109 comments

Notes on Doing Something Ridiculously Difficult

snake4saleIt has been a quiet year here at Mr. Money Mustache, and for good reason. It seems like a lifetime since my life has been normal. Even as I write this, I’m thousands of miles from home in Northern British Columbia, closer to the Arctic Circle than I am to the sunny, peaceful bike and beertopia of Longmont, Colorado.

Right now, I’m accompanying my brother Wax Mannequin on one of his wild, legendary and loosely organized cross-country tours. We’ve talked about this idea for many years, but it’s the first time my life was relaxed and open enough to allow it. I’m free from work responsibilities now, with no more money worries, and a son who has grown nicely independent enough to stay busy and have fun while I’m away.

Even in these ideal conditions, it is a harsh experience compared to the pampered and organized life I’ve built for myself back home.

Wax Mannequin gets the party started in Prince George, BC.

Wax Mannequin gets the party started in Prince George, BC.

We’re traveling in a 2-door Civic which is packed with enough gear to fill out a minivan. We wake up each morning with no idea where the next meal or the next bed will be found. The distances between many of these forlorn-looking mining and forestry towns represent more driving than I usually do in a year. Everything here is more expensive and less fancy. Winter comes early, buries you deep, freezes you solid, and leaves late. Toilets are scary, sinks don’t work, countertops are messy, and there’s usually no way to make yourself a good salad.

My new studio building - peaceful space to create at last.

My new studio building project – peaceful space to create at last.

But those are just this week’s hardships. For the preceding four months, I’ve been drawn with zombie-like dedication to my back yard, where I’ve been building a studio-like structure which overlooks our property’s back alley and the park beyond. This is a long-awaited project that we sketched out before even buying the house, because the place was really missing a peaceful creative space for writing, the secret Etsy shop, music, working on bikes, and weight training. “The Studio” has been a labor of love, featuring the first time I have dug and poured my own concrete foundation and slab (with embedded radiant heating!), before going on to do the rest of it. All told, it was a couple hundred solid hours of outdoor physical labor in the hot sun that will get its own article. But for now, suffice it to say it was another blast of deliberate difficulty that kept me away from writing to you for longer than I’d like.

However the final and largest piece of hardship is one that began in January and only finished last week. Over eight full months of low-level background stress, interspersed with periods of genuine inspiration, mornings of grinding but productive computer work, and weeks of rehearsal ranging from casual to awkward and arduous. It all culminated in a keynote talk I gave on a Saturday night at the 2016 “World Domination Summit“, a feisty weekend conference of entrepreneurs and creative types in Portland, Oregon.

World Domination Summit

Typical street scene between sessions at the WDS

Public speaking is a weird animal. It reliably pops up as one of our biggest collective fears. But people do it all the time, and it’s still a big part of how we share ideas. Preachers and politicians, CEOs and activists, and more recently the popular TED and TEDx conferences have kept the art alive. For my own part, I’ve always enjoyed casually talking to (or preferably with) a group of people, but have never been badass enough to do the hard work required to produce one of the theatrical, organized productions that real speakers deliver. Reading the “wait but why” post on preparing a TED talk served to reinforce my hesitance.

Yet somehow, despite all this wise restraint I ended up saying “Yes” to exactly such a talk. A flattering invitation came from WDS founder Chris Guillebeau to speak at his cult-like summit. This is an event that generates rave reviews, inspiring videos, creative and bizarre activities, and sells out its thousands of $500+ tickets almost instantly every year. Although unpaid, the speaker gig came recommended by several trusted friends including JD Roth, who helped create the conference in its earlier years and spoke there in 2012. Although I tried my best to exercise the Power of No, some weird force inside overrode the instinct and said to me, “Come on, Mustache! Man Up for once. Are you going to say no to EVERYTHING just because it’s hard and time-consuming?”

Almost immediately, that resulting “Yes” started to haunt me. I’d lie awake with self-doubt at night, or wake up early with a desire to write an article for you, but a self-imposed obligation to work on Powerpoint slides instead. It was the most annoying kind of worry, because it was pointless: I knew I could do a good job, knew I’d enjoy giving the talk, and knew I had plenty of time. But because the deadline was long, the planning period was very long too. What had I done to my retirement?

Towards the end of that eight months, I wrote to a new friend who I learned had given a very powerful, inspiring, serious talk about surviving cancer and made it look pretty easy (the talk, not the survival).

