Be really good at one thing

Ivan Orkin in culinary school. I love this photo.

I love watching Chef’s Table on Netflix.

I love seeing how just one thing – cooking – can become the source of so much joy, frustration, achievement, failure. In other words, an entire universe.

For many (if not all) of these chefs, cooking is something upon which they build their entire lives.

In the recent episode I watched, ramen chef Ivan Orkin had a difficult childhood. As a kid, no one expected much of him. He drifted until, one day, he became obsessed with… ramen. This obsession was pivotal because it led to him unlocking the discipline and focus that were previously missing in his life. He later opened his own ramen shop in Japan and gained success as being “one of the best ramen makers on the planet”.

Just this one thing – cooking ramen well – has transformed Orkin’s life.

So, this week’s food for thought: Instead of wanting to do or be many things, why not work at becoming really good – single-mindedly good – at one thing?

Why not be an expert at writing about food (and only food)? Why not be so good at teaching cycling that you are at the top of people’s mind whenever anyone wants to learn to ride a bike?

Once you can be known for being good at one thing, this one thing can then become a platform, a stepping board, to other things.

What’s your one thing?

How not to have a full-time job ever again

The rat race sucks. It really does. Especially if you desperately don’t want to be in it.

Don’t make the mistake though of thinking you can never get out of it. You can – if you want it enough.

I don’t have a full-time job and haven’t had one in the last 10 years (except for 6 months in 2009, when I got a 9-5 job so I could test whether I was indeed allergic to it. It turned out that I was!).

I don’t ever intend to have one again.

My life goal is to always make a living on my own terms.

When I first started out on this whole “no full-time job for me” journey, I remember thinking to myself, “By hook or by crook, I am going to make this happen.”

And so it has. Today, I make a living by selling my creativity as a freelance photographer. Companies and brands pay me to take photographs for them, which they then use to sell their products.

The main perk of making a living on my own terms is FREEDOM.

Freedom to wake up anytime I want (on non-photoshoot days, at least), travel whenever I want (since I make my own schedule); freedom to work from home, or indeed anywhere at all; freedom to chart my own path in life, etc.

It’s of course not always a fluffy life and comes with its challenges, but I accept them as a natural part of this freelance life. I am not bothered by its unpredictability, nor am I fazed by its ups and downs – I accept them as a just price to pay for this sweet freedom.

Step 0: Decide that you want this and commit to making it happen

If you are reading this article, I assume this is a life that you want.

But before you read on, I want to say: Only people with a never-say-die spirit need apply.

If you are prone to giving up and doing easy things for your short term happiness, and are not willing to work hard for your long term fulfillment and success, close this window now. This piece is not for you.

But if you are not the sort to give up easily, then welcome to the club! Welcome to a life of sweet freedom that is also peppered by hard work and seemingly-insurmountable obstacles. But ultimately – trust me – there is no other way to live.

Step 1: Cultivating the right success mindsets

(A) Congratulations. You have a never-say-die spirit. You are going to go far because you are not good at accepting things for what they are. You have a dream and you will fight to make it happen. You don’t saddle yourself down with excuses like, “Oh, it’s time to stop dreaming, not everyone is lucky enough to be able to quit their jobs and do what they like.”

(B) Newsflash: Every successful person is a dreamer. Jack Ma is a dreamer. Elon Musk is a dreamer. Steve Jobs was a dreamer. We can’t all be Jack Mas and Elon Musks, but if we don’t allow ourselves to dream, we won’t even have a fighting chance. (Elon Musk is dreaming of bringing us normal people to space in the next few decades. No one is a bigger dreamer than him these days!)

(C) It’s not just about luck. Luck is the least important ingredient in success. Luck is winning $2 million in the lottery, but success is knowing the right things to do with that $2 million. Many lottery winners are lucky – most of them don’t end up successful.

(D) Hard work can create luck. Persistence can create luck. Saying yes and grabbing on to opportunities can create luck. Learning from your failures can create luck.

(E) The world is indeed big and scary but there is always a place for you. It’s not about conquering the world. Most of us are not going to be tycoons and superstars, but we do have the ability to conquer a small corner, build a small following, and make that corner our own little universe. In that little universe we can thrive and make our own living and live our own good life. There is a reason why, in the world of cheap furniture via IKEA, a small furniture brand like TRUCK in Japan can have such a strong cult following and become such a successful business.

(F) Don’t live in an imaginary prison of limiting beliefs. Don’t lock yourself in with the rules of society and throw the key away. There is more than one way to live. For example, you don’t need expensive equipment to become a good photographer; a $1,000 setup can do the job if you are good enough. Nor do you need to spend five years slogging as a photographer’s assistant before you are qualified to strike out on your own. Yes, these can work for some photographers, but they are not hard rules. So feel free to reject everything people tell you about anything – that includes this article right here. The only rule I follow is this: there are no rules, and anything is possible.

Step 2: What skill can you sell?

Now we come to the practical side of things.

If you want to not have a full-time job ever again, you need to find a way to sell something in exchange for money.

In a way, that’s all to it. What can you sell that people are willing to buy?

Since we are talking about becoming a successful freelance creative, we are talking about, specifically, skills.

Are you good at photography? Writing? Design? Making short films? Creating beautiful origami? Making plush toys? Drawing? Designing WordPress themes?

You might not be able to figure it out by merely thinking. Go and try doing it. See if you actually like it. Experiment, fail, try again. Rinse and repeat until you find that one skill you can sell for money.

If you think you are not good at any particular skill, go and become good at one. Borrow library books, find videos on Youtube. The Internet revolution is also an educational revolution. Nowadays you can learn anything for free, as long as you want to.

