Steve felt trapped.
On the outside, his life looked great; he was an industrial engineer at the top of his career, managing a huge team and a multi-million dollar budget for building a new hospital – something he’d always dreamed about.
But somewhere along the way, he’d lost that sense of imagination.
Why did he feel so trapped in a life he’d created, a life he’d worked for, a life he’d always wanted?
He wasn’t sure. But he did start to wonder, when exactly did he stop feeling free?
That question always reminded him of the maps he loved as a kid. He loved looking at big open maps – he’d always see them in 3D, imagining the mountains and the waters, hoping one day he’d visit all those places.
“I was a sandbox kid,” he tells me, a way to describe his free-flowing imagination; when he was young, the world was his sandbox.
But somewhere along the way, he’d lost that sense of imagination.
He wanted it back.
He started the way a sandbox kid might. With a glue stick.
Specifically, he made a vision mandala, a collage process he describes as “not like shopping in a catalog for more toys and more things or more stuff,” but instead a way to begin to dream about a “way of living,” a way to take a pause and ask yourself questions like, Who do I want to be, How do I want to live, How do I want to be, What are my real dreams?
On his first vision mandala, he glued pictures of things he’d dreamed about while staring at maps as a kid: The Eiffel Tower, Hong Kong.
He showed the finished product to his now-husband Azul, telling him: “For some reason, I think we're supposed to be living around the world.”
Azul, a successful school principal, thought it sounded exciting. But they both knew it wasn’t something they could act on right away. “We were raising two teenagers,” Steve explains, “Azul’s biological kids (I'm a bonus dad); we lived a regular life.”
This wasn’t the season for a drastic change, but they decided that now was the time to start planting seeds for their dream future.
And for them, the most important step in the early days was giving themselves the permission to dream at all, making it okay to question where they were and dare to want more.
Steve and Azul didn’t start thinking about how to finance their dreams right away.
Money and business ideas weren’t the driving force to their inkling for change.
“Revenue was the thing we had,” Azul explains, “but we didn't have time. We didn't have connection. We didn't have what we wanted most: freedom.”
But could such freedom really be possible at this phase in their life, deeply entrenched in successful careers and responsible for a household and two kids? “We weren't young like everyone else,” Steve says. “We weren't millennials.”
Could they really change their lives?
He did start to wonder, when exactly did he stop feeling free?
“I’ve got to get off that bridge.”
But they kept dreaming anyway.
They also kept working, Steve commuting an hour each way to his job (albeit in a nice convertible).
The look on his face made it seem like he was drowning.
But material things just weren't important to him.
Steve kept making vision mandalas, and one day he cut out a picture of a man standing in the middle of a high bridge over dark grey water.
The man looked stuck there, in the middle of the bridge, and even though the man was clearly above the water, the look on his face made it seem like he was drowning.
Steve remembers staring at that picture and just knowing: “I’ve got to get off that bridge. I need to get across.”
At that same time, he was offered a promotion and a $30,000 raise.
He turned it down.
After talking it all over with Azul, they decided it was time for Steve to take the leap.
They would still be able to support the kids on Azul’s salary and Steve would look for other jobs.
He got his real estate license, traveled by himself when he could, and dedicated most of his time to being there for their kids. And to make ends meet, Steve drove for ride-share companies.
He loved it.
Steve went from six-figures and first-class business trips to $12 an hour, and he was never happier. He loved making playlists, offering water and mints, and making sure everyone had the best possible experience. He felt like he was getting to create again, like his car was his new sandbox: “I lit up like a light bulb.”
He no longer felt like he was drowning.
But they knew they couldn’t sustain on $12 an hour forever. Buoyed by the momentum from Steve leaving his job – the veritable proof that they weren’t too old to make (and survive) drastic changes – they started to dream even bigger.
What if they could start their own business, perhaps one that would give them the freedom to travel the world one day?
Now was the time to start planting seeds for their dream future.
“This seems sort of scammy.”
Azul had always longed to be a creator and joined Steve right away in learning about business with the hope that one day – perhaps when the kids graduated – they might have a successful business together.
They weren’t in a hurry. The kids were still in high school; health insurance still a top priority. But they knew that starting and growing a business takes time, so why not start now?
They knew they wanted to travel, so an online business sounded like a good idea. They started following people who seemed to be experts on the subject.
They started trying whatever the experts suggested. But as Azul noticed, “Some things didn't work. Even when certain online experts said, Do this. We promise it works. They didn't always work.”
They started to get discouraged.
