So when I first started building my business, I took a ‘day’ job. It was partly fear. It was. It’s hard to turn down a steady paycheck, healthcare, and the lascivious knowledge that somehow society supports your decision, where they seem to be bewildered by people who break away from corporate life. It wasn’t a terrible decision, though. A job is a great way to capitalize your business. It’s a great way to shore up your resources, build your emergency fund, get your feet under you, and lend capital to your startup.
It was supposed to be for 10 months. A “contract” job, by which they mean you get benefits, you’re a full-time employee, but it’s essentially temporary – for a project. In this case, right up my alley – designing and training software and processes and being the face of the software rollout on the ground with the end-user population. As these things often go, though, it became two years. The business suffered. It suffered because I had to turn some clients away. I didn’t get to give it the kind of attention it needed. I throttled its growth, so I could keep doing what I was doing.
When the day gig started winding down, the temptation to look for another job was strong, I can tell you. For the same reasons. After all, you can never have enough capital, never really have enough in the emergency fund (it keeps getting hit by life’s emergencies), and when your primary peer base is employees who support what you’re doing – being an employee – you start sort of feeling the pressure to cave.
At some point, though, you have to cut the cord. Corporate life is like a mother that feeds you, true enough, but also ensures you never stray outside the front yard. As the project started ending, people would get sort of gentle and weepy-eyed on my behalf – you know, the kind of sympathy you get at funerals. “Are you going to be all right?” Imagine that too quiet, too soft voice like someone has died. I have a low tolerance for that. What makes anyone think I’m all right being an employee? Is that what it means to be all right?
People respond differently when you tell them you’re leaving corporate life to do your own thing. Some like to insert the if’s everywhere they can. “IF you’re able to make it float. IF you’re able to last in this economy (they don’t realize that every economy is an opportunity).” etc. Others like to sort of glaze over and patronize, as though you’ve told them you’re quitting college to be an artist, or running away to join the circus. They figure it’s a phase, an expression of despair, loss, and grief at “losing” your job. Have they never been in a contract before? The whole point is for you to finish it, and for it to end. But the point is that they think you’re doing something self-destructive, like moving in with your mom and drinking a fifth of vodka every day, while you refinish wooden boats. Come to think of it, if it’s good vodka, that could be a business. 🙂
The thing is, at some point you either have to keep strangling your own business, or business plan, keep relegating it to the theoretical, actually lending creedence to its fairytale status, or you do in fact have to sack up, cut yourself loose from the dock, and float your boat out to sea. The sea is choppy, the sea is wild, that’s what they warn you about. It’s true. So true. But if you listen, what they’re really saying is, “the sea is scary”. They’re asking you to be afraid. They’re asking you to share in their own fear, to be afraid with them. After all, if we’re all afraid together, huddling in our cubicles – our cells, dreading the axe, the chances are some us will get a pardon. Gosh, I just can’t bear any longer to look at the world of work that way. Work is the fruit of a man’s loins, so to speak. Work is the product of his heart, his head, and his hands. It’s a glorious, sacred thing. The notion that fear enters into it, or somehow helps us, protects us, keeps us sane, stable, and safe is for the fainthearted who plan to spend all their lives living on another man’s dime.
Don’t get me wrong: if someone wants to be an employee, that’s fine. Some people prefer that you give them their work. I’ve no qualm with it, ultimately. I much prefer to be a contractor or self-employed or both. Contractors *are* self-employed, if they do it right. But the notion that the employee has to choose being an employee out of fearfulness cheapens being an employee. If you’re that, and you want it, do it without fear. When you’re laid off, when your project is finished and you have to move on, when your company goes out of business, you know that’s part of the deal. Don’t be afraid, be ready for it. Be on top of it. I’ve seen successful employees do this. I’m not knocking it. I’m knocking terror in the sacred place of our talents and the product of our souls. People say they don’t feel afraid, until you see the boat start to rock, and then it all comes gushing out.
