Escape the coop and discover a life of freedom and fulfillment.
We’re often told that dreams are well and good when you’re young and carefree, but they don’t put food on the table. Slogging away at a job you hate, paying the mortgage, raising the kids, and saving for a decade or two of leisure at the end of your working life – that’s what reality is all about, right?
Wrong! Today, more and more people are escaping boring, beige offices to create remarkable lives on their own terms. And here’s the best bit: they’re doing it without compromising their standard of living.
So who are these rebels? Well, they’re a new breed – call them Free Range Humans. They work when, where, and how they want, and they get paid to do the things they love. You’ll find them in parks and cafés, on beaches, and at kitchen tables around the world. Their mission? Freedom and fulfillment – not later, when they retire, but right now.
If that sounds too good to be true, don’t worry – you’re in good company. Until a couple of years ago, author Marianne Cantwell subscribed to the conventional wisdom. Then she built a free-range life of her own. Now, she’s convinced anyone can do it.
In these blinks, you’ll find out
how to figure out what you really want to do with your life;
why you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to create a viable business; and
how to get paid more by being you.
Self-employment makes a lot more sense when you realize that there’s no such thing as a secure job anymore.
“Sure, I’d love to live freely and do what I want when I want, but that’s just not in the cards. In the real world, I’ve got responsibilities and bills to pay. To do that, I need a stable job, and a steady income.”
If you’re stuck pursuing a career you hate, but just can’t see an off-ramp to a different destination, there’s a good chance you’ll have said something like this at some point. It’s the logic that keeps millions of us cooped up in offices doing work that bores us stiff. But that’s better than missing the next mortgage payment, right? Well, not quite – in fact, you don’t have to choose between safety and fulfillment.
The key message here is: Self-employment makes a lot more sense when you realize that there’s no such thing as a secure job anymore.
Work used to be a simple bargain. In exchange for knuckling down and doing a job you didn’t enjoy, you received a reliable salary and a decent retirement to which you could dedicate your true passions. This was the career-cage deal, and for many years, millions of workers were happy to accept its terms and sacrifice their freedom for stability. But then things changed.
Work hours got longer and longer while people found they could be let go with less and less notice. Suddenly, jobs weren’t as safe as they had once been. Take a look at your contract. How much notice is your employer contractually obliged to give you – one month? Three? That’s not a whole lot of security, when you get down to it.
Retirement plans aren’t what they once were, either. In fact, experts now predict that children born today can expect to work into their eighties. This isn’t necessarily a problem if your job is a source of fulfillment and happiness, but what if it’s not? That’s a long time to spend doing something you don’t like in return for. . . what, five or ten years of freedom near the end of your life?
The breakdown of the old career-cage deal means that counting on a “steady” job just isn’t a smart play anymore. If your employer isn’t giving you real stability and security, you’re effectively self-employed, but with one major difference: you only have one client. Like freelancers, you’re shouldering huge amounts of risk. But unlike freelancers, you’re betting everything on an income source that a market crash or board decision could wipe out in an instant.
When you look at it that way, going it alone suddenly doesn’t look as risky. But where do you start? Let’s find out!
Doing what you love is a precondition of success, but first you have to figure out what that is.
Life is short. You’d think, then, that a question like, “What do you really want to do with your limited time on Earth?” would be treated as the most important question of all. But you’d be wrong. We’re often instructed that pursuing our passions and making good money just don’t mesh. But that’s just not true.
The key message here is: Doing what you love is a precondition of success, but first you have to figure out what that is.
Have you ever noticed that successful change-makers all love what they do? That’s because you’re unlikely to get anywhere with a great idea if you don’t care about it. And doing what you love doesn’t just make you happy – it’s also what makes you go the extra mile and achieve success.
This is why it’s so important to work out what it is that you truly want to do. Figuring that out might sound simple enough, but it’s actually pretty tricky. As psychologist Richard Wiseman notes, this is because our brains contain two “characters.” One is creative and comes up with the best ideas, but this “quiet man” is easily overruled by the second character, our inner critic – the logical “loud man” in the room.
Whenever the quiet character proposes an attractive idea, the loud one pipes up to say that it’s not feasible. This is the Idea Death Cycle, and it’s why so many people end up stuck in an office for life: Every flash of insight into their true calling is shot down by their inner critic. All that voice wants to know is how you plan to pay the bills.
To break out of this cycle, try the following exercise. All you’ll need is some paper and a pen. Ready? Great, now answer these questions as spontaneously as possible without second-guessing yourself or self-editing.
When was the last time you felt alive and completely engaged in the moment? If a genie popped out of a bottle and gave you 12 months off with full pay, what would you do? Here you’ll want to note what specifically excites you about your plans. If it’s making art, for example, what makes the idea appealing? Is it the actual production of art, or the people you’d be making it with?
This is just the first step to defining your free-range career. But don’t worry about the practicalities yet – before we get to that, we’ll need to bust some common myths.
Your weaknesses are often your strengths, you just need to be in the right environment.
