The road to becoming a freelancer was a frustrating and unexpected experience. Right now I’m writing about my experience from my condominium in Central Bangkok, I use this place as my ‘travel hub’, because it’s close to a large airport, and on this side of the world, I can afford to rent a place with 2 bedrooms, a jacuzzi, swimming pool, steam room and my own gym.
I compare my outlook and quality of life now to what is was 4 years ago and there is a world of change. Now I have the money and freedom to do almost anything I want to. I can wake up on any day of the week, go to the airport and fly to any destination in the world, a few months back I woke up and decided I needed to try the Philippines – awesome country. I can go for a massage or lunch with friends guilt free at any time of the day. These days I don’t need to buy anything on credit, I pay in cash.
People often comment on how lucky I am to have a completely free lifestyle, swanning around flying to exciting countries, but the truth is that years and years of hard work, shitty experiences and thinking went in to planning and building this lifestyle. Anyone can do it, but you need motivation and patience.
This article is a short story about where I found that motivation and why I decided to travel to the world and use freelancing to find freedom.
In the year 2011, I took a full-time design job for a large business in the UK. This was actually a ‘work experience’ gap year which was supposed to give me an insight in to the working style of my profession. Before I started in my new position, I was almost certain I had life figured out. I dreamt about the day I would be driving to work in my nice car, wearing a suit to the office and flirting with hot girls over coffee at lunch time – like a poor mans version of Wolf of Wall Street. However, in reality I was going to be a disrespected 20 year old, commuting to work in my Vauxhall Astra which I couldn’t afford, from my tiny 1 bedroom apartment I could barely make rent on, to sit in an office for 9 hours a day with people who were all just as angry and frustrated with their lives as I was. I did get to flirt with that girl though – unfortunately it developed in to a physically and verbally abusive relationship which carried on for far too long.
At the beginning – the 9 to 5
I took a gap year to work in the industry. Web design and development is my passion, It’s what I spent years mastering. The problem is working for someone else took all of the passion away. I couldn’t work on anything to add to my portfolio. I didn’t have time to work on personal projects and improving my skills. I had no choice in the type of work I wanted to take part in, nor choose the type of clients I wanted to work with. The style, colours and process were the same every day and when one project was finished, I’d have nothing to do other than sit in a shitty uncomfortable chair, wearing suit trousers which didn’t fit because I couldn’t afford a new pair, and at the same time dreading going home because it was winter and I couldn’t afford to heat my apartment.
Rules rules rules. I can’t be 2 minutes late, I can’t wear what I’m comfortable in. I’m contractually bound to only work on workplace related projects, both in and outside of work time. I have to take my lunch at a specific hour. Our computers are monitored – The list goes on forever, and for what?
The job I took paid only £900 per month (after tax), and in order to attend that job, I had to rent an apartment for £550 per month including bills, purchase a car, commute to work, etc. Ultimately I went from a bank balance of around £4000, to minus £2000 at the end of the year (AFTER working 9 hours every day behind a desk to improve someone else’s business).
No money, no heating
It gets worse because it got to winter and temperatures dropped to -17℃ that year. I couldn’t afford to heat my apartment and so I went to sleep in a tiny single bed wearing my snowboarding gear.
I’d wake every day to a stench of mould, little bugs called Silverfish running around the floor and my kitchen sink with a layer of frost over my unwashed dishes. My apartment developed an interesting moisture issue which the landlord wouldn’t fix and it left the whole place growing mould, including my books, clothes, carpets, bedsheets, the walls, the ceiling – I can’t express the feeling of coming home alone after a day of corporal slavery, to an apartment you hate with mould growing all over your clothes, everything freezing cold with absolutely nothing to look forward to and no money to even go anywhere. No friends or family for hundreds of miles as I had to relocate for the job. It’s 7pm when I get home, so I cook food, play on the internet for a couple of hours and the cycle repeats.
Ice Skating sucks
I’m freezing fucking cold at home, It’s winter time, there’s lots of snow. Seemed like an excellent idea to go ice skating… Nope! That night I managed to fall over and break the Scaphoid bone in BOTH of my wrists at the exact same time! Leaving me completely helpless. I go to hospital and the doctors are perplexed as to how I’ve managed to identically break both wrists. They put two solid casts on my arms and now I’m unable to get to work until I begged someone from the office to pick me up each day, I can’t wipe my ass, I can’t even turn the damn key to open my door and I have to sellotape two plastic Tesco bags on to my arms so that I can shower. I had those casts on for four months and I couldn’t use my wrists properly without pain for a year. Do you know what it feels like to want to wipe your ass like a human being?
Of course when I look back on all of this, I see the things I should have changed. but I felt so helpless… I should have just asked my parents for help but I was stubborn and wanted to fix everything myself. This is where I entered a horrible relationship, developed a slight eating disorder, and on top of that I literally went grey!!!
