My friend K is smart, vivacious, funny, driven, talented, passionate, and bubbling over with what the suits of yesteryears called “work ethic.”
One day, K and I spent at least an hour going back and forth about her horrible, shitty, no-good very bad boss — hereafter known only as “Bossypants.”
The Ballad of Bossypants
- Bossypants refuses to pay for services the business needs.
- Bossypants makes unilateral decisions without consulting the team they’ve hired to execute those decisions, who know more about the day-to-day running of the business than Crazypants does.
- Bossypants likes to take rapid freak turns off the project highway, such as demanding my friend choose a new mailing list service the night before sending out a newsletter.
- Bossypants takes advantage of their employees’ desire to do good work in order to get away with chaotic management (at best!).
- Bossypants takes credit for their employees’ ideas — not only to clients and other outsiders, but even inside the company.
- Bossypants does their damnedest to control and intimidate their employees.
Now, is Bossypants a bad boss? Yes, clearly. And Bossypants is hardly special or alone in their particular flavor of self-induced stress-making.
Bossypants is also an excellent example of why employment is such an unholy crapshoot.
The Fundamental Problem with Employment…
…is that somebody else has the power to decide how happy you can be. Make no mistake, bad bosses can ruin lives – often temporarily, but sometimes permanently.
When you’re employed, you’re no longer the captain of your own destiny. Someone else is in control of whether you are allowed to do your best work, to feel good about what you do, to have an impact, to grow professionally and personally.
Yup, I said it: Somebody else is in control. Who? Whoever has the power to make your work and your work life suck. (From here on out, I’ll call that person “your boss” but it could equally be an evil coworker or ignorant client.)
Current emo self-help trends say, “Nobody can make you feel bad without your permission.” But how many happy campers do you know who can totally laugh off the effects of 8 hours a day under a bad boss?
We humans are social creatures, we need other people, and the other people in our lives have tremendous power to affect our feelings. It’s insulting and unrealistic to imply that if hurtful people doing hurtful things hurt us, it’s our fault.
“You Could Improve the Situation”
Okay, I hear you saying, so Bad Boss is Bad. But you can try to change the situation. That’s true. You sure can try. But when your boss is immune to change, how well does that work?
Then, when your suggestion-ballot-writing and helpful hints fail to create the change you desire, you could take things into your own hands and work covertly, on the down low. Engage in a little on-the-job civil disobedience.
But then, as it turns out, your boss’s attitude is making a dishonest person out of you.
How good can you feel about yourself, your work, and your contribution when you’re forced to rely on subversion and trickery to achieve it?
So, change is out, unless you’re lucky. Then once you eliminate change, there are only two well-worn little numbers left: Denial, and quitting.
Denial comes in two forms:
- You can deny that anything’s wrong, that it’s not “that bad,” and justify your decision to stay. Or…
- You can accept defeat, pretend you don’t care about doing good work, check out entirely, talk the talk of somebody who is cynical about working for “the man” but who’s willing to fleece “the man,” if the opportunity presents itself. (Many talk this talk, but few can walk it, not truly.)
And finally, you can quit. Quitting, of course, is the act of ripping yourself away from a huge part of your life – from your work, possibly years of it, and people you’ve spent time with and thought about and maybe even loved a little, from your dreams, your original high expectations, and your trials & triumphs – shredding it to little pieces, and stomping on it. Maybe setting it on fire for good measure.
Do any of these sound healthy to you? Have you done them? How’d that feel?
Pretty Damn Bad, if You Ask Me
Hell, when you combine all the “real” jobs I’ve ever held, I’ve tried ‘em all. And they all sucked. I felt like my heart was being stomped on. I felt like my passion and joie de vivre were being sucked out of my chest through a bendy straw.
Then I’d quit, and I’d try a new job (or, finally, consulting), thinking that the next one would be different. I’d be happier; they’d appreciate me more; I wouldn’t feel the slow withering death of passion that comes from the bad marriage between an employee and her company.
Of course, after the honeymoon period, all bets were off. Each new job sucked – in new and different ways, at least, but nevertheless equally. Each one left me disappointed and angry that the people in charge were so incompetent, that I was hamstrung, that, try as I might, it was if all my hard work — in fact my very existence — didn’t even leave a tiny mark on the institution to which I had so naïvely plead my loyalty for 8+ hours a day.
Do You Have a Good Boss?
Sadly, caring about your work plus bad boss (or even “okay boss”) equals ennui, frustration, even depression. When you care about your work, and you work for a less-than-stellar boss, it’s nigh impossible to show up every day and give your all.
Maybe your boss “isn’t all that bad.” Maybe she “means well.” But you know what? An “okay” boss is a bigger problem than you think. You care about what you do. You want to feel like you’re accomplishing something, and take pride in the results, and share in the rewards.
