Diary of a Soloist
Does a 20-year veteran of large corporations have what it takes to face life as a soloist?
When I quit my job on July 31, 1997, it was life at first sight. I grabbed my shadow, and we were off! I was going solo, starting a venture as small as me, myself, and I, but with big possibilities. My corporate role as a business-book publisher had over the years shrunk to three sizes too small. If I wasn't going to shrivel up with it, I had to get out. I wasn't leaving to start just another business. I was beginning a new way of life: I'd be trading in hierarchy for freedom, other people's goals for my own. In 20 years of working with leading-edge business thinkers, I'd learned a lot, but none of it was relevant now. What good was management when it was just you, and you were both boss and slave, CEO and secretary?
I didn't want to manage (read manipulate) people into doing work. I wanted to do the work, all of it. I'd gotten tired of seeing things done in pieces. The greatest satisfaction I'd had always came when I'd gotten involved in the whole cycle of work: from the conception of an idea to the development of the book, to the creation of the cover, to the promotion and selling of the book. Managing 2 or 20 or 200 people removes you from that experience.
I wanted to experience nothing but the work, the pure core experience, as farmers do when they plant and harvest, or as chefs do when they slice open a truffle, sautÉ it, inhale its aroma deep into their system. Picasso, it's said, used to mix ground sapphires into blue pigment to get a color as pure as the eye could see when it looked at the sky. That was the point: he had to mix his paints and stretch his canvas himself.
Sure, I had thought of starting a company. Before I walked out of Doubleday, I'd developed a business idea, had a small staff ready to join me, and had some positive conversations with a venture capitalist. But I pulled out. It's not that I didn't want the headaches of leadership; I just don't believe leadership is viable these days. In any project, there are so many hands who are removed from the original vision that nothing works out as planned or hoped for. It may also be one of the fallouts of empowerment: everyone wants a say, so no one is in charge.
After 10 years of running the Currency line at Doubleday, I don't believe it's possible to lead anything anymore. You can lead only yourself. That's why I had to go solo. That's why I did the equivalent of mixing my own paint.
But my thrill at leaving Doubleday changed to shell shock over the first six months of soloing. Although I was still on retainer at Doubleday, I worried about money and wondered if I'd ever have lunch in any town again. I saw the signs of impending homelessness everywhere. A friend who manufactures corrugated boxes for Compaq offered to send me one in my size. "It's wax-coated," Bubba said. "It will keep you dry for weeks."
By Christmas I'd sold a proposal for a new book and had given a few speeches. Though I still had no consulting clients, money was coming in at last. But my deepest anxieties had merely changed focus. I wanted to capture every pivotal moment of my life as a soloist, so in January, I began keeping a journal.
NEW YORK CITY, JANUARY 21, 1998
Girl guru! No challenge too great, no mission too trivial!
I saw a movie last night about Steve Prefontaine, miracle runner. Pre didn't have a runner's body--not the legs, not the lungs. His coach, Bill Bowerman, told him to forget running the mile; he wasn't built to win it consistently. Run the three-mile, Bowerman had told him. Nobody cares about the three-mile, Pre whined. Well, give them a reason to care, Bowerman said. Pre's three-mile races became thrilling. People came to see his passion.
I'm going to give people a reason to care about my personal dream of being a girl guru. I want to be the reason people answer yes to this question: Is business ready to listen to a female Tom Peters/Peter Drucker?
But corporate habits are tough to break. You don't just step out of a company, go solo, and think, "I'll do what I've always done, just do it for myself." Things slow down in the solo life. You don't have the zillion projects you had as a corporate creature; you have three, and even that may be too many. You have to choose your projects carefully and take the biggest moneymakers, but only where you can do your best work. The scale changes, and the old rules--corporate rules--don't apply.
Being solo is not the same as going solo. The going was a scary, tightrope walk: Will I crash, or will I get over? But the being is indescribably lonely. It's easier in ways I thought would be hard (like earning money) and harder in ways I thought would be easy (like being bossless, which also means being lonely and peopleless). If I were starting a small business, I'd know what to do, how to hire, scout for clients, align a team. But that's not what I want. Now I have to become a company, not start one. More to the point: I have to become a someone.
So who am I? Let's see. Here's my inventory of advantages: I'm immersed in the business of business ideas and will pitch myself as an adviser on leadership trends and methods. The plus is that I offer clients deep knowledge, the big picture, not information. The minus is that there's a small elite audience for my stuff. Next, I have lots of great contacts--a plus. But I don't know how to get help from them--a minus. I'm lost. A plus: I'm honest. A minus: I'm lost. Where do I go to seek help?
