There are a lot of popular fantasies about self-employment and business ownership. One thing that really irks me about a lot of the online content I read about starting and running a business is how deceptively easy some people make the process sound. I remember seeing a cliche back in the early 2010s, where people hawking various “start your own business” training programs would show a picture of someone sitting on a beach with a laptop. People seem to desperately want to believe that there’s a way to get rich and stop doing any real work. People want to believe that “being your own boss” means getting to do whatever you want all day, and maybe log into a website to casually check on some sales figures while the money continues to effortlessly roll in. Then there’s the old, tired idea of “automated income” or the idea that one can simply buy software and let the computer do all the work. If you’ve managed to pull off any of these feats, my hat’s off to you.
The day-to-day reality of self-employment is not as glamorous as the highlight reels seem to imply. I’ve met hundreds of business owners over the years, and I’ve heard countless stories of sleepless nights and razor-thin cash flow. I’ve talked to business owners who had to deplete their retirement accounts and personal savings to cover their overhead. I’ve heard from business owners who didn’t know how they were going to pay their employees from one week to the next. I’ve seen business owners go years without a vacation and months without a day off. I’ve known business owners who had to take part-time jobs or borrow money from family because there was no money to pay themselves. I’ve met business owners whose marriages fell apart under the strain of running a business, or who never got to see their kids because they had to work 14-hour days. Running a business often means missed birthdays and working through holidays. If you’re fortunate enough to take a vacation, you’ll likely spend a lot of the trip in your hotel room answering client emails and taking work calls. You can’t just walk away from a business the same way one quits a job. Your professional reputation is at stake.
Amid all the difficulties of running a business, finding customers, and trying to anticipate the curve balls coming around the next corner, you also have to maintain a positive, cheerful demeanor at all times. The public and the market are unforgiving. Customers still expect you to smile eagerly when they call or knock on the door. If the owner succumbs to negative thinking, or worse, displays any uncertainty in public, all hell breaks loose. I’ve seen plenty of situations where business owners put on a show in public, posting on social media about how “blessed” or “humbled” or “grateful” they were, while freaking out behind the scenes. The discontinuity between the front stage persona and backstage reality is a common occurrence in the small business world. Profit First author Mike Michalowicz described his experience accepting an SBA Young Entrepreneur of the Year award while “taking out bank loan after bank loan and racking up credit card debt to cover payroll behind the scenes.”
But there’s a huge upside. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You can see the evidence in the entrepreneurs who persevered through the ups and downs. You hear from the ones who finally reached pay dirt. They all say the same thing: there is no “big secret.” There is no silver bullet. There is no flash of insight where everything all finally comes together. If you get a “big break” (which not everyone does), the game-changing opportunity is guaranteed to come with a huge amount of work and often involves a significant loss of control. It seems to me that the most successful entrepreneurs are the ones who accept that no big breakthrough is coming. They abandon all hope of waking up one day with a big idea or getting that one phone call that changes everything. They instead resolve to stay focused on the core disciplines that create success, one day at a time. They accept the grind, they accept the uncertainty, and they saddle up and get back to work.
The real question is: why do some people make it through the trials and tribulations of creating something special and meaningful, whereas others throw in the towel? I think everything boils down to purpose. People who quit usually started for the wrong reasons. Maybe they expected to be sitting on a beach with a laptop. Maybe they only watched the highlight reels and imagined a life of effortless riches and glamour, dismayed to find no such life waiting. There are those who start businesses because they were burned out at their jobs or hated their former situations. While pungent disgust can provide temporary motivation to exit one predicament, we have to find new sources of motivation afterward. In every case I can think of, people who gave up had one thing in common: they started a business to get away from something. They wanted out of the rat race, they wanted out of being broke, or they wanted to escape from the clutches of tyrannical bosses. What was missing: a positive focal point. They had nothing to run toward. The game of business degraded into a survival struggle with no end in sight. The passion was gone and the purpose was gone. The business became nothing more than a job.
On the other hand, I look at the successful business owners I know. They have a clear sense of purpose. They don’t necessarily have a big grand vision to unveil, but they know why they persist day after day. They know why they aren’t willing to go back to traditional jobs. They know what their legacy is. They know what their dream is. They know their mission and purpose, even if they don’t have a fancy mission statement hanging on the wall. You can see the purpose behind the daily actions of certain people. The motives aren’t always charitable or magnanimous, but always clear. Some business owners truly are motivated just to make money, but the reason for making money is clear. Maybe the desire is to provide a future for children and grandchildren. Some are motivated by building something cool that people will talk about for a long time. Some are motivated by fun, freedom, or autonomy.
