Looking back on my childhood, I didn’t have any dreams and I never expected my life’s work to be a UX copywriter.
I was 27 years old when the first and only person asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up, Jef?”
Before that, my life was a series of wild adventures and hard work.
However, I remember when I was in University, I met with a counselor to gain perspective and direction for my academic and professional career. I remember in one of our meetings, my counselor said:
“You will have between 10 to 15 different careers in your lifetime. You might spend a few years here and a few months there, but eventually, you’ll discover something that will become your true life’s work.”
Well, here is the story of how I found my life’s work.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- The “Bad” Kid
- Party Lifestyle
- Hippie Dippy Traveling Bum
- Cycle Tour in Asia
- English Teacher
- Starving Digital Marketer
- My Life’s Work
1. The “Bad” Kid
Despite being a mushroom-cut kid with an innocent smile, I was a trouble maker. I used to get in trouble for all kinds of things. From starting a snowball fight to teaching my friends new swear words. I spent most of my elementary school stuck in detention and forced to write lines.
If you’re unfamiliar with this punishment technique, I was forced to write the same sentence over and over again. I think my punisher expected that this kind of repitition would brainwash me into becoming a “better” kid.
What ended up happening was I developed a system to write lines quickly and efficiently.
Whenever my teacher or my mother wasn’t looking, I would write each letter from top to bottom then proceed with the next until I was finished.
I never really learned my lesson, such as “I will not start snowball fights during recess again.” But instead, I discovered the art of writing, which may have been the seed that would lead to my life’s work in the years to come.
I was fortunate to have teachers that nurtured my “good” side throughout highschool. However, I still had no idea what my future was supposed to be.
“Jef, what are you going to do after you graduate from high school,” asked my Grade 12 history teacher.
I sat in my chair like a deer in headlights, “Uhm…”
“You have good grades in my class,” he continued. “Have you ever thought about going to university?”
For the remainder of that year, I met with an academic advisor who introduced me to the world of academia. I had A’s in most of my classes, which opened up a world of opportunities.
Eventually, I settled on three Universities and applied to:
- Biomedical Sciences at the University of Waterloo
- History at the University of Guelph
- Psychology and the Wilfred Laurier University
I got accepted to all my choices and decided to go to the University of Waterloo because science is cool.
3. Party Lifestyle
My first three years at university was a nightmare. If I wasn’t at a lecture or studying at the library, I was working to make enough money to pay for tuition.
I used to clean potato chip machines in a factory on the weekends. Every Saturday and Sunday, I would wake up at 7 am, clean the machines, then go home at 7 pm to study.
During the summer, I would find another full-time job and put in another 40 to 50 hours each week. I took whatever job that would pay. For example, I was a demolition worker at a historic building undergoing renovations, but I ended up being a glorified janitor cleaning toilets and sweeping halls.
Working 60 to 80 hours for 4 months without taking a day off destroyed me. In my third year of university, I started to have a mental break down.
I began partying a lot, drinking too much, and calling in sick for work. I started to make less money, struggle with class, and get bad grades. I was making too many bad choices that jeopardized my academic performance and overall wellbeing.
This was why I started seeing a counselor better to understand my life, academics, and future.
My counselor used to ask questions that left me deep in thought for the entire week:
- What could you do differently to feel happier while making enough money to get through university?
- Would a student loan allow you to focus more on academics and not feel so stressed or depressed?
- How could you make a small change today that will lead to better outcomes in your life tomorrow?
Even though I didn’t have the answers, that little seed that was my life’s work was being fertilized.
4. Hippy Dippy Traveling Bum
“I quit,” were the happiest words to leave my mouth throughout all my years in university.
It was sometime in my fourth year. I had just finished another long summer working two to three jobs. I remember going into work on Saturday with no motivation or desire to work another day at a factory.
“Goodbye John,” I said. “Goodbye, Adam. Goodbye, Joanne. It’s been a pleasure working with you these past 5 years.”
As I said goodbye and shook all my colleagues’ hands, one of them wouldn’t let go.
“Jef what are you doing?” he asked. “How are you going to pay for your university. You can’t leave now!”
I looked at him with a smile on my face.
“Frank, this summer I’m going to become a tree planter and take a fifth year to finish my university degree.”
During conversations with my counselor, I discussed my deep interest in psychology. I looked at all my options to add a minor in psychology to my degree. I had my eyes set on taking Social Psychology and Personality Psychology in the Winter Semester of 2012.
