№ 2: What the hell am I trying to do, anyway?

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Sakura in Saitama
Sakura at a park in Saitama, as seen my very first night living in Japan.
While it’s easy enough for one to set out with an exclamation of I’m going to start a business! and the vision of assumed future success twinkling in the eyes of the would-be entrepreneur, a lack of specificity is what kills a lot of attempts right out of the gate. This is what has killed many of my projects and attempted businesses in the past. Gumption and enthusiasm don’t count for shit when one’s aim isn’t clear enough to provide enough direction to effectively define mission, objectives, and actions.  The momentum-killing properties of a lack of clarity are multiplied when one’s day-to-day is dominated by overwork and a chronic lack of sleep. Irregular usable free time doesn’t help, either. The list of complicating factors currently driving me crazy is a mile long, but today I’m here not to talk about what’s in my way, but rather that thing at which I am aiming. So what is my goal, anyway?

My aim can most simply be stated as this: to successfully make a living as a creative professional based in Tokyo.(1)I have recently moved to a new apartment just outside of Tokyo to the north, but it’s all still part of the same continuous urban development. I will by default call my general area of operation Tokyo for the sake of simplicity. This is simple enough but needs to be made much more specific to be of use.

First, let’s look at that minefield of a word, success. Few words come prepackaged with as much cultural, emotional, and subjective baggage as this word does. The dictionary definition of success isn’t any help, as everything about it still requires further clarification.

For my purposes, success indicates primarily having established a handful of conditions largely composed of but not exclusively limited to:

  • Having enough income to support myself, my (soon-to-be) wife if she’s ever between jobs, and our theoretical children
  • Additionally, having enough income to save for retirement, travel, investing, etc
  • Working vastly more reasonable hours doing work that I enjoy, keeping in mind that:
  • Being present for those I care about. When I have children, I will be around to be an active father. None of this working-18-hour-days-until-I-drop-dead bullshit that is so prevalent here. Business success doesn’t mean shit if I never get to see my kids and/or if my relationship with my wife withers into oblivion. Nope, gonna see my wife and my kids plenty and be as good to them as I can.
  • Having control over my time. By and large, I do not currently have any meaningful amount of control over my time. I wake and sleep and move around Tokyo as dictated by the hours set by Company X. This will not stand.
  • Being able to travel around extensively (particularly within Japan) doing work I find meaningful that also enriches the lives of others.
  • Not having to do the usual daily commute on trains that make sardine cans look underfilled.

There’s more to it than that, but that should give you the gist. My idea of success is going to be different from most people’s idea of success, and that’s fine. Note, for example, that I have no specific interest in accumulating any huge amount of wealth. I would rather have enough and some measure of freedom than have excess and be slave to it. I will work hard and make what I can, but beyond a point any additional income is all just bonus.

So that’s what I mean by success. But what about the means of achieving that success? Those means do not include Company X, as that means of income generation is enough for individual subsistence and that’s about it. As a foreigner, my options are limited to begin with and further complicated by the immigration and work permission issues(5)Relevant challenges, roadblocks, and gumption traps to be introduced in post № 3 that do a good job of discouraging most expats from even considering going into business for themselves. My professional background is diverse and rich in transferable skills, but it still does not qualify me to work in most of the more lucrative jobs (such as in the financial industry) that are available in Tokyo. Not that I would necessarily want to be in such positions, as they would fail all but the monetary aspects of success as defined above, but still. Those big salaries do look nice in my moments of exhaustion and fantasy.

More opportunities in general will be available to me as my 日本語(6)nihongo, Japanese language improves, but it’s not there yet. A downside of my current situation is lack of good study time and spending almost all day every day in an English bubble. More Japanese language will make things easier, and I’m working on it. When I’m legally married and can change my visa status to the spouse visa, that will also remove some major practical obstacles, but that’s still at least a few months off for reasons I won’t get into here and, as helpful as it will be, I’m not going to wait until then to start the process of leaving Company X for better things.

So we’ve looked at the success component a bit, and the in Tokyo component is self-explanatory, so that leaves us with what working as a creative professional really means in my case.

