How Many Irons Do You Keep In The Fire?

The various incarnations of Steel.
Image via Wikipedia

It’s one of my favorite expressions — having multiple irons in the fire. I’m not an ironworker or blacksmith, but a freelance writer and author. If I don’t have multiple income streams (21st century jargon for the same idea), I’m toast.

Now that one-third of us work permalance or as independent contractors or whatever you want to call people who leap from lily-pad to lily-pad to keep their bills paid, making small bets across a variety of disciplines, projects, clients and borders is now business-as-usual.

Even if taking risks makes us feel a little queasy emotionally (What if I fail?), we know it’s also necessary. By definition, not every project, no matter how well-planned or funded or filled with enthusiasm will succeed. Some will sag like an old balloon or blow up with  bang in our surprised faces.

But taking mini-risks remains essential to creative growth. So, every day, like so many others now do, I call and email people across the country, and across oceans, looking for ways to boost my income, add to my network of smart, hardworking, ethical people and see what shows up next.

A new book, “Little Bets”, by Peter Sims, addresses the reality every creative self-employed person must face: you’ve got to keep a pile of irons in the fire at all times. Some will be red-hot, others stone-cold. But as long as you have a dozen or so, (call it Plans A-L), you’ll be fine.

Some of these low-level risks, the little bets, won’t turn into anything. But, with luck, persistence, re-tooling, timing…a few will.

In my decades as a writer, several of them self-employed, I’ve seen this firsthand. I rarely panic about where the money will come from to pay my bills — and my monthly nut is four figures — because I am always exploring new avenues, making new connections and sealing a deal or two.

I’m not wealthy. It would be nice to worry much less and much less often, about money. But I have to be honest enough to admit — I enjoy taking (small, measured) risks.

It’s ironic as hell to me that, by taking a low-wage, low-status job working as a retail sales associate in a suburban mall, a desperation move to shore up my income, I may have opened more and better and much more lucrative doors than anything I’ve ever done in my life. By taking the risk of losing my clutch on middle-class life, wearing a plastic badge and folding T-shirts, I began to see many things more clearly, and wrote a book about what I saw.

Here’s The Wall Street Journal review of Sims’ book.

Tell me about the mini-risks you’re taking, your own little bets…

16 thoughts on “How Many Irons Do You Keep In The Fire?

  1. Lisa

    Thanks for writing this today. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the life I want to live, and I realize that I have to be more courageous about taking these kinds of risks. I know longer feel satisfaction in the more secure options–actually most of them make me feel really unhappy. But the small projects that I do out of passion (and often for lower pay) are the ones that fulfill me. Life is simply not worth it if I don’t continue to grow with little risks and explore those possibilities.

    1. I think it’s a really tough and individual decision, when and where and how much to risk. I know I’ve risked too much too often (like leaving family, friends, career in Canada to move to the US for the American man I married — briefly) but it’s my nature. I get bored and restless and need to try new things.

      The tradeoff for security is often boredom, routine, obedience, conforming to others’ demands or ideas of what matters. I have lived in a one bedroom apartment for 22 years. Would I like to live in a house? Hell, yes! But I prefer a smaller overhead that allows me the financial freedom to take risks, or breaks, than a big old house that chains me to choices I resent.

      1. I appreciate this post! I defintely have several irons burning. I have a blog entry I plan on posting tomorrow about aligning my lifestyle choices with my budget. This is extrmemly difficult and I realize it is one thing to take the risk, but it is a mental shift that has to take place.

      2. If you decide to live on (a lot) less income, you find it’s not that big a deal once the big numbers — rent/mortgage/food/gas — are taken care of. The rest are fripperies. You can get great clothes and shoes at consignment and thrift shops (supplemented with new things.) The stuff I have never scrimped on is my hair cut and color (cheap looks cheap) or perfume. Once you’ve tightened your belt that narrowly, your choices get much more judicious.

        I earn about 25% of my former staff income from 2005-2006. Not fun. Sometimes really annoying. But I make my choices very very carefully and enjoy the ones I do.

  2. Mini!?! I don’t know if I ever took mini risks. Plenty of big ones…moved from Michigan to Miami, Florida many years ago; then moved to Ireland (I thought for a year or two…ended up there for 12.5 years); returning to US I decided to try Atlanta, GA. In early 2000 I realized it was not where I felt at home. I moved to Napa, CA and although I really liked it other circumstances made me realize that for some reason I had to return to ATlanta, GA. Thankfully my house had not sold at that time so me and my puppy moved right back in.
    I started taking day trips to Greenville, SC because it has a beautiful downtown with a lovely river running through it with a waterfall and Falls Park off Main St. I did not go there with any though of it potentially being a place for me to live. However, as time went by I began to get a sense that it was a place of endless possibilities for me, and when it would be time to leave and return to Georgia I would feel sad. On one day trip there, as I stook on the Main Street bridge, looking over at the river and waterfall I realized Greenville is where I feel so much at home.

