I came across this article today about how to re-invent oneself; the article touches on a lot of things and for the curious reader has a lot of content that provides an opportunity to ponder things. There is lots here, and one key thought for me is this quote from Daniel Goleman:
“For leaders, the first task in management has nothing to do with leading others; step one poses the challenge of knowing and managing oneself.”
Reading through the article and pondering its content got me reflecting on my own experience. Since I left the corporate world some ten years ago, I have been on a fairly proactive path of continual re-invention. Throughout my working career I was always comfortable with a high degree of change, and now I’m somewhat channeling that “need for change” into personal change and self-improvement. At some level, of course, this appeals to me and is at least some of the reason why I decided to ultimately follow the path of a “free agent” one short decade ago…
Once out on my own, I had to get through the first big hurdle of truly discovering that I could actually survive “on my own” and dig up enough work projects to keep myself and my family fed. Looking back, I figure that took a few years to really get my confidence up in figuring out how to position and sell my services, manage lumpy project cash flows, and start to build some buffer so that the wolves weren’t at the door, or even anywhere near my yard.
At that point, I had the luxury of being able to ask myself the question “sure this all works, but what do I really want to do…?”. And it turns out that is a difficult question to honestly answer, when you get really serious about it. Most of us, working away for some organization somewhere, get work projects assigned to us, whether we like it or not. During my corporate tenure, I don’t remember ever coming into my office on a Monday and facing an empty in-box. There was always something to do, some meeting to attend, some activity to consume my time — whether I wanted to do it didn’t really factor into it; some projects I liked more than others, however there was very little real “choice” in terms of what needed to be done. So you don’t really have time to think “what is it I really want to be doing?”, and if you do have the time to think about that, it more likely takes the form of day-dreaming about “not working”. So it can be a fun distraction, but you don’t have to get serious about it.
Working for yourself is a completely different experience. If your in-box doesn’t have a project in it, you don’t have any paid work. And if your in-box does have a project in it, you put it there. And if the project sucks and you don’t want to do it — then why did you ever agree to take it on in the first place? So at some point, if you don’t just want to complain about things your whole life, you have to ask yourself: “what it is I want to do, that I like doing and that I am good at doing, and that others will value and will pay me fairly for?”
And when you are out on your own working for yourself, that single question opens everything up and helps to remove all the limitations. Which can be both exhilarating, and incredibly scary. Fear of failure type stuff. Fear of putting yourself “out there” and looking like a goofball. We all have lots of self-limiting beliefs so those become the next personal self-improvement challenge: Why can’t I do this? What is stopping me? What would it look like if I could do it? Thousands of questions to ponder. Of course, lots of places to hide out, if you’re scared. And, I suspect, some part of us is always scared.
And so it goes, day by day, week by week. Year by year. You read something that sticks. You experiment with it. You make a small change here, another there. Experiment some more. All small stuff, maybe not “bet the farm” type changes, but something. Fail a few times. Try some stuff. Try it differently. Some stuff takes, and other stuff doesn’t. And then at some point (hopefully on a fairly regularly basis) you look back and realize: “Gee, the projects I’m now attracting are bigger/better/more “in the zone”… I’m enjoying my work more… I’m enjoying my clients and my work environment…
You’ll probably always have some frustrations, and those are the things that tell us we don’t yet have the mix perfectly right. And maybe it never gets “perfect”, or maybe even better, we keep changing the goal posts and moving them out further. Because we can. Because it is our own life we are designing. Scary, sure. Exhilarating and rewarding, absolutely.
During the past ten years, I’ve worked on about forty different client projects ranging from writing business plans to re-building whole companies. I’ve taught various business courses at a local university as a part-time professor. I’ve sat on two different technical evaluation committees that review green-tech and nano-tech business ventures. I’ve worked with the Boards of multiple not-for-profit organizations. I’ve bought a company to operate as an ongoing project. Through this process of experimenting, I’ve discovered my purpose and am developing it into my “passion project“, which in itself has now generated a book project I am collaborating on.
Lots of experimentation. Not all of it works and there have certainly been some downs along with lots of ups. I feel like I’ve traveled a lot of distance in the past decade. I do feel I am a very different person that I was 10 years ago. Much more self-aware, and much more inspired. Never say never, but I currently can’t imagine what would or could draw me back into the traditional employment world. I’m open to the possibility, though.
Always open to possibilities. For me, that’s key.