Entrepreneurs have books to read and footsteps to follow, and they have other people to call. Go solo and you have...you. If you don't love what you see in the mirror, you're in a pretty dysfunctional relationship. I have to believe that people will want to work with me because I uniquely have something to give them. How else can a five-foot- eight, fortysomething female stand up against McKinsey, Bain, and Arthur Andersen?
How hungry do I want to be?
Up at 4 a.m. to call Switzerland and see if I was really officially invited to Davos--the Rolls Royce of business conferences, where presidents of nations mingle with presidents of companies. Its proper name is the World Economic Forum, and it's strictly invitation only. Heard from the WEF office this morning that I was indeed "official." Called and arranged my travel.
Called Bank of America to try to schedule a telephone audition for a speaking gig. I'd convinced myself that it was better to appear cool with this potential client, to seem not too hungry, so she'd really want to hire me. To make like I was so booked I could barely talk to her. But then I realized that everything I'd ever gotten that was worth having I got because I'd walked behind my heart. So I reversed course after I said good-bye to the BofA rep and felt I didn't get the gig. I wrote her a letter telling her how much I wanted it. We'll see.
Every day is filled with uncertainty: will I finish the piece, will X really pay me on time, will Y call as promised, where is the fax on which my next trip totally depends? Every morning I wake up thrilled that I am going into my very own office. But by the afternoon I look back as if the hours were added up on a balance sheet and ask myself, Did I use this day well? I never asked myself that at the end of a corporate day. I was just glad to have gotten through it to that 5 p.m. finish line.
I'm still scared and superstitious. Always in the back of my mind is the thought, What happens if I can't work? What then? I have no one to fall back on: no family, no husband. Scary. So I keep on working.
Do you really require a bathroom?
That's what the man from Davos said this morning when I called to ask if there was a room for me yet: I'm a last-minute addition, and the hotels are full. A test of will: I decided to go as myself, not as a Doubleday retainer--which I am and which has helped me feel safe.
Well, here's bizarre news. My going all out with BofA seems to have worked. I got a contract! A first: a speaking engagement from a source that's hired me blind.
New York to Zurich, New York to Zurich: Hello, is anybody there?
Another round of calls to Davos, trying to scare up a room with a toilet. Is this why I'm of two minds about going to Davos? Mind two is eager, but mind one is scared. It's easy to be a star, tougher to be one of the crowd. That's what scares me about Davos: in that big pond I'll be so little, I'll lose sight of myself. But I must go: a soloist has to take the stage, no matter what her fears are.
Lost and found in the human pound
Here I am in the bright glow of the Delta Business Class lounge. My plane departs in 30 minutes. All the way to the airport I felt I'd packed too light. What have I forgotten? Money? Tix? Clothes? Books? Face it, I don't want to go. I want to stay home. Alone. Where I'm important, at least to myself. I'm going to Davos; let me remind myself, despite my desire to run screaming from JFK, to try out my new role as an equal to power, for once not as an editor-slave.
DAVOS, SWITZERLAND, JANUARY 29
Is this the promised land? Should be; it took nearly a lifetime to get here
After two planes, a train, and an automobile, I got to the hotel in Davos, where nobody had heard of me. At last a room was found for me.
Badge, budge, badger
So Doubleday showed up on my badge after all. I'd listed it in my vitae, so how hard did I really try to keep the fact hidden? I'm like a divorcÉe who still calls herself Mrs. But minus even a single Doubleday business card, I feel free, even if I therefore have to give people my home number.
I've gotten over my shyness. Now I feel that I have made myself one of them. Even if the only evidence is my badge that says so.
Who am I, what am I, where am I?
I have to dress for the soiree put on by the World Economic Forum, an event like something out of an Audrey Hepburn movie. Women in gowns that billow like clouds, men in Rhett Butler tuxes, caviar dropped onto your plate like jewels from a sprung vault.
Here's how to handle a soiree or any other party that you'd rather eat bees than go to:
Lesson one: In any crowd or conference or party, don't search for anyone. Keep moving and like a fish sooner or later you'll bump into every barrier reef you need. "Everybody I need to see shows up in front of me," says a friend experienced in these matters. And so those people do.
Lesson two: Don't think about how ridiculous you feel; think about how uncomfortable everybody else is. My friend said that Davos is like an Outward Bound for the rich and famous: they're forced to come here without their entourages because there are so few hotel rooms.
What? Me, sleep?
When I left the soiree it was 2:30 a.m. I screamed, "Yikes!" and in a Cinderella moment I was out the door and looking frantically for a cab to take me to the hotel. I was so sleepy, I hit the bed as soon as I arrived back in the room.
