Exterior mindfulness (some call it minimalism) only works when we solve for enough.
It’s not just a matter of having less stuff or having nothing or having that one carefully arranged bohemian tchotchke on your live-edge cedar coffee table. (That’s only useful if minimalism is simply an aesthetic you like for your Instagram and Pinterest posts.) If we don’t solve for enough, for our specific and personal enough, minimalism is vapid at best and a constant state of judgement at worse.
In order to be more aware of what makes sense for our lives and businesses, we need to be aware of what enough means.
Enough is different for everyone. For myself, I need far less than a family with six children, because my family is two people (and any number of pet rats). I need less money than someone living in an expensive city, because real estate and life costs less in the woods. I need less revenue than other businesses because my margins are high and my expenses are low based on the type of work I do.
If things were different, I’d need more. Not because I’d be a horribly capitalist consumer, hell-bent on buying everything that showed up in my inbox. I’d simply require more in my own personal life for it to be easier and less stressful. More would make sense in that case, and I’d have to do more to reach enough. This isn’t a judgement of others, nor should it be, it’s more a realization from introspection. What enough means for me, only concerns me, and should only be compared to myself: where I’m actually at versus where I’m working to get to. As in, am I presently happy or do I assume I’ll be happier in the future, and if so, why?
Enough is the antithesis of unchecked growth because growth encourages mindless consumption and enough requires constant questioning and awareness. Enough is when we reach the upper bound of what’s required. Enough revenue means our business is profitable and can support however many employees/freelancers we have, even if it’s just one person. Enough income means we can live our lives with a bit of financial ease, and put something away for later. Enough means our families are fed, have roofs over their heads and their futures are considered. Enough stuff means we have what we need to live our lives without excess.
So enough breaks down into two camps. Pre-enough means we haven’t quite reached the state of what’s truly required. When a business starts, it’s very hard to be at enough instantly—so we have to work to reach it. Pre-enough income means we don’t yet have what we need to get by. Pre-enough typically means we’ve got to work a little harder to reach our enough. We hustle, worker harder, and get things done. Growth here makes sense, because we need to grow into our own “enoughs”.
Where things can go awry is when we never consider what enough is as a marker. When this happens, we don’t solve for enough or optimize for it, we just keep going and going with more and more. We hit enough revenue, enough customers, enough stuff, and assume we have to do the same things we did to reach it now that it’s been reached and blaze quickly past that mark. That’s why most big companies keep growing past what makes organic or market sense. That’s why some people have what they need and don’t ever stop getting more than they need until their 524-bedroom house is filled to the brim with so much stuff that they need to rent 524 storage lockers as well.
So in the beginning, reaching enough is goal number one. We do whatever it takes to get there, since we need more out of necessity. We don’t need to optimize for enough because we haven’t yet reached enough. If we’re not aware of what enough is though, we can potentially hit it and keep going with the same vim and vigour, blowing past it. Once enough has been reached (different for everyone and every business, remember), our goal should then be to realize that enough is enough, and further optimize for it.
Bringing it back around to the problem some folks rightfully have with the entitled talk about minimalism is that when you don’t have enough, it’s hard to hear people talk about optimizing for enough or how they now live with less. It can feel like passive-aggressive (or aggressive-aggressive) shaming. It’s hard to be in pre-enough and hear about post-enough—from people urging us to live with and do with less when there’s not even enough to begin with. It’s equally difficult to have empathy for those in the pre-enough stage if we’re in post-enough, because we’re currently optimizing and making decisions based on reaching something that not everyone has yet. There’s also a massive amount of judgement going around about comparing someone’s enough to someone else’s. Just the other day I saw a comment that someone’s tiny house wasn’t small enough to be considered truly tiny. What?!
It’s not up to us to judge what someone else’s enough is. It’s up to us to be mindful about where we are personally, and either work towards or optimize for what our own enough actually is. And we could all do with a bit more empathy and understanding here.
In Sanskrit, there’s a term called mudita, and there’s no equivalent in English. Essentially, it means to have sympathetic or unselfish joy for others—regardless of where they’re at in their own lives. Really, if we spend less time envying or assuming that others think less of us because they’re in a different place than we are, then it becomes easier to focus on what’s important to ourselves. We can’t figure out our own enough if we’re judging others and comparing where they’re at in their enough journey to ours. It seems to me that the point of mudita isn’t to be happy for others because we’re unselfish hippies who want bigger drum circles for our Kumbaya festivals. The point is that worrying about, comparing ourselves to, and envying others doesn’t do a whole lot for us and our own mindfulness. We can be better and more focused on finding joy in our own enough or work towards it if we stop assuming that other people’s definitions of enough exist solely to spite us and make us feel bad.
Personally, I struggle a lot with what enough is for me. While I’ve never found myself at a drum circle (yet?), I do feel self-judged sometimes when I read other people’s notes and ideas about how they optimize their lives for less and wonder if I’ve blown past what makes sense for my own enough. This comparison takes up so much of my thought-processes sometimes that whenever I notice myself comparing my enough to someone else’s enough I have to stop myself and get back on track. I’d be a lot happier if I was just stoked for others instead of internally comparing my shortcomings to their accomplishments. We’d all probably be a lot happier if we did just that.
Solopreneurism is a myth
I feel like I have to clear something up here.
It’s been on my mind for a while and I worry that the ideas I share in my articles haven’t specifically touched on it, or maybe just not touched on it enough.
I don’t believe in the word solopreneur—a common word in the niche I’m in, it’s a contrived word for a person who works for themselves. Worse, I think believing you need to be a solopreneur is a harmful mindset to have.
The reason I need to clear this up is because I can see how folks would think the guy who wrote Company of One (note: I wrote it last year, but it comes out early next year) would think a one-person business is best. I can see how people would think the guy who’s constantly talking about not wanting to grow a business, or not seeing growth as a useful tool to his business might think solo is the way to go. But the point of my book, of everything I write about and even how I feel isn’t that the “one” part should be literal.
Solopreneurism, as a mindset, is a myth. A big, multi-faceted one.
