Making A Case For A Business of One

Most of us work for other people doing work we hate. It makes us weak, dependent & materialistic. So is there an alternative?

black and white image of a crowd climbing stairs on article by Larry G. Maguire

Photo by José Martín Ramírez C on Unsplash

Most of us work for other people doing work we hate. It makes us weak, dependent & materialistic. So is there an alternative?

Why do we work? What is the purpose of work apart from providing us with money to buy stuff we don’t need and pay bills?

Is it possible to be happy and fulfilled in our daily work, or are we destined to despise, yet endure its demands on our lives?

Sure, we need money in our pockets to function within the societal system, but most of us it seems, are dissatisfied and disengaged [1].

Modern society has turned human beings into commodities, resources that can be manipulated for commercial and corporate financial gain. All efforts at making the workplace better have been driven by commerce with one end in mind — to make more money. We are schooled by the system to be pawns for the machine from an early age, and we believe in its validity.

As such, we have become robots, and work has become transactional — a binary arrangement. I’ll give you hours if you give me money is our modus operandi, and it has made us sick. There’s little love in work even for those of us who see our work as vocational because the system has been built for efficiency, not enjoyment.

Surely a life worth living has to be built on something more substantial than merely the prospect of a paycheck, a two week holiday in the sun, a smart home control system, or the freedom gained from paying off a mortgage sometime in the future.

There’s got to be something more to life than the constant battle with traffic and the farming out of our children to the care of others while we work our asses off. There has to be a more significant life experience on offer beyond the subordination of our most profound need for meaning to the demands of bosses and their corporate overseers. But for most of us in western culture, this is how life plays out.

So I have been taking a look at our current predominant thinking about work. I want to present an argument for self-employment over direct employment as a means to find meaning and purpose to life. And I propose that through the operation of a business of one, we can break out of the self-imposed prison of the modern working environment.

Consider this — most people work for other people. 85% of working citizens within the OECD group of countries are directly employed vs 15% self-employed [2]. From the data, it is interesting to note that for countries who are long-standing members of the OECD, self-employment rates are lowest. In contrast, Columbia, for example, who are relatively new members of the OECD, have a 50/50 split. This says to me that the longer exposed a country is to the manipulation of international markets, the more open to global trends and the weaker their economy subsequently becomes.

OECD Self-employment figures 2019

OECD self-employed vs directly employed rates 2018

Now consider an alternative.

Imagine a nation’s economy supported by a substantial number of its working population operating small and medium businesses, interdependent and cooperative. Then, the majority of the remainder working under their employment, and the rest in civil service roles. In the event of a global economic downturn or even collapse, would that country not be better equipped to withstand the correction?

Yes, it’s an idealistic notion, but it stands to reason. At a business level, I would prefer to have many small local customers, people I knew well, rather than a handful of large customers. In the first scenario, if one or two of my customers’ businesses fail, my business will not be too severely affected. In the latter case, say a big player went bang, I would likely go down hard. My real-world business experience has actually played out this way.

However, the greed of commercial enterprise is too strong for our economy to be any other way. It is built on the combination of; a) the capitalist ideal of direct competition — survival of the fittest and the pursuit of more at the expense of those who are weaker, and, b) the human need to prostrate ourselves those we see as superior.

Governments have become overrun by corporations, and corrupt politicians make deals at our expense and their gain. They are willing to carve up our planet, pollute it, and drop bombs on people for the sake of profit, then disguise all of this with propaganda. It is an insane game where ordinary people are ultimately set up to lose. However, we are not absolved of accountability in the insanity.

We have become accustomed to bright shiny things and have developed a reluctance to give them up. We have been too well-schooled it seems, and readily accept a comfortable prison than the discomfort of freedom. Like a well-fed Christmas turkey, we don’t know we’ve been duped until Christmas Eve rolls around and it’s too late.

The overwhelming and undeniable truth is that large international corporations make nations and their people dependent and weak, and we, the people, cooperate in that. Materially, you may argue we are better off, and that might be true. However, not everyone is, and besides, what are we giving up on a humanitarian level in exchange for this material wealth?

Anxiety and depression are on the increase, and I believe this is symptomatic of a broken and dysfunctional population — one that subjugates itself to the will of a minority. And like an alcoholic who knows he should stop drinking and can’t, we replicate our mistakes and train our children to become dependent participants in this way of life too.

