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Breaking down and building up – #033

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So today on the #PressForward podcast we’re speaking with Jan Koch.

Jan has been working with WordPress for many years, developing solutions for clients. More recently he’s been creating WordPress related summits, and they’ve been very well received.

Our podcast today covers a range of subjects, but focuses on a period in Jan’s life which saw him taking on too many things. He decided to take on a masters course concerning internet security and although he thought that this would be of interest, the main driver was financial. Jan was hoping that having this qualification would enable him to secure a good salary, but as we find out, the course did not live up to his expectations. The content was hard to learn and wasn’t really something that he enjoyed. The pressure mounted and Jan had a nervous breakdown.

We talk about how Jan got into this position, and what actually happened on that day. How his family were able to offer support and help in this time of great need.

We also discuss the aftermath of the breakdown… how life is now and how it forced Jan to re-evaluate his priorities.

Towards the end we hear about how Jan is doing right now, how he’s continually tweaking his life so as to ensure that they things and people that matter most get the time and attention that they deserve.

This is a trigger warning that during this episode, we talk about nervous breakdowns, depression and anxiety.

Interviewed by Nathan Wrigley.

We hope you enjoy the show, please do subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. We’re always looking for feedback, if you have any thoughts or comments, please do reach out.

And remember… Together we can #PressForward

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PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Nathan Wrigley: [00:00:00] Welcome to episode 33 of the PressForward podcast. I’m Nathan Wrigley, and I’d like to thank you for joining us again, and if this is your first time with us, I hope that you like it and that you find it useful. 

We release the PressForward podcast each week and we’d love it if you added us to your list of podcasts, the ones that you consume regularly. You can do that by subscribing to us on your favorite podcast player, and this can be done by going to wpandup.org/podcast/feed/.

Today we’re going to be talking to Jan Koch. But before that, let me tell you a little bit about something new from WP and UP. I’d like to point you to a post that was written this week. So that’s January, 2020 by WP and UP’s founder, Dan Maby. It’s entitled WP&UP Community Partnership Packages, and it explains some new and exciting ways that you can help WP and UP to continue to support the WordPress community.

Put simply, WP and UP is a nonprofit. We call this a charity in the UK. To function, we need to raise money. And until now, this was either via the donations page at wpandup.org/donate/, or by buying one of the larger, more expensive packages. As of today, we have a much more bespoke à la carte way that you can help us out.

Now you can pick and choose what areas of WP and UP you’d like to sponsor. With the WP and UP Community Partnership Packages. So if putting your brand in front of thousands of live event attendees fills you with joy, you can sponsor those specifically. If you love the longevity of hearing your brand played out across the speakers, then the PressForward podcast is for you.

And by the way, that’s what you’re listening to right now. So please have a look at that page and let’s see if there’s a way that we can get you or your organization up and running with a WP and UP Community Partnership Package. The link to Dan’s article is in the show notes, but you can go directly to wpandup.org/partnership/. Thank you.

So today we’re speaking with Jan Koch. Jan has been working with WordPress for many years, developing solutions for clients. More recently he’s been creating WordPress-related summits and they’ve been very well received. Our podcast today covers a range of subjects, but focuses upon a period in Jan’s life which saw him taking on too many things.

He decided to take on a Masters course concerning Internet Security, and although he thought this would be of interest, the main driver was financial. Jan was hoping that having this qualification would enable him to secure a good salary, but as we find out, the course did not live up to his expectations.

The content was difficult to learn and it wasn’t really something that he enjoyed. The pressure mounted and Jan had a nervous breakdown. 

We talk about how Jan got into this position and what actually happened on that day, how his family were able to offer support and help him in this time of great need.

We also discuss the aftermath of the breakdown, how life is now and how it forced Jan to reevaluate his priorities. Towards the end, we hear about how Jan is doing right now, how he’s continually tweaking his life so as to ensure that the things and people that matter to him most get the most time and attention.

So this is a trigger warning that during this episode, we talk about nervous breakdowns, depression, and anxiety. 

