The 12-Year-Old Kid Who Changed My Life

Summary: If you want to create real, fundamental change in your life or in your business... you have to take a stand. In this week's episode, I'm going to share with you a huge source of inspiration for me.

For almost 30 years, this 12-year-old boy has been one of my biggest sources of inspiration.

In fact, I credit him for my being the person I am today.

He was born and raised on the Spanish-speaking island of Puerto Rico. He had never lived anywhere else. And at the time of this story, he could barely speak English.

A few months before his 13th birthday, he and his family moved to the U.S. for the first time. Not to California. Not to New York, Ohio or Illinois. (Those would have been much easier cultures to adapt to.)

Instead, they moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. Right in the heart of the Deep South.

Sure, he had learned some English in Puerto Rico. But he had never heard a southern drawl before. Plus, it's one thing to understand some English. It's quite another to communicate fluently.

Yet it was in this new, strange environment that this young man experienced one of the biggest defining moments of his life.

It happened when he visited his new school to register for the following year's classes. One of his future teachers asked him a very simple question, to which the kid replied, "I'm from Puerto Rico."

The teacher looked puzzled. Not because of the boy's accent, but because he obviously had no idea what he'd just been asked.

"Well, that's great! But that's not what I asked you. My question was 'What grade are you going into next year?'"

That's how bad the boy's English was. He couldn't even understand a basic question.

Mortified and deeply embarrassed by his inability to communicate, this young man made an immediate decision to do something about his language deficiency.

In fact, he had never been so determined to improve himself.

On the way home, he asked his mother to take him to the local library, where he came across the Hardy Boys book series. The stories sounded interesting, so he checked out five books from that collection.

He read them all by the next day.

To accelerate his progress, he also asked his parents to speak only English at home. And he went out of his way to make friends around the neighborhood.

Kids would often tease him. They thought his accent was funny. But by the end of the summer, he had read more than 100 Hardy Boys books. He was completely fluent in English. And he could even speak "Southern"!

The improvement was dramatic.

He pressed on. During his senior year of high school, he went on to write a series of essays that earned him over $5,000 in scholarships. And while in university, he honed his writing skills even further. Friends would often come to him for help with their term papers.

He didn't really aspire to write for a living. But at 32 he began moonlighting as a freelance copywriter. Two years later he quit his day job to write full time. And today, he makes a great living writing marketing copy for software companies.

If you haven't already figured it out, that kid was me.

You Have to Take a Stand

That's right, English is my second language. But I don't share this story to impress you. Or to prove that anyone can learn a second language.

I share this story to make a very important point. You can make incremental improvements in your life or your business. And that's cool. Good things can come from applying a steady and incremental effort.

But if you want to create real, fundamental change in your life or in your business... you have to take a stand.

And you have to focus all your energies on getting what you want.

The nature of self-employment is such that some people will always be struggling. Right now, many solo professionals are blaming their woes on the economy. Or the president. Or Congress. Or the national debt. Or Wall Street. Or the "rich."

Bullshit! The problem is not "out there." It's within us. All of us have the power to transform our situation starting RIGHT NOW.

That is... if we're willing to take a stand and do whatever it takes to turn things around.

I'm not suggesting it's easy, I'm saying it's within our reach.

Of course, it's a lot easier to take action when you're sick and tired of the "feast or famine" cycle. Which is why it's OK to be dissatisfied. It's OK to be sick and tired. Because it's that kind of intrinsic motivation that will often drive you to make the changes you need to make.

Just like it did for me when I was 12, when I couldn't understand a word the people around me were saying.

It's Not About Working Harder

Fortunately, creating a real transformation in your business is not all about working harder. That's a common assumption, and it's what drives so many to burnout.

In many cases, transformational change is more about changing your strategy than anything else. For instance, changing the way you position yourself in your market. Or how you prospect for clients. Or which target markets you go after. How you structure your fees. Or what services you offer.

I was really mad when I realized how poorly prepared I was to live in an English-speaking culture. But rather than spending all summer studying flash cards, I read over 100 books. I started speaking only English at home. I made friends who didn't speak a word of Spanish.

In other words, I changed my strategy.

When I was learning the art of copywriting, I didn't just spend more time reading about how to write better copy. I spent time copying and analyzing great copy. I spent more than 100 hours handwriting some of the best-performing sales letters in direct mail history. I filled more than 10 yellow notepads doing this.

When I launched my business and couldn't seem to land even the most meager client, I got help. I worked with a coach who helped me make just a few simple adjustments to my strategy. And before I knew it, I had more business than I could handle.

