Self-employment, randomness, and how to create your own luck

July 1, 2024

Nine years ago I left my job as an English teacher to dedicate myself 100% to my online business.

On that bright summer morning in 2015, I gave my last classes, down at Banco de España in Madrid.

It was June 30th.

Walking out of the language school near Torre Picasso a few hours later, final paycheck in hand, I didn’t have much of a life plan.

My only real goal at the time was to never go back to teaching classes.

That grind just wasn’t for me anymore: 8 AM in the bank building, lunchtime in some polígono outside of town, afternoons in the language school. All for a bit more than 1100 euros a month. It was fun, sometimes, but it also got old the more I did it – and I’d been doing it for more than 10 years.

But this was it. My big day. “Victory in Europe Day”, I was calling it – because despite all the obstacles, I’d moved to Europe and this was my personal victory over the tyranny of badly-paid jobs.

me in madrid chamberí
I don’t take a lot of photos of myself, but here’s one from about that time.

I was 32, single, had all my teeth, and was living 6000 miles from home. I figured I’d just spend the next few years working on the online thing: make more videos, write more articles, sell more books and courses. I might become a rich, famous YouTuber. And if not, it would probably be fine anyway.

If things went downhill at some point, I’d just change course.

No problem. I was feeling optimistic about the future.

That evening, I went to a fancy hotel bar near my house. I ordered a beer and sat there, contemplating. I was alone. Due to the volatility of the online dating scene, I’d recently been through not one but three painful breakups.

“This is it,” I thought. “My new life. Freedom from wage slavery!”

Looking back, it seems naive.

I hadn’t yet registered as self-employed. Hadn’t even gotten my first real tax bill from the Spanish government.

My big summer plan was to spend a couple of weeks in Eastern Europe – a bucket list thing I’d never had the time or money for, while employed.

Out in Budapest and Zagreb I spent my time drinking pálinka and chatting up waitresses. Ever the light-hearted adventurer, I visited the Soviet Terror Museum and the Museum of Broken Relationships.

Then I came back to Madrid and got to work.

I had some ups and downs. Financially and emotionally. A few good months, followed by a huge tax bill, followed by another breakup, followed by some bad months, followed by some okay months… well, you get the idea.

Much later, I read an article by some business guru saying that the first couple of years after quitting your day job to be full-time self-employed are going to be the hardest of your life. Interesting. It would have been good to know that back in 2015, but I was blissfully unaware of what was in store for me.

Oh well. I got through it.

A lot has happened in the 9 years since then. I moved to Barcelona, turned 40, got married, stopped drinking, bought a house. Life continues to exceed my expectations. For a college dropout with no obvious talents and the charisma of a sack of potatoes, I think I’m doing pretty well.

But sometimes I wonder if I’m just lucky.

I’ve thought about the topic of luck quite a bit. And also the topic of randomness.

According to the law of truly large numbers (not to be confused with the law of large numbers), because of the vast number of “things happening” in the world every day, highly implausible events actually take place all the time.

So (for example) meeting my now-wife Morena due to a series of improbable coincidences is a bit random, but in a city with millions of people, random happens every minute.

And I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve had some luck in my life, but my escape from the teaching industry seems to be more than luck. I’ve written 17 books, and 2000 articles, and made 700 videos. More recently, I started not one but two podcasts, and have made a total of 400 episodes between them.

I never became a rich, famous YouTuber. But I discovered that if you put enough stuff out there, and listen to feedback when you get it, something’s bound to happen, eventually.

Anyway, what would “luck” look like in the case of a writer?

Writing a book sucks. Try it some day.

I’ve done it a total of 17 times now, and it’s sucked EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. And in no case did “luck” step in to write the next chapter for me: it was all just work I did, alone, with very little encouragement or support – and often, at the beginning, during the breaks between my several day jobs.

conversaciones en ingles libro daniel welsch
Not only does writing a book suck, I also tend to pick the least exciting topics.

I guess there might be someone out there who wrote six articles, one of them went viral, and the next thing they know they’ve got a massive book deal. Lucky! But even then, they’ve still gotta write the book. And probably more books after that. And they’ve gotta do all the self-promotion involved in a successful book launch.

So I don’t know. “Luck”.

I will say I was lucky to be born in the US, which has its problems, but which all told is a pretty great country. And I was lucky to have a marketable skill that was (at least for several years) in high demand: speaking English meant I could live abroad and make enough money to get by.

The Great Recession in my 20s and early 30s didn’t change my life much. I spent it giving English classes, eating cheap protein and living in shared flats. I was never unemployed, just badly and illegally employed, with months of unpaid “holidays” in the summers.

Not everybody in Spain did so well – a lot of Spaniards my age had to emigrate during those years, which (depending on how you look at it) could be bad luck… or very good luck.

(Being an immigrant creates some “grit” in your personality that I’d imagine most people wouldn’t get if they just stayed home. I doubt that I would have. So for me it’s a positive. Your mileage may vary.)

“The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Maybe hard work creates good luck.

And maybe a sense of optimism – that things might go better than hoped – helps a person to take chances that someone more pessimistic wouldn’t.

I was lucky that a friend gave me the idea to start a blog about English – but once again, luck didn’t learn tech skills for me or write all those hundreds of articles.