“Let’s see what Amit says about his experience. Maybe I’m overthinking all this and should just relax and consider it a casual affair.”

Some excerpts from his response:

 I bought and read books and blog posts on public speaking, I took notes and drew themes from what I read. I watched two dozen TED talks, taking notes meticulously — minute by minute — on what I noticed the speakers did well or didn’t do well. I looked for techniques in their delivery, their speech and their body language, how they crafted their stories. I asked friends for suggestions, and attended a public speaking seminar in NYC
(…)
I rented a cheap AirBnB in the middle of nowhere (i was nomadic at the time) and spent a couple weeks by myself, storyboarding different versions of the talk every day with index cards, rearranging things, saying them out loud, timing them
(…)
Every day for two weeks, I raised my voice more than felt comfortable, practiced body language and gestures that felt exaggerated to me, and gave this talk 2-3 times in front of the camera, until I was wet with sweat. Each day, I’d review the videos, critique sections minute by minute, time each snippet or segment, and edit.  I had particularly connected with one of the instructors in the course I took in NYC, so I met with her twice so she could watch me give it and give me feedback.

 

Fuck.

So I got a bit more serious because the talk was only a month away. The slides and the script were done, so I read the whole talk into a voice recorder app on my phone, then started listening to that recording at least once every day. At night before bed. On buses and planes. While going for my early morning walks or late night adventure strolls around town. I refined awkward parts and re-recorded it six times, and gradually learned the whole 24-minute stretch like one giant set of Young MC lyrics*. Then I busted out the camera and started recording myself presenting it to the lovely, empty new studio. Refined away a few of my worst habits and kept practicing and kept worrying.

On August 10th, I finally headed out to Portland for the summit, which was as sparkly and fun as everyone says it is. I met hundreds of people, did an awkward technical rehearsal, worried a bit more, practiced a bit more, felt really confident at last, then finally showed up on the stage to do the real thing.

They blow up your face on a screen in front of 1000 people for maximum stress.

They blow up your face on a screen in front of 1000 people, and record everything**, for maximum stress.

It went incredibly well, and every bit of the hard work paid off. Those 24 minutes were a blazing laser of energy, laughter from the group of one thousand people, happiness and relief that I was really getting this shit done, and it was really going well. As I walked off the stage, I felt a glowing, lobotimized feeling that persists to this day. The part of my brain that was devoted to worrying and planning that talk just burned up like gunpowder and fell away, leaving just a relaxed quiet space.

Update: Chris Guillebeau shared the talk on Vimeo: http://chrisguillebeau.com/mr-money-mustache-wds/

So all the hardships of the summer are just about done. Although I am writing this in the shade of an old camp trailer, sitting on a piece of plywood in the meadow of BC’s Music on the Mountain festival, I’ll be home in a week and back to real life. The anticipation of this return, to my loved ones but also to a peaceful fluffy bed, the clean countertops and hot showers and plentiful salads, is a rich experience.

Yet if I had stayed home all year and tried none of these things, the experience would have been flat and unmemorable. The year would have whizzed by with plenty of comfort and peace, but nothing to broaden my experience of what it means to be alive. I would have missed out on meeting hundreds of neat humans, absorbing half a lifetime’s worth of incredible live music and having my own “big public performance” bucket list item ticked off with a solid black checkmark.

I learned some worthwhile stuff about myself, too. Although it is reassuring to know I can produce a reasonably entertaining talk if I force myself to do it, I also found out that the time sacrifice for me greatly outweighs the reward. And I really, really dislike doing the same thing over and over again. Probably for the same reason I like to hear continuously changing music (even one song repeat in a month is too much), I really dislike repetitive practice exercises. So no more stage talks will be showing up on my calendar for now.

Although the people of Canada’s Western towns are friendly and speak fondly of their lives, I feel happier than ever with my home base in Colorado, and life is richer with that knowledge.

And as for the hard manual labor out in the hot sun – I know that I’ll be keeping that kind of difficulty in my life, forever.

 

Epilogue: 

Although I wrote this from the road, I’m home now and it is an amazing experience viewed with new eyes. Our boy is back in full-time school and the days are happy and productive. Life is grand again. 

* As a young lad, Young MC’s 1988 classic Stone Cold Rhymin’ was one of the first CDs I ever bought, with money earned from delivering newspapers. I played that thing so many times that every last lyric stuck in my head, and they apparently never left. I wonder if this silly presentation on financial freedom through badassity will get stuck in that same permanent file. 