Figuring out a free-range alternative to the nine-to-five grind is a puzzle with a lot of pieces. The most important piece, however, is always the same – you. How can you hope to enjoy an above-average – no, scrap that – a fantastic life if you believe that you’re average? The answer is: you can’t. This means that we’ll need to unlock your hidden strengths, or superpowers, before we look at your free-range career.
To do that, we need to understand the key message, which is: Your weaknesses are often your strengths, you just need to be in the right environment.
Ever since your youngest years, you’ve been sold a lie. This lie says that you have to be good at everything to be good enough. Think back to school. When you got your report card, where was the emphasis – on the subjects you were brilliant at, or the ones you struggled with? Your parents and teachers encouraged you to improve your poorer subjects rather than to excel in your best. This is just one of the ways children are taught to strive for the average rather than build on their strengths.
Free-range humans take a different approach – and that’s just what you’ll be doing as well. So here’s the all-important question: How do you identify your superpowers?
Ironically, the best place to start is to look at your so-called weaknesses. Take it from the author. Before she switched careers, her boss was always scolding her for trying to change how things were done rather than concentrating on the task at hand. Whatever she was working on, she was always coming up with ways to improve the status quo.
When she became an independent consultant, she realized that this was pretty much her job description: clients were paying her to identify problems and suggest improvements. What had looked like a weakness in one setting was actually a strength in another. The problem wasn’t the author, but the fact that she was in the wrong environment.
Think about your own “weaknesses” and you’ll quickly identify similar hidden strengths. Say you’re having trouble focusing on one thing and keep bouncing among different projects. That’s obviously a problem if your job is all about doing one thing at a time, but this quality could be a massive asset in a different environment.
Being able to move quickly among options without getting bogged down in details is exactly what’s needed in brainstorming sessions, for example. What looks like a lack of focus in your current job might just be your superpower – the ability to be a fast-moving, adaptable, big-picture thinker with lots of ideas!
Coming up with a brand new idea isn’t the only way to be original.
When the author was setting herself up as a consultant, she encountered a competitor. Her rival’s business concept was virtually identical to her own. Even the website design was similar. She’d been beaten to the punch. It was a dismaying moment, and she almost called it quits.
Almost. A month into her new venture, she realized she didn’t want to be like her competitor – she had different values, priorities, and customers. But it was a close shave: the myth that every idea has to be completely novel almost killed her business before it had a chance to get off the ground.
The key message here is: Coming up with a brand new idea isn’t the only way to be original.
Originality is often reduced to coming up with some brilliant, unknown idea. That’s an intimidatingly high bar to clear. Thankfully, you don’t have to be the next Steve Jobs to be original!
One way of being original without reinventing the wheel is putting your own stamp on existing ideas. Imagine you discover someone doing something you’d like to do. If her business were handed to you right now by magic, would you run it exactly the way she does? Probably not – you’d have your own spin and emphasis that would make it yours.
Noticing connections is another approach to originality. Take the iPod. When it was first launched, customers fell in love with its unique click-wheel interface. That wasn’t a new idea, though. The iPod’s click wheel was incorporated into its design after Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing guy, noticed it on a 1983 Hewlett Packard workstation. The click wheel was an old idea waiting to be dusted off and put to some other use.
So If you want to be more original, follow Apple’s lead and get curious. Read books no one else in your field is reading. Start noticing what’s going on around you. Then start making connections among unrelated parts of your everyday life. This is a killer hack for fostering originality.
But remember – originality isn’t just about ideas. You can also distinguish yourself by original communication. Developing a style is simple, but it takes practice. Head over to a site like blogger.com and open a free blog. Write twice a week about a subject you’re passionate about, and publish the results – no matter what. This is one of the best ways of clarifying your thoughts. Over time, you’ll start to discover a message that’s uniquely yours.
There are four main types of free-range business.
So far, we’ve looked at the basics of the free-range mindset. That brings us to the next question – what do free-rangers actually do for a living? The most common idea the author hears from people who want to quit their jobs is “start a café/bookshop/B&B.” There’s nothing wrong with that if it really is your dream, but there are easier ways to make money as a free-range human.
The key message here is: There are four main types of free-range business.
When people dream about opening a cute little café, they’re usually not thinking about the reality of operating a small business, but rather the life they imagine comes with it. Put differently, what they want is independence and the ability to work at their own pace and set their own priorities.
But here’s the issue: cafés, shops, and B&Bs aren’t great free-range businesses. They all require large amounts of start-up capital and are hard to experiment with on the side. More importantly, it’s hard to make money with them. This is because you have to cover fixed costs like rent and utilities – and not being able to keep up with those is the number one reason new businesses go under. So here’s the first rule of free-ranging: keep costs to a minimum!
This leaves plenty of other options. Consider services. This is any job in which you get paid for your time – think web designers, therapists, and freelance writers. Services have one big advantage: you can often start right away if you already have the skills, and you may not have to invest much. On the negative side, they’re time-bound. Because you can only take so many clients in a month, there’s a hard limit on your earnings.
