pour out the contents of your mind and soul.

Because that’s another thing I’ve recently discovered…

Blogging Shows You the Meaning of “Content” in Content Marketing

Most people think of the word “content” in content marketing as being kind of a catch-all term – “content” could be anything from blog posts to infographics to podcasts to videos; any non-advertising material that attracts eyeballs. But here’s a clever new catchphrase idea – “content” in content marketing is really the “content of your mind and soul.”

Pour the sweet “content” of your soul into every blog post!

At its best, content marketing is an intimate activity. Ideally, you should take chances with your content marketing – you should pour yourself into it. Writing blog posts should feel like a creative rush and a psychic unburdening. Blogging, at its best, is an act of generosity and community, a pouring out of the “content” of your mind and soul onto the Internet. Blogging is a way to share your lived experiences, your hopes and dreams and fears, in a way that resonates so strongly with the right people who read it, that they will want to jump up from their desk and immediately call you or send you an email immediately.

So…start a blog! Even if you “don’t have time,” even if you don’t have a big budget, even if you don’t know what “Google Ad Words” or “SEO keywords” are, even if you don’t know what to blog about, even if you feel like no one will read it, even if you’re “not a writer.” In fact, even if you have no special talent for writing, you can get help from professional freelance writers who can help brainstorm topics and ghostwrite your articles and channel your expertise into highly readable website content.

Speaking of which…

Would you like to hire a freelance writer to help you create blog posts like this for your business? I can help! Send me an email: benjamin.gran@gmail.com

Why Hiring a Business Coach is TOTALLY Worth the Money

I recently started doing business coaching with one of my personal heroes, Pamela Slim. I used to read Pam’s blog, Escape from Cubicle Nation, back in 2009 when I was trying to start freelancing and was stuck in a cubicle all day and wasn’t sure how to take the leap from the corporate world to solo-preneurship. I didn’t have any local role models; I didn’t know anyone in my own city who did what I wanted to do for a living. So I lived vicariously through Internet heroes like Pamela Slim, who showed me the possibilities of a magical world of people on the Internet, working from home on their own terms while wearing pajamas, and making a good living at it. That’s all I wanted, early on – I just wanted to work from home and be with my family. I had modest goals and simple needs.

Over the years, I’ve gone from those modest beginnings to become established as a freelance writer. I’m not bragging, but I’ve literally become more successful at this than I ever dreamed was possible. Quitting my job in 2010 to be a full-time freelance writer was absolutely one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life! I’ve been home with my kids almost every day as they grew up, I’ve spent lots and lots of time with family and friends, I’ve traveled to New York and L.A. and San Francisco and Europe, we’ve taken marvelous vacations, and I almost never set an alarm clock. It’s a sweet, beautiful life.

And yet…now it’s 2017, and I decided to hire a business coach. Not because things aren’t going well, but because I wanted to see if I can re-evaluate a few things and realign a few goals and otherwise give my career a tuneup to make things EVEN BETTER.

Pamela Slim – My business coach!

And I decided that I wanted my business coach to be Pamela Slim. I’ve hired writing-specific mentors and coaches in the past, and it was always worth the money, but I had some particular goals and interests that I wanted to talk about with Pam this time. I’ve been feeling kind of down in a rut lately, feeling kind of directionless; I needed to rediscover my zest for work. I also recently had a few big projects fall through, and I realized that my pipeline of new projects was looking kind of empty – I hadn’t been doing any marketing in awhile to find new clients, because I’d gotten comfortable (and maybe a bit complacent) from lots of repeat business and referrals and random lucrative projects that landed in my lap. So I needed to think differently about how to find some new freelance writing clients.

Pam Slim has a great sense of optimism and abundance about her, she’s great at building community, and she’s a successful book author and public speaker and corporate trainer and business coach, all of which are things that I would potentially like to do.

So I signed up for individual coaching with Pamela Slim, and also signed up for a 6-week group class with Pam’s network of people called Giant Client Magnet – where we each commit to taking action on 3 or more Tiny Marketing Actions (TMAs) each day to move our businesses forward.

Let me say: BOTH of these business coaching programs have ALREADY been WELL WORTH THE MONEY.

Here is why hiring a business coach is (almost always) a good investment for your small business:

Accountability

Even if I don’t get any new clients from working with a business coach, even if I don’t get any “new” ideas on what to do for my career by working with a business coach, working with a business coach is already a good investment because it’s helping me hold myself accountable.

Working with a business coach helps get you to actually DO THE THINGS that you ALREADY KNOW you should do.

Maybe this sounds incredibly simple, even stupid! But listen: sometimes when you’re self-employed, the hardest thing to do is to just DO THE THINGS that you already KNOW you should be doing!

For example: I had a whole To Do list that was like 15 items long that I already knew I needed to do – and knew how to do – in order to market my business and find new projects. Many of these things were very simple and easy, like “Send an email to a current client and ask for more work.” But I wasn’t doing the things!

But now that I’m PAYING MONEY to a business coach? I have skin in the game! I have a vested interest in actually getting done with stuff! And I have a new sense of inspiration, because…

New Perspectives

Your business coach will help you see the bigger picture of where you want your business and your career to go. A good business coach helps you think strategically and identify your own points of mental resistance – what are you struggling with, and why? How can you remove obstacles that are in your way? How can you drill down to the roots of what you really love about your business and what you really do best and what you really hope to achieve in the world? With my business coach, I am thinking more EXPANSIVELY about my career and my future and what kind of an impact I really want to make in life.

Business coaching isn’t just about technical/practical knowledge like “which email marketing software to use” (although there’s nothing wrong with that); business coaching, at its best, is CAREER THERAPY.

And that’s what I needed, was Career Therapy. Because sometimes even when you’re successful, you can still get into a rut; you can still get complacent, you can still start to get into a funk and feel like work and life aren’t as meaningful as they used to be; you can still feel human vulnerabilities and anxieties about the future.

The best thing about being a solopreneur is that your success is all up to you – there’s no corporate bureaucracy holding you back, there’s no ceiling on your success!

The worst thing about being solopreneur is that your success is all up to you – there’s no clear path of “next steps” and no higher-ranking people to mentor you and tell you that you’re doing a good job and that you’ll be rewarded someday with a comfortable career path.

Sometimes it feels lonely to be a solopreneur. Sometimes you need a supportive voice from someone more experienced who can help you find clarity and purpose and a more hopeful path forward.

A good business coach will help you put your worries and indecisions to rest and redirect your focus to the present, and give you…

New Energy

Before I started getting business coaching, I was feeling stuck. I knew what I had to do to get new writing projects and get work done and make more money, but I wasn’t doing them. My list of To Dos was just sitting there, clogging up the system like a fatberg. (Do you know what a fatberg is? It’s an amazing new word that I just learned today – a fatberg is a large concrete-like mass of sewage mixed with fats and grease and garbage that clogs up sewer pipes. London has a massive fatberg right now that weighs 130 tons and is going to require a team of sewer workers to work around the clock with hand tools and power hoses to get it dislodged! Fun stuff! Whatever they’re paying those sewer workers, it’s not enough.)

But that’s what happens to your mind when you procrastinate for too long: you get a fatberg in your brain! Your mind gets clogged with a big blob of greasy, messy filth and you can’t move forward, and the longer you ruminate on it, the worse it gets! The filth just keeps building up and solidifying and getting bigger and scarier and messier and nothing can break through!

But now my fatberg is gone! I’m thinking clear and flowing freely! I’m open-minded and energized! I’m ready to see where this leads!

