Embrace Your So-Called “Incompetence” Part 1

After 20 years as a stay-at-home mom, and following a divorce that made it necessary for her to become self-supporting, my sister-in-law Gini reentered the workforce and took an entry-level job in New York City. She liked the work well enough, but she was earning a so-so wage that netted out poorly after accounting for the cost of transportation and business clothes, as well as the time she wasted commuting.

Worse, the job left her little time to spend with her youngest daughter (still in high school) and offered no hope that she would enjoy a more leisurely lifestyle in the foreseeable future — the kind of lifestyle she probably thought she’d be enjoying right now had her life gone as expected. So, I talked her into taking a “sabbatical” from working a dead-end job in order to learn a skill that would propel her into a financially secure future. It was a kind of present from me to her.

The deal was that I’d replace her salary for a year, and that would give her plenty of time to transition into a new career. In discussing the idea, I committed a benign mendacit. I said, “You will never be able to get out of the rut you’re in if you are making $10 or $15 an hour and spending half your spare time commuting” — and that wasn’t really true. It would have been possible for her to do it on her own, in her spare time, while working.

But I wanted to make the transformation quicker and easier for her. “I’m doing it for me,” I told her. And I meant it. “Seeing you succeed in a new career and enjoying a better lifestyle will give me a lot of pleasure.” I had an ulterior motive too. I was hoping that I could persuade her to select one of the AWAI career-opportunity courses.

If she decided that she’d like to learn how to be a copywriter, consultant, resume writer, or graphic artist, I would be able to study her progress throughout the course and see, through her experience, if and how we could make any improvements in it. But before I could get to that point, I had to convince her that the best situation for her was self-employment.

So I sat her down and explained the pluses and minuses of the three ways you can earn a living:

(1) working as an employee for someone else,

(2) becoming an entrepreneur and running one or more businesses that you own, or

(3) working as your own employee.

Being someone else’s employee gives you the advantage of ease. Everything has been pretty much figured out for you: where you work; how many hours; what you do, and so on. Even the arc of your career and income is predetermined to some extent. You can accelerate it by working hard and smart and getting promotions, but the requirements and remunerations associated with your promotions are already figured out for you.

For many people — for most — the mindlessness of being an employee seems like a benefit. But it’s not. As anyone who has ever worked knows, any job that pays more than $10 an hour (and some that pay less) provides an ample amount of confusion, psychological pressure, and heartache.

The things you expect to find in a corporate environment — a sensible mission and well-defined paths to follow — evaporate soon after you start a job. And in their place descends a fog of impossible demands, nonsensical obligations, vexing problems, and difficult people.

What you hope to avoid by taking the seemingly less risky path of employment, you eventually get in spades. You end up with plenty of the tough stuff anyway. So if you are going to select the employment path, you must be prepared to work very hard and very smart.

Because you can get the good stuff employment offers (high salaries, rewarding work, and the gratification that comes with accomplishing things) only after you work yourself up to the upper echelons.

Become a vice president, and you’ll make good money and have an orderly, rewarding life. But if you want more than that . . . if you want to get rich . . . maybe even really rich . . . you have to grow your own business. Entrepreneurship is not the easiest way to get wealthy. Inheritance is. Marrying into money isn’t a bad path either. But if you don’t have the luck of being sprung from a big bank account or you don’t have the youth and beauty needed to snag yourself a billionaire, think entrepreneur.

But my sister-in-law is not going to become vice-president of a big corporation. And she’s not going to start her own business. She’s almost 50. She has a full-time boyfriend who has his own business (that he wants to sell), and they have a dream of spending half their time in New York and half their time in Florida before they’re too old to enjoy it. So that brings us to the third way you can earn a living: self-employment — an option that’s perfect for her (and might be perfect for you, too).

Self-employment is the perfect choice for someone like Gini, because: She wants to make a high income ($50 to $100 an hour or more). She doesn’t want to have to work five days, 40+ hours a week. She doesn’t want to commute. She wants to have the freedom to travel and take vacations. She is willing to learn. She wants to like the work she does.

The self-employment career that Gini decided upon — being a graphic artist for the direct-mail industry — is ideal for her, because: Grade B artists working for small- and medium-sized businesses typically earn $40 to $50 an hour. Grade A artists — the kind my clients employ — earn $100 an hour and more.

The hours you work are entirely up to you. And once you develop a network of clients (which is easy to do once you’ve proven yourself to be competent and reliable), you can take on as much or as little work as you like and negotiate deadlines that agree with your calendar. Freelance graphic artists typically work from home. But if you’d rather set up your own office in a trendy part of town, you can do that too. Being a professional artist is interesting, prestigious, and personally rewarding (as all creative work should be).

And, finally, if and when you run into a problem with a particularly disagreeable client, there is an easy solution: You’re your own boss . . . so you fire him. So what does it take to become a graphic artist? It costs $495 to enroll in the AWAI Graphic Design course, and it takes about 600 to 700 hours of practice. (Remember, it normally takes about 1,000 hours of practice to become competent at any skill. And you can do it in 30% to 40% less time if you are taught by a master.)

If Gini needs a full 1,000 hours to achieve competence as a graphic artist — which I doubt — she’ll need to spend 250 eight-hour days, or one full year, to get there. But if she needs only 600 hours — which is more likely because of the quality of the instruction she’ll be getting — she’ll be able to accomplish her goal in about seven months. (Someone who has to work full-time while studying and can put in only 25 hours a week could easily do it in a year.)

That’s not a huge amount of time for Gini to invest when you consider the rewards — a new, financially rewarding, time-liberating, socially prestigious, and personally satisfying career. And she dove into it with enthusiasm. Why, then, now that she’s four months into it, am I worried about her? I’ll tell you tomorrow.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]