Smiles Aren't Free

Spring is here and the trees outside my apartment are filled with singing, chirping, super-excited birds. These fluffy little sparrows, warblers, robins, jays and even a cardinal are full of a zest for life that I envy. As soon as the sun comes up they are just so happy and excited.

Since I returned to Canada from Russia I have found my life disconnected from what is truly important. I had become a slave to paying bills. I worked 7 days a week but, after all the bills were paid, had no money to show for it. I was working and sleeping and working and sleeping, and just basically waiting for the clock to run out so I could finally die and say "Whew! That was a tough forty years. Glad that's over!"

Life in Canada married to Katya has been nothing but jumping from one hurdle to the next. We were both happier in Russia, and had more disposable income and, in my case, more hair. But Russia is no place to retire and Canada is ranked in the top 5 countries to live in the world for a reason, so we're here making a go of it. It's been a hard road, and then finally, this year, I got a slap in the face from God and broke free of the slavery of my mundane, unimportant job.

This year I struck out on my own as a self-employed freelancer and business owner. I opened my own online ESL school which hasn't done too badly, and now I'm working on a plan to expand it to a physical location in Toronto. My goal is to have both platforms filled to capacity by the end of the year, at which point I'll look at hiring a teacher or two and opening another location, maybe in Vancouver or Ottawa.

As a freelancer, I write articles for magazines (mostly in-flight magazines, which is a fairly lucrative yet often-overlooked publishing market), ezines, blogs, press releases, faq pages...anything that pays cash.

My Mondays now aren't so bad. I look forward to updating my blogs, seeing what writing work I can snatch up, and tweaking my marketing campaign for my English school. I couldn't do any of this without Katya's help.

Loving Life

A lot of this was Katya's idea. She saw how much I hated my job, with its stupid schedule (4 am - 7 pm, 7 days a week, no vacation for the first year), tyrannical boss and complete lack of any say in anything I did with my life. She remembered how much I enjoyed teaching in Russia, and urged me to give it a try.

5 years ago this September I set out to Mytischi, a suburb of Moscow, full of life and hope and a completely free and calm spirit. I soaked everything in and relished as many moments as I could. I was single and travelling and meeting people and living what was a dream for me.

For a few years I lived like that, although things got more difficult when I became a freelance teacher in Moscow, mainly due to the insane amounts of travel this required. Nevertheless, I was still free and making money and enjoying life.

Russia happy
In Russia I had a certain "joie de vivre". Look at that smile!
When I moved back to Canada and made the shift from Halifax to Victoria, I was still full of hope and adventure. I became an At-Sea-Observer, working on fishing boats for weeks at a time (I spent 6 weeks aboard the world's largest fishing trawler, the "Annalies Ilena", where I slipped on a ladder and dislocated my knee).


That adventurous, life-loving mentality I had been living with for many years died a painful death when Katya and I were reunited in Canada together. Then the ugly, bland, soul-destroying realities of North American living kicked in. My fisheries job came to an end with government cutbacks and the fact that it was cheaper to put lesser-paid new recruits out at sea than me. So I got a job managing airport security in Victoria.

That job was an endless process of bickering, political in-fighting, gossiping and completely childish behavior from adult staff, including temper tantrums, crying and whining (a feature common to all airport staff around the world, as I've learned). The day-in, day-out grind, coupled with the high cost of living in Victoria, crushed me. When I got a raise after one year I decided it was time to move on. They offered me $40. Not per pay. Per year. Thanks, but keep yer forty bucks.

Life in Canada as a married man has been soul-destroying and completely pointless. Work, sleep, work, sleep, work, die. I've always been determined that that will never be my life, yet the pressure to support and provide for a wife and, eventually, children is intense, and although the need to pay bills and feed everyone hovers over everything, the lifestyle of work and work and work and then hopefully die sneaks up quietly until you don't even notice that is what your life has become. You become a brainwashed, walking, working, pooping cadaver doing whatever is ordered.
A Canadian zombie...
To top it off, just to have this wonderful opportunity to live such a pointless existence, I required a car. So I bought a 2009 Hyundai Accent. Now I had to pay the finance and insurance. More bills. More work.

Hard Work

We created a culture in North America of praising "hard work" but we've completely misinterpreted what "hard work" really is. Most people think it means to work every day and have no life of your own and never complain about your crappy little lot in the grand scheme of things. That, however, is not "hard work". That is "slavery".

Hard work means to throw yourself, completely, into a project and to work on it ceaselessly until it is completed. It means to build a house or write a book or start a company. It means working on something you are passionate about. It doesn't mean an endless grind of mundane repetition with no end in sight, for just enough peanuts to keep you alive. Unfortunately, that is what working has become in North America.

That is what I had become in a very short time since I returned from overseas.

So what if I want to hang myself every few days, my hair is falling out from stress and lack of sleep, and I don't even have time to visit my family for a coffee. Must...Pay...Bills.

Smiles aren't free in Canada....

Then, at work one day, as a group of business-looking people happily shuffled through airport screening, on their way to some seminar in Chicago, it hit me. What the hell happened to me? Was this going to be my life? When I got home I spent the hour or so before I passed out looking up what it would take to open my own online ESL business.

Over the next couple of weeks I set out to find the odd client here and there. One week I actually had a day off so held an online seminar on social media marketing in English, which was a success. Google+ Hangouts is the perfect tool for such classes as it allows up to 10 people in a video chat and comes with handy apps like a shared whiteboard.

With new confidence and Katya's urging I put in my 2 weeks notice and could barely keep myself from skipping out of the airport 14 days later shouting "Looseeers" to everyone still stuck there.

I received 8 email inquiries for lessons in my first week, four of which converted into customers and provided a stable income. I've since picked up a few more customers and also started to write articles for cash. Life is starting to become more like it's supposed to be: free, happy and meaningful.

It's only been a month or so, but I think my hair has actually stopped falling out!

As a freelancer and a self-employed business owner, I am free to live my life the way I want. I now make my own schedule, and decide my own income (for the most part). So long as I watch my financials carefully I won't get burned by taxes next year.

Even Katya is happier now! We're no birds in a tree but we're on our way to at least having more time to enjoy the birds. With some more real hard work I'll have an actual, physical language school in the heart of Toronto, and then I'll be chirping from the tree tops once more.

My ultimate goal, for which I strive...


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