Here’s one of the times when I wish I could offer a silver bullet or a proven formula for finding your purpose, but I haven’t found one. The truth is that purpose is a slippery thing. There are days when purpose seems crystal clear, and there are seasons when everything becomes murky again. Striving for clarity of purpose needs to be a daily priority for anyone who wants to stay in the fight.
As I write out these words, I’ve looking for ways to sharpen my own sense of purpose. I’ve been fully self-employed since October 2020, so I’m approaching my third anniversary. The business is still made up of 3 people: me, myself, and I. Things have gone much better this time around; as those are aware who knew me in 2007, my first attempt at self-employment was a series of spectacular belly-flops. I think of 2009 to 2014 as my “starving writer” phase, which involved a hodgepodge of freelance work and part-time jobs.
Fast-forward to today; now I’ve begun to face a new type of challenge, which may be characteristic of the phase of development I’m in. I don’t have any issues finding work; in fact, I now have the opposite problem. There is too much demand and not enough of me to go around. I’ve worked with enough business owners to know that no one has an easy time rounding the particular curve where I am now. And that’s okay because I know I will find a way. And then there will be another challenge and another one after that. I’ll find my way through each one, and eventually, I’ll look back and laugh at the things that used to trip me up. Everything is a learning process.
My driving purpose is to build intentional community. There are a lot of ways that can look, but foremost is the commitment to engineering better and more widely accessible mental health solutions. In my experience, conflict resolution is the key to building a thriving community. When people lack sufficient tools to manage conflict, they revert to classic dysfunctional coping strategies, including but not limited to drinking, smoking, substance abuse, eating junk food, engaging in manipulative behavior, lying, cheating, stealing, physical violence, associating with people of poor character, or any manner of self-destructive behavior. Even people who have tools and knowledge on their side often struggle to find real support or role models. Trying to better oneself feels nigh impossible while surrounded by people who are committed to engaging in unhealthy behavior. I decided to start my business because I want to make the world a mentally healthier place. My motive is to find every opportunity I can to incrementally improve and positively influence every community I belong to and interact with.
I also think about the dark side of community when I’m looking for motivation. There’s a shadow hanging over every community, consisting of the collective character defects of its members. I remember many experiences where I allowed myself to be lured into bad situations by the implicit promise of finding acceptance and being at home. I wanted to fit in so badly that I was willing to pay any price, even if being a part of something meant losing myself and violating my own core values habitually. And I think of what it took to extricate myself little by little from a spider web of manipulation. I am one of the lucky ones. Some people enter into abusive situations and don’t make it out. Some end up getting roped into legal trouble and can even end up in prison. Some take their own lives. Some fade into the background, suffering silently while appearing to live happy lives. It is the dark side that motivates me to keep going when I want to quit. It is the villain that motivates me to stay in the fight. If I quit, the forces of evil win a tiny victory. If enough people like me give up, the dark side will win even greater victories. My decision to keep going or quit may tip the scales for one or two other people who are on the fence. I don’t know if my perception is true or not, but I can use the idea to motivate myself, which is all that matters.
Some days, life and business just suck. Anyone who claims to have a perfect business has never had a real one. There are going to be seasons of chaos and seemingly endless hard work. If success was easy, everyone would be successful. If a $297 program could really teach the “secret” to a lucrative business, we’d all be billionaires. Sometimes, we just have to recommit to the promises we made to ourselves. Life happens one moment at a time. But I’ll leave you with one actionable tidbit. Do the people in your life know your purpose? Do your employees or your customers really know the “big why” behind your business? How often do you talk or write about your purpose? Do you have one or two people who really understand who you are and what you’re all about? I believe we all need to actively cultivate confidante relationships on a regular basis. We need to be connected socially to a higher purpose. We can’t reach our potential in isolation.
Try the mantra below, or tweak the words to make them your own.
For today, I accept the full price of entrepreneurship.
I accept the struggles, the stress, the risk of having to deal with assholes, the ambiguity, and the lack of clarity that I will continue to face.
I accept the long haul, and I release any expectation of a fast resolution.
I accept that riches are glory are not promised.
I commit to watching my own character defects as they may attempt to sabotage my thoughts and decisions.
I will watch out for my impatience, greed, arrogance, desire to control others, impulsive thinking, and the other lurking character defects yet unnoticed.
I accept the possibility that my next success may carry greater pains and trials.
I accept the risk of crossing paths with liars, thieves, con artists, and those who would seek to exploit me for their own selfish purposes.
I accept that while I cannot control my outside world, I can remain committed to becoming a better entrepreneur today than I was yesterday.
For today, I will look for meaning in simple actions. I will take any and every opportunity to realize one tiny slice of my vision and to advance my mission by even a fraction of an inch.
For today, I will put on my hard hat and go to work.