Actual photo of me after dislodging the Mental Fatberg

Here are a few of the things I’ve discovered about what I want to do next with my work as a result of working with my business coach:

  • Building Relationships With Writing: I love to write, I love the craft of writing, but what I really love on a more fundamental level is Building Relationships With Writing. It’s what I’ve spent my whole life doing, ever since I was a 6th grader writing the Gran Family Newsletter (new issues published monthly, printed with a dot matrix printer, and mailed to relatives all over America). Building relationships with writing is how I met my wife via online dating back in December 2003, and it’s how I’ve built lifelong friendships and a following of “fans” on Facebook. And of course, I love to build relationships with my clients and help MY CLIENTS build relationships with their key audiences with the power of the written word.
  • Teaching: I have teaching in my blood. Both of my parents have worked in education, all four of my grandparents were teachers and superintendents and college professors, and my first job out of college was teaching English on the JET Program in Japan. I want to try to do more with this – whether it’s working as a business coach to new freelance writers, or whether it’s incorporating teaching into my career by offering webinars, or whether it’s using a “teaching” approach to inform the content I create for my own website and for my clients.
  • Public speaking: In addition to writing, I love to speak to audiences. I do standup comedy, and I have a following on Facebook – I used to do comedy gigs around Iowa and the Midwest, and hundreds of people have paid money to come to my shows in Des Moines. I want to do more with public speaking, whether it’s as a guest speaker for local associations and networking groups, or speak at conferences, or maybe someday become a keynote speaker and author. I feel like I’m a better speaker than most writers, and I’m a better writer than most speakers. Surely I can do more with this.
  • Helping people find meaning: Ultimately, I’m trying to make the world a more meaningful place. One of the things that makes me good at what I do as a freelance writer is that I have a strong sense of curiosity and a strong service orientation – I can find something interesting about almost any subject. I can find something worth saying about almost any client’s business – and not in a superficial or sycophantic way; I really try to go deeper into what makes that client’s business meaningful and why that business matters. People make meaning of the world through telling stories, and I have been doing that all my life. Ultimately, meaning is what we’re craving. The world is full of bland corporate chain restaurants and cheap mass-produced junk and impersonal clutter and disingenuous marketing messages and lots of other stuff we don’t care about, stuff that’s meaningless to us – but what people DO care about, what people CRAVE, is finding messages that resonate with them, finding people who they “click” with, finding organizations with integrity and values and transparency. This is the great promise of the Internet that we have barely begun to explore: the Internet as an engine of genuine human interconnectedness and a vehicle for human meaning.

I really believe that the next wave of the Internet is not going to be about clickbait or copycat traffic-scraping content from too many sites chasing the same SEO keywords – it’s going to be about creating meaning and genuine connection with people through radical transparency – authenticity, humility, honesty. Just like people are making deep friendships on Facebook with people they’ve never met in real life, the Internet is still a wide open canvas for building relationships – if you’re brave enough to let your humanity through.

That’s been one of the great revelations of the work I’ve been doing with my business coach – I feel like something is opening up inside of me; I feel a great clarity of purpose, I feel completely unstuck. No more fatbergs!

I’m not sure how long these good feelings are going to last, but I hope it’s a long, long time.

3 Content Marketing Lessons From My Annoying Credit Union

Like most Americans, I get too much junk mail. Pretty much everything that arrives in my mailbox is annoying and worthless and just asking me for money. But it especially grinds my gears when companies send junk mail to their own customers. That’s what happened to me, once again, today when I got yet another letter from my credit union asking me to borrow more money on a home equity line of credit – they sent me junk mail with a bunch of blank checks that I could use immediately to write checks to pay for new purchases by borrowing more money on my HELOC.

This is annoying for several reasons:

  1. I don’t want to borrow more money from my HELOC – I have more than enough mortgage debt already, thank you very much.
  2. Even if I did want to borrow more money, I wouldn’t want to do it spontaneously by filling out a blank check that randomly arrived in the mail; borrowing against the equity in your home is not a low-risk proposition and it should not be taken lightly or done frivolously.
  3. Why are they sending me blank checks in the mail? I didn’t ask for this. What if that check falls into the wrong hands? What if someone steals your mail and borrows a bunch of money in your name? This whole situation is stupid and uncalled for and I wanted to stop getting this junk mail.

So I called the credit union to ask them to take me off the solicitation mailing list. I even called the 800 number at the bottom of the letter that they provided to me to “call if you have any questions,” etc.

Then my day got even more annoying. I was expecting to talk to a real person right away, since I was responding to a solicitation letter, but the 800 number had a long, automated voice mail menu with half a dozen prompts to choose from, none of which were exactly right for my situation. I finally got a customer service person. “Hello,” I said. “I need some help – please take me off your solicitation mailing list. I got a mailing from your credit union with blank checks in it today, and I’m tired of getting these mailings. I don’t want to get any more offers for home equity line of credit blank checks or any other solicitations from you. Please change my solicitation preferences.”

The customer service person talked to me like they didn’t know what I was talking about. “Well I’m sorry sir, I don’t really know what that’s about,” she said. “I can transfer you to a loan officer if you like, we don’t share our customer information with any 3rd parties so you shouldn’t be getting any solicitations from anyone else.”

I was instantly exasperated. I was calling about a specific problem that they had caused, and the company apparently wasn’t aware that they were responsible or had even sent me a letter in the first place.

“Well, this solicitation is not from a 3rd party, it’s from your company, and your number is at the bottom of the letter – I’m calling the very same 800 number that’s at the bottom of your letter that you sent,” I said. “Can I talk to your manager, please? I need to escalate this.”

I sat on hold for a few minutes and finally got to talk to a manager who helped me resolve the situation. Fine – all’s well that ends well. But here are a few content marketing lessons from this whole silly situation:

Stop Sending Junk Mail

It drives me nuts that in the age of the Internet, we still have all these companies who are sending junk mail that doesn’t even get opened by 98% of people (or more) who receive it. Yeah, I’m sure the Direct Marketing Association will tell you that direct mail still works, and that’s probably true to some extent, but why are you spamming your own customers? I already had a business relationship with this company, and I never asked to be on their mailing list, but they just ASSUMED that I wanted to hear from them with their annoying and invasive mail offer. Shouldn’t there be a better way to interact and engage with your own customers, especially? Instead of blasting out an expensive, wasteful direct mailing that’s not even going to be opened by most people – or that will actively annoy some of the precious customers who ALREADY CHOSE TO GIVE YOU THEIR MONEY – why not find better ways of getting the right people connected with the right offers? Junk mail is a bullhorn; content marketing is a magnet.

Opt In Marketing is Better Than Opt Out

I shouldn’t have to take time out of my day to call my credit union to demand that they stop filling my mailbox with crap. Just because you have someone’s contact information doesn’t mean you have their permission to contact them. Permission is PRICELESS. My credit union has an existing customer relationship with me, which they have now damaged by sending me junk mail and then handling the situation poorly. Instead of forcing me to “opt out” of their marketing, instead of assuming that I wanted to hear from them with marketing offers, my credit union should use “opt in” marketing to qualify prospective customers AHEAD OF TIME and GET PERMISSION in advance BEFORE they start sending offers to us. Stop wasting paper and squandering everyone’s time.

What if, instead of bombarding people with junk mail that they never asked for, companies spent more time and resources upfront on identifying the RIGHT customers who were truly open to receiving those offers? What if you spent more time cultivating an “opt in” culture of marketing where your customers were so engaged with your company that they actively CHOSE to receive your newsletters and mailings, because your content delivered so much value and was so fun to read and helped them learn new things? But doing “opt in” marketing is hard and time-consuming and requires creativity and courage, so instead, companies just crank out another mailing list and smother us all in spam.

It doesn’t have to be that way! Spend more time earning your customers’ permission and building an audience of customers who are happy – no, thrilled! – to hear from you, instead of annoying them with junk mail.

Be Ready to Receive the Customer’s Call

What if, upon receiving those blank checks in the mail, I was actually EXCITED about it? What if I had been really happy to receive that offer, and was thrilled to suddenly have an easy excuse to go to Lowe’s or Home Depot and buy a new kitchen counter with my HELOC money? What if I actually HAD been the target audience for this junk mail offer, and I just had some follow-up questions that I wanted to ask before writing the checks, so I decided to call the number at the bottom of the letter?

Well, I would have been disappointed! Because the first customer service person I talked to didn’t know anything about the letter!

Even if I HADN’T been annoyed by the junk mail, even if the junk mail was a golden opportunity that I was thrilled to receive, then it’s STILL a missed opportunity because the company’s not set up to handle “success!” If you’re going to take the time and spend the resources to send a marketing message to your customers, MAKE SURE YOU’RE READY FOR IT TO SUCCEED. Don’t direct your new sales leads to a generic phone line of automated prompts and clueless customer service reps – give them a special dedicated phone number that takes them directly to a real person who is trained specifically to answer their questions!