I didn’t know what was wrong with me, where was I supposed to go, what is this elusive ‘happiness’ which is supposed to be hiding somewhere? I found myself driving home at night, talking to myself out loud trying to figure out what I was supposed to do.
Life had never been like this, I had turned in to a physically and mentally weak person, unable to change the situation I was in. I should have parted ways with my girlfriend, told my job to fuck itself and go do what I wanted, but I thought I needed to finish my job for university, I thought I needed those grades and I didn’t want to admit defeat. I was scared to fail. Besides, I didn’t really know what else was out there, everything I’d been taught had lead me to believe that going to university, getting in to debt then getting a good job was the way to ‘succeed’.
The snapping point
Life threw some shit at me, and I just took it all on board. None of those situations were unfixable, but I let them all build until together they took everything out of me. The career I wanted was a lie, where was I going to go next? Another crappy job?
It was now summer time, a nice sunny day and it was almost time to leave my workplace and return to university for my final year. I took my remote controlled helicopter I’d got for my birthday to a field nearby. I felt frustrated, not happy, not sad. I asked my girlfriend to take some pictures of me flying it, but she refused because she was busy sun bathing. Immediately after that, I crashed my little helicopter I’d spent a whole day building, and just like that, life took a different path. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. I calmly walked around picking up the shattered pieces of my helicopter and walked over to my car. I drove home, packed all of my shit, and left. This moment actually didn’t last long as my car broke down 20 minutes in to the drive back to my university town. So I sat inside crying like a baby whilst I waited for the repair guy to come and fix my battery. Either way, it was the last time I took any shit.
Fuck having a job
Life was instantly better. Fuck having a job. After moving back to university I was unbelievably clear on what I wanted. There were no doubts in my mind that the only way to be happy was to create my own business, be the boss, and find freedom in freelancing. It instantly solved so many issues that it felt silly not to be chasing the dream much sooner. I make the rules, I have lunch whenever I want, I start and finish when I’m ready and I only work with people who are passionate and motivated. The list of benefits of a freelancer goes for miles…
I spent my final year at university researching, learning, and building my freelance career. I was focused, determined and I had a mindset which was clearer than ever.
The end of the year came and I graduated with the perfect grades I was told I should have, it felt like a chapter was coming to an end. I gained my weight back, my beard starting going brown again, my wrists were getting stronger, I was alone and I felt like the world was mine. I’ve never been so happy and all I did was find a way to cut out the crap bringing me down. I believe having the power to cut out things you don’t like and only do things which inspire you and make you feel good, is one way to find freedom.
The master plan
The most awesome part is finding what you want and need in life and then seeing the plan come together. I’d been working all year putting my work out there and things were progressing as I had a steady stream of clients coming in and only now did I realise that people will pay for good design and development work.
That’s when it hit me… I’m laying in my bed all day on Photoshop, I don’t need to be here, I can be back home with my family, or anywhere in the world. So one afternoon I am walking home after a game of badminton with my good friend and housemate Rob. We were talking about freedom, freelancing and travelling and it was like a spark of magic, within minutes we said we’d leave Europe for the first time and spend 7 months in Thailand and Australia.
Without my mate Rob and our eternal bromance, who knows where I’d be. Those 7 months were the best I’ve ever had, and probably will ever have.
We booked our flights and had 3 months left in England, which would be our preparation time. It was a race to save as much money as we could and get our new businesses registered and running before we left. There was one book which I specifically remember really helping with this whole process, from the mindset, preparation to freelancing techniques and I’ve been recommending it for years now – The Wealthy Freelancer.
Preparation is different for everyone. Not everyone wants to just break up with their girlfriend, sell 20 years worth of possessions and disappear to Thailand. The difficulties we all have to overcome varies, but no matter what position you’re in, you can do it. I know this because I met a guy scuba diving in Thailand. He’s living his dreams with one leg!
My problems had included my relationship, money, and freedom. However I already began preparing months in advance because I knew once I had graduated ‘real life’ began. Anything I wasn’t happy with I’d cut out of my life and I was now a single guy, working day and night to save enough money for flights and an emergency buffer. I saved around £8000 in total before spending £1000 on flights.
To be honest, getting vaccinations, day dreaming and saving money was the only preparation I did, I flew in to the unknown and lived life a day at a time.
Pulling the trigger
October 15th 2012, we’re on the way to Heathrow Airport. I’d spent 3 months reading, planning, saving and getting ridiculously excited. I have never been able to recreate the feeling of suspense before my first real travel experience – and I knew it wasn’t just a holiday, this was the start of my new life (goosebumps).
I said goodbye to my Dad, and I’m standing in the airport with a rucksack and a laptop… Felt weird. It was now me vs the world. I would be flying to South East Asia for a planned 7 months and this would be the test to see whether or not I could sustain a location independent lifestyle. Who knows what could happen? The rest of my life was, and still is wide open. The excitement of the unknown!
So I’m on the plane, roaring through the sky to Thailand. This is the first time I’ve been abroad without my family, the first time I’ve ever been able to afford to. I never had the experience of a ‘lads holiday’ and this was going to be awesome!