“This seems sort of scammy,” they started to think as they learned more and more from online business gurus. “We were both turned off,” Azul says.
But then they found Pat Flynn.
And Chris Guillebeau.
And Chris Ducker.
Everything changed when they found the creators who resonated with them, who showed them that the internet was just another place to serve people and reach people, and that you could add real value online without being scammy or unethical.
Azul and Steve signed up for “all their email lists,” so when Pat Flynn and Chris Ducker announced, via email, a one-day business mastermind in San Diego, where Steve and Azul lived, Azul signed up right away.
The event was a month away, and it would change everything, but not in the way he expected.
“It took me 24 years and 30 days.”
The event would be in mastermind format, where each person goes into a “hot seat” to share their business and solicit help from the group.
Azul signed up because he was so eager to learn from Pat Flynn in person, but he had no idea what he would have to talk about when it would be his turn in the “hot seat.”
Azul was still working full-time as a principal; he was terrified of being in the hot seat with nothing to say. But he still had a month until that would happen.
What could he create in the next month?
He’d always dreamed of writing a book.
I'd been studying and taking courses and reading books and talking about writing a book for years, but I hadn't done it. I decided, ‘You know what? I'm going to finally write that book.’
He wrote the book in 30 days and submitted it to an editor the day before the mastermind event.
I’d wanted to write a book for 24 years. It took me 24 years and 30 days.
When it was his turn to be in the hot seat, he talked about his book. He also shared his story: his past business failures (a failed gym), his big dreams, and his sincere questions about how to become a creator.
But no matter what else he talked about, people kept circling back to the same thing:
Wait – you wrote a book in 30 days?! And with a full-time job and family? How?! Can you teach me to do that too?
As a professional educator, Azul knew exactly how to teach what he’d done. So at that mastermind, he accepted his first coaching clients – one of them being Pat Flynn himself – even before he had any idea of what to charge, all from joining an email list and signing up for an event long before he was “ready.”
Soon Azul started helping people write the books they’d been longing to write, while still working as a principal.
Steve was still driving, using his real estate license, and attending every one of their kids’ track meets.
Their top priority was still, as Azul put it, to care for the kids and “keep the nest going,” all the while learning about business on the side, hoping one day – far into the future – they could achieve their travel dreams.
So it was quite the surprise to all of them when Azul was offered an opportunity to move to China.
“I could see his eyes light up when he was doing coaching.”
When their son was about to graduate and their daughter a junior in high school, Azul got offered a job to be an instructional coach in Shanghai.
But he was conflicted.
He was loving his coaching business, and at that time all the coaching sessions were done in person in San Diego. How could he leave?
Why not start now?
But then Steve showed him that first vision mandala and reminded him that China had been on it.
Azul had forgotten.
Steve also reminded him that they’d wanted to start an online business anyway – why not start coaching clients over Skype?
But would the new job even allow Azul to run a business on the side? Committed to his budding business, Azul decided he would take the job only if they’d allow him to continue coaching. He wouldn’t accept the job offer unless they agreed.
And they did.
But there was still one more person to check with.
“I asked her,” Azul remembers, “Do you really want to go through your senior year in China?”
Their “nest” was also about to become even more secure – the new job, Azul shares, “paid for all of our housing, our healthcare, for schooling. It took a lot of pressure off.”
There was just one last problem.
Although Steve and Azul were legally married in the US on May 19, 2015, China did not recognize their marriage.
I couldn't have a visa to go with him because China wouldn't recognize me as his spouse. The options I was given were to either find a job in China that would sponsor my own visa or stay in China for less than 60 days at a time, as a tourist.
For the first year, Steve got on a plane every 55 days and left China for Hong Kong.
Azul worked at the largest international school in China and did his author coaching on the side.
“I could see his eyes light up when he was doing coaching,” Steve remembers wanting to keep looking for ways for Azul to have the freedom to do that even more.
Steve started looking up online course creation tools like Teachable and brainstorming with Azul about how to combine his teaching, coaching, and writing skills with Steve’s years of leadership development experience in the corporate world.
In the evenings, they implemented everything they’d been learning over the years and built their first online course.
Then, Steve found a job in China so he wouldn’t have to keep leaving. He got his own visa and managed operations for a large private elite international school in Shanghai.
For the next year, they both worked their full-time jobs in the day and worked on their online business at night.
It started to take a toll, even despite all the perks that came with their jobs. Azul remembers:
We knew the symptoms of getting into something we knew we weren't meant for. It was so comfortable. They pay for your housing. They fly you back and forth to the US. We had a maid. We had a cook. We started to see how we could get sucked into this really nice lifestyle.