First of all, every business needs customers. Even if you work for yourself, you need other people to trade you their money for whatever you’re giving them. Typically, you need more than a few of them as well. While they’re not employees of your business, they should completely shape how your business operates, what it offers, and how much it makes. Your business exists to serve them (for money), and it would make exactly $0 without them.
Second–and this is where the biggest myth lies–it’s difficult for any one person to do all the things, be an expert at all the things, and find time to actually get all the things done. It seems stressful to hold the belief that because you work for yourself, you should work by yourself. My own business, where I’m the only employee, operates because I have a handful of freelancers I pay on the regular to help with everything from SEO, to copyediting, to podcast engineering, to legal and accounting. I also partner up with other folks who own and run separate businesses to create things that are more than the sum of our expertise and skills. My business only works well because I surround myself with smart and talented people I can work with.
The idea that one single person can be an expert at and accomplish everything is ridiculous. I know almost zero about accounting and legal structures, but that’s why I pay an accountant and lawyer.
You don’t have to know everything to start a business. That’s why people hire each other. We all need help and there’s no shame or problem with that, even if you want to continue to operate as a tiny business.
Third, it’s sometimes super lonely to work for yourself. Even as a super, duper introvert—I feel the weight of sitting by myself in my home office every day. That’s why I make an effort to do things with other people. I grab coffee with local friends once a month or so. I Skype with other folks who run online businesses, without a business reason to do so, just to connect. I’m even in a sci-fi book club with other tech nerds who run businesses. Whether we like it or not, humans are social creatures so I can’t see it being mentally beneficial to hole away in solitude forever (long periods of time—totally though). When we aren’t given the community of coworkers, we have to make our own.
Other people make us better.
In life, in business, in everything. This doesn’t mean we should hire lots of them as full-time employees to fuel the “grow until we’re profitable” mentality. But it does mean that we have to actually work at not being completely “solo” because it’ll only hurt our business if we have the hubris to believe that we can do everything ourselves just because we work for ourselves.
Going it alone is more difficult, more lonely and probably even more costly. So don’t believe anyone who tells you they’re a solopreneur—like unicorns, Canada, or literal solopreneurs. And moreover, don’t believe anyone who tells you that you have to be one in order to have a small business.
The weight of integrity
There’s a universal desire to have our ideas, opinions and work treated with respect and given significance. We want to be seen as experts and true professionals—we want what we do to have enough weight to matter.
We might think that what gives our work weight is pedigree from a school, degree or certification. While that can certainly be true—I wouldn’t work with a doctor or lawyer who didn’t have the required training—it’s not always the case. Some of the best writers and designers have zero hours of traditional schooling under their belt.
We might also believe that this desired weight comes from outward appearance, or number of zeros in our bank account or even the sum total of our previous accomplishments. And while those things can be a part of it, I believe theirs is a small, non-leading role.
Finally, we might feel that in order to be seen as a professional we’ve got to be masters of our skill or “the best” at the work we do. Skill is no doubt important, but again, it’s difficult to measure being the best at something in any industry. (How is that even judged? Vapid industry awards that no one cares about?) Skill without the right approach just as easily leads to a lack of respect and significance: just ask any egotistical or hard-to-work-with person how much business they get from their mastered skill-set.
Perhaps this weight comes from something else entirely. Something simple but not easy to attain, regardless of education, upbringing or attire. Becoming a true professional feels more like a mindset that turns into action, than a set of external factors. Starting internally in how we approach our work, then moving outwards in how others view us, view our work, and then give it weight.
I think this weight starts with integrity.
This integrity weighs more than skills because skills can be misused or communicated poorly, whereas integrity simply is. You can have a degree or dress the part, and still lack integrity. But if you have it, it can become the building block for everything else.
In an interview I did with Danielle LaPorte (for Company of One), she spoke about integrity being the cornerstone of being seen as a professional as well. She explains, “You do what you say you’re going to do. I mean really, that’s our consistent complaint about the disappointments of humanity. If people only did what they said they were going to do, the world would operate with both efficiency and incredible beauty.”
Degrees without integrity lead to things like scientific research being guided by companies who require you to publish only positive-to-them outcomes. Appearance without integrity is like a stylish lawyer who chases ambulances. Skill without integrity is like a brilliant programmer who writes software that takes advantage of users and preys on their desires (like noticing if they’re depressed to sell them more things they don’t need, *cough*, Facebook).
You can’t just say you’ve got integrity or list it as a virtue on your LinkedIn profile. You have to be someone with integrity. Integrity’s weight doesn’t come from words, it comes from action. It starts before you even begin working, as a guiding force that moves you through what you create, how you create it, and why you’re bringing it into the world.
Acting with integrity isn’t a sure-fire way to have the weight of respect and significance given to you and your work—each and every moment, without fail. But, without it, those things won’t ever even have a chance of happening.
Back in the 1700s there was a well-known (at the time) French philosopher named Denis Diderot. He didn’t have tons of money, but he was respected for creating a pretty extensive encyclopedia.
One day a rich friend gave him a beautiful dressing gown (true fact: even back in the day writers liked being comfy) to replace his tattered old gown he had as his daily writing uniform. While the new gown was awesome, it created a downward spiral for him.
At first it was small things that changed. He noticed how old his chair was, in contrast to the luxurious new gown, so he replaced it. Then he realized how much his old desk didn’t match the new chair. Then it was the carpet under the desk, then the wall-hangings in his office, and so on and so on.
Thus a “consumption spiral” was created. Not because he was greedy, but because his space wasn’t Pinterest-worthy due to non-matching vibes. The story goes that he kept upgrading his belonging to match until he was totally in debt, and completely unhappy with his life. And if Pinterest and digital cameras had existed, he would have been unhappy and still pinning the crap out of his new home furnishings.
This can also happen when we start to make more money. We tell ourselves we deserve nicer things because we’ve earned them. We need to act and look like the type of people that do well. Especially on our social media feeds! I can’t Instagram my $3 flip-flops getting out of my fancy car, I won’t get 1,000 likes!
(A super weird aside, but I do so much research that I came across a pair of flip-flops from 1550–1307 BC Egypt!)
Unless we opt out of all of this entirely.