Landed in Bangkok, fuck it’s hot. The driver is asking me something about ladyboys. We drive in to the main area of Sukhumvit and the taxi pulls out on a motorbike and we’ve already been involved in a traffic accident. Anyway, he was fine. We’re out of the taxi and looking for our hotel. I’m nervous.
Since that first day in Bangkok, almost 3 years have now gone by.
The never ending journey
Many of us are chasing happiness… I know I was. I set my goals, found my objectives just as all of the ‘self help’ books suggested. I knew where I wanted to be! I was going to be working for myself, my own boss, working on a beach from somewhere in the world on projects I enjoyed. I thought I’d achieve that, then I’d finally be happy. I’d mentally given myself until I was 25 in order to be truly location independent, able to live in any country.
Things went better than expected. After my first year in South East Asia, I realised I’d met all of my goals, I was now living wherever I wanted – sometimes in a bungalow on the shoreline of some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, in a hostel in Singapore or a weird hotel in Hong Kong. I was partying every other night, I had my world in a rucksack and I’d hit my highest level of freedom so far.
It’s occurred to me that sure, you can set goals and you can hit them, but hitting all of your goals, having all of the freedom in the world, having enough money to do whatever you want on any day is not enough. Happiness isn’t hidden inside of material goods, it’s not hiding behind new destinations you haven’t visited yet and you definitely can’t buy it – I’ve tried!
The journey of life and happiness is never ending. You reach one goal, then you find the next. There is no almighty level you can reach and all of a sudden everything is perfect. We’re human and we take everything for granted. Enjoy the journey, keep looking forward and just do what makes you happy on each and every single day. Keep in mind that it’s easier for me to say ‘do what makes you happy every day’ than actually doing it, I still fail – a lot.
Over the past 3 years of freelancing and travelling, I learned a lot about myself. Sometimes I found myself directionless, not knowing where I was going, or what I was working towards. A lot of the time I was unable to work due to procrastination and some mornings I’d just wake up covered in mosquito bites, wondering why I had fallen to sleep on a hammock on the beach.
Keeping on track
The biggest thing in my life, and my happiness is ‘being on track’, I like to feel like I’m constantly improving at something, either with my health, my career, my net worth, or anything else that can be measured. I want to become the best version of myself I can be. In order for this to happen, the most important lesson I learned is to always have my eyes set on a goal, and then the next goal, and then the one after that. Don’t live aimlessly working towards nothing. We’re going places.
I found too much freedom
Interesting I say that as it’s what I’ve been chasing the whole time! But what I mean is I felt so free that I’d procrastinate, not just for a couple of hours or a day, but for weeks! I was enjoying myself so damn much that I just couldn’t concentrate on what I was doing. In my first year of travel I consistently spent more money than I made. My emergency buffer went all the way down to £2000 before I did something about it. Every £1000 I spent, I’d say to myself “Ok, I won’t let myself go another £1000 down” – and that phrase was repeated at least 5 times. I lacked discipline. I overcame that problem by changing my travel frequency, I either travelled once a month so I had more time outside of work to do all the things I wanted to, or I kept a ‘home base’ which I would work from until I wanted to take a trip somewhere.
A dream life is hard work
I probably have an entire book of problems I’ve had whilst I’ve been travelling. I had difficulty making enough money to cover my spending habits. Sometimes I was very lonely (no tropical paradise will stop you missing your family). I never stuck around long enough to make real friends. Sometimes I was stressed out trying to run my own business when my internet was barely fast enough to load Google. I broke my hand off-roading in a jungle, my next girlfriend cheated on me. Real life problems still apply, no matter where you are.
What’s going on now?
It’s now been three years since I graduated from university and started freelancing full time. I’ve spent almost all 3 of those years travelling around Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and The Philippines. I found a real love for Thailand, living on a beautiful island for extensive periods of time and now living in Bangkok.
Over the past couple of years alone, I’ve seen more places, found more hobbies, achieved more goals and made more money than I have in my entire life. I opened my mind to new ways of thinking, dealing with problems and from here I expect to do more of all of those things. Perhaps the biggest ambition going forward is to build my business higher and find new challenges that way.
This last year I met Jenny and that’s why I’m writing here on Never North. We quickly realised we have the same ambition to freelance and build our lives around freedom but also to help others do the same. Sharing knowledge and getting feedback is a really rewarding experience. I plan to help Jenny launch the Never North community, start writing much more and generate more passive income, enabling me to work on more personal projects.
I guess I wake up every day and think, do I want to be here? Do I want to be doing what I’m doing? If the answer is no, I’ll change it.
If you want to check out some of the things I got up to, I have an Instagram I use sometimes: http://instagram.com/henryz14
I also uploaded a few amateur videos to my YouTube page: https://www.youtube.com/user/henrybrownuk/videos
What about you?
What’s your story? When did you realise freelancing was the way to experience everything you wanted to in life? Are you there yet?