To do all those things, you need a lot more than a moderate, do-no-bad-or-really-any-good Switzerland of a boss. An okay boss is just as bad as a bad boss, most of the time.
Eliminating a pain isn’t the same as creating joy.
Most Jobs Violate Fundamental Human Needs
Yes, really. Most jobs violate fundamental human needs. I’m not joking and I’m not exaggerating.
We all crave meaning. And we crave meaningful work. We all want to feel like we really exist, like we can really make an impact, like we’re really and truly here. That people really and truly see us, understand us, and appreciate us.
And when our daily work denies us these fundamental needs, we wither. We justify, we deny, and we quit, and we complain, and we look for greener pastures but rarely find them.
Continually doing our best for people who don’t appreciate it hurts almost as much as being thwarted. It’s like we don’t matter. Like we don’t even exist.
And yet despite this, we feel held hostage by our financial needs.
What we need is personal sovereignty.
Personal Sovereignty: What It Is
Personal Sovereignty is the solution.
Personal Sovereignty means you are in control of your destiny. Even the little bit of your destiny that plays out during the work day. When you have personal sovereignty, you’re the one in the driver’s seat.
You’re the one who gets to choose:
- What to work on
- Whom to work with
- Whom to work for
- How to do your work
- When and where to do your work
- Whose feedback to value
You get to pick your teammates and your customers. You get to decide when something is done. You get to choose the problems to tackle. You decide what your work should look like, sound like, feel like, taste like. You choose where to invest the most resources. You choose which days to work – and when. You are free and able to fire customers if you want to or need to.
You are freed from the fear of being fired if you make a mistake, or going broke if you tell a customer or two to eff off. You no longer have to hold your tongue, or keep to the shadows, due to financial tyranny.
Personal Sovereignty means that you’ve created freedom and power for yourself — so you can do your best work and be the best person you can be.
Since 2008, I’ve been working on achieving my own Personal Sovereignty. And by jove, I’ve finally got it. In January 2010, I reached my goal of being able to quit consulting, except for one client I really liked. Now, I do no more consulting at all. I live entirely off the income from products that I chose to create & sell — to people I like.
I get to choose what to work on, what to make, when to do it. I get to see the real impact my work has on the world, right away: When I do great work, I hear about how much my customers love it — customers who use what I make, whose lives I get to touch. Customers who show their love with money.
I answer only to reality: do my customers love this? does it earn more money? make my customers happier? No more do I have to worry about educating stakeholders or arbirtrary checklists, or client budgets, or anything else getting between me and doing my best work. There’s no one I must convince… except the people who actually use & pay for what I make. I have no proposals to write or egos to soothe.
No politicking, in fact, at all.
I have the freedom to do my best work. All the time. And if I don’t do my best work, then I have nobody to blame but myself. There’s nobody in my way any more.
I can do just about anything, now that I am the one who wields the Magical Scepter of Work Decision-Making.
That is Personal Sovereignty. And, unlike all the other jobs I’ve ever held, this one gets better over time.
Personality Sovereignty: How to Get It
First step: Admit you have a problem. Clichéd, but, well, clichés exist for a reason. If you’re justifying & making excuses for your less-than-lovely job situation, or pretending you don’t care, STOP. Excuses don’t help anyone, and they certainly hurt.
You deserve to feel valued, like your work makes a difference, like you are a whole, adult human being. That is not a luxury, that is a fundamental need. End of story.
Next up, the Big Fix… and I can’t tell you what it is for you. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of personal sovereignty. What’s right is what makes you happy.
Maybe you have to be employed (or rely on the kindness of others) to have what truly makes you happy. But then again, maybe you don’t.
Me, I quit. I quit my job, then I quit another job, and then I quit one more and became a consultant. Then I quit consulting, for the precise reason that it was so very much like having a job.
Now I make & sell products, along with my husband and a carefully chosen crew of smart & funny people. We make software together, like Noko and Sweep. We’ve taught programming workshops together, and written ebooks together. My friend Alex and I teach from what we’ve learned earning our livings this way in our class on creating & selling your first paying product.
I get to decide what to work on, when, and how; who to sell to, who to hire. I get to do the cost-benefit analysis for everything I do; I get to buy the things I need, hire the people I need and want. Fire them, too, if I need to.
We have many customers and each one pays a little, so no single customer is too important to lose. No one customer can hold us hostage and force us to do things that don’t fit our vision & our needs. We can simply refund their money and point them in the direction of somebody who fits them better.
I highly recommend making & selling your own products, if you’re a maker by trade or spirit, and love doing a wide variety of things, and like to interact directly with people who use the things you make.
That’s What Made ME Happy.
And if you think it’ll make you happy, too, and you’re really ready for a change — like my friend — and you ache to feel satisfied in your work, to serve the people who pay for and value the end result of your work (not your boss, but your customers), then you should seriously consider shipping and selling your first product.
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