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Self Employed

© December 2005 Tony Lawrence

Somebody once said "I've been rich and I've been poor, and rich is better". I feel that way about being self employed. I've been self-employed since 1977, and although I did take a few years here and there working as an employee, I wouldn't have it any other way.

It isn't all roses, of course. I "failed" two times and had to go back to ordinary employment each time before being succesful. Nor is it necessarily the path to financial security, although I really do believe that you have far more security working for yourself than you do for anyone else. There are good things, there are not so good things.

When magazines run stories about self-employed people, they usually talk only about the great successes (the gal who started in her basement and now owns MegaComp, Inc.) or the failures (the guy who hocked everything he owned and went bankrupt). Those are the extreme. The real story of the self-employed is people quietly supporting themselves at about the same income level as their employed peers, working more or less as long, more or less as hard.

That's the reality: if you work for yourself, you might go bankrupt, or you might get wealthy, but chances are you'll just make the same sort of living you would doing it for someone else.

So why bother? Well, for one thing, there is that chance of making more money, maybe a lot more money. If that's your goal, you probably have a better chance of reaching it on your own than waiting to be promoted to CEO of IBM. That's especially true if your education has been more hard knocks than ivory tower: while people do get promoted on talent and merit, most of the people doing the promoting want to cover their bets by seeing diplomas attached to the experience. If you don't have that sheepskin, being your own boss makes it unimportant.

There's also freedom, and I really think that this is the most important benefit. I don't mean freedom to take vacations when you want or to work the schedule that you like, although those certainly are benefits. What I mean is freedom to control your own destiny.

The most unhappy, stressed out people are those who are responsible for results, but can't do anything to affect or control those results. That's even been shown in animal studies, and there has been some fuss in management circles about "empowerment" and the like with the idea of giving workers more power to make choices and control some aspects of their work environment, thereby making happier workers.

I never liked working for someone else. I know this sounds extreme, but most employment is just a regulated form of slavery. Your employer controls your life far more than any other influence, and you can lose your job arbitrarily. You also may have to put up with petty abuse, unreasonable work demands and worse. That's not for me.

The happiest people, of course, are those who can control their environment. That's just natural; we like to make choices. Most people get to do that fully only in their personal lives. We understand that all those choices won't be the best, that some of them will turn out badly, but we still want to make them ourselves. We choose our own friends, we choose our favorite foods, we choose our own hobbies, and most of us wouldn't want it any other way.

In the workplace, however, no matter how "empowered" you are, most folks don't really get to make their own choices. Someone above you, often a faceless someone, is making decisions that can drastically affect your life, and you don't have much control at all.

Unless you work for yourself, of course. Then you have total control, and (of course) total responsibility.

That responsibility sometimes scares people. I know, I've been through it: I'm not good enough, I'm not smart enough, I don't know enough. I'll never make it. Consider this, though:

If you are good enough that someone else will employ you, you are good enough to work for yourself.

It just makes sense: your boss needs to you do a job. Obviously you are good enough so that boss was willing to hire you. If that's true, his customers (or other customers just like them) will be willing to "hire" you, too.

And that is where true security comes from. When you are an employee, your security comes from the opinions and needs of a handful of people, sometimes even just one person. If they decide that you aren't doing the job they want, or that their needs have changed, your security just disappears instantly. But if it comes from a dozen, a hundred, or a few thousand customers, then the loss of one who doesn't like you, or whose needs have just outgrown you, isn't important. Your income may drop a little this month, but it doesn't stop, and there is always a new customer just around the corner. That's real security.

Got something to add? Send me email.

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