And so without further ado, here’s Jan Koch.

Jan Koch: [00:04:30] So I’m a WordPress developer and agency owner based in Germany. I turned 30 last year, got a wife, got two dogs and a horse, and I basically build things around WordPress and I’m slowly transitioning into running these virtual summits for WordPress agency owners, marketers, and other people in that space.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:04:51] Jan quietly mentioned that he’s the proud owner of a horse. I guess therefore, that he lives in the countryside somewhere in Germany. I know that for me, being in close proximity to nature is very important, and I wondered if the same were true for Jan. 

Jan Koch: [00:05:10] Yes. I really appreciate the, the quietness and the very slow speed that we have in our area, like people are, so, I wouldn’t call them relaxed, but they are slow to adopting any trend.

No. No matter if it’s technical or not. So I’m always on the forefront of what’s happening in this city right here. Yeah, just – I have nobody to talk to when it comes to tech stuff and summits and things like that, but I appreciate that because that is giving me a break in some form.  

Nathan Wrigley: [00:05:43] Currently Jan is working for himself, building WordPress solutions for clients and running online summits. I’m sure that this is the case for many of you listening, but I asked Jan if he’d always worked for himself. 

Jan Koch: [00:05:58] No, I started as an employee, actually. I did an integrated degree in business informatics in 2011 I think. And then I was working for a total of five years for a company as a business consultant.

And then I reached that point when I started becoming an entrepreneur, building a business on the side at first, that first seven months or something, and then transitioned into full time entrepreneurship. It was WordPress already and that side gig. 

Nathan Wrigley: [00:06:28] So Jan was working as an employee and at the same time he was building up his own business in his spare time, and after seven months of juggling this workload, he decided to go all in, stop his employed work and become a full time entrepreneur.

It must’ve been a hard decision. The stability of a regular paycheck can be so comforting. You know that your rent and bills are going to be taken care of each month. So leaving that behind can be quite daunting. I wondered what the catalyst was that prompted this decision. 

Jan Koch: [00:07:06] The catalyst was that when I finished and to a degree I was starting to study for a Masters degree on the side in IT security, so entirely unrelated to web dev, or not? Not entirely, but from what I’m doing now, entirely unrelated. And within the first six months I had this massive nervous breakdown, so I was, it was one Friday and I was at the office. I was learning for that studies, and I was, at some point, I was shaking in the office kitchen and I was throwing up at the office and going home and I ended up spending the entire weekend in the hospital because I couldn’t move.

I was like, shaking all over. I was literally not being able to, to walk because of the pressure that was on me at that point. And in that time in the hospital when I was calming down, I thought to myself like, “It’s not going to get any worse.” I wasn’t fulfilled at that point. I wasn’t, wasn’t happy the way I was working.

The job wasn’t paid very well. The Masters wasn’t as exciting — the, the only motivation I had for studying for the Masters was money. And I thought to myself that starting my own business and doing stuff that I really enjoyed and get trying to get paid for, that couldn’t be much more difficult than putting in 70 hours a week for a job and a Masters degree I both couldn’t care less about. 

Nathan Wrigley: [00:08:31] Re-evaluating your entire life can happen for a multitude of reasons, and in Jan’s case, it was his nervous breakdown which prompted it. Things which were once important now had less importance. He realized that his previous goals were not meaningful or significant enough any longer. They did not seem worthwhile anymore. 

I asked Jan if this listless feeling was a recent development tied into his Masters studies, or did it have a longer history, perhaps stretching back into his undergraduate studies. 

Jan Koch: [00:09:10] Yeah. All the undergraduate stuff was really good. It was a lot of fun. And then when, when I graduated — that, I wasn’t happy with the salary that I was getting, which probably is just due to the location I’m in. People don’t get paid well here because the cost of living is very cheap. 

And I’m not the best negotiator too, so some, certainly a part of that is my own mistake. And then I started that Masters degree because I had a somewhat interest in IT security. Like, I mean, everybody imagines themself being a hacker when they’re 18, 19, 20 years old and trying to do fancy tech stuff.

