Japan’s tragedies

I lived in Japan from 2001-2002, working in Saitama prefecture, Hidaka City as an Assistant English Teacher on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program.

Although I was only in the country for one year, my year in Japan was one of the most influential of my life. I cannot imagine a better way to spend the first year out of college, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in living abroad and experiencing a unique adventure.

I’ve been quite preoccupied by the news from Japan since the March 11 earthquake, the tsunami that followed, and now the frightening nuclear crisis. I’m hoping for the best. I’ve been in contact with my friends in Tokyo; fortunately everyone I know in Japan (and their families) are safe. My heart goes out to the victims and their families. I can’t imagine the devastation that has come crashing down on these people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Japanese earthquake and how it has reminded me of certain aspects of Japan that I really admired.

I’m not an expert on Japanese culture, but I have some very good friends there and the place is close to my heart. So here are some of my impressions of what I’ve been reading in the aftermath of the Japan earthquake:

Crises amplifies the strengths and weaknesses of every individual/organization/culture.

I’ve been really impressed by what I’ve seen from the Japanese people in responding to this earthquake – lots of patience, calmly waiting in lines, no panic, no looting, no disorder. While Japan is not a perfect, crime-free place, they do tend to have a very safe and orderly society. Japan tends to have a high level of social cohesion and “team spirit.” People look out for the interests of the group before they look out for their own self-interest. Japan is very different from America in this way, when compared to the American spirit of go-it-alone, rugged individualism. Japanese culture is good at accepting the things that cannot be helped – “shikata ga nai” is the expression in Japanese for “it can’t be helped.” This is SO different from America. Americans want to fix everything. We never want to concede defeat. We tend to believe that we are all protagonists in our own unfolding story (whereas collectivist cultures like Japan put more importance on each individual person playing their appropriate role in their group, family, company, society – there is more of a context for how you relate to your fellow people and your society). In America, we have a very hard time accepting that some things in life are just inexplicably hard, tragic, impossible, unable to be helped. Japan has a better cultural sense for the transience of things and the fragility of life. (Of course, when this cultural trait goes too far, it becomes hopeless fatalism – which is counter-productive. But in many ways, I think Japanese culture is better adapted to dealing with tragedies and natural disasters.)

Unfortunately, the crisis has highlighted some weaknesses of the Japanese system as well – in particular, Japan has a hard time with delivering bad news. Until fairly recently, even cancer patients in Japan would not be told the full truth about their diagnosis, in order to spare their feelings/keep them from being distressed. We’ve seen this cultural tendency in the Japanese government’s public statements about the nuclear crisis. It’s been hard to get transparent, reliable information about the nuclear situation, either from the Japanese government or from the Tokyo Electric Power company that runs the stricken nuclear plant. Much of the public statements from the Japanese government have been ambiguous and hard to decipher. This is unfortunately a weakness of the Japanese system of government – there is often too much deference given to authorities, bureaucracies and entrenched interest, and not enough transparency to the public. (Gosh, does that sound familiar, America? America is also far from perfect in this regard.)

I’m surprised it wasn’t worse

Japan is prone to earthquakes. When I lived there, I would occasionally be awoken in the night by the sound of teacups rattling in the cupboards – the walls of my apartment building would wobble. Most of the time the shaking only lasted a few seconds, but it still was unsettling to a guy from the Midwestern U.S., where earthquakes almost never happen.

I remember reading about the Tokyo earthquake of 1923, where over 100,000 people died. Japan had a terrible earthquake in Kobe in 1995 where over 8,000 people died. Even with all the modern building codes and advanced construction techniques of a wealthy country like Japan, there’s only so much that can be done to protect human lives against the worst earthquakes.

So in a way, despite the terrible loss of life, part of me was surprised that the Japan earthquake and tsunami haven’t been even more deadly.

Of course, Tokyo is the world’s largest city, and it is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. Most of the world’s population lives close to fault lines – we are all “whistling past the volcano,” so to speak. Most likely within our lifetimes, major earthquakes will hit some of the world’s most populous cities. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when.”

Let’s Help Japan

I know, Japan is a wealthy country – but they still could use our help. I donated to the American Red Cross Japan earthquake relief fund (any unused proceeds will be used to help with other disaster relief efforts around the world). Every dollar counts. If you’ve read this far, will you consider making a small donation?

At times like these, we should all feel lucky just to be alive, to have family and friends who love us, to have food in our bellies and money in our pockets. Let’s give a little bit to help people who are facing terrible challenges – in Japan or elsewhere in the world.

Here is the Red Cross donation site: http://american.redcross.org/site/PageServer?pagename=ntld_main&s_src=RSG000000000&s_subsrc=RCO_Donate_OnlineGiving

Please give what you can.

Why Acting Matters

I am part of the cast of “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles,” a play being produced by StageWest Theatre Company in Des Moines, Iowa. Opening night is February 18, 2011.

