Half Dead | My Grim Reflections on Turning Thirty-Five

A Japanese ink painting of a man on a boat fishing.

Update: Since originally writing this, I’ve come to realize that I am much better suited to being a mere freelance digital marketer and content creator…

Today is November 21, 2020. As I sit down to write this, I am currently cozied up by the fireplace at my favorite mountain lodge in Nikko. It’s my birthday today and I’ve just turned thirty-five years old. My oh my does the time fly! Assuming that I’m able to live to the age of seventy, this means that half of my life is already over. Put in terms of weeks, I only have but a mere 1,820 weeks left until I meet my makers. While I want to try to eke out as much lifespan as long as I possibly can, even this finite amount of time isn’t guaranteed. Grim as it is to contemplate one’s own demise, I find that introspective moments like this are key to living one’s best life.

In all honesty, the journey from thirty-four to thirty-five has been a rough one for me. Like with many people all over the planet, I’ve had to come to terms with 2020 canceling all that I’ve held dear. For the past several years, I’ve prided myself on helping get more and more foreign visitors to Japan off of the beaten path. As I outlined in Rejecting My Ikigai, I had opted to keep a rather dull but decent paying day job in marketing to finance all of my adventures. Though not exactly what I would call fulfilling, the role paid the bills while allowing for me to throw money at promoting places that simply couldn’t figure out how to do it themselves.

Alas, 2020 came and thoroughly gutted the travel industry here in Japan. As inbound tourism came to a screeching halt, so too did the core mechanisms that were powering my sources of meaning and purpose in life. Ultimately, the pandemic left me in a particularly challenging predicament (albeit not as bad as some who lost their jobs or worse). No longer able to derive any satisfaction from helping travelers discover Japan’s hidden gems, I found myself becoming increasingly agitated with my circumstances. While I was thankful to still have a stable existence here in Japan, the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak undermined the primary pillars of my identity.

Jonah gets swallowed by the whale in the Bible

No longer able to fend off the encroaching anomie and thoughts of my own wasted potential with the prospect of helping Japan, I found myself helplessly engulfed in darkness these past few months. Like Jonah swallowed by the whale, I was sucked down into the chaotic underworld (to borrow an analogy from the amazing Jordan B. Peterson). One by one, I watched as the many key routines and values that defined me crumbled like the aging columns of a long forgotten civilization. While I should have been able to anticipate that this would happen with distraction of inbound tourism no longer there, it’s a cautionary tale of what occurs when one runs from their fate.

The truth is, in putting in the reps day after day to build my own audience on social media, I had developed a near unrivaled understanding of the various platforms. As my skill set continued to grow, so too did the ever-widening gap between my latent potential and what I was actually doing professionally. In turn, this was causing me to become the very definition of a toxic employee. Try as I might, I just couldn’t respect the opinions of people who didn’t have the same dirt under their fingernails as I did. And how could I? They just hadn’t put in the work to know the nuances of things like how to properly use hashtags on Instagram.

Ultimately, I realized that staying at my former employer was simply no longer in the cards for me. As I outlined in my recent article on what I learned from Oda Nobunaga, not leaving would eventually be a losing play at some point later on down the line. Put another way, it was simply “below the bar” to borrow Ray Dalio’s framework. So, with a heavy heart, I decided that it was time to leave the PR agency that had formed my very identity over the years and even got me into marketing in the first place. Regrettably, the alternative was to continue to become more embittered due to many of my co-worker’s apathetic attitudes.

What I can say is that my time at the PR agency was one amazing epoch of my life. Prior to joining, I was but a mere academic at Tokyo’s esteemed Sophia University who was overly obsessed with his studies. Until I dove into the vast world of marketing, I had no employable skills or real-world experience. Looking back, it was truly an honor to have the opportunity to be the first foreigner ever to be given the privilege of being on one of the account teams. Though I’ll no longer be a full time employee, I do hope to continue to have a relationship with the firm as an outside consultant here and there.

Of course, the jump from being a lifetime employee at a listed Japanese company into the uncharted world of entrepreneurship hasn’t been an easy one. In fact, the prior few months since I finally made the decision have been nothing short of an emotional roller coaster. One moment, I’d feel like I was on top of the world whereas the next I would be questioning whether or not my aptitude for digital marketing was all just in my head. All throughout the final weeks of my time at the agency, I felt viscerally compelled to run back to the safety of a job from which I quite literally could never be fired.

Thankfully, the worst of the near nightly panic attacks are now a thing of the past and I can focus on what’s to come. I’ll be joining one of my best friends in building a digital marketing practice known as AdVertize. Our mission is going to be bringing far more transparency to the marketing industry here in Japan. Without berating you with the minutia, know that many of the ways that big agencies here work are completely opaque that it’s hard to tell if advertising budgets are being spent well (or at all…). By honing in on the concepts of ROI and ROAS, AdVertize will look to champion marketing effectiveness here in Japan.

If you’ll allow me to stay on my soapbox for a moment longer, know that one of the other amazing aspects about this new endeavor is that it is part of the Lawson Staff family. This means that we’re not really starting AdVertize entirely from scratch. Instead, we’re part of a larger network that is itself a joint venture with the convenience store titan of the same name. Thanks to this infrastructure, I need not worry about a lot of the concerns that early-stage startups often encounter (i.e. cash flow issues). What’s more, I’ll also have a stable financial base so that I can continue learning about social media via my own travel content.

At the same time as I aim to go big with AdVertize, I also am going to look to really scale myself as a content creator now that the action is picking up again in the lead up to the Olympics. Until recently, I have been very bearish on accepting offers for press tours and whatnot due to being chained to my desk. Now that I have more control over my time, I want to be more aggressive at taking on influencer gigs to promote Japan. After all, the job is going to go to someone. For the sake of the inbound tourism industry, isn’t it best that the work be done by a creator who knows how to vividly bring a destination to life with digital marketing and storytelling?

While the past few months have truly been bleak and depressing for me, they say that it’s always darkest before the dawn. Now that I’ve made the jump and recovered a bit mentally from the toll it took leaving my comfort zone, I am excited about seeing how far I can really take things with some of my own skin finally in the game. If I am to be honest, I don’t think I would have made it through without the continued support of those closest to me. From the amazing Cheeserland with her undying love of Japan to my brothers in arms at AdVertize, I’m eternally grateful for having such a superb squat at my side.

In closing, though I may be indeed half dead as of today, I do hope to accomplish a lot more before I finally kick it. Both in terms of inbound tourism and digital marketing, I am going to stop shying away from my potential and really give it my all for once. While I am bound to experience impostor syndrome as well as some failures along the way, I am excited to see what adventures the next half of my life has in store for me. As always, I am eternally grateful to each and every one of you that take time out of your busy days to follow my whimsical journeys in Japan. Hopefully, you too will be able to again experience this amazing country soon.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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