“Closing time… Time for you to go back to the places you will be from…”
Without fail, the Semisonic lyrics played over the speakers of Echo Coffee at 10:01pm as Cody and I still talked, signaling for us to kindly get the hell out.
We ignored it in the same way we had every other week for the past 5 years, and I momentarily considered moving the meetings back to my living room – the original founding place – where the coffee sucked but curfews didn’t exist.
“Here!” I said to Cody, handing him a binder on that first night. “I made one for each of us.” He casually flipped through the pages as he sat down on the couch.
We had been graduated from ASU for less than a month, and I was already binder stuffing as if our W.P. Carey business classes never ended. However, instead of pitch decks for Sales class or Powerpoints for Strategic Marketing, there were tabs for ‘helpful articles,’ one for ‘legal stuff’ and looseleaf in the back for note-taking names of local manufacturers and sketching out logo designs.
As two aspiring entrepreneurs and college friends, the plan was to meet bi-weekly to discuss our side projects, the first of which being Cody’s inappropriate emoji app and my slightly inappropriate greeting card collection. I was fairly certain that if we conducted the right research, studied thoroughly and suffered a few long nights at our laptops, we could ace them in the same way as any college project, with an “A” being full-time entrepreneurship and an escape from Corporate America before it claimed our souls and/or youth.
“Okay, we need to get serious,” I said as I opened my binder to the first printed out Forbes article on bootstrapping your business.
But Cody knew better. He always innately has. Starting with the fact that the binders were bullshit.
End of Happiness
“I… just… can’t… do it anymore!” I ran down the steps of an LA corporate office building in Century City following a meeting with a corporate recruiter in August 2016. I pressed the phone against my damp cheek as tears quickly welled and fell. An overwhelming sense of dread caught the air in my lungs before it could fully escape. Not only had my happiness been stifled, it was long forgotten.
On the other end of the call sat Cody in a Phoenix coworking space where he took a break from potential swimsuit patterns to call back his frantic friend. In the years since adult emojis and plastic binders, he had pursued many projects, including:
- Countless more emoji apps
- Carbon soccer cleats
- A tea company
- Men’s swimwear
- Celebrity prayer candles
- And a super lucrative gig as my greeting card and blog model
Through trial and error, wise spending and long days and nights spent in his home office, Cody became a full-time entrepreneur. Not only was he living off of his projects, he was now helping others do the same as an organizer of 1 Million Cups, a non-profit aimed at educating aspiring entrepreneurs. And it was all accomplished quietly, with very few people knowing what he spent his time doing outside of having fun at Scottsdale pool parties and world travels.
Cody had made it. He reached the point that we met bi-weekly to discuss for half a decade. In my eyes, he earned the coveted A.
And I so badly wanted to do the same. However, I wasn’t as astute with my time, resources or personal life decisions. I chose to quit my Product Manager job in Arizona and move to one of the most expensive cities where I believed I could live off of amateur photography, freelance writing and dog walking until my blog exploded with success.
However, somewhere between parking tickets, unexpected cancelled contracts and straight-up devil dogs, I slowly drained my savings, abandoned my blog and entered into a nervous breakdown that was difficult to admit. Throughout it all, there was Cody who still offered the same encouragement as our coffee shop meet-ups; a cheerleader and confidante via text and FaceTime.
And yet, he was also the person I most feared letting down: “If I go back to a full-time job, I’ve failed the project.” It felt like I was being held back another year while Cody crossed the graduation stage. As far as I was concerned, entering back into office life earned an ‘F’ as a friend, entrepreneur and student in the School of Life.
How to Treat Life Like a Video Game
In many role playing video games, characters start as fairly weak and untrained. When a sufficient amount of experience is obtained, the character “levels up”, achieving the next stage of character development. Such an event usually increases the character’s statistics, such as maximum health, magic and strength, and may permit the character to acquire abilities or improve existing ones. Leveling up may also give the character access to more areas or items.
Cody knows nothing about Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft; however, he does know what it takes to level up in life and business. In video games, “experience points” are commonly awarded for overcoming obstacles, successful role-playing and completion of missions. They are the way in which you make it to the next level.
1. Overcoming obstacles
Stolen app content, lawyer fees, hours spent Googling how something is made, janky prototypes, infringement claims, manufacturers who go completely MIA, drawstrings that take 6 weeks to arrive from China only to be 2 inches too short…
With each startup there have been hurdles that often push deadlines by months, sales targets by thousands and sometimes threaten to shut down business entirely. Similar roadblocks are present in nearly any worthwhile endeavor in our lives, from mean mother-in-laws to dog walking crazy Pitbulls named Molly. Anticipate them, accept them and take them on. They are not meant to hold us back; they are meant for us to level up.
2. Playing to your strengths
How do you become successful at role-playing? Playing to your strengths. Like characters in a video game, we all have a unique set of attributes that are meant to help us succeed. “Pick and choose your battles and know where your time is best spent,” Cody said when I asked him which parts of his business he contracts out vs. does himself.
If you’re a calm Cody, head to the courthouse to file your LLC paperwork. If you’re an anxious Annie, legalzoom.com is just fine. If you’re the creative type who struggles with numbers, hire an accountant. If you’re a coder who dreads dealing with clients, automate the communications.
Likewise, experience points can also be spent on gaining specific skills. Through a few YouTube tutorials and years of following them, Cody can Photoshop his own email graphics to save time and money. And thanks to a little CodeAcademy, I now know just enough CSS to troubleshoot my blog bugs. Know your unique attributes, utilize them and collect those you lack along the way.
3. Completing missions
A shared spreadsheet contained a list of business ideas that Cody and I had discussed over the years. However, we’ve learned that ideas alone are not enough. For the same reason that the binders were worthless and collected dust, leveling up is not accomplished by simply reading articles, talking about ideas or half-finished projects.
Whether the mission is launching an Etsy shop, hiking a mountain, or writing a new blog post, it requires doing it to completion. What matters less is that the mission was a success, and more that it was fully attempted.
“Closing time… Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end…”
Our nights spent brainstorming at Echo Coffee have ended, and a new chapter began as we each entered our early thirties in separate cities. But there is still my good friend, Cody, and there is still the endless pursuit of our personal projects.
There are days that he can’t take my call because of so many orders to fulfill, and there are others that are riddled with enough setbacks to cause most people to fold – when a 9-5 job ominously looms as if it’s the only escape. The financial pressure, along with the often isolating nature of entrepreneurship, could easily make happiness obsolete in the face of fear.
But Cody knows better. He always innately has.
“I love to do it so much that it doesn’t matter to me if I lose money or time,” Cody said when I asked how he overcomes the fear of uncertainty. “When you love to do something, you’re investing in yourself so I don’t think anything is lost in that.”
Cody has shown me that life is not a class assignment. There is not one final grade – and it’s certainly not pass or fail. Rather, life is like a video game – one in which we’re all actively playing, whether we’re a Product Manager or freelance writer. He has proven that the truest way to level up does not actually depend on points at all, but by knowing and appreciating the purpose of the game: to have fun. When we remember that challenges are in our favor and that joy is found in the journey itself, happiness can always exist.
It made perfect sense.