Again, I'm not telling you any of this to impress you. Heaven knows I've made more mistakes than I care to remember. And I've definitely struggled more than I've succeeded.

I'm sharing this with you because the biggest successes I've experienced came about only after I took a stand and said, "That's it! No more!"

So here's my challenge to you: Take a stand today. Take a look at your business and name one area where you're underperforming and where you're sick and tired of getting poor results.

Accept the fact that you can overcome that challenge - that the solutions are within your reach. And that you DESERVE to do better!

Above all, do whatever you have to do to get fired up about it! Let that emotion drive you to find and implement a solution to that challenge.

International Freelancers Academy is all about offering solutions that will transform your solo business. But transformation can only occur when you're truly driven to make it happen. When you draw a line in the sand and say, "I'm going to start doing something about this TODAY!"

I'll leave you with this beautiful poem by Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.

We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won't feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
he glory of God that is within us.

It's not just in some of us;
It's in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we're liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

Hey, gang: Playing small doesn't serve you or anyone around you. It's time to get it done. Time to start changing your business for the better.

Because you can do more. And because you deserve more!

Are you ready to take a stand? Ready to unleash the ambitious 12-year-old kid in you?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to comment in the area below.

  • I'm bookmarking this story for when I need a kick in the backend.

  • I can really relate to feeling like the oddball, but as a kid, I still didn't want to learn English. I just didn't see the benefits until we moved and were surrounded by Anglos and then I didn't have a choice.

    Freelance writing isn't for the weak. Starting any business and sticking to it takes guts and I'm learning that every day. I think one of the most effective ways to take a stand is to just be in tune with that's working and what isn't. Constantly evaluate your efforts and adjust as you go along. Just being present and knowing what's going on instead of reacting to everything.

    I'm a nerd, so every week as I work I track key learnings in a spreadsheet. I just put in a blurb about some discovery or "aha" moment into a cell. By the end of the week, I normally have 3-5 learnings to refer to when I feel a bit lost. At the very least, it keeps me from repeating the same mistakes. And it gives me an overall view of where I am and what to do next.

    • edgandia

      Thanks, Sandra! Appreciate your comments. I love your idea of tracking what you learn in a spreadsheet. I do it in a journal, but it's not as easy to go back and review, because my lessons learned are not all together or in a format that's conducive for review. So I like the way you're doing it. And, no, you're not a nerd! 😉

  • Stan Spiegel

    Your story is an inspiring one. Thanks for sharing it..

  • Stan Spiegel

    You're right.

  • I love the poem shared in this commentary as much as the story of an ambitious young man who overcame challenges with flying colors. The whole thing is uplifting and a testament to the human spirit.

  • Zainab Ahmad

    I love this story.. primarily because it is about the power of kids. I feel kids can do amazing things.

    English is my second language too.. I loved English in school.. and I actually loved to read the dictionary as a hobby. Learning new words was fascinating. (My grand father suggested it.)

  • Hi Ed, I'm a freelance copywriter in the US and English is my second language too! I was born and raised in France but studied English in school, and I didn't arrive in the US until I was 23. During the many years I worked in corporations as a marketing communications professiona, people also noted how much better my English compared to most of management.

    I think it's specifically because English is my second language that I'm good at it. I have to make extra efforts to keep learning the language and its quirky expressions. Cool story!

  • Dcohen


    Just the message I needed / wanted to hear as I started
    learning French yesterday; more importantly, the message behind the story is
    not new or unique but it's so powerful, motivational and inspiring to draw from the
    passion that oozes out from your writing. Thank you for this gift that you gave me today, my business needs it and I will definitely take the message forward and share it with others.
    Del C



    • Thank YOU for your kind words! 😉

  • Hi Ed. In Danish we have a saying: "hatten af" - which says somtething like "taking my hat of"...the meaning is this "I salute you and respect what you are doing!". So here's for your work and sharing your story: Hatten af!

    • Hatten af to you as well, Bolette! Mange tak!

      • What!!!! So you speak Danish as well (or at least two words...)

  • Mark Gorney

    I appreciate this story and you are to be commended, applauded and admired for all your efforts (including the Academy and all the info it provides), but I found the packaging of this email ("The 12-year-old kid who changed my life" --  "For almost 30 years, this 12-year-old boy has been a huge source of inspiration for me") to be a tad self-congratulatory.

    • Mark Gorney

      the email that linked to this article.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Mark. I appreciate where you're coming from, but that wasn't the intention. I was merely trying to drive an important point through this story. The key takeaway, IMO, is that true transformation begins when we take a stand and commit to changing our situation, no matter what it takes.

