We are all self-employed
by Cliff Hakim
Wherever I go, I make a point to notice how people do their work. One day at the grocery store, heading up the dairy aisle to buy a half-gallon of milk, I spotted a clerk stacking yogurt containers. Gingerly, he turned each one so the label was in clear view, then placed one more on top of the first and again turned the label to the front. The display was impeccably orderly and eye-catching, seven rows across and five levels high.
I said to him, “That’s quite a job.” He responded, “Yes, it is. Thanks for noticing.” The yogurt man was relaxed and seemed to accept himself. He liked his job. He brought meaning to it. As I completed my shopping, I reflected on the values he expressed in his work – some were his personal values and some the values of his organization. I also thought about the value of his work to me, the store’s customer, and to his organization, his customer, the buyer of his time and energy and enterprise. And he was, in fact, a “customer” too – treating each container as if it were he who would be buying it.
I was struck that the yogurt man, in taking responsibility for his own satisfaction and passing it on to his customers and his organization, exemplified the attributes of what I call a “self-employed attitude” – the self-knowledge of independence, the confidence of self-leadership, and the collaboration of interdependence. In a sense he was running his own business, joyfully and productively, within a business. In the process he was making meaningful contributions to his organization and to its customers.
A decade ago, as the uncertainty of the American workplace was beginning to accelerate, I was seized by the idea that a new social contract had emerged in our changing world and that as a result we are all self-employed, whether we want to be or not. To help people adjust to the changes, I wrote a book called We Are All Self-Employed (Berrett-Koehler, 1994). Since then workplace uncertainty has accelerated wildly, so my publisher decided to introduce a second edition this fall with a focus on how to take control of your career whether you work inside or outside of an organization.
No matter your title – CEO, salesperson, teacher, manager, engineer, or yogurt man – it is now clear that taking full responsibility for your career is more necessary than ever. Employment is temporary. Guaranteed job security is dead. Leadership is suspect. Financial futures are speculative. Downsizing and restructuring are the norm. No “new” economy will eliminate unemployment. The total number of people unemployed, including discouraged workers who would prefer to work but have stopped looking, exceeds 9.2 million. And Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number of people working part-time because they can’t find full-time work at 4.8 million, up 46 per cent since 2001.
These conditions open up either to a precarious void or, if you take
charge of your work life with a self-employed attitude, an illuminating
space for learning and possibility, honoring your passion and acting on
your purpose to get the work you want or enhance the work you have.
A self-employed attitude is not built on dependence – hoping that others will take care of you or know you better than you know yourself. That’s the old “employed attitude,” which is built on a presumption of loyalty; in this world of workplace insecurity and churning change, such blind loyalty is dead.
Nor is a self-employed attitude built solely on independence. It is not
a permission slip to do whatever you want. Knowing yourself and doing
and achieving to serve yourself is not enough.
As a Unitarian Universalist, I find the self-employed attitude resonant with my faith. I like to think of the Unitarian Universalist faith as germinating from a collaborative, “with” belief that both respects the individual and champions and contributes to all of humankind. This is the opposite from a “for” belief – I work for others, doing mostly what I’m told – that subordinates, homogenizes, and diminishes the human spirit.
Unitarian Universalism honors the independence of each person’s free and responsible search for truth and meaning and thus UUs are self-responsible for their religious journeys. At the same time, one of the theological foundations of liberal religion is interdependence – the belief that it is when self-responsible individuals come together that the holy is summoned; thus we form congregations.
At mine, the UU church in Arlington, Massachusetts, parishioners form committees and contribute their time and expertise to create an inspired and efficient, yet not perfect, volunteer system. Individuals and committees form parts of the interdependent web that respects and utilizes differences and runs and fortifies our church community. Our hearts and voices raise, debate, and mull ideas that, eventually, are crafted into forms that improve the quality of church and community. We rely on the wisdom of members and the alchemy of the group to solve problems and suggest options for development and leadership. For example, I bring my consulting expertise to the committee on ministry of our senior minister, the Rev. Barbara Whittaker-John. The questions I ask and the suggestions I make are guided by my belief that we are all self-employed.
