From “what can I do” to creating your own work


Creating work for yourself is easy. Creating work that pays you regularly, on the other hand, requires a little more effort.

I recall sitting in a roundtable of CEOs — I was the only one, other than the facilitator, there who wasn’t currently running a small to mid-sized company. (I had been a CEO, and was consulting to smaller businesses at the time, and the facilitator invited me to join the group to add my “insights” [such as they were] to the discussion.)

Each of the other players at the table was quite sure that I, who was teaching, consulting, writing, volunteering, etc. (a typical portfolio of things underway) was wrong. “Find one thing and stick to it.” “Follow your passion.”

Passion isn’t enough, although it’s the number one word thrown out there by those advising potential entrepreneurs (remember, starting a not-for-profit or social organization is just as entrepreneurial as is starting a for-profit, “going to take over the world” one — not that any of those CEOs saw any value in the not-for-profit route, either).

What does the market need? — Who’s going to buy it and why? — Do I care enough about this to make it work?

The last of these is passion. All three are required to have an enterprise. (Answer all three and you have a business plan, or at least the key elements of it. Business plans are less about the numbers — the forecasts — and more about the problems, opportunities, etc. of the situation.)

I also recall, earlier in my career, working in a sales organization as a systems engineer. There came one of those afternoons where an account executive came running into the office to announce a big deal he’d just closed. “Party on, dudes!”

I had my required glass of wine in hand to celebrate, and realized I wasn’t at all excited. That client didn’t need a whole whack of new gear; that client needed someone to go in and help them make what they had already work better. That what they had came from a competitor meant no one from this firm would be doing that: it would be like the Toyota dealer fixing a Ford to avoid selling a new Toyota.

To me, that was a signal to change jobs. I didn’t have the required passion for the business (which was all about selling new gear). I was always happy when a client needed something new and we sold it to them, but not when they didn’t need it.

You need to know yourself well enough to know that you, for instance, can’t sell someone something they don’t need.

Choosing, as many recently unemployed executives do, to throw that leaving whack of cash into a franchise “because there’s money to be made in it”, but hating the product — imagine owning a KFC or McDonald’s and loathing the food! — isn’t how you create your own work. (It is how you create your own nightmare.)

I spent part of yesterday watching a professor tear into a graduate student who was defending his thesis. He’d done work suitable for a consulting practice, and was being shredded because he hadn’t treated it like an IT effort. (The student did pass for all that, but it was unpleasant.)

Is he passionate about the subject matter? Yes. Does he have something that can be bought, and a reason why a client might buy it? Pretty much. Whether the market perceives a need remains an open question — and this is something that I, too, think the market desperately needs to focus on and employ.

But there’s been lots of things in history that filled needs that the response was “meh”. Riding on the sidewalk on your Segway, are you? Flying supersonically across to Europe and back to do same-day meetings, are you? Watching laser disc movies, are you?

Even the public sector has its programs that are announced with fanfare and there’s no line to apply for the money, and there’s been no shortage of community organizations that opened … and shut … because of a lack of interest.

That’s why finding work for yourself is actually easier than it looks at first. Your contribution doesn’t have to break a lot of new ground. It just has to offer something somewhat better than what’s out there.

Maybe you’ve a passion for coffee, and your neighbourhood is already littered with coffee houses. No worry: what’s the niche that everyone missed, and are there enough people like you who miss it? If you get that right, there’s room for one more … or the weakest player will end up leaving the field.

Two “just out of school” types in Etobicoke sat down and said “what is it all the other organizations trying to fight for climate change issues are missing” … and built an enterprise educating youth about the science of climate change and the interrelationships in the economy flowing from it. It doesn’t pay a fortune (yet another reason not to have a pile of student debt hanging over your head when you start out) but it does keep them busy and in money, enough to live on.

The bottom line is this: resiliency (personal) is grounded in constantly asking the three questions of “what’s needed?”, “who’ll buy it and why?”, and “am I passionate about it?” in all sorts of situations whether you’re looking to start something or not. Resiliency (community) is grounded in having many vibrant players doing exactly this: as Nicholas Taleb pointed out in his latest book, Antifragile: things that gain from disorder, for any community, the number of restaurant tables tends to stay pretty constant, even though the restaurants themselves come and go.

In other words, there’s lots of opportunity out there, if you’re willing to come at it with an open, active mind.

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