“Jef, please listen to me,” Frank continued. “If you give up now, you may not ever finish your university degree. I know a lot of people who take time off school and find other opportunities. You’ve invested four years of your life already, don’t just lose it all this way!”
Harvesting the fruits of my labor
In the summer of 2011, I became a tree planter in Northern Ontario. I worked on average 11 hours a day for 5 consecutive days with 1 day off.
Each working day, I would stuff 200 to 300 baby trees into my bags and hike through the forest while planting them in the ground. I would repeat this process 7 to 13 more times and got paid about $0.10 per tree.
This was the hardest job I have ever did and it taught me a valuable lesson:
The value of your work is proportional to the effort you put in. If you want to earn what you’re worth, you must do the work to harvest the fruits of your labor.
As a tree planter, I quickly learned that “normal jobs” only pay what they believed I was worth.
For example, when I was working at the potato chip factory I was getting paid $17.63 CAD per hour. That was the hourly wage I agreed to when I was hired for the job. If I worked hard and completed my work early, I would only be given more work to fill up the time until the end of a 12-hour shift.
Tree planting, on the other hand, provided unlimited money-making possibilities.
For example, the more trees I planted, the more money I could make. It was all dependent and connected to my work ethic and physical stamina.
If I planted 2000 trees in a day, I would earn $200 CAD (i.e., 2000 trees x $0.10 per tree). However, if I pushed hard and planted an extra 1000 trees, I’d get an additional $100 or $300 for my efforts.
This experience changed the way I understood the working world and further nurtured the seed for what would later become my life’s work.
From tree planting to hitchhiking
Tree planting opened up new opportunities for my life. After my first season, I spent 8 months hitchhiking from Toronto to Vancouver.
I became a hippy that stood at the side of the road with a guitar waiting for a ride to travel from city to city.
In the evening, I would find a quiet place at a park or in a forest and pitch my tent. I’d play guitar or read a book to kill time before I continued my adventure across Canada.
Throughout my travels, I experienced the world for what it truly was and began to see opportunities for what my life could be.
I became a fruit picker, a street busker, and a camping store salesperson.
By the time I returned to Waterloo to finish my University degree, I got infected by the highly contagious travel bug.
5. Cycle Tour in Asia
I graduated from University in April 2012. I attended my graduation ceremony and stood on stage to hold a piece of paper with my name on it and the program I studied.
During my first summer as an “educated” man, I worked as a camp counselor at a summer camp called Shadow Lake Center. I wanted to make a positive impact on the world and helped kids, youth, and adults with special needs experience the magic of camp.
I was so inspired by people that attended the camp that I wanted to continue spreading positivity.
I started a program called the Positivation Movement. The goal was to raise money and provide mentor programs to youth in Toronto. I began building the program and partnered with a charity called Boost for Kids.
For the next two and a half months, I cycled from Toronto to St. John’s, Newfoundland. In each city I visited, I raised money on the streets to use for the Positivation Movement.
It was a long and tiring journey. I nearly died from hypothermia while passing through a place called Come By Chance. This small town with a strange name triggered a minor mental breakdown.
‘Is that all life is? A series of coincidences? Are our encounters and experiences all designed by chance?’
I remember huddling in a ball on a small hill under a ray of sunlight. I was eating the last of my trail mix and drinking near-frozen water while my body convulsed and shivered.
I slowly drifted off to sleep and thought I would never wake up again.
(This is a longer story I will write about soon, feel free to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on when I release it!)
Let’s cycle across Japan!
I eventually arrived in St. John’s, Newfoundland. I was supposed to meet a couch surfing host and stay at their place for the night.
I met my host at a bar and, upon hearing my story of cycling across Eastern Canada, I became a “local celebrity” for the evening and had drinks being handed to me by everyone I met.
I was piss drunk within an hour and I lost my couch surfing host as he went off chasing girls to sleep with. I began going bar to bar, sharing my story, and receiving more free drinks. As the sun began to rise, I cycled around the city ⎯ don’t ask me how because I don’t remember ⎯ looking for a place to pitch my tent.
I woke up in the morning to a lot of noise outside. As I opened the zipper to my tent, there were cops and people everywhere.
A group of cops approached my tent and asked, “rough night, bud?”
I had no sense of smell but I’m sure I reeked of alcohol. As I packed up my tent, the cops questioned why I was camping on the front lawn of parliament. I shared my story which gave them a good laugh and a warning not to cap there again.
Hungover and hungry, I checked my phone and saw a new message in my couchsurfing account:
“Jef! Did you arrive in St. John’s yesterday? I just got your message and wanted to see if you’re doing okay! The weather has been terrible lately so please send me a message.”
