№ 4: On Current Challenges and Roadblocks

Estimated reading time: 18 minutes
Just a cloud
Just a cloud. Frankly I’m in too much of a rush and would rather get this post up than spend a while looking for a more relevant image. Better luck next time.

This is part of the post I’ve been pecking away at during break time at work, occasionally on weekends, and during other down time. It is only part because I realized recently that it was better split up into at least two posts. It was to be an examination of the various difficulties currently facing me in my overall quest to start a business and get out of teaching English. The problem with that is that there are a couple major categories of difficulties, which together make for a single post of unwieldy length. First, there are the typical challenges and roadblocks: the practical difficulties inherent to any undertaking. The three biggest groups there are typically problems of time, money, and because I’m an immigrant here: permission. The other major category of difficulty are the gumption traps, which is a less familiar concept. These are the difficulties of those things that frustrate us, that sap our motivation and energy when we so much as think of them. While regular challenges make us tired in body, gumption traps make us tired in spirit. The former category is more straightforward and where I’ll begin today.

NB: The point of this post is NOT to complain. The point is to illustrate some of the things that slow me down and sometimes have me feeling like I’m banging my head against the wall. The bottom line is that what I have in front of me is a big pile of opportunity: it just happens to come with some problematic things on the side.

Practical difficulties are everywhere you look in life. They can be really annoying, and so numerous that they make your head spin, but they also have the virtue of being distinctly solvable, which means they can also be a source of satisfaction as one makes progress with them, as one is able to cross them off the list. In my mind, I tend to categorize the more sizable practical difficulties into challenges and roadblocks. Challenges comprise the majority of difficulties in life. They are the practical annoyances, problems of (un)available resources, procedural complications, and so-on. Roadblocks are challenges of a greater difficulty, magnitude, or complexity, requiring more active problem-solving and perhaps consideration of alternatives routes to the goal. A challenge can be solved. A roadblock must sometimes be navigated around.

There will be a lot more philosophy and theory to play with in the next post, where I’ll dig into gumption traps. For today, though, let’s go ahead and get specific. I’m going to break things down and put them under a handful of major headings with bulleted lists following the headings. This is against my natural compulsion to make any given thing into an essay, but oh well. It’s practical.

Challenges of Time

  • Overall availability of time. [NB: this has recently changed for the better] I spent all of 2017 working between three and five jobs, with only one day a week off (sometimes less). This meant I effectively had zero actual free time and dangerously little sleep (in December, I developed vertigo for a number of weeks that my doctor could not attribute to anything other than chronic lack of sleep)(1)The summer before, my insomnia/overwork had me blacking out and being subject to waking hallucinations. This has very recently changed with my schedule change in January, though I still have three jobs to tend to in addition to everything I am trying to do in terms of my own business. Last year, the challenge was that I just didn’t have any available free time. This year, I have wrestled things around so that I actually have large blocks of usable time in my day-to-day, which means a new challenge has emerged:
  • Making good use of available time. While I was previously working for other people six days a week, I am now working a total of about three and a half days a week. Mondays are free, Tuesdays and Fridays are partial days working 9:00-13:00 in Tokyo at Company A, Wednesdays and Thursdays are still full days at Company X, where I am tied up from 8:00-21:15, and weekends are free aside from Sunday evenings when I teach conversation classes that make no sense economically, especially given how long it takes me to get there from my new apartment, but with which I will persist for now because I really like the people I work with there. This means that I have two full days a week free (Monday and Saturday) and three half days (Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday). This is a weird schedule and not always the easiest to use productively, but I am glad to have at least more temporal real estate with which to work.
  • Management of available time. Scheduling photo shoots and other engagements, such as additional language consulting gigs, is not the easiest thing in these circumstances. Additionally, the freedom to use this newly-free time is challenging. What many people who’ve never freelanced or otherwise worked for themselves don’t realize is that deciding how to use any given block of available time is a) very important and b) potentially very tricky, especially at the beginning. The last time I was freelancing, back in Chicago 20012-2014, I had it worked out pretty well. It’s going to take time to get that particular time-management muscle back in shape, though.
  • Working to counter my natural inclinations as a lifelong procrastinator. Basically just as you would expect. Ask my parents, close friends, etc: anyone who knows me well will tell you that I am much better at putting off than just about anything else. They might also tell you that my ability to focus intensely on a particular task is extremely strong, though matched in its tendency to be aimed at the wrong thing at any given moment in time. I am aware of this, at least, and can therefore make some efforts to do something about it.