Even if I had WANTED to do business with this company as a result of receiving their letter, this company wasn’t ready to do business with me! What’s the point?? Why bother sending me something if you’re not ready to talk about it???

Advice to a Future Freelance Writer

I haven’t updated my website in a long time because I’ve been too busy doing paid freelance writing work for other sites! This is a very good problem to have, but it’s still a problem. I’m going to try to do a better job of updating this site regularly just to show the world that I AM in fact, still in business as a freelance writer (7 years and going strong!), and also share some advice and ideas and general musings to give prospective clients a sense of what I’m like and how my thought process works and what it might be like to hire me as a freelance writer.

I recently got a question from a Facebook friend who mentioned that they have a 13-year-old child who is very interested in writing and wants to know what it’s like to be a writer for a living.

Giving advice to young people is one of my great joys in life; if there’s something that young up-and-coming writers can learn from my experiences, I’d be honored to share a few bits of wisdom.

If you’re 13 years old, or any age, and are interested in becoming a writer, then here are some bits of advice:

Write All the Time

A writer is a person who writes. So do it! Start a blog. Keep a journal. Write every day, even if it’s bad, even if you feel stuck, even if you never want to share what you write with anyone, just do it. Writing is a craft and a discipline; sometimes it’s magical and elegant and you have a perfect feeling of creative “flow,” but sometimes it’s a miserable agonizing slog and your brain feels like trudging through molasses and every word feels like discordant notes of music. But you just have to keep going! Keep producing! The world doesn’t need more constipated, tortured artistes; the world needs you to PRODUCE. If you feel like you might have something to say, then say it. Put it out there into the world and contribute your verse.

Photo Credit: Dan90266  CC BY-SA 2.0

Read All the Time 

Being a writer is like being a jellyfish, or a big whale that feeds off of plankton through its baleen filter-feeder system. (This analogy sounds cumbersome, but bear with me!) You need to write, yes? But you also need to read ALL THE TIME to give you constant INPUT and INSPIRATION to write. You need to drift around the Internet like a jellyfish, or inhale massive quantities of ocean water like a whale, and PROCESS THAT INPUT into new ideas and insights and observations and written material. This is one of the many reasons why I love being a freelance writer – I get to float around the Internet all day like a happy jellyfish, sucking up inspiration wherever I find it. (See how that works? Not such a bad analogy, is it? This is why people pay me to write things for them.)

Explore the World

Writers should travel. Even if you can’t travel because you’re too young and you still live with your parents, watch Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown (it’s on Netflix, last I checked) and other travel documentaries to learn more about other countries and other parts of the world. Read about other places. Read world history. Watch international movies. Learn a foreign language. Make friends with the foreign exchange students at your school – I made friends with Fabrice, the German exchange student, back when I was 15 years old, and we’re still friends 22 years later. All of these experiences – especially if you start at a young age! – will give you valuable perspective and help you empathize with people from all cultures and all walks of life.

Talk With People

Never miss a chance to talk with people and learn from other people around you. Be open to ideas. Participate in conversations. Ask good questions. Have the mentality of a reporter – watch interviews and listen to podcasts and get a sense for what it means to ask open-ended questions and engage with people around you and help draw the stories out of people. Lots of people think that writers are all solitary souls who disdain talking to other people, but some of the best writers are comfortable striking up conversations. And even if you’re an introvert, the most important thing is that willingness to learn from people and a curiosity about what makes people tick and how to get the best out of people. I spend most of my life working alone in an attic, but I care about people very deeply and I tend to believe the best about people. We all are enriched by each other’s presence and we have so much to learn from each other.

Go to College – But Don’t Worry About Going to the “Right” One

I graduated from Rice University in 2001 with a degree in History, and back then, I didn’t know I was going to be a freelance writer in 2017. But looking back on it, everything in my life has led me to this point. I spent two years at Iowa State University and then transferred to Rice; I was undecided about my major until the 2nd semester of my junior year at Rice when I declared a major in History because I loved to read history books and my advisor gave me some great advice: “Major in the subject that you would most like to teach.”

Lots of people who are smarter and richer than me are questioning the wisdom of traditional university education, and there may be something to that – it’s true that college is more expensive than ever; the costs have more or less doubled since I was a college student. I don’t know if college is worth it for everyone, but if you want to be a writer, college is still great preparation. Why? Because you learn how to think. You learn how to analyze information critically and synthesize sources of information and do the hard, unglamorous, disciplined work of sitting in the library for hours and hours while you cram your head with material and try to come up with something new to write about what you’ve just read.

But don’t worry about going to the “right” college – don’t get hung up on a name brand college degree. I really believe this: it doesn’t matter where you go to college so much as whether you get that degree. There are lots of people with big-name college degrees who aren’t very smart and who don’t end up being very successful; there are lots of people who did 2 years at community college and then graduated from a state school who go on to do amazing things and have a great life. Don’t think there’s one “right” college for you that’s going to make all the difference – you’re better off just working hard wherever you are and publishing articles on your blog and building up a base of business as a writer that way. We have the Internet now! Traditional credentials are less important than they used to be. Your college connections can be helpful but college is not the end-all, be-all of everything – in fact, one of my freelance writing mentors, Carol Tice, doesn’t have a college degree!

There’s never been a better time to be a writer. I love what I do for a living, I get to work with smart, fun people all over the world, and I get paid to think and learn and create. What could be better?? If you’re 13 years old (or any age) and interested in working as a writer someday, start now. Read. Write. Learn. Explore. It’s an amazing journey and I’m happy for you that you’re already on your way.

Do you have questions on how to become a freelance writer? Email me: benjamin.gran@gmail.com 

In Remembrance – Minoru Yasuda

Left to Right: "Ken-chan," Satoru, My Dad, Minoru, Hiro, Me

I recently lost someone who, even though I hadn’t seen him in 7 years, was very important to me – my friend Hiro’s father, my “Japanese father,” Minoru Yasuda, died in October 2014 at the age of 74.

I met Minoru and his wife Eiko and their son Yoshi when I was teaching English in Japan. I had become friends with their oldest son, Hiro, when he was studying ESL at my university in America, and I had met Hiro by signing up to be a conversation partner for the ESL program. Hiro was immediately a really impressive guy and we quickly became good friends, despite the language barrier – we hung out and went out to dinner together with a big group of diverse/international friends. Hiro was still halfway through his year in the U.S. when it was time for me to fly to Japan to start my year of teaching English on the JET Program, but even though we were not together in the same country, Hiro asked his best college friend Satoru and their entire circle of friends back in Tokyo to take me under their wing and show me around and take good care of me while I was living in Japan.

Satoru arranged a meeting for me with Hiro’s father, who had asked to meet me for dinner. The first time I met Minoru Yasuda was early in my time in Japan – it must have been early August 2001, and it was a hot, humid Tokyo night. I got off the train at Ikebukuro station and there was a driver waiting for me – Minoru had ridden to pick me up in a chauffeured car. The driver whisked us off through the neon lights of Tokyo and Hiro’s father took me out for dinner at a really amazing sushi restaurant – one of those hole-in-the-wall places that only seats 8 or 10 people, and you’d never be able to find it unless someone who had lived in Tokyo for years took you there, and even though it’s a tiny, out-of-the-way restaurant, somehow the food immediately ranks among the Top 5 greatest meals of your life. That was one of the things about the restaurant culture of Tokyo that I never understood – there are so many amazing restaurants in Tokyo where the owners, despite making world-class food, apparently have no ambition to expand or franchise or serve more than 10 customers at a time. They’re content to do this one specific thing (sushi, or ramen, or curry, or soba) and do it really, really, really well, with exacting precision honed over many years of rigorous study and practice.  

Even aside from the great restaurants, Minoru Yasuda was one of the greatest people I met in Japan. He was such a character – so funny, so generous, so fun-loving. He was really nothing at all like the stereotypical image that a lot of Americans might have of a stern older Japanese man. “I want to thank you for being a good friend to my son,” he said to me at our first meeting. “My English is very bad, but I want to treat you to excellent sushi. I know you are far from home, so maybe I can be your Japanese father.” (He had studied English, briefly, decades earlier when he was in college, but I was still impressed at how much English he could speak and how much he understood. We mainly communicated in English for the whole time I was in Japan.)

