Co-Transcriber’s Note: The colloquial speech from the raw video has been edited for readability. The original meaning of the words should be intact.
Joseph: So Leon, you added me on Facebook and I looked you up. You seem to be very accomplished and I thought that it would be best to invite you to interview for Project Unchained.
Leon: Thank you.
Joseph: So my name is Joseph Buchoff. I work with Project Unchained which as you guys may know – readers – it is a blog based on unchaining yourself from expectation, from your failures and working towards your successes. Living life on your own terms. Now you’ve been very successful Leon, how old are you?
Leon: I am currently 19 years old.
Joseph: And what kind of things do you consider your successes in your life?
Leon: I think the biggest success is of course to realize – because actually there is this one statistic that I believe is quite interesting – your chance to become a human is one in 400 trillion. So my first success is of course to be a human but the second one is my business. I am managing a company called Teaching Hero, selling online education in 121 countries to over 10,000 students. That’s basically the project that I am managing currently. Also in the last couple of years I did a lot of research at the Free University of Berlin. I had a PhD offered at the age of 17 but declined, I’ve travelled all over the world, lived in China for a year, lived in the United States for a year and learned by now seven languages. English I speak more fluently and the others are kind of okay.
Joseph: I think that’s very interesting. Before I ask you what languages you speak, I would like to ask you what PhD was you offered and why did you decline it?
Leon: Yeah sorry!
Joseph: What PhD?
Leon: Oh Okay.
Joseph: If I was offered a PhD I would be like yeah let’s do it so I am curious.
Leon: Yeah good question and actually it all started with the internship at the Free University of Berlin. I was at that time 14 years old and they offered me a position after couple of months as a research intern and then I worked as a research intern with electrons in resonance which is like a very intricate and meticulous part of atomic science. You don’t need to know what it really is. So I had that internship and afterwards I wanted to keep on doing the studies so they invited me to work as a professional scientist at the University. I invented the first method worldwide method with which it is possible to calculate when human hair turns gray. I applied it to the stats of the population of Germany. Afterwards I focused my studies on hair but on like the connection between hair and skin cancer and for that research the Charité (which is like a big medical facility here in Berlin that is cooperating with the Humboldt University of Berlin) asked me to do my PhD at their University. I declined because I moved to China and also at the same time I was already managing a little business and I thought that this business will become huge. It didn’t become huge and I moved to China and simply didn’t have time. Still was in school- school and high school- so in the end didn’t have time for that . Of course it sounds so nice like being a child doing PhD and this and that but I just simply didn’t had the time. I want to do it again perhaps in the next couple of years when I go to University.
Joseph: Congrats, I read up on your medium and social media and heard about the gray-hair thing which is pretty interesting. One other thing that I was interested in: was there a motivation for figuring out when your hair turn gray, for you specifically? Personally?
Leon: Actually there were no reasons in the end. It all came because once I was sitting in class and there was like a really pretty girl sitting next to me and she was touching her hair and she was saying like, oh my hair look so messy and so on and I have to do something about the quality of my hair. I was at that time looking for some kind of probe that I could use in order to do research with electrons in resonance. I thought why not put hair in it? And the researchers and all the people at the University looked at me like “what the hell is this guy doing!?” And I put the hair in there and in the end of course that turned into this method, but the first time I measured it people were confused. Like “this doesn’t make any sense” but then after around one and half years of research I came up with the method and submitted it to a big science completion in Germany, Jugend Forscht, which means “youth does science.” Then I won that competition and received couple of awards… long story.
Joseph: Wow, that’s impressive. It’s funny because last year I noticed the first white hair. I have gotten a couple of them since. I am only 24 but maybe delving into working on my own projects is giving me little bit of aging.
Leon: Yeah absolutely, I mean I am really fearful because actually I did the same calculation for my own hair and it turned out that approximately plus minus 4 months it will turn gray at 33 years old and three months. So I hope that this is not the case even though I think that in the last couple of years I had a little stress which might actually earlier than that but let’s sure hope that it won’t happen that early.
Joseph: Hopefully not… So I wanna double back. You said that you speak seven languages, could you (French conversation).
Leon: (French conversation).
Joseph: (French conversation).