Challenges of Money

  • Immediate concern: staying afloat in the first few months. I have just cut my main salary in half. Voluntarily. In the interest of having more available time. This is a calculated risk. I have also just lost an entire week of wages and productive time to the flu. I’ve got a little bit of savings to help me through, but not remotely enough to be a comfortable buffer. As long as I can net around $2k/month for the next couple of months, I’ll be OK, but sometimes that money flows in, sometimes it hovers just out of reach like the difficult bastard it is.
  • Gotta have money to make money. Everything costs money, and starting a photography business can cost a lot of money. I’m trying to figure out ways to minimize the need for certain equipment for now, but in the long run if I want to be shooting still life (for example) the way I want to, that’s going to require a major investment in equipment and infrastructure, at least relative to current means. It’s all about leverage. Right now, my financial lever is very short, but my existing equipment and many years experience will help make up for that. No matter how you look at it, though, expanding from here requires investment, and at the moment I just don’t have much on hand available to invest. So I have to be creative and find ways to grow my resources.
  • The cost of renting a workspace. Renting a studio space can be expensive no matter where you are in the world, but in Japan it’s even more complicated and even more expensive than most places. Right now, my hope is to have a workspace/studio secured by mid-year. If I can do what I’m thinking of doing, I’ll actually be renting a small apartment in an old building next to the building where I live. It would be about 18.5m2 (200 ft2) and Japanese style, complete with half of the apartment having tatami, the straw mat floor covering(2)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tatami you’re probably automatically picturing in your head. It’s kind of a dumpy old building and half of its four apartments are currently vacant, appearing to have been sitting vacant for years. This is advantageous for me, as I hope to be able to rent one of the empty apartments on the cheap, hopefully bypassing some of the fees usually associated with rentals here. To rent an apartment here, you often have to pay rent, deposit, agency fee, and key money  (a gift to the landlord), with the total due up front amounting to as much as six months rent. Even if I get it for $400/mo equivalent, that up front cost is a big barrier. Hence my desire to rent a little apartment in an old building. Besides, if I get that particular space, I can take my cat to work with me.(3)Yes, I’m a crazy cat person. Currently don’t have a cat, but that’s part of the 2018 master plan.
  • Mid-term concern: making enough for next steps. I’m hoping to have a studio/workspace by mid-year, but when you look at things like lighting equipment, cameras and lenses, it gets scary quickly. My hopeful gear acquisition for the next couple of years amounts to over three million yen by my estimate, which for the record is what I’ve been making annually as an English teacher since coming to Japan. That money has to come from somewhere. And it will. But the sooner I can get at least some of the funding I need and invest in a few key pieces of equipment, the more readily I can leverage new capabilities to make the money that will keep me going and expanding.
  • Longer-term financial concern: life’s catching up fast. Right now, I am unmarried and have no children. However, I’m hoping to get married this year and within a few years will have a kid or two. Upcoming financial commitments are not limited to business, but also include things like building a house(4)The housing market in Japan is a strange thing. In general, houses are seen as disposable items with a thirty-year useful lifespan. People tend not to buy houses and live in them so much as buy houses, demolish them, then build something new where the old, perfectly good house used to be.  and being able to support my wife and child(ren) when she takes maternity leave. And then there’s saving for my as-yet-nonexistent kids’ education, travel, retirement, etc. Oh, and weddings are fucking EXPENSIVE. Essentially, I look at my current level of income, especially this month as I’ve just taken the dual hits of going part time and losing income because of illness, and compare it to what I’m aiming to accomplish, and it’s enough to make me feel like I’m about to soil my trousers.
  • Tax troubles. The American tax code is absurd and complicated, but it’s one that I grew up with and know enough about to navigate effectively as a freelancer. The Japanese tax system, however, is largely beyond my comprehension. This means that I need to hire a tax professional and/or bookkeeper to make sure I pay the taxes I need to pay, to the right bit of the government, in the proper amount, and at the correct time. This includes income tax and things like consumption tax, which is essentially a national sales tax, currently 8% but going up to 10% some time in the next year or so. I think. The information available on this topic in English is sparse, so I need a local professional’s help. This adds to my overhead.
  • The added overhead of having made one’s escape. Right now, Company X handles paying into the pension system, deducting for taxes, deducting for health insurance, etc. As I extract myself from the grip of Company X’s exploitive employment, I will have to start taking care of all of these things myself. This isn’t bad, but it’s a pain in the ass and I can’t do it myself, so it requires employing a financial professional (maybe the same person as I’ll hire for tax stuff), which adds to my overhead. Also, as an individual, I have fewer options in terms of health insurance, so I’ll end up paying more overall.

