Jan 15 2013

Finding Your Happy Place, Zen, and Hammocks


Carlos Portocarrero

Hammock

There’s a scene in Fight Club where the guy constantly reminds himself to find his “happy place.” This place is different for everyone, but for him it was a cave with penguins in it.

The idea has always appealed to me. To be able to escape whatever stress or anxiety you feel and go to a “happy place” seems like a great way to handle the less pleasant parts of our lives.

It’s better than being as asshole to people.

Over the holidays, I spent 10 days in my native Guatemala. As usual, we all had a blast. My daughter got to play with her cousins, see her aunt and uncle, and catch up with her grandparents.

M and I got to hang out and relax while enjoying the natural beauty that Guatemala has to offer.

Then the trip was over and we headed back to the States. To work. To our routines.

Besides the gifts and the pinky swear to never fly Aeromexico ever again, I brought back something else.

My happy place.

Only I was lucky enough to actually be there. In it. I experienced it for real and now can trigger it at will whenever I need some peace.

Here’s where it was.

Picture a sugar farm. Sugar cane as far as the eye can see. No buildings. Everything is flat. Now picture a large, open space smack in the middle of all that sugar cane. It’s covered in lush, green grass. It’s sunny and warm, but not uncomfortably hot. It’s cool in the shade.

There’s a simple, wooden house with a wraparound porch on the second floor. Very simple, very country.

There’s a hammock on that screened-in porch.

We had arrived the day before and I had just put my daughter down for her nap. For whatever reason, I was exhausted. 
So I stood up, told my parents and my sister and M that I was tired and wanted to go lay down in the hammock.

I hadn’t laid in a hammock in years.

So I laid down, gave myself a push, and started rocking gently from side to side.

My eyes eventually gave way and I went into a light, relaxing sleep.

Over the course of an hour, I woke up a few times, turned my head, and gave myself another push.

Here I was, in the middle of nowhere, in a place surrounded by sugar cane, surrounded by my family, taking a delicious nap in a hammock.

It was awesome.

It made me realize a few things. Work can be stressful, yes, especially when you care a lot about doing it as best you can. But no one is going to die. No one is going to cry (maybe some will cry). Nobody’s life is going to be miserable because something does or doesn’t happen at work.

It’s just work.

Whenever I start to feel that impending sense of anxiety about how a project will go and how I can do a better job, I think of my happy place.

Me in a hammock in the middle of nowhere in the southern part of Guatemala.

Image by Meagan


Jul 18 2012

Career Advice That Kicks Ass: A Six-Figure Consultant Speaks Up


Carlos Portocarrero

A high kick with the sun setting in the background

Today I’m super excited to feature an interview filled with great career advice from Steve of BripBlap, a site devoted to finance and career success. I first heard of Steve (like so many others) through his very successful post, 8 Steps to a Six Figure Career. He’s had a ton of experience working all over the world as a consultant in the financial industry and has some fantastic career advice for people looking to boost their career prospects.

He’s also lost over 100 pounds, which is not just interesting for people looking to lose weight, but has given him interesting insights on systems that apply to almost anything you want to achieve.

In all, I’m super excited to pass on some of the best career advice I’ve ever featured here on The Writer’s Coin.

Without further ado:

1. One of your most popular posts is 8 Steps to a Six Figure Career: Do you still feel like that career advice applies today? In other words, would you give that advice to you kids as they grow up?

I feel that advice still applies today. Roughly, I’d summarize it as pick a “good” major (leave your love of French lit for your spare time and get a degree in accounting), get an advanced degree or certification (because a BA is unfortunately the new high school diploma), but most importantly take big chances: change jobs aggressively, move to bigger cities, go overseas, do something unusual early on in your career to distance yourself from the pack.

[editor: this is great advice…be bold early on and make yourself unique]

I volunteered to go work in Russia for my employer in the mid-90s, for example, and ended up staying several years. That has given me a white-hot resume point for the past decade: employers and clients always view that as a risky, bold, ambitious decision. It sets me apart from my peers. So yes, I’d give that advice to my kids, with one caveat: the job market is changing faster now than ever before.

It has changed radically since my parents’ generation (my dad had one employer his whole career) to mine (I am a professional contract consultant for financial controls and systems) and I’m sure that my kids will wind up with a different job model…I certainly won’t steer them away from entrepreneurialism, for example. But since the basic idea is do a little bit extra early in life to set yourself apart at the beginning of your career, I don’t see how that’s ever going to change.

2. Losing the amount of weight you lost is incredible, can you tell us how you stuck through your weight loss? Was it just perseverance or was there a tipping point that got you to commit?