It’s been a long time since I’ve acted in a play. The last time was when I was a junior at Rice University in spring of 2000, and I was in a Rice Players production of “A Man For All Seasons.”

I’ve been thinking off and on about trying out for another play during the past few years, but I never got around to it. Finally last November I decided to audition for “Beebo Brinker Chronicles,” and I got a part!

I was thinking about some of the things I missed about acting, and why acting is important.

  • Live Connection with the Audience: I love live theatre because it’s a high-wire act – there’s an element of risk and uncertainty, each show is its own singular event that will never be exactly duplicated, each line reading is a chance to make people laugh, make them think, make them feel surprise, sadness, or shock. Theatre is a communal experience. The audience is taken along for a shared voyage of discovery. The audience co-creates the experience along with the performers – it’s a subtle interplay of energies. There’s nothing quite like it.
  • Exploring the Human Experience: Theatre is one of the world’s oldest art forms, dating back to 2,500 B.C.E. As a History major, I love how theatre can help us to revive the past, make it real, honor the lives of the ones who have gone before. Acting helps us to imagine other lives and other ways of being. What lessons would people from those earlier years want to impart to us? What are the best aspects of each era of human existence that we have in common?
  • Collaboration: As a freelancer, I spend a lot of time working alone – so it’s good for me to be part of a team of actors, working on a common creative endeavor. I learn a lot from my fellow actors, watching them, listening to them, interacting onstage and offstage. Every play is a unique coming-together of a diverse group of talent. We spend many hours together, we explore some intense emotions together, sometimes we yell, cry or kiss (depending on the script).
  • Self-discovery: Every character I’ve played over the years has taught me a little something about myself. It’s fun to see how others see me when I’m portraying a character. Every role, every line, has complexity and nuance and offers me a chance to imprint something essential of myself.
  • Acclaim: I love acting because, frankly, it feeds my ego. There is such a rush that comes from performing for an audience. I love the sound of a room full of people laughing, the air of expectation on opening night, the roar of the crowd at the curtain call. Where else in life do you get to feel this way?

Tickets are on sale now for “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles” at the Des Moines Civic Center’s Stoner Theater!

How to be a great freelance client

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a freelance writer is building relationships with clients. Probably 95% of my clients have been good to work with. There have been a few that weren’t the best fit for me, or something wasn’t right with the project. But for the most part, I’ve been fortunate to work for some really great clients.

What makes a great freelance client?

  • Great clients like your work. If you find yourself encountering clients who are constantly dissatisfied or asking for significant revisions, maybe you’re not on the same page with the expectations of the project – or maybe the client isn’t the best fit for the kind of work you do. The best client relationships have a level of mutual understanding and an ability to anticipate needs – you can predict what the client is going to want for a certain project, and the client trusts you enough to let you work independently.
  • Great clients pay their bills on time. Freelancers depend on multiple clients to pay their bills promptly – instead of one steady paycheck, we rely on many smaller paychecks from different sources. The best clients will pay their bills on time and without making you jump through too many hoops – if you’re constantly having to call and serve as your own collection agency, that might be a sign that it’s time to cut ties with a client.
  • Great clients communicate promptly and reliably. One of the hard parts of being an online freelancer is that there’s no direct personal connection to “the office” and co-workers/colleagues. Most communication is by e-mail – so if a client suddenly stops replying to e-mails, the freelancer has no way of knowing if everything is OK or not. “Did they like the work? Am I going to be paid on time? Is something wrong?” Great clients don’t “go silent” like this – they stay in contact, even if it’s a brief note to say “I’m busy with other projects this week, but I’ll get back to you soon.”‘
  • Great clients trust you. Some of the best clients I’ve ever worked with are the ones that invest their trust in me – they want my help to build their businesses and deliver great results, and they’re willing to work closely with me and confide in me to help convey the full scope of what they want to accomplish. It’s better to be a trusted advisor than a “hired hand.” Great clients will share their ideas, hopes and dreams for their businesses – rather than holding you at arms-length.
  • Great clients pay you what you’re worth. It always amuses me when I’m talking to a new prospective client, and before we’ve even discussed the project, they immediately ask me to discount my rates. (I once had a prospective client call me to ask if I would work for $15 an hour – the answer is “No.”) Do these people do this to other professional service providers like mechanics, accountants or orthodontists – “Uh yeah, I need to get my car fixed – can you do it for $5 an hour?” Clients that try to undercut your pricing or that act suspicious/incredulous about how much you charge aren’t worth the trouble – they’re not used to hiring professionals and paying professional rates. There are always going to be bargain-hunters and tire-kickers out there. Let them go, and instead focus your energies on clients who understand and appreciate the value you provide.

