We’re Actually Not All Entrepreneurs

Horatio Alger, Jr., Harvard Class of 1852
Horatio Alger, a Harvard man...Image via Wikipedia

I weary of this trope, that — because there are so few new jobs available in the ongoing American recession — we’re all entrepreneurs now!

Guess what?

We’re not.

Saying so flies in the face of a pile o’ American myths:

the rugged individualist; the Ipad-toting Paul Bunyan; the bootstrapper; Horatio Alger; the endless, seductive, oooooooh-can-I do-that-too? allure of reinventing yourself over and over and over and over because….

It works really well for employers who don’t want to invest their money in tedious things like a stable workforce, health benefits or pensions.

Have you gone out to price market-rate health insurance lately?

That’ll send you right back to your miserable little cubicle in gratitude, missy!

Working for yourself, as those of us who do know, means paying our own FICA and, unless we can get health insurance through a spouse or domestic partner, paying through the nose for the privilege of not ever being able to file for unemployment benefits or sick pay.

Better not fail, kids!

I simply don’t buy this shiny new paradigm, that we’ll all meant to job-hop on a second’s notice, with whatever shiny new skills we’ve just acquired (at our own expense, natch!), while corporate fat-cats suck up increasingly huge salaries and the middle class and below, often those without the shiny skills and degrees to do the job-tap-dance, falls deeper into debt and despair.

Some people are really lousy at running their own business!

They’re lazy or undisciplined or not very well educated or have a million distractions or (imagine this!) other interests beyond working 24/7…so a job that is defined and waiting for them on Monday mornings (or Sunday afternoons, whatever) is just the ticket.

Millions of people are simply not at all suited to waking up alone in their home, figuring out exactly what is necessary to:

find clients; please clients; complete excellent work on schedule, never missing a deadline (hello, people and their families get sick!); revising the project as needed; invoicing it; getting paid promptly; finding new clients….Rinse and repeat!

I grew up in a family where no one ever had a paycheck, pension, sick days, paid vacation days. We were all freelance creatives, working in print, film and television. So I’ve lived for decades the life of the self-employed (but entrepreneur sounds so much sexier, doesn’t it?) and it is really not nearly as cool or free or carefree as the cube-bound fantasize.

This, from Tom Friedman in The New York Times:

This is precisely why LinkedIn’s founder, Reid Garrett Hoffman, one of the premier starter-uppers in Silicon Valley…has a book coming out after New Year called “The Start-Up of You,” co-authored with Ben Casnocha. Its subtitle could easily be: “Hey, recent graduates! Hey, 35-year-old midcareer professional! Here’s how you build your career today.”

Hoffman argues that professionals need an entirely new mind-set and skill set to compete. “The old paradigm of climb up a stable career ladder is dead and gone,” he said to me. “No career is a sure thing anymore. The uncertain, rapidly changing conditions in which entrepreneurs start companies is what it’s now like for all of us fashioning a career. Therefore you should approach career strategy the same way an entrepreneur approaches starting a business.”

To begin with, Hoffman says, that means ditching a grand life plan. Entrepreneurs don’t write a 100-page business plan and execute it one time; they’re always experimenting and adapting based on what they learn.

It also means using your network to pull in information and intelligence about where the growth opportunities are — and then investing in yourself to build skills that will allow you to take advantage of those opportunities. Hoffman adds: “You can’t just say, ‘I have a college degree, I have a right to a job, now someone else should figure out how to hire and train me.’ ” You have to know which industries are working and what is happening inside them and then “find a way to add value in a way no one else can. For entrepreneurs it’s differentiate or die — that now goes for all of us.”

Finally, you have to strengthen the muscles of resilience. “You may have seen the news that [the] online radio service Pandora went public the other week,” Hoffman said. “What’s lesser known is that in the early days [the founder] pitched his idea more than 300 times to V.C.’s with no luck.”

Don’t get me wrong.

I am all for independence and self-reliance. I have zero tolerance for people unable, on a decent income, to save money, who have no idea of their finances.

But, you know, there’s no VC out there funding my work. Ever. “The muscles of resilience” are meaningless without, say, six months’ living expenses sitting in your bank account at all times, because many of us will need months, if not years, to find a new full-time job or get the cool new gig we’ve invented into the black. Not everyone has the financial resources to boot-strap.

What if (we have no kids or dependent family members) you are already saddled by the multiple financial needs of others? There’s no one-size-fits-all here.

This growing demand — sanctioned here by a columnist with a six-figure income — that every worker be all-nimble-all-the-time — with zero help or investment on the part of those whose corporate profits will only grow as a result? This doesn’t work for me.

11 thoughts on “We’re Actually Not All Entrepreneurs

  1. theteachingwhore

    I was thinking some similar things the other day. Thank you! This entrepreneur trend often seems to me just another way of working all the time. I don’t want to work all the time! I have bees to keep, trash books to read, places to visit, friends and family to sit around drinking with and shooting the shit with…. I have always worked and enjoy it, but I know there are aspects of it, like you mentioned, that I don’t want to spend my time on. Really good post–thanks.

    1. Thanks!

      The fetishization of work is deeply American. I enjoy what I do for a living, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing I enjoy or want to do. Working for yourself can be insanely time-consuming, despite what people hope for.

  2. I have two jobs. One is with a small business – very small. 5 employees small. The 2nd job is also with a small company, but there are 25 employees. I handle the payables, and I see the size of the check we write to the health insurance company. Health insurance isn’t cheap for anyone – employers, employees or unemployed individuals.

    The gripes of profits are waning on me. I want to know where the outrage is for the movie corporations. Seems most are frustrated with banks, insurance companies, telecom companies, etc. And yet Harry Potter pulled in 168.55 million this weekend. (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-31749_162-20080311-10391698.html)

    We all just need to live within our means. It sounds trite and simplistic, but it is true. Same is true for losing weight and getting in shape – it takes eating less and exercising more. Simple, yet folks struggle get it done.

  3. Okay, I am feeling bad. Maybe I misread the post. My apologies if I came across as rude. That was not my intent. Being an entrepreneur is not for everyone. The time and work involved is excessive. Though one need not be an entrepreneur to be a workaholic – staying late, always trying to be the best, etc.

    I don’t strive to be my own boss, in part, because I don’t want to be ‘on call’ all the time. But, to live a comfortable life, I do have to dig in and work hard.

  4. As someone who comes from a family of entrepreneurs and the self-employed, I can definitely appreciate this post. While it does push the “good ole’ American dream,” being a business owner is definitely not what people think of. It’s not “being your own boss” and “work on your own time,” especially not when you have employees counting on you. I definitely enjoy my corporate job and the stability that comes with it.

    1. Thanks for weighing in.

      I wish there were more ways to have a useful dialogue between those who fantasize about freedom from a FT job working for someone else, and those who do it every day on their own — without having to learn the hard way. I bring a fairly ferocious work ethic (without which I would starve); I hired a fresh grad to help me promote my book, (from a VERY fancy grad school) who lasted….2.5 hours. Get serious! It is wearying to try to find help that works as hard as I do on even the most annoyingly mundane details….which they are often spared in a “real” job.

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