    The housing market over the last few years has not been good for selling a 2bedroom/2bath townhome, so I have waited.
    Recently I have kept getting signs that I should be focusing my attention to getting moved to Greenville. So,once again I am trying to sell the house and instead of being concerned about it, I have surrendered it to God. With Him, this risk is not really a risk. All will be well, and what is to be will be.

  3. Lots of life changes! Good for you for being so open to new experiences….and for being willing to shift as needed, or stay put when you must. I suspect you’ve also developed great coping skills and resilience which would give you the confidence to settle into wherever you go next.

  4. Interesting post. I had never noticed, but you’re entirely right: creative people do tend to have many irons in the fire. So-and-so’s working on a screenplay, but also trying to start a website, and also working a 9 to 5 job. Etcetera.

    Honestly, I’m a fairly risk averse person. My day job is quite solid and non-risky. I suppose spending my free time freelancing, writing, and blogging could be considered a risk, in that I could technically be spending that time making money/saving money/being “productive.” C’est la vie.

  5. One of the reasons I feel the need to have so many is that, by definition, some are just not going to pan out. To use another analogy, putting all one’s eggs into one basket is crazy. You’ve got to have a bunch of things going on because some may go great and the ones you think are a sure thing…suddenly aren’t.

    But I also know, personally, that having a bunch of things on the fly reassures me that something is getting done, even incrementally, on a bunch of projects. Progress can be slow, but spread over multiple projects, it’s still progress!

  6. Great post. As a freelance designer and assistant designer in theater, I’ve realized I have to have at least TWO projects burning at the same time, not to mention the countless projects I’m trying to incite into something for the future. Then I have a secondary fire, that’s trying to create something from the other projects I have in my life: the blog, the writing, the dress-making, etc.

    Can’t wait to have some time to read your book. And the other book, Little Bets, that you mentioned…

  7. ladyberrington

    hmm good question
    I think I tend to keep a few irons burning…but I need to be able to tend to them when they need. It is just the kind of person I am…very caring/giving. I like to know that my ‘tending’ helps them, so too many irons would not work for me.
    I don’t like the word stressed. I feel it is overused as a catch all for “look at me – I am sooo busy, so I must be important.”
    Keeping a few different irons burning allows us to slowly progress through our projects, enjoying ever aspect of them (positive and negative).

    just my few thoughts

  8. Great post! I left my “secure” (i.e. salaried) position with benefits last year to work with my husband selling his artwork at the Inner Harbour in Victoria, BC. I never considered myself a risk-taker before, but my heart was pulling me in this crazy new direction so I took the plunge!

    Honestly, it was the best decision I have ever made. We’re never really sure where (or how) our monthly income will come from, but by keeping different projects on the go (e.g. selling reproductions of his paintings, creating custom original paintings for clients, networking via blogs, FB, and Twitter, etc.), we seem to be able to Live the Dream. Vive la vie boheme! 🙂

  9. I love hearing stories like this! This is much harder and often impossible in the US because you have to buy — and afford — health insurance, at $300-1000 a month. I am lucky to be on my partner’s plan through his FT job. It is very inhibiting and I’m convinced is Big Business’ way of insuring a docile and mobile labor force…people are too scared, broke or desperate to take the risk you did.

  10. Thank you for writng such an interesting post! I risked it all when I left my job in Decemember… I walked away without a plan b, or any other “letter!” Most people in this economy would stamp a “big STUPID” tatoo on my forehead… but the struggles each and everyone… have been so worth it… I now read alot of interesting blogs daily, on a wide range of topics, I am meeting great people… and for the first time…I am happy with the job I am doing everyday… Even broke taste good right now!
    Have a wonderful day!

  11. Congrats to you for taking that risk.

    I wish more people would do so — which also means living below your means, not carrying credit card debt (at least high interest, can’t pay it off quickly), being willing to do whatever to keep the money coming in…but not sitting in a cube loathing what you do all day because you’re too scared to see what else is out there.

    There are many ways to earn income beyond a “job.” But you have to take the leap to find this out.

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