The Freedom and Pressure of Self-Determination
How to handle the possibility and uncertainty of starting something new
Many of us dream of starting out on our own. Of deciding who we want to be for ourselves rather than spending our days being who our bosses tell us to be. Of throwing off the corporate shackles and of going into business for ourselves. And of course, we do. Starting something new gives us more ability to shape our lives to be who we want to be, and to find the satisfaction that comes from building something for ourselves.
“People who are self-determined make things happen in their own lives. They know what they want and how to get it. They choose and set goals, then work to reach them. They advocate on their own behalf, and are involved in solving problems and making decisions about their lives.” — Association of University Centers on Disabilities
But it comes with its own set of challenges. As with all things in life starting your own organization is a double-edged sword, with the freedom to decide what it will be…and the pressure to decide what it will be. This is true whether you’re a freelancer, starting a new company, or starting a new division at an existing company. The prize of choosing who you want to become at the price of deciding who you want to be.
Almost six months ago I joined a small building energy consulting company. It helps architects design more energy-efficient, comfortable buildings. It has no research background, experience or personnel. My job is to create a brand new research division, expanding the company’s offerings. In other words, I’ve been grappling with these topics and this article is meant to help you overcome some of the challenges that I’ve encountered.
No more relying on a boss
One of the fundamental challenges of humanity is figuring out who we want to be. What do we want to do? How do we want to interact with the world? What problems do we want to solve for the world? Who do we want to involve in our lives?
This is no different in the working world. We still make decisions about each and every one of those questions. We still build identities based on it, that determines how we spend each of our days.
The nice thing about having a boss is that we get to outsource most of those questions. What do we want to do? What our boss tells us will let us keep a paycheck. How do we want to interact with the world? In a way that will convince our boss to give us larger paychecks. What problems do we want to solve? The ones our boss needs to be solved. Who do we want to interact with? Probably not our bosses, but if we stop then we no longer get a paycheck so…
When we start something new, suddenly we can’t rely on our bosses to answer those questions anymore. It’s on us to decide what services or products we’ll offer the world, how we’ll do them, and who our collaborators and clients will be.
At first, freedom is exciting, but the pressure can also get exhausting. Knowing that you can’t rely on anybody else to answer those questions means that you must do it yourself.
How can you decide who to be?
I have good news and better news about addressing this challenge.
The good news: You can figure it out with some self-knowledge. By taking stock of your past, and how you’ve felt through all of it, you can find the answer. Consider the following questions, and see what comes to light:
- What have you enjoyed doing in your life? What productive pursuits have you done simply for pleasure? Writing fiction? Cooking? Repairing machines? Playing instruments? What you enjoy tells you how I want to spend your time.
- Who have you enjoyed being around? High-achievers? Highly competitive people? Relaxed types? The people that you enjoy being around are your ideal colleagues and clients.
- What problems do you want to solve? What issues and concerns really matter to you? Several other writers including Ayodeji Awosika and Mark Manson have provided good articles on this topic. Finding meaningful work comes from helping others solve issues you consider important, so identifying the issues that you find important will help guide you.
- What are you good at? What have you done in your life and career that you’ve been able to do better than others? Training and mentoring? Influencing people? Decorating? Accounting? People pay you to make things better for them, especially if you’re better at it than they are.
That’s good news. The better news is that we’re all constantly changing. Life is a process of constant growth; finding new interests and growing to master them. In other words, whenever we find ourselves feeling bored or stuck we can revisit these questions to find a new direction in life.
The buck stops with you
Working for a boss essentially outsources another responsibility: Finding customers. When somebody else is running the business it’s their responsibility to find customers to serve, then your job is to simply do the work to execute.
When you start something new, suddenly the pressure to find new clients is on you. You need to get out there and meet the people who want your services and/or products. You need to build relationships with those people. You need to convince them that you have the skills to help them, and are dependable enough to do so. It’s a lot of responsibility.
It also provides a lot of freedom to choose. When you have a boss your clients are the ones(s) he tells you to deal with. Even if it means working with people you loathe while your coworker gets the clients you love. When you’re choosing the clients for yourself you can focus on the ones you like, and move on from the ones you don’t.
The freedom is great, but it takes a lot of work to get there. You need to find the clients, and build the relationships to make it happen.
How do I find and build those relationships?
Fortunately, these relationships can be found and built through reliable steps.
- Go where the right people are. Is there a networking event in your target industry? Are there relevant gatherings on Meetup? Are there industry conferences to attend? Do you have contacts at former employers you could visit? The first step in meeting the right people is going where they are.
- Be interested in their concerns. Many people refer to business development as “shmoozing”, or complain about how it’s all sucking up to people with money. This is the exact wrong attitude. Your future clients are merely people. People with both money and problems. Talk to them. Show interest in them. Listen to their problems. Then you can propose your solutions to them.
- Provide something of value. This could be any number of different things. Sometimes people want technical analysis, and if they need it you can offer it. Sometimes people want connections, and you can build your relationship to them by connecting them to somebody else. Sometimes people want leadership, and you can build your relationships by organizing people in a task such as a proposal writing (This one is especially good because then people will bring their contacts into the team further expanding your network).
- Deliver. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. Do it the way you said you’d do it. Do it when you said you’d do it. Delivering on your promises builds trust.
- Persevere. Sometimes you’ll go to a networking event and not meet anybody interesting. Sometimes you’ll offer something you find valuable and learn that your desired client disagrees. Sometimes you’ll write a proposal and not get the project. It happens. Keep going.
- Always look on the bright side of life. It’s much easier to build relationships when you’re pleasant to be around. It’s much easier to both be pleasant and to persevere when you look at what went well instead of what went poorly. Maybe you didn’t meet anybody interesting at a networking event, but you learned more about industry trends. Maybe your proposal got rejected, but now you have new ideas you can propose elsewhere. Maybe your proposal got rejected, but leading the team grew your network of future collaborators and future business leads.
“When you’re chewing on life’s gristle,
Don’t grumble, give a whistle!
And this’ll help things turn out for the best
Always look on the bright side of life!” — Monty Python
The good news here is that you’ve already done all of this before. If you’ve ever had a job then you’ve found somebody who needs your skills, convinced them to give you a chance, and delivered enough to maintain the relationships. The only difference here is that we’re talking about finding multiple people instead of merely the one.
You can do it
Building something new, pursuing employment of your dreams, is not an easy thing to do. There are challenges along the way, including determining who you want to build and building the needed relationships. But you can do it. None of the challenges that we’ve talked about is insurmountable. All you need to do is take it one step at a time.
There’s no better time to start than now.