Who Are You?

I have avoided writing anything like this in the past because nothing feels figured out. So why write a post that’s going to be dated the day after and cringe-worthy in a months time?

Because Seth Godin says so… and my message (while not timeless) has some truth to it

know thyself

- Greek aphorism

I left a wildly privileged position in San Francisco after a surprise breakup to throw myself at a lifestyle that deeply resonates with my values, financed by a moderate annual bonus and 401k (US Retirement Fund).

For the past two years, I have been trying to figure out how to sustain myself by monetizing the skills developed over years as a data professional. And I say “data professional” since I have worn many hats in this domain.

As anyone reading my posts knows, learning is something I nerd out on hard! I am now focusing that learning lens on freelancing itself through a course taught by the admirable Seth Godin.

Let’s Go Through Those Questions

Shortly into the course, Seth asks the students a series of challenging questions, but he doesn’t stop there. No, students are asked to share the discoveries made… hence this blog post 😓

My hope is that others (and I know you’re out there) interested in going freelance, possibly as a nomad, can ask yourself these questions and design lives that deeply resonate with you so you can bring more of your potential into the world.

Part 1

What do you want to do? (Not your job, but your work, now, tomorrow, and in the future)*

*IF YOU’RE HAVING TROUBLE ANSWERING THIS, YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TROUBLE MOVING UP BECAUSE YOU’VE ABDICATED YOUR DREAM TO WHOEVER WALKS IN THE DOOR NEXT.

Not only will you have trouble moving up as a freelancer, but you’ll have trouble selling yourself.

After designing dashboards for handfuls of clients around the US I found myself floundering in Australia (my first launching point) when asked what I do. I expected everyone to just get it. I am a data visualization consultant 👋

First off. These words are interpreted something like

data = ew + confusing

visualization = vizu… wha + huh * say that again

consultant = phony + expensive + suited and booted + onsite

So to say my attempts to “pitch” prospects in Australia went horribly is a huge understatement.

Do I have PTSD from this? Maybe. However, I have also learned much more about myself and the services I offer over the years. I have also gained enough validation to know for certain this work is valuable to clients.

Just yesterday a client told me this was like porn after seeing their QoQ Facebook ad ROI for the first time. That is why we do what we do! No, not for Facebook, but because we can get people amped about the insights they can leverage to better their businesses.

To answer Seth’s question: I aim to empower people to make better decisions by delightfully displaying data that matters.

Who do you want to change, and how do you want to change them?

I think it is fair to say we would like to see our work make an impact.

As a data visualization pro, you likely get to see this happen over and over, which is wonderfully fulfilling. It’s exactly this result I strive for over and over again.

In fact, I find little point in creating visualizations that aren’t going to enrich the conversations people are having around their data. So that’s exactly what I have set out to do. I just happen to do it from a variety of countries around the world with stable WiFi.

Working with people who don’t get it (and don’t want to get it) is no longer an argument I am fighting. I instead seek those who know there is potential in their data.

It’s these people I have the pleasure of help share the story their data has to tell.

A secondary benefit I have found from this is that working with people who see the potential in their data, appreciate your work and are the perfect champions to sell the ideas you have illustrated. Their effectiveness results in the impact you love seeing in the world. This can also result in repeat business.

Part 2

How much risk? (1 [a little] to 10 [bet everything]), how much are you willing to put at stake to make the change you seek?

To say I’m willing to risk everything seems a little irresponsible, so I won’t say 10. I wouldn’t pursue this life at the expense of my health. Ha, that said I did do without health insurance for the first year and a half until a more affordable option can to market (SafetyWing).

Most of my money goes toward good food, fast WiFi, gyms, and quiet places to sleep. It’s these things (and WiFi) that allow me to uphold the promises I make to clients.

Why don’t we put my risk level as 7.

That said I have made quite a few accommodations. Each change I’ve made represents an important step toward a life that makes me feel I’m living true to myself.