And what got me into starting that Masters degree was basically the perspective of earning six figures when you’re done. And that was an international course. Yeah. As I said, on the side of my job, and we were like 10 people in that course from all across Europe, so it was quite a narrow, quite an intense study program.

And cost me — the entire cost would probably be around 12 K for that degree, and I paid and sunk 4,000 for that in the first six months. And the more I studied and the more I learned about theoretical — like cybersecurity stuff, how to calculate encryption algorithms and things like that. The more I realized that that wasn’t nearly as fulfilling and as fun as I thought it would have been.

And then at some point I was just driving to the office. I had like a 20, 30 minute drive with the car, and the closer I got to the office, the more I could feel that pain in my stomach coming up and the frustration of where I was in life. And at some point I just — just couldn’t take it anymore. I wasn’t, I was a horrible person to be around at the time, was easily, easily irritated and just, you would say one wrong word at me and I would blow up. Really, something had to change at that point. 

Nathan Wrigley: [00:11:09] Jan said that during this time he was difficult to be around. His temper was easy to trigger. I was curious to know what effect this had upon those around him. 

Jan Koch: [00:11:23] The one thing that really struck me at the time was how my girlfriend reacted to me when I was feeling bad, when I was frustrated and I was blown up and seeing her being miserable because I couldn’t tolerate where I was at in my life right now.

That was kind of the tipping point for me that told me something had to change. I’m married to that person now, so it certainly was a good move. 

Nathan Wrigley: [00:11:51] Returning to the subject of Jan’s breakdown. I suspect that people who are trained in this area are able to see the flags that indicate that a person is at increased risk. Perhaps Jan had some experience of this himself with a friend or a family member. 

Jan Koch: [00:12:10] For me, I didn’t have any, any relationships with breakdowns before personally, and nobody in my family, as far as I know, does. Looking back at it now, I could clearly see that something was wrong and that I was heading towards a breakdown and I could probably have stopped two months before that and could have avoided that situation.

But, uh, at the time I was so caught up in, yeah, work and studying and trying to have a little bit of a, of a social life that I wasn’t able to take the step back to see what was going on. 

Nathan Wrigley: [00:12:48] Like Jan, I don’t really have any experience of nervous breakdowns, and so I asked him if he was willing to explain what happened to him that day. What was he doing at the time? What was he feeling, and how it developed. 

Jan Koch: [00:13:05] So I was in one of the office rooms in the meeting rooms and there was like this big whiteboard where I would do my math calculations on for some encryption theory stuff, and I went into the kitchen trying to make a coffee, and at some point it just, yeah, I start, I started shaking uncontrollably. It was like my hands were shaken and I was sweating, even though it was quite cold. And yeah, I felt that I, I would need to throw up. So I ran to the bathrooms, threw up like two times I think, and then I, I knew that I would at least have to drive home somewhere. I don’t know how I managed to drive home at that point.

Yeah, I wasn’t feeling that I’m in control over my body. It was like, if you’re really drunk and you know that on autopilot, you can work. On autopilot, like the routines that you have, be it walking, standing up straight, work without even thinking about it. And I feel that I probably should not have driven home, certainly should not because I wasn’t able to focus. I wasn’t able to just concentrate on the stuff that I was doing, but I did it and luckily nobody got hurt. Yeah. 

When I arrived home, I drove to my parents’ home. Uh, I was just laying in bed. Feeling miserable and being sick, feeling sick, shaking in the bed, shaking all across the body like when, when you’re really, really cold, shaking that hard.

And then, that was around 2:00 PM I think. Probably the entire duration was like four hours from noticing something is wrong in the office to going into the hospital. And then at some point, I think two hours later, my mom just drove me to the hospital because she couldn’t take it anymore, basically, and she was afraid that something was going on.

And then when we arrived there, at first, I would have to stand in the waiting room because it was quite full. Then I got a free seat and at some point I couldn’t even sit anymore because I was just like, my body was shutting down basically, and then I had to lay on the, on a bed in the, uh, in the hallway. Waiting for a doctor to see me, and then they gave me like this medication to calm me down and stuff like that. And I stayed there from Friday to Monday morning, I think they released me. 