Regardless of how much we make (or don’t make) – if we let go of the misguided belief that buying things or wanting things will make us happier. Because all it’ll do is make us want more things. In fact, in hindsight, I’m happier when I don’t spend money because that money goes into long-term investments and then I feel less stressed because I’m building savings that’ll then build compound interest.
We also need to drop the idea that we’ll be happier if only we made more money.
A recent study (newer than Egyptian flip-flops and 18th century French philosophers) found that more money doesn’t lead to more happiness. In fact, once one earns “enough” money from their salary, happiness doesn’t even increase as salary does. Thankfully, we get to define our own “enough” as well. Sure, maybe money can buy some happiness, but only up to a point—like covering your basic needs to make sure there’s a roof over your head. I’m definitely happier having a roof over my head than not. But would I be happier if that roof was attached to a house with 3,000 extra square feet? Probably not. Probably even less so if I thought about how much time or money would be spent on cleaning something that huge. And, I’d be even more stressed every time I thought about my mortgage payments and exactly how much I owed the bank.
This is why I look up to folks like Terry Pratchett. Not only is his writing ridiculously smart and hilarious (his 41 novels in the DiscWorld series are also a testament to his work ethic). I like how Pratchett operated because up until he died his life never changed when his income did. He kept living in the same house he bought before he was loaded. He never got that fancy new car (he drove an old Volvo) or spiralled by buying a stylish robe (although he did always wear a stylish full-brimmed black hat). He sold over 85-million books and he didn’t change the way he lived in any real way since his first book sale.
He believed in what he called horizontal wealth, which he talked about in his non-fiction book, A Slip of the Keyboard.
“I’ve made a lot of money writing. A considerable amount. But I am horizontally wealthy, which is the way to go. If you are vertically wealthy, you think ‘I am rich, so I had better do what rich people do.’ What do rich people do? Well, they find out where the hell Gstaad is, and then they go skiing there. They buy a yacht…”
Being vertically wealthy means we keep up with other vertically wealthy people in a war of attrition on better and better consumer goods. It means we upgrade our lives to match our fancy-ass robes. It means if we get a new car, we also have to ditch our $3 flip-flops.
The vertically wealthy end up being owned by the stuff they acquire. Horizontally wealthy folks end up owning only their riches. It doesn’t mean they don’t ever spend money, but they do it thoughtfully, and in ways that will enrich their lives.
How do I personally get over the desire when I find myself lusting after new robes? (Ok, that’s never happened, BUT IT COULD.)
First, I try to question whether or not I need it and more importantly, what the true cost will be—including maintenance, insurance, and the impact it’ll have on stuff I already have. I also try to fit new things into existing systems, like if I need a new pair of shoes – and I only ever have 2 pair of shoes at a time (not including my $3 flip-flops) – the new pair has to match all my clothes. I also like to impose constraints, like not buying new things for 6 months, or giving myself a specific budget I can’t go over, even if I technically have the money to buy it. I also unsubscribed from all newsletters and YouTube channels that talk about fancy new cars. (Sorry Head 2 Head! But I don’t even feel bad, Jason Cammisa’s gone anyway…)
I’d rather be happy with what I’ve got than think I’ll only be happy when I buy what I desire. Think about it: it feels better to be happy presently than hopefully happy later.
I don’t want to ever end up like Diderot—and my non-figurative old and tattered bathrobe won’t be replaced until it’s a collection of threads on the floor beside my $3 flip-flops.
I’ll end with another quote from Pratchett (from Men at Arms: The Play):
“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.”
What are the responsibilities of a business?
What are the responsibilities of a business?
It’s an important question because it helps us frame how we think about running our own businesses.
One of the world’s most famous economists, Milton Friedman, claimed that the social obligation of a company is to ever-increase its profits and that resources shouldn’t be diverted to any other purpose.
A lot of businesspeople have taken that idea as gospel.
The problem is, Milton was talking specifically about public companies – with stock holders, boards and investors. He publicly acknowledged that the same reasoning need not apply to private companies—the ones with individual owners or small groups of decision makers. Which is good, because assuming ever-increasing profits is the sole obligation of a business doesn’t line up ideologically with most folks I know that own their own business.
The reason, he asserts, for the difference been public and private companies is intent. If a private company owner does anything that decreases profit—for example, working less hours or donating some profits to charity—they’re spending their own money. And it’s their right to spend their money however they please. If it’s your business, privately owned, you make the decisions because it’s you who own it.
No one person can own public corporations outright, so decisions have to be weighed against the common goal and common good of other parties involved. And the intent of the other parties is to make money. For example, if executives at a public company used the company’s resources to promote a political agenda, they’re taxing the shareholders money without their consent because it’s veering from focusing on profit.
Where I see a problem in terms of perception is that private businesses, smaller businesses, or companies of one tend to view the concept of what a business is and what it’s for based on public companies. Because that’s what’s in the news. That’s what’s talked about. That’s who gets the publicity. For example, the idea that growth is inherently required. Sure, that makes sense for a public company, where there’s a fiduciary duty to increase profits for shareholders. The whole point of investing is to get a higher return. But a private company? No such tenet is in place. A small business can make “enough” and stay level, without hurting or harming anything. Most small companies can not grow and not die.
Public companies are vastly outnumbered by private companies—but most private companies are never in the public eye or talked about outside of their industry. Their responsibility and goals, for the most part, don’t need to line up with how Apple or Tesla do business. Most small companies aren’t beholden to investors or stockholders at all—instead they can be bound to providing stellar customer service (at the expense of higher profits), or making significant contributions to their community, or even making the person that runs them feel good about how they do business. To me, this makes smaller companies tremendously more interesting—their goals and responsibilities are varied and unique to them.
When I think about the responsibility of my own business, profit definitely matters, but it’s not all that matters. The opportunity to gain freedom, for me, matters just as much—because I want to be able to make decisions without duress, or even just have the ability to decide between more than a single option. Public companies have very little freedom because they’re responsible to more than just themselves. They’re servants to exponential growth and ever-increasing profits. Most of the time, executives at public companies are spending someone else’s money, which means that money comes with tight reins.