Minoru was born in Tokyo in 1940 and survived the World War II firebombings in 1945. I never really asked him about his experiences during the war, or if he remembered any of it; I felt sad to think of how many kids his age must have been killed by American bombs. He had grown up during the U.S. military occupation of Japan, and he had only good memories of American soldiers – he used to see General MacArthur getting driven around in a big black limousine through the streets of Tokyo, and he said that he and his friends used to go up to American soldiers and ask for candy. “We were hungry,” he would say, “And we would run to the Americans and say, ‘Please! Please!’ and they would always give us some small thing, some chocolate, some candy. I was always grateful to the Americans. Because when we could not eat, they were kind to us.”

Minoru had never been to America, but he was a big fan of American culture, American big band jazz, and American movies. He loved to drive around Tokyo in an old Thunderbird, even though it cost him dearly on upkeep and extra taxes (in Japan, the tax system is geared toward incentives to buy new cars – so you rarely see any beat-up old cars in Japan, let alone a beat-up Thunderbird). I remember sitting in their living room with him, drinking sake and watching “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (the original version with Danny Kaye). Minoru used to love Danny Kaye’s facial expressions; he would laugh and point at the screen and say, “Ha ha – look! Look at his face!” He was a big fan of Dean Martin, too. I came to think of Minoru as being a kindred spirit to “the Rat Pack:” he loved to smoke, he loved to have a good time and enjoy good beer and spirits, and unexpectedly enough, I soon found that my friend Hiro’s 62-year-old father was one of my favorite people to hang out with in Japan.

I cannot begin to sufficiently express my gratitude for how hospitable and generous Minoru and Eiko were to me. I was a young guy living in Japan teaching English, I spoke very limited Japanese, and I really didn’t know what I was doing from a cross-cultural standpoint – I probably committed lots of social faux pas – but they welcomed me into their home and kept inviting me over for dinner and always made me feel like an honored guest. Eiko made the most delicious dinners for me. (She spoke not a word of English but instead of chatting she always smiled at me and then disappeared to the kitchen and served us mind-blowingly delicious home-cooked Japanese food.) Minoru always would pull out a bottle of excellent sake or champagne and we’d eat and drink and watch the Yomiuri Giants (Tokyo’s most popular baseball team) play on TV. Living in another country where you don’t speak the language, living in your own apartment by yourself for the first time, cooking for yourself for the first time, can all be tiring and stressful – and whenever I was at Minoru and Eiko’s house I always, every minute, felt very well taken care of and very much at home.

Left to Right: Minoru, Me, Yoshi

Hiro’s younger brother Yoshi (shown with me and Minoru in the photo above) was living at home with his parents – he had graduated from high school but had not passed the college entrance exam, so he’d had to take a year off to prepare once again to take the entrance exam. (The Japanese college admissions system is a bit more rigid than America – if you don’t get accepted by the college of your choice, you can’t just go to community college instead for a year or two; it’s kind of all-or-nothing.) Yoshi spoke very little English and was very shy around me, but Minoru was always trying to coax Yoshi into being more outgoing and talking more. Again, Minoru and Eiko were not at all the classic stereotype of strict, overbearing, achievement-obsessed Japanese parents – even though Yoshi had missed his first chance to go to college and was kind of at loose ends for a year, they were really laid-back about it, and were just happy to have the unexpected opportunity to spend lots of time with their son. “Yoshi is a, how you say in English? Good boy. He is a GOOD boy,” Minoru said, taking another puff of his cigarette. Then he would mockingly pretend to play the part of the “strict Japanese father” and fake-harass Yoshi to try harder with his studies. “Yoshi?” he would say, shaking his fist, “You MUST study. You have NO CHOICE!” And we’d all laugh.

My own (actual) father came to visit me in Japan for a few days in the spring of 2002 on his way back to the U.S. from a business trip to China and Korea, and Minoru took us out for a couple of amazing meals in Tokyo. My Japanese had improved enough by then that I could understand Minoru cracking jokes with the sushi chef, explaining to him that he needed to make something good for my dad, because “He’s hungry – he came from Korea.” (With the joke being: there’s obviously nothing good to eat in Korea. There are a lot of rivalries and hostilities between Korea and Japan – it’s like the Ireland and England of Asia.)

Minoru also took us all out for lunch at his favorite yakitori (grilled chicken) restaurant that he had been patronizing for 40 years – with the same chef, who he referred to by the familiar name of “Ken-chan.” This was a really amazing yakitori restaurant. The only thing on the menu is chicken – nothing else – but they use every single part of the bird’s body. Flesh, bones, hearts, lungs, gizzards, livers – all salted and seasoned and prepared meticulously and exactingly to squeeze out every subtle nuance and flavor. Again, it was one of the Top 5 meals of my life. Out of the Top 5 meals of my life, two of them were thanks to Minoru Yasuda.

“Ben,” Minoru would tell me, “Sometime, if you like, you can go to Ken-chan’s chicken barbecue restaurant, and you can say, ‘Ken-chan! Send the bill to Mr. Yasuda.’ And bring your best girlfriend! But…you can only do this ONE TIME. Any more than that, and I will become VERY ANGRY.” And he would fold his arms and give me a mockingly “stern Japanese father” face – he was so funny, I’m laughing right now just as I’m typing this.

I remember that after the yakitori meal, Minoru had us over to the house, and he subtly-yet-strongly suggested that because of his busy travel schedule, maybe my dad would like to take a nap. So they had my dad go lie down by himself in a separate bedroom on a futon, and even though my dad felt kind of sheepish about it (he never wants to make a scene or get any special treatment for himself), he immediately dozed off. My dad later told me that it was one of the best naps he’d had in a long time.

That’s the kind of hospitality Minoru specialized in – he had this force of personality where he somehow encouraged you to try the food, try the sake, take a nap, have the experience that you maybe didn’t even realize you needed, but were grateful to have had.

The last time I saw Minoru was in 2007 when my wife and I made a visit to Tokyo. At the time, he had been having some health problems and was in the hospital (the same hospital where President George H.W. Bush was taken in 1992 after vomiting on the Japanese Prime Minister – my friend Hiro showed us the commemorative plaque in the hospital lobby). I was sorry that he wasn’t feeling well and that we didn’t get to spend much time with him, but I was glad to see him again and I was glad that he got to meet my wife. My wife and I have often talked during the past few years about how we’d like to take our kids on a trip to Japan someday, and how we would have liked for Minoru to get to meet our kids. I’m sorry that now, that will not be able to happen.

Left to Right: Minoru, Me, Hiro, Eiko

I heard from my friend Hiro and his wife Nanae about the death of Minoru in October. Nanae said that 400 people attended the funeral wake for Minoru, and it’s clear that he really touched a lot of people’s lives. He had such a warm heart, and he had fun every single day. He lived life the right way!

Hiro and Nanae live in London now – Hiro became fluent in English (he always used to tell me, “I owe my English to you, Ben!”) and got transferred abroad by his Japanese company – and they have two young boys, just like my wife and me. Minoru was always incredibly proud of Hiro, and I’m sure he was especially proud to have his son achieve fluency in English and be able to qualify to work abroad. Hiro is a really hard-working guy who’s an up-and-comer at his Japanese company, and he works really long hours in the City (London’s “Wall Street”), but he’s always been such a great guy and I’m sure he’s still the same energetic, charismatic, generous, funny, open-minded and capable leader that I remember from when we were in college. I hope to see Hiro again someday soon so we can drink a cup of sake in honor of his father’s memory.

It took me awhile to get to the point of being ready to write this little remembrance of Minoru Yasuda. I cannot imagine a better host, father, “Japanese father,” or ambassador for the very best of Japan’s cultural values. I’m grateful to have known him. He made a big difference in helping me have a great experience in Japan, and I wish everyone who studies abroad or travels abroad or lives in another country could have someone like Minoru to laugh with and learn from.

Minoru Yasuda, rest in peace! You will be fondly missed and long remembered – all over the world. 