Nathan Wrigley: [00:15:29] I’m sure that we’ve all been struck down suddenly in the past with some kind of illness. One moment you’re feeling just fine and the next, you’re not. 

Jan described having uncontrollable shaking and various other things that he later knew were associated with a breakdown, but I asked him if, at the time, he knew this was something more serious than illnesses that he’d had in the past. 

Jan Koch: [00:15:56] I think I knew it intuitively that it wasn’t the sudden illness that struck me because there was nothing substantially different from the days before, the weeks before. I knew that I was feeling bad because of working so much and learning so much. I did make that relation to the situation where I was in. But it took me like, an entire day to really take a step back and see that it was the pressure I was putting on myself that put me in that situation.

I literally felt like the entire strength in my body was fading. It was like, not that I was running around or that, that I was feeling so agitated that I couldn’t sit still or something, or that I was shaking because of that. But it was like, I felt like I was losing control over my body. I felt like the body wanted to do what he wanted to do and not what I wanted to do. And that was kind of a very, very frightening situation to be in. 

Nathan Wrigley: [00:16:59] So the pressure that Jan was under came to a head and we now know the result. But why did it happen on this day, at this hour? Why not a week before, or a day later? 

Jan Koch: [00:17:15] I think it was three weeks old to the first exams and it was on a Friday and I was able to take the Fridays off at work to study.

So I was in the office, but I wasn’t doing any work. I was just studying for that Masters degree, and I think it was just, the closer I got to those exams, the more pressure I would build on myself because I felt like I wasn’t smart enough for that stuff. And I think if I were to take the Thursdays off instead of Fridays, it will probably have been on a Thursday because I was just working through all of these very complicated algorithm and problems and stuff like that. And it was just at that point that it all became too much for me. 

Looking back at it, I think it wasn’t so much the exams, but it was my mind going crazy on the negative consequences of not passing an exam because I was so frustrated with the job I was in and I was so desperately looking for that famous six figure income at the end of the studies that my mind came up with all these horrid scenarios of, “You’re not going to pass the exam” and “You’re never going to make that studies and you’re never going to make six figures” and —

When things go slightly wrong, how your mind comes up with all these consequences that could have happened, but they never do. Like the mind, I think is so much better at creating negative scenarios for the future than positive ones that I was getting caught up in, in that negative spiral in the feeling of, “I’m trapped in this situation forever, maybe.” That I was just putting so much pressure on myself. 

Nathan Wrigley: [00:18:59] So on that day, Jan made his way to his mother’s house and she in turn got Jan to the hospital where he received treatment. Now, Jan turned his attention to telling us what happened in the days and weeks which followed. 

Jan Koch: [00:19:16] I made a very difficult decision to quit the Masters and to basically decide to accept that I sunk one thousand euros in that studies and made the decision to start my business on the side with a good friend of mine. And what made it so difficult was it really was the first time for me in my life that I can recall where I would consider a situation that I failed in. Like, on a reasonable scale. 

We all fail at small things, but there was, that was one mistake that I made, one, one situation where I truly wasn’t as good as I thought I am. And I was lucky that everybody from family to my employer supported that decision. Nobody gave me a hard time about that, which I think if somebody would have pushed back on me and said, like, “You have to finish this. You have to continue studying the Masters. It’s not as bad as you think it is.” I’m not sure what would have happened. I’m really not. I think what saved me in that situation was everybody around me was understanding the situation I was in. They were seeing the negative consequences. So nobody really tried to convince me of something else, and I’m really appreciating this, that support.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:20:36] It’s great that Jan got so much support from his friends and colleagues. They could see that he needed to make changes in his life and they were there for him. He was able to make the big life changing decision that he needed to. So how did it go from there? Did his life get better or worse? Was the process slow or perhaps there was an immediate epiphany?