Leon: (French conversation), my French is not really good, I am pretty good at Chinese because I lived there of course. Also German, English but also now Korean because Korean is fairly simple actually when you compare it to Chinese but French – I had four years in school but I wouldn’t… Well sometimes I say I am fluent but actually to be honest I can’t.
Joseph: Yeah, I totally agree with you, I tend to like to say that I am less fluent then I am so that it’s like an under promise- over delivery thing. I am all right in French and I can have 10-minute conversations but in Spanish I am actually kind of a beginner. I have had a couple of years in college but I know exactly what you mean. Let’s see English…
Leon: Spanish as well in high school in the United States. The Spanish class was basically just watching movies. It wasn’t even Spain Spanish, it was Mexican Spanish and culture but in the end I think the teacher just seemed not to want to teach.
Joseph: That’s unfortunate. So besides Teaching Hero, I saw a medium post about your experience in the host cultures and learning in America and China. The question I had was, in America we have this negative sense of our education system. We feel like we are a developed country but our education doesn’t compare to a lot of systems around the world. You have had experience with America and at least Germany and China – their education systems as a student, and I’m curious about how accurate you think our internal opinion of our education system is and what the differences and similarities are between these three countries?
Leon: Actually a very good question. I put a lot of thought into this and I think the worst of the three systems is actually in Germany even though I think in the ratings Germany is better than the United States. Of course China is better than Germany but in the end I think it’s quite problematic that especially in the US and also of course in Germany the education system breaks everything down too much. In China for example the students have to learn quite a lot and of course these images of students laying on the table, sleeping in the five-minute break. That happens, but is not as extreme as people think. I think there are three very big problems with the education system in the Western world and that is first of all the ratio between the quality of the content and the money that you pay for it.
Let’s think for example about a MBA in an American college. You sometimes pay like 30, 40, 80, 100 thousand dollars for your education so that after you actually leave the college you are completely broke and have to work for let’s say five or ten years in order to get the debt off your bank account. Also I think the promise that much of education that we learn is actually not practical and also not relevant because that’s not the education that we have at high school and university.
Much of it is definitely worth learning but most of it we can’t really apply it in the real world, especially in the job. The third problem is that you do not really control the quality of the education. For example I’m at the business of online education, and in online education you can give a rating and if the course – let’s say video course or book – has only three other five star ratings, you’ll probably not be interested in buying that course or buying that book. If there is a teacher in front and the teacher sucks you can’t do anything about that teacher and you still have to learn from them, perhaps for a couple of years. So in the end I think that is a problem everywhere in the world but the range of between what you pay and what you get out of it is in the United States and a little bit more drastic – since in China and Germany, education is fairly cheap and in the US it’s super expensive. Many Americans say that their education system is so bad and so on and they praise the Scandinavian countries. I think US is better than they think and I even believe that many students in the US are smarter than they think compared to the rest of the world. Often there is this narrative that, especially people from Europe say, all Americans are dumb and I’m sorry… I worked together with so many smart Americans.
Joseph: Thank you.
Leon: You too absolutely people like you, smart people like you and especially also in the high school that I worked in the students were incredibly smart but I think there’s also the problem in the United States that college education is not as important for families then it is as it is for example in Germany or in China. If you are in China and you don’t go into university your life is already over, your parents don’t trust you anymore they will kick you out, I mean it’s not that extreme but you know what I mean.
Joseph: For a lot of families in the US is very similar. It’s seen as mandatory – college – for us to succeed and to get a job and I’m sure there are some jobs you don’t need it, any wage jobs or a shift job, you don’t need a college degree but in a company any salaried job without the experience you’re going to need the degree. That seems to be in America as well. So it’s interesting to hear your perspective since you have learned at all three countries and you have your online Teaching Hero company and you have the experience and independent thinking to give an accurate viewpoint.
Leon: Thank you.
Joseph: No problem, another thing that I was thinking of it’s not as related to online course hero – sorry Teaching Hero but when, I read on medium post, where you were with your host family I believe in China and your host father had a heart attack and you rushed in you helped him out – but the ambulance, the health system over there, was very expensive and they weren’t able to seek professional help. I am wondering what you were thinking at that moment. What were your thoughts? Just replay that for us.