“This is the real secret of life; to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realise it is play…”

Alan Watts | Philosopher

Everyone Can’t Be Self-Employed

A common argument I hear regarding the merits of direct over self-employment is that not everyone can be self-employed. The entrepreneurial spirit, like creativity, is apparently reserved for the exalted few. The popular narrative says that you are built for entrepreneurship or you’re not. Well, I don’t accept that.

The concept of entrepreneurism has been hijacked by materialistic, capitalist vultures, and those who follow its ideals. The idea that the free market, driven by the motivation to profit is the best way to organise and distribute goods and services is flawed. I believe the term needs to be taken back and redefined by small local enterprises and businesses of one who are committed to creativity, art, and community before profit.

Because you see, deep down, every single one of us craves autonomy and the ability to direct our own lives. We desire to make things others value, and to feel the freedom to work to our own agenda. It has been my experience that working for yourself allows this under certain conditions. Greater job satisfaction and overall happiness are achievable too, and most empirical studies support this idea [3]

True self-direction and autonomy are not possible within a corporate structure which requires you to play within the narrow scope of its rules. This means for many of us; we have to work crazy hours, spend hardly any time with our families and leave our kids in childcare while we work jobs we don’t like. Corporate HR might talk the talk concerning work-life balance, etc., but in truth, what they actually want from you is very different from what they say they want [4]. And so the conditioning of mass swathes of people towards direct employment continues at pace.

“The days you work are the best days”

Georgia O’Keeffe | Artist

The truth is that our indoctrination in the contemporary concept of work began at an early age through education. The system is designed to sculpt the minds of our young people to a workforce mentality. Upon this, governments can raise funds for infrastructure projects from international banks based on that country’s future ability to produce. So our compliance is necessary for the worldwide capitalist machine to keep moving. Following our innate curiosity through a self-directed creative career such as artist, sportsperson, writer etc. is not broadly encouraged.

As such, I would strongly argue that our propensity to comply, our need to find a job, to rely on others for our livelihood, is a conditioned response and not a natural consequence of human nature. So most of us choose safety and apparent predictability of a job over following our innate curiosity. And so, taking direct employment, although important in the initial stages of skill development, leaves us exposed to the vagaries of the market. The rise and fall of international markets dictate our lot.

Self-employment, on the other hand, places the power to direct our futures mainly in our own hands.

“Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else”

J.M. Barrie | Author

Losing The Love of Work

I’ve been in business for myself at various levels since I was 25 or so. Even before leaping directly into self-employment, I felt self-employed.

Know what I mean?

I felt the importance of personal responsibility and of the need to give the best I could as often as possible. Not because I wanted to impress, but rather because I enjoyed the challenge. Of course, I didn’t always create the best results. But on balance, it seems to me that the standards I brought were still at least a little better than most others with whom I worked. Now, this wasn’t hard given a working environment where most guys just did enough to blend into the background. They took little pride in their work as far as I could see.

Truthfully though, I had no intention of standing out. I am fundamentally introverted and would much rather stand in the corner of the room unnoticed than being in the centre. It was the work I was interested in. I enjoyed it. At 17 years of age, it gave me a sense of purpose and direction even though I didn’t want to do it initially. On reflection, it was a case of attitude to work and application of intent that made me different, something I believe I have retained.

“The job is what you do when you are told what to do. The job is showing up at the factory, following instructions, meeting spec, and being managed… Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it.”

Seth Godin | Author & Entrepreneur

So despite my introversion, I stood out. Managers noticed, I was promoted and continued to acquire essential skills. After a couple of years, I began to outgrow the company and decided I should do my own thing. Working for other people just wasn’t going to satisfy me long term.

The freedom I felt from taking that first step to self-employment was liberating, but through the lure of blind ambition, that freedom I gained would be lost. As I recently discovered through work by Peter Warr at the University of Sheffield [5], the self-employed tend to lose the love of their work when responsibility for employees begin to take hold. This was my experience back in the bad old days of 2007 to 2014.

Subsequently, today, I believe in the complete integrity of businesses of one. A business of one, owned and operated by you, has the ability to give you the means to live a materially comfortable life. And critically, the psychological means to find release from the bastards who would have you do their bidding. Yes, ok, that’s a little dramatic, but the reality is that large companies don’t really care about you, they care about your productivity — you are just a number. And when the day arrives when you no longer serve their interests, you’ll be gone. If you don’t already realise this, then it’s time to wake up.