Ideas are all around us, in other words, and basically worthless unless you execute on them.

budapest parliament building

I was lucky to get my Spanish work visa approved, eventually. But I was also “illegal” for 7 years before it happened. (Luckier people were just born in Europe and didn’t have these problems.)

My struggle with bureaucracy was not easy, and it took quite a while. The reasonable thing to do would have been to go back home and get a job as a barista. I’d done it before, and I was good at foaming the milk for cappuccinos. I could have made 6 or 7 bucks an hour plus tips, and never had to deal with foreign bureaucracy again.

Luckily, I’ve never been reasonable.

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

I always thought that was a quote from Steve Jobs, but it turns out to be a paraphrase of something the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote in his journal. Oh well. Steve Jobs said something similar. “Connect the dots” and all.

One interpretation of that line is that we can’t really know what the results of our actions will be. All we can do is try our best and keep an open mind, and hope it’ll all make sense some day.

Moving to Spain with a backpack full of clothes and then overstaying my tourist visa appeared, superficially, to be a very bad idea. In hindsight, it turned out better than I could have hoped.

Quitting my day job to run an online business (in Spain of all places) could have gone either way, but in the end that also appears to have been a good choice.

Of course, I’ve had a lot of problems to work through since that fateful day back in 2015 – not the least of which is the fact that I’ve eliminated most of my human interaction to work in front of a computer screen all day.

But luckily, I’ve come out okay, and with my sense of optimism (mostly) intact.

Who knows where we’ll be in another few years.

In the meantime, here’s my advice: do your pushups, eat your protein, and try to get good at something people are likely to pay you for. If you obsess over abstract problems, life can seem complicated. But if you stay within your circle of competence, doing the right thing in the next few minutes is simpler.

And in the end, your circle of competence over the next few minutes is the only “place” where you can reliably have an impact.

Have a good one, y’all.

Yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. I imagine that luck has a greater impact in some people’s careers than in others. If you happen to be 7 feet tall, your chances of scoring a million-dollar contract in the NBA are pretty high. But you still have to do a lot of cardio to get there. If you’re (I don’t know) wildly attractive and “discovered” by a talent agent when you’re a teenager you may get started in acting – then again, I’ve known some wildly attractive people who have worked hard to become actors without being automatically catapulted to stardom by their looks. Some people are born into important families, some are born in the slums of Mumbai. Luck definitely matters. But so does what you choose to do with that luck (or lack of it). Anyway, what do you think? Leave me a comment, right here… Thanks!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. I moved to Spain, when I retired early.
    I made plans and made sure it would work out, well as best you can.
    Luckily I was born in UK, which for a short charmed time was in Europe and I took the chance.
    Now I would be pushed and I would have to enjoy the additional fun of being "3er país extranjero" ; Yay!!!!.
    (bet that's the wrong expression)

    Just before I left having bored all I could with my plans a nice Polish girl asked the question: What if it goes wrong …………………………………?":
    Well, I replied "I guess I will have to get a job, Bar work, clean pools, clean houses whatever it takes".

    I was rewarded with the best ever reply.

    "Oh, you are so Polish".
    I do not remember her name but forever I remember the pride I took away from that.

    " If things went downhill at some point, I’d just change course."
    And there it is, "your so Polish Daniel", well OK, realistic and born to get it done.

    “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
    And that is so true, almost. You still have the option to make bad choices hehe!

    Thanks again for a great article.

    1. Hey Peter, yeah I didn’t mention this, but one still has the option of working hard AND making terrible choices. Charlie Munger has a quote about it: “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.” I’ve definitely made some bad choices but nothing I couldn’t recover from. Thanks for reading!

  2. Is anyone aware of the survivor bias?

    I believe you have struggled hard and did your best, risking, etc. but, has anyone who has succeded taken account how many people did the same and are stranded in an unsatisfactory job?

    Too much people in developed countries take pride of we have attained or achieved without being aware how many opportunities we had and other people hadn't.

    1. Hey Vicente, thanks for commenting!

      Yeah, I’m familiar with survivorship bias, and it’s interesting to think about. It is at least possible that I’m saying “look at all this hard work I did!” because I’m embarrassed to be some special little unicorn, and “hard work” is a more socially acceptable explanation. (I would have said “snowflake” but this article here uses “unicorn” to describe exactly what I’m doing here: https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/survivorship-bias )

      Anyway, I don’t really think I’m special. Also, I’m barely even successful. My whole criteria here was just “avoid going back to giving English classes” which I’ve done. Compared to my “successful” online business friends I’m barely scraping by. (Incidentally, it seems like they all work harder than I do.)

      Also, my wife is from a developing country. You would probably say she’s “successful”. And she did the same thing I did: move to Spain, choose something with a large upside, and work her ass off at it. So it’s possible that we’re just two unicorns who succeeded through luck and found each other through randomness… or… I don’t know, I’m running out of ideas here. What do you think?

      1. I think we are all at risk of falling in the feared hubris and be like Elon Musk.

        We don't know too much of this life or universe yet and to what extent our circumstances (living in a developed country, be endowed with certain capabilities inherited from our parents, etc.) have made us who we are.

        Memento mori

        1. Yeah, as a second-rate regional blogger and fourth-rate YouTuber, developing an Elon Musk-sized ego is something I don't worry about very much 🙂

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