Leon: Actually the story is completely right but it happened in the United States. I was living with a family in Minnesota and they were fairly poor to be honest and they only had a couple of hundred dollars every single month. I think they didn’t have any special medical care – I’m not sure about the system in United States – but the problem at that work… basically I want to tell the story. I was sitting in my bed and I was still watching videos at 2 o’clock in the morning it was mostly quiet and I was just doing nothing and I heard something somewhere in the hallway. Then I heard a door opening. I thought it was my host father going into the bathroom. Just a couple of seconds later he fell and it made like a huge sound and the entire house was shaking and I rushed out of my door and looked at him. He was like mumbling things, he was like “mmm…” And I was so confused because I had never seen anything like that. I know my host in the United States was old, he was at 73 when I was there and my host mother was 71 and I knew that he was very sick but of course I never thought that this would really happen at any point of the time I stayed with them. So I tried to actually help him somehow but of course I was at that time 16 years old and I didn’t really know what to do. I put him in the right position and so on and then I thought about massaging his chest but he said “no don’t do this, I am fine” and then I screamed for my host mom. She came and looked at him and that’s the first time that I understood that if you really don’t have money that your life can actually be much worse.
I know that many people especially my family tell me that money is not really important. My parents don’t have a lot of money like me and my mother are together here, I don’t her father and so on but the problem is that many students, especially in the Western world or just in the US or anywhere, feel like they don’t need money and that is the first thing that I really realized: if you don’t have money like this, you are going to have problems. Of course there is a statistic about money $5000 or more you’re just not going to be happy – or not more happy, but I think you need to have at least a couple thousand dollars or just have at least the amount of money that makes you happy. It should be like a goal that everyone should have like to reach that point.
Joseph: The study showed up to $75,000 per year will make you happy, but any more and the problems go up. At that point the more that you make, you get more frustrated, more problems etc. More money, more problems but there is a point where you have an abundance of money, you can go out and go on the town and not worry about missing a bill. Go have some fun adventure, travel and you save up for it, work for it, but then not worry about having bankruptcy or debt or anything which I think is pretty cool and it’s definitely a good thing to have money. It’s a great asset to safety really, it’s what we have is a generic resource in the world. I have another question for you, yes! One of the main reasons I built up Project Unchained has become… At first it was because I wanted to show people and show myself how it can be to be more free in your life and while I go through the process, share my process and help others who might be going through the same thing because I have been described as a free spirit, my friends would tell me “hey I would never have the courage to do that!” and I’m like “yeah, you do.” It’s pretty easy I have noticed. I took like about three weeks last year and went on a road trip and wrote about it and it cost less money than it would have been to stay here and that’s one of the things that I have heard from a lot of people is that, to travel is too much money and so much work and it’s really not. It so easy. I wanted to show people but as I realized that I still need money to do the things that I want. Some people are comfortable with nomadic lifestyle without any money coming in. Personally – I mean I’m comfortable with nomadic lifestyle but I would have to have a guaranteed income which is why I’m finishing my school career and perfecting my programming skills etc. and the blog has changed from travel. The thing is, you know, you can travel. Inspire yourself and if you want to hear how to do it too… Success is not intimidating and people like you, entrepreneurs – I believe that Teaching Hero is a multimillion dollar company if I am right?
Leon: Not yet, hopefully in a few months.
Joseph: Great but you have done this, you are 19 you have educated yourself in three countries and you have done a lot of impressive things with your life. Being offered a PhD and everything. I like to personify people who are successful like yourself and thus I like to talk to you and to others about your failures, about moments in your life where you feel like you couldn’t have gone on or where you almost gave up and – not to throw you under the bus or anything – but to make it real. All we see is like – “oh success, success, success!” And then it feels unattainable. But behind that success, there is a real story of a real person that actually did it and I want to hear your story. What was the moment that you felt that you almost gave up and what helped you to move on?
