I recently had the opportunity to visit the IT department I worked at for my last “real” job. It was nice to catch up with old friends, see the new building they had moved into and see people’s quizzical expressions as they tried to place a name to my face as I passed them in the hallway.
I answered the “What are you doing now?” question about a dozen times. And as I redirected with the “What about you?” auto response I was surprised that the answer nine times out of ten was a variation of “The same damn thing I was doing when you left four years ago.”
This is a company that has several people employed comfortably into their second decade of service and many into their third. The modern notions of “you change jobs every few years” seem to be lost here. It was as if this place was the technology equivalent of Groundhog Day where no one is allowed to do anything different than the day (or years) before. My former high-school-guidance-counselor-informed-self would have seen this as a positive, as a place that I would be foolish for leaving, but as I drove away I had an unsettled feeling that took me some time to identify the cause of.
A Collision of Values
It wasn’t until later when I was listening to a sermon that I understood the reason for my unsettledness. The pastor was giving a point about core values and that when you come into contact with something that contradicts those values there is a dissonance. This immediately reminded me of my drive home and I realized that since leaving that job I have a new set of core values when it comes to work.
I told my wife that my old job was vacant but there was no way I would entertain the idea of going back. Mostly because I am entirely happy not having to wear khaki’s and a collared shirt every day, but also for several other reasons. I know now that the majority of the “work” I did at my old job was absolutely pointless and as a result I was a pretty lazy worker.
I wasn’t motivated in the least by “the company” so I would do the absolute minimum to get by and not get noticed. I remember when I left one former coworker told me “But, you’re one of our superstars!” and that may have been true for the first year or two of my employment when I thought my income and responsibility would increase linearly with my continued effort, but as the annual reviews came and went with no deviation to them no matter how much effort I showed, and the raises stayed consistently low, I became disenchanted with the entire scene.
Towards the end of my employment I would show up to work a little before 9:00, check my email, then take a coffee break and sometimes a second breakfast taco break to chat with coworkers. I’d get back to my desk to check email again, and maybe do an hour of work until it was time to go to lunch. I’d take it easy coming back from lunch, work a little maybe go to a meeting where I would sit in the back not paying attention, then take an afternoon break. Then I would put off starting anything new until the next day and watch the clock until a sufficient number of superiors had left as to not be noticed leaving a little after 5:00. Looking back now I’m astonished I wasn’t fired. But, that’s what the culture allowed, and there was little to no accountability.
The Reality of Being a Self Employed Freelancer
Contrast my lackluster slacker attitude with the reality of being a self employed freelancer daily confronted with the “You don’t work – you don’t eat” cycle of feast and famine. In my new reality I don’t have time to take breaks, or if I take a break then why even be “at work”? If I need a break I just stop working. I don’t have time for pointless meetings, and I certainly don’t have time for doing paperwork only to justify someone else’s pitiful job title (read: Business Analyst). It’s just not worth it.
So I came up with a list of my core work values to use to size up with any work opportunity in the future. I don’t say “job” here because I consider myself blissfully unemployable.
My Core Work Values
1. Location Independent
My wife and I are currently designing our life around the ability to live anywhere so having to keep hours at an office doesn’t match my values. At my former job I had to sit at my desk until 6:00 p.m. “In case something went wrong” and it would grate on me every time I heard that explanation. Any fix I would apply in person could have been done remotely. The management mentality was an outdated approach. I don’t think this is being elitist either – more and more jobs are becoming telecommute or location independent.
2. Time Independent
Related to #1, I don’t like having a time box to work in. Life happens and not every day looks the same. I want work to fit around my life, not the other way around. If one day I need to spend the morning caring for my kids, or driving my grandfather around town taking care of banking stuff (both happened recently) then I want the flexibility to do that without having to ask permission or get clearance.
3. Compensation Based on Performance (Or Equity)
Having traded time for money for too long I know that approach doesn’t scale. I want to spend my time and energy working on things that I have an ownership stake in. It raises the risk a bit (what if no one buys?), but that’s an acceptable risk and it compels me to make a better product. Also, when I worked in an IT department I was often reminded that my job was overhead and wasn’t related to what the company produced. I’m not interested in being overhead. Plus, there are just too many opportunities out on the web to build something new that you have ownership of. Once you see this in action trading time for money isn’t enough anymore.
4. Doesn’t Take Me Away From My Family
No consistent solo travel. I knew IBM consultants that would fly in town on a Sunday night, and fly back home on a Friday afternoon. All of them had families. They made $100,000 per year, but no salary would be worth being away from my family for the bulk of my week.
5. Something I’m Excited About (Make it fun!)
When I was doing client work it was a cycle of: make proposal, win proposal, do work, get approval for work, deliver work. The clients would change, but I started seeing a common thread: My clients had excitement for their projects because they were their own. I found it harder and harder to feign a similar level of excitement. This made me slip back into a ‘punching the clock’ mentality and my motivation went away. Alternatively when I work on my own extensions or sites I can work for hours on end with no lack of motivation or energy.
7. Makes money while I sleep (or am sick)
Recently I took a few days off of work for a holiday weekend. I didn’t think about work or even check email for three days. When I checked back in on Tuesday I was elated to see several new sales over the weekend. Compare this to what felt like pulling teeth to get clients to pay invoices anywhere near Net 30 and there’s no contest. I’m not interested in cajoling for a deposit or final payment to be made. With products they either sell or they don’t.
8. Unlimited vacation
This may sound unrealistic, but I don’t think it is. We plan on having all of our debt paid off as soon as possible, and after that will work on paying off our house. With no debt, and what amounts to 6 months to a year of household expenses in the bank, there is no monetary rush for a paycheck. I will be able to work when I want and take off when I want.
I really enjoy working and get antsy if I haven’t coded for over two days so it’s not like I will be doing nothing. But, I also don’t want to be tied into some corporate policy of vacation time or sick time. The other day I overheard some people talking about time off and one lady said “This year I get one week off, but next year I’ll get two! I’ve been working here for four years.” That statement just made my heart sink. I know that’s the reality for a lot of people, but I wanted to interject and scream “There’s another way!!!” I didn’t, and went along my way, but it solidified in my mind that time off is something that is very important to me.
Figure Out What Is Important To You
Obviously this list isn’t exhaustive and probably applies only to me (hence the “My” in the title), but it is important for everyone to figure out what their core values are when it comes to work. This will make it easier to qualify a work opportunity and know if it is a good fit for you.