Jan Koch: [00:21:04] It was… the immediate epiphany. At some point when, when I made peace with myself that I wasn’t continuing the Masters and I wasn’t beating myself up about not being smart enough and failing and stuff like that, and I was just okay with that decision. The entire pressure fell off. 

I even went to the exams, and I did one of the three exams that I would have to do just because I was interested in that one topic.I passed that exam even, but it was quite fun to do that exam. But in this situation, I was just sitting in the classroom and doing, doing that, exam out. I knew I wouldn’t go to the other, uh, exams and it wouldn’t matter. 

I was okay with not doing them and with dropping out of the studies, and I was looking forward to becoming my own boss at that time and knowing that I would be in control over how I spent my time soon. That really gave me this immediate feeling of relief.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:22:07] It kind of feels like the podcast could have ended here. Jan is in control of his own destiny and looking forwards to a new positive attitude. Life for Jan is now a piece of cake.

Jan Koch: [00:22:26] Hahaha, I wish, I wish, haha. I think we all, we entrepreneurs all have these ups and downs, these roller coasters. When some months, you make really good money and the other months you’re sleeping, only you’re not sleeping. You’re laying awake in the bed worrying how to pay the bills. I certainly know those situations too. When my wife would be laying next to me in the bed she was sleeping in, I was awake worrying how to land the next client, how to finish a project that was dragging on over and over again. 

One thing that I would like to mention actually is something that happened today. To give a bit of backstory, I have a deadline coming up this week for a very important customer. I’m working with them for like five years or so, and I am, kind of the cause for a project being delayed really badly. It was my mistake that the project is delayed. I’m owning that. The customer knows that I’m owning that, but they obviously want the project finished. So, deadline is this Friday and we are recording on Wednesday, for the record, and I am working quite a lot.

And my wife sat down to me, next to me in the, in the kitchen this noon, and she taught me that she was feeling lonely. We are living in the same house. We are literally within like 10 square meters of next to each other usually, and she feels lonely even though I’m right besides her, and that really broke my heart.

That is like… I know at that point that she needs to tell this to me much, much earlier because I, I’m waking up at 4.30 in the morning currently to do the tasks and I’m working until 9:00 AM or something, and we surely have some time together around the day when we’re taking the dogs out for a walk and taking care of the horse and stuff like that.

But it’s not that quality time we are having a conversation or where you adjust. You’re just caring for each other. It’s more like we are a good team that works together nicely. Like you would work with a coworker, but it’s not, not so much a marriage. And that was something that really brought my focus back to slowing down.

And it’s, I feel like it was a similar situation than it was. When I had my nervous breakdown in the weeks leading up to that, because at that time I was also just focused on work and doing basically the bare minimum on other tasks that would require the life to work. And I’m happy that she told me today that I have to change something.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:25:03] It’s so easy to sit at the computer all day. To play with the mobile phone. To get distracted from the things which we know deep down are of greater importance. Jan said that he was doing the bare minimum away from work and work had been forcing him to work for long hours. I wondered if he had a plan in place to change this.

Jan Koch: [00:25:29] When I go to sleep, I usually feel frustrated because of the things that I didn’t accomplish on that given day, rather than focusing on the things that I did accomplish. It’s also like for me, it’s, it’s similar that I carry around my work throughout the house. My, my office is upstairs right now as well, and now I’m moving into a new space that’s in a different building on our property.

So that hopefully helps with separating work from private life. But — what I’ve done to counteract this problem is I have this habit building app where I track like daily meditation, daily journaling, daily email Inbox zero and stuff like that, and I added a new entry to that this afternoon that says family time, daily. And that’s hopefully I won’t need this reminder in a couple of weeks anymore when I’ve made this a routine, but…

I think it’s also interesting that even though I journal every morning, I didn’t realize how lonely my wife was feeling, even though I was reflecting on what I was doing. Yeah. I think sometimes we just need that input from people around us that we know, like, and trust and love. I feel like when you’re an entrepreneur it’s just bound to happen that you get caught up in something and ignore everything else.  

Nathan Wrigley: [00:26:47] I wanted to turn the conversation to Jan’s future and where he sees himself. He’s got some exciting plans and interesting projects coming up. 