Challenges of Legal and Bureaucratic Natures

  • I’m an immigrant with specific limits on what I’m allowed to do. I currently maintain my visa through my job at Company X. My work category is the oddly-diverse “Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services”(5)see: https://eng.visa-immi.com/type_visa/humanities/ for details on this. Effectively, this means I’m allowed to be a language instructor, so obviously this covers me at Company X, as well as my contract at Company A and any private lessons/consulting I happen to do within that category of work. In order to stay square with the law, however, I hired an immigration attorney(6)Highly recommended: https://www.juridique.jp/ to get permission from the government to also engage in a second type of work (photography). I could do random jobs here and there without the special permission, but not really set up a whole business with the intention of it being something that I would eventually have as my primary income.
  • Multiple visa options, none simple. In 2018, I will change my visa. There are two options I’m looking at. One is the artist visa, which I’ll talk about in more detail in a future post. It’s a great visa, but takes a lot to qualify for and would cost me a couple grand once you factor in having to get the visa and then modify it so that I can continue my English consulting work at Company A (which is a great gig that I enjoy, so I would prefer to keep doing it). The other option is the spouse visa, for which I will qualify once I’m legally married to my fiancée (a Japanese citizen). This visa is cheaper/easier to get (I can do the paperwork myself) and has no work restrictions. If you can get it, it’s basically the best visa to have. And so it seems like the most obvious choice, right? Yeah, except that I’m currently dealing with family-related complications that I’m not sure when will actually be resolved. We want to get married as soon as we can. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with this. And so, for now things will be delayed and I will be sticking with my current, very limiting work permission. I hope to have this situation changed by mid-year. The spouse visa is best, but if I have to get the artist visa I will. I just hope it doesn’t happen that I invest a ton of time and money in getting it, only to have it for just a few months before I qualify for the spouse visa anyway.
  • I need to stay in compliance with regulations imposed by the United States government on citizens living abroad. Non-Americans often find this shocking, but the US government basically requires its citizens to give full information of and access to their accounts and financial matters when living abroad. It is imperative that I disclose what I am legally required to disclose to the government. What’s more, once I hit a certain level of income in Japan, I will be required to begin paying taxes in the USA on my foreign-earned income, even though I have not lived in the USA for years, have no residence or income in the USA, etc.  It is complete and utter bullshit, but that’s a topic for another day. It’s worth mentioning here, though, because it’s another potential minefield and an area in which I need to watch my ass, lest I make a stupid mistake and forget to file the right paperwork.
  • Dealing with Japanese bureaucracies in general. One thing I love about living in Japan, especially when compared to when I was living in China, is that everything works. All the public infrastructure, transportation, businesses, etc. Everything works, and in a place like the Tokyo area, I essentially have access to anything and everything I could possibly need in my day-to-day life. However, when it comes to registering for anything, doing any of the typical paperwork necessary for everyday life, and anything one needs to do at a government office, one quickly runs into extremely long and complex forms, long explanations, and friendly staff who genuinely try to be helpful, but have only very limited powers in helping the confused foreigner understand why he needs to fill out those three extra pages of forms. At least in China you could bribe someone and get around such difficulties. Here, you just have to go the long way through all the million layers of regulations and paperwork.