Pro tip: Remember, the whole point of quitting your job to do this is to be happy. You are not going to be happy doing something you don’t like. So the convergence of both passion and skill is important (you can’t just do something you are good at but don’t like, and you can’t just do something you like but are not good at).

Step 3: Save a year of expenses and quit your damn job

Some people make the mistake of pursuing their dreams with $0 in their bank. Don’t do that.

Most of you probably have a job right now. Don’t quit immediately. Save your salary radically – save enough so you can afford not to work for a year, if possible. That gives you the buffer to try and make your freelance creative life happen. It will also help save you all the stress and anxiety and despair and grief of being broke.

Once you have some savings, I suggest quitting your job as soon as possible, because a job is only a distraction. People think they can build their side hustle at night and during the weekends. That’s a delusion (not for everyone, but for most people). It’s the reason why many people fail to make a living as a freelance creative – they simply don’t have the time and mental capacity to go all in and devote enough energy to making their freelance creative life happen.

Pro tip: Don’t wait too long to start. Don’t spend 10 years trying to save enough money. Remind yourself that it’s also going to take time to build up your freelance creative life, so the earlier you can start the better. Once you quit, you can take on part-time jobs for additional income. That’s fine since it only takes up a small part of your time – the majority of your time should be spent hustling.

Step 4: Be so good they can’t ignore you

Cal Newport has written a classic book on this topic, but even if you don’t want to read the book, the idea itself is enough to inspire.

Yes, as we will find out later, being good is not enough. There are a lot of talented people who languish in obscurity (that’s where marketing comes into the picture), but yet if you suck at your craft…

Then why even pursue your craft at all?

Half the pleasure of making a living doing what you love is being good at it.

Furthermore, if you are terribly good at your craft, you will experience the Apple Phenomenon – their products are so good and so desirable people practically beg to buy them.

Pro tip: You don’t have to be the best in the world. But you need to be good enough. In other words, you cannot suck.

Step 6: Infuse your personality into your craft

Authenticity has become a buzzword nowadays. But it has never gone out of style. Just as with everything, realness attracts. By being true to yourself, you show the world that you are your own person. My favorite people on the Internet (who are also very successful – not by chance) are all super honest, quirky, and real.

That’s what separates you from the crowd.

Tweet or blog or Instagram or write copy or sell yourself in YOUR voice.

Whatever you do, don’t be cookie-cutter.

Step 7: Market yourself

Marketing is not just social media marketing.

A design studio that spends a year working on a travel guide as a side project and wins awards for it is doing marketing. When I started the photo project “Creative People + Projects“, I was doing marketing. Marketing is basically you allowing the world to know that you exist, and that you are good at doing this thing that you do.

When all else fails, don’t forget to ask for what you want.

Step 8: Build a network of relationships

No man is an island, and no freelancer, especially, is an island.

It’s important to build a network of relevant relationships.

In my industry, the people who give me jobs are photo editors, art/creative directors, designers, etc. To make sure they know I exist, I must find a way to appear in front of them. For instance, many of these creative types read magazines like Monocle and Wallpaper*. I must then try to shoot for these magazines – that’s how I give them the chance to see my work.

What really helped my career was also doing my photo project “Creative People + Projects“. I got many jobs from photo editors or art directors who said they found me through that project. And that’s because it’s the kind of project that naturally attracts the attention of creative people like them.

The beauty of growing a network of relationships is that one person can recommend your work to three of their friends, and each of these three can introduce to three more. If your work is good, word-of-mouth alone can help your network to grow exponentially.

All freelance creatives depend on this network. Build a strong one and you will never starve.

Step 9: Offer your services at a premium

Many freelance creatives fail because they charge too little for their services. So they end up not being able to feed themselves.

If you charge $20/hour for your work, you will get clients who have a $20/hour budget. But if you charge $400/hour for your work, you will get clients who have a $400/hour budget. Work less for more money. But provide true value. (Don’t be a fraud.)

Step 10: Know when to give up

By giving up, I don’t mean giving up on the dream of making a living on your own terms. But if something (say, becoming a singer-songwriter) is not working out for you after years of trying your best, maybe it’s time to give it up and move on to something else.

Perhaps, because of your experience in music, you also turn out to be a good producer. So now, instead of making your own music, you help other people produce their music, and in turn you get to earn a living and still be close to music.

This might actually allow you to find some unexpected happiness and fulfillment. (It’s not always about doing what you love – sometimes it’s about balancing doing something you kind of love with financial stability with a sense of purpose).

Step 11: Have no backup plan

Have no backup plan. Don’t tell yourself, “If I fail, I can always get another job.” No, you are not going to fail. And no, you are not going to get another job (because you will only be the same kind of miserable as you were the last time).

You are going to make it happen, no matter what.

Only when you have no backup plan will you not be tempted to fall back on it, and only then will you be literally forced into becoming successful (since your survival depends on it).

Take the example of Mark Wiens, the founder of the super popular Thai food blog

“… English teaching was not for me (it was a great experience, but teaching English is just not my passion).

But during that year, I set a personal goal that I would never teach again, and that I would find a way to make a living on the internet, so I could travel (and eat) and earn money at the same time.

It wasn’t easy.

Every spare moment I would blog and sit glued in front of my laptop until my eyes went crazy.

It took about 3 years of online work and experimenting before I really started making enough to live fully and support anyone other than myself.

But when you have a goal you’re working towards, you’ll do what it takes to get there.”

He didn’t stop until he made it happen.

Step 12: HAVE FUN!

To quit the rat race and make a living doing what you enjoy is more than just about not having to commute to work and being able to wake up anytime you want.

If you go deeper, it’s about living life to your full potential, stretching yourself and becoming the person you know you are deep down inside. When you live in connection with this true part of yourself, a whole new world is unlocked.

