Do It Yourself

I have an acquaintance who is an entrepreneur; owning businesses and employing people his entire life. In order to fill his spare time in his retirement, he recently took a job working in a small specialty store. Money was not really a factor in his decision, but the adjustment from ’employer’ to ’employee’ has been a challenge for him. It’s interesting how, when it comes to work, we generally think in only two contexts: working for yourself, and working for somebody else.

The ideal motivation, no matter whether you’re the boss or the employee, is to be productive. If your activities are productive in some way, then your life is better off for having done the work. It gives ‘working for yourself’ a new meaning! Whether you earn a modest hourly wage, or build a moneymaking career, you are (or at least should be) working to make your life better in some way.

Of course, there are advantages to having your own operation, as well as added responsibilities. Many people who work for a nasty boss automatically assume it’s easier to be self-employed, but they forget that ownership also brings risk and responsibility. The boss might not answer to anyone employed by the company, but he or she does answer to the customers, stockholders or whatever the case may be. The extra burdens might or might not be worth it.

Some people yearn for self-employment not because they think it will be easy, but because they want independence and autonomy. One of the biggest emotional barriers to branching out on your own is fear of risk. Is self-employment always riskier than being employed by someone else? Not necessarily, says Steve Pavlina, author of ’10 Myths About Self-Employment.’ He says, ‘Security is a result of control, and self-employment gives you far more control over your income than you have with a regular job. When you’re self-employed no one can fire you or lay you off.  Which is more secure  —   owning your income stream or leasing it?  Ownership obviously.’

As we endure yet another recession and the corresponding job losses, these words ring more true than ever. Being employed by an established company can provide a false sense of security. ‘I have this job now and I’ll be taken care of forever.’ Well, it doesn’t always work out that way (note the recent bankruptcy of General Motors!). The point is not that self-employment is inherently better or worse. It all comes down to what you want, what you need, and what’s truly within your skills and talents.

I have actually heard people with impressive skills, being paid for these skills by a large employer, say, ‘I could legally and ethically branch out on my own tomorrow. Most of my clients would follow me. But I can’t do it.’ When I ask why they can’t do it, all I get are vague references to health insurance, ‘security’ and the like. Or they say, ‘I wouldn’t have my sick leave and vacation days.’ Well, of course you wouldn’t. When you work for yourself, your time is your own! You can give (or not give) yourself all the days off you want. Another happy tradeoff is that, as a business owner, it’s often easier to ride out the economic cycles, because you don’t have just one customer, you have a bunch of them. By working to keep as many of them happy as possible, you’re buffered against economic downturns in ways that corporate employees are not. For many people (not everybody, mind you) this can actually symbolize a reduction in stress.

And then there’s the saying, ‘The customer is always right.’ If you’re self-employed, you’ll certainly have to deal more directly with customer concerns. But if you’re doing an honest job with the product or service you sell, most problems will get resolved. And if a customer is being irrational, you get to decide which ones just aren’t worth the trouble. As Pavlina writes, ‘If you’re self-employed, feel free to fire customers that cause you grief.  Some customers just aren’t worth having.’

If you would like to be self-employed someday, but aren’t sure how to get there, start now by developing a ‘self-employment attitude.’ Treat your current job as part of your career track to bigger and more independent things. Don’t look to others to take care of you. You’ll be disappointed, and you’ll shift the focus away from the long-term plans for expanding your career. It’s important not to fixate on what you’re ‘getting’ or ‘not getting’ from your employers. They are not your mommy and daddy! Become independent by thinking independently.

Of course, total independence isn’t for everyone. The hours can be long and the risks can be numerous. But also consider the freedom, income and increased security that having control over your job can bring. Those old Gershwin lyrics sum it up nicely: ‘Nice work, if you can get it. And you can get it if you try.’