I did the quick math. $40,000 of debt spread across four credit cards. Not to mention a mortgage and two car payments. How did this happen? How did I end up 15 years into my career with a worse financial situation than when I graduated from college with student-loan debt? That greasy ball of shame sitting in the pit of my stomach wasn’t going away and neither were the minimum payments and late notices. Something had to give. It was going to be our family’s financial situation or me. But things hadn’t always been so dire…
I Did What I Was Told
I have always been a bit of a firebrand, but I did what society told me to do. I graduated from high school, attended the University of Pittsburgh as an undergrad, and then earned a Master’s Degree in Education from Duquesne University before eventually becoming a licensed teacher in four states. I married my longtime girlfriend, started a family, bought a house—all of those white-picket-fence/American Dream things expected of me.
By default. That’s how I ended up as a career educator. I didn’t have the time or money for law school, which was my only other option with a BA in History, circa 1993. I didn’t think I would hate teaching, but I wasn’t one of those “I always wanted to be a teacher” people either.
Again, I did what I was told. I contributed the maximum amount permitted into my retirement account. I showed up year after year, dedicating my life to young minds. Seventy- to eighty-hour weeks were not uncommon when you figured in grading, parent communications, and lesson planning. The hours would drop to a mere 30-40 hours per week spent on curriculum design and professional development during summer months. I had to resist the urge to punch people in the face when they said, “Wow! A teacher. Must be nice to have summers off.”
I was making far less than my friends in the business world, but I had my own pair of golden handcuffs—a reliable job with a steady income. But it clearly wasn’t enough.
The Side Job Years
Between the time I got married (1999) and the birth of my first child (2003), I tried starting dozens of online businesses. Dozens. I failed in every way imaginable. It would start with a visit to GoDaddy where I’d register my next “million-dollar idea,” which would end in tears after I’d check the hits in my dashboard—single digits, and usually my own page refreshes.
A guitar pedal board idea. A children’s bedroom furniture idea. A ceramic tile hotplate idea. And on, and on, and on. Epic fails.
And then, around 2009, Amazon released this new gadget called a Kindle and although I didn’t know it at the time, it would revolutionize the publishing industry and my life. I had this crazy idea of authoring a novel in my “spare time,” which meant getting up at 4:30 a.m. and writing before my kids woke and my workday began. By 2012, I had several novels self-published on Amazon during what we affectionally called, “The Kindle Gold Rush.”
So now I was making some extra money as an editor with a few of my novels selling better, but still not enough to climb out of debt, let alone make a living. I was running out of time and options. My son entered high school in 2017 and I saw the college-tuition cyclone on the horizon.
I considered paying for yet another certification from a high-profile internet marketing guru. For another $10,000, I would be “certified” to do client work under this guy’s brand. Before doing so, I sought help from my friend and mentor, Chris Brogan.
“I’m always wondering why people would invest to have themselves branded underneath someone else. You are very much a force to reckon with on your own. Why give away some of your brand equity to someone else?”
Those were his exact words from our email exchange early in the spring of 2018. In a subsequent phone conversation, Chris made it clear that I was seeking validity in my constant desire for certifications. I wanted security. I wanted to swap one set of golden handcuffs for another. This single conversation forever changed the trajectory of my life.
A New Opportunity
Chris Brogan had reframed the situation for me. I had a degree, training, and professional experience as an educator. I just needed the balls to step up and put myself out there, to get into the game.
I’d served as the Assistant Director of Entrepreneurial Studies at one of the most prestigious private schools in the country. I’d taught other teachers how to incorporate entrepreneurship into the classroom—holding a workshop from the middle of legendary entrepreneur Steve Blank’s living room.
At the same time, I’d built a following in the independent author space. I’d become an authority, thanks to my friend and mentor, Jim Kukral, who urged me to use my life skills in this new endeavor.
Now, all I had to do was combine my experience in education with my knowledge of the publishing industry to take charge of my future. This would be the online business that would succeed. Failure is always an option, but not one I wanted to consider this time.