I believe in the power of words. More than twenty years ago, I encountered F. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled and its opening words, “Life is difficult.” These three words transformed my life. About the same time, David, a colleague and customer, sent me a note that said, in just four words, “This world needs you,” a thought that had never occurred to me. Since then I’ve been inspired to help others by passing on this message through writing, counseling, and speaking.
“This world needs you,” can be your call to interdependence in your work. I find that a people experience a call to interdependence as a call to hope, and that as interdependence strengthens fear is weakened. “The nature of fear is that it separates us from the people around us, from ourselves,” says Frank Ostaseski, who, as founding director of The Zen Hospice Project trains a 100-member volunteer staff to form deep bonds with dying patients. “When we can come into contact with this fear without running in the other direction,” he says, “we can make some peace with it.”
Making peace with fear not only removes barriers to interdependence and hope, it looses passion. I find myself inspired by people who express their passion. Each faces the unknown as part of their fabric of self-expression, contribution, and making a living at what is most personally meaningful. Ben Rudnick, songwriter and musician, inspires me this way. He left the corporation that had employed him and the entire world of computer programming four years ago to pursue, music, his passion. Ben has since produced two up-beat CDs for children and their families. His first, Emily’s Songs, named after his daughter, has won the Parents Choice Award. In his second album, Fun and Games, “Jessica’s Song,” especially strikes me. It was written for a seven-year-old girl. Ben strums his guitar and sings, “Jessica, living free – be what you want to be.”
As it is so for Ben, passion or spirit is not in your head, it’s in your heart, and it’s bigger and more productive than left-brain stuff. For ignition, it needs your spark – attention and commitment. The reason to work through your fears – to step out of line and experience your passion – is to do your best work and live a fuller life.
Whether you stack shelves, teach or manage others, or run a business, the world around you will continue to turn up side down and change. And you’ll continue to feel the personal need to grow and to seek new opportunities. To thrive today, you must be like the yogurt man, adopting a self-employed attitude and working with your organization as a self-leader, independently and interdependently, to continually enhance your abilities and your contributions to the whole.
At my church, Barbara Whittaker-Johns works with the congregation as an independent and interdependent contractor. She fills out her own 1099 form! Barbara’s independence fosters stimulating, sometimes controversial, and always thought-provoking sermons. And Barbara exhibits her interdependence as she talks with members, gathers opinions, offers pastoral care, and shares her leadership spirit in collaboration with our community.
In my work I deal every day with people’s struggles about dependence on the organization they work for. Dependent people say, “I have no idea what I would do without my job,” “I’d love to leave, but what else would I do?” and “At least I have a job.” A dependent business owner might say, “I’ll do anything to keep my customers” or “I’ll never find another worker like Mike.” Dependence is common because our culture does a poor job of teaching people that they have alternatives and that they do have power.
The practical and liberating alternative to dependence combines independence with interdependence. You can be your own person and be part of a team. Even though others may be tuned in to a dependence frequency or wired to the beat of someone else’s music, you don’t have to be. You can be your own person and be part of a team.
I know in my gut, after much personal and professional growth and developing my practice and nurturing a family, and after a decade of global flux, that I am fully responsible for my work life. Of course, I’m not only independent, attending solely to my heart’s calling and choices. I’m interdependent, too, collaborating with and contributing to others. Combining the two, I am a self-leader – the onus is on me to imagine, plan, explore, and create the work life that I want. In any economy, I’m the boss of my work life. You are, too, whether you work inside or outside of an organization. Who’s the boss? You’re the boss. You’re in charge of your work life. This is the message of this article and my book.
You’re the boss of discovering and acting on what’s in your
heart. You’re the boss of managing the feelings and tensions that
naturally arise when navigating uncharted territory. You’re the
boss, knowing that you will sometimes clash with your tired belief that
someone else is the boss. You’re the boss, making the choice to
struggle and go beyond your struggle to a self-employed attitude.