As Bo Burlingham writes in his fabulous book, Small Giants, when you start a business, it’s a monologue. You’re talking to yourself about what you believe in, what your business stands for, and what it’s responsible for doing in the world. It’s your point of view. Gradually though, that singular dialog becomes a real conversation, first with an audience, then with actual customers. If this conversation becomes fruitful, as in, both parties enjoy the other, then potentially there’s a freedom to choose. If your intent is to get bigger, go public, take on investors, then your option is singular: grow quickly and do anything/everything to achieve that. No public company ever hit a market with one employee. Few investors will give you early seed/angel money if you are a one-person business. If that conversation between you and your customers becomes fruitful and you don’t wish to pursue that route, then the freedom to choose what’s next comes into play. You can skip the “golden opportunities” to expand and grow and instead focus on doing better business—serving better, charging more and building stronger relationships with your audience and customers. Or even figuring out how to scale without scale—for example, using technology to increase your reach without having to hire a ton of staff or open offices in every city. In this scenario, you’re at the helm to decide what your business does or does not take on next.
When I think about the responsibility of my own business, I also think about control. While I believe that control is a falsehood of perception most of the time, I still enjoy that falsehood immensely. By never taking on investors, I get to call the shots. Even if the shot is that I’d rather make less money and pursue something else. Even if the shot is that I want to stop pursuing something, even if it’s profitable, because it doesn’t align with my personal values. Control (even if it’s just a perception of it) weighs huge in my reasoning not to grow.
All of this is just to say, before assuming you want to be like the folks who run massive companies that are on the news, and talked about at dinner parties, consider if you want your own business to have the same responsibilities. Sure, your ego could be egging you on to compete with and achieve what someone else has, but it could just be your ego talking—which doesn’t always have your best interests in mind. It might sound better to reply that you have a huge or quickly growing company at a dinner party, or it might even get you in the news, but is it something you truly want to be responsible for? For me, I happily tell people that my business is just myself, it does well and I’m not interested in growing it, and it’s been that way for nearly 20 years.
The true cost of an amazing opportunity
I can count on zero of my fingers how many times someone’s told me about an “amazing opportunity” which actually turned into something awesome and beneficial for me or my business.
(Most of these “amazing” opportunities are requests to participate in an online summit… one that I have to promote in order to participate in, so I can make a tiny cut of the revenue using their affiliate scheme, err, program…)
We all want amazing opportunities for ourselves and our work—that’s not a bad thing. We want to get what we create out there, seen by many, and hopefully bought by many as well.
However much we know that truly amazing opportunities are rare, and typically not called “amazing opportunities” in a subject line from a stranger, we sure are presented with them often.
Every potential client is an amazing opportunity! Every potential sale of a product is an amazing opportunity! Every introduction to a mover and shaker is an amazing opportunity! Almost everything new for a business can be classified as an amazing opportunity…
Rarely though, do we consider the true cost of each opportunity. Or, put another way, how much debt does each opportunity potentially accrue for us—in terms of our time, energy and costs?
When we work for ourselves, these time, energy and cost resources are especially finite, and should be guarded and protected with every fibre of our being. Otherwise, we become stretched too thin, overworked or frazzled and stressed from the obligations we’ve already got. Every opportunity comes with an obligation: to create something, to share something, to carve out time in a day for something, to be present for something.
Every opportunity comes with a cost
Whether taking the opportunity is beneficial or not, there’s always a price. It’s our job to decide whether or not the price is worth it. How will it benefit us, our business, or brand, or long-term relationship with our customers or clients?
If we max out on opportunities, our businesses will suffer. If we decline every single opportunity that’s ever put in front of us, our businesses also will suffer and stagnate.
Still, I think our default answer to opportunities should always be a “no”, with grace. If our default state is rejecting opportunities, then we’ll surely take on less, because in order for a “yes” to happen we need to be doubly convinced that it’s worth it, either by the person presenting it to us convincing us that it’s a good idea or internally convincing ourselves.
As much as we’d like to be nice people, we owe others a lot less of our time than we believe we do. It’s your business, you’re allowed to be a little selfish with it, especially when the net result of saying “yes” to everything to be “nice” is that you have less time to actually spend on your business and serving your customers.
Think about it this way: if you say “yes” to every single potential client that ever offers to hire you, you’re opening yourself up to bad clients and projects that don’t fit with building your expertise. Not to mention you’re denying yourself the space to take on truly great and well-fitting projects if you’re overbooked and overscheduled. Similarly, if you work your damnedest to convince everyone that ever gets in touch with you who has questions about your product to buy that product (which is an opportunity to close a deal), or if you’re super pushy with how you sell, then trying to turn every lead into a customer will result in more refunds, more support requests and more chargebacks (the most annoying part of selling anything online, I assure you).
A lot of the time, the cost of an opportunity actually outweighs the opportunity itself. In the past, when I’ve explained that I was extremely picky about what kind of clients I worked with and what projects I took on, the response was mostly, “well, that’s because you’re a well-known designer, but that wouldn’t work for me.” And my reply was always that it was because I was extremely picky that I became a designer that people in a specific niche had heard about. It was because my default response, even to paying work, was always “no”. That way I had to convince myself that each potential client would be one I could truly help (which leads to good results-based testimonials), a good fit in terms of how we communicated with each other (communication, not skillset, makes or breaks most projects) and a good fit in terms of them trusting that I was an expert not just a hired labourer (which leads to less prescriptive feedback and more leaning on what I know could make a project succeed). If I couldn’t convince myself of the project being something I could get a win for a client with, or that the person wasn’t someone I wanted to work with, the debt of the project far outweighed the opportunity of getting paid.
How do we say no to opportunities in a way that is gracious and empathetic?
Because let’s face it, it sucks being turned down by someone, especially when you’re bringing them an opportunity of your own.
I wouldn’t claim to be awesome at saying “no”, but I’ve definitely done it enough to have a few ideas about kindly turning things down:
- Never make it personal. I don’t decline the person specifically, I reference why I say no to all types of requests like that. For example, I wouldn’t say, “I can’t be on your podcast”. Instead I say, “I’m currently not doing podcast interviews with anyone”. So it’s a policy or default, not specifically directed at one person and their ask. It’s not just something I say to be nice either, I’m either fully available to anyone who asks (for things like interviews), or 100% not available at all (because I’m writing a book or taking a long break).
