Interview with Ernie Zelinski

Hey everyone,

We have an absolute treat for you today. I’m a huge fan of Ernie Zelinski and he was gracious enough to let me interview him for an article. Ernie is the author of The Joy of Not Working and How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free. I read both of these books while I was still stuck in a cubicle and they were very inspiring.  He was a huge motivator to me, especially since I could see many parallels between our backgrounds.

Joe: Ernie, you have an engineering degree and you were an electrical engineer for a few years. I understand you got fired from taking too much vacation and then decided to start a writing career. Can you tell us a little more about that transition? This seems like a difficult transition for an engineer. Did you ever have any doubts?

Answer….  I got fired in October 1980. I didn’t start writing at that time. For the first two years I wanted to experience total leisure the way leisure should be experienced, without having to do any work or go to school of any type. It was during this time that I realized a lot of people have a difficult time with leisure. That’s when I got the idea to write a book about handling leisure time. But I thought, “Who am I to write a book? I failed English three years in a row while I was in Engineering.” So I forgot about writing the book.

During those two years of leisure I invested a good portion of the money that I had saved in junior oil stocks and ended up losing a bundle. In fact, I was totally broke in no time so I went back to school just so I could survive on student loans. I enrolled in the first year of an Insurance Administration program at a college and then switched over to a MBA program at the University of Alberta. I thought the MBA would help me get a job as an instructor at a college, which would allow me to work 16 hours per week in a classroom and have the rest of the hours in a day in freedom. Although I worked in a private vocational school 16 hours a week for around a year and half, I couldn’t get a full-time job at a government college. So I decided to become a professional speaker.

To have credibility as a speaker, one should have a book. In 1989, I published a book on creativity called The Art of Seeing Double in Business. That led me to write and self-publish The Joy of Not Working in 1991. Several people have told me that they could have written the book. I answer, “Really? I had the idea for the book for ten years before I actually wrote it. Indeed, I gave you ten years to write it and you still didn’t. Why not?” That normally shuts them up.

Insofar as this whether I had any difficulties with the transition, of course I did. Did I have any doubts? The answer is yes again. I could go into more detail here but I won’t. I can provide an excerpt from my book The Lazy Person’s Guide to Success about my struggles that you can publish at a later date. This excerpt has been cited by some of the readers of my books as one of the best passages I have ever written.

Joe: You said your income has been growing over the last 20 years while you only work a few hours per day. That’s great news. I quit my engineering career 3 years ago and my online income is about 40% of what I made as a senior engineer. Your most well known books – The Joy of Not Working and How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free were written many years ago (23 and 10, respectively). I thought most books sell well in the beginning and then sales taper off. Can you tell us how you kept increasing your income over the years while maintaining a great work/life balance?

Answer…. My income has generally increased over the last 20 years or so although there have been declines in certain years and then upswings again. Most books sell best in the first few months and then taper off. There are books, however, that become perennial bestsellers. How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free is one of them. It sold around 9,000 copies in 2003, the first year it was released in the U.S. Sales then increased to around 16,000 copies in 2007, decreased for two years, then from 2010 increased again.

In 2010 I established a goal of having sales eventually reach 2,000 a month or 24,000 copies a year by utilizing my 50 to 100 own unique creative marketing techniques. Social media, blogging, and free ebook promotions are not included in my strategies simply because doing what everyone else is doing is not a great strategy. In 2013, sales reached 24,500 copies. And then much to my surprise, 2014 turned out to be the best year ever even though I have done little to market the book for the last year and a half. Sales of all editions (print, ebook, and audio) have now reached over 47,000 copies for the year.

The key to having this happen is having a great book. Mark Coker, owner of Smashbooks, in a recent blog post “ebook publishing gets more difficult” stated:

“Good isn’t good enough! With the glut of high-quality books, good books aren’t good enough anymore. Cheap books aren’t good enough (Smashwords publishes over 40,000 free ebooks). The books that reach the most readers are those that bring the reader to emotionally satisfying extremes. This holds true for all genre fiction and all non-fiction. If your readers aren’t giving you reviews averaging four or five star and using words in their reviews like, “wow,” “incredible” and “amazing,” then you’re probably not taking the reader to an emotionally satisfying extreme. Extreme joy and pleasure is a required reading experience if you want to turn readers into fans, and turn fans into super fans. Wow books turn readers into evangelists.”
— Mark Coker, Owner of Smashwords

I really like the term, “Good is not good enough.” That’s why I put in the effort to write a great book. After a certain number of copies of a great book are sold, word-of-mouth advertising becomes the powerful force that keeps the book selling for many years. Insofar as The Joy of Not Working, it will sell 5,000 copies this year, 23 years after it was first published. I estimate that only one out of 10,000 books will still be selling 5,000 copies per year 23 years after it was released.

