Thoughts on Making a Living

Category: Self-Employment (Page 2 of 2)

Deep Work and Self Education

In his new book, Deep Work, author Cal Newport goes in to detail about why the ability to focus on work that requires deep thought and multiple levels of inquiry has become a competitive edge. No doubt, this type of work has always been relatively rare. However, it is more so these days due to the much discussed proliferation of technologies that nip at your attention like a pack of hyenas trying to pick off the weak in the wildebeest herd. Sadly, in our world, the attention-hyenas have grown fat and don’t even have to give chase. We sit in our chairs and wait for them every morning.

I think Newport’s thesis is correct. The ability, not the time, is actually what is missing. Lots of people say that they just don’t have the time to set aside and think deeply on things that are important to them. However, I don’t need to quote specifics –about the billions who use social media all day long or the people who respond to emails in seconds like it is some lab experiment to grab pellets when the bell rings– to make the point that we are not using the time wisely. (yes, I see the irony in this article… get back to work ūüėČ

Because we have been doing this now for one or two decades, many of us have lost our ability to do the deep work even when we have the time. Stare at a blank document or project plan for twenty minutes, meet the first obstacle, and freeze. Send an email to Fred to see if he got that new data. Text Mary for an update on how the meeting went. Read our “professional” newsfeed for the fourth time this morning, etc. We are all talking about talking about talking. We’re just doing it on new and different platforms.

The ability to think deeply and present new ideas on how to tackle problems is now the rarest of things. I often see this in the board room. The conversation flies around, but nothing is tackled in depth. No one brings deep critical thinking to the table. Every one just brings the latest data, report or presentation. None of it sticks to the walls and becomes deep conversation.

I agree with Newport on career development too. If a person wants to make themselves valuable to themselves or to an organization, they need to develop the ability to go into a quiet room, think deeply on an issue, and come out with either a new option on the issue or deep analysis of which known options are better and actionable. Either output is far more valuable than anyone else is likely to bring to the table.

When one ties this ability with the other rarity of the modern world which is the ability to self-educate, a person will have a formidable set of skills. In fact, I’ll go further. Teaching yourself to A) work deeply and B) self educate¬†is the whole education that most should be seeking. If one develops the discipline and skill to work deeply on any topic and develops the skills to educate themselves with the near-universal amount of knowledge available today, there is no need to predict what comes next. One with these two capabilities doesn’t care. They can analyze any market, make deeply considered choices, and educate themselves to tackle what they choose. If they are wrong, they can start again. They are not one-trick ponies. In other words, strive to be adaptable, not prescient.

Finally, I think this is New Yeoman territory too. Any trade is susceptable to improvement in these skills. Don’t waste time in the truck on Facebook before the next customer call. Read the trade journal and come up with new ideas for your customer. Consider how your invoices and receipts may help you convert more sales. Develop that nagging idea you’ve had for a new specialized tool. Think deeply, turn it into digestable chunks of work and take action.


Charles Bukowski via Brain Pickings,
In a letter to a friend that encouraged him to pursue his art, “You know my old saying,”

‚ÄúSlavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.‚ÄĚ

IMHO, it is not just artists that this applies to. It applies to everyone who would rather work for themselves rather than toil for someone else for a wage that erodes in one form or another over time. It is certainly right for many, but I truly believe that a lot more people are employed than should be. A size-able chunk of the employed workforce owe it to themselves to become self-employed and do greater (or just happier) things to put food on the table.

In another letter via Jay Dougherty, Bukowski writes,

“I have one of two choices–stay in the postoffice and go crazy…or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”

That was Bukowski at age 49. It took him a long time to stop working for someone else and start doing what he was meant to do. It is never too late.

Why Do We Have Increasing Income Inequality?

It is an issue that is all over the news, Increasing Income Inequality or I3. (I just made that I3 up). Normally, it is expressed in terms of the top 1% own 136% of everything or some other statistic like one CEO makes more than the rest of the world combined. It is obviously an issue that so many feel hard done to, but the prescription normally involves a “living wage” or caps on what some can earn or taxing income above certain amounts at confiscatory levels. That’s just pie-fighting. I wish we had more pie makers, especially those who really love to make and eat pie.

Political viewpoints normally determine where one stands on these issues. The Right want free enterprise, but the Left want social justice. However, I would like to frame this issue more in the New Yeoman point of view. What if you got social justice through free enterprise? Who from the Right would want to discourage self-employment? Who on the Left would want to discourage the individual to stand for themselves?