      What I did back then still inspires me today. I share that with you not to impress you or to pat myself on the back, but to encourage you to look back at those moments in your life when you've done something bold and courageous. And to ask yourself: what caused you to do that? How can you inject some of that passion and determination into what you're doing today.

  • Wow, what a story Ed. Thank you so much for sharing. I've always found personal stories to be the most powerful...I'm more likely to believe the message when the person delivering it has also experienced it first-hand! 🙂 And you're so right. Every time I've had a major leap in my business, it's been driven by a feeling of "That's it! I've HAD it!" The key is to take that energy and put it into the transformation, instead of being paralyzed or just griping.

    Thanks again!

  • Anonymous

    Hello Ed,

    Thank you for the article. It is a very powerful message. It is one that will resonate deeply with all the language learners, but I also hope others benefit from the message too. Being an American copywriter in Japan, I have hit the wall many times with Japanese clients and prospects. To curb that, I hired native Japanese translators to assist me.

     A while back I decided I could do better. 

    I could fill in my gaps with the Japanese language and keep my translators--take it all to the next level. I started reading more in Japanese and highly targeting the things I read. It had to be written by THE BEST. I then started copying out sales copy and lead gen pieces in Japanese. Long story short--I have increased my presence in the Japanese market 10 fold. 

    The results:

    1. I have several new prospects in the pipeline. I am writing many e-mail and other communications in Japanese myself. I sometimes have friends and contacts give it a once over, but I have taken charge. 

    2. I work much more closely with my translators when translating copy from English into Japanese. 

    3. I have bosses from Japanese companies inviting me to their office for meetings. And I am attending business events in Japanese.

    Your message just added a new wave of fire to the mix. You just gave me a reason to push even harder. You told me that I am on the right path and that I can do it.

    You're awesome. Thank you.

    All the best,
    Mac Bull

    • Hey, Mac -- great to hear from you!

      Wow! Dude, I lived in Okinawa for 3 years, and I gotta tell you: I'm impressed! It's one thing to go from Spanish to English. But from English to Japanese -- and at that level? Hats off to you!

      I knew you were fluent in Japanese, but writing copy in a different language is a whole different ball game. That's the highest level of communication there is! And I bet your clients and prospects trully respect you for that. They have to know this is a rare skill for an American in Japan.

      Keep on rockin' -- the sky's the limit, buddy!

  • Breath taking. I'm reading this while at work & words cannot express how inspired I am. Thank you so much for sharing your story. When my friends and/or family member start making excuses for themselves, I will send them this article. It will be forever bookmarked.
    Signed,Eternally grateful. 

    • So glad it resonated with you, Colie! Thanks for letting me know. 🙂
      And thanks for sharing with others who may need to hear it. All the best to you!

  • Elizabeth

    Hi, Ed,

    I read your post yesterday and it's stayed with me, since. You have a true writer's soul. Thanks for reminding us that storytelling, literature and drama (about ourselves and others) can and should be a part of our best marketing copy!

    • Thank YOU for your kind words, Elizabeth! It means a lot to hear that.

  • Jasnav

    Great article...Shows what the right inspiration can do.

    If one is motivated enough and has decided to have the world at his feet, the world has little choice!

  • Kevin Mar

    Great story, Ed.  What you did sounds like what Carol Dweck calls mindset and it's the hallmark of successful people everyone.  Thansk for giving us an example that is easy to understnad and makes sense.

  • Thomas Watson

    Thanks, Ed!  I needed that.  Your post arrived at an opportune time.  Just finished a pep talk with myself, laid the law down on my procratstinations and decided to get 'er done.  Taking a stand against all distractions from my copywriting bis start-up.  You rock!

  • This, by far, is the most powerful thing I have read on this site to date. Thank you for sharing your heart. It resonates widely and strongly! 

    • Wow -- thanks!! So glad to hear that, Heather. Appreciate your letting me know.

  • Anonymous

    I started learning english by myself at 5, listening and singing along to a duo called Carpenters in the 70's. I heard and repeated what I heard without having a clue of what I was saying. English is taught in all schools in my country and it's mandatory to achieve higher grades of education. In Brazil, if one doesn't speak some english he/she will NEVER get a better paying job. I can't say I knew that by then, but it sure was fun to sing along to the Carpenter's, The Beatles, Elton John and many others!! Even though in my country we speak only portuguese, I consider english my second language and I wouldn't know much of what I do if I couldn't understand it, as most of my professional resources are in engilsh. I totally relate to what Ed has written as I too look back at myself and thank for what that little boy has done for me. I wouldn't be who I am if it weren't for him.

