Photo by Liza Highfill
Standing on the pier at my beach I looked into the ocean and saw more than thirty fins spanning at least a mile of water. Dolphins were following a school of fish. I’m sure the fish would have a different perspective on the moment, but I was moved. There was magic in the graceful movement of the dolphins and the way they splashed the water with their tails just for fun.
To the right of me stood an old fisherman who is on the pier every day. He has lost most of his teeth and looks at you through eyes that have turned a pearly shade of blue. He watched the dolphin with me, and then said quietly, “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” Yep. In that moment everybody at the end of the pier become one soul, softly touched by something mystical.
I envied those dolphin. I relished their sense of fun, their day of simple purposes (not porpoises, whoever is trying to make that pun), and the fact that they were all hanging out together. Sometimes, as an owner of a small business, I miss the way my actions used to be interwoven with so many others in the large companies for which I worked.
People often ask me, “Don’t you just LOVE having your own business?” Well, most of the time I do. But sometimes I actually long for the boring meetings where someone who has called in puts you on hold so their music plays through fifteen minutes of the meeting. Or the presentations where everybody makes eye contact as the accountant puts up his forty-fifth PowerPoint slide. I don’t miss the pain of the meeting, but I do miss the eye contact with those who are in pain with you.
Harriet Rubin, author of one of my absolutely favorite books on entrepreneurs called Soloing, provides the best metaphor. She says that becoming an entrepreneur is like stepping out of the chorus line and into the spotlight. And you have to be ready to own it.
I know all literature out there says “leave the rat race and be your own boss.” I like being an entrepreneur, but I liked being a rat as well :). I liked being part of a team. If you are considering leaving your job, but aren’t sure what to do, consider this:
1. People who write books on leaving Corporate America to find their dreams are those who had skills and dreams that didn’t necessarily fit into that environment. You may or may not be that person. It takes as much skill to work with large groups of people and move monoliths as it does to create your own direction and solo company.
2. Working in your own company provides amazing freedom, but it’s equaled by incredible responsibility. Hiring employees, keeping your books straight, finding an office, buying pencils – it’s all your stuff. Yes, you could decide to take a month off, but you will be lucky to take a day off. Every hour on vacation is business lost. I’ve taken three weeks of vacation in eleven years.
3. Happiness is more about who you are than what you do. I’ve loved both sides of the corporate/soloing equation, for totally different reasons. Most of all, I’ve been proud of the work I’ve done, regardless of where I’ve done it.
As the dolphin pod moved on out to sea, I saw one lagging behind the others. He was spraying, splashing his tail, and putting on quite a show – but he was alone. Aha, I thought. There’s the entrepreneur. His life isn’t better, it’s just different. Maybe someday he’ll rejoin the other dolphins, but for today he has his own stage and is making the most of it.
As Harriet Rubin says, “To get a position in the spotlight, you have to show that you belong up there. The spotlight is a whole continent apart from the chorus line. It’s not simply more; it’s Other. In this bizarre place of earth, attention is on you. The more intensely people watch you, the more successful a soloist you will be. Attention is your new home. You’d better get comfortable.”
Yes, the spotlight is a bright, dramatic, sometimes amazing place to be. But when the chorus line is out celebrating after the show, you’re sitting alone reviewing your lines. Not every dolphin can be Flipper, nor does every dolphin want to be. If you have a dream outside the walls of Corporate America, go after them. If you like where you are, then do great work where you are. Wherever you are, enjoy the moment. Splash the water. Let go of fear and frolic. Stay happy.