When I worked in the corporate world, I would give 4-week notices instead of the standard two. It wasn’t for the sake of the work, which of course, I was leaving. It’s because I was raised to never quit anything I didn’t finish, and never leave anyone hanging. My work ethic is as solid as it comes.
A strong work ethic speaks to our drive, tenacity, and self-respect. With a good work ethic, we can get anything done we set our minds to. It’s a given that all entrepreneurs have a strong work ethic. It’s likely built into our DNA. But, a strong work ethic is not enough to sustain us for the long term. We have to go beyond the standard work ethic and connect to something deeper and more sustainable, a connection that goes beyond willpower and pride. We have to commit not merely to completing the work but to the work itself.
We have to believe that our work needs to exist in the world, regardless of whether it finds an audience, wins awards, or makes us rich. We have to create like the Zen monks create sand mandalas — with painstaking detail, care, and attention, always knowing that someday it will return to the Earth. A belief in the work itself can sustain us in good times and dry spells.
It is not my work ethic that keeps me going today as a freelance writer, but rather my commitment to the work and the creativity itself. I’m the kind of person that when I get an idea for an article, I say out loud, “I got you!” because I don’t want the idea to move on to someone else. This isn’t my work ethic behind this; it’s my belief that I am a valued co-creator in this universe.
This way, if and when an article doesn’t find an audience, I don’t wind up feeling bitter or frustrated. I don’t say things like, “All that work for ‘naught.” I know the idea needed to be made manifest, and that I was chosen to manifest it. The deal is complete, and so is my attachment.
Family and friends will surely commiserate with us in bad times and celebrate with us in our successes, but no one will ever be able to match the way we feel inside in these moments. As solo entrepreneurs, we have to find a way to emotionally travel and absorb these peaks and valleys largely alone. Others can try to match our enthusiasm or our pain, but they’re simply not in the boat with us.
After I published my first book, I nervously sent it to reviewers. When the first review arrived, it was lukewarm and academic. The reviewer didn’t “get” my book. Not quite a let-down, but not cause for celebration or sharing either. So, when the second review came in from someone who really did get it and wrote a review that summarized, highlighted, and promoted my book, I was ecstatic.
I was home alone when I received the message, so I shouted, danced, and eventually collapsed to the kitchen floor and cried with relief. Then, I called my husband to tell him the news.
“Awesome!” he replied. “I’m so happy for you! Let’s celebrate!”
And he was, and we did, but I have to say that the true celebration happened on the kitchen floor — just me, the email, and the energy of the stranger who reviewed my book.
This story, in comparison to when my husband won a large client and he got a flood of congratulatory emails, a request to talk about it on a company-wide conference call, and the head of his division declared him the “bell of the ball.”
We’re trained in our society to work for and expect “peak experiences,” defined by Verywellmind as:
“…transcendent moments of pure joy and elation. These are moments that stand out from everyday events. The memory of such events is lasting and people often liken them to a spiritual experience.”
It starts in our childhood, where we’re taught that everything we do is toward attaining some kind of peak experience — the good grade, the medal, the graduation, the promotion, the big sale. We are not taught about work for work’s sake.
There will always be stories of entrepreneurs who find immediate success and gratification from the outer world. But for most of us, it’s a step-by-step, day-by-day grind. Peak experiences in solo entrepreneurship are few and far between, in my experience. The experience I wrote about above about my book review was certainly a peak one. But before that, it was six years of writing in the dark, wondering if anyone would ever appreciate or benefit from my book, wondering if I could ever legitimately use the word “author” behind my name.
We can’t wait six years for peak experiences that may or may not come. Instead, we have to occasionally stop and reflect on how far we’ve come and what we’ve accomplished.
Our goals need to be reframed in such a way that we can feel just as good about our work when it reaches thousands of people as when it reaches a few dozen, when we change not a million lives but one life.
Corporate environment philosophy is largely an extension of our upbringing and has built-in possibilities for workers to have peak experiences, largely in the form of an annual performance review, a raise, a promotion, or maybe just a positive call out from the boss in a public meeting.
Without these markers, we entrepreneurs have to remember to reflect often, and review our own performance. We have to pat ourselves on the back, call ourselves out for good work, and promote and advocate for ourselves. Otherwise, it’s easy to keep steamrolling forward and fail to see how much ground we’ve covered, how much good we’ve done, and how much we’ve grown through it all.
“Every company needs a strategic reward system for employees that addresses these four areas: compensation, benefits, recognition and appreciation.”
As children, we were cultured into the idea that our behavior is tied to a reward or punishment. I remember getting to pick the restaurant when I got all As on my report card. As a parent, I incentivized my children with stickers when they did chores.
So it is no wonder that as adults, too, we often need incentives to do our best work in corporate environments.
But for me personally, I don’t regularly receive or can expect those things, at least how they are traditionally understood. I have to frame it differently. For example:
I get payment via the satisfaction of a piece coming together better than I even envisioned, the clarification of my own thoughts and ideas via the page, and the appreciation from readers and a growing following.
I benefit in my mental health through the creative outlet of my work and from the mental agility and engaged curiosity required to run a business.
I recognize my own personal growth and independence over the years that my ventures have provided.
I appreciate the freedom and autonomy I have that so many in corporate environments will never have.
Setting up a solo practice takes grit and determination. It takes fiery motivation, intensity, and mental agility.
But to keep a solo practice becomes more about endurance than ambition. More about inner power than outer strength, more about mental fortitude than mental toughness. And definitely, more about intuition than knowing.
Entrepreneurship is not about weathering one bad review, or one bad day. It’s about building resiliency to absorb difficult months or years. We have to focus on what can sustain us, not just what can push us.