Then, because of his stellar work performance, Azul got offered an even more lucrative job – a director role in Brazil. This time, the offer also included a visa for Steve and assistance in finding him a new job in Brazil.
But when Azul told Steve about the new Brazil opportunity, Steve’s first thought was about the way Azul’s eyes lit up when he was coaching. Azul remembers exactly what Steve said to him that day:
I don't think we'll grow our business if we go into the traditional job. We have to escape.
Azul wasn’t so sure.
“Let's not be bought by somebody else.”
Meanwhile, the team recruiting for the Brazil job finished drawing up their very lucrative offer and presented it to Azul. It was time to make a decision.
Steve’s eyes water as he tells me what he told Azul that day:
I don't want to do it, Azul. I love the travel, but let's do it our way. Let's not be bought by somebody else. I don't want to be bought out.
Steve remembers the fear he felt then: how intense of a risk he knew they’d be taking, and what it felt like to have his heart’s desire in direct conflict with security.
It was like we had to let go of security again, and I had already let go of it when I took the first leap. I knew – it’s not fun sometimes, eating rice and beans. I just didn't want to be poor. I didn't want to give up an income or have him sacrifice such a beautiful opportunity on paper.
But Azul turned down the job.
He, too, wanted something more than “beautiful on paper.”
They wanted beautiful in real life.
They wanted to create something beautiful themselves.
Not only did they turn down the Brazil job, but with both kids now off at college, they both quit their jobs in China to go all in on their business.
And as far as security, Azul knew that the skills they had weren’t going anywhere.
We could always return to our careers; we're really good at them. But we have to give this business a shot.
Azul, who recently turned 50, remembers how confused the people around them were when they told them about their decision.
When you're closer to the end of your life, you start to get less risky; our friends and family thought we're crazy and probably still do, but man, what a joyous choice.
They sold or gave away everything they had. “We put our life into two suitcases each,” Steve recalls.
They traveled the world as cheaply as they could, keeping their living expenses as low as possible, and investing everything they could into their business.
“You have to invest money yourself and start to learn and take courses,” says Azul. “Some work, some don't. We started investing in things that we hadn't invested in – like email, our website.”
The investments paid off. Azul shares:
We started to feel it shift when we went all in. You can't just sit on your hands. You have to keep learning and trying and testing and failing. If you don't fail, you're going to get stagnant. You have to try things and stay focused.
They learned and tried and failed every day, with all their hearts, with all their focus.
They learned something new every day, and some things, they had to hear over and over before they finally clicked. “We were resistant for so long to email,” Azul remembers.
I was just afraid – What do I say? But as we started to grow our email list, we realized people want to hear from us. They want to know what's going on. They want to know about our podcasts and about the programs we offer.
Azul says he’s not afraid anymore:
“Now [email is] a big part of our business because we realize we're leaving a lot of revenue off the table if we’re not communicating with our people who really want to hear from us.”
For Steve, email is “part of my new sandbox, where I go in and play.”
“The security you seek is inside of you.”
Steve and Azul quit their jobs and left China to go all in on the author coaching business in 2017.
Two years later, their business income exceeded the combined income they made in their previous lucrative careers.
Since then the business has continued to grow and evolve, and today it exists as Authors Who Lead, a perfect combination of the skills they’ve both developed in their decades-long careers:
“We help leaders write and publish books people love,” Steve says.
Learning online business was just a means to an end, a way to help them bring the expertise they already had to the proverbial online table.
Because Steve doesn’t feel stuck anymore.
It was a big dream come true for him to take his parents to Europe – they'd never been overseas.
And when Steve’s dad was diagnosed with a terminal illness, Steve was able to take a pause from the business to become his dad’s patient advocate: “What a lovely gift. I could step out of our business because of the lifestyle we created.”
They are so thankful that they gave themselves permission to dream years ago, when most would have told them they were “too old” or too far along in their careers to dream of anything different.
And it’s not always about rushing to quit your job or changing everything tomorrow.
For Steve and Azul, what mattered most was the slow, dreamy, open permission to “set a new intention for a new pathway,” and being open to whatever happens next, without needing to know “all the answers.”
A kind of return to childhood, as Azul explains:
When you started out in life, you didn't know what would happen – and we still don’t. It's just we think we know what will happen. We think we have security. It's all an illusion. When you take a leap, you're going to want security from things, but the security you seek is inside of you.