Jan Koch: [00:26:59] I am shifting my business model to accommodate for my new plans for lifestyle that I, that I want to build.

So, that lifestyle looks like I will be working 20 hours a week, come June. And I’m, I’m working towards that right now and that means that I will probably not do as much if any project based work, but I will focus on selling recurring revenue, like maintenance stuff and things like that can be somewhat automated or handed off to a team easily without, without much monitoring.

And I will run more virtual summits where I am in full control over the schedule and deadlines and stuff like that, and there’s no reasonable external pressure on me. We could go down that rabbit hole too, because there are many tasks for preparing the next summit, for example. There are many things that I should have done by now, probably to make it a smooth ride.

There are many things that I have to delay because of the project based work that I have to do right now, but I don’t know. The, the overall perspective I’m looking towards is more positive and it’s, it feels like I’m more in control seeing how well the past work has been received in the community with the agency summit.

It makes me more confident. That this business model can work, especially with all the automations and processes that I now have in place that I know will take up very little time to execute where I would — was spending days on the first summit. 

Nathan Wrigley: [00:28:36] One of the best parts of being freelance is that you get within reason to set the times of day that you work, the timings of deadlines that you’re working towards.

Jan’s move into creating online digital summits gives him this flexibility. He can decide when the next one is going to be and unless he’s actually made the date public, he can move it to whenever he likes.

Jan Koch: [00:29:04] It’s also a very important topic that you’re touching upon. Circling back to the project deadline that I have, I talked to the customer and it seems like that deadline could be moved and that, that’s a lesson that I learn probably in every third or every fourth project and I never managed to remember that. I never manage to keep that in my mind, which is, um… Deadlines are rarely set in stone. That’s something that I continued to get wrong. I always put pressure on myself. 

As soon as deadlines come up and as deadlines approach, I tend to get all worried about things might, that might go wrong and me not making the deadline and all the negative consequences that my mind can imagine and can dream up. Which will never happen usually. I mean, I think about things like that the customer never going to work with me, destroy my reputation online because they’re usually well known brands demanding all the money back that I have spent by now for, for cost of living and cost of goods and stuff like that. And that never happens. It never happens. 

Also, more awareness about what I’m doing and what I’m thinking, and I think that that’s something that I have to work on the most because it’s, it’s a repeating pattern for me that I get caught up in things I already got caught up in three years ago, which doesn’t really make sense. I mean it’s, it’s the definition of insanity to do the same thing twice and expect a different result.

So that’s something that I have to be more aware of and I’m trying to find ways, like meditating, journaling, whatever, having good discussions, having good conversations. But, yeah, I’m just leaning towards having less external pressure on my daily schedule. I think I will have to do this uncomfortable call and ask for the delay of the deadline. Because now with my wife sitting me down and telling me that she is lonely, there’s no way that I can put any type of project above my wife. I mean, that’s not going to happen.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:31:18] One of the purposes of the PressForward podcast is to lift the lid on topics that don’t get talked about enough. To allow people to share their stories, so that others might listen, and by listening, they may gain an understanding that they’re not alone. 

There are other people out there who have faced the same situations that you are facing. They have found a way through and can offer support to you on your journey. Maybe that person is already in your life, but they might not be. And that’s what WP and UP is here for, to connect you with the support that you need. 

So, if you’re able to, please help us. So that we can continue to support the WordPress community, donate at wpandup.org/donate/ or have a look at the WP and UP partnership packages, which I mentioned at the start of this podcast. They can be found at wpandup.org/partnership/

That’s it for this week. Please let us know if you’re enjoying the podcast. If you’re finding it useful or helpful, you can reach out to us at wpandup.org/contact/. There’s a serious point to all of this and that is that WP and UP is here to provide help and support that help is available for you or the people that you know and can be easily accessed at the wpandup.org website.

Please spread the word about this podcast. Tell your friends and subscribe on your favorite podcast player and remember that together we can #PressForward.

Nathan Wrigley

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