Street Smarts Plus Life Design Equals Freedom with Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston values freedom and experiences. He considers his legacy, how he spends his energy and life design.
There is no energy drain when time is spent doing things that don’t limit your freedom. This is how entrepreneur, freelancer, author and coach Daniel Johnston came to live in seven countries and published 12 books. He believes that taking action is the best way to write the life design that we want. Daniel’s decisions around how he spends his time are about legacy potential and flow. Learn more how his confidence and curiosity is positively affected by his forward momentum mind-set.
Links and Resources:
Our guest is Dan Johnston, a former entrepreneur turned freelancer turned author and coach. He values freedom and experiences over money and things and believes we’re all capable of designing our own lives. So far, Dan has included living in seven countries, publishing twelve books and working hard to achieve his dream of being time and location-independent. He writes at DreamsAroundTheWorld.com. Dan, welcome to the show.
Good to be here.
I am really excited to find out more about your journey and how you came to really focus in on your time and your freedom and your flexibility being the things that are super important to you. Firstly, where did you grow up and what was your significant city as a young person?
I grew up in a suburb of Vancouver, Canada and went to university there, then moved to the downtown of the city after university. When I left to travel, I’ve been gone five years from Canada and up until that point, I hadn’t been out of my home city for more than about two weeks.
Things changed, needless to say, because you have been on the road a fair amount in these past years.
I think it was always something I liked to do. I’ve always enjoyed travel. Both my parents are travellers in different ways. I still have a peanut allergy but growing up, all the airlines served peanuts, so it was apparently very dodgy for me to take long-haul flights. I’m the annoying reason that peanuts are now banned on flights. For anyone listening, it’s pretty much my fault. I think that built up. I didn’t travel as much in terms of really exotic places when I was younger. Then after university, I went right into work. It built up to the point when I started and then I haven’t stopped since.
What kinds of places are the ones that you’d like to return to or you intend to return to?
I tend to appreciate different places for different reasons. My favourite spots have been big metropolitan cities, so Barcelona stands out. New York was great. I’m in Prague now. I regularly go back to Barcelona. I think I’ll be in New York for the spring. I do like the big cities. I also appreciate smaller towns like Central America, places like that, but my heart is definitely in the cities.
How long do you tend to stay in one place?
It really varies by visas, girls and life plans. At this point, I’m pretty heavily based in Prague. I’m on a long-term visa. I furnished an apartment, which was crazy for me and set up here. I’ve been here about two and a half years. Before then, I spent about a year in Hamburg and a bit of time in Berlin. Before then, it was three to six months in each place. Often my travels were based on people. A good friend of mine from college was travelling to do a Master’s degree, so he’d be at a campus for three months and I’d go along and that sort of thing.
Dan, are there any particular routines and habits that you adopt in every new place to help you expedite getting integrated into the vibe of that place?
There are two things I can think of. One which isn’t really an issue now with the lack of roaming in the EU, but back in the day would be to go and figure out a SIM card and some basic stuff like that. SIM card, a gym, I think that’s all if I can remember right. Maybe a café to be working in, do a walk around town and find that. Going for a run, I found really helps the place feel like home. I remember when I moved to Costa Rica. It was the first place I went to outside of Canada. I was going there under the impression it was quite safe. I wasn’t worried about anything. Whether or not that’s accurate, who knows? I was staying with a friend for the first few weeks. He sent a car to the airport and as we’re driving to his place, just barbed wire everywhere. Every house here, many, many of the houses have barbed wire, electric fences, all this. Whether or not it is dangerous, as a new to the situation, foreigner showing up, he’s got armed guards in his compound, it set a certain tone with me. The first couple of weeks there actually, I mostly just stayed around the property there, which was partially because I had a lot of work to do and catch up on. Finally, I went out and did two things there actually. I went out for drinks with one of his friends until way too late in the night, where if it was dangerous, we wouldn’t have made it home. We were fine, so it was like, “This place isn’t so bad.” We went for a run just everywhere down backstreets into some farmland areas. I remember that as a turning point when I started to feel really at home and comfortable.
Did you try to learn the language if you were in a non-English speaking location? Did you join clubs to meet local people? I’m curious about how much in those three-month periods you got under the skin of the place.
It really varied by place. In Costa Rica and Spain, I was learning Spanish, probably better when I was in Costa Rica than later in Spain. I’m now in a relationship, but during a lot of my travels I wasn’t. I did find that at least for me, dating was probably the biggest window into a new society. Through dating, I ended up being invited to all sorts of different events or seeing parts of the city or getting to know a culture that you wouldn’t necessarily otherwise know, especially in countries that don’t have 1,000 Meetup groups and all this sort of thing. I found aspects of that, just meeting local friends here and there, it did vary. In Italy, I was really an outsider with the culture. I didn’t learn much of the language and for whatever reason aside from one local restaurant, it didn’t really connect like be a regular anywhere or anything like that. It may have been more a reflection of my time. At that point, I was going through some fairly significant stresses with my business. It was like, “Let’s lock myself in this office. Save money as much as possible.” I discussed this with my friend. I lived in three of the countries with him. We said, “If we ever do move back to Canada, we’re going to have to study all the languages of the places we stayed so we can impress people because we’re pretty clueless.” For better or worse, we just treated it as if we were almost living back home. In his case, he was going to school. In my case, I was working on my business. I’ve always been terrible at that aspect in terms of really becoming one of the locals at least the language side of things.
