How to Run the Show

I’m doing an experiment where I’m asking my friends to tell me what skills of mine they admire so I can either tell them how I do it, or do it and give it to them. This is because, as a part of our recent troubles, I have been trying (with varying degrees of success) to convince as many strangers as possible to find value in me and I’m starting to have trouble articulating what that is after so many interactions that are the conversational equivalent of being picked up and put down at a garage sale.

Heina wanted to know how to run your own show.

I feel a little funny answering this one since I’ve been thinking that’s the last skill I have at this point, but the truth is that even if we don’t make it through this round of We’re Fucked, It’s Over, I’ve been doing this on my own for the last three and a half years and I accomplished a lot of what I wanted (move to Oregon, make my own schedule, feel confident in my professional abilities – most of the time), as well as some things I didn’t even know I could do (aid in the professional development of others, pay a living wage, get rid of some debt).

Since the answer is such a complicated knot of experience, education and instinct, I’m just going to write about how I learned how to be my own boss and hopefully that will be insightful. Because there’s no right way to be a boss. There’s lots of wrong ones, and I’ve done that too. But leadership is not a tiny flag they hand you in first grade that you must carry with you always. It’s a responsibility that any of us not only can rise to, but that we have an obligation to strive for in whichever way suits us best. Not for ourselves, but for all the kids like us who probably didn’t get flags or maybe who did and were never given the opportunity to see the diversity of leadership styles and paths that are available to them.

The first business I had was called I’m Hungry and Scared to Go Home. This is actually where I learned to make stubbornness into a commodity. My friends all wanted to go to the convenience store and get ice cream. I very badly wanted not to have to go back to my house. I can’t remember if it’s because we had no money, because I was afraid of my mom, or both, but I was hungry and I needed a way to deal with that immediately. I walked up to one of our neighbors doors and asked if she needed any light bulbs changed or if I could sweep her walk. She told me that she did need a light changed, but that it was too high off the ground and she didn’t want to deal with the home owners insurance if I fell and broke my neck. She gave me $5 to go away. This is probably my most monetarily successful venture to date, both in terms of sunk cost vs. profit as well as the timeline to solvency.

I didn’t hold a regular person job until I went to college. I worked under the table as a house cleaner, a gardener, sign-shop assistant and tutor. One time I was even a background extra on a TV commercial. I learned that work made me feel, for the first time, like I was valuable. There was a one to one correlation between how much I worked and how much money people gave me. Up until I started working, my tenacity, my outgoing personality, and my assertiveness were punished instead of rewarded. In the working world, such that it was for me at that time, I was praised and–more importantly–paid for these skills.

In college, I was in the work-study program, and I learned for the first time that sometimes people just didn’t show up for their shifts. Other students I worked with would frequently not show up to work and not call and there was nothing the college could really do about it. But I lived in a reality where if I didn’t work, I didn’t eat. That had been there from the very first day of my working life. Add to that the feeling working gives me, and there is no way in hell I don’t show up. This became problematic later when my inability to take sick days actually helped exacerbate my horrible burn out, but almost every business owner I know shares this unwillingness to quit for better or for worse.

Success is so frequently the intersection of training and passion. All the different jobs I worked, all the hours I poured in to school, getting up day after day on three hours of sleep, making finances stretch, grocery shopping with a calculator, getting to that professional place and still hating the way that I loved work but work didn’t love me. Hating the way my fellow workers were exploited and mismanaged even as the work itself redeemed so many people, myself included.

At the last job I had before I launched this current venture, I really had enough. We were supposed to protect workers, and we manipulated them. We ground through good people and we used every bureaucratic loophole in the book to promote mediocrity in the interest of not rocking the boat. We failed to engage people’s creative minds, and we punished them when they tried. We were a bastion of paper-shuffling, blame-passing clock punchers. If we had processes, I would say that we made people slaves to it, but we didn’t even have that. Half the time we spent was used up constructing fantastical justifications for why we even existed, rather than going out into the world and showing people. We never kicked our own tires and as a result we were both unprepared and injured when something inevitably exploded. As a result, the executives used lay-offs as a way to balance the books, rather than the strategic restructuring that comes before a massive change in direction.

The one bright spot in my otherwise miserable childhood had been work. I had been useful and valuable and my last job stripped that joy from me as surely and as easily as a chef guts a fish. It’s important for me to recognize that my obsession with being useful is problematic. Ever since I was abandoned by my parents, I have operated on the fallacious assumption that I have to make people like me, or at least tolerate me everywhere I go. My own parents tossed me out. There must be something fundamental about myself, so fundamental, in fact, that it was obvious to them even before I could properly talk, that causes people to leave me, to forget me. Therefore, I will be the most useful person they have ever met. I will be the best, the stickiest, the most apparent human any human could ever be. And I know about this, I’ve said affirmations to myself, both naked and clothed, in every mirror I own. At a certain point, I decided the way to process this grief is to stop feeling bad about how it effects me. 

So, here I am. I have an insatiable need to be useful, that’s helped me collect some pretty necessary skills. I am passionate about work and working, and I have this theory that the key to market domination is to find good people and pay them good money. But I don’t have any money. Which is really my only problem. And I think I can solve that. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the key to being your own boss is to always have one more trick up your sleeve. By which I mean that you have to care about something so hard that you will reach up there and tear off anything you can find if it means one more day living life on your own terms. It’s more of a pathology than a skill when I think about it.