More advice for new Elance providers

Now and then people will ask me for advice on how to get started on Elance. I’ve written about this before, but here are a few other ideas that new Elance providers should keep in mind:

  • Read the job description (the whole thing). I’ve hired people on Elance myself, and it’s always immediately apparent which ones have actually read the entire job description (and put some thought into how to respond) and which ones are just sending out mass-produced auto-replies and copy-and-pasted responses.
  • Be sincere: Employers respond well to people who sincerely care about the project. Show that you took the time to read the description and that you’ve put some thought into how you want to approach the project. Write a 100% original response to each and every job that you bid on. Be human – be “real.” Show some enthusiasm and emotional connection to the project – explain why it is interesting to you and why you want to work on it.
  • Be forthright: If there is part of the job description that you don’t totally fulfill, say so – but emphasize instead the skills and experience that you are most confident about.
  • Get your pricing right: Don’t underprice yourself. You don’t want to be the lowest price bid for an Elance job. Make a reasonable estimate of how long it will take you to do the work. Setting rates can be complicated, but you should plan to make – on an hourly basis – at least three times your equivalent hourly earnings at a full-time job. (If you make $30,000 a year at your day job, your hourly rate is $15 – so your freelance rate should be at least $45 an hour.) Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t try to compete on price – instead, compete by showing how you can create value for the client and demonstrating why you are the right fit for the project.
  • Follow up: If you don’t hear back from a client right away, feel free to follow up with an e-mail on the Private Message Board (PMB). But don’t just “ping” them with requests for replies – always try to add some new information with every time you contact the client. For example, say: “I’ve been thinking about your project and I had some ideas that I want to share with you,” or “I don’t think I mentioned this in my project bid, but I also have experience in (OTHER SKILLS)” or “Here are some samples from a similar project that I recently completed.” It pays to be persistent – not annoying, not “spammy,” but just check in with the client and let them know that you’re interested and that you are thinking about how you can help them.
  • Act like you’ve already got the job: Your project bid should give the client a good sense of what you’re like to work with, how your thought process works, and how you plan to achieve the project goals and deliver a good result. Instead of asking questions to the client, make recommendations to the client. (“Here’s how I think we should proceed….I recommend doing the following steps first…”) Convey a sense of momentum. The client should be thinking, “Wow, this person is ready to go and they’ve got a lot of good ideas – they’re ready to take this project to the next level.”
  • The first project is the hardest to win – but every project can lead to others. If you’re a new provider, it can be hard to stand out from the crowd. It might feel overwhelming, like there are dozens of people competing against you and they’re all willing to work for less. Be prepared to persevere through some frustrations and disappointments – you might have jobs that seem really promising that turn out to be awarded to someone else, or clients who seem interested to talk with you but then disappear forever. Just keep at it, stay positive, and keep bidding on jobs. Every single project has the potential to lead to many others – every project gives you a story to tell to the next client.

I Am Ordinary

I recently completed my 7th month of full-time self employment as an online freelance writer.

I love being a full-time freelancer. I love the freedom, the flexibility, the variety, and the rewards. I love building relationships with clients and delivering great work. Part of me is still a little surprised that things are going as well as they have – I was saying to my wife the other day, “I can’t believe we’re getting away with this.”

Two years ago I signed up on Elance – I was looking for some new challenges and to make some extra money on the side (in addition to my full-time job that I had at the time). I almost quit Elance before I really got started. It took me awhile to land my first project, I wasn’t sure if Elance was really “for real,” I wasn’t sure if I would make any money, I was afraid of wasting time and money and effort on something that wouldn’t pan out.

Two years later, Elance is a significant part of my full-time income. I’ve worked for clients on four continents and all over the U.S. I’ve traveled to New York City for client meetings and stayed up late and gotten up early for conference calls with clients and team members as far away as Australia, India, Romania and Pakistan. The newness of this new way of work has not entirely worn off. I’m grateful for all of it, and I feel very privileged to be able to earn a living doing work that I enjoy, being part of the “human cloud” of online freelance talent.

Which brings me to the title of this post.

I used to get a lot of hate mail on my blog – anonymous comments from trolls and haters. (Hard to believe, right? Who would waste their time sending snotty comments to some random freelancer’s blog?)

Most of the hate mail was unintentionally funny – lots of misspellings and poorly reasoned arguments. But one of the messages stuck with me. “You are ordinary,” it said. “Your blog is ordinary, your thoughts are ordinary.”

That one really made me think. You see, I’ve always considered myself to be somewhat of a nerd: somewhat introverted, somewhat socially awkward, somewhat alienated from my fellow human beings.

And now, to hear that I am, in fact, “ordinary” – why, that’s awesome!

I’m one of the cool kids now!

But seriously – in many ways, I am ordinary. Everything I’m doing in my online freelancing business reflects the skills and experience I developed in my regular old full-time cubicle-dwelling career. I’m doing the same type of work that could be done from a cubicle, and I’m doing it for clients all over the world. You could too. I think, in the not-too-distant future, this kind of online work will become even more common and, well, “ordinary.”