Being able to do what you are meant to do is a hugely positive thing not just for yourself, but also for this world. When your talents and creative energies and purpose align, wonderful things happen. Again, not just for yourself, but also for this world.

Most people never get there.

Don’t be most people.

And while you are it, don’t forget to enjoy yourself!

In summary

This is only a rough guide. There is no way anyone can tell you how to get from Point A to your destination. Every individual must find his own way through the thicket of confusion and fear.

But this article is meant to give you a much-needed kick in your ass.

It’s meant to open a door and show you that hey, there is a whole new world behind this door.

Go and explore.

Don’t be afraid!

And then come back one day to tell us about your adventures.

Help other people

There is an interesting truth about business success that many creatives don’t understand (or don’t want to recognize) – it’s not just about what you are good at or what you are passionate about; it’s about what people are willing to pay you for.

Why do people pay for things?

They pay when someone can help them solve their problems.

For example, when you are sick you see a doctor. You willingly pay your doctor because he helps you feel better by giving you a diagnosis and by dispensing medicine.

Or you are concerned about growing old, so you buy skincare products that promise to have anti-aging properties. Again, you are willing to pay good money for these products because they help you to solve your problem, which is an intense fear of looking old and haggard.

If you are thinking of doing your own thing – starting a small one-person business or becoming a freelancer – you must continually ask yourself: are you helping people to solve their problems?

Are you providing real value and making other people’s lives better?

If you are, then there is a good chance that you might succeed, because it means there is actually demand for what you offer.

A very good example of someone who hit the sweet spot of convergence between passion + skill + value is Brett Kelly. He is the creator of Evernote Essentials, originally a book but now a multi-format resource about how best to use the app Evernote.

He liked using Evernote, he was very good at it, and apparently, there is a whole bunch of people who really want to learn to become better at it. It is this huge demand that has made Evernote Essentials such a big success (over 75,000 people have bought the product).

I know creatives don’t like the idea that they exist in a market with supply and demand forces. It’s boring; they just want to create or make their art. But we cannot deny the reality that whatever we do, it is a form of economic activity, and we are subjected to the same forces that other businesses are subjected to, no matter how good our art or creativity is.

If we want to have some form of success, we must create value for other people. In other words, we must help others.

Another example I love of an awesome small business that combines passion + skill + value is Elmastudio, a WordPress theme studio run by a husband and wife team. Their income comes from selling the beautiful WordPress themes they create (passion + skill), but the main reason they can make a living off what they do is because their themes help people to create beautiful websites, even if they have no web design skills. Elmastudio solves a real problem in people’s lives.

Since we are on an example spree, here’s another one.

One of the best food blogs I have ever seen is It’s successful, I believe, because it’s not just a self-indulgent blog about the author’s favorite food. Its success must lie in the value it provides its readers. The blog is updated regularly with new eating finds throughout Thailand (a great resource for a foodie traveling there), and it has a wonderful recipe section – with great photography and easy-to-follow instructions – that teaches people how to cook authentic Thai food. The last I saw, there were 274 comments on his latest recipe. That’s a lot of demand!

So… in the work we do as a creative entrepreneur, it’s often not about us, but about our viewers, readers or clients.

By putting them first, by doing our best to give them great value and by doing everything we can to help them solve their problems, it’s hard not to be successful. In fact, our viewers, readers or clients might even beg to pay us.

Keep showing up

Screen Shot 2017-01-19 at 10.41.31 AM

I almost didn’t make this week’s publishing schedule, mainly due to an intense week of photoshoots, photoshoots, and more photoshoots. I’ve been super busy.

But somehow skipping this week’s article was out of the question. I’d promised to write one article a week for this blog, and I’ve decided that I am going to do just that, rain or shine.

In the department of blogging, I have failed, been inconsistent, and given up an embarrassing number of times – but this time I truly want things to be different, and for that to happen, I have to start showing up, no matter how busy I am with the other (always seemingly more important) things in my life.

The art of showing up

When life gets busy or tiring or overwhelming it can be hard to show up and do the work. Harder than most people imagine.

Gary Vaynerchuck is famous nowadays for being a loud-mouth entrepreneur who can be seen on viral Facebook videos teaching people how to hustle and market themselves on the internet… But before this he was the creator and host of WineLibraryTV, a daily youtube series about wine that went on for 1,000 episodes.

Yes, ONE THOUSAND episodes, one a day, for five long years.

This is the first episode of the now legendary series.

He showed up every single day and built a massive audience over that time (growing WineLibrary from a $4 million dollar business to a $45 million business).

And the amazing thing is, very few people were watching his videos in the first two years, but he kept at it.

Not many people can do that.

People ask how they can build an audience, start a successful freelance career, grow a small business – that’s how. By showing up and doing the work every day. Over time people begin to hear about you. It’s inevitable.


A few friends have asked me how I find the time and commitment to keep writing for this blog.

It’s all about focus.

Besides my work as a photographer, I have decided to make this blog my priority this year. Not one of many priorities, but THE priority.

The process of sharing everything I have learned (no holds barred) about creative entrepreneurship and how to live an unconventional, successful life with people through this blog has been very fulfilling (and even educational) for me.

It’s still early days, but I have an intuition that if I keep at this consistently over the next few years, wonderful things are going to happen. And that’s because sharing openly – and helping others live a better and happier life in the process – is a tremendously valuable thing.

And the second reason is… that I am just really passionate about it. I have many ideas for the blog and I’m very excited about what is to come. And I truly enjoy doing this. Even though no one is paying me to write at the moment, I am still happy to spend a lot of my time working on it.