Leon: Actually that is a very good question and I’m sure that I cannot give you very satisfying answer because the one thing that you have to learn about me is that I am extremely, extremely hard-working and I really mean that. Sometimes or most of the times actually I get up around 4:30 or 5 o’clock in the morning and really work until like 10 or 11 o’clock at night and really work. Learning from different mediums like YouTube videos or something like that. So in the end failure doesn’t happen too much to me because I think that I can compensate it with work. I know that there are always minor failures but they just don’t see on those failures, it’s just try to move on. So the one thing that’s again super important to me is just simply to have a goal right in front of you and whether there are like stones in the way, just jump over them or kick them away and that’s what I’m trying to do with all the work that I am putting in. For example, I want to tell you a little story actually I was sitting in a train from Beijing to Shanghai and I looked outside and I thought how would my life be if I would be able to just simply go on with the train just you know leave the train as it is, just some point go in a hotel and relax there and just have the complete freedom of time and space and that is like basically the thoughts that I have in my mind every single day when I wake up in the morning and that is why I try to push as hard as I can to have not as many failures. Of course there are some failures, for example right now I perhaps made a mistake that actually turned out to be a big mistake because actually in the last couple of years I was thinking of applying for Harvard University but now I stopped applying, and, of course, the application was due on January 1st. I stopped applying because… I don’t know… I just don’t feel comfortable with going to the US currently or going anywhere in the world,. Ijust want to stay here in Berlin for a year or two and I’m thinking should I go or not? In the end, going to Harvard University is of course one of the best things that could happen to you in life. I finally realized that was a big mistake and a big failure actually to lax on the application. Now I’m thinking about transferring to Harvard next year but I have to live with that now and I think the only way to really learn from your mistakes is not to see them as big mistakes. Rather, think “I am now in a new position and I have to find the best way to go into the future.” So what I’m doing right now is I try to build my business extremely dilligently because I want to have that feeling of “I am beating all of these Harvard guys by making more money” Whether being perhaps more educated, learning more, doing more so that I have the complete freedom that perhaps they won’t have for another five or 10 years. So very simple I can right now tell you that I am financially independent in the way that I can pay my bills very well with what I’m doing. I’m not a millionaire yet but the great thing about it is just that most people, even if they come from Harvard, from Yale or anywhere it takes them a long time in order to get to the point where I’m right now because all just starts up here. If you know how to think properly and if understand that failures will not destroy your life even if they are big and that you know you can move on, you are going to succeed in life.
Joseph: That’s a really inspirational way to say it. It’s very true and it’s interesting. I read somewhere – I don’t know where – that one of the keys to success is your ability to reframe failure. So it was really cool that you took that a new direction when I asked you about that and I have definitely noted that there are certain times in my life where I could have easily seen something as a failure. For instance my choice of University – I go to Rutgers right now which is a very good University. We were asked to be in the US Ivy League twice but we turned it down to keep our tuition low. But I also had the choice of going to UCF in Florida which for computer science is very reputable. My cousin graduated from there, works at a government contractor and gets a couple of offers for other jobs for a week, trying to poach him and it was interesting because I almost went there. I wanted to go there because of my friends were in the area since I went to get my associates done in Florida. Florida is beautiful, it’s great but I chose to go to New Jersey because I had some.. It was a better school, better college and I had some graduates in my family. My father and my uncle graduated from there and I regretted not going down there for a very long time in my life. A lot of my friendships died because of my move but as you were saying if you reframe it… And I remember reframing it to focus on the better college part. I have a lot of opportunities up here and it helped me live with it. That’s one thing that you seem to reflect is that the acceptance of your situation seems to dictate how well you can move beyond it because if you don’t accept it you’ll always be going back to try to accept it.
Leon: Absolutely, that was beautiful.
Joseph: Thank you I am flattered, so before we go I am going to ask just couple more questions. Then I will just open you up to talk about whatever you want after that. I read something… it was the interview with a local newspaper when you were in the US. Yes I’m a bit of a stalker I am sorry but I noted that you jog pretty often and I actually just yesterday wrote a post about exercise[link] that you may have seen. I wrote about how exercise is a cure-all and how I attribute a lot of my stability and resilience to exercise and I am wondering how your habit of jogging has affected you.
