Last fall, I graduated from the Technical University of Munich with a Master’s degree in Management & Technology.
I’m not wearing the gown in this picture yet, but it’s the favorite one I took with my parents that day:
That day, November 29, 2019, marked the end of a very long journey for me — and the beginning of a new one.
It was the end of nearly ten years of fighting, struggling, learning, failing, repeating, but always continuing my way through the German academic system.
It was also the first day of the rest of my life as a full-time writer.
See how I said that without even blinking?
Ten years is a long time. While I was constantly second-guessing myself, wondering about the teaching methods, the practicality, the purpose, and the kind of career and life academia would give me later on, I also used that decade to do something about it.
That same day, Nov 29, also happened to be Black Friday. While I was out with my parents, at the ceremony, having dinner with my friends and later partying at a club, my website made over $2,000.
$2,000 in a single day.
Granted, it was the best day of the year, but still. That’s pretty damn amazing.
My name is Niklas Göke. I’m 28 years old. The year I finished grad school, I made over $100,000. I’ve never held a normal job, and I hope I never will.
Every day, I feel grateful that I get to do what I love, that it pays my bills, and that I’m in control of my time. I live a very happy life.
It’s not perfect. I have problems, issues, things to work on with myself and others. But I feel I’m in the best position I could possibly be to have a wonderful, fulfilling future.
These are the five best decisions I’ve made in my life thus far.
1. Live and study in a foreign country.
Last year, I bumped into an old classmate on a grocery store parking lot. I hadn’t seen that guy in at least five years. He was returning deposit bottles from his workplace.
We chatted for a second and, when I asked him what was new, he said: “Oh, you know, same same.”
I was surprised at first because, after five years, how can you even say that? But then it clicked: He never left town. He was hanging around with the same people in the same locations, doing the same things.
I see that in a lot of people. They get stuck.
I know it’s still more common in the West for parents to expect their children to move out around the age of 18, to earn their own money, to live elsewhere and build their own life.
I know it’s not the only way to find meaning and happiness, but in a world that’s more and more built around the individual, with more and more possibilities to self-actualize, it ultimately worked out well for me.
Maybe, my friend is happy. But I’m not so sure. He had a fashion startup once. He was so excited about it. I wish he would see it through. But he’d have to give up the familiar to do it. And, like many others, he’s not willing to.
My parents were always 100% supportive, but they also made it clear they want me to figure things out on my own — because they knew they couldn’t do it for me. That’s not just smart parenting, it’s accepting a universal truth:
At the end of the day, it’s your life. No one can figure it out for you.
Striking out on your own by moving somewhere else, taking a job that scares you, learning to live in a foreign culture is one of the best ways to realize that your life does indeed belong to you and you alone.
If you never get out there, if you always stay inside the familiar setting you’ve always known, you’ll also always wonder.
“Am I just satisfying other people’s expectations?”
“What do I really want?”
In 2011, I applied to study abroad in the USA via a state scholarship. In 2012, I went there.
I had no idea what I was doing, but I was learning more and faster than ever before.
I learned what it means to feel alone. I learned how much was out there, how much was possible that I didn’t even see before. I learned that I could survive mono on my own, even if it sucked.
Most importantly, I learned that if I didn’t figure out how I want to spend this one-time gift we call life, no one else would do it for me.
So, finally, I started doing the hardest work there is, according to Henry Ford. I started to think — and to do it for myself.
2. Start fighting my bad habits.
One of the many things I started reading about in my semester abroad was habits.
Habits of people who had made millions and lost them all, habits of people who were happy, habits of people who forged their own path.
At some point, a visit to the doctor back when I was 12 years old flashed before my eyes:
“Ah, it’s natural. He’ll drop it by the time he’s 18 or so.”
The doctor was talking about my habit of biting nails, something I’d picked up a year or two earlier, and that my mom was worried about. Of course, I never dropped the habit.
Back in my tiny, 70 sqft room, I looked down at my hands. My nails were short, rough, and visibly chewn off. Like always. I was 21 years old.
“18 my ass,” I thought. And then, I decided to do something about it. I read more about habits. I studied the science behind them. And then, I gave myself a challenge: For 24 hours, I would not bite my nails.