Cold like a blizzard / on the mic I am a wizard with the funky fresh rhymes comin’ out of my gizzard / never sneezin’ never coughin’ I rock the mic often / hard as a rock and no sign I’m gonna soften… Ahh,  good clean fun for a middle school white boy.

** All of the talks get recorded, but released only on an unpredictable basis through Chris Guillebeau’s Vimeo feed. If you know him, put in a request to have my talk thrown up there an it might get done faster :-)

 

  • Ruth September 2, 2016, 5:57 am

    Timely post for me. I’ll be doing my first public speaking presentation on personal finance in November (from a VERY different perspective – I’m a “reformed consuma sucka”, and I’ll be speaking about getting out of debt). The time and effort you put into your presentation is making my worry factor increase significantly. Time to get at it with new force!

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache September 2, 2016, 7:12 am

      Oh no, sorry to hear that Ruth!

      If it’s not a big production, you can definitely be more relaxed about it. For example, the first medium-big talk I did was around 2012, to a few hundred bloggers in a hotel conference room at “Fincon 12”. For that one I did about 1/4 of the work, and had some printed notes with me to stay roughly on track instead of the full burned-in script. There’s still a few pictures of it kicking around: http://static4.businessinsider.com/image/55b8c7f2ecad04153323cf1e-960/mr-money-mustache.jpg

      Reply
    • HeadedWest September 2, 2016, 8:38 am

      Whenever I have to write something substantial – a speech, a legal brief, etc. – I sit down and write a shitty version of it right away. I assume it will be bad, so I don’t stress over the quality of it. Then, I start revising it regularly until the deadline. I find that the quality of the end product is much better this way, even as I was less stressed during the whole experience because I never felt like I had to do anything great at any particular moment. YMMV but this has worked for me ever since law school.

      Reply
  • Katrina kennedy September 2, 2016, 7:24 am

    I was among the 1000 in the audience and must say you killed it! You were natural and funny and real. Thank you!! I left the auditorium and decided with my husband that we can retire in 8 years to go do what we love. Your work made my life better. Enjoy cranking out whatever you need to or nothing at all. You are appreciated.

    Reply
  • Jen September 2, 2016, 8:45 am

    Who woulda thunk you’d be visiting my old home base of Vanderhoof and Fort St. James? Must have been a good time by the shores of Stuart Lake! Funny how going away can solidify just how happy you are with “home”. xxJen in NS

    Reply
  • Kyle Smith September 2, 2016, 9:45 am

    Glad you are back. You were missed. I think this is my biggest hang up to doing artistic/creative things – the time effort never seems worth the final product. I know it is flawed thinking so hopefully I can overcome it soon.

    Reply
  • Phobic September 2, 2016, 11:00 am

    Worst nightmare. Public speaking anxiety has cost me a LOT of money over the past 10 + years. I have turned down promotions specifically because I knew I would have to speak more in large group settings and/or present to clients. I’ve been able to squeak by at the lower management level with the odd training gig here and there (5-10 people at a time), but anything more is a struggle. Although I’ve been able to muster up $1M in net worth before age 40 (mostly through frugal living), I’ve lost out on the compound benefits of at least $30 – $50k per year. I try to convince myself that I don’t move forward because I don’t want the added stress, but the fact is, I’m too afraid. Ugh. So MMM….. your recent success was really just annoying to me :) ….. cause I’m a sissy. I guess it’ll have to be “Freedom 50” instead of “Freedom 40”.

    Reply
    • Chris September 8, 2016, 2:27 pm

      What you might not realize is that you’re not that abnormal. Many famous people who speak in front of large groups are terrified even after years of doing it. If it’s something you really still want to overcome, you should join toastmasters. There are tons of people just like you, overcoming their fears in front of others just like them.

      Reply
    • 10Feetttall September 11, 2016, 10:01 am

      Hi Phobic,

      I hope you’ll consider looking into a local Toastmasters group. Visit a few, and you should find one you’re comfortable with.

      It offers a wonderful opportunity to polish your public speaking skills in a very safe and supporting environment. It’s allowed me to speak in small groups, large auditoriums and give two eulogies.

      I hope you will give it a shot. Good luck.

      Reply
  • thinkmore September 2, 2016, 12:34 pm

    I was just thinking earlier today about happiness and your article “Happiness is the only logical pursuit” and if we only pursued lowering our expectations in relation to reality then we would probably never achieve anything. After sitting on the couch then doing anything will make you happy. However, we must sometimes push ourselves to do things that are, at least to ourselves, extraordinary. In a way this is my biggest worry about ER, will I have the means to achieve goals other than just living; will I lose motivation to work on other projects.

