Switching from a cushy corporate career to self-employment
By PAUL SMITH
“That must have been a tough decision. . . Why didn’t you just wait another few years and retire first? How’d you finally decide? How did you know that was the right move? Wasn’t it scary? How’d you get started?”
Those are some of the questions I’ve been asked countless times since I left Procter & Gamble in 2013 to follow my dream of being a self-employed author and speaker.
Yes, it was a tough decision. And it was scary. That’s why it took me several months of agonising to finally pull the trigger. So, if you find yourself struggling with a similar decision, then this article is for you.
Below are the criteria I used to make my decision, and my early steps of that journey. I hope you find them helpful on your journey.
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After much soul-searching, I settled on five criteria that could compel me to take the leap. I would only leave for:
1. Work I was truly passionate about
Let’s face it. Not many people actually hate their job, or they wouldn’t work where they do. But I think equally few people really love their job. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. We like our work. We like the people we work with.
But they call it “work” for a reason. If it were fun, we’d call it something else. So, I figured that finding work I was truly passionate about would be a game changer, and worth taking some risk on.
2. Work I could excel at
You’d think if P&G let me stick around for 20 years, through a handful of promotions and a half-dozen relocations, I must have been doing something right. (And hopefully that’s true.) But I had to admit to myself, compared to my peers, I was only average at my job.
And coming to work every day to be average is so very . . . average. Wouldn’t it be better to be in a line of work you can really excel at?
3. Work that makes a real difference
Sure, it sounds cliché. But that’s only because so few of us actually do work that makes a meaningful, positive, and tangible impact on other people. For most of us, our work is what we do to support ourselves and our family.
Making an impact on the outside world is something we might do in our spare time, if we can ever find something called “spare time.” I wanted to make an impact. So, this became my third criteria.
4. A career that could support my family
I wasn’t looking for a hobby or a side job. And I wasn’t looking to run a charity. I had a family of four to support and I needed a real income to do that.
5. An opportunity my wife was comfortable with
Marriage is a partnership, and you don’t make decisions without checking with your partner. So, my last criteria was that my wife supported the decision.
Now, notice what did not make my list: earning more money than I already was, a promotion, a better title, a bigger office, or a better retirement plan.
Not that there’s anything wrong with those things. That’s just not what was important to me at that point in my life and career. So, depending on where you are in life, my criteria might not be sufficient.
But if you’re fortunate enough, like I was, to narrow it down to those five, your decision will be much easier.
So, how did I assess those criteria? Here’s how. . .
First, I ran my own test market. I was neither brave enough (nor stupid enough) to just quit my job without a solid plan.
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No, that’s not nearly as inspiring or romantic as striking out on my own with nothing but a dream. But this wasn’t a Hollywood movie. This was my career and the lives of my family depended on it.
So, I wrote my first book. I worked on it nights and weekends for two and a half years, all while maintaining my day job.
I dedicated one hour a day, and five hours each weekend to it. I found an agent and a publisher, got my book published, and then I waited to see what would happen.
That process answered the first four of my five criteria:
I already knew I would like speaking and training. But I wasn’t sure about the writing part.
And since I knew that I’d spend 75% of my time researching and writing the next book I was working on, if I didn’t love writing, this was going to be a huge mistake.
Writing a book confirmed that I loved writing. In fact, I found myself so impatient for the one hour a night I’d set aside for writing that sometimes I cheated.
I’d sneak in 30 minutes at 6am before I was even out of my pajamas, or squirrel away for a few minutes in a closet somewhere at work over my lunch hour.
If that’s the way you react to getting to spend time in your dream area, you’re on the right path.
I confirmed that I could excel at this job – or at least be better than average. My first book hit No. 1 on Amazon’s Business Communications bestseller list in the first six months.
It’s now in its eighth printing, and is available in seven languages around the world. And the feedback and applause I got at the end of my early keynotes and training events told me I was doing something right there, too.
Compare that with my old job. Nobody gets a standing ovation at the end of a budget meeting.
Making a difference
One of the greatest rewards an author gets for his or her work is to hear from readers. Each week through email, Twitter, Amazon reviews, blog posts, Facebook, or personal visits to the podium after a speech, I get to hear what people like about my book or how they felt after one of my speeches.
And while you would never tire of hearing kind words about your work, what you live for are those moments where you realise you’ve made a life-changing difference for a total stranger.
And that was happening on a regular basis. Again, not the kind of reaction I was getting at my corporate desk.
Support from my family
In the first six months after my first book came out, I was only invited to a single speaking engagement. Gulp! But then, the second invitation came in.
Then the third, and the fourth. By March of 2013 I’d used up all my vacation time for the whole year attending paid speaking engagements.
But that wasn’t enough to convince me. So, I asked for an extended reduced work schedule, and my employer kindly agreed. That meant I got an additional 10% time off a year (25 days) in exchange for a 10% reduction in salary.
By June, I’d used up all that time for speaking engagements. And that was enough to hit my mental criteria. That told me there was the possibility of earning a decent living at this. Perhaps you can give your dream a test drive like I did.
Next, I talked to my wife. In addition to everything above, there were two other things that helped her get comfortable with this crazy idea. One was the two of us going to a financial planner and having him look at our net worth, our needs, and my plans.
He did the math and showed her what would have to happen with my business and our investments for everything to work out okay. And it wasn’t unreasonable. The other thing I did to get her comfortable was to ask her this question,
“What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
Her answer was that nobody would ever buy another copy of my book or hire me to give a speech. In other words, zero income was the worst-case scenario, and that wasn’t that bad.
It wasn’t like I wanted to sink our entire life savings into a dude ranch or a get-rich-quick scheme and we could lose everything. Then I made her this promise:
“Let me work on this for two to three years. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll get my resume out and get a real job again.”
That was the fallback plan and it was a pretty safe one.
The last thing I did was to talk to my dad. Even after all the work above, the truth is, I still didn’t have the courage to go through with it.
So, I wrote my dad a letter and asked for his advice. The letter he wrote me back literally changed my life. But that’s a whole other story you can read about here.
And that’s what it took. In September of 2013, I walked out of P&G and into a new life as a full-time writer and speaker.
And it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I’ve had three books published, two of which have been bestsellers, and am working on the fourth.
And I have a thriving speaking and training business with dozens of amazing clients around the world including Google, Hewlett Packard, Pfizer, Luxottica, Bayer Medical, Children’s Hospital, Progressive Insurance, and the Department of Homeland Security.
So, what’s your dream? What are your decision criteria? And what’s your next step?
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Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Sell with a Story, and Parenting with a Story. To get in touch with him e-mail email@example.com
Reposted with permission on Leaderonomics.com