I’ve been completely self-employed for the last eight years, working as an entrepreneur and musician. Before that I was a guitar instructor and performing musician for the previous seven years and worked as an independent contractor, so was more or less self-employed during this period as well. I’ve basically been self-employed, in one way or another, for the last 15 years.
I’ve been working for myself for so long that it’s hard to imagine working for anyone else. Although I love the freedom and flexibility being self-employed brings, working for yourself isn’t always a bed of roses. There are some definite disadvantages to going the self-employed route. It’s not for everyone. Of course, there’s a big upside as well and in today’s post I’m going to explore both sides of the self-employed coin.
Here’s a list of downsides to working for yourself along with their corresponding upsides. The yin and the yang if you will, of being self-employed.
Downside #1 - Uncertainty
Let’s start with probably the biggest downside to being self-employed; uncertainty. When you work for yourself, the income you make will fluctuate. This is especially true in the first couple years of starting a business. I have really great months where I crush it and do very well and I also have months where things don’t go as well, sales dip and I have to scramble to figure out how to stay above water. Of course, this gets easier the longer you’re in business. Or at least it should if things are moving in the right direction.
I’m much better at dealing with the ups and downs now than I used to be. My business is also a lot more stable and predictable than it used to be. I rarely have horrible months anymore, but I definitely have months where things don’t go as well as others.
I have a fairly good idea of how much to expect in revenue from month to month. But, the uncertainty is something that you never completely get used to. Even after all these years, I sometimes find myself plagued by doubts like, what if the market changes drastically and people stop buying my products. Or what if I say something stupid in one of my podcasts and people don’t perceive me as the expert I claim to be. Or what if I spend months creating a new program and no one buys it.
What if, what if, what if… I’m human and sometimes doubts creep in.
The Upside To Uncertainty – Growth
Here’s the thing though, most of the horrible what ifs never happen. Sure, there are stressful moments and sure sometimes things don’t go as well as I’d like. More than a few times I’ve entertained thoughts about returning to the workforce and getting a “real Job”. But I’ve never had to, because things have never gotten that bad. My worst case scenario fears have never come true. I always have managed to find my way through the slow periods and my business has grown every single year, except one, since I started it in 2008.
Through all the ups and downs I’ve grown more resilient. I’ve learned way more skills than I would have had I continued the employee route. I’ve learned, in no particular order, how to make websites, create information products, interview people, host and run a podcast, make youtube videos, market myself online, do affiliate marketing, do accounting, write blogs, successfully network with music industry professionals, find and hire employees, host webinars and the list goes on. I’ve become way more versatile buy working for myself than I would have become continuing the route of working for someone else. .
I’ve also learned to simply have faith in myself and life. There’s a lot that’s outside of your direct control when you work for yourself. I can’t control who decides to buy my products and who doesn’t. I can’t control the overall direction of the economy. That feels scary sometimes. But over the years I’ve learned that if I simply focus on doing my job to the best of my ability, everything else will work out. It reminds me of the serenity prayer: “Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. To change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference”. I focus on what I can change and have faith that the rest will work itself out. So far it has.
In short, I’ve grown, both as a musician and entrepreneur, as a direct result of running my own business and working for myself.
Downside # 2 – It’s A Lot Of Work
Another downside to starting and running your own business is that if you plan for it to be successful, it’s most likely going to require an enormous amount of work. There’s a joke about being self-employed that goes like this, “The great thing about being self-employed is that you get to choose the 16 hours a day you work”. Although I rarely work 16 hours a day, I work a lot and have put in my share of 12 hour days over the last eight years. When I look back and think about the amount of time and effort I’ve put into running my business over the last eight years my head spins just thinking about it.
To be honest, the first couple years of running my own business I didn’t work that hard. I was just looking to make enough income to get by and loved the idea of having more free time and working when I felt like it. This sort of worked for a while, but pretty quickly I realized that if I really wanted to reach my goals and have a truly successful business and life, it was going to require a lot more effort than I had been putting in. So, I stepped up and started working harder and harder. Each year I started to do a little better. The last couple years I’ve worked harder than ever and have had record years as a result.
The Upside To Working Hard – Success!