Marketing guru Seth Godin shares his thoughts on the subject of bestselling books in his recent blog post The Bestseller Effect.

Joe: I’m sure you get a lot of letters from your readers. Do you think other people can replicate your success? Can people really leave their careers, follow their dreams, and become successful at something else? Can you share some success stories?

Answer…. Not everyone can do what I have done. On the other hand, some people can. For example, Russell Blake is a New York Times bestselling author who got into self-publishing recently. Even though I have been in the business for 25 years and Blake only a few years, Blake is doing much better than me in terms of income – and I earn a great income compared to the average income earner.

There are others besides Russell Blake. He has been part of a group of authors on Facebook for about the two last years. In that period, several of the authors have gone from earning a few hundred dollars a year to tens of thousands, and in several cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Better still, one of Blake’s author friends will have earned around $2 million in 2014. Another will clear $500,000 in 2014. Likely none of the readers here have ever heard of Russell Blake or any of his author friends. For those who are interested, Blake talks about this in his recent blog post Amazing Times.

I have to repeat that not everyone can accomplish what Russell Blake has done or even what I have done. I like Blake’s perspective on the self-publishing craze. Here is a comment by Blake about self-publishing from one of his recent blogs:

“Yes, hard work is generally a good recipe, although not a guarantee of success, in any business. I think there are lots of authors out there with tremendous talent, but because of their day job, inadequate time resources to devote what it takes to make this happen. There are also plenty who are marginal, but have the time, but lack the critical thinking skills to figure out what the best way to proceed is. These are the folks who buy the “How To Sell Blazillions!” books and then invest thousands of hours in marketing that doesn’t work for them. I believe that every author’s journey is different, and no two will have the same experience. But each success will be atypical, and impossible to duplicate, which is both part of the magic, as well as the frustration, of this business. Hey, if this was easy, everyone would be doing it . . . “

As Blake said, “if this was easy, everyone would be doing it.” To be sure, there is no magic bullet for achieving the success that Blake and I have achieved. Hard work is not required, however. What does help tremendously is having critical thinking skills, creative thinking skills, and plain common sense. Problem is, the majority of people lack one, two, or all three of these important skills, particularly for being a successful self-published author. This even applies to people with MBA’s and PhD’s. That’s why they need corporations, governments, or universities to provide them with a means of making a living.

Joe: Lastly, I need some personal advice. I left my engineering career to become a stay at home dad/blogger. The engineering career wasn’t the right fit for me anymore so I had to move on and do something else. I’m really busy right now because our kid is 4 years old and he needs a tremendous amount of attention. Once he goes off to school full time I think I will have a lot more time on my hands. I will continue blogging and look for other self employment opportunities. I never want to work for a corporation again. Do you have any advice for me? What’s the best move I can make in my 40s?

Answer… The experts such as Brian Tracy and Robert Allen have emphasized multiple streams of income. Although most of my income is earned from my two best-selling books, I have other income. For example, my websites earn me around $400 a month in extra affiliate income. I also do speeches for extra income and the paid travel that they provide for me.

Joe: Can you share with your latest works us? I’ll link them to Amazon for readers who are interested in more work from you.

The latest works still in print include:

Joe: Thank you Ernie for sharing your wisdom with us. I love the “Good is not good enough” comment. That applies to blogging as well. There are so many good blogs out there now and you need to be able to bring out the emotional response from your readers.

It’s also good to know that you struggled and had some self doubts. That shows that tenacity can overcome many obstacles. We all have self doubt, but we need to persevere and figure out how to forge our own path.

Lastly, it’s really inspiring to read about your successes. Intellectual Property is a great way to generate passive income and I hope this article inspires some young folks to think differently.

The following two tabs change content below.
Joe started Retire by 40 in 2010 to figure out how to retire early. After 16 years of investing and saving, he achieved financial independence and retired at 38.

Passive income is the key to early retirement. This year, Joe is investing in commercial real estate with CrowdStreet. They have many projects across the USA so check them out!

