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You Don't Have to Be an Entrepreneur for Life

The "Cubicle Nation" author talks about her new book "Body of Work" and why she urges entrepreneurs to be "work-mode agnostic".
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Back in some long-ago guidance counselor’s office of sitting at your parents' dinner table, you probably heard that building a career was like "climbing a ladder". You struggle and strive to pull yourself up on a linear, clearly defined path.

We all know that, these days, that metaphor is as dead as the dinosaurs.

Thanks to the increasingly unstable economy (and in part, the preferences of young workers) spending decades in one organization or dutifully clamoring towards the top of your industry without facing many surprises are long gone.

But if the ladder metaphor is long past it’s sell by date, what new conception of career should replace it? In her new bookBody of Work, Pamela Slim has some thoughts.

"No one is looking out for your career anymore. You must find meaning, locate opportunities, sell yourself and plan for failure, calamity, and unexpected disasters. You must develop a set of skills that makes you able to earn income in as many ways as possible," she writes in the books introduction. "You must create your own body of work as you toil in different organizational systems and structures."

So what does looking at your career as a body of work suggest about how entrepreneurs should pursue their professional lives? I called up Slim to see how the lessons of the book might apply to business owners.

Why You Should Be a Work Mode Agnostic

Given the independent nature of the gig, few entrepreneurs expect anyone to look out for their careers, but that doesn’t mean that many of them aren’t trapped in traditional thinking about rigid career paths, Slim insists. They’re not expecting to have an employer for life, but many are still expecting to be entrepreneurs for life. And that’s not always realistic or even desirable, according to Slim.

"I feel like there’s a lot of stigma sometimes about people actually going back to work for an organization. They feel like they failed. They feel like they’re selling out. Like there’s something inherently bad, and I just totally disagree," she says.

Thinking of the different stages of your career as a single body of work held together by an overarching narrative or story can help fight this feeling that once you’re an entrepreneur, it’s somehow shameful to choose another track.

"It really opens up opportunities for people who may not have considered working in different work modes. Somebody could have worked for themselves and then decide they really want to go back and work in a company," Slim says. "At different stages of our life, we can make choices to work in different ways, and who cares? If you’re happy and you’re getting what you need, then that’s what’s important. I would love to see more mobility between different work modes and people that don’t feel trapped."

Now, Tell That to the Hiring Manager

Of course, smooth transitions in and out of the entrepreneurial work mode aren’t just up to the entrepreneur herself. They also depend on the hiring manager at the company she’s trying to join. Studies have suggested that former business owners can meet prejudice when they try to move back to the corporate world. Has Slim seen anything like that?

"I have come across it. We still have a lot of the old mindsets. I called it the mafia mindset in Cubicle Nation. You’re one of the family, and as soon as you leave to do something else then you’re excommunicated," she says. But even if the person across from you at the interview is among the last of a dying breed, that doesn’t mean you have no tools with which to fight back against this bias.

A good story, Slim believes, is your most powerful weapon. "So much of it has to do with the skill of the storyteller--of the person being hired," she insists. "You really need to study and understand what a larger company would be looking for. How can you tell a compelling story about how what you’ve done can play in what they’ve done?"

Plotting that story requires preparation. "Where people are able to do it successfully, it’s because they’re very clear about how they tell the story and about how also they have lived their life publically while working for themselves. It’s not like they just leave and completely isolate and then five years later all of a sudden show up on the doorstep of somewhere they worked," she cautions. Keeping up your public profile through social media and other means is key to ensuring as many doors as possible remain open to you.

Don’t foreclose options by picking a team (and booing the opposition), she advises: "One mistake people make is to get very light and dark side of the force, as I call it, and very publicly say totally anti-corporate things." There’s no need to censor yourself, but if "you may want to move between different work modes, be thoughtful about how you’re engaging with people."

Do you agree that lifelong loyalty to being exclusively an entrepreneur is often counter-productive these days?

 

Last updated: Jan 27, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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