So since my blog is my priority, it’s always at the top of my mind. I’m always thinking and brainstorming about what I can do to make this blog better. I also derive a great deal of purpose and meaning from it. Yes, there are still a hundred other things I want to work on (being me), but I have realized that this is one of the most powerful things I can do right now – sharing, teaching, giving, without asking for anything in return.

Which is why I’m saying yes to this and no to the hundreds of other possible things I could be doing.

I’ve laid out the path, all I need to do is walk it.

(But you do need to know what is the one thing you should focus on and show up for. Give yourself some time to find your focus. Don’t just jump into the first thing you can think of. I recommend the book The One Thing as a good starting point.)


There is an almost perverse kind of pleasure in doing what you’d set out to do.

Planning to do something rocks. Dreaming of doing something rocks too. The actual doing… not so much sometimes.

It’s easy to succumb to laziness and to come up with excuses to avoid doing something we’d planned to do. Often we can even derive some pleasure from this avoidance. But it never lasts.

On the other hand, I have discovered that it can be fun to be, well, disciplined. Obviously, we can’t be disciplined all the time, but with things that really matter, DOING can be the most satisfying, fulfilling and happiest feeling ever.

(Fun tip: You don’t need to be disciplined about everything, just the essential things that, when done, can move you forward or nearer to your Big Goals in Life, caps mine.)

When you actually do something you’d set out to do, and you do that consistently over time, you are in a good place to make some very magical things happen in your life.

Don’t take my words for it. Try it for yourself.

A simple trick

Human beings are not good with abstraction. “I want to read more books in 2017” is a vague resolution that is probably not going to happen for most people, unless you use this little trick:

Be ultra-specific about your goal. Numbers and dates are your best friends.

For example, to make my blogging consistent, I have committed to writing one article a week every Thursday. It’s set in stone (except in the case of Extreme Calamities). It’s very specific – one article, not two. And it must be published every Thursday, not Monday or Wednesday or Saturday.

We humans work very well within constraints and limits (even if artificial).

Another example – you want to read a lot more books this year. Why not commit to reading at least 20 pages every week day? “20” is a number, “every week day” is a date.

Again, don’t take my words for it. Try it for yourself.

Do difficult things

Contrary to what we usually believe… the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times – although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. – “Flow”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I believe in doing hard things, even though I’m not always good at practising what I preach.

Quite a few years ago I got into a habit of doing things that I didn’t feel like doing.

For example, every time I wanted to swim but felt like the pool was too cold for me to jump into, I made myself do it. Or when I didn’t want to eat healthy, I would make myself do the opposite and eat healthy instead.

Then I realised something – most of the things I didn’t feel like doing were things that were good for me, and I didn’t feel like doing them because they felt like a chore. But if I ignored how difficult the activity was and simply did it, I would reap its benefits and feel really… happy.

That’s basically what Csikszentmihalyi’s talking about in the quote above. His two main points are:

(1) Happiness is actually something we can create.

(2) We can create happiness by immersing ourselves in doing difficult but rewarding activities.

He wrote an entire book on this topic, so you can be sure that it’s a much more layered issue than I’ve made it seem, but I think he’s right.

Like a few months ago when I did a pretty big photoshoot in Kuala Lumpur – three full days of shoot, a huge crew, shooting in the blazing hot sun, a long shot list – it was so physically and mentally demanding that by the time we were done with the shoot, the happiness level of the entire crew went through the roof. If it had been a simple one-hour shoot, I don’t think we would have ended it with a good dinner at a famous tze char place in KL and a round of beer and big hugs and a pretty good feeling in our bellies.

Or how like when you have had a long, hard day at work and you come home and you crash on your sofa and you watch a really good show on Netflix like Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul and you think to yourself, ahhhh, now this is heaven. It probably wouldn’t feel the same if you had already been lounging at home the entire day being a couch potato.

We all want to find happiness. Sometimes we find it staring into the eyes of someone we love. Sometimes we find it on an airplane traveling 500 miles per hour towards a new city. But sometimes we find it in a hard and dark place, and when we finally emerge out of it we are drenched with satisfaction, peace and something resembling… happiness.

Do you have 1,000 true fans?


I’m a huge fan of this singer-songwriter guy from Hong Kong called Chet Lam.

As an independent singer-songwriter, he has never signed to a huge record label. You probably haven’t heard of him. He’s not world-famous. He doesn’t have millions of fans. Yet for many years now – since 2003 – he has been able to make a living from making music for a very small, niche market – the Chinese-language independent music industry in Asia.

Over the last 13 years of his career, he has released 15 albums, performed at countless sold-out live shows, released DVDs of his concerts, written books, acted in plays. He has even released his very own cookbook.

I buy almost all of the stuff that he releases.

I’m subscribed to his mailing list, his Facebook fan page, his Instagram, and every time he releases a new album or a new book, I buy it. Almost without question.

I’m what they call a true fan – a fan who laps up everything he does. Repeatedly. (Lesson number 1: You can sell to true fans over and over again.) And since he’s independent, every dollar I spend goes directly to him.

You see, we always think we need millions (or hundreds of thousands) of fans to make it as a creator. We don’t. What we need are thousands of die-hard fans who are willing to buy the things we put out – whether it’s an album or a book or a print or a t-shirt.

There is a name for this little phenomenon – the 1,000 True Fans theory.

Over the last decade Chet Lam has managed to build a tribe of true fans who genuinely adore him, who buy his every product, go to his every concert, read his every book, support every one of his (inevitably successful) crowdfunding campaigns. This tribe of true fans cannot be bought, like how one can easily buy fake likes on social media these days. To be effective, this tribe must be carefully cultivated.

Throughout his career, Chet Lam has kept his fans updated with news of his latest projects. The medium evolves constantly – it used to be a blog that he updated with some regularity, now it’s updates on his social media accounts like Instagram and Facebook. We move along with him through life. We watch him as he grows through his various projects. As fans we feel invested, engaged. So when he has a new project, we genuinely want to support him.