- Give context for the rejection, quickly. Don’t write paragraphs of excuses, just give a specific, honest and valid reason why you’re saying no. Like, “My time is currently fully booked with other obligations, like launching a new course, so I can’t add anything else to my todo list.”
- Accept the fact that time and energy are finite. So me saying “no” to someone doesn’t mean I’m a jerk (I’m a jerk for other reasons), it just means that I respect my time. If the person doesn’t see that, or doesn’t see that I can’t possibly take on everything that comes my way, then I can’t control how unreasonable they’re being.
- Be totally clear. Sometimes people try so hard to be nice that their answer comes across as wishy-washy, which leads the requestor to try just a little harder in hopes of changing the answer to a “yes”. So I’m always very black and white that my answer is a no. I typically start with that, so even if the person stops reading right there, they’ve got my answer. An in, “Hey Bill, that sounds great, but I’ve got to say no right now…” and then continue on with the email. People may not like the rejection, but hopefully they respect my solid stance and reasoning.
While you can never truly know if something is an amazing opportunity, you can nevertheless surmise how much work it might require in terms of time, energy and money. So before you say “yes” to something because you hope it’ll turn out to be amazingly beneficial to you, take a minute to think about what it’ll cost you once you say “yes”.
“You inspired me to quit my job!”
Fairly frequently, I get emails similar to this:
“I’ve been following your work for years and you’ve inspired me to quit my job and try to build an online product/freelance!”
The problem is that I’d never want to inspire such an endeavor. Ever. Well, maybe, but with some huge caveats.
First, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with working for a company or for someone else. That’s not a route I ended up taking, but I don’t think there’s one right career path for everyone, otherwise all our LinkedIn profiles would look identical (or at the very least, we’d all have LinkedIn profiles).
Second, those “real jobs” that a lot of folks dismiss to chase green grass come with some pretty handy things, like healthcare, paid vacation, oh, and not having to manage every aspect of the business. I don’t personally think full-time jobs are more or less “stable” than working for yourself, but they definitely come with perks.
Third, if you want to quit your stable job and make a go of it online or making products or doing anything your heart desires, please do. While I wouldn’t ever want to encourage anyone to do that, I’d never want to tell anyone not to. It’s your life, of which you are in control. I’m just a random dude on the internet who shares ideas and notices things. The reason I’m writing this piece is because if you’re interested in pursuing work on your own or for yourself, you should know more than “it’s possible to make 6-figures while you sleep on a beach in Bali beside your laptop.” That is possible, sure, but there’s much more to it. Also, laptops and sand do not mix.
There seems to be an epidemic of online entrepreneurs who get successful through a series of fortunate events (myself included) and then look back and rationalize their achievements as smart and strategic planning on their part.
“Look at me, I made a million dollars selling my online course that teaches your cat to knit cozies for your TV remote! Since I knew what I was doing all along and knew it was a million dollar idea before I even started, I can teach you to do the same! My Lamborghini is fun to drive in the Hollywood Hills, but I’m more proud of my KNOWLEDGE of cat knitted remote cozies.”
Except it doesn’t work like that.
We buy into our own hype when things go well and then tell others about it. At different times, I’ve completely had my head up my own ass about achievements—assuming a lot of luck was the result of careful planning or perceived smarts on my part. What I’ve realized about success, both in the tiny amount I’ve seen in my own work, and in the desire I’ve felt looking at others with far more, is that it’s seen only in one-dimension. We see one thing, like someone working for themselves, and assume all the factors that led them to where they’re at are the same as ours.
For example, I could say: “I dropped out of school, then quit an agency job, and now work for myself making mad cash! All my big risks paid off and yours can too!” When really, the only reason I quit university is because someone offered me a great job in my 2nd year. It felt like less of a risk to take a job than finish a degree and hope to get the same job in 3 years. When I started working for myself, it was completely low risk for me to quit my job as well. I had only worked at an agency for about 14 months, they had no benefits to speak of (it was a different time back then), and I was still living in my parents basement. My parents weren’t well-off by any means, but were squarely middle-class and able to afford to keep a roof over my head and my stomach full, even if I had zero income. Going out on my own was an easy choice because I really had nothing to lose—no mortgage, no kids/dependents, and relatively good health. Worst case scenario, my own business could have flopped completely and nothing else in my life would have changed—I could still walk up the flight of basement stairs and get a home-cooked meal.
I also lucked out by making websites before most other designers. So I had a huge advantage of being “first to market”. While my skill/expertise/whatever played a part, so did luck. I can’t take 100% credit for knowing what the hell I was doing. I made and continue to make so many choices where I don’t know the outcome. Same with making online products: I was only able to do that, and to experiment with them because I had a well-paying job as a freelance web designer.
I had also squirrelled away so much of my earnings in the 15 years prior and lived well below my means to make sure I had zero to no debt (the only debt I ever carry is my mortgage, and I only carry that because it’s a ridiculous 2.26% interest rate—and I bought a place that was half what the bank pre-approved me for). But saving money and being really cheap isn’t as motivational as telling someone to take big risks, because they’ll pay off. Even in saving money, I’d rather not bet on big risks that could pay off, I’d rather put it into index funds that have lower but more consistent returns.
I then rode yet another trend of online products which again, had little to do with skill and a lottle (I just made that word up, but it should exist as a word) to do with trends and help from the clients I had worked with earlier in my career. I just happened to start making courses before a lot of markets were saturated with them, so I was able to get enough students in each to make them more valuable (based on their feedback) and more compelling to buy (with testimonials and success stories). Don’t get me wrong, I love my courses and believe in them, but I’m sure there are other courses out there that are just as good, which don’t have as many paying students.
I’ve definitely worked hard to get to where I’m at and leaned heavily on skills I continue to build, but I’ve also been incredibly lucky that a lot of small bets have payed off. Bets I wouldn’t have made if the stakes were higher or if they were work out or bust. Not to mention, my hard work as a white dude from a middle-class home in a first world country with decent social systems takes me a lot further than others who have different life circumstances who put forth an equal amount of hard work and skill.