Linguistic Challenges

  • Language: My Japanese language ability is currently crap, nowhere near where I’d like it to be. Clearly, being able to speak the language well is fairly essential, not only for my work but in personal life, as my fiancée is Japanese and it would be nice to talk with her family. Heck, it would be nice to have the option to talk with some of the millions of people in this country. I’m sure some of them are pretty cool. Why the 日本語 difficulties?
    • Time to study is primarily limited to my  commute time on packed trains while very tired. A smartphone five inches from your nose is not an ideal study environment, but it’s something. Apps like Duolingo, Memrise, and Skritter are really helpful to me, but they can’t do everything.
    • My current budget to take classes is extremely small, and available time very limited, so I’ve averaged one private lesson a month for the last year. I can practice Japanese at home with my girlfriend, but the fact is that there’s a big difference between that and spending an hour with a skilled instructor. This pattern needs to change, and in fact this will be one of the things I funnel money into as soon as the budget becomes available, either through freelance work or Patreon support.
    • My sleep situation makes retention lower than it should be. While this is getting better now that I’m changing my schedule and working less at Company X, it still happens most days that I get home late, get to bed after midnight, and get up again before six. I average 4-5 hours of sleep during the week, and this has all kinds of negative side effects. Where study is concerned, the chronic lack of sleep means reduced focus and reduced retention of whatever it is that I am able to study. (7)http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory
    • Low confidence in actual use, plus social anxiety, resulting in the situation of being too stressed out to talk much to real people, even though I really want to do so. I want to do it well, which requires practice, but also creates an internal pressure not to make mistakes, which is at odds with the kind of practice necessary to not make those mistakes. I’m a language teacher myself, and I always tell students that they need to go out and use the language, mistakes be damned. The sad truth is that I can’t follow my own advice. Things are in process, though, to force me to practice the language every single day, with real people, in real world situations, so that I can get past my reluctance and get in the habit of regular use.

So there are other challenges about, but you get the idea. My to-do lists are miles long and make me feel a bit sick when I spend too much time looking at them. That general sense of overwhelm is not a helpful thing. However, if I look at it all in the right frame of mind, I find that I can chunk every last one of these things down into manageable pieces that are very, very doable. It’s just that feeling of doing it alone that begins to get to me eventually if I let it. Gotta keep ahead of that.

I’d like to end with an interesting cultural note. In Japanese, the word challenge is a loan word, used as a verb, but not in the way that we might use it as a verb in English. It is チャレンジする, charenji-suru, meaning to challenge oneself to do something, or simply to try hard to do or accomplish something. When talking with students about goals for 2018, several said something like, This year, I will challenge my new business, or, I will challenge to lose my weight. It isn’t correct English, but I like it anyway. And so, just like my students, I will continue to challenge my new business in 2018, doing everything I can to break through each of these practical limitations and get myself on to better things.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The summer before, my insomnia/overwork had me blacking out and being subject to waking hallucinations
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tatami
3. Yes, I’m a crazy cat person. Currently don’t have a cat, but that’s part of the 2018 master plan.
4. The housing market in Japan is a strange thing. In general, houses are seen as disposable items with a thirty-year useful lifespan. People tend not to buy houses and live in them so much as buy houses, demolish them, then build something new where the old, perfectly good house used to be.
5. see: https://eng.visa-immi.com/type_visa/humanities/ for details on this
6. Highly recommended: https://www.juridique.jp/
7. http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory

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