Joe also highly recommends Personal Capital for DIY investors. They have many useful tools that will help you reach financial independence.
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15 thoughts on “Interview with Ernie Zelinski”

  1. I very much enjoyed your interview with Ernie! I just discovered him in the last year and have read both books The Joy of Not Working and How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free several times. (I am a slow learner sometimes) 🙂

    The Joy of Not Working is the book that really resonated with me at this point of my life. Ernie describes how there is a life outside of work and addresses many of the common fears we have created in our minds.

    We are so close to leaving our work we can feel it. Ernie’s books describe what we can expect once we get to the other side of working. This is pure candy for those that dream of life without a job.

  2. I’ve read Retire Happy, Wild, and Free and I really enjoyed it. His guidelines about how to be happy without the confines of work were really helpful. I’m self-employed and slowly building up my business, so I have a good amount of free time.

  3. Great story on how to reach a comfortable financial level of success without following the standard “working 9 to 5” career path. I think I did okay with the engineering career I had, but I often wonder if I wasn’t more suited to “the hustle” like Ernie and you, Joe.

    I just never felt motivated at a regular job. I do really well, I might get a few thousand $ in a bonus (if the company is doing really really well). I do very little work, and I still get my base salary plus a small bonus.

    If you work for yourself where you ARE the product, I think there is a lot more motivation to excel and be the best you can be. I guess I can focus on that during the few hours per week that I’m productive now. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your story, Ernie!

    • That’s right! I’m much more motivated now that I’m self employed. I know I’m working to improve my family’s finance instead of the boss’s finance. I will keep working on my interllectual properties. I hope it has a lasting benefit like Ernie’s projects, but that’s pretty difficult.

  4. That was an interesting interview, because he says it doesn’t take hard work but mentions also that not everyone can do it (for various reasons)! Most of the time the advice is anyone can potentially do it, it just takes a huge amount of hard work.

    Unfortuantely, I don’t see myself reading his books. I like seeing a different perspective though.

    • You’re right. Ernie still put in a ton of time over the years, though. He might have worked 3-4 hours per day, but he has been doing it for over 20 years. That’s a huge amount of work. He’s working for himself so he is getting all the payoff. In contrast, most people work to enrich their bosses, companies, and/or shareholders. That’s fine too, but I like working for myself much more.

  5. I find that whenever you have a successful idea, a few people always say ‘I was going to do that”.

    Anyone can do what you did, but they do not have the ambition. Here in the USA, anyone can be a millionaire, if they have the drive, determination and ambition necessary to succeed.

    Far too many want the easy path, which takes 40 years…

    • That’s true. Regular people can become a millionaire with some hard work and sacrifice. Most people aren’t willing to do that, though.

  6. I’ve always been a big fan of Ernie and have reread his books many times and always seem to come up with a new approach to consider. I’m starting to become a big believer in karma. I’m been working on my own book and have been struggling lately and this article couldn’t have come at a better time. Thanks Joe and Ernie for reminding me what it’s all about!

    • Mike:

      Just a note that if you are encountering doubt when writing your book, that is a good sign. I had my doubts and struggles, too. It is the people who “know” that they can write a bestselling book who usually don’t have the ability to do so. This was recognized by this writer long before our time.

      “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt.”
      — Bertrand Russell

      In 2000, I read about research that confirmed what Bertrand said. The article was called “Why the incompetent stay incompetent – They can’s see their deficiencies.” The article is still online.

      But here is a better article called “Blissful Incompetence” written about this topic by Robert J. Ringer, one of my favorite authors ever.

      Incidentally, a few of Robert J. Ringer’s books such as “Looking Out for Number One” and “Million Dollar Habits” have had the biggest effect on my life, including giving me the motivation and persistence to become a best-selling author.

      • Thanks for the encouragement and guidance Ernie! I think part of the problem for me is that I still have not adjusted to my new life after having spent 36yrs in a corp. I need to slow things down , and stay in the moment more, something I’m having a hard time adjusting to. While writing has been slow it’s proven very therapeutic and I’m starting to see things more clearly now and some creativity is starting to flow. After reading this article I had a major breakthrough on a chapter I was working on which seemed to bring the whole book together for me. I originally set a completion date but I think that was a bad move because when you think about it how can you set a self imposed deadline on creativity? It comes when it comes. Maybe I am finally learning something here. Still lots to do but once again just wanted to thank you and Joe for showing us that there is a better way if you want it bad enough.


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