Leon: That is a very good point because to be honest I am the person that can do a lot of exercise and then not do it for a couple of months, completely gain 20 pounds, and then be frustrated again and try to just run every day three times. Actually I love jogging, at that time when I was living in Minnesota I did a lot of jogging in order to explore the country sides and went out to the fields. There was one time I almost was hit by lightning which was terrifying because I was in an open field, there was like lightning and I was like “oh my gosh!” and I ran as quickly as I could. It was horrifying. Actually on that day I really understood what my jogging was all about because I gained that freedom and I was at that time a little bit spiritual and thought “okay I wanna just go somewhere in those fields and sit down just listen to the wind and so on.” Actually I would love to do that again right now but in the last couple of years it has all just been like one big hustle which I don’t really appreciate to be honest. For me running is kind of freedom and also exercise in general. Actually in China I did a lot of exercises. There was a girl that I was really in love with and she was like super super trained she was very athletic, more like sprinters in the team and now she is now actually in Beijing, in like the best University in China for sports. I was really sad that I left China. I was 260 pounds actually and I lost around 20 kg, around 40 pounds and currently gained around 10 kgs again, so 20 pounds, and I want to get this off again. That’s why I think it’s funny that you asked me right now, for a week again I’m on a diet and I am trying to slim down a little bit but it’s always difficult when you are in a job or somewhere. When you are in the office and there’s like the kitchen in the next room and there is a refrigerator and there’s so much nice stuff in it, it’s difficult.
Joseph: My housemate works at a cookies and crepes place and he brings cookies home every now and then. The first time I just ate like the whole box and the second time I am just like you know I’m just going to eat a couple and ate a couple and now like I’m not eating any of them. I really want to but I’m trying to make myself attractive as well because there are a couple of girls in my life that I like to pursue but it’s also not just that but I feel so much more energetic and I feel so much more healthy and alive when I eat healthy and I exercise healthy. So it’s great to hear that you have been building habit and it’s interesting to hear that it doesn’t always fit into your life and how that affects you.
Leon: Yeah, I mean I’m just a normal human being like everyone. For me it super difficult because I just simply love food, I have no idea why I am so desperate for food. Also there’s one great thing. I have a company in Germany that actually gave lot of the money back if you basically declare it as a business expense. For example when you have a big dinner and you declare it for the office that this was like a business meeting that you will get a lot of money back.
Joseph: Yeah same with us, you don’t have to pay taxes on business expenses. It’s a different rule on business expenses.
Leon: Yeah absolutely and that’s why I sometimes take students to very good restaurants as a business expense. So when I leave school and go back home on my own I am very tentative to go to the restaurants. Of course they cook with a lot of fats and a lot of oils and so on and that’s why I am getting fatter again but you’re completely right. Living healthy actually makes me kind of also feel like healthy in my mind. So when I really love chocolate but sometimes very unhealthy, that evening I do that… I regret doing it. I swear that I will never eat junk food again and like 12 hours later I like “hmm I can go for some chocolate” but now I try to stay really healthy again.
Joseph: I’ve created this tradition; it’s kind of a joke question that I ask the first guy I interviewed. His name is Dennis Morrison, he is a CEO of a company called x.ai He works in New York City for his company, which subscribes an AI assistant that helps you schedule meetings with people over email and I asked him this question – I wrote a post but I called it the cereal post. I was expecting a silly answer or just for the question to be a joke but he gave me a lot of detail about why he eat cereal but I’ve got a question for you, you don’t have to gave a detail answer, but what kind of cereal do you like and what kind of cereal do you eat if any[link]?
Leon: Actually I love cereal, there is one cereal and I think my parents are going to kill me because when I was little bit younger I always bought that cereal because it was actually the cheapest and also the one that taste are the best and it was like a huge box. It’s called Nougat Bits which is like..
Joseph: Oh I love nougat; it’s the stuff that’s in Toblerone, yeah!
Leon: Yeah and there was nougat in the middle and it tastes like cereal but with the stuff in the middle. I have like this huge box and I think every week I ate one of those and they are amazing, what are your favorite ones?
Joseph: When I was a kid I would devour Reese’s puffs, devour, because my dad worked at the Hershey’s and it was really cool. It was such a cool job because he transferred to the international division. He went to Korea all the time and he came back and like brought us strawberry milk mix, where you take strawberry powder and put it in the milk and mix it up. It was so cool. He’d bring us back these candies and stuff from Korea because he went over there to sell the South Koreans stores Hershey bars. Other people would give him gifts and he’d buy local products from the store. I’m so close emotionally to Hershey and because I am an American I can definitely say Hershey is not great chocolate, not nearly. It kind of sucks to be quite honest compared to anything like a Lindt or Toblerone or Cadbury. Those are a lot creamier and a lot better, but you know what? When and I’m craving a little bit of Hershey kisses, I am fine for a little bit of salty chocolate.