    Reply
  • Barbara September 4, 2016, 12:54 am

    What is this “secret Etsy shop” mentioned in such a throwaway manner??

    Reply
  • dunny September 4, 2016, 9:30 am

    Congratulations on the talk. What an accomplishment! The comment on clean countertops (twice) struck me. Write more on that please. I think I get it what triggered that particular thing to be grateful for?

    Reply
  • melinda September 5, 2016, 6:03 pm

    On a small scale, I was asked if I wanted to say ‘something’ at my mothers’ funeral late last year, at first I said no I didn’t think I could a)stand up in front of people and b) I was worried I wouldn’t be able to compose myself. After much thought I knew I wanted to give a quick run down on my mum (she lived just over 85 years), she was described by many as eccentric and it didn’t long to think of material that would be entertaining. So putting it together was easy and standing up in front of nearly a hundred people didn’t prove that difficult, I kept my composure until the last few words and by then it didn’t matter. Looking back on it I was so glad I did it as some other family members wrote about her but others read it out just didn’t seem the same ‘from the heart’.
    Melinda

    Reply
  • Rachael September 5, 2016, 8:04 pm

    Your brother is Wax Mannequin from Hamilton? That is so cool.

    Reply
  • Have Mustache, Must Stash September 7, 2016, 12:45 pm

    Wow. I just read every post from the beginning of MMM time, and I am so sad to catch up.

    Through the magic of somewhat similar thinking I had already crushed all debt in my life years ago other than my mortgage, reduced driving to near zero (I work from home and have bicycles), have a bought-for-cash electric car (a Leaf) with extremely low operation costs, have a fairly low interest mortgage bought at the lowest part of the housing recession (lucky), and had already invested in Vanguard ETFs (though not nearly enough).

    I am starting the investment part late (35) due to lack of knowledge/exposure from a very poor youth leading to fear and distrust of typical stock approaches and clown like personal spending, but am vastly reassured at the examples given here in the articles and comments that even starting as late as I have the results will be worth while and timely, and that I am on the right track.

    And the cherry on top? My wife is on board with all the talking points of this blog we have gone over.

    I give you to you the glowing virtual high five of fiscal-facehair awesomeness and look forward to learning more in years to come and building my baby stash.

    Thank you for all your great articles MMM, and the community you have built. It is like finding a club for people just like you was right next door your whole life. You are seriously changing the world for the better.

    Reply
  • Amber September 7, 2016, 3:16 pm

    I love this post for 2 reasons:
    1) I hate repeating things too. Not only does public speaking terrify me to no end, but had to take it as a class in college, and practicing my speeches just felt like torture. Inevitably making my speech worse because I practiced it as few times as I could get away with. I’m glad I’m not the only one!
    2) What you said about this year passing by and being flat and unmemorable if you hadn’t done this. It’s a good reminder to step outside our comfort zones because that’s part of what life is- doing the uncomfortable and the unpredictable.

    Reply
  • Ms. Primal Prosperity September 8, 2016, 8:57 am

    We need to stress our ‘fight or flight’ system regularly, but not constantly. Sitting in a cubicle with unrealistic deadlines and being micromanaged is too much chronic stress, but being fearless and comfortable all year long, is too little stress also. Whether we do it with skydiving, speaking or starting a new venture, we need to feel the discomfort, to feel alive. The most exhilarating experiences in life usually come with discomfort.

    I was a Professional Sustainability Consultant for the Federal Government at one time. At first, I was terrified of public speaking, but when I realized that if I just spoke from the heart instead of a bunch of memorizing, I LOVED it. I also switched from technical presentations, to more behavioral/psychological presentations, which had a much greater impact on the audience. Stories and parables help too. My heart would pound during the entire speech, but the positive feedback was worth it. Co-workers that I didn’t even know would come up to my desk or send me an email telling me how much they enjoyed my presentation. That is extremely rewarding.

    Public speaking used to be my worst nightmare, but now, I give workshops and LOVE it! It is definitely a great use of time when you are financially free.

    Reply
  • Chris September 8, 2016, 2:23 pm

    I’m glad you put me on to your brother! His music is unique and awesome. I’m wondering how you get him, an engineer (I guess technically 2) and a Mr. Money Mustache. Your parents must be awesome. Either way, thanks!