Yes, it might be called the 1,000 True Fans theory, but you can have 1,000 fans, or 500 fans, or 25,000 fans, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about the number. It’s about having genuinely engaged and interested fans.

They are the ones who can help you make a living as a creator.

So, do you have 1,000 true fans?

To ask a more important question: How are you going to cultivate your own 1,000 true fans?

“Do you make enough money to survive?”

In my long journey to escape this whole giant rat race, I have been asked this question multiple times.

When I was running my cafe, people – random strangers – would come up to me and ask bluntly, “So are you able to make money doing this?” (The honest answer? No.)

Later on, I’d had to deal with the skepticism of my family and friends about the inherent financial instability of my decision to find my own way in this world.

Meeting up with friends from school was painful sometimes. At that time they were all fresh university graduates and had all just secured comfortable jobs paying them $3,000 – $5,000 a month. They would openly and excitedly exchange their salary figures, but would look at me quizzically and ask, “So… are you doing okay? Surviving?”

It was a good time in their lives and I was truly happy for them, and it really wasn’t their fault at all that they would ask me something like that – they were just concerned about me.

Most people have this idea that freelancers cannot earn much money and don’t have much job security. When I was starting out, that was certainly true – I really was barely scraping by. For YEARS. To add on to everything was the interminable uncertainty, unlike my friends, who could look forward to their promotions and their bonuses.

But having come a little further along the journey, I want to dispel the misconception that freelancers cannot earn good money.

Fear, lots and lots of fear

Many people desperately want to quit their jobs and start their own small businesses or become a successful freelancer (just look around you).

They want the perks that come with the freelance life. The freedom. Not having to wake up to go to the office every day. Not having to answer to a boss or to have to do things that suck the joy out of their soul.

But they don’t want the sacrifices and the pain and the uncertainty that come with actually quitting their jobs to do their own thing.

Mostly, they are mortally afraid – of not having their salary automatically transferred to their bank accounts every month; of not making enough money to feed themselves.

Fear sucks.

Two truths

Truth number 1: Freelancers can make good money.

Truth number 2: Full-time employees are often underpaid.

I have a very talented friend working at an art studio who earns $1,800 a month. And another friend who’s a full-time designer who earns less than $2,500 a month, even though she’s an amazing designer.

That’s not cool.

They are clearly underpaid (for their talents). If they could just venture out to do their own thing, they might be able to earn more, and have more creative freedom at that.

Step into a world of possibilities

I want to show you a year-by-year highlight of how much money I have made since I quit university to pursue my own path.

I’m doing this to show you real figures that a real freelancer makes (and can potentially make), so that you are no longer in the dark about the financial possibilities of working for yourself.

It takes patience, lots and lots of hard work, and some creative thinking (and very thick skin – by that I mean a slight disregard for what society thinks of you). It can take years before you even start seeing any returns. And then it might take years for things to start getting stable.

But it’s all worth it.

No pain, no gain.

A rundown

2007 – A year after I quit university, I started running my cafe. Startup capital was borrowed from my parents (I’d like to acknowledge how blessed I am to have parents who were crazy enough to support me in whatever I wanted to do). Every month I paid myself about $300 in living expenses. This went on for about two years. In that time I barely went out (I spent most of my time working in my cafe) so I didn’t need that much money.

2009 – After my cafe closed, I decided to give a 9-5 job a try. I got a job at a local arts organisation. My take home pay was about $1,500/month. This went on for six months, then I quit.

June 2009 – I’d had my taste of a regular job, and I hated it. It confirmed my gut feeling: I’m not cut out to work for someone else. It was at this point that I steeled my resolve to make a living working for myself doing what I love. I didn’t know yet what that was; all I knew was that I didn’t want to work in an office. I wanted to create my own path, even if I didn’t have a roadmap. During this time I began trying to become a freelance writer (since, after some serious thinking, it was a skill I had and something I thought I’d enjoy doing). I started writing for free for a few publications. I survived on the money I’d saved from my job at the arts organisation.

2010 – Throughout 2010 I probably earned not more than $1,000 from all my freelance writing assignments. I realised at this point that freelance writing pays peanuts. I took on a translation project that paid somewhat better at $100 per article. It was a difficult time.

2011 – I began teaching tuition. I worked quite hard and had quite a few students so I began earning about $1,500/month. I didn’t really enjoy it but it helped me to survive while I continued finding my own way as a freelance creative. At this stage I was winding down on my freelance writing (although there wasn’t much to wind down haha) and trying to figure out my next step. Going back to a 9-5 job was definitely not an option for me.

2012 – I started part-time hosting a radio show. It paid a few hundred dollars a month. I was still teaching tuition to survive at this point, so I was earning about $1,500-$1,800 a month. Early 2012, I decided I would try to become a freelance photographer (something I’d always wanted to pursue but hadn’t dared to, since it felt like an impossible goal), since I’d failed to gain any traction in freelance writing. I started doing my personal photo project Creative People + Projects and began telling everyone I knew that I was now “a photographer”. Began shooting free and low-paying photography jobs for all sorts of different people.

April 2013 – After about a year of shooting, directly because of my photo project Creative People + Projects, I got my first 4-figure ($5,000) photography job and another 4-figure job ($3,500 to shoot a magazine cover) within a month. I consider these two jobs together as my first big break. The income I earned from them gave me the confidence (and the financial buffer) to keep persisting. I also started doing editorial (magazine) work that paid a few hundred dollars a shoot after I decided to ask.

April 2014 – This was a huge milestone for me: I got my first 5-figure photography job. I was jumping with joy when the job was confirmed. It was a commercial shoot for a private bank’s publication that paid about $13,000 for 3 half-day shoots.