    • That's a great story! You found a fun way to learn English. Regardless of whether you're a kid or an adult, that's one of the keys to learning a skill: making it fun. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Sonia

    Very stimulating.  Will help people to not give up when they want to achieve their goals in life.  Congratulations!

  • Cait Maloney

    I really liked this part: "Bullshit! The problem is not "out there." It's within us. All of us have the power to transform our situation starting RIGHT NOW."

    I'm so tired of hearing excuses. I read a quote recently that said, "a man who wants something will find a way... a man who doesn't will find an excuse".

    Thanks for this!

  • Al Heisig

    You are showing what the American Dream is really all about.  The opportunity to succeed and the willingness to do things yourself to make it happen - - and not let adversity stand in the way.

    Great article.

  • Thank you all for such wonderful comments! I'm so honored that this story touched so many of you. Truly appreciate your kind words. 😉

  • Awesome and inspiring!

  • germanrosas

    Great post!

  • You just blew me away with your post.  Talk about inspiring!  

  • Very good message and a reminder to all of us that we do have what it takes to get what we want - when we focus on what it is we really want. Thanks.

  • Beth Gersh-Nesic

    Timely and inspiring.  Thank you, Ed!

  • Dry facts don't change lives. Powerful stories do. Thank you for sharing, Ed!

  • Anne

    Powerful message and VERY inspiring Ed! Thanks for sharing.

  • James Head

    Thanks, Ed!  A truly inspiring story, and one that emphasizes the importance of taking action.  You are successful because you're a man of action.  And you have learned to use your many mistakes and failures as motivation to improve and expand.  Can't thank you enough for sharing that story.

    • Thanks, James! I'm still learning -- never ends. But I guess I now see my mistakes and failures as feedback more than anything else.

  • Ed, so glad you posted this. What a great story - I'll have to share it with my kids!  And thank you for putting a voice out there in contrast to all the blame and entitlement focus around us today. When we didn't have much money several years back, we sat around the table and noted what we're thankful for - simple things like health, good food on the table, safety, family being together, and the opportunities and freedom in this country. As Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl points out: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space.In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.In our response lies our growth and freedom.“

    • Wow, Sarah -- thanks so much! Glad to hear you enjoyed reading it. And you're right on the money re: focusing on gratitude. That Viktor Frankl quote gives me goosebumps! Hadn't seen it in years. Thanks for sharing.

  • Aditipw

    Wonderful Inspiration and reminder of who we really are ... Thank you

  • I have a lump in my throat reading this - your words are often small calls to action, but this post is inspiring. Thank you for taking a stand today and sharing Marianne Williamson too (not everyone's cup of tea but I love the provocation and insistence on connection/connectedness in her work). As writers, we probably don't share enough of the writing that inspires us. 

    • Thanks so much, Alex! Glad the message moved you. I appreciate your letting me know.

  • Donna Kuck

    Thanks, Ed. I needed your inspiration today. And - thank you for Marianne Williamson's poem. 

  • Awesome story. For me one of the powerful points in the story was how much the Hardy Boys series helped in your learning English.  We often do not know how our writing will impact others, do we?  Well done.

    • So true! Looking back at this years later, I realized how important reading is to improving your verbal and written communication. Thanks, Brad!

  • K Ravinder

    Its called sharing thoughts of experienced. Standing on and setting up a goal to overcome recognised weak areas in the field gives success. Its nice to read your article

  • I'm so ready to dive into the deep end and swim.  

    • Awesome -- glad to hear it! Thanks for your comment!

  • Barb Johnson

    I second the "wow".  This is great and just what I needed at this particular moment. Lots going on in my life but I will take a stand today for my business and my ambitions. Thank you so much Ed.

    • You go, Barb!! Love it when the timing is just right! 😉

  • Glad I found your story! I'm from PR as well and although I made my move after college (it was cheaper=no loans there) it was definitely an adjustment. Completely agree with you that is all about strategy and how we position ourselves. I'm reworking my strategy right now and can see how it will benefit my business. 

  • Vero0822

    That is so sweeeeeeeet. I love it. Well the same big decision happened to me yesterday and now I read yours.

    • Wow, I love serendipitous events! So cool!

  • Stef Gonzaga

    Oh wow. Ed, you really surprised me with this one! I'm truly happy that you've become who you are now by taking a stand, and I hope many other people (freelancers and non-freelancers alike) will follow the same example. Like you said, the only time you can create transformation for yourself is when you take a stand and finally do something about the issues and problems that are hindering you from reaching your full potential. 

    Thank you for this. More power to International Freelancers Academy! 

    • Great to hear from you, Stef! Thanks so much for your comments. Glad it resonated with you.