The self – employed roller coaster

Are you in it for the ride?

The feast and famine that many freelancers / consultants / small business owners experience causes more stress than any other factor of the self employed life.

We all know the score: You do a lot of business growth activities, you get new business, you get busy delivering what your clients are paying you to do and so you stop the business building activities and then … wham … you’ve gone from feast to famine and have to start all over again.

The frustrating thing is you know you’re doing it but you can’t seem to get off the ride.

People who get stuck in the feast famine cycle are more likely to quit their business and get a job because the emotional toll is just too much.

Experiencing a decent level of success – at the peak of the feast part of the cycle – is a incredibly positive experience. It feels like everything you’ve planned is working out, that you’re winning, that your business is safe.

And then you take your foot off the gas.

Here’s why: Most people find the growth-driving activities in business a bit uncomfortable. Its not what you went into business to do.

Sales and marketing require you to “put yourself out there” in a way that risks judgement. You don’t want anyone to think you’re pushy or to stop liking you.

Also, many growth-driving activities are simply mind-numbingly boring. Keeping your CRM up to date isn’t as exciting as delivering a great job for a client. No-one pays you to do this work and crucially, no-one says “good job”.

Added to this is that the more effort you put into delivering for clients the more intense your emotions become. You’ll be wondering if you’re good enough, reacting to stressful situations and urgent demands and may even start to dislike your clients.

It doesn’t have to be this way

Growth driving activities need to be the highest priorities on your to-do list.

They’re the actions that result in revenue for your business but as we said earlier, they’re not usually what you went into business to do and it’s too easy to fall into the trap of  thinking you’re working on a growth-driving activity when in fact you are not.

Planning posts, outlining, proof reading, sourcing images and pretty much anything else that feels like useful work is not a growth-driving activity.

Finding leads,  planning calls, getting into the zone and whatever else, is not a growth-driving activity.

Talking to prospects and closing deals is the only growth-driving activity.

Growth-driving activities
are those that makes money for your business and, like all essential business activities, if you don’t like doing it or you’re not very good at it, you need to find someone else to do it for you.

There is one enormous factor making everything a whole lot worse


Self-employment and entrepreneurship is a fundamentally lonely, isolating activity. Most people start their business working from home and many never build a team.

This means that there is very little accountability to keep you on track with business growth activities.  If you’ve felt this isolation, then you know it’s impossible to be your own motivational coach. Eventually, the isolation gets to you. You run out of steam and no one is there to fuel you up. You might get intellectually excited about winning a new sale but there’s no one sharing your enthusiasm (posting it on LinkedIn just isn’t the same as someone who cares telling you “well done!”) And more importantly there’s no social penalty for “taking it easy” versus pushing hard to grow.

I just heard this from one of my Twitter buddies:

“I play jazz, which is built in public, and trust me, few people are queuing up to hear an artist “build” on a stage. The majority of the crowd wants hits, tunes they can hum, songs that end after three minutes, experiences that give them what they expect, no surprises.”

It struck me that this is a bit like the difference between running your own business and having a job.

If you run your own business but yearn for the predictable you’ll be constantly anxious about how things are going to work out when all the outcomes depend on you.

It’s one of the reasons why business owners get obsessed with what they’re doing. They can’t switch off, there’s always something to tweak, to try, to test.

How do you know what you’re doing is the right thing?

In one of the many far ranging discussions with my network of business owners we touched on the need for validation when none of your friends or family understand quite why you’re doing this strange thing of working for yourself.

The easiest way to measure success in business is by the profit you make but sometimes that doesn’t seem to bear much relation to the effort you put in and self-doubt can be an intruding presence that often leads to the worst of all business illnesses – comparisonitis. This can be a blight that many business owners fight, not helped by the gloss, tall tales, and downright lies that people tell on social media.

Several studies by economists have shown that social support and accountability can nearly double the motivation and success in many of our endeavours.

That’s why a peer group of people who respect and trust each other is the best ally a business owner can have. People who have been on the ride know what its like. They know what works and what to do when things aren’t working. They’re the people who get you, the people you can riff with, who’ll understand the effect you’re going for and give you a drum beat that will carry you along (I’ve been listening to a lot of Charlie Watts while writing this.)


Autonomy Mastery and Purpose

In his book “Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” Daniel Pink cites studies done at MIT and other universities to come to the conclusion that many entrepreneurs, founders of successful business and those outside the more run of the mill companies are motivated by these three things:

Autonomy — Our desire to be self directed.

Mastery — The urge to get better skills.

Purpose — The desire to do something that has meaning and is important beyond making a profit.

All this brings me back to my jazz player friend and the reason why people who run their own businesses do it. The three minute pop song with a predictable tune and melody may give us an easier life but its not going to satisfy us.

If you really have the desire for Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose you have to be prepared for the roller coaster ride that comes with it. The good news is that when we’re supported by the right people it can be something we learn to appreciate and actually enjoy – a bit like standing on stage and building a tune as you go.

Are you in it for the ride? 

(If you’re struggling with the unpredictability of self-employed life do get in touch. There are many resources here that help and many people who’ve been doing it for a long time who are happy to support you.) 


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