June 2014 – From this point onwards, I began getting a steady stream of photography jobs. Most of them were 4-figure and 5-figure commercial jobs. I continued to shoot editorial work at the same time.

July 2015 – Another milestone: I got paid $20,000 to shoot an advertising billboard. 2 days’ work.

Dec 2016 – I recently got represented by a photo agency who will now help promote me and help me get bigger commercial/advertising jobs. It’s been 3 years since photography became financially viable for me, allowing me to pursue it full time; 10 years since I quit university to pursue my own path in life. In between, 7 years of self-doubting, uncertainty, searching, failing. In the last 3 years as a photographer I haven’t stopped working.

Some questions

The most important question in your mind – how does a freelancer get 4-figure and 5-figure jobs?

The grossly simplified answer – by working with corporations who have money. Companies are all about the bottom line. If you can help them earn money, they tend to pay well. So think of how your skills can help a company or a brand earn money.

Creativity is a much-needed skill in today’s society because it helps a company stand out from the noise. Example: If you are good at miniature food styling, you could have been hired by Singapore Airlines to consult for this brilliant advertisement that features… miniature food:

For photography, since it is so tied up with the commercial needs of companies and organisations (almost every brand in the world needs photography to tells its story), it becomes something that is highly valued.

If you want to be pragmatic, find a skill that the market needs (this is very important if you want a lucrative career as a freelancer) and that you enjoy, and become good at it, then use it to help companies earn money. Example: Aaron Nieh, a designer from Taiwan, is so good at what he does that he practically designs the album covers of every singer in Taiwan with good taste – his design helps them to sell their CDs; even the Taiwanese government engaged him to do design work for them. (In future articles I will write about how to attract the attention of companies and brands. According to Cal Newport, one way is to be so good they can’t ignore you.)

Still, generally, all kinds of freelance work has the potential to give you more income than if you were working a normal job (unless you have climbed to the upper levels of the corporate ladder, then that’s a different story).

Can a freelancer have consistent income?

There are always going to be ups and downs. Some months you earn more, some months you earn less. But at the end of the day, if you can get big jobs, the bigger jobs can make up for the bad days.

Does freelance work ever become stable?

Yes and no. There is no inherent stability in being a freelancer. One day you might be busy fending off potential clients, another day you might be sitting at home refreshing your email, hoping for a job request. And that’s okay. That’s a truth you need to live with if you want the other (good) parts of this life. To counter this, learn to save as much of your income as you can for rainy days (an important lesson that I learned that will be the topic for a future post).

Do you need to be the best in your field to earn a good living as a freelancer?

No. Is anyone really the best in their field? There’s always someone better. I definitely don’t think that I’m the best in my field, but I think I’m good enough. I have also built relationships over the years, giving me access to a network of opportunities. These people in my network think of me when they want to hire a photographer. That’s how I get many of my jobs.

At which point does one consider oneself a “successful” freelancer?

When there is more or less a constant stream of work; when you have more job requests than you can take up; when you need to reject jobs.

Is freelancing a good path for everyone to pursue?

The honest answer is… no. Or at least it can be much more challenging for people who have dependents and who have to support their family. Or if they already have a massive college debt to pay off. Having said that, nothing is impossible in this world. If this is what you want, nothing should stop you (or at least give yourself the chance to have a go at it before throwing in the towel).

The economy is really bad now. Should I still pursue my dream of being a freelancer?

Any time is an okay time to pursue your dream. It’s not about the economy. The economy will go up and down. But you can control how little you need. The less you need, the less you can afford to earn. That gives you some buffer to experiment with your life (especially if you are still young right now). So go and try. If you die tomorrow, would you regret the life you didn’t dare to live?

In closing

This was a long, slightly unnerving post to write. I’m a little nervous about putting it all out there like this, but I have learned that, if one wants to share effectively, honesty / total transparency is always the best policy.

I also wrote this to encourage the many people I know – including many of my friends – who want to quit the rat race and live life on their own terms. I hope this gave you a view of the possibilities of a freelance career and a strong push to pursue the life you want.

As always, I hope this article proved helpful and encouraging to you!

Got any more questions? Feel free to ask in the comment section below.

What I learned from doing something consistently for a year

For a period of about a year, I wrote a weekly column for Lianhe Zaobao, a national Chinese-language newspaper in Singapore. My article appeared every Thursday, like clockwork.

My very first column. I wish I had a better picture of it.

I wrote about everything under the sun. My topics ranged from photography, traveling, swimming, reading… to music, meditation, death, etc.

The newspaper had a huge audience (as of August 2016, their circulation is about 180,000), and the other columnists were all older, experienced writers, so it was both incredibly pressurizing, and also a great opportunity and platform.

My column started in March 2013. I wrote close to 40 articles in total over the next year. At that time I was about 27 and not quite yet a photographer. Nobody really knew who I was and I hadn’t really been published anywhere before.

Here are some lessons I learned from the experience:

(1) The fact that an established national newspaper would let a young nobody write a weekly column for it suggests that… anyone can break into any inner circle, no matter how seemingly impenetrable. So young nobodies take heart.

(2) If you let a big organization or company or brand know you exist, you would have given your chances of being “discovered” a big boost. I first wrote to the newspaper floating the idea of me writing a column for them in 2009 (I just checked my email archives). The editor replied me a week later, saying we could meet up for a chat, but I never heard from them again until three years later.

(3) Try to sell yourself in some way, even if you’re a young nobody. When I wrote to them in 2009, apart from being the founder/owner of a cafe that had received some media attention, I had only written some articles on my blog and been published in some small, independent publications. Since this was all I had, I used them to sell myself. Any small achievements can be part of your portfolio, if (and only if) they are relevant.