Advice is warped by time, hindsight and our own life experiences—which isn’t very scientific. So it’s tough when I hear from folks who see one aspect of my or someone else’s life, the public part—the business success bits—and assume they should make life-changing decisions based on semi-motivational essays or quotes over mountain photos on social media. This isn’t to sound pessimistic or that I believe I can do something someone else can’t—I just want to make sure decisions others make are based in reality and with a bigger, clearer picture in mind. Outside of hype or dreams of grandeur. I don’t want to inspire bad choices or huge risks. I’d rather inspire critical thinking, challenging what I say, and assuming the filter of your own life may cast a completely different light on what you decide you want to do with your own.
This piece was totally inspired by AJ’s tweet storm on the same subject.
I first got online in the mid-90s.
Back then, we connected with each other using BBS’ and IRC (“Bulletin Board System” and “Internet Relay Chat” for new or non nerds). It was an interesting time, because it was the first time this whole “digital connection” thing could happen.
I still remember the first IRC group I regularly frequented. It was a bunch of odd-ball nerds with various IT-related jobs like myself, who felt like they finally found a group of people that they could relate to. A bunch of us even lived in the same area (Toronto, at the time), so we got together in real life to hang out—mostly to watch sci-fi movies at weekday matinees or have LAN-parties. 20+ years later, once or twice a year, I still hear from people that were part of that group.
So it’s safe to say I’ve been on social networks longer than most. And for a little while, I really enjoyed it. It was a tool that fostered connection — connection to people who felt alone in the physical world.
But things changed, as things do.
More and more people got “online” and more sophisticated social networks emerged. Centralized and monetized networks, run by corporations with shareholders and venture capitalists wanting a good return on their investments. Social networks became productized, where we (the people using them) are the product, being bought and sold through advertising — a seemingly small price to pay for convenient and constant connection. These networks became gamified, to keep us using them longer — hits of dopamine being released each time someone liked or favourited what we posted, and little red notifications on our apps, luring us back into them. Breaking news happening every few seconds, keeping us glued to our devices.
Now, these networks even boast about knowing when people (or teenagers in the case of that specific article) are feeling “insecure” or “worthless”, which can then disgustingly be used for better conversions from advertising.
It seems there’s no end to the knowledge or connections we can obtain, within a few clicks or taps (though knowledge and wisdom are different).
But does this help or hinder us? Does the ability and possibility to know everything and everyone actually do us any good? While being addicted to a constant stream of knowledge isn’t as bad as, say, fentanyl, what are its side effects — both long and short term?
At restaurants or coffee shops, I always play a little game with myself: what’s the percentage of people who don’t look at a device for the length of my stay? It’s not even judgement, it’s just noticing. Sometimes it’s zero people. Sometimes it’s a handful of people. Even for myself, there are times when I’m out and I pull out my phone, not because I need it, but because it’s a habit. If I’m out with other people, I play another secret game with myself where the first person to pull out a device while we’re together loses — sometimes it’s even me.
Five years ago, I wrote about how I turned off all notifications on all my devices, outside of calls and texts (I get neither very often). I did because I wanted to be more in control of distractions. If I’m working, or if I’m enjoying my life, I don’t want to get pulled out of that. So separating myself from notifications seemed like a smart idea. But sometimes, I notice that notifications are only part of the issue — because sometimes, I don’t need a bing, buzz or a red circle to want to open a social network and just “check in on a few things”.
Four years ago, I started noticing how much time I spent on social networks, and started taking months at a time away from them. A digital detox or sabbatical, if you will. I still do this a few times a year, where I don’t log into any social network for a month or so—each year the time way grows longer. Currently I still haven’t logged back in, even though my detox technically ended over a month ago.
Earlier this year, I deleted all social network apps from my phone. The only things I can do on my phone is check email, use a browser, or engage any of my home automations. I figure, if I’m not in my home office, staring at my computer screen, I don’t need to be online. Yes, I run a business by myself, but there are very rarely emergencies that require me to stop what I’m doing offline and rush back to a screen. Hell, most of the area around where I live has no cell service or wifi anyhoo.
I spend a great deal of time noticing when I’m not in the moment. Because, if I was in the moment, enjoying or just being where I am, I wouldn’t notice anything other than that moment I was in.
Currently, if I have to use social networks (ok, Twitter, since it’s the only one I’m on) in a purposefully annoying-to-myself way: I only access it from a browser, I stay logged out unless I’m using it, and I have 2-factor authentication turned on. That way, I can’t just impulsively tweet or refresh the feed). I have to purposefully log in, wait for the 2FA SMS message, find my phone (since I refuse to keep it at my desk), and log in. It takes a few minutes, and generally involves running down and up my stairs, so I have to be sure I want to spend the time using it. Since it’s even worse to do this whole process on my phone, I just never log in on it. All I use Twitter for currently is to share articles (from myself and others).
What I continue to also notice is that myself and most other people want to fill spaces. It’s like we’re so afraid of being bored or being alone — we have to fill even the smallest gaps with updates from our screens. Being in line, waiting for an entree at a restaurant, sitting on the bus, noticing a lull in a conversation while sitting across from a real human being, etc — it’s like we’ve become deathly allergic to being alone with our thoughts. But then, when I’m not online or on a long break, I miss it. I miss the people who I’ve connected with and talk to on a regular basis on social.
In my life, I feel as if I’ve both won and lost by being on social networks. I’ve made some amazing long-term friends, done a whole lot business, and grown a great audience of folks who I enjoy interacting with. So I’m not completely anti social networks. Nor am I quitting entirely.
This isn’t even some philosophical, internal debate, or a quest to be more mindful in my life. It’s 100%, absolutely, about control. I’m a control freak. It’s why I design, code and write — so I can do the things I want, the way and when I want to do them. To that end, I continue to want to be in control of how I use and consume information on social networks. I don’t want to be a Pavlovian dog, salivating at every beep, buzz or red circle on the screens I look at. I don’t want to be the end product for companies who are buying and selling my information, tastes, and whether or not I’m feeling particularly worthless on a given day. I also want to run my business, my way, and say “screw it” to the thought leaders who say social media is a must, and that you have to be on all the networks they’re on.