Leon: Same thing here, I love Toblerone but actually I think they changed the shape, didn’t they?
Joseph: It used to be a triangular prism with ridges.
Leon: No I think they changed a little bit, they changed the shape from the triangular to something like a valley between those like little bit like mountains in it.
Joseph: Yeah, it has always been mountains like it’s like I guess is supposed to be like Swiss Alps but you can break off pieces of the triangular prism.
Leon: Yeah, I know that they changed a little bit right now; they changed to like in 2017 just the one thing though they changed the shape like a little bit it now looks a little bit different.
Joseph: You know I need an excuse to get a Toblerone so thank you.
Leon: No problem I can get you one if you want, I can send it to the US.
Joseph: What!! Are you serious?
Leon: Well absolutely.
Joseph: I will send you my address.
Leon: Let’s do it.
Joseph: Yeah, so Leon is been great talking to you, do you have any shout outs like, “hey running girl!” or anyone else you know?
Leon: Actually for everyone listening right now, everyone who sees the video – I think currently many people have the problem that they had been frustrated or perhaps they have the feeling that they cannot become successful in life, they cannot become happy. I mean we live currently in a world that is extremely negative, whether that’s election between Hilary and Trump or whether it’s bombings or terrorist threats and I think the problem is that many people take many things very personally.
I think we all should care a little bit more about the people around us like family and friends and the love ones and this should really be our emphasis and in the end. Succeeding is not as difficult as we think if we don’t compare ourselves to the success of others. For example when you look at Instagram and Facebook, people posting posts of their new Lamborghini or something like that – of course they have never bought but actually just rented for a day for saying, “oh I just made a million dollars” but actually don’t have the dollars in the bank account. So many people are fake and so many people actually don’t show the truth, for example when I give interviews I will never tell you that I am rich, I was never tell you that I multimillionaire because I’m just simply not.
I know that I’ll be there pretty soon but I just want to keep it real and for everyone out there it is not as difficult as you think to scale a business to build a business and become successful if you really have kind of the gist of it. You don’t want to build like a million billion dollar business but rather something that makes you consistently money over time and also if you just have the mentality that you are, first of all, that practitioner, that you have to go into and try things out. Also afterwards you can try to build it bigger or you should have kind of division of where something should go.
So for example when I talk about my own success and what happened in the last couple of years, I always say that I have a vision but I only can get to that point to actually reach that vision by being the practitioner, by doing and hustling every day. Also for everyone, understand that I’m waking up at 4:30 in the morning 5 o’clock and don’t sleep too much in the end, I think that is not how everyone should do this. Just because we have super hustlers that show their day that they’re working like 18 hours a day, it doesn’t mean that you have to do it.
I think there are many people who are smarter than I am and there might be people who build more quickly than I am but I think the one thing that is very important for all of us to understand is that
a) we have time and
b) if we are youngwe have more time that everyone else and we basically have that kind of advantage from everyone else.
For example you might know that currently the generation or the people, right now they are aging up more slowly. People are younger and the life expectancy gets longer. So in the end what that really means is if you start really early with your business you have a huge advantage compared to anyone else. If someone’s out there like 16 years old perhaps even younger or let’s say 20-25 years old most people start their business – like in their 30s. So if you start a business at 20 or 25 or perhaps even at 16 that is a massive advantage and people underestimate time. It’s incredible at what you can do in around three to four years – I mean you can scale multimillion dollar business in that time! For example right now my business Teaching Hero is existing at 6 figures in five months and we already making so much money that I can live very comfortably from it and all the businesses that I started before that actually turned very successful because I had the patience and really invested the time and the effort in order to scale it. So you probably know it I mean it always takes a lot of work, it always takes a lot in the end if you really do this and don’t wait for motivation to come because motivation is temporary and you just really try to execute you’re going to win. That is my advice to anyone out there.
Joseph: Great, thank you so much, I’m going to say sayonara.