The phone, dammit, rang at 8 a.m. On Sunday! My friend, Avram, was calling from the United States. Since I was up, I thought I might as well eat breakfast. Cheick, whom I'd met at the registration desk of the Hotel Pischa when the people there were trying to find me a room, joined me. He's a six-foot-four African-born rocket scientist who navigates the Pathfinder over the face of Mars. "What do you want most?" Cheick asked. I said, "Influence." "Then you may be chasing the wrong people," he said, meaning the people at Davos. "These people are beaten. They are like beaten roads: they have their money and their power, and they don't want anything else. I'm looking for the people who are still building, who are still hungry, who own their own businesses and can say yes to me without having to answer to anyone else. Those are the people I want to talk to about my dreams."
I'm learning good lessons. The best one of all: sleep's a bore when you're having fun.
Notes on the plane home
On the plane ride home from Davos, I talk to my seatmate about the conference. The talk trails off. I'm realizing I have to relearn the art of sustained conversation. This is the biggest disability I've picked up since leaving Doubleday. I used to talk so much--on the phone, in meetings--that I was a gold-medalist talker. Now I'm not so sharp.
Doubleday taught me how to sell. In my new life I need to learn how to give. I have a gift to give: what I know, whom I know, and what I stand for. In the consultancy I'll build, I'll relate to clients as peers.
NEW YORK CITY, FEBRUARY 5
A chicken-with-broccoli-and-cold-sesame-noodles emergency
Home, sweet home. Seven-digit dialing. Chinese home delivery. I'm not even jet-lagged. I'm too excited by these basic Davos lessons:
1. I have to start an active mailing list. Keep in touch with people, even people I didn't "mate" with for life. Acquaintances are just as important as newfound friends. It's like when you go to Lourdes and take home the water, or you're at a five-star hotel and take home the soap. Davos makes you want to take home the people. I want to think they're watching me, that they're the standard I have to aspire to.
2. Remember how important it is to expand your horizons, even more than your ambitions. I learned that in Davos from Hugo de Garis, a scientist who is building robots with artificial brains. He's not ambitious: he'll get his robots built somehow, but not by being strategic or by fund-raising or by sucking up to important people. He continually enlarges the scope of the work, expanding his vision and his belief in what he can accomplish and in the impact he intends to have on society. We normal people have to think of clients and paychecks. But it's breathtaking to pick your head up now and then and look beyond that focus.
As a reminder, I paste a postcard of the Alps over my desk.
Please be nice to me, I'm mad as hell
The BofA director who'd sent me a contract for the speech got cold feet. She canceled the contract. She wouldn't take my references' word about how good I am as a speaker. Damn BofA, and damn business. It is a stupid pursuit.
Not holding the cards
"How come you don't have business cards?" Avram asked. "I don't know what to call myself," I said. Avram suggested I do a card that said simply "HR Group." "No," I insisted, "that's how you know people are on their own: they try to convince others they're a group."
The ugliest baby blues in the world
Ugly encounter with one of the authors I took responsibility for editing in my Doubleday consulting contract. Why did I ever agree to this security blanket of a consultant relationship with Doubleday?
I should have quit long before now to go solo. Now, unless I cut Doubleday out of my life, I'll never get free of this slave mentality.
Should I have had the guts to walk away from Doubleday whole and clear last July? Maybe, but I was scared. I thought no one would talk to me unless I was Harriet Rubin Doubleday. Most of all, I'm not scared anymore. Doubleday is my scared self, and it looks ugly to me now.
Installed the fax yesterday. It's booster one on my rocket ship.
The eve of the big fat moon, a turning point on the 11th, the horoscopes say
Yesterday was a bitch. Lonely, lonely, lonely. I felt like the last living human on earth. I miss people!!! Hello, out there? Is anyone there? Knowledge is vital, but so is acknowledgment. That's what Davos provided and what my office loft does not. Should I get a real job? Shut up!!!
Just came from a meeting with a media biggie--a friendly call that I will build into a business relationship by following up the visit with notes and clips and by raising issues and questions that will intrigue her.
I had forgotten how much corporate setups scream power. It's been a while since I've ridden in elevators that plush. Corporate men and women are taken care of, like prizewinning poodles: big plush offices, secretaries, private bathrooms--and for the really privileged, massages, car services, catered dinners at home. I walked into the elevator feeling that I had gone through a period of convalescence, and now I was back in the world of the living.
No wonder corporate men and women feel strong. You get kicked and stepped on, sure, but there are so many perks to help you take the abuse.
On my calendar: a meeting with my financial adviser. I will have a big book-advance check coming from Harper, so I need to be a bit more aggressive about how I invest it. Also, I will have a whopping tax bill to pay this year on earnings from my first book, The Princessa. I believe in the philosophy "Do it for love, and the money will follow." But the greater truth is, I fear, "Do it for the money, and the love will follow."