Unfortunately, some would. The corporatists (modern day mercantilists) and the government-firsters are in agreement here. Keep ’em under the thumb, so they are easier to manage.¬†“You don’t have a W-2 slip? What are you a weirdo? Are you evading taxes? No, you cannot get a loan.” (There’s a great book on this topic entitled “The Future and Its Enemies” by Virginia Postrel)

What we have is far too many people who have listened to the decades of “good” advice to “get a good job.” In simple economics, the supply exceeds the demand. What happens when the employee demand exceeds the supply? All other things being the same, wages will go up and I3 will reverse. I can hear the howls of indignation already! “Koch stooge! Hippie! Unfettered Capitalist!” But hear me out.

Yes, I know everyone is not cut out to be self-employed, but that is not what I am talking about. All that is needed is for the most capable to become self-employed. The number needed to hit the exit from employed life would need to be relatively few. The meme of “The War for Talent” should be an indicator that it is a pretty fine balance already and wouldn’t take much to upset it. Remove a few of the best qualified and voila you have a labor shortage. Both in number and productivity. This can be seen in the hi tech fields already. Many coders have taken the leap to self-employment. That shortage means that the ones who are still happy to be employed reap higher wages and benefits too.

Roughly speaking, all other things being the same, each 1 million employees that became self-employed would drop the current unemployment rate by approximately ‚ÖĒ¬†of a percentage point. [Source: USA’s¬†BLS statistics for December 2015.] And that is from a employed work force of nearly 150 million. Surely, we have 1 or 2 million people who would prefer to run their own shop rather than work for Mr. Blatherhard?

The problem is that we as a society have reduced the respect we give to the self-employed. To own one’s business of any type should be held in high regard by everyone. It means that, compared to employees, one has taken more risk and shown more willingness to make it on their own. Yes, I know “no one makes it on their own,” but that is true of everyone, so for those that do become self-employed, still, they are different. And it is not only good for them; it is good for those that do remain employees.

So, how do we get a few million of the employees to remove themselves from the “employed” force? First, we need to set it as a goal for people by holding those who do so in high regard. Parents, teachers, counselors, ¬†I’m looking at you. The employed world you knew is not the one your children are entering. They need more than, “get into the best school you can” and then, “get a job at a blue-chip company.” Second, the thing that stops many is the idea of the bureaucratic hassle of setting up a business, so we should make creating a business so easy that anyone could do it in under an hour. Surely, that should be a goal of government, no?

That’s it. Something that is socially respected and easy to set-up. It is New Kind of Science in its simplicity, but I believe those are the ideas that work best over large populations and time, because they are clear and repeatable. All that is left is excitement and hard work.

Let the New Yeomen take over from there!


General Mattis on Professional Reading

I’m not sure how I missed this conversation about an email sent by General James Mattis, Retired, USMC¬†in 2003 to his subordinates, but I did. The money paragraph:

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for
how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give
me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

I think this is very important and it applies to other professions as well. The military professional obviously has more to lose from an ignorant (in the “not knowing” sense) leader. However, an¬†artisan, electrician, or designer or any other New Yeoman has much to lose as well by not keeping up to date with their profession. Just as importantly, knowing the history of the trade or profession shows professional competence, both inside the trade and to one’s customers.

The emergence of this email apparently created a stir amongst the academics who study war (full disclosure; I am an academic historian as well as a business owner), but they tend to ignore the fact that Mattis was writing to another practitioner about other practitioners. [Ahem. Pardon me while I shoot this guy whilst you get your dataset and independent variable situated.] I think independent business owners are much the same, they are running businesses and know how to filter on the run. The fact that one read  and / or recommended something does not mean that all of its ideas and premises were accepted without reservation.

As Mark Twain said,¬†‚ÄúHistory doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.‚Ä̬†Any New Yeoman that wants to succeed on his own must develop a sense of their industry’s past and have a view on its future. Not only does it make the New Yeoman more confident and resilient, but it is a more satisfying life that helps one feel that they are not just being tossed about on the ocean. With professional reading, you give yourself a compass, a rudder, oars, and the knowledge of how to make a mast and a sail.

Let’s face it. No one in this rat race¬†has time to read, but the best of their respective trades or professions make time to read.


Formal Versus Informal Job Market

Michael Ellsberg makes some excellent points about the “Formal” versus the “Informal” job market and the cost of each. One requires an enormous amount of money and the other requires you take responsibility for yourself.