Another option is to sell virtual products – these include information contained in, say, e-books, guides, or online courses. Unlike services, there’s no hard limit on your earning power – once you’ve created your product, you can sell it again and again. The downside? You’ll need a lot of market knowledge to create a product that will sell in the first place.
You could also create physical products like hand-woven dog baskets or market stall food. This, however, is both time- and resource-intensive, so it’s an option you’ll probably want to avoid unless you’re truly passionate about your craft.
Finally, there’s advertising – a way to create revenue by placing ads on sites like YouTube or your personal blog. This is an easy option, but unless you’re regularly creating viral content, it’s best thought of as a supplement to your main income.
You don’t need a complex business plan to get a new company off the ground.
Has all this given you the urge to quit your job and strike out on your own? Great! Now all you need to do is craft that killer business plan, right? Not quite – in fact, detailed planning isn’t necessary at all when you’re just starting out.
The key message here is: You don’t need a complex business plan to get a new company off the ground.
Take it from business experts Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. As they point out in their 2010 book Rework, long-term business planning is often little more than a “fantasy.” With so many factors in play, plans are more like guesses than forecasts – strategic guesses, perhaps, but guesses nonetheless.
The problem here is that you usually gather the most information about something while you’re doing it, not before you’ve begun it. But plans are, by design, written before anything has happened – the very worst time to make decisions!
In any case, business plans aren’t meant to be a reliable guide to the future – they’re designed to convince investors to put money into a new venture. But remember what we said in the last blink? The first rule of free-range businesses is to keep costs low. If you don’t need investment, you don’t need a detailed business plan.
This does mean you’ll be going into things unprepared, of course, but that’s kind of the point. By spending less time on planning, you’re freeing up more time for doing. So why is that important? Well, let’s ask Andrew Mason, the founder of Groupon, one of the most successful businesses of the twenty-first century.
Mason’s first business was a total flop because he was obsessed with planning. Rather than launching his product and letting actual customers tell him if it was any good, he spent a year making adjustments based on what he assumed people wanted. Groupon was different. Rather than getting caught up in planning, he decided to “get it out there” as soon as possible.
That’s an approach you should also take. Don’t spend too much time theorizing about people’s needs and desires – instead, run a micro prototype project with, say, ten people. Use your friends as guinea pigs, or find strangers on sites like meetup.com. Once you’ve done this, you’re no longer someone who’ll open a business “one day” – you’ll actually be in business!
You don’t have to appeal to everyone to be successful.
In the career-cage world, you’re in trouble if people don’t like what you’re saying. In most offices, the aim of the game is always the same: keep the peace, avoid controversy, get through the day, and emerge unscathed on the other side, paycheck in hand. Being a free-range human is different. One of the perks of freedom is that you get to say what you actually think without forfeiting your income.
The key message here is: You don’t have to appeal to everyone to be successful.
Two things happen when you pander to the common denominator. First off, you’ll struggle to make any money. If you want customers, you have to make a statement about who you are as a person and a business. The risk of that is that people might not like it. Second, you’ll be miserable. There’s nothing worse, after all, than pretending to be something you’re not. Luckily, there’s an alternative.
When you say what you mean, you’ll turn some people off – but you’ll also give others a reason to love you. The key to standing out is to home in on that second group and speak to them, and only them, using your authentic voice. What does that look like in practice? Take Benny Lewis, the mind behind Fluent in Three Months, a language-learning service with a difference.
Lewis is a bit of a divisive figure in the online language-learning community. Unlike most linguists, Lewis isn’t interested in learning or teaching others how to speak a language perfectly. As he sees it, the goal is communication – understanding others and being understood by them, regardless of how many mistakes you might make. This, he claims, is a skill that can be picked up within three months.
As Lewis admits, his idea that learning is something to get out of the way as quickly as possible so you can enjoy traveling isn’t popular among traditional language experts. But here’s the thing: all the bloggers who dislike Lewis end up writing about him and his method. Even if their reviews are negative, it still drives traffic to his site. As he puts it, “They have helped expand my readership by not liking me!”
The result? Lewis has one of the most popular online language-learning blogs in the world, which also earns him a full-time living. That just goes to show how far sticking to your true values can get you!
The key message in these blinks:
Going it alone and doing what you really want is often regarded as a risk that’s incompatible with paying the bills. But that idea only makes sense if your nine-to-five job gives you real security. In today’s economy, that’s rarely the case. This is why it makes sense to become a free-range human and run your own business. To do that, however, you first need to find out what you really want to do in life, uncover your hidden talents, and dispel some common myths about originality. The next step? Skip unnecessary planning, don’t be afraid to be unpopular, and jump right in!
Don’t fall into the perfectionism trap.
“What if something goes wrong?” Striking out on your own can be scary, and you’re likely to be plagued by questions like this one. So look at it from a different angle. Consider how you feel right now, devoting the best years of your life to something that doesn’t feel right. Then ask yourself what the cost is of not trying something different. The only thing that involves absolutely no risk is doing nothing. That’s why it’s important not to get hung up on mistakes. Remember, this is an experiment, and you’re not putting any income on the line. From here on in, mistakes are just a way of learning about what works and what doesn’t.