The Generosity Project: Helping people find jobs

Why aren’t we more like Martin Luther King, Jr.? 

Was he great because it was preordained, because he was destined to be a leader and influencer, because he was hand-selected by some almighty providence or the forces of history to be the right person for his moment in time, to be a martyr for his cause? 

Or was he great because he chose to be? 

Of course, Martin Luther King was a rare talent. He was one of the greatest orators in the history of the English language; he was a great organizer, strategist and leader. He had strong religious faith. He was hailed during his lifetime as a present-day Moses who would lead his people to the Promised Land. 

But maybe the most important reason for Martin Luther King’s greatness was not his innate talent or some larger sense of destiny, but his own choice – time and time again – to be generous, to be a leader, to reach out to people, to keep organizing, to keep working….even when he was tired, even when he feared the effects on his family, even when he feared for his safety, even when he was thrown in jail, even when he feared for his life. 

Most of us in America in 2015 do not face nearly the risks and threats and seemingly intractable violent hatred that Martin Luther King faced during his life. So what’s holding us back? Why aren’t all of us – you, me, all of us – more like Martin Luther King? We can’t all be great orators or organizers, but why can’t more of us make the same simple choice he made: to keep doing everything in our power to make life better for the people around us, to keep being tirelessly, radically generous? 

I don’t believe that the only people who should be allowed to have success or be encouraged to make a difference are a tiny percentage of elites, or a preordained chosen group of people. I believe that everyone has innate human potential to be of service, to make a difference, to be more than what they think they’re capable of being. I believe that humanity’s biggest achievements arise not from rugged individuals or lone geniuses, but from a rich context of learning, sharing and generosity. We are all “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as Isaac Newton said. I believe that with our modern Internet connections and the “share economy” and instant mobile communication and information spreading faster than ever before, it’s possible for anyone to make a bigger difference in the world IF WE CHOOSE to do so. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in my own life. I want to be more generous. I want to make more of a difference. But how? How can I align my skills and interests in a way that really helps other people? How can I do the most good with what I have to offer, in the most efficient way possible? 

I used to be pretty active in my community – I worked in politics, I volunteered at a public school, I hosted international visitors through State Department programs. But for the past few years, as a freelance writer and work-at-home dad, I haven’t been feeling as involved and generous as I used to be. I’ve been very focused on raising two young kids and paying the bills and taking care of my own house and family. I haven’t been as involved as I would like to be in the wider world. 

But I want to do better about this. So in 2015, I want to start something new – my own personal “Generosity Project.” 

I have over 1,000 Facebook friends. I have connections all over the U.S. and all over the world. I’m a freelance writer with good communication skills and a flexible schedule – I want to use what I know and who I know to help other people get connected to opportunities. 

Here’s what I want to do to be more generous this year – I want to help other people: 

  1. Find jobs
  2. Get connected to people who can offer career mentoring or advice (for free)
  3. Learn how to make money by doing freelance writing or otherwise utilizing skills and interests that they already have
  4. Learn about great nonprofit organizations, volunteer opportunities, or good causes to support

All of these topics are very important to me, and I think I have the right blend of connections, interest and aptitude to be effective in helping people in this area. 

I’m a good connector of people. I like introducing friends to other friends; I like helping people get new job leads, I like being a freelance writer coach to help people learn how to make money online. I’ve already been doing this on a limited, informal basis, but I want to do more of it, more proactively, more expansively. I want to find friends on Facebook who are willing to offer their talents, expertise and connections to help offer career advice or pass along a resume or otherwise help connect talented, hard-working people with jobs and opportunities. 

I’m really lucky. I get to make a living as a freelance writer. I’ve been doing this for four years full-time and I’m more successful than ever before. But I’m not interested only in making a good living for my own family – I want to do more to help other people find opportunities and make more money and have the same sense of empowerment. And I want to do what I can to help shine a spotlight on some worthy organizations and good causes for other generosity-minded people to donate their time, talents and money. 

Will you join me? This doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment; I don’t need lots of time or money from any of you. I’m looking for people who are willing to… 

  • Be interviewed about your career or business. I’d like to do podcasts or e-mail interviews where we can create informative resources (published on my blog) to help other people who want to learn more about getting a job in your industry or who want to start a business. For example, how did you get started in your career field? What qualifications do you need? What advice would you offer to someone who wanted to get into your industry or work at your company? How did you start your business? How do you find customers/clients/buyers? What advice would you offer to someone who wanted to get started making money on the side as a freelancer/consultant or who wanted to start a small business from home?
  • Help connect people with job openings. If I hear of someone who’s looking for a job in your area, would you be willing to talk with them via e-mail or connect with them via social media, and, if you feel comfortable doing so, pass along their resume or put in a good word for them?
  • Serve as short-term casual career “mentors.” Would you be willing to help people who are looking for a new job or a new career field? Would you be willing to answer questions/do a brief phone call or Skype call with someone who wants to learn more about working in your career field?
  • Share the story of a nonprofit organization that you work with or volunteer with or donate to. What makes them great? Why is their mission so important? What do people need to know about this organization? I’d like to write profile articles of some of great nonprofits from around the U.S. and around the world to post on my blog and share on social media.

Benefits of doing this “Generosity Project:” 

  1. People get new jobs (and companies get great new employees)
  2. People get inspired and get the information they need to help start a business or make extra money on the side
  3. People get to make better-informed career decisions
  4. Nonprofit organizations get more donations and more volunteers
  5. Career mentors and interviewees get the satisfaction of helping other people while getting a published blog article or podcast to share their own stories
  6. Small business owners/freelancers get free publicity for their businesses
  7. I get to expand my network and become known as more of a leader – maybe someday, the people I help today can connect me with opportunities too!

 

Of course, there are also a few possible risks and downsides of doing this “Generosity Project:” 

  1. People might take advantage of me. There might be unscrupulous/unqualified/disreputable people who try to use my reputation and connections to get a job, even though they’re not seriously qualified or are being dishonest about their qualifications. It could reflect poorly on my reputation if I tried to vouch for someone who wasn’t really who they said they were.
  2. There might be overwhelming demand – too many job seekers, not enough jobs; too many people looking for help, not enough people offering help.
  3. Too much time commitment – I can’t spend too many hours each week creating content for free (doing podcasts or writing articles) or networking on behalf of other people, because I’m really busy with my own (paying) freelance writing work.

But on the whole, I think the benefits outweigh the risks. 

Ever since I started working as a freelance writer, I’ve realized – on a new level – the importance of networks. I work with clients all over the U.S. and all over the world. Instead of one “job” with a salary and benefits, I have lots of smaller “projects” that add up to a good living. Instead of relying on one single company to give me my livelihood, I have a broad network of clients. Freelance writing is my dream job, and I’ve created it all for myself – and I feel very well-supported by this invisible “safety net” of lots of different clients – but what if I could help other people extend their own “safety net?”  

Whether we realize it or not, we are all inter-connected. No one is every truly alone. We are all one or two degrees of separation removed from great people who can help us find what we’re looking for in our careers. What if we used the power of the Internet and the power of Facebook not just for screwing around and sharing funny cat pictures, but for taking some positive, proactive steps to make a difference in people’s lives – helping people make more money, find better jobs, or make a career change in a way that will benefit them for years to come? I want to be a connector of people. I want to introduce people for their mutual benefit. I want to help people get a step closer to the job of their dreams. 

I know I can’t help everyone. Not everyone is a good fit for a certain job, not everyone has the energy or capacity or desire or will power or “hustle” necessary to start a business or work extra hours freelancing in addition to holding a full-time job. Not everyone is willing to change. Some people stay stuck in the same thought patterns and never break out of their comfort zones – and that’s OK. 

But what if this “Generosity Project” could help someone figure out how to get started as a part-time freelance writer and earn an extra $200 or $300 or $500 a month? What if this project could introduce some talented job candidates to some great employers who might not otherwise find each other? What if I could help speed up the natural sorting process of people finding the right job and the right career and the right company, and make it a little more efficient and more human? Wouldn’t that be great? And I can do it all from home? I already waste way too much time on Facebook, so why not put some of that time to good use?   