My strongest skills are related to my creative abilities as a photographer and writer, and that is the nature of my overall intended direction. Making a successful living as a creative professional anywhere in the world isn’t exactly the easiest career path, and making it work as an entrepreneur in a new country is also pretty distant from an easy way to make a buck. Combine the two and it begins to look (to reasonable people) like a fairly unreasonable thing to attempt. This will not be easy, but then very little in life that is truly worthwhile comes easily, anyway.

I am not without advantages, either. There are ways to leverage my foreignness and outsider status/perspective to act in my favor, and the way digital media is evolving, a lot of my customers will be outside of Japan anyway. I will cover some of these things in later posts.

Basically, I know this is a difficult thing to pull off, but frankly I don’t care because I won’t be satisfied unless I’m in charge of my own path and actively doing my own thing. Besides, this was always my intention, going all the way back to my dorm room at Ohio University where the dream first took shape. It took a decade longer than intended to actually move to Japan, but here I am and my initial life-setup phase of the first couple of years has wound to a close. There are no excuses now but to act. It’s go time.

I’m still working on the specifics of my intended business activities, but they are essentially a balance of photography, writing, and publishing. It will take experimentation and many iterations of many things, but I am confident that I can and will find my niche here. It will not be an all-at-once transition away from teaching English, and my initial deadline(7)The goal is to be out of full-time English teaching by March 31, 2018 represents a major step forward but not a total exit from my current line of work. Of course, if I can make that full exit by then, I’ll happily do so, but time will tell what actually pans out, how, and when.

The kind of photography I pursue as a source of income depends on a number of things including my creative strengths, extant opportunities in the market, and how soon I can get a studio space set up. That last part depends on things like nailing down my business plan, getting my company filed(8)I’ll be filing a godou kaisha, the Japanese equivalent of an LLC, getting a business loan or securing financing some other way, finding a space, buying equipment, and a million other details. I would love to be able to do still life and product work again, but until I have a studio space, that basically isn’t going to happen. On the other hand, environmental portraiture work can begin immediately, having everything I need to make that happen. Print sales are somewhere in between, as I can work with labs but would rather do my own printing and framing.

Much of the writing work I will be doing will be focused on magazine stories paired with my photography, largely focused on cultural topics related to Japan, and much of it published on my other blog project, which I will come back and link to once it’s in a form I can live with(9)It was going in the wrong direction and so I decided to start over again from scratch and is published again.

The publishing work I will be doing will be generally divided between culturally-related materials (as above) and instructional materials put out as digital and physical publications, as well as online courses aimed at establishing streams of passive income.

All of this will fall under the umbrella of my soon-to-be registered(10)I will file the paperwork for my company in the first quarter of 2018 company. I have a few hundred pages of more specific notes and research, but that’s about as much as I can work into this post today, as I need to return to teaching shortly and my eyes are about to fall out of my face from forgetting to blink for the last thousand words.

Again, getting specific is important, and you may be thinking that I still haven’t gotten all that specific yet, but that will come in stages, especially in terms of what I state publicly while still with my current primary employer, Company X.

Come back later for post number three, all about the things standing in my way.

Notes   [ + ]

1. I have recently moved to a new apartment just outside of Tokyo to the north, but it’s all still part of the same continuous urban development. I will by default call my general area of operation Tokyo for the sake of simplicity.
2. https://hbr.org/2014/10/what-successful-work-and-life-integration-looks-like
3. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/emily-hill/worklife-balance-is-a-big_b_13272112.html
4. https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrismyers/2017/06/20/deconstructing-the-myth-of-worklife-balance-for-entrepreneurs/
5. Relevant challenges, roadblocks, and gumption traps to be introduced in post № 3
6. nihongo, Japanese language
7. The goal is to be out of full-time English teaching by March 31, 2018
8. I’ll be filing a godou kaisha, the Japanese equivalent of an LLC
9. It was going in the wrong direction and so I decided to start over again from scratch
10. I will file the paperwork for my company in the first quarter of 2018

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