I responded and got a message back right away.
“Where are you? I’m coming to pick you up right now…”
I spent the next few days getting to know an incredible human being named Matthew Goldring. He was an engineer and a volunteer for various ski rescue teams. It was in his nature to ensure people’s safety.
Matthew and I enjoyed a few adventures in St. John’s and on my last night, he invited me to his mother’s house for dinner. His mother was from Japan and I wanted to express my thanks for all help they have given me. So, I cooked one of my favorite meals from Eastern Canada: clam chowder.
After dinner, we returned to Matthew’s place, had a few beers, and talked into the early hours of the morning.
“Yo Matthew,” I said with a wild look in my eye. “Wouldn’t it be fun to cycle across Japan?”
“Jef, you’re crazy…”
When I returned to Ontario, I donated the money I raised from my fundraising trip to Boost. I was confronted with a lot of hard-hitting questions throughout my travels and began to doubt my leadership abilities.
“You just graduated university; how come you don’t want to make money?”
“Why do you want to help youth with this program?
“Were you abused as a child or something?”
These were some of the many questions I encountered along my travels ⎯ questions that I didn’t have an answer for.
‘Should I be focused on making money?’
‘Can I really make a positive impact?’
I couldn’t even find the answers to the questions I asked myself.
I ended up moving to Winnipeg, Manitoba where I continued working for people with special needs. I also got a second job as a youth care practitioner. Over the next year, I helped develop and execute programs for youth under the leadership of some very inspiring people.
It was winter of 2014 when that seed planted deep in my mind began to sprout.
“I’m going to embark on the greatest adventure of my life.”
I immediately called Matthew.
“Hey, this summer I’m going to fly to Tokyo, Japan and cycle across Asia. Do you want to join me?”
“Are you serious, Jef?”
“Yes! Come on, what better way to end the summer than a trip back to your home country?”
Matthew just got accepted into medical school when I called him with my plan. With the next 4+ years of his life about to be dedicated to learning how to become a doctor, he didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to see his family in Japan.
For the next few months, I began cycling daily. I sold almost all my belongings and packed up the bare essentials for what I thought I’d need navigating Asia by bicycle.
In July 2014, I said goodbye to Canada.
6. English Teacher
I was 25 years old when I left Canada and traveled to an international country for the first time. When I landed in Japan, it felt like I time traveled into the future.
There was no English anywhere. The streets and signs in Japan were all labeled in strange swirly characters. People greeted me with polite bowing inside shops and restaurants then screamed “thank you so much” as I left.
I immediately fell in love with Japan.
However, if I wanted to continue my adventure cycling around Asia I had to find a job
I discovered Dave’s ESL Cafe and began applying for jobs in South Korea. My plan was to spend a month cycling in Japan then go to Korea to teach English.
I got many replies to my job applications and took job interviews using the internet at 7/11. Since I came from an English speaking country with a university degree, I had a few job offers lined up.
During this time, I was meeting many Japanese people who were curious about my story and my adventure. Anytime I mentioned going to South Korea to teach English, people would say:
“No! Don’t go to Korea. You should stay here and teach Japanese people.”
“Hmm… Do you know where I can get a job?” I asked.
After a week of cycling, Matthew and I eventually arrived in Hiroshima. We continued cycling along the coast when we came across a small town called Hikari.
It was a long and hot day with humid temperatures exceeding 35°C (95°F). We stopped at a beach to rest and have a snack. While resting, we met a local Japanese surfer. He listened to our story and shared his recent hitchhiking trip around Kyushu with his surfboard.
“Sugoi na! You guys must come to my restaurant tonight!”
Our new surfer friend lived in a neighboring city called Kudamatsu. He introduced us to his parents who owned an Italian restaurant then sat down next to a Japanese family and started chatting.
We shared stories and enjoyed dinner together. When I mentioned I was going to South Korea to teach English, I got a different answer than usual.
“No, don’t go to Korea! They’re going to kidnap you.”
We all laughed and I asked the same question whenever anyone wanted me to stay in Japan.
“Well, do you know where I can get a job?”
“Yes, we can help you!”
In November 2014, I became an English teacher for an Eikaiwa (English conversation school). I worked 20 hours per week and got paid ¥175,000 per month ($1,900 CAD when converted at the time).
Even though I enjoyed teaching English, I hated the conditions at the school. My co-teachers were alcoholic, sex-addicts and my managers were very unprofessional.
I’m a firm believer that your environment shapes and impacts your abilities and performance. So, after 3 months at the Eikaiwaay, I decided to quit to pursue other opportunities.