Freelancer Productivity Tools

It’s easier than ever before to be productive and in control of your schedule as a freelancer. Here are several (free) online tools that I use to help me with my business:

  • Toggl: Toggl is a free, fantastic time tracking tool. Anyone who’s in the billable hour business (or who wants an easy way to keep track of how they’re spending their work time) should use this. It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s seamless. And if you pay $5 a month, you can access advanced features like hourly billable rates, total billable amounts, and others.
  • Remember the Milk: The ultimate “to do” list. Track everything that you need to accomplish, and when, in an easy-to-update format.
  • Google Voice: I finally got a Google Voice number to use for my business. I should have done this ages ago. Now people can call me on my computer instead of my less-reliable cell phone, and I can also place calls from my computer, just like a land line. The call quality has been superb. There are many other nifty features – it converts voice mail to text, it can be used to ring multiple phones, and much more.
  • Skype: Talk for free with anyone, anywhere in the world. One drawback is that the quality of the calls is not always ideal – occasional dropped calls, sometimes the voice quality is patchy. But you get what you pay for, right?
  • Gmail video chat: As much as I appreciate Skype, the quality and reliability of Gmail video chat is even better. Fewer dropped calls, better picture – if you need to talk to anyone you know who has Gmail, use Gmail video chat instead of Skype. (The only drawback is that it’s limited only to other Gmail users.)

The lows of freelancing

As much as I love freelancing, there are days when it’s really hard.

  • Silent clients. One of the hardest things about working online with clients all over the world is that sometimes you don’t hear back from your clients as promptly as you would like – or even for weeks at a time. I struggle with this when it happens; I often assume the worst. “Did I say something wrong in that last e-mail? Did their business suddenly collapse, and now they can’t afford to pay me? Did they not like the work and they’re not sure of how to say it?”
  • Disappearing projects. It happens. Sometimes work goes away – the project the client thought was going to happen doesn’t pan out; priorities change; budgets shrink, your project falls off the agenda. Clients, like everyone, are busy. They have dozens of things to worry about, and your next freelance project isn’t always their number one concern.
  • The doldrums. The worst is when everything slows down at once – you’ve finished a big project, and nothing is lined up to immediately replace it. None of your regular clients are responding to your queries. None of the jobs on Elance look promising. You repeatedly check your e-mail and there’s nothing there but the sound of crickets chirping. A tiny tumbleweed blows across your keyboard.

Fortunately, the solution to all of the “lows” of freelancing is the same – go out and find more business!

Clients not getting back to you? Find more business.

Projects drying up? Find some new projects.

Running out of work? Drum up some more.

Freelancing isn’t always easy, but it’s simple: find a project, do great work, repeat as necessary.  Even the worst days as a freelancer are better than the worst days I experienced while working in a cubicle.

And even the lows of freelancing don’t last forever. Opportunities materialize. Clients suddenly write back after long absences. New projects appear on the horizon.

The highs of freelancing

Freelancing has a lot of ups and downs. But for the most part, the highs are higher than a typical day job, and the lows aren’t quite as low.

What do I love most about freelancing?

  • The freedom. It’s a totally different way of life. It’s a totally different approach to each day. Instead of getting up too early to go somewhere you don’t want to go and do things you don’t want to do, you can structure each day as you see fit. You can take a break when you want. You can go to a long lunch with a friend or your child’s doctor appointment without asking permission. You can pursue new opportunities or ideas to build your business and chart your own course. I’m still not completely used to this – it’s amazing.
  • Winning new business. Such a rush! Every time I win a new freelance project I feel like an NBA draft pick. I love the thrill of the chase, building new relationships, proving myself to new clients, learning about new businesses and new subjects.
  • Repeat business. Getting repeat business from loyal clients is like having the wind at your back. I already know the client, we already trust each other, I already know the requirements and particular details that are important to them.
  • Being “almost” too busy. I love having a full slate of work. I love looking at the clock and realizing that the day has flown by and I don’t know quite how I’m going to manage to get everything done.
  • Helping people. I enjoy just the basic act of helping someone get something done. People hire freelancers and consultants when they have a project that they can’t get done by themselves, or when they need some fresh thinking or outside perspective, or when they need someone else’s skills that will free them up to work on what they do best. I enjoy doing my part to make a difference on each project.
  • Making money. Being self-employed is so rewarding because you really see the link between effort and results – if you work extra hours on the weekend, you get more money. If you’re smart about managing your time and you’re productive all week, you can take an extra half-day off on Friday. It’s fun when projects go smoothly and clients are happy and bills are getting paid on time, and all of a sudden you see the money start piling up. All while having fun and having full control over how you spend your day.