The next day was brutal. I kept staring at my hands in class all day. I caught myself moving them towards my mouth every two minutes. At some point, they started shaking. Shaking! Can you imagine? Like an alcoholic on withdrawal.
But eventually, I made it through. The next day, it was a little bit easier. No more shaking. I didn’t have to catch myself so often. The day after that, it was a little easier still.
One week later, I saw something I hadn’t seen in nearly ten years: My nails had grown at an even pace. They were clean, even, and made a noise when I tapped my fingers on the table.
That was the first habit I actively battled, and it showed me that habits are the patterns that subconsciously steer our entire life.
I wouldn’t be able to formulate this until years later, but, on some level, I understood that, as James Clear so eloquently puts it, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”
I have been working a little bit on my habits every day since.
I have picked up habits, dropped habits, and am always on the lookout for what habits I need for the current and next stage of my life.
It’s been eight years, and my interest is still compounding. Their effect grows a little every day. And the rewards get bigger by the minute.
3. Get travel out of the way early.
Materialism is so 1999. Today, we have experialism.
I made up that word, but you can guess what it means: Forever chasing experiences in a futile attempt to stuff the holes inside your psyche and attain lasting happiness.
Travel just happens to be our main weapon of choice.
As much as moving somewhere and staying there helps you figure out your life, constantly traveling around like a tourist, never committing to any place and its people, does the opposite: It becomes self-defeating.
The excitement of novelty wears off, the adaptation patterns repeat, and every next escape from your mundane, everyday routine brings less relief.
I see people in all kinds of careers and industries falling into this trap. Nurses, teachers, consultants, freelancers. Sometimes, they like their job. Often, they don’t.
But instead of fixing their job, of getting to work where they are, they work to travel. They live to escape, instead of escaping the trap by learning how to live.
The great writer and cartoonist More To That wrote:
We tend to grossly overestimate the pleasure brought forth by new experiences and underestimate the power of finding meaning in current ones.
Traveling is a tool. It’s useful in breaking up your routine from time to time. It can provide you with new perspectives. It’s a way to recover after an exhausting stretch of life.
But if travel becomes an end, you’ll never reach your destination.
You’ll never feel like you’ve seen enough because, as Seneca wrote some 2,000 years ago, you’ll always take your problems with you.
You should change your attitude, not your surroundings. You may have crossed the expanse of sea, and as our Virgil says, ‘lands and cities may grow distant’, but your faults will follow you wherever you reach.
This is what Socrates said to a man who was complaining: ‘Why are you surprised that traveling does you no good, when you are carrying your own state of mind around with you? The same cause is weighing you down now which drove you from home.’
You ask me why this flight is not helping you? Because you are in your own company.
While I was studying in the US, I traveled a lot.
I spent the majority of my savings, about $10,000 or so, on experiences. I went to Canada, Mexico, and some 25 US states. The next year, I traveled even more with a friend. I went to Japan, Sri Lanka, Korea, and Australia.
My parents gave me their blessing. They said if I felt what I spend the money on will be of value to me, I should do it. They trusted me, and they were right. I did learn an incredibly valuable lesson: Travel is not the answer.
After I came back from my last big trip in 2013, I didn’t board a plane for three years. I’ve only taken a handful of short trips since then, and I’m only slowly expanding that again now.
I decided to settle. I decided to build. I concluded I could find meaning and happiness anywhere, as long as I worked on it. And I did.
Instead of painting myself into a corner with some job that could fund the occasional escape but not deliver joy on the normal, boring days, I spent the next five years figuring out and building the foundation of a career that can now last me a lifetime.
4. Use my last money to buy a Macbook.
Yeah. Not a laptop. A Macbook. I know, fanboy alert, right? Well, there’s more to this story.
By the time I was about to return to Germany in 2013, my savings fund had shrunk significantly, mostly due to my expenses in the jet-set column.
The first Macbook with a retina display had just come out, and I couldn’t help but think this’d be the tool that would cement my new dedication towards figuring out this thing called life.
I used my last $2,300 dollars to buy a 15″ Macbook Pro Retina, and I didn’t regret that purchase for a second.
From the outside, it didn’t make any sense. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a laptop. It wasn’t that I had some specific tasks I needed it for. A friend even called me out on it a little bit.
“Wow, you’re really treating yourself huh? You sure you know what you’re doing?”