Tell us a little bit more about the work that you do today and how that has been influenced by the decision that your 27-year-old self made to live in all of those countries before you turned 30.
The work I’m doing today, the main focus of it is on helping people create a more awesome life and their version of that. It’s whatever is going to be most satisfying and most fulfilling for them. For a lot of those clients, it is around being location-independent. Either they have their own business already or they want to start one. For me, it’s really important that whatever we’re doing is really aligned with our strengths and our natural personality because if you try to fit yourself into a profession or a business that isn’t good for you but you’ve heard, “People make money doing this,” or whatever it is, it’s not going to fit in the long-term. One of the things about my journey is I have sustained it. I’ve had ups and downs but I never moved back home because I got depressed or really ran out of money. Both those things happened to some extent but I found a solution and kept going with what I wanted to do. I have seen a lot of people where they have a similar dream of living abroad. Sometimes they want to travel and go to lots of places. Other times, they’ve always wanted to live in a certain country. I had a client that her dream was living in Germany or for some people it’s Japan. Certain people really like Japan. Sometimes people get started and they spend maybe a month and then run into roadblocks with their business, they get really distracted, they stop focusing on what they’re doing, they lose their money, they come back home. They’re generally not very happy at that point. Some of what I teach and coach around is definitely based on my own experiences there, so either mistakes I’ve made or the good things I’ve done and documented and realised why it worked well or just that it did.
I think a lack of impulse control and being a bit of a dreamer. To this day, if I don’t fill my time with something more fun, I struggle to limit the amount of work I do. An example is recently I’ve adjusted my schedule. On most workdays, I’m only checking email at the end of the day. That can be 5 PM or 6 PM or that. I am just checking at that one time. The days I do that I find I go through all my emails, important or quick, whatever they are, in maybe fifteen minutes and get it done. I’m very decisive. Whereas when I’m checking email with no clear deadline, that process can expand to hours. If you’re talking about hiring someone and thinking about making an offer, you’re going to overthink that a lot more. I’ve found with myself that it depends on the work I’m doing at the time but in general, in three to five hours I can have an extremely productive day. If I do three to five hours of really focused work, it’s incredible in terms of the amount that gets done over a month or two.
Where I still struggle with it, especially in the winter in Prague because there’s not as much going on that doesn’t involve a bar, is filling in that time. If you have all day, so you get up, you do your four hours and it’s noon and you’re done work for the day but then there are ten hours, 12 hours until bed, what do you do at that point? I found filling that in. In my early years travelling, it was just that, travelling, “I want to be going to Costa Rica.” Then when I was in Costa Rica, I think I had four or five trips within the country when I had different friends coming down to visit in that. That really forces you to compress your time and focus on what’s important. That’s another thing I try to do. It’s always an ongoing struggle for me, the productivity and that focus. In some ways, I’ve done really well with it, considering my natural wiring but it’s also an ongoing struggle. When you’re limiting your time or you’re trying to get the most of your time really thinking of, “What’s the highest use of my own time?” In my case, I’ve figured out a few activities that I can do better than most people. If I just do those and ignore a lot of the details that really drain my energy, I’ll still end up in a better place than spending more time on the little details that will drain me, waste my time or whatever that is.
Is that because you’re really, really clear about the business goals that you have in any given season? Is that also because you have developed or identified the tools and habits that really, really enhanced your productivity in those hours of focus?
I would say there are bits of both there. I don’t always have clarity on my goals. Right now, I would say quite dialled in in terms of my short and longer term goals and what I’m doing but there are definitely swings with that. Hopefully, I don’t swing back the other way too far. Just looking back over the last three years, there have been. Sometimes there are different productivity rules I have. An example is not checking email early in the day. For whatever reason, I will follow it for two months, I’ll be having amazing days, then I’ll break it, whatever weird, self-sabotaging or just loss of willpower one day maybe because I didn’t sleep very well or something like that. I found that even though I know things that work, it is sometimes a battle to keep going back and keep following that structure, especially when you are working for yourself on the other side of the world. There’s no boss. There’s no accountability with anyone else. What has really helped me with that is focusing on big things that will have long-term benefits. An example of this would be writing a book or a really great article, something that people will be coming back two years from now or making a great video sequence or whatever it is for each person’s business.
If you look at a lot of really famous writers or creators, most of their days were spent passed out in bars or having mental breakdowns or all kinds of stuff. Over an entire life, they wrote a couple of good books. Not that I spend my time in either of those phases too often, but it is something I try to look at of what’s got legacy potential, so what can I do? Let’s say I work really hard January to March, then something happened and I wasn’t able to work for the next nine months. Would the things I created over those three months keep serving me or would I basically back to zero within a few weeks of not working? Thinking that way gives you the freedom whether it is to just have bad days or to go travelling more or just take days off or hobbies or family or whatever it is. I think it’s a better way to look at how you’re spending your time.