The informal job market comprises all jobs that are not filled through someone responding to a job advertisement.

In this article on Tim Ferriss’ website (Highly Recommended and his podcasts too), Ellsberg explains how to go about tackling the informal job market and how to make one’s way in the world without following the herd, especially when following the herd will cost you a fortune and still land you in a crappy formal job market. The key for this and all other types of advice is to understand that it rests with you to do the work. The reason that ¬†university, then applications, then job at a big corporation is so alluring to many is that it requires so little thinking and so little real effort. Does it take a lot of time and manual effort to perfect your resume, network your LinkedIn profile, and upload applications to what Keva Dine calls Deep Space Mining? Sure, but it is largely senseless and mind numbing work.

What Ellsberg so clearly lays out is how to decide what it is you want to do, how to develop your skills, how to display your skills, and how to sell your skills. Readers of this blog will recognize some of this from the Seth Godin post a week or so ago.

Well worth a read.

Udacity’s Nanodegree Plus is a Game Changer

A guaranteed job or your money back? What’s to lose for a young person? Take a gap year. Travel and study for your Nanodegree at the same time. Come back to a job. If it doesn’t turn into a job, get your money back ($299 per month), and ¬†join the rest of the drones going to “the best school they can get into.” I’m sure that you’ll really impress that academic-wannabe admissions officer… As long as you and/or your parents cough up $25-$50K¬†a year.

Even if you complete the Udacity course and decide that that type of work is not for you, you have a valuable skill that will help you in university and your future career. For parents, you also get a good look into Junior’s work habits. If your child cannot work through the Nanodegree, what are the chances of them doing well, and finishing university? It is certainly not definitive, but it might it be a good sign, that they will attend 2 years of university, flunk out, and tote $35K worth of un-dischargeable debt around for the next 30 years of their adult life.

Deep Space Mining | Keva Dine‚ĄĘ | LinkedIn

Keva Dine gets this exactly right. I think a lot of people looking for work spend far too much time uploading resumes and cover letters into deep space. Spend more time targeting what it is you want to do, for whom you want to do it, and, specifically, what you would do differently.
While completing those three steps and doing them with commitment and deep thought, one might just find that one’s next boss could be the one doing the thinking and writing. Ironically, this kind of self-knowledge often leads employers to want you more than pandering to their wells-of-despair known as “systems.”

Source: Before You Launch Your Resume Into Deep Space, Read This. | Keva Dine‚ĄĘ | LinkedIn

Seth Godin on Students trained to be Students being Students When Looking for a Job

Seth Godin gets a lot right and I think this is spot on. What schools and universities do mostly these days is teach students to be students. Schools and universities give the impression that all you have to do is be an expert navigator of the system. That was probably true from 1950 to 1999 (and the vestiges of the system are still there, especially in the non-profit, education and government sectors), but in the private sector, more is needed.

What students don’t understand is that they are increasingly being graded on the items that Godin mentions:

Can you show me a history of generous, talented, extraordinary side projects?

Have you ever been so passionate about your work that you’ve gone in through the side door?

Are you an expert at something that actually generates value?

Have you connected with leaders in the field in moments when you weren’t actually looking for a job?

Does your reputation speak for itself?

Where online can I see the trail of magic you regularly create?

Unfortunately, students are too busy navigating byzantine application procedures and primping to be picked to actually spend any time thinking about what is valuable and show-casing it.

Universities’ current value to students is credentialing and signaling. It is what they have used to justify mammoth tuition increases every year for thirty years. What universities don’t understand is that as employers start to notice that the credentials and signals have no there there, they will look for other credentials and signals… like demonstrable mastery of a trade.

Right now, many are graduating from university and then taking a coding courses, design course, etc. and treating it like grad school. Grad schools require you to have a undergraduate degree, these schools do not. How long before students and parents start looking to cut-out the unnecessary part of this process?

The big question is that if you did as Godin proposes in the list above, would you need the signaling and credentials at all? Four years is a long time to learn nothing and expend a ton of money.

Entrepreneurship Is the Solution to Higher Education, Not More College

Great points by Zachary Slayback. We are at the tail-end of the system that says that getting a job is always the right thing to do. Our country needs a generation of entrepreneurs and our young people need pragmatic advice.

Source: Entrepreneurship Is the Solution to Higher Education — Not More College | Zachary Slayback | LinkedIn

As Mike Rowe says, we don’t have too few jobs, we have too few self-employed people.

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