At the same time, I met some private English teachers who helped me find the courage to start my own business. I spent weeks reading books like Think and Grow Rich to nurture my entrepreneurial spirit. I also listened to The Strangest Secret every morning and every evening to solidify my mindset.
I already had 4 students when I quit my job at the Eikaiwa. After a month of building my confidence and developing my curriculum, I began marketing my services daily.
I printed flyers and handed them out to people coming home from work at the train stations. I slack lined in the park and taught children and drunk adults how to do it. I went to the bar until the early hours and networked with business professionals.
Progress was slow at first.
I had just enough money to pay for my rent, utilities, and food. I decided I wasn’t going to touch my savings while I became a private English teacher. If I had to use my savings, that would be the trigger to leave Japan and get a real job.
However, I got a few lucky breaks.
One of my friends, who was a private English teacher, was moving to Tokyo. She introduced me to her students and my student base increased from 7 students to 18 students.
By the end of my first year, I had more than 50 students, earned $4,000+ CAD per month, and only spent 14 to 16 hours per teaching.
Investing in a school
Word of mouth marketing became one of the best ways I found new students. After a month or two of teaching my students, they would tell all their friends about my personalized in-house English lessons.
I experienced fast growth for a few months and played with the idea of opening a real school. Up until this point, I was cycling to my student’s home or a business professional’s office to teach their lessons.
Some of my students began encouraging me to open a school. They began to introduce me to potential investors who could support me in eting started.
After researching ways to build a business in Japan, I discovered an Entrepreneur Visa which would allow me to be 100% owner of a new company. However, I would need $50,000 USD as initial investment ⎯ money which I didn’t have as I was paying off my student debt.
I had a meeting with a potential investor who was willing to provide the money I needed to start a school. He also owned an empty building beside a major highway that I could use for my school. Above the building was a blank billboard which I could have used to advertise my school.
All the stars were aligned to convert my bicycle-to-your-door English service into my very own Eikaiwa.
I had a meeting with my potential investor. It was a Japanese style of meeting which meant we went out for dinner then to a bar for drinks.
“Jef, come with me and let’s talk.”
My investor and I went upstairs with a bottle of sake. We spoke in both English and Japanese to discuss the terms of our agreement.
“Whatever you need, I will help you.”
While we talked, I was kept watching a small dog that was locked in a cage behind my investor. I watched the dog take a shit and a few moments later it started to eat its shit.
At that moment, I had an epiphany.
‘If I accept his money and build a school in Japan, I’m going to be that dog in the cage. I’ll have to eat my own shit and accept my fate.’
For the next few days, I avoided my investor. I wasn’t ready to give up my dream to travel the world but I knew this could have been a huge business opportunity.
I finally confronted my investor and told him I wouldn’t be making an English school. I decided I wanted to pursue my dreams and continue my adventures in Asia.
My investor accepted my decision but news spread throughout my community that I wasn’t staying in Japan forever. I started to lose students and lost my motivation to continue teaching.
Teaching English was not going to be my life’s work and it was time to explore new opportunities in the world.
7. A Starving Marketer
Before I left Japan, I sold introductions to my students for 1 month’s salary. For example, I had a group of two students that paid ¥30,000 per month and a corporate contract that paid ¥150,000 per month. The amount was equivalent to $270 CAD and $1350 CAD, respectively, in 2016.
After finding a couple of private English teachers that wanted my students, I earned between $3,500 to $4,500 and used that money to travel to Taiwan.
English teaching was not my life’s work. However, I needed to find a job before my savings ran out.
I went to a job interview for English teaching jobs in Taiwan but I was too ashamed and embarrassed to accept it.
‘Jef, you fool,’ I thought to myself, ‘You just gave up a lucrative opportunity in Japan. You CANNOT go back to teaching English at a school you don’t own.’
I found another job opportunity while searching for an apartment in New Taipei City. It was a marketing job for a biomedical company.
On my way to the job interview, I felt the sudden urge to use the toilet. This was my first time using a public toilet and I quickly went to a 7/11 to drop a number two.
Unlike Japan, famous for its cleanliness and ass-spraying toilets, Taiwan is a bit behind on toilet technology.
My shitty interview
I entered the 7/11 toilet in a panic. I was on the verge of shitting my pants and quickly sat my ass on the toilet to unload a big brown package. When I finished, I suddenly realized there was no toilet paper.
I searched the cabinet under the sink but there was no toilet paper in stock. I began to panic because my job interview started in a few minutes, and I was stuck on the toilet with a dirty asshole.