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache September 11, 2016, 10:47 am

      Glad you dig Wax Mannequin, Chris!

      The quick answer is that our parents are both artsies (A writer/musician Dad and artist Mum), so all four of us kids are into music and find creative pursuits to be the most interesting. But three of us chose to sell our souls into the easy money of Engineering because we were OK at math/science as well. Also, the fields are not as dissimilar as they sound.

      Reply
  • Greg MacLachlan September 11, 2016, 9:28 pm

    I’m absolutely blown away! My band (an acoustic duo called The Crossroad Magdalenes) opened for your brother Wax Mannequin in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario on his way through home to hamilton. Ha! I read your blog all the time and I loved his show. Super quirky weird stuff. Right up my alley. I had a beer with him and we chatted about touring and teaching (both of us are teachers) and kids. Small world. If you ever drive or even better–bike–across Canada, you have to stop here because there’s nowhere else to stop for hours. And the north shore of Lake Superior is phenomenal. Group of Seven painted there. I’m off topic. Small world. You and your brother are great!

    Reply
  • rollie fingers September 20, 2016, 11:50 am

    I have been lurking this site for a while, interested because I agree with so many of the philosophies.

    This particular post really struck a cord, inspiring me to break out of my comfort zone and rebuild my own deck instead of paying for a contractor to do it.

    And even though I am more likely to bash my thumb instead of hitting the nail, it is done!

    Thanks for the motivation!!

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache September 20, 2016, 4:21 pm

      Go for it Rollie!

      And to save your fingertips, note that there are not too many nails in a good deck project – you’ll want to screw those deck boards down instead and use long structural screws (like Simpson Strongdrive) to attach together any bigger joists beneath.

      If working with joist hangers and such, use a pneumatic palm nailer to drive the little 1.5″ nails, because there will be hundreds of them. (Palm nailer example – the one I use: http://amzn.to/2cPKEe3)

      Reply
      • rollie fingers September 21, 2016, 11:22 am

        haha, my wife will be interested to know you sided with her on the debate of nails vs screws (sounds like maybe not much of a debate in reality).

        I stripped a couple screws and just gave in to my cave man desire to bash stuff.

        Reply
  • SquirrelSoup September 29, 2016, 8:54 pm

    Too Funny! Many giggles had I reading this post – I just watched the vid a week or so ago and enjoyed your seemingly low key, rehearsed but not starched, script. I am amused to hear about your months of angst behind the scenes! Having done some speeching in public I really laughed at your commentary from Amit when asked for advice!

    I wanted to make the comment that what made me watch the talk was that I haven’t seen your face much – and these are Screen Times my friend. I have read your blog for over a year but was drawn to view the video by sheer curiosity, more than lack of familiarity with your material. If you stick by your decision to remain out of the spotlight and off stages,(which will prove to be very difficult as I bet more and more will demand to see you now) I predict your fame and cult following will only grow more exponentially; as it already comes off as, Old School. You’ll become like Streisand or something! All the rarer for not showing up in public on demand. I am a creature who prefers shadey undergrowth of the sidelines too and appreciate your counter culture choice – ( yet another one.)
    Well done, it was a good talk and the kitschy stick people power points slides gave it a humours touch: intended or otherwise.

    Reply
  • Joe October 2, 2016, 8:03 pm

    For others who read deep into the comments section, the video is available: https://vimeo.com/183016901

    MMM if you read this, you might add another footnote to the article with the direct link

    Reply
  • Karen October 3, 2016, 6:15 pm

    Hey, I just watched your video from WDS, loved your talk! I’m sad I missed it this year. Take care!

    Reply
  • AnnieB October 12, 2016, 4:14 pm

    I watched the tape and was very entertained. You did a great job! When I used to teach college courses, I did very little preparation and it took years to become comfortable enough to feel that I was a good speaker. I am very impressed by all your preparation!

    Reply
  • Natasha January 30, 2017, 6:10 am

    You did a great job!! I appreciate it so much more knowing how hard you tried. It makes you human and I can connect with that. I have the same huge fears of presenting in front of an audience so I applaud you!!

    Reply
  • Steve P. May 18, 2018, 2:31 pm

    Dear MMM,
    Thank you so much for doing that talk, it’s how I first heard about you. I’m currently reading through all of the articles, just starting to get back into riding a bicycle and aiming for that 75%+ savings rate and cleaning up my bad transportation choices.

    Thank you again,

    Steve Phillips

    Reply

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