But in the same way, fear has no place in the heart of a contractor or a self-employed person. It’s an enemy, a slow poison. Sometimes, not so slow. It’s like being chained to some invisible, impotent thug who only wishes to be a weight that holds you to the mundane, stifles your imagination, and does its best to convince you to be like other men – to join and imitate the huddle. And that fear will stifle your business, where taking a temporary gig to fund it and build it, in and of itself, won’t do so.
To those who are shaking their head in sadness for my departure – you can rest assured I’ll be fine. Quite fine. I’ll land on my feet, because I know where they are. And if I ever get hungry, I’ll see you again, using a job to pack my bank account for a business makeover, or a rebuild, or a new birth. But the very idea that I’d fail presumes only one thing – that I lack the heart to keep running at it, determined to prosper. I have a much harder time buying that fairytale. I don’t even see *how* one can fail if you only determine never to stop, never to give in, never to let up, until you have what you are after. And what’s the worst case scenario? That someone like me does this all his life, running at it, making a new start, pushing at it, building, building again if it gets knocked down, until his last breath. Frankly, that’s a heroic way to live. I’m pretty comfortable with that. I don’t plan on that to be the story, but I wouldn’t mind it and, honestly you don’t have the emotional stamina to put yourself to work if you don’t have the heart to work that hard.
I do. You do, some of you. Or want to. How on earth do people think these things get done? I’ve heard the myth – every business that survives and enriches its owners is the creation of pre-existing wealth or is an accident of history in a far off place where someone else – always someone else – stumbles accidentally upon an idea or a process that makes them ‘successful’. It takes a lot of faith to believe fairy stories like *that* one. Any decent survey of startups that have lasted a few years will show you that it’s *not* true. That happens, yes, but a lot of businesses, quietly making it, are just the product of someone so cantankerous, so obscenely arrogant, that he wouldn’t give up, wouldn’t stop, and didn’t care what you thought about him (unrealistic dreamer and blowhard), even if he seemed pleasantly congenial during “team lunches”.
To those who think I’m unrealistic, what is real? Isn’t it what someone is actually doing? What I’m doing is real – it’s not imaginary. And what I will do will be real when I really do it. I’m not asking you to believe anything, let alone believe in what you can’t see. I’m not asking for anything at all. That’s the point. Be sympathetic, if you want. Be dubious, if you like. Just don’t be in my way when I’m working, because that and only that will give me concern. Just don’t call me late for dinner, in other words.
Now, in a blog about work, I’m not the point, per se. Not really. Nor is my personal history, and that’s not why I’m recounting it. Nor am I the paragon, holding himself up to suggest you live the righteous life that I myself am living. I’m writing a somewhat personal story because I think many of us are in the same boat, sharing the same goals and are surrounded by many of the same attitudes and… sympathies. And if nothing else, this is about more than encouragement. The blog is called Rules of Work. It’s about the principles of what we’re doing, and how we achieve it. We’ve written about fear in the past. “The mind killer”, as they say on Dune. So I won’t articulate that rule again. People who don’t get it just say “yeah, whatever, blah blah blah” (yes, I got such an e-mail). People who do, just need to know that many of us are unafraid. That courage is there to be found, to reach for. And that the fears of others aren’t the rule that must govern our lives. We are free of others’ anxieties, if we want to be.
You don’t have to burn every bridge. Like I say, I’ll get a job again, if I get hungry enough, and I’ll use it to fund a rebuild of my business. But you also don’t have to stay in the big “safe” boat (the news anywhere lately should tell you it was never safe and certainly isn’t going to be any time soon – smart people at least put a second iron into the fire). You can cut the rope, including the rope to all that emotional baggage that comes from other people, and just serves as an anchor to weigh you down. Nothing profound, perhaps. Just an alternative story – a different mythos than the one that’s coming over the top of the cubicle walls, or is in the mournful goodbyes if you’re leaving your gig. Be a rock star. Leave the stage just as well as you walked on.