Managing Fear as an Independent

One of the issues we face when we choose, or by no choice at all, are thrust from the comfort of our dead-end jobs, is fear.  This is especially true now, since the fear du jour that the media has lactched onto is the ECONOMY … the big, bad, scary and broken ECONOMY…

There is no question that there is a lot of pain out there, and I suppose we should be afraid, very afraid — after all, just this morning I saw an article about the Sacramento Tent City just up the road a few hundred miles as evidence that we are all in deep trouble.  And we are, I’m sure, but at any given moment we have a choice of what to think about, how to feel, and what filter we will put on to view the world around us, and it doesn’t help to have a constant stream of bad news about the economy to supplement our own internal dialog, which is likely distracting enough.

For me, because I am paid when I deliver technical services, and because I charge for my time on an hourly basis, I rely on an ongoing need that is expressed by my clients.  Naturally, that need comes and goes in an ebb and flow, which translates to lots of work, followed by less work, and this goes on and on this way, but I am sometimes stuck in one of two mental modes that form the outlook for my personal finances :

1. If I am flush with work, then I have little to worry about financially, but I sometimes feel overwhelmed and trapped by the work itself.  It helps slightly to remind myself of the Sacramento Tent City and other evidence of pain around me that I am not feeling, and it’s quite true that there are people that have much worse problems than “too much work”, but that doesn’t change my mindset, and it doesn’t help me to behave any differently.

2. If the work drops off, I feel an initial sense of freedom, but that is short-lived, because little time goes by before I start projecting finances outward a few weeks or month, and wonder if the flow of work and money will suddenly stop.  Thus, the fear.

I don’t allow comments in this Blog, becuase I view it more as a journal, but I can hear you saying “What an idiot!”  and you are quite right.  But how to change that thought pattern?  How do we drive back the fear, and spend our mental energy doing creative and healthy things instead of projecting outward events that do not and cannot yet exist?

Maybe it starts with refusing to  listen to the endless stream of media that assaults us about the ECONOMY, and other BIG FEARS.  That’s a start, I suppose.  But what about analysis — those of us that are inclined toward studying a problem might choose to spend some hours focused on previous patterns of ebb and flow.  Is the work cyclical?

I had a good breakfast today with a data center manager from a few years back who must be described as brilliant on a lot of levels, and this came up because it has been a topic of conversation with me lately, and he pointed out that much can be learned by assiduous tracking.  Find out, for instance, how much money you need each month or so, and enter other criteria, such as future jobs that are scheduled, etc. and simply look at where you are each week against that need.

This strikes me as a good idea — and I do use a very good time keeping service, but I realize that I am only realizing half the benefit if I don’t run a report once in a while to see how things are actually going.

We spend so much time heads-down, pressing onward, that we lose the view that we need to keep ourselves healthy — the large view.  Salespeople seem to have that down, with their “Pipelines” , outlooks and plans.  Engineers generally don’t care about such things, but when you own a consulting company, alas, you are no longer just an engineer.

The Perils of Working Independence

For most of my adult life I have held what you might consider unconventional jobs.  Stonemason’s apprentice, framing carpenter (not so unconventional there, I suppose), Fisheries Technician for New York State, Bering Sea Commercial Fishing, Encyclopedia Salesman (the low, low point), and so it was with some trepidation that I took the closest thing to a corporate job at Exodus Communications in 2000 in Orange County, CA, mainly because my wife was pregnant with our first son, and because we were moving to a part of the country where the real estate was so ridiculously expensive that I could not conceive of making the kind of money to pay off a mortage of that magnitude without something that resembled a “safety net”, as it were.

We all know what happened to those dreams that those of us in IT hoped for when we took such jobs in 2000 — exploding bubbles, crashing, burning, Chapter 11.  And yet I managed to hold on to that job through two successive purchases, the last by a PoDunk upstart from St. Louis who had lawyers clever enough to leverage the real estate under the data centers themselves to buy the company with, for pennies on the dollar, and beating out XO and Gores at the same time, only to shock us all and actually turn the company around in the successive couple of years as the Tech Calamity eased and grew real legs, but more quietly.

It was my own personal crash and burn that did me in after seven  and a half years as a “Senior Network Engineer” there.  It was lack of sleep, really.  I worked from Friday night to Tuesday morning, 7PM to 7AM every one of those three days, but because I had a bunch of little kids, I didn’t sleep during that time, and so by Tuesday morning, I had literally slept 6 hours over the three days.  Needless to say, I was a babbling fool on those Tuesday mornings, and probably slowly dying.  I had done that for about four years, but enough was enough, and so after a silly mechanical error dumped 25,000 gallons of diesel in the parking lot on my watch, and well as a few others, we were called to the “conference call” — and when do you suppose that took place?  On Tuesday morning, of course!.

It wasn’t long into the call before my friend Shane — the only one of us engineers who had the ambition to climb the rickety thing that passed as a “corporate ladder”  and  who was acting as a manager on the call, essentially to shield us from the shadowy figures from above — was frantically trying to figure out how to hang me up from the conference, so deeply was I digging our graves with my wide-eyed and earnest babbling over the phone.

I sure told ’em, all right.

So I and the other best damned engineer they had in the data center, or at least the other guy who truly gave a shit,  became perfect candidates for them to dispose of — mainly,  I suppose, because we made way more than their new business model called for, and also because it was a convient time to get rid of the “Prima Donna’s” or whatever the equivalent slang term might be on the banks of the Mississippi.

Of course it was a rough first year, but I held out and refused four job offers in quick succession, and finally found my legs as a truly independent contractor/business owner after about fourteen months of struggle.  Since then my life has been … completely different — to use a term that is 100% accurate, since emotive descriptions might be unduly influenced by how I feel at the moment, which is mostly … tired.

The issues are many, and since it took me this long to create the background for the piece, the idea will be finished in a second post, perhaps tomorrow.  Suffice it to say, in a quick sentence, that when you are the only master of your Time, it’s possible for the Work to never end. Or to put it another way, it’s entirely possible to avoid every waking moment of your life in favor of the Work, since it is always there, and you and no one else owns it.  The smart and courageous learn to outsource some of it, and it is only now that I am starting to figure out how to do that, and only in limited quantities.


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It’s about Time …

I suppose we all eventually get to the point at which we need to produce and deliver, instead of take from the world.  I have long chastised myself for not producing with the generosity of someone like my father who wrote every day of his adult life, until the very day he died.

I am at that point now — and what is it, that drives us there?  Mortality, perhaps?  Children, maybe – the desire to leave something behind, for them, because you know that you will never have time to explain yourself fully to them.   Not that it matters, so long as the output is created and stored in a place that may outlast this mortal coil, as it were.

And so what is the point?  To add to the din, to express oneself, for therapy as much as anything, but also because we can.  It’s the job of the artist to create art — everything else that happens after that has little to do with the creator.

The trick is to spend the precious time to create something worth reading, and esepcially these days, something that we have time to read.  Therefore, brevity above all.