The Solopreneur Formula™
Blogs, podcasts, online courses, workshops, events. For several years, I built upon an initial following of podcast listeners by continuing to serve my audience. Without realizing it at the time, I’d been developing The Solopreneur Formula™—a way of taking what I knew and using it to move toward financial independence.
It didn’t happen overnight, but I started to see results.
As a classroom teacher, it took me about 22 years to earn one million dollars. I made $300,000 in my first 24 months as a solopreneur.
Most recently, I’ve taught The Solopreneur Formula™ to a few of my closest friends who have collectively earned six figures or more by implementing what they’ve learned.
The seeds took root and began to sprout.
Since that first Amazon check in 2012, I’d published 2 million words of fiction and sold almost 200,000 books globally.
At the same time, I’d helped more than 25,000 authors as clients or online students in addition to hundreds of thousands of podcast episode downloads. I’m poised to break one million dollars as a solopreneur in a fraction of the time it took me to do so as a classroom teacher.
Changing My Identity
Let’s be real. Change sucks and humans go out of their way to avoid it, myself included.
The self-help space is loaded with bullshit designed to separate you from your hard-earned money.
Small, incremental changes never transform your life. It’s why diets never work. But we keep doing them because it feels like we’re doing something. We are, but it won’t last. Goals are for hockey and soccer. True change comes when you create habits through systems. Your life improves when you change your identity, when you “fake it ‘til you make it.”
As I said on The Today Show to Hoda and Jenna, I didn’t want to be a guy who runs. I called myself a runner before I even took my first stride. Then I committed to doing things that runners do.
You’re Too Old
I know you don’t want to hear that. I don’t like to think about it either. But it’s true. You’re not a spritely millennial with 40 work years sprawling ahead into the future. You won’t be able to save and scrimp your way to financial independence. And who wants to live like that? Who wants to eat ramen noodles for decades to save $67 a year? Even if you could, what about that mortgage? Braces on your youngest? College tuition? Or the grandaddy of them all, your daughter’s wedding?
With the help and inspiration of guys like Chris and Jim, I came to this realization as well. I would need to earn my way to financial independence, not save to it. When you’re rounding the corner on the Big 5-0, you realize that time is moving much faster now than it did in your 20s.
I’m in my optimal earning phase, and so are you. I’m experienced, wise, but still sharp. My next 10 years are critical to padding my retirement portfolio and remaining financially independent.
It’s not always easy. I’m impulsive and impatient. I’ve spent countless hours on people and things that didn’t work. If I could only slow down and be a bit more intentional, I’d save myself some misery. But that’s just how I’m wired.
I also struggle with a big question. Who the hell am I? Who am I to lead you, to help guide you toward financial independence? The imposter syndrome never goes away, but I’m better at shutting up that internal voice for a bit. The only person you need to compare yourself to is your past self.
I still write fiction. J. Thorn is very much alive and kicking. I’ll be a novelist until the day I die.
In other words, I don’t want to be a “F.I. influencer.” I love JL Collins and have learned so much from him, but I don’t want to be him. Same with the ChooseFI guys, J.D. Roth, Grant Sabatier, Mr. Money Moustache, the Mad Fientist, and all the rest.
I loathe spreadsheets. I’d be just as happy to sit and create stories all day. But I’ve unlocked The Solopreneur Formula™ and I feel a responsibility to share it with you. I want to show you what financial independence looks like. And to think they called Gen-Xers slackers cynical.
Today is the Greatest
It truly is. I’ve experienced a freedom and satisfaction I never thought possible. I’ve transformed my life through financial independence. Every day is a challenge and there are no guarantees, but I no longer live in fear of minimum payments, late notices, or soul-crushing compound interest.
The Solopreneur Formula™ saved me, and it can save you, too.
Ask yourself. Who do you want to be?
Here’s to your financial independence, you future Firebrand. Let freedom ring!