(4) It can take awhile for things to happen. About three years passed since my first email before I heard from the paper again. I think a columnist had just ended his run, so there was now an opportunity for a new columnist to come on board. In those three years, I had managed to write a lot more and was by then hosting a radio programme for a national radio station. I was still a nobody, but a much more experienced nobody.

(5) Writing a weekly column was fun at first but soon it became quite frustrating, since I had to write a high-quality article once a week while I was trying to break into the photography industry. It was challenging. I never learned to accumulate my articles so I could give myself some lead time. This is something to note the next time I write a newspaper column again.

(6) Being committed to something like this made me work hard. I’m a lazy person by nature, but being a columnist for a national newspaper gave me enough pressure to actually deliver. Week after week. It FORCED me to work because I was already (very publicly) committed. It’s a rather sado-masochistic way to “get things done”, but it works.

(7) There is therefore a beauty in commitments like this. Take Casey Neistat, who uploaded a short vlog of his life every day for two years. His popularity exploded over those two years and he grew his Youtube subscribers to more than 5.8 million. He recently sold his company to CNN for $25 million.

(8) Most of us will never be Casey Neistat, but as you can see, doing something consistently over a period of time not only allows you to become better at what you do, you also get to bring your audience along with you on the ride. That audience will only grow in number over time.

(9) Know when to stop. Once a commitment/project stops being enjoyable, and after you have learned most of what you can from it, stop. Move on to something different that can allow you to grow in new ways.

So now…

This is my something different.

I will be publishing articles here once a week, every Thursday.

Thanks for joining me on this ride. I can’t wait to see where we’ll go together from here.

Write a comment below to tell me a little about yourself and your journey.

Let’s keep moving forward together!

How to write better: A short guide for non-writers

American writer Jack Kerouac in 1959

…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road

When I was about 17, I found the Jack Kerouac novel “On the Road” on the shelf of a second-hand bookstore. I was young, restless, in need of adventure. The book title appealed to me. On the road. How wonderful!

The book turned out to be a fictionalized version of Kerouac’s journey across America with his beer-chugging, pot-smoking, poetry-writing hippie friends.

I fell in love with Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks. Because of Kerouac I was also introduced to the powerful, charged poetry of Allen Ginsberg, also a core member of the Beat Generation.

How much I wanted to be like them – to drink & smoke pot & rebel against the establishment & cross America in a rundown truck.

More importantly, I wanted to write like them.

For a while I even learned to punctuate like Ginsberg (and that meant replacing “and” with “&” in all my sentences). I also dreamed of traveling to India, because that was where Ginsberg wrote his famed Indian Journals (I still haven’t been there, but I will one day).

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz… – Allen Ginsberg, Howl

It was many years later that I realized – it was a good thing I’d fallen in love with these writers, and then later with writing itself.

Because that was the beginning of my training to becoming a better writer.

Since then writing has become one of the most important skills I possess.

Even as a photographer, writing has remained an important part of my work. In my photo project Creative People + Projects, I accompany my photographs and portraits with my writing. Without my writing I don’t think I would have been able to fulfill what I wanted to achieve with the project.

I can only now share with you all that I’ve learned because I learned how to write well early on.

At this point, I just want to throw it out there: Writing isn’t for everyone. If this isn’t a topic that interests you, feel free to skip this article. But if you are a creative or a creative entrepreneur who wants to sharpen your writing skills (or you have a faint intuition that writing is somehow a good skill to possess), then read on.

I’m not saying I’m an expert at writing, but I have learned a thing or two about writing over the last ten years, and I’m happy to share these lessons with you.


Write for what?

Let’s be honest. Most of us don’t want to be novelists or poets. You are probably reading my blog because you are interested in living life on your own terms or becoming a successful freelancer or a creative entrepreneur.

You want to learn to write better, but the purpose isn’t to indulge in your very private artistic passions. You want to write better so you can market yourself better, get more jobs, earn more money.

Examples: Maybe you are an aspiring photographer looking to add writing as another dimension to your work. Maybe you are looking to improve the writing of your “about” page on your website. Maybe you want to send a convincing sales email to a potential client. Maybe you want to spruce up your bio on your resume.

In other words, marketing.

I understand that “marketing” can sound like a dirty word to creatives, but all “marketing” does is to let potential clients or customers understand what is so awesome about you that they must hire you / buy from you. Which is super awesome!

And we’re lucky because we have the Internet. The Internet has liberated us, broken down all walls. Singer-songwriters don’t need to get signed to labels anymore – they have Youtube. Photographers can chalk up thousands of followers on Instagram and other photo-sharing platforms and directly attract the attention of photo editors and photo buyers who are also themselves on the very same platforms. Writers can start publishing their own blogs in ten minutes. Or start writing immediately on websites like Medium.

If you learn to write, you get to tell your own stories in your own words and sculpt the public’s (and your potential clients’) imagination and perception of you.

If you can’t write well, you can of course hire someone to do it for you. But who knows you better than you?

So start making use of the Internet to write and market yourself.

Let people know that you exist. Doing good work in a quiet corner of the universe isn’t going to bring you far enough anymore.


Everyone can learn to write well, even if they think they can’t

I understand that writing can be a difficult thing for many people to do. When people think of writing, they think of this thing that only some particularly talented people can do.

That’s not true.

And we are not asking you to write like Shakespeare.

Without further bullshit, let’s get to some actionable steps on how to become a better writer (even if you don’t normally write):

(1) You suck at writing. Start writing anyway.

Most people think they are bad writers. They are ashamed of what they write about, or they think their writing reflects badly on them. Write anyway.

The act of writing itself exercises your writing muscles.

