“I’m totally unemployable,” said my friend Johnny a while back.
“Never!” agreed Neil. “I’m radioactive to any employer.”
“Are you kidding? Me too!” chimed in another friend, Janet.
My Naples Friends — And What They’ve Taught Me
The four of us were at a small party, a gathering of one of the nonprofit boards I used to belong to a while back. I love these friends, an incredibly diverse gathering of thinkers and leaders here in Naples.
Diverse, except for one thing: only a few of us are “employed” in the traditional sense of the word. Sure, this is Naples, Florida, so more than half the group is in some stage of retirement. But that isn’t it. Most of us are business owners or solo practitioners (“solopreneurs”), not employees.
Take these three:
- Johnny has his own upscale masonry design and construction firm. He keeps his staff small, only accepting work that suits his reputation as a true artisan. Johnny has never worked for anyone else but his father (till he got fired).
- Neil works solo. He’s a software consultant. He represents one company, but he owns his territory (think franchise) and runs his business exactly as he chooses. He worked both in the service industry and for a big IT firm, but not in the last ten years or more.
- Janet was a prodigy right out of grad school. She led a couple of companies you’ve probably patronized. She’s a professor now, but doesn’t consider that “real” employment – she thinks of it more as something she does a few hours a week. She writes books you’ve probably read, and you may have seen her as a guest talking head on TV.
Three very different careers, but all independent in most respects. What I find noteworthy is that they’ve all pigeonholed themselves as unemployable. And maybe they’re right: maybe most hiring managers would look at these three and say to herself, “No way. They’re misfits. They’ll never mesh with the employee mindset we require around here.”
Maybe, sure. But here’s how I think of it – not just for my Naples friends, but for you, too: what’s to stop Johnny, Neil, Janet, or you from weaving in and out of traditional employment throughout your career?
I have another friend, Stan, who used to own a pizza parlor. He made a fair living and was his own boss, but he hated it. “Every time the refrigerator went out, I had to handle it myself. I had to pay from my own pocket, I had to deal with the maintenance firm… it got old.” Finally Stan closed up shop and took an entry-level job at a grocery store: yes, this independent businessman was making $8 and hour, reporting to a boss who wasn’t half his age.
“That was tough, both on my lifestyle and, let’s face it, on my ego. But I worked my tail off, because I knew what I wanted. It took a few years, but I worked my way up in the company. Now I’m store manager. I’m making good money, though probably still a little less than when I owned that pizza shop. I have a whole bunch of bosses on the ladder above me, no doubt about it. But now, when the fridge breaks down, I call the home office, and they take care of it. I wouldn’t go back.”
Respect, Admiration, and Definition of Role
I respect all of these friends, but here’s why I admire Stan most of all: he had the courage to squelch his pride and tough out a job well below his ability. This supermarket chain only hires from within, and everyone starts at the bottom of the pyramid. That’s a deal breaker for a whole lot of superb leaders out there, professionals who could add a lot of value to the company. Never mind all that. Stan was his own boss, he was an employer, a business owner, and he shifted in his career – dramatically so – to follow a new path.
Are Johnny, Neil, and Janet really unemployable? Or are they limiting their own horizons?
Here’s my take, and I sincerely want to know your thoughts here – I’m not certain I’m right; I’m still open to persuasion.
My take is that, throughout our careers, we should let ourselves wander in and out of traditional employment as our interest dictates. Nobody is “too good” to have a boss and be employed, if it fits their long-term goals, or even, perhaps, if it fits their right-now situation.
Are you unemployable? Or are you letting others define you?
Rather than thinking about yourself in terms of “I am” (“I am an owner” …”I am a solopreneur” …”I am a boss”), think in terms of Your Three Things: what are the three things that matter most to you in your work?
A version of this post appeared on Ted’s previous blog.