When I started dreaming about leaving Doubleday, two years ago, my net worth was about $200,000, including a tiny, dark apartment owned mostly by the bank. Now my net worth is over a million, with a big new, light-drenched apartment owned mostly by the bank. The big change came in writing a book, a first effort at building something that I, not Doubleday, owned.
Now I have the income from the second book due in, and money from the articles and speeches. But I still haven't got a client. I would love to work one-on-one with a major CEO on communications, ideas, legacy. Today I'm back on track to pick up the mission I set for myself back in November: to find a corporate client. Davos in mind, I will start at the top. With the people I admire most, who nevertheless are working at one level below their genius because they're not as invested in ideas as they are in action. I make a chart with six names on it and plot out my "six degrees of separation" from them, like a family tree.
Names and numbers
A magazine editor called and asked me, "Were you sleeping?" "Sleeping? At 10 in the morning?" I said. Do I sound relaxed? Or do I sound asleep? I'm getting nervous.
Truth or dare
Crisis: another Doubleday author doubts my commitment to him. He sent a scathing E-mail saying he thinks I'm wasting his time. It's true. I can feel myself bent on a course in which, since I can't say no to my authors, I'll force them to say it. This is destructive behavior. I'll destroy a good relationship with him, and for what? Because I feel Doubleday owes me. I built it a great business. But this is stupid. It's playing footsie with the past. I need to devote my energy and creativity to the present and future. I've got to come clean with myself and admit to this author, and to Doubleday, that I've got to make a complete break.
My image, on a piece of paper, brightly
Wonderful meeting with Alan, the designer who is to do my letterhead. Alan has showed me his portfolio, which is terrific. I noticed one small image--of an open hand, raised like a pledge ("I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth"), and in the palm of that hand was a little white shirt.
It spoke to me: it was dead serious (the pledge) and sweetly funny (the little shirt). My cardinal rule of creativity is that you set off sparks when you combine opposites. A soloist has to set off sparks. She has to promise a serious effort in a playful package: why else would anyone choose a soloist over a big consulting firm? I could imagine my logo as that open hand with some ordinary commodity in the center. Maybe a coin, a fountain, or an exclamation point--something to convey excitement and bold communication. That open hand signified two things I want potential clients to respect me for: giving them the truth and pledging to lead them down new roads of instinct and ideas.
We talked briefly about paper and color. I want paper that has a texture, so that when someone touches my card, it will touch him or her back. When you're selling you, it's vital to have something that is you to give others. I want my card to help build a relationship. That's why it has to "touch back."
And I already know the colors: black type on blue-white paper. Cool. Steel. The image and paper will be "warm," so for balance the color must be cool.
Wow! This will set me back: $6,000 to $8,000. When Doubleday was footing the bill, such expenses were like war headlines from other countries: real and not real at the same time. Now I see that every merchant is always trying to sell me on more than I need. I have to be careful.
My major expenses have all been technology related so far. In the past six months I've bought a fax machine, an extra phone line, a laser printer, a two-line cordless phone, a StarTAC, a PalmPilot, and a little Toshiba Libretto computer for carrying around with me everywhere. All told: $3,000. On top of the $5,000 for the top-of-the-line ThinkPad and modem software I bought early last year. But when it comes to buying stationery, I fret. No matter. I give Alan the go-ahead.
Came to a brutal decision today: the way to go solo is to go totally solo, ply my own course. My friend and adviser Tracy Goss once said that if I did go the distance, I could be awesome. What kept me from doing it, she said, was that I'd scare myself. Who isn't that true of? Now it's a matter of going all the way.
The good-bye girl
When the door buzzer rang at 4 p.m., I had a premonition that it would be a courier with a letter from Steve, the boss at Doubleday, and it would be a termination letter. I was right.
I gave Doubleday 10 years of brilliant books and profits, and here was my thanks. A Dear John letter, not even a phone call. That's a stupid reaction. I should just get over this idea that I'm due anyone's gratitude.
Here's what I most regret: that I wasn't the one to initiate the good-bye. How much stronger and more capable would I be feeling if I had acted, instead of now simply reacting?
The cord is cut. I'm floating in space, not sure whether this feeling is pleasure or pain. How will this really feel when the shock wears off? That, not what the financial consequences will be, is the first thing that comes to mind.
When my accountant asks me to estimate my earnings for next year, he says, "Let's take 1997's earnings as a guide." I think, "No! What if 1998 is the year I have to sell my body parts? What if 1997 was just a cute joke?" But I say, "Sure, go ahead; up the estimates." I have no excuses now.
Harriet Rubin is a soloist living in New York City. She is the author of the best-seller The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women.