I thought about using my underwear and throwing it away afterward. However, I wasn’t confident I could clean my entire ass with it, so I made an innovative decision. I stuck my ass in the sink and began cleaning it with running water. I made sure to use my left hand because that’s that’s what your supposed to do out here in Asia (right?).
Anyway, I made it just in time for my interview. I waited for 10 minutes before the CEO of the biomedical company came in to greet me. When we met, he stuck out his left hand. I paused for a brief moment and hesitated to shake his hand.
“Uhh, nice to meet you, sir. Thank you for taking the time to interview me.”
We proceeded with the interview and a few days later, I was offered a position as a glorified secretary. Both the wage and the job offer were shitty. But I guess that’s karma for starting the interview with a handshake with my left hand.
Becoming a digital marketer
After building and running a business for two years in Japan, I struggled to find a decent job. I couldn’t bear the idea of accepting a low paying salary that didn’t reward me for my time, energy, and effort.
Then, a question popped into my head:
“How can I survive in Asia NOT teaching English or working for a dead-end job?”
For the next 5 months, I began teaching myself the basics.
I taught myself how to build WordPress websites. I made my first e-commerce shop. However, I corrupted the serve and lost 3 weeks of hard work.
I avoided my computer. I was frustrated and couldn’t figure out how to recover my website.
I took a few trips around Taiwan to take my mind off things, but I was continually chewing through my savings.
When I returned to my little apartment, I realized I didn’t have the passion or desire to dropship kung fu style shoes from Asia to North America. So, I focused entirely on copywriting and started using Upwork.
I desperately sent proposals to every job related to writing and eventually made $12 USD for an article about life in Asia:
Winning my first contract on Upwork was the proof I needed to become a freelance copywriter that got paid.
For the next couple of years, I continued cycling around. I earned enough money from Upwork to continue my travels and have since made more than $80,000 USD on the platform.
8. My Life’s Work
As a Canadian traveler, I have the freedom and privilege to visit many countries around the world visa-free.
Every couple of months, I would cycle from city to city and country to country. By the time I arrived at my destination, a week or more would pass. By the time I recovered from cycling and got settled in, I had 3 to 5 weeks to find work and earn enough money to continue my travels.
In 2018, I decided to put an end to my cycle tour in Asia.
When I became a copywriter, I knew this was going to be my life’s work. I wanted to focus on building my business instead of wasting so much precious time and energy on travel.
I returned to Canada with my bicycle and spent the next three months establishing a company. I was emotional to leave my bicycle behind but sometimes turning a new page in life is necessary to find new opportunities in the world.
I’m now the founder and chief copywriter at Copy Ads Content. I provide copywriting services for B2B, SaaS, and any other company that focuses on doing good for the world.
In 2020, I decided to expand my services to include Biomedical Copywriting to support BioMed, Pharma, and MedTech companies with their inbound marketing. My goal is to work with Biomedical Companies to accelerate and improve the world’s access to critical healthcare and medical solutions.
Beyond copywriting, I use my personal blog as a platform to help people learn and develop the skills to live a peaceful life and build a better business.
To all my readers: Thank you for taking the time to read my articles, sharing them with your friends and family, and inspiring me to continue writing about my life experiences.
For those of you interested in digital marketing: I aim to launch a digital marketing agency in 2022. If you or anyone you know thinks digital marketing is their life’s work, I encourage you to apply to one of my Career Opportunities.
Finally, to anyone still searching for their life’s work: Don’t give up. If you’ve ever read “The Alchemist,” you’ll know that life has a funny way of preparing us and guiding us to our life’s purpose.
When we apply our time, energy, and effort in a meaningful way, we gain the strength, courage, and ability to pursue our life’s purpose.
Do you have 90-seconds to spare?
This story about ‘how I found my life’s work’ is part of a greater story I want to write and share for an upcoming book.
In this story, I have quickly captured many of the wild and wonderful moments from my travels in Asia.
Right now, there are 5,036 words, and I plan my first book to be between 20,000 to 30,000 words long.
However, I’m unsure about the kinds of stories and experiences that would interest you in a full book.
So, here’s my request(s):
- In the comments below, tell me what you thought about this story. Which parts did you enjoy? What do you want to learn more about? Is there anything else you want to see in my upcoming book?
- If you’re too shy to share a public comment, I encourage you to send me an email at email@example.com.
- Finally, to receive updates on my progress as I write my first book, please subscribe to my Monthly Newsletter.
Thank you for being so awesome!
Jef van de Graaf