I was eating lunch with my friend Dee when I got a text from my office. "Oh, shoot," I said. "I have to look at this text." "Do it," said Dee, and asked the waiter for some lemon for her tea. I read the text. "Youch!" I said. "The guy I was telling you about, the client who was worried about his job security, just got walked out the door." "Oh no," said Dee. "So he's out of a job?"
"Yes, and for sure my company is done in that client, at least for now," I said.
"Well, you're taking it pretty well," Dee remarked. "I feel sorry for the guy who got walked out," I said. "We can replace that client. Also, we were doing great work for them. It will be good for the company to experience life without us, and without the guy they axed, for a few months." "You seem so sanguine about it," said Dee.
"Look, Dee," I said. "My client, the guy who just got fired, told the CEO not to promote a real toad who was pushing himself as a candidate for the division VP job. The toad guy knows what my client thinks of him. He got the job three days ago -- can you imagine his glee at getting to fire this guy, three days into his new assignment? He's a stone loser. My client was right to speak up. Now he's out, but it's not a bad thing -- just a major disruption in his life, obviously, and of course it was done in the worst possible way. My client will be better off, and why would I want to work with people who'd do something like that?"
"Yes," said Dee. "That all makes sense. But financially, what is the impact on your revenue?"
"I'll have to figure that out, but it's fine, it's a good thing," I said. "I was a corporate person forever, as you know. I resisted entrepreneurship for 20 years. For all that time, people would ask me 'Do you ever think of having your own business?' and I always told them 'No way! I could never work for myself.'
What a corporate Sally I was! My husband used to say that if I cut a vein in my arm, the company's Pantone color would flow out. I was as corporate as you can get. I loved it, but I remember the tossing."
"What tossing is that?" asked Dee.
"At night," I said, "tossing and turning over some slight or threat on the horizon, a slur someone zinged at me in a meeting or the prospect of a reorg that would diminish the scope of my job. It was constant, constant, constant anxiety. The thing about entrepreneurship is that if one client goes away, you only have to replace one client. The thing about W-2 work is that if the job goes away, you're back at the base of Maslow's pyramid. You can't pay the rent. That's trauma I don't need. Look at my poor ex-client, out on the street. He has to drive home now and tell his wife he's unemployed."
"But when you work for yourself, aren't you in the same state?" asked Dee. "It's actually the opposite," I said. "Lots of small shocks and disruptions, and no earth-shaking ones. You build muscles. A client leaves, and you think 'that's okay, it's better the energy should move than stay still.' Clients come and go, and then they circle back. Or they don't. Everything leads to something else. In the corporate world, you're managing all kinds of small crises every day, but the big axe is always hanging overhead."
"People like me think having your own business is too hard," said Dee. "Too hard!" I chortled. "It's easier than working in a corporation, because you don't have to keep track of 10 or 12 executives' hopes and fears and neuroses. You look for organizations that have the pain you solve, and you talk to them. You keep a lot of conversations going at once -- my favorite thing to do, whether I were an entrepreneur or not -- and see how they play out."
"I do like the fact that as an entrepreneur, you get to pick what to work on," said Dee. "But that's just the point, Dee," I said. "Everyone gets to choose what to work on, but for some reason most of us have drunk a lot of Kool-Aid that tells us that salaried people don't get to do that. The boss says Switch Priorities, and we run where we're directed. People trash their own resumes every day doing stupid and unnecessary projects for VPs trying to earn political chips in their companies. That's the opposite of growing your flame."
"Anyone can manage his career like a business. The W-2 or 1099 part of the deal is just an administrative detail. The key is to stay awake -- not to go to sleep in your career. Stay awake, tell the truth, and stay on your path. Easy to talk about, hard to do, when you're on a payroll."
"Tell me the truth -- you never worry about money?" asked Dee. "Worry about money?" I repeated. "I think about money all the time. I think about the $4500 I'd better get this week to make a college tuition payment, and the $40,000 program this guy says he wants to do if it gets approved in his budget, and the lucrative, long-term thing this other guy wants to do, that I won't be able to do for him if he doesn't sign on the dotted line right quick. I think about all that, and then I go do something productive. When you think about money in chunks and client projects the way I do, it's manageable. When your whole income rests on one organization, you don't have a concrete way to think about it, much less to ensure that your all-or-nothing revenue stream stays in place. You try to make a million people happy and anticipate your boss's needs. If you have a lot of visibility into the future and the people around you are rational, you can do it, but if someone in the mix is crazy, you can drive yourself crazy too."
"I think about money the same way I think about the rest of the things I've got going on at any time -- where's my middle son? Did my little one get to his practice on time? Is there gas in my car? Do I have the sheet music for "Casta Diva," which I'm singing on Thursday night?"
"I love 'Casta Diva,'" said Dee. "But when you were a corporate person, you never thought about money," she continued. "You didn't have to."
"Exactly," I said. "In retrospect, I think that's not a good thing. I was too disconnected from how I added value to my company. Lots of corporate people are that way -- maybe most of them. We don't see the connection between our salary and how the company earns a dollar. We assume it all fits together perfectly, just outside our view. That's not good for people, or business. And if the job goes away, which is something every corporate person has to expect to see happen regularly, we are adrift. That's when people panic, and go to work at Macy's. They lose their mojo, and it's very hard to get your mojo back."
"That happened to me when the bank folded," said Dee. "My whole identity was gone. I was a mess, for a year at least." "Our forefathers and mothers didn't go through that," I said. "They put one foot in front of the other, every day. They never imagined that one employer would keep them on until they retired. "
"I never thought about it that way," said Dee. "Somehow we've decided that the American ideal is a six-figure corporate job, as though we could expect to get a job like that and ride it to retirement, in this millennium."
"And as though that would be a good thing for us, or for our families, or for society," I added.
My friend Joyce, a lawyer, works for herself and says "I wake up unemployed every day." When you wake up with a mission in mind and bills to pay, you rise to the occasion. Aren't daily connecting-the-dots and rolling-with-the-punches skills the ones we should be cultivating, versus reading-the-boss's-mind and pleasing-everyone-with-a-VP-title skills?
I loved my years in corporate America, which I now view as preparation for real life in the entrepreneurial moshpit. I'll take comforting laid-off clients and drumming up new clients any day over waking up with jaw aching from anxious grinding all night worrying about corporate politics.
Lots of little traumas are manageable (and my ex-client will be fine, now that he's found his voice). Desperately trying to stave off the big trauma, even going so far as to hide your flame under a bushel or stay silent when the universe wants you to speak, isn't worthy of any adult. Somehow the media has convinced us that salaried jobs are safe, and entrepreneurism is risky.
In my experience, it's just the other way around.