I don’t know how “big” I want this to get. I’m a really busy person and I have a lot of demands on me already from my work and my family and everything else that goes with being a parent and a spouse and a homeowner. But I really want to try to do something. I can’t solve all of the problems in the world, but maybe I can make a difference for this specific problem: helping connect other people with jobs and opportunities. 

What if we could all be a little bit more generous with our time, talents and connections? What’s holding us back? I’m going to start making a conscious, proactive, public effort in 2015 to be more generous. Starting NOW. 

If you would like to help, please send me a message: Benjamin.gran@gmail.com

Or connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bengran

What is the JET Program like? My experience teaching English in Japan

Ben Gran teaching at Koma Elementary School, Hidaka City, Japan - 2002

My first job out of college was teaching English in Japan on the JET Program (“Japan Exchange and Teaching Program”) back in 2001-2002. That year of living in Japan and teaching in the Japanese public schools was one of the most influential years of my life, and it was an ideal adventure for that time in my life, when I was single and hadn’t started on a rigid “career path” and had the freedom to travel and be an interloper in another country. I made wonderful friends in Japan that I’m still in touch with today. Living in Japan gave me a sense of perspective and broader awareness of the reality of the world beyond America – it helped me see the beauty and uniqueness of other cultures in a new way, and it has affected my decision making and sense of identity in many ways.

My experience living in another country taught me not to take America too seriously – I know – really know, on a fundamental level – that the world is bigger than this one country and that there is more than one way to solve problems and interpret situations. At the same time, living in Japan taught me to appreciate a lot of things about America that I had previously taken for granted – even while I admired many things about Japan that are unique to Japan’s cultural context. Teaching English in Japan gave me a new understanding of myself, my place in the world, and my appreciation for my fellow human beings.

If you want to teach English in Japan, working on the JET Program is one of the best ways to do it. I highly recommend the JET Program to anyone who’s looking for a fun adventure and who’s interested in teaching English in Japan. It’s a great opportunity that continues to benefit you as a person for years after it’s over.

A few years ago, a friend of a family friend contacted me with some questions about the JET Program. She was wondering about the realities of teaching English in Japan. I have enclosed her questions – and my answers – below:

What motivated you to go teach English in Japan on the JET Program?
I didn’t know what else to do after I graduated from college, and nothing else sounded good. I had a strong desire to have the experience of living in another country (I never studied abroad). I had some good friends from Japan who I had met at college by signing up to be a conversation partner in the ESL program, and so that helped make the decision. Plus one of my other good friends from college grew up in Okinawa, and he and I had talked a lot about Japan, and it all sounded pretty good.

Why did you choose to apply for the JET Program?
The JET Program was only a one-year commitment (as opposed to the Peace Corps or other types of programs that are a multi-year commitment), and it was an actual “job” with a paycheck; no research papers required. As for how JET compares to other options for teaching in Japan, the JET program generally pays better (my salary at the time was around $30,000 per year, tax-free), the JET program gives you more time off (I think I had like 4 weeks of time off), they help you find an apartment (which is a HUGE benefit in Japan, where there are a lot of hard-to-understand rules and customs for renting a place), and JET allows you to teach in the public schools during regular work hours, as opposed to the “eikaiwa” (English Conversation) schools where you often teach at night and on weekends. I’ve also gotten the impression that JET Program teachers tend to have an overall better “quality of life” on the job – fewer contact hours, more unstructured time, more time to study Japanese, etc. I’ve heard that a lot of the Eikaiwa schools just keep lining up one student after another with little time to decompress.

But you know what, I think the #1 factor that sold me on the JET Program was that they helped you get your own apartment. It sounds stupid now, but at the time, at age 21, I had lived in the dorms for all 4 years of college, so getting my own apartment sounded really daunting. I remember going to an orientation session for the JET Program and they played a video showing the nice cozy apartments in Japan where some of the JET teachers lived, and I was like, “Wow! My own apartment? Sign me up!”

Do you think it’s OK to choose a program other than JET for teaching English in Japan?
Yes. In fact, I know several people who taught for private eikaiwa schools (like Nova and GEOS), and they had a generally good experience. But I had no regrets doing the JET Program – I think it’s probably the best way to teach in Japan.

Did you go with someone you knew?
I knew no one. But I found that it was quite easy to make friends with other people on the program. I made friends with lots of my JET Program colleagues from Canada, Australia, Britain and America, and also made friends with lots of Japanese locals. There were always people to talk to and hang out with and go drinking with. I really had quite an active social life in Japan – more active than my life in America once I got back. Plus I was VERY fortunate to have a built-in circle of friends in Tokyo via my ESL conversation partners – I still keep in touch with those friends 12 years later, and my wife and I visited my Japanese friends in Tokyo in February 2007.

What were the biggest difficulties you encountered?
The language barrier. (I spoke no Japanese when I arrived – but I learned fairly quickly.) The hardest thing on a day-to-day basis was not understanding the background noise of daily life – I was basically illiterate over there. (Although Japan makes it easier, since the train station signs and bus stops and public locations are in English letters (“romaji”)). I really missed being able to go to a public library and read anything I wanted, in my own language. It was strange not being able to read anything over there – for example, the subways and trains would be covered with ads and posters, and I wouldn’t be able to read what they were for. (“Is this an ad for a car company or for rat poison? I can’t tell…”)

Certain things about working in another culture were hard – teaching on the JET Program was my first “real” job post-college, and I probably made all kinds of mistakes that I’ve forgotten about or forgiven myself for by now.

Some of my mistakes included:

    • I used to eat breakfast at my desk, which is a no-no. I didn’t intend to be disrespectful, but by eating at my desk, I was showing disrespect to the other “real” teachers who got to work earlier than I did and had already eaten breakfast. (I am not a morning person.)
    • I used to be late for school sometimes. Punctuality is highly prized in Japanese culture, so I was really screwing up on that front as well. 
    • I once flooded my downstairs neighbors’ apartment when I forgot to put the drainage hose from my washing machine into the drain in the shower (long story – fortunately nothing was seriously damaged, and it turned out that I had accident insurance through my employer). 
    • Some people on the JET Program occasionally have a bad attitude about work – lots of whining about JET Program policies, complaints about the boss, etc. It’s natural to feel frustrated with things at work, but in retrospect our lives on the JET Program were much, MUCH better than they would have been at almost any entry-level job back in our home countries. I wish I had complained less and learned more and studied harder. 

One thing I learned from teaching English in Japan is that culture shock is definitely real. Except “culture shock” isn’t the right term for it, it’s more like “culture fatigue.” There are certain things about living in another country that just start to wear on you after awhile, especially where the culture is so different from your own. Certain small things start to feel annoying or oppressive – for example, I remember being on the train one Sunday afternoon, riding into Tokyo, and seated across from me was a group of middle-aged women on a weekend outing, chatting amiably together. And they were all wearing the same style of hat – kind of an inverted flowerpot shape that was popular in Japan at the time. And I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, come on – do you all really have to wear exactly the same sort of hat???” And really, how unfair of me to feel annoyed about their hats! They were just minding their own business. But that’s the kind of thing I remember as being difficult – just little reminders of the cultural barriers between me and the rest of the people there. There were times when I felt very alone.

Earthquakes – that was a big challenge for me. Japan gets LOTS of earthquakes, and I’m from a part of the U.S. that never gets earthquakes, so the occasional earthquakes really freaked me out – I would wake up in the night and the walls of my building would be trembling, dishes rattling in the cupboards. Not fun.

I also experienced a fair amount of homesickness, I suppose – I always enjoyed talking with my parents on Sunday nights. I would call them at 9 p.m. from Japan, which was 7 a.m. Iowa time, and we would talk for an hour or so. Another thing that was hard was that my grandpa died while I was in Japan, and I wasn’t able to come back for the funeral. So that’s definitely something to think about – if you live abroad, you might have to miss out on some friends’ weddings, births of new family members, funerals or other life events.

