"While we all hope to choose recreation we enjoy, most have forgotten that once upon a time, we made the same proactive choices about work."
Author, blogger, website designer, American nomad and frequent Actionable guest writer, Joel D Canfield has designed a truly unique life for himself. Travelling North America with his family for the last two years, Joel creates an income by designing websites, writing and selling books, and doing the occasional spot of coaching. In his most recent book You Don’t Want a Job, Joel is on a mission to convince you that the age of the job is dead… and that what’s taken its place is a glorious world of freedom.
Early in You Don’t Want a Job, Joel makes an important point of which I want to make sure we’re all aware. “Self employed doesn’t always mean entrepreneur” (page 5). Self employment is the all-encompassing bucket into which we pour entrepreneurship, small business owners, freelancing and “portfolio employees”. Some distinctions:
Entrepreneurs are people who build businesses; entities that can eventually operate without their involvement.
Small Business Owners run businesses – with staff, overhead, etc. – but the business relies upon their ongoing involvement.
Freelancers have a particular skill or set of skills that they “sell” on a project by project basis.
Portfolio Employees maintain long term contracts/relationships with multiple clients. In many ways they act as employees would, with ongoing responsibilities, they just do it for multiple companies at once.
None of these four – entrepreneurs, small business owners, freelancers or portfolio managers – ultimately rely on a single boss, a single client, to determine if they deserve a raise, or what projects they should be working on. It’s the freedom of choice that unifies these self-employed individuals.
Choice, Choice Everywhere
"Let me be emphatic: when you are the boss, the owner, the final stop for the buck, every single thing you do is a choice. You choose what tasks you perform. You choose the techniques to perform them. You choose when you do them. You choose who you do them for, and with."
In his brilliant book, Drive, best-selling author Dan Pink talks about the “4 T’s” of internal motivation, and the important role having autonomy over them plays in motivating employees in the 21st century. Those 4 T’s are: Task, Technique, Time and Team. Basically, Dan says that the more control an individual has over these four components of work, the happier and more motivated they will be to complete that work with excellence.
When you’re self-employed (and this includes all four classifications outlined in the intro), you have absolute control over these four aspects of virtually everything you do. Which is to say that in many cases you actually get to make the call on what you do, how you do it, when and with whom. And in the case where you’re engaged in activities where someone else is calling the shots on some/all of these aspects, you still have the freedom to choose whether you actually engage in the project at all.
Sometimes sacrificing control over a certain area makes sense, simply because you really want to be a part of a particular project. Clients will impose deadlines that force an all-nighter. Clients will insist you work with a certain strategic partner or internal staff member. But as a self-employed individual, you truly have the final say on whether you work on something or not.
Let’s explore some of the ramifications of that power.
With Great Power...
"The tasks you choose to perform, the product or service you create, must provide something people want and are willing to pay for. Otherwise, you have a hobby, not a business."
“With great power comes great responsibility.” –Uncle Ben, Spiderman
If I had to make a call on what the single greatest deterrent is to self employment, I would imagine it’s the absence of a steady paycheque. And this is the trade off. If you want the freedom and power to make the call on every single project you work on, you need to appreciate that the responsibility to do value generating work (read: work people will pay for) falls squarely on your shoulders.
The upside is that you can pursue hunches, long shots and “passion projects”. You don’t need approval, and you don’t need to justify your decisions. You do need to be responsible and have enough foresight to avoid bankruptcy.
Particularly in the early days, when cash is tight(er), you’ll need to make some trade-offs, and potentially work on some not-totally-exciting projects, just to keep the lights on. And you’ll need to have the tough conversations with yourself (or, ideally, a good friend) about whether your “great idea” is a realistic money maker or an elaborate hobby. You need faith in yourself, balanced with a healthy dose of reality. It’s not a dichotomy that comes to many people naturally but, if you can embrace it and keep yourself grounded through the process of dreaming big, there are few more satisfying paths than that of self employment.
Life's Too Short...
"Having the judgement to choose nice folks to work with, people who are a good match for your work style and personality, is a hallmark of a happy entrepreneur."
Life’s too short to work with assholes. I apologize if the language offends, but I can’t emphasize enough how strongly I feel about this. As a self employed professional, you have limited bandwidth and – if you’re working hard – you’re almost always near (if not over!) capacity. That in mind, be selective on who you work with. This includes employees, clients, partners and vendors. The beauty of the internet age is the unprecedented access we have to people; all sorts of people. If your offering is good (and it should be, if you’re following the ideas in insight #1), you don’t need this customer. There are others. Others who will be more enjoyable to work with; who will cause you less/no mental anguish, stress or other negative emotional expenditure.
To me, exercising your control over the fourth “T” – Team – will have the largest impact on your happiness as a self employed professional.
I love the subtitle to Joel’s book. Why Self-Employment Reduces Your Risks & Increases Your Rewards. And his book does a good job of doing just that (it’s totally worth a read if you’re currently self employed, or considering making the leap). What the book doesn’t do is guarantee that being self employed will be a good move for you. Nor should it. The biggest difference between the world of the contract and the world of the paychque, in my mind, is the level of “proactive-ness” that is required to realize success. When you are the boss, there’s no one telling you what to do, how much of it to do or when to do it. Which gives you freedom, of course. But it also demands responsibility; responsibility to be constantly looking forward. Constantly moving forward. Trying things with a sense of curiosity, and adjusting with humility. Self employment is one of the best tests of character and “forced development” that I know of. But it’s not for the faint of heart.