Back in 1998, at the height of Silicon Valley's fever, I thought I was a little crazy not to want to join a start-up company since everyone was promising to get rich quick with stock options and a new BMW as a signing bonus. As a consultant, I spent time inside lots of companies with beanbag chairs, ping pong tables, and refrigerators stocked with junk food. Employees were young, exceptionally bright, and creative. The dream was intoxicating.
But even then, with real evidence of Internet riches and new millionaires, I always had a nagging feeling that the party would not last. There was something about the promise of lifelong happiness through a day job that never really felt comfortable.
Thank goodness it didn't. In an eerily similar preview of today's economy, I remember a warm summer afternoon in early 2000, driving by the parking lots of Internet companies along the 280 Freeway in Cupertino, California, formerly stuffed with fancy cars at all hours of the day and night, that were now totally empty. Dejected ex-employees sat in coffee shops pondering their next move, which for some was trudging back to a deathly boring role in an insurance company or bank instead of the heady glamour of a technology start-up.
I have found, living through a few up-and-down economic cycles, that nothing sweet lasts forever.
Knowing this, and acting on it, has actually made life richer and my work life more secure.
We are all self-employed.
With recent market free falls and massive layoffs, everyone is looking for the perfect market, business model, or magic company that will make everything right again.
I hate to break it to you.
No perfect job, business, or company will make you feel better. The key to feeling in control of your life and career is to assume at all times that you are self-employed. This applies if you are the employee of a company or the head of your own business. Don't make any assumptions about working for a long time for a company, or expect markets to stay the same, or clients to stick around.
If you assume this mentality, you won't wait for anyone to give you permission to pursue your dreams, or feel guilty for being unhappy in a job that seems great on paper but feels terrible in reality.
You aren't crazy.
Even in the best of times, in the most admired and prosperous companies, employees can silently feel crazy for not being happy with their job. When I was a management consultant, I had many late-night conversations with clients, whispered in conference rooms while debriefing an all-day offsite meeting.
"I know I just spent all day convincing my employees that this new program is worthwhile. Honestly, I want to hurl. My wife is about to leave me since I work so much, and I have been having near-panic attacks I am so stressed out, yet I have no idea what I want to do next. What should I do?"
These intense, starkly honest conversations made me realize that a lot of people were desperately trying to pretend that a work situation was acceptable when it really wasn't.
The reality is, each of us has a distinct set of preferences which, when met, ensures that we can be happy, productive, and motivated in our work life. Variables include:
- Physical work environment: the type of building, color scheme, layout of offices or desks, natural vs. artificial light, etc.
- Type of business: for-profit, non-profit, retail, established, start-up, your own business.
- Business culture: how people treat each other, values displayed by actions of all employees (not just words), policies and procedures or lack thereof.
- Communication style of managers, clients, and coworkers: direct or indirect, confrontational vs. relaxed and open.
- Size of business: number of employees.
- Type of work content: what the company is in the business of selling, e.g. financial services, retail, consulting, consumer products, software, etc.
- Skills and talents used in work: which skills you are using in your day-to-day work activities.
When you get a clear picture of your ideal work situation, this becomes the decision criteria for all of your career choices. You may decide that working as an employee of a large company is the best situation for you, or you may discover that you are really cut out to be an entrepreneur.
Hating your job intensely is not a business plan.
If you decide that your ideal state of employment would be to work for yourself, it is understandable if it feels overwhelming. Most corporate employees feel that quitting their job is like jumping off a cliff. It is scary to imagine how you could possibly make money working for yourself if you have never done it before.
Think about it as if you were planning a vacation. If you wanted to spend time in Venice, but weren't sure if it was the best destination for you, what would you do? Most of you would research on the Internet. You would buy a guidebook. You would talk to people, online and off, who traveled to Venice on vacation. You would gather enough information to make sure there was some balance to both the glowing review from the person who fell in love while floating down a canal with the scathing critique from the person who was robbed in the train station and got food poisoning.
There is a lot of great information about starting a business, and people eager to help you do it, once you decide to pursue the entrepreneurial path.
There are also many people who look at you as shark bait and will try to sell you dreams of instant Internet riches and working-from-home dreams.
So remain open, learn about yourself, and view any promise of instant riches and fame with healthy skepticism. Don't feel guilty if you feel really apathetic about your "great" job with a steady salary and full benefits. It may be that that job is great for someone else, just not for you.
Managing your career with open eyes and tapping into your deep reserve of creativity, passion, ideas, and opportunity, the economy won't seem so grim. Without the illusion of stability, you can move your life in the direction that feels right to you.
And in this state of pragmatic honesty, with yourself and your environment, you just might find that your dreams will come true.