Self reliance is an attitude

I have been an employee in Corporate America for most of my career. I put myself through college by cleaning a department store in the mornings before school and by selling housewares in the same store at night. I got my first “real job” in a software company helping troubleshoot customer technical issues. My next job was as an internal consultant, helping create IT solutions for other departments.

Last year when I lost my job I briefly and only semi-seriously considered becoming a consultant on my own. Then I got a part time job doing data entry, and there went that. I didn’t have the flexibility needed to be a consultant, and it would mess up my unemployment benefits if I made any money at all doing it. Around the same time a friend and I started a side-business which, so far, proved to be more a distraction than a real prospect for financial independence. I enjoyed the idea of being a business owner, but the reality was…well, less than fun.

So I continued looking for a chance to get back into a nice, secure job (even though there is no such thing). Eventually I found it, or so I thought. I would be required to sell business services. I could do that, though I don’t like selling. The idea was that eventually I would bring in enough clients that my boss would need me to step up to a different position to help take care of all those clients. So I took the job, neatly overlooking the hints my boss dropped about sales being the place to make money. I didn’t care. I was working for someone again. Back in my comfort zone went I! This would be SO much better than being self-employed!

Except it wasn’t very comfortable. Even when I proved I could do the selling part it didn’t feel right. It took me the better part of a week to put my finger on it. I was pursuing security that just wasn’t there. I had no promises from my boss that another position would open up for me, or what it would even pay. I would make money only by closing sales–not just doing the work of selling, but closing sales. And if I wanted to keep eating I would need to do it again and again, month after month, and maybe someday get to move into something more stable, but may not pay well.

This was no less risky than working for myself, and perhaps more so! Here I would need to sell a certain amount, month after month, indefinitely–whether the market supported it or not. I would not have any control over the product I sold, nor would I get any benefit from any ongoing revenue from customers continuing to subscribe to the service. I would be relying on someone else’s product and rules to be able to feed my family.

It got me thinking. If I could find my own service to provide I would still have to sell, but I’d be able to keep whatever I brought in. I would have control over the quality of that service. The game would be to sell a customer once and then keep them coming back rather than bringing in an endless stream of new customers. If I sold for myself, successful sales would mean I would get to slowly transition into work I enjoy. Sales would always be a part of the job, of course, but it would not be the main activity.

Pretty soon it became obvious. If the risk was at least equal–I had to sell something to live, regardless of whose service I was selling–then I would rather sell for myself. Something had changed inside me. Unlike a year ago, I was now ready to accept the risk of failure in exchange for the greater benefits of success. I was ready to own my own future.

Who knows. Perhaps someday I’ll by desire or by necessity go back to working for someone else. But unless there is something specific I need to accomplish in doing so, I’ll likely be intent on getting back out on my own as soon as possible. I’m not going to rely on the corporate comfort zone any more. The “I’ll pay you this much to do that work” agreement lasts only as long as the employer’s desire to continue it. You can take steps to mitigate the impact of losing your job, but you can’t control when it will end.

Am I trying to justify my decision to take the risky step of entrepreneurship? Probably. I could very well be trying to psych myself up for a hard road ahead. I have no delusions of overnight success. For every day like yesterday, when it seemed a contract was all but assured, there will be days like today when the prospective client calls back and cancels the next appointment. I’m going to have to toughen up in a lot of ways.

But I do feel more engaged than I’ve felt in a long time. My first efforts to gain clients have been encouraging. I’ve been able to connect with them and open their eyes to possibilities. I do have skills and experiences that are useful to others. I’m excited about my work, and the only problem seems to be that there is just so much of it to do in starting a new business.

It’s empowering (gah, I hate that word, but sometimes it just…fits) to not be sitting around hoping some company will see my resume and want to interview me and hire me. It’s a bit intoxicating flying solo without a corporate support system to rely on–and not entirely in the “pleasant buzz” sort of way, but far too often in the “urrrp, why is the room spinning” way. It’s forcing me to face down some of my demons and bad habits which, while certainly good for me, is not overly pleasant. I am about to learn a great deal about myself, including some things I’ll probably wish I hadn’t.

But I can’t help but think that I will come through this a better person. I’ve been playing it safe for a long time, letting things happen to me in my career rather than making things happen. I’ve followed the path of least resistance for most of my life, and I think I’m tired of it. It served me well for awhile, but to quote Rodgers and Hammerstein, I’ve “gone about as fer as [I] can go”.

It is my hope that the path I’ve chosen is the path to self reliance. It’s the conscious decision to act and not just be acted upon. It’s the notion that I have a say in where I’m headed. It’s the idea that I can do what I set my mind to; that I’m capable of a great many things. It’s the realization that I can make for myself a life far different than what society tells me is the norm.

You know what I’m talking about: “Carpe Diem” and all that feel-good twaddle they crammed into “Dead Poets Society”. Except we believed it for awhile, because the movie felt right–the young men climbed onto their desks to salute Robin Williams at the risk of being expelled, after all! Then the Live Mediocrities Society beat reality back into us, and when we found we couldn’t sustain our extraordinary living long enough we decided it had to be twaddle, lest the problem be found to be us all along.

That was me. Being mediocre was okay. It was safe. But then the recession came along, and we mediocrities found ourselves in the unemployment line. Salieri, the patron saint of mediocrities everywhere, had neither succor nor absolution to offer. (Woo! Another movie reference! I’m on a roll!) It turns out he was never actually canonized.

So the time has come to choose. Do I choose to follow the failed saint or the twaddle-peddling English teacher?

Mr. Keating, may I have a heaping helping of twaddle, please?

Certainly! And Mr. Anderson! Don’t think that I don’t know that this assignment scares the hell out of you, you mole!

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