It’s important for me to get out of the office on a regular basis and talk with groups of people who, in the neat language of business jargon, are part of a statistic called “job churn,” the movement of people in and out of the labor market. Right now, churn—which suggests violent splashing—is making us all feel like we’re traveling on very rough seas and producing a lot of queasiness.
Although I regularly see individual clients in career transition who often feel as if they are in a small boat in an ocean of uncertainty, I find being in the company of a group of people who have given up an evening or Saturday morning to attend one of my presentations a very different experience.
It is more like riding the subway or a bus rather than driving my own car. When I use mass transit, I’m just another passenger sharing a journey with others from one stop to another. It’s no longer the other drivers and me in our separate vehicles en route to different destinations. We’re all in it together, which is exactly how it feels when I step into a library meeting room, community center or church hall and start to talk informally with people who have come to hear me speak. And, just like the subway, I never know who will sit down next to me or how my world will expand as a result.
Such was the case a few weeks ago when I met an attractive middle-aged woman at one of my seminars who claimed she already knew me.
Though it is hard to stay in the discomfort between a neatly orchestrated professional life and an uncertain future you have to create for yourself, the experience has something to precious to offer you.
“My ex-husband gave me your book for Christmas,” she announced, “and I’ve come to hear you speak because apparently I’m a consultant.” She had retired from a government job, and then had the opportunity to take on a couple of projects, and now she was surprised to find herself self-employed. The idea of being in business for herself was entirely new to her.
Over the next few days, the phrase, “apparently I’m a consultant,” kept coming to mind, and every time it did, I thought about the movie, The Accidental Tourist. At first I couldn’t figure out what the connection was, but I’ve come to trust that there is hidden meaning in strange juxtapositions, so I rented the movie and watched it again to find out.
Armchair Traveler or Traveling Armchair?
The hero of The Accidental Tourist is Macon Leary, a man who writes travel guides for businesspeople who hate to travel and would rather be home. His books feature a logo of a armchair with wings on it with the tagline, “While armchair travelers dream of going places, traveling armchairs dream of staying put.” He lives his life, both at home and abroad, inside a cocoon. His existence is perfectly regulated and without feeling.
The woman I met at the seminar has embarked on a journey of her own kind, to self-employment, but I don’t know whether her trip will really be an adventure, one that enlarges and expands her, or if she will be as unchanged by the experience as Macon Leary is by his.
Most career books these days are like the travel books Macon Leary writes in that they are targeted expressly for people who are looking for the comfort and security of a job, not a ticket to the strange and scary world of entrepreneurship.
In my book, Ground of Your Own Choosing, I maintain that staying in your comfort zone is no longer a tenable option (a fact borne out by the recent statistic that there are now four available workers for every job opening).
But the decision to strike out on one’s own does not guarantee a successful turnaround to entrepreneurship. People who start a business “by default” because they have run out of other options often set out simply to create a job for themselves and do not fully engage in recreating themselves—while entrepreneurs dream of business startups, “accidental entrepreneurs” dream of the safety and comfort of a job.
There is a huge difference between going through the motions, as Macon Leary does, and being willing to be touched by new experiences, even when they make you feel vulnerable and challenge you to grow into a new identity.
So what would I say to the woman from my seminar, the “Accidental Entrepreneur,” and to others who unexpectedly find themselves in places they never thought they’d be and have to start thinking of themselves as self-employed.
- Be there. Though it is hard to stay in the discomfort between a neatly orchestrated professional life and an uncertain future you have to create for yourself, the experience has something to precious to offer you. Becoming a consultant offers the promise of getting more satisfaction out of your work, having more choices about how you live, and building a new kind of economic security, one based your capacity to generate work, not a dependence on others to provide it.
- Find safe people and places where you can give voice to your vulnerability and be supported in it. Macon Leary starts to find a new way of being in the world when he is finally able to unburden himself to another person. The same kind of breakthrough can happen for someone who has experienced job loss when she sees she are not alone.
- Learn as much as you can about how to run a business. Take courses (they are generally available for very little cost), talk to people at organizations that support entrepreneurial initiatives (Chambers of Commerce, SCORE, the Small Business Administration). Get to know other people who are in startup mode and meet regularly with them. It’s like learning a foreign language—immersion is the best way.
- Offload attitudes which no longer serve you well, especially resistance to change. In his suitcase, Macon always carries protection from surprise—a book to read to avoid talking to the person sitting next to him on the plane, packets of spot removal to avoid using hotel cleaning services, and a list of restaurants to assure that “a meal in London isn’t much different from one in Cleveland.” It is only when he chooses to leave his “baggage” behind and stumble ahead without all the false symbols of safety that have defined his life to date that we know he’s taken a huge step to being more fully alive.
We all carry baggage of one sort of another and I, of course, have no way of knowing what my friend the “accidental entrepreneur ” may need to release to make the next phase of her career more richly rewarding and fulfilling. I do know, however, that “a trip become a journey after you’ve lost your luggage” and becoming an entrepreneur is a journey.