“Success is more about how you make your money, than how much you make,” says coffee enthusiast and globetrotter Cheston Nguyen. Back in August of 2017, he booked a one way ticket to Australia to dive into the Great Reefs, master the fine details of coffee, and “find his lane” in life. Today, he sits down with Nicholas Ma from The Stack LA at an Australian coffee shop in the heart of Orange County, CA.
Do you think you accomplished what you wanted from your trip to Australia?
I wasn’t there to accomplish anything specific, I just wanted the experience. If you’re talking accomplishments, I scuba dived around the Great Barrier Reef, experienced one of the best coffee communities in the world, and I met dope people from all over the place. I wasn’t there to soul search like people thought. I didn’t go with the intent of “figuring out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” Although, I can say that the trip made me realize I need to pursue a career that I’m passionate about. I can stay here and work some mediocre desk job, but I can do that when I’m 30 if I fail at my passions. To pursue something I’m passionate about, right now is the only time.
Is it hard to get an official job out in Australia?
A lot of people [backpackers] were there working jobs solely to make money to kick it; the government calls it “supplementing your stay.” A few people were getting jobs to continue their travels. I knew a few people saving up for a trip to Vietnam. Personally, I was just spending money on food and alcohol, so I just found some work at a hostel. I was cleaning the yard for a couple hours a day in exchange for a place to stay. I think I had the best job at the hostel.
Do you ever have the fear of not making money?
(Chuckles) Yeah, of course I do. To me, money is the result of who you are and what you do. You gotta pick a lane and stick with it, can’t bounce around. Such as being a Photographer for 10 years. You might not make a lot of money now, but if you stick with it you will succeed. A lot of people I met in Australia are super chilled out. I have a strong belief that if you follow your passions, work hard and are a good human being, everything will eventually fall into place.
What’s your current plan? What’re you working on now?
I’m not quite sure which direction I’m headed towards yet. I currently work in coffee and as a freelance photographer. If the short-term goal is to travel, I might use the extra income from photography to do that. Part of me thinks it’s time to get my career started and get back into the gears of society, but that will only happen if the right job opportunities arise.
Other than that, there’s not much to do in photography for me. Weddings make good money, but I can’t handle that. Maybe engagement photos, but for a wedding, if I miss that magical moment, there’s no rewinding the wedding. It’s also not really my style. I also think spending some time in Australia made me realize that I don’t shoot photos for the money. It’s really all about the personal satisfaction that it brings me. It makes me happy. That’s the plan, being happy.
Ideally, what would you want in your life?
Win the lottery haha. But realistically I’d start getting more hours at my cafe, and I would learn how to roast [coffee]. I want to use my spare time to pursue fine art photography and start selling my work. I still wanna travel and experience new places. I have a few photo projects in mind that require travel; it has to do with environmental activism.
Based off those projects, do you view any of them as an opportunity to pursue a career?
I wouldn’t do that as a career, but strictly as a project. Coffee is the career , and photography is the side hustle. In this sense, the route I want to go is to open up a coffee shop. I’ll do that as long as I can build my foundation and learn the art, but I still want to pursue photography as my own artwork. Fashion photography is cool and previously, I wanted to go that route. In Byron, I actually met up with a fashion photographer who gave me tips and tricks on how to go about it. He gave me a contact at a modeling agency, and I reached out to them. Almost immediately they wanted to do a test shoot. But I asked myself, “Do I really want to do this?” When it came down to it, I didn’t. That’s why I shoot natural things like flowers. If I could get paid to document how the Great Barrier Reefs are slowly dying, that would be pretty cool.
So far you’ve taken the “expected” route in terms of education, is that something that you’ve considered continuing to reach your goals?
MBA for coffee. MFA for photography. But I don’t think the money spent is worth it.
I just think where I am right now, a part of me REALLY wants to travel because it’s an escape from this reality and what I need to worry about. Almost like a safe route in terms of personal happiness. ‘Cause if I stay here and I fail, I wasted extra four years of my life. You don’t get that back.
But you get the experience. That experience could set you up for success
But you can get that experience in other countries as well. You can work in another country. I can go to Australia and work at a coffee shop there, and run that route every day. I get to travel and interact with new people, new cultures and I still get to become a coffee master. And if I’m in Melbourne, I’d be learning coffee from the best of the best. Or I can go to Guam, and work as a dive instructor for a year. Or teach English in Japan or Korea, and see where that route takes you. Whatever career it is, I think you could do it while traveling.
I think you should continue saving up and building experiences for the next year, and that would set you up for better opportunities when you’re overseas too, with a year of coffee, whether it be barista or roasting.
I agree. A year of experience is better than no experience. Plus, I can hone in on my photography skills and use that to freelance in other countries. As long as I keep building my portfolio, that’s a route I can potentially take. Save money for a year and then travel or work.
Look at this scenario in the next 4 years. If I decide to travel and go to Nepal, India, Japan, South Africa, etc., I would experience all sorts of different things. Doing that, I would find out what I am passionate about. It would be the one common denominator. Let’s say it’s coffee. Let’s say I figure that out year 2. Year 3, I could potentially visit farms around the world. Maybe in year 4 I find out I like to garden. Bottom line, in these four years of travel, I would have gained so many more experiences than I would’ve if I just stayed in the US working the same 9 to 5 job.
I think that as long as you keep and maintain the mentality of learning, that could end up more valuable than a formal education.
Absolutely. All I know is that pushing my gears and forcing me to adapt to uncomfortable situations will make me grow. After 4 years, I would know the career route that I’m taking, and it would be one I enjoy. I could then come back to California after my travel bug has died, settle down, and go for it 100 percent. Or if I work hard here for 4 years, I might have to travel again to find myself. So that’s why I think traveling now puts me in a better position.
Formal education isn’t the only way you can grow, learn, or develop new skills. All you need are two things: passion and time. You can choose how you want to live your life and you shouldn’t limit your opportunities to what other people normally choose. Travel the world, make a living wherever you are, and truly immerse yourself in your passions.