It's official: The self-employed love their work more than everyone else.
A University of Phoenix School of Business survey released last month revealed that Americans in general are work-oriented, with 89 percent of us saying that at least some of our self-worth comes from our job or career. And responses showed that we self-employed folks are markedly happier than other working people.
For example, 76 percent of self-employed Americans say our work has a positive impact on our self-worth, compared with 67 percent of those with jobs. And while 45 percent of working adults say they're still searching for the right career, only 35 percent of self-employed people feel that way. More than half--54 percent--of working Americans think further education would help them feel better about themselves, but only 40 percent of self-employed people agree.
None of this is a surprise to me, since I've been self-employed and happy about it for more than 20 years. But not all self-employment is created equal--you can either make it fun or un-fun, depending how you go about it. Here are a few things I've learned over the years:
1. Create the workplace where you want to work.
Whether you're a musician playing at events or a parent running a catering service from home, you'll hear the same advice: You're a business. Think like a business. Act like a business.
Great thought, but I'd like to refine it: Act like a business where you yourself would like to work. That means your workspace, even if you're the only one in it, should be a pleasant place where your employees are happy to spend their time, even if your only employee is you. They (you) should get a professional-looking website and business card. They (you) should also get the best salary and perks you can afford to give them.
Most important, although the customer is in principle always right, there are times when customers are unreasonable and someone needs to tell them that politely. As the business owner, that task is yours.
2. Set a schedule that works for you.
For years, as a solo entrepreneur, I felt inferior to people who rose at 5 a.m. and seemed to have half a day's work done before I'd finished my first cup of coffee. Then, years ago, I had to complete a very large project on an impossibly tight deadline. Soon I found myself working late morning to late afternoon, taking a couple hours' break for relaxation and dinner, then working some more until late at night, then starting over the next morning. I had no choice; it was the only way I could get enough work done in a 24-hour day to meet that tough deadline. Which I did, somewhat to my own surprise.
It was a valuable lesson: Work the hours that allow you to be most productive, whatever those happen to be. No need to apologize to anyone for what those are.
3. Get all the help you can.
Being self-employed shouldn't mean you're always on your own. Get help with whatever you can: experts and consultants to help with the things you don't know about, and part-time or full-time employees to take on any task you can delegate. Whatever you do, don't get stuck in the fallacy that something is easier to do yourself than explain to someone else. Hire people smart enough to learn the job, and soon they'll start taking some of the load off you. That's been my experience with every research assistant I've hired over the years, all of whom have been well worth what I've paid them.
4. Choose your customers wisely.
I can say from experience that few things can make you as miserable as a difficult client. Of course, it can be hard to tell beforehand which customers will have a high PITA factor, and it can be awkward "firing" a customer once that becomes clear. Your best strategy is to start each relationship with a limited engagement, so that both you and the customer will have a chance to check in and reevaluate early on. Just as important: Always keep promoting yourself and pitching new potential business, so that you never see a bad customer as your only option.
5. Do work you enjoy.
If your answer to the question "Why do you do what you do all day?" has only to do with how much money you're making, that's a recipe for unhappiness. Ideally, the work you do should provide you with a good living and be something you consider fun and meaningful. At a minimum, it should be two out of the three.
6. Be a driver, not a passenger.
One big advantage of working for someone else, especially in a large company, is that there may be a career path laid out for you. As you learn more and move up the ladder, you become a more valuable asset, so your employer may be motivated to help you increase your skills and responsibilities. When you're working for yourself, customers only want to see you deliver what they need, and keep delivering it over and over.
Your career is entirely in your own hands, and it's up to you to take it where you want to go. It's way too easy to let the market take you where it wants you to go instead of deciding for yourself where your best direction lies.
When you're self-employed, it's more important than ever to carve out the time for strategic planning, both for yourself and for your business. Visualize where you want to wind up and the specific steps you need to take to get there. Doing that can keep you happily self-employed for many years to come.
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