One of the main reasons I decided to work for myself was because I was sick of people telling me how much to work, when to work, and where to work.
I sat at a desk for eight hours a day, even though it almost never took me that long to complete my work. I was compared to people who weren’t as efficient as I was, told that I needed to be there from 8-4 because everyone else was, even if it didn’t take me that long to do my job.
I was constantly bitter about these constraints on my life but, at the time, didn’t know that there was a viable alternative.
So, about five years ago I quit what, on paper, was the best job I had ever had.
I started doing contract work as a stop-gap as I tried to figure out what my next thing was.
Here’s what happened.
I was able to charge a LOT more as a contractor. I had built a reputation for quality before I went out on my own. Since most of my clients were former employers (or people they had referred me to), they knew that I could get things done and had no problem paying me a higher rate to do that if they didn’t have the overhead and responsibility of an actual employee. (I also got some great coaching on pricing myself competitively as a contractor, which many people have trouble with when they’re first starting out.)
I was doing work I actually liked. I took on projects that played to my strengths and challenged my thinking. I decided when and where I worked, which also made less desirable tasks more enjoyable.
I accomplished MORE in LESS time. I wasn’t padding my time to “get in my 8 hours” each day. When I worked in an office I’d gossip with my colleagues, check my personal email, shop online, etc. just to make it to the end of my day. Let me be clear, I was more than accomplishing everything I needed to get done, I was just filling in the gaps with other things. When I worked for myself, there were no gaps to fill, so I was able to truly focus on the work I needed to do and do my life the rest of the time.
At first, I felt guilty about the free time, especially because I was making more money than I ever had before. (We’re not talking about a crazy amount of money here; the bar was pretty low to start with.)
My brain, indoctrinated with the American work a lot make money be successful narrative, couldn’t adjust to the fact that I was making great money working less than I ever had before. And actually, doing work I loved.
Being my own boss was never the plan and it sort of happened by accident. I just knew that something wasn’t working and took a big leap to figure out how to fix it. After a few attempts at careers, partnerships, and other ventures I realized that I actually couldn’t work for someone else. Not that I couldn’t have made it work, I had plenty of opportunities to partner with great people on what would have been lucrative and interesting work. The thing I realized was, in working for someone else, I would still be ceding control of my time, work, and life. I’d still be letting others make decisions about what I was worth.
I learned that operating within traditional systems of work was never going to get me what I wanted. I couldn’t play the game of incremental raises, performance reviews, office politics, pointless promotions, and warranted terminations framed as resignations. I had to step outside of that system and build my own framework that allowed me to rely on my own value and competence. A framework that gave me the flexibility to control my time, income, and take on diverse work that kept me engaged.
After five years, and several offers of “real jobs,” I’ve never looked back.
What happened a bit by accident in the beginning had to become more intentional as my business progressed and my life circumstances changed.
Here’s what I learned.
I had to intentionally prioritize quality over quantity. I’m super picky about the types of projects I take on, the people I work with, and the way I commit my time. I make concessions about the amount of money I take in every month in order to prioritize my quality of life.
“It is how we choose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur, or to something resembling a work of art.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow
When my daughter was born three years ago, that formula became even more important. I needed more money AND I needed to have devoted, uninterrupted time in order to give her the life she deserves. This has been a bit of trial and error. I’ve made the mistake of taking on projects that aren’t a great fit in exchange for a period of financial certainty. What I learned was, while I need to maintain a base level of financial sustainability for my family, making concessions around the work I take on to achieve anything above that base level actually diminishes my ability to be a good parent and partner. This is both because I have less available time AND because I am not my best self when I’m working 40+ hours a week, doing work I hate, or working with crappy people.
In the words of Paul Graham, I had to “relentlessly prune the bullshit” from my life to focus on the things that matter.
A lot of solopreneurs get sucked in to never saying no to work and I get that. Not knowing where your paycheck will come from next month or next year is scary. That’s one of the reasons why working for yourself isn’t for everyone. Saying no to work is a calculated risk, a bet I’m making in order to live my best life.
Playing by my own rules made all the difference. When I was the one deciding the work I did, when I did it, where I did it, and how I did it, even the most menial tasks were more enjoyable. I had a sense of personal agency that I’d never had before. I was also able to really push myself to do things I always knew I was capable of (and beyond) because I was not constrained by a hierarchy, job title, or reporting structure. When I was working for someone else, even the projects I really liked felt stifling because they weren’t truly mine.
“what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore—plays in defining the quality of our life.”
― Cal Newport, Deep Work
A little over a year ago I started creating my own content in the form of blogs, courses, and resources for other solopreneurs. This took the personal agency to a whole new level. I found that, when I’m creating something that is truly mine, not something for a client, I was even more fulfilled. So now I balance my client work with my own content creation.
Prosperity is a mindset, not a dollar amount. One of the reasons I decided to work for myself was because I wasn’t content with the traditional pay structure I was trapped in. I didn’t want to spend 20 years getting incremental raises and mediocre promotions. I wanted to pay myself what I wanted and needed every month. That meant I needed to earn what I needed in order to make those payments.
What that taught me is that prosperity wasn’t something I could define for myself when I was struggling financially all the time and letting other people define my worth. When you’re struggling, all you can see is the struggle. I had to meet my basic financial needs in order to have the space and freedom to think outside of the box about what I wanted my time, work, and life to look like. When you’re 100% in charge of the money that facilitates your life, you start to think about it in different ways.
Do I make more money working for myself than I did working for someone else? Yes…a lot more. And that money helped me see past the struggle. Once that happened, I understood that prosperity is a feeling not a dollar amount. My “non-work” time is just as valuable as the time I spend working and, every time I write a proposal or take on a new client, I’m quantifying how much that time is worth – I’m “buying” my rest, stealing it back.
“Rest is not something that the world gives us. It’s never been a gift. It’s never been something you do when you’ve finished everything else. If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.”
― Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Rest
I found myself wanting to conclude by proving that I still “work hard” even though I work less, but I’m not going to justify my life in those terms, because that would mean I still feel guilty about not working 40 hours a week…and I don’t.
I’m not going to get caught in the narrative of overworking that is so common – the spoken and unspoken guilt trips that we all get for not working “enough” or the secret pride we feel when we say that we’re “busy”.
I do “work hard” but I define hard work not in terms of hours, but in terms of the value I add for my clients, the joy I derive from what I do simply because I decided to do it, and the freedom I create by working for myself.
Having a six-figure business or a 30-hour week isn’t how I measure my worth. I measure my worth by fulfillment, freedom, and the knowledge that I’m teaching my daughter to define and create those things on her own terms.