It’s just like how the more you run, the better you get at running.

Write and write and write. Slowly and surely you will get better.

(2) Use simple words.

There is this misconception that good writing is made up of flowery language. That can’t be further from the truth.

There are probably as many definitions of good writing as there are people, so I cannot define good writing for you here.

But for our purposes of writing to market ourselves, to write well is to bring our points across successfully.

To do that, you don’t need a huge vocabulary.

Chances are, you know enough English words to write an entire book without searching up the dictionary.

Use the words you already know to bring your point across. Some of the best writing in the world are made up of simple vocabulary and short sentences (check out Raymond Carver’s works to know what I mean).

(3) Economy is beauty.

Ruthlessly edit your writing. Cut out the fluff.

James Althucher famously said, “Write whatever you want. Then take out the first paragraph and last paragraph.”

I think he’s trying to say that sometimes less is better.

You can ramble on and on, but it isn’t going to make your writing better if your audience doesn’t get your message.

Take out all the flowery descriptions and all the unnecessary stories. Strip your writing down until you are left with what you really want to say. You will be amazed at how effective your writing can be if you do that.

(Unless you are writing poetry, then ramble all you want. It’s your poem, not mine!)

(4) Tell the truth or speak from your own experience.

We often think it’s difficult to write because we have no idea where to start, or we think we have no material. Well, start from the truth. Your life is your material (that’s why it’s so important to live an interesting life!). Be honest. Be brutally honest if you can, and be real. No one has tolerance for fakery and hypocrisy these days. Don’t pretend to have an opinion if you don’t have one (and if you do have an opinion, don’t be afraid to share it even if it’s an unpopular one).

(5) Read.

I don’t think it’s quite possible to become a better writer if you don’t read. But don’t just read any writer. Read good books. You can Google for reading lists and book recommendations online. People on the Internet have read through thousands and thousands of books and come up with must-read lists for you – make use of them! You also don’t have to read only books. There are a ton of good writing online. If you are lost and don’t know where to start, follow my reading recommendations in the Resources section below. If you read all of my recommended books/links you will almost certainly become a better writer.

(6) Imitate your favorite writer(s).

Find a writer you like. No, if you can, find a writer you LOVE, and imitate the hell out of him or her. The truth is, we all want to write like our favorite writers. Find that writer whose sentences make your heart skip a beat. When you write, pretend you are that writer. Put yourself in his or her head. After some time, you will slowly find your stride and develop your own style.

(7) Write for an audience.

If you do this, you have the chance to receive feedback for your writing. Even if you don’t, knowing that people are reading will make you put in more effort into your writing. Intentional practice works wonders. Even though blogs are deemed to be pretty old-fashioned these days, start one and make your friends and family read it. Who knows, maybe in time you might even attract an audience.

(8) Write like how you talk.

The best way to start writing is to write like how you talk. Try it. It will liberate you from all your worries of not having a “personal style” and will get you to actually start… writing, which of course is the most important thing you need to do if you want to improve your writing.


So there you have it.

Simple, actionable advice for non-writers. Practice them. You might not become the next Ernest Hemingway if you follow the above advice, but you will most likely become a much better writer.



Here are some resources that will help with your writing. I love all of the following writers and I’ve selected them because they all write powerfully and beautifully, and share a certain effective economy of style.

Books on writing:
On Writing – Stephen King
Bird by Bird – Anne Lammott
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

Zen Habits
The Minimalists
Derek Sivers
James Altucher
Ryan Holiday

Ernest Hemingway
Raymond Carver
Haruki Murakami

Good luck with your writing, and drop me a note if you want to open a conversation about this subject.

To end off…

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway

Why you need to sign up for my newsletter

Every photographer has a self-portrait like this.

I love being a freelance photographer. It’s fun, I get to meet all sorts of new people, it gets me into all kinds of unexpected and rewarding situations, and I get to have lots of freedom (the most important reason why I love what I do).

Early this year I decided I was having a burnout. I had been working nonstop and too hard for too long, it was time for a break. I packed up for a 2-month holiday. I spent a month in Taiwan learning to do nothing, and another month backpacking around Europe, hopping from Dubrovnik in Croatia to Budapest, Prague, Munich…

People-watching in Copenhagen.

Experiencing the intense beauty of Prague.

The thing I love most about being a freelance photographer is how I have the freedom to decide that I’m tired, and then the freedom to take the break that I need.

On days when I don’t have a shoot I wake up any time I want. Some days I wake up early to work and watch the morning light filter into my living room. Some days I let myself sleep till I wake naturally.

The sort of freedom I yearn for is not merely physical, but mental.

Freedom is being able to sometimes do nothing at all, and simply be.

I never wanted to work 9-5 in an office cubicle. I knew it before I ever stepped into one. And of course I had to try it once to see if I was right. 6 months later and I was out, even though I was working at an arts organisation and it was the kind of place where you could legitimately nap after lunch and come in late whenever you wanted and just leave for home later. It was the kind of place that trusted you with freedom, and still it wasn’t free enough for me (I’ll have to admit that in this department I am a little extreme).

So it’s safe to say that I love the work I do now (and my life), and all the freedom that it affords me.

Everyone can have this sort of freedom. All you need to do is choose it. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but the first step indeed is to make a decision on the kind of life you want to live.

I know it’s hard, and there are many mental walls to break down.

But I want to help.

Tomorrow I will send out the first issue of my email newsletter. It’s a humble little thing with a big mission at its heart. With this email newsletter I hope to provide a starting point for people who dream of doing their own thing to go out there and actually start doing. And in the meantime, to build a tribe made up of fellow dreamers and fellow creators.

Come join me.

Sign up for the newsletter below, and I’ll see you in your inbox 😉

* indicates required