I became self-employed in 2017, after hitting a glass ceiling at the nonprofit job I’d adored for nearly 15 years. On the surface, this move may seem brave. And for me, it was. As a Gen X woman, I grew up in a world where career stability meant working for a company or organization. The longer you stayed, the better. As a 20-year-old in the early nineties, I internalized the idea that switching jobs made an employee look unreliable.
I was lucky enough to love the history museum where I worked as an educator for much of my career, so staying wasn’t just because I was supposed to. I wanted to be there–so much so, that my job had become my identity. It provided my network of friends, my source of fulfillment, and a deep sense of purpose. So for me, the ultimate decision to leave this place of long-standing comfort did not come easily.
When Work Possibility Falls Away, It’s Okay to Be Angry
It took me years to leave my 9-to-5. First, it took about two years to notice that things had changed for me. The sense of possibility I’d experienced for more than a decade had dissipated somehow, so slowly over time it had barely registered along the way. I then spent another year, at least, trying to make things work in new ways.
I tried advocating for strategic initiatives I believed in. I took on new projects and sought out a new supervisor. When those didn’t satisfy my restlessness, I tried appreciating what I had and keeping quiet about the rest. For months, I endeavored to care less about work. My plan was to redirect my true energy into my newfound hobbies instead: Sewing and blogging, here I come!
Let me tell you: As a purpose-driven creator who feels strong emotions, not caring about work simply wasn’t an option. While the extracurricular projects were fun and rewarding, the attempt to pretend work didn’t matter to me was a bust. In the office I was still deeply resentful about all the things I wanted to accomplish, but that had been choked out repeatedly by factors like hierarchy, scarcity, and institutional uncertainty.
At a Colleague’s Work Sendoff, I Became That Girl
Unfortunately by now, my dissatisfaction at work had become impossible to ignore. I have painful memories of a work-sendoff party thrown by a colleague in his home, for a beloved coworker who was leaving to take an impressive new job. While I generally consider myself to be upbeat and supportive, my recollection is that on that particular evening, I’d become that girl, the one who couldn’t stop complaining.
I can see myself now, balancing my party plate and wine. As I relished the to-die-for guacamole, catered from the local burrito mercado, I regaled my fellow revelers with stories of ideas unheard, roadblocks to promotion, and the sidelining of my voice. Even as I was speaking, I could hear how annoying I sounded. But my resentment ran so deep, I couldn’t stop myself.
I’m grateful I was among dear friends that night, but it must have been frustrating for them to hear me rail nonstop. Looking back now, I have compassion for the unhappy woman I was at that party. And in the four years since, self-employment has taught me valuable lessons that I wish she’d had the courage to believe back then.
There are so many, but one of the most important has to do with managing your energy. I’m not saying self-employment is the only way to learn this, or that starting a business is a panacea for work-related depression. But for me, starting a business has turned out to be the best teacher, revealing nuggets of wisdom in four years that I failed to gain in an entire career as an employee.
Caring About Work Is a Superpower
Funny, one of the best books that describes the power of energy is one written for employees, not founders. In Work Like a Boss: A Kick-in-the-Pants Guide to Finding (and Using) Your Power at Work, tech CEO Nancy Lyons makes this case: “Emotional intelligence is a wildly underutilized tool in finding your power at work.”
And yet, for years I felt guilty any time I expressed a strong opinion in a meeting. I’d beat myself up in the following hours, sometimes days. I’d wonder who I was for expressing myself, second-guessing my right to speak up at all, much less strenuously at times.
But what I’ve learned as a business owner is this: The better I’ve become at living out who I am and what matters to me, the calmer my energy is. And the calmer my energy is, the likelier I am to invite and keep opportunity.
And equally important is the truth that my passion–the same strong emotion I once feared–is a critical component in attracting the clients who light me up. I can’t tell you how many times a potential client or collaborator has told me something like, “I like your passion. I’ll have to tell my friend about your work!”
The Energy You Bring Influences the Outcome
Not only can I feel it in my own body when a meeting is going well–yes, even on Zoom calls–but I’ve observed a clear increase in attracting and keeping clients who can sense groundedness during our conversations. Similarly, shortly after conversations when I feel knocked off my feet energy-wise, the client is more likely to walk away, finding their solution elsewhere.
In her book, Lyons supports this idea. She says, “Every Boss knows their energy can make or break a deal, a conversation, or a relationship.” By the way, she defines bosses, not as those with organizational status, but rather as people who “go into situations with agency. They don’t have to dominate,” she goes on, “but they know they have agency and power because they are human and valuable, not because they have a title.”
I appreciate that Lyons is also a realist. She acknowledges that agency “is a hard feeling for some women and people of color to embody because, well, patriarchy.” Keep preaching, Nancy! Workers everywhere need you.
Inequality Is Real, But Asking for Permission Has Got to Go
Though I observed plenty of examples of inequity on the job, I’ve since come to understand what Lyons meant when she said, “But I’ve found that waiting for permission is time-consuming and boring. Bosses own what they can and slowly work on the rest of the power imbalances in the world along the way.”
In my case, no longer asking for permission meant starting a business of my own. It meant exploring ways to apply my learning-strategy skills to a problem I care about: Helping changemakers thrive in today’s world of work. And it meant letting go of predictable income and established teams, in favor of a career path without set limits.
Along the way, I’ve discovered that confident energy begets more of the same. Every time I get an idea, execute it, and achieve an appealing outcome, I become less worried. My tenacity grows stronger, my proactivity increases. And yet, I’ve also had to recalibrate my timeline for success. Rather than expecting immediate results, I now know to give myself time. If I take consistent action enough times, the evidence of progress eventually reveals itself.
My Hope For You
So, what about you? No matter what your work situation is, whether you’re an employee or run your own business, I hope you can embrace your caring and fervor sooner than I did. If you are sensitive or fierce or spirited, and if you yearn to empower others through your work, this is a powerful combination. The fact that you care about work can be your superpower, so please, do me a favor: Stop holding it back. Instead, find a healthy way to channel it.