One Thing That Is Even More Fulfilling & Meaningful Than Being an Entrepreneur
Ever wonder if you’re burning out? If someone had told me six years ago that I would become a statistic I wouldn’t have believed them. When it happened, I blamed the long hours, the pressure to deliver, the work overload, my managers’ leadership deficiencies, the low levels of job fit and the toxic culture on the work-floor, etc. It was “their” fault. They were demanding too much of me. They were instilling in me the fear of missing out; Conditioning me into competitiveness. It was their expectations that caused me to go into overdrive. Them! Not me.
And, so I did the only thing that made sense to me at the time. I left them. I threw in the towel. I resigned. Not just from several jobs; I resigned from the concept of employment altogether. I became an independent contractor instead — a self-employed, self-empowered Solopreneur!
For me solopreneurship felt like a “playground for my schizoflair”. It was great! I got the chance to flex and sculpt my entrepreneurial and value-adding muscles in a variety of projects and roles. I wore different hats and filled different-sized shoes. And I was indeed very much enjoying my newfound independence and the larger degree of freedom than I could have ever experienced in a nine-to-five job.
Four years down the road, just as I landed one of my most exciting assignments, just as I thought I had reached the apex in my career, just as I thought that I was finally reaping the rewards that I had worked so hard for… there it was. The burnout. Rearing its ugly head, second time around.
This time, I couldn’t blame cultural toxicity — I worked from my own office. This time, I could not blame the long hours — I managed my own schedule. This time, I had no boss — I was in charge.
Once again, I was forced to step out of the game. Forced to throw in another towel.
Over the months following this burnout-encore, I became so determined to get to the bottom of it, that through it all, I managed not only to write a book on the subject, but also to get a US publisher excited about it. I was living the “American dream”… in a state of total exhaustion.
With my research, I was determined to demonstrate how business concepts like “change,” “teamwork” and “professional development” are seemingly presenting new opportunities for prosperity, but in reality are undermining our health. I found more than enough empirical evidence to support my claim. That made for a nice compendium of everything that currently goes wrong on the work floor. But what that didn’t do, is cure my dis-ease. Neither did all the visits to the specialists and therapists.
I took a sabbatical from self-employment and went on a journey of self-exploration instead. The more distance from work that I took, the more I started to see that on my quest to solve this burnout mystery, I was leaving a critical clue out of the equation and looking at an incomplete picture. I was overlooking the main suspect: Myself.
Allow me to elaborate. All the factors of the high-performing job: the long hours, the pressure to deliver, the performance culture, the “evil bosses”, and so forth, did not change. They were all still present whether I was employed or independent. What did change, however, is my relationship to them. I was not bound by an employment contract, or subject to a performance review at the end of the year, so it was really up to me how much of all of that I exposed myself to. I divided my work week. I cherrypicked my working hours. I delivered the work packages. I was someone else’s “evil boss”.
Clearly, it could not have been “them” that made led to my burnout this time around. What was it then? What follows next is a brief summary of a perspective that took me a few long years of research, of trial-and-error to formulate. I realize that everyone’s experience is different and that there is truth in every opinion but if this nugget of wisdom that I gained along the way might help at least one person, then all my struggles on my journey to recovery were worthwhile.
The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is one who asks the right questions.
This quote by French philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss gives away what led to my breakthrough. From “How can we kill bacteria in milk?” to ”Why do the planets revolve around the Sun?” asking “why” or “how” has brought us the greatest discoveries in history. Wrong questions stymie progress. Stymied progress is costly and squanders effort. With all the information being dealt all around us today moreover, asking the right questions is even more important now than ever before. Was my recovery stymied because I was looking for answers to the wrong questions?
I reversed my query, “What if it is not how I was responding to all of the factors that I blamed for my burnout that was making me unwell; What if it’s how I was NOT responding that did?”
That’s when it dawned on me. Those factors, I realized, in and of themselves, were a call — an invitation to either embrace a new quality, or to acknowledge something about myself. The long hours for example, were a call to learn to delegate, to let go of perfectionism and divorce my belief that no-one can do the job better than I can. I was being called to challenge my limiting beliefs related to trust, or better said — the lack thereof with respect to what I could expect from others. When it came to my grievances with management, the question I should have been asking myself, was: “In which ways am I not stepping up to my own (inner)leadership?”
Burnout, I realized, is a social dislocation; it stems from our inability to take responsibility for our own self-worth. Instead of radical self-reflection, we become hyper-reliant on external sources for our self-identification. We let the OUTER overdetermine the INNER.
Be successful! Get rich fast! Run your own business! Launch the next unicorn! These, and other clarion calls to financial independence, power and success keep getting louder and louder. The “solopreneur” is on the rise. Entrepreneurs, freelancers, start-ups, savvy creatives with big dreams are eager to answer those calls. We forfeit traditional models of employment that have failed to meet our needs and swarm in cohorts to swap long commutes, outdated hierarchies, and the nine-to-five grind for the freedom to be our own boss, in the belief that the pot of gold is on the other end of the rainbow.
But the trap we don’t always realize we are setting ourselves up for is that as a solopreneur or entrepreneur our drive and passion for our work, independence, freedom and flexibility don’t make us immune to burnout. On the contrary, they make us even more vulnerable. Chances are that it’s not a pot of gold that we will find on the other end of the rainbow, but a pot of hot, boiling mess. On the other side of independence is social isolation. The downside of freedom are limited safety nets. On the other end of flexibility is having to operate in high uncertainty. Some evidence suggests that 25% of entrepreneurs fall prey to burnout.
Are we like Tolstoy’s fabled beggar sitting on the pot of gold? What if our stressful jobs are not calling us to quit, get out there where the grass is greener and work even harder to become an entrepreneur or solopreneur? What if we’re being called to become a SELFpreneur first? What if the question that we asked ourselves when we feel compelled to run from a job is not, “What better life am I running towards?” but, “What better, stronger, more resilient version of me am I running FROM?”
This, self-awareness is the true pot of gold. This is the first step to freedom — not the title that we sign on the dotted line with.
Ready to embark on your journey of SELFpreneurship? Can you handle a good dose of radical self-knowledge? Get an in-depth inventory of your inner blindspots here.