The upside to working hard is pretty obvious, which is that you reap the fruits of your labor. Thanks to all the hard work I’ve put in over the years I have a business that sustains me comfortably. I’ve also learned the value of having a strong work ethic, which helps me in every area of my life. I apply the same sort of work ethic to things like songwriting and performing and have reaped similar rewards.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about hard work it’s that it works. I feel like as a society, we’ve sort of lost the work ethic and discipline we used to have. We live in a sort of instant gratification society where we all expect to get things very quickly. There’s nothing sexy or glamorous about working hard. It sort of sucks to be honest. But, at least for me, being broke all the time sucks even worse. It also gets easier. I’m actually pretty excited about getting up and working most days, because I know I’m building something real and sustainable. I overlook the aspects of working that I don’t like and focus on the fact that I’m building something very real and tangible.
Eight years, which is how long I’ve been running my own business, is a long time, but to get really good at anything takes considerable time. There’s something known as the “ten thousand hour rule” which is the idea that it takes, on average, about ten thousand hours of effort to truly master something. Malcolm Gladwell studied this in his book, Outliers. He found that when you examine the lives of most really successful people, it took them on average, about ten thousand hours of concentrated effort in their respective fields, which on average takes about ten years.
For most of us, substantial success, is going to require considerable time and effort, aka, hard work.
Downside #3 – Work Life Balance, What’s That?
One of the other downsides of working for yourself is that it can be really hard to strike a healthy balance between working and other aspects of your life, like relationships and finding time to just be and enjoy life. This isn’t to say that you can’t have the same issue as employee, you obviously can, and I know plenty of people who work for other people that still work too much and neglect other areas of their life. But I think it’s even more of a concern when you work for yourself. It can be much harder to find a healthy balance.
It’s ironic, because most people that are self-employed are probably drawn to the idea of working for themselves because they imagine having a greater degree of freedom and flexibility over their lives. Working for yourself does, potentially at least, offer much more flexibility in terms of when and where you work. But, if you’re not careful, it’s much too easy to slip into a pattern of working too much, to the point where other areas of your life suffer the consequences.
From time to time I catch myself simply working too much, neglecting friends and family. I don’t do it intentionally. But sometimes I’m so determined to get a project done or move certain aspects of my business forward that I find myself putting in way more hours than I would have as an employee. Of course, I reap the benefits of the work that I do, so I’m not spending my time in vain. But I find that getting this issue right is an ongoing balancing act.
The Upside To The Work/Life Balance Issue – Finding Balance
The upside to the issue of work/life balance is that if you set your business up correctly, you can achieve an amazing work/life balance and create a really cool lifestyle. I’ve gotten better at striking this balance over time. The thing is you have to do this very deliberately. You have to be very organized and create systems and processes that will allow your business to run smoothly.
Whenever I catchy myself feeling burned out from working, I take a close look at how I’m spending my time and look for ways I can do things more efficiently and effectively. This has been a gradual process of testing and trying a lot of different things over the years, but it’s reached a point where I feel like I have a really healthy balance. I schedule in plenty of time during my week to do other things like play and write music, relax, spend time with friends and so on.
I work much more effectively when I’m in a good mood and not overly stressed. It’s a bit like working out, if you work out too much you can actually over work your muscles and causes damage and injury. Work is a lot like that. We need to put in considerable effort to accomplish anything worthwhile, but there’s a point where it’s simply too much and not sustainable.
The bottom line is that working for yourself, isn’t for everyone, but if you have the right temperament it can lead to an amazing lifestyle with a greater degree of freedom and flexibility compared to being an employee. Being a musician in 2017 involves a degree of self-employment. Even if you have a day job and pursue music on the side, you’ll need entrepreneurial skills to navigate your way through the music business. The more you can develop a self-employed, entrepreneurial mindset the more you’ll be able to recognize and seize opportunities as a musician.
Some people just don’t have the stomach for working for themselves and I totally get that. The truth is, had I known just how hard it was going to be when I started my business back in 2008, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I would have most likely continued the path of least resistance, working in a job I didn’t really like that much, but that was relatively easy and stable. I’m so glad I didn’t know how much work was required though, because at this point, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.