You mentioned about how you have had periods in the past of feeling maybe a little bit low and depressed and struggling with your business and just feeling a bit stressed out. That may or may not have been related to the city that you were living in at the time, but I’d love to hear a little bit about what are the things that you do to help you in the moments of feeling overwhelmed and stressed out.
That’s a topic I’ve done a few videos on, which I will probably forget what I actually covered in them. One thing for me that really helped in terms of breaking this guilt cycle that can happen, usually if we are somewhat ambitious people, you feel bad when you don’t have a good day, when you don’t get a lot of work done. Or on a larger level, let’s say you’re working on a business launch, a new product, you put your heart and soul in for two months, then the marketing flops. It’s natural to then feel bad about it. Let’s look at the one day you have a bad day and don’t get a lot of work done. Then if you start feeling bad and beating yourself up, that emotional state is going to put you in a worse place in terms of actually getting work done. It creates this spiral where you start feeling bad, so maybe you go check Facebook or start playing a game on your phone or watching a TV show or whatever it is for different people. You don’t want to know the things people tell me they do when they’re trying to procrastinate work. I get some interesting emails from subscribers. You get into this cycle.
As simple as it sounds, one thing that has helped, it’s not an all-around solution but has been to just consciously practice self-acceptance. If it is 1 PM and I screwed up my morning, I had planned to write 2,000 words and instead I checked email when I shouldn’t but I was excited about something or whatever, my day got away from me, then I will basically just say to myself, “You’re human, otherwise you’re a pretty cool dude. Let’s go for a walk for twenty minutes and reboot.” Changing the physical space is also helpful because it affects our state of mind, so going for a walk or that. Having the self-acceptance of, “The morning is done, it’s wasted. Let’s see what we can do from here.” That can also apply if you’ve wasted three months on a business that flopped, “Those three months are gone. You’re not getting it back. What can be done now?”
I have found taking action is really helpful. At least for me but I think for most people, our perception of ourselves and our confidence is based on progress and relative points to our past or where we want to go. There’s no absolute. Look how different people are around the world in terms of success or height or language abilities or whatever else it is. If I’m really feeling down about something, just getting to work on moving forward, whatever that task is, just starting to do something tends to have a really positive impact. In the case when I was living in Italy, I had actually launched a new offering and I tried to make a big change in my business and fell flat on my face. I will blame the internet in Italy. I’m going to Naples for the first time since I lived in the country, but the internet is terrible. I had this webinar with over 100 people on it who all came to take part in my new course, potentially to join and the internet cut out in the middle of it. I was partially ill-prepared as well. It was brutal. It was bad. At that point, I was faced with some choices and I decided to go back to getting some consulting clients. I was doing freelance writing at that point. I had more and more been moving away from working with one-on-one clients, but at that point I was literally down to dollars.
There’s a story I’m writing in my new book of when I was there and I needed to get this new consulting client. Just how things worked out, this client knew me from Vancouver and they contacted me a few days after this webinar bombed. We had our first call and it went okay but the internet again kept cutting out in the middle of the call. I knew for the second call this wouldn’t be acceptable. Just professionally-wise, it would be terrible. I found out that with the local phone company, I could get a SIM card for €40 that would give me three hours of long distance calling to North America. I figured, “I can call on a proper line, nothing to worry about.” I spent about two hours going through the apartment I was renting, it was an old apartment and all my luggage to dig up enough coins to actually pay for this phone card. You’ve got to give it to the Italians. They speak their heart, their minds. I went into this Wind Mobile store, I had a plastic bag of change and they just all started laughing at me. I was like, “To make it even worse.”
That was the low of the low but I had the call that night, got the client. It was a $10,000 contract and it was like, “Back to it.” I think it wasn’t until about six months later that I tried again in terms of re-launching more of a coaching offering, which is primarily what I do now. It went better the next time, fortunately, then I moved forward from there. For me, I’ve always found taking action is the best way to change your state. If you’re feeling stressed about money, figure out how to make money and you’ll feel better. If you’re feeling stressed about your health, just eat more salads that day or go for a run or whatever. Forward momentum has a really positive effect in terms of our confidence and anxiety and that sort of thing.
Dan, I would love to know what you are curious about right now.
My curiosity changes almost by the day. On the nature of your show, probably one thing is around just the impact that where you live has on you. The immediate environment, I know from my own experience that it has a much more significant impact than a lot of people think. It’s something that I’m aware of in my own experiences but have never learned formally or studied in that way or anything, but I’d be very curious to learn more about.
Dan, where can people find out more about your work?
I do have my main website, which is DreamsAroundTheWorld.com. If you go to YouTube, I publish three new videos a week if you just look up YouTube.com/DreamsAroundTheWorld. I also have a podcast, which is very similar to the YouTube content and that is Dreams Around The World as well.
Dan, thank you so much for being a guest on the Urban Curiosity podcast.
Thanks for having me.