Finding Meaning Through Work

Many people really enjoy their work. They manage to find an organisation where they can express their most authentic self — I certainly can’t deny that. For example; my wife is a hospice nurse and loves going into work. She deals with grief-stricken people almost daily so some might ask; what is there to enjoy about that? She has shitty days like the rest of us, but on the whole, she seems to get enormous gratification from caring for people. I have great admiration for her dedication.

I enjoy my work also, the stuff I do for money I mean. I like working with my hands, making things, solving problems. I guess that it’s the figuring out of things, the problem solving that I enjoy most, and have enjoyed it since I was a kid. I’m over 30 years at it now (not including a short break when I did fuck all except stare out my kitchen window), so most of what I do is automatic. It is organic, although I do need to be with it to get a good result. If I let my mind wander, I’ll mess something up or lose half a finger, so my attention is required.

“All happiness depends on courage and work”

Honoré de Balzac | Playwright

Although I used to, I no longer classify daily work as a hassle. I do it for money, but I enjoy it immensely too. When I’m doing it, I’m not thinking about money — I’m focused on the task, or I’m planning what to do next. Writing is the same; it’s just nobody pays me for it. My daily work is easy because I’ve been doing it for so long. These days I just need to set a plan and start, then something else takes over.

On the other hand, writing, albeit more straightforward than it was ten years ago, is more taxing on me. When I write, I’m searching for a pattern and a flow; it needs to read well on the page. It’s like drawing — same process, different medium. So when I write I’m exploring possibilities, I’m drawn in, engaged and curious. I want to know what I know, and I want to tell it. It’s the art of work in the most real sense.

If I think about the work I do, I find I’m not driven to succeed in any way. I fantasise about writing and selling books and making money from that, but it’s not a do or die thing — it’s an exploration. I’m relaxed about the work I do, but I’m also intense, engaged and intent on bringing out the best I can, just like I have always been. I think that’s important regardless of whether we work for ourselves or others. On the whole, however, I regard working for others as a stepping stone to self-employment rather than an end unto itself.

These days, as I occasionally navigate my way through bumper to bumper traffic on Dublin’s M50, I feel very grateful that I no longer have to tackle that challenge and similar ones every day. I suppose people who do endure it, somehow find a way to make peace with it, or maybe not. As I consider it, I don’t know which is worse; remaining in what we see is an unfulfilling and ultimately destructive way of life — raging against it, or denying its reality while passively kidding ourselves that the tomorrow will be better.

And as I sit here tip-tapping this article, it appears so blatantly evident that there is no future time to which I can look forward. My life is continually shaped by what I do now, and now is all I have. It’s the only place I can ever exist and be effective. There is no future better version of me towards which I must aspire and work. All of that is simply an idea in my mind. Therefore, to spend time planning and dreaming of a future that never gets here is a waste of my life. It is equally a waste of my life to deny my discomfort and unhappiness.

So I am left with little choice; if I feel unhappy about my current life and work experience, then I must change it, and I can only change it now. So any notion of putting things off until next week, month or year until the moment is right, is foolish to me. I must take some action, no matter how small, right now, then change will happen.

So with daily work, then it must be the same. Be self-directed, self-reliant and self-motivated towards doing work that fulfils. Spend some time learning the ropes, but once that’s done, get out and do your own thing. Build a business of one. It will be difficult and challenging — growth tends to be like that — so suck it up.

References

  1. Gallup, I. (2019). Majority of U.S. Employees Not Engaged Despite Gains in 2014. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/181289/majority-employees-not-engaged-despite-gains-2014.aspx

  2. Employment — Self-employment rate — OECD Data. (2019). Retrieved from https://data.oecd.org/emp/self-employment-rate.htm

  3. Lange, T. (2009). Job satisfaction and self-employment: autonomy or personality?. Small Business Economics, 38(2), 165–177. doi: 10.1007/s11187–009–9249–8

  4. Grant Halvorson, H. (2019). How To Give Employees A Sense of Autonomy (When You Are Really Calling The Shots). Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/heidigranthalvorson/2011/09/15/how-to-give-employees-a-sense-of-autonomy-when-you-are-really-calling-the-shots

  5. Warr, P. (2018). Self-employment, personal values, and varieties of happiness–unhappiness. Journal Of Occupational Health Psychology, 23(3), 388–401. doi: 10.1037/ocp0000095

Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters

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