I have no idea why I said it because I, in fact, wasn’t, but I just replied: “Trust me. I know exactly what I’m doing.”
To this day, I’m not sure why it had to be a Macbook.
Maybe, it was because I had read Steve Jobs’ biography two years before, and I felt inspired by his life and the whole Apple story. Maybe, it was because I’d seen everyone else on campus use them, and they seemed fast and useful.
Or maybe, it was simply about making a statement. A commitment to who I would become.
On the very first day, I dropped my camera on my new Macbook. The dent is still there. I can feel it right now. I think it was fate. It’s the dent in the universe Steve talked about.
It’s been seven years, and I still use that laptop. It’s pretty beaten now. The battery died ages ago. I have to keep it on power for it to run. It’s a lot slower. But it still works.
In that time, I have made over $300,000 using nothing but that laptop, my brain, and an internet connection.
Talk about a return on investment.
This was it. This was the only tool I needed to find myself, create myself, re-invent myself, and I was determined to not stop until I saw that process through. And I did.
I still am. And I often remember that the right investment in yourself at the right time is priceless. No matter what it may look like to the outside world.
5. Ignore everyone’s advice, including that of the people I love the most.
My uncle has been a partner at a big consulting company for over 20 years.
When I graduated high school, all I knew was that I was interested in business and economics and wanted to make money. I asked him: “What should I do?”
He told me to get a certain degree from a certain school because it’d set me up for a career like his — and that’s what I did.
It took me two years and — back to my first decision — a life in a new environment to realize: What he does is great for him, but it’s not for me.
I still loved business. I still wanted to make money. But I didn’t want to do it while working 80+ hours a week creating PowerPoint slides for someone else.
The consulting industry isn’t what it was 20 years ago. You can’t rise through the ranks as quickly. At the same time, you now have so many other options to make money.
As I learned more about these new careers in my stay abroad — startups, creative careers, freelancing — I slowly stopped accepting my uncle’s advice. It was hard. It got ugly.
In one of our last career-related exchanges, when I was already working for myself, I told him I wanted to focus on doing work that is fun.
He said: “Well, good luck with that.”
One of the hardest things you’ll ever do is reject well-intended advice from kind people while you still don’t have the answers yourself.
It’s a bit like trying to pick a color for the walls of your room: You have no idea what you want until you see it.
So you sit through a parade of people, all presenting you with different colors, and you just go, “No, that’s not it,” forever. Until the right one hits you.
This is painful for the people showing you colors because they hope whatever color they show you next is the one you’ll choose. They’re doing their best.
It’s also painful for you because you can see their disappointed faces, but all you can say is, “I’m really sorry, I just don’t know.”
Back then, all I knew was that I had to find a way to determine my strengths and leverage them into some kind of independent, fulfilling career.
I didn’t know what those strengths were yet, and I had no clue what that career could look like, but I knew I was the only one who could find the answers.
From the time I first broke with my uncle’s advice, it would be another two years before I finally started working for myself. After that, it would be another three years until I made a full-time income.
That’s five years of testing, trying, failing, all while having to politely nod and say, “No, thanks!” every time someone who cared about me gave me a good idea or great piece of advice that just wasn’t for me.
When all the online marketing gurus said to focus on becoming a highly paid freelancer, I decided to build a website instead.
When everyone on Reddit told me that website would never amount to anything, I relied on my gut and data that said they were wrong.
When my parents made some good arguments for getting a Master’s degree, I ignored them and went into my 2nd year as a solo entrepreneur.
I wasn’t always right when I rejected people’s advice. That website did amount to a lot — but I also did end up getting a Master’s degree.
However, the only way for even the best advice to work is for you to come around to it on your own schedule.
You can’t force great decisions down people’s throats. You can’t make yourself want to do something you can’t believe in just yet.
So even if it’s painful, pass on the wrong colors. Have faith in yourself and your decisions. Trust that your life will unfold the right way at the right time, and that the people you care about will be there to see it. Most of the time, they will. After all, they once went through the same process themselves — and maybe still are.
My name is Niklas Göke. I am a writer. This is my story. I hope it’ll help you. I hope it’ll inspire you to tell yours. We need more people doing so. More people sharing their thoughts, emotions, experiences — so we can all learn together. That’s a decision I can get behind.
Who knows? Maybe it’ll be the best one you ever make.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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