Another difficulty was the work itself. The job of being an Assistant English Teacher could occasionally become very boring. The overall “experience” was really an amazing privilege – being able to work in another country’s public school system and talk with the kids all day – but the day-to-day “work” wasn’t always that challenging, if that makes sense. I suppose it’s my own fault – looking back on it now, I could have done much more to learn Japanese, get involved with the other teachers, plan lessons, etc. While listening to the other teachers speak rapid-fire Japanese during the morning staff meeting, I should have been taking notes, writing down words that I recognized, and looking them up in my dictionary, building my vocabulary. I should have tried harder to learn more every single day. I should have been more of a “sponge for knowledge.” 

And I should mention – most of the teachers that I worked with were really great. They helped me a lot, they involved me in the classes, they tried to make things fun for the students. But a lot of days, I just felt like I was kind of “in the way” or that I didn’t understand any of the conversations going on, and I just kind of let things happen around me without being as engaged as I could be. (This is probably making me sound like a terrible employee – I’m really not that bad.) But that was hard – those days when it felt like less of an exciting adventure, and more like an unchallenging job. (Of course, there are lots of times as a working adult in the U.S. where you’ll feel unchallenged or unfulfilled by your job. There have been times as a grown-up person in America where I’ve wondered if I should move my family back to Japan and go back to teaching English! But now that I’m a freelance writer, I’m quite happy with my career.)

Feelings of isolation, homesickness and culture shock come and go. There were times when I didn’t feel like a “real” person in Japan – like this was just a temporary stopping point and I wasn’t really building anything that would last. It’s liberating to be an interloper, but sometimes you want to feel like you’re putting down roots and are more authentically connected to a community and a place. But there are also a lot of incredibly exciting, invigorating, inspiring aspects to living in another culture, and the good far outweighed the bad in my experience.

Was it hard coming back to the U.S. after teaching English in Japan?

It was very, very, very hard. I came back after a year (actually only ten months) to take a job at the Governor’s office in my home state of Iowa – it was a pretty special job opportunity and I had to come back early from Japan in order to start my new job. But to my surprise, coming back to America was harder than going to Japan. The “reverse culture shock” was harder in every way. I missed Japan a lot, I missed my friends and my carefree life over there, I missed riding the trains and riding my bike and walking everywhere and not having to use a car, I felt regrets for having come back so soon, I wondered if life would ever feel quite so exciting or interesting again. (It probably didn’t help that I was living at home with my parents for the first seven months after coming back to the U.S.) Life just seemed so…colorless back in my home country. I probably was depressed, on some level.

To get over my sense of reverse culture shock, I read a lot of books about Japan – Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite authors – and I corresponded with my friends, and in time I got better. Eventually I was able to build a life for myself in the U.S. that was fun and fulfilling. But it took a long time – it took like a year to get over the reverse culture shock. I think I had reverse culture shock for longer than I actually lived in Japan. It’s funny – now that I’m thinking about all this again – I remember that the decision not to renew my contract on the JET program was a really hard decision. I was literally physically sick about it. In a lot of ways, the JET Program was a good job, and people there treated me very well, and I’d had this great cultural experience, and I thought, “are you sure you want to give all this up?” So that was a big decision, the moment when I decided not to stay on for a second year. I think it was February when we had to decide that. And then I ultimately found my new job and decided to come home in May.

Would you suggest taking a shorter teaching trip to sort of “test the waters” of working abroad?
I don’t know what options are out there – I think it’s easier to get a visa if you’re committed to going over there for a full year. But I could be wrong. The plane ride is so long (14 hours Chicago to Tokyo, each way) and expensive, and the experience is so great once you get over there, that I really think it’s best to just take the plunge and commit to going over for a year. It probably makes things easier as far as leaving behind your life in the U.S., too.
Have you traveled anywhere else in Asia?
No, and that is the one regret of my time in Japan. I was only there for 10 months, and I originally thought I would be there longer – 2 years, 3 years maybe. But instead I wound up coming back to Iowa after only 10 months, and I never traveled elsewhere in Asia. I didn’t even travel in Japan very much, I mostly hung around in Tokyo with my friends. (Of course, there’s a lot to see in Tokyo – it’s the biggest city in the world.) Some of my colleagues on the JET Program took great vacations to Thailand, Korea, China, Hong Kong and many other places – and it’s so much cheaper to fly to other destinations in Asia once you’re in Japan.

What was the JET Program application process like?
Long, but not too tough. If I remember correctly, the application deadline was December, and then we interviewed in…March? And then got acceptance letters in April, and flew to Tokyo at the end of July. So it was an eight month process, start to finish. I’ve read/heard that it used to be a lot faster to get signed up to teach in Japan with Nova or GEOS or other eikaiwa schools, but I don’t know if this is still the case with the economy the way it is now. It’s also possible that the JET program has become more selective since I was on it.


Was it hard to make plans for the next year when you were waiting to find out if you’d been accepted?

At the time, I was a senior in college, and I didn’t have many other career plans. It was pretty much a choice between doing the JET Program and moving back to my parents’ basement. (I had some job interviews with consulting firms in the U.S., but no job offers.) So I pretty much pinned all my hopes on going to the JET Program, and fortunately it worked out for me. My senior year of college was a  rather emotionally tumultuous time, but not because of the JET Program; I had my own reasons for all the tumult. I was just generally struggling to figure out what (if anything) I wanted to do with my life after graduation, and in my darker moments, I felt like no matter what I chose, it would be wrong. And I had recently ended my first really really serious romantic relationship, so I felt like I was going out into the world after college feeling completely adrift.

Of course, looking back on it now, there is no “wrong” plan. As long as you have something that you want to pursue, even if it’s only one thing – and you pursue it with integrity and hard work, good things will happen.

I’m grateful for the JET Program for giving me a good start to adult life and introducing me to so many wonderful people. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to have an adventure.

Are you interested in teaching English in Japan on the JET Program? Feel free to send me any questions via e-mail and I’ll be happy to respond: benjamin.gran@gmail.com 

The skills we need now

Photo Credit - Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsac.1a35241/

Today is Labor Day. I was thinking about work, and how I work, and what I love about it, and what I might be able to offer as lessons to others from what I’ve learned from working online as a freelance writer for the past 4 years.

One of my friends posed an interesting question in response to my blog post about the “New American Dream.” He asked, “What kinds of skills do people need to learn to do the type of self-employment/freelancing/online work that you do? And how can we teach these skills in schools?”

This is a really good question that I’ve been thinking about a lot. On the one hand, much of what I do as a freelance writer is based on some fundamental academic skills – reading, writing, critical thinking. But the way I work as an online freelance writer – collaborating with multiple people on multiple continents, learning new technology, integrating different ideas – requires a certain kind of agility and curiosity that can’t necessarily be “taught” in a traditional academic environment. I sometimes think that the most important skills I’ve learned in my life have come from just doing the work.

But with that said, here are a few ideas for what kinds of “transferable skills” and personal characteristics I would recommend that people pursue – starting at a young age – if they want to be able to make a living working online as a freelancer – or at any traditional “job” that requires digital age skills:

Project Management

Project management, broadly defined, is “the art and science of getting things done.” This is one of the most important skills that is relevant to almost any good job today – you need to be able to organize a group of people, marshal your resources, analyze your budget, deadlines and constraints, and deliver a result. I manage a team of bloggers all over the U.S. Every month we have to deliver a set number of articles to our client. I’m the one who leads the team, manages the deadlines, negotiates any problems that arise along the way, and helps answer questions. I keep a detailed tracking spreadsheet that I constantly update throughout the month to make sure we’re on target to meet our goals. I love writing, but I also enjoy project management because I get to take a bigger picture view of the overall team effort. It’s like being the captain at the helm of the Starship Enterprise.

I wish more kids could get hands-on experience managing projects in school – it doesn’t have to be a “big” thing or a physical product, but learning how to meet deadlines, manage resources and guide a project to completion is one of the most important skills people can have. We’re heading toward a “project economy” where instead of traditional full-time year-round jobs, more people will work in the style of Hollywood film productions, where a team of people with specific skills will gather together for a limited time for a dedicated purpose.