Tools only have the power we give them.
A hammer, in the right hands, can build a whole house. In the wrong hands (or… my hands), they can smash the hell out of a (my) thumb. Social networks are just tools. Sure, they’re designed to keep you using them, as often as possible — but they also only have the power we give them. And just like hammers, they can be extremely useful, or even beneficial.
I still haven’t figured out exactly how to make social networks be super useful for my business and me, but I’m working on it. Or at least, continuing to notice and adapt.
The problem with thought leadership and the dark side of building expertise
My favourite thought leader, slash lifehacker, slash productivity-optimizer is Dexter Guff.
He’s an every-person millionaire who serves up all-you-can-eat #thoughtdogs on his podcast, Dexter Guff is smarter than you (and you can be too), which covers everything from: “How to start your own conference” to “Why everyone needs an executive assistant”.
Dex shares his proven strategies to help you live an amazing life, exactly like his, except it’s yours.
He’s a self-proclaimed guru that will totally change your life.
Oh, and, he’s completely made up by a comedy team (from Canada!).
Since nothing’s truly become part of the social zeitgeist until it’s been parodied, Dex’s character and podcast show are a parody of something that hits close to home online: the internet thought leader.
The podcast is so well done and so on the nose with current trends, reviews on iTunes routinely mistake it and him for the real thing.
Thought leadership as a trend
There’s a trend, where a person creates a personal brand, builds a bit of an audience then sells them info products. (Hell, I’ve done just that in recent years as well—we’ll circle around to that in a minute though.)
Status is achieved by revenue, which is then written about in a blog post, in an effort to be “transparent”, and by being guests on the same podcasts, writing for the same publications, running joint-venture webinars, and keynote speaking at the same thought leader industry events. It’s like a credibility circle jerk of audience sharing and social proof, in order to lend more credence to each boastful assertion of expertise. This then opens the doors to more revenue, internet fame and transparent sharing. Oh, and more transparent blog posts making 6-figures this month.
The problem is, as the Dexter Guff parody illustrates, is that anyone can be an expert. A thought leader. A guru. All you need to do is claim that you are one. In today’s world, simply stating that you’re an expert in something makes you an expert in that something. Seriously, that’s the only step (ps: by my online course on the one step you need to take to become an expert guru, now only $2,999). And once you become a thought leader, the next step is letting your audience pay to know exactly how they can achieve exactly what you’ve achieved – hopefully without as much work as it took you. In claiming expertise, in a personality-as-brands world, you can then get those speaking gigs, podcast guest spots and even sell your own online courses.
Author Dan Pink has said that we all want to achieve mastery without pain—which is impossible (it’s even impossible if you buy a $2,999 course). But the allure is so great, people continue to buy into it. And because people buy into it, others (thought leaders) line up to sell it. Why wouldn’t they? There are people with their wallets open, just waiting to become an every-person millionaire too. I’ve watched a few webinars myself, and stopped just short of punching my credit card into a website… they can be that convincing.
But how did this seemingly self-inflicted epidemic of narcissistic expertise come about? And more importantly, is there a way to close this Pandora’s box, which is overflowing with #thoughtdogs, like some eating contest for our brains gone horribly wrong?
Everyone should have a voice, not a soapbox
The nature of the internet means that everyone can have a voice—which is truly, at its core, a beautiful thing. Where things can go awry is when everyone’s got a soapbox, we treat their opinions as facts. And, anyone shouting from one has the answers we crave. By simply stepping up on to our box and shouting, we’ve begun to believe that shouting is the same as mastery or expertise. Even if it’s something learned second or third hand. Even if it’s something that only just scratches the surface of wisdom. Even if we don’t know the consequences of treating these shouts as facts.
This surplus (and it’s truly a surplus) of genius thought leaders espousing wisdom at us from on high could be directly related to our growing inclination to close-mindedness. (This seems like a large leap, but bear with me for a second.)
I remember a time when politics could be discussed at a dinner party, without someone shutting down or screaming, just because the person sitting across from them voted for the other side. Or when healthy debate was possible, in a joint effort to get to the bottom of something, instead of just needing to be right.
If society now fosters a “take a side” approach, over “I’d rather not make a decision until I’ve researched all the facts/evidence” or “It’s not that black and white, let me investigate further”, then we are only going to accept those whose thoughts line up with our own, and ignore those who run counter. It’s why one side calls the news channels from the other “fake”, for example — because as a society we now tune out or put blinders on to anything that doesn’t suit our views, regardless of facts. We listen only to the thought leaders who align perfectly with our views, and they exist in abundance, there’s a thought leader for every view.
So we blindly listen if someone says something we believe to be true. We assume that the experts we choose to believe in have the answers, and we shut off to anything to the contrary. Our side has the experts, theirs has a bunch of slack-jawed shysters, after all.
Where did our collective curiosity go? Why is it thought to be a detriment to our businesses or brands if we don’t know something?
Pick a thought leader who aligns with your views
Oscar Wilde said that experts are ordinary people, away from home, giving advice. The internet seems to be an “away from home” for us all, since every website I look at that selling anything claims to know how to “fix” my business, double my revenue, plug my leaky funnel, or similar. If only I buy their consulting package or $2,999 course, only then can I actually unlock my potential and success. And if I don’t bite, then I obviously don’t care about money, success, small furry animals. (Seriously, look at every newsletter opt-in message lately – I have to either click YES I WANT REVENUE or NO I HATE PUPPIES and take a side).
Knowledge and expertise aren’t static. It’s preposterous to think any one person has all the answers… or even 1/50th of the answers. Everyone, regardless of their status as a thought leader or guru or expert, is just trying to get by in this world, just like everyone else — trying things, failing a bunch, and learning as they go. If they don’t seem like they are, they’ve just got really good marketing behind them.
