Note to readers: this post is part of an occasional series about what it’s like to start a business.
One recent morning, as I ate breakfast out, the grill cook explained why he’d come back to the diner after a couple-year stint as an independent contractor. “This is what I do,” he shrugged. His command over the sizzling surface was indeed impressive as he produced continuous plates of pancakes, omelets, sausages, home fries. “And now I like the job better than I did before.” Listening to him, I once again longed for the familiar professional routines of a year and a half ago, back when I was traditionally employed, before I started my business.
See how powerful the old habits still are?
Daydreaming about the water club and long-term care insurance
For over 20 years I answered to various supervisors, followed directions, knew more or less how every day in the cubicle would play out. Now, old annoyances like office politics or too many meetings seem trivial compared to the benefits I didn’t appreciate until I no longer had them (paid leave comes to mind, also subsidized transportation).
These days, running a small business, it’s true that decisions are mine to make, and every hour can take a different turn. Except it’s hard to embrace empowerment when being in business often feels like a case of mistaken identity.
While I know that selfhood should never be tied to an employer, I found out how much mine was. Back at the office, I remember breezy pronouncements about colleagues – “they need to get a life” – consumed by work activities. Easy to pass judgment under the protection of a secure job and a steady paycheck. Taking those away gives new meaning to the concept of identity crisis.
Especially here in the nation’s capital, it’s an ego-inflating affirmation to throw around the name of the region’s largest organization, recognized in every corner of the city and beyond. Learning to introduce myself without that crutch was a huge lesson in humility.
Despite careful preparation of a so-called elevator speech to use when meeting people, I would still blunder through explanations of my business and what exactly I did. For a long time, I found myself wanting to tack on that past affiliation with my former employer. The connection was a validation harder than I thought to let go.
Leaving the cubicle for the coffee shop
Slowly, I’m developing a more refined vision of this business. I’ve got clients, and I’m negotiating future projects. The ebb and flow of consulting income is becoming less panic-inducing.
Thrilling to realize I’m beginning to move in the direction of my business aspirations. At the same time, some days – when clients vanish or forget to pay – even having aspirations seems presumptuous on my part.
That’s when the transition from employee to business owner sends me around the same circle the grill cook traveled.
If I think too much about the events of the past 17 months, my hard-won business processes seem amateur, even laughable. Stuck in front of a screen, I envy how many of my friends enjoy weekends and holidays off. I worry about contract security next month, next week, even tomorrow. When in this mood, I’m dismayed recounting each false start in a direction that seemed promising at the time, but went nowhere. That’s when the lure of returning to established employment is strongest.
Experienced entrepreneurs say that it can take a while – we’re talking six, seven, eight years or more – for a business to find its target market and orientation.
An email acquaintance with a respected company recently retired as a leader in her field. She sent me a message filled with exuberance for entrepreneurism. Sure, she faced many difficulties in the beginning, she wrote, but “having my own business was the best job I ever had.”
At this point, despite small successes, I wouldn’t describe my experience that way. For me, so far, being on my own can only be called uncomfortable.
Toughing it out
Pema Chödrön, a Tibetan Buddhist author, says discomfort isn’t something to avoid, which is the natural reaction. Rather, the sensation indicates a new identity emerging.
Her words resonate in the world of personal, as well as professional, development. I’ve found that whenever I move closer to taking any concrete steps towards a secure, regular job, a funny thing happens.
Instead, my reaction is to immerse myself in this business venture with renewed vigor. Maybe I spend a few hours tweaking my website, or pitching possible clients, or capturing thoughts about future directions (which suddenly occur to me with crazy intensity).
Even as I type this post, I don’t know if my business will fail or flourish. And I’m pretty sure I’ll never get used to the feel of constant professional uncertainty; wouldn’t it be nice to be able to relax and leave the office behind every afternoon at 4:00? Look, there I am looping around again.
Why don’t we step off the spin cycle for a minute. Doesn’t matter where you end up finding your identity, it’s how you find it that matters.
Inertia won’t work. Agitation is unpredictable, although gets results one way or another.
Let’s turn up the heat on that commonplace sense of self, add a new ingredient, scrape the mixture up with a spatula. Our identity turns out to be more resilient than we think.
What’s the best job you’ve ever had?