Let me ask you a question.
Suppose I told you that my wife, my three children and I, voluntarily climbed atop the roof of our car and sat there while a complete stranger drove the vehicle full speed, in and out of traffic, on the highway.
Now, replace “car” with “raft” and “highway” with “whitewater rapids,” and you’ll have some idea of how we spent the scariest three hours of our vacation in Maine last week (see photo).
I have to confess, it was partly my fault.
I’ll pretty much agree to anything three months out, and so even though Linda warned me in April that these were Class 4 Rapids (I should have suspected something by her use of capitalization, boldface and italics), I figured, “What, 4 out of 10, 4 out of 25 … how bad could it be?”
I’ll tell you how bad. It’s 4 on a 5-point scale.
(Yes, there is a theoretical 6, but this is described by Wikipedia as “beyond the structural capacities and impact ratings of almost all rafting equipment … successful completion of a Class 6 rapid without serious injury or death is widely considered to be a matter of great luck or extreme skill and is considered by some as a suicidal venture.”)
Why someone decided that simulating a water-powered escape from a mountaintop prison while riding an inflatable toy with no seat belts was a good idea for a vacation, I’ll never know. (“Hey, I have a thought, what do you say we all don straightjackets and ride buffalo through the forest?”)
In any case, by the time I realized what was happening, we were in the boat and the first rapid was upon us.
Sensing danger, I quickly flashed back to my comprehensive white-water training course – 10 minutes sitting on a picnic table that morning, while some guy with more body hair than I’ve ever seen on a single human (I’m assuming) brought us up to speed.
I could remember just two of his instructions:
- Always keep two hands on your paddle. At the time, I said, “No problem. I assume you’ll be issuing each of us a third hand, with which to hold on?” (Remarkably, Yeti-Man did not find this funny.)
- When you’re told to paddle, PADDLE!!
And so paddle we did, going forward, backward, left, right, and resting – all on his command. I never understood when or why (I suppose it might have helped if I had opened my eyes); I just waited for the next command and did what I could.
Later, as we ate lunch by the side of the river, I sidled over to our leader and asked the question that had been on my mind all morning: “Why do we have to paddle anyway, given that you’re steering from the back and the water is moving us forward?”
He patiently explained: “When we go through the rapids, we need to be moving faster than the water. Otherwise, we have no control and it takes us wherever it wants to take us. That’s when it gets really dangerous.”
Now that was interesting – and counterintuitive. It’s not so much the speed or bumpiness of the water that’s the problem. It’s losing control.
Evan a Class 2 rapid can hurt you, apparently, if you don’t take deliberate action to steer the boat. Raft. Whatever.
It seems to me that working as a solo professional is a lot like rafting through the rapids. There’s a fair amount of danger, uncertainty and surprise.
And, maybe most of all, there’s a tendency to be distracted by speed and to forget that what really matters is control.
Think about it.
The biggest difference between working for yourself and working for someone else – whether in a two-person company or a two-thousand person company – is control. When you work alone, it’s up to you to steer.
Sure, people with jobs need to work hard, be efficient, coordinate their efforts with coworkers, etc. But that’s mostly about paddling – someone else (generally) is calling out the commands.
As a solo, therefore, you need to pick your head up (often) and make sure you’re on a path that makes sense.
It doesn’t mean you can’t take risks – taking risks is a lot of what makes being a solo professional fun and often profitable. But it does mean that activity, action, speed, effort … paddling, for its own sake, can be a colossal waste of time if you’re moving in the wrong direction.
So here’s what I recommend. Find a way to stop what you’re doing, at least once a month, and make sure that you’re (at least mostly) on track.
Spend half a day out of the office; read things that have nothing to do with your industry; join a group of energetic peers (here’s a good one) and help each other be smart together. Whatever works for you.
Then ponder the big questions of your business, the ones with the most leverage:
Is your ancient web site hurting you? Is all that social media time helping you? Are your prices too low? Are your service descriptions incomprehensible? Have you lost touch with clients, colleagues and others who might refer work to you? You get the idea.
None of this stuff has anything to do with working harder or longer or even more efficiently. It’s all about moving in the right direction.
Because as Mr. Sasquatch observed, losing control is when it gets really dangerous.