Adjustments:

  • Left San Francisco

  • Remain outside the US for 330 days a year to qualify for FEIE

    • In short, I save thousands of dollars a year on my tax return by staying outside of the states and international waters

  • Liquidated my 401k and other investments to provide a runway

  • Stopped drinking

  • Started an LLC

  • Gave away everything I owned that didn’t fit into my two backpacks

  • Dedicated time to MakeoverMonday every week to build a portfolio

  • Spoke at TUGs throughout APAC

  • Started and regularly hosted a Data Visualization MeetUp in Melbourne

  • Managed a co-living villa in Bali to make ends meet

  • Work from 6 PM to 2 AM to ensure I overlap with my main clients’ timezone

The first year or so I tried just about everything. It was very much an exploratory phase of remote work and discovering the value data visualization brings to clients.

So, now I’m focused on doing more of those things I know are necessary and less of those that, deep down, don’t offer my clients more value than the sacrifice is worth.

I can’t tell you the number of “opportunities” I have had to turn down because I work remotely. Some include Nike, Facebook, Levi Strauss, consultancies, agencies, and many more.

And please don’t take the last paragraph as a jab at those orgs. I only mention them because of how amazing the opportunities were. I simply believe in this lifestyle too much to let it go.

And I’m not saying there isn’t value in on-site work. There actually is a lot of value.

It’s the 100% on-site work, no more than 2 weeks of vacay where I’m lost. Some prospects have even asked me to suit up just to help their team out with their spreadsheets. Sorry, I don’t understand how a tailored monkey suit is helping anyone.

Plus, those expensive costumes are too big for a backpack.

How much work are you willing to do to get there?

BE SPECIFIC ABOUT THE TRADEOFFS.

I had no idea how much work it would take to figure out how to make remote freelancing sustainable.

Hell, I didn’t even know what the work would be when I first started. I thought I could throw up an online class and call it a day. Yeah right 🤣

Often people say hindsight is 20x20. Unfortunately the rearview isn’t any more clear today. That said, every turn taught me a valuable lesson. While I still don’t know exactly what “getting there” looks like, I think I know what it feels like and I know what it feels like when you step onto the wrong path.

This is an intuition you have to develop for yourself.

I know I am willing to work instead of play. I’m willing to be more verbose in my communications with clients who aren’t free for a call. Remote work requires A+ level communication skills. I am also willing to offer lower rates with the right clients if that’s what it takes to build trust initially.

I’m not going to work to the point of burnout. I’m not going to dress to impress. I will not agree with people simply due to their seniority or due to my desperation. I won’t present a facade.

Part 3

Does this project matter enough for the risk and the effort you’re putting into it?

I deeply believe data visualization is a service I can provide to many (maybe not every) organization at a rate that feels like a win-win for both of us.

Experiencing new cultures helps me be a more empathetic, globally minded, and therefore valuable contributor to the conversations my clients are hoping to have with their data.

You can’t develop this perspective from a well-curated Feedly.

In a way, this is my own lifestyle design project. One I have been exploring a month at a time. Each time it gets seriously difficult (near tears… what’s the point of it all questions) I re-evaluate the design decisions that have put me in my position. Pausing to facing those challenges honestly and taking new steps in a slightly different direction feels very honest.

Thankfully, I have always been a horrible liar, so leading a life that doesn’t leave room for BS, in a way, feels safer than other approaches.

We all know people going with the flow because it’s easier, even if they aren’t being true to themselves.

Is it possible — has anyone with your resources ever pulled off anything like this?

I’m happy to say… it is.

You don’t have to make every sacrifice I have. You don’t have to jump as abruptly. You don’t have to share my beliefs. But you can design a life that’s true to you.

There’s always room to re-evaluate and make conscious adjustments.

What’s Next

You can ask the same questions Seth posed his student above to know where you stand.

I am working on strengthening relationships with the clients I love working with. I’m exploring what it’s like to collaborate with other data visualization professionals I respect around the world. These new efforts will (hopefully) provide more stability and scalability to continue creating win-wins for those I work for and with.

This April I’ll also be going on a 4-month stint with Remote Year strengthen my network with other nomads and remote professionals. It will also be nice to work alongside others, rather than alone like I do all day erray day.

If you would like to talk about working together as a client or collaborator or have a friend who would be a good fit, introduce yourself or your friend via robert@vizsimply.com

If you have more questions about this lifestyle, ping me on LinkedIn or Twitter.