My friend Alice wrote a post some time ago about the question “what do you do?” and how it usually really means “what do you do for money?”. But I don’t see the question in that light — really what I’m interested in is “what do you do with the bulk of your time?”. For most people, that is full-time traditional employment, but I find it more interesting when it isn’t. As a result, I try to avoid the question “what do you do?” these days in favor of “what keeps you busy?”. A subtle difference, perhaps, but a meaningful one. If something other than pursuing income keeps you busy, good for you! I’d like to hear about it.
I have been kept busy by four different employment statuses in my adult life, and each has its pros and its cons. Each has a different feel to it. Sometimes the specific activities which keep me busy are different from one status to the next, and sometimes they’re the same but take on different meanings, but these statuses definitely all have distinctly different flavors. I’ve been employed, unemployed, self-employed, and most recently, self-unemployed.
To discuss the pros and cons of the these statuses, first I need to explore what I want out of the activities that keep me busy.
What I Want From What Keeps Me Busy
- Self-Determination. I want to be the master of my time, choosing what I do, when I do it, and how long I do it for.
- Activities I Care About. I want my activities to make a difference in a way that has significance for me.
- Project Ownership. I want to have a significant stake in and responsibility for the outcome of what I do.
- Community. I want to have other people to interact with who are on the same or a similar path, people who want what I want and who can help me when I need it and accept my help when they need it.
- Adequate Compensation. I want to be able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle indefinitely.
Now that I have some criteria to work with, I can start evaluating the employment statuses. This is all highly subjective, of course, based on my own life experiences — I’m sure others have different opinions stemming from different experiences.
Employment has been a mixed bag for me.
Self-Determination: Very little. Projects and schedules are determined by the employer, often without regard for your skills, interests, wishes, or well-being. Rigid 5×8 workweeks with more than 40 hours’ worth of work to be done per week. No telecommuting, despite working almost exclusively in the software industry. -1
Activities I Care About: Not yet. Business change management software, real estate database software, adult internet dating and porn sites — unfulfilling, all. Perhaps I just haven’t worked for the right company yet. +0
Project Ownership: Varies from company to company. I’ve found that it’s easier to come by in a small company than in a large, which contributes to my preference for working for small companies. +0
Community: This is where traditional employment shines. Everyone who’s hired is brought on to be part of the team, and everywhere I’ve worked, there have been good people, even in amongst the bad. There are always people to talk to, work with, and learn from, and that has been a significant factor in employee retention at more than one place I’ve worked. +1
Adequate Compensation: Although I have been underpaid for my skills for most of my career, I have almost always made enough to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, and usually enough to squirrel away a significant percentage as savings as well. +1
How I Kept Myself Busy: Doing what I was told, when I was told, for as long as I was told. Trying to make positive change in an organization which was invariably too rigid and inflexible to accept it. Waiting out the clock because I was obligated to be there for a fixed amount of time every day no matter what.
Total Score: 1
Unemployment was an unmitigated disaster for me. I think I was already beginning to suffer from depression before I became unemployed in 2001, and being unemployed contributed tremendously.
Self-determination: Up the wazoo. TOO MUCH self-determination, in fact. Able to do anything I wanted any time I wanted, I did nothing all the time. Directionlessness. -1
Activities I Care About: I wasn’t doing things I cared about so much as doing things to try to fill the time. -1
Project Ownership: I didn’t recognize that I had a project, so although I certainly had a stake in and responsibility for the outcome, that outcome was inactivity and depression. Directionlessness meant that there wasn’t anything for me to feel like I had a stake in or responsibility for. -1
Community: I was pretty isolated during this time, too. -1
Adequate Compensation: Take it from me, the pay SUCKS. -1
How I Kept Myself Busy: Staring at a flashing light box (either computer or TV) all day long as an escape. Sleeping a lot. Being miserable.
Total score: -5
Self-employment felt little better than unemployment when I experienced it before, but I do believe that I was doing it wrong. The directionlessness of unemployment and depression carried over into my freelance web design days, and I found myself unhappily doing the least I could to get by — or not even that.
Self-determination: Moderate. You can pick and choose your clients, right? Well, I had only one client, and worked for them doing whatever they wanted. I was freer than at any regular job, but still bound by the client’s wishes (and hadn’t found any other clients to provide me with choices), so this worked out kind of neutral. +0
Activities I Care About: I was building things on the web, and that was good. I was able to expand my mind and improve my skills, which is important to me. But ultimately the business of selling shoes on the web is not one that I am passionate about, so the projects themselves weren’t inspiring. Another neutral, I think. +0
Project Ownership: I had a LOT of latitude in what I could do, subject to approval by the business owner and his management staff. I had a great deal of influence over their web site and their internet marketing activities, and took the web site from doing $500/month in business to about six figures a month in my time there. It’s just a pity that the increasing business had no effect on my bottom line. Still, I’ll call this a positive. +1
Community: Very small, since it was a small business I was working for, and none of them were particularly high tech. I was mostly on my own as the internet guy. Again, though, I think I was doing it wrong. More clients, more networking, etc., could have helped with this. Another neutral. +0
Adequate Compensation: It would have been, had I worked the hours I’d planned to, or negotiated better. Yet another neutral. +0
How I Kept Myself Busy: Mostly the same as during unemployment, but with an additional 5-20 hours a week of web design.
Total score: +1
Self-unemployment has been FANTASTIC for my mental health and my mood. I’m so glad I quit my job in January. It’s been like a mini-retirement (allusion to The 4-Hour Workweek intended).
Self-determination: Extreme. I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, and I am usually taking full advantage of that to work on my projects. +1
Activities I Care About: Speaking of my projects, I have time to read, write, code, do web design, blog, study game design, play video games for fun and research (instead of escape), etc. Things I haven’t had time and/or energy for in year. +1
Project Ownership: Yes. No one else is working on my projects, so the stake and responsibility are all mine. +1
Community: This has come to my attention as something that is currently lacking in my life. I don’t have enough community, and need to reach out and make some connections with people and groups whose goals and interests are in line with mine. 0 for now, but I believe I can improve this to +1 soon.
Adequate Compensation: This is the one true drawback to self-unemployment. I’m burning through my savings — and really, if I were receiving adequate compensation, it would be self-employment (doing it right), not self-unemployment. -1
How I Kept Myself Busy: Like I said in the Activities I Care About section, reading, writing, coding, web designing, blogging, studying game design, and playing video games. I’m very happy with how I am keeping myself busy lately, though it defies labeling.
Total score: +2
Self-unemployment is the most fulfilling lifestyle I’ve experienced so far, and I am loathe to leave it behind, but my dwindling savings tell me I must start thinking about it. I would like to transition into self-employment in a manner that results in a score of +5. Pretty much doing what I’m doing now but with more project-related social interaction and selling it to people (or otherwise being compensated, e.g. through advertising). Failing that, I think a job at a small company (perhaps an independent game company, blog network, or web design firm) would be a good fit. Part-time or temporary work would be good if the money was good enough to keep me in food and clothing. But really, I’d just like to keep on doing what I’m doing.
What about you? What keeps you busy? And what do you want from the activities that keep you busy?