Well, I started it when I got winded walking up a single flight of stairs. I realized that clutching at the handrail after taking about 16 steps up and needing big gulps of air was not a great way to live. It was easy once I latched onto a system (I was on Atkins). Plus it was easy because I did most of it when I was single: I had no “cheat foods” in the house.

Unfortunately I’ve put a little bit of the weight back, but I’m still far, far healthier and fit than I was before. Losing weight is simple: find a system that you enjoy and commit to it. Experiment with a few different ones—I tried low-fat and vegetarian before settling on Atkins. If it’s Atkins, being a vegan, paleo, whatever: you have to enjoy it and it has to be a simple system.

[editor: love this…don’t bang your head against the wall by “trying harder,” just find a simple system that works for you]

Anything that requires meticulous record keeping and complex tracking seems unpleasant from the get-go to me. Here’s my go-to tip these days, which is a VERY simple way to start losing weight: look at the ingredients before you buy it. If it has “high fructose corn syrup” or any variation on “corn syrup/sweetener/goo” don’t buy it, ever. Not because that’s the most awful ingredient—it’s not—but because it only exists in highly processed foods. That one little step will cut out a huge amount of unhealthy and unfilling food from your diet.

3. With the state of the job market today being pretty grim, what career advice do you have for newly graduated people starting off in the “real world?”

Well, as I mentioned above: take the biggest risks you can early in your career. It is much easier to separate yourself from the crowd early on. Take the weird job assignments. Pick up and move to a bigger city. And most importantly, whether you are an employee, a consultant, a freelancer or even unemployed: concentrate on YOUR development.

Early on you need training, extra responsibilities, chances to learn. If you aren’t getting those, move on. Don’t be loyal to bad companies. Early in your career you should be on a job search non-stop, even when employed. I’d take any job where I felt I had a chance to learn new skills over a job with a chance to make an extra 5%. And live as simply as you can while you are young, single and mobile. Having a lot of money in the bank gives you options. Desperately needing your next paycheck to make rent doesn’t.

4. Right now you’re a part time consultant. How is that lifestyle different than working for a company? How different is the money?

I do contract consulting. If I work for an hour, I get paid for an hour. So week to week my work’s not all that different from an employee’s: I come in, do my work, leave. The big difference is that I seldom work overtime (because then the company has to pay me for it).

I also get to focus on work and results instead of corporate politics. I’m usually at clients for a year or more, so I have outlasted “regular” employees many times. But most importantly, I’ve got time for a family life, a personal life and a side business (my blogs) which I never had as a senior manager for a multinational corporation. And the money’s about the same annually, but on an hourly basis I’m far better compensated now than I was when I was working 70 hour weeks. And as a family man, I’m happy that I can count on my fingers the number of nights in the past six years I haven’t been home to read my kids a book before bedtime because I’ve had to stay late at work.

5. Are you willing to share how much income you derive from your online pursuits? 

This is something that has varied wildly over the years. It took me a long time (more than a year and a half) to start making money with my blog, and even now I don’t make a huge amount. A good month might be $2000. A bad month might be $400. The online money-making business is changing rapidly now that SEO is dying and social is on the rise.

I’ve expanded my online “media” and I’m continually experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t. I’ve never made enough to seriously consider going full-time, but it’s certainly nice to have money rolling in from more than one source.

6. What has been the most successful way to earn money online for you?

Well, for years it was affiliate income (mostly services like Prosper, Lending Club, credit cards and other financial products) and Adsense. I’ve stopped using Adsense altogether these days, and affiliate income seems to be drying up as people spend more time on social media (I don’t think they want to click away).

I get most of my income from direct ad placement—a company will simply pay me to display an ad. I am convinced that going forward the only reasonable way for individual bloggers to make money will be to sell products they’ve created. And readers will only buy those products if the blogger has developed trust with the readers, through engagement on social media, through email subscriptions, through their blog, everywhere.

I’ve got a good idea about where to go with that, but I need to put more effort into that rather than “traditional” income I’ve leaned on for years like affiliate income. I’m in the process of winding down most advertising on my blogs while I try to concentrate on building a wider audience.

7. What do you think is the most valuable skill in the workplace today? Software development? Marketing? Curious to hear your thoughts.

The most valuable skill is now, and will be for the forseeable future, the ability to solve problems—particularly for consultants and freelancers. I have been successful as a consultant because I can listen, I can read and research, I can analyze and I can write. I can look at complex problems—no matter what they are related to—analyze them and come up with solutions.

Sure, I know a dozen software platforms, all about accounting principles for 5 different countries and several different coding languages, but you know what? So do thousands of other people. I know SQL quite well for a finance guy, but you know what? There’s a SQL guy out there who’s an expert, so while knowing it is helpful for me, I can’t base my career on it.