Collaboration

I work “alone” most of the time, working at home from my home office or from a coffee shop on my laptop – but I never truly feel “alone” because I have clients and collaborators all over the U.S. and around the world. I love sharing ideas and pitching story ideas and exchanging feedback to make things better for whatever project we’re working on. Collaboration is more important than ever before, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re all going to be in the same conference room or the same city or even on the same continent. Some of my favorite people to work with during the past 4 years have been in Tokyo, Australia, Germany, London, The Netherlands, and many other places. Most of the people I’ve worked with during the past 4 years are people that I’ve never met in person. But you know what? Even though my collaborators and co-workers and clients and I are separated by thousands of miles, I often feel closer to them and more a part of their team than I did with a lot of the “in person” co-workers I used to work with at my previous jobs. Distance doesn’t matter in being a good co-worker as much as your reliability, your communication skills, and your willingness to get the job done right.

Team Building

One of the underrated skills for working online is being able to build and recruit a team for a project, and inspire that team to achieve success. How does “virtual teamwork” work, exactly? How can you build a team when you’re scattered across continents? The new style of team building does not require in-person interaction, but it does require you to set a clear vision and show each person on the team how their contribution supports the larger goals. For example, I recently built a team of blog writers from around the U.S. I reached out to friends from college, friends on Facebook, and friends of friends in specific cities where we needed writers. (The client wanted to get perspectives and insights from various geographic regions of the U.S.) As part of building my team, I wrote a lot of guidance and detailed instructions about what kind of work we’d be doing and why it was important and how they would benefit by being part of the project (in addition to the money). I had to kind of “sell” the project to the team and get them excited to be part of it by conveying the sense of fun and fulfillment that I get from working for this client. For example, most of the people I reached out to to help with this project are not full-time freelance writers, so I said to them, “How would you like to make some extra money each month with just a few hours of work?” As part of building and nurturing the team, I’ve kept up regular communication – not just via e-mail but also YouTube videos where I can give people regular updates and encouragement. I’m also available by phone whenever anyone on the team needs to talk with me or ask questions.

The new style of team building for the “project economy” and the new way of working online is not about job titles and hierarchy and following orders – it’s about flexibility, humility, generosity and a genuine spirit of helping people get better at what they do. Being a leader of a team is a great challenge and privilege, and you realize quickly that being a leader is a humbling experience – because ideally, if you’re doing it right, you should be learning much more from your team than you knew before.

Curiosity

I can find something interesting about almost anything. During the past 4 years I’ve worked with clients in all sorts of industries, including: animal pharmaceuticals, corporate law, life insurance, mobile apps, virtual events, fire extinguishers, tourism, fine wine trading, relationship coaching, life coaching, sales consulting, restaurant consulting, hospital physician recruiting, and many more. I’ve helped write screenplays (which is usually thought of as being a fun, “sexy” line of work) and I’ve also written brochures for a company that makes high-end paper shredders (which is an industry that I knew very little about), but no matter how “fun/creative” or how “dry/technical” the subject matter might be, I seem to have a knack for finding unique aspects to enjoy and find interesting. I’m often talking with my wife about something fun I learned today from my work, or some interesting facts or knowledge that I had no idea about before I started working for a particular client.

One of the most oddly fun and, well, kind of reassuring things about working online with so many clients all over the world is that the global business world is just so diverse! No matter what strange niche market or problem is out there waiting to be solved, some group of people are out there trying to solve it – trying to make a better paper shredder, or build an app, or develop some interesting solution that saves time and money. It’s not always glamorous and high-profile and sexy, but it’s what makes the world economy work.

People who want to be employable and have success in the economy of the future need to love to learn. You need to be constantly curious and willing to keep pushing the boundaries of your knowledge and get out of your comfort zone. Sometimes I take on projects even if I haven’t done something “exactly like this” before – because I have confidence that I can get up to speed on almost any learning curve, and become conversant in a variety of industries and niche topics. I don’t have to be an expert in absolutely everything – but I try to know a little about a lot.

My personal preference is that I would rather be a “generalist” than a “specialist.” My worst fear for my career is that I’ll become limited to a tiny, narrow band of expertise that makes me feel irrelevant to the larger world. However, that’s just my preference – many people work online as “specialists” in some niche field – whether that means being a freelance writer specializing in financial services, or making apps for a certain industry, or consulting for a certain size/variety of business. There’s nothing wrong with being a specialist (and finding your niche with deep expertise) or being a generalist (and serving multiple niches with a variety of skills) – the Internet makes it possible to do either one. You can either be a generalist like me, riding the wave of ever-expanding knowledge and research available online – or you can be a specialist and use online channels to connect with people who need your specific skills and expertise. But either way, you will be well-served to cultivate a strong sense of curiosity and stay eager to keep learning all the time. 

Teaching

My mother teaches middle school, my father teaches college classes, and my 4 grandparents all worked as teachers/college professors at various points in their lives. Apparently I have a family gene for working in education. I worked as a teacher in my first job out of college, teaching English in Japan. They say that you never truly know anything until you teach it to someone else, and I’ve found that to be true from my work as a freelance writer.

The biggest part of my work today is content marketing – I write content for companies who want to better explain their products/services, show the value they offer, and educate their customers about why they are different from the competition. Content marketing is different from a sales letter or a brochure or a TV ad – it’s not meant to “sell” directly, it’s meant to build credibility and trust. The Internet has made it possible for people to do a lot more research than ever before when making a purchase – checking prices, comparing brands, reading customer reviews. My work as a content marketing copywriter is all about helping companies show what makes them special and explain how their products work, and exercise “thought leadership” to help guide the direction of their overall industry.

As part of this work, I need to know how to frame questions and offer thought-provoking ideas and make a “soft sell” of helping ideas to spread, but without hammering people over the head with “hard-sell” sales pitches. This is all part of being a good teacher. The best teachers don’t impose ideas upon their students, they help students discover ideas and realize the truth for themselves.

I recently was contacted by a guy who lives in the Bahamas who hired me to do some coaching via Skype to help answer some questions about how to get started working online as a marketing consultant. This was a great experience for me, because I felt like I really helped him clarify some goals and feel more confident in making a specific plan to start his own business – and I think more people will be able to make money like this in the future, just by sharing their knowledge and teaching people “how to do what I do.” The Internet has enabled more of these one-to-one connections. If you find someone’s website or follow someone on Twitter or read someone’s blog post and you feel inspired by what they do, it’s easier than ever to ask them for help. (Seriously, if you’re interested in learning more about being a freelance writer or making money online by utilizing your existing skills, please send me an e-mail: benjamin.gran@gmail.com)  

Resilience

The Project Economy and working online are not for everyone, and they’re not for the faint of heart. Working online as a freelance writer or other self-employed consultant presents some unique stresses. Sometimes projects get cancelled, budgets fall through, people make promises that they cannot ultimately keep. Sometimes clients go silent. Sometimes (rarely, fortunately) people don’t pay their bills. The Project Economy and working online offer more freedom, but they also offer more uncertainty.

Perhaps the most important skill for people working online is to stay resilient. Be agile, be flexible, be able to bounce back quickly from disappointment or frustration. Keep your momentum going. Keep moving forward. Keep creating a pipeline of new business opportunities so you always have options even if a big project gets cancelled or a big client goes away.

And look, this style of work isn’t everyone’s idea of a dream job. If you want/need the predictability of a 9-5 routine, if you like the reassurance of having a physical location to report to for work each day, if you struggle to make good use of your time without a boss to guide you and help create structure for you, then maybe being a freelancer or working online isn’t the ideal fit for you. And that’s fine. But I think more people are going to seek out opportunities like these as the Project Economy expands in the years to come. More employers will realize that they can get good results without the expense and overhead of full-time employees – and more workers will realize that they can take their skills directly to the market and make more money and have more freedom than any traditional “job” could offer them.

I almost never work 8 hours a day. Sometimes I take a few days off, and then work very hard for 3 days in a row. I fit the work into my life, instead of the other way around.

I’m working today, on Labor Day, but I’m happy to do it. When you’re self-employed there are no “paid holidays,” but there are also no “Mondays,” no anxious Sunday nights dreading going back to the office the next morning. I never, ever resent a single minute I spend working, because the work is all for me and for my family, and if I do a lot more work, I make a lot more money.

I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had and the skills I’ve developed during these past 4 years of working as a freelance writer. I hope many other people can do the same.