For The Work, With Love.

In the latest issue of New York Magazine, I read an article and enjoyed it more than any other I had read in quite some time:  To The Office, With Love What do we give up when we all become freedom-seeking, self-determining, autonomous entrepreneurs? A lot, actually.” by Jennifer Senior. I had some thoughts on the piece, and on work in general, and decided to share:

As some of you may know, I am an Interior Designer, and this is my company. I have been self employed for 8 years now, and with mostly autonomous jobs before that, I’m happy to round up and say “almost a decade” if it makes me sound like more of an authority on the matter. Throughout my schooling, and to this day, I have been interested in the psychology of design (how our surroundings affect us) and the idea of working in a large corporate office, so this article by Jennifer Senior drew me in like no other. Why have I always been interested in working in a large office (or at least in the idea of it)? Because I have never done it. I have worked for other people before going out on my own, but they were all small firms of 2-5 people or they were jobs where I worked alone/freelance style, and had a boss to report to in some capacity.

Hearing friends and family tell stories about ‘office politics and the pros and cons of working for a large corporation‘ have always been interesting to me. It wasn’t until this past Thanksgiving that I realized that while I was technically part of the conversation, I wasn’t really. I feel that often, when I chime in with the occasional ‘self employment horror story‘, the response is generally somewhere between, “that still sounds better.. you’re so free!” and “wow that sounds tough, I don’t know how you do it”. Both responses are true. I am very much free to do as I please, and I too, have no idea how I do it. I learn as I go and try as hard as I can. I try and succeed sometimes, while other times I fail. However, when mentally drained by the constant hustle, I don’t do as much as one might think, in my ‘free’ time. And no joke, every year when I do my taxes (whether it was a good or bad year), I look back and think, “how the hell did I get here, and what will this year bring?!”. We could weigh the pros and cons of self employment vs. employment from ‘the man’, all day.. but I can’t help but think of Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches. Neither is ‘better’ than the other, both have negatives and positives. Every 6 to 12 months, I contemplate applying for a full time gig at one firm or another. Sometimes I actually send my resume out, sometimes I just think about it. The draw is strong and maybe someday it will win. For now, I press on by myself.

Entrepreneurs are not necessarily risk takers, gamblers or the like; In fact, I do not gamble. I don’t even wage small bets with friends. Now, while I don’t agree that “The probability of self-employment depends positively upon whether the individual ever received an inheritance or gift.”(Andrew Oswald, “What makes an entrepreneur”). However, I can say that stability (whether financial or mental) is definitely a factor. While I do not have financial stability or family money of any kind, I did in fact have the moral support of my family and friends (and I guess I always secretly knew that I could move back into my mom’s house upstate, but I go on pretending like that’s not an option. It makes me work harder). This support reminded me of a TED Talk by David Kelley of IDEO. In the case of the entrepreneur, I think that the word “support” can be easily interchangeable with Kelley’s idea of “creative support”. So, to become an entrepreneur, I think it is mostly about who you surround yourself with. Whether by choice or by birth, it is important that those around you are supportive of  your endeavor(s). There is something to be said for trying and failing, and having those around you embrace with open arms while encouraging you on to the next step… As opposed to trying, failing, and having someone say “I told you so”. Equally as important as the support of family and friends, is the support of a mentor. Senior talks a bit about this in the article saying, “And the transformative effects of co-workers are nothing compared to those of mentors, who by definition expect the most from you and make it their business to show you the ropes.” I stumbled upon my mentor in the form of my first design client. As a very successful entrepreneur himself, he has been instrumental to my career from the start.

A major difference between self-employment and being employed by a company is; Lack of psychological and financial stability, along with the lack of job security… Not to mention the occasional lack of routine. To be an entrepreneur is to be in a constant state of discomfort. In my ten+ years living in NYC, I have experienced my levels of stress and anxiety steadily increasing. Originally, I blamed it on New York, obviously. This is a stressful place to live, especially for someone like myself that loves nature and doesn’t love crowds, but I have found ways to love it. However, it has come to my attention that nearly 100% of my stress and anxiety is caused by my own work. In the NY Mag article Senior says,”...he found that the self employed did indeed consider themselves happier, they were also more apt to report stress, exhaustion, and work-life imbalance than those in traditional salaried jobs.” (Blanchflower as quoted in To The Office With Love). Note: The ‘work-life balance’ conversation is a different one entirely, that I will not start on right now, but it is a very interesting one. I love my job and would rarely describe it as stressful. I’m an Interior Designer, I’m not a Doctor saving lives, or a Cop in the present environment. My job is such that, if I didn’t actually need money, I would do it without charging a penny. I genuinely love what I do. The stress comes from a lack of stability, not the work itself. Some months/ years you’re bobbing, just trying to keep your head above water, while others you feel like Leo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort on the deck of your yacht making it rain. I guess I’m a gambler after all.

So, what are entrepreneurs missing? As Senior says, “kinship”. We are missing out on the friends and social bonds that are formed in an office. I can say that it is definitely a bit harder to make friends when you spend +/- 12 hours a day by yourself, in showrooms/ stores, or on job sites with or without clients present. The article makes a case for creativity and a drive to work harder (to compete) within the office. I think that while this is true in some cases, a true entrepreneur is driven by their own will, and finds ways to be creatively driven and competitive on their own. However, I feel that it could be considered to be more difficult. Self motivating is tough when you have the option to technically do whatever you want every day. Additionally, it often feels less creative to, say, attend a museum alone without someone to bounce ideas and opinions off of. For this reason, I find it incredibly helpful to surround myself with other entrepreneurs. Whether it’s a quick lunch with a fellow designer for some midday inspiration, or drinks and client stories with a personal stylist; surrounding oneself with like-minded individuals (whether you are self employed or within a larger office) is always important.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering, “so, what’s the point of all of this?”. Nothing. There is no real “point”. I don’t have any Earth shifting information or big “Aha!” moments. All I have is my experiences, and my opinions. But that’s what we all have, and in this very social world of sharing our every moment; I thought that it might be worth sharing my story. Over the years a lot of people have asked my advice for starting out on their own, and I have read a lot of articles and books giving contrasting opinions on all of it as well; Which in combination with my own experiences, can add up to some interesting conversations weighing the pros and cons of self-employment…. but in the end there is this, a conversation with my brother, in which we both realized that there are two different types of people in business: Some are meant to work for large companies, while others are not. Neither one is right or wrong, good or bad.