Work on your problem solving skills. Learn how to solve puzzles. American education is highly focused on rote learning and teaching to the test, because corporate America needs armies of white-collar factory workers to process transactions. So you set yourself apart by being someone who can answer the question, not just repeat it.

8. If there’s anything else you’d like to share, please do so!

I’d just like to thank Carlos for the opportunity to be interviewed, I enjoyed the questions. And I’m always glad to hear directly from anyone with questions, so feel free to get in touch!

[editor: you can reach Steve via his blog, BripBlap. To get more great career tips like this one, sign up for the Ninja Employee Newsletter]

Image from Macrickguitarsx


May 11 2012

The One Thing That Matters More Than Grades or SAT Scores


Carlos Portocarrero

Report card

When I was young I though my future depends on three things:

  • SAT scores
  • GPA

Once I graduated, I realized none of that really matters. 

It’s kind of sad that I spent as much time as I did worrying about SAT scores and GPA scores. I wish I would’ve spent my time learning how to program or building my first website. Or even learning to play the guitar.

Grades were crucial to get into a “good” school, but once you’re in there all this stuff is pretty irrelevant.

So What Does Matter?

Experience, plain and simple.

Skills.

What do you bring to the table as an intern or as an employee? What can you do for the company? What value to you bring?

What’s your potential?

As someone who has hired interns and scanned resumes, I’ll tell you this much: GPA didn’t matter one bit. What mattered was the personality and the skills we would get if we picked one person over another.

It’s the reason you see kids getting drafted my Major League Baseball teams even when their numbers aren’t very good: the teams see the skill and the potential and they pay up for it, regardless of what the numbers say.

What Now?

If you’re young and in college (or about to go to college), what do you do with this advice? Should you stop studying and get Cs from now on because grades don’t matter?

I would advice against that. Grades matter in the sense that they show how well you can play within a system.

If you can navigate the collegiate education system successfully, then that means something. It says you’re aware of what’s going on around you and you’re capable of figuring out the rules and succeeding.

This counts for something.

But my advice is to start making things you’re proud of.

Whether it’s a blog or art or a novel or a new way to use Excel—just start making things you think are cool. Things you would be proud to share with your friends.

You’ll develop some skills. You’ll have things to put in your portfolio. You’ll become more valuable.

You’ll be 10 times more interesting and twice as valuable then the other guy who comes in with his chin high because he has a perfect GPA and knows how to take a test.

Image by Mark Gstohl


May 8 2012

Internships: Awesome or Exploitation?


Carlos Portocarrero

Messy desk

Some people think internships suck:

  • The pay is usually terrible (or non-existent)
  • You wind up doing other people’s errands some of the time
  • The work isn’t terribly exciting
  • Nobody calls you by your name (“Hey intern!”)

But you know what? It beats sitting on your sofa watching Jerry Springer every day after class. Try putting that on your resume and see what happens.

Internships are about experience, and you have to get that where you can. Even if it means being “Intern!” for a few months.

Lack of Experience

It’s one of the loudest complaints you’ll hear from employers and from employees, especially young ones.

How am I supposed to get experience if all the jobs I’m looking at demand 1-2 years of experience and I just graduated?

I covered this in Not Enough Experience? Get Some, and one of the best ways to get some experience is through an internship.

It doesn’t matter if you’re getting paid or not.

It doesn’t matter if you think you’re being exploited (you are).

It doesn’t matter if you don’t like getting bossed around (get used to it).

It’s time/money in exchange for experience.

The Benefits

Internships aren’t just about filling out your resume (although that is important), there are a bunch of other reasons why young people should get one:

  • Network: Add everyone you meet to your LinkedIn network on day one, they will come in handy.
  • Potential job: Lots of people get a full-time offer after interning.
  • Variety: Odds are you’ll get to do lots of different things. Find out what you like and don’t like.
  • Skills: Learning a new piece of software, taking some training, interpersonal skills, etc. Soak it all up.
  • References: If you have real people at a real company to vouch for you, it will go a long way at your next interview.
Right now the job market isn’t very good, so landing a full-time job might take a while. So an internship might be your best bet to start getting that experience everyone keeps talking about.

Exploitation

This happens. Some employers don’t see internships as a trade, they see it as cheap labor.

You want to try to stay away from these places, but if you find yourself being exploited try to fight to get what you came for: experience. Do the job they ask of you and try to find a good guy/girl in the company that can help you build up your skills and make the most of it.

Awesome

Overall, I still think internships are a great way to get the experience you need. There are some bad eggs out there, but  I have nothing but good things to say about them.

What’s been your experience with internships? Good? Bad? Ugly?

Image by dumbledad