For myself (see, I told you I’d circle back on this), I unintentionally built a personal brand by working for clients who were masters at personal branding. I leveraged that to create and sell information (courses, ebooks, and the like). Where I veered a little, thankfully, from gurudom is that I’ve always been ok with not having all the answers. I also suck at looking like I have my shit together (I don’t, I seriously don’t — and it’s way too tiring to pretend to).
I see the trends in expertise and personal brands, because my feet are firmly planted in that world, whether I want them to be or not (wearing socks that don’t match). I see what works, like selling the idea that business is so easy, look how easy it is, you can have an easy business too. Or the idea that there’s a few key things you’re missing, and if you just knew those few things, you’d be successful, and by the way here’s my course to sell you those things you’re missing.
My own 2c (from my soapbox)
For my own products and courses (none of which have ever been even close to $2,999), I take an opposite approach, even if it results in fewer sales or a smaller audience. I attempt to sell the idea that we need to ask better questions of ourselves and of our businesses. I attempt to sell the idea that we sometimes need a nudge or a push in a specific direction, based on experimentation (and here are the experiments you can try). I don’t sell the idea that I’m a thought leader or any kind of leader, or expert, or guru. I try not to, at least. That seems like it’d be a false claim of wisdom on my part. Like I know more than the people I reach. I try to lean more towards thoughtful than leader, most of the time. And sure, there are a few areas I’ve spent years learning about, but as I mentioned, what I know isn’t static, and the only gains I make are because I routinely assume there’s more I don’t know than what I do know. I treat expertise as focused curiosity, on a specific topic, not an all-knowing answer I’ve got that you don’t.
I’d also rather you didn’t pick sides. I’d rather you not be with me or against me. You can unsubscribe without hating puppies, I promise. Seriously, agree with some things, disagree with others. Hell, I even disagree with some things I say or write after time passes. I’m still learning and growing and figuring my own shit out. There’s no army of minions to join here, just a loose grouping of people who are interested in learning about similar topics and who will come to their own, probably varied conclusions.
Finally, I’m not even saying the way I do business or approach selling information is the right way to do it, or that the people that do things the way I described above are wrong or unethical. If you want to be a guru, you’re free to be one. (It’s just a single step after all! $2,999 not even required.) There’d be no judgement from me. Investigate all of this further if you’d like, since nothing I’ve said is fact. It’s just me, standing on a soapbox, sharing my “expert opinion” in this all-you-can-eat #thoughtdog buffet.
Do you have what it takes to run a business? (Also: it’s totally cool if you don’t want to.)
It seems as though every article about running a business extols the virtues of casting down the shackles of full-time employment to be free and happy on your own.
No bosses! Run a business in your underpants! Travel the world with your laptop! All you can eat vegan burritos! (Ok, that last one can and should be be done in either type of job.)
I’m sick of thought leaders telling us that freelancing is the answer to all our problems, and that it’s the only sure-fire way to get ahead. In fact, I’ve worked for myself longer than most of those people (coming up on 20 years now), but I still don’t think it’s the best option for everyone. Hell, I even teach a course on the business of freelancing and still don’t think everyone should freelance—not because some people aren’t talented enough to freelance, but because it just doesn’t make sense for everyone, depending on what you want to do and how you want to do it.
The boss of you
When you’re the boss of you, there’s no HR department to handle payroll, benefits and training. There’s no accounting department to handle payables, receivables or to chase after folks who should have paid you but haven’t yet. There’s no sales and marketing team to spend their entire day drumming up new business and leads for you. On top of the main skill you use to make money, you’ve got to do all the other jobs as well.
With all this “Run a business! It’s better than whatever you’re doing now!” messaging online, people often end up falling in love with the idea of working for themselves without understanding the actual day-to-day work required to be their own boss. Or, as Austin Kleon cleverly puts it, people want to be the noun without doing the verb. We want the job title or business card or fancy website with a new logo on it, and we forget the daily rigours of running a business of our own. Having a brilliant idea or wanting to build a successful business is not enough. Ideas and dreams are nice but they’re also cheap and meaningless without taking action and doing the work to make them happen. The dream is the sexy part, where the glamour is, where it’s enjoyable to sit back and think, “oh damn, that’d be fun!” The harder, much harder bit, is making the dream happen every day. Which means sometimes you’re buried in accounting spreadsheets or on the third round of revisions from a client. The daily work and slogging away is what separates wannabe business owners from those that make it a reality.
Running a business requires both ego and purpose in equal measure
I started working for myself because I figured I could foster client relationships better than the agency where I worked. That became my purpose, not to be the best designer (which I’m not even sure is possible), but to run a business focused on client relationships. So ego is involved, not in a bad way, but in a, “I know I can do this better” sort of way. If you don’t think it’s possible or don’t care if it is, there’s no point doing your own thing. In that case, it’s fine to work for someone else—because they’re established and have people handling the jobs you probably don’t want to be doing anyway.
Purpose is required in that you have to have a north star that will drive you long term and not blink out. Wanting to get rich quick or achieve freelance fame isn’t going to motivate you for long, since neither are quickly possible, regardless of who you are. There are much easier ways to make money or get famous in the world. Why do you want to work for yourself? What will drive you to keep going if things get rough? If things take longer than you hope they will? When you’re stuck in the day to day minutiae of running a business?
Running a business is about choices
For me, I like choices. I like that I can choose to make less money by saying no to a project or a client or a customer that I don’t think is a good fit for me to work with. Unplugging for 3 months at a time is an option. Picking what I work on next, and not have that work handed down to me is huge. I like that I can work on Saturday if I want, and go hiking on Wednesday. This freedom of choice is my north star. Yes, it’s taken some time to get here. And, it’s required me to be ok with not having nearly as much as freedom in the beginning, because fuck, sometimes bills need to be paid and sometimes the best client isn’t the best fit but the one who’s here right now and willing to pay you this month. But still, even in the rough patches, that’s what’s driven me forward.
This piece isn’t meant to be a downer. It’s simply meant to challenge your idea of wanting to run a business for yourself. If you’re like, “Yup, check, I’m in,” then that’s awesome. Welcome and I think I can help. If it doesn’t make sense for you right now (or ever), then that’s cool too. Be stoked on where you’re at, regardless of where that is.