Over the past year, I’ve interviewed and spoken with over 150 self-made entrepreneurs, and — on a weekly basis — I’m faced with answers to the question “What does it take to make it?”
And the answers to this same question might surprise you.
Between being a self-employed freelancer and an Editor for Design*Sponge (specifically my experience heading the Life & Business column), I’m practically forced, on the regular, to explore self-employed success and try to put my finger on exactly what it takes to get there.
This theme has followed me for years, and even extended to last fall where I explored this topic ad nauseum while I prepared my talk for Miami’s Wolfsonian “Making It” conference, and again at Sheridan where I taught during the winter 2015/2016 semester. It’s been asked of me, of my partner, Shawn, and I’ve asked it myself countless times, so I felt the need (?), responsibility (?), desire (?), to get it off my chest and try to put over 575 days into a few paragraphs on the internet that answers the question, “how do you make it?”
No matter the field (I’ve talked with metalsmiths, florists, event planners, PR professionals, lawyers), I’ve found that these six truths, if you will, have blanketed every conversation:
This one goes without saying, so I’ll keep it short and sweet: You have to really want it; you have to be not just willing to work, but often possessed by your desire to work. Ask yourself: Is your craving to work affecting other area of your life? Is it creeping into your thoughts at night? Are you constantly thinking and talking about it? Is it impacting decisions you make? Are you willing to make sacrifices in its name? Do you love it so much that even when you come to hate it, it’s worth it? These are all questions you have to be able to answer “yes” to if you’re going to make it down the arduous road to self-employment.
That said, hard work can sometimes be mistaken for long, all-consuming hours, but some of the most successful people I’ve spoken with talk only about the quality of their hours: working smarter, not necessarily harder — using whatever time you have in the most efficient and productive way possible. Of course, you’ll have to put in time and energy on days and weeks that will feel grueling, and it will be awful some days, but if it’s truly your calling, it won’t feel like work most of the time. Great news is, if you’re steeping in it, some of the work happens in the hours you may view as down-time: coffee with a friend, watching a movie, walking your dog — your philosophy and craving for your goals can and will permeate all areas of your life, whether you notice it or not.
Hands-down, the answer I most commonly received surrounded making sacrifices that others aren’t willing to make — and I don’t just mean sacrifice in the physical sense (i.e. long hours, no weekends off), but emotionally and on a personal level. Where most live for Friday night, you live for the Monday morning. You have to give up a lot of things: control, time, security, fear of putting yourself out there, fear of failure, etc. You have to do more even when you know you can get away with less. You have to work harder than the next guy or gal. And you have to be okay with giving up many comforts and even more fun.
Of course, balance is also a huge component (and burn-out deterrent), but stomaching sacrificing a lot without growing bitter is necessary. In fact, many also said that they don’t view giving up a social life as a complete sacrifice because I also believe that many of these people would rather spend time alone at home than hit the club.
This one goes hand-in-hand with sacrifice, but if you truly work hard enough that you’re sacrificing sleep, weekends, and parties, then you’re bound to become an enigma to some friends and/or family. A lot of people can’t relate to the sometimes obsessive work ethic many entrepreneurs maintain. Even those who work hard at their full-time jobs and are at the top of their game may not be able to relate — and it’s to no discredit on anyone’s end, but simply because the world of making it solo and the world of 9-5 are very different. People with office jobs have challenges you could never wrap your head around and vice-versa, so you should be prepared to be questioned or treated a certain way by people who just may not get it. Some may never understand why you’d rather be at home working than at their party, and it may never be understood by them if they’ve never RSVP’d no for that same reason. Some people just won’t get it, and that’s okay.
Part and parcel of this theme is also taking responsibility for this: take it in stride, expect it to be a given, and realize that it’s not personal. The sooner you can smile and nod and roll with the punches, the easier it will be to respond to and be at peace with people not understanding you. In the wise words of Dr. Seuss, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”
Being criticized isn’t fun — and it’s not meant to be. In the past few years (in both my personal and professional life) I’ve noticed many people’s unwillingness to hear feedback or constructive criticism. Many are quick to go on the defensive and see receiving this feedback on their work, their attitude, their approach etc. as a dig, but I’ve only found that those who seek out, appreciate, and truly listen to feedback will have a far easier time becoming successful.
Never look at your work or your self as too precious; unless you’re truly perfect in every way (which is doubtful), then the only way to improve is to be open to change, which usually — if not always — starts with yourself.
(A while back, I wrote a post on why it’s time to burn your business plan, so you can go read that first if you’d like a more lengthly argument) but in essence, planning is glorified guessing. Sticking to a plan you made on day one ignores the possibility for growth, expansion and exploring new directions, so rather, view them for what they are: loose and totally non-precious predictions. A smart business person knows when to let their experiences guide them to new roads, even if it means detouring from their original course map.
Don’t be a weirdo. In chatting with business owners and students alike, fear of others (tied in with fear of looking stupid) is a huge theme. It’s super important to remember that clients are people too, and — just like you — are trying to accomplish a job. They are not unicorns or meant to be feared. They’re happy if you deliver on time, are polite, and go a bit above and beyond. Be yourself, be kind, be honest, ask questions (even if you fear they might make you sound dumb), and act human. Don’t be a stranger, and don’t be a detective. Don’t guess at what they want or need — just email or call and ask! You’ll realize after a while that it ain’t so bad, and the only way to overcome that initial fear is to face it, time and time again. Smile, ask people about their day, and deliver.
In closing, there’s a lot more than these truths that you’ll undoubtedly learn as you go about your path, but I hope these few nuggets of insight helped! And here’s a summation paragraph for the scroll-happy people out there:
Take on more, even when you think you’ve done enough; Do better when you know you can get away with less; Know when to say “no” and respect your craft; Be willing to trek through the unglamorous stuff for the sake of your dreams.
…and you’re just scratching the surface; you can read all of the D*S Life & Business interviews here.