Opinion

Adventures of a coward: the trials and tremendousness of going it alone

Seven months on from his decision to quit his job, Al Crawford considers why he hasn't spent the time sipping cocktails in a bikini.

I unplugged myself from the Matrix in March, quitting my job in a blaze of ignominy.

In my mind’s eye, I was going to spend the next six months draped on a lilo, reinventing myself. I’d be languidly smoking cigarettes and gently sipping cocktails. I even harboured dreams of wearing a bikini.

Then I remembered I had two kids, a hefty mortgage and an obese cat. I began working again ten weeks later.

In a fit of entrepreneurial brilliance, I decided to start a business doing exactly the same thing as I’d done for the last twenty years. To many, this will reek of cowardice and failure. I, however, am an epic post-rationaliser. This chapter will be titled ‘Stumbling on clarity’ in my straight-to-pulp autobiography.

To my surprise, this has been a period of revelation rather than rinse and repeat. In a big institution, you’re wrapped in the fog of a collective enterprise. Out on your own, there is nowhere to hide. To bastardise Tennyson, I am seeing the job red, in tooth and claw. The clarity is sometimes brutal, sometimes brilliant.

To the brutal. There is, of course, the daily oscillation between hope and primal fear. Anticipated breakthroughs often turn out to be dead ends; piles o’cash, dust and ashes.

Many people find this uncertainty unsettling, but it hasn’t bothered me as much as I anticipated. I spent my teenage years in a series of mismatched relationships, so I’m used to sitting by the phone with no expectation of reward.

My vulnerability has been exposed in a different way: negotiating a fair rate for my services. There are many blogs that advise you to develop a money mindset and have a strong sense of your worth. Summon the spirit of Gareth Cheeseman, they say.

This is easy to preach, much tougher to practice.  Thousands of years of Britishness run through my veins. As soon as money is mentioned, my instinct is to scream ‘how vulgar!’ and then make weak jokes about the weather.

This makes me easy pickings for kids at lemonade stands, much less dead-eyed procurement directors.  The sharper ones have almost negotiated me into paying them.

To my surprise, the harshest lesson has come from an unexpected source: the art of marketing myself. I’ve spent decades condensing complex, multinational corporations to the brevity of a Haiku.  Yet I’m totally rubbish at packaging the wares of a person I’ve known since egg met sperm.

Six months in, I’m still sharpening my pitch. The process is tedious but absolutely essential.  Otherwise, the world can only judge you by your LinkedIn shot. Mine is hardly a magnet for new business. I look like the lovechild of Bart Simpson and the Milky Bar Kid.

The Milky Bars are ennui

The highs have vastly outweighed the lows, however.

At first the victories come in silly ways. The student thrill of flicking imaginary V’s at the suckers on the commuter bus or the dopamine surge of free wifi. Winning.

And the joy of being outside the corporate bubble. Inside, you’re acutely aware of institutional and individual competition. I got seduced by the title inflation game, eyeing the capo di tutti capi as my next rank. The Overview Effect you get from departure lays bare the irrelevance of it all.

The more durable satisfaction comes from moments of personal insight.

You discover your individual rhythms and can work to them. This isn’t a euphemism for toilet activities, but that each of us has a particular cadence.  Where the traditional 9-5 imposes a regimen, I’ve been able to design one. My best days start at sparrow’s fart because, like Sir Gawain, my life force waxes as the sun sets. By 5pm, I’m as useless as a wet towel. Only the electro-shock of daycare pick up sparks me back to life again.

You also get a much clearer sense of your own personality. As it turns out, I’m an introvert who’s easily distracted. Noisy, open plan offices are essentially my nemesis, draining my energy and diverting my attention. The 40hz hum of complete strangers in a café focuses my mind. This is where I can get the deep work done. My productivity has gone through the roof.

Perhaps the greatest upside is the transparency of the business transaction. It always irked me that my best efforts were spent fuelling Lear Jets for Stateside execs. As I get better at negotiating a fair price for my services, I can see a direct link between contribution and reward. There is no greater satisfaction than that.

Shorn of the institution, I am seeing my old life through a different lens; fresh and raw. In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley talks about a renewed perspective: ‘I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation – the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.’ Admittedly, he had taken a boat load of mescaline. All I’ve had to do is jump ship.

If I ever end up doing something really different, it’ll blow my tiny little mind.

Al Crawford is a strategist and was until earlier this year chief strategy officer of Clemenger BBDO Sydney . This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

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