Ten years ago this month, I wrote an article on this blog titled, “What are You Going to Be Exceptional at in 10 Years?”
In the article, I picked two skills I wanted to get good at over the following decade: writing and micro-entrepreneurship.
I’m not sure why I felt the need to write “micro-entrepreneurship” instead of simpler terms like “entrepreneurship” or “running a business.” I suppose that’s probably because I still had a lot to learn as a writer.
Now that I’m ten years older, how did those two plans fare?
In terms of (micro)entrepreneurship, I feel like I actually have gotten fairly good at it. I’ve run a business for so long now that many of the hard-won lessons of the past decade just feel obvious to me. It’s only when I talk to people who are just trying to start businesses that it’s clear how much I’ve learned from my past mistakes.
In ten years, I’ve gone from struggling to make enough money to pay bills, to earning enough to live comfortably, to having a small team with quarterly meetings where we use words like “strategy” and “branding” and make goals based on charts with quadrants.
There’s a lot of ways to be an entrepreneur, so my ambitions may not reflect yours, but I feel like I did a pretty good job, being able to earn a comfortable income doing what I love on my own terms.
When I go back a decade and read old posts, I often cringe at my writing. My old headlines are unappealing yet also clickbait. I have long, rambling paragraphs nobody will read, and yet other parts of my writing seem glib.
I’d like to think my ideas have matured as well, but I find it interesting that often I’ll write a new article and then find an older, more poorly written version of it sitting several years back in my archive. I’ve written so many posts, I hope the readers will forgive a few accidental reruns.
Although my blog writing has improved a bit, my books have gotten much better. Comparing Learn More, Study Less (which I wrote over ten years ago) to Ultralearning, and they seem unrecognizably different. Learning how to do research, tell stories and properly source my work were skills I developed later as a writer.
What I Got Wrong
Ten years feels like a long time. Especially when you’re twenty.
It feels a bit like how the British signed a 99-year lease on Hong Kong. Ninety-nine years is basically forever, right? I’m sure this won’t cause any issues in a century when China wants it back.
Similarly, decade-long goals are hard to act on because the person you’ll be ten years from now feels so distant. I imagined ten years of writing and running a business would put me at a level of mastery. Now, having lived the last ten years, I feel like my career as a writer and entrepreneur are just beginning, with a lot more lessons still left to learn.
In this sense, I feel like my plans were, ironically, somewhat shortsighted. I saw ten years of improving writing and business and couldn’t imagine there would be much more to attain. After ten years, I’ve become aware of just how much further there is to go.
What I Got Right
I used to joke about famous people I met when their blogs were still smaller than mine. Chris Guillebeau, Leo Babauta, James Clear, Benny Lewis. I think I even met Cal Newport before he started his blog. Now these people have juggernaut businesses and bestselling books.
Deep down, however, there was probably more than a hint of envy that it took me so much longer to get established. Chris Guillebeau wrote a book 279 Days to Overnight Success. Well mine was more like 1825 days, and even then it wasn’t easy to call it a success. Seeing peers eclipse you professionally can be tough, especially when you’re grinding away every day.
As I look back, however, I’m so grateful that I started early and worked hard. It’s easier to be a starving writer when you’re already a broke student. Bootstrapping is easier when your poverty threshold is $20,000 a year. Failures are easier to swallow when you still have “potential” instead of just a lousy track record.
I often meet new writers today, who are my age, but just getting started. I hope they’ll work hard. I hope that success won’t take them as long as it did for me. I hope they won’t get discouraged as the future can often be a hard road with an uncertain destination. Above all, I hope they’ll look at the next ten years with enthusiasm at the prospect of getting good rather than despair at the distance they still need to travel.
Even if ten years was too short to expect excellence, I’m glad I picked something and worked hard on it, especially when success seemed so far away. Hopefully, ten years from now, I’ll be able to look back at how far I’ve come.